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Sing Me That Lovely Song Again

Helga Griffin

Pandanus Books, 2006

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Helga Griffin, Sing me that lovely song again..., extracts

‘You drove towards the mountains and they fanned out as another range appeared. The vast stretches of desert, which we crossed so often by car on poor roads, were dotted with oases. These were stable and coherent places of habitation: perhaps a mud-baked wall, surrounding date palms, flat-roofed houses, a spring. Perhaps there was simply a set of terraced gardens with elaborate irrigation, supporting crops of watermelons and cucumbers.
     One place was simply a small field. We came across it by chance, but the feeling of excitement associated with it has remained. We walked through a waterless riverbed, stepping on smooth stones and boulders, and climbed up a steep embankment. It was so steep that I had to be lifted up. But once at the top I stepped into a forest of sunflowers in bloom. At their feet sprawled cucumbers, with their clumps of leaves and tendrils. I cannot explain why suddenly my life seemed full and satisfying. I wanted to stay there forever.
     Listening to me talk once again of that special place, my parents asked: "Don’t you remember that we could not get home? That a flash flood suddenly rushed down the riverbed and carried away the car and our driver?" I was astonished that I remembered none of this. But I do recall another late afternoon when we came to a flooded river and we could not cross. We were rescued in the twilight by a bus full of people.  
     My mother confirmed that this was on the very same day, and that the people on the bus were all pilgrims travelling to Mecca. They stank horribly of stale garlic, enough to make us want to faint, she remembered. "But they were so happy to help us." My parents had obviously concealed from me the tragic death of the driver who had parked father’s car in the dry riverbed…’

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Responses to the book

‘Helga Griffin’s feisty autobiography is a splendid contribution to the rich tradition of Australian literature about women growing up. In her quest for self-understanding, Helga pursues the themes of home and exile, from childhood in Iran to war years in an Australian internment camp, to adolescence in a convent boarding school. Through her poignant descriptions and honest self-disclosures she delicately sets in tension the metaphors of alienation and belonging, of boundaries and freedoms, to produce a courageous and rewarding book.’
Anne Margot Boyd, Editor, WATAC News Victoria

‘Griffin was just six years old when she was sent with her family to the civilian camp at Tatura, and her book recounts the intimacy of camp life—the stresses on her father, German language classes and the splitting of the family after five years of internment…Helga’s development from a thoughtful, sensitive child to a self-possessed young woman, wrestling with her faith and with how to live a decent life, is vividly recounted.’
Shepparton News, 5 May 2006

‘"We saw the Australian countryside through barbed wire. It was terribly dry and dusty; sometimes the smoke from bushfires would blow over," Griffin says…"Bed bugs were terrible—everybody had to take their beds outside and scrub them down with DDT. My mother hated this."…The latrine was called the Winston Churchill. "It seems very rude now, but Churchill was a demonic figure to us."…They had music, theatre, libraries and books. "We learned to make things with our hands; there were fantastic gardens, and fashions for toys."’
Interview with Helga Griffin, Shepparton News, 18 May 2006

‘Her book recounts that the intimacy of camp life placed sometimes unbearable stress on interpersonal relationships, that her parents, especially her father, suffered deeply from being confined but that the children grew up together with much the same mix of harmony and discord as may have been part of their lives elsewhere. The toughest time for the Girschik family came in Melbourne after the War when their father, despite his years of working as an engineer on major projects in the Middle East, found it difficult to obtain employment. Worst of all the Girschiks could not find a place to live after leaving the camp, without breaking up the family.’
Euroa Gazette, 9 May 2006

‘As prisoners go, the Girschiks and their fellow inmates at Tatura were a most unusual lot...I didn’t even know of the compound containing them. Helga’s account of it is an astonishingly vivid telling of an astonishing story. For me, the most astonishing thing in the story is that the inmates lived entirely in German, learning no English, actually living German lives…This is a book of memories and a book about memory. Helga tells her story in prose at once spare and rich, precise and fresh. There are sentences that make the reader feel that the language is being used for the first time…Sing me that lovely song again is a wonderful book.’
Ken Inglis, author and Professor of History, 3 May 2006

‘Mrs Griffin has pieced together a book that is a story of a girl’s construction of her identity, and of her family’s search for a place in the world, for the Heimat  that is so resonant for those of German background.’
Tatura Guardian, 2 May 2006

‘It is very difficult to write an autobiography. To succeed, the author has to be totally honest with herself but at the same time ensure that her story still resonates in the lives of other people…Retaining Helga’s own way of speaking is the key to her book, which I rate as one of the best of all Australian autobiographies.’
Pat Crudden, former Director, Council of Adult Education, Victoria, Goulburn Valley Writers’ Group, 9 June 2006

‘Helga’s book tells a story about Australia that I have never heard…Her family life was itinerant, to say the least… But there is a great culture that continues to travel with her…There is a sense in which her whole book is not only a search for identity but for an understanding of why in some sense we are all outsiders.’
John Cleary, ABC Radio, 11 June 2006

‘Griffin is determined to tell a story that does not erase the uncomfortable bits…Recounting some disturbing incidents, Griffin overlays her early recollections with adult reflections in order to make sense of what was inexplicable to the child. The "raw" is thus "cooked" by adult experience to mitigate the pain…This is a politically astute memoir, reflective and generous, uninterested in blame or self-pity…a timely and engaging book.’
Christina Hill, Australian Book Review, August 2006
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