Jackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate and a super-prolific writer of over 115 books: numerous children's and teen novels and series, picJackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate and a super-prolific writer of over 115 books: numerous children's and teen novels and series, picture books (my favourite is still Diary of a Wombat), adult novels (general and historical) and non-fiction for adults and children. Her work is often concerned with the truth of Australian Aboriginal heritage and contemporary circumstances, with history that's been forgotten, wilfully misunderstood or deliberately shunned, and a deep and abiding love and respect for the land.
All of these things come together in this brilliant, superbly-written account of Australia's formation as a nation, our attitude and 'care' of the land, and our myth-making. Centred around the thesis that the land makes a nation, especially this one, French delves into several topics with a fine eye, a sense of humour and a critical approach to farming and mining practices.
I have always believed that Australians - both Indiginous (which would seem obvious) and 'white' Australians - are and have been shaped by the land. That all the stereotypes associated with Australians - from the positive (laconic and irreverent sense of humour; self-deprecating abhorrence of 'tall poppies'; community spirit and neighbourliness; bravery and courage; hard-working; laid-back and easy-going; innovative; friendly and welcoming) to the negative (racist etc.) - have their roots in our relationship with the land and what it takes to survive here, whether you adapt to it as the Aboriginals did, or whether you try to mould it into a semblance of an English pastoral landscape as the British did. This understanding started to form when I was studying for my undergrad many years ago; Let the Land Speak confirms and explains it.
There was so much to learn here. So many things I had never studied properly, or hadn't learned about in so long I could barely remember anything about them (Gallipoli, for example), or had never really known anything about at all (the Eureka Stockade). French brings it all to life and writes an unflinchingly realistic account that wouldn't have been welcomed even thirty years ago. Aboriginals, like Asians, weren't even human; the world had been provided to us by God to do with as we will (such arrogance still survives today, but few people will admit it); our victim-hood at Gallipoli is more important to focus on than the fact that we were the invaders; Joseph Banks was a great man; Aboriginals didn't farm or have any impact on the land - these are just a few of the common understandings that have been around for a long time. Let the Land Speak is the best kind of history book, because it allows you to see history being made - not the events themselves, but how they're disseminated, recorded, passed down, understood and misunderstood. French's book shows quite clearly not just how important and necessary the study of history is, but just how far from the truth kids' common understanding (that history is about memorising facts and dates) truly is. Also, you can almost see French's keen historical mind at work as she investigates, uncovers, links and connects details and context to form a likely account.
Mixed in with history and an examination of contemporary agriculture and mining practices are short snippets, stories and anecdotes from French's own experience, that truly bring the book to life. It is this contextualisation and authorial presence that really makes the book accessible, relateable, fascinating and almost intimate. The idea that historians have no bias or angle or perspective has never been true, but you rarely get to see it. Jackie French makes free with hers, not only using a few of her own experiences with Aboriginal people to flesh out her - and our - understanding of their culture and lifestyle, but also using the place of her home, the Araluen Valley in NSW, as an example of one of thousands of micro-climates and micro-landscapes in Australia. The detailing of how gold mining, farming, drought and wildlife interact and affect this one valley is an example of what can occur, but it also serves to illustrate just how varied and diverse the landscape is. One of French's persistent calls is for us to stop seeing the land as a "One size fits all" landscape. We continue to view Australia through a British lens, seeing a uniform landscape everywhere we look. Even here in Tasmania, an island state that has rainforest, alpine climes, hot and dry areas and misty, frosty regions, people still tend to think that what works in one area will work in another, that what is native to one place is, by default, native to all.
Perhaps the most alarming moment for me was in learning about 'firestick farming' - a misunderstood Indigenous technique that "has led to disastrous bushfire strategies" [p.5]. The 'myth that the land must burn' to protect us, to rejuvenate and replenish is a dangerous one because it is applied across the board, and by people who don't really understand it - or what they're burning. What I learned from Let the Land Speak is that, alongside our fire-dependent ecosystem (the one we've all heard about, and assume is a blanket case for al bushfire-vulnerable areas), we have 'fire-resistant' areas, the kinds of trees and plants that can actually halt a bushfire - but if aggressively burned, will be replaced by a fire-dependent ecosystem.
So called 'controlled' burning has created fire-dependent forests. Ironically, large parts of Australia are now far more prone to bushfire, all in the name of trying to reduce it. Once you have created a fire-dependent landscape, it does need burning to reduce the fuel load. But even in these areas the wrong kind of burning increases the risk of uncontrolled bushfire, it doesn't decrease it. In fire-dependent areas, burning in the wrong way and at the wrong time can leave dead wood that will make a bushfire burn hotter, as well as encourage grass growth that may dry like tinder in summer.
'The bush' is not homogenous. Even in a small area of, say, fifty hectares there may be several forest types, with different burning regimes needed to maintain them. Most fire agencies try to control burn on a regional basis, ticking off a certain number of hectares each year. In doing so they are making the bushfire danger far greater, creating larger areas that burn easily because the only plants that survive are the fire-dependent ones that burn hard, fast and often. [pp.56-7]
Since reading this, I have felt moments of panic when I hear people talking - sounding so reassuring and knowledgeable, too - about controlled burning and preventing bushfires. I want to jump up and grab them and shout, "Don't! Just stop a moment, let's think more carefully about this. Don't do it so you can look like you're doing something! How many people, Aboriginal or others, do you employ who understand the landscapes in each area?" Just this week, bushfires have wiped out large areas of South Australia, close to Adelaide, and Victoria. While most big bushfires are deliberately started by idiots, the way they get so out-of-control, so big, so hungry, so quickly could be a much larger problem, and one we need to look at closely before we make it even worse.
In fact, that is an on-going pattern of Australia since the arrival of the British. French does well in explaining their context and reasoning, without diminishing the repercussions. Let's face it: we've fucked up this land good and proper. Landcare wasn't established until the 80s and while it's done a lot, it's not enough. French sheds some light on why we persist, as a nation, a government, a culture, an economy, to focus on mining and agriculture - but mining especially - as a source of wealth even though it isn't one. It ties back to the centuries-old belief among European nations that there existed, somewhere in the vast unmapped Southern oceans, a vast land of gold. It was an entrenched belief, an unfounded certainty, that means we're still looking for some kind of untapped wealth. Gold mining here doesn't bring in much money, in reality, and uses mind-boggling amounts of water (yes, in a country that really doesn't have any to spare), yet we keep on opening new mines. Australia is a country founded on, in French's words, 'five hundred years of misunderstandings' - and many of these persist. We are still determined to farm as if this was England, just on a larger scale, and - this is one of my pet peeves - we build stupid houses poorly designed for the climate, then spend extra money heating and cooling them (interestingly, older houses - with thick walls, high ceilings, verandahs and, in the case of Queensland, raised up on stilts to allow for floodwaters to pass by as well as air to circulate and cool the house - are better built for this climate and landscape than all the houses I see around me on a daily basis).
French covers a great deal in Let the Land Speak, and while this is a history book like most history books in the sense that it is humans who are the focus much of the time, the land of this continent really is given a voice. More specifically, French ties everything back to the land, to the land that shaped us. From the interesting explanation of why the continent wasn't settled prior to the First Fleet, despite it having been 'discovered' and partially mapped so many times before Cook, to the big drought of the late 19th to early 20th century that brought the states together into a single country, at the end of the day the land itself is the dominant force here. The book covers the following topics:
Introduction: the goat droppings that changed history 1 The real First Fleet 2 The Ice Age that made three hundred nations 3 Cooperate or die 4 The women who made the land 5 Terra incognita: Dreams of gold, and a land without grass 6 The goat, the grocer's assistant and the mistake that led to a nation 7 The colony that didn't starve 8 The second, third and fourth Australians 9 The lost tigers and the sheep that ate Australia 10 How we almost won Eureka 11 The history of our nation in a pumpkin scone 12 How a drought made us one nation 13 Truth or propaganda? The bronzed Anzacs of Gallipoli and Kokoda 14 A land of flooding rain 15 A short history of great big farming misunderstandings 16 This generous land: Terrapaths, moral omnivores and how to survive the next millennia 17 The next hundred years: Twenty-four predictions
The first four chapters cover Indigenous Australian habitation, from the arrival of the first humans to how the women shaped the land - all of it fascinating. As much as I love this land right down to the marrow of my bones, and feel so incredibly at home here, I still often feel like an invader, trampling and contributing to the destruction or ill-use of an ancient and fragile land of which I understand too little, while the 'original' inhabitants can only watch, made voiceless and toothless. I am empathetic enough to feel what it must be like for me as a privileged white to have some other, alien being muscle in, evict me, and clumsily try to apply alien farming and food-gathering techniques to a land they don't understand. Between the inability to communicate and the ingrained belief that the natives are subhuman, or not human at all, why would the invaders even think to ask them about the land, or seek their help and advice? It's a common theme throughout modern Australian history and storytelling, this blind arrogance and fear that in seeking Aboriginal assistance, you acknowledge your trespasser status, your ignorance, your wrong-doing. It is this instinctual, ingrained but silenced, denied and terrified knowledge that have done wrong and continue to do wrong that is behind our incredible racism towards the Aboriginals. We all have it, this niggle, this tiny spike right in the cockles of our hearts, that we are born with, that we are in the wrong, that we are invaders, that we have harmed the land - it unites us as much as anything the land can throw at us, but as long as it stays there rather than be drawn out like a splinter from a pus-filled abscess, it will continue to fester, we will continue along the path we have trodden down to bare dust, and nothing will change.
I have to confess, I skimmed through the final chapter of this book. I wouldn't normally do such a thing, but I found French's 24 predictions to be so dispiriting, scary, pessimistic and depressing that I just couldn't read them all. The sad truth is, this book isn't and won't be required or even popular reading, it will be shunned and dismissed by conservatives, and merely stoke the ire of "true blue Aussies" who don't like their personal beliefs in our myths to be confronted. And it's a damn shame. This is a book I must and will read again, and again. It not only taught me a lot, opened my eyes to new understandings and truths, but it also reinvigorated my love for this land and its peoples - all of us, all us 'boat people'. I would like nothing more than if this book became seminal - if it influenced future policy or changed attitudes etc. But I know Australians. We have such a great life here, we don't like change, we want to achieve a level of comfort and then stay there. Like most people in the world, we hang on to our prior understandings of our world, and the older we get, the more dogmatic and bigoted we become. At the end of the book, I realised anew just how little I know and understand about my land, my country and continent. I can't name the bird making that song, apart from the obvious few (kookaburra, magpie, plover etc.). I'm no good at identifying trees or plants. I don't know enough about the different climates and ecosystems. I only recently learned that quolls ate meat! Shameful. I've got a lot to learn, and this book was a fantastic place to start. ...more
In the West, especially the white, English-speaking West, we have the idea - presumptive, no doubt - that our culture is overwhelming and destroying tIn the West, especially the white, English-speaking West, we have the idea - presumptive, no doubt - that our culture is overwhelming and destroying the cultures of other countries - cultures we perceive as unique, original, exotic, quaint ... threatened. There's no doubt that the word "globalisation" comes with many connotations, some of them good, some of them bad. And there's no doubt that cultures all around the world, including our own, are undergoing often rapid change, and in the face of it we tend to feel under threat and anxious about the future. (For as adaptable as we are as a species, we're also adverse to change.) But is it all about the West dumping on the rest? Are other cultures passive recipients being forced to adopt elements of the West whether they like it or not? Such a thinking is too simplistic, journalist Doug Hendrie argues, and, I would say, arrogant (so, typical of us and our sense of white privilege).
Instead, Hendrie sets out to learn more about cultural mash-ups, how people in other countries are liberally and deliberately borrowing from other cultures and adapting them to their own, to produce something relevant, useful, more unique to that country. Because even rap and hip-hop, something we all automatically associate with America and black Americans, has a long history that has traversed oceans, eras and purposes before being adapted and re-claimed by African Americans.
Culture, I found, is kept alive through constant effort. We blow life into the practices we find meaningful, and in turn, they sustain us. In my travels, I found that the globalisation of culture had not killed off the local. Rather than a bland sea of Western cultural domination, I found people adapting, repurposing, mimicking, resisting and producing their own culture drawn from local influences and from the world - Western, yes, but also Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, from their neighbours or from further afield.
Each of the hundreds of people I met were hybrid creatures, inflected by born culture and imported culture, religion of birth or acquired, and everyone was hard at work, creating new cultures from what was available to them. The nineteenth century mythology of the nation-state was premised on unity - on what we had in common with strangers in our geographical area. But the globalisation of culture has turned the idea of the unified nation-state on its head. Now, we are all beginning to blur. [pp.5-6]
In AmalgaNations, Doug Hendrie - a freelance journalist from Melbourne - sets out to explore four of these cultural mash-ups: professional videogamers in South Korea; the gay community in heavily-Catholic Philippines; the emerging and immensely popular filmmakers of Ghana; and the punk scene in Indonesia. In each case, the people have taken what's useful and adapted it to suit their own needs, their own voices, their own culture. In South Korea, a modern, democratic country where the people "live permanently in a Cold War world that has long been consigned to memory elsewhere", they have turned to "technology and militarism for safety. [...] Military service is compulsory for young men. And in civilian society, the hyper-competitive Korean system of education, cram schools and rigid working environments leads to stress and long hours. No wonder Korea was ripe for escapism and a chance to be powerful as an individual." [pp.21-2] The Koreans were the first to take a video game and turn it into a televised sport; the West is slowly following. These professional gamers are akin to our athletic heroes or rock stars - they have a "look", or style, in their wardrobe and hairstyle; they have groupies and fans who obsess, and they have a short lifespan. Once you get too old, your reflexes become slower. So they recruit the young, who have to turn away from the formal education so deeply valued in their society to live and breathe the game. The game is StarCraft, an alien-versus-alien videogame first released in America in 1998 but kept very much alive in Korea.
The Philippines is an English-speaking Asian country that has passed through many hands over the centuries, including the Spanish and the Americans. It is staunchly Catholic, and yet an older cultural understanding of the fluidity of gender and sex remains, and allows for a thriving and open gay community within its religious strictures. It has several facets, including an understanding that pretty young men can become, essentially, rent boys, but they're not gay. But it also has problems it's struggling with, such as the pressure and expectations of heterosexual marriage. Many men (and probably women) are married and have children, but who are gay. While some have no problems identifying with their religion while being true to their sexual identity, others succumb to the pressures of an inherited religious and cultural society that doesn't allow for such blurring. What's especially fascinating is learning about the history of the Philippines, and how its ethnic culture - that open honesty around sex and gender identity that we have recently begun struggling with - slips between the gaps and allows for the Filipinos to be more flexible in their mental approach to sexual and gender identities.
...[A]round the world, gender fluidity has historically been common. The hijra in India and Pakistan, the bakla in the Philippines, kathoey (ladyboys) in Thailand, and the fa'afafine in Samoa and its equivalents across Polynesia are all cultures of the third sex, the people who walk two worlds, male and female. Born male, these people gravitate towards the effeminate - the adoption of an androgyne or feminine look. More than a hundred American Indian tribes had members of 'two spirits': women and men who identified with the other biological gender and were accepted as transsexuals. In the Koran, there are records of the mukhannathun, effeminate men who worked in music or entertainment, and the term survives today as khanith, a derogatory term. In Indonesia, there are the waria, in Mexico the muxe, and Latin America has its travesti. [p.113]
In Ghana, Hendrie finds a thriving, homegrown movie industry using old-fashioned handheld video cameras, melodramatic scripts, and theatrical but inexperienced actors. In direct competition with its neighbour, Nigeria, and Nollywood, Ghana's film-makers use their movies to expose internet scammers, money-making pastors and megachurches, and link scamming to sorcery - tribal superstition and magic that the people still believe in. The Ghanaian films show in people's homes on old television sets, as most of the theatres have closed down or been converted into churches, and while the quality is (by our standards) terrible, the audience enjoy them so much, and are so caught up in the stories, that they'll yell and spit at the actors who play scammers or fraudsters if they see them in the street.
And in Indonesia, Hendrie discovers that the punk culture that arose in the last years of Suharto's oppressive dictatorship is still alive and thriving, now reflecting politics, class inequities and, to some extent, religion. In one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, in which there are no social safety nets or assistance for the poor - of which there are many - punk remains an outlet and a means of expression. But it is not without the internal conflict that so often goes with a music scene like punk: what is "true" punk, who are the "real" punksters and who the hipster-punks, the wannabe punks? Is Islamic punk real punk? Is it punk when it's not political? Can you still be a punk band if you become popular and, worse yet, sell out by signing a deal with a major record label?
When cults or subcultures leave society to form a new one, there is a brief sense of walking on air, that giddy, untethered feeling. The balloon lifts up. It's freedom. But it cannot last. Inevitably, new rules are made. Not the old rules, mind, but rules made particularly for the new grouping. Given long enough, a subculture will generate its own police force, its own leadership. And Awing [the self-proclaimed King of Punk] became both policeman and king. [p.241]
AmalgaNations delivered in all the ways I want of a non-fiction book. I want to learn new things and have my eyes opened to new perspectives; I want to discover the roots of things we take for granted in our societies (and doing so usually gives me a new-found appreciation of them); I want to think, and consider, and question, and be motivated to learn more. But I also want to be engaged and even entertained, and Hendrie strikes gold on all counts.
The important thing to remember when reading a non-fiction book, is that the author must choose a thesis, an argument, a question, an angle, and follow it through. It's only ever going to be a slim slice of the pie. AmalgaNations is not a book about globalisation as an economic or political or ideological concept - though there's plenty here that touches on all three. I think the problem is in the sub-title, which either over-simplifies globalisation as a concept, or leads people to think Hendrie has some kind of right-wing, pro-privatisation agenda. Perhaps we've just developed a prickly wariness thanks to The World is Flat. It's those pesky connotations, again. In truth the book has more of an anthropological angle, and is an exploratory study of cultures and societies - not the whole culture or society, but just an element of it, which sheds light on the whole but cannot provide answers on all debates. AmalgaNations has been criticised by some readers for not exploring the negative side of globalisation - such criticism is valid as an observation or side note, but doesn't serve well as an actual criticism, because it's not the point of the book. It speaks more of the West's reluctance to part with our own sense of superiority, and to hang on to the vestiges of colonialism without granting other countries the chance to be heard, free of the post-colonial yoke. It's an old story that a Western reader wants or expects to hear, not one that the people in these countries are trying to tell.
For this is investigative journalism documentary-style, going right to the people on the ground and giving them a chance to be heard. This is no dry non-fiction text about statistics and economic theory bereft of the human factor. And it's more subtle than you'd expect: in the background, in the small details as well as the contextual exposition, are signs of the ugly side of globalisation. In Ghana, poor children are set to work stripping our old computers of valuable metals, a job that provides an early death and contaminates the ground. This is what happens when we "recycle" our electronics. And the scammers go and take these computers too, to try and find, locked inside the guts, old passwords and other private information they can use to convince people far away to part with their money.
The people Hendrie spends time with and interviews are brought to life through the author's engaging style. I often felt like I was reading an engaging documentary rather than reading one. Aside from his cultural observations or his knack for making you feel like you're there in his shoes, Hendrie takes a back seat and lets the people tell their own story. By including small details of his own movements between lands and groups or individuals, there is a strong sense of sitting on Hendrie's shoulder - you are placed squarely in the 'foreign, curious interloper' perspective. Which is just right. Hendrie has the wonderful ability to meet people, make them comfortable and open up, perhaps by being genuinely respectful of other cultures as well as being such a good listener.
Interestingly - to me at least - there's also much to be said of the omissions. There are few women in this book, and the ones who are there are minor stories in the sidelines. This is not a bias on Hendrie's part but a result of the gender-bias and long-standing patriarchal social structure of these countries. There's only one female gamer in Korea; there are no female directors in Ghana - none included, anyway. The punk scene in Indonesia is predominantly male, and the gay community in the Philippines also leans towards the male voice over that of the lesbian. They're there, but not as "vocal" or important, seemingly.
[M]ost instances of the third gender tend to be biological men drawn to appear feminine, with fewer cultural niches for lesbians. Like the bakla in the Philippines, people of the third gender have often forged a place for themselves - but that can be made a little easier if you are biologically male and living in a man's world. For the others - lesbians, the transgendered and intersex - life is harder, their sexuality often driven underground. [p.113]
Yet what I took away from this book - one of the many things - was that all these cultural movements were clear signs that the countries were growing, evolving, breaking free, spreading their limbs, all those things that sound so wonderful and simplistic. But growing, yes, and women are finding a place for themselves in these evolving worlds, too. Still largely responsible for "hearth and home" - for children, stability, security, shelter and food - women have less time and energy to explore divergent cultures or to strike out on their own and brave entrenched traditions.
It's been a while since I had the joyful experience of experiencing a new land, a new culture, and I've no idea when I'll next get the chance to travel and see the world. But Doug Hendrie has successful brought pockets of it right to me, and not aspects of these lands that I would ever expect to have learned about or experienced on my own, as a humble tourist. I learned a lot, but it barely slaked my thirst to know: more, AmalgaNations really drives home just how little we know of the world, no matter how much we think we have learned. There are always surprises, always new ways of looking at things, and much to be learned. It also grants us license to be less hard on ourselves - not in terms of post-colonialism (I'm not sure we'll ever shake free of that one, or reach the point of forgiving ourselves for our inheritance), but in terms of our own evolving cultures. Perhaps we don't like the new wave of music, or some of the fashions inspired by the Kardashians. But maybe, too, we can just let it go, and see where it takes us, because it's part of a fluid spectrum of culture. Culture, as Hendrie points out, isn't a set thing, it's something that we make, continuously, and change to suit us. It's a new century. Who knows what it will bring? But the lesson here is: we are active participants in the development of our own culture and society. It's not imposed from above. There's freedom as much as fear in that thought, and excitement too.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.
You can read my interview with author Doug Hendrie here....more
The Australian Women's Weekly, as every Australian knows, isn't just the publisher of a long-running women's magazine. They also produce a range of in The Australian Women's Weekly, as every Australian knows, isn't just the publisher of a long-running women's magazine. They also produce a range of inexpensive but reliable cookbooks, and the new ones out this year are a great sight better-looking than the ones of three or even two decades ago (more in line with the ABC's delicious. magazine, for instance).
When I was growing up, my mum had this book, The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits. As a young teenager, I often made things from this book on the weekends, and have pored over it so many times I not only know every page, but it also brings my childhood and adolescence vividly to life. Funny the things that can be triggers. This is the book that has the Gingerbread recipe I still use, not to mention the one for Monte Carlos and Melting Moments, among others. It's such an utterly 80s book, though, that I never expected to have the chance to get my own copy (unaware as I was to the fact that AWW had reprinting it multiple times since 1982, including in 2003, though it looks quite different).
[caption id="attachment_18938" align="alignleft" width="300"] The original edition, left, and the new collector's edition, right.[/caption]This year, though, after thirty-one years, AWW reproduced it in its ORIGINAL copy, complete with daggy brown photographs with uncorrected white balance exposure and some very interesting crockery. It is the original reproduced with a nice "Vintage Edition" label on the cover, a "Collector's Cookbook" in all its glory.
Going through it again, it all came rushing back. All the recipes I'd tried, all the ones I'd wanted to make but never did. The measurements are in grams and cups, and the oven temperatures are in the old style: slow, moderate-slow, moderate, moderate-hot, hot. Luckily, I grew up with this and I know what these words correspond to: moderate is your standard 180ºC - though if you didn't, there is a Quick Conversion Guide in the back which also now includes the British "gas mark" settings. The ingredients lists are straight-forward, the methods as well. There's none of the Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson-style "talk", no additional information, calory counting or "ideal for freezing" notes. They have edited the methods, though, I noticed when comparing my mum's old edition (which doesn't have a date, so I don't know what year it is) with the new one. There's also a glossary in the new edition, and the index is more thorough and cross-references.
The cookbook loosely divides the recipes by ingredients, in alphabetical order: Almond, Apricot, Bran, Cheese, Cherry, Chocolate, Coconut, Coffee and so on. Hence, savoury and sweet are mixed together, though some types of biscuits are isolated: shortbread, meringues. There are only a few recipes per category, and 126 in total (unless I miscounted, which is always a possibility!). There are several different kinds of truffles and about 26 slices. It has classic oldies like Coconut Ice and Chocolate Crackles, the staples of many a school fair, and of course choc-chip. There're brandy snaps, cheese sticks, fancy biscuits and easy-peasy biscuits. It's one of those go-to cookbooks that every kitchen needs, and I'm so glad it's still in print.
Between 2007 and 2011, journalist Katherine Boo followed the lives of several Indian families living in one of Mumbai's infamous slums. Like so many uBetween 2007 and 2011, journalist Katherine Boo followed the lives of several Indian families living in one of Mumbai's infamous slums. Like so many undercities, Annawadi is on private land owned by the Airports Authority of India. Only twenty years old, it started with migrant Tamil workers, who arrived to work on construction at the airport and had nowhere to live but makeshift tents and huts on otherwise-empty ground nearby. Slums like Annawadi are the by-product of India's economic and infrastructure boom: as the country grew "faster than any other but China's" [p.xii], so did its internal migrant population, relatively poor people leaving rural villages and - due to rigid caste and class, religion, and economic structures - found themselves still yet on the fringes, struggling to survive and hoping for the chance to break into the new prosperity of the emerging middle class.
Hope is at the heart of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but it is an inherently tragic sort of hope, since the internal caste system and deeply-entrenched corruption in both the public and private sectors means that slumdwellers - like Abdul Husain, Asha and her daughter Manju, and young Sunil, the 'main characters' of the book - are simply running on a treadmill that's going nowhere. Not only can they manage little more than to keep afloat (if that), there are a great many other people who are invested in the treadmill: none of these desperately poor people have any real control over their own lives, let alone their destinies.
Abdul is at the centre of Beautiful Forevers; his story is the one that Boo chooses to structure her narrative nonfiction book around, with a prologue set in 2008 that sets the scene with frightening tension. The Husain's neighbour, Fatima 'the One Leg', had set herself on fire in protest of the Husain family's renovations; having survived, for the moment at least, she and her husband have told police that Abdul, his father Karam and even his older sister, Kehkashan, had set her alight. The reasons behind Fatima's accusations and the long-standing discontent between her and the Husains (and Fatima and the whole slum, really) are significant and key to understanding the plight of India's 'invisible families'. That is to say, Boo's book is key to helping us understand how these people seem to allow themselves to be exploited and downtrodden, turning on each other rather than those who are the real cause behind their situation - and by extension, it helps us understand how it works in our own backyards.
A hard-working, dedicated garbage sorter, Abdul's whole life revolves around the trash he buys from scavengers and then sells to the recycling plants. In the slums, everyone's life revolves around garbage. At the bottom of the ladder, the scavengers risk their lives collecting anything recyclable, often stealing it from the airport - and not just rubbish, but building materials too, which collect a higher price. They may be caught and beaten, even killed, by security guards or rival gangs of scavengers; those who have no families sleep in the dirt under the sky, sniffing Eraz-ex (a correction fluid) for 'an infusion of daring for after-midnight work' [p.43], a substance that would, sooner or later, kill them. Sunil is one such scavenger, looking after his younger sister and worrying about his lack of physical growth. He's held off from sniffing Eraz-ex but eventually gets pulled into theft.
At the other end of the social ladder is Asha, a kindergarten teacher with no qualifications or real skills, who aspires to being the new slumlord. She sleeps with men who can benefit her, an unspoken but open secret in her family, and works closely with the Corporator, or local politician. Often, the government releases funding for some new project to benefit the poor, but once the photographers have gone, the benefits stay with the middle men - and those higher up. Everyone along the way takes their cut, and Asha hopes to get her own, too. While she believes in the system of corruption, she also believes in her beautiful daughter Manju's ability to escape poverty through education. Manju is the first person in Annawadi to go to college, and while her degree at a cheap university consists of her memorising the answers to exam questions, she also provides free reading lessons to the slum's children as they help her 'study'.
The social and economic problems among India's poor are many, varied and complex. Unravelling them would be impossible, and changing things seems equally daunting. In a way, the precarious balance between the slumdwellers naive hope and the reader's sense of despair makes for superb tension, and is achieved through Boo's craftsmanship. Beautiful Forevers is written much like a novel, from the structure (in particular, beginning with a fraught prologue) to the use of natural dialogue between individuals - and especially through the crafting of Indians as characters. Rather than this making them into shadows or replicas of themselves, or detracting from the book's realism, the narrative techniques used enhance the sense of realism, and bridge the gap between Western readers - Boo's audience - and the slumdwellers, who really do live in another, alien world.
She has also incorporated nice, simple and relatively subtle techniques such as symbolism and recurring motifs - the title, for instance, refers to the wall that borders the airport road, behind which the slums are hidden. The wall is covered in posters for a luxury Italian tile company and the words "Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever" - which can be read both ways. The irony of what the tiles hide isn't lost on readers. It speaks volumes - it hollers from the top of mountains - the universal truth that empires are built on the backs of poor people, that behind every fancy façade lies an ugly truth. The tile motif recurs throughout the book, as tiles are a symbol of relative wealth among the people of Annawadi, too - as is any kind of home improvement.
Try reading this book as a novel, but the nonfiction elements ensure that you never forget that this isn't 'based on a true story', it is a true story. Yes, it's one written with the intention of educating a Western audience, and it's one written solely from the perspective of those at the bottom of India's ladder, with only one instance of learning, from a police officer, that corruption occurs because no one is paid well enough. This goes up the ladder, but it's all relative. In the rush to catch up to other nations, a sense of entitlement - to a particular salary, a particular lifestyle - seems to come with it. As with the Annawadians, so it is with other levels of Indian society: everyone is looking at their neighbours, competing with their neighbours, hoping to do better than their neighbours. And so a certain status quo is established, one that is flawed and, to Western readers, inherently rotten, but considering the long-standing caste system (including the 'Untouchables', who had to crawl backwards in order to erase their own footprints), you could say that there's a lot to overcome in the race to being a 'first world' nation.
The people of Annawadi come alive through Boo's perceptive, observant gaze and journalistic desire for hidden truths, as does the slum itself. Annawadi is a shanty town, an undercity cobbled together from scavenged materials, built dangerously close to a sewage swamp - from which people fish and use in other ways. Life expectancy is low, sickness is rampant, but it is the seemingly petty concerns of day-to-day living in close proximity with many other people that preoccupies its residents. While in Japan, having so many people live so closely together created a nation of extremely polite, respectful people; in India it merely seems to fuel tensions and religious riots, and - literally - start fires. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an unforgettable tale, a documentary-like journey into the heart one of Mumbai's slums, a chance to meet the people, come to know them, respect them, care about them, and join in their tenacious sense of hope....more
Anita Heiss is an Australian Aboriginal writer and a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. This collection of poems expresses cleAnita Heiss is an Australian Aboriginal writer and a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. This collection of poems expresses clearly, and with great emotion and intelligence, her experiences of being an indigenous Australian, growing up "brown" in "white Australia", and a sharp political commentary. I want to start by sharing some of the poems in this book, or parts of them at least, that will give you an idea of her style and also show just how sharp a slap in the face her words can be:
I was born and raised a young girl
I went to school I played with dolls I ate McDonald's I spoke English I watched Romper Room and Sesame Street
I fell I bled I hurt I cried Happy I laughed
One day -- you called me abo, boong and coon you spat at me you said I was dirty
You made me your idea of what you thought I was.
What you thought an Aborigine was.
Why couldn't you just let me be? I was just another little girl skipping home from school
Instead, you created me, You politicised me You made me an activist You made me have to be vocal You gave me the chip you now criticise me for
Advance Australia - Unfair (Sung to the tune of the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair)
Australians all should be ashamed For we are not all free They killed the blacks and stole the land And lock up refugees The land is raped by profiteers The Murray-River died History's page Denies the rage Because historians lied. In prison cells how can we sing Advance Australia fair?
from "What is the Spirit of Australia?
The spirit of Australia should be found - in its soul, its character, its courage and its foundation. A collective generous spirit could exist simply by celebrating the diverse nation we are.
But, it seems the 'Spirit of Australia' is an indefinable essence of Aussie-dom which can apparently be bought, marketed, logoed, animalized, idolized, bastardized and accessorized.
I'm Not Racist But...
I'm not racist but... Why can't I climb Ayres Rock? Why don't they get jobs like everyone else? Did you hear the one about? Why are Aborigines so angry? Why don't they just get over it - the past is the past? Why do I have to say sorry for something I didn't do?
I'm not racist but... They're all drunks! They don't wash! The kids roam the streets at night! They look dangerous!!!
I'm not racist but... I wouldn't pick one up in my cab I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one I wouldn't rent my flat to one I wouldn't employ one
I'm not racist because... I played football with one once I worked with one once I use the word Koori I let them sit next to me on the bus I walked over the Harbour Bridge I signed a hand I gave money to one begging on the street
I'm not racist... I'm simply privileged by being white I'm just speaking from a position of power I'm just observing the obvious
I'm not racist, I'm just following the lead of my prime minister!
I don't know how much of this will resonate with non-Australians, but having lived in Canada for nearly 8 years now I'm aware that there are a lot of similarities between the two countries when it comes to the indigenous population, both in terms of colonial history, suppression and genocide, native land rights, redressing past wrongs, "sorry", and ongoing tensions and culture clashes, so I think Canadians at least would understand this, even if (I find) the tone and language is so distinctly, well, Australian.
I'm from Tasmania, the island state of Australia (I've met some Canadians who think it's a separate country, or who ask me "Is that near Australia?" - and some others who think it's in Africa!), and we don't have a noticeable Aboriginal population. This is due to the Black War of the 19th century (I forget the actual dates) and a planned genocide that resulted in the last few Aborigines being rounded up and shipped off to Flinders' Island, where they died out of disease and, for want of a better word, idleness (removed from their way of life and culture, converted to Christianity, they had nothing to do, no reason to live). One recent, internationally-available book you can read about that time is Richard Flanagan's Wanting, which I highly recommend.
Because there are no full-blooded Aborigines left in Tasmania, only many many part-Aborigines, you grow up not really aware of them. There were lots of kids in my year at high school, including blonde, blue-eyed kids, who were actually part-Aborigine, but you wouldn't have known unless they told you. So there's a bit of a disconnect right from the beginning, for the white population. But I know people who've gone to the Northern Territory and come away with the lowest of lowest opinions about the Aboriginal communities there - because they don't take care of themselves, they're all obese and alcoholics and have diabetes and just sit around waiting for government handouts. That's the picture they paint, those are the words they use. It's a fact that these communities constitute a third-world of poverty, disease, lack of education etc. within Australia, though it's not the whole picture by any means.
When I was in second year uni, I had a flatmate who was taking first year Aboriginal Studies. I remember that, after a lecture in which they had an Aborigine guest speaker, she came home to tell us all about it, how mind-opening it was, how the speaker had told them that while white Australia is dismissive and impatient and just wants the Aborigines to assimilate, to just "get over it" and stop whining and fit in, to adopt the Australian national identity as it were, the Aborigines themselves don't want to. They don't want to be Australian (I would like to think that if "being Australian" incorporated, fully and authentically, the Aboriginal cultures, lifestyle, belief systems and peoples in a genuinely respectful and appreciative way, that "being Australian" would be less of a repugnant thing to them - but it's hardly that simple). I was young, and it had never occurred to me that they didn't want to be Australian - I had assumed, as young people do, that it was a matter of simple racism, land rights, and so on, that we weren't accepting them (which is, really, also true). It gave a whole new edge to the situation that I hadn't been aware of before, and made me really think about what it meant to "be Australian."
Fact is, I have a great deal of respect for the Australian Aborigines - especially after studying their belief systems and culture in college (year 12 to be exact) - but I find I don't know how to say that. I feel like no matter what I say, I will always be oppressive or racist, giving "lip service" to something I don't really understand. And I do want to understand, I really do. I admire the way of life they had before we invading colonisers destroyed it, ridiculed it, oppressed it, banned it. The Aborigines, also immigrants like everyone else in the country, had been there for a good 20,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and while they had changed the landscape with careful burning, they hadn't made much of an impression on the land at all. This is something I admire and respect and appreciate from the bottom of my soul, because it fits in with how I think we all should be living, really, ideally - even though I hardly want to give up my modern lifestyle any more than most other people (the classic paradox). The Aborigines were custodians of the land, believing that they were looking after it, that it wasn't there for their use and abuse.
Reading I'm Not Racist, But... is a lot like facing a mirror that shows a very ugly image of your white privileged soul. I am white. I am Anglo. I am privileged because of it. I don't think I could escape that even if I tried. Being aware of it is the best that I can do. I felt such anger coming off the pages, the lines and words, of Heiss' poems, her social observations. I felt that little girl who thought she was just a little girl, suddenly turned into something low and dirty with just a few words. I felt the injustice of inequality like a stab to the palm, but with all these feelings came that usual, typical sense of uselessness. There was no opening, no slender gap in the door, that offered a way to change things, to make amends, to prove my own worthiness as a being who genuinely cared. The poems made me feel hurt and angry with empathy for Heiss and other Aborigines, but also like their hurt and anger was a stiff, upright wall I couldn't pass through, a wall designed to maintain the hurt and anger. That was just the impression I got, because this is a very emotional collection of poems and so I couldn't help but respond emotionally, with empathy.
The collection has a clear theme but not all the poems are about growing up Aboriginal, or even political. Some are whimsical, wishful, and a couple I couldn't really follow at all (poetry is not my strong suit). They are all brimming with passion and, at heart, a love for the country and for being Aboriginal. They are full of heart, soul and when they're not sharply critiquing or sad, they're surprisingly funny. The collection could have been better edited - there were some typos, little glitches that spoil the flow - and some of the poems were definitely a lot stronger than others, with more focus and power and imagery. Overall though, I felt this was an important collection, and through her poems Heiss shows the power words and imagery have to convey a range of meaning and emotion in a thoughtful, insightful, damning way. Her words pin you to your seat and force you to look at yourself, and painfully recall whether you've ever used those atrocious words, "I'm not racist but..." ...more