The Red Pearl and Other Stories
By Beth Yahp
Vagabond Press, 2017
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Australian, Malaysian-born writer Beth Yahp’s short story collection The Red Pearl and Other Stories (2017) navigates between different locations and time periods. It is resolutely transnational and transhistorical in nature. At times, the collection veers towards the metaphysical and abstract. Yahp also experiments with different forms, styles, modes and genres of writing. The title story draws its suggestive force from what a specialist in Asian Australian fiction, Tseen Khoo, had defined as “Oriental grunge” in her analysis of Lillian Ng’s novel Swallowing Clouds. As often in Asian Australian women’s writing, the “sexotic” is deployed as a strategic (al)lure. The cultural politics of the collection’s cover page is relevant in this matter. A young Orientalised woman appears dressed in a crimson cheongsam, looking passive, her lips closed, with the top of her face cropped out from the cover frame. In so doing the Orient comes to be marketed and packaged as a desired object of fantasy deprived of the basic attributes of subjecthood, such as the power to think and reflect, as well as to see and develop a critical worldview, or speak of its own volition. “The Red Pearl” is a love tale between a sailor and a dancer met at the Shanghai Bar. Located in an unnamed Asian port city (most likely Singapore), the story bears “the promise of anonymity, abandonment, delirium, dream,” (Yahp 43) as well as poetic grace. Counter to what might be expected from the book cover, the lover clearly has an agency and power of her own, as proven by the fact that “when she agrees to dance, the sailor lies mesmerised.” (44)
Male-female relationships are also addressed in Yahp’s introductory story in the collection, entitled “The Other Room,” about a woman apparently gone mad. From her side of their adjoining wall, she observes through a peephole a man fashioning doll-like female faces made of clay or glass that he hangs on the wall. This “other room” adjacent to hers is in many ways a product of her imagination and a metaphor for the mind. The female narrator’s mind is utterly alienated and colonised by her obsession with faces and inability to move beyond her “imago.” The term in psychoanalysis stands for “an unconscious idealised mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behaviour.” (Oxford Dictionary of English) I am here reminded of Lyn Jacobs’s literary essay, “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home,” concerned with fiction that may indeed remain about face unless women authors of colour have a creative room of their own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. The mysterious, unnamed craftsman situated in the other room “shapes faces in the dark. In the sweltering dark he traces the outline of my face, the roughness of my skin, and his hand is sometimes cold, sometimes burning.” (9) On display in this brief extract is the surgical care for symmetry and balance used by Yahp to craft her sentences. Yahp’s streamlined style matches in turn the man’s plan to rectify the narrator’s psyche: “You are in my image although you are other than I. You are not perfect. You are a scar. You watch and listen but you cannot speak. You watch through a crack in the wall like a thief. You are a slur, yet you are nearest to me. I will make you perfect.” (11)
The theme of gender oppression runs throughout the collection, as befits current debates in the West and beyond over sexual violence and predatory behaviour in the wake of the #metoo movement. It is made particularly poignant in “Point of no Return,” a story that tackles the Malaysian youth’s relation to sexuality in the face of a highly conservative society. As Nicholas Jose notes in the collection’s afterword, Yahp keeps returning to her native country, “realis[ing] how deeply and passionately she is invested in Malaysia as sometime citizen and activist,” (217) although Yahp left her homeland as a student for Australia decades ago. This Nietzschean eternal return of the diasporic back to its roots is a gesture I have observed before in this literary journal amongst more mature Asian Australian writers. Such writers do not so much aim at reconnecting with their origins as they intend to shed new light on the neighbouring Asian region for Australian readers, beyond Orientalist clichés. For Yahp, this preoccupation with Malaysia is nothing new but has indeed remained a constant in her work, from her award-winning novel The Crocodile Fury (1992) — a foundational literary text in Asian Australian fiction — to the publication of her family memoir Eat First, Talk Later (2015), which to a large extent discusses contemporary Malaysian politics and the resurgence of grassroots contestation from the late 1990s onwards. Yahp’s valuable contribution to demystifying Asia in the eyes of Australian readers challenges the widespread view that Malaysia is a successfully democratic, multiracial society similar to other multicultural nations such as Australia.
“Point of no Return” is a phrase that refers to a woman’s loss of virginity. Malaysia turns out to be a religiously intolerant, deeply divided country that polices its citizens and in particular its youth over private sexual matters and mores, in the same way that other hardline Islamic nations such as Iran do elsewhere. Yahp forcefully demonstrates the extent to which in Malaysia, the dominant, state-controlled media have played a decisive role in moulding the youth’s mindset and desires. Interwoven into the main narrative are newspaper clippings that the two protagonists, Bel and Deen, start collecting in a desperate bid to seam back those cut out pieces metaphorically standing for mutilated female body parts. As the postcolonial feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak warns, “couture carries the echo of the coupure or cut — the cut from the place or origin.” (172) These clippings (coupures in French) tragically project onto the young couple an image of their shared future with no outlet in sight but death, rape, murder, or the necessity for the youth to abstain from sex as a means of self-protection. These clippings constitute a most brutal rite of initiation into adulthood, a lesson that perhaps only the anecdotes or self-help sections of newspapers or popular magazines could teach them concerning violence (to gloss Frantz Fanon’s classic anticolonial essay) and the policing of youth deemed “deviant” or “sexually offensive;” the arrest of female teens at nightclubs for wearing “provocative” clothing; how there persists a strong incentive for Malay girls to remain virgin before marrying; how murdering a woman is deemed a lesser crime if she is not a virgin, based on a forensic examination of her vagina; the State’s repression of queer minorities; cases involving young girls or students or even women who, being unwed, decide to get rid of their babies; or the lingering taboo of divorce; plastic surgery and racial bleaching. In this regard, the irony consisting in forbidding plastic surgery and Botox injection under Islamic law, on the one hand, while tacitly condoning the disfigurement and dismembering of women by sexual predators, on the other, is not lost on Yahp:
She read: Two Syariah Law lecturers [stated] that the use of Botulinum Toxic A (Botox) to enhance beauty is haram (prohibited)…[since] Botox injections [were] not part of general regulation governing beauty process and procedure as allowed by Islam… [They] based their finding on the fact that the use of Botox would alter one’s look permanently and this could be considered as an act of deceit.
He read: Bone fragments of a Mongolian model who was shot twice and her body blown to bits with explosives were found on a hill near the Empangan Tasik Subang…Sources said [she] was shot in the head…before explosives were taped to her body and detonated. (103)
Yahp’s collection contains multiple instances of violent rupture changing the course of history and interrupting the main thread of the narrative, as in “Time and Again,” or constituting its chief fabric, as in “In 1969.” In “Time and Again”, the female protagonist, who happens to be a writer sojourning in Paris, like Yahp, bears witness to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which terrorists opened fire on the headquarters of a satirical newspaper, killing dozens in the name of jihad. This resulted in the implementation of a more or less permanent state of emergency vindicating the curbing of press freedom and freedom of speech, the widespread use of preventive detention and house arrest of all types of dissidents — a situation, proportion wise of course, that Yahp would have been familiar with, having lived under Malaysia’s authoritarian regime. 1969 is an allusion to the Malaysian race riots, a historical event officially described as a case of Sino-Malay sectarian violence that led to hundreds of casualties, but which effectively marked the start of bumiputra rule (or ethnic Malay supremacy) in areas of employment, education, or the administration, and the ensuing relegation of other minorities — Chinese, Indians, Eurasians — to a second-class status. In both of these instances of violence, those who have had to suffer consequences have not been the perpetrators but the victims instead; the French population as a whole, on the one hand, and the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, on the other, who represent the overwhelming bulk of those lynched to death in the riots, so that it would be more appropriate to call these a pogrom. It is in the midst of such a terminal atmosphere that the protagonist’s fellow writer in “Time and Again” reminds the reader of the enduring power of literature: “It’s there, and will never leave. No one can take it away, even if the ink dries in its pen, the pages rot, the buildings crumble, the stony ground turns to dust.” (187)
Yahp’s collection conveys other elements of violence still that are in some sense far more insidious than being the target of anti-Asian racism in a suburban train, as happens to Lisa, a freshly arrived migrant and university student in Sydney: “In one carriage someone has drawn large anti-Asian signs, like anti-smoking signs, an Asiatic face cancelled out.” (160) The story where this incident is narrated, “So we walked down Abercrombie Street,” takes on a nostalgic tonality for Yahp, by featuring a group of tertiary students in creative arts who share a flat in the largely immigrant outer Sydney suburbs, using it as a kind of bohemian haunt. In their film-making project, Janie and Lisa freely embrace a Kantian view of art — purposeless, disinterested, immanent — yielding to the pleasure principle of communion and communication: “Form is content. The telling of a story is the story. The film is about boredom and escape, they write. If form is content should the film be boring, escapist? And they draw a vase the shape of a heart and they fill it with flowers. They talk about everything except the film.” (154) Violence, then, consists in the abandonment of youthful innocence, of the ability to dream and of the will to resist to growing disillusionment born out of the pressure to conform and access relative material security.
In “The Beautiful Hour,” migration is initially experienced as an epiphany by its central character, Prabhu, who left Malaysia for Australia in 1958, after Australia somewhat eased out its immigration policy regarding non-white applicants. Yet Prabhu actually epitomises the “reluctant migrant,” an allusion to Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, since Prabhu is not grateful towards his adopted country, as might have been expected from him. He prefers to cultivate Meursault’s position of the Stranger in Albert Camus’s eponymous novel, who refused to cry on command at his mother’s funerals, as decency and convention would have required. Both Changez, the protagonist in Hamid’s novel, who left Pakistan for New York in the midst of 9/11, and Meursault, a pied noir, a person of French origin living in colonial Algeria under French rule, retain a critical, detached outlook towards the respective societies in which they have remained outsiders. Prabhu’s vehement views of Australian society, as being struck by “cultural poverty,” excess “freedom” and the lure of opulence and stability, must be placed in the context of the White Australia Policy and Australia’s ignorance of its indigenous past and Asian neighbours. Instead of the Lucky Country, Prabhu dubs Australia the “Great Southern Lassitudes.” Prabhu refuses to let himself put to sleep by the slow, quiet drone of the status quo as questions keep buzzing back to him in the manner of a fly, a flea or gnat. Here, to “resist” (145) means withstanding the false appeal of pacified domestication and middle class bliss from Sydney’s ethno-proletarian urban sprawls, where Prabhu now lives. It also means recalling the violence upon which White Australia as a settler colony was founded.
The last story title in the collection, “Dogs in Love,” can be understood as a metaphorical description of the academic workforce, or what Yahp calls the “lowest common denominator.” Yahp draws a parallel with the impassioned yet pauperised figure of the Clerk in Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic medieval epic poem The Canterbury Tales, from which she quotes this pentameter: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” (202) Lecturers and researchers are often passionate about what they do, yet their job has become increasingly absurd and dehumanising in the face of the onslaught of a market-driven nature on universities across Australia and around the world. Many Asian Australian writers, perhaps compelled by the precariousness of their position on the literary market, must complement their revenues with an additional occupation. Some, like Yahp, have joined academia as creative writing lecturers. In this regard, “Dogs in Love” demonstrates how lecturing has been downsized to an accounting, managerial logic. As the narrator’s ill-named HR explains to her:
‘That’s what the numbers say,’ she tells me. She taps on her keyboard, gives me a bonus of twenty percent here, five percent there in a different column, but my overall numbers are still too low.
‘You’ve got to make the percentages up in teaching,’ she sighs, adding three tutorials to my workload, over three courses I haven’t taught before. It’s a week before the new semester begins. She says: ‘Yours is a teaching contract anyway.’ If I reduce my hours, she tells me, I’ll lose my bonuses, and I’ll have to teach the old full workload, at half pay. (208-9)
There is violence in numbers, just as there is violence in certain words that are hammered in by those performance review jargonauts of the newly corporatised higher education system. Overall, Yahp may be considered an itinerant writer, not so much because she happens to be an experienced traveller who has lived across several continents, but rather because she has moved in and out of the academic profession, as well as in and out of the business of writing, publishing and marking other people’s work. Significantly, Yahp’s collection was published by a small, independent publishing house, Vagabond Press, which specialises in Asia-Pacific literatures and has headquarters in both Sydney and Tokyo. More than two decades stand apart between the publication of The Crocodile Fury and Yahp’s family memoir Eat First, Talk Later, aside from essays and short stories, some of which appear in The Red Pearl. A mode of living and being in the world encapsulated by Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth figure of the Parisian metropolitan flâneur (Yahp 182), itinerancy seems especially suited to the short story format and to this collection in particular — stories directly drawn from Yahp’s rich, multifaceted imagination and life as a creative writing practitioner, traveller, and committed activist.
Jacobs, Lyn. “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home.” Australian Literary Studies 20(3), 2002.
Khoo, Tseen. “Selling Sexotica: Oriental Grunge and Suburbia in Lillian Ng’s Swallowing Clouds.” Journal of Australian Studies 24(65), 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri C. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard University Press, 2012.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
Down The Hume
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by HAROLD LEGASPI
There is not a simple matter of homogenous ‘queer’ voice, literary or otherwise (Hurley, 2010). As poststructuralist theorists have contended, for various historical and social reasons, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are discursively unstable and contested categories (Jagose, 2002) and homosexuality is ‘a performative space of contradiction’ (Sedgwick , 1990). In highlighting Polites’ engagement through his noir, i.e. of the thornier breaches of the queer-racial diaspora, I seek to explore the ideals behind his proposed definitive ‘queer’. Are bodies racialised erotically? Can queer love be normative? The answers to these questions, as the chapters of Down The Hume have argued, is yes, and the implication is that a radical tension and a central paradox is characteristic—are queer relationships driven by sex?—and perhaps even definitional—of the very term “queer” (Sedgwick, 1990).’
I have felt, time and again, that the boundedness of Polites’ queer imaginations suggests delimiting factors. While at times, Polites novel outruns many heteronormative cultural constructions, thereby placing his work within the queer realm; his championing of a protagonist in Bux, a second-generation Greek-Australian lad, often horny, distinctly off-beat and mostly impotent, strips Polites’ voice from ideologies or institutions that might give queers a less troubled life, albeit one that is ‘mainstream or normative’: life-long marriage and offspring.
Down The Hume portrays Bux and his Aussie ‘boyf,’ Nice Arms Pete through a masochistic (and at times clandestine) relationship fuelled by addiction to ‘little moons’ (street name: Syrinapx), amidst violent outbursts and sexual encounters with other men, juxtaposed with Bux’s traditional Greek upbringing, marking him as an outsider. It is an attempt to ‘reconfigure the blinding whiteness of suburban history’ by taking us on a ‘flâneur’s tour through the Western suburbs of ‘Lebs, wogs, and reffos’, with streets evoking memories as he laments the disappeared places of his youth, his observations filtered through an urgent patois of clipped sentences’ (Caward, 2017).
Down The Hume and other novels within its constellation, e.g. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995, Random House) position ‘queer’ hegemony that feels disenchanting by depicting characters who ‘lack a sovereign mind’, yet to ‘wake up’ from the consequences of their nihilistic fury. In a sense, the queer representations may promulgate homophobia by way of its self-indulgence, its construction of alternative values and ceaseless hopelessness. While this ‘queering,’ serve Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘making-strange of identities’ through ‘derangement and reconfiguration of conventional taxonomies,’ (Davidson , 2004) more than anything, it exposes the dark crevices, the shadows that lurk within the ‘thematic trinity of class, race and sexuality’ (Andersen, Collins, 1997) discourses that are a quintessential part of the narrative of suburban Western Sydney.
Down The Hume reads like an essay on tribalism (Caward, 2017). The community structure in Western Sydney is a device in achieving this narrative. One of the features of a queer noir is that the protagonist often does not have a solid family structure around them, as evidenced by the flailing tapestry of Bux’s relations with his parents (he is an only child). Down The Hume broadens, deepens, and complicates the kind of purgatory these characters are in, particularly Bux, who loves irrationally, but cannot justify his queer love as normative on the grounds of his dysfunctional family life.
Polites cautions: ‘a lot of people from a queer background first identify themselves culturally, then they label themselves as queer.’ (Polites, 2017) In an Althusserian sense therefore, one is ‘born into a nation, not just a nation…but into a ‘nationness,’ the ideology of nation as category of identity, a category that is continually reinforced by the state’ (Ashcroft, 2009). Bux in particular, identifies himself as Greek first then gay second, as a measure of ‘saving face’ with his parents. Even against his better judgement, Bux finds himself feeling proud, or more often, ashamed of his ‘nation.’ This is because, whether he likes it or not, it is his. Though when his Greek heritage and queerness are taken together, certain paradoxes are revealed, of the underlying psychology and politics of his racial eroticism.
Polites uses philosophical theories from the ‘F-fathers’—Freud and Foucault to demonstrate the trajectory of desire, fantasy and sexuality of his plot. Freud’s theory that male homosexuality developed from an ‘unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex’ aligns with Bux’s psychology of seeking ‘male sexual objects whom he might love as he had been loved by his mother’ (Freud, 1933). Freud’s notion of only one kind of libido, i.e. the masculine one focused on the phallus, pays attention to hyper-sexed portrayal of Bux and Nice Arms Pete. Moreover, the masochism between them, and their compulsion to repeat aggressive impulses, ‘succeed in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards (Robinson, 1972):’
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other. His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites’ queer imagination exhibits a prejudiced, often complex set of power-relations, which oscillates: Bux feels, at times, superiority as well as a disenchantment of his Whiter counterparts.
‘Dark Rum just a bit older than me; Lakemba Street light wasn’t generous enough to get a make on him. Pretty shitty skin. Oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over his face. The other one was younger, a scumbag Aussie, a dirtbag colonial. Sturdy legs with red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth…Scumbag Rat’s Tail let out a laugh. A high femme laugh…When that scumbag Aussie laughed, it changed the distance between us. Only one or two feet away but I could feel their breath, noticed how their trackpants fit around their waists. Their fingers were calloused with dirt underneath. I realised they wanted to unwrap me’ (Polites, 2017).
Bux subjugates the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ whom with his ‘femme laugh’ he deems a ‘dirtbag colonial,’ typified by Bux’s awareness of Britain’s colonial history. Foucault’s notion of power is therefore evoked, that the ‘individual is a result of power turning upon itself,’ (Rozmarin, 2005) when Bux derives a ‘focal point of resistance’ (ibid) to the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ which is affected by ‘specific historical power relations,’ formed by governmental, economic, and cultural institutions’ (Deleuze, 1986). I want to suggest that Polites’ positions Bux as a Greek queer ‘maverick’ with a special perspective on sexual and class norms, especially as the narrative consolidates around race, which might also be said to particularise his brand of class-racism rather than to remove him from the its grip’ (Brim, 2014).
Paradoxically, Down The Hume non-chalantly if not ironically pokes fun at clichéd ethnic stereotypes: from ‘Viet dudes’ with their ‘God complex’, ‘muscle Indian gay boy doctors who (speak) with phony deep voices,’ ‘Persian hotties’ from the north side who evade local Iranians to ‘copper Spanish Filo’s’ with their ‘Filomerican drawl.’ There’s slang, reversions to Greek, SMS texts, queer appropriations and ESL diction that exemplify the isolating force of language, These classifications, central to this novel, fuel Polites’ engine of divisiveness but can also be used to establish identity and inclusion. It has driven the relevance of Western Sydney in the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian literature.
That Down The Hume’s protagonists ingest a haul of painkillers as a form of escapism, is symptomatic of the jaded possibilities of the ‘kind of life’ they couldn’t have—‘being some wog fag way out west…limited money…housing insecurity…never having a wedding that (their) parents would dance at (Polites, 2017).’ The story portrays these men as victims, unconscious of the possibilities of their imaginations. The characterisations are such that they illicit a base depiction of young gay men, insecure, addicted and broken, in their plight for a just existence. It’s not the sex they fight for, it’s the lifestyle. This book is a silent plea, most evident in its final pages—‘I didn’t want a fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house (Polites, 2017).’
What there is then, is this quixotic striving for a normative outcome, evidenced by Bux and Nice Arms Pete living together, as well as with Bux’s journey to his origins in Greece in the final pages, where the protagonist sinks into a literal arrest. Here, Bux resolves his existential dilemma by delving deeper into his ancestral village, but concedes that the streets are his real home—Haldon, Park, Caldwell, Brunker Road, Burwood, Lakemba, and others. Like a vagabond, he questions their relevance, but derives their meaning as the places that have ‘wrapped themselves around (him)’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites has articulated such a fragile but sordid voice in Bux. Bux’s voice lacks direction but is uninhibited. Polites’ queer imagination fluctuates as it seeks to transgress the bounds that queerness tests, penetrates, and fails to penetrate. The readers can revel in Down The Hume’s noir posturing of a complex psyche. In as much as this, Polites’ voice sometimes feels frustrated, bereft of spirituality, as it oozes machismo among the white noise inhibiting his troubled existence. Down The Hume has remnants of the queer struggle for conformity and is best read upon brooding or with an apprehensiveness to the state of Sydney’s queer culture, an openness to the complexities constituting queer formations, or at least an appreciation for suburban pride and the evolving institution of marriage.
- Brim M, 2014, ‘The Queer Imagination and the Gay Male Conundrum’, University of Michigan Press.
- Hurley M, ‘Gay and Lesbian Writing and Publishing in Australia, 1961-2001’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2010, Web: https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c2b14e180e, [Accessed: 2 May 2018].
- Jagose A, 2002, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, New York: Cornell UP.
- Sedgwick E, 1990, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: U of California P.
- Caward C, 2 Mar 2017, Down The Hume review: evocative, if flawed, urban debut’, Sydney Morning Herald, Web: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-review-evocative-if-flawed-urban-debut-20170301-guny1q.html [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Davidson G, 2004, ‘Minor Literature, Microculture: Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace’, Southerly: a review of Australian Literature, 64 (3).
- Polites P, 2017, Down The Hume, Hachette, Sydney.
- Andersen M L, Collins P H, eds., 1997, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Polites P, Scott R, 12 Dec 2017, Down The Hume, Sydney Writers Festival Podcasts, Web: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-bookshelf-abc-rn/id499762704?mt=2 [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Ashcroft B, 2009, ‘Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope, The Journal of European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol. 1, ISSN 1988-5946 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona.
- Robinson P, 1972, ‘The Modernisation of Sex’, Harper and Row, New York.
- Freud S, 1933, ‘Femininity’ in Strachey, J. (1933) editor, S.S., London: The Hogarth Press.
- Rozmarin M, 2005, ‘Power, Freedom and Individuality: Foucault and Sexual Difference’, Human Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1.
- Deleuze G, 1986, Foucault, S. Hand (Trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
HAROLD LEGASPI is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. He has lived in Manila, Sydney, London, Taipei and Beijing. His writing has been published internationally and in Australia. More of his writing can be found here.
by Tom Lee
ISBN : 9781925336900
Reviewed by JAKE GOETZ
Ever since the Little Athletics of my youth, I’ve always felt Australia to be a sporting nation. One that if viewed from an alien planet, could be mistaken as preparing for war through daily gym appointments, jogs and football. From my earthly confinement though, it is perhaps easier to consider this nation’s love of sport, or fitness more generally, as a type of religion: one in which people seek a ‘higher’ (endorphin-fuelled) meaning in life, or at least, a communal sense of belonging bought on by the routine devotion to a particular activity. Reading through Tom Lee’s debut book, Coach Fitz, it was hard for me not to reflect back on such feelings, and to then also look forward, following Lee’s ability to craft a narrative around a national fixation not often found in the pages of Australian literature.
Coach Fitz is narrated from the first-person perspective of the main character, Tom, who like the author himself, grew up near Orange in regional New South Wales. From the outset we come to understand Tom through his youth – as a boy plagued by self-consciousness and struggling to come to terms with his masculinity:
I began with a small body. Late to mature, I measured myself against my thicker, hairier peers. I sought advice from the magazines that displayed the bodies I desired. I needed muscle, a good layer of it, to make up for my lack of pubic hair (1).
Living in Sydney’s inner-city, Tom is now in what we gather to be his late 20s, and finds himself in a similar ‘emotional rift’ (3). Spurred on by thoughts of his once supportive, and recently deceased, grandfather, and the inner-crises provoked by the time he spent abroad with his ex-girlfriend, Alex, he again seeks to ‘use exercise to bring focus’ to his life (3). Employing the efforts of Coach Fitz – a middle-aged woman ‘rumoured’ to have once been an exceptional long-distance runner, as well as a student of psychoanalysis in the UK – Tom becomes immersed in her ‘training philosophy: a dynamic relationship between exercise of controlled intensity and a steadily growing curiosity about places, buildings, aesthetic and history’ (10). Fields which no doubt draw from author Tom Lee’s own interest in ‘landscape, technology and the senses’, and his experience as a lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Technology, Sydney (Author bio, back-cover).
If exercise can be considered a type of religion, then the book’s key activity, jogging, is the main form of prayer, or perhaps more apt, meditation: as Coach Fitz equips Tom with his very own mantra or ‘breath friend’: ‘hick-a-chee’ (25). The first half of the book centres around the pair indulging in the act of jogging and provides the narrative (to use the words of Tom) with a ‘direct, unmediated, sensory immersion’ in the micro-environments of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets (44). A narratological approach that harks back to Modernist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On their first jog through Centennial Park, for example, we are taken through a ‘gauntlet of Moreton Bay figs, their roots a web of tripwires in the sandy soil’, before climbing a hill from where Tom sees a ‘pavilion through the trees sitting like a UFO from ancient Rome in the fields’ – drawing attention to the alien-like nature of colonial architecture in the context of the Australian environment (8). On a later jog the pair find themselves on Botany Road, running ‘past the remnants of brick factories converted into apartments, self-storage facilities and car dealerships’ – what coach Fitz is quick to quip as aspects of a ‘postmodern city’ – with ‘the ‘heritage-listed brick shells of industry giving birth to minimalist apartment blocks distinguishing themselves in a contradiction of gaudy minor flourishes …’ (77).
Through the pairs observations and conversations, Lee’s narrative finds itself balanced by richly-cinematic and critical evocations of the places the two pass through; the pursuit of ‘lasting delight, psychological expansion and nourishment of the spirit’ through jogging (13); and the ‘failings’ in Tom’s personal life, which Coach Fitz seeks to remediate and turn into strengths. One of the finest expressions of such psychological mentoring occurs during their run along the soft sands of Curl Curl Beach, when Coach Fitz remarks to Tom that ‘Adolescence is just perceived as this problematic, disagreeable thing that arrives and then stops … What I reckon happens is that young men don’t recognise they need to transform in order to live well’ (38). She goes on to meditate on how a flawed cultural understanding of masculinity has led to ‘raising generations of man-children who suckle on entertainment as a mild source of amusement’ (39). Feeding on such insights, Tom feels a renewed sense of empowerment, and goes on to reflect how such advice could have aided his past relationship with Alex, which saw him flee London in a state of ‘emotional turmoil’ (46).
Within such place-based dirges, surprising historical snippets also often emerge. During their jog through Sir Joseph Banks park, for example, Coach Fitz details that the area once housed a zoo, as well as a track renowned for foot races in the 1880s: the ‘golden age of sprint racing’ (28). This observation then leads into the story of Indigenous runner, Charlie Samuels, who ran ‘134 yards in 12.3 seconds in this very spot in 1888, barefoot, complete with the nicotine and alcohol addiction that was one of the many gifts bestowed on his people after white settlement’ (28). In light of such historical engagements, and for a text that is so attuned to the nuances of place, I could have only hoped for more aspects of Sydney’s Indigenous history to be elucidated – allowing for a more multi-faceted understanding of the places the two absorb themselves in. However, this aspect is not the key topic in the book, and perhaps Tom’s narcissistic desire to improve his own mental and physical health could act as an appropriate reflection of contemporary Australia’s inability to look past their own wants and needs in an un-reconciled country.
Plodding through Sydney’s varied ambiances, I couldn’t help but think of Coach Fitz as a type-of Antipodean feminising of French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, who instead of walking a city’s streets, has been forced to run to keep up with the frantic nature of contemporary life. This psychogeographic, or physical and mental engagement with the world, coupled with Fitz’s belief in using ‘history, memory and imagination’ (30) to inform her jogging practice, enables Tom and Fitz like Debord, to criticise the shortcomings of capitalisms use of space, transcend the ‘métro, boulot, métro, dodo (subway, work, subway, sleep)’ of everyday life and nut out what it is to be a ‘man’ beyond the expectations propagated by mainstream culture (Waxman 2010, p. 87). Such a claim is illustrated in the book’s second section, where Tom feels that their jogging elongates time ‘and refreshes a sense of the city’ (22). Even earlier in the book, following their first meeting, Tom is so enthused by Coach Fitz’s practice and the idea of becoming ‘faster on foot, sensitive to the environment and mentally resilient’ that he takes on extra work and moves from his Balmain house into his beloved Honda Odyssey in order to save the money to pay Coach Fitz (11). This drastic transition into a car-sleeping and fitness-obsessed bohemian is rolled out in just over one page of the book, and was perhaps a part of the narrative that I felt could have been better realised.
Through Coach Fitz’s attempts to remedy Tom’s ‘failings’, Tom too eventually uncovers cracks in the mental and physical make-up of Fitz, such as her smartphone use during practice, which goes against her spatially immersive training exercises, and the ‘grog-lover’ scent she often carries on their jogs (59-60). Following a bout of beer-drinking and novelty games at Coach Fitz’s house in Annandale one afternoon, a drunk and naked Fitz embraces Tom in her bathroom. Tired of the ‘discrepancies’ in Coach Fitz’s ‘theory and practice’ (106), and feeling confident enough in his own devices, Tom flees the scene and his relationship with Fitz: seeking to refine his own spatially-engaged and psychologically-charged fitness training methods. This leads into the second half of the narrative, which centres on Tom mentoring his ex-girlfriend’s brother, Morgan: providing him with the opportunity to put his own methods into practice. It isn’t long though, before he again feels plagued by a self-consciousness reminiscent of his youth – recalling Fitz’s advice, that men fail to understand they need ‘to transform in order to live well’ (38). The situation is only made more troubling by his perverse attempts to infiltrate Morgan’s family in a somewhat demented longing for Alex, and to, in his own words: ‘observe their phenotypical relatedness and share in the general effervescence of their group behaviour’ (192).
In addition to the complex and often humorous relationships on display in Coach Fitz, I feel the book’s greatest merit lies in the steady jogging rhythm of Lee’s prose, the ode-like evocations of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets, and a philosophy of remaining open, aware and engaged with one’s environment. I like to think of it as a wake-up call to all those locked in a passive discourse with the world, and a critical engagement with what it is to try and truly see, hear, taste and feel a place. As (the character) Tom ruminates after a swim at Bondi: ‘I spent the afternoon swimming and uttering expressions of deep thanks to the climate and geography’ (140). Anyone interested in exercise and its psychological imperatives; the complexities of masculinity and male adolescence; or Sydney’s geography, history, ecology or architecture, will find a point of immersion, and a rewarding read, in Tom Lee’s debut book.
Waxman, L 2010, ‘Writing A Few Steps in a Revolution of Everyday Life’, PhD Thesis, New York University, viewed 15 April 2017, via ProQuest database.
JAKE GOETZ lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Creative Writing from Griffith University. His poetry has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Tell Me Like You Mean It Vol. 2, Rabbit, Pink Cover Zine, past simple, Otoliths and Cordite. His first book, meditations with passing water, a long-poem written alongside the Maiwar (Brisbane River) was published by Rabbit in 2018. He edits Marrickville Pause.
The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.
The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.
As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.
Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).
Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).
The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.
The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).
Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).
Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.
Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).
In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.
The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.
As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
by Mariana Dimópulos
translated by Alice Whitmore
Reviewed by SAMANTHA TRAYHURN
We’re alone together, for the first time. I have to touch him now. I try stroking a foot, then a shoulder. But no current lifts in me, nothing pulls at my chest the way they said it would… (p.1).
There is something strangely refreshing about a book that opens with a mother staring down at her newborn and feeling nothing. For a woman in her thirties who does not yet have children, it is the perfect antidote to scrolling through social media and seeing countless images of my friends’ perfect babies. While not immune to the appeal of maternal joy, I am circumspect about our dominant cultural representations of motherhood. It is rare when another story is presented. And that’s just what I found in Argentine author Mariana Dimópulos’ second novel translated into English, Imminence. Here is the moment that women are so often told will be the happiest experience of their lives, flipped and presented as a stark reconfiguration. However, this isn’t just a book about becoming a mother, it is also a book about becoming a woman, and what that might mean to a narrator who bounces between the orbits of authoritative men. Through the use of surreal and abstract elements, Dimópulos also hints at what it might mean to be a woman writer. She presents a fragmented novel, layered not only by overlapping narratives, but also multiple significances.
Imminence (or Pendiente in the original Spanish) is a clever title because it suggests to readers that something is going to happen whether we like it or not. Alice Whitmore’s translation is deft not only for bringing the novel into English, but doing so with close attention to its nuanced, embedded meanings. We are pulled through the novel’s broken mirror like shards as we try to assemble a clear picture of a story that takes place on a single evening, but by memory, is dispersed across place and time. It begins with a new mother returning home from the hospital with her son after an extended illness following childbirth. How this nameless narrator came to have a son, and why she is having trouble touching him, will be unravelled in a braided story that criss-crosses between her life with current partner Ivan, her previous relationship with the intellectual Pedro, and her trysts with a domineering cousin. Along the way we will examine patterns – numerical, relational, personal – and will be confronted by recurring images that hint at unsettling correlations.
The blowfly of that other night needs shooing. Last time we ended up with a dead cat, and nobody should die today (p. 14).
Suspense is built around a box containing a cat into which our narrator drove a knife on the final night of her relationship with Pedro. As she reflects from her Buenos Aires apartment, readers are left to wonder how the cat is going to relate to the child in a thoroughly page-turning experience.
At its core, Imminence explores what it means to be a woman nearing forty who does not yet have children. The fragments trace the narrator’s life during her twenties and thirties, a time when she is strongly influenced by friends Ludmilla and Mara; two women whom she admires for their rebellious qualities.
Mara and Ludmilla didn’t have parties. They didn’t go to weddings or family gatherings, and they had sworn never to sign a piece of paper with any man. When they spoke about the future they would carefully weed out anything rose coloured: they didn’t believe in love the way most young women do (p. 24).
After Ludmilla dies, another imminent event we must wait to find out the details of, Mara surrounds herself with other childless ‘beer-drinking women’ (p. 91). However, when later in life Mara decides that she does want children after all, our narrator must move through her own process of questioning what it could mean to become a nurturer.
Kindness: some women say it grows on its own, like a weed, once you have a child. But sometimes a man is enough. Or a brother. Or a sick friend (p. 56).
Such a concept seems foreign to a woman who, in her relationships with men, is not nurturing, but heavily reliant on her own subordination.
The passivity of the central character is extremely interesting, because on the one hand she surrounds herself by strong-headed women, and in many ways considers herself to be one of them. On the other hand, she is seemingly incapable of saying no to the forceful cousin who incessantly pursues her, and always submits to the will of her partners. With Pedro:
I drank the several glasses he handed me. I did it for his sake, since I never drink… He insisted on walking, so we walked (p. 6).
Whereas with Ivan her acquiescence seems motivated by a belief that he has access to some superior source of knowledge:
He says something and then it happens. ‘The fever will go down’ he says, and the fever goes down. (p. 17)
Dimópulos paints a world that is certainly ruled by men – one in which even women who rebel are still not certain of their roles. This is clearest when Mara’s friends sit around ‘trying to understand, without centuries of literature and philosophy to orientate them, what it might mean not to be a man’ (p. 91). Therefore, when our narrator continually declares ‘I am not a woman’ (p. 5) perhaps what she is really saying is ‘I am not not a man.’ In refusing traditional feminine roles she is absorbed into masculinity; there is no liminal space for her to occupy.
The narrator’s post-natal depression is exacerbated by the fact that her child is a boy. She exhibits a large amount of distrust towards men, and often refers to repeated rejection. When Ivan leaves the room she sits
…spinning those threadbare, faithful stories that women like me cling to in the hope of forestalling the abandonment that always seems to lurk on the other side of waiting’ (p. 13).
It is unsurprising then that this woman is confronted by the fact that she must form an attachment to an infant man without knowing whether he will also hurt, deceive, or leave her. Through the narrator’s infatuation with mathematics, Imminence in many ways comments on patterns and cyclicity. We see how a woman finds comfort in numbers but can’t find a formula to solve the recurring problems of her relationships. Ultimately, it is the profoundly new experience of conceiving a child that is transformative in a way that nothing else has been.
I was a woman now… (p. 112)
When I speak, I have to be someone new (p. 113).
The traits and perspectives of this new iteration of our narrator are revealed alongside the events that have shaped them – like flowers traced down to their roots – so that by the time the novel ends, we feel a deep connection to her.
At times it is difficult to tell whether the surreal atmosphere that shrouds Dimópulos text is an intentional nod to Borges, or her own commentary on the way that all female writing that ventures into the abstract will still be absorbed into a male canon. She could also be drawing on the strangely unsettling affects created by predecessors like Norah Lange and Silvina Okampo positioning her work alongside contemporaries like Mariana Enriquez with her darkly surreal feminism. Perhaps, in allowing for multiple readings, Dimópulos embarks on a different kind of feminist protest. Imminence is not only an enthralling novel; it is a complex project that highlights the congruent struggles that exist between giving birth to a child and birthing a novel. It suggests that one seemingly can’t escape what is prescribed, but if looking for a silver lining, or the inclination to reach out and touch the ‘lustre of a silver foot’ (p.2), it is possible to rework the formula to arrive at an entirely unexpected result.
SAMANTHA TRAYHURN is a writer living on the Central Coast of NSW. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Overland, LiNQ Journal, eTropic, and others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University. She is also the editor of Pink Cover Zine.
The Burning Elephant
by Christoher Raja
Book Launch Speech by NICHOLAS JOSE
Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Guangzhou
Kuei Yuan Café Gallery 24 November 2016
Who would have thought I would be launching Chris Raja’s beautiful book here in Guangzhou? Such is the river of life that flows into the ocean here at Canton, as Borges reminds us … There are many things to say about The Burning Elephant but, since we’re standing, I’ll keep it simple. The story is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy called Govinda whose world is his school and his family and his Kolkata neighbourhood—a world into which he doesn’t quite fit. This unease is focussed when an elephant is killed and then cremated in the schoolyard, providing an image that grows and mutates, disturbingly, through the book. ‘He was a strange boy, the way an elephant’s tail or Kali’s face is strange. He existed, and was perfectly made in every way … but he seemed not quite right for the world’ (8).
By the end of the book the burning elephant has become a ‘burning man’ (149). Sectarian violence has erupted into Govinda’s little world with political terror and the destructiveness of Kali. As he was warned: ‘Death and destruction rule. Bastard of a time.’ (21)
The family is taking ‘the Australian option’ – migrating, getting out. Amidst the extreme tragedy with which the novel ends Govinda boards a plane and makes the link between death and rebirth: ‘The flashing ruby-red lights on the wings of the aircraft reminded him of Kali’s tongue. The black tarmac looked like her arms and legs … Would home be a place he had never been to?’ (181)
This outline gives you an idea of The Burning Elephant. What starts as a memoir of boyhood becomes a story of larger disruption. Yet it remains personal at the same time. Things are seen from the inside. Raja’s writing is lucid and lyrical, replete with lists that find order in chaos and vice versa. His imagination animates the animal life of physicality and appetite in everyone and everything. Hierarchies of being are tumbled and churned. There’s a subtle distance too, even in the most intimate emotional turmoil. I am reminded of the young Marcel in Proust’s great novel of memory as he remembers his mother’s goodnight kiss, and of Alain Fournier’s recreation of adolescence in Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes called the lost domain. One world is seen from another, across a divide. One lost, one complexly found. The distance is spanned by language, story, memory. It is the migrant’s fate. The adult condition. Where Govinda’s father was an orphan turned sahib, the son’s life has a reverse pattern, as he is severed forcibly and in different ways from his filial position.
All of this is handled lightly, experienced vividly, as The Burning Elephant unfolds. We recognise other resonances and versions. Violence, flight: we see it everywhere if we look. Truly it is ‘a dark age’ (21). But as Govinda’s father advises us at the end of the novel: ‘The trick is not to panic. That is Kali’s whisper.’ (182)
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’
by a.j. carruthers
Reviewed by TERRI ANN QUAN SING
Ambitious beyond itself; larger than the sum of a single collection; AXIS is a ‘lifelong long poem’; it is the first book-length installment spanning axes one through thirty-one. Since the publication of AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ an additional eighteen or so axes have been published in various journals in print and online; and Vagabond Press have just announced that AXIS Book II will be coming out later this year. So in anticipation of the impending release of Book II, let’s start at the beginning with AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ by a.j. carruthers.
An ‘axis’ is a straight line around which a body⸺figurative or physical⸺rotates. Throughout most of the collection the page is split down the centre; to columns of text form ‘hemispheres’ (untitled, 14) in parallel to one another across the gap; the AXIS; and this interval is crossed and subverted in the course of the collection. The recurrence of a gap bifurcating the poems suggests a focus on relationality. Relation across the gap; possibilities of frisson, dissonance, subversion, rapprochement, and wreckage emerge. ‘I wanted / to sometimes tell two different stories at once, and / sometimes tell one story twice. Well-worn form: the / split page’ (untitled, 13). ‘Areal’ makes reference to space; an areal is a geographical field, or field of thought; the gap making visible the interstices between fields produces dynamism throughout the collection.
Sometimes subverting its own convention, twin pillars of text flow down the page, but cross over and interleave in a DNA formation (Axis 5. ‘Aria’); or, words tilt and tumble down the page a dry, falling leaf swaying from side to side (Axis 11. ‘Assemblage’ -below); crossing the AXIS, musical notation with latinate letters floating side to side movement gives a sing-song feel, a slow gravity pulling softly down on the page out of word-processor enforced alignment (Axis 4. ‘Act’); producing a sometimes nauseous aesthetic. This collection yawns open to the edges of the visual and sonic possibilities of language; words, sounds and symbols play out on the page; notation, typography, and found-arrangements of speech.
Indeed, ‘play’ might be a guiding principle for approaching AXIS as a body of work. In the Derridean sense of the possibilities for movement and difference within any given order. These poems serves as ‘An improvocation’ (untitled, 13); they are playing with given language and meaning. ‘These poems are systems’ (untitled, 12); improvisations provoking new questions and new entries into old ones. The collection begins with an untitled ‘entrance’; an ‘overture’ functioning as a sort of glossary; an ars poetica; an opening orientation to the work, the reader, the world. ‘These gaps gap registers. Vectors’ (untitled, 22).
In his constant play with, across, and between the axis, carruthers offers a discordant discourse to the idea of ‘hybridity.’ AXIS could be read as a ‘hybrid’ text; mixing musical notation, concrete, and sound poetry, the poetic, the political, the philosophical; but this idea of ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixing’ is itself problematic, since these divisions are artificial in the first place. The reader that I am has in common with carruthers a mixed Chinese and European heritage. Giving us both (from the perspective of certain historical ways of taxonomising ‘race’) an uneasy relation to genre. From this vantage, one rejoices in reading this work as, in part, a response to being bifurcated by hegemonic orders; a resistance to the irritation of having to answer to the axis⸺borders made to appear natural and inevitable. In this context of racialised-reading the words ‘blazon me’ from Axis 7. ‘Arise’ come to mind⸺
you know what
‘blazon me’, repeated, becomes an imperative verb; ‘blazon me’⸺something to be done to the speaker. To blazon; to make a catalogue of the subject; a description of appearances. Historically, (white) women have been the typical subject of the blazon, made popular by fourteenth century italian poet-scholar Petrarch. Turning the conceit inside out, carruthers’ evokes and inverts the courtly love poetic tradition of lovingly dissecting a sweetheart. The love affair between reader and poet is at stake; to paraphrase: read/write me. Blazon me⸺as what? To be taxonofied, to be pinned like a butterfly under glass, to name is to ossify and carruthers’ work resists this capture. In Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’ he again references this impulse to quantify, again in imperative grammar⸺‘reach for the dictionary. / Reach for the dictionary’. Blazon me; name me and record that naming for all time in the aspirational immortality of poetry. Then again, perhaps by naming our shared racial heritage here I am pinning us both under glass. Performing the wrong move of keeping score being fixed by the sense of dichotomy (Axis 7. ‘Arise’ -see above). ‘Q. Should I ask? Is my / question wrong? / Is my question wrong?’ (Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’). In Axis 8. ‘And’, small supporting words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs) turn up in the gap; left to fend for themselves, expressing a refusal of fixity; playing on the limits of genre: ‘receptive | to | infinities / suspicious | of | limits / language language / language’. Resisting the reification of binary thinking, carruthers often plays with portmanteau⸺‘madeupword in tinted aureolin sunglimmer sung’ (Axis 30. ‘Androgyne’).
In Axis 22. ‘Annals,’ the reader reading for the autobiographical ‘I’ is disrupted. carruthers gives form to de- or rearrangements of the world; a resistance to ossification in the constant play of sight and sound⸺ ‘I, i, an you’ is bolded in the axis space in the centre of the page, the speaker/s continue: ‘Suspicious / of hybridity / we choose / not convergence / but specificity // Something new / is happening, you sing // (All, the commons)’.
In fact, throughout the collection the ‘I’ is never alone⸺but instead we read/hear a ‘choralyric’ (Axis 15. ‘Abut’); a poetic-political ‘capacious form’ (89)⸺this collection speaks to an ethics of relationality so important in a world that is increasingly split along certain axes. This work is ‘A chorale. Choral poetry as an improvocation / of the epilyric ‘we’ […] written under the influence of choral & cosmic / harmonies. […] Speaking / in registers I hardly know’ (untitled, 15, 16). AXIS is polyvocal; with many different voices speaking in concert; sometimes to each other, sometimes over one another. The formal split down the centre of the page draws a constant attentiveness to relationality. carruthers writes⸺‘As instrumentalists / must learn to play with two hands, and intone up to / 4 to 5 voices simultaneously […] so / I have tried to learn as a poet how to play on several registers at once’ (untitled, 12).
Formal musical language and symbols are used throughout⸺‘A notational poetics. The origins of / this project, Axis, are obscure’ (untitled, 12). Obscured to myself as someone who is not so literate in musical notation; and there is also linguistic notation. In Axis 31. ‘Apostrophe’ the reader/performer is invited to read the adapted linguistic notation of Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chow⸺not literally, but according to what the symbols on the page suggest to them. (For an example of carruthers’ sound work please see carruthers’ recent work ‘Consonata’which includes letter-notation and an audio recording.) So readers like myself needn’t fret when they approach a space of their own illiteracy⸺with references to, or lines in Latin, Cantonese, French, Italian, Greek, musical and linguistic notation.
The letter is a symbol and sound. It is caught in the eye and throat; in the play of light and vibration. Of course poetry is always linked to the living breathing body (of the reader, of the poet, & of others) carruthers makes this relation inescapably physical; stage directions, indicate that this is live, living, action, happening in multiple times and spaces not strictly confined to the page; imperative instructions meant to be embodied; that go beyond the page; recalling the work of Langston Hughes and Yoko Ono, among others. Stage directions in parenthesis; or ‘pianissimo’ ‘allegro’; indicates the volume and pace in space and time; ‘four trombones’ or ‘three voices counted as two’ ‘[laughter.’ ‘ (hum of / a bass clarinet / following / the tin / tones of / a honky-tonk)’ (Axis 12. ‘Addenda’). A call and response across the axis. ‘The law of the people is unwritten, choral intersector enters the universe’ (Axis 3. ‘Axiom’).
AXIS Book I : ‘Areal’ conjures and calls readers into ‘a literary commons’ (untitled, 15). Voice, score, notation, image, typography, sound, performance; AXIS sounds out the poethical in a polyvocal world; it is a virus that disrupts normative habits of reading; an expansive poetics reaching toward our collective future/s and the future/s of this lifelong, long poem.
TERRI ANN QUAN SING is a poet and writer living in Naarm. You can find her on twitter here.
Claire Albrecht is writing her PhD in Poetry at the University of Newcastle. Her current work investigates the connections between poetry/photography and sex/politics. Claire’s poems appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Overland Literary Journal, Plumwood Mountain, The Suburban Review and elsewhere. Her manuscript sediment was shortlisted for the 2018 Subbed In chapbook prize, and the poem ‘mindfulness’ won the Secret Spaces prize. Her debut chapbook pinky swear launched in 2018 and she edited the 2018 Cuplet Anthology The Clambake.
I want to break my own wrist
into the curve of my blundstone boot
no farmer, just a subscriber
to the trade aesthetic
[if only we knew all we needed to do
to support drought affected Aussie farmers
was shop at Woolworths this Saturday]
but I never could stand watching Landline.
I’d rather buy a bale of hay
spread it around the house
and propagate hayfever.
is this cynical? am I unfeeling?
I’ve watched this country die
I’m not afraid of fire
my bones are fine ground dust
a whirlybird out the car window
my breath the last clean water in the dam
bring your buffalo. put a gold coin
on its tongue. you’ve done your part.
Autumn Royal is a poet and researcher. Autumn’s poetry and criticism have appeared in publications such as Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal and TEXT Journal. She is interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review and author of the poetry collection She Woke & Rose. Autumn’s second collection of poetry is forthcoming with Giramondo Publishing.
Culmination concept / for Philomela
Why does signalling
towards an end always
need to shudder
within the curvature
of a climax?
Must you kneel & crouch
down with beak
to throat — then chest?
The thrust & brine of evening
burrows under feathered
pleas — as if orange sparks
will burst directly over
& you’re almost in a state
but still unaltered —
with fingers & palms sticky
above the loam you might lapse
lower into — if it wasn’t for
these lines & the way
they break off & against —
The Book of Thistles
by Noëlle Janaczewska
Review by VIVIENNE GLANCE
ISBN: 978 174 258 8049
“Plants that stand for us
that stand for themselves
as we stand for ourselves.” P. 164
These lines appear around half-way through Noëlle Janaczewska’s The Book of Thistles. They are an apt summary of this ‘part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page’, as she describes it in the Introduction (p.9).
To fully appreciate this unique book, a close reading of the introduction places you into the mindset of the author. It is a work of ‘unaccompanied language, of ‘collage’, of ‘jump-cut across genres’. It is a contemplation of the author’s perspective on history and humanity’s interaction with the environment; and it explores this through the lens of Botany, in particular, the family of plants know as Asteraceae, the thistles.
The Book of Thistles is structured into five sections with rather mundane titles: Names, Law, War, Food and Outliers. But Janaczewska’s approach is to defamiliarize us with each of these and to stretch them beyond a mere application to the humble thistle, and take us into a deeper and less-defined understanding of place and history – both human and natural.
This book is not an easy read by any means; it is unsettling and has minimal narrative drive to pull the reader along. However, it is a fascinating and unusual treatment of what could be described as a philosophical exploration of the nature of ‘thistle’.
Names are important to not only botanists describing individual species, but to people and communities. To be named by your community defines your relationship with it and bestows you with connections and relevance to place. And place is an important aspect of the first section, Name, where Janaczewska talks of her English heritage and her move to Australia, where she has made her name as a playwright. Alongside and weaving into this are the names of various migrant thistles who have made this country their home. Because at its heart this book is about coming to terms with migration, and a reconciliation with both the effect of that, and with how one cannot fully detach from one’s native origin.
The author’s fascination with thistles began when she came across the yellow melancholy thistle whilst browsing a field guide to wildflowers in Britain and the United Kingdom ‘recharged my interest in the plant realm and our human interactions with it’ (p. 27). This takes her on to a contemplation not only of botany, but of colour, on melancholy as an emotion, and on memory.
The book continues in this way, jumping across genres, hoarding interesting gems like a bowerbird, laying out her research on a wide table for the reader to glance over and pause on whatever catches her eye. It is underpinned with some scientific notes, but is by no means a work of science, being more a flirtation with the botanist’s view of plants. In fact, the front matter recommends the book is classified under ‘Culture’, ‘Home’, ‘Emigration and Immigration’.
Other sections, such as Law, reflect Janaczewska’s flirtation with legal studies; and the following one, War, highlights how we not only fight each other, but are in a continuous battle with Nature, in order to control and to dominate. Both are unapologetic and stark reminders of our colonial heritage. This is concisely summarised by a single sentence ‘Weeds challenge our sense of entitlement’ (p. 152). It is also ironic to note that most of the attempts to eradicate thistles by weeding or by herbicides were carried out on the very same plants introduced either intentional unintentionally by Europeans.
There are few references to native Australian plants, but she does she highlight the Afghan thistle (Solonum holopetalum) which despite its name, is originally from Western Australia, and although prickly, is not a true thistle of the Asteraceae family. Originally thought to have arrived with the Afghan cameleers whose particular skills with camels were essential in colonising and exploring the desert country, Janaczewska uses the story of this plant to reveal the bigotry, racism and exploitation of these particular migrants during the colonial push into Australia’s desert interior in the 1800s.
The Food section is the most tenuous with its links to the main theme of the book. Janaczewska explores so- called ‘wild foods’ – uncultivated foods that are found growing in the bush or as ‘weeds’ in gardens. Janaczewska describes four native Australian thistles that she says are ‘out-and-out thistles’ (p. 203): the sow thistle (Sonchus hydrophilus), the Austral cornflower (Rhaponticum australe), the dune or beach thistle (Actites megalocarpus), and what she calls the ‘ghost thistle’ (Hemistepta lyrata). She is also unable to confirm if their indigneous names refer to a particular species or to thistles more generally (p. 204). However, Janaczewska has found some accounts of how local Aboriginal people ate these native thistles, although they are seen from the persepctive of the coloniser unaware of the value of the plant. For example, she references how a South Australian settler, Edward Stephens, “recalled how an Aboriginal party asked permission to harvest a large plot of sow thistles on the land he occupied. Take the lot, he told them. And ‘ten minutes later the ground was bare of thistles, and the tribe passed on gratefully devouring the juicy weed.’” (p. 233)
The thistle most commonly eaten in Australia, the globe artichoke, is an introduced species and is widely cultivated. The second most commonly eaten thistle, the cardoon, did not attract the Australian palette despite its popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Nonetheless, our fascination with food and eating (a primal need if ever there was one!) makes this section a fascinating read. This is enhanced by the way Janaczewska engages us with her poetic and playful use of language, blended in with newspaper reports and personal reflections. It creates a kaleidoscope of musings on our relationship with some of the more unusual plants we eat as food.
The final section, Outliers, seems to be a repository for all those other interesting and eccentric plants that could not be included elsewhere. It is here that Janaczewska is her most free with language and presentation, verging from anthropomorphism, poetry, lists, notes, scant impressions and inner monologues. This is the style of the journal, the ephemera of ideas that come together to show us more about the writer than the subject.
As a playwright, Janaczewska works in an artform that deals with immediacy: the words spoken on stage must convey meaning as they are heard. They can inform us about the characters on stage, or about the plot, or at times the philosophical obsessions of the playwright. Her approach to this book has a performative resonance throughout, particularly in her use of imagery and juxtaposing perspectives, and at times I felt the language demanded to be spoke aloud. Indeed, some parts are written in the format of a play text or film script.
It is not an easy read, but it is a refreshing and innovative exploration of thistles in all their variety. Janaczewska does not hold the reader’s hand and lead her along a carefully constructed path as if this were a documentary account. But like the wildflowers that have so fascinated her for most of her life, she allows the seeds of her contemplations to float on the breeze and lodge themselves into the fertile soil of our imaginations so we can cultivate our own impressions of this prickly topic.
VIVIENNE GLANCE is the Drama Studio London and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance; and diversity and multiculturalism in the Arts. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.