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.