‘Longneck’ for July: Jeffrey Smart, Peter Carey

My latest ‘Longneck’ column in The Melbourne Review is out, in print and online. It’s a homage to Jeffrey Smart, the Australian artist who hailed from South Australia and who died recently, and to writer Peter Carey, who before he turned his hand to novels wrote wonderful short stories. Smart’s great painting ‘Cahill Expressway’ is on the cover of Carey’s first short story collection, The Fat Man in History. You can read the column here.

Laura Jean McKay ‘Holiday in Cambodia’

I’ve just finished reading Laura Jean McKay’s terrific new short story collection, Holiday in CambodiaWhat follows is not a review — more an initial collection of thoughts and reactions.

These stories are all set in Cambodia, including late French colonisation, the Pol Pot period, and the messy (still messy) decades that have followed. There’s also a very funny virtual Cambodia (see ‘A Pocket Guide to Phnom Penh’). McKay doesn’t overshape the material by trying to mould the individual stories into some false cohesive whole: the collection is neither too unified nor too disjointed. Reading Holiday in Cambodia quickly as a single (though disparate) work — that is, allowing the different stories, characters and eras to meld into each other — offers greater rewards, I think, than dipping into the book, than separating the stories out.

For me, the standout story is ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’, which tells the story of the ‘UNESCO 1951 Bathing Suit Competition’ and in the process captures quite deliciously the politics and the play of the high end of town. It also contains a terrific cameo by a youngish King Sihanouk: ‘The King had a number of publicly recognised concubines, but he wasn’t yet married and took his time greeting the girls. He held Dominique’s hand slightly longer than the others and when he gave it back, it was as a present for her’ (198-99). I also particularly liked ‘Breakfast’, set in 1969 in a hotel/resort where a smattering of French people descend for evening drinks and to be captivated by an unlikely singer, while trying to ignore the evidence of rapidly escalating war (which lingers in the air like a hard-to-pin-down smell). Unlike ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’, ‘Breakfast’ seems a little jammed up: there’s a much longer story — a novel, even — straining to get out. But it’s still excellent. (And in contrast, most of the other stories benefit from the ‘snapshot’ treatment that McKay gives them.)

While there are no duds in the collection, political scaffolding now and again shows through. One example: ‘Holiday, I Love You’, about a garment factory, is a little forced, important though the topics of dodgy factories and persecution of unionists are. Several scenes, in different stories, explore Western men’s behaviour towards Cambodian women (prostitutes or otherwise) in compelling and yet somewhat familiar fashion.

Overall, McKay’s achievement is that she has managed to ‘feel’ Cambodia. I’m not saying that her Cambodia is (or isn’t) authentic or ‘true’ (and, anyway, it’s fiction). I’m not suggesting that she’s somehow wriggled her way into the locals’ collective soul: only somebody who knows Cambodia and Cambodians much better than I ever will could accurately comment on that.

But what I think she’s done particularly wall is to tap — in creative and diverse ways — into some of the ways Westerners react to Cambodia. Post-Pol Pot, Cambodia has the capacity to evoke simultaneous delight and horror (as well as being a haven for various types of deeply unpleasant ‘tourism’). For the historically aware visitor, it’s easy, indeed it’s kind of comforting, to tap into this dichotomous reaction — and even to turn it into a virtue, as if perplexity and empathy are themselves deeply meaningful retorts to the long shadow of the Pol Pot period.

One example: to walk around the ex-torture prison, Tuol Sleng, is to experience a horrible, brutal manifestation of the Khmer Rouge’s excesses and paranoia. It’s also to witness Western visitors, by their conversations and by their physical reactions, making heartfelt, genuine but often awkwardly self-aware attempts to publicly ‘take on’ what it all means. Another example: Western fiction set in Cambodia (English language fiction, I should clarify) often centres around a non-Cambodian central character who becomes deeply enamoured by Cambodia and Cambodians and who ultimately dies in tragic circumstances — as if the only way to legitimately and completely empathise with such a long history of war and with the most shocking war crimes imaginable is to literally die for Cambodia. Some of these novels are very good — powerful, challenging and revelatory — but collectively they start to resemble variations on a too-familiar theme. Like these novels, the stories in Holiday in Cambodia are at their most convincing — and entertaining, and funny, and cringe-inducing — when they probe the way that some Westerners react to Cambodia. But McKay offers something different, something fresh.

On literary prizes and Patrick White

My latest ‘Longneck’ column for The Melbourne Review is now online – and in print. It’s about the (new) Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing, the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the great, great Australian novelist Patrick White. I would have happily have written a book on this stuff (if there are any publishers out there listening, I’m available) but 700ish words will suffice for now. You can read it here. And you can read the the full issue of the June The Melbourne Review here (with the right plug-in).

new ‘Longneck’ in The Melbourne Review

My latest ‘Longneck’ column is now online and in print in the May issue of The Melbourne Review: see here or read the whole issue online here. This month I’ve taken a tasteful and respectful look – of course – at the new Pope’s twitter activity, and at the devoted and, um, not so devoted responses it elicits.

Miles Franklin Literary Award: the shortlist

I posted my personal shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award here a couple of days ago (see earlier post), which consisted of:

Lily Brett Lola Bensky

Brian Castro Street to Street

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

The official list came out yesterday and it’s rather different to mine (one out of three ain’t bad):

Romy Ash Floundering

Annah Faulkner  The Beloved

Michelle de Kretser Questions of Travel

Drusilla Modjeska The Mountain

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

All the talk yesterday was about the all-female list (the first time this has happened) and what it all means in the context of the new Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing. The Stella Prize may well have concentrated the minds of the Miles Franklin judges and administrators — and if so, that’s terrific and a win for both prizes. Certainly, the Miles Franklin people are making the most of having an all-female shortlist. But I’m wary of drawing conclusions based on one year’s results: a single shortlist cannot change the past nor predict the future. My wariness stands even if, as I think is extremely likely, Carrie Tiffany wins both the Stella and the MIles Franklin for Mateship of Birds: to me, it’s a novel that stands out from the crowd and it deserves to win the Miles Franklin. It hardly sets a precedent that we won’t be able to tell the two prizes apart in years to come, especially since the Miles Franklin must observe the ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ dictum (eg, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, set in 19C Iceland, will be eligible for the Stella but not for the Miles Franklin) and because the Stella isn’t confined to novels only as the Miles Franklin is (technically, plays if no novels measure up).

In predicting that Carrie Tiffany will win the Miles Franklin, I don’t mean to dismiss the other novels. But this is what makes prizes interesting: that different readers will favour different books, will have their favourites. In his article in today’s The Australian (see here), Stephen Romei quotes Richard Neville, one of the judges, as saying, ‘We were aware of the gender debate of course, and in a sense we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t, but in the end the literature chose itself.’ I understand what Neville’s getting at – that they went with their choices based on merit, irrespective of the politics of the moment, and fair enough too – but books don’t choose themselves: readers choose them and, in this instance, judges choose them. If ‘literature chose itself’, we wouldn’t need judges or awards. I don’t think that the judges ‘got it wrong’ (in the sense of there only being one way to, say, change a tyre) because their shortlist didn’t include Lily Brett and Brian Castro. I think we have different tastes and that we saw different qualities in each of the books: we chose differently. That’s a good thing, and those arguments about the competing merits of books and stories are worth having.

While the Miles Franklin Literary Award does seem to be in the midst of a carefully constructed makeover — it’s a work in progress about which I’ll write more another day — I’m wary of the inference that, because of the Stella Prize, the judges might be ‘in’ on some PR ploy or even that they are using the shortlist to overtly respond to pressure, real or perceived (which is I guess what Neville was responding to with his ‘the literature chose itself’ comment so it’s really only the way he said it that I don’t like). I’m pretty sure, for example, that the fine literary scholar Susan Sheridan — now one of the Miles Franklin judges — needs no help to understand the rich and storied but under-recognised contribution that Australian women writers have made to our cultural landscape — including the Miles Franklin Award’s serious under-recognition of women novelists over the decades.

Incidentally, Susan Sheridan’s recent book Nine Lives: Postwar Women Writers Making Their Mark (UQP) is well worth reading. Brenda Walker reviewed it in Australian Book Review, (February 2011, here).

The Miles Franklin Literary Award winner will be announced on June 19 in Canberra.

 

Miles Franklin Literary Award: from longlist to shortlist

The Miles Franklin Literary Award’s 2013 shortlist will be announced in a few days time, on 30 April. Here’s the official longlist:

Romy Ash Floundering

Lily Brett Lola Bensky

Brian Castro Street to Street

Michelle de Kretser Questions of Travel

Annah Faulkner The Beloved

Tom Keneally The Daughters of Mars

Drusilla Modjeska The Mountain

M.L. Stedman The Light Between Oceans

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

Jacqueline Wright Red Dirt Talking

Mainly for the fun of it, I thought I’d name my personal shortlist ahead of the real thing. This isn’t an exercise in trying to guess which books the judges will name but my personal favourites from amongst the 10 longlisted books.

Deciding upon any longlist/shortlist is a subjective act. There’s no systematic or clinical way to measure whether, say, M.L Stedman ‘deserves’ shortlisting more than Tom Keneally. All readers of fiction are human beings. All judges too. It’s hardly news to say that it is  inevitable —and a good thing — that different readers will react differently to the same book (I, for one, couldn’t stomach Life of Pi).

Anwyay, my personal Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist is:

Lily Brett Lola Bensky

Brian Castro Street to Street *

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

Although I liked different things about Brett, Castro and Tiffany’s novels, I experienced a similar reaction as I read them: I felt — and ‘felt’ is the word — an intangible sensation, like an elongated sharp intake of breath. Yes, I found myself entrapped within the worlds the writers created, both when I was actually reading and when I was forced to put a book down and get on with real life for a while. Yes, the stories convinced and transfixed and unsettled me from start to finish, and left me a little awed and, at times, more than a little envious. But none of that really captures the sensation I’m trying to evoke, that indefinable ‘extra’.

To have that heightened reaction to three out of ten novels seems to me a bloody good strike rate, certainly better than what I would usually expect. I enjoyed the other seven longlisted novels to varying degrees but none of them quite grabbed me in the way that Brett, Castro and Tiffany’s books did. Romy Ash’s Floundering came closest, and the end of Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel is brilliant. But again, that’s one of the main reasons that I find competitions/awards of this sort so interesting: because different books will transfix different readers. And because disagreement about a book’s qualities is something worth savouring and nurturing.

* I know Brian Castro, and once worked for him at the University of Adelaide. That said, I enjoyed Street to Street more than any of the previous books of his that I have read, except (maybe) Shanghai Dancing.

Walt Whitman’s Cambodia: U Sam Oeur’s ‘Crossing Three Wildernesses’

Walt Whitman’s Cambodia: on U Sam Oeur’s Crossing Three Wildernesses (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2005)

Note: I started writing a piece on U Sam Oeur’s fine memoir a few years back but never quite finished it or got it published. What follows is the last version I worked on. Crossing Three Wildernesses is available from Coffee House Press, here.

 

“O, monument of Independence! O, library! O, books of poetry!

I can never chant the divinely inspired poems again!

O, quintessential words of poets!

O, artifacts I can never touch or see again!

 

O, Phnom Penh! O, pagoda where we worship!

O, Angkor Wat, sublime monument to the

aspirations of our ancient Khmer forefathers.

Ah, I can’t see across those three wildernesses:”

 

I’ll be nowhere,

I’ll have no night,

I’ll have no day anymore:

I shall be a man without identity.

— from U Sam Oeur’s poem, ‘The Fall of Culture’

 

Walt Whitman never went to Cambodia. In his quest to forge a new poetics of America, it’s unlikely that French Indochina much entered his mind. But the author of Leaves of Grass has a disciple in Cambodian poet, U Sam Oeur. Born in 1936 in Svay Rieng province in eastern Cambodia, Oeur has led a remarkable life. He grew up in a relatively prosperous peasant household, tending buffalos as the French protectorate wound down. An inquisitive child, he became a searching witness to — and a participant in — Cambodian political life. Whereas many of the future Khmer Rouge leaders studied in France in the 1950s, steeping themselves in communist doctrine, Oeur spent much of the 1960s in the US. After returning to Cambodia he was a member of parliament and a diplomat to the UN during the Khmer Republic (1970-75). He then survived the horrors of the Democratic Kampuchea period (1975-79), during which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge wreaked catastrophic havoc throughout the country. More than a decade after Vietnam invaded Cambodia to end Khmer Rouge rule (over large parts of the country, at least), Oeur felt compelled — due to his political views and, not least, his propensity to voice his complaints in poetry — to flee his homeland for the US.

Oeur’s Crossing Three Wildernesses is not the first Cambodian memoir published in English with literary merit, intermingling stories of war and atrocity with sketches of Cambodian culture and the Khmer spirit world. But it is the first to invoke the example of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot; to praise the virtues, and to reflect on the lessons for Cambodia, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg’s address and JFK’s inauguration speech; to recall a party in the sixties, in an old house by a river, at which Allen Ginsberg was the guest of honour and Kurt Vonnegut a late arrival: ‘He appeared to me to be a wrinkled fourteen-year-old boy.’

As U Sam Oeur tells readers of Crossing Three Wildernesses, he discovered poetry during his years of in the US — at Georgetown University, where he first studied English, a teacher compared his writing to Whitman before he even knew who Whitman was. Later, Oeur studied industrial design in California, but a growing preoccupation with philosophy threatened to derail his practical bent. Increasingly stressed, too, about the intensifying war at home, he began to write poems as a form of catharsis. When a fellow student used some of them in a printing project, unknown benefactors bundled him off to the University of Iowa to enrol in a Master of Fine Arts: ‘A few hours later the plane landed in the middle of cornfields … I still had absolutely no idea why I was there.’

When Oeur returned to Cambodia in 1968, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s long exploration of one-man democracy was unravelling badly, and Sihanouk’s flawed — and often feigned — attempts to steer a neutral political course had not kept the Vietnam War from spilling into Cambodia. In 1970, Sihanouk’s underlings ousted him in a coup. The new government, led by General Lon Nol, should have appealed to U Sam Oeur: it was US-backed, it was supposedly democratic, and it sought to defend Cambodia from the communist rebels — the Khmer Rouge — who were accumulating territory and supporters in the countryside. But Lon Nol was erratic, and his government deeply corrupt and massively incompetent. On his parliamentary career, Oeur reflects, ‘I was one of 126 members, and like a swarm of flies, we did nothing, just buzzed around.’ Lon Nol, he adds, suspected him of communism because he did not own a car.

When the Khmer Rouge swept Lon Nol’s regime aside in 1975, emptying the capital Phnom Penh and other major towns, U Sam Oeur transformed himself into an illiterate peasant. Before leaving his home and walking into the countryside he burnt his poems: ‘I felt as if I were cremating my own body.’ Throughout the Pol Pot years, Oeur managed to stay with his wife, young son and mother-in-law. In a series of forced labour camps they were — in a story remarkable because it is all-too-typical — exposed to overwork, disease, a lack of food and medicine, propaganda, and astonishing acts of wanton violence. In 1976, in Kratie province, Oeur’s pregnant wife, Syna, went into labour: ‘One midwife squatted above Syna’s chest and pushed down. Another reached up into her womb and ripped the baby out. I heard two cries, then silence. Then water came out of my wife’s womb again. Again, the midwife reached up into my wife’s womb and ripped a second baby out. Two cries, then silence. My mother-in-law, who had to watch helplessly, noticed that they were both girls. She communicated this to me with her eyes. Although the action was blocked from my view, it was apparent that this “midwife” had strangled our twin daughters.’

For Oeur, there were only brief moments of respite. One time, while working on dry season rice paddy, he found himself in the company of an old teaching colleague: ‘We were responsible for drawing water to the paddy fields at night and clearing the canebrakes during the way. While we were drawing water we quietly chatted in English about how miserable we were. Dara sang that sappy Bobby Winton song, “Roses are red, my love,” and I, in turn, recited Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain!” and President Kennedy’s inauguration speech.’

After the Khmer Rouge regime fell to Vietnam, Oeur and his family made their way home. Their house had been ransacked; the few possessions Oeur had hidden in the ceiling were gone: ‘On the floor, however, I did find one page from one of my old books — it was a poem by Emily Dickinson. For many years afterwards I kept it in a safe … I carry it with me, tucked into a manuscript of my poems, hoping that that one page will somehow transfer its power to my own work.’

For Oeur, as for many Cambodians, the joy of liberation faded as the reality of Vietnamese occupation settled upon him. He worked in the bureaucracy, but his restlessness and his dissatisfaction with the Hanoi-installed government grew. When a colleague found a politically-charged poem hidden in his desk, Oeur decided he was ‘too old to hide in the swamps again.’ For several mornings, he arrived at work and recited a defiant verse in the foyer before retreating to his office. Quickly, he was fired — just like Walt Whitman, he recalled.

Oeur continued his public orations, from his veranda at home and in the mixed company of a rice wine shack near his home. His almost noble loss of control reached its apex in a drunken and dangerous — chanting of a newly-written poem, ‘Mad Scene’. Here, Oeur’s self-observation is stunning and visceral:  ‘I went to the rice wine shack, bought a fiver-liter jar of rice wine, and invited my old and new friends to share it with me … After we had all had a few drinks, I chanted my new poem at the top of my lungs. Even some of my “friends” didn’t get all the politics behind the poem, so they cackled nervously. But one man understood. He quietly let everyone know that even listening to that poem could endanger their lives. Furtively, they retreated into the dusk, one by one. Yet I crooned on, like one deranged, hobbling along on the potholed road to freedom. At least that was the path I thought I was following.’

Oeur’s capacity for almost brutal self-examination, wild and raw, elevates the significance of his prose far beyond the telling of a life. Crossing Three Wildernesses is his attempt to comprehend the quagmire of modern Cambodian history, and to honour and defend the life of poet and democrat that he has lived. It is also an act of defiance against the classic communist tactic of individuals writing forced autobiographies — some of the most harrowing and revealing texts that survived the Khmer Rouge years are the forced and often fanciful confessions of the prisoners of the S-21 prison.

In all these contexts, Walt Whitman is prominent in Oeur’s thinking: ‘Whitman, over the years, has become my mentor and my touchstone, in both what he said in his poetry and what he expressed in his essays, particularly on the subject of democracy. … The Buddhist underpinnings of his poetry, influenced by the New England Transcendentalists, represent a possible bridge for Cambodian poets … Our traditional poetry, written in classical forms, is quite beautiful, but is no longer suited to expressing many of the horrible and incongruous experiences of contemporary life.’

There is much shifting ground contained in Oeur’s explanation and philosophy. Ultimately, he extols a simple world, one in which a basic ‘good v evil’ outlook is prominent. That is not to suggest he is living in a naïve dream world. Harsh realities, and burst bubbles, punctuate almost every scene and incident. Oeur knows that the notion that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ has not always sat comfortably with the US’s global preoccupations: ‘Democracy looked so good in America, but America wasn’t looking good in Cambodia.’ He knows, too, that Walt Whitman has whipped up a century and a half of controversy, that Whitman is often derided as ‘naïve and jingoistic’ and that debates about Whitman ebb and flow in concert with the shifting controversies of the day and ideas of the critic.

Oeur’s rigorous brand of honesty leads him to expose for show his worldview, which is inspiring and challenging but also, inevitably, imperfect. The public writing and performance of all this, including the extent to which his spirituality guides him, is deeply courageous. Modern Cambodian history is a mass — and a mess — of local, regional and global contexts, incorporating, just for starters, the Indochina Wars, the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet dispute, Thai-Vietnamese relations, and so on and so on. It is possible, then, to start out by pondering the merits and deficiencies of the hybrid UN/Cambodian tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders but to end up aruging about whether Walt Whitman warrants so much twenty-first century attention. Pointing out and adding to this labyrinth of links can itself become an avoidance technique: as Tom Engelhardt once wrote, ‘an emphasis on the complexity of history can itself become part of a larger kind of denial.’

But the layers of conflicting and complicating contexts are nevertheless real. U Sam Oeur navigates these entanglements with elegance and unsparing truthfulness. He reveals a passion for an ideal world of peace and freedom, but because he writes and thinks with such self-awareness, and because he allows readers to judge him so fully, he also demonstrates how vast the gulf between dreams and reality truly is.

Billy Bragg ‘Tooth and Nail’

I’m loving Billy Bragg’s majestic new album, Tooth and Nail. It gets better and richer new each new listen, and Bragg mostly nails the political-personal lyrics. It’s his best album since Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, with a nod to the Woodie Guthrie sessions he did with Wilco.One of my heroes, Joe Henry, does a stellar job as producer – the album is both spare and rich.

Here’s a song:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xDd-BvClH8

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Too Afraid to Cry’

This is not a review because I know Ali Cobby Eckermann and have huge respect for her as a poet and as a human being—and because I used to work for Ilura Press, publisher of Eckermann’s memoir Too Afraid to Cry, and remain friends with and admirers of Ilura’s founders, Sabina Hopfer and Christopher Lappas. So, not a review but some brief random thoughts on Too Afraid to Cry:

The word ‘important’ is overused these days but it seems to me that this is an important book. In having the courage to tell her story—the courage to write it and, separately, the courage to publish it—Eckermann offers readers the opportunity to gain a glimpse into the real lives that that make up the collective story of the Stolen Generations. She helps us understand, if we want to, that the term ‘Stolen Generations’ means something real, something contemporary, something tody and tomorrow (though maybe not ‘Today Tonight’), and that it can be something that genuinely and enduringly challenges Australians rather than makes us feel regretful in a passive sort of way … or, just as often, mildly (or not so mildly) resentful that all this inconvenient old history is still getting raised. The idea that a ‘real’ Indigenous person is a ‘traditional Aborigine’ — that is, authentic = pre-European-contact — persists in mainstream Australia (the mainstream mainstream, not only the redneck mainstream), as does the genuinely felt but dogged resort to egalitarianism, as in ‘we’re all equal these days so that’s all right then. Phew.’

I read Too Afraid to Cry slowly, over several weeks, in small chunks. The chapters are often very short, and I usually read one or two chapters at a time. It’s a confronting book, hard to read at times, violent in all sorts of ways—but one of the achievements of Eckermann’s prose is that it didn’t make me want me to avert my gaze but rather compelled me to stare harder at the words. Given some of the events and troubles Eckermann describes, the absence of anger in the prose is remarkable. As a writer who is most at home on the page writing fiction (i.e. making it up), I am in awe of Eckermann’s honesty and her willingness to expose herself. And as somebody who was adopted as a baby, Eckermann’s journey has compelled me to think hard about my own past.

I hope Too Afraid to Cry becomes a book that Australians share and talk about. You can find it on the Ilura Press website here.

Longneck

I have officially ‘retired’ my ‘Sort of but not exactly’ column in The Melbourne Review, although like Black Caviar it may not stay out to pasture forever. My new column, ‘Longneck’, debuts in the February issue, just now out: I’m running for high office (not really). You can read it online here, or – to witness me sharing a page with the legendary Dave Graney – read the full issue on The Melbourne Review site here or, God forbid, in the paper and ink edition.