Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia — Don Watson’s Challenge to a National Myth.


Watson, Don. "The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia." Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne (2014).


“The legend insists the national character was moulded by the land’s embrace, yet it is just as true that the bush did not so much embrace its denizens as license their eccentricities and instincts. In the bush they could be lord or wanderer or miserable wretch, or many other things to which their souls were suited, including both creator and destroyer.” (147)

In this vein, Watson—bravely, in this reviewer’s opinion—takes on the foundational, pervasive myth of the Australian bush. This “land’s embrace” is symbolic of the Australian character, the crucible through which our national identity has been presumably formed. The archetypal nature of this real-and-imagined landscape continues to speak into who we are—it shapes and re-shapes our understanding of what it is to be Australian. The majority of Australian art made across genres explores and imaginatively inhabits the bush, but does not perhaps fully contest its assumptions and associated images/“truths”; we swallow wholeheartedly and unquestioningly the psychic, created and geographical space that Watson argues in his epic work is myth—and not an innocent or palatable one. 

Watson works like a literary/philosophical surgeon of sorts to dissect this myth in many different ways: environmental, scientific, linguistic, ethical, sociological and with approaches that assist us to more fully understand and contest those values, many of which are deeply at odds with the Australia that many of us have constructed for ourselves. Our idea of mateship, for example, the “fair go,” and a no-nonsense rooted connection with the land, free from the elitism and caste system of Britain, are all essentially, Watson suggests, fantasies. What really has happened in the bush? How has it been a site for desecration and destruction, and in what ways has this violence to the land and her people been the true foundation of Australia? The land, he argues, has not had a fair go, the indigenous peoples have not had a fair go, and in reality there is a deeply disturbing, cognitive dissonance between the Australia we have imagined for ourselves and the actual Australia whose sinister ramifications and impacts continue to fester at the base of our society. In this way Watson’s work is deeply challenging, as much as for the diligent and convincing research as well as the ideas that he foregrounds—and compels us to face, especially in passages such as the following, where Watson discusses mass tree-clearing:

There is, as well, a sense in which these clearings concealed as much as they revealed. Any new culture will soon take up myth and denial. It becomes a matter of manners to pretend not to know that something uncivilised has happened; it’s likely one of the first skills of any civilization. In the bush it was and remains a defining one … The light the settlers let in shone on the virtue of their own necessitous lives, but blinded them to the ruin on which they were built. (208)


The Bush possesses many musical/thematic strands that are symphonic when woven together, and often Watson chooses one story, one event, or one specific geographic location in order to extrapolate and investigate his themes. In this way he contributes to the conversation on colonialism and the ways Europeans have visited a deep and ongoing violence upon the land and its indigenous peoples. Language specifically is one way that Watson attempts to parse out this aggression. He goes so far as to argue that linguistic domination is the foundation of modern Australia, that abusive treatment of the bush and its original inhabitants has been the fundamental building block on which our national character has been formed—our society, Watson argues, is built upon violence, appropriation and militant misunderstanding of those with whom we should have listened to and respected. He tackles specifically the names European patriarchy gave the land, and explores the power of naming to erase culture:

The Mallee and countless other places got their names from Aboriginal words misheard, from Aboriginal beliefs and relationships misunderstood or carelessly recorded, from vocabularies compiled with the assistance of Aboriginal intermediaries who lacked local knowledge, Names were given to places without connection either to their meaning or to the Aboriginal people who had once been there. (160)


Watson grounds the book in his own experience growing up in rural Gippsland and refers to this often, especially in the first half of the book. This establishes his credibility as critic, to ensure that Watson is not, in his turn, using language and ideas to colonize a discussion—he writes from within the lived experience of growing up in this brutally transformed landscape, and he is as much examining his own relationship with the land and his past as he is pointing the finger at anybody else. And his account is not unbalanced, even as it is searingly critical at times; Watson is also quick to provide examples of moral character, the very real difficulties that settlers faced, the poverty and social marginalization within their own cultures that informed and affected the way these people “settled” the land and the changes they wrought to it. In other words, The Bush is not a simple tale of good and evil, but of multiple layers of discontent and injustice that meant Australia inherited—and saw played out—the inter-class warfare, gender disparities and racial oppression: injurious elements of Imperialism that migrated along with the convicts to the Great South Land. Language, he argues throughout the book, has been and continues to be a deeply embedded part of this (ongoing) colonial experience:

The relationship was colonial, and the presumptions were colonial. To rename Aboriginal places (or to rename Aboriginal people), to proceed without a care for their language and beliefs, was not murder, but murder proceeded from the same convictions, as did the seizure of lands and all measures considered necessary to retain them. Felony murder might cover it, or reckless indifference. And in the Aborigines’ decline into mendicancy and humiliation, alcoholism and disease, this same absence of any will to understand was an accessory. (162)

True to the symphonic nature of this work, Watson takes on the religious nature of this colonialism—another brave maneuver as the separation of church and state has always been a strong part of the Australian psyche and society, and we might be loathe to consider that we have been as much a force for oppressive evangelism as anywhere else in the world. According to Watson religion and faith were a key part of the reasons people used the bush as remorselessly as they did. Watson links religious and moral motivation to the settlers’ determination to subdue the bush; he reads biblical metaphors into the early white Australians’ struggle with the elements, the bushman’s profound distrust of city dwellers, artists, and academics and all things intellectual. He writes that:

Christians never wanted for ways to justify or forgive themselves the crimes done to the Indigenous population. Hypocrisy greased the wheels of dispossession. In the Old Testament they found divine authorization for their work of conquest, and from the New the made the calculation that by being Christians in a pagan land, taking hold of it, they were spreading the message of grace and salvation. That was another thing the bush became—a church. (168)

But Watson carefully refrains from moralizing, even as he dissects morality and actions that definitely come up wanting. He acknowledges the disturbing truth that the deeper one looks, the less one is able to draw absolute judgments on the people who lived out their lives in the bush, many of whom were the degenerates and desperately marginalized people, as well as those who struck out on their own and were not so much oppressed by the dominant culture but had marginalized themselves. There is a liminoid aspect of this landscape, and Watson deals always with this real-and-imagined space, confessing:

But what becomes of the goldmines if the trees are not felled and burned? Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down. (190)

Watson writes that the story of the bush “is a story of heroic labour and sacrifice, and at the same time one of human beings granting themselves and option over all creation, to be exercised at will and in accordance with any whim or impulse, vanity far from least among them. If the history of the bush appalls us, it is not for the destruction alone, but also the willfulness” (214). Watson is clearly appalled, and wants us to be too—but not to stop us moving forwards. Rather, his is a call to forge an Australian identity in which we can truly take pride; to do this, he suggests, we must grapple with our past and its legacy. 

The Bush is an intense, scrupulously researched and challenging exposition of the fundamental way we see ourselves as Australians. Watson issues a radical challenge: to probe into the past with all its tragedy and violence and then take responsibility for it. And in this he challenges us to also take up the positive parts of the myth—as we have struggled against adversity, carved out our place against the elements, been tough and strategic and determined, then let us be so in the way we carve out our future in Australia. And we cannot learn to do this well if we do not take an honest, thorough look at the crimes hidden inside our national identity.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Reading "The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood"

Harwood, Gwen. The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood. Black Inc. November, 2014. Print.
ISBN: 9781863956987, RRP: AUD $24.99 


What is there to besiege
but an old woman lying
alone, past hope or caring,
with voices in her head
“Not all of us shall die
My love, come to my bed,
and I will give you children. (Reed Voices)

Articulating the poignant power and tension of the female experience—particularly the fraught and rich journey of having children—is perhaps Gwen Harwood's most treasured and brave legacy in this collection of poems. Gwen Harwood, "the outstanding Australian poet of the twentieth century" according to Peter Porter was, alongside Judith Wright, a motherpoet—Harwood wrote in the midst of, and often in spite of raising four children at a time when to be a married mother was to navigate the social norms of burying oneself in the domestic sphere; and certainly it was neither expected nor encouraged that such a woman would write poetry. Harwood, however, not only wrote a vast volume of poetry, librettos and lectures but garnered multiple prestigious awards, including the Officer of Australia, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, and the Patrick White Award, before her death in 1995, aged 75. In this collection, as in so much of her poetry, Harwood plunged deeply into the tangled, often unspoken/hidden and powerful world of being simultaneously female artist and mother in a culture and time that was arguably unsupportive of both roles—let alone taken on together.

Harwood trained as a professional musician, becoming an organist and music teacher while in her twenties. In realizing that she would never be a “great” musician, however, she turned to writing poetry professionally—an art her grandmother had introduced her to as a child and that she had been quietly developing for several years. Throughout her life Harwood would publish over 430 poems, 100 of which have been selected in this volume by her son (and writer) John Harwood. Many of the poems feature several motifs that layer upon and revisit one another throughout the collection; this symphonic aspect strengthens their intensity, allowing for a fugal effect as the elements of water, sky, exile, motherhood, death and yearning coalesce, separate, then return in different keys and moods.

Despite Harwood's “giving up” of music as a profession, music runs strongly through this collection: in the explicit references of the several poems about the defeated and alcoholic piano teacher and performer Kröte, who “is drunk, but still can play” (At the Arts Club), references to Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt. There are also the many subtler references—the way her images of sky, landscape and death appear and return in rhythms, the compositional quality of many of her line break patterns, the way the syllables are strung together almost like song lyrics. In a sense it seems as if poetry has taken Harwood beyond the limits what her own music could express, indeed she writes that her “heart leapt beyond music, past the span/ of human hands and human skill/ to affirm what is." (Littoral)

The style changes across the work, and this may reflect her choice to publish under several different names at different times (including masculine noms de plume). There certainly seems a playfulness in the exploration of different voices; some of her poems are lyrical, the phrasing full and redolent, as in Dust to Dust where she writes:

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move
idly in stifling air.
The sky’s dusted with gold.
A footfall; someone comes.

Frequently, however that same playfulness possesses a jagged thematic edge that snatches at us, testing the emotional and linguistic boundaries of her voice. In Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon there emerges an ironic tonal shift and a more aggressive rhythm:

Baby I’m sick. I need
nursing. Give me your
breast. 
My orifices bleed

….

Demon, we’re old, old
chap.
Born under the same sign
after some classic rape.

Harwood’s relationship with her own motherhood is fraught and complex—it is at once a joy and a means of immortality and also a prison sentence, a site of anguish in which the motherpoet ages, turning into a body from which her artist soul feels disconnected. It is, at times, as if a hidden life of Harwood as poet continues, watching her mother body with acerbic eyes, punishing this mother part for giving herself so completely to domestic life and children. Sometimes the language courses from a deep, almost primeval cry (think Whitman's barbaric Yawp) in Oyster Cove where we feel an urgent creative passion that laments and rages against the unresolved, violent always-rendering between mother and poet:

watch the sun prise
their life apart: flesh, memory, language all
split open, featureless, to feed the wild
hunger of history. A woman lies
coughing her life out. There’s still blood to fall,
but all blood’s spilt that could have made a child.

We see this also in her poem In the Park, where her “clothes are out of date. Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt” yet two stanzas later “it’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive.” The female speaker converses in tense repartee with “someone she loved once” who passes her in the park, someone from 

From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God …”

In the speaker's final words: “to the wind she says, “they have eaten me alive.” Again, mother and poet inhabit the same body, alternately—and simultaneously—yearning, regretting and grounding those same urges to fly and dream in the concrete tasks (and pleasures) of raising other lives. There is both consumption and life, a strange duality existing within the female body, where no one outcome is certain or ever achieved; the site of/in the motherpoet body is one of constant, artistically fruitful struggle. 

Sometimes this conflict is explored through a male voice, oftentimes through Harwood's creation Kröte, as he struggles with his feelings of mediocrity and being undervalued as a musician and the battle between this and his artistic drive. Release, or comfort, takes the face of an imagined child in Monday, where Kröte

dreams himself a 
creature
with smoky hair, whose
spirit’s wild
as wind, whose inmost 
nature

mirrors his love.

This character desires a child who is, in reality, himself, and who can lift up his own music and self, joining and supporting his dedication to art. This child, however, is a phantom only, and Harwood dispels Kröte’s dream with an image of disdain and violence when a real child comes up to him and “with her metal spade/ she bangs / sharply on Kröte's shin.” That same child, when Kröte grabs the spade from her, becomes instantly “a vicious child [who] lets loose a / torrent of lies.” 

This dichotomy infuses so much of Harwood’s work—but perhaps it is less a binary than a courageous and unflinching exploration of the complexities, nuances and dangers of motherhood. Harwood wrestles repeatedly with the question as to whether repulsion and intense love can actually inhabit the same heart, the same body—and that it is particularly the motherpoet’s psyche that is tormented but also fed by the act of birthing and nurturing. This liminal, sometimes tortured space (at this point the word ravishing comes to mind, in the way we use it to describe both being made captive and submissive by inordinate beauty but also as a synonym for rape) is a catalyst for Harwood's art, where

Some old, lost self strikes from time’s shallows, crying
“Beyond habit, household, children, I am I.
Who knows my original estate, my name?
Give me my atmosphere, or let me die.” (Iris)

This collection is no one-sided, simplistic rant against children and domesticity, simply seeing them as millstones or a sort of artistic curse, but the poetry in this edition provides us with a textured, sonic journey into a place where there are always the two forces of mother and poet meeting, fighting, seducing, soothing, creating—these juxtapositions are captured in the following lines from An impromptu for Ann Jennings:

think of it, woman: each of
us gave birth to
four children, our new
lords whose beautiful 
tyrannic kingdom might 
restore the earth to
that fullness we
thought lost beyond
recall
when, in the midst of life,
we could not name to,
when spirit cried in
darkness, “I will have 
…”
but what? have what?
There was no word to
frame it,
though spirit beat at
flesh as in a grave.

In Littoral, as well as many other of her poems, this space is given a name and a landscape, so that we are kept grounded in a visceral, body-based experience of moving through her ideas—they are real, felt emotions and actual paths traveled, not simply ethereal abstractions. For Harwood, her 

children call
across the wind for me to 
come; the tide streams through a honeycomb
of rock and air. This littoral margin of land and water
still
vibrates with life, where
life began” (Littoral)

If Harwood’s pains and ecstasies are the air in this excerpt, then children and home are for Harwood perhaps the rock; she traverses this borderland where the two meet, and although painful, it is the place where "life"—and artistic life—is both birthed and sustained. 

Throughout this moving and powerful collection Harwood traces—map would be too certain a verb for this exploration that reveals no absolutes, no certainties—a humane, authentic, but piercing journey for us along this margin of land and water, whereby we might feel with her the “fractured rock, where / water had its birth,/ and stood in silence, at the / roots of dreams.” 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Note Regarding Reviews

One of the important and treasured parts of Antipodes is opening up conversations around new and vital literary works created in Australia and New Zealand, and reviews are a key part of this global interaction.

If you have a book for review, or have queries regarding Antipodes' reviews, please contact Richard Carr at rscarr@alaska.edu or write to Richard Carr, Dept. of English, University of Alaska, Fairbanks AK 99775.

We look forward to hearing from you.






 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The upcoming December 2015 issue of Antipodes

The forthcoming December 2015 issue of Antipodes will contain cover art of pelicans by the Sydney artist Ruth Law; essays by Niki Tulk on Alex Miller; David Carter on the Australian books America also read; Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell on Redmond Frankton "Bim" Wallis; Oliver Haag and Danica Cerce on Witi Ihimaera; Jack Bowers on autography; John Beston on Patrick White and Lewis Carroll; Stefan Solomon on Gerald Murnane and film; Robert Clarke and Sharon Thomas on digital narratives in the classroom; R. A, Goodrich and Alison Burns on Christina Stead and Georges Polti; Wenche Ommundsen and Huang Zhong on Ouyang Yu; Tim Steians on Paddy O'Reilly; Bei Chen on Brian Castro; creative nonfiction by Stephen Oliver; fiction by Janet Kaye Garrick, Liz Argall, Carolnie Flood, Mark O'Flynn, and Greg Bogaerts; reviews of Thomas Beebee (by Christina Spittel) and Stephen Edgar (by Umit Singh Dhuga). 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lecturing on Australia in China

This June and July, I will be lecturing extensively on Australian Studies in Chinaparticipating in a conference in Hohhot on Australian Indigenous literature organized by lv Yunhua, going to Shanghai and lecturing for my colleagues Chen Hong and Wang Guanglin, and spending time in Beijing working with David Walker and the Australian Studies center at the University of Beijing and with Li Jianjun of Beijing Foreign Studies University. I look forward to meeting these and other Chinese colleagues. I will also be presenting at an international affairs conference, speaking on Australia's relation to China's One Belt One Road policy and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

At many of my Chinese talks, I will be reading excerpts or distillations from my book on contemporary Australian literature, forthcoming from Sydney University Press in September. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ian Campbell: Australian Journeys to Chile and Uruguay


Ian Campbell of Sydney reports:"I just wrapped up the six weeks or so in Chile and Uruguay, mostly researching Post-Neruda but also my wife's family visits and friends.
There was a nice article in 'El Mercurio' of Santiago 10 mayo 2015 on Delia Falconer' novelista australiana'editara libro sobre su tio-abuelo, primer aviador mártir chileno'  (the Australian novelist will be publishing a book on her great-uncle, the first aviation martyr of Chile'). He died in an air accident in Chile in 1914 when attempting to complete a test run in a Bleriot 50 aircraft. It was to be his final step toward gaining the rank of military pilot in Chile. The novelist was reportedly visiting locations in Chile to follow up the life story of her Chilean grandmother’s brother, Francisco Mery, known as the first martyr in Chilean aviation history. She was visiting the National Library of Chile in Santiago at the time of the press interview about her background research for a new novel.

I happened to be at the National Library in Chile on a few occasions during that time but was unaware of her visit. I had previously (April 2015) visited the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and the beach-resort areas of Atlántida and Punta del Este, both north-east of Montevideo, to follow up memorialization of Neruda’s life and works in Uruguay, including at the museum in Punta del Este which bears his name, as Museo Paseo Neruda.

I was visiting the National Library in Chile to gain access to one of the Library’s copies of the large folio facsimile edition published in Santiago in 2002 of selections of pressed flowers, grass and leaf items collected by Matilde UrrutíaNeruda’s then-clandestine loverover the period 1952-1956 in Atlántida, the beach-resort town north of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. Neruda wrote the poem 'Oda a las flores de Datitla' (Ode to the flowers of Datitla) in 1956 to accompany the herbarium items collected by Matilde, later to become his third wife, and the facsimile edition has the same title. The Chilean poet had given the nick-name ‘Datitla’ to the beach resort town in Uruguay where he and Matilde shared the bungalow owned by Uruguayan architect, Antonio Mantáras, whom they met on the liner  returning from France in 1952.

I was initially intrigued that in the poem, 'Oda a las flores de Datitla' which Neruda  wrote (1956) in Uruguay, he refers to the ‘pines, eucalypts and acacias,’ which grow in abundance in those coastal areas, having been introduced initially in the late 1890s-1900s as stabilising trees that would tolerate the high sandy quartz soils of the area and had the capacity to absorb water from the heath-like riverine lowlands of the regions of Maldonado and Canelones.

The eucalyptus reference, is in Ilan Stavans (2013) translation: 'thousands of minimal cups left behind by the eucalyptus over your cold and fragrant silhouette…' ('… miles, de copas minimas el eucalyptus deja caer sobre su fria y fragrante sombre…'); the acacia reference is probably not to a variety of acacia introduced from Australia but to ‘acacia craven’ or ‘aromo,'  which is a variety of acacia native to Uruguay (and Chile). The reference Neruda makes is to (‘… wiry pavilions of dark acacia ...’) (‘hirsutos pabellones de acacia oscura…').

In the 2002 book 'Oda a las flores de Datitla' published in Santiago, Chile in folio facsimile format, one of the reproductions of leaves from the Matilde herbarium collected around Atlántida and in Neruda’s original 1956 self-crafted ‘little ‘book’ was a variety of Australian eucalyptus, eucalyptus l’herit. All other botanical items selected by the two were species of flowers or tree leaves endemic to Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina. In the poem, Neruda does not distinguish between introduced species eg pines, and eucalyptus, and local/native species.

A plaque outside the house Neruda stayed in 1952-56 in Atlántida in Uruguay at various times was erected a few years ago and says under these pines Neruda wrote poems referring to his stay in Uruguay. But the memorialisation only refers to the literary outcomes, of course!

Most colonial and post-colonial  periods have been marked by de-forestation. But in Atlántida in 1908 in Uruguay the La Arborica Uruguaya SA group was recorded as having planted 150,000 eucalypts, although surely 15, 000 is the more likely number, to stabilise the land and coast for their beach resort buildings that occurred when main road (1908) use of motor cars, and growth of educated professional class, led to development of the balneario-beach resort phenomenon. The  irony of the planting of huge numbers of eucalyptus and acacias in the areas around Montevideo and in Maldonado department and Canelones department in the early 1900s and to this day is that the mainly sandy, heath-like vegetation of these areas was gradually transformed and stabilised along the beach fronts by the use of these foreign species. This, to the extent that the 1800s flat-heath landscape has often given way to a landscape of tall treespines and eucalyptus, plus masses of acacias. But these species have often displaced the lower growing native species because of their high absorption of water and tolerance of sandy, quartz-rich soils. But there are now 1 million hectares of eucalypts under plantation cultivation in Uruguay alone, and it is the major hard-wood produced from plantation cultivation in that country.

I have sent a few emails to Australian experts about acacias and eucalypts and the history of their introduction into Uruguay, but don’t know whether all will reply. I now set out to search some Australian sites: http://www.pinkertonforest.com/background/pinkerton-family-heritage has some information about my grandfather and the poem in English I constructed from a review of his 1921 book on acacias as Australia´s national floral symbol. Dr Bruce Maslin is the Australian botanist who set up the website  http://www.worldwidewattle.com and there are links to my grandfather's role. The Australian National Botanic Garden site is http://www.anbg.gov.au/campbell.wattle and this is the 1921 book of A J Campbell. I will also write later to the Acacia Study Group whose links are http://anpsa.org.au/acaciaSG and I will write a short article for their bulletin when I return. http://anpsa.org.au/acaciaSG/index.html

On the Uruguayan side, in Punta del Este, Antonio Lussich (1848-1928) played a major role in the introduction of Australian tree species. In the Lussich Arboretum of the 143 total tree species listed, I find that 24 of these are Australian native species, i.e. about 30%. These include those listed from Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, as Australian Federation only occurred in 1901 and the origin of trees is usually by region, not country. These include five acacia species and four eucalypt species, i.e. 9 of the 24 Australian species in the Arboretum are either acacia or eucalypts.

Back in Chile I also visited  Temuco, 677 kms south of Santiago, Chile to gain first-hand impressions of the railway town Neruda lived as a child/adolescent from 1906-1920, and post-Nerudaism memorialization in this city of 270,000 people.  There's no substitute for actually being at sites of memorialization of writers; internet and other material do not give a full sense of place-context. Neruda’s father worked on the 'frontier' railways. The sense of 'closeness-proximity' of the Neruda childhood house site to the station was far more intense than if I had never visited. Memorializing at the exact site is a little akin to the Jakarta memorializationNeruda had been Consul thereas the original building shell exists but all the exteriors have changed. But here they solved the memorialization problem by placing a bronze plaque with symbol of the railway and a segment of one of Neruda's poems about the door to his house embedded in the footpath, and two wooden inscriptions attached to the exterior wall of the now butcher's shop.






Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Wendy Scarfe's HUNGER TOWN

Hunger Town: A novel by Wendy Scarfe, published by Wakefield Press, was one of six books by women authors announced today on the longlist for the 2015 Nita B. Kibble Literary Awards for Women Writers (the Kibble Awards). First awarded over 20 years ago, the Kibble Awards are open to Australian female writers who have published a book of fiction or non-fiction classifiable as ‘life writing’. This includes novels, autobiographies, biographies, literature and any writing with a strong personal element.

The Kibble Awards comprise the Kibble Literary Award for an established author as well as the Dobbie Literary Award for a first time published author. The Awards have been bestowed upon some of Australia’s leading writers, with this year’s winners sharing prize money of $35,000. Wendy Scarfe shares the limelight with several heavyweight writers, among them Helen Garner. Wendy commented that she felt ‘honoured to be published by Wakefield Press and thrilled to bits to be long listed.’ Set during Australia’s Great Depression, Hunger Town is drawn from family recollections and based on historical events. This powerful Australian novel tells of brave people caught up in the inspiration and the pity of great but lost causes. Its gritty realism,providing a window into a past era, makes for a highly engaging read.

‘Historical detail masterfully woven into a fast-moving plot, Hunger Town is a marvellous story drawn from a critically important time in Australian history.’ – Heather Goodall

The Kibble Awards shortlist will be announced on 3 June 2015, with the winner to be revealed at an event in Sydney on 15 July 2015.

For over four decades Wendy Scarfe has written poetry and novels in her own right and non-fiction works with her husband, Allan Scarfe. Together they have written oral histories of Greek migrants who fled the civil war in 1949 and the definitive biography of an Indian national hero and Gandhian socialist (Orient Longman 1975). Her novels show her interest in history, political conflicts and social injustice.

Writing in Australian Literary Studies, Dr Katherine Bode commented that Wendy is ‘an important and innovative contemporary author’ whose books offer a ‘difference.’ Her books have been enthusiastically reviewed in Australia and overseas and her bibliographical listings include Who’s Who of Australian Writers (Melbourne), Writers Directory (Chicago) and International Who’s Who of Authors and Writers (London).

Hunger Town is published by Wakefield Press, rrp $29.95 rrp $9.95 ebook


Saturday, March 21, 2015

On Enzo Condello

Enzo Condello is a poet/playwright. He migrated to Melbourne, Australia at five years of age. Enzo attended Fitzroy High in Melbourne, Australia and LaTrobe University, studying Literature and philosophy, and he went on to become a teacher. He has had poems published in several literary journals and writes blank verse plays. He has had five productions of several of his dramas and one videoed play, Nero and the Tragedy of Seneca (‘Condello is Shakespearean in stature and scope’ Australian Stage, reviews online) can be viewed on YouTube. Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (‘Condello’s writing is skillful enough to stand with Shakespeare’s'The Age, 4 reviews online) has had three productions and was on the Victorian high schools yr. 12 Literature syllabus and was taught in high school in Missouri, US—it is also currently being studied at a university in Iran. The play will soon be receiving a season off-Broadway, New York City. The Tragedy of Lucrece (‘Condello takes up where Shakespeare left off,’Brenda Addie, Melbourne Uni.  reviews online) was staged in 2013.

Other new productions of his plays forthcoming are Savaronolathe Incorruptible, The Tragedy of Ned Kelly,  King Lear's Greek Holiday, a comedy and other plays. He has also half finished a long mini-epic poem The Wasteland Revisited,Post 1922,  influenced by a  loose combination of  T.S.Eliot’s poem and Dante’s Divine Comedy taking place in the present.

Enzo’s intention is to revive epic poetry and blank verse dramamodern, new and updatedto suit the present, utilizing the power of poetry in world  literature. ‘I am honoured to become acquainted with Condello’s art’Les Murray, poet

Friday, March 20, 2015

On Submitting an Article to Antipodes

In talking with some people who have written articles for our journal, some people who have referred to us, other editors on the listserv of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, and in my own experience as refereed of articles and author of reticules that are refereed, I have become aware that though the experience authors have with Antipodes is mostly typical of that which the academic article-writer generally faces, there are a few peculiarities to this particular journal that might be worth spotlighting. In the following, I speak only of refereed academic articles; not creative nonfiction, book reviews, poetry, and fiction, al of which the journal also publishes and which, other than creative nonfiction, are under editorships distinct from my own.

When an article is submitted through our Automated Submissions Process at Digital Commons (maintained for us by our publisher, Wayne State University Press) that article comes to me directly, not an editorial assistant or managing editor, I immediately diagnose if and see if it is a possibility for us. (We accept only digitized and emailed submissions, none on paper or disk).  For some in obviously good shape, I might go instantly to the referee process, but that is rare. Many I reject outright, without putting them through refereeing. These include articles obviously by undergraduates or high school students; unrevised and unrevisable conference papers; articles with obvious spelling or typographical issues (not ESL issues which our copyediting process is eel suited to handle, and which do not disable an otherwise good paper); and articles that clearly do not understand the nature of the journal, such as historical articles about the Australian bush in the 1930s to the most common, and least desired, sort of submission we get--the account of e. g. Mark Twain’s trips to Australia. Our original subtitle was A North American Journal of Australian Literature, and some were misled by that to think we focused particularly on  Australia-American literary relations. This is an exciting field, and one which has been given new life by Paul Giles' brilliant recent work, but we specialize in this no more than do ALS or JASAL or Southerly or Transnational Literature. Like these other fine journals, what we want is good work about the literature of Australia (and in our case New Zealand and related Pacific areas). Like these journals, you do not have to be Australian or to be an expert on Australia in general to publish with us: you need to write one good article on a subject that is pertinent to the journal's field, which can be e. g.  a writer of Australian birth publishing one science fiction nobel with no Australian content in Brussels, or, as seen in Gillian Dooley's piece of a few years ago with us, the Australian aspects of an international writer such as Iris Murdoch. We are now "a global journal of Australian/NZ literature” with the emphasis on ‘global.’ If an essay gains through the North American and world contexts we offer, so much the better, but we are not really looking for US content in our journal. Many times, I reject this sort of article out of hand, with apologies.

There is an intermediate kind of article, though, in which I see promise but which I think needs serious dressing-up, another coat of paint, before it is ready for refereeing. In this case, I will often engage in extensive commentary on the paper and/or correspondence with its author to help the paper get ready for refereeing. In doing this, though, I always assume the author can or will make the changes; in other words, by engaging with the author to this degree. I have, in my own mind, committed to letting the article go through the referee process, and live or die there.

I strive for two referees on every article. This does not always happen, though, on an author like Patrick White or Christina Stead, with a lot of scholarship on them, this is easy. On an author who is contemporary, with very little scholarship on them, whose texts themselves are not necessarily easy for a potential referee to procure, I hunt long and hard for that one referee, much less two. This is one of the many factors that makes our journal different from a journal covering the age of Chaucer or Romanticism; there is no one person who knows even the basics of the field, because Australian literature is a field that is still  being defined and broadened every time a new novel or poetry book is published. In this case, I expect the one referee to be particularly fair, as the decision will ride on their shoulders. Although our editorial board is distinguished and diverse, very often, given the wide amount of material--not just mainstream fiction, poetry, and drama but crime writing, fantasy, romance fiction, children’s literature, and work which experiments beyond genres or definitions, and so on, contained under the rubric 'Australian literature', I have to find referees outside of our Editorial Board community.

All refereeing is blind; the authors and referees never know who each other are. Given that we receive submissions from many parts of the world--the US, UK, Canada, China, India, Germany, Spain, Slovenia, and  of course, Australia and New Zealand--being refereed in Antipodes might well involved being read by a scholar from another nation than one’s own. This is part of the global reach and interaction our journal offers. Because of this, though, I always caution our referees to look to the subject at hand and do not speculate about the ethnic or racial identity of the author, or their gender, age, or employment status. The process must be clean, with no assumptions made. This is particularly true in the advice tot he author the referees are asked to give. With our automated system, as with most others, there are separate spaces for the referees to comment to the editor and to the author if the referee feels strongly that the essay is by a senior scholar or a beginning grad student (or "postgrad" as they would say Down Under) or an emeritus professor, this is the place to say so. But to make that comment to the author themselves can be really insulting. Whether the assumption are false or true, they can invoke academic hierarchies and global categories of privilege that are perilous. This is particularly true in the case of Australia, a multicultural nation dealing with demographic and generational change. Therefore, this sort of rhetoric is one we wish to strenuously avoid.

If any referee ever says that the writer of the article is refereeing is inferior because they belong to a certain racial, gender, ethnic, age, or national group, we will never use that referee again. We receive funding from the Australian public and we have a mandate form the Australian public's generosity to make sure every variety of Australian experience receives a fair reflection in our journal. In this light, snarky remarks in referee reports that are identity-based (even if they castigate old white men!)  have no place in our milieu. We want our referees to judge the articles against the standards the articles themselves aspire to, not to some standard solely in the referees’ head. We want them to be rigorous--we reject the balance articles that go through the referee process--but consummately fair, and always on the side of seeing potential in the article, publishable or no. It is this process that in our last few articles has produced scholarship by contributors from India and China that is absolutely on a par with those Americans and Australians we have also published. It also has enabled us to cover emerging areas like migrant and refugee writing, indigenous writing and LGBT writing, as well as featuring paradigms such as digital humanities, ecopoetics, the thought of neo-Marxists like Badiou and Rancière, and affect theory.

Many journals have only senior scholars referee papers. This makes sense when the subject is a long-established canonical, field, and which a concentration of seniority can help winnow out the overeager or merely trendy, Our journal, though often receives submissions about living authors still in their prime--Christos Tsiolkas, Randa Abdul-Fattah, Tony Birch, John Kinsella, Ceridwen Dovey, Carrie Tiffany, Eleanor Catton, Tara June Winch, Nam Le. Often these are writers that senior or emeritus scholars have not read or find somewhat baffling. Thus I seek to recruit more early career scholars whose arc of academic progress coincides with the life-trajectories of the authors under scrutiny, This is not always easy, and often junior academics have been told by their deans or chairs that refereeing does not matter, that it is not a credential one can use for tenure. And in fact too much evidence that junior-level faculty have been sending their time refereeing instead of doing work in the three traditionally denied categories of teaching, research, and service (the latter of which is far more often seen in the light of 'service to the institution' than 'service to the field', which would include refereeing). Often, tenure candidates are evaluated on the basis of articles in refereed journals. Of the refereeing is valuable to tenure and proton committees on the level of result, surely it should be as valuable to deans and chairs on the level of performance? In addition, I believe that refereeing is a rare and specialized skill, cognate to but not identical with other academic skills such as teaching or editing. To ask a newly tenured academic to begin to referee papers without ever having done it before is like throwing a newly minted PhD cold into the classroom--disastrous. We must train the referees of the future before we require their wisdom.

I have received several suggestions from fellow editors about how to entice junior academics to undergo just this orientation, and I hope to try out this valuable advice in the future. What we want to avoid is the model, too frequent in academic journals today, where the contributors are all up-and-comers, and their assessors are invariably senior scholars: so that assessment becomes a matter of generational reckoning tout court. Some of our best writing recently has been done by emeritus scholars like John Beston, a man in his eighties, whose articles are inevitably refereed by people far less experienced than them. I am very proud of the age and career diversity of our journal, where graduate students and emeriti, full-time and part-time academics, PhDs working within and outside traditional academia, senior scholars in Australian Studies and those who work in other fields but have one particular Australian interest or jeu d'esprit in their arsenal, sit amicably side by side.
 
Our referees are given two to five months to evaluate the articles, I do not want to rush them, but do want a timely decision. I require our referees to commit to that timeframe when they accept the assignment. This is all the more important due to the fact that, as we only publish twice a year, and we usually have an 18-month backlog, other journals will be better conditioned to bring out articles in a timely manner after acceptance. We can make up for that only by trying to shorten the referee process itself, while entirely retaining its anonymity and rigor and integrity.

Our referees are given four options--accept, make minor revisions, revise and resubmit, or reject. It is the 'revise and resubmit" that is the most problematic, as that can include work which is actually quite near to acceptance, as well as work that will require what in football is termed a Hail Mary pass to be good enough. In these instances, I try to be especially sensitive, in my letter to the author summarizing the referee reports, to give the author an accurate sense of the chances they have and the practicality of doing a large-scale revision. In some cases, an article with real value will just not get through the referee process, either because tow referees say no or because a valorous revise-and-resubmit just is not successful. At this point, even if I like the article, as editor I cannot intervene. What my responsibility is at this point is to assure the author that, though we cannot publish the paper, it may well be right for another journal. In addition. I make clear is is their paper, not them, that is being rejected. In 2002, after i had just tame over the editorship of Antipodes, I made the huge mistake of rejecting an article by a Canadian scholar by just passing along referee comments without cushioning them by my own reassuring words. The author, justifiably, has never submitted anything to us again. But I have learned my lesson.

Once accepted, the article is edited by WSUP's copyediting staff and by our own Associate Editor. It is then emailed to the author as proof in PDF form. The author has one or two weeks to approve changes. Often, in this part of the process, I myself do some more editing. A lot of this is to shorten the pieces down to their required length of 5000-6000 words. Antipodes publishes articles that, in today’s academic environment, are unusually short. We vie publish good old-fashioned notes of 1000-2000 word length--such as done superbly in recent issues by the South African polymath, Rodney Stenning Edgecombe-but even our full-length articles do not go over 6000 words. This principle was established by our nonpareil founding editor, the late Robert Ross, and happily continued under my own editorship. In general, academic articles have become longer with the average humanities article now circa 10000 words. As layers of theory are necessary to articulate; as a longer reception-history accumulates much of which must be cited in literature-review section and notes, and as journals demand a more interdisciplinary and applicable model of article that is not just a close reading of a given text that gets it right,’ the length of the typical article has inevitably expanded. Often, when I wish to give sophomore-level students relevant article sin a classic author, I go deep into the bowels of JSTOR and find an old article written by a musty Old Historicist or New Critic just because that generation of scholars knew how to make helpful points about single texts handily. Todays scholarly articles are winningly, far more multi-dimensional, acknowledging theory, the writer's own subject -position, and the article's role in, as the great scholar E. R. Curtius put it at the end of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 'restating tradition’. But Antipodes cannot accommodate 10000 word articles; our aim is to publish about a diverse set of literatures with articles by a diverse set of writers and in any given issue we want diversity of viewpoint and to divest ourselves of a dominant tone. Thus we seek, in the articles written for us, all the depth and dimensionality of the 10000 word article without the unnecessary detritus of such. The shortened length not only teaches authors concision and discipline, it can leaven any sense of trendiness or faddishness that might be the downside of the inclusivity and openness to new approaches mentioned above.

In particular, we use MLA style and prefer in-text citations and a limited amount of endnotes (never footnotes). If a point is important enough to be there, it should be in the main argument, if not, it is probably not worth making. This is hard to do, and I myself mostly write longer articles of 9000 words or so when I publish in other journals, Though we value engagement with the scholarly record and we want real scholarly articles, not just padded-out conference papers, which are almost automatically rejected--we do not want articles that seem haunted or inhibited by a particular previous scholar. One time I was editing an article just before proof stage, trying to get it from 6700 words downward. I noticed that a particular scholar named, say, Jones seemed to be haunting the article. I deleted all references to Jones other than in the Works Cited, then put in a new footnote, "Among the principal scholars of this matter is Q. M. F. Jones." Jones was duly honored, but our reader was given access to the current writer's arguments unimpeded by a cat-and-mouse game with Jones’s imposing legacy.

No author has, happily, ever objected to this kind of necessary  editorial surgery. But they do catch errors and typos at proof stage, and we are happy to that. We then send the completed and typeset journal to the press, where is it is quickly turned around, Contributors are asked to fill out a copyright and permissions form on which they also indicate their address' this will enable the press to send them their free contributor copy. We have not always been as quick with contributor copies as we would like, as the extra level of editing and quality control our new relationship with WSUP provides has retarded the process a bit however, we mean to speed this up in future issues. Each issue of Antipodes has cover art by a major Australian or New Zealand painter or photographer (recent issues have featured the work of Russell Drysdale, Hu Ming, Margaret Olley, and Dawn Csutoros), and we believe the journal is a treat graphically as well as content-wise; thus having one's own copy of it is something particularly valued by both us and our contributors.

This is the Antipodes process. In many respects it is generic. In others, like all unhappy families, all academic journals have their quirks and peculiarities. The above are ours. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Slap, Social Intimacy, and Transposition

Although the NBC adaptation of the Australian TV version of Christos Tsiolkas's novel The Slap has not, after being on for two weeks, garnered impressive ratings, word of mouth from people I know indicates it is being watched. Even if it turns out to be an overall flop, commercially, this is certainly, by any way of measuring, an event in terms of the visibility of Australian literature on international media: only The Thorn Birds has ever received the equivalent US television treatment, and that was not nearly as highly regarded a novel in the literary sense. But, although The  Slap has received much publicity, it has not been linked to Tsiolkas per se; it is duly noted that the series has been adapted by from 'an Australian novel; or even 'an Australian novel by Christos Tsiolkas," but there has been no new reconsideration in the media of Tsiolkas himself,  and his latest book, Barracudaemphasizing some of the same themes as The Slap, has languished in terms of US reviews and sales. Somehow, if the show in question were an adaptation from a French or Russian author, I doubt this would happen. It is the old mantra, Australia is not really part of world literature, it is too close to be distant, too distant to be relevant....

The Slap might seem easily adapt alb,e simply because it concerns lifestyles and questions of contemporary life which are the same in Australia an the US because both countries inhibit a  twenty-first century world which values money more than it knows it should but struggles with the reality that not everybody with social influence subscribes to that valuation. Yet even as the setting is seamlessly transposed from Melbourne to Brooklyn with no loss of plausibility, one feels a difference, or at least a sense of loss of the Australian original which tears at the self-sufficiency of the US version. his reminds me a bit of Homeland, based on an Israeli series. In each case, I feel the US version not so much suffers but is haunted by the fact that the originals came from smaller societies where everyone knows each other and circles overlap. In Israel, because of the cultural and linguistic proximity of Israeli and Arab, it is easier for a soldier to be turned into an Islamic militant than in the US, In Australia, with its small population and evasive sense elf a navigable social world, it is much more typical for a character risk Anouk to have relationships with so  many of the others, for Harry and Gary to even run into each other despite their characterological differences. new York is such an atomized and fissiparous social world, and it is hard to circle around the same people as they are always, literally and figuratively, moving, This is not true in Australia, however hypermodern it has become. Israel and Australia are also alike in being settler societies whose very identity is today contested, however geographically dissimilar, the actual demographics of the two countries are closer to each other than either is to the US, and in both cases one can occasionally see the suppressed smaller-country reality beneath the lager-country veneer....

I thought several items while watching the first two episode sod The Slap of Christina Steads The Man Who Loved Children, similarly transposed  from Sydney harbor to the Potomac and Chesapeake. Although I understand why Stead's most salient contemporary critics insist nothing was lost and everything was gained by the transposition, that it is a deliberately transnational novel, part of the tremendous sadness of a very sad novel is a sense that the original cultural foundation has become unknown, The Slap is more rancorous than sad, but similarly a haunting sense of an erased cultural foundation generate unease,  friction; I felt this especially in the scene in which harry was arraigned which felt like it was out of a Dick Wolf series, yet beneath it all there was this inedible, insensate Australian tinge....

Interestingly the aspect of the show most  objected to by reviewers and by people on Twitter sing he hashtag #theslap--Victor barber's  narrative overvoie--is a curious reminiscence of the series being adapted from the novel, a sense in which the viewer is reminded of the series; source coning ultimately from literary fiction. I wonder if people find the overvoice irritating not just because it interrupts the narrative flow but because, invisibly, it forces them to take account of this projected novelistic source. I discussed on my personal blog in May 2013 the issue of the Baz Luhrmann verso not The Great Gatsby and the sense that, for all the pop razzle-dazzle of the thing, Luhrmann clearly felt the audience needed to be reminded this was a literary texts, that the origin of what we were seeing was literary--which in immediate terms made the movie more stilted and less accessible.

One of the thematic points of The Slap, in all its media avatars, is that contemporary life is not easy--that choices are difficult, and it is hard to moralize whether in favor of stern versus soft parenting, Nietzschean entrepreneurship versus hippie flaccidity, marriage, sexuality, and other issues which The Slap examines from many angles, refraining, for all its excitement or polemical verve, from endorsing one particular stance. Difficulty is acknowledged where in some ways we least like to see it. One might suggest that issues such as transnational portability and adaptations between media is similarly difficult. We would like to believe the creme rises to the top, that a truly great novel or truly absorbing plot can be true anywhere, that a fine, stimulating,  provocative book can, in the hand sod able writers, directors,  and actors, can be turned into a fine, stimulating, and provocative TV show. That this does not occur seamlessly with respect to the US version of The Slap, for all its merits, might suggest we take a more melancholic view of international success, not expecting it to occur instantly or seamlessly or without loss.

That Melissa George plays Rosie  in both productions, and that Rosie, as the mother of the child who is slapped but as the key parental figure in a narrative essentially about parenthood, is a strange symptom of how autonomous The Slap is as an American project, but that its Australian origins still interpretively tug at it.....


Again, I like the US show, Lisa Cholodenko and on Robin baits have done a superb job adapting it, nothing her dis their 'fault', but negotiating Australian literature's place in the world is just not as easy as we might think and hope....and this is probably more the world;s fault than that of Australian literature.

In any event more of these issues will be discussed in my forthcoming book on contemporary Australian literature, to be released later in 2015 by Sydney University Press and prominently featuring both Stead and Tsiolkas.....

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reports from the Days of the Great Devastation



Karalis, Vrasidas. The Demons of Athens. Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014.


"Call me what you like," begins the narrator, "a deserter, a traitor, a drifter; but I must write down what I saw."

From this dramatic address to the reader until the last line, Karalis pulls us by the shoulders into a conversation that is at times whispered and intimate, and at others one where he positions us as a sounding board as to a man raving; frequently we are cornered and eloquently harangued, while at other times we are guests wandering the dreamscape of a man "breaking away from the topographies of [his] beginning. Without narcissism or hubris:  re-tracking and re-enacting." Karalis is the archetypal “insider-outsider” who does not so much return to make his report, as drag us into the line of fire alongside him.

After the dramatic conversational opening (although conversation seems far too demure a term for the relentless, roller-coaster trip through a Greece devastated under Austerity policies between 2011 and 2013) we land with the narrator at Athens Airport. The customs official comments to Karalis (and ourselves) that "we are all broke" but wears, as is carefully noted by the author, a "Cartier watch and ... thick gold chain around his neck”. The narrative is thus framed with an image that recurs in increasingly monstrous proportions over the expanse of book: that of a belligerent, buffon-esque ruling elite bewailing their poverty and woes whilst existing, parasitically, off the everyday Greek citizen. Of these power-wielding elite Karalis has nothing good to say: "Greek language has a long history; in the medieval period, politicians, the politicals to be precise, was the name given to prostitutes. Actually prostitutes have a story to tell whereas these rejects of life can only destroy stories." (97)

But those stories are the ones Karalis is determined to tell— stories of those ordinary Greek citizens who must forage in dustbins, fight and kill, break laws, take drugs, drown their sorrows and questions in Turkish soap operas, or—and this is perhaps the most disturbing and unhinging for the narrator—even drown their own critical faculties, and with them the ability to act with agency and bring about change, in the notion of Greek history. “Two hundred years of independent life without politics,” Karalis writes, “History has become our own specific strategy for ignoring the present. History is our religion.” That the Greeks are stupefied by their own sense of "specialness" and their upholding of Antiquity—Karalis argues—means they are devouring themselves, and with their identity any last traces of true democracy. The irony of this is something he brings repeatedly to the fore, both in expository sections, and also by way of his personal interactions with priests, bus companions, tour guides, family and old friends; and politicians, such as here in an interview with a powerful right wing politician:

“A man from the conservative party talks to me … ‘We have managed to establish and impose a language without references—a language that distorts all attempts to find the truth, or anything truthful. Ethics and conduct for example are words which can only be used ironically — despite their weight in English or French. In our own language, which has produced them, they can be used only scoffingly and dismissively. We have suspended the valorizing function of language; so Greeks feel free to say whatever they like without ever thinking about consequences. And I can assure you: they are very, very happy with their value-less language! … They are Greeks only if they exist in a repressive society; their personal identity is consolidated through repression. They must define themselves through lies.” (173 -174)
 
Karalis, a student and teacher of Greek cinema for many years, in some ways has written this book in the style of a textual documentary, filled with conventions and motifs of the beloved old films that the narrator finds solace and validation in as he explores Greece. We see it in the way he tries to examine both the banality of existence in Greece as juxtaposed with the more elegiac passages that paint Greek society and culture in broader strokes. Passages such as: "the silent eye [camera] moves with affection and empathy over the shabby and cheap objects of everyday self-definition, the bed, the chairs, the table, the shoes, the clothes, the floor, the wall, the dust, the windows, the dishes, the food-remains. They are sitting next to each other; they whisper, they talk about absence and the significance of being in use." (78) Even his evocations of dialogue come with visual details, bordering on directorial instructions regarding how we might play the scene in our heads: "Horror falls into the roomthe atmosphere become ominous  even the lights feel the stress, flick flick flick ... Are they on strike again?” (79) Here he ties in the visual motif of the film as his literal lens through which to try and make sense of a country imploding; Karalis’ excursions into actual Greek cinemas are not only a form of relief to the chaos and violent social disruption outside (the burning of an iconic cinema, the destruction of computers by radical elements at the University, a bomb attack at a shopping mall, huge Muslim protests) but a way to present and make some sort of sense of the confusion, as in this passage:

"We arrive ten minutes before it starts. No more realism now: we enter the universe of Greek expressionism, as Nikos Koundouros imagined and instituted it back in 1955. The film is the most important testimony to the dark, secret and arcane society, unable to deal with itself, its duplicities, its dissimulations, its insincerities ... The silence of all viewers sets the tone -- and then the black and white magnificence explodes on the screen. Shadows move, shadows talk, angular shapes and pointed sharp objects cut through the anxieties of a society that is struggling to regain balance. ... Mother of course looks around: 'Lovely cinema,' she says. (91)

One of the hallmarks of Karalis' writing is his juxtaposition of intense, introspective passages with a quick, ironic gesture that throws the frame into some sort of humorous relief (is this the Australian side of him showing through? Is this one of the fingerprints of the outsider/insider?), this comment by his mother being a case in point.

The conceit of direct address to the reader feels right for this work—it brings the political and social crisis up close and creates an almost visceral quality to the experience. In his acknowledgements Karalis thanks Professor Stephens for helping take care of “stylistic excesses”, and indeed the writing style seemed to favor heavy, dense sentences and thick syntax. Sometimes this creates an unnecessary opulence, and even at times obscures the meaning, even as it conveys the suffocation and oppression of his time in Greece. "All Greek royals,” for example, “had the distinct propensity for kitsch decors and proletarian exhibitionism. The noble minimalism and luminous linearity of folk architecture never entered their world of asphyxiating baroque pretense ...On their emptiness the unfulfilled convergences of social classes imposed a sense of the manque on the citizens and instituted gratuitous hyperactivity without purpose or destination ... Their absolute insensitivity to aesthetics abolished all ethical valuation of social experience" (153)  Then again there are moments of contained and lyrical description, such as “It was a windy day, and leaves from dried rose petals were flying like lost souls around the cemetery.” (163)

Karalis has written a searing, brave and savage indictment of Greece, a sort of sociological Titanic whose destruction is both terrifying and compelling. He is attuned to the inner struggle he faces as he potrays Greece thus—it is far from an easy task on a deep level, yet one he feels, on reflection, that perhaps has its roots in his childhood. He shares the memory of a school excursion (one of several flashbacks throughout the work) to the Parthenon, the "Sacred Rock"  as he terms it. He notes his own act of sacrilege—his calling out that the emperor has no clothes—as he tells his teacher “this is just a heap of stones … It is an unlivable space,” and recalls the “thunderous slap on my face that threw me to the ground.” (89) At the time he remembers his teacher calling him a “sacrilegious little shit” and in a sense The Demons of Athens is a reprise of that role. He begs a good friend at one point, "’Give me some ideas,’ I implore, ‘to heal me and keep me awake. During these weeks I have plunged into an abysmally foreign country, and cannot find my way out.’ She says: ‘I have no time for your emotional and intellectual entanglements. This country is always your country. It raised you, it created you, it ascribed an identity to you. It even gave you something more important: the strength to negate and denounce it.’” (221)

And denounce it he does, but not without moments of affection and a sense of tragedy that rivals the catharsis of Oedipus Rex—Karalis speaks as one who finally understands, but even with “the saving grace of knowing”, the blood pours from his blinded eyes. 



Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cracking the Spine


Chevalier, Julie, and Bronwyn Mehan (ed). Cracking the Spine: ten short Australian stories and how they were written. Strawberry Hills, NSW, Australia: Spineless Wonders, 2104. 

What does it mean to “crack a spine”? Is it to break the vertebrae, so that the body is paralyzed, or does it mean to forcibly realign the bones so that the nervous system is fully functioning, attuned and awake? All these stories in "Cracking the Spine" seem to contain elements of both definitions: witnessing to stagnation, death and the barren, while at the same time sharpening our imaginations on the edges of these often bleak worlds or characters, and like a cold wind shocking us into widening the aperture of what we see around us.

Spineless Wonders is a small Australian press devoted to the publication of short fiction—short stories, novellas, prose poetry—across a wide variety of genres, and Cracking the Spine is a recent anthology showcasing ten of Australia's most innovative, diverse contemporary authors. What makes this collection particularly exciting is that as an epilogue to each piece, the author has contributed an essay exploring something of their own creative process, and thoughts on the process of writing fiction in general. This “brief” has been interpreted in a variety of ways by the authors, with some of the essays located firmly in the gestation and development of that one particular story, whereas others wander further afield into questions and issues that arise out of process, or questioning the need to even have a specific, clearly articulated process at all. As a writer as well as a reader (and perhaps all readers are actually writers too, of that third story) this was a huge boon, especially as the essays refrained from being didactic, self-congratulatory or too introspective, and instead opened a rich diversity of frames, or viewing places, from which to experience something of the unknowable, endless world of creating form and story from the stuff of experience and imagination.

Australian culture is famously self-deprecating and ironic, and so it seemed with the chosen order of the stories. The opening piece, "An Australian Short Story" was made up entirely of borrowed lines, each one taken from a different Australian published short story from Lawson to Elizabeth Jolley. The story itself was a strong read and crafted carefully, but it was interesting that there appeared to be, in this choice of opening work, both an acknowledgement and a shying away from the spotlight—the announcement of the “best stories” comes in borrowed words, a patchwork, albeit a beautifully designed one. Introductions frame and contextualize what is to come, and this did so by using words from others who had received some sort of stamp of approval—does this imply that Australian fiction feels more comfortable using others' words to create a work? Maybe not literally as in this case, but figuratively referencing the validity of a work by looking outward (either to emulate or to rebel) rather than inward? An extroverted rather than introverted sense of self as artist?  

This was deeply interesting for me, fascinated as I am by the continuing pervasiveness of the concept of the "cultural cringe”; the sense that simply expressing your own experience in your own voice is valid and strong seemed tentatively felt here—but maybe that is my own hyper-sensitivity to the deep-down, feeling of cultural inferiority that haunts the psyche and tradition of Australian artists, with their all-too-common, subtly apologetic treatment of the Australian experience, rather than a wholehearted embracing and sounding forth of it. It struck me as if this choice indicated a sort of stepping aside from oneself, allowing someone else to introduce you so you don't have to do it yourself, loud and unashamed, like perhaps an American stereotypically would.

There seemed to be an exploration across many of the stories with the complexities, problems and possibilities of writing across cultures, but again there seemed more than this: it felt as if authors felt driven to do so, were compelled by the necessity of it—almost as if writing the “other” is some sort of frontier that has to be entered into; different landscapes are there but they are not just for looking at, the highway crosses them so it's a matter of how and when to open the gate and enter, not if—like the gate to the Little Desert in “Nhill” that the couple are compelled to enter in Patrick West’s work. Jennifer Mills mentions this dilemma explicitly in her "bad China/weird China" narrative:

"The storyteller has a cultural responsibility, but to which culture? I think there is a tendency, especially in Australia to use a lot of collective terms—"we" "us"—for what is in fact a specific experience, often of straight white males. Fiction returns that specificity to a human experience—it is always a political act. But I am very conscious of what kind of meaning I am trying to make, whose story I am telling and why. I try to be conscious of my privilege in a way that doesn't result in silence or paralysis."  

We see this also in Giocometti's terrifying piece on the abuse and death of a 6-year-old Aboriginal girl, and again in his essay, in which he shares that “I constantly wrestle with the question of whether I should write from an Indigenous person’s perspective … Can I inhabit a world that is culturally opposite to mine?” He ends his essay with an apology, that pulling back of his literary offer at the same time that he holds it out, with the words “There are many culturally insensitive stories and books in the public domain. I pray I have not contributed another.” 

Tony Birch, himself an Indigenous author, wrestles too, with gentle yet keenly observant treatment, with the struggle of how to write the "other" without othering them, to explore and speak the stories of those whose experiences captivate us, or connect with us in some way, without misrepresenting or appropriating them. He writes in his commentary on “Cartography” that “I thought about the possibility of Tom offering his hand of friendship to Morgan. Initially this approach seemed obvious—the hand of the host offering sanctuary to the outsider. But it troubled me. It was too easy and more than a little patronizing.”

It is interesting that extending a hand of friendship is not a simple gesture for Australian contemporary writers—it is bound up with complexities, a fear of being oppressive, and that there exists here a strong sense of fear of transgressing the boundaries of the politically acceptable. Maybe a gesture of connection initiated by the privileged can never be uncomplicated again in the intellectual climate most writers in Australia are at least aware of, if not writing within. Birch remembers “sleeping on my creative dilemma, unsure of what to do,” before deciding it should be the Sudanese child who is waiting for Tom, in a clear gesture of agency.

I wondered as I read this collection and the authors’ own discussions of their work, whether Aussie writers are particularly sensitive to this dilemma, or was it part of the spirit of the curation of this collection? Each writer seemed captivated by looking into the experiences of others, yet painfully conscious of their privilege and whiteness, or if not of whiteness, of their own privileged position of possessing high levels of social capital; the tone of many of the pieces felt restrained, an offering but at the same time a pulling the hand back in case the offer seemed presumptuous. There was a sense in many of the author's essays that writing is both liberating, but also making you feel uncomfortable, and this political self-consciousness is not something I have come across in authors here in the States, unless they have been authors of color. In terms of the anthology, this careful treading of treacherous waters meant that there was both a refined and careful craft, but I wondered if this also meant that if there was a sort of boldness missing, and thrust that is not there; the stories watch, listen, move quietly around their subjects, as if afraid that somebody might get hurt and then it will be the writer's fault. Not an atmosphere of fear, exactly, but of sensitivity that can also—taken too far—be a form of liberal, creative repression. This tension makes each work feel squeezed out, carefully worked over to an extent that it is planed almost to transparent thinness. Many of these writers write as if no error is allowed, no scent of white colonial attitude, yet deeply believing that this attitude cannot be escaped—so how best to deal with it?

I am not sure if these concerns were serendipity, or a intentionally curated choice by the editors, but it made for an intriguing and challenging view into what it might mean to be a writer, a male writer, a white writer, and a writer who feels there is no other choice BUT to write of “other” cultures.

Without a doubt I would want to use this book in my literature and writing classes—as much for the superlative craft, as for the conversations that the personal essays would spark amongst my American students, for whom issues of skin color, religion and gender are not just thorny but explosive.  The spine, that vital centre of the human body and awareness, has not only been exposed in this collection, but offers itself as something we need to address, in order realign and enable us to reach new nuances of perception into what it means to share our world.