Gayatri Nair reviews Monsters by Alison Croggon
by Alison Croggon
Reviewed by GAYATRI NAIR
I initially didn’t want to review this book. It is written by a white woman, and as a person of colour (POC) who wants to elevate diverse writing, I thought it was important to only review other diverse writers. However, after discussion with a mentor and writer I realised that it is also important that we, as POC women especially, participate in criticism, not just of diverse literature but also more established writers. It is possible also to challenge and change traditional criticism by introducing diverse perspectives from diverse critic-subjects. This is called auto-ethnographic criticism, which acknowledges the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and makes room for non-traditional forms of inquiry and expression. It is a way to quietly address the assumed authority of the ‘literary review’ or the role of ‘critic’. So, in this way it’s subversive for a POC to review white authors and writing.
Alison Croggon I think would appreciate and understand this. Her work Monsters – part essay, interwoven with part memoir – interrogates her role as a white woman and how colonialism and the establishment of the empire has caused harm, not only to those outside it but those who built it. She asks difficult questions, not only of herself but of the reader.
“This figure I see in the foreground, this me. How monstrous am I? What does it mean to be a monster? From Latin monstrum, meaning an abomination…grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible …” (pg 160)
Croggon is herself an immigrant, she researches her family’s heritage through murky British military history to both South Africa during the Boer War and India; her family were foot soldiers of the empire. She questions how she can escape this dynasty including spending her formative years under apartheid – and the most racist country in the world.
Croggon’s descriptive way with words and unexpected adjectives and sentence structures demonstrate her expertise as a poet. The rhythms of her writing replicate the ocean and we are sometimes dragged within its depths. The references to other writers, especially poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath are interlaced with her own criticisms in unique ways. But the stories she tells of her family life and in particular her motherhood are glittering, told with both stylistic prowess and integrity. The way she writes about being a woman, her mother and her own experience of domestic abuse which fractured her life and relationships, and her later recognition of what it was is both compassionate and unrelenting. Her refusal to be a nice woman, her anger at structures that contain women is refreshing.
The critical relationship explored in this this book though is the one with her sister, which is sometimes hard to read. Their relationship is marked by cruelty and stems from their experiences as children, the violence Croggon describes as well as the anger is at once palpable, intimate but also sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy. Their subsequent estrangement marked by their shared inheritance of violence is traced back in a wonky line to their history as colonisers. This is not an easy read.
“When people feel there isn’t enough to go around, conflict can be vicious. Maybe that’s part of what happened between me and my sister, that sense that there was so little of everything. There wasn’t enough money, there wasn’t enough love. Everything turned into a deadly competition. And we both lost.” (pg 154)
The book asks questions, but it doesn’t give answers. As a reader this can sometimes be frustrating as we are dragged along, it can feel relentless, and it’s unclear what Croggon wants from us as the reader. But there is also an understanding that the reader can accept that life doesn’t have neat conclusions and we can sit with her in trying to make sense of it.
Croggon’s critique of colonialism, which threads its way through the entire book, is her most interesting but also at times jarring. She traces a faint line through her lineage as colonisers and their cruelty to her family’s recent experiences of violence which led to both the fracture in her parents’ relationship and her relationship with her sister. She investigates the idea that like patriarchy hurts everyone (including men), white supremacy also hurts white people. Not only does it hurt those that are colonised, but it also hurts those that perpetrate it. Croggon explains:
“I’m not interested in writing a mea culpa. I’m not interested in throwing ashes on my head and throwing myself on the ground in penitence. I’m not interested in displays of my guilt or my culpability. Take this as read: I was raised in a racist, sexist, hierarchical culture, and just as I had to learn (am still learning) how to undo all the prohibitions imposed by the patriarchs, rows and rows of them in their robes like in medieval paintings, leading all the up to the Throne of God, so I am learning to unlearn racism.” (pg 241)
Whilst this is a novel and valid theory that deserves to be interrogated further, one of the problems with this assertion is that too much focus is on the white experience and not enough on the experiences of those who were oppressed. To her credit Croggon acknowledges this but some of it does feel a bit self-pitying and has elements of white saviour complex. Whilst it is a memoir and this self-reflection is important, there is perhaps too much focus on this narrative when she could have further amplified the stories of the oppressed. She does refer to other Black and brown thinkers like Audre Lorde and Ruby Hamad, but it also feels like a checklist in a post #blacklivesmatter world. This narrative takes away from the stories that need to be told.
Her descriptions and unravelling of the misogynies in canonical works are sharp. And the way she uses theory to unpack her own personal history whilst at times raw is also compelling. Croggon’s use of the English language is superb. Her condemnation of the empire, its inheritance and how it’s destroyed not only external, but her inner world is both uneasy and powerful.
“I was born as part of a monstruous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped, me that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire that declared itself the natural order of the world.” (pg 160)
“Those voiceless ghosts, only audible in their absence.” (pg 35) By writing her own story, and asking these questions, she gives those ghosts a voice and encourages other stories by those that have been oppressed, to be told. In Monsters, Croggon also makes space for these questions to be answered.
GAYATRI NAIR is an Indian-Australian writer, poet and DJ based on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney’s inner west. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and has qualifications in Law and Arts, working in human rights policy, research and advocacy. Gayatri has been published in Sweatshop Women and Swampland Magazine.