Khin Myint opens his memoir, Fragile Creatures (Black Inc.), with a conversation about his sister’s hidden store of Nembutal. Chronically ill for well over a decade, she wants the option to opt out. She’s been variously diagnosed as suffering from chronic fatigue, chronic Lyme disease and conversion disorder (the contemporary term for hysteria). Myint suspects it’s the latter, and that the cause is their shared difficult childhood, as products of an unhappy marriage between a Burmese father and English mother. Both siblings were viciously ostracised and bullied throughout their high-school years, in what his American fiancée Rachel will later call “one of the whitest places I’ve ever seen” (Perth).

The book’s shadow throughline is his break-up with Rachel, who dumps him via Skype during a visit home to the US, prompting him to book a flight to seek a face-to-face explanation. A day after he meets with her (and accepts that it’s over), she calls the police on him for stalking, forcing him to go into debt to defend himself at a subsequent trial.

Myint’s sister’s mysterious illness and his relationship with Rachel are the twin engines of the plot, with deviations back in time to his horrific schooldays and the disconnect with his parents, particularly his Burmese father, who both criticised and envied his children’s relative whiteness.

One moment among many that stands out is when Myint asks a rare neutral schoolmate why everyone hates him and is told: “It’s how you look.” When he considers how he can fix himself, the schoolmate continues: “It isn’t something you can change. It isn’t something a person can change about themselves.” Reading these lines – a diagnosis of being inherently wrong as a person – my heart broke.

Myint writes that while he eventually dealt with mainstream rejection by embracing a disdainful outsider status, his sister became an anxious over-achiever, “deeply dissociated from her emotions – especially anger”. It’s not that he disbelieves her physical symptoms; he believes they were caused by mental distress. His exploration of the mind-body link is a fascinating one.

The writer’s approach, here and elsewhere, is more about raising questions than claiming definitive answers – just one reason I absolutely loved this exquisitely observed, candidly inhabited memoir.

Deeply nuanced in its attempt to understand and explain various viewpoints, reflecting an outsider’s essential skillset of social analysis (to decode situations and detect unsafety), it’s ultimately a forensically sharp critique of Australian racism and masculinity. Myint has some empathy for the “emotional poverty” of a masculinity he feels alienated from, and outlines a connection between shame, insecurity and violence.

“What defines racism isn’t who gets targeted,” he writes, “it is the unconscious anxieties of the more racially privileged group that targets them.”

This critique broadens with the character of Rachel (“maybe a bit of a tourist”), whose “middle-class” family are “quasi-religious” about politics. “Their privileges were plenty, but it annoyed them to consider that.” Along with his university cohort, they stand in for unreflective progressives who say the right lines, but centre themselves by considering disadvantage in terms of categories to discuss, rather than engaging with complex humanity.

“My experiences made people uncomfortable if I talked about them,” Myint writes of his time at university, “as a victim of violence and ostracism, I found the language used to deconstruct ‘normality’ alienating and elitist.”

Another book I read and loved this month, which speaks to this kind of knotty nuance, is Love Across Class (MUP) by Rose Butler and Eve Vincent, a fascinating mix of research and reporting based on the authors’ interviews with 38 Australians (15 couples and eight members of couples whose partners declined to take part) from different class backgrounds, which looks at how class affects relationships.

All kinds of miscommunications and differing expectations arise – which some couples negotiate, becoming stronger in the process, and others seem destined to be eroded by. For example, one man who half-jokingly describes himself as “raised in the lap of luxury” is indifferent to his parents’ desire to buy him a house, while his partner, who describes her ambitions growing up as somewhat “survival-based”, craves the security it would offer (which she can only access through him).

If you, like me, are fascinated by the complexities of class, this is a thought-provoking and fascinating read. And at a time when wealth inequality is ballooning, it feels hugely relevant for understanding the world we’re in.

Young adult novelist Julia Lawrinson’s blackly comic, alternately stoic and vulnerable memoir, How to Avoid a Happy Life (Fremantle Arts Centre Press), is another deep dive into working-class life in Perth – this time, in the 1970s and ’80s. The tone is perhaps best described by citing some of the chapter titles: “Get Yourself Born into Intergenerational Misery”, “Experience Vicarious Trauma through Your Friend Being Raped and Murdered by a Japanese Serial Killer” and “Marry Your Ex-Girlfriend’s Brother” are the first three.

Lawrinson’s experiences include stints in a psychiatric institution as a teenager (where she and other patients were molested by their psychiatrist – and no authorities were interested in hearing about it) and her father’s story of being deposited at an orphanage and then a group home as a child, after his own father was arrested for badly beating his mother (a situation reported as normal; her standing up to him – at breathtaking cost – was the exception).

But the grim moments, of which there are many, are interspersed with flashes of joy and exuberance. Her mother was forced to give up her first child for adoption, after she got pregnant at 16… but while working as a live-in domestic during this time, her job one day required her to take her charges to a thrilling Beatles concert. At the psychiatric institution, Lawrinson made a wild, beautiful friend with whom she would one day adventure to Melbourne and Sydney. After her parents separated when she was young, life was for a while “definitely more fun”, with parties, barbecues, and friends popping in and out.

But ultimately, this memoir, which bursts with a vibrant voice and resonates with glittering resilience, is about surviving the Australia (and Perth) that would later be so challenging for Khin Myint. “In its blokey, laconic culture you no more expressed a feeling than communicated your achievements. You took the piss out of yourself and others, and if you couldn’t take a joke, well tough titties.”

While it evokes nostalgia for some of its cultural references (Space Invaders, Doc Martens worn with dresses), it deeply, inherently warns against the kind of broader nostalgia for the good old days recently voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, who misses “a dominant masculinity” and “an agreed-upon hierarchy”. Books like Lawrinson’s and Myint’s remind us of the price paid in such a world – by women, men who don’t fit rigid definitions of masculinity and anyone at the bottom rungs of that hierarchy, whether financially or socially.

Perhaps this is best encapsulated by this passage: “We were going into 1988. It was the year of the bicentenary of British colonisation, and the mood of the country was celebratory, if you weren’t one of the people for whom colonisation was more appropriately a cause for lamentation.” I still recall the tune of the anthem that dominated the television that year, when I was in high school: All those years, of sweat and tears, it’s our bi-cen-tenaryyyyy! Celebration of a nation! It never occurred to me, or anyone I knew in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide, not to cheerfully obey the command to join in.

Nick Bryant’s The Forever War: America’s Unending Conflict with Itself (Penguin), will likely benefit from remarkably auspicious publication timing. You may have seen the journalist and former historian waving this book on Planet America last Friday night, right after Donald Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, making him the first American former or sitting president to be convicted of criminal charges.

This book is a companion to Bryant’s (excellent) last one, When America Stopped Being Great, which argued Trump’s ascendancy was inevitable, even “historically inescapable”. He traced the trajectory of the American presidency from Ronald Reagan onwards, showing how Trump capitalised on a broken system.

The Forever War is, as Bryant has said, both a sequel and a prequel. It’s a rejoinder to the oft-cited truism that Donald Trump is a president like no other, who has stirred up historically unprecedented levels of hate, division and latent violence. In fact, he argues, Trump is not a “radical departure from the American story”, but a product of its past – dating back to its very founding, and even earlier.

“It is not the American deep state that is the problem, but rather America’s deep history.”

The Camelot myth of the JFK presidency that first enchanted Bryant as a young man, he tells us, was just that: a myth strategically seeded by Jackie Kennedy, in an interview with Life magazine, in the (largely successful) hope of controlling history. (This will be familiar if you watched the 2016 biopic, Jackie.)

In fact, supposed liberal champion JFK regarded civil rights as “a political irritation to manage and finesse” for much of his presidency. Nonetheless, ahead of his fateful trip to Dallas, ultra-conservatives distributed a flyer there featuring his face, reading “WANTED FOR TREASON”. Bryant calls it “ironic” Kennedy’s shooting was attributed to a communist sympathiser, rather than a “radical rightist”, as seemed more likely to happen.

The book is packed with revelatory and interesting historical facts that speak to the current moment, as well as insightful unpackings of how inequality was built into the American political system. “A paradox of the new republic was that the new American head of state had considerably more power than the old British king.” Andrew Jackson, the president Trump viewed as his “presidential soulmate” – in 1824, the first candidate ever to actively campaign – was “the first populist president and the first brazen authoritarian”.

Many of the January 6 insurrectionists, Bryant writes, “believed they were descendants of a violent tradition that justified and legitimised their violence”. Some history has been misappropriated – for example, Thomas Jefferson, often co-opted to defend the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) was in fact “an early proponent of gun control”.

However, Bryant concludes, much of the history co-opted by violent extremists is accurate. Jefferson did say, and literally mean: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” To this end, he also suggested insurrectionists should be dealt with leniently, so as not to discourage rebellions.

Survey data gathered between 2016 and 2017 found almost a third of Americans “thought having a strong leader who didn’t bother with Congress was a good way of governing”. Almost a fifth were “highly disposed towards authoritarianism”. Millions of voters supported Donald Trump not despite his authoritarianism, but because of it.

As events unfold in the months leading up to the November election that Trump, who plans to be “a dictator on day one”, may well win, it feels valuable to turn to history to help explain his place in it so far – and predict what might lay ahead. Bryant’s book is an excellent place to start.

Jo Case is a monthly columnist for InReview and deputy editor, books & ideas, at The Conversation. She is former bookseller at Imprints on Hindley Street and former associate publisher of Wakefield Press.

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