Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

My friend, Diana Gribble, died the other night …

Diana Gribble

Written for The Drum, ABC.

Since then the tributes have poured forth from people who knew her well, and from some who didn’t but had benefitted from her gifts – her ability to make things happen, to set things to rights and to cut to the chase. Di’s risk-taking has been mentioned a good deal – and that I can vouch for.

We had taken a risk on each other, after all – two young women back in 1974. Both feminists fond of men, with a shared a passion for reading and typography, but backgrounds and experiences which were poles apart. When Diana and Jack’s wedding made a big splash in the Age’s social pages, I was a bohemian young mother in the Dandenongs with an artist husband and no running water or electricity. When we met again over a campaign to interview every Federal Politician about where they stood on issues of abortion and equality, I was a novice editor and Diana was working for an advertising agency. We signed an old-fashioned partnership agreement to form an entity to do whatever came along that appealed to us,  promising to be “true and honest with each other at all times”.

Risk-taking was the only way we could do what we did for the next 17 years with no capital except for a $3000 loan from Diana’s father, a few hazy promises of editorial and design work from publishing contacts and our wits.

Sir Archibald’s loan went on two white chairs, a white filing cabinet, a golf ball typewriter and a bottle of good scotch. This was the era of Australia’s version of Mad Men – big men in suits dropping by after long lunches to give us advice.

“Brains and Beauty in South Yarra” was the headline to an interview about the start-up by the literary editor of the Age. “More” and “Better” one bloke dubbed us – meaning, we assumed, the way we worked. “Fuckme” and “Grapple” was another tag which has just swum up from the depths.

They were exhilarating years, most of them. We were spotting talent, publishing the books we fell for, commissioning hundreds of others we wanted written. There was an office crèche for the McPhee Gribble babies and we employed mainly bright young women with no experience plus the occasional bloke who wasn’t intimidated and who made us laugh.

In the end the money got us. We were trying to refinance an expansion and a separation from a tough co-publishing deal with Penguin we should never have made.  Then Keating’s “recession we had to have” hit in the late eighties and interest rates climbed to seventeen and a half percent. For a terrible 18 months our offices were festooned in spread sheets, the two of us spending weekends dreaming up combinations of non-existent titles for business plans with acceptable margins for more men in suits – trying to hit on people who might try to understand publishing and its risks.

My memory is we took it in turns to go in and out of panic. Di mortgaged her house, I borrowed a large sum from one of my brothers. Penguin was waiting in the wings.

The end, when it came, was as bad as they get. A deal was put on the table for me to go with the authors and for Di and our splendid small staff of about 12 to go away. When Diana told me this, that I had no choice, it was a done deal – I roared out to a meeting in a Ringwood café with the Penguin MD to try to explain for the umpteenth time that the authors needed us both. That the more than 30 brilliant titles in the pipeline needed our way of working. That Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Rod Jones’ new novel and the next Kaz Cooke needed far more than me. That Stephanie Alexander was talking to us about a big cookbook – and that none of this could happen without all of us. In the end I saved four jobs – and got a speeding ticket plus a one month suspension of my driver’s licence for losing it with a young cop.

I had to go with the deal, Di told me. She had to walk away. Their agenda did not include her – and hers, of course, did not include them. So the hideous drawn out stage of lawyers and draft sales agreements and assignment of contracts began.

Our friendship would survive the wedge, we told each other in the office right at the end when the removalists were in. We lunched every month, rang each other often, sent each other copies of our books and magazines. We even visited each other’s offices once or twice. That was harder. When Text Media began I made myself feel pleased.

Inevitably our lives diverged but kept on over-lapping. Diana went from strength to strength in various media with a creative business relationship with Eric Beecher that seemed to me to be exactly right. I left corporate publishing, went on far too many boards and committees and wrote a little book which Di was generous about. Our children grew up and kept in touch. We remembered birthdays and anniversaries, we went to many of the same parties and dinners – but it was indeed a relationship “strained by the deal” as someone reported the other day. It was hard on our families and must have been hard on our friends, who never mentioned it to me.

I lived overseas for a few years. It was a few days after I got back that I ran into Di at a party outside among the smokers where the best conversations were still to be had. She suggested coffee the next day and I assumed we’d do what we’d done for years – a brisk hug, swap notes about each other’s lives and husbands, avoiding the old stuff. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knew Diana that it was she, not me, who broke the taboo.

Stop talking about the children, she said, straight up. We’ve got to talk about the end of McPhee Gribble and what happened to us. And we did.

At first we met early in the morning every Thursday  – moving from café to café around Fitzroy and North Carlton aware of the spectacle we were making of ourselves. Two women in their late sixties weeping and raging and clutching each other’s hands before staggering out white-faced in dark glasses. Sometimes afterwards we’d text each other about nearly throwing up or going back to bed. But over the next few months we managed to talk about feelings of being betrayed and devalued. Both of us. High-risk stuff but fabulous – which made us proud.

After some months of this, there was nothing left to be said. The stories of our lives were much more gripping and we settled back to regular coffees outside at Marios – just down the road from the last seedy old office which is still there covered in graffiti.

Now it all feels like some kind of gift.


My euphoria after the people’s uprising in Tunisia and Cairo and the stirrings in Syria lasted for weeks.

Then, during the long run up while the UN was deliberating over the no-fly zone for Libya, I was visiting the fiord country in a remote part of PNG where the villages are accessible only by boat and few people have access to radio transmitters. But mad bad Gaddafi was a name that resonated.

PNG has a long tradition of zealots bearing news of change from other worlds. So when I found myself being asked questions about the Arab world,  drawing a map in the dust to show where north Africa is, and holding forth about how Cairo had been inspired by Tunisia and how Libya was in an uproar, I was tentative. But the questions I was asked went to the heart of the matter. Why did the rulers not share the oil money? Why did the people not tell the rulers what they needed? Why did the rulers shoot their own people?

Joseph, the teacher and his pupils from Onotaoba Village, PNG

Port Moresby is more expensive than Sydney. With the building of the PNG Liquified Natural Gas pipeline from the Southern Highlands, have come the condominiums and marinas and five star hotels. The displaced peoples from the villages have long formed semi-permanent enclaves of poverty and bitterness. Schooling is erratic and expensive.  Corruption is rife. Somare, these days  a benevolent despot, with family waiting in the wings – or so the rumours have it. Familiar stuff.

In 2007 the Jamaican mobile phone company, Digicel arrived in PNG, as Orascom had in Egypt and Zio in Kuwait – prepared to enter markets of poor people by keeping prices down. A handset costs 40 kina ($15) and a SIM card provides 8 kina ($3) worth of credit. On the hillsides above the fiords near Tufi the Digicel towers are waiting – not yet connected because of an unresolved argument about land ownership – but they will be soon and the kids are already playing games on their cheap phones wherever they can find a generator.

A fiord, North-East Province, PNG

There are few roads through this mountainous country and only 17% of the population has electricity. Families struggle to pay school fees from Grade 3 and most children from the more remote villages drop out after Grade 6. But now the teachers we spoke to are exploring distance learning and how to encourage small initiatives that might pay something – services for skin-divers and eco-tourists and people like me and my friend in our old hats and sturdy sandals having a break from our privileged lives.

I came back to the hideous news of the murder of the  Israeli-Arab actor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the region’s most  prominent director and political activist. He was gunned down in the West Bank town of Jenin where he ran the remarkable and radical Freedom Theatre which drew Jewish and Arab audiences.

To Juliano and Vittorio with love – Al Jazeera – Opinion

Jenin’s Theatrical Oasis – Artsworld – Al Jazeera

Then I read Mira-Adler Gillies’ post on the ABC’s Drum  Is Zionism Still Worth Fighting for? and felt better despite the entirely predictable hostility and misreadings she copped in dozens of comments. The next generation are thinking outside the straightjackets of  ideology. On all sides.

Is Zionism still worth fighting for? – Mira Adler Gillies

Have a look at this Youtube clip of Beirut Duty free Airport rocking to the Dabke Dance.


Great days

Hosni Mubarak looking strangely like Silvio Berlusconi (who also doesn’t get it) has handed over power. Once the middle classes – especially when thousands of doctors and the elderly – joined the young, it was probably all over. But earlier that evening it had looked like a dangerous stalemate. I made the mistake of watching the remarkable Peter Watkins film made in 2000 of the 1871 Paris Commune and the role of the media  – and went to bed listening to all night radio full of dread of a mighty massacre. Then it was all over.

Western leaders seem to be welcoming the change in tones both avuncular and hesitant. An Egypt directing its own affairs, influencing the rest of the Arab League to do the same, is a whole new world. The Western media, especially those whose journalists weren’t in Cairo or Alexandria, has largely erupted into worried negativity, evidence of just how far the caricatures and fear of Islam has penetrated since 9/11.

The Muslim world is not all the same.Turkey is not Saudi Arabia.Yemen is not the Lebanon. Indonesia’s transition to democracy was peaceful. Eqypt is more secular, more educated, more cosmopolitan than we often recognise. It is also much younger and  poorer than we can comprehend. Many of the institutions needed for the next stages already exist but aren’t the same as ours. The task is enormous. We might even learn a thing or two.

Youth lash out

It seems to me there are a few hopeful signs – Egypt especially – and here  a generation of young Australians who can’t wait to get out there, lining up to study international relations and cross-cultural complexities, volunteering, learning second and third languages, galvanised by the thought that they are going to have to sort the place out.

This is the same generation of students I met in the West Bank a year ago, who said they were impatient with the ideologies of their parents and grandparents, kids with their text bookbooks on their iPhones so they could study when held up at checkpoints. In Egypt, 30% of the population is under 20.  And recently the Gazan Youth’s Manifesto for change went around the world:

“F*** Hamas. F*** Israel. F*** Fatah. F*** UN. F*** UNWRA. F*** USA!” the manifesto begins, with the verb spelled out fully. “We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference.”

Gaza’s youth lash out at the institutions maintaining the seeming status quo on the hopelessness in Gaza:

Is peace “too much to ask” in 2011? – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran

Lesley Hazleton sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found — as a non-Muslim, a self-identified “tourist” in the Islamic holy book — wasn’t what she expected. With serious scholarship and warm humor, Hazleton shares the grace, flexibility and mystery she found, in this myth-debunking talk from TEDxRainier. A brilliant introduction to the Koran and what it does not say. It’s just nine minutes of your time.

National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

National Biography Award Talk   –    2010

30 November 2010, Mitchell Library

Podcasts available:

Hilary McPhee, writer and former publisher, presents the 2010 National Biography Award lecture.

In recent years she has been living in Jordan and Italy writing a book and articles about the region. Here she discusses biography in both Australia and the Middle East.

Click to view the video

There was a time when some of us feared that literary biography and autobiography were endangered species, that they were being drowned out by the memoirs of 26 year old sportspersons whose lives, or so they seemed to me, had barely begun, but whose books sold in astonishingly large quantities. Publishers were convinced they were on to something and they were.  Celebrity publishing was born.

In the mid nineties, this National Biography Award was created, with the admirable intention of encouraging the highest standards of writing in a genre that was rapidly expanding. And looking at the list of past winners and the shortlists of the last few of years, one cannot but be struck by the range and the originality of the works that have been published since then.

Ideas for books don’t arise because an award exists, of course, and publishers don’t make publishing decisions in the hope of them – but awards like this are a crucial form of acknowledgement to everyone involved that there is some kind of best practice, a standard for research and writing that all the other myriad forms of life writing, the bio-pics and documentary making and collaborating across art forms, can learn from and utilize.

We in Australia seem addicted to them, but they are starting to pour forth everywhere in all kinds of media. President Obama has just appointed someone called a videographer to document life in the White House and his rather fine autobiographies will surely feed that process.

Jill Rowe’s splendid and wonderfully comprehensive biography of Stella Miles Franklin, on this years’ shortlist, is a reminder, if we need one, of the power of awards to map and eventually shape the culture – as I believe this one is already doing.

In an academic climate where writing time is at a premium, the message that historical and literary research work is significant can get very muted. Conveying to authors that such research is worth persevering with – often over many years, is worth doing.

The awards in recent years have celebrated a number of highly original works that have taken the form in directions it has never before been taken. I think especially of Evelyn Juers’ A House of Exile , Barry Hill’s Broken Song, Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Jacob Rosenberg’s ­East of Time, and this year’s winner, of course, Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark, A Life.

Australian writing from life has come a long way. Back in the days when I was a baby editor, books like these would never have happened.

I find it useful to remember the rather low base we’ve come from in this country.

In fact, we encouraged the writing of very few memoirs or autobiographies or substantial biographies until the 1980s. The odd diplomat and headmaster, politicians without spin doctors to plead their case, reminiscences of bush life, mainly by women, most very gentle, if not genteel, and Miles Franklin and Allan Marshall apart, none cut very deep into the culture.

We imported a lot of mainly British biographies and memoirs and published a few rather stodgy, conventionally written works in hardcovers for the library market – of iconic figures – explorers, heroes, aviators.

Those subjects who were still alive were published somewhat dutifully, or so it seemed to me. The old and the distinguished, almost all men, liked to set the chronology of their public lives and thoughts and deeds firmly within the history of their times – their voices were reserved, their revelations for public scrutiny suitably seemly. This befitted the hero’s journey into the dark. The books were perhaps a form of eulogy, epitaph and last judgment rolled into one. Maybe because they imagined themselves dead, they wanted no one to speak ill of them.

By the eighties, some publishers were trying to commission and suggest, but it wasn’t easy. The sorts of people that might have a book in them were the least inclined to write one. You were expected to do them the courtesy of waiting until they thought of it themselves, or risk the huffy response I’m far too young, I’m not finished yet.

So you waited, and usually something watery and disappointing was delivered too late.

I recall family members sometimes bringing in exercise books filled with the grandparents copperplate handwriting giving glimpses of extraordinary childhoods ‘up bush’, or in homes for wayward girls. There were packets of love-letters from young men who went to war, but almost inevitably most were fragments of memories that were fading fast. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life was a spectacular exception, of course, and fortunate indeed to have found its way to a publishing house prepared to give it the skilled editing it needed.

Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas. (more…)

Timid Minds

CAL / Meanjin Essay

‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable.

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing. [1]

But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible and the anticipation of rejection must have guaranteed it. A.A.Phillips’ recognition of the tendency to tag along dutifully behind England instead of doing our own thing may have been a bit too close to the bone and the psychological insight uncomfortable. He knew what Australian intellectuals were up against, not only within the institutions of the day but also inside their own heads, and he named the crippling lack of self esteem which yearned for Australia’s meaty individualism to be appreciated. But by the early 1950s there were signs of real change. Returned soldiers and artists and writers among the refugees and ‘New Australians’ were making intellectual life here more complex. Debates in the pubs and at the university seem to have been increasingly about our place in our region and the distinctive shape of Australian culture. [2]

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips did not fit the mould. He was an Australian Jew whose bookish family had been here since the 1820s, after a short time spent in London’s Whitechapel. His father had been a president of the Australian Natives’ Association, his mother wrote pieces for the weekly papers and a novel. Except for a pre-war stint at Oxford, Arthur spent very little time in Britain and did not enjoy it much. His tastes were European, his reading wide and his eye on an emerging Australian culture perceptive and acerbic. His critical writings about the Bulletin School of the 1890s as the beginnings of an Australian tradition meant that he was typecast, somewhat reluctantly, for the rest of his life as one of Australian literature’s foremost advocates and interpreters through his regular reviews and critical essays. But first and foremost he was a schoolmaster and for over forty-five years at Wesley College generations of schoolboys were taught to comprehend that ‘finely responsive reading is primarily an act of surrender, and only secondarily an act of judgment’.

Australian poetry and fiction were always part of his curriculum, and the anthologies he produced with Ian Maxwell, from as early as 1932, meant that some Australian writing was included in the syllabus of the English Department at Melbourne University. The Australian Tradition, published by Cheshire in 1958, was an attempt to counter-balance The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, which had already defined the ground for the canon, and English Departments around the world had fallen into line.



Cover of Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here .


a selection of recent Australian writing

I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase.

Australia feels a very long way off.

Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other side seemed less an implacable confrontation between Muslims and Christians and more a misreading of history, one still playing out.

There are few books published any more but the internet has taken their place. Story-telling sites and literary blogs are common, where writers critique each other’s work, and political satire manages to stay one step ahead of the government censors. Passionate conversations about books and writing still happen, as they always have, sometimes in surprising places. I love English literature, murmured a young man in an Amman hotel who was cutting my hair. He opened a drawer where a tattered copy of Middlemarch lay among the brushes and rollers.

The only Australian book I was ever asked about was Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love and then so often that I started to feel personally responsible for its distortions and errors. Khouri’s fake settings and her story of an honour killing in Jordan that didn’t happen was highly offensive. Women can and often do live modern lives, wearing the hijab and long coat perhaps only to visit their village. Repressive cultural practices still curtail the lives of many women but work is being done to support them. The members of the Women’s Commission, who quizzed me over lunch one day, were rightly outraged.

I expected to find it difficult to return but it was worse. All I could see was shocking affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin.  I felt adrift in the wrong place and getting my bearings back was essential. So the reading I was asked to do for the 2009 Melbourne Prize and the suggestion by Julia Taylor that I compile some annual anthologies of recent writing for Five Mile Press came when I most needed it. Wordlines is a selection from that reading time, idiosyncratic and personal, my biases and enthusiasms on display.

I started by seeking writing that that was international, engaged, political – and was not expecting to find very much of it. It didn’t take long to realise I was quite wrong.

There is a good deal of writing here now that is international. Some of it is political and all of it is engaged. There are new writers, of course, and books of great force and substance. Nam Le has an astonishing ability to take us into the heads of people in extremis all over the world so we share their moral universe. Evelyn Juers has taken biographical writing to a new level. And I was fortunate to read two powerful new novels in draft: Anna Funder is writing about the group of German anarchists around Ernst Toller and their frustrated attempts to alert the world to the rise of Nazism; and Drusilla Modjeska’s untitled novel about identity and race is set among the bureaucracy and corruption and complexities of contemporary Papua New Guinea. And with the quivering antennae peculiar to recent returnees, I fancied I caught more than a glimpse of a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility in writers such as Joan London and Cate Kennedy, and many others, some of whom were quite new to me, in a range of voices and styles unique to this place.

Perhaps, where distance from the rest of the world is a fact of life, it carries its own freedoms and allows our own kind of plain speaking to emerge. Immigrant cultures have long celebrated story and testimony and now a kind of deep texture to our literature is emerging. This is writing a world away from the mid nineties when genre fiction – often with rather thin exotic settings – was all the go, and being ‘Australian’ was reduced to simplistic categories to fit criteria for funding and prizes. The low point was reached when Grand Days, Frank Moorhouse’s first great League of Nations novel, was deemed ‘not sufficiently Australian’ for the Miles Franklin. The following year a sentimental multiculturalism caused judges of the Vogel, the Australian Literary Society and the Miles Franklin, as well as an assortment of critics to fall for Helen Demidenko’s fake ethnicity and to celebrate her clumsy racism as transgressive. Nowadays writers are drilling down deeper for their material within a literary environment where the restraints of convention and scholarly orthodoxies sit more lightly than they do in older cultures.

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile: the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann is an extraordinary collective biography about well-known refugees from fascism in the 30s and 40s. Juers slips back and forth in a kind of shimmering pointillism across the fine line between fiction and fact, her imagination refracted through a huge range of sources and cast of characters.

Sophie Cunningham, in a moving extract from her forthcoming novel about Leonard Woolf, has developed her own sure-footed form of biographical fiction. Leonard is Virginia’s mooring, here trying to feed her with trembling hands during one of her breakdowns, Virginia resisting this intrusiveness…. Both of them are locked in a marriage neither fully comprehend but would never give up.

Many writers are inhabiting uneasy places, where certainties tremble. In the opening chapter of Joan London’s The Good Parents, eighteen-year-old Maya, away from home for the first time, is seduced by her employer, one Maynard Flynn, on a mattress on the floor of his seedy Melbourne office. Maya falls in love. He can’t believe his luck. Her parents are about to arrive.

Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Bliss of Arrival’, is work-in-progress from her new novel about three generations in postcolonial PNG.  Jericho attempts to persuade his beloved Bili to leave her legal work for an environmental NGO and return with him to England where he feels less dislocated as a hapkaus Õmie man brought down from the mountain as a child than he does in Port Morseby. We are both. We could move between Jericho says, but he knows if you look too long into a woman’s eyes, she’ll take your soul.

Cate Kennedy seems to me to be getting better and better. In her story, ‘Tender’, she has perfected the art of straight-talking, taking things down to their essentials, the husband at the sink, awkward, loving, full of dread, the mother stilling her fear of the black shadow on the breast scan by toiling away late at night to make a magical world in a cardboard box for a child to take to school.

Rod Jones and Carmel Bird’s new stories were written for this collection. Jones doesn’t miss a beat in his glimpse of a marriage at the end of its tether, the dining-room set up for guests they’ll never have. Husband and wife are locked in their separate terrors – his of a comet crashing into Jupiter which he watches on television, hers that she no longer loves him.

Carmel Bird’s comic imagination is always finely poised, acerbic and slightly sinister. ‘No Thro’ Road’ signposts a well-connected cul-de-sac where boats aren’t rocked and the men and women who had mingled with each other in tree huts and at parties long ago now watch their children and grandchildren mingle pleasantly in Paris.

Alex Miller’s latest novel Love Song is deceptively simple and rich with allegory. In this extract, a beautiful Tunisian living in Paris, despairing that her husband cannot give her a child, resorts to the ancient solution of choosing another man to impregnate her – a man who falls to his knees and weeps afterwards.  Years later, her story will be related by her husband to Ken, an aging writer, in order that it be known.

These are writers looking from the inside out, engaging with the rest of the world and reflecting on their own with more sophistication than even just a decade ago.  What can be written ‘about’ here has altered. The easy recourse to foreign settings and interesting encounters seems to have been transformed into a rich connectedness and lightly worn shifting identities.

Tom Cho’s outlandish fictions about slithering between labels and meanings, are hilarious and adroit. There’s a grandmother who answers to the name of Bruce, an Uncle Wang who morphs into having a bi-directional interface between his central nervous system and his old computer, and Tom  himself who wants his Chinese name changed from I will skip and pick clover from lush fields to Marlon Brando.

Abigail Ulman, Paul Mitchell, Amra Pajaric and Tom Cho are writers I hadn’t read before and am very glad I have. Each is distinctive and utterly grounded. Ulman’s assured ‘Chagall’s Wife’ first caught my eye in Meanjin – a gripping story about a male schoolteacher caught in the headlights of a fourteen year old girl’s knowledge of her sexual power. For Mitchell the colloquial and the local provide the story’s texture and meaning – about loneliness, set in the bleak surrounds of a service station on the Hume Highway, where the trucks power south to where the girls are. Pajalic’s The Good Daughter was awarded the people’s choice in the Melbourne Prize, a sharp portrait of the Bosnian Muslim community through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Sabiya, seen in this extract dressed modestly in her mother’s clothes in an attempt to placate her orthodox grandfather.

In some ways, the trajectory of this selection and perhaps of contemporary Australian writing at this time is the long looping thread that runs from Gerald Murnane to Nam Le, two writers who recently won last year’s Melbourne Prizes for Literature. Le’s remarkable story ‘Cartagena’ takes place in the barrios of Medellín inside the head of a hit man who has fourteen years and two months and killed fourteen people for certain, perhaps another two. He is now sent to kill a man he knows, an almost friend, a man who is different, who does not think only of himself, who alone talks about happiness and honour – even about politics – about a future unconnected to money. There is no way back, they know, only a fantasy of a safe place, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where the sun comes up in a slow-motion explosion like in the movies… and where the girls are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things.

Murnane resists categories.  In prose pared to somewhere beneath the bone, he inhabits a universe entirely his own. ‘Australian’ is not the word for it even though a large part of the brilliance of this essay lies in it being centred in the small world of the 1940s – the Bendigo sleep-out, the altar boy chanting the Latin Nicene Creed for the rhythm which conjures in his mind’s eye images of horseracing, a rhythm which will lead inexorably to the man in this middle age teaching himself the Hungarian language in order to recite to members of the Hungarian community the great ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’ by Gyorgy Faludy. This is entirely fitting, even pre-destined, reality becomes metaphor, ordinariness becomes extraordinary.

How words work, how the best of them encapsulate our time and our place and our sense of ourselves in that space is subjective and too slippery to try to pin down – but for me, fully imagined writing creates threads of thought, wordlines that hold us, connect us, and bring us home.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Nomad

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s convert-like zeal is both disturbing and delusional, writes Hilary McPhee…

Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fourth Estate, $35.00

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has brains and beauty and is a gift to those of us who like our prejudices confirmed. In Australia, where she returns regularly to promote her books, she reinforces our idea of the Muslim world as monolithic, mediaeval and dangerous. Islam is all bad, religion is the problem, Allah is the villain. The West is better in every respect. These days she proclaims the American way with stars in her eyes.

Hirsi Ali’s early life was difficult and spent on the move between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Had she grown up elsewhere – in parts of the Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Teheran perhaps – she might have been able to give us a more complex and sympathetic picture of the Muslim world, but I suspect not. As each of us is shaped by family and culture, it was her dysfunctional family that formed her, and gave her the courage and impetus to escape – a harsh mother she despised, an educated politicized father she idealized until ‘he fell back into a trance of submission to Allah’, a younger sister she had hopes for but who married and retreated from the life being offered in Europe.

Hirsi Ali’s story is extraordinary and her books, mixtures of memoir and analysis wearing their dramatic single-word titles like brand names, are highly popular throughout the West. A Muslim apostate is both consolation and vindication in uncertain times.

Infidel told the story of her family and her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, how she learnt the ropes of the welfare system and the workforce, before gaining a university education. How she became a member of the Dutch Parliament, worked with immigrant women, scripted the film Submission, of Koranic verses projected onto a naked woman’s body, a provocation for which the producer, Theo van Gogh, was murdered and she received death threats. From then on she was provided bodyguards by the Dutch Government until a political furore over her citizenship status caused her to leave Holland for the States. In 2006 she accepted a job with the ultra-conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which had provided much of the rationale for military intervention in Iraq and for rebuilding the image of Israel in the world through a conservative alliance with America. Nomad is dedicated to the Past President, Chris DeMuth, ‘my surrogate abeh’ (father). Hirsi Ali describes this time as her intellectual coming-of-age. With her now private bodyguards, she travels the US and those parts of the world that welcome her message, lecturing on the evils of Islam and explaining her remedies, scornful of more than a billion and a half Muslims. After Allah, Muslim women receive most of the blame – childlike, unable to manage money, trapped in their marriages, pouring their frustration into damaging their daughters.

We are never reminded that more than 50 countries from Indonesia to Iran through Africa and the Middle East have Muslim majorities and vastly different cultures and histories. A perspective on the role played by poverty, illiteracy and rural conservatism is missing. Pre-Islamic cultures don’t rate a mention.

The books aren’t much good. Infidel, ghostwritten in Dutch and published in English translation in 2007, came at the right time and sold hugely. Nomad is a rather awkward retelling of her story through the lens of imagined contact, mainly by telephone, with her sister and her dying father, her hated mother and her dead grandmother. Framed by a chapter called A Letter to My Grandmother and an epilogue called A Letter to My Unborn Daughter, are large chunks of rather out-of-date polemic echoing Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. The old ‘clash of civilizations’ gets a rerun.

Her targets are predictable. Multiculturalism is dismissed as utopian, producing victims and welfare dependence. Feminists are naive for suggesting that many women in the West are also manipulated, complicit, objectified. Germaine Greer cops it for cultural relativism; Tariq Ramadan for being Tariq Ramadan.

There’s a depressing absence of hope or empathy. Micro-financing which has for years been targeting women and helping them out of poverty doesn’t rate a mention; nor does the improved literacy figures in some Islamic countries; nor the belated but massive investment in education in some rich Arab countries. The growing numbers of modern Muslim women in public life and scholars reinterpreting the Koran and Shar’ia, described recently by Isobel Coleman in Paradise Beneath Her Feet, do not fit her thesis and are ignored.

Hirsi Ali has now joined the ranks of celebrity atheists. Richard Dawkins calls her a major hero of our times; Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens speak of her beauty and tiny wrists. The latter is in a state of adoration: ‘For me the three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali’. I wonder what they make of one of the ‘remedies’ in Nomad that Muslims would be better off being Christian and that the Vatican joins the campaign to save Muslims from themselves.

There is something disturbing and slightly delusional here, the zeal of the convert protecting herself from facing the consequences of her own actions and theories, perhaps. The cult that surrounds Hirsi Ali could engulf her. She’s a one-woman band against her own culture, a hero to herself as well to the men who worship her. I can’t help but fear for her.

Yann Martel – Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil By Yann Martel, Text Publishing, $32.95

In a small room as white and brightly lit as an operating theatre, an antlered creature stands at bay, a beautiful commodity, a thing. Encrusted with large balls of acrylic and tiny crystal beads, it sparkles like a prize from a rich person’s treasure trove, a vision of the future. Not until you stand close and peer deep into the acrylic lenses at the magnified whorls of delicate brown and gingery hair does the taxidermied elk beneath reveal itself.

This statement about manmade annihilation, by Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, in Brisbane’s APT6 , is all the more powerful, it seems to me, because we have to do the work ourselves. He does with optics and silence what Yan Martel’s new novel seeks to do with words. Beatrice and Virgil, with its multiple vantage points, is a novel as much about the struggle to find the right words as it is about their meanings, words for the desperately difficult task, beset by taboos, which Martel embarks on knowing full well the risks.

Beatrice and Virgil has two central animal characters who died a long time ago and two human characters both called Henry. One is a failed author who dazzled the world with his last novel which, like Yann Martel’s extraordinary Life of Pi, sold trillions of copies, won the Booker and was translated into many languages.

This was, in retrospect anyway, no surprise. What could be more exotic and reassuring than the terrifying predicament of a Pondicherry zookeeper’s 16 yearold son bobbing in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat held safe by his love of God (Pi is a Hindu convert to both Christianity and Islam) and his empathy with animals. In the boat with him is a 450 pound Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, and for a while, until they are eaten, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orangutan.

With Faith and Science on board, the reader is secure, lulled by a seductive storyteller and fabulist. Yann Martel has a boundless imagination and an astonishing way with words, taking the novel where it has never been before. Life of Pi became beloved of book groups and ordinary readers everywhere.

But he must be a publisher’s nightmare, this Yann Martel, this author who made them bucket loads of money the first time round in 2001 and, for a young author, has taken rather a long time to complete this second book. In the meantime he has been a thorn in the side of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, sending him every fortnight since March 2007 a book he should read. This admirable cultural activism has never been acknowledged by Harper – although President Obama, after reading a Life of Pi recently with his daughter, wrote him a perfect note – ‘a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of story-telling.’ Beatrice and Virgil is not a lovely book, nor does it have the simple trajectory of story-telling we crave from best-selling authors. Martel’s imagination is as rich as ever, but this is a bleak cold intellectual world, riddled with symbolism and anecdotes about deliberate and considered killing by human hand. The author’s quandaries, normally concealed from the reader, are revealed – the blockage in the brain, the knot which must be unravelled word by painful word.

Martel starts with the most commonplace of writerly predicaments – an idea which fails to take flight and will not until it is assumes a life of its own. Henry’s long-awaited next book was to be about the Holocaust, packaged as a ‘flip book’ bound so the reader could start at either end and read through to the middle then start over again, reversing the order or not at will, through lies to truth, through imagination to reason, through fact to fiction. Henry loved this friendly format, believing it to be inspired, certain it would shatter the taboo of making Holocaust fiction.

Instead his publishers invite him to a posh lunch where his editors, his agent, and an expert historian are gathered to reject the conceit of the flip book – a marketing nightmare, commercial suicide. The taboo is only tangentially addressed as each asks the crushing question, What is your book about? – which Henry, of course, cannot answer.

So, after five years work, with an unpublishable book and a failed idea on his hands, Henry abandons writing and decides to concentrate on life. He keeps busy doing pleasant things. He and his wife move house and have two children. He takes up music again, joins a respected amateur theatre group, acquires shares in a chocolateria, adopts a kitten and a puppy. He lives as if his days on this earth are numbered. But sometimes in the middle of the night he opens the file of his precious book and aches for the old creative joy through which the truth can be uncovered. Writing is understanding, a way to discover what he thinks.

One day a large envelope from an unknown source assumed to be a fan of the best seller arrives at the theatre. Inside is a little known story by Gustave Flaubert, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, about the routine killing of wild animals on a grand scale, plus a fragment of a play, clearly a work-in-progress, in which two characters named Beatrice and Virgil are tenderly discussing pears. Virgil knows what a pear looks like, how it tastes and smells, but Beatrice does not. In the envelope too is a note from someone also called Henry asking for help at an address in a dingy part of town unfamiliar to Henry, the stuck author.

This turns out to be Oktapi Taxidermy, a complete, one-stop taxidermy store, with tigers and reptiles, stuffed birds, colonies of tortoises and fish, and all the paraphernalia of the taxidermist’s craft, the sinks, the knives, the smells, the rolled up hides and piles of tusks, the horns, the skulls. Oktapi Taxidermy proclaims itself as employing ‘professional natural history preparators, masters in all the techniques and materials needed to build any habitat setting you might desire in which to display your mounted animal.’

The book’s two non-human characters in the taxidermy store are Virgil, a red howler monkey sitting lightly on the back of a donkey named Beatrice. As if listening intently to Virgil, Beatrice’s head is partly turned with one ear swiveled towards him – presumably the better to hear a description of the beauty of pears.

Henry the taxidermist, a grim remote figure, wants help with words. For a stalled writer infinitely curious about the world he has entered, this is a simple enough task. He eagerly sets about exploring the right adjectives to describe Virgil’s lustrous chestnut fur and long tail as dextrous as a hand. Much more problematic is how to describe the horrifying howl of the monkey recorded forty years before in the upper reaches of the Amazon jungle. At home Henry plays the old tape over and over, filling his head and his house with the distressing howling roar which barely hints at reality, ‘but ultimately there is only the thing itself, in its raw purity. Hearing is believing.’

Eventually it is revealed that the taxidermist is writing a play in two acts. ‘A 20th century Shirt’ is a dark allegory of a European country, written on the shape of a striped shirt which reminds Henry of the Holocaust. Everything reminds Henry of the Holocaust, his wife says furiously. But the taxidermist, when asked what his play is about, responds fiercely ‘It’s about them, the animals that are two-thirds dead, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.’

The taxidermist, a craftsman who renders dead animals suitable for the collections of ordinary people to embellish their lives, merely wanted ‘to see if something could be said once the irreplaceable had been done. That is why I became a taxidermist,’ he says, ‘to bear witness.’ Henry’s loathing of his alter ego grows. He understands why all the animals in the showroom are so still; it was dread in the presence of the taxidermist. The Flaubert short story, he now understands, offers redemption without remorse.

In the end all that remains is a bloodied and crumpled piece of paper which provides the clue for his first piece of fiction writing in years. Games for Gustav poses thirteen impossible questions, each as unthinkable as the last. ‘Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?’ The novel sometimes staggers under its weight of symbolism, showing all the signs of a writer’s struggle to bring into focus the compulsion to kill and the capacity to feel nothing – the abomination which Beatrice and Virgil call the Horrors, plural.

It’s structure is bizarre and exhausting, but probably the only one which would serve for Martel. He quotes large chunks of Flaubert, provides fragments of the taxidermist’s play, Henry’s attempts at definition. Gustave’s dreadful ‘novel’ at the end has its origins in the vast archive of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to its elimination in 1943 after the Ghetto Uprising – Martel uses lens upon lens, the focus changing all the time.

There is no consolation. God is missing. Science is there only in the service of taxidermy. Beatrice and Virgil have been dead for thirty years. Genocide and species extermination require human agency. We invented them, and the deeper we face them the more inextricable our complicity becomes. And so we find ourselves precipitated into the land-mined territory of moral equivalence by a novel which will infuriate those who see anti-Semitism and obscenity in any attempt to unpack certain words and meanings, any attempt to confront and dismantle the taboo. Words are a central part of the problem, creating a shadow world, relentless, chilling, banal, fearful, a chronicle of human failure – a writer’s failure – a failure, which in the end, is inevitable and may be irreparable.

Beatrice and Virgil is a weird brave looping book which does not pull punches. I can’t stop thinking about it. It is remains to be seen if it too has what it takes to become the darling of book groups around the world. If it does, then Martel’s achievement will be even more remarkable than before – a sure sign that he has tapped into the depth of desire out there to grapple with the unspeakable horrors of our times.