Rebecca Allen reviews Stories of Sydney Ed Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Ed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by REBECCA ALLEN
Soaring white-tiled sails curve up into the cloudless sky. Below, foamy tails of boats criss-cross that famous stretch of liquid blue. Waves glitter in the summer sun. A post-card city.
Sydney shows off the same made-up face in thousands of glossy snapshots sold down at Circular Quay. Though irrefutably beautiful, there’s no denying this iconic image we so love to promote is, in fact, a fundamentally two-dimensional representation of a much more complex, multi-faceted reality.
The anthology Stories of Sydney, (2014), turns away from such stereotypes in favour of a more diverse – and authentic – representation of our city. A collaboration between Seizure and SWEATSHOP, two dynamic, community-minded literary platforms, the collection brings together a culturally varied group of fifteen published and emerging writers. The ratio of five writers from inner Sydney to ten from the Western suburbs was deliberately chosen to better represent the geographical spread of the city, and lend a voice to writers from migrant backgrounds. As a consequence, Stories of Sydney offers a refreshingly contemporary perspective of the chaotic sprawl that this cosmopolitan metropolis has become.
The anthology opens with Sanaz Fatouhi’s “Ceydny”, the moving story of two Iranians who meet by chance at Campsie Woolworths in Sydney’s west. While the narrator has lived there for fifteen years, Ceydny the refugee has only recently fled persecution in Tehran, seeking, without success, a romanticised Sydney where “‘I would wake up everyday and see the Opera House’” (9). The poverty and isolation he meets, however, convinces him that this is far from “‘the city of my dreams’” and it is this sense of deep disillusionment and displacement that leads him to determine that Sydney is a “‘place where I have to construct myself’” (9). He thus adopts the name Ceydny, a deliberate misspelling which conveys the way in which his sense of self is defined by a rejection of the glamourised Sydney and shaped, instead, by the personal reality of his new life in Campsie: “‘Sydney with an S with its perfection is not my city. Ceydny, the way I write it, is the city I live in’” (9).
The fourteen stories that follow echo this idea, making Fatouhi’s story the ideal opening piece. The concept of the intersection between the self and the city, identity and place, is explored in all the texts, albeit through different thematic lenses. For example, experiences of growing up in Sydney are examined in the childhood snapshots of George Toseki’s “The Primary Years” as well as Sophia Barnes’ “Fellow Travellers”, while Sunil Badami questions what it means to be a middle-aged Sydneysider in “Swings and Roundabouts”. Differently, passing time and the role of memory in our relationship with the city is the focus of both Benny Davis’ “Two Wheels” and P. M. Newton’s “Aqua”. The importance of family as well as cultural ties and obligations also features at the centre of many of the stories – in “The 25th Paragon of Filial Piety” by Amanda Yeo and “Chrysoula” by Susie Ahmad, to name but two. Sexuality, gender, class and disability appear as other key concerns, while realism – often of the grittier variety – dominates as the overarching stylistic choice, lending unity to the anthology as a whole.
On second reading, certain pieces stand out as particular highlights.
In “Chrysoula”, Ahmad represents the clash between cultures in Sydney’s suburbs to comedic effect. The Muslim Lebanese narrator is nagged by her Greek Orthodox beautician Chrysoula about getting married: “‘Settle down,’ is what I would like to say, but then that’s exactly what people want me to do, because I’m such a wild Lebo who travels to New York and wears vintage clothing and prefers a burrito to a falafel” (103). The short story parodies cultural stereotypes, particularly through Chrysoula’s grand generalisations as she advises against marrying a Muslim: “‘They won’t let you eat bacon…’ I hear her take a big breath, like that would be a deal breaker for her” (109). While the narrator feels compelled to yell, “‘Pigs eat their own shit’”, in defence of her culture’s conventions, she can’t help but project her own assumptions on to Chrysoula’s community in turn, reflecting on how if she was to marry a Greek, “I would rather a Greek from Earlwood. Greeks in Earlwood are taller, speak better English, don’t wear G-Star jeans and go to Newtown Church” (106). The story also underlines the conflicting identities within the Muslim community, as the narrator is careful to differentiate herself from Dima, a fellow TAFE student and “your typical ‘Look at me, I’m a real Muslim because I wear a hijab’ girl from Bankstown” (108). The narrator is, instead, an Alawite Muslim from Marrickville: “We don’t wear the hijab and we don’t have fancy mosques that take up the whole street. Some of us like to drink champagne at weddings and take Johnny Walker for a belly dance… I think Dima is in training to become one of the seventy two virgins” (108-9). Beneath the humorous overtones we see a Sydney that is chaotically multicultural yet curiously fractured, with neighbourhoods typecast as cultural subdivisions and a narrator who fiercely defines her sense of self not only by religion and culture, but also by a circumscribed geographical location.
In “More Handsome than a Monkey”, Peter Polites gives us a much more sombre perspective on Sydney – his modern noir piece exposing the city’s underbelly of drug-fuelled corruption through a distinctive, clipped narratorial voice. Polites’ Sydney is claustrophobic, the narrator having only just kicked his drug addiction and “Moved out of the single-brick and fibro shack of my parents’ and into some shoddily built high-density apartment” amid “canyons of flats” (142, 148). He passes his “short and shitty” days in “purgatory”, working at the local bowls club where “Viet launderers rode us … Black moula went through slots and transgressions went over shoulders” (142, 143). Suspended in a monotonous in-between space, his life becomes a routine of “Getting home late. Sleeping in late. Waking washing ironing work” (157). As a consequence, when a new face appears at the bar he becomes smitten, attracted to “Nice Arms Pete” by the alternate world he symbolises: “A wheat-fed kid I could see swimming in billabongs near a farmhouse. Sandy hair, skin smooth but slightly sun-aged. You could see clean living on him” (144). As the narrator’s feelings grow, so Pete’s interest in him wanes, and it isn’t until he travels to Orange to visit Pete’s hometown that his heartbreak takes effect. Beneath the “Vistas of green” and “Quarter-acre blocks and red roofs”, he realises there is the same “old racket” going on; that, in effect, the countryside is as equally tainted as the city: “Import the labour. Get a cut from the farmers looking for cheap workers. Dealers kept contact. Selling the farm workers drugs. A bloke married to a nurse mumbled about overdose spikes” (159, 158). Polites frames the narrative with a sense of self-searching. In the opening lines the narrator reflects that, from his mother’s point of view, “I was her thirty-three-year-old that moved out of home… A substitute for the love of her husband, someone to cook for, clean for and complain about,” while at the story’s conclusion he realises that “To Nice Arms Pete I was trade with lamb eyes and something to pass the time. His beer stooge, occasional root and sometimes driver” (141, 159). The narrator is left bereft, having found no connection to country or city, and, lacking any clear sense of his own self, he slips back into a drug-induced haze.
Reading Newton’s “Aqua”, we find a totally different representation of Sydney – one that anchors the city within the historically framed debate surrounding the Vietnam War. Sophia, the story’s narrator, is deeply attached to North Sydney Olympic pool through the memories it triggers of a happy, unified family before the death of her teenage brother in Vietnam. Revisiting the pool for aquarobics classes, she finds Luna Park’s “round-eyed stare fringed in thick black plastic lashes” is “a taunting reminder” of happier times (195). With a child’s tone of wonderment, she remembers night-time swimming carnivals there, the “ferries and trawlers lit up like houses… the city lights twinkl[ing] like every Christmas tree I could ever imagine” and carefree summers spent “Dog paddling across [the pool], bumping into Mum’s thighs… clinging to Dad’s back, watching Johno dropping straight as a bullet’s flight from the very top platform of the diving board” (190, 196). Nostalgic reminiscence of these pre-war holidays is contrasted to memories of later summers, spent at an altogether different location: the Marrickville army depot. As the arguments increase between a mother who wants to “Save our Sons” and a father who encourages his own son to enlist, Sophia finds “The army depot in Marrickville becomes a regular destination” for protests (202). Her mother takes her and their placards “to stand silent in the sun as parents give their sons up to the army with varying degrees of pride and fear” (203). The fracturing of her family’s collective identity mirrors the socio-political breakdown of the times, underscored by the tragic death of her brother in Phuoc Tuy province. Although haunted by the image of his drowning, (“the last thing his mates see is his gun, his fingers still wrapped around it before they both disappear”), Sophia’s visit to North Sydney Olympic also recalls those summers Johno spent diving from the tower. The images of drowning and diving coming together as an interesting parallel; one horribly inescapable; the other marked by a sense of agency, of fun (208). As the title suggests, water plays a major role in the narrative – reflected, on a stylistic level, by the fluid temporal shifts between past and present: “I leave the four-year-old girl… and feel my body reframing itself from memory into the shape of me” (193-4). While the pathos of the narrator’s loss is apparent, a sense of release is also powerfully evoked as she moves her “arms in time to the Aqua teacher’s instructions, not far, not fast, just enough for the muscles and memories to loosen” (201). Revisiting the pool could thus be read as a type of catharsis – a way of reconciling her adult self to the traumas of her child self, and, perhaps, a way of ultimate acceptance.
While it must be said some stories are not as strong as others, lacking as compelling a narrative or as memorable a conclusion, Stories of Sydney is, as a whole, a unique offering that explores our contemporary city in all its diversity, aiming to bridge what the editors describe as the “the divide between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Sydney” (248). As readers, we come away with a greater sense of the ‘complete’ city, how we define ourselves as Sydneysiders and what it mean to live in Sydney today.
REBECCA ALLEN is a freelance editor living in Sydney, with an Honours degree in French language and literature. Her writing has appeared in The Australian and Honi Soit. She has edited Hermes, the Sydney University Student Union’s literary journal, interned as part of Mascara’s prose fiction editorial team and continues to volunteer for Contrappasso Magazine, a journal for international writing.