Beverley Farmer died on Sunday 15 April at 77 after a long struggle with Parkinsons Disease. Those of us who met her on rare public appearances or at residencies in Universities nationally and internationally will remember a reserved, intelligent, gracious woman who inspired students with her quiet but evident passion for writing. Her contribution to Australian Literature is notable for its quality, diversity and innovation. A highly skilled observer, Beverley Farmer leaves us short stories, novels, essays, poetry, photography and insightful criticism and, perhaps most memorably, a prose style of great beauty and precision. The first novel Alone and initial collections of short stories Milk (1983) Home Time (1985) figured prominently in discussions of emerging women’s writing in Australia in the 1980s as they articulated the politics of gendered and cross-cultural relations. Since then post-feminist, post-modernist and post-structuralist critical appreciations have influenced the changing climate of literature in Australia. This writer found distinctive ways to engage with the business of representation, inscription and textuality by drawing on translation, the visual and graphic arts and reconsidering the formative effects of time, memory and inheritance. In The Seal Woman (1992) and The House in the Light (1995) Farmer used montage-like sequences to investigate a broad spectrum of diverse cultural myths and realities confronting the hard truths of imminent world environmental damage and conflicting cultural ideologies. In the 1990s A Body of Water (1990) crossed generic lines between journal, essay and short story to win awards for non-fiction. This meditative and inclusive text shared the processes of literary creation. Her mature writing embraced further sophisticated explorations of the nature of translation as film, photography, painting and representation. Farmer’s black and white photography illustrates recent publications and in ‘Seeing in The Dark’ from The Bone House language ‘works like a lens that opens onto sequential fields of vision, changing in focus, expanding between temporality and timelessness and contracting to frame transparencies of light’. The Bone House, described as a meditation on the life of the body and the life of the mind, employs thematic symbols of earth, and water, fire and blood, light and darkness’, elemental themes that also inform the final collection of stories This Water: Five Tales.
In 2009 the Patrick White Award placed Farmer among peers like Christina Stead, Elizabeth Harrower, Thea Astley, Janette Turner-Hospital, Fay Zwicky, John Romeril and Gerard Murnane. On hearing the news, Beverley Farmer acknowledged her pleasure in being counted among prestigious company, particularly citing Rosemary Dobson, Randolph Stow and Marjorie Barnard as ‘guiding lights’. These preferences were telling: a meditative poet who celebrates the wonder, fragility and tenacity of human existence, a writer of fiction whose exploration of the metaphysics of being and spiritual journeying and a pioneering writer of short fiction whose insightful, non-romantic portraits of relationships and women’s lives became an exemplar for women writers in this country. In her latest collection, This Water: Five Tales, completed under extreme difficulty but with even greater precision, archetypal legends of women’s experience are re-envisioned and imaginatively transformed. Beverley’s family, friends, colleagues and community in Pt Lonsdale will mourn her passing. Australian Literature has lost a remarkable voice.
Lyn Jacobs, Flinders University
The death of Penny van Toorn on 3 October 2016 after almost a decade of increasing illness was mourned not only by her family and former colleagues and students but also by many further afield who encountered her through her groundbreaking research and publications, especially those on Indigenous writing from both Australia and Canada.
As Penelope Timbury, she grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches and attended SCEGGS Redlands, where she was a star pupil. She continued to excel academically at the University of Sydney, where she completed her BA Hons in English, followed by a Masters degree. Somewhere along the way, she also found the time to become a champion sailor. Although already the mother of a young son, Penny next won a scholarship to Canada to study for her PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC). There she researched and wrote her thesis on the Canadian Mennonite writer Rudy Wiebe, subsequently published in 1995 as Rudy Wiebe and the Historicity of the Word. She was then appointed as an Assistant Professor in English at UBC but gave up this tenure track post to return to Sydney for family reasons. By now she was also the mother of Georgia as well as Alex.
From the early 1990s, however, Australian humanities departments had begun to shrink after some decades of expansion. Despite her excellent academic qualifications and experience, Penny initially found it difficult to get other than casual university employment. In 1993 she won an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship at Sydney University. Together with Elizabeth Webby, then the Professor of Australian Literature, Penny succeeded in gaining a further ARC grant that allowed her to carry out her highly innovative research into ‘early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia’, later the subtitle of her major work, Writing Never Arrives Naked (2006). Following the successful introduction of courses in Australian Studies at Sydney late in the 1990s, Penny was finally able to be appointed to a continuing joint lectureship in Australian Studies and English, with a particular focus on Indigenous material. In 2004 Penny won a further ARC Grant for her new project, “Autobiography of a People: Aboriginal Writing in Queensland, 1890s- 1930s”. In that same year she was promoted to Senior Lecturer and was on track for a well-deserved further promotion when diagnosis of her illness led to her early retirement in 2008.
Given her struggle to get back into academic life after returning from Canada, it was tragic that Penny had to retire just when her research was gaining both funding and increasing recognition within Australia and internationally. Her main intellectual inquiry involved developing a more nuanced and rich understanding of complex Indigenous cultural perspectives and uncovering hidden histories of Indigenous interaction with and within colonial systems. Writing Never Arrives Naked was very favourably reviewed and shortlisted for several major awards. More importantly, it has had a profound and lasting impact on public discussion and in schools, breaking new ground in scholarly fields of Indigenous and Australian studies and bringing about a paradigm shift in the way we think about Aboriginal literature. Nadine Attewell talks about its “beautifully nuanced account of Aboriginal cultures of reading and writing through the first hundred and fifty years of British colonization”. Maryrose Casey sees strength in Penny’s “careful reconstruction of Indigenous engagements, multiple uses and deployments of European writing in specific cultural contexts”. Victoria Haskins writes of Penny’s perceptive discussion of early Aboriginal writings, which often “carry embedded within them ‘hidden transcripts’ of resistance”. Distinguished Noongar man and prize-winning novelist Kim Scott cites the book in a recent Griffith Review essay about the language recovery project of his Wirlomin community, in SW Western Australia. Scott has clearly drawn strength from Penny’s findings to validate his own sense that for Noongar people, like the other early Aboriginal people and groups that Penny discusses, writing became “‘entangled’ with ancient oral traditions on the Australian continent”, and that “books weren’t seen [by those early Noongars] as evil or irrelevant, but as curiosities to investigate.” Writing Never Arrives Naked will continue to inspire generations of readers and scholars.
Penny was very concerned to ensure that her archival findings were shared with the descendants of people she had come across during her research so would have been thrilled by Kim Scott’s citation of her work. She was a brilliant cross-cultural collaborator, and acutely conscious of the ethical dimensions of such collaboration. She spoke about what a privilege it was to have worked with and learned from Indigenous women like Ruby Langford Ginibi and Dr Anita Heiss. Penny worked closely with Ruby from 1995 to 1997 as an honorary editorial assistant on a biography of one of her sons. Entitled Haunted By the Past (1999), it was later short-listed for the National Biography Award. They continued to have a close relationship and at the end of her acknowledgments page in Writing Never Arrives Naked Penny expresses her gratitude to Langford Ginibi “who makes me feel honoured by calling me ‘tidda’”.
In 2002, Penny and Anita co-edited Stories Without End, an outstanding special Indigenous issue of the literary journal Southerly. The following year she worked with another Indigenous academic, Anthony McKnight, to co-author a module for school students entitled “Aboriginal Literature,” published in Mosaic 4 by Macmillan Education Australia, 2004. In May 2007 she was invited to give the plenary address at the “Sharing, Celebrating and Planning” Conference, convened by the Quality Teaching Indigenous Program, NSW Department of Education and Training.
As her receipt in 2005 of a Sydney University Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching indicates, Penny was also an extraordinarily dedicated, caring, inspirational and brilliant teacher. She invented, for instance, “Yes, But” – a lucid, critical exercise that showed students how to grapple with the argument of a critic. She took great pains to make her lectures and seminars both accessible and interesting, as shown in her clever use of overhead transparencies in the pre-Powerpoint era. Her secret lay in designing each short bullet point as a mystery package to which she would speak before gradually unwrapping it. At the Faculty level, from 2003-07 she was heavily involved in designing and running the Tutors Development Program, a project aimed at enhancing student learning across the Faculty by contributing to the professional development of new tutors. During these same years she also served as the Director of the Postgraduate Arts Research Centres, providing mentorship for many other postgraduate students besides the ones she was personally supervising. Needless to say, she was also an inspiring supervisor of Honours and postgraduate theses.
Through her teaching, research, conference papers and publications, Penny van Toorn had a positive impact on numerous lives as well as on advancing our knowledge and understanding of Indigenous writing. But for her early illness she would have gone on to make an even stronger and wider contribution on many levels. She met her partner David English at the annual Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) conference in Perth in 1993. The romance that blossomed along the Swan River sustained them both, especially during the years in which Penny’s illness played out. We extend our sympathy to David, to Alex and Georgia, and to Penny’s other close relatives and friends.
Brigid Rooney and Elizabeth Webby
The University of Sydney
15 November 2016
Many members of ASAL will be saddened to hear that Associate Professor Syd Harrex died in Adelaide on Friday, 29th May 2015. He was 79 years old. A long-serving and inspiring literary academic at Flinders University, South Australia, Syd established the Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English (CRNLE) there in 1977: shifting the frame of what used to be called ‘Commonwealth literature’, and pre-empting the turn to postcolonial literary studies that followed soon afterwards. Both a nationalist and a cosmopolitan, he was especially interested in Indian and Malaysian writing in English, establishing strong connections with universities, writers and academics in both countries. Many members of ASAL would have enjoyed Syd’s remarkable generosity, his hospitality, erudition and wit over the years: ASAL conferences were all the better when he was attending. Syd was also a distinguished poet, the author of a number of collections, including Under a Medlar Tree and Dougie’s Ton, & 99 Other Sonnets, both published by Lythrum Press. He will be very much missed.
Peter Alexander was Australia's premier literary biographer. Yet he came late to writing Australian biographies. His career as a biographer started with a generous gesture from the South African activist and writer Alan Paton. For his doctoral thesis on another South African, the poet Roy Campbell, Alexander interviewed Paton, who was working on a biography of Campbell, but with increasing reluctance. He offered the task to Alexander, together with all his own research material. Fifteen years later Alexander published a biography of Paton himself, and donated his accumulated and commercially valuable archive to the Paton Centre at the University of Natal. He published his life of the rambunctious Catholic convert Campbell in 1982, and followed this with two other South African subjects, the torn homosexual man of letters William Plomer, and then Paton. Next he did a coat-trailing study of the marriage and mutual literary influence of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Of his fifth and final biography, the scholar/poet Peter Steele wrote that almost every page bore the mark of "precise enquiry followed by reflective attention". It was true of all his books. Even in private conversation the directness and acuteness of his questions could be liberating if initially disconcerting. And his reflective attention led to an assessment and placement of information that was masterly. His books were never overloaded, his prose was a medium, not an object of display, never flamboyant or tricksy. He quoted Harold Nicolson as saying that a good biographer needed to be a "snouty little man", and Alexander had a nose and an eye for failings. Yet, highly principled, even uncompromising as he was, he never used his own stance to lambast his central subjects, those whose lives he analysed and recounted. None of his books has been superseded. He remains the "go-to" man on his subjects.
Alexander was born in Johannesburg in 1949. His mother, a nurse, had met his father, an engineer, in Egypt during the war, but soon after the marriage his father entered the Anglican ministry, and Alexander and his three siblings grew up poor in small rural or semirural parishes. After school at Jeppe Boys High he did his compulsory year's national service in the South African army. He loathed the experience, finding that the army's self-defeating modus operandi was to turn all the young soldiers against one another. But he had the good fortune to spend most of his year as first clarinettist in the army band. He did an Arts degree at the University of the Witswatersrand, and then left South Africa to do a Master's degree at Leeds. In spite of his closeness to his family he had already decided that he didn't want to live in South Africa again. While still a schoolboy he had once unscrewed from the children's swings in a nearby park a sign that said, "White Children Only".
He completed his degree on early Yeats under A. Norman Jeffares, and was accepted into Cambridge in 1974 to do his doctorate on Campbell. The English Department there used hold a tea party for its doctoral students, seating four of them and a don at each table. Alexander was doubly fortunate. His assigned don was Frank Kermode, charming and affable as well as a great critic. But the table also included a New Zealand student, Christine Baird, later to be a major international Bronte scholar. She and Alexander clicked, walked home together, and there was never the shadow of any parting. In 1978 they were both offered positions in the English Department at the University of New South Wales. It remained their professional home for the rest of their careers. Australia was adopted with enthusiasm, and Alexander took citizenship as soon as he could. Rapidly he acquired a knowledge of local plant and bird life that few native Australians could equal. At the end of his life, when he had terminal cancer, he and Christine set out to cross the continent by car, and were so thrilled by the experience that when they reached Perth they drove on to Broome and Darwin and home by the Alice. Even a month before his death he was still talking of taking a cruise around the entire Australian coast.
When they arrived at UNSW they found themselves under the tyranny of the one-time fine scholar Harold Oliver, but a more democratic era followed Oliver's early retirement. Alexander was an ideal academic. Lecturing mainly on poetry, he was confident, plainspoken and accessible, a dedicated and appealing teacher. Simultaneously he revelled in his own writing projects, and together with Christine attracted hefty research funding to his department. Everywhere his firm, rapid tread was an indicator of the focus and concentration of his life.
In 1995, at the suggestion of his publishers, he set foot on the ever-treacherous ground of Les Murray studies. It was a dangerous move; he had not previously written about a still-living subject, and he was aware of what a divisive figure Murray was. It's likely that his being entrusted with an authorised biography, coupled with his South African origins and his devout Anglicanism, may have made Murray's multiple enemies among the Australian literary citizenry suspicious. Early copies of the book were released, and immediately, a week after the sudden death of the Alexanders' daughter, threats of legal action began. The publishers did a volteface, the book was withdrawn, and it was not until a year later that a new edition was released. Undeterred, and with Murray's blessing, Alexander set about preparing an edition of Murray's letters. He thought that Murray was "a wonderful letter writer, copious, varied, energetic, and with a huge range of correspondents around the world". And he had gathered a uniquely extensive collection of them. He had written his introduction and notes, and the book was ready to go to press in 2006 when Murray turned against the project. It went no further. Alexander never published another book. In 2006 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and in 2011 with incurable cancers. For the last two years of his life he worked on a memoir. It was a revealing work and took no prisoners.
His Anglican faith never seemed to falter. St Jude's in Randwick was a community of immense spiritual and personal nourishment for him. He attended Holy Communion every Sunday, sang in the choir, was invited to preach. For himself and Christine, St Jude's provided many of their closest friends. His Christianity was intensely biblical, and he read the Scriptures with Christine each night. By the time of his death they had traversed the whole Bible 13 times. Biblical allusions, like poetry, threaded his conversation in a light and easy way. A few days before he died, some talk about food prompted him to say, "the raven brought food to the prophet". He puzzled over which prophet it was, then commented. "I wouldn't want to be fed by a raven. The brute would bring you road kill at best." His singularity of mind and independence was striking. He loved Bach and Mozart, played his piano devotedly, baked his own bread, thought that the best short story writer in the language was Kipling. Realistic, uncomplaining, always gracious and solicitous for those around him, he was a model of how to die. He is survived by Christine, son Roland and siblings, Heather, Mark and Helen. His daughter, Rebecca, predeceased him. He was buried beside her in St Jude's churchyard.
Veronica Brady was born Patricia Mary Brady on 5 January 1929; “Veronica” was the name she adopted when she entered the Loreto order at the age of 21. It is a teaching order, not a cloistered one, and this suited Veronica Brady admirably; she gained a reputation as a stirring and inspiring teacher, particularly after joining The University of Western Australia in early 1972. With the late Bruce Bennett she championed the introduction of studies in Australian literature, at the time in the face of sometimes stern opposition. There was nothing like stern conservative opposition to get Veronica moving: her ancestors were Irish Catholics and on her mother’s side included convicts, so in one sense she always remained true to her roots.
Veronica Brady gained a national and international reputation as a public intellectual, literary critic and tireless moral crusader. She was fearless, a Mother Courage whose causes were her ‘children’. That courage often put her at odds with governments or the Church, and drew controversy but also admiration from many people across a wide range of Australian society and overseas. She was a literary commentator whose work was noticed well outside the literary community; she was a Catholic nun who detested the edicts of the conservative popes and who was suspicious of believers whose faith wasn’t “tempered with a certain amount of doubt”; she was a feminist by instinct who inspired many women, both old and young. She spoke on philosophical, literary, social and ethical issues not only across Australia but in China, India, Indonesia, Italy, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and other countries for fifty years. She was a white person whom the Aboriginal community trusted, a symbolic figure for many women engaged in Australian literary, religious and social studies, and the only literary critic whom Patrick White trusted and admired.
Veronica was the author of distinguished research works, including The Future People: Christianity, Modern Culture and the Future, A Crucible of Prophets: Australians and the Question of God, Playing Catholic: Essays on Four Catholic Plays, the essay collection, Caught in the Draught, and South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, as well as many other essays on Australian literature, religion and the place of Aborigines, women and the church in Australian society. She was diminutive in stature but not in any other respect and, unselfconsciously, a memorable character. As a teacher she was generous, selfless, enthusiastic and throroughly reliable but those of us who worked with her will always remember her notes: her handwriting had a Daliesque quality and looked like ink dropped through a wine decanter. Once, when we were at lunch, a waiter asked her if she wanted orange juice rather than wine and I will never forget the withering look she gave him; Julie Bishop could only wish for such a death stare! On another occasion she was driving one of the convents’ cars when she suddenly lost control, ran off the road and headed towards a pole. Veronica had enough time, she said, to think “Now I’ll find out if it’s all true”. Then, being Veronica, she missed the pole.
Although she worked across many areas, she could be fearless because she was all of a piece: her religious beliefs emphasised the importance of imagination and she found literature the most profound form of imaginative expression. The need for spirituality lay behind her interest in culture generally and she believed in the importance of community, so that her literary essays have a social and political edge and her socio-political essays have culture and spirituality at their centre. It is no accident that she wrote her doctoral thesis on Patrick White and her final book on Judith Wright, two Australian writers of whom the same things could be said. Veronica lived her beliefs; she was no ivory tower academic. Although passionate she was not dogmatic; I once, as a lecturer much junior to her, told her that I had published an essay disagreeing with one of hers about White’s novel A Fringe of Leaves. She immediately reacted with interest and encouragement; in fact our disagreements increased our friendship. In the “Introduction” to Caught in the Draught she wrote: “For lack of a vision, a people perish” and she worked hard to help Australia to develop a vision of itself.
Apart from her university roles, Veronica provided a good deal of public service, including on the Boards of the Library and Information Service of WA, Fremantle Press and the ABC, and she was Chair of the Perth Branch of International PEN, a writers organisation dedicated to freedom of expression. She made herself an interesting life and lived it fully. On her retirement from UWA in1994, a festschrift was published in her honour titled Tilting at Matilda; it is dedicated to her “in admiration of her exemplary imagination, knowledge and courage”. She was there described as a “larrikin angel”, and this phrase became the title of her biography, written by Kath Jordan and published in 2009. On its back cover Fred Chaney is quoted as saying “In an often smug and complacent society, we need Veronica Brady and her ilk to remind us to look beyond ourselves. I think Jesus would be OK with her”. She’s probably testing him out right now. But we’ll miss her.
Westerly Centre, University of WA
Friends and colleagues of John Mclaren will be saddened to hear of his death, at St Vincent's Private Hospital on Friday, 4th December 2015. John was known by many in Australian Literary and academic worlds as an affable colleague, and an extremely well-read and passionate advocate of Australian Literature. He was appointed head of the Department of Humanities at FIT in 1976, and became a Foundation Professor in Humanities when VU was formed in 1991. John continued to teach and research in Literature, particularly of Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, and in Literature and Politics.
John retired in 1997, and was appointed an Emeritus Professor in 2007. In 2011. His publications include Melbourne: City of Words: writers' views of Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, (2013), Journey without Arrival: the life and work of Vincent Buckley, Australian Scholarly Publishing,(2009), Not in Tranquillity: a memoir, Australian Scholarly Publishing, (2005), Writing in Hope and in Fear: Postwar Australian Literature as Politics, 1945-72, CUP (1996), and The New Pacific Literatures: culture and environment in the European Pacific, Garland Publishing (1993).
He was an editor and long-time contributor to Overland, and a life-time member of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL).
John McLaren was loved by many colleagues and students across the years. He was husband of Shirley (dec.), father of James and Cameron (both dec.), father-in-law of Tracy Lee and loving grandfather of Lawrence and Katherine.
Last week, Helen Thomson, one of the founding members of ASAL, died peacefully at home after a year of alternating optimism and disappointment as she dealt with pancreatic cancer. Helen was one of ASAL’s great enthusiasts with an appetite for all of life’s pleasures, a sharp sense of humour and an earthy way of expressing it. She was born Helen Adele Dimsey in Melbourne and attended McKinnon High School before teacher training at Frankston Teachers’ College. There an English teacher recognised her intelligence and encouraged her to go to university. She was one of the first graduates from the newly created Monash University, and she stayed there for most of her academic career. After graduating with English Honours she was awarded a postgraduate scholarship to the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. She married Philip Thomson, a fellow academic from Monash University’s German Department and they had two children, Miranda and Guy. To Helen’s delight, her grandson Jamie was born fifteen months ago.
The first ASAL conference was held at Monash University in 1977 and Helen took to ASAL with a will. She loved the larrikin element of the Association and its refusal of academic pomposity. She served on ASAL’s executive in the 1980s and early 1990s, and particularly enjoyed the social and performative aspects of ASAL conferences. At the Townsville conference in 1986 she was one of the few delegates brave enough to go scuba diving on the Reef (while the rest of us paddled around with snorkels), and she won the 1986 Frank Moorhouse Dance Trophy at the conference dinner. Helen came prepared for this with professional ballroom-dancing shoes, and I believe that she and her partner had choreographed their routine in preparation. It was so good that an encore was demanded by the appreciative dinner crowd—and Helen did not hesitate to perform again. Helen organised the 1989 conference at Monash University and went to great lengths to ensure we had special entertainments— her friend, Max Gillies, performed Barry Oakley’s Scanlan one night, her former student, Campbell McComas, turned up at the dinner as ‘special literary guest speaker’. Helen had scoured Melbourne to find the best jazz band— the Society Syncopators played for the dancing. In some ways it was a difficult conference for the organisers; the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were recent and there was concern about the visiting Chinese academics at the conference. Helen went out of her way to ensure everyone was looked after—typically, she gave the conference all her energy to the point of exhaustion.
Helen became enthused by the feminist shifts in literary thinking during the 1980s and worked with Dale Spender on the reissue of Australian novels by women for Penguin. She edited Catherine Helen Spence’s Handfasted, and Mr Hogarth’s Will for the series. She wrote chapters on Spence for various collections of essays, and she edited the UQP Australian Authors text on Spence. She also gave papers on contemporary writers at ASAL conferences and contributed entries on a range of Australian writers for various encyclopaedias and companions. In 1994 she gave the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies lectures at James Cook University in Townsville on the ‘bio-fiction’ of Elizabeth Jolley, Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska.
But her great love was the theatre and she became Melbourne theatre critic for the Australianin 1979, moving to The Age in 1995. She wrote hundreds of theatre reviews, covering all kinds of performance from musicals to the latest David Williamson plays. It is difficult to see how her knowledge of contemporary Australian drama performance could be equalled. She wrote the chapter on Australian contemporary drama for the Oxford Literary History of Australia (1998).
After their retirement, Helen and Philip spent much of their time at their house at Moggs Creek where Helen cultivated an impressive vegetable garden and cooked marvellous food for friends. Helen loved life there, walking her dogs and swimming in the ocean, but in 2014 she felt it was time to return to the convenience of an apartment in Port Melbourne. Some old ASAL friends were able to catch up with both Helen and Philip at the ASALvets conferences at Norfolk Island and Queenscliff.
In his eulogy at her funeral, Philip commented that Helen made friends in every aspect of her life, and once she had decided that you were a friend, you were her friend for life. Many ASAL members were privileged to experience Helen’s friendship and fortunate to enjoy her irreverent attitude and sense of fun over many years.