Tag Archives: Margo Lanagan

Journal Blitz 8b

So much to read, so little time. So many journals, so few subs, and still I can’t keep up.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 238 (Autumn 2020)

Published more than a year ago, this is the first issue of Overland edited by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk. The new editors swept in not so much with a new broom as with a sandblaster. The regular columns are gone; issues are themed (though judging from a quick look ahead this change only lasted three episodes); and there’s a bold new feel to the design.

It may be part of the new approach, or perhaps it’s teething problems, but I found some of the articles in this issue hard gong to the point of being unreadable. Some dispense with sentences as we have known them. Others disappear unapologetically down etymological and literary-history rabbitholes. Yet others drop unexplained references to – I assume – French theorists, with no apparent purpose other than to discourage non-insiders. I tried, I really did, and I’m pretty sure I missed out on some terrific insights, but I just couldn’t finish a number of them. And that’s before I got to John Kinsella’s sequence of poems, ‘Ode to the defenceless: from hypotaxis to parataxis‘, whose prolix obscurity lives up to the promise of its title. I’m not completely sure that some kind of complex leg-pulling isn’t involved, as in the infamous Sokal affair.

This was all the more disappointing because the journal kicks off with a genuinely interesting piece, Toby Fitch’s obituary for British revolutionary socialist poet Sean Bonney (1969–2019), ‘Our Death: Aspects of the radical in Sean Bonney’s last book of poems‘. Toby describes Bonney as having ‘a performative ethics of scathing animosity and nihilistic humour’, and gives the reader plenty of what is needed to grasp the two poems by Bonney that follow his article.

Of the other articles, I want to mention ‘Welcome to the Nakba: notes from the epicentre of an apocalypse‘ by Micaela Sahhar – nakba is Arabic for ‘catastrophe’ and usually refers to the dispossession of Palestinians in the founding of the Israeli state. Writing in the aftermath of the 2019–2020 bushfires, Sahhar offers a startling perspective on Australia’s challenges:

Dear settler-Australia, your Nakba has arrived. Don’t feel helpless, powerless, frustrated, and above all, don’t pray for a miracle. I can tell you from the other side that it will never arrive. It’s time to tackle the structures you made, the structures that will ruin us all.

Poetry and fiction are still a major presence in the new-look journal, and this issue, like its predecessors, includes the results of literary competitions.

The Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, judged by Joshua Mostafa, Margo Lanagan and Hannah Kent, was won by ‘The Houseguest‘ by Jenah Shaw, a story that captures brilliantly the uneasy situation of a young person who has left home in the country to stay with a family in a big city.

The Judith Wright Poetry Prize had three winners, published here with notes from the judges – Michael Farrell, Toby Fitch and Ellen van Neerven, had three winners. Each of these excellent poems left me bemused more than anything else.

Then there are four short stories, which arrive like a reward for persevering: ‘Creek jumping‘ by Cade Turner-Mann, a tiny moment in a rural community that reflects and resists the impact of environmental degradation and colonisation; ‘Mermaid‘ by Gareth Hipwell, a borderline science fiction tale of eco-guilt; ‘Pinches‘ by Emily Barber, an abject tale of sexism; and ‘Urban gods‘ by Cherry Zheng, which could be a starting sketch for a dark fantasy/sci-fi television series.

Jonathan Green (editor), Meanjin Quarterly: The next 80 years, Volume 79 Issue 4 (Summer 2020)

Far from being a new broom, this issue of Meanjin celebrates its continuity with the journal’s past 80 years, reproducing Clem Christensen’s first editorial and featuring short pieces from each of his ten successors in the editorial chair. A powerful narrative emerges of a publication that has managed to survive and thrive in the face of serious challenges, and that has transformed itself many times over to meet the changing times.

Then there’s a stellar line-up of writers, many of them responding to the ‘Next 80 Years’ theme.

Some I need only name for you to get a whiff of their excellence, and timeliness:

  • An email dialogue about time and memory between Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch, apparently an excerpt from an ongoing conversation between these two writers
  • An article from Jess Hill on police responses to domestic abuse call-outs – following up a chapter in See What You Made Me Do
  • A scathing piece about the tree-hating official response to the bushfires, by Bruce Pascoe
  • An even more scathing piece by Michael Mohammed Ahmed about White victimhood (starting with the observation that though people complain that it’s racist to name their Whiteness, it was White people who invented the term)
  • A wide-ranging and lucidly angry piece by Raimond Gaita on moral philosophy vs economics in the context of Covid-19.

And that’s only part of it. Of the remaining articles, the standouts for me are ‘Consider The Library’ by Justine Hyde, a wonderful account of the changing roles of public libraries in Australia and elsewhere, including their potential contributions to averting climate catastrophe; ‘More Than Opening The Door’ by Sam Van Zweden, which advocates for inclusion of people with disabilities in Australian literary life, arguing in particular that if a publication commissions a piece on, say, mental health issues from someone who is drawing on their own experience, then the publication needs to consider having a duty of care to the writer; ‘Heading to Somewhere Important’ by Martin Langford, a brief account of the changing face of Australian poetry over the last 80 years – an impossible task acquitted with grace; and Nicola Redhouse’s ‘Future Tense’, which engages with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in ways that are probably crucial to making that ‘intimidatingly thick opus’ as accessible and influential as we all need it to be.

Scattered like jewels through the pages are poems from David Brooks, Kim Cheng Boey, Eileen Chong, Sarah Day, Jill Jones, David McCooey, and more. If you count two pieces labelled ‘memoir’ that look back from the year 2200, there are six short stories, which project a range of pretty depressing futures. My pick of them would be Tara Moss’s The Immortality Project, where being able bodied is seen as indicating deficiency, and uploading one’s consciousness to Another Place leads to an interesting twist on the expected outcome.

Decades ago, I was a keen subscriber to Meanjin, and in my mid twenties I bought a swag of back copies (from Kylie Tennant, as it happens, whom her husband L C Rodd described to me over the phone as ‘an extinct volcano of Australian literature’). I loved my collection and browsed in it often, but sold it and let my sub lapse when space and time shrank around me with parenthood and a job that required a lot of reading. When I considered resubscribing some time ago, I was deterred by the tiny type – as noted on my blog, here. Someone gave me this issue as a Christmas present, and it seems very likely that I’ll resubscribe.

AWW 2016 challenge completed


This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.




Short Fiction:

Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa








Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White







A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise








I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts

Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin 2012)

seahearts.jpgSome years ago I was waiting at traffic lights in Sydney’s Haymarket when I recognised Margo Lanagan walking across the street in front of me. Her slightly abstracted air could have been a sign that she was planning that night’s dinner, but I like to believe she was busily conjuring up the seal-women of Rollrock Island, imagining one standing naked and unspeakably desirable in the main street of Potshead Village, or another hurling herself desperately into the ocean, or perhaps the witch Misskaella Prout hardening her heart against the fully-human men and women who have scorned her, or someone in ‘the grunt and urge and song and flight and slump of seal-being’.

Lanagan’s previous book, Tender Morsels, was a sometimes harrowing retelling of the Grimms’ ‘Rose Red and Snow White’. In Sea Hearts she takes on selkie lore in which seals become human and take human lovers/spouses, generally with tragic results – pretty much a mirror image of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Forsaken Merman’, in which a human woman has temporarily become a mermaid.

The story unfolds in seven chapters, each told from a different point of view – man, woman and child. A long early chapter belongs to the young Misskaella Prout, who is teased because she is different. We learn along with her that she is a throwback to a time when the men of her island married women who had been magically transformed from seals. Her difference is not only in appearance, but in powers to harness magic, and having at first resisted she eventualy reaches a point where, in grief and bitter resentment, she uses her power to transform a seal into a woman with long dark hair and slender limbs, far more beautiful than the redheaded, work-worn human women of the island. The men are enchanted, and soon the island community is transformed. To the next generation of children, mothers – ‘mams’ – who ‘came from the sea’ are the norm.

But all is not well. Though their transformation includes falling compliantly in love with their human males, and though they are universally loving mothers, the seal-women never cease grieving for their lost life in the sea (none of the chapters speaks from a seal-mam’s point of view – we never see inside their heads, but we see their deep sorrow). Unless they have access to the skins they shed when first transformed they can never return to their original form, and the men make sure those skins are locked securely away.

So far, Lanagan has played very straight with the lore. Her prose is clear and fluent. Every development, every aspect of the world is revealed through action. The characters are all sympathetic: we understand the desire of the men, the rage of the human women, the compliance and the grief of the seal-women, the mixture of genuine love and underlying coercion in the families of the island, even Misskaella’s dark resolve. There are plenty of twists, but also a fairy-tale sense that these things happen as they must and consequences will follow as they are meant to. It’s a tightly-constructed, engrossing, vivid, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant retelling, with a feminist sensibility – there’s no doubt that patriarchy is alive and well on Rollrock Island, but no need to get strident about it, and in spite of it all men are not the enemy.

It’s in the long chapter told from the point of view of Daniel Mallett, son of a seal-woman, that the book shakes things up. Suddenly the children – the sons, I should say, because the daughters are a whole other, heartbreaking story – become key players. There’s a marvellous moment when Daniel, who has long been accustomed to dealing with his mother when the miseries are upon her by offering in an artificially bright voice to rub her feet or get her a cup of tea, finally understands the situation and realises that he can help, and speaks to her ‘not lightly or cheeringly’ – and everything changes.

The northern-hemisphere title of the book is The Brides of Rollrock Island. The Mams of Rollrock Island would have been better.

AWW2016.jpgSea Hearts is the second book I’ve read this year as part of the Australian Women Writers 2016 Challenge. It’s already March and only two books! I’d better get cracking.

Fairy tales can come to U T S

My friend Sarah Gibson has asked me to mention this, and I’m happy to oblige:


Fairy Tales Re-imagined: Enchantment, Beastly Tales and Dark Mothers

A symposium to be held on 13 October, at UTS, Sydney, exploring fairy tales and the cultural imagination. Writers, artists and academics speak about their fascination with fairy tales, their motifs, themes and layers of meaning. They discuss how old stories inspire and inhabit new forms.

Of the speakers listed, in my ignorance i only know three: Sarah, who is a bit of a fairy tale polymath, and Kate Forsyth and Margo Lanagan, both billed as novelists, though I passionately hope Margo hasn’t forsaken what some see as her true calling as a writer of short stories.

The symposium has been initiated by media artist Sarah Gibson, whose interactive online project ‘Re-enchantment’ can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/re-enchantment (link opens external site).

It sounds like a fun way to spend a windy October Saturday in Sydney. If you’re interested you can find information and register at http://fass.uts.edu.au/fairy tale-symposium.html, or email Sarah.

My book club swag

Pam Brown, True Thoughts (Salt Publishing 2008)
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (Allen & Unwin 2008)
Peter Steiner, Le Crime (Thomas Dunne Books 2003, 2008)

Apart from the conviviality, the food, the cards, the ever expanding list of draconian (and largely ignored) rules, what I love about our book club is that it makes me read things I might otherwise not have touched – books about secret rendition and Guantanamo Bay, someone else’s favourite detective novels, intimidating poetry.

One of the welcome consequences of my self-imposed task of blogging something about every book I read is that it pushes me to reflect on my reading.

True thoughtsSo with Pam Brown’s True Thoughts I’m doubly blessed: without the book club I doubt I would have read it, but here it is with an affectionate inscription to one of the club members; without the blog my mind might not have lingered on it any longer than it took my initial bemusement to fade. But here I am, remembering that poetry usually requires the reader to do a little work, and knowing that I would be revealing myself as an unforgivably lazy reader if I just wrote something like, ‘I don’t get it,’ or even, ‘I don’t grasp how these pieces hang together to make poems — I can barely tell where one ends and the next begins.’ (By pure serendipity, after I’d written that para I heard a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast in which Matthew Zapruder talks about immersing himself in John Ashbury’s poems because they moved him somehow even though he didn’t understand them at all, so I’m clearly in good company, and I imagine Pam Brown would be happy to be discussed analogously to Ashbury.)

So, in spite of feeling that I needed someone to take me by the hand and explain how to read Pam Brown’s poems, I went back, took my time, ruminated, savoured, absorbed and, eventually, enjoyed. It was a fascinating process. At the start I was like a colour-blind person looking at one of those red-and-green patterns, then with sustained, though not strained, attention it was as if the colour-blindness healed and the formless array of dots and squiggles reorganised themselves before my eyes into elegant shapes. For example, ‘Peel me a zibibbo’ begins:

I could go [extra characters are spacers &  meant to be invisible]
oooooooin any direction
but it’s best that ooohere and now
ooI remain lesbian,
ooooo keep my vanishing cream

On first reading, this seemed little more than verbal noise, a bit like the start of an Ern Malley poem. And in the middle of the poem, there’s this:

imperfection in kindness
ooooooocomes with the void,
oyou need to
ithe ‘I’m feeling lucky’ google option.

To which I said, ‘Huh?’

I still don’t really get this second quote, but now that the green dots and the red dots have sorted themselves out, I do get that the first quote is meant to tease, and not meant to yield its meaning until the last line, where she addresses the poets and others whose names have cropped as the poem meanders with apparent aimlessness through a day in the life of the poet, and we realise they are all men:

Hi Kurt, ooooooo oooooooooohi John T,
hi Nick, oPaddy, oooohi Shakespeare,
opeel me a zibibbo
ooooooo ooooo would you,
ooooone of you guys?

(A zibibbo, as a note up the back tells us helpfully, is a delicious kind of grape.) The first lines suddenly yield their meaning. The busy-busy Lesbian poet, after making workaday contact with male poets and artists alive and dead, indulges for a moment in a fantasy that she’s some kind of Mae West femme fatale surrounded by male attendants. And I am amused.

tendermorselsTender Morsels an exception as book club books go: I would have read it with or without the BC’s agency. In fact, I’ve been wanting to read it since it came out nearly 12 months ago. I gave it as a Christmas present to one of our members, secure in the knowledge that it would come to the table at one of our meetings. When it did surface, I was a little taken aback when the person offering it, she to whom I’d given it for Christmas, said she’d stopped reading at about 40 pages because she didn’t want to go on reading a litany of suffering. And I confess that when it was my turn, I was close to giving up on page 40 myself. But I read on, and can report that on page 42 everything changes!

This is a wonderful book, and the gruelling first movement is absolutely essential. We need to know just how much the heroine suffers, so that we understand her need to escape, and when other characters (and possibly the back cover blurb as well) make assumptions about what she is avoiding, we know that they completely fail to grasp the strength of character that has enabled her to survive and function as well as she does. The fairy tale ‘Rose Red and Snow White’ plays through the story beautifully. The use of language is exhilarating. Though in one sense things are resolved by about the two thirds mark, there are unexpected twists and turns right to the very last page. Margo Lanagan walked across in front of my car when I was stopped at lights in the city recently. She looked like just another person on her way to an office job. I wondered how many of those others crossing the street were also total geniuses in disguise.

lecrime Le Crime‘s cover quotes compare Peter Steiner to John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Peter Mayle, Agatha Chsitie, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Graham Greene. I have no idea how embarrassed the quoted reviewers are to see their phrases taken out of context like that. The book is not in the league of any of those writers. It creaks, its psychology is implausible, the plot is completely silly, and the structure barely holds up – but it’s a quick, enjoyable read. I liked it mainly for a flashback that lasts for three of the 26 chapters, in which the hero goes on a long walk through the French countryside, starting at Charles De Gaulle Airport and finally crossing the border into Spain (though we don’t go all the way with him). P and I have just booked in for a much shorter walk in France later this year, supported as befits our ageing selves, and these thirty-odd pages make it seem like a very good idea.

Ready for the next Book Club meeting now, I am.