Tan, Elizabeth and John Gresham, editors. In This Desert, There Were Seeds. Ethos Books and Margaret River Press, 2019. RRP $24.00, 181pp, ISBN: 9780648485087.
In In This Desert, There Were Seeds, a collaboration between Writing WA, Margaret River Press, and Singapore’s Ethos Books, editors Elizabeth Tan and Jon Gresham have co-curated a cross-cultural collection examining communal fears, grief, and, critically, the search for various formulations of hope. Featuring ten short stories from West Australian-based authors and ten from Singapore, the variations in curatorial brief provide telling—and compelling—tensions between the works produced in this collection. The Western Australian authors were prompted with the following questions:
What are our greatest fears? Isolation from this arid land mass or the irony of dense urban space? Do we sow for a common hope, or rake alone? Shall those who come after us inherit these geopolitical, social and economic anxieties? (9)
Conversely, Ethos Books’ open call, themed ‘Our Imagined Futures’, asked Singaporean authors:
So what about tomorrow? What are our fears, and what do we think is changing us forever? […] In order to confront our prevailing fears and concerns, where will we find the courage to face our challenges, to see and do things differently, and build hope and joy for the future? (10)
It is with genre that the variations in curatorial brief seem to manifest. Where the West Australian authors appear to primarily tread the terrain of social realism and slice-of-life narratives, a number of the Singaporean works respond to Ethos Books’ call to ‘imagined futures’ through the lens of speculative fiction. Where Diana Rahim’s ‘A Minor Kalahari’ responds to climate futures with a world of arid bureaucracy, Arin Alycia Fong’s ‘Walking on Water’ offers a vision of rising sea levels, tying Catholic faith and cultural memory to the slow disintegration of Singapore into the ocean. Elsewhere, Queer poet Marylyn Tan offers up the erotically-charged ‘The Blue Leopard’, while Choo Ruizhi’s ‘Aviatrix’ travels furthest into the realm of science-fiction, blending time travel and mysticism into an engaging tale of zoological communication and technological futures. Choo’s story felt reminiscent of Ng Yi-Sheng’s excellent 2018 collection Lion City, as well as Kevin Martens Wong’s novel Altered Straits (2017), perhaps gesturing towards a growing trend of playful and Queer-coded Singaporean science-fiction grounded in explorations of identity and history.
By contrast, when the West Australian authors in this collection venture towards so-called ‘genre fiction’, the works of chilling urban realism lean towards the dystopic. In Leslie Thiele’s ‘The Slaughterman’, a vision of the future closes claustrophobically around the bloody labour of the narrator. Claustrophobic intensity similarly permeates David Whish-Wilson’s ‘Vigilance Security’, in which a narrative divided between surveillance and interiority captures the moment the panoptic performance of urban isolation turns violent:
My senses will awaken as I bear the appetites and complaints of a new exhaustion; as I walk and keep walking, on loops throughout the city, until they come to take me to the place where I will be forevermore under their gaze; observed, measured and analysed, but always carefully watched, always present and real beneath the cameras on the wall, at whom I will wave. (38)
At times the leaps between styles and voices made me wonder if the collection lacked a certain cohesion in its curation; at other times, I could feel the connective tissue of theme working across stories, as seemingly disparate works threw each other into sharp relief. Deeply felt griefs of belonging, ritual and mourning echo through the gentle, poetic realism of Sabrina Dudgeon-Swift’s ‘The Wave’, Rashida Murphy’s ‘Death Lilies’ and Rajkumar Thiagaras’ ‘The White Lotus: Sinking to the Bottom’. Tucked between these stories, Chen Cuifen’s vividly drawn ‘Reunion Dinner’ stands out for its sharp portrait of a diasporic sibling relationship. Explorations to place and space are further complicated by sites of trauma, as in Rachelle Rechichi’s ‘Dark Mulberry’ and Heather Teoh’s ‘Gently Burns the Crescent Moon’, while achingly painful configurations of time are written across many of these works: from Jay Anderson’s ‘Flies’, which tracks the evolution of silence and the closet in country Western Australia through the palpable metaphor of flies to honey, to Jinny Koh’s ‘Contentment’, which left its mark with a wrenching portrait of the deep melancholy found in the distance between past and present:
He stared at her, at this woman whose face betrayed no emotion, and for a brief moment, he remembered the same young girl wading at the beach in her school uniform, the evening sun reflecting off her long black hair, her laughter catching in the wind, the edge of her navy blue skirt darkened and soaked with salt water, her body always testing, always yearning to go deeper, while he stood at the far end, his feet digging into dry sand, watching, waiting, always at the periphery. (105-106)
For my taste, the standouts of this consistently high-quality collection were Cyril Wong’s ‘Harihara’ and Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes’ ‘Maqdala 1868/London 2018’. In ‘Maqdala 1868/London 2018’, the footprint of colonialism in cultural institutions is traced from the perspective of an Ethiopian security guard in a British museum. While the narrator is initially excited (proud, even) to be guarding the artefacts stolen by the British from Maqdala, the evolving point-of-view and development of character is expertly mapped, beginning with an unease that reveals the nature of the institution around him: ‘The curator goes silent. His silence feels heavy. There is something he wants to say, but it’s taboo, I feel, something that shouldn’t be said’ (176).
Wong’s ‘Harihara’, conversely, feels to me the most purely hopeful of the works, despite being seemingly rooted in death and mourning. Wong is a formidable Queer poet (2015’s The Lover’s Inventory is a long-time favourite), and in ‘Harihara’ he turns his sharp sense of erotics towards an elegant prose work of great tenderness, transfiguring the Hindu belief of Vishnu and Shiva’s (homoerotic) merge into Harihara over the story of an elderly lesbian woman sitting in mourning for her partner. The results are frequently breathtaking:
Sumitra was not thinking about love; at least not romantic love, even as such love was surely a part of it. Time was still, and when time stood still, reality was no longer divisible between one body and the next; between this and that, then and now, now—and what was to come. (20)
Taken as a whole, In This Desert, There Were Seeds stands as a worthwhile and dynamic collaboration, showcasing a diverse wealth of literary voices between West Australia and Singapore. One can hope that the seeds sown by this collaboration feed further and deeper cultural exchange between these publishers and authors. There is a fascinating sense of distance travelled, both physical and emotional, across the breadth of this collection, which at its highest points transports the reader across a constellation of ‘elsewheres’.
Andrew is a Queer PLHIV writer and performance-maker between Boorloo and Singapore. Performance texts include 30 Day Free Trial, a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, Poorly Drawn Shark and Unveiling: gay sex for endtimes. He was awarded Overland’s Fair Australia Poetry Prize 2017, and his publication history includes Cordite, Scum Mag, Crab Fat and with Margaret River Press. He was one of the writers chosen for the 2018–19 Westerly Writers’ Development Program.