Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. This month includes Heather Rose’s Stella Prize winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, as well as Christine Piper’s Vogel’s Literary Award winning novel, After Darkness. We’ve read a classic by Joseph Conrad, and a re-imagination of the fairytale classics in Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm. And we’ve been reading stories close to home with books by Australian authors Delia Falconer, and Kel Richards, as well as stories from abroad with international authors Kent Haruf and Hanya Yanagihara.
Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love, takes its inspiration from Marina Abramovic’s 2010 performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which saw the artist spend 75 days sitting opposite individual visitors to the museum. I was drawn to this book, having participated in a modified version of the staring experience during Abramovic’s 2015 residency in Sydney. On that occasion, I was sitting opposite another member of the public, not Abramovic herself, but I was surprised and moved by the intensity of the encounter. Rose’s book is similarly moving, in the thoughts it provokes about the meaning of the gaze and about the role art can play in the conduct of a meaningful life.
This month I read Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood, a collection of four stories that nod to the mothers who are typically absent from fairytales. As the title suggests, these fairytales aren’t the sugary Disney kind, but the harsh and unforgiving kind characteristic of Brothers Grimm. The modernised mothers in Woods’ stories may spend more time in daycare centres and prenatal yoga classes than cursed woods and forests, but don’t let the setting fool you into thinking these stories will be any less bleak: as the prologue suggests, all good mothers are already six feet under, so what must the mothers in this collection be capable of?
Cassie Watson, Administration Officer
With them recent announcement of this year’s Vogel’s Literary Award winner, I was reminded that the winning novel from 2014 still sat unread on my shelves. After Darkness by Christine Piper tells the story of Dr Ibaraki, a Japanese doctor working in Broome during the Second World War who is arrested and interned as an enemy alien. In the camp his loyalty is torn between his fellow countrymen and the mixed race Australian internees – essentially between his old life and his new. We learn, piece by piece, the story of his life in Japan, and the secrets he is keeping which brought him to Australia. Throughout his professional life the importance of discretion had been impressed upon him, but as he adjusts to this new environment he must also learn to speak up and take action when others need him.
This was a compelling read. Once I’d really got into the thick of the story I would carry it everywhere to keep reading, even while I was brushing my teeth! As a history graduate I’d mostly studied the European arena of the war, so it was fascinating to get a perspective a little closer to home.
Lately I’ve been reading lots of Australiana, which makes for entertaining research. Delia Falconer’s Sydney challenged me to think of my favourite city through her eyes, and eventually won me over. Like all of NewSouth’s City series, Sydney melds history and memoir to show glimpses of what the city has been to different people at different times. I was delighted to learn that up until recently, a flock of wild emus lived in western Sydney. I like to imagine them roaming into the CBD, blocking traffic as they make their way across the Harbour Bridge.
To add to this, I’ve gotten into The Story of Australian English by Kel Richards. Each chapter builds on the history of Australian English, and what makes it unique, and concludes with a collection of related words and definitions. This is how I learned that ‘duck-mole’ was another term of platypus, and ‘Gaz’ is an acceptable abbreviation of Gary. When I can comfortably call someone Gaz, perhaps I’ll finally feel Australian.
In his novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf is a master of quietness. Of people. Of Place. Of relationships. In Plainsong a young girl in a small Colorado town discovers she is pregnant. Haruf moves between her story, that of the teacher who helps her, a father dealing with his wife’s mental illness, their boys, and the two bachelors who take the girl in and try to care for her as best they can – knowing they aren’t up to the job but also sure that doing this is a challenge they need in their lives. The book’s scope is small but the wonder of the story is wide and profound. I did not want to leave his beautiful small world.
The People in the Trees is Hanya Yanagihara’s first book, written before the bestselling and highly acclaimed A Little Life. Based on the life of Nobel prize-winning scientist Carleton Gadjusek, The People in the Trees is an astounding work that deserves to be much more widely read and praised than it has been.
In the book Yanagihara creates an entire world: the language, mythology, landscape, and social structures of the largely undiscovered and primitive inhabitants of Ivu’Ivu. The book is structured as a scientific memoir of Norton Perina (the Gadjusek figure), who is in jail, accused of child molestation. Yanagihara has gone to great lengths to create a realistic scientific document, replete with footnotes, editor’s comments, and references to other people’s papers and theories. She also gives us a narrator who from the beginning we sense is morally compromised – but not evil, and not necessarily guilty. Even with this sense of disquiet you can hear what he has to say, you see his point of view and sympathise with him, but still there’s this sense of discomfort. Yanigahara’s ability to walk this fine line, while also creating a compelling story within the structure of a scientific memoir is remarkable. I respect her even more after reading this work – so different from A Little Life, which I loved, but with some distinct themes travelling between the two.
I’ve been reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness this month, which has been on my list since I finished Lord Jim. I love his style of writing – his evocation of place took me deep into the Congo jungle, and his ability to conjure complex characters seems effortless. As the whole story is narrated by Marlow’s spoken yarn, Conrad cleverly separates himself from the voice of the novella, giving it its own sense of life and playing with the idea of reality and perception, yet embeds it with amusing and insightful titbits that I’m sure must be the author speaking: “I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work, – the chance to find yourself.”
It’s also important to understand this piece of literature as a part of an important dialogue about colonialism and race, as the novella has garnered significant criticism with regard to these issues. The book raises ethical questions about whether authors are responsible for their characters’ ideas, as well as literary concepts of voice and authority, and who they belong to.
Compiled by Eliza Auld