Belle Ling is a university graduate from the University of Hong Kong, and later she has completed a Master of Creative Writing in the University of Sydney. She has a special interest in writing poetry. Her favourite novelist is Haruki Murakami, and her beloved poems are those which can capture insightful images with in-depth philosophical meanings.
A Good Morning in the Crowded Train
Upon the window of the shuffled train, the sunlight eyes are churned white.
Eyes closed, heads grinding in circle, heels tap balance, disturbed by an awkward
halt—then resume their momentum as the train reels, as if smoothing all the angular
shoulders until they are as round as the river-washed pebbles—any uncertain frictions among
shirts, any unnoticed nudges, any sharp pokes of noses are harmonized
in the hypnotic back-and-forth of our heads and our heels. No ruins, no cries, no
surprises intrude when the space between one another is tied by the repetitive
rhythm. Sweat behind my ear, nearly tiptoes onto his shoulder—drops and is swept
by an unbuckled cuff, air-probing, of an unknown face—my vertebrae are chained,
his half-zipped fly slides over my thigh—fingers collide, chime—exchanging unborn rhymes.
His yawn—sour milk and leftover tuna—unsettles my dream of a Sultan’s perfumed verandah.
My forehead, rimmed by his chin, begs his collarbones globe
as a soft-fat pillow, as willows sway across the window—that gradually-eased hiss,
that deep ebb, zips our long-missed dreams rolling in our laces and fabrics. In-depth,
severely-pressed—his shoelaces, etched into my soles, don’t tussle. My jade-rabbit
pendant, that vivid verdant, is unconsciously-locked in his creamy collar,
as a green bean-sprout entwined in cotton. The wheels keep tracking the rail left-and-right, my
eyes trail his ribs, that strain and slack—as aligned handrails
surface and vanish, hardly held. Hot air curls my eyelashes, flicks my mind’s haze—
“Excuse me”, I say. “I’m sorry,” he beams. The door closes—
hard as husk—I look at the train until it’s reduced into a dark dot in the dense green.
Dust, grit, ash,
keen sheen in lashes
your sweat appears
as a solid glow.
An eddy of rose
in your fist
draws in the winds
of all directions,
fast, firm, not fierce.
“Take it back,” I call,
I recall—petals in the winds. Rippling,
the church bells, remind me
of the air, the water, the light
and—the blue sky—all the basics
for a decent day,
for the first day
a human starts to breathe, or for—
the moment that time
is first numbered as days,
which, unfortunately, can’t outlast
the time of universe in reverse—
my undated calendar,
and your watch ridded of hands
are the most reliable.
I haven’t noticed
the tree outside—
my balcony is Jacaranda until
the sunshine determines to rinse away
the densely-vivid purple:
those blurring whites.
The strong shine on the apex
of the cross—that sharp
and cold point is hardly tamed, not even
the sisters’ buzzing lips:
regular amens can’t prop up
three trampled daisies.
“Take it back,” I call,
yes, I recall—the remains in your pocket—
ripped cloths, molten honey and several
unclassified name cards
plus a familiar scent that’s long
been forgotten, or—
long been hid
for being forgotten.
Red tea and ice, as clouds
pass over, turn dim and gleam again—
a colour, between cool and warmth,
beyond exact depictions of all kinds,
doesn’t know how to cheat:
we’re just two ordinary passers-by,
who can’t afford to lie.
ÇIǦDEM Y MIROL was born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1983. She is a writer, and even more fundamentally in her terms, a reader. Mirol is engaged in a long project entitled QUARTET, the first part of which was published under the title Myface Book (Yüzüm Kitap) in 2012. Mirol studied American and then Turkish literature at Bilkent University, completing an MA on Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, and is now working towards a doctorate on Gertrude Stein, authorship and performance at the University of Gent. Her website, which contains some of her other work, including drawings, can be accessed at www.cigdemymirol.net.
ANDREW CARRUTHERS is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. He writes on musical analogy, musical notation and militant politics in twentieth century long poems. His work has appeared in Southerly, Mascara Literary Review and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher and Wattmann).
1. Kitap, şimdi ve burada, yazarıyla ve okuruyla, sesli ya da sessiz bir performanstır. Kitaperformans çıplak, sabit ve metinsel bir vücuttur. Sabit olanda hareket imkânsızsa, imkânsızı mümkün kılmak için tuhaflaşmak ve saçmalamak gerekir. Tuhaflaşmak ve saçmalamak içinse kayda değer bir zekâ seviyesinin yanısıra üstün bir cesaret ile tuhaf ve saçma olanın farkına varmak, bu ikisinin o değişik gücünü kabul etmek gerekir. Bunları yapabilmek içinse herşeyden önce iyi bir okur olmak gerekir.
2. Okurluk evrimdir. Yazarlık devrimdir. Bu bağlamda da her bağlamda olduğu gibi evrim devrimin içindedir. Okurluk ve yazarlık özel bağlamında ise evrim arketip bir yolculuktur, devrim ise narsistik bir biçimdir. Bunların ön koşulu benliktir: Tam benlik.
3. Olmak ya da olmamak bilince endeksli bir durumdur. Bu durumsal alan, kendini kendisi dışında şu şekillerde de harekete geçirir ve olaysal alanlara dönüşür: Anlatmak ya da anlatmamak, okumak ya da okumamak, anlamak ya da anlamamak. Anlamak ya da anlamamaktan kasıt kitaperformansta keyif almak ya da keyif almamaktır. Keyif vermenin komik olmakla sınırlandırılamayacağı gibi keyif almak da gülmek ile sınırlandırılamaz.
4. Gerçekçi değil doğrucu olmak esastır. Hayâl değil kurmaca kurmak şarttır. Çünkü amaç doğrucu bir kurmaca oluşturmaktır. Bunun ne tuhaflaşmakla ne de saçmalamakla çelişmediği gün gibi ortadadır.
5. Kahramanlaşan okurun kurmacalama deneyimi, kurmacalaşan okurun kahramanlaşma deneyimine eşit olmanın yanısıra eştir de. Her iki durumda da söz konusu okur kitaperformans yazarının imkânsızı mümkün kılacak olan bilinçiçi okurudur. Bilinçiçi okurun kim olduğunu bilinçiçi okurdan başka kimse bilemez, bilmemelidir.
6. Kitaperformansta yaratıcılık öksüz bir fenomendir. Ne zaman nasıl ortaya çıkacağı kitaperformansın ne zaman nasıl harekete geçeceğinin ilk ve tek koşuludur.
7. Aşk, şimdi ve burada, okur ve yazar arasında, fâni değil metinsel bir olgudur. Bu aşk, okuma edimini yazma edimine karıştırır. Bu aşkta boşluklar hayâllerle doldurulur. Bu aşkta olumsuzluklar gizlidir. Bu aşktan sabit anlam (!) çıkarmak imkânsız bir ihtimaldir. Bu aşk birbirinden farklı biçimlerde dışavurulabilir. Bu farklılık yazarı özgünleştirmeli, okuru özgürleştirmelidir.
Sonsöz: «Kitaperformans Manifesto» 11.11.11 tarihinde yazıldı ve ilk kez Çiğdem y Mirol KUARTET’in ilk parçası olan Yüzüm Kitap’ta yayımlandı. Bknz. «Kitaperformans Manifesto», Yüzüm Kitap. Ankara: Kanguru Yayınları, Ağustos 2012. 299-300. ISBN: 9786054623112
Pre-script: When appropriate I do call “bookperformance” as “authoreader performance” or “readerauthor performance”. There are seven items of my manifesto, because I know that seven is a significant number.
1- The book, here and now, with its author and reader, either uttered or silent, is a performance. Bookperformance is a naked, fixed and textual body. If movement is impossible for a fixed body, to turn the impossible into the possible, it is necessary to attempt the weird and the absurd. In order to successfully attempt the weird and the absurd, you must possess not only a considerable intelligence but also an extraordinary courage for realizing and accepting the significant power of the weird and the absurd. To be able to do all these it is necessary to be a good reader.
2- Readership is an evolution. Authorship is a revolution. In this specific context, as is true in every context, evolution takes place within revolution. For readership and authorship, evolution is an archetypical journey whereas revolution is a narcissistic form. The prerequisite of the two is the self: the absolute self.
3- To be or not to be is a statement about consciousness. This situational field, apart from its very self, activates the following forms and turns into their corresponding action-fields: to narrate or not to narrate, to read or not to read, to understand or not to understand. In bookperformance, to understand or not to understand means to enjoy or not to enjoy. Just as giving pleasure cannot be limited to being funny, joy cannot be limited to laughter.
4- To be realistic is a matter of choice, but to be truthful is essential. To imagine is a matter of preference but to fictionalize is an obligation. Because the objective is to create a truthful fiction. This guideline does not at all oppose the attempt at the weird and the absurd.
5- The protagonized reader’s experience of fictionalization not only corresponds to the fictionalized reader’s experience of protagonization, but is even its equivalent. In both cases, the reader is the intra-conscious reader of the bookperformance author, who can turn the impossible into the possible. No one except the intra-conscious reader could (or should) recognize who the intra-conscious reader is.
6- Creativity is an orphaned phenomenon in bookperformance. How and when it occurs determines the first and the only condition of how and when bookperformance is activated.
7- Love, here and now, between the reader and the author, is not a factual but a textual matter. This love mixes the act of reading with the act of writing. In this love, the spaces are filled in with imaginings. In this love, the negations are hidden. It is an impossible possibility to deduce a fixed-meaning (!) from this love. This love may be acted out in various ways. Such diversity will render the author authentic and the reader individualistic.
Post-script: “Bookperformance Manifest” has been translated by its author Çiğdem y Mirol and first published in its Turkish version in the first piece of Çiğdem y Mirol QUARTET which is entitled as Yüzüm Kitap (Myface Book). Ankara: Kanguru Publishing. August. 2012. 299-300. ISBN:9786054623112
Melbourne-born poet, Peter Bakowski, keeps in mind the following three quotes when writing poems ‐ “Use ordinary words to say extraordinary things’–Arthur Schopenhauer, “Writing is painting”– Charles Bukowski, anand “Make your next poems different from your last”–Robert Frost. Visit his blog http://bakowskipoetrynews.blogspot.com
Portrait of Jean Rhys, 1979
I’m too here,
a once exotic specimen,
by your glare.
to my further drowning
in distasteful rooms,
to my further droning
in sympathetic ears,
to view the further sagging
in every looking-glass.
I’ve memorized English poems,
the songs chambermaids and chorus girls sing
when they are too alone,
what men say to convince you
up a creaking flight
of boarding-house stairs.
I know the difference between
flattery and fawning,
loneliness and solitude,
the cost of each kiss given,
each cheque cashed.
left many places
ahead of the landlord’s footfall,
the crucifying wife.
I’ve known rooms,
their tapestry-hung walls
flecked by the light from chandeliers.
Other rooms too
of hard chairs
and the eating of gritty porridge,
each incomplete winter window
stuffed with newspaper.
I’m a chore to nurses,
muttering in my dressing gown,
smeared with lipstick,
stained with rouge,
propped up with a cane,
assisted to the toilet.
Only writing is important.
But truth and fiction
are too late for some.
I didn’t change the world
London fog, personal fog,
I glimpsed something necessary in both.
What is life? A holding on and a letting go.
Some trip from dignity to despair
with more than a little
dancing and drinking in between.
I haven’t any conclusions,
only the books I wrote.
The nib of my pen
scratching for vermin,
preening my ruffled feathers,
fending off attackers,
Now I dictate words
to last visitors—
It’s the blind throwing of coins
at a dented cup.
Some fall to the carpet.
I’m nearly dust.
Open the window.
Let the curtain
be my sieve.
Portrait of Erik Satie, Paris, October, 1899
Granted these days, my number of tomorrows unknown, I resist
Rushing. Leave me to stroll through Paris, which enchants
And confounds me, as would an octopus with feathers.
The way sunlight falls through the horizontal slats of a park bench
Interests me more than many paintings in the Louvre. Most art is
Too polite. It needs to poke its tongue out, pull its pants down. Children
Understand my music. Their ears are not full of hair, politics and
Dinner party gossip. Meanwhile I stroll, pause at a favoured café,
Eavesdrop, watch the ballet of waiters gliding from kitchen to table.
Visiting my mother
Your confined self,
your hallucinating self,
your blanket-clenching self,
pulse beneath your hosting skin.
You’re angry, marathon runner,
that the finishing line has been moved.
The way you lived,
the way you didn’t live,
each has exacted their price.
I move nearer to your bedside
but the syllable you strain
to shape, crumbles.
I look through family photo albums—
evidence of all your capable years.
Each dutiful visitor soon quietens.
Their platitudes have little use
in this disinfected room.
Sister Anneliese reads you a card
from a German friend
who no longer visits.
She pauses to wipe
the sweat from your brow.
Your former neighbour Jean
looks up at the wall clock,
rubs at a buckle on the strap
of her handbag.
I walk with her
away from your
along the long corridor
of the nursing home
and down the lift
into the vital world.
Mark Smith is an educator, writer and surfer (not necessarily in that order) living on Victoria’s West Coast. In the last 12 months he has had stories published in Visible Ink, Offset and Headspring. He has been long-listed for the Fish Prize in Ireland and, most recently, won the EJ Brady Short Story prize for a story entitled Milk For India. (This story was awarded second prize in the FAW National Literary Awards short story category). Unlike every other writer on the planet, he is not working on a novel – or at least he is not telling anyone if he is.
The road ribbons out in front of T-Bone. He looks over the steering wheel and shields his eyes from the sun reflecting off the bonnet. All the straight lines, the metal, the fences, the wire, the hot nights on his bench, all of them behind him now and ahead of him his mother’s country.
Viewed from above, the old Hi-Lux ute is a piece of dull metal pushing slowly west, a vast plume of dust erupting with its passing. After the river crossing the road runs straight for twenty kilometres before it elbows south, corrects itself and heads toward the distant coast. The river curls around behind it like a great snake before it fans out to cover the flood plain. The lush trees and grasses cling to its bank, a green skin slithering between the stony ridges that lead to the dry heart of the continent.
For eight months all T-Bone has thought about is driving west along the Port Keats Road, steering a course between the sharp rocks and the bulldust on the shoulder.
Jimmy sits in the passenger seat of the Hi-Lux. He clings to the handle above the door and braces his body against the constant vibration. The car’s suspension is shot and the column shift is held in fourth by an occy strap that comes up through a hole in the floor. Every now and again he drinks from a water bottle and passes it to his nephew. T-Bone takes it without looking and gulps quick mouthfuls. Occasionally a tourist’s neat and shiny four-wheel drive passes the other way and fills the cabin with dust. T-Bone eases to the side to let them through then guns the ute into the billowing cloud they leave in their wake.
T-Bone is comfortable with distance. He grew up in the back of cars and utes riding high in the hot breeze or swaddled in blankets at night with his brothers, his cousins, his uncles and aunts. His family was always going somewhere. A football match at Adelaide River, a music festival in Darwin or out to shoot geese on Lizzy Downs station. As a child he tried to memorise the road, looking for the washouts and cutaways that spaced themselves between home and Daly River. Each journey threw up a new marker, a burned out wreck, a swath cut through dreaming country by a new pipeline or a turn-off to a camp that only the old women could see. He looked where they pointed, noting the lean of a particular tree or the shape of a termite mound. He found a place for them in the map in his head that slowly filled the gap between what he wanted to know and what the old people knew. Now he marked the stages of his journey home by these landmarks and the memories they held.
Jimmy had barely spoken since he picked up T-Bone in Darwin. He had driven overnight and arrived in the near-empty car park just as the sun crested the walls and caught the wire. Exhausted, he lay down across the seat and fell asleep, covering his face with his hat to cut out some of the light. T-Bone opened the door and stood in the glare. He carried a large duffle bag over one shoulder and smaller bag jammed under his arm. He wedged them behind the seat and tapped his uncle lightly on the leg.
Jimmy didn’t move but spoke from underneath his hat. ‘What kept ya?’
T-Bone smiled, ‘Bin waitin’ long?’
‘Eight months or so,’ Jimmy replied, tilting the hat off his face.
‘Sorry Uncle. Would’ve come out earlier if I’d known.’
‘Still a cheeky bastard then.’
Jimmy sat up and looked at his nephew as he slid in behind the wheel. ‘You put on weight,’ he said before he rested his head against the side column and dropped the hat over his eyes again. He didn’t wake until they were well clear of the city’s outskirts, with only the occasional petrol station to interrupt the monotony of the flat scrubland. The radio was on and T-Bone was driving one-handed, the other hanging out the side window, trailing in the breeze.
‘What was it like in there T?’ Jimmy asked.
T-Bone looked straight out at the road and mouthed the words to the country song that was playing through the one working speaker. He had thoughts for what it was like, but not words. He couldn’t describe how it had emptied him out, broken him open and left him hollow. He wanted to tell his uncle how at first he’d dreamed in colour, the rich green of country after the wet, the dark purple of those big storm heads in the build up, the red and yellow flash of black cockatoos taking off. But slowly the colour had drained away to grey, then nothing. No dreaming, just restless sleep with the sweat trickling off him on to the mattress. He’d spent days at a time in there trying to remember things that didn’t have a place anymore. He couldn’t remember the sound the rain made when it hit the river or how it changed the way it smelled, the way it moved.
‘Food was okay. Three meals a day. Didn’t have to do no cooking,’ he replied.
They stopped at the Daly crossing in the harsh midday light of the dry season. The grey-green river eddied and spilled under the crossing, making its way down under the new bridge that would open up the road right through the wet season. They sat in the shadows up on the high bank and ate the bread and jam they’d bought at the Adelaide River truck stop. T-Bone spread his toes through the coarse sand, burying them up to his ankles. Then he walked down to the water.
‘You watch out for those crocs,’ warned Jimmy.
‘Not worried ‘bout no crocs Uncle,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘They better watch out for me though.’
T-Bone cupped his hands in the water, splashed his face and ran cool fingers through his hair. He was coming into his mother’s country and he wanted his sweat to flow down the river and announce his return, to fan out across the flood plain and let those magpie geese and turtles know he was back. He knew the barramundi would tell his story all the way down to the sea, passing the word on when they rested in the deep billabongs, swimming his name back out into the current where the salt water mixed with the fresh. The water loosened T-Bone’s limbs and quelled a little of the restlessness that had been building in him as his release date had approached. He felt as though he had been holding his breath for weeks. He sat on his haunches and allowed himself a smile only the river could see.
Back in the car they crossed the dry spillway and accelerated up the steep grade on the other side. The country levelled out again and the road broadened, wide enough now for five cars. They passed the turn-off to the mango farm and the fishing camp down river. T-Bone took the tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket and rolled a cigarette one-handed, sealing it with a quick lick of his tongue. He sat it between his lips and pushed the lighter into the dashboard. It sprang out and he lit his cigarette. Seeing a mob of startled wallabies bounding for cover he braced the steering wheel with his knees and, holding an imaginary rifle in his hands, made a cracking sound with his tongue and exhaled smoke from his nostrils.
Jimmy looked at him and smiled. He had forgotten how young his nephew was. T-Bone gave him a sheepish grin and quickly turned away.
‘I forgot all those stories in there Uncle; all those stories Mum told us. Y’know, the ones about the brolga and that old pelican. The turtle and the porcupine. I tried real hard to remember ‘em but I couldn’t. I lost ‘em in there, somewhere in the corners and the walls. I lost ‘em and couldn’t remember ‘em.’
Jimmy looked straight ahead and nodded.
‘You lonely in there T?’ He asked.
‘I felt sick for home the whole time Uncle. Sick for family.’
‘Family missed you the whole time T. Your Mum says you took ‘er heart in there with you. Reckons she hasn’t been able to breathe proper since you been away. She on dialysis now too. Twice a week’
‘She can’t breathe it’s more likely those smokes I reckon. Shouldn’t be smokin’ at her age,’ he said, flicking his cigarette out onto the road.
T-Bone returned his attention to the wheel ruts tracking through the sand and rocks. He thought about the last time he had seen his mother. She had travelled up to Darwin for the court case, slept with the long-grassers and arrived late. He looked for her in the thin crowd but the proceedings began before she got there. He struggled to answer any of the questions because he had no one there to look at. He stared at the floor and said ‘I don’t remember.’ The copper read the charges in a tired voice, his uniform pulling tightly across his belly and his hat on the table in front of him.
T-Bone didn’t hear the sentence but when the guard took him by the arm his mother called out from the back of the room. She spoke in language and the words followed him back down the stairs and into the cells where they got lost in the shouting and noise. ‘You come home now,’ she said. ‘You come home.’
The road flattened out, the blue-green escarpment up towards Emu Plains growing out of the horizon. T-Bone drove with the window open, filling his lungs with the smells of the country. As they approached a track heading off to their left he slowed and pulled the ute to the side of the road.
‘What you doin’ T?’ Jimmy asked.
‘Gotta drop somethin’ off for that Pidji mob. Meet someone here.’ He didn’t know how they would know to be there. It was one thing he’d learned in the last eight months, the things he didn’t need to think about.
He braked slowly and brought the car to a stop, leaving the engine idling. When the dust settled they saw an old man and woman sitting under a yellow-box tree at the side of the track. They waited. The old woman ate from a packet of chips and looked past them to the other side of the road. The old man raised his hand, the palm flat, then tilted it from side to side. ‘What?’ It said.
‘Name T-Bone,’ he called. ‘Got a bag for that Pidji mob. Belongs to the boy who passed on.’
The old man grabbed at a low branch of the yellow-box and climbed to his feet. He stood with his hands in the small of his back and rocked forward a little. He might have been fifty or seventy, his brow covered by a felt hat and his mouth hidden behind a grey beard. He stood there swaying for a while then shuffled over to the car.
‘You got a smoke?’ He asked.
T-Bone handed him his packet of rollies. The old man fumbled with the papers and rolled a thin cigarette. Jimmy and T-Bone watched silently as he took a box of matches out of his pocket, cupped his hands and lit the cigarette. He inhaled and began to cough, leaning over and spitting a lump of phlegm into the dirt.
When he had drawn enough breath to speak he leaned into the car and asked, ‘You know ‘im in there? That boy?’
T-Bone paused, then replied, ‘Sorry Old Man. I didn’t know that boy. The priest, that Father Michael bloke, he give me this bag here and says if I can drop it off for that Pidji mob.’
He reached behind the seat and pulled out the small bag with Adidas written on the side. He passed it through the window to the old man who took it with his right hand and pushed the packet of rollies into his top pocket with his left. He held the bag in his hands for a moment, as though weighing its importance, then walked back, took hold of the low branch of the yellow box to balance himself and dropped it next to the old woman. She undid the zip and emptied the contents into the dirt – a couple of shirts, a pair of black shorts, a bright red and yellow football jumper, a cigarette lighter and a small toiletries bag. She looked back up at Jimmy and T-Bone for a long minute then pushed the items back into the bag, along with her chips and a soft-drink bottle. She reached up and the old man helped her to her feet. Without a word they turned and started walking up the track. The woman hugged the bag to her chest.
T-Bone found first gear and revved the motor. He eased back out onto the road then pushed the accelerator to the floor. He didn’t look in the rear-view mirror.
T-Bone tried not to think about the boy. He had arrived just after the wet started and because they’d known T-Bone’s country was near his they had put them together. The boy had been sentenced to two years for a couple of burglaries in Darwin. They caught him when he found a slab of beer in a garage and rather than carry it away he decided to drink it there. He passed out in the backyard and woke in the police van. All of this T-Bone had drawn out of him over weeks. He was shy around the older boys and T-Bone looked out for him. He’d never had to fight for him but there had been a couple of times he had to make his presence felt. The boy would barely speak during the day but after lights out, in the comfort and safety of the dark, he’d talk about his family and football.
‘I got a big chance being drafted if I wasn’t in ‘ere,’ he said one night. ‘Move down to Adelaide and live with my uncle. He played fifty games with West Torrens. Reckons he could get me start.’
T-Bone had never heard him talk like this. He couldn’t see the boy in the dark but he could hear his foot tapping rhythmically on the end of the bunk.
‘What position you play?’ He asked.
‘Anywhere I can run. I got some pace. My uncle he says I run like a rabbit. Play on the wing most times. Plenty of room to run.’
T-Bone had stayed quiet then. He knew two years inside would kill off any chance of the boy’s dream being realised. The next week he found him in the laundry, with all that dark blood on the stainless steel bench and his clothes soaked in it. He was propped up against the back wall, his arms limp by his side, the gashes along his forearms pulsing blood down over his hands to the floor. At first T-Bone couldn’t look at his face, just the chipped nails on his toes and thick soles of his feet. He didn’t know what else to do so he took his shirt off and started to bind the boy’s wrists. Then he wiped the sticky blood on his shorts and went to raise the alarm.
As they drove further west it seemed to T-Bone that the land was wider than he remembered, the horizon more distant, the sky more blue. In that place the only thing he could be certain of was the sky, the big emptiness of it, but even that ended in coiled wire. He took to standing in the middle of the yard and cupping his hands either side of his face, creating a blue window bordered by skin. Occasionally a bird flew into his hole in the sky, a brown kite or a cockatiel. He would be tempted to follow it but he knew it would end in the wire. So he learned to let them pass through, temporary visitors in his half real, half imagined world. One day at the start of the dry season, T-Bone felt someone standing beside him in the yard. He turned to look at the boy. His hands were cupped at the side of his face and his head was tilted towards the sky. T-Bone couldn’t see his mouth but now, two hundred kilometres away and going home, he liked to think that maybe he was smiling.
With the shuddering and swaying of the Hi Lux along the Port Keats Road, he was putting distance between himself and everything back there, his cell, the concrete, the boy. He felt the grit of dirt between his teeth and saw the dust falling on his skin. He ran his hand along his arm and pushed it into his pores.
High above, a Wedgetail peels off toward the arteries of the Fish River. The Hi Lux is holding sway over the red ribbon road, inching its way closer to the wider expanse of the ocean. The great green snake of the Daly is lost in the haze of heat lifting off the land and filling the air. The word of T-Bone’s return is passing all the way down the river to the sea.
Kirun Kapur grew up in Hawaii and has since lived and worked in North America and South Asia. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, Crab Orchard Review, FIELD, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, Manushi and other journals and news outlets. She has been a poetry fellow at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and McDowell Colony. In 2012, she was awarded The Rumi Prize for Poetry from Arts &Letters. Currently, she lives in Newburyport, MA, where she is the creative director of The Tannery Series.
My Father’s Hopscotch, 1942
In August of 1942, the All India Congress Committee adopts the “Quit India Resolution,” calling for complete independence from Britain. The British government responds by incarcerating all the committee leaders, including Mohandas K. Gandhi. Strikes and protests sweep the country as over 100,000 are arrested.
Five rooftops—wide and flat— lie shining
between his father’s and his uncle’s house.
Five rivers in Punjab. His path spools out,
a conqueror, marching through the Khyber Pass.
First jump: Auntie Shara’s wicked chilies
smirking in the sun. Second: Rana Bhai’s old goat,
who gives no milk and bites a younger brother’s ass.
On Naana’s roof, a locked-up room, a sharp-nosed girl
whose only word is snakes. At his command:
a village burns, troops swim the Jhelum in the night.
Midway, my father stops, salaams
the black-draped Begums who come up to take the air.
They praise him as their naughty one, feed him
chunks of jaggery, never exposing their hands.
Who are you today, little son? Alexander? Shah Jahan?
Don’t tell us you’re an Englishman!
No way for him to guess the rumors in the street.
Some rumbling, a mutiny: the East is lost,
turn back, return to Greece. Roof to roof,
he leaps, he presses on across the map.
Under the Bed
I didn’t need monsters, I had
history. Didn’t want history,
I wanted crime—though I had
a girl’s body and the wind
in the palms outside cried steadily,
sounding like rain. I didn’t
need heaven or sin or punishment.
I had a mother. I had a father.
A fine gold sand blew across my face
and the shoreline I stood on changed.
The god who ruled our house
ruled patiently. The god of my heart
devoured me. I didn’t need a heart,
I had a family. A sea pumped that vast
salty love through its chambers.
When I looked under the bed,
I discovered emptiness. Discovering
my emptiness, I sang.
Sarah Stanton grew up in Perth, Western Australia. Halfway through university, she abandoned a promising career in not having much of a career when she transferred from an opera performance course into a Chinese language major, having fallen for the Middle Kingdom more or less overnight. Three years, two exchange programs and one potential firework accident later, she has settled in Beijing as a freelance translator and editor specialising in contemporary literature. As a writer, she has been published in a variety of magazines and indie projects, including Clarkesworld, Voiceworks, Hunger Mountain, Cha and Conte. She is a recipient of the Talus Prize and was recently shortlisted for the James White Award. She blogs at theduckopera.com and tweets @theduckopera.
Midnight, Minus Three
Winter comes to Beijing like an old coat,
or perhaps a threadbare tide;
not a hurried cold—no, not yet so old
as an angry man—but careful, slow, and weaving herself from wind after wind,
snow after snow
like a shroud for a warm corpse
laying itself out on the street
at last to rest, and breathe—
then, tugging like a baby at her own sleeve
she sees to them, the hot potato women,
the quiet men crying corn,
to the dusty coats and supplications
and the sparrows blown like buttons
in a storm.
mulberrying by moonlight, out
in the sun’s full fruit and the sick,
glazed expression of desire;
out in the ripe clinic of collecting,
of undressing trees. alone is best
for this: one tremor, one kiss,
and the berries will fall—
scatter from pale to violet,
from the twitching green
of the newly born
to the final purple of food.
mulberrying by moonlight, burying
each arm in a thousand leaves:
juice hunting, the sweet cemetery
of bulbs at your feet, the curt wind
pressing nothings to your ear,
the bullying breath gathering up
its solo and shaking the berries,
their parted lips away
until each pail is full,
and you gather home,
steadied on the ready moment,
your skirt bullied up to the moon.
Genevieve L. Asenjo is Honorary Fellow in the Fall 2012 International Writing Program (IWP) of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, USA. Author of four books, she writes poetry, fiction, and novel in three Philippine languages and directs Balay Sugidanun (House of Storytelling), an online platform on Mother Tongue. She teaches literature and creative writing at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines.
She arrived as a guest and departed as an accomplice to a crime, after sitting down to a dinner of pinakbet and sinigang with the Kim family.
At least, that’s what she tells me in between mouthfuls of peanuts and potato chips. We are at Janga Norebang in Koejong.
Listen. One night in this Korean family’s typical apartment in Busan, tap water was gushing from the faucet onto the sink. There was something being washed, something boiling, something being cooked into pinakbet and sinigang. Presiding over this, all at the same time, was Neneng Delia, the Filipina wife of a Korean.
Look at her, that guest I mentioned who is beside me right now, sitting at the table around the corner from the sink and stove where Neneng remained standing. Across from her, on the other side of the table, sat the Korean, the husband. On the other end, the remaining half of the room. On display were a digital TV and framed pictures of the Kim family wearing hanbok, the traditional attire worn during celebrations like Chuseok, the harvest festival. There was a piano. Eight-year-old Ji-eun was playing a tune she recognized, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
Anyway, she continues, she kept on glancing at Neneng. She was convinced of the woman’s beauty; more so before, but even until now, with that face worthy of a celebrity, her long hair and curvaceous body. In her black slacks and blue floral blouse, the woman looked her age, well past forty-five. She tells me those glances were a plea for help, she was listening to the woman’s husband, who was speaking to her—eye to eye—in phrases which Neneng quickly translated into English, some into a mix of Tagalog and Hiligaynon.
Such as: ‘My husband says you’re pretty. Bakit daw I’m not more like you?’
She says she then felt the crushing of tomatoes, of squash, of okra in her chest. Even persimmon, which she had first seen in this country and delighted in.
But she says she understands Neneng, all the more now. It’s why she had invited us here. The thing is, Neneng couldn’t come. Not even belatedly, like the others. They say they’re almost here.
Neneng and I have known each other for five years. We have this group of English teachers who married Koreans here in Busan. I know her husband too, Leo (his English name). Bald, a little pudgy. Smiles a lot. I can imagine his face, his eyes turning into slits as he talked to this girl. There are some people for whom a smile is the equivalent of a hello, and perhaps on that night, since his wife was again cooking pinakbet and sinigang, out of joy at having met another Filipina friend, because of that, everything was okay between them. This, despite reports from the group that her husband had been laid off by the shipping company. Despite the fact that some days Ji-eun came home from school to complain that her classmates were teasing her: ‘Nunon african saram ida. Pibuga sikumota!’ (You are African. Your skin is dark!)
They had met on the subway, Neneng and this girl, whom I first encountered during Independence Day this year; she had been in my Pandanggo sa Ilaw dancing group. The two of them shared the same route—Sinpyeong, Hadan, Tangni, Saha, Koejong, Seomyeon—and the same work hours: 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening. Their hagwon stood near each other. ‘Come over to my house,’ the woman had eagerly invited, ‘I’ll cook pinakbet and sinigang for you.’ Turned out they were both Ilonggo, and anyway how could she decline an invitation from an older Filipina, especially one involving such scrumptious dishes? Was she also a wife? No, she had answered, a new recruit actually, here to struggle after two years of tutoring Korean students in Iloilo. Her seaman boyfriend had gotten another girl pregnant. Geu saram, she had said, her drama here would involve fixing a broken heart.
Song: (그 사람) Geu Saram/That Person
Artist: Lee Seung Chul
This was how she got me here. She has already memorized it from watching Baker King. Another can of beer each, another plate of peanuts, then we play the song.
‘Saranghae, I also love my husband,’ I tell her. ‘Love can be developed too, that’s not just for photos.’
Hehehehe, she adds.
‘Yes, my shi-omoni is nice enough. But of course mothers-in-law always treat you like a maid, especially during Chuseok.’ I down my beer and signal for another one.
Something else happened during that visit, she adds. After dinner, after Neneng finished washing and cleaning up, still in her black slacks and blue floral blouse and still refusing her help, they had norebang on the digital TV in the living room.
Here’s the scenario. The girl, sitting over there. The Korean, on the floor beside his daughter, in his shorts and t-shirt. And Neneng? She’s the one holding the microphone, crooning and swaying to “Bakit” by Imelda Papin.
Clap, clap, clap.
Neneng’s husband was very amused. Imagine Neneng’s long hair shimmying to the rhythm of her curvy body, as if she was not the Neneng we earlier saw cooking and translating her husband’s compliments to this girl: that she’s probably very smart because she had managed to come to Korea even without a Korean boyfriend or husband, that if he and Neneng were divorced, or if he was wealthy, he would woo her and take her to Jeju Island, where he once traveled for work, and where well-heeled Koreans go for vacations.
She says she replied, as a plea to Neneng to change the topic, that there are many beautiful seas in the Philippines, which is why many Koreans go there, when was the last time they had a vacation, or when will they go for one?
Apparently she sweated so much that night, that if it had gone on she would have developed rashes. The daughter’s playing the piano as her parents were committing a crime! All this because she turned up. This knowledge pinned her to her seat. There was some illicit irony in what was happening in that household at that moment: she had to help Neneng amuse a husband who’d recently lost his job, she had to be there as both viewer and witness to Neneng’s Koreanovela, because indeed what else was she to do in this country, unmarried?
Yes, she understands now, this was why Neneng had invited her, not just because they’re from the same country, or perhaps precisely because of that, the woman saw her as the perfect accomplice (the word ‘victim’ seems too harsh). So then, Neneng was able to sing her heart out, to croon and sway seemingly without a care for today or tomorrow because, isn’t it true, her husband and daughter adored her in those moments, and as for her presence there, a fellow Filipina who might give ridicule or insult, so what? You too, her swaying seemed to say, you too will experience this strange sorrow and loneliness when the trees start shedding their leaves, you too will sob during nights and mornings as if someone had hewn into a part of your throat, as if someone had stolen your gold, and you will remain restless until you take a gulp of sinigang. This will repeat itself, through the four cycles of seasons; will be veiled by busyness but will never disappear, so that you too will say yes, it’s still better in the Philippines, especially in the province, it really is good, unlike anything else, but your life will no longer be there. So you will sing popular songs, undying songs like those popularized by Imelda Papin, and dance, sway, without a care in the world, even if you get shot like those in the reported cases of “My Way.”
She says they ended the night with “Hindi Ako Isang Laruan.”
‘Let’s just sing,’ I want to tell her. This girl is too sharp, I have to call up the others we’ve been waiting for. We can hardly hear each other over the noise, but I get that the three of them are already walking towards us, they can see the signboard.
I have memorized the usual schedule of a Korean’s Filipina wife: after hagwon, hurry to another teaching commitment, for example a private tutorial for older people who want to learn English, or else run to the market or fetch the child or go home to clean and launder and cook. At night, help the child with homework, keep the husband company as he watched TV, regale him in bed. We’d be lucky to have the occasional norebang together. Like now.
I wonder if this girl understands that although Neneng and I have different situations, I too can only leave the house, my work and husband and two children, for guests? This is what I told my husband, our group has a Filipina visitor—her, this girl, and since I am the President I have to arrange things. But my husband is kind anyway, he’s an engineer.
Go on listening, because I can no longer keep myself from talking. ‘Of course there’s a lot of suffering at first, especially in getting along with shi-omoni,’ I tell her. ‘It’s as if you had stolen her child, plus you don’t know Korean and she’s not good in English, and she thinks you’re an idiot in the kitchen. It’s important that you know how to fight back. That’s what I teach my two sons. Even if they don’t get teased in school like Ji-eun. But back then, it’s like they were ashamed that their classmates would see me, that they would find out I’m their mother!’
Come on, she says as “Gue Saram” starts up again.
We say cheers with our third cans of beer. I sing this, one of my early favorites, this song that surrenders the loved one, that says go on, leave, be with her instead, because I love you.
Then the door opens. Here come three more Koreans’ wives.
Which came first, song or story? Or are they the same thing? Is it the allure of a new acquaintance, of someone young? Or is it because we simply want to listen to ourselves?
‘That’s just paper,’ someone says about switching citizenships, ‘but if we didn’t become
citizens, if we didn’t get listed, well pity our children, pity us, we wouldn’t receive benefits and our children wouldn’t have any rights.’
‘So think carefully before you marry a Korean,’ another says jokingly, even though it’s true. She knows we have a tendency to become dramatic during these get-togethers.
There’s also someone else who stays quiet all the time. Who prefers to eat peanuts and potato chips and prepare playlists.
We do not talk anymore about Neneng and the other Filipinas in the group. We only have one hour left before we need to go home. We belt out everything from ABBA to K-pop, to “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” grinding and wiggling—but no splits.
Something else happened that night. Just then, for the very first time, we did something that might even erase the girl’s memory of that night at Neneng’s: we sang “Ang Bayan Ko.”
One refrain, without videoke accompaniment, and then we laughed and laughed afterwards like a bunch of lunatics, hugging each other all around. The plate of peanuts and potato chips fell to the floor, along with a bag and a few empty cans of beer. Tears also fell like kimchi that had been stored in a jar and was now being served up wholeheartedly to be tasted and judged. This was also my crime that night. The girl had been the instigator, accomplice, witness. But I know we’re all absolved, because I’m sure this girl expects it, awaits it, just as we did during our first time here, like the coming of snow.
Translated from Filipino by Michelle T. Tan
Michelle T. Tan is currently taking up an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the Southeast Asian Bursary. She graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2011. She has been published in the Philippines Graphic and Philippines Free Press and her short story “Her Afternoon Lives” won Second Place in the 2012 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards.
Anna Trembath is a Melbourne-based writer with homes in other places dear to her – Timor-Leste and Uganda. She received joint first place in the 2012 Perilous Adventures Short Story Competition, and her work has been published in Perilous Adventures, Peril, Birdville and Arena magazines.
Occasionally I still daydream that greeting the dawn may be the key to redemption. I see early morning mindfulness and sunrise namastes. I envisage reviving ocean dips, the saltwater’s surface flecked with colour like a neo-Impressionist painting. Meditation music intones, birds croon, the bay rocks back and forth, gently shush-shushing. The Melbourne morning seaside of my imagination smells like the waves have licked and lapped everything clean. It positively reeks of a fresh start.
Only twice a year am I awake early enough for all that inner peace malarkey. There is a cruel humour about this unsuitable timing. For eight years now, my sleep routine has been almost perfectly consistent, if dysfunctional. Laptop beside me, having worked on my photos and blog, I finally fall asleep in the blue-black hours of the morning. Like a sleep-surfer, I must ride oblivion at the precise point, just as the swell begins to curl into itself. I wake as late as my day’s plans allow.
This is my nocturnal routine, with the exception of two nights every year. For eight years, I have not slept at all during the hours of darkness where Christmas Day fizzles and dies, and where one year meets the next.
At dawn this morning, the first of January 2013, I trudged along the St Kilda sand. I could not conjure even a little smugness about this. The quiet was not healing. My soul did not sing. I was not wearing loose white linen, sporting flowing tresses and circling, arms out and head thrown back in ecstasy. Instead, the ocean was listless, waiting for something or someone more impressive than I. The intermittent wind whipped me half-heartedly. The heavens were grimy with the city’s muck. Something stank, probably a festering dog crap buried in the sand. Remnants of yesterday’s mascara found welcoming bedfellows in the dark shadows of my eyes, my overgrown fringe was greasy, and last night’s pumpkin soup had left orange drips on my shirt.
Turning back to home, I stepped onto the bike path tracing the shore. A passing cyclist swerved and yelled back at me over his shoulder. I watched his angry calves pump up and down as he disappeared.
It was all fitting. Honest. What I deserve.
Now the pair nestles in the cool round indent. Nudging up against one another at their points of greatest girth, they are smaller than a chicken’s, creamy, ovular and warm. This time there is no speckled imperfection.
The eggs’ halfway house is carefully chosen, a simple Johnson Brothers bowl. It is a colour officially called Grey Dawn, which is actually more a dusky blue. The bowl’s edges arc into four segments, these china petals curving upwards.
Offset by the potted miniature cactus sitting behind, the bowl and eggs remind me of evolvulus arizonicus, a tiny blue flower with a white ovary. On our honeymoon hike in the Sonoran Desert, I had found the Wild Dwarf Morning-glory. When I pointed out the delicate and unexpected thing at our feet, Henry barely looked down. He resented the interruption to his gaze upon the sweeping landscapes ahead and the skies above. The momentum of one foot in front of another was what he wanted.
The still-life arrangement of bowl, eggs and cactus is aglow with the morning sun. If I were looking through my camera’s viewfinder, the scene would be perfect for my blog. The waiting rubbish bin below the kitchen bench would go unseen. But I am not going to shoot this.
Yesterday I swept the balcony and made it inviting with throw rugs, cushions and candles. Here, in this mindful space, she gathers the scattered parts of herself, my blog would read. The photos would followed by a homebrewed chai tea recipe prepared with fair trade ingredients and a snippet about the importance of honey and bees to the ecological system. Somehow, in preparing my New Year’s Day ritual space, I had missed the dying yucca tucked into a balcony corner. I’d only been keeping the plant for its blue pot deathbed, a heavy, glossed ceramic thing. Perhaps in my indecision about choosing something with which to replace the perishing plant, I had deliberately ignored it. Perhaps it was shame, for who manages to kill something so utterly lacking in need?
It was only this morning, returning from my walk, that I noticed it. I had not realised that I was sharing the balcony. I don’t want to, don’t want the mess and imposition of it. The last time this happened, I could not use my balcony for months, in case I made them nervous.
With an eighth of my vegan no-cheese cheesecake and a shiny coffee table book about landscape architecture in Bali homes, I settle into my own private outdoor/indoor area. Ahead of me, yet another batch plummet down the rollercoaster. More white paint peels off rickety timber tracks and a watercolour sky swallows the screams. Beyond, the smiling bay is now sparkly, razzle-dazzle, lit up to impress.
Here I will wait for her.
I know how images can be manipulative. Glossy recipe books contain my images of food that is, in reality, oil-brushed, fluorescent-lit, steaming with hot soaking cotton balls, doused in Photoshopped hyper-colour. Selling a dream, my editors say. Preserving a moment in time that is unreal or ephemeral, before the inevitable decline and destruction, before the next desire sets in. My online profiles of foodies in their carefully-curated creative spaces play to envy. Hipster vegans and organic-obsessed hippies leading delicious, responsible, on-trend lives. Women embracing a repackaged domesticity; men revered for meeting the minimal standard of knowing how to cook, no matter their narcissism or casual objectification of women.
While anxious aesthetes attempt to overcome alienation through Instagram filters, in less coveted postcodes, asylum seekers eke out tasteless charity offcasts and the working class gets fat on takeaway. On a popular television culinary competition, the sole non-white face belongs to a woman born in Eritrea. She is initially lauded for the authenticity of her spiced dishes, and accompanying cultural stories are demanded of her. Later, she is dismissed for insufficiently reproducing that Aussie-forgotten-hyphened-Anglo classic—the pavlova.
Before what happened, I may have bought the basic premise, if not the petty particularities, of white middle class foodie taste. Now this pretentious shell of cultural representation that I inhabit is simply a means to an end; somewhere to pass the time, exhausted, while I wait for the nothingness.
On the day that we left the hospital, the thirtieth of December 2005, the park looked postcard-ready. The beclouded sky of the previous week had fought its way to blue freedom. Some teenagers threw themselves off a yellow cliff face into green and brown-gold waters below. I could hardly bear to look as I could see the shallow bottom of the river right near them, and I wanted to shake the adults urging the kids on. But they knew precisely the point from which to launch, exactly where to land.
We passed in cool forests with mossy stone carvings through to hills a show-off shade of green. Crossing a bridge slicing the pond in half, some guy standing on the hill above us snapped the scene. Just a few minutes earlier he had been lying prone on the banks, like a satire of a wildlife photographer. The ducks were unsure of how to act, perplexed by the attention. When I saw the amateur pointing his thing at us, I hid my face behind Henry.
Perhaps, from a wide-angle viewpoint, we looked normal. Perhaps the photographer even thought that our trio – woman, man, small boy – perfected the pretty scene. If he had zoomed in, visual glitches would have emerged. The man wore a brace curled around his right hand, extending to a mid-point between wrist and elbow. The woman was alarmingly bony, with black eyes, a broken lip, and three tiny plaster strips like train tracks on her forehead. Only with the child was there nothing apparently amiss. Between running off to inspect this and that, the boy would return to pull at one of the woman’s hands. But it was the man who spoke to the child’s chubby upturned face, smiling and entertaining his little wonders.
What the camera could not have seen was the shadow, the lack. Sometimes the man reached for the woman’s free hand, but she would let it drop.
On New Year’s Eve 2005, I lay curled on the Hamilton motel floor, watching my youngest son play with a soft toy given to him by a nurse. Strange, he did not seem to compute Toby’s absence, and yet he idolised his older brother. I was relieved that Toby was—had been—kind to Elijah. Even just after Eli’s birth, there had been no sign of jealousy in the three-year-old. Toby had marvelled at his baby brother, tenderly stroking his tiny nose, ears and toes, smiling down into that alert little face. Eli, in turn, had crawled and walked well before schedule, just to ensure he could be with Toby at all times. He had cried when Toby began school, and was always dizzy with excitement upon the afternoon return of his hero.
And yet now he did not even ask after his missing brother. Perhaps it was some protective block in his little brain. Or maybe he was taking cues from his father about how to be a man, how to suppress and conceal, a how-to guide to masculine shut-down stoicism. Henry was getting on with the job of fathering Eli, and he not uttered a word of blame in my direction. In fact, he had been carefully striking a balance between tenderness, matter-of-factness and levity with me, trying to prevent any outbursts or even mentions around Eli. The previous day, Henry had been the one who had insisted we go to the park, when all I wanted to do was draw the curtains on the motel room and pull the floral bed covers over my head. I nurtured the anger that Henry should have felt towards me and directed it back at him. Eli was just Eli, as loving and contented as always, and yet without his favourite person. It all confounded me.
During the day, I had carefully arranged a few of my things into a small backpack, slowly so as not to draw Henry’s attention or Eli’s questions. And then, when I was sure that they were asleep, I dressed in the bathroom, and left my envelope there next to the sink. It felt like a cliché, leaving a note, but how could I not? Even though it would be the last time that I saw them, I did not dare to kiss them.
There was no longer any rental car to drive the hour or so to Auckland, and in any event I had decided never to drive again. I sat outside in the dark and called a taxi. When we passed the spot where it had happened on Christmas Day, I lifted my feet off the floor, remembering some childhood stories about graveyards and the dead. Changing my ticket at the airline desk, I explained that the others would board the original flight to Melbourne, but that there would be two, rather than three.
I have counted thirty-nine rollercoaster rotations by the time she arrives. As she flies in, she spots me and appears to veer slightly in the air, unsure for a split-second of whether to continue. Plain, without the iridescent breast and underwing feathers of the male pigeon, I would describe her colour as Grey Dawn. She lands on the railing, just about at the yucca, and then hops down to the nest.
It is empty.
I watch her skip back up onto the railing, take flight and disappear. Perhaps she is checking that she has the right balcony. Returning quickly, she walks around the nest a little, nodding down into it, before settling to its side. She does not look at me. We both gaze across the bay.
In the kitchen, the eggs have cooled.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale
by Chi Vu
Reviewed by HOA PHAM
The Melbourne based writer Chi Vu is known for her plays “The Story of Soil” and “A Psychic Guide to Vietnam”. The text for “A Psychic Guide” was included in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and Vu is also featured in Joyful Strains, the recent PEN writing anthology about the refugee experience in Australia.
Vu’s novella Anguli Ma- A Gothic Tale is published by Giramondo Press in the Shorts Series. It has only received a one paragraph review in The Australian and a longer mention in an essay by Nicholas Jose for the Wheeler Centre to date. This relative lack of acknowledgement may be due to the novella form of the text, which is unfortunate because Anguli Ma succeeds on a number of levels, not least as a gothic tale and as a tale of refugees in the suburbs.
An informed reader who knows about the Anguli Ma myth would be richly rewarded reading this novel. However Vu’s craft ensures that one does not need prior knowledge of the fable for the story to have an impact. In an act of retelling and cultural translation, Vu deploys the name Anguli Ma for an unpleasant character that moves in to an Australian household with three Vietnamese refugee women. The story pivots around the transformation of Anguli Ma who encounters a monk meditating in the fields beyond the house near the Maribyrnong River, and the gradual disintegration of his landlady Dao. The horror story builds in suspense and menace to the final climax in a claustrophic suburban wasteland.
Subtitling her novella “A gothic tale” Vu alludes to the Australian gothic tradition in which the landscape of the bush is haunted and macabre (Gelder 2011). In Australia, the genocide of the Indigenous people is a repressed violence present in the land. Vu describes the landscape as having “Shabby grass” and “misshapen trees” under a cloudy boiling overcast sky (Vu 15). Later she alludes to Australian history by describing:
A land so…peaceful that the newcomers believed that it was empty space unmarked and unstoried, a barely populated land uninhabited by wandering demons and limbless men from wars that dragged on for millennia. (Vu 49).
The book is primarily set within the confines of Dao’s house using a number of narrative strands, the fable-like appearance of the monk, Dao, Bac, Sinh and Dao’s son and grand-daughter. Dao is driven to desperate acts after the hui money (Money circle) that she is in charge of is stolen and Sinh, her young tenant goes missing. The Buddhist references are extended in the book to include the other women refugees in the narrative – a comparison is made between them and hungry ghosts – the souls of the dead that need to be fed continuously to be sated.
“…Left behind ma co hon in the old world.’’ Dao stopped. Wandering, hungry ghosts. Unable to be reborn as a human or animal unable to enter heaven or hell because of their gruesome, untimely deaths. “We think we have a new beginning because we escaped the terror and come to a new land. But we haven’t left them behind, they came with us!” (Vu 54).
Hungry ghosts according to Buddhist theology, are one of six stages of humankind before the possibility of the attainment of enlightenment as a boddhistiva. They have small throats and large mouths; they are unable to receive compassion and they exist in a living hell suffering from eternal hunger. Being an animal is another of the stages wherein one is driven solely by one’s desires. Dao is described as being at the stage of an animal by Bac, the older tenant, who observes that she is driven insane by her grief. The monk also advises Anguli Ma that one can perceive that one is an animal without necessarily having to be one.
In Vu’s fable, Anguli Ma is a murderer who finds enlightenment, only to be ambushed by his landlady because of his last murder. Even his landlady and the other tenants of the house are capable of becoming hungry ghosts if the circumstances are right. The tale comes around full circle with Anguli Ma meditating in the sun like the monk in the beginning – a compelling allusion to Buddhist philosophy in which there is no end or beginning.
Vu uses effective imagery and pacing to deliver a truly gothic tale. The suburban setting is portrayed as stark and unfriendly to the Vietnamese characters. The characterisation of Anguli Ma is similarly intense, from the bloody scissors he uses for his work at the abattoir, to the running over and eating of a dog in a suburban wasteland. Such intensity imparts to the audience the desperation of the struggle that all the characters face to survive
By invoking the gothic, the novella acts as a counter-narrative to the brightness of other popular refugee narratives like Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. Vu’s characters are desperate –Dao obsesses over money, Bac works too hard and Sinh, the character with the most youth and hope is murdered. The commentary that Vu has published in an article about 1.5 generation Vietnamese diasporic writing suggests that she has succeeded in being a translator of Vietnamese concerns to the Australian audience (Vu 2011). Vu discusses how the 1.5 generation can look backwards or forwards. Nicholas Jose suggests that this portrayal of Vietnamese refugee stories provides a different view of Vietnamese refugees for the uneducated outsider. Vu succeeds in beautifully articulating a detailed study of the four main characters; she is able to go beyond cliché because of her sensitive handling of contrasting narrative traditions and her intense attention to detail.
Anguli Ma- A Gothic Tale is a highly original work drawing on Buddhist and gothic traditions; it should find a larger audience internationally, if not here.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Award Community Relations Prize
HOA PHAM is an award-winning novelist and short story writer.
The Seaglass Spiral
by Alan Gould
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Let me begin, atypically for an Australian reviewer, with a declaration of interest. I have been a friend and colleague of Alan Gould from well before before he published his first book, Icelandic Solitaries, in 1978. I have read all his eleven collections of poetry and his seven previous works of fiction and am confident that this new book, The Seaglass Spiral, is one of his three best works (the other two being his selected poems, The Past Completes Me, and his most recent novel, The Lakewoman).
Despite having published a substantial body of poetry and prose over more than thirty years, Gould is not as prominent in our literary culture as he deserves to be. Partly because of its unrelenting integrity and its painstaking attention to linguistic detail, his writing is considered unfashionable, even stilted, in some quarters. It’s not without significance that The Seaglass Spiral was rejected, often in glowing terms, by several major publishers before it was taken up by the small but enterprising Finlay Lloyd of Braidwood, NSW, and produced to an appropriately high standard.
In this work, as in others, Gould reveals a mind that likes to classify and then assess for quality in terms of the relevant category. In fiction and poetry alike, Gould is concerned with psychopathology and individual morale. He needs to know how a particular mind works and what the state of its self-confidence is at any particular time. He admires courage, particularly moral courage — and those who are able to maintain their spirits, even in adversity. He is not, however, without humour and has a lightness of touch, in both poetry and prose, which helps him escape the sententiousness that such a mind-set might otherwise lead to.
For all these reasons Gould’s work is not seen as “experimental” yet The Seaglass Spiral is one of the most experimental books I have read in recent years. It’s strange that an author so Linnaean should have written a book so beyond classification. Some readers will see it as a bildungsroman but it is surely unusual in this genre to start a thousand years before the protagonist’s birth. Others will see it as a roman à clef but in many ways it is not a roman at all, for all that its playful ingenuity with nomenclature might suggest it.
And it is certainly not an autobiography though it does, in fact, cover Gould’s own early life and that of his wife in considerable detail. Biographies and autobiographies tend to start with a birth date and then sketch in the parents. Gould, however, in his brush with this genre, prefers to reach back hundreds of years. The Seaglass Spiral could be considered a family history (or a history of two families) but, if it is, it is also one in which none of the characters bears his or her own name. Hardly the way for a family to immortalise itself.
Gould’s concerns in The Seaglass Spiral, however, go well beyond playing with categories. Essentially, he is concerned with the genetic transmission of physical, psychological and behavioural characteristics (even certain talents) down through families over the centuries. The Sebright and the Ravenglass lines, which eventually converge in the love affair and marriage of Ralf Sebright and Susan Ravenglass (the pseudonyms given to the author and his wife) are, in effect, traced back a thousand years or so.
Fortunately, these forebears are not treated in equal detail — though by this truncation Gould does risk frustrating readers who are just starting to be interested on one character when they are suddenly yanked on to another. It’s a bit like the risk Italo Calvino took in his novel, If On A Winter’s Night, which consists only of alternative opening chapters.
In The Seaglass Spiral Gould evades these difficulties by presenting both the Sebright and the Ravenglass ancestors at key points in their lives — before moving on rapidly to show us the subsequent children and grandchildren at pivotal moments in theirs. Sometimes, as readers, we see these continuities for ourselves. At other times they are suggested to us by a genial third person narrator. There are certainly some distinctly memorable scenes in this process, among them the arrival, as a youth, of Ralf’s grandfather, Jesse, into metropolitan London in 1879 and, later, his wife Maisie’s lively facing down of a crowd of jingoists in the same city in 1914, all the while nursing Ralf’s infant father in her arms.
A good deal more space, it must be said, is afforded the four parents of the book’s central couple — and among this quartet a fair slice of twentieth century history is experienced, including some of the savagery of World War II and the Holocaust. By page 82, however, we meet the author’s alter ego, Ralf Sebright and by page 99 we have been introduced to Ralf’s future wife, Susan Ravenglass, as a baby.
At this point The Seaglass Spiral does indeed become a variety of bildungsroman, tracing the formative experiences of both Ralf and Susan at school and university. Some of the book’s most graphic writing evokes the culture of bullying at an English boarding school. It is not hard to see where Gould derived his abiding concern with morale. Ralf’s relief on arriving at a more benign Australian version is palpable. Susan, on the other hand, has a somewhat easier time of it through a Canberra adolescence marked mainly by a “self-containment … which suited, like a shadow”.
This self-containment or detachment becomes a permanent part of Susan’s character through university and beyond. Ralf, on the other hand, despite a certain shyness, is all involvement — especially in the campaign against conscription for the Vietnam war (which Gould has also written about elsewhere). Neither Ralf nor Susan, however, is initially able to find, or even visualise, what they really want from the opposite sex. Ralf has a lively dalliance or two at university and afterwards but they prove not to be what he wants.
One of the real charms of The Seaglass Spiral is the almost Jane Austen-like delay in bringing the two central characters together and (as is not the case with Austen, of course) getting them into bed and “shacked-up”, as Susan Ravenglass puts it. This is writing of considerable candour, enabled (partly) by the clever device of alternative nomenclature. It’s as if Gould (understandably) finds it much easier to write of Ralf and Susan than of Alan and Anne and yet it’s plain he’s stayed true to the experiences involved.
The Seaglass Spiral is brought more or less up to date by the advent of the couple’s two sons, Charlie and Gregor, but it is in the adolescence and early adulthood of Ralf and Susan that the book’s main concerns are to be found. Despite a near catastrophe posed in the opening chapter and spelt out in more detail in the closing pages, the book has a happy ending which, one might say, is made all the more so by the reader’s realisation that the two main characters, both a little strange in different ways, would definitely have been a lot less happy had they not encountered a partner so well-suited. Is this something that the seaglass spiral of genetics also had in mind for them? One guesses not — but it’s a tempting thought.
GEOFF PAGE is an award-winning poet, novelist and critic. His latest collection is a verse novella, 1953 (UQP).