Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Re-Visiting Asylum Seekers

How does the rest of the world perceive Australia’s response to asylum seekers (if the rest of the world notices at all)? Our current ‘liberal’ (for which read ‘ultra-conservative’ and ‘right wing’) government won the election based (or so they claim) on their determination to ‘stop the boats’. There seem to be only three elements to this government’s policy towards asylum seekers: (1) stop the boats; (2) process these ‘illegal’ asylum seekers off shore (in another country); and (3) never permit them to settle in Australia.

Let’s assume that stopping the boats was the best way to put an end to people smuggling (which I don’t concede—there were and are numerous other approaches); let’s assume, also, that the policy of turning back boats and off-shore processing has actually put an end to this illegal trade (both of which are contentious issues, if for no other reason than the secrecy in which the government shrouds all of this) ... Assuming both of these things for the sake of argument, surely this should only ever have been the starting point for developing a positive and constructive policy for dealing with the vast and catastrophic wave of migration that the current refugee crisis represents.

We in Australia, together with other western nations, have contributed significantly to the destabilisation of the Middle East which has resulted in this growing catastrophe. Surely as a nation we have a responsibility to do more to address this disaster than to demonise these refugees, make this someone else’s problem and add more bombs to the mix in the Middle East.

Do we really think that this government’s policies have ‘saved lives’ (or were ever intended to)? Even if this were the case, it is only a (very poor) beginning.

It’s time that this government stepped up to the plate and did much more to help address this worldwide crisis. I fear that it lacks both the capacity and the will to do so.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Eagles and Chickens

The Eagle Who Thought He Was a Chicken:
A baby eagle became orphaned when something happened to his parents. He glided down to the ground from his nest but was not yet able to fly. A man picked him up. The man took him to a farmer and said, “This is a special kind of barnyard chicken that will grow up big.” The farmer said, “Don’t look like no barnyard chicken to me.” “Oh yes, it is. You will be glad to own it.” The farmer took the baby eagle and placed it with his chickens.
The baby eagle learned to imitate the chickens. He could scratch the ground for grubs and worms too. He grew up thinking he was a chicken.
Then one day an eagle flew over the barnyard. The eagle looked up and wondered, “What kind of animal is that? How graceful, powerful, and free it is.” Then he asked another chicken, “What is that?” The chicken replied, “Oh, that is an eagle. But don’t worry yourself about that. You will never be able to fly like that.”
And the eagle went back to scratching the ground. He continued to behave like the chicken he thought he was. Finally he died, never knowing the grand life that could have been his.
I don’t know who the author of the above website is. There are many versions of this story. In some versions the eagle eventually recognises his true nature and soars up into the heavens.

I suppose that’s all great if you actually are an eagle who mistakenly thinks it’s a chicken. The trouble is ... I suspect most of us are chickens who think we’re eagles. And therein lies the source of so many of our difficulties. The ever-present guilt so many of us feel arises from the fact that we constantly fail to do those things that an eagle can do, but a chicken cannot. Of course we constantly fail, because we are chickens, not eagles. And what’s wrong with being a chicken? Nothing at all.

Perhaps our lives would be far less stressful (and the world a better place) if all us chickens stopped trying to be eagles.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: 'Celestial Blue Skies' by Maggie Collins

What do I know about the life of white people, black people and ‘high yellers’ in Louisiana in 1985? Not a great deal. Here in this book I find myself involved in the life of a community and a family in Belle Place, Louisiana, a sugar-cane-growing region.

There is Grandmother Maymay, T-man, her husband, Mother Tut, their daughter and T-red, their son, married to Bumblebee. Finally there is Celeste, the eldest of Mother Tut’s children, twelve years old at the opening of the novel.

Mother Tut and Celeste are ‘high yellers’ who could almost pass for white.

Tut was very young when she had her children, so young that really Maymay acts as their mother, with assistance from Bumblebee. Mother Tut is almost childlike—perhaps a little ‘simple’. She is irresistible to men, has little resistance to their approaches, and is regarded as a slut by the community. She has, however, an endearing, naive quality. This, along with her physical beauty, is perhaps what makes her so attractive to men.

Celeste, by contrast, is much older than her years and very intelligent. She is blessed—or perhaps cursed—with her mother’s good looks. She struggles to avoid her mother’s fate.

In many ways this is a coming of age story. Celeste is the central character, and much of the narrative is related from her first person perspective. However, at times the first person narration is taken up by others, most often Tut. Celeste at the beginning of the novel is twelve years old, but by the end is perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Along the way she is strongly attracted to a young Rastafarian boy called Vashan.

Mother Tut has the opportunity to escape her life in Belle Place when she is taken away to another town by a worker in the cane fields known as ‘Black’. Will she be able to break out of the behaviour and lifestyle in which she is trapped? Will Celeste be able to reach her potential? These are the central elements of the plot here.

Among the themes which I found fascinating was the exploration of intra-racial prejudice between the various ‘degrees’ of blackness within this community. As a white man it is difficult to know how to discuss this without unintentionally offending someone or straying from political correctness. Suffice it to say that the seemingly infinite capacity of the human species to divide itself into ‘us and them’ is alive and well in Belle Place, Louisiana. Or, at least, it was in the 1980s.

The strength of this novel was in its characterisation, particularly that of Mother Tut and Celeste. Despite their flaws these characters were mostly likeable, and certainly understandable. Although they sometimes behaved badly, there was never a sense that this was the only thing to say about them. I did think from time to time that the author was resorting to African-American stereotypes; but perhaps these stereotypes have their origins somewhere/somewhen in the real-life experience of the author. I’ve met a few stereotypes myself over the years.

I enjoyed the language, which included elements of Creole and French as well as the colourful version of English spoken in those parts. The voices sounded authentic to me. On the other hand, what do I know about that time and place?

The novel is perhaps weakest when it comes to plot. I did not sense any great movement or development in the plot until near the end, when there are real moments of suspense and tension. I thought a few more moments of tension and conflict along the way would have given the narrative a more interesting contour. Character is very much the dominant element here.

There is one very interesting development towards the end, which would not generally be expected in a novel that is narrated in the first person. I will say no more about that, except to say that it was very effective.

The editing let the author down a little here and there, particular in the latter third of the novel, when there were an increasing number of typos. I suspect the author had at some stage switched from a third person to a first person narrative, and some of the pronoun changes were overlooked (‘them’ instead of ‘us’, for instance).

While I loved the characterisation here, because the plot was not as strong or as contoured as it might have been, I am inclined to give this three and a half stars, but rounding this up to four where necessary.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Magical Thinking

Most of us, when considering this issue seriously and with our grown-up hats on, would probably say we don’t believe in magic (of the Harry Potter variety, at least). Spells and potions ... That’s the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. It is astonishing, however, how easily even intelligent adults can slip back into ‘magical thinking’.

By this I mean those times when we think that somehow, in some mysterious and unspecified way, our thoughts and wishes can influence the world around us. How many times have you heard someone say (or said yourself) something like this: ‘Whenever I go into a busy car park I just say to myself, over and over, “I will find a spot, I will find a spot”—and, wouldn’t you know, just at that moment someone pulls out and leaves one free!’ Some people ‘wish’ for this, some people ‘pray’ for it, and some people just clench their teeth and try to will it to happen. I can hear many of you saying even as I write this, ‘But it’s true!’

Well, guess what. It isn’t. I also go into crowded car parks, and I find a car park without doing any of that. At least, I try not to do it. However, we are so egocentric that despite all our efforts to remain rational, we persist in the belief that we are the centre of the universe and that we can bend it to our will, or we can bend God to our will so that he will bend the universe to accommodate our wishes. Wishes which are, for the most part, pretty trivial.

I certainly do it at other times and in other circumstances. For example, that lotto ticket I bought the other night ... Do I go to bed and ‘wish’—‘pretty please, pretty please’—to win? Of course I do. And when I win a little prize I say, ‘See, it works’ ... and conveniently forget the previous ten, twenty, thirty times prior to that when it didn’t work. Our mind is strange. We notice and remember the occasions when our wishes happen to coincide with the reality that unfolds, and conveniently forget the rest. Finding patterns is something our mind does very well. Many times this is really useful. This actually requires us to filter out extraneous noise. Unfortunately we can easily fool ourselves, too, into seeing patterns and relationships that aren’t there. In particular, we easily see causality where there is none.

There was a time when different models of cars used to look quite different from each other. Now they all look pretty much the same; or certain categories of cars do, anyway: hatchbacks, four-wheel drives or whatever. Who can tell which model or brand is which? But I remember a time when I would buy a car that had some distinguishing features and, all of a sudden, I would see this particular model of car everywhere. ‘Wow! Spooky! Isn’t it strange how I now keep seeing ****s everywhere!’ Our magical thinking imagines that the world has changed in some mysterious way since I bought the car; that somehow the universe is suddenly bringing more ****s into my sphere of reality. Of course, what has changed is my perception. Before I didn’t notice ****s; now I do.

I am as prone to magical thinking as anyone. It seems to be hardwired, linked to our ability to detect patterns and to generalise from specifics. These are very useful capacities. However, I like to think that I can step back a little from that, apply a little rationality and logic to the situation.

It’s not always necessary to do this. What’s wrong with a little magic, after all? Nothing really, except that it can lead to certain individual and societal disorders. What is an obsessive compulsive disorder if not an extreme form of magical thinking? ‘I have to turn the light on and off five times or something bad is going to happen.’ How easily magical thinking can lead to guilt when it fails. ‘It’s my fault. I didn’t wish [or believe or pray] hard enough.’ If we falsely believe that we have that kind of power over the universe, then I guess it’s our fault when it doesn’t work. A healthy, mature mind recognises that some things (and, indeed, a great many things) are actually beyond our control.

A little magical thinking is harmless. But it does contain within it the seeds of individual neurosis and collective neurosis. A great deal of the expression of religion is just that. I happen to think the world is quite beautiful and mysterious enough, without having to introduce mystery that isn’t really there.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Writing for the marketplace? No thanks.

There are a great many people in the world who read books. You may have noticed. As varied as the people themselves is their taste in reading material. Of course it’s true that some genres or authors are particularly popular at any one time. But alongside those who like the current trend are—dare I say?—millions of readers who would prefer to read something else.

There are those who would suggest that it is necessary to tailor your writing to accommodate the current, dominant market. I suppose, if you are primarily interested in making money, that’s a good suggestion. Those who wish to write differently are often told, ‘There’s no market for that these days.’

This is rubbish. The potential market is huge. Somewhere out there are at least thousands, almost certainly tens of thousands, and possibly millions of people who will want to read your book.

As a writer we have two choices. We can either write what we think the ‘market’ wants to buy at this microsecond—or, at least, what someone, somewhere in the mystical, magical world of market research says the market wants. Or we can write our own work in our own way and try to reach those who will want to read it. They are there, somewhere.

None of this excuses bad writing, of course. Anyone who has been following my blog will know how adamant I am about ensuring our work is of the highest possible standard. Nevertheless, it does not have to tick all the boxes the marketing world thinks it must tick to be a winner. A genre or style of writing that is not currently fashionable can still appeal to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of readers who are not interested in the latest trends.

I am not for one moment suggesting that it is easy to tap into this potential market. I would, however, suggest that that is the real challenge. The challenge is not to write a marketable book, but to write your best book and find the market for it. They are out there somewhere, your eager readers.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1998. A Baptist minister, Nathan Price, relocates his family from the state of Georgia in the USA to work as a missionary in the remote village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, in the late nineteen fifties, early nineteen sixties. Nathan is a man very sure of himself and his faith. We witness—largely through the eyes of his four daughters and occasionally his wife—his total failure to relate to the people of the village in which the family now lives, and the gradual disintegration of the family as it deals with a number of calamities, whether they be natural, personal, social or political. The title derives from the ambiguity—or perhaps complexity and subtlety—of the Kikongo language. Nathan finishes each sermon with these words: ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala.’ He wants this to mean: ‘The Lord Jesus is precious and dear.’ However, the way he pronounces the word ‘Bangala’ it means: ‘The Lord Jesus is the poisonwood tree.’ ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends’ says Adah his daughter during her narration, ‘for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’

The story is told largely as a first person narrative through the eyes of the daughters: Ruth May, the youngest, who is five at the start of the novel; Leah and Adah, twins, who are fourteen; and Rachel, who is fifteen. Sometimes the narrator is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna.

I know nothing about life in a Congolese village in the middle of the last century, but I could not help feeling that we were not being presented with a ‘real life’ story here. Rather this was a vision of the world shifted slightly out of phase into a reality in which the natural laws to which we are accustomed do not always apply. To that extent the novel has a magical realist flavour. Certainly this is also due to the fact that this world is seen through very young eyes. To younger eyes, perhaps Kingsolver is telling us, the world is a less comprehensible, more magical, more mythological place.

The youngest daughter, Ruth, is playful, curious and adventurous. She is the one most able to adapt to this new world into which she is thrown. She is less fully formed and therefore more malleable. She has a less rational approach to reality and is more accepting of the strange, the unusual, the different. She is able to communicate with the other children in the village, when necessary at a non-verbal level. Leah, one of the twins, is deeply devoted to her father and tries hardest to accept and understand him. She is also independent and something of a tomboy. Although in the end she departs radically from her father’s views, she retains some of the passion, conviction and even dogmatism with which he holds them. Adah is the other twin, hemiplagic from birth (only one side of her brain develops), with apparent physical disabilities and a limited ability to speak (at least at this stage of her life). She is, at the same time, brilliant in a ‘Rainman’ kind of way. She also has a very distinctive way of perceiving and dealing with the world. The oldest daughter is Rachel, self-obsessed, superficial and enraptured with American culture.

Orleanna is deferential towards her husband but gradually begins to assert her independence as the family suffers hardship and, ultimately, tragedy. Eventually her maternal instincts take over, and she is a lioness defending her cubs.

I never really felt moved by this novel, its characters or their fate. I was intrigued, fascinated and interested, but not deeply, emotionally involved. I think this has to do with the fact that I never felt that these were real, flesh and blood people. Rather, they were mythological representations of different world views or philosophies. After the family leaves the village and the characters go their separate ways, I thought this became even more the case: these were politico-socio-spiritual embodiments rather than people. This was particularly true, I thought, of the daughters. And amongst them, particularly Rachel and Leah, who represent polar opposites. I would have been quite happy for the novel to end when they left the village, and was not really satisfied with the way it developed subsequently.

There are so many themes dealt with in this novel: religion and spirituality; politics and society; colonialism and the clash of cultures; the domination and callousness of the West. What was the final message that I took from this? Perhaps that no culture can ever hope to fully comprehend another. All of this was fascinating, thought provoking and would generate excellent discussion groups. It no doubt has in the years since its publication. But for much of the time, the concrete flesh and blood of humanity was buried beneath this intellectual load. For example, was the relationship between Leah and her Congolese husband Antoine a real relationship, or was it a vehicle for exploring cultural relations and political oppression? More the latter, I think, than the former.

This novel is no doubt a masterful achievement. I thought perhaps Kingsolver dragged it out too long. It could, as I have intimated, have finished satisfactorily about three quarters of the way through, after the family leaves the village. What comes after that is less and less story and more and more philosophical, political and social commentary. There are certainly moments of beautiful prose here, and the novel is always thought provoking. Nevertheless, because it is overlong, and because I never quite made an emotional investment in the characters or their story, I give it four stars.

Sculpting Wet Clay

So many analogies with other art forms are appropriate when considering writing as art. Painting with words. A verbal symphony. Recently I have spent several weeks wrestling with a chapter in my new novel. This book has been difficult to write from the word go, but this chapter just wouldn’t come together. I knew more or less how it needed to end, but getting to there from the beginning was like swimming through treacle.

In that previous paragraph I notice I have applied two non-artistic metaphors to the process of writing: wrestling and swimming (through treacle). I hope when I mention wrestling this doesn’t conjure up images of the theatre that appears on our televisions. Or sumo wrestling. Actually, I hope it conjures up no visual images at all. I can think of no form of wrestling which is even remotely pleasing to the eye. No. Think of wrestling with the lid of a stubborn jar, or a flat-pack piece of furniture. Something that just won’t bloody work!

As for swimming through treacle ... Well, I’ve never actually tried it, though I can’t imagine it would be very pleasant.

The image I actually had in mind when I began this post was of writing as a form of sculpture. Here is a piece of clay that we must keep wet, pushing it here, pulling it there, slicing away this, adding that. This is what writing sometimes feels like to me. I have a lump of something that I must mould and shape. Perhaps I see the final form inside this lump, as a sculptor might see the man in the chunk of marble. But drawing out that shape ... That is difficult and time consuming. This is how physical writing can sometimes be for me.

I think I have the shape of that chapter correct now. On to the next.