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Non Fiction

Despite attempts, revived in recent weeks, to discredit the term ‘stolen generations’, what cannot be denied in the semantics of that debate are the excruciatingly painful experiences of the children involved. While the meanings of such terms as ‘removed’ and ‘abandoned’ are complicated in a racist culture by indigenous peoples’ disenfranchisement, poverty and illiteracy, the devastating nature of separation from family in childhood must never be overlooked or underestimated.

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As bookshops and bestseller lists fill up with new biographies about celebrities, criminals, tycoons, and sporting heroes, Pluto Press has come out with the story of a small, fat, generally unheard-of priest, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes. Unlike the mega-books it fails completely to surprise us with the sexual preferences of the famous or inform us how to make a million dollars over lunch. Its subject, Dom Martinho, is free of such ordeals as poorly executed facelifts, nosy tax officers or greedy agents. His main concerns are cruder – how to stay alive and to help others stay alive when faced with the brutality of an oppressive, harsh regime.

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Political biographies are renowned as being notoriously difficult to write. Given the peculiar role of authorisation this is not surprising. The ‘authorisation’ – the act of writing – of a political biography is diminished and crowded out by a subject who not only defines the work’s content, but can literally refuse to authorise the text. In this context, Tony Parkinson’s biography of Jeff Kennett, Jeff: The rise and fall of a political phenomenon, runs up against a subject who is particularly adept at controlling the manufacture of his personal and public self. Parkinson’s biography is unauthorised, but has survived its subject’s scrutiny.

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On getting hold of Grace Karskens’s new book, I went straight to the colour plates of artefacts resurrected from the neighbourhood of the title, part of the historic Rocks area of inner Sydney. I love to look at salvage: pieced-together dinner plates, dolls’ heads, and brass buckles and buttons whose verdigris defies any amount of elbow grease. But the photo that really grabbed me was of a dug-up gold wedding ring, modelled on one finger of a hand neatly manicured but for a crescent of black dirt embedded deep under the thumbnail. To me, that minute trace of the Rocks neighbourhood spoke vividly – more so, somehow, than any of the scrubbed-up artefacts – of the peculiar joys of dabbling in other people’s cesspits and of the adventure into history that underlies Inside the Rocks.

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Rosalie Fraser, a two-year-old Aboriginal child, is taken from her family by Child Welfare authorities and fostered with a distant relation of her non-Aboriginal father. She suffers years of abuse at the hands of her foster mother. Occasionally she runs away but her foster mother is always able to charm her into returning. She finally leaves for good when she meets a young man named Stan whom she later marries. In her mid-twenties a gynaecological operation which becomes unexpectedly complicated and painful causes flashbacks of the abuse she endured as a child and she realises she has to confront her past. She writes Shadow Child and in conclusion recommends writing as a therapy for anyone ‘who has problems to come to terms with’.

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Even if Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party were to self-destruct after the next federal election, which I suspect is a real possibility, it has earned itself a position in Australian political history. Hanson herself must be one of our most remarkable political figures, having risen within three years from the obscurity of a Liberal nominee for an unwinnable electorate to a politician with media coverage almost equivalent to that of the major party leaders.

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The Oxford Literary History of Australia edited by Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Strauss

by
October 1998, no. 205

The index to this literary history lists four references – one neutral, three critical – to Leonie Kramer as the editor of the 1981 The Oxford History of Australian Literature and one each to the publication itself, to Adrian Mitchell, who was responsible for the survey of fiction, and to Vivian Smith as the author of the section on poetry – there is no reference to Terry Sturm, who wrote on drama. None of the sixteen critics and scholars who contributed to the new survey engages in any significant manner with the aims and aspirations of that publication, even ‘though it is acknowledged in the Introduction – together with the work of H.M. Green, Cecil Hadgraft, Geoffrey Dutton, G.A. Wilkes, Ken Goodwin, Laurie Hergenhan, Bob Hodge, and Vijay Mishra – as providing ‘frameworks and a background of references’. The implication seems to be not so much that The Oxford History of Australian Literature reflects an unjustifiably conservative view of national literature – a complaint that arose almost as soon as it was published – but that its methods, ideals, and emphases are irrelevant to the literary culture of the late nineties.

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‘Anecdotes’ meant originally ‘the unpublished’ – sometimes, no doubt, the unprintable. Nowadays we think of them as being tales which have something or other up their sleeves: a morsel of irony, a pinch of encouragement, a gesture of affectation. Anecdotes are yarns which have had a couple of drinks.

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In a recent history of punishment in Australia, Mark Finnane observes that there is a ‘seemingly inexhaustible vein of convict history’. This has been especially true most recently of the history of convict women and the increasing number of accounts which are now being published in this field is to be welcomed. These studies offer a corrective to histories which have relegated convict women to a footnote, and, perhaps more significantly, some historians have attempted to reconceptualise and recast our understandings of colonialism, gender, power, and sexuality during the nineteenth century.

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When Baldwin Spencer, the eminent Professor of Biology at Melbourne University, arrived in Alice Springs in 1894 as a member of the Horn party, the first scientific expedition to Central Australia, he knew very little anthropology. Edward Stirling, South Australia’s Museum Director who would write their chapter on anthropology, was not much better off. The man who was in the know was the man on the ground: Frank Gillen, the local Telegraph Officer, Magistrate, and sub-Protector of Aborigines. A genial, curious, open-minded fellow of Irish Catholic faith, Gillen had been in the region for nearly twenty years.

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