Southerly is a literary journal edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon, with financial support from the Australia Council and the University of Sydney. ‘Literary journal’ is the term I use to describe a publication that combines short fiction, memoirs, essays and poetry, book-ended by an editorial at the beginning and reviews at the back. Generally speaking, I prefer the factual material in this journals to their creative stuff. I first got into the genre when I won a free Meanjin subscription back in 2013, and I was surprised by how much I actually enjoy this sort of thing.
One story from this Southerly that impressed me was Sian Elliot’s Chopin & Frederick, about the relationship between a young man with Cystic Fibrosis and his mother. When I saw that the top half of each page was covered with poetry describing the son’s feelings, and the bottom half prose from the mother’s perspective, I groaned a little bit. But then I realised that this was actually a really effective way to simultaneously narrate from two different perspectives. The poetry was a particularly good method of writing a stream of consciousness, as the arbitrary line breaks simulate incomplete thoughts.
Most of the poetry in this Southerly I zoomed across, as the lack of rhyme, obvious wordplay or pretty shapes didn’t grab me. I’ve decided that reading is not the best way to engage with this sort of poetry – I bet if you got the poet to read it aloud, with the appropriate inflections on the meaningful bits, the whole thing would come alive. That said, I really enjoyed Mudrooroo Nyoongah’s two poems Wisps of Delightful Desire and Old Fella Poem. Nyoongah writes in a conversational tone that brings an immediacy rare to poetry.
Essays in Southerly are marked by erudition, thoroughness, and the inclusion of the author’s personal experience. Jim Everett’s Savage Nation: First Nations’ Philosophy and Sovereignty traces the disastrous consequence of the European presence in Australian upon its original inhabitants and calls upon Indigenous Australians to reaffirm their own culture. In Against Progress: Dreams, Nightmares, and The Meaning of Abbott, Joshua Mostafa tries to unravel the reasons why a festering abscess like Tony Abbott became prime minister and calls upon academia to ‘to resist the conversion of universities into ideas factories for capitalism’. Michelle Cahill’s The Colour of The Dream is a fictocritical essay that teases out the racism in the Australian publishing industry through her own struggle to get her book published. For anyone who hasn’t encountered essays like this before, I’d describe them as newspaper opinion pieces with citations and a far bigger word count.
My favourite memoir in this issue was Rowena Lennox’s Timor Dreaming, about the death of a close friend and the time she spent in East Timor during a politically tense time. I really could’ve done with a trigger warning for Frank Moorhouse’s I, Initiation. I mean, genital injury, yow! I had to skip that one. I know that the phrase ‘trigger warning’ is like a magical incantation designed to annoy people of a certain political persuasion, but I think even they could appreciate that genitals are a part of the anatomy worth being sensitive about!
The reviews put this blog in an interesting light. Here I just say whether or not it’s worth your time reading a certain book and babbling on with some general information about it. These people forensically dissect their books like literary surgeons, asking themselves just how exactly their book fits within the broader cultural discourse. The only reviewed book that really caught my attention was Kent McCarter’s Sputnik’s Cousin’s: New Poems, which sounds utterly radical and ambitions. Which is refreshing in Australia. Good job on A. J. Carruthers for writing that review.
So if you like the sound of the journal I described above, Southerly is for you. I’d also recommend it to anyone who listens to Radio National, reads opinion pieces, has ever participated in a creative writing course, or who is middle-aged and wished they had a tertiary education. University students should know they can get a year’s subscription for six dollars, or at least that I did. There’s also online content, which I haven’t read, that you can get here.