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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”