This is a review, written by Sonia Nair of The Best Australian Essays 2015.
Various; edited by Geordie Williamson
The Australian’s chief literary critic, Geordie Williamson, kick-starts the anthology that he so assiduously curated with an edict on why the essay has turned out to be the “most durable of literary forms to make its way from paper page to iPad screen”.
“The very shape (or shapelessness) of the form makes it an ideal sail for catching the capricious billows of the zeitgeist.”
In The World Needs Female Rock Critics, the inimitable Anwen Crawford examines the exclusivity of a rock and roll legacy that refuses to allow women into its pantheon of unbridled liberation and civil disobedience counterculture.
“Rock music has rarely offered women the same tangible promise of social rebellion and sexual freedom that it has given men – though plenty of women, myself included, have tried all the same to find those liberties in it.”
Crawford pays homage to trailblazing female music critics before her – Lillian Roxon, Ellen Willis and Jessica Hopper – while deconstructing the entrenched sexism that not even female rock stars are immune to. These attitudes manifest in their perceived inability to transcend the “enduring stereotype” of groupies, the pervasive way their talents are credited to the males around them, and the myth of “female deceitfulness”. Creating a platform for female rock critics, Crawford argues, results in a more balanced depiction of the fallacies of the music world and all it entails.
The perniciousness wrought by gender inequality takes a darker turn in Alison Croggon’s Trigger Warning. Croggon situates personal experiences of sexual violations within a broader system of structural privilege – one that forces women to work three times as hard to be recognised, confers an inferiority to all forms of women’s writing, and places women on a continuum that promises death at its murkiest end. Croggon’s writing is incisive, frank and devastating.
The personal is political, as Croggon elucidates, and none more so is this clearer than in the essays by Maria Tumarkin, Noel Pearson and Nadia Wheatley.
In No Dogs, No Fruit, No Firearms, No Professors, Tumarkin, an author and cultural historian, composes an essay on the tragedy that befalls qualified professional migrants who arrive upon Australian shores.
“My father’s periodic removal from his resume of his Ukrainian/Soviet PhD in hydraulics – a bizarre ritual of self-administered shrinkage, necessary, he was told, to get a ‘foot in the door’ – has been replicated across decades by migrants to this country.”
Extrapolating her father’s experience and locating near identical cases in diasporas across Australia imbues Tumarkin’s piece with a sadness befitting an elegy, as she shines a light on the systemic discrimination that lies at the heart of Australia’s public thinking.
This same maddening insight into the shortcomings of Australian policy is found in Pearson’s Remote Control: Ten Years of Struggle and Success in Indigenous Australia, a series of observations centred around serving as an Aboriginal Australian lawyer, academic, land rights activist and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.
By using the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) as the fulcrum of his essay, Pearson takes a magnifying glass to the indignities that have prevented Aboriginal people from exercising self-determination in their personal and political spheres – from the torpidity of the Howard years and the spectacular failure of Mal Brough’s Northern Territory Intervention to the uneven rewards of the mining boom and the closure of up to 150 remote Indigenous communities.
Always questioning and forever hopeful, Pearson ends his essay with a firm rebuke:
“I fear that the binaries of Indigenous affairs, if left unresolved, will leave us caught between the laissez-faire of the left and the increasing hardening hearts of the right.”
Transporting readers to northern Germany in Belsen: Mapping the Memories, Wheatley intersperses her journey of personal redemption with a harsh and incredibly harrowing portrait of life in a Nazi concentration camp.
Critics’ Delia Falconer’s and Tegan Bennett Daylight’s respective essays are as masterful and lapidary as the books in which they critique.
In Seven Poor Men of Sydney, Falconer revisits her initial dismissal of Christina Stead’s first novel as a more mature reader, culminating in her proclaiming it “one of the great discoveries of [her] reading life”. Falconer’s language and prose is neither perfunctory nor ornamental; each sentence is sedulously crafted to reflect the minutiae of Stead’s voiced and lyrical writing.
“The best comparison I can think of to Stead’s method are the coruscated reliefs in Byzantine churches, designed to be looked at by moving candle flame: the lustrous, bumpy, surfaces of an angel’s body were created to make us feel ‘liveliness’ over the lifelike; not just to see but also to experience it as fire.”
Daylight’s Fully Present, Utterly Connected connects the act of reading Joan London’s The Golden Age with the rare and elusive joy of having found a work of literature that simultaneously enthrals and centres.
“Perhaps the best definition of good writing is the kind that recreates this safe aloneness, this suspended awareness of the self, this being lost but at the same time attached.”
Although Daylight is undoubtedly describing the immersive experience of reading about Frank Gold in his children’s convalescent home for polio, her summation rings true for the spellbinding pieces found within The Best Australian Essays 2015 – particularly in Matthew Lamb’s The Meeting That Never Was.
In a playful ode to two heavyweight thinkers of our time, Albert Camus and George Orwell, Lamb uses a meeting that was never to be as a stage through which to explore the peculiarities and the affinities that bound the two together. As much an exercise in class politics as it is an exploration of the consummation of political and literary writing, Lamb’s essay is edifying and compelling, as it ends in a fictional reimagining of the meeting that never took place.
The sprawling yet compact collection acts as a literary yearbook of sorts. Touching on both the cultural milieu of the time – Guy Rundle’s essay on the Charlie Hedbo terrorist attack is a refreshing take on a monumentally rehashed topic – and perennial preoccupations such as the ignominies of ageing and the ethical quandaries of writing, the pieces within The Best Australian Essays 2015 always transcend their initial framework to follow a line of inquiry, neither objective nor conclusive.
The Best Australian Essays 2015 is out now through Black Inc.
Sonia Nair is a renewable energy journalist and Reviews Editor at human rights media organisation Right Now. Follow her @son_nair