An Eclectic Range of Subject Matter: Annette Marfording reviews The Best Australian Essays 2015 by Geordie Williamson

Black Inc, The Best Australian Essays 2015, edited by Geordie Williamson, Black Inc, 2015

Best-Essays-2015

As a regular reader and lover of these annual collections it is fascinating to see the different choices the respective editors make for the year’s best essays, and how sometimes they confound your expectations. A prime example is a comparison between the 2014 and the 2015 collections of the year’s best essays. The 2015 editor was Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of The Australian and primarily a reviewer of fiction, who followed in the footsteps of Robert Manne, a former professor of politics and author of many non-fiction books and essays. Knowing these backgrounds, a reader might expect an emphasis on political essays in Robert Manne’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2014 versus an emphasis on literary reviews and creative non-fiction and memoir in Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015. Yet, that is not so.

The eclecticism of Geordie Williamson’s edition The Best Australian Essays 2015 is apparent in its inclusion of essays on climate change, new science, terrorism, sexism, the mining industry, political history, the dangers of so-called alternative medicine, Aboriginal issues, cricket, gambling, musicians and music critics.

Political essays include Guy Rundle’s take on the absurdity of the political reactions after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris; Sebastian Smee’s analysis on the direct relevance of Goya’s art to terror and mass killings today; Rebecca Griggs’ opinion on the mining industry and its FIFA workers in Western Australia; and Mango MacCallum’s obituary of Malcolm Frazer, which considers his history and policies before, during and after his Prime Ministership. The strongest essay is perhaps Noel Pearson’s ‘Remote Control: Ten Years of Struggle and Success in Indigenous Australia’ which reports on the present state of Aboriginal affairs after the Northern Territory intervention and on native title in the face of the mining boom. The essay causes you to weep at successive governments’ ineptitude and to marvel at the resiliency of Aboriginal people who rarely seem to lose hope.

Maria Tumarkin, poet, critic and essayist, contributes a strong and passionately argued piece on the treatment of first-generation migrants and refugees in Australia with regard to their professional expertise, knowledge and skills, which are all too often not acknowledged or recognised as useful.

Alison Croggon’s piece ‘Trigger Warning’ begins as follows: “The first time I was raped, a stranger climbed into bed with me while I was sleeping at a friend’s house…” It is a strongly argued essay on the ways in which men treat and position women in society.

Both Helen Garner’s and Anna Krien’s personal/memoir pieces are humorous. Anna Krien’s subject matter is her past and present life in a Holden panel van and Helen Garner’s is ‘The Insults of Age’, though the latter also brims with outrage, and rightly so.

Felicity Plunkett’s ‘Sound Bridges: A Profile of Gurrumul’, its title a convenient short hand for its subject matter, is a highly thoughtful and beautifully written contextual analysis of Gurrumul in the light of his Aboriginal background and cultural inheritance, policies and politics over Aboriginal people and assessments of his music made by music critics.

Tim Winton’s ‘Havoc: A life in Accidents’ examines the history of traffic accidents in his own and his father’s life and how these shaped them as men. In the last paragraph he says, “My old man survived his career in havoc. … And now I’ve been a writer longer than he was a copper. Both of us have tried to avoid trouble, and yet it’s been our business. Without strife, the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.”

Other personal highlights are essays on reading and writing, Mark Mordue in ‘The Library of Shadows’ highlights the dark novels that capture and make us. Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘The Pencil and the Damage done’ is a brilliant dissection and lament of the lack of ethics amongst many authors. As a prime example, she uses the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard and his autobiographical so-called fictional work My Struggles in which he uses his words as a sword to pierce friends and family, including his children by expressing boredom, resentment and other negative emotions. The damage was catastrophic, Knausgaard had to move to other countries, most of his family have stopped communicating with him and his writing triggered manic depression in his wife. Ceridwen Dovey’s powerfully argued piece should remind all authors of the damage they may cause.

Overall, the 2015 edition includes an eclectic range of subject matter, and that is how it should be with these annual collections of The Best Australian Essays.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster 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 Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, 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 on the NSW Mid-North-Coast 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.

The Best Australian Essays 2015 is available from  http://www.bestaustralianwriting.com.au/essays/

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Super Sad True Love Story’ by Gary Shteyngart

Chris Palazzolo rereads Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Random House 2010.

super sadThere is nothing super sad about the love story in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In fact it seems so slight, flim flam and narcissistic it barely qualifies as a story at all. It’s curious that a tryst so uncompelling is expected to pull us through a full length novel about the decline of the United States, but that is exactly what its function is; an ephemeral love affair set against a backdrop of (future) historical events; the liquidation of the US financial system and the takeover of the US economy by Chinese capital, and the military repression of a popular uprising in New York.

Super Sad True Love Story is an epistolary novel, told entirely in diary entries and email and Facebook type exchanges. The story is this – Lenny Abramov, the son of Russian immigrants, now resident New Yorker falls in love with Eunice Park, a Korean/American girl 20 years his junior; they date, they cheat, they split up. And that’s it; the two have nothing in common and passion is little more than aching ambivalence. The age gap between the lovers, as well as the Russianness of the author, can lead one to think that the story is a kind of post-modern Lolita. But as Eunice is 22 years old, the relationship, while questionable on the grounds of taste, is not illegal, and hardly transgressive.

It’s left to the vividly realised, satirical details of the near future New York to pull us through, and it is here perhaps where comparisons with Nabokov actually make sense. There are the same preoccupations: the haute bourgeois tastes of the European emigré reduced to a barely tolerated private vice; the pervy pleasure in the pornified naiveté of American youth culture and the pathetic infatuation for a young girl. There are the same tropes: expressionistic clouds of pop; in Nabokov’s case, neon, television and jukebox rock ‘n roll; in Shteyngart’s, a sci-fi extrapolation of mobile phones, ipads and twitter, all collapsed into a personalised virtual cloud device called an äppäärät where personal and civic identity is stored.

In Nabokov’s America, the distinction between classes of people and the status of cultures that he regarded as Europe’s most precious heritage barely existed, levelled by popular culture and democratic blandishments (D.H. Lawrence complained extensively about this mediocratising levelling in his book about Australia, Kangaroo). The shock of Lolita was meant to be instructive. Intellectuals were supposed to safeguard this distinction between high and low. So when the academic Humbert Humbert is seduced by US teeny bopper sexiness he invites the harshest and most ruinous judgement on himself, not because he’s a paedophile, but because he threatens the subsidence of distinction. In Shteyngart’s America, Abramov’s education and cultural tastes have no value whatsoever. He works for a company that offers life extension services to High Net Worth Individuals, in effect a combination of online streaming youth simulations and plastic surgery. Abramov himself, a Low Net Worth Individual, exists only in his smelly aging body and nothing is at stake if he stuffs up. Even democracy has been abandoned by a politically inert youth culture so degraded books are seen as smelly anti-social things that, if you wish to remain socially connected, employed, and unmolested by government agents, you dare not possess them.

Super Sad True Love Story has none of the anguish of Lolita. Humbert Humbert loses everything. Lenny Abramov only loses Eunice Park, which is really not a loss at all. The city crashes into civil war and much of what was detailed in the novel is lost, but that’s hardly a loss too. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this book, and certainly its most abiding impression for me, is its contention that the extent of senescence of a culture is the degree to which it fetishises youth. The unhappy bubble-headed young people whose beautiful bodies wallpaper this text, their pudenda pornographically exposed and framed by world consuming personalised media are nothing more than handmaidens to an invisible class of geriatric billionaires and technocrats who have no solution to the nation’s dwindling supplies of food and air.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

Super Sad True Love Story has it’s own website: http://supersadtruelovestory.com/

Sydney and Newcastle Launches for ‘Notes For The Translators’

Notes For The Translators from 142 New Zealand and Australian Poets (ASM, Macau), edited by Christopher Kit Kelen, 2013. Sydney and Newcastle launches. SYDNEY – Monday 8th July, 7pm. Upstairs Friend in Hand Hotel, 58 Cowper St Glebe. NEWCASTLE – Monday 15th July, 7.30pm. Theatre Lane Hotel 189 Hunter Street Newcastle.

notesOn one level every reading of a poem is an act of translation. Using the written word to convey often complex and difficult meanings, imagery and emotions involves an act of ‘encoding’ by the poet and one of ‘decoding’ by the reader. A simple poem may suggest a single decoding while a more complex poem can suggest many. Of course when we refer to translation we are normally referring to the act of translating a poem from one language to another – an act which, of course, adds numerous levels of complexity to the act of ‘decoding’ the poem.

One of my favourite books poetry in translation is Moscow Trefoil: poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam by David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson (Australian National University Press, 1975). In this volume each Russian poem has three different English interpretations/translations – a version that is as close to a literal translation as possible and a version each by Dobson and Campbell which attempt to ‘rewrite’ the poem in an English version. Such an approach highlights the issues for those of use who read poetry in translation, we must always be aware that we, in fact reading a collaborative work between the writer and translator.

Kit Kelen, in his introduction to Notes For The Translators, highlights some of these issues. Notes is, he says, a practical book – it is an anthology which consists of a single poem by 142 poets from Australia and New Zealand, together with notes by the poet designed to assist a translator in translating the poem.

Poets appearing in the anthology include: Adam Aitken, Ali Alizadeh,Richard James Allen Steve Armstrong, Peter Bakowski, John Bennett, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, Margaret Bradstock, Michael Brennan, David Brooks, Kevin Brophy, Hamish Danks Brown, Lachlan Brown,Pam Brown, Andrew Burke, Joanne Burns Michelle Cahill, Grant Caldwell, Coral Carter, Julie Chevalier, Eileen Chong, Jennifer Compton, Anna Couani, Alison Croggon, Jan Dean, Tricia Dearborn, Dan Disney, Lucy Dougan, Laurie Duggan,Stephen Edgar, David Eggleton, Marietta Elliott, Brook Emery, Diane Fahey, Rangi Faith, Michael Farrell, Liam Ferney, Barbara Fisher, Toby Fitch, Angela Gardner Carolyn Gerrish, Jane Gibian, David Gilbey, Vivienne Glance, Marewa Glover, Pip Griffin, Philip Hammial, Jennifer Harrison, Libby Hart, Dennis Haskell, Brian Hawkins, Susan Hawthorne, Dominique Hecq, Matt Hetherington, Paul Hetherington, Mark William Jackson, Andy Jackson, Alan Jefferies, Carol Jenkins, Murray Jennings, Judy Johnson, Jill Jones, Rae Desmond Jones, Antigone Kefala, Claine Keily Christopher (Kit) Kelen, S.K. Kelen, Jean Kent, Anna Kerdijk, John Kinsella, Peter Kirkpatrick, Andy Kissane, Yota Krili, Martin Langford, Andrew Lansdown, Rebecca Kylie, John Leonard, Miriel Lenore, Debbie Lim, Roberta Lowing, Myron Lysenko, Mark Macleod, Chris Mansell,Shane McCauley, David McCooey, Greg McLaren, Rhyll McMaster, Philip Mead, Sara Moss, Lizz Murphy, Les Murray, David Musgrave, Rosemary Nissen, James Norcliffe, Mark O’Flynn, Michael O’Leary, Ouyang Yu, Jan Owen, Geoff Page, Glen Phillips, Mark Pirie, Brian Purcell, Vaughan Rapatahana, Harry Ricketts, Reihana Robinson, Bronwyn Rodden, Mark Roberts, Gig Ryan, Tracy Ryan, Philip Salom, Andrew Sant, Jaya Savige, Michael Sharkey, Thomas Shapcott, Laura, Jan Shore, Alex Skovron, Peter Skrzynecki, Vivian Smith, Beth Spencer, Nicolette Stasko, Amanda Stewart, Billy Marshall Stoneking, James Stuart,Patricia Sykes, Niobe Syme Maria Takolander, Andrew Taylor, Sandra Thibodeaux, Richard Tipping, Barbara Temperton, Mark Tredinnick, Carolyn Van Langenberg, Corey Wakeling, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, John Watson, Alan Wearne, Mags Webster, Cecilia White,Les Wicks, Irene Wilkie, Niel Wright.

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For inquiries about this anthology contact KitKelen@umac.mo or KitKelen@gmail.com

A Heartrending Memoir: Georgina Scillio reviews ‘An Imaginary Mother’ by Bron Nicholls.

An Imaginary Mother by Bron Nicholls. Black Pepper Publishing 2013.

nichollsaimcoverThis heartrending memoir by Bron Nicholls of her ‘strange mother’ is well written and hard to put down.

Nicholls’ relationship with both her parents, especially her mother Phyll with whom, naturally, she spent more time, was very difficult. Often Nicholls was given contradictory messages and the more she tried to please her secretive and unpredictable mother, the more her mother frustrated her and belittled her efforts.

As a child Phyll and her younger sister Meg had been sent to Sutherland House, an orphanage for destitute children at Diamond Creek in Victoria. They were neither destitute nor orphans and never forgave their father for having sent them there. At the Home they were not ill-treated but their hair was cut short, they had very few possessions, the food was meager and they were made to work hard housekeeping or in the farm.

Phyll retreated into books and became an avid reader for the rest of her life, often living out in her head the events of the books she read. It was an escape into an imaginary life which caused her to ‘block’ out many things, including her family.

One of the main flaws of the narration in An Imaginary Mother s that Nicholls calls her mother ‘Phill’ and at other times—sometimes in the same paragraph—she calls her ‘Mum’. Again, with her father, he is both ‘John’ and ‘Dad’ when just she or he would have been clear enough. At times, this proved confusing and one had to re-read the piece to find out who are the people mentioned.

There are also sections of the story where we are left wondering what happened next. For example, the horrendous bus trip with Nicholls and Nicholls’s very sick sister was described in great detail and is very moving. But as the author changes subject immediately, the reader is left high and dry and not knowing what was wrong with girl: did she recover? Later on in the story, the girl reappears, so we can assume she did not die from whatever sickness she had been suffering.

In another instance, the author and her mother are sitting on the verandah, waiting for the father to arrive as he was late from work. The reader becomes anxious and worries: did Dad have an accident? Did he arrive home safely for dinner? But instead of answering these questions for us, Nicholls talks about her beloved dog, Jelly Roll, who is now old and who has to be put down by the vet. We get the impression that there is more affection for her dog, than for her father.

What was also sad about the author’s childhood is the way her Christian fundamentalist father’s rigid beliefs blighted his family’s lives and especially that of the author. When Nicholls tried to escape, she ended up in more trouble. She states very briefly (one sentence) that she got married to the violent young man with whom she had fled. We are not told why and how she decided to make such a seriously bad move and we are left rather puzzled: if she knew he was so unpleasant, why did she marry him? Was her desperation that great?

The marriage did not last long and she continued moving from place to place—she moved house more than 40 times—at times leaving jobs and friends behind her. She admits to be following the example of her parents, especially her father, whose restlessness made him continually change jobs, suburbs and States.

There are some bad luck stories, but Nicholls does not indulge in self-pity, on the contrary, she blames herself for when things go wrong. The way she cared for her ill mother in the last years of her life is very touching, even though her efforts were not always appreciated.

In spite of some shortcomings, this is a very worthwhile book to read, if not for anything else to learn about the consequences of mental illness on other members of a family. It is also a very interesting story about the struggles, both financial and social, of many Australian families in the early and middle part of the twentieth century.

The book has several photos of the mother, the author and her family and is an excellent way to engage the reader. The front cover, a photo of the mother, with the author as a baby in a washing tub in the garden, is rather delightful.

– Georgina Scillio

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Georgina Scilliohas had work published in Quadrant, Arena, The Australian and several other literary journals. Her collection of short stories A Dandelion on the Roof won first prize in the 2008 Northern Notes Writers’ Festival.

An Imaginary Mother is available from http://blackpepperpublishing.com/nichollsaim.html

The Stella Prize Short List – a long time coming

stella-logo-largeThe issue of gender equality in literature one is a difficult one. One one side there is the argument that writing should be selected, published, read and awarded on its merits irrespective of who wrote it and that the writer’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, politics etc should not come into it. On the other hand there is the argument that  such objectivity is impossible, that all the odds the odds are stacked against writers who write from outside one of the literary mainstreams.

As someone who has edited a literary magazine and as an editor of a website that attempts to run reviews and criticism of new Australian writing, such questions are critical to the way I approach my work. When P76 was receiving unsolicited work my memory is that we received far more work from male writers than female writers (this was in the 1980s and 1990s). While I don’t pretend to know the reasons why I suspect that it is not that there were more males writing poetry than females – I tend to suspect that males felt more confident sending their work out or saw their work as public whereas perhaps some women writers felt less condiment offering their work for publications. Oner way I attempted to overcome this was to approach a number of women writers directly to try and ensure a more balanced gender split.

With Rochford Street Review the issue is a little more complicated – on one level there is the question of how many books by male writers have been reviewed compared to female writers. Then there is the question of the reviewer – how many of our reviewers are female as opposed to male. I attempted to collate some of these figures on the occasion of Rochford Street Review’s first birthday last November. The results of this analysis can be found at https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2012/12/02/happy-birthday-rochford-street-review/.

And so to the Stella Prize. There is a certain irony in the fact that up to 2012 works by female writers have won 16 out of 55 Miles Franklin Awards. While the importance of these statistics can be debated, the questions obvious go much deeper than a single award. During 2012 there was a widespread perception that women’s rights where under attack. There were, for example,  the obvious attacks lead by the commercial radio shock jocks which were reflected in gender specific attacks against Australia’s first female Prime Minister. One of the founders of the Stella Prize, writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, summed it up when she said “After a rapid acceleration in women’s rights in the ’70s and ’80s, things have started to go backwards”.

This was also playing out in the literary arena. By 2012 it was pointed out that roughly 50% of books published in Australia were by women, yet books by women were under represented in Award short lists and on the review pages. So in mid 2012 a group of women decided to set up an Australian Literary Award open to women writers only. Based on the Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction, the Stella Award was to offer a prise of Aust$50,000 for the ‘best’ book by an Australian Woman – unlike the British award it is not limited to fiction.

This week the short list for the initial award was announced. Those making the final cut are:

  • The Burial – Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin)
  • Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Sunlit Zone – Lisa Jacobson (Five Islands Press)
  • Like a House on Fire – Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications)
  • Sea Hearts – Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
  • Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany (Picador)

Interestingly, while the prize was not limited purely to fiction, it would appear that all he short listed books fall into that category (one could debate the status of The Sunlit Zone as a verse novel). While it would have good to see some more poetry among the shortlist, it is encouraging to see Five Island and Scribe making the cut against the larger publishers.

The winner will be announced in Melbourne on 16 April.

– Mark Roberts

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The Stella Prize website can be found at: http://thestellaprize.com.au/

Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press