Book review: Personal Score, Ellen van Neerven

Ellen Van Neervan's latest book is a non-fiction about the nexus between sport, culture and identity.

Ellen van Neerven cleverly recalls their lived experience, touching upon the connections between sport, culture and identity. Their exploration opens with an invitation into an unapologetically cultural space that embraces the importance of relationships that matter (to them), which are, ‘one with the land and one with the people’.

From the start, it’s no secret that the author has a score to settle in various aspects of their life. They are not here to serve an embellished account that attempts to combat the decolonisation of Australian sports. Instead, they present a personal offering borne from the ugly language they grew up hearing in this country.

Van Neerven brings to the fore a dark Australian history associated with sports, including violent language that transcends the soccer field while concealed as coaching with words like ‘beat’, ‘flog’, ‘attack’, ‘destroy’ and others. Of most significance is the historical implications of Aboriginal people being hunted down by British elites on horseback under the league aptly titled ‘blood sports’.

While for some, the articulated tales may strike as historical events to be packaged, shelved and forgotten, unfortunately, the present is laced with the past and ultimately informs the future. 

Former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott once said, ‘Sport is sport … sport and politics don’t mix.’ However, as sport is the most dearly held activity in Australia, one would not be mistaken to think Australians worship at its altar. Van Neerven’s reference to their backyard as ‘our church of football’ reiterates this notion. Does it mean as a nation we need to separate identity politics from sport? Is this even possible? These are some of the issues that Personal Score interrogates that will leave the reader with a moment of personal reflection.

Alongside hard-hitting truths, the reader is also enticed to enjoy reliving some great and prominent sporting moments. These magnificent events are eloquently retold by not only an accomplished storyteller, but a passionate player who ‘remembers the narrative, beyond the stats’.

Van Neerven also candidly allows the reader into an intimate experience of their gender/sexuality from the expectations of what a high school student is supposed to look like, to their fear of being exposed as different from societal norms. These yarns of gender politics culminate in a landscape riddled with trauma that attaches itself to the author’s ongoing reality. This is an eye-opener for anyone complicit and an invitation to always exercise kindness.

What’s in a name? Why are names so important? Who has the right to (re)name public spaces and what are the cultural implications for the Indigenous peoples of that place? Throughout their delivery, van Neerven’s connections to places, and in particular Country, remind the reader that Australia is layered with untold stories. The author provides the foundation for the reader to be curious about the land on which they find themselves in a way that surpasses performative allyship.

Read: Book review: The Scope of Permissibility, Zeynab Gamieldien

Personal Score succeeds in its depiction of van Neerven’s holistic personal evolution, in their yearning for something that can be attained only if the playing field is level. Further, the offering challenges the reader to view their position on the field of life while interrogating their role within the game – because life is a team sport.

Personal Score: Sport, culture, identity by Ellen Van Neerven
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702265853
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320pp
Publication date: 2 May 2023
RRP: $34.99

Dorcas Maphakela is a writer, visual artist and holistic well-being advocate, using art and words to share knowledge and inspiration on living a full life. She is also a TV presenter, public speaker and founder and producer of the Antenna Award-winning OZ AFRICAN TV (OATV). Alongside her role with Multicultural Arts Victoria, Dorcas co-founded Yo CiTY, a platform that champions the culturally diverse experience through Art & music. Dorcas is an Academic Screen Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She studied Fine Arts and Master of Arts in Writing. Her work was acknowledged with a Media Award from the Victorian Multicultural Commission for “outstanding reporting on issues of importance to diverse communities and reporting which contributes to Victoria’s cross-cultural understanding” (VMC).