Like many a white Australian, I have few opportunities to meet Aboriginal people and to come to terms with the issues of black–white relations. But I am well aware of how difficult these issues are and what a long way we have to go in resolving them. So it was with some trepidation that I opened the December issue of ABR dedicated to ‘Aboriginality’, expecting to be uncomfortably and justifiably challenged.
The first thing that struck me was that the photographs were predominantly of white faces, the second was that most the authors being reviewed were white, and the third, most disquieting, feature was the band of white reviewers. As far as the credits indicated, not one of the reviewers or interviewers was Aboriginal.
While we are given a fairly damning account of white treatment of black Australians, the picture we are given of Aboriginal arts is such a comfortable one: unlike the previous, misdirected, white adventurers into black society, these white writers have obtained for us the correct picture, sympathetic to Aboriginal culture. Furthermore, none of the bitterness against us that could be expected shows through in the Aboriginal work selected by these white writers. We may rest assured and go on to the next issue of ABR with an untrammelled conscience. Only the interview with Graeme Dixon is at all unsettling.
The picture may be correct, and the credentials of the writers and reviewers impeccable. But the issue of ABR would have had more credibility and surely a very different slant had it contained Aboriginal perspectives on writings about Aboriginality. Perhaps the fact that the editor either did not try to find, or was not successful in obtaining Aboriginal reviewers tells us more about black-white relations than the writings of dedicated initiates. But no editorial comment on the aims or problems of such a feature was forthcoming. Would this have spoiled the serene atmosphere of the ensuing articles.
Women have come a long way from the time when writing on women by men would be reviewed by an all-male team. Perhaps in the next ABR, blacks will be given the opportunity to adjudicate on writings about white Australia. The results would be much more enlightening.
Gabriel Crowley, Blackwood, Vic.
Those of us who are faithful readers of your Review but happen to live at the other end of the earth always are a bit behind the times in writing answering letters since a couple of months have usually gone by before we get a sighting. Only now have I got to read Dorothy Green’s good letter (ABR no.116) on environmental issues and population growth in Australia. One cannot but applaud and agree. Just as a detail though, may I take up a sentence at the end of the letter: ‘If the present rate of increase in world population continues, there will be standing room only on the planet in the not too distant future.’
I remember that a few years back one of our Spanish writers wrote something similar and received a reply in a letter to the press pointing out that, at a pinch, three people could sit on one square metre, and as a consequence the whole world population of the time could in fact fit on the island of Ibiza. If we are talking strictly about standing room, I dare say we could all be accommodated on one of the larger islands of Western Samoa.
Of course, this does not invalidate Dorothy Green’s general argument because we want to do more than just stand!
Professor Doireann MacDermott, University of Barcelona
A few words in defence of Mark O’Connor and the vitally important Writers for an Ecologically Sustainable Population (WESP) movement.
The movement has the support of several of Australia’s most respected men and women of letters, notably Judith Wright, Dorothy Green, and Professor Manning Clark. They bring many years’ research, thought, and profound concern to the subject. It is not another literary political debate. Sir Mark Oliphant stated last October, ‘We think too much about man’s wellbeing rather than the health of the planet as a whole’. Simple political tags are out of order.
In her letter in the November ABR, Dorothy Green alluded to the hidden agenda of Some of our literary-news columnists. They can have an immense and cumulative power, making some writers seem important and others, who may in fact be far more active and successful, seem invisible. The pseudonym Elizabeth Swanson being used, second-hand moreover, by a person whose literary affiliations would be immediately recognised and allowed for if she used her own name is as objectionable as her comments on WESP.
Let us at least have an open debate, and not covert attempts at character assassination as particularly in the case of Mark O’Connor. He has an impressive reputation nationally and internationally as a leading Australian environmental poet. Australian environmental poetry is not, as Elizabeth Swanson would suggest, a sideshow. To the relief of many readers, possibly a great majority, it has outsold most other kinds of poetry for a long time.
Brian Ridley, Bungendore, NSW
Whatever the critical assessment of a book reviewer may be, it is certainly not in order for him to recommend not to read the book under review.
The trite summation of Over the top with Jim by Hugh Lunn made by your reviewer Stephen Matchett is bad enough, and his comparison with 12 Edmonstone Street in odorous bad taste (why must the two works be competitively compared?). But his concluding rapier thrust – ‘on balance ... there is no overwhelming reason to read this book’ – is decidedly off balance.
I found the book a delight, unique, insightful, a psychological gem, a lucid, unpretentious, and logical minor masterpiece.
There. If I were reviewing the book, and had more space, I would give my reasons why. Right now, I can’t be bothered. But I do expect much better from a professional reviewer gracing your pages.
David Wood, Brisbane
Congratulations on your publication of a new type of book review, which will henceforth be known as the ‘Trivial Pursuit Review’. You know how it is with Trivial Pursuit: the first name that comes into your head is usually the answer. Now Stephen Matchett has brought this to the world of literature with his review of my latest book, Over the top with Jim (UQP).
Australian childhood biography: Clive James.
Set in Brisbane: David Malouf.
New book: Unsold copies.
To protect my reputation and to put my motives for writing the book on record: I did not write the book because Clive James wrote one on his childhood in Sydney. I wrote it because my Vietnam: A reporter’s war had been successful and I saw the need for an Australian memoir set in the Cold War. I have not read the James book, but I doubt that sitting next to a Russian at school for ten years from 1950–59 is also his theme.
I agree with Matchett that I am no David Malouf. But then, Malouf wrote a novel with no Russians in sight. (A Brisbane reviewer, John Cokely, also made this comparison, but he wrote, ‘Lunn eclipses Malouf’s vision of Brisbane’.)
Matchett writes, ‘there are far too many “tales of being ordinary” breeding on bookshop shelves’. Well, his attempt to predict sales of my book was way off beam. It sold out in four weeks of frantic bookshop re-orders. While Matchett sees such writing as
‘bursting-its-culturally-insular-seams genre’, it appears there is a demand in Australia for books about ourselves – as well as the much more abundant books about New York and London.
Unlike Matchett, many of us are not content to take part in Australia’s day-to-day cancellation of memory.
Hugh Lunn, Author, Brisbane