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Morag Fraser

In November 1998, the Governor General, Sir William Deane, found himself in the centre of a storm over the commemoration of Australia’s Aboriginal dead. Launching historian Ken Inglis’s Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Sir William remarked that in a country of more than 4,000 memorials there were none, at least of an official kind, to the Aborigines who had been slaughtered in the ‘Black Wars’ of the colonial period.

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Secrets by Drusilla Modjeska, Amanda Lohrey and Robert Dessaix

November 1997, no. 196

That old rhyme sits unpondered in the memory of every woman or man who grew up to speak English or chant it in the many incantatory rituals of childhood. It is locked in there, partnered with the rhythmic thud of a skipping rope and spirals drawn on your palm to test endurance, in the exquisite torture test that was part primitive ordeal, part initiation into a social community that had its mysteries and its taboos and its transgressions. Children move naturally in this world of internalised rhythms, of things unexplained, of enigma and excitement.

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‘Curiosity is a muscle,’ Helen Garner declares in the first essay of this selection, displaying again the metaphorical spark that marks her out and keeps her readers plundering her pages. She is writing about writing, and her revelations couple a disarming intimacy – Garner the wry, lifelong apprentice, confiding trade secrets – with shrewd and reflexive moral admonition. Here, in a brief paragraph, is laid out the disciplinary ground of fiction and reportage, plus a private view of Garner’s workshop and tools: ‘Patience is a muscle,’ she continues. ‘What begins as a necessary exercise gradually becomes natural. And then immense landscapes open out in front of you.’ It’s a beguiling act, this ability of hers to be forever the journeywoman but in the assured allegorical diction of a latter-day Bunyan.

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