Perspectives from the Pacific Rim
From Griffith REVIEW Discussion
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
A review of Griffith REVIEW 30: The Annual Fiction Edition
by Sam Cooney
I’m writing this while staying in Hollywood, Los Angeles, where I’ve been hovering for a few days. In a somewhat rare burst of literary culture for here, I’ve just spent the last couple of hours at the famous Book Soup book store on Sunset Boulevard listening to The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein discuss the role today of literary journals. Stein, cordial and down-to-earth, ranged wide in his reflections, and did so with aplomb. He said that he accepts that fiction and poetry have never been quite so marginalised as they are today. Thus, he said, increasing the readership of a literary journal must be an editor’s primary vision. Stein also admitted that paper-and-ink quarterlies exist a little out of time in a culture where information is available from second to second. But, he insisted, the continuation of the print component of a literary journal is vital if they are to keep themselves from being completely mired in the boggy swamp we know online communication can sometimes resemble.
Stein’s talk gave me pause to consider just what Griffith REVIEW, one of Australia’s pre-eminent literary journals, a journal that is known for publishing progressive dissertations alongside the most creative writers, should be aiming to achieve. And expressly, to ask: what is the raison d’être of an offering like this summer fiction edition? Interestingly, Stein’s thoughts about The Paris Review seemed to coincide with the problems and opportunities facing all Australian-based literary journals, including Griffith REVIEW, and this is why it’s heartening to see Griffith REVIEW maintain a forward-looking perspective with this, its second annual fiction edition, an edition that looks to a wider audience in regards to theme and accessibility, without straying too far from the core storytelling quality that we expect from our best quarterlies. The team behind it have worked hard; the more comfortable option would have been to simply publish the best creative pieces submitted to their coffers, without boundaries or thematic restrictions. (And this to a large extent would have worked, as there is no dearth in top-notch general fiction writing at the moment.) But the editors made it clear in their call-out that this edition would have a focus, and this focus was to be on writing from and about the Pacific region. Specifically:
What binds us, what pulls us apart, how can we make sense of such a diverse region connected by as vast roiling ocean...Australia is enjoying a new relationship with its neighbours in the Pacific Rim. This collection, predominantly new short fiction with some travel memoir, will explore how the constant shift of individuals and ideas across borders, into new heterogeneous communities and ethnic enclaves, is giving rise to new voices in literature.
And so the game was afoot, the task of the editors and co. set down: to stay close to their thematic stipulations without compromising on the quality of the finished product. The result? A mixture. For the most part, success, but there are some less-than-successful aspects, a few wobbly bits. The pieces certainly engage with a diverse range of places in the Pacific Rim, some identifiable: Australia, and also Calcutta, Taipei, the village of Ding in China, Cambodia, Japan, Macau and more.
Without further ado and like the fruit on top a Pavlova, let us focus first on the most colourful and nourishing pieces.
Eva Hornung’s ‘The Infernal Wood’ possesses that superb concurrence found in many great short fictions: that paradox which both lures you in and unsettles your footing, almost triggering your instinct to flight. Hornung (nee Eva Sallis of earlier novels), author of Dog Boy and other exceptional stories involving animals as fully-realised characters, tells of a woman and a horse venturing into a forest, a forest that steadily becomes nightmarish. The changing descriptions of the vegetation and light and sounds are strange and enchanting, where ‘The trees rose in straight lines, rough-barked yet glimmering with strange greys’ with a ‘sun-spangled clearing, the horse knee-deep in October green and gold’. The world familiar is left behind for both woman and horse, and we too are lost in that perfect heady mix of never quite knowing what is happening, but recognising enough to read on with quiet gusto.
Mark Welker, an emerging voice that Griffith REVIEW has been plugging – and with good reason – also offers a piece of fiction that is strange and foreboding. ‘Without Country’ has two men, identified only as a journalist and a rigger, adrift on a raft. They are lost at sea and looking for land, desperate, exhausted, afraid. Welker provides no context, no preamble or easy clues, and this withholding heightens the tension from go and sustains it to whoa/woe. I’m sure there are handfuls of metaphors to which you could apply this story; you could delve deeper and deeper, but first, foremost and most importantly the story zings off the page with dialogue that propels and speedy plot progression that takes us over oceanic waves that are unforgiving and forever unpredictable.
‘Icing and Salt’ by Colin Mills, apart from having the best title in the edition, plops us into the world of sumo. Our protagonist Eiji is a senior wrestler and has been offered incentives, monetary and more, to throw a fight. The story feels authentic, the settings and characters convincing, and the portrayal of life as a sumo is brutal and animalistic:
He bellows at them to thank him for toughening them up, and they comply in muffled grunts. He hits them again. Their coarse black belts are filthy from rolling on the dirt floor, and their sweaty chests and shoulders are coated with dirt. Their straggly hair hangs loose, not yet long enough to tie into a topknot. Some are barely fifteen. They are still pristine and undamaged, features blurred and indistinct like soft clay figurines yet to be sculpted. Bellies have not filled out and hardened. Noses are not yet broken, and there is hardly a dislocated shoulder among them.
Most important though is the structure of the piece, as Mills has manipulated time so that we catch a glimpse of our destination, before he rewinds us to the start and we witness all of the events that lead to the inevitable – but not clear-cut – conclusion. It is simple and clever, and wholly entertaining.
Peter Temple’s ‘Cedric Abroad’ is the longest piece in the edition – about forty pages – as well as the most humorous. The 2010 Miles Franklin winner demonstrates his skill as he weaves a darkly comic tale of a forty-one-year-old English master who timidly grasps the opportunity to travel and then live on a station in rural Victoria. Cedric is very ‘English’ but not so far as to be a stereotype; the same can be said for the ocker types he meets in the great southern land. However, the piece is not all funny funny ha ha. The assorted people that crop up throughout the story are those at the end of society’s tether, as well as being at their own wit’s end. Homeless families, down-and-outers, dodgy Irish priests – the characters are excessive but also distinctly realistic, and confer a darker underlay to the soft cushiony comedy that is inbuilt into Temple’s writing.
‘Scene From a Window’ by Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo is just that: a never-mentioned protagonist living in Greenwich Village, New York, watches a hard-rubbish pile outside an apartment as passers-by sift through for something that appeals. Although this story could almost be passed off as a writing exercise, it is in fact much more. The unadorned prose and simple structure evoke the writings of people like Jorge Luis Borges or Roland Barthes; the rubbish pile and its orbiting parties offer a microcosmic view of life, or something like it.
There are many more pieces worth mentioning: Kate Holden’s memoir ‘Don Quixote in Shanghai’ is vivid and heartfelt in its snapshottish depiction of that notorious Chinese city, although the regular quotes from Miguel Cervantes actually weaken the piece, possibly attesting to the strength of Holden’s own voice. Lyn Reeves’ essay about birds is restrained and riveting; Linda Jaivin’s candid story of women overseas echoes her similar story in this year’s The Big Issue fiction special; Chris Flynn’s ‘Panther’ is biting in its telling of a relationship breakdown; Alice Pung’s brief memoir about Cambodia’s Killing Fields falls off the page with her usual potency; and ‘Republic of Outer Barcoo’ by Janette Turner Hospital, an imagining of republic states forming in Queensland, is immediately different and provoking.
Tellingly, the vast majority of the highlights in this fiction edition are standalone stories, even though there are in fact three novel extracts included. None of them stand out, begging the question: are they included in lieu of better short stories?
Additionally, the introduction to the edition by head editor Julianne Schultz is disappointing. It doesn’t mention or even allude to any of the pieces contained within the collection, choosing instead to spout off about Australian politics. There is an attempt to tie the discussion of Julia Gillard’s and Tony Abbott’s reading choices back to narrative and novels, though none of it feels relevant to the edition itself. I would like to have seen some conversation about the issues surrounding short fiction and literary journals, or an opinion about creative writing in general. Yes, Schultz is an engaging writer, but it would’ve been eons better if the introduction was maybe written by someone closer to the creation of this particular fiction edition project. This is especially pertinent as the editing of this project is of a high quality, in regards to both the line-to-line cleanliness of all the writing as well as the arranging of pieces alongside each other (this is not to discount Schultz’s obviously accomplished direction). Murders segue into murders, two stories about horses stand side-by-side, and pieces about birds match up to create a subtle sense of unison.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘If television refuses to look at something it is as though it never happened.’ We can now add the internet into that mix too, the point being that it is now primarily the most popular, gaudy and pervasive forms of communication that decide which narratives are disseminated. Words, once the baron (definitely not baroness) of such control, through newspapers and printed books, are being forced to take a bit of a back seat. It is special creative editions of printed journals like this through which writing can wrest our attention back for good stretches of time. This edition demands an afternoon and several cups of tea, mugs of coffee or shiny glasses of oily G&Ts, and this is a good thing.
In his 1950 essay ‘Not-Knowing’ Donald Barthelme said that ‘the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do’ and that ‘the anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable’. And in a recent interview Phillip Roth spoke similar words:
I don’t know very much. I write my way into knowledge. Then if I’m lucky, I get a break. That’s why it’s so important to get started. Because however awful starting is – and it is absolutely awful – when you get into it, when you’ve got ten pages, which may take two weeks, then you can begin to build.
Fiction editions like this one by Griffith REVIEW give motivation to writers who don’t know what they are doing. It tells them to start, and to keep going. I’m not being a crybaby when I reiterate what masses have said before: creative writing is arduous and painful. I should know: in full defence of transparency, I submitted two stories to this edition that didn’t make the cut. (Not that critical writing is any easier – just refer to George Orwell’s ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, which can be found online.) I may be skylarking about the sunset strips and flashy boulevards of Hollywood and freewheeling down the boardwalks of Venice Beach, but I look to Australia and see writers and editors egging each other on, and the result is acutely reassuring.
Sam Cooney is a writer of fiction and nonfiction pieces that have been published around and thereabouts. He also does some editing stuff, most recently with Sleepers Publishing, Overland and Voiceworks. He lives in Melbourne, although is relocating to Berlin via the US and the UK. www.samuelcooney.wordpress.com