By Maria Tumarkin Brow Books

The past shapes the present – they teach us that in schools and universities. This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past – ours, our family’s, our culture’s – wields in the present?

Stories are not enough, even though they are essential. And books about history, books of psychology – the best of them take us closer, but still not close enough.

Axiomatic is a boundary-shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation. It takes as its starting point five axioms:

  • ‘Time Heals All Wounds’
  • ‘History Repeats Itself…’
  • ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’
  • ‘Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I’ll Give You the Woman’
  • ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’

These beliefs—or intuitions—about the role the past plays in our present are often evoked as if they are timeless and self-evident truths. It is precisely because they are neither, yet still we are persuaded by them, that they tell us a great deal about the forces that shape our culture and the way we live.

More than seven full and long years in the making, Axiomatic actively seeks to reset the nonfiction form in Australia.

Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. She is the author of three acclaimed books of ideas: TraumascapesCourage, and Otherland, and all three were shortlisted for literary prizes. Tumarkin’s essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays, Griffith ReviewMeanjinThe MonthlySydney Review of BooksThe AgeThe Australian, and Inside Story. Tumarkin is involved in wide-ranging artistic collaborations with visual artists, theatre makers and audio designers. She was a 2013–14 Sidney Myer Creative Fellow in humanities and is a member of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s programming committee. Maria teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

Judges' report

Take anything you’ve ever known about how nonfiction is supposed to work and throw it out the window: Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic is an unwieldy, expansive beast that combines lyrical essay with psychological reportage. Axiomatic pushes the boundaries of nonfiction so far out that they will never recover, and in so doing develops an essay style that perfectly reflects the complexities of our era.

Tumarkin takes existing axioms and interrogates them for veracity. She talks to a wide range of people, looks at the historical record, and examines people’s lived experiences with humour, compassion and great warmth. She is unflinchingly honest at all times, and there is no artifice evident in this collection – a remarkable feat for a writer working in such self-conscious times.

We never tired of this joyful, dark and never less-than-original collection of essays from a writer who thinks deeply and never shies from the hardest of questions.

Further reading


‘It is her most vital, compressed and compelling book to date.’ Shannon Burns, Sydney Review of Books

‘Tumarkin, who brings her own experiences to play, writes in a sometimes fierce voice that is utterly her own and brings with it an inquiring mind that together make for a thought-provoking experience.’ Jason Steger, The Age

‘Everyone is looking for the next Helen Garner and Maria Tumarkin shares with Garner a gimlet eye for the flaws in official systems, along with a fascination for the narratives nested in everyday lives. Axiomatic’s symphonic structure, however, recalls Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist and Nobel Laureate. She is another for whom reality attracts like a magnet, who has made a career out of appropriating and braiding voices and documents, seeing the world as a chorus and a collage. With this remarkable, wild, risk-laden book, Tumarkin has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as both of them.’
The Saturday Paper

‘Again and again in Axiomatic, Tumarkin confronts the meagreness of the written word in the face of trauma as she muses on her inability to write the text she had intended (“I was working on this book and a year passed, then two, and two more …”). Yet again and again, she herself demonstrates what literary prose can do.’ Jeff Sparrow, Sydney Morning Herald

‘Tumarkin does not shy away from the uncomfortable, from the too-hard-to-be-written-or-even-contemplated, but faces it head on, with dignity, and with knowledge of her own fallibility.’ Caitlin Cassidy, Right Now


Watch Maria Tumarkin discuss Axiomatic with Melina Harvey at the Wheeler Centre

Listen to Maria Tumarkin discuss Axiomatic with Richard Fidler at the Sydney Writers Festival