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Australian Love Stories edited by Cate KennedyI admit it: I’m a sucker for a good love story. Give me a happy ending, or the heartbreak, or the bitter sweet, in whatever form or style—realist or speculative, gay or straight or bending, darkly menacing, hallucinatory, or fertile romp. Can there be more fertile ground for fiction? Judging by this excellent forthcoming anthology of short stories, which focuses on love in all its guises, the answer is a resounding no.

Edited by renowned short-story writer Cate Kennedy into seven themed sections, which take their titles from the prose of one of the stories within that particular section, the highlights are so many that when I started to put together my favourites from the 29 stories on offer, the list quickly became a regurgitation of the table of contents. And no wonder, for in her introduction Kennedy relates the enormous task of sifting through, count them, 445(!) submissions—a herculean task and one which she has done admirably given the quality of the stories that made the cut.

On display are some of our finest and most respected proponents of the short form, such as Bruce Pascoe, Carmel Bird, Tony Birch, David Francis, Lisa Jacobsen, Irma Gold and, well, there I go again with the table of contents listing eh? And joining them are newcomers, whose work sits alongside the more established authors with ease.

Where to begin? First an outline of the seven themed sections, which cover: (1) the dawn of love; (2) all-encompassing desire; (3) same sex love; (4) love with children in the picture, with troubled relationships or relationships that are slow burners, only bringing lovers together after decades; (5) love in the midst of babies and/or expectant arrivals; (6) love in times of health crisis; (7) affairs and their aftermath. Six of the sections contain four stories, with the remaining section containing five. There’s a wonderful balance, and I love the titles (‘That Sensuous Weight’, ‘Why Cupid is Painted Blind’, ‘Firm as Anchors, Wet as Fishes’, and so on).

Picking any is to be cruel to the others, for there were only two stories that didn’t resonate with me, but I could see even in them reasons for why they will resonate with other readers. But onward to some of my personal favourites…

An early highlight in the universally excellent first section, (which also features Bruce Pascoe, Catherine Bates, and Kathryn Lomer), is Susan Pyke’s Meltemi. The meltemi is a summer afternoon wind in the Aegean Sea. The Aegean Sea, I hear you ask, I thought these were Australian stories? Hmmm, it is perhaps the collection’s only misstep: there are two stories set wholly overseas, and a couple of others set both overseas and in Australia. Given the title of the anthology, you could mount an argument that those stories set wholly overseas shouldn’t have been included. I suppose the counter argument would be ‘love is universal’. Anyway, Meltemi is a sweet coming-of-age tale, set in Samos, an island near the coast of Turkey with a beautiful end as the girl who is our narrator takes a swim in the sea to cool off in the torturous summer heat, stripping bare, and finds herself swimming near rocks, thinking she is alone until she sees the guy she has had her eye on, who is playing his flute to attract the crabs out of the rocks. It has a lovely poetic ending.

Another stellar story is Leah Swan’s delightful Why Cupid is Painted Blind, also a hot summer story, in which Mallory is introduced to us as a ‘woman who’d danced with a man who was not her fiancé and could think of nothing else. She’d heard that love could be a madness that descended on you, like an illness, like the flu.’ And poor Mallory does suffer from the madness of love, something that turns the straight-laced woman into something of an obsessive. She has danced with Karl, a musician, for whom she writes a poem, and despite seeing him living in happiness with a woman and children, Mallory can’t help herself and pops the said letter in his post box! That’s not the end, of course, but I shan’t spoil it for you… but it’s a perfect ending. Lovely.

The haunting Lover like a Tree by J Anne deStaic deserves special mention. It’s the story of a heroin and methadone addict, whose female partner sticks with him even when she’s not sure if she, being an ‘ordinary’ woman, can handle it or fix him. The story employs the metaphors of terrain and tree, and drips with poetic resonance. Preparing to inject himself he ‘wipes the side of his wrist with an alcohol swab and its fragrance hits him quickly as his veins draw like a map up his arm, wide highways painted blue, picked out against the flat plain skin.’ We switch points of view between the addict and his partner, getting both sides of the story as it were. And how lyrical is this description of his drug-induced haze:

… the caress of her hand has the brush of leaves and twigs and her arm over him is a pale bark branch and her hair a canopy of blossoms and birds are sleeping there and butterflies rest in her cool green shade while her roots sink down through the bed and the floor and the earth to its rocks and he feels the rain sliding over him, dripping from her leaves, his lover like a tree.

I enjoyed the fabulous Hooked by Toby Sime, a powerful story with striking images and word choices. Our male narrator comes across a girl he had seen many years earlier when she was in some trouble; she has a scar near her mouth that is shaped like a hook. And our narrator is indeed hooked. ‘The scar at her lip was the hook in my mouth; my tongue made its shape on the back of my teeth.’ And, ‘the crewel of her scar had put a stitch in me I’d been unable or unwilling to unpick.’ Her kiss: ‘was a labyrinth. All, all I wanted in the world, was to never find my way out.’ And this: ‘… I knew, though she was no ghost, that we were in a spirit realm now, and I could pass my hand right through her, or she through me, because the physical barrier between us had been extinguished.’ The story is peppered with imaginative simile and metaphor, ‘kohl-black hair’, ‘the miraculous Berkeley Square of her bed’, and has a lovely twist at the end.

Oh dear, I am rabbiting on. Special quick mentions to the adorable Swallow by Jon Bauer, about a young boy whose mother is in an abusive relationship with a man who is not his father. The boy goes outside in a gale, believing their argument to have caused the high winds: ‘The kitchen argument going up a notch on the Beaufort Scale, the parental vitriol bending the spruce trees over in the wind. … the first dead leaves aloft in the sky like the spirits of birds.’ He rescues an injured swallow. ‘It felt strange once he’d gathered it in the jacket, light and fragile, but substantial. Meringue.’ Rejecting the tin cans of his would-be step-father, he finds the perfect home for it, opting for something much closer to his heart.

I loved A Greek Tragedy by Claire Varday (aside from a couple of surface copy editing issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the final published version), which is constructed in two parts, the romance and the tragedy. As the narrator observes: ‘It starts as a romance and ends as a tragedy. There are tears, there is hubris, there is a damnation and regret. It is, after all, Greek.’ (Some of this story is set in Oz.) It is an utterly heartbreaking story, very well constructed.

I would be erring not to note Allison Browning’s These Bones, which features Enzo, a gay man with Alzheimer’s, who makes a break from his care facility in order to go home to his partner, Nev. The helpful biography section informs me Browning is developing These Bones as a novel with the assistance of the annual Australian Society of Authors’ mentorship program. So look out for the longer version of this beautifully rendered love story soon-ish (hopefully!). It shows love at its most enduring and blind best, underscoring what it means to love someone come rain or shine. I defy anyone not to fall in love with Enzo, and feel for his and Nev’s loss, and Nev is an absolute stalwart. There is a description of a shower they have after Enzo has wet himself, the two of them standing in the shower ‘firm as anchors, wet as fishes’—a perfect combination of strength and fragility, (and which Kennedy appropriately chose for the title of this section of stories set against the backdrop of illness).

A quick nod to Tony Birch’s wonderful Joe Roberts, which is rife with lingering questions about Joe, who meets a very troubled girl at the train station on his way to the hospital to undergo tests. He leaves the girl lying on the station platform, shuddering wet in the cold. At the hospital we learn he has a shady past, though exactly how shady we’re not allowed to know. It is a masterfully constructed and realised story about the possibility of redemption.

Last, but by no means least, is the final story, Where the Honey Meets the Air by Carmel Bird. Narrated by ‘Sugar Sam’, it is a veritable tour de force. After a very brief introduction of five one- or two-line paragraphs, Sam (and Bird) takes us deep into a story of an affair gone wrong—all delivered in an eight-page long stream-of-consciousness sentence, a deluge without break. There are delightful jokes and puns, allusions to Shakespeare, wordplay, wordplay, and yet more wordplay. And there’s a wily, crafty story, with Sam recounting his friend’s affair and his subsequent murder of his wife and her lover… but there’s another way of reading it, which comes clear toward the end, a delicious and sly turning of the story on its head. Although an affair and a murder don’t sound like a good way to bring the curtain down on a collection of love stories, I don’t think Kennedy had much of a choice!

awwbadge_2014And to think I’ve only mentioned half of the stories I wanted to. There’s no room for Debi Hamitlon’s moving The Edge of the Known World; the lovely slow burn of Sally-Ann Jones’s Hammer Orchid, which sizzles across a racial divide, an age gap and decades of elapsed time, and is reminiscent of Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country in terms of feel even though it’s set in WA; the intriguing pull and laugh-out loud asides in David Francis’s Moses of the Freeway, about a gay couple in Los Angeles; the surprise tail-end of Caroline Petit’s The Contract; the sadness of Susan Midalia’s A Blast of a Poem; the brief pain and lovely turn in Natasha Lester’s It Used to be His Eyes; or the stunning end to Megg Minos’s Need Gone Today.

I’ve already read a few stories twice, and I can see this volume sitting within easy reach for constant dipping into. And for those keeping track of such things, of the 29 stories, 22 are by female authors. (Would it be cheeky to use this book towards my AWW2014 target?! There’s plenty of great Aussie women writers in this anthology, so why not?) Perhaps the only surprise is that Cate Kennedy didn’t contribute one of her own stories, which would have made the collection better (even though I am very wary of editors contributing their own work to anthologies).

Australian Love Stories will hit book stores in October, becoming stable-mate to the well-received Australian Love Poems, edited by mark Tredinnick, which came out last year. Perhaps Stories can become an annual publication, or biennial at least. After all, we all like a good love story, don’t we?

Australian Love Stories edited by Cate Kennedy

2014

Inkerman & Blunt Publishers

289 pages (plus author biography section)

ISBN: 9780987540164

Source: preview copy provided by the publisher

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SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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