Several years ago, I was co-compiler and editor of an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing, published by Ginninderra Press (2006). The process of getting the collection published took three years, and uncounted hours of work by me and my co-editor, Jenna Woodhouse. It was a labour of love. The book had a modest print run, and received very favourable reviews (see link on the title above) and sold out. But it was bloody hard work, and what I learnt was that the publishing industry is not interested in emerging writers (which most of our authors were, though we had a few established ones as well). Nor, it seems, is “the public” interested in collections of short stories. Our collection was mostly fiction, with some memoirs and a few poems. One thing that impressed me was that a high proportion of our authors were West Australian, and I can honestly say they were selected for relevance to the theme and for quality of writing alone. We had a huge number of entries (250, as I recall) and out of those we selected 43, and 14 of those were from WA.
So hold onto these three facts: emerging writers are not very marketable, nor are short stories, and nevertheless, emerging Australian writers, and particularly West Australian writers are producing high quality work.
It’s a dilemma for a writer or a compiling editor, to be up against these contradictory hard facts. Not only in Western Australia, but throughout our country, and no doubt in others, there are budding writers on every branch, longing for their creative works to be read and appreciated, and constantly facing the disappointments of the hard commercial market, if they choose to venture into it.
One way of solving this dilemma is being bravely addressed by many writers’ centres, who not only run sponsored competitions, but offer master classes and workshops in writing, and publish the edited works of the participants. Many writers have started off their publishing career this way. I know, from having been writer in residence for a month at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth in 2012, how much hard and dedicated work is put in by volunteers to make this happen.
So I’m very happy to have been invited to review Other Voices: a Collection of Short Stories, published in 2013 by the Advanced Writers’ Group at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre, Perth, WA.
There are 10 short stories in this collection. Many of them are closer to memoir than to fiction, but as I often say, it’s a thin line between the two. I actually think it’s an important line, as the criteria for a good memoir are a little different from those for a good short fiction, event though they share many of the same characteristics. Some say that all writing is autobiographical. But it’s about the degree of fictionalisation in a story. Some memoirs are written very straight, and this can work if you have a story that ties in with many people’s fears and desires, or (I hate to say) if you are a celebrity of some sort. Others are written in a more literary style, using fictional techniques, but still respecting the inner truth of the story, though facts, names, locations, events, may be played with and invented to some extent. This is my favourite sub-genre, though I’ve read many memoirs of the first kind that I respect and am glad were published.
There are 10 stories in this collection. I can’t talk about each one in a short blog, so I”ll just give snippets. They range from a moral fable, in Amanda Gardiner’s Lessons, and magic realism in Hannah van Didden’s The Gift, to real life stories of abuse, accidental encounters with difficult consequences, loss — of connection, of love, of understanding — to two biographically based stories of triumph over abuse, abandonment, and disempowerment.
I’ll give a brief snippet of two stories that stay in my mind from this collection. That Hand, by Josephine Taylor, is about a woman who had what is now known as Vulvodynia, a chronic condition where the outer female genital organs — the vulva, the labia, clitoris and vaginal opening — are painful and hypersensitive to touch or pressure. Imagine the impact of that on a woman’s reproductive and sexual life! This story cleverly counterpoints two women, one in the 19th century, one present day, who have this condition and are being treated for it. The 19th century treatment was in effect a clitoridectomy, or female circumcision, which is now regarded as a crime in the Western world. In the story, the current treatment is for the doctor to put his fingers —his hand? into her vagina, pushing and stretching:
Contracting with the inhalation and releasing with the exhalation — you know. So I’m breathing out, and he’s pushing and stretching at the same time and — that barrier? I can feel it relaxing!
She’s talking to her husband, who reacts defensively and wants her to try harder, or their relationship without sex won’t last.
How many women have been there?
The other story that stays in my mind is Sue Braghieri’s The Long Goodbye. The scene is a train station — where? with a train about to depart for Milan. Gerard, an elderly man, watches the crowd, and reflects that there is no-one there for him. As he turns to board the train, he sees her. She is lovely, still unbelievably young, and as they board the train together and sit down, it emerges that she is not who he believes her to be.
Loss of the past through ageing and memory loss are the theme of this story. When goodbye no longer has any meaning to the person you say it to.
I won’t attempt a critique of these stories, as I feel that’s not my role. I just want to introduce to you some fresh new voices, and to celebrate the fact that writing is alive and well, outside of mainstream publishing, thanks to writers centres and the many dedicated people who give their time and commitment to nurturing, supporting and mentoring emerging writers.
PS: Sue Braghieri has just sent me this note:
I have the Amazon link now for people to source our e-book. It will also be appearing on other ebook sites in coming weeks (Kobo, iBook etc, and as an epub) – it can take two to six weeks for the distributor to upload into other formats and with other e-tailers.
The Amazon link is: