Heartfelt: my longing for singular fiction that gets up from the flat ground and slices at your skin. ‘I’d be so grateful,’ I wrote in my callout, ‘if you could send stories like this to me.’
I’ve been so bored with realist Australian fiction; sleepy stories that perhaps have one eye open, but aren’t looking at anything worth seeing. In an introduction to a collection of new Tasmanian fiction published in Communion literary journal last year, I argued that:
The majority of Australian fiction, and particularly the shorter fiction published in our literary journals, is tremendously unambitious. It’s fiction that is content to lean back on its banana lounge and stare at the weather. It counts the seagulls, and tells you that it is counting the seagulls, and then the seagulls turn dark. A strong tendency towards minimalistic realism, with wafts of expressionistic description. A flat and predictable voice. Linearity, or the nearest thing to it.
I’m guilty of it too. You should see the piece I’m working on at the moment; it’s terrible, and leaves me wanting to turn the pages inside out. Still, I summoned the nerve to plead for something different. Style. Experimentation. Humour. (Imagine me sitting in a pub and slamming my limp fist against the dark, damp table). Adornment. Abstractions. Wordplay. Fragmentation.
And in the end, voice. Because for the most part, it was voice that I fell in with and wanted to take home. A call like mine could inspire stories from a range of anti-/dis-/un-Australian angles; political, thematic and aesthetic. While the stories I’ve selected for this edition vary greatly across this spectrum, they all speak with un-Australian voices.
What’s even better: this issue could have been twice as long, filled with fine, upstanding and utterly un-Australian stories, what with the quality of the 260-odd submissions that aimed to capture something of this idea. To everyone who gave it a crack: I would like to shake your hand and brew you a pot of thick, strong, bitter tea. But you will have to come to Tasmania.
Sadly, I was restricted to choosing just four pieces. After much agonising and re-reading, I’m pleased to present these distinct alternatives to the dominant and drab Australian voice. It is a privilege to be able to draw your attention to Alex Cothren’s finely wrought ‘Discomfort example’, which in a series of wonderful steps, asks us to imagine how we must approach campaigns for animal welfare when ‘squealing has failed’; to the command of Zahid Gamieldien’s dark, amusing journey into literary controversy in ‘Attribution’; to Jessica Yu’s fragmented dance around grandmothers and relationships in ‘We don’t use language like that’, a story which ends with a quite remarkable poignancy; and to the shimmering oddness of Laura McPhee-Browne’s ‘Olam’, in which an irritable and awkward family journey to a Ferris wheel transitions into something else entirely.
I hope that you enjoy these stories as much as I did. I’d love to think that this fiction edition could be a very small encouragement and provocation to all of us, as we seek to go beyond The Best Australian Stories in order to aim for Much Better Australian Stories.
Read the anti-/dis-/un-Australian fiction issue
‘Discomfort example’ by Alex Cothren
‘Attribution’ by Zahid Gamieldien
‘We don’t use language like that’ by Jessica Yu
‘Olam’ by Laura McPhee-Browne