Overland, the storms of history and launching Overland 205

I was in Melbourne last Friday night at the very cool Chez Regine – ‘Advanced Bar of Whisk(e)y and Cocktails’ – to launch the new summer issue of Overland magazine, number 205. And so for the last few days I’ve been thinking about Overland in general and this issue in particular.

My thinking took me back to Overland‘s founding issues, which I read when I started as its fiction editor in August 2010 because I wanted to find out how the magazine had seen itself back in 1954, to hear those first voices, get a flavour of its early fiction.

The first issue, Spring 1954, announced: ‘Overland is a new magazine, devoted to creative writing. Its motto is “Temper, democratic; Bias, Australian”. It will make a special point of developing writing talent in people of diverse background. We ask of our readers, however inexpert, that they write for us; that they share our love of living, our optimism, our belief in the traditional dream of a better Australia.’ I really liked this inclusiveness, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what was meant by ‘the traditional dream of a better Australia’, which seemed to allude to the 1890s Australia of Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and the Bulletin under AG Stephens.

The early Overland was more concerned with literature than today’s journal is, which is not surprising given it grew out of the Realist Writer, a roneoed quarterly started by the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group in 1952. The 1950s Overlands revered realist fiction with a capital R – Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was regarded with suspicion because it was deemed too negative to be Realist.

There was a preference for writing about ‘the common man’, with ‘square-jawed “dinkum” determination to do without the fripperies, the modes – and sometimes graces – of aesthetic practice, the same unembarrassed preference for revealing the simple verities rather than the sophistication of human nature.’

But there was also a discussion of science fiction, which somewhat presciently argued that ‘In years to come it will be said, One of the phenomena of the 20th century was the meteoric rise of science fiction and its almost complete neglect by literary circles.’

While the particulars of the early magazines have been left behind – its focus on literature, the Realist fiction, its enthralment to 1890s Australia – its guiding vision has not, which for me is summed in these words from Overland 7:

‘Writers are men and women who record the storms of history as they rage through the lives and minds of people. They must respond to the storm from whatever direction it is blowing. You cannot face one and turn your back on another.’

In its latest issue Overland continues to be concerned with these storms of history. It’s a brilliant issue and every article had something to say to me, but I was particularly struck by three essays on contemporary storms – political, economic, social, environmental.

1. Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian Woods’, an extensive analysis of the July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway. In six pages Gardell puts the event in its broad historical context and makes a compelling, chilling reading of it in terms of the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.

2. In ‘Will the market save us?’ Xavier Rizos writes about the logic of a carbon tax. His study is one of the most considered and intelligent discussions of the Labor government’s two-stage approach to carbon emissions and the debate around it that I’ve read. Here he reframes the debate:

‘The debate should not be on whether the tax will sink the Australian economy but whether it will be so innocuous as to have no material effect on our lifestyle and thus not mitigate climate change.’

3. Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality Begone!’ makes an excellent case for distinguishing between the moral and the political when understanding contemporary violence.

It’s a valuable distinction that Julia Gillard might usefully have applied to her thinking on gay marriage. It might have persuaded her to see it in terms of equality and therefore to have made it Labor policy, rather than seeing it as a matter of personal morality and therefore subject to a conscience vote. (Although the real question is more: Why are we not questioning the institution of marriage itself, rather than fighting to extend its reach?)

Overland 205 also has Robert Bolland’s fiery and fascinating exploration of his Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry, ‘Who was Bet B?’. And one of my favourite pieces, the ruminations of Arnold Zable, John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara on language and politics in Indigenous writing, essential reading which says much about why words and language are so powerful – and reminded me why magazines like Overland are so vital in this age of many storms.

The poetry in the new issue is also outstanding. I found every poem striking, but the one that keeps returning to me – because of its subject matter (pregnancy and the imagined birth of a possible girl) as much as its compact and vivid verse – is Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction’. Its epigraph is ‘[E]ither destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born’, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792.

I’m planning to write about my first year as fiction editor of Overland on its blog, so I’ll be talking about the fiction in Overland 205 over there.

In the meantime – how pretty is Melbourne on a grey December morning down by the Yarra?

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