Overland is an Australian literary journal that has been around for over fifty years. It claims to be ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’ and is proudly left-leaning. I got my hands on the Spring issue (no. 192) at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and have been devouring the eclectic selection of articles, poetry, stories, and reviews here and there since. That’s one great thing about literary journals – you can pick them up at random and often find something new and unexpected.
Editor Jeff Sparrow provides stimulating, varied material – I found myself argumentative, amused, moved, laughing, floating, jealous, worried, inspired and challenged by the pieces in this issue. Highlights include a personal account of female boxing by Aussie in New York Mischa Merz, called ‘The Sweetest Thing’. Merz draws you into the passionate, sweaty and often friendly world of Brooklyn’s famous Gleason’s gym where there are real, respected female boxers ‘…not boxacisers, not decorative side dishes to the main course, but genuine competitive athletes, more skilled than most Australian male boxers’, she says.
Also in non-fiction is the raw, devastatingly honest account of a miscarriage, ‘Lost’ by Catherine Ryan – an absolutely essential piece that must have been terribly difficult to write, and to write so well.
There is also a stimulating article on the ‘new atheism’ by Ned Curthoys; a look at the communist affiliations of Christina Stead, an oft-ignored or glossed-over aspect of the writer, by Michael Ackland; and a wonderful debate between Peter Craven and Ken Gelder which only added to my confusion about where I stand on classicism/canonical literature versus post-modernism, among others.
The three fiction pieces in this issue are amazingly varied in both subject and tone. It is always exciting to see a new piece of work from one of my favourite writers, and Paddy O’Reilly doesn’t disappoint with the haunting, ultra-short ‘Breaking Up’. Amanda Lohrey explores, in an unassuming tone, a character story within a detailed contemporary fictional world in ‘The Buddha at Blues Point’. My favourite fiction piece, though, was Steven Amsterdam’s ‘Nothing Surprises’, which did actually catch me by surprise. It is, again, quite unassuming in tone, but this lends such simple wonder to the magical aspects of the story – about a Dad who truly can fly. His young son calls him ‘Daddy Bird’ after witnessing it, and this talent lifts him out of the doldrums of being a oft-useless, unemployed husband. The story made me smile hard and I carried it with me for some time.
The poetry also shows variety, with well-known names mixing with newer ones. I found Joanne Burns’ two pieces clever. I am already a fan of Jill Jones and her usual open-eyed observances are present. Both these poets also express a kind of recklessness or rebellion in their subject, while being very readable form-wise. I vowed to read more of Dan Disney after ‘Wandering’ – an intertextual exploration and definitely my favourite poem of the issue. Along with more by him there are poems from Dorothy Porter, Lidija Šimkutë, Maria Freij, and Kim Cheng Boey.
I found the reviews comprehensive, but not necessarily stimulating reading. Something like Nathan Hollier’s overview of recent Australian fiction is something that will become more important over time, as a record, but I still felt room for longer reviews of individual titles would be more effective, such as Zoe Holman’s review ‘Activist Antics’ of Tristan Clark’s Stick This in Your Memory Hole, which was much more readable. I was also glad she agreed with me about the positive, and the sore points of that book!
There are quite a few literary journals out there in the Australian landscape – signs of a healthy culture – but I think Overland has quite a unique place, stimulating discussion about a country, about political, social and literary issues, and with an admirable democratic commitment to representing a wide range of voices.
A ‘responsive’ interview with Nam Le.
And my leg of Tania Hershman’s virtual book tour, as part of Salt Publishing’s new ‘Cyclone’ project.