A little while ago I was asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Mud Map: Australian Women’s Experimental Writing, and intrigued, I agreed to check it out. Little did I realise that I would need to take a crash course in a whole new realm of writing before I could make any sense of what I was reading. I still
think know that I’m completely out of my depth, but I found it very interesting anyway. So for what it’s worth, here’s my interpretation of what I learned, and my thoughts about the experience of reading these pieces.
The collection is published online and freely available in a special issue of Text and there’s a somewhat testing introduction by Anna Gibbs from the University of Western Sydney. Gibbs explains firstly that nobody was interested in publishing such a collection, and that an unfortunate by-product of the decision to publish in this online journal was that previously published works had to be omitted. Writers such as Alexis Wright and Marion May Campbell therefore could not be included, which is a pity. (I’ve got Campbell’s Koncretion on my TBR; I bought it after I read a review somewhere, probably at the ABR). Gibbs also explains the collection’s intriguing title:
A ‘mud-map’ is an informal, incomplete, limited-life guide to a much more complex terrain that could in any case never be comprehensively charted, even if more useful maps for the longer term do eventually become available through new economic models enabled by e-publishing and print-on-demand.
But from that point on, I was repeatedly scampering off to Google. Some aspects of ‘Mud map’ seem to be PhD territory and the introduction made me realise that I had a lot to learn before I could begin to read the pieces. (Well, fair enough, it is a university journal). I had to look up ‘cartography in the Deleuzian sense of the term’ and ‘fictocriticism‘ and I had to come to grips with how the feminist politics which underlie this collection influence the kind of writing that it features.
My kind of feminism meant demanding to be allowed to apply for a ‘man’s job’ in 1969 because I was already doing it unpaid; it meant refusing to leave when public service regulations precluded married women from working there. This was before I read Greer et al, and like many women of my generation I feel depressed when I see young women tottering around on heels they can’t run in; spending a fortune on fashion and phones but not buying superannuation for their old age*; and – worst of all – taking for granted rights that we fought so hard to achieve and that we know must always be guarded against the likes of Cory Bernardi and Brian Harradine before him.
*The difference between what men and women spend on clothes when last surveyed was about $3000, and men (whose life expectancy is shorter) put the difference into super.
But while my life history identifies me as a pragmatic, practical feminist, it’s never occurred to me before to think about:
the ways in which experimentalism had come to be defined: that some women’s work was not recognised as experimental because women were not credited with that particular kind of intelligence or ambition (being seen as writing only autobiography, however disguised), or because the forms they invented were understood not as innovations but as failed attempts to do something already done in the masculinist mainstream. Instead, their work was seen as clumsy, as lacking structure and recognisable form (much as Christina Stead’s novels and stories were regarded as maladroit and shapeless, before they were read in the light of the feminist criticism of Susan Sheridan and others). What would happen, then, if we took work by women to define the experimental – if the idea of experimentalism was generated from the work itself rather than any particular pre-given image of the experimental? This also raised the problem of what was once novel but has now become generic in women’s writing: a focus on relationships with their mothers, and the death of the mother might serve as examples here. New ways to explore these themes need to be found, ways which focus on the writing, on the how that actually transforms the what.
So what I liked most about reading this experimental collection was that it took me on a journey that encouraged me to think about things differently. But (in keeping with my promise to always write my honest thoughts here) the difference in the pieces that employ a different kind of how flummoxed me at first. I didn’t know what they were doing. The article about fictocriticism that I found in the Sri Lanka Sunday Observer was the most helpful: I cannot imagine any newspaper in Australia paying its readers an equivalent respect for intelligence. The article clearly explains what fictocriticism is, and gives examples.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of fictocriticism is that it presents itself as a text juxtaposing creative composition such as prose with a leaning towards fiction or biography (to take two examples) with academic writings from disciplines such as sociology, psychology, history or political science (to take as simple examples).
Armed with this simple definition, I re-read Prove Love by award-winning poet M T C Cronin, and liked it. It’s hard to explain, and I’m oversimplifying it, but it’s a kind of poetry written in a structure rather like an academic essay.
definition is how we fight off dream
how we make things certain
with whatever degree of certainty is above zero
‘when we imagine, we always imagine 1
the unknown is known;
the hidden is visible;
the impossible, possible.
an enormous marine animal of serpent-like form,
frequently seen and described by credulous sailors,
imaginative landsmen, and common liars
the present: you make what you can out of what’s to hand.
that you are greek and latin.
ancient poets, philosophers, and psychologists consider imagination
a strong and diverse power, but unregulated it produces illusion,
mental instability (often melancholy), bad art, or madness 3
thinking about something contrary to fact
something not currently perceived
you, when we have not yet met
a sensible world rising and falling on the imagination
myself in love
From this poetry, the piece then moves on to a section called evidence which interrogates the way we sometimes look for/demand evidence of love. It starts with a paragraph of legalese and then goes on to list 18 different kinds of evidence which seemed kind-of familiar to me from my studies in Law, but finishes off with 16. ‘Dreams: had awake or asleep'; 17. Beauty and 18. Opinion. (These of course would be thrown out of a court of law, which so cleverly proves the author’s point). proof explores ideas about love by testing it against the word ‘prove’. And so it goes on, playing with different kinds of writing in what is evidence of the imagination? and love and definition where I particularly liked the definition of ‘coordinative love':
theoretical love as felt by non-theoretical lovers. Vice-versa. Love experienced in stories. Love retold and felt again.
You may have noticed that there are footnote numbers in the text that I’ve reproduced above too, and the piece ends, as a work of academic writing does, with a bibliography. I enjoyed this piece, and I think it’s clever too.
Collector, by Jill Martindale Farrar, is a delicious, playful melange of words.
I am a collector.
A collector of words.
Say them over to yourself. Run them round your mouth. Con-tem-pla-tive. A flamenco tirade interrupted by ‘pla’ – a ‘who cares’ light as poof. Ca-la-bash. A word I just want to sink my teeth into. And Nou-gat. So dense one’s jaw gets stuck half way through.
I know they are just words, as my Ex would say. Yet words at times seem all I have, seem all I’m made of.
They protect me and comfort me. They lull me to sleep at night and cast a spell on me as I gaze out at the Gardens at lunch Words are the black and white of a nun’s robes, with all the shades and feelings contained within the habit, pun intended, of common usage. Though I realise most words, ultimately, need to go together to generate meaning. There is something spare and arresting about certain singular words.
Oberon – They don’t – Opulent – go in any – Ostrich – specific order. But I play with different combinations, as a thief at a locked safe.
I loved this piece: it begs to be read aloud.
The Architect’s Dream by Jo Gardiner is a stunning piece of writing. The architect is commissioned to create a place for a writer, and is given her novel to help her understand what’s wanted. The text mirrors itself with headings Brief, Site, Plan, Section, Glass, Interior, Passage, Writing room, Garden and Completion) and it is exquisite.
In the territory of sleep she takes the old writer’s words and makes her own shape. She will build a space to house ideas where writing has materiality in text, the architecture attempts an analog in space and light. From the novel she understands, deeply, the architectural skin and tissue of the writer’s work and discerns that once a space is loosened, the dual questions of how to construct a work, and how to construct a life, emerge. She seeks to build a shape from ideas in close response to concerns of light and proportion. She will give ideas rooms to speak in, move across, doors to pass through and windows to gaze from.
(As an aside, it’s fascinating to be a woman commissioning an architect: ours initially directed ideas about the kitchen to me but was delighted to design a kitchen to suit The Spouse – and then initiated the concept of A Room of My Own, the library in which I spend most of my life when I’m not at work).
Nasrin Matouhchi’s The Warmness of Handling doesn’t seem ‘experimental’ in the same way as the three pieces above. Without its biographical note it appears to be a well-written short story. But it is experimental: she is writing in EAL: English as Another Language and the sense of displacement in her story is powerful:
Then the Salvation Army woman played with door handle; the door didn’t open. I brought the key and opened the door. The smell of cooked carrots rising from the foil tray made me feel sick. When the pink and wrinkled face disappeared, I shut the door.
The locked door which must be unlocked and the revulsion for the smell of the carrots entering her private space, the home, symbolise the almost frantic desire to exclude the migrant’s exterior world and the inability to do so: the piece is deceptively calm.
Have I given you a taste for this collection? I haven’t read all of them myself: as always for me, a collection is not something I read in one go, but rather dip into from time to time.
PS I hope I haven’t entirely missed the point, but I’d love to see some of these ideas morph into longer works, like those of Alexis Wright, Brian Castro, Murray Bail, Alan Loney and Gerald Murnane whose ‘experimental’ fictions I really enjoy.