The Boat, Nam Le, 2008, Penguin - Hamish Hamilton (
Sentences – LiteraryMinded
Responses – Nam Le
The terminal point, point of contemplation.
The idea of terminus is critical to narrative: what (and where) is the point that occasions the narrative? What needs finishing in order for articulation to start? Because a narrative, no matter how it’s structured, is a linear thing – word comes after word comes after word – one at a time – and on the whole we read conventionally, that is, from one side of the word to the other, from one side of the page to the other, from one side of the book to the other. From start to finish.
A dizzying array of cerebral and experiential assumptions are embedded into such a teleological mode of reading. I’m interested in time. Narrative time and time in narrative. I’m interested in the techniques of temporal manipulation; how we – as writers as well as readers – can map the movement of consciousness, and its experience of time, onto the page. What’s that line from “Little Gidding”? – We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.
Stillborns and stagnation.
From the start, physicists have set aside ideas of the existence of other kinds of matter – ether, dark matter – to account for empirical systems of understanding that seemed demonstrable and relatable in other respects. From the start, biologists and chemists have been unable (or unwilling) to steer fully clear of vitalism, the doctrine that posits the existence of some vital principle, some élan vital, that distinguishes ‘life’ from ‘non-life.’ Theologists and philosophers are arguably referring to some version of this principle when they speak of the ‘soul.’ For me – from this vantage – the argument seems persuasive that nothing of real worth comes into being without a determining mystery at its heart.
Per Marilynne Robinson, in a Paris Review interview: “If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.”
Who knows what it is that brings a narrative to life? Who knows what it is that separates something flawless, polished, perfect – but stillborn – from something else that, despite its imperfections, breathes? I’m convinced it’s unknowable, this something. I’m convinced that that’s what makes its manifestation valuable, even primal – and maybe – like ether, or dark energy – even extra-human.
We all know Forster’s exhortation: “Only Connect.” But the rest of it: Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, / And human love will be seen at its height. / Live in fragments no longer. Not passion to passion, nor human to human, love to love – but prose to passion. See previous. What a heroic (if quixotic) idea. Live in fragments no longer. This seems to me particularly apt now, and the word as instrument of ligation – of human love – particularly important. What an idea.
It was E.L. Doctorow who likened writing to driving a car at night – you never see farther than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I was on a plane the other day, flying from Hong Kong to London, when a man opened the port window over the wing (I’d scammed an emergency exit row seat) and woke me up. “The Himalayas,” he announced. And it was incredible – to think that there was a correlation between the mountains out the port-side windows and, to plagiarise a phrase, the mountains of my mind. Such moments – coming smack-bang against real-life referents – are simultaneously epiphanies (“They exist out there – these places housing so many happenings of my inner life!”) and impositions (“How dare these places exist? How dare they crowd out my imaginings of them? And what trumps what?”). Geography in fiction, of course, is almost always interactive with human concerns. Its variations are governed by human discriminations (see, eg, this map, which I like because it both highlights and diminishes our stamp on a basically unchanging surface. (An aside – is it just me or does Australia seem still to be stuck in the mostly dark ages?)). As a result, the proper apprehension of geographical variation in fiction ends up being much more than an exertion of the imagination – it’s nothing less, to my mind, than an epistemological discipline, a constant coming home, as we talked about above, to a different place.
‘Seated at a table in full sun outside the Ferry Building and sipping pineapple juice, Le retraced his unlikely path to a widely heralded early success.’ (San Francisco Chronicle) ‘He lifts a forkful to his mouth. “I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what panna cotta was,” he says, his Australian accent stretching out each vowel like Silly Putty. He tastes. “It’s quite good.”‘ (The New York Times) ‘But his capacity for the self-puncturing insight is frequently on display.’ (The Age) ‘I write because I read’ (You).
I’ll confess to you I didn’t know what Silly Putty was.
The human mechanism. Old man stands up in the bath.
When people talk about what it is we all have in common, they tend quite naturally to focus on anthropological or cultural rather than biological characteristics. See, for example, this list of ‘human universals’ – one of the most interesting and provocative lists ever compiled (by Donald H. Brown, collated by Stephen Pinker). Of course Brown’s interest is primarily anthropological, but I think it still speaks to my point that our greatest commonality is so self-evident it’s often overlooked. Namely: our bodies. No matter where you fit on the materialist spectrum, you can’t refute the proposition that we exist with – within – because of – and not without – our bodies. Thought, character, conditioning, impulse, situation – all these, as human characteristics, are contingent on first-principle physicality – and the perishability it presumes. And it’s precisely that physicality – the machine and not the ghost – or, perhaps more accurately, the machine impelled by its own ghosts – that sites our greatest, most enduring, most relevant mysteries.
Inside other people’s pages.
According to Wikipedia: “Metafiction is a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.” I’ll take it.
‘…pixellated it and everywhere turned it to plastic.’ (Meeting Elise)
Now you point it out, this is probably a clumsy elision of metaphors.
Juan Pablo. Juan Pablo.
John Paul. Funny, I never intended that papal reference but I guess it’s quite at home in the scheme of the story.
Kafka 1920: ‘8 December. Spent Monday, a holiday, in the park, the restaurant, and the Gallerie. Sorrow and joy, guilt and innocence, like two hands indissolubly clasped together; one would have to cut through flesh, blood, and bones to part them.’
That’s a great quote. One of my favourite quotes also comes from Kafka; I’ll try to remember it off the top of my head: “You can stand aloof from the sufferings of the world. That is your right, and it may even express your nature, but perhaps that aloofness is the one suffering you could have avoided.”
I want to talk about David Foster Wallace. I thought he was one of our best. One of our brightest lights. An incomparable mind lashed to a mighty heart. I thought he was unfailingly brave and, to me, of late, that’s become the real yardstick. It’s so sad to read back over some of his stories – everything takes on a pall of anguish and prescience and portent now. To know what we now know – that he was living in hell – renders his work the fruit of almost unbearable generosity. May we make the most of it.
The person sitting next to you on the plane. Waiting for luggage. Smiling at the hotel desk. Sitting in the hotel room. Talking in front of many faces.
Apparently, 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Station in New York every day. I once saw sped-up footage from a camera situated above the main concourse; what was most remarkable was that all these people – many moving at a fast Manhattan clip – fell into an eerie, communal rhythm wherein they barely touched each other. Almost the whole floor was filled with people, yet there was an elegant, evolved choreography at work that, in keeping people from each other, I found a thing of great beauty and sadness.
Not describing bombs.
‘Kids believe in Santa; adults believe in childhood’ (from A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear, Cate Kennedy).
I wish I had my copy of Dark Roots with me – I left it in Australia – it’s full of lines such as these, steeped in humour and wisdom. I’m hanging out to read her novel.
Sarah and Parvin, two parts of one whole?
So much is bundled up, isn’t it, in this idea of ‘one whole’?
Ending with loss.
Explanation: I deliberately chose an unconventional interview method with Nam. One reason is that he has done many wonderful interviews elsewhere (many present on his website) – I wanted to give him a chance to just have fun and be creative in reflecting on his work and writerly self. Another reason is that I think the blogging medium allows for experimentation, originality and flexibility. I instructed Nam to respond to the sentences however he wished. I derived them from The Boat, my reactions to it, and from things I heard Nam speak of at Byron Bay and Melbourne Writers’ Festivals – such as writing, short fiction, and more. He could also choose not to respond, or use links, other’s words, and/or images.
Thanks to everyone who has emailed, messaged, posted things etc. I’m incredibly grateful to get your own personalised remembrances of the mid 90s. Feel free to keep on sending. Did anyone know anyone who was in a band in Australia then? Perhaps MySpace can help me with this. Wiki, YouTube, and eBay have all been great tools thus far – the internet is my friend – immersion in those music film clips again, the magazines, the movies. It’s one reason this novel is set ‘just prior’ to net-explosion. There are more big reasons for the choice of 1996 as year of setting, which some of you have figured out, and most of you haven’t and won’t. But that’s okay, because you’ll read the book.
So here’s the plan:
Research/immerse/remember up until the end of November. Make timelines; create workable plotlines with imagination space but defined peaks and valleys; name and shape the secondary characters (I will name one after the eBay seller who had all the Dolly and Girlfriend mags – Joey). Take notes, form scenes, write down every idea.
Then in December – just write.
Going with some advice from a writer I admire and respect I’m going to trial getting up one hour earlier and writing in the morning. In the quiet, when the dream-fabric has just lifted. I’m excited.
~ I’m also putting together a project with my photographer friend Sudeep Lingamneni involving my ‘consumerism/materialism/technology’ short stories, and photographs he is taking inspired by them. The photographs will be their own little narratives and we think as a book, with these cultural themes, the visual aspect will be quite apt. I’ll blog about it soon and show you some of Sudeep’s amazing work. Click the link here for his site.
Sudeep and I are both in Sketch, a newbie lit journal, too. I’ll post the launch invite next week. We also both made it into Story To… zine. Yes, we’ve been sending to the same places, but by being accepted by these same places it seems like we’re destined to work together. And don’t forget to come to the Page Seventeen launch if you’re around Melbourne next weekend.
Nam Le on here tomorrow!
Other People's Words
Oct 29, 2008
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do. I did the old-style traditional stint as a cadet journalist on a newspaper but most of my life has been spent doing
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
I did the old-style traditional stint as a cadet journalist on a newspaper but most of my life has been spent doing hard news fast as a newswires reporter, correspondent, bureau chief and editor in charge. Tight 350 word news stories. In the mid 1990s I fell into the business side of news and now swim in the online content sea where I’ve been for so long I have sepia-toned wrinkles. In my spare time I write what could be called creative nonfiction but I to me they are stories, long stories.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty.
How do you describe this book when you recommend it to other people?
It’s an epic western novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. There are so many main characters (I count 12) that the narrative should be crowded and it should be hard for the reader to relate but it isn’t. Larry McMurty also breaks rules. On one page I recall he has three different points of views … and it works. Lonesome Dove is a fabulous read from page one. McMurty won the Pulitzer Prize for it and amazingly an excellent television mini series was made. I recall Christopher Skase, the late failed Australian entrepreneur, was involved so in that at least he did something good. Larry writes about the American West and in 2006 also won an Oscar for the best adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. If you saw the telecast, he was the scruffy bloke who gave a speech to the glitterati about the value of books. Fabulous.
How old were you and what was going on in your life when you first read it?
I think it was the late 1980s and I had moved back to Sydney from Adelaide (via Papua New Guinea). Sydney was in the fast lane and excess was in; French champagne; expensive cars; luxury holidays. Lonesome Dove is gritty and has strong values. Sydney was plastic and weak on the value side.
How many times have you read it?
At least twice.
Who wouldn’t you recommend it to?
Can’t think of anyone but I do sometimes find it hard to convince people to read a western. That’s all about Clint Eastwood and spaghetti westerns, isn’t it?
Do you have a crush on one of the characters, or the author? Or do you want to be one of them?
I like the two former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, who start the cattle drive as one last push against the advancing years. They are not perfect but they sure do look after their mates. They represent a cleaner, less complicated, purer existence. You want them to win because that means you have a chance at winning … the right way.
Have you read other books by the author? If yes, what did you think of them? If no, why not?
Yes, I like most of Larry McMurty’s work and much of it has ended up in Hollywood — The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Texasville – but I like best the books with those two Texas Rangers: Dead Man’s Walk; The Streets of Laredo; Comanche Moon. .
What do you love most about it?
This is one book you can lose yourself in, love the characters, that world and leave yours behind.
Think about the feeling it gave, or gives you. What could you most closely relate that to?
Like a lot of westerns, and the detective genre, there’s a clear divide between right and wrong. It’s that simpler life we all crave.
Can you share with us a favourite moment, passage, or line in the book?
The two ageing Texas Rangers stop at a town during the cattle drive and wander into a bar trailing dust. On the wall is a photograph of them as young men, saviours against the threat of Comanche raiders. The bartender, a young bloke who was probably not weaned when these men were heroes, gives them cheek about being dirty and one of the lawmen pistol whips him. If you’ve ever had to stand in a queue for hours to be told by a bureaucrat that you can’t have what you want or if you’ve been treated offhandedly by a bank teller, you know the feeling. The two Texas Rangers also have a touch of the easy style of the Australian digger in the face of danger. They have a quick chat to decide which one of them will track down a gang of bandits to rescue a kidnapped a woman. One of them! I’d take an army.
Do any other books come close? Name a couple if so.
I can’t think of any. I do like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He also writes about the west, mostly a violent west, but The Road is scary on a deeper level. It’s like a long, quiet poem that drags you step by stumble deep into hell. While Lonesome Dove stays with me, comforts me, The Road unsettles, can’t be embraced.
Chris Pash is the author of The Last Whale. LiteraryMinded has six limited edition Last Whale bookplates (to stick in the front of books) to give away signed by the author and real life characters within the book. To enter, pop me an email at literaryminded (at) gmail (dot) com with the subject line being your favourite book. Please put your name in the body of the email.
Coming this FRIDAY – Nam Le interview…
After reading Faces in the Water by Janet Frame about a year ago, I vowed I would read more of her work. The prose was absorbing and raw, and really striking. When I heard that Melbourne publisher WilkinsFarago were bringing out a collection of her poetry I couldn’t wait to dive into it. The poems in The Goose Bath are posthumously collected and arranged by Frame’s niece Pamela Gordon, as well as Denis Harold and Bill Manhire. The poems were literally from an unpublished pile in a ‘goose bath’, which, in Pamela’s words ‘had originally functioned as the base of a small fountain’, but as it required much cleaning and maintenance, the novelty wore off and it became a playbath for Janet’s geese. Later, she took it back to the city with her and it ‘evolved into a convenient receptacle for Janet’s burgeoning pile of poetry manuscripts’, Pamela writes.
Janet Frame only published one collection of poetry in her lifetime. Pamela believes, though, that she was foremost a poet. It was publishers who preferred her prose. But Bill Manhire’s introduction also explores the fact that Frame had doubts about her poetry. She confessed to him at a dinner once that ‘none of them are any good. I can’t keep them on a plane. They don’t end, they fall away.’ But Manhire insisted that it was just this which often gave poems ‘grace’ and ‘authenticity’.
When reading through the collection I found that some of the poems did have a certain awareness of themselves, and of the writing process in general. There are many about language, and I felt that some were ‘working out’ poems during the writing of prose pieces. Or a looking out the window stream-of-consciousness. But they are graceful. But then there are constant surprises – joyous and dark, on nature, people, history, psychology, family, love, nature (particularly birds, trees, flowers), sex, and a variety of landscapes. Some utilise fairy tales or classic narratives, and feature cultural references. Some are from the point of view of an object, such as a piano. The poems are not sharp, but wandering. They are stories of place and of consciousness, projecting. Some took my breath away, others simply made me smile. For fans of Frame’s novels and memoirs this is a whole new insight into the many sides and layers to the writer, not just her aesthetic consciousness, but her process of writing, as well as thoughts on language and influence.
I’ll mention just a few poems that I really enjoyed, but I find with poetry that sometimes it’s difficult to sum up exactly why. The editors choose to open with I Take Into My Arms More Than I Can Bear To Hold, and this was my favourite also. I believe it sums up the writer as an observer who is often floored by a sense of overwhelm to all the (both positive and negative) elements of a life, a consciousness, an environment. It then is a perfect precursor to the collection where individual elements are explored, often with this sense of a heaving significance behind a simple line about a bird, or a colour. Colours are mentioned in surprising ways, as are patterns – ‘I refuse to listen/ to the geometric noises/ of black and white’ (I Do Not Want to Listen), and in Choosing Postcards she mentions a ‘technicolour suicide’. Some poems refer to the hospitals, such as The Room, which those familiar with Frame’s work will recognise. Some poems display an awareness of progress and technology, often in almost surreal or fantastical ways, such as The Underground. There are humorous, playful poems, such as Wrong Number, which is literally about the annoyance of someone calling incorrectly. There are short and long poems, love poems, and some that seem to have grown from a perfect phrase or line. One of these (and that line is the title) is Let a Fox Come By and the Porcupine Night Shine with Starry Icicles. Some are built around an extended metaphor, such as Weekend, where the city rush is likened to an ocean ‘…where the high tide/ of five or six o’clock casts to shore/ the stray drift and wreck of commerce…’ There are poems about death – the influence of the dead, the deaths around the poet, and looking toward her own. There are writerly inadequacies, influences, experiences – one that I really related to was Stung by Ideas, a powerful, metaphoric poem – ‘…and the only comic film/ is old age clouding the eyes/ and a swarm of hiveless bees in the head.’ It makes you wonder which bees didn’t get the chance to break out, when there is so much ground covered in this worthy collection.
Oct 23, 2008
Amy Vought Barker:
Our remix masterclass was great. We did cut ups of Danielle Wood’s How to Domesticate a Pirate. And they were all so artistically done that I’m going to have to scan these cut ups, rather than just type them up. Scott-Patrick Mitchell, who was running ‘The Trickster’s Bible’ – public poetry throughout Newcastle streets – even did our first ‘fold in’.
We encountered the ‘serial pest’ in the festival club on the Saturday night. You know the guy? Peter Hore. He had his own novelty sized mic and at one point stipped off all his clothes. We thought he was ‘part of the act’ (you know, there’s some pretty out there performance stuff that goes on during the festival) at first. Apparently in previous years he has had a pet cat draped over his shoulders but was solo on this particular night. I made the mistake of sitting right next to him trying to get a front row seat for Bel Shenk’s (Artistic Director of Express Media) poetry reading from her new book which was supposed to be launched on the night but has been delayed by her publisher, Wakefield Press. I managed to block the serial pest and his personal commentary out and focus on Bel’s reading. So impressed was I that I was determined to buy the pages she read from and was prepared to pay $5 for them but by the time I approached her someone else had got them for the bargain price of $1.
The famous alcoholic ginger beer was pooh poohed by everyone, apparently it was a different type/manufacturer than previous years. The free champagne was cheap and nasty and left me with a killer hangover on Sunday.
Kieran and I apparently offended quite a few people (being a little bit outspoken and opinionated about various issues including smoking and writing cred)…
But my highlight was the ocean baths at East Newcastle, where just 20 metres away from where we were swimming Kieran and I watched a pod of bottle nose dolphins, including a baby, surfing the waves. It was a magical sight and I felt it was a gift for my novel Omega Park – in the final scene Dingo sees a dolphin out in the surf and I’d tried to research this but just had to make it up while I was in Ireland. Now I’ve felt what it was like to be that close to wild dolphins first hand, and watched the surfers’ reactions. It’s just mesmerising.
And of course the festival just wasn’t the same without Miss LiteraryMinded…
Amy’s book Omega Park was one of my ‘Best Unpublished Books’ earlier in the year. She has since won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and will be published by UQP in 2009.
There was a pretty interesting panel on Saturday arvo, ‘mining the personal’. One of the panellists was pretty impressive at batting away anything the moderator sent their way, such as ‘would you like to say something about your experience…’, replying ‘no not really…’. It was pretty obvious the panellist wasn’t pulling weight, especially with the others being so generous and candid with their experiences and their immediate thoughts.
A classic moment was when the panellist was asked a question about whether they thought all journalists were ruthless individuals wanting to turn a writer’s personal history into pulp for their own ends (as they had suggested). The questioner said ‘I’d like to think not all your experiences with journalists have been so negative and self-serving’ and the panellist’s answer was her question: ‘you’re a journalist aren’t you?’ which everyone thought was hilarious but wasn’t followed with any further comment, that WAS the answer, and pretty disrespectful. Spoke with a few people that night who weren’t that impressed…
Otherwise, I didn’t see any reckless public groping, vomiting etc from festival attendees. There was some drinking in the park, where my dream was fulfilled to at least feel like I was part of an early Silverchair music vid.
The main space had often-conflicting utilities: serving drinks, people chattering away vs stage performances from folks who needed some quiet, who didn’t get it, who started heckling the talkers up the back, who took, generally, no notice. I was one such talker who was trying to extricate himself from a conversation so I could listen, but it’s more about the space being set up in a kind of contradictory way.
Luke is a writer from Melbourne. His short story ‘Guerillas in Your Midst’ is published in the most recent issue of Meanjin.
Some things make more sense at two in the morning, after inhaling half a bottle of tequila and showing your underwear to complete strangers. A wall mounted deer head lip-synching to ‘Rawhide’ is one of these things. Our hotel (okay, it was a motel) had Buck the Talking Stag mounted in the dining room, much to the amusement/disturbance of numerous shickered TINA guests.
And last but certainly not least, Nathan Curnow talks about his ghost poetry session at the festival on his blog.
I would love to meet some of my Vic readers. And I know at least three people on my blogroll will be there if you’ve been enjoying them too! What will we be like without chains and desks? Probably drunk. Come and find out:
Page Seventeen Issue 6 Launch.
Issue 6, another 180 page bumper issue, will be launched by Lee Kofman on Saturday November 8 at the Queen of Tarts cafe, 1710 Burwood Highway, Belgrave from 2.30pm.
This bumper 180 page Issue features work from new writers alongside stories, poetry and haiku from Lee Kofman, Amelia Walker, Earl Livings, Kevin Gillam, John Egan, Nathan Curnow, Derek Motion, Zenda Vecchio, Jennifer Mills, Jules Leigh Koch, Graham Nunn, Anna Ryan-Punch and more.
Copies will be available at the launch for the discounted price of $15 (cash only), after which time they will revert to $19.95. You can also pre-order Issue 6 here.
Never have I felt this burning, scorching, bubbling of my insides so intensely before. I have previously likened the process of idea and inspiration for a story as being like a ‘brew’. The ingredients begin to react together inside your mind and pop and spit until it spills over onto the page as a draft.
But this time… I fear I’m going to explode. I’ll sizzle then burst quickly, leaving a pile of ashes, and perhaps one charred foot, as seems to happen. I was awake at 2am last night writing four pages of notes about this story. I am losing more and more sleep and yet I don’t know when I can write it. I work full-time now, I read on my breaks, I read and draft blog posts in the mornings. I go to the gym in the afternoon (I must have this time away, even if just to let my eyes recover for a bit). I get home and read or write reviews. I have other projects. I see friends and the occasional movie.
But I have to start. I have to get it out of me. It is growing so large that it is a great, searing weight. It is making me excited, anxious, frustrated, frightened, in love in love in love. Somehow I will write it. My last manuscript (which I am still deciding exactly what to do with) I drafted while working, studying, and in a serious relationship. I wrote 1000 words a day. I don’t have the study or boyfriend now, but life is big. Perhaps this time I can make it 500, with a little more time on weekends. There is no way I can’t write it. I will surely become a pile of ashes.
So what I have to do first is solidify this world inside my head. I have to know it intricately before I let it all out. I will start taking notes for midnight relief, but I will also hone and build upon the world. I will write maps of characters, histories, connections, lines, interests. I will write a very basic here to there plot structure. I will think about person and tone. I already know some things – I know the main conflicts. I know some motifs and culturally significant links. I know it is a young adult novel. I know there is more than one main character. I know it is set in a regional Australian town in 1996. I know a lot more – delicious, rounded, frighteningly big things that I don’t want to tell anyone. I want to keep it to myself. Because sometimes that burning, interesting, important story is only that in your head. On the page, the flint is not struck. And that is why I will not tell you specifics until it is done. If it is done. If I want it to go out into the world.
All I know now is that I must start, I must try. I must. I am compelled.
There is one thing you can do to help me, lit-lovers. I want to go back to 1996. I don’t have a time machine, but I want to be a teenager/child in the mid-90s. Tell me where I can get magazines – Girlfriend, Dolly, Smash Hits, TV Hits, music mags, Cleo, Cosmo etc. Tell me what music you listened to in 1994/5/6. Make me a CD! Tell me the little things you remember, keeping in mind that anything you tell me I may regurgitate in fiction. Tell me about TV, movies, food. I will try and pay for any postage on the magazines, or CDs. Comment me here, email me – literaryminded (at) gmail (dot) com, or surprise me – PO Box 6266, St Kilda Rd Central, VIC, 8008.
I will end with one of my favourite parts from Kafka’s diaries, in 1913:
The tremendous world I have inside my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.
Overland is an Australian literary journal that has been around for over fifty years. It claims to be ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’ and is proudly left-leaning. I got my hands on the Spring issue (no. 192) at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and have been devouring the eclectic selection of articles, poetry, stories, and reviews here and there since. That’s one great thing about literary journals – you can pick them up at random and often find something new and unexpected.
Editor Jeff Sparrow provides stimulating, varied material – I found myself argumentative, amused, moved, laughing, floating, jealous, worried, inspired and challenged by the pieces in this issue. Highlights include a personal account of female boxing by Aussie in New York Mischa Merz, called ‘The Sweetest Thing’. Merz draws you into the passionate, sweaty and often friendly world of Brooklyn’s famous Gleason’s gym where there are real, respected female boxers ‘…not boxacisers, not decorative side dishes to the main course, but genuine competitive athletes, more skilled than most Australian male boxers’, she says.
Also in non-fiction is the raw, devastatingly honest account of a miscarriage, ‘Lost’ by Catherine Ryan – an absolutely essential piece that must have been terribly difficult to write, and to write so well.
There is also a stimulating article on the ‘new atheism’ by Ned Curthoys; a look at the communist affiliations of Christina Stead, an oft-ignored or glossed-over aspect of the writer, by Michael Ackland; and a wonderful debate between Peter Craven and Ken Gelder which only added to my confusion about where I stand on classicism/canonical literature versus post-modernism, among others.
The three fiction pieces in this issue are amazingly varied in both subject and tone. It is always exciting to see a new piece of work from one of my favourite writers, and Paddy O’Reilly doesn’t disappoint with the haunting, ultra-short ‘Breaking Up’. Amanda Lohrey explores, in an unassuming tone, a character story within a detailed contemporary fictional world in ‘The Buddha at Blues Point’. My favourite fiction piece, though, was Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Nothing Surprises’, which did actually catch me by surprise. It is, again, quite unassuming in tone, but this lends such simple wonder to the magical aspects of the story – about a Dad who truly can fly. His young son calls him ‘Daddy Bird’ after witnessing it, and this talent lifts him out of the doldrums of being a oft-useless, unemployed husband. The story made me smile hard and I carried it with me for some time.
The poetry also shows variety, with well-known names mixing with newer ones. I found Joanne Burns’ two pieces clever. I am already a fan of Jill Jones and her usual open-eyed observances are present. Both these poets also express a kind of recklessness or rebellion in their subject, while being very readable form-wise. I vowed to read more of Dan Disney after ‘Wandering’ – an intertextual exploration and definitely my favourite poem of the issue. Along with more by him there are poems from Dorothy Porter, Lidija Šimkutë, Maria Freij, and Kim Cheng Boey.
I found the reviews comprehensive, but not necessarily stimulating reading. Something like Nathan Hollier’s overview of recent Australian fiction is something that will become more important over time, as a record, but I still felt room for longer reviews of individual titles would be more effective, such as Zoe Holman’s review ‘Activist Antics’ of Tristan Clark’s Stick This in Your Memory Hole, which was much more readable. I was also glad she agreed with me about the positive, and the sore points of that book!
There are quite a few literary journals out there in the Australian landscape – signs of a healthy culture – but I think Overland has quite a unique place, stimulating discussion about a country, about political, social and literary issues, and with an admirable democratic commitment to representing a wide range of voices.
A ‘responsive’ interview with Nam Le.
And my leg of Tania Hershman’s virtual book tour, as part of Salt Publishing’s new ‘Cyclone’ project.
See, William? Those difficult, long-winded questions in the HSC English exam might actually nourish talent or passion in a writer, and s/he could go on to won one of literature's mo
See, William? Those difficult, long-winded questions in the HSC English exam might actually nourish talent or passion in a writer, and s/he could go on to won one of literature’s most prestigious prizes!
For those of you who have been hiding under a rock or doona today (it’s always a good idea every now and then), you may not have seen the announcement e v e r y w h e r e of The White Tiger by sometimes-Australian, most-often-Indian author Aravind Adiga winning the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Click a letter above to get the prize goss and find out what the book’s about, or check out the WBN story.
So, have any of you read the book? I’d love to hear what you thought. I haven’t I’m afraid. But this extract from the Penguin website definitely makes me want to read on.
Adiga is the second-youngest to ever win the prize (reported as 33, and 34 on some sites), and only the third debut novelist.
And I have to say, I think he’s a bit cute 🙂