by Victoria Hannan
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
In lockdown, distance regained some of its former authority. For six of the last twelve months, many Melburnians have lived, worked and didn’t work within a five kilometre radius of their home. My parents live 22 kilometres away, and though there isn’t a great tradition of hugging in my family, I spent much of lockdown longing to see my two-year-old wrap his arms around his grandfather’s neck.
I think it was this particular longing which made me feel, acutely, the distance between Mina and Elaine in Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo.
‘I guess you know why I’m here,’ she’d said the day before as she’d pulled out a wooden chair to sit opposite Elaine at the table.
‘Why don’t you tell me,’ Elaine said, her voice taut.
‘Mum…’ Mina studied Elaine’s face, her long thin nose, her cool blue eyes; she looked older, tired, just as sad. She wanted to hug her mother, but instead she reached over and put her hand on Elaine’s hand. Her skin felt cold like paper. They sat there for a minute, their hands touching. ‘Are you –’ Mina started, but Elaine stood.
It has been seven years since Mina left to work in London, and 12 years since Elaine last stepped out the front door of the family home. When Elaine is seen out on the street, Mina is called and immediately flies back to Melbourne full of questions that Elaine seems to have no intention of answering.
Across the road, the Chengs offer a different model of family life. Both Kira and her mother, Valerie, wrap their arms around Mina when they first see her after her long absence. Their house smells like ‘fabric softener on just-washed sheets’ (10) and glows golden, ‘warm light beaming from all the windows’ (33). The contrast between Elaine’s cool reception and Valerie’s garrulous welcome is so stark that I am briefly worried about the dimensionality of the characters. I am tired of reading mothers whose lives seem to begin and end with motherhood, mothers like a stain on the intricate tapestry of the protagonist’s past. Then, gazing at a family portrait of the Chengs in matching red velvet outfits, Mina is struck by a feeling, a ‘want’ that ‘growl[s] and stir[s] deep down inside her’ (11), a surge of unmistakably sexual desire that interrupts my mounting indignation about the prevalence of flat literary mothers.
This kind of uninhibited swerve characterises the acuity of Hannan’s depiction of Mina’s psyche as a tortuous network of lacunae and hunger. Though it is a rare pleasure to read a novel set in Melbourne, and so to be able to fill out the details of the brown brick porches and the birdsong, Kokomo is deeply rooted in the psychological, presenting readers with a highly filtered version of reality. As Mina circles in and around her childhood home, her thoughts range from Melbourne to London, past to present, love to sex, cycling endlessly back to Jack, her co-worker and the object of the desire that permeates the novel. She tugs compulsively at the screen of her phone, waiting for a message, some kind of contact, some sign of reciprocal feeling:
She looked at the message to Jack again. Delivered. Ignored. She knew his phone was never out of reach, that he slept with it under his pillow, that he looked at it when he woke up, in meetings, constantly. He must’ve seen her message. He must’ve. This was the longest they’d gone without talking since they started working together just over a year ago. She reread the message. Maybe it was too cold.
I’m too cold, she thought. I’m a bitch. I should’ve said something cute, something sexy. It should’ve been a small x, two? One big, one small. I’ve fucked it all up.
The swarm of assumptions and images that rush in to fill Jack’s silence and the way in which Mina obsesses over the orthography of her message is uncomfortably familiar. In the moments between Mina and her phone, Hannan captures the work we put into constructing ourselves with embarrassing clarity, yet something beyond flirtation is at stake here. For Hannan, the social media age is one of distance and longing. The distance between who we are and the person we carefully curate in text messages and posts only adds to the distance between me and you. In Kokomo, social media is a form of surveillance, everyone watching each other without ever reaching out, the ‘double tap…an easy substitute for friendship’ (64).
The distance between what is real and what is imagined is situated at the focal point of the novel. As well as struggling to rediscover the self that was swallowed up by the tragedies of her past, Mina works hard to reach Elaine, the Elaine buried under years of motherhood. And far from neglecting the character of the mother, Hannan makes a poignant centrepiece of Elaine’s life in a way that reminds me of all the stories and all the living stored up in every one of us. All of it within reach if you just reach out.
MEGAN CHEONG lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.
by Prithvi Varatharajan
Reviewed by MIRIAM WEI WEI LO
Reading Prithvi Varatharajan’s Entries, is like tuning in to an erudite conversation. At first my brain struggles. Then, like a middle-aged woman on the tenth day of exercise boot-camp, I suddenly find myself keeping up.
Twelve poems in, I’m not only keeping up, but I’m transfixed by a moment of connection in the (Proustian) prose poem “Speak, Memory”:
Writing memory transforms a beautifully shifting thought-picture into a static one, there for you to re-read but not to re-remember. It preserves memory while at the same time killing it. (15)
Varatharajan is discussing the fluidity of pre-written memory, of how it “seems to be fluid, letting you remember the same event in slightly different ways each time you recall it”. This may seem impossibly intellectual (like, oh, historiography) but I’ve had just that experience when I’ve written down memories of my own. Writing them down seems to kill, or at least fix, them in some way – like a dead butterfly pinned and mounted in a display box.
Other points of connection emerge, like the star-points of a constellation. Before I dot them out, I will venture some comments on form. Most of Varatharajan’s ‘entries’ are prose poems. There is the occasional foray into free verse (playing with many different line lengths), a couple of odes (one very cryptic), and one ghazal (that keeps the radif and dispenses with the qafia). The prose poems push at the ‘poem’ end of the boundary – there is a very deliberate prosaic-ness to their rhythm and diction as well as a palpable resistance to the kind of closure one often expects in a poem: the kind exemplified in, say, the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. This resistance to closure is also a resistance to synthesis and evaluation – this gives many of the prose poems the feel of an unedited documentary: reading them feels like watching live-stream footage from someone’s webcam. Except there are two crucial differences: first, these episodes include interior monologue; second, these episodes of footage are curated. They are carefully snipped-out portions.
The points of connection that emerge for me from Varatharajan’s curated entries include a sense of ambivalence towards cosmopolitanism. The poem “Inner City Reflection” submerges the reader, via the body of the narrator, in a pool of sparkling light – the inner-city lap pools of a thousand hotels come to mind – as our thoughts are directed to the sameness of the global urban landscape: “I’m in an everywhen of the central business district” (22). Varatharajan is summoning up metaphors for the cosmopolitan urban professional experience – an experience he participates in, like a swimmer entering a pool; but also steps out from, troubled. Varatharajan keeps disturbing the smooth aesthetic surface of cosmopolitan life in subsequent poems:
I was put off, in that group, by the pride taken in an appearance of effortless cosmopolitanism; I say ‘the appearance of’ because I’m sure it’s effortful – going through complex visa and immigration processes, not to mention the daily difficulty of communication in second and third languages (“Sombre Reflections” 71).
Bonny Cassidy, in her introduction to this book, highlights the ambivalence of Varatharajan’s poetic posture and celebrates it as “the most honest position” (xiv). In this instance, the ambivalence is fuelled by tension between the desire to obey the conventions of cosmopolitan etiquette and the desire to achieve more meaningful human contact.
Love and death twine their way through this collection in a double-dance of presence and absence – appearing occasionally as muted erotic touch: “I think of the exact weight and shape of you” (“Love Poem” 4); manifesting in the dead bodies of birds (“Bird Death” 5); materializing in gestures of friendship: “Julene in Spain says next time I’m in Europe she’ll visit me in whichever country I’m staying in” (“Ode to European Friends” 36); and receding through loss: “A Literary Shadow” documents the entry and exit of a significant connection – the South Indian writer Ashokamitran.
Travel is a constant reference. There are major and minor movements. The major movements take place between cities: Turin, Chennai, Adelaide, Melbourne, Istanbul – each of these places, and others, are captured in unique poems of anecdote and description (including “Opera Diary”, “A Literary Shadow”, “City Selves”, and “Nazim Hikmet and Radiohead in Cihangir”). The minor movements are between a succession of share-houses – “(Im)permanence” is a particularly helpful exploration of the difficulties of shared accommodation.
Some of Varatharajan’s most resonant poems, for me, are those that document minority experiences. I admire Varatharajan’s exquisite attention to the detail of these experiences:
The music is folky with paradoxical touches of darkness and whimsy. There’s no-one else like me there, so of course, I wear my difference heavily; of course, I berate myself for being so self-conscious: get over it, idiot (“Identity Anecdote” 23).
I don’t often come across representations of non-white traveller anxiety, so I am grateful for this, from a poem recounting experiences in Budapest:
I’m not sure where my defensiveness has come from … The Hungarian Prime Minister addressed the Viennese parliament today, and said Hungary was not interested in replicating Western Europe’s ‘failed’ experiment with multiculturalism by letting in non-European migrants. That is probably preying on my mind (“Incident in a Café, Incident in a Supermarket” 38-9).
I laughed out loud, with a sense of déjà vu, at this:
What’s to be done about being in the margins, since I find myself here all the time, even if I tell myself, some years, that I’m not going to keep putting myself in that position through my obstinate self-identifications? All that’s left to do now is to get comfortable, put my feet up in this virtual armchair, and find incisive perspectives on the world beyond the margin – perspectives that only a life in the margins could provide. Or – another option – suppress thinking about the margin and the mainstream, because this is after all just a story we tell ourselves, even if that story appears grounded in lived experience (“Occupying the Margins” 52).
I have chafed, as a writer, at the restrictions of the ‘Majority Gaze’ which seems to want to position me, always, in terms of my Asian-Australian ethnicity; with less interest in the many other dimensions of identity I currently occupy (‘housewife’, for example, seems particularly unworthy). I am anxious not to frame Varatharajan in a similarly restrictive manner; his work certainly resists any easy ‘ethnic’ categorisation; and yet, ironically, I am drawn to his poems about family, precisely for the deftness and honesty with which he handles the ethnic dimension of minority experience:
Last night I recorded a conversation in the kitchen … We dig up some dirt from the past. I describe my feeling of being embarrassed by our religious culture as a teenager, being embarrassed to bring my friends home because of this (nearly all my friends were white); I ask whether they were aware of this embarrassment, and if so, how it made them feel. In their answer they describe some of the other things that me and my brother did that were upsetting to them, which are heart-rending to hear; they relate to how we characterised their way of speaking English to schoolfriends we brought home. I say, ‘That must have been hurtful.’ It goes on like this for a while. It’s like a family therapy session (“Memories in the Kitchen” 62-3).
Entries is not an easy read. I confess there are a couple of poems that completely eluded me (“Apperceptions” and “Informal Poetics”) but it is still worthy of close attention. Other readers might like to mine it for its range and depth of literary references. Fans of arthouse films might find their own points of connection too. Readers looking for ‘Australia’ will find it here – in ironic refractions. I’ll conclude with one of them, from “The Australian Bicentenary, and a Memory”:
A friend of mine today recalled how he sat in a cinema in St Louis as a young boy (in 1989 or 1990), watching a selection of footage from the Australian Bicentenary … Going to see the Bicentenary was his father’s attempt to get his son enthused about the country they’d soon be moving to. As he was describing the scene to me – a childhood memory that seemed incongruous (You watched the Australian Bicentenary in a cinema in St Louis?) – I warmed a little, thinking: ‘Ah, this is real. I’m writing about something real.’ (50)
MIRIAM WEI WEI LO is intrigued by complexity and seduced by simplicity. Simultaneously. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia. Find her online @miriamweiweilo (Instagram).
The Tiniest House of Time
By Sreedhevi Iyer
Wild Dingo Press
Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE
“How will you remember her?”
“As someone who knew so much, and kept it well hidden.” (316)
Sreedhevi Iyer’s The Tiniest House of Time is a book for our time, examining as it does the profound silences that a family lives with, silences embedded in a history of displacement, and the uprooting from what was considered home. In tracking hidden and unspoken histories, of which there is little written record, the author has written something of a psychoanalytically focused and politically acute narrative, as she explores through her finely structured novel, an evocation of generational trauma across migratory continental space. With much sensitivity and intelligence, Iyer delineates the colonial legacy of race relations, and how this legacy weighs down on those societies still navigating them.
The novel begins with Sandhya, who has lived and worked in Melbourne for some time, returning to Kuala Lumpur to be at the bedside of her beloved grandmother, Susheela. It is clear that Sandhya’s departure from Malaysia some years before has been a painful one, with unresolved and awkward family issues emerging as the narrative proceeds.
The scope of the novel, moving as it does from contemporary Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s during the Reformasi period, and back to colonial Burma in the 1930s, allows themes of recurrent events, of the emotional resonance of love and terror to ricochet over time and place. The structure of the novel is very effective in the way it allows Susheela’s story in particular to emerge in a piecemeal fashion, and to connect it to the growing crisis in the life of Sandhya. Iyer’s skill as a writer is displayed in the way she employs slightly different techniques in the Burma and Kuala Lumpur sections without in any way sacrificing the overall unity of the novel. Somehow, she has managed to pull off a sense in the Burmese sections of both a dreamlike yet naturalistic portrayal of an Indian family’s life in what was then Rangoon. With careful delineation, Iyer, with exceptional clarity and restraint, floods a number of events rich with incipient trauma. Scenes that appear to render the calm placidity of family life, transform into incidents so utterly terrifying that they resonate as a kind of collective and generational stigmata.
The Sastri family is introduced as living a comfortable life, centred on traditional and domestic ritual, in British occupied Rangoon, where the family patriarch works as a Postmaster. His daughter, Susheela, displays a strong relationship with places of ritual, from the family domestic shrine to the imposing structure of the Shwedagon, and inhabiting such spaces becomes for her a source of strength and comfort for the rest of her life.
The security of the family soon appears to be illusory as world events overtake their lives. Being part of the Indian population in Rangoon, a liminal presence between the British colonisers and the subjugated and increasingly restive Burmese, they become a highly visible target for communal violence. A heartbreaking sense of carefully insisted upon racial divisions is highlighted through Susheela’s friendship with Zaw, a Burmese boy, a friendship which results in his public humiliation. The first indication of imminent conflagration is presented in a devastatingly restrained manner in a paragraph describing why Susheela was now staying home from school:
She had been forced to stop school the previous year, but not due to poor results….But one day, the school bus was stopped mid-trip on Campbell Road. All the passengers had to get out. Susheela climbed down with her friends and stood by the side of the road. They watched the Burmese men burn it, with the Indian driver still inside. Since then, Susheela stayed home.. given to sudden quietude that only a trip to the Shwedagon would dispel. (161/2)
The novel also addresses the difficulties and constraints of decision making when the world as one knows it is on the brink of collapse. With the Japanese about to attack as World War Two accelerates, Postmaster Sastri, confounded by his loyalty to, and pressure from, the British, makes two fatal decisions. On seeming impulse, he unaccountably decides to take the family to the Shwedagon, when reports of large-scale trouble are rife, and when the streets are mysteriously empty of the bustle of the everyday. The scenes of their return home from the pagoda are terrifying, and result in family tragedy. His second decision, to delay his family’s departure by boat to India, leads to them joining a very large contingent of refugees who are forced to make the long trek by foot to the relative safety of Assam:
Trudge, shuffle, clink, flap, wail. These were the only noises Susheela could hear from crying babies to clanging pots and pans. From morning, when she stood up from her dry, baked earth, till night, when Father decided they would stop, along with some other families, and rest under a tree. (194/5) and:
Later, Susheela would have no memory of actually reaching Mandalay, the place of a thousand temples. She only would recall reaching a camp with the multitudes who swallowed space till the horizon. (200)
The sections of The Tiniest House of Time set in the Kuala Lumpur of the 1990s reflect the vitality and random topography of a large city. The almost dreamlike Burmese sections here have a different quality of urgency, as the writing becomes more incidental, incremental, and grungy in effect. Just as the narrative in Rangoon is underpinned by Susheela’s relationship with Zaw, and his growing political activism, Sandhya’s engagement with the politics of Reformasi, and the rise and fall of Anwar Ibrahim, is set in motion by her relationship with Faisal. A charismatic student leader, intellectually gifted, multilingual and well-connected, he appears to be too good to be true. A couple of incidents reveal his darker side, and during a massive demonstration, where the crowd is bombarded with water cannon, he is arrested and disappears from Sandya’s life, although he makes a brief and telling re-appearance late in the novel.
The Kuala Lumpur scenes sweep beautifully over the messiness and camaraderie of student life, the excitement of widening political awareness and subsequent disillusionment. The novel describes well the excitement, the current passing through the body, which can accompany political engagement:
She played with the percussion of the movement, acutely aware of being present, being relevant. The thrill of operating underground, of voicing in the streets what they normally shared in whispers. (238)
A crucial event occurs when Sandhya is travelling on a train, after going out to buy Faisal a birthday present. Just as Iyer excelled in presenting scenes of imminent violence in the Rangoon sections, in this episode thugs roam the carriages, shouting “Anwar or Mahathir?”, and brutally beating those who give the wrong answer. Sandhya manages to escape, but in the aftermath, Faisal appears to be more taken by the drama of the event vulnerability, its moral implications, and Sandhya’s vulnerability.
In the wash up, Sandhya is expelled for taking part in the demonstration that sees Faisal arrested. His mother categorically rules out any future marriage, and Sandhya in great distress returns to the family home. With Susheela, she goes to the local temple, and together they partake in ritual catharsis, as Sandhya, with great strength brought upon by overwhelming grief, smashes 108 coconuts. .(prologue, 278)
The Tiniest House of Time is an illuminating portrayal of the Indian diaspora across decades, with a sense of non-belonging, of always being a foreigner. Susheela in particular takes comfort in what remains in any situation, because no matter what difficulty, it cannot compare with the embodiment of the earlier apprehension of the ineluctable nature of trauma. The long trek to India, the disease and filth, the bombing, the sudden disappearance of her Anglo-Indian companion, Stuart, who attaches himself to her family, remain images which can erupt painfully at any time. The contemporary scenes where Sandhya, and a number of family members, visit Susheela in hospital provide the ballast and essential reference point for Sandhya’s growing understanding of forgotten episodes in family history, and provide her with the determination to seek out further information in Burma. These sections could have been shortened, with a few too many family scenes, well written as they are. However, this is a minor issue in what is an illuminating, warm-hearted and courageous novel; a moving tribute to those many who have been caught in a migratory impulse not of their own making.
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020).
A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina
By Paul Kane
White Crane Books
Reviewed by PAUL SCULLY
“Paul Kane is a poet, critic, scholar and librettist” who splits his time between Australia (principally rural Victoria) and the USA and is well-known in the former as a driving force in the Mildura Writers Festival, along with Tina Kane, a textile artist and conservator who “has published numerous essays, translations and reviews” in both countries. “Tina died in Australia on 25 July 2015” after a two-year battle with motor neurone disease.
“The road I walk is one of sadness/ …. /Every time my step falls upon the road, I admit my bondage.” (Ghazal 72)
“Our love was always a response to the anguish of this world/ … / How could our anguish not be beautiful?” (Ghazal 73)
Paul Kane’s A Passing Bell abounds in phrases that could be extracted as summaries of the work. I chose the above to capture the tones of litany, compulsion and grief that pervade it, and the striving for some species of beauty that is part of all poets’ motivation.
A Passing Bell is book-ended by a Prologue in the voice of a third person commentator, witness or presence – a God or a God-substitute, the unnamed Master (perhaps Hafiz ), the spirit of love – that frames the ghazals that follow as involuntary exercises shaped by “a loss so fundamental he is shocked to be alive.” There is also an Epilogue, which is in Tina’s voice and which acknowledges her role in leading him out of his “underworld” “of cavernous grief” at her death to a point where he can turn his Orpheus away from her Eurydice.
Tina was (remains?) Kane’s wife and collaborator in the 2014 translation and illustration of twelve Hafiz ghazals, so the choice of the ghazal form within the Sufic remit seems natural and even an extension of that earlier work. (Kane mentions Hafiz by name in Ghazal 8, though he does not venture equivalence between himself and the great poet in any way). It might even be viewed as another joint project of his words and her animating spirit. This may speak of a deeper affiliation, it may hark back to collaboration, or it may be the product of aptness to themes. There are signs suggestive of the former– the work’s character as a verbal pilgrimage of sorts, the congruence of earthly and spiritual love, the marriage of truth and love, the invocation of a Master presence, the implication of stages in the grieving process (à la Kübler-Ross) and/or stations of enlightenment, e.g. “Passing” in the title, and references to an afterlife.
The ghazal’s last bayt (couplet) usually mentions the poet or narrator by name or requires a reversion to him or her in some way, whereas this occurs only in the Prologue, and then in the voice of the third person. All the ghazals in the body of the work revert to Tina and the Epilogue reverts to them both. This variation is consistent with the work’s inferred joint authorship, and its devotional and Sufic compass – the lover becomes the beloved and both manifest love itself.
While I am not overly familiar with Kane’s other poetry, internet samplings (Cordite, Snorkel, for example) make clear that A Passing Bell is a conscious, if natural, departure from all but the Hafiz translations. These samplings are quite different in construction and tone, and more modernistic, though there is a not infrequent correspondence in themes. Kane’s career demonstrates both a deep and broad interest in collaboration and cross-cultural forms, such as his and John Kinsella’s Renga: 100 Poems; and it is worth noting that Ouyang Yu has translated Kane’s poetry into Chinese.
There is a concept in the Qu’ran known as tawhid that signifies the uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe and is sometimes interpreted in Sufism as making us all part of God – in Attar’s A Conference of the Birds, for example, the birds resolve their pilgrimage to find their king, Simorgh, by peering into a mirror.
These comments are not intended as a religious or form-centred reduction of A Passing Bell. It so pulses with emotion and both light and dark humanity, and so alternates between the dirge-song and the lyric that it can be savoured without religious overtones and resonates beyond the form’s strictures. Nor do I want to stray into arguments of appropriation. The poetry is too organic to sustain such an accusation. Despite its deeply personal content, there is no sense of voyeurism in reading this book, though readers will naturally reach out to their own experiences and that is perhaps intended.
By the publication of A Passing Bell, Kane reasserts his faith in poetry – he is no Laura Riding – despite the traumatic disjuncture of Tina’s death. Meaning is neither necessarily singular nor requires certitude. Poetry is living by “words whose purpose is to say what cannot be said” (Ghazal 8), though “poetry” is itself “merely a word”. Poems are “like newborns shocked by the harsh alien air” of utterance and “part of a larger life which includes death, naturally,/ but only because, for them, death is another kind of life”, a life to be treasured “for it has touched you, Tina, and I cannot let it go” (Ghazal 46). In any event, “I wrote everything for you and waited like a child for notice” and this long poem is “at most a hint, perhaps an invitation or petition” for an acknowledgement in absentia and thus a “prayer” (Ghazal 130).
We all might be warmed by a prayer said by or for us, be it religious, secular or a simple contemplation of nature. Paul Kane has been brave and caring enough to share his and Tina’s.
PAUL SCULLY is a Sydney-based writer. His second collection, Suture Lines, was published in December, 2016 by Guillotine Press. His work has been published in print and online journals in Australia and the USA.
Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (University of WA Publishing), won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2014; her second collection was Unexpected Clearing (UWAP, 2016). She is currently working on her next collection At the Point of Seeing.
She is also a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate Research Centre at Victoria University
Van Dyck, c. 1619
In their best Flemish clothes –
lace ruffs and jewelry, brocaded fabric –
this young couple gaze
intense and hopeful
out of the canvas;
they lean toward me as though
were as fast as the shuttering
of a lens;
their bonneted child,
dandled on her mother’s knee,
looks behind and up –
she has no need to look my way;
Her parents are vibrant with
youth and prosperity,
their connection to each other,
their pride in the child;
like every family –
holy in their ordinariness –
they hold the unfolding generations
in their richly upholstered arms:
Look! we have made this future –
it belongs to us.
Only consider –
(and here the benefit of hindsight)
their willingness to pause,
to sit while a painter
takes their likenesses
in pigment and brushstroke,
within the rushes of time –
Look carefully –
hold fast to the slipperiness of this moment –
it will not always
be like this.
Heaving out from the harbour,
its narrow lean of wooden houses,
salt-weathered in a cloudy light –
a ferry clanks and judders
picking its way past little boats,
their tangle of nets
and out into the slap and wash of darkening water:
stink of diesel and fish swim
in freshets of air,
rubbing cheeks into ruddiness;
until the hump of island
sails into view –
its possibilities of destination,
palette of smudged greys and greens
flickering through the glass;
the angular spine of the Cuillins
a loamy sky,
writhing in channels of wind;
while, deep in boggy fields,
restless in peat –
These tannin-soaked fields,
this permeable membrane,
this elongated moment when a boat might
clip and ride,
a shoreline in sight.
By Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)
Reviewed by MAKS SIPOWICZ
Huo Yan’s Dry Milk is a book about many things all at once. It is a meticulous character study of an unpleasant man who never quite settles in a new country. It is a philosophical parable about following the path our lives set before us. It is a cautionary tale about greed. Huo draws these threads together in creating the rich world of the book.
Set in Auckland, Dry Milk focuses on John Lee, a Chinese man who married a disabled woman so that he could leave move to New Zealand in search of a better life. Instead, he ends up as the owner of a failing antique store, renting out the spare rooms in his house to Chinese exchange students, and attending meetings of a community group he despises, but which he feels obligated to attend. Huo gives us an idea of the kind of man John is in the second paragraph of the book, in the description of him closing his store for the day: “Just as his last would-be customer was about to enter the shop, [John] flipped over the sign in the front window read CLOSED. Having beaten the customer to the door by a pace or two, John Lee locked it and ducked back out of sight” (1). The pettiness characterizing his behaviour is the guiding force of the entire novella.
We begin on the 30th anniversary of John’s moving to New Zealand. As an immigrant, John embodies the many aspects of the foreigner’s experience. I was struck by how universal certain parts of his life in New Zealand were. He is uneasy around other Chinese expats, whom he meets as part of their local community group. Equally, he is uneasy about any prospects of a return to China. My own experience as a migrant confirms this – as a migrant one can begin to feel like a tourist not only in one’s adopted home, but at their origin as well. John’s story highlights the additional difficulties faced by migrants at the intersection of race and culture, but also the changing nature of this experience. He remarks that when he first moved, he tried hard to fit in, but now there are young Chinese migrants everywhere. “Walking around nowadays, you see Chinese faces everywhere. This place has become Chinese. John Lee sighed. How careful he had been, thirty years ago, to try to fit in, to try to become like them” (55).
Throughout Dry Milk John reaches multiple times for the Book of Master Zhuang. Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi as he is also commonly known, was a Daoist philosopher active in the mid-fourth century before common era. His philosophy is characterized by its skepticism about our ability to know about certain kinds of truths and its relativism with regard to morality. For Zhuangzi, the answer to questions about right or wrong depends on who is asking them. This is connected closely with the principle of non-action, that is, acting naturally without having to carefully consider every aspect of one’s action. Acting in a way that comes naturally to us and living our life accordingly is how we can come to embody the Dao (Way).
John is eager to apply these teachings to his life. He thinks much of Zhuangzi is still relevant, and in conversation with a visiting scholar he agrees eagerly to the suggestion that “all of the various truths we moderns talk about were known long ago by the ancients” and that in this respect “nobody can compare with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese” (16-17). The practical aspects of John’s affinity for Daoist philosophy can be seen throughout Dry Milk. For instance, he decides to marry his wife as soon as he hears that the government is intending to send her to live with her family in New Zealand, following a eugenic turn after the Cultural Revolution. Later, John is similarly sure of himself in his pursuit of Jiang Xiaoyu – the student lodger renting a room from him. Each decision, whether it is consciously so or not, seems to be an attempt for John to act naturally. Unfortunately, consistently throughout the book, the lesson John learns from Zhuangzi is the wrong one. Where for Zhuangzi striving to act naturally means we can come to enjoy our lives as we can come to accept what is offered to us, John’s actions produce a string of disappointments, fostering his resentments against his wife, the social workers who come to help him care for her, other members of his community, and the few New Zealanders he interacts with on a regular basis. This pushes him to go on with the opportunity offered to him by a business acquaintance to begin exporting dry milk powder. Ultimately, the only thing borne of John’s constant striving is more darkness.
Huo captures well the sort of social competition and attitudes all too common among long-term migrants. Faced with an increasingly changing reality, wherein his own luck seems to remain poor, John’s finding comfort in classical philosophy underlines the chief source of his discontent – the changing fortunes of those who had remained in China, and its growing middle-class, and experience he feels he missed out on but deserved. Looking at the new wave of migrants, whom he considers to not have to struggle as he had, and who in his mind are not attempting to blend into their new environment, he turns to tradition. Ironically, it is through a visiting scholar who gives a talk on Zhuangzi to the Chinese Community Hope Association he belongs to that John gets elected to the group’s executive, finally gaining some of the status he craves, noting with satisfaction that the jealousy of his rival in the group will become “all-consuming” (59).
Dry Milk is a dark book, but it is not without hope, even if this the kind of hope Josef K is given by Franz Kafka in The Trial. And while its protagonist is unlikeable, abusive, and petty, his flaws and striving for a life beyond the possibilities on offer drew me in even as they shocked me. Duncan M. Campbell’s craft as a translator doubtlessly helps in this – the text is colourful and rich, presenting a vibrant portrait of the community it concerns. Huo captures the sense of foreignness that all migrants experience. Beyond this, she captures the generational differences that are ever present in expatriated communities. At the same time, she gives voice to some of the challenges that are unique to Chinese migrants, and thus offers her readers a perspective that is at once broad and particular.
MAKS SIPOWICZ is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Australian Book Review, Colloquy, Parergon, and others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.
Toward the End
By Ali Alizadeh
Reviewed by KIRAN BHAT
While it was a mainstay of early 20th century writing, the styles, tendencies, and structures of social realist literature went out of vogue fairly quickly. Perhaps it is because of the proselytising nature of such texts, or because works of only one particular vision or message tend to lose freshness on multiple reads. Nonetheless, we live in a time where plenty has gone awry, and the world needs stronger voices yet. From the pages of Towards the End, it is clear that Ali Alizadeh aspires to be one such voice. He is eager to observe the hypocrisies and toxicities of an Australia connected to the global economy, and he aspires to use poetry as a space to right his country’s wrongs.
Alizadeh is a master of the cynical and the bare. He often likes to string words together into the most uncomplex sentences, to make sure that the theme or topic of his words hit with the greatest impact. The poem ‘Refugee’ begins with the warning, ‘If you come to this country without a visa you won’t be settled in this country,’ just as the poem ‘P.S.’ begins with a proclamation: ‘We are decent. We love our country and our liberty.’ Though Alizadeh is writing so directly, his words do not speak with an intimacy. Rather, there’s a deep frustration embedded at how things are in Australia. There’s a sense that no matter how much people of colour give themselves to Australia, the last thing they will be given is acceptance, or a place in society, and Alizadeh uses his poetry to call it it what it is: messed up.
What makes these poems more than exercises in didacticism is how Alizadeh’s poems move from the stark to the unexpected. Returning to the poem, ‘P.S.,’ one assumes that the poem is meant to be a stripping down of everything that makes Australia an inherently difficult country for its outsiders. What it becomes in the middle is an ode to the impossibilities of capitalism, instead.
of feeling happiness as psyches rejoice
at buying iJunk and designer socks, a life
finally expiating its futility
if lucky, with a (record low) pay rise.’
The tone of the poem remains colloquial, but the jumble of words like ‘expiating’ with ‘futility’ create a unique sound, while images of ‘iJunk’ next to ‘designer socks’ render a clear vision of an archetype – Melbournian, hipster, most likely addicted to anything Apple throws their way – Alizadeh is trying to criticise. But, Alizadeh is not trying to stereotype, nor is he trying to cast judgment. He’s just tired of the way things are, and he wants it to change, hence why he concludes his poem on a summoning of the ‘immeasurable power’ of human will to ‘rupture the reality of the world and instigate new worlds.’
Alizadeh is also a master of wordplay. Most of his poems demonstrate a unique use of vocabulary to allow the sounds of the English language to reach greater heights. Take his poem, ‘Destinal,’ in which one casually intrudes upon sentences like ‘ink stains on the paper occlude the noumenon.’ The long /o/ of ‘occlude’ along with the length of syllables in ‘noumonen’ create an extremely satisfying mouth muddle that is hard to imagine succeeding if penned by another writer. In the poem ‘Post-Marx,’ Alizadeh remarks,
‘Landlords don’t lord
it over overindulged
poised between domination and damnation
by market’s melodramatics.’
Each line is built on an alliteration, and a subversion of words that appear similar in length and consonant (‘landlord’ and ‘lord,’ ‘domination’ and ‘damnation, ‘market’ and melodramatic’). The meaning of the words clash, however. As a result, the pairing of these words create harmony and cacophony, nonsense and consequence, all at once.
In my opinion, the strongest poem in the collection is ‘Australian Day.’ The poem showcases all of Alizadeh’s strengths in one piece of writing, and does so with cohesion. For example, the beginning few lines have all of the trademark punch and power of Alizadeh’s starts.
‘Barbeque and cricket
and now you’re a citizen. I’d slap
my own ungrateful
Yet, lines like ‘I’d kick my heart for its failure to attract another’ inspire a rare empathy and pathos. There’s a sense that as Alizadeh reflects on his inabilities to measure up to the Australian standard, he is more willing to be vulnerable. He even ends his poem on a very real desire that most second generation people feel when they are born and raised in a country that does not understand them.
for an encounter, a place
in the universe
of the loved.’
Liminal and exciting, deceptively simple on a language level, yet eagerly complex on a conceptual one, Towards the End is a unique space where memory, sentence, and language align. Alizadeh’s lines live in the blasé, and yet yearn for what appears to be futile. Alizadeh wants to see an end towards the oppressions that occur from the awkward alignments of capitalism, racism, and societal socialisation. Towards that end, he has fused all the distrustfulness of his voice with all of the registers of postmodern style and structure, to invent a style of social realism that belongs not only to the early 21st century, but very much to Ali Alizadeh himself.
KIRAN BHAT is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. An avid world traveler, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His heart remains in Mumbai, but he currently lives in Melbourne.
By Keri Glastonbury
Reviewed by ERIN MCFADYEN
Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets are at their most mimetic when firing off their dazzling one-liners. The collection is interested in the processes of de- and re-composition that make up, continually, the post-industrial suburbanscape of Newcastle. Taking the city as a kind of monkey-bars apparatus for throwing together and for tumbling apart, the Sonnets treat language the same way as the landscape. They revel in the (re)generative potential of double-meanings, puns, and hyper-specific referentiality, but also, in the end, searing take-downs of local teens and late capitalism alike, delivered with a glimmer to the gut.
The weirdly quick, mercurial march of gentrification is right at the centre of Glastonbury’s target. There’s certainly a pleasure in the poet’s sharp wit, if not an entirely easy one for readers complicit in enjoying her knowing ivory tower in-jokes. Glastonbury might, for example, follow the humour of recognition, in passages like
There are still flashers at bus stops
but now the grapevine is virtual
& kids have Fjällräven Kanken backpacks
in candy colours
with wonderful pastiche puns:
The unbearable lightness
of rail (34)
These lightnesses, slightly unbearable though our delight in them may be, are fast hits of readerly reward. Often several times over in each sonnet, we’re given viscerally indulgent lines like ‘What is Batman’s guilty pleasure? / Clive Palmer’s soft, shitty body,’ (35) or ‘the thick oatmeal / of Sandliands’ face’ (8). We can smile, satisfied, at jokes overlaying the literary and the local — ‘Tess of the Erskinevilles’ (7) — and at speculative questioning with one foot in the university and the other in the clouds: ‘what if John Forbes had lived / to live tweet during Q&A?’ (6).
These moments offer us something like shining hard lollies of poetry, sugar hits immediately delicious on the tongue. It’s tempting to suggest that they puncture, redirect, or interrupt what Glastonbury elsewhere describes as a Novocastrian ‘ambient attention’ (4). We can consider that they give us all of our reward at once, a high-energy hit; the laugh, the immediate vision of reference points coming together. Conversely, we can also think of them as spilling our attention outwards, simultaneously in all the directions of the poet’s many gestures: across landscapes, across literary history, across registers and experiences both haptic and intellectual. In both ways, these joyfully — and, yet, not uncritically — hilarious poems lean into the kind of attention deficit that Glastonbury describes in ‘2 Hours South’:
A farrago of ways to be jealous, ways to be vicarious
ways to suffer, swiped away like old screens (71).
And, yet, to pin these poems as insufficiently attentive would be misrepresentative. Indeed, there’s a way in which they’re exactly the opposite; Glastonbury’s investment in the particularities of the ‘little big smoke’ of Newcastle signals a poet invested in deep attentiveness. Indeed, Glastonbury is critical of views of regional life which deal in broad strokes, in cliché, or in snobbish selectivity. In ‘The White Bird,’ for example, she’s unimpressed that
The metropolitan critic comes to town
& goes only to the regional gallery
— a poetry of complaint, misses the authenticity
of the drying paint. The blacks,
the Prussian Blues (72).
There is certainly a will to recenter the regional in this attitude and in the poems which enact it, positioning Newcastle the minor metropole not simply as secondary or merely aspirational, but as real and affecting and deserving of references that Melbournians might have to Google to get.
Attentiveness to these kinds of details, these minutiae, might be a kind of love. This would be fitting, perhaps, given the nominally generic form of the pieces here — I mean, given that these poems refer to a history of, and are, sonnets. The most obvious point of reference here might be Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, which Glastonbury mines and mimes in poems like ‘Just Quietly Babe.’ Glastonbury’s opening line here — ‘Dear Hamish, hello. It is 5.15am. / Guess we’re more West Coast…’ (29)— walks behind the eminently East Coast Berrigan, whose second sonnet begins ‘Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m’ . Equally explicit, though less exegetical, is Glastonbury’s gesture to Shakespeare in ‘The Pink Flamingo (of Trespass).’ In this instance, ‘the Tromp family’s psychedelic road trip / unfolds like a Netflix folie a deux / as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 is read in Noongar’ (67). Sonnet 127 is the first of Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ sequence. Here, double meanings help to figure an ostensibly unconventional object of love:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty is slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so. 
If ‘beauty’ comes apart from ‘fairness,’ (as in lightness) here, and attaches itself instead to the raven black of the apostrophised woman’s eyes, ‘fairness’ becomes a truly polyvalent term. Both beautiful and opposed to beauty — because it is the opposite of darkness — fairness’s ambivalence is its foundational feature.
Glastonbury’s gesture to doubleness fits her approach to the sonnet form itself. Even with her clear references to the sonnet in its various historical guises, she’s interested in challenging precisely what this form can do, and what it can reasonably ask poets to do. We might configure her use of the form using Berrigan’s phrase, imagining these works as ‘Poem(s) in the Modern Manner’ . The poems in Newcastle Sonnets are 14 lines long, getting us over the line for formally recognisable Elizabethan sonnets, but rhythmically and in rhyme (as well as in geography, in topography, in politics) we are a long way from London. Her treatment of the sonnet shortens and stretches out the lines, swings the rhythm. So considered, Glastonbury can be seen as, at times, crafting an exposed-brick iteration of this historical form, drawing attention to its structural foundations if only to ironically distance herself, and the aesthetic she ends up with, from them. In this, she makes the sonnet something exciting and relevant for the kinds of readers she might teach in her ‘cushy lecturing job in a regional town’ at the University of Newcastle:
…an anthroposcenester, the full cast
of Girls in every class, like every town
has a Kurt Cobain… (77)
Yet, exposed brick doesn’t always signal the fresh, the new, or the thrilling for Glastonbury, who also sees ‘the pebblecrete poles of the East End / speaking to an historicist melancholy’ (11). Indeed, in ‘The Sea Folding of Harri Jones,’ Glastonbury pictures stone not so much as reconstruction, but as ruin:
Someone’s doing parkour on the military ruins,
no one is washing up in Shepherds Hill cottage,
the ghost of artist-in-residence past… (56)
Looking back and documenting decay — as well an enacting it formally, in protracted blank space and grammatical cul-de-sacs — is always at the centre, then, of Glastonbury’s vision of the gentrifying city, and the new sonnet that she writes it in. For this reason, I want to offer the possibility of reading Gastonbury’s attention to Newcastle not only as ‘ambient,’ but also as meaningfully ambivalent. These aren’t poems written by a ‘metropolitan critic,’ but nor are they really poems of home. Glastonbury, indeed, has commented publicly on her arrival in Newcastle as an adult, and her dual senses of intrigue and distance from it at this time . Hers are poems which register decay and hold gentrification in contempt, while still revelling in the vibrancy of locality, sparkling with gleefully specific references, in a voice that might almost sound proud. Perhaps Glastonbury formulates her own attitude most aptly: Newcastle Sonnets feels ‘post-celebratory’ (71), deflating the glamour of new money and construction, but also finding reparative feeling in the forgotten corners of a city living in the shadow of its historical self:
From below the bridge the neon reflections could be koi,
everyday rewards glimmering in karmic glissando (41).
1. Ted Berrigan, ‘II,’ in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, by Alice Notley, with Anselm Berrigan, and Edmund Berrigan (Berkley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 3.
2. Colin Burrow (ed.), The Complete Sonnets and Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 635
3. Berrigan, ‘Poem in the Modern Manner,’ in Collected Poems, 6.
4. Jim Kellar, ‘Newcastle poet minces no words capturing a city in transition,’ Newcastle Herald, 19 August 2018.
By Thuy On
Reviewed by JACKIE SMITH
If you pay attention to the nation’s arts sector, you’re probably familiar with Thuy On. For many years, she has worked as a freelance writer and arts critic with The Age and The Saturday Paper and Books+Publishing as well as holding the books editor position at The Big Issue. Earlier this year, On released her debut poetry collection Turbulence to rave reviews of her own.
I’ve been wanting to read Turbulence since it was released, largely due to the praise it has received not only from On’s contemporaries, such as Maxine Beneba Clarke and Kevin Brophy, both of whom praise On’s work with Brophy stating, “It’s fluid, it’s vibrant and it doesn’t stop talking to you. Thuy On has (as she says) a cynic’s head and a poet’s heart.” (UWA Publishing 2020)
Reading is subjective. Dependent on the reader, all the accolades in the world mean nothing. On addressed this in a 2013 interview with The Big Issue, “Just because every other critic in the land loves the book and has showered it in accolades, doesn’t necessarily mean that I would feel the same. Diversity of voices in the media culture is a good thing.” (White 2013).
On doesn’t shy away from tackling a wide variety of emotions with her first collection. She touches upon themes of hope, love, loss, dating, envy, and sadness, sparked by the breakdown of her marriage and the relationships she has tried to build in the aftermath. And it’s all tied together with perseverance, as evidenced by the koi that feature on the book’s cover. This is then divided into four parts, which she discusses in an interview with Liminal Magazine. “’Wreckage’ deals with the aftermath of separation, ‘Chimera’ with the trajectory of the affair I had not long after, while ‘Fish’ is about online dating and ‘Turbulence’ is about the general upheavals of life.” (Liminal Magazine 2020)
To say that reading Thuy On’s poetry is as if we are on that emotional rollercoaster with her is an understatement. One minute, you’re excited by the prospect of new love, and the next you’re aggrieved with loss.
And On’s gift is in being able to spark this catalogue of feeling within her readers. But the the skilful way in which she can manipulate words with such vivid imagery that we can almost reach out and touch it is impressive. The opening poem, ‘Surface’, is one example of this.
“Let others wax mauve
about dandelions and baby’s breath
braving cool breezes
that brush off regret
these winsome odes to blades of grass
dewy mists and sheaves of corn. (10)”
While love and relationships are at the forefront of this collection, romantic love is not always the main focus. Featured in the first part of the book, which focused on the aftermath of On’s marriage breakdown, there is a beautiful ode to the maternal love On has for her daughter in ‘Lodestar: For Ava’.
is an inbetweener
from what is
to what will be …
Shield your eyes darling girl
I don’t know
what will become of us …
but you are the lodestar
to light me out
of a life to be kissed.”
What I like most about this piece is how vulnerable and honest it is. Most parents in her situation would be hiding the fact that anything is wrong, and trying to be strong for the benefit of their child. In this poem, On acknowledges that it’s not always true and, as much as she is trying to shield her daughter from the worst of her separation, she is still sorting through it all herself.
Another thing that I enjoy about this collection is the way some of the pieces play with language. As an arts critic, On presumably spends most of her working life critiquing books and language in accordance with how literature conforms and disregards these rules. Therefore, it’s refreshing to see her play with those certain rules, or at least acknowledge these metareferences in her use of language with poems like ‘FIN’.
“I’m turning the last page
it was supposed to be a short story
but unwilling for it to end
I kept tacking on chapters
footnotes where emotions cross-refer
erased stet highlighted
blanked out (66)”
This poem, the title of which comes from the French word for finish or ending, is a subtext in itself. It also closes the ‘Chimera’ portion of the collection, which gives it even more of a reference to the subtleties of language and meta-references. But the way On uses references to things like unreliable protagonists and mistakes (things she no doubt would call out if found in a book she was critiquing) is a nice way of tying the collection in with her work sphere. If I was to list favourites from Turbulence, this would be one of them.
With the current political climate, it would be remiss of me not to mention ‘To Date an Asian Woman’ (80 – 81).
“Learn my name
I’m not a mass of continents
a chopstick dish
to be poked.”
There is no denying the poignancy this particular piece has in the midst of Black Lives Matter and race relations protests, both overseas and in Australia. There’s an underlying anger to this poem that comes through quite clearly and if, like me, it’s not something you’d really considered, it’s a little confrontational and unsettling.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, at least in my opinion. Part of the reason I enjoy poetry so much is the way it’s able to draw attention to things and feelings you hadn’t considered before, and ‘To Date An Asian Woman’ certainly does this.
I’d also like to draw attention to ‘Vale Anthony Bourdain’(135) ‘Vale Eurydice’ (136). Both are poems of loss, lamenting a life cut short but with more of a public focus, given Anthony Bourdain’s status as something of a celebrity chef during his lifetime and how Eurydice Dixon’s made headlines nationally.
The way these poems are crafted is beautiful yet incredibly respectful of the impact the subject’s passing would have on friends, family members and even strangers. The below snippet of On’s tribute to Eurydice Dixon is an example of how she deftly combines feelings of loss, tragedy, anger and justice to create something that is tender and lyrical.
‘… saying your name
means wide justice
but now once again
shadows will be jumped
twig break a warning
the sky on the crack
of becoming a bruise.’ (136)
It highlights the way in which poetry can draw attention to life’s important moment, shining a light on complex issues and breaking them down for others to understand, and experience.
Despite having been in the arts industry for some time, Turbulence cements On’s place not only as a critic but as a refreshing poetic voice to be heard. If this is any indication of future work, I cannot wait to read more.
1. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing. Turbulence. UWA Publishing, 2020.
2. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing (2020). Thuy On Reads From ‘Turbulence’. Accessed via <https://youtu.be/uuTn7USYt4w> 28/7/2020
3. White, Patrick (2013). Q & A with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.thebigissue.org.au/blog/2013/01/28/q-a-with-thuy-on/> 31/7/2020
4. Liminal Magazine (2020). 5 Questions with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/thuy-on-turbulence> 29/7/2020
JACKIE SMITH is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.
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.