I’m not sure how well known the American publishing house McSweeney’s is in Australia, although I expect that at least some readers will be familiar with editor Dave Eggers’ best-selling memoir from 2000, A Heartbeaking Work of Staggering Genius or his new novel A Hologram for the King. Certainly here in the States the literary journal McSweeney’s (or to give it its full if seldom used title Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern) is well known and well respected for publishing fine fiction and non-fiction, often packaged in unusual formats: paperback one issue, hardback another, a third in a cigar box with inserts, another with an Icelandic mini-tabloid magazine bound in. In short, a literary journal that takes risks and comes with the unexpected.
McSweeney’s 41 was published last month and the unexpected this time takes the form of a special section entitled Terra Australis: four stories from Australian Aboriginal writers, selected by Chris Flynn. (Flynn is the books editor of the street newspaper The Big Issue.) Illustrations for each of the stories are provided by the Tiwi artist Bede Tungutalum. I was delighted in equal measure to find two stories by writers I know and admire, Tara June Winch and Melissa Lucashenko, and two by authors new to me, Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven-Currie.
I should have been reading Birch before now: he curated the “Koori Voices” exhibition at the Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Centre and teaches at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the collections Father’s Day (Hunter, 2009) and Shadowboxing (Scribe, 2010), a book of inter-related stories about growing up in Fitzroy in the 1960’s; his debut novel, Blood (UQP, 2011), was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year.
Birch is represented in McSweeney’s by “The Promise,” a sly, surreal parable of disaster and redemption. The story’s protagonist-narrator, Luke, is an alcoholic young man unaware of how fast he is hurtling over the edge of an abyss of rage. Convinced that he can outwit his problems, he tears away from the remnants of his family into a maelstrom of destruction. The hallucinatory final pages of the story leave him (and the reader) gasping for a new start, but the promise remains just that: a promise. Whether the redemptive cross of the last paragraph is just one more symbol of destruction or the offer of real redemption remains ambiguous.
Ellen van Neerven-Currie is a young Munanjali/Yugambeh woman working at the Black & Write! Indigenous Writing and Editing Project at the State Library of Queensland. She graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a degree in Fine Arts in Creative Writing Production in 2010. Her contribution here “S & J” is a story of adolescent loneliness confronting uncertain identity. This story’s first-person narrator, Esther (“S”), is traveling on school holidays with her friend Jaye (“J”) when they pick up a young German hitchhiker, Sigrid. Sigrid is entranced by the romance of meeting an Aboriginal woman and when the girls all arrive at Jaye’s grandmother’s beachside house, the romance becomes physical. Esther is hurt as much by the perceived betrayal by Jaye as she is by the fact that Sigrid fails to recognize that Esther herself is of Aboriginal descent: her skin is fair in comparison to Jaye’s. The story is richly atmospheric, and van Neerven-Currie has a flair for dialogue that gives the short tale as much substance as her narrative and descriptive passages provide. She has a talent for understatement that promises a grand future.
Tara June Winch, a Wiradjuri woman from Wollongong, won the David Unaipon Award in 2004 and the novel based on her manuscript, Swallow the Air (UQP, 2006), went on to win Premier’s Literary Awards in New South Wales and in Victoria. “It’s Too Difficult to Explain” is the story of Vincent, a young runner past his prime; the tragedy of his story is that running is all he knows how to do. It is the story of his life:
“Run to the shop and get some bread, Vinnie.”
“Run along, Vinnie, and make yourself busy.”
“If he should come back, you just take your sister and run, Vinnie.”
“Vinnie, I’ve got to go now. You run home and take care of your sister, all right?”
Running the hundred meters in competition offers him a chance to make all this speeding from place to place meaningful, but it turns out to be just more movement for its own sake, and as he grows into his twenties, the victories fade away. He is consumed by his own sense of inadequacy, his fear of being found out, his inability to distinguish the run from the runner. The story’s climactic scene may be nightmarish, but its final lines are utterly bone-chilling. “Vincent stood in the cool winter air and felt content for that moment. It felt good to be someone who didn’t have the things he needed.”
The final story in this collection, from Brisbane-based Murri author Melissa Lucashenko, is perhaps the shortest of the four, certainly the densest, and the most explosive: the “turn” of the story comes an instant before the last lines. I’m not surprised. Lucashenko is a writer of fantastic power whose first novel Steam Pigs (UQP, 1997, winner of the Dobbie Prize for Australian women’s fiction) hit me so hard that two years later I’ve still got her second, Hard Yards (UQP, 1999), on my to-be-read list, waiting for me to recover.
“Tonsils” is soaked in anger, misery, and violence; at its heart it is a story of two mothers, one who has abandoned her daughter Hayley in favor of her own misery and another (the narrator) who fiercely protects that lost child. Here’s a single paragraph that packs a whole story’s worth of sorrow and acceptance into a handful of sentences.
Hayley’s on the back deck, surrounded by a host of pirated DVDs that she’s brought home from her big visit. She’s using her fork to scratch graffiti onto my plastic tabletop, three pale anarchy symbols appearing simultaneously as the tines plough their way into the desiccated green surface. A for anarchy. A for another bill. A for Aborigine. Hayley knows I don’t give jack shit about the table; it’s on its last legs, like a lot of stuff around here. She’s already stenciled her art onto the walls downstairs with a can of black spray paint she found in the garage. I wish she’d asked first about that, but the pictures are good.
Lucashenko has a command of phrasing and detail that’s staggering. In the midst of an altercation with Hayley’s mother, the narrator notices the woman’s overdecorated fingernails, done in a “dotty silver design on a purple background, still perfect and complete–not flaking off or anything,” that sums up and passes judgement on her character with remarkable economy. Or there’s the rat-race of life in pursuit of money: “Money: winning any old race you care to mention by a dozen lengths, everything else bringing up the field and dodging the clods of muddy turf flying past in Money’s wake.” She’s a great and startling writer.
Indeed, the mastery of language is perhaps the most salient quality each of these writers projects in these stories. As Chris Flynn says in his introduction, “There’s a confidence of tone and a willingness to push against the words…. I wish more writers would linger over the inherent music in prose the way these guys do.” To that I would add the total absence of irony in their voices. I’ve flipped through some of the other stories in this volume–almost all by Americans–and the tone in them is most often knowing, flip, distanced; self-consciuousness and reflexivness have become so much the mode of contemporary fiction in America that those qualities are adopted almost un-self-consciously. In contrast, the stories from Indigenous Australia glow with vitality and anxiety and engagement, and I hope they blow out a few windows on this side of the world.