TEXT review

Offerings in exchange

review by Nicholas Jose


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The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region
David Carlin & Francesca Rendle-Short (eds)
Scribe Publications, Brunswick VIC 2016
ISBN 9781925321562
Pb 271pp AUD27.99


The Near and the Far presents work in prose and poetry by twenty-one authors who participated in RMIT’s Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange project from 2014. Activities included residencies in Penang, Hoi An and the Yarra Valley where creative writing was produced in solitude in the morning and shared with the group in the afternoon. Apart from the power and beauty of the individual works, the collection has the larger interest of the process, showing what can happen when creativity is prompted, provoked and nurtured in circumstances that are designed in a considered way but also expect the unexpected. This is new work ‘from the Asia-Pacific Region’, a peculiar but seemingly unavoidable bit of nomenclature, used more in Australia than elsewhere, to indicate a geo-political inclusiveness of which Australia desires to be part and a pragmatic flexibility about whether the designation refers to the writer or the story. Many of the authors and their stories are in fact mobile across this notional space, open to new possibilities, as Alice Pung notes in her foreword.

The WrICE process, then, involves taking writers out of their comfort zone and into new cultural situations, both physically and in terms of connections within the group, and turning up the creative heat. The work shows the signs of that pressure in its energy and urgency, its apparent randomness or instability, its sense of saying something from somewhere. And for all the variety there’s a shared concern with self-realisation, with knowledge and freedom. Those who seem to have followed the rules closely – write in the morning, present in the afternoon – have a special power, starting with Melissa Lucashenko’s great opener, ‘Dreamers’, where the axe comes down to complete both a complex emotional drama  and a classically tight short story in one final stroke at the end. Other writers follow the workshop rules to similarly empowering effect: Laura Stortenbeker’s ‘Floodlit’, Suchen Christine Lim’s ‘My Two Mothers’, Omar Musa’s ‘You Think You Know’, Jhoanna Lynn B Cruz’s ‘Comadrona’, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s ‘Aviation’ and Jennifer Down’s ‘We Got Used to Here Fast’ among them. The well-made story is back, even in this most experimental place. For other writers the pressure seems to have had a centrifugal effect, encouraging more overt experimentality and a constellation of fragments that are held together by the intensity of personal experience: ‘M’ by Amarlie Foster does this, as does ‘Standing in the Eyes of the World’ by Bernice Chauly, ‘Hidden Things’ by Harriet McKnight and ‘Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed’ by Laurel Fantauzzo, and the ingeniously crafted pieces by each of the editors, Francesca Rendle-Short’s ‘1:25,000’ and David Carlin’s ‘Unmade in Bangkok’. The poets too – Melody Paloma in ‘A Letter in Three Parts or More’, Nyein Way in ‘Treatise on Poetry’ and Nguyen Bao Chan in ‘Three Poems’ – turn the fluidity of their medium into a way of joining disparate things together. ‘Inside out. Outside in. Mix. Mix. Mix’ (157), writes Nyein Way.

This is only way one to read the anthology. Another is to notice the transmission across the generations, as a creative and pedagogical practice. Maxine Beneba Clarke writes that ‘the mix of emerging, early career and established authors made the group seem like a family of writers’ (235). ‘I saw how authors at different stages of their careers and from different countries came to grips with the writing process’ (208), echoes Jhoanna Lynn B Cruz, who teaches at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. WrICE balances the aloneness of the writing vocation with a sense of a community that helps build conviction in the writer and strength in the work. It is good to see long-term advocates for the potential of creative writing in the region sharing their skills, including colleagues from the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators network such as Robin Hemley, who writes a cross-cultural father-daughter perspective in ‘The Diplomat’s Child’, Alvin Pang, looking to a pan-cultural future in his story ‘The Illoi of Kantimeral’, and Xu Xi with a wittily crafted memoir, ‘BG: The Significant Years’. Time is a recurrent theme, even an obsession, in this volume, as writers look forward and back, and consider their position in the pulse of time – ‘the obsessed train of time’ (175) in Nguyen Bao Chan’s phrase.

The Near and the Far invites us to consider the project and the process in the same way that an exegetical reflection can contextualise interpretation of a creative work. In their introduction the editors emphasise the dimension of exchange: the writers ‘are offering the gift of their culture in its rawest, roughest form … fresh and unfinished … written just that morning’ (6). The question of what to write about in such a setting can be a pressure. How do you respond when representative status is conferred on you? ‘Openness’, ‘unease’, ‘risk-taking’ are some of the potentially ambivalent feelings that come with the experience. As the authors reflect on what it was like to participate, some describe finding the story they need to tell through the ‘vulnerability’ of being away from home. There is commentary on WrICE at the end of the book, and detailed biographies of each author. All of this directs attention to what we might learn from the undertaking as a whole, as writers and pedagogues as well as readers, and what larger commonalities, discontinuities and, generally, issues there might be.

‘Australia is often uneasy about its neighbours’ (257), Omar Musa writes. And our neighbours can feel the same. And it’s not always easy to tell. ‘You Think You Know’ is the title of Omar Musa’s story about a man the narrator meets on a bus on the way to Penang. But you don’t always know, and don’t always know when you don’t. Cate Kennedy reflects on this form of ‘unease’ in ‘Incoming Tides’, a meditation on her experience in Vietnam, which ‘brought with it many thoughts about silences, miscommunications, and untold stories’ (140). This can beckon a writer, from a deeper motive, even, than the writing, which is the hope of recognising ‘a familiar face across the medium of the page’ (141).

Perhaps that’s what inspires some of the Australian writers to turn back to where they come from as part of this experience. Joe Rubbo puts this honestly: ‘I wasn’t immersing myself. The opposite. I was removing myself from this many-textured place [Hoi An]…’ (75) in writing ‘Trampoline’, a short story set in the suburban Australia of his childhood. ‘[It] felt right… A refraction of the world I came from’ (76). Harriet McKnight takes that further: ‘A great deal of the history of my country is wretched and cursed. But everywhere are stories pressed down into the earth like the sediment layers of rock’ (102). She writes one of those stories, ‘something planted in another country altogether but which serves as a marker of me, here’ (102). It is not the only time in the book that a story pressed down underfoot is retrieved and told. It is the gift and power of literature to do so. Here the set-up of The Near and the Far compresses time and space in a way that forces new kinds of utterance. It creates a welcome revealing composite of our place and moment – an array of searching, sweaty, breath-stopping, boldly crafted exchange offerings.



Nicholas Jose has published seven novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He is Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste