Cover of book: Small-press gems

Leah Jing McIntosh
Small-press gems

Small press is often overlooked in this country. It seems an odd oversight, particularly in a place so enamoured with the Western literary canon; I am thinking here of Hogarth Press, founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, publishing works by writers such as T.  S. Eliot, Auden, Katherine Mansfield, translations of Freud and Dostoyevsky, as well as the Woolfs’ own novels. The press operated out of the Woolfs’ drawing room, Virginia becoming frustrated when she mixed up the “h” and the “n” blocks, ink spreading unevenly. This is all to say: small press is a labour of love, underpinned by a beautiful, unwavering belief. To continue somewhat thankless work during a global pandemic is no mean feat.

Speaking of Eliot (“You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats”), the past two years have found me seeking more fragmented forms – essays, comics, poems. Aside from this escape into the shorter form, other threads run right through. Tracing themes of care, of love, of longing, of land, the following writers examine the past, envisioning different or better worlds, all the while acknowledging work to be done. Tom Melick’s introduction to Homework by Snack Syndicate (Discipline, 302pp, $18) is a good reminder of how intertwined reading and writing and love and labour can be: “I met Snack Syndicate before they were Snack Syndicate. I happened to be there when they fell in love. It was a big fall. It rearranged their lives. It was hard not to notice. The sort of love that is as unmissable and open and deep as the ocean.”

Andrew Brooks and Astrid Lorange bring this love to their collection of short essays written from 2016-2021. Often in conversation with theorists such as Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman and Frantz Fanon, Brooks and Lorange continually return, in shifting ways, to the “violent processes of settlement and the crucial but difficult work of unsettling history”. Examining violences, the prose is beautiful, often striated with Moten’s sensibility in particular (The Undercommons is a cornerstone). One of my friends loved it so much he bought five copies, just to give away.

Second City (Sydney Review of Books, 160pp, $26.95), edited by Luke Carman and Catriona Menzies-Pike, contains 14 essays by writers from Western Sydney. Pieces by Eda Gunaydin, Martyn Reyes and Sheila Ngc Phm are exemplary. May Ngo carves close to the bone: “The demonisation of non-white migrants ensures that the idea of a white Australia remains unchallenged and works to preserve a white centre; one that claims the authority to police marginalised others and determines who belongs and who doesn’t. But the authority of the white settlers themselves is illegitimate, standing as it does on a refusal to recognise the legitimate sovereignty of First Nations.”

Thinking through who holds legitimate sovereignty of this place, Black Wattle (Incendium Radical Library, 100pp, $20) by this mob is a generous and beautiful offering. An arts collective for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives, they have created an intimate collection of notes, poems, a recipe, drawings, photographs and screenshots. In the midst of lockdown, Neika Lehman writes, “... you get the feeling isolation makes cities dysfunctional. Were we or were we not supposed to be walking and talking over the top of each other, just as it was? Is there a different way for a city to be?” A gentle yet provocative assemblage, hand-bound and on thick stock, Black Wattle feels special to hold.

I wish every person born into the privilege of citizenship in this country would read Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive (Twelve Panels Press, 240pp, $30). Documenting the dehumanising treatment of refugees in Australia’s system of mandatory and indefinite detention, Ahmed ends on a weary yet hopeful note: “Our political system is a moral cesspool. But disconnecting is a luxury we can’t afford.” He continues: “It’s about doing what you can, with what you have. Which is sometimes as simple as it sounds.” Emma Do and Kim Lam did just this, combining their talents in journalism and illustration to self-publish Working from Home (may nhà) (Self-published, 62pp, $20). An illustrated collection of interviews with Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, Working from Home is an elegant rendering of the racism, precarity and abuse of workers’ rights woven into the Australian fashion industry.

To end with some poems, a form suited to months of fracture and pause – Lucy Van’s The Open (Cordite Books, 70pp, $20) is calm, often achingly intimate, and brims with slippages and near-misses: “Driving home the sun was still setting and it was so big and round and utterly crazy over the mountains of rocks and termite mounds and just as I tried to take its photo it was suddenly gone.” Bella Li’s Theory of Colours (Vagabond Press, 176pp, $35) is exquisite and uncompromising, filled with collage both visual and textual. The title (a reference to Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre) hints at the heart of Li’s ekphrastic poetics, always so gloriously tangled in the work of others. And finally I’ll bend my conceit of the small press, if only because I was completely overwhelmed by Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear (UQP, 112pp, $24.99). In the poem “Breath”, Araluen writes: “What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthropocene display is half-finished? I couldn’t free the shield. I didn’t find the head. What use is witness at the end of worlds?”

Dropbear not only witnesses – it asks us to bear witness too, whether we’re watching the end of this world or the beginning of a new one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Small-press gems".

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