TEXT review

A long time between drinks

review by Luke Johnson


australian short stoires.jpg
Australian Short Stories No 66
Bruce Pascoe and Lyn Harwood (eds)
Pascoe Publishing, Gipsy Point VIC
ISBN: 9780947087012
Pb 99pp AUD19.95


In a 1987 interview with Kevin Brophy and Nolan Tyrrell for Going Down Swinging, Bruce Pascoe explained his reason for starting Australian Short Stories magazine five years earlier:

As a writer of short stories I was disappointed with what was happening to my stories when they were published. Apart from the few stories I got published in The Sun and The Sydney Sun-Herald, I wasn’t getting any readers… I started Australian Short Stories because I was offended by the rates of pay, offended by the lack of readership, and felt that the intelligence of the readership was still there. (Pascoe quoted in Going Down Swinging 1987)

For short story writers living in Australia in 2018, the disappointing situation Pascoe describes is more or less unrecognisable – newspapers accepting submissions for short fiction, indeed!

But if the founding editor’s gripe with the publishing industry still holds currency (or rather, because his gripe still holds currency), then so (with a little tweaking) does Brophy and Tyrrell’s opening question: ‘Why did you establish Australian Short Stories?’, which, thirty-six years on, becomes something along the lines of: ‘Why, after a seventeen-year hiatus, have you decided to re-establish Australian Short Stories?’

After all, do we, the intelligent readership (self-appointed this time round), need another short story publication when we can’t check our emails without being reminded that it’s Subscribathon Month yet again down there at [insert struggling lit mag] headquarters? Or, if the fiscal overtures are offensive in this instance too, then, let me try a different approach: How does Australian Short Stories No 66 set itself apart from the other literary magazines on offer in Australia in 2018?

Perhaps Pascoe and co-editing spouse Lyn Harwood pre-empted this question: ‘Story is the bedrock of all cultures,’ they write in their editorial; and the ‘Australian story [is] the oldest story on earth’ (5). Thankfully this is one area where attitudes have genuinely improved over the past few decades; awareness of Indigenous Australia’s place in human history is no longer restricted to the traditional custodians of the land themselves, but has been ratified by scientists who just last year dated human habitation of Northern Australia to some 65,000 years ago (Clarkson et al 2017). Needless to say, you don’t occupy a place for three score and five millennia without developing an intimate understanding of it in the process. Thus, the stories of Aboriginal Australia, as Tony Birch notes elsewhere, are precisely the stories that matter most in this time of impending geological disaster: ‘Indigenous communities maintain a wealth of knowledge of ecological systems invaluable to the development of our collective understanding of the historical underpinnings of the current phase of climate change’ (Birch 2017).

It is fitting, then, that the first volume of Australian Short Stories to emerge since ‘climate change’ became a short hand way of saying ‘we’ve really screwed things up this time’ should begin with acknowledgment not only of country but of the wisdom that comes from the oldest relationship on earth. Daniel Browning’s opening meditation does just this, stressing that in the Aboriginal context, country has a particular meaning: ‘It’s a site. It’s also a place that exists in our minds. It’s real and it’s metaphysical… Country is embodied, it’s lived. Country describes a relationship as much as a place’ (7). This sets the tone nicely for the seventeen works that follow: stories, anecdotes and prose poems that all engage, in some way or another, with Australia – not Australia the nation state, but Australia the country, where people forge interpersonal and spiritual relationships with each other as well as the physical and metaphysical spaces they inhabit.

Kim Scott’s story of a white fumigator coming into an Aboriginal home to take care of a hive of unwanted bees draws menace from colonial acts of violence that remain subtextual in both this story and the majority of history books. The expertise with which Scott crafts his characters through strong idiomatic language is all you would expect from a Miles Franklin-winning author and stands as one of the more memorable additions.

Barry Dickins’ ‘A Love Letter to Jesus Christ’ also relies heavily on idiom, using it as something of a balancing pole to tread the tightrope between sentiment and satire. Passages of poignancy, such as, ‘I live in a cheap one bedroom flat and the man next door hates me and refuses to let his children look at me because I am not one of his race. But I have no tribe’, are slightly undercut by more contrived efforts to produce profundity through a Forrest-Gump-like naivety: ‘A few years ago we had a female Prime Minister, did you know about that fact, Christ Almighty?... Anyway she was backstabbed by her own party because she was born a girl and the boys wanted boys to be the PM’. Nevertheless, I was moved by the resilience and struggle of Dickins’ character (just as I was by Forrest) and list this as another highlight.

Julia Prendergast does an exceptional job of capturing the interplay between tenderness and brutality in ‘Slow Time’ and ‘Ghost Moth’. As was made apparent by her recent novel, The Earth Does Not Get Fat (2018), Prendergast is clearly a writer attuned to, and okay with, the contradictory nature of human behaviour and, for this reason, is a welcome antidote to the mindless polemicists (from both the right and left) who insist on putting a hashtag in front of every phrase they coin.

Not all the works are quite as successful. Carmel Bird’s story about, well, a bird begins with a Nabokovian address from one Spix’s Macaw to another – ‘Lola, My Lovely!’ – but fails in its onto-narratological goal of convincing the reader that they could possibly be listening to anything other than the voice of a brightly feathered prosaist. Also slightly tedious is Harwood and Pascoe’s interest in ‘the very start of a person’s life in literature’, which manifests in their decision to include works from two precocious primary-schoolers. I have nothing against children writing stories (provided their house chores are completed, of course), but this is an indulgence that would have been better suited to Facebook, where it’s more or less de rigueur to force the achievements of your children (or, in this case, someone else’s children) on your hapless readership.

I suppose that while I’m insulting the efforts of children, I should make a real pedant of myself and say that there are quite a lot of editing errors and inconsistencies in this publication too, the most glaring of which threatens to reduce Maureen O’Keefe’s ‘Stranger in th [sic] Night’ to some sort of half-baked Oulipo experiment. While a misspelt title doesn’t nullify all that follows (in fact, it’s just a header title), it does take the sheen off the author’s polishing job and so, in this regard, is a bit unfortunate. A similar point could be made regarding the artworks that appear sporadically throughout; I’m not sure what happened at the printery, but they make ultrasound look like a high-definition medium.

Quibbles aside, it is of genuine significance that volume 66 of Australian Short Stories includes a previously unpublished story by the late and very great Gillian Mears. As the editorial reveals, the story was discovered on the author’s computer after her death and its inclusion here makes for a touching tribute from the editor who published Mears’ first ever story back in 1983. In fact, this alone would be a suitable enough answer to the question of why, after a seventeen-year hiatus, Pascoe and Harwood should have decided to re-establish Australian Short Stories.

Works cited




Luke Johnson lectures in Creative Writing and Critical Theory at the University of Wollongong. His short stories have appeared in such places as Griffith Review, Island, Westerly, Overland, Going Down Swinging, The Lifted Brow, Mascara Literary Review and TEXT, and have been listed for or won such prizes as the Josephine Ulrick Award, Elizabeth Jolley Award and AAWP Chapter One Award. He is treasurer of the Australian Short Story Festival.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker