Tag Archives: Jeff Sparrow

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)


Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.

The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.

I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.

Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.

1. It’s not a diatribe

It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.

There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …

But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).

2. It’s not against white people

I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.

Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.

3. It’s not paranoiac

To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which

each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)

4. It is well written

The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:

‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.

Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’  Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.

Overland 218

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 218 (Autumn 2015)


The editor has gone, long live the editor. With this edition of Overland, Jacinda Woodhead, who has been deputy editor for a while, takes over the main job. Most of the old editorial and design staff remain, and there has been no radical transformation.

For example, like the previous edition, this one includes the results of two writing prizes. These are the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, and the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:

  • The judges praise the winner of the former, Backa Bourke by Marika Duczynski, for its ‘energetic prose that knows when to withdraw’. What looks like a rough and ready outback yarn about floods and death and young men on motorbikes takes a surprising turn right at the end, in prose so withdrawn that the surprise hangs on a single word. To be parochial for a moment, I was chuffed to see that the writer, in this overwhelmingly Melburnian journal, lives in Sydney.
  • Peter Minter’s judge’s report on the Judith Wright Prize pays elegant tribute to Judith Wright herself in reflecting on form in poetry as ‘a moral or ethical problem, a political gesture’. Interestingly enough, the first prize winner, Hyper-reactive by Melody Paloma, has a similar linguistic vigour to ‘Backa Bourke’.

This issue is also like its predecessors in including writing about writing (including an essay on literary envy/jealousy that takes its title from the Clive James poem that begins, ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased’), and an interesting mix of short stories, this time two realist pieces and two that nudge into the surreal.

The issue differs, perhaps accidentally, in having an identified theme. Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial says it ‘gives voice to women’s unfiltered experiences of this world, and other subjects on which there’s been far too much silence’. To mix metaphors, it delivers that voice in spades, though it by no means a predominantly female voice.

Alison Croggon’s column begins ‘The first time I was raped,’ builds to a passionate cry that her children ‘have to live in this world where, all the time, men hurt women, dismiss women, marginalise women, silence women, kill women’, and ends with a quietly lethal account of a ‘pleasant and intelligent man’ communicating by his manner that a protest at women being ignored was ‘a footling political point about feminism’. It’s two tough pages and Croggon has an equally fine piece online about the writing of it.

Hackers, Gamers and Cyborgs by Brendan Keogh discusses the phenomenon of Gamergate, in which a number of woman video game developers have been attacked vehemently. I’ve been aware of Gamergate as one of those online places where outrage and reciprocal vilification flourishes. This essay instructively situates it in ‘the broader patriarchal structures in which video game culture emerged’. Even though the word sexism doesn’t appear, it’s reassuring that the concept of patriarchy is still alive and doing good work.

Justin Clemens, who is a poet among other accomplishments, writes about the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The essay, Torturing folk, explores the implications for civil society of the current practice of and debate about torture. Paradoxically, he argues that even to debate the appropriateness of torture is in effect to close down freedom of speech.

Russell Marks  puts his head above the parapet in More than taboo, arguing the case against demonising paedophiles. Specifically, government funding has been channelled primarily into identifying and punishing offenders; funding has been withdrawn from programs that provide support to survivors, including programs such as SafeCare in Perth and Cedar Cottage in New South Wales that also offered treatment to offenders, with demonstrated success in preventing recurrence.

There’s more: Fiona Wright on grieving communally on facebook; Stephen Wright on different children; Michael Bogle on The Atomic Age, an exhibition about nuclear weapons shown in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in 1947 and 1948 (which sent me back to Robin Gerster’s wider-ranging ‘Exile on Uranium Street: The Australian Nuclear Blues’, in Southerly No 1 2104).

Overland is clearly still in good hands.

Overland 217

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 217 (Summer 2014)


This is Jeff Sparrow’s last Overland after seven years as editor. It’s a solid farewell performance at the end of an impressive tour, with the usual heady mix of politics, literary chat, fiction and poetry.

This issue has a lot of short fiction – the winners of two short story competitions (the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize and the Story Wine Prize) plus the runners-up of one of them (here and here), and the final piece in the Fancy Cuts series. All four prize-related stories are worth reading, especially Madelaine Lucas’s ‘Dog Story’, winner of the VU prize. In the Fancy Cuts, Ali Alizadeh’s takes on the brief of writing a story that somehow revisits one from a past Overland. He follows the same contours as his original, 1961’s ‘Taffy Was a Pacifist’ by James Aldridge, (which you can read here): an outsider immigrant child who is bullied exacts revenge with the help of an outsider adult, and in a brief coda becomes an admirable adult. Alizadeh’s title, Samira Was a Terrorist, signals the ways his work departs from the original. A girl rather than a boy, Samira exacts revenge that is much less socially acceptable than Taffy’s. The original’s moral ambiguity is deeply buried beneath a celebration of masculine virtues and skills, to surface only in the final paragraph, if at all; Alizadeh puts moral ambiguity front and centre in his much more violent, challenging and interesting tale.

Bias Australian? by John McLaren chimes nicely with Fancy Cuts’ juxtaposition of old and new Overlands. A writer for the magazine since 1956, McLaren traces the development of its cultural nationalism from its beginnings in 1954, including the evolution away from the realist fiction endorsed (required?) by Communist Party policy.

Of the non-fiction prose pieces, there are two stand-outs. The first, Happiness™ by Christopher Scanlon, explores the ways the apparently benign ‘positive psychology’ movement is being used in call centres and elsewhere in service roles, and the often deeply harmful effects it can have on employees. Not all of it is new – Scanlon quotes Arlie Russell Hochschild’s revelatory study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart: The commercialisation of human feeling (1983):

[T]he smiles are part of her work, a part that requires her to co–ordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless … part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labour would show in an unseemly way, and the product – passenger contentment – would be damaged.

The other stand-out is A Tale of Two Settler Colonies by Michael Brull, which compares Australia and Israel as settler colonies, and poses a substantial counter to the common (anti-Semitic?) tendency to single Israel out as somehow worse than other similar nation-states, including our own.

There are a couple of beautifully contrapuntal pieces on the writer’s life: The authentic writer self by Khalid Warsame (‘There is the fear that people will look at my name or my face and say, “Oh, right, another African writer who writes about Africa. How inspiring and nice.”‘) and Go, little book by Kirsten Tranter (‘Before The Legacy was even published it attracted attention because of my literary family background (my mother is a literary agent and my father is a poet). “If you were to put money on anyone getting published it would be Kirsten Tranter,” said one memorable notice, with the unspoken “no matter what she wrote” impossible to ignore.’).

Of the juicy ten-page poetry section, I’d single out three poems: Skater by Tim Thorne

Somewhere on a minor island something worthy
of literal tragedy plays out. Meanwhile
the circus tents are planted firmly, even though
the clowns could never be trusted

Save Behana Gorge by Phillip Hall, which felt like my childhood before I saw that it was indeed set in north Queensland:

though, when I spend time in the gorge, all I hear is the zeroing-
in of Mozzies, all I see is the spray of the torrent
as I wait for curlew to call their drawn-out wailing

and The PM and Me by Mark O’Flynn, which I read as an account of the poet’s encounter with an Aboriginal man in Sydney:

He tells me when he worked for the fish market
they paid him in crabs, which is why he went back
and robbed them. Never earned an honest dollar
in his life, he declares with misplaced pride
in the rite of passage of these years.

Unlabelled, green-tinted pages feature the ever-reliable columnists, especially Alison Croggon being intelligently reassuring about writer’s block, and Giovanni Tiso striking terror into our hearts about the end of the internet.

No 218, which is already published and sitting beside my bed, has Jacinda Woodhead in the chair.

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 Wagan 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.