Black Inc

Not for forty years have Australians had real arguments with their governments about international relations. Many marched in 2003 against the Iraq invasion, but were ignored. Now, if the national obesity rate is any guide, Australians spend more time eating, partying and sleeping than having the earnest pre-breakfast discussions about foreign relations that Fukuzawa recommended.

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The women that Robyn Davidson had a powerful effect on, Richard Cooke tells us, include author Anna Krien, adventurer Esther Nunn, and his wife. ‘I watched as the power of this book and its author, their energy and weight, worked an entrainment across cultures and generations,’ writes Cooke. In some ways his essay charts his struggle with that power. How not to fall into the trap that others who have tackled Davidson have fallen into? ‘I lagged decades of writers and pilgrims, interlopers and fans. Reading interviews to try to chicane through the questions already asked was pointless. They most often sought answers about the same thing – her first book, now published forty years ago.’

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The American writer Jack Matthews had no time for what he called ‘a discontent’ with the brevity of the short story. ‘Ask a coral snake,’ he declared, ‘which is as deadly as it is small.’ The claim for ‘deadliness’ certainly applies to four recent début collections; in the tight spaces of the short story, each one presents confronting ideas about contemporary Australia.

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Some time before the sun set on the British empire, ‘British justice’ took on an ironic meaning. In the colonies, we knew it was a charade, like that doled out to ‘Breaker’ Morant during the Boer War. The dice are loaded in favour of a prosecution that nevertheless insists on carrying out its cold-blooded retribution in an apparently value-free legalese, thus preserving the self-righteousness of the empire and tormenting the condemned. Yet, as Robert Manne and David Corlett make clear in this latest Quarterly Essay, the larrikin land of Australia can now, through its treatment of asylum seekers, fairly be said to lead the world in the practice of traditional British justice.

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Three débuts about female experience

Susan Midalia
Monday, 24 February 2020

Three recent début novels employ the genre of the Bildungsroman to explore the complexities of female experience in the recent historical past. Anna Goldsworthy, widely known and admired as a memoirist, essayist, and musician, has now added a novel, Melting Moments (Black Inc., $29.99 pb, 240 pp), to her list of achievements.

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You didn’t have to be Antony Green to know that by seven o’clock on election night things were looking very bad for Bill Shorten. The problem itself wasn’t complicated. While all the available polling suggested that Labor would gain support, the majority of booth results said that Labor was going backwards. Numbers were breaking for Scott Morrison, with the Liberal National Party driving a bulldozer through Queensland, while expected Labor gains in Melbourne remaining stubbornly out of reach. Echoes of Don’s Party were hard to ignore.

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Bruce Pascoe’s Salt is a wonderfully eclectic collection of new works and earlier short fiction, literary non-fiction, and essays written over twenty years. Structured thematically across six themes – Country, Lament, Seawolves, Embrasure, Tracks, and Culture Lines – Salt moves between the past and the present with Pascoe’s distinctively poetic voice. Readers of Dark Emu (2014) and Convincing Ground (2007) will be familiar with the style and subject matter but will discover newly released or reworked gems.

The title speaks to memories and ghosts triggered by the smell of salt; its ability to clean, to render flesh and skin from bone, to preserve evidence, to signal cumulative impacts on Country. The prevalence of salt speaks to the power and closeness of sea Country and our dwindling salty river systems, increasingly threatened by human intervention. Pascoe’s characters are richly drawn from this salted earth and exposed to the light and the elements. Whether presented as fiction or the voices of shared histories, his characters are grounded within the seasons and Country. So, too, in Pascoe’s view, are their possibilities of reviving this salted earth through heeding Indigenous knowledge and experience.

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When invited by Morry Schwartz, Anna’s husband and proprietor of Schwartz Publishing, which owns Black Inc., to write an account of the Anna Schwartz Gallery (ASG), Doug Hall initially declined but changed his mind after realising that it would enable him to write with a fresh perspective, having returned to Melbourne after twenty years as director of Queensland Art Gallery. The result, Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary Australian art – which takes its title from the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, curated by Robert Storr – is a periphrastic straddling of art history, social history, and biography, inclined to reminiscence over analysis.

Featuring eighty-nine chapters of varying length, the text mostly provides overviews of the artists represented by ASG, set within a chronicle of Anna Schwartz’s evolution as a gallerist. This broad narration is interspersed with chapters on a few key late-twentieth-century art dealers – sometimes to narrate artist defections to ASG – as well as state museum redesigns, biennales, and even a chapter on Anna’s wardrobe.

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In a recent feature article in the Guardian Review, William Boyd proposed a new system for the classification of short stories. He constructed seven stringently categorical descriptions and ended his article with a somewhat predictable – that is to say, canonical – list of ‘ten truly great stories’, among which were James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Spring at Fialta’ and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’. Most of the writers cited were male, and the classifications were confident demarcations in terms of genre and mode (‘modernist’, ‘biographical’). It is difficult to know, and no doubt presumptuous to speculate, what Boyd would make of Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection The Best Australian Stories 2004. Garnering them ‘at large’ by advertisement and word of mouth, Moorhouse received one thousand stories, from which he selected ‘intriguing and venturesome’ texts, many of which display ‘innovations’ of form. Of the twenty-seven included, six are by first-time published writers and twenty are by women. This is thus an open, heterodox and explorative volume, unlike its four predecessors in this series in reach and inclusiveness. It is also, perhaps, more uneven in quality: a few stories in this selection are rather slight; and the decision to include two stories by two of the writers may seem problematic, given the large number of submissions and the fact that the editor claims there were fifty works fine enough to warrant publication. A character in one of the stories favourably esteems the fiction of Frank Moorhouse over that of David Malouf: this too may be regarded as a partisan inclusion.

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Alice Nelson reviews 'Act of Grace' by Anna Krien

Alice Nelson
Wednesday, 25 September 2019

A young Aboriginal girl wears an abaya because she wants to see how it feels to inhabit someone else’s experience, someone else’s history. An exiled Iraqi musician plays a piano in a shopping centre in suburban Melbourne. Native Americans protesting the construction of a pipeline on their traditional lands are shot at with water cannons and rubber bullets. Count ...

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