Tag Archives: autobiography

Too Many Homes of Eileen Skuse: an autobiography. Book Review.

Eileen Skuse has lived in 53 homes … and counting (it was 53 at time of publication but I think that number is still increasing) so it is fitting that she has titled her autobiography Too Many Homes of Eileen Skuse. Having now read the self-published book, I think she could equally have called it too many jobs or too many courses. Eileen is obviously not one to sit complacently upon her laurels.

Let me tell you something about this feisty eighty-four-year-old first and why I have her book for review. Eileen was one of the original members of the Stanthorpe Writers Group which had its first meeting in 2012. I warmed to her straight away, as did many of the other writers in the group.  We soon found ourselves presented with beautiful name tags to wear at our meetings and she always brought along something interesting to share with us. Her sense of humour was immediately evident, as was her desire to help and her ‘can do’ attitude.  She has a non-conformity about her, a quirkiness. These are the things, together with her age and her knowledge, that shine through in her autobiography.

A tomboy who preferred her ‘train set and wooden building bricks’ (29) to dolls, the author was fascinated by numbers and maps from an early age. As an adult, she was not shy about sex and took lovers when it suited. Dating agencies, nudism and swinging were explored and are mentioned in the book.  Eileen didn’t seem overly phased by her husband’s sudden urge to visit a prostitute.  Of all the jobs that she has held throughout her life, the enduring image for me will probably be her as a ‘sworn in, kitted out’ member of the Women’s Royal Air Force. Somehow that seems a good fit.

Somewhat of a hoarder and, by her own admission, a lousy housekeeper, Eileen has instead spent her life learning and travelling and doing interesting things. Never afraid to get in and give things a go, she’s successfully installed ceiling insulation, driven taxis and travelled alone extensively. She has undertaken a multitude of courses, including SCUBA lessons, library organisation, compost-making, defensive driving instruction (to name just a few). She’s attended a Nanny school, private music lessons and a weekend Reiki workshop. And that’s just a tiny sample. I was exhausted simply reading about it all.

A good editor would have eliminated the overuse of exclamation marks and the unnecessary use of ‘apparently’ and ‘I believe’. An editor may also have cautioned against the inclusion of the prologue ‘1851-1930’. There are some fascinating historical facts in this section but they don’t often serve the purpose of complimenting the autobiography. Those few snippets that are particularly relevant to the author’s life could have been incorporated into the later text (in the same way that she has done with other historical fact in a more entertaining and readable fashion).

Once we move into Part 1 which covers from 1930 (the year of the Eileen’s birth) until 1978, the author hits her straps. She tells us her birth was ‘less than four months after the Planet Pluto was discovered photographically and two months after the poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence died’ (3), giving the reader a clear picture of her milieu.

It was certainly no picnic being a child of the 30s and 40s growing up in London. She writes of sheets cut in half and the sides sewn to form the middle (unheard of in today’s throw-away society). She vividly recalls the war-time days and nights of air raids, bombings, damage and relocations. We read about days spent grinding through the traditional spring clean (something my mother used to do here in Australia). She tells us of the tedious task of rehanging cleaned curtains and ruffles, leading to her later avoidance of pelmets in any of her homes. ‘Also,’ she writes ‘I don’t spring clean – I move!’ (14).

The author doesn’t sentimentalise or overstate her obvious loneliness (or should I say alone-ness) but it saddened me to read that her parents always referred to her as ‘The Kid’. Occasionally she ruminates on her lot in life and her place in the world: … ‘I’ve always seen myself as the child on the outside trying desperately to get into the group’ (27). So many activities were undertaken alone: swimming, ice-skating, jumping onto buses and planes and trains and, of course, moving house.

If you read Eileen’s autobiography, I am sure you will come to the conclusion that she would be a handy woman to have around. If you were lost, she’d no doubt pull a map from her back pocket and guide you on your way. Or she’d calculate distances and directions by examining the night-sky. She’d roll up her sleeves and pull you out of quicksand or toss off her clothes and dive into the freezing ocean to save you. If your pilot lost consciousness, she could safely land the plane.  I imagine she could quote Shakespeare to soothe your broken heart or sit by your bedside reading the classics in her strong confident voice. One thing is for sure, she won’t be the one sitting quietly in a corner doing nothing.  Having met her, I can attest to those values she has, that idea that one just gets in and does.

The author uses the last few pages to share some advice, conundrums and ‘random thoughts’ such as ‘One advantage of constantly moving – nobody knows how old my clothes are!’(506). She also shares some regrets – just six of them – and, although it might be too late to learn to ride a skateboard (although never say never), there’s still plenty of time for her to find that perfect ballroom dancing partner.  Last time Eileen moved it was to Warwick in Queensland. If you know of a good ballroom dancer out that way, be sure to tell them to look up Eileen Skuse. I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.

To purchase Too Many Homes, contact the author:
eileenida@bigpond.com
T: (07) 4661 1705.

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Raising My Voice by Malalai Joya: Book Review

Normally I like to review fiction; short stories and novels, with a predilection for anything Australian. So it is an extreme departure for me to feel impelled to review Raising my Voice by Malalai Joya (co-written by Derrick O’Keefe*).  Subtitled, the extraordinary story of the Afghan woman who dares to speak out, it is a book not easily forgotten once read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Afghanistan but, more particularly, those who seek answers about Australia’s military involvement in the country.

In the introduction, Joya (a pseudonym adopted to protect her family) writes that most Afghans her age and younger “have known only bloodshed, displacement and occupation”, a situation that doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon given the current “foreign occupation and an American-backed government filled with warlords who are just like the Taliban” (1).

Born in Afghanistan, Joya’s family fled to Iran when she was four, then moved to Pakistan when the dangers, deprivations and lack of education in the refugee camps became too much to tolerate.  After almost sixteen years in exile, the family returned home to Afghanistan so that Joya could set up classes for girls in defiance of the Taliban.

Joya gives us snippets of life as a woman in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.  For example, women were permitted to eat ice cream but, unlike the men, they were rarely supplied with seating and had to learn how to hold up the material of their burqa enough to eat it. The Taliban forbade any sort of formal education for women and girls. Lashings, beheadings, hangings: the tactics of the Taliban have been well-documented elsewhere but those of us unaware of Afghanistan’s history may be ignorant of the atrocities perpetuated by the warlords; apparently equally abhorrent. So when the US-led forces allow – and in many cases, even facilitate – these same warlords to enter back into the power rooms, the people of Afghanistan are no closer to democracy and the women and girls no safer than they were under the Taliban. 

When the Taliban first swept into power, many Afghans welcomed them because it meant an end to the killings (80,000 deaths in Kabul alone during the civil war of 1992 to 1996).  According to Joya, the United States played a pivotal role “in nourishing a violent, fundamentalist mentality in generations of young Afghans” (218) which started in the 1980s with the publication of books through the University of Nebraska that were filled with talk of jihad and warlike images.  The books were shipped into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to fuel a jihad against the Russians but remained in the system long after.  

Today, women remain caged and without access to justice.  Most of the time, women are still prevented from appearing in public uncovered and  require a male relative as a chaperone.  Rape goes unpunished.  Joya says that, “in Afghanistan, killing a woman is like killing a bird” (3).

According to Joya, many of those in power in Afghanistan today should more rightly be tried for war crimes.  She was “shocked and appalled” to see such warlords and other war criminals seated in the first row at the Loya Jirga (official traditional gathering) in Kabul: fascists; fundamentalists with bloody pasts; a sponsor of Osama bin Laden and trainer and mentor of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the alleged mastermind of the World Trade Centre attacks); Jamiat-e-Islami fundamentalists who had issued rules for women that were as bad as the Taliban’s; men known for their ruthlessness; former Soviet puppets and civil war criminals.  Here they all were, after having bribed and muscled their way back into positions of power.  A lesser woman would have been left speechless.  But not Joya.

The voices of the countless widows who had told me of their suffering rang in my ears as I looked around the room.  It was terrible enough to hear about these men and their crimes, but seeing them in person running this Loya Jirga and listening to their speeches was like torture for me.  I had to speak out. (81)

And speak out she did and, despite concerted and continued efforts to silence her, she continues to do so.

I have often heard the argument that Afghan women themselves insist on backing the outrageous laws of the Taliban and the warlords and vilifying their sisters who take a stand against them.  Joya gives credible explanations for this phenomenon, not least of which is the fear that churns within the women (not only for themselves, but also for their children), keeping them in check and ensuring that they tow the party lines. One woman who harangues Joya after her speech at the Loya Jirga, later begged Joya’s forgiveness.  “I had to threaten you with death and attack you.  I was forced to,” the woman told her. 

Joya herself seems to be fearless.  When Lawyer and activist Kellie Tranter interviewed her in Hobart last year for the ABC, Joya confirmed that she doesn’t think about death, concentrating instead on the hopes she has for her country.

The voice she raises is not just the voice of a woman: it is a human voice, working tirelessly for the likes of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, sentenced to twenty years in prison after his death sentence was commuted.  His crime?  ‘Blasphemy’: he allegedly downloaded and circulated an article critical of women’s rights in Islamic societies.  After enormous public pressure, the Afghan student was pardoned 20 months later.

In a book laden with difficult truths and traumatic word images, I did find something to laugh about. Of all the movies that might have flourished on the black market in Afghanistan , I was surprised and amused to read that it was James Cameron’s Titanic that was the most popular.  Children and young adults would organise secret ‘Titanic´ parties.  Market items were named after the movie: Titanic clothes and shampoo, Titanic tomatoes and onions.  Joya found the naming of vegetables after a Hollywood movie especially funny.  So did I.

Afghanistan’s history is bloody and complicated but Joya’s message is simple really; summed up by “no nation can donate liberation to another nation”.  History, Joya tells us, shows that democracy is not something that can be imposed by foreign troops.  She believes that the democratically minded people who have been struggling for human and women’s rights in the country for decades, must be left to continue the fight themselves.  Tough call, but that is the reality, according to Joya.

Pulling no punches, she writes that the truth about Afghanistan and its history has been “hidden behind a smokescreen of words and images carefully crafted by the United States and its NATO allies and repeated without question by the Western media”. (2)  But she goes further than that:

The people of Afghanistan can see very clearly that the warlords are supported and protected by the United States and other foreign troops.  They could not continue their fascist agenda for even one day without the backing of the United States and NATO. (246)

Jonathan Steel is critical of Joya’s “frequent lapses into self-righteousness” and the singularity of her voice (rather than its connection to a movement) in his 2009 review for The Guardian and Jennifer Moreau reminds the reader in ‘Lifting the Veil’ that BBC polling indicates a majority of Afghans support the presence of US forcesI am not able to comment knowledgeably on the politics of Afghanistan but Malalai Joya certainly seems like a voice worth listening to.

If you want to know more about this incredibly brave woman, there is a wealth of information available at The Defense Committee for Malalai Joya site .

Raising My Voice was published in the US and Canada as A Woman Among Warlords.

* Derrick O’Keefe is the co-writer of Raising my Voice , yet I was surprised that his name does not appear on the cover (he is credited as co-author in Joya’s acknowledgements).  On Canada’s ‘Rabble’ blog , an excerpt is headed  “‘A Woman Among Warlords: the Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice’ by Malalai Joya and Derrick O’Keefe”, but features the book cover with Joya’s name only.

 BOOK DETAIL:
Joya, Malalai. Raising my Voice, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 2009.
ISBN 978 1 4050 3913 0

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When is an Autobiography a Memoir?

A weekly series of riffs in 200 words

I’ve read a heap of biographies: the subjects as diverse as Aristotle Onassis, John Lennon and the delightful ‘Dame Edna Everage’ (does ‘she’ count?), as well as a good pile of autobiographies and memoirs.
Whilst a biography is what it is, I sometimes find it hard to differentiate between autobiography and memoir.  
A memoir is like a vignette plucked from the fullness of a life, or even a series of vignettes (Angela’s Ashes is a well-known memoir but I would cite Kay Summersby Morgan’s Past Forgetting as an equally good [completely different] example).  Conversely, an autobiography is generally a sketch of a whole life up to the time of writing (such as Christiaan Barnard’s One Life).
Some people believe autobiographies to be scholarly whereas a memoir might be considered more entertaining.
But why?
Well, the short answer is, I think, Voice (yes, with a capital V).  One of my friends – a wonderful writer herself – suggests humour and insight as two qualities that make a good Memoir and I believe these traits best show themselves through the author’s Voice.
Here’s a conundrum then.  The ‘autobiography of…the thirty-seventh president of the United States’ is titled The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.
Go figure.

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…yclept means ‘having the name of’.

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The Passion of Larry King

A Weekly Series of Riffs in 200 Words

I’m currently reading Larry King’s autobiography My Remarkable Journey and his passion and daring as a young man strike me as extraordinary.

All Larry ever wanted to do was to be on radio and watch baseball.  In his passion for baseball, he’d round up his friends so early in the morning that they’d be heckling the officials to open the gates long before the game started. 

And in his passion for radio he listened to it, practiced it and made his own luck by making himself the best choice available at any given time.

Larry’s passion inevitably morphed into television and braces (after a gambling detour courtesy of early successes and a truck-load of money) and there’s nothing lily-livered in his dedication to either.

I was passionate as a young person too.  Fairly bursting with it.  But I was passionate about too many things: boys, fashion, movies, popular music, shoes, parties, champagne…and the list goes on.

It seems only in the last decade or so that I have honed my skills enough to concentrate on the thing I truly love and my writing is all the better for it.

That’s why I often refer to myself as a late bloomer.

THE ANSWER TO FRIDAY’S FICTIONARY DICTIONARY… Sciamachy is a fight with an imaginary enemy.

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