Tag Archives: Omar Musa

Asia Literary Review 28

Martin Alexander (editor) Asia Literary Review 28, [Northern] Summer 2015

alr28This issue of Asia Literary Review was part of a collaboration with Australia’s Griffith Review. I subscribe to ALR (actually I have a complimentary sub, for which I am grateful) but have only read one or two issues of the GR, which I guess makes me an atypical Australian reader of this joint publication.

Because the ALR is an English-language journal, every issue engages with cultural complexities: inter generational stories, post-colonial hybridity, expat and emigrant writing, and some translation. In this issue, Australia is the non-Asian pole of much of the interaction. As always, the Asian presence is nothing if not diverse, including writing from or about mainland China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kashmir, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea (a defector), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Among the Australian contributors, Omar Musa – rapper from Deniliquin, spoken-worder and author of Here Come the Dogs – strikes a different tone in ‘Supernova’, a sober, reflective story about an older emigrant who has returned to Malaysia and takes part in the political process there; Ellen van Neerven’s ‘Half a Butterfly’ reports on a visit to Goa as part of a cultural exchange between Aboriginal Australian writers and Dalit writers; and Jessie Cole’s ‘The Asian Invasion’ is, among other things, a memoir of her childhood in Hippie Nimbin that challenges the received version of that community as drug-fuelled, self-indulgent and delusional, offering instead a recollections of one that was diverse, open to new experiences and other cultures.

One or two articles seem to be written with Australian readers in mind: Keane Shum’s marvellous ‘Ripple from Hong Kong’ tells a history of that island from the perspective of a Hong-Konger whose people were there long before the Chinese ceded it to Britain; in ‘All for the People, without the People’, André Dao starts from his own experience of voting in Melbourne, complete with sausage sizzle, and goes on to consider what democracy and ‘human rights’ might mean in Vietnam, a familiar subject presented through a personal prism; Miguel Syjuco’s ‘Beating Dickheads’, an argument for mockery as a form of resistance to tyranny, invites Australian readers to consider their own practice of mocking those in power (‘Every nation has its unfair share of dickheads. douchebags, dingleberries and degenerates. But my country, the Philippines, bests most in democratic tomfoolery.’); when Prodita Sabarini’s ‘Let Bygones Be Bygones‘ discusses the great Indonesian silence about the 1965 massacres, her main non-Indonesian reference point is Joshua Oppenheimer’s movies The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – Oppenheimer is a USer, but his films have made a big splash in festivals here, as, evidently, they have in parts of Indonesia.

I don’t want to give the impression that everything is geared towards Australian readers. Far from it. The pleasure of encountering the unfamiliar, of being an invited eavesdropper, is as strong here as in any other issue. A number of pieces, for instance, discuss the role of humour, which notoriously travels poorly. Apart from ‘Beating Dickheads’, there’s Murong Xuecun unpromisingly titled ‘Chinese Thinking the Age of the Internet’. ‘If President Xi Jinping is clearheaded,’ he writes, ‘he will understand that although he may be able to seal people’s mouths, he can never stop them sniggering.’ Fair enough, one thinks, but the essay becomes really interesting when it gives examples of the subversive humour that the Internet allows to spread:

New English words with Chinese characteristics are popping up: Chinese citizens become shitizens; Chinese democracy begat democrazy; secretaries with Chinese characteristics (especially the female secretaries of high officials) are sexcretaries. Political jokes are also spreading. Here’s one I encountered recently: Xi Jinping went into the Qingfeng Dumpling Shop and asked what the fillings were. The waitress answered, ‘This one is cabbage and pork; this one is pork and cabbage; this one is pork with added cabbage. Which do you want?’ Xi thought about it for a moment and said, ‘They’re all the same, there’s no choice.’ The waitress responded, ‘Aren’t you forgetting, that’s how we chose you?’

You have to love the people who make these jokes, even if you don’t laugh. And though the essay doesn’t mention Ai Wei Wei, it changes the way one sees what some critics describe as his self-promoting poseurdom (and incidentally, I recommend the Ai Wei Wei / Andy Warhol exhibition that’s currently at the National Art Gallery of Victoria).

I also recommend Asia Literary Review. This blog post has barely skimmed the riches of this issue.

Overland 220 and my November rhyme #6

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 220 (Winter 2015)

220-cover

Almost a third of this Overland is given over to the winners of the inaugural Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize: two essays, two short stories, a poem and a cartoon.

The prize encourages artists and writers to engage with questions like: How does insecure, casual, precarious work affect a person and their community? What do you think a fair Australia looks like? How can we change Australia together? It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a certain sameness about the winners, but also a refreshingly straightforward sense that capitalism is a) brutal and b) not here forever. These 37 pages are a timely counterpoint to the recent publicity the NUW has been receiving from a Royal Commission.

As for the journal proper: Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial cites Slavoj Žižek (a Slovenian cultural critic – I had to look him up) as naming the four horsemen of the ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ of global capitalism as climate change, biogenetics, system imbalances and ever-increasing social divisions. The first and last of these figure prominently in the  rest of the journal.

The non-fiction sections put attention to a shopping list of pressing issues: misogyny and violence against women, the unsettled state of Europe, climate change, plus the politics of the science fiction ‘community’. It’s all worth reading, though some of it tends to be reporting on what has been written by someone else, and it sometimes feels that it might be better to just read the original. Three pieces stood out for me:

  • Anwen Crawford puts shoe leather into ‘No Place Like Home‘, an excellent piece of journalism about the destruction of the public housing community in the Rocks in Sydney
  • Jennifer Mills takes her fiction-writer’s skill to the abandoned buildings of a once great US city in Detroit, I do mind
  • In A person of very little interest David Lockwood adds his personal story to the growing body of funny but unsettling literature about ASIO’s activities back in the day.

Alison Croggon’s regular column is always a pleasure. This time she riffs on reading as a dangerous drug.

In the fiction section (and yes, Overland still presents its fiction and its poetry in two colour-coded clumps), it’s interesting to see Omar Musa – rapper, spoken word performer and author of the novel Here Come the Dogs – move away from the milieu of disaffected youth in an elliptic story, No breaks.

There’s some really interesting poetry. Two John Tranter ‘terminals‘ (a form that I believe he invented, in which he uses the end-words of other poems) are masterly, but create for me a nagging sense that the poem’s relationship to its ‘original’ is more important than the poem itself. I also enjoyed, and am in awe of, poems by Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell and Fiona Wright.

And now, because it’s November, I need to write a little verse. I went looking for the names of past editors (not as easy as you’d expect), and on the way I found a fabulous recent piece of invective against Overland that managed to include blatant sour grapes, sleazy innuendo, dubious history, straw-man arguments, weird illogicality, and one lovely typo. I won’t link to the invective (a search for ‘Overland’ and ‘cesspit’ will find it), but I’ve included the typo:

Rhyme # 6: On reading Overland No 220
Since 1954, when Stephen
Murray-Smith first sought to avoid
dread humourlessness, dogma, even
orthodoxy, we’ve enjoyed
two-twenty Overlands. The Party,
then the Green Left Literarti
gave the helm to Barrett Reid,
McLaren, Syson, then – new breed –
to Hollier–Wilson, Sparrow, Woodhead:
eight editors in sixty years,
provoke our thinking, laughter, tears
and even action. Here a good Red
is alive and well read. Long
may this voice sing its rebel song.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs and the Book Group

Omar Musa, Here Come the Dogs (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

1hcdAt the last meeting: Someone said he wanted us to choose a book that would blow our minds. By the usual apparently random process, we picked Here Come the Dogs. Would it provide the desired explosion?

Before this meeting: The novel follows the lives of three men in their 20s who live in the Town, which is a bus ride away from the City – as Queanbeyan is from Canberra. Solomon and Jimmy are half brothers. Solomon is Samoan, a former basketball player whose career and university scholarship were cut short by injury. Jimmy, whose ‘eyes cut left to right, / paranoid and grim’ – well, his father was a bit of a fabulist, and no one knowns the truth of his ethnicity.Macedonian-born Aleks, their friend and neighbour since childhood, has connections with organised crime. The friends live in hip-hop culture, tagging and rapping, tending their tattoos, ingesting a range of mood-altering substances, fighting when need or impulse calls for it.

A character describes Solomon as bilingual because he can talk to university students in their own language (‘I guess I have to check my privilege. My bad.’). By that token, Omar Musa is multilingual. The novel’s back-and-forth movement from verse to prose is only part of the rich variation in the language: street argot, delicate descriptive prose, fine dramatic scenes, an occasional voice from the mainstream – all are there without any apparent strain. I’ll leave it to someone else to comment on the accuracy of hip-hop language and references – of the hundreds of names dropped I recognised maybe three. But Musa evokes the milieu with tremendous energy. Likewise the tagging/bombing references: it’s something of a miracle that, without any obvious signposting, an outsider like me is rarely left wondering what they mean.

The first chapter, which is laid out as verse, introduces the three main characters. They’re on a night out, as ‘the only ethnics at the dog races’ and then wandering, partying, getting into fights, and one of them into a sexual encounter. It’s smoke-filled, drug-inflected, and definitely not to be read aloud in a vicarage, but it works beautifully as a sequence of poems. The form allows moments like this, a one line poem and its title:

Wish we had a white person with us
Ten empty cabs have passed us by

In the morning-after prose that begins the second chapter, there’s an abrupt change of tone as we find Aleks meticulously cleaning his kitchen and getting his little daughter ready for school. The book keeps on springing similar surprises: just as you expect one thing, it gives you another. An act of criminal violence is performed with genuine compassion; a relationship that looks set to be central to the plot ends with some blunt name-calling; what looks like a major catastrophe turns out to be just another incident in a character’s near-chaotic life; a prison sequence is convincingly real while standing prison-story conventions on their heads; moral choices faced by the characters are deeply complex.

I loved the book. It has a lot in common with fiction that’s been coming from Western Sydney lately, evoking the knockabout world of marginalised people who struggle to live with integrity. And like that other fiction, it burns with passion for that world.

The meeting: It was a big turn-up for lasagna and cheesecake. Everyone had read the book, an almost unprecedented occurrence, and though some were keener than others, we had all enjoyed it. Some found it hard to get past the swagger of the opening chapter. Some found the ending unsatisfactory – partly because there is no real climax, and partly because of a manufactured feel to what climax there is. (I didn’t see either of these as problems.)

One chap said that as novels are mostly read by middle class people, it’s possible to read a lot of this one as intended to challenge middle-class readers. The C-bomb that’s the fourth word of the first chapter is a message in code: You’re not in polite politically-correct land any more. On the other hand, while agreeing that the lives of these characters was very different from our mostly comfortable, educated and secure lives, I think we mostly felt that as readers we weren’t observing them as examples, but finding a lot to identify with.

This led to an interesting discussion about young men and violence – we compared stories of teenage years in suburban London, small-town New South Wales, suburban Sydney. The book’s arson episode drew out arson-related memories. In one episode a character drives his car with his eyes shut, guided only by a voice that may be on his phone or perhaps is just in his head: is it magical realism, or was the young man just very lucky? Someone confessed to once driving with his eyes shut when young, just to see what it would be like to be blind. Like the character, he opened his eyes not far from disaster.

And of course, the conversation ranged: James Turrell in Canberra, Marina Abramovic’s coming visit to Sydney, the merits of the GP that a number of us go to, things we learn from our children, travel tales, movies, theatre …

Thanks, Omar.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, 2015

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were presented last night at the State Library. At one stage I thought I might be able to go as a handbag, but it turned out handbags had to pay their own way, so you won’t see a pic of me in cocktail attire on Twitter. But speaking of Twitter, it’s now possible to participate in such events by proxy and non-simultaneously. Here’s my version of the evening.

The earliest interesting tweet was from someone worrying about the dress code. I could have told her not to worry. This is an event for writers, and though some of the pics that began to appear at hashtag  at about 6 o’clock were decidedly glam, there were plenty to put the worrier’s mind at ease.

Uncle Allan Madden did the welcome to Country, playwright Ross Mueller delivered the Address (in which, as well as saying some wise things about the arts he made an AFL joke or two and commented, amicably I hope, on recent events to do with literary awards in Queensland), Acting Premier and Arts Minister Troy Brampton spoke briefly, so did Richard Neville the Mitchell Librarian, and the show was on the road.

John George Ajaka, NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, announced the winner of the biennial Prize for Translation and the inaugural NSW Early Career Translator Prize. Brian Nelson won the former, and Lilit Zelukin the latter. Few if any other literary awards include prizes for translation, so these are a win for all translators.

Multicultural NSW Award. I saw Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan at the Griffin Theatre Company last year with the wonderful Alice Ansara, and would have been happy to see it win. The winner, Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, is a book I hope to read.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts, featuring Hunter Page-Lochard’s terrifying performance of a young man on the edge of self-destruction, at Belvoir. The smart money was on Tom Wright’s Black Diggers, about World War One’s Aboriginal soldiers. The smart money had it right.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was taken out by The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I’m glad on two counts: it’s good to see a genre piece being gonged, and this film in particular has been much more honoured abroad than at home. Jennifer Kent’s acceptance remarks were recorded on Twitter as mentioning the joys of libraries.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s Crossing, both published by Scholastic Omnibus.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature went to The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, who shared some letters from her readers..

(At about this point in the evening, the ABC Book Club’s Twitter account decided that the embargo was lifted and revealed the remaining winners. This would have been the moment to lay bets on David Williamson.)

The favourite for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was surely David Malouf’s  Earth Hour, which happens to be the only shortlisted book I’d read. It won. David was described on Twitter as ‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’ and an ‘Australian icon’. A text sent to me from the room described him as ‘ever gracious and lovely’.

How do people possibly choose among the range of books shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction? Intimate memoir, passionate court reporting, grand history, cultural essays: it’s a lot harder than apples vs oranges. However, choose the judges did, and gave the gong to Don Watson’s The Bush. In accepting the prize he said, no doubt with his usual gloomy demeanour: ‘You need encouragement when you’re young, but also when you’re old.’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: I’ve just finished reading Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (blog post to come after the book group meets) and was backing it to win. The actual winner, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, is a worthy recipient of whom I am a fan, though I expect the judges did some soul searching when they realised he was the only white man on the shortlist. Omar Musa congratulated Luke on Twitter within minutes.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, generally regarded as the big prize of the night, went to The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw, who compared writing a novel to running a marathon.

The special award was given to David Williamson. The State Library’s tweeter described his work as laconic. Is that the sound of pedants writhing? Laconic or not, the tall man is giving his prize money to the Ensemble Theatre to ensure the production of new Australian work. [Later: My mistake. The tweet in question said iconic, not laconic. I’m not sure how DW is iconic, but that description fits him better than the other.]

The book of the year went to Don Watson for The Bush, who Twitter said was dumbstruck.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels – so Helen Garner and Biff Ward aren’t in the running – closes at midnight on Thursday. The prize will be announced on Friday.

So there you have it. Congratulations all round. People in the room acknowledged the Auslan signers. I acknowledge the tweeters. It was almost like being there.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Omar Musa’s Parang

Omar Musa, Parang (©2013, Penguin 2014)

1parang

Omar Musa is a bit of a phenomenon: rapper, poetry slam champ  (see below), TEDxSydney talker, he has produced a number of CDs and featured in a number of YouTube videos. Parang, first published by Blast! Publishing, an entity so small I couldn’t find it on the www, includes some poems that here make the transition from the stage to the page, and others that are definitely starting life as page poems.

The range of subject matter is wide. Asylum seekers, violence against women, alienated suburban life, the possibility of humanity’s disappearance, street lie, all rendered with exuberant rhetorical flourish of a public performance. In ‘My Generation’, there’s even a homage to Allen Ginsberg:

My generation
was populated by boozehounds and pillheads
crude clowns and bedspreads
stained with the neon dreams of cocaine fiends.
I mean,
the diamond-flooded visions of sex kittens
who sweat bullets, glitter and Chanel.

The most interesting poems are in the first section, ‘Parang’. Mostly shorter and more contained, perhaps more carefully shaped, these engage with Musa’s Malaysian heritage. Where Seamus Heaney famously compared his pen to a gun and a spade, and chose the tool over the weapon, Omar Musa takes the parang, the distinctive Malay machete, which can be either, as an emblem of what he is attempting in his poetry:

Parang,
______guardian angel of gangsters and pirates,
______headhunters and thieves.
Parang,
______patron saint of mob rule and blood bath,
______of the man who runs amok through the village.
Parang,
______guiding spirit of the housebuilder, the tool carver,
______the opener of paths.

In ‘The Parang and the Keris’, he contrasts the parang to the keris, the wavy-bladed, highly wrought dagger of heroic tales:

This parang is not heaven forged,
______blade five-waved,
smelted from meteoric iron, divine.

But it is mine.

The poetry has the spirit of humble making that this image claims for it: a hard poem about his father, a celebration of his grandmother, a piece on the inevitable disappointment and also joy of discovering the real place behind family stories of heritage (‘A Homeland’). The poetry also has the edge of danger implied in the parang image, particularly in ‘FELDA’ and ‘sunyi’, both of which demonstrate that Musa’s rage for social justice and environmental is not limited to a western context.

Musa is an electrifying performer. You can see him here in top form with a fabulous audience at Bankstown Poetry Slam. It’s nine minutes or so, and well worth the time. In case you need some of the noise explained, at slam poetry the audience is encouraged to express enthusiasm by clicking fingers and stamping feet.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

1caapThis book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.