Thursday, September 4, 2008

A reading life

I’m embarrassed to say I never read at school, mind you I didn’t have the fabulous choices that school children have today. And I didn’t come from a family with an income to allow for books either. I became a reader when I went to university, and even then I mastered the art of reading indexes of textbooks, scanning simply for the pages I HAD to read in order to get my political science and Australian History essays done at the 11th hour.

Of course, if you want to be a writer you MUST read. It was the first thing I remember being told as an aspiring writer, and it is what I tell my students in schools. Read everything: across genre, across geography, across cultures and so on to help you develop your own style and voice.

I’m a bit of a fraud though as I don’t read anything for pleasure while I’m working on a new book, generally because I am sick of words and am cross-eyed by the end of each day. I’m not influence by others work, generally because I read literary fiction, but can’t actually write it, so there’s no fear of appropriation of style or voice or language.

I’m a very slooooooow reader. I give myself a pat on the back when I get through a novel quickly. Having said, that I read 250 pages of Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-Winning novel Carpentaria in three days while on a holiday, which was a gold medal read for me, but I took a month to read the other half when I was back at home.

If I like an author I will buy all their books and get them autographed, but I mightn’t read them all. To be honest, I just don’t have time, because I am a sllllooooooow reader. I have all of Rosie Scott’s and all of Linda Jaivin’s, and all of Bruce Pascoe's, and Melissa Lucashenko’s, and Alexis Wright’s and Ruby Langford Ginibi’s. I have all of Alex Miller’s, Lionel Fogarty’s and Kevin Gilbert’s.

My hardbacks are strictly for the bookcase – and my prized hardbacks are Kath Walkers We are going, first published in 1964 and more recently The Papunya School Book of Country and History developed as part of a curriculum project at the Papunya School with Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle.

My paperbacks are for the beach, the bath and bed – where I do most of my reading. I love libraries except they are not places I can read. My local library – the Bowen Library in Maroubra Junction - has a coffee cart and is more like a community centre than the library of the old days, where peace and quiet reigned and librarians spent their days “shushing” and people like me who need absolute silence to read, could read. But I love my library. It is a space where even those who are not literate will find a place to feel comfortable. My library is not just about books. It is about voice and play and sharing stories. In fact, I wrote my latest novel Avoiding Mr Right (Bantam, 2008), at the Bowen Library. They do have a fish-bowl type room that I booked for two hours per day. And there I sat, and typed, and watched the community gathering outside in the main areas, every day.

But I digress slightly... which is normal...

I like all kinds of books. Especially those that take me to familiar places. I don’t care if the person I love doesn’t love the same books as I do, as long as they love books generally.

I love books that make me laugh out loud, and one of my favourites is Vivienne Cleven’s first novel Bitin’ Back winner of the David Unaipon Award 2000. From the first page it is an hilarious look at life as well as the serious issue of homophobia in a country town called Mandamooka. The humour jumps of the page through the voice of the narrator, bingo-playing matriarch, Mavis Dooley. Mavis is the staunch single-mother who dines on Tim Tams and cola, swears like a trooper and gossips with the best of them. She’s the mother of footballer Neville Dooley (affectionately known as ‘The Nev’) who shocks her, his Uncle Booty and the rest of the town when he mysteriously starts donning his mother’s dresses and make-up and wants to be called Jean Reys, the name of a dead white writer. The real issue as Mavis sees it is clear, ‘When ya black, well things get a bit tricky like...But when ya got a black fella sayin he’s a woman - a white woman at that! Well, the ol’ dice just rolls in another direction’. Page after page is full of rich language and unique phraseology that can only be described as a mix of ‘Aboriginal-bush-English’ which I like to call ‘Mavis-speak’.

Another of my favourites is Richard J Frankland‘s first book Digger J Jones. Written in a diary format for young readers, the story is set in 1967 and focuses on the Referendum, which altered two sections of the Constitution – allowing Aboriginal people to become citizens and therefore counted on the census, and also reverting legislative powers relating to Aboriginal people to the Commonwealth.

Digger J Jones the character though, has given Australia a new favourite son, as it’s hard not to love the feisty and cheeky 10 year old who loves raspberries and chips and lives in Melbourne with his Mum and Dad and brother Paulie, who very early in the story dies in the Vietnam War. The sadness around Paulie’s death and the struggle for Digger to understand the marches and discussions taking place around him in the lead up to the Referendum, is offset by the narrator’s phraseology which had me in stitches, as Digger starts to read the bible and is confused about the word begat, and who’s begatting who and why. I also laughed at episodes of Digger and Darcy-the-Dick - his once arch-rival, now best mate - kissing girls behind the shed, something Digger calls “fishlicking’.

The innocence of Darcy falling in love with marble-playing nun, Sister Ally, is sweet, as he then tries to convert his mate Steve to the Church in an attempt to win Sister Ally’s heart. But Digger is shattered when he learns that his admired one is actually married to Jesus.

Stevie’s dog, who is called ‘Dog’, also answers to the name ‘Jesus’, which makes for some interesting scenes in Mass when every time the priest says ‘Jesus’, the dog races to the altar. There is no disrespect at all to the Church, just the reality of the innocence of youth, and yes, the naughtiness of young boys at times.

I also like books with strong women I can relate to. And so I adore Terri Janke’s Butterfly Song. To me Butterfly Song is the great Australian novel, because it encompasses so much of this country’s spirit and will touch so many Australian hearts that it couldn’t be anything but. The book is a love story, a legal lesson, a comment of the contemporary lifestyles and responsibilities of young, educated Indigenous people today, and a treasure-trove of eloquent and elegant writing.

Narrated by Tarena Shaw, soon to be graduate of law, Butterfly Song as a romance novel tells the love story of Tarena’s grandparents - guitar man Kit and Francesca his frangipani princess, and how their eternal love is symbolised in the butterfly brooch carved by Kit for his lady.

Butterfly Song is also a crime novel as the brooch was stolen in the past, which leads Tarena to research and defend her first case, without yet receiving her uni marks. In terms of learning about aspects of the law, Butterfly Song is a gem of a text, as we also get a simple lesson in native title and the Mabo decision, while learning of the angst of Indigenous law students dealing with prejudice and ignorance in the university environment.

The novel also covers some colourful Australian geography. From Thursday Island in the 1940s to the up-market streets of Woollahra in Sydney in the 1990s, with Cairns and Canberra in between.

Some of my favourite scenes in the novel are following Tarena in her part-time job as a waitress at Serge’s Madonna’s Mirror restaurant, and the endless questions from patrons wanting to know where she is from - that is, what breeding has lead to her being brown-skinned. Is she from Sri Lanka or Bali or is she a Maori? Her stock response is that she is from Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. She says it without even really listening to the questions after a while; they are just so frequent and predictable. But once when asked if she was married, Tarena not listening properly just responded with “I am from Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.” It made me laugh.

I am also inspired by those who have written something that I wished I had thought of first. I don’t know if Robert has those moments, but I do. Where I am at a reading, or I’m reading someone’s book, and I think, geez, why didn’t I think to write that? One piece I wished I’d written is by Samuel Wagan Watson, and it’s a poem called “Recipe for Metropolis Brisbane”.

It’s fair to say that I am more inspired by living Black writers than dead white ones.

As far as my own favourite stories and books go, I was on the Books Alive tour last week in regional NSW doing readings from my new novel Avoiding Mr Right, and in the middle of a literary lunch I burst out laughing at my own reading. Is that normal? Well, my PA and I both decided its’ not, but I wanted to share two lines from the book to see what you thought.

In one scene in a Japanese restaurant, considering inter-racial relationships, Peta Tully says to her date:

“If an Aboriginal and an Asian had a baby, it’d be called an Abrasion.”

Then in an astral-dream where she travels to NYC and has sex in the ladies at, she says…

“I lose count of how many orgasms I have because I have never really been any good at maths.”

Boom! Boom!

As to the question – are we what we read? Well I hope so, because that would mean that I am Australian, I am funny, I am political, I am into social justice, I am sexy, and I am clever.


genevieve said...

What a splendid post, Anita.
Thanks for this list of black Australian writers, I will add it to my own reading.

And I love the picture of you writing in the fishbowl room at your library. I will add your blog to my list of Oz writers and link to this post later in the month, it's lovely.

Anonymous said...

That's an awesome post Anita - I had to respond to the part about laughing at your own reading - I think if your own work makes you laugh even though you are intimately aquainted with it it's a great measure of the quality of your work....and I laughed too!
Like the writer of the previous comment I found myself grabbing pen and paper and adding the titles you mentioned to my own reading list. Thanks - you always inspire me!