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Monday musings on Australian literature: Who is publishing THE interesting books?

September 22, 2014

I had another post planned for today, but it can wait, because this morning writer-artist-feminst and out-of-the-box-thinker Sara Dowse made a provocative comment on my review of Australian love stories, which was edited by Cate Kennedy and published by the well-known Inkerman & Blunt. Oops, did I say well-known? Perhaps that was overstating the case. The fact that they are not particularly well-known is, I presume, what prompted Dowse to ask:

are the interesting books being published by small publishers now? I know this is entering dangerous generalisation territory but I think it’s worth discussing, don’t you?

Well, let’s enter this dangerous territory – and let’s not be afraid to generalise a bit. How, though, to approach it? Perhaps we should start with definitions. What do we mean by “the interesting books?” and what is a “small publisher?”

I’ll start with the easier one, “small publishers”. We have, in Australia, an organisation called the Small Press Network or SPN (about whom I wrote a couple of years ago). They define themselves as being “a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers”. They don’t specifically define what this means on their site but they do provide a link to a report they sponsored from Kate Freeth in 2007. Titled “A lovely kind of madness: Small and independent publishing in Australia”, this report aimed to come up with a usable definition. Here is what Freeth presented:

Based on survey data collected, other organisations’ definitions of small press, SPUNC’s [now SPN] current membership and the SPUNC working group’s discussion of how they judge membership applications, potential guidelines for ‘small press’ are independent publishers who:

  • Have published at least one book title or journal issue (in hardcopy)
  • Have an annual turnover of $500 000 or less
  • Have print runs of usually less than 2000
  • Have published more than one author
  • Publish fewer than 10 book titles per year, and
  • Usually do not charge authors fees for production, editing or distribution.

As an outsider, I can’t really assess which publishers that I think are small meet these criteria, but I suggest we be flexible as SPN is. For example, Text Publishing is a member but I’d be surprised if they fully meet these criteria. Most of SPN’s members probably do, though – so I suggest their membership could form the basis of our discussion here.

Now, the trickier question: how do we define “the interesting books”? For me, and I’d guess Sara Dowse, this would mean books that innovate, that take risks and break existing moulds, either in terms of style, form or subject matter, or that are by writers who aren’t from the mainstream culture.

So, let’s look at who’s publishing what? If we look at authors shortlisted for Australia’s best-known literary prizes in recent years, we see a mix of those published by the big publishers like Penguin (Tim Winton and Fiona McFarlane), Random House (Richard Flanagan and Evie Wyld), and Picador (Hannah Kent), and those by small publishers like Giramondo (Alexis Wright), Text (Cory Taylor) and Scribe (Cate Kennedy).

What about smaller prizes? Readings bookshop has created a new award called the Readings New Australian Writing Award. It’s for “an Australian author’s first or second book of fiction, and recognises exciting and exceptional new literary talent”. I’m going to assume that “exciting” implies “interesting” by our definition. The shortlist comprises six books by the following publishers: Giramondo (2), Hachette, Penguin (2, if we included Hamish Hamilton), and Allen & Unwin (a large but independent publisher). Again, there’s a mix.

But prizes aren’t necessarily the arbiter of “interesting” (particularly, if we use my definition above). Nonetheless, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin and must surely be described as interesting with its unique, slippery and exciting evocation of indigenous reality. It was published by small publisher Giramondo. If you look at Giramondo’s website, you will see a catalogue of what they call “innovative new fiction”, including by well-established and well-regarded writers, like novelists Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro. Murnane and Castro are not known for being “easy”, but they are interesting! You will also see novels, poetry and short story collections by newer writers like Maria Takolander (also published by Text), Alice Melike Ülgezer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad.

I could continue in this vein picking out examples of publishers and looking at who publishes whom. My sense from my brief survey and my own reading is that when it comes to novels, larger and smaller publishers are both publishing “interesting” work. I would, though, add the proviso that if you want novels by writers of diverse backgrounds (who are, for example, indigenous, non-Anglo, or LBGT) you are more likely to find them at the smaller publishers. UQP, for example, has published many indigenous writers, Spinifex Press specialises in “controversial” writing, Transit Lounge is expressly interested in “creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres”, and so on.

But, where small publishers particularly stand out, I think, is in “taking risks” with less popular forms – with short stories, novellas and poetry. While the novels I’ve read on this blog come from the gamut of publishers, large and small, the short stories, poetry and novellas I’ve read have been published almost exclusively by small publishers.

I’m not sure that this rather off-the-cuff discussion has gone in the direction that Sara Dowse was thinking, but it does lead to the important question: Does it matter? What are the implications for authors of being published by small publishers? I suspect there’s a complex web of pros and cons, with the balance varying from author to author, publisher to publisher. For readers? I fear that small publishers may not be able to reach as wide a readership as the works (and their authors) deserve. And for our literary culture in general? I’d like to think that variety and diversity in publishing is healthy – but it has to be sustainable (and, dare I say, “fair”). Is it?

Let the discussion begin …

Cate Kennedy (ed), Australian love stories (Review)

September 21, 2014
Cate Kennedy, Australian Love Stories cover

(Courtesy: Inkerman & Blunt)

Four hundred and forty-five stories! She read four hundred and forty-five of them! I’m talking about Cate Kennedy, the editor of Australian love stories. These stories were the response to Inkerman & Blunt’s call for Australian writers “to share their love stories, fictional or true”. Having no experience in these things, I don’t know what they expected, but 445 sounds like a good response to me! The final anthology contains just 29, and they are all, not surprisingly, good reads. This is not to say that I loved them all equally, but certainly none jarred for being ordinary or clichéd. Not only is the writing high quality, but Kennedy’s selection has produced a collection that is diverse in subject matter and style. It wasn’t hard to read four or five in a sitting.

If you’ve read my previous reviews of short story collections, you’d know that I’m always interested in the order of the stories. Well, this anthology has been overtly structured, with “like” stories grouped under headings. Each heading, cutely I suppose but nonetheless effectively, draws from a story within the group. So, for example, the heading “A sweetly alien creature” comes from the second story in its group, Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”. I’m easily amused, I know, but I did look forward to spotting the heading-title as I read each group. There are seven of these groups, each containing four stories, with one exception that had five. In her Introduction, Kennedy, herself an award-winning short story writer, says that “Donna Ward [the publisher] and I arranged the stories into a kind of narrative arc of the way love comes, creates its own disorders, then transforms itself and us [in] the process.” This arc, though, isn’t an obvious one, like, you know, young love, broken love, old love. It’s more fluid than that.

And so, the first story, Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn”, is about an older couple who have been together for a long time. The narrator, the man, clearly still adores his wife, and watches her, caresses her, in the early hours of the morning. While the birds come to life and sing in the day, she sleeps on. He knows her well, knows what he can do, how far he can go, before he will irritate her and break the spell:

So I don’t touch that bone. It would be over. She presses in closer to me and her breasts slide heavily against me and a thigh rises over mine and she squirms again, adjusting, moulding herself to me, fidgeting this limb and that, this foot against that, settling. It is not yet over.

This is an beautifully observed piece. It thrilled and inspired me – and gave me confidence that if the collection started like this, I was going to be in good hands.

What I particularly enjoy about an anthology like this is that it can give me a taste of writers I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (such as Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Lisa Jacobson), or reacquaint me with writers I have read before and enjoyed (such as Irma Gold, Leah Swan, and Carmel Bird), or, perhaps most excitingly, introduce me to writers I don’t know at all (such as  J Anne DeStaic, Sally-Ann Jones and Sharon Kernot). But, here’s the thing. How to write about a collection in which pretty well every story moved me? I don’t want to simply generalise and tell you that they covered the whole gamut of love – from straight to same-sex, from romantic love to parental, from lasting to broken love, from supportive love to betrayal and revenge, from love across nations to love at home – though the anthology does do all these. And I can’t really describe every story in the book. So, I’ll just choose one from each section to give a flavour.

I’ve already mentioned Bruce Pascoe’s “Dawn” so will leave it at that for opening group titled “A sensuous weight”. The second group, “Why cupid is painted blind”, includes stories about love that can be passionate, obsessive, overwhelming. J Anne deStaic’s “Lover like a tree” is a devastating story about a woman in love with a man in love with his drugs (and yes, also with her). DeStaic conveys this two-edged love, his need for the drug as strong as her need for him, with sensitivity and without judgement. It is what it is.

The next four stories, in “Adrift in shards and splattered fruit”, explore same-sex love. They are not the only stories to touch on this issue, which was pleasing to see. Confining them all to one section would have insulted today’s reality. Debi Hamilton’s “The edge of the known world” is about missed opportunities, about the one who loves and the other who doesn’t see it:

Carmelita. Carmelita. There. I like to think her name. If you want to hear a love story I can write you one. If you want a story in which someone breaks someone else’s heart, this is the story for you.

We are warned early in the story, and yet the end still saddens.

From this group we move to “There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret”. These stories are about difficult loves, sometimes past loves. It’s a powerful and varied group, but I’ll choose Sally-Ann Jones’ “Hammer orchid” to represent it. It spans thirty odd years in the lives of a young woman and an indigenous man. It starts “when she was eight and he was sixteen” and ends when they are fifty and fifty-eight. Set in Western Australia, it tells the story of a young girl’s crush and a young man’s recognition of the boundaries that need to be maintained. It gently encompasses issues like the patronising “naming” of indigenous workers (“Bill” is called “Biscuits” by his employers), knowing country, and environmental protest, all tied together by Levis and a silver belt buckle – but, beyond that, my lips are sealed.

“A sweetly alien creature”, as you might guess from this group’s title, explores parental love. Of course, like all love, this doesn’t run smooth. There’s a story about a false pregnancy (Rafael SW’s “Small expectations”), and another in which Lola promises to marry Henry and give him a baby if he’ll let her have a cat (Caroline Petit’s clever “The contract”). There’s Irma Gold’s only-too-believable story about “The little things” that can bring it all asunder, and Natasha Lester’s succinct piece about losing the language of adult love, postpartum (“It used to be his eyes”).  And then there’s Susan Midalia’s “A blast of a poem”, a bittersweet story about what happens when conception doesn’t happen on demand. What then?

I hope I’m not boring you, but we are nearly there! The penultimate group, “Firm as anchors, wet as fishes”, looks at how health issues can challenge or get in the way of love. There’s cancer of course, and I had to laugh at Sharon Kernot’s resourceful wife in “Love and antibiotics” when she tells her husband she has chlamydia. Allison Browning’s “These bones” is, we learn from the biographies, an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress. It’s about Enzo, a gay man with dementia. He’s in a care facility and misses waking up next to Nev. He might have dementia, but he still manages to escape the facility, despite its security-coded doors:

Today is a gardening day, the kind where no gloves are needed because the earth is warm and kind to the skin and the dirt feels soothing on the flesh.

We do meet Nev at the end, and he is as tolerant and loving as Enzo remembers and deserves. I’m intrigued now about the novel.

The last section, “The unbroken trajectory of falling” is – and you’ve probably been waiting for this – about love gone very wrong. There’s adultery of course, and breakups. There’s even a murder. Kennedy clearly decided that there would be no whimpering at the end of her anthology. No, we would go out with a bang. And so, if Pascoe opened the collection with a lyrical evocation of mature love, then Carmel Bird’s “Where the honey meets the air” brings it to a close with a breathless piece that barely stops for a comma, let alone a full-stop. Here, Sugar-Sam, in a stream-of-consciousness featuring word-play galore and “mincing metaphors”, chronicles his relationship with Honey-Hannah. It’s wickedly funny, with allusions high and low, little digs at our modern ways of communicating (“the merrymedia, social and anti-social”), and pointed references to contemporary issues. It is surely not a coincidence that Tasmanian-born Bird’s character marries into a family called Gunn. He describes the family’s taking over their wedding:

when Her Family swept in and tied us up in knots, ribbons, bows and a certain amount of barbed wire, and whirled us up the aisle …

Lurking in the language, behind its breezy tone, are, as you can see here, hints of something else. “I should have warned you”, he says at one point, “about how this narrative will tie itself in the knots of several metaphors and coincidences and things”. It certainly does that. By the end we are left fearing that Sugar-Sam has indeed tied us up in knots. A clever, satisfying, not definitively resolved story. What a way to finish.

All in all, a wonderful read. If you don’t want to take my word for it, do check out reviews by John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Karen Lee Thompson.

awwchallenge2014Cate Kennedy (ed)
Australian love stories
Carlton South: Inkerman & Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9780987540164

(Review copy supplied by Inkerman & Blunt)

Murray Bail, Arthur Boyd, Art and Landscape

September 18, 2014

Last year, I attended the National Library of Australia’s two-day seminar, Writing the Australian Landscape, and wrote three posts about it, here, here and again here! In the first post, I wrote about Murray Bail’s somewhat provocative keynote speech. What I didn’t mention in my post was Bail’s reference to Arthur Boyd’s painting, titled “Interior with Black Rabbit” (which you can see at the National Gallery of Australia: BOYD, Arthur | Interior with black rabbit.)

I was reminded of this reference when I visited the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition prior to the Griffyn Ensemble Concert because, on the label for this artwork was a quote from Murray Bail, which I recognised as being from his address at the seminar. I’d like to share it with you now. Bail introduced the painting, which he showed on a screen (presumably with copyright approval), by telling us that its subject is “the difficulty of being an artist in this new, largely empty place, Australia”. He then described the painting, thus (and this is the quote on the National Gallery’s label):

It shows the dilemma of the painter. It could just as well be the dilemma of the novelist in Australia, or the poet, or somebody composing a piece of music. Perhaps above all the dilemma faced by the painter and the novelist.

The painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture. And here culture is represented by chicken wire. Utilitarian, crude, provisional. And in the darkened room the artist is on his knees, trying to capture something of this, via the rabbit – and the rabbit is an animal that is always out of reach.

This view of the landscape is, of course, the view of a “distant sensibility”. I don’t imagine that the traditional owners of the landscape see it as “glaring, pitiless, empty”. One of the concerns in the audience that day was Bail’s Euro-centric focus. That was fair enough, in a way – he is, after all, like most of us were in that audience, descended from distant sensibilities – but some greater recognition of indigenous sensibilities would have been appropriate. Putting this aside, however, Bail is right about one thing, which is that landscape “is always viewed through culture”. This is particularly evident in Australia, where responses to landscape can vary immensely depending on your origin – indigenous, “settler” or settler ancestry, or recent immigrant. Certainly, landscape is a powerful – and complicated – force in both Bail’s and Boyd’s work.

Hmm ... what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

Hmm … what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

So, how does it play out in their work? For Bail, there is still clearly a tension between his (our) European heritage and this place we are in. Indeed, in the talk I attended he said that

I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys, all of them….. My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness.

He’s right … at least there are elements of this, surprisingly so at times, in the three novels of his I’ve read, Eucalyptus (less so), The pages and The voyage.

I’m not sure how much Bail himself hotfooted it out of here, but Boyd sure did. He lived in London from 1960 to 1971. On his return, he bought a place, Bundanon, in the Shoalhaven region (only a couple of hours from where I live). The Wikipedia article on Boyd suggests that at first he found the landscape “rugged and wild” but that he gradually “befriended the formidable landscape”. In fact, he befriended it so much that, as I wrote in my Griffyn Ensemble post, he donated the property to the Australian people. In Zara Stanhope’s Arthur Boyd: An active witness (Bundanon Trust, 2013) he is quoted:

I want it to be accessible to any Australian whose life can be enriched by the beauty, the history, the landscape, the environment and by the energy and stimulation from social interaction with Australian creative artists.

In the book, Stanhope says that Boyd wrote in a handwritten letter that he want the property to be used as “a base for research by practitioners in music, drama, literature, visual arts and science”. Phew … that answers my question in the caption above! Stanhope also discusses briefly in the book Boyd’s engagement in the natural world, saying that:

From being a compositional vehicle and a carrier of emotions, the landscape came to offer multiple meanings.

Those meanings include spiritual or abstract ones dealing with our relationship with or connections to the environment, metaphorical ones to do with our attitude to the natural world (including his series on animal research), and practical ones about preserving the environment. Boyd did also paint a series – the Bride paintings – expressing his concerns about conditions of indigenous people and the need for reconciliation, but these were earlier in his career after a visit to outback/central Australia.

I have no conclusion to all this – but just wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having, connections I’ve been making. It just reminds me that in Australia at least, we can’t divorce ourselves from considerations of landscape, no matter what Bail said in his talk. Not only is it a presence that demands notice, but it defines our relationships – indigenous-nonindigenous, east-west, national-international, inland-coast, mainland-island – which in turn define our culture, who we are, how we see ourselves. No wonder we keep talking about it, writing about it, painting it, composing about it …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry awards

September 15, 2014

Over recent months, I’ve devoted several Monday Musings to exploring various Australian literary festivals and awards. I was inspired to write this one on poetry awards by two things. The first is that during my recent exploration of Australian literature in the first few decades of the 20th century, and particularly of the 1927 plebiscite conducted of Argus readers in Melbourne in 1927, I became aware that as much if not more of the discussions about the results focused on the poets. It seems – but of course, my research is somewhat serendipitous – that poetry played a greater role in literary (and perhaps ordinary) life then, than it does now. I’d love to hear what others think – or know – about this (in Australia or their other countries).

And then, following close on the heels of my these ponderings, I received an email from Five Islands Press announcing their new poetry award, the Ron Pretty Poetry Prize, and asking me to spread the word through my blog. Now, my problem is that while I’m a big supporter of Australian literature, I don’t see myself as part of a formal publicity machine. I want to maintain some level of independence. However, given my recent thoughts about poetry in Australia and the fact that I haven’t yet written on poetry awards, I decided I could include this prize in a Monday Musings post on these awards. Make sense? I hope so!

The interesting thing about poetry prizes in Australia is that many of them are named for poets – far more so than the other specialised literary awards. I wonder why this is? Like other awards, though, they vary in their establishment and management, some being part of larger awards such as premier’s literary awards, some sponsored by writers’ organisations or festivals, and some by magazines or publishers.

I’m structuring this post a little differently to my other awards posts because they can be logically divided into fairly distinct categories. As always, of course, the list comprises just a selection. Here goes:

Lifetime achievement award

The best-known (and perhaps only) award in this category is the Christopher Brennan Award which is given annually to “a poet who has written work of sustained quality and distinction”. It is administered by the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Victoria), and has been awarded since 1974. The award is a plaque, rather than money. Previous winners include the big names of modern Australian poetry, such as Judith Wright, Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Dorothy Porter and Geoff Page, some of whom I’ve reviewed on this blog.

Awards for poetry in book form

(Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

CJ Dennis, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Some awards are made for individual poems (see below) while others are for poetry collections, or long poems that are published in book form. These awards include:

  • Anne Elder Award for a first book of poetry: established in 1977 and administered by FAW (Vic). The prize is currently $1,000.
  • CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry (part of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards): established in 1985. The prize is currently a cool $25,000.
  • Grace Leven Prize for Poetry for a volume of poetry by an Australian writer or a naturalised Australian of at least 10 years’ residence: established in 1947, so is one of the oldest awards. Its monetary prize is small, but it’s apparently highly regarded by poets and has been won by many of Australia’s best known poets.

Awards for poetry, limited by length

  • Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize for a single poem or “linked suite of poems” of up to 80 lines: established in 1996 and administered by Island Magazine. First prize is currently $2000, with two prizes of $500 able to be awarded at the judges’ discretion.
  • Peter Porter Poetry Prize for a poem of up to 100 lines: established by ABR (Australian Book Review) in 2005, and renamed to honour Peter Porter in 2010. There is a cash prize and publication in the ABR.
  • Ron Pretty Poetry Prize for a single poem of up to 30 lines, not limited by nationality: established in 2014 by Five Islands Press in the name of its founder, the poet Ron Pretty. The inaugural prize will be $5,000. There is an entry fee, and submissions are made online.

Awards for unpublished poetry

  • Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an unpublished manuscript by a Queensland author: established in 2003 by Arts Queensland. The prize is currently $3,000 plus a publishing contract with UQP.
  • Val Vallis Award for an Unpublished Poem for a poem or suite of poems of up to 100 lines by an Australian writer: established around 2000 by Arts Queensland. The first prize is  $1,000, one week at the Writers’ Retreat at Varuna, and publication in Cordite Poetry Review.

And something a little different

Rather different to the above awards, and others of their ilk, is the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. It is a biennial award that is offered alternately to enable an Australian poet to visit Ireland and to facilitate the visit of an Irish poet to Melbourne. Interesting, huh? Established in 1992, it commemorates the life and work of Buckley who was a poet, critic and Professor of English at the University of Melbourne and who loved both Australian and Irish poetry. The prize includes a return airfare, a contribution towards living expenses and an honorary fellowship at the University of Melbourne. The winner in 2002 was Cate Kennedy, well-known for her short stories and, as I’ve discovered, her poetry. She has also won the CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry.

More awards are listed at Wikipedia. It’s not complete either, but it’s a start.

The Griffyns are on fire

September 14, 2014
Stage, pre-show

Preshow setting up

And now for something completely different. If Griffyn Ensemble’s last concert, Do you believe? (my review)kept us on our intellectual toes from go to whoa, their third concert* of 2014, House on Fire, had our toes-a-tapping and feet-a-walking in a program that owed more to folk traditions than classical. Collaborating this time with Canberra pop-duo The Cashews (Alison Procter and Pete Lyons), they presented “a new program of original music” composed by them and The Cashews. The programme was  inspired by Arthur Boyd’s imaginative, surreal exploration of “place and identity” and was performed at the National Gallery of Australia’s Gandel Hall to coincide with the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition. Mr Gums and I made a day of it. We visited the exhibition, had lunch overlooking the gorgeous sculpture garden and lake, and then went to the afternoon concert.

When I describe this program as more folk than classical, though, I don’t mean to suggest it was simple. This is the Griffyns after all, and their intent was serious even if the presentation had a lighter – and yes, probably more musically accessible – touch.

The programme opened with an empty stage and the sounds of birds which became more intense as the Griffyns took up their places on the stage and started playing music that sounded like dawn – like birds congregating around a waterhole, as the sun comes up. This segued immediately to the Cashews who performed a beautiful acknowledgement of traditional owners. It was an inspired change from the usual spoken one. “I’ll begin where you began”, they sang, “with connection to this land … I acknowledge you”, concluding with “and pause to acknowledge all that is yours”*. Truly moving.

Pete Lyons then introduced the program, and acted as emcee for the rest of the concert. This was interesting given that it was a Griffyn Ensemble concert, but it spoke beautifully to the fact that this was a real collaboration. Lyons told us that the concert would explore such ideas as belonging and unbelonging, connectedness and unconnectedness, metamorphosis, space, landscape, and silence. All of these made sense to an Australian audience, particularly when also viewed through the prism of Arthur Boyd’s complex depiction of landscape and intense relationship with the environment.

I’d love to describe the whole programme but that would take too long. Unfortunately there was no printed program so I can’t list the pieces. In fact I don’t really know the names of them all, but there were 11 or 12 interspersed with commentary, some brief interviews with Griffyn musicians, and a little walk on the outside! The program ran for nearly 2 hours without an interval, but I don’t think anyone cared.

“Moving to a discordant beat”

Susan Ellis singing inside "Skyspace"

Susan Ellis singing inside “Skyspace”

I did wonder how well the two sets of performers would meld their very different sounds – one folk-pop and the other contemporary classical. I needn’t have worried. These are all seasoned musicians, flexible in their ability and eclectic in their interests. It was particularly interesting to hear Susan Ellis’ classically trained voice mix with Alison Procter’s lighter one. They had (of course) practised and it worked beautifully, invoking for me the way Arthur Boyd had blended so many competing influences and tensions in his work. In several of the pieces of music, this tension was also conveyed by interspersing lyrical sections with more discordant sounds. Surprising how discordant a harp can sound when it tries – and Laura Tanata certainly tried, to great effect.

I enjoyed Holly Downes’ double bass playing in the last concert, and again in this one. Chris Stone produced some gorgeous mournful tones on his violin. A particularly moving piece was the song that expressed the concert’s theme of House on Fire. It drew on Canberra’s tragic bushfire of 2003 and the fire at Arthur Boyd’s childhood home that destroyed his father and renowned potter Merric Boyd’s kiln. The piece opened with Susan Ellis and Laura Tanata, with the whole ensemble then joining in. It conveyed, in words and music, a sense of “moving to a discordant beat”, but also recognised that there is “strength in adversity”.

The Arthur Boyd “theme” played out in various ways throughout the concert. In another piece, “Metamorphosis”, Susan Ellis, in voice, and Holly Downes’ on double bass, led the ensemble in a piece that explored Boyd’s sense of being “out of kilter”. There was a lovely melancholy in the playing here, too, particularly in the opening double bass.

“Listen … I know exactly what I’m looking at”

Kiri Sollis outside "Skyspace"

Kiri Sollis outside “Skyspace”

As always, Kiri Sollis shone with her flute, but we were entertained to discover in one of the little “impromptu” interviews that this concert was a departure for her. Classically-trained Sollis is used, she said, to practising lots to get what’s on the page in front of her right. However, in this show, she didn’t have much on the page in front of her and had to draw on her improvisational skills. She mentioned the sense of liberation and the terror of “not having stuff on the page”, reminding us again of Boyd and his terrors! She, like Boyd, needn’t have worried.

We were informed at the beginning that there would be silence and a walk. The silence occurred around the halfway mark, and was introduced by Pete who talked of Boyd’s silence about his work. We can understand why, agreeing with Pete’s comment that Boyd’s imagery and metaphors are complex and not easily unravelled. Best, really, for each person to make of it what they will.

The walk occurred a little later in the concert and involved the audience following Susan Ellis (emulating the Pied Piper in voice) out of the Hall, across the lawn and into James Turrell’s “Skyspace”. Once there, we filed inside the cone in small groups and found three Griffyns sitting on the bench humming/chanting into the space. It was peaceful, harmonious – and reminded Mr Gums and me of some moving “art space” experiences in Japan, particularly from the Setouchi International Art Festival.

“Come walk with me”

Following Susan Ellis

Following Susan Ellis

The concert/show/performance (have you noticed that I don’t quite know what to call these events?) concluded on three pieces of music: “Umbilical Link” composed by Michael Sollis, with words by Alison Procter, “Landscape Escape”, and  “Mountain Song”. “Umbilical Link” was inspired by Sollis’ walking around the suburb in which he grew up, and now lives in again. It’s about belonging, and it also connected to Boyd, to the fact that in the last two decades of his life he found a place he loved, Bundanon. In 1993 he gave Bundanon to the people of Australia because “you can’t own a landscape”.

Being Whispering Gums, I loved this line from “Umbilical Link”:

… big trees whispering moments from my histories.

“Landscape Escape”, a new song by the Cashews, referred specifically to Boyd’s finding Bundanon – “an intricate seduction on a canvas so vast”. The show then closed with an older Cashews’ work (I believe), “Mountain Song”, which neatly tied together the various themes that had been put to us – belonging, disconnection and discordance, respect for indigenous ownership, and a nurturing of the spirit. Australians will get the allusion in Lyons’ words, “the great divide is the great unification”. And with that, a few of the Griffyns picked up stones and sticks and playfully duelled with each other, percussively, before all took their well-deserved bows.

* For the second time this year, the programme was preceded by a support act, this time, appropriately, the local folk/folk-rock/hug pop group, Pocket Fox. We heard the last few songs and were impressed.
** I was trying to capture some lyrics as they were sung, so my quotations may not be exact.

Nigel Featherstone, The beach volcano (Review)

September 11, 2014
Courtesy: Blemish Books

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Back in 2010, Featherstone spent a month, on a writer’s retreat, at Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge, Launceston. He writes on his blog that he left Launceston with sketches for three novellas. The beach volcano is the last of these, the other two being Fall on me (my review) and I’m ready now (my review). Before I talk about the novella, though, I must compliment Blemish Books on the production of these three books. They are gorgeous – they have appealing, stylish cover designs; they are a perfect size, fall open easily and have lovely, clear print; and together they look like a set. Well done Blemish, I say.

Now, to the book itself. Featherstone has appeared a few times on this blog, via my reviews of the first two novellas, a guest post in 2012, and a five-part interview that I ran over the summer of 2012-2013 when the magazine it was destined for, Wet Ink, folded. Through all of these, one particular idea or theme has been consistent – and it is, as he formally stated in his guest post, that “family is the guts of the contemporary Australian story”. He mentioned several writers, such as Kate Grenville, Craig Silvey and Gillian Mears, for whom this is clearly true, and then turned to his own work:

My main characters are usually men and women (always a good start!) who have children, who want to be parents, who struggle to cope, who feel the pressure of internal and external expectation, who fail and fall into a heap but pat themselves down and have another crack at it.

And so, Fall on me centres on father and teenage son, Lou and Luke, while I’m ready now is about a fifty-something mother and thirty-year old son. In The beach volcano, we’ve moved on again in age. The father here is 80 years old, and the son 44. I’m not sure whether this age progression drove the order in which the books have been published, but it does have a certain neatness. Luke, the teenager in the first book, is pretty wise for his age but he is still a young man sorting out his identity and his separation from his father. Thirty-year-old Gordon, on the other hand, is confronting turning 30 and, not comfortable with what this implies, embarks on a risky “Year of living ridiculously”. This brings us to 44-year-old Canning (aka successful rock musician Mick Dark) who has returned home for the first time since he was 17 to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. He has come primarily because he wants to discover the “full” truth about a story told to him by his aunt, the estranged sister of his father. I should add here, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that the first two books don’t focus solely on the son, whereas The beach volcano is very definitely Canning’s story.

The thing about Featherstone’s books – at least these three – is that there’s potential in each for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But, Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. In The beach volcano, terrible things involving abuse of boys by men have happened before the novel starts. They resulted in family secrets to do with a false alibi – and who knows what else, we wonder as we read. This is what Canning has come home to discover.

The story is told, first person, through a traditional linear narrative, with flashbacks to fill us in on relevant background. It starts with Canning’s arrival on Friday, late, for the pre-birthday dinner for the immediate family, and continues to the end of the weekend when all has been revealed, to Canning at least, and he is able to make some decisions about where to from here. Throughout the weekend, Canning has one-on-one conversations with different members of his family, his parents, his two older sisters, a brother-in-law, and a nephew. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them! But, Canning wants truthful relationships with his family now:

I’d come to Sydney to tell the truth, but it was important to be selective about the truth, and to have good timing in the telling, to be cautious. Because the truth, I thought, was a disturbance. The truth took things apart and put them back together in a different but better shape. But what exactly was a better shape?

This is the question Canning needs to answer, and is why he bides his time. He needs (and wants) the truth to be a positive force, not a destructive or simply life-sustaining one.

Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative, with lovely descriptions of coastal Sydney and realistic dialogue. Canning’s voice feels genuine, if a little inclined at times to over-explain. The “beach volcano” of the title works on both the literal level as an activity that Canning and his father share, and that he then wants to pass onto to his newly-met nephew, and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. You’ll have to read the book though if you want to know what erupts and how. It is, in its measured way, quite the page-turner.

In a sense, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. Like the original, it is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme – one that Featherstone explores in the three novellas – of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future.

The beach volcano makes a fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set. I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent with his unique but real families and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Nigel Featherstone
The beach volcano
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2014
ISBN: 9780980755695

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature in 1927?

September 8, 2014

Last week’s Monday Musings focused on a plebiscite conducted in 1927 on Australian and New Zealand authors and poets. It was conducted in August as a lead up to September’s Australasian Authors’ Week. I found several articles about this week. Some were primarily descriptive, but a few took the opportunity to comment on the state of Australian literature.

I particularly enjoyed reading the unnamed writer in The Catholic Press. S/he starts:

We hardly know whether the Australian* Authors’ Week, proclaimed by the Booksellers’ Association, to begin to-morrow, is intended as a tribute to the merits of Australian writers, or as a demonstration of remorse, or as merely a gesture, like the Shopkeepers’ ‘Country Week,’ to indicate the stuff that is to be avoided for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Hmmm … this writer continues that it’s not a very original idea, but may divert “the minds of book readers from the notion that Ethel M. Dell, Zane Grey and H.G. Wells are the pillars of the present day literature in the English language and its American offshoot”. I wonder if that “American offshoot” comment is a dig at the language or reflects a prevailing view of the period that they are separate? I’ve never heard of Ethel M. Dell but the Zane Grey comment makes sense. However, I was surprised by H.G. Wells. Maybe his star has risen in the years since 1927?

A young culture

The writer argues against the view that “Australian literature has been an unconscionably long time developing”. S/he suggests that Australia was still a very young country (in terms of white settlement, as we moderns would qualify), at just 14o years old – and that it did not have a significant population for the first half of that period, that is, not until the gold rush of the 1850s. S/he argues that there was little or no American literature for its first 300 years. Hmm … I guess this depends a bit on your definition of “literature”. Later in the article, s/he says that most people narrow the term to “poetry and fiction”, but clearly believes it can encompass more, including history and essays. There was, in any event, political and religious writing in America from its early days but, according to Wikipedia, the first American novels didn’t appear until the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

In Australia, the earliest writings were journals of the early Governors; verses by Judge Barron Field; “the superficial historical work of W.C. Wentworth, an Australian native”; and “dry-as-dust chronicles” by historians. Australia’s bookstalls now, s/he writes, “are flooded with the cheap trash of England and America, which are neither literary nor instructive”.

Literarily … Australian

Adam Lindsay Gordon monument (Courtesy VirtualSteve, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Adam Lindsay Gordon monument (Courtesy VirtualSteve, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

The writer then discusses the plebiscite. S/he states that “it would be too much to expect that such a vote could be considered critical”. “Subconsciously, many honest voters would follow the crowd”, s/he suggests. Very likely, I’d say, given that members of the sponsoring Society had provided their selections in the newspaper at the start of the plebiscite! The writer is not particularly keen on the poet who “won” the plebiscite, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and who, s/he says “had an affection for the ‘gee gees'”. S/he also doesn’t approve of the leader of the prose section, Marcus Clarke, with “his inartistic stuff”, but doesn’t explain this further. Another writer on the week, in The Australasian, reports that Percival Serle**, addressing the Australian Literature Society, said that “the worship of Gordon had done a very great harm to Australian literature”, and that English lecturer F. Sinclaire was similarly critical of Gordon, calling him “pernicious as an influence socially and artistically, besides being in no sense Australian”.

Back now, though, to our Catholic Press writer who argues that “much of Australian literature prior to the so-called ‘Bulletin‘ school has little distinctive character”. S/he suggests that writers like Gordon, Clarke, Rosa Praed, Guy Boothby “may have laid plots in Australia, but failed to get the atmosphere”. I wish s/he’d elaborated a bit more on this, because s/he goes on to name writers s/he sees as “Australian” without defining what s/he means.

Who are they? Well, they include poets Roderic Quinn, Charles Harpur (who wrote “the first genuine Australian verse”), and Henry Kendall. S/he does have a little dig at Kendall’s style – quoting his “notes that unto other lyres belong” – but argues that he is “Australian in sentiment”. Other writers – poets and novelists – s/he names include Rolf Boldrewood, “Banjo” Paterson, Mary Gilmore, Ethel Turner, CJ Dennis, Bernard O’Dowd, Dorothea Mackellar. (F. Sinclaire also names O’Dowd, but adds Furnley Morris***, whom I don’t know at all, and J. Shaw Nielson). As an aside, I can report that all the poets mentioned here – including the maligned Gordon – appear in 100 Australian poems you need to know, published in 2009. It’s not the arbiter of quality, but is a fair indication of the longevity of these writers’ reputations.

S/he then argues that on Henry Lawson’s death, it was argued that “he was the last of the school which began with Gordon”, but s/he believes that “he was the first of the new school, the Hawthorne of Australian literature”. Does s/he mean Nathaniel Hawthorne? I haven’t heard that before.

Overall, s/he is positive about the state of Australian literature. The list, s/he says, “is not unworthy of the first century in a nation, which even now holds less (sic) people than the single cities of London, New York or Paris”. S/he concludes:

If young writers seek characters and episodes in the life around them and avoid imitating the style, decadence and false sentiment of the ‘best sellers’, Lawson, Quinn and Kendall will have worthy successors in a field that still has room for exploration.

The point of all this for me is that while assessments might vary in the particular, most if not all of the writers mentioned in the articles are still known today – some very well, others in more specialist arenas. It reassures me that Australian literature is deepening, as well as broadening.

* Some called it Australasian, some Australian, and others Australian and New Zealand …. Authors’ Week!
** Serle could conceivably be the Catholic Press writer, but I didn’t find any evidence for this.
*** Furnley Maurice, I believe.


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