On writing The Library Agrafa

Occasionally I write not-so-shallow articles. This week my essay The Library Agrafa was published in The Aleph Review a Pakistani journal for creative expression. Here is an excerpt:

This story was anathema to me. It lacked the necessary romance and love that I would read about in the novels that I would buy from the newsagency on my way home from the one-room children’s library, arms laden with books borrowed and books bought. Romance to me was a meeting of two people who share a feeling of intimacy, desire, a visceral connection. Marrying for a business transaction, the joining of two large herds, lacked spark, lacked the necessary frisson of a dramatic coming together.

You can read the whole essay at this link: https://www.thealephreview.com/post/the-library-agrafa

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May and Tales of (M)O(u)ld: Busy busy, mould and book grief. Observation Notes 103-104 and Reading Notes 44-45.

May has been a challenging month with very little pleasure reading. Once again, I am using SuperWendy’s TBR challenge theme for May “Tales of Old” to guide my post.

Observation 103: Same old same old back to being busy busy. Between running workshops for the road safety organisation that I work for (hmmmm – did I mention this weird and out-of-the-ordinary new career move???? I don’t teach driving LOL I instruct on the affect of emotions/moods on driving decisions), I have been teaching a citizenship and communications subject at the university, and I was a tad preoccupied with the Federal election (well….how could I not be happy with the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – he is my local member, he is not a right-wing misogynistic theocratic liar, and his first visit as the new PM was to Marrickville Library, the cultural heart of the community. He did not go to the pub or to a church but instead went to the most inclusive public space dedicated to keeping people informed. I think this speaks volumes as to the evolved role of 21st century libraries as secular, participatory and social meeting places for the exchange of public knowledge but it also speaks volumes to the new approach our change of government is heralding). All this busy-ness has meant that I have not read any books or magazines or anything at all close to pleasure reading. Even my viewing is nearly at zero – a bit of Mike Myers’ The Pentavarate (meh), a couple of Season 2 episodes of Bridgerton (hooked but waiting to binge-watch the rest), and I could only get through 20 minutes of Senior Year (Rebel Wilson can only play one character, right?).

Observation 104: Tales of Mould. Sydney (and much of the East coast of Australia) has been deluged in a La Nina. There have been devastating floods across the state, especially in the north at Lismore, and on the outskirts of Sydney. I don’t know anyone who has not had some sort of water damage, either from leaks, mud, but mostly the mould that is growing everywhere. As I am allergic to mould, I am knocking myself out with fans and heaters trying to keep the house dry, but it has been hopeless. Clothes have mould, shoes have mould, couches have mould everywhere. Some I have washed and treated, others I have happily discarded. It doesn’t help that my kitchen has had water leaks. Every time it rains, I put out towels and blankets to soak up the water. On the worst day we had over 20 leaks. The walls are stained and so is my ceiling. I can’t fault our insurance company who ensured we weren’t in danger but any repairs understandably have to wait while more urgent cases are dealt with. But the absolutely worst discovery of all, was finding my books in the sunroom/study have mould shot throughout them. Devastatingly, I threw out over 400 books. I may have cried.

Reading Note 44: My Book Grief. Like so many avid readers, I tend to keep my books, especially those which hold meaning and significance for me. Shelved throughout my home, they give me comfort. Many were gifts. Many I have read and reread and rereread and travelled with and slept with and swatted with and marked with and just relished in the memories they gave me. Some were gifts and others were inherited, inscribed by myself, by friends, by my parents-in-law. Many were read to my sons who pawed over them, sucked on them, chewed on them, drew on them, read on them. Hours and hours, days, months, years and decades of my reading life – novels, true stories, comics, travel guides. All marked with mould. They were too far damaged to keep especially with the impact they could have on my asthma. They are all now in the recycling bin. Here are just some photos to memorialise my book grief:

A Truman Capote Reader: I remember my older sister buying this book. We shared a bedroom at the time and we kept our books in this large white bookcase with glass sliding doors one of which was broken. In the same week she bought this book, she was given a second copy which she told me I could have. I remember starting with Breakfast at Tiffany’s as I had seen the movie. I then read through all the rest of the short stories, I have only vague recollections of them, with the exception of Capote writing about Marilyn Monroe

Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Hot Chocolate: I can’t recall who recommended I read this book but I know that it was well before the 1992 movie was released. Take note that the book has its original title, its later editions (and the movie) being called Like Water for Chocolate. I always was annoyed at this change in the title. The recipe in the book is all about using water rather than milk for hot chocolate. This recipe intrigued me as my Θείο Νικολάκη (Uncle Nikolaki) made hot chocolate in his coffee house in my mum’s village in this way.

A.C. Weisbecker’s Cosmic Banditos: This was a library discovery. The collection librarian where I worked was a total book snob and would snort if I suggested he purchase any romances but he was 100% on board for buying kitsch, weird, absurdist novels for me when I would find them reviewed in the international trade publications. I was deeply amused by Cosmic Banditos and its premise of a band of drug runners in Columbia having stolen a physics professor’s suitcase. They discover his textbook manuscript which they proceed to read and then debate over quantum physics and the meaning of life. I bought this copy for myself, and years later found out that the book had a cult readership having failed in bookshops but having taken off in US army barracks once Weisbecker sent his remainder copies to troops. At least, this is what I recall – it has been thirty years so I am happy to be corrected.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife: I’m quite sure that I first saw this book being reserved, borrowed, returned at the library where I worked on the circulation desk every Sunday while I wrote HTML code for the district “virtual library” website in 2002-2005. These were pre-web2.0 days and I was writing and coordinating content for this site, an early iteration of work-from-home with the first manager of the project which was slammed by the manager who took over. She was infuriated that I coded at home and insisted I sat in a library office to do the exact same thing. Sound familiar??? Anyway, these were book-slump, reading desert years when I had babies and I read nothing at all. Between running from this job to my TAFE library educator job (community college for the non-Australian readers), and taking care of my sons, reading was a past pleasure until, one day, I have no idea what compelled me, I sat down and read The Time Traveller’s Wife in the one sitting. I started some time after lunch and I finished it at 3am. It was the first novel I read in 7 years and it was enough to fire me up again, starting me on a book binge that propelled me into further study.

Gary Larson’s The Far Side: These Far Side anthologies belong to my husband who is forever amused by Gary Larson especially the cow comics. Absurd and anthropomorphised animals going about having human lives, Larson’s quirky and gentle humour held such an appeal for both of us, and both these books were early dip-in-and-out reads for us, though I don’t think we had done so for over a decade.

Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box: As a young uni student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I depended on cheap and free movies for much of my entertainment. One place I would frequent was the long ago shut down Valhalla movie theatre, halfway down Glebe Point Road in Glebe. I would go and watch cheap pics there all the time, often on my own, and often with no knowledge of what I was going to watch. On such a day, I sat down in the Valhalla, and on the screen came a talking head, ruminating on love, life and himself. A one-and-a-half hour documentary that sent me into indie bookshops in search of Gray’s books.

Tama Janowitz’s American Dad: I loved Janowitz’s books. I know I had read all of them, but I only own one. The pity is, that as much as I recall loving her books, I do not recall anything about them. The sense of the book is greater than the story it told.

Hugh Lunn’s Over the Top With Jim: An Australian journalists childhood memoir, I remember loving Lunn’s writing style. At a time when Australia was venerating Clive James’s childhood memoirs (which were ok but a tad boring in comparison to his TV show at that time), Lunn shined gently for those who wanted someone who actually liked and lived in Australia rather than Clive’s Aussie who has escaped Australia reflections. I also threw out Clive James’s books but I didn’t take photos of them.

Amanda Filipacci’s Nude Men: Though I enjoyed it at the time, I think that this book can’t have aged well. I recall a messed up sex scene and I am too scared to revisit the book for a reread. Not all favourites need to be reread, right?

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary: No, I will never reread this book. But I wanted the symbolism of it on my shelf. The book that shifted so much understanding of women back in the nineties.

Various classics: I threw out many tattered, moist classics. I guess I should be upset but knowing that I can download digital copies free from Project Gutenberg or buy cheap new copies, I wasn’t really fussed. I’m much more upset about the out-of-print books I had to throw out.

Reading Note 45: Four decades of reading life. There were so many other books that I didn’t photograph that have now been sent for pulping. Children’s books, with Where’s Wally being thrown away alongside Babette Cole, Roald Dahl, Nick Sharrat, fairy tale retellings and so many others. All my travel guides from my carefree intrepid years. Those tomes with dog-eared and tattered pages. Some water stains. Some oily stains. The occasional food and coffee stains. Pen marks and highlighters, some sticky post-it notes, my trips around Europe, the shops I chose, the accomodation I chose. These books showed my reading life trajectory, my fleeting interests, my impulse buys, my keeper buys with their marginalia, these books showing my life route, my travel maps. It saddens me that I had to throw them out. I did not feel the same grief when I discarded my old e-reader.

Oddly enough, though all these mould ridden books sat side-by-side with my Mills-&-Boon collection, it was the other books that were affected. Fortuitously, all but 5 of the romances were fine. Not even a spot of mould. A lot to be said for good paper stock.

My shelves are now bare. I’ve cleaned them with vinegar and detergent as I have not been able to find oil of cloves anywhere. Now to decide what I can risk putting on these shelves.

Romance genre captivity narratives & Australia

Guest Post by Merrian Weymouth


Janet’s series of opinion posts over on Dear Author about historical North American captivity narratives and the antecedents of the romance genre have led me to try and think out what I know about Australian settlement history – a very general laywoman’s view and to wonder what our captivity narratives would be like. These are the three posts with discussion that form the background to this blog post.

“Life During Wartime” on Dear Author .

“Take The Long Way Home” on Dear Author

“Can’t Find My Way Home” on Dear Author

I started writing a comment to Janet’s “Life During Wartime” post but it became very long and Vassiliki kindly volunteered her blog as a place to share my ramblings.

I can describe three forms of captivity for women that arose from the way in which settlement happened here in Australia but I’m not sure we have equivalent Australian captivity narratives unless we count stories such as Henry Lawson’s fiction of the 1890’s “The Drover’s Wife” about a woman who is captive to her husband’s absence, the bush and the snake, and who does not have her own name.

Women Convicts

Male and female convicts arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and the last convicts to be transported to Australia arrived in Western Australia in 1868. Female convicts made up 20% of the convict population. Nearly all white women who arrived in Australia in the late 18th and early 19th were convicts; that is, they were captives of the government. To grow the colony, women were needed to breed the next generation. This meant that in Britain women received the harsher penalty of transportation for offences. Women, especially those of marrying age were transported mainly for petty theft and property crimes. Their function was to give sexual gratification to the men of the colony and have babies. The government turned female convicts into unpaid sex workers. Crowds of men would meet the arriving ships to pick whom they wanted. Male convicts had the capacity to earn their passage back to Britain after their term had expired. The reality for women, especially once children were born, was that transportation was a life sentence.

Effectively any existing marriages of all female convicts arriving on Australian shores were set aside. Female convicts were initially sent to ‘factories’ and their way out of these harsh holding cells was to be taken as servants (often a euphemism for concubine) or directly into a co-habiting relationship. Men could go and view the women; there are descriptions from the Parramatta Factory of men dropping a handkerchief at the feet of the one they selected. The women had the choice as to whether they picked up the handkerchief but given the limited options they faced, was it really a choice? The female convicts’ agreeing to be one man’s partner obtained some protection for the importunities of the many, although even so they were still considered whores.  This attitude to women in the colony was so prevalent that even free women who settled in Australia before the 1830’s wore the same label. Legal marriage was very difficult to achieve for convicts due to the cost of the licence and the lack of Anglican clergy. If convict women had any bargaining power it was because of the scarcity of women, an issue in Australia throughout the 19th century.

Consequently, settler Australia grew into a very sexist, misogynistic culture with very distinct male and female worlds of opportunity and action. Men had great power over women; this made Australia a land where women waited for the man to claim to them and to change things for them where men despised them for this and even as they were desired as wives and de facto partners, they were seen as corrupting whores. The process of settlement built a greater power imbalance into male/female relationships than already existed in the British culture of the times. Free women migrating as potential wives and mothers were subsumed into this culture.

Women and settlement

This leads to a story I was told by a local man about life on the Atherton Tablelands in the hinterland behind Cairns in Queensland. Roads into much of the interior of Australia are an essentially 20th century invention; movement around Australia until around WW1 was mostly via coastal steamers and latterly railways. The vast distances (today it takes around 19 hours to drive 1704 km from Brisbane to Cairns) meant that regional areas could be incredibly isolated. Men who had taken up land in the Tablelands would go down to Cairns, Brisbane or Townsville to find a wife, woo her and marry her then bring her back to their properties. They would deliberately take a long and convoluted trip from Cairns into the Tablelands so the woman would not be able to find her own way back over the distance of several days journey. The isolation of life in these places was a known cause for women wanting to leave; the problem was solved by making sure she couldn’t leave because she didn’t know the way out.

White men abducted Aboriginal women as sexual and working slaves. This was a common practice of stockmen moving large cattle herds over great distances and particularly of Sealers working in Bass Strait who abducted women from Tasmania.

White women living with Aboriginal tribes was so rare as to be regarded as mythical and only potentially occurring when ships were wrecked on the coast, not because of abduction.

Beginning in the 1830’s, the Government assisted the immigration of single women between the ages of eighteen and thirty to work as domestic servants and to become wives. Migration to Australia boomed with the discovery of gold in the 1850’s. The population tripled in the next 20 years bringing migrants from countries outside the British Empire. It was not uncommon for migrant women from Europe to marry fellow countrymen by proxy who had already settled in Australia. They made long journeys alone to a new future with nothing but their hope that they were married to good men. Often not speaking any English, their point of contact with the wider Australian world was dependent on their husbands.

Women and the land

Female captivity in Australian historical terms cannot be considered without thinking about our relationship with the land and the great, absorbing silence of the bush. The dominant myth of 19th century settlement was that of the lost child who wanders into the bush never to be seen again. There are many sad stories of real events. Children traditionally represent the future in stories and poems. So these are stories about the harsh and alien environment and European uncertainties and fears about being swallowed whole by the realities of making a life here. Aboriginal people were never the abductors in real life or in stories, they were the ‘black trackers’ who searched for and hopefully found the missing; able to do so because of their relationship to the land and under the direction of white men leading the search parties and dominating their environment. Many free settlers were remittance men, disgraced in some way or unable to fit into British society so sent to, or escaping to Australia with the intention they vanish into the Terra Nullius; the empty land. The long sea journey to Australia meant that settlers were unlikely to see family or friends ever again e.g. until late in 19th century letters back to Britain could take two years to receive a reply, so the land and its distances itself was the captor.

What’s in a name…?

Female life in early settler Australia was determined by strong systemic, social and cultural imperatives implemented through government policy of the day and shaped by the geography of our silent landscape. A whole category of women whose sexual consent was neither needed nor required were created by government fiat. The actual process of settlement turned women as a group and as individuals into nameless objects. “The convict stain” is the colloquial term for having a family heritage of descent from convicts (1 in 7 Australians has convict blood). It was not until well into the 20th century that the stain was regarded without shame. It seems to me the shame wasn’t in the transportation for crime but in what happened on these shores. Australian women settlers were made nameless and silent and ashamed. Their self-reliance, loyalty to each other, determination and economic successes were hidden away by the general view taken of female convicts and inherent cultural misogyny. In the North American captivity narratives, women and children are named and have some form of individual agency in contrast to the nameless, silenced women of early Australian settlement.

Further questions

In her post “Take The Long Way Home” Janet says: “Romance, beyond its focus on a romantic relationship, is also very much preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and society, between freely chosen love and social obligation, between personal aspirations and social roles.” In the case of the female convicts – personal aspirations are likely to have been reduced to being raped less and their relationships primarily instrumental – what can you do for me and what must I exchange for it? Where is the romance?  Are any meaningful mutual obligations possible between individuals? If the state is your rapist what do you owe the social contract? Convict women and the Aboriginal women who survived these early years of settlement were seen as recalcitrant and always ready to battle authority, they were always other.

How does our Australian settler cultural history and mythology construct and engage with the romance genre? How do the captivity, marriage of convenience and ‘fated mate’ tropes of the romance genre then speak to our historical experience of convict and immigrant women and proxy brides for strangers?

If we accept the modern romance genre as seeded from the history and myth of the North American captivity narratives does this enforce markedly American approaches to thinking, writing and reading the romance genre even when readers and writers come from other cultures?

Some Background:

“The Proposition” film set in the 1880’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Proposition

“Lost” painting by Frederick McCubbin http://www.artistsfootsteps.com/html/McCubbin_lost.htm

Books about female convicts http://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/index.php/resources/books

“Bush Studies” by Barbara Baynton http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100141.txt

“The Drover’s Wife” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)  http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00108.txt

“The Babies In The Bush” by Henry Lawson (scroll down to find story)   http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00025.txt

“WHITE WOMAN WITH BLACK TRIBES Believed To Be A Myth“  in Gippsland Times Thursday 7th February 1935 http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/62949799

Merrian Weymouth can be emailed at mezzky.mow@gmail.com