Book – Root & Branch
Author: Eda Gunaydin
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing
Reviewer: Stephen Keim
Eda Gunaydin’s essays are of and from her experience. Gunaydin is that incredibly smart child, now in her late twenties, with a Turkish Australian heritage who grew up in the disadvantaged suburbs of western Sydney.
Her essays plumb that experience but range much more widely. A quote from one of the book’s essays self-describes Gunaydin as an argumentative person who is frequently convinced that she is right. And, since such delusional self-belief is not rewarded in many other spheres of social life, Gunaydin writes essays.
Such self-deprecating humour is charming in any writer. In Gunaydin’s case, one can accept that her opinions are strongly held. They are, however, clearly argued and the product of deep thought upon a kaleidoscope of subjects and provide the reader with insights that provoke further trains of thought as, indeed, all essay writing should.
The beauty of Gunaydin’s writing is evident from the first lines of the first essay, A Rock Is A Hard Place: “Mum wants to eat Turkish food. She always wants to eat Turkish food”. With an economy of words, in the space of a few lines, the reader is ensconced in a family dynamic with a Turkish Australian vibe, taking place in the only one of the eight kebab shops on Blacktown’s Main Street that is actually run by Turks and not Lebanese or Afghans. You have the scene arrange itself, as it will seem to do, with freeloading amcas and yenges making themselves cups of tea for which they will never pay and the proprietor, maybe, having accused Gunaydin of dressing like a slut depending on whether you believe Gunaydin’s mother who may have merely invented the insult for reasons which Gunaydin, herself, finds difficult to plumb.
The family dynamic is complex. Gunaydin’s mum is neurotic, to say the least, and conflict simmers between mother and daughter. Gunaydin and her father have a much easier relationship. Her father has worked on building sites all over western Sydney and, on car journeys throughout Gunaydin’s childhood, proudly pointed out those parts of Sydney which he had constructed.
Gunaydin’s father’s family heritage involved following the minority Alevi strain of Islam and growing up in the poorer more left wing suburbs on the edges of Turkish cities. Her mother came from a family that was both richer and much more violently right wing in their politics. Maybe, the family dynamics were fated to be complex.
Root & Branch, however, is not a family memoir. Its subject matter ranges much more broadly. Gunaydin has inherited her father’s left wing politics and much of Root & Branch is a Marxist analysis of the rampant inequality of opportunity in modern Australian society. Gunaydin has, at her fingertips, the western Sydney in which she grew up to provide many examples of this inequality through its malfunctioning hospitals; its crumbling road surfaces; and the disadvantage in the labour market experienced by any job seeker who nominates to a prospective employer a western Sydney home address, circumstances experienced by Gunaydin or, in the case of the latter, avoided by subterfuge.
Gunaydin’s essays obtain much of their appeal from their broad range and their free ranging structure. One moment, an incident will be discussed. It may be an encounter with an unsavoury male stranger while waiting outside McDonald’s for a friend to come back with a burger. It may be her father’s childhood move from the country to the fringes of a Turkish city. It may be a trip to hospital with resulting incompetent treatment. Then, incident may gain perspective from a completely different incident, perhaps, reading Chomsky’s works as part of the privilege of embarking upon a PhD or, perhaps, the story of Gunaydin’s first published essay and the literary prizes it garnered. Then, Gunaydin may draw on her extraordinary learning to give context to whatever phenomenon has occupied the preceding pages.
Only an extraordinarily entertaining writer and an extraordinarily talented intellect could manage to construct essays of such fluidity and movement and make them work. Gunaydin does more than make them work. The reader desires to follow the writer along every step of the journey and wants to anticipate the switches and turns of a narrative that enlightens as it entertains.Root & Branch is informative and insight filled. The essays are important discussions of Australia and its recent history through the eyes of a brilliant young literary practitioner who fearlessly shares her experiences, her insecurities and her learning.