Where Only the Sky had Hung Before
by Toby Fitch
Reviewed by Jeremy George
For all the obvious reasons I have been reflecting lately on what Walter Benjamin’s observes in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ ; “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience… [however] his nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom are already extinct in the city”. If Benjamin draws a causal link between the destruction of experience and the genesis of modern information; the decline of “storytelling” and the rise of “news”, it is hard to imagine what his judgement would be of our relationship to the web today. The internet is, of course, a fundamentally nauseating and overwhelming ex-American military technology of mass surveillance. However, it is simultaneously (and undeniably) the nexus of new “experiences” and modes of living. The internet is an experience, indeed, strictly in Benjamin’s sense. If anything has brought the activities that are associated with boredom back to the city, it is the internet – the inventor of the “infinite scroll” sincerely regrets the consequences of his actions. So, what’s the pay-off regarding experience?
Toby Fitch’s latest collection of poems Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, hinges on this juncture. The index at the back of the collection explains that nearly all the poems are collages, inversions, supercuts, ghostings or ekphrastic renditions of pre-existing texts. Other poems and poets yes, but also, social media streams, news articles, songs, a list of a child’s first words and buzz feed threads; as Fitch says of his own work in a recent interview “my poems are often simply accretions… [I] gather the relevant textual materials together and just play, make Lego of them, see where it goes”. Fitch’s collection asks, what limits the criterion of the “post-ready made” work? What happens if poetry embraces the technological paradigm of “information” to which it has been historically opposed?
The longest sequence in the collection is a sequence titled ‘Argo Notes’; “amorphous calligrammes after Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It is not coincidental that Fitch categorises the ‘Argo Notes’ as specifically calligrammes as opposed to concrete or visual poetry. Indeed what were Guillaume Apollinaire’s original ‘Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916’ but the attempt to synthesise typography with the burgeoning technology of the cinema and the phonograph. The form of the calligramme itself bespeaks not only the historical imbrication of poetic production and technological “means of reproduction” (as Apollinaire dubbed them in a letter to André Billy), but indeed the precariousness of the poet’s own status as productive as opposed to simply mimetic, an insecurity stretching back to their banishment from Plato’s Republic. In flagrantly anchoring the majority of poems in this collection in techniques of productive plagiarism, Fitch can trade off this age-old tension with its major contemporary iteration (the internet), whilst recognising that despite the major rupture the Internet has induced for poetry, it is not exactly uncharted territory. The calligrammes are significant for a further reason too, as morphing textual forms they perform a queerness that realises the historical etymological root of “stanzas” as body. The conflation of language (which is of course, the first technology) and the sexual; the productive and re-productive culminate and confuse in the queer textual body as:
“pro-Babel & shooting white eggs
Following from this point, in ‘Poetry is 99% Water’ Fitch asks us to remember;
between 4.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago,
a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment
and we’ve been recycling poems from these fragments
of larger epics ever since – into whirlpools and tornadoes
and other spinning turbulent flows”
Fitch’s “whirlpools and tornadoes” recall the epic simile of the swarm, which first appears in Homer’s Illiad, becomes domesticated in Virgil’s Aneiad as the “hive” and reappears as the cacophony of Fallen Angels in Pandemonium, during the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Inserting a poem concerned with (albeit on a comic register) making literal the ‘life-giving’ ability of poetry into this epic lineage points out that whilst the mechanisms of literary history and influence are of course technologies of reproduction and transmission themselves, this is clearly not a death sentence. Therefore, whilst the wasteland logic of the web, as explored in ‘Feel like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet’, gives in to the paradoxical stasis of being “relegated to everywhere” (on the internet we are famously ‘alone together’), and it becomes more difficult to discern what you are “trashing” and what you are “recycling” (possibly alluding to Fitch’s own appropriative strategies), poetry and the poet should not submit to nihilism. Indeed, the production of the collection itself, as one that is inextricable from the consequential language, modes of existing and practices that web occasions, performs this defiant gesture;
“no such thing as reproduction
Only acts of production” (28)
In one of the funniest poems in the collection ‘Life Stream’ , Fitch pleads with the reader, or with himself;
“& you can too
APPROPRIATE POETRY’S SENSE OF
WHAT IS MEANS TO BE AN EMPATH” (50)
The poem frenetically replays the condition of living not only the preceding poems of the collection – the “toenail” from ‘Vague or I Can’t Explain It Any Other Way’ makes an appearance. But also the conditions of existence the contemporary poet finds themselves in — the casualised work force of the academy, the reduction of a politics to “flicker Netflix representations”, the anxiety of knowing you’re being surveilled every moment you spend online, which now, thanks to its technological bulldozing, feels like “IRL” itself. And of course, “our notional national poet… his eyes [are] the size of/ thumbnails not poems” (50).
Fitch’s poems are contemporary in that they take as their key interlocutor the contemporary conditions of poetic production in the Internet Age. But they are not symptomatic of this age, in that they do assume de-facto status as poems purely as formally experimental texts that exist within this internet environment. A tweet today is not automatically a poem, as the corporate-poet mercenaries Fitch describes would have us believe; but they can be, maybe. This is the formal question Fitch’s collection interrogates head-on; how do we escape the infinite scroll? Or, under what conditions is the found-poem today categorically defined as the latter? Fitch’s ‘In Memory of My Furlings’ ghosts the first section of the great Frank O’Hara poem, transforming ‘Feelings’ to a noun that seemingly means both an “advanced alien race” from the Stargate universe, and a distance of 220 yards — the web has managed both figuratively and literally to alienate or distance us from our most felt human intensities. O’Hara’s final line is prescient for Fitch;
“and presently the aquiline serpent comes to resemble the medusa” (103)
But Fitch’s poem finishes on a different note;
“the furlings and unfurlings
I continue to have to save and put down” (21)
Keep hitting save is Fitch’s ethical maxim. And it seems right, Where Only the Sky Had Hung Before shows the continuing potential of poesis as a rebellious practice that can re-organise and create anew the techno waste we are enmeshed in. If there isn’t much experiential payoff in boredom being reinstated in the city, Fitch’s collection is at least one.
1. Walter, Benjamin. “The Storyteller”, Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, Mariner Books, 2019, pp. 26-56.
2. Fitch, Toby. “The amorphousness of meaning-making”, Cordite Poetry Review, 1/2/2020, http://cordite.org.au/interviews/gomez-fitch/
3. Apollinaire, Guillaume, quoted in the preface by Michel Butor Calligrammes, Éditions Gallimard, preface copyright 1966), pp.
4. O’Hara, Frank. “In Memory of My Feelings”, Frank O’Hara Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford, Alfred A.Knopf Random House, 2008, pp.102-103
JEREMY GEORGE is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne
Mother of Pearl
by Angela Savage
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
Mother of Pearl: Perspectives on exploitation
When I open a book by a white writer and am confronted by the point of view of a person of colour, my body tenses as if in anticipation of a blow. Rather than reading, I pick nervously at the writing in search of cliché and oversimplification. Because the source of the tension I feel in relation to point of view is less a question of who has a right to whose story than it is one of craft. As Rankine and Loffreda point out in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are” and therefore susceptible to the same preconceptions under which we labour as the products of an entire history of racist culture, politics and violence. The first-principle question is not therefore: “can I write from another’s point of view?”, but instead: “why and what for?”
The narration of Mother of Pearl is shared by three women, each of whom bears a distinct experience of exploitation. Meg has endured almost a decade of infertility treatments at the hands of a for-profit fertility industry in Australia. Her older sister Anna has spent the greater part of her adult life working with the ostracised and oppressed throughout South-East Asia. And early in the novel Mukda, or ‘Mod’, turns to surrogacy in an effort to lift her family out of the poverty endemic to the Isaan region of north-eastern Thailand.
Savage cycles quickly through each perspective to kaleidoscopic effect – each chapter is just a few pages long and written from a different point of view to the one before – and by interweaving Meg and Mod’s trauma, Savage expands the limits of an essentially western narrative of infertility to encompass the non-white suffering that it brings about. Her portrayal of the medical procedures that Mod undergoes are particularly uncomfortable:
‘Inserting the speculum,’ the doctor said to no one in particular.
The slide of cold metal against her skin made her catch her breath.
‘Cleaning the cervix.’
It felt like something had crawled up inside her. Mod bit her lip.
A woman doctor joined them in the room, carrying what looked like a long, uncooked vermicelli noodle. The two doctors glanced at the screen Mod couldn’t see, murmuring in voices she couldn’t hear. She closed her eyes and brought an image to mind of Pui at the market. She’d been buying bplaa krai when a catfish leapt from its basin and slithered through the mud over Pui’s foot, making him shriek with laughter. He’d shown off the muddy whorls on his toes to his grandmother as proudly as if they were new shoes.
The medical staff’s failure to address Mod, let alone guide her through the process of implantation, signals her objectification as a surrogate – within the framework of the surrogacy industry, Mod is nothing more than a receptacle for the embryos of paying customers. As I read these scenes, I recall the gentle and attentive manner in which the midwives and doctors navigated my body during pregnancy, the work they did to keep me informed and seek my consent. Mod’s passivity is both assumed and imposed and elucidates the way in which capital, or a lack of capital, can strip back an individual’s humanity in the eyes of both institutions and the individual themselves. Similarly, the poverty of her circumstances, in combination with the warm rendering of her love for her son, Pui, speak to the illusory nature of choice in destitution.
By placing the reader on the examination table and leaving their knees dangl[ing] from hard plastic bars (123), Savage embodies the human cost of surrogacy and succeeds in her aim of lessening the distance that “enables overseas commercial surrogacy to happen in the first place”, and yet I am never able to sink into Mod’s world in the same way I do Anna’s or Meg’s. The finer details of Mod’s character are the product of much careful observation and deliberation. Like Anna, Savage spent several years living and working in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; her research for the novel took her as far as Mod’s hometown of Sisaket; and she revised the manuscript in consultation with a Thai friend.
The grain of sand in my eye: while there is something in lending your voice to the voiceless, I don’t think I will ever be fully at-ease with characters whose submissiveness so closely aligns with “the kinds of feelings and attributes” that “our culture has imagined over and over again” for Asian women, and at times, Mod’s passivity and generosity facilitate the narrative in such a way as to remind me that writing from another’s perspective is inevitably an act of habitation and appropriation. One that can so easily lead to exploitation.
Savage enacts the awkwardness of her position as an outsider through the character of Anna. Anna’s knowledge of Thai culture, as well as her ability to speak Thai, simultaneously afford her greater access to Thai perspectives, and bring her face-to-face with the limits of her understanding as a farang, or white foreigner. When she expresses concern for the Thai surrogate who will carry Meg’s child, her Thai friend’s wry smile stops her mid-sentence:
‘What? The surrogate mothers are vulnerable, aren’t they?’
Fon shrugged. ‘Probably not as much as cleaner and factory workers. And the salary is better.’
‘So you think it’s okay for farangs like my sister to pay Thai women to have their babies for them?’
‘Why shouldn’t women in my country take advantage of such opportunities? Reuu dtawng gin naam dtai saawk mai?’
The expression was one Anna had heard Fon use before, the Thai equivalent of being satisfied with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Translated literally, it was more visceral: ‘Must they drink only the water that drips from the elbow?’
‘Being a surrogate mother is a way of making merit,’ Fon said. ‘It’s considered a humanitarian act. A lot better than sex work.’
Anna chased the ice cubes in her water glass with a straw. She’d assumed that as a feminist, Fon would be dead against commercial surrogacy.
‘Neither surrogacy nor sex work seem like great choices to me.’
‘That’s because you’re thinking like a farang.’
This and other similar encounters serve to undermine Anna’s conventional authority as a white woman narrating Asia and in turn, reflects Savage’s awareness of the fraught nature of her own narrative choices. But for all her awkwardness, of the three women, it is Anna who allows Savage to articulate the problems of distance and othering with the greatest clarity. Anna’s acquaintance with the extreme poverty of South-East Asia makes her an exacting judge of others’ suffering. As Australia mourns in the wake of the Black Saturday fires, Anna wonders why those who are poor to begin with don’t seem to make it onto the radar (84) and stroking Meg’s hair at the hospital, where she is being treated for overstimulated ovaries, Anna sees that:
Meg would be all right. She had Nate, her family and friends, a comfortable home, a steady job. Compared with what the people Anna encountered in her work had to contend with, Meg’s sadness was a small burden.
It is shocking, in a way, to see infertility described as a small burden, yet throughout Mother of Pearl Savage interrogates the notion of ‘infertility’ until it starts to come apart. Reflecting on the last ten years of her life, Meg observes:
Once, a woman in her circumstances would’ve been classified as barren, with no room for ambiguity. But infertility was something else: a diagnosis, subject to an ever expanding array of medical interventions. Even the word infertility carried with it the hope, false or otherwise, of fertility. More than once Meg had thought it would be easier to know that there was no hope, that she would never have children. But no doctor or nurse, not a single professional she had dealt with, ever suggested she give up.
Mother of Pearl is not, in the end, a traditional portraiture of infertility. Nor is it a blunt condemnation of international surrogacy. Savage writes from the centre of each woman’s hopes and fears and the end product is a complex web of exploitation, accomplishment and loss that reaches farther than any one woman’s story.
- Rankine, C. and Loffreda, B., ‘On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary’. Literary Hub, April 9, 2015. https://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
- Hunter, B., Mother of Pearl. FEMALE.com.au. https://www.female.com.au/mother-of-pearl.htm
- Rankine and Loffreda, ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’.
MEGAN CHEONG is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.
by Ellena Savage
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
Memoir, poetry, probing essay-style musings and competing inner voices exist side-by-side in Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, a bold and incisive collection of experimental non-fiction.
While Blueberries is Savage’s debut essay collection, she has been widely published, with her works appearing in literary journals, daily publications and various collections. Many of Blueberries’ offerings have appeared in various publications previously, in differing forms and have now been stitched together to form a well-flowing collection that explores big topics like class, colonialism, feminism, reproductive rights, sex and trauma.
In her sharp and intimate prose Savage’s essays probe into what it means to be a woman, a feminist, a writer, a modern Australian and a product of a colonial society. While she never shies away from important issues, Savage imbues her work with a warmth and expressiveness that adds levity when needed.
Keystone work, “Yellow City”, which was last year published in chapbook form, kicks off the collection strongly, taking the form of diary entries tracing Savage’s steps through Lisbon in 2017, a city that she has returned after being a victim of a sex crime there some 11 years earlier. “Yellow City” is haunted by that past incident and by questions about the reliability of memory.
“—‘My first memory.’
—Is buttressed by recalling it.
—‘My first memory.’ A fiction fixed to the linear self.” (8)
Savage lays herself bare in this piece, scraping back the layers to show how the trauma had shaped her in the intervening years since the “encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death. When my body understood for a second that corpses are dismembered to cover-up crimes.” (6)
The second essay, the titular “Blueberries”, explores the learnings that Savage takes from an elite writing workshop she attends the USA, delving into questions of privilege, gender, what it means to be a woman and a writer and what associated obstacles come with those two roles.
The essay had a cadence all of its own, coming back to the phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writers’ workshop” (41) or variations of it to drive home each new stanza. Dropped commas make the prose flow with a heightened sense of urgency, a sort of feverish enthusiasm that somehow sounds more like the dialogue might have with an impassioned friend, eager to convey the import of the issue weighing upon their mind.
The intersection between gender and the creation of art is a key theme of the work, with Savage delving into the role gender played in the dynamics of the workshop and how that mirrored inequality between the sexes in wider society and in the arts.
In many ways, Blueberries could be seen as modern day response to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, delving into these inequalities, even while acknowledging the “thud of guilt knowing that someone, like, I don’t know, my own mother, would have wrung her neck to have been given the opportunity to attend her art’s version of the workshop I was at;” (57)
Savage’s musings hold an echo of Woolf’s own thoughts on women writers, brought into a modern era. Woolf wrote that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?” (Woolf, 87). I found echoes of Woolf’s frustration in Savage’s own thoughts on the writers’ workshop, where she “was disappointed not for the first time that ‘excellence’ was turning out to be mediocrity dressed up in money and maybe masculinity too, not the masculinity that is visible to us, brawny and street-smart, but real masculinity, which is reedy and tepid and well read and invisible.(42)
The piece also touches upon class and race but only in a relatively minor way. Savage recognises her privilege, pondering on the “kind of class mobility that I have because maybe my race is my class now” (45) and at the same notes that women writers made up “ninety per cent of the cohort, and most of them white” (54). Despite this acknowledgement though, white feminism remains the predominant lens for Savage’s analysis.
“Then one day me and my friend were at a big gallery and I looked at a wall of photographs of famous European artists, artists whose faces you’d recognise as those of famous European artists, and for some reason I saw it all at once laid out and the only thing I could say was ‘Where are all the women artists’, like I had only just noticed, which could as easily have been where are all the Aboriginal artists where are all the trans artists where are all the Asian artists, except that we’re talking about a group that constitutes fifty per cent of any otherwise marginalised population and any privileged one too.” (53)
This quote signifies (intentionally or not) that despite Savage engaging with ideas about how race might factor into marginalisation, her chief concern regarding representation still remains how much recognition women might receive in artistic spheres. With her argument about women constituting 50 per cent of the population, Savage subtly indicates a belief that the representation of female artists is of more important than that of the other groups she mentions. Women’s issues are thus given prominence over issues facing Asian and Aboriginal artists. Savage’s analysis stops short of unpacking how women of colour might face further struggles with representation as compared to white women.
Savage better acknowledges her own limitations in “Satellite”, a musing on her family’s Coburg background and the area’s gentrification, where she likens her roots to “an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor is trying to say something about colonial figures like me who’d really like to not make things worse than they are, but who by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting the home built atop spirits silent and angry, have roots that are caught in the seams of rotten foundations.” (79)
Class and how cultural capital is linked to social mobility is another theme Savage takes an interest in. She puts forward the supposition in Blueberries that “the accumulation of cultural capital for the purpose of social mobility is a stone-cold fact of life” (57), but one that is seldom talked about. Savage links this pursuit of elitism to the willingness of writers to pay for courses of “expensive mediocrity” (46) in a liberal arts environment where a kind of morality is associated with eating locally sourced, organic food, stemming from “the entitlement of an elite class to impose its moral directives on the people whose labour allows them to be elite in some way or another” (50). In “You Dirty Phony Saint and Martyr”, Savage writes that she imagined some of her own accrued cultural capital would “morph into material capital, but it has not, yet and might never” (133), as part of an essay in which she touches lightly on “the nexus of power, privilege and prestige in literature” (130).
In “Unwed Teen Mum Mary”, Savage seamlessly transitions from recounting the process of seeking paid work into a contemplation of what the word choice means, specifically in the context of having the agency to make reproductive choices. It’s a powerful personal essay that both takes the readers into the intimacies of Savage’s own life and looks broadly at the cultural narratives surrounding abortion and how Christian tradition has shaped them.
“In my view, any effort to pair femininity with maternity with biological destiny with virgin births with earthy crystal-lovemaking is an effort to relegate the female form to a position of inferiority, to a state of constant need and gratitude and dependence.” (112)
Savage shows a firm grasp of a variety of styles throughout the collection, playing with form in creative and clever, and sometimes disconcerting ways. “Allan Ginsberg” (fittingly) takes a poetic form, while “Friendship Between Women” has a compelling, rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel, rich with poetic description. Another interesting piece is “Holidays with Men”, which juxtaposes two separate works on each page, effectively creating two pieces in one. The first of the two reflects on a series of vignettes Savage once published in a zine, the second is a form of that vignette series, though one anecdote recounted in the companion piece about an acquaintance recognising herself in a vignette indicates that this version of “Holidays with Men” is not the same one. The eye and the mind don’t know which narrative to follow first but once the reader detangles the two, the combined work is a rich exploration of our modern relationship with travel, as well as the effects of travel upon relationships.
“Travel, in the broadest sense possible,
encompasses the furthest
reaches of a culture. Networks
driven by survival, by desire,
by a twinning of the two, have
flung bodies and stories away
from homes for all of history,
and all of prehistory, too.” (125)
“The Museum of Rape” could also be read in multiple ways, thanks to its use of numbered paragraphs, with the references throughout the text making it possible to skip to other parts of the work for a non-linear experience.
What I am saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured
I asked myself, what does it mean to anticipate the loss
of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2).” (67)
In the penultimate work in the collection, “Portrait of the Writer as Worker (after Dieter Lesage)”, Savage offers anecdotes of a writer’s life, a series of almost fragmented thoughts that strung together paint a vivid picture of how creation intersects with earning a living. Together with “Yellow City” and “Blueberries”, it can be seen as one of the collection’s key pieces.
“You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.” (211)
Savage’s works drip with references to other literature… Hemingway, Shakespeare, Elena Ferrante, Jamaica Kincaid, philosopher Theodor Adorno and the list goes on. By drawing from all these different source materials, Savage expands the scope of the work and imbues it with even more meaning.
As a debut collection, Blueberries is strong, sharply drawn, thought-provoking and easy to devour. Each individual piece earns its place in the collection, providing depth and insight across a broad range of topics and showcasing a rich toolbox of writing styles. Savage digs deep to scratch at the mysteries of self and of social structure in this personal, compelling work, which defies easy categorisation, revealing more with each subsequent reread.
Savage, Ellena. Blueberries. Text Publishing, 2020.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics, 2000.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
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.