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of shawls and words

While Riverton Press has its origins along the Murrumbidgee River, it has strong links to Mexico and the Spanish language. I’ve been thinking recently about the Mexican shawl known as the rebozo and simultaneously heard comments about la mexicanidad, the essence of being Mexican. I have always seen a similarity between weaving and writing, and Riverton Press accepts that this post is relevant to the business of words, as in spinning a yarn.

The rebozo is finely woven cotton and/or silk, in varieties of black and white / grey and white / grey and silver, it belongs to the rural working woman, la campesina. The soldaderas wore it when they rode the trains and tramped miles with guns and kettles for the Revolution in the early 20th century. You could say the rebozo has marched for Mexico.  Women carry babies in those shawls, at front or back, and today you can watch videos on how to use a rebozo during childbirth.  

The shawl is sold in the market place, no-one said you, foreigner, can’t wear this, for Mexico is always generous and a merchant happy to sell. I wear it gladly, though it feels too big, I don’t have broad industrious shoulders and carry no baby there, but fold it around me, wrap myself in Mexico.

Mexicans abroad might say that you don’t have to dress like la china poblana to express your mexicanidad, but I used to wear my rebozo like that, a statement of my acquired-something-Mexican, and my shawl seemed stiff and new for a long time.

Just so you know, la china poblana wears a white blouse, a full coloured skirt and a woven silk shawl, with beads, embroidery, floral motifs, often with colours of the Mexican flag (green, red and white) and indeed the very flag might be embroidered there sometimes.

I think of a certain Señora at the Sunday market who doesn’t pay for a stall but places her avocados and wild mushrooms on a strip of plastic to one side of the square. Her rebozo is a faded old second skin across her back. She lends no thought to any mexicanidad.

Of course the idea of quintessential Mexican-ness is contested. On social media someone recently posted a short video of a young woman singing La Llorona at a taco stall. The workers served the food, the clients ate, no-one seemed to pay her much attention, except for the person behind the camera and those of us caught up in the “video-went-viral” moment.

No sooner had I watched the clip when a comment was posted by a person known to me, praising the singer’s talent and declaring that she and the taco stall were more Mexican than a well-known singer who flaunts una mexicanidad que no tiene (a Mexican-ness that she doesn’t have). I thought that was a bit unfair on the famous singer, who has done a great job expressing things Mexican, including a fantastic version of that same song.

There are words so Mexican I can’t happily translate them into English, as you will have noticed while reading this text. I am never content to translate campesina as peasant, because I see too many socio-economic shades of difference. I see I have not translated la china poblana (the Chinese woman from Puebla) or told you her story. I can translate an expression I just heard on the radio: bigger than Ben Hur, without knowing who or what was Ben Hur and how big he or it was. All this brings us to the question of translatability and the transfer of meaning, which we can leave for another day.

Let me just say, millions of shawls are woven in Mexico and around the world, but when I use the word rebozo, I’m not thinking of all the coloured varieties, only of those in tones described above. And, to me, the rebozo is quintessentially Mexican.

Riverton Press usually takes its images from personal photo collections but our photo of a rebozo was definitely dull compared to the one borrowed from http://cineclubeva.blogspot.com/2015/05/centenariodel-technicolor-en-el.html

It shows an image from the Mexican magazine Revista de Revistas (1910-2005), with Mexican actor Maria Felix in a film called La China Poblana. Apparently all copies of this 1943 movie have been lost.

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free books!

The free street libraries are one of the best things in our cityscape.

There are treasures to be found, books I’ve always wanted to read, authors I’ve heard about, books that look interesting, and all for the taking! Then of course, it’s wonderful to be able to clear out our own bookshelves and give old books a new life by “returning” books to a library.

I’m in the business of making and therefore selling books, but I am delighted by the proliferation of free books. I have managed to curb my initial enthusiasm of “it’s up for grabs, seize the day” in an effort to prevent stockpiling.

Most street libraries have at least two shelves, some even have compartments and categories, books for children and books for adults. The library called “Free French Books” has at least four well stacked shelves. Book for adults seem to be just that, not as in “adult fiction”, “adult movies”, expressions which seem to mean pornography. When I see libraries labelled with more than three sections, such as fiction, travel, cooking, youth, I think, OMG they’ll be using the Dewy system soon!

I have begun to notice the architecture of street libraries. They imitate other city buildings, and a plain square box, which might be adequate, is rare. Most libraries have arched rooves, and indeed, they have to let the rain fall down and away, just like a house. Some are old and the wood is cracking, the paint is chipped, the doors have fallen off. Some are free standing, others, I suppose you might say, semi-detached. By far the most beautiful local one glitters with its polished wood and even has a miniature staircase, also in wood. Somehow it reminds me of the old wooden houses in Michoacán, Mexico, called trojes. And anything that takes me off today’s suburban street to the beautiful (though troubled) lands of Michoacán is very welcome, so that particular street library has tripled in value.

Riverton Press has not placed any of its publications in these libraries and is still open for business to sell you our books. Plans for new editions are also being slowly cooked.

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a hybrid affair

The launch of Journeys in Canberra on 16 July was a hybrid event – pandemic style – live and via zoom. Not a fortunate coupling without adequate technical support, but “we’re all in this together” and “we are constantly having to adapt”. Those of us on zoom could see the speakers, and hear those with louder voices. At times the camera turned to the audience and from zoom we saw them and heard fragments of their questions / comments.

Photo: Manon Saur, Ruth Adler, Remo Moretta, Caroline Schuster

The Australian Ambassador to Mexico, Remo Moretta, spoke about elements the two countries have in common, one of these being indigenous populations and history. It’s not all about trade and money, he said, we could grow and learn by sharing indigenous experience, past and present.

At least that’s what I think he said, I was a bit distracted because a dear friend and colleague was urging me in the chat room to put my hand up and say something. She tried several times, and finally wrote “think of your mother” (founding force behind Riverton Press). So I did, and I remembered something about her that related to one of the questions, about the book’s cover image. In the end I didn’t get a chance to speak, so I’ll tell you here.

Manon Saur’s painting for the cover has a skeleton in it, why is that? someone asked (I think). Obviously both the question and the skeleton are pointers to speak about the annual major happening in Mexico that is the Day of the Dead. Manon was one of the launch speakers, so she related some of her experiences of el día de los Muertos. Thanks to Penny’s urging, I remembered when my mother Nita visited Mexico and we went to Oaxaca.

We didn’t particularly plan it that way, but it was THAT time of year. Oaxaca was dressed for the occasion and the streets were full of performers dressed as skeletons. I found it a bit mono-thematic, given that Oaxaca is so rich in history, art and social currents. Of course, we visited the archaeological sites of Monte Alban and Mitla, were gold-struck in the church of Santo Domingo, tried the mezcal and ate the mole, but each evening we were pursued by noisy and colourful skeletons. I think Mother was a bit frightened, she had asked if it was safe to go out at night.

At the end of the weekend her comment was, I was chased by death, I was nearly grabbed by death, and when I got back to the hotel, death was waiting for me (in the form of miniature you-know-what on the dresser). I’m still alive, hurrah!

Later when she talked about what she liked of Mexico, she would say that she loved that it was not a materialist society in the way of money-loving, real-estate-hugging Australia. She admired Mexicans for having the spirit to look death in the face, play games about death, and not hide it away. Nita appreciated that in Mexico there was space for magic.

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We launch in Canberra

Journeys: Australian Women in Mexico

Compiled and edited by Ruth Adler, Jacqueline Buswell and Jenny Cooper
(Riverton Press, 2021)

The Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies (ANCLAS) is pleased to invite you to the Canberra launch of Journeys: Australian Women in Mexico. The event will be hosted by Dr Caroline Schuster of ANCLAS and the book launched by Australian Ambassador to Mexico, Mr Remo Moretta. Other speakers include Mr Eduardo Martínez Curiel, Minister/Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Mexico, Dr Ruth Adler and (via Zoom) Ms Pamela Skuse.

Friday 16 July, 2021, 10:00am – 11:00am
Level 1, Lecture Room 2, RSSS Building, 146 Ellery Crescent, ANU

If you are able to attend in person, RSVP Liliana.Oyarzun@anu.edu.au  by Wednesday 14 July.

Copies of the book available for sale. Price: $25 (Cash sales only)

All proceeds go to Misión México, a refuge for children in Chiapas, Mexico, established over 20 years ago by Australians Pamela and Alan Skuse. Their project also includes teaching children to swim and surf, and the photo (taken from Pam’s chapter in the book) shows us that it’s a very good thing.

Join Zoom Meeting if you are unable to participate in person:

https://anu.zoom.us/j/82551310998?pwd=bjdJSE9MSmRVUDdzVXFuVUR5dzBqQT09 
Meeting ID: 825 5131 0998 Password: 12345

Or an H.323/SIP room system:

Dial: +61262227588 (AUCX) or 82551310998@zoom.aarnet.edu.au
Meeting ID: 82551310998      H323/SIP Password: 12345
Join by Skype for Business     https://anu.zoom.us/skype/82551310998

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a story about the brolga

The book sprinting on quicksand includes a poem about the Australian crane known as the brolga. Well, really it’s about the near extermination of the brolga in the Riverina, New South Wales, and it concludes:

until I see the brolga dancing

I swear

I’ll write no poem about the crane

More than one of my critics/readers have contested that last line, they say, “Well, you have” and I say, no, I’ve written about their absence.

Those of you who know Wagga will know the Wollundry lagoon, one of many billabongs along the Murrumbidgee River that rise and fall / fill and empty according to floods and water flows. Mary Gilmore talks about the Eunonyhareenyha waters in her book Old Days, Old Ways (1934). The original Wiradjuri name for the Wollundry lagoon was Walangduray, according to https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/AboriginalPlaces/

Now in Sydney’s inner west, in Covid lockdown, condemned to endlessly walking the local streets, I saw a mural high on a house the other day and had to get closer, muttering, they look like brolga. And so they were, two brolga dancing!

You can listen to the poem here.

brolga dancing

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We support Misión México

Proceeds from sales of journeys go to Misión México, a charity based in Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Founded by Australians Pam and Alan Skuse, it works with and for children of all ages who have been abused, neglected, orphaned or abandoned. It provides food, housing and education for children and also runs a surfing programme for them. And as Pam says, before you teach anyone to surf, you have to teach them how to swim! You can read about Misión México on their website http://lovelifehope.com/

One of the editors of journeys, Jenny Cooper, recently organised a book launch, a live one, in Mexico. We had had a virtual launch in March, but this was our first live presentation, at the bookshop La sombra del sabino in Tepoztlan, Morelos. Bernard Unkles from the Australian Embassy in Mexico commented: The venue and turnout were excellent, people asked interesting questions and all the available hardcopies sold out.

We are planning a launch in Canberra for July, this is being organised by editor Ruth Adler. Details are still being confirmed, so I won’t say anything more now!

And talking of printed copies of the book, we have some available for sale through this website, please contact us if you’re interested.

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talking about art

At an exhibition of work by Australian women artists I recently encountered an old friend from a poem of mine, “Grace’s sister eternally knitting that sock”.

Grace Cossington Smith’s painting of her sister knitting for the World War I war effort is a well-known Australian portrait with its own story. Hanging beside it in the gallery in Canberra was a reworking of that piece by Destiny Deacon, this time showing the artist Fiona Hall knitting one of her own artworks from a reel of video tape. Possibly that film showed footage of war, perhaps not. But the conjunction of the works brings out the connectivity throughout art and between artists, and reminded me of my poem.

The photo is from a mural of portraits at Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, a fabulous show at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra. It’s a poor photo, I apologise to Destiny Deacon, I couldn’t control the light and its reflections in that busy public gallery, but it gives you a chance to see what I’m talking about.

I’d like to share the poem from sprinting on quicksand, and add a few pointers. I think the poem is best understood as four different reflections on art. It arose from a discussion many years ago in a group of Spanish speaking Australians. We used to meet to talk about Spanish language, literature and our own writing… and then we didn’t. In those days pre-Covid, how lightly we took our opportunities to meet or not to meet! Anyway, one day Miguel Cabezas contributed a poem reflecting on subjects being immortalised and/or stuck in painting frames and sculptures. I started thinking about that, and the following poem resulted. You can decide for yourselves about Grace’s sister, but I rather think she’s perpetuating.

art works

 art has captured them in rectangles
 Grace’s sister eternally knitting that sock
 the sons of Clovis always drifting downstream 
 the Pope in the chair, screaming 
 
 graffiti on the overhead bridge 
 the miracle of reaching – 
 when time is of the essence – 
 the forbidden canvas 

 take my rites of spring
 break every rule but one 
 harbingers of any new art form 
 will have mud thrown at them
 
 in the observation or the listening 
 something grows large around 
 steadies within
 at times silent, or stupendous 

by Jacqueline Buswell

Grace Cossington Smith, The Sock Knitter, 1915

Destiny Deacon, Fiona Hall, Artist, 2004

Évariste Vital Luminais, The Sons of Clovis II, 1880

Francis Bacon

Street artists everywhere

Igor Stravinsky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, for example

Joan Sutherland, soprano, known as la Stupenda

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Made in Mexico!

Journeys – Australian Women in Mexico

Compiled & edited by Ruth Adler, Jacqueline Buswell & Jenny Cooper

Our latest release has a Mexican flavour, it is a collection of stories, poems, song lyrics and reflections from Australians in Mexico. The book began as a passing idea in a casual conversation a few years ago and became a reality especially thanks to the constant dedication over all that time by two of its editors, Jenny Cooper and Ruth Adler.

Some of the 13 contributors lived in Mexico for a long time, some still live there, others visited once or several times. They vary in age and in their motives for travelling to Mexico;  their writings span a period of 50 years since the 1970s. One set up a business, another established a refuge and surf project for children in the southern state of Chiapas; another undertook gender transition between her visits and so experienced the country from two different gender perspectives.  Our contributors include academics and poets, a diplomat, a singer, a model, and women who went to Mexico to accompany or meet a partner.

The Australian Embassy in Mexico made a welcome donation for the book design and printing costs. Riverton Press is very happy to say this is our first book made in Mexico! We  warmly thank the contributors and the designer, Ricardo Gallardo Sanchez, of Mutare Editorial & Communications in Mexico City.

The book is printed in Mexico, and the ebooks are available now from your usual ebook retailers or directly from Riverton Press.

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the story of a book cover

Every book cover has a story of course, and I thought I’d share the story behind the jacket of sprinting on quicksand. It was designed by Leonie Lane, who used to work at Tin Sheds and Redback Graphics, and is now based in northern NSW. Many years ago, Leonie visited us in Mexico and one fine day we decided to burn off some dry leaf matter. Well! we nearly set fire to the electricity cables in the alley. After the drama of putting out the fire with near zero water pressure from the well with the failing pump, Leonie did a little painting that I still have, it hangs on my study wall. It’s a portrait of me, with the flames and the hose and the cables above, calling for assistance, Rápido!

While Leonie was working on the cover I made a small thank you note in the style of the Mexican retablos.  A retablo is an expression of folkloric religious art, usually a small painting where someone gives thanks to a saint or divinity for a miracle. For instance, I have a retablo in my kitchen where Evaristo and Antonia give thanks to San Pascual Bailón, St Pascual the dancer, for saving Antonia from burning when her skirt caught fire when she was cooking.

In my retablo, we give thanks to the Virgencita de Guadalupe for the miracle granted when the fire nearly reached the electricity wires. The date is 1987, the book cover was designed in 2020. That’s how long the back story is for sprinting on quicksand, 33 years!

Leonie of course went one better with the cover, the figure is no longer paralysed with fear or calling for help, but sprinting or even dancing. She reminds me a little of the Tarot card The Fool, and I love it.

You can find Leonie’s design company at https://www.booyongdesign.com/

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the book launch

We held a launch of sprinting on quicksand and of Riverton Press in late November. A Covid regulated affair, outdoors, max 30 persons. It was a good day, perfect 24 degrees. Eileen Haley spoke and launched the book, she wore the colours of the poem PINK AND BLUE, but no pink, no blue, she chose the charcoal greys, outback reds and rebellious orange, and looked a treat.

I wore a hat, not a fascinator (next time!), just one I grabbed as I walked out the door, but it made a difference, I was congratulated on the hat, on the establishment of Riverton Press, and for organising the launch. Many were happy to have a wee social event to attend after months of Covid precautionary isolation. And, I hope, they enjoyed the poetry!

Eileen did more research about quicksand and told us more about this element than the author ever imagined. This is typical of the Haley mind, she has a great capacity for investigation and drawing independent conclusions. She told us:

The first question the work posed for me was: Can you really sprint on quicksand? Madame Google and Ms YouTube soon answered that for me: Yes you can. It looks very like somebody walking all over a water bed. The trick is to keep moving. Stand on quicksand and you will sink (though not as rapidly as movies and cartoons suggest). But strike it quickly and it will briefly harden, forming a nearly cylindrical solid region directly below the impact point.

Eileen then used the different regions mentioned in my poetry as those solid cylindrical parts where the poet has struck, so to speak, from the bedrock of Riverton to the heights of Mt Haguro in Japan. And after reading my poem MORNING BLESSING, she concluded:

So I ask you to raise your glasses once again, as we declare SPRINTING ON QUICKSAND launched: may she sprint long and elegantly, and may the Goddess bless her and all who journey with her.