Anatomy of the Blurb
(David Cohen)

Posted on September 14, 2011 by in Being Sure

If you can’t judge a book by the cover, can you judge it by the blurb on the cover? Whether supplied by a fellow author or lifted from a review, the blurb plays a critical role in the marketing of any title. The following introduction to the art of blurb writing (and blurb reading) will, to quote author and celebrated blurbist Oliver Herford, fill a much-needed gap.

A blurb’s primary purpose is to tell us that the book is good and we should buy it. One way of saying a book is good is to describe it as ‘readable’, as in ‘intensely readable’, ‘hugely readable’, or perhaps even ‘compulsively readable’. Clearly, ‘readable’ means ‘good’, even though you might think that being readable is the very least a book can do. If a book fails in this capacity, then there’s not much it’s good for, except perhaps propping up a rickety shelf. But it would be counterproductive to describe a book as ‘compulsively prop-up-a-shelf-able’, no matter how excellently it performs this function.

Perhaps a step up from ‘readable’ is ‘gripping’. The best way to convey that a book is gripping is predict the reader’s response to the actual pages in the book. Take these blurbs on Joseph Finder’s thriller Vanished. Note that they have been penned by other thriller writers.

‘I dare you to read the first page. You won’t be able to stop’ – Tess Gerritsen

‘Open one of [Finder’s] books and you won’t be closing it until the last page is turned’ – James Rollins

It can be inferred that, while a readable book will stimulate you to turn the pages at a regular speed, a book like Vanished will compel you to turn the pages slightly faster. Blurbs on thrillers can be enhanced by inserting words like ‘chilling’ and ‘spine-tingling’, or asserting that the book involves a ‘web of intrigue’.

Still another way of praising a book is to employ the elegant phrase ‘life-affirming’. Philip Ardagh’s Guardian blurb describes young-adult novel Numbers by Rachel Ward (not the actor) as ‘Intelligent and life-affirming’. Another YA novel, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, is considered to be ‘Incredibly inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming’ (Exepose), ‘Incredibly life-affirming’ (lovereading4kids.co.uk) and ‘Ultimately… life-affirming and uplifting’ (JUNO). ‘Life-affirming’ can be interpreted in two ways: (1) having read this book, the blurbist has decided to go on living; or (2) the blurbist had already intended to go on living, but this book has reinforced that intention. Either way, it’s a useful phrase which can be applied to almost any book (think twice before using it on euthanasia manuals).

What about humorous books? How do we say a book is funny? There are two possible approaches. The first is to say: ‘I laughed out loud’. Sometimes this is written in upper-case letters, as in novelist Matt Dunn’s review of Robert P. Smith’s debut novel Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog: ‘I LAUGHED OUT LOUD, while cringing in guilty recognition.’ The other way is to describe the book as ‘wickedly funny’, as in ‘Augusten Burroughs’ new book is wickedly funny, painfully honest’ (you could achieve a similar effect with ‘painfully funny, wickedly honest’).

But what if you want to be a bit more imaginative with your blurb, and at the same time advertise your credentials as a serious reader? An effective strategy is to use what I call the ‘If’ technique. Here, the blurbist attempts to convey the flavour of the book by invoking the work of two or more other authors. Take this evaluation of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars from the Independent on Sunday: ‘If Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together, they might well come up with something like this…’

Here’s another from Sydney Morning Herald writer Erik Jensen on Kenneth E. Hartman’s prison memoir, Mother California: ‘If Charles Bukowksi had committed a murder and done time, this is what he would have written.’

Martin Amis himself has used this formula. Here he is on Will Self’s short-story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: ‘If a manic J. G. Ballard and a depressive David Lodge got together, they might produce something like The Quantity Theory of Insanity.’

The benefit of this technique is that it enables you to show off your knowledge of other authors. The downside is that if the potential book buyer (PBB) has not also read those authors, they will be left none the wiser, and their resulting level of interest in the book – what can termed their post-blurb enthusiasm – will fall slightly below or at best remain equal to their pre-blurb enthusiasm.

A technique often used by master blurbists like Stephen King and James Patterson is the sweeping statement. Here, the writer uses simple wording to make a huge claim. The claim may be based more on personal taste than genuine authority, but it’s formulated in a way that leaves no room for argument. Below are two from Patterson. Pay careful attention to his use of the word ‘best’.

‘Her best yet’ (Look Again by Lisa Scottoline)

‘Koryta is one of the best of the best, plain and simple.’ (The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta)

Stephen King, perhaps one of the most prolific blurb writers in the publishing industry, uses the technique to great effect in this pronouncement on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Other Stories: ‘[Gaiman] is, simply put, a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.’

King and Patterson harness the latent power of seemingly innocent phrases like ‘plain and simple’ and ‘simply put’ in a manner unmatched by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

But what about when a book is really, really good and you want to bring out the big guns? It’s difficult to go past ‘A tour de force’, or, even better, ‘an absolute tour de force’. On the other hand, is there a more unequivocal statement than ‘a classic’, except maybe ‘an instant classic’? ‘Extraordinary’ is also hard to beat (note the economy and power of a one-word blurb). However, most experts agree that you simply can’t top ‘a triumph’, except, once again, when it’s written in upper-case letters. The Guardian’s well-known review of Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing combined several of the above techniques (‘EXTRAORDINARY… A TRIUMPH’), guaranteeing huge sales.

Thus far we’ve examined the blurb as a straightforward endorsement. But every now and then the situation may arise where, for whatever reason, we are called upon to provide a blurb for a book we don’t really like. How do we tackle this problem? A neat example is supplied in the case of Will I Think of You?, a book of verse and photography by noted poet Leonard Nimoy, published in the 1970s. To begin with, the ‘blurb’ on the back cover is not attributed to any person or publication. Then the ‘blurb’ itself asserts that Nimoy’s book is: ‘…written with mature conviction and illustrated with extraordinarily appropriate photographs taken by the author himself.’  Note that it avoids any indication of whether or not the book has merit, focusing instead on the author’s good intentions; after all, any book, no matter how terrible, could be written with mature conviction. But the real stroke of genius is the phrase ‘extraordinarily appropriate’ to describe the photographs – not just because it diverts our attention from the poetry, but because it is a masterful example of a technique I call the ‘extreme cop-out’, in which the blurbist appears to be making a strong assertion while in fact saying nothing.

The technique is also used by Publishers Weekly in its assessment of Robert J. Sawyer’s sci-fi novel Wake as ‘wildly thought-provoking’. It disguises the cop-out ‘thought-provoking’ (translation: I can’t think of anything good to say about this) with an explosive adjective (see also: ‘compulsively readable’). Both are superb pieces of non-committal and yet extraordinarily appropriate blurb writing.

Returning to our study of unambiguously favourable blurbs, let me conclude with an absolute tour de force. I speak of Tom Clancy’s four-word masterpiece on Clive Cussler’s The Wrecker. It simply says: ‘The guy I read’. By making himself the blurb’s centre of attention, Clancy has not only torn up the rule book, he has taken to it with a blowtorch and stomped on the charred remains. It’s a risky move, and only someone of Clancy’s stature can pull it off. Whether or not Cussler is any good is beside the point; what matters is that Clancy reads him. And it cannot be overemphasised that Cussler is not just a guy Clancy reads, but the guy – the implication being that Clancy doesn’t read anyone else, at least no other guys. But even more importantly, we know from the sort of books Tom Clancy writes that he is an extremely tough dude. If he reads Cussler, then obviously he’s telling us to read Cussler, and I, for one, am not about to disobey Tom Clancy.

ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS:
On Australian Writing (Jo Case)

Posted on August 1, 2011 by in Being Sure

At last year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, during a session on The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, an impassioned argument broke out on the subject of Australian writing. Robert Dessaix declared that, in our current age of globalisation, where national identities and national cultures are harder to define, there is no longer any such thing as Australian writing. ‘Do any of us write as Australian writers?’ he asked his fellow panellists Chloe Hooper, Michelle de Kretser and Malcolm Knox. ‘I know I don’t. I write as moi. I don’t write about Aborigines and sharks.’

Hooper (who could be crudely said to have written ‘about Aborigines’ in her 2009 smash-hit The Tall Man) argued that the diversity Dessaix saw as signalling the demise of Australian literature is in fact at the core of its identity. She demonstrated this by citing the Macquarie anthology, which encompasses de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, and Dessaix’s engagement with the world beyond our shores. ‘I feel proud to be in an anthology of Australian literature,’ said Sri-Lankan born de Kretser. ‘It does give pleasure to some people and make them feel like they’re finally accepted as being Australian.’

But Dessaix’s interpretation of Australian writing as being about ‘Aborigines and sharks’ – or, as it’s more commonly summarised, bush and beach – is alive and well, as shown by this year’s deeply (and variously) controversial Miles Franklin shortlist. From the setting of a sheep station, Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran explores the loss of optimism and confidence in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance tells the story of the post-colonial destruction of the indigenous Noongar people and their traditions, and the possibility of a new world created by the encounters of very different peoples. (It should be noted that contrary to some post-Miles commentaries, Scott is not yet another example of an Anglo male writer being favoured. He is an indigenous writer, one of only two ever to win the Miles Franklin: Benang was joint winner, in 2000, with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) And finally Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a Gothic novel set in the aftermath of World War I during the Spanish flu epidemic, as an Australian soldier returns to the scene of a terrible crime in his country hometown, hoping to somehow reconcile the past.

The three novels were described by judges as sharing ‘a distinctive, indelible Australian voice’. That those three books were all written by men, and all shared a historical rural setting, sparked immediate and furious discussion about just what Australian writing is – and about the definition of Australian writing recognised and rewarded by the literary establishment. ‘Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice,’ wrote Angela Meyer on Crikey’s LiteraryMinded, barely an hour after the shortlist announcement. ‘Sheep stations, war, colonisation … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define “Australian life”.’

Meyer’s observation was echoed the next day by Wheeler Centre programming director Michael Williams. ‘The definition of “Australian life in any of its phases” that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo,’ he wrote on the Wheeler Centre website. ‘If our notion of a “sufficiently Australian” novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories.’

*

Six months earlier, driven by the Adelaide Writers’ Week argument, I’d begun to research the question of what we mean by ‘Australian writing’, driven by my own belief that a national literature – telling and reading our own stories – is vitally important to our sense of self. How can a generation of storytellers grow up believing that their voices are worth listening to, that a life lived in Melbourne is as culturally valid as a life lived in New York or London, if the only stories we celebrate come from elsewhere? And if Australian literature is narrowly defined as something alien to the way most of us live now, how many writers will feel inspired and emboldened to embark on a writing career?

‘I think it’s more like having an Australian accent than being an Australian writer,’ responded novelist Charlotte Wood when I posed Dessaix’s question – Do you identify as an Australian writer? ‘I guess I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.’

That idea, of writing with an Australian accent, comes through in Wood’s most recent novel, The Children, about a family reunited by a serious accident, which brings the scattered adult children back to the rural NSW town where they grew up to visit their ailing father. There are no lush descriptions of landscape, little Australian vernacular (except for a couple of stray bloodys), no surfing or sea – but it’s deeply and instantly recognisable as the kind of country town you might have driven through, or indeed have lived in; a place where most of the children grow up and gratefully leave in order to broaden their choices. ‘I wrote about what I see of country towns rather than a kind of lost romantic idea about what a country town is,’ said Wood, pointing out that in our film and television, more so than books, we see a cliché of ‘a dusty, weather-beaten, corrugated iron kind of place’, or the patronising quirkiness of shows like Seachange or the film Mullet, that doesn’t reflect what a contemporary Australian country town is, so much as a national myth.

In Wood’s fictional town of Rundle, there’s a Liquorland, a Best & Less, kids dressed in surf gear far from the sea. A climactic family dinner takes place in a pub dining room with plastic-coated menus and exotic-sounding dishes like Tuscan Lamb, the culinary labels wistfully signalling elsewhere. Town residents are proud of the recently revamped pub though city visitors disdain it as embarrassingly pretentious. On one level, it’s generic – it could happen anywhere – but on another this geographical inferiority is deeply Australian. Eldest daughter Mandy works as a war correspondent, reporting back from far-away places, and even her mother Margaret reflects nostalgically on her teenage dream of being an air hostess.

‘The things that make me Australian are more psychological,’ says novelist and former publisher Sophie Cunningham. That much of her writing is set overseas makes the definition of ‘Australian’ particularly tricky in her case. Her first novel, Geography (which included canny descriptions of the Sydney–Melbourne dichotomy and rich evocations of swimming at Bondi) was set between California, Melbourne and Sydney. Her second, Bird, is set entirely overseas. ‘You could argue that just the mere fact of being a long way from everywhere else drives the plot a lot. Australians are some of the biggest travelers in the world. And you do travel more and longer; it forms the character of the novel. But it’s a subtle point.’

It’s a point fellow novelist Patrick Allington agrees with – and he offers that while Bird is ‘not an Australian book in any sense or form, to me it feels like it is somehow. I can’t say why in any tangible sense.’

Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead – set mostly in Cambodia, following the twinned stories of Pol Pot’s right-hand man and a Wilfred Burchett-like Australian foreign correspondent – was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009. ‘In my own writing, what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the role of Australia in the world and the tyranny of distance that doesn’t exist as a geographical thing elsewhere in quite the same way. It seems to me it carries on in our heads quite powerfully.’

It’s interesting that both Allington’s novel and Wood’s The Children – two very different books – feature the key character of an Australian correspondent (Allington’s Ted and Wood’s Mandy) who, on their return, experience ‘home’ as alien and shockingly removed from the rest of the world.

When asked if he identified as an Australian writer, Allington replied: ‘I do, but that makes it sound as if I’m sitting around doing random surveys to make sure I’ve mentioned gum trees often enough per page, or weaved a platypus into the plot somehow. Which is what I think people think about when they think of Australian writing.’

In my conversations – with booksellers, publishers, writers, critics – the same names cropped up again and again when it came to contemporary Australian writing: Tim Winton and Peter Carey. There was a sense of weariness in these references, even while most praised the skill and in no way disparaged their success. When other writers considered the question of being Australian, they compared themselves against these elements: Australian vernacular; bush and beach, explicit explorations of colonisation or national history.

‘I get very frustrated by the sense that rural culture is where all the authenticity is happening,’ said Cunningham, who was one of the key publishers responsible for the ‘grunge’ wave of young Australian writers in the 1990s – which was really, in hindsight, urban fiction. Her alumni include Fiona McGregor (Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes), and Luke Davies (Candy).

Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield is an enthusiastic champion of Australian fiction; she started Scribe’s fledgling list nearly six years ago, in 2006, after a long stint as deputy editor of Australian Book Review. Describing her thought process when it comes to commissioning writers, she said, ‘I’m thinking – maybe wrongly – that audiences are looking for good writing, by writers who live here, that has an Australian accent, or really talks about what they know – the things that are most relevant to them. But it’s not narrowly defined at all. I think the definitions of bush and beach have been outdated for quite a long time.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of the editors of The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature agreed, saying that we’ve moved ‘well past’ the city–bush split once looming large in our literature, and that contemporary Australian literature is a broad field, with ‘many, many things that can fit under this umbrella’.

Goldsworthy reflected on the recent history of this evolution, drawing on the expertise and hands-on experience of her decades of work in the field (including as an editor of Australian Book Review, a Miles Franklin judge and an Australian Literature academic). ‘English departments in universities in the 1960s were run by English people,’ she said. ‘It was a British view. No such thing as Australian literature.’ The resistance to Australian literature in universities lingered as late as the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by fights to get migrant literature, indigenous literature and writing by women taught and read. ‘There was a great swathe of short story anthologies that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s really heavily dominated by male writers and nobody even noticed let alone remarked on it,’ Goldsworthy recalled. ‘Then there was this kind of flowering of women’s writing in the 1980s with Helen Garner and Beverly Farmer and Kate Grenville; older women like Olga Masters who had begun to write in their middle age; and people like Thea Astley, who had been there all along.’

Viewed in this context, it seems that there has always been a war to recognise Australian writing that reflects the broader Australian experience – and we’re in the midst, it seems, of the next battle.

*

On the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel, novelist and former Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Malcolm Knox talked about The Slap’s journey to publication overseas. He said it came up against all kinds of difficulties because it was about suburban life in the Western world, rather than the exotic settings of the outback or a coastal surfing town. ‘In The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas is in Melbourne writing about his world in Melbourne with the confidence of Philip Roth writing about his world in New York,’ he said. He suggested that the reception of the book – then yet to be published outside Australia – would challenge international definitions of Australian writing, and would be a kind of test case for whether suburban Australian writing can travel. Of course, it went on to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker.

Did The Slap mark an expansion of what we define as Australian writing? Not really, said most of those I spoke to. It’s simply a terrific work of storytelling. ‘If I asked friends in the UK if they would read a book set in suburban Australia, I think they’d say, “It depends entirely on who’s writing about it”,’ said Kerryn Goldsworthy. ‘Alice Munro writes about small towns in Canada, and she has millions and millions of people hanging on her every word. And it’s not because she’s writing about small towns in Canada. It’s because she’s really, really good at what she does.’

Goldsworthy did think, though, that The Slap was a perfectly timed novel that ‘hit the Zeitgeist smack in the middle’ and delivered a kind of story about contemporary Australia that readers were hungry for. ‘It was a novel whose time had come in the same way that Monkey Grip was. It was exactly the right time for someone to say what had been happening in these places and to these people for the past few years.’

Aviva Tuffield sees another salutary lesson for Australian writing in the success of The Slap. It’s an excellent example of the importance of supporting a writer through their early work, and nurturing them as they develop their career – something that is becoming rarer these days, with the advent of BookScan, which shows exactly how many copies an author has sold, making it tougher for them to be signed up for that notoriously difficult second novel.

Tuffield used the example of her author Chris Womersely, whose second novel Bereft they’d worked on intensively in the editorial process. ‘I think his third book will be something really ground-breaking,’ she said when we spoke in November 2010 – months before Bereft was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. ‘You don’t know what you would have had by supporting local writers if you don’t do it,’ she reflected. ‘You don’t know when you’ll see the next Tim Winton or whoever – the next great writer who’ll come out of the fact that someone took a punt on their first book, and again on their second book and their third book.’

Sophie Cunningham also emphasised the significance of The Slap being Tsiolkas’s fourth novel, coming after his debut Loaded (one of the ‘grunge’ novels), his difficult second novel The Jesus Man, and the critically acclaimed Dead Europe, winner of The Age Book of the Year (2006). Both Tuffield and Cunningham made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen, whose third novel was The Corrections.

I asked Cunningham if she thought maybe there’s been a generational shift in the idea of what an ‘Australian’ writer can be. (And, reflecting now, perhaps that shift hasn’t yet made its way to the Miles Franklin judging panel.) She agreed that people like Tsiolkas – and Nam Le, whose worldwide phenomenon The Boat was published simultaneously in New York and was set all over the world – are opening up that definition.

*

Back to the time of writing, and the all-male, rural, historically set Miles shortlist. It’s been heartening to see the widespread public reaction against the lack of diversity, from writers, critics, and passionate readers alike. ‘I think the “Australian Voice” is a multi-cultural one and an urbanised one,’ wrote Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages and Pages, president of the Australian Booksellers’ Association. ‘While Australia is a large land mass, the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns.’ A commenter on his blog replied, ‘One of the reasons I read less and less Australian “literary” fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not.’ Bookseller Martin Shaw of Readings Carlton believes that most enthusiastic readers ‘want to read something quite regularly that’s set in their own time and place … they’re looking for something that’s sort of explaining their world to them’.

That’s why Australian writing is still important. It reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions. Not all Australian writing speaks to all Australians – that would be an absurd notion. But the diversity of our writing represents the diversity of Australia itself. And that’s a good thing – something that, it seems, Australian readers are increasingly keen to see reflected in the kind of Australian writing we value.

The Miles Franklin debate is not simply about one prize, albeit our leading national literary prize. It’s an argument about who we are. ‘I like to see my world represented in art,’ said Charlotte Wood. I think the same is true of most of us. It doesn’t have to be about the bush or the beach. It can be as varied and universal as an Australian accent.

Thanks to all the talented writing, publishing and bookselling people who took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts on this subject. Not all were able to be directly quoted in the article, but all made valuable contributions to the conversation. Thanks to: Patrick Allington, Jon Bauer, Sophie Cunningham, Lisa Dempster, Chris Flynn, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Martin Shaw, Louise Swinn, Charlotte Wood and Chris Womersley.

*

ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND  AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS  On Australian Writing first appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 6, July 2011.

 

What’s Updog? (Helena Pastor)

Posted on July 26, 2011 by in Being Sure

 

One night, washing up after dinner, I hear the click of the side-gate. A dark-haired figure lopes past the window and my husband calls out, ‘Joey’s here.’ My body tenses, my heartbeat quickens. This shouldn’t happen when my own son comes to visit. But it does, because I never know what to expect. Who will Joey be today – Mr Happy, Mr Sad or Mr Angry?

‘Hi Mum!’ he says as he comes through the back door. I glance up from the sink. He’s smiling broadly, his brown eyes alight with mischief. Mr Happy.

I smile back, thinking how handsome he is when he’s in a good mood. ‘How’s things, Joey?’

‘Good … good.’ He leans against the kitchen bench and sniffs deeply. ‘It smells like updog in here.’

‘Hmmm …’ I murmur, keeping my response minimal, wondering what he’s up to. Probably a farting joke. Theo comes out of his room, still dressed in his high school uniform. Joey calls his brother over. ‘Don’t you reckon it smells like updog in here?’

‘What’s updog?’ asks Theo.

‘Nuttin’ dog,’ answers Joey in a thick gangsta accent and a big grin. ‘What’s up wit’ you?’

Theo reddens, caught out, while I chuckle over the dishes. Joey can be very funny.

‘Want to go for a drive, Mum?’

Nightly drives have almost become a ritual since Joey moved out of home. I tell myself it’s quality time, an opportunity for us to talk without the other kids around, but it doesn’t usually turn out that way.

‘Not really,’ I sigh. ‘It’s been a long day.’ But I know our two year-old is nearly asleep, and our second youngest is trying to finish his homework. I also know how hard it is for Joey to be quiet. I grab the keys from the top of the fridge. ‘Maybe just a short one.’

As I reverse onto the street, Joey plugs his MP3 adaptor into the cassette player. The thumping beat of rap fills the car. The music is so loud people stare as we go past. Each time I turn down the volume, Joey turns it up even louder. I shouldn’t have agreed to go out with him. ‘Put on a song that doesn’t have so much swearing!’ I snap. ‘I don’t want to hear ‘motherfucker’ over and over!’

‘Alright, alright,’ he says, searching through his songs. ‘You don’t need to get angry. Let’s do a lap around town and check out Hungry Jack’s.’

I drive around the block, fuming. Why do I do this? Week after week, month after month? As we cruise past the back of Hungry Jack’s, a local hangout, Joey scans the crowd for someone he knows. He doesn’t seem embarrassed to be hooning around town with his mother. Most boys his age would be learning to drive, saving up for a car or motorbike of their own. But Joey’s never shown any interest in getting his license.

‘Stop here a minute,’ says Joey, leaping out to ask the whereabouts of one of his friends. I wait in the car, a faithful servant. When he jumps back in, we drive to an address on the other side of town, in the housing commission area. I already know this won’t be a ‘short drive’. Joey doesn’t seem to notice when I purse my lips and exhale loudly with resentment.

We stop in front of a brick house. Joey gets out to see if his friend is home. While he’s chatting at the door I remember a phone call with my mother the previous week. She rang to tell me about her friend’s grandson, a young man who was often in trouble with the police. ‘He joined the army and became a different person,’ she said. ‘Maybe this would be a good thing for Joey.’

I wasn’t sure if I wanted Joey to become a soldier, fighting someone else’s war. But the next day I’d looked up the Defence Forces website and read through an impressive list of trade jobs available for army recruits. Definitely worth a try.

On our drive back to town, I sneak the volume down a notch. ‘Oma reckons it might be a good idea for you to join the army.’

Joey looks at me in surprise. ‘I’ve been thinking about doing that already … I want to be a driver.’

A driver?

‘You could learn a trade,’ I say, pretending I haven’t heard. With a brain like his he could do anything. ‘Telecommunications, or mechanical engineer or systems analyst.’

Joey shakes his head and sighs. ‘You remind me of Marge Simpson.’ He turns up the music again; end of army conversation. This is how it always is when I bring up something serious.

Later I drop him at his place. When Joey moved into a share-house, only a block away from us, I worried it might be a little too close. I was right. He pops around whenever it suits him, wanting food, money, lifts, his clothes washed. Mainly, though, I think he just wants me. For his first year of life, it was only him and me. I’m sure he’d still prefer it that way – to have my undivided attention so I could listen to his stories for hours, spend the nights driving him around town with rap music shaking the car, do all his cooking, shopping and washing.

Give my life over to him.

A Theory of Australian Literature (Ray Greener)

Posted on May 6, 2011 by in Being Sure

 

— If it’s mediocre, it will be called average. (Bryce Courteney, Colleen McCullough)

—If it’s average, it will be called good. (Robert Drewe, David Malouf)

—If it’s good, it will be called great. (Tim Winton, Nam Le)

—If it’s great, it will be ignored. (Gerald Murnane, Patrick White)

Country and Western
(Sunil Badami)

Posted on March 19, 2011 by in Being Sure

‘Where you from, mate?’

‘Sydney.’

That makes ‘em laugh, for some reason.

 

When people overseas ask me where I’m from, I naturally say “Australia.” When people interstate ask, I say “Sydney.” When people in Sydney ask, I say “Blacktown,” and they look askance, as if to say: Where the bloody hell is that?

For some, the Western Suburbs are some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant, blank space, uncharted territory, a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains. A faraway boganville. With no atmosphere, no culture – and definitely no reason to visit. A place to leave rather than to return to, a place from which to seek asylum.

The Italian writer Aldo Busi says that ‘we travel like lobsters, our heads over our shoulders.’ Which is to say, we’re always looking back, looking away, our eyes fixed not so much on the horizon to which we’re heading, but what we left behind around the corner we just passed.

But in Sydney, where ‘executive waterfront investment opportunities’ grab at the hem of the foreshore, stabbing the skyline like upturned fingers, once-vibrant harbourside neighbourhoods are now silent but for the sound of the security buzzer, everyone as blinded as dazzled by the Harbour’s glistering, dancing light.

And, unlike the starving colonists of Old Sydney Town, who looked westwards for salvation (and installed the Governor in Parramatta Park), it seems, at least from reading the papers or listening to the radio, nobody looks West, least of all those of us who grew up there. I left as soon as I could, moving to Town, where I imagined everything happened, finding myself apologetically justifying my place by doing everything I could not to appear a Westie, even if I was still obviously a darkie.

In Greystanes, where I grew up, and where the only water views were the Beresford Road stormwater drain or the Prospect Reservoir, our gaze was always fixed on Town, as distant as another country. From the milk bar at the top of Ettalong Road, the sky bleached and laundry-dry, our paddle pops dissolving into the incandescent asphalt, you’d see the city, so far away, shimmering in the burnt-blue distance, a mirage reminding you how far away you were, despite being so close.

And at night, Town’s candy-coloured lights would flicker uncertainly as the humming sodium streetlamps of the Great Western Highway swallowed them up into the stifling night.

 

‘No, where you really from?’ they ask.

‘Well, I was born in Blacktown,’ I reply. ‘But don’t tell anyone – we don’t want to lower property values.’

They laugh a little less.

 

The Australian academic and critic Stephen Muecke observes that ‘a language like English is like a group of textual suburbs,’ each with its own character, the differences expressed not just through space and distance, but in a cultural and political geography, crowded with meaning, like, say the difference between Blacktown and Circular Quay or Greystanes and Girraween.

It’s always struck me, Greystanes or Girraween or even Doonside aside, how incongruously Western suburbs are named. The imperious names of posh suburbs like Northbridge or Edgecliff or Palm Beach describe them perfectly: there is a bridge there, it is on the edge of a cliff, and there are lots of expensively transplanted palms within the high-walled gardens of those luxurious weekenders.

But if you’ve ever been to Merrylands or Pleasure Point or Silverwater, you’d find it hard to see the merriness or pleasure or silveriness over the belch of exhaust fumes and the roar of motorway traffic. The only high walls on the Cumberland Highway are there not to protect the residents from the invasive gaze of outsiders, but from the pollution and noise and collisions that the many smash repair shops all the way to Smithfield take advantage of. Sometimes it seems, the roller shutters clamped down against the yellow heat, that even Westies don’t want to look around them.

Only Blacktown, where I was born, seems apt: named after a school established to educate the natives in ‘civilised’ English ways, its Indigenous Dharug name long lost.  Now it’s home to Sydney’s biggest population of Indigenous Australians, immigrant Indians and Sudanese refugees.

A black town, indeed, even if Greystanes did feel, growing up, as it sounded: a regretful smudge, only an incremental shade from darkness.

 

‘No, seriously, where’s your family from?’

‘Seriously? Actually, Greystanes. I grew up there.’

They stop laughing.

 

Just as for those who’ve never ventured any further down Parramatta Road past Annandale, the Western suburbs is uncharted territory, written on the blank page of an imaginary map, my geography is an emotional one. The longer you’re away, you realise that the landmarks aren’t the things you sped past on the way to the Cumberland Highway on-ramp: those mysterious, windowless hangars; the anonymous storage facilities; the cut-price hotel-motels; the shabby shops selling soiled seconds; the heavy machinery yards, the dead skeletons of cranes and earthmovers hung, fossilised, in the still, suffocating air… but the spaces they once were – and more importantly, the people who inhabit those spaces.

Unlike the heritage-listed million dollar terraces of Paddington or Rozelle, the streetscapes of Western Suburbs like Padstow or Rosehill are constantly changing, from minty fibro cottages to brick veneer bungalows; now lurid McMansions and strange glassy-faced apartments thrown onto empty stretches of Parramatta Road staring out at caryards or the acrid remains of the Homebush Abbattoirs. Could you tell Australia’s second white settlement was established at Parramatta, now in danger of being rechristened Westfieldamatta?

Horrified faces seem to ask: how could anyone want to live there? As if you only live there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, seeking asylum from even worse places. When I was due back after a couple of years in London, my mother couldn’t understand my reluctance to return. ‘There’s a new Gloria Jean’s in the Boral Brick Pit,’ she said indignantly, referring to the Pemulwuy development over the spar from the Reservoir. ‘And the coffee, frankly, is quite adequate.’

Unlike the phó, the raw beef larb, the kuttu roti, the bhelpuri or bipbimbap, which are phenomenal. Growing up eating chevapi from Fairfield, pastizzi from South Wentworthville, kofte in Auburn, at little lunch, I’d swap my puris and dhal for Marko’s csabai roll; after school, Carlo’s mum would stuff us with cannoli or we’d gobble devon-and-sauce sangers at Kieran’s.

There’s a danger, though, in regarding the Western Suburbs as a kind of food court, like a series of little China- or Viet- or Korea- or Lebanon- or Serbia-towns, enjoying the cuisine but disregarding the cultures that cooked them up, leaving “them” to deal with the mess between “authenticity” and “assimilation.”

And there’s a danger in perpetuating the false perception of “us” and “them”, East and West, when the borders are always shifting and easily crossed – as long as it takes to get on a train (or, given Western Sydney’s unending public transport woes, just getting on the motorway) – or, perhaps, more importantly, within us.

Yet it seems odd that most of the city’s population, coming from the Western Suburbs, must make the effort to engage, at least culturally, with thousands spending hours on the train or motorway to line the Harbour and crowd the Domain every January for the Sydney Festival, as if there was nowhere else to go, when while the road ends at the foreshore, there are countless directions heading the other way going West into Australia’s dark heart.

However, for “native Westies” like my mother, living in the Western Suburbs is not simply a question of affordability but community: the ‘ethnic ghettoes’ pilloried by those opposed to diversity exist only as new immigrants find their feet in a strange land among friends. It seems that the transformation in public opinion from ‘ethnic ghetto’ to celebrated ‘cultural precincts’ like Norton Street or Dixon Street takes only a generation. Just as from Ettalong Road to Centrepoint, it’s only twelve miles, even if in Sydney traffic, it sometimes it feels a world away: another country, as foreign as the past, in these forgotten places where everything seems demolished, where certainties seem erased.

But it’s in those places, like the meaning hidden in the spaces between words, where just as much, if not more, is gained in the translation, as was ever imagined lost.

 

‘Where were they born?’

‘Well, my parents were born in India – ‘

‘Right, so you’re Indian?’

 

I eat tandoori chicken I do on the barbie; I’ve read the Mahabharata, but only in English. I’m not sure I’m really Indian and yet people aren’t really sure I’m not. ‘Indianness’ is a concept as foreign to me as ‘Australianness’. Let alone ‘Westieness.’

I was born in Australia, I speak with an Australian accent, I don’t speak any Indian language, but I look Indian: what you might call a ”coconut,” white inside and brown out. It’s funny: when I tell people in India where my parents are from, they laugh and ask me where I’m really from. It’s only in India that I’m Australian… and perhaps vice-versa.

In more supposedly cosmopolitan quarters I’d find people kindly reassuring me I wasn’t really Indian, or Westie for that matter, and being surprised I took such exception.

Such questions don’t bother my mother, adjusting her sari defiantly. ‘I’m a Westernie and proud of it,’ she says, well, proudly.

But what would a Westie look like anyway (or, while we’re asking, an Aussie)? Who wears flannie shirts with Winnie Blues tucked into the sleeve over an Ackadacka tanktop stuffed into skinny jeans – and, most appallingly, with thongs?

(Actually, walking down the trendier quarters of Bondi or Surry Hills, it seems everybody. It seems strange not just that such privileged young slashies should be copying Westies, but that their Westie contemporaries might imitate them, imitating their own Westie parents.)

And it’s ironic that with Sydney’s exorbitant house prices forcing people further west, many of us who left are now returning – and those same Eastern Suburbs or North Shore denizens who might wonder who’d live in the West find themselves on its doorstep, newly arrived immigrants in enclaves like Petersham or Ashfield, where the multicultural atmosphere – with older Portuguese and Greek immigrants rubbing shoulders with newer Chinese and Anglo arrivals – is celebrated.

Much is made of Sydney’s multiculturality: after all, as Australia’s largest city, home to Australia’s busiest airport, and the first destination for many immigrants (such as my parents), it has the most and most diverse ethnic communities.

But, on a recent trip to Bondi, packed with foreign tourists, it struck me that I was the only non-white person on the street: a strange, unsettling feeling I suddenly realised I’d never have back home, out west.

And it occurred to me that the Gateway to Australia wasn’t at Circular Quay, but somewhere around Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic and geographical heart, its streets alive with exotic aromas and unheard of dialects, offering at once the reality of Sydney today, and its possibilities tomorrow. Lost for words, I thought of Muecke again:

‘When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.’

 

‘No, mate, I’m a Westie. And proud of it.’

 

And it seems, just as the geography of a place is one more of meaning than merely location, so too a nation – especially a nation of immigrants like Australia – is not so much a collection of gazetted borders or place names but an idea, agreed upon by the majority of the people who claim citizenship of it.

But like any idea, like any nation, like any city, like any community, it cannot exist statically in the ghetto of some idealised past or limited to any particular definition: it can only be enriched and strengthened by debating it and expanding it, the changes keeping it alive.

And nowhere is that more true than the Western Suburbs, constantly demolishing and building and reinventing, its face changing with every new wave of arrivals, building their own ideas of Australia on the foundations of their own imaginary homelands.

Although the Indonesian-Chinese-Australian theorist Ien Ang acknowledges the conflict between questions of ‘where you’re from’ over ‘where you’re at,’ particularly for immigrants and their children, and while the idea of being where you’re at is more relevant in finding your place, it shouldn’t discount where you’re from. Why, as Salman Rushdie asks, should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of society, or drawing on our roots – whether Oriental or Westie – for our art or identity?

In his classic The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (set in of all places, Western Australia), Randolph Stowe’s semi-autobiographically based protagonist, Rob, whose uncle is Maltese, wonders ‘if he would ever go as far as Malta, and hear people talking foreign languages in the streets.’

We needn’t travel so far: once we open the shutters and turn towards our hearts, it’s there, where it always was, and if we look hard enough, we can see it never really left us, or us it. Just as I cannot disavow my apparent Indianness, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing?

After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants, but its outsiders, always on the margins, looking in: not offering new certainties, but new ways of questioning accepted ones. Like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere, offering new insights, new visions, new illuminations?

And best of all, not just artists or writers. For one marvellous month in Greystanes, we wander once silent streets, shining with fairy lights and children’s laughter and the jingle of carols. The Caruanas, the Browns, the Sabouhs and the Wongs all festoon their front windows with puddings and elves and animatronic Nativity scenes, steaming in the Mr Whippy gloaming, the sky radiant with rosy resplendence, all of us swelling with Christmas spirit and community pride: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. My two little girls, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, half-Indian, half-Anglo and wholly Australian, are as enthralled by these Christmas decorations as they are by the Deepavali ones at the Murugan Temple up the road.

The Parramatta Advertiser proudly reports how many people come from all over the city to delight at Greystanes, of all places.

And, amidst the excited clamour and electric lustre, nobody notices the spray-on snow or sweltering Santas dissolving in the dusk, or the way each of us has added a little of our own traditions and expectations to make something shinier, more colourful, more inclusive: different, but not discrete. Nor, as the rainbow sparkles and tinkling carols shimmer along Cumberland Road, the uncertain glimmer of Town, so far away.

We’ve no need to look longingly over our shoulders that one marvellous month, for we can see that light right in front of us, where it always was: round the corner from home, in our neighbours’ and children’s faces, sticky with choc top and lit with joy.

*

‘Country and Western’ was published in Best Australian Essays 2010.

My Father’s Body in Nine Drawings
(Francesca Rendle-Short)

Posted on September 23, 2010 by in Being Sure

 

1

My father is not yet dead. People who knew him say there is a likeness in this drawing. I can still see him breathing, can you? I still feel warmth when I bend to kiss his head in salutation; I feel a pulse through his skull against my lips. I imagine his gaze on me. Hello I hear him say, do I know you?

He doesn’t have long now to live. It is only a matter of hours. He dies the next day.

2

Maurice Blanchot once wrote: Look again at this splendid being from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself. And someone says to me, kindly: Francesca, he’ll be tangle free you know, when he’s gone he’ll be at peace.

Death skewers the heart of those left behind, no matter what the age of those who are dying. One minute I have a father and he’s with me in the flesh. The next minute he’ll be gone, really gone, disappeared. All breathing stopped.

3

These images of my father’s body span two notebooks. You can see the ordinariness of the lines and checks on the paper I’ve drawn across. When I was called to his beside in Toowoomba, I didn’t think I would be drawing his figure as he lay dying: I thought he would be already dead. I didn’t think there would be enough room for me to spread out around his bed, not room enough to measure stillness like this. There are too many of us for that. We fill up his room, bodies everywhere. Nurses stay away.

4

Did you know, with six children in a family there are six children trying to say goodbye to six fathers? In mathematical terms, there are 720 different sorts of relationships the six of us can have – a multiplication of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6. Add my father into the equation and multiply that figure by seven, to take it to 5040 combinations and permutations.

5

I draw fast, turning a page every few minutes. I don’t have long.

I draw him with a pencil found at the bottom of my bag.

Was it John Ruskin who said: but only draw what you see?

I watch my father find breath with my marks. The nurses tell me, when checking respiration, it is important to also note whether a person has any difficulty breathing.

6

Breath is involuntary. If you think about it too much your lungs hurt.

Did you know that on average we take 15 to 20 breaths per minute? That’s 900 to 1200 breaths per hour and 21600 to 28800 breaths per day. If we think of a year, we take 7884000 to 10512000 breaths in those 365 days – millions in other words. For my father who is 90 he has taken 709560000 to 946080000 breaths until now, to these, his very last.

7

My father is dying and I wonder what he is thinking, is he thinking at all. Does he still wish he will go to heaven to be with Angel, my mother? Is that his dream? Or has his Alzheimer’s clouded his view of any possible a f t e r l i f e?

I read once: in death, the rictus is an oddly painful unexpected ugly fact. The mouth is all wrong.

8

My father died when he was ninety. In mathematics, the number nine is at the end of the primary series beginning with one and finishing with 10. It denotes a complete circle, 360 degrees or, to put it another way, 3 + 6 + 0 = 9.

In French, the word neuf means both nine and new.

Nine is a lucky number.

9

I draw my father with my lucky ring on, from Hanoi. I call it lucky because it is in nine pieces – a silver ring with the palest of white Halong Bay pearls shaped in a grid of 3 x 3. I sometimes think of it as my noughtsandcrosses ring.

Thinking of my father I think of kissing him goodbye for the final time – with these nine pearls, these nine kisses, and with my story in nine drawings.

***

This requiem for my father in nine drawings complements a photo-essay I wrote for Overland entitled ‘My father’s body: creation, evolution and Alzheimer’s disease’.

Chapter One: Early Fragments (Glenda Guest)

Posted on August 21, 2010 by in Being Sure

Gordon and Dorothy

She was sixteen and at a dance when she saw him. It was, she said, like the song, across a crowded room. And I did know immediately that this was the one for me. He was a young farmer, then, with no thoughts of uniforms or war. It was the eyes, she said. Those gorgeous hazel eyes. And whenever she talked about him, which was only when pushed to, it was always about the eyes until bitterness took over as she aged and other, less attractive, things surfaced. Photos show that I inherited those eyes, as did my own daughter. It must have been hard for her to see his eyes in my face.

*

Small fragments of the child

My in-betweenness started at birth as, during the disarray and movement of late World War Two, my mother and baby-me followed my father around RAAF bases, staying with various relatives or in inexpensive accommodation. I have been told fragments of stories of my own beginnings and baby-life: the dramatic, the memorable. There was my father’s mother’s home in Mount Lawley, where I, the non-sleeping infant, would be walked by whoever was available while my mother napped. There was the apartment on the beach in Geraldton where toddler-me was taken to the beach by a neighbour with her own children. My mother, watching from the window, saw me run towards the water. I had hardly time to get wet before she pulled me from the waves. She had run down stairs from the first floor, across the railway yard and the broad beach. I never knew I could run so fast, she’d say. I’d told the woman you had to be watched all the time as you were quick and always escaping to explore. But she didn’t understand.

When we went to Melbourne we flew on a RAAF plane. You headed straight for the biggest brass there and sat on his knee the whole way. Even at two, you went for the top. There we lived in Surrey Hills with a relative of my father’s. There the story is of me being pushed in a small wood cart by a distant cousin, one of the Redhead family, who lost control and let the cart run down a hill towards a main road.

The story I liked most was set at Greenacres, my mother’s parents’ farm, and was told many times. It was a hot summer day, early afternoon. The mid-day meal had been cleared away and the men were back in the paddocks, harvesting. Baby-me was asleep in a low open cot in a bedroom that opened onto a partly-enclosed verandah. I had a feeling something wasn’t right, she’d say. I tippy-toed along the verandah and looked into the cot. How I didn’t scream was a miracle, because if you had woken then, you wouldn’t be here now. There, curled up at the bottom of the cot was a brown snake.

What did you do? I was always fascinated by this story of life and death and my mother’s bravery. How did you save me?

There was no-one around. And it would have taken too long to run out to the paddock to get your Pop. Who knows what could have happened while I was away. So I crept up to the top of the cot and reached in so, so slowly. I put my hand over your face so you wouldn’t cry or make a noise, and lifted you out, very slowly at first, then with a quick jerk. And that snake stayed asleep until I had you out of the cot, then it uncoiled. I ran out of the room and put you in your stroller in the kitchen.

And then? I was always anxious to get to the next bit.

I got the poker from the fireplace. Then I went back and I hit that snake. I hit it and hit it, and I broke the cot getting at it. Your Pop had to fix it when he came in from the harvester. He made one with netting around so nothing could get in again.

So much danger for one so young, all told in a voice tinged with horror.

But these fragments are from before I remember being. They are pieces of stories and family mythology that tell me who I was, before I could know myself.

*

Air Force Blues — Gordon and Dorothy

Wherever we went she tried to make a home for him when he was off-base. He just wanted to go out and play, she’d say. Wanted to leave the baby, me, with a sitter, and go to dances and bars. But I couldn’t do that. Bob and Harry, Gordon’s brothers, had transferred from the army to the RAAF, and their wives were in the WAAF and the Army. I can imagine them meeting in Melbourne. St Kilda, she’d say. Such an awful place. So dirty and crowded, and with things going on that I can’t possibly tell you about. The service men and women would want to see the town, see the sights so different from their small farm small town origins. Dorothy must have felt isolated in her civilian-dom and her motherhood, not understanding the stresses of the forces and they not understanding the problems of the camp follower trying to create normality as she knew it.

So easy to see, now. For the farm boy the RAAF was a release, an escape to the world. For the young Methodist-conservative wife it was a threat to stability with the moving around and the partying instead of being a family. It was an often-repeated story that as a baby I never slept. I’ve had the fancy that my mother’s distress reached me in the womb, making me afraid to sleep in case my father disappeared.

When Gordon was transferred to Townsville Dorothy took me to Greenacres where we lived with her parents until he came home from the RAAF.