Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book Review: In This Desert, There Were Seeds


Edited by Elizabeth Tan and Jon Gresham

Published by Margaret River Press in collaboration with Ethos Books
My copy courtesy of the publisher



A short story anthology is a wonderful thing. Authors from different backgrounds with different interests come together to interpret a theme from as many angles as they can, providing the reader with a 360 degree portrait of a cultural moment. The collaboration between Ethos Books and Margaret River Press is just that-- a portrait of a cultural moment-- but its point of difference is the culture that it embeds itself in. In This Desert, There Were Seeds is a collection that celebrates the geographical closeness between Western Australia and Singapore, and a shared vision of our future as both countries face up to the realities of climate change, the shift in what 'community' has come to mean, and the new shape of our political, economic and social structures, as disheartening as these sometimes can be. The twenty stories collected in the book, and curated by Elizabeth Tan and Jon Gresham, show that while perspectives on our past and future dreams are different, at our core, all humanity longs for the comfort of belonging, whether that be with family or loved ones, in the stream of history, or in a place of safety. 


Notable stories in the collection include Alicia Tuckerman's 'Glass', which shows the final dismantling of a relationship played out on a West Australian beach; Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes' 'Maqdala 1868/ London 2018' in which an Ethiopian security guard at the V and A grapples with a growing sense of complicity as he polices the public's involvement with stolen artefacts from his homeland; and 'Flies' by Jay Anderson, a tender portrait of friendship, identity and the pain of being different set against the vivid backdrop of a small Australian town.

The perspectives in these pieces is often confronting or upsetting-- sea levels rise, the government cracks down on a man when an illegal watermelon begins to grow on his verge, a man installs surveillance equipment in the apartments of his neighbours in an effort to help them. These pieces show our future dream as a possible future nightmare, and it is the fact that these things are possible which makes the stories so frightening. Other stories are tender and heartbreaking, such as the opening story, 'Harihara' by Cyril Wong, or 'Death Lilies' by Rashida Murphy, which take the theme back down to a personal, individual level, guiding the reader through the ins and outs of human relationships in gentle, poetic prose, pinpointing the emotional truths in staggering precision.

It is important to take into account also that the collection includes the voices of both established writers and those who are just starting out on their publishing careers. As is the case in any multi-authored anthology, some of the stories resonated with me, while others I struggled to understand. The quality of the writing varies, as does the styles.

Overall, though, this barely matters as the reader is swept up in twenty visions of where we are now and where we are going, and introduces or reintroduces us to some of the most important literary voices of our shared geographical region.

In this Desert, There were Seeds is available now from Margaret River Press and can be purchased with free shipping here. 

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