Tag Archives: Overland

Page Nine

A young Tamil man who has been seeking asylum in Australia heard that he had been definitively been denied refugee protection. and on Wednesday night he doused himself with petrol in Balmain and set himself alight. He’s in hospital now, very badly burnt. Sarah Whyte had the story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Minister Scott Morrison in partnership with the Sri Lankan High Commission have a focus ‘to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man’. And also the SMH cares, enough to carry it on page 9 of the hard copy edition.

This is already being spoken of as a ‘mental health’ issue. But it was also surely a political act. Martin Kovan had a challenging article about politically-motivated self-immolations in Overland a couple of years ago. Speaking in the Tibetan context, he wrote:

The immolations aren’t acts of terrorism, nor even of despairing disempowerment, even though it is clear that they emerge from decades of deep frustration. Their dramatic increase appears to demonstrate an absolute and unconditional commitment to freedom. All the existing written statements of the self-immolators make this clear. They are also a form of radical self-determination: no authority can take such sacrifices away from the community on whose behalf they were performed. They are what Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs calls a legitimate part of the ‘global repertoire of contention’, a form of principled if morally painful action ‘intended to appeal to bystander publics or to exhort others to greater efforts on behalf of the cause’.

‘The immolations,’ he says later in the essay, ‘depend upon global real-time exposure for their influence to be felt; a purely domestic response remains all too vulnerable to internal silencing.’ The most obvious way to silence this young man, whose first name is Janarthanan, is to talk about it as a product of ‘mental illness’. No, it’s a statement about vicious cruelty in Sri Lanka and brutal indifference in Australia.

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.

Jennifer Maiden: A Rare Object

Jennifer Maiden, The Violence of Waiting (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 95, 2013)

1vwAs Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95. There are just six poems in the book, mostly in modes established in Maiden’s recent books:

  • Nº 15 of the George Jeffreys series, which finds George and Clare Collins in a purgatorial Western Suburbs Poker Machine Palace
  • Nº 10 of the Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt dialogues – this time with a little Lady Diana thrown in
  • A Lady Diana–Mother Teresa dialogue – this may be the second time they’ve appeared together in a Jennifer Maiden poem, the first time being shortly after they both died
  • a ‘Uses of’ diary poem, about cosiness and Sylvia Plath among other things
  • A Kevin Rudd–Dietrich Bonhoeffer dialogue
  • ‘Maps in the Mind’, a lyric that invokes successive Australian governments’ treatment of asylum seekers a little in the manner of ‘My Heart Has an Embassy’, which referred to Julian Assange

As I was starting this blog post, my Feedly reader presented me with ‘The poetic spirit of Rare Objects’, an excellent review by Jessica L Wilkinson of the four Rare Objects launched in Melbourne last weekend. Having read that review, which originated on the Overland site, I find it hard to think of anything else I want to say, so I recommend that you click on the link. For those who don’t click, here’s her final sentence, which captures the mood of the book beautifully:

This collection is quietly yet resolutely political, and leaves us considering our own strengths and vulnerabilities, and who we may imagine clinging to for guidance through tough decisions.

awwbadge_2013I nearly forgot and perhaps I should have as it’s such a small book, but this is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

Southerly 72/3: Islands and Archipelagos

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 3 2012: Islands and Archipelagos

1southerly723The title of this issue of Southerly, ‘Islands and Archipelagos’, refers to its subject matter, but it could just as easily refer to its form: a literary magazine, archipelago-like, is a gathering of diverse entities, each with its own integrity but all having something in common, whether a theme as in this case or something less tangible, like a tone, or an ethos, or a presiding personality.

I enjoyed my island hopping. My favourite moment is the bravura opening sentence of ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’ by David Brooks :

If there could ever be such a thing as a True History of Modern Thought, at least one chapter would have to trace that set of strange, 
neglected, yet teasingly-almost-direct lines between a heterogeneous
 crew of squatters, graziers, country postmasters, district magistrates, missionaries, and employees of the Overland Telegraph recording details of Indigenous Australian life and culture in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the desks of Edward Tyler at Oxford, James George Frazer at Cambridge and Emile Durkheim in Paris, and, through them, and a number of other significant late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, to the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud (see, for example, the first half of Totem and Taboo), Marcel Mauss (Essay on the Gift) and so many other key figures in early twentieth-century thought and aesthetics that one wonders whether the Simpson Desert or the Trobriand Islands should be given a place – a quite significant place – amongst the generating landscapes of Modernism.

Yes, that is just one sentence. The article not only delivers on the sentence’s promise but ends with a link to a provocatively titled companion piece, ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert: An Introduction’.

Tying for second favourite moment are:

  • Michael Sharkey’s poem ‘First Eleven’, eleven stanzas consisting of phrases that evoke an Australian baby-boomer childhood, presumably to the age of 11. Much of it might be inscrutable to people of other generations and other places, but I was born in 1947, a year after Sharkey, and his deft hand worked nostalgic wonders in me, even in the minority of phrases that didn’t touch directly on my own experience:

    The Royal Visit. Easter Show.
    My sherbet packet. Liquorice stick.
    My shop-bought pie. My Iced Vo-Vo.
    My Cracker Night. My Jumping Jack.
    My father’s gas mask. Old blue tunic.
    My small sister in the clinic.
    My six-stitcher. My first duck.
    The choko vine. The dunny truck.

  • Michael Jacklin’s ‘Islands of Multilingual Literature: Community Magazines and Australia’s Many Languages’, which prises open the subject of Australian literature in languages other than English. I’ve always felt odd about the portrayal of 1950s Australia as monocultural and monolingual: Italian and other southern European languages were part of the soundscape of my 1950s north Queensland childhood; one of my best friends in primary school was Chinese; my farmer father played poker with a Greek, a Korean and a Yugoslav; in the 30s and 40s my magistrate grandfather spoke to Italians who appeared before him in their own language. This essay discusses evidence, including a journal from Brisbane in the 1930s, that there has long been lively, linguistically diverse literature in the Australian context, much of it invisible to the mainstream literary establishment.
  • a new poem by Jennifer Maiden, always a thrill. ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ is in part a polemical essay, taking issue with some feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’. I’m not sure what ethical security is (Google is no help): it’s related to rigid ideological narrowness, I think, and may have elements of self-serving moralism. Feminist ‘fandom for Gillard’ is a symptom. My regular readers know that I often feel like an outsider with contemporary poetry (and by the way I think that’s more about me as a north Queensland boy than about the poetry). With this poem, I probably get the references more than most readers: not the Ethiopian art or the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, which are central to the poem and beautifully fleshed out, but the passing allusions – to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, and her cutting of the supporting parents’ benefit on the same day; to the earlier poem ‘A Useful Fan’, neatly encapsulated here as ‘trying to inhabit Abbott interestedly’; to a set-to on the Overland web site described as her ‘daughter the fire tiger’ (itself a reference to an earlier poem, ‘The Year of the Ox’) defending her ‘on a hostile magazine site now given / to ethical self-security’. Paradoxically, familiarity with the references predisposes me to foreground the detail of poem’s polemics (I want to argue about her view of Overland, for example, and I’m not sure about the connection she seems to be making between some feminists and abortion), rather than the poem’s central thrust, which I read as captured in the description of doves in Ethiopian art as

    aware of complex peripheries,
    well-mannered with watchfulness,
    —————————————-still.

As well as these pieces that topped my pops, there are learned essays on issues facing real islands and islanders, on Andrew McGahan, Randolph Stow, Drusilla Modjeska, and the rock band the Drones. There are short stories (especially Sandra Potter’s ‘“an empty ship in these latitudes is no joke”’, a lightly annotated list of things taken to and from Antarctica, and Terri Janke’s ‘Turtle Island’, a not-quite-ghost-story, not-quite-love-story, not-quite-war-story set in the Torres Strait in World War Two). There are other excellent poems and nearly 70 pages of reviews, plus the overflow in The Long Paddock, which includes a fine review by Sarah Holland-Batt of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight.

A final note: the spectacularly beautiful cover, reproduced above, is described on the contents page as Sue Kneebone’s Continental Drift, but it’s actually a detail from that work, which I recommend you have a look at on Sue Kneebone’s web site.

What do you want to do when you grow up? Create?

On the front page of today’s Sydney Morning Herald, there’s an article by Rachel Browne on a survey of 6200 children aged between 10 and 12 in 47 countries asking them what they want to do when they grow up. Cathy Wilcox’s cartoon gives the gist of the article – two white children are chatting: ‘Lots of kids in developing countries want to be doctors’ says one, and the other replies, ‘They don’t have the luxury of squandering their education on a sporting career!’

You have to read to the seventh paragraph to discover that, while ‘professional athlete is the highest ranked career choice for Australian children’, the second rank is ‘entertainer and professional artist or creative professional’. The latter is immediately dismissed by someone associated with the study as ‘probably influenced by popular TV shows’. Lisa Power’s article in the Telegraph, presumably based on the same press release, includes a table that seems to indicate that Rachel Browne got it wrong:

If you combine ‘Entertainer’ with ‘Artist/creative professional’ you get 26%. What’s that? More Australian children want a career in entertainment and the arts than in sport. But that doesn’t fit the media narrative, so let’s bury it.

Has it occurred to anyone else that our governments are willing to back young people’s sporting aspirations with millions of dollars, but leave their artistic aspirations unresourced so that for most of them it remains an unrealistic dream? It’s not just that winning gold at the Olympics is seen by the press and politicians as more important and newsworthy than making things ‘with which the soul of any witnessing human being can resonate and conceivably find comfort, catharsis, awakening, provocation, solidarity, beauty and, perhaps, enlightenment,’ as Clare Strahan put it recently on the Overland blog. Young people’s desires to do the latter must also be trivialised and marginalised. The current precipitate withdrawal of funding from fine arts education in TAFE is symptomatic. So is the Sydney Morning Herald‘s almost total silence about the cuts.

And now a quick sonnet:

Sonnet 8: To children who responded to a survey
We ask you what you want to do
and what you fear. It’s no surprise
if drought, rape, kidnap threaten you
you don’t desire a glittering prize
but want to build the general good,
to teach or heal. And in a land
where gold and silver most command
acclaim, of course it’s understood
your heart goes bling! Celebrity
can look like meaning when you’re ten.
The headlines mock you: Sport! again!
Oh child! child! We’ve corrupted thee!
They don’t hear that your brave young heart,
wants to make, give, create art.

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.

Overland 205

Jeff Sparrow, editor Overland 205, Summer 2011

Someone in the offline world told me recently he was reading a book called The Left Isn’t Always Right. It must be one of the least controversial book titles of all time: how could ‘the Left’ be always right when lefties are forever fiercely, even violently disagreeing with each other? I mean, hadn’t the author heard of Trotsky? This issue of Overland continues in that fine tradition (of debate, I mean, not of violence). And although recent comments on this blog have described it as increasingly right wing, I think it does a nice job of bringing to bear a perspective that challenges the view that all can be well in a capitalist society.

It kicks off with Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian woods‘, which places the recent killing spree in Norway in the context of the return of fascism to Europe. He moves well beyond the easy but still telling point that when the news of the killings broke, many pundits pronounced that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, but when the identity and beliefs of the killer were discovered, the same pundits said it was clearly the work of a lone madman, and not in any way connected to their hate speech – he moves beyond that point to a chilling account of the increasingly vocal and co-ordinated anti-Muslim movement in Europe and in the US, which would be an oddity if it weren’t for their influence on political leaders.

Next, Robert Bollard’s ‘ Who was Bet B?‘, tells the story of his own discovery of Aboriginal ancestry, and explores its implications. Among other things it provides a multidimensional, nuanced context to the brutish attacks on ‘light skinned Aborigines’ we’ve been hearing a bit about recently.

Xavier Rizos’s ‘Will the market save us?‘ could well be subtitled ‘The carbon tax for dummies’, and I mean that in a good way.

Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality begone!‘ does a neat job of exposing the inadequacy of moral outrage as a tool for understanding, especially in relation to events like the riots in London in August last year. He doesn’t argue that morality has no place, but that relationships of power needs to be taken into account. ‘We can all agree,’ he writes, ‘that events such as 9/11 are the results of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism?’ He goes on, ‘If you so much as mention [US] imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.’ In a fabulous twist, he invokes Jesus, with a challenging reading of the injunction to turn the other cheek. (This isn’t the journal’s only surprise for those who confuse secularism with hostility to religion: Peter Slezak’s ‘Silence resembling stupidity‘ argues forcibly that the anti-Islamic stance of the ‘new atheists’ – Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins – actually plays into the hands of  those who would wage neo-imperialist and -colonialist wars.)

There are a couple of debates – Stephanie Convery and Katrina Fox on PETA’s use of pornography in its animal rights activism, Ali Alizadeh and Robert Lukins on Australian Poetry, the new peak industry body for poetry. The poetry one, as you might expect, is the more heated (‘Robert Lukins’ is … devoid of almost any substance with which to engage,’ says Alizadeh, unfairly in my view). The animal rights one has the higher moral tone (‘Let’s get our priorities right,’ says Fox, arguing that we shouldn’t object to PETA’s obnoxiousness when other people do much worse things – I guess you can tell where I stand on that one). And there’s a profound panel discussion about language and politics in Indigenous writing, featuring John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara.

There are stories and poems, notably an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel, Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction‘, and Angela Smith’s ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘, which I persist in seeing as a tribute to Jennifer Maiden rather than an attack.

Notice all those links! The thing about Overland  is that most of its content is online, and the Overland blog has follow-up interviews and discussions. This interview with Robert Bollard is a fine example. Still, reading it in hard copy has its pleasures, not least of which is the sense of righteousness that comes from sending money their way.

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011′s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.