Monday, June 13, 2016

Int'l Essayists: David Carlin on the Essay big and small (in lieu of nametags and a party)

Australia is a big country. There even used to be a magazine show on TV called that: A Big Country. Australians are taught early on in school that ours is the only country that is both an island and a continent. A fact we are supposed to be vaguely proud of, even as its empty facticity masks a much deeper unease around the country’s founding myth of emptiness, which in turn is tethered like a merino sheepdog to the country’s founding ethos of European superiority and exclusion. To understand why Australia in 2016 is reenacting its own history of transportation by establishing penal colonies for asylum seekers on distant Pacific islands as punishment so dire it will deter all those who out of desperation seek to ‘break our laws’, you have to remember that the very first law ever passed by the parliament of Australia was the White Australia Act. The country is big but our hearts are small, apparently. Time to introduce Aboriginal Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko: ‘You say: It's a big country. I say: There isn't much room for everyone's big stories.’

A funny gig, this, in a way: introduce an international essayist. To ‘introduce’, from the Medieval English, is to bring a person into a place or group. I myself am international, in the sense here of non-American, by which is meant non-USA-an. You, my implied reader, is non-international meaning American meaning in turn of the USA. In this case I am taking international, for personal reasons, to mean Australian. All of these semantics are important with introductions. There tends to be a lot of things unspoken when you meet someone for the first time, even in a text.

I feel as if we could be inside what you non-internationals would call an elevator and I would call a lift — that we have only the briefest time together. And actually the problem is that I would like to introduce all the cool and great nonfiction writers of Australia: to open the elevator/lift doors and — surprise! — there they are! Possibly with nametags, definitely drinks and snacks, informal, as we Australians like it, no fuss. In lieu of such a party, I hoped I might be able to introduce three nonfiction writers, instead of just one. But none of the three I chose first was Melissa Lucashenko and she needs to be here — because her essays contain paragraphs like this:

To gain some very slight understanding of mission life, think about your present boss. Now let's say that this person will be the boss, not just of your working hours, but of your entire life, for an indefinite period. It could be one year; it could be the next 20, until he or she is replaced, through a distant government decision, by another manager from an alien culture. Imagine that you need this person's permission to leave your suburb, to visit another town, to be out after dark, to operate an electrical device, to chop down or plant a tree in your garden, to change jobs, to marry, to move house. Imagine that this person can fire you or provide you with a cushy job, remove your kids if he or she wishes, banish you from your home, cut your hair, order you flogged, fine you or imprison you without trial if you try to abscond. This person also controls your bankbook, which you probably have never seen. An important underlying assumption is that this person automatically considers you his or her physical, intellectual and social inferior. There is no system of appeal should you disagree with his or her decisions; there is no requirement on him or her to do anything other than keep you alive. Such was mission life for Aborigines throughout most of the 20th century. 

Which is, among other things, a masterclass in introduction.

Melissa Lucashenko’s award-winning essays bring to light Australian stories otherwise untold. These are essays that burn with wit and craft, essays that observe, bear witness, celebrate stuff worth celebrating and agitate against the cruelties of everyday forgetting. Writing in one essay, in typically generous spirit, about various Australian authors she admires, Lucashenko lays out her ethics: ‘These writers work hard to create stories that tell readers that yes, I can see you, and yes, you matter, and yes, you belong here, because this is your story too, and just look at how we all might end up if we try this, or this, or this...’

Door opens, as it were. Listen: try this, or this, or this... And hold on because the elevator/lift is about to get very crowded. The other three writers I want to introduce are Gerald Murnane, Helen Garner and Fiona Wright. Here’s how they sound, three different notes:

Gerald Murnane: ‘The unstable world drifts like an island at the heart of each of us.’

Helen Garner: ‘Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, in the limited way one dares to be at this age.’

Fiona Wright: ‘At the time I countered that my head had never betrayed me as my body had, but now I’m not so sure.’

Unstable drifts. Limited. Betrayed me. Dares.

These three, like me, are Anglo-Australian. No doubt that’s why I found them first.

If they have anything else in common it might be this: when they address big stories in their essays, it is by artfully, insistently drawing attention to the small.

Gerald Murnane, famously eccentric in his habits and more likely than any other Australian, it is often said, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature — Teju Cole has called him ‘a genius on the level of Beckett’ — has published ten books of fiction, one essay collection and most recently a memoir about horse-racing. Above his desk in the days when he taught writing at a university he afterwards despised, Murnane pinned the portraits of his heroes: Marcel Proust, Jane Austen and a racehorse named Bernborough, which against all odds came from behind twenty horses in the final straight to win the Doomben 10000, Brisbane, 1946.

In the middle of Murnane’s writing career, there was a prolonged silence occasioned by the abandoning of a novel he was working on. Finally, when he ‘seemed to have crossed, at last, the country of fiction and to have discovered on its farther side a country no less inviting’, he opened his book of essays. Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs, with this ‘declaration’:

I should never have tried to write fiction or nonfiction or even anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays. [italics added]

Also dwelling in unstable territories of fiction and nonfiction, Helen Garner is almost exactly the same age as Murnane — three years younger, born in 1942 — and, like him, trained as a schoolteacher. Unlike him, she was sacked by the Education Department for using ‘gutter language’ and talking with the kids in her classroom about sex. As for counting, Garner has published six books of nonfiction, seven books of fiction, and three screenplays. She has been buffeted for forty years for writing fiction that was actually nonfiction, or sometimes for writing nonfiction that was a bit too fictiony. Now she is old enough to be recognized as distinguished and even ‘much-loved’. She won the Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction in 2016. Helen Garner once said in an interview: ‘I reckon it’d be terrible to be a man in Australia. You have to be so silent.’ This, I’d say, illustrates her capacity for empathy, against the odds.

At this point Melissa Lucashenko, now at the controls of the elevator/lift, opens the doors to reveal the Singapore/Australian writer/performer, Merlynn Tong, reading in full flight from her essay Me No Likey:

Asian girls are so sexy, he continues to coon. My body is the Sahara desert. We have reached a cul-de-sac. I am morphing into a commodity that is tumbling slow motion into a pile labeled ‘ASIAN’. I pull away. I sit up, straight. Mastering my best ‘Asian’ accent for Mr. Almost Lucky, I say in my best Thai-Hong Kong-Japanese-Chinese-Indian impression, ME NO LIKEY YOU, GO NOW PREASE.

Merlynn Tong thus introduces her voice, albeit briefly, as well as essaying a personal and critical perspective on the figure of the (Anglo) ‘Aussie bloke’ (wherein the clich√©d shadows of Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin linger). At the same time, forced by the author to do an unfair amount of symbolic heavy lifting, she also introduces Peril, an online journal ‘focused on issues of Asian Australian arts and culture’, (and named with fuck-you irony after the ‘Yellow Peril’, a phrase sadly familiar for many years in our country). Peril is just one of many journals rich in essays in Australia’s vibrant (if severely under-funded) independent literary scene; others include The Lifted Brow, Overland, Westerly and Griffith REVIEW. Thank you, Merlynn Tong.

We all squeeze in, doors close, and I return to Helen Garner. Closing an essay in her recent collection Everywhere I Look, she recounts a scene that features Gerald Murnane. The latter had agreed to accept one of Australia’s richest literary prizes, but only after the prize committee absolved him of the usual requirement to spend half the prize money on travel overseas. Murnane has not travelled nor will ever bring himself to travel by air or sea, which in Australia means there is no way out. The alternative travel plan he proposed to the committee was to visit one by one ‘all the houses in Melbourne he had ever lived in.’ Garner describes how he finished his acceptance speech (in a manner that would have made Thomas Bernhard proud), with:

a long list of all his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne: plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about on the news. And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew then that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem.[i] 

Just typing out that last sentence, I feel the rhythm of those waves of clauses and their commas, gradually slowing down time, pitching us with her into the middle of this secular incantation.

Tumbling slow motion. Plainly named.

Fiona Wright — one book of essays, another of poems, several awards and nominations — is more than a generation younger than Garner and Murnane. She probably studied them at school or university. She’s one of an exciting new wave of Australian nonfiction writers including Maxine Beneba Clarke, Rebecca Giggs, Quinn Eades, Ronnie Scott, Gillian Terzis, Erik Jensen and Martin McKenzie-Murray, many of whom are also poets, critics, novelists, editors and journalists. Wright’s essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2016), on the subject of an eating disorder that consumed her for ten years, is a report made in shattering, crystal sentences, from the farther side of an obsession not so much with eating as with hunger; with the rigorous comforts of the small:

The scale of the surrounding world, even the scale of a single human life, is nothing short of terrifying. Our worlds, our lives, are far too big to see the outline of, too big to find a shape for, too big to map or name or know. We can’t conceive or perceive the world, much less our place within it; we can’t contain its contradictions and variations, its overwhelming possibilities and changeability. But we can plan and re-plan our meals and the exact time we will eat them. We can measure our portions of rice in teaspoons, divide apples into sixteen even pieces, we can even count every chew before we swallow. With a dollshouse-sized world, a narrowed-down, miniature world, all of this changes.[ii]

Like all good essays, those in Small Acts of Disappearance are driven by a desire to unravel what the writer doesn’t know. Wright approaches the cruel puzzle of her illness forensically, from different planes and places: In Increments, In Hospital, In Berlin. There will be no neat, memoir-esque resolutions here. Instead the book is an act of quiet defiance because until now it has been her writing, ‘above all else’, that has driven what she calls her hunger. To write from hunger had felt strong and safe; to write about hunger was to strip away its protection and demand ‘that it be seen’.

Helen Garner forces herself to see things; that’s what it feels like when you read her. In her nonfiction, she is endlessly curious about the details of the world, forever going out into it, pedaling her bike from childcare with her grandson on the back, talking in kitchens with old friends or with the mother of a murdered boy, allowing another writer to show her the haunted landscapes of his childhood — ‘these austere volcanic plains, across which a vast, leisurely body of air is forever passing’[iii] — the same Victorian grasslands, as it happens, in which Gerald Murnane’s writing is obsessively placed. Garner is an investigative reporter in the tradition of Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, although in her own eyes, it would seem, nothing like so grand and worldly. Proud and self-effacing at the same time, she worries away at things. She not only sees and hears the world, she feels it; she lets it seep inside her. And always, a compulsive diarist, she comes home and writes it down. Some of her essays are as if directly taken from her diaries, but if these are diary entries they are testament to a finely honed craft of observation:

A dark sky, striped low down with bands of translucent pearly grey and the faintest, driest yellow. Bare plane tree branches dispersed against it, as in a painting.[iv]

Garner’s essay featuring Murnane is called ‘Suburbia’. As an older woman, ‘ashamed now of my bohemian contempt for the suburbs of my childhood, of my hunger to be sophisticated’, Garner finds herself back in the suburbs, standing out in the street beside her next-door neighbor Chris, a woman she hardly knows:

out the front under the plane trees talking about chooks and the return of the foxes. We talk about compost. I begin to see that suburbia might be merely another term for dirt, or children, or vegetation.[v]

But there is another side to Australian suburbia, as there is to most things. ‘Pause for breath, since people in a hurry cannot feel,’ invites Melissa Lucashenko in her essay, ‘Not quite white in the head’. So, finally, I’m ashamed to admit, I force myself to slow down and read Lucashenko’s award-winning 2013 essay ‘Sinking below sight’ all the way to the end. In this essay, she immerses herself in the stories of people trying to make a life in one of Brisbane’s poorest suburbs, Woodridge. Like Orwell, but also unlike Orwell since Lucashenko had moved into this suburb for the long haul, for economic rather than ethnographic reasons, and had grown up somewhere not dissimilar. It’s not her own story that she wants to get across here, and it’s not her own voice she’s concerned with. She wants to show the strength and intelligence of the women she interviews, and the poverty and violence, both directly physical and structural, that they endure because of government policies. She listens and she lets them speak; for example, the woman she calls Marie:

‘I was arguing with Travis and I'd pulled out a kitchen knife, not to attack him, I was threatening to hurt myself with it, but the cops were outside watching by then. One of them says, "I don't like you, you're just a smartarse," and it's all gone downhill from there.’ 

Lucashenko is compassionate, but also analytic, always looking to the bigger story:

The role of government in shaping her life was mentioned only once, in passing, as I tried to remember the details of Denticare. Marie was interested but mystified by the processes I described: 'So, the politicians, the Julia Gillards and the Tony Abbotts and all that – do they actually make the policies? Or do other people make them and they, like, only support them?' I looked at her bright, questioning face which had been punched a dozen times or more since I knew her as a freckled child, and thought to myself: Good question. 

Good question. Just a smartarse. Since I knew her as a freckled child.

Charmaine, a single mother Lucashenko speaks to in the essay, has ‘got one [kid] in jail and two that are… (here she trails off and begins to cry).’ But when Lucashenko asks Charmaine about her dreams in life, ‘she surprises me by saying she has always wanted to be a writer, and describes reading Aboriginal novels aloud to Aaron before he falls asleep at night.’ The reader is left to wonder what kind of stories or essays Charmaine will write, if and when she gets the chance.

Gerald Murnane’s essays are almost entirely preoccupied with describing his systems and philosophies of writing. These systems and philosophies are exacting and singular. A large part of the pleasure of reading Murnane is the precision of each sentence, as he attempts to describe the idiosyncratic images, thoughts and feelings that surface in his mind:

I believe nowadays that I considered the people of Europe less than real during my childhood because they had no grasslands where they could have discovered the nests of ground-dwelling birds and where the people themselves could have dreamed of hiding themselves if they had to flee.[vi]

In his essay ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’, Murnane describes his formative years as a writer. At first he wanted to be a poet but he failed, and afterwards he failed at writing fiction too, until he realized that it was his concept of the ‘imagination’ that was the problem.

I stopped thinking about my imagination. I stopped thinking of myself as surrounded by a narrow zone of experience while the boundless countries of my imagination lay on its other side. I began to think of a world shaped somewhat as I would read it described twenty years later in a passage from Rilke: a world floating like an island in the ocean of the self. I began to see that I was already well qualified to write about a young man who looked for strangeness beyond what seemed ordinary.[vii]

Strangeness he has found. Above and beyond his published works, Murnane is assembling a vast and meticulously organized archive of unpublished writing, along with letters, drafts and other items, in a set of filing cabinets at his home (now, in his old age, in a small town amidst the ‘grasslands’). It is actually three archives – Literary, Chronological, and ‘Antipodean’ (the latter being ‘a thousand pages…describing…the running of horse-racing in two imaginary countries’). The Chronological Archive, according to the tantalizing summary published by Murnane (the archives themselves won’t be made public until his death), makes its author sound arrogant, cruel, gossipy and perverse (as well as, yes, kind of fascinating), with items titled such as: ‘Peter Carey exposed at last’, ‘Should I tell literature to get fucked’, ‘My brother’s obsession: darkies’, and ‘About music, farting, et al’. One item is entitled ‘I rebuff Helen Garner with much force’. Oh. It appears that Murnane does not return the favour of Garner’s empathy. Hmmm. Perhaps Garner has her own archive: ‘I tell Murnane to get fucked.’

A glimmer of discomfort in the elevator/lift. I imagine Melissa might at this point think it is all pretty funny, this semi-imagined literary sniping. She might quote Tennyson, Orwell or Thoreau, just to change the vibe. Or she might insert this pithy advice: ‘the stories we weave should be for other things than our own delightful self-magnification’ — and thereby open space again for Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. Wright is highly conscious of what she wants her book not to be. She scrupulously avoids any whiff of what she calls ‘sick lit’.[viii] But when she writes: ‘I can’t stand the idea of being common, of being a clich√©, even and especially in my illness’, she catches herself, mid-thought, and adds a preface: ‘like all anorexics, ironically enough’… Wright reads her illness against medical histories and fictional accounts of anorexics, such as those of the Australian writers Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Repelled by misery memoir, she finally comes across a collection of essays ‘by writers who were writers before they became ill, not writers who became so because they had been ill’[ix]. She recognizes in the voices of Jennifer Egan and Louise Gluck kindred spirits caught in the terrible lure of the disease: ‘I shared this sense of paring back to something that feels bare and bold and true.’[x]

And as to the role gender plays in eating disorders, Wright’s observations are all the more powerful for being deftly understated. She notices this: ‘in the year that I first became ill, when I ran into women who I’d been to school with, they never failed to tell me that I looked wonderful, that I looked different.’ [xi] And this: ‘My mother too used to ask me if I thought it was her fault, if there was anything that she could have done differently…’[xii] And finally, addressing the gap men need to cross to comprehend the illness, she writes:

I’ll always remember the unconscious hiss of air through my father’s teeth, the sad and frightened look he gave me as I walked outside in the sleeveless cocktail dress I wore at my brother’s wedding, the armholes gaping under my scraggly shoulders, the veins raised and ridge-like down my arms, the professionally made-up eyes huge in my head…How terrible and inconceivable these things must be for fathers, whose bodies have never been political in the same way as their daughters’, who can’t understand why we can’t just eat and save our lives.’ [xiii]

Whose bodies have never been political in the same way. Professionally made-up eyes.

Ding! Time’s up. Time is more than up: either this elevator/lift is very slow or this building very tall. But time can slow down in an essay, and some introductions take time, particularly with a crowd. The last word, a small quiet story from Australia, nothing big at all, is from Melissa Lucashenko:

Only, we are asking you, pause for breath. The Earth is not in any great hurry for your prostrations, fabrications, speculations. Take one day for looking…[ ]…I am earthspeaking, talking about this place, my home and it is first, a very small story. Tell it softly, so that someone might by chance hear you. One valley. A tree with a crooked branch where children swung with children's hands, a soft look of the pasture in the buttery afternoon light. The cold scent of dew on purple-tipped flatgrass, grass that can be stripped and played like a gumleaf if you know how. It is land with a small "l". And the people? They are off to the side somewhere. They are important, yes, but they aren't the whole story. Nothing is the whole story, by itself. Not the people and not the land either. They need each other. So gather round. This earthspeaking is a small, quiet story in a human mouth, or it is no story at all.[xiv]

David Carlin is an award winning Melbourne-based writer and creative artist. His books include The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010) and the edited anthologies The Near and The Far (2016) and Performing Digital (2015). David wrote and co-produced the radiophonic feature/essay Making Up: 11 Scenes from a Bangkok Hotel (2015), which has been nominated for four awards at the 2016 New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards; he also led the Circus Oz Living Archive research project and co-curated the exhibition Vault: the Nonstop Performing History of Circus Oz for the Melbourne Festival. David is Vice-President of the international NonfictioNOW Conference, Associate Professor of Creative Writing and co-founder of the non/fictionLab and the WrICE cultural immersion program at RMIT University, Australia.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold

Other pieces in this series:

Colin Hosten - Home and Back Again, with V.S. Naipaul

Aurvi Sharma on the Body Patchwork, the Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days & the Kamasutra

[i] Garner, Helen 2016, Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing: Melbourne, p. 25
[ii] Wright, Fiona 2015, Small Acts of Disappearance, Giramondo: Sydney, p. 63
[iii] Garner, p. 50
[iv] Garner, p. 84
[v] Garner, pp. 24-25
[vi] Murnane, Gerald 2005, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Giramondo: Sydney, p. 60
[vii] Murnane, p.50
[viii] Wright, p. 171
[ix] Wright, p. 172
[x] Wright, p. 183
[xi] Wright, p. 183
[xii] Wright, p. 116
[xiii] Wright, p. 115

Garner, Helen 2016, Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing: Melbourne
Lucashenko, Melissa 2004, ‘Not Quite White in the Head’, Griffith REVIEW 2: Dreams of Land, [accessed 4/6/16]
Lucashenko, Melissa 2006, ‘Who let the dogs out?’, Griffith REVIEW 8: People like Us
Lucashenko, Melissa 2009, ‘On the Same Page, Right?’, Griffith REVIEW 26: Stories for Today, [accessed 4/6/16]
Lucashenko, Melissa 2013, ‘Sinking Below Sight’, Griffith REVIEW 41: Now We are Ten, [accessed 4/6/16]
Murnane, Gerald 2005, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Giramondo: Sydney 
Murnane, Gerald 2013, ‘The Three Archives of Gerald Murnane,’ Music and Literature, [accessed 4/6/16]
Tong, Merlynn 2015, ‘Me No Likey’, Peril 20: Yum Chattier, [accessed 4/6/16]
Wright, Fiona 2015, Small Acts of Disappearance, Giramondo: Sydney

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