Esteemed Australian Lit Mag Brims With Dynamic Culture
Review of Meanjin, Winter 2014 by Amy Clarke
Australia is a new country for me. It is my husband’s homeland and the fourth continent on which I have resided, the youngest country I have ever been a part of. It is a distinct pleasure of living in cities such as London and Melbourne that one may walk down the street and hear a different language coming from the mouth of each passerby. Race and ethnicity blend together, eliminating expectations and challenging preconceived notions when determining the natives from the immigrants.
It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the most esteemed literary magazines in this country would be brimming with dynamic culture. While the contributor list for this issue is largely composed of Australian writers--particularly from the wealth of artistic talent found in the metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne--there is no shortage of diversity to be found in its 190 pages. Tales and essays surrounding countries such as Italy, Iraq, Spain, the United Kingdom, and many more color its vast pages.
As the opening editorial points out, Meanjin began as a poetry magazine nearly 75 years ago, and it continues to count the verse-driven art as its lifeblood. The poems in this edition are scattered throughout, running like veins through the entire edition, keeping the pulse and purpose of the magazine always at the forefront of the reader’s mind. Varying in style and composition, full of free verse and experimental forms, these poems are written by seasoned professionals and burgeoning artists alike.
Meanjin Volume 73 begins with several brief articles under the heading, Perspectives, which explore the topics of modern day racism, the warmth of a grandmother’s kitchen, the pain of losing a neighborhood to a government buy-out, and the dramatic changes brought upon modern day journalism by the digital age.
This leads into the Essays section, which begins with "A Spoonful of Blood" (Cathy Perkins). This piece gives a short account of the life of Zora Cross, an early 20th Century poet whose brother enlisted and was killed in the First World War. Her poem, "Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy" pays homage to him and the other young soldiers lost in battle. Popular culture is the common theme in "Screening a Small Australia" (Briohny Doyle), a critique of Australian film and television quality, and "The Journey and the Destination: George R.R. Martin’s Narrative Method" (J.R. Douglas), a spoiler-ridden examination of the fantasy mogul’s fiction prowess. Whether or not it was the author’s intention, the latter essay did at last convince me to watch the television adaptation of Martin’s most popular endeavor, Game of Thrones, and perhaps to one day brave the epic tomes.
If poetry is the veins of Meanjin, the fiction section is the heart, and possibly the most internationally minded. "The Pilgrim’s Way" (Goldie Goldbloom) dares to write in third person present tense--an unconventional style to be sure--and switches between the minds of several members of one family on vacation in Italy. "Hotel Culture" (MB Cahill) could not be a further shift from the former, enriched by the nightlife of the Xitun District in Taiwan. Told in short sections through the eyes of three characters, it sheds light on the lives of sex workers and the wayward businessmen that provide their livelihood. A fascinatingly brief short story, "The Rothko" (A.S. Patric), sees an unnamed narrator surrendering a left behind painting to the house’s previous owner, the mob-connected Frank Sinatra. A typhoon is the background menace of the Tokyo based, sushi-filled "How is your great life?" (Jo Lennan). "Other Animals" (Tegan Bennett Daylight) delves into youthful sexual experience and obsession, being forced to grow up too quickly, and losing childhood friends. A gorgeous translation of Juan Marsé’s "Park Güell on Three Important Dates" is followed by an interview with the author in which the interviewer/translator, John William Wilkinson, was given the answers and called upon to invent questions to match them.
A beautiful gallery of Katherine Hattam’s artwork, an amalgamation of photography and printmaking, is preceded by a passionate introduction by Nadiah Abdulrahim. Finally, three distinct memoirs finish this extensive, varied magazine. "Unemployed at Last, Again" (Chris Wallace-Crabbe) is a delightful journey of memory woven together with the author’s poetry. Readers are sure to be chilled by the accounts of violence and torture in the field of psychiatry brought to light by "A Visit to the Madhouse" (Sophie Quick).
But the final memoir is certainly most moving and haunting of all, at least for this reader. It details the account of a guard put in charge of a hospitalized prisoner, known to him simply as Jimmy. Due to gross racism and misunderstanding of Aboriginal culture, a simple biopsy of a growth on Jimmy’s groin turned into a full removal of all his genitals without any consultation or permission from the patient. In a concise, gently accusatory tale, author Roderick St. George managed to heat my blood with anger at the plight of a man humiliated and maimed simply because his surgeon assumed he couldn’t speak English.
Meanjin Volume 73 accomplishes many things, but for me its greatest strengths are clear: the characters throughout are memorable, the poetry is accessible and full of lyricism, and the non-fiction is written with passionate abandon. Written with the utmost intelligence and skill, it seems to me that the most likely audience is academics and those who are hungry for brilliant writing. It invites authors from all walks of life, in all stages of their careers, and gives them a platform to say what they want to say, as long as they do it well. And isn’t that what literature is all about, anyway?