New Territory Litbloggers’ Year in Review 2018

As the end of the year looms closer, I thought it would be good to catch up with Sue Terry of Whispering Gums to compare notes on our favourite reads of 2018. We have both read a selection of new and older books over the year, and we also chatted about the highlights of our summer reading lists. Sue has reviewed some of her books (and many more!) on her blog.

To cap it off we have also included some reflections on the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program.

Sue’s highlights are below. You can read mine on Sue’s blog.

Best Fiction of 2018:

I’ll be doing my top reads of 2018 in early January as I always do, and I’ll admit right up front that I find it very hard to choose Bests. Consequently, I’m going to choose three books representing different “categories” in my fiction reading for the year:

For translated fiction: Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Evacuation: I loved this for its imagination, its clever “road trip” form, its Tel Aviv setting, and its exploration of art, war, and personal choices.

For contemporary Australian: Sofie Laguna’s The choke: Very hard to choose because I’ve read a lot of great Australian fiction. The choke may not be perfect, requiring some suspension of disbelief in its denouement, but it moved me immensely. Not only are its characters, subject matter, and setting so beautifully evoked, but it avoids sentimentality and judgement. And, I loved Justine’s voice.

For my classic: EM Forster’s Howard’s End. I read a few good classics this year, but it was so good to read EM Forster again, and to see how relevant it still is, that I just had to choose this one.

Best Non-Fiction of 2018:

Again, I’m going to choose three (well, four, actually) books representing three different categories:

Biography: Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner, and Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life lived at the edge of the world. I’ve chosen Krasnostein’s book for the warmth and generosity of its writer and subject, and for its clever structure; and Scott Tucker’s because, although it is a more traditional biography, it manages also to be an exciting, engrossing tale.

Memoir: Marie Munkara’s Of Ashes and rivers that run to the sea. It’s hard to make a serious story about dispossession and the Stolen Generations funny, but Munkara pulls it off – without undermining the seriousness of, and conflicting emotions within, her story.

Non-fiction: Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. This is a bit of a cheat I suppose because it is partly biography, but it is also a study of the history, science and ethics of cell culture, and it manages to do all of this with a great deal of aplomb.

What has New Territory meant for me?

This was my second year as the blogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s litblogging program, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly again. The best part is meeting other bloggers, and Amy has been an absolute delight to work with over the last few months. I loved that she was open to exploring her blogging goals and keen to learn what she could, that she came with definite ideas about what she wanted to achieve, and that she took the initiative in organising a couple of meetings to which she then invited me. In addition, there’s the fact that the best mentor relationships involve learning on both sides. At least, I hope Amy feels she’s learnt some things! I certainly have, particularly in terms of Amy’s way of thinking about and interrogating the arts. I look toward to continuing to read her thoughts when our formal mentorship ends. I wish her well with her longer-term writing goals.

Besides this connection with the bloggers I mentor, the program has also provided me with an opportunity to get to know a little better some of Canberra’s cultural movers and shakers – at the Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia, in particular. It’s a two-edged sword, that, because I rather like lying low, but I also like to meet warm, interesting, enthusiastic people, and that’s what they are.

Summer reads

I’m not a big on making reading plans, partly because the majority of my reading tends to be driven by the review copies I’m sent, and my reading group schedule. But, in January, there is always just a little sense of having the time and freedom to break a bit loose, and so, if time permits, my priorities would be:

  • Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s biography Germaine: the life of Germaine Greer, which I bought at the Conversation event I attended and am keen to read as Germaine is, well, Germaine.
  • Fiona Wright’s book of essays The world was whole, a follow-up to her Stella Prize shortlisted first book of essays, Small acts of disappearance, which impressed me for its openness, thoughtfulness, and stylish writing.
  • Gerald Murnane’s latest novel Border districts, which has just won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction though, as Amy can attest, I already had it on my list. Just saying!
  • my first reading group book for 2019, Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe, which was highly recommended by my brother and an ex-reading group member.

However, please don’t keep me to this. Who knows what January (not to mention Santa) will bring?

Another New Territory review

My final review for for New Territory has been published on the ACT Writers Centre’s blog Capital Letters. In this piece, I reflect on the impact of ‘Friends’ societies and organisations in supporting our arts institutions, and the significant role they have played in shaping Canberra’s civic ‘artscape’. It is unlikely the National Museum of Australia would ever have been built without the advocacy the Museum’s Friends. Read more

New Territory

I have completed another review which has been published on Capital Letters. This time it is about the craft of biography. My subject is…Richard Fidler. I heard the talented Mr Fidler give the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library, in which he spoke about his radio program Conversations, as well as his book on the Icelandic sagas co-authored with Kari Gislason. How do we distill a life a into the narrative arc of biography? Read on to find out…

New Post for New Territory

Below is my second piece for New Territory, which is a rumination on our responsibilities vis a vis acknowledging artists’ dark sides in the #metoo era. It is a response to Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? I was lucky to see Rozanna speak at the recent Canberra Writers Festival.

I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art: Confronting Power and Abuse in the Arts

In the #metoo era, revelations of sexual misconduct by artists are swiftly followed by public debate about whether we should continue to view their work. For some, viewing the work is an act of complicity with the abuser. Others maintain that knowledge of an artist’s questionable proclivities should not preclude an appreciation of their work.

Rozanna Lilley has been caught up in these debates after the release of her book Do Oysters Get Bored?  It is a “hybrid” book, with over half of it consisting of essays that blend memoir and social commentary, and the remainder comprising autobiographical poetry. While Lilley ostensibly set out to write about the way her autistic son Oscar experiences the world, she also reflects on the sexual exploitation she and her sister Kate experienced as teenagers in the 1970s by men who frequented her parents’ social circle, including the venerated Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis and the late photographer and child pornographer David Hamilton. Furthermore, Lilley reveals that her mother, the late writer Dorothy Hewett, played a part in facilitating the abuse.

Lilley herself has conflicted views on separating artists from their work. She feels uncomfortable watching Woody Allen films, but believes her mother’s contribution to the Australian literary scene should continue to be acknowledged. She continues to participate in public celebrations of Hewett’s work, and did not support calls for UWA Press to rename the Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript Award (it subsequently retained its name).

But ultimately for Lilley, in writing this book the question of separating the artist and their work was secondary. Her concern was to claim her right to tell her story. Lilley asserts that the behaviour detailed in her book was widely known in arts circles, but at the time people didn’t care. She said to me, “[t]hey didn’t stop to think about how that world was experienced from the perspective of children” and that herself and her sister “were thought of, and largely treated as, props in our mother’s life.”

Now in her fifties, Lilley says she felt able to write the book because both her parents have passed away. She does not feel a duty to protect her mother’s reputation, or other peoples’. But nor is it open slather. Instead, she offers a nuanced reflection on her parents’ pursuit of a bohemian lifestyle, and how the “unconventional” sexual dynamics of her formative years have echoed throughout her life.

Lilley resists the straightforward narrative of uncomplicated victimhood that our society has crafted for victims of sexual abuse. Instead she emphasises ambivalence, in which pleasure and shame are inextricably linked. In the essay “Fear of Flying”, she recounts that at 13 she was both “flattered and afraid” when a male family friend made advances towards her, and that “nothing had prepared [her] for the intolerable sadness and shameful longing [she] experienced on that trip home.”

Such feelings were exacerbated by, if not directly a result of, the messages she received from her mother. For Hewett, ratcheting up notches on the bedhead had social currency, and she explicitly encouraged her daughters to have sex from a young age. She put Rozanna on the pill at 14, although by then she was already sexually active. Hewett impressed on her daughters her view that the worst thing you could do was tease men; if you encouraged desire, you had to act on it. Except sometimes encouraging desire just meant being a fourteen-year-old girl.

Furthermore, Hewett was in direct sexual competition with her daughters. Rose told the festival audience that her sister Kate, two years her elder, was at one stage in a de facto relationship with a man whom her mother was also, with their knowledge, conducting an affair. An acquaintance observed to Hewett, within earshot of a teenage Rozanna, that her daughters were her “surrogates,” implying that she could extend her sexual life through them.

Lilley says Hewett could cut off conversations through “sheer force of personality” and would make it clear to her children that she wouldn’t tolerate criticism of her lifestyle or ideology. But ultimately, Hewett’s escape from judgement was sustained through a larger fantasy underpinned by “naïve libertarianism.” In leading a bohemian lifestyle, Hewett constructed an alternate reality in which sexual experiences were not conceptualised as resulting from, or reifying, power imbalances. According to Lilley, her mother “imaginatively recast these predations as adventures, confirming our familial superiority to restrictive moral norms.”

Yet it is the casting off of social restrictions for which Hewett’s work is so prized. As Jane Jervis-Read pointed out on the Meanjin blog recently, Hewett’s grand ongoing project was to fuse her literary persona with the characters she created. In addition to putting her stories on the page, Hewett also acted them out, and involved her daughters in this elaborate web. A key example is the participation of Rozanna Lilley in Hewett’s sexually graphic film Journey Among Women. The mirroring of Hewett’s life and art also means, however, that her work is full of clues as to what was occurring in her house. Lilley pointed out in correspondence to me that while she feels her mother’s brave writing should be admired, she wanted to acknowledge the cost “of living that particular kind of imagined life for those of us who were caught in the riptide.”

In her poem “Child Pornographer” Lilley notes ironically, “I wasn’t paid a cent/ that’s what made it art.” This reminds us that art is not sacred; it can be created in contexts which give rise to, or reinforce, distasteful or downright exploitative economies and power relationships. Lilley’s book is a timely reminder to temper the emotional side of our engagement with art with an intellectual reckoning of the artist’s creative processes, and the context in which art is made. All is well with exploring a more liberated experience in fiction or art, but in real life power hurts when it is used against you. Lilley has done society a favour by placing the suffering inflicted by some of our most revered artists on the historical record and pointing out the false virtues at play when the mythology of the artist is used to cloak child abuse and silence victims.

After reading Lilley’s book, it is up to the individual reader whether they will persist with reading Dorothy Hewett, Bob Ellis, and the rest. But if they do they will have their eyes open, and should question whether unadulterated veneration is a mature, or ethical, response.

New Territory

I am delighted to announce I am participating in the ACT Writers Centre’s critics development program, New Territory. Six pieces of criticism will be posted on the Writers Centre’s blog between now and the end of the year. You can read my first one here, which is about Liam Pieper’s approach to historical fiction.

Thank you to the wonderful people at the ACT Writers Centre for their support in this program, and for Sue Terry of Whispering Gums‘ fame who is the program’s mentor.