Janette Chen is a Chinese-Australian writer from Lidcombe. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the 2019 winner of the Deborah Cass Prize.
Wall of Men
Every time mum starts the car, Teresa Teng starts singing. Mum’s 80s Chinese pop ballads blare from the stereo as we pull out of the driveway. Mum is driving me to Lidcombe train station so I can trek it to Veina’s house in Turrella. Outside it’s so hot the heat makes the fibro walls our house look wobbly. I put the windows all the way down because we never use the air con. Teresa Teng’s voice drifts down the street from our car. She sounds so sweet even when she’s accusing her lover of lying to her. As we drive, Mum asks me if Veina has a boyfriend yet. Mum’s face looks dry and red from the heat. She has so many red hairs now, which are white hairs dyed with henna she bought from the Arab shops in Auburn. She glances at me as we slow at a red light and turns off the music. Since I finished high school two months ago, Mum has asked me four times already if there will be any boys when I go out.
‘No, Ma,’ I sigh as we start moving again. It was technically true. As far as I knew, Veina is texting a guy called Andre and hanging out with some guy called Jason but she’s never called either of them her boyfriend.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks in Cantonese.
‘Noooo, Ma,’ I groan. Mum flicks her black eyes at me and then back at the road.
‘I was the same age as you are now when I first got married,’ she says. ‘Your Ba is not my first husband.’
I hold my breath. This is the first time Mum has told me about her first marriage but I already know. I overheard her talking to Dad in the kitchen once about a fortune teller she saw back in Guangzhou when she was 17. ‘He told me I would be married twice and he was right about that,’ I had heard her say. In traffic, we inch past an empty lot of weeds and rubble that is fenced off with a glossy sign advertising new apartment blocks. ‘I was so in love with my first husband,’ Mum says. ‘But one day he started locking doors. He started swearing at me. When he slapped me, I thought it would only be one time.’
My muscles tense up when I imagine Mum being hit. We pass the Korean BBQ restaurants on the turn into the station and Mum parks crookedly in the drop-off zone. She keeps talking, her words spilling out like water. ‘He dragged me across our bedroom and strangled me until I realised that if this man loved me he would kill me with his love.’ I put my hand on Mum’s shoulder. I don’t know what else to do with this information. Mum brings her hand to mine and holds it tightly. ‘I know you’re a smart girl. But just be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’
Some dickhead in a white ute blasts his horn and cuts Mum off at the end of the sentence. I grab the plastic bag of cherries I’m bringing to Veina’s and tell Mum that I won’t be home for dinner.
On the train to Turrella, I sit in a three-seater behind a young Nepalese couple. The woman’s head is nestled in the space between the man’s shoulder and his brown ear. I think about how I used to see my parent’s wedding photo all the time as a kid. It was propped on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The man in the photo was my dad. The woman in the photo had skin as pale as the moon. Yi yi, I had called her, which means Auntie. I couldn’t believe it was my mum. This is because in real life, mum’s skin is the colour of wholemeal bread with lots of seeds in it. In real life, her lips are more brown than red. I knew so little about this other life she had before that photo was even taken.
I get off at Central and change platforms for the airport line. I had never heard of the suburb of Turrella until Veina moved there. Veina is my only high school friend who moved out of home immediately after graduating. Now she lives with four housemates and they all share one tiny bathroom. ‘Fun fact: The Streets ice cream factory used to be in Turrella,’ Veina said when she first told me she was moving. I believed the fun fact, I just couldn’t believe she was moving so far from Lidcombe, away from me. The afternoon heat wraps around me like a blanket when I step off the train. I am the only person standing on the platform. The plastic bag of cherries sweats in my hand.
Veina’s house is a long pink rectangle on a concrete block with a brown roof. When I arrive at the house, I’m sweating from my pits. I tap on the window of Veina’s room but when I get to the front door, it’s her housemate Peter who opens it.
‘Hello,’ he nods. Peter’s tiny head at odds with his massive shoulders. He steps back and holds the door for me. The thin white t-shirt he is wearing is stretched out around the collar and the skin around his neck is pale and pink. All I know about Peter is that he’s a backpacker from Slovakia. And he’s a prawn. He has a body good enough to eat and a head you can throw away. I realise Peter’s holding a big plastic rubbish bag and quickly step inside as he steps out.
The front door of the Turrella house opens straight into the living room with all its random old furniture, plus the sleek black chair Veina and I carried straight out of the new food court in Town Hall one time. I take off my sandals at the door. The pale blue tiles are cool beneath my feet but I know they’re dirty. I can see the dust and hair and dried boogers on the floor. The living room extends into the kitchen on the right, both overlooking the backyard where the laundry is still flapping on the lop-sided Hills Hoist.
Veina’s in the kitchen wearing a big faded black t-shirt with her hair is all over the place. She looks as if she only woke up a couple of hours ago and hasn’t gotten changed yet. Her kitchen is made up of custard coloured plastic laminate cupboards and drawers with golden brown trimmings. Veina gets me started on cutting up onions for our dinner: slut spaghetti. We started calling it that in Year 8 Food Tech because boiling pasta is easy. As I’m tossing onions into the hot pan, Veina tells me about the date Peter brought to the house the night before.
‘He was cooking chicken for this tiny Asian chick and was getting her a chair and everything. But it was like, all so he could fuck her,’ Veina says dryly. When she’s not wearing makeup, Veina looks like she’s fourteen but when she opens her mouth, her voice sounds like she’s smoked a pack a day for as long as she’s been alive. Today, Veina has a thick line of black gel eyeliner painted over her eyelids.
As I pour the contents of a jar of pasta sauce into a saucepan, Veina dumps a handful of oregano and the good bits of a green capsicum we found going soft in the fridge. ‘I always see him looking Asian chicks up and down and up and down,’ Veina says.
‘I would be looking him up and down and up and down if I lived here,’ I confess. But then, I imagine making out with him with his big nose sticking into the side of my face. His mouth would be dry and floury and his pale, slippery body would be squirming on top of mine, crushing me under a mattress of muscle. The thought of it makes my throat tighten.
Peter comes into the kitchen wearing only a pair of baggy track pants. The t-shirt he was wearing earlier is gone. I wonder if he just heard what I said and if all this skin is an invitation. I decline by only looking at him above the neck. His face is long and small in proportion to his wide shoulders and thick neck. His nose sticks out like an arrow. But then he goes to grab a Coke from the fridge and the long line of his back smooths and stretches.
‘Time to eat out this slut spaghetti,’ Veina says after putting the final touch: chilli flakes. In addition to being easy, slut spaghetti needs to be hot. Veina uses chopsticks to put the pasta into two bowls for us and we take them to eat outside.
I have one foot out the front door when it sounds like Peter is saying, ‘Hey, Jen, Jen, Jen, come back.’ His voice is deep and nasally. I turn around. Peter is standing right in front of me. His collarbones are at my eye level and they look like small, featherless wings that spread beneath his skin.
‘You forgot this,’ he says and hands me a fork.
‘Thanks,’ I say to the fork and hurry out the door after Veina.
The front yard is a concrete slab with an old single mattress on the floor. I brush off the dirt and dried leaves and sit down on the mattress next to Veina, leaning my back on the pink stucco exterior of the house. The air around us is starting to cool but the wall is warm against my back. Veina hands me a pair of chopsticks and starts slurping at her spaghetti, her head of black hair bobbing over her bowl. I put Peter’s fork on the floor beside the mattress.
A pair of lanky teenage boys walking a St Bernard are the only people out on the empty suburban streets. The long, pale arm holding the leash looks like a noodle stretching with every step the dog takes. Veina swallows her spaghetti and whistles at the boys. One of them turns around to look at us. He has dark eyes and hair and his skin looks warm and buttery. He might be Eurasian or it might just be the way he looks in the sunset.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I tell her.
‘They’re cute,’ Veina says, holding up her hand in greeting. She turns and grins at me. The liner around her eyes makes them look like black crescents with eyelashes.
‘Don’t worry, I know you’ve got it in you,’ Veina says. ‘You just need to be pushed out of the nest. Then you’ll fly like the skank bird you truly are.’
I roll my eyes and watch the boys walk away. In high school, Veina and I cut out all the pictures of cute boys from university brochures and stuck them on the wall in our Year Twelve common room. ‘So Many Opportunities at University’, the caption read. It was Veina’s idea. We called it the Wall of Men, and it was opposite the Wall of Ramen where we pinned up empty instant noodle packets. During our free periods, Veina smoked out the windows of the spare music rooms and I did maths practice papers next to the Wall of Men. The boys in those pictures all had smooth, white skin and were smiling straight at me.
Veina and I went to Sydney Girls High School, an uppity institution for Asian overachievers. Our school motto was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which is Latin for ‘Homework Always Pays’. It was the motto of my mum and the mums of one thousand black-haired teenage girls pressing textbooks to their chests. The ATAR we got was the life we got. I stared back at the boys on the Wall of Men and wondered if they would still be smiling when I beat the living shit out of them at the HSC.
Now that we finished school, me and Veina are melting into lazy flesh bags in the summer. We move from the dirty mattress when the mosquitoes start to bite. Back in the house, the last light is coming through the kitchen window. I wash the cherries I had brought and inspect them under running water. They’re plump and brown and cold from the fridge. A lot of them are scarred or bruised or overripe. Dad had bought a big box of cherries for ten dollars at Flemington markets and my family has been eating cherries at home every night. I pick out a dodgy one, bite out its open sore and put the rest of the cherry in my mouth. It’s so sweet and so cold.
In the living room, Veina turns on the TV to watch If You Are the One on SBS. It’s starting to get dark now, but no one has bothered to turn on the lights. I join her on the lumpy brown couch. A new male contestant steps out of the single-man cylinder that lowers Chinese bachelors to the stage like a love delivery chute. He’s buff with tanned skin. Beijing Beefcake.
Veina and I give the male contestants a score from one to ten depending on how likely we would go on a date with them. We have different selection criteria to the female contestants date to get married. The women on the show want to know if the man has an apartment, a car and a high-paying job. The men want to know what the women look like without any makeup on. Veina and I heckle the television when the contestants talk that shit, which is every episode. We’re going to get our own apartments, cars and high-paying jobs. We don’t do maths practice papers because we like maths.
On screen, Beijing Beefcake smiles and waves at the audience as he walks out of the man capsule and on to the stage. The fabric of his white shirt strains against his pecs.
The back door opens with the broken flyscreen flapping around and Peter steps inside, hulking a basket of laundry against his bare chest. Veina offers him some cherries and Peter puts down his laundry and slides down the armrest of the couch. Now I’m sandwiched between him and Veina. I shift in my seat so we’re not sitting so close. My body thinks it wants one thing but my mind is in control. Don’t throw away the head for a prawn.
We all watch Beijing Beefcake’s pre-recorded video of his life as a personal trainer. I pick out a handful of super soft cherries with wide, open sores dried into dark scabs. I’m feeling stiff from sitting next to Peter. His abs look like skinless chicken nuggets set into two neat rows. They cuddle and curl against each other as Peter leans forward to spit a pip into the bowl. I look away when something starts buzzing beneath me. It’s Veina’s phone, half submerged in the crumby gap between the sections of the couch, vibrating deeper into the fold. I slip my fingers between the couch cushions and grab the phone.
‘Ugh, sorry,’ Veina says. ‘Mum calls every day to check on me.’ She answers the phone with a, ‘Wei’ as she walks off towards her room.
I move over to where Veina had just been sitting so there’s more space between me and Peter. He sneezes. His hands go from covering his nose to stretching across the back of the couch, bridging the distance I had just created between us. It’s cooling down. He needs to put a shirt on. On If You Are The One, Beijing Beefcake is sitting in his living room in a white singlet. I would give him a 6.8. Maybe 8 if he looked a little less inflated. He could be a 9 if he talked about something besides his muscles.
‘My big muscles give me big responsibilities,’ the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen translate as Beijing Beefcake nods at me through the television. ‘I swear to the whole nation I would never hit a woman. I can look after her and protect her,’ Beijing Beefcake says. He flexes one bare, bulging brown arm after the other. ‘She can kiss my biceps every day.’
Next to me, Peter shifts in his seat. I hope Veina will come out of her room soon so I don’t have to be alone with Peter. I stuff my mouth with three cherries and sink back into the sofa and stare at the TV. What would it feel like for his strong arms to hold me gently? As I imagine the tenderness of resting my head against his chest, a sharp pain shoots through my mouth. I hold my cheek with my head turned away like I had just been slapped. It feels like someone had cut the right side of my cheek with a pair of scissors. I lean forward and let the contents of my mouth drop into my other hand. The living room lights turn on.
‘Fuck your dad,’ I curse. ‘Oww.’
‘Are you okay?’ Peter says, putting his big, warm hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy there. I look up and see Veina walking across the room.
‘My dad says that when you bite yourself it’s because you’re not eating enough meat,’ she says. ‘Your mouth wants meat in it,’ Veina wiggles her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Ugh, well fuck your dad too,’ I say. I look down at the half-chewed cherries in my open palm. The wet, red flesh glistens like mashed and bloody brains.
Anna Kortschak is an emerging writer who is frequently mobile. She has recently returned to Australia after almost twenty itinerant years in the Americas, Europe and the UK. Anna was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing and winner of the 2019 Spring Nowhere Magazine Travel Writing Competition. Her writing and photos have been published in Nowhere Magazine, The Other Hundred, The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (3rd Ed.) and various other print and online publications. With a background in visual and performing arts Anna has worked extremely variously but most passionately – a aside from her writing – on a number of community development story-telling projects in Australia and internationally.
Pieces of Nothing
The child is standing alone on the side of the sand pit, humming tunelessly. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Her gaze is blank and unfocussed. She is not playing a game. She is just standing there waiting for time to move on.
She is alone and being alone makes her hungry. She bites her arm, intently studying the crooked crescent indented in the flesh, livid white and bruise blue. She wants to feel something.
She cannot see inside herself. She believes she has swallowed a stone.
She is a small child. Skinny, ribs visible, blonde wispy hair, eyes wide and surprising black, all pupil. Difficult, they say. A difficult child. Given to sudden rage or tears. Sullen. Lashing out and then fleeing. A secretive child.
There was a girl who hid her heart among stones to keep it safe. She tied her heart to a string but lost hold of the string. When she went to recover it she mistook her heart for a stone, a stone for her heart. Heavy and cold. Hard.
Once lost, what next?
A series of endeavours, all doomed, all heartless.
If I am to write a story it has to start with this child; the girl who has lost her heart. She is not remarkable, she is not especially good or kind. She is just like any child, a little grubby, bony knees and wispy hair. Perhaps she is rather small for her age.
A fairy tale needs a hero but no-one appears to rescue the child from her fate and a series of evils befall the girl. First she loses the power of speech. No-one can hear her speak.
There are others but I (or is it the girl?) cannot see them clearly. There is a mother, a stepfather, a brother. Many others. She is surrounded by these people but she cannot see them and they do not touch her. They are insubstantial, see-through and slippery, ungraspable. Bewitched, I guess. No help there.
I’m talking as if I don’t know these people but I have to confess an interest. Let me try to clarify the situation. My mother. My stepfather. There are brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And the circle will widen. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A veritable host. Even my father will appear, if I wait long enough.
And I, too, have become multiple. I am the storyteller in this tale. And that is fair. Everyone must have their turn to speak. But what to do, then, with the child? She is me, and not me. And she is the greatest unknown. The most difficult of all to discern in the bewildering fog.
I beg you for indulgence as I try to find a way to accommodate this mute child who struggles with silence and nausea, who believes she is poisonous and that everything she touches dies.
As I try to excavate memory I constantly ask myself, what is true? One must, of course, but I find that there is no concrete answer to the question. There is no indisputable truth to be brought into the light of day, no facts that can be matter-of-factly reported from the past which, from the most certain perspective we have, quite simply does not exist.
My stepfather, for example, can say, that never happened. If I’d picked you up by your ear it would have ripped clean off your head. And I will be silenced by his logic and his convincing certainty. Only days later will an image that has always hung dimly suspended in my mind, unaccounted for, pop suddenly to the surface.
(The child picks, for days, at a crusty line of scabs in that soft crease where the skin of the ear attaches to the skin that covers the bony shell of the skull.)
It is unfortunate that it is my step-father that is the first figure to come forward. But there it is.
And here is his refrain:
She was a child, he says. She didn’t understand. She is mistaken.
What is strange is that I cannot remember my mother’s face and that there is no point in time that I can see us together.
But of course nothing is absolute and I must immediately contradict myself.
I do in fact remember that once I spent an afternoon with her on a lake in a small rowing boat. Even so, I have no sense of her, or my own, physical presence on that occasion. I cannot, for example, remember which one of us rowed the boat.
It is only my imagination which creates the picture of a boat moving across the water as the shouts and noise from the shore fade away, hears the creak of the heavy wooden oars moving in the rowlocks, the slap of water against the hull, the quiet rustle of wind in trees and reeds, light playing over a shining expanse of water.
Where does this child live?
What comes to mind are houses full of silence: in memory, always empty. A series of disconnected spaces. Rooms without exit, hallways that lead nowhere, blank windows without vista.
Footsteps on the polished wooden floorboards, darkness, a doorway.
My grandmother’s house, where my mother spent her childhood, was on Castle Street and it seemed to me that the street had been named for the house which was, therefore, a castle. Certainly, it was a house possessed by a sense of grandeur. It pointed to a noble history.
Decades later, it is in England, that I will find my dead grandmother close to me, hovering at my shoulder, or seated on the other side of a table watching me. If she had a message for me then she could not find a way to make it explicit but it is no wonder she came to me there in England. Her faraway garden, in Australia, was a half-acre England of spring bluebells and cherry blossom trees, violets and pansies, clipped lawns and deciduous oak and birch. All England, except for the tree we called the Mother Tree, a box gum, home to giant emperor moth larvae, jewelled, green, and fatter than a child’s finger.
The house and garden were bounded by a cypress hedge, dense and dark, fragrant. It is in the hedge that my brother arrives. The Hedge was capitalised in our minds, as the name of any unexplored continent would be, and we would disappear inside it, my brother and I. Sometimes we emerged scratched and sticky with cypress resin to walk along the neatly clipped upper surface which formed an inviting green pathway but with a misjudged step an unwary child would suddenly vanish again below the smooth surface, plunged back into the harsh twiggy dusty interior, trapped and struggling.
The house, this enchanted castle, is spell-bound. Always silent. No laughter ringing through it. No raised voices, not in anger or in song.
Tick. Tock. Grandfather clock.
Wide hallways with patterned oriental rugs that form maps of unknown territory, a jungle, perhaps, or wide river plains, islands; a mutable terrain inhabited by serpents and mythic creatures, topography to be explored on endless tedious afternoons.
The child is often there, in the care of her grandmother. Can we perhaps catch a glimpse of them together? What is it they are doing?
They are sitting opposite each other at a table, separated by a wide expanse of dark polished wood. The child is labouring at the task she has been set. A peach, rosy and fragrant, sits on a tiny china plate carefully set between a silver knife and fork. The implements would be small and delicate in adult hands but the child clutches the opalescent mother-of-pearl handles clumsily. She must peel and eat the peach without touching its tender flesh with her fingers.
The fruit rolls and slides on the plate as the child struggles to impale it. Once it is secured she works to push the knife point beneath delicate downy skin and strip it from the flesh. Finally, she has a hard won morsel on the slender tines of the fork. She pauses to take a spoonful of sugar from a silver bowl and scatters it across the plate. She dips the scrap of fruit in the crystals and conveys it to her mouth.
Her grandmother watches impassive.
I never saw my mother and my father together. The possibility was inconceivable.
I knew my father was from elsewhere and for a long time it seemed to me that the place he came from must be called The War.
My mother sometimes told people that my paternal grandfather was a Nazi but she did not mean anything in particular by it. She just thought it was something interesting to say. I would not even remember it except that my sister still repeats it, as though it were fact, today. My half-sister. It is not her grandfather she is talking about. She phrases her statement as a question: Your grandfather had a Nazi uniform, didn’t he?
On weekends my brother and I were pushed out the front door onto the veranda where this grandfather, my father’s father, stood waiting. Formal, in pleated trousers, collar and tie, hair smooth and shiny with Brylcreem, he would lean stiffly across the threshold to shake hands with my stepfather standing inside the door.
How do you do? Sunday? Yes, Sunday.
We would climb into my grandfather’s immaculate fawn and white Holden Kingswood and speed away, my brother and I cannoning from one side of the car to the other across the beige vinyl bench-seat as my grandfather cursed the Australian drivers. Blod-ee eedi-yot! You blod-ee eedi-yot!
My paternal grandparent’s house was not silent, but the languages were foreign. Here my brother and I were always collective: the children. Die Kinder sind heir, my nanna would say on the phone to her friends, and we knew she was talking about us.
We went to this house to wait for my father to arrive.
At my grandparent’s house my brother and I were always addressed in English but adult conversation took place above our heads in a babble of other tongues. We knew that the alien words which hummed and roared and wailed in the air of my grandparent’s house were all of The War. The War was all encompassing and without location but there was also a more distant place, never talked about directly, hinted at in picture books and old photos, postcards and the arrival of pale blue airmail envelopes.
Czechoslovakia. The child wrote the strange word, next to her foreign surname, over and over on pieces of paper which she pushed into a tiny glass bottle that was one of the treasures on the mantelpiece in the bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house. She poked the secret messages through the vessel’s narrow mouth with a pencil and rammed them down. Over and over, until the blue green bottle was packed solid with crushed paper.
A land of castles. Mountains. Woods. Trees, tender in the springtime. Bright streams and sunny meadows. Wild flowers and berries at the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon.
But at night, in her dreams, she wandered a lonely wooded place, bare bony arms of trees raised up to a lowering dark sky, the tenebrous air thick with nightfall and snowfall. Black on black. This was the landscape of her dreams. Snow falling ceaselessly in darkness. Night after night the child trod these woods alone.
The possibility of physically going to this place was nonsensical. There was an unfathomable period of time in which the child’s nanna was absent from her Balwyn home. Months passed, during which occasional postcards with pictures of unknown cities arrived in the mail. The pedestrian images of bridges over rivers and municipal buildings baffled the girl.
Her nanna eventually returned, with gifts; a tiny carved wooden dog and a china Siamese cat. The child studied them minutely for clues and, although they explained nothing, she decided to treasure them. When she was not playing with the cat and dog the child carefully placed them on the mantelpiece next to her talismanic bottle. Soon the cat’s ears were chipped and the dog had lost a paw. The child cherished the little dog, especially, with an all-consuming love. She often carried it with her, in her pocket, until one day it vanished.
She searched in the school yard over and over again and scanned the ground at her feet with every step of the long walk home, through the suburban streets, across the park, along the railway line, over Prospect Hill Road and then finally down the street in which she returned each afternoon to the house where her mother and stepfather lived. Day after day she traversed this route searching for the lost token of the lost place.
The child and her brother sit on either side of their nanna on a low red brick wall at the front of a house in a quiet tree-lined street. They are counting cars.
Which one of you can guess how many cars will pass before your father comes?
Three. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
If he had arrived he would have tumbled out of some car, wearing no shoes, dirty white moleskin trousers tattered and patched, a soft brown leather jacket with the elbows out. He would have lounged lazily on the square modern couch, nursing a glass of red wine while the table was set. He would have sat wreathed in smoke, grey flaky tubes of ash trembling above the smouldering ember of a filterless cigarette.
And sometime, maybe after lunch, if she had been able to stand close enough to his chair, he might have turned to her and rumpled her hair and called her his beetle, or skinny rabbit.
So, here we are. Here we are with a handful of shards, pretty and sharp. What do they tell us?
As the story-teller, I realise that I am in a privileged position. A privileged position, but one also filled with difficulties and danger. I do not want to abuse my power and I recognise the seductive temptation to overstep the mark. I can see that what I am searching for is a story that will mend all the rents in the fabric of the universe. An impossible task, I know. I know.
I want to hear the child speak.
I have to tread carefully because I have so much more information at my disposal than she did. So much more. But I do promise to try to limit myself to the things that can be vouched for.
What I know for certain is that the child grows up and I know what kind of stories that have been told of her. Listen to some of the names she has been called:
the child / a girl (poison child)
dropper of bombshells (family terrorist)
liar / junkie / whore (the poltergeist)
squatter / criminal (trouble maker)
victim / survivor (the hungry ghost)
a trapeze artist (sweet falling angel / sweet f.a.)
How did she come to know herself differently? Could it be explained like this?
The child was a sleep-walker. She would be found wandering the house at night, rummaging in cupboards. On one occasion she left the house by the front door and ran down the street. But she does not remember these somnambulisms. They have been reported to her.
But the child remembers one incident. She was at her grandmother’s place in the country. A number of other children were there and they were sleeping outdoors in tents. The tents were pitched within the confines of a grassy, long disused, stockyard. There were probably five or six children present – these details do not matter – the older children, no doubt, with the toddlers and babies remaining with the grown ups in the big tin shed. The children must have behaved as children do in such circumstances, telling scary stories, bickering, joking, teasing. I remember none of that. Eventually they all would have slept.
And what the child – who possibly is the same person that I am – can to this day recall is waking to find herself alone under the wide starry sky in the paddock half way down towards the rocky gully. She is standing in her pyjamas, barefoot on frosty ground. She has woken because she is standing on a thistle in the grass. There she is, a child, standing on a dark hillside under the infinite sky and the moment has a startling clarity that she stores carefully inside herself as she makes her way back up the steep slope and climbs the five foot wooden post and paling fence and enters the tent and finds her sleeping bag again amongst the still slumbering children.
She recognises the size of the night. She is not afraid.
Belinda is a part-time lawyer, adminstrative assistant and mother of two young boys. She is completing a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and has published work on-line, in the Grieve Anthology 2018 and in the University of Sydney Student Anthology 2016. ‘On Becoming One’ was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
On Becoming One
I am that one.
The one in question.
Red Jordan Arabateau
I – A Chronology of Connection
1821 Anglo-yellows are popping up all over the Empire’s pristine lawn faster than they can be pulled out. It is upsetting to the Britons:
The most rapidly accumulating evil in Bengal is the increase of half-caste children . . . their increase in India is beyond calculation . . . it may justly be apprehended that this tribe may hereafter become too powerful for control . . . what may not in the future time be dreaded from them?(1)
The Empire doesn’t want any part of them. Many anglo-yellows are deemed not to be British subjects.(2)
1857 The Natives don’t like anglo-yellows either. (3) So the anglo-yellows try to merge into the background of the Empire. They emphasise their anglo parts, speaking only English and inflicting names like Nigel on their children (4). They disown their yellow parts by helping the Empire enforce a Dandelion-specific caste system based on degrees of yellow.
1898 Anglo-yellows merge so well that they are nearly invisible. An Empire-commissioned list of Burmese cultural sub-groups makes no mention of them.(5) They are overlooked by both Briton and Native welfare and legal systems.
1925 After a while, the anglo-yellows get some laws but not in relation to labour: the Empire needs someone cheap and white-ish to do its low-grade admin tasks. (6)
1939 Marrying an anglo-yellow is a lot like marrying an orangutan (7) , so anglo-yellows tend to marry each other. In this way, they form a distinct cultural community. When anglo-yellows marry, other anglo-yellows display good Empire-building skills by carefully noting degrees of yellow in the marrying parties.
My really-rather-yellow grandmother marries my hardly-that-yellow grandfather, which is well beyond her station (‘Quite!’).
1940 The anglo-yellows just want to be part of something. Well of course they do, because they’ve fallen in love. They sing little songs to the Empire, praising all things British and pointing out their usefulness. (8) They are always on their best behaviour for the Empire and if anyone comes to hurt it, nobody is quicker than the anglo-yellows to put their bodies in the path. (9) Still, after the war, the Britons go back to Britain and the anglo-yellows are left to scatter across the globe like dandelion seeds.
1950 My grandmother and grandfather waft onto a sausage-shaped island that floats like a turd in the water above another forgotten place.
My grandmother is not a happy woman. She picks at her beautiful rather-yellow face until scabs form. When she’s not picking at her face, she picks at her pale daughter, Wendy.
1952 Wendy picks at her beautiful barely-yellow face until it is scarred and pocked. She’s nervy, cries a lot and can’t settle. All my grandparents’ hopes are in their quite-yellow son, David.
1954 My grandparents just want to be part of something. Preferably something powerful. In Papua New Guinea, they borrow money to send really-quite-yellow David to the whitest Queensland boarding school they can find. Alone in post-war Queensland, Jap-yellow David absorbs pressure until his jaw muscles are deformed by constant clenching. Musculature protrudes from either side of his jaw like wing-nuts.
1969 David marries my mother – a relaxed white woman whose family has been part of Australia for generations. My grandparents just can’t get enough of her.
1970 I am born.
1985 I develop an insatiable urge to pick at my face until it is pocked. Thinking it might be helpful, my mother says, “You’re just like Wendy.” When Wendy commits suicide, I distract myself with intensified face-picking.
1995 Someone has been compiling statistics about face-picking and deformed jaw musculature: ‘Racism Linked to Depression and Anxiety in Youth’(10) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian CALD Communities(11) ; Stigma and Discrimination Associated with Depression(12) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Australia: A Cross Sectional Survey(13) ; Cultural Aspects in Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder (14). I wonder if there is any connection.
2000 I am friendly with two girls and we do everything together. One has Chinese heritage, the other is Fijian anglo-yellow. I wonder if there is any connection.
2005 I discover Hanif Kureishi is anglo-yellow and think about how his work resonates with me. I wonder if there is any connection.
2014 I stop picking at my face at around the same time that I start writing. I write to make connections between all the disowned parts of myself.
II – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. From the Latin ‘lacus’ for ‘lake’.
Story 1: Awww. Look at her, e’nt she cute? Belinda at six years old. Blonde hair in a bowl cut juts out at angles from her scalp. Swathe of snot lime-washed across her top lip. Puny chest, white shins covered in bruises. This afternoon, she’s been throwing acorns at the boys next door but now she’s tired. Sitting cross legged on the lounge-room floor, she watches telly in her undies. When the ads come on, she sings a song they’ve learnt at school: ‘Carra Barra Wirra Canna’. It’s a pretty tune and she warbles it exuberantly at the top of her voice:
There’s a lake in South Australia
Little lake with lovely name;
And the stories woven ‘round it;
From the piccaninnies came.
Suddenly, her Dad is there standing before her. “What is that shit you’re singing?” His tone is measured but menacing. She recognises the wretched set of his eyes, the jaw muscle pulsating dangerously and falls silent. She returns her gaze to the television but is watching him from the corner of her eye. He has a habit of lashing out unexpectedly, a clip with his hand or with his blade-sharp tongue. Both equally excoriating.
At school, the kids ask her, “Why is your Dad Chinese?” He is something, Dad, but he’s not Chinese. She doesn’t know much more than that because race is unmentionable in her family. A simple children’s song can set him off.
Now he leaves and she relaxes. Hunched in front of the telly, you might notice that the dome of Belinda’s ribs is like a bell jar. The ‘piccaninnies’ and their lake are sealed in there, along with the race-related stories they might have told. She won’t remember them again until she is an adult and runs across a pile of old school song books at a garage sale. Then she will wonder at the shame and confusion she felt as a child, and at the woven net of silence that she and her Dad are caught up in.
‘Lacuna’. That beautiful word. On one definition, it means ‘space’ or ‘gap’, as in:
The rocket shot off into Outer Lacuna;
You have a lacuna between your front teeth;
There is a lacuna in your family history.
Culture, being an experience that is shared between members of a social group, is usually public. It includes religious beliefs, festivals, stories, arts – all the things that bind people together and give their lives richness and meaning. Culture is something to be celebrated.
But Eurasians under the British Raj were a tiny minority in a multitude of nationals increasingly disaffected with British imperialism. Eurasian ties to the oppressors showed in their very faces and it is no surprise that their exclusion from Indian social and economic life was nearly absolute. In the circumstances, and since many Eurasians were not easily identified as non-white, the thing to do was deny one’s Eurasian identity altogether and align oneself, as far as possible, with the Empire:
“Throughout my life I had asked him why the family was (in India). Were his parents Indian? Did he speak Urdu? Did he have an elephant? He always told me simply, ‘We were an English family who happened to be living in India.”(15)
This strategy was necessary for Eurasians to survive as a culture. Even now in India there remains a vibrant and politically active, though diminishing, Eurasian community. But in my family’s experience, the consequences of silence have been mostly tragic.
Story 2: My grandmother and her sisters were very fond of the school that they boarded at in Moulmein, Burma. It was called St Mathews High School for Girls, and was an Anglican missionary school for Eurasian girls. My grandmother and her sisters were lucky enough to have parents that they stayed with over the school holidays. But it was not uncommon for Eurasian children to be abandoned or removed from their parents and many of my grandmother’s cohorts were orphans.
My grandmother loves to tell us about a time she tried to wear make-up at the school. The nuns told my grandmother, no, you can’t use make-up – there are orphans here and they can’t afford it. There is a faux brightness to the way my grandmother tells this story and she loves re-telling it. With each re-telling, she laughs too sweetly and too insistently. Even as a child, I can sense a discordance in this story that makes me wonder. What is my grandmother is hiding?
III – Straddling the Space
In 2016, in her key-note speech to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Lionel Shriver was critical of the increasing presence of ‘cultural misappropriation’ debates in literature. (16) These arguments, regarding the unauthorised use of cultural knowledge and expressions, arise in relation to writing which deals in identities distinct from the author’s own identity. An example that has been controversial in Shriver’s own work is her use of an elderly African-American character though Shriver herself is white. Shriver’s broad approach to these debates is that there can be no ownership in social identity. To hold otherwise, she says, is impractical and burdensome. Since the most that can occur via identity misuse is a few hurt feelings, Shriver is not sure why the debate exists and wonders if it is a fashionable pose. Shriver argues that the cultural misappropriation debate is flawed at its core since social identity is not a real thing:
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.(18)
Shriver’s 2016 speech is remembered, not just for its content, but for the way she delivered it, donning a cheeky sombrero to underline her arguments about hypersensitivity in Latino cultural debates and comparing herself to a Great White Shark in a sea of earnest community builders. In her reckless approach to wide-spread upset, Shriver reminds me of my favourite iconoclast, Hanif Kureishi, who commenced each morning of filming on the set of My Beautiful Laundrette (19) by getting into a huddle with director Stephen Frears and screaming ‘Filth and Anarchy!”’ repeatedly. Even with the consternation caused by Shriver’s 2016 comments, she hasn’t approached the entrenched controversiality of Kureishi who, it has been suggested, has only narrowly avoided eliciting a fatwa. (20) He is not an Empire Eurasian but a modern Eurasian born and raised in Britain and this culturally-specific heritage is revealed by his notable lack of silence.
But Shriver and Kureishi’s common maverick status is just one of several intersections they seem to share as writers. For instance, when Shriver uses her 2016 speech to rail against the ‘culture police’ who objected to her African-American character, she puts me in mind of the normative provocations frequently posed by Kureish’s identity representations. This was most apparent early in his career when his holistic representations of Asians upset just about everybody – conservative Asian communities, of course, by depicting sexually transgressive Muslims but also progressive Asian commentators by depicting Asians in ways that failed, they thought, to optimize Asian interests: showing Asians in a bad light. (21)
People ask why my Asian characters are bad, and it’s only because villains are more interesting on the whole. I’m very interested in how complex people are. People in films are often divided very quickly. You know early on who’s good and who’s bad. But I’m more interested in how complex we all are.”(22)
Shriver, too, resists treating her minority identities with kid gloves (23) and she might agree with Kureishi who considers that the freedom to depict the whole complexity of a character is as important as Art itself, which “represents freedom of thought – not merely in a political or moral sense – but the freedom of the mind to go where it wishes; to express dangerous wishes.”(24)
The most obvious result of the freedom that Kureishi claims for his characters in bucking identity norms is fun. See Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette allying himself with the best-looking member of the local skin-head gang to establish a successful business and score nookie. Or Karim, in Buddah of Suburbia, consenting to play a humiliating depiction of Mowglie and thereby grounding his acting career, escaping suburbia and scoring a mountain of nookie. Kureishi extends this freeing facility to his Asian characters – such as Karim’s father who shamelessly squeezes himself into the ‘Oriental Mystic’ persona, providing himself with a new income source and, you guessed it, scoring nookie.
But another result of all this opportunism is power:
The [mulatto] kids I knew were not tragic. They were like Karim: pushy, wild, charismatic, street-smart, impudent, often hilarious. Despite their relatively lowly position in the British class system they suspected they were cool, and knew they had talent and brains.(25)
Divested of the constraints of ‘proper’ Asian representations, Kureishi’s characters are free to consider how their internal desires and interests might be met given their oppressive externalities. Their identity lacuna becomes a grab-bag to be dipped into for whichever persona best suits for the time being. English one day, Indian the next.(26)
This shuffling of identity norms can be experienced as subversive but it is key to a powerful Eurasian identity. Of course it is. The almost (27) , the in-between(28) , the space in the Empire’s cultural index. Our mojo was always going to be mutable.
Which leads to a further overlap evident in Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings about writing identity: an awareness of identity as a means of accruing power. Shriver terms this aspect of identity, ‘offendedness as a weapon’. She could be referring to Tracey, an actress in Karim’s acting troupe, who takes advantage of her minority racial status and her cleaning-lady mother to manipulate the white guilt of the rest of the troupe. Her political aptitude helps her to obtain the dramatic representations she wants.(29)
But it is within this particular overlap that Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings on writing identity finally diverge. For Shriver’s 2016 comments on the politicisation of identity, ‘gotcha hypersensitivity’, reveal a blind spot at the precise point of Kureishi’s most essential acuity. The divergence is revealed here in the reckoning that Omar’s alliance with Johnny requires before it may progress:
What were they doing on marches through Lewisham? It was bricks and bottles and Union Jacks. It was immigrants out. It was kill us. People we knew. And it was you. He saw you marching. You saw his face, watching you. Don’t deny it. We were there when you went past . . . Papa hated himself and his job. He was afraid on the streets for me . . . Oh, such failure. Such emptiness. (30)
And again when Karim is forced to face the folly he has committed against himself in yearning for the English rose, Elenor;
My depression and self-hatred, my desire to mutilate myself with broken bottles, and numbness and crying fits, my inability to get out of bed for days and days, the feeling of the world moving in to crush me, went on and on . . .(31)
Also apparent in Karim’s experience of school. Enduring the nick-names Shitface and Curryface is least of his problems. He is also punched and kicked to the ground by his teachers, threatened with chisels to the throat, imprisoned and branded with hot metal: Every day, I considered myself lucky to get home from school without serious injury. (32)
Pain. Shriver doesn’t get it. This is why she acknowledges every type of identity politics but her own; why she resents being asked to consider others’ perspectives; why, to her, identity politics is a ‘tempest in a tea-cup’ of hurt feelings.
Admittedly, Kureishi has an advantage in perceiving identity injuries. First Asian at his Bromley Tech High School, Pakistani Pete to his teachers, squired around Pakistani beating grounds by his skin-head mates, Kureishi speaks openly about intense feelings of shame and loneliness. He has said that the war-zone traumas that Karim endures at high school are autobiographical.
Lived experience is not essential to empathy and pain is not unique to Eurasians. But I hope that any person endeavoring to represent Eurasian identity is capable of seeing Eurasian pain, just as I hope that any writer advocating the free-wheeling adoption of others’ cultural identities, is also capable of seeing pain.
Until then, I might gather my Eurasian parts around me and wield them, as Shriver could have predicted, like weapons. Because my father is just a few years older than Kureishi. Because like Kureishi, my father has a string of ‘firsts’ – first non-white at his elite Queensland boarding school, first non-white in his course at university, first non-white in the Queensland Veterinary Association. Because, after 49 years I still don’t know what that was like for him and the silence feels ominous.
Silence is the flipside of offendedness. And it has, until relatively recently, been the most salient feature of identity writing:
At their best the Eurasians of the novels are as kindhearted as their natural indolence and slovenliness will allow; at their worst they are heartless, vicious, self-seeking, and completely unscrupulous. At a time when racial separateness, symbolizing racial superiority, seemed so necessary for the task of ruling an empire, the Eurasians posed a special kind of threat. The trouble with half-castes, argue the novels, is that they take only the worst qualities of each parent race – the stubbornness and pride of the English, without their courage and principle; the deviousness of the Indians, without their cultivation and dignity.(34)
It is the novelty of identity debates that causes Shriver to suspect fashionable posturing but I hope these debates are not just a passing fad. I feel happy to see Eurasians and others wield their offendedness. Let’s keep it up because I think we’re making something new and interesting, something that might be a useful political implement in the management of in that other political, and potentially cruel, implement – the appropriated identity.
IV – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. 2. A cavity or depression in bone, containing nucleate cells.
Story 3 At the age of about 23, I reach a kind of hiatus in life. At a dead end in my relationship and in my studies, I schlepp around in someone else’s sharehouse and do shift-work. I am on hold until I can save enough money to escape overseas. I brood. I have strange dreams. I come across My Beautiful Laundrette at the local video store. It appears that Omar has also been on hold and knows what to do. I watch it and feel myself start to heal. Parts of myself are being knitted together. I wait until the house is empty and play it and re-play it. Then I play it again. It starts to run through my veins. I am absorbing a story intravenously, like fluid through a drip feed.
As well as referring to a gap or hiatus, ‘lacuna’ is an anatomical term, referring to cavities in the bone that cup its living matter: ‘osteocytes’ or bone cells. On this definition, space is not an absence but a presence of life-giving possibility.
A story can be like that. The delight that spans the abyss of unbelonging (35), the water play across a racial schism(36) . A story can take a lacuna and make it world-cracking, life-changing, art-inspiring.(37) That sort of connectivity can actually save lives:
Kureishi’s “almost” got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between. I could be almost.(38)
Kureishi’s characters were vibrant because the stories he told about their racial ambivalence made something from it – a Eurasian identity. It was enough to lift the writer Shukla out of her suicidality and I wonder whether things might have been different for my aunt (my aunt, my aunt; acerbic, funny, tender-hearted, sad; I remember her slender hands; it is said I have hands like hers) if she had known about these sorts of identities when she was struggling.
Maybe not though. Because she had to deal with, not just the Empire’s identity lacuna, but the one created by her own family.
My grandmother was pleased when the nuns drew a distinction between herself and the Moulmein orphans because she had more in common with the orphans than she cared to admit. Wrenched away from her Native mother, her culture, the language she had spoken as a baby. Sent to school to be re-shaped in the ways of the Empire. Underlying my grandmother’s story was the desire to separate from her orphaned cohort and from the horrifying suspicion that she, like them, was unwanted. A weed thrown onto a garbage heap. One of the Empire’s discards. Her story was not a connection but an attempt at disconnection. It was another type of silence.
All to no avail. Come Independence, my grandmother’s British father would return to his British family and she would be left wheeling across the globe like the orphan she truly was. Nothing between my grandmother and oblivion but the Eurasian family she had married into, itself intent on performing an act of disconnect because she was way too yellow.
There’s a curious glitch in Shriver’s 2016 speech. When she makes her statement that identity doesn’t exist, she does so baldly, without any logical underpinning, and nests the observation amongst unrelated arguments. It stands out in an otherwise flawless stream of witticisms and I don’t think it’s an oversight. I think Shriver is really saying that social identity doesn’t matter. We writers can do what we like with social identity because what difference does it make?
Shriver’s arguments about identity ownership have become pertinent again in relation to another in-betweener (40) – Bruce Pascoe, author of much-lauded work Dark Emu (41) whose genealogical connection to his Bunurong and Yuin identity is too tenuous for some. The connection between genealogy and identity is a central one. But an equally important insight to be gleaned from Pascoe’s case is apparent, not in the case itself, but in the furor surrounding it: community schisms, police investigations, political intervention, advisory board re-shuffles.
Social identity is incredibly important to us. We can expect writers to take care with our social identity because it matters. It matters in the same way as our stories matter. It matters, in fact, in the same way that we ourselves matter because being connected to a larger whole is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
I have one last story. It is my grandmother’s story but she had no voice for it. I heard it, once only, from my father:
Story 4: Before settling in New Guinea, my grandparents alight briefly in Sydney where they stay with friends at Kirribilli. Each day, my grandmother takes my Dad and his sister to a playground on Kirribilli Bay. While my Dad and his sister play on the swings, my grandmother goes to the water’s edge where there is a low limestone wall separating the Bay from the park.
All around the edges of the strange harbour, sailing skips bob and duck. Diamond wavelets sparkle and recede back into the grey-green water. But before my grandmother, the water is dark and eerie, blackened by kelp which beckons to my grandmother like writhing arms. Come, come, enter our shadowy depths. Join us.
On the swings, my dad and his sister keep their small backs to my grandmother and do not turn around. They know what will happen, and cannot bare the alarming sight. My grandmother puts her knees to the limestone wall, leans out as far as she can over the Bay’s arc and sobs. It seems to last for hours. Endless tears fall from her eyes in a single diamond stream and join the dark water. She is submerged by sadness.
My grandmother saw her beloved mother maybe one more time in her life. She almost never saw her sisters and brother who were scattered across the world. She lived, not just without her family, but without stories to provide her with an understanding of her place in a community of others. She faced her abandonment in isolation.
How could she know that she was never the weed? How could she know that she was the resilient herb? The Dandelion with its face turned always to the limitless sky.
Lest my family’s story be dismissed as a quirk of history, I want to finish with an aside I came across recently in Alexander Chee’s luminous book of autobiographical essays. (42) Chee is an Amerasian whose heritage is partly Korean and he describes his family’s vigilance whenever, as a child, he visited relatives living in Korea:
Biracial Korean and white Amerasian children in Seoul in 1968 . . . were often kidnapped and sold as, for some time, your patrimony was your access to personhood. Put another way, if your father was a white GI, no government authority automatically thought of you as a citizen. (43)
The Empire has ended but my family’s story will never end. There will always be fly-in fly-out incursions of boundaries, the breaches of war or commerce that leave in their wake a trail of people who do not know who they are. Untethered and drifting but I won’t abandon them. I won’t let them float away. I’ll build them a net of connection and join them up with my stories.
1. Viscount George Valentia, cited in Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India. Leiden, (Netherlands: E. J. Brill 1973) at 13
2. Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity for Anglo-indians” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) at 17
3. Eurasian communities targeted in the Indian Rebellion 1857. “Shunned by the Indians, despised by the whites . . . the unfortunate Anglo-Indian found himself cut off from the main economic and social bases of Indian life.” Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in 1933 cited in L Jacobsen, The Eurasian Question: The Colonial Position and Postcolonial Options of Colonial Mixed Ancestry Groups from British India, Dutch East Indies and French Indochina Compared (Uitgeverij Verloren 2018) at 82, web, accessed 10 January 2019, See also Mills, M. “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001) at 225; Mannsaker, F. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914” Victorian Studies 24.1 (1980) at 37.
4. Kris Griffiths, “Anglo-Indians: Is their culture dying out?” BBC Magazine, 4 January 2013, web, accessed 3 February 2018
5. Elementary Handbook of the Burmese Language 1898 cited in Edwards, P “Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma.” Postcolonial Studies 5.3 (2002) at 285
6. Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India (Netherlands Leiden1973), 18
7. Hervey, A soldier of the Company, cited in Sen, A Distant Sovreignity, (Routledge 2002) 148
8. ‘The Eurasian Anthem’ cited in Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) 14
9. Mills, M “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001): 223–236, web, accessed 11 1 20, detailing disproportionate levels of Eurasian military and sporting achievement. Probably Empire Eurasians display disproportionate achievement in entertainment also, but no one in public life will admit to their Eurasian heritage: Kris Griffiths, op cit.
15. Kris Griffiths, op cit. I experienced a flash of recognition when Griffiths says: ‘The Anglo-Indians also have a distinctive cuisine – jalfrezi was a staple in our household, but unlike anything on Indian restaurant menus.’ Even the most slavish imitators of British customs would balk at adopting that country’s cuisine. My grandmother cooked beautiful curries that were like Asian curries but different, as well as a type of balachaung (shrimp paste) that we ate on toast and which I have never tasted elsewhere
16. Shriver, L “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation is a Passing Fad” The Guardian 13 September 2017, web, 3 February 2020
17. Abdel-Magied, Y “As Shriver Made Light of Identity I had no Choice but to Walk Out” The Guardian 10 September 2016, web, 2 January 2020; Wong Y, “Dangerous Ideas” inexorablist.com 8 September 2016 web, accessed 18 January 2020
18. Shriver, L op cit.
19. Frears, Stephen. et al. My Beautiful Laundrette. London: FilmFour, 1985. Film.
20. For Kureishi’s particularly controversial status, see Ruvani Ranasinha, South Asian Writers in Twentieth Century Britain: Culture in Translation (Oxford Scholarship Online 2011) 260, comparing Kureishi’s critical reception to that of Meena Syal; Alberto Fernandez, ‘Hanif Kureishi: The Assemblage of a Native Informant’ Queering Islam 6 March 2015 web 2 Jan 2020, suggesting Kureishi is as controversial than the fatwa-eliciting Rushdie, Mick Brown ‘Hanif Kureishi: A Life Laid Bare’ The Telegraph 23 February 2008:
21. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia , London, Faber and Faber, 1990, print at 180
22. Interview with Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi, The Movie Show, 7 July 1988, www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11716675713/sammy-and-rosie-get-laid-stephen-frears-and-hanif-kureishi
23. Shriver, L, op cit, “That’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing.”
24. Hanif Kureishi, ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ in Collected Essays Faber and Faber 2013 at 286
25. Zaidie Smith, ‘Introduction’ to Kureishi, H, op cit, vi
26. Kureishi, H, op cit, at 213: “If I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to invent it.”
Ibid at 3
28. Kureishi, H , My Beautiful Laundrette and The Rainbow Sign, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print.
29. Her representations are later shown to be impotent in comparison to Karim’s as they require validation by white liberal authority. But this does not detract from the skillful way in which she has managed her minority identity.
30. Kureishi, H, op cit 84
31. Ibid 250
32. Ibid 63
33. Kureishi, H, op cit .12
34. Mannsaker, Frances M. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914.” Victorian Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1980, at 33
35. With thanks to Rilke, “As Once the Winged Energy of Delight”, allpoetry.com, web, 2 February 2020
36. Kureishi, H, op cit 111
37. Sandhu, S “Paradise Syndrome”, London Review of Books, 18 May 2000; Fortini A, “From Justin Bieber to Martin Buber, Zadie Smith’s Essays Showcase Her Exuberance and Range”, nytimes.com, 21 February 2018, web, 2 February 2020
38. Shukla, N, “How the Buddha of Suburbia Let Me Into a Much Wider World” The Guardian, 17 February 2017 web 2 February 2020
39. Shukla N, loc cit.
40. Pascoe identifies with both white and Indigenous aspects of his heritage, “Andrew Bolt’s Disappointment”, griffithreview.com, web, 2 February 2020
41. Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Sydney: Magabala Books, 2014. Print.
42. Chee A, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, London:Bloomsbury, 2018
43. Loc cit at 182
Karina Ko is from Sydney and graduated from a arts-law degrees. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Things I Used to Believe
That I shouldn’t go near the dragonflies that hover over our pool because they could release a fine white powder and make my hair fall out.
That I was already bald enough at seven, the hair so fine at the corners of my forehead.
That my forehead bulged out too much, and was too high, whatever that meant.
That I was the reincarnate of my great grandmother on my father’s side because we were born on the same lunar calendar day at three in the morning. Also when I was born, I had the same big eyes and flat nose as in her funeral photo, the one on my grandparent’s ancestral shrine.
That when my grandmother saw my baby face, her big hands went up to rub her collarbones. Oh heavens, her mother-in-law has come back to keep an eye on her.
That it was why my grandmother always talked more to my brother when he and I flew over to see her. It was why her chopsticks struck the back of my hands when my fingers picked up the soy sauce chicken wing in my bowl.
That it also had something to do with my dark skin (like a Filipino’s they said). And the only time she really loved me was when she pulled up my shirt to rub a bitter minty oil and she beamed at the paleness of my aching belly.
That my cousin was more beautiful than me because she had pale skin, long thick black hair and no double chin. That if I put a clothes peg on my nose, as my mum instructed, it would grow to be more pointy.
That my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world but her nails were too sharp and scratched my scalp when she washed my thin hair with Johnson’s shampoo.
That a few nights into Chinese new year, I should walk through the streets outside our small federation house in Bexley North, past the Banksia and gum trees and announce that I am selling my laziness.
“Beautiful and delicious laziness for sale. Come and look. Come and choose. Discounted for big clearance. Look, you can even have it for free.” I mimicked the stall vendors’ calls at the markets in Hong Kong, the ones with pigs heads hanging on hooks and severed eels swimming in their own blood. My hands flew out at my sides flinging my laziness like rice grains at the dark front lawns of two storey brick houses where rich families lived.
That the spirits were too clever to believe my wares were worth taking. But that I was cute enough to make my mum laugh, happy to see her daughter making an effort.
That I could make her happy by telling her I would become a lawyer and buy her a Porsche.
That my dad was handsome when my mum met him, and that his perm, a small afro of Chinese hair, was fashionable at the time.
That Jesus walked on water and made it rain fish.
That as my mum warned, nine out of ten men were cheats and liars, the lot of them, especially the handsome ones. Except Jesus.
That ghosts liked to wander along the hall in our house. That they leaned against the tiled bathroom walls in the middle of the night when I needed to pee.
That you could hold them off by making a sign of the cross. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
That when Kirsten told me to blow the dandelion fluff and make a wish, it was because the fluff could capture the moment of my wish like a video. It would fly up to God where he had a special fluff VHS player and he would watch me wishing for my parents to be happy.
That as long as I kept the necklace Kirsten gave me with half a heart on it and she kept hers with the other half, we would stay best friends forever.
That everyone needed to have favourites to have personality. A favourite colour. A favourite scented crayon. A favourite dinosaur.
That in scripture class when Miriam with glasses so thick that it made her look cross-eyed, sputtered about a visit from an angel, the people who laughed were faithless hypocrites, even though I didn’t know this word then.
That there were things I couldn’t tell anyone.
That the way to be popular was to laugh at people’s jokes even if you didn’t find them funny. That most of the things people said at school were jokes, even if they didn’t start with knock knock or why did the chicken.
That when my mum was pushed against the dresser and the wedding photo fell to the floor, the shattered glass said something I couldn’t.
That the only tea one should order at yum cha is Tiet Kwun Yum oolong because it was what my mum always ordered.
That if I unveiled the pink table cloth hanging over the mirror at my mother’s dressing table, a banshee with long flowing hair would climb out. She would grab me with her bony coral fingers and pull my soul out like a flimsy silk scarf. “Children’s souls are the easiest to extract,” she would tell me in a scratchy voice, “because they are still getting used to their human form.” Then she would possess my body and trap my soul behind the mirror.
That I should never wear indigo in my hair because that is what girls wear to their mother’s funeral.
That as the palmistry book at the library said, the four vertical lines at the base of my mother’s right pinky, meant she was fated to have four children.
The fourth line was meant to be a younger sister. She would not have been good at maths but she would have been warm like the first day of spring. She would have belonged the way I tried to but never could.
Belonging was like one of those cards with an optical illusion made up of tiny coloured dots. You had to stare at it a certain way to reveal a picture. According to Thomas, a friend of our big brother, it was a picture of a snake. Sensing their growing boredom, I had said, “Yes, I see it now,” when all I saw was a mess of dots scattering over each other again and again. My sister would have been the first to see the snake.
That I was a traitor of a daughter for just standing there at the end of the bed, my mum crawling on the floor with my sister bleeding inside her.
That I would have gotten in trouble if my dad found me talking on the phone, reciting our address the way school had taught us.
That I should have called even if he hit me.
That when I grew up I would never fall in love with a man. That there was no good man who would love me and my bulging forehead.
That my unborn sister was behind the mirror and watched me through the pink cloth.
That I had to kneel near the mirror each night to go through my plastic rosary beads.
That the fifty Hail Marys would help calm my sister’s sadness, which swelled at eight twenty, her approximate time of death.
That even if Jesus had forgiven us, I never would.
Emily Sun is from Western Australia and has been published in various journals and anthologies including Westerly, Island, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Growing up Asian in Australia. She is currently working on her first novel Maybe it’s Wanchai? and can be found at http://iamemilysun.com
Maybe It’s Wanchai [灣仔]?
Tape deck, SONY
made in Japan
too many places and too many dark spaces
soft wave radio
white noise comforts in mah-jeh’s refuge
masking the sounds of a forgotten city
Non-recyclable plastic and metal, magnetic tape
Tony Leung pre-lust but with caution
together we unspool the tangles and with an
octagonal pencil, made in the people’s republic,
until the music plays
the Banana Boat song
tonic to sub-dominant fragment
then I started a joke
Too many men in skinny flared jeans
No one was laughing.
All animals know they are born to die, but none really believe it.
A mouse caught by a well-fed cat does not know its death is imminent even when that cat presents it to her musophobic owner who will scream, grab the injured mouse up by its tail and feed it to Susa, an Appleyard rescued duck. Susa will pick up the mouse and shake it so violently that its little neck breaks. This mouse will never know that after it disintegrates in the darkness of Susa’s stomach, it will become part of the manure that nourishes the garden it once called home.
Susa was meant to die before the mouse. The council ordered the slaughter of all abandoned domestic ducks found wandering in public parks because introduced species destroy the delicate eco-system. Susa is only alive because when her would be executioner, a middle-aged council worker who was usually on the pot-hole team, looked into Susa’s woeful and purulent eyes, he knew he had no option but to take her to the vet.
This is how it is and how it should be.
Only purebreds and country women’s baked goods are assigned prestigious categories at the show. The decorative —animate and inanimate, edible and inedible— are placed in metallic cages or glass cabinets. A purebred Hereford steer or heifer can fetch thousands at a charity auction, but lesser breeds are sold in bulk and that exchange is used to teach business students the concept of futures. There is no gender pay gap amongst these purebreds because both the steer and heifer’s carcasses are as tender as the other after twenty-eight days on a hook. Even the most discerning diner will not be able to tell whether their rib-eye steak was once male or female, only that it was expensive and more so when drizzled in truffle oil.
Piglets are, arguably, not decorative, yet everyone laughs and applauds when they are forced by the farmer/clown to dive into shallow pools of water from two or three metres. Some piglets fear the height and others fear the water. The farmer/clown will not kill them until they break a leg, drown, or grow too large for the plastic pool. They are not sucklings so are safe from Chinese fathers who want to present them, roasted, as a symbol of their daughter’s virginity at her wedding banquet. These diving pigs are kept away from piggeries that house pork because most mammals can sense and taste like fear. A pig on a spit at Oktoberfest is always sweeter when its day begins like any other, rutting and running around, and only dies when, from a distance, Uncle Giovanni shoots it in the head with his a single 150-grain projectile, the unregistered rifle. Uncle Giovanni’s pigs always requires less salting.
Simplicity Chan was like any other hopeful animal when she woke up on a wintry morning in the early 21st Century. She went for a swim in the heated indoor pool, ate lunch at Subway, and sat down to watch the Masterchef semi-finals in the evening. By midnight, she was hooked up to an oxygen tank and told by the ED doctor that if she were his sister, he would say “Yes. You have cancer.”
It turned out that Simplicity did not have a procrastinating cancer, one of the types that give you enough months or even years, to tidy up your affairs and perhaps even allow for the medical researchers to develop a new cure. Simplicity had an aggressive but good cancer, and the type that Laura, her assigned cancer support buddy, said she would pick if she had to choose from the hundreds in the cancer catalogue. Laura explained that although the sub-type was rare, it was known to have at least an eighty plus, or so, percent survival rate. The cancer cells were dumb and easily killed by chemo. Only a very small percentage, oh two or was it twenty percent, did not respond to treatment. Laura assured Simplicity that by next Christmas the entire experience would be simply a ‘blip on the radar’.
Simplicity survived so she forgot about dying and started a music studio in her living room. She taught small children how to play whatever instrument their parents wanted them to play, usually the keyboard. It was a shock when, on Valentine’s Day two years later, Simplicity woke up, made dinner reservations at a Gold Plate award winning restaurant but passed out on the hot pavement outside the restaurant while waiting for her date. By midnight she was hooked up to an oxygen tank in a different ED —not the one where she had once spent the night in a dark room hooked up to an IV pole attached to an immobile trolley bed and her head next to a full commode.
This second time around, Simplicity didn’t want a support buddy but she overheard a patient on the ward ask for a priest so she requested a Buddhist monk or nun. She wasn’t really religious but one of her grandmothers had been a devout Buddhist. The young ward receptionist who was in charge of Simplicity’s request said that he could call someone from their list of spiritual counsellors or if she wanted him to, ask a nun who was a regular at the markets where he busked on weekends. He was pretty sure she was a nun for she had a shaved head and walked around in robes that looked a lot like the Dalai Lama’s. She wasn’t on the official hospital list nor was she Asian but she was “really awesome” and always dropped ten dollars into his guitar case whenever he played Blur so she would have been youngish in the 1990s. Simplicity said she didn’t care who it was as long as the person believed in an afterlife because this time no one was saying hers was a good cancer.
The Blur loving nun was dressed in orange and yellow robes when she visited Simplicity on the ward. She said she wore different coloured robes each week because couldn’t fully commit to the temple she’d trained because not all the monks and nuns there were vegetarians. When Simplicity asked the nun why some people were struck down by cancers, the nun also said that all cancer patients were flawed humans in their previous lives and Simplicity’s relapse was evidence of this. But as the doctors still called it a ‘curable cancer’, Simplicity’s sins were relatively minor. Only terminal cancer patients who experienced agonising pain before they were taken to the hot or cold Narakas were the ones who had been murderers and child rapists last time around. Sure, it wasn’t fair for the people they were now but this is just how it was and how it should be. Besides, everyone had more chances since their damnation was time limited in the Buddhist realm and most people would be reborn human.
Simplicity survived again but afterwards stopped visiting the temple where her grandma’s ashes were kept for fear of bumping into the nun. When Simplicity returned home, she was more like the pig whose carcass will still tasted like fear even after drowning in a cauldron of soy sauce and five-spices. Simplicity was unable to make any plans beyond the moment, but soon these moments turned into seconds, the seconds turned into minutes, the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, so she decided to read War and Peace in the order Tolstoy had intended. But before Prince Andrei left for war for the first time, it happened again. Simplicity woke up one day and by evening she was back on the cancer ward.
The doctor on duty walked in, her eyes blood shot, and told Simplicity that her only cure now was a bone marrow transplant, or they called a stem-cell transplant. The less arduous process, and softer sounding term, meant that more people were more willing to register as donors, this included religious people, except those from specific sects, once they understood that the process did not involve unwanted IVF embryos. The chances of finding a donor were not high, the doctor said, but not entirely impossible. What she neglected to say then was that Simplicity’s odds of finding a match were lower because she wasn’t European, or more specifically Northern European.
In year five, Simplicity’s sometimes-friend Nita had asked her, ‘Don’t you wish you had been born something else?’ This was after Shelby started making fun of Simplicity for having ‘slitty eyes’. That was the year when everyone was cruel to each other. Some kid called the teacher a fat cunt so the teacher dragged another kid across the desk and slammed him against the wall. When Nita, more an ally than a friend, and Belinda, the girl with no allies, were absent, Simplicity was teased for looking Chinese or Japanese, and speaking English too ‘posh’. Simplicity later discovered that her accent was one that some English celebrities often adopted to mask their aristocratic upbringing. By that time though, Simplicity had lost the accent and sounded more like Bob Hawke and no longer said daahhnce or Fraahhnce when she referred to the school social or the country across the English Channel. Other than dickhead Don, who pinched Simplicity whenever he had a chance, no one really physically hurt her. Nita though was constantly subject to electric shocks administered by Shelby, who excelled at nothing else. Shelby couldn’t have bullied Nita for looking or sounding different because although Nita was part-Maori, she had blonde hair and blue eyes, and no one made her say ‘fish and chips’ or ‘six’ repeatedly as they did with that other kid from New Zealand. Initially, Shelby used her index finger to shock Nita but then she learnt how to charge up a drawing pin to stick into Nita. If their teacher had seen Shelby’s experiments as a teaching moment perhaps Shelby would’ve ended up at the CSIRO and not an inmate at Bandyup.
At least Simplicity and Nita had each other. Belinda had no one.
At best people ignored Belinda. Most of the others made fun of her for having nits even though she didn’t have any and laughed at her for wetting her pants after someone tipped their left-over lemon cordial onto her chair. They called her all sorts of names and when she got pregnant, in the summer between primary and high school, everyone said that the only way that could have happened was if the guy had put a plastic bag over her head when they were doing it.
Simplicity was glad she wasn’t Belinda or anyone else from her primary school. Of course, she sometimes wanted to be other people, but not any specific person or someone she knew in real life. She wanted to be one of the Bradies on The Brady Bunch but never part of the Keatons from Family Ties. In high school she wanted to be womanlier, like the popular girls. Although her nipples budded around the same time as the other girls she didn’t need to wear a training-bra so she never drew the attention of the boys who went around snapping bra straps. If there were times she’d wished she’d been born something else, she’d long forgotten these moments and it was only now that as the doctor explained to her the limited options that Simplicity’s answer to Nita’s question from decades ago was now yes.
Yes. Simplicity wished she had been born European and more specifically Dutch. Even before this relapse, she’d read about how the Dutch and Germans, the Teutons, had an easier time finding donor matches because of less genetic diversity and higher donor rates. The 19th Century pseudo-science of eugenics benefitted those descended from European colonisers because although their ancestors colonised other people’s lands, intermarriages were rare until long after they lost their colonies. Who would have thought parochialism, apartheid and inbreeding had its merits?
The doctor kept talking but Simplicity wasn’t listening because she was too busy scouring the archives in her mind for examples of people who had low odds but did not die. There was an Ivy-league educated Indian-American guy who recruited everyone from his fraternity and then almost everyone from his ancestral village onto the American stem cell registry. Then there was a Lebanese-Australian who went to Lebanon and founded a cord blood match. She even met the Lebanese president. Simplicity’s placenta and her baby’s umbilical cord were left in the freezer of the hospital where she’d given birth. In this moment she felt rather stupid that she didn’t donate or bank it but instead had the idea to plant it in her backyard upon a doula friend’s suggestion.
Simplicity’s grandmother once said that people in her village used to eat the afterbirth, but Simplicity couldn’t recall which village it was or even in which country, nor how long ago that had been. Even if she found that village, there were still those villages of her other grandparents to find. Hers was a fractured tribe. She often joked about how relatives are meant to dislike each other because it reduced the chance of inbreeding. Secretly though, she envied friends who enjoyed weekly Joy Luck Club style extended family gatherings where there were enough people to warrant the purchase of an extendable dining table. A friend who came from such a family said that these gatherings were overrated and a drag but conceded that’s why her family didn’t die in the Vietnam war.
Simplicity was dying … again.
Like the other two times, death was swelling up inside her, compressing her nerves and crowding out her vital organs. This time, however, she could not laugh at her reflection in the mirror or make YouTube videos wearing a funny wig as she had the previous times. This time she needed out where she was really from, and hope that when she found her tribe, they would care about whether she lived or died.
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ the doctor said gently. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You should try to get some rest and eat a little something before bed.’
The doctor disinfected her hands and left the room.
Fear smelt like pink liquid hand sanitiser.
Su-May Tan is a copywriter and emerging author. She was a recipient of the Varuna Publisher Introduction Program 2018 for a short story collection and was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize 2018 for her novel in progress. Her short fiction has been published in Tincture Journal, Sala Prize and Margaret River Press. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, two children and dog.
The Origin of Things (Novel extract)
My name is Katherine Chen. My mother died when I was five. There are signs around if you care to look. Like the jewelled comb in the sideboard drawer, or the framed batik prints on the wall. If you go outside, you can see a banana tree standing in the middle of the garden, probably the only banana tree in Narre Warren.
“Why don’t we get rid of it?” I told Pa. He said, “No, just give it time. It will do better next year.” And so, we live in this house with a white picket fence and a banana tree that looks like it’s going to die.
For someone who has lived in Australia for ten years, Pa spends an awful lot of time reading Malaysian news. Whenever he does, he gets really cross. There’s always some politician he’s grumbling about or some new occurrence that makes him annoyed. Diana often says, “You’ve left the country, why don’t you just let it go?” She says this in her psychologist voice, a soft, quiet voice that could be your own. It’s the same voice she uses when she sees me heading off to the park. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Will you get back before dark?
One day, Dessi and I came back from school and she said, “Oh my god, there’s a banana on your banana tree.” She was right. I didn’t even know they grew that way. The red bud was huge now and it had little green fingers coming out of it. I should have suspected something then but Dessi and I continued to traipse past as if it was the most normal Friday in the world.
We munched on some Cruskits, we did homework. As I flung back my hair, still wet from the pool, I began to cough. At first it just tickled my throat and then I felt the spasm rise up my chest. The germs prickled my lungs, hundreds and thousands of evil mitochondria, attacking my delicate cells. “Oh no,” I said. “Do you think I have pneumonia?”
“No,” said Dessi.
“You’ve had this cough since we first met.” That was true. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t pneumonia. A grey cloud descended upon my room, blurring out the poster of Kimiko from Spirited Away. I put down my pen. The cloud swirled across my Algebra book and transported me into the dark and foggy place I sometimes found myself in. My heart began to beat fast, too fast; and I couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve got a message,” said Dessi.
“Message,” she said, pointing to the lighted up screen of my phone. When I saw the name – John Ichuda – I felt like I was flying.
Hey…Do you want to go to the Spring Dance with me?
“What do I say?” I asked Dessi, struggling to breathe. Dessi rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve only been in love with him for like two years.”
It was all I could think about that night as I looked at this Chinese girl in the bathroom mirror staring back at me. Should I wear the blue dress from Sports Girl? Was I getting a pimple on my forehead? As I chucked the toothbrush into my mouth, I saw the cat. I hadn’t seen it since I was nine. “A possum, you mean?” said Pa.
“No, a cat,” I said, pointing with my stubby finger. But when he turned to look, all he saw was the swing, and a pile of leaves where the cat had been.
The cat at the window now stared at me. Could it be the same one? How many stripy cats were there in the neighbourhood? I couldn’t forget those yellow eyes. It blinked once, twice, then disappeared into the darkness. Later that night, the eucalyptus tree tapped me on the shoulder, and the cat appeared again.
“Pick up,” it said.
“Pick up.” And that’s when I heard the phone ringing. For some reason I could not move. It was like an invisible weight sitting on me. Pa, I said, the phone is ringing. This time, I could not even move my mouth. “Pa,” I screamed in my head. “The phone!”
The yellow eyes continued to burn. The cat began to change. First, it turned into a possum, then into a fox, then into a tawny frogmouth, like the one in Mrs Smyth’s garden.
The next morning as I padded down the stairs, I knew something had happened. The light seemed especially bright, as if everything around me was made of crystal. I could almost hear a shimmery tinkle as Diana’s voice cut through the air. “Will she be there?” There was no reply, only the sound of boiling water.
“Hi Katie,” said Diana when I walked in.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said in a bright, cheery voice. Pa put his cup down and took a deep breath. He looked deep into his cup, then turned to me and said, “Ah Ma passed away last night.”
Pa continued to talk. He must have told me the details: how she died, who was there and what we had to do, but my mind was too busy thinking about John Ichuda and the date of a lifetime we would never have. I could even see the dress I would wear, a twinkling mass of gossamer blue, slowly disintegrating into nothingness.
“When are we going?”
“Tomorrow,” said Pa.
“How long for?”
“Just a couple of weeks.” Diana stirred her mug. She kept stirring it as if trying to dissolve the spoon.
“The taxi will come at six-thirty A.M, okay?”
“Are you going?” I said to Diana.
“I can’t sweetie, I’ve got to work.” She took one more sip and got up. Her cup made a cold clinking sound on the table. I watched her wash her hands and flick them dry. After she left, the smell of her dewberry shampoo lingered in the room.
The sliding doors opened and the day hit me like a wall of hot air. Trolleys rolled left and right. Signs said exit in three different languages. Out of this haze, a lady appeared. She called Pa by his Chinese name and gave him a hug. This was Tua Ee. For the longest time I thought that was her Chinese name. It meant Eldest Aunty and that’s who she was to me.
The diamonds on her sunglasses flashed as she and Pa spoke in a mix of Hokkien and English. All through this time, I tried not to stare at her eyebrows, two painted arches on her white face. “This Katie?” she said, squinting at me. “So big already.”
“Hello, Tua Ee,” I said. “How are you?” I leaned forward to give her a hug and she hesitated just the very slightest. A cloud of perfume floated around me as I wrapped my arms around hers. She let out an embarrassed laugh. “How was your flight?” she said to me.
“Good – ”
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at my feet.
“Wah, so clever, I don’t think anyone in the family can play anything.”
“My mum played the piano,” I said.
Two stewardesses sashayed past. Their sandals made slapping sounds on the concrete. “She means Sue,” said Pa softly. Tue Ee gave a little gasp and clasped her Chanel handbag. “We better go,” she said, glancing at her watch. “The traffic is going to be very bad.” With that, she made her way to the other side of the car and clicked opened the door.
Palm trees and billboards followed us all along the highway. In the rear view mirror, Tua Ee and her eye brows peered at me. She said Roy and Maggie were looking forward to seeing me. How old was I? Sixteen? That’s just one year younger than Roy.
We kept on passing rows and rows of oil palm trees. After a while, they changed into jungle, huts, and then more jungle. Finally we stopped at a large boom gate. In fact, every lane had a boom gate in front of it, beside which was attached a booth, and inside, a person collecting money.
Tua Ee dug into her handbag and handed the lady a few dollars, after which the lady raised the barrier and let us through. It was like opening the floodgates to the city. The jungle disappeared, and was replaced by petrol stations, hotels, rows of shopping strips, and a monorail zipping between them all.
“What happened to Jalan Templer?” Pa said.
“Didn’t you hear? They changed it to Jalan Muhiyiddin.”
Pa looked out of the window thoughtfully. I wondered what he saw. I saw a bus stop, a mosque, a shopping mall. At the traffic light, a woman stood draped in black from head to toe. The only thing visible was her eyes. She squinted into the hot blustery wind as Justin Bieber sang, You’re my baby, you’re the one.
Tua Ee stopped at a house with a large metal gate. All the houses had tall metal gates. Beside the gate, there was a mango tree with green fruit hanging from its branches. “Ah Fu,” yelled Tue Ee. “We’re back!”
The door grill creaked opened. “Uncle Patrick,” whispered Pa to me.
“Hello, Uncle Patrick,” I said to the man who came out. “How are you?” He cleared his throat and said rather stiffly, “Fine, thank you.”
I watched him stomp to the car in his blue flip-flops, and back again to the driveway, two grocery bags in hand. Tua Ee continued to bark orders at various people. She asked Roy to help with the suitcases. She asked someone else to hold the door open and someone else to bring in the pomelos. Pa took his shoes off at the door, I did the same.
We went to the kitchen at the back where a table was laden with food. A girl with short curly hair came to greet us – could this be Maggie? “Did you do a marathon?” I said, pointing to the words on her t-shirt. She grinned at me shyly.
“What do you want to drink?” said Tua Ee. “Orange juice, coca-cola, chrysanthemum tea?”
“Some tea would be nice,” I said. Tua Ee spoke to the girl and she came back carrying a yellow carton.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve never seen tea like this before.” The girl laughed, displaying a grid of teeth.
“What is it?” I asked Tua Ee.
“She says she can’t understand your English.” She introduced me to Siti then, her helper from Indonesia.
The grown-ups began talking about politics. They talked about scandals and the coming elections, and this guy, Tun Said, who was the leader of some Islamic group. I, on the other hand, examined the food in front of me: fried noodles in black sauce, and okra stuffed with fish paste. I chose an okra, which Tua Ee called a ladies’ finger. She said I was ‘very clever’ to eat it, though I wondered what kind of intelligence one needed to consume a vegetable.
Maggie sat on the couch in a stylish red blouse. She did not look like Siti at all. Her skin was flawlessly white. From time to time, she would play with a pendant around her neck.
“Your hair is so nice and thick,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Do you curl it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s just like that.”
I watched Maggie talk to her friend in Chinese. It could have been birds at the park. “Do you speak Mandarin?” she said.
“No, not really.”
“A little bit.”
“You’re Hokkien, right?”
“Well, my father is,” I said.
“So you only speak English?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a prickle in my neck. A Korean singer appeared on TV and I said he looked a bit like George Shane.
“George Shane, that guy who won The Voice.”
“Oh,” said Maggie without meeting my eyes.
Not long later, another one of Maggie’s friends came over to talk to me. She started asking me all sorts of questions about Melbourne. Did all the houses have swimming pools, how cold was it there, can you see kangaroos everywhere? That’s when the prick on my wrist happened.
“Ow,” I said. “What is that?”
“Mosquito,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just a mosquito.”
“Is it a Dengue one?” I’d read about Dengue fever. A woman from Sunshine died from it last year. The mosquito continued buzzing around us, a needle of death. I was still trying to spot it between the cushions when Tua Ee said, “Alright, let’s go!”
“Where are we going?” I said, as everyone started to stand up.
“Lunch,” said Maggie.
“Didn’t we just have breakfast?” I said.
The Chinese restaurant we went to was nothing like its namesake on Little Bourke Street. I snapped Dessi a photo of the sign.
Dragon Boat Palace.
It had a zinc roof and cheap plastic furniture. A stray cat weaved through the chairs, hoovering up scraps of rice from the floor. We went to an indoor section, which was marginally fancier. The tables were clad in red table cloths. There was a Chinese painting on the wall and an air-conditioner spewing out mist.
When the tea arrived, Roy poured it out into little porcelain cups for everyone. He responded to my queries about what each dish was. Four Seasons with a jellyfish salad. Fried fish with plum sauce. The highlight was the crabs; a shiny, vermillion platter of crustaceans whose brethren were eyeing us from a tank across the room.
Again, the conversation started to blend into a mix of Hokkien and English. Even when they spoke English, I wasn’t sure if it was English. I concentrated on dismantling the crab claw in front of me without creating too much of a mess. I tried the soup beside me, a light brown consommé with a lemon inside. On the second dip of my spoon, Maggie yelled, “What are you doing?”
“What?” I said.
“That’s for washing your hands,” she said and everyone laughed.
When we got back to Tua Ee’s house, Maggie and her friend returned to the couch. I wandered off to the living room, where I found Uncle Patrick poring over some newspapers.
“What are you reading?”
“Mudrum Pits,” he said.
“Mat-Rem-pits,” he said, more slowly. He showed me the page. Everything was in Chinese but the picture showed a group of men on motorbikes. There must have been about a hundred of them, filling up the whole street.
“Who are they?” I said.
“Some gang,” he said. “They snatch bags, break into cars. Look, this woman got dragged down the street.”
“Ug,” I said. “How can they show that?”
“This lady broke her arm… and this guy got slashed with a knife. There’s a close up, do you want to see?”
“No thanks,” I said. I suddenly felt like I needed to get some air. Everything was so stifling. A hot wind blew from the window. There was a ceiling fan but it simply whipped the heat up into pieces.
“What are you doing?” said Uncle Patrick, peeping at me from behind the papers.
“Going for a walk,” I said.
He peered at me curiously. Then he sat back in his seat and lifted up the wall of papers again.
I only made it two roads down before realising that taking a stroll in KL was not the brightest idea. I had never felt heat like this before. It was hard to breathe and it made no difference whether you walked in the sun or the shade.
I reached a kind of lookout point with the Twin Towers in the distance. A construction site sprawled below me, and next to it, a group of men were queuing up with buckets clutched in their arms. Their bare backs gleamed in the sun, as they waited for the man in front to finish with the tap.
Suddenly, one of the men looked up at me. I quickly turned away – as casually as I could. Then I stepped back and made my way back to the road. Cars passed by so close I could feel the wind against my skin. Every time I heard an engine, my heart seized. I imagined someone grabbing my bag or ripping my arm off like the lady in the newspaper.
I sensed the car before I heard it. You can tell when a car slows down. The men made a screechy sound with their teeth. “Moy,” they said, as if it were my name. “Moy!” they said again. The car picked up speed, then just as it passed, I saw the bold blue words ‘Polis’ written on the door.
I kept walking briskly down the road. When I reached the end, I heard the car again. I turned left and the car did the same. I was about to start running when a girl’s voice said, “Katie!” I looked up and saw Maggie waving at me from the car, a white car, with Roy in the driver’s seat. “Come on,” she said, beckoning me over. “We’re going to Pete’s place.”
‘Pete’s Place’ really was a place called ‘Pete’s Place.’ There was a large metal sign hanging on the door. It looked like a restaurant but no one was eating. People just hung around in groups, chatting or fiddling with their instruments.
Roy found us a table at the back and we watched a few bands play. Some sang in Mandarin, some sang in English. There were posters on the wall – ads for things like coconut juice and a new Indian restaurant that had ‘Malaysia’s Best Tandoori Chicken.’ The most prominent flyer was for something called ROM, the Rock On Malaysia concert. There were like ten sheets plastered across the wall, so from a distance, it looked like ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM.
After Roy’s session ended, we sat in a circle on the floor. One of the guys started picking at his guitar. Then another guy started tapping a drum. It became some kind of impromptu show, even Maggie was on the maracas.
“Hey Katie,” said Roy. “Do you play anything?”
“I thought you play the violin,” said Maggie.
“Cheng, do you have a violin?” Roy yelled. “Anybody got a violin?”
Suddenly, I found someone thrusting one into my hand. All eyes were on me. I picked up the instrument and started playing the song I was currently learning – Beethoven’s Concerto Number Five. I even did the trill at the end. When I finished, the whole room was quiet. It was like the world had stopped.
“That was good,” said Roy. No one else said a word. Roy looked at Maggie, Maggie looked at the floor. Then just like that, everyone started talking about the ROM.
(End of extract)
Rafeif Ismail’s current work aims to explore the themes of home, belonging and Australian identity in the 21st century. A third culture youth of the Sudanese diaspora, her goal is to create works that blend the traditional elements of the arts of her home country with elements of classic and contemporary western arts. She is committed to writing diverse characters and stories in all mediums, is currently working on her first novel and hopes to also one day write for screen. She can be found exploring twitter @rafeifismail
Almitra Amongst Ghosts
Houah Maktoub, your grandmother always used to say, it is written. She firmly believed that everything that will ever happen had already happened, that distance and time were no obstacle. You used to sit by her side, in the shade of a veranda overlooking a courtyard, in that house surrounded by tall walls painted white, with its metal gate that was green with age, always open. You listened, your fingers sliding across the imperceptible thorns of the okra you handed her which she expertly cut for that night’s dinner as she told stories she had grown up learning, in the village on the island between two Niles. Stories of family, friends and legends, she had weaved them together like a dark Sahrazad. It is where you first heard of Mohamad, the village boy who lived on the edge of the savanna, who cried, tiger! tiger! tiger in the grassland! Until no one believed him, and his whole village was massacred as a result. And of Fatima, who sang so sweetly that a ghoul stopped the Nile for her, so that she may retrieve her lost gold. Of the spirits in the rivers, those on land and ancestors who whisper in dreams, reaching out from some other world with warning and advice; years later, you will learn that quantum entanglement posits that two more objects may exist in reference to each other regardless of space time, and think on how much physics sounds like her folklore and faith. At your grandmother’s side you learned of a world three parts unseen and believed in it. Now those days seem hazy and distant, and there is a space in you, that twinges like phantom limb, as though you lost something you did not know you had, somewhere along the invisible borders between what you thought was home and here.
Your house is like every other, with three bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room and your house is full of ghosts. You see them pass across your father’s eyes as he stares at a wall, seeing a place that is not there anymore. They follow your mother into the sunlight as she gardens, they inform the heaviness of her step, the creaking of her bones – she is trying to grow chili, aloe vera, and a lemon tree, much smaller than the one that grew in your old home, that doesn’t seem to want to flower. You see the ghosts on your way to the bus stop, where every day without fail in the space of a single step, the street becomes dusty and you can smell sandalwood in the air, it is almost as though if you walk down that road, you would see your grandmother, sitting outside that large green gate with a big wooden bowl at her feet, cutting okra. The ghosts thankfully don’t follow close behind you at school, although they linger at the edges of the classroom, in the shadows of the trees dotting your school oval. You get used to them over time, those flashes of scent, of memory and you learn how not to react the same way you learn to not hide under your bed when you hear fireworks, or jump every time a car backfires. The dreams are more difficult to control but as the years pass you form an understanding between yourself and those haunting you.
It is 2016 and your newsfeed had been full of stories from the Orlando massacre, and suddenly the world is tilting much further along its axis, and gravity seemed much stronger, every breath feels like a battle. You do not attend the vigil to commemorate the victims and survivors. You cannot bring yourself to leave your house. Adrift from your body, you feel trapped, unable to look away as the news shows people becoming hashtags, becoming tombstones. You finally understand why your mother cried that day two years ago, when you, eighteen and giddy to the point of intoxication tried to find the words to explain something you did not have the language for, when you tried to tell her about Dunya.
” Everyone feels like this way about their friends at some point!” She had screamed, when you’d both lost your tempers, yours in frustration, hers in something closer to desperation ” It does not mean you act on it”
In your stunned silence you had offered no response
“This will pass” she had said “and we’ll talk no more about it.” Ending the conversation. The distance between you grew, until now, where it feels like you are standing on opposite shores of the same river.
Now you see her words for the plea and prayer they were. There is so much that is unspoken in that ghost house of yours, the silence is often straining to bursting as it rings on every wall but like bullets, words can ricochet and fragment, so you all keep your silences. You had called Dunya earlier that day, tired of navigating minefields in your living room. She had deactivated her social media accounts earlier that week, always much more practical when it came to dealing with grief, better at avoiding it, putting up walls and daring it to come closer, you on the other hand, soak it up like injera does mullah, your comfort food, until it becomes all you can taste. Travelling to meet her is the first time you are out in the sun in days and everything is just a bit too bright, the bus crowded enough that you have to sit next to someone.
It is sometimes easy to fall into the dream of this country, to walk towards that mirage of blind equality and for a moment forget that your life has always been shaped by the actions of others, from centuries and continents ago to just now, as you walk on to a bus and strangers with frightened eyes uncomfortably avert their gaze and shift as though shielding themselves, praying you don’t come near them. As always, your embarrassment comes unbidden, rushing through you, pricking your skin like tiny okra thorns and your every moment automatically becomes an apology. You remember that so much of you is not your own. Maktoub. But not the way your grandmother believed. No, in this nation people assume they can write your story from beginning to end, and wait for you to fall into place on the stage that has been set, it is why every conversation scans like a hostage negotiation, with your humanity being the item that’s up for deliberation.
Once, when you were fourteen and Dunya was still just one of the many girls you meet in passing twice a year during an Eid barbeque and your futures were not yet this possibility. There was a boy who walked home with you every day after school. You talked in a way that you never did on campus, those conversations became the very best part of your day. He was different and made you laugh. He called you beautiful, for a black girl and you kissed him. It would not be the last time someone would pay you a provisional compliment, nor the last time you accept it. Back then, you had not yet realized, that those who view your beauty conditionally, undoubtedly felt the same towards your humanity.
With Dunya, you found a love without stipulations and it was at once both a revelation and revolution. She walks proudly in the streets with her dark hair beneath brightly colored hijabs so obviously herself and it terrifies you that she may not come back one day. As report after report makes its way onto your newsfeed of attacks on women who look like her, like you- you pray more fervently than you have in years. Even if you’re not sure who you are praying to.
It’s one of those dime a dozen, cannon-fodder days that roll on lazily through the summer, with a too hot sun and clear skies when you meet her, under a jacaranda tree in some park you’d found when exploring the city, it’s biggest attraction is that its located several suburbs away from where you both live. You have both learned to compromise. You speak English with American accents and Arabic with Australian ones. You hold hands but only in places where you cannot be seen, because gossip spreads faster than bushfires and neither of you would survive the burn. Yet in those compromises of all that you are, you still carve out spaces for yourselves. You sit for hours under the shade of that tree, and remember stories from an ocean ago, and Dunya reads out loud from her favorite book, you listen to the cadence of her voice, as she recites poetry the way she was taught to recite prayer, it is almost indistinguishable from singing.
And there is a way to describe this moment, the shade, the tree, the breeze; this brief respite from the world – in the language you were both taught as children – Al dul al wareef. There is no companionable phrase in English. That is fine, there are no words for who you both are either – in the language of your grandmother and your parents – the one you now speak with an accent now, love is described by forces of nature, monstrously destructive and divine, and in all of that, is possibly an explanation as to why in that language the words for breath and love are indistinguishable by sound. It is probably why songs only croon phrases like ‘You are the Nile’ ‘She is like the Moon’ and ‘you are the hawa coursing through my veins’.
“So speak to us of love, said Almitra” Dunya quotes in Arabic. Stories like yours don’t have happy endings, not any you have seen. But you are not only beautiful in your tragedy. One day you will write this story, and speak of love, it might be read under a different sky, it might have a happy ending. Just for now though you think, your eyes drifting shut I can keep living it.
Sivashneel Sanjappa is a writer, chef and keen gardener originally from Fiji and currently based in Melbourne. He is currently working on his first novel. His work has been published previously in Verge literary journal. He can be found on Twitter @sivashneel and on Instagram @sivashneel.
- Questions and Answers
For every impossible question that had floated up inside Roop’s thought bubble, there was a very real answer, if one cared to find out.
Was it Roop’s childhood kingfisher that had visited him that morning?
It was not.
Kingfishers don’t live that long. Roop’s childhood kingfisher died well before it could reach its natural lifespan. It died from a dynamite bomb that exploded while it had dipped into the ocean in search of its lunch. After it exploded, the fish died and floated up to the surface. The fisherman collected them and sold them at the Municipal Market that weekend. The kingfisher died and was carried to the beach by the incoming tide. It was lodged in the roots of a na-ivi tree, where it decomposed slowly. Weeks later, the ebbing tide took away its feathers and bones.
It had had three little eggs in its nest, tucked away in the thick of the tiritiri, the mangrove forest. They hatched shortly after it died. The hatchlings starved to death within hours of hatching. Over the years, the entire population of kingfishers in that tiritiri vanished. The Municipal Rubbish Dump on a nearby shore regularly sent an army of plastic bags, nylon sacks and such to the roots of the mangroves. The leachate from the growing pile of decomposing garbage seeped directly into the lagoon, where it travelled up the roots of the tiritiri and suffocated the mangrove trees. The kingfishers, along with the mudcrabs and the herons, either died or migrated to new homes.
The tiritiri that guarded the lagoon near Roop’s current village was intact, but for how long? The beach there had been leased to an overseas investor, who was planning to erect a new marina. Gossip went that he was planning to dredge up the entire lagoon, with the tiritiri, to make way for construction boats.
The kingfisher’s call may soon become a myth.
Did Roop’s butterfly survive its first flight?
It did indeed.
After it disappeared into the canopy of the rain trees in the Library Gardens, after Roop and Zarina went home that morning, it embarked on its life as a free butterfly. It fed on the nectar of many flowers. It fluttered over the tops of the trees, over to the gardens in the villages close by. It mated with many other butterflies. It laid many eggs and, at the end of its life cycle, died a natural death. It lived a short, fulfilled life.
Roop would have been happy to know this. Had he not released it from the jar that morning, it surely would have died a wretched, captive death.
Where did Tinisha, Mrs Murthi’s wedding hairdresser, disappear to?
Well, they fell in love.
One afternoon, a man named Manoj, a regular customer of Tinisha’s, came to the salon for his usual haircut. Tinisha’s heart beat a little faster around Manoj, as it always did. They flirted with each other in their usual, uneasy, secretive manner. Then, out of the blue, Manoj put his hand on Tinisha’s hip. Tinisha took his hand and led him to the back of their salon, behind a short wall.
Tinisha was a lucky point-five, perhaps the luckiest of all point-fives in Fiji. They experienced a first kiss, on the lips. The loving embrace of a strong man. They lay on top of Manoj for some time, caressing his bushy eyebrow, while the Sugar City dismantled itself at the end of the work day and people went home to have family dinners.
Tinisha and Manoj eloped to a small, distant village. Tinisha took him to their brother’s house, which had been vacant since he moved overseas six years ago. They lit a little fire in the backyard and walked around it seven times, thus marrying each other like Bollywood sweethearts. They lived a brief, blissful married life.
Two weeks later, two men came to the house with cane knives. One of them was Manoj’s tavale, his wife’s brother. Gossip had spread quickly, and because gossip was a more accurate source of information than any media channel, it wasn’t hard to track Manoj down. His tavale had come to take Manoj back to his wife and two children. To remind him of his responsibilities, to hold him accountable. To chastise him for the shame he had brought to their family. To set him back on track.
They beat Manoj up and took him away in a blue van. Before leaving, they locked Tinisha inside a clothes cupboard.
Tinisha spent a day figuring their way out of the cupboard. They managed to break it open from inside. They took a bus back to the Sugar City and waited outside Manoj’s workplace. When Manoj saw Tinisha, as he emerged at the bottom of the flight of stairs that led to his office, terror contorted his face into a grim mask. He pulled Tinisha aside. His forehead was bruised and he had a bandage around a finger. He told Tinisha he had moved on. He begged Tinisha to leave him alone. He asked them to move to Suva or somewhere and start a new life. Then he ran to the kerb and jumped in a taxi, which disappeared into the afternoon dust.
Tinisha, shaken, heartbroken, downtrodden, took their wig off and threw it in a public rubbish bin. They took the bus back to the house where they had got married. They stepped back into the cupboard they had fought their way out of earlier that day, and hung themself from the railing with a wire hanger.
Some weeks later, their body was found by a neighbour who couldn’t handle the stench from rotting corpse any longer. The police tried to contact Tinisha’s overseas brother, but to no avail. Tinisha was burnt in a public crematorium.
Gossip travelled around the country, like a Sunbeam Bus, that they had moved to Suva and opened a stylish new salon.
And, finally…where do bijuriyas go when they’re not dancing at weddings?
Where does lightning go after it has struck?
No one knows.
No one cares to find out.
However, as Roop put his brain to sleep late that night, Shilpa, the bijuriya, sat on a secluded beach a few villages away, gazing at a gibbous moon.
A couple of hours after Roop and Zarina had finished eating their BBQ and driven off, Shilpa had arrived at the Library Garden. They had taken their ghaangra off. They wore a short skirt and crop top. They had reapplied their lipstick, which glistened under the street lamp.
Two women in similar clothes stood at the edge of the garden, keeping an eye on passing cars. Shilpa asked them for a cigarette. One of them handed Shilpa a half-smoked Rothman’s cigarette.
A shiny Mitsubishi drove past and slowed down. The tinted windows were rolled down. Four sets of teeth appeared, floating, inside the van.
The back door opened and one of the passengers, a man, urged Shilpa in.
They were given a cold Fiji Bitter stubby. They sipped it quietly. The man next to them took their hand and slid it into his pants. They massaged the man’s crotch quietly. The man unzipped their fly and shoved Shilpa’s head into his crotch. He held their head down.
Still, Shilpa serviced the man’s crotch.
The van drove out of the town, down a windy road, to a secluded beach. The men got out.
Shilpa adjusted their wig and got out of the van. They dropped to their knees, and serviced the four smelly dicks. One at a time, two at a time, three at a time.
They spat out each one’s ejaculate onto the sand.
One of the men, who had the unmistakable overseas aura about him, handed them a $20 note.
Shilpa kicked up a fuss. They demanded $20 for each smelly dick.
“We didnt even fuck you bitch,” they said, and drove off in their van.
“Saala maichod bhatiyara,” Shilpa shouted at the van. They threw a piece of dead coral at the van, but it missed. Shilpa sat on the beach, and watched the gibbous moon touching the ocean, ever so gently. The tide was out. The exposed tiritiri roots jutted into the sand like stiff, sedentary snakes. Little crabs crawled from one hole to another over the wet sand.
Shilpa felt angry, guilty. They hadn’t needed to be a whore that night, they had made enough cash at the wedding. Why had they taken to the street then? Maybe it was dancing in the lap of that beautiful boy with the piercing eyes and bulging eyeballs at the wedding. The force with which he had pushed her off. The disdain, the violence — it had aroused Shilpa, brought their point-five juices alive.
They waited for daylight to break, but fell asleep presently.
They were woken up by the prongs of a crab-spear poking their shoulder. A woman with a big afro like a halo and a charcoal-shined face was asking them if they were alright. The tide was flowing in, lapping at Shilpa’s feet.
“Isa, what you doing here?” the lady asked in Fijian. Shilpa replied, in broken Fijian, that they had been stranded there. The lady introduced herself as Siteri. She didn’t ask Shilpa for details. She invited Shilpa to her house.
It was a tiny tin house, surrounded by coconut trees. Siteri lived alone. She said her children lived near the town, and they visited her sometimes.
In the backyard, water was boiling in a big pot over a fire. Siteri fed more wood into the fire, then plunged the one crab she had speared earlier into the boiling water.
She rolled out a woven mat on the floor of her house. Shilpa sat down.
They drank tea and ate some boiled cassava.
Siteri said the tiritiri was dying. Back in the day, she said she would have filled her basket with crabs. She would have had enough to give some to her neighbours. Now the white vulagi who bought the beach wanted to dig it all up. She said the whole church was praying to God to save their village.
Shilpa asked Siteri about the charcoal. Siteri told her that it protected her skin from the sun.
When their clothes had dried up, Shilpa thanked Siteri and took their leave. They walked up the dusty road, following Siteri’s directions. They boarded a bus at the junction. The bus was empty, the bus driver didn’t charge them.
Later, around mid-morning, Shilpa arrived at the shack that she rented from a pimp. She shared the shack with two others. One was Julie, who had been forced to the street by her husband and then abandoned by him when he found himself a younger wife. The other girl wouldn’t tell them her name. She was Chinese, so Shilpa and Julie affectionately called her Ching. Ching barely spoke to anyone. She had been brought to Fiji on a student visa and given over to Shilpa’s pimp. The pimp said someone was coming to take Ching away soon, when her student visa expired.
Inside the shack, the bucket in the middle of the floor had filled up with the previous night’s rain (which had leaked in through a hole in the roof) and flowed out. The mattress was wet. Julie was snoring on one end. Ching wasn’t around.
Shilpa took their wig off and fell asleep on the wet mattress.
- The Much Needed Holiday
As Shilpa fell asleep, a few villages away, Roop sat up in his bed and stretched his arms. He cursed himself for waking up so late — he had probably missed the kingfisher’s call at dawn.
Other than the chickens scratching about on the lawn and the mynahs chirping up in the trees, the only other sound he could hear was the radio in the kitchen. An announcer was announcing funeral notices.
Mr and Mrs Murthi had gone to Sunday Service at the Big Church. Mrs Murthi left the radio on to ward off would-be burglars. She took this extra precaution even though Roop was the lightest of sleepers,
Roop flung his bedsheet off and went to the bathroom. He undressed and studied himself in the mirror. His stubble was overgrown and needed shaving. His unruly hair looked as though it was full of dust. As though dust would fall out if he shook his head.
Veins stood out in his thin arms. The hollows in his collar bones could hold a tablespoon of water each. His ribs were visible in his chest. The one thing he had retained from childhood was his small, round belly. He sucked it in and it disappeared. Then he exhaled and it was back, a little kangaroo pouch. Further down, his penis was limp. The foreskin was shrivelled and pointed slightly to the left. His balls hung heavily, as though gravity pulled them more forcefully than it did the rest of his body. Perhaps gravity was humiliating him for being a twenty-eight year old virgin.
His bum cheeks also hung low, like ripe pawpaws waiting to fall off a tree.
He turned the tap on and stood under the cold water for some time. Then he dressed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The radio announcer had finished with the funeral notices, and played a jolly Sunday morning song:
Khush rehne ko zaroori, kya hai bolo yaar?
Khushi toh milti hai jab, mile kisi ka pyaaaar
To be happy, what do we need friend?
Happiness comes when we someone loves us.
Roop sat down at the dining table with his cup of tea. Yesterday’s newspaper lay open on the table. It was turned to page 13.
TWO MEN IMPRISONED ON HOMOSEXUAL CHARGES, the headline read in bold print.
Roop read the article. An Australian man and a Fiji-Indian man had been found engaging in homosexual behaviour in a hotel room. The Australian homosexual had called the police after he found all his money missing after the Fiji-Indian homosexual made a run with it after their ‘encounter’. The police came and seized the Australian’s belongings. On his digital camera, they found the recording of the ‘disgusting acts’ the homosexuals had filmed. Both homosexuals were arrested and the court sentenced them to prison.
Fiji had been one of the first countries in the world to have a bill of rights that specifically illegalised discrimination based on sexual orientation. But still two homosexuals were in prison. They were charged for filming sex, that is producing pornography, which was illegal. Still, the article made it clear that the two homosexuals were disgusting. A Methodist Church pastor was quoted as saying that.
In a few days, the Australian homosexual would be released and fly back to his country. The Fiji-Indian homosexual would remain in prison. His wife would beg a garment factory owner for a job so she could look after her little son and daughter.
It wasn’t by coincidence that the newspaper came to be lying on the dining table, conveniently turned to page 13. Someone had left it there, for Roop to read. Roop had found a similar newspaper article when he had come home during uni break in 2000, some months after the May 2000 civilian coup.
That time, it had been about John Scott. He was a half-Fijian half-white man who grew up in New Zealand. He had returned to Fiji and worked as a volunteer, and eventually became the Director of the Red Cross. After the ministers in parliament were taken hostage and kept captive in the Parliament House, John Scott had been most active in taking provisions in for them, checking on their health. The country had been awed with his generosity, his bravery. That he risked his life for the hostages. Media channels had praised and applauded him.
Then, one night he had been discovered brutally murdered in his house. His young lover, a kiwi man had also been murdered. The post-mortem results confirmed that the two homosexuals had been subjected to vile torture before being hacked to death. But even before the post-mortem results were released, even before the accused murderer had appeared in court, a senior police officer had made official statements about the case. He said the accused, a young Fijian man, had been abused by John Scott. That John Scott had lured him away from his rugby career in high school with alcohol and drugs. It had mentally disturbed the accused and driven him to this vengeful act. Several months later, the accused was sent to a mental institution and not charged with murder. John Scott, once a generous and brave hero, bowed out of history as a disgusting, alcoholic, drug-addicted homosexual. His body, and his young lover’s body, were both taken to New Zealand by their families for proper funeral services.
Roop finished his tea, and threw the newspaper in the bin. He turned the stupid radio off. Zarina came and picked him up. They drove to Village 4 to see a film. She had been hoping to see Brokeback Mountain, for the rave reviews it had received. She said movie tickets in Melbourne cost 20 Australian dollars. In Fiji, they cost 5 Fijian dollars. Roop told her that Brokeback Mountain had played in the cinemas for exactly two days. Then members of the Methodist Church of Fiji had marched through the streets in protest, demanding the cinemas stop showing it. It was now banned in the country. Zarina was furious. “When will this country move on from these foolish things?” she asked.
They decided to watch the remake of Umrao Jaan.
In the thirty minutes they had to kill before the film started, Roop went to the Internet cafe next to the cinema and printed out the application forms for an Australian tourist visa from the Embassy Website.
Jessie Tu’s poems and scripts have appeared in the Australian Book Review, FishFood Magazine and The Voices Project. Winner of 2016 Joseph Furphy Literary Prize in Poetry, she was shortlisted for the Peter Porter Poetry Prize in 2017. She is recently returned from a workshop in creative non-fiction writing at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival, University of Iowa. ‘Another Country’, an extract from her memoir-in-progress was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2017, judged by Alice Pung. Her poetry chapbook, You should have told me we have nothing left is forthcoming with Vagabond deciBels 3.
‘Memory believes before knowing remembers.’
William Faulkner, Light in August
When I was growing up, my father often told me to find a man who would love me more. Find a
man who will love you more than you could ever love him. As though it were a competition, as
though you could measure love, put it on a scale, graph it, draw charts and predict growth or
recession. Calculable. Everything was measurable. He felt the need to quantify things. Everything
had currency, as long as you knew where to look, how to decipher it in numerical components. That
was how he saw the world and the world saw it fit to bend to his will. After experiencing the grief
of losing a relationship with a man I loved, I came to understand, albeit over several years, what my
father meant by this. I understood that he wanted to save me from the hurt of loving, of being the
doer, not the receiver. The operator, the labourer. The less worthy. The love-er. My mother, being
the more beautiful of them, possessed more power. Beauty had the highest currency. For men like
my father, marriage and love was a sport of acquiring the highest beauty and he was prepared to
pull the highest strings of heaven and hell to obtain her, to garner her approval, to profess a
conquering. His value came from the ability to make the right choice in marriage. But later in life, I
saw how he became tired, exhausted, could no longer put her needs first and I saw how she’d scowl
him for it. Infatuation turned into love, into need, and finally into some dark, unspoken defeat. In
the end, their history was not enough to disregard the resentment they developed for each other.
“Once you spoil a child, there is no turning back time,” my father once lamented. “I did too much
for her.” In the pursuit of his duty to fulfil the life-narrative he was given, he lost himself. He turned
into a man mourning for a boyhood that never existed, and my mother realised she could do nothing
to absolve his trembling grief. Her beautiful face – that exquisite bone structure, perfect lips, soft
eyes, careful expression and tender neck, could not save him. My father became cruel and quick to
judge, spiteful when my mother was not in the room, complaining about what she lacked and all
that she had not become. “She’s sixty-one-years old and still cannot read a map!” On one of our
frequent weekend road-trips outside the city, my father would use the bent street directories,
crinkled at the edges, folded and refolded to the common pages of the city, and our tiny corner of
western Sydney. When we got lost, my father would stop by the side of the road and bark at us. We
were inadequate. We understood this at a very young age. My mother knew this too. She had never
learnt English. She did not know how to recognise the letters, the names. Each time he stopped,
he’d pound the limp directory onto the steering wheel, strip his glasses off, his shoulders a dark
shadow, and curse with force from his lungs. In the backseat of our eight-seater Toyota Tarago, we
learned to stay silent and still. My sister would take my hand and squeeze it, as though to say, “It
will pass. Hold on.”
When I was younger, his periods of silence buried the house in some invisible smoke, heavy,
something I could not name. There is no name for the thing we care about the most. He’d go outside
and stand in the middle of the backyard and I would forget he had a face. From behind, he looked
like the arch of a tunnel leading into a black mountain. He would stand for hours at a time, and all
around him the world would wane. I wondered what he was thinking. I sensed in the state of his
silence that he was far away, that we could not reach him, that we did not have the strength to will
him back to us. He knew the pain of not being enough. I realise now, as I approach my thirtieth
birthday, that my father had struggled with inadequacy too. I sensed too within him, valley deep
variegations of an internal life I had no access to.
“Epigenetics,” my diary told me. “Perhaps it was the grief of all that insubstantiality he felt that
was passed on to his children.” I was back for the third time in under two years, back at my parent’s
home, clearing and re-clearing space for the things I did not need but could not bring myself to
throw away. The plastic box of diaries – from when I was twelve. I took them out, one by one, and
dated them. – Book 1. Book 2. Book 3 and so on, until I reached Book 32. 1999, it began. Then,
2016. I read them and believed I was discovering someone else’s life. The person in the pages was
talking to me, and it felt right to listen to what she had to say. “Maybe all the anger, all the grief of
my father is pouring through the cells in my body. Invariably, there is no use trying to fight it. I am
always sad. And I am always sad because of him.”
On the final page of a long and over-sentimental recount of a failed romantic encounter, I copied an
extract from Melina Marchetta’s book ‘Saving Francesca’ – “Boys don’t like sad girls. So stop
being so sad.”
Perhaps my father and I both knew the power of beauty – that we didn’t possess it, that it would
always be beyond our reach, so we spent much of our lives trying to make up for it. If we didn’t
possess it naturally, we would acquire it another way. He once told me, “Don’t be the one chasing
the boy. You’ll never be enough. You’ll always suffer more.” By then, I’d known already that I
would glean the same fate as him, that my disposition – something I knew from a very young age,
was to be the greedier one, the one who would fill more barrels of tears. I was always wanting
something better. Lover sounded more interesting. Loving seemed to involve more creativity,
required more skills, more resourcefulness, asked for something more challenging than being loved.
To love was to ask something of myself. To improve myself. To change. To throw myself out of
myself. The pursuit seemed more noble. Giving felt bolder than receiving. I fell in love at eighteen,
with an Australian boy I had been friends with since the beginning of high school. He was the first
boy I brought home. We had dumped our bags in my room and emerged seconds later to take our
bikes out for a ride. My father was home early. He did not know about the boy, or that I would be
bringing someone home that afternoon. When he saw us, his expression was mauled with a strange
sort of disgust. In that moment, I felt his anger sear through me, something my small body was not
able to handle. But I received it, and still feel the residue of it simmering underneath my breath
today, at times as evident as blood in the mouth. My father was ashamed of me. The boy extended a
hand to my father. My father did not look at him, simply stared at me with that unforgiving piercing
disgust, and then turned his back to us. I hate the memory of that day. Because that day, I learnt that
I needed to live two lives in order to keep the love I’d accrued over seventeen years. I needed to
split myself in two. Weeks later, when he’d calmed down, I asked my father why he was so angry at
me. He told me that men only wanted one thing from me, and that he didn’t want to see his daughter
be stripped of her body. “When you give yourself to a man, you are ruined.” Was this the way he
was taught to understand sex and love? That it was the boy who took something away from the girl?
My mother remained silent on the subject of love. I once asked her how she knew she loved my
father. “I thought about him all the time,” she said. I sat on the couch beside her, transfixed by her
beauty at fifty-nine, waiting for something more profound, more insightful. But nothing came out of
her mouth and she got up slowly to bend down and wipe the floor. When I was older, she’d tell me
that when I was in primary school, after dinner, I would sometimes sit beside her on the TV couch
and teach her new words.
“You laughed at me each time I didn’t pronounced a word correctly.”
I don’t remember my own cruelty.
Once, when I was making a car insurance claim after a minor accident, I pretended to be my mother
on the phone. The operators demanded oral approval from her because I was under twenty-five.
“She doesn’t speak English,” I told the operator.
“I still need to hear her approval, madam.”
“But how? She doesn’t speak a word of English.”
“Can you please translate to her that she approves of you being the benefactor and just have her say,
I was in the car, alone. My mother was overseas and it was the final day I could make the claim.
“Fine. Let me get her.” I pushed the phone at arms-reach away from me and mumbled a random
string of words in Chinese, then put on a deeper voice and pretended to be my mother. I spoke a
line, then answered myself in a deeper voice. I had to cup my left palm firmly over my mouth to
suppress my laughter. My mother did not sound like how I was portraying her at all, but the
operator did not know this. It did not matter. If only someone had a camera to film it. When I hung
up, my heart subsided to its usual pace and I drove home in a state of elation mixed with guilt. I did
not like the dishonesty of what I’d done, but it had to be done. I recall all the times I had to translate
for my parents when I was a child – the electricity bills and insurance forms and tax returns and
school fees. We didn’t know what voluntary contribution meant, so we paid up, always – scared to
ask questions. When my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure, the doctor sent a three page
print out in the mail on what foods to avoid, what exercises to do, what medications to take and how
often and how much travel he was allowed to take per year. I was petrified of making a mistake.
At eight years old, I skimmed through the medical terms and nodded as my father looked at me,
waiting for me to explain it to him. He was waiting on me, and I was waiting for my intelligence to
catch up so that I could be useful. I hopped over words I didn’t recognise. I was good at hiding my
incompetency. In the end, the only part I could confidently translate was the section on
“It says you should walk thirty minutes a day,” I said.
“Every day?” he looked at me with bulged eyes.
“No, of course not.”
“But you just said that’s what they said I must do.”
“It’s saying you should. You don’t have to.”
“And you can swim or run too.”
“No thanks. What else? What about the other two pages?”
“Have you got the medication?”
“Yes, here.” He handed me a white palm-sized box and it felt like he was handing over his life. I
had no idea what it is and no idea how to pronounce the name printed across the box in large capped
blue font, but I nodded and pretended I knew. Despite the pressure of making sure my father did not
fuck up his health – I enjoyed the momentary authority he gave me over his place in the family. As I
grow older, he relied on me less, perhaps he could tell I’d been a fraud all those years.
One day in May 1987, a few months before I was born, my father received a phone call from his
father. He told him to return home immediately.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Just come back this instant.”
My father had been at a conference in Tai-Chung, an hour’s drive from their home in Chung-Hua. It
was late in the afternoon. He was stuck in a winding traffic jam. When he finally reached my
grandparent’s house, it had been two hours since the phone call. When he opened the front door, my
grandfather began shouting at my father. He cursed and spat and pointed his finger at him, yelling
repeatedly ‘I hate you! I hate you!’ My father stood at the door, shoe laces still tied, keys still
wedged in the sweat of his palms. When he asked, “What did I do?” my grandfather did not explain.
He continued. “I just hate you! I hate you for what you’ve done!” My father stood at the door and
let the violence of his father’s voice punch him in the chest. He couldn’t understand why his father
was so angry. But he would not make it worse by fighting back. My grandmother sat on the kitchen
table, silent. She kept her eyes on her hands, did not look up, as though she was ashamed of what
her husband was doing. But she too, was angry. She could not look at either man standing beside
her. When the screaming escalated, my grandfather said, “I’m so angry, I could to hit you with this
cup!” My father, unable to contain the frustration and battering, stepped in front of my grandfather,
grabbed the cup off the table and slammed it against his forehead. Blood came streaming down his
face. My grandmother scrambled for a towel and started shouting at my grandfather. “Stop! Stop!
This is all your fault!” At the hospital, when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he told
them he’d run into a wall. My father still bears the scar on his forehead. The six stitches he had that
day have disappeared, but the single white line still runs vertically down between his brows, a mark
from that day, as clear as a fine paint-stoke. He once joked that he was the ‘older, Asian Harry
Later, he found out from my grandmother the reason they were so angry with him that afternoon.
My grandfather had ordered my mother to set aside three boxes of walnut biscuits for my uncle. My
parents ran a small grocery and dried-goods store near the local train station. My uncle would come
by their shop in the afternoon to pick it up. He was on his way to an important business acquisitions
meeting; he must have it. In the chaos of the twilight rush hour, when my uncle finally did visit, my
mother forgot to give him the biscuits. She’d been busy with running the shop herself and trying to
manage three young children upstairs where we’d lived. She was also two months away from giving
birth to me. She was tired, large and exhausted. But in Taiwanese culture, when you did not comply
with your parents-in-law, you were seen as malicious, selfish. They thought my mother had
deliberately chosen not to hand over the biscuits. They became resentful and blamed it on my father.
It was, after all, the husband’s responsibility, the wife he took. My grandparents disliked all their
daughter-in-laws, except for my mother. But after that day, they put my mother in the same box as
my aunts, and they began to despise my father.
“Shame on you for marrying such a woman!” they told him later. My father, at thirty-three, could
not escape the deluge of conflict. He could not make both his mother and his wife happy.
“Do you know which question I cannot bare?” he asked me once. We were both a little older, and
I’d come back to interview him for a book I was writing.
“If your mother and wife are drowning in a lake, who would you save first?”
My father had lived a life set out for him by his parents, never straying from the expectations placed
upon him, never stepping outside the rules constructed by his society, found himself still bound, still
not his own man, constrained by a duty to please and serve his parents, to forever perform the roles
given to him with whatever dignity he could muster, to guard his integrity by oppressing it, to
honour his parents and their struggles by dismissing his own self-hood. Between the world and my
father, this was how he found his footing. He fought against himself to please and found love
through obedience and submission. He finally understood that day, the cruel punishment for
divergence, but it was a divergence he had no control over. My father, who once carried me to bed
when I fell asleep on the couch – knew love this way, by the fulfilment of other people’s desires.
My father understood too, the loneliness of a yearning to be freed. His hands were bound. The
obligations became too much in the end, and he ran away with his wife and children. He ran away
to the safety of anonymity and homelessness, to a country that would not punish him for marrying
the wrong woman. A country neither he nor my mother had ever heard of. A country called