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