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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.
One of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.
Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.
Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)
Four poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.
Non-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.
In terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.
Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.
A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.
Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.