Monday musings on Australian literature: VerityLa

I’ve mentioned the literary blog-cum-journal, VerityLa, a few times before here, partly because one of its founders is local writer, Nigel Featherstone. For those of you who haven’t come across it, however, it is, in its own words, “an on-line, no-way-for-profit, creative arts journal, publishing short fiction and poetry, cultural comment, photomedia, reviews, and interviews.” I have subscribed to it for some years now – it was established in 2010 – and have loved receiving in my email inbox its intriguing mix of content, from contributors both known and unknown to me. (My only complaint was that I wanted it to be like a “traditional” blog that I could comment on, as there were many times that I wanted to respond to the content.)

However, I was thrilled to receive an email last week announcing VeritaLa mark II, a stylish new website for the “journal” that significantly expands (and better organises) its content, including, the email, says, two new publishing streams:

  • Slot Machine (spoken word and performative text) curated by David Stavanger; and
  • Rogue State (bold nonfiction) edited by Kathryn Hummell

Overall, there are 14 streams, covering such areas as emerging indigenous writers, deaf and other disabled writers, travel writing, LGBTQI writers, visual artists, plus interviews and reviews. The full list as well as instructions on how to submit to the journal are available on their Submission Guidelines page. The excitement doesn’t stop with this expanded content, though. In other news on the same page, they announce that, due to financial support from Australia Council for the Arts, they will be paying, this year, $100 for each piece published (except for previously published book extracts). This amount, they say, is a “grand (in literary circles) sum.”

It just goes to show what can be achieved by plugging quietly away, gradually proving that what you are doing has value. That it does indeed have value is evidenced by the site’s being archived by the National Library of Australia’s Pandora, by its being comprehensively listed on the AustLit database (paywalled, though some content can be accessed free-of-charge), and by the archiving of selected pieces at Deakin Research Online.

The hunger

VerityLa Anthology 1, The HungerTo celebrate this new phase in its existence and “to recognise what’s been achieved” the VerityLa team has also produced its first anthology, chosen to reflect the journal’s diversity. Titled The hunger, it’s an eBook and costs only $10. A bargain, so I’ve bought it!

This anthology was edited by novelist and playwright Nigel Featherstone, poet and editor Michele Seminara, and poet and critic Robbie Coburn. It is described as follows:

Hunger is defined as an intense desire or craving. Artists published in Verity La crave a creative purity and truth, forging a place outside of what might be considered fashionable and publishable in the mainstream. The work appearing in this anthology is defined by the journal’s mantra, Be Brave: be hungry for your voice to be heard and to articulate your soul, no matter the cost.

It includes contributions from both well-known writers like Robyn Cadwallader, Leah Kaminsky, Wayne Macauley, Anna Spargo-Ryan, Prime Minister’s Literary Prize winner Melinda Smith. They also include indigenous contributors such as Graham Akhurst, Brenda Saunders and Teena McCarthy the Iranian poet and asylum-seeker Mohammad Ali Maleki, and many more. What the diverse group of contributors in this volume shows is the liveliness of the arts in Australia.

Now, I haven’t read it properly, yet, but dipping into it, I’ve been moved by, for example, Brenda Saunders’ poem, “Taxi!” about the ongoing racism experienced by people with black skins, and entertained by Kristen Roberts’ clever, cheeky piece “Urban alphabet”:

P is for toilets and sometimes behind trees, never for footpaths or front doors, and definitely never for faces. Not cool at all.

Q is for tickets, or the dunny at a good gig (see? Use the  toilets!). Not too sure about those people who sleep out the front of a shop the night before a new phone comes out though. I mean, it’s just a bit of technology that’s gonna be superseded by another one in a few months, yeah? My time is too valuable for that.

(from “Urban alphabet”)

“Be brave”, as the volume’s promotion says, is VerityLa’s mantra. And the pieces I’ve read so far certainly are – in content and/or in form.

So, if you haven’t checked out VerityLa before, now might be the time. You might even consider donating (as little as $5 is appreciated) to help them keep paying contributors, among other costs. Or you could buy The hunger (at the link above). At these prices, you can’t really lose!

Do you read on-line literary journals, and if so, which ones and why?

Telling indigenous Australian stories

This weekend is particularly significant for indigenous Australians. No, let me rephrase that: it’s significant for all Australians because what happens to indigenous Australians marks who we are as a nation. And, right now, who we are is not wonderful.

Anniversaries galore

If you’re Australian, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, the situation is that we have two important anniversaries this weekend. Today, 26th May, is the 20th anniversary of the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report documenting the Stolen Generations. (On 26th May the following year, the first National Sorry Day was held to keep front and centre our poor treatment of indigenous Australians, so next year will be its 20th anniversary). Then tomorrow, 27th May, is the 50th anniversary of a referendum held in Australia to change the Constitution regarding indigenous Australians. The resounding Yes vote (90% overall) ensured that indigenous Australians would from then on “be counted in reckoning the Population”. It also gave the Federal Government the power to pass legislation specifically for indigenous Australians. And, just to add to the significance, next week, on 3 June, will be the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision which recognised native title in Australia.

These anniversaries are, naturally, causing much reflection about what has been achieved since then, and what we (and indigenous Australians in particular) would like to achieve. The truth is that achievement has been woeful. Indigenous Australians’ health, education, incarceration rates – and so on – are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. It’s outrageous – and a subject too big for me here. However, I did want to mark this time, so am going to return to an issue we’ve discussed here before – who tells indigenous Australians’ stories. I’ve chosen this approach because of a serendipitous find in the National Library (NLA) bookshop yesterday.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Courtesy University of Queensland Press*

You see, I’ve been wondering recently what indigenous writer, Wiradjuri-woman, Jeanine Leane is up to. I greatly enjoyed her book, Purple threads (my review), and was impressed by the forthrightness and clarity with which she discussed this issue of telling indigenous Australian stories at an NLA conference back in 2013. She spoke particularly about classics, and she said this (re-quoting from one of my posts):

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville, who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date, is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

Now, here comes the serendipitous bit. I was browsing the Library’s bookshop yesterday while waiting for a meeting and noticed a recent issue (No. 225, Summer 2016) of the lit journal, Overland. I find it hard to resist lit journals so I picked it up and, flicking through the table of contents, saw an article by Jeanine Leane titled “Other people’s stories: When is writing cultural appropriation?”. That was all the excuse I needed to buy the issue.

Settler narratives controlling indigenous stories

In some ways it goes over ground I’ve written on before, but that post discussed an article on the topic by non-indigenous writer, Margaret Merrilees. She argued that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues”. However, Merrilees was approaching the topic more from a practising writer’s point of view, and she made some sense regarding the challenge confronting non-indigenous writers. If they leave indigenous characters out altogether they are continuing the dominant culture’s silencing of indigenous lives but if they include them they risk not getting it right.

Leane explores the issue from a broader political view. She’s concerned that the “Australian” story continues to be in the hands of “settler” writers and that their stories – including, and particularly, those involving indigenous characters, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo and Patrick White’s A fringe of leaves – become “the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism”. Readers see these books as “Aboriginal stories” but they are not, she says.

She unpicks Lionel Shiriver’s controversial dismissal of concerns about “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year. She argues that Shriver’s idea of writers using “empathy” to create characters who are “other” to themselves does not recognise what this “empathy” really involves. For Leane, you don’t get this “empathy” from archival research but from social and cultural immersion. She criticises Australian writers for not having “this level of exposure” and, moreover, for not “striving for it”.

Leane accepts that the books by “settler” writers – like Kate Grenville, et al – have a place in the study of Australian literature but they need to be read and studied side by side with works by indigenous Australian writers, who are now emerging and challenging settler representations. She refers to Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of White’s A fringe of leaves in her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their blogs).

Engagement through literature

Leane ends her essay discussing what she sees is the critical issue – which is not whether non-indigenous authors should include indigenous characters in the their books or how they can do it – but the paucity of indigenous writing being taught in schools. She argues there is a link between the higher attrition of indigenous students in schools and “the lack of Aboriginal voice and representation in the curricula”. And,  further, she asks,

if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?

Very good question – which addresses both Shriver’s ideas re “empathy” and Merrilees’ concern about including indigenous characters.

Leane quotes Canadian scholar Margery Fee who addresses the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. There needs to be a conversation between us, she says – and that conversation, says another Canadian, Judy Iseke-Barnes, can be had through the sharing of literature. Yes! Iseke-Barnes talks of “conversation-through-literature, of cross-cultural engagement through ‘deep and informed readings’ of Indigenous texts”. She sees this as an ongoing process. Leane argues that “this kind of engagement must precede any discussion of how to ‘write’ Indigenous people.”

She then teases out this engagement, clarifying in simple terms exactly what it means, and concludes that without sincerely trying to understand indigenous culture, it is impossible to properly represent indigenous characters. It is, instead, cultural appropriation, it’s “stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice”.

I like that Leane not only presents the problem here – and argues it lucidly – but she has a solution. And it’s a solution that would surely make sense to any reader – which presumably is all of you who read my blog? I’m glad I found – serendipitously – what Leane was up to!

This essay is available online, free, at the Overland site, but if you’d like to support them, you can also buy it at the link.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Two favourite literary journals

I’ve been wanting for some time to write about two of my favourite Australian literary journals (that is, not specifically book review journals). I don’t  read every issue – too much to read, too little time, and all that – but I’d love to. I admire people who manage to subscribe to magazines and journals and read every issue through and through.

Before I talk about the two I’ve chosen I should say that there are others I know I’d love too. I go into bookshops, pick them up, put them down, pick them up again and then realise I just can’t manage any more so I put them down again. For a useful list of  some of Australia’s best literary journals, check out this Australia Council webpage listing the journals* the Council supports.

Anyhow, back to my two current favourites. Both can now be bought in e-versions, including for the Kindle. They can be followed on Twitter and have Facebook pages, and both make some of their content available free online. And, here they are …

Griffith Review

The Griffith Review is a quarterly journal of “new writing and ideas”, and is now 8 years old. It is published by the Griffith University. Unlike most journals, it takes a thematic approach, with each issue being devoted to a theme. For example, the current issue, no. 37, is themed “Small World”, which its website says “broadens the mind with postcards and intelligence from everywhere at a time when the growth of international air travel has shrunk the definition of proximity and the internet has enabled the globalised media industry to bring distant events and places tantalisingly close”. The contributors on this issue include writers I’ve reviewed here: Murray Bail, Melissa Lucashenko and Chris Flynn.

What I love about this journal, besides the overall quality of the writing of course, is the variety of forms it encompasses on a regular basis – Fiction, Poetry, Essays (including photographic essays), Reportage and Memoir. I love that they include memoir as a regular part of the journal. And, in 2009 (at least I think it was then), they commenced an annual fiction edition. These editions contain more short stories than the other issues, and the rest of the content (essays, memoirs, etc) focuses on fiction. Not quite Granta, but perhaps moving in that direction?

Kill Your Darlings

I’m not an expert on the economics of journal publishing, but the Griffith Review does have a pretty major university behind it. Kill Your Darlings (KYD) on the other hand is a much smaller – braver – affair. First published in March 2010, it is now up to issue No. 10 (which, in print, costs $19.95, but at $7.96 from Amazon for the Kindle, it’s a great deal). This current issue has an interview with Aussie writer Andrew McGahan (whom I like but haven’t read since starting this blog) and an article on one of my favourite Aussie writers, Jessica Anderson, so I let my fingers do the walking at Amazon and in seconds I had it on my Kindle. Gotta love this new technology!

Like most literary journal, KYD’s content is diverse, with its regular sections being Commentary, Fiction, Interview, Reviews – and, sometimes, a Cartoon.

Kill Your Darlings is a smaller, somewhat plainer publication than the Griffith Review, but it is gorgeous with a stylish retro look that catches the eye. It’s lovely to hold. Hmm, why did I buy that Kindle version, again?

I’ll conclude on another article in Issue 10, which comes from Gideon Haigh whose discussion on literary reviewing in the first issue I blogged about back in 2010. In Issue 10, he writes on the economics of writing. Early in the article he says:

Here is a disjunction in Australian publishing: the most enthusiastic and imaginative publishers are the ones with no money; caution grows with size.

That seems an appropriate thought to leave you on methinks.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you – Aussie or not – whether you have any favourite literary journals, what they are and why you like them.

* I’m not sure how up to date this list is, but it’s a start if you’d like to check others out.