Monthly Archives: November 2013

Two years ago I wrote a blog post about the difficulties of really making a difference to poverty (“I want to make a difference”: voluntourism, NGOs, and international aid in Cambodia). Since that time I’ve done some research and discovered a number of organisations that I feel are worth donating time and/or money to. Cambodian Children’s Fund is a very effective NGO located in Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey district (read my account of volunteering with CCF at their blog here). And Peter Singer’s website The Life You Can Save has some excellent ideas about how and where to donate (read my post about Singer’s philosophy on poverty here). Finally, one of the best non-profit organisations I know of working internationally today is Kiva: a micro financing group that allows loans to be made to individuals all over the world.

Kiva’s aim is to alleviate poverty, and the organisation believes that “providing safe, affordable access to capital … helps people create better lives”. Kiva uses the Internet to link lenders with microfinance institutions in 73 different countries (including Cambodia). Those microfinance institutions (Field Partners) in turn give loans to people who do not have access to traditional forms of banking.

Lending with Kiva is simple. First, you choose a borrower. You can browse loans that are currently waiting to be filled, or search by gender, sector (e.g. education, food, health, arts), or country. My first loan was to a man in Mongolia trying to buy furniture for his house. Other loans may help someone purchase extra fertilizer for their rice field, create drinkable water, or pay for school fees.

Once you have chosen an individual or group to lend to you are able to make your loan. Loans start at $25, but you can select a higher amount. Once you have made your loan Kiva will send you email updates on its status, and will let you know once the loan has been repaid (Kiva has a 99.01% repayment rate).

Once your loan has been repaid to you the money becomes your Kiva credit. You can choose to reloan it to someone else, withdraw it, or donate it to Kiva (all of the money lent through Kiva goes directly to the loans, so Kiva relies on lenders making optional donations for most of its funding).

I first heard about KIVA through the Stuff You Should Know podcast, which has created a KIVA team to allow more people to loan to one cause. Joining a team is a great way to help make sure individual loans get fully funded. The SYSK team currently has 7,695 members, and has so far lent $2,153,525 in 78,940 loans. Kiva also offers gift cards (and Christmas is coming up …) which allow you to purchase a friend or family member’s first loan for them.

Kiva has the highest rating on Charity Navigator (an American non-profit dedicated to ranking the effectiveness and transparency of charitable organisations), and since signing up to Kiva last December all of the loans I’ve made have been fully repaid. In my opinion, Kiva is one of the best ways of making a difference available today. Check out the Kiva website for more information, to browse borrowers, and to sign up to make a loan.



Cambodian Children’s Fund

The Life You Can Save


This post was first published on my previous blog in 2011.

“I don’t want no fucking tight ass people come my country.”

So said a particularly sassy fourteen-year-old Cambodian girl to me on a beach in Sihanoukville almost two years ago. She was trying to sell me a bracelet, and I – heeding the pleas from local NGOs not to encourage kids selling on the beach – was not going to buy. I had just been to visit a school for underprivileged kids on the outskirts of town, had made a donation, and was feeling pretty good about sitting by the beach with an afternoon beer. I had made it clear to the girl that I didn’t want to buy, but was enjoying chatting with her, joking and having fun. And then, suddenly, with the kind of vicious smirk only teenagers are capable of, she said – “Fuck off, go home.”

Such encounters bring out the guilt many Westerners visiting or living in places like Cambodia often feel. How should you – a relatively wealthy and privileged person from a developed country – behave in a place where so many people are struggling to survive? And how can you be responsible – and really helpful – when it comes to donating money or supporting local people? When I first arrived in Cambodia almost two years ago I thought it would be easy to find a way to “make a difference”. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and with so many people in need, I reasoned, there must be hundreds of opportunities to help. I thought I would volunteer at an orphanage, perhaps, or donate money to a local NGO. However – and while I still believe that giving aid is very important – I’ve discovered that the realities of really making a difference in Cambodia are much more complicated than I first imagined.


Cambodia is one of the fifty poorest countries in the world. 30% of the population live on less than $1 per day (1) and 80% of Cambodians do not have electricity, clean water or toilets (2). Since the devastating genocide carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 – when an estimated 2 million people were killed – Cambodia has been struggling to get back on its feet. Set in the middle of Southeast Asia – bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam – Cambodia is at the centre of the Southeast Asian tourist route. Thailand has its beautiful beaches, Vietnam has Howlong Bay, and Cambodia has (in addition to Angkor Wat) ‘voluntourism.’

Volunteering in Cambodia has become almost trendy, perhaps popularised in part by Angelina Jolie, who (after filming Tomb Raider at Angkor Thom in 2001) adopted a son from Battambang province and brought Cambodia into the Hollywood spotlight. Typing “volunteer in Cambodia” into Google generates more than 12 million results. “Combine volunteering with tourist attractions”, “explore this Southeast Asian paradise and contribute to poor children”, experience “a unique blend of work, cultural immersion, and fun” – there is an endless variety of packages to choose from. Can’t decide? Take an online quiz to find out what kind of voluntourism best suits you. And volunteer tourism is often not cheap – one website advertises a week-long project for US$1,100, while a volunteer interviewed by Al Jazeera admitted she paid US$4,000 for three months at an orphanage (3). Tourists paying such huge fees to volunteer their time in orphanages and with other projects must wonder where exactly all that money goes. While many organisations are careful to break down costs for the consumer, some are not so specific about the details of their budgets. And then there is the question of whether some of the orphanages offering voluntourism packages are really orphanages at all.

Orphanage Tourism

A British friend of mine tells a story about visiting an orphanage outside of Phnom Penh shortly after arriving in Cambodia. Her moto-driver suggested she buy some rice as a donation, and she paid US$25 for a large bag to give to the orphanage. Months later the moto-driver (now a close friend) told her that he had received a $6 commission on the bag of rice and that the majority of children in the orphanage they had visited were not orphans at all. They were simply sent in for the day to bulk up numbers for tourists.

Stories like this are not uncommon. With the rise of voluntourism in Cambodia more and more illegitimate projects are created to capitalise on this new market. The Cambodian government is supposedly cracking down on orphanages, trying to weed out those that are not legitimate, but the persistence of volunteer tourism is not helping this process. According to UNICEF, the number of ‘orphanages’ in Cambodia now is double what it was in 2005 (4). UNICEF argues that nearly three-quarters of ‘orphans’ in Cambodia have at least one surviving parent, and that tourists that support such institutions are often contributing to the problem. “We appreciate that they’re [volunteers] doing this for the best of motives,” says Richard Bridle from UNICEF, interviewed by Al Jazeera’s 101 East program, but “they are exacerbating the situation” (3).

Other arguments against orphanage tourism are strong, and many legitimate organisations will not accept temporary volunteers at all. Scott Neeson from Cambodian Children’s Fund says that volunteers are often “unreliable” (3). Instead, Neeson prefers to employ local Cambodian women to work with the children in his project. Many volunteer programs are also not properly run or supervised. UNICEF remarks that anyone working in childcare should be subjected to proper background checks, as well as having undergone training: “It’s [working with children] not something you can just do as an amateur” (3). The quality of education given by these volunteers – people that come and go and often have no teaching experience or qualifications – is questionable, and can even be disruptive for young children, especially if not properly managed. As Scott Neeson points out, the idea of “come and hug a child and speak some English” is really not helping these children at all (3). There is also the danger that children will become attached to volunteers – caregivers who are temporary and who will leave after a few months. Jolanda van Westering, also from UNICEF, points to the problem of the “constant emotional loss to already traumatised children” when they are introduced to temporary volunteers (5).

Perhaps long-term, more experienced volunteers can work, but voluntourism, which has to take into account the ‘good’ experience of the tourist as well as the well-being of the children, does not seem particularly useful. If volunteer programs are to be successful, they must, as Michael Horton (an advocate for responsible tourism) notes, be properly supervised (3). Volunteers must be subjected to proper background checks, whether they are volunteering for a week, a few months, or a year. And rather than teaching children English for a couple of months, Horton suggests that volunteers with skills and training instead “teach the Cambodian teachers”, so that they may pass on their knowledge and create a system that is much more permanent and sustainable (3). There are also a number of NGOs that work with kids and their families, such as the Grace House Community Centre in Siem Reap (5). Organisations like these accept foreign volunteers to work with children during the day, but make sure they return to their families in the evenings. It seems there is a valuable role for foreign volunteers to play, but it cannot be in conjunction with tourism. As Geraldine Cox, founder of well-respected orphanages in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap points out – “my priority is the safety of the children, not to give volunteers a nice experience” (3). The combination of tourism and volunteer work may sound good in theory, but in practise there are too many conflicting interests. Volunteering really should not be about the quality of experience of the volunteer, but how much those in need are assisted. Volunteering must be properly organised and taken seriously by both the organisation and the volunteer. Otherwise, voluntourism runs the risk of becoming a “human safari” – where foreigners travel to Cambodia to marvel at its temples, and pity its poverty (3).

NGOs and International Aid

Boeung Keng Kang I (or BKKI) in central Phnom Penh is often referred to by locals as “NGO Land”. There are several thousand NGOs and international aid agencies in Cambodia (6), and many of them are located here, as well as numerous services catering for expat staff. Villa-style houses and serviced apartments rise up behind barbed-wire topped concrete fences. Restaurants and spas, massage parlours and trendy bars line the streets. And there seems to be a café on every corner – air-conditioned, with clean white floors and walls, ambient music, lattes, gourmet foccacias and quiches, chocolate cheesecake and ice cream. Walking into one of these cafes is like walking into a different country. You can sip your espresso and imagine yourself in New York, London, or Melbourne.

It can be a very good lifestyle for expats in Phnom Penh – especially for those on foreign salaries. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, as well as nightclubs, expat trivia nights, salsa lessons, and poetry readings. And while many NGOs are in Cambodia to work hard, there are certainly a number that came to help the poverty but have stayed for the lifestyle, so to speak.

There has been some debate in the media over the power of NGOs to effect change in Cambodia – especially after the government’s recent attempts to pass a new law that requires all NGOs to register. One local Phnom Penh NGO was lately suspended by the government for no apparent reason, and this has rights groups concerned about what will happen when the law itself comes into action (7). Ken Silverstein writing for Slate magazine points to the fact that while some NGOs are stirring the pot and questioning the government (a political party renowned for its corrupt practises), others turn a blind eye to corruption, or even collaborate with the government. Wildlife Alliance, one of the biggest international environmental NGOs operating in Cambodia, justifies its ties with the government by saying that it is important to work on the inside to get things done – “We have to be careful and build alliances that are sometimes uncomfortable” (6). There has been some debate over how effective this inside work can be, and also whether such explanations are simply excuses for corruption. Whatever the case, it is certainly true that NGOs should be paid the same amount of scrutiny as any other business, as Silverstein suggests. Silverstein also questions why so many foreign NGO workers are paid so highly (with salary packages up to $250,000 for directors of some prominent international charities) as well as being provided with housing and cars (6). In a country like Cambodia, where the average government employee makes between US$50 and $80 per month, these kinds of salaries seem ludicrous (8). It also seems impossible for anyone making $250,000 to understand what it is like for people that have so little, let alone make efforts to really assist those people.

International aid from Western governments such as Australia and the United States is also falling short. Joel Brinkley, author of the book Cambodia’s Curse, points to the donation each year of over $1 billion in aid (Australia alone last year gave $64 million) (1). Each year more than 3000 government and donor organisations meet in Phnom Penh (2). Each year, they make the Cambodian government promise to clean up corruption, and each year nothing changes. And yet the aid keeps coming, supporting a regime that keeps the poor poor and makes the rich richer. Brinkley suggests that international aid should be restricted to humanitarian donations direct to civilians and local NGOs until the government agrees to change. When asked why this doesn’t happen, Brinkley points to BKK. “Living in Cambodia is pretty nice,” he says, “you can rent a big house and have servants for almost no money. If they [international governments] suddenly stood and said we’re not going to give you money this year then they’d have to move away” (1).

I don’t want to paint a cynical picture of aid in Cambodia – but I do want to be realistic. There are things that can be done – certainly there are many worthwhile volunteer programs and NGOs to donate to. But real change cannot be brought about as part of a tourist package, and people must be willing to put in the time and research if they truly want to “make a difference”. It also must be recognised that if change is to happen in Cambodia it must come from Cambodians. If foreigners can help that come about it will be by assisting those Cambodians who will make change, rather than trying to change it themselves. As foreigners in Cambodia, one of the most important things is to think small. Respect Cambodian people rather than pitying them, try to understand what this country has been through, and be a good person in day to day life.


(1) ABC News, Stephen Long (interview with Joel Brinkley), “Cambodia’s leaders are murderous kleptocrats”, published Thursday 14th July, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(2) The Washington Post, Joel Brinkley, “Aid to Cambodia rarely reaches the people it’s meant to help”, published 18th April, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(3) Al Jazeera, “101 East – Cambodia’s orphan tourism” (video), retrieved Monday 15th August, 2011:

(4) Monsters and Critics, “Cambodian government to investigate orphanages after UN concern”, published 23rd March, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(5), “Cambodia’s ‘orphan’ tourism sparks concern”, published 27th July, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011 (link no longer available).

(6) Slate, Ken Silverstein, “Silence of the Lambs: For do-gooder NGOs in Cambodia accommodation with the regime is very profitable”, published Monday 20th June, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(7) The Phnom Penh Post, Vincent Macisaac and Mom Kunthear, “NGOs in shock over ‘arbitrary’ suspension”, published Friday 12th August, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

(8) ABC Radio Australia, Presenter Robert Carmichael, “Investors in Cambodia fear repercussions of bribery law”, updated 17th August, 2011, retrieved Thursday 18th August, 2011.

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes about a year ago I became obsessed with the following idea: if I was suddenly caught in some sort of apocalyptic situation (insert zombies, solar flares, earthquake here) I would be the first one to go. Electricity cuts out, fridges stop working, insulin heats up. People give me worried looks, the music rises. Cut to the next scene. I’m not in it.

But it’s not just the diabetics that die early on in zombie apocalypses. The characters that scream and panic and believe they’re about to be ripped apart often end up throwing themselves in the path of death fairly early on. In other words, whether you survive the un-dead often depends more on your attitude than it does on whether or not you’re reliant on medication.

I was diagnosed in South Korea, where I was working as an English teacher at the time. I had been tired for weeks, was fast losing weight, and was often unbelievably thirsty. I would chug down a whole bottle of iced tea followed by three or four glasses of water and still want more. I thought of Stacey from The Baby-sitters Club, diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager. I joked about the idea with my boyfriend – “maybe it’s diabetes” – both of us believing it was impossible for an otherwise healthy twenty-eight year old to be diabetic.

When the doctor told me my blood glucose was over 600 (about 33) I had no idea what it meant. When she hooked me up to a drip I sat there at a distance from myself, not understanding how this could be possible. I called my boyfriend and told him. Then I lay there, not thinking much at all, while the cold saline ran its way up my arm.

I went home that afternoon to an empty apartment (my boyfriend was at work) and quickly fell into despair, almost panic. I cried for a long time, devastated by the realisation that this disease would be with me for life, and convinced that it was my fault, that I had somehow given it to myself.

I pounced on one of my best friends as soon as she appeared on Skype.

“I’ve got diabetes,” I said.

“Oh thank god,” she replied, “I thought you were going to tell me you had cancer.”

At that moment it was exactly the right thing to say. Diabetes is a serious condition, of course, but she did help me put things in perspective and calm down.

The next day I went back to the clinic and was quickly overwhelmed by information. I would have to give myself insulin injections every morning, and take pills with breakfast and dinner. I would have to regularly check my blood glucose to make sure it was going down. I would have to be more careful about what I ate (“You can have cake,” the doctor gestured with her hands close together, “but not cake,” big wide hand gestures). I went home with a glucose meter, insulin pens, blood checking strips, none of which I was really sure what to do with.

Then I made lists and Blu-Tacked them to the wall. Lists of what to do with the insulin, the pills, the monitor. Lists of good foods to eat. The next day my boyfriend and I went shopping and filled our bags with brown rice, vegies, and salmon. I felt in control, at least. I knew what I had to do.

After about a month my glucose levels had returned to normal, and the doctor decided I could stop injecting insulin. I’m still not sure exactly why, but she was convinced I had Type 2 diabetes, a type of diabetes usually caused by diet and lifestyle (I was vegetarian, slim, and generally active and healthy – not at all a candidate for Type 2). When I returned to Australia I learned that Type 1 often comes with a “honeymoon phase”, where the body is still making some of its own insulin, so glucose levels can remain relatively stable for a while with tablets and a controlled diet. This doesn’t last, however (they don’t call it the honeymoon phase for nothing).

I had just gotten used to the idea of watching my diet and taking pills to control my diabetes when I returned to Melbourne. Every doctor and specialist I spoke to was certain I had Type 1, and the tests confirmed this (as much as they can). Getting used to the idea of injecting insulin not just once but four times a day was not easy. Learning how to prevent dangerous hypos or hypers was also scary. Even now I wake up some mornings and think – “Oh right, diabetes. Fuck.”

Managing diabetes is all about control. As long as you keep your blood glucose stable using diet and insulin everything is fine. Sometimes, however, the balance will be upset, no matter how careful you are. You can drive yourself crazy obsessing over the little numbers that come up when you feed your blood into the glucose meter. It’s a bit like life. In many ways I’m a controlling person. Being in control, even in terms of little things like having a tidy room or making lists, makes me feel good. However, it’s impossible to manage everything all the time. And when things are out of my control it’s important to be able to accept that, and not freak out. It’s all about balance. Not too much control, not too little. Not too much pessimism, not too much optimism. Not too much sugar, not too little.

I’ve also always been slightly prone to anxiety and depression, which brings another level to having diabetes – the fear that I might have caused this disease in myself, through stress. It’s a vicious circle, this belief. The idea that anxiety has made me sick, and then anxiety making me believe that I have made myself sick, and finally just general anxiety about being sick. It is believed that Type 1 diabetes is genetic, but that something sets off the disease. Doctors are still unclear about exactly why people develop Type 1 later in life: it could be stress, it could be triggered by a virus, or it could just be that your pancreas has slowly been losing cells throughout your life until it is unable to produce insulin anymore.

In the end it doesn’t matter why I have diabetes. What does matter is how I deal with it. When I was first diagnosed my Korean doctor said to me – “diabetes is your friend for life.” At the time this was difficult to understand, but in retrospect I realise it was a very wise thing to say. I have to think of diabetes as a friend, because if I think of it as an enemy I will be bitter about it forever. I don’t want to live my life constantly fighting against something; it makes much more sense to be working together with something. I’d much rather diabetes become part of – and fit in with – my life rather than get in the way of it.

I’m now almost a year into life with diabetes. I’ve moved to Cambodia, and while it’s a little trickier to manage my diabetes here than it would be in Australia, it is certainly not impossible. I brought a year’s worth of insulin with me (kept cool in Frio travel packs) as well as a large supply of needles and glucose testing strips, a spare glucose meter and some glucose-packed jellybeans. Diabetes – especially Type 1 – is not well known in Cambodia and it can be difficult to find supplies here, or doctors who understand how to treat and manage the condition. SOS International Clinic is the best place to go for any emergencies or general advice, but it is expensive. In general I make sure I check my blood glucose regularly, drink lots of water (the heat here can leave you dehydrated quickly), eat well, and exercise. A year ago I never would have believed that my life could ever feel as normal again as it does now. I travel, I teach, I write, I eat cake. I do anything I want to; I just do it on insulin.

On the second day in the Korean clinic with the drip in my arm I realised I had brought nothing to read. In my bag the only thing I had was a little notebook of quotes I had collected. The one that caught my attention was from The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton, and in it he had paraphrased Seneca:

We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom.

I found this idea extremely strengthening, and even now I keep it on the wall to read whenever I’m tempted to get depressed about my diagnosis. In life we really have very little control over what happens to us. But the one thing we do have control over is how we react, and how we feel. And that, to me, is a very liberating thought.

Troy Blacklaws is a South African writer with a knack for describing the beauty and cruelty of the continent where he grew up. His first novel Karoo Boy – set in 1970s South Africa – tackles the seemingly inescapable problem of racism. However, in his latest work Cruel Crazy Beautiful World – set in 2004 – racism has become xenophobia. Instead of focusing on the relationships between whites and blacks within the country Cruel Crazy Beautiful World explores the ways in which South Africans (of all colours) react to immigrants from other African nations, particularly Zimbabwe.

Cruel Crazy Beautiful World (the title comes from a song by British born South African artist Johnny Cleg and his band Savuka) alternates between two stories. Jerusalem (Jero for short) is a young coloured South African man, half Jewish and half Muslim (though Jerusalem identifies with neither religion: “Maybe God hides in the static between radio stations,” he thinks, “in gaps between frames in film, in gullies between panels in comics, in silences between lines of a play.”) Jerusalem is a poet and a student, but his studies haven’t been going well. His father – Zero – has had enough of paying for Jerusalem to read books and sends him to a small harbour town called Hermanus to sell handicrafts to tourists. The novel’s second protagonist is Jabulani Freedom Moyo, a teacher from Zimbabwe who loses his job for mocking President Mugabe’s shirts. When we first meet Jabulani he is crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa, hoping to find a job to support his wife and two children. He is quickly captured by a group of men who make their living rounding up illegal immigrants and forcing them to farm marijuana. The cruellest of the men is an albino known as Ghost Cowboy, and he haunts Jabulani for the rest of the novel.

The first thing I noticed about Cruel Crazy is the simple beauty of the writing. The descriptions are at once visceral and ever so slightly surreal. Almost every sentence is perfectly crafted; poetic in a way that makes you smile but also keeps the story rolling along. The writer John Gardner said that a story must be “vivid and continuous”, and Cruel Crazy is both of those things. A few examples:

On the roadside a tow truck, like a morbid mantis, dreams up its next victim.

Instead we had an iguana-eyed backyard guru in a faded pink Lacoste shirt who could dart a sparrow out of our lemon tree with his blowpipe.

In my mind her skin’s a flawless canvas. I paint in pale-pink nipples and her navel, a comma halving the flat plane between the parentheses of her hips.

Blacklaws feeds the reader information about the story and its characters so artfully; barely a sentence goes by that is not lovely. And it is the wonderful combination of poetry and specific detail that captures the reader’s imagination and propels them from one paragraph to the next. Here is a description of Zero:

He endlessly waxes his Benz, fills his hands with a whore’s tits, slices kudu biltong against his thumb, douses his fish and chips in vinegar, turns sizzling chops with his bare fingers and licks them off.

I found a few paragraphs here and there a little convoluted or heavy with alliteration, which made some ideas less clear and slowed me down. Overall, however, passages and chapters are short and sweet and the story moves along at a comfortable pace.

The novel’s themes are well drawn: Jabulani and Ghost Cowboy serve as strong reminders of the violence and injustice that still plague post-apartheid South Africa, a place where men are “killed for the sin of being foreign.” Blacklaws succinctly describes the struggle of those African immigrants:

[Y]oung Africans with a fiery dream may head south, leaving behind them countries where a leopard-hatted ruler fattens his gut on overseas funds … they walk for miles and miles, crossing borders, dodging the men and animals that prey on them under a vulture-zoned sky.

At the same time Cruel Crazy is a coming of age tale, as Jerusalem lets go of “a gone boyhood of being sandy and sunburnt” and tries to figure out what it means to be a man:

Is a man as scared of the random hop of frogs as I am? Does a man blow kazoooing bubbles through a straw in the lees of a mojito? Does a man cry freely during a film? Does a man just let his mother fade out? Does a man bow to his old man’s plan for him instead of heading out into the world to seek his fortune?

As with Karoo Boy, I found myself spellbound by Cruel Crazy Beautiful World. I lost myself in a world of sharks, crocodiles, whales and peacocks. This book seems to jump right from the page into the reader’s imagination, and all in technicolour detail. A thrilling and beautiful read.

Cruel Crazy Beautiful World was first published by Jacana Media in 2011. Troy Blacklaws is the author of three other novels including Karoo Boy, reviewed here. Read more at Troy’s website

I first read Remembering Babylon as part of a Romantic literature course at university in Melbourne about six years ago. Earlier this year an American friend living in Cambodia passed me a copy of David Malouf’s evocative novel. There was something really nice about revisiting Remembering Babylon in this way; in Southeast Asia – a place so removed from nineteenth century Australia – where I often feel my difference from the culture around me. While re-reading Remembering Babylon far from the university classroom the themes of language and crossing cultural and geographical boundaries stood out for me, and Malouf’s detailed and lovely descriptions of the Australian bush were a welcome reminder of home.

Remembering Babylon begins when three children of European settlers (and a dog) happen upon Gemmy Fairley in 1840s Queensland. Perched atop a fencepost in fear (one of the children, a boy named Lachlan, is pretending to hold a gun) Gemmy cries out: “Do not shoot … I am a B-b-british object!” (These words were apparently really spoken by a man named Gemmy Morrill/Morrell, although the rest of Malouf’s novel is fiction). When he was thirteen, Gemmy – then a British cabin boy – was cast overboard and washed ashore in northern Australia, where he was taken in by Aborigines. For sixteen years he lives in the bush before hearing of the settlers and venturing close to their community. Gemmy is accepted into the town and moves in with the McIvors (the family of the three children who first discovered him). People are suspicious of Gemmy because of his connections with the bush and the Aborigines, parts of Australia that the settlers are largely unable to understand and are consequently fearful of.

Remembering Babylon is beautifully written; poetic in parts and infused with just enough magical realism to make it enchanting without being unbelievable. The most memorable descriptions in the novel for me are those of the bush, and Gemmy’s relationship to it:

What kept you alive here was the one and the other, and they were inseparable: the creature with its pale ears raised and stiffened, sitting up alert in its life as you were in yours, and its name on your tongue. When it kicked its feet and gushed blood it did not go out of the world but had its life now in you, and could go in and out of your mouth forever, breath on breath, and was not lost, any more than the water you stooped to drink would cease to run because you gulped it down in greedy mouthfuls, then pissed it out.

Language is a strong theme in Remembering Babylon. Gemmy quickly learns the language of the Aborigines, and feels the words of his boyhood slowly fading: “He lost his old language in the new one that came to his lips.” Part of the reason the settlers find Gemmy so unsettling is his ability to converse with the Aborigines in their tongue. We make so many of our connections through conversation, so when conversing is impossible we feel lost and isolated. The title of the novel speaks to this theme in multiple ways: Babylon was an ancient place of exile, the edge of society, much like Australia was for those first immigrants from England. Babylon is also thought to have been home to the Tower of Babel, where – so the Bible story goes – God first created different languages and threw the world into confusion. And though Remembering Babylon is written in one language it comes from multiple perspectives: Gemmy, the members of the McIvor family, the town schoolmaster and minister, and many others. The result is a telling of events that includes a multitude of interpretations, and makes us question the truth of a single view.

I found myself carried away by the lovely lilting tone of this novel, and was deeply immersed in the minds of its characters. Remembering Babylon is a profound and beautiful book.

Remembering Babylon was published in 1993, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Other novels by David Malouf include Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Fly Away Peter, and The Great World which won the Commonwealth Prize and the Prix Femina Etranger.

I really enjoyed this book; yet another offering from the previous tenant’s library. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was not as well received by critics as Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated (published when he was just 25!), but I fell in love with it after the first page. I also loved Everything is Illuminated when I read it last year, but I found Extremely Loud to be less hard work. While Everything is Illuminated is dense with beautiful but often difficult passages of magical realism, Extremely Loud plays with language and the novelistic form in simpler but equally interesting ways.

Extremely Loud unfolds from the perspectives of three different characters: 9-year-old Oskar Schell, his grandmother, and his grandfather (Thomas Schell). Nine of the novel’s seventeen chapters come from Oskar’s point of view, and he is (in my opinion) the most engaging voice of the three. It is 2003, and Oskar is still dealing with the loss of his father in the events of September 11th, 2001. Oskar describes himself as having “heavy boots” when he is sad, gives himself bruises when things go wrong, and plays the tambourine because having a beat makes things feel a little better. He is constantly inventing things, like a birdseed shirt (so you could be flown away by nibbling birds in an emergency) and mencils (pencils for men) to distract his brain. He has trouble sleeping, and compares his overactive mind to the ever-growing teeth of beavers:

[I]f they didn’t constantly file them down by cutting through all of those trees, their teeth would start to grow into their own faces, which would kill them. That’s how my brain was.

The story begins when Oskar discovers a key in his father’s cupboard and decides to find out what it unlocks. Oskar is determined to solve the mystery, even if it takes years; perhaps especially if it does, since it will allow him to hold onto the memory of his father for longer.

The second voice belongs to Oskar’s grandfather, who is writing letters to Oskar’s (now deceased) father in an attempt to explain why he left. Thomas Schell escaped the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and immigrated to America. He lost his pregnant fiancée Anna in the bombing, and has never been able to forget her. As a result his life is full of regret:

[T]he distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go … I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.

Oskar’s grandmother is also writing a letter, but to her grandson. She explains her side of the story: her own memories of Dresden, of coming to America, of fitting in, and of trying to make a life with Thomas. Her letters are full of mysterious spaces.

In my last post I talked about how easily swayed I am by other people’s opinions, and how I don’t like to read reviews until I’ve had a chance to develop my own ideas. Most of the criticism of Extremely Loud focuses on the idea that Foer’s prose is often artificial. After reading some of the criticism I started to wonder if perhaps Extremely Loud is a little too surreal at times. Not that surrealism itself is bad – Everything is Illuminated dives headfirst into surreal ideas and images. The problem with Extremely Loud is perhaps that it doesn’t go far enough, and so some of the ideas in the novel come across as ridiculous alongside the more straightforward narrative. Oskar’s grandfather, for example, talks about how he has to start writing everything down in daybooks when he loses the ability to speak. This is a beautiful idea, but feels like it is pushed too far and loses its weight when Foer writes:

[I]nstead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favourite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green…

Overall, however, Extremely Loud is a beautiful book with a grand sweep, from World War II Germany to post 9/11 New York; from a 9-year-old boy to an elderly woman. I found this novel entertaining, beautifully written, and moving. Thanks again to whoever left it on the shelf.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was first published in 2005, when Foer was 28. A film version was released in 2011, starring Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Thomas Horn as Oskar (a quick look at the trailer, however, did not inspire me to watch it). Foer is perhaps most well known for his novel Everything is Illuminated, which won the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award.

I recently discovered Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on a back shelf of a dim Phnom Penh book store. A second hand copy, the book is scattered with a previous reader’s underlining. It’s always interesting to see what others have found worth noting in a novel, especially a meditative novel like Siddhartha. However, while part of me is itching to know what someone else thought was important, another part is wary of becoming distracted by already highlighted sentences. Part of me wants to come to a novel fresh, without expectations. It’s for the same reason that I don’t read reviews of films I’ve watched until I’ve had a chance to write out my own thoughts. I’m too easily swayed, sometimes, by the opinions of others.

All of that being said, there was one line highlighted by the mysterious first reader of this copy that very much resonated with me:

There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

The last part in particular (“surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things”) brought me back once again to Virginia Woolf’s idea of life as a cohesive whole, made up of many individual moments. Much like a stream, which is always moving and changing with water, yet at the same time is steady and whole and connected. It is this idea that I really liked about Hesse’s novel.

Siddhartha is a fairly short volume (about 150 pages in translation) and relatively easy to read. The writing is beautifully simple, which I think is necessary when you’re tackling subject matter as grand as the search for universal truth. Siddhartha tells the story of a young Brahmin man living in India at the time of the Buddha. This young man – Siddhartha – is on a quest for meaning, and is determined to find it not in the teachings of others but in his own experience. The novel follows Siddhartha from boyhood to old age as he searches for truth: a stint with roaming ascetics, a meeting with Gotama (the first Buddha), and a period as a rich man surrounded by people, love, and wine.

There is (not surprisingly) a lot of contemplation in this book, and little dialogue, and I found my mind wandering at times. It is simply written and yet at the same time dense with beautiful and timeless ideas; the kind of ideas that need pondering. It is certainly a book to be read regularly throughout life.

One of the ideas from Siddhartha that struck me is the way everyone is always striving for peace. We are all in a way constantly searching for happiness, but so few of us find it. Siddhartha, however, in the end finds peace in a simple place – in the appreciation of experience, of recognising the bigger picture and seeing life as a series of goals and successes. He gets out of the cycle, and sees the unity and the beauty of life’s bits and pieces drawing together. He appreciates the moments, but also the way they connect to each other. And this is where his peace comes from.

It was also nice to read that even Siddhartha is overcome by the power of love (when his son leaves Siddhartha cannot stop thinking of him, and hurts, wishing he would return). It made me realise that all the feelings we have as humans – while they might not always be peaceful – are a normal part of experience. And that eventually they will lead us to peace, in some way.

Siddhartha was first published in 1922. The novel was originally written in German, and was translated into English in the 1950s. Soon afterwards Siddhartha gained popularity in the United States. Herman Hesse grew up in a missionary household and found himself in the midst of a religious crisis as a teenager, an experience that is reflected in much of his writing. Other novels by Hesse include Steppenwolf and Magister Ludi for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1946. My copy of Siddhartha was translated by Hilda Rosner.