Reviewed: Gerii Pleitez, On the Sunday, She Created God, Kara Sevda Press
‘Often I worried it wasn’t meaty enough, or long enough. I told myself it’s not about the size of the word count, it’s how you use it.’ So muses Wren, the narrator of Gerii Pleitez’s novella On the Sunday, She Created God, about the manuscript she is lugging around. It’s an apt note to ponder for the book itself: at 99 pages, it’s a short, punchy text with a hell of a mission statement, but this self-awareness—or perhaps it is self-doubt—lingers throughout. The novella seems to ask itself: what is my purpose? Does there even have to be one?
• • •
Released in 2019, On the Sunday is the first publication from Kara Sevda Press, an independent Sydney-based publishing house run by the book’s author. Kara Sevda’s website states that they aim ‘to bypass traditional gatekeepers and disrupt publishing by providing you exceptional writing by creatives who self-identify as women of colour or First Nations’. In the back of the book, they write, ‘Our focus is on finding and empowering literary voices from females of colour which have otherwise been deemed commercially unviable by the literary establishment.’
This point—about commercial viability—is interesting and important. That Australia’s publishing scene is largely white and formally conservative is no secret. As this inequality becomes more widely acknowledged, words such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are flung around and schemes concocted so that publishers can pat themselves on the back for having more writers of colour in their stable, yet many writers of colour continue to feel shut out of this system.
For all its superficial moves to welcome minoritised writers, the industry is still primarily run and operated by those who are white and middle class. Often, when work by people of colour is commissioned by mainstream publishing houses, it tends to fit a certain mould—stories focused around identity and struggle, a performance of grief and hardship for white readers to sadly shake their heads, put their hands on their hearts and say, ‘finally, I understand’, only to go back to their comfortable lives after the last page is turned.
But there have been movements in the Australian literary sector that have actively pushed back against these tendencies in the last few years, with people of colour creating their own spaces to amplify marginalised voices. For a continent built on settler-colonial racism, this is profound for the literary landscape. When publications and organisations are run by people of colour, it means that the entire publishing process—from writing to editing to publicity—is undertaken in a way that enables self-determination. This autonomy frees creators of colour from the burden and expectations of whiteness, and results in work that reflects and represents what has been described as ‘own voices’—this is for us, by us.
Pleitez’s mission with Kara Sevda Press fits into this framework—a radical way of resisting the status quo, unapologetically putting art in the world without having to kowtow to the rigid expectations of a ruling majority. But to set up a press only to publish your own work sidesteps a crucial part of the publishing process, which is thorough, unbiased external editing. And this is perhaps where On the Sunday falls most short.
On the Sunday has two settings—first in inner-city Sydney, and then on a road trip down the south coast of New South Wales. Its three focal characters are Wren, her best friend Babe, and Teddy, a man from their shared past whom Babe once slept with casually, and whom Wren has secretly been in love with for years. The novella is not particularly plot-driven; it presents itself as a slice-of-life look into a period of chaos in the lives of 20- and 30-something suburban outcasts, who feel they don’t quite belong in mainstream society or their underground subcultures. The catalysts for the New Year’s Eve road trip escape: a toilet bowl miscarriage and a desire to touch snow for the first time.
In the confines of notorious arts hub Hibernian House (‘the crumpled love letter to a city which didn’t care about the people trying to read it’), the narrative hinges on an inner-city bohemian dream that feels more and more impossible in the present day, especially as gentrification intensifies. (Once the grimy playground of Nick Cave and his contemporaries, Hibernian House—a real location in Surry Hills—is a mixed bag today, with tenants such as yoga studios and hair salons.)
The characters in Wren’s milieu inhabit a prototypical ‘alternative’ aesthetic, with cultural signifiers cementing their trendy social status: Doc Martens, a litany of party drugs, a playlist with all the right artists (Grizzly Bear, Beach House, Flying Lotus, The Drones—these situate the story in the early 2010s). Wren and co are nihilistic, bordering on anarchic. They disregard the expectations of middle-class existence—careers, conventional relationships, ‘the morally corrupt refuse we call work’—and view and navigate the world through an individualistic, hedonistic lens.
Rich kids with art school degrees and struggling artists from the working class mingle here. Pleitez is deliciously, unrepentantly snide on this point: ‘they were the well-versed leftist progeny of the conservative who tickled their tongues with caviar while they talked about politics, and how “those” hopeless bastards have managed to “fuck everything up”’. There are the ‘hipsters doing nangs in the open kitchen’ and ‘girls doing rack with the door open in the cubicle next door’. The allegory that Pleitez presents here is thick: when an alternative lifestyle is presented as a well-worn costume, those who come from struggle and those who have temporarily adopted the lifestyle are, at least on the surface, indistinguishable.
As for Wren, her family background is briefly touched upon, but not explored in detail—near the beginning of the novella it’s explained that she grew up with a physically abusive father and a protective mother, both of whom escaped the Central American revolution, and that she is named after her dead brother. Pleitez enables the reader to perceive that Wren is carrying trauma from her past; whether this is the impetus for much of the self-destructive behaviour that follows is left up to the reader’s interpretation.
There are some interesting musings on class and social mobility in On the Sunday, especially through the white, upwardly mobile character of Teddy, who ‘escaped that single-parent, ripped fly-screen, scum-bag childhood we bonded over’ to own and operate an inner-city cafe. The book thrums with righteous anger, but its characters’ attempts at rebellion often border on trite. In one scene, Wren ponders money (‘plastic which allowed the corrupt to walk free to do as they please, to rape every cunt that asked for it, every cunt that dressed to get it, every cunt that just didn’t say no enough, or clearer, or louder’) before burning a $50 note, which feels as though it’s trying too hard to prove a point, not to mention the incredible privilege of such a meaningless act. Here, the pushback against authority is evident, but manifests in a way that feels feckless and naive.
The road trip aspect of the novella echoes territory that in the past was only reserved for cis white men (Kerouac’s On the Road, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A woman of colour undertaking a similar journey seems like a much-needed update of a tired old genre. But it is here that the story drifts: it’s never made clear why Teddy is invited along, or whether Wren even wants him there (‘he had no place here, he had his own life and now he was trying to escape it by hijacking our plans’). The sole purpose of his presence seems to be as a device to cause tension between the best friends, especially when he and Wren begin a sexual relationship. This love triangle teases out two relationships in particular: one between Wren and Babe, and another between Wren and Teddy. These two relationships are presented as foils to one another, illustrating interpersonal toxicity in platonic and romantic forms.
Early on in the novella, Pleitez describes how Wren and Babe affectionately call each other ‘slut’ as a way of reclaiming the sexist slur: ‘we decided to rip the word apart like old jeans and reuse it as a thing of camaraderie between us’. Wren goes on to explain, ‘New wave feminism was about repurposing ideals anyways, and if other feminists didn’t like it, fuck it.’ The thinness of this brand of entry-level feminism becomes evident when Teddy reappears on the road trip, which strains their relationship. Despite the solidarity both women profess to have for one another, an unspoken competition arises between them that culminates in Babe running away in the middle of the night after overhearing a conversation between Teddy and Wren.
This is where the politics are often most rudimentary in On the Sunday, which seems to lean on a reductive distillation of feminism: ‘The instant you realise you’re female and no matter what power you try to wield, you will always come second, is the moment you truly become a woman.’ Despite their headstrong personalities, the women in this story seem set up to lose; whether this reflects Pleitez’s politics, or is her way of questioning such politics, is ambiguous.
The relationship between Wren and Teddy is unstable at best and pernicious at worst. Wren espouses the role of the manic pixie dream girl, but it’s never established what this man’s qualities are; instead, it is his unattainability that appears to be the thing that connects them: a classic fuckboy–dream girl dynamic. I wondered what the point of the relationship was, other than to illustrate, as Pleitez writes, the phenomenon of ‘using drugs or people to numb the hunger of loneliness, using sex as shorthand for love’. The dynamic between Wren and Teddy is romanticised as a Sid and Nancy–style relationship, a tragic tale of soulmates who never quite find their way.
There is much drama and tragedy for its own sake throughout On the Sunday. None of it seems to add up to much, other than a dim revelation in Wren’s mind that maybe there’s more to life than her nihilistic, self-destructive trajectory. As a writer, she’s taking note of it all—in the final pages we learn that the book we have been reading is the book she has been writing. For a work that prides itself on grit, it’s a surprisingly predictable and saccharine ending—akin to the filmic equivalent of ‘everything was
just a dream’.
Despite this, the novella has the boundless spirit of a punk rock song—Pleitez’ prose is raw and unfiltered in similar ways. It’s often beautiful on the level of the sentence, especially when describing landscapes and nature: ‘there were clouds clawing inland from a tempest I saw brewing on the shore’. But there are also descents into cliché: ‘it was as though life and colour had been dull before, but now everything was slowing down with raw technicolour I’d never seen before’; and clunky, repetitive prose: ‘I encountered more “How do you know Teddy?” type questions more than I’d ever encountered’. As a result On the Sunday feels unfinished. Like a first draft, there’s promise, but it needed refining, reworking and reconsidering.
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In my own writing career, I have produced work for mainstream and independent literary publications, as well as self-publishing zines when the subject matter or form is too raw for me to consider a more traditional path. Of course, there is also the politics of editing to consider, especially if the editor is white (and they still often are). I’d consider On the Sunday more apt in the zine space, as it allows the creator to make their own rules. So while I consider editing a crucial aspect of the writing process, I also admire Pleitez’ gumption, going ahead without seeking permission or approval.
It has to be said that there’s something that feels a little discomfiting about me, a writer of colour, reviewing the work of a fellow writer of colour in a less than adulating way, particularly in a literary landscape that is still largely white-dominated. Any efforts to decolonise this space are to be commended, but it would be dishonest—not to mention a disservice to the author and the wider literary community—for me uncritically to shower praise upon it for this fact alone.
And while there shouldn’t be any expectation for writers of colour to explore their cultural identities or backgrounds in depth (or at all) in their work, it did feel like a missed opportunity in On the Sunday—a deeper probe of Wren’s family story could have elevated the work and brought it beyond solipsistic meandering. There are only brief mentions of her El Salvadoran-Australian background and places she’s been in El Salvador; we never really get the opportunity to see how these experiences have shaped her, so the character feels incomplete. There is also, however, a defiance in rejecting the stereotype that dictates that people of colour must be family-oriented; perhaps this is Pleitez’ way of illustrating this double-edged sword.
These paradoxes plagued me throughout my readings of the novella. I thought about the institutions that determine literary worth, and I thought about my own education and the canon I grew up reading. The book also prompted me to ask, with some alarm, is the way I read—or the very act of editing—somehow colonised too? The fact that On the Sunday brought up these questions points to the inherent inequalities that make up anglophone literature, and consequently the fraught politics behind editing and critiquing.
• • •
‘It’s not about the size of the word count, it’s how you use it.’
How it’s used in On the Sunday: a grim portrait of friendship, love and loss in an underground subculture that is rapidly becoming a daydream. A quick detour into the hapless despair and self-indulgence that accompanies millennial living. Questions with no answers. A state of impermanence.
‘There’s a generation of pain out there,’ muses Wren early in the novella, as she considers the existential plight of the women around her—friends and strangers alike. On the Sunday is one response to that pain, a doubling-down of sorts. It fades to oblivion, as so many things do. Maybe Pleitez’s purpose is to illustrate that everything, and nothing, happens all the time. While there is plenty of room for ambiguity in On the Sunday, its incomplete shape doesn’t tell us enough. •
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer and critic whose work has been widely published. She was an inaugural recipient of the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter Fellowship in 2018.