Memory and Mortality in Gnomesville

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We were at Gnomesville the other day. Since the 1990s people have been leaving gnomes in the bush by the side of a round-about in a sparsely-populated corner of the Ferguson Valley. There’s thousands of gnomes spread around the trees and along the tracks. A few of the gnomes are broken but not many; I think the broken ones must be removed. One of the main stretches follows a seasonal creek-bed and the flat clear surface is filled with shiny new gnomes with dates from recent weeks written in texta. Perhaps, like me at first, they didn’t notice it was a creek. A good proportion of gnomes on higher ground are spattered with mud, survivors of at least one year of winter’s rains. Others were probably washed away.

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Australian literature 2020: an introduction and bibliography

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The annual literary wrap-ups of 2021 are about to start but I want to go all the way back in time to 2020. The fourth issue of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature each year includes an introduction to the previous year’s literature of selected Commonwealth nations accompanied by a bibliography. Since 1976, my PhD supervisor, Van Ikin, has been coordinating the Australian entry and I’ve been privileged to be a co-author for the last six years.

We give an overview of major works and their reception as well as themes, trends and controversies. It’s inevitably incomplete and skewed somewhat to our personal interests and biases! It’s also weighted by the format toward literary fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism with non-fiction and other fiction only covered selectively.

The official published version is now available on the journal’s website but requires a login; you can download our unpublished version for free as a pdf below.

For the historical record, here’s the compilers by years of publication:

Van Ikin and John Maddocks 1976-1984
Van Ikin and Brenda Walker 1984-1987
Van Ikin and Kieran Dolin 1988, 1990-1997
Van Ikin and David McCooey 1989
Van Ikin and Elizabeth Hardy 1998-2000
Van Ikin and Darren Jorgensen 2001-2006
Van Ikin and Keira McKenzie 2007-2013
Van Ikin, Keira McKenzie and Margaret Stevenson 2014-2015
Van Ikin, Nathan Hobby, Keira McKenzie, Margaret Stevenson 2016
Van Ikin, Nathan Hobby and Margaret Stevenson 2017-2018
Van Ikin and Nathan Hobby 2019—>

The Red Witch cover and pre-orders

Here’s the cover for my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard! The Red Witch is now available for pre-order from the publisher’s website ahead of the 3 May 2022 release in hardback and ebook – https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-red-witch-hardback. It’s still five months away, but feeling much closer with this. I’m so pleased it will be published in hardback and under the Miegunyah imprint of Melbourne University Publishing. The cover uses a 1949 photograph by D. Glass of Katharine in her sitting room at Greenmount. So happy with the design. I hope to speak about the book somewhere near you next year – will just have to see what Covid (and WA) does.

Remembering the Professor

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In my suburb there’s a non-descript shopping centre café which smells a little greasy and sells quiche and bacon and eggs and is inexplicably busy, mostly with older people. It’s next to the bottle shop and every time I pass it I think of the professor because the last time I saw him, in 2003, he was seated at one of its outside tables waiting for his order. I called out his name and when I wasn’t sure he recognised me I reminded him of how I’d been in his classes and he brusquely assured me he remembered me. Was I an unwelcome intruder? I must have spoken to him for a while because I recall showing off to him that my novel had just won an award and would be published. He told me what a bad state publishing was in and how his own novel had been rejected. To my surprise, it was a thriller with some connection to 9/11. The other thing I remember telling him was that I’d recently moved into the area, into a haunted house. What I meant by that was that I was living in a rundown house from the 1950s full of traces of the people who had lived there before, from the vintage stinking carpets to the rusty bedframe in the backyard under the decaying tree-house. But I said it was haunted because I knew he was into parapsychology and there’s a stirrer in me that people are slow to recognise. He took the bait and said something like, ‘When you say haunted, I hope you realise there are many haunted houses in this city.’ If he elaborated—and I would have been hoping he did—I’ve forgotten what else he said.

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A lost preface

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A mural in Emerald Victoria, while on the quest for Katharine in 2016

It’s not easy knowing how to start a biography. The preface to my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard went through a number of versions. Talking to a respected literary figure, she advised I write about why I had written the book because people would want to know. I don’t appear at all in the body of the biography, but it is a long-standing convention to tell something of the biographer’s quest in the preface, so it seemed like good advice and I followed it. I was quite happy with it as an introduction to a biography for a general readership. But one of the anonymous peer reviewers felt it didn’t work: ‘the preface draws tenuous links between the life of the subject and that of the author, and admits (no doubt unintentionally) a kind of obsessiveness, not unlike that asserted with regard to [certain figures in the biography]. I understand that with this gesture the author is attempting to acknowledge his standpoint, but it doesn’t work.’ Maybe the reviewer is right, and/or maybe it was a little mean to call me obsessive when that’s what biographers do, and my tone is more whimsical or self-deprecating than seems to be appreciated. Whatever the case, the published book – when it finally comes out in April 2022 (yes, the date has been pushed back) – will have a quite different preface, which makes a case for Katharine’s significance and outlines the approach I have taken. I’m very happy with that preface too. But for what it’s worth, here’s one of my lost prefaces that is possibly obsessive and self-indulgent in laying out why a non-communist male (somewhat) Anglican is writing the story of a long-dead female communist.

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Letter to the future

Little girl in a mask climbing on a statue of a swan.

What do you even remember about the pandemic years? Are you aware of how much they’ve affected you? Do you still obsessively wash your hands, Sarah? This last year, if we can’t find you, there’s a fair chance you’ve slipped into the bathroom to stand on the step-stool and bathe your hands in liquid soap with the water running, sometimes until the soap dispenser is empty. It’s not likely you’ll remember the ‘before’; you were eighteen-months old in March, that weekend the prime-minister said the lockdown was coming but he was heading to the footy one last time. And Thomas, maybe your memories will start with with this time, the ‘before’ fading out until it seems all your first six years or more were lived in the shadow of coronavirus. I hope not, I hope all the different seasons remain distinct in your memories. I keep asking you about your past to try to keep alive as many of them as I can.

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Edge of the bath and back seat of the car: the places you’ll write

In an obituary for her friend, Sumner Locke, Katharine Susannah Prichard said, ‘She could write anyhow and anywhere. I remember her telling a young man that when he came to her wailing about his uncongenial surroundings, and that he could not find a suitable place to work in at his boarding house “Man,” Sumner said to him, “you could write on the edge of a bath, if you wanted to.”‘ I think of that sometimes as either a goad or an encouragement. I also think of Kate Grenville saying somewhere – I’m not sure where – how the only writing time she had was when her mother looked after her young children and so she would park her car by the beach and write in the backseat leaning on a kickboard balanced over her knees. I’m sure I’ve got the details slightly wrong but I’ve taken inspiration from her during Covid and parked by the river with my laptop on my knees until it runs out of batteries – I only get an hour and a half out of it these days. (Alas, once I left my lights on and another battery ran out too; on that occasion waiting for the RAC to arrive I had some extra thinking time, the laptop already dead.)

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Katharine Susannah Prichard in the 1940s and 1950s

A contribution to Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Katharine Susannah Prichard spent the 1940s working on her Western Australian goldfields trilogy, which finally appeared as The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950). It’s a saga that tells the story of the development of the goldfields through the fortunes of one family, and interwoven with folklore, historical events, and technical descriptions. It is Katharine’s attempt at writing faithful to her communist convictions, bearing the influence of reportage and socialist realism. Yet it’s also faithful to Katharine’s recurring literary interests in industries, regions, and group narratives. It is a decisive turn away from her experiment with modernist interiority in her novel of middle-class marriage, Intimate Strangers, drafted between 1929 and 1933 and published in 1937.

It was an ambitious project, and at the time the reviewers focused more on its failings than its successes. It’s true that Katharine’s politics and research are sometimes intrusive, but it is also a poignant and tragic saga that evokes very well an industry and a place and the changes over the years. Katharine reacted to the negative reviews by discounting Australian critics altogether and maintained the trilogy was the high point of her ouevre.

Katharine had been at the vanguard of Australian writing and she now found it hard to be striking out in her own direction, largely alone. She read Patrick White’s Tree of Man in 1957 and was excited by it, even though she disliked the focus on ‘moronic types’. Yet as Patrick White and Randolph Stow were proclaimed by some as Australia’s first great writers, Katharine felt she and her generation were being neglected. By 1964 she had turned decisively against White writing, ‘Lost in the fog of their own delusions, writers like Patrick White believe they are uncommitted to any social purpose, while, as a matter of fact, they serve the causes of obfuscation and the defeat of human dignity in its demand for truth and justice.’

After World War Two, Australia changed in ways that left Katharine alienated and sad. She had long wanted Australia to have cultural independence from the United Kingdom, but it didn’t go the way she hoped. Her hopes were for an Australia sympathetic to socialism and proud of its progressive history and its love of the bush. Instead, she witnessed with horror the pivot toward the USA, the rise of consumerism, the long Menzies government, and increased urbanisation. In my forthcoming biography of Katharine, I look at the 1950s in her life as a time of frustration, with false literary starts, an autobiography which wouldn’t write itself, and her feeling of stronger identification with the Soviet Union and its people than an Australia which had changed in one direction as much as she had changed in another.

Honouring KSP: 2 short videos on Katharine’s life & a tour of her house

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This week, Writing NSW’s Honouring Katharine Susannah Prichard online event continues! I made this short video about her early years, from her purported birth in a hurricane to her political conversion and literary breakthrough.
And this one is about Katharine’s prime from 1919 to 1933, the period she exhausted herself in a flurry of political activity and returned to literature to write her three greatest novels before the biggest tragedy of her life hit her.
This video is a tour of Katharine’s home in Greenmount, now the headquarters of KSP Writers’ Cenre, with chairperson Elizabeth Lewis.