Monday, September 5, 2016

Westerly 61.1: The Indigenous Issue

Westerly 61.1: The Indigenous Issue
Guest edited by Stephen Kinnane
August 2016

Westerly, based at the University of Western Australia, is a literary magazine publishing new writing from Western Australia since 1956. I would like to thank them for providing a review copy of this issue. 

[O]verwhelmingly, the work submitted and collected here sought to witness – some the past, some the present, many their hopes for the future. This act of telling as testimonial is not something fragile. It is a robust and vibrant energy, charging each unique voice, and demanding a space in which it can be felt. – the editors’ introduction

There is a huge range of pieces in this issue, far too many for me to review each one individually. Instead, I will just mention a few of my favorites. They are presented in the same order as in the magazine.


“The Yield” by Tara June Winch


My absolute favorite piece is “The Yield,” an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. In this excerpt, we meet the main character, a mostly-Indigenous woman whose grandfather has just died. She has to travel back to Australia, back to the place she grew up, to deal with the funeral arrangements and to support her grandmother. This also means that she has to confront aspects of her past that she has avoided for a long time, especially her sister who mysteriously disappeared during their childhood.

The writing is dense, tightly-packed and absolutely beautiful.
During the flight I watched the GPS, the numbers rising and steadying, the plane skittering over the cartoon sea. At the other end, having reached a certain altitude, crossed the time lines, descended into new coordinates, I’d hoped it would be enough to erase the voyage. Erase the facts of the matter; erase the burials rites due reciting, erase all the erasures of us, and that family we once were in the stories could exist. Not us, as we were now, godless and government housed and spread all over the place.
From what I have read so far, this story is absolutely ordinary, and yet entirely profound. I have added Tara June Winch to my list of authors whose works I want to read as soon as possible, and am eagerly waiting for the novel form of The Yield.


“Past Tense” by Jannali Jones


I don’t usually review poetry, but this one stood out to me. It grapples with the terrible suddenness and incomprehension of death and asks how we can possibly find a way to deal with it. Why does language have no way to say that someone is gone but still here at the same time?

“My Dear Child” by Melissa Lucashenko


In this very short (barely one page) work of prose a mother writes to her daughter after a smallpox epidemic. It is a deeply touching (and disturbing) account of how this woman’s life and mental state has been affected by the illness that swept through her family and community.


“Truth and Consequence” by Professor MaryAnn Bin-Sallik


Bin-Sallik was the first Indigenous Australian to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard University. In this short essay, she muses about where she came from and how she managed to succeed despite the difficulties she faced. It is an inspiring tale of one woman’s life.

“Tomorrow, another will come” by Caitlin Prince


Prince has spent time working as a occupational therapist for the Australian government in remote communities in the Kimberly. In this essay, she conveys the hurt and frustration caused by the government’s policy of moving people like her from one area to another. This leads to great suffering because every year the patients must come to trust yet another caregiver, who will again leave them all too soon.


“The Conservation of the Stars” by Michalia Arathimos


This short story concerns an Indigenous man from the coast who takes a job in a small town in the middle of the desert. He finds that he cannot connect with the people there: despite also being Indigenous, they shut him out. “When he asked about the mines the people looked away. When he tried to visit his neighbours’ houses the people seemed embarrassed for him.” They assume that he won’t be staying for long, and in the end he fails to make any real friends or other connections despite being there for a year.

When I was living in Kolkata for the first time, I experienced something very similar to the plight of this character. If people do not open their hearts to you, it is hard to feel like you belong to a place, even if you have been living there for a long time. You can’t put down any roots. It’s a terrible feeling and a difficult situation to be in, and Arathimos does a brilliant job of drawing out the existential angst of that experience.

“Unburdening the World: Breaking the Cycle of the Perpetual Single Story” by Jacqueline Wright


By reflecting on the process through which she wrote her own novel and discussing the history of Indigenous literature in Australia, Wright grapples with questions of representation, authenticity, and cultural appropriation. As a non-Indigenous Australian, what issues did she have to confront while writing about Indigenous Australians? How did she negotiate the questions of representation that arose?

Her very brief introduction to the representation of Indigenous Australians in literature is also a good resource for people like me who know very little about Australian literature or the way that Indigenous people have been depicted in it.

“Behind the Line” by Katinka Smit


This short story describes the struggles of a teenager who is half-Indigenous, but who has been left with his White uncle to grow up in a thoroughly White area. His struggle to find his identity and the descriptions of the racist bullying he experiences are particularly profound.

“Clutching the Void” by Graham Akhurst


Akhurst is an Aboriginal man who once was dating a French woman, C. When they went to New Zealand for a long backpacking holiday, he discovers that the Maori are conspicuous in their absence along the tourist scene. When C prevents him from searching for them, he learns some things about what he finds important - and what he is willing to tolerate in their relationship.

This is a great collection that I cannot recommend highly enough. If you are at all interested in reading about the experiences of Indigenous Australians, get your hands on a copy as soon as possible.


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