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Another camping trip, another AWW review

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Camping provides a wonderful chance to get away from the distractions of daily life (TV, computer, smart phone – you name it). For me, a city dweller, it also provides a chance to move away from our built environment and be grounded by the earth, sea and land. In fact, during Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey series, she interviewed an Indigenous Australian who said the simplest thing anyone in Australia can do to re-connect with the land is to take off your shoes and walk on the grass, even in the city or your local park, as a reminder of the environment and the Indigenous Australians who are the custodians of the land. So after a long walk in Wilson’s Prom I took off my shoes, felt the earth and started to read Patti Miller’s “The Mind of a Thief”.

Patti Miller found herself inextricably connected to issues of land and land rights almost by coincidence. During a visit to her home town of Wellington, Miller met with a group of Wiradjuri women elders. Over the course of conversation, the women’s questions led to Miller’s own heritage and ancestry leading to the very real possibility that Miller herself might have Aboriginal heritage. Finding herself increasingly drawn to the story of the women elders, of the Wiradjuri people and a side of Wellington she hardly knew growing up, Miller becomes deeply immersed in this very personal quest to know more about her town and recent native title claim on the land.  Image

The Mind of a Thief is wonderfully written. One cannot fault Miller’s gift as a writer who weaves words and evokes images of the land and the many people who tell her its stories. Yet I felt less comfortable with Miller’s role as interpreter of stories and quasi-historian. She concedes early on that she is not a historian and has conducted wide research to fill this gap in her knowledge. There is genuine surprise for Miller as she uncovers stories about the Aboriginal side of Wellington she hardly knew – from camps, to racism and displacement. Her honesty in revealing this helps all of us to understand how the roles played by Indigenous Australians have been deeply hidden from our history.

As Miller becomes personally involved with some of the main protagonists in competing Native Title claims in Wellington I felt troubled by the lack of angst she expresses with her own position. This might just be the undergraduate history student in me but I find that Miller walks a fine line between her own memoir and a non-fiction story of rights to land, native title and registration claims. We never really know if she ever felt uncomfortable in her position as an author/insider who at times is judging the merits of the claims and counter-claims of local Wiradjuri people. Her constant need to remind us of her own hardship growing up in Wellington (often repeated mentions of no running water, no hot tap) sounds like the author is trying to place herself in a position as an equally hard-done by resident of Wellington alongside Indigenous Australians. It might not be her intention but this sentiment does come across.

Little observations about an interviewee eating all the cake, Miller’s disappointment at not being called when the native title claim is finally and resolved and other assumptions throughout the book, started to irk me as a reader as if Miller was sitting in judgement of the case as she befriended locals both indigenous and non-indigenous alike. What would have been more interesting for me would have been more emphasis on Miller’s own responses to learning about how the Wiradjuri people were treated in her midst, while she was growing up, in the same town. Finally, as someone who respects requests by Indigenous elders not to climb Uluru, I baulked at Miller’s audacity in trying to locate and visit sacred Wiradjuri grounds.

The parallel story of Miller visiting her mother throughout research for the book makes for a nice story-being told-within a story sub-plot and the unveiling of the mystery of Wellington to her mother could have been just the place for some more self-reflection.

Patti’s Miller “The Mind of a Thief” has received wide acclaim and is included in the first-ever Stella Prize Long List. I eagerly await the short-list announcement on 20th March and hope that the judges are perhaps not as nit-picky as I have been – instead seeing this well-written tale uncovering a hidden story as another contribution to the larger story of Indigenous Australia and its multiple histories.

The People Smuggler – another AWW book review

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The Australia Day long weekend gave me the chance to get away from the computer, go camping and read more fabulous books by Australian Women Writers. Here’s 1 (and 1/2 reviews).

Before I delve into my main review, I have to confess I was a little behind in my 2012 reading and so my first long weekend holiday read was Anita Heiss‘ “Am I Black Enough for you?”. Reading this book, one of AWW’s most-reviewed, on Survival Day (26 Jan) gave me a chance to consider issues about idenitity and ‘authenticity’ in naming and being named. Heiss’ account of her upbringing, relationship to family and place, and her part in a race discrimination trial was told with honesty and humour, taking on many stereotypes about Indigenous Australia in the process. For me, Heiss’ book should be a must-read for young Australians and I hope her book is seen on secondary school reading lists in the near future along with other great tales about the plurality of Australian identity such as Melinda Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. Anita Heiss’ confessions about her dislike of camping did make me chuckle as I crawled into my tent to read and tried to ignore the mating calls of koalas keeping me awake!

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Coincidentally my other long weekend read, Robin de Crespigny’s “The People Smuggler” was nominated alongside “Am I Black Enough for you?” for a 2012 Human Rights Award for Literature (non-fiction). The People Smuggler was the eventual winner although I imagine judging for this award would have been extremely difficult.

Robin de Crespigny has done an incredible job of pulling together a story of one man, Ali al Jenabi, across several countries and over many years. Indeed Ali al Jenabi’s experiences could almost span several lifetimes. His life in Iraq makes for powerful but difficult reading, especially as stories of imprisonment and torture are recounted. I must confess to skipping pages as I found some sections hard to read. The eventual hardship in Iraq forced Ali to flee Iraq and the painfulness of his separation from family and the uncertainty of displacement are evocatively described. While images of refugee camps come to mind, the author’s ability to personalise a refugees’ plight made the book all the more engaging.

The second part of the book is probably the most controversial as Ali arrives in Indonesia hoping to find passage to Australia. His slide into becoming a so-called “people smuggler” is sympathetically told and it is to the author’s credit that all of the elements of what are sometimes highly complex events with multiple characters are clearly explained. I could sense the urgency of Ali’s plight to bring his family to Indonesia in the hope it would lead to finding safety in Australia.

Over the course of his time in Indonesia, Ali finds love, marries and becomes a father. But he also becomes increasingly drawn into the web of smugglers, boat captains and corrupt officials who all play a role in the people smuggling trade. Throughout we see, as Ali does, the humanity of individuals, many from his native Iraq, who have been displaced as refugees. In some ways this places his decision to become actively involved in people smuggling in context; a story that left me wondering what I would do in the face of similar problems.

The final section of the book covers Ali’s many trials in Australia – as a prisoner facing people smuggling charges, trying to help his family and daughter, and then life behind bars in immigration detention. With the asylum seeker issue fuelling much debate in the media and parliament last year, Robin de Crespigny has done an amazing job of presenting factual evidence about Ali’s trial alongside the human tale of Ali and his family. Never did I feel ‘led’ to a particular conclusion but I did come away with a strong sense of the futility of Ali’s years of prosecution and then detention. “The People Smuggler” is surely a deserving winner of the 2012 Human Rights Commission Award for Literature.

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Much like Heiss, de Crespigny addresses questions about authenticity and a person’s ownership of their own identity. Amidst much chatter of refugees and asylum-seekers as ‘illegals’, ‘boat people’ and ‘economic migrants’, Ali al Jenabi’s story told in “The People Smuggler” makes the reader question what we are told is the ‘truth’ about asylum seekers and displacement. Thanks to Robin de Crespigny we have a book I would highly-recommend, to help us make up our own minds on what will likely be a key 2013 election issue.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 – my first two reviews

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While the Australian Women Writers Challenge is over a year old, this is my first year and I’ve already got a long summer reading list that keeps growing! I started with two biographies that at first seemed completely disconnected – Sally Neighbour’s The Mother of Mohammed and Debi Marshall’s The House of Hancock: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart. Then it occurred to me that this is the great thing about fabulous female writers, who in this case happen to be kick-ass journalists as well, they uncover stories about Australian women.

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I’ll start with Sally Neighbour’s story of Rabiah Hutchinson, an Australian woman who grew up in country NSW and whose life has taken her to Indonesia and Afghanistan during some pretty key historical moments. As an academic, I felt a little frustrated with the author’s journalistic style and her decision to let the subject tell the story through interview excerpts and interviews with family members and friends. But then that is the great thing about biography – it presents an account to challenge, frustrate and inform you in equal parts.

At times Rabiah Hutchinson, who was known as Umma Mohammed (and hence the book title ‘Mother of Mohammed”), comes across as a woman who was looking for adventure and made some ill-informed choices that had long reaching consequences for herself and her children. Certainly as I read the book and followed Rabiah through several marriages, the birth (and death) of children, hardship and uncertainty I was struck by the decisions she made in her life. But all of this turmoil put in context her decision to convert to Islam and the passion with which she embraced her new-found religion. Overall I learnt a little bit more about Islam, Indonesian and Afghan politics from reading this book. On the micro-side I also thought a lot more about how the decisions we make in life shape ourselves and those around us.

This lingering thought about the fate we are dealt set me up well for my next book, Debi Marshall’s The House of Hancock. Having travelled recently to WA, I’ve been more and more curious about the phenomena of mining and am also enjoying the SBS series Dirty Business. Debi Marshall had previously written a biography of Lang Hancock and her latest book focusing on Gina Rinehart draws a lot on this earlier book. She outlines the frustrations of an author who cannot interview her subject and obtain editorial control having turned down an offer to interview the subject but relinquish final editing rights. As a result Gina Rinehart felt absent and present at the same time throughout my reading of this book, which is perhaps a striking metaphor given her reclusive life and her decision to not appear frequently in the media. The author tends to emphasise that to know Gina one must understand her father, which allows for some repetition from her earlier biography.

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Similar to Rabiah Hutchinson, what struck me in the ‘House of Hancock’ were the forces that shaped Gina Rinehart and her passion and determination. In Gina’s case it is the legacy of her father that drives her zeal and whether you think Gina is a feminist or a foe to be feared, she is certainly an influential character in Australian politics and business who I think we should know more about. Debi Marshall’s book is one of few places to find these insights and to understand the family history that drives Gina Rinehart, the business woman of today.

While I thought I’d be done with biography and non-fiction for now it appears I’ve found my groove and have just borrowed the award-winning The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny. Stay tuned for the next review.

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“author peruses rather large menu before starting her next AWW read”

research projects with community groups

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I’ve just posted this on Research Whisperer, a great site for researchers, about research partnerships with the community, take a look –  http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/community/

why migration?

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Migration is a complex phenomenon that never ceases to fascinate me – how people move, why, what happens after they migrate … the questions go on and on. Currently I am in the final stages of a PhD on refugee and migrant settlement in Australia but, as much as my focus is on human migration, I also like to remember animal migration.