February in nonfiction

Asylum by boatAsylum by Boat: Origins of Australia’s Refugee PolicyClaire Higgins (UNSW Press)

Imagine a country in which 175 refugees arrive by sea twelve days before a federal election, and the immigration and foreign affairs ministers release a statement emphasising that the boats ‘must not be allowed’ to become a campaign issue as ‘the basic question of human suffering transcends partisan advantage’. In this country, the Minister and Shadow Minister for Immigration even attend public meetings together to ‘explain the non-discriminatory refugee and immigration program to the community’.

It’s difficult to believe that Australia used to be such a country – a place where, in 1979, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised against a Labor proposal for temporary camps for boat arrivals on the basis that such camps would discriminate between refugees who only managed to reach South-East Asia, and those who had the ‘perseverance and courage’ to make it all the way here. Using archival sources and interviews, the book takes us into Cabinet meetings and government departments and the arguments of politicians and policymakers to tell the story of why Vietnamese boat arrivals from 1976–1981 were given access to permanent settlement while asylum seekers who arrived a mere seven years later were accorded markedly different treatment.

Higgins traces shifting attitudes within successive governments, noting that already by the early 1990s ‘following heated political debate over Asian immigration, a hard line against the next group of asylum seekers was viewed by decision makers as the only way to preserve what had been achieved’. In the age of Manus and Nauru, this exploration of the road taken but then abandoned is critical reading.


After_the_War_cover_RGBAfter the War: Returned Soldiers and the Mental and Physical Scars of World War I – Leigh Straw (UWA Publishing)

This book, which proceeds from an unearthed piece of family history to tell stories of Western Australian soldiers who returned from the First World War, faces some challenges: as Straw notes, traumatic memories in the minds of men long dead represent a ‘difficult place for historians to enter’. However, After the War makes very effective use of letters and diaries, as well as oral histories, to illuminate the postwar lives of men suffering from alcoholism, tuberculosis, mental illness, and shellshock as well as financial hardship (relevantly, soldiers afflicted with venereal disease were punished by having their pay forfeited). There are arresting stories of postwar suicide, including that of a small child who unwittingly foiled one of her father’s attempts to end his life; another man left a note, in 1934, which read ‘I can’t stick this any longer’.

Valuably, Straw’s focus on returned servicemen also includes exploration of their roles as members of families and communities. She reveals the feminised labour of care for the men broken by war, hidden within ‘the silences of family life’, noting: ‘The family home was never recognised as a “site of repatriation” and caregivers were overlooked for the healing they provided to loved ones.’ Detailed, thoughtful and moving, this book represents an eloquent plea to expand the stories we tell about war to include the trauma carried by those who return.


GarnerTrue Stories: The Collected Short Non-FictionHelen Garner (Text)

This collection of columns, essays and feature writing from the early 1970s to the present is a real treat, offering immersive journalism, humour, whimsy and analysis. In a most entertaining discussion of Pride and Prejudice, Garner muses that to ‘keep my eye on how Austen was actually doing things, I was trying to work hard against the seduction of her endlessly modulating, psychologically piercing narrative voice …’ and similar observations could be made of the pieces gathered together here.

The prose pulls you in and sucks you under and before you know it you’ve read and enjoyed ‘The Insults of Age’ before really registering that the author had pulled a schoolgirl’s hair with no remorse. Similarly, in ‘On Darkness’, Garner recounts conversations with people who have refused to read her book This House of Grief because it does not condemn a man who killed his children as a monster, and who have accused her of ‘making excuses’ for him. Certainly Garner is correct that dreadful crimes committed by ‘apparently ordinary people’ are worth thinking about. However, while nodding along the reader might wonder: isn’t it odd, though, not to acknowledge here that our society has long found it all too easy to exculpate violent men?

There is a context to the reactions Garner writes of, and those who push back against the nuance she offers can surely be forgiven a certain weariness with explanations. Garner’s writing is visceral – there are howls of anguish and spasms of rage, and she turns an unflinching gaze on our inhumanity. Some of us could do with some flinching. ‘Killing Daniel’, a piece about the abuse and murder of a two-year old, is characteristically finely wrought but I sincerely wish I had turned past those pages and left it unread – it will haunt me forever.

The essays gathered here survey the range of human emotions, and Garner is brilliant at capturing the place where joy and sorrow meet: she notes, for instance, that a young actor has ‘a face so open it hurts to look at it’. The clear-eyed evocations of non-romantic love are also a highlight: no-one writes about babies, mothers and sisters quite like Garner. In particular, given older women’s experiences are so often overlooked in literature, her warm yet unsentimental reflections on grandmotherhood (‘I am almost frightened by the ferocious love I feel’) are well worth celebrating.


The Baffler 37The Baffler (Winter 2017, #37)

The Baffler, a US publication which styles itself as ‘the journal that blunts the cutting edge’, is always a bracing and intelligent read, the latest edition of which dives deeply into the theme of ‘corruption’.

The shadow of Trump looms over all writing on contemporary America, but as editor Chris Lehmann cautions, ‘we shouldn’t let ourselves drift back into the amnesiac folk belief that corruption is a deviation from our virtuous democratic norm, or an inexplicable novelty.’ The essays differ widely in theme: there is everything from Megan Day on America’s history of loan sharks to Andrew Hartmann’s analysis of public choice theory, libertarianism and racism to Tom Carson’s journey ‘inside the paranoia-entertainment complex’: a television landscape replete with death and destruction and ‘eerily devoid of anything resembling optimism’.

The essays leave the reader with much to chew on, whether it’s Hartmann’s challenge to the left to ‘reclaim the mantle of freedom’ or Carson’s musings that if ‘our reigning doomsday genres qualify as escapist at all, it’s a very peculiar version of escapism – consoling people by creating imaginary worlds so freakish, violent, Machiavellian and sinister that the real world’s terrors seem tame by comparison.’ Rhett Miller’s piece on the workings of the modern music industry will also linger; he laments ‘if I was a fourteen-year-old depressive nowadays, I’m not sure what would even draw me into the world of music to begin with’.

This reviewer can confirm that no prior interest in sport is required to find David J Roth’s salvo on the decline of the NFL (‘the biggest, richest, and most luridly batshit sports league the world has ever seen’) fascinating. Also enjoyable is Lucy Ellman’s splendidly grumpy polemic against travel, in which she argues ‘there’s nothing admirable about getting your ass on an airbus’ and commands: ‘Throw out your fanny-pack and malaria pills and read a book instead.’


Lead image: crop from cover of Asylum by Boat.

Sarah Burnside

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

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