As I write this the National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle finishes up having hosted many striking and talented writers of cultural diversity. A panel on the Other languages that shape our ‘Australian’ English reminds me of the dominance of English, its ruthless borrowings, its destructive impact on Aboriginal languages. The flow of people across borders through migration or travel invites fluid identities and new spatial imaginings, questioning the limitations and the authority of borders. Nowhere is this so dramatically and devastatingly enacted as in the Syrian refugee crisis.
Hybridity has been hashtagged, microblogged and pirated by metropoles, ostensibly for the purposes of decentering or for global mobility. But the discursive face of créolisation is problematic while it continues to mask hierarches structured historically by immigration and eugenics legislations, by colonisation, assimilation, slavery, indentured labour. Even now, the same hierarchies prevail within the circuits and industries of literature. Indeed, as our community rallies against dramatic cuts to the Federal Arts budget, Mascara notes the divergence of interests that privileges some over others within the roundtables, symposiums and platforms such as #freethearts. What are the structures and complex dynamics that operate between Black and White? More interestingly for this little magazine, how can these structures be intercepted to bring about greater agency for writers of colour and for those whose identity has been derogatively stained as ‘half-castes’, within and beyond our national gates?
While the heterogeneous elements within narratives and cultures are valorised without equality, there will always be bitter residues to expectorate, distortions to recover from, sycophancy and narcissistic excesses to resist. Consider this a multi-complex vitamin pill. We hope you will enjoy the interviews and essays, the poems and stories that inform our themes of Between Black and White.
In recent weeks we have witnessed the brutality of racial intolerance, the persecution of asylum seekers, Islamophobia, the insidious call for assimilation by #Reclaim Australia for what instantiates the hegemony of a monoculture, an economy of one. The rallies and rhetoric are not sequestered incidents; they seep into writing, encountered as invisible barriers, filters that regulate not only what is published and read but the imposing enterprise of canons, the selective apportioning of merit and cultural capital. As writers we may think we exist in a bubble focussed on our projects, uncontaminated by these material realities; blind to notions such as colour, work, trade or race, while embarrassed by our privilege. We accept those outsiders who moderate our responsibility in various ways: sometimes by collaboration, albeit curiously browsing the chat lines for memorandums of radical intensity and apparitions. We avoid becoming embroiled in discussions of skin colour, belonging or race since to do so is not only perilous, it is gruelling. The trends in publishing mirror our external fears and conflicts, of which survival is paramount.
For Mascara, it is as prudent to collaborate as it is to contest these issues, exhausting though it may be at the micro level. Diversity is not a commodity, a slogan or a new flag; neither is it an empty field to be filled with players— it is rich in accent, associations, dialectic, points of entry and departure and this issue, I hope you will find, exemplifies our involvement in the process.
It is our privilege to feature Hoa Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian writer and co-founder of Peril, whose recent political literary fiction, The Other Shore, deserves serious critical appraisal. From Manus Detention Camp we have received a haunting ‘Letter for Reza Barati’. I remain indebted especially to the work of our reviewers from home and abroad who participate in the critical discourse which marginalised literary genres and their authors justify. I would like to thank Libby Hart for her sensitive involvement in editing the poetry, as she has curated a captivating mélange of poets; and I would like to thank Lia Incognita, Rebecca Allen and Jake Goetz for their assistance with editing and publishing an accomplished range of creative non-fiction, flash fiction and short stories.
There is much to celebrate in this new issue of Mascara, and in its making, not least of which are correspondences with, and contributions by women who are speaking against the violence of invisibility, exile, exploitation and detainment. We are living in times of horror, corruption, xenophobia, a time when our political and elite cultural governance has failed in the reckoning. But these are also times when the expositions and rebuilding of nation, the palimpsest of our narratives signals that the hierarchies of the past are being contested.
How women of colour navigate the passages and boundaries of home and world is historically an expurgated subject, one which concerns Gaiutra Bahadur’s seminal book, which it is our privilege to feature. Coolie Woman reimagines the journey of her great-grandmother’s odyssey from Calcutta to the Caribbean as well as being a chronicle of Indian indentured labour. “Immigrants” Bahadur writes, “might be predisposed to see the world as an ongoing exercise in speculation. We are primed to brood on what might have been had we never left.” But the ‘alternate universe’ of her double diaspora is not as remote as it might seem from Australia’s own record of erasures, its default history of European invasion, genocide, of the Stolen generation, the trafficking and mistreatment of refugees, the traders and people smugglers who exploit them. Messaging us in their own passionate tongues are the voices of ‘Abba’, ‘M’, Hani Aden and ‘RB’. They speak of bodies, names and homelands that rewrite our narrative at the edges of humanity.
There are poems that arrest me with the wisdom of everyday limitations, such as Jonathan Hadwen’s “In the Neighbourhood” and Simon Anton Nino Diego Baene’s “Sunday”. There are voices of protest, superbly crafted, crossing impassable barriers like those of Graham Akhurst, Subashini Navaratnam and Janet Galbraith. It is not enough to expose the media’s reductive language; our stories need to exceed the restrictions of discursive categories for literature to thrive.
Mascara’s currency is its maze-running defiance of spirit. Somehow, we have survived the psycho-violent barbed wire of White Australia, in the shadow of its official legers and accolades having been granted temporary and provisional endorsement. But it is also in the despair of our middle passage, the attention to our craft and our vision that we build small bridges between the imaginary and the real. For this I am indebted to our dedicated writers, editors and readers who have generously assisted with revision, conceptual thinking, discussion, appraisal, technical detail and psychic hugs.
As we edge our discussion further into research and towards policy, I am grateful to Misbah Khokhar, Benedito Ferrao, Nicole Thomas, Lia Incognita, Sarah Cornell, Dimitra Harvey, Janet Galbraith, Joel Ephraims, Libby Hart and Angela Stretch. And I would like to thank Cassandra Atherton and Chris Raja for their expertise in guest editing the poetry and fiction.
It is truly an honour to feature David Malouf, one of our finest writers in this issue of Mascara. Poems from his new book, Earth Hour are accompanied by a critically-nuanced review of his poetics by Dr Lucy Van. Of major significance to his oeuvre a compilation of essays, A First Place has been published by Knopf, Random House. These unabridged dissertations are a timely retrospective, probing the vexed subject of our national identity with historical reflection and a political analysis not ostensibly present in his poems or novels. A selected extract from one of his Boyer Lectures, ‘The Making of Australian Consciousness’ strikingly addresses the liberties and entrapment of the island mind-set. This has current resonance given the disturbing provocations of the government’s proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, the asylum seeker ‘problem’ and its fraught PNG solution. With gentle, focussed dialectic, Malouf reminds us that the colonial shadow of our insecurity complex threatens to disclaim and thwart the very source of our cultural richness: ‘Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them.’
If the sea is a harbinger of news from elsewhere it carries many voices, stories and sanctuaries, entangling us in processes of preservation, conquest, destruction. Jo Ranck’s artwork embodies this complexity, a reminder that we are transient visitors buoyed up in the collective swarm of our sea-dreaming.
Difficult and impenetrable times appear to be on the horizon for the future of libertarian thinking, for education and egalitarianism. How do we read the signs? Discourses such as art and literature are in a unique and unrestricted position to resist complacency, to invite and inspire the necessary dialogues of negotiated progress. But is this a certainty we hold or a grinding concession? Our history traces multiple threads of language which have been suppressed, endangered, appropriated but never entirely stolen. We find this assuring and in this spirit we trust you will enjoy this fusion of writing from our most distinguished octogenarians as well as from young, promising outsiders such as Joel Ephraims, Dimitra Harvey, Lia Incognita, Beibei Chen, Prithvi Varatharajan, Saba Vasefi, Tom Cho via New York., &, via Berlin, Sam Langer.
It’s been my intent to edit an Indigenous-themed issue of Mascara for some time and after conversations with Lionel Fogarty in 2010 and then more recently, what started out as a gesture of exchange and friendship grew into something tangible. We are honoured to feature Lionel as our guest writer. I first heard him read in a café in Glebe in the 1990’s and still have my copy of his New and Selected, signed with one of his miniature drawings. Back then, I loved how the music of his language is ungoverned by White grammar, semantics or syntax. It is purely Fogarty’s Aboriginal voice that contains his meaning; a rare gift, a knowing expressed as plangent, humorous, angry, abused, with all the outward marks of inner grace.
It has been a trend to distinguish our female Indigenous writers and activists, sometimes overlooking the contributions of writers like Kevin Gilbert, W Les Russell, Samuel Wagan Watson. We hope you enjoy the selection of Lionel Fogarty’s poems and the critically-nuanced review of his poetics by Tim Wright. It’s wonderful to include “Father Divine” by Tony Birch, poems by the Canadian Indigenous poet, David Groulx, and Aimee Norton’s review of US Indigenous writer Natalie Diaz as well as poetry by the Dalit writer, S Chandramohan: I recommend these.
I am indebted to Maurice O’Riordan for his assistance with the cover art. Chris Kelly is an emerging Indigenous artist whose installations evoke the brutal imposition of European customs and hierarchies on Indigenous children. Her laboriously carved bonnet and shoes depict the discomfort of the Stolen generation, many of whom were farmed as servants in colonial estates.
This is a time to celebrate Ali Cobby Eckermann’s outstanding verse and prose, while The Swan Book by Alexis Wright is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read for a long time. Although the traumas of the past will never be undone and the future looks as bleak, the refusal of these Indigenous writers to accept white paternalist paradigms persuades me to believe that this issue of Mascara may not be our last.
We’re delighted that our cover girl for issue 13 is TextaQueen’s Headhunter, a post-apocalyptic portrait of DJ Pandie Panther. She reminds us of the ecological destruction caused by Pacific colonial exploits for sandalwood, copra and cotton. Even worse was the blackbirding which enslaved dark-skinned (indentured) Melanesians, Kanyakas, Indians and some Chinese for Australian and British ventures in Queensland and the South Sea islands. Headhunter reminds us that art and literature intersect with history to walk us back through the shadows of whiteness, of ritual, of colonial degradation, its economic and religious expansion, its moral relativism.
Is it possible that writing can know such realities without being tarnished? Can it sustain an exclusive imaginary? More and more we are asking ourselves the question just who is writing for whom, in whose language, and who is reading?
A new wave of the radical in Australian writing is being articulated by the vanguard white and black. Mascara would like to unmask; to become visible in this often polarised open field with alternative interpretations of resistance; to reimagine outcrops and archipelagos, ecologies which have and continue to be politically and aesthetically colonised as histories are recast in avid hegemonies of theory, language, race.
Because they abrogate English words, Lionel Fogarty’s poems have not been edited. They remain their own Whitman-esque voice. Declaring kinship of Indigenous spirit with ‘Asian Pacific warriors’ Fogarty’s poetics are highly intuitive of Indigenous knowledge and ground-breaking auguries of change. Ken Chau and Belle Ling’s poems gesture towards and ironise race as post-identitarian. Stuart Barnes exploits the lyric’s capacity to powerfully dramatise racial vilification. In Jen Webb’s ‘Four Cities’ ‘North has blurred/with south…’, Corey Wakeling’s ‘Mute’ is unobtrusively oblique while Luke Fischer sings to Cézanne. Madness is evoked from the unswerving realism of Suvi Mahonen’s prose to the surreal intricacy of Peter Boyle’s. The immediacy and unflinching tone of Rozanna Lilley’s essay returns us to the abuse and traumas of creative life in the 1970s. Khanh Ha’s “Size-Ten Boots” evokes the psychosis of jungle warfare from an Asian-American point of view while Mark Smith’s “On the Port Keat’s Road” is a harrowing account of Indigenous custody based on the author’s experiences with the Nauiyu Community on the Daly River, NT.
One of our finest contemporary poets writing from postmodern and postcolonial perspectives is Fijian-Indian-Australian Sudesh Mishra, whose poetry is featured. Mishra’s virtuousity with image and wit are matched by innovation. His long poem “Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying” subverts conventions of syntax, content, gesture, hybridising magic realism with a theoretical consciousness; it is extreme and delimited, its concretion undoing representation as the speaker is ‘no longer the ‘i of my origin’. With its corporeal hoverings, its historico-topographical levitations over Nandi, Mauritius, Trinidad, India, Sydney, and its aversion to sentimentality Mishra’s revolutionary text poetically enacts Badiou’s passion for the real in searching for ‘the acreage of (his) prose’
To reimagine country is to go beyond tokenism or political constructs of self/Other, white/black, aesthetic/radical, moral/erotic, rational/psychotic. It is surely to recognise the contribution of writers such as Mishra to the richness of our translocal, inter-textualised perspectives. Minorities face pressure to resist the collective universal; some are implicated to emphasise the everyday, while others may be misrecognised by their innovations of what I describe as necessary epics. Materialist transcendence may not redefine the gaze, but it can radicalise with passionate departures.
Between the mainstream and the minority, the radical and the conventional there is exchange, borrowing, translation, alliance and multiple unions, some of which we hope you will chance upon and return to, among these pages.
This year has been one of transitions, as we attempt to renegotiate carbon economies, human rights abuses, and in our literatures, an identity of social cohesion and integrity. A trickle of Indigenous writers and migrant writers are appearing in anthologies, journals, publications and awards, suggesting our awareness that the White Australia of demographic legacies no longer resembles us. And yet, in the midst of culture wars, we are witnessing a regressive and brutal impasse for asylum seekers, beleaguered by the undercurrents of media-propagated myths. The truth and corruption of words―the way in which they divide and connect us― enmeshed as they are in our lives, is a reason for literature to respond.
In July, I travelled to Indonesia and Malaysia to assemble my own impressions of this crisis, which indirectly affects every one of us, and is the cover theme for Mascara’s issue 12. Talking to refugees who have been waiting for years in limbo, I understood why the numbers of boat people continues to rise, and why so many have drowned. A decision to end their prolonged confinement becomes proactive, reflecting, as Robert Lowell writes, “man’s lovely,/ peculiar power to choose life and die—”
Ultimately, change is the essence of our lives, and Death embodies that most plainly. Death, writes Emily Dickinson, is—the Hyphen of the Sea—the passage, the bridge and the pause.
Though a theme was not flagged for this issue many of the poems and stories reflect on death, flight, immigration and asylum, suggesting that such external matters are contested inwardly, in our imaginations, (that beautiful, antediluvian space), by impulses that may range from aesthetic to deconstructive.
Paul Kane’s meditations on climate and death are intense, oblique renditions of the Japanese renga. Themes of flight are explored by Diane Fahey and Lyn Hatherley. Brett Dionysius’s “Christmas Island Rat” takes a sharp perspective on the renewal of the Pacific Solution, Christine Ratnasingham’s poems touch ever so lightly on the disturbing subject of racism. There is a subtle irony to the narration of Fikret Pajalic’s “Red Dirt” with its metaphors of animal cruelty. And Sunil Badami takes a broad view on the themes of exile and hospitality in Alien Shores. Vrasidas Karalis’ review of Southern Sun: Aegean Light is a fine overview of the linguistic and cultural aspects of Greek-Australian poetics, with their unique oral tradition and historicism. The fragmentation and ambivalence of linguistic descriptors for our societies-in-transition are beautifully assembled in David Herd’s All Just, reviewed by Ann Vickery.
A century after her birth it is an honour to celebrate the Slovenian poet/chanteuse, Mila Kačič. Translated by David Brooks and Bert Pribac, her poems are reminiscent of the Russian symbolists with their evocation and carefully constructed imagery. They express an anxious thirst to liberate the deeply personal from the conventional.
This year saw the passing away of several seminal poets: Jack Gilbert, Peter Steele and Rosemary Dobson. Geoff Page’s review of Rosemary Dobson’s Collected is a fine tribute to her poetry and her life.
But not all the contributions are in sympathy with these themes. Jal Nicholl’s review of Stephen Edgar’s fine collection, The Red Sea, takes its own ethno-poetic slant. And many other writers excel in speculative, experimental and daring pieces, (Dan Disney, Paul Giffard-Foret, Ainslee Meredith, Madeleine Slavick and Laura Woollett, to name a few.) I’ve no doubt our readers will enjoy the challenge of this diversity, which we consider to be essential.
Toby Fitch’s interview with John Tranter is a candid, witty and insightful portrait of one of our most significant poets, the development of his New York-Down Under marque of poetics, its sassy shearing away from the mainstream. It sheds light on our history of cultural cringes and an impulse to associate reflexively, ironically, et toute à la blague.
It’s timely to mention that there have been daunting editorial transitions and challenges for the journal to overcome and new directions to embrace, for which I’m very much indebted to our friends, colleagues, and grateful to the Literature Board.
I walked in the rain today on pavements strewn with bright autumn leaves and glistening seed pods until I lost the threads of my thoughts and a calmness entered my mind. I write best when I yield to that other world, leaving behind the irritations, anxieties, disappointments, errors, false starts. I forget my imperfect language, its conscious structure of arbitrary names. I start to be attuned to the music of silence, complex and polyphonic, varied, beyond meaning. “There’s nothing special about being a writer; it’s no different to any other profession,” a friend said to me recently on Skype, a remark which left me quizzical, possibly defensive.
Is there a need to justify literature? Is it not true that we become self-conscious when we try to do so. We renew elitist paradigms, conflating our intentions as writers, disguising the ways in which with complicity we oppress, or exploit Otherness. Do I write to invent myself like Foucault, or to forget like Borges? Does literature serve the Muse, the reader, history, or culture?
Literature carries all these registers at different times. I think my own writing is a journey to find a language for the unspeakable, a journey of imperfection and risks, some greater than others, and quite impossible to measure. That’s all, really. But maybe it’s enough.
Our encounters with difference have caused so much language to be erased. Of two hundred and fifty Indigenous languages that were spoken when Europeans first invaded this country, over a hundred and thirty are now critically endangered and perhaps only twenty or thirty are being spoken. Language can seduce, transcend, reconcile or violate, claiming what it desires in the name of empire, as Sujata Bhatt reminds us in “A Different History”:
has not been the oppressor’s tongue?
truly meant to murder someone?
And how does it happen
that after the torture
after the soul has been cropped
with a long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror’s face-
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language.
We are ourselves the coloniser, the foreign one. We have become ‘that strange language’ of epistemic violence. And Bhatt suggests that unless we resist or negotiate the received tongue, we transcendentalise the ground on which we stand. “The poem splits,/It has no desire to become a nation,” David Herd writes in “One by One”.
It has been my privilege as editor of this journal to observe resistance, what Wallace Stevens described as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” For reality is the homogenising tongue, the single, archetypal narrative. We have archived so many different stories and languages that it seems to me that this journal belongs to its contributors. It pleases me immensely to have published work by new and exciting writers and researchers from here and abroad. I think of Ocean Vuong, Luke Johnson, Eileen Chong, Nabina Das, Fatima Bhutto, Tessa Lunney, Debbie Lim, Peter Dawncy, Mona Attamimi, Bella Li, Laura Woollett, Jo Langdon, Michelle Dicinoski, Desh Balasubramaniam, Jane Kim, Omar Musa, Tim Wright, Misbah Kokhar, Jessie Tu, Ansley Moon, James Stuart, Jessika Tong, Andrew Carruthers, Peycho Kanev, Brooke Linford, Angelina Mirabito, Theophilus Kwek, Sally Fitzpatrick, Aimee Norton, Stephanie Ye, Carol Chan and Ellen van Neervan-Currie, just to name a few. For some, Mascara Literary Review was their first publication.
In considering these voices I begin to question the defining canons by which culture oppresses difference and erases language. I’m persuaded that writing is both a yielding and a resistance, which in deconstructing itself, does make things happen.
In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” William Carlos Williams says that poetry has no news to deliver, nothing sensational or glamorous to advertise, “yet men die miserably everyday/ for lack/of what is found there.” Poetry doesn’t make things happen,
to use Auden’s words. It doesn’t stop wars, feed the hungry or stop the earth from being abused. Yet it is perhaps precisely of its
non-utilitarian value that we need it so much, every crust, every scrap of it. In a world where everything is measured in economic terms, poetry is essential because it resists being calibrated, reminding us that the seemingly most useless things are the most vital to our being alive.
That is what poets do each day, paying attention to what seems insignificant and worthless. Being attentive, observing Pound’s
imperative to making it new again and again, and making connections, wiring the different parts within themselves and also awakening hidden connections to the rest of the world. Images, events, thoughts are inexplicably related, brought together in a significant but not immediately comprehensible conjunction. In “Hamid Ramouz” (1818-1906) Raymond Carver experiences a moment when two disparate things meet:
This morning I began a poem on Hamid Ramouz –
soldier, scholar, desert explorer –
who died by his own hand, gunshot, at eighty-eight.
I had tried to read the dictionary entry on that curious man
to my son – we were after something on Raleigh –
but he was impatient, and rightly so.
It happened months ago, the boy is with his mother now,
but I remembered the name: Ramouz –
and a poem began to take shape.
All morning I sat at the table.
Hands moving back and forth over limitless waste,
as I tried to recall that strange life.
The poem is a wonderful example of how two individuals from different countries and cultures meet. The subject of the poem is
ostensibly Hamid Ramouz, but the deeper theme is the fact of the poet’s present condition, his loneliness. We are not told much
about the Hamid, but his career and suicide are somehow relevant to Carver’s own life. The connection deepens the tragic chord in the poem.
Poetry is about waiting, listening for these connective chords. It is about uncovering the vast networks of bloodlines linking the poet to his immediate world and the wider world out there, weaving threads between cultures and languages.
This little poetry stand aims to do just that, share a bit of what is found there, the connections we discover as we encounter the world anew each day. Mascara is interested in the way poems locate individuals, and how they connect cultures and languages. It welcomes poems from Australia, Asia and the rest of the world, poems from different ethnicities and cultures that offer new ways of seeing and being. The word “mascara” derives from mask, and it is about putting on a different mask each day, Yeatsian or not, and seeing with different eyes. It is interested in the way Australia looks out and upwards, to Asia, and way Asia and the other regions return the gaze. It hopes that the poems and essays on poetry and poetics will arrive to challenge the way we position ourselves, the news from the different quarters renewing the way we imagine ourselves and the world.
Boey Kim Cheng