Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language
by Amanda Montell
Review by TAMARA LAZAROFF
Wordslut, as the ironic title suggests, is a book about language, gender and power by debut author, Amanda Montell, an LA-based self-professed linguistics nerd, feminist and also magazine features editor. It’s no surprise, then, that the writing is entertaining and that Montell is able to elucidate in a concise, relatable manner the precise ways in which ‘… people use language to express gender, how gender impacts how a person talks, and how their speech is perceived’ (4). In short, she demonstrates how words are inherently social and political tools. And if anyone has any doubt about this, Montell cites a 2002 legal case in Kansas Supreme Court where the dictionary definition of woman prevented a transgender spouse from inheriting her deceased husband’s estate.
Montell continues to illustrate her arguments by mining history and making use of other case studies in the book’s eleven chapters, which cover topics such as cursing while female, girl talk, how to confuse a catcaller, and the struggle of being a women who speaks in public. She also conducts interviews with leading North American sociolinguists, such as Lal Zimman, Deborah Cameron and Sonja O. Vasvári, Montell’s former NYU professor. The book is certainly well-grounded and well-researched.
In the first chapter, for instance, Montell, reveals the etymology of various English slur words usually reserved for women, which refer most commonly to either desirability, ‘evilness’ or promiscuity. One of these words is ‘slu’t. Apparently, in the Middle Ages ‘slut’ referred, fairly innocuously, to an untidy woman or man (29). But, Montell asks, even if contemporarily meant to offend, why is this slur and so many other slur words so enjoyable to say out loud? Well, studies show that, phonetically, short and plosive sounds and stop consonants, such as b, p, d and t, are human favourites from birth. Thus, reclamation and reappropriation, Montell believes, is key, and is, in fact, what is already happening. Terms like bad bitch – ‘a confident, desirable woman (40-1)’ – and the chicer, Frencher-looking ‘heaux’ instead of ‘ho’ are currently being used as terms of endearment and humorous affection between women, thanks mostly to speakers and creators of African-American Vernacular English.
So, words can and do change in meaning, Montell wants to stress. Sometimes slowly, but also sometimes quickly. To take an example, she asks us to recall the word ‘suffragette’, which, when it was first coined by political opponents, was intended as a smear and referred to the ‘husbandless hag[s] who dared to want to vote’ (42). However, activists immediately ‘stole’ the term for their campaign, and now the label connotes qualities such as courage, honour and strength. If anything, this is Montell’s aim in Wordslut: that women, and indeed any other groups oppressed by language, continue to consciously take language into their own hands in order to verbally, as they say, ‘smash the patriarchy’.
Another area that Montell suggests women can take linguistic action is in describing the act of sex. Disturbingly, as a beginning reference, she cites, British slang lexicographer, Jonathan Green’s collation and study of terms used for male and female genitalia spanning from the 1500s to 2013. (Interestingly, he collected 2,600 word items, more words than were in the first English dictionary.) But more to the point, Green was looking for patterns, and what he found was that the penis has been, over five centuries, most commonly described as some kind of weapon, and the vagina, a passageway, a passive void. Furthermore, terms for intercourse were more often than not a way of saying ‘man hits woman’ (256). Montell sums up: ‘…our languages most potent phrases… paint a picture of women, men and sex from a cisgender dude’s perspective’ and ‘… portray… sex as… violent’ (205) What about instead, offers Montell: ‘We enveloped all night… I sheathed the living daylights out of him… it would be a real head-scratcher’ (257). Alternately, she goes on, could some inspiration be taken from trans folk who self-identify their own genitalia – venis, diclit, click (268) – and their own sexual experience? Overall, this is what Montell thinks is needed:
A discourse of sex as pleasure… acknowledging women as active desiring and sexually assertive subjects, not necessarily centred around the erect penis, will challenge and confront established power structures … a new mythology, one which speaks about mutual exploration, communication, discovery, and pleasuring one another, where penetration is not an end unto itself, but one of the many possibilities for erotic enjoyment.’ (Crawford, Kippax and Waldby in Montell, 268).
In subsequent chapters, Montell takes further inspiration from the linguistic creativity and inventiveness of queer communities. She gives the example of gay men in the Phillipines who have developed a particular, ever-changing lexicon called swardspeak, which ‘combines imaginative wordplay, pop culture references, malapropisms and onomatopoeia’ (242). Then, in the early to mid-twentieth century, there were the British gay men who used a particular vocabulary called Polari, which contained several hundred words and was a ‘mix of London slang, words pronounced backwards, and broken Romani, Yiddish and Italian’ (248). It, like swardspeak, was mainly used to identify speakers as homosexual and also as a protective device, but Polaris was ultimately discarded when homosexuality was legalised in 1967.
Lesbian slang and/or secret codes, on the other hand, writes Montell, are largely unrecorded or absent prior to the 1970s, mostly due to the fact that lesbians were once socially, historically and even linguistically invisible. Unbelievably, the word ‘lesbian’ was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 1976, and even then its usage was illustrated with this chilling example sentence:
‘I shall never write real poetry. Women never do, unless they are invalid, or lesbians, or something’ (281).
Nevertheless, second-wave feminists – lesbian or not – were incredibly productive and wrote umpteen feminist new dictionaries, transforming patriarchal speech ‘into a language for and about women’ (275). The most famous, Montell notes, was Mary Daly and Jane Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987). It includes revamped definitions such as this:
HAG: A Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women to the Wild (in Montell, 276).
And then there were those who invented whole new feminist languages, such as the linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin, who coined words to sum up what she thought to be ‘common physical, social, and emotional experiences shared by women, which were otherwise unspoken or would take multiple … sentences… to describe’ (279). One of Elgin’s head-nodding terms is this: radiidin, ‘…which translates to “a non-holiday”, or an occasion generally thought to be a holiday but is actually a burden due to women having to cook, decorate, prepare for so many guests single-handedly’ (279). The entire final chapter of Montell’s book is devoted to these second-wave feminists’ ambitious and expansive linguistic undertakings.
In many senses, Wordslut is a carrying of the torch, a continuation of these earlier feminists’ work. Like her forebears, Montell shows and gives women ‘the knowledge to reclaim the language that for so long has been used against us’ (20). She sees language as the next frontier of gender equality and her book has plenty of suggestions for how to take charge. One, as recent research has indicated, is this: for women in the public eye or in positions of authority, the best approach is, rather than listening to spin doctors and life or voice coaches, simply to be oneself (225). This is advice that Montell certainly takes on herself. Readers will enjoy her shameless humour, the intellectual stimulation, historical detours, current-day relevancy and the way her book deconstructs social norms in many unexpected ways. Ultimately, Wordslut is hopeful. And for those who want more, there is a TV adaptation coming soon.
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Brisbane-based writer of short fiction and creative nonfiction. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, feminist and queer themes, oral storytelling traditions and celebratory stories of social interconnectedness.
by Marlee Jane Ward
Reviewed by Fernanda Dahlstrom
Prisoncorp is the third volume in a young adult speculative fiction trilogy that engages with issues in contemporary Australian society. Marlee Jane Ward posits a near-future setting where current legal and economic trends have gone to an extreme, but which contains enough of the current features of our country to ring uncomfortably true. The first book, Orphancorp won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2016 and was heralded as timely, in the same year that confronting footage of human rights violations in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre became public, raising questions about the criminalisation and institutionalisation of vulnerable youth.
Ward’s series centres around orphan Mirii, who believes herself to be Aboriginal, but has lost her connection to family and country. She knows her last name means ‘shooting star’ in an Aboriginal language, but only because she looked it up on the Tab that is her only connection to the outside world. In Orphancorp, Mirii counts down to the day she will obtain ‘age release’ from the privatised foster system in which she has grown up. A rebellious girl with a dirty mouth, Mirii is subjected to brutal forms of discipline in the days leading up to her release from the ironically named Verity House, where information is near impossible to come by.
In the sequel, Psynode, we re-join Mirii a few months after her age release. She is staying in a women’s dormitory and feeling that, while at Verity House it was ‘us and them’, now it’s her against everyone. Mirii gets a job and waits impatiently for the day she is supposed to meet up with Vu on the steps of the old Sydney Town Hall, one of the few old buildings still standing. However, her plans go awry, and she is arrested for a suite of offences committed in the process of trying to free Vu, the girl she ‘like-likes’, from her captors.
Prisoncorp opens with Mirii being held in a solitary confinement cell at the notorious corporatized prison located in a remote part of the Australian desert. She is not, however, alone. Her nemesis, Freya, is with her and the novel plunges straight into action with a fist fight between the two girls. Mirii reflects that although she earlier had an epiphany about how their enmity ‘played into what the system wanted of me’ (p.2), Freya has not achieved this insight. Relationships between women are consistently foregrounded in Prisoncorp. Mirii’s friendships are staunch, but we are afforded no illusion that any general sense of sisterhood can be counted on. An unknown prisoner of whom Mirii asks a favour promptly tells her, ‘go fuck yourself’ (p. 6). A day out of solitary, Mirii discovers her crimes are so serious as to warrant a ‘real, human lawyer’ (p. 31), whose face pops up on a screen to tell Mirii that she will be doing 25 years for manslaughter.
Mirii is soon reunited with kids from Verity House. Young people who grow up in the system are seen beating a well-worn track into prison, a familiar pattern that reminds us of how far along the path to this future we have already come. The privatisation of the prison system, which began in Australia in the early 90s, is now complete, with the prison headed up not by a Warden but by a Chief Operations Officer (COO), who ‘represents the board’ (p. 36). Ward’s depiction of prison from the point of view of an Indigenous woman alludes to current concerns about prison demographics. The fastest rising incarceration rate in Australia is currently that of Indigenous women This concern is made explicit when another prisoner tells Mirii, ‘There are a lot of us in here…it’s a crime to be Koori in our own bloody country’ (p. 97).
Ward presents the prison industrial complex and the immigration detention industry as inseparable, with the screws announcing unceremoniously that 200 immigration detainees are to be amalgamated with the prison population. This prompts Mirii to reflect:
I feel about as hopeless as they do. I wonder where they’re all from, how they thought their new life in Australia might go. Did they expect to be rounded up and put into this dusty camp, to waste away on starvation rations? Weren’t they seeking something better, and is this better, or is it more of the same? (p. 61)
The book’s engagement with current human rights issues gives Ward’s predictions an uncanny immediacy, but it also leaves us craving more detail. How did we get from the Australia we know to this near future? Why are there few old buildings left? Where does the climate crisis stand? Where is this hellish private prison located?
Mirii’s sexual involvement with Vu is presented as unproblematic throughout the series (except to the extent that touching anyone is forbidden in the Orphancorp). Ward also presents a number of other same-sex sexual encounters and their queerness passes without comment. Monogamy seems to be a thing of the past, as do fixed sexual identities. In Psynode, Mirii recounts a history of sexual experiences that would make Tony Abbott and other opponents of Safe Schools shudder: boys, girls, threesomes and kink. The unproblematised sexual fluidity of Ward’s characters provides welcome relief from the overall bleakness of her premise. It allows the focus to remain on the struggle of these young women against a brutal and oppressive system while suggesting some more liberal developments in Australian society in the near future, taking Ward’s vision beyond a simple dystopia.
The plot progresses swiftly, with Mirii’s initial hopelessness turning into resolve as she and her friends conceive of an escape from Prisoncorp, which snowballs into a full-scale riot. Characters express doubts over where they will go after breaking through the fences, given they are in the middle of the desert. The situation calls to mind the mass break-out of the overcrowded Woomera Immigration Detention Centre during a protest by refugee activists in 2002, which led to clashes between Corrections and asylum seekers fleeing across the South Australian desert.
The novel climaxes with an uprising that confronts us with some of the ethical dilemmas associated with rebellion. How to treat one’s captors once they become one’s prisoners? To what extent can individuals be blamed for acts committed in obedience to orders? Can you justify risking the life of someone whose name you don’t even know to attain freedom for the group?
Prisoncorp includes an epilogue of only a few pages in which we glimpse the aftermath of the series’ dramatic conclusion. This is precious little space to explore the myriad ways characters have developed over the three books or how society may look outside of the institutions where most of the action has taken place and this feels like a missed opportunity. However, Prisoncorp offers a powerful vision of the future of the carceral state and a warning of the dark places to which prison privatisation threatens to lead.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Art Guide and Feminarsty.
Too Much Lip
by Melissa Lucashenko
University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5996 8
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
Talking Back: Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
If this book were a sound, it would be the roar of a motorcycle down an empty road; bold, and for the moments when it’s in your path, dominating of all your senses. This book swallowed me and churned me in its guts and, as all good books should, spit me back out, a little bit different.
Its premise is not unfamiliar: a woman is called to return to her home as her grandfather nears death to say goodbye, and finds more waiting for her than she had anticipated. But Lucashenko renders this framework classic rather than clichéd. Melissa Lucashenko’s name has been synonymous with vivid characters negotiating the complexities of belonging since her debut novel Steam Pigs was released in 1997. Tangled and tumultuous relationships are her hallmark, and the Salters, the family around which Too Much Lip centres, are no exception. The story boils with emotion, and its characters carry scars both physical and invisible from their shared past.
In Too Much Lip, a stranger rides into town, “but it wasn’t a stranger, it was Kerry”— the novel’s observant, funny and immediately likeable in a she-says-what-we’re-thinking way protagonist. She roars into frame on the back of Harley, headed to her hometown of Durrongo in Bundjalung country, northern New South Wales. Kerry is a marvellously difficult woman to pin down—a self-described lesbian who falls for a man, a ‘lone wolf’ who thinks often of her ex-girlfriend and cares deeply for family, almost despite herself. The novel doesn’t dwell overly on romance, but Kerry’s burgeoning relationship with her handsome former schoolmate, Steve Abarco, complicates her understanding of herself. Kerry never calls herself bisexual rather than a lesbian, a fact that was jarring at first. However, I came to see it as a part of her all-or-nothing image of the world, rather than any oversight on the part of the author. That the exception to her sexuality is a white man is even more of an about-face for Kerry, who treats the white ‘redneck’ townsfolk of Durrongo with earned suspicion:
“Had they realised at all that running was a bulwark against the taunts slung about so casually at Patto high? Nigger, nigger, pull the trigger. Kerry would sneer at the white faces mouthing the words- Abo, black bitch, boong- and picture their owners wheezing on the edge of the track as she floated past triumphant, her giant banner reading: Whatever, maggots.” ( 59)
Jim Buckley, the land-grabbing white mayor of Durrongo, slights Kerry nearly as soon as she arrives home, and threatens a beloved site of family history for the Salters. Drawn into the fight for her family’s land, Kerry is a reluctant activist, her cleverness and rage useful weapons against greedy developers. While it would be easy to call Jim Buckley the antagonist of the novel, he is only its human form: personifying white selfishness and the disrespect of Indigenous people that is all too persistent, in fiction as in historical fact. White Australia’s callous disregard for Indigenous people is the social and structural violence at work in this novel; and slaying it, or chipping away at it the best one person can, is Kerry’s heroic journey.
Too Much Lip is thus as much about repairing past damage and safeguarding against future destruction as it is about new romance. The Salters distance themselves from each other in ways literal and metaphoric. They are tough, loving, violent and soft by turns, never easy and certainly never dull. Kerry’s older brother Ken drinks and rages without quite knowing why, his son is entranced by the escapism the computer screen offers, and her mother’s Tarot cards guide her way through the world. Kerry and her middle brother, Black Superman, have put physical distance between themselves and Durrongo, and their sister Donna, missing since her sixteenth birthday, is a gaping hole of absence in the Salter family.
Despite—or perhaps because of?—its depth, Too Much Lip retains much of the dark comedy for which Lucashenko’s 2013 novel Mullumbimby was so well received. Winner of the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, Mullumbimby also circled themes of the bittersweet familial obligation and the sacredness of land, though Too Much Lip arguably pushes Lucashenko to darker and more personal places. Lucashenko herself described the writing of Too Much Lip as “frightening” and “retraumatising”, and while the enduring rawness is evident, the novel reads as anything but fearful. Lucashenko’s characters feel real and personal. The first chapter is preceded by a quote from a 1908 court case, where an Indigenous woman has shot a man. This woman, Lucashenko reveals, was her great-grandmother, Christina Copson, and a source of inspiration for Too Much Lip’s incisive depiction of the white people in power in Durrongo.
Early in the novel, Kerry stumbles on a quintessentially-Australian image of sublime natural horror- a crow, having tried to eat a dead brown snake, has caught its head in the skeleton of the snake. This grotesquery is Australia writ-small; a penetrating force attempting to invade that which it does not understand. Three other crows that have gathered near the snake speak to Kerry in a mix of English and Bundjalung, a moment which allows Lucashenko to establish the uniquely Indigenous realism of her novel.
“The snake-crow tilted its mutant head at her.
‘Gulganelehla Bundjalung’. Speak Bundjalung. A test of good character.
‘Bundjalung ngaoi yugam baugal,’ she said. My Bundjalung is crap. The bird hesitated.” ( 9)
Moments like this evoke Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book: terming them as ‘magic realism’ undermines the deft translation of an Australian experience as real and complex as any described by a Tim Winton or Christos Tsiolkas text. Too Much Lip doesn’t gesture at universality, or attempt to speak for anyone. Instead, it speaks personally on shared issues of family, home and loss.
Indeed, one of the many remarkable feats this novel achieves is its determined peeling away of the layers of toxic masculinity to reveal the trauma at its core. The male characters in Too Much Lip, particularly the four generation of Salter men, carry heavy burdens that are revealed bit by aching bit through their interactions with each other and the women of the novel. Even the local landscape, so loved by the Salter family, imparts an omnipresent threat of violence:
“Maybe it was a dog to begin with, or a doob, for that matter. But make no mistake. That mountain’s a fist now, girl.” Pop told her, letting his arm drop. He looked at her in anguish.
“It’s a gunjibal’s fist waiting for us mob to step outta line, waiting to smash us down. We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that.” (64)
Memories like this proliferate the novel, as the Salter siblings attempt to make sense of their past and protect their future. Lucashenko’s writing is never sentimental, and yet the careful revelation of the secret darkness rotting the heart of the Salter family is deeply moving. By lovingly sketching characters who are deeply flawed, Lucashenko hints at redemption without the need for saccharine prose. It was fascinating to read this book in the wake of the debate over the cogency of Erik Jensen’s decision to disqualify from the Horne Essay Prize “essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians”. While it’s a complex issue I wouldn’t presume to be able to solve, I was struck reading this book the importance of telling your own story, your own way. What makes Too Much Lip not only engaging while reading, but memorable, is its tangible roots, which burrow deeply into the realities of Australian existence, through the author, this country, and now, this reader.
Chernery, Susan. “Melissa Lucashenko: Too Much Lip was a frightening book to write”. The Sydney Morning-Herald. 27/07/18. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/melissa-lucashenko-too-much-lip-was-a-frightening-book-to-write-20180724-h1326h.html
Lucashenko, Melissa. Too Much Lip. QUP. 2018. Pp. 9, 59, 64.
Wahlquist, Calla. “Horne essay prize scraps rule change after judges resign in protest”. The Guardian. 24/9/18. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/24/horne-essay-prize-scraps-rule-change-after-judges-resign-in-protest
Wright, Alexis. The Swan Book. Giramondo Publishing, 2013.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poem was recently short-listed for the University of Melbourne Creative Arts poetry prize, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others.
Stone Mother Tongue
by Annamaria Weldon
Reviewed by LINDSAY TUGGLE
Resurrecting the Oracle: Stone Mother Tongue
Annamaria Weldon’s luminous fourth collection returns the poet to the archipelago of her birth. Stone Mother Tongue begins in prehistoric Malta, where Weldon mourns the “goddesses we trample[ed]” across the centuries. The poet guides us through shifting incarnations of her homeland, where “Recollection is mapped country folded backwards / along familiar creases” (50). Weldon’s poetry enacts a uniquely feminine divination; she calls forth a goddess oracle unbound from history, a statuary tongue unloosed from time. Ancient relics —museumed, looted, or abandoned—are portals to haunted islands where “pre-history seems just offshore . . . time’s lost coast in stone, not words.” Weldon elegantly negotiates the fraught territory between conflicted and conflicting histories: collective and personal, traumatic and resilient, human and divine.
At first glance, Stone Mother Tongue is arranged geographically and chronologically: Part 1) Prehistoric Malta, Part 2) Phoenician Malta, Part 3) Anthropocene, Antipodes. Yet Weldon’s mesmeric slight of hand is already at play. Within each section, her poetry unsettles both geographical borders and linear time, paradoxically disturbing the author’s own system of organization. Weldon’s readers cross and recross liminal thresholds, inhabiting poetic interstices where boundaries and clocks have no sway.
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) signifies the ambiguity of middle rites, when the seeker has shed her pre-ritual status but has not yet completed her rite of passage. Arnold Van Gennep integrated the concept of liminality into anthropology in his 1909 study Les Rites de Passage, which outlines three distinct phases of ritual progression: separation, liminality, and incorporation. Van Gennep’s ritual trinity is relevant not only to Weldon’s poetically resurrected antiquity; the anthropological concept of liminality also captures the elegiac melancholy of her work. At once preciously specific and sweeping in their historical resonance, her poems mourn the erasure of deities, landscapes, selves and beloved others.
In a land where “asteroids once smashed to earth,” language remains as eroded as geological history: “Each remnant’s recorded by era, / but Beta counting only calculates rates of decay, / a relic’s meaning remains cryptic (50, 23). This curated vacancy creates space for illumination and divination. Weldon calls on “incantatory” stones to resurrect an ancient, maternal language, born of a time “When everything was the Goddess /and stone was our mother tongue.” Her elegiac “undersong” mines the blank spaces beyond and between words, the inability of language to capture the most enigmatic aspects of human history: our ancestors and their deities. Yet, she insists that the oracle’s translation can only ever be partial. The Goddess speaks “a language [as] untranslatable as stars in daylight.” Despite the poet’s efforts at resurrection, “a relic’s meaning remains cryptic” (23).
The first section in Part One, “Divining the Neolithic,” shows us that even when ancient matriarchal rituals and relics have been ravaged by time and violence, traces of divinity linger. “Geomancy” reconfigures the “broken altars” of abandoned temples.
Time and weather, the ploughman’s husbandry
and urban sprawl effaced them, leaving us to guess
the geomancy, gutted now from enigmatic temples. (32)
Agriculture, exposure, and expansion have “effaced” this holy site, but the final desecration is rendered as an anatomical wound: the temple has been “gutted.” Part of Weldon’s poetic magnetism lies in her capacity to evoke visceral responses through language that is often violently acute: “History’s survivors have heard it all before / the sound of invasion that some call arrival.” Yet, Weldon asks far more of her audience than simply outliving the open wounds of history. Survival, she tells us, “is not endurance alone” (20-21). As an (inevitably partial) antidote to the unceasing escalation of gender violence across the centuries, she conjures divine maternal voices from the deep past, a chorus that both harrows and heals.
Goddess, when your body was worshipped
as holy matrix of the world incarnate
no clerics or sceptics mocked our devotion
and love conjured more power than hate. (18)
Throughout Weldon’s work, divination is disturbed by the arrival of new wounds, both personal and cultural. The deconsecrated temple has become a tourist destination, its deities reduced to ancient curiosities.
Inside the sanctuary walls, torba floors endure
as bone-white ground, broken as the silence now
deities are curios, gift shop souvenirs. (31)
While it may not be possible to resurrect the goddesses that once inhabited this hallowed ground, Weldon compels us to try. She invites us to listen beyond the gaudy white noise of our century, for the low hum of an oracle who keeps the secrets of her own survival well guarded, despite the hoards of curiosity seekers who trample her grave. Yet, Weldon’s poetry is far more nuanced than directive. While she argues that survival entails more than mere endurance, she does not reveal the resilient alchemy for surviving history’s ravages. That mystery belongs to the deity, alone.
Catalogued as myth, in time She was denied
all ceremonies, those rituals that temper
time’s lapse to entropy. (45)
This inquiry underpins the poems of Stone Mother Tongue: How do we, as a species, survive “time’s lapse to entropy”? Could the resurrection of ancient, maternally-embodied rituals help us to “temper” the technologically-saturated ennui of late capitalism? These questions are integral to Weldon’s work, even as they are revealed as unanswerable. The goddess’s stone tongue remains immobile, her “silence mystical and terrible” (33).
“In Geotherapy” Weldon’s archival poetics turns inward, enigmatically curating personal wounds alongside antiquity’s ravaged aftermath:
Enlist a devoted archivist to polish history.
When topography frames experience, you will accept
the residual changes heartache left in its wake. (50)
The poet becomes her own “devoted archivist,” preserving histories that are at once personal and collective, ever-present and archaic. In “Devotion’s Aftermath,” the Goddess shines as an elusive specimen of antiquity, “hidden in plain sight” (45).
In “Borderlands,” Weldon guides us into the liminal “Interstice” between the living and the dead. “Disarticulated by its darkness, we / have traversed all the stations of being / from birth to the excarnation of bones.” The portal of “sympathetic magic” is guarded by the “gaze of ancestral protection” — a hollow skull “watching all our futures.” (56). Under the protective eyes of this this spectral guard,, women gather, “as if willingly entombed,” crooning not in mourning but in celebration: “mantras of maternal consolation that rise / and fall with the birthing cries of the woman crouched on the cusp of deliverance.” Now, after the desecration and (partial) resurrection of ancestral deities and their followers, a birth arrives, and “the boundary between worlds is breached” (57). A new divinity — human, this time– emerges from “the cocoon of smooth deliverance. . . / a priestess / is not made, nor merely / born, but recognized” (59).
The poems of Part 2, “Phoenician Malta,” document the atrocities inflicted on the Maltese people by “colonizers, slavery, trade, cruelty” (70). Weldon interrogates what the Phoenicians brought with them as well as what they stole or destroyed, treating the islands merely as a “stepping stone settlement” (73). “Entire seashores, bays and beaches made middens” by an insatiable hunger for beauty that demanded destruction:
A quarter million snails sacrificed
for one ounce of dye.” (69)
In “This Precious Stain,” Weldon questions “What stories lay– still lie–beyond beauty!” and whether, “if we knew / their true cost, would their magic be dispelled / or the enchantment deepen?” Other poems elegize the human cost of quarrying the islands’ precious stones (formerly the source material for the statues of maternal deities who dominated Part One, “Prehistoric Malta”). These stones are now subjected to a “violent separation.” “Enormous slabs” are quarried and “prised open with fire, sanded smooth to elide the trauma / of calving rock.” The colonizing labour of unsettling these relics of geological time is equally violent: “Boys died here from a moment’s slippage, manoeuvring the masonry.” “Crushing has many sounds,” including “an exhalation / vaguely human, hanging in the air / hauntingly as final breath.” (71)
Alongside the desecration of the islands’ people and resources, the Phoenicians left something behind: an alphabet. “Newly designed Phoenician letters” gave those who survived the invasion and its aftermath the words to record their trauma: “incised on clay / or inked on papyrus. Before their invention / thoughts that could only be wept / sank unmarked into the dark water.” (67) In “A Shoreline Scripted for Heartbreak” we follow the “arrivals and departures” of the “Literate, captive women . . . assigned as scribes to passing merchants.” Starkly rendered in sparse language, the poem elegizes the “Ill-fated, unrecorded, charged encounters” these women endured in the “ceaseless maritime traffic” of “colonisers, pirates, naval flotillas, hospital ships, refugee boats, cruise liners, smugglers.” Weldon once again holds our hand to the flame, forcing us to see the harrowing similarities between the human trafficking of their century and our own.
Part Three, “Anthropocene, Antipodes,” merges Australia’s cultural amnesia with the aphasia of personal grief. “What I Saw at the War Memorial” articulates the national tendency towards historical erasure with the compulsion to create monuments that privilege nationally sanctioned deaths, while participating violently in the erasure of other, marginal massacres.
Grief is the gap where words
won’t meet. Time is a stone-cutter
quarrying rocks for monuments.
Memorials are what we build
to limn the invisible, mark thresholds
we can’t cross [.] (101)
In the 21st century’s amnesiac liminality, such thresholds of grief remain invisible and impossible to cross, rendered in fissures of language and memory. The poems of this final section embody an enigmatic loss of unity, sketching a deliberately fragmented picture of “grief’s blurred peripheries” against the hazy backdrop of “memories that rise like mist” (99). Weldon’s final poems elegize a multiplicity of losses, including a harrowingly beautiful tribute to her father’s remaining memories as he struggles with dementia:
when all that’s left
of your former life are those memories of the journey,
sightings and oracles remind me who you are — had been
before your mind soared to where there are no maps. (103)
In the end, Weldon brings us full circle, the poet herself becomes an oracle in “Leaning Back Towards the Neolithic.” Returning to her ancestral homeland, divination is not invoked or invited, but embodied:
From village to hamlet, the valley path from Gharb
to Birbuba has become my pilgrim’s way, each step
rephrasing me as I walk it. Words come unasked,
immersive as the weather of prayer, heartache
like a fig tree’s barren longing to bear fruit.
In her “Epilogue,” Weldon shows us that even when the statues of ancient dieties have all been effaced, the oracles silenced for centuries, poetry can offer a portal into the liminal threshold of harrowed divinity — if we only are willing to seek out the ruins, and to listen to the halting echoes of our Mother’s stone tongues.
LINDSAY TUGGLE is the author of The Afterlives of Specimens (The University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Calenture (Cordite Books, 2018) which was commended in the Anne Elder Award and shortlisted in the Mary Gilmore Prize. She has been a fellow at the Library of Congress, the Mütter Museum / College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
out of emptied cups
by Anne Casey
Launched by ELEANOR HOOKER
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote poetry is a ‘dividend from what you know and what you are’.
I am going to tell you about Anne Casey, the person, things I imagine you already know – Anne is a powerhouse, a force for good in a world where cynicism and doubt abound. She is collegiate, kind and considerate of her fellow poets, wherever they might live – just look at her social media, her reach and her conversations are global, she celebrates our successes and commiserates when we miss – that’s a rare thing and something to be cherished. Thankfully, Anne’s accomplishments and achievements have not changed her, she is too steady and noble a character to have her head turned by that.
The poems in out of emptied cups, Anne’s second collection with Salmon Poetry, make the unseen appear, whether it is beloved family members long gone, souls transitioning between this world and their next incarnation, or monsters (who are ever denied a hiding place in a Casey poem).
In many of Anne’s poems, tragedy and joy collide, and it is this collision that moves her poems toward: action – that which nudges us toward conscience, ecological consciousness, and self awareness, and, discovery – that which incites in us the wish to live well. I will talk about this later.
Just as a cinematographer uses a camera, Anne uses language in her poems to create a visual aesthetic – in her poem ‘out of a thousand cups’ (the first poem in the collection) Anne employs a filmic pan to show us the ascent of a soul before its turnaround and return to re-emerge in a different form, and the effect is feather light.
She uses the same technique in ‘All Souls’, the final poem in the collection – shifting between the noises, sights and sounds of Australia, and those desperately poignant images of her mother, delivered of a terminal diagnosis and yearning for her child, twinned with a suffocating religious iconography, associated with old Ireland. All of this is in contrast to the openness and natural exuberance of her adopted homeland, where ‘rainbow lorikeets… ‘will swoop… lifting our hearts/out of emptied cups and away with them into/the heavens’ – a suggestion that Australia is the land where Anne will live out her days.
When I’m editing footage from a lifeboat rescue, I’m careful where to place transitions so as to move the story of the callout scene from scene – transitions are like a blinking eye, that, each time it opens it encounters another image, another time. Anne places her ‘transitions’ to masterful effect in her poem ‘if I were to tell you’, as she shifts our view place from place and person to person central to her life – the second verse is a heart-stopper and illustrates how in describing the personal, that moment of wanting to speak to a parent and remembering that they have died, Anne depicts a universal moment of grief. (I was brought back to a moment soon after my own Dad died when, alone in my car on my drive home, I called out ‘Dad?’ – I frightened myself, and the absence of a response was just desperate.)
This collection includes poems that are at once mysterious and captivating. ‘Wildness’ is a personal favourite, and though the wild creature is never named (and that restraint adds power to the poem,) Anne draws on the many tropes of woman as shape-shifter: selkie; of the woman-hare that links to the Otherworld (a notion central to Irish folklore – Aos Sí), and even to the concept of doppelgänger. At another level the poem is about woman denying her true nature, suppressing her instincts. Interestingly, at her launch, Anne gave an altogether different account of this poem – which shows how a reader imports meaning to a work.
and I will curl up
wrap myself in your shed skin
and marvel at its length
all that had held you back
your wildness denied
This haunting poem encapsulates one of the central themes in out of emptied cups, that of a woman navigating an often unforgiving world, but ultimately recovering self and strength through family and history, by loving and being loved.
If poetry is the closest art we have to silence, Anne’s poems frame the silences. She is fearless in observing what can and should be named, and what should remain unnamed.
Jane Hirshfield has said that one of the ‘laws of poetry seems to be that there can be no good poem of unalloyed happiness, that good poems always pull in two directions’, and this is certainly what Anne achieves in her book, that sudden shift, that collision, achieved purely by precision of words.
A wonderful example of this (and of an exquisite employment of visual metaphor and experimentation with form), is offered in Anne’s poem thank you for shopping with us – a remonstration that our eco-destruction will literally cost us our earth.
This collection is one of vitality and rhythm. It uses the music of words to make silence felt, and leaves the reader with the glad appreciation that there is so much more to poetry than meaning alone.
Before I conclude I would like to acknowledge the Trojan work Jessie Lendennie and Siobhan Hutson do at Salmon Poetry, their support for poets and especially women poets is phenomenal and is celebrated; the Press is an inspiration.
I will finish with another quote by Czeslaw Milosz written in 1996 and as pertinent today as it was then, and which relates both to Anne’s poetry and Salmon Poetry – ‘that poets today can form a confraternitas transcending distances and language differences may be one of the few encouraging signs in the current chaotic world order.’
Congratulations Anne, I wish you and your work every success.
Photograph: Anne Casey with Eleanor Hooker and Luka Bloom
ELEANOR HOOKER is an Irish poet and writer. She has published two poetry collections with Dedalus Press: A Tug of Blue (2016); The Shadow Owner’s Companion (2012). Her third collection will be published in 2020, she is working on a novel. Eleanor holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA (Hons) in Cultural History from the University of Northumbria, and a BA (Hons 1st) from the Open University, UK. Eleanor is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (FLS). She is a helm for Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat.
Jungle Without Water and Other Stories
by Sreedhevi Iyer
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
The good things in this collection of short stories, Jungle Without Water, are very good indeed. But before talking about some of them in detail I want to briefly touch on the major theme of this book, which is the migrant experience in many of its different phases. In each of the stories mentioned in this review the main subject of the work is the way that people fit into society when they, or their antecedents, come from somewhere else. In some of the stories the main characters are people from India living in Malaysia but the title story, for example, takes as its subject an Indian student living in Brisbane, in Australia.
While it’s easy to thus find a unifying theme for the book, the narratives Iyer creates are not totally dominated by it. The clash of identity and custom that in one of her stories troubles an Indian-Malay living in Kuala Lumpur might be equally relevant for an Anglo businessman living in a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. In fact, where Iyer stumbles it is where the standard postcolonial narrative gains unnecessary prominence and politics overshadows art. The best stories here focus on the seeming-random details of lived experience.
The second story in the collection, which is titled ‘The Lovely Village’, is written as a fairytale and it takes as its subject the treatment of migrants who want to come into a village where there is equality for all. This story stood out for me in that it seemed not to be as deeply rooted in lived experience as the other stories in the book, and I found it to be rather weak in conception and lacking in the kind of impact that characterises many of the other stories.
After finishing several of the stories I felt a physical thrill on the skin of my neck, which is always a sign to me that the work I have just completed was particularly successful. I more often get this kind of sensation when reading a good short story or a good poem, as such methods of storytelling tend to conclude on a strong tonic note that reverberates once the final word has been consumed. Novels do not usually finish in this way and their impact tends to be spread out over longer stretches of text, with less sudden impact.
The first story in the collection, which I have already mentioned, is its title story. It deals with a young man named Jogi who is living in the Queensland capital with the aim of studying at university. His links with his family back in India remain strong, and one day after he has arrived in Australia his mother, who has stayed behind in his homeland, asks him to say a prayer for her husband who has to undertake a transfer for work. She is worried about how the transfer will affect Jogi’s father and family tradition maintains that prayers Jogi says are particularly effective.
Jogi relies on his friend Sandeep, who has lived in Brisbane for three weeks longer than Jogi, to help him carry out his assigned task. They visit a holy man in a place of worship in multicultural Brisbane but when Jogi sits down to pray nothing comes out of his mouth. They visit another holy place, this time one run by Westerners who follow Krishna, and they tell him that the particular prayer he wants to say is not permitted. Once again Jogi leaves a place where he should have been able to perform his familial duty, without being able to do so. He eventually fulfils his obligation but it happens, almost by accident, with the aid of a teenage girl who does nothing more than talk to Jogi one day on the street.
I won’t say anything more, as I feel as though I have already given away more than I should, but I felt that this story served to say important things about multiculturalism and about the migrant experience, things that other types of document would struggle to say. The words of the title, “a jungle without water”, pop up at two places in the story and they function to bring together disparate parts of the narrative, making the interstices between things so narrow that what happens seems like fate. This is an elegant story that functions to convey truths about immigration in a way that everybody can understand.
The context of that story is local for an Australian and so the way into the narrative was easier for me than it was in some of the other stories in the collection, for example ‘The Man With Two Wives’. This story is focalised entirely through the consciousness of a Indian-Malay who runs shops in Malaysia retailing food and it is written using the kind of language that the man, who is not badly educated but who uses Malay, Indian, and English words in his daily conversations, would normally employ. It is a small tour-de-force that says much about the culture that underpins the story. You feel as though you know this man well and when you hear his story of starting a course of study in accountancy, and there meeting a young woman named Lata, you get to experience his feelings in a way that vividly brings his world to life.
The protagonist is never named and neither is his wife. His daughter is Malathi and she ends up gaining prominence at the end of the story. His relationship with Lata, which causes so many tongues in his town to wag, is one of great importance to the protagonist and it is clear that while he married for the sole purpose of satisfying his mother’s wishes, with Lata things are different. His wife is only interested in buying gold jewellery and sarees, but Lata listens to what he has to say and her attention serves to justify an interior existence that the man’s daily business and family life does little to fulfil.
One day, the protagonist attends a job interview that Lata has encouraged him to go to. He enters a tall building by the sea and sits down in a room in front of a group of men, one of whom is a Westerner. The way his wife and the way Lata behave once the interview is over, however, tell him things about his world that he didn’t understand before. This is an effective, thoughtful, and powerful work of fiction that efficiently performs the tasks the author has set for it.
I will take a quick look at one other story in the collection, and it is also one that appears in the first half of the book. This is ‘Green Grass’, and it deals with a man named Mohan and his wife, who is a Westerner named Rachel, who come back to India to visit family. The event is an important one for the whole village where Mohan grew up. The way people living in the village treat Rachel, because of where she comes from and because of her relationship with her husband, contains the dramatic material the story relies on to communicate its messages about globalisation. It is focalised entirely through the consciousness of one of the villagers.
Each of these stories is different from the others in so many ways: in the way the narrative evolves, in the kinds of characters portrayed, and in the plot devices that each relies on to fulfil its purpose. There is a wry and knowing candour in many of Iyer’s stories. It not only helps to give the reader confidence in the author’s sincerity and intelligence but it also, paradoxically, allows Iyer to set herself apart from the drama and to view the events that unfold with a dispassionate eye. Even as you sense she cares very much about her creations, she also situates herself at a certain distance from them as they go about their business in her narratives. And despite their differences, each story mentioned here is excellent because it communicates a large amount of information in a small space.
I found other stories in Jungle Without Water to be less powerful than these and there are others too that I have not mentioned that I also thought good. There is plenty in this collection, which was first published two years ago, for any reader, and especially for an Australian one. After all, we are living in an Asian nation.
I want to finish with a note about the cover illustration used for the book. The watercolour employed is by Julian Meagher and his gallerist is Edwina Corlette, who has her shop, appropriately for the collection, in Brisbane.
With my mother I lived up north for five-and-a-half years. On one occasion I drove her when she was elderly down to the capital to see Corlette’s shop. Corlette’s parents had lived in the same suburb in Sydney where I grew up and she remembered mum because of our family’s gift shop. In fact everybody living there knew about Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories – the name used for the shop was my paternal grandmother’s – and we did a roaring trade at Christmastime, when people give presents to family members and to friends. Among the items mum and granny sold in large numbers were Indian cotton print dresses; this was the 60s and these kinds of garments were all the rage.
The use of Meagher’s painting for this collection seemed to me to be something, therefore, like fate, like what happens in its title story. A small sign of a kind you sometimes come across telling you that there are things in the world that cannot be understood entirely through reason.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
Down The Hume
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by HAROLD LEGASPI
There is not a simple matter of homogenous ‘queer’ voice, literary or otherwise (Hurley, 2010). As poststructuralist theorists have contended, for various historical and social reasons, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are discursively unstable and contested categories (Jagose, 2002) and homosexuality is ‘a performative space of contradiction’ (Sedgwick , 1990). In highlighting Polites’ engagement through his noir, i.e. of the thornier breaches of the queer-racial diaspora, I seek to explore the ideals behind his proposed definitive ‘queer’. Are bodies racialised erotically? Can queer love be normative? The answers to these questions, as the chapters of Down The Hume have argued, is yes, and the implication is that a radical tension and a central paradox is characteristic—are queer relationships driven by sex?—and perhaps even definitional—of the very term “queer” (Sedgwick, 1990).’
I have felt, time and again, that the boundedness of Polites’ queer imaginations suggests delimiting factors. While at times, Polites novel outruns many heteronormative cultural constructions, thereby placing his work within the queer realm; his championing of a protagonist in Bux, a second-generation Greek-Australian lad, often horny, distinctly off-beat and mostly impotent, strips Polites’ voice from ideologies or institutions that might give queers a less troubled life, albeit one that is ‘mainstream or normative’: life-long marriage and offspring.
Down The Hume portrays Bux and his Aussie ‘boyf,’ Nice Arms Pete through a masochistic (and at times clandestine) relationship fuelled by addiction to ‘little moons’ (street name: Syrinapx), amidst violent outbursts and sexual encounters with other men, juxtaposed with Bux’s traditional Greek upbringing, marking him as an outsider. It is an attempt to ‘reconfigure the blinding whiteness of suburban history’ by taking us on a ‘flâneur’s tour through the Western suburbs of ‘Lebs, wogs, and reffos’, with streets evoking memories as he laments the disappeared places of his youth, his observations filtered through an urgent patois of clipped sentences’ (Caward, 2017).
Down The Hume and other novels within its constellation, e.g. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995, Random House) position ‘queer’ hegemony that feels disenchanting by depicting characters who ‘lack a sovereign mind’, yet to ‘wake up’ from the consequences of their nihilistic fury. In a sense, the queer representations may promulgate homophobia by way of its self-indulgence, its construction of alternative values and ceaseless hopelessness. While this ‘queering,’ serve Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘making-strange of identities’ through ‘derangement and reconfiguration of conventional taxonomies,’ (Davidson , 2004) more than anything, it exposes the dark crevices, the shadows that lurk within the ‘thematic trinity of class, race and sexuality’ (Andersen, Collins, 1997) discourses that are a quintessential part of the narrative of suburban Western Sydney.
Down The Hume reads like an essay on tribalism (Caward, 2017). The community structure in Western Sydney is a device in achieving this narrative. One of the features of a queer noir is that the protagonist often does not have a solid family structure around them, as evidenced by the flailing tapestry of Bux’s relations with his parents (he is an only child). Down The Hume broadens, deepens, and complicates the kind of purgatory these characters are in, particularly Bux, who loves irrationally, but cannot justify his queer love as normative on the grounds of his dysfunctional family life.
Polites cautions: ‘a lot of people from a queer background first identify themselves culturally, then they label themselves as queer.’ (Polites, 2017) In an Althusserian sense therefore, one is ‘born into a nation, not just a nation…but into a ‘nationness,’ the ideology of nation as category of identity, a category that is continually reinforced by the state’ (Ashcroft, 2009). Bux in particular, identifies himself as Greek first then gay second, as a measure of ‘saving face’ with his parents. Even against his better judgement, Bux finds himself feeling proud, or more often, ashamed of his ‘nation.’ This is because, whether he likes it or not, it is his. Though when his Greek heritage and queerness are taken together, certain paradoxes are revealed, of the underlying psychology and politics of his racial eroticism.
Polites uses philosophical theories from the ‘F-fathers’—Freud and Foucault to demonstrate the trajectory of desire, fantasy and sexuality of his plot. Freud’s theory that male homosexuality developed from an ‘unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex’ aligns with Bux’s psychology of seeking ‘male sexual objects whom he might love as he had been loved by his mother’ (Freud, 1933). Freud’s notion of only one kind of libido, i.e. the masculine one focused on the phallus, pays attention to hyper-sexed portrayal of Bux and Nice Arms Pete. Moreover, the masochism between them, and their compulsion to repeat aggressive impulses, ‘succeed in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards (Robinson, 1972):’
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other. His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites’ queer imagination exhibits a prejudiced, often complex set of power-relations, which oscillates: Bux feels, at times, superiority as well as a disenchantment of his Whiter counterparts.
‘Dark Rum just a bit older than me; Lakemba Street light wasn’t generous enough to get a make on him. Pretty shitty skin. Oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over his face. The other one was younger, a scumbag Aussie, a dirtbag colonial. Sturdy legs with red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth…Scumbag Rat’s Tail let out a laugh. A high femme laugh…When that scumbag Aussie laughed, it changed the distance between us. Only one or two feet away but I could feel their breath, noticed how their trackpants fit around their waists. Their fingers were calloused with dirt underneath. I realised they wanted to unwrap me’ (Polites, 2017).
Bux subjugates the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ whom with his ‘femme laugh’ he deems a ‘dirtbag colonial,’ typified by Bux’s awareness of Britain’s colonial history. Foucault’s notion of power is therefore evoked, that the ‘individual is a result of power turning upon itself,’ (Rozmarin, 2005) when Bux derives a ‘focal point of resistance’ (ibid) to the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ which is affected by ‘specific historical power relations,’ formed by governmental, economic, and cultural institutions’ (Deleuze, 1986). I want to suggest that Polites’ positions Bux as a Greek queer ‘maverick’ with a special perspective on sexual and class norms, especially as the narrative consolidates around race, which might also be said to particularise his brand of class-racism rather than to remove him from the its grip’ (Brim, 2014).
Paradoxically, Down The Hume non-chalantly if not ironically pokes fun at clichéd ethnic stereotypes: from ‘Viet dudes’ with their ‘God complex’, ‘muscle Indian gay boy doctors who (speak) with phony deep voices,’ ‘Persian hotties’ from the north side who evade local Iranians to ‘copper Spanish Filo’s’ with their ‘Filomerican drawl.’ There’s slang, reversions to Greek, SMS texts, queer appropriations and ESL diction that exemplify the isolating force of language, These classifications, central to this novel, fuel Polites’ engine of divisiveness but can also be used to establish identity and inclusion. It has driven the relevance of Western Sydney in the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian literature.
That Down The Hume’s protagonists ingest a haul of painkillers as a form of escapism, is symptomatic of the jaded possibilities of the ‘kind of life’ they couldn’t have—‘being some wog fag way out west…limited money…housing insecurity…never having a wedding that (their) parents would dance at (Polites, 2017).’ The story portrays these men as victims, unconscious of the possibilities of their imaginations. The characterisations are such that they illicit a base depiction of young gay men, insecure, addicted and broken, in their plight for a just existence. It’s not the sex they fight for, it’s the lifestyle. This book is a silent plea, most evident in its final pages—‘I didn’t want a fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house (Polites, 2017).’
What there is then, is this quixotic striving for a normative outcome, evidenced by Bux and Nice Arms Pete living together, as well as with Bux’s journey to his origins in Greece in the final pages, where the protagonist sinks into a literal arrest. Here, Bux resolves his existential dilemma by delving deeper into his ancestral village, but concedes that the streets are his real home—Haldon, Park, Caldwell, Brunker Road, Burwood, Lakemba, and others. Like a vagabond, he questions their relevance, but derives their meaning as the places that have ‘wrapped themselves around (him)’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites has articulated such a fragile but sordid voice in Bux. Bux’s voice lacks direction but is uninhibited. Polites’ queer imagination fluctuates as it seeks to transgress the bounds that queerness tests, penetrates, and fails to penetrate. The readers can revel in Down The Hume’s noir posturing of a complex psyche. In as much as this, Polites’ voice sometimes feels frustrated, bereft of spirituality, as it oozes machismo among the white noise inhibiting his troubled existence. Down The Hume has remnants of the queer struggle for conformity and is best read upon brooding or with an apprehensiveness to the state of Sydney’s queer culture, an openness to the complexities constituting queer formations, or at least an appreciation for suburban pride and the evolving institution of marriage.
- Brim M, 2014, ‘The Queer Imagination and the Gay Male Conundrum’, University of Michigan Press.
- Hurley M, ‘Gay and Lesbian Writing and Publishing in Australia, 1961-2001’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2010, Web: https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c2b14e180e, [Accessed: 2 May 2018].
- Jagose A, 2002, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, New York: Cornell UP.
- Sedgwick E, 1990, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: U of California P.
- Caward C, 2 Mar 2017, Down The Hume review: evocative, if flawed, urban debut’, Sydney Morning Herald, Web: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-review-evocative-if-flawed-urban-debut-20170301-guny1q.html [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Davidson G, 2004, ‘Minor Literature, Microculture: Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace’, Southerly: a review of Australian Literature, 64 (3).
- Polites P, 2017, Down The Hume, Hachette, Sydney.
- Andersen M L, Collins P H, eds., 1997, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Polites P, Scott R, 12 Dec 2017, Down The Hume, Sydney Writers Festival Podcasts, Web: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-bookshelf-abc-rn/id499762704?mt=2 [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Ashcroft B, 2009, ‘Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope, The Journal of European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol. 1, ISSN 1988-5946 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona.
- Robinson P, 1972, ‘The Modernisation of Sex’, Harper and Row, New York.
- Freud S, 1933, ‘Femininity’ in Strachey, J. (1933) editor, S.S., London: The Hogarth Press.
- Rozmarin M, 2005, ‘Power, Freedom and Individuality: Foucault and Sexual Difference’, Human Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1.
- Deleuze G, 1986, Foucault, S. Hand (Trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
HAROLD LEGASPI is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. He has lived in Manila, Sydney, London, Taipei and Beijing. His writing has been published internationally and in Australia. More of his writing can be found here.
The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.
The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.
As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.
Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).
Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).
The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.
The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).
Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).
Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.
Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).
In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.
The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.
As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
On Patrick White
by Christos Tsiolkas
Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay
“Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success, even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life.”
——- Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn
If one were to pool all the relevant evidence culled from his occasional excoriations of Australian academia, one would soon realise that Patrick White (1912-1990) was hardly ever generous with local researchers, despite the bountiful critical attention he received from them. Entrusting Christos Tsiolkas — a fellow writer outside of the scholarly arena — with the daunting task of reading and writing an appreciation of the entire opus of Australia’s sole Nobel-Prize for Literature therefore comes across as a rather shrewd editorial strategy.
The idea for this third publication in the emergent Black Inc “Writers on Writers” series, was triggered by a haunting question which arose from the Cheltenham Literature Festival audience. Back in 2015, one of the attendees queried: “Christos, what do Australians think of Patrick White these days?” (2). Interestingly, that same question — in a slightly different wording: “Is anyone reading Patrick White nowadays?” — was put to me again and again in 2011 by fellow Australians who were befuddled as to why I would draft an editing project intended to be a tribute to Patrick White and his legacy.
Even more so since the 2006 Wraith Picket hoax, there has always been the sneaking suspicion that Patrick White is a cultural artefact of his time, a précieux wordsmith whose elitism and stylish (yet affected) eloquence would alienate him the support of modern-day publishers, if not a bourgeois intellectual estranged from the bread-and-butter concerns of the working-class people. While there is probably a grit of truth to it all, White remains, very much like Christopher Koch, one of the happy few writers who have successfully passed the duration test — even in the eyes of a skeptical reader such as Tsiolkas, who has grown from a high-schooler’s lukewarm reception to a recent infatuation of White’s literary output.
In keeping with his working-class and Greek origins, Tsiolkas chiefly praises White for pioneering “the migrant’s story” (26), for “creating an immigrant language” (21) through a “symbolic language of terrain and isolation” (37), and sees Manoly Lascaris — White’s lifelong gay partner — as instrumental in shaping White’s singular vision of the world: “It is as an Australian writer — and as an Australian writer seeing both his country and the world partly through Lascaris’s eyes — that he achieves greatness” (23). While this line could be construed as an optimistic overstatement, it is not difficult to perceive in this instance how literature responds to the desire of readers embodied as much in the reader’s horizon of expectations as in the craving need to interpret, itself derived from a need to share one’s emotional response to literary aesthetics. As Wolfgang Iser points out, “Perhaps this is the prime usefulness of literary criticism—it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read.”
In this game of literary seduction, what I would term specular desire here combines two fantasising activities: the writer’s desire subtly reflecting the reader’s through a series of shared interests and the reader’s desire which is being projected onto the writer’s. Thanks to this short monograph, readers of Loaded and Dead Europe (among other titles), who are already cognisant with Tsiolkas’s “erotics of writing”(31), will now also become familiar with his “erotics of reading” (31):
“The miracle of these perfect novels is that, from the opening sentence to the final word, the real world collapses and we are enfolded in a fictional reality that is stronger and more present than our material surroundings. The gift of being enraptured by such novels is that they continue to feed our desire as readers, to keep us hungrily reading, greedily searching for that experience once more.” (31)
A decade ago, Brigid Rooney duly noted the kaleidoscopic attempts at rekindling the literary and cultural importance of Patrick White, building up to the centenary of his birth: Whether Christos Tsiolkas’s On Patrick White partakes of that effort or is simply meant to be read as a deeply affectionate homage paid to the overwhelming importance of a heavyweight literary monster is scarcely relevant. What matters more perhaps is to discern the interplay of influences between these two eminent versatile writers, namely how Tsiolkas’s vision might now affect our reading of White’s œuvre and how White’s œuvre has revealed a new dimension of Tsiolkas’ mind.
Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn (eds.), Patrick White Speaks (Sydney: Primavera Press, 1989), 15.
David Coad & Jean-François Vernay, Patrick White Centenary: A Tribute, CERCLES 26, Special Issue (2012).
For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 203.
JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’s latest released books are The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2016) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016).
Annihilation of Caste
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
When I was living in Chembur (Bombay) in 2016, there was a statue of a portly and bespectacled B. R. Ambedkar at the end of my street. This suggests he has been lionised in India, if not quite canonised, something aided in ‘the West’ by Arundhati Roy’s well-publicised talk ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ that favourably compares Ambedkar to Gandhi. And so, it was with the contour of knowledge that I opened Annihilation of Caste. I do, of course, come from an Indian family and have parents who were born as colonial subjects in occupied Kerala. But our path to liberation was different from the national story, inflected by a regional identity, a Communist atmosphere and a Catholic bent. So what was I to make of the lessons in Annihilation of Caste and what can we learn from them to make sense of contemporary India?
The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, a critique too of the establishment as it set about decolonising itself. Its central plank revolves around the negative impact of the caste system as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself. This was about the liberation from a centuries old social structure that oppressed a huge number of people. Ambedkar highlights one particular case, where Hindus demanded that Balais (‘untouchables’) follow the rules listed below:
Balais must not wear gold-lace-bordered pugrees.
They must not wear dhotis with coloured or fancy borders.
They must convey intimation [=information] of the death of any Hindu to relatives of the deceased—no matter how
far away these relatives may be living.
In all Hindu marriages, Balais must play music before the processions and during the marriage.
Balai women must not wear gold or silver ornaments; they must not wear fancy gowns or jackets.
Balai women must attend all cases of confinement [= childbirth] of Hindu women.
Balais must render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to
If the Balais do not agree to abide by these terms, they must clear out of the villages.
Having established this as a fact of dalit life, Ambedkar asks a series of rhetorical questions to political-minded Hindus, namely:
Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a large class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public wells? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food they like?
The effect of this is to pierce the Hindu consciousness, to highlight the inequality through emphasising the basic conditions of India at the time. This political question, or the question of political reform is coupled with social reform and economic reform, thinking through the entirety of Indian society from the perspectives of dalits. For Ambedkar, it is caste that prohibits real progress including the ability to form a truly national society; it is caste that prevents a fellow feeling of social inclusion; caste that inhibits uplift of aboriginal peoples. His ideal social contract is one of true equality and liberty, an India of genuine freedom at all levels of society. To destroy the caste system is possible only with the destruction of the shastras and so Annihilation of Caste ends up being a critique of the holy scriptures of Hinduism itself as well as its material manifestations. This is a critique levelled with passion, logic, panache, flair and evidence. It is written from a truly subaltern perspective and informed by liberalism, freedom and personal experience. Reading Ambedkar today still gives one nerves, hope and possibility.
The caste system is still one of the central aspects of Indian politics, society and economy today. However, and thanks in large part to Ambedkar’s articulation, there is most definitely a self-aware subaltern politics just as there is a broader sectarian/communal question that focuses on religion in general. However, both of these seem to prevent a conversation about gender rather than leading to liberal intersectionalities as they matter in ‘the West’. The true liberation of India must involve the material freedom of women, girls and those who female identify. That is what it is to read Ambedkar now and learn from his example. One can only hope that the opening he makes in the field can lead us away from female infanticide, the negative aspects of the dowry system and towards femme empowerment in the workforce and home as well as making public space safer on the whole. It is not only the annihilation of caste that we seek then but also the annihilation of chauvinism in the 21st century.
ROBERT WOOD grew up in suburban Perth. He has published work in Southerly, Cordite, Jacket2 and other journals. At present he lives at Redgate in Wardandi country and is working on a series of essays.