Joiner Bay and other stories Launch Speech by Lian Low
Readings, Carlton – Friday 14 July 2017
Writing stories requires courage and conviction that our stories are important and urgent to share with the rest of the world. Not only do competitions provide a platform for writers, they also act as a deadline for writers to begin and finish a story. Finishing a story is often the biggest hurdle any writer faces. This year, the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition provided over 200 writers the opportunity to finish new stories. Of the two hundred, 17 finalists reached that glorious road to publication. Nine of the writers Marian Matta, Miriam Zolin, Keren Heenan, Else Fitzgerald, Belinda McCormick, Gail Chrisfield, John Jenkins, Andreas Å Andersson and Erin Courtney Kelly are Melbourne-based, and tonight we’ll hear three of them read their beautifully written stories.
Earlier this week, Readings hosted the launch of Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day, her debut short story collection garnered attention when she won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year. A short story of Melanie’s is in last year’s Margaret River Press anthology Shibboleth and other stories.
Winners don’t win overnight in a rush of creative inspiration, in fact the win happens over time, over many drafts, over finishing many new stories.
In an interview with the Griffith Review, Melanie said that she had been writing consistently for about 10 years. “The Australia Day manuscript is the culmination of a very long, hard and painful slog. There have been moments of validation along the way but many more moments of self-doubt.”
Earlier this year, short fiction was in the limelight when Julie Koh was announced as one of the four winners of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist award for her collection Portable Curiosities. The award recognises authors it considers to be the best young fiction writers in the country.
Julie launched Shibboleth and other stories in Sydney last year after being invited by the anthology’s editor Laurie Steed. When I met Laurie last year at the Melbourne Writers Festival, he gifted me with Portable Curiosities. This year he has gifted me with the invitation of launching Joiner Bay & other stories. In Julie’s launch speech last year, she wrote, “People like Laurie are the glue holding the short fiction community together, helping us to avoid being a ‘knife fight in a telephone booth.’”
Ellen van Neerven, a judge of the competition and the editor of Joiner Bay & other stories was also one of five winners of the Herald’s award in 2015 for her short fiction collection Heat and Light. That year, amongst the winners were another collection of short fiction, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke; a hip-hop verse novel, Here Comes the Dogs by Omar Musa; a young adult novel Laurinda by Alice Pung; and a collection of three novellas The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. Last year, the two winners Abigail Ulman and Murray Middleton won the award for their collections of short stories.
Susan Wyndham, former Herald literary editor who established the award twenty years ago wrote that in 2009, the rules of the award were loosened to include Nam Le’s short fiction collection, The Boat. She wrote , “We're happy to recognise the renaissance of short fiction – partly a response to our busy lives, and also an overdue return to the fine art of the miniature favoured by many writers from Anton Chekhov to Alice Munro.”
I’m a great admirer of Ellen’s prose and poetry – Heat and Light and Comfort Food. When I read Heat and Light one of the things that blew my mind was how in some stories, characters would be referenced in a new story, yet each story was its own entity. In her introduction, Ellen Van Neerven wrote that in selecting the order of Joiner Bay and other stories, she paid attention to their individual difference as well as commonalities. She wrote, “[S]omewhere in here, we find ourselves. Somewhere in here, we find each other."
This year’s winning story “Joiner Bay” was written by Laura Elvery. It’s a story that I can easily return to again and again. Partly because of the precision and poetry of her language; and partly because this story is an incredible running meditation about the meaning of life, centred on the unfortunate death of a young man.
When I looked through last year’s collection, I read that Laura Elvery, Emily Paull and Leslie Thiele were published in last year’s anthology. Emily and Leslie are featured in this year’s anthology for their short stories “Ms Lovegrove” and “Harbour Lights” which deftly tackle themes of gendered violence and power. Leslie is also the winner of the South West Prize which is open to residents of Bunbury to Augusta.
It’s great to see writers persisting and returning to finish new stories, and winning competitions as both Laura Elvery and Leslie Thiele have done.
Else Fitzgerald’s 2nd prize story ‘Sheen’ presents a world I hope will never be ours – a dystopia set in an environmental catastrophe where the sheens – a mysterious combination of human and machine are the only surviving traces of humanity. Judyth Emanuel’s “Treacle Eyes” is a story with a different type of foreboding and catastrophe, the language leap-frogging off the page. Both Keren Heenan’s “Oh the water” and Jo Morrison’s “Of the water” I found haunting and moving in capturing absence. Yvonne Edgren’s “Small disturbances” and John Jenkins “Through a Latte Darkly” grapple with opening chapters in a new life, however haunted by the past. Marian Matta’s “A single life” is about the relationship between an older woman and her husband, thirty years her junior. The story crosses boundaries, and so does Andreas A Andersson’s “London via Paris via Rome”, where relationship transgression also feature. The following three stories - “Things to come” by Charlotte Guest, “Dependence Day” by Sophie McClelland and “Still life with dying swan” by Gail Chrisfield – tackle aging and illness as a subject, unravelling the fear and fragility of losing independence. “Better than the farm” by Miriam Zolin is a critical map to navigating a busy, corporate and cold urban environment which favours anonymity. “M” by Belinda McCormick is a story of suspense and bleakness, this time embodied by a protagonist who uses anonymity as protection. In “All the places you have been” by Erin Courtney Kelly smell is a key to the story about the transience of relationships.
In an interview with the NSW Writers Centre, Maxine Beneba Clarke said: “I think the biggest hurdle for short fiction writers in Australia is overcoming the inexplicable prejudice which still exists against the form. The Miles Franklin Award still does not consider short fiction collections, and they’re often seen, even by other writers, as a ‘lesser art’ than the novel, which makes publishers reluctant to take a financial risk on them, even where they like the work.”
The Miles Franklin Literary Award is worth $60,000 and is Australia's most prestigious literature prize. While the rules still exclude collections of short stories, like the Herald in 2009 the rules have appeared to have loosen with the inclusion of Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers in this year’s shortlist for his collection of fictional biographies of Australian writers.
Hopefully, this is a sign about changing traditions, and about being daring and fearless in making choices in writing. Julie Koh describes the short story as “an art form that earns so little money it almost functions outside capitalism” yet, despite this, Margaret River Press courageously champions the short story as a valid literary art form.
I’ll leave with quoting the editor of the collection, Ellen Van Neerven in an interview she had with the Sydney Review of Books:
“I believe you need to write, even if there are no opportunities. The biggest challenge is being able to keep writing, even though so many outsiders see it as a hobby. You have to manage having those ambitions to continue to write, to continue to deliver projects that are going to be important for Australian society and are going to be publishable.”
Congratulations to Margaret River Press, all the writers and Ellen van Neerven for an extraordinary collection of short fiction, that I hope you will keep returning to again and again.
I declare Joiner Bay and other stories launched in Melbourne!
Lian Low edited Peril from 2010-2014. She writes across spoken word, creative non-fiction and memoir.