December in nonfiction

SentillesDraw Your Weapons – Sarah Sentilles (Text)

This book, at once concerned with large themes and devoted to instances of the small and particular, is difficult to summarise. The main narratives concern the life of Second World War conscientious objector Howard Scott and the experiences of a former Abu Ghraib prison guard, but there are many additional themes, including intergenerational trauma, the power and ethics of photography, empathy, torture, pacifism, and the experiences of interned Japanese Americans. These are weighty subjects but the author’s touch is so light that I was barely conscious of reading. Instead, the book’s series of interconnected vignettes (a sample: ‘In World War II, the most common thing the wounded said as they lay dying on the battlefield was mother’) seemed to flow through me. This is not to say that Draw Your Weapons is a relaxing experience; far from it, as it delves deeply into our species’ shocking inhumanity. Sentilles does not belabour her points but her silences are impactful. She relates, for instance, that in 2013 two children injured in a drone strike in North Waziristan, which killed their grandmother, spoke to a group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill so that Congress could hear from Pakistani victims of US drones. Sentilles concludes, simply: ‘Only five members of Congress attended.’


ThePilbara_CVR2_1024x1024The Pilbara: From the Deserts the Profits Come – Brandon Ellem (UWA Pubishing)

This is an absorbing history of power and the struggles for it, which explores ‘[w]hat happened to unions in the Pilbara, how a union heartland became an all-but-union-free zone, and how these developments affected other parts of Australia’. The author gently steers us through the complicated and acronym-rich details of industrial relations law and practice, and delivers sharp insights. Contrary to popular wisdom, Ellem suggests that mine workers’ unions were not radical enough, noting that in the early 1980s some union convenors ‘expressed frustration’ that ‘[i]t was all about money, not the progressive role unions could play’. Moving to the contemporary era, he observes that the Pilbara is ‘now less a place to live than it is a globally fixed place of production’. I would have liked to see more on the miners’ approach to Indigenous employment, together with some deeper digging in some instances (on the native title front, more could be said of FMG’s Andrew Forrest than ‘his firm’s bargaining over royalties was the source of much controversy’) but this reflects a personal interest and is no doubt a subject for another book. Certainly, as Ellem demonstrates, this is a region ripe for analysis, being at the centre of many current debates, including automation’s impact on employment and tensions between governments and multinational corporations – as well as the venerable conflict between workers and bosses.


tinkering-cover-printTinkering: Australians Reinvent DIY Culture – Katherine Wilson (Monash University Publishing)

Although this subject matter is ostensibly located in the small and familiar, Katherine Wilson deftly peels back layer upon layer of meaning in this fascinating book. The narrative traverses history, politics, feminism, and culture as the author explores the context of the homemade: she reminds us, for instance, that the Eureka Flag was ‘crafted out of repurposed shirts, tea-towels and aprons’. Wilson poses a number of questions, including: do DIY activities constitute work or leisure? How do we conceptualise work that takes place beyond the labour market? Given it ‘occupies an ambiguous place between production and consumption’, what is the place of tinkering under capitalism? The tone is humorous as well as thoughtful; Wilson writes disarmingly that during an earlier stage of her research, she realised ‘my whole premise was bollocks’. Ultimately the methodology centres on her rapport with her subjects, which ‘unveiled a certain empirical truth – that there is indeed a sector of people, with important things to teach us, who identify as tinkerers’. The rapport shines through in interviews with self-defined tinkerers who work with everything from jewellery to car engines, and Wilson’s central argument that tinkering is an ‘unfettered expression of humanity’ is elegantly borne out.


FriedmanThings that Helped: Essays – Jessica Friedmann (Scribe)

These literary essays circle tightly around postpartum depression, but also explore themes including violence against women, art, writing and death. The strongest pieces are those that cut closest to the bone, making the reader witness to the author’s frankness. Friedmann is at great pains to interrogate her own privilege and observes that ‘the tragic and creative white woman is … a well-known figure’, such that she is ‘culturally, acceptedly neurotic’. Her narratives do not however seek refuge in the acceptable. For instance, she explores not only maternal sadness, but rage, writing of her baby that ‘When his crying reaches a crescendo, my anger does too’. It is trite to say that writing about mental illness is ‘brave’, but courage permeates these essays. Despite their highly cerebral nature, the language is physical, viscerally evoking pregnancy, breastfeeding, mental illness, and anguish. As well as milk there is blood here, and shit and vomit too. Friedmann wishes her ‘skin were a chrysalis’; is ‘desperate to feel the ground beneath my feet; her baby’s mouth is ‘stubborn and searching’; he ‘convulses with happiness’ as he drinks from her. The standout essay is ‘Walking’, a richly multilayered piece touching on Friedmann’s family, which includes Holocaust victims and survivors, intergenerational trauma, the texture of political arguments with her father, Judaism, whiteness and love.


us_women_our_ways_our_world_high_res_Us Women, Our Ways, Our World – edited by Pat Dudgeon, Jeannie Herbert, Jill Milroy and Darlene Oxenham (Magabala Books)

This book contains a diverse selection of life stories from Indigenous academics and community leaders. Although some of the writers explicitly invoke theory while others do not, the collection represents intersectionality in practice: the interconnecting impacts of race, gender, sexuality and class on these women’s lives are made apparent. Mainstream feminism is interrogated, and in Lyn Henderson-Yates’ account of ‘the invisibility of a fair-complexioned Aboriginal woman’ she writes of an encounter with a white woman in which ‘the possibilities of a unifying sisterhood never manifested’. The authors insist on difference: writing on Aboriginal lesbian identity, Sandy O’Sullivan argues that ‘our identities … are not Black versions of the negotiated experience of White lesbians’ as well as criticising anecdotal assumptions about gender and sexuality in Aboriginal communities. Inevitably Us Women stands as an indictment of Australia’s racist past and present – Mary Terszak writes that, having been taken from her mother at the age of two, she has ‘never been able to say with genuine feeling of love the word “mum”’, a statement wrenching in its stark simplicity. Similarly, MaryAnn Bin-Sallik relates instances of appalling institutionalised racism during her nursing career, including the sterilisation of Aboriginal women without their consent. These are however also stories of resilience and triumph, and the authors make it clear that they are active agents rather than simply being shaped by external forces. The stories make room for hope, with Ambelin Kwaymullina writing that ‘although we have suffered terrible damage … the essence of our holistic culture remains embedded in this living land.’


Sarah Burnside

Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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