When I was handed a copy of the new WrICE anthology, I immediately took to judging the cover under fluorescent light.
I open books as I do gifts – in full anticipation that the wrapping tells me something about what’s inside. This one has blue flecks that look like islands, not mapped to match actual ground and water, countries or states, but something else altogether.
I held the book at arms’ length, squinting, and thought the islands looked like womb matter; worlds of experience floating in common humanity. This shaped my expectation from the anthology. The short stories, poetry, and essays did not disappoint.
The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region (2016) tries to represent as many unique voices from the region as possible without stepping into the territory of the East-West binary.
I suspect the ghost of Orientalism past hovers around planning rooms where anthologies of this nature are conceived.
But there is no ‘Other’ in the collection, only “shared cultures of our region”, as WrICE program co-directors, David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short, write in the anthology’s introduction. In each piece, the near and the far are all sites of one another – as opposed to the Other – where the different is underlined by the universal, and the strange is, often, all too familiar.
There are 21 titles in the collection from writers of diverse backgrounds, who write from immersive cultural settings all over the region – from Penang to Vietnam to Australia.
Foreignness could easily have become the elephant in the room.
There’s a built-in mnemonic at the end of each piece which includes the writer’s notes on the culturally or context-specific aspects of the work. The undeniable difference, and the fascinating ways it directed their writing.
Some turn to memoir-type travel pieces, like Cate Kennedy in ‘Incoming Tides’ who kept a steady calmness in the sensory overload that is Vietnam, finding peace in those moments where what seems incongruous – old/new, spiritual/material, etc. – actually belongs.
Others like Joe Rubbo, surrounded by rice fields, are brought closer to their place of childhood (in his case, Australia).
In ‘Trampoline’, a father makes up for absence with gifts that take up yard space. The heat is dry in Rubbo’s suburbia, unlike the stickyness that pervades the hotel rooms in Omar Musa’s ‘You Think You Know’. Dogs with names like ‘Mixed Harmony’ are trained for races, not eaten – one of two fates for those in Filipino fiction (the other being service as a guard dog/pet).
Similarly, Harriet McKnight’s ‘Hidden Things’ builds on Australian history and family myths.
This tendency to perform identities from the material of history is one of the gifts earned in travel. The geographic distance plays tricks with memory – ‘the longest umbilical cord’ (Rosca 1990) – so that one feels most rooted when away.
One of the more challenging and enjoyable pieces in the collection is Amarlie Foster’s ‘M’. The piece, as stated by the author in her notes, strives for a “certain strange elusiveness”, but manages to be coherent.
Reading ‘M’ felt taboo, like reading about an unconventional couple’s affairs in code. Trysts are marked as ‘(Palm) Readings’ and the pronoun play requires the quiet patience of a voyeur.
Who is meeting whom? Whose hands are rubbing whose? The narrator has fallen in love with a palm reader but keeps ‘M’ around as a long-time partner, travel companion, and constant annoyance. He becomes increasingly skin-diseased; some form of metaphorical and physical shedding or wasting away. He follows the palm reader around, but stops to buy a book on happy marriage, recommended by M.
The saddest of contemporary love stories ends with M leading him into a jewellery shop famous for its rings.
Melissa Lucashenko’s ‘Dreamers’ is flawlessly plotted with well-portrayed characters.
As political as this story is at its core – set two years after the Australian referendum of ’67 which voted ‘Yes’ to including Aboriginal people in the Australian census and allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for them – it is one of friendship and shared heartache, stretching three decades.
When a young Aboriginal girl, Jean, goes to work for the pregnant May and her husband, Ted, she learns ‘her place’ and wonders when she’ll get booted from the farm and sent back to the mission.
Eric is born and is loved twice by both women. The little boy, prone to wandering, has bells sewn on to a ribbon for wearing around his chest. When one day he vanishes, the neighbours can’t understand why the couple keep the ‘dark girl’ on, until 30 years later when the boy’s ribbon is found in the one place they didn’t look.
Before I came to Australia, my head was full of pictures of croc-wrestling, leathery-skinned men – the symbols of the Outback. Now, I think of Jean branding cattle, peeling spuds, shooting roos, and stewing roo tail – “a life to save another life” – to stop the threat of miscarriage. When she decided to cut down an enormous tallowwood, where a belled ribbon tinkled in an eagle’s nest, I was sure I’d found a new fictional hero.
Some of the stories felt closer to my skin than others.
Laura Stortenbeker’s ‘Floodlit’ reads like a chapter in many and my own girlhood.
When I read Alvin Pang’s notes on ‘The Illoi of Kantimeral’, on how the Kantiyan language peppered all over the story was an invention; an imagined linguistic descendant of English, Malay, Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese tongues, I was surprised. I must have been ‘translating’ from intuition or from residual frustration for not finding the right nanal (‘banana’) to go with the bagoong I bought after reading of Eva enjoying it in Joanna Lynn Cruz’s ‘Comadrona’.
In the end, the book could have done away with these titles that divided it into three parts -‘The Near’, ‘The Far’ and ‘The Near and Far’.
The near is far and the far near, depending on who’s looking and from where.
– 4 out of 5 stars