harvest: issue 5
reviewed by Raili Simojoki
Harvest ’s gentle, reflective, sometimes anxious writing appeals to Gen Y romantics who, dissatisfied by the disconnected, disposable information generated by mass media, are drawn instead to the poetic, intricate, and meandering. Editor Davina Bell speaks directly to this audience in her essay ‘To my Generation of Precious Snowflakes,’ which starts the latest harvest issue. Defending young writers against American writer Ted Genoway’s critique of their ‘navel-gazing’ tendencies, Bell sympathetically observes that more than any other generation, we’ve been exposed to a litany of global injustices, without experiencing them directly. No wonder we write about our own lives rather than the outside world; perhaps we feel that’s all we can hope to understand.
Perhaps Bell should have held Genoway’s assertion up to the light rather than accepting it as a given – it seems unlikely that after all these years of (often self-focused) writing, our generation stands out as particularly introspective. Or even if we are, a lack of direct experience of things known isn’t an adequate explanation; after all, Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights despite leading a reclusive life. And disenchantment with the world can be an incentive to write about it. These factual disagreements aside, on an intuitive level, Bell’s eloquently made observations about the discombobulating effects of information ring true.
‘How it Looks From the Sky,’ is Nicola Redhouse’s bittersweet story of a family fleeing South Africa to Australia during the apartheid regime. Amidst the quiet sterility of the in-between spaces – airports, customs, a motel room – we feel the emigrants’ disorientation and melancholia, but also a sense of lightness, of momentary tranquility. Redhouse refers to the experience as ‘drowning and surviving’; there’s both a loss and a comfort in knowing that you remain the same person in changing circumstances. It’s a moving tale.
The collection at times failed to maintain the energy of previous editions. Ryan O’ Neill’s ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ is a series of tongue-in-cheek reviews which together tell the story of Peter Crawley, a scathing critic, and as the name suggests, a bit of a creep. It’s a fun idea, but the tone is that of a somber reviewer. A less sedate, sparkling, naughtier tone, without doing away with the ‘review’ style, might have better brought out O’Neill’s playful intent. (For something really special from O’Neill, read his discomforting, more realist story about Africa in issue 1).
Nandi Chinna’s poetry feature describes West Australian landmarks and their historical legacies. ‘Bird and Seals,’ a found poem consisting of excerpts from Captain Charles Fremantle’s diary about his shootings of wildlife, offers a disturbing insight into the colonial psyche. While the language had a slow-moving beauty, the images were a bit too thinly painted, and the underlying ideas seemed unclear. They might be better read in a quiet place, perhaps amongst nature.
In Ruby Murray’s short story ‘Sunburnt Country’, two siblings drive to Melbourne with their mother in the boot. They are both drained by the ordeal and share a sense of abandonment, yet are unable to connect with one another. The subject matter, concept, and atmosphere are familiar amongst Australian books and films, and whether the story offers anything new is debatable. That said, Murray’s crisp, sparing writing has an understated grace, and she creates a perfectly desolate atmosphere. We are left by the sea with a sense of closure and a hint of redemption.
Dan Bigma’s instructive essay ‘It can be done by a Bus Driver, a Field Hand, or a Fry Cook’ explains the lessons writers can learn from Charles Bukowski. Bigma’s tone is friendly, accessible, and down-to-earth. His message – that any life experience is a worthy subject for writing – is encouraging and democratic. The insights into Bukowski don’t seem particularly fresh, but the instructive tone reminded me a little of a creative writing class led by a charismatic and much-loved teacher.
Anthony Levin’s ironic ‘A Poem Deconstructed,’ is clever, but at times falls into the overly academic and obscure with words like ‘meta-analytic’ and ‘quasi-homophonic,’ which may alienate some readers. ‘Lego Man,’ by Max Noakes, is a magic realist tale about a man’s disintegration after a life-changing accident and his desire for revenge. The prose is packed together a little densely; having to read over it twice to grasp the meaning diluted its impact. But the tale is well imagined and the character’s voice, although unusual, is emotionally credible.
Chris Flynn, editor of Torpedo, an Australian-based literary journal which makes most of its sales in America, contributes an opinion piece arguing that Australian publishing should adopt a more global focus. While readers outside of the industry may not know enough to form a strong view, Flynn’s cogent points may at least ignite their interest in this important debate.
Past editions of harvest have bought us some quality writing – Ryan O’Neill’s piece in issue 1 comes to mind, as do Josephine Rowe’s and Penelope Chai’s in issue 4. This winter edition, while maintaining the typically sweet, elegant design, yields slimmer picking of a literary nature, as some of the pieces lack vitality, or newness, despite being gracefully written. I thus look forward to spring.
Raili Simojoki is a freelance Melbourne-based writer. You can read some more of her work here.