The Art of Optimism

June 5, 2018

Alec Ash, Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China, London: Picador, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Wish LanternsThere are over 320 million teenagers and twentysomethings in China. Wish Lanterns tells the story of six of them. All six are ethnic Han, university educated, and resident at one time or another in the capital city Beijing. Nonetheless, these individuals come from widely different geographic, political, and socio-economic backgrounds. Their lives also take on divergent meanings and trajectories. Collectively, Wish Lanterns provides six unique experiences and perspectives, but also numerous points of contact, comparison, and illumination that reveal much about contemporary China.

Dahai is the son of a People’s Liberation Army soldier from the central province of Hubei. In the early years of the Chinese internet, Dahai becomes a keyboard warrior. He shares exposures of corrupt officials and criticises a lack of morals and compassion in Chinese society, the kind of indifference that leads eighteen people to observe, but to walk past, an injured two-year-old girl, Wang Yue, who has been run over by two vehicles and left for dead on a busy market street in Foshan (Buddha Mountain). Dahai eventually pulls back from his netizen involvement, accommodating himself to political realism in an online environment strictly circumscribed and controlled by the state. He also comes under the dual pressures of finding secure employment and housing for his family.

Fred is the privileged daughter of Chinese Communist Party officials from the southern island province of Hainan. A graduate of elite Peking University, where she also gains a PhD in political science, Fred travels not only to the USA for graduate work at Cornell University and to Taipei in Taiwan to spend time with her classically-minded scholar boyfriend, but backwards and forwards across China’s political spectrum. At times “right” (liberal or globalist) and “left” (ultra-nationalist and Chinese-exceptionalist), Fred manages to reconcile her belief in one-Party rule for the sake of China’s stability and prosperity with her regard for the rule of law and desire for evolutionary progress towards greater freedom of expression. This even extends to some sympathy for compatriots in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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University Pathfinders

June 5, 2018

Glyn Davis, The Australian Idea of a University, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

We choose a path and thereafter it leads us” (Davis: 28)

9780522871746-the-australian-idea-of-a-university20180531-4-1l5kmtaIf you are concerned about the future of higher education in Australia, you should consider reading The Australian Idea of a Universityby Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. If you enjoy repeated use of phrases like “pathway dependency” and are in the mood for some “creative destruction” to face the challenges of technological disruption in education, the need for diversification in the higher education sector, and both domestic and international competition, then you will probably enjoy reading it.

Davis has produced an accessible book that provides a brief history of Australian universities as well as his personal vision for the future of Australian post-secondary education. He outlines the development of our universities from the founding of the University of Sydney in 1850 right up to 2017. He concludes that this system has, over the years, resulted in good outcomes for students, mass enrolment of domestic students – especially since the Dawkins reforms of 1987-1991, and a recent heavy dependence on the fees of international students to meet government-funding shortfalls. However, in the broader historical view, Davis finds that the dominant feature of Australian universities is uniformity.

Australian universities are overwhelmingly

  • public institutions
  • self-governing institutions
  • providers of professional courses (such as law, medicine, engineering, and accounting)
  • meritocratic institutions (not tied to religious conviction or class status)
  • commuter institutions (only around 5% of students reside on campus)
  • comprehensive (multidisciplinary) institutions (for example, all public universities, except one, offer a law degree)
  • teaching and research based (founded on Scottish lecture/tutorial and German research models, but mandated to do both under the Dawkins definition of a “university”).

Glyn Davis argues that this uniformity is now out-dated and sclerotic. He looks forward to the next wave of university development, which he believes is necessary to enable Australian universities to thrive. For him, reform requires four things to allow greater diversity, provide students with more choice, and to insure the Australian university sector against destructive disruption, especially from technological entrepreneurs: “a single policy perspective over the post-school sector, funding for teaching and research that reflects actual costs…the creation of new universities to accommodate growth…and a common vision and policy stability to allow future institutional exploration and change” (pp.121-122). The fourth point, which Davis concedes “is contentious and likely to be unpopular within the sector” (p.121), requires “system design” and planning, similar to the approach taken in Singapore and Hong Kong. He comments that a “revived Australian Tertiary Education Commission is one mechanism that would enable sector-wide review, analysis and action” (p.122).

Glyn Davis admits that as Vice Chancellor of Griffith University he contributed to the standardisation of Australian higher education. He followed the well-trodden path, introducing undergraduate programs in medicine and dentistry. At the University of Melbourne, Davis struck out in a new direction and sought to promote diversity within the sector by promoting large and liberal undergraduate degrees and a shift from undergraduate to postgraduate enrolment in courses such as Engineering, Law and Medicine. For the future of the post-secondary education sector, Davis would like more innovation, specialisation, and diversification, including teaching-only universities and small, niche universities.

Davis knows that reform is not easy, swift, or irreversible. He also expects stiff opposition to the four points for university reinvention and rejuvenation outlined in this book. Opposition may come from governments, members of the public, and from within universities themselves. As Davis comments about a well-known predecessor as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, “Sir John Monash declared he found it easier to organise an army on the Western Front than to run a university” (p.42).

The Winter Sun

November 29, 2017

Bandi (Deborah Smith trans.), The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

BandiWhen my daughter was two years old, she enjoyed going to the public library with me and playing on the ‘poota’. She would help type out the author’s name, or the title of the book, but once we had finished searching, she would want to stay on the computer and type some more. This routine could take some time. But one day Santa Claus came through the library’s front door with his big white beard, his big black boots, his big red belly, and his big white sack over his left shoulder. My daughter looked up from the keyboard, saw Santa, screamed, jumped off the computer stool, clambered up my body like a monkey up a pole, buried her head in my chest and shouted “We go home!”

Now imagine that this takes place in North Korea. And instead of Santa Claus, your two-year-old child is surprised and horrified by a giant portrait of another bearded man: Karl Marx. Your child screams and cries. He cannot be consoled. He is terrified. He is afraid of the Eobi, a “fearsome creature who stuffs disobedient children into his sack and tosses them down a well” (p.36). This Eobi is ever-present. His portrait stares down on the ordered ranks of Pyongyang citizens massed to celebrate in Kim Il-sung Square: “One by one, columns began to form in the square, neatly divided like blocks of tofu” (p.55).

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Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Australian-Foreign-Affairs-Oct-2017Launched in October 2017, Australian Foreign Affairs is a new journal that “seeks to explore – and encourage – debate on Australia’s place in the world and global outlook.” The inaugural issue, The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, achieves this aim and sets a solid foundation for future discussions and debates. The Big Picture includes essays from leading academics Allan Gyngell, Linda Jakobson, James Curran and John Delury; an article on the changing face of Australia by one of our most thoughtful journalists and political authors, George Megalogenis; and an interview of strong opinion, clear analysis and memorable one-liners with former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Towards an Independent Foreign Policy may seem a slightly misleading sub-title, since contributors argue that Australia should retain formal military alliance relations with the USA while being less willing to automatically “tag along” with our big and powerful ally. This is what Paul Keating meant when he said that Australia should “cut the tag” with the United States. (He is not as radical in his critique of Australia/US relations as former PM Malcolm Fraser became in his final years.) Canada and New Zealand provide models for this alliance without obeisance. These two nations, unlike Australia under Prime Minister John Howard, did not follow the USA into the Iraq wars. Fortunately, Australia, like other US allies in the South-East Asian region today, has so far resisted US encouragement to “send a message to China” by sailing warships through the South China Sea. Australian Foreign Affairs emphasises that Australia needs to take responsibility for our own actions. In Allan Gyngell’s words: “It’s not independence that Australian foreign policy needs, but substance, subtlety and creativity.”

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Written by Jennifer Mitchell

Click here to listen to Jennifer’s interview with Rjurik, touching on destabilising genre in the publishing industry, writing across the borders of literature and fantasy, and how reading about fantasy worlds can lead us back into our own world with new and important questions.

jenScience-fiction fantasy (SFF) isn’t a genre I am really familiar with – if I was this would be a very different review. For it to have legitimacy among experienced readers of new-weird fiction I would really need to be well-versed in the field, intimate with the seminal works and the weighty lexicons and tropes of its mistresses and masters. But I am not, alas. So this is a mainstream review of another kind, inspired by and grounded in reading and being sensually immersed in the pleasures of the text.

And what dark addictive pleasures there are in both these novels for those who like their reading to be engaging and entertaining, but also mentally stimulating. Unwrapped Sky is a writerly text[1] in that it requires active reading, and there is a lot in both these novels to get your head around, but the work does pay off for readers who willingly open their senses to the new, but also uncannily familiar worlds and characters found laid out here with sophisticated depth and some stunningly beautiful language. After the first half of Unwrapped Sky, however, what could be seen as hard work transformed, for me, into sustained enjoyment.

Unwrapped Sky opens with a sublime sensual experience – the descent into, and passing through the coastal city of Caeli-Amur of over three hundred minotaurs – arrived for a festival in their honour. As they spread out into the city streets and we follow behind their huge shaggy heads and ridged horns, we meet the city’s inhabitants of various castes in their seedy haunts, including the key protagonist, Kata, a young philosopher-assassin who is compelled by her powerful instinct to survive to act in ways that betray her humanity. In Kata we meet a character whose moral and personal crisis mirrors the restlessly moving layers of political ideals and plots, planes of perception and existence, states of life or death, of gaining and losing power that structure this at once modern and ancient metropolis.

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Written by Mike Heald

‘I believe that humans should be plants’ – Yi Sang


By coincidence, I was deeply immersed in the philosopher Michael Marder’s project of ‘dismantling our deeply rooted [pun noted] metaphysical legacy’ with regard to plant life, as David Wood (puns coming thick and fast) puts it in his back cover endorsement of Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life [1], when I heard about this novel The Vegetarian, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Marder’s overall contention is that our metaphysics has left us with ways of regarding plants which are radically reductive, invalidly and potentially disastrously excluding them from such vital categories as ‘life’ and ‘intelligence’. A novel, therefore, in which a woman experiences the need to become a tree was always going to get my attention.

In the novel, the main character, Yeong-hye, experiences the sudden onset of a revulsion towards eating meat, brought on by dreams, and then tries to live out a compulsion to become a tree, or as Marder might put it, to attain an ontophytological state. The beginning of Yeong-hye’s first dream is as follows:

Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin. (12)

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Written by Susan Karpasitis

Psychopathy in literature is by no means a modern phenomenon. We only have to glance across a bookshelf of ‘classic’ works to be confronted by Shakespeare’s Richard III, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin and Stevenson’s’ Hyde, and their glorified psychopathic personalities. However, what has changed in post millennial literature and contemporary psychiatry is the way we categorise and empathise with these characters. Writers in the field of the medical humanities posit that perhaps we have been misguided in our approach; that perhaps these characters and the many more besides, are actually suffering from a personality disorder known as Anti-Social Personality Disorder (APD).


Photo courtesy of David Pacey. June 15th 2013.

The classification of personality disorders in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV), the American Psychiatric Association’s “bible” of mental disorders, would seem to support this. So should we in fact be viewing characters as sufferers rather than perpetrators? Should we be seeking to review how we think about anti-social personalities in Literature? The answer from literary trauma theorists seems to be a resounding yes. Psychopathy and sociopathy (another confusing and largely outdated term) are not necessarily the same diagnosis as APD. The APD guidelines are much broader than those for Psychopathic Personality Disorder. Therefore, whilst those that we may label psychopaths may fit into the diagnostic criteria for APD, not all of those with APD are necessarily psychopaths. In fact, Kiel and Buckholtz in their 2010 paper suggest that as few as one in five sufferers of APD would meet the criteria for psychopathy (1).

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Written by Cara Burgio


X-ray of bound feet, China. (Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

“Foot and shoe fetishism is widely believed to be the commonest type of fetishism existing today” claims sexologist Paul Gebhard in his article ‘Fetishism and Sadomasochism’ [Sex Research: Studies from the Kinsey Institute]. Despite being the most common sexual fetish of the body podophilia is still met with revulsion and unease by most. The history of the foot fetish can be traced back to 9th century China and the practice of chánzú, more commonly known as foot-binding. Considered a form of female oppression by Western cultures, the Chinese believed this ‘mutilation’ to be a source of rectitude and held those women with bound feet in the highest esteem. The narrowing of the feet through the process of pressing the four little toes under the ball of the foot and moving the heel forward, breaking bones so that the arch formed a high curve and created a deep cleft in the sole of the foot, gave the effect of a high-heeled shoe. Their tiny feet were a sign of beauty and femininity, reflected in the small delicate (and crippling) movements with which these women would walk. The erotic ideal was termed the “Golden Lotus”, a mere size of 3 inches.

Whilst aspects of the Cinderella narrative can be traced back to Ancient Greece, the closest version of the story has been attributed to the Chinese tale of Ye Xian (c. 890AD) where a young woman loses her golden slipper during a New Years festival. The slipper is then found by the King, who is so roused by the contours of the especially tiny slipper that he falls in love (with it) and claims he will marry its wearer. The story places great emphasis on the size of the foot, the implication being that Ye Xian has been through the process of foot-binding to an extent that her foot is extraordinarily small. The small gold shoe itself is enough to create desire in the heart of the King, and he is so overcome by his instinct that he proclaims he will marry the woman to whom the shoe belongs before he has ever met her. It is transparent that the source of his passion is a libidinal fascination with feet.

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Sheng, K 2014 (Shelly Bryant trans.), Death Fugue, Sydney, Giramondo.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Sheng Keyi has written (and Shelly Bryant has translated into lively English) an excellent novel about young migrant workers in China. Northern Girls is realistic, humorous, and convincing in its portrayal of young women who leave their villages to seek a new life. Xiaohong and Sijiang are nuanced characters shaped by naivety, and cunning who face exploitation but also take risks in search of rewards. Knocked down many times, and only occasionally helped up, their aim is to “make it” in a country that, over the past twenty-five years, has been on the most spectacular “make” the world has ever seen. Anyone interested in the transformation of China from an overwhelmingly rural society to a global powerhouse, and the young workers who feed the literal and figurative furnaces of that powerhouse, should be interested in the lives of the Northern Girls.

Impressed by Northern Girls, I was greatly looking forward to Death Fugue, the latest fictional collaboration between Sheng Keyi and Shelly Bryant. This anticipation was heightened by the fact that Sheng Keyi had chosen to write, allegorically, about the Chinese Protest Movement of 1989 and its violent suppression. I lived in China during that time. What is euphemistically called “The Tiananmen Massacre” is a defining moment in my life, and something I believe deserves deeper exploration through fiction. This is exceedingly difficult for a Chinese author still living in China to do. Sheng Keyi, a native of Hunan who now resides in Beijing, is bold and admirable for tackling this important topic. Death Fugue also appeared around the time of the “Occupy Central” demonstrations in Hong Kong, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” against China’s denial of full democratic reform for the citizens of this former British colony (people who never enjoyed full democratic freedoms under the British). Unsurprisingly, Death Fugue is officially unpublished in China and it has not been released through Sheng Keyi’s previous English-language publisher, Penguin. Instead, a small Australian publishing house, Giramondo, has taken up her novel. While it is always good to stick up for the little guy having a go, Death Fugue unfortunately cannot be recommended as highly as Northern Girls.

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Williams, R L 2013 A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tamesis, Woolbridge.

Reviewed By Colm McNaughton ©2015

This companion, authored by US academic Raymond Leslie Williams, is an attempt to introduce the reader who is assumed to have no prior knowledge, to the complex and mercurial Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Explaining Garcia Marquez to the uninitiated is no easy task because he and his literary works sit at the very juncture of history, memory and imagination in the Latin American reality. Thus, to contextualize Garcia Marquez you are necessarily encountering the very processes Latin Americans have at their disposal to reflect on where they come from and where they might be headed.  Of course there are numerous critics, especially those north of the Rio Grande who will disagree with this assumption; but this is the very battleground which Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano so eloquently referred to as La Memoria del Fuego/ the Memory of Fire.

In placing Garcia Marquez both as an author and as a person into the maelstrom that is the unfolding of Latin American history, what I am proposing is that his works can best be understood and appreciated as a creative response to the historical/ political/ economic contexts in which he found himself and his fellows at a certain time and place. To do otherwise is to consciously (or even perhaps unconsciously) decontextualize and depoliticize both him and his works, and as a consequence you may be contributing to ongoing forms of imperial/ state violence against the Latin American body. This I will suggest is precisely the fundamental weakness of this volume. This text essentially approaches Garcia Marquez through a narrowly compartmentalised and siloed off discipline of literature, and as a consequence what we are encountering is but a distorted caricature of the Colombian author. Omitted from this perspective is any sense of the revolutionary seer, who throughout his working life develops an arsenal of metaphors, incantations and stories to confront and attack the reach and power of imperial imagination. Garcia Marquez’s frontal assault on the pernicious master’s imagination is akin to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which not only overthrew Batista, the US backed dictator, but also left a significant dint in the their beloved Monroe doctrine. Sadly, the Garcia Marquez we encounter in these pages is but an apparition of his marvellously real self.

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