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Type
Reflection
Category
Culture
Politics

Highs and lows of 2016

Toby Fitch, poetry editor

A cultural and political high point of the year for me was seeing McKenzie Wark’s speculative list of future Australias published in Overland. Ironic yet angry, socialist yet facetious, these 20 possible alternative Australias include an Australia with no literary prizes, an Australia relocated to Antarctica, an Australia in which work is abolished and all buildings are made of bendy straws, an Australia where Indigenous people become a landed aristocracy, and an Australia with a giant mirror over the red centre that counteracts climate change for the world, but at a price. Are these Calvino-like fragments (or prose poems) the beginning of a book? I hope so. After a year of so many low points, we could do with more art like this.

biarujia-spelter-to-pewter_709x1024_1024x1024As poetry editor for Overland, I feel I should give some sort of overview of the poetry year, however personal and cursory. End-of-year-best-books lists can seem like echo chambers, but here’s a list of Australian poetry books I enjoyed, for what it’s worth: Lake by Claire Nashar; O Sonata: Rilke Renditions by Chris Edwards; Missing Up by Pam Brown; Content by Liam Ferney; Fragments by Antigone Kefala; Jam Sticky Vision by Luke Beesley; and Spelter to Pewter by Javant Biarujia. I probably enjoyed reading chapbooks even more: hard-line by Marty Hiatt and trees and soup by Marc Jones, both from bulky news press in Melbourne; and anything published by Stale Objects dePress online, but particularly Deluxe Paperweight by Holly Isemonger, chaingrass by Catherine Vidler, and The Durham Poems by Benjamin Laird. There were two Australian poetry anthologies that I thought nailed their respective briefs: Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, edited by Bonny Cassidy and Jessica L Wilkinson, and Writing to the Wire, edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. Anthologies work better when they’re not trying to be timeless behemoths, and are rather focussed, polemical and timely. Of those international poetry books I read this year, I loved Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon (of 1997 but translated by Don Mee Choi for 2016), and Float by Anne Carson, who continues to deconstruct the book as an object (Float is a box-set of 22 ‘unfixed’ poetry chapbooks). My toddler seems to have enjoyed John Ashbery’s two latest poetry collections, Breezeway and Commotion of the Birds. Helps her go to sleep at night. Me, too.

 

Rachael McGuirk, publicity officer

LevyThe top of my 2016 fiction picks, and unlike anything else I read all year, is Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. The story unfolds like a lucid, fragmentary dream, as we follow Sofia and her mother Rose on a kind of medical pilgrimage to Spain’s southern coast. Drenched in an uncanny atmosphere, ­it would make for perfect summer reading if you haven’t yet picked it up. In nonfiction, I enjoyed Helen Garner’s tender collection Everywhere I Look; and worth revisiting is Jo Chandler’s essay ‘Grave Barrier Reef’, first published in The Monthly’s June issue. Songs from Frank Ocean’s Blonde were the soundtrack of my year, and my favourite Australian artist was Tash Sultana, an independent self-taught Melbourne musician whose music, it turns out, I was waiting for.

Shifting to the screen, the standout in Australian television for me was Barracuda, a beautiful rendition of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. I also couldn’t stop watching (and replaying) HBO’s Veep – now in its fifth season, the American political satire is hilarious, but probably shouldn’t ring so true. If you plan to catch some films before the new year, I’d suggest saving yourself some time and giving Nocturnal Animals a miss; instead check out American Honey, by Andrea Arnold, whose vision is mesmeric. The film that had the biggest impact on me and left me feeling strange for days was One More Time with Feeling; no-one in my screening spoke once it finished, they simply watched the credits roll and left in silence.

 

Giovanni Tiso, long-time Overland contributor, and contributing editor in 2017

Bowie died. Prince died. Castro died. And in the midst of all these deaths, the corpse of fascism made a grumbling noise and raised a finger. 2016 was the year history started going backwards, threatening to unwind institutions such as the European Union – which for decades embodied the very idea of progress for an entire continent – and to revive white supremacism in its most unequivocal, brazen forms. The votes for Trump, Brexit, even the seemingly technical Italian referendum, represent not just the rejection of the liberal political project in its current incarnation, but also an explicit attempt to roll back time. Make America great again. Make Britain independent again. Make Italy… hell, I’m not even sure – certainly not the modern nation that so many international bodies insisted for so long that it should become.

More crucial votes will follow next year (France, Germany). More referendums may come. If the financial and political centres of Western power are to survive, they will need to restore the belief that they are the guarantors not of present economic stability, but also of a desirable collective future. If a radical progressive alternative is to emerge, its task will be the same, and just as difficult. But for the forces of reaction, the strategy is simple: to continue to imagine a future that is shaped like the past.

 

Sam Wallman, long-time Overland contributor and contributing editor in 2017

Some union’s membership figures have fallen by 5% this year. Militant industrial disputes in Australia are largely extinct, and are all but outlawed – thanks in large part to the Labor party’s legislation that ‘protects’ incredibly narrow kinds of industrial action, and therefore strangles all other kinds. The Federal Government’s ABCC legislation has recently passed back into law, which will be another blow to the most staunch unions in the country. Turnbull concluded the government’s phoney $50 million dollar Royal Commission into union corruption, which led to one single conviction.

CUB boycottAt the same time, 55 Carlton United Brewery workers stood at the gates of the Abbotsford brewery site for 185 days, insisting that they were returned to their old positions at their hard-won union rates, not with the 65% pay cut the company was proposing. The ETU and the AMWU, the delegates and the workers built a narrative, and cut through white noise to convince the community that their struggle was important and worthy of support. As such, we saw community boycotts, stunts, public artworks, boisterous rallies, free breakfasts, pickets, political lobbying and meme after meme. And then we saw 55 workers walk back through the gates they’d stood outside of for six months. Workers and their unions have fought their way out of worse years than 2016.

 

Jacinda Woodhead, editor

There’s no denying that 2016 has been brutal, and seemingly interminable. Don Dale. Indigenous incarceration. Adani and the zealous pursuit of coal. The monstrousness of this country’s border policies, and the conduct exposed at Ms Dhu’s coronial inquest. The violence in Syria, Turkey, the Philippines. Trump and his proposed cabinet: walking embodiments of capitalism, they are all grotesquely wealthy.

Earlier this year, Alison Croggon wrote that death and brutality

might also be a reminder that the vast, fleeting beauty and pain that comprises a mortal life is immeasurably precious and irreplaceable; that while it is here, it must be cared for, noted, valued; that the present is the only thing we have within our grasp.

Indeed, we must work harder in the present for that which we value.

Something that makes me hopeful for the future is the reaction of young people to the recent US election:

 

This is a generation that (for the most part) believes in climate change and equal rights. They grew in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring: they know there are alternatives to capitalism and believe they can change the world. They are angry and full of vim.

The-FIts-movieCultural highs and lows were many, but for concision: I finally made time for the Neapolitan novels and while only halfway through, the epic is every bit as brilliant, engrossing and gutting as promised (also: Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything, Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities, Sonja Dechian’s An Astronaut’s Life, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts). My low: A Little Life – I couldn’t care for the characters or their plights, and shelved this in the ‘New York is a black hole’ bookcase. In cinema: The Fits and A Dragon Arrives! were my highs – both are electrifying and impossible to summarise. Lows: Julieta and The Witch, which were saccharine or laboured and lacking in subtext or with problematic subtext. In television, I thought every line and scene of Fleabag was pure genius. As for podcasts, can I bemoan the rise in true crime in this format? Shows like My Favourite Murder are speculating, in spectacularly uninformed fashion, on the behaviours and motives of victims and perpetrators, deploying these real acts of world-shattering crimes – which are recounted in detail – as little more than fodder for the next punchline. It’s almost indistinguishable from a reddit thread.

 

Sian Vate, assistant editor

A performance worth seeing in late 2016 was the Belarus Free Theatre Company’s show Burning Doors: for everything it said about what hasn’t changed politically in recent years, as much as what has. In 2013 the Company toured Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. This was billed as a love letter to Minsk; it moved between scenes of clandestine queer nightclubs being set up in work canteens and roughly shut down, prolonged police interrogations with activists, and direct addresses from performers to the audience describing the physical abuse they’d personally endured at the hands of dictatorial Belarus, that has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko for the last 22 years.

The love letter was real, though ironic, and nostalgic. One performer reflected that Belarus has little going for it geographically: no beaches, no mountains, nothing to distinguish it as a landscape other than its flat greyness, and the repressive concrete capital at its heart. And they then asked, so why do we love it, and miss it, so much? (The Company is officially banned in Belarus, nor can it perform in Russia; its founders identify as political refugees and have been exiled in, and directing the Company from, London since 2011.) But the irony was no paradox. The show’s intentions of love and anger merged into a complete intention – a marriage of protest and melancholy.

In November this year the Company was in Australia again performing Burning Doors in collaboration with Maria Alyokhina, a Pussy Riot member who served two years in Russian jails. Structurally and intentionally similar to Minsk 2011, Burning Doors was a thinly-lit, fervent production that cut between scenes of interrogations and inter-prisoner abuse, passages peeled from Dostoevsky and Foucault, and dialogues built from transcripts of interviews with political prisoners Petr Pavlensky (the Russian performance artist jailed for eight months in 2015) and Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian film director currently serving a twenty-year sentence for ‘plotting terrorist acts’ in occupied Ukraine, as well as Alyokhina’s interview transcripts themselves.

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Dostoevsky’s advice was to judge a society based on the conditions of its prisons; Foucault was bent on the lack of difference between the prison, the factory, the school, the hospital… During Burning Doors a reflection was proffered that being inside of a Russian prison and being outside of it are not such different things. Collapsed binaries underpinned Burning Doors: freedom and imprisonment, and oppressor and oppressed, merged into singular, ambivalent objects of cultural terror, and in this sense the links between Burning Doors and Dostoevsky speak to the bleak continuity of the Russian political fight.

What didn’t emerge was an easy collapse between theatre, and political lecture, as forms. Burning Doors was a doubling of intensely physical performances (prolonged fight scenes, and a kind of violent gymnastics, particularly during the second half of the play) and cerebral dialogues on prison, the self and the state. Unfortunately the gap between these things didn’t disappear during the show, but expanded out; unlike in Minsk 2011, one complete and convincing intention didn’t materialise. Rather, Burning Doors (named for Pavlensky’s act of setting the FSB front doors on fire in Moscow in 2015) was a collection, and a continuation, of a series of political acts that are defining contemporary opposition to Russian authoritarianism.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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