H.C. Gildfind reviews Everything, all at Once

Everything, all at Once

Ultimo Press

Sydney, 2021

ISBN 9781761150173

Reviewed by H.C. GILFIND

Everything, all at Once presents fiction and poetry from the ‘thirty writers under thirty’ who won the inaugural Ultimo prize in 2021. This prize asked entrants to explore the theme of ‘identity’—a pertinent choice, considering how central and contested particular identities (and the notion of identity itself) have become in cultural and political conversations. This theme is also apt, of course, for a collection that offers young people a stepping-stone in their journey to ‘come of age’ both as individuals and as professional writers. 

Each piece in this collection is preceded by its author’s biography as well as (with a few exceptions) a photo. This format is striking, not only because of George Saad’s vibrant design, but because authorial identity is usually presented by publishers in a more understated, post-textual manner. Whilst this format surely reflects the publisher’s desire to celebrate these writers alongside their writing, this foregrounding of authorial identity might also be intended to provoke readers to question how they read. Does writing on the theme of identity oblige an author to disclose (aspects of) their own? Should fiction and poetry be read in relation to an author’s biographical information? Does such information influence intra- and inter-textual interpretations? Or does a reader’s awareness of such information dissipate once they are immersed in a worded-world? 

With its central concern about the increasingly ‘performative’ nature of society, Seth Robinson’s ‘Watch me’ is a fitting story to open this collection. This story reveals a dystopian world where everyone is driven to perform their selves for ‘all-important Likes and LOLs’ (13)—so much so that they risk self-erasure. Is this the drum-beat to our lives, now: ‘Watch, watch, watch me’ (16)? Is our prime goal, now, to worship—or become—a ‘LED deity’ (16)? Is this ephemeral identity all that the world has left to offer young people? This story powerfully evokes the pain, paralysis and yearning that consumes ordinary people as they see human life and emotion commodified (or ignored) by increasingly pervasive—creepily invisible—techno-capitalist powers. 

Georgia Rose Phillips’ ‘New Balance’ is a witty and poignant reflection on the nature of love in this performative landscape. The narrator actively seeks a psychologist who will assist—rather than stop—her self-mutilating behaviour. She likes this psychologist who allows her to indulge in ‘vicarious entanglement’ (112) with her ex’s new life, which is painted with digital ‘spatters of self’ (110) online. Instead of trying to fix or improve her, this psychologist’s novel therapy is to accept the narrator as she is. Being oneself is a radical act in this story—as it is across the collection. 

Amelia Zhou’s ‘Bright’ tells the surreal tale of a woman who shuns public performance altogether. In a scorched world, where people are spot-lit by a never-setting sun, the protagonist slathers herself in sunscreen behind drawn curtains. She peeks out at her neighbours’ ‘durational performance’ (75) which is full of laughter, talk, play and endless, mindless barbequing (of food and themselves). Watching them, she feels ‘hungry and thirsty’ (74) and envious of their casual conspicuousness: such ‘visibility’ (72) is denied her, and she feels herself disappearing into an unwitnessed purposelessness. Is performance—in and for the sight of others—the only way to exist in this world? 

Charlotte Snedden’s story presents a woman who actively seeks overt performance. In a theatre group, where her role is explicitly scripted and choreographed, her self-splitting anxiety disappears and she can return her self to her body: momentarily, she escapes her ‘Schrödinger’s mental health crisis,’ where she is present and absent all at once (82). Amy Duong’s teenage protagonist also yearns for clearly scripted roles, seeking them in the theatre of work where she is directed by the ‘calm authority’ (65) of men: ‘Dennis had assigned her a new identity… and in that mould, she had finally been made real’ (62). Meanwhile, Matilda Howard’s protagonist explores the roles played in the traditionally feminine theatre of a wedding. Here, a young woman observes people jangling with the ‘shadow-bones’ (126) left by barely-masked pain and disappointment. By the end of the day—having endured the event’s swirls of fear, bullying, and status-anxiety—she can hardly remember her own name.

Vivien Heng’s ‘Now Only Colour Lives’ is a tightly-crafted story of a girl who speaks to the persistent ghosts of family. Like a number of pieces in the collection, this story shows a young person struggling to bear the ‘blood-soaked memories’ (22) that are inherited across generations: ‘… all that screaming, the kind that could make the stars blink… My childhood was no place for a child, so I was born old’ (25). The calm poetic language of this piece is tensely juxtaposed against the ‘raging heart’ (24) of its narrator, effectively evoking the self-repression that enables an already-wounded person to survive a country that might one day accept them—if they bleed out their Colour (27). 

Themes of race, migration and colonialism are also—and especially—present in the collection’s poetry. Dženana Vucic’s ‘Povratak/Return’ is an elegantly crafted sequence that tracks the shifting seasons of a daughter’s reunion with her father in a war-battered Bosnia, subtly exploring the ‘matryoshka reveal’ (138) of (re)learning how to relate to family and homeland alike. Gavin Yuan Gao’s poem forces readers to imagine being a ‘yellow-peril soul’ (144) in Covid times, when being Chinese in Australia suddenly means having ‘… an origin story no one wants / to hear.’ In this context, individuals suddenly represent both ‘an entire land’ (145) and a ‘devil who’s out spreading / his sick of sin’ (144). Alice Bellette’s ‘Blak Tourmaline’ addresses racism and colonialism with forceful refrains and pointed use of the second person: ‘i am here because i survived. / people like you don’t want me to survive’ (155). The concluding lines of her poem (‘it is not about me / it is about country,’ 165) resonate powerfully with a phrase in Gurmeet Kaur’s poetic dissection of the good migrant’s plight: ‘… This is not about / me. This is about you projecting onto me’ (178). All of these writers explore similar themes, but in very different ways and across very different contexts.

Ismene Panaretos’ story, ‘A Flake,’ also looks at how cultural and generational differences collide. ‘There’s no honesty in adulthood’ (94) the narrator laments, and reflects upon the banality of their friends’ Instagrammed lives. In this world, where gender reveal parties have become a norm, a person might become a ‘small time scandal’ (97) just for being who they are: ‘I feel like I will split in two’ (98). This story shows, however, that differences can disappear when people are most vulnerable: do we need to understand each other, to care about each other? Sebastian Winter’s poem also explores how questions of sex and gender can—or cannot—bridge intergenerational divides. In this poem, the transgender narrator’s grandmother warns them that their hormones will ‘berrate’ (185) them. The narrator labours to remain unaffected by the woman’s relentless ‘inquisition’ (185), though refuses to ‘justify’ how their ‘heart loves’ (184), and quietly decides that, in a world built from pink and blue, ‘purple will do’ (185). Franklyn Hudson’s ‘They’ painfully shows how the most brutal violation of a person’s bodily autonomy can forever change that body’s meaning: ‘My breasts are the worst part of me. / When I look at them I can’t ever stop seeing him…’ (203). The reader hopes, alongside these narrators, that they can find what they yearn for: a place in this world to ‘exist in’ (207).

The stories and poems mentioned here do not fully convey the variety of concerns and literary styles this collection offers, and readers will also discover skilful, sharply-observed and sensitive writing by Amy Taylor, Andy Kovacic, Jamaya Plackowski, Cassandra-Elli Yiannacou, Natasha Hertanto, Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, Madeleine Gray, Robert Juan Kennard, Cherie Baird, Jennifer Nguyen, Shane Scriven, Aishah Maryam David, Josie/Jocelyn Deane, Coco Stallman and Lora Subotic. Together, these authors’ voices unite to make Everything, all at once a compelling polyphonic investigation of how ‘identity is everything and nothing’ (Quanita, 191) in a world whose seductions and coercions are often as ambiguous as they are utterly overwhelming. 

Information about the Ultimo prize can be found here:  https://www.ultimopress.com.au/ultimo-prize

H.C. GILDFIND is the author of
Born Sleeping (Miami University Press, 2021) and The Worry Front (Margaret River Press, 2018). hcgildfind.com/@ltercation