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‘Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic

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2014, 188 p

It’s not often that I open up a book and find myself thinking “Hey! I was there!” I did in this book, though, where Olivera Simic starts by describing an encounter at a law and history conference in Melbourne. [Those of you who have been with me since 2010 might vaguely remember that I was involved in the organization of the ANZLHS Law and History Conference that year. For me, any recollection of the conference is completely overwhelmed by the accompanying memory of leaving quickly after the last session to sit with my mother at her nursing home. She died the next day.]

Olivera Simic’s recollection of that conference, though, involves a quick interaction she had with the chair of the panel who asked how he should introduce her.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Yugoslavia’ she replied. ‘But that country doesn’t exist!’ he countered, finding the interchange sufficiently bewildering to share it with the audience.  Several people came up to afterwards, saying that it was very unusual to hear someone still introducing herself as Yugoslav.

But I do. I am a Yugoslav without Yugoslavia. I identify with the country I was born in; I am homesick for the place that exists only in my distant memory: the beautiful old towns, rivers and mountains, and the part of the Adriatic coast that was Yugoslavia. I speak a language that was declared dead when the war broke out in 1992. I was fortunate not to lose a close family member, but like many Yugoslav people, I lost so much.  The beginning of the war meant the end of my physical belonging to the country I was born and grew up in, the country I loved, the country I left and soon abandoned.  I tried to move on, to forget destruction and war, to run away from it all… The further I was from home, the closer home was to me, to my heart, to my mind.  The connection to my homeland was not severable to distance but, as many migrants will know, on the country, was made stronger by it. The smell, the sound, the sky and the sun of my home haunt me. They are always with me. (p.10)

We hear and read of people surviving war, but less often surviving peace. Simic was born in 1973 and spent her childhood in Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Her parents are Orthodox Serbs and were members of the Community Party before the 1990s in what she regarded as “a heterogenous multicultural, multilingual and multireligious community.” (p11) When war broke out in 1992, her parents sent her as a nineteen-year-old to neighbouring Serbia, her mother’s home country, where she was granted refugee status and enrolled in law school. She lived in Serbia, with occasional dangerous trips home to see her parents, from 1992 through to the 1999 NATO bombing during which, for 78 days,  she along with her fellow residents, lived in a permanent state of fear and anxiety. She was –  and still is – angry at the world for allowing this to happen, and after September 11, the emotional and existential burden of this experience devastated her in the form of PTSD.  At the end of the war, she was no longer ‘Yugoslavian’  but, on the basis of her surname, was designated to be Serbian – “a specific, but somehow alien ethnic identity”  that it had never occurred to her to apply to herself previously (p.21). Her mother-tongue, Serbo-Croation ceased to exist, replaced by other languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian).

Our labels of ethnicity have overridden our very being and make it impossible for us to be recognized first as people, and only then as an ‘ethnicity’. (p.25)

In 2001 she started work with Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. She completed an M.A. in Gender and Peacebuilding in Costa Rica. Since 2006 she has lived in Australia, and after gaining her PhD., worked as an academic writing on genocide and war crimes, most particularly (but not only) those committed by Serbs, and on trauma more generally. It’s an academic path that her parents and neighbours back in BiH try to dissuade her from, seeing her as a traitor to their concept of the Serbs as both victims and heroes.  She is aware that she is part of the ‘industry’ of postwar recovery and reconciliation, organizing seminars and workshops, receiving grants to carry out research on armed conflicts.

One of the paradoxes of experiencing violence first hand is that it can give unconditional power and authority to one’s voice, and people who have not had these experiences might feel as if they cannot say anything worthwhile (P 102)

She is aware, when faced with representatives of Srebrenica (where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by members of the Serbian forces) that she, like other academics, could be seen “as ‘conference tourists’, building our careers on the misery of survivors.” (p. 104) It doesn’t sit well with her.

I have summarized her story as a continuous, chronological narrative, which is not the way she has structured this book. There is a timeline of Yugoslavia’s disintegration as an appendix, but it acts more as an organizing device after reading her memoir, rather than during it.  Instead, her chapters are titled as paradoxes and opposites:  Journeying through War and Peace; Traitor or Truth Seeker? Moving from War to Peace; The Past Is Present; Victims and Survivors; Between Remembering and Forgetting.  There is no narrative tension of wondering if she will survive or not: no tales of want or deprivation.

Instead, this is a memoir of the intellect. She refers often to other writers and theorists and her bibliography is rich with academic references.  I was puzzled by her subtitle ‘a political memoir’ because this is so much a memoir of the head AND heart, until I remembered that old feminist touchstone ‘the personal is political’.  The blurbs on the back cover clearly place it within a feminist tradition, and in her preface she explains:

In feminist research women are considered to be experts regarding their own lives who communicate and reveal the narratives about the events that took place in their lives, their feelings about those events, and their interpretation of them (Foss and Foss, 1994 . 39) … Although mine is an individual story, I believe that on many levels it is also universal . My experiences of war and survival are similar to those of other war survivors…This is…why I have been motivated to embark on this emotional journey which sometimes links intimate experiences with existing scholarship. (p. 2, 3)

It is, then, her story but analyzed from an academic perspective, and interwoven with literature, history, genocide studies, trauma studies, human rights and peace studies.  It’s not the sort of memoir that will make you cry, but it will make you think.  I watch television and those streams of Syrians, carrying children and one or two plastic bags (what do you pack?); I hear predictions that partition might be the only solution for Syria and I think of Simic’s resistance against having an ethnic identity forced upon her by war.  I think of Simic’s need to weave her own experience into a larger philosophical and intellectual web – to make it mean something more.  It reminds us that the victims of war need to become survivors of peace, as well.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘The Mysterious Mr Jacob’ by John Zubrzycki

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2007, 262 p & notes

Transit Lounge

In 1912 it was said that when the real story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob was written, it would be invested with more wonder and mystery than “even in our strangest dreams we never imagined it could possess.”(p.247)

Well, it took a hundred years, but in this book John Zubrzycki has probably got as close to the “real” story as anyone else is likely to do. Mr Jacob – diamond merchant, magician and spy – was happy to embroider and dissemble about his actual origins, but for the civil servants of the British Raj who escaped to the Indian hills of Simla to escape the summer heat, Mr Jacob was a celebrity. His shop was full of  gems, curiosities and wonders, he lived in a opulent mansion ‘Belvedere’ and he was sought out for his magic and mystical skills and political contacts. He appeared in multiple newspaper articles, essays, books and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim  (albeit, not under his own name but as Lurgan Sahib).  He dealt with Indian princes and maneuvered the shadow world of British spies operating in the Far East, and yet he ended up largely impoverished, living on a rather miserly pension before his death in 1921 aged 71.

Many rumours spread about his origins –  Jewish? Greek? Polish? Italian? – but Zubrzycki has tracked his birthplace down to a small town in Turkey, near the Syrian border. He was actually Catholic, but in a world obsessed with spiritualism, he attracted Theosophists and the adherents of Madame Blavatsky. He arrived in Bombay in 1865 penniless, and within 12 years had achieved celebrity status. His greatest, and as it turned out, most damaging challenge was to sell the Imperial diamond, the largest brilliant-cut diamond in the world, to Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad in 1891.  Fabulously wealthy and opium-addicted, the Nizam liked gems, and Jacob undertook to bring him the diamond from Europe on approval, hoping to make a hefty profit for his efforts. But the sale ended up in court and here, if perhaps anywhere, Zubryzycki got closest to discovering what may be the truth about Alexander Jacob.

The book is framed as the author’s search for the ‘real’ Mr Jacob, and the author strolls onto the page quite frequently as he hunts for locations, searches for documents and seeks an elusive photograph of him. It certainly seems as if Mr Jacob is reaching out from the grave, sometimes thwarting some of his efforts (as in when he finally tracked down Mr Jacob’s grave only to find that it had just been destroyed), and permitting “just in time” discoveries at other times (as when he found the decrepit Belvedere mansion, just before its demolition).  In this case, Australian readers benefit from the six year lag between the book’s publication in 2011 and its recent release through Transit Press in Australia, as in the meantime he found the much-sought-after photo to add a physical presence to such an elusive subject. The author has an engaging style, whipping up interest at the start of each chapter, and if he digresses it’s because they’re such interesting alleyways into which he is being drawn.

We are taken on a fascinating journey into an India of  the scarcely-imaginable wealth of its Indian Princes and the rather disdainful manipulation of British colonial politics. There is a fluidity in Mr Jacob’s life as he defies national definitions and flits in the shadows of spies and diplomats.  There’s little attempt- and I dare say, little scope- for any exploration of Mr Jacob’s personal life, and in this he is just as slippery and elusive as in his professional life. It’s a rattling good yarn, as Mr Jacob knew himself in his various retellings and embellishments, and you can’t help but be imbued with Zubryzycki’s passion for such an enigmatic character.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: review copy from Transit Lounge Publishing.

 

Exhibition: ‘Remembering ’67’

For the first few months of this year, much of my time was spent working with the team that has put together the ‘Remembering ’67’ exhibition at the Heidelberg Historical Society. This year is our 50th anniversary, and we celebrated as a society last weekend at the Centre, Ivanhoe with Graeme Davison as speaker at a really enjoyable luncheon.

But our celebrations don’t end there! We’re celebrating the WHOLE YEAR of 1967, as experienced in the City of Heidelberg.  Our exhibition would be of special interest to people who were in Heidelberg at the time, but it’s broader than that, encompassing housing, schooling, shops, entertainment, and childhood.

We’re open every Sunday between 2.00 and 5.00 p.m. (and your Resident Judge will even be there on the 2nd Sunday of each month: I’m there this coming Sunday too!) It’s at the Heidelberg Historical Society Museum, Jika Street Heidelberg until December

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‘The Case Against Fragrance’ by Kate Grenville

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2017, 173 p & notes.

The genesis for this book was Kate Grenville’s own increasing sensitivity to the fragrances of perfumes, room fresheners, cleaning products and cosmetics.  She found herself overwhelmed by the perfume of a fellow audience-member at the opera; she reeled back from women’s scent at book signings and book festivals, and covered her face with her scarf as she sprinted through scented hotel lobbies.  (I must confess that part of me whispered “first world problem” at this stage.)

It was when she went looking for an accessible, user-friendly book about fragrance that she found there was none. This, then, is the book she wanted for herself: “straight-up, reliable information- a book for the general reader that gathered together what people knew about fragrance” (p. 13). She turned to published studies in scholarly journals where she could, and used science reviews funded in the interest of public health by the United States, EU and other governments.

This book aims to balance things out, not by trying to persuade, but by presenting some of what’s known about fragrance.  Armed with a bit of information, readers can make up their own minds.  Using fragrance is a choice, and my hope is that this book might give people the chance to make that choice an informed one. (p. 15)

Yes- but there is a tone of the wagging figure that pervades this book.  Her studies- and they are exhaustive in this footnoted but confidently and engagingly written book – make much of the chemical complexity of the products she is examining with the full, multi-syllabic names written out in full, as if to emphasize their foreignness. I found myself reflecting, though, that the whole world examined at molecular level like this is a convoluted jumble of unpronounceable and convoluted terms.  I turned to my fragrance-free moisturizer and its tongue-twisting list of ingredients, and it sounds just as chemically-daunting as the fragranced cosmetics and perfumes she describes.

I am not a scientist, and neither is she. I don’t know how to talk back to her description of these studies and the conclusions she takes away from them.  For that reason, I was interested in Ian Musgrave’s (Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide) commentary on the book in the Conversation. While generally positive about the book and especially its accessibility, he provided qualifications about some of the claims in the book, especially in relation to hormone disruption.

Yes, it is true that fragrance is produced and pushed by industry, and supported by its own lobbyists and funded research bodies. It is true that we layer one fragranced product over another, probably skewing any tests of side-effects conducted on a single product alone by compounding it with countless other similarly-fragranced products.  Yes, I agree that, just as we look back in bewilderment at how meekly we accepted having cigarette smoke blown all over us, one day wearing a strong perfume will be seen as similarly inconsiderate.

aww2017-badge

I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

An online exhibition – Another Night

There’s an interesting curated story on the Victorian Collections website called ‘Another Night’. Inspired by Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon, this narrative links different objects on the Victorian Collections website related to lighting and night-time.

Victorian Collections is a repository for digital images from different museums and historical societies in Victoria. It includes both paper-based images and photographs of catalogued physical objects.

The curator, Kitty Owens, has put together a selection of postcards and photographs and images of candles and lamps.  There’s a fascinating photograph of the inside of the Richardson’s house at Harmony Vale in the Dandenongs around 1895. It’s a fairly humble house, with the family gathered around the fireplace and the light spilling in from the window.  It’s very different to the image of Villa Fortuna, an opulent mansion stuffed with furniture and objets d’art, lit by (curiously mis-matched) chandeliers. There’s photos and an artefact from a ‘switching-on’ ceremony when the electricity came through. I’m not aware of local NBN-switching on ceremonies- perhaps we’re all too jaded.

Well worth a look!

https://victoriancollections.net.au/stories/another-night

Exhibition: ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1850-1960’

I know that I always write about exhibitions just as they’re closing the door and turning off the lights, but with this one, there’s still a month to go see it. It’s at the Royal Historical Society in a’Beckett Street (close to Flagstaff Gardens) and it’s called ‘Remembering the ‘Burbs 1950-1960’

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It’s a tie-in with the book that RHSV released just prior to Christmas ‘Remembering Melbourne’, which draws on images from RHSV’s own collection and the collections of twenty suburban historical societies to capture ‘Lost Melbourne’.  As their website says,

Remembering the ‘Burbs showcases the images supplied by these historical societies.
The images of suburban housing, work, industry, commerce, community service and
recreation – collectively trace the development of Melbourne’s suburbs between 1850 and 1960 as its population expanded from the city’s confines.

The exhibition has a snapshot of each of these twenty suburbs. Walking around, you can do a historic perambulation of suburban Melbourne, all in the same room!

Well worth a look if you’re in Melbourne in April.  It closes on the 28th April – see! plenty of time!

‘1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings’ by Nick Brodie

brodie1787

2016, 304 p.

When you see Nick Brodie’s book on a bookstore shelf along with other Australian titles, with its dominant ‘1787’ emblazoned on the front, you tend to do a bit of double-take. Did someone make a mistake? Wasn’t it 1788?  There has been a constant and increasing uneasiness with 26 January being celebrated as Australia Day (something I’ve written about several times in this blog) but in this book Brodie bumps all this debate to one side, exhorting us that “‘If we broaden our gaze, our story will get bigger”. 

There are some history books where, having read them, you know there has been a shift in your awareness.  You return to ideas and concepts that you had never questioned before, and see them anew.  I’m thinking, for example, of Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World and to a lesser extent Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; I’m thinking of Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language,  Zoe Laidlaw’s Colonial Connections or the first of Henry Reynold’s work that you might read. Tom Griffith’s book Hunters and Collectors changed my mind about museums, and as a more distant example,  I suppose that Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance would have had a similar effect at the time of publication.  To this list, now I’d have to add Nick Brodie’s  1787.  He eschews the idea of our continent sitting isolated at the bottom of the globe and instead knits Australia into  Eurasia and a trading network frontier that connected the northern and southern hemispheres. Although the book is called ‘1787’ (a curious choice given his challenge to what he calls  “the arbitrariness of epochs”) it spans the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and expands its view to the  current peripheries of Australasia, including New Zealand (have I offended?), Tasmania, New Guinea and the Torres Strait.

He does seem rather fixated on the emphasis on 1788, or rather, he keeps asserting that ‘we’ are. Certainly the Australian history I was taught did include the Dutch and the Macassans and  I suspect that his somewhat conspiratorial view of the ‘lost’ness  these ‘hidden documents’ is a little overblown.

However, what Brodie does in this book is create a narrative from the writings of Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and French mariners and contextualize those encounters into a broader Eurasian trade and Enlightenment-culture picture. He starts his book with the narrative of Don Diego de Prado y Tovar, an officer under the command of Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, who travelled the Pacific during 1606 and encountered the fringes of New Guinea. He highlights that  Islamic, European and Chinese powers converged in the islands to the north of Australia, and spends quite a bit of time on Tasman’s expedition for the VOC (Dutch East India Company). He shows that Dampier led not one, but two voyages to New Holland, and while respectful (as one must be) of Cook’s seamanship, he writes a detailed narrative of Cook’s largely unsuccessful attempts at interaction with the indigenous inhabitants . He is very aware of the constructed nature of the documents he works from.   He looks carefully at Cook’s corrections and amendments between the drafts and published copies of his journals, and considers them against Banks’ writings as well.  He cites directly from primary texts; he slows down for particular episodes; he makes pithy and stop-you-in-your-tracks observations.

I had not realized that Cook went to Van Diemen’s Land, and for me the really new part of this book came in the section ‘Forward Operating Bases’ which places Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand as the bases of repeated encounters. The usual post-1788 narrative is that both VDL and New Zealand were settled from Sydney, but his enumeration of repeated visits by English and French expeditions that deliberately sailed for Adventure Bay( 1773 and 1777) and Frederick Henry Bay (1772) in Van Diemen’s Land and Ship Cove in New Zealand (1770, 1773 -several times-1774, 1777) challenges that view.  Ships in an expedition became separated from each other; they returned to shelter in the hope that the other ship would do likewise; they deliberately let loose farm animals in the hope that they would breed and form a land-based food supply, and they tried to encourage agriculture.

None of these journeys are accidental drop-ins: instead they are a manifestation of both the trade and knowledge networks that criss-crossed the globe.  Nor were the indigenous people they encountered always completely ignorant either: knowledge spread within Australasia as well.

Brodie has an engaging, easy tone and he sustained the energy of his writing throughout.  I do wish that there had been a map beyond the  16th and 17th century reproductions he includes within the colour plates in the middle of the book.  It’s written for a general readership, with no footnotes.

There is much to admire here, but as I found when reading his earlier book Kin, there is a brashness and self-promotion in his approach that does not sit well with me. He doesn’t need to engage in the sniping at unnamed historians who have ‘duped’ their readers and colleagues by fixing only on 1788, and I find his condescension towards other historians, their readers, and anyone who has ever studied Australian history, unpleasant. ‘Dupe’ can be a noun as well as a verb, and no-one likes to be told that they have been stupidly misled.   It is a stance spelled out in the ‘not-a-prologue’ (his chapter heading, not mine),  repeated over again in opening each chapter and reiterated in the ‘not-an-epilogue’. His insistence on his contrarian, “me against the historians” argument becomes wearing after a while.  I had thought, with Kin, that it was a reflection of his young age and impatience.  Perhaps it still is.  Despite his sneering at ‘historians’, he is an academically trained and recognized historian himself, and he’s too good to engage in such blatant self-promotion.  He’s a prolific worker (with already another book in the wings), stunningly telegenetic, and good at publicity.  It amazes me that he hasn’t been snapped up for television work.

That said, this is one of those books that makes you see things differently.  By shifting the frame to Van Diemens Land and New Zealand, he shifts Australian history subtly on its axis, and he does, it’s true, reframe the whole Captain Cook/ 1788 story. That’s quite an achievement.