I had the honour of launching Shibboleth and Other Stories, edited by my friend Laurie Steed, in Perth last night. Here’s my launch speech.
Thursday 18 August 2016, Centre for Stories, Northbridge
Laurie Steed, the editor of Shibboleth and other stories, is one of the great ambassadors for the short story in Australia today. Another great ambassador is Ryan O’Neill, who tweets about short stories as if short story writers are a persecuted minority. Which is sometimes true. Here are some of his tweets:
- “Not all awesome people write short stories, but all short story writers are awesome.”
- “Endings are tough to pull off in short stories. Too neat and they seem artificial, too open and they are unsatisfying.”
- “Before becoming a writer I analyzed the market to see what made the most money. Sadly, I’m awful at maths, so I became a short story writer.”
It’s a real achievement for Margaret River Press to bring out this fifth anthology from its competition. It shows commitment and patience, and has resulted in growing significance. This sort of stability in the literary scene is precious. There are many things writers need, but near the top of the list is opportunities to publish good work and reach an audience, hopefully beyond other writers. Congratulations to Caroline and John Wood and the rest of the team.
And what a good-looking book it is. Susan Miller has created a wonderful cover, and the typesetting and production is superb. Laurie has curated an excellent collection. It’s often a thankless task being an editor. Editors are blamed for sloppy books, but not often enough praised for good books, because their influence can be invisible. Laurie has chosen well, arranged well, and brought the best out of these writers.
It starts with the prize-winning “Shibboleth,” a poignant and complex story, and it continues a high standard right through to the finish. The reading mind can’t help looking for patterns. This collection is a delightful combination of randomness and connections. I’ll mention three patterns:
- Dementia is a recurring theme, coming up in Magdelena McGuire’s “It Used to be a Boyd”, Georgina Luck’s “The Memory Mirror”, Mikalea Castledine’s “All the Devil’s Weed Plants” and Phil Sparrow’s “Theo”. So many of us have loved ones suffering dementia and fiction is one of the best ways to express the experience.
- Both Catherine Moffatt’s “Slacklining” and Laura Elvery’s “Acrobat” use a literal tight-rope as a symbol for their characters to interact with, in such different settings, one suburban the other in Melbourne’s Federation Square.
- In darker territory, Julie Kearney’s “Fork in the Path” and Catherine Noske’s “Brown Snake” are placed next to each other as two stories about protagonists brought to a crisis point after witnessing a sexual transgression.
One of the joys of this anthology is its broad Australian range, across so many different settings. However, given this is the Western Australian launch for the book, without wanting to be parochial I’d like to focus on the seven—by my count—stories from Western Australian authors.
- In Catherine Noske’s “Brown Snake” we only ever know as much as its viewpoint character, Maya, a girl staying with her aunt and uncle on a sheep farm. The title is explained in the first sentence: “From the bridge, the river moves slow and lazy like a brown snake.” Yet the metaphor for the river, and the river itself, take on more significance and weight over the rest of the story as a girl, Maya, witnesses something she shouldn’t. It’s a subtle story, wise about childhood.
- Emily Paull’s “The Sea Also Waits” begins with a hook: “Six nights ago, my mother disappeared into the ocean.” In evoking the world of diving, the story has a surreal quality, and a sense that it symbolises much more than it says. It has a line which I love: “I cut the motor. The silence was sudden, like a lid had been put onto the world.”
- Helen Renwick’s “The Treasure Box” unfolds in one take, a single scene on a train. It’s tightly written and requires the reader to pay close attention to understand. A mother and daughter recognise the so-called “treasure box” of the title and the experience another passenger is going through, invisible as it is to everyone else on the train. “The train moved on, crowded and sleek, scraps and snippets of overlapping stories and sadness bundled into its carriages.”
- Rachelle Rechichi’s “Composition” is a story told through the eyes of a mother and her abused six-year-old self. The voice is convincing and accomplished. “Christopher Robin wants to be six forever and ever. I leave six behind in years, but I never truly leave six, I bring it with me in my body and my mind. There are places that stay untouched beyond six; there are scars that never leave and sounds that never go.”
- Leslie Thiele’s “The Boat” narrates the mid-life crisis of Vic on the boat of the title. What surprised me was the unusual optimism of this story, which starts with Vic disillusioned with his marriage but finishes with him reaffirming it. It’s a story which evokes fishing and the ocean so well and captures a particular type of masculinity. “He lay in the bottom of the boat, he and the fish both gasping, drowning in their separate ways.”
- Mikaela Castledine’s “All the Devil’s Weed Plants” has the density and vividness of poetry. In just a few pages it depicts the life of an elderly couple, the wife with dementia. It’s sad and beautiful. “Anger is a liquid,” Mikaela writes. “Capillary-climbing-thin-walled vessels that show dark as it passes. It fills the empty spaces where she used to live, where now only neurons dangle torn-ended and sparking.”
- Phil Sparrow’s “Theo” tells the story of the narrator’s last visits to his great-uncle who has dementia. “As though the furniture of his mind is continually being reordered. He’s been given the curse of confusion, and it has unseated him.” It’s told in present tense, but the scenes have gaps of time between them. The whole story has the complexity of a novel and the randomness of real life. The elusiveness of its narrator left me hungry for more.
In launching this book, I wish it not just a season of flourishing now at its publication. I wish it a long afterlife, an echo through years. As the copies you buy tonight and all the other copies move out into the world, may some of them eventually find themselves rediscovered on parents’ bookshelves or in op-shops or in libraries, read by people who may not even be born yet. May they be surprised and enthralled and taken into the worlds of these stories. And in a hundred years, may there be some PhD student analysing this book as a mosaic of our times, whatever our point in history will have become by then. Shibboleth and other stories is a collection worth celebrating and worthy of enduring.