‘The Build Up’ by Phillip Gwynne

I The Build Up by Phillip Gwynneloved Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya, so when I came across a remaindered copy of The Build Up I was delighted. I was looking forward to some of the insight and feeling that I’d loved about Gwynne’s writing. But the more I read into The Build Up, the more annoyed and bored I felt.

The story focuses on, as the blurb has it, ‘a female cop in the very male world of the Northern Territory Police Force’, and a lot of the early parts of the book really feel like yet another male writer trying to guesstimate what being an edgy hard woman is like. We hear a lot about how much Dusty hates her period, hates so many stereotypical female things, and discover that pap smears are horrible icky uncomfortable things. Not unusual, but feeling perfectly comfortable during one is also quite usual; hating pap smears is a pretty common stereotype of women written by men in my experience.

Then we are treated to some odd female politics at work. There’s some very creepy misogyny that gets passed off as normalcy, and this is weird twice over, because the protagonist is a woman and the main villains of the book appear to be men who commit sex crimes. I really don’t understand why Gwynne felt the need to keep emphasising MALE and FEMALE, STRONG MASCULINE FEMALE and WEAK BITCHY FEMALE.

The book seemed to be using a mystery involving sex crimes in the setting of the NT just so it could spam us with gritty sexism, rape, racist slurs, and Gwynne’s attempts perhaps to understand what goes on in the heads of us womb-bearing folk.

When Dusty picks up a cute foreigner, their bird-watching playdate turns into a crime scene. When he turns out to be in her line of work, but leaving the country, and married to a woman who wants children, and the plot seems to be hinting he’s Dusty’s One Twoo Wove, I closed the book and counted to ten so that I could calm down. This book probably wasn’t written with me in mind as its audience. Maybe it’s more accessible to people who haven’t actually ever had pap-smears (even my friends who find them excruciatingly painful don’t talk about them with the fear that Dusty does). I was defeated by it; I could not keep reading, even though some of it had made me smile and care about the characters.

Reading The Build Up, with all its slutty bitchy gook[sic] sex crime victims, I began worrying that Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya are just as unreadable to the Indigenous communities they portray. I began hoping that my concepts of Indigenous Australians weren’t influenced by any bias or stereotyping from those books. It is a dilemma in our media, with a lot of Indigenous culture and stories still filtered through privileged white eyes and ears into the mainstream, that makes me want to pull my hair out some days.

Here’s some positive reviews of The Build Up to balance out my reactions:

Tracey at My Four Bucks liked the portrayal of Darwin and its weather

Maxine at Petrona enjoyed the “grown up” humour

Shellyrae at Book’d Out likes the brutality, vibrancy and isolation of the Top End

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‘Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes’ by Melissa Katsoulis

This is a great book in many ways.  It’s easy to read in small chunks, its table of contents is useful and provides a good idea of what you will encounter in each chapter.  It addresses the reactions of diverse minority groups when their cultural identities were appropriated as part of hoaxes.  It has a great cover, though arguably a real hoax cover would not be so sloppy or honest about its derivative nature.  But!  I could not finish reading it, for reasons I will explain in a little bit.

Melissa Katsoulis is perhaps the opposite of me.  A legitimate literary journalist, an officially married person, someone who has a job and an income.  Perhaps that’s part of why I find it hard at times to resonate with this book.  I’m a reader and dabbler in fiction, and I’ve focused more on academic analysis of things in my education than in journalism.  She’s come into this book as a journalist and writer from a very different culture and perspective.  There was bound to be some dissonance between her words and the way my brain reads them.

‘… it does suggest that the Antipodean creative scene allows things to happen that other countries might not.  One important reason is that racism and far-right politics is less taboo there than it is in other parts of the English-speaking world…’ (p.11)

While I’d be the first to bemoan some of the xenophobic attitudes some Australians hold, I can’t help but feel that this section in the introduction is odd.  Why single out Australia, when there have been throughout history equally xenophobic and racist views in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America (and literary hoaxes with racist and political motives are cited from these places within Telling Tales)?  Racism and race tensions are just as bad in London and Los Angeles as they are in Sydney!  She comments one hundred pages later that all the Australian hoaxes she mentions involve race somehow, though by ‘race’ she means ‘non-white’, and in at least one of the instances mentioned involve a Jordanian-born woman writing a hoax involving Jordanian women’s stories.  Katsoulis can’t have missed the logical gap between ‘all Australian hoaxes in my book involve non-whites’ and ‘most racist hoaxes are Australian’, yet she makes precisely that statement several times.  Maybe this is my academic background speaking, but I would have issues using deliberately misleading language like that.  The statements themselves come across as racist without context at times, and I can imagine a lot of readers being put off before they get to the relevant sections.

Perhaps this is simply my personal experiences here, but in the last couple of years I’ve heard from a few friends undertaking postgraduate studies in the US and UK who’ve encountered (especially in England) people that see Australia as some sort of cultural backwater full of cockneys, rednecks and the cast of Neighbours.  There’s more strange and old-school Colonialist perspectives still around out there than I had believed possible.  I can’t help but feel that Katsoulis wrote those words not from any actual investigation into Australian attitudes towards racism, but from preconceptions she’s inherited from her own culture and media soundbytes.  I hate to tell you, Melissa, but Australian racism is an imported chain franchise; we’ve got all kinds of racial tensions and racist attitudes, but the majority of our cultural heritage comes from good old Mother England.

Though I really enjoyed reading about the hoaxes, a lot of them were not new to me, and I felt often the style of writing was very journalistic; more about the scandal and punchlines and spin than the facts of interest. Perhaps I’m still sore that Australia seems singled out as racist amongst all the other global racist, sexist and bigoted examples in the book.   Still, it’s certainly worth reading, and is a good quick background in historical literary incidences of cultural appropriation.  I would recommend, if you want to write on the topic of any of these hoaxes, that you conduct your own research rather than relying on this alone.

In the end, I had no luck searching for other blogger reviews.  I shall try again later, because I want to know how other readers received it.  For the moment, there is a convenient collection of newspaper reviews on Katsoulis’ website for the curious.