Review: “Baggage” and “Sprawl”

The art of the short story seems to be enjoying a resurgence – although perhaps it’s just that I’ve started reading more of it, encouraged by the many people I know who are publishing wonderful anthologies. (Oh, and recently being published in one. Always nice.)

Two of those wonderful anthologies are Baggage and Sprawl, both of which are collections of distinctive stories about being Australian.

Baggage, published by Eneit Press and edited by Gillian Polack, explores all the different kinds of baggage we carry. Some baggage is personal, some is cultural. Some of it is hard to unpack. This collection finds ways to come at our spcoa; baggage sideways, through the filters of specfic.

Curiously, for the Europeans who came to this country 200 years ago, this land has always been alien and a little frightening.  As a society, we (non-Indigenous Australians especially) have found the land alarming and strange. Depictions of the desert, the bush, the light, showed us as small and fragile against a harsh and indifferent environment. Recent natural disasters – floods at one end of the country, fires at the other – continue to put most of us at odds with the country we inhabit.

This uneasy relationship makes specfic the perfect medium to explore issues of migration, white settlement and societies pretty much creeped out by their home soil.

Every story has some unique and often disturbing take on the theme. Particular standouts for me are:

  • Kaaron Warren’s story of a man haunted by a lost village, Hive of Glass is gentle and creepy but with a logical solution that might even pass for a happy ending.
  • Acception by Tessa Kum also resonates, with elements of its dystopian future (reached by a dark extension to attitudes towards ethnicity and Australianness) set in parts of Melbourne I know so well.
  • Laura E Goodwin’s An Ear For Home taps into the longing for familiar things from home, which I experienced myself while living overseas. The evocation of homesickness, manifested through the very physical longings for the tastes and smells of home, is nicely handled.
  • Home Turf explores homelessness, freedom and a different idea of belonging. Writer Deborah Biancotti (she of the wonderful The Book of Endings) shows, as always, a subtle and unsentimental human touch.
  • Kunmanara – Somebody Somebody is especially evocative, exploring as it does an Indigenous perspective of belonging and the weight of cultural baggage.Yaritji Green’s portrait of grief and acceptance is touching.

Sprawl is inspired by many of the same drives that inform Baggage – alienation, strangeness, an uneasy alliance with a land that does not seem very friendly. While Baggage looks at the attitudes, sorrows and memories we carry with us, Sprawl uses the places we live as a framework. These suburbs, country towns, homes and even social groups we choose to live in are populated with horror –  and humour.

Sprawl opens with Tansy Raynor Roberts’ funny and possibly subversive take on literary puritism in Relentless Adaptations, where fictional characters come to life to protest the constant reworking of their classic stories to include zombies and sea monsters. At the other end of the collection is Paul Haines’ Her Gallant Needs, a powerful, disturbing and sad horror story.

In between those two gems are a wonderful selection of stories about the Australian experience. Particular favourites are:

  • How to Select a Durian at Footscray Markets, by Stephanie Campisi, with its view of Vietnamese Australia and a misunderstood fruit…
  • Peter M Ball’s One Saturday Night, with Angel – I love his novellas and it was a treat to read some of his short fiction.
  • Cat Spark’s strangely hopeful, post-apocalyptic All the Love in the World.
  • Well, and all the stories in between.

Australian publishing and Australian short fiction are both producing really powerful work at the moment. How fortunate are we to see the two coming together in these two great collections. You should read them. Right now!

Buy Baggage.

Buy Sprawl.