Michael Hannan reviews Unsettled by Gay Lynch

Unsettled

by Gay Lynch

Ligature Publishers

ISBN 192588323X

Reviewed by MICHAEL HANNAN

What does it mean to tell the stories of one’s ancestors? How do human beings endure landscapes dominated by scarcity, isolation, gruelling labour, and patriarchal cruelty? And what is the price to be paid for survival?

These questions animate Gay Lynch’s Unsettled, an historical novel focusing on a Galway family adjusting to life in south-eastern South Australia during the mid-nineteenth century. In struggling to forge a new existence on the colonial frontier, the Lynches are forced to navigate the unforgiving Australian landscape, hostile English neighbours, life-threatening diseases and injuries, the spectre of financial ruin, and an ever-niggling sense that a better life lies elsewhere. This last is felt particularly strongly by the two Lynch children who serve as the narrators. Rosanna, the headstrong eldest daughter, dreams of running away to the Victorian goldfields, while gentle Skelly, her younger brother, spends most of his time immersed in sketching rocks and fossils. As their surname suggests, the Lynches are modelled on the author’s own family; the novel is dedicated to her children and grandchildren “so that they might imagine their Lynch ancestors.”

Historical concerns are a change of pace for Lynch, whose last offering, cleanskin (2006), was a novel of manners about playgroup mothers in latter-day Port Lincoln. In that book, Lynch mined the social dynamics of pathologically bored small-towners for crackling interpersonal drama, which developed into rivalry, infidelity, and (maybe) murder. While she (eventually) demonstrates similar skills in Unsettled, sustained drama is largely sidelined in Part 1 in favour of setting the pastoral scene. Lynch relies heavily on sensual, lyrical similes: a flock of corellas, when disturbed, “[flies] up like a tossed hand of cards” (50), while morning “passes slow and steady like treacle poured from a spoon” (40) and foam “sets like chantilly around their horses’ mouths” (90). Those who live for imaginative description executed with technical finesse will find plenty here to savour.

If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of reader who sees description primarily as a means of rendering character and not an end in itself, Lynch’s prose style can veer into what Zadie Smith, in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”, calls “lyrical realism”. In this mode, according to Smith, “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers… [the] possibility of transcendence”. Thus, “personal things are… relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth”. The end result is often an onslaught of over description which “colonizes all space by way of voracious image”. Lynch can often be guilty of such imagism. A gown is never simply yellow, but “as pale yellow as early sunshine” (109). Words never just waft away; they have to “waft away on breezes sculpting the shea oaks” (181). Such, to again borrow Smith’s words, is the “anxiety of excess” where “everything must be made literary”.

For readers who find this kind of prose a bit much, the first hundred of Unsettled’s 417 pages, largely held together by verbal portraiture, is a somewhat tangled mix of events. Lynch’s unusually short chapters, some of them only two pages long, don’t initially provide a particularly cohesive reading experience. Each chapter, it seems, offers up a new, potentially intriguing situation, only to introduce an entirely new one in the next. The Lynches, we are told, have recently lost a baby. We don’t hear much about this, although it seems to be why Garrick, the grief-stricken family patriarch, slaps Rosanna, who retaliates by absconding into the bush. This is the kind of conflict which could be milked for suspense, but no; Rosanna comes straight back in the next chapter and hatches a plot to flee to the goldfields, only to be side-tracked when she accidentally lands a job with a family of wealthy English landowners. Throw in a few more subplots involving a visiting priest, a bullock found with a spear in its neck, and elder brother Edwin’s tendency to gamble away most of his money, and it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on.

This kind of constant cycling between loosely-connected narrative morsels so early in the novel, when we don’t yet know (or care) about the characters, makes it hard for any particular situation to hook the reader. We’re presented with a mosaic of the hardships (and tight-knit relationships) comprising the Lynches’ lives. Yet nothing from that mosaic is given the necessary space to help the reader invest in the characters, something that might have been achieved with longer chapters and fewer subplots. In lieu of a central narrative thread holding all the pieces together, we have Lynch’s lyrical realism converting everything in sight to image. If you’re not into that, Part 1 is tough going.

That said, things pick up in Part 2, when one of these fragments finally blooms into a compelling plotline. Through her job in The Big House, Rosanna is drawn into an affair with one of the guests, a handsome young actor from Melbourne. Any potential qualms about Lynch’s prose style are immediately made redundant; finally, we have real stakes. Secret trysts, close calls, and the constant threat of social ruin are all failsafes for weaving a suspenseful story, and the sustained human drama Lynch draws out of the relationship makes for captivating writing.

It’s also around this point that Lynch’s carefully cultivated brand of nineteenth-century Irish English comes into its own. Once Lynch’s dialogue gets more to do than simply establish her characters as Irish, there are some wonderful interactions. Take this exchange between Edwin and Skelly:

Edwin takes it [a newspaper] from him. “Skelly darling, look at this. Moffat’s Vegetable Life Medicines: for flatulence and foulness of the complexion… Shall I order some for you?”
‘Pog mo toin.’ [Irish for ‘kiss my arse’] (153).

Such a quintessentially rivalrous sibling interaction, for all its nineteenth-century points of reference, could have taken place yesterday. It’s a four-line demonstration of how closely the best historical fiction can mirror the present, and an indicator of how easy it is to find contemporary concerns in the societies of long ago.

One particularly relevant concern for Unsettled is modern Australia’s ongoing reckoning with the colonial violence conducted against Indigenous people during the novel’s time period. One consequent literary corollary of this reckoning has been the question of how (or even if) non-Indigenous novelists should engage with these atrocities, as well as how they might represent Indigenous Australian characters in their work. Much of Lynch’s engagement with these debates comes via the character of Moorecke, a Booandik girl of Rosanna’s age from a nearby station; the two girls are presented as fast friends. While it’s not for someone like me to critique whether Lynch gets Moorecke ‘right’, there’s no doubt she endows her with considerable humanity, thanks largely to Moorecke’s irrepressible personality. Despite Rosanna’s entreaties, she cheerfully trespasses on the English settlers’ (read: her) land as she pleases, kills their livestock, and steals their clothes to dance around in “like a brolga displaying its wings” (137). Moorecke is substantially more than a prop for the white characters, and challenges the flat, highly stereotyped representations of Indigenous people of which white writers have historically been guilty. Lynch is also smart enough not to narrate directly through Moorecke; such a step would be for Indigenous writers, and Indigenous writers alone, to take.

Interestingly, Lynch depicts relations between the Galway Lynches and the Booandik people as largely cordial. I admit to being initially surprised at the friendliness of this relationship, although I have no personal knowledge of whether or not Lynch’s portrayal of these relations passes historical muster. (The English landowners, by contrast, pursue the Booandik people more than once with intent to kill.) It should be noted that in the acknowledgments, Lynch namechecks contemporary Booandik custodians and linguists who have provided her with information about Country and even proofread early drafts of the novel. This collaborative spirit suggests a preferred path forward for future settler writers who attempt to write about the brutality in Australia’s colonial past in an ethical manner.

The approach taken to such a worryingly sensitive issue once again reflects Lynch’s chief preoccupations: the enduring power of ancestry, and the capacity of human beings to survive against all odds in environments filled with forces determined to erase their existence. Unsettled is a defiant riposte to such attempts, honouring the hardship and sacrifice of those who came before by creating a family whose members linger in the imagination long after the final page is turned.

Cited

Lynch, G 2006, cleanskin, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.
Smith, Z 2008, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, The New York Review of Books, November 20, vol. 55, no. 18, <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/11/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/>.
 
 
MICHAEL HANNAN is a PhD candidate and tutor in English literature at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His research interests include contemporary British literature and narrative theory. He has written for artsHub, Express Media, FORUM, Mascara Literary Review, and TEXT.

Mascara Varuna Writers’ and Editors’ Residency

In partnership with Varuna, The Writer’s House, the Copyright Agency and the Adès Family Foundation, we are delighted to announce the inaugural Mascara Varuna Writers’ and Editors’ Residency. This is an exciting opportunity for four emerging or established writers who identify as First Nations or CaLD with a manuscript they are wanting to develop. Applications can be for a project in poetry, fiction, non-fiction or in criticism. The winners receive an all expenses paid one week residency at Varuna, and a manuscript reading by a senior editor and mentored emerging editor. Travel costs will be paid if you are interstate (flights and/ or road travel). Varuna is a catered residency in the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains. The Residency week will be held from 30 January 2023 to 5 February 2023.

This is a chance to immerse in your work in the solitude and natural beauty of Varuna, a place of renewal, fellowship and intense creative practice.

We thank the Gundungurra people for their care of and connection to land, culture and community. We pay our respects to their elders: past, present and emerging, acknowledge that we live and work on stolen land that is unceded. Always was, always will be.

Date of the Residency: 30 January 2023 to 5 February 2023

Timeline and assessment:

Submissions: 12 September to 5 December 2022 COB
Judging: 5 December to 16 December 2022
Notification week of 19 December 2022
Residency: 30 January to 5 February 2023

Judges: Multi-award winning Bundjalung writer Melissa Lucashenko and poet and critic Lucy Van.

To Apply: Please fill in the form below, submitting a single document containing

  1. Your project description
  2. A manuscript excerpt of up to 3000 words or 6 poems
  3. An author bio

2023 Mascara Varuna Residency for BIPOC Writers and Editors

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Holden Walker reviews Clean by Scott-Patrick Mitchell

Clean

by Scott Patrick-Mitchell

Upswell

Reviewed by HOLDEN WALKER

 
 
 

Western-Australian poet Scott-Patrick Mitchell has spent the best part of the last decade appearing in some of Australia’s most celebrated literary journals, headlining spoken-word poetry showcases, and contributing to acclaimed anthologies. However, in 2022, Upswell published Mitchell’s first full-length collection of poetry titled Clean. Clean is a personal and intimate collection that explores the nature of substance abuse and the process of recovery from all angles. Mitchell injects heart into the text through semi-autobiographical details and offers a gritty yet honest insight into the poetically taboo.

Texan poet Bill Moran’s homage to his sister and her struggles with addiction in “Dear Amy” is the fitting prologue to the first instalment of Mitchell’s trilogy. To experience Mitchell’s collection to the fullest, I consider it worth watching Moran read “Dear Amy” aloud at the Write About Now slam poetry event, if only to get a sense of how important it is that writers are candid about topics like addiction. Moran’s repeated use of the late musician Amy Winehouse as a metaphor for drug addiction highlights how prominent it is in our culture, a reality that we are no stranger to in Australia. The epiphany bleeds into “Dirty,” the introductory collection that explores every element of addiction. Addiction intertwines itself within additional themes, including trauma, queer romance and the significant moments of everyday life.

Mitchell wastes no time layering on the heavy subject matter, as the first poem, “The Mourning Star,” introduces the concept of substance abuse following childhood trauma. It is one of the multiple instances in which Mitchell highlights the cyclical nature of abuse in the collection, for this theme arises again in “blood thieves” and “It Begins With Burning (An Obituary).” The poem introduces the emotions and the actions associated with drug abuse, particularly as a reaction to dealing with trauma.

Mitchell composes memorable lines with the ability to communicate complex ideas in a conservative amount of characters. It was with the line: “It is known by how it tugs, draws into you. / Sight shall fill with shapes. / How we monster a bed.” (p.12) that I first noticed both the skill and care taken to produce lines that are the perfect middle ground between subtle and obvious. Mitchell’s semantic choices creatively communicate the process of being corrupted by trauma without compromising cohesion. It is clear that there was an audience in mind for this collection and that Mitchell wanted their poetry to be accessible to the people who would benefit from it most.

The collection reads like a fusion between Henry Lawson and William S Burroughs. While Lawson spent his career crafting a voice for working-class Australia through his poetry, often depicting the brutality of life for Australians living outside the metropolitan zones, Burroughs was best known for his post-modernist poetry, often masquerading as a beatnik fever-dream. Scott-Patrick Mitchell represents all of Burroughs’s queer, drug-fueled chaos, but set against a working-class Australian backdrop that I, someone living in the same cities Lawson wrote about, recognise all too well. Mitchell’s words resonate, for they trust me enough to understand their contemplative manipulation of language, sparing me the Wordsworthian elitism, yet never compromising the sublime.

Lawson’s voice in particular can be heard in poems including “This Town,” Mitchell carries on the tradition of reciting vignettes that depict the country and its communities brutally yet honestly. The poem is a tribute to every regional Australian community that grew up with the presence of vice. Mitchell allows the citizens of these places to be heard and understood, a luxury not often afforded. Mitchell tackles this subject matter the way they do throughout the rest of the collection, with empathy and understanding. Their words bridge the gap between the common person and the distinguished poet, the same style that had served as the backbone of our culture generations prior.

Mitchell writes: “Beer bottles vulgar the park. / Sun churns bitumen as we burn from the inside out ”(p15). Mitchell’s imagery cements both a familiar scene and feeling. I am invited to remember the town I grew up in, even if that memory isn’t particularly pleasant, and take a moment just to admire the art of it. This action can describe Clean as a whole; it is a collection that invites you to find beauty in negative places.

The sublime nature of Mitchell’s work is evident throughout, for the poet constantly juggles elements of both the picturesque and the sinister. The poem “blood thieves” presents the scene of a person going through a painful methamphetamine withdrawal, only to return to using by the end of the poem. Despite the dark subject, Mitchell’s words are comforting, if not pleasant. “When we were gone we were an ache of poison / grey thin wind erosion / we wanted to steal red / rush of blood from their heads”(p.19). In these lines lies a middle ground that is disturbingly beautiful. At one end is a poetically intellectual structure that experiments with the emotional relationships of colours and the ever-present motif of blood. This symbol is often recurring throughout Mitchell’s work. At the other end are the gruesome details of withdrawal and the presence of symptomatic episodes of hallucinatory deterioration. Many of Mitchell’s poems often can’t help but read like a love song hiding its juxtaposing eerie lyrics in plain sight.

Juxtaposition is a recurring theme in Clean, and this is most noticeable in the instances in which the subject matter shifts from the brutal portrayal of substance abuse and the culture surrounding it to something much more wholesome. “Night Orchids,” is a poem that took me by surprise, both concerning its seemingly out-of-place position amongst a parade of depressing scenes, but also in the way it portrays queer romance so simply and yet so divinely. Mitchell introduces us to a queer romance uncorrupted by the oversaturated mainstream interpretation of intimate relationships between two masculine-aligned people. Mitchell’s interpretation of the subject is infused with a level of realism and believability that feels not only genuine but sweet. “In the absence of daylight, we are just two young men / silent save a giggle and a shoe scuff” (p.21). Mitchell’s words make the relationship feel nostalgic. “Night Orchids” is particularly heartwarming for queer readers, many of whom don’t experience the privilege of true, unproblematic, young love. It is still significant to see it depicted, even when it’s sandwiched between two poems that explore the feelings associated with excessive drug abuse. Mitchell makes it clear that their work was created with queer people in mind, and the sprinklings of queer poetry throughout the collection cement our trust in the author’s ability to provide the stories they wish to tell with an authentic and honest voice.

There is an almost linear structure to the collection; therefore, after the long, hard road out of addiction, we find ourselves at the third and final section, “Clean.” The collection’s titular poem “Clean” introduces us to the last circuit of life. Mitchell lays out the nine stages in the process of reinvention after deciding to stop using drugs. The voice in the poem is empathetic and inspiring. Mitchell introduces this chapter of their life with so much tenderness and honesty. Admitting that the process isn’t easy or pretty, but at the same time providing every reason why recovery is essential. Mitchell also sneaks in some helpful advice between the delicate lines of prose poetry. “Remind yourself that these desires, they are dying: let them. / Sometimes death is slow. And painful.” (p.64). Mitchell allows themself to be the older, wiser voice of reason that many of us wish we had in a time when we were almost vulnerable. The poem fabulously introduced us to the encore.

Although never particularly confronting, Clean is still a compelling dedication to the often discussed but rarely understood concept of drug addiction and every facet of life surrounding it. The collection will hit home for many Australians, many of whom would have found themselves the victim of addiction at some point in their life. Clean isn’t just a manifestation of the complex world of methamphetamine, for it is still relatable to anyone experiencing any addition or hardship. Mitchell’s makes us feel less alone, at least for a little while. Fans of Burroughs and those genuinely interested in a snapshot into the macabre side of life will find pleasure in Mitchell’s writing.
 
 
HOLDEN WALKER is an essayist and literary critic from Yuin Country, New South Wales. He is an alumnus of the University of Wollongong, where he studied English Literature, specialising in literary history and analysis.

Anne Brewster reviews Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill

Daisy and Woolf

by Michelle Cahill

Hachette

Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
 
 
 

Daisy & Woolf : An investigation of the novel-essay

Michelle Cahill’s debut novel Daisy & Woolf is accomplished and exhilarating. A re-reading of Virginia Woolf’s iconic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, it excavates and reconstructs the literary worlding of a minor character, Daisy Simmons – the ‘dark, adorable’ Eurasian woman that Clarissa Dalloway’s long time admirer, Peter Walsh, plans to marry. If you are thinking about the coupling of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre you are on the right track.

Daisy & Woolf relates the journeys of two Anglo-Indian women – Daisy, as she travels from Calcutta to London in the 1920s to meet her beloved Peter Walsh and her subsequent peregrinations in England and Europe – and Mina, the present-day writer recreating Daisy’s story in her own novel as she follows in Daisy’s footsteps, and as she re-traces the geographical trajectories and geopolitical underpinnings of Woolf’s writerly life.

The novel has been widely – and mostly positively – reviewed. Reviewers have acknowledged the significant cultural work that the novel undertakes in investigating the impact of race on women of colour. Marina Sano, for example, praises the novel’s ‘organic’ treatment of this issue (Books+Publishing) and Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in the Sydney Morning Herald comments on the book’s challenge to the whiteness of the western canon, saying that there is something ‘wonderfully subversive’ about taking ‘a well-known Western text and flipping it inside out to reveal societal truths’ as Cahill does in Daisy & Woolf

An exception to these reviews is a review which simply fails to recognise the workings of race as they are laid bare within the poetic aesthetics of this powerful and complex novel. Attending to this omission is important, I suggest, as it indicates to us how resilient white power is in reproducing itself and how the operations of race remain invisible and unremarked in so many locations. It prompts me to respond by analysing the novel’s deconstructive aesthetics and how Cahill skilfully borrows from Woolf to rewrite the racialising narrative.

***

I was more than a little taken aback by the reviewer’s comment that the novel offers 

‘scant insight into the degree to which Daisy’s race (as opposed to her class or the scandal of her adultery) affects either her social standing or her eventual fate. The only time we are jolted into acknowledging the social and political repercussions of her Anglo-Indian heritage is when she is refused the designation “British subject” on her passport because her ‘skin colour is too dark.’
(Stubbings, 2022)

I was surprised that anyone could miss the novel’s forensic examination of the multiple ways both Daisy and Mina (and their families) have been racialised through the operations of the category Anglo-Indian/Eurasian. 

Mina, the young writer whose story becomes intertwined with Daisy’s reflects, in the first few pages of the novel, on Australia’s colonial history and the little-recorded history of the early migrants on the south coast of NSW where her family lived. She thinks about the Bengali lascars who, as indentured non-Indigenous labourers in the British colonies, represent ‘the invisible ink in the history of cross-cultural connections between India, China, Australia and England’ (6). The novel introduces us early to the tropes of migration/travel and ‘cross-cultural connections’ which comprise the overarching narrative framework of the novel and inform the character arcs of three central writerly female figures of the novel (Woolf, Daisy and Mina). Each of these women is cosmopolitan, cross-hatched by multiple cultural connections, translations and globalised histories. 

The canonical weight of Virginia Woolf and the privileged sure-footedness of her creation, Mrs Dalloway, serve as both inspiration and challenge to Mina and to Daisy. Cahill’s novel excavates Woolf’s familial connections (via Empire) with India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon. While Mina acknowledges, in the first pages of the novel, that ‘Woolf sought to question … empire’ (13), the novel proceeds to demonstrate the shortcomings of this enterprise. It problematizes Woolf’s representation of India and Anglo-Indians and demonstrates that, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf ultimately could only ‘ke[ep] Daisy stunted’ (75), rendering her through the trace of stereotype. It would seem that Woolf did not have the imaginative resources – that is, an adequate political understanding and knowledge of the classed and raced history of empire – to create for Daisy any substantive ‘interior space’ (248) within the novel in spite of its experimental approach to literary realism. Ultimately, Mina insists, Daisy’s world was impenetrable to Woolf: ‘Daisy walks the streets of … postwar London in a way that Clarissa Dalloway cannot appreciate’ (177). Woolf’s apparent cosmopolitanism was marked by classed and raced elisions and disavowals which reproduced the hegemonies she aimed to challenge. 

This cultural blindness is understood by Mina as Woolf committing a discursive violence on the Anglo-Indian gendered subject, of whom Daisy is indexical. These discursive elisions become wider acts of gatekeeping by the literary industry; Mina reflects on the fact that Woolf and ‘the critics that came after her’ in effect ‘refus[e] to let Daisy in’ (69) or to give her a substantive presence within the narratives and the literary worldings that comprise the Anglophone canon. As Mina observes, ‘there’s barely a critic who is aware of, let alone interested in, poor Daisy Simmons’ (76). Indeed, in reality, even in progressive criticism Daisy has been mis-read, for example as ‘an English woman in India’ (Reed Hickman, 65). We can understand Daisy’s exclusion from canonical literary texts as being aligned with the exclusion of Anglo-Indian (along with other BIPOC) writers from the canon.

In her depiction of Daisy’s world, Mina, in a corrective move, decenters Mrs Dalloway’s hegemonic view of the ‘post-war London’ (177) to showcase the other aspects of that city and its denizens that Woolf’s novel largely omits – the many exiles, activists and impoverished people who call it home (however partially or temporarily). Cahill’s novel (like other literary work by BIPOC writers in other contexts) brings the spotlight to bear on the histories and bodies of minoritised people and their struggles against the hegemonic cultural and political histories we see enshrined in the literary canon and its aesthetics. 

***

However, this is not to argue that Mina or the novel, Daisy & Woolf, rejects Woolf and her work tout court. Mina avers an affiliation with Woolf as a feminist who fought against ‘the gender binary and patriarchy’ (175). She affirms that Woolf  ‘knew that women’s bodies are exploited and pursued’ (118). For example, she salutes Woolf for her efforts in testifying to the sexual abuse hidden beneath the niceties of upper-class English life, acknowledging Woolf’s courage in disclosing her sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother (18).

Nor, despite its criticisms of Mrs Dalloway, does Daisy & Woolf advocate casting Woolf on the scrapheap of what we might call dead white women, or banishing the novel in disgrace. As well as mounting a sturdy and unflinching critique of Woolf’s classism and racism as they manifest in her representation of Daisy, Daisy & Woolf constitutes a homage to Woolf’s radical modernist aesthetics. Mina’s writing is an important and generative site of experimentation and subversion of literary realism (175). Mina admires Woolf’s interest in what she calls ‘the malleable nature of experience’ and ‘the trick of narrative’ (176). Further, Mina applauds Woolf’s efforts in forging a ‘new form’ (118), hailing her as ‘perhaps one of the first to attempt the novel-essay’ (176). 

Woolf’s aesthetics, I’d suggest, have deeply inspired Cahill’s own work. I’d argue, for example, that the novel-essay intersects with and informs Daisy & Woolf’s literary project. In reflecting on how to shape and fashion Daisy outside the strictures of the orientalising colonial gaze, Mina says:

Is it right to assume that a story alone can liberate Daisy of race and gender? Without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]. (176)

Mina explains that the novel-essay – made up of historical fact and documentary material which in turn is combined with fictional speculation – is the genre which provides the means to ‘liberate’ Daisy. So can we identify the two constitutive elements of the novel-essay – argument and history – in Daisy & Woolf, and what literary work they undertake there?  

As I have argued, the novel documents the historical operations of white power, race and class and their impact on Daisy and Mina. When Daisy writes to Peter Walsh of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in India that ‘all our communities have been woken to the politics and economics of the times’ (27), she is summarising what we could, in effect, describe as one of the novel’s implicit ‘arguments’ about minoritised identities in the aftermath of colonisation, namely, that minoritised identities are shaped on multiple fronts by racialising forces beyond their control. Further, they are cognisant of these forces which many white constituencies disavow. In her portraiture of Daisy, Mina documents the historical context of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in both India and the UK. For example, Daisy’s decision to leave India is motivated not only by her desire to be with Peter Walsh but by her sense of the precarity of the Anglo-Indians’ position there. Mina makes reference to the stirrings of the political unrest and violence – along lines of racial/ethnic and religious difference – that we know would lead, twenty years later, to Partition (33). 

Mina’s family (like Daisy’s) is constantly sensitive to racialised tensions in India (and in her case, East Africa), which impact on them as Eurasians and precipitate their multiple migrations. Racialisation meant that issues of citizenship and identity loomed large for both Daisy (55) and Mina’s mother (72). Mina describes the ambivalent positioning of Anglo-Indians/Eurasians within the colonial governance in India which had ‘taught them to assimilate and to behave in all ways as if they were English’ (50-51). She outlines the stigma of ‘mixed ancestry’ (51) and the structural poverty which beset Anglo-Indians after the late 1900s (50). Mina writes, ‘I felt ill when I was growing up encountering some Indians: the ridicule and scorn they heaped on us’ (51). When her family migrated to Britain the racism continued. She described how her mother internalised the ‘colour conscious’ (49) racism in Britain; how Mina and her siblings were teased for being coloured and how, as a result, Mina ‘avoided other children’ (50). These racialised tensions persist in the contemporary world. While researching Woolf in Britain some years later, Mina is acutely aware of the racialised violence constantly profiled in the media there (such as the Westminster attack by Khalid Masood) (20). 

I quoted above Mina’s statement – ‘without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]’ (176) – suggesting that argument and history might be read as the core elements of the novel-essay. Daisy & Woolf, as a novel-essay, can be understood as emerging at the intersection of these two discursivities. In my reading of Cahill’s novel, to this point, I’ve argued that Mina’s documentation of how her own and Daisy’s complex worlds are shaped by colonial histories allows us to understand the two women’s fraught positionality as Anglo-Indians. This documentary discursivity, I’m proposing, could be identified as the ‘essayistic’ trajectory of Cahill’s novel-essay. Mina asserts that research on/documentation of Anglo-Indians is indispensable to her novel whose main work, she declares, is ‘the historical restoring of my community’ (75). There is a convergence here between her work and Cahill’s.

The relationship between Mina and Cahill is complex. At the core of the novel is Cahill’s project to resurrect Daisy. Daisy’s story is in part Mina’s story which in turn resonates with autofictional echoes of Cahill’s life. These complex layerings are mediated by the epistolary first-person address, which both Mina and Daisy adopt. We can note the significance of the analytical, investigative, first-person voice in the context of the documentary imperative of the novel where Daisy and Mina – in their letters and journal entries – observe, chronicle, and salvage the daily and the political life of the world around them. (They draw on the same style of ‘moments accruing’ (171) through which Mrs Dalloway records her world). Their end goal, however, as I have argued, is quite different from Woolf’s. It is to ‘refus[e] demise’ (291) of what Mina describes as ‘my people’ (16) and, further, to ‘control their own destiny’ (219) through acts of narration. The immediacy of the first-person in Mina’s and Daisy’s stories bears a personalised testimony to the silences, elisions and losses which, when exhumed, bring to light a newly recognised history. We must not forget that this is Daisy’s story too; the reviewer quoted at the start of this review comments that Mina’s story overpowers Daisy and ‘swamps’ her. This comment is hard to justify given the complex and rich evocation of Daisy’s journey and its beautifully elaborated water themes; her psychological journey through grief and spurned love which shadow her physical voyage, and the motifs of travel as survival and reinvention.

***

In light of the prominent and avowed documentary/essayistic aesthetics in the novel the reviewer’s comment – with which I started this review – concerns me. The reviewer singles out the incident where Daisy is refused a British passport as the sole incident in which race impacts on her. This is to ignore the novel’s textual organisation as a novel-essay which, I suggest, is identified in Mina’s insistence that Daisy’s story cannot be told without a retelling of history. The central project of investigating race is undertaken by two distinct discursivities. Daisy & Woolf is both essayistic (in its inclusion of historical ‘research’ [120]) and fictional – in the imaginative worlding of Daisy’s and Mina’s lives. Is it possible that the historical and documentary discursivity is completely invisible to some readers? Such readers duplicate the race blindness that Cahill identifies in Woolf‘s aesthetics. It’s disturbing to see this blindness reappearing in contemporary literary criticism, especially when that criticism addresses the work of writers of colour. The enterprise of critics who are, like me, non-Indigenous and not people of colour, and who analyse the literary work of BIPOC writers, is a precarious one. There are many twists and turns within our readings which may prove to be blind spots like the one I have identified. The works we examine are also precarious in that they are open to mis-reading and mis-representation in our hands. 

 

Works Cited

Cahill, Michelle. 2022. Daisy & Woolf. Sydney: Hachette.
Hickman, Valerie Reed.”Clarissa and the Coolies’ Wives: Mrs. Dalloway figuring transnational feminism.” Modern Fiction Studies 60.1 (2014): 52-77.
Stubbings, Diane. July 2022. “Delible Impressions Liberating Daisy Simmons”.  Australian Book Review.
 
 
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Martin Edmond reviews mō taku tama by Vaughan Rapatahana

mō taku tama

by Vaughan Rapatahana

Kilmog Press

Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND

 
 
I first encountered Vaughan Rapatahana in 2010, in the pages of brief magazine, in the days when it was being edited by Jack Ross. Rapatahana’s writing was bi-lingual ― English and te reo Māori ― typographically inventive and uncompromising in its engagement with matters of world concern as much as local issues. There were Asian references. In those days, it turns out, he was living between the Philippines and Hong Kong and making a living as a teacher of languages. He has also lived in Brunei, the People’s Republic of China, Nauru and the Middle East as well as in different parts of Aotearoa: Auckland, the East Coast of the North Island, Mangakino in the Waikato. The first time I saw a book of his was when Dean Havard of Kilmog Press, the publisher of the work reviewed here, sent me a copy of China as Kafka (2013). 

Kilmog Press was founded around 2007 and, like brief, continues to this day; however, since Havard opened a bookshop, Dead Souls, in Dunedin, its once hectic rate of publication has eased somewhat. Kilmog books are distinctive: hardbacks with hand-crafted covers made as art objects by the publisher himself; with letterpress title pages and the rest of the internal matter offset printed. They are unique objects, in small editions (50 copies in this case) and marketed through the bookshop, the Kilmog website and by word of mouth. In the timid, highly institutionalised and subsidised literary economy of Aotearoa / New Zealand, Kilmog books are not often reviewed. Notwithstanding, Havard has assembled an international stable of writers chosen according to his own taste. When, for example, he read in an Australian magazine some poems by George Murray, poet laureate of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, he offered him a book: Exit Strategy (2010) was the result. Something similar may have happened with China as Kafka.

It was Rapatahana’s first book; but came out in tandem with another, Home Away Elsewhere (2011), from Hong Kong’s Proverse Press; there have been half a dozen more titles since then, including a major collection ināianei / now (2021) from Cyberwit in Allahabad, the closest Rapatahana has yet come to publishing a selected. Meanwhile this book, his ninth, mō taku tama (= for my son), collects the poems he has written for, and to, his son Blake, in the sixteen years since he died, by his own hand, aged 29, in 2005; this information appears in an author’s note at the front of the volume. ‘I cannot cease writing about Blake,’ the note continues. ‘In this way, I keep him alive.’ The direct address, the straightforwardness of the language, the refusal of sentimentalism and the documentation of raw experience, are characteristic of the poems too.

But that is not the whole story. Rapatahana is linguistically inventive in ways that few writers know how to be these days; and a complex poet who foregrounds his use of language in transformative ways. Erik Kennedy, in a recent review of ināiane / now, pointed out: ‘he is the most daring poet we have when it comes to seasoning his work with sesquipedalian lingo (that is, million-dollar words) . . . he has a more developed practice than anyone else when it comes to writing translingual poems in te reo Māori and English.’ One of the fascinations of his bi-lingual work is that it allows you to read back those arcane specimens of English vocabulary, those million dollar words, into his Māori translations of them, making both languages seem, not just stranger, but wilder and deeper too. 

Even readers who have no Māori will be intrigued by these metamorphoses; and, since Rapatahana’s work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian, readers of those languages too can perform the exercise, reading back unusual words from their own languages into one they might not know well, or at all; and aiding Rapatahana in his mission ‘to push for a far wider recognition of the need to write and to be published in this tongue.’ In pursuit of this aim, and as a language teacher himself, he has co-edited two essay collections (English language as Hydra; Why English? Confronting the Hydra) which critique the rise of global English as a stripped down, utilitarian language of business and politics which cannot accommodate, let alone voice, the concerns of First Nations peoples.

Before he left Aotearoa / New Zealand for that long sojourn overseas, Rapatahana completed a doctorate at the University of Auckland. His topic was Existential Philosophy and English Literature’ and his main subject the writer Colin Wilson, whose 1956 non-fiction book, The Outsider, impacted significantly upon a whole generation. Wilson, the archetypal Angry Young Man, has been ritually disparaged by the academy ever since; he remains an outlier, an existential philosopher inquiring into, among other things, true crime and its links with mysticism and the paranormal. Rapatahana continues to write about him; perhaps because of his own outsider status. He is one of a select few Aotearoan poets who have been invited to the annual Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia. Another sesquipedalian, Alan Brunton, was the first, in the year 2000. Since then, David Eggleton, James Norcliffe and Apirana Taylor have also gone there. This year, Tusiata Avia will be a guest. 

Rapatahana is also a well-read, generous, yet exacting literary critic, writing on poetry from Aotearoa / New Zealand and, particularly but not exclusively, upon Māori poetry and poets, in a series of commentaries published in Jacket 2. They open up a perspective upon Aotearoan literature that most Pākehā (and indeed most Māori) critics couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate. There is presently a fluorescence of writing and publishing going among Māori and Pasifika writers; but little critique, positive or otherwise, of their work. Rapatahana’s critical voice is measured, calm, inquisitive; never partial or even partisan; maintaining an inclusive stance while refusing to indulge the whims of coteries or the shibboleths of received opinion. He augments his critical and scholarly writing with hands-on teaching of the techniques and inspirations of bi-lingual poetry. 

Although most of Rapatahana’s poems are brief and to the point, nevertheless they resist easy reading. Their insistence upon bi-lingualism may strike some readers as unnecessarily oblique. Even those who have a passing acquaintance with te reo will find his translations of his own English poems into Māori challenging; the same, I assume, is true of the English versions of the poems in te reo. The Māori, for English readers, requires study and not every reader is willing or able to do that. Additionally, fragments of other languages enter the poems, especially Tagalog (Rapatahana’s wife’s native language) as well as Mandarin; along with allusions to speakers of other tongues. His habit of stretching out or breaking words up, typographically, might also act as a disincentive to some readers. Really, however, what makes Rapatahana’s work difficult for mainstream literary culture in Aotearoa / New Zealand is its confrontational nature. 

Rapatahana was born in Pātea, in south Taranaki, of Ātiawa descent; Ātiawa suffered as much, or more, than any iwi during colonisation. He has written poems about incidents in Tītokowaru’s War (1868-9) ― the massacre of children by militia at Handley’s Woodshed in 1868; Tītokowaru’s sexual transgression, and subsequent loss of mana, at the fortified pā at Taurangaika in 1869. He is also affiliated with Ngāti Te Whiti, the hapū of Te Whiti, the prophet of non-violence, whose ideal community at Parihaka was brutally sacked by government forces in 1880. In Aotearoa / New Zealand, bi-cultural teaching about the Land Wars (1845-1871), and the Musket Wars (1818-1845) which preceded them, has only this year entered the school curriculum. Pākehā do not like being reminded that the country they call their own is theirs only by conquest. Māori consider it still belongs to them. 

Rapatahana is of the same cohort as current poet laureate David Eggleton; they went to school together in South Auckland and share a belief in the transformative power of writing. However they are very different poets. Rapatahana’s poetry is spare and sharp and bristles with intent. Every word is precisely placed. His prose too is considered and exact, setting out connections between historical crimes, especially the confiscation of land, and the high rates of incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and suicide amongst Māori today. In both poetry and prose he tells stories from the past in an attempt to heal the present, and thereby make a future possible. His bi-lingual texts emphasise that the loss of te reo was just as catastrophic as land theft. Lip service to the outrage he and others still feel about these losses is common these days among the literati and their enablers; but direct experience of its effects, or engagement with them, is not. 

Rapatahana doesn’t however lay the blame for the death of his son upon the social evils land confiscation and loss of language have caused; he doesn’t blame himself either. Or not obviously. Rather he lays out the facts of an event he can neither forget nor comprehend; one which he can document but can’t resolve: hence the imperative to keep the conversation going. These poems are confronting because they insist you look, not at grief’s indulgence or its redemptive power, but at the impoverishment it causes. I think it is this, not the big or unusual words, or the foreign ones, or the stretched and broken ones, that makes the poems hard for some people to deal with. Erik Kennedy’s review of ināianei / now, which is intelligent and largely positive, was published by Landfall Review online under the derisory title ‘Prating in Alien Tongues’. 

I could go further: mainstream New Zealand poetry is still dominated (though not defined) by the school of quietude: in Ron Silliman’s words, ‘poetry’s unmarked case, and its most characteristic ― even defining ― feature is the denial of its own existence.’ A poet of this persuasion wishes their poem to appear both authored and autonomous. It usually relies upon observation and then reflection on what has been observed; sometimes with an aphorism by way of a conclusion. Often the observation is of the self; but it might also be a wave of the sea, new red buttons on an old black coat, a bike ride through the suburbs or an encounter with a bird. We are to admire the poet’s skill with words, with metaphor; their sensitivity and their embrace of ‘intimacy’; above all their wise passivity before a largely inscrutable world. Or rather, a world made briefly scrutable by the poem. 

Rapatahana’s work does not do this. I don’t mean that description, observation and / or reflection are absent from it, nor that he is unengaged; I mean he does not sentimentalise the world, the self or the other. He sets out the facts; and keeps his commentary upon them to a minimum; letting the words do the work. One of his poems begins: ‘I watched my father           die’ and ends: ‘an uncanny / vomitous / odour, // no poet could              ever / limn.’ Limn is an archaic term for the act of painting; its literary use indicates, archly, description of a landscape as much as a painting of a landscape; its contemporary equivalent is perhaps to be found in ekphrasis. But the root of limn is the same as that for ‘illuminate’; it also means ‘to light up’ and ‘to make clear’. As the last word of the poem it seems at first anomalous; but actually reverberates all the way back to the beginning and thereby articulates what has just happened: his father’s death.

Most of the poems in mō taku tama are laments which do not try to traduce the fact of death into something ‘poetic’; nor to make of this father’s grief for his son an occasion for fine writing; nor a demonstration of the nobility of his soul. Rather the poems bring before the reader the incomprehensibility of suicide and the inconsolable grief it occasions; which is, and always will be, lifelong. We are asked to contemplate, not so much the poet’s feelings, but the fact of the death that has occurred; which has, inter alia, made it impossible for him to write about it in any other way than this. There is no redemption, no closure, no way of assimilating what has happened; the only hope is, as the last words of the last poem in the book put it, ‘when I finally alight / I pray you’re waiting / at the terminus’ The omission of the full stop is of course deliberate. 

Lament is a traditional genre of Māori verse, as it is in many poetries. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, in 1966, recorded that ‘the largest number of songs comes under the heading of laments (waiata tangi) and love songs (waiata aroha)’; and goes on to mention (among unspecified others): oriori (a lullaby); pao (a derisive song); apakura (a lament for the dead, especially one killed in battle); tuki waka (a canoe song); and whakaaraara pā (a watchman’s song). The writer of this entry, most likely Ngāti Maniapoto kaumātua and scholar Bruce Biggs, was talking about the situation as it pertained in his day; even now, most non-Māori New Zealanders will know only the words and tunes of a few popular songs, the bi-lingual National Anthem, and the haka that precedes rugby matches in which the All Blacks take on whoever their opponent is to be. 

Fifty years later, in 2014, musicologist Mervyn McLean, in a book about the Lapita people who are ancestral to all Pasifika cultures, including Māori, compiled a list of the kinds of songs that were sung in Polynesia before the European invaders came: ‘birth songs, boasting songs, children’s songs, courting songs, divinatory songs, entertainment songs, enumeration songs, erotic songs, farewell songs, fighting songs, food-bearing songs, funeral songs, game songs, greeting songs, hauling songs, incantations, initiation songs, insulting songs, juggling songs, laments, love songs, marriage songs, narrative songs, obscene songs, paddling songs, praise songs, satirical songs, spirit songs, tattooing songs, taunting songs, teasing songs, toddy songs, top-spinning songs, topical songs, war songs, welcome songs, and work songs.’ 

This broad range of songs must have been sung by Māori too; it would be strange if they were not. The decline in the number of categories in the present day therefore reflects the loss of a communal lifestyle; which would once have celebrated, for instance, the hauling of canoes over an isthmus as a common occurrence. Songs of love and grief remain of course ubiquitous. Rapatahana’s poems are usually either laments, waiata tangi; calls to action, like haka; or fragmented narratives which lay out the details of historical wrongs; of which his son’s suicide, if only by implication, may be seen as one. His work witnesses the past richness, and contemporary undervaluing of, the tradition he works within; even during a period of so-called de-colonisation. I think it is this aspect of Rapatahana’s work that Pākehā find it difficult to engage with. The same unwillingness to deal with feelings of anger and bereavement among Aboriginal people, let alone with the facts of their dispossession, is found among white Australians,. 

The detail given of Blake’s life is minimal. His age, the manner of his death, where it occurred ― not much more. There is one grain of reminiscence around which a pearl has accreted. It comes two thirds of the way through the book, in the title of the tenth of the fifteen poems: ‘invictus redux’. The poem begins: ‘this was your favourite verse. / something I did not know / until / later. / far too late.’ The reference is to W E Henley’s ‘Invictus’ (1875), written while he was in hospital, bedridden, recovering from the amputation of a leg due to tubercular arthritis. Many readers will know the couplet with which the poem ends ― ‘I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul’ ― but few would be able to quote the beginning: ‘Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.’ Perhaps father and son share such a soul. 

mō taku tama is a handsome book, a robust hardback, taller than most Kilmog publications; in its dimensions resembling the coffin in which the dead son lay, mentioned several times in the poems: Vaughan’s last sight of Blake. On the cover it has the title and the author’s name in black inside an appliqued ochre circle which looks like a sun; abstract, black shapes are glued down over the red boards in such a way as to make that sun resemble an eye, perhaps in a gate or on a door; there is also the visual pun: son / sun. The end papers are pale green, the unused leaves, front and back, have been cut large and left, like unlived years; and the type, as in all Kilmog books, is clear and unambiguous. On the title page, in a single decorative flourish, the author’s name appears in red below the black lettering. This is a heart-breaking book; but it is also a manual of how to stare down the facts of life and death, and especially death by suicide. It is by keeping on talking to the dead, even when there isn’t anything to say: ‘kua heke haere ahau / ki tēnei tāruarua o te toikupu; / kāore aku mea kē atu.’ ― ‘I am reduced to / this anaphora: / I have nothing else.’

Links:
Vaughan Rapatahana reading:
https://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/six-pack-sound/01/rapatahana.asp

Erik Kennedy’s review:
https://landfallreview.com/prating-in-alien-tongues/

Rapatana’s essays for Jacket 2:
https://jacket2.org/commentary/introductory

Best NZ Poems 2017:
https://www.bestnewzealandpoems.org.nz/past-issues/2017-contents/vaughan-rapatahana/

Mervyn McLean’s Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins can be downloaded as a PDF here: http://polynesianorigins.org/

A dictionary of Te Reo:
https://maoridictionary.co.nz/

MARTIN EDMOND was born in Ohakune, New Zealand and lives in Sydney, Australia. He holdsa Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University. His most recent books are Isinglass (UWA, 2019) and Timelights (Lasavia, 2020). A non-fiction work, Marlow’s Dream, on Joseph Conrad, is forthcoming.

Jenny Hedley reviews Body Shell Girl by Rose Hunter

Body Shell Girl

by Rose Hunter

Spinifex Press

ISBN 9781925950502

Reviewed by JENNY HEDLEY

I first encountered author Rose Hunter late in 2020 when I wrote about the decade I sold lingerie in strip clubs, hinting at but not claiming my own experience on the pole. Rose called me out on social media, furious at seeing ‘yet another conversation go by about sex workers, without a sex worker in it.’ She wrote, ‘My experience comes not from strip clubs but other areas of the sex work industry.’ I replied, ‘In truth, I have been on that side of the curtain, on your side and in various places in between.’ We had each outed ourselves on a platform that never forgets.

We were stepping into an unknown space, fraught with doxing and trolls. As Dr Brooke Magnati of Belle de Jour renown explains, ‘Having been a sex worker at any time in your life strips you of any other permissible identity and defines you absolutely. It makes you open to ridicule, regardless of your credentials in any other sphere in life.’ [1]

Unlike cyber bullies hiding behind avatars, Rose’s criticism of my essay was thoughtful. We slid into each other’s DMs, sparking a friendship divided by politics, bound by commonality, and sealed with an agreement to disagree. ‘It would not be sustainable at all for the war machine if everybody ended up respecting all points of view,’ writes Sand Talk author Tyson Yunkaporta [2]. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, Rose and I began to engage in rhetoric that is trauma-informed, based on deep listening.

When I say I love Rose Hunter’s memoir-in-verse Body Shell Girl, which chronicles her first two years as a full-service sex worker in Canada, I say this in spite of the cover blurb being written by the director of the Nordic Model Australia Coalition, which seeks to criminalise sex workers’ clients. (More on my decriminalisation stance later.)

In the tradition of Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem or Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay,’ Rose Hunter takes us on a narrative journey in Body Shell Girl, proving that poetry need not be esoteric to be coded with feeling and meaning. She flirts with high and low-brow culture, crafting stanzas with artistry and care, like where she circles an ad for ‘Masseuses wanted! / $$$ / cash paid DAILY’ (3).

it was my hand that held the pen
I watched it join the curved edges of the line
then pause
a tiny red moon formed
which I smudged into a red comet (5)

In the first of three sections, as Rose stumbles into the massage parlours of Toronto to pay for film school, she meditates on her ‘freakish inexperience / for the ripe old age of twenty-five’ (8), hinting at her asexuality and hoping that ‘maybe this strange gig would cure me’ (22) and that ‘everything would be different / in my life from now on’ (14). We witness the one-sidedness of a client’s desire through language that is lyrical and lush—

my cheeks a rising warmth
his face a clearing house of amaze

seashells rattle-pulled with the retreat of a wave (14)

—contrasted with an uncanny detachment that results in a carnivalesque portrayal of her clients’ bodies. We witness a man like a ‘floppy white seal’ guiding her hand ‘to this gelatinous part of him / like a small pink sea cucumber // how strange how strange how strange’ (15).

Rose’s lack of self-worth and history of disordered eating follow her into the industry. The binge–purge cycle is captured in exquisite, painstaking detail—‘the teeth-grabbing heaving / the warm mouth-filling gushing’ (33)—in ‘Hungry Ghost Poem,’ which is the most visceral, arresting and relatable account of bulimia nervosa that I (also a recovering bulimic) have read.

Men who for sure ‘had more than two hands’ (29) and men with ‘hands like feathers / that felt like tarantulas / or tonnes’ (41) grope at Rose in poems like ‘This Gets Messed up Pretty Quickly’ and ‘Rick,’ as she appears to watch her body from outside of herself. Hers is a dissociated ‘bird’s eye view’ (25); she is both there and not-there, a sensation which is visited upon us by her prose.

think of my body as a shell
that I could vacate, not as metaphor, or symbol
but as real possibility (42)

Last year I’d been reading Katherine Angel’s powerful work on consent, where she describes how current models of desire view sexuality as a trade-off, something exchanged for intimacy at the risk of being devalued [3]. I’d messaged Rose, ‘After being used and discarded so often by non-paying men who only valued me for my body it was like, fuck it, may as well get paid,’ and Rose responded, ‘An exact line in one of my poems.’

In this poem, ‘In Dreams I Can’t Remember, Imagining a Better World,’ Rose is sexually assaulted on a public bus, an experience to be categorised under—

non-parlour incidents
as I called them, filed away as one-offs
strange occurrences
(one one-off strange occurrence after another) (39)

—in which case she ‘may as well get paid’ (40).

The second part of Body Shell Girl takes place in Vancouver where Rose finds only brothels instead of massage parlours. ‘Red Velvet Suite’ is a haunting story of a client who refuses Rose’s ‘no.’ In earlier versions Rose had ‘added two men, added roofies, you know / to make [the rape] not my fault’ (68).

Common rape myths imply that a woman should sustain injury and at least shout for help in the struggle to escape her attacker, as Dr Jessica Taylor writes in Why Women Are Blamed for Everything [4]. The statistics disprove this rape myth: the most common response to sexual trauma is the freeze response, the victim unable to respond.

Over DM, Rose recalls how writing ‘Red Velvet’ tied her in knots, because she only really ‘recognised it as actual rape halfway through the writing (about 20 years later).’ When we’re unable to process our assaults in real time, we repeat our trauma through dangerous situations, trying to find another way out. Rose and I each lost ourselves in abusive relationships. Writing has been our escape.

The most terrifying poem in the book is ‘Gravel,’ where Rose hitches a ride with a ‘man in a mesh cap with a green fish on it’ (84) to sneak across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to renew her visa. This man says, ‘You realise no one knows you’re in this country?’ (91), crushing Rose’s giddiness into fear as he veers off the main highway.

Rose portrays this scene methodically, titrating between corporeality and headspace. An accomplished poet, Rose gives us a reprieve from narrative tension as her mind drifts to film school, before unleashing a cacophony of thoughts: reasoning, negating, self-talk (‘he’ll show you some duckpond or whatever’ (94)) then overarching terror as he cuts the engine and

the keys
clinked like champagne toasts then clackety-tack
of the door opening (94–95)

‘Gutter trash,’ (96) he tells Rose.

The final section of the book sees Rose transform from naïve to ‘a knower of truths // like what was really behind those offices / and suits and pretty words men said to women / whomp-da-whomp’ (133). Rose summarises the trajectory of her healing journey between 2008 and now in the epilogue, where she describes feeling dehumanised by the industry.

‘The dehumanization of sex workers can render us impossible to victimize, or else it can render us the ultimate victims,’ writes Natalie West in We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival [5]. West stresses how seeing sex work as work means workers may be ‘seen as laboring subjects in need of rights, not rescue’. In the introduction to We Too Selena the Stripper describes how anti–sex work feminists co-opt sex worker’s stories, pigeonholing them into the role of victim. Even though Selena experienced sexual assault, she says it doesn’t give anyone the license to take away her workplace, her means of support or her financial independence.

Former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant discusses how when anti–sex work reformers ‘rescue’ sex workers, what they’re really doing is disciplining them, setting them ‘back into their right role as good women’ [6]. This enforcement of what Jill Nagle calls ‘compulsory virtue’, which is ‘a mandate not only to be virtuous, but also to appear virtuous’ further entrenches the whore stigma [7]. When sex work is driven underground, it inherently becomes more dangerous.

The anti–sex work response to these arguments is always: WHAT ABOUT THE TRAFFICKING THE MINORS THE DRUGS THE MURDERED PROSTITUTES. But when I speak about sex work I am speaking of consenting adults who choose their profession. I am not speaking of child sex abuse or forceful coercion that occurs at all levels of society, from church to boardroom, when I talk about sex work. These crimes are symptomatic of a society that has malfunctioned.

Even though Body Shell Girl is being marketed as a cautionary tale against sex work, I see it as a horror story about what it means to inhabit a woman’s body under patriarchal capitalism. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied the matriarchal society of the Minangkabau and found it was virtually free of rape and intimate partner violence [8]. We should learn how to replicate this lack of violence instead of re-victimising people who consciously choose to trade in sex. Because so long as women ‘are trained to believe it is next to death to be mistaken for [a whore]’, writes Melissa Gira Grant, ‘men will feel they can leave whores for dead with impunity.’


Notes

1. Magnanti, Brooke. The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told is Wrong. Hachette UK, 2012.
2. Yunkaporta, Tyson. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Text Publishing, 2019.
3. Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Verso Books, 2022.
4. Taylor, Jessica. Why Women Are Blamed for Everything: Exposing the Culture of Victim-Blaming. Hachette UK, 2020.
5. West, Natalie and Tina Horn, editors. We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. The Feminist Press, 2021.
6. Grant, Melissa. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. Verso Books, 2014.
7. Nagle, Jill. Whores and Other Feminists. Routledge, 1998. Taylor & Francis Group, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203700655.
8. Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press, 2002.

JENNY HEDLEY’S writing appears or is forthcoming in Cordite Poetry Review, Red Room Poetry, Diagram, Scum Magazine and other publications. She was a participant in the 2021 MAD Poetry workshop and writes about domestic violence and mental illness from a position of lived experience. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Visit her website

Zarlasht Sarwari reviews My Pen is the Wing of a Bird

My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women

Ed Catherine Boyle

MacLehose Press Quercus London

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9781529422214

Reviewed by ZARLASHT SARWARI

My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, draws us into the lives of fictional characters in Afghanistan in an anthology of twenty three unrelated but deeply connected short stories. Written by 18 women authors in Dari and Pashto, the works are translated for an English speaking audience. The stories traverse multiple decades in Afghanistan’s recent history, from the communist ruled period of the 1980s to more recent representations of Afghanistan society during the American occupation. The political climate of Afghanistan is not the focus of these stories, though it is important to be cognisant of the different regimes, wars and occupying forces which form the backdrop of these vignettes. 

It is unfortunate, that we continue to learn of Afghanistan through the repeated narration of its affliction with war. A place devastated, cradling the broken hearts, maimed bodies and hungry stomachs of its people. The anthology illustrates how people are forced to endure life, amidst the manic conditions cumulative war and violence brings. As we read how the most basic of needs remain unmet for characters within these stories, we are forced to contemplate the banal and significant privileges we as readers, take for granted every single day. 

We come to know the women and men in these stories, inhabiting urban centres or remote villages across Afghanistan. We move with them through their day, speaking to loved ones overseas, cooking meals, going to work, childrearing, dealing with colleagues, cursing bad health – all seemingly mundane tasks that anyone across the world can relate to. But these stories are not mundane. They are intense and impactful. They feel unbearably real. We witness characters negotiating everyday needs and obstacles in the midst of extreme poverty, injustice, want and violence. We witness so many contradictions and the convergence of so many unfortunate and unimaginable factors that weigh down on human existence. In between, we also witness acts of quiet kindness, unexpected wins and persistence in actualising personal agency. 

Whether based on imagination or seeds of truth, these fleeting instances of hope within the stories, gives us the oxygen we need to continue reading. Even so, they compound the sad reality for how ephemeral hope has come to be for so many of the characters and by extension the men and women of Afghanistan. On the unimaginable complexity described within some of these stories, one can only surmise that in a society at war for more than forty years and plagued by foreign occupation, the authors may well have witnessed such things and laid them bare for us to also witness. It is this fortitude in storytelling, that brings hope and understanding in the midst of so much hopelessness.

The book is the outcome of a project led by Untold, a British organisation describing itself as  a ‘development program for writers marginalised by communities and conflict’(1).  The project was the culmination of two years work between writers in Afghanistan and translators and editors abroad. The anthology was published in 2022, following the shocking and chaotic withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of occupation.  

The opening story gently invites us to witness the life of an elderly mother who stayed behind in Kabul after having sent all her children abroad. It is set during the post 2001 era of the US occupation and infers the myriad of geopolitical and transnational influences which plays out in her life. The lonely melancholy is obvious in her movement; pouring tea, turning on the television to connect with the outside world and forlornly looking at photos of her children and grandchildren living abroad. These images depict a familiar experience of separation among so many families and offers details that many readers who form the Afghanistan diaspora would recognise (tea with dried mulberries and walnuts, photo of a child posing in their traditional dress next to a large vase, a cloth draped over the television to avoid dust). These are the details that speak to the practices of home making and cultural maintenance replicated by many women of Afghanistan diaspora communities across the world. 

We become anchored in the social and political reality of the protagonist, Nuria when we learn of the latest news bulletin about a violent attack targeting and killing staff at the Moby Media Group (MMG). As one of the many privately owned media companies which emerged in post 2001, the company was often targeted by the Taliban as it was a symbol of western influence and excess. MMG led the dynamic media landscape which was forming in the country with free market conditions and freedom of speech laws. The Afghan Australian owner of the company, Saad Mohseni is often referred to as the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan. Nuria switches the news off as soon as she turns it on, suggesting fatigue by the violence, another experience common among the war weary people of Afghanistan. We witness her life through the series of photos she glances upon, marked by decades of war and regime change, social connection and loss, and her family’s migration to safety. She accepts solitude as part of her maternal obligation and derives satisfaction in keeping her children and their future safe. She does not fear living in solitude, but the realisation that she may die in solitude leaves her unsettled and distressed. This opening story sets the sombre mood and opens the door for us to walk in deeper to further explore the other more confronting stories to come. 

Each story beautifully captures details, intimate perspectives and dynamic relationships. Each story allows us to come to know the characters closely in short, sharp scenarios. Though each story is concise, they are not an easy read. There is a need for pause, to breathe and reflect as one moves through this anthology. Despite some of the universally familiar scenarios, there are many aspects reflecting unique aspects of Afghanistan culture and everyday practice. The throwing of water behind the steps of a traveller to bless them a safe journey, the customary way of how guests are received, drinking tea with ghor – an unrefined sugar product common in South and Central Asia. There are also many depictions that represent negative and violent attitudes and treatment towards women, ethnic and sexual minorities. To an outsider it may reinforce the negative tropes routinely applied to Afghanistan as a backward country. However, it is a harsh reality that in a four decade climate of war, poverty and illiteracy, many aspects of human behaviour decline and become further perverted. For those with heritage from Afghanistan or familiar with the culture there, they may well be able to distinguish how problematic or difficult practices have become further corrupted or amplified.  It is difficult and jarring to face these realities as they are presented to us throughout these stories.

The anthology opens windows to worlds and characters during different eras in the past four decades of Afghanistan, where we are able to enter the homes and communities of the people who inhabit the stories. The collection provides an overview of very diverse experiences from Afghanistan not commonly available to an English speaking audience. A positive and empowering move would have seen the stories published in the language they were written (Dari or Pashto) alongside English, rather than in English alone. English speaking audiences would of course read the translation but for those literate in Dari and Pashto within Afghanistan (whose speakers number over 60 million (2)) and those living within the estimated 7 million strong Afghan diaspora across the world, could have had the opportunity to read these stories in their mother tongue.  It would have offered a fitting tribute to honour these works and encapsulate as part of the important body of literature documenting the complexity of life in Afghanistan, a region which has had a strong literary culture dating back to the era of the Samanid empire in the 9th and 10th centuries. 

It was from the region which Afghanistan now occupies that many classic and contemporary artists and literary masters have emerged. Afghanistan was the birthplace of the great Islamic scholar, poet and master of Sufi mysticism, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī (known also as Rumi) born in the early 13th century, who produced the epic Masnavi – a six book poem comprising 50 000 lines. Rumi’s work has had significant international influence until this day (3). Other writers of cultural significance who made major contributions to the Dari literary canon and who came three centuries before Rumi include Rabia Balkhi, a poetess renowned for her ‘major contribution to the foundation of the Persianate literary canon’ and Abu ‘Abd Allah Ja‘far ibn Muhammad Rudaki of Bukhara, a poet laureate of the Samanid court (4). Rudaki was the first poet of note to compose poetry in the New Persian script and is hailed as the father of Persian poetry. The significance of his contributions are felt in the wider Persianate world including what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. Though the nature of society and life has changed dramatically since the time of these literary greats, the trajectory of Dari and Pashto literature remains ever connected and forms the root of everyday literary practice loved and valued across Afghanistan and beyond. For a society still plagued with remarkably high illiteracy rates, literary works are often transmitted via musical arrangement. Poetry and prose are transformed with musical composition allowing those literate and illiterate to tap into the cultural assets of the literary realm through different generations of popular culture (5). 

In reading the anthology, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, one is reminded of a heartbreaking song which captures the sad sentiment of the experience of the people of Afghanistan. 

Sarzamine man (My Homeland) performed by respected artist Dawood Sarkhoosh (1998), and written by Amir Jan Saboori, laments the ongoing suffering of a people forcefully displaced from their homeland. The song laments the pain of separation and the ongoing and cumulative trauma and dispossession rained upon the people of Afghanistan by external forces. 

“My homeland, in uncurable pain, who composed your grief?,
My homeland, who opened your door… who stole your treasures?
My homeland, everyone has damaged and broken you, each taking turns”. (6)

It is this collective grief, captured through song and literature, that is detailed and given colour in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird. The stories are not only about war, they are of course about how people, families and communities live in spite of it. How justice and fairness are perverted, how basic needs are desperately met and how some women hold onto hope in the most unlikeliest of ways. How long standing cultural values are eroded by regime changes, and how betrayal and injustice is endured but cannot cause delay from picking up a child on time from preschool. The title of the anthology evokes the desire to transcend the physical and material hardships of life in Afghanistan. It is only upon completion of the anthology, where we feel the depth and extent of this desire, the reason for it and the necessity of it. 
 

Notes

1. Untold Website, see http://untold-stories.org/
2. Unknown author, 2011, “The view from within: an introduction to new Afghan literature”,
Words Without Borders, see https://wordswithoutborders.org/read/article/2011-05/the-view-from-within-an-introduction-to-new-afghan-literature/
3. Ali, R. 2017, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi”, The New Yorker, see https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi
4. Ebtikar, 2021, “The story of Rabia Balkhi, Afghanistan’s most famous female poet”, Ajam Media Collective, see https://ajammc.com/2021/08/16/rabia-balkhi-afghanistan-poet/
5. Massoumi, M. (2022), “Soundwaves of Dissent: Resistance Through Persianate Cultural Production in Afghanistan”, Iranian Studies, 55, 697–718.
6.  For an audio recording of the song Sarzamine man and credits, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdQP8-gHjxg.

 

ZARLASHT SARWARI
is a researcher, writer and PhD candidate at Western Sydney University. Her research examines identity construction and belonging among Afghanistan diaspora communities in Australia.  Her work considers what it means to be from Afghanistan in the context of a homeland, both real and imagined, which has become increasingly out of reach and under threat. Zarlasht has produced written works for Southerly Journal, ABC radio, Sydney Writers Festival, Parramatta Laneways Festival and Fairfield City Museum and Gallery. 

 

Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Homesickness by Janine Mikosza

Homesickness

by Janine Mikosza

Ultimo Press

ISBN 9781761150234

Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM

 

Homesickness is a memoir that strives, as Emily Dickenson urged, to tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Memoirs are reconstructions that seek to capture the voice and perspective of one or more of the writer’s younger selves. Their truth claims are subject to dispute, challenge, and counterclaim. But Melbourne artist and sociologist Janine Mikosza takes a more oblique approach to her subject and the result is a soaring view of the emotional trajectory of her life and of the philosophical questions that its telling raises. When Homesickness opens, she is having cake with a nervous and sometimes hostile woman who tells her to call her Jin as ‘It’s better than Janine.’ After she gets permission from the woman to write her story, it becomes clear that the two women are different iterations of the same person: the narrator is the memoirist, while Jin is the woman who lived her childhood trauma and is still struggling to process it. The book unfolds as a dialogue between author and protagonist, with the two often at cross-purposes, as Mikosza struggles to balance writing about the past with recovering from it.

Jin takes Janine on a tour of the many houses she lived in as a child, hinting at the trauma and violence that is intimately linked to their rooms. We are not given details of what occurred or who the perpetrator was. Jin doesn’t want to reveal everything and ‘add to the literature on family violence piling up like dead bodies in bookstores’ (p. 16). Rather, the spacial dimensions of Jin’s trauma are alluded to via a serious of floorplans. She does not answer the question ‘What happened in those rooms?’ (p. 109) but alludes to a terror of bathrooms, which she repeatedly omits from her sketches. In this way, Mikosza maintains privacy and avoids neatly playing into the trauma genre. The two characters’ disagreements highlight a lot of the questions memoir raises – who is more qualified to tell a person’s story, the elder or younger self? To what extent should a structure be imposed over the messiness of lived experience? How much do factual details matter to the emotional truth of an event? Why should a person entrust their story to a memoirist and what happens if they get it wrong?

Mikosza also presents an indictment on systemic failures to deal appropriately with trauma. When the conversation turns to sex offenders in the priesthood, Jin rails against ‘those fucking men and their supporters’ (p. 123), and weeps when describing how their victims were treated, though she says she was not one of them. When relating the birth of her son, she remembers the obstetrician’s insensitivity, his failure to ask permission before cutting her open, and refusal to respect her concerns about being retraumatised by a vaginal birth. At other points in her story, she resists the memoirist’s cross-examination, refusing to give up control of her own experiences:

Don’t you trust me enough to tell me some more?
Haven’t I given you enough already? she replies.
Not the important parts.
How do you know what the important parts are?
Will you trust me with your life? Please?
Depends what you’re planning to do with it, Jin says. (p. 98)

In Mikosza’s self-talk, we see her simultaneously presenting as a competent professional and as a young woman as incoherent as any client telling her story for the first time. The author strives for specific, quantifiable, and linear claims, impulses associated with the evidence-based disciplines of science and law, and which the survivor thwarts. At times, the dialogue also evokes aspects of the therapeutic relationship, reminiscent of what therapists call ‘reparenting’: consciously giving oneself the nurturance, empathy and protection that was not received in childhood. The duality captures the paradox of survivors of trauma: one can simultaneously be a high-functioning adult and a deprived and terrified child. And coming to terms with the past may be the key to reconciling these selves.

When the conversation reaches Jin’s adult life, the narrative relaxes into a more traditional form, as she finds more recent memories easier to tolerate. The narrative pace picks up and becomes more accessible, the introspection less dense, though the voice of the author still comes in regularly. Here, too, we can see the long-term effects of Jin’s early trauma in the choices she makes and in how her adult relationships play out.

Mikosza said in an interview with The Leaf Bookshop that she did not write Homesickness as a memoir, but as creative non-fiction. However, Ultimo Press marketed the book as memoir, meaning that the author’s stylistic liberties read as a deliberate statement about and subversion of the genre – perhaps more so than she intended. Her book ditches the egocentrism implied by memoir – on the first page she declaims, ‘nobody writes a nobody’s life’ – offering a personal historiography rather than a personal history. When the fractured story resolves into a more unified narrative, it reflects the life arc of a person who has struggled through an unstable childhood, reaching a semblance of stability only later. Her chronic preoccupation with the past is the legacy of her trauma, its unravelment a lifelong project. In revisiting childhood homes, survivors seek a tangible verification of events that have long been in contention.

If Homesickness calls to mind any other work, it is another deeply unconventional trauma memoir, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (Marina Books, 2012). Like Mikosza, Bechdel presents a psychological deep dive into the long-term effects of her trauma, though in the form of an intensely introspective graphic memoir, much of which deals with her experiences of psychoanalysis and exploration of various psychological theories. Another level of self-referentiality is added by Bechdel depicting herself working on a memoir (her earlier work, Fun Home) as she undergoes therapy and grapples with her past.

The writing of life stories has assumed different incarnations since the traditional, chronological, exhaustive (and under-theorised) mode of biography. The more selective and reflective mode of memoir experienced a renaissance from the 1990s, with the proliferation of confessional tales of newly destigmatised experiences like drug addiction and mental illness. Writers like Bechdel and Mikosza are now pioneering a new wave of life writing: hyper self-aware, meta-non-fiction that foregrounds the telling of the story.
 
 
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The GuardianOverland, FeminartsyKill Your Darlings and Art Guide.

Joshua Klarica reviews Nostalgia has ruined my Life by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Giramondo 

ISBN 9781925818772

Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA

 

A technique commonly employed by poets is the announcing of the setting or theme of the piece in its title. Consider T. S Eliot’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, whose title functions as a covert, preliminary line that allows the poem to maintain its effective couplet form. This device eliminates exposition in the work, and plants the reader in the thick of it immediately. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, the New Zealand writer whose first book Autobiography of a Marguerite takes the long poem form, utilises this same tactic in the title of her second work. Before we encounter the first words of Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, the thesis has already been rambunctiously stated. Butcher-McGunnigle, it seems, insists that we view the impending labours of the unnamed protagonist through this prism, managing our expectations – ensuring we understand – before we read and, inevitably, pass judgment.

At once a dark, meandering comedy, at once a documentary of the stultified millennial, Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work follows the deadpan joys and luckless U-turns of a young woman navigating the trials and illusions of youth in an age where ennui seems a rite of passage. She idles time on dating apps, reads online horoscopes, and attempts to apply for jobs before reaching the cover letter and thinking “I can’t be bothered, I don’t care about this at all”. (p25) Any successes are swiftly undone, while any misfortune is short-lived: this is the recipe for getting by. 

While the denouement of the text revolves around securing an administration job at a bakery through a short-lived ménage à trois, the source proper lies amid a series of events not particularly concerned with forming a narrative at all. The text consists of short bursts of commentary, noting moods, whims, and events, usually little more than a paragraph in length, although on rare occasion these break onto a second page. This book of vignettes, although this is a loose term here, might be an exercise mandated by her therapist. They chart, comment, and record the events of a life waiting to get going. 

It is initially challenging to determine whether this is boredom palpable, or rather a languishing attributable to the rising challenges of mental health. There is dry pathos here: “I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance regarding the heater I bought” (p8). This same humour is bundled into a cry for help: “I’m trying to stop sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on my bed so now I’m sleeping with a towering pile of clothes on the floor instead”(p48). As the notes pile up, the narrator reports suffering from depersonalisation disorder and depression, the intense feelings of being outside of one’s body: watching instead of driving. This recasts any initial suspicions that this was an entitled, bored millennial moping and milling, but still, dealing only in sharp statements, Butcher-McGunnigle never truly invites the reader to know the subject.

Instead, the collages of text become confessions of one simultaneously trying to appraise and make sense of a situation. Not many can say with confidence that they “want to pick blackberries on a farm and then die”(p8), or that they want, this moment, to have scabs on one’s knees(p39). Yet for all their darkly droll commentary, these confessions give way to more sincere, and serious, realities. If having scabs is proof that we have lived, the gaining of that experience is another case altogether. Later, during an interview, our protagonist suddenly “can’t concentrate on anything” because her intrusive thoughts have inexplicably fixated upon her “ankles (being) gnawed open and bleeding, bones exposed”(p44). There is bravado in these lines, but it gives way easily. 

If one joy of the reading experience can be found in plugging the gaps and discerning what happens outside of the story presented, then there is an entire world that carries on beyond these short monologues, making the task of the literary synapse jump a rather difficult one. This isn’t to say that such a limitation necessarily works against Butcher-McGunnigle here. While the fragmentary, oscillating nature of narration might not appear particularly cohesive, the blunt imagery claiming the protagonist’s days is thoughtful. Late one night, for example, while fending off the internal machines that question what she is doing with her life, she is struck by an ad for a mop. Later, she feels compelled to mop up a mess herself, or sweep dust into a pile. It might seem ridiculous, like wanting to walk down a very long driveway, but at least it is something to counteract, through any means possible, the feeling of uselessness. Throughout the text, Butcher-McGunnigle is deftly at work arguing that almost anything can have purpose, so why is it that we can struggle so much to find it?

Another equally dark and unnamed heroine suffering a similar anxiety can be found in Otessa Moshfegh’s much appreciated 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Only, where Moshfegh’s protagonist ends up losing a year, Butcher-McGunnigle’s is so helplessly aware of each ridiculing second as it takes an age to pass. This is a take on modern anxiety that exceeds Moshfegh’s effort, in part (and noting that the heroines are separated by two decades), because Butcher-McGunnigle makes it clear that life, irresistibly, goes on elsewhere. One of the great strengths of Butcher-McGunnigle’s subtlety is the way the external cast – a host of nostalgic-laden folks including ex-boyfriends, high school bullies and siblings – become osculating matter in the protagonist’s orbit, whose episodic appearances work to chastise her own effort at getting on with it, while reinforcing the absurdity of doing just that. Butcher-McGunnigle unveils the hilariously twisted idiosyncrasies employed to handle the increasingly native experience of lackadaisy, like scamming Airbnb or securing one’s place in an elusive pyramid scheme.

This mode of commentary is calculated, refined so it reflects a persona under siege of review and hyperaware of its own subjectivity. It is life in the internet age – bite-sized content that excels at the entertaining and the forgettable. In an endemic example, our protagonist is ovulating, and laments that

[n]o one’s giving me any attention so I make an apple pie at midnight. I spray multi-purpose cleaner on the pie and it shines and then it gets soggy. Last week I had sex with an orphan. But we fell out before I could give him his birthday gift. (p38)

Beyond the jocular and the intimate, for better or for worse, this is how she wants to be seen. Reading these episodes becomes an exhibition, and so hints at the works compelling theme: in what spaces do we exist, and what dictates them? Horoscopes, Tarot readings, Myers-Briggs personality tests, and a litany of online chats informs Butcher-McGunnigle’s protagonist of a particular sense of self, and how she and others view it. 

There is much space between these episodes to which we are not privy, meaning these episodes, their scarcity, their intensity, is highly selective. As a result, Butcher-McGunnigle’s work tussles over the roles we should be performing, but not necessarily those that we do. Sure, there are the more obvious episodes Butcher-McGunnigle wants us to note on the matter: “When he’s fucking me I am thinking about what would be an easy but nutritious lunch option for him” (p15). Then there other, subtler evidences of her poor, somehow inaccurate performances of being, like when the Mystery Shopper she is sleeping with insists they can’t both be INFP’s, or the interviewer for a teaching role suggests they instead brainstorm some other vocations for which she might be suited. Yet our heroine has all the attributes that suggest she should be, or at least can be, successful. A writing career, even though it has stalled here; pregnancy, though not seen through; a deep and very mixed bag of suitors that find her attractive and endearing but succumb themselves to obnoxity and online currency; her own intelligence, in spades that can’t find the matching outlet – she is sharp and useful as a blade kept behind inch-thick display glass. So, it isn’t so much a matter of finding someone to say I love you to, but rather in finding a way to value the act itself. 

Before we begin Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s second work, we are asked to assume that nostalgia has to some effect shaped the story that follows. Be it warm liminality or useless retreat, we are immediately called upon to approach the text with our prejudices for or against nostalgia in hand. But by works end, this initial outpost seems rather ham-fisted, for nostalgia in these pages cannot simply reference halcyon throwbacks. Rather, it reflects a time when we were unencumbered by the dictates of our performance. 

Nostalgia emerges when we look back. It is difficult to unsee. “I just want to be in a ball pit in a McDonald’s playground,”(p80)admits the young-but-too-old female in the closing passages. Yet the way is shut, and now even the longing for this kind of easier, familiar passage becomes its own performance. But everything is fleeting, we know this much, which has both a kind of crestfallen truth and surprising optimism to it: this too shall pass.

 

JOSHUA KLARICA is a writer who lives and works in Sydney’s Inner West. He has a first class honors in English Literature from The University of Sydney, and has been published in Backstory Journal and Bluebottle Journal, among others.

Brenda Saunders reviews Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray

by Anita Heiss

Simon and Schuster     

Reviewed by BRENDA SAUNDERS

 
 

In the ‘Prologue’, to her novel, Heiss introduces us to Aboriginal tribal life at the onset of colonial expnsion in southern NSW. This is Gundagai in 1838. She provides the historical setting for the action and events to follow. At this time Wagadhaany, the central Aboriginal character in this novel, is a small child living with her family along the Marrambidja Bila (Murrumbidgee River). She hears the adults complaining about the changes, the loss of their land, the clearing of their hunting grounds. They don’t understand why the settlers won’t listen to their advice. Heiss introduces the reader to Wiradjuri words and names, which give greater authenticity to her description of the river people and their culture. There is a glossary of Wiradjuri words and reference notes included at the end of the book.

The novel opens and ends with two dramatic events, two tragedies caused by the great river. In 1853, Wagadhaany is now a young woman working as a domestic for the Bradley family. She is allowed to visit her family camp on Sundays, where she joins in celebrations by the river, speaking her own language freely. In English her name means ‘dancer’ and she readily joins in camp celebrations. The river becomes a metaphor for the power of the natural environment: respected by the local clans, misunderstood by the white settlers, it is both a danger and an essential element for survival.

In the first chapter, Heiss takes us to the historic great flood, when the small trading town of Gundagai and low-lying properties were completely inundated by rising river currents. Many people drowned, but several were rescued by the bravery of local Aboriginal men.

Wagadhaany and two Bradley brothers are saved by her father Yarri during the flood, but their parents and siblings are lost. During the town celebration, when Jacky Jacky and Yarri are given breast plates in recognition of their bravery, she wonders:

‘why… don’t they give the people on the river some more blankets and food. The breastplates will not keep them warm from the frost that continues to settle each night and early morning…hunting does not always bring enough for the entire camp.’

After the tragic flood the younger son James, becomes infatuated with a young widow, Louisa, a Quaker with strong views about women’s emancipation and Aboriginal dispossession. After their marriage, she is kind to her young servant and the two become unlikely friends. Unfortunately, she has no capacity to see the devastating effects on Wagadhaany when she is forced to leave her Wiradjuri family when the Bradleys move to a new property near Wagga Wagga.

Although a work of fiction the story of Wagadhaary is told in a narrative style, following the results of historic events due to the expansion of the pastoral industry in NSW. Heiss has brought into focus the struggles and the dignity of this Aboriginal woman, trying to survive between two cultures. Her character is intelligent and lively, her observations on the White community both wise and at times amusing.

She has become increasingly aware that White people live very separate lives to each other, and even simple sharing of food among families is not common.

Away from the problems at the cold Bradley homestead, Heiss shows us a different world at the Wiradjuri camps along the Murrumbidya, at Gundagai and Wagga Wagga; camps with many children, old aunties, cousins and a warm sense of belonging.

The introduction of Louisa’s character into this story serves to highlight the great dichotomy between the two cultures; between white middle class values and traditional Aboriginal customs. This lack of understanding, of listening is the grit of the novel. Louisa seems unaware of the social mores of the town, who regard Aboriginal people as uncivilized. Rather, she imposes her own high ideals of racial equality on her own terms. One example is the scene at the river when Louisa demands a visit to the river to see the children, suggesting they learn to read the bible!

Wangadhaany is the observer, registering the gradual changes, the conflicts and domestic violence in Louisa’s marriage. Louisa however does not observe the changes in her friend. She is unaware of her relationship with the successful drover Yindy, from the local river people. So when she becomes pregnant, Louisa is devastated, as she herself is childless.

Louisa drops the cup she is holding and it smashes on the hard floor. Pregnant? How can you be pregnant? You and Yindyamarra aren’t married!

For many years Wagadhaany has been grieving to return to her Wiradjuri people, so she tries to flee her situation. The NSW law gave the settlers complete control over the Aboriginal clans along the river, who were bound to them for life, as stockmen or domestics (The Master and Servant Act, 1848). Despite this, Yindy, Wagadhaany and their three small children decide to travel along the river to her own ‘miiyagan’.

But the journey ends in tragedy. While they are enjoying the freedom of river life, their baby daughter Miimi drowns on the strong current. Once more the Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has become a Bila Mayilgan, a river of death.
 
 
BRENDA SAUNDERS is a prize winning Wiradjuri writer and artist. Her third poetry collection, Inland Sea was published in 2021 (Ginninderra Press) and her poetry and reviews appear regularly in anthologies and journals both on-line and in print, including Australian Poetry, Plumwood Mountain, Overland, Westerly, Best Australian Prose Poems 2020 (Melbourne University Press) and Best Australian Science Writing 2020 (NSW Publishing). Her prose poems and microfiction have featured as short films, (Voices of Women 2021) and audio projects such as ‘Sonic City’ (Spineless Wonders 2022). Brenda is Convenor of Round Table Poets at Writing NSW.