Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How you use it

My husband and I are both fairly serious users of the Internet and mobile technologies, but that's where the similarity ends.

Where I tweet (a lot), he Facebooks. (I can't stand Facebook.)

Where I blog (probably too much), he runs a couple of forums.

Where I read political commentary, news, other blogs, think pieces, fiction, and poetry online, he is addicted to funny stuff on Imgur and Reddit.

Where I use the the Learned Professor Google for work and life reference, constantly, he frequents tech-heavy sites and science spaces.

Where I watch an inordinate amount of little things on YouTube, he watches actual TV shows from DVDs on his screen.

Where I buy and download ebooks, he buys and downloads music and games.

Where I fixate on memes, he plays online games. (A lot of online games).

Where we both carry our phones most of the time, he uses his for voice, as a media player, and for instant messaging. I tweet and text from mine frequently and almost exclusively, to the point where I get a bit of a fright if it actually rings.

Where I message like a born tweeter (in several, short phrases, across several messages), he sends great wodges of text, and gets annoyed with my staccato style. (Attention-deficit, he calls it. Chatty, says I).

What we share, though, is an intertwining of life and screen that's nothing like what we would have imagined possible even 5 years ago, let alone when we started dating more than 15 years back. The Internet is tangled in our work, actions and thoughts in a way that other, less versatile tech delivery mechanisms (TV, film, radio) never were.

And for all our differences, we share a lot online.

He introduced me to thesixtyone, an alternative music showcase site that we both love.

We all, the kids too, play online maths and puzzle games, seeking out new and challenging ones.

We have a family Horrible Histories addiction that is steadily fed by YouTube.

And well, it's not always perfectly balanced. (Is anything?) Sometimes each of us invests too much online and it shows in our interactions, with each other and with our kids. Sometimes one of us, usually me, goes through a Luddite revulsion and powers down completely for a while, which actually highlights the other's usage in a non-favourable way.

But I think at the end of the day, we live in a connected world now. We are connected, to each other and our children, to friends we've seen and friends we've only "seen", to all the things that happen and are thought and spoken, to all the pretties and the cruelties and the wondering and worrying and pain, the glories and the tragedies. We care about people we only know online, and we believe in them, for better or worse. That's our world now, and we are in it and of it. The Internet is neither bad nor good, it is a tool, and it can be wielded to bring richness to life, just as easily as it can alienate people from themselves and others.

What I hope for us is not that we revert to how we were when I was 22 and the proud possessor of a 386 un-networked PC, a landline phone, a stereo, and nothing else. No, I hope that we are able to integrate our connectivity into our lives in a way that lets us be more ourselves, and more with each other, than ever. In touch and in speech, on screen, offline, many strands to the whole.

Because, at the end of the day, it's all about how you use it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

I admire the persistence

7 year old: "Muuuuuu-uuuum, can I have a DS soon?"

Me: "No."

She thinks a minute. "Can I have one ever?"

"Hmmmm," I say. "Maybe. We'll see. But probably not."

She, frowning, "Everyone else in my class has one..."

"Do they," I say, chopping vegetables calmly. "That's nice for them."

She stamps her foot. "Don't you find that persuasive? That every other child my age in the whole ENTIRE WORLD has one?"

I laugh. "Every 7 year old in the entire world, huh?"

She has the grace to look abashed. "OK, no. But every kid in my class! Absolutely! Positively! Definitely!"

"Hmmmm," I say again. She looks at me hopefully.

"What are you thinking, Mum?"

"I'm thinking that I like your choice of words a lot, E. Persuasive, absolutely ... good stuff."

She sighs. "But I'm still not getting a DS, am I?"


She is silent for a minute.

"What if I ask Nanna and Papa for one for Christmas?"

I shake my head. "That's too expensive a gift to ask them for, love."

"What if I get a job walking dogs - or cleaning cars - or cooking or something - and save up?"

It's my turn to sigh. "I will talk to your Dad, OK?"

"YESSSSSS!" she fist pumps the air.

Outmaneuvered by a 7 year old. Not my finest hour.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sometimes cheese is OK

I like lots of music. Different kinds, all sorts. Serious music, soulful music, silly fun music. Classical, folk, bluegrass, pop, rock, metal. (Not a lot of rap or hiphop, but even there - some).

Sometimes I'll mention on Twitter that I've been listening to a band or a song and people respond with "Oh, you have great taste!" or something similar. This proves two things: a) I have nice Tweeps and b) I tend to only post the newer / cooler things I'm listening to, rather than the full range of what's playing when I work or relax.

Cos my taste has a wide stripe of cheese running through it, like most people's, I guess.

I like things like this:

And this:

Slightly shamefacedly, also this:

This one I stand behind. It is a classic.

And how about this? Party song!

Hands up who thought this was super deep and meaningful when you were 12 and Top Gun was released. (No? Just me? Ahem...)

Even at the time, this was pure, unadulterated cheese. (Which did not stop a friend from using at as her wedding dance song, which was so bad it was good :-) I still like it.

And how 'bout that Starship, hey!

Another wedding dance selection of the 90s - two friends had this one. Both still happily married, so there ya go.

I wonder sometimes if I'm the only one with this quiet cheese fetish, but then I think, nah - these songs sell, right? Besides, it's fun :-)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On being (A poem)

(A poem inspired by, and in response to, NW).

there are worlds without, and worlds within
oceans of meaning, faith and sin
there is no prize that self can win
but to be strong.

there are stories that must remain untold
tales of darkness, blood and gold
of visions bought and virtues sold
for a small thread of song.

there are things that are true and things that lie
times to dance and times to cry
it might be best not to question why
none of them last long.

there are pulses of feeling, coming, going
love in great waves, and deep pools of knowing
and ledgers of debt and mountains of owing
just to belong.

there are bodies of skin and bodies of thought
instincts to act, and lessons well taught
in heart or in mind or in soul, all are caught
off the island, part of the throng.

there will be quiet and filmed eyes and sod at the end
bodies cast off, only memories to tend
don't ask what it meant - who knows, only send
the boat to the dark, right or wrong.

- Kathy, 23/10/12

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reading Notes: NW


Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, came highly recommended to me by two friends, and also, naturally, by its authorship - Smith's 2005 book, On Beauty, is one of my favourite novels of the last decade, without question. So I came to NW primed to like it, and, despite its mixed critical reception, I was not disappointed. In my view this is an insightful, at times compelling, text of modern malaise, identity fragmentation, loss, and the sometimes painful, often blurry, always incomplete, search for meaning that is one of the Ur themes of human existence.

NW is a story in four uneven sections, mostly revolved around two women, Leah and Keisha / Natalie, who grow up in Willesden, a council estate in north-west London; and, to a lesser extent, Felix, whose timeline crosses Natalie's at a critical point, but whose own story, told in just a few chapters, I found to be almost unbearably moving. Leah and Natalie, despite being of the same socieconomic background, and lifelong best friends, are different in almost every other way.

Leah, compassionate and physically open, is white, an only child, unambitious professionally, married to and in love with her French African hairdresser husband, Michel - and also adrift, formless, shuttered, emotionally muted. Natalie, ostensibly serious-minded, straight-laced, professionally driven, is from a Caribbean (and Christian) family, is an upwardly mobile young barrister married to Frank, a rich financier, mother of two small children, holder of dinner parties, addict of her smartphone, work and "dressing up" - and also alone, playing her various identities like masks in a desperate bid to find one that feels less like an act.

Their stories are stories, ultimately, of disconnection, of silent suffocation, of inner worlds and how shockingly they can differ from outward appearances. These are women living lives of quiet desperation, sometimes almost unknown to themselves; Leah, who feels her life from a distance, like a ghost looking in; and Natalie, who had "become a person unsuited to self-reflection. Left to her own mental devices, she quickly spiralled into self-contempt." (p 221) The contrast note is provided by Felix, the character who, in novel terms, is born to die, yet is infinitely more than the simple red-shirt he might have been. Felix is hopeful, expectant, in love and moving on; yet he's killed, all the same, in a senseless act of violence, and a scene that I found extremely affecting precisely because of its understatement.

This is a novel rich with an almost singsong cadence, employing the language and idioms of its area to great, almost poetic, effect. (From me, this is high praise - I am usually not a fan of dialect in novels, unless I feel it makes an intrinsic and real contribution to the story, rather than just being grafted on for surface colour, as so often seems to be the case).

It's also of its moment, without being in any sense twee. Smith weaves the connect/disconnect paradox that permeates the 21st century western relationship with technology into her story in a way that is utterly natural and never jarring. Natalie, in particular, is "helplessly, compulsively, adverbly addicted to the Internet" (p 224), a circumstance that enables - or perhaps creates - one of the central crises of the story, which is also the only really clunky and ineffective plot device Smith employs. (I should note here that that particular trope - outwardly respectable, even demure, married woman seeking anonymous sex with strangers - has been permanently ruined for me by the cringeworthy The Bride Stripped Bare. I find it almost impossible to take seriously now, even in an otherwise good book).

I found Leah - the generous, the physically free, the emotionally shut-in - to be an interesting character, but my real empathy and identification was with Keisha / Natalie. A child with a retentive memory, an inborn tenacity and capacity for concentration that people confused for virtue and high intelligence, Keisha struggles to reconcile what she knows about herself with what others project onto her:
"In the child's mind a breach now appeared: between what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as others seemed to understand it. She began to exist for other people..." (p 155)

Thus, so young, is established Keisha's habit of playing parts. She's a nerd, a studious, driven girl, in a churchy, conservative household with a horror of all things physical. She becomes a law student, an activist, and plays those parts with verve but without heat. She remakes herself - Keisha becomes Natalie, marries well, buys a beautiful house still within spitting distance of her childhood area, has two lovely children. She is a workaholic lawyer. All masks, all parts, that she performs with practised aplomb, but which do not resonate. And it's not that these are pretences, exactly; it's not that these are covers for her real self. The real bitterness is that there is no real self to be found.

Natalie feels herself to be a shell, empty, echoing, given substance only by the roles she plays. For her, there is a yearning for a real life, a truth, but no sense that she can attain it, because she lacks any sense of what that might look like for her. It's not just that she doesn't know what she wants or who she is; she doesn't even know how to be someone, how to live truly and deeply. Perhaps it's that frustration, that sense of being in a dark wood wandering, that chimes so deeply for me. It's modernism writ large, the contemporary malaise of identity and purposelessness given voice in one beautifully drawn character. While I do not feel myself empty, self-less, in the way that Natalie does, the sense of multiple selves, of parts that must be played, is one that I think most moderns will profoundly identify with. Our selves are no longer integrated and whole - if they ever were. We are one, but we are many, if you like.

Overall, I found NW to be both rewarding and engrossing. I don't think it's quite as good as On Beauty, but to be honest, I think it's better than at least 6 of the Booker longlist titles - I can't understand why it was left off this year. Its overall tone is, I would say, wistful, despite the many mood shifts it employs; and it will repay a reader looking for story and language, mixed with a little philosophising on the nature of modern existence.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A good return for blessings granted

I have written a lot here in the past 6 months about how I am finding life as I juggle a substantial amount of paid work with my family and other commitments. (In fact, I'm planning a short blog series, with interviews and so forth, on that very topic ... In November. When life is less intense).

I've accentuated the positive sometimes, highlighting the personal satisfaction that working brings me. I've also moaned about my time-poor existence, I've angsted about my ability to keep all the balls in the air, and, quel surprise, I've done a lot of kvetching about the messiness of my house.

One thing I haven't done nearly enough - and I want to do it now - is expressed my gratitude for having the opportunities I have, the choices available to me to decide to work and be well paid for what I do. Because I am well educated, reasonably intelligent, able-bodied, and live in a country where sexism is subtle enough to not preclude me from learning, working and speaking, I have the chance to make my own path, to "wash my own face", as some economic commentators like to put it. It's up to me to make the most of the chances, of course, but what if I hadn't had them at all?

This week is Anti-Poverty Week globally, and a week ago today was the first-ever International Day of the Girl Child. One of the central themes in combating women's and children's poverty is consistently shown to be the educational opportunities provided to girls.

Women who have access to education are able to contribute to family incomes at a much higher level, support themselves and their children, and make different decisions about their life paths. Just one extra year of primary schooling boosts eventual income levels by 10-20% (World Bank figures, 2002), while an extra year of secondary schooling will increase earnings by 15-25%.

Women who have access to education show a greater tendency to plan family sizes at a level where they can ensure an optimal outcome for their children. (Girls who receive 7 or more years of education, for instance, marry an average of 4 years later, and have 2.2 fewer children, according to the UN Population Fund, 1990).

With this in mind, what to make of the fact that a quarter of all girls in developing countries are never schooled at all?

I've written here before about Good Return, an Australian micro-finance charity that is doing stellar work in supporting business and individual development around the world. For Anti-Poverty Week, Good Return's focus is on women’s education, and the role it plays in leveraging women and their families out of poverty. Just $100 pays for a woman to take a financial literacy course, which helps her navigate the challenges of running a small business and building her income to better support her family. Good Return is challenging Australians to fund 200 women’s education and business development with whatever they can afford to contribute.

Good Return finances women who are trying to build futures for themselves. Education is a key part of this, including education in financial literacy. The story of Mary Ann is a great example of what can be achieved for a really modest investment:

Mary Ann is from the Philippines and lives with her husband, two children, and bedridden mother-in-law. She once had four different loans and was deep in debt, struggling to make repayments.

But even while they were struggling, Mary Ann believed they could live a better life. "I really wanted to do something to help improve our situation," she said.
So she attended a budgeting workshop provided by Good Return, helping her learn how to manage her income and expenses.

She now has just one microfinance loan from our partner, SECDEP, which she uses only for business purposes. Mary Ann also took the initiative to become a financial literacy trainer in her own village, and now enjoys coaching other women too.

What does she feel her biggest accomplishment is? "Paying for the fees of my college daughter," she told us. Her oldest child is attending university in Manila – the first one in their family to get a tertiary education. Her son is attending high school too.

For Anti-Poverty Week, I'm paying forward some of my good fortune, some of my choices. I've decided to fund some loans to half the amount of one of my contracting paycheques. That's still only about 5% of what I've been able to make this year because I am blessed with the education and opportunities I've had - not much, in the scheme of things. It feels like a little bit of financial justice, that I, who have so much, can share the chance to have a chance with someone else.

Good Return's Anti-Poverty Week campaign is running right now. It's full of great stories, if stories are your thing; and full of hopefulness, and let's face it, that's everybody's thing.

You can follow Good Return on Twitter (@GoodReturnOrg), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/GoodReturn.org), LinkedIn (http://bit.ly/GoodReturnFriends), and on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/goodreturn/)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Even suburban places have small bits of uncultured open space in them.

Not parks - parks are great, but they are planned, laid out, designed.

Not built remains - derelict houses and secretive laneways are fun, fuel for the imagination, but they are human remnants nonetheless.

No, I mean patches or stretches of land that's "unimproved" (strange word, that. As if the human footprint is of necessity an improvement).

Sometimes - often - you find these scraps of country alongside waterways or the foreshore.

Sometimes the land is boggy, or low-lying, or in some other way unsuitable for development.

Sometimes it's protected, because of flora or fauna, or water quality preservation, or any other thing, and thus safe from being cultivated, shaped, bent around to a need. (At least for now).

Sometimes it is made to serve purposes - both those that authority intends, and those that people impose, from the dismal dumping of rubbish to the illicit but blood-stirring low roar of dirt bikes.

Sometimes it's clasped between houses and factories, train lines and freeways, in a smooth bowl of stillness. A world between the worlds.

Sometimes it grows coastal plants and tall, rustling reed grasses, higher than a 3 year old's head, and is starred with tiny, perfect purple flowers for just a few weeks in spring.

Sometimes the children find delicate, fingernail-sized shells, so light and fragile that a firm touch will shatter them, cast up from a receded sea.

Sometimes dogs and children need to be kept close and taught caution, in the seasons when snakes, the alpha native species of this place, are moving about.

Sometimes walking there is an adventure, and sometimes it is peace.

Always, it is more than it seems, this suburban corner with its great big sky and its whispering grass, its tiny frogs and rare blossoms, its bike trail marks and sea mud and shells and trains not so far.

It is our Littlewild.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Bad Season (A poem)

they are running wild, a tethered pack
nine of them at last count, all the street's kids
shaking the air with screams.
screaming why? who can say
in fright or delight
or as part of the never-spoken but always-present dominance play
that animates them.

the dog chases along their heels.

watching through the window, the woman pours the boiled water over the teabags, and says,
it's been a bad season for it.
a bad season
for many things.

Yes, sighs the Other, reaching out for her mug
hard to breathe, it is. I feel a heaviness
all the time, deep. A weight.

Outside, the youngest starts to wail, but before the woman can move
one of the older children has scooped her up on his back, tearing piggyback around the yard
the tears are dried by the warm wind.

You know, says the Other, about Her, right? About what happened?
I can't let ... well, you know. My girl, she can't go there anymore.

The woman sips at her tea, eyes slipping to the child-clan in the bottle-brush tree
and says, No, what? What happened?

Well, says the Other. Well. The sigh holds a burden
It settles, a blanketing weight, on the woman's shoulders. She shivers suddenly
there's a storm coming

Well, it's these friends. Of Hers. They are -
You know. They grow it. And sell, too. And use, oh my God -
The Other shakes her head.
The woman says, Not so good, with the kids
Not good at all! says the Other, swallowing her tea
And it's worse, oh listen
there was this time -

No! the woman says. A bike? At her head?
Doesn't she realise they are not good for Her? Doesn't she know?

She wants to belong, says the Other, reaching for a biscuit. She wants -
oh, it's Her, who knows what she wants. She has her man, her kids, but it's not enough
not for Her
she wants someone to take away the bad feelings, to make Her
not feel crushed anymore.

A bad season, the woman says, inhaling from her puffer
her breathing a thin wheeze. bad
and heavy, the weight

Yes, says the Other, gathering the cups to wash, Yes.

The kids, playing Ring a Rosies in the yard, all fall down.

- Kathy, 15/10/12

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Yeah. I am fat.

I went to the doctor this morning on my way to work to get test results, and for a check-up on my asthma medication dosage (this weird spring has been knocking my lungs about a bit).

After running through both these things, the doctor, a new one in the practice, said, "Well, we'd better do a few housekeeping checks while we're here." I rolled up my sleeve obligingly, anticipating the blood pressure cuff that did indeed get applied to my arm.

"Peak flow next," she said, and I puffed energetically into the peak flow meter, pleased to note that the new asthma medication is working well, and my peak is back to its usual 470.

Then she said, "OK, let's measure and weigh you."

I was a bit nonplussed, but I went along, discovering to my amusement that either I have shrunk by a centimetre or that I have been operating under a delusion for years about my actual height.

Then the doctor announced, in heavy, regretful tones, that there was a problem.

"What?" I asked, slightly panic-stricken. "I thought all the results were good ... I've been feeling better ... What is it?"

She sighed. "Well," she said, "it's your BMI. I'm afraid it's 28."

I must have looked confused, because she went on with, "That's the unhealthy range. Over 25 is unhealthy for a woman your age. Although, you're not obese - that's over 30," she finished with the air of a person offering whatever frail comfort was to be had in the darkness of my fat-infested world.

I couldn't help myself. I laughed. It was her turn to look confused.

"I thought you were going to tell me there was something wrong with me!" I said cheerily. "And all you want to say is that I'm fat! OK then!"

She was very disconcerted by this. "But as I said, this BMI is unhealthy..."

"Not really," I said. "This BMI is over what is considered optimal by some measures. But not by others. And anyway, I am not unhealthy, now my asthma's back under control. Am I?"

She said, "Well, no..."

"My BP's good?" She nodded. "My bloods? My heart function?" Nod, nod. "My cholesterol?" (I was poking a bit with the last - my cholesterol levels have always been textbook perfect, and I know it. Good genetics and 9 years of breastfeeding FTW). She nodded again.

"Do you get much exercise?" she asked. Some trains can't be derailed.

"I swim, sometimes," I said, "and I walk a lot. I don't go to the gym or play a sport. I don't enjoy it and I'm very busy with other things in my life."

"If it's important to you, you make time," she intoned.

"I agree," I said blandly, and stared at her. She got the point.

"What about diet?" she asked, but by this time I think she knew this was a last salvo in a war she was not going to win.

"Well, I eat gluten free, of course..."

"Yes - your Coeliac tests came back very clean. You're doing great with that."

"Yes. Well. I eat, you know, food. A mix of food groups, something from every area. I take a multivitamin too, and you did say my bloodwork was good on all the measures..."

She nodded again. "Oh, yes, it was great. You're certainly not badly nourished or deficient in anything."

"No, just generously gifted with cellulite and adipose tissue!" I chuckled.

She gave up right about then. "Well, I think keep going on the new preventer for the asthma, it seems to be working well..."

"Yes, I will," I said, getting to my feet.

"... and I don't need to see you again. Unless you get sicker, of course."

I walked out with my head high and my heart strangely light.

Yeah, I am fat.

But I'm well, and I'm active, and I'm happy.

It's enough for me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

From my thesis - Because I can and you don't have to read it if you don't want to anyway

I got my Masters degree by major thesis in American History from Monash University in 2000, after just over 5 years of at times excruciating labour (it took so long because it was combined, from late 1996, with an almost-fulltime job).

When I started doing my MA, I expected:
- to do a "quickie" Masters in a tightly defined subject area and be done in 2 years
- to use the degree as a springboard for applying to doctoral graduate school in the States in American History; and
- to proceed to an academic research and teaching career, probably in the US.

However, as it has a pesky way of doing, life happened between planning and execution. I took on an initially part-time job in publishing that proved more engrossing than I'd expected; I met my now-husband, G, and got seriously involved with him; and I took a hard look at the trends of (non) employment in the academy in Australia in my field.

By the time I submitted my thesis, I was a newlywed in an interesting public service publications role, and lacked both the stomach and the practical capacity to up stumps and tool off to the US for 4-5 years of backbreaking intellectual labour. To be honest, I needed an immediate break from academic life, and I couldn't get away from it fast enough. Although I've studied since, acquiring a Certificate-level training qualification and a few odds and ends of law subjects, I haven't done any serious research-driven higher learning since that fateful day that I submitted my 80,000 words and went off to drink generous amounts of gin with my postgrad posse of mates.

And because of this more or less instant flight from academic life, my thesis, which I equal parts doted on and loathed, has never seen the light of day. I never published any articles from it (I did publish two from my Honours thesis) and it has remained unregarded on a library shelf somewhere at Monash ever since.

A friend asked recently if I ever think about it anymore. Sure, I do. Before my kids, it was the biggest thing I ever did, it cost me a lot, and I am proud that I finished it and got the degree. The same friend also idly wondered whether my academic writing style is really different from my creative style (and / or my blogging style).

Well, F, you be the judge :-) Here is part of the Introduction to my thesis, which was about captivity narratives in early New England (that is, the stories of white people who were taken captive by indigenous people). I just thought it might be nice to show it some daylight after all this time.


‘Like Another People’: Writing the Indian through symbol and captivity, 1675-1699

Introduction: “The dark places of the Earth are full of the habitation of cruelty…” (1)

If one looked before one, there was nothing but Indians and behind one nothing but Indians. (2)

the Indian…came to me and took me about the middle and said I was his brother. (3)

they struck home such Blowes, upon the heads of their Sleeping Oppressors, that … where they bowed, they fell down dead. (4)

Tales of whites in captivity, held by Indians, have formed a central part of the tangled discourse about Indians and Indian difference in North America from the time of Cotton Mather to the militant Indian protests of the latter part of this century. Seventeenth century settlers, struggling with a dangerous, wild new world and a fearful spiritual schema, were particularly attuned to the meanings of these stories, and the weight of ‘knowledge’ they imparted about Indians, America, and the possibility for redemption.

The stories of Jonathan Dickinson, a Jamaican Quaker who set up his home in Philadelphia, Mary White Rowlandson, famous Puritan wife in distress, Hannah Dustan, capable but rather frightening avenger, and Quentin Stockwell, who experienced the kindness of strangers in a frozen land, form the centre of this thesis. Mary Rowlandson’s travails ended in her purchased return to Lancaster, Massachusetts. Jonathan Dickinson purchased safe passage to Carolina from the Spanish commander at St Augustine and survived to write his tale in Philadelphia. Quentin Stockwell, who writes of the kindness of Indians, came quietly home after his Indian captors failed to pay off his pawn to the French in Canada. Hannah Dustan looms large as a frontierswoman, a taker of scalps and a killer of killers, who escaped captivity through the murder of her captors. As divergent as their means of staying alive were these captives' representations of the Indians who held them, of their own selves, their God, their children, their fears, hopes, pains, desires, and repulsions.

This thesis aims to achieve three things in its study of the four narratives and other writings about Indians in the seventeenth century.

Firstly, it discusses, analyses and culturally ‘explains’ the symbolic ways in which these captivity narratives characterised the Indian. I concentrated my analysis on a contextual discussion of the symbols and emblems used by my four adventurers. I have written of gender and gendering in the texts; of children, infants and blood identity; and of the contrasting positions of whiteness, Indianness and other ‘race’ differentiations each makes in their tale. Nine symbols in particular prove potent: the significance of food; the representations of Indian religion; the notion of Indians as cannibals and infant killers (5); the import of nakedness, in both captive and captor; the self-identification of the captives as ‘white’ and ‘of their Nation’, and how this whiteness is an ambiguous and opaque position; the language used to describe Indians, and their ‘nature’; the representations of Indians as dirty, as animals and as devils; the images of land as ‘wilderness’ and ‘desolate’, unwelcoming and barren; and the intersection of inner and outer substances, the dread of the transgression of boundaries, that dominates Jonathan Dickinson’s account in particular.

The resultant analysis claims no universality, but rather a dedicated specificity. The ‘Indian’ emerges, bloody and hellborn, from the “howling wilderness” of Mary’s desolation; the anxiety-ridden person of Jonathan’s infant son; the righteousness of Hannah’s warrior hatchet; and, far more ambiguously, from the compassion of Quentin’s semi-adoptive sojourn in Canada.

Secondly, I have argued throughout that the differentiated ‘Indian’ thus created was a precursor to later ideas about Indian difference in the era of biological race, and was as powerfully operative as those later ideas. The development of a fixed idea of biological race, from which one cannot hope to escape, putatively supported by science and genetics, is a production of the Enlightenment, and of later generations of thought (7). However, the fact that these seventeenth century English religious escapees did not have a ‘blood-and-DNA’ understanding of biology and biological inheritance did not make their ideas about human distinctions and differences any less rigid or punitive.

As early as 1622, Indians were held by many to be condemned from birth. As one popular poet wrote:
For, but consider what those Creatures are,
(I cannot call them men) no Character
Of God in them: Soules chain’d in flesh and blood;
Rooted in Evil, and oppos’d to Good;
Errors of nature, of inhumane Birth,
The very dregs, garbage and spanne of Earth. (8)

Even those who hoped for Indian salvation and thought them kind had, as I will discuss, ideas about the immutability of ‘Indianness’, and its taint. Through stories of captivity, I will suggest, we can read the beginning of certain motifs of ‘race’ in American thought: “the Indian captivity narrative form...[helped] to fix particular (and ethnocentric) views of the Indian in the American imagination, and thereby [made] those same images...readily available for political and ideological manipulation.” Whether gentle or brutal, ideas about difference operated with as much force in this “pre-racial” era as in later, racialised times.


(1) Psalm 74:20; appears on the preface page of Jonathan Dickinson, God’s protecting providence, Reinier Jansen, Philadelphia, 1699.
(2) Mary White Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and goodness of God, 1682, in Alden Vaughan & Edward Clark, Puritans Among the Indians: Accounts of Captivity and Redemption, 1676-1724, Belknap Press, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass., 1981, pp. 31-75, p. 45
(3) Quentin Stockwell, included in Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, Boston, 1684, pp. 39-58, p. 57. This edition, Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, Delmar, New York, 1977.
(4) Hannah Dustan’s tale, narrated by Cotton Mather, in Humiliations Followed with Deliverances, B Green & J Allen, Boston, 1697, p. 46
(5) With a debt to Colin Ramsey’s excellent article, “Cannibalism and Infant Killing: A System of ‘Demonizing’ Motifs in Indian Captivity Narratives”, Clio, 24:55, 1994, pp 55-68
(6) Mary White Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and goodness of God, in Vaughan & Clark, Puritans Among the Indians, p. 40
(7) For good discussions of the origins of racial thought, particularly relevant to the American experience, see: Louise K Barrett, The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism 1790-1890, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1975; Emmanel Chukwadi Eze (ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader, Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass., 1997; Thomas F. Gossett, Race: the history of an idea in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997; Jack P. Greene, Imperatives, Behaviours and Identities: Essays in Early American Cultural History, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. & London, 1992; Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power, and Ideology, Routledge, London & New York, 1995; Ivan Hannafold, Race: the history of an idea in the West, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1996; Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.) Race, gender and rank: early modern ideas of humanity, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, New York, 1992; Winthrop D. Jordan, The white man's burden: historical origins of racism in the United States, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974; Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, Routledge, New York, 1995; Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient, Routledge & Kegan Paul; London, 1978; Ronald Sanders, Lost tribes and promised lands: the origins of American racism, 1st ed, Little, Brown, Boston, 1978; Pat Shipman, The evolution of racism: human differences and the use and abuse of science, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994; Alden T. Vaughan, Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995; Robert J.C.Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture & Race, Routledge, London & New York, 1995.
(8) Christopher Brooke, A Poem of the late Massacre in Virginia, with particular mention of those Men of Note that Suffered in That Disaster, G. Eld for Robert Mylbourne, London, 1622.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Shipping, happy endings, and all the stories

I've recently, more or less by accident, stumbled my way into the world of fanfiction, and I have to say it has been an eye-opener in more ways than one.

It all began with some idle speculation by my two elder daughters about what became of the Blythe family in the Anne of Green Gables stories after the end of the last book in the series. "I really wish we knew," one of them remarked wistfully.

"Well, sometimes people other than the author write extra stories, you know," I told them. "It's just their imagined version of how the stories might have gone, but..."

"Really?" the girls exclaimed.

So I consulted Professor Google and lickety-split, we were into a fairly serious volume of AoGG fanfic, both of the alternate universe variety (with major or minor divergence points from the events and characters of the actual books) and the extension-of-the-story variety.

Some of the stories were really very sweet and we liked them a lot; some captured L M Montgomery's voice extremely well. And I was quite surprised to find that I found it oddly satisfying in some way reading stories that resolved unfinished story arcs from the books, even given that is only one reader / fan's version of how things could have gone. All stories end, but sometimes, you just don't want them to, especially if you are not done emotionally or intellectually with the characters. The Anne books have always fallen into that category for me.

A logical segueway from reading AoGG fanfic with my girls was a growing curiosity about what other fictional worlds or stories might have inspired fanfiction. The possibilities are vast, and I quickly worked out that most of them have been explored, in some way, by someone, somewhere.

Rather than get lost in the mass of options, I decided to concentrate my reading on two stories / worlds that I am extremely attached to, and that, like Anne, left me wanting more in terms of story development. Both are TV series that, in my opinion, finished far too early, before they had a chance to provide a satisfying completion of their quite complex plotlines. Note that I'm not necessarily arguing that shows that run longer get this right - sometimes, getting all caught up in master plots is a terrible, terrible thing (X Files, I'm looking at YOU), but in these two cases, I really think the shows were on a path to something wonderful before the pin was pulled. I'm talking about Rob Thomas's Veronica Mars and Joss Whedon's Firefly.

Now, it should probably go without saying that fanfiction is variable in quality, plausibility and readability. (That's an obvious statement if ever there was one :-) It also shows a lighter - or in many cases completely absent - editorial touch than does most published fiction, and in many cases, it reads as more amatuerish, which isn't surprising, because, well, it is. Very few clever literary tricks or pomo stylings are deployed; straight narrativity, with an emphasis on dialogue and action, is the norm.

But with all of that said, what it all gets right, even the less polished efforts, is an enthusiasm, a commitment to the fictional world, a wholeheartedness, that is enormously appealing. People writing fanfic of these shows are doing because they really love, and deeply know, these worlds. They are deploying their imaginations and creative energies to craft something that adds to the world of the canon. I find that impossibly great in many ways.

Two things, though, that have struck me through reading VM and Firefly fanfiction - and again, these won't surprise anyone - are the absolute determination of almost all writers to create relationships between characters that are either non-canon or very differently presented in the shows themselves; and the not universal, but still widespread, trend towards providing happy endings for the key characters and storylines. These two trends often meld, naturally, with the happy endings being supplied by relationships between characters.

Of course, one of the mingled joys and irritations of fanfic is the wildly variable ways that fans interpret or represent possible relationships and how they might play out. I have found this especially fascinating in the Firefly stories, where literally (and I do mean literally) every possible combination of characters has been paired off by some fanfic or other, even the ones that are so inherently implausible based on the relationships presented in the show as to be laughable and / or nauseating. Some of this stuff is not only unabashed, it's ... disturbing. (And I do not mean because it can be explicit; I mean that it makes me deeply uneasy because that is not how those characters would behave.)

I was working through exactly why all this determined shipping* was annoying to me, even in stories that are otherwise well-written, when it struck me that I was the problem, not the stories. It's because I have this thing about the integrity of the story as presented by its creator. I love to run my mind over what-next scenarios - I do it for almost every story I've really engaged with - but I feel bound, even on my speculations, to respect the characters and aesthetic of the story that the author actually wrote. To me, having characters do things that there is never the slightest hint they might be capable of - and sometimes direct evidence that they wouldn't be - doesn't sit right. (I am much less affronted - in fact, not at all affronted - by people filling in gaps or playing out future storylines between characters that actually were in relationships in the canon. That's part of extending the story, to me, and I like that).

But here's the thing - that's just me. That's the way I approach texts and worlds, not the way everyone does. If fanfic is read as not just an extension of a fan's engagement with a story, but also as an outlet for other drives and subconscious yearnings, it makes perfect sense that it might work for one writer to pair up two unlikely characters, if each one represents something important in that writer's own life. I guess this is the true dynamism of creativity, that when good things are created, they will inspire more than one reaction and more than one imperative.

While I'm not a mad lover of the all the shipping, the second trend, to giving people and stories happy endings, is one I'm much more in tune with. I always feel a little regretful when things end badly in a story, even where it is clearly the "right" ending artistically. I know sadness and pain and loss are the fuel of story, and that unrelieved sunshine is, well, boring. But when I am attached to characters, I want things to end well for them, and the urge to fix up wounds, restore the dead, and kiss-better traumas is one I really sympathise with. (The number of Firefly fanfics in which Wash does not die in Serenity is a case in point here. I, also, did not want Wash to die, and I so I sneakily and shamefacedly approve of the AU** fics where he lives on). At the end of the day, I am wistful for the "and they all lived happily ever after" version sometimes, and fanfic delivers this in massive spadefuls.

So it's been a pretty fun ride, filling my non-work, non-kid time for the past 10 days or so. I'd not claim to be any kind of expert on fanfiction - and, much as I've enjoyed some of it, I'm not tempted to write any; when I write fiction, it's my own characters that sit up and speak. But I reckon I will read more. It's fun, it's relaxing, and some of it's damn good. Sometimes, when I'm tired and preoccupied, it's a perfect fit for my reading mood.

UPDATE: I have just been directed by a reader (much more experienced in fanfiction than I am!) to the following TV Tropes entry on Crack Pairings, which refers to Ships that are so inherently implausible as to evoke the idea that their author must've been on crack. Naturally, everyone's line in the sand on this one will differ, and mine's a fair bit further back than many. Some of the Ships that I saw listed ... to me, very, very skeevy indeed, and definitely Crack Pairings. Given that my criteria for not-squicky is a bit more than "both are breathing entities" :-)

*Shipping: Wikipedia defines it thusly - "Shipping, derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two characters, fictional or non-fictional, are in an intimate relationship, have romantic feelings that could potentially lead to a relationship, or have another form of less intimate relationship, which may involve platonic friendship, or even violence. It is considered a general term for fans' emotional involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction."

**AU: Alternate universe - a representation of the fictional world in which some or many elements differ from those in the core story.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Eureka Tower

I am tired, tired, tired, and words have fled me; I've been feeding them to work all week, and there are none to spare for blogging, my small precious thing that gives me a release valve for emotions and thoughts; more, a secretive kind of delight.

Look, I know it's not de rigeur to just like blogging - just because, rather than for what it can lead to or accomplish or leverage - but I do, I do. I feel a bit bereft when life leads me away from it for too long. I like to write, I like having my own sandbox where I can play with ideas and enthusiasms, and I like to keep a record of family things in a fairly organic way.

So in weeks like this one, when the words are dried up but I still want to blog, pictures will have to do the work instead.

Today I took a few hours out of work to go with my family to Eureka Tower, Melbourne's highest skyscraper, and look down on my city from 88 floors up. We even did the hair-raising Edge adventure, where you get poked out of the side of the building in a glass box. Predictably, my sensitive 9 year old was nervous, my curious 7 year old wanted to know what would happen if she jumped up and down REALLY hard, and my fearless 3 year old lay flat on the glass floor and squealed with delight.

Then, after the heights - ice cream at Trampoline, and a walk along the riverside.

So these strange, busy school holidays end as they began - with a family day in the sunshine at Southgate. I'm looking forward to a much less frenetic break with the kids over summer, but there's no denying we still got a lot of juice out of these ones, finely poised as they were. I wish the kids had another week off though.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reading Notes: Only Ever Always

I came across this beautiful book by Melbourne author Penni Russon at the Emerging Writers Festival in May, where Penni was part of a panel on writer's groups. (Other wonderful discoveries from the Festival were Romy Ash's Floundering, Sydney Smith's The Lost Woman, and the Festival's own book, The Emering Writer).

I have a king-sized weakness for well-written children's and YA fantasy / speculative fiction. Some of my favourite titles of all time fall into this category - books I come back to over and over, and glean something new from on each reading. So Russon's book, located within this rich and magical tradition, interested me from the get-go.

The premise of the book is at once deceptively simple and fascinatingly layered, much in the way that one's reflection in a mirror is both self and not-self. I use the mirror imagery purposefully, as it's key to this story. Told from the perspectives of two parallel protagonists, Claire and Clara, it plays around with ideas of identity, suffering, and redemption in two very different, but linked, alternate worlds.

Claire lives in what appears to be the "real" world as we currently understand it - a quiet only child of loving parents, her life is turned upside down by a family tragedy. Clara, who might be read as her alter ego in the alternate world (but perhaps not ... moe on that below) lives in a dystopian world of decay, rot and struggle for existence, where structures are weak, houses are crumbled shells, food is a constant concern, medicine is scarce and criminal gangs rule. Clara has no parents, but has a friend / elder brother-figure protector, Andrew, who she lives with and loves fiercely.

Claire and Clara are each confronted with a crisis of overwhelming proportions, and the exigencies of their troubles lets Clara pass briefly through the veil from one world to the next, encountering Claire, her doppelganger, there. Ultimately, Claire is able to reverse the journey and enter Clara's savage world when Clara's need calls her.

Given that basic plot, you might expect that this is primarily a hero story, or a quest story, but it isn't at all. What it is, I think, is a dream story - the old trope of wisdom revealed in dreams seems particularly strong in this book. Russon is never explicit about which girl is "real" and which the dreamed / imagined alternate (or, indeed, if both are real, and represent the end of different forks in the road of human history). It's possible to conceptualise Clara as future-Claire, living in a decayed world, or as a manifestation of Claire's longings, fears and desires; just as readily, you could position Claire as alterna-Clara, what she would have been like in her existence had been less of a constant struggle.

What's really interesting is the ways in which Russon counters the natural bias of the reader to treat Claire, and her recognisable world, as the real one, and Clara as the dream. While Clara talks directly to us, in vivid dialect, Claire's story is written in the second person, invoking a feeling of distance and observation rather than connection. Clara leaps from the page, in all her fiery, passionate commitment, while Claire, sad, lonely little Claire, remains muted, muffled, detatched. Claire may live in a world that we recognise, but it's Clara whose personality comes through as the positive force, the energy of which Claire is just a reflection in the glass.

This is a beautiful book - written with a great deal of lyrical power, it's pleasurable to read, to hear in your head. It's a sad book, and doesn't take the easy road with resolving its characters' crises. It's a thought-provoking book, that lingers with you long after it's completed. I read it aloud to my 9 year old once I'd finished it, and she was intrigued, although I think some of the symbolism was a little beyond her. I'd say it would be ideal for readers at the level of, for instance, The Dark is Rising or A Wrinkle in Time and above. And it will handsomely repay the adult fantasy reader, too.