Heat and Light

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You may have noticed that maintaining this blog is a thing which sometimes I rock at, and sometimes I fail at. It should come as no surprise that I find it difficult to carve out time to reflect and to write – even to read, really – while traipsing around Europe.

Heat and Light was the second book I read for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, two weeks ago now (!). I managed somehow to cram it into a singe weekend, in between saying goodbye to England and hello to Holland, sitting on my great-aunts’ couch on a cloudy day, reading about sparkling sunshine and a possible future and people having to live with terrible truths.

Heat and Light is separated into three parts: Heat introduces a family, one by one, sharing their experiences and the way they fit into the world. I was struck by my own colourblindness: I could not forget that these characters were indigenous, and it occurred to me that if these characters’ identities hadn’t been as clearly defined as they were, I would have assumed they were white, and slipped into the stories without so much as a peep. As it was, I struggled to connect my comfortable, solidly-middle-class white-girl world with the world that van Neerven’s characters had to live in; to connect with the fact that these experiences were occurring, are occurring, just outside my periphery.

Water shows a possible future; one where a Prime Minister has been elected whose platform is the plight of the Indigenous population, but who herself is so removed from the problem that building an island to ship them off to seems like the perfect solution. Also in this future are strange, humanoid creatures springing from the islands that ring the Top End, with faces and voices and who are literally connected to the ground that they spring from. Van Neerven explores the mutability of sexuality when her protagonist falls in love with one of these creatures; Larapinta is delicate and feminine, but they are not female, do not have gender the way humans perceive it. Yet the protagonist falls in love with them, is attracted to them, anyway. I want to be flippant and say something about van Neerven taking pansexuality to a whole new level, but this love story is too tender to be treated so.

Light is the last section of the book; where perhaps Heat showed where its characters were coming from, Light shows where they are going; where they have the potential to go. Each story in Light is a moment hanging suspended in time; from here, the characters each have choices to make, futures which could be opening for them if they only turned in that direction. At the risk of sounding flowery, each moment in Light was like a pearl on a string, glinting in the sunlight, full of endless potential.

That’s the thing I love about short stories. Each of them is more than its parts, making you aware of the before and after, the unwritten, in a much more visceral way than anything longer ever does. Heat and Light is a beautiful book, and I’d easily recommend it is foy love short stories, Australian fiction, or simply a good read.

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Blood

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The point of reading widely – of reading at all, really, but especially of reading widely – is to engage in as many experiences different to your own as possible. It’s why I joined the Queer Book Club this week, why I continue to read books from as many different countries and time periods as possible. But I never really properly appreciated the true value of wide reading until I participated in ANZ LitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.

I elected to read Tony Birch’s Blood, a novel I’d had on my bookcase since about 2012; and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories that I hadn’t managed to get to for July’s Queer Book Club. I’m only a little way into Heat and Light, but I’m going to call it now and say that both of these books were wonderful, and so challenging in ways I’d never anticipated.

Blood is about Jesse and Rachel, and their life on and off the road with their mum Gwen, who can’t seem to keep a boyfriend or a job, but who for all her terrible decision-making skills loves her kids too much to be away from them. It’s about Jesse trying to find his place in a world where he’s only ever a visitor, and toying with the terrible choice between being free of his mum and leaving his little sister behind.

The book opens with Jesse in police custody, his custody officer trying to convince him to tell her what has happened. What follows is an account of his life, the decisions he’d made and the decisions Gwen has made that led their little misfit family to the point where the book begins. When I finished the book I actually had to go back and re-read the prologue a few times, just to be sure that I understood the way the books event’s progressed chronologically, because what actually happened was nothing like what I imagined had happened.

Jesse’s voice is brilliant, clear and eloquent but not overly sophisticated for the twelve-year-old he’s supposed to be. He describes places and situations in a way that rings true, and having driven around Australia a bit I had no trouble picturing the roadsides and landscapes they passed through. Jesse is also just rude enough to his sister and to Gwen that you never feel like he’s unreliable as a narrator – but I had the idea that if the book were to continue, the lies might just start to pour out.

I’m not sure whether it was because it’s a road trip novel, and that’s pretty much the way I’ve experienced Australia myself, but I really related to Blood on a level that surprised me. I could see the drying paddocks and small sleepy towns as they rolled past Gwen’s little car, imagine the sort of dilapidated houses the little family would stay in as the sorts of houses you see alone on the outskirts of a town. On some levels Blood talked about the Australia that I know, the one that I’ve experienced myself.

On the other hand, there are parts of Jesse’s experience that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. After all, the driving he did with Gwen and Rachel wasn’t a holiday, it was their whole life. Every time he was introduced to an adult that he came to trust, Gwen sent them away, looking for greener pastures. His father, a character who we never actually meet (for reasons that become apparent as Gwen moves from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever looking back), was an Aborigine, a fact which is only brought up a couple of times but which clearly affects the relationships he’s able to build with the people he meets.

Because it’s only mentioned once or twice, Jesse’s heritage is a subtle thing, but it made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which I view society – the way I automatically cast every character I meet as white, usually with dark hair, and with emphasis on each event and action which demonstrates their intelligence – in other words, a reflection of the way I see myself. I was struck recently by a post I saw on the internet which stated that there is no truly open casting for film roles – if a character’s heritage isn’t explicitly stated, it’s assumed to be white, and so casting is only opened to white characters. It’s assumed that for a character to be something other than white – Aboriginal, Indian, Native American, Ethiopian – there needs to be a reason, something central to the story. The default character is white, and as much as I was disgusted by that idea when I read that post, that’s also how I read characters myself.

And that’s why I try to participate in things like ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week – these events challenge the way we read, encouraging us to read better, more openly, with more consciousness of the way we see the world and all the characters in it.

A Mother’s Disgrace

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I have this thing that memoirs should be about people with interesting lives. No; I think that the best memoirs are about people with interesting lives. I can’t decide if this one fits the bill. Robert Dessaix has had a fairly humdrum life, but out of that humdrum life has come a plethora of interesting ideas, and he seems to know it. His memoir, A Mother’s Disgrace, isn’t driven by his loving suburban upbringing or his years studying Russian in Moscow or even his reconnection, late in life, with the birth mother who gave him up as a baby. No, Dessaix’s memoir is driven by the thoughts and ideas that surround and connect these events, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

So he doesn’t detail the everyday existence of his happy nuclear family and their frankly ordinary lives. No, he talks about his father’s love of language, the way he’d sit on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and a French-English dictionary, something he did for his whole life because he never quite grasped it. Then he talks about how his father’s love of language, love of words, led to his own close examination of language and syntax, the way that in creating his own private language (as children often do), Dessaix began from an early age to inspect words from all possible angles, to discover that even though they use the same words, the meaning construed in “I love you” and “I love pizza” are completely different, and entirely built on context – both syntactical and cultural.

The topics Dessaix covers in A Mother’s Disgrace are many and varied – smuggling Western culture into sixties Russia; the burgeoning Sydney gay scene of the seventies; inherited versus learned characteristics (after realising that he carried himself the same way that his half-brother, whom he’d never met, did), and much more. I can’t say it’s much as a memoir, but as a collection of thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, inspired by the events of his life – it’s en excellent read, and worth a try if you’re the kind of shower thinker who’s ever wondered if you’d have turned out different if <insert differing circumstance here>.

Queer Book Club

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At the beginning of this year, I went to this year’s Queer Book Salon, put on by Readings as part of Midsumma in January.

It was excellent. I heard about an author who writes historical romances, ensuring that the lesbians who were always there got their turn in the spotlight. I heard about the plethora of gay men who are well known for their writings, and considered the idea that being gay does affect your writing – even if you’re not writing romance stories.

Which, when I think about it, is kind of obvious. I mean, of course the fundamentals of who you are and who you love affect your writing. My writing is as affected by the fact that I’m straight but confused as it is by the fact that I’m white and a woman and grew up Catholic.

I was so struck by this that I decided to join Readings’ Queer Book Club this year; once a month, for ten months, we’d get together and read books by and about queer people, and discuss them in an open environment. I loved this idea of getting to know the culture I felt I was being thrust into, of experiencing more of the issues and feelings and ideas that queer people have.

Reading that sentence, you might feel a bit uncomfortable. Like I’m treating queer people like I might treat French culture, or Arabic, or Jewish. Foreign and worth studying, for their differences as well as their sameness. Well guess what – I realised that as well.

We were discussing Holding the Man, Tim Conigan’s memoir of love and AIDS, and I was struck by this feeling that I was being a total voyeur. Sure, I had good intentions – how could I be a good partner to a queer person if I didn’t understand what they were facing? But that’s not how it ended up. It ended up with me retreating even further into my heterosexuality, knowing that in this situation, I could be an ally, but I would always be Other.

I’ve only been back once since that session – too afraid to say what I think, lest it be wrong or offensive. I feel like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, invading safe spaces for my own voyeuristic pleasure. I don’t even really read the books anymore – it’s taking me longer to be able to pick them up, to shake off this unease and remind myself that it’s just a book and your intentions are honorable. Now that I have the idea in my head, though – all I can think is the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

So far, I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read as part of my queer book club. They’re all great stories about interesting people, trailblazing and honest and just great writers and characters. Self-consciousness aside, being in this book club has enabled me to read more widely than I have before, given me a vehicle for motivation, great recommendations, and encouraged me to challenge my reading in a way that I might not have otherwise had the energy to this year. So yeah, it’s been a great seven months, and I’m looking forward to the last three.

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What I really wanted to say with this post was that you may notice a new queer book club tag floating around. I think it’s important to branch out in one’s reading, to pick up books you might not have otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have picked up any of the tagged books without the prompting of the book club. So if you’re looking for something a little different, but essentially the same, click on the queer book club tag and see how you go from there.

Bad Behaviour

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Reading Bad Behaviour was like reading Looking for Alibrandi for the first time. Here was a book that was about an Australian teenager, going to school in a system that I recognised, experiencing an adolescence that was actually somewhat like my own.

Bad Behaviour is Rebecca Starford’s memoir of her time in the abovementioned year-long separation from the world. You know how high school is like real life in a microcosm? Well this Year 10 program seems to be high school in a microcosm. It seemed like Starford was stuck on a year-long camp with her entire year level, and let me tell you, a week out in the bush hiking and bonding with my peers was plenty long enough for me.

Everything about this book rang true to my experience of secondary school. I lived in the country, so the warped gum trees and dry grasses and bitter, foggy cold of winter mornings was all so familiar to me, it was like actually being back in Year 9. As I was reading – particularly the first few chapters, where Starford introduces the school and the landscape and the girls – I was thinking, yes. This is what school was actually like for me. After years of reading as much YA as I could get my hands on, finally I’d found a book written by someone who was like me, who’d had my experiences. None of this casual-clothes-wearing, A-Level-fretting business that goes on in English and American YA novels. Bad Behaviour was a book that I actually connected with.

The book starts explosively, with the kind of prank that actually made my stomach drop with secondhand fear. From there it’s mostly chronological, and Starford doesn’t shy away from the nastier and more confusing aspects of adolescence – getting bullied by the popular girls, doing out-of-character things to get your peers to like you, worrying about being called a baby just because you were a little homesick.

In Bad Behaviour, Starford looks at that one defining year of her adolescence – and let’s face it, Year 9 is a pretty defining year in most peoples’ lives – and how it affected the rest of her life. How her willingness to compromise her principles and side with the bullies, to check herself and get bullied in return; how her attempts to reach out to her mother, tempered by long silences from both ends; all added up to shape the woman she became.

It’s an interesting thought. When I was in Year 9, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was terrified that I’d never get a boyfriend. I spent hours upon hours reading the same books alone in my room. Now, I’m in law school. I’ve been in a relationship for ten years. And I blog about books, because I still spend hours upon hours reading alone in my room.

Bad Behaviour rang true for me because it’s set in my world. It discusses the very true fact that fourteen is when we start becoming who we are, and how the experiences we have at that age shape the adults we become.

Adventures in the queer East

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I’ve been struggling to write about Benjamin Law’s Gaysia since I finished it over two months ago. It’s not that I disliked it – quite the opposite, in fact – just that, as a work of nonfiction that deals with difficult truths, I found it difficult to read.

I’ll happily admit that I live in a veritable gilded cage. I’m white, cis, female, and middle-class, and I’ve never not been any of those things. I was talking about this with my sister at lunch yesterday, and she pointed out that the only way she (we) could be more privileged would be if we were male. Which brings it’s own set of problems, because sometimes (oh, poor little rich girl!) it’s hard to check your privilege when you can’t see around it.

Gaysia made me confront some truths that my middle-class, white, Australian upbringing would have me gloss over. That lgbt+ equality is about more than marriage rights – it’s about the right to survive, and to thrive. The fact that there were sweet and funny and charming anecdotes slotted in with the sad, hard truths doesn’t mean that when I think about Gaysia, I think about the utter invisibility of Japanese lesbians or the handful of slang terms Myanmar gays have for contracting HIV.

The book itself was funny, and charming, and utterly truthful. Sitting down to read it was like sitting down with a friend and hearing them tell you about their adventures overseas, mysterious illnesses and exhaustion included. Law works hard to demonstrate that gay communities are thriving throughout Southeast Asia, often in spite of what we in Australia would consider draconian laws and crippling social stigma. If you’re at all interested in queer culture, Southeast Asia, or nonfiction that opens your eyes and doesn’t let you forget how the world really works, I’d strongly recommend it.

Literary identity and my favourite genres

I love American fiction.

It’s clean, and smart, and utterly unselfconscious. It doesn’t care about making a point or trying to represent anything or being anything other than what it is – great stories told unselfconsciously.

I find, often, that writers of other nationalities feel like they have something to prove – or maybe that’s just me. There’s such a rich European literary tradition that I feel like a lot of writers feel like they have something grand to live up to. Which, on some levels, is true, but ultimately unimportant. Great stories will stand up on their own, whether they sound like James Joyce or JK Rowling. If you love words, it doesn’t matter in whose tradition they’re written. There’s joy in them anyway.

I think this is part of my problematic relationship with Australian fiction. As an Australian, I feel like I should be comfortable in the Australian canon, loving the books that led me to where I am as both an aspiring writer and avid reader. But there’s so many layers to this that it’s hard to separate where I’m going and what I(‘m allowed to) love, so let me see if I can.

Australian fiction, in my experience, is very self-conscious. Sometime in the last couple of centuries writers like AB Patterson and Henry Lawson and Patrick White and Kate Grenville convinced us that to be Australian, a work must be Australian, true-blue Aussie, with the bush and the slang and the red dirt and gum trees that every single person on this planet thinks of when they think the word Australia. There’s a lot problematic with this view of Australian fiction, I know, and I’m trying to branch out, but the truth is that Australian fiction makes me self-conscious. I feel like I have to like it, otherwise how can I call myself an Aussie?, and that’s no way to read anything. Ever.

On the other hand, literature as it’s taught here is very Euro- and American-centric. You know what I studied in high school literature? Shakespeare. Plath. Steinbeck. Doctorow. Okay, we did Thea Astley’s Hunting the Wild Pineapple and “Australian poetry” (loosely defined and crammed into the space of a couple of disorganised weeks), but the emphasis was definitely not local fiction. Even in our universities literature courses are Euro-centric – if you want to study something local, you have to take Australian Literature. Is there an American Literature course you have to take if you want to study American literature in the US? I doubt it. Australia as a whole is so outwardly-focussed, so insecure, that we can’t even study our own culture without drawing attention to the fact that it’s ours. We’re so wrapped up in red dirt and gum trees that we’ve made ourselves the other without even realising it.

All this has culminated in the fact that while I was studying and reading and figuring out what genres and eras I liked, Australian fiction never really got a chance. I love fiction from the twenties and thirties, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Kerouac and Woolf, writing that’s clean and unselfconscious and poetic in its simplicity. I’m sure writing like that exists in the Australian canon, but I’ve never had the chance to find it, because I simply don’t know where to look.

It occurs to me as I write this that it may sound like I’m blaming the education system for my own literary shortcomings. If you want to read Australian fiction, go out and find it, you lazy so-and-so! I can hear. But that isn’t really what I’m saying. I’m saying, ultimately, that as Australians we fetishise the Western Canon (TM) so much that we leave little to no room for our own, and so it stagnates and struggles to grow in the dense forest that is the half-British, half-American culture we so want. We assimilate so far into these foreign cultures that we forget that our own culture, our own language, is legitimate and valuable. I do it, and I don’t even mean to. I do it every time I pass over a book or a TV series or a movie just because I know the writer/producer/director is Australian.

Australians want to fit in so bad that we don’t give ourselves a chance to explore the world through our own lens. I tell people that I love American fiction unselfconsciously, but flinch away from reading books written in my own country. Historically, not awesome. And also fixable, which gives me a little hope.

Now. Where to start. Any suggestions?

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