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On fire

Miriam Cosic
Alexandra Christie is the new editor of HEAT, an illustrious literary publication in its third incarnation.

HEAT magazine was a trailblazer from the day it was launched. It was edgy and confronting, and its closure in 2012, though flagged as temporary, was met with dismay. It was started in 1996 by Ivor Indyk, professor of literature and soon-to-be publisher of Giramondo Books, when he was in a white-heat of anger following the publication of Helen Demidenko’s book The Hand That Signed the Paper. In Holocaust writing, deception is distasteful to the point of moral disgust; the fake Ukrainian background of that book’s author drove Indyk to launch an all-embracing venue for writing, respectful of Indigenous and migrant writers, as well as those from outside Australia. He wanted it to be intellectually exciting in a sea of stolidly worthy literary journals. It became all those things.

HEAT lived through two incarnations, two separate series, before going into hibernation. Fifteen issues were published in the first series, which lasted from 1996 to 2000. The second, containing 24 issues, ran from 2001 to 2011. Indyk admits that when he closed HEAT, he was physically and financially exhausted. He had just come through a bruising legal wrangle with the international corporation Bauer Media, which published a gossip magazine named Heat overseas and wanted to clear the local market of the brand before bringing their tabloid to Australia. Indyk won his case but, working almost alone on HEAT, needed a rest. ‘It was a Pyrrhic victory because I was totally wiped out,’ he says now.

The editorials Indyk wrote for the first and last issues of HEAT reflect a developmental arc. He has said he was ‘slightly embarrassed’ by the intensity of the first one: it was a ‘manifesto’ rather than a polite introduction. In it, he described ‘the destruction of universities as sites of intellectual and artistic controversy [and] the devaluation of literary ideals in the marketplace’. In his valedictory remarks, he said that he expected that if HEAT were resurrected in the future it would be edited by a younger generation and would be published online. Half of that prediction has come true.

A neat decade after the second series finished, a new series has been launched — pushed, Indyk says, by the younger generation at Giramondo, including associate publisher Nick Tapper and editor Aleesha Paz. Equipped with a four-year grant from the Australia Council, the team set out to begin HEAT again. That task included finding a new editor as Indyk stepped back. Thirty-one-year-old, Sydney-born Alexandra Christie, appointed by Indyk, was their choice.

The new incarnation is both like and unlike the originals. It is still dedicated to publishing non-Anglophone views of the world, alternatives to the mainstream and points of view that are both thought-provoking and expressed in high literary style. But this series is published six times a year instead of twice a year and the editions are smaller. And instead of having striking covers displaying bright images and bold pointers to the writing inside, the new design is minimal, almost to the point of disappearing on the shelf. Yet it stands out for its size, texture and simplicity. Physically smaller, and lighter, HEAT Series 3, Number 1 contains only six pieces of writing. The brief contents page seems to offer more space for reading and contemplation, doing away as it does with that sense of having to prioritise and find time to read it all in a busy schedule. The designer, award-winning Jenny Grigg, has ingeniously consolidated that sense of calm by tapping into the quiet elegance of her own aesthetic, which she also brings to Giramondo’s standalone poetry books.

The first edition of whatever one would now call HEAT — is it a magazine? a book? — is exquisite. It contains short works by the novelists/short story writers/essayists Mireille Juchau, Brian Castro and Cristina Rivera Garza in translation as well as poetry by Sarah Holland-Batt. Its cover is a borderless orange, with the names of the writers contained within written in white capital letters. It comes in an organic-looking pale grey-brown envelope marked ‘POSTAGE PAID’.

HEAT Series 3 Number 2
Christie herself is surprisingly shy and was reticent about talking to Openbook. She only agreed to it when reassured that the conversation would be about HEAT primarily, as though understanding who the editor is and what she intends isn’t all about the magazine itself. Small and dark-haired, she speaks straight to the point and avoids chit-chat. Over a coffee near Giramondo’s current premises in a renovated warehouse, which they are soon to move from, she sketches out her position.

She has been given a free hand. Asked what her brief was from Indyk, she says, ‘He wasn’t dictatorial in any way, in terms of curation. I definitely value his feedback as a reader and he’s been very generous in terms of reading things for me. In the beginning, I wanted to get a sense of his taste and what he was interested in, but I had the whole history of the magazine, all the back issues, to read. And some of the contributors in this first issue — Mireille Juchau, Brian Castro and Sarah Holland-Batt — have contributed to HEAT before.

‘But that’s one of the most amazing things about HEAT. Even reading back over the issues, it’s incredible how relevant it all feels. Just picking up a random piece and feeling like it could have been written this year.’ As a result, they are now in the process of digitising some of the back issues and putting them online. So many of the specific subjects explored in the first issues, she points out, are still important in today’s political and social discourse: ‘The conversations just come round again and again, in cycles almost.’

That timeliness has kept many preoccupations of the writers that HEAT has promoted over the years — Alexis Wright and Gerald Murnane, Antigone Kefala, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and many more — hovering in the ether. Christie wants the roll call at HEAT to be multi-generational, keeping the established writers on board while giving space to emerging writers. If it’s difficult to break into the literary world, even with spade-loads of talent, there aren’t many venues for experienced high-brow writers these days either. Keeping things intellectual and invigorating is a double demand that not many other literary magazines can answer.

‘It takes a long time to become a good writer, to really hone your craft,’ Christie says. ‘I want to bring [emerging writers] into the mix and elevate them next to established voices. That’s really important to me.’ She has placed a young writer in the second issue, she says, one who has only published one short story so far. But the calibre of the writing is high. ‘And I want publishers to pay attention to that. The big mainstream publishers seem to operate in a separate orbit, in a way, to literary journals. I’ve had experience with multinational publishers and I’ve never seen literary journals in that space. I wish there was a little more overlap. I’m keen to create more crossover in the literary community.’

Worthiness never trumped literary taste at HEAT, which has always been known for the quality of its writing as well as its multicultural outlook. In fact, one might say that ensuring the two went hand in hand was its very purpose: exposing the cultural multiplicity of very good writing. ‘HEAT has always been outward facing,’ Christie adds. ‘It has published a lot of international voices alongside Australian voices; it used to be known as Australia’s international quarterly.’

Photo of Alexandra Christie
Photo by Joy Lai
Indyk published some amazing writers, she points out — writers from the Middle East, the UK, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, China, and translations from all over the world. The process of bringing translations to life can be complicated, and fascinating.

‘Usually what happens is you communicate with the translator. I did that for one of the people in the first issue, Cristina Rivera Garza, who is Mexican so writes in Spanish. The translation already existed but we edited it. It depends on the situation and how fluent the author is in English. If there’s someone who communicates exclusively in Bulgarian, for example, you would deal with the translator.’ Translators, she explains, like to place short excerpts from books they’re translating, or short stories, to raise their profile as well as the authors. She uses the example of a Giramondo book by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, an emerging Indonesian writer, whom Christie will also publish. ‘His translator, Tiffany Tsao, is brilliant. She works at the Sydney Review of Books as well, where she edits OP, and has been instrumental in bringing his work to an English-language audience. Her role in the creation of the English version of that book was unparalleled.’

Poetry, often undervalued in Australia, has always been promoted by HEAT. ‘We have a poem by Samuel Wagan Watson in the next issue,’ Christie continues, ‘another person who is underappreciated. He is absolutely brilliant.’ Watson has a typically mixed Australian background: he’s a mixture of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish descent. He has won many literary prizes and, in 2018, was the recipient of the Patrick White Literary Award for significant contribution to Australian literature. Yet, he is hardly a household name. Christie will continue to provide a space for poets to flourish.

‘It’s nice to be at Giramondo where we’ve had such a great history of publishing Indigenous writers — Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann — it’s an amazing list. And it has really stood the test of time. I suppose something I share with Ivor and Nick Tapper on the books side is a desire to publish writing that is timeless and doesn’t feel reactionary, doesn’t feel as though it’s speaking to a specific time.’ Someone like Antigone Kefala, for example, is overdue for a revival, she says. Kefala started publishing poetry in the 1970s, but her whole body of work reads as though it was written yesterday.

Christie’s last job was as a literary agent with the prestigious Wylie Agency in New York. Covid brought her home. ‘I think after living overseas for four years I was ready and Covid was a good push,’ she says. ‘I’ve always wanted to be more hands-on in the editing side of things and I was ready for a change, ready for something at home, supporting Australian writers.’

She had arrived in the US without a job, after having won the Green Card Lottery, and successfully applied for the Wylie job. Before that, armed with a media and communications degree, she had worked in publicity for publishing companies in Sydney. She came home without a job too, and when she saw the advertisement for a new editor for HEAT, she applied. Christie impressed Indyk. ‘She was amenable but very sharp in finding and commissioning writers. She curates with huge concentration,’ he says. ‘And then there was her international dimension.’

She enjoyed the collegial atmosphere at The Wylie Agency, though she demurs when asked which writers she handled there. ‘It’s very much like a family at the Agency and you’re involved with everyone’, she says. ‘So, I could say Martin Amis, or that I worked with Sally Rooney, and there were certain people I brought on ...’ She says something similar about her short time working at HEAT so far. The two experiences might say as much about Christie as it does about the workplaces.

‘We work very much as a team, though I’ve curated all the pieces myself,’ she says of the new HEAT, ‘[It] obviously has a long history and it’s such a privilege to build on something, rather than having to build something entirely new from scratch.’ And she sidetracks into discussing her colleagues again: the brilliance of Grigg, the collegiality of Indyk and Tapper. Indyk himself prolongs our conversation about Christie to underline that his only involvement in HEAT now is with practical matters of printing or distribution, which occupy him as the co-publisher of Giramondo (with his wife, Evelyn Juers), and not at all with editorial decisions, which are now entirely Christie’s. He seems proud to say it.

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based arts journalist, essayist and critic.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.

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