by the river evokes the textures of a small Australian town in 1962 through lean episodic poems that drift along gently until moments of intensity break their banks. Through a leisurely accumulation of detail – houses on stilts, fruit bats, a blotchy carpet of mango pulp, wisteria, cricket, bags of lollies – the town comes into focus, along with the lives of its people, especially protagonist Harry Hodby and his family.
by the river is one of Steven Herrick’s many award-winning verse novels for young adults and the recipient of several prizes, including a 2005 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award (Ethel Turner Prize for Books for Young Adults). As a verse novel, it combines narrative bones with poetry’s compression, as well as its sonic and lyrical qualities. Image by image, glimpse by glimpse, by the river collects its narrative fragments and vivid impressionistic slivers as ‘the big river’ that ‘rolls past our town’ collects and influences the stories of the people it circles and observes. If, as psychologist and philosopher William James sees it, human thinking proceeds like a stream of consciousness, by the river exemplifies its dynamic flux – its mobile and shifting nature, its snags, shifts, and flow, and the ways the currents and undercurrents of memory, hope, and thinking entwine and wind.
Harry’s voice and perspective tie these strands of narrative and imagery together. Harry’s ‘I’ is laconic and self-effacing. He is an unlikely hero, wounded, unambitious, and boyish, stationed in the liminal space where childhood pleasures and adult possibilities converge, trapped within the confines of a town he is outgrowing. The verse novel traces its roots back to epic poems such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey, each of which centres on a heroic protagonist. Unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, Harry’s name does not give the work its title, and, in his adolescent uncertainty, he has little in common with the elevated heroes of the traditional epic. Aeneas, for instance, is repeatedly referred to by Virgil as ‘pius’, which connotes a worthy, dutiful, strong hero, reverent towards the gods, full of drive and vision. Instead, Harry – fourteen, awkward, fed up with the compression of small-town life but lacking ambition and direction – fits into a lineage of coming-of-age texts centring on Anglo-Celtic heterosexual Australian masculinities, such as George Johnston’s novel My Brother Jack (1964) and films including Gallipoli (directed by Peter Weir, 1981) and The Year My Voice Broke (directed by John Duigan, 1987).
Harry’s portrait finds energy in its expression of his ordinariness, recalling the brilliantly evoked, flawed characters of Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask (2000), a best-selling verse novel which inspired Herrick’s own. The Monkey’s Mask and Porter’s other verse novels experiment with jump-cutting, editing, and sharp, lean lines to achieve a cinematic aesthetic, as well as freshness and vitality. As Porter said: ‘I’m just longing for poetry with verve and nerve ... I’m longing for poetry that just smacks me across the head.’Porter once commented that ‘far too much Australian poetry is a dramatic cure for insomnia’. Writing ‘good’ for Porter, at one stage of her career, involved ‘strictures I placed on myself ... i.e. nothing that would offend the children’s lit gatekeepers’. Herrick, too, whose first published poem (written at the age of eighteen) was called ‘Love is like a gobstopper’, depicts the identifiable, the awkward, and the ordinary, rather than some kind of (perhaps illusory) idea of aloof and inoffensive poetry. The results in Herrick’s work are fresh, accessible, and engaging, closer in tone and mood to the wit, play, and hijinks of Roald Dahl and Andy Griffiths than the ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ associated with William Wordsworth.
Both these works avoid a certain kind of poetry, but each affirms the importance of another version of poetry as full of vitality, and, in Porter’s case, dangerously seductive. Jill, the detective protagonist of The Monkey’s Mask, asks the ghost of the murdered woman whose case she is investigating:
Tell me, Mickey,
does a poem start
with a hook in the throat?
Harry addresses the ghost of his childhood friend Linda Mahony, asking:
Tell me, Linda?
What happened here?
Were you swimming?
Or surfing the flood,
like they say?
Tell me, Linda?
Were you alone?
The mysterious circumstances of Linda’s death form one of several questions Harry faces. In ‘It wasn’t God’ he tells himself it wasn’t God who ‘watched the bubbles rising / and fists knocking / against a jammed window’. It wasn’t God who ‘dragged Mum / quietly away’, cataloguing the unfathomable cruelties he has observed before eddying towards the poem’s last stark question: ‘Was it?’ This ending exemplifies the poems’ tendency to swerve and kick at their endings. Another question concerns how people leave the town, which relates to the larger issue of what kind of future he might be able to hope for. In his plain-spoken words and his directness, as in Jill’s, there is vitality and emotional honesty. In his smaller moments, too, it is the simple that delights Harry.
He finds joy in small pockets of rituals – eating chunks of watermelon ‘bigger than my face’, ‘spitting the pits / at the chickens’ and ‘laughing at the pink juice /dribbling down onto the grass’ – and consolation in the patterns of family life, including visits from Aunt Alice, who sets the table, boils the kettle, and produces lamingtons and other cakes for her nephews, and in Sunday trips to the graveyard where they tend their mother’s grave and witness the wounds of their father’s bereavement:
watching my dad –
his gentle hands
tracing this special day
through his other life,
through his memory.
Harry is often depicted as an observer, and it is the life around Harry that brings him into focus, rather than its being a backdrop to his activities. Just as Harry’s centrality to the narrative is displaced by the energies of the surrounding natural and social worlds, his voice is hesitant and reserved. More important to the narrative than the first-person singular, though, is the first-person plural – a ‘we’ made up of Harry and his brother Keith. Harry is named after magician and stunt artist and escapologist Harry Houdini:
who could escape
from boxes locked with chains,
and who went over waterfalls
in wooden barrels
and walked away.
Harry hopes one day to be another kind of ‘escape artist’, but for now tends to escape from the story, focusing instead on others’ lives. The first mention of ‘my brother Keith and me’ in an early poem ‘The scrapheap’ prefigures a refrain of ‘Keith and me’, and the brothers’ development is yoked together through their sharing of key experiences.
The story of the boys’ lives is revealed gradually, even obliquely. Harry remembers key shaping incidents through the poems. His narrative, a kind of retrospective internal monologue, drifts along quietly until the sharp flinch of lines that reveal in honed fragments the painful events of his life, especially the death of his mother when he was seven and Keith six. The poems work the way memory does, or rivers do, meandering, slowing down, speeding up, occasionally flooding. The line movement follows this pattern, proceeding phrase by phrase, line by line, until lines overflow, spilling into the next in enjambment that expresses emotional experience not easily contained.
The first reference to Harry’s and Keith’s mother’s death comes in the first poem, ‘The colour of my town’, which frames the work and evokes the town and its characters in terms of colours:
was Johnny Barlow
with his lightning fists
that drew blood in a blur.
For Harry, green:
was my dad’s handkerchief,
pressed into the pocket
above his heart;
a box of handkerchiefs
Mum gave him on his birthday
two weeks before she died.
This glancing reference to her death exemplifies the way details are embedded in the poems and brought into focus fleetingly, as though Harry’s memory touches on, then shies away from, the pain. The poem’s rainbow ends with ‘white’:
was Mum’s nightgown,
the chalk Miss Carter used
to write my name,
and the colour of Linda’s cross.
The mundane image of classroom chalk is framed by references to the two formative tragic events of Harry’s childhood: his mother’s death and that of Linda, who drowns at thirteen when the river floods. In primary school, Linda’s friendship offers Harry the possibility of consolation and creativity. When he is mocked for the dull exterior of his family home, brushed brown with sump oil rather than painted, Linda comes to school the next day ‘with my favourite orange cake – / two slices’. She also brings a story she has written about a house painted dull brown, and the storm that washes away its modest exterior ‘to reveal a house / coated in gold, / glistening / like a palace’.
Earlier, the seven-year-old Linda has knocked quietly on the front door, bringing the same cake and a card depicting ‘my mum / in heaven, with God, / and the angels, / all in pink and blue crayon’. Every night for a week, the young Harry eats two slices of cake, which take him away from his mother:
gone a week,
alone in the kitchen,
stirring his tea
until it was cold in the cup;
stirring, around and around
Linda demonstrates the courage of reaching out, and expressing affection and connection, as well as the transformative power of narrative. Later, Harry visits the white cross planted by the river where Linda was discovered, rising ‘in a ghost of bubbles’ from ‘under a jam of logs’. While others avoid the place, Harry finds consolation in remembering Linda and continuing their conversation, articulating a nascent transformative narrative:
I want to learn enough
to find the quickest way out,
and I promise
when I leave
I won’t come back,
not for a long time.
Harry only knows traumatic departures, though – his mother’s, Linda’s, and that of Miss Spencer, the school’s eighteen-year-old secretary, with whom Harry is infatuated, and whose pregnancy forces her to leave town. When twenty-two-year-old neighbour Wayne Barlow brings home a stream of young women, Keith and Harry hide and look through the window, learning ‘the weight of a breast, / the curve of a hip, / the weird rhythms and sounds / naked bodies make’.
This creepy voyeurism collapses when Wayne brings home Eve Spencer. Suddenly, a woman might be more than a weighed breast and moving hip. Seeing one of Wayne’s conquests as a subject, rather than an object to be ogled, Harry glimpses the unfair treatment of women in the patriarchal culture he has previously never questioned.
Before Wayne, Harry’s images of love have been of his father’s ceaseless vigil and, before that, Friday nights when his parents’ excitement and delight as the working week ended and Friday evening danced ‘gently into view’. When a storm arrives and ‘gutters overflow / and yards become pools, /streets becomes rivers’ and everyone ‘watches the banks / of the big river / with nervous eyes, / remembering’. Next day, Harry enacts his own vigil, visiting Linda’s riverside white cross:
I wander around
amongst the flattened weeds,
and the stinking mud.
I find dead fish,
and somebody’s lawn mower.
Harry cries, his moment of emotional flooding apt in the damaged and abject landscape, but the image of the lawn mower twists the scene away from pathos. While Harry’s father’s devotion is seen by his sons as exemplary, Harry’s own embodies a kind of stasis.
How to leave the small town, and what to become, are questions Harry revisits with Claire Honey, a girl who swims in the river and shares her chocolate ice cream with him, celebrating the pouring rain as ‘like God starting again’, adding: ‘It’s good to start again. / Don’t you think, Harry?’ With Claire, eventually, Harry is prepared to dive into the future:
I take off my shirt,
walk along the bank
to where the rope is tied
to the old rivergum.
I grab the rope tightly,
take a running jump,
and let go.
The early poems in by the river function like expository chapters in a novel, establishing voice, characters, and key narrative scaffolding. After the development of the story through episodic poetic slices as sensual as Hodby watermelon, the narrative arcs back, like the river, to wrap things up. As Harry recognises the ‘part inside; / the good part’ of himself that has been formed by his father’s example, he begins to take steps that will lead to his departure, observing, once more, the ritual of dividing the watermelon in three, savouring at last, the textures and vitality of this shared moment ‘one deliberate bite at a time’.
2. Porter, Dorothy, 'It's too hard to write good – I'd rather write bad', Australian Humanities Review
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by the river evokes the textures of a small Australian town in 1962 through lean episodic poems that drift along gently until moments of intensity break their banks. Through a leisurely accumulation of detail – houses on stilts, fruit bats, ...
A generation living in peacetime is inclined to devalue the identity and place of soldiers. In Australia, active soldiers have been maligned as meddlesome interlopers in foreign affairs (if they are our soldiers) or combatant terrorists (if they are not). In his book Secret Men’s Business (1998), John Marsden wrote that going to war used to be seen as a marker of adulthood. We forget that war was once how individual personality and collective character was formed. We forget that many of our compatriots came here because of war, that there are former child soldiers living in Australia, and that literature and the armed forces didn’t always occupy such opposing worlds.
The Divine Wind is a war story and an adventure story, but it is told by a protagonist who stays put, right at the centre of a metaphorical and literal cyclone. With his bad leg, all Hart Penrose can do is rotate in circles towards the action, striving for but never quite effecting any of the grandiose deeds he believes will make him a man. His dad is a pearler, his sister a nurse, his friend a soldier. Not only is he stationary in a world swirling with purposeful human activity; but he is also in love with the ‘enemy’ of the time, a woman named Mitsy Sennosuke.
Before readers dismiss our narrator as a swooning Keats relocated to the sweltering antipodes, they need to know he is also a reluctant writer. Such characters make the best literary narrators. They do not have an arsenal of words or know how to be clever with them. They linger over facts and descriptions of places, clutching at emotions, while unintentionally revealing raw truths. Hart’s disability has made him a circumstantial philosopher: he watches and waits, thinks and writes.
Geographically, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, white people felt profoundly isolated and vulnerable in Broome. Their high status was scant consolation when they were vastly outnumbered by coloured people: the Japanese, ‘Malays, Manilamen and Koepangers’, all simmering in a cultural melting pot of increasingly hot days and imminent war. In the 1920s, Broome had around 5,000 inhabitants, only 900 of them white. Broome had segregated cinemas, a Register of Aliens, and a clear but unofficial racial hierarchy. Yet it was also a mythologised place in the literature of the time, which Hart reads with wry scepticism:
According to these stories, no-one knew the sacrifices we made, as we hung on up there, in Unknown Australia, in the Never Never, in the Great Unfenced, before the age of hurry-up. We were the true Australians, in a country going begging, ruled by governments, cities and absentee landlords who knew nothing and cared less about resource development, soil erosion and the teeming threat of Asia, which sat right on our back doorstep, waiting, waiting ...
The characters in The Divine Wind are first and foremost real frontiersmen: from Zeke the pearl diver, with his ascetic face and tough, scarred body, to Derby Boxer, the black stockman; from Mike Penrose with his pearling fleet to Alice Penrose and Mitsy, two young women who venture into cyclones and war zones. Arnold Zable uses the term ‘feral vitality’ to describe survivors of horrors beyond their control, and the reader gets the sense that this hotchpotch of races and cultures was united by their battle against the enemy and the elements. In Broome, the land, sea, and sky can suddenly become sites of death and destruction, especially during wartime.
However, the one group that is treated as if they have no sense of self-agency is the indigenous Australians. Disher spares no sensitivities in recounting the indignities of the past and the cruelty of station owners towards the local indigenous population: ‘Carl didn’t force his recalcitrant black stockmen to dress in women’s clothes and do women’s work. If the blacks got “cheeky” he might dock their wages but never chain them down on a corrugated iron roof ... He didn’t lay on black velvet in the visitor’s quarters, something that some managers did for company men visiting from London.’ But Carl Venning is just as awful in his neglect of the black stockmen.
In 1930s Broome, certain races cooperated to achieve livelihood goals – pearling and farming – in clearly-defined employer–employee relationships. Sometimes, these relationships caused tension when power imbalances were openly acknowledged instead of remaining hidden in servile gratitude. When Alice tells Mitsy to go back to Japan, Mitsy retorts: ‘I would if your father paid my father more.’ Hart observes: ‘That’s what happens between friends, you rub too closely sometimes and the friction ignites the hidden grievances.’ On the whole, the friends remain a close trio; that is, until the Japanese bomb Broome.
From this point on, the novel could have descended into a didactic tale of learning to tolerate difference, of not betraying your friends, of remembering past good deeds – Mitsy’s father once saved Hart’s life after all. But what elevates The Divine Wind from a good yarn to a masterpiece of character development is that Disher doesn’t do this. The poet Robert Cording wrote this about poetry, which could easily be transposed to fiction:
The poem has to feel ... as if there is a real person struggling with real experiences that will not yield some handy lesson, but nevertheless are not entirely without meaning. The voice that convinces will always be the voice of the individual, not as a spokesperson for this or that idea.
Many Young Adult writers get it wrong because of the tyranny of good intentions. In representing refugees or war, they err on the side of righteousness, portraying people of colour as admirable victims, investing them, grudgingly, with as few flaws as possible. With bolder authors like Disher, Marsden, Libby Hathorn, Robin Klein, and James Maloney – and more recently, Clare Atkins – the character comes first. As a prerequisite they have done their extensive research; they are not bumbling around with stereotypes. They also trust their adolescent readers to have a more nuanced understanding of character development than the ‘heroes and villains’ mentality that informs much Young Adult literature. I remember reading Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) and recognising the character Lee – not because he was Asian, but because he did not ‘do’ Asian-ness. He did survival, as did all of his friends.
Mitsy’s feelings are a mystery to Hart. He doesn’t even know why he loves her. She is not physically beautiful, and she can be bull-headed and unforgiving, a young Asian nurse without the endearing bedside manner usually associated with such caricatures. While washing Hart, she even laughs at his manhood. Yet he still loves her. For long periods she sequesters herself away from Hart, as well as from her best friend, Hart’s sister Alice. When she tells Hart that she must give up nursing because her mother needs her, you get the strong sense that she exists as a separate character outside his own pinings and imaginings.
Disher writes that teenage girls initially hate Mitsy because she is ‘cold’ and stony towards the protagonist. He asks them to ‘step outside of [their] skin and into hers, and consider the pressure she’s under’. This important self-interrogation does not happen if minority characters are two-dimensionally easy to love. Mitsy’s Japanese-ness does not define her, but nor does her Australian-ness: ‘Mitsy represented a new generation. Born and educated in Broome.’ Mitsy is described as ‘sly’, but a few pages later Hart also describes his sister Alice as ‘sly.’ Slyness in this case is not synonymous with Orientalism but with commendable survival skills, the formation of the frontier character. Mitsy suffers but is never pitiable. She is defensive, never cruel.
Hart realises that in his powerlessness against circumstance he can be both self-pitying and mean-spirited. Yet his redeeming quality is his acute awareness of his fallibilities: his lack of action, his faltering ways, even his petty resentment of his able-bodied friend, Jamie Kilian: ‘I envied him, I was jealous, I pitied myself. Perhaps that’s why I decided not to go out to the aerodrome with Alice to say goodbye. I didn’t want to witness the bounce in his step.’
It is Jamie, who represents the continuity of the Anzac legend, goes to war, courts Mitsy, and becomes the object of Hart’s envy. When drafting The Divine Wind, Disher came across an account of an Australian army surgeon whose best friend was looking for a way to get them both to safety, but in the end left without telling him. The surgeon ended up as a Japanese prisoner of war. ‘I’d never been impressed by Australians’ fond notions of the national character,’ Disher states, ‘We like to think we’re brave, resourceful, loyal to our mates, democratic, egalitarian ... and here was a betrayal of mateship ... It was a powerful betrayal.’
As racial tensions escalate in Broome, so do Hart’s feelings towards Mitsy:
How can you love and hate someone at the same time? How can you continue to want them, and yet despise them? It has happened to all of us, yet when it first happens there is nothing more hurtful and confusing ... we are ... the worst of ourselves, the side we’re scarcely aware of.
With deceptively simple sentences replete with feeling, Hart reflects that even when Derby Boxer tells Hart and his father that they were good people, ‘I didn’t feel that there was much goodness in me.’ This is the mark of a character who understands morality beyond the simple accumulation of good or bad deeds, a young man with a deep understanding of how powerless the individual can be against circumstance.
Perhaps Hart’s feelings are conflicted because he is also struggling with an underlying and unacknowledged resentment of Mitsy’s defiance in the face of adversity. When the police and soldiers come, she refuses to let them look in her house, even though she has nothing to hide. When the Japanese bomb Broome, she declares: ‘We need to get down to the harbour. There’ll be people in the water, people dying.’ She ventures onto the beach to put her nursing training to good use, despite racist hostility and impending internment. Like her friend Alice, she does what is right, not what is easy.
Yet Hart’s admiration of Mitsy is clear, as he joins her in the search and rescue in the most powerful chapter of the book, ‘The Divine Wind’. Hart comes to a reckoning of all that he is and what he will become. He defines Mitsy for all of us, once and for all, when he grabs and yells at the harbour master who is denying her the medical kit to save lives: ‘Don’t be so stupid. She’s a nurse. She’s lived here all her life, you useless bastard.’
Nonetheless, our narrator is not a straightforward hero. He may have saved lives, but in a pivotal scene he briefly reveals a decision he might have made that would have had no consequences for anyone other than the victim, himself, and his own conscience. For once, Hart does not do what comes easily. He does what is right. In the end, Hart learns to abandon his self-absorption and to accept patience. He thinks about his mother and realises that ‘she understood what it is to wait for something to change, just as I’m waiting now, waiting for Mitsy to come back to me’.
Garry Disher writes that he is proud of the powerful opening lines of his book, but for me the ending remains more resonant, almost two decades later. It is not a neat conclusion; some publishers today might ask him to change such a final sentence, to make it less depressing. Yet the reality is that war is depressing, self-abnegating, and destructive. People don’t just turn into their better selves because of adversity. It is a choice, and sometimes suffering does not make a person stronger. The concluding paragraph was a culmination of Hart’s character and resilience; and I feel vindicated by Disher’s own explanation of his ending:
He’s not going to back away. It’s not a dramatic or heroic reversal, but quietly hopeful. He says, ‘We may not make it,’ meaning he knows the terrible pressures he faces now, in post-war Australia, but is willing to give it a go.
Secret Men's Business, Manhood: The big gig (1998) by John Marsden, Pan Macmillan
Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) by John Marsden, Pan Macmillan
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A generation living in peacetime is inclined to devalue the identity and place of soldiers. In Australia, active soldiers have been maligned as meddlesome interlopers in ...
In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s there was a flurry of what were called ‘single issue’ or ‘problem’ novels for teenagers. The books focused on problems or issues that frequently confronted teenagers, such as bullying, anorexia, child abuse, depression, suicide, unplanned pregnancies, struggles over friendships, puberty, divorce, and more. These were indeed matters faced by young people, and the rationale was that by reading about others in similar situations, teenagers would feel less alone and might also find ways of coping. ‘Reading novels dealing with social and personal problems is a safe way to bring these issues into focus and give adolescents a chance to talk about their own experiences or relate their own lives to what others have gone through’ (Diana Hodge, The Conversation, 13 June 2014). There is a whiff of bibliotherapy (books and reading as therapy) in this view which seems to undermine the notion of reading and evaluating books for their literary merit.
This subgenre was most widespread in the United States, with Judy Blume probably the most prolific and popular proponent. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) features a young girl asking for help from a higher being about pressing issues such as buying her first bra and having her first period. Like many of Blume’s books, it was criticised for tackling taboo topics and for being too frank. Her most frequently banned book, for somewhat older readers, was Forever (1975), a mildly explicit exploration of a first sexual encounter and, most contentiously, of the use of contraception by the girl.
Judy Blume sold some eighty-two million books, was widely translated, and was also hugely popular in Australia. Blume was clearly speaking directly to a large and receptive audience of young people aged twelve and up – perhaps even younger, as the books were very easy to read. However, while she was frequently challenged for her outspokenness and determination to explore issues, her often simplistic approach to her themes and characters, and her general lack of depth or sophistication were rarely called in to question. The focus was largely on the issue rather than on characters or character development. Should buying a first bra be a matter of such careful and painful consideration? Few of her characters were allowed to think beyond themselves and their immediate concerns. Identity and solving an apparently significant problem in a socially acceptable way were central.
During this period, several Australian, European, and US writers produced books on contentious topics. One early translation from Swedish was Gunnel Beckman’s Mia Alone (1978), about a young teenager who realises that only she can make the difficult decision about whether to have an abortion or not. Most of these books were devoured by girls, though teachers and librarians knew that boys read many of them secretly. Some confessed that the books gave them much needed insights into the mysteries of how girls thought and felt.
John Marsden surged on to the Australian scene in 1987 with his multi-award winning So Much to Tell You. He followed this with stories showing young people battling violence, authority, and loveless, isolated lives in books such as Letters from the Inside, Checkers, and Dear Miffy, the latter probably his most confronting and disturbing book. With these books Marsden was at times lumped in with the writers of problem novels. However, his books focused on society and how it viewed and treated young people and how in turn those teenagers observed their world and dealt with what they faced. The focus was not simply on the ‘issue’ or a specific problem. Furthermore, the language and scenarios were much more complex and nuanced.
It is into this much-changed, more open, and far more sophisticated reading environment that A.J. Betts and others have stepped. It is important to locate Betts amongst some other fine Australian writers of realistic fiction like David Metzenthen, Maureen McCarthy, Jaclyn Moriarty, J.C. Burke, Cath Crowley, Will Kostakis, Scot Gardner, Sonya Hartnett, Melina Marchetta, Lili Wilkinson, Simone Howell, Julia Lawrinson, Vikki Wakefield, Fiona Wood, and Clare Zorn. These contemporary writers create works that are varied, challenging, stimulating, and complex.
On a cursory look, Zac & Mia (2013) could be mistaken for an ‘issues’ book; one about teenagers with cancer. However, to view the book in those terms would be reductive and do a disservice to Betts and her book. Betts has written: ‘When I began to work on Zac & Mia, I hadn’t chosen to write about cancer ... I was toying with two separate ideas: love and isolation’ (Viewpoint). Zac is in isolation following a bone marrow transplant after chemotherapy failed to cure his leukaemia. Mia has just been admitted to the room next door in the adult oncology ward, with osteosarcoma (a cancerous growth) on her ankle. The teenagers make their first tentative contact by tapping on the wall of their adjoining rooms. Betts has said the image of two hands meeting on either side of a hospital wall was what sparked this story, which took her some four years to write and refine. Betts is interested in how her two main characters view and deal with their situations; how they see themselves and their future; how they cope with adversity; how they see their place in the world and amongst their peers; how they view their bodies at different stages of treatment; how their very different families and family circumstances affect their lives; how they behave and cope – or don’t; and how from this situation an unlikely friendship and even love might develop.
How characters change and perhaps mature is an important feature of Young Adult – and adult – fiction. Betts uses a three-part structure in Zac & Mia to highlight the significant, subtle, and often unexpected shifts in her two protagonists’ situations, states of mind, attitudes, and moods. Perhaps the most notable and sophisticated achievement of the book is how deftly Betts manages these shifts. The middle part of the book gives us the alternating voices of Zac and Mia, while the third part is told from Mia’s point of view. However, as the novel is bookended by Zac’s voice he may be seen as the more important character. Betts’s ability to capture and sustain the voices of these two fragile teenagers is remarkable as is her facility with snappy, authentic, convincing dialogue.
In the first section, we get Zac’s perspective but also his view of Mia, as far as he can glean despite their minimal contact. The mother and daughter (Zac assumes it is a mother and daughter) seem at odds, angry. Zac appears calm, articulate, smart, level-headed, with a good understanding of his current state of health and prognosis for the future. His tone is often wry and self-deprecating. He copes partly by tracking through ‘the maze of blogs and forums’ on cancer and arming himself with statistics about the stages and outcomes of his and other types of cancer. He tends to do all this at around 3 a.m., when his ever-present mother is dozing, but he is unable to sleep.
Google tells me there are over 742 million sites on cancer. Almost 8 million are about leukaemia; 6 million on acute myeloid leukaemia. If I google ‘cancer survival rate’ there are over 18 million sites offering me numbers, odds and percentages. I don’t need to read them: I know most of the stats by heart.
On YouTube, the word ‘cancer’ leads to 4.6 million videos. Of these, 20,000 are from bone marrow transplant patients like me, stuck in isolation ... The world is turning and thousands of people are awake, updating their posts on the bookmarked sites I trawl through. I’ve come to know these people better than my mates. I can understand their feelings better than my own ... I track their treatment, their side effects and successes. And I keep a tally of the losses ...
Then I hear the flush of the toilet next door.
The new girl and I have one thing in common at least.
This section reveals much about the ways Betts builds her characters and her narrative, but also how she packs in extensive research and information without interrupting the flow with blocks of author-imparted facts. We come to understand not only what Zac is facing but how he does this. He clearly has a supportive family. Through his obsession with statistics and with Emma Watson, a star of the Harry Potter films, Betts injects some much-needed lightness and humour. The reader lives through Zac’s day-to-day experiences with him – and those of his mother, the hospital staff and others, including Cam, an adult patient who does not survive. From the other side of the wall and later via texts, Mia’s initial ignorance and lack of understanding or empathy align us with Zac, though her honesty, irritability, and bluntness prove to be an acerbic counterpoint to Zac’s apparently unfailing equanimity. Zac appears to have a much wider knowledge of the world. We begin to get to know Mia through this contrast:
Mia: What happens to someones facebook when they die?
Zac: I don’t know
Mia: Where do the profiles of dead people go?
Zac: U’ll have to ask Zuckerberg.
Towards the end of the book, Zac wonders:
Why do I like Mia?
I like that she’s tough on me, knowing I can handle it. She doesn’t tiptoe around the bad stuff or hide what’s going on in her head. If she feels something she says so, she shows it. She says and does all the things others hold back. She’s not predictable or safe. She doesn’t talk bullshit, the way most other girls do. She’s alive, despite everything, kicking and screaming and swearing. Fighting still.
Perhaps what is most worth exploring in Zac & Mia is the nature and extent of Mia’s transformation and how, as she grows stronger physically and mentally and learns to accept her situation, she is in turn able to help Zac face his parlous future. However, does Mia change too quickly and drastically? And does her much-improved relationship with her mother happen too rapidly? Is all this a little too easy? Is it convincing?
And how does A.J. Betts know so much about cancer, various treatment regimes, and the details of life in cancer hospitals? Betts has written: ‘Since 2004, I’ve been working as an English teacher with Hospital School Services in Perth. I’ve met hundreds of amazing teenagers, particularly on the adolescent oncology ward’ (Viewpoint). To this insider knowledge Betts has added prodigious amounts of research, though this never overwhelms her story.
In the third section of the book, Mia is back in hospital. She has had a wild and gruelling time after she fled after the amputation of her lower limb. Here, Betts confronts a very difficult ethical and moral question. Should Mia have been asked to agree to the amputation?
But I didn’t get that choice. My mother signed the form while I was on the operating table, the tumour holding tight to the artery it had wrapped itself around. ‘We had to act immediately,’ surgeons told me later.’An excision and bone graft were no longer practicable.’ Consent was needed. They didn’t wake me up; they handed my mother a pen. She signed her name and ruined my life.
Melodramatic? Perhaps. But she is understandably furious and distraught, and her sense of self has taken a battering. She was (still is) a pretty girl who relied on her looks for attention from boys and girls. Her deb dress is hanging at home ready. ‘Without my looks, what’s left? I’m not smart, or kind, or talented, or creative, or funny, or brave. I’m nothing.’ Betts leaves it to the reader (and to Zac and his family, and eventually to Mia’s mother) to test these assumptions. Now neither her mother nor her boyfriend nor her best friend seem able to understand, accept, or cope. Her mother had said: ‘Sort it out or leave.’ Mia needs more treatment; her wound becomes infected, but all she wants to do is escape. With her blonde wig, temporary ill-fitting prosthetic, crutches, and fragile physical and mental states, she steals, lies, and acts increasingly irrationally until she runs out of money and options and inevitably ends up at Zac’s home, The Good Olive! Olive Oil and Petting Farm. This is a country haven and the home of a loving, extended family. The contrast with Mia’s circumstances is stark. Zac tries to help, but he is out of his depth and it his older, very pregnant sister, Bec, who takes Mia in to her home next door and provides her with the space and time to come to her senses, regain some equilibrium, and eventually accept the treatment she needs. Zac/Betts sum up Mia’s initial situation beautifully: ‘Whatever’s happened to Mia, it’s emptied her. It’s left behind a girl with fake hair, fake plans, and nowhere in the world she actually wants to be.’
The story draws to its quiet and uncertain conclusion as Zac reluctantly prepares for another bone marrow transplant after lying and hiding via an ingenious ruse. Now it is Mia who drags Zac out of his depression and becomes the voice of hope and reason. Betts has written: ‘As the characters developed I became obsessed with three questions: What is courage? What is beauty? What is love?’ (Viewpoint). So we have a story of friendship and love and understanding that evolved from the plight of two initially very different young people whose lives have affected and changed others too.
Betts’s first novel, Shutterspeed (2008), a fast-paced story featuring photography and motorbikes, was aimed at teenage boys. It is about a boy who is bored, lost, and whose single father is distant. Wavelength (2010) presents Oliver, stressed about his forthcoming Year Twelve exams. When sent to stay with his father, he finds himself, much to his annoyance, in close proximity to residents in an aged care home who then, unexpectedly, offer him the gift of many new ways of seeing life. All three books derive their power and interest from innovative structures, strong characterisation, tight plotting, considerable authorial insight, and vivid settings – all in Western Australia. Zac & Mia, Betts’s third book, takes her writng to new heights. It was the winner of the Text Prize for an unpublished manuscript and this win gained her publication with Text Publishing, a major Australian independent publisher.
There have been inevitable comparisons with John Green’s best-selling The Fault in Our Stars (2012), also about two young people dealing with cancer. Zac could tell us how statistically probable two (only two?) such publications would be. Both are well worth reading. Zac & Mia has been translated into about a dozen languages and has found admiring audiences all over the world. The influential US Kirkus Reviews concluded its appraisal of Zac & Mia: ‘It’s the healing powers of friendship, love and family that make this funny-yet-philosophical tale of brutal teen illness stand out.’ It is a deeply affecting (but never sentimental), dramatic and sparklingly told story, with universal interest and appeal.
Beckman, Gunnell (1973) Mia Alone, translated by Joan Tate (1978), Bantam Doubleday
Blume, Judy (1970) Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Bradbury Press
Blume, Judy (1975) Forever, Bradbury Press
'Contemporary Cool in Young Adult Fiction' by Joy Lawn, The Australian, 29 March 2014
Marsden, John (1987) So Much to Tell You, Joy Street Books
Marsden, John (1992) Letters from the Inside, Pan Macmillan
Marsden, John (1996) Checkers, Houghton Mifflin
Marsden, John (1997) Dear Miffy, Pan Macmillan
On books for young adults, Viewpoint, vol. 21, no 4, Summer 2014
'Young adult fiction’s dark themes give the hope to cope' by Diana Hodge, The Conversation, 13 June 2014
Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts, Kirkus Reviews, August 1 2014
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In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s there was a flurry of what were called ‘single issue’ or ‘problem’ novels for teenagers. The books focused on problems or issues that ...
The underlying theme in Marcus Zusak’s novels is ordinariness. Whether he is writing from the perspective of two working class-brothers struggling to get noticed for their boxing abilities in Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2000), or from that of Ed in The Messenger (2002) – ‘the epitome of ordinariness’ – the theme looms in complex ways over his writings. Even a character such as Death in his best-known work, The Book Thief (2005), is depicted as facing the same mundane issues as most human beings: he is easily distracted, he can’t make up his mind, he feels overwhelmed by his demanding work.
This focus is also what makes Zusak’s work so fundamentally Australian, even when set overseas. Ordinariness encompasses so many prominent cultural tropes in Australian art and literature: the underdog, the loser, the anti-hero, the working-class hero, the woman maligned and forgotten in a harsh landscape. All of these figures function in a multiplicity of ways in The Messenger, against a suburban backdrop, which comes with its own cultural connotations of inertia, entrapment, and conformity. From here the reader is taken on a journey with Ed, who discovers that the smallest things are the most significant and that the most ordinary people are the most extraordinary.
At the beginning of The Messenger, Ed declares himself to be a failure at most things, including sex, friendship, and being a dutiful son: ‘I’d been taking stock of my life ... No real career. No respect in the community. Nothing.’ Being average, for Ed, does not seem to lie in comparison with others so much as in a refusal to participate in elaborate interpretations of his own life. To pass as average is to avoid the need for abstract explanations of what one is or does. Ed’s representation of himself as typical, average, and boring typifies the way his life is not to be taken as representative of large social structures or processes, but to be understood at a more immediate level, simply for what it is. The way Ed narrates his story as the reader gets to know him helps Zusak to establish him as an uncomplicated character. For example, this is how Ed describes himself:
I wash but I rarely iron.
I live in the past and believe that Cindy Crawford is by far the best supermodel.
That’s my life.
The prose consists of simple sentences, largely unadorned by adverbs or adjectives. The repetition of the personal pronoun ‘I’ with no reference to how that ‘I’ interacts with the objects or people in its life reinforces an image of a simple, unintrospective life. This is reinforced by Zusak’s lineation, primarily composed of one sentence per line. This creates a border of blank space on each page, reinforcing what Ed’s life is about – not much.
As the story unfolds, Ed accidentally foils a bank robbery and the local newspapers exaggerate his heroism. Shortly after, he begins to receive playing cards from an unknown source. On them are cryptic messages which lead him to the people he has been sent to help. The Ace of Diamonds appears first in his mailbox. On the card someone has written three times and addresses. When Ed visits each of them he finds someone in need: a woman who is raped nightly by her husband; a lonely, senile woman; and a young girl who needs to be reminded of the joy she takes in running. Thus begins Ed’s reluctant journey into an elevated consciousness in which he is forced to consider what others require to live more meaningful and fulfilled lives and thus to consider how he can do the same.
The Messenger is a deeply moral work which provokes the reader to consider the judgments they make about strangers, and to contemplate the small acts of kindness that can have profound effects on their lives. Zusak seems to suggest that we must learn to observe the ‘small things that are big’, a phrase Ed uses towards the end of the book. Whenever Ed is sent out to help someone new, he spends time watching people. He is learning to observe, and this makes him a better human being. He realises that Angie Carusso, a single mother with three children, needs an ice cream of her own to remind herself of life’s small pleasures, and that a struggling family that has recently moved into town needs someone like Ed to remind them that they are not alone.
This message is enforced by the language of the text which, in its stripped-back simplicity, paradoxically forces the reader to consider the complexity of the images being presented. When Ed visits Father Riley’s battered church, he sits in a pew trying to determine why the latest playing card he received has directed him there. The scene is described through a simple accumulation of images, all of which represent silence and inaction:
When ten o’clock strikes, the bells of the church take possession of the congregation, and now, everyone – the kids, the powdered ladies with handbags, the drunks, the teenagers and the same people who are there week-in week-out – all fall down in silence.
He walks out and everyone waits, for the words
There are no other words yet.
A space with ‘no words’ is a reoccurring motif in the book. Here, Zusak draws our attention to the things that are often overlooked because of the human tendency to seek meaning in speech and action. These frequent pauses create an intense atmosphere in the scene. It opens with a long sentence which employs the dash to force us to concentrate on the images of the type of people we often fail to observe (‘drunks’, ‘powdered ladies’, etc.). The longer pauses created through the one-sentence paragraphs (‘The Father.’ ‘Walks out’) places the reader in the position of Father Riley’s motley crew of parishioners, whose strong ties to their priest are evident in the way they allow him to inhabit the space of his church by paying him more attention than they devote to their own neglected lives. Ed’s burgeoning awareness of his surroundings is also represented through his narration, which, over the course of the novel, increases in its level of detail and its complex layering of multiple images.
The rhythm and pace echo the reality of the quiet suburban lives depicted in this book. The Messenger bears many of the hallmarks of the crime and thriller genre; there is the mystery of who is leaving the playing cards for Ed and why they want him to intervene in so many lives, as well as the constant threat of criminal thugs who show up uninvited at his house to make sure he is carrying out his job, as well as the many false climaxes and clues which lead the reader towards false conclusions. But the text also works against these conventions. The criminals aren’t so threatening; they bring him meat pies and sit on his couch cracking jokes. When Ed takes a gun to shoot the abusive husband, he ends up firing into the air instead; he is no hard-boiled criminal either. Unlike traditional thrillers, which gain pace towards the end, The Messenger slows down, becomes more contemplative and joyful in tone, so that when Ed and Marv daub graffiti in order to advertise the fact that there will be free beer at Father Riley’s next service, their escape from the scene of the crime reads:
Our footsteps run and I don’t want them to end. I want to run and laugh and feel like this forever. I want to avoid any awkward moment when the realness of reality sticks its fork into our flesh, leaving us standing there together. I want to stay here in this moment and never go other places, where we don’t know what to say or do.
The irony here is that this is the first time in the book when Ed knows precisely what to say and do. He says nothing and does not try to make sense of the moment, but rather revels in the joy of the incredible here and now. His ‘footsteps run’; they are not a part of his awkward physical self which he dislikes so much. He doesn’t need to ‘go to other places’, like his siblings and friends who have sought social and economic advancement by leaving a dying suburb on the edges of town. The reality of leading a life so painful that it is represented through the metaphor of sticking ‘a fork into flesh’ dissolves into a blissful moment.
Towards the end of the book, the playing cards lead Ed away from intersections with the lives of people he does not know, towards the lives of his friends and family, and ultimately himself. When he takes the time to observe and question the lives of his friends Marv, Richie, and Audrey, he discovers that each of them is emotionally vulnerable, with a complex interior life he has failed to notice before, as they all appeared so tough, confident, and incapable of self-introspection. This realisation that the people he thought himself closest to have been presenting false exteriors paves the way for his growing understanding of the fact that his family, who have done so much to determine his negative ideas, have entrapped him in a false image of himself and his potential.
One of the final playing cards leads Ed to a restaurant where he observes his mother on a date with a man with whom she may or may not have been having an affair before his alcoholic, loving father died. ‘There’s my ma, fifty-odd years old, high-tailing around town with some guy- while I sit here, in the prime of my youth, completely and utterly alone. I shake my head. At myself.’ Ed’s observations of his mother here are typical of his reactions to her constant demeaning of him throughout the book. His judgements of her poor behaviour are directly reflected back at himself. The fact that she is self-obsessed and living a fulfilled life is juxtaposed to his own isolation. Her actions highlight his own inaction. Shortly after, on Christmas Day, his mother berates him beyond endurance. ‘I want so much to verbally abuse this woman standing there in the kitchen, sucking in smoke, and pouring it out from her lungs. Instead, I look right at her ... “The smoking makes you ugly,” I say, and walk out, leaving her stranded among the haze.’ This is when Ed decides to stop seeing himself through the distorted lens of others; to regard himself in a new light. His use of impersonal and generic terms to describe his own mother (‘this woman’, ‘you’) emphasise the internal distance he has travelled towards defining his sense of self in his own terms.
The final pages of The Messenger lead the reader through a series of images and people we have already met before but are now being asked to regard with greater significance. The bank robber from the start of the text gets into Ed’s cab and asks him to drive to all the houses of the people he has helped and then finally back to his own home. It is both a literal and metaphorical journey for Ed. He realises that he was never the one delivering the messages – he was the message. In helping others he has ultimately helped himself. The robber hands him a lesson he has already learned, ‘If a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of.’
The ultimate message is that even the most ordinary people can be remarkable too.
Zusak, Markus (2002) The Messenger, Pan Macmillan
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In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s there was a flurry of what were called ‘single issue’ or ‘problem’ novels for teenagers. The books focused on problems or issues that ...
Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing (2000) prompts readers to ask: ‘Who is this book for and what does it mean?’ Tan, in a personal email to the author, himself confesses that the work is a fable ‘about all sorts of social concerns with a rather ambiguous ending’, while the unnamed narrator of the story nonchalantly confesses: ‘don’t ask me what the moral is’. For these reasons, the reader may be forgiven for believing that the first-person narrator of The Lost Thing, represented in the illustrations as an ‘eraser headed’ young man, is possibly the author himself. But who knows, given that Shaun has declared of his work, ‘Just don’t ask the creator.’
The essential plot of The Lost Thing is based upon the rescue of a bright red ‘thing’ (a huge red teapot with legs? a hybridised marine crustacean with the body of a pot-bellied stove?) that the narrator has spotted sitting alone on a beach. Moved by compassion, he plays with it for hours before realising that it must be lost. The narrator takes the thing home to meet his family, lets it bunk down in a shed, and discovers that it loves consuming Christmas decorations. Next morning, having checked the ‘lost and found’ advertisements in the newspaper, to no avail, the narrator takes the thing to the ‘Department of Odds and Ends’ (whose enigmatic motto is ‘sweepus underum carpetae’) where, having filled in the obligatory forms while the thing makes a ‘small, sad, noise’, the narrator is mysteriously presented with an equally mysterious business card enigmatically embellished with an even more mysterious wavy line. With the thing in tow, the narrator sets out to search the cold and careless city for a place that might relate to the curious wavy line on the business card with which he has been presented. Having found such a place, he discovers it to be full of other seemingly contented ‘lost things’, and the big red lost thing ‘makes ‘an approving sort of noise’. Once the thing is farewelled and has settled to mingle with his other ‘no longer lost’ peers, the narrator goes home, philosophically observing, ‘I see that sort of thing less and less these days. Or maybe I’ve just stopped noticing. Too busy doing other stuff, I guess.’
Given the apparent nonchalance of the narrator, and the reader’s inability to gather any overt moral to the story, The Lost Thing asks more questions than it answers. That is the secret to much of Tan’s work. He openly confesses that in his illustrated books, very often two stories, visual and verbal, only ever run side by side as evidence of some other narrative that can’t actually be seen, read, or even talked about in ordinary waking life. (Possibly in the language of dreams? Who knows? Just don’t ask the creator!) This idea of word and image running ‘side by side’ is supported by Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures: The narrative art of children’s picture books (1988). Nodelman argues that ‘words and pictures are quite separate from each other but ... placing them into a relationship with each other inevitably changes the meaning of both, so that good picture books as a whole are a richer experience than just the simple sum of the parts’.
The truth of the matter is that the real significance of the story lies in the space that the individual reader creates between the interrelation of the visual (illustrations) and verbal (printed words), which together form the ‘holistic text’ of the book. As Nigel Krauth says in Creative Writing and the Radical: Teaching and learning the fiction of the future (2016):
This type of book, which looks like a children’s book, grapples with adult themes in a complex and sophisticated manner, and represents a space for multimodal reading which is shared by children and adults. The emotional and intellectual depth of these books argues strongly against the old-fashioned idea that reading the pictures is not for the adult literary reader.
Maurice Sendak, internationally acclaimed creator of the illustrated book Where the Wild Things Are (1963), claims that ‘the invention of the picture book’ began in the art of Randolph Caldecott (1836–86) when he developed a ‘juxtaposition of word and picture, a counterpoint ... Words are left out and the picture says it. Pictures are left out and a word says it.’ Sendak states adamantly:
You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where the words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act, which takes a lot of technique and experience to keep the rhythm going ... You have worked out a text so supple that it stops and goes, stops and goes, with pictures interspersed. The pictures too, become so supple that there’s an interchangeability between them and the words; they each tell two stories at the same time.
In order to fully appreciate the ‘multimodal reading’ embedded in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, the reader must search for meaning in the creative gaps between words and pictures, and pictures and words; to create as it were, a ‘third’ or individualistic interpretation of the book. That interpretation, unique to each reader as it will be, no doubt carries the genuine significance of both narrative and moral – if, as the narrator suggests, such a moral exists.
The cover of The Lost Thing reveals an image of the thing and its gormless minder standing lost and alone at the entry to a typical soulless inner-city underpass. An immediate visual allusion to Jeffrey Smart’s famous painting Cahill Expressway (1962), it depicts a similarly dislocated male in a business suit standing in much the same dislocated position. Tan’s message in alluding to the painting is immediate and undeniable: city dwellers are lost, immersed in an anonymous and careless landscape of monumental concrete, towering over and reducing them. Tan drives his cover message home with an easily missed line in fine print beneath the title: ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to’. The narrator’s compassion for the lost thing denies this in the telling, although he does admit, when the thing is safely home at the end, ‘Maybe there aren’t many lost things anymore. Or maybe I’ve just stopped noticing. Too busy doing other stuff I guess.’ He goes home to what the reader is led to believe is the more urgent business of classifying his ‘bottle-top collection’.
Why is the reader unconvinced? What message is Tan actually relaying to his (no doubt) perplexed reader?
The works of other important visual artists alluded to in The Lost Thing should be mentioned to elucidate this mystery. In a cryptic, upside down, small-print reference relegated to the top of the last page of the book, Tan apologises to three major visual artists: Jeffrey Smart, Edward Hopper, and John Brack. Each of these artists has focused, at some point in his career, upon the dislocative elements of contemporary society, particularly in relation to city life and its ability to foster careless anonymity of the individual, albeit in a crowd. The allusion to Jeffrey Smart on the cover has been addressed, but John Brack’s Collins St, 5pm (1955) is clearly referenced by Tan when the lost thing is taken to the city on a tram. Weird looking though it is, not a head is turned. The stark, monumentally dispassionate cityscapes of Edward Hopper pervade Tan’s work, particularly visual allusions to Hopper’s stark Rooms by the Sea (1951) and the clinically dehumanised Office at Night (1946).
By recognising the existence of these adult visual allusions, we come a step closer to appreciating the depth and significance of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing. This is no picture books for a child’s bedtime reading, nor is it some reading primer of what Krauth refers to as ‘the “Dick and Jane” series 1927–1970’ which were ‘illustrated in the sense that the image is merely a replication of the text’. Considering the sophistication of the artists alluded to, one wonders who the intended readership of The Lost Thing really is: possibly any reader, irrespective of age, who has the emotional and creatively intellectual skills to negotiate the significance of the complex interplay between print and visual text – for all its initially apparent simplicity.
By ‘print text’ the reader would be gravely misled if he or she read only the narrator’s words. It is the words that comprise the seemingly random confusion of nonsensical scientific and mathematical bricolage that surround the main images and narratorial text that really carry the full significance of the story. These nonsensical quotes (Have you any perpetual motion ideas?), meaningless formulae, and definitions (A perfect vacuum would be an absolute empty space) litter every page of the book. In fact, the main images and narratorial text appear to be pasted over them as if the narrator–creator is over-pasting a textbook he wishes to hide. Tan admits that ‘the nonsense formulae referred to are taken from his father’s physics and maths text books when he was an Engineering student and intended to give of the dry and industrial world presented in the paintings, a sort of meaningless functionality – pointless and amusing also’.
In combining and interpreting all of these messages, whether in print text or visual image or allusion, the creative reader forms an individual sense of the meaning(s) of The Lost Thing.
For all of his apparent nonchalance and carelessness, the narrator does have family and friends. This doubtless encourages him to sympathise with the lost thing’s alienation, and leads him to befriend it. This in itself is a statement of selfless courage. Given the hideous appearance of the thing (if the book bore an olfactory element, I suspect the thing would exude an offensive odour akin to ‘prawns that had gawn orf’), the narrator takes a grave risk in sitting beside it at the beach and engaging in play. But he does. He also takes it home, feeds it, and finds it companionable accommodation with others of its kind. The subtext here is: ‘Hey, I’m a bit weird. I collect bottle tops. My folks are weird too. Check out their house. And my friend Pete is not exactly ordinary. We meet on his roof ...’ Given that this subliminal extraordinariness pervades the life of the narrator, it is easier for him to be non-judgemental and to reach out empathetically for others who are lost.
And what an environment to be lost in. I have read this book thousands of times and I cannot find a tree, leaf, flower, or garden. Yes, there is a beach, but its waters are acidic blue, overshadowed by monumental concrete walls seeping toxins. If the reader really looks, she will spot the word ‘MORE’ engraved in the concrete, meaning ‘MORE WHAT?’ The options are terrifying.
The agencies which are purportedly there to offer help (such as the cynically named ‘Department of Odds and Ends’) evidently achieve the reverse. The building itself dwarfs any prospective person (or thing?) seeking solace, reducing them to little more than spittle on the sidewalk. Indeed, even the disembodied voice advising the narrator suggests, ‘If you really care about that thing, you shouldn’t leave it here ...’
Whatever the intended audience of The Lost Thing, and whatever its moral or meaning, there can be little doubt that the book will provoke the conscience of its reader to be more aware of the human sympathies aroused for those among us who simply ‘don’t belong’.
Crew, G. Strange Objects: 25 Anniversary Edition, with a foreword by Shaun Tan (2015)
Krauth, N. Creative Writing and the Radical. Teaching and Learning the Fiction of the Future in Multilingual Matters (2016)
Lanes, S. The Art of Maurice Sendak (1984)
Nodelman, P. Words About Pictures: The narrative art of children’s picture books (1988)
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On the day that Robert Dessaix first came face to face with his birth mother, he was already in his mid-forties. Adopted as a newborn baby in 1944 by a couple who loved and cared for him through his childhood and adolescence, he had grown up in Sydney, had invented his own imaginary land with its own language, had been married for twelve years, divorced, negotiated a reorientation of his sexuality, and eventually met and made a life with his partner Peter. He was a seasoned, experienced traveller and a speaker of several languages. He had made his way through two successful careers, first as an academic scholar, teacher, and translator of Russian literature, and then as a well-known broadcaster on the ABC's flagship literary program 'Books and Writing', to which, in the days before podcasts and digital radio, thousands of thoughtful people all over the country would listen every Sunday night.
By the time he met his biological mother, at the end of the 1980s, he had a settled life, a wealth of experience, a vivid and dramatic physical presence, and a strong reputation as a warm, witty, erudite voice on the radio. He was, in Australian literary and intellectual circles, a name to conjure with.
The phrase 'a self-made man' is commonly used to describe someone who has achieved success in the world through no accident or advantage of birth or inheritance, but rather through his own efforts in life. You might use it to describe Robert Dessaix. But he is also a different and more interesting kind of self-made man, someone who in his early childhood began the process of inventing himself and his ideas and beliefs. In an interview with Lee Gutkind in 2012, he said:
When you're adopted and an only child, you just do not feel any obligation, from the moment you are conscious, to be anything you don't want to be. You don't have to be like your parents or Uncle Harry or anyone else in the family because no one knows exactly who you are. You can reinvent yourself ... I don't really feel I was born. I feel I was invented.
In the previous year, Dessaix had delivered the 2011 Seymour Biography Lecture, later published in an edited version as 'Pushing Against the Dark' in Australian Book Review, in which he reflected at length on this process of self-invention and on his long-standing conviction that he had made himself up. The notion of self-invention and self-reinvention is central to A Mother's Disgrace (1994) and it is an idea to which Dessaix keeps returning, in interviews and later in books, essays, and talks.
As the unplanned, 'disgraceful' offspring of a teenage single mother in the 1940s, he was almost literally rubbed out by his mother's family, spirited away for adoption and ignored as though he had never existed, except in Yvonne's own mind and memory: 'every year on my birthday she would try to spend the day alone, unencumbered, if possible, by any distracting duties, and think about me' (Chapter 4). With his existence subjected to this kind of erasure, it's not surprising that he felt he needed to invent a self to take the place of that absent baby:
So from the day I was born, in February 1944, until the day in 1990 Yvonne told her mother she had met me, my embarrassing existence was never referred to. For forty-six years the subject of my existence was never once raised. (Chapter 3)
With the writing of A Mother's Disgrace, full of revelations and self-revelations, the act of writing itself has become another stage of self-reinvention, as had the active search for his mother: 'while knowing nothing of this silence, I began to plot ways to break into it' (Chapter 3).
It can be difficult for anyone born after about 1960 to imagine what life was like for single women and girls in Australia in 1943. To have sex before marriage was regarded as a shame and a disgrace. There was no formal sex education and nothing that we would now think of as reliable contraception, and even if that had existed, unmarried women would not have had access to it. There was no single-parent pension and nowhere for a pregnant girl to go except home to her parents, and if her parents threw her out, as they often did, she might well end up on the street.
Dessaix's book seems at first glance to be about his own life, but in fact it has more than one main subject. This book is about someone called Robert but it is also, and almost equally, about someone called Yvonne. The most poignant moment in the entire story is the one that looks directly at the moment of Robert's conception, a moment at which it seems that Yvonne has no idea what she's doing or what might come of it:
She tells me that as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl from a good background, she had no sexual knowledge, or sense of lack of knowledge, at all ... Falling pregnant, as Yvonne might put it, came as a shock to her. From what I can gather, she really does not seem to have made a strong connection between what had happened with Harry and pregnancy. (Chapter 4)
There is no quicker or better way to get a sense of how women and girls fared in wartime Sydney than to read Dymphna Cusack and Florence James's novel Come In Spinner (1951). This novel charts the lives of a group of Sydney women over one week in 1944, and the unabridged edition of 1987 would make ideal background reading for a broader understanding of A Mother's Disgrace. Another useful book in this respect is Nadia Wheatley's The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001). Clift was an Australian writer and an almost exact contemporary of Yvonne's, who also survived the disgrace of a wartime Sydney teenage pregnancy, gave birth in the same hospital over the same summer, endured the same pressures from her family, and lost her newborn baby to its adoptive parents. The whole episode was surrounded by the same terrible silence that Yvonne experienced, and Clift agonised over it, privately, for the rest of her short life.
In 'Pushing Against the Dark', written almost twenty years after A Mother's Disgrace, Dessaix ponders on why he chose to write in an autobiographical mode. The book is not a traditional or mainstream autobiography. It is a highly selective account of his life in which much of the detail is sketchy and events are not recounted in chronological order. Dessaix himself explicitly questions the label 'autobiography': A Mother's Disgrace, he says, 'is fragmented, a curling necklace of arresting moments, far from all-encompassing, opinionated, intimate and at least dotted, if not peppered, with scandalous disclosures'. Much of it, indeed most of it, is about the inner life: the life of the mind, the heart, and the soul, none of which are constrained by the calendar or operate in any logical progression, and all of which are inclined to swoop and circle around the high points and the low points in the story of a life. The bare facts of his life – 'birth, adoption, school, university, marriage, divorce, realignment' – were, he says, 'hardly worth chronicling for their own sake'.
While the facts of having been adopted at birth and of then meeting his natural mother almost half a century later make for an interesting human story, the best way to read this book is to think about it on two levels. At a superficial level it can be read purely for the actual events it describes and recounts, but its real meaning lies in the thoughts and ideas and abstractions to which those events give rise: about selfhood, writing, family history, social history, sexuality, motherhood – and, not least, about love. A good autobiography takes the reader from the particular to the general, from the concrete to the abstract, and explores the feelings and ideas that connect us and make us human. As Dessaix says in 'Pushing Against the Dark', 'Almost nobody is interested in what I have encountered on my journey through life, but almost everybody is interested in mothers, questions of blood, and in how selves are fashioned, particularly their own.'
The connection that Dessaix has with his readers is one that most writers would envy: when he makes public appearances at literary events, his readers always flock to talk to him afterwards. They will come up to him shyly and tell him how much his writing has meant to them, and they will tell him little stories about their own lives. Many of his readers write to him and do much the same thing in their letters, and he makes the point that the reinvention of the self can sometimes be achieved not only by writing a book but also by reading one:
Virtually every letter I have received from readers of my books begins: 'Thank you for this book' and then switches to retelling the reader's life – sometimes at great length – taking pleasure in ... the fresh perspectives on mothers or adoption or Russia or religion or some other element in my story, in the restyling of the self that a good book offers, rather than in information. ('Pushing Against the Dark')
One of the many ideas explored in A Mother's Disgrace is the question of what is actually important when it comes to identity and self-knowledge. Is it your parentage? Or is it nationality? Or gender? Dessaix is an Australian man, but he feels, and appears, neither quintessentially male nor quintessentially Australian. 'As you can see,' he says near the end of chapter two, 'the self I packed off to Russia to confront the reality ... was not an archetypally Australian male self, if there is such a thing.' When asked by interviewer Lee Gutkind whether he thinks of himself as an outsider, Dessaix enlarges on the idea of not fitting the stereotype of the Australian man. He rejects the label 'outsider' but says he sees himself as 'swimming against the current': 'I don't know one end of a football from the other. I don't know one end of a cricket bat from the other ... I don't drink ... I'm not heterosexual ... I'm not tall, the way you're supposed to be.' He could have added his lifelong fascination with foreign languages and foreign travel, things formally defined – for an Australian – by their non-Australianness. He says in 'Pushing Against the Dark' that he harbours 'a growing suspicion that being "Australian" ... means less to many Australians than barracking for the Pies does, say, or being an architect or a Christian.'
That a religious affiliation might be an important marker of identity is a more uncommon idea in the Australia of today than it would have been fifty years ago, but Dessaix has maintained an interest in spiritual matters from the days of his earliest fascination with Russian literature and philosophy. One of the most intriguing passages in A Mother's Disgrace occurs near the end, where he recalls his meeting with the novelist Fazil Iskander and the conversation prompts him to think about belief and non-belief in a new way: 'I thought seriously for the first time of letting the believer inside myself talk to the non-believer, letting the knowing part converse in good humour with the mystified and the credulous with the sceptical (Chapter 6).'
Dessaix's most recent book, What Days Are For (2014), returns to the subjects of spirituality and organised religion again and again, scornful of the latter, but open, in a self-questioning and sometimes self-mocking kind of way, to the former. As with A Mother's Disgrace, the writing of What Days Are For was precipitated by a near-death experience; in each case, the immediate possibility of death seems to have jolted him into a kind of autobiographical and spiritual stocktake.
For a man so conscious of the practice and potential of deliberate self-fashioning, of 'making himself up', Dessaix has an unusually individual presence. His voice – whether it's heard on the radio or read on the page – is immediately recognisable. His sense of having been invented or made up seems to have produced, paradoxically, a unique kind of personal authenticity and integrity, something that comes across in the narrative voice of A Mother's Disgrace. It also comes through clearly in Gail Bell's 'As Robert Was Saying', where she quotes Dessaix's fellow writer and old friend Drusilla Modjeska: 'he is so utterly himself, so unlike anyone else'.
Bell, Gail, 'As Robert Was Saying: in conversation with Robert Dessaix', The Monthly, March 2012.
Cusack, Dymphna, and Florence James, Come In Spinner (1951, 1987)
Dessaix, Robert, 'Pushing Against the Dark: writing about the hidden self'. Australian Book Review, April 2012 (no. 340).
Dessaix, Robert What Days Are For (2014)
Gutkind, Lee, 'Robert Dessaix', Creative Nonfiction, no. 46 (Fall 2012)
Wheatley, Nadia, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001)
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David Unaipon's Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines is part of the classical culture of Australia. The collection is as varied in subject as it is ambitious in scope, ranging from ethnographic essays on sport, hunting, fishing and witchcraft to the legends of ancestral beings who transformed the landscape in the Dreaming. The stories are unified by the voice of Unaipon, Australia's first Indigenous author, whose familiar face now adorns the fifty dollar note.
Unaipon led an exceptional life, spanning ninety-five years, working between cultures and across boundaries as an inventor, scientist, preacher, activist and author. Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines reveals as much about Unaipon, and the context in which he lived, as it does about the myths and legends of Aboriginal Australia. It is one of the great tragedies of Australian literature that the book was not published under Unaipon's name until 2001, three-quarters of a century after it was written.
David Unaipon was born of the Ngarrindjeri people in the Coorong region of South Australia on 28 September 1872, at Point McLeay Mission. At seven his parents, James and Nymbulda Ngunaitponi (later anglicised to Unaipon), sent him to mission school. At thirteen he was taken to Adelaide to work as a servant for C.B. Young, a prominent member of the Aborigines' Friends' Association. 'I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of,' Young wrote of Unaipon in 1887 (Jenkin, 1979: p. 185).
In every way, he confounded contemporary stereotypes of Indigenous Australia. With the encouragement of Young, Unaipon had the freedom and resources to pursue his wide-ranging interests. He read widely, studied theology, mechanics and physics, educated himself in languages and oratory, and played Bach on the organ. In his 1954 pamphlet 'My Life Story', he described himself as a 'product of missionary work' and believed that he embodied the potential for 'Aboriginal advancement'. He often declared in his lectures for the Anglican Church: 'Look at me and you will see what the Bible can do' (Jones, 1990: p. 303). But he was also proud of his culture, and remained connected to Ngarrindjeri traditions and philosophies.
On 2 August 1924, Unaipon published an article in the Daily Telegraph titled 'Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs'; soon afterwards he signed a contract with Angus & Robertson to make a book of the myths and legends of his people. The stories in Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines were collected over 1924–25 on a tour of southern and central Australia with an Indigenous translator. Most of the stories come from his own Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia, but he also recorded others from Victoria, Central Australia and Queensland. He recognised the diversity in Indigenous language and customs across Australia, but he also saw 'a great common understanding running through us all': 'Our legends and traditions are all the same tales, or myths, told slightly differently, with local colouring, etc' (p. 7). He infused the stories he collected with his own personal philosophy, and wrote them up in the formal, ornate literary style of the era, overlaid with biblical references and classical tropes.
Unaipon's publisher, George Robertson, seemed quite prepared to acknowledge the Indigenous authorship of the collection, paying him the standard writing rate of £2/2/ per 1,000 words and describing the work as 'his book'. Yet in August 1925 communications between Unaipon and Angus & Robertson broke down. Unaipon continued to collect stories, but his telegrams seeking payment went unanswered. For several weeks his publisher went quiet while they weighed up how many stories to purchase. On 3 October 1925 Angus & Robertson offered to accept the remaining stories and move forward with publication, but, for some inexplicable reason, Unaipon never received this crucial letter. What happened next, as Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker (2001: p. xxvi) explore in their Introduction to Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, 'had all the elements of the great dramas of literary history where reputations, envy, pride (and prejudice) are in play'.
After more than a year of silence, the amateur anthropologist and principal medical officer of South Australia, William Ramsay Smith, stepped in and purchased Unaipon's complete manuscript from Angus & Robertson to 'edit' and 'prepare' it for publication. In 1930, Smith published the collection under his own name and with a new title: Myths & Legends of the Australian Aboriginals. He made no acknowledgment of David Unaipon's role in collecting and writing the stories, although there is one oblique reference to an unnamed 'narrator'. Smith also included twenty-one other legends in the new publication, which some scholars, such as Mary-Anne Gale (2006), suggest were also written by Unaipon.
In appropriating the book, Smith not only denied Unaipon's authorship, he also systematically removed his interpretations and narrative voice from the text. Smith's plagiarism and selective editing speaks volumes for the way Indigenous people were marginalised and oppressed in the early twentieth century. In 'Fishing', for example, Unaipon celebrated the expertise of his people:
This way of fishing requires a great deal of knowledge, or to be more correct, mathematical knowledge. I am not attempting to claim that my race are mathematicians from the civilised standpoint. But let us review them standing in their canoes ... the speed at which it is travelling and the depth at which it is swimming has to be allowed for, and also the speed and depth of the fish at a distance of fifteen yards away, and the spear is thrown unerringly and strikes the fish (pp. 23-24).
In Smith's 1930 edition of the story, this lengthy passage on Indigenous 'mathematical knowledge' was edited down to a single, banal sentence: 'This manner of fishing requires a great deal of knowledge, founded on observation and practice' (Smith, 1930: p. 236). In another example, Unaipon described the complex 'art of tracking' in Indigenous society: 'There is a whole science in footprints. Footprints are the same evidence to a bush native as finger-prints are in a court of law' (p. 7). Smith simply removed this last sentence from his publication: one of many instances in which he refused to accommodate Unaipon's parallels between cultures. It was not until 2001, with the support of Unaipon's descendants, that Muecke and Shoemaker retrieved the original manuscript from the State Library of New South Wales and finally published it under Unaipon's name.
Although Unaipon did not achieve fame as an author within his lifetime, he was widely celebrated as a scientist and inventor. He took out provisional patents for nineteen separate inventions, including a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. He was particularly attuned to the benefits of Indigenous knowledge, and in 1914 he designed something akin to a modern helicopter by studying the aerodynamic properties of the boomerang. But his most successful invention was his modified design for a sheep-shearing comb, which converted curvilineal motion into straight-line movement. It was introduced in 1909 and remains the basis for modern handheld shears, although, as with much of his writing, Unaipon never received any financial credit.
In Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Unaipon wrote at once from an Indigenous and a European viewpoint. He identified freely with 'my race', but he also made derogatory remarks about the 'primitive mind' of his people and 'our little brain capacity'. Such words reveal much about the way Unaipon engaged with colonialism. It reflects his struggle to meet the demands of two cultures, which were often pulling him in different directions. As an Indigenous South Australian, he faced restrictions on what he could own, what he could eat and drink, and where he could go. In 'Gool Lun Naga (Green Frog)', we get a glimpse of how he might have felt about such institutional control:
the Bubble Spirit sat and watched the little fishes sporting and swimming, darting here and there in the clear waters of the pool. It would watch some strange tiny objects wiggling in the water, then burst forth and take wing and fly out over the water and away to the reeds and rushes and then among the flowers that grew upon the bank. Oh, what a wonderful life to live, to go where you will and come back in your own approved time (p. 54, emphasis added).
Indeed, Muecke and Shoemaker (2001) suggest that the very act of collecting and writing the legends allowed Unaipon to escape the constraints of missionary and state authorities and gain a taste of the freedom of that 'wonderful life'.
In an era of legislated racial hierarchies, Unaipon used Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines to appeal to a common humanity. He hoped his readers would see that 'Human nature is the same in the Australian Aboriginal as it is in the white, brown or yellow man, irrespective of nationality, language and religion' (p. 134). He drew upon his theological knowledge to reconcile the different cultures he moved between and he framed local legends in ways that would be familiar to his European audience. The ancestral being, Narroondarie, emerges in the stories as an Aboriginal 'Budha, Mahomet and Christ' who 'was sent by God with a message and teaching' (p. 134); the evil serpent of the Bible is personified as the Mischievous Crow; and 'Nhyanhund or Byamee, Our Father of All' filled the role of a God or 'Great Spirit' who 'is in all things and speaks through every form of Nature' (pp. 120, 151). These literary devices served to validate the Aboriginal legends in the eyes of his European readers and to build bridges between the cultures. 'The Australian Aborigines,' he asserted, 'have a greater and deeper sense of morality and religion than is generally known' (p. 150).
Even with the strong religious and classical overtones in Unaipon's writing, it is the Indigenous creation stories that remain the heart of the book. Unaipon tells the legends of the faraway islands where all animals, birds, reptiles and insects lived 'at the beginning of day'; how the great philosopher, explorer and astronomer, the Koala, discovered Australia and led a large fleet of canoes to the new country; and why, on arrival in Shoalhaven, the Koala lost his adventurous spirit, and with it, his tail. He evokes the image of 'strange beings', such as the mythical Bunyip, 'who lived a long while ago, many, many years, before Captain Cook found a landing at Kurnell' (p. 217), and he recounts the travels of ancestral beings, such as Narroondarie's wives, who were transformed into stones off the coast near Kangaroo Island.
Although Unaipon wrote that '[s]ince coming to Australia thousands of years ago, there has been probably little or no change in the habits and the customs of my people' (p. 5), the legends – and the narrator – tell of a much more dynamic culture. The ancestral spiritual leader, Nebalee, for example, lives at the nineteenth-century mission at Point McLeay, while Narroondarie's legendary wives sleep 'near the estate of the late T.R. Bowman' (p. 125). These supernatural forces are not relegated to a distant past: they continue to interact with the modern world. European society has been absorbed into the existing cultural landscape. Like Unaipon himself, the legends move between cultures and across boundaries.
'Perhaps some day,' Unaipon reflected, 'Australian writers will use Aboriginal myths and weave literature from them, the same as other writers have done with the Roman, Greek, Norse, and Arthurian legends' (p. 4). In a sense, this is what Unaipon has achieved with Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. By embedding the stories in the language and frameworks of classical and religious texts, Unaipon was making the case for the tribal laws and customs of his people to be recognised as part of the same literary canon. His book is a masterful celebration of Indigenous life and culture, and it gives us a fascinating insight into the mind of a great Australian.
Daily Telegraph, 'Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs' by David Unaipon, 2 August 1924.
Gale, M. (2006) 'Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: The Writings of David Unaipon', in Gus Worby and Lester-Irabinna Rigney, eds., Sharing Spaces: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Story, Country and Rights, Perth, API Network, pp 49-68.
Jenkin, G. (1979) Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri: The story of the Lower Murray lakes tribes, Adelaide, Rigby.
Jones, P. (1990), 'Unaipon, David (1872–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography 12, Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, pp 303-305.
Muecke, S. and Shoemaker, A. (2001) 'Introduction: Repatriating the Story', in David Unaipon, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, edited by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, pp xi-xlvi.
Smith, W. R. (1930) Myths & Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, London, George G. Harrap.
Unaipon, D. (1954) My Life Story, Adelaide: Aborigines Friends Association.
Unaipon, D. (2001) Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, edited by Stephen Muecke and Adam Shoemaker, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.
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David Unaipon's Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines is part of the classical culture of Australia. The collection is as varied in subject as it is ambitious ...
David Williamson is our most distinguished dramatist. His plays have been performed to acclaim in Australia and internationally. His screenplays, notably Gallipoli (1981), define a certain Australian mythos. Williamson is considered an establishment playwright, depicting middle-class fears and foibles in major theatres. But he came to prominence in a different forum, with a play anything but mainstream. The Removalists, first performed in 1971, is violent, funny, and disturbing. It centres on two policemen, Ross and Simmonds. After receiving a domestic violence complaint from Fiona, they help her to move out and end up beating her husband Kenny to death.
With its brash depiction of Australian ocker culture, realist vernacular, physical brutality, and frequent profanity, The Removalists was a radical play for its time. Until the cusp of the 1970s, Australia's theatre was conservative and overwhelmingly English. As Williamson has stated, state theatre companies 'were in the hands of Englishmen who ... took their main brief to be one of educating and uplifting the beer-swilling natives'. Young playwrights like Williamson, then a lecturer in thermodynamics and social psychology, were frustrated by the focus on European plays: 'we felt there was no way we could get a representation of the life around us into our theatres.' Partly, this was due to an obdurate 'cultural cringe' that disdained Australia as vulgar. The 'New Wave' playwrights resisted this attitude, dramatising Australian life and characters – notably the foul-mouthed ocker male. This was a substantial shift, not least because swearing on-stage had been, until recently, illegal.
The new drama was facilitated by an alternative theatre scene, with Sydney's Nimrod and Melbourne's Pram Factory and La Mama as the crux. These theatres reflected a wider counter-cultural movement of hippies, Vietnam War protests, and sexual liberation. Founded by Betty Burstall, who was inspired by the experimentalism of New York's 'off-off-Broadway', La Mama was a former shirt-factory (and possible brothel) repurposed as a performance space for professional, but experimental, Australian theatre. It was starkly different to major state theatres: La Mama's audience wore jeans and sat on mismatched chairs. The Removalists was first performed there, before commercial runs in Melbourne, Sydney, London, and New York, and a 1975 filmic adaptation directed by Tom Jeffrey. It has, understandably, been called an anti-police play. Williamson has denied that the play is so simplistic (even writing an introduction and placing a note in the script). He is right.
The Removalists is a study of social conditioning: the way 1970s Australia pushed people into 'primitive', inflexible roles, notably through authoritarianism. Through the interpersonal conflict between Ross, Simmonds, and Kenny, the play shows how the clashes between these conditioned roles leads to the perpetration and tolerance of violence. Via the male characters' treatment of Fiona and Kate, The Removalists also skewers the chauvinism, misogyny, and domestic violence (physical and verbal) of the era's ocker culture. Williamson's sophisticated structure augments the play's critique of violence. The Removalists, like many Williamson plays, inhabits the 'borderlines' between satire and realism. It prompts the audience to relax into a comedy, then shocks us with horrific beatings. This uneasy tension between humour and savagery unsettles the audience, making us complicit in the violence and prompting us to question our own tolerance of it in society.
The Removalists begins with Constable Ross's first day. Sergeant Simmonds swiftly establishes his authority through belittlement and patronising advice. His bullying is often conveyed in crude one-liners ('If you want to go on staggering through life like a blind man in a brothel, then that's your business'). They establish the latent aggression beneath the play's comedy. This aggression is manifested when Ross defies Simmonds by refusing to reveal his father's occupation. Simmonds angrily asserts his power until Ross submits: 'Look, Ross, I'm in authority here and I'll decide what's my business ...You don't know a bloody thing.' We see that Simmonds, like any fascist, views himself, and not the law, as the source of power: 'Stuff the rule book up your arse.' Simmonds only takes cases he finds 'interesting'.
'The Removalists is a study of social conditioning'
Such a case arises when Fiona, an ingénue, and her domineering elder sister, Kate, report Kenny's domestic abuse. Kate's treatment of Fiona mirrors Simmonds's bullying of Ross, suggesting that authoritarianism pervades society, not just the police force. Kate editorialises when Fiona makes her statement; she depicts Fiona as imprudent, financially weak, and lacking sexual self-control. The first flare of authoritarian violence occurs when Simmonds abuses his power to unnecessarily inspect Fiona's bruises, 'prodding her flesh slowly and lasciviously'. Kate collaborates: Simmonds 'looks across at Kate, establishing something of a carnal conspiracy between them. Kate is gaining sensual pleasure from Simmonds' lechery.' Indeed, Kate encourages Fiona to go further – to roll up her skirt. Ross becomes a 'smug and eager' accomplice, photographing Fiona's nude flesh to prove himself to Simmonds.
Fiona's ordeal introduces the play's critique of authoritarian violence, presaging the way the characters respond to Kenny's beating: stronger characters exert power and the weaker collaborate or fail to intervene. The ordeal also shows how the female body is appropriated and objectified by the chauvinist male, something augmented by the deal agreed, sub-textually, by Simmonds and Kate: the police will help Fiona secretly move out of her abusive home, but only for sexual favours.
'Fiona's ordeal introduces the play's critique of authoritarian violence'
When Act Two begins, Fiona is packing. But Kenny comes home unexpectedly. Then the Removalist arrives. Then the police. Simmonds establishes himself as a 'big man' – a cop who 'won't tolerate ... a man with no respect for womanhood' – and beats the handcuffed Kenny when he insults Kate or Fiona. Kenny, as Williamson says, sees himself as 'a great fucker and a great fighter', intent on proving 'he's tough'. Humiliated and disempowered, Kenny retaliates verbally. He continues to insult the women and criticises Simmonds's lack of authority to beat him for rudeness: 'That badge don't allow you to do anything you like.' Having set the consequences for defiance, Simmonds beats Kenny more savagely. At first, the audience is prompted to enjoy Kenny getting a kicking for his vile, yet comic, insults: 'If roots were hamburgers,' he tells Kate, 'you could feed a bloody army.' We 'all have sadistic and aggressive impulses,' Williamson says, 'We can all empathise, to some extent, with the Sergeant beating Kenny up in the early stages, but what the play is finally saying is, "Beware of the beast within".'
That 'beast' grows stronger and violence escalates as Simmonds and Kenny continue to assert themselves as authoritarian and ocker tough guys. The conflict peaks when Kenny probes Simmonds's masculine insecurity: sexual potency. Kenny accuses Fiona of contemplating infidelity: 'Sounds like you were all set up to pay off your obligations tonight. Which one was yours? The old fossil here? ... Looks like he couldn't raise the bus fare to Balwyn.' Having emasculated Simmonds, Kenny seeks to regain Fiona with his own virility, bragging that Fiona 'came five times in the one grapple'. Simmonds 'goes berserk. It is as if Kenny's words have found the trigger to switch him from controlled to uncontrolled violence.' Badly beaten, Kenny persists: 'tell the Sergeant ... you squeal like a stuck pig for me.' Simmonds, whose wife is unable to have sex after a difficult pregnancy, is enraged by Kenny's criticism of his masculinity.
'Simmonds ... is enraged by Kenny's criticism of his masculinity'
Kenny pleads with the Removalist, Fiona, and Kate for help, but Kate countermands Fiona's weak appeals to Simmonds, and the Removalist 'can't afford to get involved, mate': he is more concerned about his expensive truck than Kenny's life. This ambivalence exemplifies the moral cowardice in society that sustains violence. After the women and Removalist leave, no one backs down and Kenny's beatings get worse. When Simmonds tries to de-escalate the situation ('He's not worth the effort'), Kenny keeps prodding: 'Piss off to your police station and crawl back into the woodwork.' Kenny now focuses on Ross: 'I've seen some cowardly fuckwits hiding behind their uniforms in my time but without doubt you're the bottom of the bloody barrel.' Ross, who wants to be seen as competent, has been ridiculed throughout the play. Like Simmonds, Ross snaps when his insecurity is targeted, beating Kenny so savagely off-stage that Ross believes him dead.
As the panicked police strategise, Kenny drags himself back in. Simmonds cuts a deal: prostitutes in exchange for Kenny staying silent and not seeking damning medical treatment. As Simmonds and Kenny reconcile over a beer, Kenny dies. Now we see Simmonds's core: 'Not a vile sadistic beast,' Williamson says, 'but a puffed up toad who is a pathetic frightened little man inside.' Ross takes charge and they plan to cover up the death by faking a wild attack by Kenny. The Removalists ends with Ross and Simmonds beating each other savagely, the logical conclusion to the play's escalating violence. This 'nightmare' 'could have been avoided,' Williamson says, 'had any of the three principal characters ... been a little less constrained by their conditioning.'
Authoritarianism is not the only social conditioning that prompts violence. Kenny exemplifies the 'ocker lad' who is conditioned to believe that 'it is the woman's place to empty the kitchen tidy, and if she doesn't she deserves a thumping'. Kenny enters in Act Two wanting sex and a steak. 'I can't,' Fiona protests tellingly, 'I'm ironing.' Angry, Kenny asserts authority: 'Get out into the kitchen, open the fridge, get out a piece of sliced cow and put it under the griller, you lazy bitch.' Later, we learn the 'cause' of Fiona's domestic abuse: 'I'd been warning you about that kitchen tidy for two days.' Like his verbal abuse of Fiona for refusing to cook, Kenny believes it reasonable to beat his wife for neglecting a domestic 'duty'. This is reinforced by his appeal to Simmonds: 'Christ, I only gave her a shove ... How would you like a kitchen full of stinking rubbish?' Kenny's chauvinism is clear throughout. Women are sex objects with carnal obligations to their husbands, but female sexuality, expressed any other way, is considered abhorrent. Kenny describes Kate's unfaithfulness to her husband as: 'Moral ain't the right word for you, you bloody trollop ... Bangs like a buggered tappet.' This misogyny – expressed in profane Australian vernacular – is central to the ocker culture portrayed in The Removalists, and other 'New Wave' plays.
Had The Removalists simply criticised police brutality with ocker male characters who swore and punched each other, it would remain an important Australian play, exemplifying the 'New Wave' shift from European to Australian stories on-stage. But its wider critique of violence – authoritarian and sexist – triggered by social conditioning, together with a sophisticated structure that leaves its audience uncomfortably tugged between realism and satire, grant it distinction. We are repeatedly prompted to laugh in proximity to violence; indeed, the play's most violent characters, Simmonds and Kenny, are its most amusing. There are moments of physical comedy and farce, exemplified by Kenny's 'second death'. As Ross and Simmonds scream at each other for killing Kenny, he drags himself back in and lights a cigarette: 'Did you two pricks think you did me?' The play's most violent moment is also its funniest. The Removalists is structured into a 'series of emotional peaks [violence], releases [comedy]' that never allow the audience to rest in one genre. During the play's first run, Brian Kiernan writes, the 'audience would be laughing one minute and stunned by Sergeant Simmonds' violence the next, some even crying. One night ... a young man rose from the audience, approached the stage and pleaded with [Simmonds] to stop beating' Kenny.
This interplay of comedy and realism produces a highly accomplished satire: the play speaks directly to its viewers by portraying recognisable Australian characters; it reveals aberrant social behaviour requiring correction; it makes us laugh, yet sickens us by drawing us into their violence; and it has wider application than the era of its creation. Both 'a celebration and criticism of Australian society', The Removalists is far more complex than a play about 1970s police brutality. It digs at the heart of our human relationship with violence. It reveals 'the beast within'.
Casey, Maryrose. 'Australian Drama Since 1970', A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (2007), edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer.
Fitzpatrick, Peter. Williamson: Australian Drama Series (1987).
Kennedy, Dennis (ed). The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance (2010).
Kiernan, Brian. David Williamson: A Writer's Career (1996).
Sammut, Elvira. 'Sugared Placebos'? The Effects of Satire and Farce in the Plays of David Williamson, PhD Thesis, Victoria University (2008).
Tobin, Meryl. 'David Williamson: Playwright – A Profile', Westerly no. 20:2 (June 1975).
Wilde, William H., Hooton, Joy, and Andrews, Barry (eds). The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994, online 2005).
Williamson, David. Collected Plays: Volume 1 (1986).
Williamson, David. 'The Removalists: A Conjunction of Limitations', Meanjin Quarterly no. 33:4, (December 1974).
Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (ed). Australian Playwrights: David Williamson (1988).
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- Custom Article Title Reading Australia: 'The Removalists' by David Williamson
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Dimboola's title is a great start to the play that was first performed in 1969. It belongs nowhere but in Australia. At the same time, not many people can claim to have lived there or to know someone from Dimboola. Indigenous? Maybe. And where is Dimboola? You drive through it on your way to somewhere else. It's in Victoria, out where all the roads are signposted 'so many km to Melbourne'.
There is a comic sound to it. It takes an effort to imagine King Lear in Dimboola.
So – make-believe territory. What have we on our plate, our stage, this evening? A marriage has taken place. An ordinary young man marries an ordinary young woman. Not make-believe. People continue to get married and give their children in marriage and attend the weddings, despite breakaways from convention. What could possibly be remarkable about a small-town marriage, attended by both pairs of parents, the priest, best man, bridesmaid and flower girl, an uncle and aunt and cousin of the bride, a couple of local characters, and two musos?
Many of the characters think that this should be a special day for the bride and bridegroom: an orderly ceremony should be followed by a wedding banquet held in an atmosphere of goodwill. But people have different ideas – religious, convivial – of what is proper. They nurture opinions, obsessions, likings, and resentments that are usually concealed or expressed only as confidences.
There is a contradiction at the heart of this. Personality is one concept of the individual. An individual may be angry, tired, vain, delighted, interested in various ways in those round about. But personality, at a ceremony, is set aside and none of these feelings is expressed. At a coronation the actual characters of the monarch, the celebrants, and the front-row witnesses are not on display. They are lay figures deployed in a program, speaking set texts, performing symbolic acts, obeying the prescribed order in processional approaches to, and departures from, the site of the ceremony. It is the crowd outside who are free to ooh and ah, scream, laugh, cry, dig one another in the ribs, point, throw flowers. To push forward. To give up and go home.
So where are we – at a ceremony or in the crowd? The contradiction is right there in the play: we have moved from the formal and religious moments to the aftermath, and the spirit of the community can assert itself. We see many of the performers become witnesses, commentators. They still have set roles, but is that all? Temptation is strong – opportunities for display, the urge to respond to provocations.
Let's think about Dimboola as narrative. One storyline is provided by the banquet: greetings at the door, with guests (some uninvited) arriving and then the bridal couple. Some guests enter late. Toasts, dinner courses and speeches should follow in set order, and performances – a song, dances. The waiters circulate with food and dishes. Much of this movement depends on the resources. Does the director have sufficient numbers for such a large cast (sixteen named characters), let alone the band and catering staff?
Seated at tables, moving dishes, sampling food, emptying glasses, the named cast offer their speeches and actions to a seated audience, who may or may not think of themselves as extra guests. This play's action might well move into the audience; indeed, when Bayonet and Mutton 'appropriate to themselves a small table in among the body of guests', are these the paying guests, the audience, or additional 'guests' on stage? We can guess at another closing of the gap between acting company and audience: extras might be recruited from the town that is the site of performance.
It is obvious that all the turmoil of table service, with increasingly disorderly behaviour by the bridal party, does not form a single strong storyline. As we look at the relationships and ideas explored in this play, we must keep asking ourselves: what, besides a wedding banquet, is it all about?
Things start ominously, with a sexual crack at the bride by the best man and her own father. Before everyone is seated, we become aware that the bridegroom, whether dim-witted, nervous, or drunk, is unable to utter more than a repeated, uninspired phrase every few minutes. The presence of Bayonet and Mutton upsets the mothers, who know what to expect from these old mates of Knocka and Darkie. Along with best man, Dangles, and even, it turns out later, Father O'Shea, their main interest is the drinks.
The next revelation is the reciprocated antagonism of unmarried Aggie towards the two gatecrashers. By the time Horrie arrives, drunk and swaying on his feet, the talk is combative and largely pro-drink, anti-authority, shushed in vain by the women. Horrie, despite his perfunctory apology to his wife, Mavis, for belching, takes a seat with the two reprobates. The two mothers and the bridesmaid attempt to return to sweetness and light, congratulating the bride ('You'll never be happier than this, love') – a preface to flower girl Astrid's song and tap dance. The audience can anticipate stormy moments ahead.
In the following conversation, bridegroom Morrie, encouraged by the older men to be masterful but also to treat marriage as a mistake, changes his signature phrase ('No worries'), and Horrie enters his natural mode, performance. Anticipating the arrival of respected Dr Silverside (the drunks call him 'Porterhouse' and 'Liverwurst') and reflecting that 'It's no funeral' is the best solace the women can find as the dogfight escalates between Aggie and the gatecrashers. Even the bride's attempt to see things going well is succeeded by suggestions that the best man should seduce the bridesmaid. Meanwhile 'Slow Boat to China' is followed by 'Red River Valley', no doubt Horrie's usual contributions. By this time, the text gives evidence of divergent interests:
Florence: We're terribly sorry, Father.
Father O'Shea: They're not worrying me.
Astrid: Mummy, I want to have a wee.
Mavis: Shhh! Don't tell the world.
Mutton: A toast to the Queen!
Bayonet: I wish to pay my respects to the Colonel.
Florence: Father O'Shea is the Master of Ceremonies. Let him run things.
Mutton: May she have many more!
Upon Father O'Shea's entry with the astonishing word 'Dickies', religious rifts open up. Aggie's preference, the protestant Reverend Potts of St Basil's, is straightaway labelled an abuser of choir boys, culminating in Bayonet's limerick where the subject is avoided by labelling the 'uncontrollable fire' arson. O'Shea's comments ('a purple-pissing Protestant', 'a parsimonious Pom') call forth the Scots in Horrie and Angus's suggestion that the reverend should apologise. O'Shea's three words of Latin, 'ite missa est' ('it/he was sent forth', i.e. 'I've said my piece') are rightly treated as suspect, whereupon the fathers-in-law, protestant McAdam and catholic Delaney, start a fight, only to be escorted out by Dangles, to encouragements from Bayonet and Mutton and Horrie's rendition of 'South of the Border'.
'We have moved from the formal and religious moments to the aftermath, and the spirit of the community can assert itself'
At this moment of maximum indecorum – Maureen (crying): 'It's awful, what a wedding' – let's pause to ask, why the double-naming (given and nicknames)? Without actors to clarify, it's almost as puzzling as names in a Russian novel. But we should look further. 'Bayonet' and possibly 'Mutton' might come from war-service (note mention of 'the Colonel'). Morrie, Reen, Florrie, Horrie, and the McAdam women have stayed close to their given names. Darcy's 'Darkie' may well be just imitative, or it may hint at the unspeakable 'touch of the tar' of which Mutton is accused. 'Knocka' is ready for a fight; 'Dangles's' sexual prowess, or the reverse, has already been canvassed. Perhaps the men's mateship rituals have sent them in pursuit of apt names.
Father O'Shea, 'Master of Ceremonies', scores a fine moment, stepping out to pee just as Horrie promotes him to 'your grace'. Horrie as compère manages a welcome, but arguments continue, Dangles making suggestions to Shirl, the drunks catching Aggie out with a sherry bottle ('non-alcoholic'), and the women still hoping for Dr Silverside's arrival – he with a 'mind like a box Brownie – speaks Italian, Spanial, Cretin, Greek and Aboriginal'. This list fixes the historical moment of massive 1960s Greek and Italian immigration as well as a vestige of not-respectful interest in indigenes. After which, the main course and the Bridal Waltz mark a kind of first act interval.
The remainder of the play is a progression through celebrations of sex and marriage, and the speeches. Horrie takes the floor to praise the band-leader, and tries to maintain a disc-jockey presence against increasing disapproval. This even wins him a moment of wifely support from Mavis. His attempts are swamped first by the priest's increasing drunkennness and the exposure of his interest in sex, highlighted in the song 'In Ireland, old Ireland'. Next, Mutton and Bayonet dominate the scene, mingling tales of their lives with two seven-line 'husband and wife' plays, and songs. It is interesting that the centrepiece of the play is performed by supposedly its least responsible and thoughtful characters.
An interruption! Here is Leonardo Radish, reporter, just arrived from Mildura to cover the event. Radish is introduced to various members of the wedding party. With many of them rushing off to obey the demands of nature, Radish delivers a tirade of disgust, denouncing at length the drunkenness and vulgarity he is witnessing. The result? Both the ladies and their menfolk turn on him. He is forcibly turfed out by Dangles, the unofficial bouncer. End of Act Two! And 'Danny Boy' is Horrie's salute to the occasion – back on track.
By now we have surely recognised the method in this play: it is episodic. The short exchanges, each engaging in its own way, using anything from two to half a dozen of the cast, are interspersed with 'entertainments'. Nonetheless there is a larger structure built from these glimpses of local manners. Initial disagreements end in a fight. Comments on sex and marriage end when a denouncer, a guardian of manners – if you like, a media exorcist – is defrocked and evicted. Whatever this wedding is, it will be conducted as its participants decide.
'Temptation is strong – opportunities for display, the urge to respond to provocations'
The speeches follow a prescribed course. The priest may be drunk, he may have forgotten the names of the married couple ('Daphne', 'Boris'), he may at moments forget what kind of gathering he is addressing, but he finally recovers a sense of occasion and utters sentiments that resemble what's fitting. After interference from the outside world – the unfortunate Radish – the company's jeering has given way to loyal support. The inarticulate bridegroom is coaxed through a few words of appreciation, followed by 'Why was he born so beautiful'. The best man predictably turns out to be eloquent on the subject of his poor mate, ensnared by woman's wiles. Both fathers-in-law deliver suitable short speeches (the circus is winding down). As the party breaks up, Aggie falls into Bayonet's embrace, Mutton guys the bride, and the mates go off together. Finally, to the tune of 'The Sheik of Araby', stuffy spinster Aggie takes what's left – Father O'Shea.
Scandal and respectability, dumbfoundedness and eloquence, hilarity and disgust are inextricably tangled in Dimboola. This play is pre-eminently an entertainment, offering plenty of opportunity for audience participation and emotional response. Like many of the best 1970s plays associated with Melbourne's La Mama theatre and the Pram Factory, it displays manners which are utterly Australian and often less than dignified. You can track its relatives back to 1890s Lawson, Goodge and Ogilvie, and forward to current stage and television social comedy. Behind the near-caricatures of a drunken occasion and its challenging clash of beliefs and manners, we can see the characters as they would be in controlled, less partisan moments, as pillars of society or its less-regulated elements. There is absolutely no disputing their reality.
If the town Dimboola had no other tribute, it should appreciate this carnival celebration of Australian humanity.
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- Custom Article Title Reading Australia: 'Dimboola' by Jack Hibberd
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The slap that I wanted to deliver with that book was to a culture in Australia that had literally made me sick, sick to the stomach. A middle class culture that struck me as incredibly selfish and ungenerous … I wanted to try and write a book ... that represented that culture. And to do that, honestly, I had to put myself in the middle of it. I also had to put my Greekness in the middle of that book. Because I didn’t feel separate from the things that were disgusting me.
Christos Tsiolkas, Journal of Intercultural Studies 2013
Born in Australia in 1965 to parents who had emigrated from Greece, Christos Tsiolkas grew up in suburban, working-class Melbourne. His name first became familiar to Australian readers during the ‘grunge lit’ period of the 1990s. His first novel Loaded (1995) was often cited as one of grunge lit’s key texts, along with Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995) and Andrew McGahan’s Praise (1992): novels written in blunt language about the lives of disaffected people, more or less young and more or less angry, whose lives revolve around sex and drugs and who seem to have no legitimate – or legitimised – place in a society they mostly despise and reject.
Loaded, published when Tsiolkas was only thirty, was generally regarded as semi-autobiographical and deals with a young gay Greek man in flight from the values and constraints of his society and his family. Since then Tsiolkas has cemented his reputation as a novelist of uncompromising political and moral seriousness, a ruthless examiner of the effects of middle-class values and capitalist society on individual lives. The Slap (2008) is his fourth novel; since then he has published a fifth, Barracuda (2013), and a collection of short stories, Merciless Gods (2015). He is also an essayist and screenwriter, and has worked collaboratively with directors, photographers, and other writers.
Most of Tsiolkas’s books to date have been longlisted or shortlisted for multiple prizes and Loaded was adapted as a feature film, Head On, in 1998. But The Slap was a breakout success, establishing his international reputation: in Australia it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, and the Australian Booksellers Association Book of the Year award; internationally it was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Man Booker Prize, and winner in the Overall Best Book category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In an appreciative and prescient review of the novel when it was first published near the end of 2008, writer and critic Gerard Windsor foresaw the television adaptation: ‘The Slap cries out to be made into an eight-part mini-series.’ And it was, very successfully, in 2011.
‘The Slap was a breakout success, establishing his international reputation’
Written as an exploratory snapshot of suburban Australian society during the Howard years, The Slap features eight main characters who are interconnected in the strange molecule-like way of so many urban and suburban tribes, a combination of social, familial, and workplace groups. While the mode of this novel is uncomplicated and unrelenting realism, and while all the characters more or less fit under the large umbrella of the category ‘middle class’, the cast of major and minor characters seems deliberately and schematically multicultural and multi-ethnic: Anglo-Celtic Australians or ‘skips’ (short for Skippy, as in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo) are in a small minority, while the ethnic and religious identities of other characters include Greek, Indian, Serb, Aboriginal, Jewish, and Muslim. One implication of this is that Australian society has now progressed beyond self-conscious multiculturalism, and that multi-ethnicity, with all its complications, is now the norm and a true cosmopolitanism the ideal.
Hector, the character more or less at the centre of the group, is a Greek-Australian man whose birthday party provides the occasion from which the plot unfurls. His wife Aisha is a beautiful, tough-minded vet, one of a trio of female friends who go much further back in her life than her marriage: she has been friends with Rosie and Anouk since they were teenagers back home in Perth. Hector’s cousin Harry is a brash, sometimes brutish, businessman who owns and runs a chain of auto repair shops, and Hector’s father Manolis is an elderly Greek man who emigrated to Australia when young and who finds contemporary Australian society bewildering in its superficiality and selfishness. Connie is an orphaned schoolgirl who works on weekends at Aisha’s surgery and fancies herself in love with Hector, whose reciprocal sexual interest in her is established on the first page; and Richie, son of Aisha’s vet nurse, is a shy gay teenager and Connie’s best friend.
All of these people, plus assorted spouses, partners and children, are present at Hector’s birthday backyard barbecue. Hugo, the spoiled three-year-old son of Rosie and her husband Gary, has been annoying the other children all afternoon and eventually throws a massive tantrum when declared out in a game of backyard cricket. He is about to hit Harry’s son Rocco with his bat when Harry sees him and descends on him, lifting him into the air. Hugo kicks out viciously, and Harry, who is given to easy rage and not very interested in controlling it, gives Hugo a resounding slap.
And from this moment, each of these eight main characters proceeds to some sort of internal crisis, as the fallout from the slap continues to destabilise their lives. Rosie, whose excessive outrage hints from the outset at some history of instability or guilt, dubs Harry ‘the monster’, refers to the slap as ‘bashing’, calls the police, refuses to accept the belated apology that Harry is eventually persuaded to offer, and in general appears increasingly unhinged. Aisha, repelled by Harry’s violence to a small child and stubbornly loyal to Rosie, is nonetheless torn by her loyalty to Hector and his family, a response that is complicated by her own sexual adventures elsewhere. Anouk, accidentally pregnant at forty-three to a boyfriend little more than half her age, is already ambivalent about the pregnancy and is further put off the whole idea of having children by the protracted trouble over the slap and its aftermath. Everyone is affected: loyalties are divided, friendships stretched to breaking point, and values called into question.
The Slap was inspired by a real-life incident that Tsiolkas calls ‘a gift’:
I attended a barbecue at my parents’ house … A friend’s young son was playing at my mother’s feet as she was rushing around her small kitchen. She kept telling him to stop [but] at one point he opened up a cupboard and upset pots and saucepans all over the kitchen floor. My mother, exasperated, turned around, lifted the boy and gave him the most gentle of smacks on his bum … he placed his hands on his hips, looked up at my mother and said, ‘Don’t! No one has the right to touch my body without my permission.’
Tsiolkas is at pains to point out that his mother’s admonitory tap on the bottom had nothing in it of the violence and rage that animates Harry in the novel when he strikes the shocked Hugo, and that the real child’s mother, like everyone else present, had found the incident funny. But he identifies that moment as the beginning of the writing process:
all I could think of was the look of incomprehension on my mother’s face and the boy’s face when they were staring at each other. The adult … was raised in a Balkan village where women were denied education … The young boy was being raised in a world where gender, sexuality, childhood and adulthood were in a constant state of change. How to make sense of both of these experiences of Australia … of what was now middle-class life, of what was suburbia? I had the beginning of my novel … I had been handed a gift.
The novel is divided into eight sections, one for each of the main characters, and the switches from one character’s point of view to the next keep the plot motoring along. This structural insistence on individual consciousness and point of view, keeping one character at a time before the reader’s eyes, may seem an unexpected technique for a writer so concerned with the tides and currents of society; but his exploration of individual behaviours and beliefs is a way of showing how certain social values come to prevail, and how individual failures – of generosity, of loyalty, of patience, or simply of nerve – can rip holes in the social fabric.
A common assumption about this novel is that the colloquial, easy-to-read, and often rough and clichéd prose style is simply a weakness in Tsiolkas’s writing. But there is something more complex going on: Tsiolkas makes extensive use of the narrative technique called free indirect discourse, a style that mimics the voice of a character without actually using first-person narration or the mode of direct speech. In her review of Tsiolkas’s 2015 short story collection Merciless Gods, Susan Lever offers an incisive critique of this mode of narration and its limitations:
[Tsiolkas] holds to a discipline of sympathy with his characters, no matter how repellent they may be, and restricts his own verbal range to the limits of their vocabularies. It is a serious inhibition for a writer to accept, as it reduces so much of his fiction to the platitudes and obscenities of shallow characters.
The platitudes and obscenities are nonetheless there for serious aesthetic and ideological reasons: the comparisons that come to mind here are with the Scottish writers James Kelman and Irvine Welsh and Ireland’s Roddy Doyle.
But Lever’s comments also point to an internal contradiction in this kind of writing: the technique of writing from within the characters’ own verbal limitations invariably limits what can be made explicit in prose – especially in prose whose primary purpose is to communicate complex ideas. And this is not the only internal contradiction in the book: Tsiolkas sets conflicting ideas and values against each other all through the story. This technique is at its most obvious in the pivotal moment when Harry slaps Hugo: the reactions of the novel’s characters, as indeed of its readers, are evenly distributed along a spectrum whose extremes are ‘The man is a monster’ and ‘The brat had it coming.’ The urgency and energy of The Slap comes largely from such sites of conflict and rupture, and the critic James Ley has pointed out one of them in a long review of the novel:
Much of the energy of [Tsiolkas’s] writing is generated by the friction between a frustrated idealism of the left, which sets itself against inequality and exploitation and prejudice, and a tough-minded realism that wants to insist upon the regressive impulses that perpetuate these social evils.
Other such tensions include the opposition set up in the novel between the critique of individualism and the emphasis on identity politics – of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class. But the most problematic of these, and perhaps the least deliberate, is the dilemma posed by this novel for female readers and feminist critics. Many female readers find the female characters unconvincing, especially when it comes to their sexual behaviour and responses. But this is an admittedly subjective view and there is no way of proving or disproving it. And Aisha, Rosie, Connie and Anouk, different as they are, all escape many of the fates that have traditionally befallen female characters in fiction written by men. They have social and sexual autonomy and agency; they are given equal air time; and they are not represented either as projections of male fantasies about women, or as relative and secondary characters whose function in the story is subordinate to that of the boys and men.
But a more troublesome aspect of The Slap for feminist critics is that while it sets its face against inequality of all kinds, and while Tsiolkas is clearly sympathetic to feminism in a general way, the only two characters in whom any sort of moral authority resides are both traditional patriarchs. Manolis is an old Greek man with an old Greek man’s values, and Bilal is an Aboriginal convert to Islam and clearly the formal head of his family. Tsiolkas has said that Manolis is his favourite character – ‘the one character that I am really glad that I wrote is Manolis, the old man in The Slap, because that’s what I’m trying to say’ – and that it is Bilal who ‘delivers the real slap in the book’. The real slap, says Tsiolkas, and it is for him ‘the centre of the book’, is contained in Bilal’s words to Rosie: ‘You’re no good. Your people, your world is no good. I don’t want you to have anything to do with my family. I don’t want you to have anything to do with my life.’
The common failing in these characters is the selfishness that propels so much of their behaviour. It comes in different forms: material, sexual, familial, and social, manifesting in such things as Harry’s snobbery about suburbs and pride in expensive household goods, or Rosie’s maternal self-indulgence at the expense of everyone else including the child in question, or the indifference to the plight of the world’s poor and marginalised that is shown by most of the characters. When Geraldine Doogue asked Tsiolkas in 2011 on ABC TV’s Compass what an ideal Australia would look like for his generation, he replied:
It would certainly be an Australia that would be much more thankful. … I would say, ‘Stop bloody whinging. Stop complaining. Stop wanting more. Stop thinking it’s all about the frigging plasma screen and stop thinking that a few thousand boat people [are] going to do anything to change what you have.’ I will say that’s what I would want for Australia.
Compass. ‘Christos Tsiolkas: Man Behind The Slap’. ABC TV, 9 October 2011.
Lever, Susan. ‘Christos Tsiolkas’s Severely Confined Art’. Australian Book Review no. 368 (2015)
Ley, James. ‘A Furious Moralist’. Australian Book Review no. 306 (2008)
Papastergiadis, Nikos. ‘Hospitality, Multiculturalism and Cosmopolitanism: A Conversation Between Christos Tsiolkas and Nikos Papastergiadis’. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 34:4, (2013)
Tsiolkas, Christos. ‘Guardian Book Club: Christos Tsiolkas on how he wrote The Slap’. The Guardian, 17 January 2014
Windsor, Gerard. ‘When the Smoke Clears’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 2008
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- Custom Article Title Kerryn Goldsworthy on 'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas
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