Australian Foreign Affairs Issue 2: Trump in Asia The New World Disorder

‘Unpredictability is as central to this president’s approach to international affairs as resolve and clarity were to his predecessors.’

I admit it. I picked up this journal because of the title: ‘Trump in Asia: The New World Disorder’. I wanted to read something a little more detailed than a superficial comparison of two powerful men with idiosyncratic hairstyles or the relative size of their nuclear buttons. I wanted some thoughtful analysis and these days, as far as Australian print media goes, Schwarz Publishing provides some of the best analysis available. I read The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and Quarterly Essay when I can, and I’m happy to add Australian Foreign Affairs to the list. Why?

Foreign policy is important. Especially for Australia, an essentially European country located in Asia. We are a relatively small country (in economic and population terms). We can no longer rely solely on our connections with European countries and with the USA for either export markets or for our defence needs. And, in the era of President Trump, we can no longer be sure that American interests are the same as our own. We need to consider our relationship with Beijing, as well as our responsibilities as a nation located in the Asia-Pacific region.

The journal also includes a correspondence section and book reviews. I found that this journal gave me a few things to mull over. Australian Foreign Affairs is published three times a year, in February, July and October.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter)

Twenty Books of Summer or Winter? Now that’s an appealing challenge….

booksaremyfavouriteandbest

Cathy at 746 Books is hosting the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge again this year. By Cathy’s own admission, she doesn’t have a great track record with her own challenge… But I do! As I’ve done in previous years, I’m using this challenge to read from my to-be-read stack (with a particular focus on hard copies). The challenge is straightforward – read twenty books between June 1st and September 3rd.

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss

‘What is it like? What does it mean to grow up Aboriginal in Australia?’

I picked up this anthology, wondering how many different experiences it would contain. I wondered, too, whether there would be a generational difference, whether the experiences of younger people might be more positive. The answer to my first question is that this anthology contains more than 50 contributions, and each one is different. The answer to my second question is, sadly, no. Some young people may have experienced less discrimination and disadvantage, but others have not. Reading through these accounts, I’m made aware of some of the less obvious forms discrimination takes. It’s a difficult and at times confronting read.

Anita Heiss writes:

‘There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.’

Each contribution, each account of growing up Aboriginal in Australia is unique. The writers are of different ages, have different writing styles and approaches to addressing the question. I found Don Bemrose’s ‘Dear Australia’ essay thought-provoking, and was inspired by Evelyn Araluen’s statement: ‘We are the dream of our ancestors.’ I agree with Adam Goodes: ‘I believe in having a dream and setting goals to achieve it.’ And then, in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s contribution, I read: ‘People ask me sometimes if I experienced any racism when I was a kid. Questions like that always make me wonder where the other person is living.’ Clearly, there is (still) more than one Australia.
I am saddened to learn that one contributor, Alice Eather (born in 1988) took her own life in June 2017. Alice wrote: ‘there’s too much negativity said and written about Aboriginal people in communities.’ Sadly, Alice was right. What can we do to change this?

There are some many different accounts. Some contributors grew up with their families, others did not. Some grew up with immediate families, but away from their Country and away from extended family networks. Some grew up in cities. Some grew up knowing which mob they belonged to and speaking their language, others did not. It’s obvious that there is no singular experience of growing up Aboriginal. Yet it’s clear from these accounts that elements of Australian society have a preconceived idea of what Aboriginal people should be. And if an Aboriginal person does not fit into that stereotype, then it is the person who is questioned, not the stereotype. One of those stereotypes relates to judgements made on skin colour as the only determinant of whether a person is an Aboriginal.

There are so many different lives, many different identities in this anthology. Contributors include children, parents, musicians, sports stars, teachers and writers.
I found this anthology both heartbreaking and inspiring. I think that all Australians should read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 #AWW 2018

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

I think I need to add this to my reading list …

The Idle Woman

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from…

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Liar’s Candle by August Thomas

‘Don’t you understand what’s at stake here?’

Terrorist attacks are all too frequent in the world in which we live, and increasingly in the fictional world as well. Imagine: Fourth of July celebrations at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, where a bomb is detonated killing hundreds of people. The day after, Penny Kessler, a young intern who was working at the Embassy, wakes up in hospital. Penny has few immediate memories of the incident, but senior US staff believe she’s a key witness.

There’s a photograph of Penny emerging from the rubble, wrapped in a giant US flag, and #TheGirlwiththeFlag has become a symbolic image of the attack. Who detonated the bomb, and why? Both the Americans and the Turks are interested in finding out what Penny knows. But will Penny survive?

Part of the challenge in this novel is trying to work out who can be trusted: some of the ‘bad guys’ are obvious early, but others are not. And, naturally, it’s complicated. The CIA (and others) have territory to protect, and people are expendable. Everyone thinks that Penny holds key knowledge, and everyone wants Penny. Alive or dead? It doesn’t seem to matter.

‘The only thing better than a pretty girl with a flag is a pretty, dead girl with a flag.’

There’s an extended cast of characters to contend with: the Turkish president and his daughter, as well as several people from the CIA and the US State Department. It’s not hard to keep track of who is who, but it isn’t always clear why people take the actions they do. Penny, in partnership with Connor Beauregard a CIA operative on his first overseas assignment, is trying to stay alive. They are also trying to find out who detonated the bomb and why.

If you enjoy action packed novels with plenty of twists and turns, can suspend your disbelief occasionally, and enjoy negotiating your path through conspiracies, then you may enjoy this novel. It’s the action more than the intrigue that keeps this story moving. Improbable in places, stretching credibility in others, plenty of bad guys to loathe and a couple of heroes as well. I found it an interesting escapist read.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK Fiction for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Tracker by Alexis Wright

‘A Western-style biography would never do for Tracker.’

‘Tracker’ is a biography of Tracker Tilmouth (1954-2015). It’s no standard, linear biography. Instead Alexis Wright has composed a collective memoir, drawing on interviews with Tracker as well as with family, friends and colleagues. It’s a life recounted in a series of stories, of reminiscences. I started reading the book knowing a little about Tracker Tilmouth, I finished the book wanting to know more.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in central Australia in 1954. He was taken from his family as a child and, with two of his brothers, was brought up in a mission on Croker Island. When he returned home, he set about transforming the world of Aboriginal politics. This book contains some of what he set out to achieve, the why and the how of it, from a number of different perspectives. It’s the telling of Tracker’s story that held my attention: the different memories people had, the recounting of anecdotes, Tracker’s drive, Tracker’s vision. His ability to make connections and communicate.

‘How do you tell an impossible story, one that is almost too big to contain in a single book?’

Ms Wright has grouped the stories into five sections:
Trying to Get the Story Straight
Becoming Dangerous
The Inspirational Thinker
The Vision Splendid
The Unreliable Witness.
In addition, the book also includes a list of People, Places and Organisations, Contributor Biographies, as well as Acknowledgements.

I found myself reading a contribution, and then (if I didn’t know who the contributor was) looking for more information about that contributor. Sometimes that gave me context, sometimes it didn’t. But the more I read, the less I cared about trying to fit all the components into some logical whole. It didn’t matter, the words seemed to be telling me, just accept. Just listen. And as I read, I learned more about some of the negotiations, understood better Tracker’s vision of economic independence, appreciated more of the cultural aspects, heard more of the voices involved.

‘Wrighty, I just want to bookend this. Let others tell the story. Let them say what they want.’

This is not an easy book to read, especially for those of us used to conventional Western biographies. Some of the contributors found him difficult to work with, some found him annoying. Many found him inspiring. I found myself reading parts aloud, imagining a conversation. I wondered about the reliability of memory, cringed occasionally at some of the anecdotes but finished with a deep respect for Tracker Tilmouth and what he tried to achieve.

This book has recently been awarded the 2018 Stella Prize. The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018

Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

‘If you touch the page, it’s smooth and fine.’

In fourteenth-century England, books are rare and treasured items. They are often symbols of wealth and status: who else (apart from wealthy nobles and the church) could afford to commission a book? In London in 1321, during a rebellion against Edward II and his hated favourite Hugh Despenser, work is scarce. In John Dancaster’s small shop on Paternoster Row, a small group of people are drawn together to illustrate a Book of Hours for Lady Mathilda of the Fitzjohn family. John Dancaster is a renowned limner, or illuminator, he has two apprentices – his son Nick, who is just commencing his apprenticeship, and Benedict, who has almost finished his. John’s wife Gemma also works in the shop and they are joined by Will, who has recently fled from Cambridge. Gemma, John and Will each have their own aspirations, strengths and secrets.

The rebellion will have its impact on both John Dancaster’s shop and on the Fitzjohn family. As the story unfolds, the limits placed on the role of women in 14th century England become clear. Lady Mathilda’s circumstances change as a consequence of the rebellion, while Gemma Dancaster’s skills are not recognised and must be hidden. Will has his own demons to contend with, while John has to contend with a loss of his own.

‘What I meant was simple enough. Even a beggar knows beauty when he sees it.’

The story has two timelines: the creation of the book, and Lady Mathilda’s reflections over that period. The story is also about two books: the public Book of Hours being created for Lady Mathilda, and the private book (‘The Art of Illumination’) being created secretly by Gemma as advice for her son Nick. Each chapter opens with a paragraph or two from ‘The Art of Illumination’.
This book covers topics from the preparation of the skin to the composition of some of the colours.

I enjoyed this novel. I found the information contained in ‘The Art of Illumination’ engrossing. I found the characters (especially Gemma, Will and Lady Mathilda) interesting. I kept turning the pages, not quite sure how the story was going to end but wanting to absorb as much of it as I could.

This is Ms Cadwallader’s second novel, and well worth reading. I also enjoyed her first novel ‘The Anchoress’ and would happily recommend them both to lovers of historical fiction.

‘What worlds these pages make.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

An Activist Life by Christine Milne

‘Timing is everything in politics.’

Christine Anne Milne (née Morris; born 14 May 1953) is a former Australian Senator and was leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Australian Greens from 2012 to 2015. Ms Milne stepped down as leader on 6 May 2015, and was replaced by Richard Di Natale.

I left Tasmania at the beginning of 1974. Green politics was not yet a strong force in local politics, but activists were mobilising. Christine Milne’s name first came to my attention over the proposed pulp mill at Wesley Vale, and again when she was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1989. But it wasn’t until Ms Milne was elected to the Australian Senate in 2004, and then became leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Australian Greens in 2012 that I thought a little more about her involvement in politics. I picked up this book hoping to learn a little more about the woman behind the politician, and was intrigued.

This is not a standard autobiography. Ms Milne writes:

‘I am like a lot of people. People who find it hard to write about how they feel, but will happily explain the history of an object they value. Through their stories of how an object came into their keeping and why it means so much to them you can learn a lot about a person. That is why I have chosen to tell the story of one woman’s life, my life, through objects that matter to me.’

And so it was that I read about Peg Putt’s picnic chair, about the butter pats she keeps as a reminder of her life as a girl growing up on a dairy farm at Wesley Vale, about the Gay Pride T-shirt she wore while marching at Mardi Gras with her son. There are other items, too, which are important to Ms Milne. Through reading about those items, I came to appreciate more of what Ms Milne has achieved as well as the challenges faced by women in politics. I admire Christine Milne’s gritty determination, her dogged persistence in trying to make a difference by ensuring that environmental and social issues are not ignored or forgotten. I could wish that all politicians were as principled as Ms Milne.

Recommended reading for all with an interest in Australian politics.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW 2018

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills

‘How do we see what we can’t imagine ?’

One morning, the residents of Clapstone, a small Australian coastal town awake to find that the sea has disappeared. Thousands of sea creatures are left dead, and the stench is horrific.

‘Nothing like this has ever happened to us, not here on the uneventful instep of Australia, facing away from the world .’

One of the residents, Sam (short for Samandra) has been troubled by visions of this event for years. What does this mean – both for Sam and Clapstone? Is Sam a prophet? Is Sam a liar? Hold on to those questions: it’s unlikely that the answer will be quite so binary, so neat. Sam’s visions, her migraine-inducing nightmares anticipate a difficult dystopian future. The story moves between past and present, between the different views of Sam and the townspeople.

I found this a challenging book to read. While I found Sam’s perceptions and experiences of time thought-provoking, I struggled to keep track of past, present and future. My own version of dyschromia: I need to be able to relate each part to the whole in some kind of chronology. The fact that I couldn’t always do so easily made the world even more alien, more dystopian. And, in many ways, this is the power of Ms Mills’s novel: things happen, there are not always logical explanations, the town lurches towards an even more uncertain future.

‘A town is like a child, see: you might have dreams for it but it makes its own way, out of spite sometimes, and always out of your hands .’

I read the novel slowly, concentrating in order to understand. The reactions of the townspeople had me wondering how most of us would deal with something similar. Would we believe Sam, would we expect more from Sam, or would we ignore her? And Sam herself: how does someone make sense of a world when their experience of time is different from everybody else? In the meantime, the community becomes disadvantaged, isolated and trapped. An environmental disaster, a social disaster, a world in which few of our usual reference points are useful.

I finished the novel, resolving to read it again at some stage. It’s imaginative, extraordinary and unsettling. It’s time.

‘Here’s a prediction: the future never turns out the way we think it will .’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018