In the column that closes the 223rd edition of Overland, Alison Croggon asks: “How do you embrace the powerlessness that art demands, its myriad refusals, when power is the only thing that speaks in a world deafened by meaningless noise?” The writing in this brief, tightly designed issue is consistently sharp, so there is at least some hope for the demands and rewards of art. But we do live in troubling times, when it seems power has never been louder, and much of the writing in this issue seeks to interrogate its workings.
Essays might be about present-day South Africa by way of its student movements, or about Australia’s freshly troubling relationship with the sciences. In all cases, the approaches go further than most mainstream commentary – as when Natalie Kon-yu takes on the under-recognised role of women in literature, first observing that women most often win major prizes when they write in a “masculine” way, then exploring what people really mean when they say writing “feels” male or female.
About half the edition is essays. The remainder includes “Postscript”, a perceptive postcolonial fiction by Ellena Savage about people whose politics breathe like they have bodies. “Letter to Salvador” by Claudia Salazar Jiménez, in a new translation by Elizabeth Bryer, evokes a reanimated Kafka grappling with the term “Kafkaesque” but is also its own story, transcending its premise. The poetry includes Ellen van Neerven’s “Expert”, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize, which compresses massive amounts of character and conflict onto one incredible page. Longer pieces are divided by columns of about 800 words, a figure made explicit in a particularly self-reflexive and meta-textual piece by Giovanni Tiso.
For such a taut magazine, it packs in a lot, most of it worthy of its own review. But it would be remiss not to mention Dean Biron’s account of working as a policeman in Pig City-era Brisbane. On a drug raid, Biron recalls seeing a Hüsker Dü record on the floor and mentioning to the kids that he has the same LP. “A random aesthetic connection,” he writes, “was all it took to confirm that any assumed power discrepancy between us was largely illusory, and to remind me that my uniform concealed as many parallels as it represented differences.” Biron is just one person, but perhaps he speaks for all: we are all just uniforms and illusions, loud or quiet, large or small. CR
Overland, 96pp, $19.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Various, Overland #223". Subscribe here.