Summer in Australia is a time for leisurely, languid pleasures. For evening beers in the early evening daylight, test cricket on the radio, and for the enduringly earnest, thumbing through summer reading lists.
These days people are publishing summer reading lists to cater for every niche of society — which is a good enough excuse for me to post this list of the books that discerning Australian progressives should be downloading before they head off on holidays.
Too many people forget that national political debates have real world impacts at the individual level. The rhetoric of election campaigns and Parliamentary debate seeps into family dinners, school yards and communities. Given recent election results at home and abroad, we’re going to be dealing with an upsurge in overt racism in our political debate, and as a result, in the general community, for some time to come.
Given this, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up as an Australian — with Afro-Caribbean heritage — in 1980s-90s suburban Sydney should be mandatory reading. Clarke tells stories of stereo-typical Australian childhood (Women’s weekly birthday cakes, after school sports, Cabbage Patch Kids etc) with an ever-present, ominous overlay. Clarke forces the reader to confront the individual experience of the various manifestations of racism in Australia — the naïve racism of children, the more malevolent racism of parents and other adults, and disembodied structural racism — in a way that makes it impossible to deny or rationalise away. Humorous, wry, but searing in its retelling of injustice, this is a book for our new political times.
“I LOVE THIS country. I love this country, but I believe we could be so much kinder to each other. So much more equitable. So much better. I hope I live to see it happen. I wrote this book because I believe stories like these need to be written into Australian letters. Stories like mine need to be heard, and seen, both by those outside of them and those with similar tales. I wanted to show the lasting impact of living in a brown body in Australia in the eighties and nineties on one child. I wanted to show the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all. Sadly, there were many, many more stories which could have gone into this book. Choosing was a difficult process indeed.”
“This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.”
In what feels like a particularly strong year for Australian women writers, Micheline Lee’s debut novel was a stand out. Natasha, a young Hong-Kong Chinese Australian woman is forced to move back into the family home to confront her mother’s terminal cancer, her family’s devout charismatic Christianity and her domineering father’s faith that an upcoming ‘healing party’ will cure her mother — if only all of the family has faith.
Lee lets the reader inhabit an Australian subculture that doesn’t commonly feature in the Australian canon in an impressively non-judgemental way. While comparisons to Christina Stead might be a stretch for the moment, Lee is definitely working in the same tradition.
The dynamics of the China-US relationship will be the subject of endless speculation in political circles over the coming years. In this context, plenty of energy and attention is already being focused on understanding the foreign policy intentions of President-Elect Trump. The rise of President Xi as, in some ways, one of the most powerful leaders in Chinese history, is just as significant, yet much less examined or understood.
“China, CEO” offers an accessible introduction to both the rise of Xi Jinping and to the opaque mechanisms of power within China. The author, Kerry Brown is Professor at King’s College, London and a former UK Diplomat in China and brings a combination of academic study and practical observation to the task. Kerry offers a way to think about the black box of power in the CCP using a mixture of reportage, career and relationship mapping and inference from language in speeches and political documents. It’s an admittedly imperfect method but offers an honest and comprehensible way of thinking about Xi.
A better understanding of the topography of power in China and the sources of Xi’s personal power (and its limits) is fundamental to understanding how he could be expected to behave in a new era of China/US relations. Something that all Australians could benefit from.
“Chinese politics has often been treated as something remote and mysterious, best left to specialists. I want to encourage as wide an audience as possible to think about, and engage with, the political life of China.”
“Treat Chinese politics like politics anywhere. There are alliances and deals between political figures, and coalitions that work for a while and then cease. Talking about factionalism in Chinese elite politics is problematic because it makes things superficially easier than they are. There are no concrete links between people that mean political positions can be explained by alluding to some neat faction. Keeping an open mind is very important.”
A well-lived life and a well-read mind provide the fodder for a unique trove of insight and brilliant prose essay writing. Orwell’s subject matter ranges from fighting communists to the value of second hand book stores, from fighting fascists in the Spanish civil war to Tolstoy and Shakespeare, from life in the coal mines of northern England to how to make the perfect a cup of tea, from colonialism to the definitive practical guide to the use of the English language. It’s a pleasure to just open a collection of his essays at a random page and to explore his vivid intellectual world.
But George Orwell’s collected essays are also the closest thing that I have to a secular bible in political life. I periodically return to particular essays for a reminder about what matters most in the political contest. Recently, I’ve been going back to his essays on the fight against fascism. It’s a timely refresher for 21st century progressives….
“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history COULD be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but THE PAST. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.”
As we enter what US writer, James Fallows is already calling the ‘Resistance era’ in the United States, it’s worth thinking hard again about how political change can be achieved by progressives from outside elected office. The fight against fascism in the 1930s and the US Civil Rights movements are worth study in this regard, but the political and social campaign against the AIDS epidemic deserves particular attention in the modern context.
ACT UP and the organising and activism that occurred around it was an extraordinary success story that had much in common with the early days of the trade union movement. In the face of actively hostile community and political institutions and a pharmaceutical establishment that wasn’t interested in responding to an epidemic that was already costing tens of thousands of lives, marginalised (and often criminalised) groups used sustained collective action to both support their community and force their way into the halls of power.
As a history of this movement, “How to Survive a Plague” is self-recommending in light of the superb television documentary on which it is based. It might not be a light beach read, but I’m looking forward to being energised by the potential for change.
“ACT UP, however, offers lessons for moving forward in the face of powerlessness, grief, and horror. When ACT UP formed in March 1987, the AIDS epidemic was six years old and had killed 40,000 people, yet President Ronald Reagan hadn’t given a single speech about it. That year the Senate, by a vote of 94–2, passed an amendment banning the Centers for Disease Control from funding AIDS programs that “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.” Introducing the amendment, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms said, “We have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”
Other stuff that’s good/relevant and worth a look:
- “Underground Airlines”, Ben Winters
- “Why the Future is Workless”, Tim Dunlop
- “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Reguee Camp”, Ben Rawlence
- “A Murder Without A Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle”, Martin McKenzie-Murray
- “Hammer of the Left: The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party”, John Golding