A literary journal like Granta needs no introduction. But perhaps I do need to explain why I’m reading a 20 year old issue, Granta 70: Australia: The New New World, first published in the summer of 2000 (winter in Australia).
Almost 4 years ago, Yiyun Li told our writing workshop about a story in this particular Granta issue. It was, according to her, a grand example of a child narrator and the power of imaginary friends. The title of that story, “Pobby and Dingan,” stuck in my head but that’s as far as it went.
About a year ago, I was preparing for our trip around the world. My goal was to read one work written in or about each of the countries we’d visit. Australia was on the list. The time seemed right to finally read the Granta Australia issue. Then I ran out of time and left it, half-read, on the nightstand.
3 months after our return and I’ve finally managed to finish the Australia issue. Boy, am I glad I did.
I have a weakness for child narrators. It can be a band of sociopaths as in Such Little Hands or a wild child like in Young God. In “Pobby and Dingan”, Ben Rice conjures up the boy narrator, Ashmol Williamson. He and his family live in Eastern Australia. His father is an opal miner and Ashmol hankers to follow in his footsteps. Ashmol’s mother is a Pommy (aka an Englishwoman), tired of living in dust and poverty. Kellyanne Williamson is the oddball of the family. She has two imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan, whom she takes with her to school, bathes tenderly, and feeds lollies.
Ashmol is fiercely loyal to his family though he thinks his sister is a fruit-loop. He cannot imagine having a better father or living in a better place than Lightning Ridge. Heaven was no match for home.
It was like the ballroom of an opal mine, full of people with lamps on their heads. And everyone was singing Elvis Presley songs and gouging and swinging picks.Ben Rice, “Pobby and Dingan” in Granta 70: Australia
When Kellyanne’s imaginary friends go missing, Ashmol gets all of Lightning Ridge to join in the search. And when the two friends are found dead at the bottom of an opal mine shaft, the town turns out to bid them goodbye. They sing the Australia national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’, and a song by Cat Stevens, Pobby and Dingan’s favorite.
And it was quite amazing hearing all these people singing together. And I wouldn’t say it was too tuneful or anything like that. But it was loud as hell and I reckon the emus out on the Moree road didn’t have no trouble hearing it.
When the Granta Australia issue was published in 2000, Peter Carey was already a household name. The novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, would appear later that year and eventually win Carey the Man Booker Prize, his second. In 2019, The Guardian rated the novel as one of the top 100 works of fiction. The First Part of the novel appears in the Australia issue.
Ned Kelly is even more famous than Peter Carey though Kelly has been dead for close to 200 years. When we were in the Victoria State Library in Melbourne, earlier this year, an entire floor was devoted to the Kelly saga. On display were the death mask taken after Kelly was hung and the armor he wore while he robbed banks and shot police officers in Victoria, Australia.
True History of the Kelly Gang is framed as a fictitious journal kept by Ned Kelly himself. It begins with Ned’s childhood and his father, Red Kelly, an Irish convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land for the crime of stealing 2 pigs. But even after Red has served his sentence, he can’t seem to get a break. Poverty, police harassment, and marital strife follow. The young Ned Kelly muses: I wish I had known my parents when they truly loved each other.
The language Carey has crafted to voice Ned Kelly is magnificent. A policeman shares with the boy Ned a terrible rumor about his father.
The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper into my heart and there grew fat.Peter Carey, “True History of the Kelly Gang, First Part” in Granta 70: Australia
“Grog” is a work of photojournalism by Polly Borland. Her subjects are the Aboriginal men and women, respectively, of Galiamble and Winja Ulupna. These are 24 hour residences for indigenous people with substance abuse issues. Both homes are in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne. Our AirBNB was in St. Kilda, too. We saw street people, drunks and ladies of the night. But I cannot recall seeing a single Aborigine in St. Kilda. This is of a piece with what Borland herself heard.
When I’d told my friends what I intended to do, I got a variety of reactions. Some of them thought I had no right as a white Australian to document indigenous people. Others asked me where all the Aboriginals in Melbourne were. Some of them had never met an Aboriginal. It made me realize how invisible the native people were, particularly in the city, and how convenient this was for the white community: they could literally forget they were there.Polly Borland, Afterword to “Grog” in Granta 70: Australia
There are other works in the Australia issue like “Marrying Eddie” by Robyn Davidson and “The Road to Ginger Riley’s” by Paul Toohey which speak to the limited contact between whitefellas and blackfellas. But there is no writing by Aborigines in this issue. Merely a non-apology for this omission by editor Ian Jack.
Western Australia is Tim Winton country. He’s been chronicling its many twists and turns along the road to modernity. His short story “Aquifer” hearkens back to the days when soldiers returning from WWII might be given a battlers block on which to build a home. This is 1950s suburban Australia, when you could dial a number from the phone box and hear a man with a BBC voice tell you the time.
Late in the morning the baker arrived in his van, red-cheeked from civilization, and after him the man with the veggie truck. At the sound of their bells kids spilled out into the dusty street and their mothers emerged in housecoats and pedal pushers with rollers in their hair. Everyone was working class, even the Aborigines around the corner whose name was Jones, though it seemed these were Joneses who didn’t need much keeping up with. We were new. It was all new.Tim Winton, “Aquifer” in Granta 70: Australia
In Western Australia, we saw our first Aborigines on the streets of Perth and Fremantle. Some looked to be homeless. One shouted at me for bringing the coronavirus to Australia. Off the streets, inside the art museums, there was a different debate going on. What sort of Aboriginal art is authentic?
Ask the same question of Australian literature. Then answer it yourself after you read this issue of Granta.
10 June 2020 | Karen Kao