James Gobbey reviews Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar


by Kaveh Akbar

Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 9781035026074

Reviewed by JAMES GOBBEY

If the mortal sin of the suicide is greed, to hoard stillness and calm for yourself while dispersing your riotous internal pain among those that survive you, then the mortal sin of the martyr must be pride, the vanity, the hubris to believe not only that your death could mean more than your living, but that your death could mean more than death itself—which, because it is inevitable, means nothing.

Dying is individual, but death punctures the social, diffusing its impacts among those that remain. Martyr! then asks: is there meaning to be found in death? What lives on with the people that remain? What makes a martyr?

Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel, Martyr!, sees the established Iranian-American poet turn his attention to a new form. His novel asks uncomfortable questions in the name of identity and grief, culminating in a work that attests to the singular devastations that make up collective loss. And yet, despite a fascination with the lingering potential of death, Akbar achieves a lightness that lifts his novel beyond simple pessimism.

Martyr!’s focal character, Cyrus Shams, is surrounded by death. It permeates his life: he works at a hospital, playing sick for medical students to practice counselling the terminal; he is a recovering addict, sure that every day of sobriety is a day of life he should never have seen; he is haunted by the memory of his mother’s murder in the downing of a commercial flight by a US navy cruiser. All of this death culminates in Cyrus’s fixation with, and desire to begin writing on, martyrdom.

The above extract, ruminating on the sins of suicide and the martyr, forms part of Cyrus’s work-in-progress: “BOOKOFMARTYRS.” This book helps structure Akbar’s novel, seeing the inclusion of poetry dedicated to famous martyrs, as well as passages of essayistic prose. These textual interludes feature at the turn of each chapter, alternating to also include transcripts, emails, and further details surrounding the flight on which Roya Shams lost her life. Because, ultimately, it is the ongoing impacts of Roya’s death that drive much of this novel. 

Roya’s death is folded into the missile attack of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988, which resulted in the murder of 290 civilians. The public memory of this attack is a site of contestation between Iran and the United States. In an interview with Nylon, Akbar explains, “When you say the Vincennes incident, people of a certain age will furrow their brows. It’ll sound vaguely familiar, but they won’t remember 290 innocent lives shot out of the sky. I’m fascinated by that. In Iran, they put it on postage stamps. They propagandize it. I’m fascinated by that, too.” The propagandization of flight 655 serves to make the civilians killed into martyrs. Their deaths assert the indiscriminate nature of the United States war machine, particularly when held against the failing memory of the United States public. In the aftermath of the downing of Iran Air flight 655, these deaths are given an ulterior meaning. 

For Cyrus, this moment of tragedy is a starting point. When asked about the kind of book he conceives of “BOOKOFMARTYRS” being, Cyrus explains: 

My whole life I’ve thought about my mom on that flight, how meaningless her death was … The difference between 290 dead and 289. It’s actuarial. Not even tragic, you know? So was she a martyr? There has to be a definition of the word that can accommodate her. That’s what I’m after. (75). 

Cyrus initially determines his mother’s death to be without meaning—simply a number among many. And although we must reconcile that Roya’s death is “not legible to empire” (75), this novel expounds a more expansive view of the potential meanings that death can carry. 

Foremost, Martyr! is a novel that takes the individual loss present in mass death and inspects it. Because, on some level, Cyrus is right. How do we feel the difference between 289 and 290 deaths? Rather than succumbing to the generalised negativity of significant loss, this novel takes a step forward to invigorate the connectivity of a single life—one marred by tragedy on a mass scale. 

I purposefully call Cyrus the focal character of this novel. It is a simplification to call him the protagonist—or even the main character. Martyr! uses Cyrus as a centre from which to work outwards, extending from him to offer life and voice to surrounding people and characters. Primarily, these voices belong to family and friends, but genuine martyred lives are also evoked: namely those of Bobby Sands, Bhagat Singh, Hypatia of Alexandria, and Qu Yuan. These martyrs each feature as poetic subjects of “BOOKOFMARTYRS,” their historic deaths speaking to Cyrus’s negotiations with his own time and identity. Bobby Sands, for instance, has a poem written to him that begins: 

there’s a Bobby Sands Street in Tehran

one block over from Ferdowsi Avenue, 

that’s true, Ireland, Iran, interchangeable mythos

This poem binds Ireland and Iran, recognising their shared suffering at the hands of colonial powers; it draws together Sands and Ferdowsi—a Persian poet whose story is later retold in Martyr!—creating a textual crossroads at which the two meet. Through Cyrus, through his human ties and writing on martyrdom, a world of active social ties is revealed. 

The connectivity of Martyr! rejects the individualism that separates us from others, perpetuating apathy. In Akbar’s novel, the relationships that spring from Cyrus allow us to feel more. Throughout the novel we touch on the real lives of martyrs, but we also encounter Cyrus’s family and friends. We meet Ali, Cyrus’s father, who made ends meet throughout Cyrus’s childhood by working on a chicken farm; Arash, Cyrus’s uncle, whose time in the Iranian army was spent riding through fields of the dying dressed as an angel of death; and it is through chapters and passages such as these that we meet a clearer version of Roya, unaltered by the filter of Cyrus’s faded childhood memories—a woman who reveals, “I never really loved being alive” (145). These affecting connections extend to include others important to Cyrus: his best friend Zee, and the Iranian artist, Orkideh, whose imminent death becomes an art installation. By allowing the presence of this whole network of characters, we become more able to comprehend the dispersal of feeling that takes place when loss occurs. 

Akbar does something vital in his depictions of social connectivity. He allows these characters the use of their own voices, rather than limiting them to the details known by Cyrus. Formally, as the novel shifts between characters, the point-of-view changes from its standard third-person to a more transparent first-person. While Cyrus is the centre through which we come to each of these characters, access to their experiences—their emotions—occurs through their own words. From this use of voice, these characters each come to exist as the centre of their own worlds, not exclusively the periphery of Cyrus’s, establishing the reality of their own personal connections, and a network that expands on and on. 

This connectivity, this network of people who know and feel for each other to varying degrees, is how we come to parse through the distinct losses that make up mass grief. Martyr! does not deal with the problem of mass death—with the difference between 289 and 290—but it does create the space for us to feel the expansiveness of a single death, and from there we can begin to imagine the social impact of death on a large scale. 

The expansive network depicted in Akbar’s debut novel alters how we come to understand the martyr, though perhaps creating more questions than answers. Finishing Martyr! I wonder if connection, if closeness, is one of the ways in which martyrs create meaning in death? Martyrdom does not exist in isolation: it holds meaning because of the life lost, and, crucially, the lives impacted. Cyrus Shams asserts that death, “because it is inevitable, means nothing.” But, death carries weight for those that remain. Grief is a testament to the life that did exist. Death’s inevitability does not necessitate the loss of meaning, rather meaning lives on with those that remain. 

There is also something else buried in claims that death means nothing. Consider the civilian deaths of Iran Air flight 655: the grief felt for the victims; the meaning attributed to their lives; the violence of the US—none of this should be lessened by death’s inevitability. As state sanctioned mass murder continues in Gaza, we cannot say that death means nothing. To disregard the significance of death is to render oppressive systems acceptable, and, ultimately, this undermines the social world that connects us. 


Works Cited:

Akbar, Kaveh. Martyr!. Picador, 2024. 

Akbar, Kaveh. “In Martyr! Kaveh Akbar Is Thinking About Eternity.” Interview by Sophia June, Nylon, 2 Feb. 2024, https://www.nylon.com/life/kaveh-akbar-martyr-interview.

JAMES GOBBEY (he/him) is a writer and bookseller from lutruwita/Tasmania. His work has previously been published by Aniko Press and Togatus Magazine.

Misbah Wolf reviews Moon Wrasse by Willo Drummond

Moon Wrasse

by Willo Drummond

Puncher and Wattmann

ISBN 1922571679


When I first picked up Willo Drummond’s debut poetry collection, Moon Wrasse, I was torn between a deep panic of knowing I wanted to become mixed up in the muck, blood, and bloom of the work and wanting to also turn away from the words. Words are spells. Words are little invisible ties between what is captured and what is lost, and somehow, as if by magick, portals are opened for us to walk through. In a true sense, this is an offering from Drummond of a portal of initiation—you choose which kind—one you’ve already been in parallel with, one you have no memory of, or one you care enough to walk along with to experience and become more completely human.

I opened the book to the poem ‘Seed’ which, in a sense, introduces what I see as a quartet of work. I read;

At this season’s out-swelling
after the mangrove moon
she sets her grief in a small seed pod.

 I, myself, had been dealing with ‘unexplained infertility of ten years, and I wasn’t ready to read it, but the book called out for a conversation with me. I recognized it within my own immediate framework as a book of invisible connective tissue, a witch’s book of shadows, both literary and psychic, between the dead, the dreaming, grief, the acute attention to the breath of things and the indexing of transformations. This is a book where surfaces appear deeper once immersed, where continual intertextuality adds further dimensions, and no energy is ever lost since all is transmuted. A pause must be taken, and a return, like a Joseph Campbell Hero/Heroine, is undertaken; 

She’s looking for
a future to enframe the past

as it exceeds
it. Flickering familiar
like the pulse
of being needed.

Reading this work, I was able to chart a ship in the shadows of Drummond’s glorious book—through my own grief over childlessness, my estrangement from others/lovers, my deep love for ecology, for the mud and muck of various things I have lost, found, and re-imagined. These things grow in Drummond’s poetry through mud and shadow like mother mangroves, endangered blooms, and conversations with visceral transformations under ‘dappled light. (60) Such love is to be invoked in the poem “Moon Wrasse” where the narrative etches through the shifting cycling as a lover/other/self that is;

here, moving in
our translucent
‘self-made’ and safe
as houses— (60)
It is an homage to great love transforming and witnessing the beloved’s
new lucency—
clear as the blue
of your new man suit
                                sweet as the day
                               true as the day (60)  

This enamoured lover/narrator bears witness/encourages and celebrates this alchemical corporeality with tender reassurance in this delicate liminal space, 

holding hands
like younger lovers
in a film
in a dream.” (60)

The shape of the month as I read this work was also colored by other books at the same time. Fitting for such a book that plays, converses, and returns to dialogue entries, quotes, and habits of other poets and writers. Rest assured, Drummond includes notes about particular moments, words or passages from other writers in this book to show how interwoven and entangled this book is with others’ work. In The Childless Witch, Camelia Elias says: ‘The age we live in is, indeed, no longer an age of lamentation. We lost that art long ago’ (Elias, 2020). The reason I’m including this quote from Elias is that Moon Wrasse has developed a very delicate language of lamentation, with images of ‘striking,’ ‘scraping,’ and ‘digging,’ further propelled after Louise Glück—as in Drummond’s ‘The Act of Making,’ (11) using techniques of alliteration, words beating against each other, switching to words that require the tongue to be pushed gently through lips—there is a feeling when reading this poem and many like this, of incanting. In ‘The Act of Making,’ Willo Drummond employs a rich array of poetic techniques that enhance its incantatory quality. Vivid imagery and sensory language, such as ‘gardens fecund with memory'(11) and ‘imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope,'(11) create an immersive experience, while enjambment ensures a seamless flow between lines, propelling the reader forward, as in 

          .How can you bear
so many imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope
let go? (11)

The use of repetition and parallelism, like ‘day after day,’ adds musicality, and the alliteration and assonance in phrases such as ‘fluffed intentions’ and ‘solitary bees’ create pleasing sound patterns that my mouth wants to vocalise. Caesura introduces rhythmic breaks for emphasis/division/rupture of grief; 

                  Unwomanly. Bent queen
brimful of love shame with nowhere to dig
in (11) 

Also, the sharp juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, such as ‘love/shame’ and ‘hope/let go,’ deepens the poem’s emotional impact. Symbolism, unconventional syntax, and strategic line breaks contribute to the poem’s unique rhythm and pace, while personification and metaphor, like ‘remembrance scratches your knuckles’ and ‘bees hover, uncertain,’ imbue the poem with lyrical depth. These elements combine to make Drummond’s poem feel rhythmical and lyrical, making me want to read it out loud. And I do speak them and it is a pleasure to let the words slip and pause between my teeth and tongue.

We can look further into such poems as ‘Note to Self (in Novel Times)’ that inscribes like graffiti on an ancient/new wall to a future/past/now self, on a fridge pinned up by magnets to;

Remember to love
the world. Love
the wailing, rolling world;
the air; the wildness
of wind lifting a million kites
of change (72) 

Such a poem circles back through voice, through lamenting, through oracle (as Earth) as change always present to call one back home. In The Childless Witch, Elias also reframes such a being as ‘able to cast a powerful spell of movement, a movement that goes from trembling, to dance, to the use of voice, the oracle and a state of grace’ (Elias, 2020). Looking through Drummond’s book, these states of ecstatic magic—shadowy and bright—are evident in the language and invocations that run rife throughout this collection. There is a language of lamentation here, as previously suggested—of that which will not grow among the commonly seen, and offers instead the witch’s second sight such as in the poem ‘Ways of Seeing.’ This narrator is pensive with ‘portents’- where moon cycles are traced and named; 

While others turn with such precision,
radiant orbs—content
filled—I dream of conjunctions
luminous alignments
stackings of hope  (20)

This second sight seems always pensively aware of the delicate nature of life in ‘The Art of Making’ that we as readers intrude/bear witness/are gathered round to see ‘Somewhere, a ghost orchid blooms’ (12) This rare orchid/child/being blooms only once a year, pollinated by mimicking male sphinx moths deep in forests where it sucks the moisture from the air.

With this invitation from Elias—’trembling, dance, voice, oracle, and grace’ resound through Drummond’s work. There is even a further complexity established by which Drummond records in her notes at the back of Moon Wrasse that the line from the poem ‘Seed’, 

where what cannot be
is (8) 

gestures to Jennifer Moxley’s claim that ‘lyrical utterances record voices structurally barred from social and political power.’ (Drummond, 76). This first poem is set adrift from the four sections as a poem in motion, of coming up from elsewhere by will; 

here in the lyric tense

she stills to witness
each furred pod/
gain its wild purpose— (7) 

This feels like an invocation to voice, to the tiny seed to speak its will, to inscribe and to create. Again, a voice unheard/heard is set in motion in ‘Sail,’ where the other’s silent voice is;

voice, a gaping mouth, calls
from a crack in the world: desolate
wind, sweep my knowledge
into oblivion, drop me back
into the well. (21)

Read it aloud, read it softly and it could well be the words of shamed/guilty/lamenting Medea, such a misunderstood and maligned witch, also a favourite childless witch of discussion for Elias. (Elias, 85)

I have enjoyed framing Drummond’s work as part of a Quartet, a story perhaps like a cycle connected in four parts, likened to the four major phases of the moon—the new moon, the first quarter, the full moon, and the last quarter—because so much of the work makes invitations, invocations, and references to the moon. In Drummond’s section ‘The Art of Losing,‘ ‘Of Finding and Not Finding Levertov,’ ‘Forming and Transforming,’ and ‘Arriving,’ why not take this as a template, traversing phases of the moon? Considering that in my reading, I felt poetic tidal shifts under the witch’s tools of moonlight and water, whether inscribed as bodies, mangroves, fish in moonlight, or rare blooms sucking at the mist. I enjoy mysteries and puzzles and esoterica, so I have dug into this deep pleasure in making these connections through the language or merely literary pareidolia. But there are clues to make such connections, such as mention of the ‘spun to song of sun played at waning moon(61) in ‘A Promontory/A Memory,’ and, of course, the poem ‘Moon Wrasse’—the fish that changes sex to mate and has a crescent moon on the caudal fin, the energy of such seems to suggest a letting go of what has been and finding hope in a ‘translucent cocoon'(21) moving towards the new moon. The new moon is, of course, the dark unseen moon. It is the place that calls for presence and to explore the unseen, and I pose that this is the beginning phase we enter from the start of the book, with poems that seem to scry into the unseen. Considering the first poem ‘Seed’ moves from the lines; 

In waning luminescence
on the aqua-terrestrial shore

she trains her eye
to velvet vivipary
on very salty water

She’s looking for
a future
to enframe the past
as it exceeds it. (7) 

It is the entrance towards the darkness of the new moon in the first quarter ‘The Art of Losing.’ In the new moon phase, there is no visible moon in the sky, and it is the time to explore the unseen, to call for presence, and to stretch the grief unfathomable into song and poetry.

The first poem of this quarter, “The Act of Making,” is indeed what Camelia Elias calls ‘the lost art of lamentation’(Elias, 15),  again inscribing vividly with a question; 

How can you bear
so many imagined blooms heavy with the scent of hope
 let go?” (11) 

Set behind this poem is hauntingly Glück’s ‘The Wild Iris’ (“Hear me out: that which you call death I remember”) like the wild Iris, reborn, returning from dissolution to ‘find a voice’—here Drummond masterfully extends the deep mystery of Glück’s poem of death and rebirth, and continues the esoterically charged moment to look for portents, to have knowledge of the rare ghost orchid ready to be born.

In this first quartet too, ‘Up to Our Knees in It’ explores the unseen mother mangrove beneath the surface, extending and connecting, living anywhere despite the ‘cinema seats and soft drink cans (15) thrown into the waters.

Furthermore, Drummond’s poetry, particularly in the sequence ‘The Rilke Index’ and ‘Open Secret,’ showcases a profound engagement with the poetics of Rilke and Levertov. By using index items as titles and integrating verbatim citations, Drummond creates a rich intertextual dialogue. This approach pays homage to Levertov’s method of personal indexing and underscores Rilke’s enduring influence on Levertov’s work, which in turn feeds and nourishes Drummond’s. The titles and substantive material, marked by italics for Rilke and inverted commas for Levertov, reflect a meticulous synthesis of response, citation, and allusion (Drummond, 2021).

Central to Drummond’s poetry is the theme of attention and participation, echoing Rilke’s poetics. In ‘The Rilke Index,’ phrases such as ‘True singing/ is a whispering’ (35) andIt hums along the avenue of original grief polished as a stone’ which highlight the importance of quiet, attentive engagement with the world (Drummond, 2021). Similarly, ‘Open Secret’ uses the imagery of a Peltops singing her inwardness to suggest a deep, participatory observation of nature.

Drummond’s work exemplifies Rilke’s Ding or thing poetics through its focus on sensory, concrete experiences. The detailed imagery in ‘The Rilke Index’ and the tangible descriptions in ‘Open Secret’ underscore the importance of observing and interacting with the material world. This attention to the physicality of things aligns with Rilke’s belief that true insight comes from an intense, participatory observation of one’s surroundings.

Reflecting deeply on the nature of creation and the self, Drummond’s poems reveal a continuous journey of self-discovery. ‘The Rilke Index’ and ‘Open Secret’ meditate on the interconnectedness of self and creativity, suggesting a composite identity shaped by various influences. Drummond’s imagery, such as ‘the owl afloat, the white egret’ andthe blood, the plough, the furrows made,’ captures the essence of seeing with ‘second sight,’ a deeper, intuitive understanding of the world (Drummond, 2021). This second sight is the sight of the witch, the seer, the being that dares, even when nothing necessarily will come of it—to look and to record presence/absence. Not only is second sight present here, but also the Owl—the totem of Hecate—Queen of Witches, and the action of tilling the land with blood and earth, much like the ingredients for a spell.

Willo Drummond’s poetry collection extends the poetics of Rilke and Levertov, emphasizing immersive conversations with the world—the unravelling power of careful observation and recordings. This work also creates carefully layered, intertextual dialogues. These inscriptions highlight the profound connection between self/other, the environment/body, second sight/inscription—all of which is the (witch’s) work of invocation with moon, of birth, death, rebirth, of longing (and the language of lamenting), and a complete presence of ritual observation, a conversation with invisible/visible forces transmuting. This book is an homage to love and magick and finding ways to reinscribe very necessary and vital voices and existences that have slipped/been silenced/written over/unpublished/forgotten. But it is also more than an homage—it is script that spells out the nature of time, looks closely at the Fibonacci spiral of bodies in presence with each other, of lamentation and joy rupturing through—detailed and woven with the echoes of other writers and poets, insistently in deep relationship to ecology, to the unseen dance of interconnection, such as the spellcasting in ‘All of it’ as ‘an ecology of selves’ (67) which with tremulous blooms/hands/words/voices reimagined worlds, relationships and love.


Drummond, W. (2021). The Rilke Index. TEXT Special Issue 64: Poetry Now, eds. Jessica L. Wilkinson, Cassandra Atherton & Sarah Holland-Batt.

Drummond, W. (2023).  Moon Wrasse. Puncher & Wattmann. 

Elias, C. (2020). The Childless Witch: Trembling, dance, voice, oracle, grace. EyeCorner Press. ISBN 978-87-92633-57-6.


Javaria Farooqui reviews The Djinn Hunters by Nadia Niaz

The Djinn Hunters

By Nadia Niaz

Hunter Publishers

ISBN: 978-0-6453366-9-6


The Djinn Hunters
is a literary fusion of colours, words, shapes, and heritage, which has been carefully crafted in very interesting and distinct poetic styles. Nadia Niaz plays with the strands of her memories of Lahore to build evocative narratives in the short space of her poems, which occasionally carry elements of horror and the uncanny. Each of her fifty-one poems in this collection exhibits a wide range of expression and literary finesse that provides a refreshing, consistently engaging reading experience. 

The horror in The Djinn Hunters is not meant to surprise the readers into a terrifying shock, rather it aims to disturb the very core of everyday existence. The first poem, “A Map of Mothers,” is primarily about the transmission of traits from female ancestors and the genetic inheritance that spans generations. However, Niaz’s dexterous use of simple words infiltrates the generational story line, unsettling readers with the image of grandmother and great-grandmothers haunting the voice of the persona. Absence of punctuation not only scaffolds the sense of continuity but also a deep feeling of horror:

I carry my mother in my mouth
in teeth and warm
bladed tongue

one grandmother, long absent
haunts my speckled skin
the rhythm of my feet

the other finds herself
in the set of my chin
the stubborn song in my belly

The poem starts with the imagery of carrying the mother in one’s mouth and concludes with varied maternal legacies interweaving and moving towards a surreal and ambiguous sense of belonging. The absence of pauses around “home” emphasizes the continuous evolution of human inheritance and gestures towards the uncanny behind the word that mostly signals safety and surety. The way in which the poem moves forward accentuates the haunting presence of ancestors within an individual’s identity, reminding us of pasts that perpetually influence the present:

great-grandmothers twine
in my hair, lurk in my bones
score my palms with their directions

each one pulling a different way
each one pointing towards home


The collection boldly utilizes poetic forms that blend verse and prose in engaging ways. The experimentation with form sometimes includes lines of varying lengths or concrete shapes, or some visually absorbing style like the one used in “A Dream of Daadi’s Paan Daan.” The consumption of paan, a mouth refreshment made from betel leaf popular in South Asia, has strong associations of tradition and culture. The paan holder, or paan daan, has a significant material value because of its association with the elders in South Asian households, and as such it symbolizes a sense of cultural rootedness and refinement. Niaz enhances this cultural reference by incorporating a unique visual element in her poetry. She prints four words, “roll,” “chew,” “spit,” and “fold” in grey ink behind the main text in black, inviting readers to decipher the entire process of paan consumption that involves rolling and folding the leaf, chewing the leaf, and spitting out the excess red substance (3). This creative approach not only adds depth to the poem but also engages readers in an interactive exploration of cultural heritage. 

The Djinn Hunters extends its thematic reach well beyond its primary focus on djinns and a distinct sense of horror, to present a rich tapestry of different subjects. As a native of Lahore, I found Niaz’s striking and picturesque descriptions of the city’s sights, sounds, and smells particularly resonant and evocative. She manages to capture the essence of Lahore with meticulously crafted sensory details that allow readers to become part of the vibrant atmosphere displayed on the page:

The corners of this city sag under stories of generations
more numerous than the grains of imported sand lining
its avenues poised to be mixed into concrete buildings
(“Fine Aggregate” 23)

Heritage, continuity, culture, and belonging are the themes that run throughout this collection and scaffold the stylistic experimentations. There are sub themes of romance, politics, and feminism that emerge from the crafted verses in the form of powerful statements and images. For example, in the poem quoted above, a simile of pomegranate is used for young women walking on the streets:

Young women wander under strict instructions to stay close
crowded as pomegranate seeds, skins leathered against leers while
their mothers pick stones from rice and dhal and swallow smoke

The mothers and the young women are bound by traditional roles and surrounded by misogyny. In this collection of poems, Niaz often juxtaposes the push and pull of cultural and heritage to paint the ways in which women are marginalized in patriarchal societies. “August in Lahore” questions the socio-economic class divisions and the misogynist attitudes prevalent in Pakistani society. While the boys from the lower working class have the freedom to “dive” in the dirty canal, upper-middle-class college girls keep sweating profusely in their modest outfits of “starched muslins and lawns” (20). The socio-economic class of the characters in the poem is determined by the “burned earth brown” bodies of the boys and their usage of the city’s “filthy oasis” to find relief from hot weather, and the connection of cars and cell phones with the girls (20). The four stanzas of the poem are precisely divided into six lines, which consist of a single sentence that duly ends with a full stop, representing the restricted existence of young women. The young woman who is traveling in cars and studying in colleges gets to listen to the humble start of her father who used to swim in the canal like the boys. The classed and gendered differences between the boys and the female protagonist in the poems are emphasized when the girl’s father looks back at the freedom and lack of social capital in his youth but makes “no wish” for the daughter to experience something similar. The “filthy oasis” of the city’s “refuse” in which the boys are swimming implies a disadvantage and a reduction, which finds an echo in the feeling of “drowning” that envelops the upper-middle-class privileged woman. She is wrapped in “days” that are like a “wet sackcloth, a dragging, dripping/weight that air-conditioning cannot lift” (20). The extended metaphor of “filthy ocean” epitomizes the socio-economic and gendered restrictions in a patriarchal and underdeveloped country.

The Djinn Hunters finds its pace in the exploration of the human and extra-human existence. The collection presents temporal reflections on heritage, culinary practices, cultural rituals, and the nuances of different spatiotemporal settings. Niaz experiments with a wide range of literary forms in this book, taking considerable creative chances. Her methods include visual construction of landscapes of words, code-switching to Urdu, and inclusion of Pakistani locales and subtle cultural differences without any explanation for the intended global readership. Her willingness to push limits and provide readers with a diverse and multicultural experience is evident in these daring stylistic choices. Readers can indulge in the The Djinn Hunters experience for leisure reading purposes or choose to let the book take them on a literary journey. In either case, it will provide them with new insights and coerce them to view the world through an inclusive lens with literary sophistication. 


Dr JAVARIA FAROOQUI holds a PhD from the University of Tasmania, Australia, and works at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus, Pakistan. Her recent book, Romance Fandom in 21st-Century Pakistan: Reading the Regency, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.

Zoe Karpin

Zoe Karpin is a short story writer and has been a teacher for many years. Her short stories are published in Mascara, Sudo, FemZine, Going Down Swinging, Dot Lit, Hecate, and forthcoming in Kalliope X.



How it Happens

Her first permanent appointment and a regular income; she could pay her way with her lover.  Her new faculty room; her face turned to sunlight streaming through the north-facing window, needing to be here, needing to be somewhere – why not here? As events had worked out and oh to belong eventually – part of this scenery like the great eucalyptus, its limbs raised over the building and girth so wide -three people could rest against it.

 At morning break. She was slim wearing a tight grey pencil skirt plus black pumps but weary. Up late at night preparing work for students, no way around this, the early days.

In the centre of the room dolmades and cheese were set out on the large table; her inaugural group morning tea.  Food graciously displayed on hand for consuming. Winding strands of long dark hair out of her face, I must join the eating.

Her fellow instructors gobbled the dolmades. The vine leaves used in these dolmades, ‘freshly prepared following an old Greek recipe off the internet,’ the cook said. 

‘Go on Olivia’, take two.’ They were watching.  You have not eaten our food before. Smiling, liking dolmades and expecting to want more, a dolmades hovered near her lips. However, so disappointing- not enough lemon, too greasy and the rice so gluggy. Swallowing though, bit after bit. Dissimulation – she had to do work for the next instruction, sunk into her seat at her desk. Olivia, not fussy, not unhealthy, not obsessed about her weight, was just demanding of quality when there was no real obstacle to acquiring it. No war or famine, poverty nor any other cataclysmic event stood in anyone’s among the staff and so many sources of information about good cooking; books, internet, tv etc. No excuses. The rest of the faculty were still gobbling the dolmades- a whole heaped plate of them and still praising them. Suzy unloaded cheese and cucumber sandwiches from a large plastic container onto emptying plates.  ‘Wonderful, yummy.’ many said. 

But she kept her head on her work; not so nice-processed cheese and vanilla pasty bread.

 But everyone, even Jasmine in the desk next to her, who ate tuna salad every lunchtime, praised the sandwiches.

 The bell rang. I am released to teach.

 After 4:00 pm there, alone- working back, gazing at five dolmades wearing tutus of oil and crumpled sandwiches, the leftovers on the enormous table in the heart of the room, abandoned like her to get stale. The cleaner was not fancying them but muttering, ‘What a wasteful lot you are.’

Her face aflame with shame.  She prepared and cooked exact amounts of food for her purposes.

If she forced all the food down together however- the excess greasy oil in the dolmades would counterattack the staleish, insipid bread of the cheese and cucumber sandwiches. And more -even though the cheese was a processed mildest cheddar, synthetic like, and the cucumber was sliced in unforgivable thick slices she might slosh it all down with a hot cup of milky tea.   

She was there working; swallowing and chewing away, the cleaner vacuuming around her.  But regret hit her hard. Later. As if there had been a military assault on her taste buds. She insulted them, too; her mother and grandmother who passed on to her appreciation of good cooking. 

Then Jasmine made cannolis. She was not Italian, but she was so proud of them, a special for the latest monthly faculty morning tea.

‘Look – please take one,’ she said to Olivia. ‘ I’m a good cook, you know.’ Once again to Olivia. 

Olivia blushingly,’ of course, I’ll have one. What had Jasmine been sensing? 

Not even having to taste the cannolis- to know they were ill conceived, too thick and doughy, white instead of brown, not fried enough.  Filling with chocolate not ricotta cheese. A travesty.

 The cannoli.  Any tooth aching sweetness she could get past by drinking her coffee, biting a mouthful like diving into a pool of cold water on a winter’s day. It’s sticky, tacky, soft, gooey, doughy shell more sickening than expected but she was saying unbelievably. ‘I’ll have another.’ She gave Jasmine a thumbs up.  Jasmine hugged her around her waist. She could finish the cannoli under the tree outside.

 On another morning, the head of Department Linda carried a large cheesecake she had baked.  Everyone was saying and laughing. ‘It’s a welcome for Olivia,’ 

But cheesecake is tricky, and the base was soggy and the creamcheese drippy and cloyingly sweet. 

The cake was a gun to her head. She couldn’t swallow more after the first bite but did. Everyone ate their slice and they all said,’ delicious.’

‘How wonderful a head who cooks for their staff.’

‘Give the four pieces left over to Olivia, our newbie. ‘ 

The four pieces were wrapped in cling wrap and then put in a brown paper bag and presented to her, –

She would drop three slices into the neighbour’s compost and one slice to their dog. Certainly.

 A long hold up on the Hume highway homeward bound making it later even, again. The brown paper bag was on the front passenger seat, almost a companion, slightly cosy. Their hospitable  gesture. She yawned and sighed and that slight hunger gnawing stomach, usually dismissible -nutrients in her blood like glucose, amino acids and fatty acids possibly, at a low concentration.

She shoved the three pieces of the cheesecake, one after another, into her mouth, swallowing a double-edged sword of the collegial affinity she was so wanting and the disfavor at the means of its execution.

 Each swallow the cakes’ vileness was less and less irksome. It went on like that. More poorly made cakes at morning tea, more swallowing but less and less disgust every time. Enjoyment even. Pleasure in the desensitization; denaturing, cheapening, debasing and corrupting and she was talking to everyone then, Pete, Suzy, Maria, Janey, Gracie, Andy, Rog, Jazzie, even Linda.

Carielyn Tunion-Lam

Carielyn Tunion-Lam (she/they) is a writer, videopoet, educator, and cultural worker. She has worked in the arts & cultural sector, the community services sector, and has experience using creative strategies in grassroots community organising.

Carielyn is interested in exploring themes of radical softness and nostalgia, and the tropical Gothic from an anti-colonial, diasporic perspective. She is a participating artist in Curious360 by CuriousWorks, and her work has been published by kindling & sage, Mascara Literary Review, Emerging Writers Festival, SBS Filipino and KAP Magazine. She is currently studying a Master’s in Literature & Creative Writing at WSU. Carielyn’s ancestral roots are in the archipelago of the so-called Philippines, and Kowloon, Hong Kong. She currently lives, studies, works and treads respectfully on unceded Burramattagal on Dharug country. 


I am a deep-sea fisherwoman, but I do not catch fish

“…the diasporic woman’s identity is always already fractured and for her[,] autobiographical writing and the process of subject formation lies in celebrating the fracture rather than attempting to cure it.” – Bidisha Banerjee, 2022.

I went handline fishing once and was useless at it. I ended up seasick, huddled and damp in the stern the whole ride back to shore. Years later I would rent a cheaply converted garage in Umina, my answer to a yearning to be near the sea. I would swear up and down Ocean Beach Drive that I’d learn how to fish, hellbent on the idea that if I eat it, I should be able to hunt it or harvest it. But to this day, I’ve never caught a single fish.

Dr Leny Strobel says that Filipinos are consigned to fishing – not just because our skin is home to the salt of our islands – but because we’re fated to gather stories turned adrift. To those of us for whom fragmentation is genesis and legacy, fishing for stories is a way of coming full circle. A way of mapping the fractures and fissures that make up the ever-shifting landscape of our histories, our selves.

So okay, I may be shit at fishing but perhaps I am a fisherwoman after all.



I float a wave back to the Parañaque house. A bougie two-storey townhouse with stucco walls packed tight with dreams. Bordered by coastland in one of Metro Manila’s earliest gated villages, the estate was bankrolled by the Banco Filipino empire before its forced closure under the first Marcos dictatorship. Papa’s modest self-made fortune had just reached its peak when he bought the plot, and it would be another decade or so before finances would start to dip. He grew up struggling, and mama’s family still were, so maybe this house was their way of buying into a vision of security and success. I remember it being huge in the way everything is when you’re a kid. Crossing the Pacific again some twenty years later, I’d come back to an anachronism. How much smaller it would seem.

My parents built the house in the early-1990s, drunk on the siren song of domestic bliss. My father used sand and bare hands. My mother opted for perennial plants. I imagine them playing house in some high-stakes game of pretend: man, not-wife, and the new baby. In a few years, they could enrol the child to an international school nearby. The woman could start a small business selling locally-made Narra-wood furniture to rich households. The man might even leave his wife. They’d be a real family. When you wish upon brick and mortar against the Amihan tides.

Over the years, the waters would rise. Trade winds would blow their relentless cycles but the house would stay the same. An empty, yearning nest. It would miss out on first words and first steps, stay oblivious to fists and fights, the paranoia and bald-faced lies. Its walls would never feel the touch of warm hands and its windows would never open for sunlight darting through its rooms. Termites and mice would lay claim to the bones. A salty damp would set into the floorboards. Its foundations would crack and loosen underfoot, an ocean between us, always.

The neighbours would set their sights on it. They’d pick its locks and enter by stealth. Maybe they sought to lick the gilt off the cornices, scrape the good intentions off the walls. Maybe they took the door off its hinges to see if anything worthy lay on the other side of the frame. Ethically, I don’t oppose the break ins. Why should a house stand empty in a city where sleeping bodies line the streets?

Twenty years would pass and I’d scrap for a plane ticket back. I’d smash the padlock off the gate, jarring in its errant coat of red applied by some interloping budding decorator.

I’d stand in the wreck of it and let the smell of forgetting fill my pores. I’ve scrubbed my body many times since, but I carry it with me still, to this day.


I hesitate to identify as Filipino. The word derives from the Spanish coloniser king Philip who, through Magellan’s colonial activities, staked false claim over the archipelago’s diverse peoples, lands, skies and waterways. To frame myself as a little Philipp-ite is reprehensible to me yet I use this label as a way of speaking the language of the dominant tongue, to use its tools of categorisation as a way of carving out space. It is a way of having voice, misconstrued though it may be – a way of insisting, I am here! My people have dived for pearls with friends here, well before your white sails bruised these shores.

The poet Eunice Andrada has been known to identify as an Ilonggo poet, resisting the homogenous ‘Filipino’ label which reeks of Tagalog hegemony in the archipelago. The issue of identification and identity is further complicated for me by lost family and ancestral histories. It was only on my 33rd birthday last year I learned my maternal grandmother was from Pangasinan, land of a thousand islands. I have no stories, no photographs of her as a child to go by, but this is how I like to picture her. A girl growing up by the sea.


“Non-fatal drowning describes a drowning incident where the individual survives. In some cases, an individual may not suffer any serious health complications following a non-fatal drowning. However, in other cases, non-fatal drowning can significantly impact an individual’s long-term health outcomes and quality of life.” – Royal Life Saving Australia

The first time I remember drowning:

Ma and I had just moved into a rental in Dee Why, which kids at my new school called ‘the ghetto’ of the Northern Beaches. I remember thinking, if this is ghetto, you’d die to see where my family live. I’d soon realise they called it ‘the ghetto’ because it was the only ‘ethnic enclave’ on the insular Peninsula(r). The only suburb in the area with an Asian grocer and an African beauty supply store, where the Pinoy and Pasifika families lived, where the Chinese restaurants were legit. I’d never lived in the suburbs before. All I’d known was city smog and chaotic traffic, so I fell quick and hard for the nearby beach.

I went walking on the shore in my school dress one day, brogues and socks on my hands, toes questing in the sand. Suddenly, the sky rumbled grey and the tide began to surge. Water climbed my legs fast and snatched me up into the churn. My mouth filled with saltwater. I started to swallow. I remember thinking, goodbye, mama – strangely calm about it all. That’s when I felt a warm hand close firmly over mine, guiding me out of the crush. My head burst above water, kaleidoscopes of seafoam and upside-down pine trees in my eyes. I lay on the wet sand, strewn under a glassy sky. Soaked to the bone and completely alone.

I don’t remember much else, everything is a vague before and after that moment. My memory has always been hazy. Twenty years later, I’d remember that drowning and wonder, was it a memory, a vision, a dream? I still can’t decide. Whatever happened, I know it was my lola who saved me.


When I tell my mother this, she gasps.

Da, the same thing happened to me!

A monsoon season sometime in the 60s drowned the Pasig River leaving it bloated and swollen. She went swimming in the floodwater, seeking pearls amidst candy wrappers and bits of corrugated iron, floating wreckages of plastic debris. Maybe the current got stronger, maybe her little arms got tired and she started to sink. But Naynay reached into the river and pulled her out in a strong, calloused grip.

How funny, ha, Da. She saved me but she was so angry with me.

That night I dreamt of mama as a girl, eating clams with her mother. They fished them out of the water, scooping them up in their hands by the riverside, heads bowed like grateful penitents.



People tell me I look Japanese. They say, but you don’t look Filipino, which is funny because the archipelago comprises nearly 200 ethnolinguistic groups with distinct cultures, stories, Peoples, and rituals. Not to mention the myriad cross-cultural ancestries from beyond the oceans before the intrusion of colonisers and conquistadors. People rarely clock me as Hong Kongese, except my Filipino family who laugh themselves stupid over jokes about my eyes looking ‘inchik’. Truth is, I don’t know if I should identify as Chinese either. My father calls himself a Chinese man but identifies more as a Hong Kong man.

Can I just identify as an island gal? An island baby they-by lady?


I started the process of forgiving my father around ten years ago. We drove around Kowloon listening to ‘Don’t cry, Joni’ and ‘La Vie en Rose’ on repeat while he dredged up memories of Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong in WWII like pulling dead fish from the sea. He told me of bodies piled high on streets now stacked with concrete pylons and apartment towers, the same streets beneath our feet. During martial law, people hid in their homes as often as they could. But my father, only seven at the time, tired of fear and the hunger in his belly, would sneak out to shine imperial soldiers’ boots in exchange for biscuits which he’d save to eat with his siblings.

My lola would have endured the Japanese occupation of the Philippines but when I ask my mother about this, she tells me she has no idea what I’m talking about.

My island homes sink and swim with the weight of remembering and forgetting.


I met Papa as an old man this year. To be fair, with sixty years between us, he’s been old my whole life. Mortality on our minds, he took me to visit his parents’ graves for the very first time. I balked at the interminable staircases at St Raphael’s cemetery where his father, my 爺爺 rests. Irene was there, his girlfriend of 30 years who’s also 30 years his junior (I met her, too, for this first time this year). She held him as he gripped the flaking green rail, one step after the other. I was scared he’d fall or faint, but he refused a single word of complaint, out of reverence or stubbornness, I’m not sure. Oliver and I sentried in front and behind. A black butterfly trailed us. Hobbling back down, we made the shape of some lopsided creature of grief.

His mother, my 嫲嫲, lay in Wo Hop Shek some 40 minutes away, in a Buddhist graveyard on the hills overlooking Fanling. I was inept at bai-san but I lit the incense, bowed my head thrice and burned the bag of paper prayers adorned with Kwun Yum riding the sea, lotus flowers at her feet. I held Papa’s hand as ash and smoke unfurled in the blue silk sky.

The next day, he confessed with tears in his eyes that his sons don’t visit his parents’ graves. We were in the backseat, ‘La Vie en Rose’ playing again. His unspoken fear that they will not visit him either sat between us.


When Lam Him died, he left behind five adult children as his legacy. One was my father, Lam Shuk Chiu, who, devasted by his father’s death, tried to give his heartache purpose by honouring his Honourable Father’s death, honourably. He threw himself into funerary arrangements, buying the finest oranges, chickens, and pigs heads for offerings; and bargaining (respectfully) with a nun to guarantee his father’s dying wish for a Catholic burial after a lifetime as a sometimes-practicing Buddhist – a testament to the care he received at the Catholic hospice where he’d stayed.

After an evening meal, the grieving family sat together on mats on the floor to share memories of their devoted patriarch. As they did, the lanterns began to flicker and the dogs out on the terrace barked feverishly into the night. My father felt the room go cool. A light pressure touched his forehead, and he lost consciousness. When he came to, a sense of peace washed over him.

That’s when I knew, he tells me.

There is no such thing as ghosts. Only spirits.


Is there another me in a same-but-different version of Hong Kong? I imagine her also 33, speaking Cantonese since she was a baby. She visits her ancestors’ graves often, knows the right joss sticks to buy, doesn’t get anxious about her choice in flowers for offerings.

Is there a version of me in the so-called Philippines? She probably doesn’t bother with inane questions like this.


My mother has a lot of stories she doesn’t know how to tell. She buried them in forgotten soil and lost the words to unearth them again.

She’ll rewrite herself again.

My father’s stories always lied just behind his tongue. Now he’s opening up, telling me ghostsongs and lovestories around his old fishing town.

Me? I am a deep-sea fisherwoman, but I do not catch fish.

Videopoem (still): ‘lullaby for a fisherwoman’, 2023



Banerjee, B. “Alphabets of Flesh”: Writing the Body and Diasporic Women’s Autobiography in Meena Alexander’s Fault Lines, English Studies, Vol. 103:8, 1210-1227, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2022.2105025

Del Rey, L. ‘Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing’, Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Boulevard, Polydor, Interscope Records, 2023.

Strobel, L. Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans, 2nd ed. The Centre for Babaylan Studies, 2015

Tan, C. ‘Interview #125 – Eunice Andrada’. Liminal Mag, 2020. https://www.liminalmag.com/interviews/eunice-andrada

Ben Hession

Ben Hession is a disabled writer living on Dharawal country, south of Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, the Cordite Poetry Review, Verity La, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib, Live Encounters: Poetry and Writing, Antipodes and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? He has reviewed poetry for Verity La and Mascara Literary Review. Hession is a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.


Cemetery Visit

Sun-faded synthetic flowers adorning
the name plates – flourishes of petals, each
touching on personal, paled memories

of good works that had abounded
             in life’s now abandoned field.

One day, their visitors will return, I guess,
to these living artifices of fidelity,
             in hope – that plastic, resisting hope –
against our impermanence:
we’re seeing today, remaining in bloom.


Grace Hall

Grace Hall is a queer, crip writer and editor based in Naarm (Melbourne). Her writing explores the joys and pitfalls of growing up queer in rural Victoria. She is fueled (almost) entirely by potato and existential dread and currently reads a lot of non-fiction. Grace’s work has been published by Bramble JournalArcher magazine, Enby Journal, Writers Victoria and elsewhere. Grace was a participant in Toolkits Lite: Non-Fiction program in 2022 and is 2024 Writeability fellow.


Red brick linoleum palace

The first house is Red Brick

It’s 2005. I’m freckled, tall for my age and perpetually worried. My primary school’s oval has been transformed into a fete; there are craft stalls scattered across the quadrangle where squeal pitched conversations between mothers conjugate. The teachers are volunteers – behind stands, barbeques, holding skipping ropes and flipping sausages onto their bellies. It’s weird to see them casually dressed, all in the one place.

I’m on the playground. I can’t skip two bars on the monkey bars, but I watch some girls in my class do it. Their checked dresses flutter. I squat, pick up tanbark and let it fall through my fingers. When Jordy, a new friend, steals me away from the tanbark to play soccer, I’m relieved. I adjust the elastic around my navy-blue shorts so that they’re long like the boy’s shorts and become so immersed in the kicking, receiving – the sweet smell of unearthed turf that my need to pee, urgently, comes as a surprise. Behind the paint-stripped goal posts are two portable toilets. Jordy’s mum notices me with my legs in a tangle, and points in the direction of them. I shake my head and she cocks hers slightly, the way a dog does when you ask it a question. 

I might fall in, I tell her. 

Mum drifts over in her floral short-sleeved dress, and she looks like an angel. They’re on the boundary line but I can hear Jordy’s mum. She’s sharing my response with mum, who giggles mildly and calls me over to her. I tell her that I need to go home. Gentle, and practiced, in loving me she doesn’t ask why. 

I run under the red brick alcove of our house and nod to the fly screen held to the wall by a door stopper (last week it shaved white layers off my right heel). My fibres relax as I stare at the newspaper article of my parents saving beached whales. It’s blue-tacced to the back of the toilet door. 

I flush. The relief I feel is intoxicating and it’s enough to propel me towards my sister who’s stripped off in the loungeroom, dancing across the glossy floorboards. I don’t usually like dancing, but I toss my hands to my shoulders and shuck my hips the way the purple wiggle does. Crisp, orange light streams through the windows, filtered through a flowering gum. We retire at track four on her ABC kids CD because that song is scratched and slip into our cotton pjs. Before bed, we push our two single bed frames together so that we’re close enough to hear each other dream. 


Brown house with carpeted stairs 

Mum is sick of the suburbs. Other mums always drop-in with gossip on their tongues and tell her stories about the houses on our street with cheating husbands. The news spreads like wildfire. One lady whispers to my mum, who’s nursing a milky tea, ‘it could happen to any of us’. 

My parents decide it’s time for a sea change. They want bodies of water – to be bodies of movement. 

You guys can run amok:   mow grass    plant natives    sit around bonfires.  

I don’t know what a sea change is. 

‘Everyone’s doing it’, Dad says from behind the steering wheel, and I wonder who everyone is. We move into a rental with vomit coloured carpet stairs and a-frame ceilings. I decide it’s not a suburb because there are more wineries than houses. My sister gawks cheerily at the spiders in ceiling, but I’m all out of whack. On the first night in the brown house with carpeted stairs, I wake up Dad because I can’t find the light-switch for my room even though it glows in the dark, the white rectangle next to my door frame. I count the deep swirls on the pine board ceiling which makes me feel light and itchy. I creep across the cold checked tiles and inhale the stale cinnamon air that reminds me of op shops. 

I skate from ‘I won’t be happy here’ to: ‘I’m sorry for waking you up, Dad’. 

The next day, having sensed my disoriented state, Mum reminds that a house is just a house. She tells me, it’s the people inside that make it a home. I repeat this to myself while brushing my teeth, wondering where the elderly couple that lived here before us are now, and if they miss their old house like I miss mine.


This log cabin could be an air bnb

The next house is a log cabin on acres full of Cyprus pine. This one we own, a lie I don’t yet know much about. I call it ugly because it’s a word I’ve started to hear at school and because all my friends live in white walled houses. There’s a few gum trees but the Cyprus pines are taller. They’ve beaten the gums to the sun. At night you can hear the koalas roar. Dad tells me this is their mating sound which makes my tummy twist. 

Before Mum and Dad buy the log cabin, they go for the house next door. At the auction, my brother is in tow of my father, clinging onto his baby blue sleeve. The numbers start and the real estate agent’s voice booms. He’s loud, so I don’t understand why he needs a megaphone. My brother senses that we’re losing. 

He tries to whisper, ‘Daddy, do something’, but everyone can hear him. Dad looks at the gravel. I watch him intently because for the first time I really don’t know what he will do next. 

We don’t get that house, but we get the one next to it a few months later. Mum says it’s meant to be because it is. I understand it as: a new house is a new experience; a new house is a new mortgage and under it is a family.  

The pine walls last six months. Their disappearance is gradual. Mum and Grandpa lather each beam antique white. At night, I set up an elaborate game with barbie dolls. Between them are affairs, marriages, children growing up and moving away. Some of them buy mansions with laundry chutes and pearl shaped pools. My favourite doll is a blonde teenage boy who wears denim shorts and a basketball top. When he turns eighteen, he leaves his family – even though they own the mansion – to live with his girlfriend. She has hazelnut eyes and a floral mini skirt, so I understand why he left. 


Linoleum palace 

I’m twenty-one and the share house I live in is a linoleum palace. My housemates are vastly different from one another, but all come from a cluster of free dress schools in the Northern suburbs. One of them takes me under their wing because I am a country girl in a big city. I don’t realise it at the time, but I am only the country girl by comparison. When the clean and orderly housemate is away for the weekend my other house mate, who is messy – like me, try on multiple outfits in the living room. We take photos in the full-length mirror; the mission brown background makes us look older than we are. She cuts my hair and tells me stories of couch surfing in her early teens. When she finishes shaping my bob, holding my curls and then releasing them, she tells me I look like a queer dream. I don’t know what she means exactly, but I believe her because I can’t stop thinking about my housemate’s girlfriend, and the volume in her smirk when she greets me.

In this linoleum palace, one of my bedroom walls isn’t a wall, it’s just sliding doors, but it doesn’t matter because I’m a deep sleeper. The vinyl floors are peeling, we’re constantly chasing dust and newspaper, but it doesn’t matter because I have found my people. For some reason, though, I have to leave once a fortnight, home to the log cabin. 

I’m like a yoyo, tightening and loosening. 

One day, as I’m walking down Melville Road on the phone to my mum, she tells me that they’re renovating the tiny bathroom with no windows. She describes it: they’ll peel the logs off the side of the house and put a window in there, fix the water pressure, and populate it with the fake-plants from Kmart so she can’t kill them.  That sounds nice I tell her. The shower in that bathroom was good to me – there was just enough room to sit at the bottom of it in the foetal position and let the tea-coloured tank water rain onto you. 

‘Do you remember when you were so scared of drop toilets?’ She asks me. You’ve come so far, she laughs. 

I do, I say. Of course I do. 

Two of my housemates have a falling out. The third housemate is falling in love. The foundations of my chosen family unravel, and no one wants to use the kitchen anymore. Small decorative items that we each planted around the place begin to disappear: a vintage orange lamp, an Elvis clock and pastel-coloured clay vulvas. We try to blame it on each other – discretely – some of us cite the good times we had here. The brick BBQ crumbles. The door handles squeal. We burn sage but it doesn’t work. We all move out a month later, and I go back to the log cabin before I go anywhere else. 


Stain glass means you’ve made it       

I move into a colonial style farmhouse, deep in West Footscray. It’s the nicest house I’ve lived in. There’s a spa bath and his and hers basins and a room for my house mate’s keyboard to have its own room. There’s a chocolate-coloured fireplace in my bedroom that’s prohibited from use and the front door has stain glassed windows, apple tinted squares that frame a hearth. 

I walk a lot. Down aisles, down Barkly Street, past dumpling houses and Ethiopian restaurants and commit to the idea of going there. I imagine sitting there with the woman I’m sort-of-dating, pouring her green tea, while my eyes dance across the road to colours of the market. But she’s in America visiting Stonewall, wearing the suit I leant her, unearthing the shades of her queerness. 

When I pull up outside the colonial farmhouse (not the driveway because it’s always occupied), I sit and rehearse the anecdotes I’ll tell my housemates, because I haven’t yet worked out how to talk to them. I pat the car seat and phone people; I phone a voice, one of my favourite voices, but he’s distraught. 

He has to move out of his rental because last week his girlfriend said, ‘I’m leaving’, without saying goodbye and without paying rent and without packing up their clothes. 

‘I can’t sit in this house any longer’, he says to me, and I realise that a house can make you sick. 


The house with cracks                                                                 

The house that my girlfriend and I move into needs work. I convince her though, that it’s the house for us because real estate agents don’t like disabled people. I envision the faulty house as a god send, as though me and it have something shared in our dysfunction.

 It needs painting, cracks need filling, garden needs weeding. The labour is looped, the cracks come back and the gaps under the doors welcome dust back in quicker than it leaves.  The rooms need light and laughter, and consoling, but I don’t do the work because pain is trying to swallow me and sometimes I let it. 

I watch my tired, beautiful girlfriend swish sugar soap onto the walls and work putty into cracks and ask myself: are we playing house or is this house playing us?

‘We don’t own this place, remember’, I say to her because after a few months I find that labouring is hard to watch. 

I leave the house for the first time in months which teaches me that it’s warmer outside where the winter sun waves from behind cloud. A new friend lends me a book, The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy. In the prelude, Murphy writes that the meaning of atrium, in ancient roman times, is the heart of the house. It’s the first time I’ve read the body as close to a building and I feel unexpectedly consoled. We must find the heart of the house, becomes my new mantra when I unlock the front door.

It’s my girlfriend’s birthday and we’re out for the first time in months. We’re filling up on beer before a gig. The pub aesthetic is retro house; there are green velvet couches, orange cushions are stationed casually across armchairs. Otis Redding is playing. A beer is slid in front of me; and a smile from my girlfriend’s best-friend. I down it, feel it fizzing as it meets my medication. I am light and sleepy, but I promise myself I’ll make it to the next venue. I push the pain down. When I see the fifteen-flight staircase at the gig venue, I wish I had drunk another beer. I google their website with a shaky thumb. Under frequently asked questions is there’s an accessible toilet downstairs. 

The math is quick but confusing. The music is upstairs. I wonder if other disabled patrons visiting this place have drunk less so that they pee less. I decide that that’s what I’ll do. There’s a chair-lift that runs along the flight of stairs it’s new and expensive, but I don’t want to use it. I can’t stand out like that. I want to call it inaccessibility, but I feel like I’m not allowed to. I use my walking stick to ascend the stairs. I’m visibly avoiding access. 

Upstairs, the red curtains bellow behind the man on the stage who is shirtless and sweaty. The audience is following him, pulsing in and out, and his gruffy drunk voice is loving it. I need a chair, and there’s plenty of chairs. My girlfriend pulls one out for me. She looks at me which is her way of asking, are you okay? I nod. I’m on the outskirts of the mosh, until someone pulls up a chair next to me and speaks a sentence I don’t remember because really, it’s so nice to have someone on my level. 

I can’t hold my pee any longer, so we book an uber that we can’t afford. The rain glinted road shines as we journy down Sydney Road. I’m thinking of bricks because like bricks, the weight of inaccessible buildings accumulates until it becomes a feeling: your heart dropping to the pit of your stomach. The uber pulls up in front our house, and I realise she’s been holding my hand the whole way home. 


I don’t know when the house with cracks became a home. Maybe it happened in the mornings, accumulative, when the percolator bubbled over for the 100th time, and croaky good mornings grew into a kiss; or, when the cat chose a sunspot under the square window in the furthest room from the street. As soon as the dust settled, and the spinach in the garden was ready to harvest, the owner texted to say


Thank you for your work 


My sons want to move in 

Dad tells me we’re better off buying something. Pick mortgage over rent. Play rock, paper, scissors. The winner is rent. 

He’s seen the ques on channel nine, how the desperation stretches all the way down the street.

Under scorching summer sun, I join the ques and try to drag my mind away from the heat in my legs, they’re molten in broad daylight. By staring at my calendar of house inspections I hang onto hope. We have a family dinner to celebrate the fact that we found a place to rent, against the odds, in the wake of eight weeks. 

‘I feel sorry for your generation,’ my uncle says while he shovels pork crackle that snaps like a wishbone, into his mouth. ‘You’ll never own a house’. He pauses, sympathetically, or so that I can let the sentiment sink in, the reality of doom, but really, I’m upset because he just took the last piece of crackle. 


Wajeehah Aayeshah

Wajeehah Aayeshah is a Muslim, female, brown, academic geek who loves collecting stories. She is interested in combining history, personal experiences, and contemporary socio-cultural context to create empathetic narratives.  She is a Lecturer at the University of Melbourne, designing curriculum and investigating kindness in higher education. She likes writing short stories, creative essays, bad poetry, and developing games with a dark sense of humour.


The girl who sat in a corner and sneezed

‘Buzz, buzz.’ I wake up due to the buzzing of my phone. It’s a text from Fatemah. She wants to know if I am still up for her Garden sculpture exhibition at the Heide.

‘It’s not even 7.00 Fati.’ I groan. 

Ignoring her message, I try to get back to sleep. It is useless. My mind knows I am up and wants me to clear up the nasal passage. I try to find FES saline nasal spray. It ought to be somewhere on my bed. I can’t find it. Grumbling, I get out of my bed and go to lounge to grab another bottle from meds drawer. I have only done one nostril when my phone starts to ring. Keeping the spray in my hand, I rush to receive it. It’s my Kiwi partner calling from a different time-zone. He wants to know how bad the bleeding was. 

‘What bleeding?’ I ask in a groggy voice. 

Turns out that at some point at night, I had sent him a picture of my nosebleed. I have no memory of this action.  Putting him on speaker phone, I check my WhatsApp. The picture shows a considerably higher amount of blood on three tissue papers. I try to look for the tissues for physical evidence. I find two with dried blood on them. Half listening to his concerned voice, I try to locate the third one. 

‘Yeowwww!’ I find the FES nasal spray. It is right under my foot.

‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ Riz can hear the pain in my voice. 

‘Is your head hurting? Should I call someone to get you an ambulance?’ he is frantic.   

‘No, no. I just stepped on something.’ Trying to calm him down, I pick up the bottle.

‘What about the nosebleed? How bad is it?’ 

‘It’s okay. Relax. I don’t even remember sending you this bloody picture.’ I take a pause to congratulate myself on my brilliant display of wit.

‘Did you see what I just did there? Bloody picture…’ I put the spray in my other nostril.

‘Zoya, would you stop being carefree about it?’  I can hear a distinct ‘beep beep’ tone of someone else calling me.

‘It’s just a nosebleed. Due to dry nose.’ 

‘Just go see your GP. Please. Just do it,’ he is literally pleading.

‘OK. OK. I will.’ 

The next 5 minutes are spent me convincing him I will get an appointment, while blowing my nose. He is still unconvinced, but we end the conversation and hang up. 

‘Buzz buzz’. It’s Fatemah again. 

‘Zoya, pick up.’ 

I call her back. She wants to make slight modification to our plans. She has added my name to the list of volunteers who would give visitors a tour of the exhibition.  I am to reach the Heide Museum of Modern Art a couple of hours earlier to get a debrief. I am the ‘bestest’ person in the whole world. I say ‘OK’.  Hanging up on her, I blow on my nose again. There is blood.

The doctor wants me to get another biopsy done. I tell her I had one done 3 months ago. This isn’t my regular doctor. After an hour of heavy nosebleed, I have Uber-ed into an emergency ward. My neck has started to cramp. I have been stretching it for too long now, holding a tissue trying to stop the blood flow.  The doctor has already ordered an emergency MRI. I had an MRI 5 months ago. When I tell her this, she looks at me in a way only emergency doctors look at you. It is a mixture of exasperated, kind, bored, and overworked look. She asks the name of my GP and tells the nurse to get my records transferred as a priority. She doesn’t use these words. I have been into hospitals far too many times now to decode them. 

‘Buzz buzz.’ It’s Fatemah. She wants to know where I am. All of sudden, I feel very tired and groggy. I tell her I am at Royal Melbourne Hospital emergency ward due to heavy nosebleed. I am fine and very sorry about not being at her exhibition. The nurse’s shadow is looming over me now. She wants to take me to MRI room. I tell Fatemeh this, put my phone on silent, chuck it in my bag, not wanting to deal with more phone calls, and follow the nurse. 

She gives me a gown to change and tells me to lie down on the table. I have to remove my ring. It gets chucked in my bag as well. I think of Riz. He doesn’t know where I am, but I am too sleepy now to tell him. I doze off before the MRI starts. 

I wake up in a room filled in a dim white light. I try to recall what it is called. It is the colour of my dad’s beard. Is Dad’s beard a good name for a colour? It can be a good name for a race horse. But I am against racing.  Why would I think of a race horse name?  I can’t move my body or my mouth. I try really hard. I can barely keep my eyes open. Is this how race horses feel when they are drugged? Someone is next to me. They are saying something, but I don’t understand. I doze off again.

I wake up again. This time, I can move my head. Fatemah is sitting on a chair next to me. Her head is covered, and she is reading a book. No, I correct myself. She is reciting a holy book. She senses my movement, looks up and smiles, finishing the line she was reading, closes the book. She says something to me, but I can’t hear her. I tell her that. But I can’t hear myself. I say it out loud. And again, and again. Nothing. It is super quiet. I can’t hear the ambience; light, air-conditioning unit, building, anything. My heart is starting to race. I am getting palpitations. I can feel my throat aching. I know I am yelling but I can’t hear it. A nurse rushes in. Fatemah is trying to calm me down. But she is making me more anxious. The nurse picks up a note pad, writes something on it with big letters shoves it into my face.

                                          TEMPORARY HEARING LOSS. 

I stop yelling. My throat a bit hoarse now. I look at the words for a few moments. Then look at the nurse. He is smiling at me. I look at the notepad again and look at Fatemah. She is staring at me with a smile as well, but her eyes have an alarmed look. As if, she is worried I might scream again. I point at ‘TEMPORARY’ and look at the nurse. He nods quickly, assuredly. He is very good looking. I feel my body slumping down. Something is trickling down my right cheek. I touch it. It’s a tear, I have been crying. Fatemah holds my right arm and shoulder tenderly, then gives me a soft, lop-sided hug. I hold on to her right arm, still unsure why I am crying. 

‘So avoid wool, carpet and plants as much as possible, FES spray needs to be taken before the NASONEX one. Clean your nose after FES and keep the NASONEX liquid inside, every morning and at night. You can use FES during the day as well.’ It is the same emergency doctor. 

All of my tests are clear. Just as before. There is nothing wrong with me. I only have allergies. I am told I can do Allergen immunotherapy or desensitisation test if I like. It is a bit expensive, but it lasts for 10 years. What about after 10 years? Will it get worse? I want to know. The doctor isn’t sure. It can’t really be predicted. One of those things. 

I have had my share of one of those things. I leave the hospital with Fatemah, thanking Medicare and BUPA for covering my bills. I can no longer visit or be forcibly recruited as a volunteer for her Sculpture Gardens exhibition. Too soon to be around so many plants. She waves it off as if it isn’t a big deal. I know it is. She has been designing her exhibition for the past two years. She drops me home, fills my fridge with stuff that I might need for the next ten days and lets me be. 

I make myself some tea, pick up a book and sit in my reading nook but fall asleep. 

 ‘Buzz buzz.’ It’s Riz. His plane has landed. He’ll be at the house in a couple of hours. I read the message, smile, and blow my nose. There is blood. 

S.V. Plitt

S.V. Plitt is a queer author living and working in Naarm, Melbourne. Son’s writing has been published in Archer magazine, Darebin n-SCRIBE, and won second place in the Odyssey House Short Story Prize 2022. Their manuscript ‘Strange Intersections’ was Highly Commended in the VPLAs Unpublished Manuscript Competition 2022. They also appear on the (Un) Marginalised Season Two Podcast, discussing themes included in their writing, such as gender identity, mental health, religious oppression, and intergenerational trauma. Son draws inspiration from volunteering as a carer and their work in customer service.
A Fairy God Princess

A subversive tale of feminist woes 

There once was a Fairy God Princess.

She kissed a lot of toads looking for her prince.

Not only toads, in fact.

She pranced through the forest kissing lizards and lions and amorous amphibians.

With each slippery kiss, her disappointment grew.

The disappointment grew and grew inside her belly like a bag of snakes in a battle for sovereignty.

Battling for the prize of turning the princess into a lizard, or a lion or an amorous amphibian.

They fought fiercely, keeping the princess up at night.

Whenever she drifted into an exhausted slumber, the lizards or goannas, the toads or the lions would pull the tendon by her tailbone.

Like a puppet, her legs wriggled and squirmed out of bed and tried to run away with her.

To turn the princess into a toad or lion or amorous amphibian.

To make her a bride.

But the princess was also a warrior and worried that if her legs ran away with her,

the battle in her belly would boil and boil, filling her up with a storm for scales and fur.

She begged the moon and the stars and the emptiness in between,

that the lizard prince whose eyes gleamed like black jewels,

the prince that had so chivalrously waited in the forest for a decade,

that he might be the victor, in this battle of bravado that boiled in her belly.

But like all the contestants, his price for saving her from the lions and the toads and the amorous amphibians, was sovereignty. To possess the flesh in which she resided. To grow a lizard in her belly. To grow a king.

The Fairy God Princess, the warrior that worried, knew deep down that the flesh in which she resided, could not be divided. It was hers and hers alone.

No heir, no king, no lizard, no amorous amphibian, no lion, and no toad would chain her to the future. She prayed to the moon and the stars and the emptiness in between.

An answer came. It was a vast and empty silence that spread through her heart, her belly and her mind. She relinquished her title. No more a Fairy God Princess.

She remembered her true identity and became they. They knew the I in them. Their I was in all of the fairies, gods and princesses, in all of the princes, lizards and toads, all of the goannas, the lions and the amorous amphibians. They were all of it and nothing. And belonged to themselves and no one.

And they all lived ever after in a confusing land of grammatically problematic pronouns.

Violence, Pain and Blistering Power: Women in Lauren Groff’s Matrix by Az Cosgrove

Az is a 26-year-old trans wheelchair user with an acquired brain injury. His works of both fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such publications as Voiceworks, Archer, Overland, Mascara Review, ABC News, and the 2023 anthology of the Australian Short Story Festival. He is currently completing a Master of Literature and also graduated with distinction with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2017. He was recently one of the 2023 ABC Regional Storyteller Scholars, and is also an enthusiastic user of social media. When he’s not writing, he’s spoiling his assistance dog, Ari, working out, or getting yet another tattoo.


When I listened to the audiobook recording of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, I could hear those men in the kitchen, the ones with scarred knuckles and violence in their hearts and between their legs. Inside my empty stomach, the familiar icy snake of fear writhed. I gripped my pocketknife and repositioned myself on the pillow I had wedged under my butt to prevent pressure sores. I tried to ignore the acidic flush of anxiety and focus instead on the excellent narration by Anjoah Andoh.

As the night progressed, the murky yellow light of my room in the crisis accomodation building—the “house of horrors” my friends and I have come to refer to it—faded, and was replaced by the clean, bright air of a nunnery in medieval England. Instead of the pall of cigarette smoke, I inhaled the scent of fresh bread and the vague musk of manure. Instead of the sound of my housemate pissing loudly with the bathroom door open, I heard space cracked open, expansive—a placid quiet in the time before motorisation, broken only by bird calls and the hushed voices of nuns passing below my open window.

Matrix had been a gift from my cherished friend and author, Katia Ariel. I wish I could do more, she said (or rather typed, as we are geographically separated by a state line) but it is the understatement of the century, or at least of my year: she had in fact given me an entirely new world.

Matrix tells the story of a community of nuns led by a character named Marie, who is based on the very real figure of Marie de France, a woman who lived in the 12th century and is considered by many historians to be one of the first writers of French prose. In the first couple of pages, we are introduced to both the Abbey and the language Groff uses, which is wonderfully evocative of the decadent prose of high fantasy:

‘She sees for the first time, the Abbey: pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley; the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall.’
(Chapter 1, 00:35-00:45).

However, while the language used in Matrix sates the guilty craving that high fantasy indulges, it describes a reality not too far removed from our own. Matrix presents a version of history close to that which likely did exist but was never documented: one full of queer desire and love and unapologetic feminine power. These are historical wounds that have long scarred, but which, through fiction, Groff somehow manages to draw fresh blood. Or, maybe not blood, but something else: something iridescent and shimmering.

My phone dings and it is a message from a member of my personal squadron of superheroes, all of whom are women. Here, from a desire for political correctness, I am tempted to replace the word “women” with “people of gender diversity”, but, while there are people, precious beyond words, of diverse gender identity in my life, it is simply true that my first line of defence during that time were all cis women. These women were the ones both willing and able to drop everything and rush to my aid, the ones with both the will and the resources to save me, to pluck me from between the teeth of the corrupt machine of a society that still feeds on bodies that don’t fit into the silhouette of the norm. Women. I will refer to them as they are (I will not erase them, as has happened enough in mainstream history. To celebrate women is not to erase the trans and non-binary experiences, but to honour the historical bedrock that underpins gender divergence.)

The message reads: Are you OK to talk? The question is an unfortunate necessity, because often the answer is “no”. Our conversations are shrinking and hushed things. Our voices—the differing pitches forming a euphoric contrast—weary with a history that we share, an inheritance of silence that runs deeper than the testosterone that now courses through my blood. But occasionally our muted whispering lights up with the sparks of genuine human connection (sudden laughter, a moment of dorky enthusiasm, the sound of her toddler daughter’s voice—soft and sweet, shy—in the background).

Those moments led me to a truth: that, though vastly different, both the lives of these women and my own curl from a shared historical line.

I was a daughter, I say to my therapist, and am stunned into silence by the truth of it, how much it explains of me. And lately, it is a truth that I can’t stop thinking about. I think about it when I listen to the news and hear that, in 2024 so far, in the so called “lucky country”, a woman has been killed on average every four days. I think about it when I hear the names of the five women killed in the attack at Bondi Junction in April (I say them under my breath: Ashlee Good, Pikria Darchia, Yixuan Cheng, Dawn Singleton, Jade Young), and when it is reported that during a wave of national protests calling for action against gendered violence, the ex-partner of WA woman Erin Hay is charged with her murder.

Maybe, at last, change will come. But maybe not. I can’t be sure. All I can be sure of is this: women are fucking amazing. And though I am not one, I am incredibly proud of the history that we share.
A similar sentiment is at the core of Matrix. It is fundamentally a celebration of women; Specifically of female wisdom, made literal by the “visions” experienced by Marie. In the description of the first of these visions, language that is decadent and richly evocative blooms like colour from the page, as sudden and overwhelming as a thunderclap:

“Lightning sparks in the tips of her fingers, swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and settles jagged and blazing in her throat.”(Chapter 1, 04:09-04:20).

While Marie attributes such visions to the Virgin Mary, the otherworldly figure that appears “wears the face of her own mother”(Chapter 1, 05:40), and when the vision fades, Marie finds herself “in a ring of her own daughters.”(Chapter 1, 06:07). While the exact cause of the visions is not made clear, what does become apparent is that with the bending of reality, the maternal line does not break. Indeed, it reappears, intact, woven through the rest of the book, and the reader need only turn a few pages before encountering some variant of the words “mother” or “daughter”.

Throughout the novel, the nuns retreat further and further from the rest of society. Under Marie’s instruction, the Abbey is fortified by the construction of a labyrinth through the forest, and all men are exiled from its grounds. While in today’s context, this narrative might seem to reinforce the rigid essentialist rhetoric of “man-hating” feminism, which gave rise to the TERF movement, a la J.K. Rowling, we must read Matrix as what it is: a breathtaking piece of historical fiction written to embody the reality faced by women in the 12th century.

The women in my life continue to astound me. They are women with eyes of steel, painted nails and hands that never tremble. They are women with a love for their daughters so blisteringly intense that I almost can’t bear the heat that radiates from it.

I celebrate these women every time I rub my hand in awe over my stubbled chin. I celebrate them every time I trace an ecstatic arc with a dumbbell curled towards my torso, every time I absently lay my palm against my top surgery scar and feel my heart beating just beneath the surface.

Matrix is a celebration of the history that these women have passed down to their daughters, and that I, too, have inherited. It is a celebration that transforms a history riddled with gaps, silences, into one fissured with crystal.


Voicestamps from Matrix, Lauren Groff audiobook, 23/09/2021, Language: English
Penguin Audio Whispersync for Voice-ready