- These Strange Outcrops, by various authors. Cicerone Journal, $10.
A "Canberra story" has come to mean something involving government, intrigue, shadowy organisations, the long hand of the law and people making some attempt to be servants of the public. In its common literary imagining, Canberra is less of a place and more an agent of activity, a thing without human accountability making decisions to wide-ranging and far-reaching effect.
So, starting from a blank page, what does a contemporary collection of stories about Canberra - more than just the seat of Parliament - look like? What should it look like?
Editors Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran were not sure when they first started assembling These Strange Outcrops, an anthology of new Canberra writing. The online literary journal they edit, Cicerone, published its first issue a year ago, but the prospect of committing new writing to print was a new challenge.
Now the journal, which was supported with funding from artsACT, is still in boxes. Its distribution has been delayed as readings, launch parties and the perusing of book shops have been limited in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. Its immediate future will be a print and digital hybrid.
Jin says their focus had always been local, looking away from the interests of journals in Sydney and Melbourne. "We thought Canberra has a pretty vibrant writing community, and it's very diverse and interesting as well, so we kind of wanted to do something that represented that and be something unique to Canberra," Jin says.
After posting a call-out for new writing online, it did not take long for writers to emerge keen to describe the cold depths of the city's winter - which comes as a rude shock for the annual intake of newcomers - or life lived close to the natural environment.
Between Jin and Moran, there are two experiences of the city: Moran is a true local, born and raised, while Jin moved here when she started university. "I don't think I liked it very much at the beginning, but I think being here for a longer time, I see all the things that Ros is talking about and I find that nice about Canberra," Jin says. "You get that sense, you sort of have to build up a community in Canberra."
Moran says she has tried living in other places a couple of times but her fondness for Canberra is undimmed. "I suppose after a while I find a lot of the stereotypes and the endless, repetitive jokes about it to be quite annoying," she says.
"[Canberra] really is at that point where, even compared with how it was when I was small, it's got a big population, there is stuff happening here. There's enough of a diversity of people that the old stereotype of it's all public servants is, I think, frustrating. And I say that with awareness and irony that I am a public servant and so is Nancy. But, that aside, I think the point still stands."
It was quite the challenge to take on, as editors of a newly established literary journal and then an anthology. There's something weighty about the task of making words permanent in print.
Jin had seen the process up close as an intern at a literary journal in Melbourne, while Moran's work has previously appeared in journals and she been on the receiving end of editorial advice. As editors themselves, Jin and Moran trained their initial focus on content rather than form.
"I think we're always interested in the idea and the thoughts and feelings that the writer wants to express," Jin says. "If the story is really engaging, I think we will consider that most of all. Because, I think, we've had pieces that were very well-written but we didn't feel like we engaged with the story."
Moran says they were not shy of intervening if it meant they could bring a deserving piece of writing into the collection. "We've always been pretty adamant that we didn't want to dismiss people out of hand just because they didn't write in a particular style, which you might learn at university; not everyone has the opportunity to, you know, learn that style," she says.
"There have been cases where we have done quite a lot of editing with people, and that's been rewarding. Sometimes those people face barriers in getting their words out there because an editor will see the flaws and kind of go, 'This is not even that well written' and just throw it out."
The result is a collection of stories, poems and pictures which speaks to the close relationship between people and place in Canberra; the writers range from first published to experienced. Monica Carroll's poem, Former creeks and miniature railways, describes Mt Stromlo Observatory as "just a grey dot - a circle in grids of green. It's the same dot even though the old dome melted".
Moya Pacey's poem records the interior of Smiths Alternative, where the music was "too loud": "The blackboard behind the coffee machine/ promises 'Dark Cabaret' on Tuesday night./ Maybe someone will light a candle?" Alisha Nagle's story, The Swooper, takes place just over the border: "Everyone knew Jesse was the dumbest kid in Jerra and would do anything for a girl's attention." A glance at the contents shows up many familiar places: Mulligan's Flat at 6.30pm, Farrer Ridge, Crace Park and A New Arrival at Companion House.
Hilda Fitzgerald's You are now New Australians is a poignant account of her mother's life transplanted in the wake of the Second World War to Canberra in 1953: "Canberra became her home by government and church generosity. ... It was easy to pick the migrants in our street. Every available piece of land was planted with a variety of tomatoes and potatoes or broad beans."
The collection gives more local places a literary identity, part of developing a deeper sense of how the city's stories are shaped and told. "I think it's easy to think, with places that are fictionalised more, that this is what [for example] a New York story is like. And that's really not the case with Canberra - yet. I think that's what makes it interesting," Jin says.
"It helps you see some of the new places mentioned, it kind of gives them a more storied identity," Moran says. "I guess Canberra isn't a place you're used to hearing about a lot in stories, so when you actually see someone write about it, write about moving to this suburb or something like that, it suddenly creates a new kind of identity around that place for the reader - which is nice."
Moran doesn't think there's such a thing as an archetypal Canberra story. "I almost think as soon as someone comes up with a fixed definition of what a Canberra should be, that should almost be torn up and challenged again," she says.
"I think reading the stories we received was a process of finding out what a Canberra story looked at. At risk of undermining the anthology, you can't really believe any particular set of curated stories in an anthology. We did our best to pick an interesting brunch which all brought something different, but that's as much representative of our tastes and editing criteria as it is of the place," she says.
The anthology has been printed at a difficult time for writers. Usual in-person events have been called off, making it hard to get the collection to readers. It will be published online in Cicerone in the meantime with a delayed launch event planned. "I suppose I hadn't really thought about the melancholy of the unopened boxes yet, but I'm sure we'll get there," Moran says.
- These Strange Outcrops can be ordered from www.ciceronejournal.com