Hmm, maybe it’s because the Queen’s Birthday holiday and the recent jubilee non-event in Australia has focussed my attention on cultural nuances, but it didn’t take long for this book to irritate me. I’d read Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus Lost (2008) and Due Preparations for the Plague: A Novel (2004) and enjoyed them both so I was expecting to like this too. But no, I didn’t, and I’m peeved that I put aside other books to read it.
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a book of short stories published by an Australian publishing company and shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards would be Australian stories written in Australian English? Alas, no. This collection of short stories is sourced from Hospital’s work not just here in Australia, but also from overseas journals and it just doesn’t feel like Australian writing. And as my friend Katy McDevitt from PublishEd Adelaide noted in a recent post, Australianisms do matter to us. More importantly for this collection, the publisher’s lack of awareness (or concern?) made me focus on the stories’ content too. And that’s mostly not Australian either. (Apparently she gets a lot of her ideas from events reported in the New York Times).
The first story is fine. Blind Date is an appealing story with a universal theme: negotiating wedding issues for a broken family in Queensland. No problem with this one (though I have to say that even though I don’t read many short stories, I’ve read much more absorbing ones about more significant issues by writers such as Amanda Lohrey, Catherine Harris, Stephen Scourfield and Chi Vu).
But the next one – despite its title – Republic of Outer Barcoo might just as well have been set in the backblocks of the US. Yes, Danny wears an Akubra and talks about his ‘billy of tea’; yes, there’s a reference to a jackaroo; and yes, there’s even a reference to Anna Bligh as Premier of Queensland. But the story feels American because it’s about one of those loopy militaristic cult religions with a charismatic American leader who flees authorities there but – oh yeah? – gets into Australia with no difficulty and promptly secedes from it (without being deported) and then charms gun-happy people into joining him. The teenage female central character is a tough-talking American, and she gets in a lather about being labelled a ‘Yank’ because she comes from the south. The ‘republic’ features a cache of heavy weaponry which includes semi-automatics – which are very tightly restricted in Australia (even in our more gung-ho States) – yet the authorities are turning a blind eye because there aren’t many in this well-armed ‘lunatic fringe’ and ‘in a siege, they’d be wiped out in a matter of hours’. Can you imagine a ‘spokesperson from the premier’s office’ saying that to reassure a journalist in Australia? Can you imagine the fracas if a comment like that got into the media when already there is public concern about police shootings?! Only an author very out of touch with Australian life would write a sentence like that.
I didn’t need to encounter that twee Americanism ‘mom‘ to know that Weather Maps was not an Australian story. I could tell from its opening paragraph because here we eat prawns on a barby, not shrimp:
She’s black, I’m white, but we’ve been blood sisters since we were twelve years old. We did it with barbecue skewers – the thin kind used for threading shrimp, not the thick kebabs kind – jabbing our thumbs and rubbing them together and sucking our intermixed blood. (p101)
Hurricane Season is, yes, about hurricanes in the US where underground shelters are commonplace and here they’re not, not even in the tropics where cyclones rampage through the north every season; and the woman who reinvents herself after a troubled childhood in ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman’ does so in ‘college’ not university. There are ‘elevators’ not ‘lifts’ in That Object of Desire (where BTW the central character is ‘a mathematician and a composer of algorhythms [sic]’ (p132) and there is also that curious distracting American habit of attaching a city’s name to its state, as in ‘Macon, Georgia’. Perhaps this is necessary in the US, but here in Australia, it’s not, and we don’t do it.
‘Mom’ surfaces again in the title story, and the media role models the girls aspire to be are American. (I think. I’ve heard of Christine Amanpour, but not the others. They’re not Australian). There’s an insulting reference to ‘slimy vicious hypocritical self-righteous Republicans’ (p159) and since I’ve never taken much notice of American domestic politics I have to stop and think, which ones are they, George W Bush, or Barak Obama? There’s a ‘panhandler‘ and I remember having to find out what this was once before when I was reading Annie Proulx, but I’ve forgotten the significance of it, it’s more than just geographical. I’m reading a book shortlisted for the Australian PM’s prize and some of the language is as foreign to me as The Concubine‘s was, and the book is a good deal less interesting.
Does it matter? Most of the themes are universal, tied together by the motifs of extremes of weather and climate. Her characters are relevant in the modern world: damaged souls struggling for psychological balance in fractured families or isolated from ordinary life in some way. The stories are neatly constructed and there is some beautiful writing. But (just in case you can’t tell from the title of this blog) as my hero Miles Franklin was, I’m a passionate advocate for Australian writing, and for the need to have a literature that is of and about our culture. Forecast: Turbulence isn’t. As Stephen Romei says in his very generous review, the author is as Australian as Peter Carey is … but in my opinion this isn’t Australian writing.
As Katie McDevitt says, the Australian market is modest, but determined to thrive. It won’t if there’s nothing to differentiate it. Enough said.
Author: Janette Turner Hospital
Title: Forecast: Turbulence
Publisher: Harper Collins Fourth Estate, 2011
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: Forecast: Turbulence