Rebellious Daughters – a review

rebellious-daughtersWhat makes girls and women conform or rebel? What challenges have Australian women faced growing up in ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse families over the past sixty-plus years?

Rebellious Daughters, edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, is a collection of stories about growing up, parenting and being parented, by seventeen Australian women of diverse ages and backgrounds, including Greek, Jewish, Asian, Anglo and Bosnian. It is book-ended by – I suspect – the two oldest contributors, Marion Halligan and Jane Caro. Halligan’s piece harks back to a time when the contraints on girls growing up were just as much internal as external; when saying the word “brothel” (which happened to rhyme with her “maiden” name) wasn’t the done thing in polite society, and that norm was adopted by the author almost unquestioningly. Caro’s contribution, by contrast, reflects on a time of vastly different mores; when she not only shows no affront when her teenaged daughter swears at her (“If you’re so keen on fucking counselling…why don’t you fucking go?”), she actually takes her daughter’s advice. Elsewhere in the collection, the narratives reflect a huge shift in Australian women’s lives, the result of changing attitudes towards sexuality, contraception and marriage; religion and cultural beliefs; as well as expectations of women regarding motherhood and careers. Along the way, it ranges over themes of obedience and disobedience; mental health and illness; travel and education; pregnancy and mothering; as well as the sometimes fraught choice of whether or not to have children. Weaving through them all is a common theme: how can one, as a woman, grow up to lead a “good” life, without having to be a “good girl”?

For me, there were a number of standout contributions. Some made me laugh, including Lee Kofman’s “Me, My Mother and Sexpo” and Michelle Law’s “Joy Ride”. Others moved me to tears, including Halligan’s “Daughters of Debate” with its “landscape of loss”, and Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’ “Just Be Kind”. Some use metaphor as a vehicle for carrying complex emotions, such as guilt and love in Leah Kaminsky’s “Pressing the Seams”; while Rochelle Siemienowicz, in “Resisting the Nipple”, takes a more psychoanalytic approach, quoting Jung as a way to help navigate such complexities. Several times I found myself holding my breath at the raw honesty of some of the contributors as they revealed their flaws in relation to the choices they have made, such as when reading Caroline Baum’s account of her estrangement from her parents in her early forties in her piece titled, “Estranged”.

The winner of the 2014 Stella Prize, Clare Wright, is quoted on the cover: “This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that has given me such unadorned pleasure.” “Pleasure” doesn’t quite cover it, for me. After reading Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’ piece, I took to Twitter, declaring I felt “gutted”. The author got back to me, saying, “Glad you enjoyed it (is enjoyed the right word???!)” I responded, “A new word needs to be invented, embracing mangled, uplifted, saddened and heartened. With just a touch of amused thrown in.” That new word – if it existed – might apply not only to Henry-Jones’ piece, but also to the entire collection. It’s well worth a read.

~

Title: Rebellious Daughters: True Stories from Australia’s Finest Female Writers
Eds: Maria Katsonis & Lee Kofman
Publisher: Ventura Press
Date: 2016
ISBN: 9781925183628

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Writing the wrongs – The Intervention: an anthology

In June 2007, following the tabling of the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, the Australian government introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, prescribing a number of drastic measures, some contravening the Racial Discrimination Act and others revolving around land use.

A massive military and police emergency response ensued. The stated aim was to combat child abuse, though there was no reference to children in this massive bill. (read more here)

So Dr Anita Heiss and Rosie Scott introduced their article published a year ago in The Hoopla outlining the rationale behind their decision to crowdfund the publication of their anthology, The Intervention, after major publishers had turned it down.

In their essay, Heiss and Scott refer to Olga Havnen’s summary of aspects of the intervention: the arrival of the army; the dismantling of Aboriginal-run organisations; the atrophy of CDEP or the Aboriginal “work-for-the-dole” program; the implementation of mandatory and universal welfare income control; the depiction of Aboriginal men as drunks and paedophiles, and women and children as helpless victims; and the introduction of alcohol controls; measures whose impacts had yet to be assessed.

Last month, during NAIDOC week, I attended a launch of the book in Ashfield, which featured guest speakers Rosie Scott, author Nicole Watson and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. In her launch speech, Scott spoke of her determination to have the anthology published, and the reasons why it should be of interest to all Australians:

I believe that the deliberate spin, lies and disinformation that underpins this crisis need to be countered by a language that is powerful, clear and truthful enough to enable people to understand what’s really going on; the kind of language that moves people to right these wrongs. (video of Scott’s launch speech here)

The Intervention provides just such language. A collection of fiction, essays, memoirs and poetry written by over twenty writers and commentators, both indigenous and non-indigenous, it details the varied impacts of the emergency response on remote Indigenous communities – almost all negative.

Of great interest to me is the contribution by Pat Anderson, one of the authors of the “Little Children are Sacred” report that provided the pretext for the government’s actions. In her essay, “The Intervention: Personal Reflections, June 2009”, Anderson writes that in 2006, she was a co-chair of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. Over a period of a year, she attended meetings in dozens of remote communities with the aim of hearing the views of Aboriginal peoples. She was, she writes, heartened by the response:

What struck me most in these talks with the Aboriginal communities was their attitude. They had suffered much as a result of the historical processes in this country, and many of them had suffered violence and abuse themselves…

People were worried about kids not going to school, about girls having babies too young, about drugs and alcohol, the lack of jobs, and the presence of pornography. And while we did not uncover individual cases of child abuse, we found all the conditions present under which it happens: poverty, overcrowding, drugs and alcohol, pornography, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, a breakdown of structures of authority and meaning. We found, too, that many who came forward and spoke to us were child victims of abuse and neglect, who had never had their trauma acknowledged and dealt with. (31)

In their subsequent report, Anderson and co-author Rex Wild, QC, made almost one hundred recommendations, the very first of which, Anderson writes, “was the most significant”:

‘It is critical that both [the Northern Territory and Federal] governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities [to address child sexual abuse and neglect].’ (34)

According to Anderson, despite the prominence given to the report, far from it forming the basis for the government’s actions, its chief recommendation, that of the need for community consultation, was ignored. Moreover:

Where we emphasised the need for resources and for flexible processes of engagement with Aboriginal families and communities, the Intervention emphasised external control and blanket provisions affecting all Aboriginal people.

The “headline” elements of the Intervention, Anderson writes, were deeply problematic:

They included compulsory health checks of Aboriginal children to check for evidence of abuse, blanket quarantining of welfare payments … and the scrapping of the permit system that allowed Aboriginal people some control over access to their land.

In other words, the actions of the government were further promoting the very conditions,”the breakdown of structures of authority and meaning”, that Anderson identifies as having contributed to the problems.

Larissa Behrendt writes in her contribution:

Heavy-handed, top-down interventions such as enforced prohibition have never proven effective in the black or white community. Apart from the protocols and niceties, the research clearly shows that the most effective way to develop policies and implement programs in Indigenous communities is to have those communities integrally involved in them. It’s not just a matter of good manners; it is effective practice and policy. The top-down, paternalistic imposition of half-baked policy ideas is a recipe for failure. (65-66)

Without community consultation and involvement, is it any wonder the impacts of the Intervention, outlined and dramatised so effectively in this anthology, have been negative?

Rachel Willika, a Jaowyn elder from the remote Aboriginal community of Manyallaluk, writes of the immediate trauma created by news of the Intervention:

I was living at Barunga when I first heard about the intervention. I was told by mobile phone. It was on the news. When we found out, everyone was worried. The girls wanted to go to hide in the bush. When we saw the army on TV, I felt frightened. Some people, not just children, but adults, too, thought they might come with guns. (42)

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an Areente, Alyawarra elder, discusses the intervention in terms of generations of trauma:

We are all aware in Australia of the horrific journey that Aboriginal people have had to take right from the beginning. People say invasion but I say on our first encounter… Trauma, emotional and mental, a lot of us are going through – tremendous, tremendous trauma and that’s not over exaggerating.

Because we live in terror of our languages, our ceremonies and our land being taken off us right at this time in our history. (14)

Not least in this history of trauma is the after-effects of the Stolen Generations. As Brenda L Croft, whose father was taken as a child, writes:

My father wanted kardiya [non-indigenous] people to try and comprehend the impact of colonisation on our people, not only throughout their lives, but also the ongoing deleterious effect on their descendants, whether we live in remote communities or in far-flung towns and cities. (172)

It is one of the strengths of this anthology that so many diverse Aboriginal voices are represented in its pages, people who live in remote communities as well as those from cities or regional centres. Non-indigenous perspectives also make a valuable contribution: among them, P M Newton’s story, “567,000 kms Driven”, tells of the army’s arrival from a soldier’s point of view; while Arnold Zable offers the moving meditation, “Here is Where We Meet”.

For me, however, the highlights are the Indigenous voices, particularly Melissa Lucashenko’s powerfully rhetorical “What I Heard about the Intervention”:

I heard that the last officially recorded massacre of Aboriginal people occurred in the NT in 1928.

I heard that other Aboriginal people tell of massacres which followed in later years, within living memory, but that these massacres were not recorded in white history…

I heard first-hand reports of a white man from Perth expressing a wish, in early 2014, to travel to the Northern Territory to “shoot an Aboriginal”…

I heard that the suicide rate of Aboriginal people in the NT increased five-fold after the Intervention…

And I heard what the esteemed Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright, who has spent the bulk of her life living and working in Alice Springs, told me, when I asked her about the Intervention. I heard her when she said vehemently:

‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this…’ (109-111)

Wright makes her own contribution to the anthology with her short story, “Be Careful About Playing With the Path of Least Resistance”. In it she depicts a gifted boy who witnesses the panic engendered among the adults of his community by the arrival of the army, their sense of shame at the allegations of child sexual abuse, their confusion over why such drastic measures are being implemented, and their fear that their incomes may be taken away if children – like the boy – do not attend school. Wright depicts complex layers of these issues, the seeming lack of relevance of a Westernised education; the lure of nihilism that accompanies a loss of meaning, and its consequent risk of adolescent suicide; and the power and potentially redemptive qualities of traditional stories and the guidance of elders.

Yet it is the straightforward prose of the final contribution that sticks in my mind, a submission from the Yolnguw Makarr Dhuni (Yolngu Nations Assembly) in regard to Stronger Futures, the Labor government’s extension of the earlier Howard administration’s Intervention:

We want self-determination. We want democracy. We want the power of the people in Arnhem Land and in all Aboriginal communities to be recognised and our rights respected…

We have our own system of law to prevent disagreements from escalating. We keep peace and order through good governance and we have very serious and consistent ways of teaching respect and discipline to all our young peoples. We have ways of dealing with people who have broken the law that means they are not a threat to the community while they are taught responsibility and maturity. These processes are being eroded through community disempowerment and government attacks on our legitimacy as leaders and our society as a while. (245-46)

Reading The Intervention, it’s hard not to conclude that, rather than solving the problems faced by remote Indigenous communities, the government’s actions have compounded them. While clearly action still needs to be taken, surely a first step towards helping would be for non-Indigenous Australians to recognise and respect the expertise of Indigenous leaders within the communities themselves, as well as to acknowledge the part our current and former generations have played in the creation of those problems. Given the lack of such acknowledgement and respect, it’s hardly surprising that several of the contributors to this anthology see the Intervention as little more than a cynical land and power grab.

intervention

~

Title: The Intervention: an anthology
Eds: Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss
Publisher: ‘concerned Australians’
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978-0-646-93709-0
Facebook page: The Intervention

This book was read for NAIDOC week, inspired by the “reading for diversity” initiative of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Wrap Up: My year of narrow reading

awwbadge_2014They say the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write psychological suspense. While pursuing my goal, I’ve read lots of novels in the genre, with the hope of learning how to create the same magic. Whether it’s called psychological suspense, thriller, or “domestic noir”, the stories are often about a woman in jeopardy, or women who are victimised who fight back. Sometimes they’re about men or women who are stretched to the limits of their endurance – even, at times, of their sanity. They are stories I can relate to.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, that when I look back over the novels I’ve read and reviewed this year for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I find most of the stories fit that category. I confess, though, I’m shocked at how narrow my reading has been.

1. Robyn Bowles, Rough Justice. (true crime)

2. Candice Fox, Hades. (detective/thriller)

3. Honey Brown, Through the Cracks. (suspense)

4. Dawn Barker, Let Her Go. (suspense)

5. Wendy James, The Lost Girls. (suspense)

6. Julie Proudfoot, The Neighbour. (suspense)

7. Anna George, What Came Before. (suspense)

8. Jaye Ford, Already Dead. (suspense)

9. Caroline Overington, Can You Keep A Secret. (suspense)

10. Gillian Mears, Foal’s Bread. (literary/historical fiction)

11. Kate Belle, Being Jade. (women’s fiction)

12. Johanna Fawkes, Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: the shadow of excellence. (nonfiction)

P M Newton’s excellent crime novel Beams Falling, is another one I read; it’s the sequel to her award-winning debut, The Old School. Instead of writing a review, however, I posted a Q & A with Newton on the AWW blog here.

I didn’t set out to be so narrow in my reading this year; it just happened that those were the books that appealed to me. When I look at my “to be read” pile of books by Australian women, there’s a great variety of genre, from literary fiction to memoir to historical fiction as well as nonfiction. The books in this photograph are only a fraction of the pile.

 

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What will I review for the AWW Challenge in 2015? I’m not sure. Recently, I’ve been borrowing books from the library and reading just for fun, and not all of them have been shelved in the crime/suspense/thriller section. Maybe I’ll start branching out again? (Otherwise, I should really change the name of my blog.)

By the way, for those of you who haven’t heard, my debut novel – a romance with suspense elements, Snowy River Man – will be published by Escape Publishing on 22 February 2015, under my pen-name, Lizzy Chandler. If you’d like a review copy, please let me know. I’d be thrilled if it could be reviewed as part of the AWW challenge for 2015.

Are you planning to join?

Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence by Johanna Fawkes

This book builds on a lifetime of reading, writing, thinking, dreaming, failing, starting again, denying, confronting, shifting and teaching.

Public Relations Ethics FawkesIf anyone had told me at the beginning of the year that I’d end up reading for pleasure – make that, devouring – a Jungian book on public relations, I’d have said they were dreaming. That was before I met Blue Mountains resident, writer and academic, Johanna Fawkes.

In her book Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence, Fawkes writes much how she speaks, with intelligence, intuition and poetic flair. As the opening lines quoted above suggest, she is no stranger to nuances of language. She revels in them. It’s a feature of her writing that betrays the fact that she is not only a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Charles Sturt University, she is also a prize-winning writer, having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and won numerous awards for her short fiction.

But public relations? How can a book on public relations be made readable for a lay audience and still provide enough intellectual rigour to be useful as a text book? With enviable skill Fawkes manages to do both. I read the book from cover to cover in a little over a day and was fascinated. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a closet Jung fan. The idea of exploring questions regarding ethics and public relations by teasing out the “shadow” side of the profession appeals to me – if public relations can indeed be regarded as a “profession”, when much of it, from a lay point of view, appears to deal with the art of persuasion in service of a client, at the limit of which is propaganda.

Fawkes’ discussion weaves in and out of these thorny issues in a way that surprised and stimulated me. I found myself thinking back to a unit I studied when doing a Graduate Diploma of Counselling, and the debates that were raging at the time between Counselling and Psychology – the “territory” wars between the two disciplines, and the tensions between which practices might be considered an “art” and which a “science”, and the attendant professional – and remunerative – ramifications. Fawkes’ book invites such pondering, making it relevant to professions generally, not just public relations. Public relations, in some sense, is the case study for the broader ideas she wishes to bring to our attention.

An aspect of the book I especially enjoyed was the way Fawkes introduces her own experience – including her own personal challenges – into the discussion. It’s a technique consistent with the postmodern breadth of her vision, and one I find particularly engaging.

While reading Chapter 7, “Towards a Jungian Ethic”, I began applying some of the ideas to myself personally. What shadow parts of myself do I reject and why? How might engaging those parts be transformative? By doing so, might I be freer to solve problems and limitations confronting me? Engaging further with these ideas since finishing the book has become an exciting journey, promising to open up all sorts of possibilities. All from a book on PR. That’s quite an achievement!

Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence will be launched at the St James Ethics Centre in December. Unfortunately, it isn’t the kind of book you’re likely to stumble across down at your favourite bookshop. It costs too much for that. But you can order it from your academic library. It deserves the widest audience it can get.

~

Author: Johanna Fawkes
Title: Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The Shadow of excellence
ISBN: 9780415630382
Publisher: Routledge Taylor & Francis Ltd, United Kingdom
Date: June 2014

This review form part of my Australian Women Writers challenge for 2014.
My thanks to the author for the loan of a review copy.

‘ A useful reminder that the system is fallible’ – Rough Justice: True Crime by Robin Bowles

rough-justiceThis is a challenging look at the criminal justice system. At a time when governments have responded to the fear of terrorism with extreme measures, it is a useful reminder that the system is fallible. Julian Burnside QC, quoted on the cover of Rough Justice

I picked up my copy of Rough Justice by Robin Bowles through a discount online bookstore over a year ago and it has been sitting on my shelves waiting for a moment when I had the time and inclination to pick it up. That moment came this week when I tripped and gashed my knee, forcing me to take time off. What better way to recover from an injury than to read. As I’m currently writing a novel which involves crime, the “true crime” genre appeals to me: I welcome any insights I can glean into the workings of police, investigative journalists, prosecutors and defence lawyers, as well as the courts, as background material for my fiction. Rough Justice provides plenty of such insights.

Bowles’ book is subtitled “Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts” and it certainly raises more questions than it answers. It discusses eight cases, three in Victoria, one each in South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. Some of the cases are well known, including that of Bradley Murdoch, convicted of murdering British backpacker Peter Falconio; and of Greg Domaszewicz, who, despite having been acquitted of murdering toddler Jaidyn Leskie, subsequently had a coronial finding against him. Other cases are less well known, at least to me. In each case, the defendants have protested their innocence. Several have been exonerated; others are still fighting for “justice” – or, at least, to clear their names.

But what is “justice”? That’s the real unanswered question this book poses.

Bowles looks at the processes behind these cases and reveals grave flaws in the judicial system. Her discussion identifies various points at which an innocent person can be unjustly convicted, including incompetence in how evidence is gathered or interpreted, possible police corruption and coercion of witnesses, bias created in the minds of both witnesses and potential jurors by the media, and flawed judicial proceedings. The problems, she suggests, come from our adversarial system which demands two sides play off against one another; the winner, she implies, is often the side with the deepest pockets. Thus wealth, privilege and class – or the lack of these – ensure not a “fair” trial, but what can be successfully argued in court, a recipe for creating an underclass who risk being incarcerated simply because they are too poor to mount a convincing defence.

Readers of reviews on my blog may know of my ambivalence to the fiction of Caroline Overington. Despite being riveted by Overington’s tales, I’m left with an uneasy feeling resulting from a forced encounter with moral ambiguity. I experience something similar when reading Bowles’ book. In her efforts to tell two (or more) sides of the story, Bowles, I feel, manipulates me; it’s as if I’m being drawn to form one opinion, only for the facts subsequently to be presented in an equally convincing, sometimes opposite way. It’s a clever ploy, as it reinforces the book’s theme and underlines the problems faced by police, investigators, jurors and judges in deciding what is “true”. Often, it appears to come down to, not what is true but what is “believable”, and that is restricted by the evidence known or presented at any one time.

I’m also made uneasy by the subtext about class, derived by way of language. In looking for information about these cases online, I came across a thread on a website where people (the “public”) were giving their opinions on the Jaidyn Leskie murder. One commentator mentioned how so many of these sensational cases involve communities where people have names that are spelled with “yn”, instead of (presumably upper-class) names like “Jeremy”. This (somewhat bizarre) comment made me think. Both Favel Parrett in Past the Shallows and Tara June Winch in Swallow the Air write about poor, uneducated protagonists; but both authors depict these protagonists’ worlds using language which is richly poetic. The authors’ beautiful prose has the effect of dignifying the poverty and tragedy of their characters’ lives. Both Bowles and Overington, by contrast, use plain language – a “journalistic” style – combined with, at times, the idioms consistent with the class, background and education of the people they write about; this plainness – and, at times, crudeness – does nothing to disguise the poverty of these people’s lives and values. As readers, we’re forced into an uncomfortable position. Are we meant to judge or empathise with these people? Do we stand above, or do we consider “them” to be our equals?

Bowles weighs down, in my view, on the side of empathy for the defendants, not because she demonstrates their innocence or virtue, but because she shows how these people – guilty or innocent – are equally screwed by the system. At the same time, she shows how they’re equally capable of screwing the system in return – and so is she. At one point, she describes how Denis Tanner, a man who was found by a coroner to have shot his sister-in-law, had an entirely separate charge of assault brought against him. Bowles writes:

At one point, he was charged with whacking a photojournalist in the testicles with his heavy briefcase as he left the coroner’s court. He was acquitted because a visit by the Magistrate’s Court to the scene of the alleged ‘crime’ showed that the police witness who said he saw the whole thing couldn’t have seen anything from his office because of a tree outside his window. They didn’t ask me, though. I saw everything! (161)

What did Bowles see? She doesn’t state. But “everything” could hardly be “nothing”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Bowles, in this instance at least, seeming impartiality and actual complicity are one and the same thing. It could be a metaphor for the equally fraught nature of the Australian justice system. Perhaps it was intended to be.

~

Author: Robin Bowles
Title: Rough Justice: Unanswered Questions from the Australian Courts
Publisher: The Five Mile Press
Date: 2007
ISBN: 9781741786606

This review counts towards both the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and the 2014 Aussie Author Challenge.

The Eye of the Crocodile by Val Plumwood

eye-of-crocodile-plumwoodOne of the best things to come out of the Australian Women Writers challenge for me has been exposure to books that I might never have discovered on my own. Recently ANU E Press joined the challenge, tweeting links to (free) e-books by Australian women. Val Plumwood’s The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, is one such book.

Part memoir, part collection of philosophical and eco-feminist essays, The Eye of the Crocodile contains Plumwood’s last pieces of writing – she was working on the draft when she died in 2008. According to authors of the book’s introduction:

Val Plumwood was one [of] the great philosophers, activists, feminists, teachers, and everyday naturalists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries… Her stature as a thinker of power and influence was reflected in the fact that she was included in the 2001 book 50 Key Thinkers on the Environment [edited by Joy Palmer, David Cooper and Peter Blaze Corcoran]… She was not only an influential environmental thinker, whose book Feminism and the mastery of nature has become a classic of environmental philosophy; she was also a women who fearlessly lived life on her own deeply considered terms, often in opposition to prevailing norms. (1)

The first section, which gives the book its title, contains an account of Plumwood’s near-death experience when, during a trip to Kakadu in 1985, she became prey to a large crocodile which death rolled her three times before releasing her. The remaining sections bear out the impact of this experience on her life and thinking. The collection includes a discussion of the movie Babe and a moving account of her friendship with – and grief over the death of – a wild wombat named Birubi. The third, most philosophical, section contains essays on radical vegetarianism and “a food-based approach to death”.

The coupling together of “pieces” rather than a unified work means the writing styles of The Eye of the Crocodile are varied. Passages of beauty and emotional power sit alongside some heavy-weight philosophical pondering. Plumwood admired creative writers for their ability to convey new ideas to a wide audience, and in the memoir section it is clearly a mainstream audience which she hoped to reach. Had she lived, this section would, I imagine, have made up the bulk of the book, with some of its more florid stylistic touches toned down by editors. As a short, incomplete work, however, The Eye of the Crocodile still has much of value to offer the reader.

The collection begins with Plumwood’s reflections on the fateful canoeing trip she made to the remote area of Kakadu when she encountered the crocodile. Her account gives an indication both of her personality and her writing style:

I suppose I have always been the sort of person who ‘goes too far’. I certainly went much too far that torrential wet season day in February 1985 when I paddled my little red canoe to the point where the East Alligator River surges out of the Stone Country of the Arnhem Land Plateau. It was the wrong place to be on the first day of the monsoon, when Lightning Man throws the rainbow across the sky and heavy rains began to lash the land. (10)

After surviving the crocodile attack, injured and alone, Plumwood crawled for help and was found by a park ranger. Reflecting on her experience at various points throughout the essays, Plumwood reveals how, by facing her own mortality and insignificance, she was inspired to question the dualistic thinking that underpinned both her reaction to the event as well as much of Western philosophy. This thinking sees humanity as an exception to nature, above and beyond it, instead of a part of it. It sees humans as separate from animals because we have “souls” and can reason, and this enables us to commodify animals as a food source, taking little care of the lives of the creatures whose flesh we eat. At the same time, we respond with rage, disbelief and a desire for retribution when predator animals prey on us, threatening the illusion of our supremacy and safe autonomy. In this, we deny our part in the food chain or “foodiness”, as Plumwood calls it.

In between dipping into Plumwood’s collection, I also listened to the latest ABC RN podcast of All in the Mind:Animal Minds”. In this program, author Virginia Morell discusses a conversation she had with Jane Goodall over Goodall’s witnessing in the 1980s of the “deceptive” behaviour of a chimpanzee. What was clear in Morell’s account was that while Goodall attributed to the chimp a sense of “intention” – if not downright personality – she was also deeply wary of declaring such beliefs openly, for fear of being labelled “anthropomorphic” by a scientific community which, back in the 1980s, still thought of animals as little more than stimulus-response machines.

In her discussions of both the crocodile and her wild wombat “friend”, Plumwood seeks to avoid being anthropomorphic by depicting these wild animals as “radically other”, as seeming to share in aspects of human-like cognitive functioning, but also experiencing consciousness in their own terms, in their own environmental contexts and with their own needs as paramount. While Plumwood avoids sentimentalising animals, there are elements in her attitude to animals and the land that strike me as romantic, particularly in her evocation of Thoreau and in passages which borrow from motifs and themes of indigenous cultures. By contrast, there is little that is romantic in her critique of central tenets of Classical and modern philosophical thinking.

While Plumwood critiques Platonic idealist thinking and Christian monotheistic views of “heaven”, she also identifies similar dualistic thinking among those whose views, at first glance, would appear to be in radical opposition to the views of these other two groups: animal defence activists and material atheists. This is the area of her discussion which I found most compelling, and it helped me to clarify some of my own thoughts about how we can honour and respect animals, while at the same time deriving the nourishment we need for survival in an ecologically aware manner.

According to Plumwood, “Ontological Vegans” would deny humans the right to eat meat (often adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude), by extending to (some) animals a separate, soul-like consciousness. In this, their stance is not dissimilar to the theists who claim humans are set apart from (other) animals: it is because of this “separateness” from lower-order life-forms that animal flesh becomes inviolable. (And the question becomes, at which animal/level of consciousness do we draw the line?) Embedded in this position, Plumwood claims, is the same Cartesian separation of mind/body that has led humanity to the utilitarian use of the environment which now threatens the planet.

Materialist atheists are also bound by this dualistic thinking. Those who see death as the “End of the Story”, she says, valorise individual, separate human consciousness as if it were the pinnacle of existence. Yet their so-called “bravery” in the face of a perceived nothingness after death is merely a factor of their deep sense of loss – if not nostalgia – for the “heavenism” of those who believe in an after-death eternal life for the spirit. Both Ontological Vegans and modernist-atheists fail to see the inter-connectedness of the human to ongoing life narratives, narratives which would allow human bodies, in death, to nourish and replenish the earth. Such non-dualistic thinking Plumwood refers to as “Ecological Animalism”.

Plumwood’s final piece, “Tasteless: Towards a food-based approach to death”, reveals how her non-dualistic view has been informed by her understanding of Australian indigenous cultures. In an Ecological Animalist framework, barriers between so-called materialist and more “spiritual” approaches to life are broken down:

By understanding life as circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling, a flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins. In place of the Western war of life against death whose battleground has been variously the spirit-identified afterlife and the reduced, medicalised material life, the Indigenous imaginary sees death as part of life, partly through narrative, and partly because death is a return to the (highly narrativised) land that nurtures life. (92)

I learned today that Plumwood helped to launch feminist Susan Hawthorne’s book Wild Politics at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2002, and that she lived and died not so very far away, at Braidwood, on the Southern Highlands, between Sydney and Canberra. She was old enough to be my mother, having had a daughter (who later died) the same year as I was born. Yet, while I can name several Australian sportswomen of that era, I’d never heard of Plumwood or her ideas till now. An Australian woman named internationally as one of “fifty key thinkers on the environment”, yet so little recognised.

How and why is that so?

~

Author: Val Plumwood
Title: The Eye of the Crocodile
Edited by Lorraine Shannon
ISBN 9781922144171 (Online)
Published November 2012
Citation url: http://epress.anu.edu.au?p=208511

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