Review of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms



Anita Heiss’s latest novel opens with a man running from a prison: the Japanese internment camp of Cowra in 1944. Hiroshi finds safety with an Aboriginal family, who hide and care for him. Gradually, a romance develops between Hiroshi and Mary Williams, the young Aboriginal woman who takes him food.

Heiss writes what she calls ‘choc-lit’ – or chick lit with an Aboriginal focus – but you would foolish to dismiss this as fluff. Her work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is always firmly focused on educating audiences about Aboriginal culture and the ongoing effects of colonialism and racism. She’s a smart woman: popular fiction is one of the most widely read genres, and by inserting her themes into her popular novels she aims to inform a wide range of readers.

This is a difficult road to take, as readers of this genre pick up books expecting to be entertained. If there’s a whiff of anything otherwise, they don’t care for it. I don’t think that will be a problem for readers of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, for in this work Heiss blends popular fiction and politics beautifully. 

There are two main techniques she uses to achieve this. The first is Hiroshi’s point of view. By using a character who knows nothing of Aboriginal culture, who is initially ‘suspicious as to why these dark people are helping him and where they actually come from’ but who grows to love them deeply, Heiss articulates how race is a construct and that hunger, kindness, fear, homesickness and desire are qualities that belong to us all.

The second technique is the use of metaphor, specifically that of imprisonment. The prison from which Hiroshi escapes represents not only the physical camp for internees, but also the camps on which Aboriginal people were forced to live – the mission stations and reserves – when their land was taken from them. As Banjo, Mary’s father, says, ‘We are treated like prisoners too, at Erambie. We shouldn’t be on rations. We should all be paid the same for the same work and have enough money to buy food for our families – not just flour, tea and sugar rations and whatever we can hunt or manage to grow. It’s not fair for anyone. The prisoners of war are just like us’.

Heiss also addresses contemporary concerns, such as negative representations of Aboriginal people in the media. Merv, a singer and football player, makes a name for himself in Sydney and is written up in the paper. Mary, who reads the article about him out to the family, comments ‘At least this is a positive article about Aboriginal people. You’re always saying what they write about us is bad, Mum.’ And in Mary’s family itself there is much to be proud of. The Williams take in a stranger and scrimp to find food for him, as many Aboriginal people did for Europeans they were shipwrecked on Australia’s coasts. They take an interest in Hiroshi and his culture, as Noongars did in whalers and the first colonists when they arrived in south west Western Australia (Kim Scott writes about this beautifully in That Deadman Dance). At the same time they aren’t saints, for no one is. Through Kevin, who is jealous and has a temper, Heiss shows that every family has its arguments, and that different viewpoints need to be aired before one can arrive at a resolution. 

At the heart of the novel is an important emotion: empathy. Romance is definitely important too, not least because it drives the plot, but without empathy, romance can’t happen. Empathy often takes some work – intellectual as well as emotional. As Banjo exhorts his brother Kevin, ‘What if our brother escaped from a POW camp like this bloke? Wouldn’t you want someone to look after him and treat him like a human being?’ And this is what the novel does, as all good literature should do: it takes us out of our everyday lives and into a new world, where we become invested in and learn to care for its people. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who argues for the importance of including emotion in philosophy, writes in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), novels invite us to ‘concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own’ (xvi). And this in turn is a precondition for respect for human dignity (xvi).

So if you’re reading this book by the beach (and I hope you are!), you’ll not only enjoy the plot and characters (perhaps woven with the smell of salt and sunscreen and the sounds of kids yelling), but you’ll also quietly exercise your heart as well.


This is my seventh review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


A Blogging Birthday



Ten years ago, on October 15th 2016, I wrote my first blog post on Blogger. I sat in the kitchen of my housing commission apartment in East London with my flatmate, who’d suggested to me, ‘Perhaps you should think about starting a blog.’


‘If you’re a writer, it’s a good way to express your thoughts and create a presence.’


She showed me how to put together a template, then I had a look at her blog, & poked around on the internet, and slowly, hesitantly, I began to write.

Mostly, it seems, I wrote a litany of complaints about London, where I was constantly unhappy. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t complained so much and that I'd appreciated my time there more – a lecture with Donna Harraway & Rosi Braidotti, after all, is amazing – I use them both in my research now. But there were mitigating circumstances: a broken heart, debilitating homesickness, the constant craving for sunlight.

I wrote lightly about books, and not with the intent that I do now; these were more musings, whereas now I write reviews so that I can contemplate the craft and structure of a work. And for the past five years while I’ve worked with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve reviewed books by Australian women. It’s given me a good feel for the market and for the issues which women writers face, but I’ve been so pressed for time this year I’m not sure if I can commit toreviewing next year. I also want to broaden my consumption; I miss my 19th century literature and I want to read more globally.

I wrote about my travels around Britain with H, and when I returned to Australia I stopped complaining and wrote about the gorgeousness of running and swimming again. I made an effort to learn about and become part of the Brisbane literary community, which was difficult at first, but I got there in the end. Thank god for Avid Reader’s literary salons; that bookshop was my intellectual home for a long time.

These past few years my posts have thinned out, due to my incessant busyness, and have alternated between reviews, politics and descriptions of my trips (which are handy for working out where I was & when!). However, my book on Rosa & Maud Praed is largely done, and now that my weekends and evenings are my own again I’d like to return to my earlier style, with whimsical descriptions of things that I notice, rather than banging on about politics all the time, though that is important too. I also want to review books for pleasure; I have pushed myself with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, & that can make it a chore, at least this year when I've been flattened by work.

When I began blogging, I leapt into an online community, largely care of a friend, Heidi, who now blogs for Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off in England. I found it strange, negotiating the manners of an online world, but it was also lovely to chat to random folk & quietly find out about them. I didn’t sustain it though, & I’ve noticedI’m not very good with commenting in general on other people’s blogs, or even with interacting on Twitter; I remain insular in that regard. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore; I love writing for the heck of it, & am not particularly interested in using my blog for any other reason. It’s mostly a place of brain dumps.

I began with a red room & finish with a red building: the exterior of the Powerhouse, lit up by red lights on the night I gave a reading from my story published in the sport edition of Griffith Review. It’s a nice way of showing continuity: I remained captivated by ideas & am drawn to the institutions that deliver them, even as I remain ambivalent about that. And of course, there’s writing itself – still so hard but so satisfying, even despite poor pecuniary returns & the government’s abhorrence of the literary arts. With a pen, a pad of blank paper, a café with good coffee on the corner and the jacarandas blazing along the river, the next ten years promise much.