Read this week

  • Reading Underwater: Reckoning With Myself as a Woman of Color Amid a White Literary World by Cher Tan in Catapult 
  • Beyond Ticked Boxes in Peril Magazine 
  • A Photographic Odyssey in the Australian Outback in the New York Times

    I find the international perception of Australia to be quite limited, especially that of the outback. The way it’s portrayed in pop culture — it’s so often a caricature, a parody. This assignment was an opportunity, after a decade spent mostly abroad, to go back to my homeland, to my own country, and to try to dispute some of those popular perceptions.

    In some ways, the outback isn’t Australian anymore. It’s become a kind of myth. And the point of the trip, for me, was to inquire what that myth has now become.

    The big takeaway? Rural Australia is ultimately a place in decline.

    I think Australians, in general, look very fondly at our bush culture. But the reality is that the rural culture, the rural traditions, are slowly being eroded by globalization.

    Australia isn’t unique in that regard. It’s the same story the world round. But I think it’s more pronounced in Australia because the population in many places is so sparse.

    Capturing Aboriginal Australia was probably the hardest part for me. I’m a white Australian, a descendent of the British colonial experience. And my experience doesn’t overlap much with the Indigenous experience in Australia.

  • Life Inside the Hyphen: fiction by Shirley Le and Stephen Pham by Luke Carmen in Southerly 

Amongst the many reasons for the collection’s broad appeal is the fact that Le’s work captured something deeply resonant about the iconography of ‘the boat’ for an array of Australian and international readers and critics. The symbolism of ‘the boat’, loaded with a multiplicity of meanings that span the social and political spectrum – from imperial coloniser to displaced refugee – seems perhaps more salient to our nation’s sense of itself than ever before – becoming both the central motif and the unifying message of our last federal election.

… The image of boats packed with arrivals is one that perhaps serves the needs of a pre-existing repertoire of Australian stories and the colonial-settler history our literature serves: one that links a diasporic longing by both European colonial settlers and recent generations of Vietnamese-Australians.

While it is doubtful that a literary tradition exists which is not concerned with creation mythology, it is hard to imagine a nation more preoccupied with the individual writer’s place within (or without) the dominant literary mythos than our own. The recent ANZAC centenary madness, which happened to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the ‘fall of Saigon’, is an extraordinarily shameful example of what can happen when origin myths are permitted to dominate cultural narratives so ruthlessly.

… most directly interested in the radical and vitalising possibilities offered by fiction, with its emphasis on what is yet to be written, rather than the memoir-focused work of the other participants. In the stories of these two writers, subtle oscillations between familiar and unfamiliar, local and global, textured the world of the displaced subject. That is to say, in a sense, both stories were written in the uncomfortable tradition of Australian illegitimacy – stories about people who are definitively Australian in their inability to recognise themselves in their cultural surroundings and signifiers. The emphasis, however, was an unexpected one – the milieu of suburbs in Sydney’s western suburbia – normalised enough in both readings that the extraordinary moments of the fiction could be located in the ordinary landscape of the suburbs without resorting to exotification, sentimentality or caricature. This handling of the suburbs is one that allows the importance of life to overshadow the trappings of landscape – an inverted approach to writing Australian literature.

Such an analysis is perhaps too dismissive of the cultural specificity of these texts: there is no doubt that – as with the other writers and performers at the event – the uniqueness of Vietnamese-Australian culture is richly present in their work, but if ever there is a universality in fiction, it is located in the hermetic separation between the subject and the Other which language must straddle in order to pass from one human being to another. On this note, I am tempted to quote the Viennese philosopher who explained that being a good writer requires being an émigré in at least two senses, but I am restrained by the thought that the narrator of Shirley Le’s story, Johann Strauss in Yagoona, would no doubt despair at such a cheap reference to the dull authority of old Europe.

  • Never in Print in the Sydney Review of BooksWriters and readers are increasingly habituated to the multimodality of the digital writing. Social media users navigate text punctuated by image, video, audio and interactive media as a matter of course. Multimedia has been driving the transformation of news media online for more than a decade. Experimental writers working in electronic forms collaborate with software developers and media artists to create complex digital texts. There are of course degrees of wit and sophistication that separate such endeavours but they constitute the vernacular of our times. The question is, how should such new and ubiquitous forms of expression inflect the work undertaken by literary essayists. There’s certainly a view that the essay as a form of deliberation should be shielded from the frippery of online tools, as if a door opened to multimedia will lead to a painful landing on a pile of memes, emojis and gifs. Such anxiety rides on a concern about the degradation of language, one that links certain registers and kinds of linguistic usage with careful thinking and writing. This contributes to a longer anxiety about vernacular language that is tied to new communication technologies, from Gutenberg’s press to the Stanhope press, from cinema to trashy television.

    By my reckoning the essay is a sufficiently durable and flexible form to withstand technological change and experimentation.

  • Satellite by Ellena Savage in Chart Collective

    When I was fifteen I sat on the floor next to my backpack beneath this very window and I read about communism and existentialism and surrealism and dada, and I wore a beret, I think, and I saved my maccas money to pay for a French tutor because we didn’t have French at my school and I knew I didn’t have a real education because that’s the index, and more than a decade later I’m still sitting here breathing in meat pie steam but now I am reading about chain gangs and scarred trees and bodies buried deep beneath the tram tracks and I don’t know French and I am horrified I am trying to remain horrified lest this horror slips away I am horrified by what started here two hundred years ago so that I could dream about Europe in the early naughts propelled by junk food money and mass produced cliché hats made from the hair of an introduced species that has ravaged this earth.

    Now that I know I am parochial – and still I am embarrassed by this fact, by all the things I did not become – now that I know that the only constant thing in my life of elective insecurity is my proximity to a tram line, an artery thumping out north of the city, I am also certain I don’t belong here because I don’t but there’s nowhere else to go but ashes and dust, or Scotland. And now that my parochial character is clear to me it’s too late, my roots have dug in deep like those of the serrated tussock which is an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor about grass is trying to say something about concerned colonial figures like me who’d really like to be bold by not making things worse than they are but by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting my home in a structure built atop spirits silent and angry, my roots are caught in the seams of rotten foundations, and I know this fantasy will be hauled out some day and the stories trapped beneath it will finally go free but by then there’ll be no-one there to listen and this sadness is worse than anything.

    But I am one of those people who is always baulking at injustice; I can’t look at a rat without thinking about how sick humanity is. Had I been male, this would have come to great use in a terrorist organisation, or federal politics, but because I am female I am contemptuous of male power, therefore my body is a source of emasculation, therefore I just have a bad attitude.

    I dig my fingers into the earth out the front of my house and I get it under my nails weeding round the pearly succulents because that’s supposed to let off serotonin and I wonder, I wonder what on earth we are doing here, as in us, the rats, how are we all here now in this place, and I remember at high school a prized skill was being able to tell what natio someone was by looking at them and a lot of it was to do with how a person coded themselves fashion-wise, but it’s true that some had a great knack for telling apart a Lebanese and an Iranian a Vietnamese and a Chinese an Eritrean and a Somali and in the same place the white kids played up their Irish or whatever background because they didn’t want to be left out of the fun and you’re not supposed to talk about things like this into adulthood because it’s fairly offensive but I think it was an earnest thing, acknowledging the dislocation each person felt in their heart and connecting somehow through its affirmation. And you know all you have to do with so many families, poor families that were altered irrevocably by the industrial revolution is scratch back a few generations and no-one knows a thing, the line fades away to these imaginary origins, the thought of primordial bodies moving around looking for food, for work, gravitating to places to nurture their young, protect them from nature’s brutality, like the rat family and the warm underside of my fridge.

    New life I suppose I can’t knock it it’s why everyone moved here at some point, but it’s why the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation were shipped out to missions in the country and it’s why the idea of emptiness can be figured onto the land that is so not empty, it’s to make believe that something has a clear beginning but that beginning like all beginnings starts with a violence and a fiction. Of course the suppositions underpinning the fantasy of the clear beginning are there if you really want to consider them. For a long time I didn’t know that some people chose where they lived, I assumed you just moved somewhere and you found the cheapest house on the market and you moved in, a fresh start some real beginning, and the house was always haunted by traces of a before, before the beginning, but you put up some paintings and some kid photos and slowly it became home.

    And yes fear of nature is fear born of the sense that civilisation was supposed to make things easier and in many ways it does but the cost is very high maybe fatal for nature as well as for women and the snakes which are a placeholder for masculine triumph over everything is what is destroying me incrementally is what is destroying you know nature.

    And you know some people call the whole of Australia a Crime Scene because of what started here two hundred years ago but this crime scene this isn’t glamorous or attractive because unlike the drive-bys and the Morans we’re all a little bit implicated in it. And then, around the time of the underworld renaissance, Howard’s terror laws passed and it became frightening to think what could happen to you, well not if you were anglo but what could happen to you in the collective sense if you overstepped some undefined line of political propriety particularly if you were an Arab and I can’t comment on this further because the fear for me was never material except to say that there was a feeling in the air and that feeling was powerlessness.

    In this case the question is, if there is always a question and I believe there is, it is where is home and what is freedom. The promise we accept is that freedom is the freedom to make ourselves anew, but in our hearts we are running home, running the right way round the roundabout, so is freedom the freedom to have a home or is home a fenced-in square of lonely grass.

  • The Pit by Eloise Grills in The Lifted Brow

    The most significant similarity between Maier and Darger is that they stimulate the very particular tension we often feel when we encounter the outsider artist. We are compelled not just to understand and to appreciate the work that they left sealed inside boxes, but to apprehend the hidden nature of the humans outside them. This contradicts our second urge—to preserve the sense of discovery when we first encounter their work, in all its mystery.

    However private the artist may have been during her life, it is clear that she cannot escape the presumption that art-making is synonymous with self-disclosure and preservation. It is important, however, to consider that this may not be a self-evident truth, but instead the product of cultural and social mores about the purpose of art.

    The sharing of content has increasingly become concurrent with our creation of it. The photo sharing tools adopted almost ubiquitously across the internet—including on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr, among other social media sites—create an assumption that we primarily take photographs for the purpose of sharing what we see with other people.
    However, it is equally possible that Maier’s taking and keeping photographs had more to do with her obsession for capturing time than any desire to share her talent with the world.
    …has suggested that Darger’s work is not art, as it lacks any communicative purpose. While ignoring the possibility that a work’s status as art could be based on the viewer’s interpretation rather than the artist’s, it nevertheless problematises the exposure of Darger’s work.

    Darger and Maier continue to be exposed to the public. This exposure is often justified as a necessary contribution to the public good: in an age where we have low expectations for our own privacy, we excuse it as an appropriate means to culturally vindicated ends.
    …This practice of separating Darger’s paintings from their context is a radical interference with the artist’s intent, comparable to the way fragments of Egyptian relics are often displayed in galleries. Shrouded in a rhetoric of mystery and unknowability, their true purpose is—allegedly—lost to the past. The enigma of the artefact, and its creator, adds a dimension of value external to the work.

    …The appeal of this sense of mystery and unknowability is linked to our sense that Darger and Maier lived that most antiquated of things: a truly private life. We wonder what it would have been like to be so perfectly obscure: we might even crave a similar privacy for ourselves.

    Of course, in a world where the private and public spheres have become irreversibly melded, this seems an impossibilty. While having more privacy may be possible, it is not realistic: once one has been inducted into an expressive system of blogs and status updates, rather than the diary or other anachronistic media, it becomes extremely difficult to leave.

    The way we understand this work, then, reveals something of a collective ambivalence toward this cultural moment. We at once romanticise the privacy and elusiveness of the past, and expectthe invasive growth of everything afforded by the innovations in technology and communication that define our present. Living in a world where everything is at our fingertips evokes contradictory feelings: while is possible to know nearly everything, it is almost impossible to discover anything for ourselves.
    …Outsider artists don’t just inspire a sense of wonder and discovery, or an urge to share their work: they also afford us a sense of ownership – an authority to decide who is popularised, and who matters, in a new way.

    By acting as tireless cheerleaders of these artists on social media and elsewhere, we are able to reassert our own value, and agency, as appreciators of their work.

    To insinuate ourselves within the frame.


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