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Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

Cover of Wordlines

The published introduction can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format here .

WORDLINES

a selection of recent Australian writing

I returned to Australia not long ago after a three-year absence, much of it spent working and writing in the Middle East. This time the feeling of dislocation and disorientation lasted for months. I knew I’d brought it on myself, the price to be paid for staying away too long and becoming too engrossed in where I landed – in Amman where the azans from the mosque five times a day are almost drowned out by the roar of the planes flying into Iraq from a nearby airbase.

Australia feels a very long way off.

Perhaps it was At first I tried to keep tabs on what was happening in writing and publishing at home and writer friends occasionally emailed work-in-progress. I downloaded the Book Show and Late Night Live, The Australian’s Literary Review and copies of Meanjin arrived in my mailbox in the wall of the compound.  But my reading was more and more about the region I was in – its pluralism, the clotted history and layers of identity politics made worse by 9/11. The Crusades seen from the other side seemed less an implacable confrontation between Muslims and Christians and more a misreading of history, one still playing out.

There are few books published any more but the internet has taken their place. Story-telling sites and literary blogs are common, where writers critique each other’s work, and political satire manages to stay one step ahead of the government censors. Passionate conversations about books and writing still happen, as they always have, sometimes in surprising places. I love English literature, murmured a young man in an Amman hotel who was cutting my hair. He opened a drawer where a tattered copy of Middlemarch lay among the brushes and rollers.

The only Australian book I was ever asked about was Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love and then so often that I started to feel personally responsible for its distortions and errors. Khouri’s fake settings and her story of an honour killing in Jordan that didn’t happen was highly offensive. Women can and often do live modern lives, wearing the hijab and long coat perhaps only to visit their village. Repressive cultural practices still curtail the lives of many women but work is being done to support them. The members of the Women’s Commission, who quizzed me over lunch one day, were rightly outraged.

I expected to find it difficult to return but it was worse. All I could see was shocking affluence, food fetishism and the politics of spin.  I felt adrift in the wrong place and getting my bearings back was essential. So the reading I was asked to do for the 2009 Melbourne Prize and the suggestion by Julia Taylor that I compile some annual anthologies of recent writing for Five Mile Press came when I most needed it. Wordlines is a selection from that reading time, idiosyncratic and personal, my biases and enthusiasms on display.

I started by seeking writing that that was international, engaged, political – and was not expecting to find very much of it. It didn’t take long to realise I was quite wrong.

There is a good deal of writing here now that is international. Some of it is political and all of it is engaged. There are new writers, of course, and books of great force and substance. Nam Le has an astonishing ability to take us into the heads of people in extremis all over the world so we share their moral universe. Evelyn Juers has taken biographical writing to a new level. And I was fortunate to read two powerful new novels in draft: Anna Funder is writing about the group of German anarchists around Ernst Toller and their frustrated attempts to alert the world to the rise of Nazism; and Drusilla Modjeska’s untitled novel about identity and race is set among the bureaucracy and corruption and complexities of contemporary Papua New Guinea. And with the quivering antennae peculiar to recent returnees, I fancied I caught more than a glimpse of a distinctive combination of morality and sensibility in writers such as Joan London and Cate Kennedy, and many others, some of whom were quite new to me, in a range of voices and styles unique to this place.

Perhaps, where distance from the rest of the world is a fact of life, it carries its own freedoms and allows our own kind of plain speaking to emerge. Immigrant cultures have long celebrated story and testimony and now a kind of deep texture to our literature is emerging. This is writing a world away from the mid nineties when genre fiction – often with rather thin exotic settings – was all the go, and being ‘Australian’ was reduced to simplistic categories to fit criteria for funding and prizes. The low point was reached when Grand Days, Frank Moorhouse’s first great League of Nations novel, was deemed ‘not sufficiently Australian’ for the Miles Franklin. The following year a sentimental multiculturalism caused judges of the Vogel, the Australian Literary Society and the Miles Franklin, as well as an assortment of critics to fall for Helen Demidenko’s fake ethnicity and to celebrate her clumsy racism as transgressive. Nowadays writers are drilling down deeper for their material within a literary environment where the restraints of convention and scholarly orthodoxies sit more lightly than they do in older cultures.

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile: the Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann is an extraordinary collective biography about well-known refugees from fascism in the 30s and 40s. Juers slips back and forth in a kind of shimmering pointillism across the fine line between fiction and fact, her imagination refracted through a huge range of sources and cast of characters.

Sophie Cunningham, in a moving extract from her forthcoming novel about Leonard Woolf, has developed her own sure-footed form of biographical fiction. Leonard is Virginia’s mooring, here trying to feed her with trembling hands during one of her breakdowns, Virginia resisting this intrusiveness…. Both of them are locked in a marriage neither fully comprehend but would never give up.

Many writers are inhabiting uneasy places, where certainties tremble. In the opening chapter of Joan London’s The Good Parents, eighteen-year-old Maya, away from home for the first time, is seduced by her employer, one Maynard Flynn, on a mattress on the floor of his seedy Melbourne office. Maya falls in love. He can’t believe his luck. Her parents are about to arrive.

Drusilla Modjeska’s ‘The Bliss of Arrival’, is work-in-progress from her new novel about three generations in postcolonial PNG.  Jericho attempts to persuade his beloved Bili to leave her legal work for an environmental NGO and return with him to England where he feels less dislocated as a hapkaus Õmie man brought down from the mountain as a child than he does in Port Morseby. We are both. We could move between Jericho says, but he knows if you look too long into a woman’s eyes, she’ll take your soul.

Cate Kennedy seems to me to be getting better and better. In her story, ‘Tender’, she has perfected the art of straight-talking, taking things down to their essentials, the husband at the sink, awkward, loving, full of dread, the mother stilling her fear of the black shadow on the breast scan by toiling away late at night to make a magical world in a cardboard box for a child to take to school.

Rod Jones and Carmel Bird’s new stories were written for this collection. Jones doesn’t miss a beat in his glimpse of a marriage at the end of its tether, the dining-room set up for guests they’ll never have. Husband and wife are locked in their separate terrors – his of a comet crashing into Jupiter which he watches on television, hers that she no longer loves him.

Carmel Bird’s comic imagination is always finely poised, acerbic and slightly sinister. ‘No Thro’ Road’ signposts a well-connected cul-de-sac where boats aren’t rocked and the men and women who had mingled with each other in tree huts and at parties long ago now watch their children and grandchildren mingle pleasantly in Paris.

Alex Miller’s latest novel Love Song is deceptively simple and rich with allegory. In this extract, a beautiful Tunisian living in Paris, despairing that her husband cannot give her a child, resorts to the ancient solution of choosing another man to impregnate her – a man who falls to his knees and weeps afterwards.  Years later, her story will be related by her husband to Ken, an aging writer, in order that it be known.

These are writers looking from the inside out, engaging with the rest of the world and reflecting on their own with more sophistication than even just a decade ago.  What can be written ‘about’ here has altered. The easy recourse to foreign settings and interesting encounters seems to have been transformed into a rich connectedness and lightly worn shifting identities.

Tom Cho’s outlandish fictions about slithering between labels and meanings, are hilarious and adroit. There’s a grandmother who answers to the name of Bruce, an Uncle Wang who morphs into having a bi-directional interface between his central nervous system and his old computer, and Tom  himself who wants his Chinese name changed from I will skip and pick clover from lush fields to Marlon Brando.

Abigail Ulman, Paul Mitchell, Amra Pajaric and Tom Cho are writers I hadn’t read before and am very glad I have. Each is distinctive and utterly grounded. Ulman’s assured ‘Chagall’s Wife’ first caught my eye in Meanjin – a gripping story about a male schoolteacher caught in the headlights of a fourteen year old girl’s knowledge of her sexual power. For Mitchell the colloquial and the local provide the story’s texture and meaning – about loneliness, set in the bleak surrounds of a service station on the Hume Highway, where the trucks power south to where the girls are. Pajalic’s The Good Daughter was awarded the people’s choice in the Melbourne Prize, a sharp portrait of the Bosnian Muslim community through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Sabiya, seen in this extract dressed modestly in her mother’s clothes in an attempt to placate her orthodox grandfather.

In some ways, the trajectory of this selection and perhaps of contemporary Australian writing at this time is the long looping thread that runs from Gerald Murnane to Nam Le, two writers who recently won last year’s Melbourne Prizes for Literature. Le’s remarkable story ‘Cartagena’ takes place in the barrios of Medellín inside the head of a hit man who has fourteen years and two months and killed fourteen people for certain, perhaps another two. He is now sent to kill a man he knows, an almost friend, a man who is different, who does not think only of himself, who alone talks about happiness and honour – even about politics – about a future unconnected to money. There is no way back, they know, only a fantasy of a safe place, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, where the sun comes up in a slow-motion explosion like in the movies… and where the girls are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things.

Murnane resists categories.  In prose pared to somewhere beneath the bone, he inhabits a universe entirely his own. ‘Australian’ is not the word for it even though a large part of the brilliance of this essay lies in it being centred in the small world of the 1940s – the Bendigo sleep-out, the altar boy chanting the Latin Nicene Creed for the rhythm which conjures in his mind’s eye images of horseracing, a rhythm which will lead inexorably to the man in this middle age teaching himself the Hungarian language in order to recite to members of the Hungarian community the great ‘Ode to the Hungarian Language’ by Gyorgy Faludy. This is entirely fitting, even pre-destined, reality becomes metaphor, ordinariness becomes extraordinary.

How words work, how the best of them encapsulate our time and our place and our sense of ourselves in that space is subjective and too slippery to try to pin down – but for me, fully imagined writing creates threads of thought, wordlines that hold us, connect us, and bring us home.