Alf Taylor, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Poetry, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories

‘Cartwarra or what?’ by Alf Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 156 pages; 2022.

Cartwarra is a Nyoongar word that roughly translates to “silly” or “crazy”.

In the Foreword to Alf Taylor’s book, Cartwarra or what?, the academic Anne Brewster writes: “You’ll understand the power and reach of the word by the time you finish the book.” She’s right.

This is a truly remarkable and engaging collection of poems and short stories from a widely respected and prolific First Nations writer. Despite some of the heavy themes — alcoholism, poverty and prejudice, for instance — that underpin his work, Taylor writes with a sense of mischief: humour and wry wit are never too far away.

 Dry humour

Take the short story “Charlie” in which a 60-year-old man is arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the WA gold mining town of Kalgoorlie. He’s thrown into jail for the night and then released without charge, the sergeant warning him that he shouldn’t pick a fight with Paddy Hannan and think he can get away with it. Paddy, it turns out, is a statue! (This one here, in fact, of Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Hannan.)

Many characters in his other short stories enjoy ribbing one another — or taking the piss, as we might say, cadging money from whoever’s lucky enough to have a few dollars and chasing others for a charge (drink). Indeed, his ear for dialogue and (sometimes crude) vernacular is spot on, bringing conversations alive and making them crackle with repartee and wit.

This humour shines through in some of his poems, too. “Nyoongar Woman and a Mobile Phone” is an example:

No more reading smoke signals
pick up mobile phone and talk —
to who? She might say
the Kimberleys, the Wongis, Yamitjis, Nyoongars,
or to any blackfella’s
got my number;

she scratches her head
in eager anticipation:
Huh, huh,
‘nother ‘lation on the line
‘Yes, my dear. Oh hello’
‘How are you?’
‘What!’
‘You want twenty dollars?’
‘But I got fuck-all!
You got your money today.’
‘Why me?’
‘Um not a big shot
Nyoongar yorgah
’cause I work for A.L.S. [Aboriginal Legal Service]’
‘No, I got nothing!’
‘Um wintjarren like you.’
‘Yeah and fuck you too!’

Sombre stories

But the flipside to the laughter isn’t far away. In the opening story, “Wildflowers”, Taylor gives voice to the pain and fear of a mother whose daughter is stolen by policemen on horseback while out picking wildflowers:

It all happened within a split second of fierce movement. But to Ada it would come to seem a slow-motion replay in her mind. Ada had just barely touched the flowers when her daughter was snatched from the ground, and the troopers held her tightly. Queenie screamed and screamed for her mother. As the troopers rode off with the screaming child, the dust lingered high in the late morning. All Ada could see were the beautiful petals falling aimlessly to the ground, amidst the red dust.

Taylor is, himself, a member of the Stolen Generations and was raised in New Norcia Mission, Western Australia. As the blurb on the back of this edition states, his work “exposes uncomfortable truths in the lives of his Aboriginal characters”.

In Cartwarra or what? we meet an underclass of Aboriginal people, many cut off from Country and culture, struggling to get by. But Taylor also highlights the strong bonds between Aboriginal Australians, their tight-knit family and kinship groups, their love, care and kindness towards one another, and their enduring resourcefulness and resilience.

I much enjoyed spending time in their company.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. It’s also a contender for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

Please note, Cartwarra or what? is only available as an eBook outside of Australia. If you would prefer a paperback edition, you can order it from the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.

2016 YWOYA, Andrew McMillan, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Poetry, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan

Physical

Poetry – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 65 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, has already won two prestigious literary prizes — the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize — and been shortlisted for several more. I came to it thanks to its inclusion on the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, otherwise it would have passed me by: I don’t read much poetry, which would explain the shocking lack of poetry reviews on this blog (I’ve only ever reviewed one collection — the sublime Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara). This means I feel slightly out of my depth writing about it here.

So, bearing in mind that I’m no poetry expert, I can really only share my honest opinion of how I felt, and what I thought, when I read Physical.

I think it helped that I heard McMillan read one of his poems at a recent event (which Annabel wrote about on her blog last week). Reading poetry out loud helps bring it alive: you hear the rhythm, you understand where the pauses fall and how they lend weight to the words. So, as I worked my way slowly through this collection, I had McMillan’s lovely Yorkshire accent in my head, helping to bring the lines to life in a way that might not have been the case had I not heard his recital.

Of course, reading poems in the “right” way is helped by punctuation: the commas let you know when to pause, the full stops when to stop. But there’s no punctuation in any of these poems. Many articles and reviews in the mainstream press have made a bit of a thing about this, but I don’t think it matters (and I say that as someone who until quite recently made her living from being a sub-editor). White space and the way the poems are laid out, line by line, on the page do exactly the same job: they assist the reader in knowing where the pauses lie, if not exactly how long to pause.

It’s all about the language anyway. And what language McMillan uses. In just a few short words he can paint a vivid picture or capture a particular emotion that really brings his work to life. A woman “coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football”, the smell of ageing is “really the smell of unclean teeth” and a “room is exhausted as an empty city”. My favourite lines come from the poem If it Wasn’t for the Nights:

        a precious bird doesn’t comprehend
the language of its wings

As a collection, McMillan draws everything together by concentrating on three key themes: men, masculinity and gay love. One entire section (part ii protest of the physical) is about his home town of Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town on its knees following the closure of its pits:

town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double     carried

young men    and women   and younger men and women
as long as it could but    spinebroken
had to let them go

And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest.

All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands. Yes, some of it is confronting and occasionally shocking, but the honesty here — about passion, obsession, sex and relationships, of what it is to navigate the human heart — lends an exquisite beauty to McMillan’s work. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Machi Tawara, Poetry, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara

Salad Days

Poetry – paperback; Pushkin Press; 141 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I don’t normally review poetry — and that’s for a very good reason: I very rarely read it. But when this delightful-looking collection popped through my letterbox unannounced late last year I couldn’t resist putting it on my bedside table to read when the mood struck me. Now seemed a good a time as any, especially as it tied in nicely with Tony Malone’s “January in Japan” J-Lit month.

Tanka poetry

Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 and within the first six months it had sold 2.5 million copies in Japan alone. According to the press release that came with this newly reprinted edition, it has now sold 9 million copies worldwide. How’s that for an impressive figure?

And I can see why it’s so popular: these poems (there’s 15 in total) slip down like hot chocolate. They’re all rather sweet and easy to read, brimming with life, energy and wit, yet there’s something rather soothing about them, too. That’s probably because of the way they are structured, for these poems are technically called “Tanka”, an ancient Japanese form of poetry in which each poem traditionally comprises 31 syllables arranged over five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (You can read more about this genre of poetry on Wikipedia and see an easy example here.)

However, in the Afterword, the translator explains that not all of the poems follow the strict 5-7-5-7-7 format and that they are almost always written in a single line in Japanese. In this English translation most of the poems are structured over three lines and read more like Haiku (17 syllables over three lines following a 5-7-5 pattern). But this is all by the by: you don’t read this collection to quibble over syllable counts and the number of lines; you read it to be transported into another world.

An ordinary world told in an extraordinary way

And what a world Tawara creates. There are many recurring themes, often revolving around romantic love, cooking, travel and the weather, but the main overriding theme is the ordinariness in our day-to-day lives. The irony is that she writes about it in a far from ordinary way.

Ordinary conversations, ordinary smiles—
the ordinariness of home
is what I like best
[From the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self”]

And

“Be an ordinary girl”
Listening, I munch
on spicy-hot snacks
[From the poem “So, Good Luck”]

The language throughout feels fresh and contemporary, despite the fact the poems are almost 30 years old now. Perhaps it helps that the poet was just 26 when she wrote them — she has a young mindset and her thoughts continually turn to what it must be like to be in love and to find someone to share your life with. (At the time of writing, the translator tell us, Tawara was single.)

There’s also an all-pervasisve feeling of a young woman torn between discovering the world, leading her own life and yet not wanting to leave her comfortable upbringing. She captures the bittersweet nature of this in the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self” oh-so perfectly:

The day I left home, Dad muttering
not “So you’re off”
but “So you’re leaving us”
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead

Fukui Station, where I left Mother
with a light “See you, then”—
as if going shopping

But my favourite poem in the collection is “Summertime Ship” which evokes all the joy and other-worldliness of travelling by ship to China, where she wanders the “lively, glittering Shanghai streets / crammed with bicycles and men at work”.  On her journey she drinks Tsing Tao beer, cruises the “milk caramel” Yangtze River, buys souvenirs in Luoyang and goes to Xi’an to see:

Hundred upon hundreds of figures
in the terracotta army—
their thoughts sleep standing

Hypnotic sequences

If you haven’t already guessed, I really enjoyed my exploration of an unfamiliar art form. Even if you are not a poetry fan — and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as one — it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Tawara’s way of seeing and depicting the world. I loved reading these tanka poems over the space of a fortnight — one a night before turning out the light — and felt the cares of the day being washed away by their hypnotic rhythm and gorgeous language.

Salad Anniversary won the Association of Modern Poets’ top prize in 1987, and the book’s opening poem, “August Morning”, won the coveted Kadokawa Tanka Prize.

Finally, the book would make a gorgeous gift. It’s smaller than your normal-sized novel (it measures 12cm x 16.5cm), has French flaps and the cover paper stock has a textural feel to it and is printed with ink that captures the light so it sparkles. The artwork is by Mio Matsumoto, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, who is an illustrator based in Tokyo. Her official website is here.