Kinna Reads

A blog of books, reading and world literature


Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home in Brisbane, Australia when “the household at number six”, the heart of her life in London, “explodes’”.  She is suffering a bout of pneumonia and is under the care of  her neighbors and Doctor Rainbow, the son of a childhood friend.  She is in her seventies and has been gone from the country of her birth for most of her adult years.

Memory, the suppression of it, the mystery of it, the fear of it and its wavering, unreliable aspects are at the core of Tirra Lirra by the River (1978).

Nora equates her memories to a globe

“suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side…Its surface is inscribed with thousands, no, millions of images.  It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick.  The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches… Only I like to manipulate the globe myself.  I don’t like those accidental flicks”

Sick in bed and going no where fast, Nora spins her globe and examines her life.

A lot in this novel depends on Nora’s tone and character.  It helps and delights that she tells her life story with dry humor, at times stoic and flamboyant in other places but never overly sentimental.

Nora appears to be one of those people who must leave their native town and country. No matter what.  She felt, in her youth, stifled by the smallness of life in rural Queensland.  She describes her entire childhood as a “period of waiting”, suspended in a state of becoming.  To endure this period,  she starts embroidering wall-hangings.  But her mother is rather bossy; her sister, Grace, is judgmental. Feeling out of place, she walks and daydreams a lot.

This calm period of waiting turns to panic when much times passes and people comment on her artistic talents.  At the time, she does not value her budding creativity and interprets the appreciation of her talents as a sign that she has overstayed long enough to start becoming in a place she means to flee.  In desperation, she marries the rather sinister, soulless Colin and moves to Sydney where she endures another, rather painful, period of waiting.  Colin forbids her to work as a dressmaker and his mother, Una, is the typical mother-in-law from hell.  The unhappy marriage falls apart; Una claims Nora never learned to handle Colin. Free, childless and single, Nora will leave Sydney for London where she survives the war, excels at a career in dressmaking  and perhaps towards the end of that life, finds a measure of peace.

Nora views her life as a trail of waste and and a serial of unfortunate events. She never really becomes anything, in her estimation. Though one is not sure what exactly she wanted to become.  She is preoccupied, consumed even, with a desire to return to Australia during the first decade in London.  The pitch of this yearning is perfect.  I saw parts of my former American life, as an immigrant constantly yearning for home, in Nora’s false attempts at departure.

I was reminded also of  “The City”,  C.P. Cavafy’s poetic illustration of  the wherever-you-go-there-you-are theme   The poem begins with:

“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.”

Perhaps, it’s a bit harsh.  But when Nora’s “globe of memory has given one of its lightning spins, and  is dumbfounded not only by what it shows”, she discovers a her past life is  full of misjudgments and harsh pronouncements.  There are painfully repressed memories that informed equally painful choices. She is flawed and ultimately she could not escape herself.  The last stanza of Cavafy’s poem includes the lines: “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore./  You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:/ there is no ship for you, / As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.”

Nora doesn’t so much as waste her life as she makes it inert for long periods of time.  She downgrades it from the unrealistic Arthurian dream she thought it would be to a willful, systematic removal of a reason to live, of a joy to life. It is this and other memories long left in shadow that she bravely confronts as she convalesces.  The lone matriarch of her family, she is able now to see her sister and her community in a new light.

This novella won the Miles Franklin Liteary Award in 1978.  The prize is given to “published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases”.  Nora’s memories and current reality are set in a rich landscape, imbued with the sub-tropical lushness of Queensland. Her life in 1930s Sydney is full of interactions with artists and bohemian types and recalls quaint harbor life.  And I wonder, have Australians outgrown the age-old islander’s urge to travel?  Are their artists mostly content to stay home?

Jessica Andersen’s characterization of, and her rendering of the interior life of Nora is complete and prefect in its contradictions.  In most things, Nora is hot and then cold. I can imagine that it would rankle to spend long periods of time with her. I’ll probably tell her to give herself a break  and to credit herself with a measure of self-actualization. Her struggles marks the beginning of a movement of women making their own way. And Nora, that counts for a whole lot!

Character, plot and structure work well and blend together nicely in Tirra Lirra by the River.  Jessica Andersen’s poetic, atmospheric story is not adversely affected by her economic use of words.  In fact, it works to Nora’s advantage and fits with her misguided view of a small life. A bit deceptive, a tad unreliable.  I thoroughly enjoyed this gem.


I read this book as part of The Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month.


Electric City and Other Stories – Patricia Grace

Electric City and Other Stories, originally published in 1987, is the third collection of short stories in Patricia Grace’s Collected Stories. I have previously reviewed Waiariki and Dream Sleepers, the other two collections.

I have enjoyed reading all three collections. Certain elements in thsese stories are familiar, like Grace’s use of oral storytelling and the incorporation of non-English (Maori) words in her prose. Other elements, specifically the portrayal of Maori island life, are like none that I’ve encountered anywhere in literature.

In Electric City, it is the role of the extended family, the whanau, which resonates most with me. In these stories, the whanau represents the foundation of community and the setting of cultural life and memory. In Grace’s view, the society survives and thrives if the whanau is present. An individual alienated from her whanau is quite literally lost, for the extended family also serves as a safe haven against threats both external and internal.

There are thirteen stories and flashes in Eclectic City; some are playful and some are serious. All center on domestic and seemingly mundane events. My favorites include:

  • The Geranium, in which a young woman, isolated from her family is physically abused by her husband. This story was striking because it is not peopled by so many characters as the other stories are. One literally feels the absence of her whanau.
  • Going for Bread, in which a young girl, Mereana, is bullied by two Pakeha girls, who themselves are victims of parental abuse. Mereana’s mother is a single parent, her father is absent, at some war. Mother and daughter seem isolated from their whanau:

“But there was something she knew now, something she’d made up her mind about. No one, ever gain, was going to push her kids in the gutter, cut them, muddy them, make them bleed. She would never send them out alone again, not for bread, not for anything. And one day the war would end.”

  • The Hills – in which a teenage boy’s view of the world and his sense of self is shattered following an unlawful arrest and a night in a police station:

“later that day I went outside and walked up the street, and when I got to the top of the road I wouldn’t look out at the hills. The hills could’ve been clear, or the mist could’ve been down or it could’ve been lifting off. I turned and went back home. I remember wondering if I would ever look there again”.

  • In Fishing, a woman is keen to catch one fish on the last day of summer, a metaphor for the anxiety inherent in cultural loss:

“Because if you don’t, it’s like you won’t any more… You have to still know, and you have to do enough…to carry you over. You have to be in there because you don’t want to be just waiting by the edge.”

Collected Stories is a wonderful introduction to the works of Patricia Grace. She is a great story-teller and I’m spellbound by her short creations. She has also written six novels, so I can stay in her world a bit longer.


Poem #29: Last of his Tribe by Oodgeroo Noonuccal


First, a recommendation. If you are interested in Australian literature, then please check out Whispering Gums and ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.  These two wonderful blogs are to be commended for the excellent job that they do promoting Australian literature.

Whispering Gums runs  a weekly feature  titled “Monday musings on Australian literature”. The second installment of this series focused on the works of Indigenous writers including the poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993). She was also a campaigner for the rights of Indigenous peoples.  Loss, especially cultural loss, is a frequent theme in her poetry.  This week’s poem is a tribute to Willie Mackenzie who was a “full-blood Aboriginal and the last surviving member of the Darwarbada people of the Caboolture district. He died in 1968, age unknown but probably in the eighties.”

Last of his Tribe

Change is the law. The new must oust the old.
I look at you and am back in the long ago,
Old pinaroo lonely and lost here
Last of your clan.
Left only with your memories, you sit
And think of the gay throng, the happy people,
The voices and the laughter
All gone, all gone,
And you remain alone.

I asked and you let me hear
The soft vowelly tongue to be heard now
No more for ever. For me
You enact old scenes, old ways, you who have used
Boomerang and spear.
You singer of ancient tribal songs,
You leader once in the corroboree,
You twice in fierce tribal fights
With wild enemy blacks from over the river,
All gone, all gone. And I feel
The sudden sting of tears, Willie Mackenzie
In the Salvation Army Home.
Displaced person in your own country,
Lonely in teeming city crowds,
Last of your tribe.

– by Oodgeroo Noonuccal


Dream Sleepers and Other Stories by Patricia Grace

The Dream Sleepers and Other Stories (1980) is the second collection of short stories in Patricia Grace’s Collected Stories. My review of the first collection, Waiariki, is here.

Like Waiariki, the stories in The Dream Sleepers, portray Maori island and rural life. The cast of characters is multi-generational with a bit more concentration on the lives of Maori youth and children. What fascinates and amazes me about the characters in Grace’s short stories are their voices, their sense of self and place. The tone is intimate and Grace draws the reader into a world which is largely unknown to most of us. I mean I feel like I really know the Maoris of New Zealand; that if one walked into my house we could sit down and catch up on old times! It’s simplistic, I know. To get such a sense of a people from reading just two short story collections but such is the power of Grace to invoke her people. It’s obvious and very successful; she means to write them.

Her narrative style is also enjoyable. She successfully combines a poetic, lyrical style with oral storytelling to produce passages that are just a delight to read. Her characters go to school, clean the offices of Pakehas, seek more control over their land, come of age, ponder old age and deal with the demands of large families; all against the background of a people coping with the realities of a post-colonial environment. The socio-economic situation of the Maoris is always felt in Grace’s stories. So too are the land and the sea, both of which occupy a central place in Maori life. From Whitebait, a story in which kids go fishing and camping:

At most times of the year the creek kept its secrets to itself. In the armpits of its banks, eels tucked themselves, and outsized worms made quite, intricate passages. Brown trout and cockabullies fed against the creek’s knobbled belly. And the transients – larvae of dragon, damsel and may fly – waited for the time when they would climb out into air and fly away. But at this time of the year the creek abandoned secrecy, and as though parting great legs and giving sudden and copious birth, set crowds of whitebait speeding for the sea.

In Journey, on a trip to Auckland to seek permission to demarcate his ancestral land, an old man ponders the changes on the island:

Now this strip here, it’s not really land at all, it’s where we used to get our pipis, any time or tide. But they pushed a hill down over it and shot the railway line across to make more room for cars. The train driver knows it’s not really land and he is speeding up over the strip. So fast you wait for the nose dive over the edge into the sea.. Not to worry, he’s nearly old anyway and just about done his dash, so why to worry if they nose dive over the edge into the sea. Funny people putting their trains across the sea, Funny people making land and putting pictures and stories about it in the papers as though it’s something spectacular, it’s a word you can use if you get it just right…

The stories in this collection are not uniformly as strong as those in Waiariki. However, the gems in The Dream Sleepers confirm my initial impression of Patricia Grace; she is a wonderful writer. She writes brilliantly of both the Maori and the human condition.


For Short Monday: Waiariki and Other Stories by Patricia Grace

Patricia Grace, born in 1937 in Wellington, New Zealand, is a Maori and an award-wining writer of short stories, novels and children’s books. Her first collection of short stories, Waiariki and Other Stories, was a delight to read and a revelation as well. Simms, a literary critic, grouped the twelve stories in the collection into three categories: Maori tales, those stories written in English but containing some Maori syntax and thought; Macaronic, stories with a “high frequency” of Maori words and thought; and “English”, those stories with “no sense of disturbing English syntax beyond its normal bounds”. I enjoyed the Maori and Macaronic stories the most even though the author did not include a glossary for the many Maori words in the book. Much like reading an Indian novel dotted with Hindi words, the hybrid language allows incredible access to Grace’s Maori community. There is a naturalness to their actions and their lives. And it seems the author is most at ease writing in this style and unencumbered from the demands of writing everything in English, fashions a world that pops out of the pages and comes alive right before the reader’s eyes. I am so glad and thankful that Patricia Grace writes.

The collection reveals a people who are deeply connected to the land they inhabit and the sea around them. Familial relations, both immediate and extended are important. There are several camping and fishing trips for ruku koura, kina, pupu, hapuku and tarakihi. All accompanied by Maori bread. Got me hankering for a good seafood bake. The Maori culture that Grace portrays is a living thing, and is constantly being transformed within and without. She is particularly concerned with the effects of colonization by and the interaction with white New Zealanders (Pakehas). The opinions of the older generation are contrasted against those of the younger generation who must live in a society that is increasing multi-cultural. And so there is inevitably the sense of nostalgia, anger and (un)belonging among the younger generation who are told to live more like Pakehas. All stories are told against a background of Maori folklore and mythology.

The quality of collection is quite good and I loved most of the stories. My favorite stories include:

A Way of Talking – a magnificent story that at its heart interrogates speaking out in defense of cultural identity. It concludes with a sister’s realization that her outspoken sibling, Rose, has been hurt by repeated racial remarks and has been transformed through her interaction with Pakehas.

Rose was speaking to me in a new way now. It made me feel sorry for her and for myself. All my life I had been sitting back and letting her do the objecting. Not only me, but Mum and Dad and the rest of the family too. All of us too scared to make known when we had been hurt or slighted

Toki – an old man, Hotene, narrates an incident in his younger days, on the eve of his older brother’s wedding. Hotene, to win the hand of a girl, dares his rival, Toki the boast, to a fishing contest. In the ensuing events, Toki comes to fear sailing in boats.

He goes for the paua and the kina, now. He throws his line from the beach for the shark, but no more in a boat he, for fear of what would be said. But a boaster still this one, a boaster still. It blows strong the wind from north.”

At The River – in which a grandfather, against the wishes of his wife, insists on a camping and fishing trip for eels. He passes away at the beach and implores his family not to weep for him. A story steeped in Maori mythology with shades of magical realism.

Transition – a family ponders whether to leave their ancestral home to seek a better future in the city.

What future on this little corner of land and, once enough to support many but now in these days merely a worry and a trouble. The ground dry and hard, and great round stones where once a river flowed. A great sadness comes, for this old one knows that soon these ones must go away from this place…. But nowhere for this old one in such a new place. Her place is here and so her daughter has a sadness on her.

Parade – a sad story in which a young Maori woman accepts her family’s invitation to return home and to participate in the town’s parade. She sees her people as clowns, parading for the tourists.

And the people’s reaction to the rest of us? The singing, the pois? I could see enjoyment on the upturned faces and yet it occurred to me again and again that many people enjoyed zoos. That’s how I felt. Animals in cages to be stared at.

If the debut collection of Waiariki and Other Stories is a prediction of the mature writer that Patricia Grace becomes, then I look forward to reading more of her works. I have a feeling that I’ve come upon a true gem of contemporary literature. Waiariki and Other Stories , which won the Hurbert Church Award for first book of fiction, is currently out of print. However, it is one of three collections in Grace’s Collected Stories. A highly recommended read.

Have you read any books by Patricia Grace or by other Maori  writers?  Your thoughts?


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