Interactive Press (Carindale), 2005
(short stories, 179 pages)
Review of The Dispossessed
Lansdown dialogue turns key
by Shane McCauley
In this new collection of short stories, Andrew Lansdown again shows that he is not only an accomplished poet, but a fine writer of prose as well. The range in tone and subject is considerable. The contemporary and naturalistic easily rub shoulders with the historical and satirical.
Each story has a distinct purpose; not so much “something to say”—rather a skilfully presented packet of observations to share with the reader. The pace is measured and well judged.
The title story successfully reflects many elements to be found in the other pieces. It demonstrates Lansdown’s understanding of the absolute importance of human behaviour at what might be called the micro-level, the outwardly ordinary patterns of domestic and social life.
On the surface, not a great deal happens in this story. The narrator has had a bad day at work and returns home to find things little better there. The children are fighting and the narrator begins to simmer. He is on “the edge of violence”.
He suggests they go to the park for their evening meal and his wife is only too happy to comply. The details of season and street and park are deftly and economically conveyed.
Within a page or two we are at home with the narrator, and the story’s strength lies in the conviction given to his character. He muses on the way adults habitually speak to children. He sees an old Aboriginal woman lying under a tree and has to caution himself “against thinking she was dead”.
Later, the woman’s old partner appears and tries to explain her predicament. The situation—the lostness, the homelessness, the bewilderment—is beyond the narrator’s capacity to change: “He was looking at me intently, as if he wanted me to say something wise or sympathetic. But I didn’t know what to say.”
The story ends with the narrator watching these two discarded people, the dispossessed, stagger off into the gloom. It has the quiet, lucid observational power and restraint of Chekhov. This moving empathy with his characters is also to be found in the longer story, Salt, chronicling the lives of a rural husband and wife. It is a warm and engaging account of the pleasures, challenges and vicissitudes of farming life.
The Lepers, which immediately follows it, couldn’t be more different. It is violent and allegorical, culminating in the horrific stoning to death of those who transgress by entering a city without permission.
Much can be read into this tale of confused and hypocritical morality. Only the hardest of hearts would not share the narrator’s belated identification with the condemned.
Understanding and sensitivity is wittily and mordantly swept aside in Out of Grace. It is a return to domestic observation but of a different and darker nature. Here, with sublime political incorrectness, a father itemises the travails of his family, keeping a tally and itemising all the perceived crimes and misdemeanours committed against himself.
The narrator stews in a spirit of vengefulness: “I nearly tripped on his flamin’ tip-truck again. I’ll know better than to buy him one next Christmas.”
Lansdown’s excellent ear for dialogue is a common feature of these stories. In some, such as The Thing That Amused Them, the story is almost exclusively carried by the conversation. “Like driving in a microwave oven,” says one character recalling a long , arduous journey.
Another delightful aspect of Lansdown’s writing, both prose and poetry, is his serious play with metaphor and hyperbole. Sometimes the metaphor is simply apt, there to help us see or feel as the writer sees or feels: “And mice! Scampering everywhere like tufts of shadow.”
On other occasions it is still appropriate but outrageously so: “Faith Higgins, who walked as if two children were pillow-fighting under her dress …”
Lansdown has a fondness for West Australian landscape and history. Many stories are sprinkled with the names of little far-flung towns. In The New Chum he entertainingly evokes the migrant experience as an old-timer recalls the culture shock of his arrival in 1926. In the sweltering heat of Christmas the Englishman is still thinking of “snow and plum pudding”. The voice, the mind, the writer behind these stories is filled with what amounts to a sense of robust compassion. There is enormous strength in the sensitivity and, above all, humility with which these tales are rendered.
Who else but Lansdown could draw forth, not bathos, but genuine pity when the cows eat a woman’s prized nasturtiums in The Only Things? Anyone who has ever felt vulnerable and sad and yet irrationally hopeful will greatly value the humanity of these stories.
Copyright © Shane McCauley
Published in The West Australian, “Weekend Extra”, Saturday, March 4, 2006
Interview re The Dispossessed
Interview with Andrew about The Dispossessed
In this issue [of IP eNews], Assistant Editor [of Interactive Press] Anne Marshall interviews [one of] our Spring Season authors Andrew Lansdown …
Andrew Lansdown is perhaps best known for his award-winning poetry collections, but he’s also written some fine fiction, including his Highly Commended IP Picks 2005 title The Dispossessed.
MARSHALL: You’re a well-published author in both prose and poetry. Do you find you can work on a poetry manuscript at the same time as a prose manuscript, and can you borrow from each technique or must they remain a separate entity?
LANSDOWN: I usually have a number of writing projects underway at any one time. This is more by necessity than by choice, because new ideas come before old ones are settled.
I do not find it difficult to shift from poetry to prose and back again. In fact, writing in different genres helps to overcome writer’s block. If, on a given day, I lack the impetus and/or insight to work in one genre, I can usually do something in the other.
Of course, poetry and fiction are significantly different from one another in intent and intensity. So there is a sense in which they require separate approaches and remain separate entities. Yet both are writing, after all. So skills developed in one genre are potentially useful in the other.
I think that being a poet has helped me to become a better prose writer. Poetry has instilled in me a love for the English language itself, and I have brought that love to my prose. Language in poetry is often (almost) an end in itself, while in prose it is often (almost) a means to an end. Poetry is sitting in a garden to enjoy the moment, while prose is riding on a train to get somewhere. Thanks to poetry, I find that I want every sentence in a story to be balanced and pleasing to the ear. I want my prose to have some of the qualities of poetry.
MARSHALL: What made you decide to write a collection of short stories about these themes, such as cross-cultural and social interactions and how individuals and family members see one another? Was it from personal experience, or musings of an imagination?
LANSDOWN: I did not decide to write a story collection, as such. Rather, I set out to write this story—then this one. The subject, theme and mood of each story reflect particular interests or preoccupations that I had at the time of writing. When at last I began to gather the stories into a collection, I was surprised and pleased to discover the recurrence of certain concerns.
Some stories sprang from chance ideas, others from fragments of information, and still others from my own experience.
The events described in “The Dispossessed”, for example, are not far from reality. I did go to the local park with my family and I did encounter and help an Aboriginal couple. When I later reflected on the actual persons and events, I decided to transform them into fiction. And as I worked on the story, a certain mood took hold and a particular theme began to emerge.
Other stories are not so strongly grounded in experience—and some, such as “The Lepers”, are quite outside my experience. But many are a mixture of personal experience and imaginative musings.
MARSHALL: The points of view in these stories change quite rapidly between each one. In some there are third person, others are first person and some are letters. What made you decide to use these narrative points of view and techniques?
LANSDOWN: In literature, how a thing is said is as important as what is said. Indeed, what is said gains (or fails to gain) power on the basis of how it is said. For this reason—along with a sheer love of language—I have always been interested in form and technique.
I like to experiment with different styles. However, it would be wrong to view the stories in The Dispossessed as experimental. The stories do not vary in point-of-view and technique because I wanted to experiment for the sake of it. The variations arise from the demands of the stories themselves. The forms in which they presently exist are the only forms in which I could get them to exist.
Soon after I began writing short stories, I realised that a story can fail simply because the writer has chosen the wrong point-of-view. I originally wrote “The Leper”, for example, in the third person—and the story did not work. But when I changed to the first person, the story came alive.
MARSHALL: When compiling a short story collection, there are often many short stories too choose from. How did you decide on these particular stories, or were they all written with the collection in mind?
LANSDOWN: Although in their collected form some of the stories exhibit certain similarities in theme and tone, none of them were written with the collection in mind. Rather, they were chosen from a pool of about forty stories that I have had published over the years in various literary magazines, newspapers and anthologies.
While sorting through these stories, I came to feel that certain ones were not strong enough to go into the collection. I wanted to include only the best. However, after IP had accepted the collection for publication, IP director/editor David Reiter expressed reservations about several stories.
After reconsidering these in the light of David’s concerns, I decided to withdraw them from the collection. The end result is a shorter but stronger collection.
MARSHALL: Many of the stories are set in rural situations. Do you think the themes of your stories work better in these settings rather than in an urban setting, or are the themes universal, regardless of the setting?
LANSDOWN: I believe the themes are universal, regardless of setting. Yet a particular setting can facilitate the exploration of a particular theme and/or enhance the theme itself.
MARSHALL: Was any research needed for some of the details that are included in your stories, such as salt gathering in “Salt” and wheat harvesting such as “The Story”?
LANSDOWN: The stories set in the early 1900s contain bits and pieces that I gleaned from discussions with elderly people. My grandfather, for example, helped me with the technical information about horse-drawn harvesters in “The Story”.
An elderly farmer in Burracoppin, a town in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia, told me about collecting salt for his sheep, and I used that snippet of information to form both the plot and the emotional metaphor of the story “Salt”. Also, on his farm he actually had an old stone well of the sort I describe in the story (although it had never been the scene of the sort of catastrophe that I have imagined). I also thumbed through some archives of the Road Board in the area—and it was in these that I learned about the bounty paid on emus at that time, which also figures in the story. And so on …
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
This interview was first published in IP eNews, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2005
Title story from The Dispossessed
by Andrew Lansdown
It had been a terrible day at work and when I got home the kids were bickering and bellowing. I was on the edge of violence.
‘Let’s go to the park for tea,’ I said.
Janice was pleased. The day hadn’t been a picnic for her, either. She got the kids ready.
Nathan wore the Indian headdress that Janice had made for him from parrot feathers and elastic. He strode off ahead of us manfully. I held Rebecca’s hand. She was running, trying to catch up to Nathan, and when she tripped, as she did every few yards, she hung from my arm like a plumb-bob.
I was feeling better.
There were some kids playing in the second street we turned into. They gawked at Nathan’s feathers and the littlest one exclaimed, ‘Look, an Indian!’
Their father was standing nearby, watering the lawn on the verge. I nodded to him. He smiled. He was a Pakistani, and pretty dark, so his smile was a dazzler.
‘Chinese apples!’ Nathan cried, pointing to a lily-pilly tree across the road.
‘Hold up,’ I called. ‘Hold Mum’s hand before you cross.’
Of course, with the Pakistani kids looking on, he felt humiliated, but he did what he was told.
The tree was laden with fruit. Beneath its branches, the pavement was splotched purple and red. I reached up, grabbed a handful and passed them, spilling through my fingers, to Nathan. I picked another cluster for myself. I broke one in half, extracting the small, ball-bearing-like stone, and offered the halves to Rebecca.
‘Nope!’ she said, shaking her head.
‘Don’t the apples grow big in Chinese?’ Nathan asked.
‘They don’t actually come from China,’ Janice said. ‘We just call them “Chinese apples”.’
‘Well, where do they come from?’
‘They’re indigenous,’ Janice replied.
‘I think they come from Queensland,’ I said, hoping that might be more helpful than “indigenous”.
There was an old woman curled up beneath a box tree in the park. I spotted her from the footpath and kept my eye on her. She wasn’t moving and I had to caution myself against thinking she was dead.
Nathan saw her as he reached the slide. ‘I’ll have to be quiet, won’t I?’ he said. He wasn’t at all surprised by her—merely burdened by a felt obligation not to wake her.
I wondered if I should do anything about her, but put off a decision until after tea.
I left Janice and the kids in the park and crossed the highway to a delicatessen. A small Chinese boy came into the shop while my hamburgers were cooking. Quite irrationally, I found myself wondering if they were his apples we’d been eating.
The woman behind the counter didn’t like him. ‘Yes?’ she demanded.
He was only little, so maybe he didn’t notice. I guess kids get used to adults speaking to them like that. He spoke quietly and she kept snapping at him, ‘What? What?’ He pointed at things. Rolling her eyes at me, she left off serving him to prepare my hamburgers.
‘What?’ I heard her snap as I stepped out of the shop.
The kids must have been hungry because they came running at the sight of me. Janice spread a blanket for us to sit on. The old lady was still curled up on the lawn. She hadn’t moved an inch.
‘There’s a Ab’rigine man,’ Nathan said through a mouthful of sausage roll.
I twisted my head to see where he was pointing. An old Aboriginal man was walking down the grassed embankment of the park from the footpath by the highway. He was wearing a shabby, grey suit and he held a bottle of wine to his chest.
Perhaps he heard Nathan, or saw me glance at him—I don’t know, but he changed direction towards us.
‘’Scuse me, brother,’ he said.
I got up to speak to him.
‘See that ol’ gal?’ he said.
‘She bin there all day. Poor ol’ gal,’ he said. ‘It’s ridiculous, an ol’ gal like that. I think I better phone Native Welfare—come pick her up.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s a good idea.’
‘It’s ridiculous, an ol’ gal like that.’
‘Do you know the Welfare number?’ I asked. I thought that perhaps he wanted me to phone for him.
‘I’ll get it,’ he said.
‘Perhaps the people at the Home down the road know her,’ I suggested.
There’s an old age home on the highway a block or so down from the park. Aboriginal Autumn Home, it’s called. How’s that for euphemism and alliteration?
‘I’ll phone from there,’ he said.
‘They might know who she is.’
‘That’s where we’re staying,’ he said. ‘She’s my gal, poor ol’ thing. It’s ridiculous.’
He was looking at me intently, as if he wanted me to say something wise or sympathetic. But I didn’t know what to say. And I didn’t want to look at him too closely because his nose was running, and I knew I was going to think of it while eating my hamburger after he’d gone.
‘She’s blind, you know.’
‘Yes. She’s blind.’
‘Do you want me to phone Welfare?’ There’s a telephone box at one corner of the park and I had the right change.
‘No.’ He gestured in the direction of the Home. ‘I got a phone. I’ll do it.’
He was still looking at me intently. His eyes were bloodshot and watery. There wasn’t any light in them.
‘I’ve got good eyes, so I gotta help. You gotta help, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘You just gotta do it,’ he repeated, shaking his head.
I didn’t know what to say. I was dried up for responses, so I said, ‘Yes,’ again.
‘Well, thank you, brother,’ he said, as if I’d actually done something. ‘You better eat your tea.’
‘You’ll call Welfare?’
‘Yes.’ He stood looking at his feet for a moment. ‘It’s ridiculous, an ol’ gal like that,’ he mumbled as he shuffled off towards her.
‘What you do, Daddy?’ chirped Rebecca as I sat down.
‘I talked to a man,’ I said.
The woman propped herself up on one elbow when the old man sat down beside her. I felt relieved.
When Nathan had finished his sausage roll he ran to the slide. He climbed the ladder and slid down. Although I heard nothing from where I sat, the man must have called him. Nathan ran to him and then came running over to us.
‘Look what the Ab’rigine man gave me!’ He held a bright fifty-cent coin in his hand.
At first I was going to make him give it back but then I thought the old man might be offended.
‘Did you say thank you?’
‘Yep. And when I get home I’m going to put this money in my moneybox. Will you look after it for me, Mum?’ He dropped the coin into Janice’s hand and ran back to the slide.
It was getting dark and neither the old man nor the old woman had moved from beneath the tree. I knew he was too weak and too drunk to help her. I felt—I don’t know—I didn’t feel good, watching them. The dispossessed, I thought.
‘I think I’d better see if I can help,’ I said to Janice. ‘I’ll probably be a while. You take the kids home.’
I wandered over and squatted down beside the old man.
‘Thanks for giving my boy that money,’ I said. ‘It was very kind.’
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of coins. ‘For the children,’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Thanks anyway but they don’t need it.’
‘For the children,’ he said again.
I suddenly realised what he meant. He was worried that Rebecca, who was having a swing, hadn’t been given anything.
‘She’s too little,’ I said. ‘She’ll only lose it. You keep it. You might need it tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, brother,’ he said, as if I’d given him something. He put the coins back in his pocket.
‘Can I help you get her to the Home?’
‘You hear that, Sweets?’ He addressed the woman in a loud voice. ‘This fine gentleman has come to help.’
“Sweets” mumbled something but I didn’t catch it.
‘It’s ridiculous,’ he said to me quietly. Then talking loudly again he said, ‘Come on, Sweets, you can’t stay here, an ol’ gal like you.’
‘I don’t care,’ she muttered.
‘You gotta care,’ he said. ‘You gotta. You don’t want the police to pick you up, do you? They’ll put you in prison.’
‘Don’t care,’ she groaned.
He turned to me and said less loudly, ‘She won’t leave me. She’s a good gal. She bin with me only little while but she won’t leave me.’
He turned back to the woman. ‘You just gotta care.’
‘Let me help you home,’ I said to the woman. I followed the old man’s example and spoke loudly.
‘Harry!’ she cried. Perhaps she had been unaware of my presence. ‘Harry!’
‘It’s all right, Sweets,’ he said, patting her leg. ‘This fine gentleman has come to help.’
She mumbled something again.
‘Come on, Sweets,’ he said, making no effort to move himself. ‘Can’t stay here. You don’t want the police to come.’
As he said this, a man turned off the footpath by the highway and made his way towards us. Harry saw him.
‘Here’s a policeman now,’ he said.
He was not a policeman. He was an elderly Aboriginal man. He’d come from the direction of the Autumn Home.
‘This where you bin, Mrs Bulgarie?’ he said. ‘You best come home. It’s no good you layin’ here.’
‘Come on, Sweets,’ Harry coaxed, not stirring a finger.
‘You shut up, you!’ the newcomer snapped. ‘You bin s’posed to take her to doctor but bin give her plonk instead!’
He pulled at Mrs Bulgarie. She moaned but made no effort to get up. He looked at me.
‘You help me?’ he asked.
I stood up and took hold of Mrs Bulgarie by the other arm.
‘Harry!’ she croaked, as we pulled her to her feet.
‘It’s all right, Sweets. I’m here, Sweets.’
Her dress was sopping wet. It flicked against my leg as she stood up. She did not smell pleasant.
‘You just stand a minute,’ said the newcomer.
We brushed the grass and leaves from her jumper. Then we started across the park. Her arms and legs were skinny but she was very heavy.
‘You gotta help yourself,’ the newcomer said. ‘You gotta help or we can’t do it.’
We juddered along. She was moaning as if we were hurting her.
The old man and I nearly gave up on the slope of the embankment. It was like lugging a corpse. She wasn’t helping a bit.
‘You gotta help.’
‘Not far now,’ I encouraged.
‘Harry!’ she cried. ‘Harry!’ And in her distress the name burst out as a monosyllable and sounded like the squawk of a chook that’s been caught for the chopping.
Harry sat exhausted by the footpath at the top of the embankment. The headlights of the cars whizzing by on the highway lifted him out of darkness.
‘Come on, Sweets,’ he encouraged, but not so loudly, not so confidently as before. ‘You’re worth two. Come on, darling.’
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown
Reprinted from The Dispossessed, Interactive Press (Carindale), 2005