More like this

Little Stones
Elizabeth Kuiper (UQP, available now)

Little Stones is our First Book Club pick for June – join us on 25 June for a free in-conversation event with the author at Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library.

For Zimbabwe, the early 2000s were a time of social and political turbulence, as humanitarian and economic conditions worsened under president Robert Mugabe. In her debut novel Little Stones, Melbourne author Elizabeth Kuiper describes this period through the eyes of a child. Eleven-year-old white Zimbabwean Hannah lives in Harare with her mother and housekeeper. As Hannah takes spelling tests and bounces between her divorced parents’ homes, she also sees her homeland changing and facing major issues. She and her mum are regularly stuck in petrol lines, or in traffic behind Mugabe’s motorcades. Her grandparents are forced off their farm overnight by a group of men Hannah knows only as the ‘war vets’. She watches as her mum pays millions of dollars for groceries because of inflation. But while this political and social tension plays out around Hannah, she is more concerned about the conflict between her mother and father, who divorced when Hannah was a small baby. Hannah’s father is a controlling man, and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that his main desire is to make his ex-wife’s life difficult, using his daughter as a pawn in this mission.

Hannah is not yet fully aware of her privilege, but Kuiper certainly is: acknowledging the pain caused by colonialism, but not attempting to explain anything away.

Despite both sides of her family having access to wealth and leading comfortable lives, Hannah is not yet fully aware of her privilege. But Kuiper, who like her protagonist also grew up in Zimbabwe, certainly is. Little Stones contains many moments depicting the arbitrary racism of white Zimbabweans: the differences in the way Hannah and her non-white classmates are treated, the casual but highly bigoted utterances the white adults in her life drop into conversation, the misinformation and fear they spread among each other. Hannah doesn’t always understand the things people say, and relies on her mum to explain why some people seem to think they’re above others. Here, Kuiper’s authorial voice is most present: acknowledging the pain caused by colonialism, but not attempting to explain anything away.

Little Stones is at its strongest when Hannah is imperfect: imitating the behaviours of the adults she loves and respects, and navigating which of these behaviours are ‘good’ or ‘bad’; not knowing which parent’s side to pick, or even once or twice trying to use their conflict to benefit herself. While Little Stones is a work of fiction, it’s easy to imagine where Kuiper’s own upbringing in Harare inspired, or at least informed the events of the book, using the naivety of her protagonist to depict this period of Zimbabwe’s history in a way that feels highly personal and honest to the experiences of Hannah and girls like her.

– Ellen Cregan

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone
Lori Gottlieb (Scribe, available now)

After a shock breakup, everything Lori Gottlieb thought was certain suddenly seems unsure. When a friend reminds her that therapists can need therapists too, Gottlieb finds Wendell: a psychologist with an unconventional style who Gottlieb is sure can help her with a few quick sessions. But as anyone who has ever been to therapy will tell you, it is never that easy.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone springs from the personal to become an exploration of the lives shared between therapists and patients more ​broadly. From the ways in which patients position their bodies on the couch, to the ways they do or don’t accept tissues, Gottlieb uses her own experience alongside four case studies to explore how different life stages and events can affect us, and to examine how – and why – people express themselves.

Gottlieb’s writing is approachable, considered, yet lacks the emotional heft needed to entrust a reader’s attention for a work of this size.

For much of the book’s first half I was waiting for a big reveal that would – to my mind – justify Gottlieb’s post-break up behaviours. However in doing so I was placing judgement on Gottlieb in the same way I felt unsettled by Gottlieb’s judgements on her own patients. Just as in therapy, it wasn’t until I connected with the bigger picture that I broke through. But again, as in therapy, it is hard work to get there.

Gottlieb pens the weekly advice column for the Atlantic, Dear Therapist, and her writing here carries a similar tone. It is approachable, considered, yet lacks the emotional heft needed to entrust a reader’s attention for a work of this size. Elements of Gottlieb’s personal story in particular (such as her past work history) felt shallow when stretched over this length.

The most rewarding element of this book comes from the integration of psychological theory, which Gottlieb uses to explain how patients react to treatment. It’s here that I realised this is what I wanted more of, and that Gottlieb sells herself short by not creating more of a narrative around this more difficult subject matter.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is an insight in to both sides of the therapist/patient relationship, and in doing so offers an exploration of fundamental life questions: what makes us human, why do we seek happiness, and how do we change. This book doesn’t provide answers but it does share a conversation, which is an important place to start. 

– Kylie Maslen

Sweatshop Women Volume 1
ed. Winnie Dunn (Sweatshop, available now)

Being a person of colour, a migrant, or culturally and linguistically diverse in a country like Australia where whiteness is the default, is like being an oyster. Whether the racism around you is conscious or unconscious, you are often made to feel that the things that make you unique or different are ugly, are dirty, and should thus be hidden away. So you cover it up, building shiny layer upon shiny layer. Rejecting language; being ashamed of the food your parents make you; trying to assimilate.

‘I spent an hour in the shower lathering Dove soap all over my arms and legs trying to wash myself whiter so no one would tease me again,’ writes Joy Adan in her short story ‘Good Filo’. Sweatshop Women Volume 1, produced by the titular Western Sydney writers collective, is dotted with lines like these, that cut straight through the protective ​layers, exposing devastating and all too common truths with what seems like casual ease.

In her introduction, editor Winnie Dunn speaks about the barriers women of colour face when they try and take control of their own stories, how they are told they lack imagination. Sweatshop Women, then, allows these women to ‘reclaim narratives about their identities with prose and poetry.’

Sweatshop Women cuts straight through the protective ​layers, exposing devastating and all too common truths with what seems like casual ease.

In her foreword, author and playwright Michelle Law talks about growing up stifling her Chinese culture in order to survive. ‘I had to re-educate myself over many years…in order to finally embrace my own voice.’ It’s a feeling present throughout the anthology.

The constant pressure to fit in is explored in Ferdous Bahar’s ‘Giving Dawah’ and Annie XY Zhang’s ‘Dirty White’. The ridicule inflicted on those who don’t ‘successfully’ assimilate is poignantly explored in Raveena Grover’s ‘Frizz Witch’. The attitudinal shift between generations, and feeling of being caught between two cultures is particularly bittersweet in Diane Wanasawek’s ‘Bad Thai Daughter’. And the impossible challenge of being simultaneously asked to fit in while being actively excluded by gatekeepers is frustratingly laid bare in Aisha El-Cheikh’s ‘This Ain’t Bankstown’.

Though the writing and topics covered vary, taking readers from backyards to classrooms, to past decades and to distant homelands, several strong and at time unexpected themes come through. Racism, in all its forms; hair, the way it can set us apart but also tell a story of who we are; and there’s a beautiful recurring thread about grandmothers, their strength, and the way they tether us to our culture and history.

In between the stories and insights, another quiet victory of the anthology is the use of languages other than English, terms and phrase dotted into the prose that are never translated, leaving the reader to figure it out from context. It’s much like Sweatshop Women itself – flipping the defaults we’ve been trained to expect, and putting English-only readers on the back foot for once.

– Elizabeth Flux