East West Street, Philippe Sands

The shared humanity that binds us has had a few moments when all hope seems lost. Humanities ability to be inhumane is well documented; none more so than the Nazi era. There is no series of events that have shaped every aspect of culture for so many. It still lingers through art, literature and film. And here Sands passionately and elegantly with how the people and their actions of Nazi Germany helped shape international human rights, international treaties on genocide and set precedents for laws protecting the individual from the state and groups from other groups. The only good thing coming from the close to 20 year period of Nazi influence over Europe? Perhaps. 

Sands maps a personal and professional connection from Polish-German-Ukraianian-Russian city of Lviv through World War I, the Great Depression, through the early days of Hitler and the subsequent human crisis of World War II. The deeply personal connections are so well drawn showcase how we are all interconnected and if only we realised this deep connection could we prevent what was to come. 

This is deeply satisfying and sad addition to the story of  a world where Nazism was dominant. I found the legal evolution of crimes against humanity and genocide profound. There’s so much of the language that the Nazi used still being thrown around today- about refugees, about Muslims, about groups against groups. Is there another period of humanities inability to see their connections? 

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Comfort Zone, Lindsay Tanner

Jack is an Everyman. He drives a cab; lives by himself, from meal to meal, from tv show to tv show, cigarette to cigarette. He’s a man who has been left behind by his world. Melbourne, the most European place in Australia. A place of cultures from around the world. Constant change has a remarkable effect on people- whether that is the weather, or cultures- it can create disenfranchisement, a sense of rejection. 

That’s Jack. On the edge of society, rejecting this new world of people and cultures. A world where everyone isn’t like him. It isn’t that Jack is a bad person; his views of multiculturalism are shard by thousands, it is just that soon the world will come crashing down and Jack will either adapt or get lost.

Lindsay Tanner is one of the more talented politicians of the last twenty years. A member of the left faction, upon the election of the Rudd government in 2007 saw him in a senior role in the first Labor federal government since 1996. He was instrumental in the early period of Rudd’s prime ministership. However, upon Julia Gillard’s ascent to the prime ministership, Tanner elected to return to the backbench. 

Certainly, he can write. His vistas of Melbourne are quirky and heartfelt, a world constantly changing. The astute depictions of Melbourne are measured against some clever positioning of characters. Jack the cab driver, fearful of this new world, is thrown into helping a young Somali woman and her children. Suddenly, after his simple life, he has complications. 

Tanner’s prose is simplistic and cliche in places, something that took away the lovable evolution of Jack into someone more than the Everyman. The message is straight forward: we might hold prejudices, but if we actually spent time with those different to us, we would learn to love the world of many cultures. This is a warm novel, a comfortable novel that never gets the reader out of their comfort zone. 

Life & Times of Michael K

There is a strong sense of the individual and isolation in every sentence of J.M Coetzee’s 1983 novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Michael is a simple, but strong individual. He has a marathon runner’s body. The early scenes with his mother are compassionate, heartfelt and tragic. Coetzee sets up the relationship as one of mutual need. The mother, sick, incapable of moving from the war torn suburb relies upon her son. Michael continues his daily routine, he keeps going to work in the midst of the creeping war. After some failure and being forced back by nameless soldiers, he finds himself on the road to his mother’s home land. 

When dusk fell he broke from the road, crossed a fence, and found a place for the night in a dry rover-course. He made a fire and ate the second can of beans. He slept close to the embers, oblivious of the night noises, the tiny scurryings across the pebbles, the rustle of feathers in the trees.

The evocative images of Michael’s journey across the veld are deft touches of poetry; the understated tone, the simple prose of Coetzee makes the landscape live beyond the assumed African context. The mother and son moving around troop movements, through check points, avoiding other humans could easily be current day Syria or Iraq. Refugees in their own country, the pull of his mother’s home land draws Michael through every moment of everyday.

He gazed up at the ceiling for a long while, like an old man consulting the spirits, then spoke. ‘My mother worked all her life long,’ he said. ‘She scrubbed over people’s floors, she cooked food for them, she washer their dishes. She washed their dirty clothes. She scrubbed the bath after them. She went on her knees and cleaned the toilet. But when she was old and sick they forgot her, They put her away out of sight, When she died they threw her in the fire…’

Michael finds himself in detention. Accused without evidence of being a terrorist, of leading attacks. These images provoke the constant smell of political fear. The concentration camps are akin to those of the South African War and every war since. I can imagine Coetzee reading by the window in Adelaide and thinking of the camps set up in our name. Those camps have their own Michael K, some of the poorest people in the world, fleeing like Michael, only to be locked up. The passages from the point of view of the nurse are some of the most compelling pages. Her humanity within the system that dehumanises the individual contrasts with the brutal layer of inhumanity.

He thought of the farm, the grey thornbushes, the rocky soil, the ring of hills, the mountains purple and pink in the distance, the great still of blue empty sky, the earth grey and brown beneath the sun save here and there, where of you looked carefully you suddenly saw a tip of vivid green, pumpkin leaf or carrot-brush.

All the birds, Singing – Evie Wyld

Jake is hiding. Physically, her body scarred. Mentally, memories of the recent past is a dark shadow on every moment of everyday. This novella, just 200 odd pages, has won the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. Partly set in an island off the coast of England and in Australia, the central character of Jake is a beautiful drawn tragi-hero. For me, there was a constant echo of Winton. The moments poetic prose are beautiful set pieces that shape and reshape the plot.

There are three strains to the life of Jake. We begin with Jack as a shearer in outback Australia. As the only female, her observations of the males are precise, their ugliness and ignorance finely described in dialogue. The second world is closer to the present. Jack is alone on an island with a new sheep farm and a mystery surrounding her accent and single-status. The third world moves from a tragic life that ends with the town burning down. This spills into Jack’s time as a sex worker. One day a man, Otto, has a proposal for her. Here she finds herself a sex-slave on his property, her world one of cooking, cleaning and being fucked by Otto.

The constant fear for Jake is having the past resurface. Her nomadic lifestyle moving from shearing job to shearing job keeps her beyond the reach of the filthy Otto. On the farm, the lush countryside a constant reminder of the barren lands of the Hedland, there is an animal. Not a fox, not a dog, not a human, after her sheep. This tension relies on the non-linear plot from Wyld. The idea that fear, no matter what the source, sinks into the skin and make every waking moment a painful reminder of what has happened.

A truly masterful novella. As a study of man, the evils of, a piece of art. The ever profound nature of women make this a novel of this age and beyond.

The Lost Dog

Night after night, images of the refugees appeared. Tom saw death flicker in the furtive glow of TV and knew the guilty rage of those who have crossed to safety. Time toppled like a wave. He was a falling thing, spiralling down to wait forever in a room as blue as an ocean. He felt the convergence of public and private dread.

Buried deep in Australian memories was the knowledge that strangers had once sailed to these shores and destroyed what they found. How could that nightmare be remembered? How could it be unselfishly forgotten? A trauma that had never been laid to rest, it went on disturbing a nation’s dreams. In the rejection of the latest newcomers, Tom glimpsed the past convulsing like a faulty film. It was a confusion coded as a denial. It was as if a fiend had paused in its ravaging to cover its face and howl.

The images he saw on TV brought him out in goose bumps: far writing its name on his flesh. And since the frightened are often frightening, the pictures on his screen made him grimace and distorted his face.

Bodies flashed up constantly in those weeks: broken, burned, fished lifeless from the sea. He thrust at them with his remote, willing them to disappear. But it was as if the mass were imprinted on his retina. They affected everything he saw. In ordinary streets the air turned red with callistemons. Tiny corpses appeared on pavements, nestling as naked and strange as Martians.

Michelle De Kreater, The Lost Dog.

Try Teaching This

One of the most provocative areas I have had the pleasure to introduce to teenagers is the Stolen Generation.

This one particular class, a small group just 15 or so students, in a rural town, full of students aged 14 or 15, sticks in my memory. Most would be their family’s first child to finish high school, some wouldn’t, some spent history lessons looking out the window (I must admit that at times I would join them).

I would begin with a reading excerpts from the personal accounts from the Bringing Them Home Report.

We would watch a clip or two of the Women Of The Sun.

Often the students would voice their opinion. ‘But we didn’t do this; we shouldn’t feel sorry for this.’ Never was it my intention to provoke such responses, but I would reply. We can have a great sense of pride in the achievements of great Australians. I would cite Florey, Fraser, Bradman. We can feel good about the events around these people, and we weren’t there; we didn’t do those things. Then we too can feel empathy about the horrid moments.

We would have a polar debate- is it ok to remove children? This question would evolve. Is is ok to remove children from one culture and forcibly bring them up in another?

It would be then that I would hear parents perspectives through the students mouths. At that moment I knew I had succeeded- the students had begun to speak of school at home. The echo of parents wold hurt me.
It was for their protection.
It wasn’t all bad.
We shouldn’t say sorry for something we didn’t do.

Many times I felt I was losing them. Passive hostility and stereotypical generalisations asserted as fact. ‘They (who is they?) get too much. They are lazy, drunks, violent.’

This class had a moment though. One of the students spoke to the whole class. ‘If the same practice was around now,’ she said, ‘my baby would be taken away.’ Her recently born child spoke to the group; the class sat up. If the same practices were in place she would lose her child. They felt it, they found something. Respect.

It is now as we as a nation turn back leaky boats full of the poorest people on earth. And as our leader speakers in terms of war, it is now that we should say (even if you believe the rhetoric of ‘it’s to save their life!’ (Sound familiar? It was to protect them!) or if you believe in the mythical queue or you want to echo your parents views) if the same practices were in place many of our parents, grandparents, friends and family wouldn’t be here. Mr Abbot wouldn’t be here. It will be only when we can think like this, find something, feel something. Find respect.
Only then will we be able to change the direction of the discussion and alter the political position that is writing another piece of our history that will be a source of shame alongside the Stolen Generation.

The same barbaric, international law violating and inhuman practices that echo through the Stolen Generation are being repeated now.

The People Smuggler – Robin De Crespigny

This is a book based upon various interviews between Robin de Crespigny and Ali Al Jenabi, a ‘people smuggler’ from Iraq via Kurdistan, Iran, Indonesia and every jail hell hole. Ali Al Jenabi is a child of Saddam’s Iraq; a country suddenly regressing from a progressive, innovative and wealthy nation with a rich cultural heritage to one under the dictatorship of a man prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people.

The voice of Ali builds, slowly, gently, by the third section, the voice is echoing in your ears. It will keep you awake at night. The brutal sensibility of his reflection on his detention in Abu Ghraib is a haunting piece of personal struggle. The question that continues to bounce around my head is simple: how can humans treat other humans so poorly?

There is a rumour that Australia didn’t respond to reports that the SIEVX was in distress because they didn’t want to receive any more asylum seekers. I wonder if the woman who was taking her son to meet his father survived, or if he weeps alone in the land of opportunity.

This account, when held with various David Marr’s articles and Dark Victory, will form part of the history written by my children. This history will condemn the politicians and society that allowed for the continued demonisation and detention of refugees arriving by boat. How can a country so rich be so poorly led? Ali accounts in detail the task of bringing refugees from Iraq across the globe and onto Australia. A painstaking journey of bravery and courage. Families taking such a trip show resilience, innovation, passion and a desire for liberty. The kind of people who will make Australia great.

I have no support from the Iraqi embassy, I am given no preparation on what to court…I don’t have a chance and Australia makes sure I don’t. They have their Thai lawyer, AFP witnesses and six others from Australian embassy to make their case.

Throughout Ali’s voice is honest, brutally so, his aggression, sometimes transcending into violence, is not hidden or air brushed. His motives are multilayered and in the final court case, the comparison to Oskar Schindler is provocative. The clarity and insight into the lengths people to go to seek freedoms we take for granted. As much as this is Ali’s story we must ask, what kind of country closes his eyes, covers it ears and pretends to be silent? This book tells us so much about Australia in the last 20th century and the early decades of the 21st century.

‘Look Ali…The government want to lay blame for boat people on smugglers like you, but you’re not working out as a good scapegoat…it is becoming clear you are also a decent, kind and compassionate human being, and its difficult to whack someone like that…’

Ali is clearly bias in his personal account. Your own political and moral views will inform your approach to the story. I am unreserved in my belief that the treatment of refugees arriving by boat in Australia has been hideous. For more than twenty years the narrow minded, politically motivated demonisation of refugees has disgusted me. How can we fear the poorest people in the world? Finally Ali is jailed in Australia for eight years, (despite not living in Australia or breaking any law in Indonesia) with a four year non-parole period. His story doesn’t end there. Even the removal of John Howard doesn’t lead to the granting of refugee status to Ali.

I am stuck by how many of the other prisoners are Aboriginal. All my jury were white but in jail at least eighty percent of inmates are black, yet I understand they make up only two and a half percent of Australia’s population.

At times it does feel like de Crespigny’s fingerprints come through; had there been substantial editing? Though Ali is obviously talented, the cinematic feel of the descriptions and the final tense moments are the work of an experienced writer. I love d every word. I leave this reflection with this little piece. In January 2008 Ali has been in detention for 19 months, Justice Lindgren hands down a condemning judgment.

He finds the former Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, committed ‘an egregious failure’ to obey Parliament’s command by leaving my case unresolved for eighteen months.

Yes, the same Kevin Andrews now a minister in an Abbott led-government. No doubt there are more stories like Ali’s out there. They should be written, published, made into films, shown around the world. Just then the society that allows such treatment of people already tortured might be shamed into changing.