Tag Archives: Communism

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

Recent journals (2) – Overland 197

Jeff Sparrow (ed), Overland issue 197 (OL Society December 2009)

overland 197I initially intended to write a single post about the three journals that arrived in my letterbox this month, but after rabbiting on about Heat at such length I decided I’d better split them up.

In a world where passionate anti-Communist Robert Manne  has been described as a preeminent lefty, there’s clearly a crying need for Overland, whose Communist Party origins flutter from its masthead in the slogan, ‘Progressive Culture since 1954′ (and smirk on the back cover in a quote from The Australian describing it as ‘loopy-Left’). Even before the recent online Subscriberthon I’d been thinking of subscribing – I loved the biography of Guido Baracchi, Communism: a Love Story, written by current editor, Jeff Sparrow, and I have been a freeloader (ie, online reader) for some time.

After the mainly elevated austerity of Heat, Overland‘s direct speech is refreshing. You won’t find essays here that begin as dauntingly as ‘It was while reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s monumental study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, that I fell into an “epileptiform” state’ or ‘I have long associated landscape with passion and solace, and with the urge to record it’. Instead, we get ‘Last Sunday I went to church to be with my father, to say goodbye,’ or ‘Sometimes in life you get lucky.’ Not that the Overland pieces lack heft. The former introduces ‘My Father’s Body‘, Francesca Rendle-Short’s moving and, for my money, profound essay on her relationship with her father who has Alzheimer’s. The latter leads in to Fiona Capp’s ‘The Lost Garden‘, an extract from her My Blood’s Country, which promises to demonstrate Judith Wright’s continuing relevance (‘These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me …’).

There is some engaging fiction, some punchy argument (a trenchant go at Nick Cave, who is a closed book to me so I don’t mind one way or the other), short reviews, engaging essays (Sophie Cunningham, just popping over from Meanjin, visits the drains of Melbourne; Thomas Rye visits an island in Arnhem Land), a swathe of poems. There’s nothing I recognise as loopy-Left, though there are two very interesting articles – one on Ruddism and the other on education as export and its relationship to border control –  written in learned-Left language that makes for hard going (‘The CFMEU and other Left trade unionists wish to increase control of the borders of their labour markets at the point of intersection with the borders of the nation, and definitions of “Australians”‘).

The whole content is available online. I’ve linked to the articles I particularly liked.
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I’ve been lamenting the frequent copy-edit and/or proofing mistakes in Heat for a while. I kept my carping eye peeled for Overland as well. Interestingly enough, although Overland doesn’t include a credit for a copy editor (as Heat does), it doesn’t have anything like the same incidence of irritating and sometimes perplexing mis-edits and typos. There is a spot where lay and laid are used in place of lie and lay , but as this happens consistently over a number of paragraphs I’m willing to put it down to a difference of opinion (in which, of course, they are completely wrong!) rather than sloppiness or ignorance.

Sydney Ideas: Margaret Levi

I’ve been slack in my self-imposed duty to be a blog of record – that is, to keep you informed about what I get up to by way of going out to stuff in the evenings, often stuff you won’t hear about from the newspapers. Could it be that newspapers are dying because they don’t report on events like Tuesday night’s lecture in the Sydney Ideas series, A Challenge to the Hip Pocket: Evoking Commitments to Social Justice by Margaret Levi. After all, there were nearly 50 people at the Seymour Centre to hear her (the myriad other people seemed to be there for a children’s show in one of the other theatres).

All limp attempts at irony aside, it was a really interesting hour.

Professor Levi is joining the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and there was a sense that a fair whack of the audience was made up friends and colleagues from there. In acknowledging this, she looked around cheerfully and expressed the hope that there were new friends in the audience as well. Unusually for a visitor from the US she was remarkably well informed about things Australian, casually dropping John Howard’s name and referring affectionately to the Wharfies , the BLF and Australians’ love of acronyms, at least when talking about trade unions.

Her talk, which is promised to appear on the web soon – here – addressed the question: what is it about the culture and organisation of some trade unions that has their members willingly take on broader goals than the preservation of wages, conditions and so on? What was it about the BLF that made the Green Bans possible? How come the Wharfies (and the Longshoremen on the West Coast USA) went on strike to prevent pig iron being sent to Japan inthe 1930s after the invasion of China? In other words, she said, it’s the Lenin question, from his What Is to be Done? How does one induce workers to look beyond economist self-interest to broader, in Lenin’s case explicitly revolutionary, goals?

I didn’t take notes, but her answer boils down to a couple of things: genuine commitment to democracy in the union (or other organisation), not necessarily in the sense of rotating the main leadership, but in having plenty of openings for membership to have their say, and having had their say to determine policy; membership given accurate information about the world; opportunities for discussion. She’d given a talk at (I think) the MUA recently, and afterwards an old man approached her to say that back in his days on the wharves he didn’t have much time for Communism, but when the Communist leadership told them what the Dutch were doing in Indonesia, and that Dutch ships were passing through Sydney, he and the membership were outraged and willing to take action: they didn’t have an ideological position, but they stopped the Black Armada.

This stuff isn’t taught in history classes. It’s clearly not a huge crowd-drawer. But you know, there was something very sweet about being addressed by a US academic who didn’t shudder when she used the word ‘Communist’, and who responded with respect to questions from the floor from men who I’d guess were old truckdrivers. In fact, one of those men spoke at some length about the importance of workers getting together to talk about their situation, to learn from each other, about how email was no substitute. When he’d wrestled what he wanted to say into some kind of rough question as per the chair person’s instructions, Margaret Levi said, ‘That wasn’t a question. It was a statement, with which I agree.’ She got a laugh, but it was at no one’s expense.