Literary Papercuts: Reflecting on the Australian Short Story Festival

Neil Gaiman once wrote that short stories are journeys you can make to the other side of the universe and still be back in time for tea. Short stories are bold. They are shameless. They deserve to be celebrated. And on November 3-5, at the University of South Australia, they were.

A collaboration between Margaret River Press and MidnightSun Publishing, the Australian Short Story Festival (ASSF) is an annual celebration of short story writing, of the brief but poignant, the tiny and the fierce. Debuting in Perth in 2015, it approached its second programme with the tagline ‘good things come in short packages’. This turned into a vast understatement.

After a day of workshops on Friday, the festival was officially opened with an earnest and hilarious address from Tony Birch, winner of the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award  for Indigenous Writing. The good humour continued to flow right across the weekend, in discussions of genre, comedy, love and absurdity. Even in panels dealing with trauma, medical ethics, closure, and dark speculative fiction, the passion writers held for the short form was clear, and their audiences absorbed it all. Questions were asked thoughtfully and intelligently and answered in kind. Fun was had. Coffee was inhaled. Words were shared and considered and loved.

Lucy Durneen was the festival’s international guest, reading from her highly acclaimed short story collection Wild Gestures. This book shared the pop-up Dymocks table with an impressive list of names—Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident was available to buy, as was Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day, Sean Williams’ Have Sword, Will Travel, Tony Birch’s Common People, and Lisa L. Hannett’s Bluegrass Symphony, amongst so many others. These titles were snatched up with glee and sold out fast.

Perhaps the overarching optimism of the ASSF can best be described by how it looked to the future—how it welcomed as well as reflected. Both days ended with the launch of a new collection, the first being Lynette Washington’s short story cycle Plane Tree Drive, a portrait of suburban isolation which has already garnered accolades and will be featured in an upcoming Tulpa review.   

After an empowering closing address by Rebekah Clarkson, focusing on the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ and the enduring attraction of short fiction, Australian literary darling Carmel Bird launched her eBook collection, The Dead Aviatrix. Reflecting on themes the festival had explored, Carmel noted that the word ‘subversion’ was a common thread, and without further ado announced that her launch would be a subversive one.

So we did what we’d expected not to do. We clung with sticky fingers to raffle tickets, and we won jelly, and when lyric sheets were passed around we didn’t think twice about belting out the Aeroplane Jelly theme in time with a live cello/trumpet duo.

And the whole time, all I could think was, what a great short story this would make.  

Because, at the end of the day, the Australian Short Story Festival—any festival, really—is designed to inspire. To provoke, to elicit, to prod everyone in the vicinity until someone picks up a pen and starts writing. I named this review ‘Literary Papercuts’ because I think that this is as good a metaphor as any—because the short story, after all, is characteristically small, humble, sometimes unnoticed. But it can hit infinitely more nerves across a shorter distance. And it can come from nowhere.

I walked away from the Australian Short Story Festival holding a notebook positively dripping with the ink of new ideas. These scribbles might become journeys to the other side of the universe. They might become bold or shameless. Subversive. They might become papercuts. Or they might stay scribbles.

But that potential—that glimmering maybe in something small—surely that is what short stories are all about.

Words by Jess M. Miller

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