Indigenous issue spreads word in US

ON THE cover of the latest McSweeney's Quarterly a pile of photographs is carefully arranged to show lightning bolts zapping, improbably, from snap to snap, the electric arcs bonding distant, different landscapes.

It's a cute idea for an artwork. But it's also a nod to the literary journal's last 40 pages, where the energy of the modern indigenous Australian voice has jumped halfway around the world, into one of the world's hottest publications.

As any hipster will tell you, in between discussions of the latest mumblecore movie or obscure gallery opening, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is one of the most high-profile homes for short fiction on the planet. For want of a better word, it's very, very cool.

Not only is the fiction some of the freshest, most unexpected work around, but the magazine experiments wildly with its design - one edition it's a box illustrated with a sweaty human head, the next it's a Sunday newspaper, or a bundle of junk mail, or a cigar-box of photos, letters and other ephemera. They even have plans for an edition made entirely of glass, though they're waiting for technology to catch up with their vision.

McSweeney's Quarterly was founded in 1998 by author and editor Dave Eggers, with a mission to publish only works rejected by other magazines. Since then it has relaxed the rules, but it is still strongly committed to new voices.

''It is just a leap of faith that if we really pursue the type of writing that is the most viscerally exciting to us, that will get a response from our readers,'' managing editor Jordan Bass says by phone from San Francisco.

''We are really lucky to have a readership that lets us work that way and doesn't expect us to just come back with the same 10 or 20 writers. They are really willing to follow our preoccupations.''

For each edition his small team scours a ''Machu Picchu-sized'' pile of submissions, electronic and printed, judging each piece on its merits. Bass says the ideal McSweeney's story ''tries to do a lot at once, [it] feels ambitious and adventurous''.

Asked to identify a trend, or a tone in the snapshot of literary preoccupations he dives into every three months, Bass struggles to find a theme.

Occasionally the influence of a widely read writer - a new George Saunders or Wells Tower collection - will wash over the mailbox, he says. And America's ''brutal'' economy and political cycle have influenced submissions. But mainly he's just impressed by the breadth and depth of his in-tray.

Despite the growth of new media, the explosion of blogs and microblogs and the increasing pressure on the printed word, Bass says the submission pile is bigger every month.

''It doesn't feel like a zero-sum situation to me, it doesn't feel like any of that new media stuff detracts from the allure of longer-form writing,'' he says. ''I think that desire [to write fiction] is very much still there.''

For some years now, McSweeney's Quarterly has done the occasional country-specific collection. They began with Iceland, then Norway and Kenya. After the latter, Australian author Chris Flynn wrote to the journal and suggested the time was right to look at indigenous Australian writing.

Bass says the journal does such collections only when there's a sense that ''there was an emergent thing happening''. Flynn, in his introduction to the collection, says that now is just such a moment in indigenous writing: ''fiction here is in the midst of a minor revolution,'' he says, identifying ''a whole range of more marginalised writers who are ready to embrace and experiment with the short form''.

Bass found the style of the writers (Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Ellen van Neerven-Currie and Tara June Winch) fascinating. In the other countries' collections, he says, ''the stories we were getting were very diverse and very surprising, and didn't seem to fit into one notion of what writers in those countries would be trying out''.

But the indigenous Australia collection felt much more like the work of a collective, a group who had found a new voice and were exploring its potential.

''I think they come across as very visceral and realistic, there's a real close-to-the-ground feeling, but also very literary,'' he says. ''They are happily working with this Australian vernacular that's really interesting. The dialogue they write, the way that seeps into their descriptions - the sound of it is really compelling to me.''

He praises the immediacy of the action, the fast, colourful writing. But he says that, as a foreigner, he also senses the presence of the troubled history of Aboriginal Australia.

''The stories are communicated on a very personal level,'' he says. ''[But there's a] social weight, you feel it pressing on them, right from the very beginning.''

Bass hopes that McSweeney's 41 will convey to readers around the world ''a real sense of a kind of literary moment over there''.

Jordan Bass will launch the Wheeler Centre's America series on September 11, and McSweeney's 41: Australian Aboriginal Fiction Edition on September 13. Final tickets are on sale today.

wheelercentre.com

The story Indigenous issue spreads word in US first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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