Megan Cheong reviews Funny Ethnics by Shirley Le

Funny Ethnics

by Shirley Le

ISBN: 9781922863737

Affirm Press

Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG


My greatest flaw as a critic is my inability to maintain critical distance. I actively seek out books that I expect will resonate with me: a novel about a mother who writes poetry, a collection of essays exploring the nature of intergenerational trauma. Shirley Le’s debut novel, Funny Ethnics, is about Sylvia Nguyen – the only child of Vietnamese refugees – and the formative experiences that are supposed to culminate in her ‘coming of age’. Instead, Sylvia exhibits Sinbad levels of endurance as she sweats through multiple cycles of the same institutionally-inflicted suffering (tutoring centre, selective high school, law degree) until she is rendered ‘physically incapable of absorbing any more dry information’ (213). This reads like a criticism but is, for me, the most relatable aspect of Funny Ethnics, as well as the characteristic that gives the novel its curiously flat topography.

Other, arguably less profound but no less familiar details of Sylvia’s world: the ‘cork coasters of all shapes and sizes’ (1) deployed to protect the prized marble dining table where Sylvia strategically chooses to announce her decision to drop out of law and pursue writing ‘Just in case things became physical’ (1). The hilariously militaristic but actually dead-serious sentiment underlying her selective girls’ school motto, ‘Work. Conquers. All.’ (84). The catalogue of media clips showcasing Australia’s particular brand of early 2000s racism (John Marsden’s Lee, Chris Lilley’s Ricky Wong). The cringing parody of her dad, with his ‘beaming moon face’, (2) and her mum, first glimpsed praying to Buddha beneath a ‘hairspray-lacquered’ (2) perm. Funny Ethnics made me laugh so hard it induced a kind of out-of-body event in which I saw, with perfect horror, that I was laughing at the same Asian stereotypes that I’ve been laughing at, for the sake of everybody else’s comfort, my whole life. It is precisely Le’s ability to write in that uncomfortable sliver of an intersection between stereotype and reality that makes her novel so funny – I laughed because it was true, and to relieve myself from the discomfort of the fact that it was true.

Yet though Sylvia spends much of the novel criticising her ‘stupid brain’ (191), hers are not the kind of ‘self-hating jokes’ (147) for which she dismisses Fat Pizza’s Tahir Bilgiç. Beneath the fear that she cannot fulfill her parents’ dreams of entering into the sort of profession that would earn their community ‘a bit of respect’ (9), and beyond the realisation that she has no desire to be a lawyer/banker/doctor, is a bedrock of pride in Western-suburbs Vietnamese culture, and in her family. This pride lends the caricatures of extended family members and other noteworthy personalities in the Viet community the affectionate tone of family anecdotes and directs the pointy end of her observational satire at the encompassing society that denies her and her community respect in the first place. While some of the girls at Sydney Ladies’ College shriek when the ibises that inhabit the school grounds get too close, Sylvia knows from ‘a 7am Google sesh in the computer room’: that the ibises had been displaced from their natural marsh habitats due to urbanisation and river regulation. It didn’t make sense to paint them as pushy or ill-mannered animals when it was our fault they had to make a home in the city, sifting through human trash. (87)

Similarly, Funny Ethnics critiques Australian society for upholding an immigration system that relegates those asylum seekers who are permitted into the country to the literal fringes of the city, at the same time as looking down on the ‘bird-brained Asian’ (68) approach to migrating towards the centre. As one ABC listener whines midway through the book, ‘I drive past a selective school every morning and there are so many Asian students. How do we fix that?’ (57).

Rather than taking the well-trodden path of attempting to garner empathy for the Other by offering up a model of the model minority, Le gives us Sylvia, who consistently fails to flourish in the self-fulfilling machine of Australia’s allegedly meritocratic education system. Instead of expanding, Sylvia’s world contracts when she enters Sydney Ladies’ College. Within the hierarchy of the school, in which the ‘long-legged white girls’ are considered ‘rare and exotic beauties in a sea of ethnics’ (87), the Vietnamese Dux bemoans coming ‘second to a curry’ (82) on a Chemistry exam, and the Chinese and Hong Kong girls gossip about ‘how stuffed’ Vietnam must be ‘if Angelina Jolie had to adopt kids from there’ (172), Sylvia’s only closest friend is Tammy, ‘another Viet from out west’ (63). Sylvia’s days are truncated by the long commute to and from the city centre and continue to be curtailed by the ‘four trains’ she has to take to and from uni: ‘Yagoona to Lidcombe, Lidcombe to Strathfield, Strathfield to Epping, Epping to Macquarie Uni – and back’ (190). Her love interests are few and decidedly uninspiring, if not outright repellent, and over time, she even falls out of touch with Tammy, eventually listing Janine, ‘a Christian Leb chick from Blacktown’ (153) and her only friend at university, as her emergency contact on her first visit to the gynaecologist. I find myself bracing for the kind of prologue in which the protagonist ends up utterly alone and chronically depressed, when, very near the end of the novel, Sylvia attends a poetry slam at the Bankstown Arts Centre where she finally encounters a mirror of the self-respect that has, up until this point, made it so difficult for her to get on with her life.

I loved Funny Ethnics. Not, in the end, for the many ways in which it resonated with me but for the ways that it makes space for itself within the coming-of-age genre: for Le’s rejection of the narrative shapes readily available to her as a novelist, and of the cliché of the quietly brilliant Asian just waiting to be noticed. Sylvia’s story is less one of self-discovery, than it is a long and arduous journey towards understanding that it is a failure of Australian society that there isn’t somewhere for everyone to belong.

MEGAN CHEONG is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on the land of the Wurundjeri people. Her writing has been published in Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. She is the recipient of a 2022 CA-SRB Emerging Critic Fellowship.

Why specific strategy is needed for the CaLD literary sector

There is currently in Australia’s literary sector a discussion about fair employment, fair payment for authors, and promises of greater funding with the announcement of the National Cultural Policy by the Arts Minister, Hon. Tony Burke. As Jinghua Qian and Jennifer Mills wrote preliminary to a recent discussion on superannuation payments for journal contributors: “Many of us are looking forward to a stronger funding environment and the opportunity to affirm and protect the rights of writers, artists, and other literary journal contributors. Policy-level change is important, but the direct relationships between contributors and the publications that support us are also vital.”

The push for the legal rights of writers to be protected cannot be overlooked and is long overdue. Mills described this as “the fix”. What is also overdue however is the need for specific strategy to protect the CaLD sector of Australian writers and editors. We urgently need policy that recognizes the many ways that structural discrimination diminishes, depletes and compromises writers and editors of colour. Of these writers, the CaLD sector are overlooked by research, theory, activism and policy, which work concurrently.

By CaLD, we refer to the acronym for ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ or ‘cultural and linguistic diversity’. One in every four Australians was born overseas. Linguistic diversity is also significant. One in five people in NSW, where we are based, speak a language other than English (LOTE).

Structural racism is poorly understood because it has not been adequately researched or theorised. It refers to wider political and social disadvantages within society. It normalises historical, cultural and institutional practices that benefit white people and disadvantage people of colour. It also replicates the racial hierarchy established through slavery and colonialism, which values white people as superior.

By structural discrimination we refer to the alarming discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts. Small CaLD organisations such as Mascara that do not have institutional support are permanently contingent on the ad hoc grants system, peer reviewed which require garnering of popular support bases to fund projects. It is not hard to see how this becomes exploitative. The complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the arts ends up augmenting the described structural barriers.

It is worthwhile to consider the 2019 National Arts Participation study which was a cornerstone evaluation of the impact of the arts and engagement with the arts. This tool and the data identifies behavioural indexes (page 7: the amount Australians engaged with arts activities,) and attitudinal indexes (page 8: how strongly an individual valued and supported the arts and their perception of the impact of the arts: which included arts funding, creativity, and wellbeing.) The results of NAPS demonstrate that CaLD individuals score significantly higher than average (indexes of 142 and 106 where the average is 100). However, following on from this research there has been substantial occlusions and oversights in researching, measuring and evaluating the discrepancies and inequalities in CaLD participation in the literary arts. The ongoing lack of specific data and ensuing body of research on Australian literary journals leaves a gap in our deeper awareness of the dynamics impacting on vulnerable demographic groups in the literary sector. The CaLD community remain neither proportionately nor commensurably represented in the paid workforce, by which we mean in universities, the state Writers’ Centres, publishing houses, mainstream media. This discrepancy is a fundamental problem and makes them vulnerable to exploitative dynamics, that ends up limiting their repertoire of literary tropes. Our community is very vulnerable to white power.

Yet what does the state of publishing look like? We know it is predominantly, indeed almost exclusively white, with the exception of a handful of CaLD literary editors and journalists, Jinghua Qian works at Overland, Cher Tan at Meanjin. Meanjin’s appointment of Esther Anatolitis, and SRB’s appointment of James Jiang signal new directions; but there are very few South Asian, Caribbean, African editors in the well-established supported paid positions reflecting the cultural tenets of the White Australia Policy, which although it was progressively legally dismantled between 1943 and 1973, unfortunately continues to inform how we see ourselves as a nation. The unspoken/unspeakable racist taboos persist and remain about the colour of skin, which in no way reflects our culture or the authenticity of our voices. Moreover, as Katherine Day writes recently in The Conversation, the corporate powerhouse of publishing spins in a climate of risk, that is notoriously unpredictable and unforgiving.

It is important to note that Mascara editors have not applied for positions with Sydney Review of Books or with Meanjin, Southerly or Westerly, as we see our brief to continue the work we have begun, to develop non-institutional readings of work by First Nations and CaLD writers as a unique and vital contribution to literary criticism.

Race and skin colour are both protected attributes under the Fair Work Act. Under the Fair Work Act what constitutes an adverse action includes offering a potential employee different and unfair terms and conditions for the job compared to other employees. Perhaps we need as an artistic community to reconsider the racialised framing of fair and equitable work.
Same, same? So why do we need more targeted, and thorough research?

In October 2022 we were approached by Catriona Menzies-Pike, then editor of Sydney Review of Books to join SRB’s project on literary journals in an advisory capacity. Specifically, the brief was to provide consultation on their survey of literary journals. The survey’s emphasis was on digital practice, audience engagement and who gets paid for what. It was put to Mascara that the research would provide a detailed account of the current state of literary journals operating as arts organisations – and point to areas of greatest need in terms of funding and other forms of support. The premise of shared interest was that our literary ecology would be less diverse and less interesting without a thriving cohort of journals. Mascara was also informed that SRB’s research will help the Australia Council identify areas for funding priority – and it will help those of us who work on literary journals advocate for our needs. We are so pleased to report that as a result of Mascara’s research and consultation, that SRB have taken up our primary recommendation.

Looking back over past grant applications we noted that we had proposed a diversity survey for literary journals in 2016 to the Australia Council, which was not successful in achieving funding. We were intending to obtain demographic data particularly as concerns the opportunities and participation of the CaLD cohort, their paid and voluntary workloads and correlate this with population demographics.

We provided a specific recommendation to SRB that this is much needed quantitative data under the section on Creative Labour. We noted that questions 57-59 of their draft survey needed to include questions designed to provide information on who is being paid in the sector.

In our proposed questionnaire we had the following questions:
1. Of your paid editorial staff how many identify as First Nations?
2. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as First Nations?
3. Of your paid editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?
4. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?

We recommended that the additional sub-questions could be considered:
● If paid, what is the frequency of payment (e.g. salary, stipend per issue)?
● Does your organisation follow any award classifications (e.g Book Industry Award,
iPed rates)? If not, how does your organisation determine payment rates?

Noting that many literary arts workers are also writers we further recommended the following questions addressing creative practice, and issues of burnout and health:

1. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have their own creative practice?
2. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have another job as their main
source of income?
3. For CaLD staff who have a creative practice, have they felt that their work has
negatively impacted on their creative practice?
• What factors have made it difficult for staff to work on their creative
• Lack of time, limited creative capacity with energy going to other
work, lack of support, burnout, or other factors?
4. If you or your CaLD staff have experienced burnout, and/or other mental health
challenges has any support been in place?
We suggest unpacking the breakdown of paid vs unpaid work as follows:
● Which roles are volunteer in the organisation and which roles are paid?
● For CaLD staff who have paid roles but also volunteer their time, approximately how
many hours per fortnight (or what percentage of their total work time) is spent
undertaking unpaid work?

General recommendations on digital practice were also provided by Mascara‘s then team: Anthea Yang, Monique Nair and Michelle Cahill. We note that the subquestions and Creative Practice questions (1-4) that we recommended were not included in SRB’s final survey. This leaves an important gap where further research is needed.

Cultural Outcomes

We considered that cultural outcomes of literary journals could also be measured in terms of books
published, which have been associated with the journal. Mascara has over the last 16 years in partnership with publishers co-edited CaLD collections including Contemporary Asian Australian Poets(Puncher and Wattmann), deciBels3 a series of ten poetry chapbooks by CaLD poets (Vagabond Press), and most recently, Resilience (Ultimo Press).

Mascara considered that the above questions are fundamental in 2022-2023 and should be included
in SRB’s survey of literary journals, particularly given that Mascara did not receive funding in 2016 to carry out this research. Despite our rich literary outcomes, the journal relies on the generosity of its CaLD editors, a substantial proportion of which is unpaid labour. We do not believe that our experience is unique for the CaLD sector. Mascara noted that if SRB were to run the questions which we recommended, it would become alarmingly apparent that there is a major discrepancy between CaLD participation at a paid level (far below average) despite the higher than average behavioural and attitudinal indexes for our cohort as recorded in NAPS. We note that NAPS is meant to be used to “inform advocacy, audience development and strategic planning initiatives.”

In conclusion, we identified to SRB that the absence of economic planning and strategy for our cohort warranted targeted questions in SRB’s proposed Survey of Literary Journals. Mascara, has contributed substantially to advocacy for the CaLD sector and literary publishing in Australia over the last 15 years.
So why do we need specific strategy?

The NAPS tools published by the Australia Council indicates that the CaLD sector has stronger engagement in the arts, support for the arts and appreciation of the arts than some other cohorts, yet it remains a fact that the Australia Council and other funding organisations do not have Specific Strategic Initiatives for our cohort. This has a direct impact on funding outcomes for CaLD literary journals.

Like many other CaLD organisations, we have been navigating the limitations of structural racism in trying to grow and strengthen as a community of writers and critics. Mascara has built on the legacy of CaLD theorists such as Sneja Gunew, but also the creative activist lives of CaLD poets and writers, such as Antigone Kefala, Sudesh Mishra and Dîpti Saravanamuttu. As a community we have needed visionary and symbolic guidance, and continuing lines of leadership. Mascara has been foundational to the pioneering field of creative and critical production and strategic interventions for non-white settlers in Australian literature. However, our ongoing concerns relate to the endemic nature of unpaid labour by CaLD writers and editors and the absence of strategy to improve these conditions. We have noted for many years the absence of strategic planning for our cohort makes it harder for them to break through as writers, to build career pathways or foster agency. The Australia Council and other funding organisations appear to have overlooked the impact of structural racism on the capacity of CaLD writers and editors to participate equitably in the literary arts or to sustain a career in editing, creative writing, literary publishing, literary arts work, or in academia. Under these prevailing conditions it is well described that the CaLD cohort are more vulnerable to tokenising dynamics, to bullying as well as to depletion and burnout.

The cohorts which most often have strategic planning initiatives include First Nations writers, Remote and Regional writers and individual writers and organisations living with disability. Whilst applauding these important initiatives, we cannot fail to notice the absence of strategic planning for our cohort. Without statistical data and strategy that is focused on economic viability and economic planning for the CaLD sector, the publishing industry remains blind to the privileges enabled because of ethnic difference. Further, the industry is equally neutral to the structural problems CaLD literary journals face.

Without strategy for such a significant demographic group of writers, it follows that forms of meritocracy are thrown to the “industry” heavyweights: right wing media, festivals, the generic mainstream, a handful of institutional gatekeepers; literary agents with commercial interests who forge coalitions with the sector. This is effectively silencing significant CaLD literary talent in Australia.

It is time to do better. Australian readers deserve so much more richness and true diversity of literary editing and storytelling.
Mascara’s Proposed Feedback to Writers Australia:

CaLD writers and allies: We need you to be proactive. Writers Australia is now calling for guidance by the expertise of writers and the literature sector. You have the opportunity to make a difference and provide feedback via the form below.

As a small organization, we’ve endeavoured to break ground by opening the conversation across culture and institutions while there have been enormous barriers to funding in the absence of strategy for our cohort. We are vulnerable as writers and arts workers. It is our lives and our bodies that are being exploited by unpaid work and absence of strategy to recognize structural discrimination and its impacts. We need more than bandaids. We therefore make the following recommendations to the sector and we urge our cohort to lobby now by filling in the below form to Writers Australia

At question 1: Given the role of Writers Australia, as determined by Government in the National Cultural Policy (see page 69), what are the top two priorities that Writers Australia should focus on?

1. Specific strategic initiatives for the CaLD community in policy that recognises the extent to which structural discrimination impacts writers and editors of colour. By structural discrimination we refer to the discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts, augmenting these barriers.

2. A code of behaviour to include respectful conduct on the part of literary organisations and publishers who partner with organisations representing editors and writers of colour. There is no place for erasure, bullying, gas lighting, targeting or scapegoating of POC editors, or POC arts workers as a means to an end where arts funding or outcomes are concerned.

At question 2: What are the measures of success you want to have in place when Writers Australia is evaluated in 2026?

Minimum payment rates for editors of colour must be enabled, preferably by policy as a matter of urgency to support the survival of small organisations such as Mascara Literary Review which has been at the forefront of platforming POC writers, and publishing criticism of First Nations and POC publications.

We are aware that the Feedback Form to Writers Australia is now closed. Please contact the Office for the Arts, please email,
Formal submissions to Minister for the Arts Hon Tony Burke, OR your local Member for Parliament.


1. Katherine Day, The Conversation September 5, 2022
2. National Arts Participation Survey 2019 Australia Council for the Arts

Liel Bridgford

Liel (she/they) is a writer, trainer, Psychologist (Provisional) and a disability and justice advocate based in Naarm. Her work is published in ABC Arts, MamaMia, the anthology We’ve Got This published by Black Inc. and Scribe UK, and Hireup, amongst others. Liel was the 2022 editor of Writing Place magazine, and is the creator and host of the (Un)marginalised podcast. She not-so-secretly enjoys singing along to the Frozen soundtrack with her kids, and is somewhat fixated on parenting related humour. Find out more about Liel’s work on her website and follow her attempts to keep up with social media via @LielKBridgford.


Marble Track 

I slice a piece of me out and quickly amend the rest, the icing dropping around my layers in the heat of the moment. Presenting myself on an ornamented plate to another, pushing away that piece alongside the feeling of Other. 

I taught myself to push things down so well that at times nobody can tell it is happening, myself included. I can even laugh at jokes that the whole of me doesn’t find funny, because that part of being a person doesn’t go together with the rest. It is too complicated, and my father warned a boyfriend once that I like to take the hard way forward. 

What neither of them understood, nor ever will truly understand, is that I cannot fit into the easy way. The path they are describing has been created for perfectly made creatures. This path is like the present that someone who doesn’t have children bought my eldest: a narrow and precise marble track. But I am not a marble, more like a kubebah, a word that in my first language means a fat, uneven, hand-made ball-like mass. A kubebah can easily disintegrate, especially upon throwing at something, or someone. 

Lots of people are like marbles, and they travel round the track effortlessly, at times carelessly. I have never got on track, not because of lack of desire or the stubbornness my father refers to, nor due to lack of effort. I have laboured to become a marble using any weapon or tool at my disposal: controlling my food intake and energy usage, censoring my language, hiding parts of my physical body, accentuating others, surrounding myself with marbles, acting like I am one. I followed the direction of this track for years, looking up at it like an elevated rail and wondering what people travelling up there were feeling. 

I spent the better parts of my life wishing I was somebody else, more marble-like, more perfect or right. And each time I looked up, the shame inside me grew. That shame became so large that it stopped being distinguishable from me, it had invaded all my organs and crawled up from the pit of my stomach all the way up and around my throat. 

The best decision I made was to throw myself against some things, and watch me and the shame fall apart just enough so I could see it. It had a dark purple colour not dissimilar to my open flesh, and distinguishable only by its pace. It moved and grew quickly in front of my eyes when we were both splattered on the floor.

Then with the help of fellow kubebahs I collected myself, and left the shame behind. Without my flesh, and in the sunlight, it dries up. When I moved away from the shadow of the marble path and into the open air and sun of my endless possibilities, I set myself free. 

People still look down at me sometimes and ask why I am not up there where they are, but now I am moving through my own path, and unlike a marble track, it only goes upwards. 

Every day I do a little less cutting out, and serve more of myself to the world as I am: the disabled me, the gender non-conforming me, the immigrant me, the atheist me, the culturally Jewish me, the politically radical me, the dreamer me, the parent me. I am a proud kubebah. 

Samuel Cox reviews Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty

Harvest Lingo

Lionel Fogarty


ISBN 9781925336177

Reviewed by SAMUEL COX

Despite having been named the ‘poet laureate’ of Aboriginal literature by author Alexis Wright and the ‘greatest living poet in Australia’ by poet John Kinsella, Lionel Fogarty’s poetry, previously published by small independent presses, has remained both critically and popularly underappreciated. I count myself as a relative newcomer to Fogarty’s work, but with the weight of his body of work growing, the publication of his fourteenth collection, Harvest Lingo by Giramondo, presents the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with Fogarty’s fiery and yet sophisticated poetics. As Fogarty reminds us in this collection, being a poet, let alone a black protest poet in Australia, is bloody ‘Hard Work’ (4). However, for those readers who are ready to roll up their sleeves, this collection offers a rich harvest indeed: lingo that unearths a sense of global solidarity through transit across cultural and linguistic boundaries, disrupting underlying assumptions that form the solid ground of the English language in the process.

Lionel Fogarty is a Yugambeh man from South Western Queensland who, since publishing his first collection in 1980, has built up a formidable body of work. His longstanding commitment to poetry is deeply intertwined with his experiences as an Indigenous rights activist, which led Fogarty to arrive at the realisation that poetic understanding must precede (and enable) politics. Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is divided into four sections and taking a cursory look across the poems in this work, the reader will recognise the Indigenous fight for land and rights in Australia as a common theme. However, what makes this collection especially distinctive is the geographic reach of Fogarty’s work, most strikingly in Section Two’s ‘India Poems,’ but also apparent in poems such as ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ ‘Save Our Inland Sea G20,’ ‘By Our Memories Zapata.’ Fogarty looks out onto the world, often to inevitably look back upon Australia, finding common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, revolutionary spirit and with those who Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano famously referred to as ‘Los Nadies’ (The Nobodies): the poor and the oppressed of the world. Underlying Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is a rich lingua franca of experience and history that has slipped through the cracks of official records.

The collection opens strongly, with the second poem ‘Hands Bleeding,’ allusively grabbing the attention. On the back of this edition, Fogarty declares that he seeks to use English ‘as a tool,’ and this poem reminds the reader of the complexities of this undertaking. Fogarty self-reflexively writes of the ‘protest poet’ (4) struggling with his task. This ‘protest poet’ must labour in the open fields of language, even as his very tools and hands – calloused, we must assume, by the difficulty of the task – drip with blood. Fogarty writes, ‘massacre the thoughts of murderers’ before concluding, ‘Be a Poet: Fucking Hard Work’ (4). This final line not only resonates with Fogarty’s present personal precarity (, but undoubtedly refers to the protest poet’s task of grappling with politics, history and that double-edged tool (the English language itself), which finds itself implicated in the very thoughts he seeks to fight.

Patrick White once spoke of struggling with the rocks and sticks of words to describe the struggle to match the English language to the Australian environment. For an Indigenous writer, this difficulty is doubled by the need to fight against oppression in the very language of the oppressor, with poetics – the question of how we represent – the natural and arguably the most fundamental battleground. Fogarty labours, hands bloody, at his task – ‘Fucking Hard Work’ – but it is not simply the author who toils; Fogarty puts his reader to work, defamiliarising the working tools that create that seemingly stable ground of the English language, disrupting the established roots and spreading new tendrils, only to enlist the resulting harvest in the fight. Familiar words combine in unusual ways, as language takes on an opacity that makes the familiar terrain of English appear suddenly a foreign land.

The ‘fields’ Fogarty is tending might have deep resonances with the history of colonial oppression, but they are conceptually antagonistic to that heritage. He makes this clear in the final poem of Section One, ‘Modern Canvas Boats Comfort Who Cares’:

This world is not homeland
The earth is a homeland …
Seasons are the timeless fields
Set them to write speak sing the struggles

Fogarty seems to suggest that this world, in its current form, shaped by Western modernity through colonialism (often mediated through the English language), offers a false home. The earth, which is in many senses has become merely another of the oppressed, is truly home and this collection suggests that it is not only the Indigenous people of Australia but the native and exploited people of the world who possess the knowledge to ‘write speak sing’ its song.

However, the English Language is not merely a tool of oppression; its spread across the globe has led to creolisation and the development of many keys and registers, not least, the Aboriginal English within which Fogarty has been said to operate. Tyson Yunkaporta has noted that English was a trading language – a conduit to other places and lingo – and Fogarty retraces some of these routes: through dirty back streets and tea fields of the subcontinent; over the Tasman and out into the Pacific; across to the revolutionary plantations of Central America, even as the roots of his poetry are grounded in those who ‘write speak sing the struggles.’ Inverting many of the dominant associations and viewpoints of one who might travel through these regions using the English language, Fogarty finds common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, those who are native, and solidarity with the poor underbelly of society in all places. There is a sense across this collection that these are the places where the fight (for land and rights), human life (intertwined with the earth), and even language itself truly flourishes, yielding lingo ripe for the harvest.

‘Ideal Crowded Streets’ from Fogarty’s India poems catches the many moods and sheer dynamism of India’s street life; however, his authentic sense of identification with the underclass of Indian society speaks to a common cause that elevates his work beyond what we might deem ‘touristic.’ From this place of authenticity, there is a rich cross-pollination of lingo and resultant ideas. ‘Dalit Lets Fees Histories’ (22) references ‘Dalit’ identities and the oppression that has subjugated those previously known in India as ‘untouchables’. Fogarty uses wordplay and the fertile shifting ground between languages to great effect. The poem continues with ‘Coffee pays fees, tea rewriting history’ (22), drawing on two colonial ‘harvest’ crops, before Fogarty plays on the presence of the abbreviation ‘lit’ for literature in ‘Dalit’, writing, ‘Lit area coming century / Dalit must light the writers / Where multilingual arise powers must’ (22). Fogarty appears to suggest that in this century, it is the Dalit – the broken and scattered in society – where stories will flourish. His final sentence shows how his disruption of conventional sentence structures is not merely a technique of defamiliarisation, as I have highlighted, but is a tool to undermine the emphasis and meaning of words. A conventional construction of this sentence might read, ‘Where multilingual powers must arise’; in Fogarty’s creation, instead of the emphasis falling on ‘powers,’ which evokes the nation-state and geopolitics, it centres on ‘multilingual,’ altering the hermeneutic yield.

Such techniques are evident in the excellent and expansive poem that dominates Section Three, ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ where Fogarty utilises the homophonetic similarities between ‘Murri’ and ‘Maori’ (39) to poetically and humorously entwine the two; this is a fraternal and sororal relationship based on the shared groundwork of Trans-(Tasman-)Indigeneity. Native is a term Fogarty uses throughout the collection, and like so many English terms it carries with it colonial baggage, but Fogarty imbibes it with fresh meaning when he writes, ‘… Maori brother and sister are native wise bright’ (43).

‘Aloha for Aotearoa’ references 1840 as the year of The Treaty of Waitangi, but this date is also roughly approximate to when Europeans first entered Yugambeh lands, a connection Fogarty appears to draw upon in Section Four’s ‘MINYUGAI (WHEN) BUD’HERA.’ Seemingly asking ‘When Good’ (78) the poem begins:


On one hand, the poem confronts the endurance of racialised ideas and structures in society, a reminder, as the collection opened, that Fogarty’s poetics is gritty and even bloody work; on the other hand, it draws upon the global connections he has mustered across this collection. Fogarty alludes to these connections through the modern technological language of networks, presenting a ‘bite-sized’ ‘international interface’ of ‘modules’, and intertwining them with ‘warrior’ encounters and strategies (78).

Fogarty’s final poem, ‘By Our Memories Zapata,’ expands this interface to include the iconic Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a people’s revolution centred on land rights and agrarian reform, based on the premise that the land belongs to the tiller. Making common cause, Fogarty declares ‘We are these Mexican Australian’ (84), connecting the year of Zapata’s birth, 1879, with August 2018, a month in which far-right politics made an obvious resurgence as One Nation Senator Fraser Anning advocated for the return of the White Australia policy in parliament. In response the poem, and indeed the collection, concludes defiantly:

… rasping flags causes we’ll
Sone your ideas down.
Non poets never revolutionary

Cultivating his poetics through outrage at enduring colonial and societal oppression and a deep sense of relation to the earth, Fogarty has his hands on the tiller: the resulting yield is one that lingers and continues to grow, in the mind of this reviewer at least, long after the initial harvest.
SAMUEL COX is a PhD candidate and researcher of Australian literature at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in The Saltbush ReviewWesterly, JASALALSMotifsSWAMP and selected for Raining Poetry in Adelaide. He won ASAL’s A.D. Hope Prize in 2022.

Purbasha Roy

Purbasha Roy is a writer from Jharkhand India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Channel, SUSPECT, Space and Time magazine, Strange Horizons, Acta Victoriana, Pulp Literary Review and elsewhere. She attained second position in 8th Singapore Poetry Contest, and has been a Best of the Net Nominee.
This Heart, This Heart

Who would I show it to — W S Merwin

This heart is a salt lake that cries
its fate of longings. Ways to keep
a season forever inside needs attention.
I found autumn easy for this task. The
gulmohar that saffroned early this year
outside the room window now is an
autumn epic I byhearted twig-by-twig.
Branch-by-branch. A little beauty always
stays in every atom of the cosmos. What
it waits for but a new-angled discovery.
I am mirroring curiosity of a bywind upon
a street. Giving meaning to what but distance.
Many times I desired my heart becomes
a train. At least its march would receive
a settle down. When I want to write this
world, all I can think of is a field. I in the
company of a stubble. How there spentness
has answers but in a language of my sleeping
self. I have a terrible dream memory. After
I wake I can’t recall what goes through my
body, stand between dream life. Morning I received
a hamper from a friend. Flowers two hours
far from wilt. This triggered the memory
of a sandcastle two feet far from strong
tides. How I stood to see it collapse. Sincerely
heartbroken I dug my knees in its no longer
owned plot. The moment became an elegy
while it cradled a sad finish. It had something
magnetic like the night guard whistles. The
thin reach of it to my quilt covered body like
forgiveness fashioned out of ruins. There are
always things that don’t need metaphors. Today
I completed drawing the map of my longings.
Then among the light of my consciousness I
didn’t know the way to explain its crowdedness
and to whom in the language I speak in dreams.
Somedays I act forgetful. That it’s you holding
me like the running blood held by a confident body

Javeria Hasnain

Javeria Hasnain is a Pakistani poet and writer, a Fulbright scholar, and an MFA student at The New School, NY. Her prose and poetry have appeared/is forthcoming in Poet Lore, The Margins, Isele, and elsewhere. She was a runner-up for the 2022 The Bird in Your Hands prize and an honorable mention in the 2022 Penrose Poetry Prize. She currently works at Cave Canem and reads poetry for Alice James Books. She has received support from Tin House Workshops, The Kenyon Review, Sundress, and International Writing Program.


Every evening in Ramzan, alone in my Bed-Stuy apartment kitchen, I pick three bananas, an apple, a peach, and an orange. I slice the bananas, dice the apple and peach, mix them in a small tupperware that belonged to the previous tenant. I punch a hole in the orange and squeeze its juice directly into the fruit mix. I let loose in the melodic tunes of Sabri brothers’ Tajdar-e-haram—grip the orange harder as it creates more holes, filling my palms with pulp that drips, drop by drop, into the mix. I don’t care for the seeds or the grime that infiltrates my otherwise purified delicacy.

Every evening during this small ritual, I think of Mama, my aunt, the eldest of all seven siblings who cooked the best food. No one could return from her home hungry or underwhelmed. Every Ramzan, she called everyone at least once for iftar. I have the most vivid memory of her making fruit chaat, squeezing the orange into the fruit mix with naked hands, grime mixing with pulp. She didn’t care for the seeds either. 

I was an unhappy child and only I knew that. I was embarrassed by my father’s hiroof van and preferred going and coming back with other friends in their regular-roofed cars. I was embarrassed by my small home and never invited any of my friends over. So whenever I saw Mama, I fixated on things she lacked, which were (to my defense) abundant. What was more surprising to me was that she never did.

She had a love-marriage at 25 to a Navy Captain. She recalled with an arrogance peculiar to her how all the neighborhood girls and her cousins, even her aunts, were extremely jealous of her. Owing to the long stretches of work in the Navy, her husband used to be away for weeks, sometimes, even months. He left for work one day, and never returned. She never married again. 

After my nana passed away, she kept shifting to various apartments, never living in any one for more than a year, tagging her brother that she cared for along as well. At one point during this five-year-long cruise, maybe in the third year, she stopped unpacking most of the stuff. Cupboards were replaced by cartons and beds by air mattresses. Whatever little room for furniture the apartment provided remained empty. Her dark circles had deepened further and light-spots occurred unevenly on her face, probably because of smearing very old, often expired, make-up products that she bought from the local Sunday bazaar.

She was keen about appearing pretty. She always dressed nicely and scolded my mother and khala when they didn’t. Several times she handed me or my sister, whoever was nearer, a hair plucker (a staple of her make-up bag) to clean out her chin or upper lip or the middle part of the eyebrow, just above her nose. Oh, she absolutely loved her nose! She wore a little pea-sized gold nose ring shaped like a flower. It was a joy to watch her put on make-up before leaving for the office. Dressed in a lilac & pink Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) uniform, hair tied in a tight bun secured with a black net, black pumps with heels—she looked exquisite. After she left, the smell of her make-up and perfume lingered around the apartment for hours. 

Mama—that’s how every kid in my family addressed my aunt—worked at PIA as a Boarding Officer at Jinnah International airport in Karachi. She received a discount coupon book for the airport McDonald’s and the breakfast lounge at the start of every month, which she spent all on her siblings and their children. Almost every weekend, we gathered at her place and went to the bus-stop to wait for the 4K bus. It was a thrilling adventure. I always felt anxious that somebody would be left behind in the bus because they were not vigilant and the bus only paused for three seconds at a stop before it sped up again. The drivers do not care about anyone. Karachi bus-riding is a high-stakes game, everyone is looking out for only themselves. If you are not fast enough, you will end up at Saddar even though you journeyed out for Nazimabad. Although, when she had money, we took a taxi. Amma usually offered to pay the taxi fare, “bachhon ko taxi mein le jao,” a gesture we all anticipated, and welcomed when it came, including Mama. After all, the taxi took us all the way to McDonald’s, whereas, the nearest bus-stop to the airport was a good 15 minute walk away. 

My cousins and I spent many weekends at her apartment, nights sleeping like sardines on separate mattresses joined together. She woke up early in the morning to pray fajr, and immediately afterwards, switched on the TV to 9XM, the Bollywood music channel, still sitting, cross-legged on her prayer mat, her fingers rolling one bead after the other of the tasbih. We woke up, one by one, irritated at the noise getting louder, the sun shining directly on our skin, piercing the eyes. When we protested she closed the curtains and turned off the TV so we could sleep in peace, she laughed. Then she said, “if you go back to sleep, no parathas for you.” And none of us were stupid enough to say no to her parathas. 

Mama was the only one interested in our teenage love lives, and the only one we weren’t scared to tell them to. On weekends with her, we stayed up through the night talking about the people we had a crush on and stalking them on Facebook. In return, Mama told us about hers. She was so nonchalant about the men—like those heroines you see in Bollywood films. Too cool for the boys. Casual and unbothered, and secretly playing hard to get. I could still sense some sadness in how she talked, so dissociated from herself, as if recounting a story from a past life, or of another person. She never told us about her husband or her marriage. And we knew better than to ask. 

As I was growing up, my relatives, including distant cousins, started saying I resembled Mama. One of my aunts used to say I looked more like Mama than my own amma. The same round face, a delicate nose piercing, the penchant to appear beautiful. I got offended at such comments, even though I knew they were true.  

In the summer of 2015, she announced she could no longer live in Karachi. She told my mother and khala that she was bored. We had also grown older and busier with studies taking priority, and didn’t visit her as often. Her friends had also moved to other cities and countries. “Moreover,” she said, “there are financial issues. And I am tired of having to move houses every year.” 

A month later, she took my mamu, the brother she cared for, and moved to Rawalpindi. Her office relocated to the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. She said the pay was better and she had two friends living with their families in the same apartment building. Her other brothers weren’t happy with her decision and persuaded her to come back. When she remained firm on her decision, they distanced themselves from her.

 Mama often called my mother to tell her about the weather in Islamabad or its tasteless food and ask what she had made for lunch. She occasionally messaged me to ask about the meaning of a difficult English word or phrase, to which I always responded only hours later, with an irritation peculiar to teenagers. She often said she missed us, but she was building a life for herself. She missed us but she did not want to come back. 

Early in 2016, Mama called to tell amma about a man she recently reconnected with. They had been friends for a long time who lost contact with each other due to adulthood and distance, both physical and otherwise. He was a veterinarian, divorced, and had two kids; a boy who was seven and a girl who was 15. Mama had developed a good relationship with her son, who now also called her “Mama.” Mama said he reminded her of me: the boy also loved reading and writing stories and topped his classes. 

On December 29 2016, I woke up to a loud scream. In the dining room, baba was holding amma’s one hand, while she cried holding a phone to her ear with the other. He asked me to switch on the TV in the next room. The little red ticker in the bottom of the news channel read one after another: “a hotel in Islamabad burned down,” “one casualty known,” “the body identified to be of a PIA employee.”

We were later told the fire erupted around 4am and that Mama died of suffocation from the resulting smoke. All the other guests had fled the building. A man who was staying in the next room told us they knocked at her door repeatedly to wake her up and help her escape. When they finally reached the room, they found her on the bathroom floor passed out. 

On New Year’s Eve, one of Mama’s brothers and his wife flew to Islamabad to bring back Mama’s body. She was brought back to Karachi, to one of her brothers’ homes. It was time to look at her and say goodbye. She looked so beautiful. Draped in the simplest white. She would have never liked it. I imagined her saying, “White is so boring! Bury me in red.” But of course she never said it. We never talked about death. We actually didn’t talk much at all. She never even told us about her navy husband. She never told us why she didn’t marry all these years. I never asked. I always thought I would have enough time to talk to her once I’m older.  

The day she was leaving for Islamabad, amma, I, and my sister had gone to drop her at the airport. There was still some time left in her flight, so she took us to McDonald’s to spend the last few coupons she still had. My sister and I bought Oreo McFlurries and amma and Mama bought soft serve vanilla. She looked at me while slurping her cone, her eyes glassy as if brewing tears, and kept looking for what seemed like a long time, her lips quaking steadily. She cried all the way walking to her terminal. 

Now, when she lay so still, all I wanted was to hear her laugh. I gawked at her as if drawing her inside my mind. I thought if I gazed at her long enough, I may always remember her face—round, high cheekbones, a protruding chin. Her lips, small and pink, like a baby’s. Her petite nose that she was extremely proud of, “Hum Nagpur waalon ki naak sabse achi hoti hai.” Every inch of her crystalline—no spots, no burns.

All of us who have left homes, families, countries—willingly or reluctantly—know it is devastating. Also liberating. I could not understand why I began thinking so much about Mama’s life as I was starting my own, in a new country, two oceans away from that of my birth. I understand now. We had more in common than we cared for. We both wanted to make something of our lives. 

On phone calls with amma, I hold back telling her how much I miss her. It’s true that I miss her. It is also true I do not want to go back. Now whenever I am flaneuring in the streets of Manhattan, kissing men I do not intend to kiss a second time, dancing to cheap Bollywood songs in bars, I feel her in myself and it makes me happy. This feeling comes after years of feeling myself in her, and being angry and sad because of it. 

Throughout Mama’s funeral processions, my amma and khala were told of how Mama was a shaheed. And martyrs never die. 

I continue to bear witness to her life. In my dreams, she is always dressed as a bride.  


Marion May Campbell reviews I Have Decided To Remain Vertical by Gayelene Carbis

I Have Decided To Remain Vertical

by Gayelene Carbis

ISBN: 978122571489

Puncher and Wattmann


I Have Decided To Remain Vertical is an exhilarating extension and intensification of some of the major themes of Carbis’s first collection Anecdotal Evidence: her never leaving Carnegie; a family strangely functional in the wake of brokenness, as poesis summons vivid mosaics from the fragments; the devastated heart and the paradoxical sustenance it finds by revisiting the penumbra of relations; the contradiction between word and gesture; the magnetism of the loving body while the erotic body feels cancelled in its relegation to mere companionship, and the fearless probing of domestic anguish in the wake of paternal carelessness.

Memory is performed as always transformative of the event it revisits—so true to what’s known of the mnemonic process—it’s volatile, apt to ignite the scene and act out the shadow-fire of rage or panic in the domestic or intimate space. The wonder of several key poems in this new collection is their integration of heartbreak, loss, even terror, and of comic, Alice-like defiance. Surreality is presented with hyperreal acuity. Carbis’s dream-envoy arrogates agency at her risk and peril to rescue the very poem we’re reading. This kind of mise-en-abyme or nesting, whereby the making of the very poem we’re immersed in is narratively embedded in the text is a feature here: poetry-making, often snatched from the jaws of disaster, is both agent and catalyst for the ‘I’persona’s survival, no matter into what pits life and love have thrown her. This is done with great comic brio and, often, hilarity, all the more liberating for the catastrophe she skirts.

The collection is framed by two brilliant poems, ‘Marrying Freud’ (p. 13) and the final ‘The Memory of Colour’ (p. 102) containing the title line, both of which manage, in their formal economy, to conduct the lightning of insight and offer fierce, earthy resistance to a perceptual charge that otherwise might blow things apart. The dream scenario of ‘Marrying Freud’ conveys a sense of wild exuberance, not just through its refusal to espouse the Great Man myth, but also through the matter-of-factness which domesticates Freud, turning him into a kind of housemaid. Again, it’s Dora’s revenge; ‘Dora’ being the pseudonym for the gifted young woman of Freud’s ‘Case Histories’ who dared dismiss him, he said, like a maid of all work. Freud here expects to be both sexually and domestically serviced. This savage brand of feminism is all the more hilarious through its continence in constraining form. Freud awaits in the marriage bed whose sheet he has folded back (he’s already unconsciously become the chamber maid) in anticipation, while his dream ‘wife’ in the kitchen, through the night, writes her glorious resistance—the poem we are reading, refusing to bring the anticipated coffee: ‘I’m not his fucking mother’ (p.14).

In ‘Our house’ (p. 20), the domestic sphere is a charged space, where contradictions stage their tug-of-war; where vitriolic fury and loving acceptance are veined together in an always-compromised stream. The forensic eye returns unflinching in memory, telling it without a hint of pastelised sentiment. It is thus acutely recognizable as authentic to the reader, beautiful, heartbreaking and, at times, irrecoverable from—as in ‘The Price we Pay’ (p. 25), for instance.

In ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ (p. 31)—an allusion to Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s invocation of the owl—Gayelene indicts a weakness that countless feminine avatars of Ophelia share, imploring fathers as potential saviors, recued neither by generations of Poloniuses nor Hamlets: these superbly haunting lines brought the shiver of the graveyard to my warm living room:

        too mindful, we die to our truer selves, calling father!
        But the fathers, all air, walk as ghosts over the grave ground            (p.31)

There’s genius in the spooky effect of the caesura after ‘all air’ (and, as we know, garrulous Polonius was all air), and in the fatefully sounding final spondee ‘grave ground’. This double stress (and alliteration) brings home how hanging on the father’s word kills ‘our truer selves’: bang bang. In variously inventive ways, Carbis’s work so far in her plays, stories and now, two poetry collections, has explored both the comedy of feminine identifications and the devastation wreaked by the models of masculinity that men and boys strive to enact or refuse at their peril. How does the golden-haired little boy, hauled along the swimming pool lane on his father’s back become, freely and creatively, a man, when this same loving father subsequently seems to enact man-as-flight-from-responsibility-and-presence? (‘Love Like This’, p. 24)

If compassionate identification is not enough to save from mortality—art, whether painting or poetry—gives back life, as in the beautiful ekphrastic ‘Red Horse by the River’ (p. 64) that takes off from Anselm van Rood’s ‘St Kilda Morning’. What does save, after relationship breakdown (‘I made Tarek and Egypt into a story’, ‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 46 ), is the openness to wonder beyond the pathways of flatfooted rationality: the red horse appears in its transcendent beauty by the river: ‘But your eyes were always open to the light’ (‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 47).

And consider ‘After Sylvia’ (p. 41)

        Don’t editorialise. Just say it. Read Sylvia.
        Her poems. For their surgical precision.’

        He adds: ‘You need to take up that scalpel.’

The lover-friend-mentor instructs, if not how to heal, then at least how to make a better poem by taking up the scalpel, to lay bare, with forensic wit, the damage he bequeaths her. And does she ever. Again, the last line is a unmitigated triumph: ‘I hold my pen—like a knife’.

Then, reading ‘Family’ (p. 53), I am breath-taken by Carbis’s metamorphic verve, up there with Ovid and Calvino—

        The tree told us we were temporary guests.
                Our sanctuary
        wouldn’t save us. We swept our tears into
        the streets, hid in the bark of our brooms
        as if wood had become new skin.
        (p. 53)

Here fabulism triumphs over sadness though magical metamorphosis: the humble domestic broom, remembering its origin, offers a retreat.

With several poems it’s art itself that bonds, that connects and transfigures. With ‘Writing Companion’ (for Alicia Sometimes, p. 74), language is celebrated as a reciprocal giving of nurture, a companion being etymologically, as Gaylene’s epigraph points out, a sharer of bread—thus the synesthetic transfer of shared words, whereby sounds become taste:

        … The taste of
        sounds on the tongue,
        the sharp tang
        of consonants,
        how the vowels curl.

This oblique and all the more haunting ekphrastic magic runs right through the ‘Red Horse by the River’ section.

What is said and what is not said, the throat-freezing unspeakable features heartbreakingly in ‘The call’ (p. 82), where the screen topic of daughter-mother conversation is about a hairdresser’s phone number, but the not-so-well-hidden content is a mother’s possibly impending death from cancer:

        Her voice was full of stones
        I heard the dampness in her breath.
        Stones in my throat, as I
        hung up the phone and watched the brilliant lights
        of the train hurtling closer and closer.

The brilliant lights of the hurtling train are the onrush of death as the terrifying real.
What is not said, the ellipsis, becomes literalised, actually materialised, in ‘Annotated Memories’ (p. 84). Here, the persona seems to have set herself the punishing task of making, for the ex-lover’s birthday, an annotated collage of his previous lives and loves; how then can she find the words for her own absence? The pendant to this conundrum is magnificently realised in ‘The Day You Left’ (pp. 88-90) where the imminently massive absence, the negative shape of the departing ship (taking the now ex-lover definitively from her), diminishes, in inverse proportion, all the wonder of the world—the moon being reduced to only a mention, a speck (p.88):

        And then, the absence
                of the ship

        I stared at the space
                where the ship had been

        And I thought
                now I understand.

        Negative capability
                Finally made sense to me.
        (p. 88)

The layout and lineation enact the cumulative insistence of absence. Here Gayelene makes over Keats’s phrase negative capability—to mean gaping absence, one that takes on more density and potency than presence.

Losing language as mediating and instrumental, Carbis lets the strangeness of body sensation impinge; it’s no longer a question of fatality, but of body as an improvisation. The deliberately anachronistic quill in ‘Embodiment in Quill’ refers to the bodily empowerment of a Victorian woman writer. Things and beings lose their names: through entries and exits and passages—vectors become all:

     A living being is making his way through the house.
        I shut out dishes in the kitchen,
        and keep my door open.
(p. 99)

In the closing, brilliant sequence culminating in ‘The Memory of Colour’, we are returned to the marvellous metamorphic power of art. Beyond the visual, Carbis writes the sensation—

        The walk back is about twenty steps
        and sometimes that is all it takes
        to remember green, to feel it

        in your feet. To feel practically feline.
        I hover on the first step then wade right in.
        I hold the colour of the sky
        in my arms, and swim.
        (p. 102)

The passage towards the water is shot through with EE, thus sending the sense of greenness coursing through the reader’s limbs and preparing an openness in the reader for the colour of the sky. Notably, this provides a space for readers to paint themselves in. Is the sky cerulean blue; is it egg-yolk yellow; or is it a thundery gunmetal? Thus armed, we slide with Carbis into the gorgeously embodying element: it’s performed in the transition from in to swim.

Finally, then, whatever our physical propensities, it’s the synaesthetic power of this whole collection that lends us such imaginative embodiment: eyes for the colour of the sky and arms to swim with.


Keats, John 1958 [1817] re. ‘negative capability’ see The Letters of John Keats, ed. H E Rollins, Vol I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958 , pp. 193–4.
Freud, Sigmund 1990 [1905] Case Histories 1: ‘Dora’ in The Penguin Freud Library,Vol.8, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1990.
MARION MAY CAMPBELL is an acclaimed poet and novelist, and essayist. Marion has taught literature and writing in various universities, including Murdoch University, the University of Melbourne and, most recently, at Deakin University. She now lives in Drouin in GunaiKurnai country with her two border collie companions.

Mohamed Irba

Mohamed Irba / محمد (he/him/هو) is an Omani Lebanese cis man who came to Australia in 2007 at sixteen to study and stayed for safety. He is an active member of his communities and continues to explore the meaning of belonging in everyday life and the intersections of his identity as a Queer Arab person living with HIV.


Taaf طاف

I was 16 years old when I landed in Melbourne airport on a cold winter morning. I came to study but stayed for safety.

My new guardian was waiting to pick me up. “Your English is really good!” she said. I will never forget her surprise and relief that I could speak. I was bewildered by that as most people spoke English where I came from, and sometimes English would be the third or fourth language. It was more than a statement. It came with a history of society that looked at me as uncivilised and barbaric. I also had not experienced winter before and could not stop shivering. 

I wish I could hold my younger self now. I know he would never believe we could be writing a story like this one; telling my story to help others. I would not change any of my life experiences but I need to stop burying them deep inside where I cannot even remember them. If I do not speak of it, there can be no healing and I want to make sure my lessons are passed on to those who face similar challenges.

From the beginning, I had the responsibilities of the eldest son to carry. My culture puts so much pressure on the eldest son to be successful, study, get a well regarded job, marry and have many children. The parents are often called “Abu” and “Om” (name of eldest son) and it is very shameful if their son is not successful. These responsibilities meant additonal pressure. I was not “worldly” but I knew I was different and had to escape. I was the darkest out of my siblings and I was reminded of it daily. My mother tried to scrub the black out of me every day as a child. It did not work. If she knew about my difference, no doubt she would have tried to scrub that out too. Words like “queer” and “gay” were not in my vocabulary. Though it would be years before I learned, somehow I embodied them. In the sense of defiance, standing out, being strange and different. The words I did have were “haram”, “deviant”, and “pervert”. 

I had so many questions for my parents and the answer was always, “We do not talk about these things, do not ask again,” with fear in their eyes. I knew that my urges were seen as sinful, so I pushed and pushed until I could not feel them, but there was no end to the racism and colourism I experienced and saw. No end to consumerism and obsession with material things, money and brands. I hated the focus on class and family origins that were so rooted in the culture, and convinced myself I did not belong in my desert home.

There was a fairy-tale across the sea, and I pointed to it: freedom of speech, democracy, minimum wage, queerness, dressing as you please, everything you could want. 

Or so I thought, until I found my way here. Initially things were good, I loved the public transport and uncensored internet. Having access to all the knowledge I wanted and porn could not have come at a better time! I surfed websites such as, manjam, and manhunt and indulged the urge I couldn’t even name. It was like opening a big bucket of Maltesers and not being able to stop (which also happens). Despite the pleasure, these experiences still brought on extreme guilt. All the Islamic teachings from my parents and school did not suddenly go away. I felt like the worst person, that I was going to hell for sure. As my Islamic studies teacher taught me: “The fires of hell never stop and you will be tortured by their flames up until the brink of death only to be brought back again and go through the whole experience once more and more and more.” 

Yet this did not stop me, and I fell for every (white) boy under the sun. What I did not know is that chasing these fruits would bring so much sorrow. Using these hook-up apps and websites muddied my understanding of what I was feeling, and of love itself. What I wanted more than anything was validation, but for every gratifying reply to my messages, there were hundreds of others that went ignored or blocked. Sex became my new hobby. I never had hobbies growing up as studying was my only purpose. I was to become the successful first born son that would make my parents proud and that was drilled into me before I was even ten. But sex was so much fun. I kept a record of them all—43 in the first 30 days I would proudly boast! I did it with everyone: old, young, educated, rich, poor, but especially white as that is what I was taught counted as “beautiful”. It took 10 years to unlearn this toxic and damaging racism, a product of how I was brought up, a product of white supremacist ideology. 

Yet before I could unlearn the racism that plagued me, I practised it. I experienced it. Words like “sand monkey”, “N*****”, “curry muncher” (yes, I got the pleasure of receiving slurs for Arabs and South Asians too), “terrorist”, “takeaway”, and many more micro-aggressions. “What natio are you?” was the most common response I got. Brown skin stopped the white gaze at its place and resulted in a block. And still, I wanted their validation. I wanted a white prince to fulfil all my dreams and I would do anything for them. I was stereotyped, humiliated, and fetishized, yet I played along and laughed. The validation was too strong and I had nothing to fall back on anyway. 

I wanted to fit in. I wanted it all. I remember going to my first gay bar called “the X-change” in Melbourne, the energy and excitement. I stared at every person without a shirt on kissing another, or more. I stared at a freedom I’d never imagined. I had fun, took on the Australian culture of over-drinking, danced, partied and met many temporary friends. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga and “What’s my name?” by Rihanna were on repeat as I washed away the past with binge drinking and blacking out.

At some point, I developed my own way of “coming out”. In order not to be discovered by family and friends back home, I did not talk to them. I deleted them all from social media so as not to accidentally be tagged in a “gay” photo. I wanted it all but would not risk it all. Time to make new friends, I said. No time for homophobia. And by homophobia I meant my own culture. I did everything I could to block it off. Like it never existed. This is Australia. I stopped using my mother tongue, and wouldn’t use it consistently for at least ten years, until I even started to lose confidence speaking it. There are displacements forced upon us, and there are displacements we put upon ourselves. What I really needed was real friendship. But it would take another few years to realise that. 

My obsession with sex translated to what I thought was love and that was the beginning of many important life lessons. Relationships certainly started off strong and I insisted on moving in quickly even though I did not really know these men. I was seeking validation and safety in the wrong places again. The amount of emotional abuse I took on was compounding on my lack of self-worth and co-dependence. When I got my permanent residency through a de-facto relationship, his friends judged me and openly joked that I was an “overseas bride”. It reminded me of the white woman at the airport, the condescension. The way she spoke to me back on the first day I landed was that of an exotic being that she could not understand. The way they spoke to me now felt the same, as someone othered. I am not an Aussie and would never be, even as a resident. even as a citizen. I laughed it off as I have before. I knew it was wrong but I was so madly in love. Nine years later at the age of twenty seven, I finally ended the fairy-tale and saw reality. 

Nothing prepared me for the disillusionment, the sense of rootlessness, the loss of identity, survivor’s guilt, the helplessness when things go wrong. I was so alone and yet did not know it. Sex did not equal friendship. Sex did not equal love. Sex did not equal validation. White Patriarchal Supremacy is in place and I will never gain its approval, which I no longer want, nor its validation, which I do not need.

I think many of us seek to escape to the West for the fantasy of safety and freedom. We all have our own personal journeys and this is mine. Lately, I have started reconnecting with my culture through language, books, food, music, films, and visits where possible. Finding other Queer Displaced people to connect with has been magical to me. I have also started helping others still in the homeland through online support groups who provide advice and information. Activism is extremely difficult and dangerous as it can result in arrest and prison sentence, but small actions like providing support through the knowledge gained here or the people on the ground providing safe spaces and social connections can help. This is very important to me—through it I’ve regained a sense of my own identity and purpose. 

I am still not exactly sure what belonging means. This is my home now and a home should function as a safe haven for its occupants. I like to think I can still bring my culture to it. I do not have to assimilate in a way that erases me but rather, belong in a way that I can be proud of. With a long road ahead to acknowledging the history of this land and oppression facing First Nations peoples, I am grateful to be here. I am reminded of this not only by First Nations peoples but by others whose ancestors laid claim to the land. The colonial oppression continues here and overseas with our homelands continuing to suffer daily whether it is from real warfare or intergenerational and systemic damage caused by colonisation. We need to acknowledge as displaced people here that we are benefiting from stolen lands and colonisation, and that moving forward any progress has to benefit the First Nations peoples of this land and not come at their expense. 

I do not want to beg or claim a space where others are in power and I am not. We are already here. We are to be acknowledged as part of the conversation and more importantly as active members of decision making. 

There is freedom in being here and much to gain, but also loss. Loss does not go away easily. You do not have to disassociate from your cultures to belong. It’s a harder road but worth taking. Our existence is resistance, but we deserve more than to be seen only in opposition: we can and we will thrive.

I want to stand tall in front of you, I am a voice for others like me everywhere I go, and a changemaker. Speaking up is something I have struggled with as I sought to fit in and not cause waves. I am not afraid anymore; I look to the ocean which is not afraid of land, not afraid of itself. Waves that are powerful in unity and move where the sea goes. Waves that heal.

Taaf طاف: A word used in Khaleeji Arabic meaning to float but also as a means to brush someone off and not give them attention.

Lesh Karan reviews Acanthus by Claire Potter


by Claire Potter


Reviewed by LESH KARAN
Acanthus is Claire Potter’s fourth collection of poetry. Potter writes in a language that weaves mythology with nature, fantasy with reality and then wraps it all up in tulle. If I had to write a one-word review, surreal feels apt, but I don’t, so I’ll start with another one: “acanthus”. This is to say that my first instinct is to look for a titular poem, because in my mind titular poems somehow tie up the work in a loose bow. There isn’t one. Instead, I find a note that follows the contents page, where I learn that acanthus is a plant. Here, I am also offered a sliver of ancient Greek history, of how the leaves became a motif: ‘Passing this votive basket entwined in foliage [on the grave], Callimachus decided to carve it in stone’. A Google search reveals that acanthus leaves are the leaves typically carved into Corinthian columns to symbolise rebirth, immortality and resurrection. This hints at both transmigration and transmutation – of transforming into another being in another time-place.

In her introductory note Potter also quotes Derrida: ‘everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb’, and writes that ‘it is on the overlapping edges of these two accounts that this writing might be said to begin.’ I take the words ‘overlapping edges’ to be the heart of the collection. What happens in overlapping edges? The blurb on the back cover tells me of other-worldly ‘literary spaces’ that the reader can fall through. However, it is the self-referential nature of the poem ‘Counterintuitive’ (p17) that further illuminates:

I could never avoid the truth I’d discovered when I first engaged with texts: the self-evident fact of there being no reader nor subject-matter – only images and feelings in a sort of eternity…
— Gerald Murnane

There is writing that escapes the head, rustles
            like stars of purple thistle,
moves like the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
            a compass from the centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
        cannot be analysed or
understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
     in a vine that veins a crumbling ledge, the foliage
            of a dream in amber, a map folded then refolded
into the shingles of a summer fan

The Gerald Murnane quote could stand in as the epigraph to the entire collection, and the poem itself, an addendum to the note. A handful of poems feel meta and/or performative in this way. For example, I see the first stanza of the poem ‘Errand’ (p38) as what Potter is doing with her poetry:

In and out of leaves the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird in my mind I’ve tied
an infinite string     as she zig-     zags fervently     shirring
distance in a loose smocking of air

By which I mean Potter is the blue mother bird fervently shirring distance with an infinite (eternal) string to create a loose smocking air: the writing that escape the head.

Another poem I want to speak to is ‘The Art of Sideways’ (p 55), because I feel it could stand in as the loose bow that ties the work together. Here, things are ‘layered / and overlapping like shelves of ancient papyruses’. They are also askew: ‘rain can fall sideways’, ‘eyes look aslant’ and ‘there is an angle of forty-five degrees’. Direction (winter light is ‘a trajectory that points in all directions’) and time (a snake’s skin is ‘a simple clock / turning every so often leaving a scaled topography behind’) are messed with, too. Because in such worlds, time, beings and direction don’t play by reality’s rules. To various degrees, these are the themes that imbue the collection’s 45 poems.

Themes and self-referentiality aside, it is the imagery – alluded to at the tail end of the Gerald Murnane quote – that simply astounds me.

A swan sails her cygnets along a stretch of river
—momentarily they rouse in a ghostly armada

a flotilla of milk wings billowing across the grey water
the mother dips her head beneath a lid of duckweed

leaving a swivel of white teardrop behind

Newspapers describe the father as having flown straight into
a building and died without mentioning how or why

The thought takes me back to Greece, to a girl called Scylla who ended
a war by cutting a lock of hair from her father’s sleeping head

and passing it to Minos, his enemy. Scylla was shunned
then chased by her father until a deity changed her into a seabird

The swans preen layer by layer, a soft smoothing by the underside
of the beak, the ruffle and discard of superfluous feathers

The river plays like a silver hook in their glass eyes

(‘The Glass Eye’, p9)

Potter’s imagery is startling in its originality, and at times haunting, such as in ‘The Glass Eye’. But when it is sewn together with narratives and spheres of another time-place, such as Greek mythology, the poem erupts little sparks in my mind: How does the swan’s preening and discarding of feathers relate to cutting a lock of hair? Is the mother swan Scylla? And why is the river a silver hook? The answers don’t necessarily matter, but the questions, the doors that open into thinking and seeing and feeling, do.

Another favourite is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (p25). It feels personal – autobiographical – given the first-person voice, and is simultaneously magical, melding the domestic with the natural:

All summer, the bees worked
between the bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
—they saw a task and rose to it

I busy myself with the washing
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

The images in this first part of the poem sets up the overlapping of the bees with the speaker: ‘the bells of laburnum / sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender’ mirror ‘funnels of sock, boughs of jumper / rosettes of flannel’. This is how the speaker and the bees are subsumed into one being; likewise, their seeing a task and rising to it without being asked. And in the second half of the poem –

I look down my dress and see spikes of burdock
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs—

They all gather to me

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically
until I disengage everything

to its proper place
and emerge like a queen

made anew from decades of trying

– I see the burdock thistles stuck to the speaker’s dress as the chores that gather to her. And her decades of trying as acts of love, where a worker bee can become a Queen bee. Such is the magic of such love, and its music (there is much beautiful slant rhyme in Potter’s poetry, too).

‘The Hidden Side to Love’, I discover, was published in Meanjin (Summer 2016 and online). The only difference I note is the lack of full stops in the collection’s version. This aspect of form is representative of the whole collection: there is, pointedly, no full stops at the end of lines (if a sentence ends there) or paragraphs (in the case of prose poems) – in fact, there’s minimal punctuation altogether; and when full stops appear, they do so rarely, only in the middle of a line, where a sentence has ended, but not always. Instead, Potter uses line breaks, cesura, dashes (sometime multiple in a row to create a solid line) and indented text. Also, many of the works are prose poems; if not, then the lines in several lineated poems echo prose in their line lengths. It’s all very contemporary and lends to the orphic atmosphere of blurring the edges: Where does one thought/idea/image begin and end?

The last poem I want to speak to is my absolute favourite: ‘Metamorphosis’ (p 19). It is a prose poem of two paragraphs and the speaker is a spider; no, the speaker is inside a spider, and we see the world through the speaker’s eyes looking through the spider’s eight eyes:

I wake inside a spider at the pivot of a web. It feels like a graduation from my previous state until the breeze starts up and my webbed skirt starts to give. I cling to the silk threads, tilting backwards and forwards as though pinned to a warbling rocking chair …

I peer out from my lacy steeple. My eight eyes dissect ‘IL ov eN ew Yo rk 20 07’ on a mossed-over mug—crossed-eyed, the sun rotates in a wheel of sixteen. I’m whispering a name—Rumpelstilzchen? … I will wrap my golden thread …

This poem gives me joy to no end. It is playful. I can see then webbed skirt and feel the warbling rocking chair, but what gives me the most child-like glee is the visual representation of ‘I love New York 2007’ dissected into eight pairs of letters, for the spiders eight eyes, and then sun rotating in a wheel of sixteen, for the cross-eyed-ness. And, of course, anything is possible here because we have the whisper of the name Rumpelstilzchen, he who turned silk into gold in the eponymous fairy tale.

To circle back to the beginning, the introductory note, blurb and self-referential nature of ‘Counterintuitive’ might feel as if Potter has gone to much length to explain the work, suggesting that the poetry is challenging; and it is, in that it asks you to disrupt the logical. Thus, as a reader, I see these elements as foundational: that ‘crumbling ledge’ from which to enter the work. I also see them as an invitation: to follow Alice down the rabbit hole, so your subconscious, your inner world, can meet Potters’ on the page. And with that invitation, I find I am free to fall in, to tumble through the labyrinthine worlds without the need to land on my feet – because there is much joy in letting go. And there is much joy to be had here, in Potter’s original, surreal and musical Acanthus.

लेश करण LESH KARAN is a Naarm/Melbourne-based poet and essayist. Recent publications include Admissions, a Red Room Poetry anthology, Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Lesh is of Fiji Indian heritage.

Announcing the new Mascara team ….

Laura Pettenuzzo: Junior Commissioning Editor



Laura (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She writes Plain and Easy English content for various organisations and has been published by The Big Issue, ABC Everyday, The Age and SBS Voices. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.
लेश करण Lesh Karan: Poetry Editor




लेश करण (Lesh Karan) is a Naarm/Melbourne-based poet and essayist. Recent publications include Admissions, a Red Room Poetry anthology, Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Lesh is of Fiji Indian heritage.

Monique Nair: Marketing Manager

Monique Nair is a Melbourne/Naarm based writer of Indian-Italian-Polish heritage. She was a participant of the West Writers program with Footscray Community Arts and is a screenwriter for an upcoming anthology feature, My Melbourne, produced by Mind Blowing Films and supported by VicScreen and Screen Australia. She has performed her work at Emerging Writers’ Festival and other events and her writing is published in Peril, Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings and The Indian Weekly.

Carielyn Tunion: Multimedia 

Carielyn is a multimedia artist, content producer & cultural worker, working from a decolonial perspective to promote the social & holistic wellbeing of marginalised peoples & communities. Drawing on her background in video and screen production, Carielyn uses videopoetry to explore the impacts of colonialism, intergenerational trauma and recovery. She also dabbles in writing, illustration, pin-making and works as a professional arts model. Carielyn occupies space as an immigrant-settler woman of colour in the matrix of coloniality – and identifies as a Tagalog daughter of the archipelago beyond the gender binary. She currently lives on unceded Darkinjung country.

Michelle Cahill: Artistic Director

Michelle Cahill (she/they) is of Goan Anglo-Indian heritage living on unceded Guringai lands. An award-winning novelist and poet, their collection Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo) won the UTS Glenda Adams Award and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Award. Cahill was awarded a Red Room Poetry Fellowship and was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the ABR Peter Porter Prize and the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Daisy & Woolf is published with Hachette. Cahill’s essays have appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Weekend Australian and Wasafari