Emily Sun is from Western Australia and has been published in various journals and anthologies including Westerly, Island, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Growing up Asian in Australia. She is currently working on her first novel Maybe it’s Wanchai? and can be found at http://iamemilysun.com
Maybe It’s Wanchai [灣仔]?
Tape deck, SONY made in Japan too many places and too many dark spaces soft wave radio white noise comforts in mah-jeh’s refuge masking the sounds of a forgotten city
Non-recyclable plastic and metal, magnetic tape Tony Leung pre-lust but with caution together we unspool the tangles and with an octagonal pencil, made in the people’s republic, rewind re-spool until the music plays the Banana Boat song tonic to sub-dominant fragment then I started a joke Too many men in skinny flared jeans No one was laughing.
All animals know they are born to die, but none really believe it.
A mouse caught by a well-fed cat does not know its death is imminent even when that cat presents it to her musophobic owner who will scream, grab the injured mouse up by its tail and feed it to Susa, an Appleyard rescued duck. Susa will pick up the mouse and shake it so violently that its little neck breaks. This mouse will never know that after it disintegrates in the darkness of Susa’s stomach, it will become part of the manure that nourishes the garden it once called home.
Susa was meant to die before the mouse. The council ordered the slaughter of all abandoned domestic ducks found wandering in public parks because introduced species destroy the delicate eco-system. Susa is only alive because when her would be executioner, a middle-aged council worker who was usually on the pot-hole team, looked into Susa’s woeful and purulent eyes, he knew he had no option but to take her to the vet.
This is how it is and how it should be.
Only purebreds and country women’s baked goods are assigned prestigious categories at the show. The decorative —animate and inanimate, edible and inedible— are placed in metallic cages or glass cabinets. A purebred Hereford steer or heifer can fetch thousands at a charity auction, but lesser breeds are sold in bulk and that exchange is used to teach business students the concept of futures. There is no gender pay gap amongst these purebreds because both the steer and heifer’s carcasses are as tender as the other after twenty-eight days on a hook. Even the most discerning diner will not be able to tell whether their rib-eye steak was once male or female, only that it was expensive and more so when drizzled in truffle oil.
Piglets are, arguably, not decorative, yet everyone laughs and applauds when they are forced by the farmer/clown to dive into shallow pools of water from two or three metres. Some piglets fear the height and others fear the water. The farmer/clown will not kill them until they break a leg, drown, or grow too large for the plastic pool. They are not sucklings so are safe from Chinese fathers who want to present them, roasted, as a symbol of their daughter’s virginity at her wedding banquet. These diving pigs are kept away from piggeries that house pork because most mammals can sense and taste like fear. A pig on a spit at Oktoberfest is always sweeter when its day begins like any other, rutting and running around, and only dies when, from a distance, Uncle Giovanni shoots it in the head with his a single 150-grain projectile, the unregistered rifle. Uncle Giovanni’s pigs always requires less salting.
Simplicity Chan was like any other hopeful animal when she woke up on a wintry morning in the early 21st Century. She went for a swim in the heated indoor pool, ate lunch at Subway, and sat down to watch the Masterchef semi-finals in the evening. By midnight, she was hooked up to an oxygen tank and told by the ED doctor that if she were his sister, he would say “Yes. You have cancer.”
It turned out that Simplicity did not have a procrastinating cancer, one of the types that give you enough months or even years, to tidy up your affairs and perhaps even allow for the medical researchers to develop a new cure. Simplicity had an aggressive but good cancer, and the type that Laura, her assigned cancer support buddy, said she would pick if she had to choose from the hundreds in the cancer catalogue. Laura explained that although the sub-type was rare, it was known to have at least an eighty plus, or so, percent survival rate. The cancer cells were dumb and easily killed by chemo. Only a very small percentage, oh two or was it twenty percent, did not respond to treatment. Laura assured Simplicity that by next Christmas the entire experience would be simply a ‘blip on the radar’.
Simplicity survived so she forgot about dying and started a music studio in her living room. She taught small children how to play whatever instrument their parents wanted them to play, usually the keyboard. It was a shock when, on Valentine’s Day two years later, Simplicity woke up, made dinner reservations at a Gold Plate award winning restaurant but passed out on the hot pavement outside the restaurant while waiting for her date. By midnight she was hooked up to an oxygen tank in a different ED —not the one where she had once spent the night in a dark room hooked up to an IV pole attached to an immobile trolley bed and her head next to a full commode.
This second time around, Simplicity didn’t want a support buddy but she overheard a patient on the ward ask for a priest so she requested a Buddhist monk or nun. She wasn’t really religious but one of her grandmothers had been a devout Buddhist. The young ward receptionist who was in charge of Simplicity’s request said that he could call someone from their list of spiritual counsellors or if she wanted him to, ask a nun who was a regular at the markets where he busked on weekends. He was pretty sure she was a nun for she had a shaved head and walked around in robes that looked a lot like the Dalai Lama’s. She wasn’t on the official hospital list nor was she Asian but she was “really awesome” and always dropped ten dollars into his guitar case whenever he played Blur so she would have been youngish in the 1990s. Simplicity said she didn’t care who it was as long as the person believed in an afterlife because this time no one was saying hers was a good cancer.
The Blur loving nun was dressed in orange and yellow robes when she visited Simplicity on the ward. She said she wore different coloured robes each week because couldn’t fully commit to the temple she’d trained because not all the monks and nuns there were vegetarians. When Simplicity asked the nun why some people were struck down by cancers, the nun also said that all cancer patients were flawed humans in their previous lives and Simplicity’s relapse was evidence of this. But as the doctors still called it a ‘curable cancer’, Simplicity’s sins were relatively minor. Only terminal cancer patients who experienced agonising pain before they were taken to the hot or cold Narakas were the ones who had been murderers and child rapists last time around. Sure, it wasn’t fair for the people they were now but this is just how it was and how it should be. Besides, everyone had more chances since their damnation was time limited in the Buddhist realm and most people would be reborn human.
Simplicity survived again but afterwards stopped visiting the temple where her grandma’s ashes were kept for fear of bumping into the nun. When Simplicity returned home, she was more like the pig whose carcass will still tasted like fear even after drowning in a cauldron of soy sauce and five-spices. Simplicity was unable to make any plans beyond the moment, but soon these moments turned into seconds, the seconds turned into minutes, the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, so she decided to read War and Peace in the order Tolstoy had intended. But before Prince Andrei left for war for the first time, it happened again. Simplicity woke up one day and by evening she was back on the cancer ward.
The doctor on duty walked in, her eyes blood shot, and told Simplicity that her only cure now was a bone marrow transplant, or they called a stem-cell transplant. The less arduous process, and softer sounding term, meant that more people were more willing to register as donors, this included religious people, except those from specific sects, once they understood that the process did not involve unwanted IVF embryos. The chances of finding a donor were not high, the doctor said, but not entirely impossible. What she neglected to say then was that Simplicity’s odds of finding a match were lower because she wasn’t European, or more specifically Northern European.
In year five, Simplicity’s sometimes-friend Nita had asked her, ‘Don’t you wish you had been born something else?’ This was after Shelby started making fun of Simplicity for having ‘slitty eyes’. That was the year when everyone was cruel to each other. Some kid called the teacher a fat cunt so the teacher dragged another kid across the desk and slammed him against the wall. When Nita, more an ally than a friend, and Belinda, the girl with no allies, were absent, Simplicity was teased for looking Chinese or Japanese, and speaking English too ‘posh’. Simplicity later discovered that her accent was one that some English celebrities often adopted to mask their aristocratic upbringing. By that time though, Simplicity had lost the accent and sounded more like Bob Hawke and no longer said daahhnce or Fraahhnce when she referred to the school social or the country across the English Channel. Other than dickhead Don, who pinched Simplicity whenever he had a chance, no one really physically hurt her. Nita though was constantly subject to electric shocks administered by Shelby, who excelled at nothing else. Shelby couldn’t have bullied Nita for looking or sounding different because although Nita was part-Maori, she had blonde hair and blue eyes, and no one made her say ‘fish and chips’ or ‘six’ repeatedly as they did with that other kid from New Zealand. Initially, Shelby used her index finger to shock Nita but then she learnt how to charge up a drawing pin to stick into Nita. If their teacher had seen Shelby’s experiments as a teaching moment perhaps Shelby would’ve ended up at the CSIRO and not an inmate at Bandyup.
At least Simplicity and Nita had each other. Belinda had no one.
At best people ignored Belinda. Most of the others made fun of her for having nits even though she didn’t have any and laughed at her for wetting her pants after someone tipped their left-over lemon cordial onto her chair. They called her all sorts of names and when she got pregnant, in the summer between primary and high school, everyone said that the only way that could have happened was if the guy had put a plastic bag over her head when they were doing it.
Simplicity was glad she wasn’t Belinda or anyone else from her primary school. Of course, she sometimes wanted to be other people, but not any specific person or someone she knew in real life. She wanted to be one of the Bradies on The Brady Bunch but never part of the Keatons from Family Ties. In high school she wanted to be womanlier, like the popular girls. Although her nipples budded around the same time as the other girls she didn’t need to wear a training-bra so she never drew the attention of the boys who went around snapping bra straps. If there were times she’d wished she’d been born something else, she’d long forgotten these moments and it was only now that as the doctor explained to her the limited options that Simplicity’s answer to Nita’s question from decades ago was now yes.
Yes. Simplicity wished she had been born European and more specifically Dutch. Even before this relapse, she’d read about how the Dutch and Germans, the Teutons, had an easier time finding donor matches because of less genetic diversity and higher donor rates. The 19th Century pseudo-science of eugenics benefitted those descended from European colonisers because although their ancestors colonised other people’s lands, intermarriages were rare until long after they lost their colonies. Who would have thought parochialism, apartheid and inbreeding had its merits?
The doctor kept talking but Simplicity wasn’t listening because she was too busy scouring the archives in her mind for examples of people who had low odds but did not die. There was an Ivy-league educated Indian-American guy who recruited everyone from his fraternity and then almost everyone from his ancestral village onto the American stem cell registry. Then there was a Lebanese-Australian who went to Lebanon and founded a cord blood match. She even met the Lebanese president. Simplicity’s placenta and her baby’s umbilical cord were left in the freezer of the hospital where she’d given birth. In this moment she felt rather stupid that she didn’t donate or bank it but instead had the idea to plant it in her backyard upon a doula friend’s suggestion.
Simplicity’s grandmother once said that people in her village used to eat the afterbirth, but Simplicity couldn’t recall which village it was or even in which country, nor how long ago that had been. Even if she found that village, there were still those villages of her other grandparents to find. Hers was a fractured tribe. She often joked about how relatives are meant to dislike each other because it reduced the chance of inbreeding. Secretly though, she envied friends who enjoyed weekly Joy Luck Club style extended family gatherings where there were enough people to warrant the purchase of an extendable dining table. A friend who came from such a family said that these gatherings were overrated and a drag but conceded that’s why her family didn’t die in the Vietnam war.
Simplicity was dying … again.
Like the other two times, death was swelling up inside her, compressing her nerves and crowding out her vital organs. This time, however, she could not laugh at her reflection in the mirror or make YouTube videos wearing a funny wig as she had the previous times. This time she needed out where she was really from, and hope that when she found her tribe, they would care about whether she lived or died.
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ the doctor said gently. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You should try to get some rest and eat a little something before bed.’
The doctor disinfected her hands and left the room.
Richard James Allen is an Australian born poet whose writing has appeared widely in journals, anthologies, and online over many years. His latest volume of poetry, The short story of you and I, is published by UWA Publishing (uwap.com.au). Previous critically acclaimed books of poetry, fiction and performance texts include Fixing the Broken Nightingale (Flying Island Books), The Kamikaze Mind (Brandl & Schlesinger) and Thursday’s Fictions (Five Islands Press), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry. Former Artistic Director of the Poets Union Inc., and director of the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival, Richard also co-edited the landmark anthology, Performing the Unnameable: An Anthology of Australian Performance Texts (Currency Press/RealTime). Richard is well known for his innovative adaptations and interactions of poetry and other media, including collaborations with artists in dance, film, theatre, music and a range of new media platforms.
In the 24-hour glow
It is less than 24 hours since we first made love.
Every moment fading in slow motion, like a sunset, watched from
a public housing park bench, 24 years from now.
People are flawed stories that unfurl as perfect wisdoms.
We think our profundity ends with sex,
but it only begins there.
Maybe between longing and belonging we can be happy with something else.
Where coincidence becomes grace.
For many years, books have documented the
literary rivalries of writers—Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel
García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, A. S. Byatt and her sister Margaret
Drabble—but Gabrielle Carey’s novella length book Falling Out of Love with
Ivan Southall (2018) is the first I’ve read to examine what happens to
somebody when they lose faith in the writer who convinced them to become one in
the first place. Many of its most interesting elements exist in its story
architecture, a part-memoir of Carey’s writing life, part-biography of Ivan
Southall that critiques his novels and career. To call his career a legacy,
however, may perplex contemporary generations of readers and writers, for whom
the name rings no bells. For modern readers, his reputation and writing has
truly faded into obscurity. By his death in November 2008, Southall was essentially
forgotten: “although mostly unread and unknown to young people of the present
generation, in the 1960s and 1970s Ivan Southall was a literary superstar.”(Carey;
p6) During his prime he produced over thirty books for children and was the
only Australian to be awarded the Carnegie Medal. How, then, does Australia
continue to suffer from this cultural amnesia?
Ever since Puberty Blues (1979),
Gabrielle Carey’s work has been confessional, exploring with her candour the
realities of personal and familial loss, often seeking sanctuary and counsel in
reading and writing. This
eagerness to discern real life meaning and purpose from text is central to her book Moving Among Strangers (2013),
in which she traces her family and her mother’s connection to the enigmatic
West Australian, Randolph Stow. At a time when Joan was dying from a brain tumour, and
Stow is living in exile, Carey
sends him a personal letter. Letter writing was integral to the literary life
of Ivan Southall, too, a similarity that made her immediately align with, and
become wary of, her ex-idol. In many ways, Carey’s latest
is a dismayed retrospective on what it means to devote oneself to a life of
writing. “Maybe the reason I no longer love Ivan the writer is because I no
longer love the writer in myself,” (p64) Carey writes. These tensions, between
childhood literary obsession and disenchantment later in her career, confront
what Carey dubs “self-delusion” and consequently produce a book that evades
definition. A sense of dread occupies each page, and as this negativity teeters
on self-loathing we realise that Carey’s “late-life crisis” is being fuelled by
a common anxiety: the belief that literature is an echo-chamber, pointless,
masturbatory, meaningful only in of itself: “My growing sense of the writing
vocation as useless and unproductive in comparison to nursing or even landscape
gardening is integral to my late-life crisis. It is hard to maintain one’s
sense of self-value if your product, so to speak, is not in any way necessary
for society to function.” (p39) To call this book literary criticism, however,
seems a misnomer, and likewise the memoir and biographical aspects precipitate
in the understanding of the texts themselves. Thus, Carey has found herself in
a bind: to explain why literature may no longer be able to provide meaning and
purpose in her life, she uses that very thing.
Throughout the mid to late 20th century, Ivan
Southall was for many young Australian readers a kind of literary hero, best
known for his survivalist novels Hills End (1962), Ash Road (1965),
To the Wild Sky (1967), and Josh (1971), his Carnegie Medal
winning novel. Nine-year-old Carey was so enamoured with To the Wild Sky that
she decided to pursue the “deliberately difficult” writer life. While
researching this book, she confirmed her suspicion that she wasn’t the only
young reader to be touched by the Southall phenomenon. Her research took her to
Canberra’s national archives, where she uncovered the immense letter
correspondence Southall received from young fans, discovering that “at the top
of each letter in Southall’s handwriting is the word ‘reply’ and a date. No
correspondence, as far as I can see, fails to receive a response.”(p11) Carey’s
re-reading of To the Wild Sky, the book that spurred her to pursue
writing, proved disillusioning. Rather than rekindling her predilections, it
awoke a “palpable dislike” (p35) for Southall, who she not only considers a
mediocre craftsmen but also a cruelly dismissive workaholic who neglected his
own children. “While busily writing to and for his thousands of child fans,’
Carey writes, “Southall’s own children were locked out of his study and,
largely, out of his life.” (p42) This disenchantment culminates in her own
existential unease, “I have also found myself, at times, more devoted to my
writing than to my children.” (p56) In other words, perhaps Carey wrote this
book because she was afraid of becoming like Southall, a writer who tried to
turn the real world into a big fat metaphor in order to escape from it. “Is
this why Southall makes me feel uncomfortable?” Carey ponders. “Because, as a
confessional writer, there is something that Ivan Southall and I have in common?
Perhaps my discomfort is really the discomfort of self-recognition.” (p64)
Nevertheless, at times Carey
can’t withhold a degree of professional admiration for Southall’s devotion to
the craft—the very same austere discipline that produced his selfish workaholic
nature. “Southall was that very rare of writers, a genuine professional,
scraping by from one royalty cheque to the next.” (p23) This admiration
manifests especially in his letter-writing to fans (Carey herself being
terribly fond of the art). Like Carey, many young readers were inspired to
become writers after reading Southall’s books. One young boy by the name of
Peter pens the following letter, reproduced in Carey’s book:
Dear Mr Southall,
I’m writing a story called “The Visitors from Outer Space.” It will be a good story if I can find it and finish it. It’s lost around the house somewhere. How do you keep your mind on your work? Once I start working on something I hardly ever finish it. (p11)
While the digital age has made our idols seem
infinitely nearer, seldom do emails seem to reach beyond a secretary, automated
reply, or the dreaded oblivion of silence. Southall’s reply to Peter’s letter
is also copied in the book:
What you must do is use a notebook or exercise book for your stories and put a bright red cover on it. The only way to finish anything, Peter, is to keep on going until you get to the end. There is simply no other way. (p11)
Southall’s directness resonates with Carey’s
sensibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for over twenty years, she
would never dare offer “this most obvious advice . . . [Students] have paid
good money for this secret, which is why so many feel disappointed when they
realise there there is no secret except keep going.”(p12) I’m still learning,
Michelangelo was fond of saying; no doubt Carey and Southall believe the same
to be true of writing. “I can’t believe I have spent so much of my life hunched
over a desk and yet still do not know how to write,” (p97) Carey writes.
At this book’s core is an
examination of the reach and extent of idealisation. Once Carey finally re-read
To the Wild Sky, she was loath to discover it was not particularly
well-written, “the dialogue is clunky, the gender roles stereotyped, the
grown-ups mostly mean-spirited and unlikeable and there is an uncomfortable
obsession with class.” (p34) What can be taken away, then, from a book that
explores a peculiar experience of the literary doppelgänger is that seeing
yourself in somebody else not only causes the fear of unoriginality but, more
tragically, the suggestion that you have lost part of yourself along the way.
Maybe the value of falling out of love with a literary idol is the recognition
that is was never really about them in the first place, and that, in Carey’s
words, “the real nature of the reader-writing relationship [is] one of a
long-distance, non-physical love affair. And if so, maybe it represents the
ultimate, ethereal, transcendent love, independent of the material world. A
love that is purely spiritual, that both children and adults can experience.
The only love, perhaps, that is truly perfect.” (p90)
JACK CAMERON STANTON is a writer and critic living in Newtown, Sydney. His work has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, The Sydney Review of Books, Neighbourhood Paper, Seizure, and Voiceworks, among other places. His fiction has been twice shortlisted for the UTS Writers’ Anthology prize. He is a doctoral candidate at UTS.
Anna Kazumi Stahl is a fiction writer based in Argentina. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, with a dissertation on transnational (East-West) identities in South American, U.S. and German literatures. Her current research explores South-South and East Asian-South American transnational cultural expressions in literature and visual media.As a fiction writer, she works almost exclusively in Spanish. Her book-length works are: Catastrofes naturales (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997) and Flores de un solo día (Seix Barral, 2003), the latter a finalist for the Romulos Gallegos Prize. Stahl’s fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in Latin America, Europe, Japan, and the USA. She is currently completing a novel based in Buenos Aires, in the southern neighborhoods where historically an Asian immigrant enclave took root and later other immigrants and regional migrations passed through.
The Crab and the Deer
Ten days ago my brother came back from the war. Two days ago they let me see him. He is sick, and has wounds that haven’t healed well. He has a bad fever and it makes him say things in his sleep. He’s been having nightmares. I can see from his eyelids how the monsters slink around inside his head, hurting him. But there’s nothing I can do. I can’t wake him; they’ve explained to me how dangerous it is to wrench a person with a sick heart and lungs out of a deep sleep. And I can’t reach the ghosts that are hunting him. So I sit and stare at his eyelids, where I’ve seen them moving. I try to send him as much strength as possible, so he can defend himself.
This is the first time I’ve ever met my brother. I’ve never met him before because he went away to military service when I was still inside mama’s belly.
The war ended. Finally. It ended not long ago. I say finally because it lasted a very long time, years and years. On the radio they announced “the end of the conflict” and people went out into the streets to discuss it in more detail, I guess. But nobody celebrated. That’s because we lost; as a country, we lost, and as people, each one of us lost too. Amputee is a word I learnt. So many of the things we had before are now missing: a mother is missing, or a father; a son, a brother, a cousin; houses are missing, and hands, and eyes. When peace came there was a lot of fuss. The city overflowed with people looking for work, food, medicine. Because they come from other parts of the country, the people speak funny and act different. But my brother also re-appeared.
I don’t know why there are wars, I don’t know what they’re for, but as soon as my brother wakes up I’m going to ask him. He’s the only person I know who actually fought in the war – as a conscript, they told me, which means he didn’t want to be sent, but he was sent anyway, and that’s why I think he must know something and can help me answer my questions.
For now, he sleeps all day and all night. He seems to be resting, but I hear the doctor talking to my father and he says something about a rapidly accelerating infection. The words sounds mechanical and I don’t understand how to relate them to my brother. I don’t have anyone to explain them to me (mama died in the first round of bombings, when everything was just beginning, and I don’t want to annoy my father – I’m afraid of how he might react, especially now that we’ve lost the war). It’s better if I try to figure it out on my own. That’s why I listen to everything, even though I don’t always understand it.
A nurse comes in with the doctor. I have to leave my brother’s room while she works. I hear water splashing and in my mind I see the nurse rinsing a small white towel to refresh my brother’s face and hands. But he doesn’t wake up.
When they let me back in, I sit in a corner while the doctor examines my brother. The doctor gives him medicine, and writes some notes down on a form that he then puts into a briefcase. When he’s finished I get closer. My usual place is right next to the bed, at head height. I watch my brother sleeping. There are things I didn’t see the first few times I visited, but now they are very clear. I—— has the same eyebrows as mama, thick in the middle and long, reaching almost to the temple. His forehead is like our father’s, and his mouth, too; the same fine, delicate lips, almost like they’ve been drawn in pencil. When I notice these traces of mama and papa in my brother’s face, I realise that he and I must look alike. I go to the mirror near the entrance, with the door open so I can see myself properly in the daylight, and it’s true. The eyebrows, the nose, the mouth – the similarity is there. Nothing else is left of our mother; we have her big cooking pots, her tea set, the little box of needles and thread, a basket with remnants of different-coloured fabrics, things she used to use and now nobody uses. But that small detail in my brother’s face, and in mine – the form of the curve above our eyes – means mama is still here, somehow.
When I’m in his room my brother has a nightmare: the globes of his eyeballs roll around behind the closed lids, and suddenly he opens his mouth so wide that a wound on his lip splits open and starts to bleed. He makes a strange sound, like a boiling kettle, and then screams: “Crabs! Save me!” He is still asleep but he arches his back and throws his head back so far that it looks like he’s about to break his neck. I don’t know what to do. I put my hands on his chest and push; as I’m doing this, another part of my mind thinks that my brother’s chest is like the wooden washboard we use for washing our clothes, with its deep grooves, and I realise this just means my brother is skinny, but then I get the thought that my brother might be turning into a machine, or an object, and the thought scares me. A moment later, the violent tension is gone. My brother goes back to how he was before, quiet and still, breathing deeply with his eyes closed. I look at him for a while until I also feel calmer. Before leaving, I clean the wound on his lip.
The doctor and the nurse don’t come for several days. Maybe my brother is better. He’s still asleep, but he hasn’t had any more fits or nightmares. Is he better? I visit him after we’ve taken our tea. He is very still. He seems to be breathing, but I can’t be sure. I approach him and touch his skin. He is freezing. I make a tent with my hands over his shoulders and breathe into it. My breath warms his chest. But his chest is only small, and he is big. By the time I reach his legs, his chest will be cold again. I don’t have time to go to the hospital for help; by the time I get back he’ll be worse, he’ll have turned to wood or ice or evaporated into steam, like a ghost. But as I’m thinking all of this the nurse and the doctor arrive, I don’t know if by chance or by good luck, but they arrive and I say: “Just in time!” They don’t say anything in reply, and they don’t turn to my brother, either. They grab me and force me to the ground. The nurse washes my hands with alcohol. She tells me I won’t be able to see my brother or anyone else for a week. I have to be quarantined.
I spend the week locked in a bedroom. The blinds are always down and eventually I lose track of how many days have passed. I watch the light at the borders of the windows, and think about the movement of the sun.
Today my brother is awake. I can’t believe it, but there he is, awake. When I enter his room I see a cup of tea in his hand, which is almost empty. I feel relieved that he’s drunk so much of the tea. It’s proof that he is better. I approach his bed and speak to him softly, in case he’s still not used to loud noises, but I feel an urgent need to know what happened, what he saw, what he did, because if I know then maybe I can figure out the solution, the cure.
“Brother,” I whisper. “Please tell me, Brother. Why are you like this? What was it that hurt you?”
He looks at me. He seems to know who I am. Now that his eyes are open, I don’t have to look in a mirror to see that we look alike.
“In war,” he says, looking at me the whole time, “doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you end up sick. If you want to learn something about life, Little Sister, you’re better off asking the animals. Forget human beings. That includes me. Forget about me.”
I’m horrified. “No!” I cry, and the nurse comes to separate us, to calm him down and to calm me down. But I don’t stop: “No, never, I won’t forget you! Do you hear me? Never!”
“You should go, Little Sister. I want to sleep.”
The nurse doesn’t have to escort me out – I respect my brother, so I leave. I go out into the garden. It’s a humid afternoon, warm. I can hear the toads singing, the birds, the odd cricket. I’m confused and worried by what my brother said.
Then, one morning, I run away. I can’t stop thinking about him. I know how easy it is for someone to die. I decide to take his advice: I’ll go and talk to the deer in the park of the old Temple of Dreams. They roam freely there, because they’re not regular animals, they are the messengers of the gods. I know this from reading a lot of kids’ books, and from my religion lessons, and now after what my brother said I think it might be true after all. Anyway, it’s the only option I have. If I don’t ask the deer, I’ll have to go back to depending on my father and the doctor and the nurse.
Sneaking out of the house is easier than I’d feared; nobody comes to stop me, or even asks what I’m doing.
As soon as I enter the park I start to feel dizzy, so I close my eyes and lean closer and closer to the ground until I’m squatting there. I think I might have a rest, but then I hear the heavy footsteps of an animal coming along the gravel path. With my eyes still closed, not daring to stand, I stretch out one of my hands. Nothing. Just air. I lift my hand a little higher and my fingers brush fur. There are only deer in this park, so it can’t be anything else, but how am I supposed to know if it’s The Deer? The deer who carries the message for my brother and I? As I’m thinking this I start to get a hot feeling. The deer is radiating heat, but not a heat like my brother’s fever – it’s like an internal force transforming into something that I can touch with my hands. I open my eyes and see the enormous, dark brown body. I am crouching right next to one of its front hooves, looking towards its stomach, which is like a big orb, because it is round, or like a planet, because it seems to have its own force of gravity, which pulls me to it like a magnet. I rest my cheek, my right hand, my shoulder against the deer’s body; I let my whole weight fall against it. And then I feel how the heat invades me, entering through the palm of my hand and travelling through my wrist, moving up my arm towards my shoulder, filling my lungs, my heart, my whole belly, and continuing to pulse into my legs, my ankles, right down into the soles of my feet. Suddenly all of me is strong, and I am shining – I can’t see it, but I’m sure I am because of the sensation – like a tiny sun.
Then, in a clear and melodic voice, as if singing it to me, the deer gives me the message: Put your eye into the crab and be like him. He adapts to the earth and the sea. He looks ahead and walks towards the shore. He sees everything one hundred times, and he is not bothered by any of it.
I keep listening but the deer doesn’t say anything else. Suddenly the strength leaves me, and it’s as if I am deaf. I blink in the midday sun. My deer has left. I didn’t even see him go.
The next time I speak to my brother, I don’t ask him about his experiences. I tell him about mine.
“I went to the park of the Temple of Dreams. To see the deer. And it was easy, one came to find me. He told me I have to be like the crab.”
“Ah, of course,” my brother replies, in a strange tone I now recognise as irony. “You have to follow his lead. Like Robin Hood.”
“Who is Robin Hood?”
“A Nobody. A character from long ago.”
“And who is the crab?”
“Who? No. What is it? It’s an amphibious crustacean.”
“I know that: it adapts to the earth and the sea. The deer told me. And why is that good?”
“Because, even if your environment changes, you survive. It’s like Confucius said: When things get bad, don’t act; hide.”
“Isn’t that what cowards do?”
“No. It isn’t.”
“Have you seen any?”
“Crabs. Have you seen any?”
He hesitates before answering. After a while he says: “Yes, but they weren’t alive.”
“Where did you see them?”
“South of H——, in a barrel that was used to trap them, but it had been left on the beach for many days, weeks even, so they rotted in there.”
“What were you doing with a barrel like that?”
“No, I got inside it. I was in a barrel like that.”
“To get away from the war, to hide until peace came. Or to die, whichever came first.”
A little while later, he is sicker again. For several days they don’t let anyone visit him. The doctor comes and goes. In the evening I hear the voice of the priest who looks after our family. When I go to see my brother the nurse tells me to act as if everything is fine, because that will give him the strength to get better.
I ask him: “Are you the crab?”
“You tell me. The deer spoke to you. It didn’t tell me anything at all.”
Suddenly, I’m not sure why, I start whispering to him quickly, telling him what I’ve heard here in the house: “Everyone here – the doctor, the nurse, even papa, thinks you’re going to die, but not me. I know you are the crab and you’ll come walking out the other side.”
The next morning he wakes up feeling good. Strong, lucid. He gets out of bed. The first thing he does is go to the garden. Then he gets dressed and says: “I’m going out with my little sister. For a walk, then we’ll come right back.”
He shows me the indoor market. I see some enormous buckets with a sign that says CRABS, and I ask to look at them up close. The crabs have tiny spherical eyes, like black beans, sitting on top of these flexible sticks that point around all over the place.
“Look at their eyes!” I say to my brother, excited by the discovery. “Are they blind?”
“No, actually they can see very well.”
“That’s right, I remember: they see everything one hundred times. Why is that?”
“I’m not an expert on crabs, but I know their eyes are formed sort of like prisms, and they capture images from many different angles. I learnt that back in high school, before the war. You’ll learn it too, now that you’re going back to school. Make the most of it.”
“What else can crabs do?”
“That’s enough for now. Let’s go for a walk. You ask too many questions. It’s not good for you to be so stuck on one thing. It’s not worth the effort. Look around you” – and he points at the young women standing near us, carrying their babies on their backs and baskets of vegetables in their hands, or the old women balancing loads wrapped up in fabric on their shoulders, or the young girls less fortunate than me selling rags in the street, trying to earn some money or trade something for a bowl of rice. “You have to get those ideas out of your head, Little Sister. Don’t go back to see the deer. Go to school and pay close attention to everything they tell you. Don’t believe all of it, but listen, investigate it as deeply as you can.”
After that day, my brother has a terrible relapse; his cough turns violent, his fever won’t go down, and blood comes out of his nose and mouth. Our father calls the doctor. In a calm but serious voice, the doctor tells us my brother won’t live through the night. Later I hear my father talking to the doctor; he asks if it’s really worth buying his son a cemetery plot and engraving his name of a piece of marble, since in the end he was nothing but a failed soldier.
I spend the whole night waiting outside my brother’s room, listening to the fierce, awful sounds of sickness. Then I don’t hear anything. It descends in an instant, or at least that’s how it seems: a silence that freezes me to me bones. I try to stand up but I fall to my knees; as I open the bedroom door my hands are clumsy, like gloves filled with stones. The room is semi-dark. The silence echoes off the walls like an earthquake. A voice inside my head says: Prepare yourself. You are the first person to see him. Prepare yourself for that, and for what comes next. But when I get to the bed, I see it is empty. The first light of the morning is just appearing at the window, and I can see him standing there, looking out. He turns and smiles at me, but I am frightened, because he is shining; I know he is shining, even though at the same time I want to doubt it, to deny it. The light is fine and soft, like a sun shower or the reflection thrown by the moon. He comes towards me and crouches down to tell me something in a soft voice; he smells like soap and cotton, and cough medicine. He whispers: “I’m all right. Don’t tell anyone.” His voice is clear, and he smiles at me again.
Surprising, incredible, says the doctor when he sees my brother later that morning. I listen silently. My brother starts walking around the room as if trying out his body. I watch him, his hair falling over his forehead, nearly reaching his eyebrows, and I see him concentrating, biting his lip like mama used to do when she was sowing. I don’t want to leave him ever again. Everything he does gives me strength, too, or something like strength. Sometimes the feeling reminds me – though it is much less intense – of when the deer gave me his energy.
A few days pass. My brother still hasn’t left his room (the doctor won’t let him) but one morning I go to see him and all his things are packed up. Some things – most of them – are in boxes, ready to be thrown out, and the rest is in a small bag sitting inside the doorway. His hands are dirty; there is a black crescent moon beneath every fingernail, and his knuckles have traces of ink or oil on them. I bring the washbowl to him so I can wash his hands, but he does it himself so I just watch, taking in every detail: the shallow pool of water at the bottom of the bowl; the hard, off-white soap; the old scrubbing brush with its yellowed fibres; the discoloured but clean hand towel, which has been dried in the sun. I notice the way he does everything carefully, as if learning it for the first time. He scrubs his sudsy hands without splashing the water, he cleans each nail one by one, and presses his thumb into the palm of his hand as if feeling for the many tiny bones and tendons beneath the surface. Then everything is put away neatly: the soap and brush don’t drip any water or create any puddles, and he dries his hands with slow, precise movements. When he’s finished he says, not to me but to the room, to the air: “So pure, and so simple.” And in that moment I know that his good health will stay with him forever.
He leaves the house before his scheduled medical check-up. I go with him.
At first we earn a living helping with the fruit harvest. Whenever we can, we take the train into the capital to visit the central market. We go there to buy crabs, as many as we can carry, and we take them home alive; we don’t plan on eating them. The fishmonger doesn’t know that. He thinks they’re destined for the cooking pot. I smile at the fishmonger, especially if he says: “Enjoy!” It makes me happy. I love those crabs. Then smell good, like the sea, like the Inland Sea of my country (which, by the way, has no more armies – no army of its own, and no occupying armies). I love my brother. He knows how to live, and he’s teaching me, and that’s the most important thing.
‘De Hombres, Ciervos y Cangrejos’ (‘Of Men, Deer, and Crabs’)first appeared in ADN Cultura, Cultural, La Nacion, 26 January 2008, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore.
ALICE WHITMORE is the Pushcart Prize and Mascara Avant-garde Award-nominated translator of Mariana Dimópulos’s All My Goodbyes and Guillermo Fadanelli’s See You at Breakfast?, as well as a number of poetry, short fiction and essay selections. She is the translations editor for Cordite Poetry Review and an assistant editor for The AALITRA Review. Her translation of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence is forthcoming in 2019 from Giramondo Publishing.
From the very first poem, it is clear that Hijabi In Jeans by H.I. Cosar is a deeply personal, and deeply political collection, entwining the two themes to carry through every piece. Cosar, a Turkish-Australian teacher and writer has spoken of her bilingual, bicultural upbringing and the complexities that entailed (ABC, May 2018), and these experiences are clear influences that flow throughout the collection. There is the sense that Cosar is grappling with her fractured identity on the page, wrestling with cultural demons and trying to find a way through the murkiness that is the migrant experience.
This murkiness is defined in the opening poem, ‘Untitled’, as a sort of ‘in between-ness’ – the space between cultures that exists for immigrants who are forever trapped in an identity that is too foreign for home, and too foreign for their adopted countries at the same time. She writes of ‘a language/between two tongues’, the image encapsulating the silencing impact of immigration, where the subject exists in the no-woman’s land between two absolute cultures. Later in the collection, Cosar describes this space as ‘purgatory,’ further cementing this image of exclusion from both sides of her identity.
It is this intelligent and lyrical exploration of identity that immediately connects me with this collection. Like Cosar, I am also an immigrant, and the struggles she explores on the page mirror my own in many ways. Crucially, the title of the collection provides a clear indicator that we are of the same ilk – a ‘hijabi in jeans’ is a modern, Australian woman, a Muslim proud of her culture and religion, and equally proud of her feminism and independence. The title nods to the collision of two cultures, and the determination on Cosar’s part to inhabit both, despite the barriers she experiences from either culture.
This balance between a strong cultural identity and the feminist principles that underpin this, but simultaneously create triggers for opposition from both of her homes is a strong theme throughout the collection. There is a tension on the page that suggests that Cosar is no closer to finding a balance between these influences, and this tension is what drives the collection forward.
This is especially apparent in ‘Apology’, which is the rallying cry of the book, a bold and fearless statement against the suggestion that Cosar is anything less than a whole, strong person, regardless of what society expects from Muslim Australian women. She references her ‘two hearts, two tongues, two brains’, a dualism that continues to draw a line between her Turkish and Australia cultures, posing them as two separate influences, each commanding exactly half of her being.
The poem deftly demonstrates the frustration of being judged by other Muslims for her supposed lack of modesty, while being assumed to be a victim by mainstream Australians who have a blinkered definition of Muslim women.
As a reader, it feels as though the opposition between the two cultures is what makes Cosar’s subject position so untenable – for her, it isn’t about accepting her complex identity so much as making each part of her accept the other.
In ‘Nothing to Declare’, Cosar writes in sharp sentences the words she has to repeat again and again to strangers throughout her life, deflecting prejudice and benevolent racism at each turn. She writes:
Yes, this is my passport
No, my name’s not simple
Yes, I am hard to define
In this last line, Cosar appears to be addressing herself – acknowledging what the rest of the collection is grappling with, that her identity will forever be in flux, unable to be captured in a single term.
The anger of these poems is strongly evident, the tone almost creating a beat for their reading. There is an urgency in Cosar’s writing that suggest the immediacy of the poems’ meanings to her reality, and that the emotional bruises that underlie her words are still sore to touch.
In the poem ‘My Land-guage‘, the reader is taken on a journey to Cosar’s imagined conversations with the grandmother she never met. The imagery in these lines is potent, the descriptions of life in Turkey bringing alive the smells and sounds that Cosar conjures up. There is an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss, of the relationship that couldn’t exist due to distance.
The focus on identity in Hijabi in Jeans, however, does not detract from Cosar’s belief in community – the second overwhelming theme of the collection is the shared experience of immigrants, and of Turkish Australians, and the impact that cultural heritage has on our constructions of self. Several poems are reimagining’s of Turkey in the past, or moving reflections on her memories of the country These poems bring the collection together to create a firm foundation for Cosar’s self-examining pieces that, on their own, have less impact than they do when bolstered by the reminder of the universal experiences of immigrants.
Cosar’s use of language is stunning. Her ability to take the reader through her journey of self-examination, as it critiques the society we live in, is impressive, and is largely achieved through emotive and poignant imagery that transports the reader into the experiences she describes.
While the collection as a whole is lyrical and highly emotive, there are some poems, particularly several that examine Australia’s commemoration of the ANZACs that stick out as lacking the empathic resonance as the rest of the book, or appear defensive as if Cosar has readied herself for backlash.
Structurally, the first half of Hijabi in Jeans has a deeper sense of anger and both internal and external conflict than the latter half, which is more reflective and imaginative. Where Cosar soars is when the two come together to beautifully explore the fraught experience of immigration, such as in Nothing. The poem is a stark and arresting vignette of allowing her body to surrender to the ocean, nature for a moment overtaking the intricacies of her thoughts and internal conflict.
Cosar shows how migrants are so often defined by what we aren’t – not white, not speaking English, not of an acceptable religion, not enough – than what we are. It is a concept which is so beautifully encapsulated in the poem, and that simply unveils the crux of the issue at the heart of this collection – that the agency to define our experiences as migrants is held ransom by the country that is constantly withholding belonging and inclusion from us.
This is a collection that is wild in its anger and determination, yet soft in its acknowledgement of the vulnerability we have as humans to the whims of others – how we allow ourselves to be defined and deconstructed by the cultures and systems we have created, which demand labels even when there are none that will fit.
Cosar shows immense talent, and as her writing continues to sharpen, her voice will only become even more necessary for defining the Australia that is inclusive of its multitudes.
ZOYA PATEL is the author of No Country Woman, a memoir of race, religion and feminism, published by Hachette Australia. She founded feminist journal Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. She is a member of the Feminist Writers Festival board, and has been published widely.
Nadja Fernandes is a Brazilian-born writer who has been living in Perth for 15 years. She mainly writes fiction but has recently got involved in a non-fiction project, contributing with two stories that will be part of a book about different people living with a disability (for more information, visit www.my-dis-abilities.com ). Nadja is strongly influenced by the ideas and the writings of Virginia Woolf, Patricia Highsmith, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel García Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Machado de Assis, to name a few. She is an English and Spanish teacher, translator and writer, and lives with her ten-year-old daughter.
Cenizas That grey weightless substance That descends as its sister ascends Rising elusively Like manipulative thoughts although not delusive
Cenizas That grey residue left from your fuel No quieres renunciar No puedes a ella dejar So when up la hermana goes You invite her, through your nose She’s grey but she’s hot Venenosa, but somehow soft
When you’d finish with the vice And get rid of all that dottle I’d be told to clean your pipe You’d be sipping from the bottle
Foggy residues, cenizas, In the chamber. ‘Date prisa!’ Would call out Señor Urquiza, Foggy residues, cenizas, Latin words during the Misa
Your self-standing cenicero, at which I often stared Made of granite and so rare Would stare back at me and you In the centre of your room With those notches, con sus muescas.
Those were eyes that never slept Those were eyes that always watched Ojos que jamás guiñan, ojos que todo ven
Thirty years have gone by Y hoy vuelvo al Uruguay Tomo mate, I still do It’s my favourite drink, my fuel Like the pipa was to you.
We all asked for you to quit We all prayed or begged or hoped That you’d want to be more fit But you didn’t change a bit
“In nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti”. I make the sign of the cross Yet I still feel sad and empty
In the centre of my room In an odd way giving peace Stands my new granite piece
This one has all its eyes shut Ojos que ya no se abren Ojos que siempre duermen. a no miran ni registran. Adentro, solo restan, tus cenizas.
1.Cenizas = ashes 2. No quieres renunciar = You don’t want to give it up 3. No puedes a ella dejar = You cannot leave “her”. In Spanish the word “pipa” (which means pipe) is feminine, which is why the pronoun used is ‘ella’, which means ‘she/her’ 4. La hermana = the sister 5. Venenonsa = venemous 6. Date prisa = Hurry up 7. Señor Urquiza = Mr. Urquiza 8. Missa = Mass Service 9. cenizero = ashtray 10. Con sus muescas = with its notches 11. Ojos que jamas guiñan = Eyes that never blink 12. Ojos que todo ven = Eyes that see all things 13. Y hoy vuelvo al Uruguay = And today I return to Uruguay 14. Tomo el mate = I drink “mate” (“mate” is a traditional drink made by an infusion of dried leaves of the ‘yerba mate’. It is widely consumed in some countries of South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. This drink is traditionally prepared in a hollowed gourd, to which a metal straw with a slightly curved end is added so that it can be sipped. I intend to make a brief analogy between the image of the ‘mate’ and the pipe, as the gourd resembles the shape of the chamber of a pipe. It may also be worth mentioning that most ‘mate drinkers’ have it a few times a day and that it is a social activity in the sense that it is generally shared between two or more people. 15. pipa = pipe 16. In nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti = In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; the Trinitarian Formula, generally accompanied by the action of the Sign of the Cross. 17. Ojos que ya se no abren = Eyes that no longer open 18. Ya no miran ni registran = They no longer look nor do they register 19. Adentro, solo restan, tus cenizas = inside, all is left are your ashes
With four published books, poet, essayist and critic Fiona Wright has become an important voice in the Australian literary scene. Born in 1983 in New South Wales, Wright published her first collection of poems, Knuckled, in 2011. In it, she explores issues such as belonging, identity and sense of place, three themes that constantly re-emerge in her writing. Knuckled was followed by the book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger (Giramondo, 2015), where she writes candidly about her anorexia. This condition, which developed as a consequence of a rare stomach problem, has marked her adult years by triggering questions of what it means to live in a changing and often foreign body. For this book she won the 2016 Nita B. Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction. The book was followed by the collection of poems Domestic Interior (Giramondo, 2017), in which, as Magdalena Ball explained, Wright is skilful in conflating ‘the domestic or familiar with the moment of transformation’.
Her fourth book, the collection of essays The World Was Whole (Giramondo, 2018), is the follow-up to Small Acts of Disappearance and a powerful reflection about the frailty of our bodies and the journey to find and build a home. The 13 essays, some of which had been previously published and were edited for this collection, are a mix of sociological observation, generational manifesto and historical account of Sydney’s utopian suburbia and newly gentrified inner-city suburbs. The title is borrowed from Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Aubade’. Wright references this poem in the eighth essay of the collection ‘The World Was Whole, Always’, in which she chronicles her move to a new shared accommodation in one of Sydney’s inner west suburbs, where most of the essays in this collection take place.
The starting point, however, is suburbia and Wright’s initial bouts with illness. In ‘To Run Away From Home’, she revisits her childhood suburb, Menai, in the outskirts of Sydney to give the reader a picture of life in the suburbs. Wright is no stranger to writing about the suburbs. Her PhD dissertation, Staging The Suburb Imagination, Transformation and Suburbia in Australian Poetry, which gave way to the poem collection Domestic Interior, explores the Australian suburbs and how they have changed, and in ‘To Run Away From Home’ she gives us a panorama of suburbia from its invention at the turn of the 20th century to the present, introducing the reader to her experience and readings of the suburbs and how they have changed particularly over the past two decades, when as Wright notes, renovation became a trope of suburbia:
‘Renovation, in the last 20 years, has become as much a trope of suburbia as lawnmowers, Hills hoists and Sunday car-washing were for the generations that preceded mine: it’s no longer just about keeping house but remaking it, physically marking our dominion over our domain’ (11).
In her reflection about the suburbs the poet connects the house and the body and quotes from French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, to analyse her relation with the places she has lived in, particularly her first home, and her body. Bachelard argues that the places we inhabit become inscribed in our body and that our body shapes our home (we scratch walls, leave hair and skin cells on surfaces). That is to say, we carry our homes within our bodies. For Wright, however, this connection was fractured when she was diagnosed with anorexia. As she writes, ‘Illness is a state we do not think of as everyday, but it affects those of us it impresses itself upon every single day. Those baseline expectations I had to reset, and it’s hard, sometimes, not to long or grieve for my younger, healthy self, whose world was unruptured, who was still able to forget.’ (5)
Almost at the end of ‘To Run Away from Home’, Wright explains that what she likes about Bachelard’s notion of ‘the house we were born in physically inscribed in us all’ is that it gives hope because the idea of homeliness is always in us; a thought that seems particularly relevant for those whose bodies feel sometimes foreign, or those who are chronically ill, and for those who can’t afford to buy a house and can be evicted any time. Bachelard suggests that ‘a house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are constantly re-imagining its reality.’ In this collection’s essays Wright seems to be doing this, re-imagining her reality to find a sense of place, of homeliness.
In ‘To Run Away From Home’, Wright also draws a parallel between her body and the social and cultural transformation of her hometown. It also gives way to the essay, ‘Back to Cronulla’, where the author talks about the Cronulla Riots, a series of racially-targeted violent acts which took place between 11th-13th December, 2005. These events marred the country and revealed longstanding, but often ignored, racial tensions that are alive and well today. The poet and critic delves into what existing in such a place meant to her and her sense of self at the time:
My friends and I were outsiders in Cronulla — and would have been too, in the earlier Cronulla of Debbie and Sue — but we wore this proudly … The difference wasn’t only territorial, I suppose — my friends and I prided ourselves on dressing differently, with the coloured hair and mismatched clothes of the tail end of grunge. Maybe it was gendered, because we were all women; it may also have been racialised — my school drew students from the length and breadth of southern Sydney, so we were a diverse crew, and this became all the more obvious against the prevailing whiteness of the beach — although I don’t think I understood this at the time. (45)
When years later, Wright goes to an Italian restaurant in Cronulla to celebrate her parents’ 40th anniversary, she uses the experience as a pretext to talk about the way the suburb has changed and how Sydney’s inner west, where she lives now, is changing too. The connection brings up, again, questions of place and home and the way in which urban and suburban spaces are being modified: ‘But it also seems to me that this very urban space is suburbanising — more chain shops, more baby shops, more renovations — while at the same time Cronulla, and so many suburbs like it, has been urbanising. The inner-west is also the only area in Sydney that has grown less culturally diverse each time the Bureau of Statistic takes its measures.’ (53)
Wright’s attempts to find a home are not dissimilar from those of a generation who can’t save for a mortgage and don’t have traditional 9-to-5 jobs but are part of the gig economy. After receiving another eviction notice, Wright is forced to find new accommodation and this becomes the subject of ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’. In her journey, the author touches upon the housing crisis in Sydney and reflects (and makes the reader ponder) on what the concepts of family, friendship and home mean for people in Australia who need to rent and share accommodation. ‘And it’s only this that I want: shelter, and security, a stable base from which to build myself and life without constant inconsistency, without the everyday threat that it could all, that day, be once again taken away.’ (105) She also describes sharply the process that getting a new lease means — phone calls, open houses, applications, the news your applications came second, bad timing, the uncertainty of not knowing if you’ll have a place to move to when your lease expiries.
The essay ‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’ is perhaps the most moving of the collection. Here, the author delves into the concepts of body, home, food and ritual, four elements ever so present in this book and in some of her previous work. Here she narrates how after her condition worsens and her anxiety escalates she is admitted to a hospital as in-patient to receive treatment. Removed from her rituals and her home, Wright doesn’t spare in the descriptions of the hospital and her feelings. The conclusion, however, offers the reader hope and also finds the author in a place of self-acceptance:
I’d missed my home, the habits I have and are shaped by it, the small delights it gives me across the day. I felt collected, grounded. And I thought, I must remember this, in the coming months, as my habits and routines become once more invisible because of their ordinariness, their everyday repetition. I must remember how they help me, hold me. I walked along King Street, just to feel it on my skin. (86)
Key to this book is empathy. The author feels empathy, even guilt, towards those who are vulnerable, but also towards herself. The World Was Whole is not only a personal analysis of our convoluted times but also a glimpse into a journey of transformation and acceptance, and a search for beauty in the ordinary. These essays are a poetic approach to place and the importance of paying attention to the minutiae of daily life.
Bachelard, Gaston. La Poétique de l’Espace (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958) translated by Maria Jolas The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964) p.4
Ball, Magdalena. ‘A review of Domestic Interior by Fiona Wright’ in The Compulsive Reader http://www.compulsivereader.com/2018/04/12/a-review-of-domestic-interior-by-fiona-wright/
GABRIELLA MUNOZ is a Melbourne-based writer and translator. Her non-fiction has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Eureka Street and The Victorian Writer, among others. Her fiction has been published in Mexico and Australia. She’s the inaugural digital writer in residence at Writers Victoria and is currently working on her first collection of short stories.
Su-May Tan is a copywriter and emerging author. She was a recipient of the Varuna Publisher Introduction Program 2018 for a short story collection and was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize 2018 for her novel in progress. Her short fiction has been published in Tincture Journal, Sala Prize and Margaret River Press. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, two children and dog.
The Origin of Things (Novel extract)
My name is Katherine Chen. My mother died when I was five. There are signs around if you care to look. Like the jewelled comb in the sideboard drawer, or the framed batik prints on the wall. If you go outside, you can see a banana tree standing in the middle of the garden, probably the only banana tree in Narre Warren.
“Why don’t we get rid of it?” I told Pa. He said, “No, just give it time. It will do better next year.” And so, we live in this house with a white picket fence and a banana tree that looks like it’s going to die.
For someone who has lived in Australia for ten years, Pa spends an awful lot of time reading Malaysian news. Whenever he does, he gets really cross. There’s always some politician he’s grumbling about or some new occurrence that makes him annoyed. Diana often says, “You’ve left the country, why don’t you just let it go?” She says this in her psychologist voice, a soft, quiet voice that could be your own. It’s the same voice she uses when she sees me heading off to the park. Are you sure that’s a good idea? Will you get back before dark?
One day, Dessi and I came back from school and she said, “Oh my god, there’s a banana on your banana tree.” She was right. I didn’t even know they grew that way. The red bud was huge now and it had little green fingers coming out of it. I should have suspected something then but Dessi and I continued to traipse past as if it was the most normal Friday in the world.
We munched on some Cruskits, we did homework. As I flung back my hair, still wet from the pool, I began to cough. At first it just tickled my throat and then I felt the spasm rise up my chest. The germs prickled my lungs, hundreds and thousands of evil mitochondria, attacking my delicate cells. “Oh no,” I said. “Do you think I have pneumonia?”
“No,” said Dessi.
“You’ve had this cough since we first met.” That was true. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t pneumonia. A grey cloud descended upon my room, blurring out the poster of Kimiko from Spirited Away. I put down my pen. The cloud swirled across my Algebra book and transported me into the dark and foggy place I sometimes found myself in. My heart began to beat fast, too fast; and I couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve got a message,” said Dessi.
“Message,” she said, pointing to the lighted up screen of my phone. When I saw the name – John Ichuda – I felt like I was flying.
Hey…Do you want to go to the Spring Dance with me?
“What do I say?” I asked Dessi, struggling to breathe. Dessi rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve only been in love with him for like two years.”
It was all I could think about that night as I looked at this Chinese girl in the bathroom mirror staring back at me. Should I wear the blue dress from Sports Girl? Was I getting a pimple on my forehead? As I chucked the toothbrush into my mouth, I saw the cat. I hadn’t seen it since I was nine. “A possum, you mean?” said Pa.
“No, a cat,” I said, pointing with my stubby finger. But when he turned to look, all he saw was the swing, and a pile of leaves where the cat had been.
The cat at the window now stared at me. Could it be the same one? How many stripy cats were there in the neighbourhood? I couldn’t forget those yellow eyes. It blinked once, twice, then disappeared into the darkness. Later that night, the eucalyptus tree tapped me on the shoulder, and the cat appeared again.
“Pick up,” it said.
“Pick up.” And that’s when I heard the phone ringing. For some reason I could not move. It was like an invisible weight sitting on me. Pa, I said, the phone is ringing. This time, I could not even move my mouth. “Pa,” I screamed in my head. “The phone!”
The yellow eyes continued to burn. The cat began to change. First, it turned into a possum, then into a fox, then into a tawny frogmouth, like the one in Mrs Smyth’s garden.
The next morning as I padded down the stairs, I knew something had happened. The light seemed especially bright, as if everything around me was made of crystal. I could almost hear a shimmery tinkle as Diana’s voice cut through the air. “Will she be there?” There was no reply, only the sound of boiling water.
“Hi Katie,” said Diana when I walked in.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said in a bright, cheery voice. Pa put his cup down and took a deep breath. He looked deep into his cup, then turned to me and said, “Ah Ma passed away last night.”
Pa continued to talk. He must have told me the details: how she died, who was there and what we had to do, but my mind was too busy thinking about John Ichuda and the date of a lifetime we would never have. I could even see the dress I would wear, a twinkling mass of gossamer blue, slowly disintegrating into nothingness.
“When are we going?”
“Tomorrow,” said Pa.
“How long for?”
“Just a couple of weeks.” Diana stirred her mug. She kept stirring it as if trying to dissolve the spoon.
“The taxi will come at six-thirty A.M, okay?”
“Are you going?” I said to Diana.
“I can’t sweetie, I’ve got to work.” She took one more sip and got up. Her cup made a cold clinking sound on the table. I watched her wash her hands and flick them dry. After she left, the smell of her dewberry shampoo lingered in the room.
The sliding doors opened and the day hit me like a wall of hot air. Trolleys rolled left and right. Signs said exit in three different languages. Out of this haze, a lady appeared. She called Pa by his Chinese name and gave him a hug. This was Tua Ee. For the longest time I thought that was her Chinese name. It meant Eldest Aunty and that’s who she was to me.
The diamonds on her sunglasses flashed as she and Pa spoke in a mix of Hokkien and English. All through this time, I tried not to stare at her eyebrows, two painted arches on her white face. “This Katie?” she said, squinting at me. “So big already.”
“Hello, Tua Ee,” I said. “How are you?” I leaned forward to give her a hug and she hesitated just the very slightest. A cloud of perfume floated around me as I wrapped my arms around hers. She let out an embarrassed laugh. “How was your flight?” she said to me.
“Good – ”
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at my feet.
“Wah, so clever, I don’t think anyone in the family can play anything.”
“My mum played the piano,” I said.
Two stewardesses sashayed past. Their sandals made slapping sounds on the concrete. “She means Sue,” said Pa softly. Tue Ee gave a little gasp and clasped her Chanel handbag. “We better go,” she said, glancing at her watch. “The traffic is going to be very bad.” With that, she made her way to the other side of the car and clicked opened the door.
Palm trees and billboards followed us all along the highway. In the rear view mirror, Tua Ee and her eye brows peered at me. She said Roy and Maggie were looking forward to seeing me. How old was I? Sixteen? That’s just one year younger than Roy.
We kept on passing rows and rows of oil palm trees. After a while, they changed into jungle, huts, and then more jungle. Finally we stopped at a large boom gate. In fact, every lane had a boom gate in front of it, beside which was attached a booth, and inside, a person collecting money.
Tua Ee dug into her handbag and handed the lady a few dollars, after which the lady raised the barrier and let us through. It was like opening the floodgates to the city. The jungle disappeared, and was replaced by petrol stations, hotels, rows of shopping strips, and a monorail zipping between them all.
“What happened to Jalan Templer?” Pa said.
“Didn’t you hear? They changed it to Jalan Muhiyiddin.”
Pa looked out of the window thoughtfully. I wondered what he saw. I saw a bus stop, a mosque, a shopping mall. At the traffic light, a woman stood draped in black from head to toe. The only thing visible was her eyes. She squinted into the hot blustery wind as Justin Bieber sang, You’re my baby, you’re the one.
Tua Ee stopped at a house with a large metal gate. All the houses had tall metal gates. Beside the gate, there was a mango tree with green fruit hanging from its branches. “Ah Fu,” yelled Tue Ee. “We’re back!”
The door grill creaked opened. “Uncle Patrick,” whispered Pa to me.
“Hello, Uncle Patrick,” I said to the man who came out. “How are you?” He cleared his throat and said rather stiffly, “Fine, thank you.”
I watched him stomp to the car in his blue flip-flops, and back again to the driveway, two grocery bags in hand. Tua Ee continued to bark orders at various people. She asked Roy to help with the suitcases. She asked someone else to hold the door open and someone else to bring in the pomelos. Pa took his shoes off at the door, I did the same.
We went to the kitchen at the back where a table was laden with food. A girl with short curly hair came to greet us – could this be Maggie? “Did you do a marathon?” I said, pointing to the words on her t-shirt. She grinned at me shyly.
“What do you want to drink?” said Tua Ee. “Orange juice, coca-cola, chrysanthemum tea?”
“Some tea would be nice,” I said. Tua Ee spoke to the girl and she came back carrying a yellow carton.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve never seen tea like this before.” The girl laughed, displaying a grid of teeth.
“What is it?” I asked Tua Ee.
“She says she can’t understand your English.” She introduced me to Siti then, her helper from Indonesia.
The grown-ups began talking about politics. They talked about scandals and the coming elections, and this guy, Tun Said, who was the leader of some Islamic group. I, on the other hand, examined the food in front of me: fried noodles in black sauce, and okra stuffed with fish paste. I chose an okra, which Tua Ee called a ladies’ finger. She said I was ‘very clever’ to eat it, though I wondered what kind of intelligence one needed to consume a vegetable.
Maggie sat on the couch in a stylish red blouse. She did not look like Siti at all. Her skin was flawlessly white. From time to time, she would play with a pendant around her neck.
“Your hair is so nice and thick,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Do you curl it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s just like that.”
I watched Maggie talk to her friend in Chinese. It could have been birds at the park. “Do you speak Mandarin?” she said.
“No, not really.”
“A little bit.”
“You’re Hokkien, right?”
“Well, my father is,” I said.
“So you only speak English?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling a prickle in my neck. A Korean singer appeared on TV and I said he looked a bit like George Shane.
“George Shane, that guy who won The Voice.”
“Oh,” said Maggie without meeting my eyes.
Not long later, another one of Maggie’s friends came over to talk to me. She started asking me all sorts of questions about Melbourne. Did all the houses have swimming pools, how cold was it there, can you see kangaroos everywhere? That’s when the prick on my wrist happened.
“Ow,” I said. “What is that?”
“Mosquito,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just a mosquito.”
“Is it a Dengue one?” I’d read about Dengue fever. A woman from Sunshine died from it last year. The mosquito continued buzzing around us, a needle of death. I was still trying to spot it between the cushions when Tua Ee said, “Alright, let’s go!”
“Where are we going?” I said, as everyone started to stand up.
“Lunch,” said Maggie.
“Didn’t we just have breakfast?” I said.
The Chinese restaurant we went to was nothing like its namesake on Little Bourke Street. I snapped Dessi a photo of the sign.
Dragon Boat Palace.
It had a zinc roof and cheap plastic furniture. A stray cat weaved through the chairs, hoovering up scraps of rice from the floor. We went to an indoor section, which was marginally fancier. The tables were clad in red table cloths. There was a Chinese painting on the wall and an air-conditioner spewing out mist.
When the tea arrived, Roy poured it out into little porcelain cups for everyone. He responded to my queries about what each dish was. Four Seasons with a jellyfish salad. Fried fish with plum sauce. The highlight was the crabs; a shiny, vermillion platter of crustaceans whose brethren were eyeing us from a tank across the room.
Again, the conversation started to blend into a mix of Hokkien and English. Even when they spoke English, I wasn’t sure if it was English. I concentrated on dismantling the crab claw in front of me without creating too much of a mess. I tried the soup beside me, a light brown consommé with a lemon inside. On the second dip of my spoon, Maggie yelled, “What are you doing?”
“What?” I said.
“That’s for washing your hands,” she said and everyone laughed.
When we got back to Tua Ee’s house, Maggie and her friend returned to the couch. I wandered off to the living room, where I found Uncle Patrick poring over some newspapers.
“What are you reading?”
“Mudrum Pits,” he said.
“Mat-Rem-pits,” he said, more slowly. He showed me the page. Everything was in Chinese but the picture showed a group of men on motorbikes. There must have been about a hundred of them, filling up the whole street.
“Who are they?” I said.
“Some gang,” he said. “They snatch bags, break into cars. Look, this woman got dragged down the street.”
“Ug,” I said. “How can they show that?”
“This lady broke her arm… and this guy got slashed with a knife. There’s a close up, do you want to see?”
“No thanks,” I said. I suddenly felt like I needed to get some air. Everything was so stifling. A hot wind blew from the window. There was a ceiling fan but it simply whipped the heat up into pieces.
“What are you doing?” said Uncle Patrick, peeping at me from behind the papers.
“Going for a walk,” I said.
He peered at me curiously. Then he sat back in his seat and lifted up the wall of papers again.
I only made it two roads down before realising that taking a stroll in KL was not the brightest idea. I had never felt heat like this before. It was hard to breathe and it made no difference whether you walked in the sun or the shade.
I reached a kind of lookout point with the Twin Towers in the distance. A construction site sprawled below me, and next to it, a group of men were queuing up with buckets clutched in their arms. Their bare backs gleamed in the sun, as they waited for the man in front to finish with the tap.
Suddenly, one of the men looked up at me. I quickly turned away – as casually as I could. Then I stepped back and made my way back to the road. Cars passed by so close I could feel the wind against my skin. Every time I heard an engine, my heart seized. I imagined someone grabbing my bag or ripping my arm off like the lady in the newspaper.
I sensed the car before I heard it. You can tell when a car slows down. The men made a screechy sound with their teeth. “Moy,” they said, as if it were my name. “Moy!” they said again. The car picked up speed, then just as it passed, I saw the bold blue words ‘Polis’ written on the door.
I kept walking briskly down the road. When I reached the end, I heard the car again. I turned left and the car did the same. I was about to start running when a girl’s voice said, “Katie!” I looked up and saw Maggie waving at me from the car, a white car, with Roy in the driver’s seat. “Come on,” she said, beckoning me over. “We’re going to Pete’s place.”
‘Pete’s Place’ really was a place called ‘Pete’s Place.’ There was a large metal sign hanging on the door. It looked like a restaurant but no one was eating. People just hung around in groups, chatting or fiddling with their instruments.
Roy found us a table at the back and we watched a few bands play. Some sang in Mandarin, some sang in English. There were posters on the wall – ads for things like coconut juice and a new Indian restaurant that had ‘Malaysia’s Best Tandoori Chicken.’ The most prominent flyer was for something called ROM, the Rock On Malaysia concert. There were like ten sheets plastered across the wall, so from a distance, it looked like ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM, ROM.
After Roy’s session ended, we sat in a circle on the floor. One of the guys started picking at his guitar. Then another guy started tapping a drum. It became some kind of impromptu show, even Maggie was on the maracas.
“Hey Katie,” said Roy. “Do you play anything?”
“I thought you play the violin,” said Maggie.
“Cheng, do you have a violin?” Roy yelled. “Anybody got a violin?”
Suddenly, I found someone thrusting one into my hand. All eyes were on me. I picked up the instrument and started playing the song I was currently learning – Beethoven’s Concerto Number Five. I even did the trill at the end. When I finished, the whole room was quiet. It was like the world had stopped.
“That was good,” said Roy. No one else said a word. Roy looked at Maggie, Maggie looked at the floor. Then just like that, everyone started talking about the ROM.
“Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success, even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life.” ——- Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn
If one were to pool all the relevant evidence culled from his occasional excoriations of Australian academia, one would soon realise that Patrick White (1912-1990) was hardly ever generous with local researchers, despite the bountiful critical attention he received from them. Entrusting Christos Tsiolkas — a fellow writer outside of the scholarly arena — with the daunting task of reading and writing an appreciation of the entire opus of Australia’s sole Nobel-Prize for Literature therefore comes across as a rather shrewd editorial strategy.
The idea for this third publication in the emergent Black Inc “Writers on Writers” series, was triggered by a haunting question which arose from the Cheltenham Literature Festival audience. Back in 2015, one of the attendees queried: “Christos, what do Australians think of Patrick White these days?” (2). Interestingly, that same question — in a slightly different wording: “Is anyone reading Patrick White nowadays?” — was put to me again and again in 2011 by fellow Australians who were befuddled as to why I would draft an editing project intended to be a tribute to Patrick White and his legacy.
Even more so since the 2006 Wraith Picket hoax, there has always been the sneaking suspicion that Patrick White is a cultural artefact of his time, a précieux wordsmith whose elitism and stylish (yet affected) eloquence would alienate him the support of modern-day publishers, if not a bourgeois intellectual estranged from the bread-and-butter concerns of the working-class people. While there is probably a grit of truth to it all, White remains, very much like Christopher Koch, one of the happy few writers who have successfully passed the duration test — even in the eyes of a skeptical reader such as Tsiolkas, who has grown from a high-schooler’s lukewarm reception to a recent infatuation of White’s literary output.
In keeping with his working-class and Greek origins, Tsiolkas chiefly praises White for pioneering “the migrant’s story” (26), for “creating an immigrant language” (21) through a “symbolic language of terrain and isolation” (37), and sees Manoly Lascaris — White’s lifelong gay partner — as instrumental in shaping White’s singular vision of the world: “It is as an Australian writer — and as an Australian writer seeing both his country and the world partly through Lascaris’s eyes — that he achieves greatness” (23). While this line could be construed as an optimistic overstatement, it is not difficult to perceive in this instance how literature responds to the desire of readers embodied as much in the reader’s horizon of expectations as in the craving need to interpret, itself derived from a need to share one’s emotional response to literary aesthetics. As Wolfgang Iser points out, “Perhaps this is the prime usefulness of literary criticism—it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read.”
In this game of literary seduction, what I would term specular desire here combines two fantasising activities: the writer’s desire subtly reflecting the reader’s through a series of shared interests and the reader’s desire which is being projected onto the writer’s. Thanks to this short monograph, readers of Loaded and Dead Europe (among other titles), who are already cognisant with Tsiolkas’s “erotics of writing”(31), will now also become familiar with his “erotics of reading” (31):
“The miracle of these perfect novels is that, from the opening sentence to the final word, the real world collapses and we are enfolded in a fictional reality that is stronger and more present than our material surroundings. The gift of being enraptured by such novels is that they continue to feed our desire as readers, to keep us hungrily reading, greedily searching for that experience once more.” (31)
A decade ago, Brigid Rooney duly noted the kaleidoscopic attempts at rekindling the literary and cultural importance of Patrick White, building up to the centenary of his birth: Whether Christos Tsiolkas’s On Patrick White partakes of that effort or is simply meant to be read as a deeply affectionate homage paid to the overwhelming importance of a heavyweight literary monster is scarcely relevant. What matters more perhaps is to discern the interplay of influences between these two eminent versatile writers, namely how Tsiolkas’s vision might now affect our reading of White’s œuvre and how White’s œuvre has revealed a new dimension of Tsiolkas’ mind.
Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn (eds.), Patrick White Speaks (Sydney: Primavera Press, 1989), 15. David Coad & Jean-François Vernay, Patrick White Centenary: A Tribute, CERCLES 26, Special Issue (2012). For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 203.
JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’s latest released books are The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2016) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016).