Josie/Jocelyn Deane is a writer/student at the University of Melbourne. Their work has appeared in Cordite
, Australian Poetry Journal
, among others. In 2021 they were one of the recipients of the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis award. They live on unceded Wurundjeri land.
News of Animals/Nature is healing
The waters of Venice are clear,
almost. There aren’t any sudden swans
or dolphins out of the blue,
the elephants do not get drunk
in tea-fields cleared of the social
distancing efforts of the redoubtable
Yunan workers. It not even
the same photo of the same
elephants, curled up like content
deer in Nara prefecture, Tokyo, without
their vinegar/grain crackers
from tourists, inquire after safe
food in the metro, empty
malls, galleries of “Western” art, disinterested as
that one doe in a cathedral, or that one
dog meme, sitting in a flaming cockpit bottom text I Have
No Idea What I’m Doing, going
viral, haphazardly. Nature
is recolonising Venice, says the owner
of the Venice Hilton. “The water
is so blue and pure”, she says. “Nature
has no name, only what is given”. You’re still
in quarantine, buses are still trickling
over your window, you look at your arm, primate
hairs poking through sunburn.
Gay Jesus as You
I like gay Jesus almost as much
as I like you. I like the water
congealing in his side, clear trans-
-substantiation, from a cop’s spear
as much as I like you. The touch
enflames, the matter
-of-fact saying now things will be
different: your body will not be
that of your forebears. I like
the orange pips with gay Jesus’
face inside, conch shells
on the shores of Galilee whispering Christ
is come to the thirsting ear as much as
I like you. I like the hole he made
of his rib-cage, a beautiful before-after
mastectomy photo, of his hands like
a glory-hole almost as much as I
like you. I like the time passing and time
to come, time hiding like the devil
in a stratum of chalk/sandstone,
the outline of an Ichthyosaur or
bird-dinosaur, saying Christ this is
a long time to yourself… as much
as I like you. I like the generations
of spiders you hate— the parallel
church of our gay, eight legged lord
they form— that saw gay human Jesus
saying nothing in their language
going back to cocooning their food
as much as I like you. I like the sense
of a gay beginning and ending, the word
split, tentatively as much as I
Australianama: the South Asian Odyssey in Australia
by Samia Khatun
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Samia Khatun takes a tack pioneered by Peter Drew, an Australian who made posters labelled with the word “Aussie” and featuring a migrant cameleer. He wrote about the development of his art practice in ‘Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics,’ (2019). It’s a slightly confused account of a life spent looking for battles to fight. Khatun fights her own battle but uses different language and aims stronger barbs at a long-absent colonial power.
As though every question in life might be answered satisfactorily by apportioning blame. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Jewish author whom Indians cherish as one of their own, uses instead of incisive academic prose the language of sentiment filtered through a screen of humour.
Perhaps their twin aims are not running in parallel, but instead intersect – such as here, now. Khatun provides a much-needed lens through which to view South Asians in Australia in the colonial period. I was enchanted by the propriety of giving voice to such subaltern figures as a Pakistani merchant or an Indian peddler. The “lascars” – South Asian seamen used in the period following the abolition of slavery to crew steamships – also figure prominently in Khatun’s narrative, offering different ways to see White Australia and the developing form of nationalism Khatun acknowledges multiculturalism to be.
Given all these qualifications, how accessible is her book? Who might buy and read it? Is it a book for the general trade market or is it, rather, a work that must lie within the ambit of academic circles? I think that, as in the case of its focus, it is an intersectional work that can fit into multiple settings, much like a designer handbag or a 4-wheel-drive automobile. It will feel just as “right” if you carry such an accessory with jeans or with a Chanel suit. Similarly, with a modern 4-wheel-drive SUV, it looks fine in a CBD carpark or out on the open road climbing up a steep incline among trees with peeling bark that are filled with the sounds of cicadas.
Khatun’s register is elevated and her concern is, as is common with academic writing, to speak truth to power. She won’t concede anything her principles refuse to allow, so, for example, she refers to the Flinder’s Ranges in South Australia as having a name that is “current”. Not conceding allows her to embark upon a radical course of change, and she writes sympathetically of the dispossession of Aboriginal people in the process of writing about South Asians in Australia.
While the language is taut and the plan lofty – bringing the reader into contact with discourse systems that dominate elite circles – Khatun also tells a solid tale, and engages in a bit of novel coinage, as when she uses the word “tracks” to talk about storylines used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As such Khatun is writing a new “track” for her own people, locating them within the grip of a trading web stretching from Perth to Medina, and from Mombasa to Dhaka. She early on signals her intention to offer readers an alternative psychogeographical realm within which to tell her stories, and delivers on her promise, dredging up a range of colourful characters, each of whom, like Mohammed Bux, is able to tell stories that help to create new ways of living.
In Bux’s case the telling of stories not only made him a rich man, but saved his life. When on a hajj in the Arabian Peninsula, and robbed of everything including his clothes, it was his ability to describe what had happened to him that led to the provision of not only new clothes, but a place to sleep, and food. Telling stories continues to be an important way for Indigenous people in Australia to achieve their cultural and political goals, and this process is of course contested in the public sphere. Khatun is scathing in regard to former prime minister Tony Abbott and his 2014 “terra nullius” claim, part of a public performance during which, in typically blunt style, the politician tried to settle old scores – the “black armband” culture wars of a decade earlier.
Unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Khatun’s work forms a stepping stone for people who enjoy Drew’s art but my initial reservation – what appears at the outset of this article – should actually be taken as an index of my esteem as I thought that to dwell on such minor matters was unequal to the gorgeousness of what else is conveyed in this marvellous, and profoundly entertaining, work of nonfiction.
I was a tad disappointed that 19th century debates about knowledge that have been abandoned by all but the rumbling amateur and the most reactionary scholar animate Khatun’s narrative, which is otherwise – and, once you get over this opening hurdle – engrossing and rich in design and in execution. I’m really not sure that it’s all that useful to start quoting James Mill and Thomas Macaulay as though they were reliable witnesses to the fact of colonialism. Perhaps they are – in India?
They certainly cannot be in the West. It seems, in any case, unnecessary to drag out these particular skeletons, as though by displaying the bones you can resolve questions about why they’re not suitable to be used in a life drawing class. Nobody nowadays reads Mill or Macaulay anyway. Khatun has to ensure that people read her work. I prefer her investigations into the literatures of the subcontinent, for it is here that the incipient beauty of her text for the first time becomes apparent.
But Australianama not only charts waters rarely ventured into, and communicates effectively with what should be – if there’s any justice in the world (and of this many despair) – a wide audience, it also explores new avenues of enquiry that others might be tempted to pursue. Some of the tracks that Khatun follows reveal surprising truths about, for example, Aboriginal culture and the history of dispossession they’ve faced over much of the past 230-odd years.
Finding herself in the South Australian desert, Khatun takes a lesson in reading tracks left by passing animals, including a lizard that is taken by a snake. She writes:
This episode of high drama that Reg [Dodd] decrypted in the sand lies outside the bounds of what are recognised as significant events in most English-language history books today. In conventional histories of this Arabunna sandhill, the lizard and the eagle would not feature as central actors. And yet, it was this asymmetrical encounter between two creatures that gave me an invaluable insight into some of the principles of Arabunna storytelling. Beginning with the predatory gaze of the eagle, the central motif of these sand dune dramas was one of pursuit and escape, actions that left a trail in the sand. Like so many other narratives imprinted on the sandhill, the tracks of the lizard ended with dismemberment, consumption and disappearance from the face of Arabunna geography. Eating! Here, being eaten, the apprehension of being eaten, and the pursuit of other creatures in order to eat were ever-present prospects shaping how creatures moved across the land. (p.138 – 139)
Dodd had heard a story of South Asian cameleers from his grandmother, Barralda. In the story, two Aboriginal women were waiting for a train but it was late, and would not come. While they were waiting two cameleers arrived, with their beasts, and spoke to them, asking to see their breasts. The women showed the men their breasts. The men then asked to see their thighs. They showed the men their thighs. But in the telling the story evolved in a surprising way as the two women consider eventually – according to each teller of the tale – that the men want to eat them and thus want to see their flesh.
This is the central fact in the retelling as the story was passed down from mother to son, from aunt to niece. A cautionary tale told for the benefit of children, this particular track – Khatun discerned – was anchored in the same dynamic as that which resulted in the leaving of animal tracks upon the landscape. An ephemeral moment in world history, but a telling one.
MATTHEW da SILVA was born in Brighton, Victoria, and grew up in Sydney. He has Bachelor of Arts and Master of Media Practice degrees from the University of Sydney and lived for just under a decade in Tokyo. He has two adult children and lives in Sydney.
Paul Collis is a Barkindji person. He was born in Bourke, in far north/west NSW. His early life was informed by Barkindji and Kunya and Murawarri, and Wongamara and Nyempa story tellers and artists. Paul grew hearing traditional stories of Aboriginal culture and Law. He earned a Doctorate at University Canberra in 2015. His first novel, Dancing Home, won the 2017 David Uniopon Award for a previously unpublished work by an Indigenous author, and the 2019 ACT Book of the year Award. Nightmares Run Like Mercury his first poetry collection is published by Recent Studies Press in 2021. Paul lives in Canberra and teaches occasionally at University of Canberra.
(26th January) – Mend That !
I’m too black to be Blue…
too black I am, to be true Blue Aussie, like you.
I’m not like Johnno and Crew,
too black I am, to be that Blue.
so no happy birthday, Australia,
Oi, Oi, Oi,
Situation In Sydney…
“Na. Not doin’ that. Not goin’ to rehab”.
And then, there’s that silence. You know?
Denial in silence.
(her skinny little body, a tremble. her eyes fill with shame and pain)
I search her face for a sign, for one little memory, of her.
She knows what I’m looking for.
Eye’s overflow. “I’m sorry, Uncle”.
I think of Christmas morns in PJ’s, and her, lost beneath a mountain of wrapping papers.
Laughter with smiley faces.
Tears of joy as seven bells rang out loud.
Everywhere the Christmas bells.
Think . . .First day at school and new uniform,
slowly turn into first cigarettes and later to boyfriend kisses.
Movie dates and birthday cakes,
and she slowly slips away into a grown-up world.
For a moment, for just a moment, she’s back – that shiny face little kid
back with me, for a second.
I searched the city for a bed in a Rehab.
But all the beds were taken.
All the doors turned closed.
Despair. Now everywhere despair.
They’re all buried out there,
near Fred’s grave. All in a line. We lovingly called them ‘The Black Sisters’.
The Nuns built a small little place for the dying, named it Bethlehem…old drunks and cancers from grog boys and old girls went there and were nursed by these beautiful Nuns until they passed on.
They were dearly respected and loved by us Murrdie people in Bourke…The Black Sisters were Ours.
Most of the Nuns worked the rest of their life and died in Service at Bourke.
An Aboriginal man suicided in front of their Altar one night after being jilted by his lover (a married woman).
Duncan’s suicide announced the end of the Nun’s service in Bourke.
When I was back home there 3 years ago, I ran into some of the Blacks Sisters at the Bakery, early one morning before going to Brewarrina. “Lovely to see you Sister’s” I happily said.
“Lovely to see you, Brother” one Nun spoke, as they all held their hands in prayer position and bowed to me.
“I think you Sisters are all Barkindji now, hey! Its so good to see you again. Will you be here long?”
“Not long. Ha ha…Not Barkindji, ha ha.” The speaking Nun joked.
“Just a short visit, this time.” she finished.
“All us Aboriginal people…. we all love you, Sisters” I said and began to wipe tears from my eyes.
“As we all love You,” Sister concluded.
I waved goodbye.
I walked to the car; it was already a hot day, revved up the air con and we drove the dusty road to Bre. I began thinking of kindness and love acts.
The next day was my last one in Bourke that trip. I went to the Cemetery to say goodbye to my deceased relatives. I noticed fresh prayer papers at the graves of the Black Sisters. I realised that it must have been one of the purposes of the Nun’s visit, all the way from India again was to pay their respects to their Black Sisters.
by Sheila Heti
Reviewed by DIVYA VENKATARAMAN
When I arrive at a decision about motherhood – to be, or not to be? – I almost certainly won’t get there by employing the kind of esoteric abstraction Sheila Heti’s unnamed narrator does. That being said, Heti’s discursive, conversational monologue of a novel is clarifying, poignant and devastating at times in its ability to condense the societal pressures that women – that is, women of Heti’s whiteness and relatively high socio-economic status – face in our age.
We meet Heti’s narrator just before she turns 37. She’s been bitten by the “bug” of wondering whether she will procreate. “The question of a child is a bug in the brain—it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future.”
Heti’s narrator decides to embark on an intellectual quest, determined to interrogate the reasons for which she does and does not want to have a child. To illuminate her journey, in a common trope, the narrator looks to Eastern wisdom: here, the role of guiding light is given to the Chinese tradition of I-Ching, a method of tossing three coins and gleaning ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers for the combination of faces they show. The answers her coins give her lead her to her next question. There’s a dialogue between coin and question which gives away a great deal in its sparseness.
Heti’s narrator describes the feeling of being left out in the cold of childlessness in a touching, deeply felt way. “I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same?” The flowing present tense of the novel allows us to weave in and out of New York City life, in and out of her apartment, in and remain mired in, her arguments with her partner Miles. She writes honestly and deeply poignantly about the pain of not knowing how to feel in the face of societal pressure. “I fear that without children, it doesn’t look like you have made a choice, or that you’re doing anything but just continuing on – drifting.”
The circuitous conversations the protagonist has with herself evoke the circular nature of her mood swings and hormonal fluctuations. While being so concerned with motherhood, an event so rooted in the physical, Heti’s narrator often feels disconnected from her own body. Her period cycles are unpredictable, her moods more so. “On the one hand, the joy of children,” Heti writes. “On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?” At the novel’s close, she finds comfort and a hazy kind of bliss in a prescription for anti-depressants.
The novel reads, in its confessionalism and oscillations of a mind not-quite-made-up, as more of a memoir or extended essay than anything fictional. The unnamed narrator at the centre of the book and the dilemma, frames her decision on motherhood as a choice to be made by the individual and the individual alone. In Heti’s narrator’s world – a white, upperclass heterosexual world – there is firstly a choice about whether or not to become a mother, and such a choice is framed as being one about sacrificing creative ambition and art for the creation of life. Motherhood, for Heti is conceptual, lofty, and understood in the context of a woman occupying several spheres of privilege making claims about motherhood. Should she create life or create art? The novel is driven more by the internal cogitation than any actual events – except for her conversations (which are very Rachel Cusk-esque in the way they are distilled only through the protagonist’s worldview), and the (somewhat repetitive) fights between her and Miles.
While Heti’s protagonist moves through a series of thrice-removed, theorised concepts about the sacrifices and privileges that motherhood will afford her, the decision that so many women around the world take is a result of myriad, competing desires – not exclusive to, but including cultural guilt, familial pressure, and financial stability. But this is not to say that, through her ambivalent, see-sawing conversations with herself about motherhood, she doesn’t delve into misconceptions about motherhood with humour, insight and painful acuity. While it’s perhaps unfair to ask Heti to write from the perspective of anyone else, the novel does not factor into its philosophising any broader sense of what motherhood is as understood in different parts of the world – or even different parts of her own city.
However, she is comprehensive about and critical of the overemphasis of women’s abilities as child-rearers and the conditioning of women as ‘natural’ in the role, and the challenge they pose to a society organised by nuclear families. “There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children,” says Heti. “What sort of trouble will she make?”
While these quotes, plucked out of context, may spark a feeling of recognition – of being able to relate – it is the process of her repetitive, rhetorical question-asking through flipping coins which grounds them in place.
While the novel is not as universal as it imagines itself to be, Motherhood is a crucial, deeply personal sketch of the conversations women have with themselves. In it, Heti sums up the anxiety of the constant wavering between freedom and being joyfully tethered – to create art, or to create life? No questions are answered, no conclusions drawn – but she finds a way to give shape to the anxiety and constant, underlying thrum of the indecision she feels as she decides what she will make next.
DIVYA VENKATARAMAN is an Indian-Australian lawyer and writer based in Sydney. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Time Out, the Sydney Morning Herald, Sweatshop Women and more. She was a finalist for the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Premier’s Multicultural Media Award.
by Jennifer McKenzie
Reviewed by ANNEE LAWRENCE
Jennifer Mackenzie’s collection of poems Navigable Ink takes inspiration from, reveres and amplifies the life events, writings, reflections and concerns with history of the Indonesian author and activist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). The idea of writing the poems emerged after Mackenzie was asked to translate Pramoedya’s Arus Balik (Cross-Currents) in 1993.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in the small Javanese town of Blora in what was then the Netherlands East Indies. His most famous work, the Buru Quartet novels – This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass – covers, in his own words, Indonesia’s time of Nationalist Awakening during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Based on the life of the pioneer journalist Tirto Adi Suryo 1, the novels follow a young man, Minke’s, developing political awareness and consciousness of the colonial apartheid system. As his story unfolds, the reader is drawn into an emerging vision of a new country – Indonesia, and of a new national language and cultural identity – Indonesian. 2
When Suharto’s New Order government came to power after a military coup in 1965, it did so by overthrowing the government of the nation’s first President, Sukarno (in power since 1945) 3. The coup unleashed widespread violence and the extrajudicial bloody deaths of more than half a million people who were labelled communist or communist sympathiser. Feminists, trade union leaders, teachers, artists, writers, doctors, farmers, university lecturers, and all kinds of progressive community leaders lost their lives. Of those who survived, many were shipped without trial or sentence to the island of Buru where they were forced to do hard labour.
Pramoedya was imprisoned three times during his life: in 1947-1949 by the Dutch, for nine months in the 1950s by the Sukarno government, and in 1965-1979 by Suharto’s New Order regime. At the time of his arrest and imprisonment in Jakarta on 13 October 1965, his house was ransacked and his library and eight of his manuscripts were burned.
Mackenzie’s poem, ‘Manuscripts in My Library Destroyed by the Mob’ lists Pramoedya’s works and writing that were stolen or burned in 1965 – works about and by Kartini and other women writers before Kartini, a collection of Sukarno’s short stories, a preliminary Study of the History of the Indonesian Language – the list is telling. They represent the voices that must be silenced, histories that must be erased or reinterpreted including that of the birth of the country’s national language. When Pramoedya sought to recover ‘two volumes of Pre-Indonesian Literature’ he was told by the director of the Balai Pustaka (the Government Publishing and Printing House) that they were ‘burned at the request of his superiors’.
After four years in prison, Pramoedya was taken 1500 kilometres east by ship to the island of Buru on 16 August 1969, where he remained as a political prisoner until 12 November 1979. Buru was a barren, infertile swamp and life for the political prisoners was characterised by daily beatings, hard labour, hunger and filthy conditions. In the poem ‘Writing Materials’, Mackenzie captures the insane mechanics of the arbitrary and senseless repression on Buru that denied the author pen and paper.
there was no pen, no paper
then there was
after many years
pen and paper
I remember none of
At the poem’s conclusion Mackenzie does not look away from the trauma that has done its work: ‘nightmares lap the house/which wall is crumbling?’
The eventual provision of writing materials allowed Pramoedya to finally begin to write the four novels of the Buru quartet that had been kept alive in his memory by narrating them to his fellow political prisoners.
On returning home to East Jakarta on 21 December 1979, Pramoedya was placed under house arrest and made to report weekly to the local police station. For almost two decades, he and his family endured constant and systemic discrimination and surveillance. As each of his books was published during the 1980s and 1990s, they were banned – allegedly for spreading Marxism-Leninism and Communism.
During Suharto’s thirty-three-year New Order regime, the gap between rich and poor widened, and corruption, cronyism and fraud became widespread. When the economic crisis took hold in the latter part of 1997, the country’s students faced down the authorities and took to the streets, and the seemingly entrenched President was finally forced to stand down on 21 May 1998.
In Navigable Ink’s opening poem, ‘Before Nightfall’, there is at first moonlight and tranquillity, but attention soon shifts to the sea – gara gara – turbulence, trouble, stormy weather, and ‘frenzied moonlit waves’ that threaten those on board. On the shore there is the howling of forest dogs. From the darkness, having disappeared from view of family and society for more than fourteen years, the political exile returns white-headed to his family, finds his daughters once more at his side, ‘forest and grassland will always greet/each other’, while they giggle and tease ‘You look like Hanuman’, the white monkey general of the Ramayana.
Images of the sea, the coast, boats, boat journeys, and foreign armadas appearing to bomb the islands’ ports with cannon ball – ‘they want to plant their flags on this very shore!’ – are threaded throughout different poems. They mark devastating invasion and journeys into exile. Life goes on and there is a unity of design, the link to precolonial and colonial events, the death or enforced exile of those who use words to agitate and need to be shut up, and the relentless environmental destruction caused by cutting down forests to make way for cash crops (most recently palm oil plantations).
In ‘Daendels as Wayang Puppet Watching Over Us’ Mackenzie draws on Pramoedya’s film essay, Jalan Raya Pos (the Great Post Road) 4, with translations of Pramoedya’s text captured on the right side of the poem, alongside the scenes filmed on the road of workers ‘sodden, flooded, collecting sand/this rushing river’, ‘stoking the furnace of the sugar mill’, trying to repair ‘a mudslide’, and of ‘a wayang performance/the puppets of Daendels, the Regent of Sumedang/a cracking gamelan/battle it out’.
The one-thousand-kilometre Great Post Road extends across northern Java, from Anyer on the West coast to the port of Panurukan in the East. It is the ghosted legacy of the Dutch Governor-General Daendels who in just one year in 1809 conscripted Javanese labourers to build it. Many died in the process.
In the film essay, the road remains the lifeblood of transport and communication for cars, carts, public buses, and trucks, but its history echoes the Suharto era’s own use of the unpaid labour of the political prisoners to build roads and bridges on Buru, and the inequality, poverty and poor working conditions of those at work along the road.
One of the scenes of ordinary daily life and survival captured is the attempt of a driver to repair his broken down truck in pouring rain. Mackenzie captures this in ‘Writer’s Block’.
a break down
diesel fumes rising like clouds
a rinse in the river of spare parts
the bus will rattle into life
The poem draws on other scenes from the film essay including one in which Pramoedya admits that when he is affected by writer’s block, the study of his homeland and its history are a key tool for organising his thoughts.
The film also bears witness to Pramoedya’s daily routine. The passing of time. The push-ups, the burning of rubbish, the ‘click click click’ of the typewriter. The joy of grandchildren. Trauma kept at bay.
Mackenzie’s poems reflect the contemporary as well as the past. Young people leave their rural towns and villages to seek better lives on the coast where they find themselves living on the margins of broken dreams – as drivers, tea pickers, sand miners, or carting bamboo as in ‘The Buffaloes’:
the buffaloes, in a choreography of the tethered,
lift their feet lightly
above the wagon
drooping bamboo branches
sway, leaves catching the light
at the swirling’s centre the driver’s steady gaze
In the three-part poem ‘Memories of the Revolution’, ‘Bandung Conference 1955’ recalls the coming together of emerging nations called on by Sukarno (as NEFOS – new emerging forces) to refuse allegiance to one or other side of the Cold War. In the second part, ‘Borobodur 1959’ depicts a visit to Indonesia by Che Guevara. In part three, ‘Jakarta 1995’, the Cold War has ended, the prisoners from Buru have returned to their families where they are demeaned and discriminated against as ex political prisoners (TAPOL). This ongoing persecution (denial of jobs and education) under the New Order government extends to their children and other close family members.
In ‘Jakarta 1995’ the snapshot of scenes from daily life at home skews to the right across the page, fulfilling a pattern of days in the present, ‘watering the plants’, ‘gazing over to the/neighbourhood kids/springing about/flying kites’, but still reckoning with the past, still ‘thinking of Sukarno’, and arriving at a single word, ‘sunyata’ – in truth.
For Pramoedya, remembering is agency, truth telling, and revolutionary act. And personal survival, relationship and day-to-day living are necessarily intertwined with the political.
The poems in Mackenzie’s collection are a brilliantly realised weaving of Pramoedya’s preoccupation with the images and episodes of history which flow like ghosts into the present. If the nation could be ‘unified politically and administratively by Soekarno without spilling blood – an exceptional occurrence in humanity’s history’,5 – then how are we to understand the widespread horrific violence against their own that exploded in the wake of the US military-backed coup in 1965?
Pramoedya interrogates history and demands that the present be understood, and if it can be understood, he asks, then what is the role of the literary writer? In his essay, ‘My Apologies, in the Name of Experience’ he writes that ‘as a person and a writer who shares in bearing the burden of change’, he regards the era of Sukarno (until 1965) and the Trisakti doctrine as ‘nothing but a sort of thesis. The New Order, an antithesis. Therefore, for me, it is something that in fact cannot be written about yet, a process that cannot yet be written as literature, that does not yet constitute a national process in its totality, because it is in fact still heading for its synthesis.’6
In the last poem in the collection ‘Dawn’, the train heads east from Gambir station, crossing through the countryside,
red mounds of earth high as small hills
on either side of the narrow track farewell
what I sense of
And, at the end, a self that wears the marks and traces of brutal capture and incarceration, but who also goes on amid the details of daily living.
a chattering of bicycles and tea stalls
among the mud and puddles left after rain
hoed, black beaten, weathered, flaking away
Mackenzie’s Navigable Ink honours the inspiring, rich literary legacy of Indonesia’s most notable writer and pays tribute to his refusal to be silenced, subjugated or compromised. It is a wonderful collection that repays multiple readings.
1. Max Lane translated the Buru Quartet and as he writes in his Introduction to Footsteps (1990): ‘Tirto Adi Suryo was publisher and editor of the first native-owned daily paper, instigator of the first “legal aid service”, co-founder of the first modern political organization, co-publisher of the first magazine for women, and a pioneer of indigenous literature in the language of the nation yet to be born. All this and more is brought to life for the reader in an amazing adventure of intellectual discovery and emotion.’
2. Max Lane, Introduction, in Footsteps by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Penguin, 1990, p. 10.
3. In 1942 the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese and, after the war ended, the
Indonesian nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Hatta, declared Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945. Sukarno was the nation’s first president and Hatta its vice-president. After four years of struggle, the Netherlands recognised Indonesian independence in 1949.
4. Jalan Raya Pos 1996, with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Directed by Bernie IJdis.
5. Chris GoGwilt, 1996. ‘Pramoedya's Fiction and History: An Interview With Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, January 16, 1995, Jakarta, Indonesia’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1: 147-164. http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.uws.edu.au/journals/yale_journal_of_criticism/v009/9.1toer01.html
6. See Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1991. ‘My Apologies in the Name of Experience’. Translation and
Afterword by Alex G Bardsley, 1996. https://sites.google.com/site/pramoedyasite/home/works-in-
translation/my-apologies-in-the-name-of-experience In the essay, Pramoedya relates that ‘the period of Guided Democracy in the last years of the 50s and first half of the 60s, [was] the period of the Trisakti doctrine – political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, cultural integrity – a doctrine that, while universal among nationalist states everywhere, was, however, a bogey for the countries stuffed with capital, and hungry for new fields of enterprise around the world. History teaches much about the power of capital. … The governments of so many states it turns into mere instruments of its will; and when they are no longer wanted, they are overthrown.'
ANNEE LAWRENCE’S debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro, UK, 2020), engages with the rich cultural life that exists between Indonesians and Australians. She was the inaugural recipient of the Asialink Arts Tulis Australia-Indonesia Writing Exchange in 2018 (at Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta) and has published in New Writing, Griffith Review, Hecate, Cultural Studies Review and the online University of Edinburgh Dangerous Women Project.
by Shu-Ling Chua
Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
I raced through Echoes the first time I read it. Raced through it the second time, too. At under 85 pages it’s a short book—a chapbook, almost—and easily inhaled over an idle afternoon. If you can resist, the three essays can be spread over a few idle afternoons. But it’s hard to resist—Shu-Ling Chua’s writing is compelling, the kind of simple but lyrical language that propels you through the text at pace. It’s not exactly sparse prose, but unadorned, elegant like a figure-hugging structured dress from Cue. Chua is economical with her words, and direct. She avoids heavy description or lapsing into discursive commentary and instead, she takes the concrete and mundane—clothing, songs, water—as the loci from which to gently probe her broader concern, crystallised in the book’s blurb as ‘what does one unknowingly inherit?’
In the first essay, ‘(Im)material Inheritance’, Chua searches for an understanding of self in photographs of her grandmother, in her seeming divergence from her mother. The essay circles questions of glamour and the feminine, and what it means to dress for the world or for the self. Her economy of language leads to moments of ambiguity and momentary discomfort, as when, for example, Chua writes that she ‘was not like other girls’, a sentiment that lives in the space between the then (she is writing of herself in school), and the now (she is affirming, in 2020, that she was different). It is a niggling tension felt on a personal and political level: we at once know that this is an unfair and sexist disavowal of womanhood and know, too, that we have felt this way, have felt our failures to live up to idealized femininity, and have felt our refusal of idealized femininity as a special badge of honour (indeed, some of us still do).
In another instance, Chua tells her mother ‘You’re lucky I’m not anorexic,’ and soon after notes: ‘My stomach is not as flat as it used to be. (Neither is my mother’s),’ and the lack of contextualisation, explanation, makes the reader wince. This is intentional, Chua is not attempting to save face; she offers the self in all its embarrassing exceptionalism and cruelty, setting in relief our imposed relationship to beauty, a relationship which sets us to defining ourselves in relation to others in ways that make us feel better and worse, but which also denies us joy in our physicality. The essay traces Chua’s (self-)consciousness of this tension, played out through three generations of women in her family. And though Chua ultimately finds connection to femininity through her grandmother, and with her grandmother to femininity, she lets the tension linger on the page, unresolved.
In ‘Echoes’, Chua sifts through Chinese pop songs and their modern iterations, exploring her interweaving past and present to push at the limits of language and translation, and the gaps in between. Chua was born in Australia to Malaysian-Chinese parents and, like many immigrants and children of immigrants, she inhabits a space of linguistic inbetween-ness, a space whose contours she maps out through her relationship to Chinese music. Chua describes listening to songs whose lyrics she doesn’t fully understand, lyrics that she must google and google-translate and ask friends about. It is an exploration of second language that is full of the wonder of discovery, with that special attention to meaning that non-fluent speakers often have, a tentative peeling back of definitional layers to grasp a word that native speakers take for granted. In this, there is a nostalgia—and hunger—for something only partly-known that I, an immigrant to Australia who lost much of my mother tongue in the move, recognise.
Though Chinese characters or anglicised Chinese words (Cantonese and Mandarin) appear throughout the book, they are most common in ‘Echoes’. It is a choice that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), in which Anzaldúa used Spanish and Chicano dialects alongside English in parsing through and representing her multiply inflected Chicana identity. Languages co-existing on the page, without italicization or footnoted definition, is becoming increasingly common as publishers become aware of the othering and English-language hegemony that these choices represent. However the decision to slide between languages is not just political, it is deeply personal too. As Chua, and Anzaldúa before her, show, multi-lingual works are a textual performance of the in-betweeness and multiplicity of their authors’ linguistic and cultural identities, a way of letting aspects of the self sit together on the page without subordinating one to the other.
For Chua, the decision seems also to perform her coming-to-language, and, in this, a coming-to-be. She is always googling, translating, looking up, asking for help, for information. She takes lessons, practices. Chua is always active in her linguistic and cultural inheritance and she has to be—unlike English language songs, which are so ubiquitous in Australia that you neither have to try (nor even want) to learn their lyrics to absorb them; Chinese songs require effort from Chua. She is forced to use the internet, and youtube in particular, as access points to a culture that she is very much a part of but which a predominantly white, Anglo-centric Australian (and western) media attempt to obfuscate, if not override. Hence the importance of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the sound track of which is fundamental to Chua’s essayistic musings.
The decision to leave lyrics untranslated, or partially translated, enacts instances of exclusion for readers who aren’t familiar with the script, forcing them to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and affectively bringing them into an experience paralleling Chua’s own language-acquisition. It forces them into participation. To know how the words are said, or what they mean, the reader must act, must watch the youtube video, must flick between pages to find where a line has previously been given meaning, or look up the songs and seek translations for themselves. The uncertainty and insecurity of this process, felt keenly by Chua, is offered to readers, too.
For me, it is Chua’s attempt to render as whole a self which is often split into parts that is most moving. Chua describes calling herself ‘half Chinese and half Australian’ in grade 3, while her mother suggest she use ‘ABC… Australian Born Chinese’. Both iterations split Chua in two, both evoking the neat split suggested by the hyphen in ‘Chinese-Australian (or, indeed, Chinse-Malaysian), as though anything could be so neatly parsed or disentangled. Chua does not describe herself, in any bio that I could see, as any iteration of the above, nor does she do so in ‘Echoes’. She has no time for the lazy signifier that is this hyphen and, in each essay of her collection, she speaks to, without directly speaking about, how poorly such a forced construction captures the breadth of her cultural relationality.
The final essay, ‘To Fish for the Moon’, details domestic life, habits and rituals, through water and washing. Chua describes water being saved in her parents’ home, the washing machines she has had, her (great) grandparent’s laundry business, sipping hot water, baths. Each anecdote is dropped into this flow of water and let go. Chua is gentle in this release, but unsentimental. To me, she doesn’t seem to be yearning for an imagined intimacy with the past, but rather seems to create and inhabit a present-future dimensionality that extends in all directions and take all things with it. Water is ordinary but it is also, implicitly, a connecting force, ubiquitous and mundane but life giving. To quote Anzaldúa, ‘I struggle with naming without fragmenting, without excluding… Identity flows between, over, aspects of a person. Identity is a river—a process.’ Chua takes this river, acknowledging the ways that it is communal and ongoing, and offers readers sips along its path.
Chua is an essayist and poet and in Echoes, her debut collection, these two worlds converge in an unexpected way. Rather than writing poetic lines into the essay form (and thus bearing the risk of sounding overwrought, tedious), Chua seems to do the opposite by writing essayistic sentences which slowly combine and accrete into a poetic form. She favours a sort of nimble restraint and the immediacy of concrete imagery on a sentence by sentence level. This is something of a contrast to the essays themselves which feel uninhibited, with a tendency to drifting: tangents, digressions, fleeting connections, departures and returns. They aren’t meandering per se, but multi-directional. Chua is writing towards knowledge, forgoing conclusions in favour of continuation and discovery. In tracing her connections and inheritances, she documents herself striving towards both, a process of self-actualisation rendered through her familial relationships and connection to things (tangible and otherwise) that bring her joy and pleasure.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and editor. Her work has been published in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She is a 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and tweets at @dzenanabanana.
Dasha Maiorova is a Belarus-born writer who lives and works on Dharawal Country in Sydney’s southwest. In 2020 she was runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize, and won the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize for fiction. Her writing has been published in The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Baby Teeth. She writes about books, reading and more at www.dashamaiorova.com
The train will derail.
The Pobedy departed Leningrad’s Moskovsky Station on a summer morning still yawning awake, on the fifteenth of June nineteen-ninety – but it would not arrive in Moscow. It was destined to collide with another train heading in the opposite direction, the inverse journey of its own.
The sun lingered behind swathes of cloud and a girl with her face pressed to the window did not finish her game of counting them. Ahead, at the gradual turn of the tracks, she saw the engine of the Pobedy as it travelled through the pine trees, and the cracked paintwork of the driver’s compartment.
Teaspoons rattling on the tea lady’s cart mimicked the onward chugging of the passenger train and the chatter of school children aboard, returning to country fields in the village pockets on the way to Moscow.
They would never come home.
The girl heard a bird-like shriek. A whistle. Then the brakes, screaming in agony. The Pobedy shuddered. School bags and satchels spilled from ceiling nets. Brakes seizing, the Pobedy continued its slide forward, seeming not to slow at all.
Through the pines, the girl watched as sparks shot from under the other train. The white eye lit up in warning; blinking at its twin once, twice, in disbelief. She whimpered. At the midpoint between the Pobedy and the oncoming train a figure stood unmoving: a man on the tracks, unfazed by the machines’ roaring approach. He glowed white under the glare of the locomotive headlight. His head bowed in mournful reproach. This small girl already knew what it meant to mourn.
Too late, the brakes gained purchase. An explosion bellowed through the carriages, an impact not only of force but sound. The train crumpled inwards. Vapour scorched through the full length of the thirteen passenger cars, obliterating glass from windows.
The carriages settled on their sides, twisted as wooden toys discarded by a child. The dead were silent and the dying held their breaths. Those children still able to scream, screamed. A bar pierced the girl’s thin chest. A new smile was torn beside a mouth that never had cause to smile before.
Spilled, charred limbs crowded Alyona’s thoughts as she waited in a holding area of Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The corridor bore the resigned shabbiness of an interrogation cell. Discarded customs declarations and incoming passenger cards formed a patchwork on the linoleum. Fluorescent bulbs spat yellow light over the pockmarked ceiling tiles.
Following the flight, it seemed time would remain suspended. Alyona spied a glance at the Soviet clock mounted on the wall across the hallway. An object of functional lines, a face without character.
Hunching on the bench with her suitcase wedged between her knees, Alyona began again to gnaw at her cuticles. Her spare hand strayed to her collar button, then to her hair. She brushed it behind one ear and then back in front again. To appear at-ease and inconspicuous she tried to maintain a slow, steady breath. It was a wasted effort. No matter what she did, Alyona could not hide her face.
A light flashed above the door opposite, indicating that she could finally enter the office. Inside, an immigration clerk peered over the frame of her glasses at Alyona. The officer had eyebrows thin as spiders’ legs and they rose in appraisal of the young woman. Alyona’s photo lay atop the open file on her desk.
She had supplied the passport-sized image months ago. In it, an indignant Alyona stared from under a fringe since grown out. Her hair loose around her cheeks, to cover her marked face. They warned Alyona in the consulate that any mistake in her application, even a photograph too much in shadow, would likely terminate her chances of entering Russia. She still refused to pull back her hair.
That image, that file, had since passed between many examining hands. The paleness of her skin surprised her. The blue-grey gash beside her mouth did not. She appeared older in the photo than she expected.
The clerk indicated the empty chair before the desk and began clacking at her keyboard. She hesitated, her gaze hovering over her monitor. Her glasses glowed with the reflection of the screen, obscuring her expression. She did not look at Alyona but rather through her. In return, Alyona averted her eyes, studying the brutal Cyrillic letters labelling a badge on the desk. She could not decipher and name and title scored there.
The speechless moment dragged on. Alyona’s heartbeat echoed through her body. She wondered if even the clerk could hear it: the drumming of her fear. She refocused her attention on a calendar pinned to the back wall of the clerk’s office. A mountain range. Snow-capped forest glowing against a red sky. Today’s date unmarked, of no significance to the woman who hung it there.
A printer on the desk groaned to life, making Alyona jump. Several pages of dense text spewed from its mouth. The clerk gathered them together and stamped them each with a flourishing emblem. From her position, Alyona distinguished an inverted crown and a pair of hooked anchors. The crest of Saint Petersburg.
“Sign here.” The immigration officer tapped a long fingernail against a blank line at the end of the document. Alyona’s breath quickened. The cryptic letters on the page blurred. She scrawled her signature and pushed the papers back toward the clerk, who stapled them without ceremony.
“Very good. The matter of entry is resolved. It is done.” The officer’s tone intended as a brush-off. She spoke English with a laboured, throaty accent. “A statement of validity will be issued to your designated place of residence. You are required to register with the nearest legal authority within three days, with your host acting as witness. Penalties apply if you do not do so.”
A fresh stack of papers appeared before Alyona. On the second line: her name, typed in that square, formidable language.
“My grandmother is unwell. She cannot leave her apartment,” Alyona stuttered in a tongue grown unfamiliar.
“Oh, you speak Russian.” A raised eyebrow. A fingernail trailed the text of Alyona’s documentation. “I see here, she is on a widow’s pension. Have her sign for you, then. I’ll give you a declaration form.”
Relief and uncertainty in equal measure collapsed like lead through Alyona’s chest. “I am surprised. I was expecting–”
“What did you expect?” The clerk narrowed her eyes. Alyona held that gaze for a second. Beneath the desk, she pressed her nails into her palms.
“Your application took into concern… special circumstances. In truth, I don’t understand it. Your case is the first of this category I’ve come across – and from Australia, of all places. You should be glad for the expedited process. Next year, upon reaching the age of twenty-five, you’d be stamped a ‘stateless person’, with no recourse to enter the country with such ease.”
No. It had not been easy.
The clerk’s authority reminded her of Lena, her guardian. The woman who had so nearly prevented Alyona from coming to Russia. From coming home. Another year, and Alyona could not have returned.
“Thank you,” she said instead.
“The arrivals hall is that way. You should be able to get a taxi to the city without any difficulty at this time of day. Unless someone is meeting you?”
Alyona shook her head, but the clerk had already dismissed her with a vague gesture in the direction of the door. “Welcome to Saint Petersburg.”
Alyona knew she overpaid for the journey. The cab was meterless. She gave the driver an address on a slip of paper, and he quoted a price. That was all he said.
The car wove through a city bearing no resemblance to the Saint Petersburg Alyona had imagined. She was unprepared for a route landmarked by soot-coloured bridges, factories enclosed in barbed-wire fences, and multi-storey complexes glittering with smashed windows. She alternated her attention between watching the dismal passing suburbs and the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Faded tattoos marked the backs of his fingers. His eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Bloodshot and unperturbed by the marks on her face, as though scars by a woman’s mouth were a frequent sight in his world.
He left her at a road heaped with rotted leaves. Concrete slab khrushchyovka apartment blocks towered above her. Each more dismal than its neighbour. If the driver had not flicked a hand in the direction of a particular block, Alyona would never have guessed which of those sixties’ government-constructed buildings was her grandmother’s. The blocks cast bulky shadows over the road, mirroring the rows of yet more disposable Soviet-era khrushchyovkii. Each flat had its own small balcony. Some were cheery with ornate gardens of vines and potted flowers so lush they spilled into neighbours’ territories. Others were stacked with debris.
Alyona could not remember when she last felt so small. Even her lungs tightened, a sensation of her body wanting to close in on itself. She had arrived in Saint Petersburg. She was on the cusp of discovery, of unearthing all that remained of her history, yet she felt no sense of homecoming.
She tried to guess which window in the dirty grey expanse she would soon be looking out of. Her body acted before she made the decision to key the flat number into the intercom – 11. The device crackled to life. An entry buzzer sounded.
As Alyona pushed through the security door, she glimpsed a clutch of wilted sunflowers tethered to hooks on the side of the building. Though weak and bent by early autumnal chill, they were bright flares compared to the darkness within.
A bare bulb spit light in erratic bursts from the ceiling. The rustle of Alyona’s coat and the tread of her boots too loud against the blistered walls. Ahead, a timber block propped open the doors to a graffiti-emblazoned lift. A hand-lettered sign hung from the wood, declaring a hazardous proposition in exclamation marks. Alyona peered through the jagged spiral of stairs stretching six or seven landings above. She estimated flat eleven would be on the fourth floor.
Nowhere else to go except up.
Movement above. Light shimmered on a metal door, opened just for her. As Alyona climbed the final steps of the landing, she saw the figure silhouetted there.
“Irina Alexandrovna?” she asked.
The figure – a woman – shuffled forward. She was very small, and very old. She wore a long cotton dress beneath a pilled cardigan and slippers covered in stains.
“Alyonochka!” The old woman’s voice wavered in the stairway.
Alyona stood awkwardly at the last step. She turned her face down as she dropped the suitcase by her feet. The old woman addressed her again by the diminutive Alyonochka!, her voice made small by weeping. She seemed unable to contain herself.
The old woman placed her hands on either side of Alyona’s arms. She drew Alyona against her bird-like chest in a stilted embrace. Their height difference made it easier for Alyona to turn her face away. She hoped the old woman could not detect the mad beating of her heart. In Alyona’s ears, the thudding smothered all other sound.
“Finally, you’ve come back. You’re home!” Irina Alexandrovna sobbed. Her familiar, bittersweet smell struck Alyona as savagely as a blow. Coarse grey hair tied in a bun with an aroma… salt, sugar, cooked apples.
Sunshine baking dust in a carpeted room. Toys in a wicker basket. Alyona’s child-self reached for a worn doll. The memory was devastation. Alyona clutched back. She gripped the fabric of her grandmother’s cardigan as though to cling tighter to the memory-scent overwhelming her.
Wooden ornaments lined the windowsills of Irina Alexandrovna’s flat. Hand-hewn spoons, rearing bears, wolves arch-backed and howling. Browned tapestries hung on the walls, speckled with flakes of paper crackled from the ceiling. Irina Alexandrovna watched Alyona expectantly, as though wishing for some recognition on her granddaughter’s behalf.
A threadbare sofa designated the sitting room, its centre dominated by an unceremonious pile of books, stacked like chopped wood. Each title stripped of its spine.
Alyona finally spoke, though without directly addressing her grandmother: “You’re a reader…”
Irina Alexandrovna stared at the torn covers. Her expression carried surprise. “I gathered them when I was able to go up and down the stairs. Everyone throws books away nowadays. They throw everything away. No one knows what’s needed until the time comes, but everything can be useful in the end.”
She smiled a distant, unhappy smile. Alyona saw the glimmer of gold-capped molars at the back of her mouth.
“My girl, you must not be used to these things. Here, take off your boots. You must wear these when you’re inside.”
The old woman practically fell to the floor beside Alyona to help pull off her shoes. She presented Alyona with a pair of indoor slippers. They were paper light, with thin rubber soles designed for nothing more than to keep the immediate chill of the bare floor from her feet.
“These are your tapochki. I kept them especially for you. Look – they fit perfectly. I knew you would come.” Her voice turned hoarse. She sank back onto her knees, in a crouch virtually animal. “It hurts to know you will only see me like this.”
A chord snapped in Alyona. She kept it tight within her, that anger at Lena. She could have come earlier, would have – if only she’d known. But Lena kept everything from her, even the existence of this poor, frail woman.
“I came because I’m going to help you. You won’t be alone here anymore.”
Alyona thought she should place her hand on the shivering angle of Irina Alexandrovna’s shoulder. The moment she did so, a terrible jagged rasp came from her lungs. Irina Alexandrovna staggered to her feet. Her next steps took her to the adjoining kitchenette.
Alyona followed her. Words of panic slipped from her lips. “Please – babushka – what’s wrong? Let me – let me help.”
Irina Alexandrovna’s eyes were half-moon crescents of pain. She doubled over, degraded, feeble. Almost the feeblest creature Alyona had ever seen.
In the helpless eyes of the old woman, Alyona saw the eyes of another. She had seen such pain before in her false mother Lena. Lena, staring heavy-lidded at blood spilling from her body, unalarmed but aching. Alyona hadn’t helped her. The sight of pain made her afraid.
Irina Alexandrovna was fumbling with a glass jar containing a small quantity of pills. Alyona took it from her jolting hands.
Her grandmother held up two fingers and Alyona dispensed a pair of circular tablets into her palm. The old woman’s hand quivered so violently she nearly threw the pills clear. Her motions reminiscent of a baby bird, she managed to swallow them. The image made Alyona uneasy. She inspected the pill bottle with its faded label. The text, even to one able to read Russian, was an indecipherable scramble of typewritten characters. She replaced it on a shelf beside a collection of similarly indistinguishable medications.
Irina Alexandrovna slumped onto a stool by the kitchen window. “Is this really what you want? To see an old woman live out her last days? I never wanted to become like this. There is no one left. Except you, my dear Alyonochka. You are the last I have in the world.”
To her own amazement, Alyona reached out again to the old woman. Touch – initiated of her own volition – a rare and unimaginable thing in her former life. She clasped her grandmother’s hand, the fingers gnarled as knots in an ancient tree branch.
In English Alyona told her: “It’s my duty to look after you. You asked Lena for me. All these years, I did not come, because she never told me. I’m here now.”
There was no way Irina Alexandrovna could have understood, but she smiled again, faintly, knowingly. “You have a lovely voice, my kind girl. But I like it better in Russian.”
Alyona sat in the bedroom she would now call her own. She studied its sparse furnishings: the bare wooden desk, the chipboard drawer in cherry veneer, the upholstered chair curdling foam at its seams. She listened to Irina Alexandrovna pottering in the kitchen down the hallway. The clink of plates and cutlery pierced the walls.
Grateful for a moment of reprieve, no longer watched or waited on, she mapped out the apartment in her mind. None of it appeared through familiarity.
A steel door shut away both the stairway and the outside world. A storage alcove for coats and shoes made up the entryway immediately within the flat. Following the entry, the sitting room with its sunken sofa and mutilated books. The doors to two bedrooms, Irina Alexandrovna’s and Alyona’s, framed either side of the lounge. Then there was the kitchen, almost too small for both grandmother and granddaughter to stand within together, and a bathroom dominated by a freestanding tub veined with rust.
No room spoke to Alyona’s memory. She had been there before, according to Lena’s retelling, for a short time in her childhood after her injury. The thought of it made her place a fingertip to the fibrous tissue at her collarbone, as though the scar might make her remember.
The fingers of her other hand pinched the zipper tongue of her unopened suitcase.
Lena warned Alyona she would only find pain and loss in Russia. Alyona refused to trust her: the woman who kept the truth out of reach. In Sydney, as Alyona peeled away layers of fabrication, milling through forged birth certificates and paperwork bonded in red tape, the name of an elderly woman remained. Irina Alexandrovna Stepanova remained. Some of those documents identifying her grandmother’s address remained buried in her luggage, but Alyona could not reveal them. Fragments of a foreign life cluttered the rest – clothes, planning documents, the practical miscellanea of a former Alyona who did not belong here.
Emerging Writers Festival 2020
At the 2020 Emerging Writers’ Festival, our special projects editor, Jo Langdon edited emerging author, Dani Netherclift’s prose poem, a reflection on life in the pandemic, “Haunted Autumn E/merge, is an exploratory video performance of Dani’s work and other featured writers, produced by Pip Gryllis from the Emerging Writer’s Festival.
Varuna Mascara Fellowship
We were delighted to partner with Varuna in 2019 for a Varuna Mascara Western Sydney Writers Fellowship which offered a one week, all expenses paid residency at Varuna, a publishing consultancy worth $800 & and a manuscript appraisal with Giramondo Press. This is an innovative and prestigious opportunity for a Western Sydney Writer currently working on a poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction manuscript.
We would like to congratulate all the shortlisted writers; the manuscripts were of an excellent standard. As judges we considered quality and originality of writing. Our thanks to Varuna, the Writer’s House and Create NSW for this opportunity for Mascara to support excellent writing.
Jessie Tu “Field Notes on Language and Voicelessness”
Adele Dumont “Elsewhere”
Dave Drayton “The Poetranslator”
Shannon Anima “The Running Game”
Jessica Seaborn “Tommy Brewer”
Karina Ko lives in Sydney where she graduated in Law and in Arts. Her parents came from Hong Kong. She is working on a collection of short stories.
Judges Comments: We were impressed with Karina Ko’s original voice, tackling awkward, often political topics like class, ethnicity and queerness with a surreal and surprising imagination.
Sahib Nazari is a writer of Hazara descent from Afghanistan. He studied creative writing and literature at Griffith University. Other than his mother language Hazaragi, and adopted language English, Sahib is also literate in Dari/Fiarsi and Urdu.
He lived in Pakistan for a few years before moving to Australia in 2005. Sahib voices his words in the form of short-fiction and poetry. He was the runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing in 2020. His other stories have been published in Meridian – The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, Bengaluru Review, TEXT Journal, and Talent Implied – New Writing from Griffith University in 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Tall Darren was twice my height and as hilarious. A true-blue Aussie and the most down to earth person I knew since beginning work on the slaughter-floor. He was so tall that calling him just Darren was enough, but the nickname told him apart from five other Darrens employed in the abattoir. When I first met him, I thought his first name was ‘Tall.’
‘Oi, fucking smoko, mate,’ Tall Darren yelled into my earplugs.. Everyone wore earplugs or earmuff radio headsets like the ones nested around Tall Darren’s neck. Alarmed and oblivious, I ran for the nearest exit, but in the packed washroom I realised he meant something different.
I entered the mess room.
‘Oi, smoko means break not fucking fire,’ Darren announced, and the other butchers joined him in laughter. That’s how Tall Darren and I became friends. He helped me learn Aussie slang like fair dinkum, what it means to chuck a sickie and say fuck for no reason at all.
‘Keep your fuckin’ knives sharp and your fuckin’ eyes open. That’s half of your fucking job done mate.’ His face glowed red, bending over and grinding his blade against a whetstone.
‘But why would I say fuck for no reason at all?’
He straightened his back and took a deep breath. ‘O for fuck sake mate.’
Sleeping mask still on, Mr. Bean drops the ringing alarm clock in a glass of water. Mom laughs which she scarcely did since coming to Australia. With no literacy in English or any other languages, she struggled inside and outside the house. But laughter does not transcend literacy. If it were not a universal language, Rowan Atkinson would need Hazaragi, my mother language, to make Mom laugh. I watch her enjoy the moment, wondering how many Mr. Beans are in the world bringing laughter without talking. I’d seen many who made people cry. Moments later Mr-funny-Bean changes clothes while steering a car with his feet. Mom laughs again and I’m ready to go to work with her smile in my mind.
When I met Kathy three months ago, she was brunette, blond and back again. Today, a pink fringe flirted with her shoulder length brunette hair like Nelly Furtado in Promiscuous. Half the Dubbo girls wanted to be Nelly, copying her dresses and dance moves. like her. We bought beers and walked up to smoke on the balcony of the Amaroo Hotel – the only spot I liked in the place. Kathy dressed promiscuous as always, but she never played me, never pushed an impression. To hide her heartbeats, she downed half her beer in one go. I could barely drink beer, so as always, I topped her schooner. Her glass was always half empty. When it came to drinking, Kathy could skull a barrel of beer in a night. But alcohol didn’t’ explain her loud, silly and aggressive attitude. She was a mess ever since some kids strangled her staffy when she was fourteen. The girl responsible spent a year in a Sydney hospital with multiple fractures to both legs. It took physicians and physios around twelve months to repair the damage. Kathy had repeatedly smashed her with a cricket bat.
‘Hey Matty,’ Kathy called out as Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty was ripping up the roof. But the music was too damn loud, and the guy didn’t hear anything as he disappeared in the crowd.
‘Matt’s an old mate, I took his virginity in high school.’ She took a puff and blew the smoke to blur up the scene.
‘I thought you didn’t make it to high school,’ I said, eyes fixed, as if talking to my cigarette.
‘Nor did he.’
‘I didn’t either.’
‘You fucking smart ass. Are you still a virgin?’ Dark brown skin wrinkled her forehead.
Tryin’ ta catch me riding dirty bounced off my brain. I blushed. ‘Despite the fact that most Afghan men think with their dicks, yes. I am.’
My first ever job was a real bloody killer. Routine, afternoon shifts, starting midday. Finishing before mid-night meant I missed more sunrises and sunsets in my five years in Dubbo than the eighteen years preceding. I could only cuddle sunlight over the weekends. It was all the same inside the slaughterhouse: meat, blood and shit. Eight-hour shifts with thousands of blood-dripping carcasses hanging upside down, running on a chain one after the other. Seeing animals getting slaughtered was less traumatic a transition compared to seeing people getting butchered in the streets because, as an Afghan, I’d seen enough humans spilling human blood that those blood-dripping, headless carcasses couldn’t disrupt my nightmares.
I bought The Alchemist with my first ever pay from the abattoir job. With no skills and next to nothing schooling qualifications, joining the slaughterhouse was the only choice in an outback town like Dubbo. We weren’t fair dinkum Aussies. Not entitled to government benefits so, like Dad and my two older siblings, I worked to support the family. But deep down I knew it wasn’t for me. This was not the dream.
Tall Darren, skinning knife in right hand, steel in left, pointed in the direction of a round and bouncy bloke who looked like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. ‘Here comes short Darren.’
Walking in holding a can of sugar water in one hand, knife kit in the other, Short Darren greeted us with a ‘fuck off.’ His uniform soaked in sweat. His breaths outpacing his body by the time he settled around the table.
‘His nickname is Human Balloon.’ Tall Darren stroked his knife on the smooth steel.
‘Oi fuck you, Lizard of Oz,’ Short Darren scowled. His rotund face turned pink behind rounded spectacles. ‘My nickname is fat boner. You want some?’
Tall Darren ignored him. ‘And that’s Victoria’s Secret,’ he said, pointing with his knife towards a handsome bloke with a Ned Kelly kind of bush beard who waved his hand from across the table. ‘He’s obsessed with girls named Victoria.’
‘Or beer,’ Short Darren shouted.
‘That’s one piss of a fucking beer mate.’ Tall Darren adjusted his hair net, preparing for the day.
The bush bearded bloke smiled and silently raised his middle finger.
Short Darren asked where Blunt Fuck was. Tall Darren said he was off for the day.
‘You mean off or chuck a sickie off?’ I tested myself.
‘Finally, someone from Afghanistan who’s not a sheep shagger,’ Darren cracked.
‘Is that his nickname?’ Short Darren fired, pointing at me with his sausage fingers.
Darren said, ‘Na, he’s our fucking Baba. Ay Baba?’ He was laughing his lungs out. Only the two of us knew the joke. Short Darren sipped his sugar water, while Victoria’s Secret bushranger ran his blade along one forearm to check if it was sharp enough to shear a sheep.
Tall Darren called me Baba because one day on the floor when the lairage was waiting refill. He asked if I knew any songs I could sing. I started baa baa black sheep except I rhymed, baa baa white sheep have you any wool. No sir, no sir, fuck off you fool. Darren instantly gathered other butchers around to listen. He pointed out that it’s actually baa baa black sheep, not white sheep. But I kept to my version because, I told Darren, we are the black sheep in this case. He started calling me Baba. I explained, in Afghan language and some others between south Asia and the Balkan region, baba means father. He chuckled like a child about to say something cheeky. ‘You mean father, or daddy?’
In a park’s playground, three kids hold a skinny brown girl by the arms. A skinny freckle-faced teenage girl and a fat boy in crew-cut hair are pulling a strap wrapped around an aging staffy’s neck. Bleeding, huffing, dry tongued, lying on its side, the dog tries to bark but there’s no hiss, or sound. Saliva form bubbles. Helpless, the staffy’s eyes pop in and out with each breath. Its legs start trembling, ears vibrate, then the tail stops wiggling. The heart stops pumping air. It finds peace. Breathless but peaceful. Tears run rivers from the brown girl’s eyes; and perhaps revenge too. Then a blackout.
I bet Mom would have been a bright storyteller, had she been educated. Would she have become a teacher, a writer or an alchemist, I often wondered. Once I asked how she felt about illiteracy. She replied, ‘You cannot lose something you never had. I’d feel sorry if I were the only woman in Afghanistan but it’s the whole country.’
Kathy’s uncle often poked his head into her room pretending to see if she was alright, offering her the first joint to smoke when she was just thirteen. Cigarettes followed; she helped herself, taking one out of the pack when her uncle was stoned. Soon enough beer became the beverage of choice. One led to two, two led to trouble, and before she knew, she was smoking like a vacuum and drinking beer like a baby drinks a bottle.
At first, it was her hair. Then all the places not covered by her shirt: arms, neck and shoulders. Then whatever was left out of shorts in the hot and sweaty Dubbo summer: feet, calves, thighs. When it all started, Kathy knew what her uncle was doing but she didn’t bother and cared too little to confront him because she depended on the dope. But she noticed his hands travelled a few inches further every new day. One still-air hot day his fingers unhooked the bra from under her light blue shirt. He spilled half a can of beer down her front until her small bosoms surfaced like the sail of a submarine from a blue sea, nipples erect like radio antennae. She started cursing and punching him, smashing his head with a wooden chair, making him bleed and freaking the fuck out of him. But they always settled things down before her grandma returned home from work in the afternoons.
By that evening Kathy had come up with a plan, to play, to negotiate a term; she’d keep quiet if her uncle drove her around until the day she found Freckles.
We had another Afghan family, that also called Dubbo home, over for dinner. Mom cooked lamb curry, prepared pulao, sorted out salad with the help of my sisters. But the guests seemed reluctant to touch the food for fear that the meat might not have come from a halal shop. This furthered Mom’s frustrations; she took painkillers for her backache, for the stiffness of hour-long food preparations. Afghans can stomach anything but change. They are concerned if the meat is halal but receiving Centrelink benefits while working cash-in-hand is fine. Because God has no problem how money is made as long as meat is blessed.
‘I gave him head.’ Kathy and I were spending another drunken Sunday near the bank of Macquarie River. We often drove up to that spot out of town to get stoned so the coppers and creeps in town didn’t bother us. I was stoned. She was drunk, and stoned.
‘What?’ I said, barely able to stand straight under the sun.
‘My uncle, I gave him head to get him to drive me around to find Freckles.’
‘You are a fucking caveman, aren’t ya? I sucked off his cock.’
I felt more ancient than a caveman for not knowing giving head. Fossilized.
We drove back to town late in the afternoon. Kathy was still spilling beer on her singlet.
‘Wanna go out tonight?’
‘Yeah, I’m dying to get pissed and see you pick a fight with the girlfriends of all the guys you wanna fuck.’
‘We’ll do something different tonight, I promise.’
‘I doubt that.’
She lit a cigarette. ‘You want to fuck me. Isn’t that what you want?’
I pulled the car up behind Amaroo Hotel. ‘Kaths, I just want to know where we stand and where we’re going. I mean when will we stop this get-stoned-get-drunk-as-fuck-catch-up game?’
She squashes the container spilling beer all over. ‘Just fucking drive, will ya?’ she snapped.
‘No. You’re drunk and you’ve no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Let’s go home and talk about it some other day. I need time to think things over.’
A police car slowed down to check on us as it drove by. Kathy dropped her beer-can under her feet. She picked up her bag, and out she jumped, walking towards Amaroo. The coppers didn’t stop, nor did Kathy. I pressed on the gas thinking that sometimes it’s better to remain a caveman on purpose.
Mom’s backache, the symptoms of slaving away as an Afghan housewife all her life, was worsening every day. As if raising seven children wasn’t hard enough, now she was slaving away all over again in Australia. Afghan men don’t change. They only like the idea of change.
Cables rustled about the rusty poles of swings; seats were missing. Birds sang, trees hissed in the hot windy afternoon. In a distance, a girl with freckles and a fat boy with a crew-cut kept hammering something against the solid surface of a basketball court. They took turns smashing it on the ground. Then the fat boy stood up, swung his arm skywards, and it came down, hitting the concrete with a thud. They’d cracked the shell: It was a tortoise.
A moment later, a skinny brown girl is standing over their heads holding a cricket bat firmly in her both hands. She swings the bat without a warning hitting the freckled girl mildly in the forehead as she ducked right in time colliding with the fat boy in turn. The boy makes a run for it but the girl can’t. Slightly concussed, she covers her head and screams. The brown girl made another swing aimed at her legs. She keeps coming harder and faster, with all her vigor and vengeance until cries of the freckled girl overcome the singing birds. Trees hiss. Rusty cables wring about as the brown girl walked away in silence, and tears.
The butchers were sweating and swearing outside the mess-room. Inside, a grave silence creeped all over when I walked in. Blunt Fuck was dead. He’d lost it in a head-on collision with a truck on a November morning. He’d been doing double-shift to save up for the Christmas break. Tall Darren said he owed the bastard a meat pie. His tears wouldn’t stop. That was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.
Autumns were the most surreal spell in Dubbo, when trees said goodbye to leaves, one by one, coloring the streets in red, brown and yellow. Mom walked up and down Macquarie Street, taking photos of the fallen leaves, the naked trees, as she strolled in the cooling breeze. The clown without a mask, Mr. Bean, still cracked her up like cartoons crack up kids. She found peace in her solitude as the communication gap remained hugely unfulfilled. Only Rowan Atkinson filled that void. But she smiled more often since joining TAFE to learn the English language, attending three days a week. She made new friends too because, like laughter, food doesn’t need a language to bring people closer. Food fathoms solidarity just as laughter apprehends love. Like the autumnal trees, Mom too understood that she must let go the timeworn leaves to welcome the new ones.
In my loneliness, I found peace. In my peace, though, there was no loneliness; only a dream. Whenever knives were at work, I told myself that one day, the butchery will be behind me. Whenever silence ruled, I dreamed that one day my dream will realise me because fate didn’t bring me to Australia just to butcher, drink beer, eat kebabs and die. And that sooner or later I’ll hang up my slaughter-gloves, swap whetstone with
One weekend, under the spell of a red and orange outback sunset, I texted Kathy.
‘Virgin no more.’ I pressed send.
‘Let’s catch up,’ her text popped up.
Instead of a textual argument on the old Nokia headset, playing with buttons, I thought it’d be better to fight face to face. Half an hour later, as she got into my car, I tried to kiss her on the cheek.
‘No!’ She eye-balled me and backed away. ‘You slept with a chick.’ She was loud. ‘You’re a fucking cheat.’
‘What the fuck Kathy. Take it easy. We’re not together. We haven’t even kissed despite knowing each other for months.’
‘Fuck you.’ She threw a punch at me.
I caught her fist with both hands. ‘Are you fucking serious? Because from where I see things, it doesn’t look like we’d ever sleep together even if we were the last two people on earth.’
‘If I don’t sleep with you, doesn’t mean I don’t care for you.’ She plucked a cigarette from the pack.
‘If you don’t sleep with me but care for me then you should be happy that I got laid.’
She put out the flame on the lighter. ‘Who’s she? Do I know her?’
‘You’re not making much sense Kathy. You don’t want me, but you also don’t want to see me with another chick. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any virgins waiting for me in the afterlife if I drop dead today. So we must draw a line somewhere. I know that what happened to you, and to your dog, was wrong but you gotta give yourself another chance. You must move on.’
‘It’s not that easy.’ She blew smoke on my face.
I rolled down the window. ‘Maybe. But you can’t just take a friend hostage.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m moving on.’
‘Fuck you.’ She took her purse, cigarette pack, and jumped out of my car. ‘Go fuck yourself.’ She slammed the door shut.
From then on, we travelled back in time to become the strangers we still are today.
Anith Mukherjee is an artist based in Sydney. He has a brief publication history.
He is currently studying film at AFTRS. Anith is the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize Winner.
I am full of love
Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing.
– James Baldwin
You wanted to fight for a cause
Then go out and love someone
-Gang Of Youths
On the tram to film school I feel sick from my morning medication. The tram stops and I walk off, Nick Cave songs playing through my headphones. Inside a public toilet I vomit, cough and spit. Kneeling on the cracked tiles I wipe my face with toilet paper. Nick Cave sings in my head, ‘if you’re in Hell what can I say, you probably deserve it anyway.’ Everything is prophecy, signs and symbols. There is no mirror above the sink where I wash my face and I wonder whether my eyes are red. On campus I buy a coffee and sit down. Ryan tells me the morning’s lecture is on Italian Neorealism. Sitting in the lecture theatre, watching clips from La Notte, I fall asleep. Ryan wakes me when the lecture is finished and we walk outside. Indira and Jackie are smoking on the lawn. Jackie offers me a cigarette and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say. Indira asks me what we should make as a documentary for this semester. Let’s do something on brown diaspora, she suggests. I shrug and say I don’t want to make something about being brown just because I’m brown. It’s all they expect of us, I continue, why can’t I make a film about love or trout fishing? Indira laughs. They eat that shit up, she says, besides what do you know about love or trout fishing.
In class Ava shows me her latest short story. I’m thinking of leaving my boyfriend, she says. Good, I reply, then you can date me. Ava rolls her eyes. You wish, she says. The tutor discusses the male gaze in cinema and an argument between Felix and Melissa ensues. Ava shows me another piece of writing. What do you think, she asks. It’s too sad, I reply. Ava scowls and says, fuck I don’t want to only make people sad. My doctor put me on Lexapro, she says idly, I think it’s making me confused. She looks at me and asks what meds I take. Atypical antipsychotics, I say. Sounds intense, she replies. After class Ava and I sit outside on the grass. She lies on her back and closes her eyes. The sun shimmers across her face and causes little specks of glitter under her eyes to sparkle. I lie next to her and look up at the sky. What do you see when you look at the clouds, I ask. Ava opens her eyes. Ice cream, she says.
In the evening I walk to the train station. The sunset sky is pink and blue and orange. The daily procession of fruit bats streak across the horizon. On the train ride home I idly consider whether I have wasted my life. Somewhere along the way it seems that I failed deeply, made some fatal error at a critical juncture. The result being my current life. What do I do now, I ask myself as the train arrives at my stop. At a local falafel joint I buy two slices of pizza and sit waiting for the bus, eating. Grease covers my fingers and above me nocturnal birds screech themselves awake. At home I lie in bed and scroll through pornography on my phone. Bored I decide to microwave my fingernails, to slice off my ear, to drown a kitten. Something has to happen, I think, before I ossify. At midnight I walk the local park track down to the river. The water is still and calm and black. Lying on the soil with my jumper folded beneath my head I fall asleep. In my dream I am a lizard king, I am a rat spider, I am a junkie priest. In the early morning I walk home to visions of a Holy War – chariots and lighting and swords on fire. At home I quickly swallow my meds and brew a coffee. In the yard outside I close my eyes under the sun. Gary walks out and lights a cigarette. He gestures to me and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say.
Patti sits up in my bed and runs a hand through her neon green hair. I take lots of medication, I say. I have a lot of needs, she replies, I’m too horny for this shit. Do you love me, I ask. Don’t ask me that, she says, not now. I stare at my soft brown cock, all limp and lifeless. What kind of man am I, I think. Fuck it, I was never any kind of man at all. I could stop taking my meds, I suggest. Patti shakes her head. I don’t want you to do that, she says, don’t put me in that position. We sit in bed for a while, silent and tense. Patti exhales deeply. I’m going to take a bath, she says finally. The phrase ‘emotionally avoidant’ passes through my head. I search to remember where the phrase comes from. Something I must have read. I read too much, I think, all those useless books.
When I was younger all I wanted was sex. Then everything became about art. Now all I think about is money. I hope Patti doesn’t use up all the hot water, I think to myself. I hope she doesn’t notice that half the light sockets are empty. Some time later Patti walks back into the room, wrapped in a towel. She sits on the edge of the bed and smiles. Baths are so consciousness cleansing, she says. What do you want to do today, Patti asks. I shrug. How about checking out the Gauguin exhibition in the city, she suggests. Wasn’t he some kind of racist, I ask. Patti shrugs. Probably, she says, they all were back then.
We sit in the gallery cafe, each sipping black coffee. When did we stop having conversations, Patti says, when we first met we would have these long sprawling conversations. She watches the strangers in the cafe for a moment, then looks me in the eye. Her eyes are speckled and blue and for a brief moment I am filled with regret. We were getting to know each other, I reply, our brains were fuelled by novelty. Patti furrows her brow. I don’t accept that, she says. Talk to me about something, she says, what’s been on your mind? I shrug and look around. I’m worried I’ll never have any money, I say, I’m worried I’ll never learn how to survive. Patti smiles and twirls a strand of green hair around her index finger. You, me and the rest of us, she says half sarcastically. La génération condamnée, Patti says, Hemingway would be proud.
The gallery is mostly empty and Patti stops to study a self portrait of Gauguin. I look into his hollow oil eyes – deranged and syphilitic and anaesthetised. He went all the way, I think. We stand next to each other, staring at D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. He was beautiful, Patti sighs. He was sick, I reply. He went all the way, I think again, to paint like this you have to relinquish your claim to reality. I feel fear and repulsion and admiration. What is it to be a person with no place, no future, no desire? How do I exit this game, I think, when do I get to wake up.
Inside Patti’s apartment spins a vinyl of Bitches Brew. Patti pours two glasses of red wine and sits next to me on the couch. It’s true, I think, our relationship used to be hyper intellectualised. She’s disappointed in me and I am bored of her. Inertia keeps us connected. This pattern repeats itself endlessly. Somewhere along the way I confused lust for love. Somewhere along the way I forgot to become a person. Patti stands up and begins to dance as Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays from her vintage Hi-Fi. She sways side to side in the middle of the room, her moonlight skin scattered with rainbow tattoos. It occurs to me that I have no love for her. Love is the missing link between myself and life, I think, a link I have no idea how to repair.
Patti’s naked body presses against mine. I hold her in bed and she is warm underneath the soft cotton blanket. Gently she kisses me on the cheek. You don’t know how to love someone, she whispers into my ear, you don’t know what it means to love. In the morning I put on my clothes and leave the apartment while Patti sleeps. Outside the air is clean and cold. The streets are not yet busy and I walk around until I find a cafe. I try to buy a coffee but my card is rejected. To hell with everything, I think. My phone buzzes with a call from Patti but I don’t pick up. Instead I catch a bus back to my place.
My whole life is a fucking mess, Ava says without affect, I have zero idea how to function in the world. She plays with her hair and sighs. Why can’t you just do nothing with your life, she says, I don’t want to have to do things. Ava and I sit in the school’s foyer, skipping screenwriting class. Marry me, I reply, we’ll move to Paris and write dysfunctional novels. Ava rolls her eyes. You have no money to fly to Paris, she argues back, besides the French are annoying.
After class Ava and I walk to the bar. We both order the house red wine and sit outside, watching the construction of a circus in the field nearby. By evening we are tipsy and when Ava looks at me I feel compelled to hold her and kiss her. Her lips are soft and her spit tastes like cheap wine and cheap tobacco. She places a small hand on my arm and for a moment I feel overwhelmingly lonely. I pull away and Ava smiles slightly before closing her eyes and rubbing her nose. I’m still with Jack, she says, you know that. Jack sucks, I reply, you only stay together because you’re both too afraid to break up with the other. It’s the same between me and Patti, I continue, this way we both have an excuse.
In my room I lie in bed while Ava undresses. She lies next to me and reaches between my legs. With Ava there is no issue and we fuck until our bodies are tired and sore and sweaty. Afterwards Ava wraps her arms around mine and rests her head on my chest. Now we’re both free, she says.
In the morning Ava is gone and I wake up alone. On the pillow next to mine is a handwritten note: ‘Forget last night. I am happy with Jack.’ Above me I notice a dark, damp spot growing on the ceiling. I crumple the note and throw it across the room in the vague direction of my waste basket. It’s 8:30 AM and class starts in an hour. Fuck it, I think, I’d rather do anything else today. But what, I ask myself, what is worth doing? An entire world, a whole life, given to me for nothing -and I have zero interest in any of it. It all adds up to nothing. Samantha ran away to help the environment and faced the evil of fossil fuel capital until she collapsed exhausted, Jesse smoked weed for a hundred years and melted back into the Earth, Rachel lost interest in music and slit her wrists live on 4Chan, Jackson became a lawyer and jumped off his penthouse balcony, Mandy wrote poetry that no one read and cried silently into to the neutral eyes of her twelve rescue cats, Priya joined a hippie cult in the mountains and renounced money for sex, Ashwin stuck a silver needle in his veins and thought he was Coltrane, my father ripped out his own catheter dying from a brain tumour in hospice and blood spurted out his great brown cock enough to drown even his own screams. And here I lie, feeling nothing.
In the bathroom I unwrap an Astra Platinum razor blade. Gently and without malice I run it across the palm of my hand. The lack of pain surprises me. Thin streaks of blood flow down my arm as I hold it up to the light. Good, I think, I still bleed and I am still free. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the power of my own freedom. Anything can happen now, there are no limits, no boundaries. I exist in a timeless, spaceless vacuum. Today is only another day.
All I want to do is eat shit food and watch pornography and sleep, I tell Sun, why is there no space in culture for my aimlessness? Sun scratches his scraggly black beard. He says nothing, opens his rainbow cloth backpack and reaches inside. He takes out a small brown paper bag and hands it to me. Tonight, he says, if you are ready to leave Hell. At night I pour the contents of the paper bag onto my desk. A handful of dried psilocybin mushrooms fall out. Intense waves of anxiety and anticipation pass through me. Fuck it, I tell myself as I scoop up the dried mushrooms and swallow them in one motion.
I lie naked on the grass in my small backyard and everything feels inevitable. I ruined my life, I think, I wasted it with banal malaise. So begin now, a soft voice replies. I’m a bad person, I think. No, the voice replies, you’re flawed like everyone. I use women, I think, I treat women like shit. So change, the voice replies. No one has ever loved me, I think. Then love first, the voice replies. I am so afraid, I think. That is OK, the voice replies. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel sickly, broken, exhausted, alienated, bored, self-loathing, hateful, lustful, impotent, enraged, transient. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel mirthful, funny, entertained, calm, hungry, warm, healing, motivated, interesting, peaceful, connected, eternal. In this moment I am very young. Violet petals stream through the parted clouds and morph into butterflies – fluttering and free and graceful. With little kisses they relinquish me of the poison in my blood. My lilac skin soft and blossoming. Seized by instinct I run to the bathroom and vomit in the toilet. Blue and purple bile leaks from my gut – little maggots writhing in the liquid. Help me, I cry, please forgive me. I was never supposed to come here, I was never supposed to fall this far. All I ever wanted was a real love, an undying love that would absolve me of this pain and guilt and waste and failure and regret. Great sunflowers bloom from my fingers, my eyes, my chest. Everything is golden and shimmering. Pink tears ooze down my glowing face and when I look into the mirror I am alive.
The morning sun rises as I sit outside, holding a blanket and a jug of fresh orange juice. My neighbour walks outside and unlocks her car. Good morning, she says with a smile, you’re up early. Three years I’ve lived here, I think, and I’ve never noticed my own neighbour, never knew she existed, never even said hello. Good morning, I reply.