About Me

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Victoria, Australia
I am an author of Young Adult Fiction books. I worked as a teacher in the Pacific Islands for seven years. Whilst in the Solomon Islands I taught PSSC English before the ethnic tension in 2000 forced a change of plans. I love Pacific literature, art and music. You can find me on Facebook at Beth Montgomery Author.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

This book is not nice. It's vicious, confronting and brutal. I cringed my way through the abuse and hopelessness that the characters endure, trapped as they are in this depiction of gang culture and domestic violence. I finished the story totally drained and in awe of Duff's work. It is simply one of the best books I've ever read. Which is weird because I hate violence and I would never even try to watch the film version because I would be hiding behind a cushion the whole time. 
   Once Were Warriors is the story of an abusive husband and father Jake Heke and how his family falls apart under the stresses his violence and drunkeness cause. The characters are so real, so vital and so well drawn that you get totally sucked in to their vortex of poverty and alcoholism. It is a sad, disturbing read and makes you so angry for the women and children stuck in this situation. Did I mention this was about a Maori family? It could be about a family anywhere, but the Maori setting gives the title. These people, they once were warriors, in control of their land and their destinies. Now they are floundering in poverty, crime and hopelessness. It's powerful stuff.

Once Were Warriors (1991 UQP)

   This is not a book I'd recommend for teenagers but it is definately a book I'd recommend to budding writers. Duff has broken every rule here to produce a voice that is raw and authentic and a style that must have had the editors squirming. If you don't like swearing in books, then steer clear. Same if you like correct spelling. If you cherish good punctuation with properly set out paragraphs and clearly defined speech, give this one a miss.
   However, if you are a serious student of engaging writing, of how to carve an unforgettable voice from the page, then this is one book you just can't ignore, no matter how disturbing the content is.  

Thursday, January 27, 2011

No Kava for Johnny by John O'Grady

No Kava for Johnny (1961)
I read this book last year and had mixed thoughts about it. It's a cute and funny tale about a hapless Samoan youth, Ioane (Johnny) Papatiso, who gets into a lot of scrapes, and bumps on the head, to finally find a good job in the dispensary at Apia. However some of the humour I found a bit condescending, as if it were poking fun at Samoan culture in a negative way. Written in 1961, I guess the book is a product of its time, when Western colonial views were still apparent.
   Johnny's dealings with the head chemist, a palagi, form the basis of a lot of the laughs. Misunderstandings are common because of the language differences between Johnny and his boss. Whereas in the village a lot of the humour is derived from the slapstick nature of retribution that occurs whenever Johnny does something wrong, which is most of the time.
   Although the book states that it was written by a Samoan, it is in fact written by John O'Grady, an Australian author famous for his work under the pen name Nino Culotta, where he writes in the voice of an Italian immigrant to Australia.
   O'Grady has done well to maintain the simple villager voice throughout. It is an easy, light read that will have you chuckling every few pages.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Volcano on Savo, S.I. Source: B Montgomery
I've been enjoying the South Pacific series of documentaries broadcast on the ABC recently. Last night was a tribute to the power of underwater volcanoes and how their activity has put much of Pacifica on the map.
   Many years ago my daughter and I had the priveledge of travelling to a volcanic island, Savo in the Solomon Islands. It was only a small island and the streams that ran into the sea were hot and sulphurous. To bathe at night we had to go down to the beach and wait in line at the well. The well was a hole dug into the water lens, the natural brackish water just below the surface of the island.
Digging for Megapode eggs. Source: B Montgomery
   We visited the infamous megapode bird gardens. This is where birds the size of chickens dig deep into the sand at night and lay their eggs in the volcanic warmth of the subterranian layers. The eggs are about three times the size of an average chicken's egg. It's hard to imagine how the megapode can actually produce something so big.
Savo volcano. Source:B Montgomery
   Later we walked on to the volcano which I expected to be a high mountain climb to a hot rocky crater. No such thing. The volcano was a cleft in a hillside that billowed steam and smoke and made glug glug glug noises as it vented into a passing stream. There were no sparks or thunderous rumbles or rivers of red hot lava. Maybe I'll have to wait until I get to Hawaii one day to see something like that.
   What struck me the whole time we were on Savo was the rotten egg smell of the sulphur in the air and the way that the sand was so warm, where ever we walked. The people were friendly and very hospitable but the trip back to Honiara in a bray boat through a storm was terrifying. Apart from thinking I was about to die in Iron Bottom Sound, it was a lovely holiday.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Interview with film makers Amie Batalibasi and Lia Pa'apa'a

Books are relatively late on the scene when it comes to storytelling traditions. Two young women from Melbourne are tapping into the power of real storytelling, the spoken word, and capturing it on film. Their project is called Pacific Stories and you can check it out on the list of blogs to the right of screen. Here's their interview:
1.      Can you describe the Pacific Stories project for us?
Pacific Stories is a project that will consist of a series of discussions, storytelling and filmmaking workshops held in Melbourne from Dec 2010 through to May 2011.  Each participant is supported to develop and produce a short film exploring Melanesian identity. The project is facilitated by documentary filmmaker Amie Batalibasi and cultural diversity educator Lia Pa’apa’a.
   The target group is Pacific Islanders living in Melbourne. In particular, we extend a special invitation to people of Melanesian (PNG, West Papua, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu) ancestry as we believe that their current political, environmental and social situation requires particular attention.  
   A Pacific Stories Steering Committee of pacific islanders will guide the project and Multicultural Arts Victoria will provide additional support for the project.
   We hope that participants will benefit by learning and exploring their past and marrying their traditional knowledge with modern digital mediums to find an empowering medium that allows for culturally appropriate and rich dialogue and storytelling.

2.      When did you two first meet and start working together?

Amie: We developed a film project called My Story, My Place - Through the Lens, as part of an Artists In Schools residency.  Lia was teaching at the Grange P-12 College in Hoppers Crossing, Melbourne and I came in as the artist. We worked together with a group of 12 year 5/6 students, who learnt filmmaking skills and then each produced a short film exploring their culture and identity. It was awesome and I think we made a good team so it made sense to do Pacific Stories together - especially because we both have pacific islander backgrounds.
Lia: I was working with culturally diverse young people in the Western suburbs of Melbourne and had been developing different mediums that young people could express and investigate their cultural identity.  Amie approached me through the Artist In Schools program and we were able to develop a film making project that was age appropriate and it worked really well.  Not only did the participants learn about themselves, their family and their countries of origin but they were able to showcase their final works to their community at the "Red Carpet Premier."  The screening engaged parents that had never been to the school before and gave a great sense of pride to everyone involved!
3.      What are your island backgrounds?
Amie: My father is from the Solomon Islands. He is one of 12 kids so I have a whole village full of family back in the Solomons - my island home.  I was born here though, and went to the Solomons for the first time when I was 13.  It was quite a shock to meet all my relatives, hang out in Lilisiana - a traditional style village, paddle canoes etc... but now I go back as often as I can and I love it and it’s my island home.  I miss it when I am over here.  And I am very much, still growing in terms of learning about my culture and family and language. I also try to help my family and my people when I can.  With the help of my good friends, we set up a little organisation called Pacific Community Partnerships (http://www.pacificcommunitypartnerships.org/Home.html) to provide help in any way we can eg. water tanks, education - basic things.
Lia:  I have both Samoan and Tongan heritage from my mother and Native American/Mexican/Irish from my father.  I was born and raised in Melbourne.  Most of my family in Tonga have now relocated to NZ but I still have strong ties with my cousins in my village of Magiagi in Samoa.  It has been a constant journey of self exploration and understanding around my identity and how I identify living in an urban context.  I think many 2nd and 3rd generation Pacific Islanders are feeling the same and it is something that I am hoping to explore through this project.

Amie Batalibasi

4.      Why is film making your preferred medium?
Amie: For me, it’s a natural instinct to document life - people, places, events, everything and anything.  My dad gave me my first camera when I was 10 and from that moment on, I've always had a camera of some sort close by.  I studied photography and art so filmmaking was a natural progression.  But for me, really it’s not about film as such, it’s about storytelling - capturing stories and sharing those stories.  I think that this is so important - in terms of family, history, education and also helping to create change around important issues.  And film is a perfect vehicle to carry these stories and make this happen - right now, it’s such an accessible medium.
Lia:  Although I am not a film maker myself (I am currently developing my skills in Weaving) I believe in the power of digital mediums.  We are an oral culture that has passed down stories immemorial and now we have access to a technology that has the potential to enhance and preserve it.  It is exciting to look at cross-platform ways of maintaining and passing on our knowledge systems and with the current group of participants that we have involved in the project which include educators, visual artists, academics, community arts practitioners and theatre & film producers we have an exciting chance to push our stories in ways that we might not have done individually.
5.      Was storytelling a big part of your childhood?
Amie: That's an interesting question... It’s hard to answer really, but for me, I think I missed out a lot on learning the stories of my family in the Pacific as I was growing up - because I only went there when I was 13.  I guess that’s why it’s so important for me now to capture the stories that my family have.  When I go to visit, I always have my camera out.  And I know that they think it’s important too because they understand that things are changing - people are getting old, climate change is affecting the village, the young people don't have as much access to the traditional ways... I think they see that it’s important to capture these stories so that they don't get lost - plus they always love watching videos and films of themselves!!  We sometimes have screenings in the village and drag the generator out!!
Lia:  Like Amie, it is hard to answer- I was always a book worm and read a lot when I was young and loved being taken away to different lands via the written word.  I was raised with a single mother who had to work full-time to support us so we stayed with our Grandmother many weekends who would read us stories.  As an Aunty of many today I try to incorporate as much "story-time" with my nieces and nephews as possible and challenge myself to tell stories about our family and my experiences and not just from books.
6.      What are your favourite island stories?
Amie: My favourite island stories are the ones that my Dad tells me sometimes - without knowing it, he gets all excited and launches off on a story about what he used to get up to when he was younger and what life was like then back in the Solomons.  Funnily enough, those are the stories I will probably never capture on film!
Lia: My favourite are of the stories of my Grandfather and his cheeky ways in the village as a young boy!  I also love learning and reading about the great voyages that our ancestors took on canoes to travel throughout the Pacific Islands.  I am filled with awe about the technologies and knowledge they had of the region- it is truly inspiring.
7.      If you were sent to stay on a remote island for a year, what three non-essential items would you take with you?

Amie:  I reckon I'd be pretty happy on that remote island without much else!... but I'd say my guitar, some good chocolate and a camera of some sort.
Lia: I would take my loving partner John, a notebook and some pencils to draw.

8.      How has your work empowered Pacific Island people living in Australia?
Amie: Because we have just started, it’s hard to say too much. But personally, I feel that every time I sit in that room with the participants, I feel like it’s a safe space to share stories and to talk about the issues that we face as pacific islanders in Australia.  At the very least, I think that what Pacific Stories provides - a platform and an opportunity to share Pacific Stories with other pacific islanders.  This is a simple thing but very powerful in that it helps to keep our stories alive, our cultures strong and for us to be grounded in our pacific identities.
Lia Pa'apa'a
Lia: Sometimes empowerment is a hard thing to quantify!  I have worked and continue to work for my many communities (Pacific, Mexican, Indigenous Australian, Western suburbs of Melbourne) for the betterment of my peoples.  I have worked hard on myself so that I am able to really listen to what the community needs support with and I do my best to achieve it.  Good community work is about good relationships- we are all in it together at the end of the day.  I hope to continue building on the strengths of our communities to create innovative, sustainable programs that are best practice for the people they service.
9.      Are there any more projects planned?
Amie: There aren't any projects as of yet but I see that this Pacific Stories project could be a great model that could be implemented anywhere really.  Also we have had a great response on our Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pacific-Stories/162562773766940) and Pacific Stories Blog which means that even though this project is based in Melbourne we are reaching a wider audience who can also participate and share their own Pacific Stories by uploading photos, videos and contributing to the discussions.
Lia: I am definitely feeling like with the current group of participants, Pacific Stories could become the premise of many great (and needed) things in the future.  I am also involved with the Pacific Women's Weaving Circle that one of our participants Lisa co-founded which I believe is going to gain legs over the next 12 months. My day job is as the Programs Manager for the Music Outback Foundation that delivers music education to remote Indigenous communities across three states.  So always busy, but always looking for new exciting projects to get involved in!!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ebony Hill by Anna Mackenzie

Ebony Hill is the sequel to The Sea-wreck Stranger, which I've raved about often enough on this blog. But is it as good? I didn't think so, but then again other readers may disagree.
   I wasn't as taken by this story because it was a shift away from the type of 'hands on' dilema that Ness faced in the first book. Ebony Hill is more of an introspective dilema, a thoughtful book which doesn't really get going until about page sixty. For readers who enjoy a slower paced book, then this is probably a good one for them. So what's it about? Well...
Ebony Hill (Longacre, 2010)
   Ness and Dev have gone to live in Vidya which is the crumbling remains of a once great city in what must be some part of NZ. Ness is infatuated with Dev but finds that he has little time for her. When Dev brings back another islander, Ronan, and the two of them are sent away to work on a farm, Ness is full of resentment and mixed feelings for Dev. But tragedy strikes on the way to the farm and soon the farming community is forced to defend itself. Ness works as a nurse while violent attacks and bombings occur all around them.
   As Ness is rarely involved in the action a lot of the story is related to her and has a second hand feel to it. But Ness couldn't be a warrior girl. It's not in her character. So Mackenzie has remained to true to her creation and has maintained the lyrical voice which is so captivating in the first book.
   Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this book, but it didn't have the same punch for me that The Sea-wreck Stranger had. I would recommend Ebony Hill for teenagers and science fiction fans.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A new school year

Mid January is the month when school starts back for Solomon Island students. No doubt it's the same in other PSSC participating schools across the Pacific. It's always good to get your new books and feel positive about the year to come. But PSSC is a tough year. There are so many taks to complete in other subjects, let alone English, that often students never get around to reading that novel or non-fiction book. It's hard too, when books you have to read for school aren't really what might interest you normally.
Source: travelwizard.com
   What I found useful was setting targets for each week. Everyone had to have finished reading to the end of chapter two of our class novel by the first week of February, for example. That way the novel was cut into smaller pieces and everyone could get through it in time.
   But actually remembering what you thought about the novel you read in the first half of the year can be difficult when it comes to writing essays about it in October. Keeping a literature diary is a great help. Students can jot down chapter summaries, character notes, page numbers and quotes, all for future reference come exam time.
   Ideas and notes about the poetry, non-fiction, short stories, films and plays studied during the year can also be put in the diary, along with your personal reactions. Did you like the story? Were the characters interesting or wooden? Was the language easy to understand? Was the setting similar to your village/town life? 
   Good luck to PSSC students. Enjoy your year and delight in the riches of Pacific literature. There's more out there than you think.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Legends of the Cook Islands by Shona Hopkins

Legends of the Cook Islands (Penguin, 2010)
This picture story book is just beautiful. The illustrations by Bruce Potter are detailed, colourful and realistic. They appear to be done in coloured pencil and ink, but I'm no expert at this. His depiction of faces and his figure drawing in general is very good.
   There are eight stories all together and some of them have links with Maori legends. My favourite stroies were 'Ati and the Water Fairies' and 'Tangiia and the Sea Turtle'. The story about the stolen mountain called Maru was also a good one.
   Whilst reading to my children some of the polynesian names and words were hard to get my tongue around but there is a glossary in the back to help with comprehension. The text is simple and clear but doesn't talk down to readers. I found this a good one to read to my pikininis and they loved the pictures of whales, sharks and turtles.