Monthly Archives: May 2022

Five months of theatre-going in 1974

Warning: This may be of no interest to anyone on earth but me.

I’m currently going through old diaries and probably throwing them all out so no one else will have to. In 1974, when I was 27, I attempted to keep a proper day-by-day account. Much of what I wrote is either incomprehensible snippets of conversation, tedious accounts of share-house politics, cringeworthy expressions of twenty-something angst, complaints about work etc. But I made a note of every movie and every piece of live theatre I went to.

Between 1 June and 1 November that year I saw 26 movies, only two or three of them on TV, ranging from a Polish movie named Blanche (which I loved) via Tim Burstall’s Petersen (which I loathed) to a double bill of movies by Robynne Murphy and Gillian Armstrong (which I didn’t name, but the Armstrong one was probably One Hundred a Day).

In that same time I went to the theatre the same number of times – including multiple visits to more than one show. Here’s a list, that gives some idea of the liveliness of the theatre scene in Sydney at that time (with added extra trips to Melbourne and Brisbane), in the order in which I saw them:

  • Fair Go at the Q Theatre in Sydney (no other information)
  • Jack Hibberd, Peggy Sue at the Pram Factory in Melbourne
  • Rivka Hartman, The Psychiatrist and The Trapped Projectionist at La Mama, also in Melbourne
  • Shakespeare’s Pericles at the Melbourne Theatre Company
  • John Power, The Last of the Knucklemen at the Opera House
  • Barry Humphries, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It (twice)
  • Chekhov, The Seagull (the memory of which has been obliterated by the more recent production with Cate Blanchett and a dreadfully understated Noah Taylor at the Belvoir Street Theatre)
  • Joseph’s Troubles and Flight into Egypt, mediaeval Mystery Plays, probably at Sydney University
  • My Shadow and Me, a black and white minstrel show at NIDA, which I’m glad to report I hated
  • Pinter, Old Times, directed by Victor Emeljanow, which blew me away
  • Willy Young (now William Yang), Quartet, at Old Nimrod (now Griffin Theatre)
  • Brecht, A Man’s a Man, Sydney University Dramatic Society
  • Jack Hibberd, A Stretch of the Imagination at La Boite in Brisbane
  • Muriel (Alan Simpson, directed by Rex Cramphorne) at Jane Street Theatre (three times: I loved it)
  • David Lord, Well Hung – no memory at all
  • Dorothy Hewett, The Tatty Hollow Story, a reading at – I think – the Old Nimrod
  • Tim Gooding, A Bent Repose – again, no memory at all
  • Grant’s Movie at the Old Nimrod (I think), starring Jude Kuring, but I can’t find it on the internet to tell me who wrote or directed it.
  • The River Jordan by Michael Byrnes at the Pram Factory. It seems to be the only play he wrote, and I loved it
  • Kookaburra, Michael Cove at New Nimrod, starring 12 year old Simon Burke
  • The Chapel Perilous at the Opera House, directed by George Whaley

All that in five months, while working fulltime. Does anyone go to the theatre that much these days? Can any twenty-something afford it?

Journal Catch-up 13

I used to call these posts Journal Blitzes, but there’s nothing very Blitzy about them. Just two journals this time: an Overland from a year ago and a Heat just one issue back.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 243 (Winter 2021)
(Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

This issue of Overland opens with a suite of excellent articles:

  • Coming through ceremony, a brief insider’s history by Kim Kruger of the Melbourne-based Aboriginal theatre company Ilbijerri, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year
  • A teleology of folding, and of dying by Dženana Vucic. Don’t be put off by the high-philosophic title. This is a lucid personal account of the complexities of being a white Muslim – a child refugee from Bosnia – who is now atheist and hipster-presenting yet still identifies viscerally with Muslims worldwide who are facing something akin to the Nazi holocaust
  • The bridge and the fire by Robbo Bennetts, published before the terrible floods of 2021–2022, and perhaps written before the terrible fires of 2020–2021, reflects on the effects of two disasters he has been close to: the Westgate Bridge collapse in 1970 and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009
  • Torrey Peters Detransition, Baby, in which trans person Yves Rees reviews a novel that has a Sex and the City frothiness, but whose ‘window onto transfeminine interiority is nothing short of revolutionary’. Recommended reading for anyone struggling with their inner TERF.

In a welcome return to tradition, this issue includes the winner and two runners-up of a literary prize. The inaugural Kuracca Prize for Australian Literature, established by Overland in honour of the late Kerry Reed-Gilbert, is open to all Australian writers for fiction, poetry, essay, memoir, creative non-fiction, cartoon or graphic stories, and digital or audio storytelling. The winner this year is a short story, the runners up are a poem and a personal essay.

There’s a generous eight-page poetry section, and three short fictions, of which the stand-outs are ‘Tight lines’ by Allee Richards, a tale of the collateral pain when the main character’s relationship with a child is brought to an end by the ending of a relationship with the child’s father; and see you later by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, a vivid evocation of work on a dairy farm, which most satisfactorily brings up to date the genre of workplace short stories.


Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 1 (Giramondo 2022)

Heat is back from hiatus. Series 2 Nº 24 was published in 2011 (my blog post here) with no promise of a return. Now here is Series 3, slimmer, with a new look and a new editor, promising to appear every two months and – in my opinion – well worth the annual subscription price of $120 (slightly more for individual copies). My sense is that the new, intimate format is better suited than the previous, book-sized issues to the limited attention spans of our image-dominated era – there’s also a deft use of images.

This issue, introducing a minimalist design by Jenny Grigg, kicks off with a one-page linocut by Ben Juers, which works mainly as a reminder that Heat has in the past included substantial sections of visual art. The main body is made up of:

  • ‘Only one refused’ by Mireille Juchau, a Heat veteran. The essay tracks down the story of a family member who survived the Nazi camps, and makes dramatic use of illustrations, including a double page spread of the ‘Hollerith card’ that recorded her relative’s physical features, and a photograph of ghostlike women recuperating in the Mauthausen infirmary soon after liberation (This article is on the Heat web site, at this link)
  • ‘Special Stuff’, a grim short story by Josephine Rowe, featuring a woman, man and baby doing a futuristic equivalent of ‘duck and cover’, seconds before a nuclear explosion
  • Five poems by Sarah Holland-Batt, all dealing with the death of parents. I’m especially glad to have read these so soon after hearing SH-B read at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (my blog post at this link). If these poems, especially ‘Pikes Peak’, are any indication, her latest book, The Jaguar (University of Queensland Press 2022), is definitely something I want to read
  • ‘Brief Lives’ by Brian Castro, a kind of Decameron for readers with short attention spans, blended with a lament about ageing, with raging bushfires as a backdrop
  • Death Takes Me’, fiction by Hispanic USer Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and Robin Myers, an esoteric variation on a police procedural that opens with a quote from Renate Saleci to the effect that castration is a prerequisite for sexual relations, and does nothing to allay the scepticism the quote provokes.

Number 2 is waiting on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading it.


PS: There’s a word in the Heat that I need help with. In the Brian Castro story, there’s this, speaking of an ageing writer taking refuge in a guesthouse with a number of other people:

He thinks. He thinks too much. Never sleeping. Now that Eros is held in liam in the other room, he fades into ancient tapestries.

(page 69)

What does ‘liam’ mean? Or is it Iiam (that is, does it begin with a capital ‘I’ rather than a lower case ‘l’? Given Heat 2’s propensity for typos and malapropisms, it may be an error. But if so, what is the correct word? All answers welcome, even correct ones.

Clerihews, limerick, double dactyl

It’s a long time since I’ve been inspired to write silly verse about party politics. I’m still quite proud of this clerihew, from election night November 2007:

Kevin Michael Rudd
may turn out to be a dud
but at least we’ll no longer be showered
with the duplicitous spittle of Howard.

Here are a few attempts inspired by recent events.

Clerihew:

Scott John Morrison's
orisons
must have fallen on deaf ears. He
lost to Albanese.

And another clerihew:

Anthony Norman Albanese
won’t make everything magically easy
but now we will not
hear too much more from Scott.

Double dactyl:

Hokumen pokumen
PM Scott Morrison
counted on miracles,
came up with zip.

No longer licensed for
bloviatorial
chats to the press he must
button his lip.

Limerick:

There is a Gen X-er called Scott
Who boasted he stopped boats a lot.
He bulls and he dozes
And doesn't hold hoses
And very soon will be forgot.

Feel free to add yours in the comments.

Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Boy

Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Boy (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

This is a terrific book.

These days, Jimmy Barnes turns up on social media as a genial grandfather who makes music with his large family for the pleasure of a nation beleaguered by Covid and other ills. Once he was a hard living, hard-drinking rock star whose songs ‘Working Class Man’ and ‘Khe Sanh’, the latter sung as front man of Cold Chisel, have anthem status.

At the end of Working Class Boy, he more or less promises us the story of how he made the transition from then to now. This book is a prequel, a back story: ‘How I became Jimmy Barnes.’ It begins in poverty-stricken Glasgow where alcohol-fuelled violence is the norm in the streets and in the home. It takes us through the small boy’s emigration with his dysfunctional family to South Australia, where the town of Elizabeth is hardly less violent or alcohol-riven than Glasgow. It leaves off as Jimmy, now as addicted to alcohol and other substances as the next knockabout young man, sets off for Armidale with the newly formed Cold Chisel, not with any hope of peace or stability, but at least with the possibility of making it as a rock band.

It’s a harrowing story, but it doesn’t ask for pity, and it doesn’t feel as if it aims to shock. The writer uses his great skill as a yarn-spinner to keep the narrative alive, at the same time never letting the reader lose sight of his serious purpose, as he articulates it in the Acknowledgements:

There’s a lot of my past that I wanted to push out of my memory and never see again. But I couldn’t. I tried to drown my past in every possible way, but as long as it was festering inside me I could never really move on. My childhood affected every step I took over the rest of my life. It twisted the way I thought and the way I interacted with normal human beings. Eventually I realised that these wounds needed to be brought out in the open and aired if I ever wanted them to heal.

So I started trying to write things down.

(page 359)

I read Working Class Boy at the Emerging Artist’s suggestion, when I told her about Shuggie Bain. I’d read that novel for the Book Group (blog post to come in a couple of weeks), and was uneasy about its insistence on the main woman character’s wretchedness and victimhood amid alcohol-fuelled violence and poverty in Glasgow – was it a kind of misery porn? ‘Jimmy Barnes’s childhood was in Glasgow,’ the ER said.

It turned out that reading the books in close sequence increased my appreciation of both of them. I won’t talk about Shuggie Bain here.

None of Jimmy Barnes’s characters is a straightforward victim. He doesn’t hold back from telling us about his own violence, and sexism. He makes no excuses, but gives us glimpses of the inner struggles, and terrors, that he was dealing with at the time of his worst behaviour. The effect is that when he tells us about his mother’s and father’s violent moments, we aren’t invited to sit in judgement. It’s understood that they too are wrestling with demons. I was struck by his account of how his first son, David Campbell, was conceived and born when Jimmy was just 16. This episode of teenage sex and consequences can’t have been easy to write, but Barnes tells it with generosity to all involved, including David when he learned the truth of his origins. Then he says:

I don’t need to say much more about this time. Not to you guys anyway.

(Page 317)

How’s that for telling the reader to respect the writer’s boundaries?

Comparing the two books made me appreciate the quality of Barnesie’s humour (I hope it’s OK to call him that). Even as he laments the terrible damage wrought by alcohol and poverty, he celebrates the wit and resilience, and the sense of community, of the people involved. I came away from the scenes in Glasgow wanting to see a lot more more of the Glaswegians, though I’d prefer to be out of striking range. Many of his adolescent exploits have a terrific derring-do about them. There’s the time he drove a half a dozen drunken mates to the drive-in cinema in a car with no brakes, or the occasion when he and a few of his mates took LSD and got drunk before turning up at a party given by ‘a quiet young guy’ from the foundry, to find that the young guy ‘was a drag queen in his spare time’, and the party a great success.

The book pulls off the minor miracle of taking the reader along on this wild ride, feeling the excitement of it, but not losing sight of the human cost both for the writer and the other young men like him, and for the many people – girls, women, strangers – they damaged. I’m not drawn to celebrity autobiographies, but Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018) just made it onto my TBR list.

SWF 2022, my Sunday

I managed to squeeze in a second Writers’ Festival event. I console myself that I’ll be able to listen to podcasts from the Festival over the next year, but I’m still sorry to have seen so little of it in person. The place was buzzing today

In the session I attended, The Unacknowledged Legislators, we were read to by eight poets. (It being poetry, it wasn’t hard to get a good seat at such a late moment.) The title comes from Shelley’s much-quoted assertion, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Declan Fry, emcee, said some elegant things about how poetry is a place where we can be free, where we can put our minds to things that we can’t quite say, so, invoking the theme of this year’s festival, it can literally change minds.

Tony Birch kicked things off with a number of short poems from his recently published collection, Whisper Songs, giving us a gentle introduction.

Eunice Andrada read from her second collection, TAKE CARE (link is to my blog post, as are the ones that follow). She read a number of confronting poems in solidarity with Filipina and other brown women.

Sarah Holland-Batt, author of the wonderful Fishing for Lightning, read from her most recent book of poetry, The Jaguar, poems written in the weeks and months after her father died. On the face of it these breathtaking poems about being with a dying parent aren’t political, but they drew tremendous political force from today’s context: Assisted Dying legislation has just been passed in the NSW parliament, and the federal election has removed from office a shamefully negligent Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

Madison ‘Maddie’ Godfrey describes herself as an emotional feminist. I don’t understand what that term means. She prefaced one of her poems with a ‘trigger warning for menstruation, endometriosis and sexy stuff’.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of The Hate Race, read from her collection How Decent Folk Behave. It was round about here that the poetry got explicitly political, in the sense of naming names and taking positions. She commented after one poem that it was a joy to be able to read it with a name that had to be taken out of the printed version on legal advice.

Sara M. Saleh describes herself as a Bankstown Poetry Slam Slambassador. Among the poems she read was one – I didn’t write down its name – that started out sounding like a fairly literal protest at the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints and became a powerful, joyous assertion of humanity in the face of belittling treatment.

Omar Musa, whose debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, we read at my Book Group, has also performed at the Bankstown Poetry Slam. He performed ‘UnAustralia’ (I think that’s its name), a provocative and witty rant, then said, ‘I like to fuck around,’ and followed it with a rich, complex, passionate, compassionate poem about visiting the mosque in Christchurch where people were killed last year – you could hear a pin drop.

The last poet, Jazz Money, whose debut collection how to make a basket was published in 2021, told us she had changed her mind about what to read after she heard the others. After an excellent though mild-mannered poem about the endangered night parrot, she treated us to ‘Mardi Gras Rainbow Dreaming’, which is the stuff that slam poems are made of, and after hearing which the commercialisation of Sydney’s Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras will never feel bearable again.

And that was my Festival for this year. The Director, Michael Williams, has moved on to be editor of The Monthly. Who knows what next year will bring?

SWF 2022, my Thursday

Mainly because of grandparenting commitments, I booked for just one event at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival – a conversation with the great African-American poet Claudia Rankine last night. Then that event was cancelled.

When this morning’s grandparenting commitments vanished, I decided to at least drop in on the Festival before reporting for afternoon duty.

The sun shone warm and bright on the Carriageworks. The mostly unmasked, mostly of retirement age punters queued cheerfully, milled around the piles of books, ate, drank, chatted and read. The mood was bookishly cheerful.

I asked a couple of people wearing the Festival’s Change My Mind t-shirt if they knew why Claudia Rankine’s event was cancelled, but no one had an answer, so I haven’t got any inside information. I do know that no one would blame Ms Rankine for deciding so soon after the racist killings in Buffalo that she had better things to do with her time than talk to a mainly white crowd several thousand miles from her home base.

I bought a copy of her new book, Just Us: An American Conversation, and look forward to reading it.

I also went looking for this year’s Book of the Year of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System, a graphic novel/comic by Safdar Ahmed. Alas, the book’s publisher has been caught off guard by its success, and no copies are available for sale at the Festival. I can wait.

I bought a ‘rush’ ticket to a midday session. The woman sitting beside me had just been to Fiona Murphy, My Life as a Walking Stick, which she said was a passionate talk by a physiotherapist, with a big emphasis on falling. My new friend said that the audience, who were almost all over 60, loved it. If you have a fall and don’t get up within 60 minutes your chance of survival is roughly 50 percent. Sadly the lights dimmed before she could spell out just what that means. I just had time to thank her – ‘You may have just saved my life’ – before the session began.

It was A Critical Eye, a panel/conversation involving three people, each of whom wears many literary hats including the literary critic hat: Declan Fry, Delia Falconer and Eda Gunaydin (links are to the Festival notes on the participants).

I went into the session with a vague hope that the conversation would help me think more clearly about what it is that I do on this blog. I don’t think of myself as a critic so much as a reader with a keyboard and time to use it, but there is definitely an overlap with what reviewers and critics do.

The conversation started out with the notion of longevity. Delia Falconer first starting writing criticism in 1992 when it was paid decently and was a way of earning an income while doing other writing (she has written novels, non-fiction (including Sydney, which my Book Group read and loved), history, and biography. Ena Gunadyin was born that year. They talked about the way festivals such as this one currently tend to feature debut writers, even fetishise newness, which can lead to a degree of anxiety, of ‘churn and burn’ in those new writers as well as a possible neglect of the elders of the writing community (that’s my term, not theirs).

The conversation was pretty free-range – all three had incisive things to say about reviews/criticism. I took scrappy notes, so please don’t blame the three presenters if I write something crass or stupid here.

Are there conventions to which a review or piece of criticism must adhere? Well, yes and no. Declan said that a piece of criticism was a response to a creative work, and can take any form. Ena kind of disagreed, invoking Marx’s dictum that the aim was not just to discuss the world but to change it. Delia spoke of the way criticism has changed over the decades: once, a critic’s job was to discuss how well a piece of writing succeeded in achieving its aims, and to map its cultural context; and while that may still be true, there has been a cultural shift so that many excellent reviews these days are more akin to personal essays than to objective analyses. At one time a review went out into the void. Now, with the internet and especially social media, it can become part of an immediate conversation. (I remember my surprise the first time the author of a book I’d blogged about turned up in my comments section!)

My vague hope wasn’t completely dashed. There seemed to be general agreement that it was a cop-out for a critic to say he or she couldn’t talk meaningfully about, say, a book by a First Nations poet because he/she, the critic, was a white settler. I think it was Declan, who describes himself as a proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. People who are invested in a work will write differently from people who aren’t, but there’s no reason a settler can’t be invested in a First Nations work: the ‘meta-critical’ task is to articulate the nature of that investment.

There was more. If this turns out to be my only session of the Festival I won’t feel too bad about it.

The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.