Books

Various
Light Borrowers: UTS Writers’ Anthology 2018

The UTS Writers’ Anthology sits on an interesting precipice, one no less interesting because it sits there with such grace and style. On the one hand, it’s the outcome of a learning and teaching project; the yearly editorial committee is composed of UTS students, who spend six months building the anthology from submissions from student writers. On the other hand, it’s published by Xoum, a commercial publisher, now trading as Brio. Hence it puts a learning and teaching product in a commercial space.

This can’t be as big a gamble as it first appears, because the anthology, of short fiction, essays and poetry, has been running for 32 years. It has a reputation for seriousness and quality – the current edition is introduced by Isabelle Li, who was preceded by Fiona Wright, Graeme Simsion, Ceridwen Dovey and Hannah Kent. Since the first edition, 1982’s Pink Cakes, the series has included work by David Astle, Alison Whittaker and Gillian Mears. Although it’s not a big gamble, it remains a cool one, and it should be noted that student anthologies are not guaranteed to be good. They’re a good way to train a variety of students and engage with the public – but here we think of the readers.

That party is mostly served beautifully by this anthology. Among the short fiction, I had too many favourites to list, but they include Daniel Comensoli’s gorgeous, hazy “Johnny and Elsie Go to Graduation”, which strikes a balance between everyday feeling and pulling back to do things with mood; Alex Bulahoff’s “The Stems of Red Maddening Apples”, a languid fantasia with a confident, cohesive world and sentences full of gently offbeat, even archaic words; and Echo Qin He’s “Writers in my Family”, which takes a frank view of chance and consequence, showing how years telescope into decades and how the right choices sometimes take time. At one stage, it points out that mortgage is a French word meaning “death pledge”.

The hit rate is mixed with any anthology, and few of them get to be great. This one stands up next to many collections published in Australia in recent times. All the stories here have things to like about them, but some can be liked more than others; some stories you read and think about how much the author has nailed pace – the story moves at a perfect clip – but they haven’t quite done the thing that removes the skin between themselves and the world. That’s a big ask, and getting the pace right is a good start.

Its precipitousness between scholarly and commercial product comes attached with bonus pleasures, because another reward is getting a feel for a loose collection of tastes, held by people who may be interested in becoming writers in Australia today. This is not synonymous with young people – many writers in this anthology appear from the background in their biographies and the content of their writing to be mature-aged – and not necessarily arts people – because writers both have an interest in putting their tastes into language, and have tastes for language as well. However, the collective person that emerges from this anthology intersects with the young and the arty, so the book will be of interest to a wider base of readers than the strictly literary.

Who is this collective person, who becomes a sort of protagonist of this anthology? They are lonely and observant, quick to think and slow to speak – not to us, but to other characters, preferring to harbour their feelings and turn them into private language. They like high concepts, and abrupt endings, and opening with light and weather. They have an ambiguous relationship to fast food, and a clear relationship to animals, which they often use to identify the strangeness of human bodies. They make more references to popular and unpopular culture than you expect from most books, and when their narrators walk into a room, they often notice the graffiti. They use repetition for emphasis, and sometimes to demonstrate interpersonal uncertainty.

And they can be funny. GOD HATES HOMMOS, says one piece of graffiti. BUT DOES HE LIKE TABOULI? responds another.

Given any group of people could as much prove to be pretentious, violent or boring, these writers combine into a collective voice of high promise. As for their themes, there’s a strong focus on who someone is and where they write from. The anthology is heaviest on fiction, with some poetry and two descriptive film scripts, but the personal essays shine brightly for their perspective, intelligence and care. They exhibit the same attention to rhythm and characterisation and tonal shift as the fiction. Sydney Khoo’s essay about asexuality feels confessional without feeling raw; you learn a lot through tracing a point of view that shifts with age, and it also contains a very sweet moment that sketches a family dynamic through a request for a dildo.

As for the writers’ delivery – their treatment of those themes – openings are active. Dialogue snaps. Voices have attitude. There are often great verbs in the right places, as in Z. A. Knowles’s story “Blackwater Baby”: “The air was pickled with cigarette smoke.”

They like stories that emphasise detail and convey stories in moments. In Catherine Mah’s “The Power of Snails”, the perspective is micro-invertebrate: “Its foot was feathery against my skin, almost ticklish as it rippled across my hand.”

Representative lines of dialogue, picked out from a few random pages: “So this is his way of saying goodbye.” “Tonight? We can’t leave tonight, baby. Where would we go?” “You sought triumph over suffering and imperfection and conquered truth and beauty instead. Some victory.” From this, you might also see that these writers are contemplative, ideals-driven and urgent.

The book is named after a line from Sylvia Plath’s “The Rival” that notes an addressee’s power to borrow light – like the moon – and shine it back for their own purpose. Although Plath’s use suggests temporary talent, unequally distributed, it hangs a different impression over this anthology, of friendly light, collected and commingled.  CR

Xoum, 304pp, $14.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Various, Light Borrowers: UTS Writers’ Anthology 2018". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR

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