Tag Archives: Eliot Weinberger

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ […] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.
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Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.
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Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954,carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).

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Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Eliot Weinberger, list virtuoso

Eliot Weinberger, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions 2009)

Eliot Weinberger is a poet, translator (most eminently of Octavio Paz from Spanish and Bei Dao from Chinese), literary critic (though he denies it), essayist (one of his essays – perhaps more accurately classified as a prose poem – was published in Heat Nº 5), anthologist (his 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950 was a bestseller in Mexico), editor. This book collects 28 pieces written on commission and first published between 2001 and 2009: introductions to other people’s books and to his own poetry translations and anthologies, reviews, magazine articles, contributions to anthologies and talks given at conferences. He ranges far and wide, and is always interesting, often illuminating, sometimes funny. Topics include EB White, Emily Dickinson, Susan Sontag, the changing face of Chinese poetry in the US since Ezra Pound, China in 2005, the failure of US literati, poets in particular, to engage politically under Reagan, the relationship of photography and anthropology (they’re siblings), a number of poets I’ve not heard of who are now high on my To be Read list, translation (I will never trot out the phrase traduttore traditore again), George Bush, the Iraq War, Barack Obama. And there are a couple of pieces – one on the colour blue, another on peanuts and oranges – that approach an abstract condition.

Weinberger is a great list maker. Often when I come upon a list in a piece of prose, I’m tempted to skip, feeling that it’s enough to know that many and various things were packed into the car, or growing in the garden, without having to read the name of every one of them. Weinberger’s lists don’t tempt in this way: he’s a list virtuoso, delighting in what he calls ‘strange conjunctions’. The longest piece in this book, ‘Things I Heard about Iraq in 2005’, delivers literally on the title, listing news reports, rumours, quotes and statistics, a paragraph (mostly beginning ‘I heard’) per item, and few paragraphs longer than 10 lines, without analysis, commentary or argument. The effect – partly a result of sheer accumulation, partly of masterful juxtaposition – is devastating.

Most of the lists in this book are integrated into more conventional essays. Take, from many possible examples, this list of biographical detail on David Rafael Wang, scholarly collaborator of William Carlos Williams:

Wang, also known as David Happell Hsin-fu Wand, was born in China – a direct descendent, he claimed, of Wang Wei – escaped to the US after the revolution, and became surely the only Chinese-American who was both a neo-Nazi white supremacist (and a member of the seedier circles around Pound in St Elizabeths) and a Black Panther (in Oakland in the 1960s). Among other things, he was also a stodgy professor, active in the academic bureaucracy; a bisexual boxing and martial arts fanatic who had long talks about poetry with Muhammad Ali; a poet (‘in the Greco-Sino-Samurai-African tradition’) and friend of many of the Beat and Black Mountain poets; a translator of Hawaiian and Samoan oral poetries, included in the Rothenberg Technicians of the Sacred anthology; and a possible suicide (at a MLA convention) who some people believe was murdered.

Let me try for a list of my own.

In ‘Postcard from China’, describing the familiar types found at poetry festivals, surely with himself in mind: ‘the polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry or Shang Dynasty numismatics.’

In ‘Where Was New York’, a trenchant criticism of E B White’s version of that city: ‘New York is a city of outsiders where no one is a foreigner because everyone is a foreigner.’

In ‘Kenneth Cox’, quoting Cox describing Allen Upward, but could easily be describing his own effect on the reader: ‘an almost continuous sense of intellectual elation.’

In ‘Susan Sontag’ – a non-hagiographical tribute written after her death: ‘A famous writer with numerous friends and varied interests, she became, as is often the case, bogged down in ephemera and favours: speeches, statements, responses; program notes for performances of dance, theatre and opera; short texts for art catalogues; something on grottoes for House and Garden; something on Don Quixote for the Spanish Tourist Board.’

In ‘Anonymous Sources (A Talk on Translators & Translation)’: ‘cultures that do not translate stagnate, and end up repeating the same things to themselves.’ And later in the same essay, after explaining that the verses of the Quran known in English as the Satanic Verses, are known as gharaniq (the birds) in Arabic, so that when the title of Rushdie’s book was translated literally into Arabic it was generally read as meaning that some or even all of the Quran was written by Satan, which would be blasphemy enough, whatever was in the novel itself:

[T]he Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, an Islamic scholar, was stabbed to death in his office at Tsukuba Unversity in Tokyo. As far as I know, Rushdie has never made an extended comment on Hitoshi Igarashi. It would take another kind of novelist – Dostoevsky perhaps – to untangle the psychological, moral and spiritual meanings and effects of the story of these two: the man who became the most famous writer in the world at the price of what seemed, for some years, to be life imprisonment, and the anonymous man who died for a faithful translation of an old mistranslation, paying for the writer’s mistake.

He talks about ‘identity politics and its nerd brother, theory, who thought he was a Marxist but never allowed any actual governments to interrupt his train of thought’. He describes The New Yorker as having a style whose sentences are pathologically rewritten ‘until every article, whether a report from Rwanda or a portrait of a professional dog-walker, sounds exactly alike, driven by domestic similes and clever turns of phrase that mix colloquial speech with unexpected similes.’ I could go on, but you get the idea.

Not every piece in the collection is brilliant – one or two struck me as clever-dicky or obscure. On the whole, though: Best. Birthday Present. Ever.

WordPress automatically generates a list of possibly related posts, but so much in this book touches on things I’ve blogged about recently, I thought I’d compile a small list of my own. I’ll write his essay title, then my blog post title:

• ‘The United States of Obama’ – The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime
• ‘Inventing China’ and ‘The T’ang’ – Shambhala Chinese Poetry
• ‘Postcard from China’ (‘in China, the US is Little Brother’) – Quarterly Essay 39: China Powers On
• ‘Poetry Is News’ – Narkiness and Trouble (both Jennings and Weinberger decry ‘theory’ – one of them is more entertaining than the other)