‘Learning the Dialect’, by Felicity Castagna

Dialect really shouldn’t need to exist. The writers whose works are featured here represent contemporary Australia well: they are diverse, multilingual, and occasionally confronting. The publishing world, however, is generally not very representative of this diversity, so we have to produce multicultural anthologies like this one in an attempt to compensate. It would be better to make space for writers like these within mainstream publishing, particularly in the literary magazines where many writers are first published, but for now we have Dialect; an anthology that recognises that it can go where many publishers can’t, or won’t.

Dialect emerged from a partnership between Kat Muscat, former editor of Voiceworks, and Alia Gabres of the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Before having their work included in the anthology, the writers were given a year of creative writing workshops and editing sessions. This is an important acknowledgement that writers operating outside of the mainstream sometimes need more assistance to bring their work to a publishable level than those with better access to mentors and the arts sector, and—occasionally—better-developed English language skills.

As important as this support is, it does make for an anthology that reads like it emerged from a writing workshop. Dialect contains a long middle section in which the writers have obviously been given a specific theme or structure to write to. While some of these pieces are very successful, particularly those written about the theme ‘underwear’—a topic explored in a variety of surprising and unusual ways—there is also something jarring about their highly themed, structurally repetitive nature. Perhaps this is because they continually remind the reader that the texts have been constructed; that they emerged from an imposed structure and a series of exercises, rather than having grown organically, as most of the rest of the anthology fools the reader into imagining.

Dialect recognises that it can go where many publishers can’t, or won’t.

Dialect does offer other kinds of writing. The pieces described above are sandwiched by opening and closing sections in which the writers have been given less formal constraints. These sections are the most successful, their stories inviting us into the private lives we fail to notice every day. In Jessica Yu’s stand-out piece ‘For Timmy’s Full Moon’, a father cuts fresh banana leaves for his grandson’s Full Moon Party from a tree in the middle of a suburban park. As a passer-by, we might not normally notice this ‘exotic’ tree, nor could we imagine its cultural significance, but through fiction we’re given access to this world. In a story where not much happens at the level of plot, Yu’s skilful manipulation of tension and tone propels the reader towards a strongly felt emotional climax. There are other pieces that stand out here as well: Didem Caia in ‘Child’ achieves the difficult job of telling a story about a troubled Turkish family through the eyes of a seven year old who much of the time isn’t quite sure what she’s seeing. ‘Child’ works thanks to the skilful omission of details, through its silent space and misunderstandings. Dzenana Vucic’s piece on ‘The Female Comic’ is an example of literary non-fiction at its best. It is a well-researched and argued piece that manages to be both informative and engaging.

But Dialect’s strengths don’t just lie in the writing. Dialect is a really good looking beast. You might think this should be a given: why wouldn’t it look good? But too often, writing projects that emerge from community centres think it’s enough to give marginalised groups a voice, so they often overlook the need to ensure the integrity of those voices by giving them professional design and editorial attention. And let it be said, designer Elwyn Murray has created an object of great beauty: Dialect’s design features—its uncrowded pages, its seamless incorporation of translations in multiple languages, and the striking spread of images in its middle pages—propel the reader through the book as much as the text does.

I particularly liked those moments in the anthology in which the visual elements formed a dialogue with the text, creating a piece in which the image wasn’t merely illustrative. I would have loved to see more work like the collaboration between Jessica Yu and Meg Gough-Brooks, whose ‘Underage Love in the Outer West: An illustrative dot-to-dot poem’ plays on both textual and visual metaphors in order to map desire as a constellation in the sky.

In Dialect we are invited into a series of worlds we may not know; and in each world we see its bittersweet beauty, its forgotten people, its difficulties and its humour, its indelible rhythms. Neither positive or negative, the writing in this book lodges under the skin and forces the reader into these same spaces. These writers are not simply giving us a powerful image of their multicultural communities, they are claiming back their worlds with their words; and with their words they are claiming the right to show us how their communities can be imagined differently.

Felicity Castagna is the author of Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia (Transit Lounge, 2011) and The Incredible Here and Now (Giramondo, 2013), which was recently shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literature Awards, the WA Premier’s Book Awards and the CBCA Book of the Year.