Janette Chen is a Chinese-Australian writer from Lidcombe. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the 2019 winner of the Deborah Cass Prize.
Wall of Men
Every time mum starts the car, Teresa Teng starts singing. Mum’s 80s Chinese pop ballads blare from the stereo as we pull out of the driveway. Mum is driving me to Lidcombe train station so I can trek it to Veina’s house in Turrella. Outside it’s so hot the heat makes the fibro walls our house look wobbly. I put the windows all the way down because we never use the air con. Teresa Teng’s voice drifts down the street from our car. She sounds so sweet even when she’s accusing her lover of lying to her. As we drive, Mum asks me if Veina has a boyfriend yet. Mum’s face looks dry and red from the heat. She has so many red hairs now, which are white hairs dyed with henna she bought from the Arab shops in Auburn. She glances at me as we slow at a red light and turns off the music. Since I finished high school two months ago, Mum has asked me four times already if there will be any boys when I go out.
‘No, Ma,’ I sigh as we start moving again. It was technically true. As far as I knew, Veina is texting a guy called Andre and hanging out with some guy called Jason but she’s never called either of them her boyfriend.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks in Cantonese.
‘Noooo, Ma,’ I groan. Mum flicks her black eyes at me and then back at the road.
‘I was the same age as you are now when I first got married,’ she says. ‘Your Ba is not my first husband.’
I hold my breath. This is the first time Mum has told me about her first marriage but I already know. I overheard her talking to Dad in the kitchen once about a fortune teller she saw back in Guangzhou when she was 17. ‘He told me I would be married twice and he was right about that,’ I had heard her say. In traffic, we inch past an empty lot of weeds and rubble that is fenced off with a glossy sign advertising new apartment blocks. ‘I was so in love with my first husband,’ Mum says. ‘But one day he started locking doors. He started swearing at me. When he slapped me, I thought it would only be one time.’
My muscles tense up when I imagine Mum being hit. We pass the Korean BBQ restaurants on the turn into the station and Mum parks crookedly in the drop-off zone. She keeps talking, her words spilling out like water. ‘He dragged me across our bedroom and strangled me until I realised that if this man loved me he would kill me with his love.’ I put my hand on Mum’s shoulder. I don’t know what else to do with this information. Mum brings her hand to mine and holds it tightly. ‘I know you’re a smart girl. But just be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’
Some dickhead in a white ute blasts his horn and cuts Mum off at the end of the sentence. I grab the plastic bag of cherries I’m bringing to Veina’s and tell Mum that I won’t be home for dinner.
On the train to Turrella, I sit in a three-seater behind a young Nepalese couple. The woman’s head is nestled in the space between the man’s shoulder and his brown ear. I think about how I used to see my parent’s wedding photo all the time as a kid. It was propped on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The man in the photo was my dad. The woman in the photo had skin as pale as the moon. Yi yi, I had called her, which means Auntie. I couldn’t believe it was my mum. This is because in real life, mum’s skin is the colour of wholemeal bread with lots of seeds in it. In real life, her lips are more brown than red. I knew so little about this other life she had before that photo was even taken.
I get off at Central and change platforms for the airport line. I had never heard of the suburb of Turrella until Veina moved there. Veina is my only high school friend who moved out of home immediately after graduating. Now she lives with four housemates and they all share one tiny bathroom. ‘Fun fact: The Streets ice cream factory used to be in Turrella,’ Veina said when she first told me she was moving. I believed the fun fact, I just couldn’t believe she was moving so far from Lidcombe, away from me. The afternoon heat wraps around me like a blanket when I step off the train. I am the only person standing on the platform. The plastic bag of cherries sweats in my hand.
Veina’s house is a long pink rectangle on a concrete block with a brown roof. When I arrive at the house, I’m sweating from my pits. I tap on the window of Veina’s room but when I get to the front door, it’s her housemate Peter who opens it.
‘Hello,’ he nods. Peter’s tiny head at odds with his massive shoulders. He steps back and holds the door for me. The thin white t-shirt he is wearing is stretched out around the collar and the skin around his neck is pale and pink. All I know about Peter is that he’s a backpacker from Slovakia. And he’s a prawn. He has a body good enough to eat and a head you can throw away. I realise Peter’s holding a big plastic rubbish bag and quickly step inside as he steps out.
The front door of the Turrella house opens straight into the living room with all its random old furniture, plus the sleek black chair Veina and I carried straight out of the new food court in Town Hall one time. I take off my sandals at the door. The pale blue tiles are cool beneath my feet but I know they’re dirty. I can see the dust and hair and dried boogers on the floor. The living room extends into the kitchen on the right, both overlooking the backyard where the laundry is still flapping on the lop-sided Hills Hoist.
Veina’s in the kitchen wearing a big faded black t-shirt with her hair is all over the place. She looks as if she only woke up a couple of hours ago and hasn’t gotten changed yet. Her kitchen is made up of custard coloured plastic laminate cupboards and drawers with golden brown trimmings. Veina gets me started on cutting up onions for our dinner: slut spaghetti. We started calling it that in Year 8 Food Tech because boiling pasta is easy. As I’m tossing onions into the hot pan, Veina tells me about the date Peter brought to the house the night before.
‘He was cooking chicken for this tiny Asian chick and was getting her a chair and everything. But it was like, all so he could fuck her,’ Veina says dryly. When she’s not wearing makeup, Veina looks like she’s fourteen but when she opens her mouth, her voice sounds like she’s smoked a pack a day for as long as she’s been alive. Today, Veina has a thick line of black gel eyeliner painted over her eyelids.
As I pour the contents of a jar of pasta sauce into a saucepan, Veina dumps a handful of oregano and the good bits of a green capsicum we found going soft in the fridge. ‘I always see him looking Asian chicks up and down and up and down,’ Veina says.
‘I would be looking him up and down and up and down if I lived here,’ I confess. But then, I imagine making out with him with his big nose sticking into the side of my face. His mouth would be dry and floury and his pale, slippery body would be squirming on top of mine, crushing me under a mattress of muscle. The thought of it makes my throat tighten.
Peter comes into the kitchen wearing only a pair of baggy track pants. The t-shirt he was wearing earlier is gone. I wonder if he just heard what I said and if all this skin is an invitation. I decline by only looking at him above the neck. His face is long and small in proportion to his wide shoulders and thick neck. His nose sticks out like an arrow. But then he goes to grab a Coke from the fridge and the long line of his back smooths and stretches.
‘Time to eat out this slut spaghetti,’ Veina says after putting the final touch: chilli flakes. In addition to being easy, slut spaghetti needs to be hot. Veina uses chopsticks to put the pasta into two bowls for us and we take them to eat outside.
I have one foot out the front door when it sounds like Peter is saying, ‘Hey, Jen, Jen, Jen, come back.’ His voice is deep and nasally. I turn around. Peter is standing right in front of me. His collarbones are at my eye level and they look like small, featherless wings that spread beneath his skin.
‘You forgot this,’ he says and hands me a fork.
‘Thanks,’ I say to the fork and hurry out the door after Veina.
The front yard is a concrete slab with an old single mattress on the floor. I brush off the dirt and dried leaves and sit down on the mattress next to Veina, leaning my back on the pink stucco exterior of the house. The air around us is starting to cool but the wall is warm against my back. Veina hands me a pair of chopsticks and starts slurping at her spaghetti, her head of black hair bobbing over her bowl. I put Peter’s fork on the floor beside the mattress.
A pair of lanky teenage boys walking a St Bernard are the only people out on the empty suburban streets. The long, pale arm holding the leash looks like a noodle stretching with every step the dog takes. Veina swallows her spaghetti and whistles at the boys. One of them turns around to look at us. He has dark eyes and hair and his skin looks warm and buttery. He might be Eurasian or it might just be the way he looks in the sunset.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I tell her.
‘They’re cute,’ Veina says, holding up her hand in greeting. She turns and grins at me. The liner around her eyes makes them look like black crescents with eyelashes.
‘Don’t worry, I know you’ve got it in you,’ Veina says. ‘You just need to be pushed out of the nest. Then you’ll fly like the skank bird you truly are.’
I roll my eyes and watch the boys walk away. In high school, Veina and I cut out all the pictures of cute boys from university brochures and stuck them on the wall in our Year Twelve common room. ‘So Many Opportunities at University’, the caption read. It was Veina’s idea. We called it the Wall of Men, and it was opposite the Wall of Ramen where we pinned up empty instant noodle packets. During our free periods, Veina smoked out the windows of the spare music rooms and I did maths practice papers next to the Wall of Men. The boys in those pictures all had smooth, white skin and were smiling straight at me.
Veina and I went to Sydney Girls High School, an uppity institution for Asian overachievers. Our school motto was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which is Latin for ‘Homework Always Pays’. It was the motto of my mum and the mums of one thousand black-haired teenage girls pressing textbooks to their chests. The ATAR we got was the life we got. I stared back at the boys on the Wall of Men and wondered if they would still be smiling when I beat the living shit out of them at the HSC.
Now that we finished school, me and Veina are melting into lazy flesh bags in the summer. We move from the dirty mattress when the mosquitoes start to bite. Back in the house, the last light is coming through the kitchen window. I wash the cherries I had brought and inspect them under running water. They’re plump and brown and cold from the fridge. A lot of them are scarred or bruised or overripe. Dad had bought a big box of cherries for ten dollars at Flemington markets and my family has been eating cherries at home every night. I pick out a dodgy one, bite out its open sore and put the rest of the cherry in my mouth. It’s so sweet and so cold.
In the living room, Veina turns on the TV to watch If You Are the One on SBS. It’s starting to get dark now, but no one has bothered to turn on the lights. I join her on the lumpy brown couch. A new male contestant steps out of the single-man cylinder that lowers Chinese bachelors to the stage like a love delivery chute. He’s buff with tanned skin. Beijing Beefcake.
Veina and I give the male contestants a score from one to ten depending on how likely we would go on a date with them. We have different selection criteria to the female contestants date to get married. The women on the show want to know if the man has an apartment, a car and a high-paying job. The men want to know what the women look like without any makeup on. Veina and I heckle the television when the contestants talk that shit, which is every episode. We’re going to get our own apartments, cars and high-paying jobs. We don’t do maths practice papers because we like maths.
On screen, Beijing Beefcake smiles and waves at the audience as he walks out of the man capsule and on to the stage. The fabric of his white shirt strains against his pecs.
The back door opens with the broken flyscreen flapping around and Peter steps inside, hulking a basket of laundry against his bare chest. Veina offers him some cherries and Peter puts down his laundry and slides down the armrest of the couch. Now I’m sandwiched between him and Veina. I shift in my seat so we’re not sitting so close. My body thinks it wants one thing but my mind is in control. Don’t throw away the head for a prawn.
We all watch Beijing Beefcake’s pre-recorded video of his life as a personal trainer. I pick out a handful of super soft cherries with wide, open sores dried into dark scabs. I’m feeling stiff from sitting next to Peter. His abs look like skinless chicken nuggets set into two neat rows. They cuddle and curl against each other as Peter leans forward to spit a pip into the bowl. I look away when something starts buzzing beneath me. It’s Veina’s phone, half submerged in the crumby gap between the sections of the couch, vibrating deeper into the fold. I slip my fingers between the couch cushions and grab the phone.
‘Ugh, sorry,’ Veina says. ‘Mum calls every day to check on me.’ She answers the phone with a, ‘Wei’ as she walks off towards her room.
I move over to where Veina had just been sitting so there’s more space between me and Peter. He sneezes. His hands go from covering his nose to stretching across the back of the couch, bridging the distance I had just created between us. It’s cooling down. He needs to put a shirt on. On If You Are The One, Beijing Beefcake is sitting in his living room in a white singlet. I would give him a 6.8. Maybe 8 if he looked a little less inflated. He could be a 9 if he talked about something besides his muscles.
‘My big muscles give me big responsibilities,’ the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen translate as Beijing Beefcake nods at me through the television. ‘I swear to the whole nation I would never hit a woman. I can look after her and protect her,’ Beijing Beefcake says. He flexes one bare, bulging brown arm after the other. ‘She can kiss my biceps every day.’
Next to me, Peter shifts in his seat. I hope Veina will come out of her room soon so I don’t have to be alone with Peter. I stuff my mouth with three cherries and sink back into the sofa and stare at the TV. What would it feel like for his strong arms to hold me gently? As I imagine the tenderness of resting my head against his chest, a sharp pain shoots through my mouth. I hold my cheek with my head turned away like I had just been slapped. It feels like someone had cut the right side of my cheek with a pair of scissors. I lean forward and let the contents of my mouth drop into my other hand. The living room lights turn on.
‘Fuck your dad,’ I curse. ‘Oww.’
‘Are you okay?’ Peter says, putting his big, warm hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy there. I look up and see Veina walking across the room.
‘My dad says that when you bite yourself it’s because you’re not eating enough meat,’ she says. ‘Your mouth wants meat in it,’ Veina wiggles her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Ugh, well fuck your dad too,’ I say. I look down at the half-chewed cherries in my open palm. The wet, red flesh glistens like mashed and bloody brains.
Anna Kortschak is an emerging writer who is frequently mobile. She has recently returned to Australia after almost twenty itinerant years in the Americas, Europe and the UK. Anna was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing and winner of the 2019 Spring Nowhere Magazine Travel Writing Competition. Her writing and photos have been published in Nowhere Magazine, The Other Hundred, The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (3rd Ed.) and various other print and online publications. With a background in visual and performing arts Anna has worked extremely variously but most passionately – a aside from her writing – on a number of community development story-telling projects in Australia and internationally.
Pieces of Nothing
The child is standing alone on the side of the sand pit, humming tunelessly. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Her gaze is blank and unfocussed. She is not playing a game. She is just standing there waiting for time to move on.
She is alone and being alone makes her hungry. She bites her arm, intently studying the crooked crescent indented in the flesh, livid white and bruise blue. She wants to feel something.
She cannot see inside herself. She believes she has swallowed a stone.
She is a small child. Skinny, ribs visible, blonde wispy hair, eyes wide and surprising black, all pupil. Difficult, they say. A difficult child. Given to sudden rage or tears. Sullen. Lashing out and then fleeing. A secretive child.
There was a girl who hid her heart among stones to keep it safe. She tied her heart to a string but lost hold of the string. When she went to recover it she mistook her heart for a stone, a stone for her heart. Heavy and cold. Hard.
Once lost, what next?
A series of endeavours, all doomed, all heartless.
If I am to write a story it has to start with this child; the girl who has lost her heart. She is not remarkable, she is not especially good or kind. She is just like any child, a little grubby, bony knees and wispy hair. Perhaps she is rather small for her age.
A fairy tale needs a hero but no-one appears to rescue the child from her fate and a series of evils befall the girl. First she loses the power of speech. No-one can hear her speak.
There are others but I (or is it the girl?) cannot see them clearly. There is a mother, a stepfather, a brother. Many others. She is surrounded by these people but she cannot see them and they do not touch her. They are insubstantial, see-through and slippery, ungraspable. Bewitched, I guess. No help there.
I’m talking as if I don’t know these people but I have to confess an interest. Let me try to clarify the situation. My mother. My stepfather. There are brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And the circle will widen. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A veritable host. Even my father will appear, if I wait long enough.
And I, too, have become multiple. I am the storyteller in this tale. And that is fair. Everyone must have their turn to speak. But what to do, then, with the child? She is me, and not me. And she is the greatest unknown. The most difficult of all to discern in the bewildering fog.
I beg you for indulgence as I try to find a way to accommodate this mute child who struggles with silence and nausea, who believes she is poisonous and that everything she touches dies.
As I try to excavate memory I constantly ask myself, what is true? One must, of course, but I find that there is no concrete answer to the question. There is no indisputable truth to be brought into the light of day, no facts that can be matter-of-factly reported from the past which, from the most certain perspective we have, quite simply does not exist.
My stepfather, for example, can say, that never happened. If I’d picked you up by your ear it would have ripped clean off your head. And I will be silenced by his logic and his convincing certainty. Only days later will an image that has always hung dimly suspended in my mind, unaccounted for, pop suddenly to the surface.
(The child picks, for days, at a crusty line of scabs in that soft crease where the skin of the ear attaches to the skin that covers the bony shell of the skull.)
It is unfortunate that it is my step-father that is the first figure to come forward. But there it is.
And here is his refrain:
She was a child, he says. She didn’t understand. She is mistaken.
What is strange is that I cannot remember my mother’s face and that there is no point in time that I can see us together.
But of course nothing is absolute and I must immediately contradict myself.
I do in fact remember that once I spent an afternoon with her on a lake in a small rowing boat. Even so, I have no sense of her, or my own, physical presence on that occasion. I cannot, for example, remember which one of us rowed the boat.
It is only my imagination which creates the picture of a boat moving across the water as the shouts and noise from the shore fade away, hears the creak of the heavy wooden oars moving in the rowlocks, the slap of water against the hull, the quiet rustle of wind in trees and reeds, light playing over a shining expanse of water.
Where does this child live?
What comes to mind are houses full of silence: in memory, always empty. A series of disconnected spaces. Rooms without exit, hallways that lead nowhere, blank windows without vista.
Footsteps on the polished wooden floorboards, darkness, a doorway.
My grandmother’s house, where my mother spent her childhood, was on Castle Street and it seemed to me that the street had been named for the house which was, therefore, a castle. Certainly, it was a house possessed by a sense of grandeur. It pointed to a noble history.
Decades later, it is in England, that I will find my dead grandmother close to me, hovering at my shoulder, or seated on the other side of a table watching me. If she had a message for me then she could not find a way to make it explicit but it is no wonder she came to me there in England. Her faraway garden, in Australia, was a half-acre England of spring bluebells and cherry blossom trees, violets and pansies, clipped lawns and deciduous oak and birch. All England, except for the tree we called the Mother Tree, a box gum, home to giant emperor moth larvae, jewelled, green, and fatter than a child’s finger.
The house and garden were bounded by a cypress hedge, dense and dark, fragrant. It is in the hedge that my brother arrives. The Hedge was capitalised in our minds, as the name of any unexplored continent would be, and we would disappear inside it, my brother and I. Sometimes we emerged scratched and sticky with cypress resin to walk along the neatly clipped upper surface which formed an inviting green pathway but with a misjudged step an unwary child would suddenly vanish again below the smooth surface, plunged back into the harsh twiggy dusty interior, trapped and struggling.
The house, this enchanted castle, is spell-bound. Always silent. No laughter ringing through it. No raised voices, not in anger or in song.
Tick. Tock. Grandfather clock.
Wide hallways with patterned oriental rugs that form maps of unknown territory, a jungle, perhaps, or wide river plains, islands; a mutable terrain inhabited by serpents and mythic creatures, topography to be explored on endless tedious afternoons.
The child is often there, in the care of her grandmother. Can we perhaps catch a glimpse of them together? What is it they are doing?
They are sitting opposite each other at a table, separated by a wide expanse of dark polished wood. The child is labouring at the task she has been set. A peach, rosy and fragrant, sits on a tiny china plate carefully set between a silver knife and fork. The implements would be small and delicate in adult hands but the child clutches the opalescent mother-of-pearl handles clumsily. She must peel and eat the peach without touching its tender flesh with her fingers.
The fruit rolls and slides on the plate as the child struggles to impale it. Once it is secured she works to push the knife point beneath delicate downy skin and strip it from the flesh. Finally, she has a hard won morsel on the slender tines of the fork. She pauses to take a spoonful of sugar from a silver bowl and scatters it across the plate. She dips the scrap of fruit in the crystals and conveys it to her mouth.
Her grandmother watches impassive.
I never saw my mother and my father together. The possibility was inconceivable.
I knew my father was from elsewhere and for a long time it seemed to me that the place he came from must be called The War.
My mother sometimes told people that my paternal grandfather was a Nazi but she did not mean anything in particular by it. She just thought it was something interesting to say. I would not even remember it except that my sister still repeats it, as though it were fact, today. My half-sister. It is not her grandfather she is talking about. She phrases her statement as a question: Your grandfather had a Nazi uniform, didn’t he?
On weekends my brother and I were pushed out the front door onto the veranda where this grandfather, my father’s father, stood waiting. Formal, in pleated trousers, collar and tie, hair smooth and shiny with Brylcreem, he would lean stiffly across the threshold to shake hands with my stepfather standing inside the door.
How do you do? Sunday? Yes, Sunday.
We would climb into my grandfather’s immaculate fawn and white Holden Kingswood and speed away, my brother and I cannoning from one side of the car to the other across the beige vinyl bench-seat as my grandfather cursed the Australian drivers. Blod-ee eedi-yot! You blod-ee eedi-yot!
My paternal grandparent’s house was not silent, but the languages were foreign. Here my brother and I were always collective: the children. Die Kinder sind heir, my nanna would say on the phone to her friends, and we knew she was talking about us.
We went to this house to wait for my father to arrive.
At my grandparent’s house my brother and I were always addressed in English but adult conversation took place above our heads in a babble of other tongues. We knew that the alien words which hummed and roared and wailed in the air of my grandparent’s house were all of The War. The War was all encompassing and without location but there was also a more distant place, never talked about directly, hinted at in picture books and old photos, postcards and the arrival of pale blue airmail envelopes.
Czechoslovakia. The child wrote the strange word, next to her foreign surname, over and over on pieces of paper which she pushed into a tiny glass bottle that was one of the treasures on the mantelpiece in the bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house. She poked the secret messages through the vessel’s narrow mouth with a pencil and rammed them down. Over and over, until the blue green bottle was packed solid with crushed paper.
A land of castles. Mountains. Woods. Trees, tender in the springtime. Bright streams and sunny meadows. Wild flowers and berries at the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon.
But at night, in her dreams, she wandered a lonely wooded place, bare bony arms of trees raised up to a lowering dark sky, the tenebrous air thick with nightfall and snowfall. Black on black. This was the landscape of her dreams. Snow falling ceaselessly in darkness. Night after night the child trod these woods alone.
The possibility of physically going to this place was nonsensical. There was an unfathomable period of time in which the child’s nanna was absent from her Balwyn home. Months passed, during which occasional postcards with pictures of unknown cities arrived in the mail. The pedestrian images of bridges over rivers and municipal buildings baffled the girl.
Her nanna eventually returned, with gifts; a tiny carved wooden dog and a china Siamese cat. The child studied them minutely for clues and, although they explained nothing, she decided to treasure them. When she was not playing with the cat and dog the child carefully placed them on the mantelpiece next to her talismanic bottle. Soon the cat’s ears were chipped and the dog had lost a paw. The child cherished the little dog, especially, with an all-consuming love. She often carried it with her, in her pocket, until one day it vanished.
She searched in the school yard over and over again and scanned the ground at her feet with every step of the long walk home, through the suburban streets, across the park, along the railway line, over Prospect Hill Road and then finally down the street in which she returned each afternoon to the house where her mother and stepfather lived. Day after day she traversed this route searching for the lost token of the lost place.
The child and her brother sit on either side of their nanna on a low red brick wall at the front of a house in a quiet tree-lined street. They are counting cars.
Which one of you can guess how many cars will pass before your father comes?
Three. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
If he had arrived he would have tumbled out of some car, wearing no shoes, dirty white moleskin trousers tattered and patched, a soft brown leather jacket with the elbows out. He would have lounged lazily on the square modern couch, nursing a glass of red wine while the table was set. He would have sat wreathed in smoke, grey flaky tubes of ash trembling above the smouldering ember of a filterless cigarette.
And sometime, maybe after lunch, if she had been able to stand close enough to his chair, he might have turned to her and rumpled her hair and called her his beetle, or skinny rabbit.
So, here we are. Here we are with a handful of shards, pretty and sharp. What do they tell us?
As the story-teller, I realise that I am in a privileged position. A privileged position, but one also filled with difficulties and danger. I do not want to abuse my power and I recognise the seductive temptation to overstep the mark. I can see that what I am searching for is a story that will mend all the rents in the fabric of the universe. An impossible task, I know. I know.
I want to hear the child speak.
I have to tread carefully because I have so much more information at my disposal than she did. So much more. But I do promise to try to limit myself to the things that can be vouched for.
What I know for certain is that the child grows up and I know what kind of stories that have been told of her. Listen to some of the names she has been called:
the child / a girl (poison child)
dropper of bombshells (family terrorist)
liar / junkie / whore (the poltergeist)
squatter / criminal (trouble maker)
victim / survivor (the hungry ghost)
a trapeze artist (sweet falling angel / sweet f.a.)
How did she come to know herself differently? Could it be explained like this?
The child was a sleep-walker. She would be found wandering the house at night, rummaging in cupboards. On one occasion she left the house by the front door and ran down the street. But she does not remember these somnambulisms. They have been reported to her.
But the child remembers one incident. She was at her grandmother’s place in the country. A number of other children were there and they were sleeping outdoors in tents. The tents were pitched within the confines of a grassy, long disused, stockyard. There were probably five or six children present – these details do not matter – the older children, no doubt, with the toddlers and babies remaining with the grown ups in the big tin shed. The children must have behaved as children do in such circumstances, telling scary stories, bickering, joking, teasing. I remember none of that. Eventually they all would have slept.
And what the child – who possibly is the same person that I am – can to this day recall is waking to find herself alone under the wide starry sky in the paddock half way down towards the rocky gully. She is standing in her pyjamas, barefoot on frosty ground. She has woken because she is standing on a thistle in the grass. There she is, a child, standing on a dark hillside under the infinite sky and the moment has a startling clarity that she stores carefully inside herself as she makes her way back up the steep slope and climbs the five foot wooden post and paling fence and enters the tent and finds her sleeping bag again amongst the still slumbering children.
She recognises the size of the night. She is not afraid.
Belinda is a part-time lawyer, adminstrative assistant and mother of two young boys. She is completing a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and has published work on-line, in the Grieve Anthology 2018 and in the University of Sydney Student Anthology 2016. ‘On Becoming One’ was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
On Becoming One
I am that one.
The one in question.
Red Jordan Arabateau
I – A Chronology of Connection
1821 Anglo-yellows are popping up all over the Empire’s pristine lawn faster than they can be pulled out. It is upsetting to the Britons:
The most rapidly accumulating evil in Bengal is the increase of half-caste children . . . their increase in India is beyond calculation . . . it may justly be apprehended that this tribe may hereafter become too powerful for control . . . what may not in the future time be dreaded from them?(1)
The Empire doesn’t want any part of them. Many anglo-yellows are deemed not to be British subjects.(2)
1857 The Natives don’t like anglo-yellows either. (3) So the anglo-yellows try to merge into the background of the Empire. They emphasise their anglo parts, speaking only English and inflicting names like Nigel on their children (4). They disown their yellow parts by helping the Empire enforce a Dandelion-specific caste system based on degrees of yellow.
1898 Anglo-yellows merge so well that they are nearly invisible. An Empire-commissioned list of Burmese cultural sub-groups makes no mention of them.(5) They are overlooked by both Briton and Native welfare and legal systems.
1925 After a while, the anglo-yellows get some laws but not in relation to labour: the Empire needs someone cheap and white-ish to do its low-grade admin tasks. (6)
1939 Marrying an anglo-yellow is a lot like marrying an orangutan (7) , so anglo-yellows tend to marry each other. In this way, they form a distinct cultural community. When anglo-yellows marry, other anglo-yellows display good Empire-building skills by carefully noting degrees of yellow in the marrying parties.
My really-rather-yellow grandmother marries my hardly-that-yellow grandfather, which is well beyond her station (‘Quite!’).
1940 The anglo-yellows just want to be part of something. Well of course they do, because they’ve fallen in love. They sing little songs to the Empire, praising all things British and pointing out their usefulness. (8) They are always on their best behaviour for the Empire and if anyone comes to hurt it, nobody is quicker than the anglo-yellows to put their bodies in the path. (9) Still, after the war, the Britons go back to Britain and the anglo-yellows are left to scatter across the globe like dandelion seeds.
1950 My grandmother and grandfather waft onto a sausage-shaped island that floats like a turd in the water above another forgotten place.
My grandmother is not a happy woman. She picks at her beautiful rather-yellow face until scabs form. When she’s not picking at her face, she picks at her pale daughter, Wendy.
1952 Wendy picks at her beautiful barely-yellow face until it is scarred and pocked. She’s nervy, cries a lot and can’t settle. All my grandparents’ hopes are in their quite-yellow son, David.
1954 My grandparents just want to be part of something. Preferably something powerful. In Papua New Guinea, they borrow money to send really-quite-yellow David to the whitest Queensland boarding school they can find. Alone in post-war Queensland, Jap-yellow David absorbs pressure until his jaw muscles are deformed by constant clenching. Musculature protrudes from either side of his jaw like wing-nuts.
1969 David marries my mother – a relaxed white woman whose family has been part of Australia for generations. My grandparents just can’t get enough of her.
1970 I am born.
1985 I develop an insatiable urge to pick at my face until it is pocked. Thinking it might be helpful, my mother says, “You’re just like Wendy.” When Wendy commits suicide, I distract myself with intensified face-picking.
1995 Someone has been compiling statistics about face-picking and deformed jaw musculature: ‘Racism Linked to Depression and Anxiety in Youth’(10) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian CALD Communities(11) ; Stigma and Discrimination Associated with Depression(12) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Australia: A Cross Sectional Survey(13) ; Cultural Aspects in Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder (14). I wonder if there is any connection.
2000 I am friendly with two girls and we do everything together. One has Chinese heritage, the other is Fijian anglo-yellow. I wonder if there is any connection.
2005 I discover Hanif Kureishi is anglo-yellow and think about how his work resonates with me. I wonder if there is any connection.
2014 I stop picking at my face at around the same time that I start writing. I write to make connections between all the disowned parts of myself.
II – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. From the Latin ‘lacus’ for ‘lake’.
Story 1: Awww. Look at her, e’nt she cute? Belinda at six years old. Blonde hair in a bowl cut juts out at angles from her scalp. Swathe of snot lime-washed across her top lip. Puny chest, white shins covered in bruises. This afternoon, she’s been throwing acorns at the boys next door but now she’s tired. Sitting cross legged on the lounge-room floor, she watches telly in her undies. When the ads come on, she sings a song they’ve learnt at school: ‘Carra Barra Wirra Canna’. It’s a pretty tune and she warbles it exuberantly at the top of her voice:
There’s a lake in South Australia
Little lake with lovely name;
And the stories woven ‘round it;
From the piccaninnies came.
Suddenly, her Dad is there standing before her. “What is that shit you’re singing?” His tone is measured but menacing. She recognises the wretched set of his eyes, the jaw muscle pulsating dangerously and falls silent. She returns her gaze to the television but is watching him from the corner of her eye. He has a habit of lashing out unexpectedly, a clip with his hand or with his blade-sharp tongue. Both equally excoriating.
At school, the kids ask her, “Why is your Dad Chinese?” He is something, Dad, but he’s not Chinese. She doesn’t know much more than that because race is unmentionable in her family. A simple children’s song can set him off.
Now he leaves and she relaxes. Hunched in front of the telly, you might notice that the dome of Belinda’s ribs is like a bell jar. The ‘piccaninnies’ and their lake are sealed in there, along with the race-related stories they might have told. She won’t remember them again until she is an adult and runs across a pile of old school song books at a garage sale. Then she will wonder at the shame and confusion she felt as a child, and at the woven net of silence that she and her Dad are caught up in.
‘Lacuna’. That beautiful word. On one definition, it means ‘space’ or ‘gap’, as in:
The rocket shot off into Outer Lacuna;
You have a lacuna between your front teeth;
There is a lacuna in your family history.
Culture, being an experience that is shared between members of a social group, is usually public. It includes religious beliefs, festivals, stories, arts – all the things that bind people together and give their lives richness and meaning. Culture is something to be celebrated.
But Eurasians under the British Raj were a tiny minority in a multitude of nationals increasingly disaffected with British imperialism. Eurasian ties to the oppressors showed in their very faces and it is no surprise that their exclusion from Indian social and economic life was nearly absolute. In the circumstances, and since many Eurasians were not easily identified as non-white, the thing to do was deny one’s Eurasian identity altogether and align oneself, as far as possible, with the Empire:
“Throughout my life I had asked him why the family was (in India). Were his parents Indian? Did he speak Urdu? Did he have an elephant? He always told me simply, ‘We were an English family who happened to be living in India.”(15)
This strategy was necessary for Eurasians to survive as a culture. Even now in India there remains a vibrant and politically active, though diminishing, Eurasian community. But in my family’s experience, the consequences of silence have been mostly tragic.
Story 2: My grandmother and her sisters were very fond of the school that they boarded at in Moulmein, Burma. It was called St Mathews High School for Girls, and was an Anglican missionary school for Eurasian girls. My grandmother and her sisters were lucky enough to have parents that they stayed with over the school holidays. But it was not uncommon for Eurasian children to be abandoned or removed from their parents and many of my grandmother’s cohorts were orphans.
My grandmother loves to tell us about a time she tried to wear make-up at the school. The nuns told my grandmother, no, you can’t use make-up – there are orphans here and they can’t afford it. There is a faux brightness to the way my grandmother tells this story and she loves re-telling it. With each re-telling, she laughs too sweetly and too insistently. Even as a child, I can sense a discordance in this story that makes me wonder. What is my grandmother is hiding?
III – Straddling the Space
In 2016, in her key-note speech to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Lionel Shriver derided the increasing presence of ‘cultural misappropriation’ debates in literature. (16) These arguments, regarding the unauthorised use of cultural knowledge and expressions, arise in relation to writing which deals in identities distinct from the author’s own identity. An example that has been controversial in Shriver’s own work is her use of an elderly African-American character though Shriver herself is white. Shriver’s broad approach to these debates is that there can be no ownership in social identity. To hold otherwise, she says, is impractical and burdensome. Since the most that can occur via identity misuse is a few hurt feelings, Shriver is not sure why the debate exists and wonders if it is a fashionable pose. Shriver argues that the cultural misappropriation debate is flawed at its core since social identity is not a real thing:
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.(18)
Shriver’s 2016 speech is remembered, not just for its content, but for the way she delivered it, donning a cheeky sombrero to underline her arguments about hypersensitivity in Latino cultural debates and comparing herself to a Great White Shark in a sea of earnest community builders. In her reckless approach to wide-spread upset, Shriver reminds me of my favourite iconoclast, Hanif Kureishi, who commenced each morning of filming on the set of My Beautiful Laundrette (19) by getting into a huddle with director Stephen Frears and screaming ‘Filth and Anarchy!”’ repeatedly. Even with the consternation caused by Shriver’s 2016 comments, she hasn’t approached the entrenched controversiality of Kureishi who, it has been suggested, has only narrowly avoided eliciting a fatwa. (20) He is not an Empire Eurasian but a modern Eurasian born and raised in Britain and this culturally-specific heritage is revealed by his notable lack of silence.
But Shriver and Kureishi’s common maverick status is just one of several intersections they seem to share as writers. For instance, when Shriver uses her 2016 speech to rail against the ‘culture police’ who objected to her African-American character, she puts me in mind of the normative provocations frequently posed by Kureish’s identity representations. This was most apparent early in his career when his holistic representations of Asians upset just about everybody – conservative Asian communities, of course, by depicting sexually transgressive Muslims but also progressive Asian commentators by depicting Asians in ways that failed, they thought, to optimize Asian interests: showing Asians in a bad light. (21)
People ask why my Asian characters are bad, and it’s only because villains are more interesting on the whole. I’m very interested in how complex people are. People in films are often divided very quickly. You know early on who’s good and who’s bad. But I’m more interested in how complex we all are.”(22)
Shriver, too, resists treating her minority identities with kid gloves (23) and she might agree with Kureishi who considers that the freedom to depict the whole complexity of a character is as important as Art itself, which “represents freedom of thought – not merely in a political or moral sense – but the freedom of the mind to go where it wishes; to express dangerous wishes.”(24)
The most obvious result of the freedom that Kureishi claims for his characters in bucking identity norms is fun. See Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette allying himself with the best-looking member of the local skin-head gang to establish a successful business and score nookie. Or Karim, in Buddah of Suburbia, consenting to play a humiliating depiction of Mowglie and thereby grounding his acting career, escaping suburbia and scoring a mountain of nookie. Kureishi extends this freeing facility to his Asian characters – such as Karim’s father who shamelessly squeezes himself into the ‘Oriental Mystic’ persona, providing himself with a new income source and, you guessed it, scoring nookie.
But another result of all this opportunism is power:
The [mulatto] kids I knew were not tragic. They were like Karim: pushy, wild, charismatic, street-smart, impudent, often hilarious. Despite their relatively lowly position in the British class system they suspected they were cool, and knew they had talent and brains.(25)
Divested of the constraints of ‘proper’ Asian representations, Kureishi’s characters are free to consider how their internal desires and interests might be met given their oppressive externalities. Their identity lacuna becomes a grab-bag to be dipped into for whichever persona best suits for the time being. English one day, Indian the next.(26)
This shuffling of identity norms can be experienced as subversive but it is key to a powerful Eurasian identity. Of course it is. The almost (27) , the in-between(28) , the space in the Empire’s cultural index. Our mojo was always going to be mutable.
Which leads to a further overlap evident in Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings about writing identity: an awareness of identity as a means of accruing power. Shriver terms this aspect of identity, ‘offendedness as a weapon’. She could be referring to Tracey, an actress in Karim’s acting troupe, who takes advantage of her minority racial status and her cleaning-lady mother to manipulate the white guilt of the rest of the troupe. Her political aptitude helps her to obtain the dramatic representations she wants.(29)
But it is within this particular overlap that Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings on writing identity finally diverge. For Shriver’s 2016 comments on the politicisation of identity, ‘gotcha hypersensitivity’, reveal a blind spot at the precise point of Kureishi’s most essential acuity. The divergence is revealed here in the reckoning that Omar’s alliance with Johnny requires before it may progress:
What were they doing on marches through Lewisham? It was bricks and bottles and Union Jacks. It was immigrants out. It was kill us. People we knew. And it was you. He saw you marching. You saw his face, watching you. Don’t deny it. We were there when you went past . . . Papa hated himself and his job. He was afraid on the streets for me . . . Oh, such failure. Such emptiness. (30)
And again when Karim is forced to face the folly he has committed against himself in yearning for the English rose, Elenor;
My depression and self-hatred, my desire to mutilate myself with broken bottles, and numbness and crying fits, my inability to get out of bed for days and days, the feeling of the world moving in to crush me, went on and on . . .(31)
Also apparent in Karim’s experience of school. Enduring the nick-names Shitface and Curryface is least of his problems. He is also punched and kicked to the ground by his teachers, threatened with chisels to the throat, imprisoned and branded with hot metal: Every day, I considered myself lucky to get home from school without serious injury. (32)
Pain. Shriver doesn’t get it. This is why she acknowledges every type of identity politics but her own; why she resents being asked to consider others’ perspectives; why, to her, identity politics is a ‘tempest in a tea-cup’ of hurt feelings.
Admittedly, Kureishi has an advantage in perceiving identity injuries. First Asian at his Bromley Tech High School, Pakistani Pete to his teachers, squired around Pakistani beating grounds by his skin-head mates, Kureishi speaks openly about intense feelings of shame and loneliness. He has said that the war-zone traumas that Karim endures at high school are autobiographical.
Lived experience is not essential to empathy and pain is not unique to Eurasians. But I hope that any person endeavoring to represent Eurasian identity is capable of seeing Eurasian pain, just as I hope that any writer advocating the free-wheeling adoption of others’ cultural identities, is also capable of seeing pain.
Until then, I might gather my Eurasian parts around me and wield them, as Shriver could have predicted, like weapons. Because my father is just a few years older than Kureishi. Because like Kureishi, my father has a string of ‘firsts’ – first non-white at his elite Queensland boarding school, first non-white in his course at university, first non-white in the Queensland Veterinary Association. Because, after 49 years I still don’t know what that was like for him and the silence feels ominous.
Silence is the flipside of offendedness. And it has, until relatively recently, been the most salient feature of identity writing:
At their best the Eurasians of the novels are as kindhearted as their natural indolence and slovenliness will allow; at their worst they are heartless, vicious, self-seeking, and completely unscrupulous. At a time when racial separateness, symbolizing racial superiority, seemed so necessary for the task of ruling an empire, the Eurasians posed a special kind of threat. The trouble with half-castes, argue the novels, is that they take only the worst qualities of each parent race – the stubbornness and pride of the English, without their courage and principle; the deviousness of the Indians, without their cultivation and dignity.(34)
It is the novelty of identity debates that causes Shriver to suspect fashionable posturing but I hope these debates are not just a passing fad. I feel happy to see Eurasians and others wield their offendedness. Let’s keep it up because I think we’re making something new and interesting, something that might be a useful political implement in the management of in that other political, and potentially cruel, implement – the appropriated identity.
IV – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. 2. A cavity or depression in bone, containing nucleate cells.
Story 3 At the age of about 23, I reach a kind of hiatus in life. At a dead end in my relationship and in my studies, I schlepp around in someone else’s sharehouse and do shift-work. I am on hold until I can save enough money to escape overseas. I brood. I have strange dreams. I come across My Beautiful Laundrette at the local video store. It appears that Omar has also been on hold and knows what to do. I watch it and feel myself start to heal. Parts of myself are being knitted together. I wait until the house is empty and play it and re-play it. Then I play it again. It starts to run through my veins. I am absorbing a story intravenously, like fluid through a drip feed.
As well as referring to a gap or hiatus, ‘lacuna’ is an anatomical term, referring to cavities in the bone that cup its living matter: ‘osteocytes’ or bone cells. On this definition, space is not an absence but a presence of life-giving possibility.
A story can be like that. The delight that spans the abyss of unbelonging (35), the water play across a racial schism(36) . A story can take a lacuna and make it world-cracking, life-changing, art-inspiring.(37) That sort of connectivity can actually save lives:
Kureishi’s “almost” got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between. I could be almost.(38)
Kureishi’s characters were vibrant because the stories he told about their racial ambivalence made something from it – a Eurasian identity. It was enough to lift the writer Shukla out of her suicidality and I wonder whether things might have been different for my aunt (my aunt, my aunt; acerbic, funny, tender-hearted, sad; I remember her slender hands; it is said I have hands like hers) if she had known about these sorts of identities when she was struggling.
Maybe not though. Because she had to deal with, not just the Empire’s identity lacuna, but the one created by her own family.
My grandmother was pleased when the nuns drew a distinction between herself and the Moulmein orphans because she had more in common with the orphans than she cared to admit. Wrenched away from her Native mother, her culture, the language she had spoken as a baby. Sent to school to be re-shaped in the ways of the Empire. Underlying my grandmother’s story was the desire to separate from her orphaned cohort and from the horrifying suspicion that she, like them, was unwanted. A weed thrown onto a garbage heap. One of the Empire’s discards. Her story was not a connection but an attempt at disconnection. It was another type of silence.
All to no avail. Come Independence, my grandmother’s British father would return to his British family and she would be left wheeling across the globe like the orphan she truly was. Nothing between my grandmother and oblivion but the Eurasian family she had married into, itself intent on performing an act of disconnect because she was way too yellow.
There’s a curious glitch in Shriver’s 2016 speech. When she makes her statement that identity doesn’t exist, she does so baldly, without any logical underpinning, and nests the observation amongst unrelated arguments. It stands out in an otherwise flawless stream of witticisms and I don’t think it’s an oversight. I think Shriver is really saying that social identity doesn’t matter. We writers can do what we like with social identity because what difference does it make?
Shriver’s arguments about identity ownership have become pertinent again in relation to another in-betweener (40) – Bruce Pascoe, author of much-lauded work Dark Emu (41) whose genealogical connection to his Bunurong and Yuin identity is too tenuous for some. The connection between genealogy and identity is a central one. But an equally important insight to be gleaned from Pascoe’s case is apparent, not in the case itself, but in the furor surrounding it: community schisms, police investigations, political intervention, advisory board re-shuffles.
Social identity is incredibly important to us. We can expect writers to take care with our social identity because it matters. It matters in the same way as our stories matter. It matters, in fact, in the same way that we ourselves matter because being connected to a larger whole is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
I have one last story. It is my grandmother’s story but she had no voice for it. I heard it, once only, from my father:
Story 4: Before settling in New Guinea, my grandparents alight briefly in Sydney where they stay with friends at Kirribilli. Each day, my grandmother takes my Dad and his sister to a playground on Kirribilli Bay. While my Dad and his sister play on the swings, my grandmother goes to the water’s edge where there is a low limestone wall separating the Bay from the park.
All around the edges of the strange harbour, sailing skips bob and duck. Diamond wavelets sparkle and recede back into the grey-green water. But before my grandmother, the water is dark and eerie, blackened by kelp which beckons to my grandmother like writhing arms. Come, come, enter our shadowy depths. Join us.
On the swings, my dad and his sister keep their small backs to my grandmother and do not turn around. They know what will happen, and cannot bare the alarming sight. My grandmother puts her knees to the limestone wall, leans out as far as she can over the Bay’s arc and sobs. It seems to last for hours. Endless tears fall from her eyes in a single diamond stream and join the dark water. She is submerged by sadness.
My grandmother saw her beloved mother maybe one more time in her life. She almost never saw her sisters and brother who were scattered across the world. She lived, not just without her family, but without stories to provide her with an understanding of her place in a community of others. She faced her abandonment in isolation.
How could she know that she was never the weed? How could she know that she was the resilient herb? The Dandelion with its face turned always to the limitless sky.
Lest my family’s story be dismissed as a quirk of history, I want to finish with an aside I came across recently in Alexander Chee’s luminous book of autobiographical essays. (42) Chee is an Amerasian whose heritage is partly Korean and he describes his family’s vigilance whenever, as a child, he visited relatives living in Korea:
Biracial Korean and white Amerasian children in Seoul in 1968 . . . were often kidnapped and sold as, for some time, your patrimony was your access to personhood. Put another way, if your father was a white GI, no government authority automatically thought of you as a citizen. (43)
The Empire has ended but my family’s story will never end. There will always be fly-in fly-out incursions of boundaries, the breaches of war or commerce that leave in their wake a trail of people who do not know who they are. Untethered and drifting but I won’t abandon them. I won’t let them float away. I’ll build them a net of connection and join them up with my stories.
1. Viscount George Valentia, cited in Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India. Leiden, (Netherlands: E. J. Brill 1973) at 13
2. Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity for Anglo-indians” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) at 17
3. Eurasian communities targeted in the Indian Rebellion 1857. “Shunned by the Indians, despised by the whites . . . the unfortunate Anglo-Indian found himself cut off from the main economic and social bases of Indian life.” Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in 1933 cited in L Jacobsen, The Eurasian Question: The Colonial Position and Postcolonial Options of Colonial Mixed Ancestry Groups from British India, Dutch East Indies and French Indochina Compared (Uitgeverij Verloren 2018) at 82, web, accessed 10 January 2019, See also Mills, M. “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001) at 225; Mannsaker, F. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914” Victorian Studies 24.1 (1980) at 37.
4. Kris Griffiths, “Anglo-Indians: Is their culture dying out?” BBC Magazine, 4 January 2013, web, accessed 3 February 2018
5. Elementary Handbook of the Burmese Language 1898 cited in Edwards, P “Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma.” Postcolonial Studies 5.3 (2002) at 285
6. Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India (Netherlands Leiden1973), 18
7. Hervey, A soldier of the Company, cited in Sen, A Distant Sovreignity, (Routledge 2002) 148
8. ‘The Eurasian Anthem’ cited in Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) 14
9. Mills, M “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001): 223–236, web, accessed 11 1 20, detailing disproportionate levels of Eurasian military and sporting achievement. Probably Empire Eurasians display disproportionate achievement in entertainment also, but no one in public life will admit to their Eurasian heritage: Kris Griffiths, op cit.
15. Kris Griffiths, op cit. I experienced a flash of recognition when Griffiths says: ‘The Anglo-Indians also have a distinctive cuisine – jalfrezi was a staple in our household, but unlike anything on Indian restaurant menus.’ Even the most slavish imitators of British customs would balk at adopting that country’s cuisine. My grandmother cooked beautiful curries that were like Asian curries but different, as well as a type of balachaung (shrimp paste) that we ate on toast and which I have never tasted elsewhere
16. Shriver, L “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation is a Passing Fad” The Guardian 13 September 2017, web, 3 February 2020
17. Abdel-Magied, Y “As Shriver Made Light of Identity I had no Choice but to Walk Out” The Guardian 10 September 2016, web, 2 January 2020; Wong Y, “Dangerous Ideas” inexorablist.com 8 September 2016 web, accessed 18 January 2020
18. Shriver, L op cit.
19. Frears, Stephen. et al. My Beautiful Laundrette. London: FilmFour, 1985. Film.
20. For Kureishi’s particularly controversial status, see Ruvani Ranasinha, South Asian Writers in Twentieth Century Britain: Culture in Translation (Oxford Scholarship Online 2011) 260, comparing Kureishi’s critical reception to that of Meena Syal; Alberto Fernandez, ‘Hanif Kureishi: The Assemblage of a Native Informant’ Queering Islam 6 March 2015 web 2 Jan 2020, suggesting Kureishi is as controversial than the fatwa-eliciting Rushdie, Mick Brown ‘Hanif Kureishi: A Life Laid Bare’ The Telegraph 23 February 2008:
21. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia , London, Faber and Faber, 1990, print at 180
22. Interview with Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi, The Movie Show, 7 July 1988, www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11716675713/sammy-and-rosie-get-laid-stephen-frears-and-hanif-kureishi
23. Shriver, L, op cit, “That’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing.”
24. Hanif Kureishi, ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ in Collected Essays Faber and Faber 2013 at 286
25. Zaidie Smith, ‘Introduction’ to Kureishi, H, op cit, vi
26. Kureishi, H, op cit, at 213: “If I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to invent it.”
Ibid at 3
28. Kureishi, H , My Beautiful Laundrette and The Rainbow Sign, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print.
29. Her representations are later shown to be impotent in comparison to Karim’s as they require validation by white liberal authority. But this does not detract from the skillful way in which she has managed her minority identity.
30. Kureishi, H, op cit 84
31. Ibid 250
32. Ibid 63
33. Kureishi, H, op cit .12
34. Mannsaker, Frances M. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914.” Victorian Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1980, at 33
35. With thanks to Rilke, “As Once the Winged Energy of Delight”, allpoetry.com, web, 2 February 2020
36. Kureishi, H, op cit 111
37. Sandhu, S “Paradise Syndrome”, London Review of Books, 18 May 2000; Fortini A, “From Justin Bieber to Martin Buber, Zadie Smith’s Essays Showcase Her Exuberance and Range”, nytimes.com, 21 February 2018, web, 2 February 2020
38. Shukla, N, “How the Buddha of Suburbia Let Me Into a Much Wider World” The Guardian, 17 February 2017 web 2 February 2020
39. Shukla N, loc cit.
40. Pascoe identifies with both white and Indigenous aspects of his heritage, “Andrew Bolt’s Disappointment”, griffithreview.com, web, 2 February 2020
41. Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Sydney: Magabala Books, 2014. Print.
42. Chee A, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, London:Bloomsbury, 2018
43. Loc cit at 182
Debbie Lim was born in Sydney. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies including regularly in the Best Australian Poems series (Black Inc.), Contemporary Australian Poetry and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (both Puncher & Wattmann) as well as journals such as Cordite, Mascara, Island and Magma (UK). Her prizes include the Rosemary Dobson Award and she was commended in the Poetry Society UK’s 2013 National Poetry Competition. Her chapbook is Beastly Eye (Vagabond Press). She is working on a full-length collection.
The Year of Contagion
In times of virus
each cough hangs
a dark afterthought.
leaves its tingling
on the skin—
Still air can turn
Better whipping winds.
It remains unofficial
whether tears are effective
they keep urging us
to move on. We wear our days
with a new caution,
learn different ways
riddled with porosities,
we trail microclimates
like small habitable clouds.
Our peripheries burn.
Dani Netherclift has been published in Meanjin, Cordite and Verandah. Her work was nominated for the 2018 Judith Rodriguez Prize and highly commended in the Cliff Green Short Story Competition.
At once vivid and spare in its delineation of a physical, material world, ‘Haunted Autumn’ attends to both the tangible and elusive (/allusive) particulars of place in ways that confirm the collective nature of a setting or site as invariably experiential; a temporal space shaped by sensory experience; by encounters; by context. In accord with Michel de Certeau’s oft-cited line in The Practice of Everyday Life that ‘space is a practiced place’ (1984, p. 117), place becomes space here in the sense that it is never singular or fixed, but invariably collective: multiple and subjective, comprising various vantage-points, and complicated by contexts of the past/present.
Via lines of striking observation and through deft negotiation of the (digital) page itself as space/site, Netherclift’s delicate yet incisive prose poem also calls attention to the often-invisible labour—rendered evident, in the past months, by questions around what work, whose labour, is ‘essential’ during ‘unprecedented’ times, and at what costs (physical and emotional; personal and collective). Notably, the ‘indelicate revelations’ this prose poem calls to our attention also remain, in broader representations, largely obfuscated or overlooked: most figures citing university-sector job losses (to date or to come) have not included the loss of work anticipated by vast numbers of casual employees, upon whose insecure labour these institutions have relied. Concurrently, international students, upon whose fees universities have also depended, have been mostly excluded from government support. Through these precise lines and luminous images, Netherclift shows with both clarity and nuance the university space as one of many sites in which the effects of the pandemic are felt unevenly, even as student bodies remain/return/endure, ‘haunting’ liminal junctures and uncertain futures.
This is timely, compassionate writing that we are excited and grateful to publish.
—Jo Langdon for Mascara Literary Review
X marks distance. We never used to know this. X was golden, treasure. X was illicit. X marked the spot. X was kiss, was marked wrong answers. One might rush then, towards X, before, or take it as a lesson. With X, we erase time before.
Autumn leaves from the rows of ubiquitous plane trees drift and settle across university entry roads, piling deep in concrete gutters and banking in the unopened doorways of the gym. These leaves are as big as a large man’s palm, outstretched. They have their own susurrations, whispered ephemeral languages possessing no word translatable as absence.
One Sunday a half-grown black cat basks in sun on a bench on the Barista Bar deck. Seeing me, it dashes into the unknown black space beneath the slatted wood.
On Tuesday music is piped through the entry building—then, too loud, into the library.
Spiderwebs have gathered, dew-settled across the unopened hinges of the red mailbox outside the main entrance.
It grows colder.
Purple swamp hens arabesque across cement outside, beneath the coloured glass panes of the library study space.
On the lake ducks glide and duck, flaunting evergreen of underwing, motifs of things we cannot see or predict. Hope without context.
All day, rows of buses arrive & leave, leave & arrive empty. Denuded of passengers, the bus stops are periods, punctuations. One morning a driver asks me when I disembark if I am okay going into the university. I assure him that it is still an inhabited place, despite outward appearances.
Another time, leaving, I walk from the library to the main building on a perfectly blue-skied day and a fine mist of water falls from the edges of the building, cloaked in motes of sunlight and the deep vibration of mysterious unseen machines.
The revolving doors are stilled, marked unusable with narrow ribbons of red-and-white pandemic tape delineating the scene of an unimaginable occurrence. Abandonment—
as though they have given up the ghost.
Security guards perform requisite rounds, enacting circles; each hour they walk once around the study room; I grow used to their attentions. They walk the perimeters of the university-emptiness, echoing inwards with hours and steps and an ironic loneliness. They are here because some of us remain.
They talk too loudly in the library.
Students sit apart without X’s denoting distance, our unmasked breath covenants of trust.
We keep our distance. We acknowledge each other with looks
signalling a collective new body of knowledge.
Meteors fly close to the earth. I remember those fragments of dinosaurs preserved in lava and Tektites in Mexico and America. The KT Boundary intersects time before time after.
The number 42 bus home tastes of antiseptic—red-and-white taped, its air hangs hospital-like, disinfected. Each day it is empty, carrying the driver and me and crowds of absence.
The books in the library are cordoned-off by locked roller doors, barriers like X’s that you never even knew were there, before.
The university indelicately reveals its inner workings; an army of tradespeople, maintenance workers who maintain the neat green grass, the sanitisation of tables, the cleaning of closed off spaces, puppeteers of vibrations/instrumentalists, rainmakers in miraculous spaces.
Cabbage butterflies limn the autumn trees.
The branches bare more skin with each day.
Tiny yellow-breasted wrens almost indistinguishable from butterflies flutter up from green like feathered golden raindrops reverse-flowing into coming winter.
More students return, spaced by unseen X’s; the trimester nears its end.
We are here.
by Todd Turner
Puncher and Wattmann
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
An Uneasy Symbiosis: A Review of Todd Turner’s Thorn
Todd Turner’s Thorn mines the relationship between the earth and the things which populate it, musing on their motives and daily moves. An uneasy symbiosis between animals and people, the natural and the built, is rendered in detail-oriented odes to memory, observation and wonder. In this, his second volume, Thorn re-treads some of the ground of Woodsmoke (2016), reflecting a similar drive to luxuriate in the minutiae of language. The specificity of Turner’s images allows the reader to see through the poetic eye, lending a haptic quality to his creations. There is a clarity and care to each poem, a tiny world where every word is in its right place, even if everything is not. As the collection’s blurb, written by Robert Gray, explains, Turner has much to draw upon in his rendering of a complex world; “a horseman and boxer on one side, a craftsman who creates artistic jewellery for a living on the other”. This eclectic collection of life experiences is reflected in the breadth of this collection, unconstrained by any one influence or vantage point from which to connect to the world around him.
The collection’s strongest moment comes early, with “My Middle Name”. The poem is memoiristic and confessional. The speaker explores the power of missing things – words, family, motives. Turner forms a loquacious ode to the power of silence. The festering presence of the unsaid is palpable; the speaker tells of “swallowed silence” (8) and describes his mother’s habit of “trying to air the echo of her father’s silence” (7). Turner gracefully conjures the feeling of holding in words, the ghostly figures of the past lingering on the tips of each character’s tongue. This is not Turner’s only engagement with silence: Later, in “Switch”, the speaker relates that “a certain silence grew within me-/ an inwardness that only seemed to inflate” (32). Indeed, attention is paid throughout the collection to the power of invisible forces. The wind, silences, unspoken bonds and burdens weigh on the speakers in the early personal poems. In “Tiny Ruins”, the air itself chokes and confines; it “ropes” the speaker with “hefty knots” (22). In “The Raft” (24), nostalgia exercises its invisible power, a mix of crystal clarity and the hazy, rose-coloured mysticism of childhood memories.
A frequent allusion in section one is the image of the tree, connected strongly with family and heritage. Family history is “sprung in roots” in “Heirloom” (28). A stick, an instrument of corporeal punishment, is “an instrument of my mother’s affection”, “rooted in living memory” in “The Stick” (25). That the tree, particularly evoked in its roots and the knots, appears frequently in Thorn’s musings on family and the past gives an ominous undercurrent to the at times prosaic remembrances of his speaker. Such clean relation of memory is on display in “Dolls” (29), where the imminent death of a mother is presented with care but without overwrought description, its matter-of-factness walloping the reader with the reality of loss. It is a hard poem that demands to be read and remembered.
Section 2 brings with it observations of the animal kingdom with myriad seeming motives. In “Magpies” (35), “Guinea Fowl” (40), “The Echidna” (45) and “Horse” (51), animals are imbued with a quotidian majesty, watched and set down in detail for their own sake. These poems feel like a walk through the country and pausing to ponder the daily toils of its non-human dwellers. Turner burrows into the metaphoric potential of each creature, for its own sake and in the case of poems like “Villanelle for a Calf “(39) and “The Pigeons” (43), to illuminate something of the human condition. Through the premonition of “The Pigeons” closing stanza – “Poor pigeons, they were only looking for a place to lay their rotten eggs” (43) – Thorn conjures a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom, a pitying external voice which looks down upon the simple desires for home and safety. In “Snail” (44), Thorn takes on the invertebrate as character – lending it the humility of a blue-collar bloke. These poems are a refreshing reprieve from the chore of humanity – they do what good poetry should, taking us out of ourselves for a moment, and ensure we know more about ourselves and our world when we return. They contrast with the arguably more powerful personal poems, never letting the reader dwell on humanistic problems without consideration of our animal counterparts.
Section 3 deals in the macro and micro earth – spinning out to consider big questions among the celestial imagery of “Solar Lunar” (55). This penultimate section feels loftier, not just in its allusions to technology and the mechanical and its concern with height and a bird’s eye view, but also in its pondering of humanity from the top down. “Theorems of geometry” and “the horizontal lines of the stave” (55) conjure mathematical and musical precision, as opposed to the grubby chaos of creatures both human and not. The loquaciousness of the earlier poems returns in “The Sweet Science”, where a fighter is a “fox-trotting shaman” and a “poetic pugilist” (59). However, this section is primarily concerned with things. Thorn renders them weighty and lit from within by meaning, waiting for someone to puzzle out their importance. Poems like “Stilled” (61) render simple objects like crockery gilded with significance; containers, it says, “seem to reverberate in the mute dust-fall of light and shade” (61). Further dimensionality is added to this third section is Turner’s sources of inspiration for these poems. Turner is in conversation with an eclectic bunch of poets; poems are ‘after’ John Donne, Ted Hughes, Li Po and Jo Shapcott to name a few. This gives the sense of a poet speaking about the world to the world and gives the collection an intertextuality that turns reading into a treasure hunt, sending the reader scurrying to their bookshelf to find the inspiration points for the works.
Thorn reveals a poet in fine form, wielding language with an enviable control. The collection certainly stands as an excellent work outside of the context in which I read it, though I can’t help but ponder how my appreciation of this collection, so filled with images of the natural world existing without human interference, is enhanced by the state of the world at present. The constant pressing in of news about pandemics, climate change and natural disasters, hammers home the powerless of the individual being. Thorn is a welcome reminder that despite chaos some things go on, perhaps without fanfare or seeming purpose, but steadily and beautifully.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poetry can be found in Voiceworks, Farrago and Above Water, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others. She was recently accepted into the University of Oxford Mst Film Aesthetics.
by Natalie Harkin
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
It can be tempting to imagine that colonisation is a thing of the past; that posting an infographic on Instagram on Sorry Day counts as activism; that the horrors white settlers inflicted on First Nations peoples can be considered in the past tense. Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics reminds us that colonisation is ongoing and that far from fading away, the savagery of colonial oppression remains constant in our communities and our culture.
Some salient examples: it’s Reconciliation Week, and mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has blown up an ancient Aboriginal site dating back 45,000 years – a site perhaps unrivalled in historical significance. The act of blowing up this site is within the law. It’s Reconciliation Week, and Kamilaroi woman, Cheree Toka, continues to campaign for the Aboriginal flag to be flown on the Harbour Bridge all year round, and not only as a token gesture once a year. It’s Reconciliation Week, and the government has announced funding is to be halved for AbSec, the peak body for the protection of Aboriginal children, even though Aboriginal children make up close to forty percent of children in out-of-home care. It’s been twelve years since Kevin Rudd’s apology speech and ‘Australia Day’ is still being celebrated on a day marking the commencement of the genocide of First Nations people.
This is the discomforting ground in which Archival Poetics takes root. Harkin’s first few lines about the archive, ‘a small spotlight on the state, its institutions/systems/processes/that generate and maintain particular fantasy-discourses and/representations on history, on people; that actively silence/suppress/exclude Indigenous voice and agency…’ (11) make clear the enormity of the challenge of decolonisation. German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as a ‘…human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a territory.’ (Weber, 1946) It’s important to make something very clear here. Weber’s definition clarifies that we are that human community. The violence implicit in the destruction of Indigenous sites and in the removal of funding from organisations tasked with the care of children who have been taken from their families has been legitimated by our government whom we have elected. Not me, I hear you say, nor me, but us as a people.
Acknowledging this complicity is imperative before entering the landscape of Harkin’s collection, so as to recognise the continuing reverberations of our colonial past in our present and future, and to pay heed to the way our legal system has and continues to fail Indigenous culture and communities. ‘Memory Lesson 2 | Feeding the Fever’ (19) underscores this failure (‘prepare to be drip fed ACCESS DENIED’) and reveals what we already know – that the archive is where bad things are hidden. The narrator’s attempt to reconfigure the shadowy spaces of this country’s history are held up at every turn by the state and its ‘…dystopian-drive to institutionalise/assimilate/control/categorise/collect/contain Aboriginal lives.’ (19) Harkin uses the humble verb in an unusual and powerful way a number of times throughout this collection, accenting the violence of colonial power and conversely, the agency of the Aboriginal people. We see this again in ‘Trace and Return’ which begins:
return to the concealed origin
trace blood from there
enter spaces invisible
rouse beyond the official (29)
and, a few stanzas later, condenses into
return trace enter rouse gather seek
accumulate tend unshackle gather
provoke destabilise expose ignite (29)
Although this poem comes after some of the others I’ll mention, the sense of energy and painful effort foregrounded by ‘Trace and Return’ is significant. The idea of writing poetry as a kind of restful activity is prevalent in a society that doesn’t particularly value creative endeavour, but Harkin tears this notion to shreds throughout her collection and certainly in this poem. The act of putting together these poems was surely both challenging and disturbing; the act of rendering the genocide of one’s people into poetry traumatising in ways I and other white readers of the collection are not able to comprehend. The poem ‘Dear Sir’ (22), the title of which holds a sickening sense of enforced subordination, is borne of a two hundred page file on a child of the stolen generation. The second stanza brings home this jarring sense of recognition of self and family within the devastation of state records.
I turn the pages
there she is
perfect old-school cursive
to Inspectors ‘State-Ladies’ Protectors (22)
The enjambment and punctuation of this poem increases the intensity with which the reader reads and removes any sense of pause which a more traditional structural approach might engender. There’s no holding back when reading these poems, there’s no moment’s reprieve to be taken from the spaces between words. Inspectors, ‘State-Ladies’ and Protectors are one and the same, a realisation which underscores the privilege of not-knowing and the importance of being made aware. The photograph that accompanies the poem, an item woven from the papers of the archive, displays the old-school cursive mentioned by the narrator. The most salient phrase visible is ‘good girl’ on the bottom left of the image, which could belong in the list of adjectives that conclude ‘Dear Sir’ – state child, half-caste, obedient, well-spoken, destitute, neglected (22).
‘State Lady Report’ (26-28) includes similarly conflicting descriptors of stolen children. Preceded by a quote from Ann Laura Stoler’s Tense and Tender Lies (2006) about the gendered and racialised ‘intimacies of the everyday’, ‘State Lady Report’ explores the all-pervasive nature of state control. (Note: each line is preceded by a box marked with an x to give a checklist impression.)
State Lady spills kitchen cupboard contents to the page and sniffs at the oven: I noticed an assortment of cakes and buns had been baked that morning. (26)
State lady inspects my house, body, hair – notes I am not causing trouble, and I am reasonably clean. (27)
All facets of life are under the jurisdiction of the state. An allegation of ‘consorting’ further drives home the kind of social and emotional deprivation employed by the state in achieving domination. The visual elements of this poem – the marked-off checklist, the typewriter-like font in bold to mark out the difference between the ‘I’ of the state lady and the ‘I’ of the narrator – visually repurpose the structures of regulation and control to tell a different story.
In his review of Archival Poetics, Nathan Sentance points out that the narrative of the archive relies on the suppression of Indigenous voices. He says, ‘This is not to say that we, First Nations people, are not in the archives…we were usually included in archives without our informed consent. Our histories, our cultures, and our people were recorded by those commonly involved in the attempted physical, cultural and spiritual genocide of our people: police officer, government officials, and anthropologists, for example.’ (Sentance, 2019). Archival Poetics is itself an archive, a re-recording of the physical, cultural and spiritual experiences of First Nations people, a repossession and reconfiguration of a history rent with trauma.
But again: is it history? At the time of writing this review, mass protests are taking place all across the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in US police custody. My social media landscape is one of outrage – as it should be – but this sentiment is aimed at American police, at American policy, at American people. The Guardian’s Deaths Inside tracks Indigenous deaths at the hands of police in this country, a number currently at 432 since the end of the commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991. In a devastating parallel, George Floyd echoed twenty six year old Dunghutti man David Dungay’s cries that he could not breathe while being restrained by police officers in November, 2015. And yet, there were no mass riots in Australia for Dungay, or for any of the First Nations people who have died or suffered abuse at the hands of police. So what are we doing about it?
Natalie Harkin’s poetry works to decolonise the archive in a way that is distressing, arresting and aesthetic, and tells us that we need to pick up the gauntlet, continue the work and be better. Be better at recognising and rejecting the racism and violence propagated in the spaces we live and work and in our media. Be better at dismantling the systems from which we have profited at the expense of First Nations people. Be better at amplifying Indigenous voices instead of our own. Be better at listening, instead of speaking. Wondering where to start? Get yourself a copy of Archival Poetics.
Evershed, N., Allam, L., Wahlquist, C., Ball, A. and Herbert, M., 2020. ‘Deaths Inside: Every Indigenous Death in Custody since 2008’ Tracked [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/28/deaths-inside-indigenous-australian-deaths-in-custody> [Accessed 1 June 2020].
Sentance, N., 2019. ‘Disrupting the Colonial Archive’. Sydney Review of Books, [online] Available at: <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/natalie-harkin-archival-poetics/> [Accessed 1 June 2020].
GABRIELA BOURKE is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Gabriela is most interested in fictional representations of animal and human trauma, and the ways in which these intersect. Her work appears in Hermes and Southerly.