A Constant Hum
by Alice Bishop
Reviewed by H.C. GILDFIND
Just a blur through bushfire glow, on Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum
In the acknowledgements that append her short story collection, A Constant Hum, Alice Bishop states that her book is intended to keep ‘in mind’ the people who died in Black Saturday (199). Though Bishop lost a house in those fires, she says she cannot imagine ‘how it would really feel’ to have lost family, friends, or a partner (199). Her writing, however, derives from a genuine attempt to comprehend these experiences—and results in a book that acts as a memorial for the dead, as a tribute to the survivors, and as a means for others to engage in the motivated and directed acts of imagination that constitute empathy.
The collection is divided into three parts: Prevailing; Southerly; Northerly. In the first part, we meet survivors years after the fire, and see how their losses and traumas ‘prevail’ as the world around them moves on. The next two parts move back in time—slowly encroaching upon the fire itself—ending with the stories of people who have just escaped it. This clever structure helps maintain narrative tension (by progressing the stories towards a ‘big event’) whilst also—and more importantly—foregrounding the stories of ‘aftermath’ which are easily forgotten by outsiders and which only begin with the fire’s extinguishment.
The collection attempts to concretise the abstraction of ‘Black Saturday’ by glimpsing into the lives of many characters: naïve-but-observant children; slangy old bushies; working class folk; aspirational suburbanites; people whose romantic relationships have perished in the flames; survivors seeking justice in the courts; health care workers who treat the wounded, and elderly people who are already well-used to ‘losing old friends’ (155). We also hear the insensitive and coercive voice of the voyeuristic, predatory media: ‘What did you find in the ashes?… For our audience, now, what would you take with you—if you got another chance?’ (187). The book thus reads less as a short story collection than as a polyphonic chorus—one that effectively evokes what was (and remains) both a profoundly communal and individual experience of trauma.
The book’s many tiny vignettes reinforce this choral effect, especially those which speak from an ambiguous point of view:
‘We were comforted… that things ended for them together, holding each other under betadine- and copper-coloured smoke… they found them in clusters, mostly—silvers, gunmetal greys and blacks so petrol-pretty you’d think of a currawong’s wing, of a bush-pigeon’s neck, rainbow-flecked.’ (119)
This excerpt shows how the bush is itself a voice that sings in this book, further unifying the characters’ diverse stories in how it shapes imagery and metaphor, and in its provision of a shared setting. All the characters see, hear, remember, pine for—and fear—the bush and its ‘scary hum’ (27), a world where currawongs, rosellas, cicadas, bogong moths, lorikeets, choughs, fairy wrens, kangaroos, wedgetail eagles, and boobook owls live alongside humans in the lush beauty of eucalypts, wattles, charcoal trees, tea-trees, and paperbarks.
Bishop’s writing is enlivened by her ear for dialogue and eye for salient details. We recognise people by their distinct vernaculars and by the cars they drive, the kinds of homes they live in, the brands they wear, the foods they eat, and the places they work. We recognise country women with ‘splitting… bleach-brittle’ hair and foundation ‘caked-on’ like ‘clay’ (174, 8, 104). These women are different to the ‘City Girls’ who ‘don’t wear as much make up’ and ‘keep the hair under their arms’ (51). Such details make Bishop’s fictional world vivid, whilst evoking what the fires themselves emphasised—namely, the divisions that both define and undermine our so-called Australian ‘community’: rural vs suburban vs urban; working class vs professional class; educated vs uneducated; men vs women (etc.). The story ‘Half-light’ shows the savage indifference—and/or sheer blindness—that can result from such differences: ‘mostly unworried’ wealthy urbanites enjoy a wedding under a ‘billow of smoke’ that has ‘blocked out the sun’ (165). What do they care if the homes of the people who serve them are being razed to the ground?
Survivors must also learn to navigate the new—and unique—psychological and social terrain left in the wake of the fire. Some characters can no longer identify the divide between the real and unreal, as in the unsettling story ‘Follower,’ where a young man stalks what might be an actual woman or the ghost of a dead lover (she has eyes of ‘smoke and cinders,’ 60). Other characters become ‘unfamiliar’ (35) to themselves. Their self-detachment is only reinforced by the externally imposed label of ‘survivor’ which marks them as isolated outcasts: Rose prickles at the ‘pity’ (35) of her neighbours, whilst a school boy is shackled to his trauma by his new nickname, ‘bushfire kid’ (117). In another story, a man who is overwhelmed by the economic disaster of his rebuild, can only repeat: ‘Guess I can’t complain’ (128). This refrain expresses the guilt and resentment of survivors who are forced to re-evaluate their lives according to the new hierarchy of pain and loss that has been established by the fire—one which no-one else in society has to submit to, and one which easily trivialises their ongoing hardships via relativism. Such characters are trapped in the divide between the past and future: they are alive, but unable to live.
Some readers might find this book’s relentless ‘flick book of images’ (159)—and its catalogue of sensory horrors—sickening and intolerable. No one wants to see or smell people and animals reduced to ash and teeth—or morphed into ‘blackened statues’ (79). No one wants to contemplate the impossible fact of ‘liquid, silver rivers running over warped tin’ (129)—or comprehend the suffering declared by burnt out cars whose doors remain outflung. However, Bishop’s job is to make us feel what the survivors feel: ‘two kind of sads mixed together,’ one ‘dark’ and the other ‘panicky’ (50). Her job is to make us acknowledge, and at least try to understand, the experiences of those who died, as well as the experiences of the living who are doomed to compulsively think about ‘the burnt things—the forgotten things—all the time’ (109).
The collection is not, however, one of pure despair and horror. Numerous characters manage to ‘feel a little hope for the future’ (76), including women whom the fire liberates from dangerous and demeaning relationships. The final story, ‘Burning the House,’ epitomises how sadness and hope coexist in the collection. This lyrical, poignant story reads like a love song dedicated to both a family home and a first love:
‘This house will burn soon, bushfire blue… So sit, right here with me, years ago and before it all goes… Be with me, quietly, before the fire comes and you start to look at me like you’re watching the news’ (196-197).
Despite everything, this narrator finds a painful but empowering wisdom in the rubble: ‘We know, now, that things can go’ (197).
As one voice in the collection reflects: ‘there are no set rules on offerings for the disappeared’ (33). A Constant Hum is as sensitive, sincere, and compassionate an offering to the dead and the scarred as anyone could hope for. It is a skilfully written, complex and sophisticated attempt to truly imagine the unimaginable totality of loss and suffering that Black Saturday represents.
H.C.GILDFIND (hcgildfind.com/@ltercation) is the author of The Worry Front (Margaret River Press). Her prize-winning novella, Born Sleeping, will be published by Miami University Press in 2021.
Everything Changes: Australian Writers and China, A Transcultural Anthology
Ed. Xianlin Song and Nicolas Jose
Reviewed by EMILY ZONG
“Many Chinese names
became strange or lost
in the crossing.
. . .
Perhaps the plum will flourish
on this soil, like the white plum
in our yard, and transplanted,
my daughter can recover
what is lost in translation.
Perhaps she already has.”
(Kim Cheng Boey, “Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB”)
Born in Singapore, the poet Kim Cheng Boey migrated to Australia in 1997. Like many other writers of diaspora, his poetry invokes recurring themes of loss and reinvention and a quest for belonging between past and present. In “crossing” continents and languages, many Chinese names and cultural specifics get lost in translation, just like the spelling of his daughter’s name mei, which can simultaneously mean plum blossoms and disappearance. Yet similar to a transplanted white plum, the migrant daughter can bring the synergy of multiple cultures to re-root and flourish in Australian soil, proffering hope and recovery after mourning. In another poem titled “Chinatown,” Boey characterises crossing and translation as a default state of the diasporic mind. Menus in Chinatown restaurants are “homesick inventions” that invite translation and cure the “forgotten hunger” for return, revealing how “transit has a way of lasting” and border-crossing and the in-between can become “home.” Boey’s poems are the opening of the collection Everything Changes: Australian Writers and China, A Transcultural Anthology (2019), edited by Xianlin Song and Nicolas Jose, which gathers the stories and poetry of twenty-five Australian writers. While these writers differ in generations, backgrounds, and literary styles, their works converge through common connections to China. These connections, lived and imaginative, materialise in forms of ancestry, travel, cultural exchange, aesthetic influence, and a ceaseless longing for the other that bring together Australia and China in a world whose identities are increasingly nomadic and “transcultural.”
What is meant by “transcultural”? The purpose of the collection, as the editors proclaim in the “Introduction,” is to outline “a field of transcultural writing that invites transcultural reading in response” (1). A recent buzzword in literary studies, the concept of “transcultural” is not new. In 1940, anthropologist Fernando Ortiz coined the term “transculturation” to describe the mixing of cultures in his study of sugar and tobacco in colonial and postcolonial Cuba. Akin to the postcolonial concept of “hybridity,” “transculturation” refers to the blending and confluence of cultures at the contact zone, though it is hailed as transcending postcolonial dichotomies of centres and peripheries and more suitable to capture the synergetic and fluid nature of culture in globalised societies. “Transculturality” is in a continuum with, yet distinct from other pluralist concepts of “interculturality” and “multiculturality” that, as German Philosopher Wolfgang Welsch suggests, presupposes a classical conception of culture as bounded and internally cohesive and risk reinforcing phenomena of “separation and ghettoisation” (4). By comparison, the “transcultural,” according to Song and Jose, is a “process” of dialogic interaction through which cultures become “inseparable” and thus “a factor of the times in which we live, an effect of mobility, migration, globalism, and connectivity, or multiple locations, identities and audiences” (2). In other words, the “transcultural” expresses a cultural sensibility that is more attuned to contemporary cultural horizons where borders of culture, ethnicity, nation, and language are investigated as permeable and identities more internally differentiated and complex. Transcultural writing speaks to literature’s capacity for border crossing, and in this case, for deepening the cultural exchange and people-to-people engagement between Australia and China that has accelerated since the 1980s.
That said, scholars of the transcultural literary discourse variably acknowledge the asymmetry and unequal powers during cultural exchange: “the fluidity of transnational identities in the writers and their writing allows for ‘imbalance, disparity and transformation’” (Song and Jose 2). This nod to dissonance is critical, as Song and Jose refuse to develop transcultural literature in a celebratory manner of reconciling cultural differences. In this sense, the anthology resonates with concurrent projects on transculturality such as that developed by scholar Monica Juneja, who uses transculturality as an analytic mode to investigate:
“the multiple ways in which difference is negotiated within contacts and encounters, through selective appropriation, mediation, translation, re-historicising and rereading of signs, alternatively through non-communication, rejection or resistance—or through a succession/coexistence of any of these.” (25)
These forms of tranculturality manifest in Everything Changes through manifold themes: cultural hybridisation born from the diaspora; Australians’ travel and interaction with a transforming locality in China; imaginative dialogue with Chinese literature; and other embodied, fantastical, and postcolonial mediations of racial and cultural differences. The selected stories and poems are published from 1988 to 2018. Most excerpts were initially published in a collection or as part of a novel, including clippings from Kim Cheng Boey’s After the Fire: New and Selected Poems (2006), Brian Castro’s After China (1992) and The Garden Book (2005), Nicklas Hasluck’s Somewhere in the Atlas (2007), Nicolas Jose’s The Red Thread (2000), Ouyang Yu’s The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002), Beth Yahp’s The Red Pearl and Other Stories (2017), Alex’s Wright’s The Swan Book (2013), and Bella Li’s Argosy (2017), and so on. These excerpts are chosen for expressing a transcultural mood, despite often in a few pages and decontextualised from its original containers. The fact that these fictional excerpts and poems are retrospectively grouped under the category of transcultural writing reveals how the concept of “transcultural” itself is fuzzy, itinerant, and in process of constant redefinition, which is echoed in the Buddhist teachings in the book’s title “Everything Changes” and the fact that selected works have previously been classified and read under miscellaneous, overlapping traditions of immigrant, ethnic, Asian Australian, travel, postcolonial, and transnational literatures.
Transculturality are ever-present in stories and poems by Asian Australian writers selected in the anthology, as life in diaspora provides conditions for porous boundaries, global mobility, and the negotiation of cultural differences with the mainstream. “There is nothing more difficult . . . than to paint a rose”—Singaporean Australian poet Eileen Chong cites Henri Matisse in her lyrical poem “Only a Peony,” a tribute to the Chinese national flower mudan and the imprints of ancestral culture on the senses and imagination of those migrated. To transplant ancestral culture in a literal sense is as difficult as painting a rose, “What does a peony smell like? I have . . . but breathed nothing . . . Perhaps I needed to have crushed them . . . eaten their petals one by one . . . China’s national flower. Is it? Am I? I’ve forgotten.” What can be relived is perhaps the feeling and energy of that which is lost, re-enacted in text and perceptible, as Chong notes, in exotic objects like peony perfume and patterns on woollen carpets. Other stories of diaspora are more satirical and poignant. Julie Koh’s “The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man” and Isabelle Li’s “A Fish Bone in the Throat” are short stories that cut painfully into the dilemma of diaspora: racism, stereotyping, marginality, and exoticisation. Koh’s is a fantastical, rebellious parody of the entertainment industry that has been white-dominated and prejudiced against Asians who are often pigeonholed as one-dimensional background characters, either submissive or evil. The yellow man’s failure to attain aesthetic freedom beyond his ethnicity knowingly mocks the global book market’s fetishisation of exotic Asian literature—the “transformation of power-politics into spectacle” (14) that Graham Huggan explores in The Postcolonial Exotic. In Li’s story, racial unbelonging coincides with frustrated Asian masculinity and mid-life crisis. For the story’s diasporic male protagonist, acquiring empowerment is a solitary voyage and a prolonged agony of having swallowed a fishbone, a blocked existence.
The other theme of the anthology focuses on Australians’ travel in China. Along this thread, cultural crossings are framed in ways less about race and ancestry, and more about travel, curiosity, and self-reflexivity. While Australians going to Asia in search of spiritual growth and cures for identity crisis is not an unfamiliar topic in Australian literature, these “Oriental Quests” (Zong 1) are usually located in South East Asia, in countries like Indonesia and Cambodia and rarely in China. Everything Changes contributes a valuable cluster of fictional and nonfictional prose narratives to the Australian literary imagination of a changing China: Nicolas Hasluck documents the cultural and ideological divergence in an Hangzhou tea house in Post-Mao China; Linda Jaivin fictionalises a Sinophile’s nightly encounter in a sinuous hutong of Beijing; Gail Jones appropriates dreams to remap the emotional landscapes of Chinese writer Lu Xun on her visit to his Shanghai abode; Nicolas Jose evokes intertextuality to adorn an interracial love affair across places and times in China; Felicity Castagna portrays the friendship between an Australian teacher and a local student in Shanghai; and Jennifer Mill blurs reality with fantasy to unearth the seduction and trappings of foreign visitors getting “too involved” with anti-demolition activism in Beijing. A common feature of these stories is that they bespeak the desire and struggle for, and not always the success of, transcultural connection. There is a degree of humility, self-doubt, and patience in the face of the culturally unknown. The Australian English teacher in Castagna’s story says to her Chinese student, “I’m not sure we are really communicating effectively. I’m not sure that I understand [your diary].” The process of manifesting thoughts on paper is already an anachronistic process, and writing in another language and again being read from another culture is tripe translation. The student later writes in her diary, “Teacher says, sometimes it takes a long time to find out your purpose. Sometimes it takes a long time to work out why you’re HERE.” This statement distances transcultural travel experience from easy consumption and judgment of otherness, as the selected writing in the anthology invites intercourse yet acknowledges disjunction and reinforced prejudices.
It must also be said that transcultural writing, presented in the anthology, is as much a mode of representation by the authors as it is cultural training for readers. The collection sends an invitation and charges a toll: readers must do their work in order to make sense of the obscure cultural references embedded in some works. For example, it is challenging to gauge who exactly is Robert Gray referring to in his poem “The Life of a Chinese Poet” (it appears to be the patriotic poet Lu You in the Song Dynasty). The reading itself is a transcultural experience and demands linguistic and cultural competence. The consequence of this is that at times the anthology is not an easy read, even though a reader will come out of the other end feeling somewhat a “transculturalist.” Although the anthology has an appendix of writers’ brief biographies, some notes on cultural riddles and on the original containers within which excerpts were published are wanting. The questions arise: who is the targeted audience of such an anthology? Is the anthology targeted at a small circle of cultural elites who, after digging into these sophisticated cultural messages, eventually shouts with satisfaction, “viola!”? And isn’t the narrowness of audience, either intended or unintended, a privileging of the transcultural, and thus a contradiction to the cultural métissage and openness desired by transculturalists? Is transculturalism a mere pluralist descriptor, or is it an intermediate step towards realising cosmopolitan ideals? One risk of such an anthology is the danger of parochialism in its reach and ineffective communication with overlapping reader groups: transcultural, migrant, and mainstream.
Nevertheless, Everything Changes narrates that transculturality has become an inevitable reality in our globalised world. Transcultural experience contaminates our pasts, desire, travel, place-making, bodies, names, fantasy, dreams, sensation, and emotions. The selected works in the anthology transpose readers into miscellaneous locations and temporalities, imagined and real, and gift readers with a sense of wonder and lessons from transcultural engagement. The anthology succeeds in enticing cravings for border crossing. Although some transcultural transformation only effectuates in dreams and not on an interpersonal level, they are dreams of becoming and long-lasting enigma. Yet in desiring and dreaming, we would have already morphed.
Huggan, Graham. The Post-colonial Exotic. Routledge, 2001.
Juneja, Monica. “Understanding Transculturalism: Monica Juneja and Christian Kravagna in
Conversation.” Transcultural Modernisms, edited by Model House Research Group, Sternberg, 2013, pp. 22–35.
Song, Xianlin, and Nicolas Jose, editors. Everything Changes. UWA Press, 2019.
Welsch Wolfgang. “Transculturality—the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today.” Spaces of
Culture: City, Nation, World, edited by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, Sage, 1999, pp. 194-213.
Zong, Emily Yu. “Disturbance of the White Man: Oriental Quests and Alternative Heroines
in Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman” JASAL, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-17.
Dr EMILY YU ZONG is an honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her work on Asian diasporic literature, gender and sexuality, and literature and the environment has appeared and are forthcoming in Ariel, ISLE, JASAL, Journal of Intercultural Studies, etc. She is working on her book on Asian Australian and Asian American women’s fiction, and she has been a regular contributor to Mascara.
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by JEAN-FRANÇOIS VERNAY
In her essay on suburbia, Helen Garner discusses the politics of location in Australia and how real estate, or an acute political sense of place, seems to situate people on the social scale. Back in the 1990s, Helen Garner lived in Sydney’s poshest eastern suburbs (Elizabeth Bay and Bellevue Hill), from which Western Sydney seems to be unaccessible, somewhat too remote to explore, and possibly an eyesore which is best left out of sight. As her essay ends on Gerald Murnane’s tribute to these “lower-middle-class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about in the news”(1), Murnane’s recitation of the various modest streets in which he lived in his youth surreptitiously morphs into “a splendid and mysterious poem.”(2) What was perhaps to be primarily taken as a solemn moment of sincerity has been sublimated through Garner’s writing skills. These fine creative skills are largely shared by Peter Polites. Barring the lyrical gloss and sentimentality.
The Pillars is Peter Polites’ second fiction book, after the much lauded Down to Hume (2017), a queer-noir novel which made it to the shortlist of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2018, in the Multicultural NSW Award sub-category. Modelled on “notorious gay right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos”, (3) Pano (pronounced the Aussie way, not Panos!) is an obscure poet who has been given a chance to earn a living though his creative writing skills by ghost writing Basil’s life story. Based in Pemulwuy, an ethnically diverse suburb in Greater Western Sydney whose history is briefly mentioned in the opening chapter, Pano is in a complex cis male gay relationship with Kane, his landlord, sex friend and secret infatuation. Their connection is no Brokeback Mountain bromance. Rather, they have the kind of loose relationship which you find in Tsiolkas’ narratives: random sex, one night stands, and the occasional group sex are spicing up the protagonist’s life whose reliable bedrock is provided by a regular sex partner.
Polites has moved away from the issues of same sex domestic violence which he explored in Down the Hume in order to lay greater emphasis on suburban aspirations and fluctuating identities. However, hyper-masculinity remains a central concern, chiefly epitomised in The Pillars by Basil, a straight self-made entrepreneur, and queer Kane, whose athletic physicality and sexual performances endorse him as the alpha male of the pack.
Like Christos Tsiolkas — with whom he has been repeatedly associated through various literary events (a discussion at Concord Library in Canada, a conversation at the Wheeler Centre and on the ABC book show) —, Peter Polites can be defined as a queer, second-generation Greek Australian novelist who articulates the triangulation of gay sex, class conflict and ethnicity in slice-of-life novels. Where Tsiolkas is concerned with grounding his stories in Melbourne’s working-class suburbia, Polites sticks to the impoverished migrant suburbs of Western Sydney.
Beyond these commonalities (and others which I will not be able to discuss within the restrained scope of this book review), both writers are angry men at society, but each with their distinct voices and crafts. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Polites’ rage, mediated through literary ploys such as irony and satire, appears to be more subdued in his semi-autobiographical novel than the violence which transpires in Tsiolkas’s words, and in the thoughts and actions of his protagonists. For instance, Polites’ characterisation of Basil, Pano’s high school friend, exemplifies the use of bittersweet irony at its best:
“He was one of the first boys in our school to have the hair waxed from his legs, claiming all athletes did it. Later, he was a trailblazer for the young male dogs by using an experimental new laser treatment to remove all his body hair. In our last year of high school, I overheard him talking about how important natural beauty was to him, which was why he didn’t bang wog girls, because they spent too much time on themselves.” (21)
With a keen eye for details, Peter Polites not only examines gay domesticity through the lens of a hyphenated Australian but also presents with a vitriolic social critique of Australia’s consumerism and culture of greed which is depriving the younger generations from affording a home in Sydney’s highly inflated real estate market:
“I stopped at the window of Vas Bros Real Estate and looked at all the apartments for sale, trying to find the logic in a two-bedroom apartment in Bankstown selling for half a million dollars. There were professional photos of men in polyester suits holding gravels and standing outside houses. A human-sized decal of a balding man in his finest suit with dental-work smile grinned at me like I wasn’t in on the joke.” (19)
By foregrounding social advancement and materialistic success in his story of modern-day Australia, Peter Polites is probing the deep-rooted insecurity which underlies this misguided ethnic aspirationalism. His unforgiving indictment of Australia being caught up in consumerism and rapacity is to some extent reminiscent of David Williamson’s satirical plays such as The Emerald City (1987) and Up for Grabs (2000), but perhaps brought to a higher cynical pitch, one which ethical readers might find unsettling.
1. Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016), 25.
2. Helen Garner, Id.
3. Con Stamocostas, “Peter Polites: ‘Mortgage, success, houses, investment. These are Greek values”. (28 September 2019), URL: https://neoskosmos.com/en/146861/peter-polites-mortgage-success-houses-investment-these-arent-greek-values/
JEAN-FRANÇOIS VERNAY’s The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), which deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion, is yet to be translated. He has just been commissioned to edit a book on international perspectives on Australian Fiction and is completing his forthcoming book in English on Australian fiction and the neurohumanities.
We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories
Edited by Michelle Cahill
Margaret River Press
Reviewed by AMY VAN DER LINDEN
‘In the short story form, a writer commits to a vivid and entire world; a world in which voice and dialogue matter exceedingly, sometimes tangentially, and every sentence is measured to carry structural and thematic weight.’
– Michelle Cahill. (vii)
We’ll Stand in that Place and other stories, is the latest anthology of the Margaret River Short Story Competition. The competition is an annual contest, open to authors of any age and nationality. Previous editors have been Ryan O’Neill, Ellen van Neerven, Laurie Steed and Estelle Tang. Nineteen short stories were selected out of over 240 entries. Michelle Cahill, who edited the 2019 edition has compiled a collection of stories covering a range of contemporary themes such as climate change, cultural inclusiveness, complex relationships and emotions, family and the need for queer spaces. Both emerging and established writers whose work highlight features of the short story form are included.
The winning story, titled ‘We’ll Stand in that Place’, by Kit Scriven is both an intense and intriguing story. Upon my first read, I was unsure of the exact events of the story, but was blown away by Scriven’s ability to both conceal and rearrange details. After the second read, it was clear that I had missed the overdose of Andy in the beginning. In her introduction, Cahill writes, “one needs to read attentively to learn that Andy has overdosed; that Baby’s grief is ritualised.” (ix) Scriven uses descriptive imagery and words that are full of deep emotions, both layered and symbolic, as the reader follows the protagonist dealing with the death of his first love. I agree with Cahill when she says Scriven’s craft produces something both “disturbing and unique.” He “marries the beautiful with the sordid.” (ix) As a reader, I was drawn to the character of Baby, because as his name suggests he isn’t your usual grown man. He sees things differently to other characters; he “wasn’t finished properly” and he doesn’t “belong.” (8) This story tells the experience of queer culture in the local and often dangerous streets of St Kilda and the experience of these non-binary and queer characters. The subject matter of this story made me excited for inclusivity in the genre of fiction. A distinctive feature of this story is the way it makes one feel both disoriented and connected. After reading this piece, I found that it continued to linger in my thoughts for a long time afterwards.
Catherine Noske’s ‘Thylacine’, awarded second place, narrates the story of a stay-at-home-wife and her experiences of being home alone during her early pregnancy. Her husband is a geologist who takes frequent field-trips to northern Western Australia as he discovers a rare fossil called the ‘thylacine’. Noske uses her story to fictionalise themes of absence and the hardships of marriage, whilst subtly commenting on the exploitation of Aboriginal land from causes relating to the mining industry and white settlement. Noske uses the finding of the fossil as the central framework of the narrative, and the subtle details of traditional gender norms, broken relationships and dependability soon follow. The wife fills the void between her husbands’ absences by washing his dirty clothes, whilst falling in and out of dream like sequences of happier memories when she and her husband were together. The small details of their absent relationship and wife’s dependency of her husband makes a comment on exposing traditional gender roles as she centres her day around waiting for him to get home from his trips. Whereas the husband uses his field-trips as an escape from his marriage and becomes so used to leaving that sometimes he “tells her it is field trips, but it isn’t. He finds things to do.” (16) Through the third person narration, Noske expresses the distance emotionally and physically between the husband and wife. Cahill comments in her introduction, that the story is “composed of numbered sections, each a possible prose poem”. (ix) This experimental style is exciting as it shines a light on the possibilities of the short story to break the boundaries of conventionality.
Rachel McEleney’s story ‘The Day the Rain Stopped Dancing’, was awarded the South West Prize. This story was one of my favourites because of its creativity and for its futuristic theme. McEleney addresses the two topical issues of climate change and veganism as the framework for her piece. She creates a world that is genetically modified by a US grain called ‘GentaCorp’s GM 21’ which cross-pollinates with other crops and mutates human cells. From naturalistic beginnings a strange, lonely world of climate change and animal extinctions quickly follows. Lily, mother of two and wife to husband ‘Jase’ is watching the news for updates and plans to keep her family safe from the mutating cell. Somewhere along her flashbacks to her childhood and long walks outside in the rain, the reader is aware that her loneliness has slowly driven her to insanity. The reason this story stood out to me was because it commented on a topical issue in an inventive and creative way and the ending was surprising. It creates a powerful message that anticipates a future dystopia that could happen if we fail to act on our environmental crisis today.
It is refreshing to see such a range of impressive stories that defy the conventions in narrative storytelling, especially when we are living in times in which literature is being produced and marketed for mainstream consumption. The collection shines a spotlight on new writers in the form of themes, character voices and the subject matter of the stories. Though no story is like the other, they all interpret the complexity of emotions that “we sometimes fail to honour in our daily lives and close relationships.” (Inroduction, viii.) Whether it is the masculine perspective and tough realism in Mark Smith’s ‘A Concreter’s Heart’, or the heartbreaking and layered emotions of Mirandi Riwoe’s story ‘Cinta Ku’, we see the idea of the complexity of emotions being both explored, discovered and lost.
In Jenni Mazaraki’s story ‘Somebody’s Baby’, K.W. George’s ‘Three Dog Night’ and K.A. Rees’ ‘Butterscotch’, the reader delves into the feelings of a sense of home, whilst also dealing with the complications of feeling lost. Both Justine Hyde’s story ‘Emotional Support’ and Darryl R. Dymock’s story ‘A Tough Little Bird’, both are stories about passengers in flight. Hyde’s use of humour contrasts cleverly with the grief and anxiety that is present in the character’s evident feelings of loss due to the passing of her partner. Whereas in Dymock’s short story, he uses an artificial conversation between two plane passengers, that slowly turns into a truthful and cathartic conversation to help the protagonist dealing with the stress of visiting her ill mother back home. Dymock demonstrates through his writing, how even in the most unexpected of times we can find a sense of hope to deal with our emotions and anxieties.
The nineteen short stories are eclectic in subject, making for a stimulating read. Each invites a discussion on themes from sexual awakenings to complex family relationships, cultural inclusivity and ecological dystopia. Characters are found talking to trees; or on a plane with a unique travelling companion. There’s even a monster in a lake, rendered with suspense and plausibility. The open theme of the competition means that readers are treated to an impressive range, while Cahill offers a neat summary of what makes a good short story. This collection doesn’t feel jolted or messy, but something that is much more than the sum of its parts.
AMY VAN DER LINDEN is a recent graduate of Swinburne University of Technology. She has graduated with a major in Professional Writing and Editing and a minor in Literature. She is eager to start a career in the literary industry and use the skills she has acquired from her studies in her work.
Rethinking the Victim: Gender and Violence in Contemporary Australian Women’s Writing
by Anne Brewster and Sue Kossew
ISBN: 978 1 138 09259 4
Reviewed by SOPHIE BAGGOTT
First of all, I owe readers a disclosure: if this book is an interrogation of power asymmetry and its potential to foster violence, then it’s disquieting that both its authors and reviewer embody a white middle-class lens on experiences largely rooted in less privileged positions across society.
Brewster and Kossew are acutely aware of this imbalance throughout their dense, often illuminating book, which explores writing about violence from women whom they identify as either majoritarian, Indigenous or minoritised. The theorists tussle with the tension between what they perceive as the need to open up a cross-cultural conversation with radical empathy and the need to avoid “perpetuat[ing] the invasion” (Nicholson, 2000). At several points, they account for their decision to engage with the works of Indigenous and minoritised writers by citing various authors’ own calls for their inclusion in the Australian literary canon. One example is Filipino-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis’s comment during an interview with Mascara Literary Review that her book, Fish-Hair Woman, professes “a reciprocal love between cultures” and her broader comments about the difficulties of “getting through the literary gate” in Australia (p.191 / Bobis 2015).
Rethinking the Victim is divided into four chapters with an overall integrative approach, though the academics focus on Aboriginal poetry in its own chapter (‘Violence against women and girls: Indigenous women’s activist poetry’); this perhaps speaks to the statistics and the specificity of violence against Aboriginal women. In Chapter 1 (‘Intimate violations: gothic and romance’), Brewster and Kossew reflect on wide-ranging texts such as the writing of Yugambeh writer Ellen Van Neerven and of Asian-Australian writer Chi Vu. In Chapter 3 (‘Broken families, vulnerable children’ and Chapter 4 (‘War and political violence’), analysis of CALD writers is again interwoven with reflections on texts by white middle class women.
While paying attention to their own embeddedness in power structures, Brewster and Kossew rightly suggest that cultures do not exist in a vacuum – all gender dynamics occur within the systemic inequality that extends worldwide. Global estimates indicate that one in three women will be subject to violence in her lifetime, and the bleak reality is that one woman is killed by her partner every week in Australia. Despite this horrific universality, representations of violence against women vary significantly. For instance, the theorists point out the “mediatised” way in which Aboriginal family violence is portrayed in the public sphere, with implications that it is distinct and “endemic” (p.94). In contrast, they observe the way in which “violence in the white middle-class home has traditionally been exceptionalised, hidden and relegated to the private sphere”, noting this cultural exceptionalism as a reason for broadening the dialogue around gender-based violence (p.17-18).
Here’s another disclosure: this latter observation was one that hit home, so to speak. It took a long time to face up to the fact that my (white middle-class) household was a place of violence, and that I know what it is to be and to see a girl/woman enduring many years of threats and assaults by a boy/man. I also knew, without instruction but through a hazy sense of loyalty and self-preservation, that the topic was absolutely taboo. Much of this book’s analysis therefore delved into familiar territory: a world of precariousness, futile attempts to ‘fix’ perpetrators, and the incremental ways in which women become trapped. Why am I sharing this? I suppose it’s in the book’s spirit of “reject[ing] the fear of stigma, shame and failure that often prevents white middle-class victims from breaking with notions of propriety” (a function which the theorists attach to novels such as Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident and Anna George’s What Came Before) and in response to the appeal for solidarity that runs throughout Rethinking the Victim (p.18).
Since Rethinking the Victim forms part of the Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures, it is no surprise that both theorists’ research is strongly grounded in contemporary postcolonial literature. This passion comes across emphatically in their literary analysis, and they write extremely persuasively of the intersections between colonisation and violence (particularly in terms of Australia’s “national burial of a suppressed violent past”, p.50). I’d argue that this is occasionally to the detriment of the gender analysis – for instance, their seven-page exploration of Paula Abood’s ‘Stories from the Diaspora’ (2017) is a highly detailed study on race and violence, but barely touches on the aspect of gender (p.203-10). This is perhaps an insight into how gender may be the main issue for white women writers, while for women of colour (such as Abood) race and colonialism are such overpowering oppressions that there is less emphasis on the gendered perspectives.
Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, the book omits any mention of the gender-based violence meted out to those who are trans or non-binary. According to Transgender Victoria, transgender and gender-diverse people experience physical assault, or threat of physical assault, at a rate of 25% – twelve times the rate of the general population. One example of a fascinating and necessary text that was missed is Australian-American Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner, which won the Victorian Prize for Literature among other awards. This is a compelling story following the author’s acquaintance Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman, throughout her life, which includes chronic violence – from a childhood of domestic abuse to the attacks that she endured in Melbourne’s drag scene and sex industry. It’s a book that interweaves closely with numerous strands of Brewster and Kossew’s analysis, and highlights the unreliability of trauma narratives.
Having said that, Rethinking the Victim is a remarkable feat and, notably, the very first book to examine gender and violence in Australian literature. How can it have taken this long? This is an important, intricate book which gathers together a wealth of literary analysis. The breadth of research and the depth of compassion is clear on every page. The astounding fact remains that this is only the first book to study gender violence in Australian literature – and there is much, much more work to be done.
- Wadi Wadi writer Barbara Nicholson writes of how words can “perpetuate the invasion” in Reed-Gilbert, K. (2000) The Strength of Us As Women: Black Women Speak, p.28.
- Bobis, M (2015) ‘Interview with Emily Yu Zong’ in Mascara Literary Review
SOPHIE BAGGOTT is a Welsh writer and journalist in the human rights field, currently living in Melbourne and working at the International Women’s Development Agency.
On Shirley Hazzard
Black Inc, 2019
Reviewed by JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY
“By right of admiration”
Following the publication of Nam Le’s On David Malouf, Black Inc has now released the sixth volume in the Writers on Writers Series. Fiction writer Michelle De Kretser, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, has been put to contribution to discuss the works and literary career of Shirley Hazzard. It is noteworthy that On Shirley Hazzard is her first published nonfiction book and chiefly comes across as a labour of love.
For Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016), the novel is an affair of the heart, of its vicissitudes and complexities throughout the world but rarely in Australia. Unsurprisingly, only a portion of her most remarkable novel of the period, The Transit of Venus (1980), takes place in Sydney. A post-World War II expat, Hazzard left Australia at the early age of 16. Her international lifestyle may not impress some fellow writers, like Gerald Murnane who never bothered venturing outside of Australia, but it nevertheless raises interesting questions.
Hazzard’s atypical life journey challenges the boundaries of what can be accurately defined as Australian literature. When Graham Huggan discussed this specific issue in his 2007 monograph (1), he may have thought of her, or else of Peter Carey, or of any other Australian-born writer who ended up building a literary career in the United States: “A more intriguing question is whether it is necessary for a writer to be Australian. Here, it seems reasonable to expect that an Australian passport should be the minimum requirement for eligibility as an Australian writer. However, there are some exceptions to the general rule, and numerous contested instances of dual or changing citizenship — raising the further intriguing question of whether it is possible, say, to be an Australian and a British writer, or an Australian then an American writer, or perhaps all of these at once.”
As a transnational novelist specialised in treating universal concerns, very few of her writings are set in Australia. And it is almost a mystery as to why The Great Fire (2003) was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 2004, because ultimately even the Australian citizenship of Peter Exley and Helen Driscoll could not obliterate the pervasive international context of this novel set respectively in Asia (Japan, Hong Kong), England and New-Zealand.
Perhaps Shirley Hazzard found herself caught between the temptation to tap into her Australian heritage and the desire to broaden the choice of her subject-matter by colouring her plots with an international flavour — two polarities where every advantage has its disadvantage. Internationalist novelists like her who enjoy a larger readership and greater freedom of expression run the risk of alienating themselves from their fellow citizens by addressing transnational concerns, or in other words, by “look[ing] outwards, away from Australia” (3), as Michelle De Kretser elegantly puts it.
In a series of succinct chapters, readers are introduced to Hazzard’s literary preoccupations, sociological and metaphysical views, left-leaning politics (consistently siding with the subaltern), and innermost convictions which can sometimes be as tranchant as Patrick White’s most memorable caustic quips. She shares a taste for “irony and satire” (36) with the Sydney-based écrivain maudit who quickly gained the reputation of being “Australia’s Most Unreadable Novelist”(2) before he would win Australia’s only Nobel prize for Literature. De Kretser perceptively sees irony and satire as “antipodean weapons, the weapons of the outsider; a way of seeing that punctures and deflates” (37). She also shrewdly hypothesises in a chapter dedicated to The Transit of Venus that Hazzard’s literary hallmark, which was subtly espousing White’s, might have been the psychological cause for White’s rejection of her magnus opus: “He wrote to Hazzard: ‘What I see as your chief lack is exposure to everyday vulgarity and squalor’” (65).
Her poetic style, encapsulated in her use of quaint adjectives which adds a surrealistic touch to her pared-down prose, has a marked rhythm which De Kretser locates in various prosody effects (in her discussions of The Evening of Holiday and of The Transit of Venus) and in a distinctive phonological pattern: “She often ends a sentence with a stressed monosyllable” (20).
Michelle De Kretser astutely conveys her love for reading in the most infectious way, attesting to the lingering consequences of emotionally charged novels which manage to create a bonding intimacy of sorts with impassioned avid readers:
The greedy, gulping way I read The Bay of Noon — a child devouring sweets — returned me to childhood and whole days spent deep in fictional worlds. It was reading as a form of enchantment, a way of reading I continue to value and need. There are novels that, like beloved people, stand between us and the world. They do this by altering our relation to time. They pass through it. They render time irrelevant. (52-3)
The simple fact that “Hazzard had an unwavering belief in the power of art to transform, comfort, reveal”(15) goes a long way to show that she was intuitively aligning herself with what research in neuroaesthetics was later able to articulate at greater length: namely that art somewhat seems to enhance brain function and psychological well-being.
If the “specificity of our own species lies in our ability to represent the world and to share our ideas”, then great novelists like Shirley Hazzard and Michelle De Kretser who are particularly adept at manipulating syntax would be the shining ambassadors of our intelligence as literate animals.
1.Graham Huggan, Australian Literature: Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 11.
2.This reputation was confirmed in 1956 when “the great Panjandrum of Canberra” described White’s prose as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.” For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 173-180.
JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’S The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), which deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion, is yet to be translated. His Palgrave book is currently being translated into Arabic.
by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Reviewed by ELLA JEFFERY
Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s first novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, takes the reader into the lives of several members of the Peoples Temple, the socialist church created by the charismatic, manipulative and controlling preacher Jim Jones in California in the 1960s. The novel follows the church’s expansion in America and eventual mass exodus to Guyana where Jones and his devoted followers established a community, named Jonestown, deep in the jungle. There, on November 18, 1978, as a result of Jones’ increasing hysteria, drug use, and paranoia, Jones commanded his followers to commit what he describes in Woollett’s novel as ‘revolutionary suicide.’ The death of 918 Americans at Jonestown is an event that remains deeply embedded in the cultural imaginary, and Woollett’s novel is one of a number of recent works on the event, including Jeff Guin’s non-fiction book The Road to Jonestown (2017), the 2018 documentary Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle and upcoming HBO series Raven, based on a non-fiction account of the same title by Tim Reiterman (2008). When I began Beautiful Revolutionary, I was interested in how Woollett might add to this substantial body of work. What does this book have to give that other documentaries, television series and books on the subject haven’t covered in the 40 years since the event?
Her first book, the collection of short stories The Love of a Bad Man, also includes a story set at Jonestown. In Beautiful Revolutionary Woollett expands on these themes, narrowing her focus to a single historical moment and the chain of events that led up to it. Like many historical novels, the reader knows, to some extent, where the novel is leading us – the inexorable movement towards the final, apocalyptic days of Jonestown ratchet up the pace of the novel’s second half. The great strengths of this novel are Woollett’s convincing rendering of character and setting, and her nuanced deployment of tone and mood. What she gives to this historical narrative is a compelling account of several loosely fictionalised characters, based on real members of the Peoples’ Temple. Woollett’s complex blending of history and fiction is grounded in extensive research; her nuanced ability to make judicious, unromanticised and unpretentious decisions about where the history in her novel ends and her fictionalisations begin makes this a captivating, original novel.
Beautiful Revolutionary opens with Lenny and Evelyn, newlywed college graduates in their early twenties, on the road. It could be any mid-century American scene – the couple have married and graduated, and are moving to Evergreen Valley, California. Evelyn reminds herself that they are going ‘to the new life, and it will be new, and it will be beautiful’ (5). Evelyn’s relentless authoritarian streak will later fully emerge to immense effect, but the early pages of the novel simmer with her desire to dismiss her growing dissatisfaction. Her husband, Lenny, is seen by so many in the novel as a gentle soul, Evelyn’s ‘beautiful blue-eyed boy-husband’ (398), who is ‘sweet and soft and clean’ (38). He wants to get high, watch TV, have sex with his ‘oppressively brilliant’ (5) wife, who the reader quickly realises has ambitions that outstrip Lenny’s milder pacifist ideology in many ways.
Their relationship is rife with mismatched intentions and further complicated when, after a few weeks in their new town, Evelyn – the daughter of a progressive pastor – begins to attend church services at a new church called Peoples Temple and takes her husband along to hear a man called Jim Jones preaching. Evelyn and Lenny Lynden, like many characters in Woollett’s novel, are modelled on real people; in this case, Larry Layton and his wife, Carolyn Layton, who went on to play an instrumental role as part of Jones’ inner circle. For the first third of the novel, the intimate third person narration is closely tied to Lenny and Evelyn as their relationship changes as a result of their growing engagement with Peoples Temple, and Evelyn’s developing personal relationship with Jones. Jones himself is a ubiquitous presence in every character’s mind, but is ultimately a supporting character.
The evocative intimacy of Evelyn and Lenny’s perspectives in the first third of the book gives way to a slightly more unbalanced treatment of other perspectives. The reader is presented with Jim’s wife Rosaline, a fictionalisation of his real wife Marceline, whom Woollett has written about in The Love of a Bad Man, and whom she renders with sensitivity and nuance. The novel also picks up the perspective of Eugene Luce, a white cop whose suppressed homosexuality Jones alternately exploits and abuses him for, as well as a group of slightly younger Temple members as they collectively begin to plan a defection, another evocation of a real-life event that took place in 1973.
While Rosaline and Eugene are closely tethered to the unfolding complications of Evelyn and Lenny’s positions in the Temple, the defection sequence, inserted in the middle of the book, came as a slightly jarring change in direction. Wayne Bud and Bonnie Luce, for example, two fictionalised members of the defecting group, express and interrogate some of the astounding hypocrisies at the centre of the Peoples Temple, such as Jones’ promotion of mostly white people, and mostly young women, to positions of power within the Temple’s organisational structure, and the rife sexual abuse perpetrated by Jones on his male and female followers, even as he proclaims that ‘I’m the only true heterosexual man alive … but the sexual act don’t bring me no pleasure’ (166). Had the whole novel been made up of patchwork-like insights into a range of Temple members, the result might have been a book more similar in structure to Woollett’s first collection of short stories, but I felt that this foray into a broader range of perspectives diluted some of the novel’s tension.
The major counter-cultural shift of the sixties sits at the heart of the novel. Woollett presents the social, cultural and political upheavals of this time as a key motivating factor for new members, like college-educated Lenny and Evelyn, to join the Temple. One of the great strengths of the intimate third person narration is that it reveals the ways in which young people conceive of themselves and their position in the world, and how the older generation view the younger generation as an entirely new type of person. Rosaline, for example, is at first flummoxed by Evelyn’s adamant position that ‘No one can have all of Father … he belongs to the people’, then reflects that Evelyn is ‘maybe not so strange. Maybe entirely typical of the new generation’ (174). Sexual and racial tensions simmer throughout the novel. One of Jones’ aides, Terra, says to Lenny, ‘Some of these old white people, it’s like they’re all about integration on Sundays, but when it comes to living it …?’ (143). Cross-generational encounters in the novel are always inflected with a sense of insecurity that sometimes borders on suspicion, sometimes on the barely-repressed anger, racism or sexism of the older generation, and sometimes on a tenderness that is bound up with nostalgia, eroticism, or both. Eugene, in particular, finds that ‘the impertinence of these new young ladies, it rankles, makes the back of his neck hot and taut’ (153).
For the young people of the Peoples Temple, their positions in the world are almost overwhelmingly charged with the potential to create meaningful change, and this is often the catalyst for them committing to what Jones calls ‘the Cause’ so wholeheartedly. Evelyn’s first encounter with the church is couched in the aftermath of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and Jones’ rhetoric speaks to her sense of helplessness and anger. Evelyn’s sections in particular convey her industrious, striving devotion to Jim and to the Peoples Temple – the tone of these chapters is decidedly unromantic, unpretentious and this makes them even more unsettling as the novel progresses towards its devastating climax.
Woollett’s prose is lush and erotic without sacrificing clarity. Her ear for American dialogue and the counter-culture slang of the sixties is precise; she is judicious about how and where she deploys words like ‘groovy’ and ‘righteous’; and each character’s voice is consistent and distinctive. It is, ultimately, a book about voices, and the immense power of utterances to invoke rage, devotion, obedience, betrayal, hope. It is Jim’s voice that makes so much happen in the novel – Jim’s voice on the phone to Evelyn in the early pages of the novel, Jim’s voice that Lenny hears in his nightmares at the end, Jim’s voice that gives the final order to the community at Jonestown. Jim’s voice commanding and ordering, cursing, abusing. But for me, this is Evelyn and Lenny’s book, and their voices are complex, authentic, and always freighted with the tension of personal and political history.
Before picking up this novel, I knew relatively little about Jonestown or the Peoples Temple. While I learned much more reading Beautiful Revolutionary, it is not a novel that fetishises trauma, and never panders to the contemporary fascination with cults, true crime and other transgressions. It didn’t, in short, make me want to learn more about Jim Jones; but it did make me want to read more of Woollett’s compelling, intelligent prose.
ELLA JEFFERY is a poet, editor and academic. Her first collection of poems, Dead Bolt, won the 2019 Puncher & Wattmann Prize for a First Book of Poems, and will be published by the press in 2020. She was awarded a 2019 Queensland Premiers Young Writers and Publishers Award, and her work has appeared in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Southerly, Island and many others. She holds a PhD in creative writing, and lectures in creative writing at QUT in Brisbane.
Ed. by Michael Farrell
Reviewed by GARETH MORGAN
While the term ‘mode’ suggests something computerish, or mode as in moda, fashion, the poems in Ashbery Mode are less ‘coding’ or ‘trying on’ of style, more an absorption inside of a massive body of work. Ashbery’s poetry is a challenge for critics but great nourishment to poets. As the cover suggests, ‘we’ (koala) look up at these American heads, a cruel joke on the idea of Antipodes and perhaps a version of terra nullius from the American perspective. I am reminded of John Forbes’s ‘Antipodean Heads’, which starts: ‘I wish we could be nicer / like the Americans’, how we know so much of them, and keep looking up that way. In the ‘Antipodean Manifesto’ (1958) a group of Australian artists and the critic Bernard Shaw took a stance against abstract expressionism, the New American Painting exhibition, fearing its influence on local aesthetics. This collection, brought to life by editor Michael Farrell, indulges in North American influence, especially the charm of abstraction, freneticism and freedom of movement in poetry. Featuring poets who encountered John Ashbery and other international modernist poetry after 1958 let’s say, Ashbery Mode charts this epic influence in so called Australia. Just how nice are they ‘over there’? Ashbery Mode considers just how nice Australian poets can be, even and especially under the influence.
Chris Edwards’s poem ‘Rat Chow’ (cute product for a dystopian supermarket!), cannibalises Ashbery’s book length poem Flow Chart to give us a ‘Reconstitution’ of that book. What nutrients did the author ingest before expelling the flesh of Ashbery’s poem? From the difficult puddle surface hidden gems. ‘things keep arriving from the florist’s’ e.g. is typical of Ashbery’s ‘tone’ or ‘imagery’, and perhaps an easy metapoetic statement. The poem is like flower painting, as in decorative; the ‘Ashbery Mode’ draws so much of its value from being an attractive, baroque, shifty surface from which emerges a strange country. These ‘things’ (e.g. ”You’re a grown man now, but must sit in a tub, on a comfortable income and a few puddles of camel-stale, jotting down seemingly unrelated random characteristics.” a quote from the blue and quite a ‘thing’) are good for merely existing, delicious, and being cannibalised into the poem. As Brazilian poet Oswalde de Andrade claim in his Cannibalist Manifesto (1928): ‘Cannibalism alone unites us’. Ashbery’s is poetry that makes you hungry, and poets unite in this collection around this act. To the question of nutrients… is this Mode lifegiving? Yes, through decadence, which Edwards and many others collected here enjoy, like soft cheese.
David Prater’s poem ‘Ninety Nine Rabbits’ hilariously remarks ‘I like John Ashbery’s fingernails’, the dead excess of the poet’s presence (in Aus). Prater’s poem tracks the influence of Ashbery on Stephen Malkmus (of the band Pavement), whose first album Slanted and Enchanted, made him ‘throw up’. What a thrill! (I wonder what Ashbery Mode might sound like anthologised on vinyl…) There is a lot of eating and drinking in this book, which feels like a metaphor for influence’s effect. Stuart Cooke ‘lick[s] the ash / of brie’ on the porch while Oscar Schwartz’s uncomfortably Australian poem ‘Wine’ drinks deep: ‘This is the wine from ripe red land […] This wine is sacred beer. / And it is to be served in jugs’ (‘ripe’—eek!). Poets unite here in the ritual consumption.
I am often made to think of Ashbery when reading Gig Ryan (and vice versa). Her poem, ‘Epitome Of Variation’ (from Heroic Money (2001)), is ‘very Ashbery’, but also ‘very Gig Ryan’: ‘The swift barman’s cellophane gloss / glides beyond me / explosive celebrant, stoned croupier / in crushed Adelaide.’ Ryan’s poem is engaged in a struggle for something new (for Adelaide, for Australia), a tough and brutal way of building a scene, melancholic (‘Dwindled day’) and a bit dreamy (‘beige sunset’) always full of jarring turns. Great, influential Australian poetry that takes from Ashbery’s density, flightiness and obscurity.
Bella Li’s prose poem ‘Just Then’, concerns itself with how the local blends with the foreign: ‘Ah California! I’d give my arm leg for a shovel and a fat wheelbarrow.’ It’s a funny poem, a scene in which the speaker waits lakeside for a goose to show up. It mock-begs for Imagist clarity, taking pleasure in the flow of linguistic noise that busts Imagism up. Language runs along hectically, ‘juicy oranges getting juicier’…’fuzzy marmots […] but no goose’. The objective is less goose-hunt than the margins of that. Travelling up to North America, Li’s short poem apostrophises American locations (and rodents) for their importance (and cuteness), but also demonstrates the importance of moving on, losing focus. Something like New York might exist here too, wouldn’t that be cool, and it does, it’s poetry, like ‘chintz in the wild’ that decorates Li’s expanding, expansive view.
The epigraph to Tim Grey’s poem ‘6, From Bio’ regards the influence Ashbery wore on his sleeve: ‘absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete‘ (Ashbery on Rimbaud in his translation of Illuminations). Ashbery’s connection to Rimbaud, whose modernity was perhaps to Ashbery as Ashbery’s is to Li, Ryan, Grey, etc.– is concerned with nourishment for poetry. Grey’s poem is busy, violent, a flipside to Li’s joyous play: ‘taxi ploughing into his bicycle in the box-smoked dusk’ shows off modernity’s simultaneity in a different way.
Louise Crisp’s two comparatively chilled out poems of modernity also pinch from an Ashbery line for their epigraph, from Some Trees: ‘The river slides under our dreams / but land flows more silently’. In ‘Ground’ a man ‘hoes vegetables’ and, digging, finds ‘another layer of ground / under the colour of vegetables / patterned in the shape of his country’. This sombre poem digs with Ashberyan tools, unravelling modernity’s papering over of Aboriginal land.
It strikes me that John Ashbery received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011. (Who are ‘our’ equivalent poets? What poetry do our Prime Ministers read and reward outside maybe Les Murray? And when is Michael Farrell gonna get a medal?!) Despite it’s naughty experimentalism, hermeticism and lyric obscurity, one of the curious things about Ashbery’s poetry (at least as it can be / has been in places critically received) is that it ‘stays out of it’ when it comes to politics, or protest. (We might remember that Abstract Expressionism in Jackson Pollock was supported by the CIA). While it would be foolish to pursue this binary too hard, it’s interesting how politics shows up in Ashbery Mode to reflect on Ashbery’s legacy.
Fiona Hile’s ‘Consumption’ is a hot little almost-sonnet that takes on the Capitalist pig. The speaker complains ‘if you say you don’t believe in that thing / about money and desire I’ll just die– […] But that’s okay, I hate work, and, anyway…’ In a tone evoking too the charm of Frank O’Hara, ‘Consumption’s’ lyric investigation of death and legacy ends on the joke that at least of the body ‘Nothing will be wasted’. Full of jokes, like the speaker’s ‘father’s / puns’, the poem combusts in a mess, abandoning the ‘ticklish’ world of novelty the poem is disgusted by. Language under consumer capitalism (‘double absolute modernity’?) will make you sick– luckily we have poetry to help with that. (Help to purge?). Does Hile’s poem diss the baroque novelty of Ashbery’s abstraction, the pursuit of a higher poetic good ‘outside capital’? I’m not sure.
Pam Brown works from Ashbery’s ‘political poem’ ‘Default Mode’, which Brown heard him read in New York in 2008. ‘Antipodean Default Mode’ mirrors the refrain “They were living in America”, inserting ‘Australia’ and animating points from the original, like ‘…living in America fictitiously’. Brown: ‘everything had seen better days / They were living in Australia / just for the heck of it […] like true blue Americans’. The poem absorbs the twin fictions of America and Australia and spits out a flatter version still. Nationhood for settlers is rendered spurious, and the fruits of colonial violence and modernity, like ‘biodegradeable mousepads’, fill out this sad, cutting and funny poem.
Farrell notes in his Introduction that the poets included ‘span roughly fifty years’. I’m left wondering what a part two of this collection might look like– another fifty years of influence in the rapidly heating Antipodes should produce some fresh takes on this monolith of modern poetry. The poems vary greatly, but in many there is a sense of poetry in breakdown, a reflection on the passing of a great poet and a changing world. Luke Beesley’s ‘Timber Hitch’ is a short, crumbly prose block below which a scrappy drawing of Ashbery, and the caption ASH. A phoenix… or ashes to dust…
In any case, with a nod to ‘what’s next’, Ali Alizadeh begins ‘The Poet (After ‘the Painter’)’: ‘Crouching between horror and language / I hate writing about this damn world,’ and concludes his polemical response: ‘The age doesn’t demand an image of the world / in any language. Better to tattoo fear / on the page, in a dark inaesthetic poem.’ Alizadeh’s mad sestina is a fine, if random place to stop eating of these poems, and to look forward to ever newer versions of the Mode. Dark, inaesthetic, cruel… tho probably in equal measure desperate attempts to delight oneself and others.
Chiasson, Dan. “Postscript: John Ashbery”. New Yorker. 2017
de Andrade, Oswaldo. ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’. trans. Leslie Barry (1991). Latin American Literary Review. 19. 38. 1928 p. 38
Forbes, John. Collected Poems. Brandl & Schlessinger. 2001. p 104
GARETH MORGAN is a poet and co director of sick leave reading series and journal. His work can be found in Rabbit, Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal and other places.
On Scars and Flying Horses:
Linda Christanty is an Indonesian author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay “Militarism and Violence in East Timor” won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.
Linda Christanty begins her short story “The Flying House of Maria Pinto” with a seemingly mundane encounter: an Indonesian soldier gets on a train, sits down next to a young woman reading a Stephen King novel, and tells her a story. The story he recounts is that of Maria Pinto:
“Maria Pinto was originally just an ordinary young girl who had once studied literature at a renowned university in Jakarta, and held out until the third semester before returning to the land of oranges and coffee. The people in that land died too early; they disappeared, committed suicide, went mad or plunged into the forest to unite the wild boar and the reindeer.”
Maria Pinto’s people give her ancient weapons and a flying horse, choosing her as their protector and commander.
“As of that moment, Maria Pinto had become the leader of treacherous troops, trapping the enemy in every zone, deterring those who only relied on tangible things; those who shunted aside fairytales and dreams.”
We as readers will not be able to set aside so easily the fairytale aspects of this short story; the soldier’s dreamlike narrative comes to overtake the rest of the plot. The woman on the train tries to ignore the overly chatty soldier, returning to her book until finally arriving at her destination. But after parting, the soldier is tasked with killing the enemy rebel target. He shoots at a figure on the street from a neighboring skyscraper and, when he goes to recover the body, discovers that this rebel is actually woman on the train who had listened to his story. Is the woman from the train the same enemy rebel from the soldier’s tale, Maria Pinto? That question remains unanswered, but what becomes clear is how political conflict finds its articulation in close, personal encounters and everyday stories.
Christanty is an Indonesian author known for approaching social and political issues in her writing. A student activist who participated in the movement that forced Indonesian dictator Suharto from power in 1998, Christanty has long dedicated her life to activism as well as the written word. After Indonesia’s return to democracy, she worked as a journalist and human rights advocate for women’s issues. For her activism, she was nominated for the N-Peace Award in 2012 in the Asia Pacific category and won the Kartini Award in 2014. Meanwhile, her fiction has won a range of national awards as well as Thailand’s prestigious Southeast Asian Writers Award in 2013.
According to the introduction to her collection, Final Party and Other Stories, in which the short story “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” was published in Debra Yatim’s English translation, “[Christanty’s] political activism is reflected in her prose . . . It is as if she feels the need to tell these things in order for us not to forget, and also maybe not to flinch when facing the demons of history.”
“The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” is no exception. Though more implicit than her other stories in its political content, this narrative encodes questions of military violence and resistance. In fact, it is the inclusion of a second narrative plane–the mythical tale integrated into the direct encounter between the representative of the state (the soldier) and the representative of resistance (the woman)–that comes to command our attention and the progression of events itself. Indeed, the soldier’s story could be understood as a meta-narrative that reveals how this figure understands his own pursuit of this so-called “enemy.” The fascinating quality of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” and of Linda Christanty’s fiction more generally, lies not in literal depictions of conflict, but rather in the socially constructed narratives of conflict she interrogates through multiple layers of storytelling.
I spoke with Linda Christanty in Jakarta in 2019 as part of a series of interviews with contemporary Indonesian writers who represent Suharto’s New Order dictatorship in their work. The project is an effort to understand how authors construct counter-histories about an authoritarian past that the Indonesian state refuses to recognize for its brutality. As a U.S. American, I recognize the role my country played in supporting the anti-communist Suharto regime and turning a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights that took place. This traumatic past is not bounded by Indonesia’s nation-state boundaries; it is a history that incorporates global actors and that remains relevant beyond Indonesia. For foreigners, exploring how Indonesian writers revise and reconstruct narratives of the past can be a way to revisit questions of post-colonial, transnational leftism, which found its initial articulation through the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung before the Suharto era ruptured bourgeoning international solidarity between recently independent nations.
Christanty is well positioned to reflect on politically committed writing in Indonesia, both in terms of her role in her generation and independently, as an author. As a key figure in a literary movement that used words first for liberation against an authoritarian regime and then for the project of reckoning with that authoritarian past, Christanty has witnessed marked shifts in Indonesia’s literary scene. And, in her own short fiction, the question of how characters invent narratives to understand their own experiences of social upheaval remains central, whether in “The Wild-cherry Tree,” where we find ourselves immersed in the imaginative perspective of a young girl processing assault, or in “The Final Party,” where an informant who sent friends to prison copes with his choices while arranging his birthday party.
When Linda joined me in a bustling café in central Jakarta, we spoke about free expression under dictatorship, continuities in violence, literary categories, and the Western gaze on socially committed Southeast Asian fiction. Much in the line of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” the question that spanned each topic was narrative itself, and how the language we use to tell stories frames history.
Lara Norgaard (LN): The memory of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship is a near-constant feature of your short fiction. Almost all of your short stories in the English-language collection Final Party and Other Stories relate in some way to that period’s violence, though sometimes that connection is not immediately apparent. Some of the moments that I found especially interesting are ones in which this history is implied in language rather than made explicit. For example, in “The Final Party,” when a man who had worked as a state informant recounts how he explained his job to his daughter for her school project:
“One day, little Alma asked about his work.
‘What do you actually do, Papa?’
‘I’m a note-maker.’
‘Note-maker?’ Little Alma laughed.
‘Yes,’ he answered firmly.
But in his daughter’s report book, he wrote down: entrepreneur.”
On a level of language, how would you say Indonesian either contains the memory of Suharto-era state violence or actually obscures the history of that period?
Linda Christanty (LC): There are a few expressions that people would use in the Suharto era, and especially language used by Suharto’s government. For example, most people, including any member of the military or the police, would very rarely say, “that person was arrested” or “that person was taken to prison.” Instead, they would usually use the phrase, orang itu diamankan – “that person was secured.” As all of us who were alive in that era, secured means that someone was arrested. It immediately had that connotation, conjuring up an image of someone who confronted the state apparatus and had to be “secured.”
It was also unusual, or taboo, to use the word buruh in the Suharto era. Worker, working class, labor. The government preferred that people use the word – employee – so that power relations would disappear. As a result, there wouldn’t be any apparent power dynamic between higher-ups and subordinates, bosses and workers, or in fact any oppressive relationship at all. That’s because the term karyawan in Indonesian relates to the term berkarya, someone who creates, someone who says something in the world. Buruh, on the other hand, means laborer, someone who only has the power to work. That person does not have authority over anything else; for example, they do not control the means of production. In that sense, when we use the word labor, it means resistance, because it means that oppression is present. When Suharto was in power, if a person used the word buruh it meant that they were also radical. Buruh is a word that collects or contains radical social movements and a long history of struggle. That was erased. So you would use more neutral terms: karyawan, which means employee, and kerja, which means work or job.
Then there’s one more example from when I was little. One day, I was talking to my grandfather in our house on Bangka Island. A man passed by out front, the father of a friend of mine from elementary school. My grandfather told me that this person, my friend’s father, wouldn’t ever be able work again at his company because he was terlibat – involved. In the Indonesian of Suharto’s New Order, the word terlibat always connoted being involved with the Indonesian Communist Party. ‘That person was involved,’ and people immediately or automatically knew that they had connections to communism.
There were so many euphemisms back then, you would hear the word terlibat and diamankan, and then the word buruh was erased, it never appeared.
LN: After the Reformasi period in 1998, when Suharto was removed from power and Indonesia returned to democracy, did these euphemisms continue?
LC: When Reformasi took place, or even before Reformasi when social movements were growing stronger and labor strikes and student actions were more and more frequent, people did start using the term labor, buruh, again. For example, when they would talk about labor or factory movements. And progressive students, the ones concerned about labor, would also use the term. Indeed the intellectuals at the time became a kind of driving force for change, recuperating this language that had been banned.
LN: For you, specifically, how has this influenced your writing?
LC: I started writing fiction when the New Order regime was still in power. Back then, if you wanted to write something or send a short story to print media, like a newspaper, the government had established rules. You couldn’t break the rules, so your story couldn’t contain any elements related to politics, religion, race, or anything that was seen as going against Indonesian society. The point is, you couldn’t have critical thought in your stories. But you could package it with something other than what you meant.
In fact, in the early 1990s I was writing fiction and news stories about the lives of marginalized peoples. And I also wrote stories about factory life. Usually, I wouldn’t write those for mainstream media, but instead for student magazines. At the University of Indonesia, which was my university, and also at other schools in Solo or Yogya, a subset of the student body was involved in the student movement. And some students who were quite forward-thinking, brave, and critical would publish work more freely, allowing people to write relatively unfettered by censorship, at least in comparison to mainstream media.
LN: In an interview with the online publication Arsip Publik, you stated that you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature.”1 I see your argument that this label makes it seem as though no one was openly writing critical texts before the transition to democracy took place. At the same time, I imagine that the experience of writing was indeed different before, during, and after the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
If you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature,” how would you reframe shifts in the Indonesian literary world since the early 1990s?
LC: There are differences, of course, especially in what I was telling you about how certain words changed in their use. I still remember how, before Reformasi, right around 1997, we would usually use the term wanita (lady) when talking about perempuan (woman). The word for lady was seen as carrying more respect than the word for woman, as though the term perempuan had a certain negative connotation. But then, the Indonesian women’s movement was active at that time, and I still remember how in one issue of the magazine Kalyanamitra, they began to use the word perempuan to bring awareness to readers, to define the concept of perempuan and how it could in fact be emancipatory. The word perempuan, or woman, has something that could be understood as equality, a kind of strength. And so they began to use that term.
Writing under Suharto’s New Order is like what I already described. If you wrote for mainstream media, you would worry that they wouldn’t publish certain things. That wasn’t just about specific terms but also about certain topics. For example, it would of course be difficult to write realistic stories about Timor-Leste or disappearances. So writers like Seno Gumira Ajidarma, when he wrote about Timor-Leste, had to make the incident occur somewhere else, and make the characters from somewhere else so readers could maybe imagine this had happened in Latin America, for example.
I felt some of that myself, but I usually sent my stories to student publications because I wrote critically and said what I thought without allowing sensors to limit my work.
For literature after Reformasi, what’s actually very interesting is how varied the subject matter became. So many authors chose to write openly about their bodies after Reformasi. In the period before Reformasi, women were not free to write about their bodies. There are some personal aspects to that, but it also relates to how women’s bodies were associated with the leftist women’s organization Gerwani. During the Lubang Buaya incident2, these women allegedly danced naked and cut off the generals’ genitals. So, women’s bodies under the New Order regime were always associated with something evil, something immoral, something violent. And as a result, women could not easily speak openly about sex or sexuality.
But men could write exotic stories under New Order regime. No woman writer could so easily discuss the sorts of things that men wrote when they described women’s bodies or sex so openly. While men wouldn’t get any social pushback, women felt like it might be incriminating if they wrote about the same things. So, later, Reformasi was also marked by the appearance of novels that were more explicit because women were free to talk about their bodies, to write about eroticism and other aspects of their own experiences.
Of course, it was also during Reformasi that stories from the Suharto era—stories that people had been too afraid to talk about– started to be told. That includes political issues, injustices, and human rights violations that people hadn’t been brave enough to discuss.
LN: How about in the present?
LC: Actually, these problems from the New Order continue today. That includes, for example, human rights violations and gendered violence, which have continued since the New Order. Over the course of 50 years, not much has changed. Take women’s issues. Rates of sexual assault are still very high, violence is still very common. In 2019, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) published a report3 stating that violence against women increased by 14% from 2018. It’s unclear if that’s actually because there are more victims or because survivors are more and more likely to come forward, but regardless, the rates are high and the numbers haven’t dropped. Now, in terms of human rights violations or the criminalization of environmental activism, those are things that happened during the New Order and that still happen today.
Today, when people defend their land, or defend land that companies want to seize from communities, or when they defend the environment and try to prevent heavy metals from destroying rivers and fish, that’s considered a political act. That’s taking a stand, not just against companies, but also against a sector of the elite within our government. During the Suharto era, a political act was understood only as speaking out against the state and the military. Now, activists who don’t want companies on their land are also taking a stance against the state. Environmental issues are very crucial, on the same level as other human rights issues.
I see myself, along with Leila Chudori and Ayu Utami, as writers who grew up under the New Order and who were already in our twenties when Reformasi began. So we were born into that regime and lived under it through our early adult lives. That means our way of thinking, our memory, is very tied to that period. We are motivated to write about things like the 1965 Tragedy4 because that period, or stories about that period, are so strong in our memories. We write about what took place a bit later on, too, like activism under Suharto. That’s a common narrative in our lived experience. When we write about these topics, we’re also writing as witnesses, or maybe as people who grew up hearing these stories, as people who knew about or who may have been affected by the disappearances.
After us, there is a group that is far more distant from these stories. For some, their writing does touch on themes from our generation. But a different group has already moved on to write about other topics, which are not any less interesting but that also don’t necessarily depict authoritarian regimes or imagined dystopias.
For instance, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie is one writer from the current generation that’s very interesting, in my opinion. She writes about a completely different world, and politics come through in her selection of symbols. Her novel, Semua Ikan di Langit (All Fish in the Sky) really impressed me. It takes place in a huge trash heap. Her main character is the corpse of a little boy. Her other characters are a cockroach and some fish, and they all ride together in a broken city bus that had been dumped in the trash heap. It turns out that the corpse becomes a certain kind of god or idol for these strange creatures. So the bus is flying along in this universe of trash, and one day it stops and a little girl gets on. The girl, who is actually the boy’s sister, is a Holocaust survivor. In this sense, Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie writes about an event from the past, but her approach is very different from the one that my generation takes when we talk about similar topics.
LN: I’d like to hear more about your own approach. You’re a journalist as well as an author of fiction, and a lot of your stories have direct connections to real political issues. Your writing is far less surreal than Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s, for example. When you write fiction, are your stories grounded in the kinds of events you yourself witnessed or in reportage about specific events?
LC: Well, let’s look at one of my stories, “Fourth Grave”. It’s about a young girl who is disappeared. Actually, I never say that she is based on someone real because she and her family are not real at all. In the story, there is an old married couple of Chinese descent, and their daughter is involved in politics. Up to this point, it’s all fiction. But were the disappearances real? Yes, they were. So I imagined a situation in which the daughter is kidnapped, like what happened to so many people who really were disappeared.
The story is about what I don’t know, like how a family would react if their child is disappeared. How does that affect the relationship between husband and wife? How do they remember their daughter? What is most painful in day-to-day life? It turns out what hurts are the little things, like when the wife wants to cook fish, but then all of sudden the husband says, don’t, our daughter might have been thrown in the sea. Memories arise, and they imagine what it might be like if their daughter had ended up in the ocean and then was eaten by a shark. And then they saw the fish in a totally different light, and they can’t eat it again.
LN: There are readers who say your stories are very sad.
LC: That’s true.
LN: I agree that they’re dark, but at the same time you include some whimsical elements. “Fourth Grave” actually has a lot of fantastical references to comics like Kho Ping Hoo, and “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” involves a supernatural flying horse, for instance. Could you comment on these dimensions of your work that are less realistic? What role does whimsy and fantasy play in political storytelling for you?
LC: Perhaps these elements, which many people would label magical or fantastical, are actually very everyday aspects of Southeast Asian societies. People believe that in addition to what we see in this dimension, there are also creatures alive in a different dimension. In belief systems or cultures around Southeast Asia, these elements are understood as ghosts or creatures on the threshold.
For example, where I was born on Bangka Island, people believe in 20 different kinds of ghosts. There’s a ghost that appears just as a head, for instance, called Anton, like the name for a little boy. Another one is called Hantu Burung Kuak, or Kuak Ghost Bird. If that one releases a specific kind of noise, it means something bad will happen. The ghost Menjadin can tear people apart. Aside from those, there are ghosts from Java that are pretty well known, like Kuntilanak, which is also called Pontianak in areas near Kalimantan. That means that in Malaysia, it’s also not uncommon to also hear about a ghost called Pontianak. Then there’s a snake ghost named Paul, like a white man. And there’s one called Mawang, too.
People who live on Bangka Island, in Sumatra, and even in the eastern islands of Indonesia, like Maluku or the Nusantara region, they take it for granted that these creatures are a part of their everyday lives. So when someone writes a story set in a society like ours, non-human characters are just normal. They aren’t strange. They just describe what’s going on in that other dimension.
When I wrote “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto”, for instance, it was inspired by a trip I took by train. It was just one very brief moment. While I was in the train, I met a soldier. And during the New Order I really didn’t like soldiers, you know. I thought, oh no, a soldier is sitting next to me, how should I act? This was maybe five years before the New Order ended. Since I didn’t want to talk to him, I started reading some novel, I don’t remember which one.
That soldier wouldn’t stop talking to me, and then I noticed that he had a scar. From there, I started to imagine what I would end up writing in the short story.
1. Sastra Reformasi, or Reformasi literature, is a term used in Indonesian literature to refer to an outpouring of openly critical literary production in the wake of the country’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 1998. Linda Christanty’s argument as to how this literary category obscures the tradition of critical writing before Suharto’s fall from power can be found in her interview with Arsip Publik: http://arsippublik.blogspot.com/2015/01/wawancara-linda-christanty-2.html.
2. Lubang Buaya is an area on the outskirts of Jakarta where seven Indonesian generals were murdered in 1965 in an incident that came to be known as the 30 of September Movement. The incident became the justification for Suharto’s military coup d’état and the ensuing mass killings, imprisonment, and persecution of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and affiliate organizations (including the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) and the Institute for the People’s Culture (Lekra)), as well as people with any perceived connection to the aforementioned groups. For more information on Lubang Buaya and its role in the foundational myth of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, see John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3938.htm).
3. The full annual report can be accessed online here: https://www.komnasperempuan.go.id/read-news-siaran-pers-catatan-tahunan-catahu-komnas-perempuan-2019%20.
4.The 1965 Tragedy refers to the mass killings of 1965-1966 that took place in the wake of Suharto’s coup d’état. Estimates on the number killed range from 500,000 to three million people, and researchers have made the argument that the killings should be considered genocide. For more, see The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres by Geoffrey Robinson
and The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder by Jess Melvin (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/15/killing-season-geoffrey-robinson-army-indonesian-genocide-jess-melvinreviews).
This interview, translated from the Indonesian by Lara Norgaard, was edited and condensed for clarity.
Lara Norgaard is an editor, essayist, and literary translator from Colorado. After graduating from Princeton University in 2017, she served as Editor-at-Large for Brazil for Asymptote Journal and directed Artememoria, a free-access arts magazine focused on the memory of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship. Her essays, literary criticism, and translations can be found in publications such as the Mekong Review, the Jakarta Post, Asymtptoe Journal, Peixe-elétrico, and Agência Pública. Currently, she is a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia and will begin her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University in September 2020.
My Van Gogh
By Chandani Lokugé
by Paul Giffard-Foret
Chandani Lokugé’s fifth novel My Van Gogh takes the reader on a romantic and artistic journey across borders, from the rural farming lands of Victoria in Australia, where part of her characters’ family on their father’s side is from, to some of France’s touristic hotspots, including scenic areas of Le Loire Valley, the southeast region of Provence, or its capital city Paris. The metropolitan provenance of the novel is made evident by the design of the book cover. It shows a snapshot of what is reminiscent of the Tuileries Garden, which is located in the vicinity of Le Louvre Museum. This is despite the fact that Lokugé actually writes from the periphery of what constitutes her Sri Lankan Australian background. The terms of “periphery” and “metropolitan” are used here with a postcolonial agenda in mind, to refer to the ways in which the old structures of Empire and European colonialism still play out in our contemporary era. Lokugé is aware of such lingering structures insofar as her oeuvre as a novelist may easily fall under the loose category of “postcolonial fiction”. As an illustration, Lokugé’s second novel Turtle Nest, published in 2003, dealt with the issue of sex tourism and trafficking of local children for Western customers in a small fishing village in Sri Lanka.
We may wonder, then, what postcolonial elements there are in a novel in which the main characters are white and relatively privileged —symbolically at least, being endowed with cultural capital—and where a driving theme is the artistic legacy left by one of the most iconic Western painters and representatives of High Culture, namely Van Gogh? To revert to my earlier allusion to Turtle Nest, this novel shares with My Van Gogh a common concern with travel (and tourism) that itself recurs as a distinct motif in diasporic literatures of dispersal by migrant authors. Yet this time, the gaze happens to be reversed, for My Van Gogh, as its title suggests, does not so much speak of the master painter’s life as it heralds its appropriation by the margins. My Van Gogh’s central Australian-born character, Shannon, sets out on a quest for meaning by travelling to France in very much the same way that the West would journey to the Orient and the Far East in the hope of being “revealed” by the sheer Sublime of the place, by its spirituality, its history, art and craft. The tourist’s gaze operates a process of “museumification” which not only sublimates the real, as Jennifer Straus spelled out during her speech at Lokugé’s book launch, but it also flattens things out by silencing “accidents” of history.
So it is to Lokugé’s credit that the rippling echoes of those series of murderous terrorist attacks which have struck France since 2015 can be felt. These attacks carry along their trail of death haunting memories of a colonial era thought to have been long gone, since the last major terrorist attacks on French soil took place in the context of Algeria’s War of Independence and Algeria’s Civil War in the 1990s. The blight of terror is another common point with Lokugé’s homeland, Sri Lanka. As Shannon and Guy are walking along the promenade in Nice on Bastille Day, they must bear witness to “a ceremony to commemorate the lives lost” (55) on that very same spot and day in 2016, killing eighty-three. Shannon’s prolonged sojourn in France is meant as a way for him to reconnect with his French mother and brother Guy, both of whom are “exiled” in France away from the family farm in Australia, as well as with his great-grandfather Grand Pierre, who fought and died a hero during the Great War of 1914-1918. Yet their mother remains an “absent presence” throughout the novel, having cut off links with her family, while Guy, being now well established in his adopted country, and having started a new life in Paris as an art dealer, feels in some way estranged from Shannon. Grand Pierre’s military heroism, which is very much part of the family’s lore, gets somewhat dampened and overshadowed by the fact that his body remains are yet to be exhumed and identified after all these years.
Their scattering evokes the scattering, more broadly, of family relationships, friends and lovers, and in the final instance, of identity markers themselves, which is an aspect of our postmodern “liquid” selves that transpires in Lokugé’s novel. Put simply, identity relates to people and places, but the latter in My Van Gogh remain loosely connected and grounded. Lokugé highlights her characters’ difficulties to communicate with, and feel for, one another. Her characters, indeed, seem enveloped within a Hopperesque halo of solitude, like a carapace preventing them from facing and sharing with others those vagaries of life that otherwise fill the void of our existence. In this light, Lokugé’s choice of a happy ending sounds like a trompe l’oeil, especially with respect to the book cover. It shows empty chairs lying stranded and looking abandoned, and an individual’s silhouette walking away into the distance towards a vanishing point, being flanked on both sides by rows of tall, erect, autumnal trees. This image intimates that one’s personal journey is a lonely trail, as it must have been for the tormented, maddened Van Gogh.
In effect, the many touristic sites and scenic places (including Van Gogh’s temporary home in Arles), as well as churches and museums, though they are in part aimed at recalling her mother’s presence, all seem but a poor distraction and lack substance in the face of Shannon’s own pill-dependent depressive state. We are told that “for Shannon, also, it had become ordinary, a boring show staged for self-indulgent tourists. That quiet desperation, that unconscious despair that is concealed under the amusements of mankind, Shannon reflected, recalling the words of Thoreau.” (54) I am here reminded of award-winning French author Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian portrayal of France as a theme park for foreign visitors and local tourists in his novel, The Map and the Territory, whereby largely uninhabited town centres have been transformed into standardised temples of consumption and sanitised variations of the picturesque. As a review of the novel published in the New York Times concurred, “Houellebecq’s Paris exists in a state of flagrant social breakdown and the countryside has become an emptied theme park of itself.”
The parallel with Lokugé’s work can be further made here, since both authors have shown a deep, continuous interest in tourism as a powerful metaphor for our globalised era. As the New York Times review added, The Map and the Territory “deals with art and architecture, rather than sex tourism. It is set in galleries and villages rather than S-M clubs and massage parlors.” My Van Gogh similarly deals with the art market as a global form of currency. As earlier mentioned, Guy is a gallerist, and Shannon a student in art history. Shannon’s girlfriend Lilou, besides being a tour guide, is a musician and a painter herself, while Guy’s French lover Julie graduated in Fine Arts. Furthermore, the novel is peopled by references to mythical figures such as Proust, Beckett, Hemingway or Matisse, who at some point lived and worked in France, at a time—at least until World War Two— when Paris happened to be the world’s artistic hub and would attract artists from different nationalities, including Van Gogh himself. So at some point in the novel, Shannon for example goes to visit the southeastern village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh was interned in an asylum for a year there, and where he achieved some of his most famous paintings.
In the same way that Houellebecq is, Lokugé is further concerned in her novel with those children belonging to the post-soixantehuitard (sixty-eight) generation, as they are dubbed in France, who grew up in the wake of the May 1968 Revolution. The upheaval, mostly student-led, entailed among other things a radical dismantling of the traditional family. Lilou, whom Shannon met during his meanderings across France, for instance is said to have parents who lived “wayward, hashish-filled lives—with a tribe somewhere in the Himalayas from what she’d seen in Facebook months ago.” (120) As Shannon tells her: “We are a lost generation—une génération perdue.” (121) This historical allusion to the devastation wrought by the Great War upon the youth in particular points to the existence of a crisis of a spiritual, metaphysical and civilisational nature at the heart of Western, and more specifically, French contemporary society, as Houellebecq himself exposed in The Map and the Territory, which won the Prix Goncourt (the equivalent of the Booker Prize) in 2010. This crisis would ripen to a full and explode in the form of the Yellow Vest protests by the end of 2018. The occupation of roundabouts by Yellow Vests across the French territory, in particular in deserted rural areas where the movement started, represented a desire to rebuild solidarity and cohesion in the face of a torn social fabric, as well as gain democratic sovereignty through this modern version of the Greek agora. Lokugé in her novel summons the imagery of the carrefour (not the hypermarket chain here, but its semantic meaning of a “crossroad” in French) to poetically express the random contingency and situatedness of cross-cultural love, which, as the reader is led to understand, can be undone as quickly as it can be struck. And this is precisely within the knots of this tension that lies the beauty and dramatic force of Lokugé’s prose. To quote from the novel:
They lay entangled in each other. Her hand in his, a drowsy bird. The room was almost black, a shadow of light across the bed. He could faintly see her face raised beside his. They hardly knew one another. That was beautiful, he said. Thank you, she whispered. It’s a gift then. Whose voice, whose words? Didn’t matter. They were etched in him, deep inside. He kissed the fold of her elbow. Carrefour—he said—meeting place. He felt the texture—this word so foreign to him. Meeting place, she said, lieu de rencontre. (57)
A carrefour implies a certain level of reciprocity and a readiness to let go of one’s own cultural attributes to meet the Other on neutral, naked grounds. Travel narratives usually make for good romance precisely so because the characters in these narratives stand outside of their comfort zones. Standing outside or in-between cultures as do Guy the expatriate and Shannon the traveller make both brothers more easily vulnerable or susceptible to the possibility of yielding to the unknown of cross-cultural romance. As the French Iranian author, Abnousse Shalmani, reminds us, Guy and Shannon are “métèques” (a word originating from Greek and meaning whoever resides away from home). As such, métèques “do not have buried secrets within the attics of country cottages, no class prejudices, no embarrassment vis-à-vis History, culture, language; he or she has in effect left of this behind. The métèque goes beyond rules, common decency, social order.” (Shalmani 106; my own translation) France’s geography, located at the crossroads between six nations (which is why it is known as the hexagon), spans cultural realities as distinct as Provence’s Mediterranean Sea and the wine routes and forests of Alsace in the east. Alsace is probably the most métèque of all regions considering its historical ties in Germany, where Guy and Shannon’s great-grandfather Grand Pierre was killed. As a former imperial power and neo-colonial player, France has often proved unceremoniously unkind and unwelcoming to its métèques. Notwithstanding, My Van Gogh with its wanderings across some of France’s over-saturated historic sites operates a cosmopolitan itinerary worth following for the reader insofar as this scenic drift becomes a pretext for an inward exploration of the human condition itself.
Shalmani, Abnousse. Éloge du Métèque. Grasset, 2019.
Shulevitz, Judith. “Michel Houellebecq’s Version of the American Thriller.” New York Times, Jan. 13, 2012. <https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/books/review/michel-houellebecqs-version-of-the-american-thriller.html> (Accessed 19 Dec. 2019)
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET completed his Ph.D. on Australian women writers from Southeast Asia at Monash University’s Postcolonial Writing Centre in Melbourne, having completed his MA in Perth on Simone Lazaroo’s fiction. Paul’s research deals with gender studies, racial and cultural hybridity, migration, multiculturalism and related issues with a focus on postcolonial and diasporic Anglophone literatures from Australia, Southeast Asia and India. His academic work has appeared in various journals and magazines in the form of peer-reviewed articles and literary reviews.