A Lesson in Life: Book Review of Auntie Rita

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased. The books and links referred to in this post may also contain references and images of deceased Aboriginal people.

ilw-2016Each July, book blogger Lisa Hill encourages bloggers to review books written by indigenous authors from around the world. She chooses ‘Indigenous Literature Week’ to coincide with the Australian annual celebration of indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week.

Book cover of Auntie Rita

Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994).

This week was NAIDOC Week so I searched my book shelves for a book to read by an indigenous author. As I have already reviewed two new books by Australian Aboriginal authors this year (Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt and Pictures from my memory by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis) I decided to review a highly regarded book from the 1990s. Twenty-two years after it was first published I have finally read Auntie Rita by Rita Huggins and Jackie Huggins.

Rita Huggins shares her life from her earliest years living on her country in what we know as Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland. The land sustained her Bidjara-Pitjara people but born in 1922, Rita Huggins and her people were in the sights of a government which was forcibly removing Aboriginal people from their land and into reserves. Rita Huggins tells of the traumatic day when she and her family were herded onto a crowded cattle truck and taken on a long journey south to what became known as the Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. She never lived on her country again.

This book is not a standard memoir. It is also a dialogue between Rita Huggins and her daughter Jackie. At various points through the narrative Jackie Huggins expands on points her mother makes, add her memories and sometimes challenges her mother. In doing this both mother and daughter are unsettling the memoir genre. We are all social beings. We not only live in a social context, we are challenged and have to adjust our thoughts and behaviours in response to those we live and work with. Yet writing a memoir is one of the most solitary practices. The dialogue in this memoir gives us a peek into a mother/daughter relationship. While Auntie Rita quite rightly dominates the book, the reader at times has the feeling that they are at a kitchen table listening to Auntie Rita talk about her life with Jackie sometimes chiming in with a comment about what her mother is saying. Auntie Rita says: Continue reading

National Reconciliation Week Review: Pictures from my memory

Book cover

Pictures from my memory: My story as a Ngaatjatjarra woman by Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016).

It is Reconciliation Week this week. An important aspect of the act of reconciliation in Australia is non-indigenous Australians listening, pondering and accepting the experiences of the first Australians. There are many ways we can participate. I chose to read the recently published memoir of a woman from the centre of Australia – Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis.

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis is a Ngaatjatjarra woman who was born near the border of Western Australia and Northern Territory. Her parents met white people for the first time around the time she was born. Ellis explains that it was a time of extended drought in the desert which is why Ngaatjatjarra people decided to live in white people’s settlements. This is a reminder that first contact and colonialism occurred unevenly across the Australian continent.

Pictures from my memory is a story of achievement. Marrkilyi Ellis tells her story in a straight-forward manner. She proved adept at straddling the cultural divide from a young age. “I loved school”, she says. “I loved learning to read and write.” But she was also learning much from her family and community. While sharing her life story she explains to the reader some aspects of her culture in chapters about “belief systems”, “working and sharing”, “Aboriginal nights”. These chapters fit well within the narrative flow of her story. Continue reading

Reading Purrfection

Cat lying on verandah balustrade. In foreground is book, notebook, pen and bookmark

Our cat Whispy, keeping me company while I sit on the verandah reading.

It has been glorious weather in Sydney albeit unseasonably warm and dry. I have been enjoying sitting outside and reading. The photo above sums up my ideal reading environment – a good book, bookmark, reading journal, pen and a cat.

Where would we be without good books? I am struggling to imagine my life without regular reading. Even during my reading drought during university and my early twenties (reading economics and accounting text books does not count!), I loved reading the weekend newspapers with their long book reviews, travel pieces and articles giving rich background to the news. That has largely gone now, replaced by websites. I snuggle up to my tablet for weekend news reading but it is not quite the same.

I don’t review anywhere near the number of books I read. Among the books I have enjoyed this year but not reviewed is Lost Relations by Graeme Davison, a well known historian who in this book wrote about his own family history.  I have also enjoyed reading Awakening: Four Lives in Art by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller which is about four women artists born in late nineteenth century Victoria each of whom had successful careers in Europe and the United States. The book in the photo is From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story. I remembered Janine Rizzetti’s review when I found the book in a second-hand bookshop recently. I became very absorbed reading about the legal and political history of the late twentieth century – a time when Mary Gaudron was involved in some significant court cases in various capacities as a legal professional and then as a High Court judge.

A bookmark of some sort is essential for reading, but I don’t like to grab any old slip of paper to mark my place. I like a beautifully designed bookmark and have quite a stash of them, often given away for free. It is an ideal way for an organisation to advertise a website if it is aimed at book readers. The bookmark I am currently using advertises ‘The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia’. As well as telling me the URL for the site, the bookmark tells me that the website is edited by Judith Smart and Shurlee Swain and lists the sponsors. A bookmark is a much more effective form of advertising for people like me than an annoying television advertisement. Continue reading

Refugees: Custodians of a Nation’s History

Book cover with face of Manijeh Saatchi

Manijeh: Not only a change of name by Manijeh Saatchi with the assistance of Fereshteh Hooshmand (George Ronald: 2014).

The people we share a train carriage with on the way to work, the hundreds we pass in a busy shopping centre, all these people carry a story within them. Each story is changing, developing and interlinked with others. Each story is a multi-faceted tile that helps to build the complex, mosaic of human life on this planet.

Fortunately for us Brisbane resident, Manijeh Saatchi, with the help of her daughter, Fereshteh Hooshmand, has shared her memories in the book, Manijeh: Not only a change of name. It is a classic tale of an ostensibly ordinary person who has faced extraordinary hurdles in her life. In telling it, she takes us to a culture, time and place very different to our own.

Manijeh Saatchi was born in 1929 in Iran to a poor family. It was a hard life, and was not made easier when Manijeh and her husband, Javad, decided to change their religion and become members of the Baha’i Faith.

Manijeh and Javad lived in the southern city of Shiraz. Less than one hundred years before they became members of the Baha’i community, a young Shirazi merchant had caused a tumult throughout the Persia, as Iran was then called. He became known as The Báb (pronounced Bahb) and urged all to prepare themselves for the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messenger of God. His message captivated the nation but many were opposed and the followers of The Báb suffered terribly from the prejudice and violence which ensued. Nineteen years later Baha’u’llah, the son of a Persian nobleman, declared He was the Messenger of God about Whom The Báb was referring. Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith on the principle of bringing harmony among the diverse peoples of the world, yet the followers of this new religion suffered terribly from prejudice and repression fanned by those in power. Waves of violence against Baha’is in Persia were always around the corner.

Despite his peace-loving nature, the neighbourhood children could often be heard calling him ‘kafar’, which meant infidel. The children would not include him in any game which included physical contact, as they would say that he was ‘najess’ or unclean.

Manijeh had witnessed the harassment of Baha’is during her childhood. She and Javad knew her lives would not be easy when they became Baha’is. Facing poverty and rejected by their families they moved to the southern port city of Bushehr where they became custodians for the building from which The Báb had worked a century before. Continue reading

Review: Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt

Book cover

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt (UQP, 2016).

Larissa Behrendt has written a nuanced and engrossing book about colonial attitudes as they operated through a particular Australian colonial ‘captivity tale’. Using the story told by Eliza Fraser who was helped by the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island after surviving a ship wreck in 1836, Behrendt turns the colonial gaze back on itself to examine the motives, the fears and the deficiencies of the Europeans as revealed in stories such as Eliza’s.

Behrendt uses her background as a novelist to examine the dramatic elements that drive the stories of Eliza Fraser.  These stories were written to satisfy the expectations of British readers for a tale of ‘barbaric natives‘, gripping adventure with a dash of sexual danger to titillate the audience. Behrendt retells the story from the point of view of the Butchulla people, the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island. She then goes on to demonstrate how various fictions justified colonial violence against indigenous people and wended their way into the legal framework that supported the dispossession of land from the traditional owners. Behrendt shows the power of stories, whether they are fictional, historical or legal in shaping a narrative that can perpetrate violence, but how these stories can also be used to dismantle the structures that caused great injustices.

In Finding Eliza Larissa Behrendt examines gender across the racial divide in colonial settler society. She rejects a simplistic judgement of Eliza Fraser’s role in all this. Behrendt acknowledges Eliza’s strength and tenacity to not only survive what would have been a terrifying ordeal for a middle-class European woman but to take the initiative to tell her story in a European culture where women’s voices struggled to be publicly heard. Continue reading

A Quirky Hotel with a History

Portico at front entrance of hotel

A quirky hotel with a history: the Mercure Hotel, Canberra.

It was just another visit to Canberra but this time my mother was accompanying me to see her grand-daughter who lives in Canberra. All I wanted was a simple twin share room but one of the hotels I often use was booked out and the other I also sometimes stay at did not have twin share. They offered to put up a foldaway bed if I paid an additional sum of money – but I didn’t want to pay extra for the privilege of sleeping in a potentially uncomfortable bed so I found a hotel I had never tried before.

I secured a great rate but given that this was a branded hotel I was expecting a bland experience. The mention of ‘old world charm’ did not enthuse me. The last time I stayed in ‘old world charm’ I was in a room with a window covered in ‘old world’ grime, antiquated plumbing and a rattly old air conditioner. But I didn’t pay much for the room so was not going to grumble if it was like this. You get what you pay for.

Bed with two pillows, lamps either side and hotel towels and toiletries placed on it.

Daylight flooding onto the queen-sized bed – not the down at heel room I was expecting.

It is good to have low expectations because then you have the pleasure of expectations being exceeded. As I walked into our room at the Mercure Hotel in Canberra my cynicism vanished. We had two queen sized beds with one bed right next to a window. The daylight flooded onto the bed unimpeded by those daytime curtains used by so many hotels to protect privacy.  I went to the window and laughed. The room was great value but the view reflected the price. It was so bad it was funny. I had no concerns about my privacy – I don’t think anyone would gaze on that view! But I could actually open the window and breathe in the fresh Canberra air. Our room was far superior to all those hermetically sealed hotel rooms with artificial air, bland drapes and soulless prints hung on beige walls. Not only that, but the bathroom was properly renovated, the beds comfortable and the room was spacious.

A view so bad it's funny, but still not in contention for worst hotel view as the window was clean and the air was fresh.

A view so bad it’s funny, but still not in contention for worst hotel view as the window was clean and the air was fresh.

Continue reading

Review: Visiting the Neighbours – Australians in Asia

Cover of Visiting the Neighbours

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska (New South: 2014).

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia gives an overview of more than a century of Australian travel in South-east Asia. It demonstrates that the Australian relationship with Asian countries is long and complex. Focussing primarily on private travel, the author, Agnieszka Sobocinska provides a book which will cause many readers to reflect on their own relationship with Asia.

The breadth of Sobocinska’s work is ambitious. Using diaries, letters, travel books and other sources, Sobocinska looks at the experiences of Australian tourists, business people, travel writers, soldiers, humanitarians, drug traffickers and more. Sobocinska shares glimpses of their experiences to demonstrate that contrary to the proclamations of various Australian politicians, Australia’s engagement with Asia is not new and it has a complex history.

While Visiting the Neighbours focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century experiences of Australians travelling in Asia, Sobocinska acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal Australians have had a trading relationship with the Macassans (who lived in what we now know as Indonesia) for centuries. In the twenty-first century Sobocinska notes that nearly twice as many Australians visited Indonesia than visited the United Kingdom.

The book unfolds in a broadly chronological sequence starting at the time when the British Empire reached around the globe. The issue of race is a theme that runs through much of the book. Sobocinska shows that travel in Asia forced Australians to think and in some cases, re-assess their views on the White Australia policy. She continues to examine race issues by reflecting on the post-colonial relationships that some of the Australian travellers developed with locals when they visited to give humanitarian service as well as the experience of travellers on the ‘Hippie Trail’ of the sixties and seventies. Sobocinska points out that the travellers on the Hippie Trail had little to do with the local populations, preferring to hang out with fellow western travellers: Continue reading