The Blood on My Hands by Shannon O’Leary, a review via @Durre_Shahwar

Cross-posted from: Durre Shahwar
Originally published: 26.07.16

“Set in 1960s and ‘70s Australia, The Blood on My Hands is the dramatic tale of Shannon O’Leary’s childhood years, growing up with an abusive father, who was also a serial killer. No one, not even the authorities, would help O’Leary and her family. The responses of those whom O’Leary and her immediate family reached out to for help are almost as disturbing as the crimes of her violent father. Relatives were afraid to bring disgrace to the family’s good name, nuns condemned the child’s objections as disobedience and noncompliance, and laws at the time prevented the police from interfering unless someone was killed. “



The Blood on My Hands is a gripping read, with underlying tension throughout the book, right from the beginning. Every recollection is detailed and concise, be it the author’s memories of her pets and animals or her days at school. It is full of rich descriptions of the characters and the hot Australian setting. The book has a structured, chronological timeline of events, which works without losing the storytelling/memoir feel.

Yet this is not for the weak-hearted. The story is gruelling and traumatic, not for the shock effect, but because this is a story that needs to be told, and the detailed account is an evidence of that. It could be argued that it didn’t need to be so detailed and horrific, and the more traumatising recollections could have been toned down. However, while as a reader, I see the reason why others may feel this way, but as a human, there is credit to be given to Shannon for being so honest and vulnerable on the page.  ….


The full text is here. 

HerStory (Durre Shahwar)I’m a writer, a book reviewer, and an MA Creative Writing graduate. As a South Asian female, I’ve identified as a feminist, since a teen and to this day, I’m writing about what that means and trying to put my experiences into words. My blog was named ‘Herstory’ after my research into Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own during my degree. The term has been the driving factor behind my writing. We all have stories to tell, voices that need to be heard, especially from women of colour, and I hope to be one of them. On my blog, I write book reviews and other content related to the craft of writing and sometimes, academia. I’m interested in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, mental health, intersectional feminism, gender, religion, art, yoga – though not always in that order or mixture! I’m slowly getting my writing published, and trying to review more book by women/women of colour, for which, I am happy to be contacted for via my blog or on Twitter: @Durre_Shahwar.


The stories that get left out

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 04.12.17

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 10.02.34What should biographers do with all the wonderful stories – or snippets – they discover along the way but can’t include in their books?

Many biographers do, of course, include them. But readers often don’t like it – for example wonderful reviewer Whispering Gums recently discussed a biography she enjoyed, but felt contained too much extraneous detail. And, I’ll confess, as a reader I feel the same way. I just want to read about the biographical subject, please.

But as a writer? Of course I want to include all the details! Because I’m assuming the reader is every bit as obsessed by the subject as I am – which is, tragically but patently, untrue. All those extra details, every little meandering away from the main subject, are crucial to the writer’s understanding but frankly unnecessary to the reader’s.

Read more The stories that get left out

Elizabeth Macarthur died today at Adventures in Biography

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 29.01.17

Elizabeth Macarthur in old age. Source:

Not actually today, obviously.

Elizabeth Macarthur the woman died almost 167 years ago, on 9 February 1850. She was eighty-three years old.

But today I wrote the paragraph in which Elizabeth dies, the final paragraph of the book really, and I felt strangely sad.

It’s been my job to make her come to life on the page and I’ve been working to do so for more years than I care to admit. Yet there she was, having a stroke and quietly dying at Watson’s Bay in the company of Emmeline, her youngest daughter and Dr Anderson, a long-time family friend. It was sad and I hope I can make my readers feel that same soft pang.

The other part of my sadness, though, was less easy to articulate.

For months I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point: to be able to write “and then she died. The End.” Which is not what I actually wrote, of course, but you see my point. It is The End. The end of the research (almost), the end of the first draft, the end of laying down the facts of Elizabeth’s long and interesting life.  Did you know that Ludwig Leichhardt called in to Elizabeth Farm for a visit? That Charles Darwin, when he visited Sydney as a young man, dined with Elizabeth’s nephew and his family? That Matthew Flinders was a personal friend? …


You can read the full text here.


Adventures in Biography : I have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth MacArthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.

Saying Goodbye to your Children

Cross-posted from Adventures in Biography

Orig. pub. 18.3.15

This week I waved my son off to camp – he’ll be away for nine days.  Elizabeth Macarthur waved her young sons off too, to be educated in England, for years at a time.  I don’t think I can imagine how she felt.  Or can I?

Inga Clendinnen explored the problem at length in The History Question: Who owns the past? (Quarterly Essay, Issue 23)

We cannot post ourselves back in time. People really did think differently then – or at least we must proceed on that assumption…It is true that historians are cruelly limited. We can’t do conversations; we can’t (usually) do monologues.  But what we can do is become increasingly knowledgeable about the contexts in which particular actions, including the writing of particular words, took place.  We do this not by emphatic time leaps, which would condemn us to live forever sealed into our own narrow cultural and temporal world, but by reconstructing as delicately, as comprehensively and as subtly as we are able, not only the material but also the cultural settings in which other people, once living, now dead, lived out their lives.

Clendinnen herself quotes novelist Henry James, who in 1901 wrote:

You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.  You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman – or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.

Elizabeth Macarthur had nine children.  Seven survived infancy and five (all four sons and one of the three daughters) were sent to England to be educated.  At no time did the seven siblings ever gather together under the same roof because by the time the youngest was born the older ones were overseas.

Copyright-free Image Source:

There was nowhere in New South Wales to adequately educate the children and, even if there were, Elizabeth felt ‘it would be unjust towards them to confine them to so narrow a society. My desire is that they may see a little more of the world, & better learn to appreciate this retirement.’[1]

Like many immigrants before and since, John and Elizabeth had painted for their children a glowing picture of England as Home. Elizabeth, writing to a friend in England, acknowledged that she and John may have gilded the lily somewhat, noting that the children considered England as no less than ‘a seat of happiness and delight’ which contained ‘all that can be gratifying to their senses’ and where ‘of course they are there to possess all they desire.’ Elizabeth sensibly recognised that the children needed to experience England for themselves but she did think that some of them would subsequently choose to make New South Wales their home.

In 1798 Elizabeth’s eldest son Edward, aged eight, was sent to school in England. To his mother’s chagrin he ‘almost quitted me without a tear.’[2]Edward travelled in the care of a Captain Hogan, aboard the Marquis Cornwallis[3], and for company sailed with Norfolk King, also eight and Lieutenant (later Governor) King’s illegitimate son who up until now had been living with his father and stepmother on Norfolk Island.[4]

(Therein lies a whole other story! A blog post for another day, perhaps.  I wonder if the boys attended the same school.)

In 1801 Elizabeth’s husband John sailed to England, without his wife.  With him were the couple’s eldest daughter Elizabeth (then aged nine) and the second son John (then aged seven).  Son John would remain in England and become a lawyer.  Elizabeth corresponded with all her children but she never saw John again and was devastated when he died suddenly, in his mid-thirties.

Husband John and daughter Elizabeth returned to NSW in 1805 but a scant four years later John sailed to England again, in the wake of the overthrow of Governor Bligh.  The two youngest Macarthur boys, James (then aged 9) and William(then aged 7), travelled with him.  John and the two boys did not return home until 1817, when the boys were aged 18 and 16.

Given the very real dangers of each voyage, the unknown elements faced by the children in England, and any mother’s anxiety for her children I DO feel able to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response.  But I won’t endeavour to describe it – instead I’ll trust in my readers’ abilities to guess at Elizabeth’s emotional response too.


[1] EM to Bridget Kingdon, Elizabeth Farm Parramatta, 1 Sept 1798

[2] EM to Bridget Kingdon, Parramatta 1 Sept 1795 (incorrectly dated, should be 1798)

[3] Ellis, M.H. John Macarthur, Angus & Robertson, 1978. Page 139.

[4] Bassett, M. The Governor’s Lady: Mrs Philip Gidley King. Melbourne University Press, Reprinted 1992. p114.

Adventures in Biography I have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth Macarthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.

Dimensions by Shahidah Janjua

Written by  Philippa Willitts


Dimensions is a book of poetry and shorts by Pakistani writer and feminist activist, Shahidah Janjua. It takes the reader through aspects of the author’s life, with each poem and piece of prose both segmented and connected by recurring, colliding themes.

With evocative imagery of Lahore, Dimensions begins with reflections on Janjua’s early life. The smells, sights, sounds and rhythm of her childhood express both warm nostalgia and intense discomfort. Identifying the “sisterhood of servitude”, a place from which she chose “companions for the journeying way”, the author describes the cautious eye she had to keep on “the fathers wants, the brothers needs”. Already, her place as a girl in the world is painful. And, although I can sometimes find poetry to be impenetrable, these words are vibrant and distinct.

One section of the book is about Adam, Shahidah’s son whose death sent her spinning. I could barely breathe as I read the palpable agony of his passing and her grief.

My spirit lays down, its cheek pressed to the velvet grass.

Extracts from her diary talk directly to Adam. Pain, love, regret and memories mingle to create a narrative that is both uplifting and devastating. I found connections with my own experiences of loss, which no doubt contributed to how moving I found the writing, but Shahidah’s words went further than this. The pain of a mother who loses a child is said to be incomparable to any other grief and, through reading Dimensions a number of times, I sense that this is true.

Other parts of the book are, by contrast, light hearted and humorous. Laughing at the way we see the world and its contradictions is, at times, a welcome relief from the intense scrutiny of misogyny and oppression, although even these parts demonstrate the depth of the author’s awareness and intuition. We laugh because we recognise what we read.

Tales of Shahidah the wild child – an indication of the rebellious, misbehaving streak that remains, decades later – convey an optimism that abides despite her acutely perceptive insights into the problems facing the women of the world, from environmental destruction to beheadings to self-harm to rape. She does not shy away from discussing her uncle who raped her and the impossible choices she was forced to make. Righteous fury sings through Shahidah’s words.

Rights are for rapists

Freedom is for fuckers

Justice is for Judge Clarence

Punishment is for the poor.

Shahidah’s grandmother, with her “toothless smile and craggy face”, is a source of love and comfort, while walls and bars limit access to her father. Other women are a recurring theme in Shahidah’s words; their influence on her life, their meaning in her feminism. In Not Tangible Enough, she writes,

The reality of this me

Came from other women’s lives.

Their blood sweat words and brushstrokes

Wrung out on patterns across a page.

A powerful text about the powerful connections between women, the pain we live through and the injustices that surround us, Dimensions is a deeply feminist work that cuts through the fog and shines an uncompromising light on oppression. Shahidah Janjua’s writing takes readers from wistful longing to brutal pain and back in a single breath. Time and again, I allowed myself to relax into humour or enjoy a scene she so expertly conjures, before being whipped into the bleakness of her truths about the male gaze and misogyny.

The book is dedicated to Andrea Dworkin, who she credits as having taught her “plain speaking and truth telling”, and this book is certainly a powerful testament to that influence.

If Dworkin taught Shahidah Janjua to speak plainly and tell the truth, then she did so expertly. The author’s words are both beautiful and desolate, because the world she reflects is, too. This book is a work of beauty, a work of passionate feminism, and a work of truth; truth about women, our lives and our many complex realities.


The book is available by Geepy Publishing and Amazon Kindle


Philippa Willitts is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on writing about rape culture and victim blaming, disability issues and tech. You can find her on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.