White Tears/Brown Scars
Ruby Hamad (MUP, available now)
White Tears/Brown Scars is our First Book Club pick for October – stay tuned for more across our website and podcast throughout the month!
Throughout her life, Ruby Hamad has experienced the phenomenon of white tears – when a white person cries or displays an outsize emotional reaction after being called out for racist behaviour. No matter how Hamad approached a confrontation with a white woman, they would throw the same words back at her: bully, aggressive, attack, divisive. Then the tears would come, their presence reiterating those words. Her sharply intelligent and timely book White Tears/Brown Scars takes an in-depth look at this systematic gaslighting of women of colour by white women, both in contemporary and historical contexts.
One label that follows women of colour who are willing to speak up about the perils of white feminism is ‘divisive’. What this book makes clear is that breaking down white feminism and colonialism and patriarchy is the only way to make a step towards unifying people. It’s all good and well to celebrate differences, but if the challenges that come with difference (i. e. white women’s privilege above women of colour) are not properly acknowledged, all we’ll end up with is a world where white women are equal to white men, but everyone else is still living under an unfair system.
White Tears/Brown Scars is one of the most important books of 2019, and I believe a copy should live on every single bookshelf in Australia.
This is a hard book to read, for all the right reasons. Firstly, Hamad is intellectually rigorous in the way she forms her ideas, which makes for a reading experience that is more active than passive. This is the kind of writing that will send you on a long and fascinating trail of underlining, highlighting, checking out citations, learning about theories and theorists, and obsessively pondering the ideas the author has brought up. Secondly, it’s a difficult book to read because Hamad holds white women to account for their actions, and doesn’t attempt to cushion any of her ‘blows’ against racist behaviour. This book encouraged me to reassess my own white woman privilege from several entirely new angles, and this is one of the many reasons I’m so glad Hamad has written it.
But on another level, it’s also an easy read – Hamad uses the same accessible language throughout the book, whether exploring racial theory, case studies from history, or recounting conversations she’s had on Twitter. This makes it easy for readers from all kinds of backgrounds to connect with what she’s saying – the accounts of white violence from colonial histories sting, and the legacy of injustice that’s followed on from those days is clear and unmistakable. Hamad is a writer of formidable talent and perceptiveness, and I look forward to reading more writing (and hopefully more books) from her in the future. White Tears/Brown Scars is one of the most important books of 2019, and I believe a copy should live on every single bookshelf in Australia.
– Ellen Cregan
Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, available now)
‘If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending […] I can pick up where I left off.’ These words spoken by the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale are also Margaret Atwood’s, and she does indeed pick up (more or less) where she left off. A sequel published over thirty years after The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments was shortlisted for the Booker Prize ahead of its release.
The Testaments switches between the voices of three women – Aunt Lydia, one of the most powerful women in Gilead, Agnes, a young woman raised for marriage in an elite Commander’s household, and Daisy, a teenager from free Canada – giving us a panoramic perspective of Gilead, so different from the blinkered view Handmaids are permitted. For Daisy, Gilead is little more than a curiosity she learnt about in school; for Agnes, it’s her home. Yet both are drawn into a resistance plot to bring down Gilead, involving secret communications, cross-border smuggling, and a network of spies.
Of these voices, Aunt Lydia’s is particularly fascinating and horrifying. The Aunts hold a special place in readers’ resentment as the women who oppress other women. Aunt Lydia reveals the brutality of the recruitment process for the Aunts, and her strategic decision (from extremely limited choices) to survive, bearing the moral costs of that choice. Imagery of ‘toxic flower[s]’, blood-soaked daisies and ‘the smell of clotting blood’ permeate the pages of the book – symbols of femininity and female reproductive organs corrupted into something grotesque, distorted by violence, festering. In exposing readers to these visceral details, Atwood shows how anyone of us might be led to make the same choices as Aunt Lydia, making us all complicit.
Satisfying as it is to see Gilead overthrown by a triumvirate of women who liberate themselves, each other and society, I wonder whether this is the model we need right now.
In an interview broadcast to cinemas around the world, Atwood explained her reasons for writing this sequel now. While the recent TV adaptation, US politics and the #MeToo movement have all conspired to make The Handmaid’s Tale a bestseller again, Atwood explained that it was her sense that we are (once again) in a period of history in which the seemingly ineluctable march of liberal progress has stalled. The Testaments could then be read as a roadmap for revolution against injustice and oppression. Satisfying as it is to see the oppressive structures of Gilead overthrown from within and without, by a triumvirate of women who liberate themselves, each other and society, I wonder whether this is the model we need right now. There’s surely a place for the actions of individuals standing up to power – the mobilising force of Greta Thunberg, for instance – but it seems to me that if we are to witness the dismantling of current systems, it must be through the collective actions of the many.
– Freya Howarth
Carly Cappielli (Seizure, available now)
Joshua Mostafa (Seizure, available now)
As joint winners of this year’s Viva La Novella competition, Carly Cappielli’s Listurbia and Joshua Mostafa’s Offshore both set off into the world together, from the same place, at the same time.
Even without this context, the casual observer looking at them side by side can see by their covers that they share something – a lineage, a history. Which means, for better or worse, they will be compared to one another.
On the inside however, beyond both being set (for the most part) in Sydney, the two novellas couldn’t be more different.
Listurbia tells the story of a woman who is obsessed with missing children, who is stuck in a dull loop with her partner, who has started seeing a mysterious boy popping up around the place. As her life progressively unravels, she realises there are gaps in her memory and it seems she has left herself a series of clues to help remember what she has forgotten.
It’s a tightly composed novella with not a single word wasted, and is simultaneously dark-humoured and tense. Written entirely as a set of lists, at first glance it seems deceptively simple. However, almost from the first page, Cappielli demonstrates her expert grasp of storytelling, drawing readers into the chaotic mind of the protagonist, first as a way of getting to know her, and then in a way becoming her as you struggle to discern fact from fiction.
Listurbia and Offshore are refreshingly complementary in their differences – experimental versus more classic in structure, individual versus society.
While Listurbia looks inwards, the story of an individual, Offshore casts its gaze wider – it’s a story that takes on society.
Set in the very near future, it follows an unnamed academic as he goes from a relatively comfortable Sydney life to finding himself detained in an offshore facility after Australian society crumbles. Written as a found document detailing the events of the past year, the story moves between the past and the present, showing readers the bleak, frustrating reality of life at the detention centre and the events that led him there.
Mostafa shows how you, me, anyone, could find themself in this situation. The book has noble goals and tackles important, timely themes, taking on racism, sexism, and the very real, ongoing situation for refugees trying to come to Australia.
The plot is compelling, even if it unfolds almost exactly as you might expect; and though there are a few jarring moments – in particular a somewhat forced conversation about dystopian literature that occurs halfway through and is later revisited – this doesn’t detract from the bigger picture importance of Offshore. This is a book that shines a light on dark things that are already happening – not just in Australia’s treatment of refugees, but in attitudes that always lurk beneath society’s surface. The fact that we can guess what will happen next in the story just serves to underscore how feasible it all is.
As individual books, both Listurbia and Offshore stand strong. But as joint winners of Viva La Novella they are refreshingly complementary in their differences – experimental versus more classic in structure, individual versus society – and connected by their clear concern with humanity.
– Elizabeth Flux