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.
(End of extract)
On Patrick White
by Christos Tsiolkas
Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay
“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).
Elleke Boehmer was born in Durban and lives in Oxford. She is the author of five novels including Screens against the Sky (1990), Bloodlines (2000), Nile Baby (2008), and The Shouting in the Dark (2015). Screens against the Sky was short-listed for the David Higham Prize, and Bloodlines for the Sanlam Prize. The Shouting in the Dark was long-listed for the Sunday Times prize (South Africa). She is the author and editor of over fifteen other books, including Stories of Women (2005), Postcolonial Poetics (2018), and a widely translated biography of Nelson Mandela (2008). Indian Arrivals 1870-1915: Networks of British Empire (2015) was the winner of the biennial ESSE 2015-16 Prize. South, North is her second collection of short stories, following Sharmilla, and other Portraits (2010). The Australian edition of The Shouting in the Dark, together with other writing about the global south, is coming out from UWAP in early 2019.
Evelina liked to hang around airports though, till today, she had never yet left an airport on an aeroplane. She liked to sit in the arrivals halls, in the coffee place close to the exit where families waited with balloons and smiles. She liked to absorb the ambiente, she preferred the Spanish word. She was absorbing it now, though in departures not arrivals, the café alongside the security gates, drinking her coffee and smiling as she watched the families smiling. It made her happy, that she could be included in their ambiente though she wasn’t required to say a word.
Her airport hobby had started a few years ago, three or four, she couldn’t remember exactly, back in the old century, the day she said goodbye to her best friend Marta. After her marriage went bad Marta had decided to make a clean break. Evelina and Marta had sat here in the same café, Marta retouching her lipstick, peering with narrowed eyes into the clip-open lipstick case she always kept in her bag.
Evelina had watched Marta walk that day through the departure gates sobbing into a tissue but with a kind of skip of her left heel, a definite spring in her step. Watching Marta’s departing back Evelina couldn’t help noticing the spring.
These days Marta was teaching languages in Spain, near Toledo. She was earning good money and seeing someone, she wrote, a nice teacher at the secondary school. Although she worried sometimes that he was so much shorter than herself. What their future children might think.
Their other friend, Teresa, mouthy Teresa, took the same exit route a year or so later. Again Evelina came to say goodbye. Again she bought a round of hot chocolate here in the café, and again stood with her face pressed to the security glass, watching Teresa sink down the long escalator to the departure gates, Teresa waving and smiling and then as she stepped off the escalator quite briskly tucking her tissues away in the side pouch of her bag.
Teresa had aimed to join Marta in the language school in Spain but then she had got talking to people, and people had talked nicely about her, so now she was working on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Everything had changed for her and was raised up to a new level, and now, Teresa wrote in her last birthday card, it should be Evelina’s turn. Now Evelina had her chance to go away like the others. She should grab the opportunity in both hands.
By the time Teresa left, Evelina was already in the habit of coming to the airport. She came perhaps once a month, especially on quiet weekdays, in the evening, sometimes still in her tour-guide uniform. The only person who knew about her habit was Jorge himself. She liked coming even without anyone to wave off, perhaps more so. She liked having time to watch the families, the kids in their Brazil-made chanclas running and chasing each other around the chairs and tables like these two little girls about six or seven here at the table besides hers. Round the table they chased, now one way, now the other, the smaller one giggling helplessly. She liked it so much she sometimes skipped going over to stand in the departure area, though she liked it there, too, watching the travellers being hugged.
But her best bit, secretly, was her own private regreso, coming back into the city after her airport coffee. This she liked the most. Sitting at the airport and then coming home again. She liked swooping her car into the fast lane, nearly empty at this hour, and then up the steep ramp and down her own avenida. She liked that feeling of coming back into her tiny flat, up the three flights of concrete steps that the janitor washed at five every evening, and opening the door onto her two neat rooms with everything standing exactly where she had left it. Even if that was just a few hours ago and no one could possibly have been in.
How grateful this journey made her for everything that she had here in this city. Which is why she didn’t get enough of visiting the airport, that heady feeling that the trip back home gave her every time.
Her family didn’t know about this habit of enjoying the arrivals hall or they might have come along on this mild Saturday evening, to help her get away, to give her the push she needed.
Her parents lived up country now, in the campo. They had held their send-off last weekend in her flat—her parents, her older brother Enrico who was a small pets vet, a couple of cousins from her mother’s side. They had made the four-hour round trip together in Enrico’s car. They had served oozing facturas from the panadería downstairs, and black tea with lemon, plus stronger stuff for those who wanted it, and they had talked about the repairs to Enrico’s new house and when he might start converting his extra garage into a practice. One of the cousins would be coming to stay for a while in Evelina’s flat, to have a long-expected holiday in the city, they said. They had talked only about solid things. As if by not saying much about Evelina’s leaving or about Jorge, the reason for her leaving, they could all pretend it wasn’t really taking place.
On the washed concrete steps they had said goodbye and their hugs were dry and unfussy. They were immigrant people, a little Welsh, a little Irish, and a lot of Buenos Aires. They set their faces to the future, which is to say, the future that was here, now, and solid.
From the beginning Evelina’s father had refused to say Jorge’s name. He had refused at first to meet him and when he did he refused at first to shake his hand. But he had never paid any of her few boyfriends even a morsel of attention.
‘His eyes want to undress you,’ he said of the first, Luciano, all of seventeen, still at school at the time. ‘It’s disgusting, arrojalo, get rid of him.’
Evelina had, but none of the others she brought home later had fared any better. Papá said he wanted to hit them all. In another day and age, he swore, he’d have taken a sword to them, pure and simple.
So this afternoon it was Evelina’s turn to sit in the airport waiting for a plane, on her own, without her family, but this time with a ticket in her purse. It was her turn to begin a new phase, in North America, in New York, a new phase to go with the new century, a chance to explore a new life with Jorge her fiancé, her energetic, open-hearted Jorge who had gone on ahead to set things up.
Sitting in the departures coffee shop, smaller than the one downstairs, Evelina noticed for the first time the good view through the big window beside the check-in gates. Even from here she could see through the window a section of the runway and the lit-up planes criss-crossing like fireflies against the sky now darkening towards evening.
Next time she’s here, she told herself, she’ll go over to the window to take a longer look. There was a shiny rail to lean on. There were people right now leaning on it, looking out, pointing, their dark profiles stamped on the glass. But then she remembered there wouldn’t be a next time and she had to put down her coffee, her hands trembled so.
The bag of toiletries and warm clothes she had packed stood beside her. She kept her leg pressed against the bag and her handbag pressed between her feet. Their box crates had gone ahead. For the air-trip itself she hadn’t known what to pack. What do you pack when you are changing continents, setting out to make a new life in New York with your beloved, your prometido? You could pack everything, or you could pack only your most special things that you wouldn’t want to send in a crate.
When her alarm rang this morning, she couldn’t find anything special enough to take along, nothing anyway that was small enough to carry, so she packed just this compact bag and in the end put in the wind-up alarm clock itself, on top, wrapped in a hanky. Couldn’t do harm, to start a new life with a reliable alarm clock.
As for the box crates, filling them had been like filling bags for charity, piling in stuff you never expected to see again. Even now, a few weeks on, she could barely remember the contents, Jorge’s kitchenware, yes, with the special block of knives, a needlepoint picture of snowy mountains done by his late mother as a young woman, also a few old pieces of furniture, hand-me-down stuff dry and cracked from standing long years in the sunshine in relatives’ apartments.
Old stuff for a new country—to her it didn’t make sense but Jorge insisted. It would cost the earth, he said, beginning a new home in New York from scratch.
Evelina wished Jorge was here now to give the encouragement his bright face always sparked in her, not that she ever let on. She didn’t want to raise second thoughts in his mind. She didn’t want him to know how scared she could get. With his big voice, his big muscles, his strong stride—nothing gave him a way of understanding this tremble now in her hands.
Perhaps it wasn’t wise for him to have gone ahead, she thought, though she had pressed him to go, so that he’d believe in her. It wasn’t wise, too, that she hadn’t yet let out her flat, her little home in the big city with its panadería downstairs and the outdoors gym painted in rainbow colours across the street. Would she, would they, be able to find anything so well-set-up in New York?
Right now Jorge was staying in some cheap hotel trying to find them a new home. They’d talked through every detail. He’d said he’d get in touch as soon as something worked out but he hadn’t yet called. She wished he’d called. She told herself he was waiting for her—waiting for this plane out there now on the runway, waiting for her to arrive in it, to come to New York to be with him and make a new home. She knew he would tell her everything then.
Home! Evelina looked around at the familiar purple sky beyond the window, and, closer at hand, the children in their flip-flop chanclas, two small boys this time kicking an empty drink carton back and forth, the little girls had disappeared. She looked at the shiny stickers of saints on the menu board over the coffee machine, and the two old men in crisp polo shirts talking at the exit, gesticulating just the same as they would meeting in a park in town.
Already these things were starting to look flat, two-dimensional and flat, as though they were already receding from view. Soon, within an hour or so, they would be pushed into the far distance by the whoosh of the aircraft, and then, tomorrow, by Jorge and his dreams, Jorge whom she really liked and thought she could soon, very soon, begin to love.
Jorge, she thought, and saw him sitting again in front of her with his hair tumbling over his forehead just as he had sat right there across the table at this exact coffee place those weeks ago at this exact time, give or take, the two icy red aperitivos standing untouched between them. He had bought them como una celebración, he said, to mark the start of their big adventure together.
Jorge’s pale eyes in his bronze face searching hers for some sign of reassurance, she could feel the pull in them, and she had told herself silently sitting there with her hand in his that she would see him again soon, in only a couple of months, seven or so weeks, though it felt a lot longer. And she had wished, still silently, it didn’t feel so long.
‘The planes for North America always leave around now, in the evening,’ he had told her, following her eyes watching the departure boards. ‘So that when you arrive es un nuevo día, the start of a new day.’
He had been making conversation, she could tell, thinking she knew these facts, but she hadn’t really known these things. She knew nothing. She worked in tourism but she had never yet left the country, not in her whole life, not once.
All she did know was that every day around nightfall, wherever she was, she felt a pull to go home so strong it upset her to resist it. She had felt the pull then waiting in this café with him. She felt it now.
But how could she have told him this? It would have sounded like doubt. It would have given him second thoughts. Yet all she wanted right now, today, even on this day of her departure, was to be in her flat and draw the curtains and scrunch up in a corner of her armchair with a cup of something warm. She thought of her armchair, the red one her mother had given her, the armchair that right now, unbelievably, was making its way across the sea squeezed in a crate alongside Jorge’s stuff.
‘Now promise me,’ he had urged that evening, his forehead shining like a lamp. ‘When the day arrives, just lock up the flat, and come. We’ve sent everything ahead that we need. I’ll be at the other end, remember, waiting for you. I’ll take you back to our apartamento, the one I’ll have got for us. We will start our new life. We’ll marry as soon as. I’ll begin straightaway to get our paperwork in order.’
And Evelina had waved him off, watching him descend down the long escalator, blowing kisses, till all she could see was his waving hand, and then, nothing. She had stood a while longer, in case he popped back into view. It was like him to step back, to give one last kiss, one last wave. But he hadn’t. So, when she was sure he was gone, she had slipped down to the café in arrivals and ordered herself a coffee. Her mouth had been dry from something she couldn’t place, though she knew it wasn’t sadness.
Evelina now bought a second coffee, a takeaway, and wondered about going downstairs for a while, to the arrivals hall. It was still ages before the flight. But then she sat down once more at the same table in the seating area, and pushed her used cup and saucer over to the edge, to make room. She sipped her coffee and looked around at all the familiar things, the stickers of the saints, the stainless steel bar, the children in their chanclas kicking and running. No one seemed to notice she hadn’t paid the drink-in extra. No one bothered about her sitting here at all.
Evelina checked her watch and tucked her chin deeper into her cretonne scarf. The sky beyond the viewing window was dark now and the evening cool settling in, even here in this air-conditioned space, but there was still plenty of time. Coming to the airport so early she had left plenty of time. She had shifted now from the departures coffee shop to a row of angled chairs alongside it. There was more than enough time still to go through security and buy a bottle of water and an eye-mask at the other end, as Jorge had instructed.
‘On the plane you make your own refugio, your own night capsule,’ he had said. ‘You tuck up in your seat and pull your blanket tight and close your eyes, and then, before you know it, you’ve arrived, you’re there.’
‘I know you,’ he’d also said, just before he left, swallowing his aperitivo in one gulp and glaring in that unblinking way he had when he was concentrating. ‘Don’t sit around and think or you’ll never be able to get away. Take your bag and walk straight through to the gates.’
Pressing her legs together and pulling her coat hem to her knees—her coat against the New York winter—Evelina tried now to bring his face into the very centre of her memory, to hold his image there so she could believe again in everything he had told her, in her new life in New York together with her handsome, savvy fiancé, believe in the restaurant business he would set up there, in a city full of restaurants.
But though he had sat across that table only a month or so ago the main thing she remembered was the pale eyes burning in his tanned face, that and what he said about the nuevo día.
When she arrives it will be the start of a new day.
Easier was detail from further back, the funny way his curly hair blew across his forehead when they went out cycling on Sundays, and their picnics in parks all over the city, and the food he liked to prepare, the curried eggs and spicy beef salads that were his speciality, the plastic dishes of food spread out along with his metal mate pot on her printed cloth on the grass.
She remembered their first date, at a rival steak restaurant to his, away from the centre, and the lovely loose feeling in her limbs that his energetic talk gave her, the pictures he painted of hiking in Patagonia, and seeing a mountain leopard, and then his dream of setting up a steak restaurant on 5th Avenue. These details felt like just days ago.
Clearest was the very first time of course, that startling and magical day when they had first met. There he had stood at the city event for young entrepreneurs, talking and making gestures with his big arms. She had worked through the exhibition hall looking for him, trawling up and down the aisles, and found him at last standing beside a poster that showed a steak jugoso in gleaming close-up, handing out leaflets, his fine wide face shining like a bronze mask.
Earlier, she had been at her post at the exhibition hall entrance just beyond the sliding doors and he had passed her. She was in her brown and orange tourist-board uniform checking nametags and handing out convention maps. She had given him a map and he had been the only one to say gracias, politely, looking her in the eye.
She found his stall by remembering the number on his tag. For her whole break she stood and looked at him from beside a pillar. She had never seen anyone with so open a face, so confident and shining a look, the kind of face you’d travel halfway across the world to see again.
On his way out he caught her eye for a second time and she smiled.
‘I saw your talk,’ she said.
He wrote her number on the company card she gave him and called the very next morning, just before nine.
Their first date was that Friday and they had got to know each other quickly after that. He had taken her to film festivals all over the city to see the old Argentinian films, BA a la vista, Rápido, La casa del ángel. She liked the dusty smells of the art house cinemas. She had only ever gone to big movie theatres before, with Enrico and his friends.
When Jorge proposed he had taken her back to the exhibition hall entrance, to the exact spot where she had stood and given him her number. It was a windy day and old leaflets and other rubbish bowled about their feet.
Later, he said he’d invited a saxophonist friend to come and play them background music from Rápido there on the steps but the guy hadn’t shown up. Who knows why? Jorge shrugged. Perhaps he hadn’t given him enough money for the cab.
But it hadn’t bothered her. She had her ring, she had his declaración. She assured him she preferred a proposal involving just the two people themselves.
Her father was more scornful and probably she shouldn’t have told him. It wasn’t his business. And yet she had blurted it out, there at her send-off party, the dulce de leche squeezing out of the pastry in his hand. And straightaway of course he harrumphed something about young men who thought too much about their grooming and too little about their bank balance. Which was unfair, she knew.
But she’d kept quiet, she’d said nothing in Jorge’s defence. She’d merely turned her eyes away from Papá eating his oozing factura and remembered the Chinese burns he used to give her and Enrico as children, when they were naughty.
‘See how much you want to stick to your silliness,’ he’d say, wringing their arms like a rag, twisting harder if they squeaked.
‘People go to New York and become anything they want, dancers, directors, professors, even princesses,’ Jorge had said those weeks ago over their untouched aperitivos. ‘It doesn’t matter if you come from los confines de la tierra, New York makes dreams come true.’
‘Sueños,’ he had said, cupping one hand like a scale. ‘Realidad,’ he had added, holding up the other.
She had looked hard then into his pale eyes. She saw in them excitement and hope. She saw the shape of the New York skyline. She would have liked to see something more, a little fear perhaps, so they could talk about that together. But Jorge’s eyes were the eyes of a man who would forge ahead and press on regardless of what setbacks he might meet, who would build his dreams in the streets of New York even if he didn’t have an Evelina to support him.
She jumped up now in a sudden impulse of horror, her coat falling to the ground. Jorge forging on without her, she couldn’t bear to think of it. She must go through with this now, fly away or else! Or these extremities of the earth would swallow her up. Jorge had the power to save her. Jorge would fold her in his arms and make new things possible. He had hope enough for two. Her chance lay in his hands, no, in his hands and her hands. Tomorrow morning she would be with him, pressed to his side, travelling with him on the subway into the heart of New York. But getting there depended on her, on getting herself on that flight. That was it with fretting. She could lose everything this way. Her chance lay here in her hands.
She picked up her bags and saw there was still time, un poco, a bit of time. She checked her watch against the digital clock on the departures board and made her way over to the viewing window. She wanted one last look at the familiar sky, the familiar line of hills still discernible above the distant city, the planes with their illuminated windows ascending and descending. If she put it off now, she would not see it again for years.
The tannoy announced that the flight gate was open. Evelina turned from the viewing window and saw the clear bubble of the telephone booth on the near wall. She didn’t want to see the booth but once she had seen it she couldn’t forget it. One last thing she really had to do, this is what it was telling her.
Jorge hadn’t called though he’d said he would, so now she would call him. Surprise, surprise, she would make a joke of it, laughing lightly. Sorpresa, little did you think! At the airport, where else? Just to say—this time tomorrow, our nuevo día, we’ll be on our way home, beginning our new life together.
But what if there was no home, no new apartamento? What if their papers had been refused? She’d heard nothing. She put down her bags at the booth and checked the slip in her passport, the numbers he had given her, first his friend in the steakhouse business, and then his father’s colleague’s nephew. He’d be staying with either the one or the other, whoever had space.
‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ he’d said. ‘For a few days I won’t have a phone.’
But he hadn’t called. And it was weeks, not days. She didn’t doubt him but still he hadn’t called. Evelina felt suddenly empty, cavernous. She felt the great dark seas that separated them wash over her heart.
No, she thought, no, and reached suddenly for the back of the chair closest to her, the rough woollen shoulder of the gentleman sitting in it.
Somebody then took her arm and guided her to a nearby counter.
‘You look very pale,’ the attendant at the counter said. ‘Look, why not give me your bags? I can help you to your gate.’
‘Let me take a moment,’ Evelina heard herself say in a composed voice. The cold steel edge of the counter pressing into her palm gave her comfort. It was like holding onto a raft.
‘I was trying to make a call but somehow it didn’t work,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get through. Maybe I don’t have the right number.’
The last call for her flight, for the second time they were calling out her name, Evelina, Evelina, as if they were welcoming her. She was on her way, she really was. She had worked in the travel business and now she was a traveller, too. She had made it through security and passport control. Her documents were here in her left hand, slid inside her travel company’s own white plastic folder. The folder was her goodbye present from her colleagues, that and a smart purse containing a nail-care kit. Had she remembered to pack the purse? She wanted to check but as she made to bend down she caught sight of the gate number there ahead of her, silver numbers on a blue screen, and a flight attendant waving. There was no one else about, theirs was the last plane out, she was the last passenger to arrive. She was almost at the gate. Now it was just the flight bridge to go and then they’d seal the great aeroplane door behind her. She really was on her way. Tomorrow she’d be with Jorge in New York, riding the subway with him as they somehow had never done here in their own city, pressing herself to his side.
Jorge, she could see his pale eyes burning in his bronze face—his face like a mask sometimes, polished, shining. She tried to imagine him waving at her like the flight attendant was waving, waving across the great dark seas that stretched between here and New York. She made herself see the moving waters as if from high up in the dark sky, from the plane she would soon be flying in, soaring above those black waves she had so recently felt curling around her heart. From here up high, her seatbelt pressing into her lap, she could see, peering down, the stars reflected in the dark waters, and the lights of the city shimmering at their edge, and, though it was still night, the black arrow of the plane’s shadow rushing across the moving, churning sea.
No Friend But The Mountains
by Behrouz Boochani
translated by Omid Tofighian
Reviewed by HOA PHAM
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, playwright and activist whose book, No Friend But the Mountain was written by text message over a couple of years on Manus Prison. The resulting work is a powerful, readable memoir with poetry that is a searing indictment of the offshore detention regime. His other works of documentation include writing for The Guardian, a play ‘Manus‘, and a film ‘Chauka, please Tell us the Time‘.
Behrouz’s Boochani’s choice of words describing Manus Island as a prison is deliberate as is the positioning of his book by his translator, Omid Tofighan, as more than just refugee literature. Tofighan sees the work as part of a tradition of prison literature, which includes Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, a memoir from Auschwitz. As well, he considers it to be transnational literature in nature.
Like Frankl, Behrouz has chosen to resist the oppressive system of the prison thus retaining his humanity in the face of inhumane acts. For instance he withdraws from the community of the prison and craves solitude. He chooses activism and to maintain an intellectual life with artistic pursuits regardless of his surroundings. He is a keen observer of what is around him and much of the book consists of his detailed descriptions of his fellow inmates.
Behrouz terms the socio-political order of Manus Prison the Kyriarchal System in which prisoners are set up to hate each other and the power of Australia’s industrial colonial complex which is made apparent through the hierarchy of the Australian guards, officials, and the local Papu (Papua New Guinean) guards.
Behrouz Boochani describes what happens to prisoners individually, a piece of meat with a mind, where daily routine is meaningless. Memories of childhood emerge and the mind turns in on itself, he reflects. This happens to Behrouz when he in a moment of respite, climbs onto the roof of the prison and remembers his war torn childhood. He does not know who he is anymore nor does he know what he will become.
The Kyriarchal system drives one to collapse and demise. Boochani reveals the state of his mind and his suffering through poetry which punctuates the written text. The poetry brings a sense of immediacy to the work and intimacy with Behrouz’s experiences. However, one wonders what has been lost in translation especially after reading Tofighan the translator’s notes which refer to the Kurdish literary traditions Behrouz draws from, which are unfamiliar to most Australians. His prose in English is simple and direct; the descriptions evoke details that horrify in a matter of fact way.
Creativity, Boochani feels, is one of the only ways to resist the Kyriarchal system. He chooses art and literature, feeling it is the best way to depict the horror of Manus Prison.
Behrouz Boochani tells a tale of two islands. One is Australia where the settlers are imprisoned. The other is Manus Prison where the incarcerated refugees’ minds are creative and free. Behrouz comments in the notes that all Manus prisoners have evolved into creative beings, a transformation that is remarkable. Boochani writes of one of the prisoners, Maysam the Whore, who sings and dances every night in the prison:
“Someone who is so brave and so creative; he flexes these attributes through his muscles, muscles he uses to challenge The Kyriarchal System of the prison. He employs a beautiful form of rebellion that has enormous appeal for the prisoners. A man with boyish features who uses them to peddle poetry and to satirise all the serious aspects of the forlorn prison. The spirit of Maysam The Whore contrasts with the desert of solitude and horror of the prison. This is like a reward for the prisoners; a gift in the form of a collective response, a collaborative effort among men who have been banished.” (Kindle Locations 2244-2248).
Tofighan describes the work as horrific surrealism with psychoanalytical tendencies. The characters described by Behrouz are amalgams of real refugees. They tap into archetypes such as Our Golshiftel (the Mother,) Maysam the Whore (trickster and entertainer,) the Smiling Youth, and the Gentle Giant. Only the latter two are given names, at their times of death in the narrative, Hamid and Reza respectively.
The beauty of the prose and poetry of this work uplifts what is terrible subject material. Somehow it manages to impart the best of humanity through Behrouz’s eyes, and the communal ability to survive horrific circumstances. The acts of kindness and brotherhood exhibited by the prisoners to each other are preciously detailed. He says of a prisoner, Reza, who offers mangoes to others despite the Kyriarchal System:
“The Gentle Giant challenges this way of thinking with his childlike generosity. He confronts them with a different way of being, he offers them new horizons, access to a better reality.” (Kindle Locations 3628-3629).
Tofighan questions whether empathy can ever truly be achieved through literature. I believe that Behrouz’s words do create empathy and illustrates the truth of offshore detention.
In No Friend But the Mountain, Behrouz Boochani wishes to hold a mirror to the system, dismantle it and produce a historical record of it. Boochani has certainly depicted the inhumanity of Manus Prison. By documenting and publishing he has produced a historical record. The transfer of men for medical reasons from Manus by the Morrison government has been delayed till at least February so it is yet to become history; it is still very much part of the present suffering for the men left behind. This document pays testimony to their plight and experiences and one hopes it will become history sooner rather than later.
Boochani, Behrouz. ‘A Kyriarchal System: New Colonial Experiments / New Colonial Resistance‘
Boochani, Behrouz. No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018. Kindle Edition.
HOA PHAM is an award-winning Vietnamese Australian author who lives in Melbourne. Her latest book is Our Lady of the Realm.
All My Goodbyes
by Mariana Dimópulos
translated by Alice Whitmore
ISBN : 9781925336412
Reviewed by Jeffrey Errington
In 1907 after living and writing in Europe since he was a young man, Henry James, aged a pinch below 60, sat down at his desk in New York and decided that that writing a novel was like looking through a self-made aperture of a “million-windowed” mansion. Inside was society’s dirty secrets and the position of the viewer glaring at these peccadillos was to frame its revelation. For Argentinian novelist and translator Mariana Dimópulos the house of fiction has become a rotting abode in a decrepit suburb. Not a stately Victorian home but a grotto; one flipped inside out to reveal yellowed bones grafted on as exoskeletons. Europe is stagnating. In All My Goodbyes, the main character’s (who remains unnamed for the entire novel) is listening to her boyfriend give:
“..extremely valid reasons (valid because they were his) why I should continue living in that den of European traditionalism, with its 500-year-old houses and its balconies dripping with flowers. He mentioned books, the peace and quiet, the university. If you found it hard to think, you could just head to the forest or to Italy, which served as something of a last resort for all melancholy Germans. The age of travelling the world and marvelling at other people’s poverty was over. And yet he still felt the weight of an entire continent on his shoulder” (p. 87).
She has no such weight and so moves like a leaf down a windswept strabe. She is the Antipodean answer to the centre, unweighted by its shifting traditions. Her character arrives in a Europe to find, disappointingly, that that culture has long been exhausted. She looks through the window, winces and chooses to voice no response, and moves right along.
All My Goodbyes is a short novel where the nameless main character wishes to escape Argentina to Europe. In the Continent she enters into a peripatetic existence, almost as if she were trapped in sleepwalking and returns to Argentina and then to the far south of Patagonia where she becomes embroiled in a brutal axe murder. Dimópulos’s touch-stone writer seems to be Thomas Bernhard and she has mastered and extended the Bernhardian mode: the controlled raving is accented and solidified by a non-linear ordering of the chronology, giving the structure a Cubist presentation. Her mastery is apparent as the reader is never confused as to where in the chronology the action is occurring. This structure relieves the characters of the burden of time as the Cubist narrative does not progress towards the final act (the killing of her lover and her lover’s mother) but the scenes are broken up and then grouped thematically. The structure of Dimópulos’ language supports the complexity of her protagonist’s crossing of European borders. A recognisable refrain in the syntax of the novel is heard when the final clause of a sentence or paragraph cancels out the truth that was asserted by its opening subject. The following examples illustrate this self-contradicting parataxis:
“They asked me for help and I told them there was no way I was going into the sea to rescue their horrible ball. That last bit is a lie. Nobody ever asked me anything” (p. 19).
“I could cross over to one side and say one thing and then cross over to the other side and believe the exact opposite.” (p. 31)
“It’s not true that we leave a place when the future is adorned with beautiful visions of faraway travels. We leave one morning, the morning after any given evening or the afternoon after any given midday, just when we’d decided to stay forever.” (p. 84).
“He removed his scarf, tied it around my next. We hugged and I promised him so many things: that I’d come back, that I loved him, all of them lies.” (p. 114).
One of the main character’s various jobs is at IKEA. Here she finds Europe in its purest form: sterile, easy to digest, useful and entirely supported by the labour of non-Europeans – a place where people go for the “narcotic” effects of a state of “pleasantness” (p. 42). It’s ironic that she is working here because IKEA represents the very thing that she wants to avoid – usefulness: “Being useful is of no use to me” (p. 14.) To deepen the irony, in a country where the language is not her own, she simply exists and language no longer serves a purpose. When she works in a German bakery she is frequently agitated as her German vocabulary is riddled with gaps, leading to misunderstanding between her and the boss, and the customers. This leads to her not knowing the German word for “jar” and her trying to break one in frustration but the jar rolls along the floor and still doesn’t break. So that “[a]t that moment, more than ever, I despise the Germans’ world-famous quality-assurance standards” (p. 91). Her constant movement is to avoid the pressure to perform a pejorative and menial task, which has been forced upon her both because of her Argentinian heritage and her gender. Without this language ability she comes across to all Germans as someone with no inner life. She pushes back as, “my tongue, as we all know, was still asleep in its Spanish dream” (pp. 62-63).
What she seems to be searching for is a community that is based on recognition. A place where the people recognise and accept her. Europe does not recognise her according to this logic. And she can not find it at home in Argentina either. In the wilds of Patagonia her identity exists in a state of perpetual flux as she is not even sure if she herself was not the one who used the axe to hack apart her lover Marco and Marco’s mother, Lady Dupin. Perhaps she is guilty, perhaps not. She certainly, like Ivan Karamazov, feels an ideological guilt for the crime that occured. Saying goodbye is her ideology, even if it means accommodating the death of her lover to render this scene impossible for her to re-enter, either in time or space. She accepts no responsibility for any one and she asks for none in return. She will never have the community that she longs for as she accepts that she has nothing in common with anyone else. She barely has anything in common with herself. She only accepts that her lover has become truly unknown when he can only become expressed in the past-tense:
“I never saw any of them again. I never spoke to any of them again, never replied to any of their messages. I put an end to them all, I didn’t leave a trace, didn’t feel a trace of remorse. There are all my crimes: all my goodbyes” (p. 140).
All My Goodbyes is an astonishing novel. It situates itself to the novel and to Europe with a level of sophistication that is, sometimes, lacking in Australian fiction. The translation of this novel by Giramondo contributes to the Australian literary ecosphere, and is to be celebrated. Particular mention must go to the translator, Alice Whitmore. Whitmore has successfully shepherded this novel from its Spanish language mode into an English language mode while maintaining the prose’s Spanish language strangeness. She does this by maintaining a near pitch-perfect tone throughout.
JEFFREY ERRINGTON recently finished his PhD in English at the University of Adelaide. He has previously been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Jacket Magazine.
Mosaics from the Map
by Robyn Rowland
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
In 2015, Robyn Rowland published two books which seemed to be career-defining moments for her. They were the bilingual This Intimate War: Gallipoli/Chanakkale 1915 (originally with Five Island Press in Melbourne and now republished by Spinifex) and Line of Drift (with Doire Press in Galway). Between them they illustrated Rowland’s long and developing involvement with Ireland and Turkey as well as with her native Australia. Her new book, Mosaics from the Map, again from Doire Press in Galway, continues these themes and operates at the same high level of achievement.
It also reminds us of Rowland’s considerable and growing dexterity with the demands of the long poem and of poetic sequences. Both of the two 2015 books had several such poems and sequences and this one has even more. By “long” I mean poems of two or three pages plus, as opposed to half-page or one-page lyrics — or sonnets, for that matter. The risks of long poems, of course, are that they lose compression, one of poetry’s key ingredients, and can tend towards prose (even if written in strict metre). In Mosaics from the Map, Rowland has avoided these problems rather well.
There are several strategies by which she manages this, of which the most important are probably the depth of her research and her passionate identification with the subject matter. Her poems here are long because there is so much that the poet’s readers need to be aware of in order to have a sufficient comprehension of the issue.
Mosaics from the Map is divided into four sections: an introductory miscellany with several poems set in Turkey; a second biographical one focussed on the aviators Alcock and Brown; a third mainly set in Bosnia during the 1990s wars and a fourth with Australian and family references.
It may be instructive to look at one long poem from each section. The first we encounter is “Titanic — A Very Modern Story”. It’s made up of nine long-line stanzas re-telling the now well-known story of the famous 1912 shipwreck. It begins with an epigraph from a survivor, Jack B. Thayer, who surmised that “the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.”
Rowland cleverly begins every stanza with a short word or phrase to illustrate this modernity — and to emphasise all the elements of the story which have kept it relevant. “It has heroics,” she begins and goes on to talk of the radio operator, Jack Phillips, “in the Marconi wireless room /without windows” who “kept sending signals in perfect Morse”.
“It’s ‘local’,” Rowland continues in stanza two and talks about the Irish element in the story, particularly a survivor’s marriage “smothered in a deathly hush”, a husband now “shamed for his survival, /yet he’d seen so many off safe and who wouldn’t jump for a boat?”
Rowland continues in this way in subsequent stanzas covering the international dimension to the story, the role of coincidence, the role of greed in the taking of excessive risks, the sheer incompetence (“no binoculars in the crows’ nest so only fifty seconds between spotting the berg and hitting it”), the weather of the night itself (“sky jammed tight with an excess of stars”), the immediate aftermath (the rescue ship, the “Carpathian”, “a ship of widows”) and the longer-term, rather trivialising aftermath (the heroic band-leaders’ violin selling in 2013 for “one million pounds”).
Rowland’s metre, an important part of the poem, is somewhere between iambic or trochaic hexameter and free verse, an intriguing decision which risks clumsiness but in fact maintains a kind of continuity while keeping the reader’s ear guessing.
The whole poem is clearly “documentary” in intent, e.g. the facts in the Carpathia’s “loading 710 left alive from the 2200 who boarded”, and yet it’s also shot through with lyrically descriptive, if disturbing, passages such as: “The dead clustered in their / white lifebelts like flapping seagull wings in the lapping waves”. The Titanic story has been often told, usually in prose and at much greater length, but Rowland has made the event even more poignant, while at the same time somehow foreshadowing the wastage that was to occur in the conflict about to begin just over two years later.
Mosaic’s second section, “Sky Gladiatorials” is a sequence of six poems about the careers of the aviators Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown who made their reputation in World War I and then became the first to fly across the Atlantic non-stop in 1919.
The sequence starts, characteristically for Rowland who is always keen to look beyond the “received” imperial account of events, with her poem, “The Other Side of Things”. It begins from Alcock’s point of view in 1917 as he flies over Constantinople, “A city lovely in both poetry and Churchill’s dreams …” The rest is from the viewpoint of the nine-year old Turkish boy, Irfan Orga, who looks up to see “three planes appear. / He never saw such a thing, wings and whirring. He wishes / he could fly.” Then we are shown the “cartloads of lolling heads, limbs akimbo, disconnected flailing stumps and the surprised wounded …” The poem ends with a resonant couplet: “This was the first bomb. They meant to hit the war office but the bombs went wide, a man said. No-one believed him.”
The next poem in the sequence, “High, Higher: Alcock” begins again from Alcock’s point of view above the “mat of minarets / and domes” and goes on to describe the rest of his and Brown’s war experience, “knowing we made a difference, new gladiators of the sky. /We’ll win. This war will end all wars. Never again.” The irony is more than a little touching.
The third poem, “Dead Reckoning: Brown” is from Brown’s point of view above the Atlantic in 1919 and looks back over the terrors and hardships of the war, including “Fourteen months in a German camp in Claustal”. Lines like this may not sound poetic in themselves but in context they work perfectly well. It is one of Rowland’s persistent achievements that she can manage such combinations of the flat and the lyrical.
The last two poems in the sequence are concerned with Brown’s continuing PTSD (though the poet doesn’t call it that), especially during World War II in which his son, Lieutenant “Buster” Whitten-Brown was shot down on June 5/6, 1944.
Part three of Mosaics from the Map consists entirely of “War. What is it Good For?”, a nine-poem sequence set in mainly in Sarajevo in the wars of the 1990s. It emphasises the pointlessness of the conflict, the internal opposition in Belgrade to the war and its unrelenting savagery. The sequence is varied and hard to summarise but its tone and texture can be sampled perhaps with a few lines from the viewpoint of a woman in Sarajevo after the widely-reported bread queue massacre on May 27, 1992. “The knee is smooth, lovely in its meniscus-shaped curve, / thigh pale from lack of sunshine close to the torso, / and the foot, its cardboard tag, five toes pointing towards / the sun, surprised almost, caught off guard.”
It is this kind of evocative detail which takes Rowland’s apparently “political” poetry well beyond the limitations of partisanship. Although her long lines often have a rhetorical feel they are far removed from the self-interested rhetoric of the third-rate politicians who bring such damage about.
The final section of Mosaics from the Map is dominated by the sequence, “Touchstones”, in which Rowland re-creates the lives of some of her Irish ancestors, particularly her great great-grandmother, Annie Harding Lambert (1880- 1957), and the successive ravages inflicted on them by scarlet fever or scarlatina, as it was sometimes called. It’s an extended familial tribute that quite a few Australian poets (including this reviewer) have felt compelled to make over the years. And it’s always interesting to see where the emphasis is put, which maternal or paternal line is traced back and which ignored or deferred.
The “Touchstones” sequence begins with “Family Catalogue August 1880” which delineates the social and political context in Ireland when Annie was born. Several of the subsequent poems are written in the voice of Annie. The eighth poem is in the voice of her son, John, and remembers that his mother “preferred being close to a harbour, a beach, / or a river. Said her soul always rested near moving water. // On her papers they call her settler. But she never was.”
Rowland’s admiration for her great great-grandmother — and the resilience she embodied — is clear and the poet’s sustained portrait of her times more than convincing.
Significantly, in the sequence’s ninth poem, “Postscript”, Rowland makes her divided feelings for Ireland and Australia quite explicit: “I am everywhere and nowhere, longing pulses / inside the green whispering in my blood. Belonging, exile — the seesaw. / That word home — it draws itself out like a skewer.”
GEOFF PAGE is an award-winning poet and critic. His most recent collection is Hard Horizons, 2017. He edited The Best Australian Poems (2014 and 2015)
by Susan Hawthorne
Reviewed by MEL O’CONNOR
In counterpoint to how these histories have been silenced and extinguished, Susan Hawthorne, in Dark Matters, testifies to the horrifying reality of abduction and torture of lesbians—especially outspoken activist lesbians, such as Kate, the central character of the text.
This is not a quiet novel, of implications and subtlety: it is designed to upset, as human rights have been historically upset by happenings such as these. Kate is stolen from her home by men who brutalise her, in particular by attempting to ‘convert’ her to heterosexuality. Only after Kate’s death are her fragmented writings and journals from the time of her incarceration discovered by her niece, Desi, who attempts to organise and interpret them for a university research project. Dark Matters as a work lies somewhere between the research project Desi creates, and a charter of Desi’s reflections on Kate’s experiences.
Of the many notable features of Dark Matters, Hawthorne’s style is perhaps the most immediate: from her lack of descriptors on dialogue to the visceral empathy she evokes in her practised prose-poetic voice, her expertise is ever-present. In some ways, the text wars between genres—prose poetry, horror, and speculative fiction all have elements present—but it is poetry that the work most resounds with. Hawthorne employs recurrent symbols, and recalls found artefact poems, such as poetry in lines running back and forth (p5), stream-of-consciousness rhapsodising (p13), and free associative Latin, where the language runs as rampant as the wolf Kate envisions herself as. In step with prose poetry, the use of space is deliberately selective; Dark Matters swims, framing fragments as verse. When Kate’s poetry—or Desi’s found artefacts—occupy the work, they dance down the page (p29):
dance dance dance
dance the trata in your
red white and black garb
dive down dive down
dance dance dance
dance the trata
for bread and pomegranate
dance as we have
as is carved
on the tomb
` of the dancing women
dance a zigzag
dance the weave of a basket
dance the stars and spirals
The writing is alive and evocative—a distinctly lesbian call to motion in the style of prose poetry.
Further supporting a prose poetic angle, Hawthorne’s leitmotifs are hypnotising, not least of them the character of Mercedes. Kate’s lover before she was abducted, Mercedes’s perspective bookends the work, and indeed, she is a beacon throughout the text—“I will fill my mind with Mercedes” (p18), writes Kate, her “Querida Mercedes” (p37)—an icon of desire and desperation from page to page. This memory-Mercedes secures Kate to her identity, even throughout her torture, because Mercedes is concrete proof of Kate’s identity as a lesbian—something her abductors are desperate to erase and destroy.
Another leitmotif is the figure of the eagle. Tellingly, it is from Mercedes’s point of view that this creature is first seen—“My eagle swoops into view” (p1)—but it is Kate who recalls this eagle in her trauma, imagining her “arms growing wings. Wings of heavy metal … Too frail to fly” (p17). Throughout her incarceration, Kate grapples for symbols such as this, coding them into her being. This is her means to survive amidst the nightmare of her life (p50):
Aaaagh. I vomit. I shake./I shake and I sprout feathers. I take off and soar: a wedge-tailed eagle. I leave this horror behind.
There is a visceral empathy embedded deep in this, as there is through all of the work. Usually, it stems from Desi’s ignorance as a narrator. When Desi writes “This page fell out and I can’t figure out where it goes” (p114), or “I wish Kate had been a Virgo because then I’d have some chance of following her schema” (p20), it is heartbreaking—Kate is literally silenced by Desi’s lack of knowledge or understanding, symbolic of how lesbians throughout history have been silenced by a lack of knowledge or understanding on a much larger scale. But here in particular, the empathy for Kate is born out of a sense of injustice to her situation, and a sympathy to her desperate wish for escapism.
The eagle resounds both forward and behind in the text, tethered to Kate’s “Codex psapphistra” (p148): Desi writes, “She describes a range of animals from a lesbian-centric point of view. She is creating a universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre” (p148). Kate—by her Greek name, Ekaterina—moors herself to her Greek history. Because of this, Dark Matters bleeds with heavy Greek interplay. Kate’s obsession with the Muses and with Psappha may unmoor a reader not well-versed in this history. However, as Kate is herself unmoored, this decision is deliberate; the impact is viscerally sympathetic, rather than alienating.
Similarly, Kate, her physical and emotional boundaries under assault, wars between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ attitudes to her situation—the micro, an intrinsic desperation for herself alone, and the macro, a selfless agony for the thousands of lesbians like her. On a personal level, she writes: “There I am, still strapped in, covered by their hate. I cry and cry” (p51)—on a societal level, she writes: “I cry. I cry for all. For all the women. For all the lesbians” (p52). For Kate, this is another means of survival—she reminds herself of the bigger picture in order to stay strong and silent, refusing to give information to her abductors, knowing how much is at stake. She is painfully aware of how much her incarceration represents (pp109-112):
The boundaries between my flesh and theirs. They have violated those boundaries. They have violated me. And through me, as they know, they are symbolically violating every other lesbian on this planet … Lines of self. Lines of the other. They rip through the lines.
Inevitably, little by little, her resolve crumbles, her psyche under attack by these invasions. Lines relating to her torture, for example, that her captors “Took [her] hands and strapped [her] to the … I cannot call it a bed” (p47, author’s ellipses), are later matched by lines recalling her time in Greece before she was incarcerated, such as “for this narrow space could not be called a bed” (p59). This second line is provided as Kate settles down with a foreign paramour. The striking similarities in expression and language between these quotes evidence how the horrors of Kate’s incarceration have contaminated her memory. The reader sees her trauma, achingly, begin to corrupt her experience of significant lesbian encounters through life, buckling her sense of lesbian identity.
To match how the boundaries of Kate’s identity are compromised and attacked, her sense of self unmoored, Hawthorne provides a ‘shredded’ story. Desi struggles to piece together the narrative—“What we have left are fragments” (p3); “It’s a giant jigsaw” (p35)—just as Kate struggles to piece together a psychic defence—“I forget who I was, who I might have been” (p169); “I have died and died and died” (p173). This wounded sense of self and community is what makes the work so unforgettable.
In a rare moment of awareness from Desi, she writes: “Dark matter is almost imperceptible. Invisible and yet it takes up space. Like a lesbian in a room full of people” (p160). Hawthorne depicts a lesbian under siege, her personhood, psychic, and personal boundaries all compromised by systems which cannot accept her. Personally, she is attacked by abduction and assault. Societally, she is diminished through prejudice and inequality. The resulting text is something profoundly important. Dark Matters is a war-cry. It is a declaration of personhood and reclamation of identity from the traumas induced by these dark histories.
MEL O’CONNOR is a Professional and Creative Writing graduate from Deakin University. Her experience is in communications and administration. She is working on her novella, a literary fiction about the animal rights scene.
Chris Andrews’ latest translation, Melodrome (2018), published here in Australia as part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes Series, is a novella by the Argentine science fiction writer, Marcelo Cohen (1951-). The author of 14 novels, 5 story collections, many essays and countless translations, Cohen is already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. He lived in Spain from 1975 to 1996, during the dictatorship in Argentina, and has been publishing fiction since the early 1980s.
In Melodrome, as in several other fictions written since he returned home, Cohen focuses on an alternative universe, the Panoramic Delta. An archipelago of loosely associated city states, it might be a near-future Argentina or a world remade in the country’s image by neoliberal capitalism and rising sea levels. Rather than improve living standards, technological and social change – including cyborgs, fly cars and a kind of telepathy called pan-consciousness – have universalised Argentina’s early 21st century experience of austerity economics. Cohen’s novella, published in Spanish as Balada (2011), concerns the aftermath of a turbulent affair between a psychoanalyst, Suano Botilecue, and his beautiful, temperamental patient, Lerena Dost. The two rekindle their relationship during a road trip in search of a folk singer-turned cult leader, Dona Munava. It’s an intriguing introduction to an author whose rich oeuvre is still largely unknown in the Anglosphere – but won’t be for long. I corresponded with Chris Andrews by email to learn more.
James Halford (JH): This is the first of your translations of Latin American writers to have been published in Australia. How did it come about?
Chris Andrews (CA): Marcelo Cohen participated in a symposium on literary translation organized by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University in 2010. I had read some of his fiction and essays before that. Ivor Indyk was one of the organizers of the symposium, so he met Marcelo there. When Balada was published in 2011, Marcelo sent me a copy. I read it and really liked it; I found it haunting. Some years later, in 2016, I think, Ivor was invited to visit Argentina, and met up with Marcelo again. When he came back, he asked me if I would translate Balada for Giramondo, and I said yes. So it came about in a circuitous and rather slow way.
JH: Would it be fair to say Cohen’s work hasn’t yet been widely translated? How did you first encounter his writing and what attracted you to bringing it into English?
CA: I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps because it’s quite tricky to translate, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. I first encountered it in the book of stories La solución parcial (The Partial Solution), which is a kind of selected stories, published in Spain in 2003. Although the stories predate the construction of the Delta Panorámico, they are part of what Cohen calls a “fantastic sociology”: they’re set in a future world where social, political and technological conditions are at least initially unfamiliar to the reader. What attracted me was that within this speculative frame, Cohen was always interested in capturing and transmitting sensations, feelings and emotions.
JH: Cohen has an extensive back catalogue. Why did you choose Melodrome as an introduction to his work?
CA: Well, as I said, I really liked it, and Ivor Indyk is particularly interested in short novels and novellas (he has a series entitled Shorts). That’s an aesthetic interest, but translation is an extra cost in publishing, a cost proportional to length, since translators are paid by the word (or the thousand words), so starting with a short book is financially prudent too.
JH: Cohen often coins neologisms for everyday objects in the Panoramic Delta – cronodión for clock which you translate as chronodeon; farphonito for mobile phone, which you translate as farfonette. What was your approach to finding English equivalents?
CA: Sometimes the objects named by the neologisms are everyday objects or relatives of things that we have and use, as in the examples you cite. And those two words were relatively straightforward to translate, because English has some cognate morphemes that I could use: chrono- for crono-, and -ette for -ito. Far in farphonito is a “translation” of the Greek-derived prefix tele- (“far off”), and I toyed with translating that component into Spanish: Lejofonette. But the result seemed too cumbersome and opaque, so I stuck with far. In other cases, it was more complex, either because the referent was not as easy to place, or because the word itself was not made up of recognizable morphemes, or for both reasons. To take just one example, at one point, Lerena thinks: “She could no doubt have found an even better position in some other company, but she couldn’t see how she would ever disguise her character well enough to stop [ningún binimucho] shrivelling up with fear.” Binimuchos must be fearful, spineless people. One thought I had was that perhaps the word referred to the opposite of a marimacho (butch woman), i.e., an effeminate man. But I wasn’t really convinced by that gendering. In the end, the “equivalent” that I came up with, more or less intuitively, was nambicle, from the adjective namby-pamby plus the diminutive suffix -icle, which we find in the names of various small body parts (testicle, cuticle, clavicle). In forging these new words, I let myself be influenced by the rhythmic context of the sentence and the paragraph, because that’s what Cohen seems to have done when writing.
JH: The translated title doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. How did you arrive at the lovely and resonant: Melodrome?
CA: Credit where it’s due: that’s the invention of Nick Tapper at Giramondo. We were looking for an alternative to Ballad, and Nick came up with Melodrome. He put it out there half playfully, but I liked it straight away, because of how it sounds and because it’s so suggestive of the book’s content. You can analyse it as the combination of two Greek roots: melos, song, and dromos, course. Most appropriate for a road trip in search of a singer. And then the book is a kind of narrative palindrome, because the way there and the way back almost coincide.
JH: Cohen is a formidable and prolific literary translator in his own right, who has produced Spanish versions of writers like J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, William Burroughs and even Henry James. Did you have any contact with him while working on your English version? What was it like translating a translator?
CA: Marcelo sent me a glossary of deltingo, that is, words he has invented for the Delta Panorámico. Many of the invented words in Melodrome are not in the glossary, but it was a real help, and a fascinating document in itself. I also asked him questions when I was approaching the end, and he helped me to clear up some doubts. In one way it’s intimidating to translate such an eminent translator, but in another way it’s reassuring: I knew that he would understand the problems that I was facing.
JH: Roberto Bolaño once said that everything he had written was a love letter or a farewell letter to his own generation. That is, the generation of Latin American writers who were born in the 1950s and had the misfortune of being young during the military dictatorships of the 1970s. César Aira and Marcelo Cohen are also of that generation. What, if anything, do these very distinct writers share?
CA: Stylistically and thematically, they don’t share much at all: each is quite different from the other two. Bolaño and Cohen shared the experience of exile in Catalunya. Bolaño is the only one of the three to have thematized the dictatorships directly, but in that he is representative of his generation, while Cohen and Aira are exceptional. Your question has made me realize something, though: all three are novelists for whom poetry is important, who go to poetry as a space where literary language is reinvented. Bolaño began as a poet (and went on writing poetry up to the last months of his life). Cohen and Aira have both written wonderfully about poetry, Cohen in his book-length essay Un año sin primavera [A Year Without Spring] and Aira in his books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Edward Lear.
JH: Historically, there hasn’t been much direct literary exchange between the Anglophone and Hispanic Souths. Even for those with an interest in Latin American writing and some language competency, it isn’t always easy to keep up to date with the Spanish-language literary scene from Australia. How do you do it?
CA: The internet has made a big difference. I read reviews in a range of places. Otra parte semanal, edited by Marcelo Cohen and Graciela Speranza, is an excellent review site with new content each week: http://revistaotraparte.com/semanal/. Another good source of news, interviews, extracts etc. is the blog published by the bookshop and publishing house Eterna Cadencia: https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog.html
JH: I also like podcasts. There’s a weekly books podcast on Radio Nacional de Argentina called Resaltadores: http://www.radionacional.com.ar/category/resaltadores/, and there’s one called Recital (it’s on the iTunes store), in which a writer chooses and reads a story by another writer: very simple, but the choices are interesting, not the same old names.
And, of course, I ask friends for recommendations.
JH: Your academic work has framed contemporary Latin American fiction as a literary laboratory – a place where experimental forms are tested. What could a deeper engagement with writing from the region offer Australian writing?
CA: I think that deeper engagement with the literary culture of any part of the non-English-speaking world is bound to enrich Australian writing, but in ways that are hard to predict because they will depend on singular encounters. Fans of Alejo Carpentier or José Donoso might hope to see Australian authors enlarging their sense of the plausible, but writers will work with what works for them, and they might be inspired instead by all the patient fieldwork and sharp listening that goes into Leila Guerriero’s narrative non-fiction. There’s no point being prescriptive in this area.
JH: Thanks very much, Chris.
Marcelo Cohen (Buenos Aires, 1951) is a widely respected and highly innovative Argentinian novelist, who has invented a distinctively South American kind of speculative fiction. In an ambitious series of novels and stories he has constructed a future world, the Panoramic Delta, in which he imagines in detail a range of changes beyond those wrought directly by technology: political, cultural and emotional. One of the most agile stylists writing in Spanish today, he is also an internationally renowned translator, critic and editor. An fundamental name in Argentinian literature of the last two decades.’— Fernando Bogado, Radar‘
CHRIS ANDREWS is a leading translator of contemporary Latin American fiction, the author of two poetry collections and a literary critic. He made his name internationally as the first English translator of the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). His translations of By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004) and Last Evenings on Earth (2006) – published in the wake of the author’s untimely death from liver failure – helped establish Bolaño as the biggest name in Latin American writing since Gabriel García Márquez. Since then, the Australian has been a translator in demand. Over the last fifteen years, he has curated an impressive reading list of Latin American fiction for English-speaking readers, much of published in the USA through New Directions. In addition to ten of Bolaño’s books, most recently the posthumous collection of short stories & ephemera, The Secret of Evil (2014), Andrews has translated nine titles by the prolific and inventive Argentine, César Aira: The Linden Tree (2018), and one by the Guatemalan surrealist, Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Severina (2014).
JAMES HALFORD is a Brisbane writer whose creative work and criticism have been widely published in Australia and abroad. He holds a literature degree and a creative doctorate from the University of Queensland, where he now teaches, and he has studied Spanish in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. The recipient of a 2016 Copyright Agency/Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship, his academic research focuses on contemporary Australian and Latin American literature in transnational reading frameworks. His first book, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies, a Latin American travel memoir, will be published in early 2019 by UWAP.
Thuy On is a freelance arts journalist and critic, who writes for a variety of publications including The Australian, The Age, The SMH, Books and Publishing and ArtsHub. She’s also the books editor of The Big Issue.
Photograph by Leah Jing
Reams of dead trees
deadlines for other peoples’ words
sunk under the pressure
of domestic detritus
I am unread and shelved
between festive seasons
a cobwebby head needing to shake
for the new year beckons
This chance to flatten the path behind
roll it up and throw it hard
watch in awe the motes falling down
blinding the dusty ways
of living and loving
a clean lingua franca
to be seared
lessons and spite
swallowed and spat out
will not be lost
on unforgiving stone
I know I know now
what to do
as a sunflower
fed from blood in loamy soil
and minerals of salty tears
I will toss my golden halo
through showerbursts and thunder.
Renga: 100 Poems
by John Kinsella and Paul Kane
Reviewed by SIOBHAN HODGE
Renga: 100 Poems is a collection over ten years in the making. Paul Kane and John Kinsella, writing in exchange via the Japanese renga form, have compiled a long-running poetic dialogue – unlike traditional renga, each poem is individually written and a response then followed by the other poet. In his foreword, Kane states:
We each had a long history with the other’s country and we both wrote out of a sense of being firmly placed in our respective locales. Moreover, many of our interests coincided, particularly in aesthetic and environmental concerns. Why not continue an hour’s conversation over an extended period – and in verse? (iv)
Despite this light-hearted opening, consistently at the forefront of these exchanges is a deep concern for the environment, documenting anxieties and innate senses of responsibility to the world. For example, one pair features a biting criticism of mining in Pennsylvania and Western Australia:
Atop one ridge in
roll steeply, starkly away.
Coal country, that first black gold.
Miners digging graves.
Here, not meth but methane kills,
as an oil rig.
Hard country, anthracite black,
with pastel clouds, slate blue sky… (Kane, “Renga 27”)
Kinsella’s reply situates similar concerns in Western Australia:
There’s a fair chance
that one of our neighbours
is furtively mining away
the valley wall: the scraping
and hammering, back and forth
of a front-end loader. His trucks
that weigh heavy on axles,
…When the valley wall gives
way, the shockwaves will spread
for acres. We’ll all hear The Fall.
But hearing is selective still:
what we hear to the point of pain
others cancel out with paeans
of praise. Who’d refuse God
in God’s own country? (Kinsella, “Renga 28”)
For both poets, the collection is a means of consolidating frustrations regarding destruction of the natural world, but the text is not exclusively eco-critical. Rather, this is an organic discussion – political and philosophical – in a revised form of epistolary poetics. This is also a collection preoccupied (in the most playful sense of the word) with the many meanings of “home”. The poetic dialogue, labelled a contribution to the pastoral eclogue genre by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in his blurb for the book, Kane and Kinsella engage in a rhythmic dialogue that doesn’t stray far from the importance of situatedness in the natural and human-impacted world. In “Renga 3”, Kane introduces some of these ruminations:
So the poet asks
“Where do we find ourselves?” as
if seeking a place
of knowing could conjugate
“to be.” I am is future
tense when now recedes.
Yet think of the paperbarks
along the Murray
wetlands, how they need an ebb
in spring floods to grow young trees:
That’s why now is moment by
moment, and why I
find myself in your country
each year, like a second home.
By the time the collection reaches “Renga 78”, notions of home have become saturated, as shown in Kinsella’s response:
Homecoming homebound homebody homebred.
Homeland homemaker homeomorphic homeless.
Homebuilt homeowner homesteader homeostatic.
Homeschooled homework homer homeland.
Homespun homemade homebrewed homeopathic.
Whatever the case, the changing light.
Whatever the case, homewardbound.
Each poem is a means of traversing geographic and philosophical distance, but connection is also multi-faceted, growing and evolving, and linked with the speakers’ abilities to traverse these spaces. Experiences of others, including Aboriginal people, are highlighted but not co-opted. Renga is an accumulation of acknowledgements of outrages – against people and the environment – accompanied by ruminations on the personal experiences of both poets, but the focus is primarily on the voices and experiences of the poets themselves. Within these layers of observation neither thought nor experience are being colonised. This is a deeply critical collection, concerned with the impacts of pollution, environmental destruction and decay.
Why select the renga form for a collection of this nature? There is no detailed discussion of why this traditional collaborative Japanese poetic form has been selected, beyond Kane’s definition: “a single entity built by accretion, like limestone, and a virtual fossil record of the multiple procedures used to construct it” (a more comprehensive and generous assessment of the form than his earlier description of it as “the little brute”!) (vi). Renga are constructed by several poets working together. Kane adheres more firmly to the form than Kinsella, who splices in a lyrical approach. Stanzas are traditionally written by alternating poets, inspired by the one preceding, but Kane and Kinsella opt instead to present individual, entire renga. A discussion of motivations for this style of adaptation, as well as poems that reflected on the impact of the renga on their dialogue and the environments they discuss, would have been welcome, particularly in this collection’s depictions of emblems of colonialism and environmental exploitation. The decision to select a traditional Japanese poetic form is situated firmly in the opportunities offered by the form, regrettably missed is the opportunity to open discussion of the historical and cultural significances of the form itself, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this act of cross-cultural world literature, a contribution which would have well suited the thematic focus of the collection. Timothy Clark observes that:
In Japan, a renga was a collective poem written according to a great number of apparently arbitrary rules, which each participant adopted from his predecessor… Renga is not primarily a poem or a theory of poetry, neither is it quite criticism; it is a situation, an experiment with the nature of poetry and language (32).
Clark surmises that the poetic form is an incorporation of Buddhist conceptions of the dissolution of the ego, reflected in “the subversion that Renga brings to any thought of property in relation to a poet’s voice” (33). However, in Renga: 100 Poems, the author of each piece is acknowledged via initials in each piece’s title. There is no subsuming of authorial agency or identity, despite what the traditional form would typically entail.
For a collection preoccupied with communicating over distance, acknowledging room for empathy without complete mirroring of experience, the renga is an ideal means of conveyance, but the form gives room to both what can and cannot be shared. In “Renga 61-67” Kane and Kinsella highlight on-going issues of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in Australia, both poets employing a series of black-white binaries deeply critical of colonialism’s “…roll call / of slavery and land claims” (Renga 66, Kinsella). However, there are no directly Aboriginal voices in this collection; Kane and Kinsella acknowledge but cannot speak for these experiences. Rather, this is a vital discussion saved for another 2018 publication, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, a superb poetic treatise and dialogue between Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella. In Renga, Kane and Kinsella echo an earlier non-Japanese interpretation of the renga as a form that constructs layers of tension and selves, demonstrated in the 1971 collection Renga: A Chain of Poems, a multi-lingual exercise by Octazio Paz, Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson and Jacques Roubaud. In this renga collection, Paz, Sanguineti, Tomlinson and Rombaud presented “multiple voices, multiple selves”, embodying Paz’s notion of “the transient, unstable, relativistic self” (Starrs, 280). Despite adhering to the conventions of the collective, communal form, both texts do not render authors’ voices anonymous. Unlike the 1971 Renga however, Kane and Kinsella’s Renga moves to thematically bridge gaps, rather than emphasise them, while also strictly avoiding any appropriation of voice.
Kane and Kinsella’s poetic responses conversationally engage with the preceding piece before taking the introduced theme in a new direction. Among the shared concerns are mortality, environmental destruction, war, shifting between and intricately connecting the personal, political and philosophical. One recurring image is fire, as in Paul Kane’s “Renga 49”:
For two days we lived
in a stinging haze of smoke
as the Gippsland fires
far away burned beyond reach.
Smoke puts everyone on edge.
The plan: fight or flight? –
that atavistic question.
The Ararat fires
ended on our mountain,
the one house given to flames.
Our Warwick neighbor,
Burning off the adjacent
field one autumn, lost
control of the blaze in wind:
we were blackened fighting it.
it’s different: fire is fiercer,
and we’d likely flee.
A house I can rebuild, but
a life? I want my own death.
And yet, we’ve ceded
so much to indifferency,
our world – no, the world – ourselves,
blackening the days ahead.
Wounded in his den,
the baited badger will kill
a dog. The snarling,
the cries, are all we’ll hear when
we, in turn, are run to ground.
Kinsella’s “Renga 50” compounds anecdotes, voices and shared experiences, coupled with grim warning. For both poets, the role of preserving place is a constant and communal threat:
The restart of the fire season:
a mushroom cloud on the first
horizon – the penultimate –
an edge not far enough for
comfort. From his fire-tower
my great-grandfather scanned
the sea of trees for that wisp:
that leader, sign you can never
over-read. I went there
as a child and did the same.
I barely remember. Maybe
he was already dead. I’ve been
talking fire all day long: poets
writing it, neighbours discussing
the risks, all our preparedness.
The firebreaks are done.
Scraped and scraped again,
looking for that second layer,
that second safer layer.
It never reveals itself.
Mostly, it’s the smell: weird
Signs of noses cocked to the air,
like some unwholesome fetish.
It’s so dry that ‘dust to dust’
would seem our mantra.
But it’s not. ‘Fire to fire’,
‘fire to fire’ is all we utter
when the water-tanks are low
and flood (should we be smitten)
could only fill the valley
enough to lap at the foot
of our place.
Urgency and threat to human life, paired with suspicion of both method and motivation, permeates both works. The two poems are emblematic of the complex relationship Kane and Kinsella have adopted with the renga form; this is a collaborative poetics in politics, embracing the traditional symbolic theory of no distinct hierarchy of voice, communal assumption of responsibility by the two speakers, rather than perfect mirroring of traditional syllabic structure. But this is also a form that intrinsically excludes voices and control; the lead poet sets the tone and theme, and the later poets must follow. Absent voices – the colonised people of the countries flagged in the collection, lands, animals – are excluded from this hierarchy by nature of the form, but not with intent to oppress. However, moves are taken ensure that these experiences are not excluded, as in Kinsella’s “Renga 64”:
… Today, the sky is wheatbelt blue.
The still leafless trees shimmer a silver-green
Of what’s to come. Premonitions.
Though it’s all black and white.
I grew up with black and white television.
We don’t watch television now
Which is said to be in colour. As is Nature.
I’ve contributed to this knowledge. This rumour.
A sense of personal culpability is incorporated into this reflection of marginalised binaries, though no direct voice is given to those oppressed groups. Throughout the collection there is pressure to revise oppressive angles, recognising destruction and destructive tendencies wherever they may appear.
In “Echolocations: An Afterword”, Kinsella addresses the thematic concerns of place, mutual concern, co-writing, and the ethics of belonging. This is a collection of “commonality amidst the difference” as “Words crosstalk, lines subscript, and yet each line is ‘intact’, a moment in a place sent across a vast distance” but not without anxieties (115). Selection of the renga style for this long-running dialogue across continents brings to the forefront the importance of shared experience rather than subsumed voice, and the need to make meaningful connection.
Timothy Clark, “”Renga”: Multi-Lingual Poetry and Questions of Place”, SubStance
Vol. 21, No. 2, Issue 68 (1992), pp. 32-45.
Roy Starrs, “Renga: A European Poem and its Japanese Model”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2017), pp. 275-304.
SIOBHAN HODGE has a Ph.D. in English literature, her thesis focused on feminist traditions in translating Sappho’s poetry. She had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, and Peril. She has won several poetry awards, including the Kalang Eco-Poetry Award in 2017, 2015 Patricia Hackett Award for poetry. Her new chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.