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 was critical of 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
Reviewed by ABIGAIL FISHER
Trying unsuccessfully to write this review in June, I ride alongside the Eastern Freeway to Bulleen. The gallery is closed but I visit the bees, the bare trees, the corrugated cows. Plaques along the path by the river gloss over the Wurundjeri history of Bolin (‘lyrebird’, later Anglicised to Bulleen) and the process by which Indigenous custodians of the land were ‘driven out’ of the area throughout the 1850s, while documenting with painstaking detail the white settler casualties of severe floods in the following decades. That night I google the scar-tree, a red gum towering over the entrance to the kitchen garden, and learn its Woiwurrung name: Yingabeal, or ‘song tree’. Yingabeal is also a marker tree, situated at the convergence of five song lines and estimated to be between 600 and 700 years old. I am reminded of a line in Π.O.’s Heide:
A ceremony was held
under an old Red gum (in
the Botanic Gardens);
separation from NSW, was officially declared.
Without a verb
it’s impossible to make sense of a sentence.
A train of thought, doesn’t need a ticket
A honey-bee doesn’t need a compass.
A council is a group, of people
still there. (29)
Meanwhile, on Instagram, heidemoma reminds me ‘to be sure to pop in for a takeaway coffee and tasty snack’ when ‘taking a stroll through the Heide gardens and sculpture park’, and offers the recipe for Sunday’s Orange Brandy, a ‘simple aperitif that is popular in France’ replete with black and white image of Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed and Joy Hester around the fireplace.
In Heide Π.O. tackles the sticky, cloying cocktail that is the myth of the Heide Circle — along with the more expansive clique that is the Australian cultural canon — with the same disciplined anarchism that characterises 24 Hours (1996) and Fitzroy (2015), producing a third epic, encyclopaedic volume on culture, power, and place. Heide is the first of the trilogy to move away from the streets of Fitzroy, and away from the attention to migrant and working class lives so characteristic of the previous volumes. Instead Heide focusses primarily on the individuals both central to and marginalised by white settler Australian art history, with particular attention given to bohemian movements in and around Melbourne. The first section focusses on Australian history pre-Federation, with a particular emphasis on art and literature, and part two pivots towards the 20th century and the lives of the Heide Circle: their art, literature and infamous affairs. Π.O. does not shy from the latter subject, but rather interrogates the politics of Bohemian relationships, posing questions that are both nuanced and unashamedly didactic: How are such romantic entanglements anarchic? And how are they conservative? To whom do the lives, the artworks, even the children of the Heide Circle really belong?
In the process of formulating these questions, Heide enacts a number of artistic, literary and personal encounters in a way that is constantly and deeply attuned to the role of privilege in artistic production and consumption. Through imitation, ekphrasis, adaptation, and parody, Π.O. produces a poetics that, like Joy Hester’s art, delights in having ‘[come] into existence rubbing up against other people’s’ (365). Echoing Michael Farrell on Amanda Stewart, we could even say that Π.O.’s technique ‘suggests the copying mode of the lyrebird’ (or ‘bulin’), with both the ‘comic aspect’ that such a repetition entails, but also the ‘sense of both contingency and agency in its song, in that it could always be or have been a different sound that they cho(o)se to make’ . This is Π.O.’s disciplined anarchism, and a joyful challenge to observe. Certainly of the best and most entertaining poems in the collection are reprisals of others’ work — whether offering a doubly parodic rendition of Ern Malley’s ‘Darkening Ecliptic’, (409), or reimagining the work of Lawson (149), MacKellar (164), Durer (242) and Buvelot (71), Π.O. never misses a chance to remind us that ‘Imitation isn’t creation, / it’s re-creation!’ (261).
Typical of Π.O.’s work, there is a preoccupation in Heide with the notion of selection: who gets a seat by the fire when the cocktails are served? This speaks to Π.O.’s complex relationship to the canon, and to his anarchist methods of poetic production. The effect of the encyclopaedic range of facts and source texts in his poetry gives the impression that nothing is necessarily included, but rather that in writing a line he selects from everything in the world, constantly emphasising processes of inclusion and exclusion, emphasis and absence. The effect is that his work simultaneously public and deeply personal, as the ‘character’ of the ever-present selecting agent becomes increasingly distinct. As in Fitzroy, much of the material in Heide is sampled from historical records and newspaper articles, although there is a shift away from police reports towards art reviews, poetry and literature. Π.O. uses dominant material, the fabric of canon, but unpicks the stitches and lets down the hem. In speaking to the lives and labour that Art History neglects, he interrogates the potential for art and literature to hold hegemonic institutions accountable. Heide is history, tribute and protest, all caught up and eddying in Π.O.’s characteristic rivers and creeks of abstracted data and sampled material.
Something that sets Heide apart from Π.O,’s previous works is the emphasis on ekphrasis, the primary method in this work by which Π.O. insists that ‘the (eye) has to be led back to the place it has been ignoring the most’ (226). In a kind of manifesto, the narrator explains that ‘Frank Stella (the artist said, his paintings were “based / on the fact that only what can be seen” / ditto here, / same’ (12); Heide is preoccupied with the materiality of Art on the page, but also on the notion of making the hitherto unseen visible, and challenging our patterns of perception and historical memory. Π.O. unashamedly aligns himself with those whose lives and creative output serve to ‘frame’ the canonical greats — like Tom Robert’s wife, Lillie Williamson, a flower painter who ‘got into carving / “wooden picha frames” / the flowers & tendrils, loops & / vines that run round the edges’ of her husband’s paintings —
i.e. the bits that
get “cut” out as irrelevant, when you get to see the painting
reproduced in a book, or online. (145)
This lends nuance to the narrators previous confession that ‘Often, i leave an Art Gallery, or a painting, feeling / uncertain, about what I just saw’ (19). Π.O. experiments with ekphrasis to blend poetic methods with ‘minor’ modes of artistic production, noting that ‘Art distinguishes between paint and stoneware products, (on one hand) and ////// threads and ## fabrics on the other’ (69). This method is neatly expressed in the concrete poem ‘Textiles’ (179), dedicated to the author’s sister Athena, and comprised of diagonally intersecting repetitions of the word TEXT and TILE. Another highlight is the reproduction of Ellis Rowan’s ‘A Bunch of Australian Wild Flowers’, which uses various text sizes, styles and orientation to replicate the artist’s floral bouquet, achieving the same calm discordance as Rowan’s original, a kind of lyrebird cacophony which takes up the statement in the preceding poem on Rowan that ‘Representation absorbs, the object’ (140).
Philip Mead, among others, has pointed out Π.O.’s affinity with the Objectivist poetry movement, given his focus on Breath (spoken word/ performance), the tendency to approach the page as a ‘field’, and attention to the materiality of language. Mead writes that in Π.O.’s work ‘is brusquely impatient of generic comformity, radically insistent on the materiality of language’, thus representing the ‘plain contingencies of everyday speech, but in uncommon, innovative poetic language’ . This is certainly true of Π.O.’s latest volume, in which each poem takes up Olson’s call for words ‘be treated as solids, objects, things’, and thus be ‘allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions’ . Heide responds to Olsen’s insistence that ‘all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetable in the patch, when you work it, come spring’ . This analogy is particularly fitting in case of the joyfully visceral ‘To Granny Smith’, which ploughs the proper confusions of turnip, carrot, fly, spider, rabbit, wasp, sunlight and caterpillar before relishing the ‘)cHew CruNch ^ # mUsh ) M*uNch!’ of an apple in a way that distinctly resembles playing with one’s food (163).
At times, Heide veers towards something slightly Edenic, seeming to buy into the ‘fairytale’ of the Heide bohemia, dwelling a moment too long in the delicately-curated-as-chaotic kitchen garden and verging on namedropping the poet’s own connections (perhaps gesturing towards an interesting parallel between the author’s own self-conscious myth-making and that of the Heide Circle). Certainly ΠO is not willing to dismiss his subjects outright. To Kershaw’s question, ‘“just what the hell” was Heide for?’, the narrator asserts ‘Everything!’ and reminds us that ‘we all have “a little Heide” in us yet’ (506). Happily, these sentimental moments rarely come at an expense to Π.O.’s unflinching attention to the white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, elitism and disfunction of the modernist art movement, whether quoting at length John Reed’s racist letter lambasting the artwork of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira (525), or the role of entrenched privilege in founding Melbourne’s cultural bohemia — ‘Love her / hate her / [Sunday’s] father’s / a Bailieau’, and the ‘dead weight of / a Patron’s hand, is always in the work’ (343). In Π.O.’s hands, the fact that ‘John and Sunday are RICH!’ informs a somewhat cynical interpretation of their vision of ‘Art’ as having ‘an organic quality about it’ and thus the necessity for it ‘to grow out of the soil, as it were’ (343).
It would be fair to say that Heide never fully dismisses nor embraces what Alexander Kershaw derided as the ‘collective farming’ of the ‘cocktail-swilling cretins’ out in Bulleen (448). Yet nor does it stroll through the grounds and sculpture park, flat white in hand. Rather, it examines the materiality of culture and oppression, celebrates minor’ and marginalised art forms, teases out the tensions in the Australian artistic canon and interrogates the potential for creative production to be truly radical. At its best, Heide jumps the hedge into the kitchen garden and proceeds, like the larrikins in Fitzroy, to
pull / up the pumpkins
and other plants, and throw
them about /
the place 
1. Farrell, Michael. “The Conceptual Lyrebird: Imitation as Lyric in the Poetry of Amanda Stewart.” Journal of the European Association for Studies on Australia 9.1 (2018).
2. Mead, Philip. “Unsettling Language: π. o.’s 24 Hours.” Aberration in Modern Poetry: Essays on Atypical Works by Yeats, Auden, Moore, Heaney and Others (2011): 161.
3. Olson, Charles. Projective verse. Brooklyn NY: Totem Press, 1959.
5. Π.O., Fitzroy: The Biography. Collective Effort Press, 2015.
ABIGAIL FISHER is a writer, editor and part-time Zoom tutor living on unceded Wurundjeri land.
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.
By Chloe Higgins
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
The title of Chloe Higgins’ debut memoir is shorthand for her two younger sisters, victims of a fatal car accident when the author is aged seventeen. Her family avoids using their individual names, explains Higgins, so that ‘they are separate from us, an abstract thing on which we need not hang our pain’. In her frank depictions of drug use, sex work, mental illness, and her fraught relationship with her bereaved mother, Higgins might be described as unflinching in her approach. But the telling of this story is equally characterised by a flinching: from the memory of her sisters; from her own pain.
‘In reality, you speak of everything except those who have just died’, says Higgins of the immediate wake of her sisters’ deaths. This reality is mirrored structurally in Higgins’ narrative: the girls themselves are notably absent figures until late in the book. According to Higgins, ‘The most painful part of grief isn’t immediately after the unthinkable happens, but a little later, once the space empties and other people go back to their normal lives’. Her focus is squarely on the aftermath of the accident: how this single cataclysmic event has reverberated through her own life. In this, it bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger or Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Love Elena. The violence at the heart of those memoirs is inflicted, and not accidental, but all three are compelling accounts of how trauma can manifest not only psychologically but also bodily.
In what Higgins calls her ‘descent’, ‘slowly, the line of what I will and won’t do moves further and further from my pre-accident self’. She fleshes out this gradual unravelling in meticulous and moving detail. In chapters which shift back and forth in time, and which traverse continents (Kolkata, Manhattan, Wollongong) we follow the narrator as her ‘attempts at escape turn into obliterations’. Drugs allow her to live ‘in a world separate from the one the girls have been taken from’, one where ‘everything is all extremes and opposites’. She uses sex as distraction; as an attempt to satisfy her ‘skin hunger’, but ultimately this behaviour leaves her shrouded in shame, and further disconnected from her own body. Eventually, she is admitted into a psychiatric ward. Higgins closes her account of her time in the ward with a skilful shifting into conditional tense; a technique Lisa Knopp calls ‘perhapsing’(1). Here, she draws together what could have been; foreshadows what is yet to come; identifies her incapacity to express her pain as catastrophic ; and deems such expression critical to healing. ‘If I had my time on the ward over’, she writes:
I would have shown them what I couldn’t tell them.
And then when someone came to me, unable to express themselves, I would know what they needed: the space to perform their emotions.
And maybe this story would have ended more appropriately than injecting heroin into my veins and letting strangers insert body parts inside me because I didn’t know how to say please, someone hold me.
This is what grief looks like: an inability to speak. (p.131)
As well as charting the author’s gradual unravelling, The Girls traces her incremental growth. Higgins rejects the idea that the grieving process is innate or linear, instead framing grieving as something that we need to learn; like learning to ride a bike, it involves ’falling over and fumbling as we go’. She must learn how to perform her grief; ‘to teach myself to cry at the appropriate times’. Slowly, she learns how to navigate her shame and guilt, and to balance her own need for space with her mother’s competing need for closeness. She learns how to be gentle with herself, and how to live healthily. While the book’s temporal and geographical transitions might indicate a certain vitality, part of Higgins’ growth in fact comes from moving away from this restlessness and towards a place of stillness. Sitting still, she says, is ‘the hardest thing to do’; she finds it is ‘little things’ that allow her to anchor herself: reading, walking, running, swimming in nature. This recalls Jessie Cole’s memoir, Staying, in which the natural world is grounding, stopping Cole from surrendering to a state of grief that has the power to destroy her.
All memoirists must grapple with the fallibility of their memories, but this dilemma is all the more acute for Higgins, since her own too-painful memories have been the object of her concerted attempts at a ‘forgetting verging on obliteration’. How then to depict her experience on the page? It is a convention of narrative nonfiction to reconstruct scene and dialogue for dramatic purposes, and mostly, Higgins succeeds in rendering her experiences viscerally. ‘Trauma and time erode memory’ though, and this basic truth means sometimes her prose loses precision and colour. A scene, for example, in which she wields a kitchen knife against her mother (‘It will be easier this way… We can all be with Carlie and Lisa again’), no doubt contains a concentration of feeling for the author, but falls oddly flat on the page. Swathes of dialogue feel stilted, and at times veer into the expository:
‘Are you friends again yet?’ Dad asks the morning after, as he and I are on our way to see the therapist.
‘Yes, of course. Why?’
‘Because you were so angry at each other. You came to me in tears’.
‘Oh yeah, but we’re friends again now’. (P.86)
Perhaps in an attempt to patch over the cracks in her memory, Higgins includes lengthy excerpts from her father’s diary; her mother’s Facebook posts; correspondence with her editor. This approach feels piecemeal however, and where Higgins is strongest is actually where she straightforwardly admits to the gaps in her memory, and the shame attached to this. One of the most powerful lines of the entire book: ‘The thing is this: I hardly remember anything about my sisters’. Honouring the murkiness of her memory makes the glimpses of her sisters that do return to her all the more tender. She does not remember being physical with her siblings for example, but then, looking at a photo, she observes how her and Carlie’s bodies are ‘pushed up against one another, our arms meeting in the centre’. ‘This makes me happy’, she says, ‘to know I hadn’t always pushed her away’.
Of the violence inflicted upon her, Osborne-Crowley says: ‘by far the most dangerous element of my assault was the fact that I lived in a world where it was unspeakable’(2). Maria Tumarkin, writing about the deaths of highschool children writes: ‘No place until recently in our Western anglophone culture for overflowing, unpushawayable grief. Big grief. Long grief’ (3). Higgins is acutely conscious of the unspeakability of what she has experienced. In her Author’s Note she says some people advised her to publish her story pseudonymously, or to leave out the ‘scandalous parts’.
But I’m sick of people not talking about the hard, private things in their lives. It feels as though we are all walking around carrying dark bubbles of secrets in our guts, on our shoulders, in our jumpy minds. We are all walking around thinking we’re the only one struggling with these feelings. And the more I open up about them, the more I realise I am not the only one struggling with my secrets and my shame. (Pp. 305-6)
We might see The Girls as what Laurie Penny calls an attempt at ‘unspeaking’: when it comes to experiences rendered ‘almost unsayable by any number of forces, external and internal’, unspeaking is important in ‘walking ideas and experiences back from the ready-made language and the ready-made audience for their telling’ (4). Higgins’ heartfelt memoir is testament to the power of writing to express the unspeakable, and to help heal.
1. Knopp K, 2012, Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity.
2. Osborne- Crowley L, 2019, I Choose Elena, Allen & Unwin.
3. Tumarkin M, 2018, Axiomatic, Brow Books
4. Penny L, 2014, Unspeakable Things, Bloomsbury.
ADELE DUMONT was born in France and moved to Australia before her first birthday. After studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, she spent two years teaching English at the Curtin immigration detention centre. She is the author of No Man is an Island (Hachette). She is currently in residence at the Booranga Writers’ Centre.
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.
Luke Fischer is the author of the poetry collections Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the “New Poems” (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the book of bedtime stories The Blue Forest (Lindisfarne Books, 2015). He recently co-edited the volume of essays Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: Philosophical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press).
I am currently living in Tübingen, Germany, and these reflections on the coronavirus crisis have been shaped by the situation in Europe and considerations of the overarching similarities between the way in which numerous countries worldwide have been responding to the crisis. Although they are now being eased, the lockdowns in Germany have, in many respects, been more restrictive than in Australia, but not as severe as in Italy or France. Wherever one investigates, there are many gray areas and uncertainties around Covid-19, yet much of the public discourse has tended to reiterate one narrative. This essay is an attempt to ask and open up some vital questions.
––Luke Fischer, 16 May 2020
If an alien arrived on the earth sometime in April 2020 and, being already fluent in a number of languages, familiarised himself with the latest reports and news, he could be forgiven for coming to some of the following conclusions.
Human beings were virtually immortal creatures until a deadly new virus––Covid-19––spread across the world and became the greatest threat to human existence. This surmise would be confirmed by his first conversations with other human beings at a respectable distance of 1.5 metres.
After reading some history books on the twentieth and twenty-first century, and a little Sartre, he might identify a glaring example of bad faith. Western humanity claims to cherish democracy, which it almost believes in like a religion, but actually homo sapiens have very little trust in their fellow human beings acting responsibly out of their own freedom. Excluding Sweden and a few other countries, the majority of citizens around the world have welcomed the declarations of a state of emergency, the formation of governments with executive or authoritarian powers, a massive restriction of basic rights, extended forms of surveillance, and the deployment of police to protect them from the dangers of sitting on a bench. At present they are sequestered in their homes and passively await the next verdicts of politicians, CEOs, and a select group of experts as to what they are allowed and not allowed to do.
This alien meets a few individuals who question the official narrative and one has an especial liking for epidemiology and statistics; he paraphrases the findings of Stanford Professor John Ioannidis in the USA and University of Mainz Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, and their points about the unreliability of much of the current data. He also informs the alien that human beings were never close to being immortal (at least not physically––whether they are spiritually immortal is a whole other question) and that the average life expectancy of humans worldwide is 71 years old. This outlier also provides him with this list of estimations:
There are around 18 million poverty-related deaths each year
Around 9.5 million people die from cancer each year (this figure is an estimate for 2018)
Around 9 million people die from starvation each year
Around 2 million children die from a lack of access to clean water each year
Around 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year (and 20-50 million suffer non-fatal injuries)
Around 800,000 people die from suicide each year
Up to 650,000 people (and at least 290,000 people) die of the seasonal flu every year
Around 405,000 people die from malaria each year (this is an estimate for 2018)
At this moment (16 May 2020) an estimated 309,000 people have died ‘with’ or ‘from’ (we’re not quite sure) Covid-19. Estimates diverge widely as to how high this figure could climb. We lack reliable data!
But, the alien objects, I thought human beings were the most caring of creatures (far more caring than my alien race who dwell on a planet many light years away) in that the whole point of the lockdowns is to protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially the elderly who have pre-existing illnesses and are likely to die if they catch the coronavirus. Why, the alien asks, is so little being done to eradicate poverty and to ensure that everyone in the world has sufficient food to eat and access to clean drinking water? The outlier responds with a tilt of his head and a puzzled stare. Then he explains that the coronavirus has a rather high hospitalisation rate and that the lockdowns really have to do with the limited capacity of underfunded and understaffed hospitals––we need to ‘flatten the curve’ so the hospitals are not overwhelmed. ‘Oh’, replies the alien.
Problems of Abstraction
While much of the worldwide response to the coronavirus shows a care and concern for the most at-risk members of society, the observations of the above-mentioned alien serve to highlight a number of valid concerns: double standards, tunnel vision (humanity seems at present only to be able to recognize one crisis in the world), the rise and passive acceptance of draconian political measures, and an abstract way of thinking that fails to take into consideration the dynamic interconnections and delicate balance of human life, health, illness, and mortality. The sole ‘enemy’ is the virus and many governments have acted as if the only responsible option is to freeze almost all aspects of life to protect us from this enemy.
Many of the responses to the pandemic evince a problematically abstract way of thinking that overlooks the dynamic ecological balance of life and mortality, and the relationships that give meaning to human existence. In our fixation on addressing one problem, we are inadvertently bringing about many other problems.
In several controversial articles, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has voiced his concerns that in the government lockdowns and the correlated passivity of citizens, the value and richness of life has been reduced to the abstraction of mere biological survival. Agamben writes:
The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country [Italy] obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.
Another thought experiment might help to reinforce Agamben’s point. Imagine a grandmother who is 82 years old. She is told that she will be able to live until the age of 85 if she resides in a sterilised cell and has no contact with her children, grandchildren, and friends. She will have an internet connection and TV and all her food will be delivered to her front door. Alternatively, she has the choice to remain in her own home and receive visits from her family and friends, go for short walks in the park (she is still mobile) and so on, but if she chooses this option she will only live until the age of 84. Which one of these options provides for a richer conception and experience of life? It should be up to the grandmother to decide, but it is worthwhile for us to reflect on this question. Of course, this thought experiment is artificial. In real life we cannot predict the outcomes. Probabilistically speaking it is fairly unlikely that one will die in a car accident. Nevertheless, due to a moment of absent-mindedness on one’s own part or on the part of another driver, one might be the unfortunate victim of a fatal crash.
In ordinary life we are always negotiating a variety of risks and ideally strive to be responsible and caring, while being aware that the elimination of all risks is simply impossible. Life is a dangerous adventure, but, hopefully, nonetheless a rich and worthwhile one.
The new coronavirus took hold of the world by storm and the challenges of treating the little understood illness of Covid-19 should not be underestimated. And in this time of physical distancing, it is vital that we find ways to show sensitivity and compassion towards those who are at-risk and who have lost loved ones. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to ask: what level of risk does this coronavirus present?
Despite the sensationalism of the media and the draconian measures of some states, we are not confronting the Black Death. It is important to note that since March, estimates of the fatality rate for Covid-19 have significantly decreased––though medical experts continue to contest the various estimates. (While in early March the WHO was suggesting a case fatality rate of 3.4%, this was based on a recorded number of cases and not estimations of the amount of people infected. Later the Imperial College London estimated a fatality rate of 1%, but since then there have been some much lower estimations [based on antibody studies in various places].) A peer-reviewed study of the worst hit area of Germany has estimated an infection fatality rate of less than 0.36% (possibly as low as 0.24%) and a recent study in California (Santa Clara County) has estimated 0.17% (the flu is around 0.1%) for that area. Significantly, Ioannidis who was involved in the latter study, early on regarded other estimates as inflated.
As a philosopher I neither have the expertise to say how high the number of deaths could rise nor to offer a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of the measures being taken. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the arguments of the medical experts in Germany (and scientists elsewhere) that, contrary to the complete lockdowns, a better approach would have been to focus on protecting the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.  The current figures in Germany clearly indicate that the elderly population is primarily at risk (the average life expectancy in Germany is 81 years old and this is the average age of Covid-19-related deaths) and, in contrast to northern Italy, hospitals have not been stretched. A particular problem in various countries has been the spread of the virus in nursing homes. Nevertheless, leading virologists have spoken of some of the precautions that could be taken to minimise the risk of infecting elderly people while ensuring that they are able to receive company.
Complexities of Health and Mortality
Health is a complex matter because the human organism is a complex, dynamic whole, in which the health of the whole is dependent on the healthy functioning of the parts and vice versa. Illness and dying are similarly complex. When one part of the body becomes unhealthy it generally affects other parts. While some people infected with the new coronavirus remain asymptomatic or show only minor symptoms, elderly people with certain pre-existing conditions are at a greater risk of developing the severe acute respiratory syndrome. Thus, each case of Covid-19 is the expression of a particular relational dynamic between the virus and its host organism.
Most of the deaths relating to the coronavirus have involved comorbidities or pre-existing illnesses. The organism of someone who is already wrestling with cancer is less able to deal with the additional burden of the virus. If such a person dies, we can ask: did she die from cancer or from the coronavirus? The correct answer is neither (taken on its own) and both. Had she not contracted the coronavirus she may have lived longer, but the coronavirus was not the sole (or even the main) cause of death. Due to the complexity and interdependence of the part/whole relationship in a living organism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described organisms with the contradictory-sounding formulation that they are both the cause and effect of themselves. In other words, living organisms exhibit a holistic complexity in which there is no simple, one-way causality.
In some of the more detailed studies thus far of the epicentres of the pandemic, we can see that a complex of factors contributed to the number of fatalities. In northern Italy, these factors included (among others) a large elderly population, years of living with bad air pollution, a relatively high percentage of smokers, and a limited number of ICU beds. We should not assume that everywhere will reproduce northern Italy, although various other places might and will involve a similarly lethal complex of factors (as we have witnessed in some cities in the USA). One study suggests that there have been a much higher number of fatalities in cities with bad air pollution. What is the cause of death here? Coronavirus or air pollution? Both and, in each individual case, a whole host of other factors.
One of the positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been the improved air quality in many parts of the world due to the limited number of flights and other forms of transport and the correlative reduction of exhaust fumes. Though this was not their original intention, these limitations on transport have literally saved lives and are also something to keep in mind with regard to the larger crisis that humanity faces and has largely failed to address, namely anthropogenic climate change and the broader environmental crisis. But, as should be clear by now, I hope that humanity will find democratic rather than autocratic ways to address this crisis.
This should really go without saying, but given the disturbing rise of the libertarian far right in the USA, it is perhaps important to clarify that my concerns about civil liberties and democracy have nothing to do with the emphasis on negative freedom (‘the state should let me do whatever the hell I like’) of libertarians, but rather have to do with the best democratic impulses of modernity. Concrete freedom (as opposed to mere negative freedom) and democracy presuppose that individuals will act responsibly towards each other out of their own insight into the good. A mature individual does not act kindly towards others because they are concerned that the state will punish them otherwise, but because the individual recognises the value of kindness. In a mature democracy, the details of individual behaviour should not be monitored and dictated by the state. (The infiltration of the state into the private sphere is a mark of what Hannah Arendt identified as totalitarianism.) In a true democracy the individual is neither subordinated to the general will of the state (a kind of super-tyrant that maintains order and peace), nor is society a chaos of self-interested desires that disregard social goods. Rather, as the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller argued, the common good is embodied in the free collaboration of individuals. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Swedish response to the epidemic, Sweden has as much as possible pursued a path which places trust in its citizens and gives advice and recommendations rather than encroaching on civil liberties. This strongly contrasts with Germany, in which basic rights have been restricted in a manner that has not occurred since the era of National Socialism and that contravenes the constitution. In Germany, where there has been a growing critique of the legality of the lockdown, lawyers have argued that, at this point, the denial of basic constitutional rights cannot be justified.
The fact that governments in many countries have declared a state of emergency, massively restricted civil liberties, and increased the policing and surveillance of residents (what Edward Snowden describes as the ‘architecture of oppression’) is perhaps a sign of the precariousness and immaturity of their democracies. (I am not saying that no sacrifices need to be made, rather I am questioning the extent of the restrictions, their consequences, and the undemocratic processes by which they have been instantiated.)
Complexities of Valuing Life
The famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek has politely disagreed with Agamben’s view that the lockdowns evince a reduction of value to a form of bare life that ultimately divides people. Rather, he regards them as showing a laudable concern for the lives of the most vulnerable. However, even if one thinks that our exclusive concern should be the preservation of lives, it is not clear that the lockdowns are the best strategy––though they may be for a time in specific places. (It’s worth noting that if we applied this logic universally, we would have long ago completely banned cars and countless other things.)
In a television interview, investigative journalist John Pilger recently mentioned studies that have indicated strong correlations between emotional isolation and the deterioration of health. Researchers at Oxford University have compared the health effects of chronic loneliness to ‘smoking 15 cigarettes a day’ and estimated that in 2019 there were 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK. There is growing evidence that the number of people suffering from loneliness and mental health issues as a result of the lockdown measures, self-isolation, and the climate of anxiety has significantly increased in the UK and various countries around the world (Japan is an interesting exception). There is now talk of an emerging global mental health crisis. In Australia, there are significant mental health concerns for Aboriginal communities (where suicide is the main cause of death for children between the age of 5 and 17) that are suffering under the lockdown.
The realities of loneliness and depression are only one example of the need to employ a broad concept of health that includes psychological, social, and mental health, as complementary to physical health. Since the lockdowns there has also been a marked increase in domestic violence, which not only causes physical injury (and deaths) but also psychological trauma for the members of a family.
The fixation on one health issue risks neglecting equally significant ones. We should question the logic and ethics involved in delaying cancer operations (however small the tumours) in Germany because a certain number of hospital beds need to be reserved for coronavirus ‘patients’, even when the beds are empty. In India, Arundhati Roy speaks of how healthcare for other illnesses has been placed on hold and describes cancer patients in Delhi being ‘driven away like cattle’ from the vicinity of a major hospital. In Africa, there are grave concerns that deaths from malaria could double this year (in comparison to 2018) to over 700,000 because of disruptions from Covid-19.
In the pandemic of panic, many people with other health concerns are afraid to visit doctors and such deferrals can lead to dire consequences. And we shouldn’t need doctors to tell us that sitting at home all day is unhealthy.
In debates about how best to respond to the pandemic, there has often been the articulation of a false dichotomy between protecting lives by means of the lockdowns and preventing an economic crisis. Of course, the current world economy is a disaster with its grotesque disparities between the wealth of the CEOs of mega-corporations and those on minimum wage struggling to make ends meet, from the devastating environmental impacts of many industries to the excess waste and consumption of our capitalist and consumerist societies.
But there is the very real danger that once the lockdowns end we will find ourselves in a situation in which the economy is even more unjust and destructive than at present. Due to the lockdowns around the world, the number of people facing the possibility of starvation has doubled to 265 million.
In a country like the US where healthcare largely depends on employment, a massive rise in unemployment and poverty will, of course, lead to many fatalities. Since the lockdowns, over 36 million people in the US have lost their jobs and there are predictions that, unless the government makes the requisite provisions the country will be facing a second great depression (given the current US government, something like a reiteration of the bailout of Wall Street in response to 2008 GFC, while millions of people lost their homes, is a more likely scenario).
Spain seems to have made a positive step forward in its plans to implement a permanent basic income. While Australia has increased its unemployment benefits, arts funding has been slashed in recent years and artists––musicians, actors, writers, poets, etc.––are suffering greatly due to the cancellation of so many events. To offer one example, all the members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recently lost their jobs for the indefinite duration of the shutdown. Australian universities are also in a precarious position; an estimated 21,000 researchers are facing the threat of losing their jobs.
So it is a dangerous abstraction––and perhaps a form of vague sentimentalism––to insist on the idea that to be in favour of strict lockdowns is to be in favour of life whereas to be concerned about the economy is to value money over human lives.
And what about the abstraction and inequality in the immense disparity between what a lockdown means for the wealthy and the poor? If you own a waterfront mansion with a large garden being ‘confined’ to your home is no great challenge. If you are a poor family cramped in a tiny city apartment, it’s a whole different story.
The German philosopher, Markus Gabriel, has highlighted the shortsightedness and problems of what he describes as the ‘new virological imperative’ that has been determining political decisions: all human beings should be isolated so that they don’t infect others. While virologists and epidemiologists (who themselves also disagree on the measures that should be taken) can best inform us about how to address the physical dimensions of the pandemic, they should not be the exclusive advisors on decisions that affect the whole of society, decisions that are undermining fundamental aspects of democracy. Gabriel mentions the need for input from political theorists and sociologists, ethicists and philosophers. To this list, I would add psychologists, artists, small-business owners, lawyers, economists, religious leaders, and representatives from all walks of life. Recently Germany made a positive step in this direction.
The last example of abstraction that I would like to mention is the illusion that we can replace vital, embodied, social interactions with the virtual space of online communication. A coffee with a friend cannot be substituted by a chat on Skype, the social dynamics and learning that take place between teachers and students in a classroom and in the playground cannot be replaced by Zoom. Or as Michael Leunig so aptly comments in the form of a cartoon, an elderly woman cannot walk her dog through a website instead of a park.
Towards a Context-Sensitive Approach
Within the life of an individual as well as within society more broadly, a crisis is often a painful opportunity and catalyst for much needed transformations. The inadequacies and shortsightedness of much of the response to the pandemic are a significant part of the crisis. As we move forward, I hope we can work towards realising a fairer and more sustainable economy, and a transformation of our thinking from one-sided abstractions to a concrete attentiveness to the nexuses of life. We need to find creative ways to take care––physically, emotionally and mentally––of those who are most vulnerable, while at the same time taking into consideration the complexities of the world.
The above thoughts are the concerns of a philosopher (and poet) and not the recommendations of an epidemiologist or a physician. I am not aiming to provide particular guidelines and calculations about which health factors should be weighted against others. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the complexities of life and the dangers (in some respects of catastrophic dimensions) of simplistic ‘solutions’. In response to the wave of panic that has spread across the world (greatly propelled by the media), measures have been applied by governments that fail to take into account the relations of life and the specificities of different societies, places, and cultures. In my view, it is crucial that we learn to approach life and the great crises that we face in a context-sensitive manner that considers all the dynamic interrelations and specificities of biology, social ties, individual freedoms, societies, cultures, and environments. There is no one enemy or problem. There is no silver bullet. One size doesn’t fit all.
Life is a light-footed circle dance on unstable ground. Or, as the poet and philosopher Novalis put it: ‘The whole rests more or less like persons playing, who without a chair, merely sit one on the knee of another and form a circle.’ Let us not overlook the relational complexities that constitute and give meaning to life.
 Sourced from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
 There are many issues around how Covid-19 deaths are being counted in different countries (and debates about whether they are being overestimated or underestimated). It is well-documented that in Italy no distinction has been made between deaths ‘from’ and deaths ‘with’ Covid-19 and there are similar issues in other countries. As the present essay elaborates, there are also many deaths resulting from the repercussions of the lockdown measures (rather than Covid-19).
 In a very recent article Ioannidis also gives a clear overview of what he regards as a balanced course of action given the data and evidence that are now available.
 One of the significant criticisms of Sweden has been that its number of fatalities is much higher than that of its neighbours, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Part of the reason for this, however, has less to do with the overall strategy and more to do with a problem in the management of nursing homes where over 50% of the deaths have occurred. Moreover, the per capita death rate in Sweden is lower than in a number of countries that have enforced strict lockdowns, including Spain, Italy, the UK, and Belgium. Finally, while there are gray areas around the development of immunity to the coronavirus, in the long term Sweden will quite likely be better placed than many other countries. Though the precise situation remains unclear, one recent study at Stockholm University suggests that Stockholm could reach community immunity by mid-June.
 Novalis Schriften: Die Werke von Friedrich von Hardenberg, vol. 2, ed. R. Samuel, H. J. Mähl and G. Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 1960-1988), p. 242.
by Julie Janson
Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
‘I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain. It is important to share how I know survival is survival and not just a walk through the rain.’ (Audre Lorde, 89)
What do we expect stories to do? I have always felt that, deep down, we expect them to tell the truth. I come to fiction for the gut-truth – what did it sound like, smell like, feel like?
The gut-truths presented in Benevolence are tied to a larger reckoning needed in Australian society – one that involves a centring of First Nation voices, a willingness to address not just a violent history, but a hostile and violent present – and it’s worth reading Julie Janson’s book for this alone. But the reason I will keep returning to this work is the beauty of its language and the connection I felt with its protagonist, Burruberongal woman, Muraging.
This is a story of survival, revolving around love, family and country. We first meet Muraging (or Mary, as she is called by her white ‘guardians’) in her home Darug country (Parramatta) in 1816 and as the story unfolds, we learn of her struggles to flee. We see how she is stalked by hunger and loneliness, deriving comfort and hope from the violin she learns to play at the Native Institution in Parramatta. We watch as she is forced, time and again, to return to her ‘guardians’. In the afterword, we learn that Muraging is based on author, Julie Janson’s great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas. Janson is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug nation, novelist, playwright and award-winning poet.
As a work of historical fiction, Benevolence offers a satisfying mix of the specificity of fiction (the gut-truth) with true events, and rare insights into what it might have been like to experience the devastation of British colonisation firsthand. I am not a historian, but this book gave me a way into important history – this is the story of a woman’s life shaped by violent and pervasive forces she cannot control, rendered in exquisite and compelling detail.
Benevolence opens with the following description:
‘The grey-green eucalypts clatter with the sound of cicadas. Magpies and currawongs warble across the early morning sky as the sun’s heat streams down. It is eaglehawk time, the season of burumurring when the land is dry, and these birds fly after small game. Muraging’s clan, the Burruberongal of the Darug people, gather their dillybags and coolamons and prepare for the long walk to Burramatta, the land of eels, and Parramatta town. The old women stamp out the fire, and one gathers the baby boy in her arms and ties him onto her possum-skin cloak.’ (p.1)
Readers familiar with Julia Janson’s poem ‘Duria burumurrung: eaglehawk time’ (which was co-awarded the 2016 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize) will recognise the below lines in the opening prose of the novel, and the poem echoes throughout the book:
Magpies, currawongs call across morning sky.
Sun’s heat streams down.
Clan gather belongings, dilly bags, coolamons
Walking, walking to a new town.
Old women stamp out fire, gathering babies in arms.
I am always telling my writing students they should look up words they don’t understand, instead of passing them by, assuming they are picking up the meaning from context. You’re missing out on an important part of the story when you do that, I say. The unfamiliar (to me) words in the opening paragraph – ‘dillybag’ (a woven bag), ‘coolamon’ (a carrying vessel) – forced me to slow down a little.
Reading words in the Darug language is valuable for its own sake, but slowing down, lingering over new words, was for me one of the greatest pleasures of this book. Janson often folds definitions in seamlessly, telling us Muraging hears ‘rattling carts full of waibala, whitefella, and the sound of pots against iron wheels’ (1). Janson is always, generously, teaching the reader how to read the text. Sometimes the Darug words are given context in the sentence itself: ‘Pale dingoes, mirri, walk around a destroyed world and are lost in an empty landscape’ (26), sometimes you will have to remember a word you have been given already, or wait until a word is used several times. It’s always worth slowing down and looking up words that don’t immediately reveal themselves. There is a poet’s care for language throughout Benevolence; In places, a lack of punctuation adds poetic rhythm: ‘She longs for food chews wattle gum to ease her thirst’ (2), and words are placed side by side to hint at a way of knowing: ‘She panics and grips his hand. Alarm rises and her aunt mothers look away’ (2).
Muraging is the character we follow through this story, but we are not confined to her impressions:
‘She looks at her dark hand in his pink one and can see that his nails are clean and trimmed while hers are dark and filled with ash. He smells of camphor, Russian leather bibles and cedar trees. She smells of eucalypt and smoke. He can see her beauty, again it disarms him.’ (123)
Time and time again we are confronted with the horror of the project of colonisation: at worst the white characters are openly violent and spiteful and at best, mealy-mouthed and ineffectual in their ‘compassion’. The title of the book – Benevolence – is a nod to the absurd and violent distance between the things the white characters say, and the things they do. Their speech is often stilted and strange. At one point, a phrenologist doctor measures Mary’s head. He wishes ‘to take it with him as a fine specimen but it is, inconveniently, still connected to [Mary’s] body’ (103). The following exchange shows the insurmountable disconnect between two ways of being in the world:
‘Why do you want our heads?’ she asks.
‘Young lady, I am scientist. And my craniological specimen studies indicate that the intellectual abilities of natives are by no means despicable,’ he says.
‘That might be; the people who take our heads are wrong. And if you take them, you might be despicable,’ Mary replies. (103)
In her review of Julie Janson’s first novel Crocodile Hotel (2015), academic Alison Broinowski wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The problems are too familiar, painful and perennial, and I am squeamishly frustrated because I know too little about them and have no solutions’. Broinowski is talking about contemporary health and education outcomes for Indigenous Australians – but her words speak to the greasy feeling of my own initial reluctance, as a white woman, to engage with the settler colonial history of Australia. After all, reading this book is a vivid and uncomfortable reminder that I live on stolen land, that I am not just a bystander but an active participant in the ongoing trauma of colonisation. As academic and writer Evelyn Araluen points out, ‘Today Indigenous Australians still face significantly reduced life expectancies and significantly higher rates of incarceration, child removal and suicide. The colonisers have not left, but instead police our borders and imprison those who seek asylum from conflicts in which we are implicated.’
Of course, white squeamishness is not just irritating or exhausting, but dangerous and insulting for the First Nations activists, academics, community leaders and writers doing the actual work of truth-telling; white squeamishness is fatal.
It’s one thing to know colonisation changed the landscape. It’s another thing to see the following through Muraging’s eyes:
‘Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.’ (91)
Water rendered literally undrinkable by colonisers has stayed with me. Gundungurra and Darug women teach Muraging to use coals from the fire to filter the goona (shit) from the water and make it potable (96). This is just one of the thousands of ways Muraging finds to live.
This shitty water, which Muraging makes drinkable again, matters; to borrow again from Audre Lorde: it’s how we know survival is survival. Benevolence is a book which needs to be read so we begin to know how survival feels, how it smells, what it tastes like.
1. Lorde, Audre (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde. United States: University Press of Mississippi
2. Broinowski, Alison. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-book-review-the-crocodile-hotel-by-julie-janson-explores-indigenous-themes-20151006-gk230l.html
3. Araluen, Evelyn. https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-evelyn-araluen/
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer, sessional academic and former director of Wollongong Writers Festival who lives and works on Dharawal Country. She was awarded the 2019 Ray Koppe/ASA Fellowship for her novel-in-progress The Push Back, about a young girl who goes missing from a small country town. In March 2020, this manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize.
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.