Amy Van Der Linden reviews We’ll Stand in that Place Ed. Michelle Cahill
We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories
Edited by Michelle Cahill
Reviewed by AMY VAN DER LINDEN
‘In the short story form, a writer commits to a vivid and entire world; a world in which voice and dialogue matter exceedingly, sometimes tangentially, and every sentence is measured to carry structural and thematic weight.’
– Michelle Cahill. (vii)
We’ll Stand in that Place and other stories, is the latest anthology of the Margaret River Short Story Competition. The competition is an annual contest, open to authors of any age and nationality. Previous editors have been Ryan O’Neill, Ellen van Neerven, Laurie Steed and Estelle Tang. Nineteen short stories were selected out of over 240 entries. Michelle Cahill, who edited the 2019 edition has compiled a collection of stories covering a range of contemporary themes such as climate change, cultural inclusiveness, complex relationships and emotions, family and the need for queer spaces. Both emerging and established writers whose work highlight features of the short story form are included.
The winning story, titled ‘We’ll Stand in that Place’, by Kit Scriven is both an intense and intriguing story. Upon my first read, I was unsure of the exact events of the story, but was blown away by Scriven’s ability to both conceal and rearrange details. After the second read, it was clear that I had missed the overdose of Andy in the beginning. In her introduction, Cahill writes, “one needs to read attentively to learn that Andy has overdosed; that Baby’s grief is ritualised.” (ix) Scriven uses descriptive imagery and words that are full of deep emotions, both layered and symbolic, as the reader follows the protagonist dealing with the death of his first love. I agree with Cahill when she says Scriven’s craft produces something both “disturbing and unique.” He “marries the beautiful with the sordid.” (ix) As a reader, I was drawn to the character of Baby, because as his name suggests he isn’t your usual grown man. He sees things differently to other characters; he “wasn’t finished properly” and he doesn’t “belong.” (8) This story tells the experience of queer culture in the local and often dangerous streets of St Kilda and the experience of these non-binary and queer characters. The subject matter of this story made me excited for inclusivity in the genre of fiction. A distinctive feature of this story is the way it makes one feel both disoriented and connected. After reading this piece, I found that it continued to linger in my thoughts for a long time afterwards.
Catherine Noske’s ‘Thylacine’, awarded second place, narrates the story of a stay-at-home-wife and her experiences of being home alone during her early pregnancy. Her husband is a geologist who takes frequent field-trips to northern Western Australia as he discovers a rare fossil called the ‘thylacine’. Noske uses her story to fictionalise themes of absence and the hardships of marriage, whilst subtly commenting on the exploitation of Aboriginal land from causes relating to the mining industry and white settlement. Noske uses the finding of the fossil as the central framework of the narrative, and the subtle details of traditional gender norms, broken relationships and dependability soon follow. The wife fills the void between her husbands’ absences by washing his dirty clothes, whilst falling in and out of dream like sequences of happier memories when she and her husband were together. The small details of their absent relationship and wife’s dependency of her husband makes a comment on exposing traditional gender roles as she centres her day around waiting for him to get home from his trips. Whereas the husband uses his field-trips as an escape from his marriage and becomes so used to leaving that sometimes he “tells her it is field trips, but it isn’t. He finds things to do.” (16) Through the third person narration, Noske expresses the distance emotionally and physically between the husband and wife. Cahill comments in her introduction, that the story is “composed of numbered sections, each a possible prose poem”. (ix) This experimental style is exciting as it shines a light on the possibilities of the short story to break the boundaries of conventionality.
Rachel McEleney’s story ‘The Day the Rain Stopped Dancing’, was awarded the South West Prize. This story was one of my favourites because of its creativity and for its futuristic theme. McEleney addresses the two topical issues of climate change and veganism as the framework for her piece. She creates a world that is genetically modified by a US grain called ‘GentaCorp’s GM 21’ which cross-pollinates with other crops and mutates human cells. From naturalistic beginnings a strange, lonely world of climate change and animal extinctions quickly follows. Lily, mother of two and wife to husband ‘Jase’ is watching the news for updates and plans to keep her family safe from the mutating cell. Somewhere along her flashbacks to her childhood and long walks outside in the rain, the reader is aware that her loneliness has slowly driven her to insanity. The reason this story stood out to me was because it commented on a topical issue in an inventive and creative way and the ending was surprising. It creates a powerful message that anticipates a future dystopia that could happen if we fail to act on our environmental crisis today.
It is refreshing to see such a range of impressive stories that defy the conventions in narrative storytelling, especially when we are living in times in which literature is being produced and marketed for mainstream consumption. The collection shines a spotlight on new writers in the form of themes, character voices and the subject matter of the stories. Though no story is like the other, they all interpret the complexity of emotions that “we sometimes fail to honour in our daily lives and close relationships.” (Inroduction, viii.) Whether it is the masculine perspective and tough realism in Mark Smith’s ‘A Concreter’s Heart’, or the heartbreaking and layered emotions of Mirandi Riwoe’s story ‘Cinta Ku’, we see the idea of the complexity of emotions being both explored, discovered and lost.
In Jenni Mazaraki’s story ‘Somebody’s Baby’, K.W. George’s ‘Three Dog Night’ and K.A. Rees’ ‘Butterscotch’, the reader delves into the feelings of a sense of home, whilst also dealing with the complications of feeling lost. Both Justine Hyde’s story ‘Emotional Support’ and Darryl R. Dymock’s story ‘A Tough Little Bird’, both are stories about passengers in flight. Hyde’s use of humour contrasts cleverly with the grief and anxiety that is present in the character’s evident feelings of loss due to the passing of her partner. Whereas in Dymock’s short story, he uses an artificial conversation between two plane passengers, that slowly turns into a truthful and cathartic conversation to help the protagonist dealing with the stress of visiting her ill mother back home. Dymock demonstrates through his writing, how even in the most unexpected of times we can find a sense of hope to deal with our emotions and anxieties.
The nineteen short stories are eclectic in subject, making for a stimulating read. Each invites a discussion on themes from sexual awakenings to complex family relationships, cultural inclusivity and ecological dystopia. Characters are found talking to trees; or on a plane with a unique travelling companion. There’s even a monster in a lake, rendered with suspense and plausibility. The open theme of the competition means that readers are treated to an impressive range, while Cahill offers a neat summary of what makes a good short story. This collection doesn’t feel jolted or messy, but something that is much more than the sum of its parts.
AMY VAN DER LINDEN is a recent graduate of Swinburne University of Technology. She has graduated with a major in Professional Writing and Editing and a minor in Literature. She is eager to start a career in the literary industry and use the skills she has acquired from her studies in her work.