Thursday, November 27, 2014

Australian Studies in Inner Mongolia (China)

Invitation to Attend

The International Symposium on a Parallel Study of
Australian Indigenous People and Chinese Mongolian Nationality

On behalf of Inner Mongolia University Australian Studies Center, the Australia China Council, Foundation for Australian Studies in China and the National Association of Australian Studies in China, we have the pleasure of inviting you to participate in “The International Symposium on a Parallel Study of Australian Indigenous People and Chinese Mongolian Nationality”, which will take place on June 26-28, 2015 in Hohhot, China.
The Symposium is designed to stimulate discussion in a field that has become increasingly important to both Australia and China, and yet has not received the kind of attention it deserves within the broader community of Australian Studies in China, that is, the inheritance and development of national cultures. We will feature such topics as Literature and Art, Environment Protection and Sustainable Development, History and Culture, Education and Science, Sports and Health, etc. of Australian Indigenous people and Chinese Mongolian Nationality.
If you are interested in the symposium and intend to attend it, please respond to this invitation before Jan. 30, 2015 and submit an abstract of your paper before May 10, 2015 via email indicated below.

Ms Lv Yanhua                         Ms Guo Yongqing
Email:             Email:
Tel : 18947108480                      Tel : 13848123511

The Organizing Committee of the International Symposium on a Parallel Study of Australian Indigenous People and Chinese Mongolian Nationality

Sunday, November 9, 2014

And the Patrick White Literary Award Goes To ...

We live in a world where boundaries are being both contested and tightened, and certainly the Australian government’s policies and attitudes towards those who it considers “intruders” and the rising fear of “fifth column” terrorist militants, has certainly created a climate in Australia (and elsewhere) where human beings are becoming more suspicious of difference, of the Outsider. The Patrick White Literary Award this year has been given to an author and thinker who has made a vocation out of investigating this complex “Third Space.” Brian Castro was born in Hong Kong to Chinese, Portuguese and English parents, and was sent to Australia at age ten to attend boarding school, and has since been compelled to consistently confront and navigate the position of being “different” in a society that is primarily white and European, despite its claims to cultural and ethnic diversity. 

But that position of liminality, and at times hostility and confusion, has been a rich place from which to write, and Castro—throughout his ten novels, two radio plays, two stage plays, five short stories and a collection of essays on writing and culture—has poetically and sensitively explored “questions of identity, race, lineage and hybridity” with a commitment to language being as important to the story as the narrative; exploring through his craft and stories the relationship of words to the fragile—and often fragmented—experience of being.

The Patrick White Literary Award is unusual in that it is not one to which an author or publisher can apply, but the Award recognizes, as Castro said, “a body of work rather than a single publication. It takes the larger view, and is not about long-lists, short-lists, betting-lists and gossip-lists.” This Award arguably moves against the current literary trend of celebrating—favoring?—youth culture and celebrity, and is a powerful gesture of validating and valuing longevity, maturity of craft, and time-tested voice. Castro was awarded the $AU 24,000 on November 7, and the panel included Professor David Carter, Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, and Dr Bernadette Brennan. The 2014 judging panel stated that Castro’s work shows a “continued willingness to take imaginative risks and be ‘blackly playful’.”

Castro’s novels include Shanghai Dancing (2003), The Garden Book (2005), The Bath Fugues (2009) and Street to Street (2012) (all Giramondo). His 2007 essay ‘Twice Born’ paid homage to Patrick White, and he has acknowledged a long-time connection with the Award’s Novel Laureate founder—according to Susan Wyndham (Literary Editor, Sydney Morning Herald), “when Castro won the Vogel Award for his first novel, Birds of Passage, in 1992 White was reported as having read every Vogel winner but omitted to mention Castro.” Castro, who is currently Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, commented on this by adding, "Thus anonymity and lack of recognition played its role in Patrick's life as well as in my life and in the lives of all those who have won his prize.”

Castro’s stories involve migration, interior and outer journeys across hemispheres and time periods, and at times the language is disrupted, interrupting and fragmenting itself with almost Joycean overtones—or perhaps more along the lines of Beckett, as suggested by quote in the preface to The Bath Fugues. Incomplete sentences and half-thoughts rub against longer, more fluid prose; the images and voices shift from confessional to dream-like, intimate to brusque and abrasive. The writing itself suggests a search, an urgency, a grasping at straws in order to plait them into something meaningful — a rope by which to moor oneself, perhaps, in order to cease drifting and find a peaceful harbor. In The Bath Fugues Castro writes that:

“A novelist was nothing but a grafter, a hack, a grubber with prurient leanings and huge repressions … To publish a novel … was to make yourself suspicious. Unmediated personal expression in the face of disinterest. Nothing new there. Every kid was doing it, trying to become memorable in the age of forgetting.”

Possessing (and offering) not only a substantial, complex and critically acclaimed body of work, but with the Patrick White Literary Award to amplify Castro’s audience, this writer of many identities, many diverse selves, will be remembered—and certainly not as a “hack”, but as a true master of the craft.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CFP: Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan: A Symposium
Call for Papers

25-26 September 2015
hosted by Australian Literature at the University of Sydney

On Tuesday 14 October 2014, the Tasmanian-based Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). It was a significant moment not only in his own career but also in the international reception of Australian writing. ‘Literary culture’, Flanagan has said, ‘is the vengeance of the edges on the centre’.

On 25-26 September 2015, the Australian Literature Program at the University of Sydney will host a symposium on the writing and career of Richard Flanagan, including a public lecture on the evening of Friday 25 September and a one-day symposium on Saturday 26 September. The outcome will be a peer-reviewed collection of essays on Flanagan’s work, to be published in the Sydney University Press Studies in Australian Literature series, alongside similar titles on writers such as Shirley Hazzard, Alex Miller and Tim Winton.

Papers are welcome on any aspect of Richard Flanagan’s career in writing, including his works of fiction, non-fiction and cinema, and his social activism on environmental issues, asylum seekers and climate change. Flanagan’s publications include:

Death of a River Guide (1994)
The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997)
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001)
The Unknown Terrorist (2006)
Wanting (2008)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)

A Terrible Beauty: A History of the Gordon River Country (1985)
The Rest of the World is Watching: Tasmania and the Greens (1990) (co-editor)
Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich (1991) (co-writer)
Parish-Fed Bastard: A History of the Politics of the Unemployed in Britain 1884-1939 (1991)
And What do you do, Mr Gable? (2011)

(Director and script writer) The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998)
(co-writer) Australia (2008)

Offers of papers should be sent by email by 31 December 2014 to:

Professor Robert Dixon, FAHA
Professor of Australian Literature
English Department, A20
University of Sydney
Sydney 2006
Tel.: +61 02 9036 7231

Friday, October 17, 2014

Nicholas Reid on Stephen Oliver

This review will appear in the December 2014 Antipodes 

A transtasman epic

Oliver, Stephen.  Intercolonial.  Auckland:  Puriri Press, 2013, 76 pp.NZ $28.50 ISBN 978-0-908943-40-1

Nicholas Reid
University of Otago (formerly)

Stephen Oliver’s major new work is called Intercolonial, a., plying … between the Australian colonies … and New Zealand’.   It is a word which perfectly captures the kind of origin myth which Oliver wants to explore, for Oliver is that rarest of beasts, a transtasman poet who was born in New Zealand and who has spent much of his working (and writing) life in Australia.  This has given him a unique insight into an aspect of the developing consciousness of both countries which both countries have chosen to forget—and that is the memory of the time in the mid-to-late nineteenth century when New Zealand had ceased to be governed from New South Wales but when both countries were still intimately linked by their trading, sea-faring and colonial statuses.  

The poem itself is in one sense a Wordsworthian history of the mind, though far from the ordered history of The Prelude. Rather, it speaks with an oracular voice, melding past and present, myth and history, geography and psyche in what Patricia Prime calls ‘a romanticised quest’. For while it begins in the windy and fractured landscape of Oliver’s childhood in Wellington, it soon diverges into the story of Kupe, the mythic Polynesian sailor who fishes for the great octopus which presages the moon (8). Later, the poem segues to an ancestor, McCormack, a foundryman and mythic maker reminiscent of Phaestus the Greek blacksmith and his Nordic counterparts (42).  McCormack in turn dreams of more distant ancestors, Cormac the Icelandinc skald and Viking raiders in Ireland, where Oliver finds something of his mother’s ‘Celtic DNA’ (52). In between there are more domestic reflections on the world in which Oliver grew up, but the poem as a whole is characterised more by dream and myth
than by realism. Its transitions are those of the subconscious, and the poem has a wave structure, returning time and again to images and characters, for as the poem notes, ‘by that repetition, / each wave recalls the next in a chant that does not forget’ (40).

The poem begins with Oliver’s childhood home, ‘in Karepa street, perched high over the Wellington basin’ (1) and quickly presents us (in the image of the eye’s pupil) with what Geoffrey Hartman has taught us to recognise as an omphalos, a dark abyss through which we enter the unconscious:

Nightly, the harbour dilated black as a pupil; the Rimutaka
Range encircled, and drew closer; a border torn from the hem
of the sky….  (1)

The above describes Wellington’s vertiginous landscape but it also embodies Oliver’s gift for image, a gift which always rewards close attention. We see the darkness of a basin closed in by surrounding mountains; we are invited to see the black sillouette of the mountains as a tear in the fabric of the starlit sky; but the image of the black pupil both draws us in and makes us aware of the ways in which the see-er and the seen are mutually implicated. Oliver invites us to see the world freshly and sharply, while his images have resonant depth.

Intercolonial is founded on a kind of psychic geography, a set of bravura descriptions which move from the geology of Wellington to the clash of the Pacific and Australian plates—and, further afield, the North Sea.

But if the poem seeks a ‘geology of the spirit’, it is forced to ask:

Does there exist a model, grammar for the unknown, word which our forebears ‘applied to shipping, trade, etc
the unnamed, the Ding an Sich, in what language then—by
what construction or symbol can the mind compass,
beyond the approximation of things sought, plundered? (35)

This question is not resolved (it is the sort of question which good poems never do resolve). But if the waters over which the voyagers sail are largely those of the subconscious, it is worth noting in the quotations above the mention of ‘displacement’ and ‘plunder’, for the landscape is riven and the poem is beset with its share of violence and anxiety.

In this poem our histories are what make us (personal and mythic histories, not the grand Marxian schemes adopted by Oliver’s father (54, 55)). But here the histories are freighted with violence, from those of McCormack’s meeting in 1849 with the
Tasmanian hangman, Solomon Blay, to the brutality of the Australian goldfields and McCormack’s defence of the violent (but similarly Catholic and Irish) Ned Kelly (26). It is a violence which traces back past Viking ancestors—and forward to include
the casual violence of childhood play, like the time Oliver’s brothers tied another boy to a tree and set him on fire (20).

There is a deeper anxiety about the faculty of memory itself, for while the poem reminds us that ‘the flow and fall of water assisted memory’ (59),  it shares Wordsworth’s sense of the fraught nature of memory. And memory is at its most fraught in seeking to recover the child’s image of home, an ‘original sanctuary’ (2) in which identity is founded and perhaps secure.  Oliver asks of childhood memories:

    What ‘smells’ slow the caravan, allows you to study richly
    painted panels, busy as a circus, before it proceeds on its way
      through mountain passes grandly packed with cloud?
    Childhood scenes, before memory was invented to replace

the loss…. (51

The poem is a major addition to Oliver’s oeuvre, not least in reminding us of a phase in our history and identity which we have now mostly forgotten. It is a poem aware of its place within the poetic tradition, with its comfortable references to Coleridge (Kubla Khan’s ever flowing caverns (38)), Keats (the ‘thing of beauty’ (39)), and Wordsworth (‘Old Maori Bill’ as a kind of Wordsworthian solitary, ‘rare in his manner and mien’ (40)). But more deeply it finds its home in the voyage literatures, the Odyssey, and those of Iceland (Cormac the Scald), Ireland (The Voyage of Bran, The Voyage of St Brendan) and Polynesia (the voyages of Kupe, discovering New Zealand). To this can be added the esoteric Testament of Solomon (in the building of Tara sequence at the end of the poem).

The poem is consciously a ‘transtasman’ poem, largely structured in its second half on the voyage of Oliver’s alter ego, the mythic McCormack, from the Australian goldfields to Dunedin in New Zealand. As the title suggests, Oliver's identity has both Australian and New Zealand roots. The poem powerfully explores the ground of that identity in the dark realms of being, dream and the unconscious. The ambition is epic, the language driven and the structure balanced. Intercolonial reconfirms Oliver's status as our leading transtasman poet.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

YouTube video by Stephen Oliver

Regular Antipodes contributor Stephen Oliver has a video of his prose poem 'The Great Rogatus' on YouTube. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Call for Papers: American Association of Australasian Literary Studies Annual Conference
9–11 April 2015
Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, USA

The American Association of Australasian Literary Studies (AAALS) invites paper proposals for its 2015 Annual Conference, to be held in Fort Worth, Texas, 9–11 April 2015. Since these dates fall during most Australian universities' mid-semester break, we hope many Australian scholars will be able to attend. Added incentive for Australian scholars is that there are direct flights available from Australia into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The conference will be held at Texas Christian University. An evening reception will be held on April 9, and conference sessions will take place on April 10 and 11. Papers addressing any aspect of Australian, New Zealand, and South Pacific literary, film, and cultural studies are welcome. Presentations should be 20 minutes long. Proposals from graduate students are encouraged. Please send a paper title and 250-word proposal by 15 November 2014 to Per Henningsgaard ( Please label the subject line clearly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The View from an Elevator: a Rumination on Accents and Landscape

In the elevator at the university where I teach in New York City, I collided (literally) with another Australian. Since moving to the USA five years ago I have—once—accidentally pegged a New Zealander as an Aussie, and since then exercised extreme caution when sounding out a potential fellow Antipodean. She laughed as we dusted ourselves down, asked me if I knew where the Advising Office was, and thankfully without any further embarrassment we soon established that we shared the same home city of Melbourne. She congratulated me on keeping my accent fairly intact; although her parting comment, offered with a grin, was “although I can tell you’ve been here a while now, there are a couple of things …” and then the doors closed between us. What things? I played back our brief conversation. Were my “r”s too strong after three initial years in Georgia? Did I habitually end my sentences at a higher, questioning pitch like the artsy New Yorkers I know, or did I still sonically perform a nosedive, as we do Down Under. What did this woman mean? Had I developed my own, new accent? It is strange, I thought suddenly, how voices shift when we, their owners, also move. I wonder what is it exactly that we carry with us when we leave our own country and build an(other) home in a different one; what changes, what stays solid at the centre of our being—and how do the sounds we make come to reflect (or resist) these migrations? 

And had moving countries changed not only my accent, but my writing? 

I completed my novel Shadows and Wings—set largely in Australia—over many years, and the final few of them were here in North America. The biggest manuscript revision actually happened in the midst of a Winter farmhouse in rural Maine with a blizzard hissing and howling outside and burying the landscape (and the car) in mounds of feathery white; very un-Australian, even considering the wild High Country, which when I hiked and skied it, still did not look like the winter I heard and witnessed on the other side of the storm windows. Had this landscape, perhaps, changed my written accent? I have since read over my work, and looked at my more recent poetry and short stories with a closer eye (and ear). Images from my country seem sharper, more intentionally noted, as with something foregrounded in a photograph. It matters to me now that I name grasses, trees and animals, that I ponder the exact shade of the sky, that somehow I pin down the feel of the light. I sense the atmosphere of there more keenly here and have—through distance—worked hard to discover the right words to create it on the page.

Aussies travel more than anyone else, but they always seem to return home. So to write and publish as an Australian who is not, for the foreseeable future at least, coming home, makes me note my country with a greater keenness that oscillates somewhere between grief and relief—my memories of Australia are by no means all happy ones, and there are a couple of bridges probably still smoking. But the land won’t let me go. My current manuscript is also set in Australia, on the edge of the Strzelecki Desert, where a man deluded and maybe inspired builds an enormous boat for the flood he believes will come. And when I write the land, I feel the sand under my fingernails in a way I might not have while in Australia; I inhale the dust, I hear the ghost of the sharp wind from across the desert, or Bass Strait, or from the Victorian High Country, depending on which part of the land you inhabit. 

Because I still inhabit that land. In elevators, streets and subways in New York City, the iron grass scratches my legs, my skin echoes that tight sunburn summer feeling, that bright sky leans over me even as I close my eyes. Being from Melbourne I still can’t shake the feeling of a huge bay of water to the side of me, and it took a year before I could navigate Manhattan with its water banding me on all sides. In my heart, you see, there’s one bay, and one brown sluggish Yarra.

I also hear my accent differently, more positively. What I once thought was just nasal and tight, is now an accent of sky-reaching, of horizon-bending. It speaks of squinting your eyes as they cross vast landscapes; I realize my accent has space in it, the space that allows diphthongs to move and turn. My country—and I was not aware of this until now, in the Northern Hemisphere—has given me room to slide and stretch my vowels around, room for my cadences to dance. 

I have come to see that Australia has followed me here, has distracted me, flaunts itself side by side and inside the red dirt of Georgia where I lived for the first three years Stateside, the blue haze of the Catskills and the wild Atlantic coastline once you head up Route 1 into Maine. I’m right here, it keeps whispering and calling, even in a winter blizzard. Even on 6th Avenue. Even in a New School elevator. And it now inhabits and forges my work, where it never did before. Mark Tredinnick has it right, I think, when he says in his Editor’s Note to his anthology A Place on Earth, that “you will know that the same language is spoken in those two places; and you will hear how that language resonates in each place with different inflections and rhythms, timbres and dynamics—qualities to do with the nature of the two landscapes in which that common language plays, with which it converses and to do with the kind of relationship each of our cultures has made with the continent that houses and shapes it.” 

I began this piece as an author blog post, but I realized that I actually have to write this specifically as an Australian author. Because that’s what I am, even if I never physically return Down Under, even though my home is now here in New York. Because maybe—as I realized in the elevator—Aussies actually always do find a way to come home.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Michael Griffiths to join Antipodes board

Antipodes is please to announce that Michael Griffifths of the University of Wollongong has joined our board. Michael received his doctoral degree from Rice and just completed a two year fellowship at Columbia. He joins the distinguished literature program at Wollongong with a wealth of accomplishments under his belt, one of which is an article on Walt Whitman and Bernard O'Dowd in our journal. His interests range well beyond the conventionally Australian, though; his wide expertise in the literature and theory of Indigeneity gives his comprehensive grasp of the postcolonial a highly targeted and political tilt. Generally erudite and cosmopolitan in his sense of literature as a discipline, Michael Griffiths adds a tremendous amount to whether context he inhabits, and we are Antipodes are pleased to be among those contexts. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Some thoughts on the Miles Franklin winner "All the Birds, Singing."

In The Australian a couple of days ago, a noiresque (is that a word?) photo of Evie Wyld headed up an article on her recent Miles Franklin win, and the commentary under the photograph ran: “Miles Franklin winner Evie Wyld is an English writer—and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Later in the article I read again, “…I call her an English writer —and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Both those statements, made in such close proximity to each other, seemed to suggest that perhaps an English person should be the very last person to receive Australia’s most prestigious literary prize; the declarations seemed to be compensating for something. There seems something unsettling, perhaps, that the British might be able to write more compellingly about our country than an Australian, a fear residual of the cultural cringe phenomenon—that maybe the rest of the world (even Britain) does it better than we can ourselves. Perhaps. Evie Wyld has an Australian mother, and—to borrow the phrase from The Australian—that counts for something, maybe she is not entirely British. But the veiled defensive commentary in the article raises an interesting idea, one explored and occasionally stated by authors writing from outside Australia in some way, that sometimes one has to be on the outside in order to express the inside, that  one has to be away from one’s country to write about it with any insight and clarity. Distance in this case is not a tyranny, as Geoffrey Blainey maintained, but a lens through which the truth about one’s own relationship with one’s country can be more clearly examined, perhaps understood. David Malouf spent many years writing about Australia from outside it, and author Alex Miller has seemingly done the opposite—migrating to Australia in order to write about England. 

Wyld’s novel seems to embody this dilemma, the way distance does not stop stories from invading each other, the past breaking into the present, the ways that experiences in a far away place are not really so far away; that they have a way of bridging oceans and years and haunting, even ravaging, the present. Distance, in her novel, seems to open new and pervasive connections, and often sinister ones. The strange black creature who brutally attacks Jake’s ewes bears a strong resemblance, for this reader, to the black creature with the glowing red eyes that appears and haunts the images in Nude, Black Dog and a Tent by a Black Pool by Arthur Boyd. We learn that the story haunting Jake is the tragedy of the youth Denver, part-Aboriginal, whom she loved and deeply resented when he overlooked her for another girl—the resultant heartbreak being the catalyst for Jake starting the fire that killed Flora and led to Denver being seared so badly that he suffered burns that destroyed his eyelids and mouth. The fact he was blamed for Jake’s own criminal act, seems to manifest in the strange black beast that rattles Jake’s front door on the island, destroys her sheep, and even one time pants and waits outside Jake’s locked bathroom door. This imagistic, abstract portrayal of racial conflict emerges at times in a more concrete way, mainly through the dialogue of the Australian characters. Through their voices, Wyld makes several references to “whiteys” not belonging to Australia, that “we shouldn’t have come to Australia to start with. Look at us—crusted with skin cancers. The sea wants to kill us, the bush wants to kill us. You know there’s a shell up north—you pick it up on a beach, thinking you’ve found something pretty to hang round your neck, the fucker shoots out a poison arrow that’ll disintegrate your kidneys? It’s fucked, and we shouldn’t be here.” (167) 

This conflict pervades the work, and Jake feels throughout the novel that she has no place—she escapes her own home after the fire, and drifts to Darwin, Port Hedland, and then finally to an outback sheep station. We don’t ever find out how she manages to end up buying a farm on an English island, but even there she doesn’t fit—she never goes to the pub, doesn’t connect with any of the locals. The two people with whom she forges some sort of relationship are an older man feeling adrift from his land and son, exiled upon and from his own property, away from the house he cannot return to because his wife’s ghost haunts him, and Lloyd, the drifter who arrives one night on his own mission to ritualize the cremation of someone or something—again, we never find out the identity behind the ashes. 

So the stories are loose in some ways, fragmented and never pieced out in full logical detail, but the connections between them are the strong points, the ways they invade each other. Who are we, neither English nor accepted by and in the land we invaded? The sins of the past, the contemporary injustices against indigenous custodians of the land, are forcing their way into (and maybe catalysts for?) the psychic disenfranchisement of modern Australians. We can’t leave, and we can’t fully be in the land either. The end result, Wyld suggests by her enigmatic closing scene, is to have the courage to stand, gazing at the beast, the nameless “shadow beneath the green canopy” and hold hands with another, and no longer refuse to run.

 (1) Romei, Stephen. "Singing Evie Wyld's Praises for Miles Franklin Win." The Australian 5 July 2014, sec. Arts: n. pag. Print.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Herbert C Jaffa 1920-2013

Dear colleagues, I just found out, though sheer accident, that our beloved senior colleague Herbert C. Jaffa died last December 30.

I am distressed both by the news, and by finding out so late, although had Herb's wife, Edith, not predeceased him, she would have told me. Herb was a hero in large matters--he was one of the brave men who saved Australia in World War II from Imperial Japanese aggression, and made the war memorials that stud the streets around the Australian Defence Force Academy, from which I am writing, ones rendered in victory, not defeat.  But he was also a hero in small maters. He was of pivotal help in setting put his organization and to successive editors of Antipodes in editing the journal. He was one of our best book reviewers, and someone whose concern was always for the organization as a whole and for the good of Australian literature. he kept up to the end--he was aware of the various permutations of the Rudd/Gillard fracas, and his last phone call to me concerned an Australian science fiction author a young neighbour of his had recommended,

Herb was the last of my friends to have served in the Second World War, and the last in our organization. With him goes our last living link to the war which more than any other event forged the amity and familiarity between our two nations. He was one of the people who made global Australian studies possible. He introduced me to David Rowbotham, Tom Shapcott, and Vivian Smith. I will miss him more than I can say. I admired and revered him, and cherished his counsel.

The June Antipodes is about to go to press, but I hope Paul Plisiewicz will be able to insert a short memorial notice. For December I would like a much longer set of tributes, comparable to those we had for Robert Ross in 2005. Not all of you knew herb, but those who did, I would really appreciate remembrances, tributes, and so on.

Herb's great passion was the poetry of Kenneth Slessor, and I will end with this, Slessor's last poem, about Herb's war, although on another front.
Beach Burial – Kenneth Slessor
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;
And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –
"Unknown seaman" –the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men's lips,
Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.
El Alamein


Monday, May 19, 2014

Utopia: Australia’s Hidden Apartheid ... Some thoughts on the new film by John Pilger

“White Australia doesn’t have a sense of belonging to this land, it only has a sense of belonging to establishments, its institutions, and its cities its built here. It doesn’t understand this country.” 

So says Robert Eggington, founder of Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, a healing centre for Aboriginal people in Perth, Western Australia, in John Pilger’s important new film Utopia—to be screened across Australia on SBS on May 31st. 

From the opening archival footage discussing “the solution to the Aboriginal problem,” Pilger dives immediately into exposing the tragic dichotomy behind the common perception of Australia as a model for a democratic, tolerant, multicultural society. Pilger asserts that there is not one country of “Australia” but rather two: White versus Black Australia, and that there exists a deep, destructive fissure between them. Indeed, he goes so far as to assert that Australia is every bit as guilty of apartheid and human rights abuse as ever South Africa was. Pilger makes several, challenging comparisons to South Africa throughout the film, and ends with effectively calling for a Truth and Justice Commission to be established in Australia. The extent to which Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people can be compared with the South Africa’s Bantustan policy of creating Black Homelands is, for many, controversial, but Pilger’s assertion has certainly re-opened a public conversation about a past that has been (largely) sanitized—only in the last ten-fifteen years, for example, has a strong Indigenous Studies program been fully developed in the Higher Education sector, and certainly elementary and secondary Australian History education is one that has too often minimized the consistently oppressive treatment of Aboriginal people by colonists. One of his interviewees, Dr Jon Altman, a Professor of Anthropology at ANU, suggests positively resolving the situation can only be done through overseas aid—that the issue has become so “acerbic and politicized” that as a society “we cannot deal with it rationally.” 

These are all strong claims, to which Pilger brings research spanning 28 years; he made his first documentary on the “secret Australia” in 1985—A Secret Country—in which he exposed the appalling poverty of Indigenous people in remote Outback communities. He refers to this earlier work explicitly, and revisits those same communities only to find them completely unchanged. When Pilger presents this “Before and Before” scenario to various government officials, he is met with reactions that sometimes acknowledge the problem, but also seem overwhelmingly defeated and apathetic: “Yes, it is a regret I will take with me to my grave”  and “I’m not proud of government policy these last years.” Pilger comments to the former WA Minister for Justice Margaret Quirk: “But it [mistreatment, often fatal, of black people in police custody] doesn’t happen to white people, does it?” and Quirk replies quickly and definitively, “No, no of course not!” One of the main motifs in the documentary is this refusal of governments to face their own institutionalized racism and bigotry—Chris Graham, journalist and Associate Producer of the film, says that if they do, then they “won’t be in government very long.” 

That Black Australians are among the most imprisoned people on earth (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and that 1/3 of Aboriginal people will die before they are 45 from preventable diseases and suicide, is just as chilling as the words of both Australia’s first prime minister and one of its more recent leaders. Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton said, in introducing the act of parliament in 1901 that became known as The White Australia Policy, that “the doctrine of the Equality of Man was never intended to apply to those who were not British and white-skinned.” Decades later, in 2007, parliament, under John Howard’s conservative Liberal government, suspended the Racial Discrimination Act in order to allow an unprecedented military takeover/invasion of remote Aboriginal communities to combat alleged (and unproven) pedophile rings—a move that the UN itself condemned. And as one journalist put it, “you don’t suspend the Racial Discrimination Act unless you are about to do something racist.” 

Pilger makes the strongest possible case for the urgent and morally imperative need of addressing the state of Indigenous Australians. The glaring and appalling poverty (one broken toilet and an asbestos-ridden house for 32 people, as one example) along with the way racism has seeped deeply enough into the mainstream (read: white) subconscious—so much so that the government expected and received support for the Intervention—cries out for sustained, effective national debate at every level. 

There are times in this film where Pilger’s passion and personal investment in his subject gets the upper hand—such as leading interviewees with rhetorical questions. “When you come here, do you feel sadness or anger?” Pilger asks one elderly activist as they visit the graves of his wife and murdered son. We know the answer already, and indeed it is the one we hear: “Both.” As Pilger interviews another Aboriginal man in a remote community, he remarks: “it shouldn’t be like this, should it? It’s a rich country—for some. You have a right to certain things. You’re paying your tax.” And of course the interviewee agrees. There are many times Pilger cites evidence in vague and unspecific terms, and it almost feels like some sort of visual footnote system would be helpful; on several occasions he cites “experts” or “a school textbook” or states claims and facts without explaining where he got them from. However, I don’t wish to focus on these aspects to the detriment of seeing the bigger, compelling and shocking picture Pilger is giving us. Hopefully there will be many more documentary filmmakers who investigate the state of contemporary Aboriginal experience and champion the injustices, but do so from different perspectives and introduce further research into the arena. 

Investigative journalist Jeff McMullen makes the point that White-Aboriginal relations have followed a consistent pattern of promises and betrayal. “We rounded up people,” he explains, over the visual of photographic archival images of rows of Aboriginal men chained together by the neck, “into our own concentration camps, in fact what we have done from the original invasion until now is constantly reduce Aboriginal people to a sub-human status.”  This betrayal in all its full and horrific panorama is the subject of what is not so much a documentary, but a visual thesis by Pilger; and a thesis we need to read, think on and then—undeniably, immediately and as a nation—act to change. 

For those outside Australia, Utopia can be streamed online at this location:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Phillip Gijindarraji Hall, Sweetened in Coals

Phillip Gijindarraji Hall, Sweetened in Coals

“This book is a stunning achievement.” – Bonny Cassidy

Phillip Hall has long been an antipodean follower of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. He has worked as a wilderness expedition leader in Australia for many years writing his nature and environmental poetry in his spare time. For over ten years his poetry has been published in numerous literary journals including Antipodes, Meanjin, Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Quadrant and Southerly.

Phillip now works in remote Indigenous education in Borroloola, the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria, where he continues to run camping and sports programs designed to teach emotional resiliency, cooperative group learning and safe decision making. He has immersed himself in Indigenous Culture and Story and has been welcomed into Gulf life with the most amazing generosity and warmth. He has been made a Gudanji man; known also by his skin name of Jabala and his traditional or bush name of Gijindarraji where he is a member of the Rrumburriya clan; he is Jungkayi (custodian) for Jayipa.

Phillip’s new book of poetry is Sweetened in Coals; it is celebration of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, of the natural world; of the values and blessings of walking and camping in wild places. Here is what some people have written about this book:

“We like Phillip very much. We like his poetry. We like him teaching our kids. They love him like big brother so he’s ours – Jabala – family” – Adie Miller, Gudanji Elder.

“This is poetry that dances like the brolga: in praise of wading waist deep in the mountain river’s ‘nourishing brown flow’; of parceling freshly caught barra in paperbark before ‘sweetening in coals’; of a campfire crackling in ‘plumes of rising heat’. Hall raises the flag to Indigenous survival, listening to Country in a way that esteems the Traditional Owners and interrogates colonialism’s crooked paths. This is poetry that keeps us sensitively engaged and committed from beginning to
end” – publisher of Sweetened in Coals.

“Every day 21st Century Australia needs urgent corrections to that ongoing virus of phoney patriotism continuing to infect it. The plain-speaking, closely observed poems of Phillip Hall go a mighty long way in tending to that
need” – Alan Wearne.

“Hall is a striking imagist, moving us toward a Thoreauean poetic of sauntering and ambient perspective. Sweetened in Coals is a stunning achievement” – Bonny Cassidy.

Phillip Gijindarraji Hall is certainly a poet and outdoor educator to keep an eye on. His work is a valuable contribution to the development of a vital postcolonial ecopoetics and response to place. In the poetry of Hall the act of walking becomes a meditation on how to dwell – respectfully – on this earth. 

Contact Details

Phillip Hall
Borroloola NT 0854

Buy your copy of this ‘stunning book’ now at:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My Self, My Country: Robert Dixon's Critical Collection on the Works of Alex Miller

Dixon, Robert, ed. The Novels of Alex Miller: An Introduction. 1st ed. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2102. Print.

Until Robert Dixon’s book appeared in 2012, what critical work there was on Alex Miller was relatively sparse, and even though select novels were explored (mainly “The Ancestor Game” ) not until this publication has his writing been treated as a body of work—and it is this aspect in particular that makes “The Novels of Alex Miller: an introduction” such a fascinating read. Any form that requires the title “body” necessarily implies a site for a myriad of interconnecting parts, many of which appear quite unlike each other when taken as disparate entities. In recognition of this, Dixon’s book collects not only critical essays (and within the critical essays there is a pleasing range of writing voices and diverse theoretical concerns) but also a transcript of a panel session with the real-life characters on whom Miller based his characters and story in “Journey to the Stone Country” and “Landscape of Farewell.” There is also a reflective, meta-narrative piece by Miller himself and a piece of philosophical contemplation by Raimond Gaita. Placed together in one volume, the effect is indeed of a body of work—background, imaginative responses, abstraction and extemporizing, and the powerful human interest of discovering how “Journey to the Stone Country” has been read by miners, Aborigines, and county Queensland families alike. 

But a body is not just a sum of its parts, it includes threads of connection, and motifs that appear across the many different forms the body takes. Thus it is with Dixon’s work, and by the end of the book I was left with several key themes that emerged across the majority of the readings. 

Dixon writes that “Miller’s conviction that the modern artist is an exile in his own country” and that his work involves the exploration of  the “globalizing forces of colonialism, war and commerce” (Dixon 2012, 9). Miller, although writing predominantly within a specifically Australian context, by tackling the above themes also investigates issues that apply to the international community, and particularly to industrialized nations such as the USA. Miller holds a narrative balance between the close world of individuals and the larger issues in (post)colonialism in his addressing of the “…series of associations between the colonist, the invader, the parasite and the artist” (10).

Miller himself writes in the opening chapter that “memoir does not offer us a sure means for contacting the deeper dualities of the self. For this journey to the heart of darkness, fiction is a more certain, if more oblique, way” (Miller 29). This is a telling quote, and one that suggests some of the innate drama, and ethical issues, at the heart of Miller’s body of work, and maybe why he both troubles people and also speaks for many of them. Firstly, the journey he refers to is essentially an egotistical one, or at the least, self-motivated and with self-fulfillment as its desired outcome, “Why did I believe, and why do I still believe, that this story was mine? What made it mine?” (Miller, as cited in Dixon 2012, 5). It is a quest in the Jungian sense, of dealing with and finally piecing together the fragmented parts of ourselves to come to a whole. Such a quest is, in essence, about me. But in discovering and expressing the real me, I pretend to be someone else, in fact I actually craft and tell the story of this someone else. And to do this, I enter—and must enter—deeply into their world, or as Dixon writes, “the invader, as we have seen in Miller’s earlier novels, is always deeply involved with those whose territory he enters” (16). Their story becomes a proxy for my own, a way to realize my own fulfillment, and the “artist [becomes] both an observer and … an invader of the homeland of the other” (11).

And this is where a profound ethical dilemma comes in; because whose stories are chosen to fulfill this quest, this seeking-for-self? The stories chosen by Miller are those of the marginalized, the displaced, the disenfranchised—most notably immigrants, indigenous people, and women (not necessary in that order). So a question immediately arises, and this is one which remains a question (or, as Dixon positively phrases it, an “invitation”) at the close of the book: does this appropriation of story act as transformative and empowering for the chosen proxy? Or in being used as the mask for the narrator, are these “others” somehow colonized and reframed as merely a coating for the teller’s own journey? Is their agency sacrificed to the agency of the storyteller? 

Miller talks about this journey to the heart of the self as a journey to “the heart of darkness” and one can only read this in terms of a direct and obvious reference to Conrad. The darkness at the heart of Conrad’s novel of that name was the hidden centre of the “othered” African continent, a centre where the imagined core of African culture—with all its twin colonial fantasies of violent cannibalism and exotic submission to the conqueror—was combined in a hellish depiction of what might be seen as the heart of colonialism. This horror was connected to blackness, therefore perpetuating age-old racist ideology, but there is a twist in Conrad’s depiction of blackness as evil, in that the darkness in this case also illustrates the unfettered fulfillment of Imperialism. That this horror is suggested as what we will find when we get to the centre of ourselves, begs the question as to whether we are all (and does the ‘we’ apply to white people, or all people?) at heart those who would—given the “right” combination of events and circumstance—annex the power of others to support our own fantasies of total control and colonial power. 

What is both wonderful in a literary sense, and perhaps frightening also, is that as Miller dons the mask to explore his own story, he also beautifully and with deep empathy tells the story of those who, by Miller’s very act of storytelling, are kept from sharing their own story in their own voice. Or are they? Is their voice perhaps shared all the more effectively because of the very act of being taken and reworked in a new way, for a predominantly white audience? Miller’s work is filled with these ambivalences, consistently rendered with a respectful and clear appreciation for the active mines embedded in this landscape of historical (and current) experience.

Miller’s novels form a body of work rife with powerful challenges to the ethics of being an artist and a white Australian, but far from thinking that these concerns are a negative aspect, it is this very exploration of the complexities and wounds that will hopefully give rise to continued, and let us hope productive and potentially healing, conversations about race, invasion and how to move forwards as a country that was founded on war and fragmentation. Dixon quotes writer Shameem Black in articulating Miller’s importance as a writer, in that he asserts Miller is “inviting readers to question assumptions about identity and imaginative projection, and exploring the ethics of representation” (Black, as cited in Dixon 2012, 26).

Robert Dixon has assembled an intriguing, challenging and extremely readable collection of meditations on the considerable breadth of work by Alex Miller, and I would recommend it highly as a way to explore not only the context for Miller’s own writing, but literary and socio-historical concerns of the current Zeitgeist in Australian literature as a whole.