Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945
by Michael Farrell
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
Michael Farrell’s Writing Australian Unsettlement is necessary reading. It is a welcome contribution to a small field. However, Farrell’s work has several areas that are problematic and that are also symptomatic of wider issues concerning poetry and politics in today’s society. It should be seen then as a starting point, an opening up, rather than a definitive statement or end of a conversation.
Part of the modern and contemporary poetry and poetics series edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis for Palgrave Macmillan, the aim of the book is to ‘unsettle’ Australian poetics. This is taken here to mean the work of undoing assumptions, firmness, bedrock as it is currently constituted in Australian literary criticism, particularly in a nationalist canonical iteration. Farrell returns to ideas of unsettlement time and time again, giving a variety of definitions, particularly in the introduction. Somewhat later in the work he states:
The hunt is on for new, formerly useless poetries, perhaps poetries in Perloff’s terms that are ‘by other means’; other languages and genres (like diaries) that may, if not constitute a new ‘model of a national Australian literature’ at least foster new reading and writing networks of the history and the contemporary that attend to different literacies, including that of the visual. (84)
This is a book then not only about content and form, but intended as a sort of speculative methodological reading enterprise. This is through examining poetry from the colonial period from Bennelong’s letter from 1792 until various twentieth century texts until World War Two. For a review that discusses the contents of the book at length please see Matt Hall’s in Cordite.
As worthy as that enterprise is, that desire to make a ‘new’ thing, Farrell is also indebted to, if not limited by, past discourses, languages, tropes, motifs. Indeed, it is one of the ironies that he deploys the following quote from Martin Harrison early in Writing Australian Unsettlement:
Borrowed terms like ‘pastoral’, ‘urban’ and ‘landscape’ for instance, may work very differently or simply may not work at all when applied to Australian poetry. (1)
It is ironic because over the course of the book, Farrell relies, too much in my opinion, on imported, metropolitan theory, framing and quotation for legitimacy. Witness the repeated use of ‘______ says insert quote’ from Freud to Bataille to Deleuze to Sontag (117, 157, 171). These are often used without criticism – theory remains deployed rather than challenged – and one apparent result is that the observation of poetry cannot stand alone without participating in an elaborate citation ritual that only reaffirms the canon of European continental theory. To buttress the continental theory is the North American field.
Consider the following passage:
Meanwhile the critical tools have also been developed to begin to read this work, whether as ‘exophonic’ or appropriative writing, or in terms of visual prosody (Perloff); in terms that resist the dematerialisation of language and parataxis (Silliman and other language writers); through theories developed from visual poetry (Cluver, Willard Bohn); theories of space, textual criticism, and archival work that read the page as a page rather than as a hoist for a message, that recognise the freedom of handwriting and resist the hegemony of typography (Davidson, McGann, Werner and Howe); or that account for the ‘non semantic’ (Forrest-Thomson). These theories themselves draw on criticism associated with concrete poetry and works such as ‘Un Coup de Des’ as well as the histories of the avant-garde. (83)
If Europe is good for theory, North America is good for the academic work of today. Primary among these is Marjorie Perloff, who supplied a blurb on the book’s back cover and who is invoked with regularity. However, Perloff seems to me to be the arch settled and settling critic of the white American avant garde. As a node in the network of contemporary writing, one might question not only her relevance for work on colonial Australian poetry but also her politics. Witness recent criticism of her by Mongrel Coalition, Fred Moten, Kim Chen, C A Conrad and others.
This heavy quotation and reference is evident throughout. I recognise how it mocks some undergraduate idea of academic writing and enables assemblage, a defining part of the work, to be meta-commented upon. Yet this seems at odds with an independent impulse, with autonomy as a political and authorial subject position as possibly enabled by the Harrison quote early on. This is, of course, not to establish a false binary between voice and assemblage either, or to dismiss a speculative enterprise. Paradox is, of course, not a failing in and of itself, but the implication of such importation is to undermine the importance of the local. It might appear global, but it is possibly a colonised manoeuvre. There is a lot of Australian literary criticism in the archive and reading against the paradigmatic straw man grain might have enabled a different perspective. As it stands one can find in Clement Semmler or Vincent Buckley or others, a complicated way of reading that might not be as settled as Farrell makes out. This is supported by the lack of discussion of the Australian field in general. To take only genocide studies what of important work by Attwood, Reynolds, Tatz (161)? The broader question to ask then is: why can’t we apply an unsettled reading to theory and field and not only poetic text?
This framing is despite the fact that Farrell is a very adept close reader. When it comes to the Australian poetry in and of itself there is nuance and insight. Readers should pay attention to his criticism of Norman Harris’ ‘Letter to Jim Bassett’ (104) and drover bush texts (186). This insight is there too in the section on Ngarla songs. However, in some of the Indigenous sections there is slippage that I think is symptomatic of Australian academic culture more generally (25). In one passage that talks about the democratic semiotic possibility of the equals sign Farrell writes it ‘resembles Indigenous philosophy rather than settlement sentiment’ (80). I would be interested to know how one can sustain such binarism. There are several other moments like this. This collapsing of specificity may, though not necessarily, be read as an ahistoricising gesture, for it collapses important distinctions and arguments. How should ‘we’ collapse Roe and Neidjie, Bandler and Pearson into a thing? It flattens the diversity in other words, which people on the inside of the discourse may find important. This is not, though, a defense, in a positivist sense, of linearity, or of cleanliness, just a comment on the need for consistent attentiveness to frame and context. Indeed, the heterodoxies, contradictions and complications of a thing, if it could be said to exist, called Indigenous philosophy remain submerged in Writing Australian Unsettlement precisely because the texts quoted are Freud and Deleuze not Indigenous people themselves as they exist in ethnographic and self-authored texts (see Deborah Bird-Rose, Sally Treloyn, Magabala Books (Various).
Mascara readers may be particularly interested in chapter 3, which examines Jong Ah Sing’s The Case. Farrell writes against other critics, who ‘in demonstrating their concern with The Case’s biographical and historical significance, largely treat its poetics as a barrier to truth and usefulness, rather than as a contribution to a remarkable assemblage of a new kind of English, and of a new kind of poetic text’ (66). Instead Farrell makes the compelling claim that the poetics of Sing’s work are important in and of themself and ‘how Jong’s inventive practice unsettles notions of Australian writing’ (67). It is one text I would like to seek out for myself, particularly for its visually arresting style that Farrell discusses.
Settlement as a word has currency in academic debates now, but the elasticity of its deployment in this work, undermines a politically astute and historically attentive reading. You can’t build an empire on sand, but nor can you build a humpy on water (see 157). Notwithstanding its problems, Writing Australian Unsettlement, is a major intervention in the dialectic of un/settlement and makes for entertaining and challenging reading. It is necessary for those with an interest in Australia, avant garde reading techniques, colonialism and poetry.
ROBERT WOOD has published work in Southerly, Overland, Plumwood Mountain and a variety of academic journals. He is currently completing a PhD at UWA and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth light-bitten crownland, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
Inside My Mother
by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Since the appearance of her popular first collection, Little Bit Long Time, in 2009, Aboriginal poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, has produced five more books including a couple of verse novels, the second of which, Ruby Moonlight, won the NSW Premier’s Prize in 2013. Along with Samuel Wagan Watson and Lionel Fogarty, she is one of the most prominent Aboriginal poets writing at the moment.
According to its author, Inside my Mother, grew out of a period of mourning and overseas travel which proved therapeutic. This fourth collection has a core of powerful and moving poems — and a number of others which are a little less forceful. Eckermann’s family has been affected by the “taken away” syndrome for three generations and the impact of this is the genesis for quite a few poems. “First Born” and “The Letter” are just two of them.
In the latter a mission girl who is learning typing begins: “Dear Mother / The Mission is good. /The food is good. / I am good” before “ripp(ing) the page from the typewriter” and starting a new one which begins “Mummy / Where are you?” It’s all over in twelve lines. The narrative strategy is simple, as is the vocabulary, but the point is indelibly made. Mainstream readers who find this too simple altogether and who demand the “whitefella” sophistication of, say, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery, are probably missing the point. Cobby Eckermann’s poignant distillation here is just another thing that poetry can do well. There’s no need for a hierarchy.
An interesting, and relatively unusual, dimension to Inside my Mother is how Cobby Eckermann deals with the tensions within Aboriginal families and culture, not just the pressures from “outside”, as it were. “I Tell You True”, for instance, is a dramatic monologue from the viewpoint of an Aboriginal woman explaining her addiction to alcohol. It’s in a stricter form than most of the other poems and is modified by, rather than couched in, Aboriginal English.
The narrator’s reasons for despair, one in each stanza, include a daughter “burnt to death inside a car”, a sister dead who has “hung herself to stop the rapes” and a mother who has been killed, “battered down the creek” — a death for which the speaker herself is partly blamed by her own family. “Their words have made me wild / I can’t stop drinking I tell you true / ‘Cos I was just a child”.
It’s significant that the speaker doesn’t disclose the race of the perpetrators. This is a further sign of Cobby Eckermann’s political sophistication; she doesn’t just keep on hitting easy targets. The poem also ranges more widely by implying that domestic violence like this is not unique to any one group or the product of a single cause.
There’s no doubt, however, about who the guilty are in Cobby Eckermann’s “Kulila”, a poem written entirely in Aboriginal English and voiced by one of the “old people” who still remember the massacres of an earlier century. “don’t forget ’em story / night time tell ’em to the kids / keep every story live // … sit down here real quiet way / you can hear ’em crying / all them massacre mobs “ Dramatic monologues like this one were the forte of Kevin Gilbert, the Wiradjuri poet (1933-1993). Cobby Eckermann (b. 1963) makes good use here of a strategy and linguistic authenticity which non-Indigenous poets can employ only at some risk should they wish to ventriloquise on behalf of Aboriginal people.
Occasionally, as in the beginning of the book’s final poem, “Evacuate”, Eckermann’s language is not strong enough for its task. “today I shall relinquish / my body // I shall process my / dreams of tragedy”. Although we have seen a number of tragedies throughout the book, the phrase “dreams of tragedy” remains unfocussed and over-explicit.
For this reader two other relatively minor shortcomings in Inside my Mother are the lack of a glossary for important words from Aboriginal languages and the poet’s abandonment, for the most part, of traditional punctuation, a strategy now a hundred years old and not as effective as its users are inclined to imagine.
The fact that punctuation is commonly foregone in much contemporary free verse does not, in itself, establish its effectiveness. The small, momentary confusions the reader often experiences through this convention can sometimes be a good thing artistically (analogous, for instance, to the clever use of enjambment) but it can also distract from the main thrust of the poem, a factor even more important when the poetry is political, as much of Cobby Eckermann’s work is.
This reminds us too that the role of politics in Aboriginal poetry has always been an inevitable and a difficult one. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 —1993) admitted this when she once (inadequately) described her own poetry as “sloganistic, civil rightish, plain and simple”1. Some of her best poetry was when she approached important problems indirectly. Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), on the other hand, has often, in his idiosyncratic way, turned the language of the conquerors against themselves, using “ English against the English”2. Fogarty has argued that the way Aboriginal poets “write and talk is ungrammatical, because it doesn’t have any meanings in their spirit”3. This can lead to a poetry of strong feeling (often anger) but which may not be as effective politically as it intends to be.
Ali Cobby Eckermann (and, to an even greater extent, Samuel Wagan Watson) steers between these two extremes and her poems, for the most part, tend therefore to work more effectively, both aesthetically and politically, than they might have otherwise done.
Inside my Mother is a worthy addition to Ali Cobby Eckermann’s growing body of work. It is packed with things that non-Indigenous Australians need to know or be reminded about — while, at the same time communicating effectively, I would imagine, with the still-disenfranchised Australians for whom she is increasingly a spokeswoman.
1. Kath Walker, “Aboriginal Literature” Identity 2.3 (1975) pp. 39–40
2. From Preface to New and Selected (1995) by Lionel Fogarty http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/new-and-selected-poems-0214000
GEOFF PAGE is an Australian poet and critic. He has edited The Best Australian Poems , 2014 and The Best Australian Poems, 2015.
Small Acts of Disappearance
by Fiona Wright
Reviewed by EMMA ROSE SMITH
‘I just saw Fiona Wright,’ says my friend over the phone. ‘At least, I thought it was her.’
A statement that wouldn’t be out of place at a poetry event or around the streets of the inner-west of Sydney. But my friend is not in Glebe or Enmore; she’s been sent for a few weeks, for her own wellbeing, to one of Sydney’s private mental health institutions.
‘I didn’t know whether to say hi or not,’ she says. ‘I mean, you never want to publicly know anyone from these places. What was I going to say: I like your poetry?’
This was about a year ago, before Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance was published, before any one of its essays featured in Overland or …. My friend and I had read Wright’s poetry, heard her on the radio, seen her do readings. We did not know that she was open about her condition and was in fact researching its details, contradictions, and existence in humans and literature, as the topic of her doctorate.
I still don’t know if my friend would have been presumptuous or not in approaching Wright. I do not have lived experience of these institutions and their social codes; neither can I know how the individual would have reacted to being publicly recognised amidst their very private processes. But I do wish that my friend had by her side at that time a copy of Small Acts of Disappearance.
In one of the essays in the collection, ‘In Increments’, Wright describes the visceral experience of being admitted to a day program for eating disorders. This was years before the longer-stay program where my friend saw, but decided not to greet, her. During the program, Wright is questioned by the doctors for her garrulous attitude. She loses weight, and is kicked out. Desperate, she eats cake every day in an attempt to gain enough weight to be accepted back into sessions. She writes: “I cried a lot. ‘You’re living my dream,’ the dietician said. I smiled, though I wanted to slap her, and hard.”
Each of the essays in this collection covers a different element of illness: as it is seeded in youth; as it takes hold in uncertain times; as it is experienced as a foreigner; as it is treated by various practitioners. Wright also assesses the appearance of illness in fictional and nonfictional writings by writers such as Christina Stead, Carmel Bird, Tim Winton, John Berryman and Louise Glück. Anorexia is rendered with an honesty and humility I’ve never seen before, by descriptions of its contradictions, its inner complexities, its varying effects upon varied humans. It is seen within the context of addiction; of deception; of a desperately certain foundation amidst the life’s uncertainty. In an essay on the miniature, Wright explains the mistaken conflation of smallness with control:
This is a false and contradictory kind of command: the more control we try to exert over our eating and our food, the more our illness asserts itself and the less able we are to operate autonomously . . . We possess the world, perhaps, but in the process we are dispossessed of our own selves.
She was sick, with a denial of that sickness, for several years before the dispossession could be held apart and called what it was.
It would be irresponsible to discuss Small of Acts of Disappearance without an analysis of the societal structures that contributed towards its creation. Wright is capable of accessing healthcare treatments, despite the detriment their price tag has had upon her; however, not all who experience hunger may be able—financially or otherwise—to enter private healthcare. Australian eating disorder treatment in public systems is hard to reach, says Wright:
No state has more than about eight public hospital beds for adult eating disorder patients; these beds are all in locked psychiatric wards, the waiting lists are often up to thirty-six weeks long and only available to the critically underweight and medically imperilled. I had to fight, and fight hard, to get the treatment that I needed.
Small Acts of Disappearance is not social criticism and doesn’t claim to be; but considering the aforementioned limitations, it’s clear that institutional structures are in stark need of reform.
Wright also dissects hunger in the context of her stay in Sri Lanka, where many citizens go hungry without choosing to do so. She notes that the food she threw out in this time could have supported some of Sri Lanka’s homeless population. The disposal of resources is itself a privilege that is met with blankness by those who cannot afford waste. She writes: “In Colombo, my hunger was obscene. It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed . . . My own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me.”
If we are to utilise intersectionality in our reading of Wright’s essays, we must ask: How do class, education, whiteness, heteronormativity, ability, and other social factors influence mental health? How do they influence our capacity to access care, and feel safe doing so? How might someone of different circumstances experience anorexia or another hunger disorder? Wright notes, but does not try to speak for, the myriad embodiments of anorexia beyond her own. “Illness is a foreign country,” Wright declares in ‘In Group’. “We do things differently here.” And the natures of ‘hunger’ range as widely as that of the people who live alongside it.
Small Acts of Disappearance changed my ways of understanding food, vulnerability, and control. Midway through grocery shopping, I remembered Wright’s descriptions of the textures of food, “choking up in my throat, as glutinous as craft glue.” I thought twice about buying rice. I decided to try not to use the word ‘binge’ in casual conversation. ‘In Hospital’ mentions the shock Wright received encountering mainstream usages of sickness discourse, after finishing an eating program. “A waiter brought a brownie to my table with my coffee and called me ‘naughty’.”
I thought of my older sister the dietician, who conversationally agrees that most of her professional counterparts live with an eating disorder. I hate the way she stands in the family kitchen monitoring how much we serve ourselves for dinner, or expresses disgust if one of us buys an ice-cream. It occurs to me that although I have been hurt by my sister’s judgement, it may not have had much to do with me per se, but me as embodiment of how easy it is to become a size 10; how she conceptualises that being-ness as a fall from grace. There is no easy way of telling how my reading of Small Acts of Disappearance will change our relationship, but I hope it equips me with the grace to respond to her criticism with something other than anger.
Wright herself had misconceptions about the control of food: “I couldn’t see myself as one of those women—I thought that eating disorders only happen to women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid; it took me years to realise that the very opposite is true.”
If one of the key joys of literature is that it allows us to empathise with individuals that we would have otherwise dismissed or thought badly of, then Wright is dizzyingly successful. Just as it’s clear that she, the writer, is progressing away from the fear that her illness makes her one of ‘those women’, so am I, the reader, learning that my opinion about my sister is irrelevant. It’s now awkwardly clear that while my sister’s anxiety manifests itself in the stomach, mine does so elsewhere, and should be understood with no more or less gravity.
I read these essays as a poet, and also as someone with lived experience of other kinds of obsession. From both perspectives, Wright’s clarity and generosity of expression contribute towards the rendering of a resounding text. Within the urge to sate curiosity, to seek causes and convenient vocabulary, the reader encounters sentences built with years of thought: “I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible.”
Wright speaks eloquently of the ways we choose hunger. As a way of exercising agency in the midst of life’s pandemonium. As a reduction of the inelegancies of the self, its clumsy inaccuracies. As a method to focus. (“I still find it so difficult to think, to write, to work, after I eat; how my thinking feels so much sharper, more vivid, when I’m hungry.”) Wright’s ending essay, ‘In Hindsight’, contains the undeniably clear announcement: “When I was hungry, I felt alert and intense and alive along every inch of my skin, and I felt unassailable.” It is not difficult to apply these reasonings to other methods that we utilise to get on with our lives: exercise, medication, meditation, sex, alcohol; any number of the superstitions and rituals that we engage in to best let our creative projects blurt out from within us. All methods are flawed; but sometimes it’s the closest thing we’ve got to something that works.
EMMA ROSE SMITH writes manic poetry, smelly-lady nonfiction, and fiction that overuses the word ‘ululate’. She is often mistaken for a vegetarian. Her chapbooks and zines, including ‘Goonbag Mystic’, ‘Fingerbang’, ‘Pull Out the Pop-Schlop’, and ‘Pink Bets’ are available from her lounge room. She is starting a collaborative literary index of events and submissions (http://spokensydneystories.tumblr.com/), and drafting her first novel.
by Sarah Holland-Batt
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
The first poem of Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards provides a fitting opening for a collection so beautiful, so cold, and so much about the coldness of beauty. The eponymous jellyfish speaker of the poem ‘Medusa’ is unapologetically cerebral—‘a brain trailing its nettles’, a mind ‘vain and clear as melting ice’. So much so, in fact, that the speaker seems to exist as a drifting organ of ‘bitter reason’, separate from the organs where the capacity for feeling and compassion reside: the nerves ‘blooming around [it]’ and the soul which ‘billows out like hollow silk’.
One might dare to read the medusa of the poem as avatar for the poet persona. In a 2014 interview with Jacinta Le Plastrier published in Cordite, Holland-Batt remarked on the importance of the cerebral in her composition process: ‘My poems are acts of thinking […] I know that this is different for other poets, who are perhaps more impressionistic and have a more Romantic conception of their own poiesis. For me, writing poetry is a wholly conscious process […]’ (1)
Indeed, the overall tone of the collection is detached, rational. The poems are technically flawless, consistently gorgeous, but often unsettling. For if the poet is the predatory medusa, and by extension, the Medusa of Greek myth who turns the objects of her gaze into stone, then the implication is that poetry-making is as brutal as the paralysis of a hapless victim—the textual equivalent of turning the living into the statuesque dead. Poetry as enacted by The Hazards is premeditated violence. So is art at large, the collection posits, as well as the creation and appreciation of the beautiful in general. And it is this quality of calculated violence, this mingling of the cerebral and visceral, that makes The Hazards so powerful, so disquieting, so moving.
The intertwining of beauty and violence is most apparent in the poems ‘Approaching Paradise’ and ‘Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles’. The first poem reveals that death and pain are fundamental elements of a beach paradise:
You will find paradise in a whiting
drowning in a bucket of freshwater,
in the jammed blade of a fishscale
like quicklime under the thumb.
The sublime requires sacrificial victims: ‘the bloated body washed in’, ‘bikini-clad tourists jerked out by rips,’ and ‘A shark’s slit corpse […] / its head yanked on a hook like a sacrifice. / Its shank is smooth and black as paradise.’ (20)
In the second poem, art’s beauty makes the horrific pleasurable, admitting the imagination even to that ‘you do not want to enter’: gory alternate versions of the scene depicted in Goya’s La muerte del picador in which the bull dies instead; Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes before Klimt paints her portrait. Because of their beauty, ‘[t]hese things are easy to enter’. Slaughter is made bearable, its severity diminished: the speaker remembers a crow her father shot one Easter, ‘the tyranny of its open eye, / as wild and dark as anything’ belying the reality of its defeat.
Paradoxically, entering into another’s experience facilitates disengagement from it. And it is this unexpected pairing of entry with detachment that makes the collection’s take on violence and artistic beauty more than a mere parroting of W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which suggests that emotional detachment is born of an inability to enter into the experience of another. It is by entering into the mind of the concubine in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque that the poet-speaker of ‘Against Ingres’ carries out her own unflinching objectification. There is no sympathy here for the woman, no retrieval of her humanity. Even as we have access to her thoughts—her fellow concubines, the sultan’s garden, ‘fat, lazy Nilüfer who scratched graffiti into the walls’—she remains unsettlingly object-like, inhuman:
her back patient as polished maple,
a line the colour of buttered toast
unfurling down her spine in an arabesque
to her tailbone and buttocks,
which are long and slumberous as a mare’s.
The model may turn her back on Ingres to protect her inner life against ingress. But the poet’s breaching of that inner life, its historical canvas, enables her to enact a more thorough objectification still. Even when we know the woman’s mind, we find, ‘Here there is nothing’.
‘Reclining Nude’ is troubling for the same reason. The painter’s dehumanising of his model comes from a purposeful distancing, a refusal to engage emotionally with the woman he tells ‘to crawl, spread / her legs, grind her arse like a pig’:
She has kernelled another body in her body there,
perhaps one of his, it doesn’t matter, he can’t
remember if he has had her, the point is,
she understands largesse […]
But the poet goes further. She shows us glimpses of the model’s passage from pink girlhood into ‘monstrous’ obesity. She walks us down the fluorescent halls of the model’s dream life. She reveals to us that behind the model’s face, most likely ‘intelligence lives, / here the rational, the sceptical’. And because she is able to access the model’s interior in this way, her cruelty to the model far exceeds that of the painter: if he portrays the woman as grotesque simply because he does not care about her inner being, the poet portrays her as grotesque outside and in, ‘rump, hog, beast’ through and through.
It is by entering that art does its worst violence. Holland-Batt reveals how the several paintings that inspire ‘An Illustrated History of Settlement’ turn the scene of invasion into nothing more than landscape suitable for a picnic: ‘sky boiled’, ‘a choppy wedge’ of water, a black man with ‘a toothpick spear’. The invaders are rendered innocuous by colonial representations: ‘heads knotted with tidy black ribbons’, ‘[f]aces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness’:
This is where the eye enters.
And often leaves.
The Hazards exposes the mechanics by which cruelty is made breathtaking; and in doing so, is itself breathtakingly cruel. But this cruelty reaches almost unbearable levels when the poet-speaker, refusing to spare even her self, turns her own person into the object of infliction. In ‘No End to Images’, it is the speaker who is invaded—by a relentless stream of memories that strip her bare, transmuting her suffering into beauty for the reader’s benefit:
No end to the hour I stood and shook
like a leaf in the shower’s privacy,
no end to my name, snagged like a burr,
no end to the body which is colossally small
with its pains and plainer longings.
No end to grief, never any end to that.
‘The Invention of Ether’ (and its telling title) gives us insight into the attractions of of numbing oneself when the heartbroken ‘I’ still
[…] cling[s] to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.
Aid is found in the anesthetisation of the heart. And if protecting the self from invasion is to be gained only by invading the inner lives of others—probing their interior space to find relief in the coldness of intellectual exercise—then so be it.
‘Desert Pea’ is a sparse poem. Compact like its title, it is a mere page long, composed of ten two-line stanzas. It provides stark contrast to most of the other poems, their language opulent and luxurious and finely tuned, like clockwork nightingales. Nestled in the middle of the collection, it sets down in plain words the theme this review has spent over a thousand words elaborating: the refuge of the intellect in a world where raw experience simply cannot be borne.
I cannot stand
the certain world:
rock grass and thistle,
invading my eye.
Give me night, the stars
streaming past me
huge and soundless.
Give me the silence
of the mind.
1. Jacinta Le Plastrier interviews Sarah Holland-Batt in Cordite, 10/9/2014
TIFFANY TSAO received her PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Her written work includes literary criticism, fiction, poetry, reportage, and essays. She is Indonesia Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, an online literary journal specializing in contemporary world literature and translation.
by Ajay Navaria
Translated by Laura Brueck
Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN
Unclaimed Terrain by Ajay Navaria translated by Laura Brueck, and published in Australia by Giramondo cannot be described complacently as a ‘good read’. That is not what it set out to be. The stories are provocative and unsettling. There is serious heart- rending sadness in some and dark humour in others. Angry, lyrical, passionate, and political, the seven short stories published in the almost pocket-sized book demand a different kind of reading. This is indicated in the dedication in the book which reads, ‘To the characters in my stories, who fight for their dreams of justice, and to the tradition that teaches us to struggle for dignity, equality, and freedom.’ Solidarity with the Dalit (meaning the downtrodden) is established right in the beginning. This review begins by providing an overview of Dalit literature and then looks at one short story in some depth followed by a survey of some of the stories in the collection.
Since the 1960s, the work of Dalit writers began appearing in regional languages of India such as Marathi, Hindi, Tamil (earlier works have been recorded in Tamil), Telugu and others. In most Dalit writing the personal is political. The narrative of pain and misery, when told from the perspectives of characters in Dalit literature challenge upper caste values, the discourses of all religions and particularly, forces a reassessment of Hinduism as a peaceful religion. The national discourses of democracy and progress are also unsettled in the stories. The vulnerability of Dalit bodies, the difficult fight against untouchability, the struggle for education and access to even the most basic standards of living is painfully written into their stories. The accumulation of disturbing autobiographical details and a generous use of profanities disrupt the conventional reader’s expectations. These attributes define Ajay Navaria’s work.
Anand’s introduction brilliantly contextualises the collection and points to elements that are vital to the understanding of the stories. ‘Suffice it to say, every name emits a radioactive signal called caste. Every name is a parade of imagined history; the announcement of privilege or the lack of it’ (xii). The stories, indeed, parade the history of an oppressed people.
My favourite story in this collection is ‘Subcontinent’. It dazzlingly juxtaposes the past in the village that the protagonist and his family leave behind because of atrocities suffered, and the present with the trappings of middle class living made possible by a quota-enabled government job and a lecturer’s position in a city. There are a number of dimensions to the story, too intricate to deconstruct here. However, there is a glorious description of a dawn that captures with economy the trajectory of the story:
My eyes opened, and I saw a broken piece of the sky, quivering in the square of the window, trapped. An immense black cloud had seized the feeble sun and wrung it, breaking its legs. It seemed as if night were near, but suddenly a lone ray pierced the cloud like a horse and arced across the room. The whole room was a-shimmer in the din of hooves as if lit by the wavering flame of an oil lamp, unsteady but continuing to burn. Perhaps this horse did belong to the sun –the lone, seventh horse of the Sun God’s chariot.
The ‘seventh horse’ evokes memories of the famous Indian film director, Shyam Benegal, who captured the realities of the lives of victims of high caste violence. His film ‘The Sun God’s seventh horse’ gestures towards the need to take action and the necessity of retelling stories from different perspectives. In this short story, the protagonist sets out to do just this.
The story uses flashback and techniques of stream-of-consciousness to tell the story of Nankya, the Dalit bridegroom who transgresses caste rules by riding a horse to his wedding. A harsh punishment follows: assault, rape, extortion and a deep emotional scar that remains unhealed long after the incidents are over. The village panchayat members, the panditji (priest) and the police are the perpetrators or are complicit in the atrocious acts. Years later when the protagonist, a victim of the assault, Siddharth Nirmal, becomes a Marketing Manager and reflects on the incident, he is still unable to control his rage. He rejects his ‘lowly Hindu roots’ and embraces the slogan, ‘Jai Bhim’ to celebrate Ambedkar as his hero. The story ends with Siddharth plotting ways of seeking revenge.
Navaria uses intertexuality, as a literary technique that recalls other texts from different perspectives. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Navaria rewrites the story of Mangal an orphan, a character out of Premchand’s story. Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) was an acclaimed Hindi writer considered to be progressive for the era he lived in. In Premchand’s story low caste characters such as Ghisu and Madhav, who are sweepers, are delineated as incorrigible villains. In ‘Hello Premchand’, Ghisu and Madhav are given dignity. The pre-determined fate that, ‘a bhangi will always be bhangi’ is dismantled in ‘Hello Premchand’. There is a twist in the tale. By refusing to be a night soil carrier and a sweeper, by gaining education and migrating to a city, Mangal lays claim to equality with the upper caste members in his village. The story signals a re-envisioning of possibilities for Dalits in modern India.
The message in ‘Hello Premchand’ is destabilized in ‘Scream’. The nameless protagonist seeks to educate himself, but the day before his secondary school exams is sodomised by thugs belonging to a higher caste in his village. Despite this traumatic incident, he finishes his education with the help of Christian priests, but is compelled to migrate to Mumbai, to prepare for his civil service exams. Instead, he becomes a gigolo, but falls in love with a woman whose husband kills him out of jealousy. It is the ghost of the protagonist who narrates the story. For me, the story is a bit contrived and misses some of the narrative possibilities that it creates. However, there are other stories that tell interesting tales with great economy and irony.
‘Yes Sir’ views the Dalit plight with sardonic humour. The Brahmin peon Tiwari waits on his lower caste boss, Narottam Saroj, Deputy General Manager, with uttermost resentment. A kind act on the part of Narottam, brings about a change in Tiwari, so that the grateful Brahmin peon, gushes about repairing the low caste Narottam’s toilet. A tongue-in-cheek role reversal is enacted in the story.
‘Sacrifice’ is a heart rending story of a little boy having to surrender his pet goat. Not only does he have to give up his pet, he is also forced to hold onto its legs as the animal is slaughtered. There is a parallel tale of a Dalit man having to give up his love to her heartless high caste relatives. The story weaves together notions of betrayal, guilt and reflections on common sense of humanity.
‘New Custom’ is a well-crafted story that examines the prejudice that a Dalit academic suffers as an ‘untouchable’. Despite being an educated man and having achieved success, in his village, he is is not allowed to forget that he is ‘untouchable’. ‘Tattoo’ beautifully captures the anxieties of a Dalit man who joins a gym. He is mortified that the smart looking customer service officer would find out that he belongs to a low caste from the tattoo on his forearm. He is equally embarrassed about his gym shoes which he polishes endlessly but refuses to get new ones. There is an unexpected turn of events. The light hearted ending is a welcome change.
Overall, Ajay Navaria’s fascinating and disturbing collection of short stories adds to the growing body of the rich Dalit writing that exists. Dalit literature is becoming part of the curriculum in Indian universities and there is a growing interest in Dalit literature abroad. Laura Brueck’s translation captures the nuances and subtleties of Hindi very competently in English. Giramondo makes a remarkable contribution to Dalit writing by publishing this outstanding collection and a laudable service to Australian readers by bringing the collection of stories to Australian shores.
MEETA CHATTERJEE-PADMANABHAN is a lecturer in the academic language and literacy at the University of Wollongong, NSW.
Behrouz Boochani graduated from Tarbiat Madares University in Tehran with a Masters Degree in Political Geography and Geopolitics. He hoped to complete a PhD however due to the political nature of his writing as well as the discrimination against, and genocidal practices of the Iranian regime toward the Kurdish people he was prevented from doing this. Mr Boochani began working as a journalist both freelance and for various newspapers in Iran. His passion is the revival of Kurdish language and culture, a culture suffering under the practices of genocide for centuries. For many years Boochani would secretly teach children and adults their mother language, a particular Kurdish dialect from the region of Ilam. Behrouz Boochani also founded, edited and wrote for the Kurdish language magazine, Werya. He has been incarcerated in Manus Island Detention camp for almost 28 months now. During his time in the camp he has continued to write about the human rights abuses he and hundreds of other men experience daily. He passes much of this information to Australian and international journalists. Bocchani also continues to write about the land of his belonging, Kurdistan, culture, politics and language. His articles are published in Kurdish newspapers and online journals. PEN International is calling for his request for asylum in Australia to be determined urgently.
The airport was entirely empty and quiet. There was only a propeller aircraft that was supposed to take us to a far-flung island. I became restless again. I wanted those officers to get on the plane quickly and take us on board so that then the airplane would fly.
I love flying.
The atmosphere was too heavy for me, particularly with the presence of those vultures standing right beside the plane and toying with their cameras. With their crammed back packs, the officers boarded the plane. They were like soldiers ready to be sent into a battlefield. Some of the officers were shaking hands with the reporters. I felt that they were partners in crime.
F was the first person to board the plane. He needed to walk approximately fifty meters between the bus and the plane’s stairs. The officers had parked the bus far from the plane on purpose in order to make us feel deeply humiliated. Two muscular officers put their hands under F’s shoulder and took him to the plane in an extremely degrading manner. Although F was a tall person, he was like a fawn, a prey for two wild lions: the two officers who held him firmly dragged him towards the stairs. Those reporters too, focussed all their energies into taking the last photos of us, so as to not loose those pure moments.
I was confident that they enjoyed destroying our human dignity. It was clear that F stepped reluctantly, however, it did not make any difference since those two giants were taking him by the arm. They did not care about him. They took him like a piece of flesh to the plane at a steady speed. When they approached the stairs, two other men took F up the stairs. There was another person waiting for them at the top of the stairs who was filming everything. It was the scene of the day repeated every two minutes. The only difference was that one piece of flesh changed its place with another piece of flesh.
An image of F was flashing through my mind: I saw him sitting on the bow of the boat continually looking to the front and sometimes at his watch. I even recalled his repetitive questions: ‘How far is Australia?’ I remembered, too, that night, the last night, when he remained grimly silent as the hurricane hit the boat. He was holding me with his two hands in a dreadful darkness. He was frightened. Now, all his agonies had ended here. In that scene, he looked more like a dangerous murderer who should be tied as he was moved by two muscular men. These events were all taking place in the land of Australia. They were taking place in the Australia that F had counted down the minutes until he arrived. He had survived such deep fear because of this ambition.
It was the Myanmarese’s turn. He seemed weaker than the others. He was short and skinny. After taking some steps, he was shaky on his feet and was about to fall down. The officers raised him up. He was more like a person who is being taken to the gallows. When I was in Iran, I had seen a similar scene. I wished the man would not reveal his weakness and confusion. He had been a brave person whose courage crumbled. He was the one who had traversed the ocean. He should not have been scared of an absurd tumult and cruel cameras. He needed to try to summon his remaining courage and act in a stronger manner. He took a couple of steps further, turned his head and looked at our bus. It seemed he had left someone or something behind. Or maybe, he could not find anything or anyone to lean on in those debilitating moments, except us. Yes, he did not breathe a word during the half day we had been corralled and we had considered him as a stranger. We had not even offered a puff of the cigarette. We were the only people that he knew in this short time. We had a shared grief. We were all in the same boat. He was about to be thrown in to a dark and unknown future; a future which was supposed to continue on an Island. During the rest of his journey to the plane’s stairs he was more like prey dragging along the ground. There was no determination in his feet. He did not even take a single step. After a while, he was on board.
After some others, my number was called: MEG45. I got used to that number eventually. They regarded us only as numbers, no more than that, and I had to set my name aside for a long time. When I was called, my ears started moving. My name, which was a part of my identity was of no use, and all day long, sometimes, nobody even once called me Behrouz. I tried to attribute a new meaning to the nonsense number with my imagination. For instance, Mr Meg. But there were many people like me: Meg. What could I do with that rubbish number! Throughout the whole of my life I had always hated figures and maths but now I was forced to carry this number. It weighed on my soul and I had no remedy but to bear its heaviness. At last I tried to make the number relevant to an important historical event. Nothing came into my mind other than the end of the Second World War in 1945. However, whoever I was or whatever I think, the number was announced and MEG45 had to follow a route which F and others had taken before.
I confess that I was stressed out, a feeling that combined with anger and ended up as a lump, a piece of sorrow that pressed my throat. What crime did I commit that they wanted to take me by my arms on board? If they had shown me the way, I would have happily sprinted towards the plane and got on it. This situation reminded me of the desperate Myanmarese guy. I thought: I must not appear weak in front of all these eyes gazing at me. I’d had similar experiences in more dreadful circumstances. At least this time I had been eating food for a month; I had a bit of colour on my face and my body did not stink of ooze. However, what could I do with my clothes? A yellow t-shirt which was two times bigger than me reached down to my knees. Clack clack was heard, when I walked with the thongs. My appearance was like nobody. I had never seen anyone dressed up in that way. For example, the short sleeves reached down to my wrist. It was a terrible combination of colours: a yellow t-shirt, black shorts and bare feet which ended in a pair of thongs. By wearing those clothes I was degraded in practice, no matter who I was or what thoughts I had.
Put what I just mentioned aside. How on earth could I pass through in front of so many cameras? Particularly, those young and blonde girls who were extremely excited about taking photos, photos closer than close. I must not reveal my weakness. Finally I took a leap in the dark and got off the bus. Those two giants were waiting for me. All of a sudden, they locked their arms around mine and moved towards the plane. I held my head high and took long steps in order to finish the torturous scene as soon as I could.
I passed the interpreters firstly. They were dressed in green clothes and were standing watching us without any reason. Maybe they wanted to come to Manus Island with us. They did not look like passengers. I glanced over at the interpreter who seemed not to intend leaving us. There were nothing in her face. Even her smile which had previously formed as a question in my mind in the first place, disappeared. I was unable to understand her; she was highly ambiguous. She seemed both careless and worried. Perhaps, what made her look even heavier was what I felt was a common agony in her black eyes. It was an agony that had caused me to get further and further away from my past and the land that I belong to. There was no doubt that she went through agony like me just because of being labelled as Kurd, being labelled a greedy creature in the Middle East, the one who has always been a fly in the ointment for governments; who is always talking about strange topics like freedom and democracy. Once, she had abandoned everything like me and come to Australia. No matter what means she used to get here, whether a decayed boat or a plane, by looking at her, I felt that I reminded her of a bygone pain. I felt I reminded her of the days that she was considered an extra creature in the Middle East. I felt that this concept evoked in her a feeling of hatred and sympathy towards me.
We approached the reporters. One of the blonde girls took some steps closer and while she was kneeling she took some artistic masterpiece photos of my ridiculous face. She was definitely able to create a wonderful scene. She would show it to her editor and would be praised by him or her. In a shot from a bottom angle, my thin body was undoubtedly a masterpiece in those loose-fitting and slovenly clothes. I still held my head high and mounted the plane’s stairs with a sense of pride. But those steps were more like the steps of a person who was running away.
I finally got on board. I was directed to my seat and collapsed in a heap. There was no sign of my false pride anymore and I kept my head down. A degraded person, someone who had been humiliated and become worthless. Someone who felt all those people either sniggered in their minds or perhaps cried for him. Through looking at my unkempt appearance and seeing those two officers who pulled me like a dangerous criminal, people should hate coming to Australia. I was the one who ought to make them detest the idea of coming there. The piece of sorrow grew several times as much in my throat and was about to suffocate me. I took some deep breaths so that a part of it might find a way outside and make me breathe easier. After a while, the ex-jailer from Iran who was with us also came on board but no longer chattering and laughing like he had during that day. He sat next to me.
The number of officers on board was the same as us. Two officers sat down on two seats next to the ex-jailor and I. They were watching us carefully in order to avoid us conducting any dangerous activities or misbehaviour. After a while, the plane took off and climbed. We got far and farther away from Christmas island; the island we had almost died in the ocean to reach.
(translated from Farsi to English by Moones Mansoubi)
by Libby Hart
Pitt Street Poetry
ISBN 9781922080387 (paperback)
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR-JOHNSON
To say that Libby Hart’s third book of poetry, Wild, was a highly anticipated one is to take into account that her first book, Fresh News from the Artic, won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize, while her second, This Floating World, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and the Age book of the Year Awards. In my opinion, Wild is the best Libby Hart book to date.
Wild speaks of the animals: from the whale to the horse, from wolf to fox, and especially the birds. The poems are layered in their depiction of creature as majestic singular and as creature connected to humankind, heaven and the earth. Some poems deal with humans as the ‘wild’ or nature and the cosmos as the ‘wild’, but still there is a dependency on animals. The opening poem sets us up for the interconnection:
this is where the whirlwind stops.
Right here, among dark incantation.
Look around you, use those grizzly eyes,
for soon you’ll turn polar – a bulk of light
with clumsy paws. The blood-thud of constellation
shall roar inside your ears.
The poem is called ‘Ursa Major: Ursus arctos horribilis’, referencing both the constellation (which translates to ‘larger she-bear’, part of which forms the Big Dipper in North America and the Plough in the UK) and the grizzly bear. The title is of the heavens while the subtitle is the earth-bound animal. In this poem, one cannot live without the other, thus the subject and object become confused, morphing into one and the same.
The titles of all of the poems in the first section follow this twofold rule: the main title references the poem in much the way any title of a poem would, while the subtitle gives the Latin, scientific name to add complexity to the reading. The subtitles also work, however, to consolidate and simplify meaning. Take, for example, ‘Vespers: Hirundo rustica’, translated as ‘Vespers: Swallow’:
A spell of words
then a loosening of fault line,
black miracles spill from my breast.
One hundred swallows
ravenous and open-mouthed,
each menace of wing eye-loaded apparition.
Calligraphy of wildings,
auguries of the oldest longing,
dark lessons skimming the squat field.
The line between the hearing of vespers and the watching of birds is blurred in the first stanza, allowing the rest of the poem to exist in a complemented state of beauty and spirituality, so meaning becomes complete through interconnectivity. Consequently, there is such a bird as a vesper sparrow, making Hart’s choice of swallow an interesting one.
This first section of the book is called ‘Huginn and Muninn’, after the Norse myth of two ravens that fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. ‘Huginn’ is Old Norse for ‘thought’, while ‘Muninn’ is Old Norse for ‘memory’ or ‘mind’. In the book’s notes, Hart writes that the ravens ‘whisper the things they have seen or heard,’ and that the poems ‘are to be read as such whispers.’ When I ask myself what it is I like so much about Libby Hart’s poetry – and this would answer to all three of her books, but especially Wild – I have to answer that it is her power to whisper. She seems to do this in every poem, whether they are in the first section or the second (the later, ‘Murmurations’, maintains the theme and character of the book but loses the subtitle and gains some urbanness).
‘Stag: Cervus elaphus’ begins and ends with the imperative ‘Hold still’. This works to capture a place of tranquility at the start, where the stag is imposing, royal, superb. The repetition at the end forces us to take in that image again, and it as if we are inhaling one last time before we finish reading the poem, before the stag disappears. The mood then, it must be said, is like a whisper.
In the title ‘And then, and then’ repetition works as well, though this time we are left with an invisible ellipses, punctuation which suggests something further, though not of a new course and not definite, either. A whisper, rather than a shout.
‘Augury’ uses the third stanza as a whisper:
I have touched the lightning-struck tree.
I have spilt salt and broken mirror.
I have watched animals flee woodland.
And every treat grew to calamity—
to veiled message, winged riddle.
All of these actions suggest, as the poem says, calamity. However the word ‘veiled’ works with transparency while ‘winged’ works with wind, so the resultant calamity is not what one would expect. It is quieter. Working with strong action verbs throughout (‘spilt’, ‘broken’, ‘flee’) and ending with no verb at all leaves us with an image, rather than a scene, suggesting, again, something akin to a visual whisper.
In ‘Buffalo’, ‘a dark hale hollers’ more than once and in return, dead things like ‘bones’ and ‘bundles of pelts’ listen. The leading verb is piercing while the ensuing is muted, the dichotomous placement encouraging the quiet to triumph.
Even the cover of the book works with a whisper’s tone: the implication of the title ‘Wild’ in great contrast with its plain text and bottom-left positioning and the predominantly blank white canvas.
As with her other books, place is important, and though Hart is a fine example of a major Australian poet, there is very little ‘Australia’ to her poetry. Wild is dominantly an ode to Ireland and the animals, the birds, the nature and the northern stars the poet encounters there. Hart once told me that she feels as if she’s in exile from Ireland, unable to live in her own spiritual home because of citizenship. Some researchers of diaspora might find fault in that, but most poets probably won’t, home becoming metaphorically, rather than historically, positioned. Poetry allows these substitutes and thus opens up definitions. What I get out of Hart’s connection to Ireland is a deep and thirsty respect coated in a thick fog of longing. Her depictions of the foreignness feel local and her references to Irish poets are many.
In fact she references many poets in her work, quoting them, responding to them and remembering them, and the range is vast, from the Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, to the contemporary Sarah Jackson. So too does she write about writing and the creative process, though these poems are subtle in their motif as they reference mythology, folklore and history – another complex layering of interconnectedness: this one between poet and who came before.
This is another fine book from Pitt Street Poetry, and Libby Hart a perfect addition to the Pitt Street poets. I hope all involved are gearing up for a long shelf-life, commendations and future reprints.
HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON is the author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Pursuing Love and Death, HarperCollins.
She is editing an anthology of poems on disability, The Fractured Self.
Robert Wood grew up in a multicultural household in Perth. He holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. He has edited for Margaret River Press, Wild Dingo Press and Overland, and volunteered for the Small Press Network, Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Books through Bars. He has published work in literary journals such as Southerly, Plumwood Mountain and Counterpunch and a academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research. He currently hosts a reading and conversation series at The School of Life and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
What is the hybrid to do?
I have passed as a white man for most of my life. I have a name – Robert Wood – that is invisible in the hegemonic Anglo society of suburban Australia. I have a body that if a little tanned, a little hook nosed, a little ‘Latin’ or ‘Mediterranean’, is nevertheless unthreateningly, benignly unnoticeable. I present in dress and language, in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, as white. But I am also a person of colour. My mother is brown. She is Malayalee from Kerala in South India. Although there are degrees of complexity and complexion in the vales and folds of family history, through her I participate in a network of colouredness. Colouredness means both the aesthetic reality of the body itself, how we look, and the political meaning of bodies, how we are represented. In other words my mother’s skin is literally not ‘white’ (or for that matter ‘pink’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’) and we have a shared history of colonial oppression that is racially based, which involves the British, the Portugese and northern India.
When I was young my mother’s parents, in sari and tracksuit pants, migrated to Australia. They had come to die where their children had come to live. My grandparents were from adjoining fishing villages ‘close’ to what is now Thiruvananthapuram. They grew up in an era before Indian independence and had markedly divergent political attitudes towards colonialism. My grandfather, Winifred, dark as the ace of spades, was an Anglophile. When I went back to his village in 2012, people said I looked just like him, ‘except he was an African’. These old people – my distant relations and my grandfather’s friends – laughed about who my grandfather was: how he would wear white linen suits, how he listened to classical music, how he drank gin and tonics. He was attracted in part to my grandmother, Gertrude, because her skin was so fair. She meanwhile was an Indian nationalist, a passionate supporter of unions, a radical opposed to the British occupation. I don’t know enough to understand what bound them together but there must have been something to allow those paradoxes of body, of ideology to be united.
Their children – my mother and my aunts – had come to Australia when the White Australia Policy ended in 1974. Some of them were early international students at universities; others came and began work straight away. Their story over the last forty years resonates with the known narrative of migration – hard work, education, opportunity – and they have, in their own definition, been successful. But their story also has its particular idiosyncrasies and challenges. Before Australia my Uncle Eddie, for example, had moved to Singapore and was Lee Kwan Yu’s bodyguard for a number of years. A committed socialist, his contribution to a newly independent nation was to keep the leader safe. He read what Lee Kwan Yu read; he ate what Lee Kwan Yu ate; he slept on a cot at the foot of Lee Kwan Yu’s bedroom door. When he came to Australia, the only job he could get was at Midland Brickworks. The racism from other workers there was a long way from the multicultural, red left utopia he thought he was helping to build in South East Asia. These are the personal takes on a story, increasingly told, about what it is to migrate to Australia.
I knew I was not quite white from very early on. My mother’s family, from midnight to caramel to café au lait, was a chocolate box of brownness. There were gingers and blondes and brunettes in my father’s family, but Mum’s made me realise that diversity is skin deep. It was home to me. It still is. In other societies and times I would not be allowed to exist; the brown would be far away from the white. When my family went to South Africa in 2001 we often found we were the only mixed race, the only ‘coloured’ family in various bourgeois restaurants. Class was now doing the role of race. There was a palpable sense of unease at our presence. We were in a sea of tense, paranoid, leftover apartheid beneficiaries, many of whom have subsequently made sunny Perth their putative home.
But it did not take a trip to South Africa to realise I was not white and that being non-white was different. We knew this when our grandparents dropped us at school, when we opened our lunchboxes, when we went to friend’s family homes with their saccharine smell sans spice. This is not to say I had white friends only but that we were not people like them. But it was a source of strength for the most part. This is not to say there are not structural forms of racism that one experiences personally, but that one’s identity is formed partly by familial recognition, solidarity and validation.
In thinking through identity though, in thinking through what I am, I am first led towards clichés. The phrase that seems to be deployed most often is ‘walking in two worlds’. In Australia this is used particularly often for Indigenous people, but one can discern it in post-colonial conversations as well. I have a mata mata brother-in-law who is half Ngarluma (Aboriginal) and half white (mongrel Irish, French, English). Although people no longer use this phrase, he, like me on a different axis, is a ‘half-caste’. We could be forgiven for thinking that ‘we walk in two worlds’. In a more intellectual iteration, this might be ‘hybrid’. But hybrid unifies the duality of the two worlds phrase, it seeks to bring together the ‘double consciousness’ that half-halfs seem to have and so it is distinct. Hybridity too, in the literary theory of Homi Bhabha, seems to represent a process over time rather than a state of being. We are apparently creating a new mode of interaction that is neither here nor there. This may account for the either/or discussion that happens, whereby one says I am proud of my heritage or I am in conflict. But people feel various points at various times and I often think of myself ‘homonymically’.
A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. It is about unity (of sound and spelling) and multiplicity (of meaning). It is then not about two autonomous histories coming together in one body, about my parents as individuals who come from separate, independent places, but about how they have always been linked dialogically and materially. There has always been a little bit of curry in Scotland, always a little bit of whiskey in Kerala. Water connects us all.
Passing, of course, has a long and complicated global history including for African American communities, for Anglo-Indian people, for Indigenous Stolen Generations. Colouredness used to be a secret to keep hidden because there were material advantages to presenting as white. That has most certainly changed due in part to the end of White Australia, Civil Rights, Land Rights, ‘black is beautiful’, United Colours of Bennetton as well as the material opportunities afforded to Othered subjects by a whole host of cultural, economic and political changes. Now there is cultural capital to be gained from identifying as a person of colour, even as we should think of it as a heuristic and imperfect category. In the Australian conversation, the myth we have of being white, of being a European or American society has been discredited, but it lingers in television, in corporate boardrooms, in advertising, in cricket, in mining. It is not only about placing people of colour in the conversation but about changing the frame of representation to begin with. We don’t need to assimilate to it; it needs to accommodate us.
Indians now have recently outpaced English people as the source of new migrants in Australia. This is only surprising to me in that English people had clung on for so long. Of course I knew there were whites arriving here, aiming for a slice of the good-Home-and-Away-sunny-side-of-the-street-hot-pie-cold-beer-roses-out-front-green-lawn-out-back-red-brick-own-your-own-home-life, but I had not believed they were still the source of so many new arrivals. That the biggest group of ‘illegals’ in Australia are backpackers from the United Kingdom who overstay their visa is a fact worth highlighting publicly, if only to reinforce the claim that Australia is structurally racist. Why one rule for someone fleeing persecution who happens to be brown as opposed to someone larking about on the beach who happens to be white? Australia still seems to be a paradise for the white working man.
I though in other conditions, conditions of my own making, see myself as a white man. It is not without some hesitation that I identify as such, if only because being a white man now means, in certain circles, prostrating for one’s historical sins. And well they/we should. What white men fail to see, what are invisible, are their forms of group solidarity, their shared experiences of the body, their political ideation as collective rather than as individual subjects. If us people of colour have historically been stereotyped and viewed as a group lacking individual identification, white men have rejoiced in the opposite. I do though reflect on my father’s position and heritage. I drink whiskey and think of the fatherland, I read Robbie Burns and think of the fatherland, I get angry at the fatherland as an interested and invested party.
I was living in New Delhi at the time of all the ‘curry bashing’ in Melbourne, 2009. Front page after front page in India was filled with commentary about racist Australia. It was shaming but it corroborated personal experiences. I remember visiting my teenage cousin in hospital when I was a child because a football team had beaten him up in a racially motivated attack on the streets of Cottesloe. In 2009 though, Indian newspapers showed Indians in Australia protesting and mass rallies against violence. As heartening to see this pushback, it was to my mind only the opening of a possible conversation about anti-violence has not yet been taken up in a lasting way. That initial energy has not coalesced into meaningful institutional and cohesive forms of anti-racism. That is surely the task now: To not only take these disparate experiences into the cultural conversation but then to politicise what it means to be coloured in Australia in a way that has lasting material impacts.
By virtue of shared experience and bodily aesthetics there are bridges to build between people of Indian origin and other communities too. When I visited Broome I was assailed by long lost family members from my mind. Who were all these South Indians I thought looking at the faces of local Indigenous people? That people of colour may translate well to certain Indigenous communities is important for allowing us to consider possibilities for addressing the ills of modern Australia. In my interactions in the Pilbara, locals respond very differently by virtue of skin. There is solidarity between brown bodies there that needs exploring.
For years I have been reluctant to identify myself as a person of colour. This is because I want to be recognised on my own terms, as an individual rather than as a set of histories or a position in the world. I have, in other words, wanted to be white where my identity is all but invisible and I can proclaim my universality without consideration or conscience. But the body returns, heritage returns. There is opportunity to think through what it means to be neither/nor, either/or, two worlds, hybrid, homonymic, dialogic, multiple. And in a style that breaks down the assumption that people can only be one thing, that identity is fixed and personal rather than mutating and structural.
Welsh-born Olivia Rushin lives in Brisbane and is currently studying a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and Arts (Writing) at the University of Queensland. She’s been a bakery assistant for more years than anyone should, but did spend her gap year traveling and working in Germany, so it’s not all bread.
There’s something about the river. Peg wades out of its grip and runs home.
She runs because she has to, because the sky is turning and the gaslights on this side of the city are few and far between. The rows of terraced houses hum like a hive. Numb old men with leaden tongues are having a pissing contest in the gutter, and a one-armed child squats and strains on the cobblestones nearby. Peg sidesteps sleeping bodies and ducks the cords of neglected clotheslines. She pelts from one lamppost to the next, below factory chimneys that pipe scud into the clouds.
Home is in the west, detached from the city, where the dark gaps between streetlights hide only trellises of jessamines and honey-suckle, and the husks of sleeping carriages. Peg scrabbles onto the slate roof outside her sister’s room, and her wet hands squeal on the sash window as she slips in through the gap. The west wind streams in after her, swills around the walls like freshwater, spits the stale air out onto the street.
There’s movement from the four-poster inside, and Amy’s head lifts into view.
“I’m dripping all over,” says Peg. “Need a blanket.”
She catches the flying bundle with one hand and sops up the puddle at her feet; wrings out her sodden dress.
“You went to the river again,” says Amy.
The river, the river. Her milky little grin floats in the darkness.
“What was it like?”
Peg’s stomach shifts; she can’t stand that awed look.
“Tell me,” says Amy.
The crescents of Peg’s nails are packed stiff with silt the colour of boiled tealeaves, but it tastes like coal and grease and riverweed when she bites it out. The grit crunches between her teeth.
“It’s beautiful,” she says eventually, spitting into her sleeve. “Really.”
“But beautiful how?”
“Beautiful same as last time. You know I can’t describe it how you like.”
“In the morning, maybe,” says Peg. She helps Amy shift onto her side, so the bedsores won’t scab onto the sheets. “You should be asleep. But I have something for you first. For your collection.”
She tips a faceted gem of river-glass, scarlet and glinting, onto her sister’s palm.
Amy is breathless. “Is it a real ruby?”
“Looks that way,” says Peg. “And it was only a shard of old bottle when I threw it in.”
Amy finishes inspecting the thing and solemnly hands it over.
“Put it with the others.”
Peg crosses the room, sets the glass ruby on the shelf. It rolls on its axis and settles beside a whittled coil of wood that hadn’t started out that way at all; the first thing Peg ever fished out of the river’s hungry tongue.
She’d thrown it in up by the overgrown thicket near Cotchett’s old mill, for no reason, really. It was a crude hunk of oak she’d hacked out of a trunk with a sharpened butter knife, and throwing it into the river had just been something to do. She’d chased after it along the bank, past the steep slant of the weir, and fished it out where it surfaced in that eddy down by the millstream, right in the tailrace of Lombe’s silk mill. By then, something about the river had changed the simple thing – found it, drowned it, chewed it up and spat it out – and it was a perfect spiral, carved of oak.
Further along the shelf is what used to be the jawbone of a cow, until the river decided it should be a fine-toothed comb. Beside that is a goatskin pouch that went in empty and resurfaced full of glass marbles, and a broken tile of red brick that came back monogrammed with the letter ‘A’ in cursive. Peg feeds things to the river, they come out better. Changed.
“I want to see it,” says Amy behind her. “Peggy? The river. You have to take me with you.”
The air suddenly seems stale again, stagnant. For a moment, Peg seethes, heaves at the unfairness of all these pretty things destined to die here on the shelf. Better if they’d sunk and stayed like they were supposed to, or been swept all those miles and dumped out at sea. The ruby glares back at her. Peg calms, and turns.
She carries Amy downstairs, outside, and slowly back east. Amy hugs onto her neck at first but falls asleep before they reach the slums. Hollow eyes blink awake, tracking them through the streets, and the fetid air hangs heavy in their wake. Peg’s glad Amy misses it. Her little head is still limp against her chest when they emerge from the thicket by the mill and step out onto the slippery rocks.
The cracked glaze of Amy’s prosthetic gleams pearlescent in the moonlight. Their father used to boast that it was made from Derby’s finest porcelain. A fired composite of ground glass, eggshell, and human ash, he’d said, and Amelia should be proud to have such a pretty thing for a leg. She’ll never be confused for one of those mutilated urchins again.
He might have mentioned how she’d never be able to walk again either, for fear of shattering. How the socket joint of her porcelain knee would shriek and scrape whenever she tried to stand, grinding away at itself like a mortar and pestle. How Peg would have to watch her sister grow smaller and paler with every passing day, living only off second-hand stories about the magic of a black river and a promise that one day she’d see it for herself.
The rapids roar as they take Amy away. Peg pounds along the bank; races them downstream as they surge over the weir and into the eddy by the millstream. She squats there and waits – at the foot of the great waterwheel, always turning, churning – but all that washes up is white porcelain dust that sifts through her fingers and is gone.
by Khulud Khamis
Reviewed by SELMA DABBAGH
The protagonist of Khulud Khamis’s first novel, Haifa Fragments, Maisoon, is a jewellery designer and her story resembles an assemblage on a jeweller’s worktop; a thickly strung necklace that tailors off without a clasp, several loose, coloured stones lying around and about it – glass fragments and dark shards among textured stones.
Khulud Khamis is the first Palestinian women writer with Israeli citizenship I have come across. Several of the most prominent Palestinian writers hold Israeli citizenship, being from ’48 Palestine (i.e. present day Israel); Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and Said Kashua. Shammas and Kashua write in Hebrew. All three are male. Their gender is not necessarily relevant, as a writer who believes that it is the way that texts are read, rather than written, that is gendered. It is, however, relevant to Khamis’ work as her focus is very much the feminine, the female, the sensual and the sexual. One senses that this work, despite being fictionalised, draws heavily on her own autobiographical experience, dealing with her everyday life as a young woman of Palestinian origin living in Haifa: a Christian, an Arab, a person with a negated past, a subject of discrimination, second class and potentially a security threat. The challenge that Maisoon takes on lustily, is to not to allow any of these labels to define her. Working against the confines of family, partnerships, territorial borders, checkpoints and gender roles Maisoon emerges as a hedonistic free spirit, with an eye for beauty, a commitment to change, an extraordinary talent for design and an ability to change the perceptions of others around her, through kindness, patience, hard work and generosity.
There is no definitive plot line in Haifa Fragments. It is a late coming of age novel; an existing relationship with a man is redefined, the acceptance and love of family is renegotiated, a woman is loved, bedded and enabled to move on, with nothing but friendship and good will between the two of them, a Jewish woman supports Maisoon and learns (and profits) from the process. To reveal these steps does not spoil the book, for it is evident from the opening pages that little hardship will befall those who come within Maisoon’s orbit. Unlike most novels set in the Arab world where the female characters are romantically hung up and sexually gauche, Maisoon even forgets that there is a man in bed with her, ‘The alarm clock went off at 3:45. Maisoon fumbled in the dark, brushing her arm on something warm and hairy. Yamma! She forgot ZIyad was spending the night.’
This book is very different from one with a similar title, Beirut Fragments, (1990, Persea Books) written by another Palestinian Christian woman living across a border, Jean Said Makdisi. Makdisi’s work is sharper in observation and reportage, but her ambitions are also very different to those of Khamis. Khamis appears intent on humanizing, softening and showing beauty and hope in an ongoing situation of inequality. Said Makdisi’s book is labeled as a ‘war memoir,’ Khamis’ is no such thing.
It is not easy to avoid dates, political events and national catastrophes in Palestinian literature, but Khamis is determined not to catalogue or explain out. The work is contemporary and those who are familiar with the political background would be able to place events that are alluded to, but this vibrant novel is completely open to those with little or no knowledge of Palestinian history. It does not seek to instruct the reader, but allows them to understand how a reality can feel, how it impacts behavior, relationships and allegiances. Everything is political and yet many of the key aspects of Maisoon’s life (family, lovers, work) aren’t overtly so. There is a luxury, Khamis concedes, in having the status that she has, as a second-class citizen of a state, rather than as a subject of occupation. She can struggle to live as fully as she desires, but she does not have to struggle to survive and she appreciates the space allowed to her not to have to do so.
For all Palestinians, there was a moment in their own or their family’s history when their parents or grandparents were faced with a decision: to stay or to go. The process of dispossession is ongoing and unrelenting and many (in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem) are still forced to consider this question every day. In Maisoon’s family the last battle of Haifa is described as the time when her family had to decide whether to leave and despite the fearful ‘barrels that were rolled down from Share’a El-Jabal,’ Maisoon’s family stayed. They even stay in the same house. This potentially sounds banal, but the references to the house, its history and contents were as baffling to this reader as they were heart wrenching. In Palestinian literature houses are usually lost, confiscated, destroyed, fled from and abandoned and characters are forced to move on, move on. It is rare for them to be transferred from generation to generation, with stories as to who sat where and whose coffee table or cupboard it was. Palestinians are more used to being separated from their past to stepping into the footprints of it.
To return to the analogy of the half strung necklace, the cord in Haifa Fragments is made from recurring images central to the culture Khamis describes: shay bi naa naa (mint tea), drums, dancing the darbuka, the salu, the souk, the sea, the food. These are overly repeated, but they link in and out with the past, the present, across borders and checkpoints. Towards the end of the book the shards, in the form of scrawls of Death to Arabs! graffiti in Maisoon’s neighbourhood, references to bombs on buses and rockets falling on Haifa, are explained as are moments that come and go.
The colour in Haifa Fragments though is intense. Khamis is unusual in her rejoicing of sexuality and sensuality in a way that is more familiar to writings from and about the Arab world of the 19th not the 21st Century, where the ‘Orient’ was almost wholly associated with licentious sexuality rather than bombs, religion and death. The novel also made me realize how culturally variable our approaches to personal vanity can be and Maisoon’s awareness of her own desirability to others, can be off putting.
Khamis’s work is playful and it can come across as deliberately naive. Maisoon seeks to engage with the Palestinian political situation, but she does not talk about that side of her life with her family or boyfriend. Her family have learnt to endure, to know societal ills and political injustices, but to put up with them. It is a politics of avoidance, rather than overt resistance. The situation is too precarious, they believe, for the demand for equality and a historical recognition to be made. For decades after the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, ’48 Palestinians were cut off from their families and former neighbours; a host of legislation made communication nearly impossible. There was a stigma of dealing with the enemy attached to those who remained, as well as not a small amount of jealousy from the majority of Palestinians who were forced into becoming refugees. It is only in recent decades, that prejudices have diminished and a new political cohesion has been sought. Maisoon is more confident than most Palestinians in Israeli society, possibly because as an attractive woman she has advantages her Muslim boyfriend Ziyyad is denied; she is a woman who has learnt to charm par excellence as well as to play a little dumb in order to break free. She is determined to live however she wants despite the constraints forced upon her, without compromising her beliefs. Khamis’ is an interesting voice; one that bears a message that goes beyond the political situation that she and her characters live under.
SELMA DABBAGH is a British Palestinian novelist, author of Out of It, published by Bloomsbury in 2011 and 2012 (pbk). Out of It was positively reviewed in the UK, the US and the Middle East. It was nominated as a Guardian Book of the Year in 2011 and 2012. The Arabic edition, Gaze Tahta Al-Jild (Gaza Under The Skin) translated by Khulood Amr, was published by BQFP in August 2015.