David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination
Roughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.
Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:
Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.
This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.
Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:
Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.
Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.
I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.
The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.
Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.
Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.
There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.
Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.