Con­tex­tu­al­is­ing the na­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When on Oc­to­ber 30 the Dan­ish restau­rant Noma opened its book­ings on­line for a 10 week ‘‘tour edi­tion’’ stint in Sydney early next year, the seats sold out in 90 sec­onds. Be­tween Jan­uary 26 and April 2, about 5500 din­ers pay­ing $485 a head (ex­clud­ing al­co­hol) will be treated to a menu that will most likely in­clude live green ants and mud clams from Arn­hem Land, sea urchins from Tas­ma­nia and Top End croc­o­dile fat.

Given the price, and the speed of the sell-out, my mind can’t help but ask a few ques­tions. How, for in­stance, does a few hun­dred dol­lars for Scan­di­na­vian-in­flected bush tucker sit along­side the many Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties strug­gling to main­tain their health, ed­u­ca­tion and cul­tural co­he­sion? And what is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ex­cited din­ers sit­ting down by the har­bour and the refugee chil­dren who re­main locked up in de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties off­shore?

It is tempt­ing to con­clude that our so-called fair go coun­try is at a new level of moral deca­dence. But as this year’s Black Inc an­tholo­gies show, un­derneath the fac­tic­ity of chewy sta­tis­tics lies the idea that no ev­i­dence is really new ev­i­dence, that we are what we have al­ways been, a col­lage na­tion, a cul­ture of proud egal­i­tar­i­an­ism on the one hand and shame­ful racial bru­tal­ity on the other, of spade-a-spade earthi­ness and post­mod­ern sim­u­la­tion.

Th­ese an­nual an­tholo­gies pro­vide a won­der­fully in­sight­ful fram­ing de­vice for ob­serv­ing such na­tional bipo­lar­i­ties. Best read per­haps in an in­ter­lin­ear fash­ion — first a story, then a poem and an es­say, and so on in vary­ing or­der — the books con­tex­tu­alise the con­tem­po­rary na­tion with re­spect to its global coun­ter­parts and its his­tor­i­cal un­der­score.

The Noma sta­tis­tics are cited there­fore as an ap­po­site man­i­fes­ta­tion of what so many of the pieces here touch on, the gaps be­tween this and that Aus­tralia, lo­cal and global Aus­tralia, First World and Third World Aus­tralia, black and white Aus­tralia, male and fe­male Aus­tralia, dig­i­tal and ana­log Aus­tralia, be­tween the tragedy of the refugee cri­sis and the nor­malcy of highly geared sub­urbs, be­tween us in the far south and the cues from the north­ern hemi­sphere that we’ve al­ways found so com­pelling.

Con­sider the econ­omy of this ex­cerpt from a poem about our re­la­tion­ship to the refugee cri­sis, Queue-jump­ing, by An­thony Lynch: “When they sewed their lips / I flossed the crown on my sev­enth tooth. / When the lo­cals turned / I was sixth in line at the check­out. / When the ri­ots broke / I filed my tax at the eleventh hour. / When the fences fell / I made my fifth call to the bank. / When the ba­ton was raised /I was ninth­placed caller on hold. / When the rock was dropped / I was twelfth in line at the traf­fic lights. / At the air­port next day / I was first in line for an up­grade.’’

Lynch shows how the pat­tern rep­e­ti­tion of poetry is of­ten the most ef­fec­tive mode for drama­tis­ing such com­par­isons, demon­strat­ing how ef­fi­cient poetry can be at so­cial com­men­tary. By con­trast Re­becca Giggs’s piece on the fly-in, fly-out cul­ture of the min­ing boom in the Pil­bara shows the ex­pan­sive­ness of the es­say form func­tion­ing at its most per­cep­tive level.

Giggs’s es­say Open Ground is deeply co­gent and aes­thet­i­cally rich, start­ing with dis­plays of the of­ten gauche lexicon at­tend­ing the ‘‘sub­ter­ranean bo­luses of ore’’, pass­ing through her own fam­ily con­nec­tion to the history of mines in the west, vis­it­ing for­got­ten books that re­veal the pre­his­tory of the dwin­dling boom, and end­ing with re­flex­ive in­for­ma­tion on the min­ing of tri-coloured ochre in the an­cient past at Wil­gie Mia in the Weld Ranges, and also the ori­gins of the word ‘‘es­say’’, which re­ferred in the 14th cen­tury to the very weigh­ing of ore that is at the heart of her piece.

In its de­pic­tion of scale and nomen­cla­ture there are echoes in Giggs’s es­say of Mal­colm Knox’s 2013 history of min­ing, Boom, but her piece is writ­ten with the par­tial hind­sight and ex­tra pathos of be­ing fur­ther into the down­turn. It is also an in­trin­si­cally lo­cal piece, with tales of Giggs’s own girl­hood lap­idary kit in Perth and how the old min­ing mytholo­gies of ‘‘fron­tierism and civic no­to­ri­ety’’ drifted like fine grained dust into ev­ery West Aus­tralian home. Hers is a pow­er­ful per­spec­tive with which to chron­i­cle the cul­tural shifts from such big leg­ends of yore to what Re­becca Sol­nit has de­scribed as the ‘‘post-communal, post-ru­ral, post-ur­ban, post­place’’ com­mu­nites of to­day.

Giggs’s piece is a stand­out in a po­tent col­lec­tion of es­says edited by Ge­ordie Wil­liamson. There is a de­lib­er­ate eclec­ti­cism in his as­sem­bly as he goes in pur­suit of Roland Barthes’ text de jouis­sance rather than a mere de­liv­ery of ful­filled expectations and bur­nished plea­sure. Hence we are dis­turbed by the raw­ness of Alison Crog­gon’s piece on be­ing the vic­tim of un­ac­knowl­edged sex­ual abuse, and the un­cooled fury of Maria Tu­markin’s la­ment about ig­nor­ing the in­tel­lec­tual tal­ent of mi­grants. Sit­ting along­side Noel Pear­son’s dis­may at the mis­di­rected funds of the ‘‘in­dige­nous in­dus­try’’ and Guy Run­dle’s clear­sighted anal­y­sis of the ab­sur­di­ties ex­hib­ited by gov­ern­ments in the wake

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