Despite Sydney’s size and prominence in our national consciousness, a grassroots literary culture can feel hard to find. Several groups for emerging writers navigate its promises and realities in unique ways.
When I describe my adopted city of Sydney to friends back home in Adelaide, I tend to veer toward generalised terms, often exhaling them with a sigh – It’s challenging! and very big! and mostly unfriendly! In return, I get asked with a degree of exasperation why I continue to stay as though those descriptions are damned to be wholly discriminatory and negative. Maybe so, but for whatever reason I’ve always jumped headfirst into discomfort because I had to – and generally the challenging nature of this city, its most garish trademark, is what pulls me in. Within those inconsistencies are the elements that fascinate me and hold my attention, where the facade breaks – elements which cry out to be deconstructed.
I often wonder how I would have absorbed and naturalised those depictions of Sydney had I been born here; had my grandparents smuggled me and my siblings onto cramped double decker trains full of people with primary-coloured outfits and tragic mini-southern cross flags to go see the opening ceremony for the 2000 Olympics. For some reason this is the image of Sydney that prevails in my consciousness; I’d guess this is the same for others as well. Despite having zero interest in competitive sports, I can recall seething with unexpected jealousy when one of my cousins won a ticket to go interstate. They had reached, remarkably, beyond the silver line. Instead I only have this stand-in replacement for a true memory, a peripheral impression, weirdly branded into my mind with a vengeance.
But Australians, Australian artists and writers particularly, constantly look outward as much as they survey their surroundings. We peer beyond, away from our unremarkableness, often using foreign modes and mythologies gleaned from the internet to rationalise their place in a disjointed settler state. The flurry of comedic events at Giant Dwarf often attempt to replicate stark North American leftist breeds of humour; emerging writers at readings in the inner west sound at odds with the city’s continual state of processing. But at least they have a go, merging together fragments of images, reworking the everyday as brutal realism within their suburbs.
We peer beyond, away from our unremarkableness, often using foreign modes and mythologies gleaned from the internet.
A poetry reading at Sappho’s in Glebe might evoke an Australian equivalent to American noir, or use Sydney’s irregularity to make some kind of point, charting its topography to reveal something like a wry, dispiriting lovelife. What I most often take away is a sense that the city is just dizzyingly big, and mostly disappointing – it promises so much and yet speaks unto no-one, as lonely to natives as it is to transplants. I had reckoned that it was just the disconnection that comes from being new to a place, but others feel it too – posters on a local Reddit thread almost universally sharing this sense of Sydney’s loneliness. As the ‘OP’ wrote:
I’ve only started coming out of my shell this year, with uni, and trying to be more sociable. It’s hard though, it’s a struggle. I think I give off bad vibes, that I don’t wanna talk, that I’m unfriendly, when it’s the opposite really… I meet some cool people, but then they have their own friends too, and they probably aren’t as eager to chill as I am. And once the social interaction is over, I’m back to being lonely.
There’s a disproportion between the landscape itself and the liberties that culture can take within this map of twisting streets and blockaded buildings. To the unassuming, opportunities and cultural activities feel few and far between.
Western Sydney, on the other hand, where the Sweatshop writers collective is based, is perceived by many as a kind of antidote to the excess and/or collapse of everything the eastern suburbs represent – community over individuation, realness over spuriousness. The group’s last collection, The Big Black Thing, includes contributions from high school students, published authors, and burgeoning voices like Shirley Le, Maryam Tayyaba and Winnie Dunn. These are writers who stay true to their contexts, and create work that has palpable relevance to readers’s lives. Specificity reigns as the most useful tool.
This part of Sydney, arguably through generational racism and class snobbery, has long been regarded as largely unglamorous. But now, the experimentation of marginalised voices who have been rejecting trite literary convention for years, is the main drawcard to Sydney’s literary scene – far more than many micromanaged and stale ‘official’ cultural activities, that only value culture insofar as it can be digested in a certain way and then sold off.
The experimentation of marginalised voices who have been rejecting trite literary convention for years, is [now] the main drawcard to Sydney’s literary scene.
It’s almost an unfair expectation and reputation to be suddenly levelled against a part of Sydney that has, perhaps because of its high immigrant population, largely been left ignored in a material way for some time – or at least, it becomes a touchstone of attention for an election cycle, the focus dwindling off into inaction as soon as votes are won. When it comes to other districts in the city, class makes itself heard in more underlying ways – in Sydney privilege grants power but also conceals its reach and impact – no-one wants to write a poem about Paddington, and there is, evidently, a dwindling market for personal essays on Sydenham. As Robert Glover writes:
In general, people are not drawn to perfection in others. People are drawn to shared interests, shared problems, and an individual’s life energy… Hiding one’s humanity and trying to project an image of perfection makes a person vague, slippery, lifeless, and uninteresting.
As a collective of culturally and linguistically diverse writers, Sweatshop represents something that has been surveyed and understood by the white Australian gaze as less manicured than the imagined ‘Sydney 2000’ that was culturally construed and marketed to us in our youth, and is still echoing in the Australian imagination. The styles and attitudes are at once markedly different from Subbed In or even Sydney Writers Festival, and Sweatshop prides itself on its ‘specificity through research’ – it’s a kind of professionalism and dedication that almost takes its cue from academia, while not foregoing storified complexity and community involvement.
Writing about literary cultures, of a specific kind in liberal or quasi-progressive persuasions in Australia is also futile without talking about Melbourne. It’s the elephant in the room that can’t be skirted around – we need to stand out from under its shadow, assess its leathery folds and unshakable greyness and ask ourselves what is to be done. But when it comes to the international-ness of Sydney, the most populous city in Australia and the most globally-renowned, the tides become more unclear. A sense of cohesion is not really actualised; every little pocket of Sydney suburbia looks frighteningly disparate to the next.
A sense of cohesion is not really actualised; every little pocket of Sydney suburbia looks frighteningly disparate to the next.
Asking Sweatshop writer Stephen Pham about the separation between cliques and cities he notes, ‘I’ll take a stab in saying maybe that lack of outlet via literary journals leads Sydney people to set up their literary communities/cultures that perhaps require a little less capital than publication. If we’re comparing it to Melbourne, it might be less centralised. Not a bad thing.’ Melbourne’s cultural overlap does not always apply to Sydney, where pockets of creation operate vastly differently between suburbs and scenes. As a result, writing sensibilities perhaps don’t cross over so easily, don’t become so monolithic.
Sydney has a tendency to loom, like an Independence Day alien ship hanging overhead. The spectre of that image, or more generally of something huge and visibly despairing, has, I feel, ingrained itself in, or at least reflects, many people’s knowledge of the city. Other pop cultural arcadias come to mind too – the hyper-stylised Sydney of the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, its hollowed alleyways, off-black plazas that lead into nothing and screencaps of claustrophobically cramped restaurants; the vastness of Qantas hyper-real Australiana, the restrained teenage longing of Looking For Alibrandi. Having grown up between country NSW and Adelaide, I perceived the city as a kind of sadly nationalist utopia, horizonal, hinged on the promise of ‘success’ – tied to connotations of corporatism – but at the same time uninhabitable, a problematic golden land.
I perceived the city as a kind of sadly nationalist utopia, horizonal, hinged on the promise of ‘success’ – tied to connotations of corporatism.
Now living here, it seems the economic threshold, difficulty of daily survival and expropriation of contentment (that one might otherwise find in a small town) has made nihilism the popular ideology. All that manufactured hope didn’t pan out as some might have expected. The zeal of a lit journal like Seizure is a useful point of reference here, as burgeoning writers publish genre-defying, sometimes challenging contemporary works that reimagine and rebound against the simulacrum urban environment. Writers and experimenters like Amelia Dale and Vincent Silk (now based in Narrm/Melbourne), who writes in a way that lapses in and out of stream of consciousness, suggest a neo-dadaist bent – a movement that is pleasingly irrational and schizophrenic and was born out of protest to the hyper-logistical, and atonal ‘reason’ of early 20th-century capitalism. Those conditions play out in similar ways in 2017, as we witness widespread global political and environmental downturn.
Whether it’s the mildly threatening skater boys that stalk into inner-city art shows, looking like they truly have nothing in common with their high-fashion, Ellery-wearing girlfriends beyond a shared investment in pure aesthetics (though they probably all went to the same schools and had the same teachers and housemaids or something), or the bright-eyed sketchings of Subbed In, an initiative centred less on specifying particular writers to develop and more on democratically organised readings and creative workshops – which can slide into that nihilism but is more concerned with alluding to it and confronting it when necessary– there’s a common thread of you know what I’m talking about inner-west deadpan humour that sometimes relies on an insider familiarity for context. They champion writers who toy with thoughtful musings, self-deprecating but committal punchlines, as well as an emphasis on new forms.
This is the post alt-lit democracy – weighted together by the sharper niches of the internet as well as an absurdist nostalgic Australiana, a willingness to see how every kind of writing can embody its own lyricism. It is an anti-Melbourne voice only in the sense that the landscapes that recur in the writings reveal the futility of millennial hope and aspiration which is routinely crushed by Sydney’s lack of liveability. Dorothy Porter’s literary imaginings, once so tangible, have been expanded upon and rooted to the spot. The recently published novel by Shaun Prescott, The Town, briefly hints at this mindlessness and ennui as it nears its conclusion, as does Peter Polites’ Down The Hume, ascribing bare-faced truths to Sydney’s fringe suburbs. It’s a relief to hold breath in an environment where this catharsis is possible.
The landscapes that recur in the writings reveal the futility of millennial hope and aspiration which is routinely crushed by Sydney’s lack of liveability.
On one hand, it could be easy to write off Subbed In as feeding into the same old cliches, except many of the writers are overwhelmingly students coming to terms with their own work and playing with voice, even first-timers who have been encouraged (or even persuaded, in the face of years of internalised self doubt) to step up to the mic. Many of these initiates feel more welcome at Subbed In and more aligned to its ethos and spirit than, say, a generic university reading group – it speaks to the group’s integrity and constantly evolving spirit of inclusion and understanding.
Over the time I’ve been attempting to write about class, I keep coming back to the idea of ‘place.’ One is not ever resolved without the checkpoint of the other. Someone who grew up in an isolated place in Australia with a similar family wage would never have the amount of options that a middle class Sydneysider might have – isn’t this disparity between distant peers still a class matter? Unzipping the covers of this ideological rucksack often feels like a task beyond my comprehension, an analytical summit that must be left to the experts, something we look to theory to quantify, even though in Australia the lived experiences of those from working class backgrounds are not truly listened to. Perhaps this is what Shannon Burns lamented in his polarising recent article ‘In defence of the bad, white working class’, as self-referential and colour-blindly averse to race realities as it came off. He writes:
Our competitors are typically required to undergo extensive and onerous retraining [in the search for a job], which puts them at a significant competitive disadvantage. In short, our empathy and values are largely untested, and our livelihoods rarely, if ever, come under threat.
It’s difficult to do this in Sydney, where everyone feels both geographically and spiritually distant from one another, and those cross-overs can be safely avoided. God forbid. Young people in the inner west who are convinced of their proletariat identity, who are attracted to the artifice of it as if it would grant them cultural cachet and reputability, despite all evidence to the contrary, certainly do dominate the conversations.
Young people in the inner west who are convinced of their proletariat identity, who are attracted to the artifice of it…certainly do dominate the conversations.
With my work as both a writer and photographer, there is a convenient back-and-forth between intentional subject matter and naturally occurring themes that informs this desire to infer the macro from the micro. I’ve often found it more useful to step back from demagoguery or propheteering to instead look at the microscopic.
I am critically fascinated with the ways geographic unity is purposefully constructed and sorted by access, how location bests narrative and the lack of criticality around it, how the sameness of suburbia lines up against the culture and cosmopolitanism of urban life and its respective vitality. A quick look at Chart Collective’s recent ‘Legend’ project – a map-based collective work interested in assigning story to place – showed that despite some literary outliers, the main benefactors continue to be those living in specific hubs around the south-east of the country. We are imprinted with where we live; the taken-for-granted-ness of growing up in a big city on Australia’s east coast is rarely spoken about with nuance. Maybe those who have had that access might feel panicked that they’ve missed one extra privilege that has previously remained unchecked. It adds ethical and contextual layers to our great big problem of diversity in perspective and leaves them unaddressed, limp on the surface of the water before drifting sadly down.
It can be disheartening to speak these feelings into open air, only for them to echo out without response – the dialogue currently lacks width and scope, and transplants to Sydney especially struggle in silence, without the vocabulary to understand this climate of inadequacy. I thought about this the most after moving between the city and country when I was younger, and again those emotions returned when I moved from Adelaide to Sydney two years ago.
The young writers here are thinking about it too, eagerly upending traditions and decrying the status quo – specifically that unsustainable vision of pride that was forced down our throats amid the economic fruitfulness of our parents’ generation. We are exposing and detonating the old traditions and forms of writing and of being, turning away from the farce of literary ‘perfection’, laughing in the face of expectation.