Monday, July 22, 2013

Asylum Seekers

Those of you living in Australia will certainly be aware of the issue of asylum seekers travelling from Indonesia to Australia in barely seaworthy vessels. Many hundreds of lives have been lost as a result of this very risky strategy. I'm not sure how widely this issue is reported overseas. I know that other countries face their own issues with asylum seekers. The issue is extremely politicised and polarises the Australian population. Politicians are tempted to propose what they perceive to be potentially vote-winning hardline policies. Many people in our society seem to expect a quick fix to this worldwide problem.

At the end of 2010 there were approximately 15.4 million refugees around the world. Different sources provide different figures for this, but let's be clear that it is a great many people. If the Australian Human Rights Commission is to be believed, this number has been falling over the last few years as several million people have been repatriated. Let's be clear that 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' are not synonymous. Many asylum seekers are not, finally, granted refugee status. It is difficult to find reliable figures for the total number of displaced persons; and even the 'official' sites do not always seem to maintain a clear distinction between the number of asylum seekers and the number of 'genuine' refugees. There may be as many as 43.3 million 'displaced persons' around the world.

OK. So we have established that the whole asylum seeker/displaced person/refugee issue is huge, and possibly intractable, unless we think we can suddenly fix all the many problems that force people to leave their homes. There are many reasons for this, of course, among them: war, famine, persecution, flood, and so on.

The main point I want to address here is what seems to me to be the incredibly narrow definition of refugee according to the UNHCR. Here it is: A refugee is someone who,

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...

So someone fleeing their country because of war, famine, flood or any other reason that does not include this element of persecution, can never be considered a refugee under the guidelines of the UNHCR. This seems to me to be a ridiculously narrow definition of refugee given the present economic, political and environmental state of the planet. It was devised at a time when it was necessary to protect certain ethnic and religious groups from persecution. This need remains. But it seems extraordinarily lacking in compassion to refuse refugee status to someone who flees their country because it is being torn apart by civil war, or because it is no longer able to provide enough food for its population, or because (as could happen in the future) it disappears under the rising ocean. 

Australia, as a signatory to the Refugee convention, is only under an obligation to grant asylum to those who meet this very strict definition of refugee. Does not compassion demand more of us as a nation? Rather than seeking to narrow the eligibility of the selection criteria, don't we have at least a moral obligation to broaden them? I am not suggesting that Australia goes it alone down this path. But there is talk of revising the Refugee convention, which, after all, was put in place to deal with a fairly specific issue at the time. Let's not be fooled, though, into thinking that this will in some way diminish the problem. The only compassionate and humanitarian way in which the convention can be revised is by broadening the definition of refugee to reflect the current state of the world. This will mean that more, not fewer, people will need to be granted asylum. At the moment we are not even scratching the surface.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: The Cat Did It by Claude Beccai

This is the story of a year in the life of Clara, a seventy-something-year-old woman, widowed, living alone, struggling to make ends meet. It tells how her life is changed by the arrival of a cat on her doorstep. The cat, not so very important in itself, is the catalyst that brings into Clara's life a crowd of new people, and triggers a series of events, some dramatic, some not so. There are elements of the thriller, the crime novel and the real life drama here, although the novel does not finally settle into one genre rather than another.

There is something very endearing about Clara. The story is told in the first person and largely in the present tense, from her point of view. The reader is invited into her inner life and struggles, as well as to witness the events which crowd this year of her life. She is a spunky, courageous, slightly unconventional woman, who enjoys her solitude, but, ultimately, comes to value the unusual people that the cat, directly or indirectly, introduces into her life. There is Cynthia, the aging, wealthy many-times married socialite, and Mackey, her equally aging gay friend. There is Tony, a sophisticated business man, whose business is mostly illegal and somewhat dangerous. There is Robin, the hapless son of Clara's late husband, of whose existence she previously had no knowledge. And there is the Native American family, mother, father and two children, together with their other relatives, who adopt Clara as their own.

During this year Clara witnesses a gangland shooting, becomes a 'mule' within Tony's organisation, and finds herself the recipient of unexpected financial resources from a variety of sources. Clara's narration of these events and the insights she gains into herself are told with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. The story itself relies a little too much on coincidence for my taste. It loses steam in places. I was also unconvinced by the way in which Clara became so trusting of certain people so quickly. There is a slightly chaotic and seemingly random element to the narrative at times, which could be explained in terms of the narrator's personality, but I suspect is related more to that of the author. While this chaos worked well sometimes, there were occasions when more discipline would have helped the telling of the story. There is a kind of stream of consciousness which needed to be reined in from time to time. The story needed more structure and discipline in the telling. Sometimes the words seem to be rushing onto the page. Grammatically this is reflected in numerous run-on sentences and comma splices. I think that some of the typographical errors might also be attributed to this uncontrolled gushing forth. There were, overall, too many grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors in the book. I gather that the author's first language is French rather than English, so this may account for some of the errors.

In summary I was impressed by the enthusiasm and energy of the writing, reflected also in the character of Clara, but this was marred sometimes by a lack of discipline and structure: the balance was just not quite right. I give The Cat Did It three stars.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First Person Point of View

First person narrative seems to be very popular at the moment, and I wonder why this is. For me, it raises several issues that I have been wrestling with for some time.

When an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they are committing themselves to maintaining the voice of that person throughout the entire story. This may be difficult to sustain. Failing to do so leaves the work seriously flawed. However, succeeding may not lead to great results either. As the reader, I may become bored with the tone, bored with the character, bored with this single point of view.

With first person narrative the reader only gets to see, hear, know and experience what the narrator sees, hears, knows and experiences. It is sometimes argued that this is a good thing in thrillers and mysteries, and it may be so. First person involves us directly in the story, seeing it as it unfolds for the narrator, experiencing it as they do. The disadvantage, however, is that it is not possible to say something like this: 'Behind him, the figure moved from the shadows.' Unfortunately, he can never see what is behind him. For the reader I would suggest that seeing something the character does not see actually adds to the suspense.

Sometimes I also like to write detailed descriptions of a new scene. When this is done in first person, it always seems somewhat artificial, as people seldom observe things so closely. It is also nice to be able to describe the actions or appearance of characters in a way that they would rarely do themselves. Consider a passage such as this:

His eyes darted from side to side. He fiddled nervously with the toggle of his jacket, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.

How would I write that from a first person POV and reproduce the same effect? This simply does not sound right:

My eyes darted from side to side. I fiddled nervously with the toggle of my jacket and beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

It is difficult to imagine a person thinking about themselves in this way.

Finally, I wonder, sometimes, whether first person narrative is used to cover poor writing and poor grammar. When using first person I can blame these things on the narrator. I can claim that it is an integral part of their character. Effectively, the entire novel becomes direct dialogue, and so the stylistic rules that apply to this must apply to the narration too. How do I, as an editor, know when to correct bad grammar in a story with first person narration? Perhaps this is just the way the narrator speaks. The flip side of this is that as a writer I am limited by the character's knowledge and abilities. I can't write: 'The street was lined with Dahlias' if my character has no idea what a Dahlia looks like. 

It may be that these issues simply mean that it is a greater challenge to write using first person narrative, since the story has to be told well and effectively within these somewhat narrow restrictions. Perhaps I have not yet mastered these skills. On the other hand, I believe that all of the advantages of first person narrative can also be achieved by creatively using third person POV. I certainly feel that third person POV gives me much more freedom and scope as a writer. I would love to hear from others about which point of view they prefer to use and why. I would also love to hear people's opinions about why first person narration seems to be so popular at the moment. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Personal Update

I confess that I have been neglecting this blog a little of late. Partly this is due to a lack of inspiration. Partly it is because I have been devoting more of my time to pushing some of the social networking further. Twitter has been ticking over quite nicely for me for a while now. Facebook I have always struggled with: I think it is extremely user unfriendly. Nevertheless, I have been working to build my profile and following there. In addition to my main, personal page, I now have pages for both of my published novels, as well as for my business All-read-E. I am slowly accumulating ‘likes’, although quite what the purpose and value of these are continues to elude me. I have also dramatically increased the number of connections I have on LinkedIn. I have also been building a little on Pinterest. For some reason, Goodreads suddenly seems to be building itself.

All of these activities consume an enormous amount of time, and they drag my focus away from writing, whether that be here or in my novels. I have been struggling for inspiration there, too. Whether all of this effort actually serves any useful purpose, I am still unsure.

Quite pleasingly, visits to this blog continue to tick over, partly, I’m sure, because of these efforts in other social networks. It is nice to see people visiting and commenting, and even following.

I am still reading a great deal, and I will be reviewing another self-published book shortly. I am also following with considerable interest the political developments here in Australia, as we approach an election.

So, all in all, I am quite busy. Consider this blog a kind of personal update on my current activities and state of being. In the meantime, I await a moment of inspiration so that I can blog about something other than my very ordinary and rather humdrum existence!

Finally, here are some links to my activities on all these social network sites if you are interested in connecting with me in any of these forums:

Facebook (Maybe they’ll remember me):

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Intolerant Underbelly of Australian Society

A few days ago, some new ministers were sworn into the cabinet of the Australian Government. Among them was Mr Ed Husic, the son of Bosnian immigrants. He is a Muslim, and he chose to take the oath of office on the Koran. I reproduce here an article from the web page of the newspaper, The West Australian (

Australia's first Muslim Federal frontbencher has shrugged off a backlash on social media against him for being sworn in on the Koran, saying though some of the reaction was extreme, people were entitled to ask questions.

Dozens of abusive and racist messages were posted on the Facebook page of Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband Ed Husic, accusing him of undermining the Constitution and being un-Australian.

One user said they were: "Totally disgusted!! Sharia law next on your agenda is it?"
Another posted: "Swore to serve Australia using the same book terrorists do to serve al-Qaida . . . Disgusting."

Another said: "You swore an oath on a book that tells people to kill non-Muslims. Does that mean you condone me being killed?"

Mr Husic, the son of Bosnian migrants, said the criticism was a part of democracy. He said his decision had been straightforward. "I couldn't obviously take my oath on a Bible," he said. "I am who I am." Governor-General Quentin Bryce said at Monday's ceremony it was "a wonderful day for multiculturalism".

Mr Husic doesn’t ‘look like’ a Muslim. Imagine the reaction if he did! I don’t know who those people were, who adopted such a despicable and intolerant attitude. I hope that there are many more, like the Governor-General, who welcome this as a wonderful day. There are narrow and intolerant people on all sides of politics and within all religious traditions. I am perversely rather glad that this event stirred up some of the detritus that lurks at the bottom of the pond. It can help to remind us that, despite the illusion that we perpetuate about Australia as a tolerant and open society, there remains this grimy underbelly of intolerance, xenophobia and even hatred. It does not take much to stir up this hatred, be it directed against Muslims, the Gay community or the desperate people who try to reach our shores on unseaworthy vessels.

Personally I would like to thank Mr Husic for demonstrating that Muslims can happily participate in our democratic form of society. I would like to wish him and all Muslims in Australia well for this month of Ramadan.