One of the first stories I can remember reading was an illustrated version of Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog”. Even now I can clearly picture that stupid old dog running happily at his masters with a stick of burning dynamite in his mouth. I spent whole afternoons poring over that story, and growing up in a Vietnamese speaking household the gold miners and Lawson’s humour seemed to represent something quintessentially Australian.
So when I read Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ for the first time for Meanjin’s Tournament of Books, it was instantly familiar. The setting for both stories is classic Australian bush, and the characters all speak in the broad bushman’s vernacular. Both stories feature loyal but slightly dopey dogs. But where “The Loaded Dog” is the exemplar of Lawson’s hilarious farce, ‘The Drover’s Wife’ paints a far bleaker picture with the same materials.
For although the eponymous wife is surrounded by open land, it takes on a claustrophobic quality in her loneliness and isolation: ‘Bush all round—bush with no horizon, for the country is flat.’ The walls really start closing in when the children discover a snake is hiding under their floorboards, and their mother spends the night fretfully watching out for the snake’s attack. As she dozes in and out of sleep she recalls her hardships in the perpetual absence of the drover; we learn that she is no longer a ‘girl-wife’ but a fully-fledged ‘bushwoman’. But Lawson doesn’t hesitate to remind us that for all her resourcefulness, ‘There are things that a bush woman cannot do.’
If Lawson is iconic of a certain type of Australian literature, then Nam Le’s ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ is emblematic of something at the very other end of the spectrum of Aussie lit. I have to admit, reading this story again after I’d first read it in 2008, I was even more emotionally floored the second time around. I was also more impressed—on the second reading I realised just how densely written this story is, and how much complexity there is beneath the deceptively flowing prose.
In the story Le grapples with the heavy concepts of intergenerational trauma, ethnic literature and appalling crimes against humanity. Not to mention the multiple layers of metafictionality and murky autobiography scattered throughout.
But the reason I find this story so compelling isn’t that it’s very clever, or even that it is beautifully written (which it is), but that it has heart. It’s the relationship between the story’s narrator, the fictional Nam Le, and his estranged father, that drives the story. There’s a moment when the teenage Nam sees his father after running away from home, and rather than being upset or angry, the father just speaks to his son ‘as he would speak to a friend, to anyone’. Nam writes ‘and it undid me.’
That unraveling, that only parents seem capable of instigating, prompts the question that underlines the whole story. It’s a question that all writers should ask: ‘Why write?’ And unlike in ‘The Drover’s Wife'—which veers into sentimentality when the bushwoman’s son exclaims 'Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blast me if I do'—there is no simple answer in 'Love and Honour and Pity…’. In response to his son’s desire to tell his story in order to have the victims of war remembered, the father says ‘Only you’ll remember. I’ll remember. They will read and clap their hands and forget.’
Lawson offers us an interesting snapshot of frontier living in Australia’s past, but nothing like the emotional depth that Le provides. And if Lawson represents our literary past, then I’m giving this round to Le, whose writing augurs well for our literary future.
© André Dao
WINNER: LOVE AND HONOUR AND PITY AND PRIDE AND COMPASSION AND SACRIFICE by NAM LE
André Dao is the editor-in-chief of Right Now, a human rights media organisation. He’s also the editor of The Emerging Writer for the Emerging Writer’s Festival and a columnist at The Lifted Brow.
Ben: This match was judged by André Dao, who doesn’t like simple answers, which straightaway raised my suspicions, as I’ve learnt through experience that simple answers are, without exception, the best. Nevertheless, knowing that Dao was to judge, Lawson made an extreme tactical error in packing his story with simple answers. Lawson has to learn to adapt or he will never get far in this business. There may be things that a bushwoman cannot do, Henry, but there are things that a bush poet cannot do as well, and they include winning short story tournaments with stories about snakes under the floorboards. It’s schoolboy stuff, really. On the other hand Nam Le seems hip to the groove that this tournament is laying down, and his canny move mid-game to introduce metafictionality shows just how he likes to work the angles. As Patrick Smith said, I never metafictionality I didn’t like, and Lawson really never recovered from Le’s powerful meta-thrusts.
Jess: Powerful meta-thrusting, huh? My word, Benjamin. How you’ve managed to turn the commentary for a literary tournament into short fiction’s very own 50 Shades Of Grey, with Nam Le playing the role of a relentless Christian Grey and poor Henry Lawson stepping into the submissive shoes of one Anastasia Steele—well, I’m both surprised and also, secretly egging you on to continue getting your trash on. (slaps self, returns to the topic at hand) AHEM! Anyway, yes, this round saw Ye Olde Simplicity taught a valuable lesson by Hip Metafictionality, and the result is a great Australian wordsmith being forced to walk away from this competition empty-handed. Fare thee well, Henry Lawson. At least you have an awesome moustache.