‘In the last 250 years, trains and helicopters have arrived, much has been disturbed. The stories of the people in this collection shows how modern technology can not replace the old technology, the old eyes that see country. Culture and learning for Veronica Lulu is a continuance of a long-held custodianship. These views are central here, and through these pages, we can gauge a sense of their worth.’
- Do Writers Deserve to Make a Living? In North America, the formula is simple: Your living derives from your work. So the question becomes how we define work. Does it have to be painful? Does it have to satisfy a social need? Do you have to do it?I share Batuman’s view that literary writing satisfies none of these criteria. Certainly it can be painful; it’s frustrating, dismaying, and, to say the least, ungentle with your self-esteem. But at the same time, there’s a romance to the so-called pain of writing—the existential confrontation with the blank page, the trash-bin full of crumpled paper, the mocking stack of rejection slips—rendering it similar to the savoury burn after hard exercise. The writing life operates at the intersection of pain and pleasure; it’s a permanent workday and permanent holiday. As for social need, I can’t name a literary writer who would put their work on a level with that of doctors or firefighters, or even journalists. The truth is that I need to write more than the world needs my writing….literary writers want to be chosen; we want to be hired, not employed. And so taken together, I find myself of two irreconcilble minds about a literary livelihood. My artistic instinct is that the writing itself should be divorced from financial concerns; but my social instinct recognizes this as impossible, and finally undesirable, when you consider how that necessarily vacates the field to those in positions of privilege. If something unifies the current, starkly different attitudes toward the viability of a literary career, it’s the underlying sense that every writer needs to discover their unique hypocrisy.’
Like so many other well-meaning white people, Professor Garrod’s motives in going to Rwanda are ostensibly good. Having lost the sense of meaning and purpose he once derived from his Ivy League professorship, he decides to go to Africa to ‘make a difference’. The film charts the months of rehearsals and, over time, his altruistic veneer slips. Just under the surface, a mindset that’s essentially that of the early colonialist – namely the missionary – begins to emerge. It wasn’t that long ago that Europeans, filled with religious zeal, flocked to Africa to ‘civilise’ the natives. Professor Garrod has come to do the same.
Suffering from a case of bardolatory so severe that it makes Harold Bloom look like a hypochondriac, Professor Garrod comes to the ‘dark continent’ – so often depicted as a place of violence, war and disease – preaching the Word of his secular god, Shakespeare, in the hope of revealing His true power to the uncultured Rwandans. All they have to do is acknowledge his superiority and follow his direction.
He doesn’t seem to think twice about the complicated morality of putting on such a production and the documentary, in framing it as his story, isn’t reflective about it enough, either. Instead, there are long interviews with him about his career and his love of Shakespeare. We see Garrod packing and, just before setting off, wrestling with a ludicrously large fold-out map of the world only to reveal that – shock horror! – Rwanda is a tiny land-locked country in the middle of Africa. Once there, he remains the film’s protagonist: his hopes, concerns and sacrifices (all of which, it should be said, are genuine) are given centre stage. This is an odd decision given the stories of suffering and survival that every Rwandan in the production has.
- Is Hegel dead?‘The events of 2016 should have us reaching back into the past for answers. To find out how both the Left and the mainstream Right got history so unfathomably wrong, we should delve into previous conceptions of historical progress. Attempts to create a philosophical teleology, present in Jewish and Christian religious narratives, became secularised from the Renaissance onwards. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel was one of the first thinkers to create a coherent narrative of historical progress, particularly in his collected Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Many people’s familiarity with Hegel will come from Francis Fukuyama’s much-derided 1989 essay ‘The End of History’ and his subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama, sometimes unfairly characterised as ‘pop-Hegel’, saw liberal democracy as the teleological end point of history. Hegel and Fukuyama’s readings of historical progress can be distinguished from the economic determinism of Marx (himself best conceptualised as a Left-Hegelian) and the English liberal tradition of Hobbes and Locke. For both Hegel and Fukuyama, it was the non-material ‘spirit’ of the age, embodied in the ‘sphere of consciousness’, that determined the progress of history. Hegel believed that ideas were an important independent variable and that the spirit of the age was contained in the ‘struggle for recognition’, or a universal human desire to dignity and self-worth…How then can we salvage history? Karl Löwith, in his 1948 book Meaning in History, proposed a link between teleological interpretations of history and Judeo-Christian determinism, which he called ‘political theology’. Löwith argued that all directional histories lacked coherence and that we should instead return to a cyclical, Greco-Roman conception of historical progress. For Löwith, directional histories were a form of ‘false consciousness’ that simply rephrased religious narratives about the progress of history. The events of 2016 can only lead to a new era of cynicism about directional history and historical triumphalism. On the surface, a return to a Greco-Roman conception of time, and a presumed return to periods of catastrophe and struggle is a grim prospect. However, there is a progressive argument to be made for such an approach. Clearly, historical teleology has failed both the Left and the mainstream Right. As far as history goes, we need to accept that we will never be out of the woods. Envisioning disaster in the future and abandoning historical triumphalism means that we will be better equipped to respond to the challenges that history will inevitably pose. Löwith, and his conception of progress as a false consciousness driven by little more faith, or ‘eschatology’s bastard’ in his words, is a thinker for our time. Why is it important to correct the deterministic, Hegelian-Fukuyamean conception of history in order to better fit our troubled times? Because it’s 2017.
- Good Asian, Bad Asian: Wrapping Your Head Around The Contradictions Of Vietnamese Australia by Stephen Pham
I see their choices to write as a means of displaying a female experience, and – with a straightforwardness and sharp intentionality at every step – reject the matter of females as reflected objects. Instead, they assert their self-reflected subjecthood. In continuing a dialogue with certain rebellious experiences of writers in the past, their works have grown up with a strong awareness of protest against oppressive societal structures. They toil to reimagine womanhood in order to create a visible presence of femininity, as well as elicit hope for a community of Vietnamese female writers. At the very least, that is one story in recent Vietnamese literature that can and should be stirred.
To knock on the door of small private homes of female poets or to press an ear to their deserted walls, is, at times, to touch the happiness of solitude’s freedom, a solitude so assertive that no one can penetrate it. Sometimes I knock on a door only to hear the echo of my own vague knocking, sometimes I press my ear to a wall only to feel the breath of deserted moss. Other times I hear a scream, a strange shrieking, a shattering, a wall cracking, a rock dropped, a sob, a wail, a whimper, an arrogant laugh, a hopeless scattering of oneself down into the depths of an imaginary chasm … and whenever my ear is struck by words of explanation, analysis or emphatic declaration and condemnation, I can still feel emotion and imagination prickling the skin of female bodies. My body naturally trembles. For these reasons, and within this essay, I choose to use the provisional label of ‘female poetry’ and observe the (self)-reflected image of female poets’ most private aspect closest to ‘the feminine’: narratives of the body.
‘Recently, my sister asked me, “How come I know more about being a straight white man than I know about myself?” It was a rhetorical question highlighting the pervasive narrative that white men are centre-stage and the rest of us are their co-stars and sidekicks. I believe if representation were based on population percentages, talent, appeal or vision, we’d see a whole lot more colour in the industry…People like to talk about racism in the arts as if it is a topic to be debated. I find that debilitating. Diversity is not about “pushing it further” with a token inclusion, or about ticking the right boxes, it is about creating the space for people to tell their stories, their own way, with people who understand where they are coming from – wherever that may be. Anything else is continuing the long history of this country’s erasure of people of colour.’
‘It is an open secret in the CanLit community that powerful men, and also some women, in the literary arts scene do sexually violent—or at least, compromising—things, particularly in regard to younger, vulnerable writers. This is true of any tightly knit community I have ever been a part of, from artistic to literary to queer communities.
To be honest, I was at first surprised about the amount of publicly vented outrage that the Galloway affair generated, not because outrage is uncalled for, but because I was under the impression that this was a norm, a cruel rite of passage in the places we call home.’
Owning a brown body is an inherently political act, and those who are most visibly ‘different’ – women in hijabs, bearded men – face the greatest threat. Racial profiling is predicated on the idea of the ‘ethnic monolith’, where migrants are stripped of their individuality and tainted by the presumption of guilt by association. The Nigerian writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said: ‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’
Typecast as a terrorist by Riz Ahmed
Yiyun Li’s brave look at depression and the consoling power of literature
There is a lot of loss in this book, most notably the loss of one’s life by one’s own hands. How does one come to terms with a strong urge to commit suicide? How does one make sense of this urge when outwardly one is “an example of the American dream come true?” How does a writer partake in a genuine conversation with a world that loves the sight and sound of success stories — the splendor without the abyss beneath?
…Her immigrant-made-good story is the kind we’re desperate to applaud. Don’t, she says — this transformation from new arrival to success story is “as superficial and deceitful as an ad placed on the back of a bus.”
It’s a journey she barely focuses on (who cares how she did it?) in her memoir, which she wrote during a two-year period when she was in and out of hospitals for the treatment of suicidal depression.
Those who know little about depression can be quick to dismiss it as an indulgence (“why can’t you be happy?”) and many think of it as a passing sadness. But for Li, it is a profound desolation: “All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing.”
..Being an acclaimed Chinese-born novelist writing in English, Li has to field questions on why she does what she does the way she does it. Nabokov provides her with an ideal answer for the endless “what it meant to renounce my mother tongue” inquiries, and when she’s asked at one of her readings why her writing isn’t political enough, she asserts that her “refusal to be defined by the will of others is my one and only political statement.”
There’s an assumption that the resources required to keep the flame burning can be replenished simply by having enough time away from the ‘work’ environment. Yet in many ways the idea of work-life balance can seem redundant when your job is intimately connected to your passion. How do you draw the line between work and leisure when the two are essentially halves of the same whole – when, in your most fortunate moments at least, your leisure activities are merely an extension of your paid employment? If I read a book, attend a writers’ festival, or spend the weekend at a writing workshop, am I working?
…the impact of burnout is not merely physical exhaustion, but rather psychological distress caused by increased disengagement with and apathy towards that which one previously held dear. Framed this way, it’s easy to see the crippling effect of burnout on creative professionals, whose engagement with their work forms the cornerstone of their identity. Having heeded the call to ‘do what you love’, and sacrificed many of the traditional rewards of labour – accumulation of capital, career progression, financial security – in pursuit of their passion, they then find themselves not only in a state of physical and mental exhaustion, but facing increasing indifference towards the very thing they previously valued most.’
‘Continental boundaries, Greenwich Mean Time, the International Date Line, and the categorisation of all knowledges, languages and cultures were defined and imposed from a totalising European centrality born of the Enlightenment and imperialism. The island of 250 First Nations, named Australia by many today, is also known by myriad toponyms in contiguous site-based histories. A few are Warrang – Sydney, Meanjin – Brisbane, Garrmalang – Darwin, Boorloo – Perth, Mbantua / Mparntwe – Alice Springs, and Tarnthanyangga – Adelaide. The erasure and denigration of millennial cultural practices in this and nearby parts of the world by European impositions does not go unnoticed and unchallenged. The battle lines between First Nations and settler colonial cultures are active still, as the recent rejection by the Ballarat council of a new suburb being named in the local Wathaurong language attests to.
Naming places, peoples and knowledges from the perspectives of Europeans is a powerful, enduring violence of imperialism. Resisting this by preferring diverse toponyms from the thousands of languages, and perspectives of billions of fellow human beings, is an opportunity to restore and nuance a healthy diversity. Virtually the same word in every large language group on the planet, ‘Asia’ is an imposed, imprecise concept. From a perceived European centre, the Roman then Byzantine region of Asia Minor appeared on maps in what is today called Turkey. The concepts of Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, South East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Levant, the Pacific, Australia, and Australasia are all significant in this endeavour.
…Decolonisation can be defined as the end of intersecting forms of colonial oppression including heteropatriarchy, sexism, capitalism, knowledge systems and race-based hierarchy. In this light, it becomes clear that the shifting borders of imposed concepts ‘Asia’, ‘Pacific’, ‘Australia’, do not protect so much as buffer the interests and agendas of settler colonial governments and corporations…Language is pivotal to our understandings and practices as human beings. The opportunity exists today to enact decolonial approaches to diverse ways of knowing and being that have been marginalised and silenced since at least 1492. This challenge to decolonise our languages, our conceptions, and our practices is a unique chance to redress the colossal weight of continuing intersectional oppressions. Each use of the totalising colonial terms ‘Asia’, ‘Australia’, ‘Pacific’, ‘America’, and ‘Africa’ amongst others contributes to erasing and repressing diverse knowledge systems and practices. And from this conservative political and economic period, this contested settler colonial shore of the Moananui a Kiwa, decolonising and diversifying the mind is a potent individual act of change this is unparalleled elsewhere for now.’
As Auden famously observed, poetry makes nothing happen. But that doesn’t mean stories and songs and poems are useless, or pointless. Language and stories are our species’ way of making sense of the world, of ordering its meanings in ways that make them comprehensible, manageable. This process isn’t neutral, of course: some stories – the good ones – seek to show us the world as it is, insisting on complexity, on fidelity to what is. Others seek to obscure complexity, to reassure us by telling us what we want to hear. Yet either way, stories help us understand who we are, give shape to our understandings about the world.
There are moments though, when our stories fail us, moments when the world’s complexities exceed their power. We can all point to moments in time when the power of stories, of words, seemed to be burned away, the certainties they encoded disrupted.
In recent years we have taken to calling this new world in which we find ourselves the Anthropocene. I have to confess a degree of resistance to the term, the way its assertion of human primacy reiterates the blindness that got us here. Better perhaps we had chosen E.O. Wilson’s term Eremocene, or ‘Age of Silence’, a construction that memorialises the victims rather than the culprits. Yet whatever we call it, there is no question the new world the human race is creating offers profound challenges to almost every aspect of our societies, not just destabilising our assumptions about ecology, economics, social justice and politics, but altering our ideas about what it means to be human, and the relationship of the human to the world.
For writers and artists these challenges are particularly acute. Not only must we confront the inhuman scale of the transformation that is taking place around us, its temporal, physical and moral enormity, we must find ways of making sense of its complexity and interconnectedness. We must begin to find new ways of representing its effects, new imaginative and lexical vocabularies capable of naming and describing concepts and experiences that exceed the human. We must learn to talk about grief without being overwhelmed by it or descending into bathos. We must find ways of recording and memorialising what is being lost, of resisting not just the assumptions of hypercapitalism but the amnesia it induces, the constant Year Zero of a post-fact society. And perhaps most importantly, we must find ways to communicate ideas that are not just uncomfortable and frightening but actively difficult to comprehend because they demand we accept the ideas and ideologies that structure our world are, as Marx had it, no more solid than air.’