David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2 (#BookReview)

Book cover

This anthology, like the first The near and the far volume, stems from a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange), an intercultural and intergenerational program which “brings together Australian and Asia-Pacific writers for face-to-face collaborative residencies in Asia and Australia”. The most recent residencies have been in Indonesia (2018), The Philippines (2017) and China (2016). The editors write in their Introduction to this volume that these residencies provide a safe space in which writers come to trust “in a way that is powerful and unusual, that their bumbling work-in-progress and their wild hopes will be met with kindness.” This is probably why, as Maxine Beneba Clarke describes in her Forward, “the writing in this book veritably sings: it is a cacophony of poetry, essay-writing, fiction and nonfiction”.

This volume is structured similarly to the first, starting with the foreword and introduction, and concluding with some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. There is also, in this one, a conversation between the two editors. The works are again organised into three sections, this volume’s being Rites of passage, Connecting flights, and Homeward bound. For some reason, I enjoyed more of the pieces in first and third sections, than the second. There are 27 stories, with a little over half being by women; three are translated. As in the first volume, each piece is followed by a reflection by the author – on the writing process, their goals and/or their experience of WrICE.

To tame words with ideas (Nhã Thuyên)

Now the stories. Given the project, the writers are of course a diverse group, coming from Australia (including two First Nations writers), Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. I knew the Australians – Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alice Pung, Christos Tsiolkas, Ellen Van Neeerven – but most were new to me, which feels embarrassing, really.

I’m not sure I could ascertain a strong theme running through this collection as I did last time, but there is an overall sense of writers trying “to tame words with ideas” (“Utterances, by Nhã Thuyên, tr. by Nguyên-Hoàng Quyên), of trying to find the right words to articulate their ideas across diverse cultural spaces. I like this image of taming words with ideas. It suggests to me many things, including that words are hard to pin down, and that ideas/emotions/passions are hard to communicate in words. It is certainly something that you feel the writers working at in this book, some of them consciously, overtly, sharing their struggles with us.

I particularly liked the first section “Rites of passage”, with its pieces about, essentially, identity, though the subject matter includes issues like aging, coming out, postnatal depression, father-son relationships. Christos Tsiolkas in “Birthdays” writes of a gay man, grieving after the break-up of a longterm relationship, and facing aging alone. Told third-person, but with an immediacy that has you identifying with the narrator’s unhappy restlessness, his questioning of who he is, and where he is going, makes a perfect, accessible first piece for the anthology.

In “Eulogy for a career”, Asian Australian, Andy Butler explores the challenges of identity in white Australia, of finding his place, particularly as a young Asian-looking boy wanting to ballroom dance! He cynically notes that, after years of ostracism, he is suddenly, in this new pro-diverse world, being offered opportunities. “Progressive white people,” he writes, “can’t get enough of us”. But, he knows and we know how fragile this foundation is likely to be. First Nations writer Ellen van Neerven closes out this section with small suite of poems, “Questions of travel”, riffing on Michelle de Kretser’s novel of the same name. “When we travel”, she writes, “we walk with a cultural limp.” Our identities can be fluid or feral or freer – when we travel – but there are no easy answers to living and being.

In the second section, “Connecting flights”, the pieces are loosely linked by explorations of place and self. Mia Wotherspoon’s Iceland-set short story, “The blizzard”, exposes the moral and ethical complexities of contemporary political activism, while Steven Winduo’s “A piece of paradise” crosses continents, with characters from Papua New Guinea, Australia and the US pondering the possibility of intercultural relationships. Han Yujoo’s “Private barking” is one of the pieces that overtly addresses that challenge of taming words. “Sometimes we need a knife to write. (Or teeth)”, says Korean Yujoo, trying to write with her “little English”.

First Nations author, Ali Cobby Eckermann opens the last set with “Homeward bound”, a home-grounded poem set in a cave where self finds home in place, but knows it’s not secure. Else Fitzgerald’s  “Slippage” is a cli-fi short story, in which grief for the environment is paralleled by grief for a lost love. The very next story Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind’s “A long leave of absence” is also about a lost love, this one due to a father’s forbidding the marriage, resulting in the narrator turning to alcohol. For each of these writers, home is fraught.

There are several pieces in this section that I’d love to share, but the one I must is deaf writer Fiona Murphy’s “Scripta Continua”. I must share it because it reiterates much of what Jessica White writes about in Hearing Maud (my review). This five-part piece takes us from the idea of “conversations”, which Murphy often feels like she is “peering into, rather than partaking in”, through the “spaces” (and silences) deaf people frequently inhabit, the fatiguing “attention” so necessary for communication, and the “writing” that helped her start to understand herself better, to “Auslan”, the sign language system that brings new, less fatiguing, ways of conversing and inhabiting space!

The final piece, “Wherever you are” by Joshua Ip, is a real treat. A long poem comprising 28 quatrains, it consistently flashed my memory with phrases and ideas that sounded familiar. Well, of course they did, because, as he explains in his closing reflection, “Each quatrain is a response to each writer’s gift, in sequence”! So 27 pieces, 27 quatrains in response, with a concluding one of his own. How clever, and what respectful fun many of them are. “Words span and spin the globe”, he writes. If you are interested in such words – touching, probing, confronting ones – I recommend this book.

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David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds),
The near and the far: More stories from the Asia-Pacific region, Vol. 2
Melbourne: Scribe, 2019
ISBN: 9781925849264

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds), The near and the far: New stories from the Asia-Pacific region (Review)

David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short, The near and the far

Anthologies, almost by definition, have a unifying theme, something that explains their existence. There are the “best of” type, as in best of a year or of a genre, for example. There are those drawn from a prize, such as The trouble with flying, and other stories (my review) from the Margaret River Short Story competition. And of course there are subject-oriented ones like Rebellious daughters (my review) or Australian love stories (my review). David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short’s anthology, The near and the far, is another type. Its origin is a project called WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) which, the editors tell us, is “a program of reciprocal residences and cultural events focused on writers and writing from Australia and the Asia-Pacific”. The residencies and events occurred in such places as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia. The aim was to enable Asia-Pacific writers to immerse themselves in the face-to-face exchange of ideas and collaborative experiences, in order to build cultural understanding and find, as one participant says, “sustainable ways of speaking amongst ourselves and relating to one another as cultural practitioners”.

The result is that the stories – and even the forms of the pieces – are varied. The book has been thoughtfully presented. There’s a foreword by Alice Pung and an introduction by the editors at the beginning, and some notes on WrICE and a list of contributors with mini-bios at the back. The stories themselves are organised into three groups – The Near, The Far, and The Near and The Far – though I’d probably have to think hard about why certain stories have been allocated their particular group. There are 21 stories, 15 of which, if I’ve counted correctly, are by women. There’s a lovely extra touch, which is that at the end of each story is an author’s reflection – on the writing process, the goals and/or the experience of WrICE. They were often illuminating.

Before we get to the stories – and of course I’m only going to be able to focus on a few – I’d like to share some comments from the foreword and introduction. In her foreword, Pung calls the book a travel anthology, and I suppose it is, in a sense, though I may not have described it that way if I hadn’t read her foreword! She says

The near and the far is one of those rare travel anthologies, combining fiction with poetry and longform essays, each piece revealing a real insider’s experience of inhabiting a different world without exoticising the foreign. Each story has a centre – whether philosophical, moral, or political – and yet none of them are didactic.

The editors talk of how our different colonial experiences had “left long shadows across our imaginations”. They refer particularly to “settler” Australians who live in what was seen as an “outpost” – further than the “Far East” – and yet who still tend to look to Europe and America for our main cultural input. “The far feels near”, they write, “and the near feels far away”. That makes a lot of sense – to me.

You think you know (Omar Musa)

Now the stories. They come from, as you’d expect, a diverse group of writers, from Australia and Vietnam, from the Philippines and America, and from many places in between. Some I knew – like Melissa Lucashenko, Omar Musa, Cate Kennedy, and of course Francesca Rendle-Short – but most were new to me. Many of the pieces explore in some way the idea of what we know and don’t know. They may be about ignoring what we know because it’s too painful, or because we fear the rejection of others. They may be about the disconnect between what we assume and what we find. Or they may simply be about facing something new or unexpected.

I loved that indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko’s story, “Dreamers”, was chosen to start the anthology. Set in rural Australia in 1969, two years after the famous referendum, it’s a beautifully structured and told story about the relationship that develops between indigenous woman and her non-indigenous employers. It’s a story about love, loyalty and tolerance, but manages to quietly reference, without being polemical, social change issues such as environmental protest and the stolen generations.

Not surprisingly, the theme of accepting – welcoming, hopefully – diversity runs through the book. In “My two mothers”, Singaporean Suchen Christine Lim shares a story about a young adopted girl’s shame at having two mothers, her unwillingness to appreciate their love and tender care, and her eventual recognition of what they had given her.

If you have ever read or heard Australian-Malaysian performance poet Omar Musa, you won’t be surprised to hear that diversity underpins his contribution, “You think you know”. In this first-person story he explores “the deeply troubling issues” regarding sexual identity in Malaysia through his narrator’s (presumably himself) friendship with a young Malaysian man met on a bus. It’s a quiet, reflective, wrenching story – quite different from the higher octane wordplay of his performance poetry.

A story using a completely different tone and pace is Chinese-Indonesian, now American writer Xu Xi’s “BG: The significant years”. In a time when scientists and historians argue about dating nomenclature – BCE/CE anyone? – Xu Xi has come up with her own, BG or Before Google! Google (created 19 August 2004, if you want to know) provides for her a significant life marker. In short chronological sections, starting with “BG 43 (circa 1961 to ’62)”, she chronicles her life – in a lightly satirical tone – from applying to go to university in America, to becoming a US citizen, and getting a job and then losing it in the 1986 stock market crash. Her commentary on life in the US is enlightening. Joining the unemployment queue meant, she writes, that “for once I wasn’t a minority, because the minority was the majority in that government office”! Telling eh?

There are many more stories I’d like to share: Laurel Fantauzzo’s second-person-told story, Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, about going back to the place (in her case the Philippines) a parent came from; Francesca Rendle-Short’s “1:25,000” on the geologies of time, on memories, regrets and saying “no”; and Maxine Beneba Clark’s short, painful, 9/11-inspired “Aviation” in which accepting “other” is put to the test.

And then there’s David Carlin’s gender-bending, mind-bending “Unmade in Bangkok”. Inspired by Thailand’s ladyboys, he explores ideas about identity and gender. The story is told in ten sections, mostly in third person but slipping between male and female personas. In section four, “she” considers:

Women make themselves up, men do not. This is curious when she thinks about it. To be a woman, in this culture, is to be a creature dipped in fiction, whereas to be a man is to be altogether real or at least natural, unconstructed.

So she dresses up and considers: “What is she becoming? Ever more fictional? A character in drag?” I enjoyed how Carlin explored gender identity, using broader ideas about “fiction”. “Some fictions trap us”, he writes, “but other fictions free us”. For ladyboys the implications are serious. It’s a complex story which covers a lot of ground. I need to read it again.

I titled this section “you think you know” because in all the stories, the writers are seeking to know, not so life can be assured, or complete, but in the spirit of understanding, of growing. Alvin Pang, in the note to his story “The Illoi of Kantimeral”, discusses the invented language he used:

Their precise meanings may or may not be immediately discernible from context, but neither is the experience of engagement, negotiation, resistance, and mystery within the Asia-Pacific itself as straightforward as we might wish the world to be. There is humility and pleasure in earnest encounter, and in listening out for the inherent humanity of what we do not fully recognise.

Perfect! This is a book which confronts us with many ways of seeing and experiencing. Different stories will appeal to different readers, depending on experiences, but I hope I’ve given you a taste. Books like this deserve a bigger audience than they often get.


David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short (eds),
The near and the far: New stories from the Asia-Pacific region
Melbourne: Scribe, 2016
ISBN: 9781925321562

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Delicious Descriptions from Down Under: Francesca Rendle-Short on writing

In my recent review of Francesca Rendle-Short’s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, I concluded on the suggestion that for Rendle-Short the act of writing, as well as of reading, “changes things”. Today I thought I’d share two excerpts from her novel that confirm this, one from her fictional persona of Glory, and the other from her writing as herself.

First, Glory:

Glory decides writing is a way of thinking: to think, to write, is dangerous. Transgressive. It is no small thing for Glory to tell this story in Glory’s way, to put into words things that until now have been left unspoken, to pin her heart to the page. Writing changes things, changes everything. It’s a risky business. (end Ch. 9)

And then, Francesca:

Looking at photographs is a bit like reading books; they invite acute feeling. You reveal yourself in the most intimate of moments. They elicit desire; illicit desire. Because in my family desire was illicit, like alcohol, like dancing. If you pay enough attention to small things, there is a chance for connection, a chance for transformation and transfiguration to occur. Writing grows skin, grows bones, a new heart. Just watch. D. H. Lawrence knew this. He attests that Lady Chatterley’s lover* was a beautiful book, that it was tender like a naked body. (end Ch. 25)

This is pretty raw stuff … and it tells us a bit about what sort of writer Rendle-Short is, about why she writes, about what literature means to her. It also, by-the-by, gives a good sense of her rhythmic, evocative style. I did like this book.

* Lady Chatterley’s lover was, of course, on her mother’s “burn a book a day” death list.

Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite your tongue (Review)

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

Bite your tongue Bookcover (Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

How much do you think about the first sentence of your review? Like me, you probably try to find some anchor or point of interest to lead off from, but my problem with novelist-journalist Francesca Rendle-Short‘s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, is that I have too many angles to choose from. Which one do I use? Do I go with the unusual form of this fiction-cum-memoir? Do I talk about my old friend synchronicity and how one of my first reviews in 2011 was a (semi)autobiographical novel about an Australian childhood, Barbara Hanrahan‘s The scent of eucalyptus? Or, do I talk about how I’m sure Spinifex Press had no idea how close to my heart this book would be when they offered it for review – how I (more or less) share a late 1950s/early 60s Brisbane childhood with Rendle-Short and how the very word “spinifex” is nostalgic for me due to my mid-1960s years in the mining town of Mount Isa? There, I’ve covered them all … so now I can get on with the review!

This is a mother-daughter story. How many of those have you read? I’ve certainly read a few in the last decade or so, including straight memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) and thinly veiled fictional pieces (such as Kate JenningsSnake). These books can be challenging for daughters to write, particularly when there is significant pain involved. Rendle-Short’s solution is to (mostly) tell from a “fictional” standpoint. She creates names for the family, including MotherJoy for the mother, Glory for herself, Gracie for her nearest and youngest sister, and Onward for her father. The last-name she devises for this family is Solider, which is an anagram of “soldier”. With the father being Onward, and the family being devoutly Christian, the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” must surely have inspired her naming. Rendle-Short writes, in the introduction, about how she chose to tell the story:

Some stories are hard to tell, they bite back. To write this one, I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned; give my story to someone else to tell. My chosen hero is a girl named Glory …

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Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month

Why is this story so hard to tell? Well, Glory’s (Rendle-Short’s) mother was “a morals crusader, an ‘anti-smut’ campaigner. An activist. She was on a mission from God to save the children of Queensland” (from the Prologue). This mission involved banning “lewd” and “pornographic” books (of which 100 are listed at the back of the book in “Dr Joy’s Death List: Burn a Book a Day”). Clearly Rendle-Short (aka Glory), the fifth of six children (all girls in the book, five girls and a boy in reality), had a painful childhood. It’s not that she and her siblings weren’t loved – they clearly were – but it was a hard love, a love based too much on a narrow Christian ideology and too little, it seems, on the needs of children. One of the most painful scenes in the book is when Glory visits her mother in hospital after heart surgery and wants to kiss her but can’t bring herself to do so! Can’t kiss her old mother! That shows more than words ever could the pain in this relationship.

The book pretty well covers the story from Glory’s birth to MotherJoy’s death in her 80s, though it focuses primarily on Glory’s school years. There are 100 chapters in less than 250 pages. Most of these chapters are told third person, from Glory’s point of view. What makes this book particularly interesting form-wise, though, is that 14 chapters are written in first person, memoir-style. That is, Francesca speaks of herself and her mother, Angel, using their real names. In these scattered first person chapters, Francesca writes on her research, on how she pieced together her mother’s story through, for example, research at the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. She also occasionally comments on where the “fact” diverges from the “fiction” such as:

Unlike Glory, I wasn’t in Brisbane when my mother died, I was at home in Canberra where I was living at the time – because there was a scene. There was always a scene with Angel, especially where her children were concerned, the ‘jewels in her crown’, and on her deathbed it was no different. All six children had been at her bedside while she was dying …

And then, without describing exactly what happened, she tells us that, despite all of them having made the effort to get there, including from overseas, “seven days before she took her last breath, all six of us walked out on her. We had to do it …”.

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Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

Now, if you are a reader who likes closure, who wants to know exactly what happened, you are not going to get it in this book, not specifically anyhow, but you will, if you read the clues, know what life was like in that family, at least what it was like for Glory/Francesca. You will know that she loved her mother, and wanted her mother’s approval, but that she had other attitudes and other feelings that were clearly not in accord with her mother’s. We are given enough “scenes” involving her mother (directly or indirectly) to tell us all we need to know. A particularly excruciating example is when Glory is cruelly bullied by her school “peers” (one can’t say  “mates” in the context) because of her mother’s views. (Where her father, an academic in pediatrics and a creationist, stood in all this is unclear. He’s there in the book, but we see little active parenting from him.)

Oh dear, I have so much to say on this book that I could easily turn this post into an essay, so I will finish here. I thoroughly enjoyed this book … on multiple levels. The writing is good, comprising many of the things that appeal to me – wordplay, lovely rhythm, effective imagery (such as the “tongue” motif). The story is easy to follow, despite changes in voice and chronology (as we flip backwards and forwards from childhood to MotherJoy/Angel’s old age). There are universals about love and forgiveness (real and wished for) between parents and children. And, there is love for books (in all their glory!):

Books show us how to love, really love body to body between the pages. Love perhaps where we’ve never loved before. That’s what Glory hopes.

Reading changes things …

… as, I suspect for Rendle-Short, does writing!

Francesa Rendle-Short
Bite your tongue
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781876756963

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press.)

Review to count towards the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge.