Alice Grundy (editor), Australia, Author, Book review, essays, Fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Seizure, Setting, short stories

‘Stories of Perth’ edited by Alice Grundy

Fiction and non-fiction – paperback; Brio Books; 185 pages; 2019.

Perth — the capital city of Western Australia — is one of the most isolated cities on earth, sandwiched between the great expanse of the Indian Ocean and the vast Australian outback. Until I visited the city on a short holiday in 2015, I had never even stepped foot in Western Australia — now I’ve chosen to call this part of the world home.

When I saw this anthology on the shelves at (my new) local independent bookshop (New Edition, in Fremantle, which I love) I couldn’t resist buying it. I hoped that reading it might give me some background to the city and perhaps tell me a few things I didn’t know, a kind of literary familiarisation for want of a better description.

Off the bat I have to say the collection is diverse — there’s fictional pieces and essays on a vast array of topics and themes by a series of new and emerging writers — so it’s not cohesive in that sense, but it does provide an interesting portrait of a city in flux, a city I understand has a long history of boom and bust, and which has gone through some enormous changes in the past decade thanks to a massive mining boom, which is now on the slide. (There’s a lot of wealth here, but I’ve also noticed a lot of rough sleepers, which is surprising given the relatively small population of 2.1 million people.)

Interestingly enough, there are no stories here about mining, but there are stories about immigrants moving here and finding their feet and tales about young people learning to stand on their own two feet for the first time. If I was to criticise it in any way, I’d say it feels slanted towards young voices rather than a broader mix of young, old and everything in between — but that’s a minor quibble and I expect it can’t be helped given its focus on new writers.

An introduction to the city

The opening piece, Split by Cassie Lynch, is a beautiful introduction to the city, showing how it has developed and grown — but at great cost. The author is a descendant of the Noongar people — whose ancestral lands comprise the south west and south coast of Western Australian — and she uses indigenous story-telling techniques that blend magic realism with vivid descriptions of the plants and birds and animals that once inhabited the area now home to the CBD. She looks at how the city has been altered by geography, by nature, by violence.

Settlers will say that they brought science, technology and worldly culture to the shores of this wild country. Marvels. Advancements. Shakespeare. The wheel. And they did.
But they also brought savagery to Noongar Country. Slavery. Poverty. Incarceration.

Another hard-hitting piece is a journalistic essay by Scott-Patrick Mitchell entitled Tales from Meth City, which looks at how a once silent epidemic was exposed by the media in 2014 and the impact the drug has had on the community.

The front page news hit Perth’s psyche pretty hard. With a chorus of fury and lament, anger and denial, people all across the state suddenly became armchair experts on the issue. Social media comment sections became an echo chamber of outrage. People openly pointed out addicts to their friends on public transport, talking loudly about how the government should just lock up all these junkies. One man in Hillarys — a very affluent suburb located in the Norther suburbs, filled with McMansions, clean parks and rich kids — even spray-painted his neighbour’s house with the phrase ‘JUNKIE DOGS’. They were mere casual users.

But it’s not all as heavy as this. There’s a few lighter pieces, such as Priya Chidambaranathan’s Tea, Cake and a Bit of Cleavage, a short story revolving around a child’s first birthday party and a bold dress her mother decides to wear, and Brunette Lenkic’s Featherlands, a short report about a neighbourhood terrorised by noisy peacocks.

All up there are 12 stories in this collection, which have been chosen to “tell us stories we wouldn’t expect” (as per the blurb on my edition). It follows on from a similar collection, published in 2013, called Stories of Sydney.

I hope the publisher plans to extend the franchise to other capital cities, such as Brisbane and Melbourne, as it’s an interesting exercise to read an anthology focused on a particular place. I’m not sure I learned that much about Perth from this one, but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The book is available in paperback and ebook formats in Australia, and in eBook only in the UK and North America.

2018 Stella Prize, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Fiction, Indonesia, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mirandi Riwoe, Publisher, Seizure, Setting

‘The Fish Girl’ by Mirandi Riwoe

The Fish Girl

Fiction – Kindle edition; Seizure; 110 pages; 2017.

Winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl is a lush, fable-like novella set in Indonesia.

It tells the coming of age story of Mina, a young village girl whose life is changed forever when her fisherman father sends her away to become a servant for a Dutch merchant. Sent to work in the kitchen under the bold and fierce tutelage of head cook Ibu Tana — a woman so large she has to come down the staircase sideways — Mina finds herself learning new dishes and discovering new tastes: her sense of wonder is palpable.

[…] in the Dutch house Mina eats well, tastes sauces and sweets she never knew existed. She wishes her mother could try these wonderments, and vows to take her some food wrapped in banana leaves when she returns to the village for a visit, even if she has to steal morsels from behind Ibu Tana’s back. One of the first things she learns to cook is pisang epe. Ibu Tana teaches her to fry the banana with palm sugar until it is brittle and sweet, how to recognise when to take it from the pan. Mina learns to knead dough for Dutch desserts and Chinese dumplings, how to slice the shallots and garlic so finely that, when fried, they become as wispy as wood shavings.

Slim and pretty, she is soon promoted to serving the food to the Master and his regular guests, one of whom — a fat, jolly sea captain — takes a shine to her. Before long she is asked to give him Malay language lessons and he bestows her with lavish gifts, including  a wooden box filled with frangipani flowers and a delicate gold anklet.

But Mina, who is young and naive, is unaware that this attention might come at a price: she is more interested in Ajat, the beautiful boy who drives the horse and cart when she is sent to buy goods from the Chinese produce store.

They’re quiet on the short drive to the produce store. Her arm rubs against his as they sway along the dirt road and she watches for finches in the trees, on the curiously shaped roofs of the Dutch houses. Sometimes she glances down at Ajat’s fingers, dark and tapered, controlling the reins. She peers at the vein that ropes up from the heel of his hand and across his forearm. He doesn’t smell of the sea anymore. His scent is sweeter, of sweat and horse. His knee bumps against hers once in a while. They trundle down the road towards the beach and she leans forward, yearning for a touch of the salt water on her toes. Ajat presses her back.

The course of true love never did run smooth, though, and Mina is betrayed in a brutal, devastating way, leaving this reader somewhat shell-shocked.

Many of you might know that The Fish Girl was inspired by Somerset Maugham’s short story The Four Dutchmen, which is about a native girl who breaks up the lifelong friendship between a ship’s captain and his three companions. I’ve not read that story myself, so it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Riwoe’s novella, but I suspect it might enrich or enhance the reading experience if I had. (Sue, at Whispering Gums, has reviewed both and this seems to confirm my theory.)

What I loved about The Fish Girl, aside from the lush descriptions of food and landscapes and the achingly beautiful way Riwoe writes about life through Mina’s eyes, is that it perfectly encapsulates worlds colliding, whether that be Mina’s traditional upbringing coming up against colonialism or the Dutch sea captain’s love of a Javanese girl coming into conflict with his companion’s lowly view of native women.

The story is tender and sweet, brutal and charming. I read it in one sitting and was bereft when I came to the end. It is a worthy contender of the Stella Prize.

This is my 4th book for #AWW2018 and my 1st for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.