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Sydney University Press

Tiwi Story by Mavis Kerinaiua and Laura Rademaker & The Old Songs Are Always New by Genevieve Campbell with Tiwi Elders and knowledge holders

by
October 2023, no. 458

Just to north of Darwin is the country of the Tiwi people, spread over Bathurst and Melville Islands. These two new books give voice to Tiwi oral traditions and to the power and resonance within that tradition of orality that encompasses song, narrative, and the ways in which they sustain family and relationships to ancestors and to kin.

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The image of a solitary goldfish aimlessly circling in a glass bowl recurs in cartoons and children’s books, a metaphor for a crowded and over-scrutinised life. John Simons’s account of the mid-nineteenth-century aquarium craze reveals the rather horrifying historical reality of this mostly symbolic image. At the height of the craze for aquariums, not only were resilient goldfish kept in bowls, but a wide range of wild-caught marine and estuarine life were dredged from the British coastline and plunged into buckets, bowls, tubs, pots, as well as glass aquariums of various sizes, with precious little consideration given to the complex needs of maintaining aquatic ecosystems in captivity. The death toll, not to mention the smell, must have been horrifying. As Simons points out, the British seaside has never truly recovered from this mass decimation.

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In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Eleanor Dark (1901–85), which singles her out from the group of women who dominated the Australian literary scene in the 1930s and 1940s, and attends to the literary significance as well as the political and historical contexts of her work. While Miles Franklin and Katharine Susannah Prichard have been the subject of massive biographies, there have been no major critical studies of their writing. Their contemporaries such as Nettie Palmer, Jean Devanny, M. Barnard Eldershaw, and Dymphna Cusack have fallen out of sight. But since the publication of Eleanor Dark: A writer’s life by Barbara Brooks in 1998, there has been a steady stream of essays and book chapters, a special issue of the journal Hecate, a second biography, and now a critical monograph on the work of this novelist.

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‘Such is life’ is a common phrase in Australian popular culture – it has even been tattooed on bodies – but Joseph Furphy’s novel of the same name, published in 1903, is often forgotten. Ned Kelly mythology suggests that he uttered this phrase just before being hanged in 1880, though some historians argue that what he actually said was, ‘Ah well, I suppose’. Long before Furphy (1843–1912) wrote his magnum opus, the stoic phrase was perhaps wrongly associated with a cult hero’s execution.

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The novels of Gail Jones present a challenge to would-be critics. Jones being a formidable scholar in her own right, her eight novels to date pose sophisticated philosophical questions within their elegantly structured narratives. Her novels canvass aspects of human experience that are murky and complex: these are often forms of familial or romantic relationship shaped by loss, both personal and historical. The challenge for critics is that the novels are themselves thinking about the potential of fiction to do this kind of philosophical or ethical work. In this sense, Jones might seem to be one step ahead of the scholar who takes her work as their subject. Inner and Outer Worlds, a collection of essays edited by Anthony Uhlmann, steps up to this challenge.

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Patrick White’s plays are conventionally assigned a marginal place in the landscape of his writing. Historically, they have either been regarded as poetic but unconvincing extensions of the performative dimensions of his prose, or as fundamentally misconceived exercises in contempt. Tim Winton spoke for the latter camp when, writing in the London Review of Books (22 June 1995), he dismissed White’s dramatic work as a ‘long and wasteful engagement with the theatre and its poisonous hangers-on’. Winton’s judgement is informed by a solitary model of authorship that can be applied to the rural metaphysics of White’s Castle Hill novels but that is increasingly inapplicable to the urbane satires his work became following his move to inner-Sydney in 1964.

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Four kangaroos recently moved into the paddock that adjoins the house on Peramangk Country in the Adelaide Hills where I live. For weeks I had been conscious of distant gunfire, not the usual firing of the gas guns that wineries use to keep birds off their vines. I concluded that the kangaroos had been driven here by a cull. The goats, Charles and Hamlet, and the sheep, Lauren and Ingrid, who call the paddock home, seemed unperturbed by the roos’ presence. But what, I wondered, did all these animals think about one another? What, indeed, did they think about me?

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After My Brilliant Career appeared in 1901, Miles Franklin spent a few years living in Sydney, where she enjoyed being fêted as a new literary sensation. Her attempt to earn a living by writing fiction and journalism about women’s issues was less than successful; even the timely and witty suffrage novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), was knocked back at first. In 1906, at the age of twenty-six, she left Australia for the United States. She spent the next nine years living in Chicago and working for the Women’s Trade Union League, secretary to its wealthy patron, Margaret Dreier Robins, and editing its journal, Life and Labour, with her compatriot Alice Henry. The two Australians enjoyed recognition as enfranchised women, a status that American women were still fighting for.

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Gail Jones’s beautifully crafted narratives invite and reward careful reading. All her work bears the mark of her formidable intellect. Yet her texts don’t show off: they assert the primacy of embodied experience and interpersonal relationships as much as the inner life of the mind. They provoke you to attend to their many layers of meaning, often requiring at least two readings (and some research) to fully grasp their complexity. But the reader’s reward is in the ‘ah’ moments when, for example, an image takes on particular resonance or an idea emerges from the text’s depths. It is to these intricacies that Tanya Dalziell’s monograph, Gail Jones: Word, image, ethics, turns its attention.

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In spite of the hundreds of scholarly articles, dozens of monographs, and two biographies on the life and work of Christina Stead (1902–83), critics, curiously, have not generally sought to divide up Stead’s career into her Australian, European, and American periods for the purposes of their analysis. Most of them have regarded her career as more integrated, recognising the fact that Stead responded to all the places in which she lived and that her interest in the people around her drove her approach to her work, informed her settings, and nourished her understanding of ideology and its impact on human behaviour. In this compact study of five of Stead’s novels, Fiona Morrison seeks to explore Stead’s particular interest in American politics and culture and their specific influence on her writing.

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