When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.
– Maya Angelou
The power and the contribution of Maya Angelou to contemporary social and political life came full circle this week with the news that the writer had died in her North Carolina home on 28 May, aged 86.
Since her death, the reach of Angelou’s work as a poet, autobiographer, performer, activist and scholar has been startlingly apparent. Thousands – perhaps millions – of readers, writers, artists, activists and commentators world-wide have gathered online to express not only sadness at her passing, but also gratitude for the way she tackled critical social justice issues such as race, class and gender discrimination, sexual violence, and the importance of preserving and respecting diversity within cultures.
Like many people I know, I have spent the last few days re-reading Angelou’s work, principally her poetry and autobiographical writings. She was a major influence on my early feminist education, particularly when it came to re-thinking the politics at play in the making of the literary canon. But what was most striking, for me at least, was the way she invoked the lived experience of the body in her writing, and her courage in exploring and giving voice to the self-determining power that can come through acts of witnessing and communal approaches to storytelling. For Angelou, literature was ‘life-giving’. She was an early pioneer of the view that the body and the personal are political. This was often expressed not only in the themes of her work, but also in its form and rhythm. As the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in The New York Times, Angelou was
always committed to poetry, its precision and music but also its bardic tradition, the way people told their communal stories across time. She was a poet who wrote to be both read and recited, in the old-fashioned sense of recitation in black churches and schools and around kitchen tables. Poems were meant to be spoken aloud; it was understood that poetry emerged from the body and needed to make sense in the open mouth, as song.
Perhaps it is serendipity then, that some of the same characteristics of Angelou’s work will find their way to the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne tonight – albeit in a very different context – when Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement present #Three Jerks as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
#Three Jerks is a performative reading by Collective members Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites. Ahmad is the author of The Tribe (2014), while Carman is the author of An Elegant Young Man (2013, reviewed by Sophia Barnes for the SRB) . Polites is a critic, writer and editor, most recently of Ornaments from Two Countries (2013), an anthology of experiences from the GLBTIQ communities of Western Sydney and regional NSW.
Like much of their individual writings, #Three Jerks is grounded in a politics borne of lived experience. The show is set in the year 2000, the same year as the Sydney Olympics and what has become known as the ‘Sydney gang rapes’. It takes its lead from the media response to those crimes and explores the effect of racial and religious stigmatisation on Arab and Muslim communities in Western Sydney.
The political range of the writing is impressive. #Three Jerks tackles Australia’s propensity towards monoculturalism, reductive representations of suburbia (particularly Western Sydney), racism, sexism, homophobia and religious discrimination, representations of masculinity, and the experiences of shame, pride and anger. The stories are interlinked, and the writing and the staging of the performance works the bodies of its writers to full effect. Ahmad, Polites and Carman write themselves as Australia would have them – as the leb, the wog and the bogan. And they use these identities to challenge a series of uneasy perceptions.
I saw #Three Jerks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where it premiered last week. It is part theatre, part reading. The writers stand on stage and read from texts positioned on music stands. There are no props, just a backdrop. The work is read, not ‘acted’, but the effect is powerful, and I disagree with the blogger who said the show could be enhanced by a more conventional theatrical rendering. For me, at least, the power of #Three Jerks lies in its performative quality, and the direct line it establishes between narrative and audience. To disrupt and break that spell with theatrical illusion would defeat an important part of the experience. #Three Jerks did what I want writers’ festivals to do – it made me think, it pushed my buttons, and it helped me remember that literature still has the power to surprise, provoke and innovate.
On 23 May, Luke Carman was one of four writers to be named as the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Best Young Australian Novelists’ during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He joined Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites (2013), Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of Inheritance (2013), and Fiona McFarlane, whose novel The Night Guest (2013) has been shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award.
Burial Rites also picked up the Literary Fiction Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards on 23 May, while The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion won Book of the Year. For a full list of other winners see the ABIA website.
This week the Sydney Review of Books includes outstanding essays by Kerryn Goldsworthy and former federal Education Minister Peter Garrett. Goldsworthy’s review of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is published a week after the young writer’s in-conversations and panel presentations at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Garrett’s essay, ‘Free, Compulsory and Secular’, reviews Marion Maddox’s Taking God to School, a book that offers “instructive reading for anyone interested in understanding how we have reached the stage where towards a third of students attend private schools, nearly all of a religious character, with many receiving substantial support from the federal government”.
From The Archives features two essays. The first, in recognition of National Reconciliation Week, is Eve Vincent’s review of Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. The second is Julieanne Lamond’s review of Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities – an essay and a book that grapple with matters of timely significance.