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.

 

Aptitude

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.

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.

 

Note
[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

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
[…]
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.

Notes

[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’.

Subhash Jaireth reviews The Queen’s Play by Aashish Kaul

9781742234274.jpg.400x0_q20The Queen’s Play

by Aashish Kaul

Roundfire Books

ISBN 978-1-78279-861-3

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.

Kate Hall reviews The Intervention: An Anthology edited by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss

9781742234274.jpg.400x0_q20The Intervention: An Anthology

by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss (eds)

Concerned Australians/New South Books

ISBN 978-0-646937-09-0

Reviewed by KATE HALL

In The Intervention: An Anthology (2015), editors Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss add their voices to a diverse and impressive range of writers and speakers, from renowned Northern Territory Elders like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks of Utopia and Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra of Galiwin’ku to literary heavy-weights like Alexis Wright and Bruce Pascoe. This is an important book, and the calibre of its contributors is only part of what makes it essential reading. As Scott explains in her launch speech, and in the acknowledgements, ‘This book has had a unique provenance. Being unable to find a publisher became a positive factor once the tide of support from the community and individuals [. . .] rolled in’ (261). The anthology was published through the combined efforts of social justice advocates Concerned Australians, crowd-funding and individual donations, and so it is a resource made possible by those whose opposition to the injustices of the NT Intervention has translated into concrete support for the anthology. This is heartening news for a country whose successive governments seem to care so little about the rights of its first peoples. As Larissa Behrendt notes in her contribution, ‘the intervention in the Northern Territory is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people’ (67), and the contributions The Intervention: An Anthology explain, in various ways, some of the reasons for this failure, while the book itself is a symbol of community support.

The Intervention: An Anthology contains several reports, essays and transcripts of speeches that document the NTER, and these are important forms of historical witnessing, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. But this anthology gives equal weight to writing as truth-telling that doesn’t require footnotes, and the anthology also contains a wealth of such responses. Poetry from Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann sits alongside short stories from Debra Adelaide and P.M. Newton. There are several first-hand accounts of life lived during the Intervention, by what the fiction and life-writing pieces share with the essays and reports is a unifying tone comprised of outrage, pain, anger and despair, as well as solidarity and a commitment to social justice and the pursuit of human rights. What sets the life-writing contributions apart is the way they function simultaneously as protest statements, trauma narratives and testimonials; and many of the most powerful pieces of life-writing in the anthology come from people who are not well known as writers. Some of the life-writing in the collection is transcribed from recorded speeches and so the act of writing itself morphs into the act of recording; spoken into written testimony. The personal recollections of what it feels like have to pay for groceries with a basics card, or to be terrified when the inexplicable arrival of army and federal police troops evokes the intergenerational trauma of the child removal are powerful, affecting acts of testimony.

There is a call for immediate action evident in all of the statements, stories, personal essays, and works of creative non-fiction in the anthology, and the collection reminds readers that, like other human rights disasters in this country, there’s no belatedness about the intervention. It is not consigned to history, not finished, and not yet dealt with. As Heiss points out, ‘no Australian today can claim “not to know” what is happening in the Northern Territory’ (13). For those who might not know enough, the anthology should serve as a useful primer, as well as a scholarly resource for students and academics. The collection provides a number of factual accounts that offer insights into the intervention from its inception, such as Pat Anderson’s ‘The Intervention: Personal Reflections’, in which Anderson, as the co-author (with Rex Wild) of the Little Children are Sacred report describes the conflicting responses of Aboriginal people to the initial implementation of the intervention’s policies:

The Intervention presented a real dilemma for Aboriginal people, at the local community level as well as at the national level. For some, this was a long overdue recognition of the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal communities and the need to act decisively to end it. On the other hand, there were those who opposed the Intervention for its attack on rights that had been hard won by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians over many years. (37)

The intervention is the term commonly used to describe both the initial thrust of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), in which a slew of new policies were imposed in a matter of days across seventy three remote communities, and the continuing impact of these policies up until July 2012. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, to use the intervention’s official title, ended in name only at that time, but the paternalistic and racist policies continued under the banner of Labour’s Stronger Futures Act and remain in place today. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the NTER, which John Howard launched in response to Wild and Anderson’s Little Children are Sacred report, did not take up any of the recommendations in that report, and imposed a series of other initiatives not recommended in the report. Crucially, the NTER did not follow the first recommendation in that report, that governments ‘commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.’ (197)

Instead, as several commentators in the anthology point out, the Howard Government sent in the army and federal police to enforce a series of blatantly racist policies, some of which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. These included quarantining of welfare payments, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, compulsory so called heath checks for children to check for signs of sexual abuse, the compulsory acquisition of land through long leases, the removal of permit systems and the exclusion of consideration of customary law in sentencing. Rosalie Kunoth Monks describes the fear and bewilderment when the army arrived in her community:

My recollection of the Intervention in my home community Urapuntja, commonly known as Utopia, was the day the soldiers in uniform, the police and public servants arrived and we were ushered up to the basketball stadium and we were all told that we were now under the Intervention. (15)

Opponents of the intervention do not deny the existence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, though the intervention failed to produce evidence of this during its so-called emergency response. But, as Jeff McMullen points out in his essay, the sexual abuse of children is wide-spread in this country and not limited to Aboriginal communities. The point to be made, of course, is that ‘no one ordered NT-style interventions into the church and state institutions, or into the barbed-wire detention camps where the children of asylum seekers had been locked up for years.’ (121) Jaowyn Elder Rachel Willika also points out the hypocrisy, the racism and the blindness that fueled the focus on Aboriginal people during the NTER: ‘I have been thinking about those words: little children are sacred. Who are the little children? Are they talking about all the children? Black children and white children? That’s what it says to me. We should be protecting all the children. Aren’t white children sacred too?’

In her 2015 speech commending the anthology, Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs acknowledges,

of course Little Children are Sacred and, of course, we must do what we can as a nation to stop their neglect and abuse. But we should do so consistently with human rights. To juxtapose human rights versus child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect our vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our first nations peoples to dignity and meaningful consultation and consent to laws that affect their lives.

The contributors to the anthology are in agreement about the need for change, but in a manner that is consultative and which respects Aboriginal people and cultures. In her contribution to the anthology, ‘what I heard about the intervention’, Melissa Lucashenko quotes Alexis Wright: ‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this . . .’ (111)

Notes

The Intervention: An Anthology has, since the writing of this review, been acquired by New South Books (forthcoming in July 2016).

Citations

Triggs, G (2015) ‘Northern Territory Intervention 2007’, Transcript, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 14/4/16 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/northern-territory-intervention-2007

 
 
KATE HALL lectures in Literary Studies at Deakin University Geelong. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with recent work appearing in Overland, New Community and Pure Slush (forthcoming in 2016).