NSW contributor

Musing upon the art of biography, Virginia Woolf bemoaned the constraints that facts imposed on imagination. It is the most ‘restricted’ of all arts, she wrote, limited by ‘friends, letters and documents’. Yet these very restrictions can inspire creativity. Good biographers don’t just accumulate facts; they give us, in Woolf’s words, ‘the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders’. Biography, done well, Woolf concluded, does ‘more to stimulate the imagination than any poet or novelist save the greatest’. By this definition, Julia Laite is indeed a superb biographer.

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It has become a rite of passage for foreign correspondents returning home from a stint in China to pen a memoir recounting their experiences. All too often, the story begins with the said reporter crossing into mainland China at Lo Wu, having just spent time enjoying the bright lights of Hong Kong. Clearly, the Lo Wu railway station holds a certain allure for wandering Australian journalists.

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Michael Hofmann’s Messing About in Boats is based on his 2019 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford. This series, rather like the Clark Lectures at Cambridge or the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, offers a distinguished literary practitioner the opportunity to address a particular theme in a short sequence of interlinked lectures. Given that the form of oral delivery tends to preclude extensive or detailed critical analysis, the most effective of these sequences usually promote a few challenging ideas in a compact form that lends itself readily to crystallisation. For example, Toni Morrison’s book The Origin of Others (2017), which links racism to constructions of ‘Otherness’, was based on her Norton Lectures at Harvard the previous year.

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Coralie Clarke Rees and Leslie Rees are not remembered among the glamour couples of twentieth-century Australian literary life. Unlike George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Vance and Nettie Palmer, or their friends Darcy Niland and Ruth Park, neither of them wrote novels and they both spread their work across a range of genres. Critics, journalists, travel writers, children’s writers, playwrights, they devoted themselves to supporting the broad artistic culture of Australia rather than claiming its attention. Their lives were spent in juggling their literary interests with the need to make a living at a time when Australian society was even less supportive of writers than it is now. They made compromises to suburban life and the need to care for their two daughters, without ever abandoning their determination to live by the pen.


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Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

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July 2021, no. 433

Noongar and Yawuru poet and academic Elfie Shiosaki writes in the introduction to her new poetry collection, Homecoming, that it is the story of four generations of Noongar women of which she is the sixth. The poems are ‘fragments of many stars’ in her ‘grandmothers’ constellations’. Shiosaki ‘tracks her grandmothers’ stars’ to find her ‘bidi home’. The introduction reads as a beautifully crafted prose poem that contextualises the works that follow.

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After Story by Larissa Behrendt

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July 2021, no. 433

In the latter half of this novel, one of its protagonists is viewing a collection of butterflies at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This forms part of Jasmine’s holiday with her mother, Della, a tour of famous literary and other notable cultural sites in the United Kingdom. By this stage they have visited Stratford-upon-Avon, Brontë country in Haworth, and Jane Austen’s Bath and Southampton, and have been duly impressed or, in Della’s case, underwhelmed. But now Jasmine can only feel sadness: ‘We take the life of a living thing, hold it to display, because we feel entitled to the knowledge, entitled to the owning, the possessing.’

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Two weeks after he announced the reintroduction of conscription in late 1964, Prime Minister Robert Menzies addressed a political rally at Hornsby, in the Liberal heartland of Sydney’s north-west. Menzies received what historian Carolyn Collins described as a ‘rockstar welcome’. However, when he spoke about national service, a group of black-clad women in the audience rose to their feet and covered their heads with black veils, standing silently for several minutes in the face of jeers and boos. They eventually filed out of the hall, handing out anti-conscription pamphlets as they left. Margaret Holmes, who had helped organise the protest, recalled later that it ‘stopped [Menzies] in his tracks’. Organised by the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, it was the first women’s protest against conscription in the Vietnam era, but it would not be the last. Weaponising decorous, middle-class femininity would prove to be a potent strategy in the nine long years it took to abolish conscription in Australia.

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When did the rationale for the Iraq War – which began in 2003 and still rumbles today – go from being a mistake, to a self-deception, to an outright lie? When did it dawn on the Bush Jr administration and its key allies in London and Canberra that the ostensible reason for the invasion of Iraq had disappeared, probably literally, under the sands of Mesopotamia? By the time of the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed no weapons of mass destruction that could threaten another country. The Iraqi dictator may have desired such weapons, but a combination of international sanctions and the mere fear of retribution thwarted his plans.

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‘Your sense of permanence is perverted,’ said Holstius to Theodora Goodman in The Aunt’s Story (1948). ‘True permanence is a state of multiplication and division.’ The words are prescient, for Patrick White, who wrote them, has done rather well at dissolving into the impermanence of post-mortem obscurity. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the pandemic, the thirtieth anniversary of his death in 2020 left little imprint. No literary festival honoured the occasion, and no journal did a special issue. If White is looking down at us from some gumtree in the sky, he will be bathing in the lack of glory. He despised the hacks of the ‘Oz Lit’ industry as much as he loathed the ‘academic turds from Canberra’.

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Smoke softens the trees, a swift omen scented before seen. / It warps what it brings, from the sun to grief. // I stir on the stoop I rent. All around me wasps shimmy, / Orange alphabet of knives. I call them father and son ...

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