Room for Reflection: Annette Marfording Reviews ‘Here Where We Live’ by Cassie Flanagan Willanski

Here Where We Live by Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Wakefield Press 2016

here where we liveWillanski has extensive experience as an environmental volunteer and campaigner as well as a degree in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, and this collection of short stories, which won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, reflects this interest. The collection includes eight short stories and one novella. Rather than falling within the traditional short story genre, however, her stories are offerings of moments of life, often those where mostly female characters face uncertainty, are at a turning point and come to a realisation about what it is that they desire from their lives and how that may affect their relationships. In addition to these environmental and human concerns – which ground the title of the book –, many of the stories are linked to Willanski’s research for her Master of Arts degree ‘about the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people’ and her discoveries about white people’s attitudes to Indigenous people, as she explains in her author’s note. As a result, in several stories characters ask each other or themselves whether they are racist, in others, white characters learn about Indigenous history or historical events affecting Aboriginal people.

In ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the narrator, an elderly white woman, is the only white woman attending an international women’s conference against radioactive racism with many indigenous delegates. The story addresses the universal problems of uranium and nuclear testing and is the most political. At the end of the conference the narrator has enough courage to disclose that her late husband worked at Maralinga. In ‘Karko’, children on a school excursion learn about the Ibis man who carried his nephew’s body down the coast, his tears creating a series of fresh water springs in the sand. In ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, a young man tells his girlfriend about the Maria shipwreck and the subsequent massacre of the surviving white colonists by local Aborigines.

All stories are set in South Australia – where the author lives and grew up –, mostly in remote places near the coast or in the country and she evokes the landscape very skilfully. All are written in spare prose, often with poetic and rhythmic elements, contemplative in nature, which contributes to giving them a haunting quality, as her creative writing mentor Brian Castro says in comments quoted on the book cover.

The first story in the collection, ‘My Good Thing’, illustrates these elements strongly. This is how it begins:

This is my daughter’s country. That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp. Twice a year at least, but sometimes more. This is her house, hear near the sea where the bay sparkles beside one window and the mallee grows straight up to the back door. This is the yard where she plays. These are the dogs, her friends and guardians. These are her dark brown eyes, her chubby bronze hand on my pink freckled arm. These are her father’s eyes, her grandmother’s eyes, back to the Dreaming, looking out of a face just like mine. Her expressions are my expressions. I carried her, but she comes from this land.

The final story in the collection, ‘Some Yellow Flowers’, is the novella and requires a patient reader to solve the puzzle as to who is who. It interweaves two couples whose paths intersect: one elderly with a first-person narrator addressing their beloved, one young who have to decide whether to marry, written in third-person. Those who persevere with the puzzle will be rewarded with an emotionally affecting story about the meaning of love and the potential conflict between love and individual freedom. It hones in on the author’s preoccupation with the theme of women’s lives and how to resolve that tension between love and individual freedom, especially if there are children – or potential children – in the picture.

With the exception of ‘Oak Trees in the Desert’, the story about the international women’s conference against radioactive racism, which reads in part like a list of biographies of the delegates, each story in Here Where We Live provides much room for reflection about our own lives and our reactions to climate change and – for those who are white – our attitudes to Aboriginal people. Equally importantly, each is beautifully written.

To keep readers engaged, single-author collections mostly vary in voice, theme, setting, character preoccupations, etc, but Willanski’s Here Where We Live does not. So while I recommend the book, it is best not read sequentially.

  – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, blogger and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authorshttp://www.annettemarfording.com/celebrating-australian-writing/ features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Here Where We Live is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1283

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The Forked Garden Path: Jonathan Dunk Reviews ‘A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower

A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower Text Publishing 2016
Elizabeth HarrowThis new collection of Elizabeth Harrower’s short fiction furrows a subject matter, and an affective topography, familiar from her novels. Namely, acts and structures of cruelty, subjection, and predation occluded by the contexts of relationships. Throughout these fictions Harrower wields free indirect discourse with masterful subtlety; she illustrates with surgical precision and wry disingenuity the internal fictions by which both the master and slave of the social bond – in Hegel’s perennial formulation – justify or conceal the cruelties they suffer or inflict, or both. This relational landscape is nightmarishly claustrophobic, and through its labyrinths the ugliness of the brittle human subject is inescapably intimate.

Harrower’s recurrent question is how far resignation to another’s narrative can alienate you from the shape of your own life: how easy it is to love what tortures us. Where some might find its treatment in her celebrated novel bleak, airless, and altogether dark, these short stories concern transitions, the forks and bridges and lacunae that emerge in all narratives; moments that offer freedom to the oppressed, and self-awareness to the oppressor. Moments that offer truth, or seem to.

In ‘The Fun of the Fair’, published in The Australian in 2015, the collection’s opening gesture, a mistreated child watches a pair of circus performers shamble through demonstrations of romance. She hears them speak the word ‘love’, and from the indifference of their performance abruptly realises the extent of her deprivations. More importantly however, she grasps the freedom of her solitude, obscured by a cocoon of obligations. This is a crucial, reflexive moment in Harrower’s work.

‘Alice’, a brief kind of narratival res gestae was published in the New Yorker last year as one of the opening salvos in Text Publishing’s Harrower Renaissance. It evinces many of the author’s gifts. The basic anti-essentialist scene underwriting all her relationships is effortlessly sketched: “Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other.” From their bleak beginnings Harrower’s characters weave circle-dances around the wound. Concealing, but emphasizing their concealment with tourniquets of screen memories described in sentences like cobwebs, elegantly fragile. This, from ‘The Beautiful Climate’: “Something about her situation made her feel not only, passively, abused, but actively, surprisingly, guilty.” Here the situational truth vibrates its burden from strand to strand of thought, performing a dispersal and diminution of revolt. The vast inequities countenanced by the bourgeois mind are everywhere on display in Harrower’s world; Alice’s father is described as a man of whom “ no one could remember his voice the day after he died”.

All these psychic bones form a morbid tableau, but Harrower never – or almost never – concedes her belief in the beauty of earthly happening, or her sense of the intricacy, dignity and pathos of even the most ruinous lives. The philosophic result resembles what Thomas Mann called the ‘blithe skepticism’ of Freudian analysis. Developing a theme, the evasion she describes shares many symptoms with the consuming passion for self-ignorance that Adam Phillips considers Freud’s subject. The return of familial wounds, and these ‘psychoanalytic’ or psycho-performative aspects of Harrower’s language substantiate readings of her fictions as rehearsals of trauma. However, reductive armchair psychologizing which positions analysis as a solution or key to the quandaries of the text, of the kind, say, risked by James Wood in his retrospective for The New Yorker, mistakes the fiercely intellectual – almost scholarly – rigor with which the author engages inhumanity. After all, within the half-world of bourgeois life it is deflected aggression, forms of cruelty and manipulation often sublimated into language, that frequently manifests the problem of evil.

The internal, however, is not unhistorical, nor as Jameson demonstrated so thoroughly, un-political. On the contrary, in Harrower’s vision plausibly deniable forms of psychic cruelty are the vice of privilege, a form of outsourced violence. Harrower’s fictions are intensely aware of the materiality of consciousness, and the political or economic forces which structure that materiality. Read with a Marxist hermeneutic to hand, her work forms an incisive sociology of what Engels called false consciousness. ‘The Cornucopia’ comprises an intricate study of the veils with which privilege legitimates itself. The story’s protagonist is Julia Holt, an exquisite North Shore sociopath, who recalls Robin Wright’s magnificent performance of Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Like the late capitalist dispensation itself, the beautiful Julia takes as much and gives as little as she can; and exerts a potent discursive force, a private kulturkampf, to occlude this state of affairs. Her strategies are intricate; the affective labour of her social matrix is striated and segmented between Grades I, II, and III ‘friends’, each category of subjugation allotted its distinct servitudes and privileges. The intelligentsia too, have their role in the system. Julia collects young “university men”, flattering these scholars with an illusion of sanctioned freedom, with seduction, or the idea of it, and in return they supply her with choice words and ‘wise sentences’ to repeat at dinner parties and meetings. At one such she crosses paths with the awkward altruist Zelda, who bemoans with some sincerity the fact that her impoverished maid must pay twice for a sewing machine what she would, being connected to the ‘company’. Throughout this section the word ‘company’ is situated with artful parataxis to conflate the social gathering with the corporation, and the interdependence of Julia’s labours with her husband Ralph’s emphatically situates the social circulation of cultural capital within market-structures. Zelda’s half-hearted protest is a faux pas; it threatens the equanimity of the evening: “though the sum of money involved was trivial, it was, nevertheless, money, and the whole story began to symbolise some problem, to involve principles”. Swiftly moving to restore order Julia subverts and polices critique, firstly with psychology: “I think your Molly should have her head examined,” and then with innuendo: “Really? Malnutrition?” the superstructure avails itself of all available ideological products to occlude and legitimate itself: to nullify critique. One thinks, recently, of News Corp’s shameful hounding of Duncan Storrar; as though an individual’s troubled past had any bearing on the merit of critique.

The oldest weapons of the narcissine system are objectification and reification. Within the compass of two pages the ‘friends’ with whom Julia ‘converses’ are compared to “a pup prancing up with a mouldy bone between its teeth”, and “a tiny pampered lapdog yapping fiendishly”. Her husband Ralph is described, when away from the office – his allotted function – as “like a horse in an aeroplane.” Julia resents evidence of “initiative or individual desire” among the girlfriends she has “acquired” like objets d’art. She is threatened by demonstrations of their alterity; their humanity. She is, at root, engaged in a conflict with the reality of other minds, of others, the Other. The implication, I’d argue, is that in Harrower’s vision the illusions of privilege sanction and prolong thought-structures that are in essence, madnesses: processes of cannibalism, that in consuming the other, can only, finally, rehearse the Ouroboros, consummate in self-devouring. This might be what Christ meant with the eye of the needle analogy, who also didn’t distinguish between sublimated and unsublimated violence.

In the Harrower structure, though, no one is quite damned without their consent. There is always an untrod garden path, an unopened door. In ‘Alice’, towards the end of her life the protagonist begins to exchange kindnesses with a girl, “one of the strangers”. At first she remains clothed in object: “no more pleasing than the chirp of a small canary”, gradually, however, the mortar of the prison-walls begins to crumble; to adapt Jessica Anderson’s conceit from Tirra Lirra by the River – a fruitful comparison with Harrower’s work – she hears the song of the other. My allusion to the garden path was a reference to Eliot’s Burnt Norton, but perhaps Harrower had similar thoughts; the girl visits Alice en route to her wedding:

“Alice sat down alone. And then, from the top of the garden path, someone was calling her name, and through the greenery and the late-summer flowers the girl came in her wedding dress and shimmering veil, like a bird or an angel, on her way to the church.”

The passage above traces the transformative, vivifying instant. Even more precisely, I’d locate the critical juncture in the simile ‘like a bird or an angel’, in which the objectivity of the other is sacralized, stood forth in the wonder of its singularity. This might be what Salinger was getting at in the conclusion of Franny and Zooey, the Fat Lady, the audience, the other, is “Christ himself”. More tenuously, this might be one of the implications of Benjamin’s coda in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, when he posits the texture of experienced history as a fluid, striated, and ghosted form of mitwelt, and each futurity as “the narrow door through which the Messiah might enter.” It is precisely in its unfamiliarity, then, and not in calculable forms of friend or lover, that the stranger becomes the image of God.

Alice is one of the lucky ones, a sheep and not a goat. Returning to Julia, we note that her faith in her own exceptionality, her private religion of desert, is properly shaken only once. Through her ‘charitable’ engagements she comes into contact with Anne-Marie, the daughter of a broken home. Having hired her as a maid, Julia sets out to subject Anne-Marie, a beautiful and intelligent sixteen year old with eyes “like stars and flowers” to the logic of her symbolic economy; make her “give smile for conspiratorial smile.” Like a Men’s Rights activist commenting on youtube – and other agents of unexamined privilege – Julia interprets difference as aggression, and a condition of equity as one oppressive to her. She is troubled by the way Anne-Marie’s “wonderful eyes seemed to think at her, or about her, in some disconcerting way.” The disconcertion, of course, is thinking at all. Julia is hypnotized by the possibility of ruining the girl, of scarring another’s beauty. She explains all that she knows “of the curious customs and practices of a sexual nature that had ever been brought to her attention”, without deigning to mention contraception. The ‘explanation’ is an act of calculated brutalism worthy of de Sade, designed, as it does, to precipitate suicide. Naturally and infuriatingly, Julia’s subsequent life is untrammelled by remorse: “No one more remarkable than Julia ever appeared. No one took up the gauntlet she she had thrown in the face of the universe.”

From certain perspectives, this injustice is nightmarish. In Harrower’s work most abusers never receive their desert, they do not die by the sword. Unless, of course, the deeper and better, parabolic meaning of Christ’s utterance is that to take up the sword is itself a form of death. If we understand evil of this elemental kind to consist in essence of a failure of imagination, a habitually cultured inability to imagine the other’s suffering, or to justify that suffering, Levinas would say, then such a profound limitedness, such affective deprivation, might be understood as its own punishment. This is a logic Dostoevsky pursues throughout his work, and obsessively in Crime and Punishment, sin, the contagion and torsion thereof, is its own justice.

This is the conclusion puzzled over by Clelia, the protagonist of ‘It is Margaret’, published by the Australian Book Review in 2015. This story illustrates the division of property and keepsakes between Clelia and Theo, her sadistic stepfather, following the death of her mother, the titular character, whose life he plagued. With Margaret gone, Clelia realizes that the man has no more power over her, no hostage, nothing to threaten. She treats him neutral care and kindness, knowing fully that Theo and his ilk prey upon “such weak-mindedness, soft-heartedness, without understanding remotely the movements of thought and feeling from which they sprang.” Bemused, Theo finds himself more and more becoming the part he impersonated: a doddering, harmless old man. In the story’s climactic scene, leaving finally the house that has theatered his cruelties, he presses upon Clelia a series of studio portraits, taken when he was a young man. As Theo sits with his own images in his hand she realizes that any gesture of reprisal she might make would “insult the true tragedy” of human suffering which this man, and his ilk, have wrought.

Unsatisfying, but pathetically resonant. Thus far I’ve shuffled cards from Freudian and Marxist decks, with the occasional coat-card thrown by Christ. In the balance of Freudian and Christian ethics, Harrower’s moral economy is both accurate and tenable, I’d say. From the Marxist angle it meets the former criterion but not the latter; this is not a criticism however.

If ‘The Cornucopia’ performs the frenetic, self-justifying monologue of the abuser, and ‘It is Margaret’ analyses both positions in the dialectic from a third, intimate position, analogous to Clare’s in The Watch Tower, then the last story in this collection ‘A Few Days in the Country’, originally published by Overland in 1977, focuses directly upon the wounded mind suturing itself back together. Appropriately, Harrower’s free indirect discourse is highly impressionistic in this piece. Sophie – the Greek comes to mind – does not reflect on her past but sways to the beck of distant impulses. She does not contemplate her own end, but reacts, when “suicide thought of her”. Arduously, through the ‘dumb communion’ of animal life she locates the remnant fragments of her capacity to love. “Love.. that poor debased word. Poor love. Oh, poor love, she thought.” Meditating on the persistence of that love, how it, like sorrow, lingers in her affect-world, with the irreducible traces of the others, lovers cruel and kind, she stands neither at the beck of rigid conscience, nor trembling before abnegative suicide. Like poor love, she accepts herself as a space striated by both forces, and – the last lines in the collection – ‘She had learned’.

These epiphanies are divisive, perhaps not quite what they might seem. The texture of Harrower’s narrative voice is febrile, eloquently dubious. Whether they register authentic self-awarenesses, or merely another plane of self-deception is textually resolved; left open to the reader, who participates in their performance of meaning. Returning to our Marxist question, this structure might be considered a subtle equivalent of Brecht’s Episches Theater: Harrower pitilessly diagnoses the structures by which we license our suffering. The withheld catharsis is her final, secular gift to the independence of the reader’s ethic.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review,Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories is available from https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/a-few-days-in-the-country

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Issue 18. April 2016- June 2016

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Nicci Pratten, ‘Joey Bowie’, mixed media on paper, 2016.

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Teasing Threads

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Vale Gillian Mears

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Gillian Mears cracking stock whips against a Grafton storm, 2002. Photograph by Peter Mears. Published in Meanjin in 2012.

Gillian Mears died on Monday on her family’s property near Grafton. She had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years.  Her collection of short stories, Ride a Cock Horse (1988) and her novel The Grass Sister (1995) were both short listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, and her novel The Mint Lawn won the Vogel Literary Award in 1990. In 2012, her first novel in 16 years, Foal’s Bread, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the fiction prize in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards – it was also reviewed by Kate Pardey in Rochford Street Review Issue 3.

Mears has been remembered by many at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week as a great and courageous writer.

“The real extent of Mears achievement is, as with all good books, only fully understood after the last page is read”.  Kate Pardey, Rochford Street Review.

Where Ugliness Bides its Time: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Breaking Beauty’ edited by Lynette Washington

Breaking Beauty edited by Lynette Washington MidnightSun Publishing 2014

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The presentation and elucidation of beauty ceased being a primary aim of literature and visual art over one hundred years ago. This dismissal of beauty as a subject worthy of serious aesthetic consideration was new for visual artists, but not so new for writers, who always have peered deeply into the more unpleasant aspect of live, those areas, in fact, where ugliness bides its time.

In her introduction to the collection, Washington wrote that beauty is everywhere, but added the caveat that
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Dualities allow us to understand things that are otherwise meaningless. There is no beauty without ugliness. We need to crack beauty open, we need to break it, to really understand it.

It may be true that there is no beauty without ugliness, but this seems to me to be erroneous, to be an attempt to state a matter of fact when no such statement is possible. Beauty, as with so many aspects of our experience of life, is relative to everything which surrounds it, and to the person experiencing it; but in these stories there is precious little beauty or understanding of what is beautiful within the ugliness. Unfortunately, Washington’s proposition appears to be a justification of the presentation of unpleasant stories which focus on relationships which haven’t worked, dead babies and school friends, the somewhat tedious mini-drama of demanding that a builder live up to the conditions in his contract, and more. The result is a collection of stories which verge on the pathological in their almost overwhelming negativity.

Amy Matthews, for example, in ‘This is the Body of Wonderful Jones’, presents us with a first person narrative about the narrator’s porn star twin sister, and the effect her existence has, especially when a man calls out wonderful during sex. Wonderful Jones’ body is watched, desired and surgically manipulated into a big breasted fantasy of beauty against which the narrator feels compared, against which she cannot compete. Moreover, at the end of the story, I had no sense about whether the narrator actually had a porn star sister called “Wonderful”, or if she suffered from a psychiatric problem, a delusion about a fantasy woman.

In Stefan Laszczuk’s ‘The Window Winder’ the narrator reflects on a fatal accident caused by his attempts to pick up the window winder handle of the car he was driving. The difficulty in doing this caused him to ram into the side of another car, and the impossibly sharp ladder he was transporting flew from the top of his car, through the open window of the other car, and decapitated the driver and passenger. What bothered the narrator still was the way the heads, rolling in the rear seat, came together and kissed, and how their hands were clasping each other when dead, but not prior to death. In the final paragraph Laszczuk writes:

Sometimes you just have to take what life gives you and try to remember that it is possible to find beauty in the worst tragedy.

Social platitude says that he is correct, but the story said nothing about beauty, nor was beauty his subject. Rather it conveyed a sense of somewhat flattened horror throughout, a sense that was not relieved by the simplistic, platitudinous comment at the end of the story. The subject, love and the presumption that it survives even the most tragic of deaths, was poorly developed in terms of the overall theme and provided no sense of satisfaction or narrative resolution.

Many of the stories in Breaking Beauty are the same: their subject is love, relationships and sex, with the unspoken presumption that beauty is lurking in the shadows of the situations presented, that they should be beautiful but in fact are not. In itself this isn’t a problem except that the book’s title, introduction and editor’s comments have led me to look for insights into beauty, for conceptual cracks, affirmations and evocations of both. Unfortunately these rarely appear in the stories, but when they do, the result can be quite chilling.

One such story is ‘O Lucky Man’ by Lesley Beasley. Richard, an apparently ill man, has driven to the beach for what may be the last time, and sits leaning against a child’s sand castle, trying to enjoy himself despite his pain and the rain coming down. From her beach house, Liliana is Listening to Chopin while thinking about her life—how long it has been since she played golf, why she had sold her husband’s business, her irritation with a new age spot. When she sees Richard watching the waves from the old hut, she makes a grand gesture:

A lucky man, she said to herself, no arthritis, no heart attacks. I spare you them all, she pronounced grandly, waving an imaginary wand. I give you wealth and health and a happy life. I give you love. And with a final theatrical flourish—I give you eternal youth.

We don’t know what is wrong with Richard, but we know enough to be certain that this blessing already is meaningless.

More directly focused on beauty is ‘The Beholders’, by Sean Williams. This story takes place in “the early days of d-mat,” when people were concerned that matter transmission would result in “a world of freaks and giant flies, or whatever.” At this time there was a system hack that, when installed in one’s home d-mat booth, slowly made the user more beautiful. In the year after Art had installed the hack, he noted that none of his friends complimented him on his increasing good looks. It was only when he confronted his friends directly that he discovered that they perceived none of his good looks, but thought he was aging and shabby. On investigating, he discovered that the d-mat hack produced an alteration in the brain which caused a change in self-perception so that the user thought they were beautiful, irrespective of their actual appearance. Art found others who had been tricked, forming a group called “The Beholders”, who found the man, and hacked him in return, so that he could see himself only as a “hideous freak.” Williams ends the story with a moral, which is a dangerous thing to do these days:

…in the time The Beholders had taken to catch the hacker, they had realised something very important. They were all getting older, like everyone else, no matter how they try to cheat. We all sag and lose our looks. We all shrink and fade away. But The Beholders will never stop thinking they’re beautiful.

This, to my mind, is the best of the stories which deal directly with beauty, if only because of the shock I experience when I look in a mirror and see just how far my experience of myself veers from the exterior. It also is one of the few stories which completely fulfils the editorial brief in a direct manner.

Equally compelling is ‘Thank you, Jean Harley’, in which Heather Johnson writes a sixty-one year old woman talking to her husband, Stompy, about their daughter while sitting at his grave. Pearl, the old woman, remembers the first time their daughter left home “for real”, how she had left Pearl a note saying Find love with Dad again. Let it in. Hold onto it. At the end of the story, Pearl acknowledges life itself, the life she lived with her husband, the life she is living as she talks to his absence:

This was her life, troublesome as it was, but here on this picnic blanket, talking with Stompy and remembering Jean, she knew it to be a beautiful thing. ‘Let’s both thank her, Stompy.’

The story conveys the sense of a satisfied, if not entirely fulfilled life, and provides the reader with a similar feeling, an understanding which the phrase “she knew it to be a beautiful thing” almost succeeds in destroying simply by being an unnecessary statement of what should have been obvious from the story, had it been developed a little more carefully.

More than anything else, the stories in this collection display an urge to see and experience unpleasantness and despair in the mundane, without taking the extra step that would bring beauty out of the background and into some focus. At the same time, and somewhat irritatingly, most of the stories are well enough written, in a technical sense, that they all are readable. Where they fail, and many of them do fail, is in the development of the ideas, in relating these to beauty and its failings in a satisfying manner. For this reason, the collection is less compelling and enjoyable than it should have been.

 – B. J. Muirhead

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 B.J. Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Breaking Beauty is available from http://midnightsunpublishing.com/books/breaking-beauty/

Hot Stuff: Andy Kissane Launches ‘4W New Writing’ Issue 26

Andy Kissane launced FourW: New Writing Twenty Six, Edited by David Gilbey, FourW Press 2015, at Gleebooks in Sydney on 21 November 2015.

thirsty crow

The Thirsty Crow, a boutique pub in Wagga Wagga that murders thirst, (they obviously have a good writer working on their publicity) has on its dinner menu, the following: Hawaiian Lava pizza. Ultra hot. Quadruple exclamation marks. And the following advice in red ink: “Do not order this pizza. It’s far too hot for you. Do not come back and tell us it is too hot. Do not try and be a hero. Do not eat this, you will not enjoy it.”

Well as I grow habanero chillis, one of the Hawaiian Lava’s ingredients, and as I am a chilli fiend and know how hot they are—I couldn’t resist the challenge laid down by the menu. I wanted to be a hero. And I can faithfully report back to you that this pizza is too hot and I did not enjoy eating it. Though I did eat most of it and the waitress was duly impressed. I told them later that it was too hot and they said it was just meant to be a joke, that people weren’t really meant to order the Hawaiian Lava.

Wagga Wagga is a town, a regional city, renowned for its jokes. There is, for example, the five o’clock wave on the Murrumbidgee, caused by the release of water from the Burrinjuck and Blowering dams, a wave that arrives promptly each day at five o’clock, and if you’re any good you can ride it all the way to Narranderra, one hundred kilometres away. I checked it out while I was walking beside the river and I can faithfully report that it is indeed a whopper and that you could do worse than to catch it, if you ever need to get to Narranderra.

I was, as some of you may know, lucky enough to be a writer in residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in September this year, where I experienced the generous and marvellous hospitality of the Wagga writing community. Before you come to the conclusion that I spent all my time in The Thirsty Crow, where the beer is great, or the rest of my time surfing the Wagga break, where the waves are huge, let me turn to my anointed task for today, the launching of fourW.

As I understand it, fourW stands for Wagga Wagga Writers Writers and I love the joke that is inherent in the title, I love the repetition. In one of his essays: One Body: Some Notes on Form, the American poet Robert Hass writes: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition…” The first fact of Volume 26 of fourW— an impressive number and may there be 26 more—is that the magazine includes two forms of writing that are close to my heart—the poem and the short story. In some senses that is where the repetition stops, for my overall reaction to the new writing in this distinctive, idiosyncratic magazine is to be astonished by the vividness, the freshness and the strangeness of the work, and to approach it with a kind of wonder. I can’t possibly manage to convey all that is surprising and arresting about this issue of fourW, so if you’re here and I don’t mention your work, please don’t be offended, there’s a bias in my desire to talk about the discoveries I’ve made, rather than the established writers whose work I have long enjoyed and admired.

Magazines such as fourW are crucial to the development of new writing and new writers and without the early successes that these magazines offer, most people would prematurely stop writing. I certainly would have. The importance of fourW to the Riverina is noted by David Gilbey in his incisive editorial, but one of the things that struck me about issue 26 was the breadth of the catchment area. Sure there are writers from Wagga Wagga and Albury, Melbourne and Sydney, but there’s also work from people who live in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania and internationally, there are writers from Newhaven and Newcastle in the United Kingdom and Phoenixville and Minneapolis in the United States. I am reminded of the American poet, James Wright, who wrote in “The Minneapolis Poem”:

But I could not bear
To allow my poor brother, my body, to die
In Minneapolis.
The old man Walt Whitman, our countryman
Is now in America, our country,
Dead.
But he was not buried in Minneapolis
At least.
And no more may I be
Please God.

I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives
Of the unnamed poor.

Reading the poetry in fourW is like being lifted up by some great white bird and carried aloft to witness Rob Walker’s concern for the railway children beside Darjeeling station, then sliding with Bronwyn Lang under Long Feng bridge in China, before hovering with Les Wicks in Darlinghurst, as the speaker of his poem struggles to deal with the death of her baby boy. “I will live without compartments” she decides at the end of what is a harrowing flight. fourW is not just international in terms of the writers published, but international in terms of both its subject matter and the quality of its art. But, I must admit, I was astonished by the number of writers who live overseas and are in this issue. Can I just check if any of them are here today? … No, good. Then let me just say that I thought the work of Australian writers was more impressive. But I’m not parochial. One international standout for me was Adam Day’s moving poem, “Dead Friesian in Winter” which is carried by its finely tuned observations.

4wTurning again to the Australians, Joan Cahill’s “The Rose Shredder” utilises the native bug, the Riverina rose shredder as a metaphor for male sexual conquest, a leap that I found truly surprising and reminded me of the idea Robert Bly develops in his essay “Looking for Dragon Smoke” of the long floating leap, perhaps from the conscious to the unconscious, that exists in a work of art. Leaps also abound in Julie MacLean’s poem “Prize Collection” where the speaker suggests, “you have pinned spiders/ to my eyes in celebration/ of our lifetime together.” You must read this poem, it’s a beauty.

There are a number of poems that deal with war. There’s Albury poet Phillip Muldoon’s vivid dramatization of the after-effects of the Vietnam war, Maurice Corlett’s moving elegy to his great Uncle Tass who died in the evacuation from Dunkirk, and David Gilbey’s ekphrastic series, “Shrapnel”. This series avoids the common trap of writing about art works, where the poem becomes merely a description of the painting. Instead, Gilbey uses the art works as triggers for his imagination. In “Shrapnel 4” he evokes the difficulty of living with someone who has returned from war: “You didn’t mean to hurt me, but your eyes looked through my face/ to other faces.”

Derek Motion’s “Density” received this year’s fourW prize for poetry. It’s a poem that I think Robert Bly would admire, where the speed of leaping is fast, taking us from a semi-black bra outline under a white shirt, to Anzac dogs, to the ambient potential of a startled wallaby, to a country girl and to the smell of rain passing the gums. It is a poem which embodies its title, an exploration of the density of the mind and Motion demonstrates the ability to associate quickly and move from the present to memories and back again with a control and a rhythm that carries you along. It’s an intriguing poem, where something it seems, happened in the long grass. I gather this long grass occurs in the Riverina. Interesting. Read it. And read the many other fine poems printed in this anthology.

The work is organised alphabetically by author name, though reading fourW I was struck by a number of surprising resonances, as if one contributor was writing back to another. There are many fabulous short stories published here. I was impressed by Sean O’Leary’s “Nowhere”, a tale of police pursuit and revenge set in central Australia and involving both Indigenous and white Australian characters. The evocative cover of fourW with its tyre marks and footprints is suggestive of this story. In what has been a violent week for world citizens, “Nowhere” confronts the interesting problem of how to write violence, not the sort of stylised violence that Quentin Tarantino excels in, but realistic violence that impacts on the lives of people. There’s a long history of writing violence in literature that goes back to Homer’s Iliad. The French philosopher, Simone Veil wrote:

 

‘To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most liberal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is the spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.’

O’Leary’s story is distinctively Australian, and I was completely engaged by its deft plotting, its realism and by the way it tackles the writing of violence, which as I know from my own work is a difficult issue to deal with, but in the end I’m not sure that O’Leary gets it quite right. What happens serves what Roland Barthes’ calls the interests of the story, but I wondered if this character would actually do this. Or to put it another way, the plot and the characterization didn’t quite mesh for me. In one of the many resonances that the journal throws up, Ron Pretty’s poem, “plans” also tackles this issue in what struck me as a slightly more successful manner, but perhaps this is due to Pretty’s foreshadowing of a violent act that is only contemplated and not yet actualised. Violence is difficult for all of us to understand. It’s good that fourW has the courage to tackle it. Read “Nowhere” and “plans” and make up your own mind.

Nadine Brown’s “Drowning”, a story of a woman married to an evangelical pastor, is a fresh and fascinating study of how people can think one thing and do another. Jane Downing’s “Don’t Write it Down” is a story with considerable charm that deals with how a mother can hope to explain to her thirteen year old son, these lines inscribed in her copy of The Decameron: “To my only true love, my arms will always be open to you. Forever, Hal.” Hal, as her son knows, is not her husband. This story utilises the sophisticated technique of a narrator talking to a narratee. Many of the other writers collected here are also particularly adept at their manipulation of narrative technique. There’s the flashbacks and intercutting of Jarrah Dundler’s “Caravan”, which recounts a dramatic encounter with an Eastern Brown snake. In Beverley Lello’s “Surfacing”, Jay’s childhood experience of almost drowning becomes the central metaphor for a relationship that is moving, human and memorable. Michel Dignand’s “Chain of Events” demonstrates the centrality of power in writing dialogue. This wry, modern take on sexual politics resolves through a twist in the tale that I didn’t see coming.

Maryanne Khan’s “An Inconvenience” a charming, humorous and delightful story was the worthy winner of the fourW prize for fiction. Set in the south of Italy, it’s a portrait of an old Italian woman who is shunted between cousins. I enjoyed the way this story critiqued the myth of the family, while presenting an old woman who survives, it seems to me, because of her ability to live in the moment.

Dorothy Simmons’s story, “Try Me” also features an older single woman, Alice, a school librarian, who while fishing at night is confronted by drunken Year 11 students who call her a witch. In response she summons Macbeth, “by the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes” and Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.” This is a brilliant story which builds to a surprising twist, a twist which is… well, wonderful is the word that comes to mind.

There is much more in fourW that I don’t have time to detail—it’s a truly International magazine full of surprising, engaging and wonderful work. It’s there for you to read, to ponder, to savour. My congratulations to everyone who performed the hard slog of producing it, or contributing to it. And unlike The Thirsty Crow’s now infamous, uneatable pizza, it’s hot stuff, but not too hot for you. You will, I promise, enjoy Issue 26 of fourW New Writing. It’s my pleasure today to send it out into the world.

 

 – Andy Kissane

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Andy Kissane’s books include his fourth collection of poetry, Radiance (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), which has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and a book of short stories, The Swarm. He was the winner of the 2013 Fish International Poetry Prize and is the Coriole National Wine Poet, with six poems featuring on the back label of their cabernet shiraz. He has read his work in Ireland, England, Vienna and many venues in Australia. He teaches creative writing in the community, schools and universities. http://andykissane.com

For information on how to purchase a copy of 4W New Writing visit the Booranga Writers’ Centre website https://www.csu.edu.au/faculty/arts/humss/booranga/home

A Mirror of Ourselves: Heather Taylor Johnson Reviews ‘An Astronaut’s Life’ by Sonja Dechian

An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian Text 2015

astronauts lifeIs anyone else sick of hearing that the short story is a dying form when it seems like it’s never been more popular? Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection Foreign Soil was one of last year’s most talked about books, and hasn’t Cate Kennedy been busy on the festival circuit talking about the power of the genre? I’m giving the negativity toward short stories a very big pshaw because it’s all a bunch of dribble as far as I’m concerned. I suggest we all buy Sonja Dechian’s debut collection An Astronaut’s Life and debunk the tired theory. It’d do wonders for small and independent publishers, and then we’d have something engaging and intelligent to read at night in snippets of ten to twenty pages.
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With a steady, no-nonsense prose style, peculiar scenarios and subtle turns in plot, An Astronaut’s Life reflects our messy world, or shows us what it could become if we keep messing with it. It’s a confronting view, however familiar. Dechian’s characters trudge their way through the modern muck of climate change and human indifference, and I’ve been asking myself for the last few days if it’s escape they are ultimately seeking or connection. Being unable to decipher between the two motifs or even confusing one for the other mightn’t be such a bad thing, though; it might be a suggestion that there is balance between our own narcissistic need to feel loneliness and our staunch rejection of it, and that the meeting point of escape and connection is what makes Dechian’s characters into mirrors of ourselves.

It’s a chaotic world the author has dreamed up, and it is our world, too, though slightly off kilter. Themes the author’s world shares with mine: cyber bullying, refugees drowning in water, the threat of extinction, disease, crime, flooding, and all the while babies being born. These are pressing issues and the sharpest of our writers are tackling them as we speak, Dechian now edging in and joining the race to get people to think about what the finish line might mean. With a wry sensibility and stark prose style, Dechian uses literary fiction to hand us the nanobots of sci-fi writers and the complete absence of birds from writers of an apocalyptic stream. This is not new – we’ve all read Orwell and Cormac McCarthy – but it’s fashionable and attention-grabbing because now more than ever the worlds of these writers and the worlds of their readers seem to be closing in on one another.

The book begins with ‘After Francis Crick’, where a man who has just re-entered consciousness finds himself nostalgic for the days of his coma. Now he has a baby on the way and a wife who is too structured; then, while he was comatose, he spent his days with Francis Crick, discussing and theorising genetics over glasses of juice with umbrellas in them. Crick, the father of genetics, of course is dead, while the baby, obviously, is coming. The birth of another child foregrounds ‘The Foreman’, a story of a zoo /  museum for endangered and extinct species, where Dechian paints a picture of the last living whale trapped in a sixty-million litre tank so deftly that you’ll see it in your dreams after you’ve closed the book. While in one story the baby’s life force is thriving, in the other it is vulnerable, paired with annihilation. Perhaps the balance between the two (indeed perhaps between all of the stories) can be found in the final story, ‘The Astronaut’s Life’. Here, father and child bond over the threat of natural disaster and the fragile but enduring beauty of what the after-effects might mean for a devastated planet.

My personal favourites centre on the celebrity of crime. In ‘Nights in at the House’, a near-novella, two women and their son navigate home and their relationship while police dig up their backyard looking for corpses. In one of the shortest stories, ‘Incurable’, parents of the children who have succumbed to a new and deadly virus caused by a classroom owl vie for bragging rights to memorial tributes. In one story the community strength is almost shockingly overwhelming while in the other empathy stems from a wicked display egotism.

Each story in An Astronaut’s Life really is worth a mention because though there are stand-outs, they all share a unique quirk-quality that mixes with profound compassion, so nothing is ever twee or too dramatic and they all project themselves as tiny gems. The collection seems to be founded on Dechian asking ‘what if’ and the most enjoyable part about the reading experience is getting to ‘and then’. There are no answers; she cleverly leaves them up to the reader. Most significant in this collection, though, is the calmness to Dechian’s writing, ensuring that the crazed set-ups and the characters’ desire for and move toward either disconnection and escape or connection and embrace feel rational. Like something we would do. And that’s the most frightening thing about this provoking collection.

 – Heather Taylor Johnson

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Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three books of poetry and one novel. Her fourth book of poetry will be published by Five Islands Press. She is the poetry editor of Transnational Literature and is currently editing The Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. She recently gave a paper in Oxford discussing why poetry is the genre best suited to illness narratives.

An Astronaut’s Life is available at https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/an-astronaut-s-life

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Looking Forward: B. J. Muirhead Reviews ‘The World to Come’ edited by Patrick West and Om Prakash Dwivedi

 

The World to Come, edited by Patrick West and Om Prakash Dwivedi, Spineless Wonders 2014

The_World_To_ComeBooks in which stories are selected thematically always pique interest—we read with the hope of learning something about that theme, and we judge them not only on the pleasure the stories bring, but also on how effectively they bring us insight into that theme.

In The World to Come, the theme was the phrase which stands as the collections title. In their preface, the editors note that “the present is never no-where: it is always in a place. Where one is impacts when one is. Very deliberately, this collection harvests the voices of writers from all over the world, in fictional reflection on what the world to come looks like from where they are writing, in place and in time”.

One result of this is that the collection contains stories in a variety of genres, from purely literary to science fiction. There is, however, a common pessimistic and depressive tone that runs through most of the stories. Few of the writers present an optimistic future or, when they do, it is the optimism of surviving environmental catastrophe, a theme which holds many of the selected writers in thrall.

For many of the writers, the future conceived as the world to come is barren of humanity, full of despair. Out of several post-apocalyptic stories, John Shulman’s Progress stands out in its inability to present humanity in anything but the worst possible light. A small group of people in the Kalahari Desert have decided, without apparent evidence, that they are the sole human survivors, that it is their task to start humanity over again. But they cannot overcome their past morals, prejudices and training. They spend some time being self-congratulatory at surviving, some at wondering if there are enough of them (five) for their Adam and Eve hopes to be realistic, and a lot of time deciding who among their group is a suitable partner for procreation. One, a Navy Seal, gets drunk and rapes Stephanie, and it all continues falling apart even though there is at least one sign that they are not the last humans: Martin has captured a monkey with a water jug. At the end of the story, only one of the group remains. But…

N!amce squatted on his haunches and watched Stephanie from a nearby outcrop. She was an attractive female, pale and soft. She would die soon. The vultures, hyenas and insects would make quick work of her corpse. As the last human passed into history, the San Bushman did not reflect further. He had another monkey to find to lead him to water.

This story is fascinating for its presentation of ageism, racism and blatant human stupidity, but it also leaves much unsaid that may have led us to find the story more compelling, more revealing of humanity and ourselves as readers. The mere fact that N!amce survives is not enough. Instead I was left with the sense that too much had been left out, most importantly, any sense of humanity beyond a petty concern with who was going to fuck whom.

Stand out stories which are complete within themselves are Tham Chui-Joe’s The breaking of the glass, Tim Richards’ The outer territories, and Sébastien Doubinsky’s The future is wow.

All three of these stories fit into the category of science fiction in a fairly straightforward way. Tham’s story, set in the far future, when people live inside fully enclosed cities (not unlike Diaspar in Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars), is a story about a time travelling writer who appears and disappears and whose novels, published in the past, are influencing his future university friend who is studying them. This is a complex, understated story that withstood many readings without revealing all of itself

Tim Richards, on the other hand, gives us a story in which Australia has at least one colony in space which is harshly ruled by the leaders back home. (Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress came to mind here.) There is some lovely, unsubtle humour in this story. Kyle Hampson volunteers to teach Australian Studies at Paul Hogan High on Gorolya in Irwin, the capital of Kidman Provence. Hampson teaches two lessons, in the second of which he introduces the idea of Gorolyan studies because he wanted to learn about the colony and its culture.. Charged with state terrorism, Hampson is taken away, tortured and summarily executed. Fifty-three years later there is a large crowd in Assange Avenue where the first president of the Gorolyan Republic is to make a speech recognising the importance of Hampson’s two class contribution to the creation of the republic. Unfortunately the new president does not remember his name properly, and the town of Irwin is now to be known as Hampton, in his honour.

Doubinsky’s story, in contrast, is a straightforward story of conquest. They, the colonisers, are off to investigate a village, and discover that the planet’s native people have wiped it out, killing everyone: “The Beastmen had taken their kids back, destroying and killing everything in the process”, despite having been “offered” everything—medicine, progress, education. The story ends with the central character determined to “show the bastards. He would show them that democracy and freedom weren’t just empty words.”

Not all of the stories are set in the future. In Jeannette Delamoir’s story 1913: The world to come is made of love, a psychic reflects on the questions she is asked. They are, she says, all about love, but she doesn’t tell anyone what she actually sees, the forthcoming war, death and destruction: “explosions, shrapnel, barbed wire, grotesque technologies delivering pain and fear and dismemberment.” Despite this, she believes “the future is an ocean of love” because “When we die […] The only thing that remains is love: the essential core, the driving force”.

Where other stories in this collection try to create a sense of loss coupled with bewilderment, Delamoir’s story holds it close to us by presenting us with our very human desire to be loved, even if the future contains little but horror against which we must hold our hope and belief in love.

Other, equally powerful stories are John Fulton’s Caretakers, in which a young woman faces some unexpected complications as her father is dying, and Gamil yanaay walaybaa: No going home by Marcus Waters, which tells the tale of one aboriginal man’s journey through several lives, the last of which occurs in the present.

Many other stories attempt the same level of complexity—Fix, by Leone Ross, Ben Brooker’s Awake, to mention two—but they don’t possess the same depth, partly because don’t seem to have been adequately developed, and fail to provide the reader with sufficient context. In Fix, a somewhat confusing story about the world wide web coming alive, this is shown when the author writes “nobody needs condoms any more. Everybody knows: you fuck, you die.” In Awake the issue is sleep: if you sleep, you die. As a reader, I want to know why these things are the case, and being told by a first person narrator that no one knows why just doesn’t seem enough. These stories, along with several others, aim to describe and elucidate a mood, a direction which we hope never will be.

One last aspect of the collection which I would like to mention is about the book itself rather than the stories, and that is the design. Book design is more than the cover of a book, it is the layout of the page, the selection of typeface, margins, and so on. When it comes to designing a page, readability is the all important factor. It is, I admit, a difficult area of book design, but it is one which publishers (and editors, when given the opportunity) need to focus upon.

In The World to Come the chosen type face and layout form solid blocks, providing a density on the page which is difficult to read. The publishers would do well to consider this area more thoroughly and demand more adequate work: good overall book design that creates beautiful pages improves the readability and hence the saleability of their product.

Overall, despite this, The World to Come is a solid collection with a few outstanding stories, and a few less so. As such, it is worth buying for those stories which bear many readings as well as those stories which are so full of despair that they push us to seek different versions of the world.

 – B. J. Muirhead

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B.J. Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com   and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

The World to Come is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/anthologies-3/the_world_to_come/#more-4073

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In the Presence of a Master Writer: Gabrielle Lord Launches ‘My Hearts Are Your Hearts’ by Carmel Bird

My Hearts are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird, Spineless Wonders 2015, was launched by Gabrielle Lord at Berkelou Books, Liechhardt NSW on Saturday 25th July 2015.

my hearts are notTo read these stories is to know that one is in the presence of a master writer, someone who has not only unlocked the word hoard but has polished her craft. Like the soaring trapeze artists who make it look so easy, Carmel’s short stories appear deceptively simple. The rhythm of our language is used to full advantage. The stories are like poems or songs – “She was to live at the Sacred Heart hostel, safe and sound with the nuns, the curfew and the Catholic faith.” (‘The Legacy of Rita Marquand’)

‘My beloved is mine and I am his’ – is a wonderful evocation of two lives. The sweep and the dramas of the two once close friends, short passages of great intimate detail set among quite fast-moving time spans. It is delicious writing – sexy, warm and, although ironic in tone, it is never disdainful of the characters – a writer who understands human weakness and forgives it in advance. A compressed saga.

Deceptive simplicity Carmel’s writing reminds me of Coleridge’s technique of verbal ‘chiaroschuro’ – just mentioning the highlights on substantial object. Beautiful and shocking juxtaposition of ideas and words, “the warm dead child” from ‘Child of the Twilight’ comes to mind. A bold habit of running three adjectives together like a string of beads before a noun.

Her themes are the pulses of life: babies, lost or living, conception, pregnancy birth and termination, love, infidelity, religious faith and its loss, sacred objects, the passing of time, death, the mystery that lies at the heart of things and above all, life itself in all its splendour, misery and terror.

In the story “Your hearts are my hearts’ I felt I was reading about a real scandal and turned eagerly to the story of the stories at the back, hoping to get some clues about who these two naughty people were. The graceful way one writer smoothed over the lack of manners of the other– in the incident of the dish of foil covered chocolate hearts, the incident itself, shone with truth and were the telling details that convinced me that the story was completely true. When I read that little incident had in fact, been observed by the author of the story, I felt somewhat mollified.

There are stories of great beauty and tenderness, stories that ache with loss, such as “waiting for the green man”, which is told in “close-up” to use a movie director’s term. From the exquisite detail of a dew drop hanging from the end of the leathery, purplish leaf of a Canna lily, the story pans back to reveal the rest of the canna lilies growing along the fence in the wild apart of a church rectory garden. Finally, we get to the Rector’s wife, Faith, whose garden this is, and whose life is about to be changed dramatically but not the grief that lies in the depth of her heart. Her grief and her goodness come together in a burst of necessary energy that in a mysterious split second, brings heaven down to earth to save a baby’s life. But not her baby.

Another story, ‘The legacy of Rita Marquand’, has a matter-of-fact voice, that of an art collector talking about painting or rather, the particular painting of a lesser-known Australian morning artist, Rita Marquand and two of her children. This narrator keeps us at a distance from Dymphna and Dolores – interrupting the telling of the story sometimes, to draw attention to a detail that might not, otherwise, be noticed as well as it should be. There is a copy of a painting The Madonna of the Goldfinch, which leads the narrator into a very interesting series of facts about such paintings – and the telling of various legends concerning how the goldfinch got his red head. (I’ve never seen such a goldfinch – all the ones I saw were merely gold and brown)

It is almost forgotten now that a Catholic marrying ‘out of the faith’ was almost damned. The reader will discover too, that the door to Hell has a bell that certain actions activate. And that bell is certainly activated by Dolores. In this story, the incidents and people surrounding two paintings are discovered and their stories unfold.

‘Where the honey meets the air’ begins in the voice of a chatty, somewhat irritatingly verbose narrator – until with a shock, it’s revealed to the reader what all these words were holding at bay – the real story, the crime that even now hasn’t been exposed quite yet… domestic horror that jumps right up at you and bites.

Stories that are zesty, sexy and shocking. These stories demonstrate the graceful ease of an enormously gifted and practised writer, someone who is at the peak of her powers. The stories remind me of the work of a magical actress carrying a one-woman show comprising dozens of different characters, making them all come to life and seem as real as the reader. And yet, there is some strange, glittering atmosphere around the stories, difficult to pin down; a soft glow seems to come from beyond the stories themselves. It might be a bold observation, but my feeling is that this is the soul of the writer, endowing her stories with grace that comes from somewhere else.

– Gabrielle Lord

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Gabrielle Lord’s first novel Fortress was translated into numerous languages and made into a successful film. Since then she has published another fifteen adult novels with another one, Whipping Boy, also made for television. She has also written a 17 book series Conspiracy 365 for Young Adult readers which has gone all over the world and was made into a successful TV series by Circa Media and Foxtel. It is currently playing on ABC 3. Gabrielle is at present working on another YA trilogy, 48 Hours, coming in 2016. She can be found at  www.gabriellelord.com

My Hearts are Your Hearts is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/pre-release-offers/pre-release-offer-my-hearts-are-your-hearts/

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The Problem of Reading: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Flashing the Square’ & ‘Writing to the Edge’

Flashing the Square,edited by Linda Godfrey and Bronwyn Mehan. Spineless Wonders 2014 and Writing to the Edge, edited by Linda Godfrey and Ali Jane Smith. Spineless Wonders 2014.

Flashing the SquareIn the introduction to Flashing the square, the editors mention the “problem” of how to read short and micro-fiction and suggest various approaches, including “on the ceiling while you are sitting in the dentist chair.” Having been produced as a companion publication to Richard Holt’s video installation Flashing the square (Melbourne Writer’s Festival, 2014, in Federation Square), this idea isn’t necessarily absurd. This, however, is a book, and it presumes a more relaxed situation, a matter of choice about when to take time to read rather than be distracted from scraping, drilling and grasping tools.

Almost as a comment on how to read micro-fiction and prose poetry, the left hand pages are blank. This creates a visual space that is unusual but very helpful in a collection of very intense, occasionally difficult pieces which require both visual and intellectual space if they are to be assimilated.

On first reading, Flashing the Square did not pass my bookshop test—the first, quick reading and flick through the book usually given standing in a bookshop prior to a decision to purchase. Some of the pieces seemed almost squashed, with too much left out in pieces that would benefit from as little as a dozen more words. Others began with lists intended to set a scene, but which seem pointless and boring. But on second and third reading, the works fell into place within themselves, images, ideas and words fell into place and began to expose themselves. Daniel John Pilkington’s ‘Tram 96 to St Kilda’ is an example of this. It began badly, with a list that did not inspire me to read on:

Corners. Jolting. Shoulders, elbows, knees, bags and flat faces, various tablets with their soft illuminations, their persistent genii.

When Pilkington turned from this list to describe aspects of being on a tram, the piece lifts, and then he writes about two young brothers:

One simply refuses: to have a conversation. The other seethes: you wouldn’t know if you were having a conversation. And the first, triumphant in closing some esoteric syllogism, nods: a conversation is when someone hurts someone. Silence.

This marvellous observation is dropped into our awareness then taken away again as Pilkington returns to a description of being on a tram in the aftermath of the conversation.

The works in this particular book often require patience, and expect the reader to delve deeply into themselves and their lives, fleshing out the story with an understanding of the possibilities lying within the words on the page.

Of course, there is a sense in which all writing demands this type of engagement from the reader, but few books contain work which puts the reader on the line along with the work, and in this book the reader definitely is on the line, facing a space deep within themselves. This seems to be because the writers have challenged the reader with spaces within the work which can be filled only by imagining between and beyond the words. At least partially this was because many of the ideas were larger than the allocated space

WTEIn many respects, what I’ve said reflects my own difficulties with the book, and one of these difficulties was a particular surprise to me. I experienced on ongoing urge to revise and re-write many of the pieces. This is an urge to which I am not accustomed, except with my own work. Usually I just don’t like the piece I’m reading, and I move on, or put it down and don’t read it. But these pieces kept me reading even when I stumbled over an idea or word.

When we turn to Writing to the Edge, the situation is quite different. None of the pieces seem smaller than the ideas and story they are presenting, and I feel more at home reading this book.

Whilst both books have a large variety of subjects and story lines, the constraints on the size are looser in Writing to the Edge, and authors have been able to fit their ideas into pieces whose size is more in accord with the ideas and their treatment. Hence we find small one paragraph pieces such as Elizabeth Hodgson’s ‘Crone’s which presents us with the idea of a group of old women:

Not just old like your granny. But older. Older than anyone else you’ve ever known about. And they’re there at every funeral of an elderly person. No one calls them. They know when to appear.

These women, unknown by anyone, may even be dead themselves, Hodgson says. And there are even smaller pieces by the inevitable Philip Hammial, ‘Family Reunion’ for example:

Aunt Jane is in father’s bed. Uncle Jack is in mother’s bed. I’m in bed with seven cousins, male, female, trans. Who will do what to who is anyone’s guess.

For the most part the longer pieces are more akin to what we think of as “traditional” stories, a perfect example of this being Mark Smith’s Joanne Burns Award winning ‘10.42 to Sydenham’.

In this story a man, about whom we learn little, saves a young woman from being harassed by louts on a train. All we really know about him is that he had killed people when very young. Clearly not a normal activity for an Australian. Only at the end of the story do we discover that he is coloured when the following conversation occurs:

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Sydenham,” he replied politely.

She laughed, but caught herself. “I’m sorry. I… I mean, what country?”

He smiled, a brief flash of white teeth. “I know what you meant.”

The “problem” of how to read micro-fiction does not appear in this volume; nor did I feel the urge to revise or re-write any of the pieces. There are challenges and ideas needing to be experienced, and they left me feeling fulfilled and happier for the reading.

All in all, Writing to the Edge is a much more pleasant volume to read; it is the book you would give someone who doesn’t usually read micro-fiction. Flashing the Square is the book you give to someone who already reads and likes micro-fiction, someone who is up to the challenges it provides.

– Bruce Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com

Straddling Prose Poetry and Microfiction: Shady Cosgrove launches Writing to the Edge: Prose Poems & Microfiction can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/09/12/straddling-prose-poetry-and-microfiction-shady-cosgrove-launches-writing-to-the-edge-prose-poems-microfiction/

Flashing the Square is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/flashing_the_square/#more-4074. Writing to the Edge is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/writing_to_the_edge/#more-4097

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