Tag Archives: masculinity

Here Come the Dogs (2014) – Omar MUSA

I wrote the other week about the lack of diversity of voices in Australian literature, and singled out Giramondo Press for publishing The Tribe, a novel about Muslim Australians. I must eat my words here, and congratulate Penguin Australia for punting on Here Come the Dogs. Not only is this about non-white Australia, about a third of it is in verse.

Omar Musa is a celebrated slam poet and rapper, though his work has always tended more towards the literary and less towards mainstream hip hop. It is great, then, to see him turn to the novel—an art form perhaps intrinsically linked to the dead white man—and reappropriate it, tearing down some of the conventions we have come to expect, and instead force it to conform to his ideas.

Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy don’t fit in. A wake of ruined dreams lies behind them, and they now find themselves in their late twenties with little direction in life. Solomon once dreamt of being a basketball player. Aleks finds himself with a family that is less than perfect. And Jimmy doesn’t know who he is. Instead, they hang around the Town, arguing about hip hop and girls.

Some novels have titles that are natural, while others feel forced. There are others, still, that only make sense once you are in the thick of the action. For quite some time, the only dog in Here Come the Dogs is Mercury, a racing greyhound taken in by Solomon, who feels sorry for the animal. This is an animal that has been used and abused, simply for the entertainment of other people.

Though Here Come the Dogs is not explicitly set in Queanbeyan/Canberra, Musa’s background comes to the fore as he tries to explain what life is like in the Town and in the City. Anyone who has lived in Canberra or Queanbeyan, I suspect, will easily see these two cities in the novel: the City is where the public servants live in their bubble of hipster coffee, wide roads and public art, while the Town is the dirty cousin that everyone tries to ignore. Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy are the dogs of Australia, the ones that have been abandoned by everyone, left to fend for themselves once the shine wears off.

The Town is where Musa’s Australia lives: the Australia that is not all white, the Australia that is a little bit dangerous, the Australia that is forgotten by the political machine until it suits them. There are some very contemporary references here, including the recent moves against Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and it is clear that there is no love lost for politicians like Damien Crawford, a rather terrible (though depressingly accurate) caricature of much of contemporary Australian political discourse. And while this is a novel deeply concerned with the local, if one were so inclined, much of this could be expanded to the national without much stress.

In between the hip hop and the basketball, Here Come the Dogs is probably the closest we’ve come to a state of the nation novel from a young Australian writer in a long time. Though not as obviously angry as early Christos Tsiolkas, Musa is also trying to force the marginalised into the mainstream—an admirable project that hopefully gains traction. Here Comes the Dogs is a muscular portrait of an Australia that cries out for wider recognition.

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The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

I have an odd relationship with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I certainly bear no grudge to individual members of the armed forces of Australia, and admire them for doing a job I never could. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about a public holiday that seems to revel in an Australian culture that, for me, no longer exists: that of the strong Australian male bravely going out into the battlefield with his mates to defend us. It seems desperately at odds with the fact that modern Australia was not born out of violence or war, a fact of which we should be quite rightly proud.

Here, then, is Text Classics’s answer to Anzac Day 2013: William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, a novel that details a year in the life of four Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War.

First things first: this is a very short novel. The Text edition is less than 140 pages. So this is not so much a huge, sprawling epic about Vietnam so much as a series of vignettes, many less than a page, providing a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of what we can probably assume to be a fairly typical Australian draft experience of the war.

Our main group of protagonists are an odd bunch. If I ever met them, I think I’d probably not like them very much. They are, I suppose, the typical Aussie larrikin, built with a quick retort, and a healthy disrespect for authority. In many ways, they seem completely oblivious to the immediate danger they are in, and their reckless behaviour, both on- and off-duty, seems to compound their ignorance. Almost all of them are draftees, and there is a clear demarcation between the enlisted officers—men who are proper military types—and those young men that have been unlucky enough to have their birthday drawn out of a barrel. The tension between enlisted and drafted plays out through the whole novel, occasionally in quite amusing ways.

And yet, so often, these shenanigans are brought sharply into focus by the horrific events taking place around them. Nagle doesn’t shy away from describing the intense results of skirmishes and attacks from the enemy. Friends are often killed, though the emotional impact of this is never physicalised by these men. The only moment of emotional pain in the whole novel comes when one man is informed by mail that his mother and fiancée, living safely in Australia, have been killed in a car accident. The irony of this is too much for Bung who breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we need to see the actions of these men in a different light. They are acting out, not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are put under intense pressure to perform every time they leave camp. They are in a country that does not want them, doing a job for which they will never be thanked.

But again, we have to come back to the evidence presented. These men take advantage of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Perhaps this is why soldiers now have cultural sensitivity training. The women of Vietnam seem to be nothing more than receptacles for these men to unload into, and the men and children are to be taken advantage of at every opportunity, despite being desperately poor, living in a country that has been invaded by outside forces.

The final pages of The Odd Angry Shot are reflective and quiet. Two men have arrived back in Sydney, no longer required by the military machine. They are irreparably changed. The things they have seen and done cannot never be unseen or undone. But they have fought a war that has become deeply unpopular, and are now required to never mention it again.

This is the true horror of the Vietnam generation. Left to fend for themselves, these men, many of whom had not choice in their service, were forced to reintegrate into a world that now seemed strange and superficial. It is this that Nagle leaves dangling at the end, forcing us to question our own attitudes towards the politics of war.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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The Glass Canoe (1976) – David IRELAND

One of the best features of the Text Classics list is the reprinting of several Miles Franklin Award winners. Charged with awarding the best novel each year that describes “Australian Life in any of its phases”, there is a lot to be gained by reading past winners. They tell us about Australia at the time they were written, about what people thought “Australia” meant, and what style of literature was popular at the time.

In the small Southern Cross Hotel in Northmead, Western Sydney, a group of men come to drink. Though they all come from different background, they are connected by their common goal – to ride the glass canoe, and get drunk to forget their problems. Our narrator, Meat Man, guides us through their stories and their tales, offering his own take on this tribe of men, and the lengths they will go to in order to protect their way of life.

Gerald Murnane tried to give us a glimpse into a sub-culture of the Australian continent in his novel The Plains. David Ireland does the same thing in The Glass Canoe but, to my mind, far more successfully. Even without the Sibley, the PhD candidate, Meat Man’s observations of his fellow drinkers are an insight into this world, and act almost as a mini ethnography of a certain time and place. With that in mind, he has chosen the perfect structure for such an endeavour. Instead of trying to closely track this group of characters evolve over a period of time, Meat Man provides us with short stories – flash fiction, really – about the goings on of the hotel. They are in vaguely chronological order, so the repercussions of people’s actions are felt, though not fully explored. This is not a criticism – simply a statement of fact. There are longer chapters that deal with whole sagas, and there are others that are less than half a page. I like a lot of these shorter ones, many of which are not stories so much as random thoughts from Meat Man, about life, the universe and beer.

Intrinsically tied to these ideas of masculinity and Australian-ness is violence. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but in a “we’re men and we sort our shit out by hitting each other” kind of way. Almost every patron of the Southern Cross at some stage uses violence as a way of sorting out one’s issues with another person. Much of it seems half-arsed, a kind of necessary evil that must be performed because it is – in this tiny case – the culturally accepted way of doing this. Pride is often on the line, though never over anything vitally important. It is not until the final sequence of the novel – which I won’t spoil here – that this violence becomes a key player in these peoples’ way of life.

What a great character Meat Man is. In many ways the spokesman of his tribe, he seems to have a greater sense of self-awareness than many of the other frequenters of the Southern Cross. He can have a conversation with Sibley and understand what is happening, and not begrudge Sibley what he is doing – as long as no one else finds out. On the flip side, he can also have a conversation with Alky Jack, the designated old man/elder/philosopher of the group, who has seen fads come and go, and has a lot of pessimistic life advice to hand out, should it be necessary. More than any other character in the pub, he is the one who breaks down the stereotype of the drinker as an unintelligent, unthinking yobbo, concerned only with drinking cheap beer, getting off with some woman he doesn’t know and lazing around at work. There’s a beautiful moment when Meat Man asks his way-too-out-of-his-league girlfriend a rhetorical question about records, not really wanting an answer. When she tells him the simple answer, he is disappointed with the knowledge he receives, not because he feels dumb for asking, but because he enjoyed the magic of the mystery. Meat Man sees the beauty in the unknown, and seems content to remain – I don’t want to use the word “ignorant” – blissfully unaware of the inner mechanics of everything around him. He can appreciate the world around him without having to understand what it means.

As with all good novels about a certain time and a certain group of people, the march of progress and new ideas is the enemy knocking at the gates in The Glass Canoe. When the Southern Cross Hotel is eventually bought out by a new owner who wants to turn it into a more respectable establishment, the current regulars are at first simply bemused by his new rules. But when they come in to full effect – like banning anyone who is caught fighting – they don’t know what to do. At the same time, other people are invading their territory, and everything around them is changing. The way in which they deal with this is telling, and Thomas’ words have never been more appropriate.

Even though this was written 36 years ago, it’s surprising just how relevant and contemporary . The stereotypical “Australian male” is certainly a dying breed. I’m not for a minute suggesting that’s an intrinsically bad thing, but it does give us pause to think about what this typical “Australian male” is, and whether we still want or need it. Ireland certainly presents us with a romanticised view of masculinity, but it never turns to sentimentality.

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Eleven Seasons (2012) – Paul D CARTER

I love that the Vogel winner is now published the day after the winner is announced. There was, I think, a tendency for the news to be announced and then forgotten under the old system, but now, with the information fresh in our minds, we can go and buy the book the next day. I had at least three customers at work looking for Eleven Seasons the day after the announcement this year, and I was able to palm it off to them immediately.

Jason Dalton loves the Hawthorn Hawks, his local footy team. He’s also a natural player, and despite the protestations of his mother, plays in the local junior teams. As he grows up, though, football becomes a divisive figure in his relationship with his mother, and more and more, he is drawn to a particular crowd of footy players his mother views as less than ideal role models. When their argument comes to a head, and his mother tells him a shocking family secret, Jason only has one option. Run away.

I should start this review by pointing out that I know jack-shit about AFL. Not only am I not from Victoria, but I have little to no interest in most codes of football. Nothing personal – I just don’t get the appeal of lots of sweaty, scantily clad men running around grabbing each other on an often muddy circle of grass. Which is problematic when I read a book which wears its love of AFL on its sleeve. Fortunately, and this is probably the sign of a good writer, Carter makes the story both reliant upon the sport and completely separate. He has a tendency to waffle on about floating drop punts (WHAT EVEN IS THAT?) in his descriptions of the games Jason plays, but for those of us less interested, it’s fairly easy to gloss over some paragraphs before we get back to some meatier character moments.

We rush through Jason’s formative years, but in many ways, this allows Carter to carve off any superfluous incidents and text, giving us a very clear through line. It’s worrying to see just how easy it is for Jason to go over to the dark side, as it were, getting in with the wrong crowd of kids, arguably because his mother is never home to tell him otherwise. No development or step ever seems forced – it’s all presented very logically and clearly, and though we start with an eight year old Jason hanging out with his slightly nerdy best friend, all of a sudden we find him smoking behind the bike shed in high school with a group of young boys that could politely be described as delinquents.

It’s a testament to Carter’s skill that I didn’t want to punch Jason in the face by the end of the novel, because I certainly did for a long time. I know that teenagers are, almost without fail, self-absorbed little shits, but Jason manages to take it to a whole new level. There are, of course, reasons for this. His mother is never home, and without any kind of role model – male or female – he gravitates towards people he thinks are going to give him what he wants, and inevitably, these are not-very-nice people. There’s some almost twee redemption at the end, and it’s almost enough to forgive Jason his many, many sins. Almost.

As Jason grows up, it becomes apparent that football is not just window dressing for the, arguably, simpler coming-of-age story at the heart of the novel. His love of football is contrasted with his mother’s seemingly complete disinterest in the entire affair, and allows for some nice dramatic tension. For a long time, I could sympathise with her – all codes of football are dangerous, and her concern for her son’s safety seemed very in character. As Jason grows up, she also becomes concerned with the kind of people playing with him – again, a legitimate concern, given the situations professional footballers in Australia seem to put themselves in almost every week. And there is a hint that Jason himself could have been caught up in this ridiculous lifestyle, but he always stops himself from going too far. But when the long-promised family secret is revealed, her apathy towards football begins to make a lot more sense.

Does Australian literature need another examination of what makes the beer-guzzling, footy-loving, female-hating Australian male tick? To be honest, probably not. We talk a lot today about crossover fiction – books primarily designed for a young adult audience that are taken up with gusto by adult readers, and Eleven Seasons, in many ways, is part of that movement. I would have no trouble recommending this to reluctant teen male readers, though there are some more subtle messages that will be enjoyed by more adult readers as well.

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The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

Like the good person I am, on my recent jaunt over the ditch (to New Zealand, for those playing overseas), I sought out some good bookshops. Partially because I’m a book whore, but mainly because the book I took wasn’t nearly long enough. I managed to get some good advice about New Zealand literature from this rather wonderful second hand bookstore in Wellington. Check it out if you get a chance.

Michael chooses perhaps the most inopportune moment to come out to his Maori family – the week before his sister’s wedding. Doing so unleashes a chain of events in his own life that see both his family and partner reject him. But then, his aunt comes to him with a bundle of notes from his uncle – an uncle he never knew existed. An uncle that fought in Vietnam. An uncle carrying a secret not unlike the one Michael has just shared with his family.

This is, essentially, two novels that have collided to form one. The first is the modern coming out tale of a young Maori man in contemporary New Zealand, trying to find his way in a world dominated by white gays, and how he can reconcile is own sexuality in a Maori context, and how he can still be a Maori in a gay context. It’s a good question, and not one with an easy answer. Ihimaera, for the most part, stays away from any kind of moral preaching, though his ending implies he is optimistic about young gay Maoris. Michael’s best friend, a young women who sounds like a walking advertisement for militant feminism, occasionally comes off as ridiculous, but this is mostly undercut by her position as a Maori woman trying to fight her way in a white man’s world, and the realisation that maybe this is the only way she can be taken seriously.

It is Sam’s story, the uncle’s story, that Ihimaera seems more concerned with, and this shows in the novel’s construction. Perhaps simply because I, too, was more invested in this half, but it felt more real, perhaps, certainly I think it takes up more page space than the contemporary narrative strand. Sam falls in love with an American fighter pilot – Cliff Harper – and despite slight reluctance from Sam’s side, their relationship eventually becomes physical. It is a relationship that, in today’s terms, is nothing but homosexual, but in pre sexual revolution terms, the two men don’t seek to label it. Both have had women in the past, and perhaps because of the intensely emotional situation in which they find themselves, they have fallen in love, both emotionally and physically. Of course, the fact that Cliff is willing to follow Sam to New Zealand to meet the parents suggests this is more than just a short but intense burst of gay, but whether either

There is an inevitability to Sam’s fate – partially because it’s been foreshadowed, and partially because it seems that there is only one way out of the cycle of abuse perpetuated by his father. What was surprising, though, was the brutality and physicality of it all. Look away if you don’t want to know what happens. When Sam’s father, Arapeta, a highly respected Maori elder, and a man who seems to take great pleasure in breaking the spirit of his own children, discovers that his oldest son likes boys, let’s just say the phrase “he loses his shit” is not even vaguely appropriate. In a deeply disturbing display of masculine strength, he whips Sam until he lies bleeding on the ground, and then in perhaps the most confronting thing I’ve read in a while, urinates on his own son. It’s shocking, brutal and appalling, and really hammers home just how not ok Maori culture is with homosexuality.

Masculinity is at the heart of this novel – and at the heart of that is the the father/son relationship. Sam and Arapeta’s relationship is disturbingly dysfunctional, though in Sam’s defence, it is clear that Arapeta is a raving loony. His inability to interact with anyone outside his circle of army friends is worrying. The fact that he has broken his wife’s spirit, and is doing his best to break the spirit of his eldest son, highlights the twisted way he seems to view love. His youngest son, Michael’s father, at first seems to have similar problems dealing with his own son’s sexuality. Though, as he begin to understand the household in which he grew up, and the way in which Sam’s “abomination” was viewed, one can perhaps be a little more forgiving. Perhaps with some intense reeducation, he’ll get there. For Arapeta, though, there seems to be no hope. Too deeply wrapped up in ensuring the family line stays intact, and ensuring Maori tradition is followed to the letter, he is blinded to the fact that his oldest son is, fundamentally, a good person.

I did a course about Indigenous Australians at uni last year, and one of the questions that kept coming up was whether “traditional” Indigenous culture could survive in a contemporary, multicultural Australian setting. The corollary to this, of course, is whether this is an important question. Should we be trying to preserve Indigenous culture in some kind of vacuum, not allowing it to interact and change, just as all other cultures do over time? This was the question I kept coming back to again and again reading The Uncle’s Story. How can we, as liberal (very much with a small L) social democrats, dedicated to encouraging equality for all, simply accept that – in this case, Maori – culture dictates that it is ok to ostracise someone because they happen to be gay, all in the name of “traditional culture”?

The lessons contained in this novel are universal. Though they evoke a specific culture in a particular time and place, they are also a warning against tradition for the sake of tradition. The optimistic ending sees Maori culture taking a step towards the contemporary, and highlights the one universal constant – cultures and values are constantly changing, and one mustn’t be afraid of this. The Uncle’s Story is a story of past mistakes, and offers a way forward.

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