Mud Map: New pathways through the literary terrain

by Emma Ashmere

New paths through the literary terrain

Mud Map: Australian women’s experimental writing

How are some Australian women writers pushing at the boundaries of language, form and narrative now? A few years ago four writers and academics Moya Costello, Barbara Brooks, Anna Gibbs and Rosslyn Prosser set out to survey the terrain. A collection of women’s experimental writing hadn’t been seen here since the 1980s. It was time, they said, to publish an anthology fit for the 21st century. Out went the call for submissions.

The result is Mud Map, a diverse accumulation of ideas and styles with surprising pathways heading here and there. Published last year as a special edition in TEXT online journal, readers can click into thirty three pieces of new poetry, prose, plus a handful of images. Themes include the architecture of words and space, religion, art, madness, the many faces of capitalism, anxiety and shopping, the volatility of love and sexuality, displacement and travel, the desert and the sea. The foreword is offered as a ‘rough guide’ and sets out the rich history of experimental writing in Australia and beyond, including glimpses of modernist novelist Christina Stead, contemporary poet Ania Walwicz, and the 1960s avant-garde Oulipo group.*

Some might claim all writing is experimental, that when we sit down at the desk we can’t predict the results. (Although apparently some writers plan so meticulously, they can probably say they do.) For me it’s about seeing what happens when I try to stretch language, structure, style and grammar within the constraints of the short story form.

One writer might opt for repetition (think of Gertrude Stein’s infamous line ‘a rose is a rose is a rose…’ penned a hundred years ago). Others embrace unorthodox formatting such as dot points, lists, and insertions of non-fiction texts. Some play with a variety of fonts and spacing, while others disorient the reader by doing away with traditional punctuation.

My own contribution to the anthology is the footnoted short story, Portrait or landscape. I was interested in how a person constructs themselves through memory, and footnotes offered a way of highlighting the narrator’s reliability while simultaneously undermining it. Footnotes are usually found gathered in serious herds at the nether reaches of academic and nonfiction texts, adding weight and gravitas (ie this statement must be true. It’s footnoted). But they have also peppered fiction for years, bedevilling and delighting generations of editors, typesetters, proofreaders and readers alike. Forced to live a big life in small print, footnotes can pack a pinpointed punch when you least expect it.

So if you’re interested in finding out more about how thirty three writers have been working with language in all its many elastic, elusive and endlessly evolving forms, check out the new paths they’ve forged in Mud Map:

It may lead you to see what else is out there. You might even take a literary leap.

*Georges Perec wrote his 1969 novel ‘La disparition’ (The Void) without using the letter ‘e’.

Published in Northerly magazine, Northern Rivers Writers Centre. 

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.