Short Stories

When Shirley Hazzard was invited to give the 1984 Boyer Lectures, it was an astonishing break in tradition. Her twenty-three predecessors included only one woman, Dame Roma Mitchell, a supreme court justice who was later governor of South Australia. Except for architect and writer Robin Boyd, and poet and Bulletin editor Douglas Stewart, Hazzard was the only creative artist on the list. All her predecessors were well known for their public contributions to Australian life.

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In perhaps the most tender story in this textured, interconnected collection, an adolescent son spends the summer sunbathing in the backyard and sneaking glances at the paperboy while his working-class, stay-at-home father, who reads detective fiction and likes to ‘figure things out before the endings’, gently attempts to make it known to his son that he can tell him anything.

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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The Penguin Best Stories Of D’Arcy Niland by D’Arcy Niland, selected with introduction by Ruth Park

by
September 1987, no. 94

There is a lot of work still to be done on the place of the yarn in our culture. Has its pre-eminence to do with the roving outback life, with traditions of taciturnity, with an inability to cope with the size of our land? Or has it more to do with the rapid urbanisation of this country and a need to celebrate and protect myths, an abiding sense of nostalgia? Or are there more pragmatic, economic reasons – the dearth of publishing houses, the lack of a landed gentry, the impossibility of survival as a full-time writer? Whatever the cause – and speculation is interesting – there can be little argument about the fact that the yarn has a central place in our literature, whether firmly embedded in a longer novel as in Such is Life and The Wort Papers, or staring at us from literary magazines or collections of short stories.

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This collection of twelve stories by the author of The Savage Crows and A Cry in the Jungle Bar seeks to explore and define what Drewe sees as a part of our national psyche, the preoccupation with the coast and with the ‘careless violent hedonism’, as one of the characters puts it, of beach life. In ‘Looking for Malibu’, David Lang, who appears in several of the stories, defines it for a then fellow expatriate in a discussion about criminals on the run. ‘If their enemies were middle-class Australians they’d know where to look for them,’ he says. ‘You know something? When Australians run away they always run to the coast. They can’t help it. An American vanishes, he could be living in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, the mountains, the desert, anywhere. Not an Australian-he goes up the coast or down the coast and thinks he’s vanished without a trace.’

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A little puce head slipped out, followed by a rush of blood and water. Jerra saw it splash onto the gynaecologist’s white boots. Across Rachel’s chest the little body lay tethered for a moment while smocks and masks pressed hard up against Rachel’s wound. He saw a needle sink in. Someone cut the cord. Blood, grey smears of vernix. The child’s eyes were open. Jerra felt them upon him. From the little gaping mouth, pink froth issued. They snatched him up.

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Zadie Smith’s commanding collection Grand Union puts our contemporary lives and mores under the microscope. She sets her sights on the insanity (and inanity) of social media, the internet, and ‘call-out culture’, but leaves room to consider the tensions inherent in post-colonial nations, including race, gender, and sexuality.

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Humans cannot imagine avian perspectives, Joshua Lobb admits, but his stories explore what we might learn from the attempt. Some of Lobb’s strategies are familiar from much recent fiction with ecological themes, such as the use of an educated, intellectually curious narrator-protagonist whose wide reading provides a convenient means of introducing diverse facts and anecdotes about birds into lyrical, richly figurative prose. Others are more adventurous, including shifts in grammatical person and tense. Far from being gratuitous, they foreground substantive questions of intergenerational responsibility.

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Lucky Ticket is a brave and haunting début collection of short stories by Vietnamese-Australian writer Joey Bui. In erudite stories of the displaced and dislocated, Bui’s characters are glistering survivors. Many of their voices ring out against the bleak political backdrop of Saigon, making the reader aware of the tyrannical government control and the lack of basic civil and political rights. Bui’s memorable characters are a testament to the deft way she crafts dialogue and to the interviews she undertook with a range of Vietnamese people from refugee backgrounds to better understand the intricacies of their existence.

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In 1942, Elio Vittorini managed to circumvent the Fascist censors and publish Americana, a landmark anthology of thirty-three American authors. The aim of this massive project – over a thousand pages with translations into Italian carried out by ten significant literary figures of the time, including Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, and Nobel Laureate poet Eugenio Montale – was to introduce iconic American voices to Italian readers. In assembling her substantial collection of forty Italian short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri set herself the same objective but in reverse: to introduce Italian authors to American readers. Lahiri declares Vittorini was her ‘guiding light’, not only for the general design of the work but also ‘in writing the brief author biographies – intended as partial sketches and not definitive renderings – that preface each story’.

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