Saturday, 31 December 2016

Black Lives Matter

I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Quarterly Essay (QE64) by journalist Stan Grant. The Australian Dream - Blood, History and Becoming (2016) is a powerful reflection on the place of indigenous people in the history of Australia. In the wake of the recent inquiry into abuses at the Don Dale centre, the attempts by the government to overturn sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the hounding of Adam Goodes, this is timely and important essay, which should be essential reading for all Australians.

Grant's essay begins with "The Speech", a presentation he gave at the IQ2 debate in Sydney in late 2015. The transcript of this speech makes up the first chapter of this essay. It is a remarkable speech, but far more potent when viewed as spoken by the man himself when it was "unrehearsed and unscripted".

Following the speech, the video of his address went viral on social media. It attracted commentators and critics. But more importantly it made Grant think seriously about his aboriginality and the place of his people in modern Australia. The result is this finely crafted essay.

Taking us back to the invasion and colonisation of Australia, Grant explores the dark history of the way in which indigenous people were brutalised over decades - from massacres and removal from land, to the stolen generations and interventions of modern times. He compares the indigenous experience to one of new migrants carving out a place for themselves in colonial society.

Grant also shares a history not often told, one of economic engagement, ingenuity and self-actualisation. He talks of a growing indigenous middle class, in which talented, well-educated, aboriginal people are making the most of their skills to define their own Australian dream:

The sacrifice and resilience of our forebears has created a burgeoning indigenous middle class: confident, self-assured. They are redefining what it is to be indigenous … the grandchildren of people who emerged from oppressive Aboriginal missions in a segregated Australia are as at home on the streets of New York as Dubbo.
Grant is someone who is well aware of his own privilege. But he is angered by the requirements of indigenous Australians to decide whether they will be mainstream or black - as if someone has the right to determine who is and is not indigenous and that these two identities are mutually exclusive.

I learned a lot from Grant's essay and look forward to reading more of his work. His book Talking to My Country (2016)  was published earlier this year. I also heard Grant speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas when he introduced Alicia Garza to talk about Black Lives Matter, where I recall him questioning the very notion that black lives matter was a dangerous idea. He is currently the Indigenous Affairs reporter for ABC News. I look forward to seeing what comes next from Stan Grant.

Included in this essay is correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay (QE62) Enemy Within.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Half-Life of Society

This week I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Speed-The-Plow, directed by Andrew Upton. I had no real expectations of the play, knowing only that it was written by David Mamet and has previously starred Madonna and more recently Lindsay Lohan.

Speed-the-Plow is a three act play that spans 24 hours in the life of a 1980s Hollywood film producer. Bobby Gould has just been promoted to head of production at the studio. His office is currently being renovated - leading to a stark set of a half painted suite, minimal furniture and many boxes. He is reading through a stack of manuscripts when Charlie Fox bursts into his office. Fox has been approached by a big actor wanting to star in a prison movie project that Fox had pitched some time ago. The actor has given Fox 24 hours to secure a green light from the studio. Gould and Fox are gleeful when they think about all the money they can make as co-producers of the film and its inevitable sequels. Problem is that Gould can't approve a film of this budget without the approval of his boss, who won't be available until tomorrow.

Enter Karen, the temporary secretary. Fox bets Gould $500 that he can't get Karen to be interested in him. Gould accepts the wager and approaches Karen - would she mind reading through a literary novel and assess its suitability for the screen? The novel is called The Bridge or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. Gould has no intention of making the film, but if Karen can read it and stop by his home tonight with a précis, then perhaps he has the chance of winning the bet.

The second act is set at Gould's home, presumably some fashionable pad with tremendous views. Karen and Gould sit on the floor, glass of wine in hand, as she tells him about how wonderful the book is. Byrne shines in this scene as she convinces Gould of this book's merits.  The final act is the next morning, back at Gould's office. He has completely changed following his evening with Karen and has some news to share with his old friend Fox.

Damon Herriman plays Gould convincingly. He is a versatile actor who undergoes a complete transformation in the span of 90 minutes - from brash to indecisive, smarmy to haunted. Lachy Hulme is a bold Fox, injecting humour and banter then becoming frustrated and aggressive. The two men play well off each other, and their role reversal between acts one and three is well done.

Karen is played by Rose Byrne, an Australian actress best known for her work in American television (Damages) and film (Bridesmaids, Spy, X-Men). It is her face on the poster and her name that will draw the crowds, despite this play relying on three strong performances. I like Rose Byrne and I thought she was quite good in this play, moving from clumsy to coy to confident.

The play itself is rather dated. It is a satire of the Hollywood movie machine that endlessly produces blockbuster sequels, and was undoubtedly seen as more risqué in the late 1980s. Today it seems rather shallow and void of any urgency. I am not sure why it was chosen for revival, other than to provide a vehicle for Rose Byrne to tread the boards in Sydney. It also felt like it should have been staged in a smaller theatre, as the set took up only a portion of the stage and could have been more contained.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my night at the theatre but would not consider this a must-see. I much preferred my previous trips to STC to see The Wharf Revue, All My Sons,  King Lear, and The Present.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Life as you know it...

In my post US election funk, I found it hard to engage with any new book - picking up and putting down several novels, without the ability to connect with any of them. I read copious amounts of articles on the aftermath, all of which have culminated in my view that 2016 has been the year that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Good thing I love dystopian fiction, as I fear dystopia is going global soon.

But then I found Joan Didion. Her remarkable book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) has given me the reboot I need to get out of my funk and engage with life again.

In late 2003, Joan Didion and her husband of forty years John Gregory Dunne visited their adult daughter Quintana in a New York hospital. Several days earlier Quintana had suddenly collapsed and was placed on life support. Her parents returned home, sat down to dinner, and Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died. Suddenly widowed and trying to care for her only child, Didion tries to make sense of what has happened to her family. This book documents her first year of widowhood, and how she comes to terms with her loss.

Repeated throughout this memoir is a recurrent phrase:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
This ordinary instant is timeless - and Didion returns to the moment when her husband had his heart attack repeatedly. Could he have been saved? Did he know it was going to happen? If they had made different decisions in the years and months before - an alternate holiday, an overseas posting, a different place to live - would the outcome have been different?

Almost twenty years earlier John had an angioplasty which saved his life. John has spent the years after believing he would die from a cardiac event, while Joan viewed the intervention as a permanent fix to a temporary problem.

I loved how she described marriage and the nature of relationships. The critical eye she turns on herself as she tries to make sense of her situation. She writes beautifully about self-pity and the notion of grief as something that should be handled quickly and quietly. She describes it thus:
The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me, self-pity is the condition in which those feeling sorry for themselves indulge or even wallow. Self-pity remains the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as given. (p193)
There were passages that made me think of those I have lost - my father, my grandparents - and my struggle to see them as gone. She talks about coming home, in the months after John has passed, desperate to tell him some piece of news:
I am dropping my keys on the table inside the door before I fully remember. There is no one to hear his news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back. (p195). 
Each person grieves for those they love in their own way. Didion chose to channel hers into this memoir. I came to her book without expectation. Reading it made me feel slightly like a voyeur in someone else's tragedy. But the book didn't feel tragic to me. It was a wondrous example of self-reflection, a critical gaze in a ghastly time, an honest attempt at sense-making.

It is strange to think that this memoir has made me feel more hopeful and positive, but it has somehow. And that is really magical.