Kay Sexton Offshore : Short Story Prize Winner

Kay Sexton’s fiction has appeared in over 70 anthologies and literary magazines. Her recently published novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in addition to being shortlisted, finalist or winner of many literary competitions she has had two non-fiction books on gardening published. This is remarkable given that her sole ambition as a child was to become a librarian so she could read all the books ever written, rather than writing anything.



If I get up during the dawn chorus I can make quite a lot of noise without waking anybody.  It’s even easier if I don’t go to bed, stay awake all night and head out first thing in the morning when the sky is folding back the lemon-peel edges of dawn for a fat blue day.  The land birds clatter around, relishing the absence of seagulls in these first half-lit minutes.

My brain soaks up the bird sounds; it is porous with alcohol and lack of sleep.  As I prepare the trays for early morning tea it takes everything in and gives nothing out, so it’s good there is a list.  The list is pinned up in the still room and the tea and coffee  pots are stored beneath it in the hot cupboard, which is cold at 5am.  The pots are old silver, made matte by long use, but when I hold them to the pre-day light they offer back the citrus gleam of the sky.

My only job today is cups, saucers, pots, jugs and sugar bowls.  As I lay up the trays, two lumps of white sugar, crisp and unreal, sit on my tongue. They melt to a slurry that slips around my teeth and slides down my throat in a rough, sweet, flavourless gulp, giving me the energy to plait my hair and shove it inside my blouse.  People don’t like stray hair in their cups.

I switch on the urns and fill the bain marie with cold water.  When my father comes down at six he will put oats and milk in a big bowl and slide it into the simmering bain marie.  By eight it will be porridge.

Before that he’ll walk in his silent shoes to the first door, knock gently, intone ‘early morning tea’ and place the tray on the floor.  We serve early morning tea from six-forty-five to seven-thirty and breakfast from eight to nine.  Normally I help serve breakfast until eight-thirty, when I take off my apron and leave for school.  Apart from the apron, my school clothes and my waitress garb are indistinguishable – white shirt, black skirt, flat shoes.

Today is Sunday, my day off, and I am escaping, but only if I leave before the live-out staff arrive.  This reminds me to switch on the deep fat fryer and to put yesterday’s sliced white loaves out on a big flat board. Fanned out, in the heat rising from the hot cupboard, they will fry quicker and crisper than fresh bread.

I have a long walk ahead, three miles across the headland to the marina where I will ‘borrow’ a boat.  It’s a more complicated trade than that, which may include cigarettes, or gossip, or if I am unlucky, being groped.

By the time I get outside, the birdsong is over; there is no sound in the lull between dawn and breakfast.  The pavements are cool. By nine they will be warm, at eleven they bake and until two or three in the morning they give back their heat to the night.  I kick off my shoes and let my feet relish the chill.

I need to take a strange route at first, along the side of our hotel, across the road into the cliff top gardens, down and along, angling my way parallel to the main road until I pass the next junction.

Walking the direct route would put me in danger.  I might see Milly, our housekeeper, walking to work and if she tells me that one of the other girls can’t make it today I’ll have to go back with her and be a chambermaid for the morning.  Or I could bump into Jeff the chef, full of bad temper and last night’s beer, falling out of the first bus of the morning and that would lead to a boozy hug and salacious comments about how much he’d like to take me out one night.  My parents don’t want me to upset Jeff; breakfast chefs are not easy to find.

Or worst of all, I might find Old Bert sidling up to me, his long yellow nails spiking from spongy finger ends. His hands are always wrinkled and pink from so much time in hot water.  Bert runs the washing up machines and hand-washes the pots and pans too big to fit in them.  He makes me feel sick, especially when he pins me in the corner of the still room and pats me as though I am a dog.  My parents don’t want me to upset him either, because he is cheap and washer-ups are not easy to find. Sometimes I think daughters must be the easiest thing to find.

The truth is, we are dying. My parents’ hotel, all hotels in our town, our whole coast. There are no longer enough tourists to pay wages, so instead of hiring staff we do the work ourselves. The odd day off school, the odd swig of booze, the occasional night out that goes wrong … prices that hotel kids are happy to pay, prices that hotel parents have no choice but to stump up for. There’s a long winter ahead in which to catch up on schoolwork, after all.

Once I’m clear of all the routes by which our staff reach the hotel, I can get back on the pavement and run.  I run because I need to be at the marina before the day staff open up at eight-thirty, and because running is just about the only thing that my coordination seems to permit.  I am always turning ankles, walking into doors, tipping motorbikes off their stands just by walking past them, banging into tables and bumping into walls.

My mother says I am uncoordinated.  It is really because I am drunk.  Nothing else seems to give me away, but drunkenness releases a spirit in me that requires a bruise for every binge.  It’s a price so small that I rarely notice it although I try to hide the evidence from others.

There’s always drink in a hotel – dregs from wineglass, a quick nip from an optic before the bar opens, my Dad giving me a cherry brandy at the end of a long day, bottles hidden in guest’s wardrobes and topped up with tap water. Anyway, we all drink and nobody cares. How else do you survive a summer season? Hotel kids thrive on a bit of booze, my father says.

Each hotel I pass is preparing for the day ahead, lifting blinds, opening curtains and taking in the big blue trays of bread: white sliced; bloomer; fancy roll, and breakfast special.  Slouching towards me are waitresses in gingham aprons.  They all have plasters on their heels from the espadrilles they wear at night.  The plasters ruche up under sensible black waitress shoes and expose espadrille blisters that will be rubbed raw by evening.  Another way to get alcohol – dress like a tourist and pretend to be one. Nobody asks your age, they just take your money. Can’t turn away summer trade – what would we live on in winter?

I have the blisters too.  That’s why I am running barefoot.

The sea is sixteen thousand shades of blue.  It says ‘sixteen’ with each incoming wave, sibilant with power, and ‘thousand’ with every grumbled backwash, rolling grains and small pebbles back into its salty dance.

I bargain for my dinghy, oars, and anchor with the marina night manager.

‘Going far?’ He stares at my red bikini top showing through the white blouse.

I shrug, pushing forward a crumpled five pound note.

‘What do you do out there?’ He doesn’t really care.

‘I could come and join you.’ He does mean that.

I stare fixedly at his wedding ring until he gives up and hands me the padlock key that releases the little craft from its mooring.

The fiver will go in his pocket and I’ll lock up the dinghy when I return, dropping the key back in the night box, none the wiser. We all seek out hidden profit, come summertime.

The dinghy is a repo, taken to cover unpaid mooring fees and I’ve used it a dozen times this year.  The oars and anchor were probably found, left behind, abandoned.  It’s amazing how profligate yacht owners can be.

I row, after a fashion, out beyond the marina.  My rowing is not good.  Nobody has taught me and my left stroke is much stronger than my right, requiring an extra right-hand stroke to stay on course. This means  I rock backwards and forwards and my loosened hair flops in my face, yet nobody laughs when I row.  A year ago folk would have roared out loud; when I was fourteen and just a skinny whelp they would have pointed at me and howled until their eyes ran.  But now men stare when I pass and nobody laughs at me.

In my bag I have six peaches, a packet of extra strong mints, forty Marlboro, two cigarette lighters, a bottle of cherry brandy.  In my boat I have an anchor, a baler and – sitting on the thwart where I can see it as I row – Justine by Lawrence Durrell.

The list of things I don’t have is longer; no water, no flares, no life-jacket, no protective clothing, no compass, no sunglasses, no hat, no sun oil, no radio.  When the night manager goes off duty nobody will know I am here.

The sixteen thousand shades of blue become slap-blue, slap-blue as I heave my baby boat through the water.  Gulls caw, but they will be quiet by ten, unless a lobsterman comes back into port.  Flies are travelling with me, quizzing my bag for the peach-blood they can sense inside, but they will depart in the next few minutes, zigzagging back to land.  How can landlubbers not know that the best place to eat fruit is out on the water?  No flying insects will bother you.  And how do the flies know when they must turn for shore?  These mysteries puzzle me.

I will spend the day getting hard-baked drunk, sieving cherry brandy through Marlboro-furred teeth.  I will listen to the sound of the deep ocean scuffing against the dinghy.  I will read Justine and cry at the end because there are only four books and now I have read them all.  I will smoke, cleanse my palate with mints, and sleep.

There are seven positions to enjoy in this little craft.
1. Flat on my back in the hot-as-tea seawater that is too low in the boat to bale, with one foot over the stern to trail in the seawater, easing my blisters until they swell like full moons.
2. On my belly, legs bent up, soles to the sky, with the book on the thwart to keep it dry.
3. Crossways, so that the boat wallows even in the calm, both my feet in the water, my neck cricking against the side.
4. Upright in the bow, feet paddling in hot water, toe-teasing the varnish bubbles and kicking peach stones through the bottom brine.
5. Upright in the stern, ditto.
6. Upright in the stern but facing over it, both feet in the sea; this soon stops the circulation to my legs as the wood cuts into the backs of my thighs.
7. Flat on my back in the stern with both feet in the water. This is my favourite – cool feet, warm, brine-lapped spine, gazing at the blank sky. I can sleep like this, with my book over my face and my hands folded on my belly. This is when I sleep best.
When I look to the shore I am far enough away.  I let down my anchor and prepare for the next eight hours, or nine, or ten, or as long as my cigarettes last.  This is my home.  Far enough from the shore for the jewelled lines of the island to reflect the sun, near enough to hear the car horns and yells of boat-launchers, I am anchored to the secret of what makes this non-place the love of my hollow heart’s core.

I am offshore.


Aptitude by Eugen Bacon

bacon-imageEugen M. Bacon, MA, MSc, PhD studied at Maritime Campus, University of Greenwich, less than two minutes’ walk from The Royal Observatory of the Greenwich Meridian. A computer graduate mentally re-engineered into creative writing, Eugen has published over 100 short stories and creative articles, and has recently completed a creative non-fiction book and a literary speculative novel. Her creative work has appeared in Meniscus, TEXT Journal, Mascara Literary Review, Antic Journal, Australasian Review of African Studies (ARAS) and through Routledge in New Writing, The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.



Five days after Ma yielded to whooping cough, your adolescent self inherited the plough, the yoke, the axe and the winnower. You were cut to be a farmer. You and the soft black earth that crumbled through your fingers and smelled of stone, peat and swamp were one.

Then one dusk Baba tapped you on the elbow. He was wearing his wide-brimmed hat, the high-crowned one, his favourite for travelling. He led you to his beaten up truck, offered no hand to guide your scramble up.

The engine roared.

Headlights came on, and your world lit up like a shooting star.

Baba reversed, rolled the truck to an empty paddock. He showed you to shift the clutch, the gear, pointed at the brakes. He cut the engine, climbed out the truck. Your fingers on the passenger door—

‘Take the wheel.’ Gravel in his voice.

You listened fiercely to your instinct to run, but took the wheel.

He climbed beside you, watched as you turned the ignition.

The engine started and the truck jumped. It trundled forward, juddered, trolled and shuddered. It took your stomach away, but you clung to the steering. And then a clean roll forward. As the truck picked up speed along the dirt, across the grass and over cow poop, Baba pulled his seat and leaned back. He drew the hat over his face and began to snore.

The hush of a turned off engine roused him. He tipped back the hat, looked around. The truck was back in the barn.

‘Cracken hell,’ he said.

Now you drive as though you and the truck are one. It understands your intentions, flows with them. You have only to look in a direction, and the truck trails. You will it to halt and its wheels slowly reel until they lock to the ground, Ma whistling in the wind.

Luke Fischer’s Launch of have been and are by Brook Emery

newling_2016Have Been And Are

by Brook Emery

ISBN: 978 0 994 5275 3 0

GloriaSMH Press


Thinking Poetry: Brook Emery’s have been and are (Gloria SMH, 2016)

[From the launch speech given at the Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe on Saturday 10 September, 2016.]

Welcome everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Luke Fischer. I’m a poet and philosopher, and this afternoon I have the great pleasure and honour of launching Brook Emery’s splendid new book of poems, his fifth collection have been and are, published by the new Melbourne press Gloria SMH. Jacinta Le Plastrier, whom many of you would also know as the current director of Australian Poetry and who formerly worked at John Leonard Press, is the publisher and co-founder of Gloria SMH. At the outset I’d like to congratulate Jacinta and her colleagues on the beautiful production and design of this book.

While I am quite used to swapping between my philosopher’s hat and my poet’s hat, in certain cases this is neither appropriate nor adequate. Sometimes it is necessary to wear both hats at once, one balanced on top of the other, or the two stitched together. This is eminently the case with respect to Brook Emery’s poetry.

At times, when art and poetry aim for a philosophical significance they end up reproducing in an inferior manner a theoretical content that would be better articulated in a philosophical treatise or essay. This is evident in what for the present purposes I will call ‘second-rate conceptual art’. However, this is not true of the best conceptual art nor is it true of Brook Emery’s poetry. The philosophising that takes place in Brook’s poetry, both at the level of form and content, is worked out poetically, is native to the poetry, and in significant respects gets at aspects of experience and the world in a manner that surpasses conventional modes of philosophical articulation. For instance, the question and nature of embodiment and perception are key concerns of philosophers, but there are few, if any, philosophers who are able to describe embodied experience as richly and concretely as Brook’s poetry. In addition, whereas philosophers usually present their readers with their polished arguments and conclusions, Brook’s poetry invites the reader into a philosophy in process, the mind at work in questioning and deliberating. There are, of course, important strands of twentieth and twenty-first century European thought in which philosophical writing has become more literary and poetic than it has traditionally been. In this respect Brook’s poetry can be viewed as a significant contribution within a larger cultural movement in which philosophy approaches poetry and poetry approaches philosophy.

The title of Brook’s new book, have been and are, is extracted from the last sentence of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and intimates a central theme of the book: the relation between past and present, and time in its various forms and scales, including the geological time of evolution, human history, autobiography, transience and human mortality. The full sentence from Darwin is also the title of the penultimate poem: ‘Endless forms most beautiful and wonderful / have been and are being evolved’. And Brook’s poems relatedly suggest how the continuity between past and present lies in change and transformation, and the present is evolving into the future.

have been and are is at once expansive in its explorations of diverse and significant themes and impressively cohesive, a livre composé. The titles of all the poems, except the final one, are quotations selected from a wide range of texts by poets, philosophers, scientists, novelists, historians, anthropologists, musicians, artists, and others… Each poem responds to, expands on, subtly critiques or digresses from the content suggested by its title-quotation. What is implied by much poetry, namely that each poem one writes is in conversation with other poems and poets, and with poetic traditions as one understands and evaluates them, is explicitly embedded in the book’s architectonic and inner workings. The individual poems are also filled with direct references as well as subtle allusions to other texts and thereby develop further intertextual connections.

The book’s cohesiveness is also evident in the way each poem picks up or develops a thread from the preceding poem. Every poem ends with an ellipsis, which serves to indicate its open-endedness and its anticipation of the subsequent poem as a complement and supplement to what has thus far been elaborated. The themes of the book organically emerge, develop and transform, and the poems enter into dialogue with one another as well as with the reader. As suggested by the epigraph from Virginia Woolf that opens the collection, we find ‘a voice answering a voice’, including the poet speaking and responding to himself. At both a macro and a micro scale the structure of the book reflects the title-quotation of one of the poems, which is taken from the American poet Robert Hass: ‘Echo, repetition, statement / and counterstatement, digression and return’.

While at the level of form and content Brook is interested in the possibility of cohesiveness, he is opposed to any kind of closure. Brook is just as interested, if not more interested, in the ways in which we misconstrue ourselves and the world as he is in experiences of belonging. In this poetry we find a poet-philosopher restlessly interrogating what in German Idealist philosophy was called the Absolute, a supposed ultimate unity of mind and world, spirit and nature, thought and being. For Brook any sense of ultimate unity can only be momentary or provisional and thus not ultimate: the feeling of beauty or harmony fades, what we assume to be true is subject to revision.

A significant philosophical insight underlies Brook’s emphasis on both the necessity of a relationship between self and world and a disjunction between them. The very problem of knowledge presupposes disunity as a starting point. An omniscient god would know and experience unity but would have no questions and could not make errors of judgment. There would be no problem of knowledge as everything would be ever-present and evident. As human adults we also do not have the option of retreating into a prelapsarian existence, of returning to childhood, or of enjoying the unknowing unity and bliss that Rilke ascribed to primitive animals, which possess sentience but are far from the human form of self-consciousness that divides us from any immediate sense of oneness with the world.

It is the gap between ourselves and the world, language and experience, thought and being that makes it possible for us to establish some connection between them. In one of the late poems in have been and are Brook develops this notion with the image of shadows: ‘Shadows are an intercession / between me and not me, a suspension // between “I feel” and “it must mean.” Words / shadow other words, shadow other worlds…’ There is a slight gap between what we aim to say and what we manage to say. The very first poem includes the following lines near its beginning: ‘There’s a dappled light falling / across my forearms… Mmm…there’s that word ‘dappled’, that won’t do. It’s not a bad word…’ and the poem proceeds to reflect on the spaces and connections between linguistic predication and being. It is worthwhile to mention that Brook’s interrogation of how we speak about the natural environment makes a valuable and thought-provoking contribution to crucial concerns of contemporary ecocritical theory and ecopoetics, and the specific need to find a way of bridging a postmodern awareness of the constructive role of language with a realism about the natural world that is being destroyed.

One of the many remarkable features of Brook’s poetry is the protean way in which it moves between walking, swimming or body-surfing and speculation, evocative description and philosophical reflection, and also seamlessly unites them. Take this description involving seaweed: ‘I float on my belly as still as can be /in the softly lulling swell. Sea-grasses / and rasp-edged kelp float back and forth in unison / or a quarter tone off key, caught and tweaked / by competing currents.’ We have here at one and the same time a vivid image of floating seaweed and the encapsulation of a broad philosophical idea that there is a cohesion to the world but not a perfect harmony; the musical metaphor of a choir singing in unison is qualified by the subsequent judgement that the voices are a ‘quarter tone off key’.

Brook is often a brilliant imagist and offers the reader moments in which he/she experiences a sense of participation in a re-enchanted nature. However, he does not want us to remain captivated. That would be a naïve and self-deceiving return to childhood. Here is an example from the short poem that is titled with a quotation from Piet Mondrian: ‘I, too, find the flower beautiful / in its outward appearance: but a deeper beauty / lies concealed within’:

I’m trying to remember a train trip south,
the particulars or even the generality. The glass-grey,
reflective flatness of the river, the immobility
of the tethered boats (their patched and peeling hulls),
a passage through split rock (weather-dulled, oxide blotched).
And trees, eucalypts stretching back and up the hillside,
textured, darting light shifting slantwise into shadow,
picking out this or that, catching at the eye.
I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…

The poem opens by drawing us into its descriptions of scenery from a remembered train trip, but then as though telling the reader not to get too absorbed, not to fall asleep, we encounter the self-reflexive line: ‘I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…’ Children, when they watch a puppet show, almost take the puppets for animate creatures and are oblivious of the human hands, rods, and strings operating behind the scenes. In Brook’s poem it’s as though the show were interrupted mid-scene and the instruments exposed to view, but in this case the instrument is language.

It is arguable that the advent of free verse as a dominant approach to writing poetry in the early twentieth century reflects a larger cultural process of fragmentation and individuation, of dissonance between the individual and the collective. Brook himself places this development within a broad historical context when he writes: ‘The old verities – Christianity, Communism, rhyme and metre – are dimmed…’ Nevertheless, even though free verse cannot adopt a pregiven form, this does not mean that it is formless or arbitrary, that it lacks aesthetic cohesion. T. S. Eliot famously criticised, as did Denise Levertov later in the twentieth century, the adjective ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ because of its implication of arbitrariness. While I don’t share this objection because there are other relevant ways of construing the word ‘free’, the significant point is that any successful poem must convince us that there is an integrity or even necessity in the way it is constructed.

Brook’s poems are assiduously and masterfully crafted free verse compositions, which reflect and embody the dynamism of his poetic philosophy. They at once accentuate the temporality of the unfolding poem and the temporality of thought in progress. Like the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, as well as Hegel and Heidegger, Brook has a deep interest in contradiction and apparent contradictions. He also loves paradoxes, oxymorons, chiasmi, and aporias. Like a poetic equivalent of Hegel’s progression of thought through the generation of contradictions in The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is a dialectical momentum to Brook’s poems. The very first poem in the collection begins with: ‘It’s not about me…and of course / it is.’ Not much later we find the statement: ‘This book is all about / how lucky I am to be walking under these trees…’ The reader can surmise that, of course, it is not really all about this, but only partly about this. The poems propel themselves forward through judgments that are shown to be provisional, through negations, qualifications, contrasting propositions, and revisions. The poem with a title drawn from Wallace Stevens, ‘The poem must / resist the intelligence almost successfully…’ begins as follows: ‘I’m dawdling. Killing time. Or time / is killing me…’. These lines employ a device that in classical rhetoric was distinguished as an antimetabole. The terms of the proposition ‘I’m…killing time’ are reversed in the statement ‘time is killing me’ to epigrammatic effect. Characteristically Brook has also placed an ‘or’ before ‘time is killing me’, highlighting the provisionality of this second judgment.

If Brook were a painter, in an analogous manner to Cézanne’s late watercolours he would leave many white spaces in his paintings, so as to allow the viewer to imaginatively decide on how they might be filled in. Or he would paint his canvas in layers while ensuring that the later layers allow the earlier layers of paint to peer through. He certainly would not aim for the realism of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis whose painted grapes were supposedly so realistic that birds flew down and pecked at them. Rather, he would leave clear evidence of the brushstrokes on the canvas.

Brook himself refers to a number of painters in the collection (Mondrian, Hokusai and others) and one of the passages, which comes as close as Brook gets to encapsulating his philosophy, involves a description of a painter. Those of you who are familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology will recognise the deep affinity to his philosophy in the following lines, which present the invisible as the other side of the visible rather than as other-worldly or as merely subjective:

From this angle or that perspective, day after day,

in painting after painting, an artist friend tries to capture light,
not capture, not even render, tries to apprehend light’s temptations
on cloud and sea. It’s a search for the invisible in what is visible,

something that depends on sense but is beyond the senses,
what cannot be expressed without distortion: the reflective
and absorbent qualities of water, the way it is sometimes grey,

sometimes blue or green, sometimes so reflective it is invisible
and simultaneously opaque: the texture of this world in time and place.
It strikes me this is ground on which to stand…

In spite of the emphasis on provisionality in Brook’s poetry there are moments when the perceiver and the perceived, mind and world seem to cohere, moments of beauty and harmony, even if the ‘concord’ is ‘teetering on the edge of discord’. While some of my characterisations of Brook’s poetry might make him seem like a predominantly rational poet, this is not my intention. The book contains many deeply felt passages and poems, and the poem titled with a quotation from C. K. Williams, ‘Everything waste / everything would be or was’, is among the most moving and poignant poems I can remember reading anywhere. After evocative and brilliant descriptions of a seashore and basin at dusk, it also includes this line on almost-completeness: ‘What if we could hold all this like the sail almost holds the breeze…?’

Brook’s poetry explores and aims to do justice to the complexities of existence. It neither advocates a simple lyricism nor does it oppose feeling and thought as, unfortunately, occasional reviews of Australian poetry still sometimes do. Subtle irony, self-scrutiny, humour and wit are also sprinkled through the collection. I delight in the humour of these lines from earlier in the aforementioned poem: ‘At the water’s edge livid green strands tangle / and flop like snakes writhing in a B-grade / horror movie.’

While it has only been possible for me to touch on a few of the salient features and main themes of this wonderful and expansive book, I would like to at least mention one other poem. In a sequence of historico-political poems there is a long poem with a title-quotation from Joseph Conrad, ‘The brown current / ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness’. This complex and formally innovative poem intertwines an unfolding description of the natural environment of the eastern beaches of Sydney and its brutal history of colonisation with factual synopses and examples of the worst atrocities in human history from ancient times to the present day. Its masterful handling of this difficult material reminds the reader that Brook was a history teacher for twenty years.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to buy, read, re-read, and think about Brook Emery’s new collection have been and are. I am delighted to declare the book launched.


Luke Fischer is a Sydney-based poet and scholar. His books include the poetry collection Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the forthcoming poetry collection A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017). For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com

Robbie Coburn

robbie-coburn-photoRobbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and grew up in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. He has published a collection, Rain Season (Picaro Press, 2013), as well as several chapbooks and pamphlets. His latest chapbook is Mad Songs (Blank Rune Press, 2015).A new collection of poetry The Other Flesh and a novel Conversation with Skin, are forthcoming. He currently resides in Melbourne. www.robbiecoburn.com.au


Anorexia in Autumn

image of autumn breaking against the trees
the vast expanses of light forming on the lands surface 
fragments of this, and still, no substantial change.
a vision of physicality placed on the grasses.
      no reason for this starving feeling but control.

you are young.      your body withstands deprivation.

sectioning off the skin, the carrion-lined flesh that hungers
the hanging of clouds decorating the sky carefully.
moving towards an ideal disappearance, even out here.

I like to touch your bones. 
I like to watch you shrinking.
your figure is perfect 

       when you lie back in the dark and no longer 
belong anywhere.


A Waking Farm

We will never know what they are barking at.
piercing the air at dawn
   steadily they continue against the wind,
the persistent thread of breath 
through wire.

Frank Russo

Frank Russo’s poetry collection In the Museum of Creation was published by Five Islands Press in 2015. His writing has been published in journals such as Southerly, Contrappasso, Copperfield Review, Cactus Heart, Pacific Review and in anthologies in Australia, the United States and Canada. His is completing a doctorate at the University of Sydney.


The dogs

One month after Senor Flores’ death, his widow, Dona Carlinda, arranged a Mind Mass in the Church of Christ Saviour. Father Alonso donned a purple chasuble over his alb. Dona Carlinda sat in the front pew, flanked by her children, facing her husband’s photograph, placed where his bier had lain.

As the sacraments of the Eucharist were taken to the altar, a dog appeared at the church’s vestibule. It watched as Father Alonso blessed the wafers and wine, and as he offered Dona Carlinda and her children each a host, the dog made its way down the aisle as if also wanting to receive benediction.
Word grew of how Senor Flores had attended his own Mind Mass in the form of a dog.
Word grew of how his widow saw his form in all the animals that approached her.
How she saw Senor Flores in the gecko that clicked to her each night outside her bathroom window.
How she saw him in the iguana that visited her yard each morning to spit salt.
How she saw him in the rock dove which she threw barley seeds to each afternoon.
On Sundays Dona Carlinda walked to the cemetery with her daughter, Pilar, to lay flowers on Senor Flores’ grave. The day she cut a bouquet of trumpet flowers from her garden, a jackal-like dog appeared behind the cemetery and headed towards her. Dona Carlinda and Pilar turned and walked back towards the town.

As they passed the tombs along the roadside a second dog appeared. They hurried their pace. Nearing the lagoon, they turned and saw four dogs following them. They ran, wishing the city of tombs had walls high enough to trap its spirits.

Sukhmani Khorana

sukhmani-bio-photo-21jan2015Sukhmani Khorana is Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong. Her ivory tower is akin to a mother of pearl art studio, where she practices multicultural ethnography across writing and photography. Sukhmani’s creative work and commentary has appeared in OverlandCrikey, Kill Your Darlings, Peril, and The Conversation.

Under my feet

For those of us with wheels under our feet
The only moments that ground us are
When the earth under our soles is moving too

Like on a train
Thirroul, Helensburgh, Sutherland, Hurstville
Each repetition is like a recitation
Invoking the cult of new rhymes, every time

And on a plane
When one is amongst the ephemera of clouds
Yet tethered to seats and screens
Because one really doesn’t know clouds at all
Except through the names we imagine for them

You see routes and maps, and dots and lines
All these trajectories just under your feet
Beckoning you to places you might belong

But you keep moving
Sometimes with a ragged guidebook tucked under your arm
And I join the ride
When you ask me to take your picture in front of the van

You see me again
In the city we both inhabit on our habitual return
Where I bike to the train station
While you walk with a swagger as you get off the bus
And we both queue for coffee

Our commutes and routines and jobs stay stubbornly constant
As we move through, and roll around them
Hoping the wheels under our feet will bind us to everywhere

Gun in the Garden by Alice Melike Ülgezer

2013-author-ulgezera-01-headshotAlice Melike Ülgezer is an Australian/Turkish writer. She draws creatively on her mixed cultural heritage. Her first novel The Memory of Salt was published by Giramondo in 2012. Her work has been published in Meanjin, New Internationalist, One World Two, PEN Quarterly, The Review of Australian Fiction, Cordite, Etchings, HEAT, Mozzie, Taralla, Going Down Swinging & Kalimat.

Gun in the Garden

The sky was bruised with autumn. A brusque wind scored as the pigeons whistle-dart and fluted above. The neighbour, a Syrian refugee, had brought them with him across the border when he’d fled. And they cartwheeled now, dipping, diving and gliding, smears of grey, mauve and silver across the mottled Anatolian sky.

Ayșe leant on her hoe a moment where she was working in the garden next door to peer up at the birds when she heard the banging at the door. The street dogs had taken to living in her yard that winter and the barren earth was a mess of coal dust, vegetable scraps and dog shit. She’d found a hoe in the coal store and was trying steadily to clear the yard. But there was that banging on the door again. It startled her as no one knocked like that save for the police or the Jendarma and then only if they wanted someone or something. So she chose to ignore it and hoped that whoever it was would go away. What could she possibly need to know about the world outside anyway? They would tire of knocking and leave and she would continue hoeing the garden and by dinnertime she would have forgotten all about it and the garden would be restored to its tidy, serene state. And if it was something important perhaps, the news would make its way to her husband and she would find out from him when he came home.

But a little voice called as the knocking came thundering again, “Mamma.” She rolled her eyes, her heartbeat slowing all of a sudden with relief.

The refugee children she told herself as she wiped her hands on her apron and picked her way through the garden to the door. She opened it a foot or so and the bell that hung above banged noisily. Three children stood before her and all at once tried to elbow and push their way through the gap in the door.

“Hey, hey!” she startled.

Silah, silah,” the older boy exclaimed. “Gun Gun. Our gun is in your garden!”

“Your what!?” she tried to push the door closed against their little heaving bodies. But the littlest one Husam was stuck trying to crawl between her legs. The middle of the three, a little girl, stood by smirking like a dangerous cat.

Ayșe spat to the side and began to recite the Sura of the Dawn. She knew it was wrong but she didn’t like these children. If she gave to one surely that meant she had to give to all. And she couldn’t possibly do that. Besides, she didn’t like the way they threw stones at the local dogs or hung puppies out of windows from pieces of packing tape tied round their necks or the way they shrieked and sniggered and reprimanded her for eating bread during Ramazan.

“Our gun is in your garden Mamma,” Husam was clawing at her thigh. His head peered jerkily out from between her knees at the garden, his shoulders yet to break through.

“We just want to go and look for it,” enjoined the older boy who was more mature and friendly than the other two and by smiling seemed to apologise for their behaviour. The little girl studied Ayșe’s face as she swung her hips back and forth with one finger planted firmly in her nose, simpering softly. Husam tried to burrow further between her knees but this time she gave a strong shove.

I will have a look,” she said sharply and gathering all her strength, heaved the child out from between her legs and slammed the door, sliding the wooden bolt across to lock it.

Turning back to the garden she glanced quickly at the freshly turned earth. “Those children,” she said aloud “and their fucking guns, telling me I am haram. I’ll show them haram.”

But before she knew it the three of them were scrambling though the grapevine over the back wall.

“Mamma, Mamma!” yelped Husam as he fell into the dirt and dog shit. The little girl slid slyly under the plastic matting that Ayșe and her husband had secured against the wall for privacy and the bigger boy leapt over the stones. Together they tore across the garden under the bare autumn trees looking for their gun.

“I told you I would look for it you little pimps!” she shrieked.

And just then the bigger one picked up a piece of wood that had been nailed crudely with another small bit for a trigger and tied with a piece of string. Utterly unaffected by her cursing, he smiled triumphantly, “This is our gun! This is our gun!” And with that he slung it over his shoulder and began shooting imaginary rounds of machine gun fire round the garden, laughing and shouting, Allahu Akbar! The little girl and Husam both jumped wildly around in the dirt shrieking their pleasure.

Ayșe stood on in horrified silence. If those bullets were real she would most certainly be dead. She shuddered in a sort of shocked confusion a moment before gathering her senses and shouting. “Get out of here you sons of donkeys! Get out of my garden!” Her limbs suddenly coursing with adrenalin she lunged at them with the garden hoe as they leapt jubilantly over the vegetable scraps and coal dust. The little girl managed to dart across to the wooden door and slide the bolt open. The other two scrambled after her and with a bang-clash and clamour of the bell they tore onto the street shrieking and firing as they went.

Ayșe threw the hoe down on the concrete and rushed at the door to bolt it again in case they should return. With trembling hands she slid it across once more and feeling utterly humiliated, yet out of view of the garden wall, sank against the door and wept for the children she would never have.

Jo Langdon reviews Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

0003537_300Only the Animals

by Ceridwen Dovey

Hamish Hamilton

ISBN 9781926428581

Reviewed by JO LANGDON

Ceridwen Dovey’s award-winning Only the Animals is comprised of astonishing interventions and a multiplicity of voices that powerfully re-create and re-focalise narratives of the past. Each of the ten stories is typically recalled, posthumously, by the ‘soul’ of an animal affected—and ultimately killed—by human violence. A camel is shot in colonial Australia to the laughter of Henry Lawson; Colette’s cat finds herself unexpectedly separated from her beloved owner and lost on the Western Front; a freewheeling mussel, voiced a la Jack Kerouac, dies at Pearl Harbor; a tortoise with prior connections to Leo Tolstoy, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and George Orwell perishes at the ‘height’ of the Cold War—very literally, after she is launched into space during the Russian space program. As the authors made note of in this list might suggest, these stories also feature a stellar line-up of literary allusions. The book’s creative bridges, a notable feature of this collection, emphasise the role of intertextuality and revision, attesting to the fundamental role of other texts; to the ‘conversation’ literature and its creative imaginings and (re)presentations of the world compose. Individually and taken together, these stories are impressive feats of playful ‘originality’ rich in voice, dazzling and devastating in scope.

Chronologically ordered, the collection spans the years 1892–2006. The third story, set in Germany, 1917, evokes the ape narrator of Franz Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’. Dovey’s ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’ centres and builds on—perhaps departs from—the ‘little half-trained female chimpanzee’ afforded only a few clauses or four sentences (depending on the translation) in the penultimate paragraph of Kafka’s narrative. These lines provide the epigraph and ostensibly the impetus for Dovey’s story. In this alternate or counter narrative, the reader is invited to witness the comical and unsettling ways in which Red Peter’s mate to-be, named Hazel in Dovey’s tale, is socialised and taught to ‘perform’ her gendered human identity. Via their epistolary courtship, Hazel reveals to Red Peter: ‘My ears are pierced with metal studs to make me beautiful. I can pull on stockings without laddering them.’ However, the story’s World War I backdrop means that ‘there are no longer any stockings to be had’ (57). Hazel candidly relates:

I am itchy. Itchy, itchy, itchy. Frau Oberndorff won’t let me scratch. She bathes me, combs my hair to make it lie down, cuts my toenails, cleans my tear ducts. She says my breath is a problem. It stinks. I like the stink. I breathe out and sniff it in. . . . I scratch my bum, sniff my fingers. (52)

Hazel continually refers to her own physicality frankly and with little regard for ‘decorum’. As their written courtship progresses, she advises Red Peter: ‘I cannot give you much other than a warm body flexible in the ways you would like it, a certain length of arm, bow legs, a barrel torso.’ She asks: ‘Would you like me to be more human, or less human, or more or less human?’ (60).

The playful, subversive and comic charge of Hazel’s perspective heightens the ultimately tragic nature of her discovery of Red Peter’s feelings for his trainer’s wife, Frau Oberndorff (an affair also revealed through letter writing, Frau Oberndorff being the facilitator of Red Peter and Hazel’s correspondence). Another overt nod to Kafka’s iconic works of fiction is the sign Hazel, betrayed and refusing to eat, instructs Frau Oberndorff to display outside her cage: ‘THE HUNGER ARTIST’ (68).

Elsewhere, human and animal relationship dynamics work to reveal humans’ propensity for hypocrisy. Adolf Hitler and many other Nazi party members famously loved and showed considerable compassion towards their companion animals, as we are reminded in ‘Hundstage’, a story told through the point of view of Heinrich Himmler’s German Shepherd. Indeed, as the lead-in this story’s epigraph from Boria Sax reminds us, ‘Those who are humane towards animals are not necessarily kind to human beings’ (75). The ironic charge of ‘Hundstage’ is considerable; the story emphasises karma, compassion and reincarnation via Himmler’s significant interest in Hinduism. As he listens to the humans around him converse about Hindu figures and beliefs, the dog narrator reports: ‘I already knew who Krishna and Arjuna were; like me, they were vegetarians’ (80). Nonetheless, he struggles to maintain his vegetarianism and good karma when the conversation moves to the slaughter of chickens:

I thought of the few chickens I had managed to kill and eat in my life, before becoming a vegetarian, and felt sick. And hungry. I thought of how good their blood tasted, of how prettily their feathers floated through the air. (79)

Such shifts in thought are realised when the narrator finds himself starving in the woods, having been banished by his master after a purported act of disloyalty. The anguished dog recalls other acts that have disgraced his family:

Grandfather’s lowest moment – an incident that was not recorded in any research notebooks – was being caught behind a bitch of unknown breeding kept in the same facility for canine medication experimentation, whose hair and teeth had fallen out. He felt the burden then of being the ur-type, and swore off females until von Stephanitz guided my beautiful grandmother into his pen. (77)

This account unsettlingly evokes The Nazis’ medical experiments and the groups of humans, deemed lesser, on whom these experiments were conducted. Indeed, non-human perspectives also allow the reader glimpses of human suffering—and too of the patent yet insidious social and ideological divisions of our world: Collette’s cat, Kiki-la-Doucette, befriends a soldier in the trenches and reveals of her new human companion: ‘In the night, my soldier lay beside his friend, hand in hand. I think they are in love but hide it from the other soldiers’ (34). ‘The Bones’, the story focalised through the perspective of the camel, depicts Australia’s frontier wars in tellingly elliptical ways that draw the reader’s attention to suppressed violence and silenced atrocity:

Henry Lawson lowered his voice. Then the medium said, out of nowhere, “Hospital Creek. Do you know of it?” Mitchell’s father’s sunburnt face went pale. “Yes,” he said. “I worked at the stockyard there.” The medium was silent for a long time. “I’m getting – a fire. A fire of some kind.” Mitchell’s father said nothing. “Bodies in a fire,” she said. “A lot of them.” And at this, Mitchell’s father began to shake, a grown man trembling, but not with fear. With rage. “You bitch,” he spat, “don’t you know how to keep your mouth shut like the rest of us?” (7)

Indeed, by drawing our attention to occluded histories and perspectives, Only the Animals also serves as a powerful reminder of the ways in which our world values certain human and non-human lives more than others. In a ‘real world’ and human context, we are reminded of this regularly, and not least of all by our politicians. We might consider, for example, the markedly routine comments of the former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (also the Minister for Indigenous Affairs) with regards to Aboriginal history and culture [1], or Australia’s asylum seeker policies and the ways in which various political parties and leaders have promised or continued to treat certain groups of people cruelly for political gain, while the Counting Dead Women [2] project is a devastating reminder of the ‘private’, ‘domestic’ and often unspoken nature of certain forms of violence; the ways in which trauma is an accepted part of women’s existence.

Such examples are certainly not to suggest that the experiences of the animals in these stories stand in, metaphorically, for those of humans—or certain groups of humans; that these are anthropocentric projections. Dovey’s animals are utterly themselves—as much as they are self-consciously and self-reflexively works of historical and literary pastiche—as are her human characters, the good, kind, and ugly. The book’s title draws from a quote by Sax: ‘What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.’ Certainly, these narratives provide mirrors that are not always flattering, yet nonetheless unfailingly compassionate. Ultimately, these tender, funny and immersive stories provide a constellation of perspectives both timeless and urgent in their calls for kindness, remembrance, listening and acknowledgement.


[1] 1 In 2014 Abbott reiterated what Amy McQuire describes as ‘the legal fiction of “terra nullius”’, by stating that ‘back in 1788’ Australia ‘was nothing but bush’ (qu. McQuire 2014). Abbott’s comments also include a description of the colonisation of Australia as ‘the defining moment in the history of this continent’ (qu. Dingle 2014), and an assertion that ‘[t]he first lot of Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England’ (“Gillard And Abbott Attend Australia Day Citizenship Ceremonies” 2013)—effectively erasing 60,000 years of Aboriginal history, and the trauma and grief suffered by Aboriginal communities as a result of European imperialism, from the discourse on Australia’s past.

[2] https://www.facebook.com/notes/destroy-the-joint/counting-dead-women-australia-2015-we-count-every-single-death-due-to-violence-a/938000946247650


JO LANGDON tutors in Literary Studies and Professional & Creative Writing in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Geelong. She is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline (2012), which was co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Westerly, Powder Keg and Overland.

Rebecca Allen reviews One Hundred Letters Home by Adam Aitken

9781742234274.jpg.400x0_q20One Hundred Letters Home

by Adam Aitken

Vagabond Press

ISBN  978-1-922181-04-6


“Doctor, Where is the healing in writing? Is it simply re-telling the past, or are we re-making it? Is it a story that becomes a promise – a redeeming moment?”

In his memoir A Hundred Letters Home, Adam Aitken looks back into his family’s past, and specifically, that of his enigmatic parents. Today a poet and academic, Aitken was born in London in the 1960s to an Anglo-Australian father and a Thai mother. His early childhood was spent in South-East Asia before the family moved to Sydney in 1968 where his parents later separated. Aitken examines their complex relationship and probes his own sense of cultural and filial ties, using life writing as a means to grapple with his distinct cultural hybridity.

The text itself is hybrid, drawing on family photographs, his father’s letters and conversations with his parents and doctor. It includes some of Aitken’s poems as well as other intertextual references, and gaps are filled with recounted memories and speculation. The memoir jumps between multiple timelines, retelling Aitken’s trip to Thailand as a young man in the early 80s, reaching back to 1950s Bangkok, when his hard-working, hard-partying ad-man father fell in love with his mother, then forward to the separation of his parents and back again to his early childhood in South-East Asia. What seems at first a fragmented, non-linear text gradually develops, as anecdotes overlap and chronologies intersect, into an intricate, richly layered narrative.  

Drawing the memoir together is a persistent vacillation between feelings of closeness and distance, of connection and estrangement. This tension is particularly striking in the representation of Aitken’s relationship with his father. His ambiguous attitude towards the man who was so often absent during his childhood shapes the way Aitken relates to the rest of his family, his Thai heritage and ultimately how he views and judges himself.

Aitken remembers with bitterness the interminable summer he spent with his mother and brother in Perth, “like refugees in a detention camp”, while his father arranged a house on the other side of the continent in Sydney. As Aitken becomes aware of his difference for the first time, (to the school bullies “We were ‘Ching-chong Chinamen conceived in a pot’”), his father becomes more and more of a “stranger to us, a man who embodied Australia itself but who was not around to affirm it.” The gulf between them only widens when the family move to Sydney: his father misses sailing lessons and music practice, too caught up with his bohemian friends, left-wing parties and success as an advertising executive. He transforms into something abstract, made concrete only by Aitken’s habit of collecting symbolic tokens, (golf balls, a cigarette lighter, his fountain pen), replacing “a real father with images.” Even today an oppressive “Web of Silence” remains between them. True feelings are only communicated through the most cryptic of clues, his father preferring to hold forth on his latest obsession – “kitchen taps and Sabatier knives” – rather than discuss his depression: “After years of silence (the watching-TV-after-a-hard-day-at-the-office silence) I have become irritated that now he makes me the compulsory listener”.

Aitken even admits he became “willing to believe my father hadn’t been my real father.” After finding a photograph of his mother as a young woman with another man, Aitken almost convinces himself that Robert, a handsome Swiss his mother had met in the ‘50s while his father was posted in Hong Kong, is in fact his biological father: “My father always said I looked just like my mother, but I like to think I have Robert’s looks.” He wonders if Robert could “have been the better father, the one I never had… In my dreams, I imagine myself the child of this man: an adventurer, someone rich, a man I knew nothing about”. In recurring scenes, Aitken uses this photograph as “archival evidence” to obsessively quiz his mother about her past. However he soon discovers she won’t easily cooperate, refusing to remember certain details and purposely misremembering others, claiming “‘He was a travel agent, that’s who he was.’ Then she changes her story and he becomes a banker.” Though she dismisses the idea of an affair, “‘Not really my type’”, Aitken later discovers that letters from Robert continued to arrive, including one with a photograph of the pair of them dressed casually, sitting close and laughing – captured in the moment of a punch-line or funny memory, his mother looking positively “alive again”.

As much as Aitken attempts to reject his father – even replace him – his thwarted attempts to uncover more of his mother’s past in fact parallel is father’s own experience. She keeps both husband and son at an emotional distance with her expertly conjured “smokescreens” and her impassive “Buddha mask” face. We catch glimpses of her personal narrative throughout the memoir – her origins in a small border town and her university career, her jobs as a forklift driver and police interpreter in Sydney, her life in Cairns after the divorce – but not enough to gain a sense of her true subjectivity. (A level of emotional bias on Aitken’s part is clearly at play here, as her obscuration leads the reader towards an objectified view of her, perhaps not far from the problematic stereotype of the Asian seductress.)

Examining the photographs his father took of his mother in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Aitken symbolically steps into his shoes, viewing his parents’ relationship through his father’s camera lens and thus his eyes. He concludes his father found her similarly inscrutable during their marriage. In the early photographs, his mother appears joyous and carefree, encapsulating the initial excitement of their courtship in Bangkok with her hair “long, untied, and cascad[ing] down her back”, “sometimes striking an erotically glamorous pose, straddling a veranda balustrade”. The contrast with the photographs taken after their marriage in London is apparent: the passion has waned and the light-hearted laughter is replaced by a reserve masquerading as sophistication. These London photographs are certainly aesthetically appealing – carefully composed, beautifully shot – and yet there is no sense of connection between cameraman and subject, husband and wife. In one, Aitken’s mother stands smoking on a street corner, looking resolutely away: “though my father is probably taking a series of photos, she’s not there in essence or spirit. She’s flown.” The reality of his mother’s aloofness manifests itself in these photographs, as Aitken sadly sees that “every photo my father took of my mother was insufficient to redeem the living self of her soul, that essence he craved so much, and of which she denied him possession.”

This distance both father and son feel from the mother is mirrored on a larger scale by their shared disconnection from Thai culture. Although Aitken’s trip to Bangkok in his early twenties is intended as a “project in identity reversal”, an attempt to “excrete every last bit of Australia out of [my] system” – and by extension, every last bit of his father – he ultimately realises he cannot shed the feeling of the outsider, the farang. Despite the warm welcome of his mother’s relatives, despite the new hair cut they insist upon, their efforts to teach him Thai and their encouragement to find a Thai girlfriend, something intangible eludes him: “Everything you have imagined to be the truth of your origins begins to seem like an illusion… Something is always secret, and you know, so deeply, when it’s time to leave.” The chapter is appropriately titled “(Un)becoming Thai”, as Aitken’s stay with his relatives is, in effect, his father’s “return to them through me. I reminded my relatives of the man they last met in 1958, the man I never thought I had come to resemble or invoke in others. At that moment of their recognition of him in me, I felt a surge of love for him, a connection.” His experience in Thailand parallels that of his father, as “together, Father and Son, you and I, dream of that pure understanding”; the desire to be part of a culture which will be forever unfathomable. This blurring between father and son is encapsulated in an earlier, deeply emotive poem evocative of an old sepia photograph. It describes two outsiders separated from the world yet sharing a view through time:  

I am standing alone in the northeast monsoon
tea-dipped clouds
smog sunset.
Your view perhaps, in ’56,
above the throng
All your past, my past
lost in letters.

As a reader, we have the impression Aitken is at times reluctant to accept this connection with his father. When he comments “‘Son, you’re becoming so much like me in your old age’”, Aitken adds bitterly, “There you go – everything refers back to him (he believes this book is all about him).’” However, the process of life writing, of revising their shared pasts, clearly highlights the unexpected truth that Aitken is, after all, much closer than he expected to his father. Despite the failures of family, Aitken ultimately accepts that his father is in fact “some other version of myself”.

REBECCA ALLEN completed her Honours degree in French language and literature while also editing Hermes, the University of Sydney Student Union’s literary journal. She has volunteered for Contrappasso Magazine, a journal for international writing, and has interned as part of Mascara’s prose fiction editorial team. She works at Penguin Random House Australia and is a regular review contributor for Mascara.



Nadia Rhook reviews Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt

9781742234274.jpg.400x0_q20Finding Eliza

by Larissa Behrendt

St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press

ISBN 978-0-702253-90-4

Reviewed by NADIA RHOOK

“She took a long great breath, lifted her petticoats, and ran headlong into the greatest adventure ever told!”[i]

– The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser, film poster, 1975

Larissa Behrendt’s latest work is a profound lesson for the gullible. Finding Eliza calls out narrative tricks that have been deployed with colonizing affect by white writers, artists, and legal authorities, not least dramatically those about cannibalism.

Drawing on her background in law and fiction, Behrendt guides the reader deep into the unsettling pathos of colonial fantasies and myth-making in Australia. The story of Eliza Frazer – a white woman who was shipwrecked in 1836, and then spent several weeks with the Butchalla people on Flinders Island off northeast Australia – provides an entrée for Behrendt’s core argument. Narratives colonize. Eliza’s alleged capture by cannibals enthralled 19th Century audiences, and functioned to reinforce stereotypes of Aboriginal people as ‘barbarous’ and therefore in need of white civilization.

As Behrendt admits, she’s by no means the first writer to enter the murky territory of the ‘actual’ and ‘fantastical’ accounts of cannibalism. Names as big as Sigmund Freud have made comment on the perversions embedded in European’s cannibal stories. Published, too, 15 years after Tracey Banivanua Mar’s interrogation of cannibal tropes of Pacific history, the imperatives behind the book remain pressing.[ii] It’s not only the enduring repetition of narratives about ‘native’ cannibalism that are of concern, but the material forces behind them. For, Behrendt reminds us, white writers continue to profit from narratives where they imagine Aboriginal people as objects of knowledge.

In each chapter, Behrendt offers her readers subtly different angles to view and reflect on the colonizing operation of stories. From Eliza’s stories about Butchalla cannibalism, she turns to the enduring popularity of cannibal stories in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and later, to the story of Elizabeth Durack, a white woman who, in the 1990s, fraudulently pretended to paint as an Aboriginal man, ‘Eddie Burrup’. Through these narratives, Behrendt exposes the ways in which blurring the line between fact and fiction has assisted white men and women to indorse their power and feign innocence, and make a buck (or many) along the way.

The opening chapters are a productive dialect between 19th Century historical narratives and critique thereof, all wrapped in cogent prose. As I entered the world of flesh-eating fantasies, I felt a swelling curiosity about why Behrendt was drawn to unpick narratives about Eliza Fraser; an historical character I found unarresting, if not annoying. (Admittedly, this may be because Eliza ‘mirrors’ an uncomfortable reflection of my own white woman-ness, to use Behrendt’s term.) But this book is not really about Eliza, or her likability. There’s more at stake in this interplay between narrative and its deconstruction. Something at once political and personal.

When Behrendt was in high school in Sydney she was nicknamed ‘Coonardoo’. It wasn’t until she fell on the 1928 published novel of the same name that she realised what this entailed. In Coonardoo the main character, an Aboriginal woman also called Coonardoo, is drawn into working for a white family. The book constructs Coonardo as lazy and, most violently, her death represents ‘the inevitable destruction of her country’.[iii]

For Behrendt, reading Coonardo hurt. As Kyungmi Shi has suggested in her work ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’: ‘Race enters writing … as a structure of feeling, as something that structures feelings, that lays down tracks of affection and repulsion, rage and hurt, desire and ache.’[iv] And other examples Behrendt draws on also illustrate how narratives create, and are created by, the feelings of readers on both sides of the non/Indigenous divide. At a number of points in the book, I wanted Behrendt to prod the affective work of the narratives further. In the introduction she evokes how stories take a ‘hold on our hearts’, but if narratives structure emotions then surely stories have a role to play in de-colonizing emotions. Is this a matter of avoiding white-centric narratives altogether? Or, is it more to do with finding a storyline that unsettles established colonial tropes? In her approval of Liam Davison’s ‘post-colonial’ fiction White Woman, which confronts the dark, patriarchal history of the Gippsland frontier, Behrendt seems to suggest the latter.[v]

Given the book’s persistent critique of colonial narratives, it’s not entirely clear whose hearts and thoughts Behrendt hopes it will remould. Despite the contemporary resonances of the figure of Eliza Fraser, and of the ‘classic Aussie’ 1976 film named after her, I’m not sure the book will attract readers who aren’t already invested in critiquing colonialism. Yet it’s the book’s model of vigilance that makes it so instructive, a valuable resource for thinkers, writers, lawyers, anthropologists, historians, and students. This is a book to reflect on, keep, and return to. It guides readers to realise the interconnectedness of history, law, literature, art, stories and colonial power.

Behrendt doesn’t stop at taking her reader behind white narratives. She also travels beyond them. By drawing on a rare oral history account of Eliza, Behrendt exposes the gap between white and Butchalla-made narratives about Eliza. She tells how an Aboriginal Elder, Olga Miller, has narrated that when Eliza met the Butchalla ‘the women had marked the stranger with with ochre signs which read “let this woman through”.’ Miller’s story turned white narratives upside down. ‘Far from being the danger to Eliza’, Behrendt observes, ‘the Butchalla women were responsible for her safety.’[vi]

Toward the end of the book, Behrendt drives home the ‘so what?’ of her argument for the need to call out the colonizing potential of storytelling. In 1993, she tells, the Yorta Yorta people became the first people to lodge a Native Title claim. Justice Olney of the Supreme Court denied their claim, asserting the Yorta Yorta were ‘no longer a traditional culture’. Then, in early 2004, a Yorta Yorta spokesperson, Henry Atkinson, asserted a counter narrative; ‘All societies evolve, some through their own progression and others because they are forced to.’ In April that year, the state invited the Yorta Yorta to enter a co-operative management agreement as a means to ‘involve’ the Yorta Yorta in the management of their own land.[vii] What legal matter are stories? Behrendt’s message on this is piercing, and delivered, like all the book’s messages, through a revealing example. ‘Law is a national story’, and through story-telling, Olney and others have supported the duress of white claims over Indigenous lands.

It would be difficult to overestimate the gravity of Finding Eliza’s lessons. Readers should take a long breath before they confront the strands of colonial power that have a binding grip on white psyches, and touch the structural corners of the settler nation that is Australia; invasion, violence, cultural appropriation, and land rights, no less.


[i] ‘The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser’, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074466/, accessed 5 May 2016.
[ii]Tracey Banivanua Mar, ‘Cannibalism and Colonialism: charting colonies and frontiers in nineteenth century Fiji’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2010, Vol.52(2), 255-281; See also Ian J McNiven, Lynette Russell and Kay Schaffer, Constructions of colonialism : perspectives on Eliza Fraser’s shipwreck, Washington, D.C : Leicester University Press, 1998.
[iii] Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, St.Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2016, 93
[iv] ‘Where Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Lives of Others’, adapted from the foreword of Kyungmi Shin, The Racial Imaginary, 2003; http://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
[v] Behrendt, Finding Eliza, 99.
[vi] Ibid., 53.
[vii] ‘Case Summary: Yorta Yorta v Victoria’, August 2005, http://aiatsis.gov.au/publications/products/case-summary-yorta-yorta-v-victoria, accessed 1 May 2016.
NADIA RHOOK is a Melbourne-based historian and writer, published in Postcolonial Studies, the Journal of Women’s History and Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. She’s currently curating a City Library heritage exhibition, ‘Moving Tongues: language and difference in 1890s Melbourne’.