The Dispossessed and Other Stories collects twenty-three of Lansdown’s short stories written over the last two or three decades. Most of the stories are well-crafted, with precise prose and an often provocative, often compassionate treatment of a wide range of themes.

The compassion in the collection might surprise critics of Lansdown’s conservative Christian non-fiction writing. Indeed, the collection shows that the left does not have a monopoly on compassion. In the title story, the narrator takes his family to the park where he talks to an elderly Aboriginal man, who is drunk but kindly and meant to be looking after his ‘ol’ gal:

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. (6)

The narrator doesn’t offer a solution, he just puts the situation before us in a simple and profound way.

Another strong story is ‘Like I Bin Crying Sometimes’. It previously appeared in the Studio published collection Abiding Things. This story takes the form of a letter by a widow to her husband, describing how she was been looking after a pregnant Aboriginal teenager. It is poignant in its description of grief and empathy, and has stuck in my mind since I first read it ten years ago.

The conservative outlook of the collection comes through in the characterisation and assumptions. ‘The Lepers’ is set in a Jewish city at the time of Medes, and caricatures Judaism as a harsh religion without grace or mercy, as the whole town rushes to stone lepers who have breached the rules. It’s depiction we’re familiar with from the Reformed reading of Romans; one that can be proof-text, but which ignores the counter-strands of grace and mercy in the Old Testament, as well as the Jewishness of Paul and Jesus.

In ‘The Sitting Man’, vegetarians are ‘zealots’ and the narrator, without knowing the vegetarians in question, comments ‘it is ironic that people can sleep around and loaf around but still occupy the moral high ground because they eat lentil burgers and mung beans’ (63). Similarly, in an amusing, farcical story about local government politics told as series of reports in the local newspaper (‘Parrots For Podiatry’), the anti-nuclear campaigner is a ridiculous grandstander only interested in cheap publicity.

These depictions led me to ask a question of my own writing - does my depiction of right-wing characters make right-wing readers bristle with indignation as much as I bristle at this depiction of left-wing characters? The answer, I’m afraid, is ‘probably’.

The breadth of this collection is one of its strengths. Two stories confront the question of the relationship between fiction and ‘ordinary’ people’s lives. Both stories suggest fiction - especially literary fiction - is far removed from lives of ‘ordinary’ people.

In ‘Writer In the Community’, a writer-in-residence has produced just two stories in six months of residency, both about ‘sex perverts’ (the ordinary man’s view) or ‘sexual revolutions in our capitalist, heterosexual society’ (the writer-in-residence’s view). While producing these stories, he had ignored the many heartfelt stories the people of the town have been telling him in the contracted meetings.

In a variation on this theme, ‘The Story’ tells of a writer visiting his grandparents for the first time in a long time, wanting to hear technical details about farming to make his story more realistic. His grandfather keeps fobbing off his questions and tries to tell him stories from his life, including the tragic story of Giovanni, the Italian P.O.W. who helped on the farm during World War Two. It’s a fascinating story, the grandson tells him, but it’s not ‘relevant’.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and rewarding collection. Lansdown knows what makes a story and he writes short, powerful pieces that have the same exactness which has brought his poetry such acclaim.

- Nathan Hobby

Lansdown investigates a myriad of themes including the awkwardness of cross-cultural and social interaction; the skewed lens through which family members and individuals perceive each other. There's even an interior monologue navigating the psychic transformation induced by cradling a firearm. With settings ranging from wartime to a women's prison to feral pig territory, coupled with solid, memorable characters of true depth and desire, these stories reach out to a wide audience with the grace, wit and wisdom of an introspective storyteller.

- Lauren Daniels, for the judges, IP Picks 2005


Lansdown dialogue turns key


Every short story has a purpose in Andrew Lansdown’s new collection. Shane McCauley reports.

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.

— Shane McCauley, The West Australian


The Dispossessed is a short story collection that shows the many different individuals and groups that make up multicultural Australia. It is full of lively and thought-provoking characters that range from a chatty elderly Aboriginal, to a grandfather who recollects his experiences with an Italian POW, to a Writer in Residence who incites a riot in the small town he is working in.

The narrative styles are diverse, including letters and memoirs as well as the usual forms. Humorous stories about parrot podiatrists, women with gun phobias and a visiting poet uncomfortable with his hosts are interspersed with others dealing with Australian pioneering spirit and the Outback.

Multi-award winning author Andrew Lansdown has written fourteen books of poetry and fiction, with individual pieces being published in over 70 magazines and newspapers and over 60 anthologies. They have been read on ABC and BBC radio, as well as being translated into several languages.

His most recent book is Fontanelle (Five Islands), a collection of poetry.

 

Judges’ report on IP Picks 05

Interview with Andrew