Contextualising the nation
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