Tag Archives: Rebecca Landon

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
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All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.

SWF: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’