TEXT review


Southerly

review by Sue Bond

 


Santosh K Sareen and G J V Prasad (guest eds)
David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (eds)
Southerly: India India
Volume 70, Number 3
Brandl Schlesinger, Sydney 2010
ISBN 9781921556159
Pb, AUD26.95

 

To describe this issue of Southerly as a cornucopia of literary riches is an understatement. In his editorial, David Brooks describes it as a ‘show bag’ in the quintessential Australian sense, as he thought this was fairer than attempting to be representative in such a large field as Indian/Australian literary relations.

However, not all the contents are related to the theme of India and David Brooks comments in his editorial that the theme does not consume the entire issue, and that this is usual for the journal. I also think it helps to vary the content, and maintain the reader’s interest, by interspersing non-themed pieces through the journal. Like mixing the poems, stories and essays instead of having them grouped together, it works well.

There are eighteen poets represented, eight short stories and eight essays, plus more in the wonderfully named Long Paddock (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/long-paddock/70-3-india/) the online only section of the journal on the new website. All the reviews for this issue are also placed online due to space restrictions.

The theme was chosen because of the intense interest Indians have in Australian literature, an interest which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be reciprocated to the same degree in Australia for Indian literature (a point noted by Paul Sharrad in his essay, discussed later). Which makes this issue all the more important for continuing and extending that literary conversation between us, and making more readers aware of its richness and diversity.

I read the issue in the order in which the editors presented the works, beginning and ending with poems: Judith Beveridge’s dignified ‘The Deal’ and ‘Little’ from Devadatta’s Poems, through to Ali Alizadeh’s political and angry ‘Election Announced’ and ‘The Bubble’. On the Contents pages, however, everything is arranged according to category, including the ‘Long Paddock’. There is a pleasing balance in the distribution of poetry, stories and essays, exercising and stimulating the mind as it changes gear from one form to another. The poems and stories are particularly strong in this issue, and the essays have an eclectic selection of subjects: Aboriginal and Dalit women’s subjectivity; Mary Louisa Skinner, neglected Australian author; Aboriginal theatre; bogans; immigrant identity in a Hazel Edwards’ novel; and others. It’s of course impossible to address every piece in this review, so I shall focus on a select few that I feel particularly noteworthy.

Beginning with poetry, Richard Deutch, an American who came to Australia in the 1990s, and who died in 2005, has three visceral and striking poems included (and two more online). ‘Postcard’, ‘for my mother’, and ‘Pinochle’ all speak of family and its disconnects, in stark and strong language that is extraordinarily moving and arresting. In ‘Pinochle’, which is ‘from an early draft of “A Christmas Letter to my Father”’, Deutch shows his father bursting into the bathroom while he is showering, and beginning to cry:

Then
let out a groan, as if your very life
were issuing from your lungs, as if, at last,
you were empty. Then you started to cry again. (120)

At last, his father’s sobs stop, and:

You reached around
for the towel hanging from the door, and I saw
your face through the opacity of the glass.
It was the face of a child, I thought, a red-faced
child, constricted with pain. (120)

Deutch believes this means his parents are splitting up, but it turns out that something else had happened, something much more wounding and primal, in a way.

All the poems here are uncomplicated in their language, but raw and powerful in their meaning, including Jennifer Maiden’s substantial ‘The Year of the Ox’. Here is Maiden’s description of herself as having been born in the Year of the Ox, so her ‘element is earth’ and she:

plough[s] my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting. (123)

Such is her savage political eye at work throughout this poem that I had no doubt about the gutting potential. In contrast is her daughter who was born in the Year of the Tiger, and whose element is fire. Maiden’s two recurring characters, George Jeffreys and his girlfriend Clare Collins, are here, along with Barack Obama, Diana Spencer, Hillary Clinton and her mentor Eleanor Roosevelt, Tony Blair and Jack Straw (‘As an ox, I am/ Lying on Straw and watching Straw Lying’) and the Bushes.

Amongst the politics is the personal, with a memory of Dorothy Porter, and lines depicting Maiden’s inner turmoil and grief:

Mud
scatters beside me and my hooves slip
under me often and always then my heart
like an ancient engine coughs in terror, but
the muddy ditch holds. (127)

‘The Year of the Ox’ is like a sustained conversation, a continuation from previous poems, an epic broken only by its placement in different spaces. Indeed, Maiden stated in an interview with Jason Steger in 2010 that it is a ‘further progression of the reconciliation between the different subject matters in Friendly Fire and Pirate Rain’. For me the key lies in these lines:

the only
thing certain if you kill someone to avoid
something is the death not the avoidance. (125)

Maiden has Eleanor quote this from Conor Cruise O’Brien, and the repeating concerns of war and venal political decision-making thunder out loud.

Temsula Ao’s poem ‘A Thousand Beds’ speaks of wandering and love in lyrical terms, and a return to home and a loved one as something ‘to refurbish my dreams’ (64). This contrasts with the poetry of caste activist and feminist Meena Kandasmy, which with clever and ferocious turns of phrase, skewers patriarchal and political hypocrisy in ‘Jouissance’ and ‘Speech comes after swallowing’.

Of the short fiction, Aashish Kaul’s ‘A Dream of Horses’ is an atmospheric, mysterious, melancholic short story about writing and love, amongst other things. It begins in the voice of an unnamed man who works in a legal office, but is also a writer who hasn’t written for four years, and is convalescing from an unknown illness. He reminisces about a young woman he met in a bookshop, and the second part of the story changes to second person, shifting the reader’s perspective, and feelings. It’s highly effective and the story is mesmerising and sophisticated.

Chris Raja’s short story ‘The Burning Elephant’ has a hidden power that comes with repeated reading, and Graeme Kinross-Smith’s ‘Famille’ is haunting. Kunal Sharma writes of disconnection and tragedy in ‘House and Happiness’; the title is as stark and ironic as the writer’s tone and style. As with poetry, not all the stories conform to the theme in an obvious way, such as Sarah Klenbort’s bracing ‘The Chinese Circus Comes to Cessnock’, but this is not a distraction.

The essay by Maria Preethi Srinivasan, ‘Constructing Aboriginal and Dalit Women’s Subjectivity and Making “Difference” Speak: an Illustration through the writings of Jackie Huggins, Kumud Pawde and Bama’, discusses the commonalities that exist between the two cultures of Indigenous Australian women and Indian Dalit women, and the difficulties they both experience with Western feminism’s sometimes narrow viewpoint. The author includes excerpts from her interview with Jackie Huggins, bringing her voice directly to us.

Paul Sharrad’s ‘Reconfiguring “Asian Australian” Writing: Australia, India and Inez Baranay’ is an exploration of how much attention is paid to South Asian literature in Australia, compared to other Asian writing. He mentions the ‘first Indo-Australian literary work’, a collection of stories Time of the Peacock by Mena Abdullah and Ray Mathew in 1965, and notes that its ‘impact lies in depictions of nostalgia for India and the organic link to traditional practices’ (14). Much more South Asian literature appeared in Australia with the era of multiculturalism, but he argues that ‘there is not a consistent or equal two-way literary traffic between India and Australia’ (15). He lists various Indian, Anglo-Indian and disaporic writers, before turning to Inez Baranay, a ‘quite different writer inhabiting transnational space, physically and imaginatively’ (18), whose last two novels were published and reviewed in India. This is an absorbing, informative, and well argued essay.

Other outstanding pieces include Mark Macleod’s quietly evocative and reflective piece ‘Reading my first time in India: the ACLALS Conference 1977’. It contains such images as ‘a woman bent at ninety degrees with a lump of coal the size of a pig strapped to her back’ (228), and a sensitive approach to describing being taken to see a panther at feeding time. A white goat is tethered on the roof of a hide. Macleod expresses a sense of horror and completely forgets what happened, only that he wanted to get out: ‘The sound of those hooves has wiped out everything else’ (234).

The essay by Meenakshi Hariharan and C T Indra, ‘Negotiating Immigrant Identity: Hazel Edwards’ Fake ID as a Techno-Gothic Child Narrative’, is a scholarly but approachable exploration of an author they obviously love and admire. They note her prolific career, prodigious imagination, and strong sense of justice: ‘When asked if there was one thing she could change about the world, she replied, “Intolerance of people who are different”’ (254). They first contextualise the issue of migration in Australian history before discussing Edwards’ novella with respect to immigration and techno-gothic child narrative. It is an enthusiastic discussion.

Not all of the essays are as well constructed and presented as these, with some loose structure and problems with expression, but the majority are good examples of scholarly discussion.

In the Long Paddock, there are six short stories, eight poems, and an essay on the collaboration between Indian and Australian authors to produce a collection of ‘cross-cultural narratives’ about terrorism; there are also discursive reviews of eleven books of poetry and short fiction. The website is easy to navigate, and attractive to look at and read, and is a valuable extension of the journal.

There are a few errors in the text of the print journal, and some grammatical and spelling mishaps throughout. There is a reference to Roger Fry being a ‘name in Australian Art’ (43) (he was a member of the Bloomsbury group and I can find no mention of him even coming to Australia) and the poem ‘Hauling’ has a contradiction: in the fifth stanza the roads are untarred but in the sixth they are tarred.

These are minor, and I don’t feel they detract from what is an absorbing and intelligent collection of creative and critical work shared between India and Australia. It is a journal to be savoured over time, and returned to regularly, such is the volume and quality of its contents. It also encourages the seeking out of other work by the authors.

The cover, I should mention, is a brilliant melding of Indian and Australian, capturing instantly identifiable images with humour and beauty.

 

Works cited

Steger, Jason 2010 ‘First the fire then rain’. The Age, 28 August 2010. Available at
http://newsstore.fairfax.com.au/apps/viewDocument.ac;jsessionid=CB47C6DF6DEC61D9E082EB665CF32414?sy=afr&pb=all_ffx&dt=selectRange&dr=1month&so=relevance&sf=text&sf
=headline&rc=10&rm=200&sp=brs&cls=18883&clsPage=1&docID=AGE100828A37DK4EQK9V [accessed 21 August 2011]

 

Sue Bond is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications, and a former book reviews editor for M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media.

 

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TEXT
Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy
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