Last November (2018), Tracy and I launched issue 63:2 of Westerly magazine in the Shakespeare Garden at the University of Western Australia. Here are our speeches — Tracy's first, then mine (John's)...
It’s a pleasure to be here this evening to launch Westerly 63:2, with its dynamic emphasis on community, both local and international. I want to acknowledge that this launch is being held on Aboriginal land – on Whadjuk Noongar land – and to express my respect for the strength and contributions of Noongar people, not only here on Whadjuk land, but also acknowledging Ballardong Noongar people, from among whom some powerful writers have contributed to this new issue of Westerly. As it happens, John, Tim & I live on Ballardong country.
It’s a privilege to learn from their poems in the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, and to be invited on the figurative walk the poems conduct. They emerge from the “Strong spirit,/ strong mind” referenced in Julie Wynne’s poem, “Rise Up and Be Strong”, which reminds us too of the centrality of voice and listening. It’s a credit to Westerly that its poetry pages make this connection with women from Ballardong country, beyond the journal’s base in Perth but not so very far away.
Just as bookshops, libraries and writers’ groups are important cultural loci or nodes within communities, literary journals at their best are not cut off from, but reflect (as well as influence) what is happening in those communities. With this issue, that sense of reflection is seen not only in the offering from the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, but in, for instance, the publication of David Malouf’s address from the recent Short Story Festival.
This sort of openness to events and developments in the immediate region is more than just a snapshot or a “what’s on”; it’s a live connection to the actual, and enables us to read disparate elements or features in a coherent context – so, for instance, we move back and forward between memorable short stories with the atmosphere of Malouf’s overview in the back of our mind.
When we read a story like Jane Downing’s “Caution Submerged Steps”, or Troy Dagg’s “The Pool”, we recall Malouf’s pinpointing of “engagement and empathy” as integral to the short story’s operations. The short stories in this issue all hover around questions of our relationship not only to place but to the people in it; our responsibilities whether faced or shirked or both.
In some of the poetry, these same concerns and linkages are encapsulated, for instance in Amy Lin’s “The Architecture of Grief”, where place and (absent) person merge; likewise, though differently, in Roland Leach’s poem, “Wreckage”. These points of crossover are of course not accidental; they represent skilled organisation on the part of all the editors concerned, and send ripples through the issue that have an effect bigger than the sum of its parts.
Similarly, despite respect for specific differences within Aboriginal people’s experiences, the issue allows us to read Cindy Solonec’s non-fiction about her forebears and family from the Kimberley in the light of what Ambelin Kwaymullina and Julie Dowling have to say about stories, and to reflect on the commonalities of family separation and its legacies also mentioned in the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, as in Janet Kickett’s “Story of My Life”. Westerly’s editors begin the issue with an emphasis on locatedness on Noongar country and “the complexities” that involves; it is heartening to read material that does not shy away from such complexities but embraces and investigates them. Congratulations to all who have contributed to and worked on this issue for its openness in this regard.
And mine (John's), which followed Tracy's on the night:
The polyphony of voices brought together in this issue of Westerly do not have their own localities, their own emphasis, threatened or dis-respected through the constructed community that is literary journal publication. In the polyambient nature of location, a consciousness that we speak out of our own experiences of place is set against the consciousness that we read other experiences and intensities of place through that same set of personal experiences. In these intersectionalities of ethical-place-concerns and shared and differentiated experience, we are surely reaching towards a more just co-ordinating of respect and belonging. Editors Catherine Noske and Josephine Taylor note in their introduction:
... our engagement with Indigenous authors in this issue has pointed more pressingly to our locatedness on Whadjuk Noongar boodja, Westerly’s presence on Country, and the complexities of past and future that involves. This cannot be underestimated in the unending process of understanding self. It is only appropriate, then, that this issue questions and considers the coming into self that writing has always offered. (p. 9)
In this acknowledgement is writ the unresolved fact of dispossession and privileging of a colonial authorising that’s intensifying rather than diluting. In Elfie Shiosaki’s interview with Julie Dowling, ‘Sovereignty, Self‐ Determination and Speaking Our Freedoms’, we hear Julie Dowling say of her mob, ‘What they’re doing is mapping dispossession in terms of things and how we get treated by local mob.’ That’s unmapping colonialism with its own tools and an undoing of its destructive technologies, its technologies that will yield only desolation.
In Ambelin Kwaymullina’s brilliant article ‘Literature, Resistance, and First Nations Futures: storytelling from an Australian Indigenous women’s standpoint in the twenty‐first century and beyond’, she says of being a futurist storyteller: ‘But Indigenous Futurist storytellers do not only address the profound injustices of settler-colonialism. We also look to futures shaped by Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing.’ And goes on to cite Lou Cornum:
Indigenous futurism seeks to challenge notions of what constitutes advanced technology and consequently advanced civilizations [...] Extractive and exploitative endeavors are just one mark of the settler death drive, which indigenous futurism seeks to overcome by imagining different ways of relating to notions of progress and civilization. Advanced technologies are not finely tuned mechanisms of endless destruction. Advanced technologies should foster and improve human relationships with the non-human world. (np)
Further, thinking over the lines from the introduction to the issue quoted above, and the work of Nicholas Jose, whose novel, The Red Thread: A Love Story, is considered and carefully contextualised by scholar Wang Guanglin in the issue, I am reminded of Jose’s article on Randolph Stow’s Visitants in an issue of Transnational Literature from 2011, in which he also spoke of ‘locatedness’. He wrote: ‘For Cawdor [...] His desire is to step outside his own locatedness, and he prides himself on his capacity to do so. It proves damaging all round.’ (Nicholas Jose. Visitants: Randolph Stow’s End Time Novel Transnational Literature Vol. 3 no. 2, May 2011. http://fhrc.flinders.edu.au/transnational/home.html)
The relevant bit is, ‘It proves damaging all round’. When we subsume another’s locatedness, even if we are attempting to make connection that is protective and generative, we necessarily occlude, damage, and create false stories of presence. Stories of the self if disconnected from their cause and effect are damaging stories.
Aboriginal stories of location are part of stories that belong to their lines of heritage, and are theirs to tell. Julie Dowling includes this note after her interview: ‘The stories contained within this interview may not be reproduced without the story-owner’s permission.’ It is worth thinking about the issue of ownership here outside and inside the capitalist rubric colonisation imposes on it.
Ownership here is a resistance to theft, to having value added by colonial mechanisms in order to strip away connection to self and presence of its originators — this is what is being resisted in the Aboriginal work in this issue. When the Northam Yorgas offer their remarkable poetry, whose coming into being was facilitated through the participation of wonderfully engaged workshop people, it is offered not as something to take from, but something shared. It is shared (or not) by choice, and the conditions of its sharing are to be respected (as they have been by the workshops’ facilitators).
In showing editorial sensitivity to offering a zone of respect for creative and scholarly work of location, the editors are ‘curating’ but also resisting the curatorial urge to collate and to compartmentalise — their gatherings are to offer to liberate, not isolate, to respect, not constrain.
In his scintillating article, ‘Writer as Translator: on translation and postmodern appropriation in Nicholas Jose’s The Red Thread: A Love Story’, Wang Guanglin writes: ‘In a logocentric Western philosophy, which prioritises word over image, alphabet over ideogram, all human efforts are very much conditioned by either-or choices, which do not allow translation to experience other kinds of transformations.’ The colonialisms of translation are literally deconstructed (Derrida is an active shade in this text), and we might agree with Old Weng, as paraphrased by Wang Guanglin, ‘incompleteness is a way to continue people’s lives.’ (p. 64) Which is not to say we are not looking for resolution and completeness regarding injustice, regarding land and cultural theft, but that inside resolution, which we hope is achievable, the self’s journey is never finite or limited.
It is perhaps pertinent to consider: Beibei Chen’s article on Ouyang Yu’s novel The English Class, where he notes of the character Jing:
‘Jing is aware of his incompleteness, which causes a crisis of subjectivity at a key point in the text:
I hate myself so much for being unwhole, for being a traitor to everything I once held dear, for being unable to resist the temptation to fall into delightful peaces [sic], for the delirium that I have courted. (372)
[Beibei Chen (p.183)]
What all readers have to be vigilant for is the process of how we access and utilise the stories shared with us, especially Indigenous stories and the theft they are told against. Ambelin Kwaymullina notes: ‘The need for non-Indigenous writers to step away from (rather than into) the story spaces of Indigenous peoples is an issue that has been raised many times over’, and ‘But the privileging of the voices of cultural outsiders over cultural insiders remains a live issue across the Australian literary landscape.’ (Ambelin Kwaymullina, Westerly, p.148)
This issue is an enactment of principles — the curatorial becomes the collation and exchange within the skilful organising, the juxtaposition of pieces so we read in questioning ways. The self is given its own space to grow within its own community/ies and left intact — in fact, the entire issue challenges invasiveness. The remarkable prose poem project ‘curated’ by poetry editor Cassandra Atherton confirms how a medium, a ‘genre’, is never the same in different hands, and that a mode is always an undoing. ‘Divination: Linen and Dolphins: From Soft Oracle Machine, a collaboration with Chris McCabe’, by Vahni Capildeo, is a wonderful breaking out of the containment field of formality to bring new departures and proliferating conversations. And finally, I have to speak for the Fay Zwicky of 1995 and her eternal presence as part of Perth poetry, and the university — her spirit is with us, laugh at this comment as she would.