TEXT review

Perched on the edge of the ocean, writing

review by Saskia Beudel


Westerly Magazine 62.2
Catherine Noske, Josephine Taylor, Chris Arnold, Rachel Robertson, Cassandra Atherton and Elfie Shiosaki (eds)
The Westerly Centre, University of Western Australia, Crawley WA 2017
ISSN 2207-8959
Pb 344pp AUD25.95


Since pre-colonial days in northern Australia, cultural practices, material objects and living things have been exchanged and transformed across the sea. Biologists and archaeologists believe that Australia’s dingo was introduced by Asian seafarers around 4,000 years ago. It adapted and spread across the continent and was incorporated within Aboriginal cosmologies. From at least 1700, Makassar fishermen harvested trepang (or sea-cucumber) on an annual basis in Australia, with China also participating in this trade. Anthropologists in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, Alfred Cort Haddon and Donald Thomson, noted the interweaving of cultural traditions among Indigenous populations spread across the Arafura Sea.

Early colonial culture in Sydney Cove was also maritime. The settlement was focused around wharves, ports and rivers, its people preoccupied with shifting tides, winds, weather and currents (Griffiths 2005; Gibson 1994; Karskens 2009). Most colonists ‘felt themselves perched on the Pacific seaboard rather than at the gateway of a great continent’ (Shineberg cited in Gibson 1994: 667). Sydney was settled and visited by a ‘water people’ (Karskens 2009: 19), a polyglot of marines and officers, whalers, sealers, sandalwood cutters, traders, sailors, Polynesians, Melanesians and runaway American slaves (Gibson 1994: 667). In more recent times, as Aboriginal historian John Maynard notes, shipping cultures of the twentieth century influenced and enriched Aboriginal self-determination movements. Connections Aboriginal workers made on Sydney docks with visiting African-Americans, West Indians, Africans, and international black diaspora communities ‘were the foundation for their political strategy’ (Maynard 2013: 157). The ocean has been a conduit not only of imperial expansion but also empowerment.

Westerly 62.2 takes up this theme of movement, connection and exchange across oceans. Editor Catherine Noske notes the magazine’s long interest in the literatures and cultures of the Indian Ocean, southern and eastern Asia. ‘Poised on the west coast,’ she writes, ‘we are constantly looking out, facing away from mainland Australia’ (7). With its gaze fixed on the broader Asian region, this issue of Westerly aims to open a ‘creative space to foster … diverse cultural networks, explore the connections embodied by that fluid space of ocean’ and convey ‘the unique dynamic of transnational connection’ (7). As Fiona Morrison points out in her analysis of Christina Stead’s prescient seagoing ways, such an understanding of the ocean as ‘a figure of connection rather than division’ is encapsulated in the recent phrase ‘the oceanic turn’ (87). Westerly’s focus on the oceanic is timely and relevant as the threat of nuclear war in the Pacific re-emerges in the twenty-first century with uncanny persistence, and China constructs islands out of water amid international shipping routes in the South China Sea.

This issue of Westerly is kaleidoscopic. It showcases Asian writers; writers with experience negotiating complex cross-cultural encounters; and translations of contemporary Japanese poetry. It also contains two special features of Asian-Australian collaborative work – one from the Melbourne-Seoul Intercultural Poetry Exchange and one from the China-Australia Writing Centre. The former brings Korean poets to the streets of Melbourne, where as guest flâneurs they excavate histories of entombment and haunting pasts. Together with Melbourne poets as their guides, they visit the Queen Victoria Market where abandoned graves lie beneath the paving, and an urban memorial to executed Aboriginal resistance fighters. They contemplate graveyards and Ned Kelly’s legendary suit of homemade armour. In South Korea, Melbourne poets encounter cultures of protest; residual markings of storeys-high floods; and fugitive, elusive former dictators sheltering behind fortress-like gates and armed guards.

Dan Disney, Jessica L Wilkinson and Cassandra Atherton suggest that:

Poetry can articulate the ghosts of troubled spaces … voice those echoes forgotten or buried under our always-already master narratives. But poetry can also make resonant the howling noises haunting each of us – our losses, griefs, resentments, et cetera… (126)

While these authors do not claim to speak for the Westerly issue as a whole, insofar as such a vast assemblage of myriad, shifting voices can be contained within one frame, this statement could almost be taken as a flexible proposition for the overall collection. Across the rest of the issue, too, can be found this supple bridge between the political, the historical and the personal, as well as a past resonant in the present.

Siti Sarah Ridhuan discovers shared words, via the Berndt Museum collection, as they morph and echo across Yolngu-Matha, Indonesian and Malay languages. It is through a jolt of personal recognition at familiar terms such as balanda/belanda and prau/perahu that she fully appreciates the extent of cross-cultural exchange enacted between Yolngu and Indonesian peoples. John Mateer employs a thought experiment – what if the Dutch colonised Australia instead of the English? – to curate an exhibition of contemporary art exploring notions of the virtual. Using Dirk Hartog’s brief visit to the west coast in 1616 as a prompt, Invisible Genre’s curatorial strategy draws together Western Australia, Indonesia and South Africa to explore the ceaseless reappearance of colonialism’s violence ‘out of the Invisible’ (47).

Focused on Indonesia, Agustinus Wibowo’s fiction voices little-told intimate narratives of Indonesian persecution of minority Chinese communities in Java. Although violence and bloodshed are part of the Chinese family’s traumatic history, they nonetheless haltingly come to call Indonesia home, while China remains a spectral, unattainable homeland, more fantasy than reality. Numerous other contributions explore notions of place and unsettled belonging, through depictions of home, exile and migrancy; language and identity; and the defamiliarisation created via dislocation and contemporary global mobility. Such themes are explored through a wide variety of experiences and figures – from the expatriate worker commuting between Brisbane and Shanghai (Ella Jeffery); the tourist in a moment of vulnerable absurdity aboard a river punt, ‘Plump daddies with cameras like ordnance’ (Shane Strange, 205); travellers and sojourners both willing and less so. In the latter category, Ishikawa Itsuko’s foot-weary soldiers are a striking example: ‘Come the day – when we regain our humanity / how will we cope, we poor soles?’ (184). This is to name but a few examples from a rich array.

Westerly 62.2 is a protean collection ranging from the whimsical yet foreboding (Kawaguchi Harumi’s woman who sleeps in an empty fish-tank) to the elegiac. Dennis Haskell invokes ‘bright bunches of Asian orchids’ given by him to poet Faye Zwicky not long before her death. In his poem these flowers transport her back to her youth, newly wed and ‘happy in Indonesia’ (215). In his essay he worries away at Zwicky’s puzzling sense of exile within Australia and notes her estranged husband Karl (his presence implicit and condensed in the deathbed orchids) who, Haskell suggests, Zwicky never ceased mourning, an unreconciled loss stalking across a lifetime.

The collection also gives voice to anger at persecution, discrimination and wilful misrecognition. ‘Don’t ever think that you can oppress / Us because we can’t write good English’, challenges Ouyang Yu (165). ‘History sucks / I shall abandon all these shits… To hell with cold redundant fucks’ writes Liang Yujing (230). Nevertheless, this issue of Westerly attends in myriad ways to the potential of creative collaboration and reciprocity to forge new understandings across cultures. Huang Yuanshen’s memoir reflecting on the vicissitudes of establishing Australian literary studies in China as a credible strand of academic research is a reminder that, in pragmatic terms, forging such ground-breaking pathways requires persistence, faith and strategy. It also involves luck and serendipity. Yuanshen was sent to the University of Sydney (instead of Britain) for training by accident, he admits. Here his lifelong passion for Australian literature was triggered. At a crucial moment, Gough Whitlam donated three boxes of Australian books to the fledgling and precarious Australian Studies Centre at the East China Normal University in 1986. Yuanshen’s essay makes clear that building transnational networks in the face of institutional disinterest is not for the faint hearted. In a different historical moment, Westerly 62.2 makes its own contribution to this larger process of fostering creative dialogue and intercultural communication across oceans.


Works cited



Saskia Beudel lectures in creative writing and literary studies at the University of Canberra, and previously held a University of Sydney Fellowship. Her books include A Country in Mind (UWAP), Curating Sydney: Imagining the City’s Future (with Jill Bennett, UNSWP) and Borrowed Eyes(Picador). Her essays appear in Best Australian Essays and numerous journals. A recent book chapter ‘Donald Thomson’s Hybrid Expeditions: Anthropology, Biology and Narrative in Northern Australia and England’ is published in Expeditionary Anthropology (Berghahn, 2018). She is currently working on her second novel.


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker