April in nonfiction

These are strange and frightening times, and settling down to read nonfiction on subjects far removed from the COVID19 pandemic feels vaguely incongruous. However, books also help to fill what Evelyn Araluen terms the ‘deafening silence of quarantine’. In this age of #staythefuckathome, sharp anxiety and comfortable trousers, the following come recommended. 


RMW Dixon, Australia’s Original Languages: An Introduction

Notwithstanding colonists’ violent and often successful efforts to destroy them, First Nations languages appear everywhere today from Play School to the Hottest 100. Earlier this year, when going to the theatre was still legal, sellout crowds in Perth soaked up a wondrous retelling of Macbeth in Noongar. It is, in short, an ideal time for a book such as Dixon’s. Australia’s Original Languages is conversational and accessible even to those with no background in linguistics whatsoever, and its author’s enthusiasm for the ‘grammatical wealth’ of Australian languages is palpable (‘Whereas Latin … has a system of six cases on nouns, Bardi boasts of ten and Martuthunira almost a dozen. ’) The book is also a necessary corrective to the racist condescension that deems Indigenous languages ‘dialects’, with Dixon noting that ‘one of the strongest – but least recognised – forms of racism is to denigrate another’s language’.

To the tired high-school debating point that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did not develop written languages, Dixon argues: ‘Literature doesn’t need writing. Homer’s magnificent epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, were composed orally, before the introduction of writing into Greece’. He notes also that although a written form of English has existed for almost 1,500 years, ‘before the nineteenth century it was known to only a tiny fraction of the speech community’. The narrative is less assured towards the book’s end, when it skims rapidly over different historical periods to summarise events since colonisation. For instance, a speedy recounting of political developments in the 1990s sorely lacks nuance. Overall, though, Australia’s Original Languages is a gift: an introduction that will leave readers wanting to learn more.


Steve Mickler, Andrew Bolt, the Far Right and the First Nations: Deconstructing a Demagogue

Another gift comes in the form of Steve Mickler’s sustained engagement with the work of Andrew Bolt. Critiquing the Daily Telegraph columnist’s approach to race could be akin to machine-gunning fish in a barrel, but Mickler avoids easy gotchas. His aim is not to stimulate outrage, but analysis. Mickler zeroes in on Bolt’s focus on race and his determined refusal to engage with any notion of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoplehoodBolt’s reckless misuse of history (most notably on display in his callous denial of the Stolen Generations) is also worth emphasising.

Mickler notes that Bolt implicitly argues that ‘apartheid-like race laws are foreign to Australia, and are something that only now is being imported’ in the guise of anti-racism. The manifest untruth of this is staggering, given that this continent has witnessed laws and policies ‘that in their most intensive periods easily surpassed South African and Rhodesian apartheid in their sheer totalitarian control and relentless restriction of almost every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal people. ’

Against this still recent historical context, Bolt’s habit of describing ‘Aboriginal-only computer rooms’ at universities as ‘another step toward apartheid’ is trivialising in the extreme. This is no accident: Mickler notes that such tactics aim to persuade readers that ‘the entire Indigenous quest for justice as colonised peoples is illegitimate.’ More broadly, he suggests that rhetoric like Bolt’s seeks to shift and maintain Australia’s political culture as far to the right as possible, with such a strategy meaning that ‘one cannot oppose fascism, or at least not anywhere nearly as vehemently and urgently as it opposes liberalism or socialism’. Indeed, Bolt’s persistent identification of leftists as fascists ‘lets the real fascists off the hook’. 


Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

For a look at settler-society racism in a global context, sit back and take in the magisterial sweep of Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, which dismantles wishful narratives of colonial benevolence. Gopal dissects the notion that political and intellectual influences only flowed in one direction – from the Imperial centre to the colonies – and not vice versa. She argues persuasively that ‘British public life and political discourse have been mired in a tenacious mythology in which Britain – followed by the remainder of the geopolitical West – is the wellspring of ideas of freedom, either “bestowing” it on slaves and colonial subjects or “teaching” them how to go about obtaining it’.

Roving throughout the colonised world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Gopal’s book examines this mythology, gently unpicking and comprehensively smashing it by turns as she demonstrates the myriad figures who were inspired and influenced by uprisings and intellectual currents from Jamaica to India. Tracing these lines of ‘dissent and opposition’ within Britain and their transnational origins, Gopal argues, ‘enables Britons to lay claim to a different, more challenging history.’ 


Michelle Arrow, The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia

Political narratives of 1970s’ Australia are familiar to us. Historian Michelle Arrow observes that the decade often functions as a cautionary tale in triumphal narratives of the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, a period from which, in our national stories, ‘the nation became the economy’. 

Arrow’s book, while not minimising the political and economic upheavals of the era, focuses on social change within what had previously been considered the private sphere, primarily examining women’s and gay liberation. The book usefully draws out tensions in these movements, examining the distinct paths taken by feminist activists and ‘femocrats’ and noting Aboriginal women’s sustained challenges to the movement’s universalist assumptions.

(Arrow cites Bobbi Sykes, who charged in 1973 that ‘to talk about Women’s Liberation to a woman with four children, three of whom are pre-school age, whose husband is in gaol, who has no money, is ridiculous … She’s just going to stare at you blankly, because what she is thinking is how she is going to make one mutton chop serve all the family tonight’.)

The often overlooked 1974 Royal Commission on Human Relationships provides a glimpse of the decade’s human face, and Arrow sensitively explores violence in the family home, illegal backyard abortions, concealment of non-hetero inclinations and the grave risks of coming out. The book’s Afterword, on the legacy and unfinished business of the 1970s and the political use of personal narratives in contemporary Australia, is particularly perceptive, and a lengthier evaluation would have been welcome. Arrow notes that ‘too often, personal stories are told in our culture without meaningful political activism to animate them,’ closing with the suggestion of a renewed focus on collective solutions. 


Fiona McGregor, A Novel Idea

In 1974, oral historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel released Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a book which explored the various meanings that work can possess. A Novel Idea, a photo-essay by writer and performance artist Fiona McGregor, focuses on one particular kind of work: it vividly evokes the solitary, ‘occasionally euphoric’, often dull labour of writing.

McGregor tells a tale in fragments, a story of a story: each page carries a photograph of her crafting her celebrated 2013 novel Indelible Ink, together with a thought or observation. Its tone is unsparing, dry, sardonic. On 7 November 2008 she writes, ‘take note you creative writing students: I don’t know! I don’t understand!’ On 9 January 2009, ‘other people’s dreams are really boring, aren’t they. 

There is inspiration, restlessness, sadness and frustration; there are piercing reflections on politics, relationships, and property. McGregor’s reflections on a quiet, deskbound existence will be particularly resonant for those who are working from home during the current crisis: on 5 May 2009 she writes, ‘I’m lonely’, and the entry from 17 December 2007 exclaims ‘Christ, get me outta here.’ 


Sarah Burnside

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

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  1. This is an excellent selection – I have added almost all of them to my to-read list – thank you so much!

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