From Left to Right: Winnie Dunn, Shirley Le, Jo Langdon, Michelle Cahill
Our Class Fetish issue was generously supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Limited under an Editing Mentorships for Equality Grant. This support enabled us to generously pay our mentored and guest editors.
This project recognises that editorial employment opportunities in established publications are not sufficiently inclusive. The project sets an empowering precedent in partnership and exchange between organisations. We think it offers a model and a rationale for greater diversity within academic institutions, and within affiliated research organisations which have links to independent literary publishing, as well as other non-affiliated literary organisations. As Australia’s settler population continues to expand with newcomers from Asia, Africa and other countries, diversity in the publishing industry workplace and in the literary establishment is long overdue.
Structural discrimination arises because there are powerful nodes and coalitions in the industry of ideological rigidity and biopolitics. For those of us who are disenfranchised because our minor heritages and ethnicities are already marginalised, the single strength that we have to bring about change is our voice: self-determined and collective. This is a basic democratic principle.
We hope this program will inspire similar initiatives that are progressive and equitable for Australian publications and literary editors from all backgrounds.
Class Fetish: the Fiction Longlist judged by Christopher Raja
‘Newcastle’ by Caitlin Doyle Markwick
‘Cunjevoi’ by Caitlin Doyle Markwick
‘The Naming Exercise’ by Ouyang Yu
‘The BBQ’ by Carew
‘Cleansed’ by Oliver Marshall
‘An April Day in March’ by Jordon Conway
‘Splitting out the Bones’ by Jane Downing
‘Bus Driver’ by Tamara Lazaroff
‘Images at Dusk in Seletar Beach’ by Sharmini Elisabeth
‘The Ice Cream Girl’ by Maree Spratt
Judging Notes – Alice Pung
Please note all these winners are in no hierarchy of order. It was too hard to compare such disparate, excellent stories.
Spitting out the Bones
There is a fine line between slapstick-spoofing of wankers and writing incisive social commentary, and this piece walks the tightrope with rare skill. The metaphor of eating bourbon-tortured tiny birds is exquisitely sickening – a biting remark on both class and fetish. This is an original character-driven horror-story told in such wonderful turns of metaphor and simile, with the artistry of the prose never getting in the way of the plot.
An April Day
This melancholy story starts off slow, but finds its voice and it is a powerful one, filled with frustrated dreams and unarticulated trauma. The author manages to write about the concrete (the life of a manual labourer, the descriptions of sordid streets and the horrors of school) through the meandering thoughts of an old man clearly still tormented by his childhood. The prose is simple and descriptive, but very moving. The image that lingers in the mind long afterwards is the dog bleeding out in the night, somewhere.
This piece sinks its hooks in at the beginning and doesn’t let go until the final word. It illuminates the plodding pedestrian existence of a minimum wage worker without cranking up the pity notch, by contrasting her external world (sleeping on trains, frying burgers, dealing with supervisors) with her internal world (reading, merging into the ocean, noticing sea creatures). From a technical critique, this is a consummate short story that does so much with character, setting and dialogue, and achieves a triumphant and convincing closure at the end without resorting to cheap gimmicks.
What I loved about this intergenerational story was how the author focused on significantly petty details about how a person’s former class habits – for example, buying Coles ice cream on the cheap and thinking that Copenhagen ice cream is a rip off – and how these little details built up to form character and plot. The author has a real knack for dialogue and suburban humour, and the colloquial voice of the young boy is so convincing.
The Ice Cream Girl
Although this story reads like a chapter of a novel, I chose this piece because of its feisty and entirely convincing young adult voice. This should be a novel, because I want to read more! I loved the unexpected turn of phrase (‘small community of pimples on my forehead’). The author’s metaphors and similes are entirely true to character (ice creams, milkshakes, television commercials, dodgy air conditioning – the things poorer adolescents focus on). She’s got a knack for combining humour and pathos in equal measures, with great skill.
The Naming Exercise
I have always admired the adventurous and pioneering writing of Ouyang Yu and this entry is no exception. This piece is remarkable because it deals with something unexpected – class stagnation due to race. It’s wryly funny and astute, poking fun at Orientalism, commenting on transgenerational racism, identity, and aging.
On Being a Working-Class Writer
How does a working-class girl from the council estate become a poet? And what’s class got to with it anyway? What does it mean to be a working-class writer? Can I still be a working-class writer now that I work in a university? What do working-class writers write about? Answering these questions requires a story.
I became a writer by accident. When I was at school I wanted to be an artist. I loved art – my brother and I were taken to London art galleries quite often when we were growing up. Bus fares were cheap then and the galleries were free. My Dad was always looking for places outside of Walthamstow to take us out at weekends and holidays because my Mum worked night shift and was the breadwinner. Dad was an autodidact – a working-class man who taught himself how to paint and draw. He worked (when he was employed), as a self-employed sign writer and our flat always smelt of paint and turps. Dad died when I was young and Mum was too busy trying to keep us fed and housed, so as soon as I was old enough, I took myself into central London and visited the galleries again.
They became my happy places. At school I studied art, but there was no chance that a kid from the council estate was going to become an artist. So I left school and worked in retail.
I had always been a reader. We had books in our flat (1) – Dad read spy novels and racy thrillers. Mum never had time to read when we were young, but she told me that when she was a child she loved to curl up with a book, but would get told off for being lazy by her father (a London Transport bus driver). No one in her household had spare hours for reading – everyone had to work. Mum’s schooling was interrupted by WWII, and despite her wish to continue at school and study to be a nurse, she had to leave at 15 and get a job. I didn’t see her read a book until I was in my teens (although she always did the newspaper crossword). She began reading again when a mobile library started visiting our estate. She liked historical romances, especially those set during WWII. Until her eyesight failed in her 80s, she always had a book on the go.
As a child I spent many hours in libraries. I’d read anything, which is typical of working-class readers. There was no sense of what might be ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ literature. Any book blurb that looked interesting was added to my pile. My local library had an excellent collection of Caribbean and South Asian literature and I worked my way through everything on the shelves. On a school excursion I saw Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (2)
perform. His work showed me that I could write poems using my voice (I didn’t have to sound like Wordsworth or Tennyson – poets we read at school). This was a life-changing experience and the revelation that a non-posh voice could be valid stayed with me. At my working-class high school in the 1980s we had a visit from poet Carol Ann Duffy (3). None of us knew who she was, but a few from the English class went along to her workshop. This turned out to be another revelation. She knew how to talk to us working-class girls and she told us that our stories mattered. A poet from a poor neighbourhood like ours who understood our lives. It was clear to me from then that poetry was for everyone.
This love of poetry and of reading didn’t take me to university though. That was far from my reach. My dream of being an artist faded with the reality of leaving school and I started working full time at Hamley’s of Regent Street(4). I kept on reading (anything); I wrote poems in a notebook and created comical biographical poems for my co-workers between short snatches of time between customers on till roll). I carried on writing poems that I showed no one for years. After leaving Hamley’s to travel with a baby and partner in tow, I carried on writing but never considered publishing my poetry, although I gifted a few friends biographical poems about them. We travelled in our Kombi van around the UK and Europe and then left for Taiwan. I taught English in Taiwan with no qualifications (and likely was responsible for a cohort of Taiwanese kids with Cockney accented English).
Eventually I ended up in Australia with my Australian partner and child and we decided to ‘give uni a go’. When choosing what course to apply for I realised that the thing I’d actually always done consistently since I was a child was write poems and stories. My aspirations to be an artist gradually changed into wanting to be a writer, so I enrolled in a creative writing having little idea of what to expect. I’d never been on a university campus, and my understanding of tertiary education was formed through film and TV. I was required to submit a portfolio of writing with my application and I collected up all the things I’d written over the years and typed them up on a library computer (I couldn’t type – this process was excruciating. I was one of the only girls in my high school who didn’t take typing as an elective). I was called in for an interview at the university and told by the interviewer that my work had ‘potential’ – I had no idea what that meant.
I was accepted into the course and discovered that what I loved to write about was my experiences of being working class. Of my old home in London, my family, friends and the working-class community that I’d left so far behind in England.
My writing was well received by my tutors at uni and they were very encouraging and supportive. The first poems I started to get published in the late 1990s were centred on life on the council estate I grew up on, and by the end of my undergrad degree I had a collection in print (5). I incorporated Cockney songs into some of these early poems and enjoyed performing them to an Australian audience. I read at venues across Sydney and interstate. I even had a spot at at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2001. I was starting to make a bit of a name for myself but there were obstacles. I experienced dismissive and patronising comments from some well-established Australian poets. It was at this time that I realised that the gatekeepers of the Australian literary establishment were generally not interested in, or sympathetic towards, working-class poetry. So I started a PhD (6) investigating the lack of working-class representation in contemporary Australian poetry and discovered that working-class poets had been shut out of the literary mainstream. They found their work dismissed as simplistic or didactic. As sociological or overly political. Lacking in literary technique – not enough use of metaphor. Too focused on the everyday, the mundane. I saw it differently. Working-class poetry was full of life. It was about collective experience. There were poems that focused on hardship, poverty, trauma. Life living hand to mouth. Struggle was common. But there was also celebration of community, of working-class culture, and working-class diversity. The poems were often funny and the poets used humour as a survival tool. The language was simple, not simplistic. And metaphor might have been used sparingly, but that was because the poets wanted to represent the reality of their everyday lives – working class life often didn’t have time for metaphor.
The poets I talked to at the time had all found it very difficult to get published in mainstream literary journals. Many were very popular in their home towns, and drew large crowds to readings. Some self-published and sold many books on their own. Not many found their work reviewed in literary magazines, and they preferred to read at local events in pubs or worksites rather than literary festivals. Aside from a few notable exceptions, the Australian literary establishment gatekeepers were not interested in working class poetry. Or other working class writing. At this time (2000-2007), they were not interested in class at all, and this was a sentiment shared by academia too. As I started my academic career (as a casual academic for the first ten years), I began a battle with academics to recognise class as significant in Australia. I was told that class wasn’t a ‘thing’ in Australia, and I should leave my British class hang-ups behind. I was accused of having a class chip on my shoulder and asked when I was going to ‘get over the class schtick’.
But you can’t ‘get over’ being working class. It’s possible to hide a class background and learn to speak like middle/upper class people. An accumulation of educational and cultural capital can help with the passing. This means a rejection of family, friends, communities though. A class betrayal. Certainly not my intention. My working-class background has shaped me. I learnt how to survive hardship, to make the most of what you have. To always be ready to help others, to stand up for yourself and your community. My mother taught me these values. She kept us fed and clothed and kept the ‘social’ from the door. I watched her stand her ground in the DHSS office when they refused her emergency payments. She saw off bailiffs and loan sharks. She recognised who was at fault – the government, Thatcher in particular and later, all politicians who cared about making themselves richer. My mother looked after her neighbours and when she needed help, they looked after her. When I wrote my first collection of poetry, she was a big feature – a persona based on her was very important to the collection.
My working-class background is my old school, work friends, neighbours. It’s the council estate I grew up on, concrete playgrounds where I skinned my knees, the local newsagents where we bought sweets. Pubs I went to as a teenager, the street market, local caffs (cafes). Buses I rode, libraries I trawled. It’s everything. I’m proud of my working-class background. My university education and my academic job has not stopped me from being working class. I am a working-class academic. I am fortunate to now have a continuing position and earn a respectable salary, but that’s where my economic capital ends (no inheritance – my mother lived in a council flat until she died). I accumulated cultural capital as an autodidact before starting university as a mature age student. But I don’t have knowledge of the ‘classics’ like many of my middle-class colleagues. Middle-class pursuits are mostly not for me. If there is a working-class play being performed I might go see it, but I’m not interested in bourgeois theatre productions. Films are more my thing – and my love for independent, global art house cinema started off as a working-class teenager looking for cheap entertainment in central London after school (art house cinemas offered good concessions). If I go to a pub, I like one that sells Carlton Draught rather than micro-brewery craft beers. I resent paying more than $5 for a glass of wine that I don’t even like. I watch TV – lots of it. And I don’t have ‘guilty pleasures’. If I watch Love Island, it’s because I like it, not because I’m watching it ironically.
Things are changing. Not necessarily in the world of literary journals in Australia, but more widely. People are interested in class again (7). After all the years of working-class academics and writers ‘banging on’ about class, people are starting to listen. There is a growing volume of Australian fiction set in working-class communities. Books such as Peter Polities’ Down the Hume (2017), and The Pillars (2019) Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man (2013), Felicity Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now (2013), Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (2014), Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), Tamar Chnorhokian’s The Diet Starts Monday (2014), Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2016), Sue Williams’ Live and Let Fry: A Rusty Bore Mystery (2018) and Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (2018) show the ways in which class intersects with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion.
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin award. The 2020 Sydney Festival includes Anthem – a play centred on working class characters written by Christos Tsiolkas, Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius and Melissa Reeves. And I have a contract from a publisher to write an academic book on Australian working-class literature.
It’s hard to crack the literary journals though and in Australia there still isn’t a lot of working-class poetry appearing. It isn’t clear why this is the case, and I’ll be investigating this as part of my new research project. The working-class poets I included in my PhD, have mostly stopped writing. Cathy Young, from South Australia had one book published in 2004, but nothing since. Her partner and fellow poet Martin R. Johnson published three collections, but also stopped publishing in 2004. One of the poets who was most prolific at the time was Geoff Goodfellow (also from SA). Goodfellow last published a book in 2014, with a self-curated collection of previously published poems. He hasn’t published any new works since 2012. While I haven’t had a chance to catch up with the poets yet to ask why, it is clear that they were rarely published in Australian literary journals. Young and Johnson concentrated their efforts into publishing locally, and Goodfellow focused on publishing collections with small sympathetic presses such as Vulgar Press (now defunct) and SA Wakefield Press. Most of the other poets in my PhD published sporadically and then disappeared.
A quick survey of 2019 issues of some Australian literary journals reveals some working class poetry. Mykaela Saunders in Cordite with ‘For Cops Who Stalk Children on Houso Estates’ (8). Her poem shows how class intersects with race and gender. In ‘Those Days in the Dirt’ (9) from the same issue of Cordite – Tom Lewin’s narrator reminisces about his days as a manual labourer and the company and camaraderie found among working class men. There are some poems written about working class grandfathers, and there is also some class fetish. Ian C Smith’s ‘Sanctuary’ paints a picture of a homeless man, but the man is observed from a distance – he could be local wildlife. I haven’t come across much in Overland or Meanjin etc lately, but I need to keep digging. Melbourne poet Pi. O. has published a new epic 500 page poem, Heide with Giramondo. Pi. O.’s work has always focussed on working class life, but his obscurity means he is not often featured in the literary mainstream.
So why is working-class experience mostly absent from contemporary Australian literature? What are the reasons for the middle-class domination of the literary scenes? What is the potential impact of the lack of representation? How can this lack of representation be addressed?
Working-class literature is important, not just because it is the literature of marginalized people, but also because it includes a diverse array of literary styles, techniques and forms. At the same time, there are some commonalities that can be identified and which mark it as belonging to its own specific genre (10). Working-class literature is therefore a rich source of writing and there are various ways that working-class literature can be analysed. This analysis can also be framed around a series of questions; how does working-class writing engage with the working-class vernacular? Is there a sense of working-class culture that runs through the works? How does this manifest? Does work (or unemployment) feature in working-class writing? How is working-class literature political? Are politics explicit in the works or embedded in representations of the everyday for working-class people? And is the diversity of the working class and working-class experience represented?
I’ve been asking these questions for a long time, and every time I encounter some working-class writing, I find myself asking them all again. I have some answers. Working-class experience is missing from contemporary Australian literature because the gatekeepers have been middle class and not interested in working-class life. This middle-class domination is enabled due to structural privileges. Middle-class people are more likely to have university degrees than their working-class counterparts, and are more likely to have degrees in the arts, and to seek work in the creative industries. A lack of representation means that working-class people are not seeing their stories told – this reads as a cultural signifier that working-class experience is not important nor a worthy subject for literature, especially poetry. To address this lack of representation requires more working-class background people in gatekeeper roles, and a willingness on the part of middle-class editors to publish working-class writing.
To answer the questions that frame analysis of working-class writing is easy. Working-class writing employs a working-class vernacular, and poets use the colour of slang and dialect, and the rhythms of everyday speech in their work. Various elements of working-class culture run through the poetry – this includes working-class pastimes, food, popular culture and the more general culture of collectivism. Working-class poets write about work in all of its forms; manual labour, routine white-collar work. They write about precarity, about bastard bosses, unemployment, fighting Centrelink, union power and the camaraderie of work mates. Politics is embedded in working-class writing. If a poet comes from a working-class background and writes from a working-class perspective, then the poems are inherently political because they are published against the odds. And working-class writing reflects the diversity of working-class people and challenges the media representations of working-class people as white, blue collar male workers.
What would I like to see? Poetry that engages with the working-class everyday. This is poetry that doesn’t hold back, that reveals struggle, but also the positive aspects of working-class life. Writing about struggle works best when it’s been experienced first-hand, otherwise it easily turns into poverty porn. The working-class poetry I would like see is written by poets who understand how class works and how it intersects with race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, ability. This is working-class life. It is diverse. Working class people are not a homogenous group. But there are shared understandings, commonalties such as bosses who exploit, economic insecurity, the fight for decent housing, education, health care. There are differences too – white working-class people experience class discrimination, but not racism. Working-class women often find themselves on the receiving end of sexual harassment at work (and can feel powerless to report). LGBTIQ+ working-class people can feel marginalised in some working-class communities. Working-class disabled people face daily struggles due to expenses involved in accessibility. I want to see all of this in the poetry that is published in Australia. Poetry written, by, for and about working-class people. Class is in vogue again, and hopefully this interest in academic work, memoir and commentary will spill over into poetry and emerging working-class poets will feel inclined to submit their work and show through poetry the struggles faced when working class. If anyone had told that girl from the council estate that one day she would be an academic and a published poet she probably would have laughed. The more that working-class poetry is published, the more likely it is that working-class young people will see literature and art as real possibilities and worth pursuing. And so, I remain optimistic.
1. bell hooks points to the importance of books in working-class households as paving the way for education and the potential transformation that comes with formal education, hooks, b. (2010) Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, New York, Routledge, p 127
4. Hamley’s is a very famous toy shop in Central London.
5. The thesis is available online: https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/2100/615/2/02whole.pdf
6. Hope in Hell (2002), published by Five Islands Press
7. For a good introduction to Working-Class Studies, see Linkon, S. L., Russo, J. (2005) New Working-Class Studies, Ithaca, Cornell University Press. For books on working-class literature see, Zandy J. (1990) (ed.) Calling Home: Working-Class Women’s Writings, an Anthology, Rutgers University Press and Fitzgerald, A., Lauter, P. (2001) (eds), Literature, Class and Culture: An Anthology, New York, Longman, Goodridge, J., Keegan, B. (2017) A History of British Working Class Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, Coles, N., Zandy, J. (2006) American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
10. Zandy J. (1990) (ed.) Calling Home: Working-Class Women’s Writings, an Anthology, Rutgers University Press
SARAH ATTFIELD is a poet from a working-class background. Her writing focuses on the lived experiences of working-class people (both in London, where she grew up and in Australia where she lives). She teaches creative writing in the School of Communication at UTS. She is the co-editor of the Journal of Working-Class Studies.
by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen and Unwin
Reviewed by JACK STANTON
Damascus seems to be a departure for Christos Tsiolkas. The previous novels of the celebrated Melbourne writer mostly inhabit contemporary Australia and Europe. But that being said, Damascus, as the title suggests, travels back to the life of Saul of Tarsus, or Paul the Apostle, a wrathful persecutor of Christ’s early disciples in Jerusalem who was visited by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He seems to be playing a different tune from the modern day thematics of, say, Barracuda, his last novel-length offering, which was published in 2013 and told the story of Daniel Kelly, an Ian Thorpe-tier swimmer who crumbled under the immense pressure of national pride, a book that, on the surface, bore all the scars of a potboiler. Indeed I had felt reservations about the book until I read Julieanne Lamond’s essay “The Australian Face: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas” in Sydney Review of Books. In the review, a mostly positive, although equally measured by its long-form documentation of the complexities and shortcomings of Tsiolkas’s style, claimed that he is an
intelligent writer operating in a literary space which is, in one sense, the holy grail for novelists: he writes good books that also sell. In another sense, he has abrogated the role of the capital-L Literary writer to dance with the dreaded middlebrow.
Yet again, the trenches are drawn between literariness and the ‘dreaded middlebrow’. For me, however, this debate has a short half-life; very soon it begins to feel more like monkeys throwing poo at one another than serious, meaningful debate. But this interpretation is, as I mentioned earlier, only on the surface. If you look a little closer, Barracuda is arguably the finest example of Tsiolkas’s ability as a writer to seemingly effortlessly transgress those fluid boundaries between “literary/important” and “readable/entertaining” fiction. The split between ‘serious’ and ‘entertaining’ fiction is merely a placeholder, a crude representation of certain prejudices that many readers continue to contest and debunk. I, too, treat any kind of literary hierarchy with grave scepticism. Tsiolkas’s work is a perfect example. He has always managed to elude neat classification. His novels are literary, yes, full of complex and oftentimes controversial ideas, but also highly readable, never drawing attention to their own cleverness.
Dr Lamond, however, praises Tsiolkas’s ability to be an unaffected provocateur.
His provocations are deliberate and important. He provokes to bring things that are cast out of the national discussion back into the discussion: class, racism, drugs, desire.
Seen through this lens, Damascus appears less provocative than his earlier work. His enfant terrible status, initially bestowed with his first book, Loaded, which depicted a gay Greek Australian adolescent high on free drugs and hooking-up with self-hating homosexuals, seemed left behind, exchanged by a novelist who wanted to confront broader social and cultural problems. Maybe the terrifyingly candid child had grown up, exchanging shock and squalor for mature, wide-appealing topics.
It is also more universal—perhaps, global—than the strict Australianness of his previous novels, even Dead Europe. Damascus depicts all the signatures of Tsiolkas’s work—grotesqueness and obscenity, characters grappling with their own sense of shame, the pull of opposing ideological forces, and an underlying element of satyrical hedonism—but places them in an historical arena that resonates globally, as the epicentre of Christianity’s development into the world’s overarching system of belief. He achieves this by telling the story mostly through Saint Paul, is a classic Tsiolkas anti-hero. When we meet Saint Paul, he uses his Hebrew name, Saul, and is Christ-hating executioner who prides himself on the brutal capital punishment of heretics and disobedient slaves. By the closing pages, however, Saul has transformed into a wise, loving apostle after famously being visited by the resurrected Jesus. This major story arc intertwines with a number of first-person accounts of various secondary characters who inhabit the same, de-stabilised and evolving world.
But perhaps the most interesting element of Tsiolkas’s novel is his own troubled relationship to its subject matter. He has always explored queer identities and the societies that surround them. While Damascus shows sodomites gallivanting from slave-boy to slave-boy, the idea of homosexuality, as a way of being, or perhaps I should say as an independent sexual identity, remains unspoken—an amorphous, shameful concept. As an adolescent, Tsiolkas was estranged by the famous scriptures against homosexuality in Saint Paul’s first letter to Corinthians. In the author’s note, he writes, “I could not reconcile my Christian faith with the imperative to honour my own sexuality and independence, and so I became a non-believer.” Anyone with migrant parents who have strong ties to their faith will understand that abandoning belief is no light matter. The passage in question is 1 Corinthians, 6, 9-10, reproduced here from the NIV Bible:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (10) nor thieves nor the greedy nor the drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Digging a little deeper into the original greek reveals that the phrase “men who have sex with men” derives from the word arsenokoitai, ‘arsen’ meaning man’ and ‘koitai’ meaning ‘bed’. So literally, ‘men who bed with men’. It becomes clear, then, that the dominance of protagonists in a crisis of identity, torn between the unreconcilable forces of two conflicting ideologies, mirrors Tsiolkas’s own journey of self-discovery. Seen this way, Damascus is hardly a departure at all; rather, it’s an historical expansion of the prevailing themes of pretty much all his fiction, and the result is an intensely readable journey through the ancient world.
Tsiolkas’s Roman Empire is a hellish place, a Hiernonymous Borsch painting come to life, violent, merciless, and cruel—ripe territory for the bloom of Christianity’s teachings. The prologue begins with Saul observing a woman accused of adultery being stoned to death, repeating Jesus’s famous line, “If you are without sin, then case your stone.” From there, we descend into a goulash of blood, guts, and debauchery: unwanted daughters are murdered upon birth; slaves and soldiers dismember one another for sport in the gladiator arena; and I think immediately of the colourless landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a kind of stylistic brother to Damascus’s world of gore and blood-thirst.
Nearly every page involves the murder, torture, or sexual violations of characters, either as a backdrop or within the immediate drama. In this way, it is, arguably, a true narrativising of the Old Testament. One chapter opens with a many-page, stream-of-consciousness sentence from the perspective of a peripheral character, Vrasas, “Drinking the blood that is pouring over us and it froths and spills from our mouths . . . we will not allow ourselves to spit to waste even a drop of this life for it would be ill-fortuned it would betray the sun the fire The God.” Christianity is thus seen as a revolutionary break from the values of a violent and chaotic world that seemed to have reached a dead-end (literally and figuratively). “Their foul gods know lust and greet and torture and death but they do not know justice,” Tsiolkas writes. “Our God gives us truth . . . a truth that holds for everyone, whether they be master or slave, rich or poor, man or woman, stranger or Jew.”
For contemporary readers, Tsiolkas’s novel does affirm some hopeful Christian mantras in an age where insincerity and ideological deflection continue to reign supreme. Or, in Tsiolkas’s words, “if we do not have faith that the Lord truly knows our suffering, we cannot believe inn a better world to come.” In the author’s note, Tsiolkas speaks to this desire for sincerity directly: “I have wrestled with Paul, wanting both to honour the great universal truths that I find compelling in his interpretation of Jesus’s words and life, but also to question the oppression and hypocrisy of the Churches that claim to be founded on these very same words,” he writes.
The book is essentially about hope, transgression, and the radical experience of shame. These sincere understandings, as Tsiolkas points out, may not immediately hit a sympathetic chord for readers in our secular age. “We might scoff at such an understanding,” he writes, but “we must also acknowledge how it was a promise that gave hope to the most destitute and despised in an often cruel and unforgiving world.” There’s very clearly and underlying parallel between Tsiolkas’s experience of coming-out as a gay man and Paul’s adoption of Christianity. This is most evident in the iconic moment of conversion, struck blind for three days after seeing a vision of Christ. This point, which occurs roughly mid-way through the book, shifts its overall tone, and introduces its treatment of shame.
Hope for the underdogs—yet another of Tsiolkas’s favoured tunes. Here, we see it in Christianity’s egalitarianism, of the kingdom of God as the great equaliser of all people on Earth. The revolutionary power of faith is depicted throughout the novel as a kind of light, glimpsed through the darkness. It is this source of light that empowers slaves and the poor and the condemned to believe in their redemption from a world that offers them none.
They all grasp for the light, trying to snatch parts of it, to hold it in their hands; but the light is as water, it runs through their fingers—but unlike water, it doesn’t drain and vanish, it grows and amplifies: it is all around but can never be grasped. It is everywhere.
It’s this extra-dimension of poetry and duplicity that underlies Damascus that elevates it from a simple stylistic excursion into historical fiction to a continuity of the themes and concerns that have dominated Tsiolkas’s writing since Loaded. There is something heartening about his good old novelist sensibilities, too. By that I mean, the book is full immersion; he’s a classicist. Although I’ve spent this review highlighting some of the subtexts and the crossovers between life and fiction, they’re buried in the tex. Never does the author interject, or rupture the dream. There is a rising popularity in contemporary writing to ensure that the novel ‘says’ something about society, identity, or political thinking. Tsiolkas has never ‘said’ per se, but always ‘explored’ what it means to be human.
What the book really nails is its representation of why Christianity became a earth-shattering revolution in the first hundred years A.D. Near the end of the book, Tsiolkas captures crucifixion-as-symbol in the face of injustice. Contemporary readers may very well forget (and Tsiolkas reminds us throughout) that crucifixion was historically a painful, humiliating and gruesome public affair; its intention was to demean and torture, originally punishment only for slaves. That is why many “would risk the violence of thieves and rapists rather than submit to the impossibility of a crucified and humble saviour”; at the time, a lowly crucified ‘God’ was contrary to the pre-dominant ideals of what God entailed. But Jesus’s crucifixion resonated as a symbol of humanity. In this one particular scene, Saul is speaking to a group of lower-class Romans about the crucifixion of Christ when suddenly a man shouts out the name of his son. “And one by one they begin to stand. A man calls out the name of his brother, a father of his son, another father moans and declares: ‘My son and his son.’”
Whether or not Tsiolkas has managed to accomplish his goal, to reconcile his Christian faith with his sexuality, remains unseen. But his wrestling with Paul’s teachings are evident upon every page, creating a compelling interpretation of Jesus’s word and life that also questions “the oppression and hypocrisy of the Churches that claim to be founded on these very same words.”
Jack Cameron Stanton is a writer from Sydney. His work can be found in The Australian, Sydney Review of Books, Sydney Morning Herald, Southerly, Overland, Sweatshop, The Lifted Brow, and Mascara Literary Review, among others.
by Eunice Andrada
Reviewed by DARLENE SOBERANO
In her debut poetry collection, Flood Damages, Eunice Andrada never explicitly mentions the words, ‘New South Wales.’ Nor does she name ‘Australia’ in any of the 37 poems.
She opts for restraint, often using the word ‘here’ as a substitute for the name of a place. This can be seen in poems such as ‘autopsy’: ‘I complain about the weather here, / how the cold leaves my knuckles parched’; and in ‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’: ‘Maybe he grew up here and my accent isn’t quite / right yet, so he can’t understand me’. I am reminded of André Aciman’s essay, Parallax. Aciman details his ‘dreaming’ of Europe while living in Egypt and he declares, ‘Part of me didn’t come with me. Part of me isn’t with me, is never with me’. He eventually comes to this conclusion: ‘I am elsewhere’. For Andrada’s speaker, the exact place isn’t as important as the fact that it is elsewhere; that it is not the Philippines.
The most explicit name for ‘Australia’ I find in Flood Damages is in ‘alternate texts on my aunt’s lightening cream’: ‘o oceania your body an apartment block / cracked under the spanish the british the / americans the japanese the americans’. Here, even, Australia is referred to within the context of a group. Restraint as technique in poetry can often lead to a tepid vagueness, the poet invulnerable and hiding in the text. In Andrada’s hands, restraint is transformed into a compelling exploration of absence. By omitting Australia, Andrada leaves space for memories and dreams of the Philippines to fill in.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada writes in water images to capture the sensory experience of moving through the Philippines—a country made up of over 7,000 islands. Water, for the poem’s speaker, becomes the sensory experiences through which all associations flow, even if she is not there. The ‘daughter of diaspora’ is ‘by default – / an open sea’, whose mother is shamed in their not-Philippine country; ‘They convince my mother / her voice is a selfish tide, / claiming words that are not meant / for her’. The ‘carcass of ocean’ makes ‘ragdolls’ of the speaker and her mother’s ‘foreign limbs’, an image that is immediately followed by this declaration: ‘In the end / our brown skin / married to seabed’. Here, water is a force that drowns as much as it is a force capable of returning the speaker home.
Most Filipinx immigrants flee the Philippines in search of ‘a better life’. Andrada offers two main explanations in Flood Damages: dictatorship (‘Marcos conducts my allergy test’) and displacement due to climate damage.
In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, Andrada’s speaker, having fled the Philippines, looks back and discovers the loss of belonging, which is marked by the loss of language:
‘When I return to the storm
of my islands
with a belly full of first world,
I wrangle the language I grew up with
yet still have to rehearse’.
A ‘man in rags’ stops the speaker and asks her ‘in practiced English’ a question: ‘Where are you going?’ This question makes the speaker want to plead to him, ‘We are the same. / Pareho lnag po tayo’. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks that ‘mastery of language affords remarkable power’. In ‘(because I am a daughter) of diaspora’, the speaker is sensitive to the absence of language and therefore the absence of power. The difference between ‘the man in rags’ and Andrada’s speaker is so heightened that the speaker is made aware of even ‘the dollars in [her] wallet’—paper money, which is supposedly quiet, yet the speaker can hear them ‘sing another anthem’.
In contrast, Andrada examines communication between mother and daughter in the poem, ‘rearrangement’. In ‘rearrangement’, Andrada peers at the gap between two languages, Tagalog and English, and at two figures who each have different masteries of both of these languages. The mother pronounces ‘too hot’ as ‘too hat’, says ‘open the lights’ instead of ‘turn on the lights’. In contrast, the speaker struggles to say ‘hinihingal’, a word that means, ‘to be gasping’. ‘Hinihingal’ is pronounced in such a way that mimics a gasp; it is almost an onomatopeia. When the speaker ‘disfigures the [word] in [her] mouth’, it is struggle upon struggle; the speaker gasps twice. When the speaker and her mother are in conversation with one another, they constantly ‘mistranslate’ their words and phrases. Mistranslation should expand the gaps between mother and daughter. For Andrada, it is instead a site of wonder: ‘what careful, imperfect truths / we have birthed in this prose of error / and say it again, please’. There is no gap. When they speak, they are ‘saturating one language with another’.
Andrada achieves a similar effect in ‘harbour’. She writes: ‘Pasa sounds like the word / for soaked’. Pasa means bruise; the word it ‘sounds like’ is basa, which can also mean to read, depending on the way it is said. In other words, if there were no difference in the way that soaked and read were conjugated in Tagalog, to read could also mean to make wet. My personal grasp of Tagalog is limited. It is not a language of my present; it is the language of my childhood, with its psychic tendrils touching everything. In my particular linguistic landscape, basa is wetter than soaked; pasa is said quickly, so it is less distressing than bruise. The quickness of pasa also imitates the way in which the bruise might have been formed—object colliding with body. In this way, pasa can almost sound like a verb.
Fanon also wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: ‘To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization’. Language is a tool with which we learn the stories of our lives and our histories before we were possible. The possibility of a voice, saying, This is where we lived. This is where home is. It will always be here. This is how we fell in love. This is why we left each other. This is how we appear human to one another, which is why the forced absence of a home, a site of history, is dehumanising.
The question, ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that many immigrants encounter anywhere—everywhere. A train, a bar, a classroom. In her poem titled, ‘where are you from?’, Andrada answers the question uniquely in two lines:
‘a woman’s ribs / cheating grandfathers /
the confession box / floodwater’.
Here, Andrada writes a complete and complex personal narrative with her first three answers. The tension between them are heightened by virgules. Each virgule reveals the building frustration of the speaker. Andrada ends ‘where are you from?’ with the answer, ‘floodwater’, a resounding word among sentences of the personal. This emphasis works as a reminder that the Philippines is a country that endures severe damage from typhoons year after year. Homes have been drowned, lives have been lost, important family artefacts have dissolved in water. Andrada’s poem, ‘photo album’, then, reads as a firm artefact against erasure—and yet, it is a poem full of physical silence. In it, the speaker imagines many different lives. She imagines her mother’s life in other countries. She is away working as an Overseas Filipino Worker. ‘photo album’ is constructed with sprawling white space, as if silence is Andrada’s true form and language is the failure. Language fails because it is not an alternative to the mother’s presence in the speaker’s life. The speaker’s yearning is so wild that, in her imagination, cities and bodies become equally large: ‘Abu Dhabi, 2009’ and ‘Singapore, 2001’ are captions just as, ‘across ribs, 1998’, ‘on subject’s cheeks (seen above), August’, and ‘pupils, March’ are captions. Similarly, in ‘soft departure’, Andrada constructs a space between every line as such:
‘earlier that day
she mashes chicken liver
into sliced bread
picks us up from school
commits no crimes’.
Viktor Shklovsky once wrote that ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’—that is, to defamiliarise the reader out of habitualisation, which can ‘[devour] work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war’, and which can, as Shklovsky hints, help to normalise daily oppression. To make the stone stony is to undo the damage of habitualisation. Andrada never writes the word ‘deportation’ in ‘soft departure’. She writes around it, defamiliarises it, refuses to make it another overlooked part of daily life. There is ineffable grief within the many absences in this poem. It is necessary for language to fail, here, so that its failure may leave room for the mother’s return.
Absence in Flood Damages is striking because the book is a physical item. It can be found at a chain bookstore, like Dymocks. It can be found at independent bookstores, like Better Read than Dead, or Hill of Content. It has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier Literary Award for Poetry in 2019, it won the Anne Elder Award in 2018. Flood Damages is a sizeable presence in the world. It is an artefact that floods cannot destroy. And in it, Andrada tells her many histories—personal, family, country—with lush, specific detail. It is an artefact against forgetting that brown immigrants and their brown families are people. In Flood Damages, that which is human in immigrant families cannot be taken away, despite all efforts to do so. For Andrada, cruelty is decidedly not the point, but its opposite: a tenderness that endures across oceans.
Aciman, André. André Aciman: Parallax. FSG Work in Progress, https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2011/10/13/andre-aciman-parallax/.
Andrada, Eunice. Flood Damages. Giramondo Publishing Company, 2018.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1986.
Shklovsky, Victor. Art as Technique. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 1917.
DARLENE SILVA SOBERANO is a Filipino poet. Their work has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Australian Poetry, and Cordite Poetry Review. They tweet from @DLRNSLVSBRN
Sweatshop Women: Volume One
Ed. Winnie Dunn
Reviewed by MAGAN MAGAN
What does it look like to tell your own story about love, faith, home and history? It looks like a collection of prose and poetry titled Sweatshop Women written by women from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds. Writers who courageously tackle difficult themes that demand of us our attention. Sweatshop Women are a collective of new writers based in Western Sydney that was established in 2018 to support women from Indigenous and culturally diverse backgrounds. The collection showcases stories from writers who show us what it means to reclaim a narrative that was taken from them. The powerfully relevant collection is reminder of the importance for a community to come together to tell their own stories away from the lens of the powerful. It is a reminder to resist the objectification of marginalisation. The stories published in the anthology are unsurprisingly as diverse as the authors themselves. The identity of the writers range from countries that border the Indian Ocean, South East Asia, South Central Asia, East Asia, West Africa, East Africa, South America, South Central Asia, including writers who are native to Polynesia, Indigenous, and African American. The critically diverse writers illustrate their understanding about the human condition represented in the stories through prose and poetry – crafting stories that are quiet often untold or deemed unimportant.
Sweatshop Women is a collection fundamentally exploring time whilst simultaneously using time as a necessary tool to illustrate the impact of otherness. The writers centralise the themes of their stories as redemptive subjects and do not fear from speaking truth to power. They humanise the characters in their worlds. They give them a name and a voice. In do so, they hold true to the voice of home and history as oppositional subjects with their own modes of existing in the world. As with any collection that is atttuned to the pulse of the subject, it witnesses untold worlds. The writers do not shy away from writing about loss as loss is indeed as much a part of life as joy is. The collection delves into the reality of the capacity of love to exist despite what it means to be a minority in Australia. This reality gives birth to a kind of exile.
The collection begins with a compelling story titled ‘Boragee’, written by Phoebe Grainer that holds Indigenous self-determination on the unceded land of Australia at its core. What does it mean for Australia to acknowledge it’s black history, much less a black history filled with the resistance and pain of the foremothers of country?
‘Yalla, here in buna I will have my child. I scream. There is no one here to hear but Boogagee. My booroo laying underneath like a stone, heavy and swollen. Soon I will turn this buna to blood, blood of ngyu and the woman who brought life, yalla, yallanya buna’.
Despite class playing a critical role in the material life of many individuals, it is often a subject ignored. While working class people create the wealth of a society, working class people do not benefit from their contribution. Class is a social, economic and political system that divides groups based on their class status. Given that an individual’s proximity to power determines their agency to exercise self-expression and since class as a category plays a fundamental role in a person’s life, how does a person protect their sense of self-expression from the designed limitation of class subjugation? As with Ghanaian-Australian writer Jessica Wendy Mensah, she writes a poem that pulls out the visceral feeling of what it means to be of the working class.
‘NO WORK! NO BUSY!
Peace cleaned the trash
spewing black rain’.
The story of the poem invokes a level of self-actualisation for working class people as Wendy articulates the plight of the working class. What does it mean to move towards empowerment? It means one must speak the truth about their context and connect with their own authenticity and give voice to areas of the world, experience in the world that are hidden as Jessica Wendy Mensah does in her poem:
Yoruba packaged their empty
Souls into cubed boxes’
I can’t help but think about James Baldwin when he said ‘The Victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat’. The brilliance in Wendy’s poem is in its ability to show the destructive nature of class all the while providing a sociological imagination to permit resistance.
The nuance required to capture complicated relationships that exist within a context inundated with ignorance is a difficult lived reality to capture. Much of that difficulty lies in the relationships between the people who are marginalised as a result of their cultural background that is politicised. How does one capture the relationship between an immigrant child and their parents? How does one capture the tensions that are born out of a context that place them (migrants) under patrol? In ‘This Ain’t Bankstown’ Aisha El-Cheikh write what it’s like being othered based on ones hyper-visible identity, after visiting her sons future high school. ‘My first born will start year 7 next year. A good school means a good life’. The writer speaks to the experience of being on fringe as ‘little Drew Barrymore yells out and when I look back in her direction, I notice that a lot of the adults here tonight are starring at me too. I can feel the end of my hijab unfolding as if their stares have pulled the pins out’.
The potency of the collection is in its ability to create understanding about worlds that are invisible. The way in which the writers give meaning to the experiences of the characters and of how realism is used by making visible the hidden truths and their essences in the world gives room to posibility. The stories make possible the transformative process to be able to name an experience. In ‘A Curse And A Prayer’ Naima Ibrahim story is example of how ones own subjectivity can be understood as she writes about a mothering struggling to with her son:
‘Hamid held my hands and there were a few seconds of silence as I took a deep breath. Hamid rose from his chair and walked to his room, finally taking his adidas shoes off. There was a gentle lock. And soon after, just finally, I could hear the lowered sound of rap music playing. I sighed, buried my face into my hands and began praying again’.
The collection highlights the importance of a community to tell their own stories. The power of telling ones own stories fosters connection to the self as well as a connection to a force bigger than the individual. The struggle for self-determination through story telling is undoubtedly a fight about love as shown through Sweatshop Women, a collection of stories taking concerted steps to put stories about marginalised people on the map, with all its complexities.
‘Here in the inner-west, I can hear the swoosh-hiss
of compression brakes and beep-beep-beeps
of mothers on school run, shiny in their urban four-wheel drives’.
– Gayatri Nair
MAGAN MAGAN is a writer and poet based in Melbourne. He holds a Creative Writing Degree from Victoria University. Magan was a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and a co editor of the Black Inc anthology Growing Up African In Australia (Black Inc, 2019) and The 2019 Volume 7 of the Australian Poetry Anthology.
By Catherine Cole
ISBN:978 1 76080 092 5
Reviewed by Julie Keys
‘Will You forgive me?’ Monica asks her daughter, Ruth, in the opening paragraph of Sleep.
‘Forgive?’ I thought. What is there to forgive?’ (1)
As a child Ruth does not understand the angst behind her mother’s question and is dismissive of it. The memory, however, leaves an indelible mark, one of many that resurfaces as she tries to understand her mother’s life and her death.
Ruth is seventeen and a schoolgirl when she meets the elderly French artist, Harry, in a café in London. There is a bond, a recognition of similarity in one another as they converse. Both have experienced trauma and loss. Ruth’s mother has died, and Harry grew up in Paris before and during its occupation in World War II. It is in sharing their stories that a friendship is formed.
Ruth and Harry’s tales intertwine. Author Catherine Cole takes us back to Harry’s childhood in Paris, to the quirks and allure of life beside the Canal St Martin. We hear the voice of his mother calling him from a fourth-floor window. There is his aunt’s cello, his fascinating and vibrant twin cousins. We witness the exact moment Harry stands beside his father observing a painting and decides he will become an artist. This comfortable and contented life sits alongside a shifting political climate. Some ignore the changes but the more vigilant escape Paris and France while they have the chance.
Like Harry, Ruth talks about her family. The resilience of her sister Antoinette and her father, family outings, the sleep therapy that had been the treatment of choice for her mother’s depression as a young woman, and the mother she knew with her increasing propensity for sleep: ‘She’d begun to sleep anywhere: at the kitchen table, on a blanket in the garden, on any one of our beds’ (133).
Trauma, loss and shared memories are not new subjects for Cole. The author of nine books, her work reflects a range of interests and eclectic skills that includes fiction, non-fiction, memoir, literary, crime and short stories. Sleep is an extension of the themes of love, migration, forgiveness and refuge first explored in her short story collection, Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark (2017), shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2018. Just as the impact of an elderly artist in the life of an up and coming student was initially examined in the author’s memoir of her friendship with A.D. Hope in The Poet Who Forgot (2008).
Skill and experience are put to the test in Sleep as Cole delves not only into the complexities of these issues but steers away from a traditional plotline – a choice that highlights the novel’s intricate themes and serves the narrative well. This is Ruth’s version of events, her recollections. She narrates the story from a present-day visit with her Great Aunt Elsie and from the safe haven of the Yorkshire Dales. The plot emerges via a kaleidoscope of memories, beautifully rendered passages that draw the reader into each moment as the story finds its shape and unfolds.
Elsie is a natural counterpoint to the memories that consume her niece. She is lucid, sharply outlined, rooted in practicality, a contrast to Ruth’s mother Monica and her torpid life. Elsie has her own memories of Monica, revealing previously unknown layers to Ruth. She moves around her house and Ruth’s life ‘setting things to rights’(32). There are pots of tea, the smell of lavender, stories about the war and the depression. She bids Ruth not to spend her time on Harry’s stories at the expense of her own and warns, as her mother once warned her to ‘be careful what you remember and when’ (33).
Cole brings a familiarity to the settings – London, pre-war Paris, and the Yorkshire Dales – and is tender in her portrayal of Monica, ‘a shadowy figure behind the door, a lump of sadness on the battered couch, a pair of long white feet under a red and purple hippie skirt. Hair across her face, she weaves, moans’ (161). But Sleep does not always follow a comfortable line. As a reader, I felt unsettled over Ruth and Harry’s meeting. Was it really the result of chance? There was also some discomfort in observing Ruth and her growing obsession with unravelling Monica’s past as she tries to forage out those who might bear some responsibility. As in life, nothing is straight forward and moments of ill ease provide fuel for reflection.
Harry reminds us that despite trauma there is the possibility of resolution. For him art is the healing salve, the restorative that has provided some balance to what has happened in his life: ‘Art allows us to make something lovely of self-delusion and pathos and longing and fear.’ (105). Harry is his most persuasive as he encourages Ruth to find the art in her own life. The conversation between the older Harry and the younger Ruth who equate with the past and the present, threads its way through the narrative debating the conundrums. Can we always forgive regardless of the circumstances and is consolation a worthy alternative to justice?
Harry argues that; ‘You must forgive. Revenge hurts only those who desire it’ (63), all the while understanding that it is Ruth’s decision to make.
In her acknowledgments Cole describes Sleep as ‘a generational conversation about art and loss [that] speaks also of the need to ensure that we learn from history by understanding how easily past horrors can resurface while we sleep or turn a blind eye.’ (246). In this sense Sleep is a timely novel that extends beyond the last page as we ponder the shifts in the world around us and contemplate how our own somnolence has contributed to the social, environmental and political catastrophes that to some degree we now live with and have come to accept.
JULIE KEYS has recently completed a PhD in Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Her Debut Novel The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017 and published by Hachette in 2019.
Beth Spencer is the winner of the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award for The Age of Fibs (fiction). Other books include the verse memoir Vagabondage (UWAP), and How to Conceive of a Girl (Vintage/Random House) which was runner up for the Steele Rudd Award. She writes across genres and forms, her ABC-radio pieces have been collected on the double CD Body of Words, and she is also a contributor to the podcast Climactic. She lives and writes on Darkinjung land, and has a website at www.bethspencer.com
Playing cards on a red rattler
You always picked on my accent. ‘Are yous two gonna go?’ you’d laugh. When of course the ‘two’ was redundant, that’s what the ‘s’ is for. But you didn’t get that, like you didn’t get a lot of things.
And then the haitch/aitch thing. No, I’m not Catholic, it’s not about being Catholic, that’s just what you were told at your Proddy private school. (But really, if we’re talking about the letter ‘H’ then why leave the ‘H’ off? Makes no sense.)
The first time I met private school boys I was fifteen. We were standing around in a group at some inter-school Christian thing that I was into then and one of them asked me what school I went to. ‘Lilydale Tech,’ I replied. Silence. One of them reached into his pocket. ‘Here,’ he said, and handed me a cent.
It wasn’t until I went to uni and called home from telephone boxes that, with a shock, I began to hear the broadness of my father’s accent. The language goal posts shifting uneasily under my feet.
On the rare occasions my dad talked about the past he would say in them days, and refer to the toffy-nosed people on the other side of Balwyn.
(My grandfather’s blacksmith shop off Burke Street. My father’s clothes smelling of iron and steam and horses.)
Another time, with a similar bunch of private school friends, walking along a suburban street we saw a horse cropping grass in a paddock and stopped to say hello. One of the girls said something that prompted me to comment, ‘Well, my father is a farrier.’
‘Oooh!’ exclaimed an older boy. ‘Does he wear a big greasy apron?’
That fleeting rush of shame, just for a moment. (Well, yes. Yes, he does.)
Mostly I did manage to escape that shame and I think it was because my parents never desired that I be anything other than what they were, and what their parents were. A ‘good job in a shop’—what more could a girl want? (You certainly wouldn’t want to be like those toffy people! Goodness! Just the thought.)
I have a girlfriend who came from a similar working-class outer-suburb—a few stops down the train line—but her parents always dreamed that she would go to university. It was what they worked so hard for, aspired to. One day, sitting on her bed while she got ready to go out, I noticed when she opened her wardrobe that she had dozens of pairs of fine Italian leather shoes (and never enough).
Shoes, of course. I was slow about that. For years I had no idea that at uni, conferences, job interviews, writer’s festivals, I was being judged on my shoes. Like those men in Paris, years later, who followed me with invitations and suggestive comments whenever I went out walking, spotting me in my Doc Martens as an outsider, fair game. Like the professor who was asked once how he selected the right person for the job. ‘Well, it’s like looking in the mirror really.’
Did you notice this about me when we met when I was seventeen—my cheap and shabby shoes? ‘As long as it’s clean, washed and paid for,’ my father, a child of the Depression, would say. Meaning: good enough is good enough and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Cheap shoes. Cheap haircut. I started to notice it eventually when I would watch older and younger women bond over their stylish shoes, notice the swish of neat hair, not a strand out of place. (You don’t belong. You are an outsider.)
Is this what you spotted that singled me out as someone to take to bed, but not home to the parents?
In those early years at uni, while your parents lent you their Citroens and old Volvos and took you out to restaurants, I would catch the train back to the suburbs and my Dad would pick me up from the station in the P76 with the back seat removed for the horseshoes. Wiping down the seat with an old towel, taking me home to a prodigal daughter feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In them days, at uni, I learnt words like déclassé and embourgeoised.
I learnt to spread out the times I would visit my parents so the visits became infrequent, and grudging. Over with as fast as possible.
You drove me out there once in the Citroen, your tourist eyes taking in all that had been invisible to me. I watched you backing down the drive speedily, past my father’s cattle truck, the dogs barking.
What was it about you that was like my brothers and father but with a posh accent? Was it the way you drove? Relaxed, confident. Was it that faint attitude of contempt?
Later at uni, doing my Masters, I learnt words like intersectionality.
And still, in between all the private school-bred girlfriends, you would seek me out. And I would practice saying things to you, fucking and fighting, that I could never say to my brothers or my father. You worked out some need with me, I worked out some need with you.
I learned that in amongst the pride and arrogance there was a shame in you that I could never have imagined, and that no amount of expensive shoes or cars or restaurant meals or high class jobs and travel and the right postcodes and saying ‘aitch’ and ‘you two’ could ever cleanse.
Right side of the wrong tracks. First class, second class, the trains taking us in different directions.
Tell them as long as it’s clean, washed and paid for.
Paid for, there’s the rub. Both of us living on stolen land. You just had a lot more of it.
I never know how to end these stories about you. Even though after all these years our story is well and truly ended. Or so I hope. So I tell myself.
And my father died two decades ago.
But we partake of each other. We live in each other. Just as the boy with the one cent coin lives in me, and the greasy leather apron, my friend with the dozens of shoes, the academics admiring each other’s haircuts.
As we pick up the cards and lay down tracks. This one, that one. Steaming through life, me in a red rattler, you in a blue train. Hanging out the windows. Buying time. Buying up whole suburbs. A country. An ocean between us. Whole worlds.
But you see it’s never about the things you thought it was.
by Ellena Savage
The Atlas Review
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Yellow City charts Ellena Savage’s travels in Lisbon, a city she returned to having experienced an assault there eleven years prior. Framed as a set of journal entries spanning three weeks in 2017, the chapbook records the author’s attempts to locate the archived court files pertaining to this crime. Savage is a kind of detective in her own case: accompanied by Dom, her lover-slash-sidekick, she navigates the cobbled footpaths and the local bureaucracy.
Savage’s younger, gap-year self-will be recognisable to many readers: her sense of ease in feeling she ‘could talk to any person in the world’; her characteristically Australian perspective of Europe as a collection of cities to be ’stepped through’; a sense that the future (or even a single night out) is ripe with serendipitous possibility.
‘I had fast learned how to sleep in any number of positions: between the farts and fucks and snores of adolescent adults in hostels; on a row of couch cushions laid out by earnest Belgian students on their Erasmus year, or with my head resting on the shoulder of a fleshy Brazilian on an overnight bus.’ (p.5)
And Savage’s coming-of-age will be deeply familiar to many female readers, where growing up is understood to involve a contraction of the self; a process of learning not to trust: ‘…the fantasy that things are somehow safe, which you need to have if you are to do anything at all, had been pulled right out from under me.’ (p.22)
The journal format, with its exact dates punctuating the text, suggests that this is an unmediated, authoritative account of the writer’s firsthand experience as it unfolds from one day to the next. And yet, very early on, Savage disrupts her own journal-entry voice:
I was a general, all-purpose, adaptable person. All my unrealised potential suggested that I might become exactly like any one of the people I encountered.
– In becoming specific, narrower, more difficult, you, you don’t have much left to give.
-But it’s true. We dress the same, she and I. And we didn’t get any better. (pp.5-6)
Such interjections persist throughout Yellow City. Reminiscent of a Greek chorus commentary, they seem to represent facets of Savage’s own mind; self doubting and self-excoriating. The way they jut into the story is unsteadying. You and I and she and we here all seem to refer back to the one person. Can I only ever denote someone in their present form, and if so, how many third person past selves do we each possess? What can the reader hold onto here, if even subject pronouns are this slippery? In prompting the reader to ask these sorts of questions, from the outset Savage undoes any illusion that her ‘I’ is delivering a cohesive, chronological narrative.
Throughout Yellow City, Savage alerts us not only to language’s slipperiness, but also its power to mask the truth. Words here cannot be trusted, and especially not the official kind. While ostensibly in search of documentation, she knows that ultimately her efforts are futile since the files have ‘absolutely no meaning’. She puts off calling the police, wanting to ‘preserve the self’ she is used to living with and not wanting to know the ‘words she gave’ them. Tellingly, even her own name has been mis-spelled in the official records. She provides us, verbatim, an email home in which she assures her brother that ‘it’s all over’ and that ‘apart from all that, I’m fine’. But of course it turns out that not even these words (her own, and fresh from the time in question) contain much truth.
Along with language, memory, too, is depicted as fallible and unstable. At the police line-up she describes her own memory as ‘altered… amorphous…composite’. The particulars of the crime; what she drank on the night in question; the location of the apartment where she was attacked; the appearance of her assailants, are hazy. One detail she does recall is the ‘skin-tight’ jeans she was wearing. Though Savage never spells it out, we can imagine that it is these kinds of details (or lack of) which a court would fixate on, and which are routinely used to undermine a victim’s credibility. Lucia Osborne-Crowley, reflecting on her attempts to write about her own abuse, talks about her discomfort with the gaps and inconsistencies in her memories since these ‘could look to readers a lot like lies’. But Osborne-Crowley and Savage each succeed in resisting any urge to inject consistency or clarity where there is none. Osborne-Crowley writes:
After months of gruelling work, I had some details. I had pieced some parts of this memory back together. It was terrifying. It was exhausting. It was necessary. I finally have the contours of my story, and I have written it down. I have tamed it as best I could. What I now know about this memory is enough. It is horrifying enough. It is detailed enough. It is enough.
Reading Yellow City and hence newly attuned to the workings of my own memory, I am dismayed to see just how unreliable it is. I believe I am reading Savage’s words attentively, and yet when it comes to piecing together this review, I need to keep checking that I’m not mixing up fragments of Ellena’s narrative with that of Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I am reading simultaneously, and which also contains sexual violence. Even with their starkly different contexts I find bits of the two stories becoming tangled together. I am reminded too, of an interview I saw Emily Maguire give about her novel, An Isolated Incident. In writing the rape and murder of a young woman, Maguire very consciously omits any gratuitous detail whatsoever. And yet, readers when discussing the story with her are often convinced of one or another detail, which Maguire knows for a fact does not appear anywhere in her book. I can’t recall exactly how Maguire explained this phenomenon – my memory fails me – but it was something to do with us humans being uncomfortable with unknowns; our minds leaping to fill in any gaps.
If language and memory are unstable, Yellow City seems to suggest that the body holds some deeper truth. For all her probing intellect, Savage’s own physicality is hyper present: her itchy legs; the hot slipperiness of her period; the acid in her belly. We can in fact map how profoundly the attack has impacted her through the details she reveals to us of her body. Her younger self has an ease in her own skin; we are told she falls asleep on stranger’s shoulders. In contrast, her present self carries the marks of trauma: there is tension in her gut; tears threatening to burst forth; urges to run. So even though intellectually Savage believed she had ‘recovered’, her body tells us (and her) a different story. It possesses what she calls ‘flesh knowledge’; memory is ‘held’ in her skin. The body is keeping score.
What struck me, too, in Savage’s writing is the absence of a certain kind of lexicon, of the sort that proliferates in media testimonies relating to sexual assault. Not once, for instance, does Savage use the terms ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ or ‘perpetrator’. She describes scenes which a modern reader might quickly label a kind of ‘triggering’ or a ‘panic attack’ or a ‘post-traumatic response’ and yet that language would feel oddly out-of-place here. When she does at one point refer to her ‘trauma’ it is only to point out that she’d never before conceived of her experience in this way.
At the heart of Yellow City is Savage’s struggle to find her own words for this thing that has befallen her, this thing that reverberates through her life. She grapples with what to call the attack itself, introducing it first simply as ‘it’ and then turning over multiple possibilities: an ‘almost-rape’; an ‘attempt’, a ‘scare’. Rita Bullwinkel says Savage ‘translates the memory of violence’ into language.’ The choice of verb ’translates’ is apt here, implying as it does that memory (however imperfect) is the original source, of which language is only an approximation at best. When Savage does try to put the thing into her own terms – ‘an encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death’… [which] threw a girl’s sense of being into chaos’ – it feels to me a kind of reclaiming. Even if she cannot hope to find answers in the court documents, it feels to me that she is finding it in language. Her grappling never feels futile.
What keeps me returning to Savage’s writing again and again is above all her voice: intimate, embodied, sparklingly-smart, and at moments flat-out hilarious. The experience of reading Yellow City is not to feel defeated by language’s fallibility or its imprecision, but to be newly excited about its possibilities, for in Savage’s hands language is alive and ablaze.
Savage E, 2019, Yellow City, TAR Chapbook Series.
Osborne-Crowley L, 2019, ‘Write what you want to forget’, Bookanista.
Maguire E, 2016, Interview at St Albans Writers’ Festival.
Bullwinkel R, 2019, https://www.theatlasreview.com/store/yellow-city-by-ellena-savage
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. His essays and fiction have appeared in Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Meanjin, and Griffith Review. In 2018 Stephen received the NSW WRiters’ Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript ‘Vietnamatta’, to be published by Brow Books.
The Central express train rattles and sighs as it pulls up to Hornsby Station. I take a deep breath and hold it. Slide open the yellow door speckled with grime. Step on, look at the toilets. Neither of the doors are open but I’m not taking a chance. They’re sloshing with piss from Central Coast bogans. Turn, open the spring-loaded door, and step into the passenger’s section, which is carpeted with vinyl seats. It’s packed. I let go of my breath. The dampness of human bodies mixes with Lean Cuisine chicken, cheese, and pasta and burrows into the back of my throat. I gag. I should turn back. Stand between the carriages, where the air is fresh and the ground is shaky. No. It takes 30 seconds to get used to a bad smell. In a minute, it’ll be like I’m lounging in my White godfather’s TV room. Though last I heard, he’s living in a shipping container with his golliwog collection.
Upstairs, the seats are filled with people wearing red-and-white jerseys. Oh, it’s Friday. They’re headed to the footy. There’s a seat in the middle of the carriage. On the aisle side is a bag of Chicken Crimpy Shapes. I take the window seat, stepping over the glittery bits crushed into the carpet. It’s pretty dark outside. I can’t see much save for the streaks of rain outside and the line of steam creeping up on my reflection inside.
Behind me, someone with the nasally honk of Aussie Home Loans guy talks loudly. Instead of saying, ‘At Aussie, we’ll save you,’ he says, ‘The freckled moll’s place, ahh, it looks like housing, but, ahh, it’s not, so, ooh, she acts like she’s, ah, better than everyone.’
I grin at my reflection. I love this. The dumb-ass conversations on this train, which runs from Newcastle to Sydney, can’t be found anywhere else. The bogans, like Aussie Home Loans, are the loudest and crudest. One Wednesday arvo, a blonde lady in Mariah Carey bejewelled sunnies sat in the nigel seat yelling on the phone. She stood up and waved her free hand as she yelled, ‘Jayden, Jayden, Jayden. You fucked me, you fucked me reaaaaal bad. Real bad. Why’d you tell the court I was waving the knife around? Don’t ya remember how I was chopping tomatoes? I was chopping the tomatoes, and you said something. You said something, and I looked up. And I looked up and pointed the knife at you. And I pointed the knife at you and I pointed it away. Remember that? I was not waaaving the knife, I was pointing it.’
It took me everything to not laugh out loud then. I didn’t want her to point a knife at me.
Now Aussie is complaining about how the University of Newcastle pays him five dollars an hour to clean, but at least he makes 100 a week. My bad. He’s genuinely poor. I feel gross for laughing at him now.
His mate who has the deep, controlled drawl of Fitzy says, ‘Oi, but yeah…but nah…you take home…200 a fortnight, ay?’
That’s the same thing. We can’t all be Asians when it comes to maths, though. Shit. I’m doing it again. It’s not probbo if I’m laughing with them, but Fitzy seems dead serious.
He continues, ‘I’m so stoned, brah…Oi but, but…you know what they call my house? Cheech and Chong…come to Wyong.’
Aussie honks laughing. Guess I’m not with them after all. I’ve never seen Cheech and Chong, but I know it’s a stoner comedy. Toby McGuirk, the only other metalhead in high school, once told me he smoked dog shit. Was that like crack, or acid, or what? ‘I mean it’th thit. From a dog,’ he said. I’d seen him play Frisbee with dried cow dung before. I nodded. I guess it was only a matter of time.
‘I’m jutht kidding, man,’ he said. ‘It’th from Cheech and Chong. You thould thmoke with uth thome day. It’th a clathic.’
The train pulls up to Epping, black asphalt, grey metal ceiling jutting off the wall. Platform’s full of chinks and curries: black pantsuits, Herschel backpacks, puffer jackets and wire trolleys. Train’s about to get super crowded. I hope no-one sits next to me. But if they do, they’d better not be one of those dickheads that spread so much our knees are touching and the warmth of their leg makes me want to puke and retract mine but I also don’t want to seem weak so I just keep it there. That’s the worst.
The windows steam up completely as a procession of Asians fills the aisle. A burly Chinese guy with bulging, still eyes like a goldfish, plods forward. His white polo is splotched with pink. Rubber and blood floods my nostrils. Raw meat. An abattoir worker, maybe. If this was 2000 years ago, he’d be the town butcher. That’s what he was made for.
He’s hunched. Looks straight ahead as he gets closer to me. He’ll sit near the bogans. They’ll think he’s just gotten back from slaughtering strays in the neighbourhood. Nope. He grabs the handle on the seat in front of mine, swings his body around, and plops himself on top of the pack of Chicken Crimpy. It crunches. Did he even notice that? I scoot away. Our upper arms are touching. I’m pressed up against the window. Can’t be helped.
We’re moving. Conversations hum but the bogans have fallen quiet. Then Aussie says, ‘There’s, ah, so much Chinese, ay?’
Oh no. I hope this isn’t heading where I think it’s heading. Aussie’s in housing commission. Aussie makes five an hour cleaning up after uni shits like me. Aussie’s got nothing to look forward to but smoking up and watching the footy. They’re just not used to the city.
‘Yeah…but…what’s wrong with being…Chinese?’ says Fitzy.
‘Ah, everything!’ Aussie shouts. They piss themselves laughing.
Dickwad. I was rooting for you. I thought these idiots might be not-racist, but I’m the dumbarse for believing in them.
‘Hey, ah…sweet and sao-wah POK,’ says Aussie, in the voice of the City Wok guy on South Park.
Fitzy laughs, ‘Oi, but listen to this…Sweet and sao-wah POK.’
Cortisone floods my shoulders, stiffens my neck. I turn my head a little, not enough for the Butcher to catch me, and glance around. As far as I can tell, us Asians outnumber the Aussies by three to one. Maybe even more. We’ve got the numbers. But people are just talking to each other or looking right ahead. No-one’s turned around to check the bogans. Maybe it’s because most of us are old, or don’t speak English, or don’t care. Maybe we’re scared to break the silence.
Air conditioner whirs. Rain drums on the train’s tin top. I wipe the steamed window with my right shoulder. Outside is black.
‘Sweet and sao-wah POK,’ Fitzy says.
I breathe in deep, chest swelling. Fuck it. I stand up. Shoulder drags against Butcher’s. Out the corner of my eye, I see him watching me, his mouth ajar. My wrists pound. I turn around, gaze sweeping the suits, students, and oldies before locking onto Aussie. He’s a fat fuck with acne scars on his bright pink Wiffle ball face. St George Illawarra frayed at the bent bill. He stares at me, his grey eyes boring into mine. Fitzy props himself on an elbow, twists around to look at me. He’s got a buzzcut and Golden Arches hairline, face long like a mountain goat. ‘You hillbilly cunts better shut the fuck up,’ I shout.
Aussie’s thin lips draw back. Yellow teeth rest on his bottom lip. Hands rise to the sides of his face. They pull back the skin next to his eyes. His head wobbles from side to side as he says in the South Park accent, ‘Aw! Sutt da fuk ap!’
I’ve got nothing. I flip them off and sit back down. Carriage falls silent. My head’s throbbing. I couldn’t have done any better. You engage with idiots, you’re the idiot. Whatever, man. I can feel the Butcher staring at me. Maybe he’ll move away. He doesn’t. Just keeps staring.
‘Ahh, yaw mudda!’ sings Aussie.
A deep male voice pipes up. ‘Youse better stop it. This train’s full of them, youse know that? And one of them’s just gotten offended. I’ve been listening to youse go on since Gosford, and I’m sick of it. It’s not funny. I’m a cop on holiday, don’t make me do my job. It’s not funny. Don’t make me start up again. Don’t encourage him.’
In a small voice, Aussie says, ‘I, ah, won’t.’
The rest of the train ride is silent, save for Fitzy squeaking every now and then, trying to get Aussie to laugh.
At Strathfield, red brick, green poles, and black asphalt, the train starts to slow. Holiday Pig gets up and heads towards the bogans. He’s got a tiny face and a huge head like William H. Macy. Aussie honks, ‘I’m ah, sorry,’ to Holiday Pig. Pig replies, ‘You’re right, mate.’
I go in the direction I came. Hold my breath by the toilets in the mezzanine.
As the train comes to a stop, someone taps on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s the Butcher. Eyes shine, fat lip hangs, sounds like he’s trying to swallow air as he says, ‘You speak Chinese?’
I shake my head and say, ‘斩你做猪肉碎、喂畀狗.’
Room for a Stranger
by Melanie Cheng
Two strangers from completely different backgrounds with seemingly little in common thrown together, it’s a common enough set up for a novel. But in Room for A Stranger, Melanie Cheng uses that premise exceptionally well to create an undeniably pleasurable read, rich in texture and feeling.
Room For A Stranger is Cheng’s debut novel, following up from her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day, the 2018 winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
The novel opens with Meg, an elderly woman, feeling vulnerable after an encounter with an intruder in her backyard. She is convinced now that ‘every black pane of glass concealed a lurking predator’ (4). With only her African grey parrot, Atticus, for company, she is drawn to a homeshare program to regain some feeling of control. So Andy, an international student from Hong Kong, moves into her suburban home.
With both ill at ease, it is almost immediately obvious that it won’t be a smooth melding of lives. Cheng deftly paints the story of how they connect and the cross-cultural and cross-generational challenges to that process. Communication, food and hygiene are just some of the points of difference that make it harder for the pair to understand each other.
The juxtaposition of chapters focusing on each protagonist’s perspective allows their different world views to be contrasted and compared. Meg faces the challenges of ageing, both physical and mental, while at the same time exploring what it means to date in later life. Andy is weighed down by the dual pressures of wanting to succeed in his studies and live up to his family’s expectations, while also hoping to gain the attention of female classmate, Kiko.
The most minute details of suburban Melbourne life give the setting extra depth, with Andy’s first observations of his new neighbourhood centring around ‘the smell of damp leaves, burnt toast and decomposing vegetables.’ (11) Through Meg’s eyes, the reader sees too how the suburb has evolved within her lifespan:
‘The suburb had changed so much since she and Jillian were kids, back when they could buy sixpence-worth of their favourite lollies- freckles and snakes- from the milk bar. Now the main street boasted an organic food store, a nail salon and a pilates studio with a terrible name : Keeping Karm. Every week Anne declared how much the suburb had evolved – as if rather than a postcode, it was some kind of living, breathing organism.’ (26)
A great attention to detail and astute observations breathe an extra level of complexity into the novel. Smell in particular plays a big role, from Andy wondering what Kiko might smell like ‘something citrusy, he imagined, something like freshly peeled mandarins’ (35) to the scent of oil, ginger and spring onions coming from the fast food restaurant where Andy meets Kanbei, who will sit Andy’s exam for the sum of $3000. At one stage, Andy, speaking to Meg, even spells it out for the reader, telling her that the part of the brain responsible for smell ‘connects directly to the memory centre.’ (94)
Cheng doesn’t shy away from racism, portraying clearly the kind of insidious everyday discrimination that is instantly recognisable for how true it rings to Australian life. An incident on a tram where a man shouts anti-Asian slurs is one such moment but ‘after three stops people were chatting again as if nothing happened. Only the Chinese students remained shaken- theirs heads hanging, their shoulders collapsed, their chests caving inwards.’ (81) As a counterpoint to the overt racism of this incident is in the overly jocular but ultimately patronising nature of comments by Patrick, Meg’s paramour, who talks to Andy about how he sees Hong Kong as having ‘done well’ and that it was ‘in large part because of the British.’ (114) Assumptions made by Meg’s friends about her new house guest also serve to highlight racial stereotypes as Anne guesses that Andy is ‘studious, I bet… They always are.’ (30)
Food plays a large role in the book, highlighting key differences in characters’ lives and experience and also acting as a touchstone for cultural backgrounds. From the pineapple upside-down cake Meg makes for Andy’s birthday to Patrick’s recount of scones at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong with rose-petal jam to Andy taking Meg for dinner in Chinatown, mentions of food usually convey something about one or more characters’ experiences and world view.
Cheng deals with complex issues with aplomb, including navigating mental health carefully. The reader learns of Andy’s mother’s own postnatal depression before gradually getting a picture of Andy’s own anxieties and the ‘exhaustion of being himself. ‘ (155). Early in the novel, Andy has a moment of being jealous of the blanket over Atticus’ cage, wishing ‘someone would smother the endless chatter of his brain with a big black sheet.’ (23). Even the appearance during a tram trip of ‘a man with leaves in his hair talking loudly to an invisible companion.’ (153), draws attention to nuances in mental state, highlighting the complexities of the very concept of mental wellbeing.
Disability too is explored, through Meg’s recollections of late sister Helen, a paraplegic since an accident as a child. Tied up in these memories is Meg’s grief which for years after Helen’s death came in ‘paroxysms of sorrow that would arrive without warning, like a strike to the head from an unseen stalker.’ (68). Through such memories of grief, a funeral of a friend and even Meg’s own ageing process, the ideas of death and loss permeate the novel. They are tied up with the very concept of what illness means, as Meg tries to ignore warning signs while Andy struggles with his own decline in health.
Room For A Stranger is a novel which deftly paints a picture of the modern Australia known by so many; a miasmas of culture and world views. It’s a page turner of a book, an engrossing, easy read, but one with many layers of flavour and depth. With its accessible style, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a common book club pick within coming years, and hopefully one that helps readers consider a wider range of perspectives and how two people can come at a situation with very different takes depending on their personal life experiences and backgrounds.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.