Tag Archives: Jeff Sparrow

Overland 215 & 216

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 215 Winter 2014
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 216 Spring 2014

overland215I know it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but the creepy, Not Suitable for Public Transport sexual-predation image on the cover of Overland 215 was enough to put me off reading it until Nº 216 arrived in the mail. I did have a quick look before consigning it to the shelf.

I skipped discussion of the Sydney Biennale boycott (this year’s Biennale was a fizzer anyhow), the politics of Wolf Creek 2 (gore fests aren’t my cup of tea), the importance of writers being paid (a no-brainer, surely), and Joe Hockey’s disingenuous anti-entitlement rhetoric (it’s enough to endure it without  going on about it). I skimmed a debate about privilege discourse, an article on queer Indigenous identities, a piece about girls in detention in Victoria in the 1970s for ‘offences’ that included being raped.

I read the instalment of ‘Fancy Cuts’, fiction editor Jennifer Mills’s project in which contemporary writers respond to a short story from Overland‘s archives: here Tara Cartland responds to ‘Josephina Anna Maria‘, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s gruelling tale, published in Overland in 1958, of a migrant woman who dies in childbirth. In Cartland’s story, ‘Nativity‘, a single mother moves to a new town and deals with an invasion of small lizards. The comparison makes our modern protagonist seem awfully individualistic and pampered, which may have been the intention.

There’s some excellent art, particularly a graphic about our complicity in the government’s border protection policies by Sam Wallman, Javed de Costa and Angela Mitropoulos (with a suggestion that we visit xborderoperationalmatters.wordpress.com) and a powerful Mary Leunig image of oppressive domesticity.

In the poetry section, I particularly enjoyed Luke Best’s ‘Desire‘ which riffs on some bits from  Song of Solomon, John Hawke’s ‘The Point‘ which starts out as a backhanded homage to (I think) D H Lawrence and goes somewhere completely unexpected, and Michelle Cahill’s ‘Castrato‘ whose final extended simile I restrain myself with difficulty from quoting.

Overland 216 You can’t tell from the image on the left, but Overland 216 has a very flash cover – a stylised map of a port city with dots on the water, some of them spot varnished: reading this on public transport creates no worries at all. On close inspection it turns out that we’re looking at a partly submerged Melbourne –  artist Megan Cope‘s futuristic vision.

As part of Overland‘s 60th anniversary (pretty good going for a literary magazine, more than half The School Magazine‘s age), there’s quite a lot in this issue that approximates navel-gazing – essays on aspects of the writer’s life, a number of literary magazine editors commenting on their magazines, another Fancy Cut, and an article about Overland‘s founding editor, Stephen Murray-Smith.

In the Fancy Cut, Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Petals‘ riffs beautifully on Brian Gorman’s ‘Afternoon among flowers‘ from 1965. They are both prison stories, both grim, but unlike the two previous Fancy Cuts, this new story is tougher, nastier, more convincing than the original, and Tsiolkas has found a brilliant equivalent of the Gorman’s broken style by casting his story as written in Greek and translated by its author. ‘Stephen’s Vector’ by Jim Davidson gives us a fascinating glimpse of post-WW2 left politics, and the machinations needed to produce a literary magazine that’s affiliated to an often doctrinaire and authoritarian left.

Imagined worlds by John Marnell is another piece on the importance of writing, this time about African sexualities and the importance of queer theory in the struggle against oppression in a number of African countries: ‘Queer Africans are the new thinkers, the new criticism and in many ways they are at the cutting edge of political and social transformation on the continent and its diasporas.’ It’s almost as if, in his view, sexuality has replaced class as the key to understanding and combating oppression. I used to feel that people who insisted on relating everything back to class were a bit tedious – I seem to have changed sides in that equation.

Not all the writing here is about writing and publishing.

Disappeared in Laos‘ by Andrew Nette and ‘Hope Dies Last’ by Shannon Woodcock are two pieces of hard news that would surely have met with the approval of the 1950s Communist Party: the former, on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Laos and the international campaign to locate him and return him to his family (more information here), reminds us that this popular tourist destination has a very dark side; the latter is a straightforward account of the deportation and murder of Romanian Romani under the Nazis.

I doubt if the CPA central committee would have approved of Alison Croggon’s column, ‘On intimate otherness’, but I do. Always good value, Croggon manages – even in the age of the Internet – to be fresh and intelligent on the subject of cats. In the city, she writes, pets are an important reminder ‘that human beings are not the only species on this planet’.

Alternative Spaces‘ by Barnaby Lewer would probably have been too academic for the 1950s Realist Writers project of bringing literature to the workers, but they would have been poorer if they’d ignored this discussion of Andrea James & Giordano Nanni’s play Coranderrk as ‘one example of the way that art, culture and history can reveal how the seemingly “natural order” of our contemporary situation is produced and imposed’.

As always, sequestered up the back, is the poetry.  Whereas issue 215 had a number of activist poems – on our government’s asylum seeker policies, the desecration of sacred sites – this batch tend to be inward looking. Not one, but two despondent poems from Pam Brown, ‘Fading’ and ‘Collected Melancholy’ – so many quotable lines, but I like this bit of poetic injoke:

no phenomenon but in things
like slim cyber tablets
scissors sharpeners vinyl bucket seats
glass paperweights brass padlocks
a sundial

Really I just quoted that because of the nice resonance it has with Kate Fagan’s wonderful ‘Thinking with Things‘, which takes as its starting point a line from Pam Brown’s 2008 poem ‘Things‘, which in turn is taken from Heidegger, ‘why are there things rather than nothing’. Fagan’s poem ends up happily not much caring about the answer.

Overland puts most or all of its content online, but it does it bit by bit. I’ve given links to some of the articles. Others will be available online some time soon at https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-216/. If you subscribe to the paper journal you get them when they’re fresh.

Overland 214

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 214 Autumn 2014

Overland-214There’s something irresistible about triplets: faith, hope and charity / birth, copulation and death / the three Graces / thesis, antithesis, synthesis / silence, exile, cunning … they’re everywhere. Overland‘s deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead invokes a nice one in this issue’s Editorial: for 60 years, she says, the journal has been encouraging dissent, interrogation and craft. It’s not just a pretty phrase: there’s plenty of all three in this issue, including in the first essay, Welcome to Curtin by Avan Judd Stallard, which comes craftily at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It’s a memoir of working in the Curtin detention centre: prevented by the threat of seven years in prison from talking about the treatment of detainees, he describes instead the relationships and attitudes of the workers, with a short story writer’s eye for structure and significant detail.

Jennifer Mills, the fiction editor, introduces a 60th anniversary year feature, Fancy cuts, in which contemporary writers are invited to revisit short stories from the archives, invokes mother triplet: Overland has always been committed to the urgent, emerging or marginalised voices of its day. To kick off the feature, Josephine Rowe’s A small cleared space riffs surprisingly on Roma O’Brien’s When the bough breaks, a story of a hospital stillbirth that must have been harrowing when it was published in 1965, but now reads as a tale from an era of almost unbelievable callousness.

B J Thomason’s A slippery bastard deftly interrogates the myth of poet, horseman and Boer-murderer Breaker Morant, and in passing links him with two other mythologised slippery bastards. So we have triplet of Australian anti-heroes: Breaker Morant, Ned Kelly and Chopper Reed.

‘Cats are out, sloths are in’ by Jeff Sparrow is positively bursting with triplets. Subtitled Truth, politics and non-fiction, it looks at the fact-checking practice or otherwise of clickbait sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy and more ‘serious’ liberal news sources like Crikey, the Conversation, the ABC. Current fact checking differs from the famous rigour of, say the New Yorker, in three significant ways (for which you’ll need to read the article). But checking facts has a limited usefulness, unless you realise they are part of a triplet: ‘facts’, theory and political practice.

There are three short stories in the Fiction section, including Anthony Panegyres’ Submerging, a parable about global warming embedded in a genuinely distressing tale of adolescent misery.

Up the back, are the three finalists in the 2013 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize. Peter Minter, the judge, says he looks for poems in which every line ‘embodies perception, ideation and the breath‘. That’s a lovely triplet. I’m sorry that I didn’t warm to any of the poems.

There are other triplets, including the three mysteries in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in The last space waltz? by Claire Corbett, but not everything comes in threes. Four columnists are entertaining and intelligent: Alison Croggon reflects on how literacy and orality affect memory and perception (a subject Ross Gibson tackles at length in his book about William Dawes’s notebooks,  26 Views of the Starburst World); Giovanni Tiso ponders gloomily on our changing concept of the future; Mel Campbell challenges habit of thinking of writing in terms of productivity; Stephen Wright managed to make me laugh a number of times in a column devoted to wishing he was funnier. I missed Rurijk Davidson, another regular columnist – on leave perhaps?

There are two excellent pieces that I couldn’t shoehorn into my numerical scheme. Brendan Keogh’s On video game criticism, cast as a letter to Susan Sontag, manages to communicate the intellectual excitement in its eponymous field, even to someone whose video game experience doesn’t go much beyond Space Invaders, Pacman and Tetris. Jill Jolliffe’s A new thalidomide? tells you more than you wish was true about hospital use of DES and other drugs, often without consent, on single mothers from the 1940s all through the 1960s in Australia, with health consequences still being discovered, including in the grandchildren of the women given the drug.

Sixty years of dissent, interrogation and craft! May the road rise to meet you, Overland, and the wind be at your back for at least 60 more.

Overland 213

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 213 Summer 2013

213o I’m coming to this Overland late: the next issue must be just about due. Here are some brief notes with links, and because I’m late in writing the links are all live.

The reliably enjoyable regular columnists,  Alison Croggon, Rjurik Davidson and Stephen Wright demonstrate that just about any life event can prompt a writer and habitual reader to reflect on readerly–writerly matters: in this case they start respectively from packing up to move house,  serious injury and building a bedroom–library. Mel Campbell’s article The Writer as Performer offers a more sobering view of the writer’s life – the freelance writer as no more free of panoptic supervision than the less glamorised office worker.

In Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech and its rhetorical legacy, Tom Clark does a very nice job of explicating the distinctive nature of that speech – different in significant ways from Paul Keating’s usual mode, and interestingly the subject of public squabbles over its authorship (the existence of the squabbles is what’s interesting rather than any proposed resolution). John Campbell, the Anti-Kim by David Brophy, explores a Victorian proto boy’s-own-adventure story and the reality behind it.

The centrepiece of this issue is the 2013 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. The three shortlisted stories are published here, along with comments from the chief judge, Jennifer Mills. All three of the stories are worth your time: Turncoat by Jennifer Down (the winner), Rush by Nic Low and The job by Robyn Dennison. I’m not quarrelling with the judges’ decision at all, but if you only click on one of them I recommend you choose Nic Low’s for sheer subversive fun.

As ever, poetry is sequestered up the back on tinted paper, and as ever it’s a feast. Treasure hunt, a prose poem by Anne Elvey, finds poetic form for the experience of a parent’s dementia.  Refrigerator by Elizabeth Allen, also a prose poem, has this memorable ‘out of the mouths of babes’ moment:

There were also the brightly coloured fish in my brother’s aquarium. One day when I saw my five-year-old sister staring at the tank, I said to her, ‘The fish are pretty aren’t they?’ She said, ‘I’m not looking at the fish. I’m looking at the space between them.’

Fiona Wright gives us Marrickville, an inner city love poem … kind of. Samuel Wagon Watson’s Cloud burst invokes T S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ to devastating effect. Walmadany by Brenda Saunders puts poetic flesh on the issue of mining on traditional Aboriginal land. Mark Mordue (I didn’t know your eyes were blue) and Larry Buttrose (Toast) have elegies for their fathers, the latter with the arresting opening lines:

The smell of toast reminds me of my father,
Not only because he was cremated.

I want to pick a nit over Northgate by Adam Formosa, which begins

A cigarette bud sits
at my windscreen

but then doesn’t take the image of cigarette as blossom anywhere. It leaves its readers wrestling with phantom meanings until we finally conclude that bud was just a misspelled butt, and no metaphor was intended. The poem about the cigarette bud is yet to be written.

Overland 211

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 211 Autumn 2013

OL211As a happy subscriber (and not only because I won some free chocolate in last year’s subscriberthon), I’m glad to read in Jeff Sparrow’s editorial in this issue that although Overland is now a project, of which the print journal is only one part, the printed object will continue to appear regularly for the foreseeable future. I am one of the many people who, he says, ‘still like to read (in particular) long essays, literary fiction and poetry on paper, away from the distractions of their iPad’. I also enjoy the synergies that can arise within the bounds of physical covers, quite different from the boundless variety of the online world.

An example of what I mean by synergy occurs in the play of ideas and perspectives among: ‘The one day of pure form’, in which Guy Rundle argues that Anzac Day is a weird commemoration whose meaning can and does change to suit the needs of whoever happens to be in power; ‘Peregrinus Requiescat’, a short story by Warwick Newnham that, beneath a sophisticated play with form and some not always correct or correctly translated Latin, is moved by a straightforward impulse to honour a man who died in combat by marching in his place on Anzac Day; and Barry O’Donohue’s poem, ‘Vietnam ritual’, whose speaker is a Vietnam War veteran free of any commemorative or romanticising impulse. ‘The innocence of Australians’ by Ramon Glazov, a review of a collection of short stories that imagine terrorist attacks in Australia, takes on a different hue in the context of those three pieces. Glazov sees in most of the stories an inability to imagine a plausible motive for attacking Australia – because after all, so the ‘thinking’ goes, we’re innocent global citizens in the sense that what we do hardly matters, whether it’s sending a token force to kill and die in the US’s wars, or opening another coal mine. This presumed innocence isn’t the same as the ‘pure form’ that Guy Rundle sees in Anzac Day, but the two concepts talk to each other interestingly.

Synergy is there again in the way one’s mind bounces between ‘The possibility of patronage’ by Anwyn Crawford, a curmudgeonly piece about the limitations of crowd-funding, pop-up galleries and other innovative ways of getting artists and money together, and ‘Paying the writers’, in which Jennifer Mills and Benjamin Laird are set up to debate responses to the trend to expect writers to accept ‘exposure’ as recompense for their work, but can’t help agreeing that some form of collective action is desirable. That bouncing affects the way one reads Alison Croggon’s characteristically elegant column ‘On Homelessness’. She doesn’t connect her two experiences of homelessness with being an artist except to imply that writing was her way of keeping her sense of self intact, but in this context one wonders if poor compensation for writing may have had something to do with the problem in the first place. And then there’s Judy Horacek’s cartoon parodying a current credit card ad: ‘A career in the arts: priceless. And for everything else, there’s dumpster diving.’

There are also stand-out stand-alones. In ‘Pump’, Stephanie Convery tells of her participation in a women’s body-building course, which manages to challenge some aspects of sexism and male domination while bowing to others: the article includes fascinating history, high comedy, memoir and challenging analysis. Apart from some Melburnian sneers at country Queensland, ‘All those women’ by Jacinda Woodhead is richly empathetic: in the context of Queensland’s dire abortion situation – abortion is a crime except under closely defined conditions; it’s hard to access, expensive and stigmatised – Woodhead presents a portrait of tiny anti-abortion, anti-war group Protect Life. While recoiling from their politics on abortion, she and pro-choice activists she interviews communicate a respect for their commitment to principles and sheer stamina. Jill Dimond’s ‘Ned Kelly’s Skull’, which justifies the phrenological cover image, includes a fascinating look at some eccentric colonials. Giovanni Tiso makes some alarming sense out of recent events in Italian politics in ‘The Net will save us’.

In the poetry section, I was relieved to see a couple of bird poems, since current Going Down Swinging submission guidelines specifically rule out ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’ and it would be a shame if birds were to disappear from Australian poetry altogether. I’m grateful for The shearwaters by Jules Leigh Koch, ‘a long tideline / like a driftnet / to fish for stars’, and I probably would have loved ‘The swallows in Saint Peter’s Square’ by Luke Whitington for its name alone.

Not all those links will take you to a full article, at least not at the time of writing, but be patient. Overland does tend to put just about everything online in the weeks after an issue comes out. Or you could buy a hard copy and find your own synergies.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

Friday began wet and grim but cleared up to a spectacular harbourside brilliance, only to pelt down as darkness fell. But that was only he weather.

I only managed two events.

As a common or garden blogger and minimally published writer, I would have felt remiss if I didn’t attend Writers Who Blog. The four panellists came at blogging from quite different perspectives.

Mark Forsyth writes a short blog entry every day, always about some peculiarity of the English language (while here he met the word yakka for the first time). He admitted that he had started his blog The Inky Fool in the hope that it would lead to a book contract, and it did, to two books in fact.

Tara Moss already had a number of books published when she stumbled into blogging – she did a gig as guest blogger for the SWF a couple of years ago and wrote 21,000 words in a week. The appeal of writing and publishing without a moderator was irresistible, and as she has done more over the years, breaking all the standard rules about length, range, language level and frequency, her sense of herself as a writer has transformed.

Lorraine Elliott blogs full time at Note Quite Nigella, a blog about food. For her, blogging was a way out of the advertising world, which is ‘all about money’. I didn’t quite get how she does it full time, that is, whether it generates an income, but she told lovely stories of ow her blogging has created a bridge in her relationship with her mother.

Angela Meyer, of Literary Minded, was a participating chair who necessarily focused on chairing and made it look effortless. I would have liked to hear more about her own blogging experience, which she described in her intro as being in part about tracking her own trajectory as an emerging writer.

All four panellists seemed to count their hits in the hundreds of thousand. My biggest day scored 228. My impression is that questions at the end came mainly from bloggers on my scale. I got to ask the first question, and resisted the temptation to be one of those grey-haired gentlemen who seizes the opportunity to tell his life story. I asked about difficulties with comments. Mark had a ready, sensible answer: ‘Don’t start an argument on the Internet.’ Tara took the microphone: ‘My advice is, Start arguments on the Internet.’ They were both right, of course. I liked Tara’s final note: ‘When you do get into an argument, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see quoted in the newspaper.’

One key observation – I don’t remember by whom – chimed with Robert Green’s reflections on creativity the day before: blogging is still very new, and there are no hard and fast rules about how it should be done, and each of the panellists said that the rules as formulated so far as guides for beginning bloggers didn’t really apply. Come back in 50 years and we might have a set of clear rules like the ones that govern journalism now, but for the time being the field is wide open for creativity and discovery.

At half past two I had to choose among Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet with Jeff Sparrow, Robert Manne and others, Dermot Healy in conversation with Luke Davies , and Turning the Tide with Lionel Fogarty, Melissa Lucashenko and others. Would I opt for anxiety, pleasure or pain? It was a toss-up, and in the end I went for anxiety and climate change: I admire Jeff Sparrow’s writing and editing – I was interested to hear him and Robert Manne in conversation; I had read the article on climate change and neoliberalism in the current Overland by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, of whom the last two were also on the panel, and would love to hear its implications teased out in discussion.

It was probably a wrong decision. There was no conversation. Jeff Sparrow was a non-participating chair. Each of the three panellists delivered a paper, they didn’t address each other’s points except to complain that the session was too short, and as far as I could tell none of the presentations added anything substantial to what had been said in the previously published articles. ‘As far as I could tell’, because Jeremy Walker read so fast and assumed so much prior knowledge of (I think) economics that I was completely at a loss to know what he was saying. In short, Robert Manne thinks there’s little reason not to despair. Antoinette Abboud warned us not to be seduced by the neoliberal three-step strategy of denialism, carbon trading and geo-engineering. Jeremy Walker said something very complex and possibly profound.

The first person to speak in question time said we should all pay attention to Bill McKibben, and all panellists seemed to agree. ‘Why aren’t we out in the streets screaming about this?’ the same man asked when instructed by the chair to get to the question. Robert Manne had a ready answer: ‘Because we’re consuming.’

The problems of the world weren’t solved, and if Robert Manne is right they never will be. But change is never linear, and hope, the thing with feathers that perches in the breast, lives on.

Overland 210

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 210, Autumn 2013

210-overland Your mileage will vary, but the article in this Overland that stands out for me is Beyond denial by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, which argues that ‘the phenomena of science denialism, emissions trading and geoengineering are not in fact unrelated or rival panaceas but rather constitute together the full neoliberal response to global warning’. The article makes a distinction between neoclassical economics and neoliberalism, describing the latter, in what I wish was a harsh caricature, as worshippers at the shrine of an all-wise market, who hold, for example, that ‘Science is not an independent mode of truth discovery: it is a boutique knowledge format only validated by “the marketplace of ideas”‘.

The neoliberal response to the climate change challenge is, if I understand the article correctly:

  1. Deny the science so as to distract attention from the crisis and buy time for commercial interests to find a way to profit
  2. Back emissions-trading schemes in order to divert political actors from using state power to curb emissions into setting up carbon markets, which won’t ever work, because the big polluters are already finding ways to go on polluting
  3. Develop grand geoengineering schemes that will make huge profits for corporations but will not address the root problem of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations or stop ocean acidification.

The article doesn’t come up with an opposing plan, but it gives a salutary map of the terrain. I recommend the whole thing.

Elsewhere, this issue strikes a nice balance between giving pleasure and holding the reader’s feet to the fire.

First, the pleasures include:

  • interesting chat from regular columnists Alison Croggon and Rjurik Davidson  about, respectively, Tolkien and Hollywood’s version of Second World War resistance movements
  • Francesca Rendle-Short writing about writing about her late father (as she has elsewhere), including poignant moments that will strike a chord with anyone who has a close relative with advancing dementia:

    [H]is hands dance largo, float and rise and fall in a slow movement set to its own tune, an adagio. First, he clasps them in front of his chest as though in a praying gesture, a supplicant hold where the palms lie flat against one another. Then he pauses a moment to pray, to ask for God’s blessing before the fingers start to stir larghetto. They loop first this way so the fingers interlace each other; then right then left, before rising up elongated in a slow, seesaw action. A ritual dance.

  • The cartography of foxes,  a deeply satisfying and unsettling short story by Theresa Layton that augurs well for Jennifer Mills’s tenure as Fiction Editor
  • Peter Minter’s report as judge of the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets, which is almost as enjoyable as the winning poems, particularly his description of how he read and re-read the submissions in the midst of domestic life
  • The winning poems, especially the winner, Augury? by Luke Fischer
  • An essay by Californian Aaron Bady that, after going on a bit about the Great American Novel, confirmed my decision not to give any cash to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, with an argument that chimes with my experience of The Hurt Locker. The movie succeeds as propaganda, he writes,

    because it never tries to glorify the protagonist’s obsession, never tries to rationalise it, defend it or even make it seem attractive … But it’s still the one we’re stuck with for two and a half hours … You have no choice but to identify with torturers whose motivations you understand, and with the victims of Muslim terrorists whose motives you are not allowed to be privy to.

  • Judy Horacek’s dark cartoons (I couldn’t find a link), especially one that should probably be in the ‘feet to the fire’ category, in which two people holding a ‘Save the Planet’ sign face a gang holding signs that read  ‘Save our Profits’ – she manages to be funny about discouragement.

And then there’s what Overland does so well, argument and analysis of the harsh realities of our times from a progressive point of view. Some highlights:

  • Alyena Mohummadally on being same-sex attracted, Muslim, and organised in Australia
  • Panagiotis Sotiris offering an alternative view of the Greek economic situation. His repeated calls for ‘struggle and solidarity’ as the necessary response to the fascist Golden Dawn, is little more than sloganeering shorthand, but where else can you find a clear challenge to the mainstream narrative about Greek laxity finally being brought to heel by the benign forces of the EU, the IMF etc?
  • Martin Kovan on the alarming number of ethnic Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years, mostly with fatal results. The article discusses how these burnings remain largely unnoticed in the West, ‘inside the narcissism of self-interested, racially conditioned and materially anaesthetised ethical immunity’, then focuses on the English Buddhist novice who self-immolated in southern France late last year. Kovan knew the monk, and his reflections are personally charged
  • Guy Rundle, self-described default Luddite, reporting on 29c3 – the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress, at which hackers confronted the rise of the total-surveillance state. He reflects on the relationship between hacktivism and the Left, in particular on what their different histories mean they can learn from each other. In doing so, he manages to end the journal on a note of restrained optimism.

I’ve included links to everything except the cartoons. Overland make its entire content available on line. It also publishes background interviews on some articles in its Editors’ Blog, which is one place on the Internet where the comments don’t make you want to run screaming from the room.

Overland 209

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 209, Summer 2012

overland209There’s an interesting self-referential moment in this issue of Overland when Rjurik Davidson takes issue with the mainstream notion that writers engage ‘in an ongoing discourse among equals that takes place in the public sphere’, a notion that ‘presumes a single culture, a realm of enlightened discussion and the free play of ideas’. He argues for

a conception of the radical writer belonging to a counter-public (or more accurately, counter-hegemonic) sphere, a sphere that includes its own publications and institutions, its own periodicals and clubs and networks of power. It’s a quite different notion of the writer, one that recognises that polite liberal discourse excludes certain things from being said and that, within the public sphere, comments that strike at the heart of things and books that ask fundamental questions tend to sound shrill or unhinged.

Overland, as a periodical belonging to such a counter-hegemonic sphere, does have its unhinged-sounding moments: in this issue, ‘The pessimism of time: The paradoxes facing the Left‘ by Nina Power, calls on ‘the Left’ to abolish time, or at least to create ‘a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time’. (Given that ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland, a short story further on in this issue, is a fantasy about a girl who really can make time stop, I haven’t entirely given up hope that Power’s argument is a poker-faced satire, or that its inclusion is an editorial prank, designed to make readers appreciate the sensibleness of the rest of the issue.)

Elsewhere there’s plenty of anti-hegemonic goodness that doesn’t come close to shrillness and stays on its hinges. In a characteristically elegant column, Alison Croggon skewers the commodification of writers and writing implied in the idea that a writer must be a ‘brand’. David Carlin gives a warts and all account of life in a successful anti-hegemonic theatre institution, Adelaide’s Red Shed Company. Everett True’s essay on Pussy Riot contextualises and actively embraces their music and their politics, both of which tend to be seen as shrill and unhinged in the mainstream media. Isabelle Skaburskis and Elizabeth O’Shea rely on their experience as activists to go beyond the familiar media narratives on human trafficking (sorry, no link) and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers respectively. Sophie Cunningham challenges the received version of what happened in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, having found evidence of, among other things, including looting by NSW police (again, no link: they can’t give us everything for free). Don’t expect to see any of those articles reprinted in the mainstream media.

Among such riches, the stand-out piece for me is Lisa Farrance’s article, ‘Living the life within: The benefits of sport‘. It’s fairly common when people are bewailing the lack of funding to the arts that an arts–sport dichotomy is invoked. You know the line: more Australians visit an art gallery or take part in another cultural event on any given weekend than attend a sporting match, yet sports receive disproportionately more help from the public purse. So it’s refreshing to read an article in a literary journal that celebrates sport as a means to ‘find ourselves whole again’, to challenge sexism and the alienation we experience under capitalism, to enact progressive politics: not just exercise to keep fit, but sport to become whole. And not only that, but Ms Farrance’s exemplars of sports with radical potential are two that are easily dismissed with a shudder in ‘polite liberal discourse’: boxing and roller derby.

There’s a fiction section comprising the three winners of the inaugural Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers: ‘Killing Floor‘ by John Turner, ‘The day the world stayed the same‘ by Melissa Fagan and ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland. All three stories make me look forward to their authors’ continuing emergence.

And tucked away up the back on tinted paper, as if in a kind of quarantine, ten pages of poems. The little I’ve read of Michael Farrell’s work until now I’ve found shiny but inaccessible – something for hardcore poetry readers. His poem here, ‘Making Love (to a man)‘, makes me reconsider: it’s funny and sexy and warm and friendly. The same is true – with less of the ‘sexy’ – of Fiona Wright’s ‘Obit‘, whose 24 lines, like a conversation at a wake, evoke a sense of loss through cool, anecdotal reminiscence.

I know the Overland subscriberthon is over, so if you subscribe now you won’t win any prizes (like the block of chocolate and free sub I won in November), but you would get your money’s worth.

Overland 208

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 208, Spring 2012

There’s a lovely interplay among articles in this issue of Overland: one voice picks up a theme introduced by another and amplifies it or does something unexpected with it, disagreements emerge and remain unresolved, odd harmonies and counterpoints pop up. It’s like ideas music.

Longtime working journalist Jonathan Green predicts the imminent death of the quality newspaper. Responding to the commonplace that newspapers have to develop a new business model in the age of the internet, he writes:

In truth there never has been a business model for quality journalism, only a happy coincidence in papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the New York Times in which a successful platform for the publishing of classified advertising coincided with newspaper owners who saw advantage, influence, power – and perhaps even a public duty – in fostering serious, thoughtful journalism.

‘The sad truth for journalists in a commercial construct,’ he argues, ‘is that their department is exclusively a cost. It produces no revenue … In the commercial mind, journalistic content is either the plaster between the ads or something tailored specifically at attracting them. … No one ever valued serious journalism enough to pay for it.’ He doesn’t put it this way, but he’s describing the way contradictions work in capitalism – in order to make a profit, the enterprise has to provide people with something they need, and ever since the mid 18th century some for-profit newspapers have on the one hand served the ideological and commercial needs of capital but on the other provided their readers with a significant record of events and a forum for discussion,with a huge potential for fostering resistance to capitalism.

Alex Mitchell’s ‘Fatal Obsessions‘, about aspects of Rupert Murdoch’s early years, amplifies one element of that story. Murdoch as a newspaper owner has certainly fostered serious, thoughtful journalism, but Mitchell describes how, even his early years, he rubbed shoulders with ‘bent coppers, crooked politicians and illegal gamblers’, and put some of them on staff. It’s clearly a case where the ‘quality’ bit of quality journalism is there at the whim of the owner.

The veteran Green has no sooner lamented the passing of what quality newspapers have provided – ‘a mature, moderated conversation that was broadly shared and thus to be reckoned with’ – and shaken his head at ‘our more fragmented, shriller public life’, than young New Yorker Malcolm Harris pipes up with ‘Twitterland‘, describing Twitter as a terrain rather than a tool, and then, getting down to cases, telling us approvingly how Twitter can be used to lie on an industrial scale, to shout down ideological enemies, to hide from the consequences of your actions and to unleash mob actions against individuals. That these things are done, in his examples, for in order to draw a crowd to an Occupy event, counter corrupt but sophisticated arguments, evade malicious prosecution and ward off a harasser appears to render them unproblematic in his view. In the context of Green’s article, it’s hard to share his complacency.

The proximity of Harris’s article to Green’s raises another interesting question: if it is indeed, as Green says, a ‘happy little accident’, a ‘weird conjunction of advertising and reporting that has managed to maintain a healthy fourth estate’, isn’t it another happy little accident that makes commercial enterprises like Twitter available as places where progressive forces can organise?

Another set of resonances is kicked off by Anwyn Crawford’s ‘Fat, Privilege and Resistance‘, a response to an article by Jennifer Lee in the previous issue. It’s brilliant, arguing that while Lee tellingly draws attention to fat oppression, she doesn’t take readers much beyond the act of recognition. In particular, Crawford introduces much-needed class analysis into the conversation. But it’s a different bit that fits my theme of serendipitous connections. Here’s Crawford taking issue with Lee’s argument that fat women should make themselves visible as a liberatory act:

Women – fat and thin – live with a particular kind of watchfulness, a sense of always being on display …

Perhaps we lack a word subtle enough for the condition that I described in [my essay ‘Permanent Daylight’, Overland 200] as ‘a deep and systemic psychic distress … of perpetual visibility’. If visibility is a condition of women’s oppression, then why should we keep demanding to be seen? If all the billboards across the world were replaced overnight, and fat women took the place of bone-thin models advertising underwear and perfume, would this constitute victory? I wouldn’t think so: I’m still being sold stuff, and someone else – another woman – is still being objectified for the purpose of selling it to me. To demand visibility is to submit to capitalism’s strictures: to accept that being an image is more important than being a subject; to accept representation in place of participation.

I’m sure there’s argument to be had there, but the phrase ‘representation in place of participation’ is cogent. And it casts a long shadow over the article ‘Outsider Porn‘, in which Matt Cornell argues, among other things, that ‘porn can be a powerful venue for self-expression, for asserting agency in a culture with narrow, constricting ideas of beauty, sexuality and gender expression’. If you are cut off from participation, then go for representation. I remain unconvinced of the liberatory value of porn. The connection to the debate about fat liberation becomes explicit:

One of the central critiques of pornography is that it objectifies women by reducing them to specific body parts. Yet this is what happens routinely to fat people who are photographed from the neck down for moralistic news stories on the obesity epidemic.

I’m sorry, this is just about as logical as the argument that feminists shouldn’t object to sexist abuse of women in public life if they don’t object with the same passion to male politicians being insulted: ‘You say this is oppressive. Well, that over there is oppressive too.’ I love it that Overland gives space for genuine, unresolved disagreement, publishing this porn-as-liberation article after issue 207′s ‘Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ debate, which was unanimous in seeing porn as degrading. I don’t know how the editorial team would feel about my quoting John Stuart Mill in support of their practice, but I dimly remembered a quote and found it by googling. It’s from On Freedom:

though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Then Juliana Qian’s personal essay ‘The Name and the Face‘ tackles the issue of visibility, objectification and agency from a whole other angle. She came to Australia from China as a child, one of a generation that ‘was promised equality after assimilation’. That promise was broken, and the essay ruminates on the kind of invisibility that comes from being stereotyped as an Asian/non-Indigenous person of colour, and the complexity that the stereotypes ignore:

I have a lot of stories. Most of them are not about tradition, nor about assimilation. Most of my life is not about tradition or assimilation. I grew up not between cultures, but within overlapping cultures that are themselves amorphous, contradictory and changeful.

The threads of connection reach into the fiction section, to Jannali Jones’s mock Kafkaesque ‘Blancamorphosis, in which cultures don’t so much overlap as weirdly implode: ‘Jon Dootson woke up in the morning to find he’d been transformed into a long, skinny white man.’

There’s more – it’s a bit of a bumper issue really, with a report on the Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative by Michael Green, a fable-ish (I’d say fabulous, but that means something different now) short story by Jennifer Mills, which has its own Kafkaesque quality, an elegant column on Jane Austen by Alison Croggon, and a swag of poems that, though they’re kept up the back on different coloured paper, do speak to the rest of the journal in many ways. This post has turned out to be far too long, so I’ll content myself with a couple of lines from Tim Thorne’s ‘Honesty‘ that touch on the theme of the quality newspaper:

When I was a teacher
the really smart kids saw through
‘Hard work brings rewards.’ But then,
I’ve always told lies for a living:
dole forms, poetry, I once wrote
a column for a Murdoch newspaper.

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwyn Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

Overland 206

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 206, Autumn 2012

I’ve just realised that this blog is largely about the vastness of my ignorance. In the years since I left full time work I’ve been reading widely and unsystematically on subjects in which I’m either uneducated,  misinformed or wildly out of date, hoping something will stick – and then blogging about it, sometimes in a shamelessly opinionated way.

Take this issue of Overland for instance.

I’ve never studied economics or political science or 20th century history, but I’ll tell you confidently that Richard Seymour’s ‘The European meltdown: Crisis across the continent‘ talks sense about the current economic crisis in Europe. He describes the European Community as ‘a project that, from inception to denouement, has evinced an extraordinary distrust of the masses’. The crisis, he argues, is brought on not so much by the fecklessness or other failings of the Greeks, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese, as by the inherent instability of a system built to give France and Germany dominance over the less powerful nations, and to foster profit over the interests of the working class (he says it much better than that). And Mike Beggs’s ‘Occupy abundance: On whether Australians are too rich to protest‘ does a similarly enlightening job of unpicking the current Australian affluence. It’s true that since mid-1997 there’s been a 10 per cent increase in purchasing power ‘over the whole consumer basket’, but:

The average hour’s pay now buys 59 per cent more clothing and footwear, 71 per cent more household appliances, and an incredible 1066 per cent more audio, visual and computing power than in 1997.

But such goods make up only around a fifth of the average household’s expenditure. Much of the rest of the consumer basket has actually become less affordable. Compared with 1997, the average hours work earns enough to buy 2 per cent less food, 8 per cent less housing, 26 per cent less water, electricity and gas, 18 per cent less petrol, 5 per cent less healthcare and 21 per cent less education.

That may not be news to people who understand economics, but it is to me.

What do I know about life as an immigrant targeted by racism? Yet I can tell you that Michael Green’s ‘Between two oceans: The life and death of Michael Atakelt‘ and The dangers of a single story: On acting and identity by Tariro Mavondo are brilliantly complementary explorations of the subject. In the former (of which an edited excerpt was reprinted in the Fairfax Age, which either takes the sheen off Overland‘s back-cover boast that it is of the loopy-Left or justifies the Australian‘s nickname for the Age, Pravda on the Yarra – you be the judge!), the writer is in touch with Footscray’s Ethiopian community as they struggle to come to terms with the drowning of a young man shortly after his release from police custody, and the extraordinarily long wait for any cause of death to be made public: ‘This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief,’ Green writes, and I would add that it’s also a story of an amazingly resilient community. Tariro Mavondo is about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts: from a relatively privileged background (‘the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society’), she is up against a different face of racism – but this article too is about the right of a community to exist – ‘”6 billion stories and counting.” But where is mine?’

What do I know about the history of sexuality? I spent the prime of my youth in a monastery, and working as a children’s editor didn’t send much of it my way. So Robert Darby’s ‘Another other Victorian: George Drysdale, a forgotten sex pioneer‘ was even more news to me than it will be to people who’ve read The Other Victorians. Drysdale’s tome, The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, published anonymously in the 1850s, was never mentioned by name in mainstream writing and is generally ignored or misreported even today, but it ran through 35 editions and sold some 100 000 copies in 50 years. The book ‘argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease’. Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 (or in my case 1970) after all. The article is seriously interesting

Now, poetry. I did study Eng Lit and have a BA (Hons) to show for it. But I got my piece of paper before postmodernism broke upon the world. I’m not quite the guy who puts his hand up at the Writers’ Festival and asks why modern poetry doesn’t have rhyme or rhythm any more, and why are modern poets so deliberately obscure. My own poetry, such as it is, probably wouldn’t please that guy. But sometimes I feel as if I’m almost as much in the dark as he is. So I was very glad that Peter Minter took a full two pages for his Judge’s report on  the 2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Sadly, if I was hoping his notes on the winning poem, rock candy by Joel Ephraims, would be a guide to reading it, my hopes were dashed. But I could tell there was thought there, and a world of knowledge that’s yet to become open to me. Having said all that, it will probably not be received as a compliment if I say that I enjoyed the night-time flâneurism of ‘Constant companion‘ by the late Kerry Leves (who occasionally graced the School Magazine, with both his presence and his poetry) and ‘Sunday poem‘, an impressionistic take on a visit home by Fiona Wright.

And then there’s genre fiction. Overland doesn’t go in for it much, and nor do I, though I’m doing my best to pick up where I left off when I was 14. It’s probably fair  to say that James Bradley’s ‘The inconvenient dead‘ is a zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories. Anyhow, it worked wonderfully well for me.
The whole contents of the magazine are readable online. All the links except the one to the Age will take you to the Overland web site.