Books

Jonathan Green (ed.)
Meanjin, Winter 2020

There’s a strange elasticity of time at play in the latest issue of Meanjin, which seems fitting, perhaps, for the particular moment in which we find ourselves, unmoored from our regular habits and lives, newly conscious of our place in history. Many of the pieces within its pages were clearly written in the early months of this year – such is the nature of lead times in publishing – and are concerned with the horrors of the past summer: the devastating fires that destroyed massive amounts of bushland and habitat and choked cities with smoke for weeks; our politicians’ failure to properly respond. And then a new crisis emerged, and in many ways eclipsed this, because of the immediacy with which it affected all of our lives, and the profundity of the change. It’s evident that a good number of the pieces have been rapidly updated to reflect this, to begin to grapple with what an event such as the coronavirus might mean, as seen from the vantage point of the early days of the pandemic. Jonathan Green’s opening editorial explicitly speaks to this “moment of such extraordinary and irreversible disruption” where “all that seemed so solidly certain [has been] made tremulous and thin”. So the issue as a whole feels almost like a time capsule, a reminder of what the world was like before we knew precisely how it would change.

Most striking of the pieces where this is evident are the essays by Sophie Cunningham and Lucy Treloar, both of which deal with climate change and natural disasters. Cunningham’s “If You Choose to Stay, We May Not Be Able to Save You” – which takes its title from emergency warnings broadcast during the bushfires – thinks through what it might mean to live in a world where there is “no safe place” from disaster and calamity, and overtly discusses how the current pandemic has accelerated Cunningham’s thinking and writing on the subject (“A third metaphor I considered as I wrote drafts of this essay in January was that what we were going through was akin to a plague, but by the time I’d finished my draft this no longer counted as a metaphor.”) Treloar’s “Writing the Apocalypse”, by contrast, alternates between charting the author’s and her friend’s attempts to make sense of the drought, the fires and – later – the virus through social media posts and beautifully poetic descriptions of landscapes and weather events, and offering a larger and more theoretical discussion of what kind of literature, in which genres, might come to grapple with these issues.

These themes are echoed, too, in Alexis Wright’s “A Self-Governing Literature” and Rebecca Slater’s masterful and disquieting story “Scales”, set on a drought-stricken farm in a country town whose residents keep disappearing, as well as Toby Fitch’s hybrid poetic essay “Endlings”, named for the scientific term for the last individual member of a dying animal species. “This poem is a traditional elegy,” Fitch writes, after listing and describing 50 Australian animals that have passed into extinction between 1822 and 2016. These pieces all try to understand what it means to live, to love and to hope – almost all of them are, despite it all, hopeful – in a small and ordinary life, alongside such massive and wrenching change. This is beautifully summed up in Ashleigh Synnott’s poem “the lesbian”, which ends with the lines, “I put the / phone down and think about / what I can say. I’m in love and / the world is burning. / That’s the story.”

Another recurring theme across the collection is identity, either centred on questions of home, belonging, family and inheritance, or on love, desire and the relationships we choose. The lead essay, Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s “Depreciated: The Price of Love”, is an example of the latter, a consideration of what women sometimes give of themselves, their emotional labour and their identity, in heterosexual relationships. It is a break-up that instigates this for Osborne-Crowley: in the wake of the split, her ex-partner sends a spreadsheet detailing their shared belongings in order to calculate the “depreciated half cost” of these items, which he feels she owes him, and which, she states, is “nothing compared to what I had paid”. Similarly, Phoebe Paterson de Heer’s “Still Bisexual” is a wide-reaching and beautifully researched attempt to understand what it means to have an identity and sexuality that is so often compromised, stigmatised or erased.

Home and family recur in Claire G. Coleman’s “Hidden in Plain Sight”, describing the ways in which her Aboriginal identity and heritage were hidden from her (and from her father) for much of her early life; and in essays by Amal Awad and Daniel Nour, which chart what it means to be what Awad calls “a Third Culture Kid”. Karen O’Connell and Muhannad Al-wehwah consider their family histories, O’Connell in an arresting essay about hunger, appetite and epigenetics that asks what we inherit from our forebears, and Al-wehwah through a series of cassette tapes passed to and from his relatives in Lebanon and Palestine.

There are moments of lightness too, in Anne Casey-Hardy’s wonderfully madcap story “Literally Beside Myself”, Guy Rundle’s account of working in the writers’ room of the sketch comedy series Full Frontal, and Michael Cathcart’s “A Tale of Four Ludicrous Deaths”, a tracing of what he calls “strange events set in familiar Melbourne locations”.

The striking thing about this issue of Meanjin is that it has a remarkable central coherence, in large part because the thematic links between its pieces are so strong. It’s clear where the preoccupations of so many of our writers and thinkers are focused – on understanding this moment, on trying to foresee what happens next – and it’s fascinating, as well as very satisfying for a reader, to see the permutations of how this plays out, and the various places and interactions that give so many of these writers pause, and cause for hope.

Fiona Wright

MUP, 224pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Jonathan Green (ed.), Meanjin, Winter 2020".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Fiona Wright