A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing
Jessie Tu (Allen & Unwin, available now)
Jena Chung is a talented violinist, who travelled the word as a child prodigy until an on-stage breakdown at Carnegie Hall in her teen years. Now twenty-three, Jena is returning to the competitive world of classical music, and has also become a sex addict. Between rehearsals, performances and auditions, Jena distracts herself with sex. Usually, there are no strings attached; occasionally, it is violent. To Jena, men are predictable, easy to use in exactly the way she wants. When Jena is given an opportunity to travel to the United States to perform with the New York Philharmonic, she is forced to take stock of how her life is changing, and what kind of future she wants for herself. For Jena, who has known so much success in such a short period of time, the prospect of failure is challenging—he practices her violin until her wrists swell, and struggles to anticipate her expectations being dashed.
A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is a novel of race, class, discrimination within creative communities, youth, and familial expectation. But at its core, it is an exploration of self—a big part of which involves sexuality. The novel treats sexual promiscuity as shorthand for its protagonist’s emotional damage. Linking these two traits, in Jena’s case, makes a lot of sense, but it is a comparison drawn frequently in bildungsroman-esque novels about young women (for example: Sally Rooney’s Normal People or Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea). While people’s sexual preferences and behaviours can often be traced back to trauma, this comparison can start to wear thin when repeated so frequently in these representations of young women. That being said, Tu writes sex very well, and Lonely Girl starts a conversation on sexual politics (especially with regards to interracial relationships) that I would love to see continued.
This is perhaps my most dog-eared book of 2020—there are so many gorgeously-expressed lines, as well as stingingly abject and visceral ones.
The way Tu writes about classical music, and the way that Jena experiences life as an Asian–Australian woman artist in an industry that is largely controlled by white men, is brilliant. This is perhaps my most dog-eared book of 2020—there are so many gorgeously-expressed lines, as well as stingingly abject and visceral ones. It’s easy to forget that this is Tu’s debut novel—as well as its polished writing, Lonely Girl embodies a wonderfully strong and assured voice. I loved this book, and could go on about it for thousands of words. But instead, I’ll just say: go out and read it as soon as you can.
Living on Stolen Land
Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books, available now)
In this slim collection of free-style verse, Ambelin Kwaymullina makes her message unequivocally clear from the very title—you are living on stolen land. Separated into four segments—‘You Are on Indigenous Land’, ‘Perspectives’, ‘The Long Con’, and ‘Pathways’—Living on Stolen Land explores Australia’s colonial-settler past and present, examines important Indigenous concepts, and educates non-Indigenous readers in how to build respectful relationships and structures. Kwaymullina, who belongs to the Palyuku people of the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia, is primarily known as a creator of picture books and young adult novels, and in this book she has brought the same considered care and educational awareness that can be found in her other works, but with a more urgent and clearly articulated message.
Kwaymullina begins by describing the cataclysmic violence of settler arrival; an ‘apocalypse/ that repeated/ each time Settlers reached/ another Indigenous nation.’ She speaks of the lives destroyed, the families torn apart, the destruction of culture and language. And yet, the ‘enterprise of annihilation/ foundered on the rocks/ of Indigenous resistance’. Kwaymullina heartbreakingly examines the strength, depth, and ‘stubborn endurance/ of Indigenous peoples/ as we resisted in ways seen/ and ways unseen’.
As well as being culturally informative, the prose is passionate and quietly beautiful, evoking the natural environment and spiritual elements that Indigenous culture is steeped in: ‘there are no trees/ rivers/ hills/ stars/ that were not/ are not/ someone’s kin’. Kwaymullina discusses Indigenous concepts such as the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of respecting the Ancestors. The discussion of time is particularly poignant as Kwaymullina juxtaposes the concepts of cyclical and linear time, the latter of which is ‘something Settlers brought here […] a version of time/ that is always carrying people away/ from an unchangeable past/ into an unknowable future.’
Living on Stolen Land asks more of its readers than to simply educate themselves, it asks them to stand up and take action.
Living on Stolen Land asks more of its readers than to simply educate themselves, it asks them to stand up and take action. Kwaymullina asks readers to challenge settler thoughts and behaviours both internally and externally, and to engage in decolonising processes. She examines the different types of biases that exist and suggests how readers can fight them. She explains that ‘the only way/ to not be the person who excludes/ is to know/ you could be that person’.
At only 64 pages, this collection is short enough to read in one sitting but so incredibly effective with its message that it won’t soon be forgotten—it is a punch to the gut that white Australia so desperately needs.
Metal Fish, Falling Snow
Cath Moore (Text Publishing, available now)
Neurodiverse fourteen-year-old Dylan Freeman makes a warmly poetic unreliable narrator for Cath Moore’s debut YA novel, Metal Fish, Falling Snow. Dylan recognises that she’s someone ‘whose brain is very specific’, and holds the things that she likes—Tina Arena; forks; water—very close. Things that Dylan can’t abide include yolks that run south, bad parking, and the wolf that lives inside her. This wolf makes her do bad things, and so she maintains strict rituals to keep her and her loved ones safe—until they don’t.
She’s close to her mum, and the two dream of returning to Paris—her mother’s homeland; a hazy hopeful place of belonging—before her Mum’s killed in a freak accident while looking out for Dylan, who blames herself.
Travelling cross-country with her mum’s boyfriend Pat, the two find small, tender instants where they can forget their grief together. These are some of the book’s most moving moments, as Dylan navigates her new position in a world without her fiercely protective and loving mother by her side.
What makes a family? What do we inherit, and how? Dylan got her name from her Guyanese dad—who refused to change his baby-naming plans even upon the arrival of a daughter instead of a son. Dylan’s dad is also ‘the one who made me black. A darkness so deep down you cannot take it out or scrape it off’. This is a story that interrogates internalised racism at every turn. Dylan’s French mum has ‘the safe kind of skin’, whereas Dylan describes her own skin as ‘a loud colour’ that’s ‘dark enough to bring me trouble’.
A small streak of magical realism runs through the book, as Dylan’s guided by birds and carries a sixth sense for finding water. She can also visit people’s memories, giving her insight, empathy—and blackmail material.
[A] beautiful and tender novel exploring themes of familial legacies, finding a place to belong, grief, and what it means to be an Australian of mixed heritage.
Cath Moore’s own life echoes that of the book’s protagonist—raised by a single white mother in a predominantly white country, with Guyanese heritage. In interviews, Moore recalls trying to fit in with ‘the dominant Anglicised culture’, and this experience shines through in Metal Fish, Falling Snow. Moore has been writing accessibly about race, culture and identity in Australian media for years: what it means to live in a racially diverse family where each member’s skin tone speaks to a unique blend of heritage; the politics of hair straightening; Meghan Markle’s flag-flying for visible biraciality. She brings a wealth of deep thinking on race to this beautiful and tender novel, exploring themes of familial legacies, finding a place to belong, grief, and what it means to be an Australian of mixed heritage.
— Sam van Zweden
ed. Michael Mohammad Ahmad (Affirm Press, available now)
Back in February, something like canned laughter rang through the collective consciousness when Scott Morrison announced that the Christmas Island Detention Centre would be used to house COVID-19 evacuees from Wuhan. Was this a news report or a spoof mocking the Kafkaesque direction of federal politics? It is in this climate, where satire is increasingly difficult to distinguish from current events, that After Australia, a collection of speculative fiction by Indigenous writers and other writers of colour, struggles to find its niche.
Framed by Hannah Donnelly’s ‘Black Thoughts’, vignettes that capture the friction between black and white Australia, After Australia assembles voices from across the contemporary non-white literary landscape to posit where the country is heading as 2050 approaches. Faceless bureaucracy, a heating climate and the expulsion or incarceration of undesirables are recurring themes in this collection. In ‘Displaced’, Zoya Patel’s narrator relates memories of Fiji while standing in an interminable Australian Immigration Department queue, her observations eerily present-day, despite the future setting. ‘The bushfire season is no longer contained, stretching across the entire year in different parts of the country,’ she forbodes. In Omar Sakr’s ‘White Flu’, the narrator comes out as bisexual to his repressive Lebanese community while a pandemic that affects mainly white people devastates the globe and ‘airports [are] being closed and cordoned off into quarantine areas’. Dystopian scenarios are coming true faster than they can be speculated about.
To read After Australia is to be confronted with the very short space of time that it can take for imagined futures to become contemporary reality.
To read After Australia is to explore not only twelve writers’ re-imaginings of the past, present and future of this country, but also to be confronted with the very short space of time that it can take for imagined futures to become contemporary reality. In this sense, the collection sometimes feels stuck between speculative fiction and commentary on the present. Still, there is much in this book to fascinate, inspire and provoke. In Claire G. Coleman’s ‘Ostraka’, citizens who are declared to be of ‘bad character’ are ostracised, rendered stateless, and indefinitely detained. Khalid Warsame’s ‘List of Known Remedies’ unfolds in the cosily familiar (yet subtly defamilliarised) world of the Melbourne hipster scene, where, in between discussing emoticons, friends pause to consider ‘the ramifications of the continent’s forest cover being turned into particles that shred the membranes of our lungs’. In the most hopeful of these visions, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s ‘Message from the Ngurra Palya’, a voice from the future, reveals that ‘a just world/is not unreachable/It is what’s next/You can breathe it/in your next breath/Feel it/in your next heartbeat.’ The empty calendar of 2020 has given all Australians time to stop and reflect: where to from here?
Money for Something
Mia Walsch (Echo, available now)
The author of three previous novels, Money For Something is the pseudonymous Mia Walsch’s first foray into longform non-fiction. Detailing a five-year period in her late teens and early twenties, the book covers Walsch’s experiences as a sex worker while also living with an undiagnosed mental illness and using an array of drugs to manage her tumultuous emotions. Walsch provides insight into the hierarchies, clientele and variety of working conditions that she encounters while working in an array of Sydney parlours, and also her struggles away from work, including realising a career in writing, and maintaining healthy intimate relationships.
Although personal experience is the backbone of memoir, social commentary, whether implicit or explicit, is also a key component of such writing. Money for Something is a curious case: light on personal details but also lacking a more incisive critique of the forces that have shaped Walsch’s life. While Walsch touches on her drug use, compulsive behaviour, dysfunctional relationships and self-described need for drama, she does not discuss her life pre-sex work; the only detail she includes is the prejudice she encountered at school against her bisexuality. Nobody emerges from a vacuum, and though I acknowledge the difficulty in doing so under a pseudonym, I was left wanting more information about her formative experiences.
Walsch highlights the contradictions of sex work, such as the ‘unimaginative, rather sexist and patriarchal but otherwise harmless’ fantasies she enacts while training to be a mistress.
The toll that all forms of employment take on workers emerges as the critical, but under-explored, issue. At the outset, Walsch is fired from her day job as an insurance clerk because of her dishevelled appearance and turbulent personality. There are instances in which Walsch highlights the contradictions of sex work, such as the ‘unimaginative, rather sexist and patriarchal but otherwise harmless’ fantasies she enacts while training to be a mistress. She also elucidates the array of roles sex workers fulfil (she does not participate in ‘full service’), the potential for some sex workers to enjoy a lucrative career, and the friendship and camaraderie she found with other workers. The book ends with Walsch, a university student, working mainly as a waitress, having traded off financial rewards for stability and less excitement, and realising that she ‘can live an extraordinary life without hurting [her]self.’
Although Walsch has a strongly developed writing voice, the straightforward, chronological narrative wore thin towards the end. Money For Something does go some way to tackling the stereotypes still prevalent in public conversations about sex work though, and will appeal to readers seeking to challenge their pre-conceived ideas about the world’s oldest profession.
Tom Doig (Viking, available now)
Editor’s note: This review was written and first published in May 2019.
In 2014, a combination of drought, bushfires, exposed brown coal, and extreme negligence led to one of Australia’s most catastrophic environmental and public health disasters – the Hazelwood mine fire. The fire burned uncontrollably for forty-five days, choking Victoria’s Latrobe Valley with toxic plumes of smoke. In his book, Hazelwood, Melbourne-based author Tom Doig chronicles the personal stories of the people of the Latrobe Valley who suffered through the experience. The result is a compellingly crafted piece of investigative journalism that reads like a dystopian thriller.
In the days and weeks following the start of the fire, strange things started happening to the residents of the Latrobe Valley. Many people had trouble breathing and developed chest pains; they began to cough up first phlegm, and then blood. Their windows became coated in thick ash and when it rained their trees dripped a sticky, bright-pink goo. Their children would wake up in the night, their eyes and noses bleeding. Pets started dying, and then so did people.
The mine’s owner, Engie Group (known as GDF Suez until 2015) and the Australian government did nothing to help, releasing statements claiming that the smoke was ‘relatively non-toxic’, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. You know that meme where the cartoon dog sits in the middle of a burning house and says ‘this is fine’? Well, the official response to the disaster was the literal embodiment of that.
Through intensely personal interviews, first-hand experiences, and critical sources, Doig weaves together the story of how Hazelwood mine came to be, the decisions that led to this entirely preventable disaster, and how the people of the Latrobe Valley demanded justice and refused to be silenced. The writing is eloquent and engaging, the facts disquieting and confronting. Doig breaks up the narratives, resulting in a page-turning experience as you wait to find out what happened to your favourite eyewitness.
Doig weaves together the decisions that led to this entirely preventable disaster, and how the people of the Latrobe Valley demanded justice.
Doig also highlights that although the Hazelwood mine and power station has now been shut and the Latrobe Valley is healing, our governments and big corporations are far from learning from their mistakes. Adani’s proposed mine in central Queensland would take up an area twenty-eight times the size of Hazelwood mine and would produce eight times the emissions. If a similar disaster were to unfold at the Adani mine, the consequences would be truly horrifying.
Hazelwood is a terrifying, eye opening, and fascinating read that made me realise how little I know about where our energy comes from, and the human and environmental cost required to produce it.
Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants