Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

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NASA's photo of Diwali Night fireworks in India

– reblogged from here.

Furious refugee groups have questioned how long the federal government will continue mandatory detention after the suicide of another refugee at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul today slammed the government following the death this morning of the Tamil refugee known as Shooty to his friends.

The Immigration Department has confirmed the man was taken to hospital earlier today but died.

Citing poisoning as a possible cause of death, Mr Rintoul said a number of approaches had been made to DIAC to have Shooty released into community detention, but they had been unsuccessful.

He said the man’s failed bid to be released to attend a Hindu festival may have sparked his suicide.

– Patrick Lion, Refugee advocates slam mandatory detention after refugee suicide

.

Diwali

.

The lights are lit

to welcome a goddess.

.

Good has won, and nations gleam

with rainbow lights

as evil is driven out by love

and families meet

and laughter is shared

and just for a night

the world is remade –

the stars are rivalled

by earthly brightness:

billions of hearts

and billions of candles

blaze like auroras

and banish the dark.

But elsewhere, as always,

evil endures.

The cell has no candles.

It punishes hearts

by denying them hope

until life is a box

without doors or space

and the whole world hangs

from the tip of a key

whose name is release

that is rarely spoken

and seldom used.

And into this dark

comes the rumour of light

that is called Diwali,

and all good things

are remembered again,

 .

and the promise of love

is music in ears he thought were deaf;

and the promise of kin

is touch to a body long denied;

and the promise of free

is bread in the mouth starvation claimed –

.

but at the last, the man in the cell

remains.

Despair is his poison.

Darkness wins.

He swallows it down

and the lights go out,

for the key called release

fits a second door

whose name is death

and whose lock will open

even when cells

will not.

A billion candles

to welcome a goddess –

and yet we could not light one

to welcome a man.

– also posted here.

Once upon a time in the 90s, there was a critically acclaimed Australian TV series called SeaChange, which ended at the height of its popularity for the pure and simple reason that the creator wanted it to. Take a moment to appreciate how rarely, if ever, that happens in modern television, and you might begin to understand the scope of how awesome a show this was. After just three seasons, Deb Cox and Andrew Knight – the creators of what was, at the time, the highest rated program on Australian TV – turned down offers from every major commercial network to fund new episodes of SeaChange and declared instead that it was done. They’d closed everything out the way they wanted; the characters were in a good place, and even though they could have made a lot of money by extending the show, they opted not to milk the cashcow at the expense of running a good thing into the ground. Internets, nobody does this, and it’s really, really stupid. The otherwise universal fate of good shows is either to keep on plugging away, season after season, until they start to turn bad enough that they lose their funding, or else be prematurely cancelled by idiots. Nobody ever quits while they’re ahead, because the idea of discontinuing a popular story for the sake of artistic integrity is not how TV works.

But somehow, somewhen, Cox and Knight put their respective feet down and let things end. Three seasons of awesome, with an ending that closed out everything that needed to be closed out, left open what needed to be left open, and was utterly true to both the characters and the narrative ethos.

I watched SeaChange when it first aired, between the ages of 12 and 15, and have rewatched it multiple times since then. The premise is simple: Laura Gibson, a high-flying corporate lawyer and mother of two, has her whole world come crashing down in a single ill-fated day which culminates in her husband, Jack – who has just been revealed to be having an affair with her sister, Trudi – being publicly arrested for fraud. Utterly bereft, Laura remembers the last place her family was happy: a small town called Pearl Bay, where they spent their last good holiday before her career took off. Leaping at the chance to become the new magistrate for Pearl Bay, Laura promptly relocates – along with her teenage children, Miranda and Rupert – and instantly becomes embroiled in the various feuds, friendships and eccentricities that make up small town life, with the cases she rules on as magistrate providing a constant source of moral dilemmas and tragedies.

Main Female Characters 

Laura Gibson: Neurotic, stressed and out of her depth, Laura spends much of the show learning how to slow down and reconnect with people – particularly her children, but also the people she meets in town. She has two romances over the course of three seasons: one with Diver Dan, a local man with surprising depths, and one with Max Connors, a former journalist who returns home to Pearl Bay for personal reasons. Laura is sharply drawn, inviting sympathy even as she makes you want to strangle her, but always in a realistic way. For all the mistakes she’s made that have adversely affected her nearest and dearest, she’s honestly trying to atone for them, and in many ways is revealed to have been her own biggest victim.

Meredith Monahan: Laura’s first friend in Pearl Bay, Meredith is an older woman who runs the local pub. Possessed of a perfect memory for names, dates and faces, Meredith is sharply intelligent, a left-leaning town matriarch struggling to counterbalance the influence of the right-leaning mayor, Bob Jelly. Though usually rational, fair and compassionate, and always a fierce defender of the underdog, Meredith has a prickly streak, too, and is prone to letting her own stubborn biases get in the way of her judgement. She has spent the majority of her adult life in an adulterous relationship with the previous magistrate, Harold, who lives with her despite still being technically married to someone else.

Heather Jelly: Wife of Mayor Bob Jelly, Heather is, on the surface, the perfect housewife. Devoted to her husband, home and teenage children as well as being a prominent participant in local ladies’ groups, her seeming bubbleheadness conceals a brighter, more passionate person than anyone, especially Bob, gives her credit for. Over the course of the series, she steadily changes from being a passive to an active participant in her own life, slowly confronting the various ways in which Bob takes her for granted, discovering her own personality, and asserting herself outside the home.

Miranda Gibson: Laura’s eldest child, Miranda initially protests the move to Pearl Bay, but soon begins to settle in. Finding an unexpected best friend in Bob Jelly’s son, Craig, she struggles with her parents’ separation while coming into her own as a teenager, clashing with Laura over her hippyish leanings, but ultimately becoming much closer to her mother in the process. When Max arrives, she talks him into starting a local paper – the Pearl Bay Oyster – as part of her quest to become a journalist. She is spirited, sometimes reactionary, loyal, an activist and creative.

Carmen Blake: Meredith’s wayward niece, Carmen is a free-spirited hippy who shows up pregnant to an unknown man and settles into town life in preparation for her daughter’s birth. Prone to straying a little on the wrong side of the law, Carmen is sharp, stubborn, opinionated, spiritual, outspoken and fiercely independent.

Karen Miller: A dedicated police sergeant, Karen wants nothing more than to marry her long-time fiance, Angus, and settle into motherhood. Though enthusiastic, driven and a little naive, Karen is also deeply traditional, occasionally judgmental, possessive and insensitive. Her development over the course of the series is both touching and believable: though she never wavers in her affection for Angus, she also goes on something of a journey of self-discovery, finally exploring the world outside Pearl Bay and, consequently, coming to see it differently on her return.

Phrani Gupta: A local businesswoman, Phrani is scrupulously honest, unfailingly cheerful, and fierce in the defense of the people she loves, though sometimes prone to anger and defensiveness. As the series develops, she comes to have a closer relationship with Kevin, the owner of the caravan park, with the complicated reasons behind her relocation from India eventually being revealed to hinge on domestic troubles. Like Meredith and Heather, Phrani plays an active role in town politics, and often clashes with Bob.

Main Male Characters

Daniel ‘Diver Dan’ Della Bosca: Dan is Laura’s first love interest in Pearl Bay, a widely-traveled man who runs the school ferry and lives above his cafe, which is housed in a boatshed. Adventurous, unconventional and wryly humorous, Dan takes it upon himself to try and calm Laura down, infuriating her almost as much as she infuriates him in the process. Though seemingly cool and collected, he’s had a lot of hard knocks in his life, something which occasionally shows in his quickfire temper. Dan has little tolerance for the rules of ordinary society, and tends to live much as he pleases. He is chaos to Laura’s order, but cares a lot more deeply about most things than he lets on.

Bob Jelly: Mayor of Pearl Bay, Bob is also a real estate mogul and all-round genial patriarch. Though neither as intelligent nor as dignified as he thinks he is, Bob is bluff, corrupt, politically incorrect and prone to massive obliviousness when it comes to his wife, Heather. Bob develops hugely over the course of the series: challenged by the success and failure of various schemes, the implications of Laura’s arrival and Heather’s self-assertion, he slowly changes into a (slightly) better man. For all his faults, he’s a sympathetic character, and not without redeeming qualities, the most important being that, when it really matters, he tries. An equal source of comedy, outrage and pathos, Bob is frequently an antagonist, but never – crucially – a straw man.

Max Connors: A former foreign correspondent, Max returns home to Pearl Bay as a damaged man, his defensiveness and seemingly cheerful sarcasm masking the pain of recent loss. Unable to put his investigative instincts to rest, he amuses himself by hunting down Bob’s various corruptions and bringing them to light, and expresses his attraction to Laura via the adult equivalent of ceaselessly tugging on her pigtails. Max also has a tense, often destructive relationship with Carmen: the two share an inquisitive, journalistic bent and both have suffered trauma, but Max has no patience for Carmen’s spirituality, and the pair are as often at each other’s throats as not. Max is contrary, loyal, empathetic, stubborn, curious and a prankster, and delights in every opportunity to circumvent authority.

Harold Fitzwalter: Meredith’s paramour and the ex-magistrate of Pearl Bay, Harold is also a recovering alcoholic. Now representing clients in his old court, he struggles with getting older, with sobriety, with family and with life. He loves Meredith dearly, and as the two of them deal together with the new resurgence of old secrets, he begins to recover his passion.

Rupert Gibson: Laura’s younger child, Rupert has been the most challenged by their move to Pearl Bay. He misses his father, and is constantly scheming for ways to get his parents back together. Finding a best friend in Trevor, the son of Kevin the caravan owner, Rupert’s various observations about life, his academic struggles and his various shenanigans often end up causing Laura no end of trouble, but as the series develops, he starts to come into himself and not only accept, but embrace his new life, though never losing faith in his father.

Angus Kabiri: The court clerk and Karen’s paramour, Angus is a quiet young man of set routines and (very well hidden) depths. Kind and compassionate but nervous of committing himself fully to Karen, Angus exists in a state of anxiety about what he wants to do, the sort of man he should be, and where his life is headed. His greatest passion is surfing, and he is often at a loss as to how express his feelings to Karen. Good-hearted, occasionally vague and prone to evasion, Angus’s constant worries nonetheless give him a strangely existential bent, while his occasional passionate outbursts on court matters are a strong counterbalance to Laura’s usual deference to procedure.

Graham Grey: The local police sergeant, Grey is a frequently mistrusted authority figure more often allied with Laura than the rest of the town and still considered an outsider by many, both because of his job in court and because he’s still looked upon as a new arrival. He feels this isolation keenly, and walks the difficult line of trying to fit into a town whose citizens he must simultaneously police. His home life is complicated, and though he sometimes clashes with Max, the two are on friendly terms. Grey is also given the unenviable task of mentoring Karen, whose enthusiasm for policework often expresses itself in inconvenient ways.

Kevin Findlay: The owner of the caravan park and father of Trevor, Rupert’s best friend, Kev is sweet and hard-working, but far from being the sharpest knife in the block. For this reason, he is frequently manipulated into being Bob’s dupe in town matters, and though Phrani defends him fiercely, he is often the accidental cause of more problems than might otherwise be the case. Despite his difficult childhood, Kevin is kind, thoughtful in his own way, and as the series develops, he becomes increasingly confident in standing up for both himself and others, even when this means crossing Bob.

Jack Gibson: For all his faults, Jack is never a straw man. Trying to rebuild his relationship with Laura and his children, he presents as both a weak and sympathetic figure: weak, in terms of his business failures, jealousy of Laura’s success and ongoing relationship with Trudi; sympathetic, in that he was and remains and excellent, devoted father, one who tries to mend his mistakes even as he keeps making them. Though sometimes acrimonious, Jack’s relationship with Laura slowly improves over the course of the show, though not without pitfalls on both their parts.

There are other supporting regulars with smaller parts – notably Craig and Jules Jelly, plus local blokes Griff and Simmo – as well as other, more important characters who only appear in a handful of episodes, but despite its size, the cast is universally well-developed. Across all three seasons, everyone grows and changes: relationships form, fall apart, develop and start again, friendships mutate and evolve, secrets are revealed, and challenges are surmounted. There is tension, drama, humour and tragedy, with just a touch of the improbable thrown in (Pearl Bay itself is prone to a surprising number of improbable weather phenomena, ensuring that the bridge to the mainland always ends up broken). It is, in short, an incredible show, and one which defined both my teenage years and my sense of narrative in multiple significant ways.

What really sells SeaChange is the characterisation. The cast is dominated by strong women, all of them exploring love and relationships in different ways, but none of them perfect; and by the same token, even the antagonists are given fair shrift, with no straw man characters and development for all. There’s a decidedly left-leaning bent to the narratives: every episode passes the Bechdel test and there’s an undeniably feminist flavour to the proceedings, but never at the expense of demonising the more traditional characters, all of whom are shown sympathetically. Like the population of Pearl Bay itself, SeaChange walks the line between extreme local conservatism and extreme far-leftism, with hippies like Carmen taking the same gentle mocking as right-wingers like Bob. There’s an amazing sense of strength and community to the show, and despite the number of heavy issues touched on in various episodes – corruption, homophobia, domestic violence, euthanasia, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, prejudice, sexuality and suicide being just a few – the writers never preach to the audience, leaving the ultimate decision up to the individual viewer. Dark moments are leavened with humour, and there’s an endearing self-awareness to the occasional moments of absurdity.

SeaChange is an amazing show, but one which few people are likely to have heard of outside of Australia. If you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend doing so.

The more I learn about being an author, the more I realise how easy it is for even the most eager, dedicated readers to miss out on awesome books, not only due to their sheer number, but because of the difficulties involved in locating novels that have no local distribution in one’s country of residence. Teh Internets, long may they reign, have done wonders to ameliorate this problem, but unless one is told about a specific book or author located elsewhere, the issue becomes a question of publicity. The book blogger community is invaluable in this regard, but with the exception of those blogs dedicated primarily to romance/erotic novels, the emphasis tends to be on recent releases, debut authors and upcoming titles rather than mainstays of the genre. There are very good reasons for this, and I’m not complaining in the slightest. What I am trying to do, in a very roundabout way, is tell you about Jackie French.

If you lived in Australia in the 1990s and had anything to do with young adult literature, it is impossible not to have heard of Jackie French, with good reason. I can’t recall which was the first book of hers I ever read, but looking at publication dates, it seems likely that it was The Book of Unicorns, a gorgeous collection of short stories – some high fantasy, some urban fantasy – each of which features a different type of unicorn. A master of the form, French’s  middle grade Phredde the Phaery series, starting with Stories to Eat With a Banana, are each a volume of sequential-yet-individual short stories featuring the same cast of characters. And then there’s Dancing With Ben Hall, a collection of interconnected tales all set in different periods in Australian history, many of them based on true events that happened to members of French’s family. While many of her novels are written in a similar vein, my favourite stories were always her fantasy offerings – particularly Tajore Arkle, a story set on another world with a connection to our own. In the opening lines, we see the protagonist, a girl called Anya, drawing a picture of last night’s dream for her friend, Zue: an eagle flying through the rain. On hearing this explanation, Zue laughs.

“What’s an eagle, Anya?” Zue asks. “What’s rain?”

The story that follows is by turns powerful, breathtaking, sweet and so imaginative that more than ten years after I first read it, it still gives me shivers to think about.

To my shame, it’s taken me until this year to finally get around to French’s vampire novel, In The Blood, the first volume of what is now a completed trilogy. Set in a desolate future Australia where small communities called Utopias eke out an existence outside the central city and where genetic modification has created centaurs and talking wombats alike, the story follows Danielle, a woman expelled from the city with secrets of her own, as she is forced to track down a killer.

And then there’s her book on writing for teenagers: How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded My Maths Class And Turned Me Into a Writer (And How You Can Be One Too), which volume I read and reread endlessly as part of my quest to become just that, and which, as a teenager, could not possibly have had a title better suited to attracting both my sympathy and attention.

Jackie French is an excellent writer in every possible respect. Her prose is beautiful, her storytelling and worldbuilding are superb, and she has a true knack for charaterisation. Writing well before the current boom in YA fantasy and paranormal storytelling, what strikes me now is how ahead of the curve she was – and has always been – in picking her material. A complaint I’ve heard not infrequently about the current crop of such stories is their sameness; or rather, the extent to which each subsequent work is inevitably gauged against those which preceeded it. Anyone feeling fatigued in this regard could do much worse than to invest in any of French’s books, which I guarantee to be original, brilliant and generally awesome – which is what you’d expect from someone who was winning awards and writing YA urban fantasy for more than a decade before it was a recognised, separate genre.

Moral of the story: if you’ve never heard of Jackie French, go out and remedy your ignorance forthwith.

And also, Merry Christmas!

Dear Australian Labor Party,

I’ve never voted for you.

And I only just realised it.

This is my third election. Ours is a two party system. I cheered when Rudd got in, and booed for years at the failure of Howard to fall in a well and die. But until I came back from the polls today, I hadn’t actually realised that every vote of my life – local government, Senate and Representatives, above and below the line – has been for the Greens.

In 1975, my mother – who was then the age that I am now, give or take a few months – protested the Whitlam dismissal. As a teenager, I found the shirt she wore to those rallies stored in a trunk in our attic. It’s bright yellow with black lettering that says: REJECT FRASER’S COUP D’ETAT: VOTE ALP. When the Liberals introducted VSU, I wore it to the protest rallies. One man of my mother’s vintage raised his fist in solidarity, grinned and told me to maintain the rage, just as Whitlam once did to their generation. I said I would, and feel as though I have.

But you are not my party. You have never been my party.

Because in my lifetime, you have never been sufficiently left-wing.

Possibly you should have taken notice when, earlier in the year, Gordon Brown’s Labor Party in Britain lost government to a hung parliament, which was resolved by a groundbreaking and very weird deal between Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Tories. Tonight, even as the TV pundits are yet to call a firm result, it is clear that the same thing is about to happen here: a hung parliament, wherein the traditional Labor vote has been crucially splintered by a smaller, left-wing party that can never hope to take government.

Splintered, in other words, by voters like me.

I do not want Tony Abbott to be Prime Minister. Although I have only ever voted Green, should he triumph at the end of tonight – or tomorrow, or Monday, or however long it takes Canberra to sort itself into some semblance of order – my mother’s shirt will once again be brought out of retirement. I will go back to waving my fist at The Man, for all the good it does, and protesting the inevitably hideous decisions he will make. Should that future eventuate, the fault will, in part, be mine. I was content for the election to be decided on preferences. I voted Green.

But in all good conscience, I couldn’t bring myself to vote Labor.

It’s not just Conroy and his ludicrous internet filter. It’s not just the party line against gay marriage. Had she had any policies worthy of my enthusiasm, I would have welcomed the chance to vote for Australia’s first female Prime Minister. But I will not vote for the semblance of progress at the cost of its tangible equivalent, even if the cost is something worse. The Labor Party has forgotten that it is meant to be left wing, and by slowly sliding more and more to the centre-right in order to capture a handful of Liberal swing votes, they’ve completely abandoned a key voter base: actual left-wingers.

The swing to the Greens isn’t about Kevin Rudd, or even Julia Gillard. It’s about voting for what we believe. And right now, what the Labor Party believes is just a little too compatible with Liberal Party policy for my taste. Yes, I’d rather Gillard than Abbott any day of the week. But on the basis of policy, I’d sooner the Australian Sex Party ran the country – not least because they (a) actually have policies that (b) make a whole lot of fucking sense.

I understand that the buggery of politics is compromise. But not every whore has a heart of gold, and right now, the Labor Party has taken on a foolish sheen. When the supposedly major left-leaning party is competing for votes and seats with a smaller left-leaning party to such an extent that neither is fighting the right-wingers, perhaps it’s time to redraw the party line? Politicians are whores so that the rest of us don’t have to be, but if the Labor Party thinks we’ll vote for them out of respect for their pragmatic efforts to move further and further towards the right, they’ve got another thing coming.

Well, actually, we all do. Because there’s going to be a hung parliament.

I just hope someone learns from it.

Yrs sincerely,

Foz

Dear America,

I’m thrilled you elected Obama. I really am – lord knows, you’re well overdue for a leader with smarts and social priorities. For the first time in long time, you’ve got a certain hefty percentage of world sympathy on your side. We’re happy for you.

But there’s something we need to discuss.

First, it was The Office. Remember that show? It didn’t always star Steve Carell. Then there was Kath and Kim, a beloved pair you left in tattered ruins. More recently, there’s been Life On Mars, a truly spectacular TV offering that, once again, you failed to comprehend. And now,  just now, I see you’re already planning a US version of Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire flick that has only just come out.

Are you struck by this information? Does it seem odd to you that, apart from an endless parade of nation-specific reality TV spin-offs or the occasional new take on a old idea, you are the only ones who consistently remake viable, up to-date television in your own image? If there was a language barrier, perhaps you’d have an argument: successful dubbing is rare. But that’s not the case.

Back in the nineties, lots of people were worried about the influx of American television into Australia and the UK. Critics argued that it was killing off local product, while others fretted about the kids they saw wearing baseball caps and trying to talk like the Fresh Prince. They were worried about cultural identity, but ultimately, that turned out to be a teething phase. Once the novelty wore off and local producers started getting back in the game, we shrugged our shoulders. You make some damn good TV, after all. Why stifle ourselves by forcibly ignoring it?

But now, your cultural hegemony isn’t the issue. Cultural isolation is.

Because we learned from what you showed us. Seeing LA, New York, the ubiquitous ‘hood, even the soft-lens airbrushed worlds of the daytime soapies were like windows into America. Cracked and dirty windows at times, or maybe the glass was warped, but sometimes, it shone beautifully clear, and we could see you. We learned how you saw yourselves.

But America, you won’t look at us. You don’t want to learn about the rest of the world, our slang, our peculiar humour, or even gaze down on our unfamiliar streets and wonder what it might be like to walk them. Instead, you turn each potential window into a mirror. And you see nothing but yourselves.

And this, when non-Americans get together and whinge about your country, this is what bothers us: more than the wars and more than the politics, if we’re honest, because those things are distant, as incomprehensible to the average us as to the average you. But our shows, their characters, are personal. We love them. Because of that love, we want to share them. And yet that step into the unknown, into renouncing your nationhood for just a half-hour to be someone else, consistently proves too frightening. Instead, you look away.

America, what you’re doing isn’t healthy. You need to see new things. And not all of you are to blame, I know that too – it’s the network executives who choose the content, who decide to remodel rather than import, but the time has come to stand up to them. Speak. Be brave. Watch something new. Watch something unAmerican. See us as we see ourselves.

And let that be a good thing.

 

Yrs sincerely, 

Foz

Dear Australian Parents,

Stop freaking out about finding the perfect school for your precious progeny. Parroting the answers to standardised tests is not a form of intelligence, and tends to impart the lesson that memorisation is more important than comprehension, let alone independent thought. Kids at their best are creative, explorative, curious . Encourage their interests, but don’t regiment them – the best way to teach is to make learning fun, not to take something they love and make it joyless. If you really want children who are bright, articulate, interesting and well-adjusted, then learn with them: buy them books you’ll read together, play with them, ask what they’d like to do and, where possible, make it happen – but don’t just farm them out to a stranger for rote-learning.  

Not every child is a Rhodes Scholar waiting to happen, and that’s OK. Encourage them to do their best, help them if they struggle, but understand that no amount of money thrown at private tutors, schools or remedial programs will make them any happier or healthier. I understand your concerns, I really do: the world is a difficult place, and especially in times of economic turmoil, it’s natural to want an advantage for those you love best. But education, sadly, has become a commodity, something we buy and sell without anywhere near enough thought as to its intrinsic value. Our society has fathomened the letter of schools, but lost their spirit. When almost everyone finishes Year 12 and a vast majority attend uni, what sets someone apart isn’t their improved marks, but their genuine hunger for knowledge. And that, assuming it can be taught, is a much more subtle lesson.

Parents, let out the collective breath you’ve been holding. Love your kids – teach them, guide them, help them – but remember: they won’t be kids forever. The more you have to force them into something, the less fun they’ll find it. And all too soon, when they shoot up into rebellious, awkward teenagers who storm out, sulk, cut class and answer back, the very best you can hope for is that they want to learn, regardless of whether everything they busy themselves with is part of the curriculum. Like gumtrees that start out in verandah pots, you’re teaching them to be bigger than the space they’ve known. You’re helping them grow up. Whether you send them to public or private school, if they have a tutor or not, it’ll happen. They’ll cease to be meek, but they will inherit the Earth.

So don’t mould them after the system. Teach them to change it.