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The Territory, in its own write

Dozens of literary journals adorn the bookshelves of my Alice Springs office. Whether I have read them from cover to cover is another matter. Usually I scan each volume like a kitehawk scavenging for prey, dive for a morsel or two, move on. Trouble is, for a writer such journals are widely considered a pathway to publication. The loosely-stacked volumes are mostly trial subscriptions, a single year of editions purchased at a discount that couldn’t be missed. Next year I ‘traded up’ to a different journal, hoping for something better, Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, right-leaning Quadrant, left-leaning Overland, and somewhere in between, Granta.

Don’t get me wrong, there are gems to be found in such journals and they can be unforgettable. ‘Return of the Camel Lady’, a short essay by Robyn Davidson in a 2006 edition of Griffith Review is a favourite. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to his friend the late Roger Deakin for a work entitled ‘Fragments’, in a 2015 edition of Granta is another. And there are undoubtedly fresh treasures on my shelves waiting to be dug from each sadly neglected collection. But so little of the content is concerned with the Northern Territory, that I sometimes wonder why I subscribe at all.

The answer is complicated, like most worthwhile things in life. But another question is equally pressing. Given my ambivalent relationship to literary journals, why on earth would I want to start one? Which is exactly what two research colleagues at Charles Darwin University and I have been weighing up this past year. If you have a minute, I’ll explain why there is no dedicated Northern Territory literary journal on my shelves, and why we so desperately need one.

I am not alone in having mixed feelings about literary journals. As Imogen Smith wrote in her 2017 PhD on the subject, ‘everyone agrees literary journals are important, but no one wants to read them’. Which explains in broad terms the research to date suggesting that most Australian literary journals are not economically viable. They are published into a tough market that is highly concentrated in major cities where they depend for survival on a drip-feed of subsidies from a dwindling reservoir of government grants. Contributing writers represent a substantial readership for a given journal. Such people are sometimes called ‘prosumers’, a term recently coined to describe those who produce and consume creative materials. In the north and centre of Australia any potential cohort of readers is spread so thinly across the country’s most far-flung reaches, that making a go of a literary journal seems perhaps that much less realistic. Readers being mainly the writers of journals arises, Smith suggests, due to the growth of a university-led ‘creative writing industry’, something still barely registering in our regions. But elsewhere in Australia such offerings foster a ‘shadow economy’ that further distorts the already mendicant disposition of literary journals. Unsurprisingly, such a fragile industry is feeling a little queasy under the combined influences of neo-liberalism, new technologies and shrinking university and government arts budgets.

Nonetheless, literary journals remain an important part of Australia’s culture and, among their many benefits, help young and mid-career writers to hone their skills. Some of these writers become prominent. Robyn Annear, in an otherwise dismissive 2013 article for The Monthly, went so far as to label literary journals a ‘hatchery for new talent’. Former journal editor Philip Edmonds suggests in Tilting at Windmills (2015) that the magazines have ‘represented and reflected the mediating role culture has performed in the evolution of contemporary Australia.’ At the heart of matters, however, remains the fundamental question of how to fund, manage, and plan for what Edmonds also calls ‘publications that are culturally valuable, but economically unviable’.

It is almost two decades since Northerly (2000) replaced Northern Perspective (1977-1999) to become the very last uniquely Territorian journal of prominence to be published. Back then the volumes appeared annually, produced by Darwin Community College, then Northern Territory University (NTU), where they struggled in their final years, ultimately losing funding from the Australia Council and NTU. The final editions of Northern Perspective reproduced the entrants and winners of the NT Literary Awards, now published separately by the Northern Territory Library. Ostensibly a last-ditch attempt to rebrand its predecessor, Northerly ran for one brave edition before folding also.

Territory publishers do exist, though none produces a dedicated literary journal, focussing instead on books. Alice Springs’ Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) Press, for instance, recently republished Peter Latz’s Central Australian classic Bushfires and Bushtucker (2018). Ptilotus Press, also based in Alice Springs, is consolidating its reputation with a couple of recent major awards for its Inland book series. Ptilotus had briefly floated an online literary magazine in 2012 called Inland Sea but ceased publication after one edition. There is the annual NT Literary Awards, modestly published as a collection of finalists’ works by the Northern Territory Library, and Imprint, an annual NTWC members-only, limited-edition journal in print. There are occasional works from NT Library, intermittent and independent zines, sporadic academic texts from CDU Press, and a rich array of storytelling and non-fiction published by Batchelor Institute Press, primarily for Indigenous Australian students living in remote communities, the majority of whom have English as a second or third language. Last but not least is Flycatcher, a small-circulation print and online magazine for students and staff of Charles Darwin University.

Unrecognised in this current incarnation of a Northern Territory literary industry is that the north and centre of Australia holds a cherished and historically significant place in Australian literature. As literary historian Mickey Dewar describes in her history of the Territory’s settler literature In Search of the Never Never (1997), ideas such as ‘Outback’, ‘Never Never’ and that Australia has a ‘spiritual heart’, are given voice in the Territory. From the journals of colonial explorer John McDouall Stuart to early and mid- twentieth century writers of the Territory such as Ion Idriess, Ernestine Hill and Frank Clunes, literary constructions of a settler Australian identity often relied on central and northern storytelling for their bricks and mortar.

Long neglected, however, were the Dreaming stories of precolonial Indigenous Australians. While the tales of white explorers were celebrated, the stories of earlier Indigenous journeys were ignored. But this might be changing. Public interest in Australian literature is growing and Indigenous voices are being amplified within the Territory and across the nation. The stories of journeys along the Indigenous songlines are gaining currency, evidenced in the success of the recent art exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sister Dreaming. The seeds were there in TGH Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend and later bestsellers such as Robyn Davidson’s Tracks (1980) and Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (1987). Recently, more nuanced portraits of the Territory have emerged in Alice Springs artist Rod Moss’ award winning Hard Light of Day (2010) and Alexis Wright’s Tracker (2018). Indeed, former Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham once suggested there were more writers per square metre in the Territory than anywhere else in Australia..

Occasionally there appears a compendium of Northern Territory writing published by outsiders, notably by Griffith Review and Kill Your Darlings, along with the odd ‘literary’ post in Crikey’s blog, ‘The Northern Myth’. However, none publishes a homegrown literature of the Territory for broad distribution, no regular taste of Territorian poetry, memoir, fiction, creative non-fiction, criticism or Indigenous storytelling. In other words, that which Territorians and others most want to read and hear, a factor increasingly evident from growing attendances at our writers’ festivals and literary events. Local writers must instead compete for space in journals outside the Territory, which are frequently less interested in their work, not for want of quality but for their intrinsic focus elsewhere, geographically speaking. This ‘outsider’ influence frames a great deal of the writing of the Northern Territory, the view from afar sketched by a visiting journalist or travel writer who writes their piece and leaves.

To the outsider, the Northern Territory is a ‘frontier’, a notional divide between Indigenous and settler, primitive and civilised. It is the other side of an Australian ‘real’ where imagination rules a vision reinforced by the starry-eyed gaze from elsewhere. Throughout settler history this divisive metaphor has forged deeply-sown myths and political misconceptions regarding the Territory landscape and its people. Such imaginings begin with a lack of knowledge, demonstrated in the earliest ‘pre-discovery’ maps of Australia boasting pink elephants that might roam the inland.

In the Top End in 2015, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott stood on a concrete dam wall near Kununurra against a spectacular backdrop of the controversial Ord River scheme to declare the North the nation’s ‘next frontier’, a region ripe for exploitation of its natural wonders. The rich ‘wealth of the North’ still looms large in the imaginations of Australians and their politicians. Such mythologies underwrite a contemporary push to ‘Develop the North’, to tap Australia’s last repository of infinite wealth, a place recently reinscribed as ‘Boundless Possible’ in a bid to attract more tourists. In fact, there exists in the north and centre a tenuous balance of ecologies that is poorly understood and little researched. But this is no barrier to the outsider imagination, a wrong-headedness Xavier Herbert tried to put right in Capricornia in 1937 when he wrote ‘The blunny place is always either a desert or a lake … rabbits’ve got more sense than them blowbags that write in the Southern papers.’

But perhaps we can turn this all to our advantage. A uniquely Territorian storytelling could inform and entertain not only Territorians, but also strategists and planners, domestically and globally, who may be interested in the people, places and politics of Australia’s North and Centre.

In marketing parlance, every new product needs a ‘point of difference’ to foster readership, and many opportunities come to mind. Big Australian publishers have vacated the literary field in pursuit of the next Harry Potter, with the task of publishing literature left to independent publishers and literary journals. News services across the globe are suffering serious decline from digital disruption of the media industry and many regional newsrooms have, in the fallout, become ill-equipped to unpack the complex politics of the Territory for their readers. Gone also from metro editions are many arts pages, including book reviews and literary criticism. And there is untapped value in multilingual literatures, currently little recognised in Australian publishing. Many Indigenous Territorians have unique insights regarding landscape, its management and understanding human’s relationship with it through storytelling and art. First Nations journals and hybrid publications abound overseas, and Australian examples are emerging. For example, The Lifted Brow’s recent Blak Brow edition, a First Nation version of itself brokered through Moondani Balluk, an academic unit at Victoria University.

Whether to produce editions in print, digital or both also offers opportunities, but is also a curly matter with significant cost and readership ramifications. In the digital age it is easier than ever to configure and share storytelling through video, audio, interview and image, and in more than one language. There remains nonetheless a sense of legitimacy around print that pervades Australian literary journals, but also this strong pull to digital, in particular for the innovative role it might play in Indigenous and multilingual spheres. That Indigenous story is originally an oral tradition suggests a possible shift for any uniquely Territory literary journal from one of writing to one of storytelling. As one Alice Springs elder told me: ‘Aboriginal people want to tell their stories or paint them, not write them.’ Finally, the challenge of securing a reliable and sustainable funding stream for an NT literary journal has meant investigating philanthropic and other sources, and planning to base the publishing project at a university, where evidence suggests journals fare better in the long term.

The two things the Territory needs in the writing of its portraits are nuance and a balancing insider perspective. So many hopes, dreams and funding are now pinned to developing northern Australia. Yet Territorians remain without the regular forum a literary journal might provide, a place where creative and critical thinkers might evaluate the ‘frontier’ rhetoric that grand schemes such as ‘Develop the North’ entail. In the absence of a Territory journal, the situation serves to reinforce existing stereotypes of the north and centre by promoting representations crafted by visiting outsiders. We need a journal with clout and broad readership, a place where Territorians might speak — to borrow a line from John Lennon — ‘in their own write’. A storytelling publication that is taken seriously, has broad appeal and provides Indigenous, multilingual and multicultural voices alongside non-indigenous voices, might do so by widening the definition of literary writing to storytelling. With a dedicated journal of our own, Northern Territory writers might readily represent their own context in a way that celebrates their stories, art and insider viewpoints. In such a journal, Territorians might stand a chance of restoring sorely needed insider balance to the Territory’s representation, of celebrating their home, which to the rest of the world might otherwise remain forever a ‘frontier’.

The Borderlands project to develop a literary journal of the Northern Territory is being undertaken by Dr Glenn Morrison with CDU researchers Raelke Grimmer and Dr Adelle Sefton-Rowston in three planned phases. A 2018 first research phase was jointly funded by Arts NT and CDU.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Imprint.