Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

Bagging Canberra – often used synonymously for the Federal Government – is almost a national sport, but in recent years anthologies have appeared to counter this with more complex stories about this place. The first two I’ve read – The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold (my review) and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue (my review) – commemorated Canberra’s centenary, but last year saw the publication of the evocatively titled These strange outcrops.

This anthology is the work of two young Canberrans, Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, who founded Cicerone Journal. Established in 2018, it is, they say,

a Canberra-based publication that seeks to encourage an open curiosity about the world in a socio-political climate of disconnection and disenchantment. We aim to publish writing that is exploratory and thoughtful, and new and unusual.

The journal’s fifth edition will be devoted to speculative fiction, and is due soon.

So now, These strange outcrops, which is subtitled, Writing and art from Canberra. It comprises original short stories, poems, and visual art created by established and emerging Canberra writers, and has a specific goal, as the editors write in their Foreword. It “grew out of a desire to question media narratives that portray Australia’s capital city as a place of disconnection and insularity”. They note that with a population of 400,000, Canberra and the surrounding region is “home to far more stories and perspectives than are commonly depicted in the news”. They wanted, they say, to “challenge the prejudices and stereotypes” and “celebrate the varied lives and imaginings of this unique place”.

“blurry at the edges” (Owen Bullock)

They have achieved their goal, and with style. This publication is physically gorgeous, from the cover, with its iconic Canberra bus stop framed by two Canberra floral emblems (the Royal Bluebell and Correa), through its beautiful endpapers comprising a correa blossom pattern, to the care taken with the design of the individual pieces. I can’t imagine any contributor not being thrilled with the look of their contribution.

But, the main point is, of course, the content. It more than lives up to the appearance, by which I mean, the book is not just a pretty face. An important thing with anthologies is the order, and it’s clear that the editors thought carefully about this. They start with the physical Canberra, and its natural environment, which is one of the reasons many of us love this place, and conclude with the experiences of different members of Canberra’s diverse population. In between, are various explorations of a wide range of aspects of life in Canberra, from those common to us all (like Cheryl Polonski’s poem “Wintertime in Canberra” and Penelope Layland’s poem “Showtime”) to some that speak to more specific experiences (like Daniel Ray’s prose piece about that challenging post-Year-12 time, “Queanbeyan: Quinbean: Clear water”). Some contributions are movingly personal, while others are unapologetically political. The end result is an authentic whole, that shows Canberra to be a rich and complex place, a bit “blurry at the edges” but with enough commonality at the core that makes us real, regardless of what outsiders might think.

Now, I did have some favourites, and will share a few of them over the rest of this post. The opening set of poems, “Canberra Haiku” by Owen Bullock beautifully introduces the collection, with its series of little impressions portaying Canberra’s breadth, from flowers peeking through a cracked pavement to a tattooed bus passenger and a permaculture working bee, from magpies and our mountains and lake to heatwaves and “blurry … edges”. The next few pieces explore place, often with an awareness of what was before we came, such as Janne D Graham’s poem “Crace Park” which conveys a sense of wrongness in our “calculated spaces”. A sort of antidote – or comment on this – is Helen Moran’s vibrant painting “Rainbow Serpent sleeping in Lake George”, the Rainbow Serpent being significant to many First Nations Australia peoples. It mesmerises me, because, while looking simple, it evokes complex and conflicting ideas. Set against a dark blue and black background, the bright, cheery serpent also looks ready to pounce. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

Patricia Piccinini, Sky Whale, pic: Nick-D from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the pieces invoke wry humour to make their point, like Fiona McIlroy’s poem “sky whale” which uses the Patricia Piccinini’s Canberra-Centenary-commissioned hot-air balloon “The Skywhale” to reflect on attitudes to public art that challenges perceptions.

Canberra is
to have a whale of a time
in the Centenary
to live it up
to lighten up
kick up our heels
yet a flying
maternal mammal
is just pushing the

The wordplay throughout the poem is delicious.

“come so far, lost so much” (Joo-Inn Chew)

Some of the strongest pieces concern migration and racism. Canberra, like much of Australia, is a multicultural place. We have Ngunnawal and other First Nations people here; we have Australian-born residents who have come from around Australia for work; and we have migrants including refugees. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an annual, vibrant and successful Multicultural Festival, which celebrates this aspect of the region, but several pieces in the anthology convey the sadness and pain that must always come with migration, regardless of its cause. Anita Patel speaks in “What are you cooking?” of the sadness of losing her mother in another part of the world, so that even those weekly phone conversations are no longer possible, while Joo-Inn Chew’s poem “A new arrival at Companion House” talks of the hope contained in the birth of a baby to people who have “come so far, lost so much”.

Others are much darker, speaking to non-acceptance, such as Michelangelo Curtotti’s ironically titled poem “The welcome”. In one of those perfect segues, this poem is followed by Stuart McMillen’s graphic short story, “I used to be a racist”.

As frequently happens when reviewing anthologies, I’ve only cursorily dipped into the treasures contained within. I apologise to all those contributors whom I don’t mention here, but know that you’ve been read and heard. The best thing would be for more to read your work in this thoughtful, considered anthology. It can be purchased from Cicerone (linked above).

Meanwhile, let’s finish on Rafiqah Fattah’s defiant poem, “Generation selfie”, about the 16 to 25 year olds who are too often ignored or passed over:

And now, there is a tremor in the air
We are here

Challenge logo

Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran
These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra
Canberra: Cicerone Journal, 2020
ISBN: 9780646814155

22 thoughts on “Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

  1. I doubt our library will get any of these Sue and what a shame, I’d love to read them. Living in Melba so long ago, I well remember the magpies in Canberra! Each morning I’d walk around Lake Ginninderra, and I remember in Spring one of the gardeners nailed this sign to a tree with the following advice:

    “Warning! Dive bombing magpie.
    Wear a hard hat or carry an umbrella.
    Walk fast.


    I used to chuckle each time I passed it! (Yes I kept walking past, I like to live dangerously).

    • I love these memories Sue. It’s dive-bombing time now, but I haven’t experienced that since my first year in Canberra. However, we have resident magpies in our garden and love them. We don’t feed them, as some do, but they know us as won’t fly away unless we get really close. We potter around the garden and they just hang around, singing away. Such gorgeous creatures. However, some of my cycling friends hate this time of year. Another story in this book, is called Swooper!

  2. I really like the goal of the editors to capture what the media does not. Sometimes, the media is so stuck on the representation of an area that it becomes ingrained in me. For instance, I think about how many movies I’ve seen set in California, especially in Los Angeles, and all the characters, even the background folks, are white. Southern California in particular has LOADS of Hispanic people. My news here in South Bend is also more likely to do a story about a puppy that was saved on the side of the road and now has a home than to get out there and do continuing coverage on the homeless population, or what the Black Coalition is doing, etc. There are social news stories out there to be had, but they’re more likely to grab something insignificant that just happened rather than do investigative journalism. It sounds like your Canberra book got out there and gathered the people.

    • Yes, all very good points Melanie. One of the things I considered saying was that they didn’t detail the “collecting” process the way some anthologists do, but I believe their modus operandi is to call for submissions and I’m sure they were active in doing that through all the networks in town that they could. It certainly looks that way from the list of contributors at the back.

  3. You are lucky, ST: not only do you live in the place you love and identify with, but you seem to’ve found a reef of gold – writings about it that you can be proud of !

    • I am lucky M-R. I fell in love with Canberra, for all sorts of reasons, when I visited it in my teens, And then of course, when I chose librarianship, it was a no-brainer – the National Library was here and that was my first job. Of course it took time to settle in but I never really looked back. The only place I ever remember looking back from was Sydney. It never was me, though I made good friends there.

      • I used to work with a lady at Concord Hospital in Sydney Sue, whose sister had been a librarian at the National Library in Canberra. I wish I could remember her name. I remember she had left the library and moved to Darwin (change of climate!). I wonder if you would have known this woman, I’m going back about 20 years! Her sister Jan was a nurse I worked with.

        And yes, warbling magpies are a joy in the garden! I did love that walk around the lake, If I ever go to Canberra I have to be careful as I automatically take a right turn into Ginninderra Drive and I head towards my old home!

        My brother studied at ANU when the only shops were Civic. The Crawford Building at the campus is named for my uncle! He was VC or was he Chancellor – Sir John Crawford. Terrifyingly brilliant.

        • Oh what a lovely connection to Canberra, sue. Mr Gans came to Canberra in the early 1950s when he was a toddler so he has seen huge changes. He says your uncle was VC, when he was there. I’ve just looked him up in Wikipedia. He was ALSO Chancellor after that. And I note he was born in Hurstville where my father grew up

          I probably didn’t know that person because the NFSA split from the NLA in the 1980s and I went with them. Unless this person had been there a long time?

  4. Strong family connections with Canberra in my family Sue! My brother went to study his PhD at ANU and remembers sitting in Sir John’s office while Sir John rang the Master of Toad Hall and said his nephew needed a room – and of course one miraculously became vacant. David, my brother, reckons some poverty stricken student was probably thrown out to make way for the Chancellor’s nephew! (I think my brother always felt guilty about that!)

    I remember meeting Janet, Sir John’s gifted daughter, at ANU – she later committed suicide which was tragic. She was lovely. Too much pressure on her to achieve academically I think. She was a brilliant scholar.

    His brother Sir James was Emeritus Professor of History at University of Melbourne. Both of them I used to meet at Bexley where my Aunt Lillian – their sister – lived. She was a gifted pianist. They were both formidable men! I never saw my brother in awe of anyone until he met the two of them!

    So yes, lovely family connections with the city you live in Sue!

  5. What I always loved about Canberra was the seasons Sue. Autumn and Spring were glorious and in the winter my home had a view of the snow on the Brindabellas! I was studying at UC at the time.

    I loved the atmosphere of Melbourne more but for scenery Canberra was pretty spectacular.
    I also used to like the merry-go-round in Civic and the Electric Shadows cinema. I don’t know if they’re still there. Manuka was great for eateries!

    • Great memories, though Electric Shadows is gone. I worked there for a year as weekend night manager, between babies when I was working very part-time during the day so I have fond memories of the place.

      I loved my three years in Southern California – great climate – but I did miss autumn in particular. Canberra has great seasons as you say. And I know what you say about Melbourne’s atmosphere but I don’t enjoy its climate.

      BTW these days Kingston is far better for eateries though Manuka is still good.

  6. I had a busy week and missed all your posts. But here I am. When I’m rushed I rely on MM being about a subject I’m familiar with (I know this is not MM). Most of my visits to Canberra were in the 1950s and 60s, though I’ve been since (delivering freight to Queanbeyan doesn’t count), once or twice. Still not a fan. Nor of anthologies. I’m such a grump! I get emails and so on about my own hometown lit mag Westerly but I’ve never made time to read it.

    • Well, you know I’m not going to complain. I’m happy for you to comment whenever you find time.

      As for not being a fan of Canberra, that’s ok. You haven’t lived here so how could you know how great it is’. Therefore, I take no offence!

      I am not necessarily drawn to anthologies, but whenever I read them, I usually find treasures, as I did in this one.

      So, something happened in the Pilbara today? The news has been very quiet on it after an initial piece on a mine being closed due to an “incident”.

      • A worker died at FMG’s Solomon Hub group of mines (north of Karajini and west of Wittenoom) due to “subsidence” I think, which implies they were buried. We’ve had 2 deaths in WA mines in this quarter, compared with 2 per year in the last 2 or 3 years. Milly worked at Solomon for a while so I guess that’s why all this stuck in my mind.

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