Category Archives: History

The Dictionary of Lost Words

It really annoys me when people say ‘this book isn’t what I expected’ and then write a negative review as if it’s the books fault that the reader had the wrong impression.

This book isn’t what I expected.

My review isn’t a negative one, but I do want to explain what I expected, in case others are similarly misled.

I thought this book was predominantly about words, and lost words, and gendered language. I expected the narrative to be driven by words and for them to be centre stage, or that they would somehow frame the narrative.

Books, and the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, are indeed important to the story. But words do not drive or frame the narrative. Esme, the main character, grows up around the men compiling the OED and herself becomes involved in that; she does find and compile ‘lost words’, in the varied senses of that phrase. The story, though, is the story of Esme as a young white English woman at the turn of the 20th century, and her experiences: with the OED, of sexism, of the women’s suffrage movement, of loss and love and friendship. She uses the words she finds to help navigate the world; she learns words from people of different classes in an effort to validate the existence of all words; and sometimes, of course, words are useless. Contrary to my expectations, words are secondary to the biography of Esme.

Having said all of that, this is a lovely novel. Williams writes beautifully, she does use the idea of words as gendered in interesting and meaningful ways, and Esme is of course living in a fascinating era. I wasn’t expecting the suffrage issue to be as significant as it turned out to be: I already know a lot about this as an issue, but for someone coming to it with little knowledge, this is a pretty great introduction to the actions (and words) of the suffragettes, and those who were opposed to their means.

You might notice that I don’t read a whole lot of realist fiction. When I do, I want it to do something interesting and clever and make me think. I have thought about gendered language, and about the gatekeepers of knowledge and language, so for me the ideas weren’t brand new. They are, though, presented in a deeply engaging manner, with neat intersections between ideas and with sympathy for different perspectives. I really enjoyed it.

Mermaid Singing

I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).

Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.

I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.

Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.

My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.

Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.

This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.

I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.

Beowulf, from Maria Dahvana Headley

I read a very abridged version of Beowulf ages ago. I’ve watched that appalling Christoper Lambert film, because Christoper Lambert, but I haven’t seen the Angelina Jolie one. And most recently I read The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and fell madly in love with it (it’s roughly a modern imagining of the poem).

Then I heard Headley had done a translation of Beowulf. And then I listened to The Writer and the Critic talk about both Headley books, and they reminded me to buy the translation. Of course, after watching The Dig, it was finally time to read it.

What an absolute joy.

The best way to give you a sense of how Headley has approached the translation is to use the example that a lot of people have pointed to, and with good reason: her translation of Hwaet. This word has been translated several dozen different ways over the years. It’s kind of a placeholder “pay attention!” word; I use ‘so’ and ‘all right’. You might use ‘look’, or archaically ‘lo’, or ‘behold’. Headley? Oh, she uses “Bro”.

Translation is always of its time, even if you’re trying to be anachronistically archaic. Headley has fully embraced the fact that this was published just into the 21st century, so there’s supermodern language – stan and swole and hashtag: blessed – that sometimes feels startling but always appropriate. Simultaneously, she has totally gone in for the ideas of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration found in the original:

The nails were notorious, hard as though

smith-forged, and the heathen’s hand

was callused as a carpenter’s, weathered

by work and warring (lines 985-88).

The above paragraph, by the way, is indicative of the fact that reading the Introduction to this book is highly recommended. You could, of course, go straight into the poem – of course you could. For me, though, knowing about Headley’s approach to the whole concept of translating this thousand-year-old poem, how she considered language and the gendered problems with considering Grendel’s mother, deepened my appreciation for her word choices and the entire enterprise.

The poem Beowulf centres, mostly, on the hero Beowulf, who slays the “monster” Grendel, and Grendel’s mother when she seeks vengeance… and he then goes on to be king for decades (that bit’s largely skipped over in the poem), before battling a dragon when he’s too old for that kind of shit. So in a sense it’s a heroic poem. On the podcast Backlist, though, the claim was made that it’s the original horror story too – Grendel coming in the night to kill men in their sleep, and no one can stop him. There’s also the aspect that it’s a meditation on the notion of kingship, and heroism, and masculinity… honestly there’s a reason that there are many dozens of translations and endless journal articles. There’s a lot to talk about.

I’m not a massive reader of poetry, so if you’re put off by the poetry I would say this one is worth a go. The ideas, the language – it’s just enchanting. And I would also recommend doing it the way I did: give yourself a couple of hours and read the whole thing straight through. You get into a rhythm with the language, you get into the zone of the Danes and Geats being all macho, and you follow the thread of Beowulf from hero to death.

I’m so glad Headley was convinced to do this.

The Brendan Voyage, and Tim Severin

Many years ago I randomly came across a book by Tim Severin – I think it was either his Jason or his Ulysses voyage. I was immediately in love: this was a man who takes a mythical journey, makes a ship according to what can be understood of the shipbuilding techniques from the time of the myth, and then sets out to recreate said journey. His point being to see what’s feasible, and to investigate to what extent aspects of the original journey can be matched up to what can be seen today (where ‘today’ is the 1970s, mostly).

Ever since that first encounter, I have sporadically checked secondhand shops to find more Tim Severin books like that first one. I’ve found a few – one of his first travelogues is following the tracks of Marco Polo by motorbike, undertaken long enough ago that he was able to get through Afghanistan but not into China. And just this year I finally came across The Brendan Voyage.

I had never heard of St Brendan and the stories about him and a few monks going to sea in a leather boat (a currach), and visiting various islands, on a voyage lasting months – in the 6th century AD. Severin does a good job of recounting the key points of the story, to give an indication of what he’s trying to emulate.

The first step must be to make the boat, and that in itself is a feat: he literally wants to go sailing in the Atlantic in a boat basically made of leather. Wooden struts, yes, but the hull just… cured leather. Before any construction, therefore, there’s research into what sort of leather and how it can work. Honestly I loved the story of the voyage, but I also really enjoyed the story of just finding the people to make the boat in the first place.

Clearly, the boat is eventually constructed, and the small crew sets out. And here I really appreciated Severin’s skill as a narrator: he doesn’t try to give a day-by-day account, when that’s not necessary. Instead, he gives a great sense of the overall vibe of the thing, and it’s genuinely gripping. After all, the boat is tiny, and we are talking the Atlantic here. As with the Jason and Ulysses stories, Severin is interested to see whether their journey can match up some of the odder, more mythical aspects of the Brendan story, and in many instances I think he makes a fair case. There is no doubt that the achievements of that little boat are remarkable – and show what could have been done by an even more experienced crew, back in the day.

Sutton Hoo and The Dig

Last year, I got to fulfil one of my longest-held, quite esoteric, dreams.

I got to visit Sutton Hoo.

I have been fascinated by this place for longer than I can remember. It’s the site of a ship burial and other grave mounds from the Anglo-Saxon period, and the origin of some of the most beautiful archaeological pieces dug up in England. Every time I’ve been to England I’ve wanted to visit, and it’s just never worked out. But this time – this time I made it work.

Making it work wasn’t easy. We had to catch two trains – one from Cambridge to Ipswich, and then another to Melton, the closest station. Except on the day we were travelling, our train to Ipswich was cancelled, so we caught a train to Ely in order to get a different train going to Ipswich. Ely is in the completely opposite direction from Melton. All of this took a bit over 2 hours.

Notice I said “we”. For reasons that are still beyond my ken, my friend living in Cambridge decided to accompany me, as did her somewhat-bemused husband whom I had known for exactly seven minutes at this point.

From the Melton station it’s about a half-hour walk to Sutton Hoo. Through a village, and then along a main road with dubious pedestrian access. But then… oh, then.

You see this, a replica of the ship that was buried. And you see the visitor’s centre with its replicas of the great treasures – all of which are now in the British Museum, because the original owner of the property made them a gift; which means I’ve seen the helmet and the shield and every else a number of times. But now I was actually there, where they were found. It’s fair to say my friends thought I was a bit off my nut.

Usually, I understand, visitors get to go up an observation tower, to see the grave mounds from on high. But this was unavailable on the day we visited. Instead, we got to walk amongst the grave mounds themselves – something that is usually not allowed, and won’t be allowed again. So that was remarkable. The whole setting is remarkable, and glorious. And I finally got there.

Photo c/ my very generous friend

All of this came back to mind when I watched The Dig on Netflix. I was astonished, to be honest, that the story of an archaeological dig got made into a film with relatively big names – Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan – and has had a fair bit of press. Maybe here in Australia I don’t appreciate that the British public actually does know about the finds there? I also didn’t know there was a novel about it, which is the source material for the film. They couldn’t film at Sutton Hoo – it’s open all year – but it certainly felt to me that they recreated the area well. And I know that aspects are dramatised; much of the personal friction is narrative rather than history. But the fact that they showed archaeologists being meticulous – no Indys here – and the excitement about tiny pieces of iron or gold was just wonderful. The entire film, in fact, is beautifully made. And the story, too – a meditation on death and the place of humans in history and the cosmos (the Fiennes character, Basil Brown, is also an amateur astronomer… well, “amateur”; he wrote about astronomical maps and atlases). The events are very consciously placed in the eve of WW2 – there’s constant reference to war coming, men being called up, and so on – which adds that extra layer of immediacy, needing to get on with things, and also of extraordinary events occurring: the find, and the war. Plus the illness of Edith Pretty, instigator of the whole dig.

Highly, highly recommended as a film. And if you are in, or can get to, England – go visit Sutton Hoo.

Dating Aphrodite

I found this book in a secondhand shop, in the travel writing section, when I was well in the mood for reading travel narratives. I figured a travel book that also discussed ancient history and mythology would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the shop and the blurb are both a bit misleading: while Slattery does include some travel as part of the book, this is much more about having adventures in reading and thinking about ‘the ancient world’ rather than the travel itself. So that was one disappointment.

Overall, I think I mostly enjoyed the book. As that statement suggests, I am ambivalent – was while reading, still am. On the one hand, the cover irks me. It’s so … unnecessary. I assume part of the point is to make the mythology and history seem more real, vibrant, and let’s face it alluring, than might otherwise be supposed. But the original sculptor was already all about the male gaze and sexualising the statue; adding the tan lines feels gratuitous. And then there’s the fact that half her face is chopped off! There’s also the fact that Slattery’s whole purpose is to extol the benefits of reading ‘the classics’ and that access to such things should be available to all (in opposition to the old English-style curriculum where only toffy boys got access to Latin and Ancient Greek). In theory I have no problem with teaching about Stoicism and so on. But the problem starts when you then move further along that line and suggest it’s the only history worth knowing. Slattery doesn’t do that, but it’s a not hard to take his arguments and get to that point. It is, of course, largely male-dominated… unless you’re talking about Aphrodite, or throw in a brief reference to Sappho or Penelope.

I did not, though, hate the book. There were some really interesting bits! I liked the discussion of Apollo and Delphi and Pythia and Dionysus – although I feel Slattery missed an opportunity in not discussing the possible origins of Apollo and Dionysus, given Apollo is thought to have originated as an Eastern god, and Dionysus as more solidly home-grown ‘Greek’ (for all the problems with that word in the ancient world). The chapter about Ithaca was probably my favourite because it conformed most to what I was expecting, and wanting at the time: Slattery on Ithaca itself, and musing on The Odyssey, and the archaeological evidence for Odysseus on Ithaca, and how modern inhabitants feel about it.

I feel that this book probably only works for someone with at least some basic knowledge of Greek myth – although maybe I’m wrong, and Slattery explains things well enough for the complete novice. My knowledge of Stoicism and Epicurean ideas has never been that thorough and he does explain those in a way that I could understand.

As well, the book’s only 15 years old but I’m just not sure that it would get published today – in fact I was surprised to see that it came out in 2005, because it felt… older. And I think the lack of women has a lot to do with that. Plus, Slattery makes a case that the ancient Greek world had many things we value today – religious tolerance, being cosmopolitan, what he calls “Homeric impartiality” (the fact Hektor is the greatest hero in The Iliad despite not being Greek, and I am completely unconvinced about this demonstrating impartiality). Therefore, “we” can learn from the classics. I am unconvinced, even after reading the book, that that’s true. Partly because of the completely different contexts, and partly for vaguer feelings that this logic just doesn’t quite follow.

To the Finland Station

I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.

It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century… or the consequences of revolution… actually, thinking back, it’s a bit confused. And apparently it’s a great classic, which… I am unconvinced by. Maybe I’m out of the appropriate context to really appreciate it.

Turns out the book was written in 1940, which is all sorts of interesting given that it’s by an American, during World War 2 (although before American involvement), and before the Cold War. This date also means the style is not quite what I am used to, and therefore not always enjoyable or easy to read. And there are some seriously cringeworthy aspects too, like Wilson’s insistence on attributing certain things to a stereotyped national character, in both appearance and personality. And the worst times he does this are in relation to Jewish people – Marx, and Trotsky. I found it deeply distasteful; I can’t imagine what it would be like as, you know, a Jewish reader. (Well, I can; if you are Jewish, probably don’t read this.)

The first part of the book focuses on some French authors, the only one of whom I’ve heard of is Michelet. It examines their attitudes towards the French Revolution and suggests the ways that the 19th century changes how many French regarded their first revolution. I’m really not sure what the whole point of this section was, in retrospect. It was interesting to learn that attitudes changed, but I don’t really see how this led to the development of socialism. This development is the focus of the middle half, and was genuinely interesting – I think socialism is one of the most interesting of political ideologies and the different ways people have thought about it and considered its real-world application is fascinating. There is, of course, a significant amount of space devoted to Marx and Engels. I actually knew very little about the two men and their working relationship so that aspect was revelatory – Engels compelled to work as a bourgeois manager basically to support Marx! Marx a deeply unpleasant fellow (this does not surprise me)! I started getting my hopes up that Wilson wold give me a good overview of Marx&Engels’ communism; and while I do now understand the issue of dialectic materialism (… well, ish), without a more thorough grounding in Hegel I’m still in the dark about some of the finer points. As are most people, I think. Possibly including Marx.

The final section of the book is about Lenin and Trotsky (Ulyanov and Bronstein). I don’t know too much about the early lives of the men, so that biographical aspect was again quite interesting. Wilson was surprisingly favourable towards Lenin – the introduction to the book makes excuses for this, pointing out Wilson’s lack of access to sources given when he was writing, and providing some examples of Lenin being a right horror, as balance. I did not, in the end, feel like I got much more of a grasp of Lenin and Trotsky’s politics, which is interesting to reflect on.

I think I’m ok with having read this, having already read a lot around both the French and Russian Revolutions. I won’t be recommending it to anyone, though, except for historical reasons – that is, understanding what someone in 1940 thought about it all.

Friends and Rivals

My mum picks such interesting books for me! I hadn’t heard of this before it arrived for my birthday; I had heard of Turner and Richardson but knew nothing about them – I’ve never read anything by any of these women.

Before talking about the great things, there were two things that disappointed me deeply about this book, and they’re both factual errors that really don’t have a connection to the histories themselves but are nonetheless troubling. I can only hope they’re both editorial mistakes. One: in speaking of the English suffragette movement, Niall mentions “Adela Pankhurst and her daughters”. This should be Emmeline – Adela is one of the daughters. Adela was the one who ended up in Australia, so I guess this is an understandable mistake. However, in speaking of Australian suffrage, Niall gives 1908 as the year in which (white, which is also not stressed) Australian women gained the right to vote; it was actually 1902. Like I said, superficially small errors, but pretty significant for the history suffrage.

The book is set up as biographies – primarily literary biographies – of the four women. As individuals their lives are all quite fascinating: Baynton is probably my favourite, although the one I would be least likely to befriend; for instance, she was annoyed at her third husband for refusing the crown of Albania (there’s a whole story about why taking it would have been a dreadful idea). All four of them dealt with a variety of hardships – some particular to their era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while others are all too familiar (family hardship, women ignored, the difficulty of being paid as a writer…). Niall writes engagingly and seems to have done spectacular archival research to dig up letters and diaries to get into the mindsets of these very different women.

Turner wanted to be taken seriously as a writer; Seven Little Australians was a money-making machine and she ended up being pigeonholed as a children’s writer (so familiar for too many women). I’d never realised that this book has an urban setting and just how remarkable this was for its time, when Australia was so much about the bush, thank you Banjo and Henry (whom Turner knew). Conversely, Baynton wrote about the bush – but in almost vicious terms; the one story I really want to read was throwing Henry Lawson’s story “The Drover’s Wife” under a bus. Henry Handel Richardson was considered for a Nobel Prize, and also wrote urban stories – and wasn’t especially interested in being considered a particularly “Australian” author, which was intriguing for the time. And Palmer was, for her time, a leading critic and champion of Australian authors – not a leading female critic, but leading critic, period.

My mum knows me well: this books fits within Joanna Russ’ campaign for women to know their literary ancestry – to remember that there have been women writing before them, that we do have a history to be proud of. Australian literature’s history isn’t all bush ballads, or the agony of Patrick White. It’s also the story of girls at private schools, kids in crappy inner-city suburbs, and epic ‘European’ novels. These writers need to be reclaimed as an important part of our heritage.

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman

As with Living on Stolen Land, I don’t want to be the white woman talking about and appropriating an Indigenous woman’s words. So if you’ve been thinking about reading this book, do it! This review is intended to prod people into doing so, and in no way is a substitute for Moreton-Robinson’s own words.

I saw Aileen Moreton-Robinson at the Broadside feminist festival last year and she was intriguing. On the panel I saw, about women of colour and how they approach feminism, she was the oldest by perhaps a decade or more, and she seemed to get quite impatient by what some of the panellists were saying – and how they were saying it; she told them (in a poor paraphrase) that feminism is a white woman’s thing and they, not being white, needed to think differently – and maybe white feminism wasn’t actually what they needed. That’s a very poor paraphrase, actually, but I think it gets some of the sense of what she said – and for me, as a white feminist in the audience, it was eye-opening and kind of stunning. I am in a weird halfway place I think between second and third wave feminism; I don’t think I think that all women are sisters and experience oppression in the same way, but I’ve definitely had to work on fully manifesting intersectionality in the way that I think and act. The panellists too were intrigued by how Moreton-Robinson spoke; at one point someone (only half-jokingly) suggested the panel should be the rest of them asking Moreton-Robinson questions.

The other thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that this book was published in 2000, and Moreton-Robinson had never before been asked to speak at a conference in Australia about it. Never. Nineteen years of a book that was the first Indigenous Australian interrogation of feminism… and conferences have ignored it, and her. That’s a disgrace. There is, at least, a 20th anniversary edition out this year, and Moreton-Robinson seems to have been on some programmes (ABC Radio, The Drum), so that’s a bit of an improvement?

So, the book. It took me quite a long time to read, partly because this year I have been struggling to read new stuff – which I think is the case for many people – and partly because it’s been a while since I read any theory; it’s not every chapter, but several deal with anthropological theory and feminist theory so I knew I needed to read it slowly to actually absorb what was being said. Rushing through would have been a disservice to the book, and I wouldn’t have really appreciated everything being discussed.

Throughout the book Moreton-Robinson talks about “the subject position middle-class white woman” which I found challenging, in some ways – because as she points out, women like that/women like me are indeed accustomed to being the default. And even when I am aware that I am those things, constantly having it pointed out (like Indigenous women, like African-American women, like… etc usually experience) is a novel experience. And an important one. And is one of the core points of the entire book: feminism – especially as it was in the late 1990s, in some corners I think it may have changed a bit in the last two decades – has been developed by white women with themselves at the centre, and while we’re busy interrogating various positions of power etc we forget to think about how, even in our gender oppression we massively benefit from (and help to support) racial oppression.

Moreton-Robinson begins my talking about how Indigenous women have presented themselves in their life-writings, pointing out the differences in those experiences compared to middle-class white women. She then tackles a massive job in looking at how various feminists have theorised ‘difference’ and ‘race’ over time and in different places – mostly white feminists, since they have been the most significant for Australian ways of thinking. And along with a whole bunch of interesting things here the main take-away for me is that white feminists haven’t considered that they are white; that they (we) have race/colour/ethnic position. And then the third chapter was perhaps the most gut-punch, from a historical point of view: she gives an overview of how white feminist anthropologists have talked about “Indigenous women” and all the ways that has been part of the colonising process, which chapter 4 also continues to interrogate.

All of the preceding stuff is incredibly important and could have stood by itself. What Moreton-Robinson then does in chapter 5 is present interviews with white feminist academics (ask me how hard it’s been to remember to put ‘white’ at the start of each nominal group… hello privilege), about how those academics think about race and present it in their courses and interact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. And this was illuminating and also for me challenging: who do I interact with and why, how do I present an anti-racist stance in my teaching and also live it in the world, and so on.

Finally, the last chapter presents a history of how Indigenous women (up to 2000, which I think is important to remember, since more will have been done and said since then) have challenged white women and their intentions and words. Which was its own version of challenging mostly because of how white women have responded to being challenged (often, badly).

This book won’t be for everyone; I know that reading theory isn’t going to be appealing for many. But the ideas and challenges that Moreton-Robinson present are vital for us middle-class white women to hear and acknowledge. If you ever get a chance to hear her, please do so. If you think you can cope with some theory, please get hold of this book and read it.

Living on Stolen Land

This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.

I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.

Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.

Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”

There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.

Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.

Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.