This is another post long overdue, and I apologise to friend and author, Jillian Bailey for not celebrating the publication of her wonderful family history before now, but I imagine I’m not the only blogger attempting catch-up after a horror of a year because of the global pandemic whirling a chaotic world close to home.
The above picture from November last year when we received from the printer, in Jillian’s words, ‘the labour of love’ that is The history of a Carrum family. The actual publication followed months of meetings held between lockdowns, copious emails, phone calls, text messages and usb drops in each other’s mailbox to finalise the contents, but as Jillian states in the Acknowledgements, the writing was in ‘progress over the past fifteen years…’
The book has pages of photographs and scanned documents. Many are family photos but there is a 1950s school photo from Carrum Primary as well as photographs of public events and locales. It is usually the inclusion of these photographs and historical descriptions of an area that moves a family history from being important to a select few to interesting for a wider audience. (The Facebook groups focusing on local areas have thousands of members and inevitably the posters who share old photos and memories receive the highest number of likes and responses.)
The process of which images to include became the subject of many discussions and hard decisions because as is the case with most family histories the cost of ‘the labour of love’ is borne by the researcher/writer!
Over the years and even in the months close to finalisation, family members gave feedback on the manuscript and some decided to submit or change a contribution. Writing a family history is not for the fainthearted or impatient.
Jillian initially began her journey into family history to honour her parents and record their legacy and keeping that as the focus helped decide what images and text to include and gave her definite parameters and a beginning and end. The book is a history of her family establishing a home in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Carrum at the end of WW2, and the house built by her father features on the front cover; a photograph of her smiling parents, Jack and Doreen, brightens the back cover.
Jillian’s parents both lived into their nineties, Jack (95) and Doreen(98) and as their carer for many years Jillian took the opportunity to listen to their stories, ask questions, and record their memories with the aim of passing on the history to children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – a permanent legacy.
By taking the time to reflect and document the stories about the family’s history, Jack and Doreen’s life experiences, opportunities and challenges, the joys and sorrows, Jillian has captured her parents’ values and wisdom and their keen sense of humour. The book also provides an opportunity for the reader to learn what it was like growing up in Carrum of the 1950s at a time when the infrastructure and technology we know today, didn’t exist.
We may listen to stories told by parents and grandparents but until someone takes the time to record and write down these stories, the anecdotes and information remain fragmented memories, easily distorted and often accompanied by a bundle of photographs of people with no name or context.
Family histories are important historical documents, they can contain information and photographs more relevant to ordinary folk, who make up the majority, than stories of royalty and celebrities because the majority of people are not affluent, their fifteen minutes of fame if it happens is localised. It is ordinary working people who produce the families that make suburbs grow, who establish the clubs and special interest groups, and the need for parks, schools, libraries and bus routes!
At some time in our lives, most of us are curious about ancestors and where we are from, and the growing popularity of Ancestry.com and TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are plus people paying for DNA testing is significant.
Collating a family tree is important, but families are more than a list of birth and death dates. Stories add flesh and depth to an abstract list of names. The Family Tree in Jillian’s history prepared by a genealogist friend, begins with her grandparents. Jillian’s mother was an only child, but her father was one of six children, so the Bailey family tree has plenty of foliage!
There are interesting inclusions in the book that you don’t necessarily find in other family histories such as colourful Heraldic pics certifying the origins of the maternal grandparents’ name, Watson (meaning son of Walter and dating to thirteenth century) and paternal grandparents’ name, Bailey (or Bailiff – man of great importance, fourteenth century).
Plus closeups of Certificates of Sale of the Highland Titles of Lord and Lady of Glencoe and a small plot of land in a nature reserve, in the Parish of Lismore in Scotland. The titles bought for Doreen and Jack on their 70th Wedding Anniversary. This gift from the family and subsequent ‘knighting’ at the party a great example of the Bailey family sense of humour and fun. In Jillian’s words:
“The family always got together for special birthdays and anniversaries, we loved the thought of a get-together; any good excuse for a party. We had great family parties, Mum at the piano hitting the keys beautifully; our singing not so beautiful, but with gusto and enjoyment...
Mum and Dad’s 70th Wedding Anniversary was extra special. About ninety family and friends came from everywhere to celebrate with them. Joan, who was the flower girl for their wedding in April 1942, came with her husband Alan. It was lovely to see them chatting with Mum and Dad.” (page 86)
Jillian’s parents were founding members of the Carrum Entertainment Group in 1955 and the reminiscences about the concerts and plays performed are illustrated by newspaper clippings, scanned programs and photographs. Doreen had her own band that played at all the local Barn and Square Dances held at the Carrum Fire Brigade Hall when it was situated near the Patterson River in Station Street.
Similarly, Jillian’s father was the Captain-Coach of the Carrum Life Saving Club and helped organise the Royal Life-Saving carnivals popular in the era and Jillian writes a vivid description of participating in the 1952 carnival hosted by Carrum. The book is rich in detail about neighbours and the various families involved with the Baileys, and as is often the case when people live most of their life in a particular locality, the friendship circle remains.
The history of a Carrum family is an enjoyable easy read, well set out in six parts with accompanying photographs and scanned documents:
Part 1 – the story of the maternal and paternal grandparents arriving in Australia by ship from England.
Part 2 – Doreen and Jack’s memories of childhood, marriage and children, working life and move to Carrum.
Part 3 – details of grandparents and family friends, stories of cousins.
Part 4 – the story of Jillian and her siblings childhood at Carrum, adulthood, weddings and children.
Part 5 – children’s weddings, grandchildren, family celebrations: anniversaries and Christmas parties, memories and anecdotes
Part 6 – stories relating to the family history published in Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies 2007-2015.
The anthologies Jillian refers to are in the library: A Rich Inheritance, published 2007, Carnival Caper, 2011 and Kingston My City, 2015. (This last anthology is free to download as an e-book KingstonMyCity.epub. and Jillian’s story starts p.74)
I couldn’t attend the launch of The history of a Carrum Family which happened when lockdown 4 eased December 2020. Remaining border restrictions meant family members interstate watched the launch remotely.(Yeah for the Internet!)
Here are a couple of extracts putting the launch in context and explaining the start of Jillian’s writing journey:
In the first essay when Jillian began writing her family history she focused on the first decade – 1949-1959:
“I cast my mind back to 1948 when my parents bought a block of land in Carrum for 50 pounds. Dad and a family friend, Jack Millane, a carpenter-joiner by trade, started to build our house at the end of 1949...
They were tough times and over the next ten years, shortages of labour and building materials meant many people built their own houses, or provided unskilled labour for friends to cut construction costs and delays. ‘Materials were hard to get,’ Dad said, ‘even the nails were like gold. You had to dig deep to find them.’
On hearing about the shortage, Eric ‘Sandy’ McDougall, the local chemist and well-known Carrum identity said, ‘I’llget you some nails, Jack.’ Sandy supplied Dad, and many others, with nails he railed down from Sydney. These nails were made in Melbourne, but were rationed to other states according to need, by the Gold Nail Company and government regulations. Mr Mac (as a lot of people called him), set up a hardware corner in his chemist-grocery mixed business, providing an excellent service for the local community.
Dad worked all week, and at weekends he rode his pushbike from Chelsea to Carrum to help Jack build the house...” (page 114)
The recent upheavals because of the pandemic makes some of this information eerily familiar as does the poignant story of Laurel Bailey, Jillian’s Aunt, born in 1932. Six-year-old Laurel collapsed on stage at the Princess Theatre during a dance performance to become:
“… one of the first Infantile Paralysis cases in Victoria. She spent the next two years in the Hampton Hospital (now known as Linacre Rehab Hospital) paralysed from the chest down inside an iron lung to help her breathe. She had contracted Polio from her cousin, Beryl who had no symptoms at all. Beryl went on to marry and give birth to twelve children.
Laurel was one of the fortunate ones under the care of Sister Kenny, whose healing methods became internationallyfamous for her wonderful work with Polio victims. Unfortunately, Australia lost Sister Kenny to overseas due to the lack of respect and belief in the work she did. She fought the government to get help for polio sufferers for years without success... ” (page 48)
Another snippet of history in Jillian’s book that resonates with today’s news about what you can and cannot do during lockdown is her mother buying a hair salon in Carrum in the late 1950s – the site now occupied by Aldi’s supermarket. Jillian worked there too:
“I started at Venus College of Hair and Beauty Culture in February 1958. It was a fifteen month course, covering everything in hair and beauty work. I really enjoyed my studies and was proud of my qualifications. I worked with Mum in her salon on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings during this time to get some practical knowledge and hands-on experience. Mum eventually sold the business about two years later when I was qualified and had a position in a wonderful salon.” (page 63)
The story of following in her mother’s footsteps to own hairdressing salons and all the accompanying experiences that go with a career where every day is filled with personalities and personal stories will hopefully be the topic of Jillian’s next book when she writes her memoirs!
Until then, after fourteen years of research and writing, she can enjoy the well-deserved praise and gratitude from family and friends for The history of a Carrum family.
We survived all that 2020 threw at us and I’m pleased I had a small part to play in Jillian sharing her story of the strength, resilience and remarkable lives of earlier generations.
If you want to read about others who have displayed Jillian’s determination to publish a slice of history click on the links below:
Last year, the frustration of failed words, struggling motivation and dashed hopes seemed to be my lot, although I enjoyed limited success with a poem published in the Australian Senior, July 2019 and a play shortlisted in ARKfest 2020.
Maybe I can still claim the title writer…
Satisfaction came by helping students achieve their writing dreams, which in Mary Robinson’s case (the Irish eyes of this post’s title) was a book she had been working on for several years before coming to the Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, ‘to finally, transform nostalgic reflections into a book to hold.‘
The class finished in 2018 but I promised Mary to help publish One Last Goodbye, a labour of love and a wonderful legacy for her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Ilsa.
In the Introduction, Mary expresses why so many ‘pick up a pen’ or attend a writing class…
There are deeply personal reasons to finish writing my memoir. I am, I suppose, like most people who have reached the 80-year mark, conscious of time passing and wishing to reveal information to family members I may not have previously spoken of. I am also keenly aware of my daughter, Catherine, raising her child at a time of tumultuous change in Australia and the world. I possess that innate human need to link the past with the future so that all our loved ones who came before us are honoured and their stories not lost. I want the generations who will follow to remember how hard their ancestors worked to give us all a better and slightly easier life, and the real sacrifices the Morans made to reach these goals. I want my darling little granddaughter, Ilsa to get a sense of where her kith and kin have come from so that no matter how far is travelled, both in terms of time and geography, she will feel the tug of her Irish roots and be inspired by their great efforts to meet the challenges in her own life as she grows up.
A fellow student, Edna Gaffney, published her memoir in July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, giving Mary a fresh burst of energy to persist. Determination needed to see the project through because a series of health crises, including a bad fall led to an extended hospital stay to heal several broken bones in her hand and other damage.
(Murphy’s Law meant it was the writing hand!)
We set the deadline for November so copies of the book could be Christmas gifts to family overseas and just made it when the happy author held a copy on November 25th!
The title of the book, a phrase Mary’s mother said each time her daughter left after a visit. Echoed in the last line, it is a fitting end to the book, when on a visit ‘home’ in 2002, was indeed the last goodbye.
We had many discussions about the format (A4), titles and placements of chapters, what photographs to include, the cover design and blurb – a process of close collaboration to ensure the book encapsulates Mary’s love of her birthplace, Achill isle and her family. It was important to tell the story in a natural voice, including Gaelic words and local vernacular.
There is Irish history, information about traditional customs, and immense pride in the Irish diaspora’s contribution – Mary’s family, the Morans – a clan scattered across several continents, like many others from Erin’s isle.
Before coming to Australia and continuing a long nursing career, Mary was a nun in the USA for 15 years. This time in her life merits a stand-alone book if she felt inclined, however, it does not define her life of caring for others. Mary’s nursing career took her from London to Chicago, Perth, Port Hedland, Darwin, New Guinea and Melbourne, including an active part in the memorable 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike!
Modest and unassuming, Mary Robinson is typical of many ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives.
I always feel privileged to hear the journeys and help the women record their stories. Society must not lose valuable contributions to the tapestry of herstory and history.
Celebrating Each Other’s Success
Another student from the Bentleigh class offered to host a celebration and mini-launch of Mary’s book but organising a date to suit everyone over the Christmas period is not an easy task.
On Friday, December 27, most past students met for a delicious lunch and just ‘like old times’ we all read a piece of writing, listened to each other’s stories and congratulated Mary on her achievement.
Edna read a small piece from her book, Chibby From Brandy Creekreminding us of life in rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. She shared the wonderful news that her daughter was arranging for the printing of more books.
A thoroughly modern Jan read a poem she confessed to ‘dashing off’ on her mobile phone while on the train. We sat enthralled at the funny rhyming verse about Christmas and the discovery of decorations like the ‘hairy fairy’.
An impressive, polished poem produced in ‘ten minutes’ – wow – and a demonstration that age is not a barrier to mastering technology!
Nora shared a delightful ‘Ode To The Pantry’ and reflected on her life as an Armenian immigrant integrating culinary and cultural practices, especially at a time like Christmas with traditional rituals.
She cleaned out the pantry to prepare for cooking expected treats and pondered the outcome if spices, seeds, sauces and legumes commonly found in Armenian recipes were forgotten or the wrong quantities used.
Special occasions need the added spice…
And we all agreed, we like added spice!
Janet read her poem The Mirror of ANZAC, written when she attended a ceremony at Gallipoli in 2000.
When she stood at the grave of a man from Mentone buried at Lone Pine, she reflected on the universal story of soldiers everywhere who fight and die far from home.
Annie read a thoughtful essay with observations about various plants in her garden and having conversations with her flowers and trees when she is weeding, fertilising, pruning and planting.
An ex-teacher, her essays always delve below the surface and like Nora’s stories; they are philosophical reflections on the human condition and human behaviour.
The gardening piece morphed into memories of her first teaching position, a tough gig. Assigned a class of Grade Threes comprising 36 pupils deemed ‘troublemakers’ and unwanted by the other teachers, it made her question her career choice.
Annie said to be a good gardener and teacher you have to stay alert and adapt, and like the needs of plants, we must nurture some children more than others.
Mary read a lovely poem about a rose presented to her by the Henry Lawson Society for her 80th birthday.
The care and development of the rose and the joy experienced when it blossomed an apt metaphor for the time and effort Mary put into writing her book and how she felt when she held a copy in her hands.
It was a lovely memory day, allowing me to bask and learn from the writing prowess of others.
I’ll finish the post with a memory Mary shares in her book that has remained from the moment she shared it in class:
We had many farm animals and so had to cut and dry a large supply of hay to feed them through the colder months when snow covered the fields and hills. The children helped with this process, gathering in the fields and helping to rake the hay into rows. Haymaking and wet weather made for bad work companions similar to the peat preparations. We always prayed for the rain to stay away. A day in the fields cutting and collecting hay both hard work and happiness. We all looked forward to 3:00pm when Mother came around. We watched eagerly as she passed around cups of tea and slices of home-baked soda bread. This picnic atmosphere made the hard work more bearable.
The next labour-intensive work was hoeing the potatoes out of the ground and piling them in hessian sacks. Father also cut, bundled and stacked the hay for the animals in the barn to last through winter. Farm life harsh with work never-ending. While growing up, I didn’t fully realise how extremely hard my father worked because he suffered in silence, never complaining or being negative. Life was what people did and they just got on with it.
Recently, by sheer accident, my brother, Michael spotted a photograph of Father in one of the many books that are published about our region. The book titled: I Remember It Well: Memories of Yesteryear, 120th Anniversary of Western People, published in 2003 by The Western People newspaper. They had not identified him by name but it was Father all right, just as I remember him, face concentrating on his work, yet managing to convey an air of cheerfulness. Whenever I read the caption: ‘Back-breaking work – an old man carries a creel of turf in Achill, 1967’ tears well and my heart constricts. Father was only in his sixties but looked eighty. All the decades of hard work aged him before his time and sadly, he died of a massive heart attack a few months after this picture was taken.
p9, One Last Goodbye, Mary Robinson
For many years, the regular exodus of Irish families to mainland Britain working skilled or semi-skilled jobs was vital to the British economy, especially the rebuilding necessary after the war. These workers returned home to work farms to provide for their families during the winter months and sent money home at other times. Some never returned home and hence statistics like 60% of the population of cities like Glasgow and Liverpool have Irish ancestry!
Many countries and many economies owe a debt of gratitude to the hard work of Irish immigrants and books like Mary Robinson’s, add faces, names and background details to enrich the stark statistics.
My daughter, Anne bought the tiny tome No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg and gave it to me to read yesterday. The book is only 68 pages and recently published by Penguin Random House, UK.
Tome is normally used for a large scholarly work and Greta’s first book is tiny in pages and size compared to many others but it is scholarly, comprising of her speeches to climate rallies, the UN, the World Economic Forum and the British Parliament – speeches in which she recites scientific data and reveals her extensive study into the implications of global warming.
If you want to read what she actually said rather than remember news bites, doctored quotes, memes and deliberately misleading information on social media or by grumpy adults in The Australian, or on talkback radio and Sky TV, this is a handy little book to buy. There are many details to spark the conversations we need to have…
The titles of the various ‘chapters’ are apt and leave the reader in no doubt of this sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist’s determination to get her message across to everyone from students, average citizens, politicians, national leaders, activists – in fact, anyone who will listen.
Several factual statements and emotional pleas are repeated in every or most speech in a down-to-earth, some may say pedantic manner. Greta is unashamedly proud of having Asperger’s which she considers ‘a gift’ enabling her to ‘see the climate crisis in black and white.’
What Better Primary Source On Greta Than Greta’s Own Words!
On page 24, a Facebook Post by Greta on 2 February 2019, entitled ‘I’m Too Young to Do This’, she addresses the rumours and misconceptions circulating, and sadly the ‘enormous amounts of hate’ generated by her courageous stance on what she considers a climate catastrophe and unhealthy future for herself and following generations.
She clarifies and explains her journey of enlightenment and subsequent politicisation of the ‘climate crisis,’ and her desire to motivate those with power to do something about this crisis and at the same time awaken the rest of the world’s population to the fear young people have for the future.
When Greta addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg 16 April 2019 in Cathedral Thinking, she tells them ‘I am sixteen years old. I come from Sweden. And I want you to panic.’
She admits to repeating the words, recognises the criticism but advises, ‘when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’
This speech perhaps the most pertinent and poignant of them all because it came a day after Notre-Dame burned in Paris. Greta recognised that ‘some buildings are more than just buildings. But Notre Dame will be rebuilt.’
Not so our fragile home … Earth…
‘Around the year 2030, 10 years, 259 days and 10 hours away from now, we will be in a position where we will set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it. That is, unless in that time permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent… these are just calculations, estimations, meaning that the point of no return may occur a bit sooner or later than that…
These predictions are backed up by scientific facts, concluded by all nations through the IPCC.
Nearly every major scientific body around the world unreservedly supports the work and findings of the IPCC.
We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction and the extinction rate is up to 10,000 times faster than what is considered normal, with up to 200 species becoming extinct every single day.
Erosion of fertile topsoil.
Deforestation of our great forests,
Toxic air pollution.
Loss of insects and wildlife.
The acidification of our oceans.
These are all disastrous trends being accelerated by a way of life that we, here in our financially fortunate part of the world, see as our right to simply carry on.
But hardly anyone knows about these catastrophes or understands that they are just the first few symptoms of climate ecological breakdown…
… they have not been told by the right people and in the right way.
Our house is falling apart.
Our leaders need to start acting accordingly.’
What Are Our So-Called Leaders Doing To Avert Catastrophe?
Greta challenges them to stop flying around the world, ‘chatting about how the market will solve everything with clever, small solutions to specific, isolated problems.’
Stop trying to buy and build out of the crisis ‘created by buying and building things.’
Why ‘hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and ecosystems’?
She can’t understand why countries are still arguing about ‘phasing out coal in fifteen or eleven years’ or ‘celebrating that one single nation, like Ireland, may soon divest from fossil fuels.’
Why do they ‘celebrate that Norway has decided to stop drilling for oil outside the scenic resort of Lofoten Islands, but will continue to drill for oil everywhere else, for decades’?
Greta is aware that scientists have been warning governments for years about global warming and inaction or poor decisions have created this climate catastrophe.
There Is No Polite Way To deliver an Unpopular Message!
The ongoing climate and ecological crisis must make up the headlines in the media – and if school strikes and extinction rebellion demonstrations are what it takes then that is what people must do.
Greta begs world leaders to stop arguing about taxes and squabbles like Brexit and start cooperating to work out what we are going to do to address climate change. And ‘the bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty.’
At the recent ‘school strike for climate change’ in Melbourne, unprecedented numbers – 150,000 plus – stopped the city and young students were joined by thousands of adults: representatives of churches, unions, community groups, and political parties all demanding action because like Greta, they see this is a make or break time for Mother Earth
Unite behind the science!
Greta advises we just ‘Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy.’
She recognises that politicians fear to be unpopular with voters and that many voters are ignorant or refuse to accept the reality of the climate crisis, so ‘it will take a far-reaching vision.
‘It will take courage. It will take a fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling’ of this house of ours which is falling apart, ‘In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.’
She finishes her address to the European Parliament with,
‘it’s okay if you refuse to listen to me. I am after all just a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Sweden. But you cannot ignore the scientists, or the science, or the millions of schoolchildren who are school-striking for their right to a future.
I beg you, please do not fail in this.’
A Strange World Indeed!
Greta dedicated an award at the Goldene Kamera Film and TV Awards, Berlin 30 March 2019, to people fighting to protect the Hambach Forest and to activists everywhere who fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
She hammers home how strange the world is when the ‘united science tells us that we are about eleven years away from setting off an irreversible chain reaction, way beyond human control, that will probably be the end of civilization as we know it.’
Politicians don’t act because of the cost yet spend trillions subsidizing fossil fuels and ‘a football game or a film gala gets more media attention than the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.’!
Greta begged celebrities to use their influence and voice to raise awareness about the global crisis and suggests those that don’t are worried action ‘would inflict on their right to fly around the world visiting their favourite restaurants, beaches and yoga retreats.’
The well-known proverb advises ‘Good things come in small packages’ – this can definitely apply to Greta and her book. She is unafraid to speak from her heart and face whatever criticism is thrown at her and when invited to speak at forums most of us will never be invited to (especially not the bigheaded bigots like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt), she speaks with courage, clarity and does not falter.
‘You’re Acting Like Spoiled, Irresponsible Children‘ is her address to the European Economic and Social Committee ‘Civil Society for rEUnaissance in Brussels, 21 February 2019.
‘We are school striking because we have done our homework… There is simply not enough time to wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge… We know that most politicians don’t want to talk to us. Good, we don’t want to talk to them either. We want them to talk to the scientists instead. Listen to them, because we are just repeating what they are saying and have been saying for decades.
We want you to follow the Paris Agreement and the IPCC reports… unite behind the science, that is our demand…
… we need new politics, we need new economics where everything is based on a rapidly declining and extremely limited remaining carbon budget…
… we need a whole new way of thinking. The political system you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win, to get power…
… we must stop competing with each other, we need to cooperate and work together and to share the resources of the planet in a fair way.
We need to start living wihtin the planetary boundaries, focus on equity and take a few steps back for the sake of all living species.
We need to protect the biosphere, the air, the oceans, the soil, the forests.
This may sound very naive, but if you have done your homework then you know that we don’t have any other choice…
You can’t just sit around waiting for hope to come – you’re acting like spoiled, irresponsible children… hope is something you have to earn.
In 1988, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter of advice to people living on Earth 100 years in the future. It has been summarised and is doing the rounds of Facebook, probably due to Greta and her supporters reminding us that the time for talking, procrastinating, denial of the seriousness and downright ignorance and stupidity is well and truly over!
We Need More Like Greta
I have been an environmental activist for years and often use my writing abilities to raise awareness that there is no Planet B!! I taught both my daughters to care for the environment and my first books of poetry (Small Talk, 1994 and More Small Talk,1995) were written for children, including poems on subjects I hoped would initiate family discussions about the environment, pollution, littering, caring for wildlife, our oceans…
In the 1990s, the terminology used was the Greenhouse Effectand many businesses were asked to participate in the ‘Greenhouse Challenge’, Australia’s National greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy. A goodwill pact between Australian industry and the Commonwealth government to reduce gas emissions through voluntary industry action was supported by responsible businesses.
Throughout the world, there were programs to plant trees, save forests and a heightened awareness of the importance of trees, especially rainforests that provide the oxygen which life on Earth needs to survive.
Greta reminds us that not enough was done, governments changed, many haven’t honoured their commitments, some had no intention of making a commitment…
We now have a climate catastrophe looming…
Let’s start listening and adding our voice to Greta’s – she deserves our admiration and support. Read her book and be inspired to act.
It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.
The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially sincethe book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.
However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.
A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’!
… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?
Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue
In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.
There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.
Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.
‘Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.’
Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.
Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.
Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library.
With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.
‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)
Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:
‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.
… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’
Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.
‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’
Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)
Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.
The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.
Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.
‘Themissing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.(p156)
We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.
‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)
A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’
The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.
Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.
Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.
Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.
Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.
‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.
For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’
Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)
Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:
‘a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’
The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)
The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!
Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:
So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)
Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)
Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.
In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …
…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…
The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)
Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.
‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’
‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’
‘A long one?’
‘What will you take with you?’
‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’
‘So did I, darling! (p185)
Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.
The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?
It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?
Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.
Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!
There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.
When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.
Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.
The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.
Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.
Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
In her Dedication, Edna wrote:
These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.
Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.
I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.
A Powerful Story Shared
When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.
I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.
Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.
However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.
Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.
The Journey To Publication
Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.
It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.
Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years. The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!
The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)
Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.
Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.
Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.
Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.
When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.
Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)
The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)
When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.
Books for Purpose Not Profit
This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.
When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG. I only hope this happens.
You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Sharedhere. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.
Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.
I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.
Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.
Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?
She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.
Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published. Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.
Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.
Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.
It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.
Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!
Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.
I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!
An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.
When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught Life Stories & Legacies for several years.
This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.
Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.
When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.
Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate. Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.
Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!
Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee and in the spotlight were authors
Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.
It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’
She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.
She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.
There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!
The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.
Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!
‘The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’
She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.
Embellishment versus Truth?
Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.
Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.‘
An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.
Why didn’t she smash a window?
She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.
Work In Progress
In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.
After Stone Girlwas published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!
Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.
He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.
John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.
He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.
Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?
John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.
However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.
John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.
Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?
Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.
It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.
For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!
Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.
In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.
She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.
It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.
The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.
She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.
Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.
It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.
Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful
the stakes must be high,
there must be conflict,
a resolution or change in the character
or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.
Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.
John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.
The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?
Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.
She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.
To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.
She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!
She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.
John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.
To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.
Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!
How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?
A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.
John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.
Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.
For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.
When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.
She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.
Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.
She hoped readers would see and understand.
John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.
John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.
Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.
The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Ageafter the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park. Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.
Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.
Do You Write For Self or for Readers?
An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.
Did the panel consider their readers?
Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.
She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.
John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.
Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.
There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.
The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.
How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.
Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!
This is the cover of a beautiful book about the importance of valuing Australia’s National Network of Marine Sanctuaries that I recently presented to my Federal Member of Parliament, the Honourable Mark Dreyfus QC, along with a letter asking for his commitment to continue to support the sanctuaries.
The letter signed by 64 constituents:
Dear Mr Dreyfus,
LABOR’S COMMITMENT TO RESTORE AUSTRALIA’S MARINE SANCTUARIES
This book shares a message from your electorate in support of Australia’s world-leading National Network of Marine Sanctuaries.
Following the Coalition Government’s devastating cuts to Australia’s sanctuaries – equivalent to removing every second national park on land – we welcome Labor’s commitment to fully restore the National Network of Marine Sanctuaries that Labor put in place in 2012.
Thank you for your support in restoring our sanctuaries – so that they can do the job of protecting our marine life, helping to ensure we have fish for the future and benefiting our regions and local communities.
I volunteered for the privilege of approaching Mark after I signed online petitions and followed campaigns to protect our ocean.
The organisation that will keep you informed and who cleverly produced such a positive campaign is the Australian Marine Conservation Societyand they are always looking for people to become Sea Guardians to protect our ocean’s wildlife.
A community of scientists & ocean conservationists working to save our marine life, established in 1965, it is an independent marine-focused charity. For over 50 Years committed staff have been dedicated to protecting ocean wildlife.
Mark was thrilled with the book and was happy to commit to protecting marine sanctuaries.
He said the situation regarding our environment is critical – and the science confirms this.
When part of the Gillard Government, he represented Australia at several international conferences and is well aware the current Federal Government is not doing enough to combat climate change and protect our sea and landscapes. he fought hard for the resources of the CSIRO to be increased, not reduced.
I was thrilled when I saw the book too – as a writer, I appreciate the power of illustrations to enhance words.
This book is a beautiful tool, to showcase how valuable our oceans are – a tangible reminder of what we will lose if the government doesn’t protect our coastline and the sea from overfishing, pollution from stormwater run-offs and shipping, plus exceptionally harmful oil and gas exploration.
We must provide and ensure marine sanctuaries. This book showcases many wonderful conversation starters for discussions we need to have – thousands of reasons to step up now.
How to get involved with the Campaign to Save Our Marine Life
Like many people who care about the environment, I’ve been involved in physical and online campaigns. It hasn’t been a sudden, one-issue jolt, but rather a weary trek from campaigns to stop littering to educating people about the dangers of pollution and wiping out the habitat of unique flora and fauna.
Change Habits To Save Habitats
Bali’s beaches are drowning in litter
Debris piles where no butterflies flitter
Apocalypse fed –
but the solution is not storming Twitter
The main culprit named is plastic
a product we embraced as fantastic
but it resists decay
and won’t go away
The destruction of marine life tragic!
Fast food a convenience we craved
Marketing gurus constantly raved
Junk created ignored
As rubbish was poured
Into the environment, we should have saved.
Who profits from accumulated trash?
Is life on Earth worth less than cash?
Consumers fed lies
While pollution spreads like a rash!
What species destroys its own nest
Where standards should be the best?
‘Away’ doesn’t exist
Rubbish isn’t a mist
We create it, so must produce less!
‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ a catch cry
This must be real or we all die
The coral withers
Our PM dithers
Climate change deniers watch Earth fry.
To the tourists who boast loving Bali –
Has your behaviour increased the tally?
Of beach debris
Polluting the sea
Leave only footprints when you dally!!
Bali’s problem is really worldwide
from culpability, no one can hide
It starts with a ‘me’
I hope becomes ‘we’
From today let’s take the Earth’s side.
A plethora of organisations – many with a specific focus – campaign for various conservation and environmental causes. Over the years, I’ve spent time concentrating on one or the other, or spread myself between several.
My motto always to give what you can when you can.
I’ve rarely had much cash to spare but my writing skills and social justice passion come in handy!
The damage to all species, including humans can be through accidental or wanton destruction, industrial smog and lung disease, overdevelopment and lack of green spaces or the current emergency of climate change.
Belonging to the Union of Australian Women and always the relevant trade union covering my paid employment gives me a good grounding in old school activism.
Living in Mordialloc for 35 years it has been a constant priority to safeguard our beautiful bayside suburb.
Before the Internet and mobile technology, the art of letter-writing, collecting signatures with a clipboard, demonstrating with placards and letterboxing leaflets, door-knocking and street stalls were all valid methods of making a point and having your voice heard.
Activism Is A Label For Everyday Life
Attendance at Clean-Up Australia Day events – I went to one of the first held in Mordialloc more years ago than I care to remember, taking my young daughters along to learn from my example.
Volunteering regularly with a local environmental group. I joined Friends of Bradshaw Park and compiled an education kit for primary schools to encourage discussion about the importance of retaining and respecting local flora and fauna – again my daughters accompanied me on working bees to weed and plant.
Volunteering in schools to encourage care for the playground and environs. I gave workshops on the writing of poetry and short fiction around environmental issues. The fondest memory, a lovely book of pastel drawings by the children in daughter Anne’s class to illustrate a narrative poem I wrote about the then threatened Blue Whale.
Working with Environment Victoria to promote solar power and renewable energy. I’ve hosted a sign, letterboxed, helped establish a database of supporters, handed out information on polling day.
Attending and organising gatherings to hear speakers from groups such as Gene Ethics to the Australian Conservation Foundation. If you belong to a community group think about inviting speakers from environmental groups outside your comfort zone. Be challenged to think about deforestation, oil drilling, use of plastics and recycling…
Since a teenager, like many people, I’ve campaigned against nuclear power and in an ideal world, uranium would remain in the ground.
(Ironic, I know because I have benefited from chemotherapy as a cancer patient but as with energy sources, there are alternatives and there is no moving away from the fact the majority of uranium and byproducts are used or stored as military weapons, plus the world still has no solution to the dangerous waste created!)
The New Way of Campaigning
There is no denying we live in a digital world now and the power of social media is immense – and it is not all as negative as some people think but a far-reaching and effective tool if, as Agent Maxwell Smart said all those years ago, ‘used for goodness…’
I respond to online appeals that often begin with an email and a request to sign a petition. After research, the knowledge gained helps me frame letters or emails to newspapers, politicians and companies.
Also, importantly, to initiate discussions among friends and family. Transferring and sharing knowledge one of the most important actions in any campaign.
As many signs at demonstrations advise (I love attending these too ) there is no Planet B.
It was a privilege to go the extra step and arrange a meeting with my local member of parliament and gift this book, to remind him of what is at stake if the marine sanctuaries are not reinstated and extended.
For local communities, some icons like The Great Barrier Reef, and many endangered marines species, we are at a tipping point – in danger of reaching the point of no return!
The following information including beautiful photography is from the book to ask MPs for their commitment to protecting our oceans and marine life.
Australia’s Proud history of Commonwealth Protection of Sanctuaries
As with so many progressive policies in Australia, it all began with the Whitlam Government in 1973.
The world’s oceans are the last great frontier for science and discovery and Australia is responsible for the third largest area of ocean on Earth
There are many sanctuaries still to be finalised – the good work must resume not be wound back or remain at a standstill.
Located at the junction of three major oceans, our waters are tropical temperate and sub-Antarctic.
We have more unique marine life than almost any other country in the world.
More than 85% of us live near the sea
Healthy marine environments are central to our lifestyle, our livelihoods and our economy. Australia has a proud bipartisan history of marine protection.
We are a nation of caretakers.
For many decades, our leaders have acted with the foresight to ensure a sustainable balance is found between what we take from the oceans and what we conserve for the future.
This is Australia’s insurance policy against the known threats of climate change, overfishing, introduced pests and pollution.
This leadership has crossed political divides and resulted in the creation of the world’s largest National Network of Marine Sanctuaries – backed by decades of science and overwhelming community support.
Our National network of marine parks and sanctuaries will protect our greatest treasures, including Australian icons like the Great Barrier Reef.
The Finalised List of Marine Sanctuaries:
Great Barrier Reef
But until the following are included our special marine treasures remain at risk:
80 Mile Beach
Gulf of Carpentaria
Lord Howe Island
Great Australian Bight
Please make an effort to discover these treasures and fight for them to be protected.
THE CORAL SEA
The Coral sea – the cradle to the Great barrier reef – is one of the last wild places on Earth where ocean giants still thrive. And outside the sanctuary, the Coral Sea Marine Reserve created what is effectively the largest recreational fishing zone in Australia’s history.
THE PERTH CANYON
Beyond Rottnest Island, Perth’s backyard holds an underwater secret larger than the Grand Canyon. The Perth Canyon is one of only three places in Australia where the blue whale – the largest animal ever – known to feed.
As well as a popular holiday destination where people flock to relax, whale watch, fish and sail, Geographe Bay is a resting area for migrating humpback whales.
LORD HOWE ISLAND
Home to the world’s most southerly coral reef, World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island is a crossroads where five major ocean currents collide, creating a fascinating and unique mix of marine life.
THE GULF OF CARPENTARIA
A crucial part of one of the last intact tropical marine systems left in the world.
The Kimberley has some of the last intact natural areas left on the planet. Its incredible beauty is matched only by its enormous diversity.
THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN BIGHT
A globally significant breeding nursery for the southern right whale and southern bluefin tuna. The cool waters of the Bight have exceptional diversity – more than 800 species have been identified here.
Currently, Greenpeace has an urgent campaign regarding The Bight. I visited the iconic Rainbow Warrior when it docked in Melbourne, and the crew explained it was here specifically to make Australians aware of the dangers of oil exploration in one of the last unspoiled ocean havens in the world.
Local people living along the coastline have warned of the devastating consequences of an oil spill – and international companies ALL have a less than clean track record and CANNOT guarantee that won’t happen
The seismic blasts used to locate gas or oil in deep water are louder than grenades. The noise loud enough to burst human eardrums and can cause permanent loss to whales, which are many times more sensitive to sound. For marine animals relying on sound to communicate, mate and survive, this will be devastating!
Furthermore, we should listen to the First Nation people living in the area – voices repeatedly ignored to our peril. What of their rights?
This book by Dr Virginia Marshall launched by the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG in 2017 provides important information we can no longer ignore:
Aboriginal peoples in Australia have the oldest living cultures in the world. From 1788 the British colonisation of Australia marginalised Aboriginal communities from land and water resources and their traditional rights and interests. More recently, the national water reforms further disenfranchised Aboriginal communities from their property rights in water, continuing to embed severe disadvantage. Overturning aqua nullius aims to cultivate a new understanding of Aboriginal water rights and interests in the context of Aboriginal water concepts and water policy development in Australia.
Drawing on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Marshall argues that the reservation of Aboriginal water rights needs to be prioritised above the water rights and interests of other groups. It is only then that we can sweep away the injustice of aqua nullius and provide the first Australians with full recognition and status of their water rights and interests.
It is time to acknowledge past mistakes and work together to safeguard the future from a humanitarian as well as a scientific perspective.
There is a national and international scientific consensus on the benefits of sanctuaries. Sanctuaries protect crucial feeding and breeding areas to help ensure we have fish for the future.
Research consistently shows the number, size and diversity of marine life greatly increase once areas are fully protected, and there is growing evidence of ‘flow on’ benefits into adjacent waters.
Tasmania’s Maria Island sanctuary has seen rock lobster numbers increase by more than 250%, spilling over to boost fishing and combat destructive sea urchin spread.
Sanctuaries also ensure coral reefs are more resilient to devastating bleaching and cyclones – making them more important than ever before.
And it is not just Australia’s marine life that benefits…
Sanctuaries are tourism powerhouses supporting a range of growing industries in regional communities.
Long established marine sanctuaries are boosting tourism, fish populations and local businesses. They are an environmental, social, and economic success.
At Ningaloo Reef, 180,000 tourists visit and bring in $141 million each year.
Many of our treasured fishing destinations have been marine parks for years now.
Long-standing marine sanctuaries are working hand in hand with world-class recreational fishing in places like Ningaloo Reef, the Solitary Islands and right along the Queensland coast.
The establishment of our National Network of Sanctuaries has been one of the most evidence-based and consultative processes in Australia’s history.
Australians are enthusiastic supporters of marine sanctuaries, particularly once they have experienced them first hand. They express their support at public events direct to their local MPs and in the many thousands of submissions to government consultation processes.
Across the country, we hear the consensus: to be Australian is to treasure the big blue backyard that is our birthright.
It is our overwhelming desire to maintain the health of Australia’s oceans for future generations.
For our marine life, and way of life.
We all share a duty and an opportunity to continue our nation’s proud history of stewardship of the seas – a bipartisan legacy for future generations.
On Sunday, I was rewarded for being a volunteer with Open House Melbourne, by a free trip on the river, which left from Docklands. I learnt how important the Melbourne waterfront is to Victoria’s economy. With imports and exports, it is the busiest port in Australia.
The litter trap sign warns: If it’s on the river, it ends up in the river…
Economic gains come at a cost and fortunately, there are many more people aware of the importance of keeping our waterways and the oceans healthy – not just in Melbourne but all along our coastline.
On the way to catch the boat, I passed a sculpture by Mark Stoner: The River Runs Through It – the message and reminder of what was and is, poignant and confronting and I hope does what good public art should do – allow us to pause, consider, and think about our understanding of the artist’s vision.
Citizens in democracies are lucky because we have an opportunity to ensure we vote on government policies that matter by letting our politicians know what we care about.
The most important issue for me is that action is taken to protect our waterways and oceans and attempt to heal the environment as we face climate change.
Please feel free to use the information, perhaps get in touch and request your local member of parliament give a commitment too.
I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.
My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.
What better play for us to see together than one advertised as–
A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.
It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?
With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.
This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.
Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.
The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.
Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!
Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?
Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”
The Power of Stagecraft
Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.
All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly.
These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.
The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.
The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.
Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud, almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.
The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.
While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.
A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.
Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.
I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.
Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.
The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)
Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.
“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.
“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”
But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!
Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911. “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”
The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.
On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).
This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)
The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.
When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.
From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.
One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.
The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived.
Will they be allowed into Canada?Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?
The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing) about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.
What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?
When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?
The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…
If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?
People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.
To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.
Simone de Beauvoir once said:
“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.“
I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.
The popular song aside, traditionally the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ is the period that Christian theologians mark the time between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, referred to as the three wise men.
It begins on December 25, Christmas Day and continues to January 6, the Epiphany. For many people that is also the day they take down the Christmas Tree and put the decorations away for another year. Some people do this on January 5th others January 6th.
I can smile now remembering the first discussion my late husband, John and I had about this – I brought up Church of Scotland and non-conformist and he, brought up Church of England (Anglican rather than Episcopalian).
Although born in Australia, John spent the early part of his life in England and Christmas traditions ingrained. As a Scot whose household celebrated Hogmanay, Christmas was low key, centred around the Church:
Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland.
Emigrating to Australia in 1962, the hot summers didn’t do anything to increase my enthusiasm for some traditions – especially ones involving Yule logs and roast dinners!
Back to the ‘Twelve days’ …
John said the tree had to be down and decorations packed away by January 6th, whereas I believed you left it up until January 6th. A ridiculous debate put in perspective the year my sister divorced her horrible first husband. She left her Christmas tree up until Easter because it brightened the house and welcomed her home with twinkling lights! As good a reason as any to break with tradition…
Cate’s unorthodox view remembered this year when she became an unexpected house guest for Christmas because her husband needed an urgent operation and the surgeon could fit him into his list at Frankston Hospital on Christmas Eve.
What would Christmas be without a wee miracle?
Brother-in-law Ian came through with flying colours and Christmas lunch a bigger and more special celebration than usual. The few days Cate and I spent, in and around, the large public hospital, sobering and a glimpse of the Christmas others experience.
It got me thinking that Christmas aside, there are always many people trying to ‘brighten’ the lives of others, dedicating their lives to those less fortunate – they don’t need an excuse, they do their job, follow their heart or beliefs, care about human or animal welfare – we don’t focus on the joy often enough, but absorb the negativity the press pander to – the philosophy of TV News – if it bleeds, it leads…
The nursing staff at Frankston did their best to make the ward festive – I loved the use of medical equipment tarted-up (a rubber ring/doughnut cushion stuck with coloured balls) and tinsel wrapped around trolleys and exercise equipment. But it was the effort of wonderful volunteers dressed as Mrs Christmas and elf helper on a 36-degree day that truly impressed!
We scored a candy cane before they entered the lift!
Advent for many Christians begins the four weeks preceding Christmas and each Sunday up to Christmas Eve there will be special sermons and services leading up to the arrival/birth of Jesus.
However, for an increasingly secular society, Christmas begins with a flood of consumerism that reaches fever pitch and a frenzy in December but starts late October/early November…
I wrote a poem about this years ago (pre-computer), can’t find it, but suffice to say it wasn’t complimentary to junk mail or the advertising industry, which help with the humbug factor and not the joy that is found among friends and family, who use the lead up to Christmas for gatherings or tȇte-à-tȇtes.
I love this time of year because in many of the cards or emails received there is news of how the year has been for friends and family and people make an effort to get together. Give me a chat and cuppa instead of presents any day because if the person lives far away, or is rarely seen, information other than ‘Merry Christmas’ is good to hear.
Sometimes even if people live close by, the busyness of life leaves meaningful conversation a rarity and so the gift of time to chat, go to the movies or a play is refreshing and food for the soul. Christmas is a great excuse and motivation to invigorate relationships. I get to have a coffee or tea with students outside class – I’m not the teacher or motivator but a friend with all ‘the issues’ that enjoy a good airing when we share what’s in our hearts and minds.
Here I am with Elhan who came to my class several years ago at Mordialloc. She is an accomplished writer in English as well as Turkish and writes a column for a Turkish newspaper in Melbourne. She took me to a cafe in Mordialloc owned by Turkish Australians, bought me ‘Turkish tea’ served in a cup with the blue-beaded eye motif to protect me from evil, and gifted me an Orhan Pamuk novel.
It’s not a Facebook cliche when I write I’m truly blessed with the people who have come into my life through teaching and writing!
I’m transitioning to retirement but some of my friends are already enjoying more leisure time. I went to see a dear friend Umaand husband Kevin who live at Bulleen. It was lovely to have lunch in their home instead of catching up with Uma near her office in the city – our usual Christmas rendezvous.
It was an hour and a half’s journey by public transport – train to Southern Cross and then another to Heidelberg Station – but a relaxing journey that introduced areas of Melbourne I rarely visit. However, visiting will be a lot easier when the Andrews Government’s fantastic infrastructure program is complete. Looking at a time when they may not want to drive everywhere, Uma and Kevin are thrilled that accessing public transport will be so much easier and provide more choice of mode and destinations because they live near one of the many access points for the outer city loop.
After lunch, we walked to the park at the end of their street and Uma shared stories of her neighbourhood with similar pride when she and Kevin came to Mordi at Easter and we walked the foreshore and I shared where I fill up with serenity!
What a wonderful project! We watched families play in the park, school children walk home from nearby schools past The Peace Path, a prominent installation, a daily and fun reminder of diversity and connectedness. Well done Manningham City Council.
New Acquaintances Not Forgot
Many ex-students who perhaps only came for a semester or two also stay in touch and have become valued friends. At this time of year, it’s lovely to hear how they are going with their life and writing projects.
I received a welcome letter from Naoko in Japan and the delightful gift of a book and a very tempting invitation:
“an autobiography by Tomihiro Hoshino. He writes poetries and draws paintings by his mouth. He is from my neighbour town and there is a museum. I would like to take you there. So please come visit me!'”
Naoko doesn’t know that for more than twenty-five years I have bought cards and calendars from Mouth & Foot Painting Artists Australia and hold the artists in absolute awe for the exquisite products and attitude to life.
She does know that I love Japanese poetic formsand their ability to say so much in so few words – most of my classes have been introduced to haiku, tanka, renga, senryu and haibun at some point!
It is not a thick book and translated by Hiroko and Joseph McDermott was an easy read. But it is quite unlike other memoirs I’ve read considering the subject matter. The tone is not ‘poor me’ or bitter and very quickly the focus is how the writer accepted help from others and learned to paint and write with his mouth to bring meaning, purpose, joy and love into his life.
It is an upbeat memoir because yes he even grew to love and marry a faithful nurse ( not always a cliche) and found success as a writer and painter. I understand not everyone with a disability or life-changing accident can be so lucky – but what you learn from the book is that it wasn’t just luck…
His determination and persistence, plus the loyalty, love, and consistent support from those who loved him are powerful elements not only enabling him to survive but thrive.
This First edition published in 1988 is the first of several books from Hoshino who was a high school physical education teacher until an accident in the gymnasium left him paralyzed from neck to toe and hospitalised for nine years.
He was 24 years old and in his prime.
‘I was a physical education teacher. I chose this job, not so much as I was interested in teaching, but as I wanted to keep on doing the sport I had always loved since childhood. This desire was so strong that all day long I would exercise with my students… even after the classes were out, I was running or kicking a ball around until everyone else had gone home and the grounds were empty except for me.’
The first chapter, The Accident (June 1970), is short and to the point with headings:
Do I Still Have Arms?
The Face of My Parents
I Will Not Die
From the Hospital Diary
He uses extracts from his sister’s Diary to explain the precariousness of his situation, the operations and treatment that ultimately saved his life and put his neck bones into place so he could breathe without a respirator.
“It has been decided that he can sleep without the machine. When the gauze was put back in the hole in his throat, he was encouraged to practice talking with the hole in his throat covered up. Ton-chan (my nickname) smiled happily and said in a strong voice, “The weather’s fine today.” He looked so happy that we all burst into laughter.”
The second chapter is The Joy of Writing and we learn, ‘Two years passed. Some people assumed I had died… I wavered between life and death so many times…’
However, the medical attention and constant support of his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends who take turns to nurse him every day, kept him alive. (His mother devotes her life to his recovery from day one!)
He mentions but doesn’t dwell on despondency and despair. ‘ My body had a life of its own, regardless of my wishes, though I no longer had a deep commitment to life.’
I don’t know anything about the Japanese hospital system but obviously, technology and scientific development since the 70s have changed in much the same way as ours. The treatment of accidents like Hoshino’s would be different and perhaps have different outcomes. Hospital treatments, access, cost and even where the hospital is in Japan is not the focus of the story.
There is a glimpse of how rehabilitation has made great advances when he describes the day a visiting child brought a radio-controlled toy car into the hospital and one of the mothers who was looking after her child who was a patient said:
‘If one child brings a toy like that, all the others want their own. You can’t blame them. If you’re rich, it might be okay. But what about families like ours?… Tears were welling up in her eyes.
It’s nothing to cry over…, I thought, and moved closer to the children… It was like a very clever puppy perfectly trained to perform…
Frankly, I felt like crying for one as well… watching the car race around … a certain sadness crept up over me. If people can make a precision toy like this for children, why should I have to stay on a wheelchair which moves only when someone pushes it? Why couldn’t the scientific knowledge used for such a toy also be used to move a wheelchair?
I also felt tears coming to my eyes…
Electric wheelchairs were available but he needed one specifically designed for people who can only move from the neck up. His wheelchair was actually a motorised stretcher.
In 1979, after two boffins from Suzuki Motors visited him they worked out the power and movement he had in his neck and delivered a wheelchair with a driving lever he controlled with his chin.
‘Everything about the world outside then began to look rosier once I found that people like them were working away at some research that could greatly ease my life…
Now my mother could take long-needed rests while I went out for rides.’
In 2016, I was privileged to help start and facilitate a social group for Glen Eira Council. Over the years, I’ve had several people with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) in my classes and I was approached to help them start a group where they could meet and discuss everything from literature, movies, politics, philosophy, therapies, culture, and even pet peeves… to relax and ‘Chat ‘N Chuckle’ with others who understood that it may take longer to speak, to listen, and understand what someone wants to say.
Many had motorised wheelchairs – today a variety of mobility aids are common but Tomihiro’s thoughts and perspective gave me a deeper understanding of how important aids are and how innate our need for independence.
Tomihiro’s electric wheelchair was a long time coming and despite his mother’s relentless devotion it was often the interaction with others that gave that much-needed spark not to lose hope.
Sharing a room with a seriously ill ex-student from his junior high school who always had a cheerful smile made Tomihiro feel obligated to smile too along the lines of ‘fake it till you make it’.
The relationship that developed between master and student a turning point, especially after the teenager was moved to another hospital and his mother visited Tomihiro, bringing a white, tulip shaped hat belonging to her son, Takaku. He wanted his former roommates to write words of encouragement such as ‘don’t give up’ and ‘have patience’.
Tomihiro wanted to write something but crunching a pen between his teeth, could only manage a tiny dot until his mother moved the hat so he managed to write one of the Chinese characters of his name “Tomi” extending the tiny dot into an “O”.
From that tentative beginning and with months of trial and error to find a painless position for his neck, he finally managed to write a single letter by himself:
“The gauze rolled around the pen in my mouth got soaked with saliva. It was also dyed with blood from the gums since I had strained so much while writing. My mother, who was watching from the side of the bed, also clenched her teeth from the strain. There was sweat on her forehead as well…
All of a sudden my life looked bright again… after having experienced the despair that I would never be able to do anything again, I felt from a single line or letter the same thrill I might have experienced setting a new sports record.”
Another person who not only visited Tomihiro but was instrumental in his healing journey and his development as a writer and poet was a friend from university days.
Yoneya… and I would have dinner at the same table and every evening I would watch him say a prayer. I usually sat down with my hands unwashed and started eating … I never wondered to whom or what he was praying, nor why he said a prayer before every meal…
One day, he told me, “I am going to study in a theological school in Tokyo in order to become a minister.”
… I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I realized what a hard and serious life he had chosen to pursue.
As soon as he heard of my injury he came to see me in the hospital. later he sent me a copy of the Bible with his apology for being unable to do anything else for me for the time being. I kept the book in a box under the bed…
Actually, I had hesitated for a long time before opening the Bible. I was afraid other people around me might think and say, “He must be in such pain to have turned for help even from the Christian God…”
… I tried to think up some excuse to open the Bible: it would help me understand history… pass the time… requite a favor extended by a senior…
… all along I knew very well what I really wanted. In my mind, I had a faint hope that something in this black-bound book might change me, just as it had changed Mr Yoneya and made him feel grateful for even the poor meals served in the university dormitory…
… when I was forced to lie on my bed unable to move or speak, I had to live a life in which every day I had to face the real me. And the real me was not strong, was not a fine person at all…
The Power of Spiritual Awakening
Tomihiro reads the New Testament and he recognises certain verses he has read on graves in cemeteries (St Matthew 11.28-30):
I had not known what they meant. But somehow the words stuck clearly in my mind. Perhaps I remembered them since I was then really “heavy laden,” carrying manure from the pigsty up to the fields.
As I reread this passage over and over, I felt something warm begin to stream out from the depths of my heart…
I felt that God had prepared this passage for me long before I had even dreamed I might have the accident…when there were hard times, did I have a friend I could unburden my heart to, tell my suffering and pains?…
Lying on my back, looking up at the ceiling, I was seized by an intense sense of loneliness. I felt helpless before it… I thought that a person named Jesus might listen to me, might hold me lovingly in his arms…
Regardless of whether you follow a particular religion or no religion when people are faced with severe trauma, accident, disease, prolonged illness or near the end of life many may at some point ask one or more thought-provoking questions, maybe go through a period of self-reflection or self-doubt. Perhaps they consider what they took for granted or didn’t really worry about, or search for a belief that gives them inner peace:
What is life about? Is there a reason for it all? Why is life on Earth so diverse – was/is there a ‘design’? Can Science explain everything? Can religion? Is there life after death? Will I ever recover? Why me?
Seeking, and finding peace, if not answers, can be healing.
When my husband was dying we had many philosophical discussions because John was ill for a long time. He became an avid reader and thought more deeply about ideas and beliefs because he had time to digest and think about what he was reading. Time is a great commodity and gift if you use it well!
I remember telling him when various friends or family members added his name to their particular religion’s prayer list, he’d say with his usual cheeky grin, “Good, I read an article and people who are prayed for live longer.”
The night before he died when Father Tony, the local Anglican priest called in and prayed at John’s bedside he said, “and the Heavenly Father is waiting for you, John, to hold you in his arms…”
John’s response, “Prove it!”
We all laughed and Father Tony said, “You have to trust me on this, John!” and at the funeral shared the anecdote from “my friend and pragmatist, John.”
We sang John’s favourite hymn from Royal Navy days, Abide With Me plus Lord of The Dance and he was carried out to The Internationale. If people wonder at the apparent conflict of beliefs I tell the story of the writer/educator, Paulo Freire who was asked, “How can you be a Marxist and a Christian?”
He answered, “No problem for me.”
Life is complicated and what people believe and how they cope with challenges is too. The honesty about Tomihiro’s journey, the authenticity in the telling, kept me reading and will remain with me. The simplicity of his explanation of how enriching the spirit and nurturing other senses can compensate for the loss of limbs and movement.
The Joy of Reading
He too discovered how reading enriches life – the power of story:
I spent a lot of time reading, using a simple device that let me lie on my back and read a book hanging open in front of my eyes. My mother would turn the pages for me.
Reading had not been a habit of mine when I was a child or a student… By reading books while lying on my back, I was able to learn the joy of reading. When nobody was at my bedside, there was no way to turn a page. So I kept reading the same page over and over again for as long as thirty or forty minutes.
After such readings, I would often find something I had never noticed or understood. Some parts deeply impressed me, and I copied them into my sketchbooks…
From his hospital bed, or wheeled into the corridors by his mother, Tomihiro enjoyed being a people watcher but one day he catches sight of a person with a fox fur wrapped around her neck.
This inspires his first poem and more contemplation of not only his personal condition but how humans interact, adapt – what it means to be who we are …
And so entranced by the power of words, he studies, writes, and continually strives to improve his own writing.
In the Hallway
Hoshino Tomihiro (February 20)
With glass eyes,
He was watching.
With the weight of his boneless neck
He was chewing his tail,
And he as watching
He noted how the glass eyes looked so sad – perhaps they reflected the feelings of his heart? He thought of the word ‘patience’ often used in letters he received. When he saw the fox transformed into neckwear, he sensed he saw himself:
I too had been living day after day, with my teeth digging into my body the more I tried to be patient… Why do I still need to hear ‘patience’…?
I haven’t really changed. The person I was before this accident – wasn’t that basically the same person I am today, even if I can’t move? Why then should I have to be patient with myself? Why should I live day by day with my teeth clenched?
Something did not make sense…
When you can move but
must stay still,
You need endurance.
But when you’re like me,
And cannot move,
Who needs endurance
And soon enough,
The thorny rope of
Twisted round my body
At this time, Miss Watanabe, a friend of Mr Yoneya’s visits, a Christian too, she cared for her bedridden father for many years. From her first visit, Masako never misses a Saturday and eight years later they marry and return to live in Tomihiro’s home district near his parents. The blossoming of their relationship and her encouragement of his writing and art the impetus for his first major exhibition.
Flowers Helped Him Bloom
When lying in bed, it was the flowers visitors brought that Tomihiro fixated on – they were beautiful, they were close at hand, and for a long time they represented the outside world he missed. Not surprising they were the first subjects he tried to draw.
When spring comes, the hospital garden is full of beds of blossoming flowers. And when I see them in bloom alongside my window my heart cheers up, even though I have to keep lying in bed… even if I feel depressed with all sorts of worries about my physical problems, all the trees outside may be in bud and even small weeds in bloom…
Regardless of what each human being may feel, the seasons go round and round in the flow of time. We may be happy or sad, become even angry and hateful… but what tiny creatures we are in the vast universe of nature!
There were always some flowers at my bedside brought by visitors and arranged in a vase by my mother. Lying on my back, I saw them day and night out of the corner of my eyes…
For over six years
Mr Kobayashi has been coming
To see me
The flowers he grows
Are as strong
As the weeds in the field
Sometimes even generously hosting bugs
I like most.
His flowers come
Wrapped in newspaper
On which there are left
Even a flower
Begins to look nicer,
Someone said so,
Then I began to wonder
If the flowers
Were looking at my painting.
My favourite part in Tomihiro’s awakening and rebirth is when he writes about his mother. This woman deserves her own memoir! For the nine years, he was in the hospital she was with him, leaving the farm and village life in her husband’s care.
Tomihiro describes a New Year in the hospital when some patients and many staff have left for holidays. Those left decided to have a party.
All the attendants sat down together for tea on a straw mat spread in the center of the room. Normally, everybody in the hospital had to sit on a chair, not on a Japanese mat, as they did at home… my mother and the other attendants felt more relaxed squatting…
… I could not join them on the mat, but… I felt as if I was back home sitting on a mat with my mother.
They decided to have a singsong, taking it in turns –
While I was singing, I was worrying about my mother. She was to sing after me, and I had never heard her sing before. Can she sing a song? Does she even know a song to sing?…
Her turn came. She said, “I can’t really sing,” and begged the next person to go ahead. But nobody would… my mother began to sing… in a shy, thin voice… an old song I had never heard before.
… the trembling in her voice died away, and her timbre became stronger and stronger…
I was amazed. My mother, her face as shy as ever, now looked so different to me… the mother I had just seen singing was her real self. I had simply never noticed…
She must have known many songs in her youth. Busy with bringing up children and farming, however, she must have forgotten, before she was aware of it, that she could sing.
While she worked in the small muddy family plot, doing side jobs for a small extra income well after the children had fallen asleep, and bringing us up without buying anything for herself, she must have forgotten about pleasures for herself…
I had never asked what she might want. She must have longed to take a trip or to buy some books to read. Or, even right at this moment, she might be thinking how much she would like to welcome in the New Year with my father back home…
The more I thought, the more ashamed I felt of myself. I had been concerned only about myself, thinking I alone had suffered from this injury…
I love this poem he wrote –
and this honest observation:
“When I was young and healthy, I used to feel very sorry for the handicapped. Sometimes I even felt uncomfortable when I saw them. While going around in my wheelchair, however, I learned something I had not noticed at all before. I was physically handicapped but I was not unhappy, nor did I dislike myself.”
It is all about perception and attitude. He explains it beautifully in a poem about a roadside flower whose Japanese name means poison and pain. He used to hate the flower because of its strange smell and preference for dank places.
And picks you up with care.
You have been scorned and despised
They all say you stink
You have been living very quietly
In this small nook along the road,
Looking up at the feet
As if waiting for someone to come to you
And need you.
Look just like white crosses.
The title of the book is a line from one of his poems written about the same common weed – it too suggests the mind can always be a little more perceptive and appreciative of the world we live in.
I didn’t know
How beautiful you were.
Here so close
But I didn’t know.
A book can be the gift that keeps on giving.
A good thought to end the year on and welcome 2019.
… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels… As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art…
They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters… often been invisible, unsung or diminished… For at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge … and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet…
Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna
A True Story – Perhaps the first Autobiography written in an Aboriginal language…
In an ideal world, this book would be in school and community libraries and generate important conversations about culture, language, family relationships, and Australia’s history.
A firsthand account it provides a rare primary source of knowledge and insight into the lives of two amazing and courageous women.
We are all enriched by listening or reading with an open mind when people share their authentic, lived experience from the heart, in their own language. Especially, when the stories are remarkably different from our own as this story.
The sisters couldn’t read or write their language Walmajarri until it was documented and translated into English by Eirlys Richards, one of the co-authors who collaborated with this book.
Eirleys and Pat Lowe, the other non-Aboriginal author are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of recording the stories, helping translate Ngarta and Jukuna’s words, encouraging the telling and persisting towards publication.
The road to publishing would not have been easy. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to publish stories by everyday Australians in anthologies for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and classes in community houses and appreciate the hoops to jump through to achieve a joyful result – especially with what is referred to now as ‘traditional publishing.’
This edition of Two Sisters, by the Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation 2016 and was first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2004 but can be bought from www.magabala.comEmail:email@example.com
The book is easy to read and approximately 120 pages and packs a punch.
I guarantee it will remain in your memory! For me, even the timescale is mind-boggling. Ngarta and Jukuna came out of the desert and first had contact with white people in 1961 – the year before I arrived in Australia to live in Melbourne, one of the most developed cities in the world.
The book includes helpful sections such as pages 83-103 where the story is in Walmajarri. Another singular experience – I’ve not read a book before with the story printed in English as well as an Aboriginal language.
Also included is a Glossary of Walmajarri words and their meaning plus an excellent pronunciation guide. ( Throughout the text some of the Walmajarri words used have no definitive English equivalent because of the 23 different sounds of Walmajarri some are not found in English.)
A potted history of the backgrounds of the authors and how they met also included with helpful historical markers and notes about Aboriginal culture and several maps and photographs.
‘People who lived in the Great Sandy Desert led a distinctive way of life with their own beliefs and customs. In telling their stories, Jukuna and Ngarta took such aspects of their experience for granted, seldom seeing the need to explain what to them was obvious. Because Ngarta’s story is written in the third person, it has been possible to interweave additional information helpful to readers who don’t know the desert or its people…
For most readers there will remain a number of questions arising from both stories, not all of which can be answered with certainty… we have often had to accept that some things are unknowable…’
Ngarta with coolamon of seeds 1989
Jukuna with seed gathered, 1983
Eirlys moved to Fitzroy Crossing in 1967 to translate The Bible but also establish literacy and reading groups. When Jukuna and her husband Pijaji settled nearby they learnt to read and write their own language for the first time.
‘By 1980 Jukuna was a fluent reader, one of a small number of people who could read and write the language… her skill in writing did not develop as quickly as her reading did, probably because there was little reason for her to write.’
However, when Jukuna and Eirlys met up in the 1990s Jukuna said,
‘I have written a story about myself, will you read it?’
Eirlys ‘read an account of a young woman leaving her family in the desert to walk with her husband to the unknown country of the white people. I wondered if this might be the first autobiography written by a Walmajarri person in her language.‘
Two Sistersisabout life in a remote area of Australia few will visit, let alone live in. Most of us are not desert or bush dwellers and if we do go there it will be with the support of guides and tourist organisations, or with the knowledge and expertise of technology.
Reading the day to day accounts of hunting animals and gathering and harvesting of plants, the walking from waterhole to waterhole, the hours of digging involved and the setting and packing up of camps is engrossing and exhausting when you imagine the miles, the terrain, the heat, the cold – and the fear!
Underlying the journey of the sisters and the last of the Walmajarri left in the desert is the story of murder and lawlessness by the criminal Manyjilyjarra brothers.
These men were from a family of outlaws, men who lived apart from other people and defied the law, who preyed on their fellows, killing without reason, abducting women and discarding them. Other men feared them, and for a long time they got away with their crimes…
… news of yet another killing reached the scattered bands. No one had the power to control the killers or bring them to puishment. They moved, uninvited into country that was not their own, and eventually they went to Walmajarri country…
This was a time of great change amongst the peoples of the desert. Most of their number had already left the sandhills. Some had chosen to migrate north or west to join relatives on the cattle and sheep stations that had been established in the more generously watered country of their neighbours. Others had been rounded up by white people and brought into settlements….
Desert society had so disintegrated that its normal laws and sanctions could no longer be enforced, and these men were able to intrude with impunity into other people’s country and to prey on the few remaining unprotected inhabitants.
Prologue, two Sisters
Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna belong to the Walmajarri/Juwaliny language group. They were children when this mayhem and dislocation happened and the story of fleeing the criminals, meeting up with them and others who suffered and the gradual move north to settlements is covered in their stories.
Ngarta stayed behind with her grandmother to be one of the last to leave country.
‘In the whole of the Great Sandy desert, only a handful of widely scattered groups of people still lived in their accustomed way. Everyone else had gone. In Ngarta’s country there remained just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother…
With so few people to feed… They did not need to travel far with each season to find new stocks of food. Besides they were waiting for their relatives to come back and pick them up…’
The little group lived like this happily enough for a couple of years. They didn’t see anyone else in all that time and, but for the knowledge that their relatives were living on a cattle station far to the north, they might have been the last people in the world. Life went on in its age-old pattern: food gathering and hunting, drawing water, making or improvising tools, cooking, camping, firing the country, telling stories around the fire. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same now that they were on their own.
Enter the lawless brothers who killed her brother and beloved grandmother and speared her mother. Ngarta’s story becomes particularly harrowing when you consider she was just a child. She lived in terror and eventually fled surviving on her own for ‘a year or more’… time measured differently by her people.
‘So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri.’
Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints.
She almost reached safety, within sight of Cherrabun hills but ‘… her resolve failed. For reasons she is no longer sure about, she gave up the idea of pushing on to Christmas Creek.’
‘I don’t know why I went back. maybe I was thinking about my country. Maybe I was frightened for kartiya.’(white people)
… their country stretches almost as far as the Fitzroy River to the north, but the family of these two sisters came from much further south, from the Great Sandy Desert proper, so that when the first Walmajarri people, the northern groups, were going to work on cattle stations, the southern groups were unaffected… even the bands most distant from one another were linked by marriage and consanguinity… upheavals caused by the settlers of the cattle and sheep stations filtered back along the attenuated communication lines to… the remotest parts of the desert…
Robert Menzies of whom they knew nothing, was Prime Minister when Jukuna and later Ngarta emerged from the Great Sandy Desert… much later… they first heard the word “Australia” and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.
Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters
When Jukuna tells her story she also fills in gaps about Ngarta’s and describes when they were reunited:
‘I’ll tell you about something good that happened. Pijaji and I thought our family, who we’d left in the desert, were no longer alive. So, we pushed the memory of them from our minds, and worked on the station without thinking about them very much, you can imagine my shock when my sister and sister-in-law arrived at Christmas Creek Station. When I heard the news I was overjoyed and we went over to see them and cry with them.’
I know the feeling of joy as a migrant returning to my birth country and meeting kinfolk and friends after many years of separation but there have been letters, phone calls and messages via others.
No such contact for the sisters.
That unembellished paragraph of Jukuna’s about being reunited with family thought dead and hearing their horrific tale of survival such understated stoicism!
Bridging The Cultural Divide
In a chapter titled The World of The Two Sisters, Pat Lowe contributes some helpful information to help non-Aboriginal readers understand the sisters’ stories – especially in the context of the time and reminding us of how isolated the desert dwellers were.
Books like Two Sisters show the differences in culture but also similarities in the development of humankind, the resilience of communities, the dispelling of fears and misconceptions, and adaptations necessary, the contrast between past, present and future.
Both women became artists as well as writers with their paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas. (Ngarta died in 2002)
Desert people did not keep track of ages in years, but as stages in life. Children described as newborn, crawling, toddling but as they got older their maturity judged on ability to hunt and the size or agility of animals caught – from small lizards to goannas and pythons, cats to foxes and dingoes. ‘The first time Ngarta killed a cat or a fox was a landmark event.’
A girl considered ready for marriage when her body showed signs of physical maturation – menstruation, breast development, pubic hair. Perhaps betrothed since birth to an older man she didn’t cohabit until mature enough and went to live in her husband’s camp. Her husband not allowed to have sexual relations until ‘the right time’ and such restrictions commonly observed. (Unless of course, like the marauding brothers Ngarta encountered men took women and girls and often killed them after rape.) ‘Although Ngarta never talked about it later, she is said to have been taken as a wife by one of the men.’
Polygamy was normal practice, maintained by an early marriage of girls and later marriage of men. The presence of other wives, by and large, ensured the protection of the younger girls. It also contributed to complex kinship relationships and in the story, it can become quite complicated when the sisters talk of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers so don’t read certain tracts when you’re tired! This complex extended kinship and blood relationships, of course, is why the practice of removing children from their family and country is not only outrageous and indecent on humanitarian grounds but a dangerous practice because families lost trace of bloodlines, eligibility for marriage, and ensuring appropriate behaviours and obligations observed. Aborigines will suffer the consequences of The Stolen Generation for a long time and we must never let that shameful period be forgotten or repeated – no matter what justifications authorities use.
A boy’s physical development determined his readiness for going through stages of law and his rank among men and marriageability.
Desert people tell stories that may span years. They are not fixated with definitive time the way Europeans are and knowing the age of the sisters at particular times in the story is guesswork.
Widows or other grieving females hit themselves on the head with stones until they bled, there is confronting descriptions of this and wailing, tearing of clothes, painting bodies in clay – visible and visceral signs of grief shared by other cultures.
Desert dwellers believe in supernatural beings and spirits – some benign others dangerous. They live in hollows and waterholes can enter children and animals, can be helpful to explain good weather or destructive seasons and anything new or unusual like windmills and fences built by settlers and the various types of cattle introduced. They are not the only people to believe in the supernatural or gods that can’t be seen. Men cried when they discovered water in the tank below a windmill having never seen the structure before and always working hard digging for water, they believed evil spirits were at work.
Expert hunters and gatherers but living in a sometimes unforgiving environment a great part of the desert dwellers day is spent searching for and cooking food. Most of us would be in awe at their tracking and hunting capabilities and lack of waste – the wisdom of the First People to help us protect and sustain the environment should be a given. But when they first engaged with white people there were many shocks. ‘At Julia Yard, the two men found a drum of tar, used for applying to spayed cows to heal their wounds. They had never seen tar before and thinking it was some kind of food, like honey, they swallowed some of it. It burnt their throats and later they vomited.’
Desert and other Aboriginal people drop from their vocabulary the names of recently deceased people. They are disturbed to hear the name or be reminded of someone who is gone. The closer the relationship, the longer the taboo on the use of a name and other similar words in general vocabulary. “Instead, people usually address and speak of one another by relationship terms, a practice that causes much tearing of hair amongst non-indigenous people trying to follow narratives and identify the actors.”
Epilogue – What About Justice?
The Chapter, Epilogue, became personal in a ‘six-degrees of separation’ way.
A small group of desert dwellers who had never lived under or obeyed ‘white man’s’ law appearing at a remote cattle station and killing stock was news in 1961 but because of language barriers and intense fear and distrust it was some time before teenager Ngarta’s story was listened to – and apparently ignored by authorities.
The two murderers were remanded on cattle killing charges, later reduced to ‘having been in possession of beef suspected of having been stolen,’ and fined fifty pounds or fifty days in prison.
The court case and charges absurd – how would they know about kartiya (white) law and possession or have money for fines!
Tragic too, the public outcry ‘at the perceived unfairness of the sentences’ that followed, which led to the men being soon released and having ‘a happy reunion’ with their group.
The government received written protests from such bodies as the Union of Australian Women, the Joint Railway Unions Committee, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union.
I’m a member of the UAW and worked for the Miscos in the 1980s. I know these organisations considered themselves progressive and on the side of social justice.
They were at the forefront of many struggles for Aboriginal rights but I wonder if they were able to hear the real story from those desert dwellers in 1961, including the treatment of the sisters, would they still have demanded the men’s release?
The allegations that some of the children had been stolen were never followed up, or the brutal and cruel treatment Ngarta and Jukuna suffered – well not by katiya – but interestingly karma or ‘blackfella way’ seems to have worked! (Read the book…)
Two Sisters and its various chapters with perspectives, reflections and new knowledge, a fascinating read of survival, adaptation and growth. An apt book to study because the focus of this year’s NAIDOC theme is – honouring women’s contribution