Every weekday, at about 7am, subscribers to the Meanjin Daily Reading Newsletter are greeted by email with a piece from the quarterly’s 82-year history. It could be a provocative essay, a sobering memoir or an interview that elicits a chuckle. A poem to scan over breakfast, perhaps, or a short story to save for the weekend. Maybe a review simply to mark as unread in the hope of getting around to it one day.
The Daily Readings are not arbitrarily generated, but selected with care behind the scenes. It is my task, as the Meanjin archives assistant, to help manage this process. Each week I rifle through a digitised treasure trove to locate five works distinct in era, format and theme, and prepare them for online readership. All of the texts are paired with an image that resonates with the writing, providing a visual hook into the work. The chosen items are then emailed to subscribers and published on the Meanjin website for free and indefinite access. This initiative, which commenced in 2020, encourages public engagement with works of historical value—minus the hindrance of a paywall.
• • •
Meanjin has fostered quality writing since 1940. Its many offerings reflect the enduring curiosity of this country’s writers, plus that of a handful of international guests. Some write from places of vexation; others aspiration, grief or amusement. Their collective enquiries chronicle eight decades of national introspection, bibliophilia and creativity, with all entries speaking in some way to their zeitgeist. The contributions vary in style, for although Meanjin originated as a poetry compendium, it soon emerged as a multiform journal of ideas, proffering fiction and nonfiction in addition to verse. There is a breadth of voices, too—Meanjin has long championed the work of literary newcomers alongside household-name veterans. Inclusivity has become central to the journal’s identity, with an attentiveness to the effects of marginalisation evident in much of the content. This ethos owes, in no small part, to the publication’s Indigenous (Turrbal) name, which serves as a prompt to confront dominant frameworks of storytelling through writing that goes towards redressing imbalances.
The archives lend insight, then, into the events and discourses that have sculpted contemporary Australia. Meanjin’s quarterly issues, and later digital accompaniments, observe the nation through 21 prime ministerships, 84 footy grand finals, and participation in 18 foreign wars. Over this time, its writers and readers bear witness to profound social progress and devastating shortfalls; the recession we had to have and the other ones we got for good measure; the dawn of the computer age and the harnessing of networked connectivity; globalisation; environmental havoc; the legacies of colonial injustices; modernism; postmodernism; the death of the author, the death of the patriarchy, and the reinstatement of both; galvanising identity politics; the threat of conspiracy populism; and, of course, the repercussions of global pandemics. This list only scratches the surface.
In revisiting writings from across these decades, readers get a sense of how people conceptualised the various hands with which they were dealt. We might take comfort in identifying similarities to our own lives, or baulk at certain differences. Either way, we preserve their responses so we remember that these things happened and these thoughts were expressed. As archivist Laura A. Millar argues, ‘Archives are defined not by their form but by their purpose … archives are something other than mere information: archives serve as a form of proof.’1
Working with the Meanjin collection has confirmed to me the richness of our writerly past. The experience has also shed light on what it means to reproduce pieces for wider consumption with the benefit of hindsight. Not all sit comfortably. Slurs of a racial and sexual nature, or outdated modes of thinking, can be disconcerting. Yet we still take something from these moments, even if just the clarification of our own value systems. We also perceive attitude shifts towards particular uses of language as our national vocabulary has evolved.
I wish to share with you, below, some of my highlights and learning lessons from the archives so far, showcasing items that have already been made available online and others yet to come.
Writing for troubled times
In the face of mass adversity, written expression becomes essential. By documenting times of upheaval, writers offer readers a means of intellectual processing and creative escape. To abandon these explorations in the thick of the struggle would be to erode collective imagination, compromising our capacity to make sense of it all. Meanjin’s founding editor Clem Christesen stipulates this imperative in his first-issue ‘Editorial’ (Summer 1940), calling for the protection of literary culture at the onset of World War II. With conviction, he declares:
… at a time of war and transition, we still strive to ‘talk poetry’. For we believe that it is our duty to do so. We believe that it would be a grave error to suppose the nation can drop its mental life, its intellectual and aesthetic activities for three or five or more years, neglecting them and those trained to minister to them, and then pick everything up again as though nothing had happened.
Contributors to the journal heed Christesen’s inaugural plea, beginning with those who respond to the dislocation of war. In James Picot’s poem ‘Australia to a War’ (Summer 1940), from that same first issue, he cries, ‘This way then, War! To my sons, in a cloud that sickens … Oh, this again denied, my Peace defied …’ Picot lived through World War I, to which he makes reference when he notes, ‘Though I am of the sunlight, there are ghosts; Messines, Gallipoli, lead back their hosts …’ This lament is all the more impactful if one knows that the following year Picot enlisted and subsequently died as an internee at Changi in 1944. Meanwhile, Judith Wright renders a portrait of bucolic rejuvenation in her war poem ‘Soldier’s Farm’ (Winter 1943), in which a returned soldier relishes the ‘delicate gatherings of dancing trees’ on his property and the warm embrace of his wife. ‘He asked for nothing but the luck to live,’ Wright announces, ‘so now his willing blood moves in these trees …’
After World War II, literary critic Frank Kermode posits the wartime poet’s ambivalence in his essay ‘The Artist in War and “Peace”’ (Winter 1946). Here he questions whether modern intellectuals can truly tolerate the conditions of peace in the absence of conflict. For Kermode the truth lies in the contradictions. He surmises:
[War] gives people something to live for, something to hate, intricate and beautiful machines to use … it solves the greatest problem and gives them something to die for … We must not be afraid of war any more than we are afraid of life, but we must, as intelligent transmitters of a culture we believe to be good because it has produced wise and beautiful things, consider that War, though a product of it, has, or may have the power to destroy it.
The archives reflect an ongoing preoccupation with the subject of war. Philippe Devillers unpacks the complexities of negotiations in Vietnam in his essay ‘Preventing the Peace: Report from an Intermediary’ (Autumn 1967); Elizabeth Jolley meditates on her stint as a trainee nurse in England during World War II and its influence upon her work in the memoir ‘Who Talks of Victory?’ (Autumn 1987); Vera Mackie’s essay ‘Afghan Nights’ (Autumn 2003) interrogates media stereotypes used to justify the war on terror in Afghanistan; Raymond Lugabai offers a sardonic poem—in both English and Tok Pisin—about the American invasion of Iraq in ‘Amerika!’ (Spring 2003), critiquing not only George W. Bush but also international deference to his aggressive foreign policies. Today, as we receive the rolling news of Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine attacks, these commentaries seem regrettably timely.
The archives also invite contemplation of relevant peacetime challenges on domestic soil. Suzy Freeman-Greene’s memoir ‘Beg’ (Summer 2012) collates a series of entries she makes in a notebook while observing beggars on the streets of Melbourne. She humanises her homeless subjects by telling us their names and backstories, while wrestling with the adequacy of her own interactions and questioning the social cracks through which these people have been left to slip. Also taking a firsthand approach is Murri woman Patricia Wesche in ‘There Had to Be a Better Way’ (Winter 1998), a personal account of Stolen Generations history and the reverberations of trauma. This piece, dignified and candid, is necessary reading; a reminder to those on the other side of our greatest national atrocity never to forget. Wesche writes:
This is my life and it has been meddled with against my will. My life and my family’s life have been affected profoundly by the decisions of people who don’t know us, who have regarded us as a problem to solve, who acted in our ‘best interests’ and left us to pick up the pieces. People ask why the stolen children hurt. It’s because they have been told, in word and in deed, that they are worthless, that their families and histories are worthless. They are even told to be grateful that someone stepped in to elevate them from the level of being worthless, because they and their families sure as hell couldn’t have done it.
The poem ‘Refugee’ (Summer 1962) by Francis Geyer—one of several noms de plume of Gwen Harwood—imagines the sorrows of an asylum seeker recalling his perilous journey to new lands, ‘places that were not home’.2 The character of Geyer is said to have been a Hungarian exile.3 Though recent debates around who can tell whose stories might query Harwood’s adoption of the refugee perspective, this emotive poem offers insight into the distress of displacement at a time when these issues received little attention in the mainstream media. It is a grim thought that Geyer’s imaginings of ‘frayed’ landscapes, ‘scavenged food’ and a ‘life-long terror of blood’ remain realities for people seeking asylum all these years later.
Similarly pertinent to current events—uncannily so—is an essay penned by infectious diseases expert Sharon Lewin on the subject of public health crisis management, ‘Our Democracy and Health Crises: Reflections on the Australian Response to HIV’ (Spring 2015). Evaluating Australia’s HIV policy since the first reported case in the 1980s, this essay has a sense of prescience about it when it invokes the spectre of ‘future public health crises’. Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute, will be familiar to readers for her tireless efforts during COVID-19 to communicate scientific information to the broader community, though her work in HIV has long been recognised. Parallels between Australia’s HIV experience and the contemporary predicament are inevitable, and important. This essay prompts us to consider how truly democratic the coronavirus response has been and who gets left behind when politics and public health collide.
Land of plenty
The motif of landscape is by far the most prominent in the collection, with countless tributes to the natural world demonstrating its pull as an inspiration source. Some writings marvel at the beauty, while others warn of the dangers. Both angles lead readers to appreciate the significance of physical environments in configuring human activity—and vice versa. We see this dynamic explicitly in pieces focused on natural disasters. Alice Bishop’s memoir ‘Coppering’ (Winter 2018) examines regeneration on multiple fronts in the aftermath of Black Saturday. Bishop lets readers in on the horror of losing her family home in the inferno with affecting precision: ‘Years later I still sometimes think of ash.’ Rachel Carbonell covers similar ground in ‘Shadows of Fire’ (Summer 2009), an account of the Marysville bushfires that she characterises as ‘an obituary for a town, a forest and a time.’
We also come across Paul Brown on the 1989 Newcastle earthquake and the theatrical work it inspired in ‘Aftershocks: Local Stories, National Culture’ (Spring 1995), and Chandani Lokugé on the ‘obsessively volatile physical force’ of water in and around Sri Lanka in ‘Waters of Desire’ (Winter 2007). In ‘Deep Weather’ (Autumn 2011), Waanyi woman Alexis Wright looks at Australia’s response to the destructive Cyclone Yasi and ‘Mother Nature’ rhetoric in the context of Indigenous environmental knowledges. Jane Watson’s short story ‘After the Flood’ (Summer 1990) sketches a precarious friendship amid freak flooding in inner-city Melbourne. ‘That flood really wrecked everything,’ one of the characters remarks.
Elsewhere landscape is more forgiving. The narrator of Emily Bitto’s poem ‘Freestone Road’ (Autumn 2012) asks herself when she was most happy. Her answer: ‘that moment driving alone on Freestone Road, as you crest the hill and breach the decline where the whole landscape is spread out below you like a wide bowl, rough-glazed and stippled with the husks of gathered crops …’ Bundjalung woman Ruby Langford Ginibi evokes the majesty of sunset in her poem ‘Twilight Time’ (Winter 1993), where a gentle breeze makes ‘the leaves on the trees dance’ and the critters ‘start to sing their songs of contentment’. Barbara Brooks’ memoir ‘Notes for the Book of Summers’ (Autumn 1989) is part travelogue, part coastal paean, describing Australian summers in lyrical snapshots: ‘Swim near the rock pools, sit under the pandanus palms, go to sleep in the shade. Then, in the evenings, sit on the veranda and face the sea … Let someone else light the barbecue.’ There is a certain pleasure, too, in being able to identify local scenery: L.J. Kirmsse’s ‘St Kilda Beach’ (Autumn 1964), Sherryl Clark’s ‘Struck by an Urge to Live in Brighton’ (Winter 1989), Patrick McCaughey’s ‘Under This Red Rock: An Uluru Journal’ (Winter 2014), Syd Clayton’s ‘Dight’s Falls, Collingwood’ (Autumn 1991), and Helen Garner’s ‘The Road to Surfers’ (Summer 1980).
Famous faces abroad
Given Meanjin is a proudly homegrown publication, I’ve been surprised by some of the international contributions. The cult French-American writer Anaïs Nin leads the way with her story ‘Rag-Time’ (Spring 1946), set in a Parisian rag picker’s camp. The narrator assesses fragments of objects strewn everywhere; memento mori in an urban wasteland. Nin has a beautiful term for the detritus: it is the ‘new not new’, where past and future coalesce. Keeping on a Gallic theme, existentialist heavyweight Jean-Paul Sartre appears with his essay ‘We Write for Our Own Time’ (Summer 1947). This is a dense text, with a frugal approach to paragraphing, and if readers can get past a troubling sentiment or two—‘the writer makes books out of words, not out of his sorrows. If he wants to stop his wife from behaving badly, he should not write about her; he should beat her’—Sartre offers perceptive analysis of book and author legacies. The essay raises ideas that echo aspects of our current cancel culture: ‘people seem to believe that the career our books have after we are no more should be justified by the life we once led.’
Intersections of identity and authorship are also explored in ‘If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All’ (Winter 1995), an evisceration of patriarchal repression by Canadian doyenne Margaret Atwood. Here Atwood recounts the demoralising journey to finding her voice as a female writer, rallying against systematic attempts to reduce women to homogenous frippery. She asserts:
Women are not Woman. They come in all shapes, sizes, colours, classes, ages, and degrees of moral rectitude. They don’t all behave, think or feel the same, any more than they all take Size Eight. All of them are real. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are awful. To deny them this is to deny them their humanity and to restrict their area of moral choice to the size of a teacup.
American ironist Kurt Vonnegut outlines a less fraught, though similarly nuanced, relationship to writing in ‘“Running Experiments Off”: An Interview with L.J. Clancy’ (Autumn 1971). This conversation touches on the origins of Vonnegut’s craft, influences and styles with regards to his novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle. Of his tendency to put literary forms to the test, he explains, ‘It’s in the nature of my education. I was educated as a chemist and then as an engineer, and my elder brother, my only living sibling, is a reasonably famous scientist, Dr Bernhardt Vonnegut. The experimental method has always been very much in my mind.’
Printed in the same year is an extract from Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s hefty August 1914, translated by Nina Christesen for Meanjin: ‘Herald of the Twentieth Century’ (Summer 1971). It is a frank depiction of World War I, foregrounding the corporeal suffering of men and horses in combat. Rather uniquely, Solzhenitsyn structures this text with references to cinematography, placing tableaux of injury and decay underneath headings such as ‘close-up’, ‘raising the camera higher, higher’ and ‘Change to wide screen’. This device makes the battlefield spectacles all the more vivid and, therefore, all the more harrowing.
Far from the chaos of war is Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) poet Wang Wei’s ‘My Home on Djung Nan Mountain’ (Winter 1955), translated by R. Ormsby Martin; a concise articulation of finding harmony in nature. He muses, ‘I follow a stream to its very source / And sit and watch the clouds as they begin to rise. By chance, I may meet an old man in the forest / And then we chat and laugh, oblivious of time.’ The Djung Nan Hills, the poem’s caption reads, are in the province of Shansi. Across the ocean in Lagos is the protagonist of celebrated Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s story ‘Uncle Ben’s Choice’ (Winter 1966), who thinks back to when a drunken encounter with an unknown woman left him queasy with superstition. The story contains Achebe’s distinctive use of English punctuated with Igbo words and vernacular rhythms: ‘What I liked was the Saturday night dances. Women were surplus. Not all the waw-waw women you see in townships today but beautiful things like this.’ Mentions must also go to Georges Borach—translated by Joseph Prescott—for his recollections of time spent with the Irish master of modernism, James Joyce, in ‘Conversations with James Joyce’ (Spring 1954) and English scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow for his original manuscript extract, ‘An Object of Love’ (Spring 1960).
First Nations pride
Returning home, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers enlighten with works that commemorate the world’s oldest living cultures. Choosing only a few titles from the collection is difficult, but it must also be stressed that First Nations writings were not published in Meanjin until 1977, so there is catching up to do. That first contribution is a set of three poems from the inimitable Oodgeroo Noonuccal, then printed under the name Kath Walker: ‘Minjerriba’, ‘Credit and Loss’ and ‘Blue Crane’ (Summer 1977). This is a triptych of immense scope and feeling. Later Oodgeroo presents the self-reflexive epic ‘The Rainbow Serpent’ (Spring 1988), composed with her son Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal, which delineates ‘the story of how this world began’ in an embracing, conversational style: ‘Well, gidday, gidday, all you earth fullas. Come, sit down, my country now.’ Wiradjuri woman Anita Heiss emphasises the centrality of Oodgeroo’s writing to the Indigenous canon in her essay ‘Black Poetics’ (Autumn 2006). Heiss, one of Australia’s most prolific authors, argues that Oodgeroo’s first collection ‘began a new phase in communication and relations between black and white Australia’. This essay traces histories of political activism and Aboriginal identity formation in post-invasion poems, citing the work of Kerry Reed-Gilbert (Wiradjuri), Lisa Bellear (Minjungbul/Geoernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak) and Lionel Fogarty (Yugambeh/Kudjela) as well.
A poem that stands out is Bundjalung woman Pauline Mitchell’s ‘Typical Black!’ (Winter 1993), which challenges harmful stereotypes perpetuated by white Australia. Mitchell (daughter of Ruby Langford Ginibi) puts forward a series of innocuous, everyday scenarios that have been weaponised as evidence of some kind of cultural depravity—cleaning the house but only sometimes doing the ironing; cooking most nights for one’s family but occasionally getting take-away; going out with friends and not drinking but instead playing the pokies. ‘You’re just a typical black,’ Mitchell repeats stingingly. Her final stanza is one of the more memorable in the collection:
I will clean the house.
I will sometimes do the ironing.
I will cook, and buy take-away.
I will bring home a problem.
I will play the pokies.
Yes, I will get drunk and loud.
And I say, ‘JUST LIKE A TYPICAL WHITE.’
With this subversion Mitchell confronts racist typecasting and highlights the hypocrisy of the colonial culture wars. Hence a need for autonomous First Nations storytelling that resists false assumptions and shares a breadth of experiences. In the short fiction realm, Yuin, Bunurong, and Tasmanian man Bruce Pascoe, author of ‘The Headless Horseman of the Drummer’ (Winter 2009) and ‘Rene of Rainbird Creek’ (Summer 2006), gives life to his characters through realistic speech patterns: stops and starts, colloquialisms, bites of traditional language. Fitzroy Blak man Tony Birch has a similarly deft ear for dialogue, encapsulating the strains of filial obligation and mental illness in his moving story ‘The Hair Cut’ (Autumn 1999). These texts are prime examples of representation on the authors’ own terms. Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal man Brook Andrew addresses the importance of authentic representation in his interview with Peter Minter, ‘Telling Our Own Stories’ (Autumn 2006). Here the artist, curator and scholar discusses the Blak arts movement and considers the failures of Western approaches to Aboriginal art criticism. He offers the following analysis:
The Aboriginal arts deserve greater open debate. People freely discuss Australian painting and feminism, American postmodernism and abstract expressionism, contemporary Asian art, manifestos and movements like Dada, whatever. We need to start seeing and speaking about the Aboriginal arts movement without the current classifications. We need to reclassify, come up with more definitions to describe Aboriginal art than the familiar, basic terms like ‘remote’ or ‘urban’.
Kaytej man Warwick Thornton speaks in a similar vein about storytelling on the big screen. In his interview ‘Making Whites Obsolete’ (Autumn 2006) with Lisa Stefanoff, the filmmaker says, ‘I want issues to come from us and I want the answers to come from us. You know, I really don’t like the idea of blaming whitefellas in my films. I like to keep it in a tight-knit community or culture, which is us.’ The interview format gets a playful, yet pointed, treatment in Goorie woman Melissa Lucashenko’s ‘Black on Black’ (Spring 2000), in which she asks questions of herself about the state of Indigenous politics at the turn of the millennium. The author’s exchange tackles surface reconciliation, the gaping misinformation of the white history books, and fallacies of post-coloniality with equal parts anger and humour. Then Lucashenko delivers her killer final line that reveals the purpose of the self-interview structure: ‘Yeah well, sometimes you have to say things so many times it can feel like you’re talking to yourself.’
Of course, Meanjin wouldn’t be Meanjin without an unwavering devotion to literary culture at its core. Books and their authors are the lifeblood of the journal—the archives make this abundantly clear. Among literary commentaries of all sorts, we find textual analyses, author tributes, writing memoirs and dialogues between wordsmiths. These pieces demonstrate the power of literature to educate and entertain. When we read them, we feel part of a community that places emphasis on the value of a rich inner life with words. Highlights include:
‘Sylvia Plath’s Mirror and Beehive’ (Andrew Taylor, Spring 1974)
‘Faith, Reason and Desire: Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”’ (Franco Schiavoni, Summer 1984)
‘Jane Austen’s Abandoned Romances’ (Laura Carroll, Winter 2008)
‘Thea Astley’s Writing: Magnetic North’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Summer 1983)
‘Henry Lawson’ (Miles Franklin, Summer 1942)
‘The Active Passive Inversion: Sex Roles in Garner, Stead and Harrower’ (D.R. Burns, Spring 1986)
‘The Four Novels of Patrick White’ (Marjorie Barnard, Winter 1956)
‘Writing the Self: On Joan Didion’ (Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Winter 2012)
‘The Unexamined Life’ (Ramona Koval and Peter Carey, Spring–Summer 1997)
‘What I Owe’ (Anna Funder, Winter 2016)
‘Memories of Dylan Thomas’ (Jack Lindsay, Autumn 1966)
‘Englishing Lacan’ (Russell Grigg, Summer 2005)
‘Chekhov and the English-Speaking World’ (Vance Palmer, Summer 1955)
‘Shakespeare in Prison’ (Philippa Kelly, Summer 1999)
At present, there are still thousands of pieces from the archives awaiting republication as part of the Daily Readings scheme. This is an exciting prospect. For me, it has been a privilege tending to such a dynamic literary collection and I look forward to unearthing further gems. If you would like to subscribe to the Daily Reading Newsletter, you can do so at <https://meanjin.com.au/daily-reading/>. Links to many of the works cited above can be found in the online version of this essay. •
Emma Sutherland is the Meanjin archives assistant.
Image credit: djs
- Laura A. Miller, Archives: Principles and Practices, 2nd edn, Facet, 2018, pp. 4–5,<https://doi.org/10.29085/9781783302086>.
- For more on Harwood’s literary hoaxes, see <https://library.unimelb.edu.au/asc/whats-on/exhibitions/meanjin-80th/letters/gwen-harwood-and-female-contributors>.
- Alison Hoddinott, ‘Harwood, Gwendoline Nessie (Gwen) (1920–1995)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography. <https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harwood-gwendoline-nessie-gwen-22407/text32138>, published online in 2019.