Kate Jennings, Black Inc.

Beware: This book’s a firecracker. It set off sparks in my brain that meant I sometimes couldn’t sleep.

I’d forgotten how daring feminists were in the 1970s. Kate Jennings reminded me.

I wasn’t quite old enough to hear her famous speech to a 1970 Vietnam moratorium rally on the front lawn of Sydney University — but she didn’t mince words (#$@^%!).

Some potential readers will stop right there. Others will find in Jennings a sharpshooter targeting a wide array of topics in order to earn a living by her pen.

For example:

• As an Australian who has lived in New York for three decades, she casts her gimlet eyes over the lead up to and historic election of Barack Obama.

• Having worked on Wall Street as a speechwriter, she gets neatly stuck into some of the financiers and dangerous myths that helped cause the recent global financial crisis.

• Paying exorbitant amounts for her husband’s medical care during his decline from Alzheimer’s she’s frank about medical care (its lack) in the US.

• A recovered alcoholic, she is blunt about Australia’s drinking culture and over-indulgence. She writes vituperatively of Australia’s “literature of self-justification” saying that this “genre” means “alcohol is celebrated, the drinking of it rationalised and the problems it causes whitewashed”.

Jennings quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald who once wrote in a letter to Thomas Wolfe, “You’re a putter-in, and I’m a taker-outer.” She’s the latter — revealed beautifully through this book’s carefully chosen poems, magazine pieces, essays and extracts from her stories and novels (Snake and Moral Hazard).

Trouble also shows where Jennings came from (Griffith and Coleambally in New South Wales); where she’s been (to the neurologist to treat her migraines and a Democratic National Convention meeting that bore a resemblance to a revival meeting, for instance); and who she’s befriended (there are interesting interviews with fellow expatriate writers Shirley Hazzard and Sumner Locke Elliot — the latter sadly now deceased).

Though written in 2003, her piece about women in top executive positions (3.2 per cent in Australia) and the “glacial” speed of change in this area emphasise that there’s still much work to be done for the rhetoric of equity to be realised.
She also quotes James Buchan in Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money who argues that “ours is the age of money, which supplanted the age of faith”; a home group discussion starter perhaps?

So, as you’ll gather, this is not an optimistic book but a clear-eyed one.
Jennings’ favourite prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson could certainly be more widely put to use. It begins: “Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge …”

Marjorie Lewis-Jones


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