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Good luck, Alec, and thank you

3 May

Nothing stays the same. 

Of all people, writers know that.  In fact, it’s our bread and butter.  Our job is to map change, to explain, as best we can, and to move people by our telling.  Verity La isn’t immune to change, which has been made clear by the departure of Alec Patric as co-editor. 

Almost two years ago, when the concept of Verity La found the light of day, Alec jumped at the opportunity – maybe literally.  His energy, enthusiasm, and literary intelligence helped to take Verity La from idea to reality.  This journal – which really is nothing more than an internet space where people donate their work for the enjoyment of others – has grown almost exponentially because of Alec’s involvement.

But now he’s stepped away.

What happens from here?  Verity La will keep going, and growing.  The journal will continue to publish the best writing submitted, and there’ll be more reviews and interviews, as well as social comment and photomedia.  The mission has always been to publish brave writing that moves people.  Be brave – yes, that’s the masthead motto.  So the journal will bravely keep sailing.  What about you?  Keep subscribing, keep reading, keep submitting.  There are uncharted territories ahead, which – it’s hoped, desired even – will be truly exciting for all concerned.

Verity La and its community wish Alec the very best for what’s ahead in his creative life.  No doubt there’ll be more of his stories to read and enjoy and be challenged by.  Some of them maybe, just maybe, you’ll read here.

Good luck, Alec, and thank you.

VERITY LA: The next step

14 Jan

Dear Verity La subscribers, readers, visitors,

The Sydney Morning Herald recently acknowledged Verity La as an ‘increasingly influential’ literary journal, and indeed, Verity La has been evolving since its inception eighteen months ago. We’ve published 100 writers, interviewed scores of eminent writers, artists and thinkers, and achieved the attention of the National Library of Australia.

The next step is an upgrade of our site. Verity La is now a domain, which means less limitations and more creative freedom in how we bring you content.

Our aim is to keep what’s great about Verity La – a clean but eye-catching site that maximises readability – while making the right improvements so we stay fresh and vibrant. The next few weeks and months will see Verity La explore design possibilities, integrating video content, and personalising all elements of our presentation.

Verity La will continue to develop as a forum for writers dedicated to bravely pushing online literature forward, and we hope you’ll come along with us. As we improve and expand we are looking to include more creative input, so if you think you’d like to contribute to Verity La as a designer, writer, or indeed as an involved reader, we’d love to hear from you.

Regards,

Alec and Nigel
Co-editors
Verity La

The Rattler & other stories

12 Aug

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my first collection of stories.

The Rattler & other stories will be published in late October 2011

by Spineless Wonders.

 

*

 

“Spare and taut, sometimes tricky, sometimes shocking, yet always deeply and satisfyingly tender. A great collection.”

 

Paddy O’Reilly

*

 

“A.S. Patric is that rarest of writers- he is absolutely fearless.  His stories take risks, his characters soar and his prose sings.  Be careful.  These stories might cut you.”

 

Ryan O’Neill

*

 

“An explosive mix of muscular prose and sharp originality. In this collection, A. S. Patric proves himself to be a writer who must be taken very seriously.”

 

Vanessa Gebbie

Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story.

 

 

 

ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS On Australian Writing (Jo Case)

1 Aug

At last year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, during a session on The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, an impassioned argument broke out on the subject of Australian writing. Robert Dessaix declared that, in our current age of globalisation, where national identities and national cultures are harder to define, there is no longer any such thing as Australian writing. ‘Do any of us write as Australian writers?’ he asked his fellow panellists Chloe Hooper, Michelle de Kretser and Malcolm Knox. ‘I know I don’t. I write as moi. I don’t write about Aborigines and sharks.’

Hooper (who could be crudely said to have written ‘about Aborigines’ in her 2009 smash-hit The Tall Man) argued that the diversity Dessaix saw as signalling the demise of Australian literature is in fact at the core of its identity. She demonstrated this by citing the Macquarie anthology, which encompasses de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, and Dessaix’s engagement with the world beyond our shores. ‘I feel proud to be in an anthology of Australian literature,’ said Sri-Lankan born de Kretser. ‘It does give pleasure to some people and make them feel like they’re finally accepted as being Australian.’

But Dessaix’s interpretation of Australian writing as being about ‘Aborigines and sharks’ – or, as it’s more commonly summarised, bush and beach – is alive and well, as shown by this year’s deeply (and variously) controversial Miles Franklin shortlist. From the setting of a sheep station, Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran explores the loss of optimism and confidence in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance tells the story of the post-colonial destruction of the indigenous Noongar people and their traditions, and the possibility of a new world created by the encounters of very different peoples. (It should be noted that contrary to some post-Miles commentaries, Scott is not yet another example of an Anglo male writer being favoured. He is an indigenous writer, one of only two ever to win the Miles Franklin: Benang was joint winner, in 2000, with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) And finally Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a Gothic novel set in the aftermath of World War I during the Spanish flu epidemic, as an Australian soldier returns to the scene of a terrible crime in his country hometown, hoping to somehow reconcile the past.

The three novels were described by judges as sharing ‘a distinctive, indelible Australian voice’. That those three books were all written by men, and all shared a historical rural setting, sparked immediate and furious discussion about just what Australian writing is – and about the definition of Australian writing recognised and rewarded by the literary establishment. ‘Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice,’ wrote Angela Meyer on Crikey’s LiteraryMinded, barely an hour after the shortlist announcement. ‘Sheep stations, war, colonisation … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define “Australian life”.’

Meyer’s observation was echoed the next day by Wheeler Centre programming director Michael Williams. ‘The definition of “Australian life in any of its phases” that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo,’ he wrote on the Wheeler Centre website. ‘If our notion of a “sufficiently Australian” novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories.’

*

Six months earlier, driven by the Adelaide Writers’ Week argument, I’d begun to research the question of what we mean by ‘Australian writing’, driven by my own belief that a national literature – telling and reading our own stories – is vitally important to our sense of self. How can a generation of storytellers grow up believing that their voices are worth listening to, that a life lived in Melbourne is as culturally valid as a life lived in New York or London, if the only stories we celebrate come from elsewhere? And if Australian literature is narrowly defined as something alien to the way most of us live now, how many writers will feel inspired and emboldened to embark on a writing career?

‘I think it’s more like having an Australian accent than being an Australian writer,’ responded novelist Charlotte Wood when I posed Dessaix’s question – Do you identify as an Australian writer? ‘I guess I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.’

That idea, of writing with an Australian accent, comes through in Wood’s most recent novel, The Children, about a family reunited by a serious accident, which brings the scattered adult children back to the rural NSW town where they grew up to visit their ailing father. There are no lush descriptions of landscape, little Australian vernacular (except for a couple of stray bloodys), no surfing or sea – but it’s deeply and instantly recognisable as the kind of country town you might have driven through, or indeed have lived in; a place where most of the children grow up and gratefully leave in order to broaden their choices. ‘I wrote about what I see of country towns rather than a kind of lost romantic idea about what a country town is,’ said Wood, pointing out that in our film and television, more so than books, we see a cliché of ‘a dusty, weather-beaten, corrugated iron kind of place’, or the patronising quirkiness of shows like Seachange or the film Mullet, that doesn’t reflect what a contemporary Australian country town is, so much as a national myth.

In Wood’s fictional town of Rundle, there’s a Liquorland, a Best & Less, kids dressed in surf gear far from the sea. A climactic family dinner takes place in a pub dining room with plastic-coated menus and exotic-sounding dishes like Tuscan Lamb, the culinary labels wistfully signalling elsewhere. Town residents are proud of the recently revamped pub though city visitors disdain it as embarrassingly pretentious. On one level, it’s generic – it could happen anywhere – but on another this geographical inferiority is deeply Australian. Eldest daughter Mandy works as a war correspondent, reporting back from far-away places, and even her mother Margaret reflects nostalgically on her teenage dream of being an air hostess.

‘The things that make me Australian are more psychological,’ says novelist and former publisher Sophie Cunningham. That much of her writing is set overseas makes the definition of ‘Australian’ particularly tricky in her case. Her first novel, Geography (which included canny descriptions of the Sydney–Melbourne dichotomy and rich evocations of swimming at Bondi) was set between California, Melbourne and Sydney. Her second, Bird, is set entirely overseas. ‘You could argue that just the mere fact of being a long way from everywhere else drives the plot a lot. Australians are some of the biggest travelers in the world. And you do travel more and longer; it forms the character of the novel. But it’s a subtle point.’

It’s a point fellow novelist Patrick Allington agrees with – and he offers that while Bird is ‘not an Australian book in any sense or form, to me it feels like it is somehow. I can’t say why in any tangible sense.’

Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead – set mostly in Cambodia, following the twinned stories of Pol Pot’s right-hand man and a Wilfred Burchett-like Australian foreign correspondent – was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009. ‘In my own writing, what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the role of Australia in the world and the tyranny of distance that doesn’t exist as a geographical thing elsewhere in quite the same way. It seems to me it carries on in our heads quite powerfully.’

It’s interesting that both Allington’s novel and Wood’s The Children – two very different books – feature the key character of an Australian correspondent (Allington’s Ted and Wood’s Mandy) who, on their return, experience ‘home’ as alien and shockingly removed from the rest of the world.

When asked if he identified as an Australian writer, Allington replied: ‘I do, but that makes it sound as if I’m sitting around doing random surveys to make sure I’ve mentioned gum trees often enough per page, or weaved a platypus into the plot somehow. Which is what I think people think about when they think of Australian writing.’

In my conversations – with booksellers, publishers, writers, critics – the same names cropped up again and again when it came to contemporary Australian writing: Tim Winton and Peter Carey. There was a sense of weariness in these references, even while most praised the skill and in no way disparaged their success. When other writers considered the question of being Australian, they compared themselves against these elements: Australian vernacular; bush and beach, explicit explorations of colonisation or national history.

‘I get very frustrated by the sense that rural culture is where all the authenticity is happening,’ said Cunningham, who was one of the key publishers responsible for the ‘grunge’ wave of young Australian writers in the 1990s – which was really, in hindsight, urban fiction. Her alumni include Fiona McGregor (Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes), and Luke Davies (Candy).

Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield is an enthusiastic champion of Australian fiction; she started Scribe’s fledgling list nearly six years ago, in 2006, after a long stint as deputy editor of Australian Book Review. Describing her thought process when it comes to commissioning writers, she said, ‘I’m thinking – maybe wrongly – that audiences are looking for good writing, by writers who live here, that has an Australian accent, or really talks about what they know – the things that are most relevant to them. But it’s not narrowly defined at all. I think the definitions of bush and beach have been outdated for quite a long time.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of the editors of The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature agreed, saying that we’ve moved ‘well past’ the city–bush split once looming large in our literature, and that contemporary Australian literature is a broad field, with ‘many, many things that can fit under this umbrella’.

Goldsworthy reflected on the recent history of this evolution, drawing on the expertise and hands-on experience of her decades of work in the field (including as an editor of Australian Book Review, a Miles Franklin judge and an Australian Literature academic). ‘English departments in universities in the 1960s were run by English people,’ she said. ‘It was a British view. No such thing as Australian literature.’ The resistance to Australian literature in universities lingered as late as the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by fights to get migrant literature, indigenous literature and writing by women taught and read. ‘There was a great swathe of short story anthologies that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s really heavily dominated by male writers and nobody even noticed let alone remarked on it,’ Goldsworthy recalled. ‘Then there was this kind of flowering of women’s writing in the 1980s with Helen Garner and Beverly Farmer and Kate Grenville; older women like Olga Masters who had begun to write in their middle age; and people like Thea Astley, who had been there all along.’

Viewed in this context, it seems that there has always been a war to recognise Australian writing that reflects the broader Australian experience – and we’re in the midst, it seems, of the next battle.

*

On the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel, novelist and former Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Malcolm Knox talked about The Slap’s journey to publication overseas. He said it came up against all kinds of difficulties because it was about suburban life in the Western world, rather than the exotic settings of the outback or a coastal surfing town. ‘In The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas is in Melbourne writing about his world in Melbourne with the confidence of Philip Roth writing about his world in New York,’ he said. He suggested that the reception of the book – then yet to be published outside Australia – would challenge international definitions of Australian writing, and would be a kind of test case for whether suburban Australian writing can travel. Of course, it went on to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker.

Did The Slap mark an expansion of what we define as Australian writing? Not really, said most of those I spoke to. It’s simply a terrific work of storytelling. ‘If I asked friends in the UK if they would read a book set in suburban Australia, I think they’d say, “It depends entirely on who’s writing about it”,’ said Kerryn Goldsworthy. ‘Alice Munro writes about small towns in Canada, and she has millions and millions of people hanging on her every word. And it’s not because she’s writing about small towns in Canada. It’s because she’s really, really good at what she does.’

Goldsworthy did think, though, that The Slap was a perfectly timed novel that ‘hit the Zeitgeist smack in the middle’ and delivered a kind of story about contemporary Australia that readers were hungry for. ‘It was a novel whose time had come in the same way that Monkey Grip was. It was exactly the right time for someone to say what had been happening in these places and to these people for the past few years.’

Aviva Tuffield sees another salutary lesson for Australian writing in the success of The Slap. It’s an excellent example of the importance of supporting a writer through their early work, and nurturing them as they develop their career – something that is becoming rarer these days, with the advent of BookScan, which shows exactly how many copies an author has sold, making it tougher for them to be signed up for that notoriously difficult second novel.

Tuffield used the example of her author Chris Womersely, whose second novel Bereft they’d worked on intensively in the editorial process. ‘I think his third book will be something really ground-breaking,’ she said when we spoke in November 2010 – months before Bereft was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. ‘You don’t know what you would have had by supporting local writers if you don’t do it,’ she reflected. ‘You don’t know when you’ll see the next Tim Winton or whoever – the next great writer who’ll come out of the fact that someone took a punt on their first book, and again on their second book and their third book.’

Sophie Cunningham also emphasised the significance of The Slap being Tsiolkas’s fourth novel, coming after his debut Loaded (one of the ‘grunge’ novels), his difficult second novel The Jesus Man, and the critically acclaimed Dead Europe, winner of The Age Book of the Year (2006). Both Tuffield and Cunningham made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen, whose third novel was The Corrections.

I asked Cunningham if she thought maybe there’s been a generational shift in the idea of what an ‘Australian’ writer can be. (And, reflecting now, perhaps that shift hasn’t yet made its way to the Miles Franklin judging panel.) She agreed that people like Tsiolkas – and Nam Le, whose worldwide phenomenon The Boat was published simultaneously in New York and was set all over the world – are opening up that definition.

*

Back to the time of writing, and the all-male, rural, historically set Miles shortlist. It’s been heartening to see the widespread public reaction against the lack of diversity, from writers, critics, and passionate readers alike. ‘I think the “Australian Voice” is a multi-cultural one and an urbanised one,’ wrote Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages and Pages, president of the Australian Booksellers’ Association. ‘While Australia is a large land mass, the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns.’ A commenter on his blog replied, ‘One of the reasons I read less and less Australian “literary” fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not.’ Bookseller Martin Shaw of Readings Carlton believes that most enthusiastic readers ‘want to read something quite regularly that’s set in their own time and place … they’re looking for something that’s sort of explaining their world to them’.

That’s why Australian writing is still important. It reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions. Not all Australian writing speaks to all Australians – that would be an absurd notion. But the diversity of our writing represents the diversity of Australia itself. And that’s a good thing – something that, it seems, Australian readers are increasingly keen to see reflected in the kind of Australian writing we value.

The Miles Franklin debate is not simply about one prize, albeit our leading national literary prize. It’s an argument about who we are. ‘I like to see my world represented in art,’ said Charlotte Wood. I think the same is true of most of us. It doesn’t have to be about the bush or the beach. It can be as varied and universal as an Australian accent.

Thanks to all the talented writing, publishing and bookselling people who took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts on this subject. Not all were able to be directly quoted in the article, but all made valuable contributions to the conversation. Thanks to: Patrick Allington, Jon Bauer, Sophie Cunningham, Lisa Dempster, Chris Flynn, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Martin Shaw, Louise Swinn, Charlotte Wood and Chris Womersley.

–> Jo Case is associate editor of Kill Your Darlings, books editor of The Big Issue and a former deputy editor of Australian Book Review.

ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND  AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS  On Australian Writing first appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 6, July 2011.

Country and Western (Sunil Badami)

19 Mar

‘Where you from, mate?’

‘Sydney.’

That makes ‘em laugh, for some reason.

 

When people overseas ask me where I’m from, I naturally say “Australia.” When people interstate ask, I say “Sydney.” When people in Sydney ask, I say “Blacktown,” and they look askance, as if to say: Where the bloody hell is that?

For some, the Western Suburbs are some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant, blank space, uncharted territory, a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains. A faraway boganville. With no atmosphere, no culture – and definitely no reason to visit. A place to leave rather than to return to, a place from which to seek asylum.

The Italian writer Aldo Busi says that ‘we travel like lobsters, our heads over our shoulders.’ Which is to say, we’re always looking back, looking away, our eyes fixed not so much on the horizon to which we’re heading, but what we left behind around the corner we just passed.

But in Sydney, where ‘executive waterfront investment opportunities’ grab at the hem of the foreshore, stabbing the skyline like upturned fingers, once-vibrant harbourside neighbourhoods are now silent but for the sound of the security buzzer, everyone as blinded as dazzled by the Harbour’s glistering, dancing light.

And, unlike the starving colonists of Old Sydney Town, who looked westwards for salvation (and installed the Governor in Parramatta Park), it seems, at least from reading the papers or listening to the radio, nobody looks West, least of all those of us who grew up there. I left as soon as I could, moving to Town, where I imagined everything happened, finding myself apologetically justifying my place by doing everything I could not to appear a Westie, even if I was still obviously a darkie.

In Greystanes, where I grew up, and where the only water views were the Beresford Road stormwater drain or the Prospect Reservoir, our gaze was always fixed on Town, as distant as another country. From the milk bar at the top of Ettalong Road, the sky bleached and laundry-dry, our paddle pops dissolving into the incandescent asphalt, you’d see the city, so far away, shimmering in the burnt-blue distance, a mirage reminding you how far away you were, despite being so close.

And at night, Town’s candy-coloured lights would flicker uncertainly as the humming sodium streetlamps of the Great Western Highway swallowed them up into the stifling night.

 

‘No, where you really from?’ they ask.

‘Well, I was born in Blacktown,’ I reply. ‘But don’t tell anyone – we don’t want to lower property values.’

They laugh a little less.

 

The Australian academic and critic Stephen Muecke observes that ‘a language like English is like a group of textual suburbs,’ each with its own character, the differences expressed not just through space and distance, but in a cultural and political geography, crowded with meaning, like, say the difference between Blacktown and Circular Quay or Greystanes and Girraween.

It’s always struck me, Greystanes or Girraween or even Doonside aside, how incongruously Western suburbs are named. The imperious names of posh suburbs like Northbridge or Edgecliff or Palm Beach describe them perfectly: there is a bridge there, it is on the edge of a cliff, and there are lots of expensively transplanted palms within the high-walled gardens of those luxurious weekenders.

But if you’ve ever been to Merrylands or Pleasure Point or Silverwater, you’d find it hard to see the merriness or pleasure or silveriness over the belch of exhaust fumes and the roar of motorway traffic. The only high walls on the Cumberland Highway are there not to protect the residents from the invasive gaze of outsiders, but from the pollution and noise and collisions that the many smash repair shops all the way to Smithfield take advantage of. Sometimes it seems, the roller shutters clamped down against the yellow heat, that even Westies don’t want to look around them.

Only Blacktown, where I was born, seems apt: named after a school established to educate the natives in ‘civilised’ English ways, its Indigenous Dharug name long lost.  Now it’s home to Sydney’s biggest population of Indigenous Australians, immigrant Indians and Sudanese refugees.

A black town, indeed, even if Greystanes did feel, growing up, as it sounded: a regretful smudge, only an incremental shade from darkness.

‘No, seriously, where’s your family from?’

‘Seriously? Actually, Greystanes. I grew up there.’

They stop laughing.

 

Just as for those who’ve never ventured any further down Parramatta Road past Annandale, the Western suburbs is uncharted territory, written on the blank page of an imaginary map, my geography is an emotional one. The longer you’re away, you realise that the landmarks aren’t the things you sped past on the way to the Cumberland Highway on-ramp: those mysterious, windowless hangars; the anonymous storage facilities; the cut-price hotel-motels; the shabby shops selling soiled seconds; the heavy machinery yards, the dead skeletons of cranes and earthmovers hung, fossilised, in the still, suffocating air… but the spaces they once were – and more importantly, the people who inhabit those spaces.

Unlike the heritage-listed million dollar terraces of Paddington or Rozelle, the streetscapes of Western Suburbs like Padstow or Rosehill are constantly changing, from minty fibro cottages to brick veneer bungalows; now lurid McMansions and strange glassy-faced apartments thrown onto empty stretches of Parramatta Road staring out at caryards or the acrid remains of the Homebush Abbattoirs. Could you tell Australia’s second white settlement was established at Parramatta, now in danger of being rechristened Westfieldamatta?

Horrified faces seem to ask: how could anyone want to live there? As if you only live there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, seeking asylum from even worse places. When I was due back after a couple of years in London, my mother couldn’t understand my reluctance to return. ‘There’s a new Gloria Jean’s in the Boral Brick Pit,’ she said indignantly, referring to the Pemulwuy development over the spar from the Reservoir. ‘And the coffee, frankly, is quite adequate.’

Unlike the phó, the raw beef larb, the kuttu roti, the bhelpuri or bipbimbap, which are phenomenal. Growing up eating chevapi from Fairfield, pastizzi from South Wentworthville, kofte in Auburn, at little lunch, I’d swap my puris and dhal for Marko’s csabai roll; after school, Carlo’s mum would stuff us with cannoli or we’d gobble devon-and-sauce sangers at Kieran’s.

There’s a danger, though, in regarding the Western Suburbs as a kind of food court, like a series of little China- or Viet- or Korea- or Lebanon- or Serbia-towns, enjoying the cuisine but disregarding the cultures that cooked them up, leaving “them” to deal with the mess between “authenticity” and “assimilation.”

And there’s a danger in perpetuating the false perception of “us” and “them”, East and West, when the borders are always shifting and easily crossed – as long as it takes to get on a train (or, given Western Sydney’s unending public transport woes, just getting on the motorway) – or, perhaps, more importantly, within us.

Yet it seems odd that most of the city’s population, coming from the Western Suburbs, must make the effort to engage, at least culturally, with thousands spending hours on the train or motorway to line the Harbour and crowd the Domain every January for the Sydney Festival, as if there was nowhere else to go, when while the road ends at the foreshore, there are countless directions heading the other way going West into Australia’s dark heart.

However, for “native Westies” like my mother, living in the Western Suburbs is not simply a question of affordability but community: the ‘ethnic ghettoes’ pilloried by those opposed to diversity exist only as new immigrants find their feet in a strange land among friends. It seems that the transformation in public opinion from ‘ethnic ghetto’ to celebrated ‘cultural precincts’ like Norton Street or Dixon Street takes only a generation. Just as from Ettalong Road to Centrepoint, it’s only twelve miles, even if in Sydney traffic, it sometimes it feels a world away: another country, as foreign as the past, in these forgotten places where everything seems demolished, where certainties seem erased.

But it’s in those places, like the meaning hidden in the spaces between words, where just as much, if not more, is gained in the translation, as was ever imagined lost.

‘Where were they born?’

‘Well, my parents were born in India – ‘

‘Right, so you’re Indian?’

 

I eat tandoori chicken I do on the barbie; I’ve read the Mahabharata, but only in English. I’m not sure I’m really Indian and yet people aren’t really sure I’m not. ‘Indianness’ is a concept as foreign to me as ‘Australianness’. Let alone ‘Westieness.’

I was born in Australia, I speak with an Australian accent, I don’t speak any Indian language, but I look Indian: what you might call a ”coconut,” white inside and brown out. It’s funny: when I tell people in India where my parents are from, they laugh and ask me where I’m really from. It’s only in India that I’m Australian… and perhaps vice-versa.

In more supposedly cosmopolitan quarters I’d find people kindly reassuring me I wasn’t really Indian, or Westie for that matter, and being surprised I took such exception.

Such questions don’t bother my mother, adjusting her sari defiantly. ‘I’m a Westernie and proud of it,’ she says, well, proudly.

But what would a Westie look like anyway (or, while we’re asking, an Aussie)? Who wears flannie shirts with Winnie Blues tucked into the sleeve over an Ackadacka tanktop stuffed into skinny jeans – and, most appallingly, with thongs?

(Actually, walking down the trendier quarters of Bondi or Surry Hills, it seems everybody. It seems strange not just that such privileged young slashies should be copying Westies, but that their Westie contemporaries might imitate them, imitating their own Westie parents.)

And it’s ironic that with Sydney’s exorbitant house prices forcing people further west, many of us who left are now returning – and those same Eastern Suburbs or North Shore denizens who might wonder who’d live in the West find themselves on its doorstep, newly arrived immigrants in enclaves like Petersham or Ashfield, where the multicultural atmosphere – with older Portuguese and Greek immigrants rubbing shoulders with newer Chinese and Anglo arrivals – is celebrated.

Much is made of Sydney’s multiculturality: after all, as Australia’s largest city, home to Australia’s busiest airport, and the first destination for many immigrants (such as my parents), it has the most and most diverse ethnic communities.

But, on a recent trip to Bondi, packed with foreign tourists, it struck me that I was the only non-white person on the street: a strange, unsettling feeling I suddenly realised I’d never have back home, out west.

And it occurred to me that the Gateway to Australia wasn’t at Circular Quay, but somewhere around Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic and geographical heart, its streets alive with exotic aromas and unheard of dialects, offering at once the reality of Sydney today, and its possibilities tomorrow. Lost for words, I thought of Muecke again:

‘When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.’

 

‘No, mate, I’m a Westie. And proud of it.’

 

And it seems, just as the geography of a place is one more of meaning than merely location, so too a nation – especially a nation of immigrants like Australia – is not so much a collection of gazetted borders or place names but an idea, agreed upon by the majority of the people who claim citizenship of it.

But like any idea, like any nation, like any city, like any community, it cannot exist statically in the ghetto of some idealised past or limited to any particular definition: it can only be enriched and strengthened by debating it and expanding it, the changes keeping it alive.

And nowhere is that more true than the Western Suburbs, constantly demolishing and building and reinventing, its face changing with every new wave of arrivals, building their own ideas of Australia on the foundations of their own imaginary homelands.

Although the Indonesian-Chinese-Australian theorist Ien Ang acknowledges the conflict between questions of ‘where you’re from’ over ‘where you’re at,’ particularly for immigrants and their children, and while the idea of being where you’re at is more relevant in finding your place, it shouldn’t discount where you’re from. Why, as Salman Rushdie asks, should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of society, or drawing on our roots – whether Oriental or Westie – for our art or identity?

In his classic The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (set in of all places, Western Australia), Randolph Stowe’s semi-autobiographically based protagonist, Rob, whose uncle is Maltese, wonders ‘if he would ever go as far as Malta, and hear people talking foreign languages in the streets.’

We needn’t travel so far: once we open the shutters and turn towards our hearts, it’s there, where it always was, and if we look hard enough, we can see it never really left us, or us it. Just as I cannot disavow my apparent Indianness, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing?

After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants, but its outsiders, always on the margins, looking in: not offering new certainties, but new ways of questioning accepted ones. Like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere, offering new insights, new visions, new illuminations?

And best of all, not just artists or writers. For one marvellous month in Greystanes, we wander once silent streets, shining with fairy lights and children’s laughter and the jingle of carols. The Caruanas, the Browns, the Sabouhs and the Wongs all festoon their front windows with puddings and elves and animatronic Nativity scenes, steaming in the Mr Whippy gloaming, the sky radiant with rosy resplendence, all of us swelling with Christmas spirit and community pride: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. My two little girls, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, half-Indian, half-Anglo and wholly Australian, are as enthralled by these Christmas decorations as they are by the Deepavali ones at the Murugan Temple up the road.

The Parramatta Advertiser proudly reports how many people come from all over the city to delight at Greystanes, of all places.

And, amidst the excited clamour and electric lustre, nobody notices the spray-on snow or sweltering Santas dissolving in the dusk, or the way each of us has added a little of our own traditions and expectations to make something shinier, more colourful, more inclusive: different, but not discrete. Nor, as the rainbow sparkles and tinkling carols shimmer along Cumberland Road, the uncertain glimmer of Town, so far away.

We’ve no need to look longingly over our shoulders that one marvellous month, for we can see that light right in front of us, where it always was: round the corner from home, in our neighbours’ and children’s faces, sticky with choc top and lit with joy.

* * *

–> Country and Western was published in Best Australian Essays 2010.

Fistfuls of truth and heart

18 Dec

Now that Verity La is up and running, and 2010 is careering to its end, we thought it’s probably about time to introduce ourselves as co-editors of what has become – we hope – a place on the internet where you can find words that are alive.  Rather than both of us produce an editorial, we thought we’d take things a little further by sharing with you a conversation, because conversations – in the broadest definition – is what we’re on about: dialogue between writer and reader, engagement with ideas, maybe even a conclusion every now and again.  All in the context of what our mast-head calls being brave.  So let’s do it.

Nigel Featherstone: Alec, it seems hard to believe that Verity La has only been going for six months (the first post, a poem of yours, was on 20 June 2010).  What made you want to become co-editor of an on-line creative arts journal?

Alec Patric: You can’t fight evolution. Extinction starts nipping at your ankles if you try. Books might get to be like dinosaur bones, bought only in specialty stores. I work in a bookstore so I’m not as insouciant as I might sound. Just yesterday I vowed to never buy a Kindle, iPad, etc. but I made a similar promise to stay faithful to records when CDs first came out. I suppose I’m just another dodo looking for better wings. I started a blog about a year ago, but before that, the internet was Disneyland. I was more than happy living with Guttenberg’s toys. I could point out that a book already is a kind of technology and that it took hundreds of years to develop and perfect, but who’d listen? We’re all rushing towards online air, and so far, I’m reveling in the new skies for my dodo wings.

To answer your question more directly: it hadn’t occurred to me to be an editor of anything, online or otherwise, until you asked me to join you on this lil’ flight of fancy Nigel. I’d been intensely involved with Overland, blogging for Sparrow & Co. a few times a week for six months or so, and Verity La was a natural progression. More to the point, I should ask why you wanted to start an online journal and why ask me to join you?

NF: I too am reveling in these new skies for my own ‘dodo wings’.  Up until last year I didn’t even have the internet at home and was more than happy not being connected – sometimes having your head in the sand is quite comfortable.  But then, in 2009, I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people, and I saw first-hand how other artists had engaged with the on-line environment.  I committed myself to at least getting the internet put on, and then within six months I had a website and then a blog – it was an e-avalanche!

After blogging for a year (I never set out to be an actual blogger; I just wanted to post pieces I wrote for other media, mostly newspapers), one night I was happily watching High Fidelity – great book by Nick Hornby, good movie – when I thought, wouldn’t it be good to be able to foster other writers, potentially through free blogging software.  Twenty-four hours later I had the name (it’s a laneway that up until recently I walked past on a daily basis), the basic concept of the thing, the on-line format, but wanted this to be much bigger than one person.  I’d interviewed you for a piece for the Canberra Times on blogging and appreciated your thoughtfulness and honesty, and decided that I might have found a potential co-editor.  I purposely didn’t over-think the whole caper, because I knew that if I thought about it too hard I wouldn’t go ahead with it at all.  I’m glad we did: just scrolling through the contents page gives me a warm inner-glow: here’s a stack of writing and thought and creativity that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s rewarding to be involved in this DIY movement: writers doing it (sisterly) for ourselves!

We’re six months into this Verity La journey (love how that word is a cousin of ‘journal’), what are you getting out of being co-editor?

ASP: Some writers spend a long time in exile. This can begin early and last most of a lifetime. That’d be the tone of my bio up until the last year or two. I grew up in an environment where a literary life was something glimpsed between commercials, in a distracted reference on some tele-movie about a sporting hero – the mad uncle that was a writer. Entering the workaday world you hear about writers being a dime-a-dozen, but that was far from my experience. Of course, there are those people you run into that dream they’ll one day write a biography or novel, and might have written a poem or two while on holiday in Bali, but for me, writing came with the daily devotion of religion, and I wanted to find people who had that kind of sensibility and commitment. If I’m now a part of literary culture, through Verity La, blogging or publishing, there’s that sense of exile that renews the experience for me constantly.

Six months of Verity La has been filled with poetry, prose, visual art, and interviews. What have been the highlights for you?

NF: That whole creativity-and-exile thing is interesting, isn’t it.  The more I create and write and persist with what at times – often – feels like a completely ludicrous activity the more it feels like a peripheral activity.  Each time we decide to spend some hours writing, it does feel like a disconnection from the world, a running away, a push to the edges, except really it’s the exact opposite, it’s a burrowing down into truth and reality.

So rarely is the act of writing – of creating anything – properly valued.  Going to the gym is valued.  Going to the movies is valued.  Spending an evening at the pub is valued.  But locking yourself in a room to write?  That’s what a crazy person does.  And society exiles crazy people.  So I think you’re right that it’s all about finding a community.  I’ve never been interested in book clubs, nor have I been interested in writers groups (I did establish one which ran for a year, but the rule was that we absolutely couldn’t bring our own work to discuss – our discussions had to be broader than the stories we were working on).

What Verity La offers is a space – a place – for work to appear; in some ways it feels like an intersection of practice and outcomes, of hopes and realities.  Every time I receive a submission – as you know they come almost daily – I realise how there’s a hunger for work to be read, particularly good work, and by good work I mean writing that’s been edited and put aside and edited some more and put aside again and then, finally, when the writer is absolutely convinced it’s ready for airing, it’s finally submitted, a process that can take years rather than months.  It’s a highlight every time I open a submission and I feel engaged and then, ultimately, moved.  It’s a highlight when a writer accepts the feedback provided, works on a story, and submits it again.  It’s been a highlight to interview established Australian writers – invariably they’ve been generous with their time, very open, not stuffy in the slightest.

What’s ahead for Verity La, do you reckon?

ASP: I’m a believer in necessity. We value that which is most necessary to us. So I think Verity La will grow into what our literary community needs it to be. If it’s actually superfluous, then it will evaporate like most of the other content on the internet. Well, since we’ve been archived by the National Library of Australia, we know that everything on Verity La will be protected in perpetuity now, but its continuing relevance is still that necessity. I know that sounds grandiose, but I was sincere when I said that the questions central to literature are religious to me. I don’t mean in relationship to some kind of divine meaning, but that there is indeed an element of life and death at the core of what we do. Something worth investing our entire lives in and worth the sacrifices we all make simply to be a part of Literature. An example of that necessity is in the interviews you and I have made a core feature of our journal. Verity La has become one of the few places where local writers are able to come and talk about the central elements of their writing lives and the most vital aspects of their craft. The Verity La reader is a Writer, and he or she will find our content, to greater or lesser degrees, necessary to wherever they are in their careers.

How do you see the future of Verity La, Nigel?

NF: I like that ecological idea that important and necessary things survive, while the superfluous and irrelevant wither away.  So the key will be to not be superfluous or irrelevant.  I’m not sure I ‘see’ anything for the future of Verity La, because I barely know what’s going to happen in my life tomorrow let alone see anything in particular for a little on-line journal that thinks it can.  I do, however, have some hopes.  I hope Verity La continues to develop as a place for brave writing, and by ‘brave’ I mean writing that challenges.

Only this week I was reminded of Oz and what it set out to achieve back in the 1960s, which was to be a ‘magazine of dissent’.  Whilst I don’t see Verity La going anywhere near of what Oz achieved, perhaps it would be good if we could shake things up a little more, because we’ll be relevant and important and necessary if we’re dangerous – if what we collectively produce is a matter of a life and death.  I’d like to make it very clear that by dangerous I don’t mean ‘adventurous’ or ‘experimental’.  Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho isn’t adventurous or experimental, but it is dangerous.  Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man isn’t adventurous or experiment, but it is dangerous.  They are dangerous because they tell the truth.  And if writers must do anything, it is to tell the truth.  Bring on the writers of truth!

ASP: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the poets, writers and artists of Verity La. I’ve been stunned time and again that so many people have been willing to give fistfuls of their hearts with such grace and generosity. If Verity La has come to occupy a space within the shifting spectrum of the internet and to find a place within Australian literature and art, just six months ago it really was nothing more than a statement of intent; just one more blogish shape in a computer-generated wasteland. It’s because of these initial contributions, all of them acts of faith, all openhearted gifts of time and talent, insight and passion, that a vibrant identity has emerged, not to mention a lasting cultural artefact.

Thanks to all our contributors. It really has been an honour and privilege that I’m most grateful for.