Saturday, 30 November 2019

Call for Compassion

Gillian Triggs is a woman I have tremendous admiration for.  Having heard her speak on a number of occasions, during her time as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, and since she left her post, I have always been impressed by her intellect and her boundless empathy and compassion. My most recent encounter with Gillian Triggs took place at the 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival where she spoke in conversation with Dr Clare Wright about her memoir/call to action Speaking Up (2018).

Her book begins with a brief backstory - Triggs' early childhood,  love of ballet, her student days, the start of her law career, marriage and motherhood. Triggs studied law in Melbourne, spent some time in Texas advising the police department, and earned a Doctorate. A well regarded lawyer and academic, I recall reading Triggs' work when I studied public international law as part of my law degree.

During her five years at the Commission (2012-2017) Triggs was vilified and misrepresented, particularly by the Coalition (Abbott, Brandis, Dutton, Morrison), media and talk back radio hosts (Bolt, Jones, Hadley), as they attempted to grind her down and undermine her integrity. But she remained resilient and continued to shine a light in dark corners, pointing out Australia's own human rights concerns: indigenous deaths in custody, children on Nauru, prolonged detention of asylum seekers, gender inequality and so on. Triggs demonstrates how the government has passed legislation masked as anti-terror protections which erode human rights and violate many international treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

Triggs devotes chapters to key areas where human rights need to be protected - Aboriginal rights, the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, gender equality and so on. She eloquently and evenly writes about freedom of speech and the controversy surrounding section 18C of the Constitution. She also argues that equal marriage and freedom of religion are not incompatible. In doing so she describes her efforts to raise issues of concern with a government intent on silencing her.

But Triggs refuses to be silenced and is committed to pursuing a Bill of Rights for Australia. She sees this as the only way to guarantee rights for all Australians and she makes an eloquent argument that should be persuasive to everyone, regardless of their politics.

I greatly enjoyed Speaking Up and as I read I also listened to the audiobook version which Triggs herself read. Throughout this book I felt frustrated and ashamed by Australia's failed record on human rights, but also optimistic that there may be a way forward. Professor Triggs has a lot to say and deserves to be listened to.

Finally, Speaking Up is an example of the important works published by Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) under CEO Louise Adler's tenure, and one of the last before MUP decided to shift direction to only publish academic works.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Literary Worlds

In May this year I attended a session at the Sydney Writers' Festival featuring three authors I had not read and knew nothing about. The session was called 'Literary Worlds' and one of the panelists was John Purcell, author of The Girl on the Page (2018). As I listened to Purcell speak, about his [previous] job at Booktopia and his inside knowledge of the publishing industry, I became intrigued about his novel and have recently read it.

Set in contemporary London, the protagonist Amy is an impossibly beautiful young editor who drinks too much, sleeps around and spends wildly. She is known in the industry for making miracles - turning any book into a bestseller. Amy has already worked her wonders on Liam by ghostwriting his Lee-Childesque series of thrillers, but now faces a tremendous professional challenge.

Septuagenarian Helen Owen is a literary author who was given a hefty advance for her next novel. Her writer husband of fifty years, Malcolm Taylor, feels Helen has sold out. Amy is sent by the publisher to help Helen finish the novel, but pairing these two completely opposite women could end in disaster. Will Amy turn Helen's novel into a blockbuster, or will she honour Helen's reputation as a literary giant that no one reads?

The Girl on the Page is an addictive, accessible read and it held some genuine surprises. Purcell injects poignant moments of sadness and darkness among the humour and levity. He satirises the publishing industry and literary awards, and name-drops pretty much every author imaginable.

As an avid reader, I delighted in this birds-eye-view inside the publishing industry. Purcell knocks down the notion that readers need to choose between literary and commercial fiction. In doing so, Purcell has written a love letter to books of all kinds. I particularly enjoyed the curated favourite book lists from all the main characters in the novel which feature some genuine gems to inspire future reading.

Burning Bridges

Astrid Coleman takes a break from her job at the UN when her brother, Tasmanian Premier JC Coleman, asks for help. He is heading towards re-election and there has just been a major incident in Tasmania that is likely a terrorist attack. A controversial bridge is being built from the mainland to Bruny Island - a peaceful oasis which is home to about 600 people and a key tourist destination - and one night, close to completion, the bridge has been blown up. This $2 billion dollar infrastructure project, will change Tasmania irrevocably, but now the race is on to rebuild before election day and find out what happened.

Coming home is never easy. Astrid left Tasmania when she was a young woman and now needs to adjust to her complex family. Her difficult mother Hyacinth is battling cancer. Her father Angus, former political leader, only speaks in Shakespeare quotes. Her twin brother JC is harbouring deep secrets, and her sister Max is opposition leader in the Coleman political dynasty. Family love and loyalty runs deep.

When I first heard about Bruny I was really excited. Heather Rose's previous novel, the Stella Prize winning The Museum of Modern Love (2016) was brilliant and was my top pick for fiction in 2017. I knew this novel would be different as it was touted as a geopolitical thriller, and given my love of global politics I was keen to get my hands on this book.

For all the political intrigue of Bruny - foreign investment, secret deals, migrant workers, complex infrastructure projects, racism, being caught between China and America - there was something missing. The pacing of the novel was problematic - the first two-thirds of the book was so slow that I contemplated giving up. I persevered and became suddenly gripped in the last third when Bruny became a page-turner.

Heather Rose is a gifted writer and she creates a strong sense of place to the Tasmania she loves. Some of the prose in this novel I found clunky and cringey - such as when Rose would describe characters as looking like Gene Hackman, Chris Hemsworth or other celebrities. But her evocative descriptions of Tasmania - the flora, fauna and people - made me want to pack my bags and jump on the Bruny ferry. It was also refreshing to read a book where the protagonist is a fully formed woman nearing 60 years of age.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Tsundoku confession

Last weekend I went to a bookstore and walked away with more titles to add to my ever-growing pile. On returning home I sat down with a cup of tea and cracked the spine on a new novel. After a few pages I looked over at a towering pile of books I have prioritised to read, have started but not yet finished, or have borrowed from my local library and need to complete before a rapidly approaching return date. I immediately put down my new novel to reflect on my circumstances.

Clearly I am suffering from a bad case of Tsunduko - the Japanese term for acquiring books without reading them. To be honest, this is a lifelong condition. My home is a hoarder's delight when it comes to books - bookshelves overflow and the excess are stacked in tidy piles in every nook and cranny. I used to reorder the books on a regular basis - alphabetically, Dewey decimal, thematically - but once my shelves became layers deep they have ended up orderless. Despite the seemingly random display, I know where to find everything...

I usually have at least two books on the go - an at-home read (physical) and a commute read (electronic). Generally I read one fiction and one non-fiction concurrently. But ever since I dropped everything in September to read Atwood's The Testaments, I am at varying stages of:
  • Speaking Up by Gillian Triggs (update: read review)
  • Bruny by Heather Rose (update: read review)
  • I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum (update: read review)
  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson 
Plus I have a stack of books I am keen to get in to and I am several blog posts behind in books I have actually finished. So, I need to stop pretending I can multitask and focus. I am going to put aside Pullman and Gladwell until 2020, and concentrate on finishing the others. Watch this space!

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Bringing Up Baby

Why is it that over the past 50 years women have changed the way they work and parent, but men have hardly changed at all? Annabel Crabb seeks to understand the reasons why women are still left holding the baby in her Quarterly Essay (QE75 2019) Men at Work: Australia's Parenthood Trap.

Australian men face cultural barriers which often prevent them from stepping back from work to care for children. Taking part-time roles, flexible work or opting to be the stay-at-home parent still carries a stigma in some quarters - for both men and women. The gender pay gap often means it makes more financial sense for the mother to give up her career to take on the bulk of the domestic duties. In many instances, she will never recover from this in terms of career advancement, lost earnings and diminished superannuation.

Crabb highlights the gender inequities by looking at politics. When Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, became pregnant while in office, she was questioned repeatedly about her parental choices and the logistics of her work/life balance. Conversely, Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister, is never queried about how he will be a father to his young daughters while holding such a demanding role. Crabb contacted Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to ask them about their work-family balance. Both spoke about how they make up for their absence through communication, but hand most of the day-to-day responsibilities to their partners. Crabb questions how this is seen to be socially acceptable, but if women with young children held these roles the scrutiny would be relentless.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. Crabb explores how other countries provide paid parental leave which requires the father to participate in order to gain maximum benefit. She also provides examples of how countries can change culture over time and how many companies are taking the lead to bring about change by incentivising staff and removing barriers. Throughout the essay she never criticises men for their choices, but does point out how much they and their children gain from being more active parents.

Crabb's writing style and tone make this essay an easy, digestible read. Her charm and wit comes through, although sometimes I felt the author was a bit too present. Her arguments are clear and she is balanced in her approach. My main frustration with this essay is that we are still having to have this conversation!