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Future Directions of Australian Literature: Ceridwen Dovey, Julie Koh, and Nic Low in Profile

By Kiran Bhat.

Photo by Laura Cros on Unsplash

 All countries must inevitably confront their futures. We are born and brought up in lands that have bestowed onto the world a certain history that came before us. When we speak as artists, it is almost always in either opposition to or fulfillment of our environment’s call. Keeping this in mind, what happens when a country, rather than following one arrow of historic movement, is bisected and intersected with the histories of multiple other countries, as immigrants arrive and choose to make that place their home? The writer then finds themself as part of the trajectories of a variety places and, as they form their aesthetic, their home culture merges with their ancestral cultures, creating a form of art that belongs at once to multiple historicities. People often talk about these multi-national narratives from an American or British perspective, but what about countries like Australia?

I have been studying in Australia for the last year, doing a publishing masters at the University of Melbourne. Over this time, I’ve found a lot of books that deserve international attention, but remain largely unknown outside of Australia. I want to explore three of them in this micro-essay.

All three authors are clearly short story writers. All three are Australian. All three are writing proudly from the perspective of their multiple heritages or motherlands. And all three are taking risks, experimenting, and going against the grain of the nation, shrinking boundaries and capsizing borders in ways that only writers of an aspiring cosmopolitanism could dare imagine.

Only The Animals by Ceridwen Dovey:

The world does not merely belong to us, but to the animals as well. We naturally describe our understanding of narrative from a human lens, because this is the species we are born into, and which shapes our senses, feelings, and thoughts. But, what if we were to practice a distancing from this perspective, and attempt to see through the eyes of another type of animal? Ceridwen Dovey has clearly pondered this question, and the result is a collection of ten stories, each set in the mind of a very different creature, each living in different time periods, parts of the world, and social conditions.

These stories should not be read with any sense of realism in mind. Dovey clearly has no interest in mirroring the way an animal would think if suddenly granted a human consciousness. Even from the beginning of a story like, “Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed  to  Me,” a portrait of a mussel traveling on a battleship en route to Pearl Harbor, there’s very little authenticity to rendering how a mussel would behave if personified.

Consider this: “I first met Muss right when I’d decided that everything was dead, when I was sick of putting down the world with theories.” I doubt a being as insentient as a mussel would begin a thought with such musings (Most likely, it would think something like ‘guzzle, whirl, red moss, long seaweed.’). However, as one reads further, and catches lines like:

This was freshwater territory and we knew we couldn’t stay too long or else we’d be submerged and die, craving salt, but Muss needed sex the way most blue mussels need saltwater: it was holy to him and solved most everything.

or

Being on the road was good, but we weren’t really ready for it, not yet; we’d only just left home, our little bodies were too soft, our minds were still forming philosophies

One soon realizes how little the text has to do with its conceit. Dovey is not necessarily intending to connect with animal psychology. She is using the space of a given animal to insert her metaphysical reflections into a certain time period or space. Dovey wants to amble around history and philosophize about human deeds, but through a third eye that is watching from a distance. And in doing so she wants an excuse to be allowed to reflect on paradoxically human nonhuman tendencies.

Of the stories, I found two which seemed especially successful. One, “Plautus: A Memoir of my Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” is a portrait of a tortoise shared between Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Barring that the only reason that the tortoise even makes its way to Virginia Woolf is because Tolstoy’s daughter Alexa ships it over in a parcel after she busies herself with hospital work, the tortoise’s narrative is grounded in his observations of life passing and its effects on the humans around him. Tortoises live for an exceptionally long time, so he is able to witness death, and muse on it, in a way that humans, often too busy in the act of living, are unable to do. Another story of particular interest is “Telling Fairy Tales,” the portrayal of a bear cub’s interaction with a witch. The protagonists are rendered in such a swift dialogue-driven structure that one often forgets that the bear is in fact a bear. This active interaction gives the story an innate thrust that some of the other stories, meandering in an imagined animal’s mind, cannot have, and as the bear gets trapped in a zoo, with 1990s Bosnia-Herzegovina as a battleground in the background, it is hard not to empathize with him.

Dovey was born in South Africa and grew up between that country and Australia. She is a citizen of both; her dual heritage clearly comes across in her writing. Both Australia and South Africa are countries with an almost primal relationship to their landscapes and animals. If a globalist tradition based on the pungency of the earth and the various species that live amongst each other were birthed, I would not be surprised if it came from such a cultural spread. And it is in Only The Animals that we see the cusps of this style, first imagined from the perspective of the woman who dared compose it.

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh:

Traditions of the surreal are as culturally coded as any other literary aesthetic. We imagine the gardens in Alice of Wonderland in Victorian English as much as we place Japanese ghost stories in the perspectives of the onis and the yokais. As modern writers, we write completely in the background of what was once written, while trying to remain ourselves. It is difficult to carve an intrinsically unique space. In the twelve stories of Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh combines the surreal, the imagist, and the undefined to create a singular hybrid voice.

Koh’s stories are very rarely placed in a given place, time, or culture. Similarly, they rarely go through the lines of a typical plot progression. In stories like “Sight,” subliminal fleeting images are rendered with a poetic starkness.

A lizard keeps following me around the house. I tell the Tattoo Man about it when we’re sitting on his verandah one afternoon. The Tattoo Man has puffy eyelids and a black beard that he strokes when in deep thought. He’s in his rocking chair with a stray orange cat sitting at his feet, swishing its tail.

Like a writer from the realist tradition, Koh describes the Tattoo Man with such a vividness that one can fully imagine him, and yet, so little is offered that it’s not clear what he really looks like, or what he is about. In another conversation The Lizard Man tells China Doll to watch the lizard, their words bouncing across images and acts:

I gape and he gapes.

I frown and he frowns.

I stick out my tongue and he sticks out my tongue.

Terse, intense, full of meaning, and yet completely meaningless, Koh’s sentences surrender the reader to a scene, yet at the same time, despite all the tit-for-tats and interactions, none of it feels like it is adding up. A similar sort of style is employed in “Satirist Writing.” The story details an apparent satirist staying in an unidentified luxury hotel and interacting with hotel staff. There is a tension implying that something is going to happen, but nothing really does.

Koh’s ability to create atmosphere evokes much of late twentieth century Chinese fabulism, particularly the sweeping allegories of Gao Xingjian in Soul Mountain or the heartbreaking underpinnings inside of Can Xue’s Five Spice Street. Koh was brought up in Sydney by Chinese-Malay immigrants, and so one would imagine that a part of her heritage has sequestered itself in her imagination. At the same time, Koh has also carefully studied the tendencies of Western modern and postmodern writing. As a result her stories are almost purely fragmentations, as if the nonsensical is being doubled over in twelve different directions. There is a story that literally rants about the beauty of breasts from the perspective of the male gaze, and another which traps you in a corporate job with no means of getting out.

Fusion is always welcome, particularly when it allows an artist to craft works that a person of only one culture would never be able to imagine. In wandering through her imagination like Borges, but dissipating an image like Can Xue, Koh fully deconstructs the short story. Her stories are less about a narrative arc moving a character in a direction, but an image being mastered in the moment, or a human relationship going as far as a tale can take it. It is from this exceptionally rare talent—to render something fully real out of the abstract—that Koh tears our ideas of storytelling asunder and, out of that space, stitches together completely new images through which our conceptions of literature can be fully reconstructed.

Arms Race by Nic Low

Some writers dazzle with a debut, but fail to take the experiments inside their work to higher heights, while other artists choose to take a similar style, or project, and over time actualize it with much greater depth and clarity. In contrast with other short story collections set in a broad range of countries and united by thematic concerns, Nic Low’s Arms Race comes across as quite authentic. Sometimes when authors look to other countries and try to write from a native’s perspective, they get a lot wrong. With Low, one gets the sense that he has actually visited most of the places he sets his stories in, that he is writing from a space of experience. Because Nic Low is a mixed Ngai Tahu Maori and European artist from New Zealand who resides in Melbourne, it makes sense that his characters reflect both an intimacy and repulsion with the Western mentality. He often writes from the perspective of a Westerner with a rowdy, male mentality. While there’s probably enough of the Westerner in Low to inhabit this perspective, there’s also a distance to his observations. One senses that Low is writing as someone who does not necessarily identify with his characters, but has observed such people from afar, and through the act of writing satire— or a sort of realism that represents such extreme situations or characters that they read like satire—Low is attempting to empathize with or understand them.

The best story in the collection is the titular “Arms Race,” the depiction of a film crew discussing amongst themselves the repercussions of documenting an imagined Central Asian conflict. Despite being a foreigner, Low captures the feelings and rushes of California life perfectly, from the annoying traffic to the fakely-nice girls “smashed on pheromones and Coke Zero Zero Zero.” The story follows a group of cameramen who are making the documentary. As in a lot of Low’s stories, dialogue isn’t marked with quotation marks. The narrative voice is sardonic and distant, allowing him to observe his characters rather than think for them. As a result, though the conflict these reporters are discussing appears to be way beyond their understanding and they are clearly speaking from outside of their element, the literary distance renders the story in such a way that does not poke fun at them. Low is really just pointing out the absurdity of how little a certain type of Westerner knows about what they try to cover.

A similar style and representation can be found in the story “The Lotus Eaters,” an account of the sort of interpersonal dynamics far too common in many Southeast Asian backpacker hostels.  Anyone who has travelled knows the kind of people who choose to live the nomadic lifestyle, and Low does a good job recreating the second-hand annoyance they can inspire.

I heard a mocking singsong voice cry out in French.

I am so layyyy-zeee!

He later says, talking to someone who appears to be his partner:

France makes the wine of the Gods. Laos makes the liquor of ghosts. To laziness!

To laziness, a lithe pale woman said. To laziness and idleness and cant.

It might seem like satire to those who have not been in these types of places, but having watched old-time Australians and Germans pick up thirteen year-old Cambodian prostitutes outside a hostel in Sihanoukville, I felt a certain shudder reading this. It’s very clear that Low is giving a voice to characters he has most likely encountered in real life.

Either that, or Low is really that good at dialogue. Not everyone will like Low’s tendency to root most of his storytelling in dialogue, working it into the narrative, without any quotations marks. Personally, given how robust Low’s characters are, his low-key innovations are a worthy approach, evolving the sort of rough and rumbling Hemingway style into a much more twenty-first century context. As his characters are moving between countries, Low shifts between dialogue, narration, and voice without any discernment. His sentences jolt out of order, they give little room for reflection and pause, and they are filled with a sense of disorder and ambulation.

*

The future is uncertain, as it always will be. As one artist, I will never be able to predict or determine a future, because each and every one of us is acting in response to what we inherently believe is best for ourselves and the people around us. Our actions, be they selfish or collective, change the narrative of the future in some small way. And all of these acts in collusion—rather than one individual’s imposition—ultimately create the narrative that comes to be.

Here I, an Indian-American, have reviewed three books by three Australians of varying nationalities, purposes, and mentalities, whose works are crossing national boundaries. Perhaps this reflects an expected, welcome trajectory. Afterall, we now travel more, talk on webcam to others who are based in Vanuatu or the Ukraine. The world belongs as much to my mobile phone as it does to my mind. And, in such a world, it makes perfect sense that Dovey prefers to speak to the bears in Bosnia or the turtles in Russia, or that Low’s characters are sometimes in Laos, sometimes in California. I suspect I’m not the only one who longs to see all of these squiggles on the earth we call borders dissipate. There’s an echo in the cochlea of the universe. Its rings and pulses are reverberating across our nations. We hear one thing, and as a result, we want to hear more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American traveller, polyglot, and author. An avid world traveler, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 19th, 2020.