Eugen 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.
Pip’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.
Australia Twice Traversed
It’s big. No photo will do it justice, I realise. The way it sits on the horizon as we drive towards it, the way it hurts to crane my neck back to the point when I can see both sky and rock as I stand right next to it. All those postcards you’ve seen of it, they need a scale on them to indicate just how small we are in relation to the rock and its history.
History can’t be ignored out at Uluru. Neither can time. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre sits on the southern side of the rock and tells the story of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and of the people at Mutitjulu who are the primary custodians of these places. The centre itself is two mud brick snake-like buildings built to represent two Anangu ancestral beings, the Kuniya, the woma python, a woman, and the Liru, the poisonous snake man, who fought at the rock. The centre tells stories of the animals and plants, the environment and the languages of the area. There is no mention of ‘Ayers Rock’, ‘The Olgas’ or those white men who first climbed the women’s place. The piranpa history is just a blink of the eye when set against the continuity of Anangu culture.
‘Culture,’ says Jimmy our tour guide, ‘is everything to the Anangu. Tjukurpa,’ he explains, ‘is the word they use for law and language, and Country.’ I realise that Tjukurpa is also past, present, future and now. It is the story and the rules, the relationship to and ceremony conducted in the place.
Place seems so significant and obvious to me here; it isn’t hidden by buildings or houses or roads. The tussocky grass and the red sand seem resilient even by the standards of Uluru itself, a rusting monumental dome of sandstone that burns red due to the oxidation of the iron and content in the rock. But there is terrible fragility here. Areas are cordoned off. Tracks are laid and signs posted: ‘Please keep to the path as the area is fragile’. A footprint can last a year in the dry cracked earth.
Earth has many massive rock structures similar to Uluru and there is dispute about the definition and measurement standards of ‘monoliths’ but the rock tops most of the tourist lists of ‘Monoliths to see in the world’. It sits in an ancient landscape, a plain that used to be a sea bed and reaches 348 metres up from the ground. The rock is larger underneath the ground than it is above, with almost 2.5 kilometres of its mass buried below. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and was formed some 600 million years ago. Anangu believe that their ancestors created it as they travelled across the earth, leaving marks in the landscape and providing them with law and knowledge to live by. It is sacred to the Anangu and deserves to be seen in this way by piranpa.
Piranpa, and I am pleased to have a name for myself other than ‘tourist’, have been misunderstanding and not-seeing the rock since 1873 when the European explorer William Grosse first sighted Uluru. He called it ‘Ayers Rock’ after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. The Anangu, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, call it Uluru and now the rock’s official name is ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ is a name I thought we had moved away from but I find it consistently. I ask the head of marketing at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort why all of their marketing material still refers to ‘Ayers Rock’ and not ‘Uluru’. She tells me that I have misunderstood, that everything they do calls the rock ‘Uluru’, the park ‘Uluru-Kata Tjuta’ and the resort itself ‘Yulara’. “But even your company name contains the words ‘Ayers Rock’, the website that everyone has to book through is ayersrockresort.com.au, the airport, the tour company – everything refers to ‘Ayers Rock’. Why – after 30 years?’ There is silence on the end of the phone so I push further and ask, ‘Is there a plan to change it to Uluru? Or perhaps even ‘Yulara’?’ She refers me to her boss and to the public relations person of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the company that, in conjunction with the Anangu community group, Wana Ungkinytja, bought Yulara and the resort and the marketing and tour operating arm in 2010 for $300 million. The ILC acquired the entire Resort, including all hotels and accommodation, associated infrastructure, the airport and workers village, in an arrangement with Wana Ungkunytja. There is now interest in an enquiry into the deal, as it is thought they paid too much. When I ask Jimmy whether the Anangu are angered by the persistent use of the words ‘Ayers Rock’ he says, ‘Not much annoys Anangu but they don’t really understand why we can’t call it Uluru. They wait for us, though. They are good at waiting.’ I wonder why people think that tourists wouldn’t come to a place called ‘Uluru’ and how many dollars those two words ‘Ayers Rock’ are believed to attract.
Attractions and distractions abound at Uluru. Tourism here began to increase dramatically in the 1950s. By the 1970s Anangu and others were worried about the environmental damage and so began the process of forming what we now know as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Almost half a million tourists pass through the park per year. There are camel tours, motorbike tours, hot air balloon tours, helicopter tours, walking tours, camping tours, photography tours, food tours, kids tours and rock art tours. Traffic jams at sunrise are common as the resort evacuates for the rock, cars, station wagons, 4WD, buses, and campervans snake their way across the desert in the soft gossamer-like pre-dawn light to capture that one perfect photo of the rock as sunlight strikes the sandstone.
Sandstone, oxidising sandstone in particular, contains beautiful swirls of rich colour. In amongst these there are old ochre paintings. ‘See here?’ says Jimmy, ‘We can see the outlines of hands and of Anangu, shapes of people, blown onto the rock.’ We are lined up at the chain link fence looking at the rock art and one of our group leans in closer to examine something.
‘Is that recent?’ asks a man in a rabbit skin hat. I turn to where he is pointing and think that the white sprays of chalk on the rock, not far from the wooden deck we’re standing on, might be graffiti. Jimmy, our guide, is flummoxed and dismayed as he steps through the small crowd. He leans over the barrier to see better.
‘It’s ashes,’ he says. ‘Someone has thrown their loved one’s ashes here.’ We all take a breath in and edge away from the luminous dust. ‘This is such a problem,’ Jimmy says.
‘What’ll happen?’ asks a dumpy woman in a faded sloppy joe.
‘We will sweep it up,’ Jimmy says, ‘and the Anangu will decide what to do with it. The ashes can’t stay. Uluru has never been a burial place. It is fertility. Anangu aren’t even buried here.’ He pauses and looks at the ashes strewn on the ground. ‘The Anangu feel that they owe these ashes respect – despite the lack of respect and understanding offered by the spreading of them. It’s a complex discussion,’ he adds. The chain of dismay and consternation that this act initiates makes me appreciate the interrelationship of Anangu to this place in a more expansive and richer way.
Ways of seeing are altered by story, I realise too. Kata Tjuta is a collection of majestic rounded rocks that sits to the west of Uluru and is known as the men’s university, the place of ‘many heads’, the place boys go to become men. The piranpa refer to the highest peak of the rocks as ‘Mt Olga’, first sighted and mis-named in 1872 by Ernest Giles. Giles called the peak after the German Queen, Olga of Württemberg. Somewhere, I had picked up the notion that Uluru was a male place and that Kata Tjuta was a female place. But Uluru is a female place. The heart of Australia is female – perhaps that is why people still feel they are entitled to climb on her, in this nation where women have always been second-class citizens. This hangover of gender assignment, the wrong-seeing of piranpa, has marked our language and our thinking for generations.
Generations of piranpa have continued to come to Uluru. The Outback Pioneer Bar is friendlier than walking into the 5-star Sails in the Desert Resort or the 4.5-star Desert Gardens Hotel for a drink. I head to the toilet while my boyfriend buys the beers. When I get back to our table he is talking to an elderly piranpa man. He has been to the rock – ‘Ayers Rock, it’s always Ayers Rock to me -– I can never remember the other word for it’ -– many times and first came here in 1960s. It seems appropriate, and also not, that he tell us his outlandish stories (of flying a small plane through the domes of Kata Tjuta –‘I’m not going to call it that’ – of how people would camp anywhere, of the drinking and the drinking and the drinking, and that the hotels were put up at the base of the rock without licenses or money changing hands for the land they were built on), in this bar that celebrates a very male version of the ‘outback’ myth.
‘Myth’ is often used to explain Anangu relationship to their Country but I don’t think it is the same at all. The events and cultures that the classical myths are drawn from happened a long time ago, thousands of years ago. Anangu stories are drawn from creation stories, ways of explaining the world as they find it to themselves and others, but there is something very present, very immediate to their inma.
Inma is still performed at Uluru and Kata Tjuta and other places around the area. Jimmy tells us that at different times sections of the rock are closed off for tourists so ceremony can happen. I think of these ceremonies, rituals of story, song and dance, as expressions of religious belief, of celebration and recognition of ongoing connection to the land and of the Anangu’s acknowledgement of their ancestral spirits. Inma is looking after the land and the people, practically and spiritually.
‘Spiritually’: I wonder about that word. It isn’t that I am unmoved by our holiday to Uluru and the way the expanse of plain, the blue of the sky, the horizon stretching out and on into the distance, all lift my spirits. But I am cautious to say I understand what this word means for anyone other than me and especially not for Anangu people. I eschew formal religion of any sort, trust in science and have faith, absurdly I know, in humanity. This framework though does mean my white middle classness is never really challenged for I live in a bubble of like-minded people, a bubble I have chosen. This is the bind I always find myself in. As a piranpa, a non-Aboriginal, white middle class woman, I can always choose not to think about anyone or anything outside of my circle. I can choose to leave, choose to think only about what is next. There is no pressure on me to reflect or to still the voice inside my head or to cede power by listening.
Listening is a powerful aspect of most Aboriginal cultures, I discover. Story is taught through repetition and mimicry, the students need to listen closely to nuanced lifts and pauses in the teacher’s telling of each story. Language is life for the Anangu, Jimmy tells us. Language contains everything. Language is land. Language is Tjukurpa. Here the languages Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Nangantjatjara are spoken. Also Chinese and Japanese and French, and accented English emanating from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. And Australian English: ‘Get down here now, Damian, you little shit! We’re doing that later,’ was one fatherly display of Australian English as he yelled at his son who was already metres above the ground on the Uluru climbing track.
Tracks run around the base of the rock and spread out radiating between the few trees and hillocks in the plain. Feathery paw prints, tiny pad prints, and stencil art in the sand made by the skink that lives out here fan out across the ground. Many of the tracks emanate from Kapi Mutitjulu a waterhole on the south of the rock and the source of water for the Mutitjulu community based at the rock. The waterhole is reliant on runoff from Uluru and there is no water at Mutitjulu itself other than groundwater that also depends on the water from Uluru. ‘Kapi’ is the Pitjanjatjara word for water and is crucial at Uluru. When it rains, water cascades down its sides from the flat top. There are almost nine kilometres of grooved worn rock that act as a catchment area. Kapi Mutitjulu is believed to have an eternal water supply. Anangu women hadn’t known a season without water until the summer just one before last. In that season the flow into Kapi Mutitjulu stopped, the narrow watercourse that bursts through two folding curves of the rock faded from a glinting wet line to a black, rough, dry scar. Jimmy tells us that the water around the rock is tainted now. With tourists still climbing to the top of Uluru, and no toilets or rubbish bins up there, all manner of waste is left on the rock. I don’t tell Jimmy that I have seen photos on the Internet of the deep pools, taken by people who have climbed the rock and then gone swimming in them. The cool, clear water looks inviting but they are swimming in the Anangu’s drinking water. Even if they don’t swim much of the rubbish climbers leave up there makes its way into the pools of water that have been carved into the surface over millions of years. ‘Camera batteries, nappies, human waste, toilet paper, food scraps, plastic wrap. All of it gets left,’ he says. ‘And what that means is that this water is undrinkable, but also, I have to climb up the rock, against Anangu wishes, and clean up after them.’ Consternation and complexity abound here.
Here I wake up in the middle of the night hearing dingoes call as they pace around the edges of the campground. I read the signs warning of their cleverness and their watchfulness and their opportunistic attitude toward food. I don’t expect to see one but as we slow, she turns her head towards our car and sniffs. She trots leisurely across the bitumen a few metres in front of the car. She is thin and pale, her fur a sand-blasted bleached colour, and she is smaller than I thought a wild dingo would be. Canus lupus. Indigenous to this country. It is mid-afternoon and we are driving back from Kata Tjuta. It seems incongruous, a dingo in full sunlight. She looks tired, thirsty and focused. When I ran into Jimmy the ranger at the Kata Tjuta toilet block earlier, I asked him about Azaria Chamberlain. It was the thirtieth anniversary of her death and the news had reported that her father was coming to pay his respects at the place she was taken. Jimmy suggested that in 1984 Azaria’s death was the final straw for the Anangu in their fight to remove tourists from the national park at night. The Anangu wanted to be left alone to look after their Country, at least at night, and they thought the dingoes did too. Our dingo disappears into the scrubby grassland, melting into her landscape.
‘Landscape’ always puts me inside the place I am thinking about. The word ‘view’ places me on a high platform above it. I can imagine the thrill of climbing so high above the ground but I can’t understand why people still do it when it is spelt out so clearly why Anangu don’t want us to climb the rock. They don’t climb the rock except for ceremony and even then, only particular Anangu elders are allowed.
‘Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima – please don’t climb Uluru. That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing.’’
Kunmanara, traditional owner
Anangu want us to discover a deeper understanding of this place, to try to see it the way they do. It’s all about respect.
Respect versus disrespect. It seems quite simple, I think. Manners. It is simply good manners to acknowledge the Anangu wishes for their land. Except, of course, many of the people who come believe that they own Uluru and have rights as significant as Anangu rights. This is the fundamental disconnect of Australia that is made obvious here. Disrespect at Uluru, though, is not a new occurrence. As that pirinipa in the pub told us, ‘Back in the 60s, I piloted for an American man who wanted to make a film about Ayers Rock. We were flying 50 metres above the top of the rock. Terrific footage. And we filmed down around the base too. He sprayed a can of beer on the rock art to bring the colours out before we filmed.’ Jimmy mentioned a fertility cave on our tour of the base but we didn’t see it. It’s off limits to any pirinpa and to Anangu men. It is a fertility cave still used for inma and, as the old white Australian man talks, I realise that the cave with the rock art he is describing, the one where the American sprayed beer on the rock art, is this same fertility cave. He describes the rock art in great detail, images that excited him, confronted him, and that he has remembered all these years later. Drawings he, a man, should never have seen.
Seen on the road leading to the rock are buses, many buses full of Chinese and Japanese and retired piranpa who no longer drive themselves. There are also the smaller buses, the ones with the camping tours favoured by young people, from Alice Springs over three hundred kilometres away. The tourists stream out of their vehicles towards the rock in an ecstatic state, as though seeing the rock, touching it, is a religious experience. And then they climb, ticking off the experience as they would a fairground ride, being tourists.
Tourists often take a rock or some sand with them when they leave the park. This is also against Anangu wishes and Tjukurpa. Later, many of these tourists worry about their stolen rocks and send them back with notes apologising, hoping Anangu can forgive them. The Anangu refer to these rocks as ‘Sorry Rocks’. But because the rocks have been taken out of the area, the rocks can’t be put back into the national park, another dilemma for Anangu and Parks Australia.
‘Australia’ is a name derived from the Latin word for south, ‘Australis’. Matthew Flinders coined the expression ‘Terra Australis’ on his maps of his circumnavigation of the continent and Governor Macquarie shortened the phrase to ‘Australia’ in all his official paperwork. By the late 1820s the ‘name’ was commonplace for the continent. ‘Australian’ was originally a term that referred to the Indigenous people of this place, not the settlers. The switch in nomenclature occurred by the end of the eighteenth century and came about because a word had to be found for those Europeans who could not return ‘home’. Now the word denotes anyone who is a citizen of Australia.
Australians like shortening and inventing nicknames, don’t we. We are quite adept at this, I think. It makes me wonder why we are so resistant to adopting new (to us) names for places. The practice of including both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal names for places in Australia has been gathering pace since the late 1990s. This dual naming symbolically and locally acknowledges the history of colonisation and dissolution of Aboriginal culture that has occurred in this place. The Anangu name ‘Uluru’ was re-introduced in December 1993 and was initially written as ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru’. The word order was reversed to ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’ in November 2002. On government road signs throughout the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal word appears first. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park only Anangu words appear on road signs. Everywhere outside of the national park, the airport, ‘Ayers Rock Airport’, the website, the guide books, the tea towels, the post cards – the priority is still ‘Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ was handed back to the Anangu on 26th October 1985, just over thirty years ago. Within minutes of receiving their land back, the Anangu signed a 99-year lease for Parks Australia to co-manage the park. Co-management has meant employment and opportunity for Anangu and respect for their cultural knowledge. It has also allowed whitefella law to enforce many of their wishes. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is still seen as a betrayer of the Anangu as he promised that the climb of the rock would be closed upon the handback. It wasn’t. It seems ludicrous to me, especially from thirty years on, that the Northern Territory Government opposed the handback because they believed that piranpa wouldn’t come to the rock if it was managed by Aboriginal people:
‘Now we are living together, white people and black people. We are working together, white and black, equal. Everything at Uluru still runs according to our Law. All the rangers wear badges carrying the image of Uluru. That is as it should be.’
Being at Uluru makes me think about my relationship to Aboriginal Australia more broadly too. Even that expression, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is underpinned with power and implies an otherness. Aboriginal cultures name every little thing in relationship to something else. I am in relationship to you. The rock is in relationship to the water, the birds, the sand hills, to people. The fly is in relationship to the dingo, to the horizon, to the young bloodwood trees. But this naming isn’t like English. An Aboriginal word means different things in different contexts. The singularity with which I approach names, ‘this is this thing and it is always this thing’ is rendered meaningless and naïve.
Naïvely, as many white middle class people do, I have always thought there would be no consequence for my tourism, my travels. I just always thought they were mine. I have been to New York, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Kabul, Dubai too many times, London not enough times, Brighton, Paris, Creteil, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Florence, Genoa and Genova, Bali and Brisbane, Melbourne and Milton. An Aboriginal Elder once told me that I had an obligation, a responsibility to and for every place I had travelled. This took me aback. Responsibility? What kind? How? Will it take up too much of my time, I wondered. At Uluru, Jimmy tells us some stories to show us how the Anangu think about their lives, stories of spirits and dogs and birds. He also asks us not to take photos at a specific place because the site is sacred and only for female Anangu. If a man saw the place, even in a photo, they would get sick and perhaps die. Later, I see an older woman taking a photo of the site. She is standing beside the sign that states, ‘This is a sensitive Site: No Photos’. I point this out to her and she blushes and moves along the track. My boyfriend can’t believe I bothered. ‘But I have to say something now I know,’ I say to him.
‘But if she takes a photo and shows it to a man she knows and he dies, what does it matter? It might be what is deserved, needed,’ he says. It bothers me that I almost agree with him. When I run into Jimmy at Kata Tjuta I ask him about this. ‘Do I now have a responsibility or is that just my goody-two shoes whitefella ego talking – pointing out that “I’m not as racist as you, old lady”?’ He laughs and says, ‘Well, either outcome might be a fair call but I think that once we know some story we have obligation to people and Country. Why come here if you aren’t going to feel obligated to respect Anangu and Tjukurpa?’
Tjukurpa sneaks up on me, this word that has to be said with energy so as to capture the ‘ch’ of the ‘Tj’ at its beginning. It is said with frequency by the park staff, it is on much of the written material handed out at the cultural centre. It is an offering, this word, from the Anangu to assist us in understanding the deep connection they have to their Country and the place. It is offered in good faith and requires reciprocity, I realise. Reciprocity is the basis of all Aboriginal cultures. It is the manifestation of interconnectedness, of mutual benefit, of respect, and can be seen in social practices, in story and in the interrelationship between the past, present and future. I wonder though, how I can reciprocate. What can I offer? What could I possibly give that would be useful, might show my respect and thanks for being allowed onto their Country.
Country, for Anangu is alive and it is story, and language and dance and the air that we breathe here. Is their relationship to the world so different that we will never be able to appreciate theirs and always be limited by ours?
Our tour comes to an end and I ask Jimmy if he knows any of the men’s stories. He turns to look at Kata Tjuta sitting across the plain in the early morning sun and says, ‘Not really. It is old business over there and not so many of the Elders are keen to pass it to someone like me who isn’t Anangu. But I’ve been invited to go with them next time they have ceremony to do.’ I wonder, again, why we know so much about the female business at Uluru, why the men have been able to keep their stories and the women have had to give up some of theirs. I wonder about the dynamics of gender in our world and about relationship, the interdependency of all things, one on the other.
Other stories will be told as they have been for millennia but this, I come to understand, is the one I can be responsible for. This is my offering.
Robbie 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
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
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.
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 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 Overland, Crikey, 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
Alice 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.
Only the Animals
by Ceridwen Dovey
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 , 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  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 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.
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.
One Hundred Letters Home
by Adam Aitken
Reviewed by REBECCA ALLEN
“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
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.
by Larissa Behrendt
St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press
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’.
The Queen’s Play
by Aashish Kaul
Reviewed by SUBHASH JAIRETH
Queen Mandodari’s Clever Play
Once upon a time in a kingdom on a little island lived a queen by the name of Mandodari (the ‘soft-bellied’). The king was busy fighting wars and so bored, or perhaps to challenge her husband’s authority, she invented a new board game. No, the game wasn’t new but a modification of Chaturanga, a board game popular in ancient India. The changes the queen introduced turned the game into something similar to what we now know as chess.
This imagined invention of chess by Mandodari, the wife of King Ravana, one of the ultimate prototypes of evil in the Indian epic Ramayana, is at the centre of Aashish Kaul’s intriguing novel. The dare of this conceit played upon us by the author is as breathtaking as the act of disruption the queen herself crafts. The epic’s narrative fabric of stories within stories is sliced open to retrieve a little string from which a clever writer like Kaul can weave his own stories.
“The need for tales they say arose, when the fetters came stuck round our ankles with a clank of inevitability, when our wings were torn slowly the earth’s fierce pull, when even the skill of climbing trees or perching on a branch was forgotten. And yet the longing remained.” These are the words with which Kaul begins his story. Like most writers, a longing to explain the urge to tell stories also drives Kaul’s project. A writer self-conscious of his own design and intent, Kaul is ultimately aware of the limitations all stories, including epics, are burdened with. Limitations announced emphatically in the final pages of the book by one of the narrators: “Thus it occurred to you that not even of your story were you the hero. Privilege and history overran you there as well.” Desire to make and tell stories drive us because it is meant to remain unconsummated. The satisfaction that comes our way is not only transient but also illusory.
In a way, the longing that takes hold of Mandodari forcing her to transform the board game is quite similar to the longing most writers feel. The board game Mandodari invents is not merely a game but also a symbolic space within which new stories can be imagined and told by playing the game. In fact playing of the game, moving this or that piece, and imagining and calculating consequences of the moves aren’t different from the way writers make their stories. Thus, the board game, the origin of which Kaul wants to imagine, turns into a trope of story-telling itself.
Mandodari introduces two vital modifications to the game of Chaturanga: discarding the rolling of dice, and introducing the figure of queen as a piece on the board. Once the dice is removed the role of chance in the game and that of fate in life are challenged. One can now become a master of one’s own destiny. Freedom to exercise one’s will and act is there to enjoy. Suddenly Mandodari begins to remind me of a modernist informed by the traditions of European Enlightenment. “Why was the dice abandoned?” Asks the narrator in the novel. “For one reason alone. That fate ruled the board as it ruled us,” he explains soon after.
But Mandodari isn’t merely a modernist. In her I also spot traces of a latent proto-feminist. In the game invented by her, the most powerful piece on the board is the figure of the queen. All power resides with it. It can move freely in all directions. The power of the figure of the king, on the other hand, is drastically curtailed. The moves it is allowed are minor, restricted and almost ritualistic. His fate is nothing but to turn into a mere symbol of victory or defeat. Kaul’s Mandodari is clever. The ‘soft-bellied’ queen has guts.
Most of the story in the novel is told in the third-person voice of an omniscient narrator. His power is occasionally disrupted by two narrators who prefer to talk in first person. One of them is most probably Hanuman, commonly known to readers familiar with the epic Ramayana as the monkey-god. The identity of the other narrators remains illusive. He appears and disappears as if he were a piece on Mandodari’s board game. Narrative time also shifts from past to present without any warning. I found these changes abrupt and unsettling. But the irritation was soon assuaged by luminous prose, its rhythmic movement and its poetic cadences. There are many passages that lingered in my mind. Here is one: “During the day, sparrows the size of a child’s fist with indigo and blue patterned crowns and sword-like erect tails, flitted in the hedgerows enclosing the yard, splashing colour everywhere, and in the evening, before the pine torches had pushed the darkness further into itself, a martin returning to a nearby tree would sometimes brush its open wings against my cheek.”
The book begins with a note from the author. “Among many things that this book is,” it says, “that every book is, it is a book about chess. Not chess as we know it, but chess as was known at the time in which the story is based.” I deliberately ignored the note and read it after I had read the book and felt cheated by it. A book, at the centre of which is a daring move to get rid of the power the rolling of dice played in Chaturanga and thereby granting freedom to think, feel and move, doesn’t need the imposition of a note that tells its readers what should be read in it. The story is wonderful, told masterfully by a writer who knows his craft well. I don’t want to believe that the note, in some way, reflects the author’s doubt that without this clarification the story would fail to do the job it has been asked to. Why such doubt, such indecision?
This is Kaul’s second book. His first, A Dream of Horses and Other Stories (2014) is recommended by J.M. Coetzee who notes that “… dreamlike setting, the fastidious melancholy sensibility of their no-longer–young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov.” A very high praise form a Nobel Laureate, reproduced deservedly on the back cover of The Queen’s Play.
Once the game is invented Mandodari invites the king to play and they play more than once. Often the queen wins but she is clever to let the king enjoy a win too. The game is followed by sex. It has to. It is often said that good description of sex scenes demands utmost control. Unfortunately the writing begins to fail and loose control in these passages some of which can easily place the book on the short list for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. Here is one: “At last the vulva surrounds the phallus, engulfs it. Like dark space engulfing matter, like a lake possessing a mountain’s image, like night covering the gloss of the world. Like a wedge his torso locks into her wet angular thighs.”
“Well, less is more Lucrezia,” reminds Robert Browning’s faultless painter. Fortunately Kaul does his best to follow the rule. The language, apart from the passage cited above, is precise and use of metaphors are disciplined and efficient. They add to the tonal quality of the narrative asking to be read and heard aloud.
I read the book twice and I am sure I’ll read it again to enjoy the resonant prose. The book is meant to be reread. Not because the prose is opaque and the plot complicated. No, it isn’t a plot-driven book. The book demands slow reading to appreciate its carefully crafted prose and to think about the ideas it explores deftly. I hope that this book is able to find the empathetic reader it has been written for.
SUBHASH JAIRETH was born in India. He spent nine years in Moscow and moved to Canberra in 1986. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published in 2011. Two plays adapted from the book were performed at Canberra’s Street Theatre in 2012. His novel After Love was released last year.