A new voice uses Indigenous Knowledge to bring enlightenment and balance.
Sand Talk, a highly original new book by poet, artist and academic Tyson Yunkaporta, presents Indigenous Knowledge as a way of solving our many contemporary ills. Modern life is out of balance and causing harm. There are problems everywhere – from how the economy is run, prioritising growth that is really a form of death to the environment, to poor personal and spiritual health. Society is based around hierarchical relationships, rather than interdependence and shared knowledge. Our narcissism makes us believe we are better than and superior to each other. The ego constantly gets in the way of clear thinking, obscuring the path to true knowledge.
Tyson Yunkaporta was born in Melbourne and raised in rural Queensland, living with about a dozen different Indigenous communities during his youth. As a young man in Cape York he was adopted by Dad Kenlock and Mum Hersie, and subsequently travelled around Australia, working with Indigenous groups and gaining a wealth of traditional knowledge. It is these years spent learning from Elders and knowledge keepers that Yunkaporta brings to Sand Talk. It is a book that has clearly spent many years in the making, a work that is the result of years of deep thought and meditation. On every page Yunkaporta strives for simplicity and truth, as revealed to him by his experiences travelling all over Australia.
Sand Talk is hard to categorise. It reads as a mix of philosophy, self-help and spiritual text. Yunkaporta has a keen analytical mind. There are many passages of surprising clarity. The author is quick to cut through modern received wisdom to expose the lie at the centre of it. For example, in a chapter discussing violence he says our clean, technological, peaceful cities outsource their violence to other places and peoples. “You carry the pillaged metals in your phone from devastated African lands and communities. Your notions of peaceful settlement and development are delusions peppered with bullet holes and spears.” Another chapter discusses the origins of modern education as a way of ensuring obedience and conformity, with an impressive use of history to make the point. The book is full of such radical examples, showing how Western civilisation uses artifice and polished rhetoric to conceal its darker side.
Written in a simple, clear language, yet demanding concentration and commitment, Sand Talk is like nothing you've read before.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Change the World, by Tyson Yunkaporta. Published by Text. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
From teenage angst to bedroom farce, Nina Kenwood's debut romantic comedy for young adults is a winner.
Eighteen-year-old Natalie's world is coming apart. Her wonderful, supportive parents have told her they're separating. Then there are problems brewing with her tight-knit group of friends. She met Lucy and Zach at a writing camp. The three of them were best friends, but then things got more serious between Lucy and Zach. Natalie, without a boyfriend of her own, feels like a third wheel. On top of this there are all of Natalie's personal problems and vulnerabilities. She's terribly introverted, obsesses over the smallest thing and finds social situations – especially parties – mortifying. An acne problem in her younger years has left some scars, both physical and emotional. She hates the idea of showing her body to anyone.
Along comes Alex, a boy one year older than her, who starts to take notice. Through a series of farcical mix-ups, where Natalie and Alex are forced to share a bedroom, the two get to know each other. There are misunderstandings that follow, and when Natalie finds out some unpleasant details from Alex's past, she wonders if she can ever be his boyfriend.
Nina Kenwood's debut It Sounded Better in My Head is a charming, funny, all-too-human coming-of-age story. The novel perfectly captures those awkward, uncertain teenage years when emotions are constantly on the boil. The plot is simple yet cleverly crafted and paced, making it a dream to read.
Genuine, true to life and often quite funny, It Sounded Better in My Head is a winner that deserves wide appeal.
Reading age: 14 +
It Sounded Better in my Head, by Nina Kenwood. Published by Text. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1945, a shocking wave of suicides spread across Germany...
As Soviet troops advanced on Nazi Germany, and all seemed utterly hopeless, large numbers of German citizens chose not only suicide for themselves, but suicide for their families as well. Florian Huber pieces together a chilling, tragic and sometimes bizarre narrative of ordinary Germans trapped in circumstances of their own blind making. Once Hitler had committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, there was no conceivable path out of the national madness he had created. Hitler was all; extraordinary numbers of Germans believed he was a virtual messiah, come to save them. When news got out of the death camps and gas chambers, Germans muttered that Hitler couldn't have known. If he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Popular delusions ran deep.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself (named after a father who gave his daughter a gun, told her to run and then kill herself) has two major parts. The first is a history of that wave of 1945 suicides, the story of a people immobilised by fear and lacking any moral compass; the second part tries to analyse why Germans got taken in by Hitler. The harsh terms set out for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, goes some way to explaining Hitler's popularity, but not all. So much still remains an enigma.
The most fascinating parts of the book discuss political scientist Hannah Arendt's experiences on returning to Germany after the war. Ordinary Germans, she discovered, remained indifferent or unwilling to face the crimes of the Nazi regime. These callous, self-pitying responses left Arendt in a state of shock.
A fascinating addition to the history of Nazi Germany, using contemporary diary entries and letters to explain the mindset and attitudes of ordinary Germans who created for themselves a horrific nightmare.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber. Text Publishing. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Irina Odoevtseva fled Russia soon after the 1917 Revolution and lived in Germany, then France, not returning to her homeland until 1987. She was a poet, memoirist and novelist. Isolde, published in 1929, was her second novel. It has now been translated into English for the first time.
Pretty, doll-like Liza lives in Biarritz, a seaside playground for the rich on the coast of France. She is fourteen-years-old and is much sought after by other boys. One day on the beach she meets Cromwell, an English lad who is a few years older than her. Cromwell professes undying love for Liza, calls her his “Isolde”, and is quickly drawn into her group, which includes her older brother, Antonio, and friend Odette. This young group of carefree youths live the fast life, dining out at restaurants, drinking and generally seeking pleasure. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are all short on money, or if they have money, then it is soon enough running out. The group sponges off Cromwell, while Liza, an innocent, free spirit, talks about meeting up with Andrei, a former boyfriend.
Everyone is riding an emotional merry-go-round, even Liza's mother, Natasha. She has a needy boyfriend, Bunny, who has drained his bank account for her and even started embezzling money. The slavish Bunny is not enough for Natasha, and she takes up with Boris, who is emotionally abusive.
Everything spins faster and faster for this group of children and adults. Pleasure, money, indulgence, fast cars, sex. But as the money runs out and the discarded relationships pile up, everything seems on a crash course for disaster.
Isolde caused a scandal in its day, with its air of delicious decadence and beautiful yet tainted youth. Odoevtseva captivates with her descriptions of the beautiful Liza, her trilling laughter, languid afternoons and breezy, uncomplicated character. The scene in Biarritz is painted as an enticing, voluptuaries’ playground. It’s hard not to be seduced. But as the novel progresses, one feels the hangover of such excesses, until such a dissolute lifestyle catches up with everyone. Ultimately Isolde is a moral story. Living for pleasure, on other people's money, with no consideration for the feelings of others, is the fastest route to hell.
Odoevtseva writes in a light, breezy tone, skilfully weaving into her spirited narrative an impending sense of dread, decay and doom. What a treat for English readers to have this long ignored Russian classic now available in translation.
Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva. Published by Pushkin. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A Syrian couple flee their country for asylum in London after losing their son, Sami, in a bomb attack.
Nuri and Afra have a seven-year-old son, Sami. They live in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Nuri works as a beekeeper with his cousin, Mustafa. Afra is a visual artist. As civil war tears the country apart, the young family find their lives more and more at risk. A bomb blinds Afra and Sami, their son, is killed. Staying in Syria becomes impossible when Nuri's life is threatened: he must join a militia and start killing. Nuri and Afra make hasty plans to leave, a journey that will take them through Turkey and Greece until they arrive in England, where Mustafa has successfully sought asylum.
Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and was raised in London. She has worked in Athens with refugees fleeing Syria and it is the stories of these people that she has fashioned into a moving story of trauma, exile and grief. Each chapter is divided into two parts, a present tense where Nuri narrates the couple's life in London as they apply for asylum, and a past tense which describes the dangerous journey from Syria. As the novel progresses chapter by chapter the past catches up with the present, and the more shocking aspects of the journey are revealed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a skilfully crafted novel that works both as an enjoyable aesthetic experience and a testament to the suffering of those who must leave home, family and country for a future that only promises uncertainty. The story contains many shocking scenes and incidents, especially concerning villainous people smugglers, that must be drawn from real life experience.
Read this book to understand the plight of asylum seekers the world over, and be humbled by it.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri. Published by Zaffre. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Pajtim Statovci's second novel, Crossing, recently translated into English by David Hackson, concentrates on themes of loss, displacement and identity.
Bujar is a young Albanian dealing with an array of problems, personal and political. His homeland, Albania, is increasingly unstable and he feels himself oscillating between being male and female, gay and straight. His best friend, Agim, is feminine, highly intelligent and likes to dress in women’s clothes. The two boys – they are in their mid-teens – decide that there is no place for them in Albania and decide to flee. They spend much time tramping around Tirana, the country’s capital, until they save enough money to travel to Western Europe.
The story takes place along three different timelines and mostly focuses on Bujar. We see him at fourteen in Albania and in his early twenties when living in countries such as Spain, Germany and Italy. He also spends time in New York. The final part of the novel, when Bujar is in his late twenties, sees him in Finland. Throughout his travels Bujar always feels displaced, never quite fitting in, a constant outsider who dreads being asked the question, “Where are you from?” Shame is a recurring emotion, as Bujar feels himself to be both spiritually and physically homeless.
Many of the themes Pajtim Statovci addressed in his debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, are reprised here. The political and social history of the Balkans during the 1990s; the nature of being a displaced person; difficult family relationships exacerbated by war; and the terrible loneliness and despair that can result from a diverse gender and sexuality.
Pajtim Statovci is gifted at writing a spirited narrative that keeps the reader always engaged, helped by the fact that his writing is based on personal experiences. There’s no doubting the authenticity of Bujar’s narrative. Statovci also has a wonderfully surreal, even poetic, imagination. There are some beautiful set pieces, especially in the final pages where Bujar dreamily imagines his lover as a horse.
Crossing is often melancholy and haunting, a deeply affecting story of people lost and estranged in the world.
Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Chef, writer and farmer Matthew Evans tackles the thorniest of ethical issues concerning our food choices.
On Eating Meat investigates every aspect of meat production – ethical, economic, practical and environmental. In essence, argues Matthew Evans, Australians eat too much meat (three times the global average). Not only that, Australians want to eat cheap meat. And therein lies the problem. Cheap meat is ruinous to the environment, of questionable value to human health, especially when consumed in large quantities, and lastly, is terrible for animal welfare. The sections describing attempts to inspect intensive farming operations – piggeries and chicken factories, most notably – are worrying. Evans was blocked and frustrated at every step. Big corporate producers are secretive and defensive, not wanting the general public to see how they operate.
What is the solution to this problem? More consumer activism for a start, whether it be at the checkout or simply demanding better welfare standards. Evans believes the debate has been set solely by animal welfare activists, especially vegans, whereas meat eaters should be taking a leading role. Ideally, he would like to see vegans and carnivores come together to advocate for better animal welfare standards. While this seems unlikely, there are good arguments made in its favour. Evans shows that whether your diet is vegetarian or vegan, animals still die as a consequence. Orchards cull animals to protect their fruit, seasonal crops kill small animals, such as rodents, egg production involves feeding unwanted male chicks into mulchers and the dairy industry produces unwanted male calves, either killed on site or sent to market.
This is a book that always strives for honesty and balance, in what is often an ethical minefield. Matthew Evans leaves no stone unturned as he looks at food production and its impacts from all possible angles. Every reader will find some new fact to surprise and shock: commercial bees employed to pollinate food crops, the amount of bugs that end up in food, the rampant use of antibiotics to promote animal growth, the impact of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife, etc.
A book perhaps as important as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for its thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Published by Murdoch Books. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fascinating, brief overview of Australia's first languages.
R. M. W. Dixon is a Professor of Linguistics who specialises in Australia's first languages. Before Europeans and the English language, Australia's First Nations spoke some 250 different languages. Early on in Australia's Original Languages, Professor Dixon clears up a common misconception. The 250 languages originally spoken were not dialects. They were not variations on the same basic language, such as American English or Australian English. Each language was entirely different, with its own vocabulary, grammar and complex forms of expression.
If our language reflects our emotional, social and psychological complexity, then Australia's Original Languages provides a snapshot of its speakers' nuanced and intricate modes of thought, categorisation and social organisation. For example, First Nations' kinship structures provide a broad classification system with names for every member, describing how they relate to the society at large. The key is that everyone is interrelated, and the language reflects the social structure. Some First Nations speak two languages, one a regular, mainstream language, and another, what's known as an avoidance language, used for particular relationships.
This book is subtitled “An Introduction”. R. M. W. Dixon gives the broadest overview of a subject that, by its nature, has great complexity. It's a reminder of how the First Nations people who speak their own language carry within them a unique consciousness and view of the world, coupled with an expressive vocabulary and grammar.
For readers who enjoyed Bruce Pascoe's brilliant Dark Emu, Australia's Original Languages provides many fascinating insights.
Australia's Original Languages: An Introduction, by R. M. W. Dixon. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Finnish-Kosovan author Pajtim Statovci's debut, My Cat Yugoslavia, mixes surreal invention with late twentieth century history to examine the trauma of war and displacement.
Bekim is a young man born to Albanian parents. He has four other siblings, three sisters and one brother. When war breaks out in the early 1990s, the family must flee their home in Kosovo. Bajram, the socially conservative father, considers moving to America or Australia, but finally settles on Finland. Life in Finland, an advanced democracy with a first class economy, turns out to be a place hostile to foreigners. While Bajram and his wife Emine watch the news, with its daily stories of their country being ripped apart by war, their children find their own identities torn. Neither Finnish or Albanian, they don't fit in anywhere and drift emotionally from their parents.
Pajtim Statovci's debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia (translated by David Hackston) runs two parallel stories, of mother and son. First the reader is introduced to Bekim. He's gay, somewhat emotionally detached and is struggling to form a permanent relationship. For company, he buys a pet boa constrictor, a muscular creature that is nonetheless quite placid. Later, in a bar he meets a cat that wears human clothes and talks. He invites the cat back to his flat, but discovers the cat is xenophobic and homophobic.
The second story is a history of his mother, Emine, from the time she marries as a teenager to when her children are finally grown, covering the time span from 1980 – 2008. She endures a horrible “traditional” marriage, is beaten and treated like a slave rather than a wife. Despite these hardships, she sometimes feels pity for her husband and can understand his grief in losing his country.
There is much to enjoy in this fine debut. Pajtim Statovci writes an urgent and compelling prose that is hard to put down. His subject matter – loss, displacement, generational trauma – comes from a place of personal experience, giving his story authenticity (Statovci's family fled Kosovo in the early nineties).
For those who have forgotten the Balkan Wars, My Cat Yugoslavia is a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered during those years. Statovci also adds surrealistic features (mysterious cats and laid back snakes), giving his story a pleasantly beguiling aspect.
A fascinating debut and an author to watch.
My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known Russian master of the short story.
Nikolai Leskov began his writing career as a journalist, was a contemporary of such Russian greats as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and started publishing fiction in 1862. He traveled widely around his homeland of Russia and was intimately acquainted with all levels of society, a knowledge that is reflected in his stories and novellas. He wrote several full length novels, but it is the shorter form in which he excelled.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is a collection of Leskov’s best. The stories in large part describe 19th century Russian life, although at break neck speed. There’s never a dull moment. Socially, the focus is on the clergy, the military, tradesmen, artisans and the many roles women play. In one of Leskov’s most famous stories, "The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", bored housewife Katerina takes up with the farmhand Sergei and undertakes several murders, allowing her to seize control of her husband’s considerable estate. While it is a breathtaking story of unrepentant wickedness, it also highlights women's expected role as submissive servants to house and husband. Other stories exemplify a society that is deeply superstitious, with a runaway imagination. “The Spook”, an engaging story about a poor social outcast living on the fringe of town, shows how the misunderstood can find themselves turned into an ogre and scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
The great thing about Leskov’s short stories are their sheer energy and verve. Everything travels at a rate of knots, with snappy dialogue and a host of buoyant characters. There’s much humour and humanity here, too. Leskov takes pity and forgives the human condition, while also exploiting it ruthlessly for entertainment value. These stories are a joy to read, like nothing you’ve ever read before, and like all great literature, one reading will never be enough.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, by Nikolai Leskov. Published by Vintage Classics. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books