There are books I read standing up. I have an old lectern given to me by a friend leaving town. It stands by a door opening onto the back verandah and I can read there by natural light. Standing helps me concentrate and the books I particularly need to do that for usually address, in some way, Alice Springs and central Australia, the place where I have lived and worked as a journalist and arts writer for 25 years.
Books in this vein that have recently been the most rewarding are all ones I keep coming back to. For a start, there is Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person by Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM. Its alluring subtitle has probably prompted many people to open its covers, but even in Alice, where Kemarre is a leading and much loved figure, many would be daunted by its text. Essentially a transcription of conversations with Kemarre, sometimes in Arrernte (reproduced and then translated), sometimes in her idiosyncratic English (which she speaks as a second language), it is not an easy read. But throughout are gems of insight into exactly what its subtitle promises: the cultural realities of contemporary Aboriginal life in central Australia that, for outsiders, are so often confounding. There are also many expressions of Kemarre’s generous and hopeful view of the future between black and white Australians, looking beyond blame for past wrongs towards making the most of what the two cultures can offer one another.
At times a difficult read for quite other reasons—and hence another one for the lectern—is a collection of essays called Placing Psyche, Exploring Cultural Complexes in Australia. One of its editors, Craig San Roque, put it into my hands. Despite knowing him to be one of the most original and creative minds in The Centre, a Jungian psychoanalyst with a poetic bent, I resisted the weight of this book until I was drawn back to it after reading another. This was the graphic novel The Long Weekend in Alice Springs which Joshua Santospirito brilliantly adapted from San Roque’s essay of similar title. I say ‘brilliant’ because the adaptation opens up with great artistry to a much wider audience the deep perceptions San Roque has to offer. These are to do with cultural breakdown, acute amongst many Aboriginal people here, but also present in the general population and profoundly influencing the social mood of Alice Springs. Instead of the almost threadbare political analysis and ‘solutionising’ that go on—and to which I as a journalist am probably over-exposed—San Roque / Santospirito invoke acts of imagination as a way forward, enlisting you, the reader, with their intensely imaginative book as you go along. It is not often that I have experienced a book in such a ground-shifting way.
Hungry for more I brought Placing Psyche to the lectern. These are mostly quite dense essays in the field of Jungian thought but, as with Kemarre’s work, persistence yielded what I found to be incredibly relevant insights and reasons for hopefulness. The concept of ‘contact zone’ resonated as an understanding of the place I live in, as not only a colonised place where the Indigenous and settler cultures have met and grappled with one another with often dire results, but also as a place where there can be, and is, movement in an alternative direction, a re-imagining of community.
There are also books I read lying down, for pure pleasure. These are mostly not about the place I live in. When I lie down I like my mind to wander away from here. My bedroom has windows to the south and east and I often have the quite physical sense of drifting out across the vast spaces of the Simpson Desert to the south-eastern parts of the country where I was raised and where most of my family still live. The reading I do lying down is on a continuum from my growing up. Not that I have always been a dedicated reader. When I was younger, I felt a lot of ambivalence about reading, and confusion about the seemingly endless choices. I’ve since learned to accept books that are guided into my hands either by someone whose reading instincts I trust or by having my interest pricked in my rather random reading of reviews and essays.
It was in this (the latter) way that I came across a novel that I have only recently finished, Mating by Norman Rush, which I read as an ebook. I knew it was one for me when I read an excerpt quoted in a review of Rush’s more recent novel, Subtle Bodies. Mating, first published in 1991, is set in Botswana. Its narrator is an anthropology graduate student, a young woman, whose doctoral thesis subject has fallen down around her ears. The excerpt quoted her piercingly witty observations of an expat party where she is considering her next step. This includes surveying the field for a mate and she finds him in the person of a community development guru who has established a village for ostracised Batswana women in the middle of the Kalahari desert. The voice is idiosyncratic and droll, and full of sharp observations of the politics and sexual politics in the community development crowd in the utopian women’s village—marvellously and convincingly evoked—and of the dynamics of the central couple. I laughed many times as I read it and had many moments of recognition. Much of this felt quite close to home—a break from my usual lying down practice—but wit makes anything pass well.
Mating is quite long, close to 500 pages in paperback, and it includes quite lengthy digressions away from events, into ideas and politics. About halfway through, the narrator observes her desire to ‘tell everything’, comparing her story to ‘the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents’. I was pleased to go on the journey guided by Mating’s map.
Kieran Finnane is a journalist and arts writer living in Alice Springs. She contributes regularly to the Alice Springs News Online, of which she is a founding journalist, and to national publications, including Griffith REVIEW, Inside Story, Artlink, and Art Monthly Australia.