‘The Memory of Salt’ – a novel by Alice Melike Ülgezer

Reviewed by Ryan O’Neill

The Memory of Salt is the debut novel from Melbourne-based writer Alice Melike Ülgezer. The story takes place not only in several different countries, but also several different time frames, tracing the love affair between Mac, a young Australian doctor, and Ahmet, a Turkish musician, a relationship eventually destroyed by Ahmet’s mental illness. Ahmet and Mac’s story is related by Ali, their child, who is in turns fascinated, delighted and horrified by the behaviour of her paranoid schizophrenic father. As Ali grows up, her relationship with her father becomes ever more complex, and her imagining of her parents’ courtship, fuelled by her mother’s memories, ever more detailed and vivid. (I have given Ali the pronoun ‘she’ though in fact the sex of the narrator is deliberately left unclear.)

Ahmet is wonderfully drawn and he dominates the book. He is a mercurial figure, by turns lovable, violent, clear-sighted, deluded, hateful and pitiable. Even when Ahmet doesn’t appear in the narrative, he overshadows it, as Ali listens, fascinated, to Mac’s stories of their courtship. Mac’s love for Ahmet, and her gradual, horrified realisation that his eccentricities are symptomatic of far more serious problems, are movingly detailed. Mac, dispirited in these sections of the novel, is often contrasted through time shifts with the younger Mac, caught up in a whirlwind of a love affair in a culture very different to her own. Ali, the ‘I’ of the novel, is not as clearly drawn as Ahmet, and this may perhaps be partly due to Ülgezer’s decision to allow the character’s sex to remain ambiguous.

The Memory of Salt is ambitious in its style, which has been described as ‘baroque.’ Throughout the novel Ülgezer uses many Turkish words and phrases, sometimes offering a translation, sometimes not. Hardly a page goes by without the italics of a foreign language appearing, whether Turkish or German. The effect is frustrating at first, but gradually becomes unnoticeable, and is in fact a skilful way of demonstrating the richness of Ali’s cultural heritage. Ülgezer’s descriptions of the many and diverse settings in the novel are generally successful and her writing is at its strongest when describing things that can be seen, touched, smelled and heard, as in the following beautifully measured passage:

The cooling heat of the day had released the scents of flowers and the mosquitoes were tuning up. The yolk of the streetlights was visible over the back fence and we sat outside in the lilac dark and sipped our coffees.

But when her prose drifts from the realistic to the mystic, the imagery of the novel tends towards the nebulous, as in these examples:

My father jerked his head up, his voice dark with thorns.

And she looked out the window at the hypnotics of the darkening land.

If the words ‘hypnotics’ and ‘thorns’ were exchanged here, the imagery would lose little. This nebulousness extends to the title of the novel, which is lifted from an image in the book, but speaks little to its themes. The novel could as easily have been called ‘The Salt of Memory’. On occasions Ülgezer’s imagery does take a leap and land safely on the other side, and she is to be applauded for taking the risk. But when these leaps result in a stumble, as they frequently do, it is enough to pull the reader out of the story.

The Memory of Salt is, if uneven, still a fascinating novel. There are sections of great power, and many passages of excellent writing. If the style is not baroque, it is at least original and a far cry from the dry realism that still pervades much Australian writing. Though it is Ülgezer’s first novel, it has the ambition of a second or a third.

I look forward to reading more of her work.

____________

Ryan O’Neill was born in Glasgow in 1975. He lived in Africa, Europe and Asia before settling in Newcastle, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. His fiction has appeared in The Best Australian Stories, The Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, New Australian Stories, Wet Ink, Etchings, and Westerly. His collection of short stories, The Weight of a Human Heart, was published by Black Inc. earlier this year. His work has won the Hal Porter and Roland Robinson awards and been shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Steele Rudd Award and the Age Short-Story Prize. He teaches at the University of Newcastle.

 

Jillian Schedneck – ‘Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights’

Reviewed by Heather Taylor Johnson

When Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire came out in 2004 a wave of Western women began considering the implications of veiled Muslim women in Arab countries. Some were on the side of ‘oppression’ while others championed ‘choice’, both being of an equally valued feminist persuasion. The largely female consideration stuck, and women today are as interested in the issue as ever. Jillian Schedneck’s debut memoire, Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, speaks to this audience.

Jillian is young and vibrant, scratching relentlessly at a travel bug; luckily she’s got a plan. Even after she meets an impossibly well-groomed man (in the cultural sense) and enjoys a perfectly thrilling affair with him (which easily manifests into love), she is determined to stick to her plan: teach English in Abu Dhabi; see how the Other half live.

Life without Andres is complex, as Jillian navigates a long-distance relationship and an emergent self-growth spawned from her classroom of female Muslims. Education, for these girls, is secondary to their lives of ‘courting’ without actually physically ‘courting’, because once they leave school, they will become wives. What does this say about Muslim women? What does this say about all women, and Jillian in particular? The story then moves to Dubai, where Jillian continues teaching, though now the classroom is co-ed. Her questions get bigger while her assumptions become double-sworded in this Westernised desert oasis of a city, so different from an hour’s drive in any direction. It is a struggle to remain optimistic, but it is a worthy and life-changing struggle.

Part memoire, part travelogue, Schedneck sees travel as something that will save her. Flip-flopping from disappointment to awe in a matter of two pages, we see that neither Abu Dhabi nor Dubai will save her. It is not until she becomes involved in the City of Hope – a women’s shelter – that we see it is womenwho will save her. Unfortunately this transformation feels rushed. What began so intensely whittles itself down to one paragraph:

As I walked down the quiet street out to the main road, I thought about how I’d like to write about Marnie and her sons leaving the shelter for a new home, Asma finding a sponsor and Evona regaining custody of her daughter. I’d like to write that Fatima and Warkamesh found jobs in households that appreciated their work and that Victoria got her house and yard. But I wouldn’t find out what happened to the women who shared their stories with me; the only thing I knew for certain was that there would be more like them. And I know what they had taught me: that stories are important, that listening matters and that there are people like Sharla Musabih who would never tire of fighting for women’s rights. I had learned, too, that I was no Sharla Musabih – but I would do what I could. (334)

These women’s stories seem to be the crux of Jillian’s story and I’m left wondering why they are jammed into the end of the book. I am oddly left wondering if Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights should have been a different book.

With a topic as exotic as is dealt with here, one would expect aspects of memoire and travel literature to play a role, but it is preferable that only one genre dominate. I am not so sure this is the case in the book. Schedneck’s writing feels most comfortable in the first section of the book, when there is a richness and texture to the language, when there is a sense of fascination and discovery in the narrative, and characters are three dimensional, and memoire is strong. When we get to section two, travel writing takes over. There is a sense of urgency to teach her readers what she’d learned about the country, rather than let the story show us. It is during these slightly didactic moments where she introduces us to her friends. But there are too many friends, and their interactions with Schedneck are so brief that it becomes obvious they are props used only as a way to tell us something more about Dubai. The fact that these friends have no life outside of the dialogue with Schedneck proves that the memoire-aspect of the book has been put in the corner, awaiting a chance to clear its throat.

Cross-genre issues aside, the book is still a page-turner. Schedneck manages to transport her readers into a classroom of drab colour and bright giggles, or a ‘City of Gold’ which truly sparkles, however hollow its soul. Any confusion the reader might feel about Schedneck’s judgment and sense of Truth is due to the author’s constant contradictions within herself, which, rather than work against the flow of the character, work to create a sense of naïve optimism being shattered by that dreaded pull of the ‘coming of age’. Memoire, travelogue: in the end it is a detailed story of one woman finding her grip on the woman she is destined to become.

____________

Heather Taylor Johnson reviews poetry madly for literary journals around Australia and in America. She was a poetry editor for the now defunct Wet Ink magazine. Her second poetry collection, Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town, was published earlier this year. Her third will be out early 2013. HarperCollins will be publishing her first novel, Pursuing Love and Death, in July 2013.

 

Heather Taylor Johnson – ‘Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town’

Reviewed by Subhash Jaireth

It is, I think, a mere coincidence that I started reading this book of beautiful poems just a week after I had reread Osip Mandel’shtam’s gem of an essay ‘Conversation about Dante’. Now, I know that I shouldn’t have done that; should have given more time to let the words of my favourite poet fly away. But it has happened and there is no escaping.

Poetry (like any other art form), to paraphrase Mandel’shtam, doesn’t describe or show the world around us but ‘plays’ with it. The Russian word he uses is razigrivaet and not igraet (play), emphasising, I think, the fact that this act of playing involves tricks; that poetry and thereby poets seem to have fun with the world, or perform with it as if he or she were an actor and the world a mere prop. And because it is a performance, it opens a gap, a sort of cleavage between the world and the poetical word; the relation of equivalence between the two is disturbed. Perhaps that is why any attempt to retell or verbalise poetry is not only misplaced but also imprudent. If a poem can be described, Mandel’shtam argues, it means the poem wasn’t a poem, and that poetry had escaped from it like a disenchanted lover leaving the bed unslept and the sheet unstained. Fortunately there is enough poetry still living in many of the poems of this debut collection by Heather Taylor Johnson.

The collection has forty-eight poems of variable length, shape and style. It starts with a lean but crisp poem, ‘Salida’. Its first line, ‘You have always been’, and the final line, ‘We have always been’, establish the existential certainty of the world the poet and the poems wish to celebrate; the joy is in their dialogic co-existence. From this assurance are born poems which in the words of Jill Jones (cited on the blurb) celebrate the ‘everydayness, the ongoingness of living’, or which as Libby Hart suggests (also on the blurb) ‘sing praises of the natural world and domesticity’, of ‘love, food, shelter and belonging.’

There are poems which look slim, almost anorexic, on the page and there are some which are spread out on the page like lusciously-hipped damsels. For me the slim poems work better. I like the economy of words with which they achieve their effect. Some more wordy ones, like ’14th Rebirthday’, read like prose-poems or even poetic prose.

Being letters to a lover, all poems represent first-person monologues. However in two poems, ‘An Intimate Discussion’ and ‘Another Intimate Discussion’, two first-person voices (the lover and the loved-one) engage in a dialogue where words are marked in quotes. I would have liked to see more poems of this kind in the collection. Their precision, tonality and simple beauty of images add sculptural clarity and sharpness.

In A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes notes that as a lover what is central to me ‘… is my desire I desire, and the loved being is no more than its tool.’ The love in these poems seems to lack this tension. The desire which Barthes alludes to adds grief, and melancholy to the voice. Strangely these poems skip over these feelings. I think the voice of a lover utterly confident and assured about his/her love overshadows every feeling. I would have preferred some vulnerability in the voice, a tinge of betrayal, a gesture towards the potential of failure.

These poems are letters to a lover rather than letters of love. There is one poem which demonstrates shades of vulnerability. The poem is ‘Raspberries’. ‘If I could be summer I would open my leaves’, it begins, and unfolds the erotic power of words and images flooding the page and mind of the reader. But the trick is in the word If, which I read not merely as a rhetorical device but as a question posed by the lover, as if she knows that she isn’t that summer that would summon ‘bushels or raspberries’ for her lover to feed him the sweetness of her juices.

I like the poem ‘Obamacare’ for two reasons; firstly because it is different from the rest in tonality of expression and secondly because it captures the musicality, the chanting rhythms, of Obama’s and thereby Martin Luther King’s speech well. In this poem the personal and the public come into co-being and the domesticity of life opens its door, flowing out and letting the world pour in.

To lovers of poetry who want to read this book, I suggest they read it more than once, because I am sure with each reading the hold of at least some of them would grow. That’s how good poetry needs to work.

____________

Subhash Jaireth has published stories, essays and poetry in Australian and international magazines and journals. His book To Silence, a collection of three fictional autobiographies, was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2011, and his novel After Love will be published by Transit Lounge next month.

 

Ryan O’Neill’s ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’

Reviewed by Heather Taylor Johnson

A problem I usually have with short story collections is that I never read them fast enough, feeling a need to let each story sit with me for a certain time before I move on to the next, so they usually sit near my bed for months, read in increments between novels. This was most definitely not the case with The Weight of a Human Heart. I read three or four stories in one sitting (or lying, as the case was) because the book was as close to unputdownable as any I’ve read. This greedy swallowing of prose worked toward the book’s advantage as its major themes built one atop the other, from story to story, creating a cohesion that was so fulfilling I entirely forgot novels existed over the four nights it took me to read it.

Ryan O’Neill’s stellar collection deals with disconnectedness and a tragic inability to relate to one another. Sounds quite the downer, but, on the contrary, this is the most entertaining short story collection I’ve come across. Ever. The reason is twofold: structural experimentation and an almost obsessive examination of language, literature and writers.

There are a few traditionally told linear narratives in the collection and they are some of the best in the book, which proves O’Neill to be anything but a clever show pony trying to impress any number of academics aiding him in a quest for the PhD in Creative Writing (he has admitted that many of the stories derived from that process). His storytelling doesn’t solely rely on unique structures, but the book is certainly the better for it. Mostly he works with subheadings. In ‘Collected Stories’, for instance, a woman confesses her life-long struggle to gain her mother’s love, and each phase of their lives together is recounted under the subheading of the title of her mother’s most recent short story collection. One gets a sense that this style directs the plot in O’Neill’s process as much as it does the reader. The idea of subheadings is not by any stretch ‘out there’ structurally, unlike ‘Figures in a Marriage’ – a hugely successful story told in charts, graphs, drawings and timelines. Though ‘Figures’ is about the disintegration of a marriage, there is honest cheek on the author’s part and, like so many of the stories in The Weight of the Human Heart, we don’t feel so heavy in the end. O’Neill’s experimentation offers relief from the stories that do linger in a painful catharsis, like ‘The Cockroach’ and ‘Genocide’. The difficulty in the structure can sometimes pull you out of the easy flow writers work so hard to achieve, but with O’Neill’s stories, it is a fleeting moment of struggle (reading in the phonetic alphabet, for instance), embossed in something much larger and working toward something tremendously satisfying.

O’Neill underscores wit again and again in his homage to language, books and writers, and in an examination of the self-obsessed writer or reader. One character walks around with an old copy of Meanjin tucked under his arm, containing the only story he’d ever written that had been published. Another unsuccessful writer – whose name happens to be Thomas Hardie – reads while he walks, ‘measuring his speed in chapters an hour’ (‘The Footnote, 162), and eventually dies in this way. The idea of ‘being lost in fiction’ translating to ‘being unable to cope in reality’ is hard at play. There are also quite a few English language teachers in the book, so failure to communicate becomes multi-faceted. Anyone who is obsessed by language, writing or reading will appreciate this book on so many levels. This is a promise.

The book traverses our wide earth from Newcastle, NSW (where O’Neill currently lives) to China, Lithuania and Rwanda (where he has taught), so it is not only language which separates us, but lived experience. The only fault I find with the book – a minor one at that –is that so many stories are based in Newcastle or Rwanda. This begs of either sections clearly delineated by their geography, or a change of setting. The single settings of China and Lithuania feel out of place in this collection simply because they are not Newcastle or Rwanda. Again, as minor as a paper cut on the finger of a plane crash victim. What really needs to be focused on is that this is an important work by a talented writer; it is as touching as it is quirky, as political at it is personal, as clever as it is straight-forward, and as readable as any book you’ll pick up this year. I’m going to pass it on to lecturers I know who teach short fiction. Writing students need to be made aware of O’Neill.

____________

Heather Taylor Johnson is a poetry editor for Wet Ink magazine and reviews poetry madly for literary journals around Australia and in America. Her second poetry collection, Letters to My Lover from a Small Mountain Town, was published earlier this year. Her third will be out early 2013. HarperCollins will be publishing her first novel, Pursuing Love and Death, in July 2013.

 

A mystic poet, Chekhov’s sister, and a Calabrian astrologer walk into a bar: A Review of Subhash Jaireth’s To Silence

Reviewed by Scott Halligan

Subhash Jaireth’s To Silence, published by Puncher & Wattman earlier this year, features ‘fictional autobiographies’—the author’s own description—of three long-dead but very real historical figures: Kabir, a 15th century Indian mystic poet who was a hero to both Hindus and Muslims; Maria Chekhova, sister of Anton Chekhov; and Tommaso Campanella, a 16th century Calabrian scholar, theologian, poet and astrologer. In the back cover blurb, John Hughes describes this little volume as a ‘tardis of a book’, and I’d agree. I intended to write a short review of perhaps four or five hundred words, but by the end of it I found myself with about a dozen pages of notes. In particular, Jaireth’s innovative and brave experimentation with genre and his surprising choice of characters opens up many doors for thought. I’ll try to act as something like a ‘concierge’ here.

Jaireth is not the first to explore the genre of fictional autobiography. The classic I, Claudius by Robert Graves was written in the form of an autobiography penned in secret by the emperor Claudius. To Silence is nothing like I, Claudius, but a comparison with Graves’ approach is a useful way to illuminate Jaireth’s stylistic innovations as well as how difficult it is to neatly categorise the book.

To Silence takes the form of three short monologues, but unlike that of Claudius, they are not chronological accounts. Instead, we find each character in old age, aware they are approaching their death, their narratives flitting in and out between the immediate concerns of their present lives and the memories sparked by that present, via photographs (Chekhova), songs and poems (Kabir), physical pain (Campanella), and so on. There’s even a moment near the end of the third monologue where Campanella, who has agreed to have his biography written by a literary friend named Gabrielle Naude, is given a set of keywords and asked to reflect on an aspect or episode of his life to match each keyword—an autobiographical device inside another one.

Also unlike I, Claudius, these autobiographies are not comprehensive accounts of the lives of Kabir, Chekhova and Campanella. Indeed, if one untied all the autobiographical loose ends given in each account and laid them out in chronological order, one would still end up with a broken,  unevenly clustered and quite incomplete outline of a life. But it was never Jaireth’s intention to write comprehensive, chronological autobiographies. This approach would have quickly become unwieldy and imposed an unwanted storytelling voice on the characters.

Instead, the monologues are meditative and confessional, almost taking on the form of soliloquies or journal entries. The writing thus takes on an intimacy and immediacy it would otherwise lack, and the reader is drawn into a very private world. I could quote many examples, but Campanella’s description of the child singer Pietro and the old man’s subsequent guilt under the eyes of an omniscient God gives a strong impression that these thoughts were not intended to be widely read.

There he is, the face a perfect heart-shape; nose straight with a slight upturned curve near the tip, almond-shaped eyes rimmed by arched brows, eyelids heavy, lips succulent of the colour of ripe pomegranate seeds, and chin smooth and soft asking to be touched and kissed …

I confess that I was blinded by the beauty of the innocent boy. I shouldn’t have been, because the beauty was undoubtedly Yours… I know this now but then face to face with Pietro I had somehow lost sight of the most obvious… To expiate myself I confess; to redeem my soul I confess; to remain vigilant of future indiscretions I confess; I confess because I am nothing but human asking for love and compassion. (pp. 89-90)

If the term ‘autobiography’ is problematic, this absence of awareness of the presence of a reader also prevents a neat classification of these monologues as memoirs.

Readers of this book, even just picking it up and reading through the blurb, will find it hard to stop asking: Why these three characters? Why, for instance, did Jaireth choose Maria Chekhova instead of Chekhov? What do the three characters have in common? In my case I also wondered what it meant, aside from conclusions that could be drawn about my ignorance, that I knew next to nothing about these people …

One reason for Jaireth’s choice of characters is that while they may not be familiar names to many readers, they belong to a special category of historical figures: the overall shape of their lives and their character is known, but most of the hard biographical details are either not known (Kabir and Campanella), or not previously considered interesting enough to give much attention (Chekhova). Research on Kabir leads me to dozens of stories about his life, some of them conflicting factually with each other, but scarce biographical information. And since Kabir was illiterate, even his poems and songs have a sense of ephemerality, passed down and written down as they were by others. Similarly, Maria Chekhova devoted her own life to documenting the life of her brother, and her personal life was only considered relevant as it pertained to that of Chekhov. That the three figures are mostly known to history ‘indirectly’ gives Jaireth much room to use his imagination.

Another clue is that these three people found themselves, whether they were aware of it or not, living in unusually close proximity to highly significant historical events, periods or transitions. Kabir and Campanella seemed to be lionised and victimised, respectively, by forces over which they had little control and which appeared to select them out for a life of notoriety.

As for Chekhova—and the question: Why her and not Anton?—she survived her older brother by fifty-seven years. Anton died in 1904, a year before the beginning of the most tumultuous period in Russia’s history. From her vantage point of the Chekhov villa in Yalta in southern Ukraine, where Anton spent his final years as his health faded, Chekhova observed the first Revolution of 1905, the First World War, the February and October Revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing years of bitter civil war, which the Ukraine was also tied up in. In the mid-1930s, when Chekhova was in her mid-seventies, the Stalinist purges began, and after the purges, Chekhova then lived through the Second World War, Nazi Occupation, and the Holocaust.

To use I, Claudius once more, Robert Graves used the miraculous Claudius, considered a harmless, disabled fool by his infamous family and thus left alone to observe them as they fell under the spell of absolute power, to indulge his deep interest and write a detailed account of the Roman Empire. Jaireth uses the ‘strategically ideal’ lives of Kabir, Chekhova and Campanella in the same way. He inhabits them, using their minds and bodies to explore the episodes of human history that fascinate and move him.

Jaireth has likened his approach to writing this book to a stage actor who performs multiple roles throughout the one performance. Jaireth imagines himself to be these people and writes their worlds from inside them, discovering as much as writing their thoughts and feelings, their pain, and what they see and hear and touch. The success of this technique is evident in how well Jaireth is able to conjure up vivid impressions of time and place and still maintain an inward-looking, meditative voice when ‘performing’ the three characters. Although there are passages of detailed description—an epic astrological ritual led by Campanella to ensure the re-emergence of the sun from an eclipse is a highlight—a specific example of this indirect evocativeness is hard to find, the effect achieved incrementally and cumulatively across each monologue.

Another achievement of Jaireth’s stage acting technique is how intensely he is able to convey the emotions felt by those people, particularly their pain. Towards the end of the Chekhova monologue, Chekhova learns the fate of an old friend named Dunya Efros, a woman who was briefly engaged to Anton. Having not seen Dunya for many years, Chekhova can’t stop herself from thinking about Dunya and the place where she died, her head shaven, at the age of eighty-two: the Treblinka death camp. In the final paragraphs, Chekhova becomes overwhelmed by the guilt of the survivor and of the bystander, not just for Dunya but for the millions of others of her countrymen and women who died in the wars, revolutions, purges and the Holocaust.

But do I want to be consoled and comforted? I really don’t know. No, I want to suffer and grieve and carry the grief with me undiminished, until I die. Only death will bring me relief. Redemption I don’t want to think about. I haven’t sinned. My benevolent God, I’m sure, understands that, and the feeling of guilt which troubles my heart is also understood and condoned by Him. But my guilt isn’t strictly mine. I am guilty by association, guilty that I have lived in times unbelievably cruel and inhumane, and that I didn’t have the courage to speak up. I should have. I definitely should have.
Like others, I too was selfish, too concerned to save my own skin.
But—
I hate that word. All excuses begin with this terrible word. (p. 70)

Chekhova’s fortune was to live through all of this, for nearly a century, when so many others died. Her burden was to carry her country’s nightmares with her to the grave.

One aspect that initially seemed a weakness in Jaireth’s writing of To Silence is the similarity in the narrative voices Jaireth employs for Kabir, Chekhova and Campanella—even though each character has their own quirks, such as Campanella’s frequent asides addressed to God, which range from declarations of faith to paranoid apologies for perceived indiscretions. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that this consistency of voice is in fact a strength. It emphasises the shared humanity between the three very different characters, encouraging the reader to look past the obvious differences and ask what the three of them might have in common.

I will end this review with a reassurance: it isn’t necessary to know anything about Kabir, Chekhova and Campanella, or be a history aficionado, to get pleasure from this little book. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the very different worlds of these characters, stumbling my way through them, piecing together the clues and inferring the historical context. I do however strongly recommend doing some elementary research into the lives and myths surrounding the three people, and the places and times in which they lived, and then give the book a second reading. Read in a new light with some background knowledge, it almost becomes a different book.

***

A lot more could be said about Subhash Jaireth’s To Silence; the meaning of the title, the supporting characters, and Jaireth’s personal motivations for writing the book are all equally as interesting as the topics covered in this review. Fortunately, Jaireth recently gave a talk at the IPCF book club on To Silence, which was filmed and uploaded on to YouTube in five parts. In the five videos, Jaireth not only discusses the aspects I’ve mentioned and many more, but also gives emotionally powerful readings from the book. Included below is the first video; the other four can be found here.

Subhash Jaireth lives in Canberra. Between 1969 and 1978 he spent nine years in Moscow. He has published three books of poetry, Yashodhara: Six Seasons, Unfinished Poems for Your Violin, Before the Bullet Hit Me, and he has had stories, essays, and poetry published in Australian and international journals.

Port Authority

By Mara Coson

When people pass on lessons on writing, they often choose between two overplayed yet sensible pieces of advice. The first is ‘show, don’t tell,’ and the second, which I plan to discuss here, is ‘write what you know’.

I woke up this morning wanting to write about feminist literature for the Ilura Gazette—but without a literature degree or a published novel, I asked myself if I could write a highly informative post on feminist literature in the span of a day. Probably not.

I decided to write about this need for authority instead. Can we publicly write about issues that we’re not experts on in blogs, or even in works of fiction? The rising trend of citizen journalism and personal blogs means more people feel they have the authority to write about their chosen topics. But does is this newfound sense of authority justified? Where does a writer’s authority come from?

Some fiction authors are able to write about large, research-heavy political issues and describe believably, if not correctly, details such as the pattern of the President’s bedroom carpet. They can write lengthy novels even if all they have is a daily subscription to the newspaper and a keen sense of observation. Before political-thriller author Tom Clancy published his first book, he had completed a literature degree and had run an insurance agency. His firsthand experience with the military was limited to being rejected from service after failing an eye exam.

Is authority just about undergoing enough research or having the right qualifications then? Let’s have a look at health articles. We’ve all seen them: lose weight in x days, or colourful ‘superfoods’, as though they were breakthroughs they hadn’t just been printed two issues ago. These are often written not by nutritionists, but by freelance writers whose only authority may rest in their having previously written five similar articles on weight loss. After a while, these writers become self-appointed authorities, the way Oprah or Tyra Banks know everything about people-problems without having studied psychiatry or without having personally gone through each episode’s life dramas. It has gotten to the point where it’s hard to discern between seasoned diet-experts (no pun intended) and amateurs beating doctors into recommending diet plans.

If we consider these articles, then authority isn’t completely dependent on research. While freelance writers probably don’t have the authority to tell me how much weight I should lose, I seem to have made the mistake of thinking that academic qualifications were the only source of authority. I thought that with only a marketing and creative writing degree, I couldn’t seriously discuss feminist literature—that anyway, these topics are already saturated with voices of authority, and I would be last in line as a valid voice. But then I began to take my own background into consideration: firstly, I am a woman; second, I have learnt through reading feminist texts the basic language in which to discuss feminism, and third, I understand the need for female empowerment and how it affects society. I know that like me, many women who have felt marginalised and oppressed by a patriarchal society, but who did not have a PhD, have published influential feminist zines. These women were completely justified in doing so because they had experience—and experience is as crucial as research.

Does authority, then, come from some combination of formal qualifications and experience, or is it still harder to define? Salman Rushdie, writing Midnight’s Children based on fragmented memories of his homeland while he was in London, asked himself whether he had the authority to write the book. He felt like he was an outsider looking in. ‘Literature is self-validating,’ Rushdie answers in his essay, ‘Imaginary Homelands’. ‘That is to say, a book is not justified by its author’s worthiness to write it, but by the quality that has been written. There are terrible books that arise directly out of experience, and extraordinary imaginative feats dealing with themes in which the author has been obliged to approach from the outside.’ I suppose not all autobiographical fiction would really make us read through to the end, and neither would all political commentaries on blogs. Sometimes it takes a story like Roald Dahl’s ‘The Sound Machine’ where plants are said to scream, or a well-written piece like Jenny Kleeman’s social commentary about the Philippines—such might not be based on firsthand experience, but the quality in which they had been written seems to really make up for it.

But if research, background, and quality still aren’t enough, let’s not forget that we currently live in ‘the age of engagement’. At the publishing conference, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) 2010, Arianna Huffington said, ‘for the first time, news consumers and book readers don’t just want to read, they want to engage with what they’re reading. They want to talk back.’ Literary authority no longer seems so daunting to writers with the knowledge that writing is not about preaching but rather engaging with people. There is no doubt I’ve failed to cover issues here in this post, but there are people who will make them known. If blog posts overlook details or fail to properly address an issue, there is a community out there that is ready to engage in discussion. Even for fiction, the engagement of readers is vital. Readers fill in the strokes that complete what is essentially an unfinished circle, as a text is nothing without readers there to interpret it. Besides, in fiction, there is space for the imagination to prop up the otherwise unknown. Nabokov once said, ‘great novels are above all great fairy tales … literature does not tell the truth but makes it up.’

I’ve reached the end of an article that I felt that I had no authority to write, and it’s likely that I still don’t have the authority. Perhaps I’m my own bad example, having failed to possess the proper research, experience, and writing quality to have been a proper authority to write about ‘authority’. However, there is room on this blog for engagement through comments, and where I fall short in my knowledge or understanding, someone like you might be able to fill-in the gaps.

City of Words

By Lana Rosenbaum

My favourite thing about Melbourne is that wherever you go, you’ll always find a bookstore. I’m not referring to franchised stores like Borders, Dymocks or Angus and Robertson that somehow find themselves clumped together within one hundred meters. Independent bookshops, secondhand bookshops and even remainder bookshops are hidden everywhere, down laneways in the city, connected to coffee shops in Richmond, St Kilda and Carlton, or even behind markets. Having worked in an independent bookshop for two years, I’d always preferred them to franchise stores, appreciating the loyalty of customers, the dedication of staff and the special selection of texts. 

Having recently been in London, I felt the same sense of literary culture creeping around every corner. There was an entire laneway in Soho of secondhand bookstores. Some had books that cost thousands of pounds, and others were more affordable. In the Portobello markets, almost every second stall was selling hardback classics. The main franchise bookstore there is Waterstones. It’s not as predominant as Borders and Dymocks in Australia, and had the same feel as Readings Bookstore.

New York, however, shocked me. In the city, I saw only two Borders and a Barnes and Nobles, which was closed at the time for renovations. The streets I ventured didn’t have second hand or independent bookshops, although I’m sure in other areas there would be. I expected New York to have the same literary vibe as other main cities. Then I got to thinking about my dream to open a bookshop. Would an independent bookshop be more successful in a city like Melbourne that is filled with them already, or in a city like New York where the main stores are large franchises?