In short, tal­ented women in plain sight

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Emily Laid­law

Some­thing Spe­cial, Some­thing Rare: Out­stand­ing Short Sto­ries by Aus­tralian Women Black Inc, 240pp, $24.99 Black Inc’s de­ci­sion to re­lease an an­thol­ogy of short sto­ries by Aus­tralian women could be taken as a po­lit­i­cal state­ment, given the on­go­ing de­bate about gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion in lit­er­ary cul­ture. How­ever, in the in­ter­ests of bal­ance per­haps, the Mel­bourne pub­lisher also has plans for a men’s ver­sion, due in Septem­ber with the some­what provoca­tive ti­tle Where There’s Smoke.

De­spite its plain teal let­ter­ing, the word ‘‘rare’’ leaps off the cover of Some­thing Spe­cial, Some­thing Rare, invit­ing the ques­tion: what is it about Aus­tralian women’s short fic­tion that is so rare? No an­swer is of­fered in the fore­word as there isn’t one — a cu­ri­ous omis­sion. As a re­sult, this an­thol­ogy, which also doesn’t have an edi­tor or ed­i­tors cred­ited, can be read as a re­sponse to the gen­der de­bate and the estab­lish­ment of the Stella Prize for Aus­tralian women’s lit­er­a­ture in 2011.

The lat­est Stella Count, which sur­veys the gen­der par­ity of books cov­er­age in Aus­tralian print me­dia, found that through­out 2013 books by fe­male au­thors were fea­tured dis­pro­por­tion­ately less than those by men. The re­port, which is on the Stella web­site, sug­gests this im­bal­ance

May 30-31, 2015 re­in­forces an at­ti­tude that “men’s writ­ing is more de­serv­ing of re­flec­tion, recog­ni­tion and re­view than that of women”. In this re­gard, women’s writ­ing can be thought of as rare, or at the least un­der threat.

Some­thing Spe­cial, Some­thing Rare is the ti­tle of the Re­bekah Clark­son story that concludes this col­lec­tion. At first, Clark­son’s story isn’t an ob­vi­ous metaphor for the an­thol­ogy, nar­rated as it is by an anx­ious hus­band and fa­ther in the throes of a mid-life cri­sis.

One scene to­wards the end, how­ever, speaks vol­umes about the an­thol­ogy over­all and echoes the ethos of the Stella Prize. The man’s wife drags him and their son bird­watch­ing. Look­ing into the grey clouds, she yearns to spot an en­dan­gered bird, “some­thing spe­cial, some­thing rare”. She at­tempts to teach them the art of bird watch­ing: “un­til you ac­tu­ally watch,” she tells them “you don’t see any birds. It’s like you have to know that you’re watch­ing, you have to de­cide, in a way, oth­er­wise you won’t see any­thing.”

The fail­ure to see and prop­erly recog­nise women’s writ­ing is a prob­lem the Stella Prize aims to rem­edy, and pre­sum­ably so does this an­thol­ogy. Some­thing Spe­cial, Some­thing Rare is far from a de­fin­i­tive sur­vey of Aus­tralian women’s short fic­tion, how­ever, as all of the sto­ries are reprinted from edi­tions of Black Inc’s an­nual Best Aus­tralian Sto­ries. For­tu­nately for the pub­lisher, and the reader, some of our finest writ­ers are rep­re­sented: Sonya Hart­nett, Alice Pung, Kate Grenville, Joan Lon­don, Cate Kennedy, Gil­lian Mears, to name a hand­ful.

Most of the 20 sto­ries are recog­nis­ably set in Australia. Grenville’s Bush­fire, which opens the col­lec­tion, mod­ernises the nar­ra­tive of the woman dis­placed in the bush, pi­o­neered by early Aus­tralian short-fic­tion writ­ers such as Bar­bara Bayn­ton and Henry Law­son. Grenville’s story is told from the per­spec­tive of a mid­dle-aged woman who has re­lo­cated to the coun­try and is un­able to read the land­scape around her. As fire rings her town, she’s made aware of her in­ad­e­quate sur­vival skills.

Anna Krien’s Flick­ing the Flint is an in­cen­di­ary tale of fam­ily vi­o­lence in the bush. Nar­rated from the emo­tion­ally stunted per­spec­tive of a young boy, the para­dox­i­cal claus­tro­pho­bia of open spa­ces is vis­cer­ally felt by the reader, as the boy and his mother cower from an abu­sive fa­ther in their re­mote hut.

Mov­ing to the city, Kennedy’s White Spirit skew­ers po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Told from the jaded per­spec­tive of a com­mu­nity arts worker su­per­vis­ing a mu­ral project for in­ner-city mi­grants, the story could be read as a cheeky dig at af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion — but in the end, and like the an­thol­ogy over­all, it is gen­uine in its pol­i­tics.

Is­abelle Li’s A Chi­nese Af­fair ex­plores iden­tity is­sues in mod­ern Australia, re­lat­ing the un­happy mar­riage of a Chi­nese mi­grant to an older Aus­tralian man who sees her as noth­ing more than a dec­o­ra­tion in his house. Mears’s La Mous­ti­quaire also teases out a dom­i­neer­ing re­la­tion­ship, in this in­stance be­tween an in­dige­nous woman and her stock­man cap­tor. The power im­bal­ance switches when he is at­tacked by mos­qui­toes and left ut­terly de­fence­less.

All the sto­ries here jus­tify that use of “out­stand­ing” in the col­lec­tion’s sub­ti­tle. If pushed to choose one stand­out, for me it is Favel Par­rett’s Le­banon, which in its three pages man­ages to con­vey more emo­tion than some sto­ries do in 300. A teenage girl sits in her living room in Ho­bart and looks at a world map as her younger brother talks about a Le­banese refugee who vis­ited his school that day. This beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on loss and be­long­ing evokes the Aus­tralian tyranny of dis­tance and is a fine ex­am­ple of what the short-story form can achieve.

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