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Vanessa Berry reflects on The Shelf Life of Zora Cross

In November 2019, I had the honour of launching The Shelf Life of Zora Cross to a full house in the Gallery Room of the State Library of NSW. Since then, the book has firmly established its position as a landmark work of Australian literary biography. In my address that night I celebrated Cathy’s huge achievement in rendering the complex literary and personal life of Zora Cross, and also reflected on how Zora’s life and work resonates into the present. The Shelf Life of Zora Cross continues to resonate, with its continued successes and enthusiastic readership, and now the publication of the second edition this month. I am excited to present my launch speech from 2019, as I congratulate Cathy on the continued life of her brilliant biography, with the publication of the new edition.

The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, by the esteemed writer, researcher and editor Cathy Perkins, brings Zora Cross – the woman, the writer – to us with immediacy and complexity. The book is not only a significant addition to Australian literary history, but also one that makes strong connections to contemporary life and literary culture. There are many details that strike me about Zora Cross from Perkins’s evocative portrayal of her in Shelf Life: her drive, ambition and appetite for life; her courage and her vigour; her strong sense of vocation – that she lived to write, and that she worked hard to secure the ability to do so. Money, time and space remain crucial, and often hard-won, necessities for writers today, especially women. There was a particular moment early in the book where Zora leapt from the page for me – a description of an encounter with a journalist in Brisbane in 1915, when Zora was working concurrently as a writer, a teacher, an actor and the editor of arts and social newspaper the Bohemian. This life of moving between roles and projects is a familiar scenario for contemporary writers. Then, as now, this way of working requires strong reserves of energy and focus:

One day in 1915, Zora is rushing from a rehearsal at the Tivoli Theatre in central Brisbane to the office of the Bohemian to pick up her editor’s salary when she meets a journalist who will later write a profile on her for the Australian Woman’s Mirror. She is ‘slight and pale and terrific with energy’ and covered in red printer’s ink from the paper’s scarlet masthead, which looks like blood on her white dress.

This image of the young Zora, her dress stained with ink, was so startling it was as if I was meeting her in person: I could feel her energy radiate from the page across time, a testament to Perkins’s skill in drawing from her research the resonant moments of Zora’s life that give the reader a sense of intimacy and direct connection. There were other points where I felt Zora similarly close, such as a much quieter moment from later in her life, at Glenbrook, when she was working on the Roman novel that was her final literary work:

Zora was ‘literally bogged down in Rome’ in the years that followed, April remembers. She would have a 2000-years-away look on her face when the girls came home from school. She might be slightly annoyed that they had pulled her back to the present, but she forgave them when they made her a cup of tea. At the end of each day when the house was quiet, she would pour dried peas or beans into a bowl to soak overnight for the next day’s dinner. Then she would settle down to her typewriter, listening for the stationmaster’s footsteps as he walked the length of the platform to keep himself awake. And she would write.

Again I felt an immediacy, as if I was quietly there in the room too, watching Zora concentrating at her typewriter, older now, but writing with the same intensity of focus and dedication that Perkins presents vividly as Zora’s mode of living and working.

This interweaving of writing and life is at the heart of literary biography. Writers exist in multiple: their written work, their identities as public figures and their private lives. Many readers will discover Zora, who has been a neglected figure in Australian literary history, for the first time in reading Shelf Life. The book’s inventive structure, focusing on the story of Zora’s life and work through the relationships that sustained, drove and influenced her, show how strongly she was enmeshed in Australian cultural and literary life, even if her name is not widely known today.

With Shelf Life, Perkins has brought Zora Cross to new generations of readers, and taken us into not only Zora’s life and literary works, but also into the archives, locations and personal connections that preserve her traces. This, to me, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book – following the paper trail of Zora’s life through newspapers, letters and manuscripts, entering the archives with Perkins as she pieces Zora’s life story together.

In one of the early chapters the phrase ‘material legacy’ stood out to me. It’s used in reference to the collection of letters received from authors by critic and editor Bertram Stevens: Zora’s letters to him, as Perkins describes, are intimate outpourings and have the effect of a diary as much as correspondence:

They’re not business letters, nor are they love letters; often they read more like a diary. Because many are undated, the order in the volume is mixed up, so the sense of intimacy begins on the first page. These outpourings chart Zora’s progress from a teacher who writes in the evenings, to a touring actress who writes on trains and mountain tops, to a recognised author who writes all the time. They are ‘notorious and shocking’, she admits, because she writes with a lack of inhibition caused by youth, grief and distance.

I thought about Zora writing these letters – the intensity of her communication, most likely without thought of the words ever being read by anyone beyond the recipient. Those who have done archival research involving personal letters will know the odd, otherworldly feeling of reading them. It is like listening in on a private conversation, but also listening back through time. In Shelf Life, Perkins draws on the energy and intimacy of these letters, and in doing so she brings these qualities to our reading.

While reading Shelf Life, I thought of a line from Beverley Farmer, who wrote in 1987, reflecting on her reading of The Persimmon Tree by Marjorie Barnard, ‘It means very much to me, the invisible network of women reading each other’s work and cherishing it.’ The idea of the ‘invisible network’ has stuck with me, and came up when I was reading Shelf Life, which is very much about visibility, about networks and about women writers, including the kinds of relationships that come about between women who write. I thought particularly of Zora and Perkins here, and the relationship they have across time. Here there is a relationship between a biographer and her subject, but also a relationship between women and between writers.

In Shelf Life, we are also led to consider how Zora’s memory and legacy have both persisted and become hidden. I’m sure all of us have wondered, at some point in our lives, what of us might remain into the future, after we have passed away. How might we persist in social or cultural memory? One way is through our families: our children and their descendants. Zora lives on in her family – her grandchildren and their children. Another way that our legacy persists is through our work: the books we might write, trees we might plant, students we might teach, ideas we might shape, decisions we might make that go on to impact the future.

Writers are given to wondering what of their words might live on into the future – some more than others, as we see in Shelf Life (I love the image of the 97-year-old Dame Mary Gilmore at the very end of her life, asking her niece, ‘Has everything gone to the Mitchell?’) As a writer who has manuscripts in the State Library collection I sometimes wonder who might, potentially, in a century’s time request to look at them, and the books and artworks that I have made. The thought of these works living on after I am gone, having captured something of life in Sydney in the early twenty-first century, reminds me of the power of writing to connect us across time, and that writing can be a way of speaking to the future.

As we gather here in the library tonight we might cast our imaginations back 100 years, to think of Zora Cross in the Mitchell Library reading room, researching her lectures on Australian literature for Sydney Teacher’s College. Or the student Zora, coming to the library in the evenings to read and study. We might think of Zora’s books and her letters in boxes in the stacks. Then returning to the present, we celebrate Cathy Perkins’s The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, which has allowed us to enter so richly into the life of this prolific and inspiring writer.

Dr Vanessa Berry, writer, artist and lecturer, University of Sydney

 

Authors 2024
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See our authors at a festival near you

  • Adelaide Writers’ Week (2-7 March) Richard King, Richard Denniss and John Lyons 
  • Manly Writers’ Festival (14-16 March): Kim Cornish, Maggie Kirkman, Tracey Kirkland and Gavin Fang, Lachlan Strahan
  • Clunes Booktown (23-24 March): Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo with Jeff Sparrow and Boris Frankel
  • Sorrento Writers’ Festival 2024 (26-29 April): confirmed authors: Richard King, Lucinda Holdforth, Dave Witty, Inala Cooper, John Lyons, Michael Gawenda
  • Brisbane Writers’ Festival (30 May-2 June): Richard King, Ian Lowe, Lucinda Holdforth, Dave Witty, Satyajit Das
  • Words in Winter (29 June): Sandra GoldBloom Zurbo
Kate Morgan, Sarah Cannon, Joanne Mullins, Elly Gridland, Malcolm Neil, Julia Carlomagno with newborn baby and Kayla Willson
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Meet our new staff members

 

Monash University Publishing team with booksWe are delighted to announce various staff changes at Monash University Publishing in 2024.

Malcolm Neil has been appointed as Interim Director while Julia Carlomagno is on maternity leave (and has welcomed a lovely baby boy).

Malcolm has over 30 years’ experience in the publishing and content industry, and most recently was Head of Sales and Marketing at Melbourne University Publishing.

Greg Bain continues as Publisher of the In the National Interest series.

Stephen Campbell is Stock and Sales Coordinator, while Elly Cridland has been appointed Publishing Officer.

Having almost completed her studies at Swinburne University, Kayla Willson has started with us as our full-time Intern.

Kate Morgan, Sarah Cannon, Joanne Mullins and Les Thomas complete the team.

More information can be found here.

We’re looking forward to introducing you to an exciting line-up of books, author events including many writers’ festivals, launches and more. You can sign up for our enews and follow us on our socials.

 

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Verge 2023 launch speech by Peter Rose

Peter Rose

Peter Rose

I’m pleased to have an opportunity to speak at the launch of this welcome new publication from Monash University Publishing.

Australian Book Review is a partner of Monash University through its Faculty of Arts. It’s a partnership that has grown since its creation in 2016 – and one we take seriously – through publication of Monash staff and students (some included in this anthology), through talks and publishing masterclasses, and through an active internship program. So we’re attuned to what’s going on at Monash, and we follow publications from its press with interest.

I understand this is the seventeenth edition of Verge. That’s an impressive history for any publication. So Verge has been verging, as it were, for almost two decades. I’m all for verging and indeed divergence. Anything that showcases emerging and established artists is to be welcomed. Verge does this well. It’s somewhat unusual among publications of this type because of its integration of work by current students and of those with established publication records. That’s a journal and an anthology’s responsibility – to spotlight the established, the assured, but also to nurture the young, the emerging, the innovators.

This policy of integration a good thing. We know what a fillip it is for young writers to appear in journals and compilations along with writers they admire.

My poetry first appeared in 1985 in a magazine called Scripsi – conceived just around the corner at Ormond College. What a buzz it was to see my callow poems appearing alongside works by laurelled poets such as John Ashbery, Peter Porter, Laurie Duggan, August Kleinzahler (they were nearly all blokes in those days).

That buzz never really goes away whenever work appears in print, however many poems or books one has published. Last week I received my copy of the new Meanjin, which carries another of my Catullan satires. I felt the same kind of frisson I experienced back in 1985. I don’t think I’m alone. Publication in permanent print form has a unique cachet.

There’s a sense of connection – gratification that the work formerly so private, so vested, so precious yet so ambiguous and elusive, is finally making its own way, beyond one’s own fretting and possessiveness. Text transcends the author, as it should.

I indulge in this slightly confessional mode merely to highlight what I see as the primary role of this kind of publication – which is one of connection and inclusiveness. Authors are not necessarily very trusting or inclusive people. Publication may be the auction of the mind (as Emily Dickinson wrote) but it also bridges the gap between author and reader.

How vital these publications are in 2023 – and how laudable it is that Monash University Publishing goes on investing in and promulgating this ensemble publishing.

Works of this kind – like journals and magazines – are indispensable components of what we are sometimes encouraged to think of as the literary ecology. Right now – during the age of Covid and at a time when recession threatens – journals, like artists in general, are doing it particularly tough. We know how grim the past three years have been for writers and artists. The data about incomes and security are bleak – shaming too for such a wealthy and educated country.

This makes the federal government’s newly released national cultural policy even more critical. All eyes are on Revive, and I am sure we wish the federal government and the Australia Council as it seeks to shape the new Writers Australia. Much will depend on how much money is restored to the pitifully underfunded federal arts budget – one that actively discriminates against literature. I don’t need to remind this audience that Australia Council of literature has been bogged at $5 million dollars for three decades. Three decades! At the risk sounding like Gilbert and Sullivan – it would be hilarious if it weren’t so deleterious.

Now, government has a chance to redress this historical neglect. And here – to my mind – not just publishers and gatekeepers (if that’s what we are) – we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to lobby government and the Australia Council to ensure that past neglect of literature is overturned and that the journals and publishers that nurture young writers and pay them fairly are supported.

But we’re here of course to talk about Verge – not governments and financial exigencies.

Verge is edited by Samuel Bernard, Thomas Rock and Vera Yingzhi Gu. In their introduction they note:

Defiance is too often associated with rebellion, insurrection or revolution, though the act is exquisitely heterogeneous. For Verge’s 2023 issue, we challenged writers to ponder this timely and universal concept.

The results are promisingly multifarious. The contributors – all 31 of them – write about forms of resistance and defiance – from the domestic to the planetary. There are stories and poems about domestic challenges, gender issues, the perils of identity, and what Cameron Semmens in his poem ‘Exiting the Forest’ calls ‘the crawling fear of environmental apocalypse’.

But defiance takes many forms – some active, political – others moral, instinctual, epistemological.

While I have written in other forms (fiction, memoir, criticism), I have devoted much of the past forty years to poetry – without ever really stopping to consider why I actually write the stuff; what it is that motivates me; what it is I am trying to effect. Here, I am rather like Thom Gunn, who once wrote: ‘I am interested in individual poems, not in poetics.’

Only lately have I begun to reflect on the properties and dispensations of poetry.

Each poem, each donnée, each poetic state surely represents a kind of refusal – a retreat from conventional ways of perceiving life, family, nature, relationships, society, mortality.

What are we doing as poets when we succumb to a poem but seeking unique metaphors for reality – ones never shared, never conceived before, too weird for public circulation.

‘Étonné-moi’, the impresario Diaghilev famously exhorted Jean Cocteau – and that was a good century ago. Surely it’s the artist’s duty to astonish us – not to echo, not to reinforce, not to concur. There is far too much yea-saying in this country. This is such a conformist age, when politicians and admen and social media zealots and corporate masters exhort us to think and act in certain ways, not to rock the boat, to express ourselves along certain lines. What a betrayal of intellectual freedom and the artistic life.

I am in total agreement with W.H. Auden, who declared: ‘Alienation from the Collective is always a duty.’

Albert Camus once said, ‘The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude’. Sometimes I fear that even worse forms of subservience and intimidation are loose in the twenty-first century.

Another quote (I am very quotatious tonight!) – from Wallace Stevens, one of the great poets of the twentieth century. It comes from his collection of epigrams called Adagia – indispensable reading for any poet: ‘The imagination wishes to be indulged.’

So let’s indulge it – and celebrate it.

Angela Jones has a poem in Verge and it contains a wonderful refrain – ‘Oh, the places you won’t go’, she repeats. I suppose my small point is that there are no places where writers shouldn’t venture – however private, subversive, imaginary.

I will end with a quote from James Baldwin – boldest of social critics – most eloquent of twentieth-century American writers. He wrote:

‘All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.’

Telling the whole story, yes, vomiting it up – not just half of it either, and certainly not the savoury or orthodox bits – is a writers’ responsibility. It’s the promise of such that admirable publications like Verge enable writers and thus readers to explore.

I wish it every success, and I congratulate everyone associated with this edition.

Readings, Carlton, 21 March 2023

  • Verge 2023

    Samuel Bernard, Thomas Rock and Vera Yingzhi Gu
International Women's Day 2024 Special Offer
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International Women’s Day 2024 Special Offer

This International Women’s Day we’re offering a limited-time 20% off on our website when you order two or more books PLUS free shipping within Australia.

Simply enter the coupon code INTWD24 in the checkout. Offer lasts 1–10 March.

*Offer does not apply to pre-orders.

  • The Shelf Life of Zora Cross

    Cathy Perkins
  • Towards Reproductive Justice

    Ronli Sifris

 

  • Intrépide

    Clem Gorman and Therese Gorman
  • Eve Langley and The Pea Pickers

    Helen Vines
  • My Father’s Shadow

    Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo

ABIA Shortlist 2022
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Monash University Publishing shortlisted for Small Publisher of the Year, ABIA Awards

The Monash University Publishing team has been shortlisted for Small Publisher of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIAs). This is the first time the press has been nominated for this award, which recognises the strength of a publisher’s list, the growth in sales and marketing and the degree of editorial care. The judging panel noted of the shortlist, ‘We were impressed by the commitment to diversity, environmental issues and promotion of Australian storytelling alongside innovative approaches to reaching new audiences and finding new voices.’

This wonderful news come in addition to Sam van der Plank being nominated for ABIA’s Rising Star of the Year. 

Sam van der Plank
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Publishing Officer Sam van der Plank Shortlisted for the 2022 ABIA Rising Star Award

Monash University Publishing is thrilled to announce that Publishing Officer Sam van der Plank has been shortlisted for the 2022 ABIA Rising Star award. The Rising Star award recognises emerging talent in the Australian book industry whose record reflects ongoing excellence and growth in contribution to their profession. They must be currently working in the Australian book industry, and have been part of the industry for no more than 10 years.

Sam occupies a broad but pivotal role within the Publishing team, working across sales, marketing, operations, production and acquisitions. He was recently the driving force behind Monash University Publishing’s onboarding onto BooksoniX, a title management and ONIX dissemination system.

The winner of the Rising Star award will be announced at the 2022 Australian Book Industry Awards night gala event in Sydney on Thursday 9 June.

‘While those with a talent for operations often remain behind the scenes, Sam is the very definition of a team player, and his intelligence, ingenuity and commitment to improve Monash Publishing is truly exceptional,’ says publisher Julia Carlomagno, who nominated van der Plank for the Rising Star Award.

Read Sam’s full interview courtesy of Books+Publishing.

What key things do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I wish I’d known when I first started that there was more to publishing than editorial and commissioning! Like many, I entered the publishing industry thinking that I might become an editor. By chance, my first entry-level role was focused more on the sales side of things. Since then this is the area I’ve progressed in, and now I love all things sales, stock and data.

What has been your biggest achievement/proudest professional moment?

Setting up Monash University Publishing’s entire backlist on a title management system was a big and rewarding project – don’t worry, bulk uploads were involved! Hitting send on our automated ONIX feeds for the first time was a great feeling.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned on the job?

It’s been hugely valuable to gain insights into how the ‘business’ of publishing works through my roles. Learning about the money side of the industry and my employers has been fascinating. Be it running costings on new titles, assessing a potential reprint, or analysing our sales data, I really appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to see what makes a particular book – and a company’s operations – financially viable.

What do you think this industry could do better?

Data! I think that historically many of us have shied away from looking too closely at metadata or thinking about what an ONIX file is, exactly. But these aspects of communicating our books to retailers and other partners are only going to become more important moving forward. Those publishers who recognise the importance of good metadata and ONIX practices – and who resource these areas accordingly – are likely to reap the rewards.

Where would you like to be in five (or 10, or 20) years’ time? And what do you hope the industry will look like then?

In a few years I would love to be in a role related to one or some of the areas that I’m currently involved in: sales, stock and data. Perhaps I would have greater responsibilities and have become more specialised in a particular direction.

For the industry, I would love it if it turns out in many years’ time that print books are still flourishing and that independent, physical bookshops continue to play a central role in our bookish culture. It would also be a wonderful development if in this future scenario we have an even greater multitude of successful Australian publishers, publishing a more diverse range of authors and employing a more diverse array of publishing people – who, as we all know, are the best people!

 

 

Suzanne Hampel, Rivke Margolis, Freda Freiberg (nee Fink), launcher Michael Gawenda and author Margaret Taft at the March 21 launch, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.
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Michael Gawenda launch speech for Leo and Mina Fink: For the Greater Good

IN NOVEMBER 1949, the passenger ship the Continental arrived at the docks in Port Melbourne. Among the 200 or so passengers on board, most of them Jews from the displaced persons (DP) camps in Austria and Germany, was my family. My mother, my father, my three older sisters and me. I was born in a DP camp in Linz, Austria, and lived there with my family for almost the first three years of my life.

Given my age when I was carried off the Continental by my oldest sister, who by then was married and pregnant with her first child, I have no memory of the moment I first touched the ground in Australia. Nor do I recall who was there to greet these Jews, most of them refugees and Holocaust survivors.

But my father and my sisters told me when I was old enough to listen, that some lovely Jewish people had been there on the dock to greet us. They did not, as far as I can recall, say that Mina or Leo Fink were among them.

But having now read Margaret Taft’s book, Leo and Mina Fink: For the Greater Good, having read about the way Leo and Mina had been there for virtually every ship arrival carrying Jewish refugees—how they had worked so tirelessly to get the Australian government to accept these Holocaust survivors, how they had been key players in establishing the refugee and welfare organisations that helped bring thousands of these broken traumatised people to Australia, I was pretty sure that either Leo or Mina Fink, or both of them, were there on the dock to greet us.

Read the full launch speech at plus61j.net.au

In the National Interest at Adelaide Writers Festival
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In The National Interest at the Adelaide Writers Festival

For this year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, head to the Gardens every day at 12pm for Writers’ Week’s In the National Interest series. We are delighted to partner with Monash University Publishing on their series of the same name to present some of Australia’s most incisive thinkers exploring the critical issues facing Australia today.

Writers’ Week speakers include Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, Rachel Doyle, Michael Bradley, Saxon Mullins, Martin Parkinson, Mark Willacy, Samantha Crompvoets and Fiona McLeod on topics ranging from Leadership, Courage, Accountability, Law Reform and Military Culture. Drawing on experiences from their working and personal lives, our contributors interrogate current realities and propose pathways to a better future.

 

In the National Interest Program

Sat 5 Mar, 12pm / East Stage
How Fast Things Fall with Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull

Sun 6 Mar, 12pm / East Stage
Our Nation’s Shame with Samantha Crompvoets and Mark Willacy

Mon 7 Mar, 12pm / East Stage
Compounding Damage with Michael Bradley, Rachel Doyle and Saxon Mullins

Tue 8 Mar, 12pm / East Stage
Good International Citizenship: The Case For Decency with Gareth Evans

Wed 9 Mar, 12pm / West Stage
Policy Drift with John Daley and Martin Parkinson

Thu 10 Mar, 12pm / East Stage
Grift, Lies and Influence with Fiona McLeod and Michael West

  • Blood Lust, Trust & Blame

    Samantha Crompvoets
  • Good International Citizenship

    Gareth Evans

 

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