Mem Fox, Possum Magic (1983)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of my favourite childhood stories, and an icon—an ugly duckling who becomes more beautiful via food safari. But down under we’re blessed with the delightful Hush, star of Mem Fox’s beloved and very Australian book Possum Magic. To some the possum is a pest. The banshee bandit rattles on roofs and rumbles in rubbish. Its claws are like a marsupial Freddy Krueger. But the possums in Fox’s rhythmical tale are whimsical and caring. Grandma Poss makes Hush invisible to protect her but then can’t reverse her safety spell—until she realises food is the cure. When I first read Possum Magic I couldn’t have imagined that I would grow up to have an eating disorder. For a sufferer, naming the beast is half the battle but it took time for my mum to accept this because for a parent a diagnosis can seem like failure. The maternal instinct to protect one’s offspring sometimes means hiding problems in plain sight.
Hush and Grandma Poss’s breakthrough comes in the far north of Australia where they eat a Vegemite sandwich. The healing power of yeast extract was lost on me. As a kid I hated vegemite. Some thought that was un-Australian. One day at preschool I snatched a sandwich from a tray at afternoon tea but biting into it I was disgusted to realise the brown spread inside was not Nutella. I loved that hazelnut condiment so much and was often asked if I wanted some bread with it because I would spread it so thickly. As my palate is mature I now endure a smear with smashed avo or cheese and tomato.
Rereading Possum Magic as an adult I learnt ‘pumpkin scones in Brisbane’—which stuck out among ‘Anzac biscuits in Adelaide, mornay and Minties in Melbourne, steak and salad in Sydney’ for lack of alliteration—was a cheeky reference to Lady Flo, the wife of the infamous former Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. An awareness of the adults who often are the readers for their kids is another reason why Fox’s children’s books are so successful. Her rhythmical structure and clever references make them so rich. And kindness in her characters is very warming. Grandma Poss tells Hush, ‘You look wonderful you precious possum,’ as she eats a pavlova on a beach in Perth. I read these words now and I think about how eating is not a sin. Understanding food as fuel is a journey. The book’s climax comes ‘in Hobart late one night in the kitchens of the casino they saw a lamington on a plate, Hush closed her eyes and nibbled … it’s worked it’s worked, she cried’.
I love how Grandma Poss and Hush sing and dance with joy in that kitchen. I remember many a delightfully destructive session in the kitchen with my family singing and clanging the tune ‘Banging All the Pots & Pans’. Like Hush, unapologetically enjoying my favourite foods makes me feel seen and loved. Even more so when done with family.
Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident (2016)
If I hadn’t received a media copy of Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident I would certainly have sought it out anyway. I was producing a feminist program for community radio at the time and took the opportunity to interview Maguire about her psychological thriller for the show. The way she played with the space and isolation of the country, and constructed such gritty and flawed characters made the work strikingly tangible. Chris, the barmaid, is the bereaved older sister of Bella, who was brutally murdered in a small Australian town. As the police and media circle, Chris’s strain and suspicion become palpable. Mary Janes and Jane Does are still far too common in narrative fiction so it felt good to have a protagonist who was a strong female lead and a flawed hero: she drinks too much, she fucks, she smokes, she calls her ex—but she works hard and wants justice. She is a relatable young woman. Leaning into learning about feminism is asking why women aren’t more angry all the time. Chris’s unbridled rage is at times so cathartic because it is not categorised as hysteria or overreacting but as such a primal need to cope with the shit of a sexist world.
Australia doesn’t have proper medium-sized towns like most countries—we have big cities and small towns. So many small towns spread out over sparse landscapes—tiny populations with one big main street but still a sense of suffocation. An Isolated Incident takes this and runs with it. Somebody is murdered and everyone is a suspect but you have to smile and play nice until there is a warrant. Through Chris I felt the tension between the nosey locals and the rowdy out-of-towners. There’s a strong desire to escape, to feel, to fight. The visitors are dangerous but the ones you know cut deep because they know no boundaries. I feel conflicted about the reporter character May’s lifestyle and ambition. Hollywood has perpetuated the unethical female journalist stereotype but Maguire allows us to watch her grow through her relationship with Chris and coverage of Bella’s case.
An Isolated Incident was short-listed for the 2017 Stella Prize, and rightly so. Tackling the issue of violence against women, and the media’s portrayal of it, is no easy feat. Maguire’s clever structuring of the story provides a strong narrative arc to attach to, while the journalist storyline highlights a distorted picture of how crime is covered. At least two women in Australia are killed a week but the government puts more funding and emphasis on anti-terrorism initiatives than frontline domestic violence services. The reportage is becoming less focused on the what and more on the why. The title and the epilogue drive home the message that beyond each sad story of a dead woman is a terrible trend that should be recognised as a national crisis.
The Big Black Thing: Chapter. 1 (2017)
I first encountered Sweatshop’s collaborative series The Big Black Thing in a small dark room at the Seymour Centre at Sydney Writers Festival. Four of Western Sydney’s most exciting female writers of colour shared their battle stories of racism, and their writing of culture, faith, class and community. The friendship and respect between panellists Shirley Le, Maryam Azam, Evelyn Araluen and Winnie Dunn was palpable as they offered a window onto a Sweatshop writers workshop, finding their voice and sharing their prose. They shouldn’t have been put in a corner and pigeonholed. There has been a lot of talk about writers festivals—who should be programmed, who is the audience, what should be discussed. Looking back we should have seen more of Le, Azam, Araluen and Dunn on the main stages, and with the international artists. They are the new generation of Australian writers, emboldening their peers through mentoring and the very act of being published and read.
At my inner-western Sydney high school my friendship group was referred to as ‘skips’. Only one of us was directly descended from convicts—the others were second- or third-generation European. This stood in stark contrast in a place where many other students were first-generation Lebanese-Australian, Tongan-Australian, Assyrian-Australian and Vietnamese-Australian. My family had a DVD of Summer Heights High and we thought Chris Lilley was a hoot.
In the dark room at Sydney Writers Festival Dunn told us how non-existent representation of Tongan people is in pop culture and entertainment. Her brother was enraged watching Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga. ‘I can fucking read!’ he said. Her stories of going there: the jungle, backwards bureaucracy, superstition and family. I am haunted by the line ‘Only Tonga can decide when we die’.
Monikkah Eliah’s ‘Retail’ yarn takes a familiar set up of a dingy suburban shopping mall and makes crass capitalism incredibly frustrating and sinister. Le’s ‘Funny Ethnics’ reads as if it should be a sketch—her acerbic wit makes a story about racism, romance and generations sparkle on rooftops in my mind.
I was in year nine when the Cronulla riots sparked racial tensions. The aftershock went beyond the Sutherland Shire and raised questions about belonging and identity. Australia Day was my favourite day—decked out in the blue, red and white of the flag, playing in the pool, drinking goon with mates and listening to the Hottest 100. The Australia Day after the riots I was called a ‘redneck’ at Ashfield station. I was red-faced and ashamed. These days I work or go to Invasion Day rallies on 26 January. In the middle of The Big Black Thing there is a section of stories by young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers from Western Sydney, marked with a black line. Ellen van Neerven introduces these stories, which make you laugh, make you feel something. Mark Streeter’s piece of short dialogue about death rips me apart. I don’t want to be put together again. •
Eliza Berlage is a Canberra journalist with a sociology background. She is a researcher and podcast producer for the Conversation’s chief political correspondent Michelle Grattan and reports for Australian Associated Press.