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.

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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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Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla

Ghost Girls FerlaGhost Girls is the debut novel by Cath Ferla from Echo Publishing, the publisher that last year gave us Emma Viskic’s excellent Resurrection Bay. It’s primarily a mystery story, rather than suspense or thriller, though there are thriller elements in it.

The story centres around Sophie Sandilands, an English language teacher, resident in Sydney, who is of mixed Chinese-European heritage. Sophie has memories of her birth place, Hong Kong, and she has experience teaching English in China. With this background, she occupies a unique space in relation to her mostly Asian students and friends, many of whom work part-time in China Town, either in restaurants or in the sex trade.

Other relevant features of Sophie’s background are that her father was a private investigator and she herself has been involved in a missing persons case. These factors provide the motivation for Sophie to become more than a little involved in the death of one of her female students and the apparent disappearance of others. Along with her flatmate, Jin Tao, a local chef, she follows the trail of one missing girl, a trail that leads her into the dark alleys and seedy underworld of Sydney’s illegal strip clubs.

Ferla has a talent for evoking settings and, it seems, a passion for Asian food, and her portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of this pocket of Sydney life is well realised. Often her descriptions are entwined with characterisation, such as her reference to Sophie and Jin Tao’s tea drinking:

Forget reading the tea leaves afterwards, Jin Tao could read her mood by her choice of brew: oolong was for the weight of the world. The dark amber hue and the burnt bitterness of the leaves worked as a catharsis, helping Sophie clear her mind and refocus her senses. (58)

Another skill is the deft way she refers to characters’ pasts, dramatising them with economy and giving us insight what shapes people’s choices in later life:

[His] childhood had been one of slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. (174)

Ferla touches on some sensitive cross-cultural areas, especially in relation to immigrant Chinese women’s participation in the local sex trade. Her treatment of this, at times very dark, subject matter isn’t voyeuristic or moralistic, but rather acknowledges the complexities attendant on these women’s choices.

One aspect of the narrative which, for me, threatened to fall down was Sophie’s motivation for taking the risks she took in her endeavour to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Information relating to her mother which strengthens and explains Sophie’s motivation came, for me, a little late. If I’d known it earlier, I would have been more understanding and sympathetic towards Sophie’s choices and actions, and I couldn’t see any strong narrative reason for the delay. This is also the reason, I’d hazard, that the novel didn’t quite work for me as either a thriller or a suspense, despite several thrilling moments: because I didn’t fully identify with Sophie and the reasons she was getting herself into such trouble – until rather late, I wasn’t as engaged emotionally as I might otherwise have been. On the plus side, this is also probably why I wasn’t put off by the violent sequences and could read them with relative detachment (something I don’t find easy to do with more suspenseful stories).

These reservations aside, I found Ghost Girls a very competent debut with an interesting mystery and a fascinating cultural setting; another excellent production from Echo Publishing.

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Author: Cath Ferla
Title: Ghost Girls
Publisher and date: Echo Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781760401177
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and 2016 Aussie Author Challenge.

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

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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.

Reinventing Rose by Kandy Shepherd – or The Love-Rat Ritual

KandyShepherd_ReinventingRose[3]When I first read Reinventing Rose it was in manuscript form and I knew it by a different title, The Love-Rat Ritual. It’s this early title I love. It wasn’t right for the US market, though: apparently US readers don’t know what a “love rat” is; so it had to go.

Honestly? I didn’t know what a love rat was, either, before I read the book, but this story set me straight. It features quite a few love rats, old, young, gay, straight, male, female. They are human beings who, in their search to find The One – a man or woman with whom they might just possibly create a happy life – sometimes behave badly. Most of us, the story hints, have been love rats at one time or another. Love is tricky, but worth searching for.

With the characteristic humour which fans of Shepherd’s previous award-winning and best-selling novels have come to love, Reinventing Rose tells the tale of a newly divorced school teacher from Bookerville, California. After having met her internet lover Scott offline for outrageously good sex, Rose buys a ticket and flies to Sydney to hook up once more with her handsome Aussie hunk. It’s the start of the US summer school holidays and she’s giving her adventurous side full rein. On arrival, however, she discovers Scott’s not only married, but also his wife has a baby. He’s a love rat of the first order, and only too happy to get rid of Rose before she even leaves the airport.

Scott’s betrayal isn’t the only unwelcome discovery Rose makes as we follow her adventures “down under”. Her struggles to reinvent herself as a stranger in a strange land, however, are made a whole lot easier – and funnier! – by her outgoing Aussie flatmates, botoxed beauty editor Carla and artist-cum-trust-fund heiress Sasha, as well as their fiercely independent neighbour and friend, international model Kelly. These girls – women – are drawn with flair and deserve to star in books of their own.

The humour that propels this story wouldn’t have been possible without Shepherd’s inside knowledge of Sydney’s magazine scene. At the back of the book, Shepherd writes:

One of the things I most enjoyed during my years in women’s magazines was working with reader makeovers. There was something thrilling about helping transform women (and sometimes men) of all ages with the right hair, makeup and fashion advice. Often the makeover gave such a confidence boost it led to positive change in both relationships and career.

Here Shepherd emphasises the transformative powers of the makeover, and this is certainly an important element of the story. What strikes me more, however, are the makeover’s comic absurdities which Shepherd depicts with compassionate good humour, along with the seemingly never-ending obsession these women have in their attempts to look beautiful, to fit in, to attract the right kind of mate.

The story has a deeper side, too, as Rose struggles to come to terms with what she learns about her dead father, that her parents’ “happy ever after” was at the cost of him hiding his sexuality. Rose grows in self-awareness as she reconciles herself with and finally accepts what initially she perceives to be his betrayal.

Technically, Reinventing Rose is a well-written novel; told in first-person present tense, it has an engaging, at times laugh-out-loud style that Shepherd’s skill makes appear effortless. Who will enjoy it? Fans of chick lit and humorous romance, and anyone who enjoys fun, feel-good fiction.

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This book contributes towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge. My thanks to the author for giving me a copy.

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