Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Don't you hate reviews that tell you nothing about what the reader thought of the novel, and just gives you a precis of the novel itself? Well, I'm not going to do that. If you want a precis, here it is.

If you want to know what happens at the end, you can google "Parable of the Talents", which is the sequel to "Parable of the Sower". I've not read that yet. But vague information you glean on Talents, well tell you the conclusion of Sower.


It's been a long time since I've read much new (to me) science fiction. I think at some stage there was a glut of science fiction in my life and the only way to move on from that was to cease reading it altogether. Like fantasy, there is too much rubbish out there. I get disheartened when I pick up a novel, read a few paragraphs to discover appalling writing style or bland story or fetishism of gadgets (sci-fi) / medievalism (fantasy) / magical worlds (also fantasy). Nothing is wrong with each of those things of themselves, they just don't speak to me. And yes, I am using a broad brush to tar sci fi & fantasy with accusations of appalling writing and bland story-telling. Other genres are equally culpable.

Nowadays, I read science fiction only on well-trusted recommendations. Recommendations from people who know my reading proclivities. So when my partner borrowed a novel by Octavia Butler and, after reading it, duly declared that I would enjoy it, I happily picked it up. I found myself a couple of days later reading the last chapter while I was walking home, dodging fellow walkers, cyclists, park benches and the occassional overgrown plant.

This is excellent science fiction writing. Octavia Butler has a dystopic vision of a world, that could easily be our world in 20 years. It is unexplained why the world has descended into anarchy; the sense of an ordered society is within living memory and there are remnants of governed civilisation: presidents and grocery stores. Good science fiction, to me, reveals flaws in our current society. This is a novel about civilisation. Many things that are wrong in our current society are depicted: racism, self-interset and greed, environmental damage, sexism. This dystopia is complex and comprehensive: it is not one thing that has gone wrong, but many. Octavia Butler depicts a violent and raw society; one in which the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is attempting to build a new world. I really enjoyed the focus on the minutiae of self-sufficient survival: water, food, clothing, agricultural skills.

Lauren creates a religion - Lauren would say that she is articulating the truth as she discovers it - and views the world around her with an incisive and pragmatic eye. The stragglers who form Lauren's travelling companions are a mixture of the different races that comprise American society: African-American (Lauren herself), white, Latino, Asian. The explorations of how each of these individuals have survived are fascinating, if somewhat simplistically presented. Their individual stories are related in one hit, rather than revealed. Only one character is given the joy of unravelling his past throughout the novel.

Lauren is also a character created from an idea of Octavia Butler's about how society could be improved. In an essay on NPR about the UN Racism Conference, Octavia Butler raises the notion of empathy and whether this would enable society to be more tolerant, whether fewer wars would start if everyone experienced the pain that they inflicted upon another person.

"The point was to create, in fiction at least, a tolerant, peaceful civilization -- a world in which people were inclined either to accept one another's differences or at least to behave as though they accepted them since any act of resentment they commit would be punished immediately, personally, inevitably."

It is a concept more immediate than karma. Instead of the civilization, Octavia Butler creates just one character: Lauren, who is a 'sharer' - she feels other people's pains and pleasures.

It's an interesting idea, but one that Octavia Butler was ultimately pessimistic about.
She says:
"[I]n real life, what would make us more tolerant, more peaceful, less likely to need a UN Conference on Racism?


Nothing at all."

Octavia Butler cites contact sports and schoolyard bullying as examples for why sharing pain isn't the solution. We're a hierarchical civilisation and "[t]here is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people."

I think that it is not only our baser instincts that mean we are willing to inflict pain, and Octavia Butler explores this aspect in her novel. Even if we felt the pain that we inflicted on another person, there would nevertheless be situations in which we would continue to inflict that pain. Pain is part of living. And there are things that are, in the end, more important to us than not experiencing pain. In the novel, for example, Lauren herself is willing, and quite able, to inflict significant pain on other people, sometimes to avoid further pain to herself, sometimes to prevent pain happening to other people.

The theme of shared pain makes for a very interesting exploration of the dystopia that Octavia Butler creates: in a society in which pain, suffering and human's baser instincts prevail, what, exactly, assists us to transcend it? I am taken with this idea, and I would like to see how Octavia Butler explores it in the sequel.

Here's something else Octavia Butler says that resonates with me:-
"Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we're as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned."

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Last weekend we dismantled our last standing bookshelf. The books came off and got placed into two piles: to be stored and to be given away. My partner took the shelves off; I collected the little shelf pins; and then he took out a screw driver and unscrewed the brace. Now we had multiple pieces of wood, quite a few bullet shapes and one long x-shaped piece of metal. The pieces of bookshelf were carefully placed into our little car, and driven over to my partner's parents' place for their use. Earlier during the week, we had dismantled the second last standing bookshelf and driven it to my sister's workplace, where it was reassembled for her to put multi-coloured folders on. A few weeks ago, we had dismantled the first lot of shelves.

Over the past few months, our walls have been getting more and more naked. Our living room is now devoid of books on walls and I feel bereft. I am used to being surrounded by all these books – some I've read, some I've been meaning to read, some I would never read (my partner's DH Lawrence's and Thomas Hardy's being prime examples) and some that I have forgotten that I even acquired. I always enjoy that surprise, as you are browsing your own shelves, of making a discovery.

There is a room in my house, however, that has been getting more and more full. In one corner is a stack of archive boxes: 7 stand comfortably atop each other before my partner looks askance at me as I raise a box of books above my head. Seven is the limit for stacking archive boxes when one is 5 foot nothing. Along the floor are all the books that we will not be keeping. As visitors come to our house, we take them into this room and gesture magnanimously at the books on the floor: Take what you will, we say. Please, we beg.

I have taken to making care packages of books, to be given to people as I have fare-thee-well breakfasts, lunches and dinners with them. I put great thought into what books I choose to give to people. I start with what I know of their reading, and then I attempt to match, and expand. I have given a friend, who is spiritual, creative and feminist, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Saints and Angels by Ivan Klima and Journey to Ithaca by Kiran Desai. A friend who reads indiscriminately trash and high literature provided “it has a good story” has had foisted upon her Possession by AS Byatt, Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and a number of novels by Carson McCullers. My niece received my complete works of Shakespeare and Norton's Anthology of Drama. I was so proud when she squealed in delight: I gave her an unexpected hug and kiss, and both of our faces suddenly got smeared with whatever goop she was putting into her hair. A friend who reads fantasy got my partner's science fiction thrust at her, with me yabbering away about the number of Michael Moorcocks that she can have (except that I have to check with my partner first).

My workmates, however, have not been so fruitful. In the lunchtime lift, I was nattering away about all the things that needed to be done before we go, when my work colleague said: Oh! And all your books! Oh, I know, I exclaimed, that's the real big task. Another newish work colleague looked bemused so the first colleague explained that I had a lot of books. Oh really? Newish Work Colleage sounded interested. So I plunged in with: Yeah, heaps! Do you like to read? If you would like any of my books, I'm more than happy to give them to you. Great she said. I was so excited – more people to give books away to. What do you read? Name a few authors and I'll see what I've got that's compatible. She grins happily and says: Thrillers. John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer. Oh, I have to deliver my disappointment and choke back a desire to say that I don't read ariport fiction, unless I am at the airport and desperate. I say lamely, Well, we read very broadly so I'll see what we've got. We've got nothing suitable, is what, and I already know it. So does she. We will not be talking books again.

The most difficult task so far has been refining my filing. A few years ago I worked up the gumption to throw out my law school notes. They went into the rubbish bin quite gleefully, with me surprised that I had kept them through two house moves. Last weekend, I finally tackled the folders that comprised my honours thesis, Latin and ancient history courses. I remember that when I finished my honours thesis, I arranged my notes and photocopied journal articles and book chapters into well organised and clearly labelled folders. I had this intention of trimming my thesis and submitting it somewhere for publication. I never got around to doing that, and I barely looked at my honours thesis after I handed it in.

I picked up the folders labelled such riveting things as: “Feminist Historiography”, “Women – General”, “Messalina – Specific” and opened them. Inside there were handwritten notes, tabbed in a variety of colours, highlighted in other colours still. There had been much cross-referencing going on way back in the ol' honours thesis days. I opened another folder labelled “Latin” and found typed out the texts that we worked on through two semesters of Latin. Beside the typed out text, I had laboriously typed out my translations. And I recalled that, not only did I do all this typing up, it was superfluous. I had done the translations painstakingly by hand, and only after it was corrected in class did I type it out. And I had kept reams of vocabulary exercises and grammar notes. No wonder I am so uptight about grammar. I kept the text and translations, but I ditched everything else.

I went downstairs and outside, pulling the bins under our study window. My partner threw the folders out. As the folders of paper sailed into the recycling bin, my pout got deeper and my frown more pronounced. When the ceremony was over, I trudged back up the stairs, now shivering from standing in the cold in only thin trousers and singlet, and curled myself into a morose ball of regret on one corner of our couch. My partner sat down and put a hand on my knee: you didn't have to throw all of that out. Years of my intellectual life, I said self pityingly. All that stuff I once knew. Gone. If only I was really sad enough, one lonesome tear would have rolled down my cheek. My partner curled comfortingly into me and drew the corners of his mouth down to express his sympathy, and affectionate mockery of my theatricality. Don't worry, I said. By tomorrow I'll have completely forgotten about it all.

I have not quite forgotten, because this blog post has been churning away inside me. But now it's written, my regret will fade away. All that intellectual stuff, gone indeed.

We are leaving Brisbane in less than two months time. Our house is getting emptier as we rid ourselves of the accumulated detritus of our past lives. I am looking forward to living with as few possessions as possible. My only weakness, I suspect, will be books.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I lied.

Okay. So I am breaking my promise. No scandal nor wit here. But there is some acrimony.

Work Choices was so exciting, and so all-consuming in its constitutional interpretation expansionism (yes, all 411 pages!) that I almost let this and this slip under the radar. The whole cases are here and here .

Of course, I don’t get paid to read an immigration case, but I’ve done it anyway. For your elucidation alone. That’s how much I care.

Australia’s highest court has decided that Australia’s greatest international humiliation – our continuing inhumane treatment of asylum seekers – can continue unabated.

Each of the asylum seekers in the two cases were Shi’a Muslims of Hazara ethnicity living in Afghanistan. Each came to Australia seeking refugee protection visas and was granted Temporary Protection Visas. When they applied for permanent protection visas at the end of their temporary visa, they were rejected because, according to the Refugee Review Tribunal, they no longer had a “well founded fear” of persecution in their country of nationality. The High Court by a majority of four to one*, said that the Tribunal was correct. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked to intervene as amicus curiae (a friend of the court, helpful and knowledgeable). The UNHCR was permitted to provide written submissions, but not make oral argument.

* no prizes for guessing the dissentient: Kirby J.

The concept that refugee status can come and go is almost laughable to me.

I am not usually one to disparage our justice system. There are often constraints on doing justice, because of how legislation is framed. There is precedent to contend with. I am actually very good at explaining the legal basis for decisions I disagree with. I understand legal reasoning. But that does not change my reaction. I think the conclusions in both cases are very sad for Australia. I shake my head in sorrow, my throat catches and tears come to my eyes. This is all I can do. I am powerless.

This decision requires an asylum seeker to establish, years on, why they cannot return safely 'home'. Anecdotal evidence isn’t good enough. That an asylum seeker gets occasional letters from family still in the 'home' country, saying that an uncle or cousin or neighbour or someone else entirely was killed or has disappeared is not good enough. I don’t know what is.

A regime change is not enough to show that it safe to return ‘home’.

An individual who has been persecuted, marginalised, mistreated by government has absolutely no reason to trust government. Of whatever kind. Whether their birth country, or an attempted adopted one. It will take a lot for a regime change to manifest its trustworthiness to people who have no reason to trust.

It is very easy, when you are comfortable and secure, to be unable to see how someone else is uncomfortable and insecure. It is very easy to think that that person’s perception is flawed. To blame the individual’s subjective experience, rather than objective reality. But you could be wrong. What is objective reality anyway? What would it take for you to be in their shoes? Watch the movie Three Dollars. It ain’t perfect (although it does have David Wenham in it). I found most striking how well the movie elicited the fine line between middle class comforts, and jolting poverty.

I am an Australian citizen. I am legally trained. I am comfortable navigating within a variety of social and economic circles in Australia. I am articulate. I know my rights and entitlements, and how to assert them. My annual salary probably places me within the upper middle class category. I have loving family, a home and food whenever I want it. I have fulfilling work and enjoyable (if somewhat insufficient) leisure time. I have never been imprisoned. I have never not had enough to eat. I have never feared for my life – although my parents have feared for theirs, and mine by proxy. I was a mere infant when I left Viet Nam. But I returned with a little trepidation. I made light of it in a blog post, but it was real.

I read a profile recently of a Vietnamese language interpreter, residing in Brisbane, in the illustrious Courier Mail’s “Q Weekend” magazine. It was lying around the lunchroom and I was munching on a sandwich. I still have not worked out how to read a novel while eating a sandwich. Anyway, this interpreter was asked whether she had returned for a visit to Viet Nam. She said she had not. When asked why, she said that she did not trust the government, still. Madam Interpreter left Viet Nam in 1976. She started out working as a kitchen hand but, having a knack with languages, learnt English sufficiently proficiently to help her fellow Vietnamese cope with the mainstream language in their new society. Perhaps, 30 years on, after doi moi, Madam Interpreter does not have a well founded fear of persecution. But the fact of that fear says something: the longevity of an individual’s distrust of government. Madam Interpreter still considers herself a refugee.

Regime change is not enough. Under the International Convention on Refugees, regime change must be fundamental, stable and durable. Only time can answer those questions, and after a sufficient period of time has elapsed, sometimes that person who was a refugee becomes someone else such that returning to their birth country might no longer be returning home. Even if it’s safe.

Caveat (I can’t help it, I’m a lawyer):
I do not profess to have understood the complexities of the High Court decisions because I have only skimmed them. This is a blog post. It’s my opinion because I’ve been inspired to write, by something I’ve read. It’s all a lot more complex than this.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Because I know you care

So, I've been quiet a while.

As per usual - there are reasons and things. I've been prolifically commenting on other's blogs though. Almost like writing a post of Oanh's own.

In any event, I am sure that you will be absolutely thrilled to know that Australia's highest court handed down its decision today in the most exciting constitutional law case since the Tasmanian Dams case.

It's so important, the case is 411 pages long. There are 1227 footnotes! I haven't read the whole case yet - just scanned it for the juicy bits.

Did I mention that I'm a law nerd?

You can read the official summary here. Please note: this is not to be relied upon for legal advice, of course, but I doubt many of you will be challenging Australia's laws for offending our bland constitution anyway. If you're a law student, you probably shouldn't rely on this in your essays or exams, either. Please read at least *some* of the judgment.

Here's my summary:-

It's a washout.

The federal government of Australia, in its inestimable wisdom, made a law about employment that overrode, undermined and eroded employee's rights, especially those found in each of the individual state's legislation (except for Victoria, which had already given the federal government the power to legislate for its people).

Basically, the corporations power is so broad, a vague connection with a corporation, no matter what the actual subject matter of the law might be, makes the piece of law OK.

There were two dissentients: Justice Kirby and Justice Callinan.

Callinan J says:

To give the Act the valid operation claimed by the Commonwealth would be to authorize it to trespass upon essential functions of the States.

The validation of the legislation would constitute an unacceptable distortion of the federal balance intended by the founders, accepted on many occasions as a relevant and vital reality by Justices of this Court, and manifested by those provisions of the Constitution to which I have referred, and its structure.

And Kirby J says:

I therefore consider that this Court should adhere to the conclusion inherent in the hundreds of earlier cases over more than a century in which the Court has held or implied that, whatever the expanding content of the corporations power in s 51(xx) might otherwise permit, it does not sustain a law which, properly characterised, is one "with respect to" the subject matter of s 51(xxxv), that is, the prevention and settlement of interstate industrial disputes. This new Act is such a law. It does not comply comprehensively with the dual requirements laid down in s 51(xxxv) for laws with respect to that subject. That conclusion presents the issue of its constitutional invalidity.

It is an unsurprising, but very concerning, decision.


This is the part where I beg and plead for my few readers to please return, maybe in a week's time, where there will be an interesting post about stuff unrelated to law. I could promise scandal, acrimony and wit. But you would all know that I'd be lying.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

White Wash

I am slowly turning white.

Yesterday, I looked down at my belly while sitting on the toilet and there was a patch of white, roughly 1 cm squared, to the left of my navel. I scrubbed at it. It peeled away like old paint.

"Must have been toothpaste," I thought. "Will be more careful in future."

Throughout yesterday, I found patches of white all over me. Some of it was on my clothes, but most of it was on my orange-toned skin. I was perplexed. When I do my teeth of a morning, I can be vigorous. I am often running late for walking to work. But I certainly was not wantonly flicking toothpaste all over the bathroom and myself. Especially as I was dressed and ready for work (sort of).

Today, I was more careful in the bathroom. As I sat at work - reading, typing and surfing the net (I mean researching) - I notice a streak of white on my left forearm. As I turn my arm around, I see little spots of white. Whatever I have done now, I can't scrape these off so easily.

There are the tiniest spots on my right arm, too. I wonder if it's permanent, if it will spread.

People have described my skin tone as 'olive' and I cannot see how this is correct. No olive I have ever seen has been a kinda browny orange, with streaks of blue and some blotches of red. Olives are either green or a purple-tinted black.

Some have described me as yellow, but I am sure that my skin colour looks nothing like a banana, or the sun as drawn and coloured by children. And I don't think they were referring to my courage (or its lack).

I think that I am definitely orange(ish). Or brown. Or brown with an orange base. Or orangey brown. Anyway, my skin is definitely dark(ish) South East Asian coloured. I am not fair like most of my sisters. I am of fishing stock, and my colour pigment is there to protect me so that I can spend most days sorting through the fish that my father, brothers and cousins have hauled in. I was obviously meant to remain in Viet Nam, and live the fishing life. Or failing that, perhaps the farming life. My fairer sisters were destined for distant shores, less physical labour type lives. Oddly enough, my parents took all of us over with nary a thought for what our skin colour indicated we were fated to become.

These days, of course, I sit inside an office for much of the sunlight hours. The sun slants in through my office window (yes, I've got the window seat) but it is barely enough to warm me, let alone to justify my skin colour. Its greatest effect is in the afternoon, when it glares so horridly from the reflection of the other huge glass covered buildings that I am forced to close my blinds.

My mother wastes precious breaths telling me to stay out of the sun. I do not waste any breath telling her that I don't actually spend much time in the sun anymore. As a child I was often out in the yard, climbing trees and chasing after frogs (in winter) and lizards (in summer). I was a dark brown back then, and I would get darker as the days got warmer. Um often stuck her head out the back door and hollered for me to come inside. I always pretended not to hear her.

When I was in school and playing sport, Um always berated me for the colour my skin would become, darker and darker as the netball season drew to its exciting conclusion (we were never in the finals, but always made it to at least the quarter finals).

I tried to tell my mother that my skin tone was not my fault! I had no conscious control over what colour my skin was. If I was feeling especially rebellious I would tell her that it was HER fault, or perhaps my father's, if I was not beautiful rich-person white but dirty peasant brown. She would retort with the example of my sisters, very few of whom played sport or chased lizards and frogs. I would scowl.

Years inside an office and I might, after all, be turning white. My skin tone is still orangey-brown, brownish, orange-based etc. But I keep discovering these patches of flaky white.

My mother would be so pleased.

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