Ledya Khamou

Ledya Khamou is currently an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne where she is studying English and Creative Writing.



Houses and Homes


I grew up in a house I do not remember.

In Iraq I recall an indoor balcony, overlooking what I now perceive as a courtyard. I recall an instance (or maybe a dream, though something grounded in reality) of waking up, a nervous child, and, smiling coyly, following my aunt with her washing, up the stairs. Finding my uncle with my sister and brother throwing mattresses from the balcony onto the main hall.

Outside: cracked asphalt, dusty roads, fields yellow and dry. In photographs there is always somebody’s son in a white shirt, squinting against the sun, arms spread against silver-glinted gates.

When I remember the house, I feel an urge to relate it to Iraq as a whole, perhaps my entire upbringing, or rather how childhood felt. An ornate, dusty structure, beautiful architecture worn and shaved by inheritance and time. Family everywhere, huddled into rooms with no dining table, no chairs, eating from pots on the floor, fingers greasy with dolma and shorba. There was an inflatable swimming pool, and a gate opening. Stairs all the time. And within that gorgeous, great emptiness, a sense of the closeness of relation—of my cousins in the cornershop, of arms soaked with bubblegum faux-tattoos, and aunties pinching cheeks with their tobacco-stained fingers. 

Then, when family left, and we were left without direct relation, it must have been Syria, or Jordan, or somewhere in-between: 

The one bedroom we all slept in, tucked between my brother and sister on thin mattresses on the floor, tiptoeing to the bathroom, waking dad to open the tall door. A single green bulb on the ceiling. Mum above us, her hands clasped together, and us clumsily repeating her assured words to a night-time prayer we did not understand, and didn’t need to, really.

God was a crinkled, velvet-cornered photograph; Jesus a suffering accessory on my grandpa’s rosary, brushing his thumb as he counted the wooden beads; and Mary a weeping canvas print before blue backgrounds. I often wonder whether there was ever a part of me that genuinely believed in their existence, but that doesn’t seem like a fair question to ask of my past self. God and Jesus and Mary were as real as distant relatives, the nameless, indistinguishable faces of aunties and uncles who proclaimed with lipsticked mouths or bearded beer-breath, “I remember when you were this little!” Mum and dad pointed them out in photo albums (“you know, she used to change your nappy”) and I nodded obediently, distantly awed.

 The green-lit room in Syria (or somewhere in between) is the only part of the house I tangentially remember, and in my memory it is both sparse and overcrowded. Mine and my sister’s Barbie-themed runners scuffed in the corner next to our school backpacks. Thick blankets kicked to the foot of the mattress, spilling over and slipping under our feet in the morning, scurrying out of the house, always late, always meaning to leave.

Later, in stuffy high school classrooms smelling of sharpened pencils, squinting at the crusty print of a Gatsby passage about the green light, I’d think initially of Syria’s single green bulb, of that desperate, uncomfortable room—then, immediately, without particularly meaning to, I would dismiss the memory. It became a habit: leaping toward Australia, methodically replacing the Assyrian with the English until ABCs became natural, became the first tongue. English was a means of practical survival, then a means of distance, until eventually, it became mine.

It’s hard to describe losing Assyrian without making it sound like some sort of escape. Struggling against the hot, rough-voweled breath of Assyrian on my neck, shedding its dampened hold, and splashing into the cold green-chlorine of English, with its tall-cut letters, its sardonic, suit-and-tied consonants. It reminds me, distantly, of thirty-degree school days, panting red-cheeked from a game of tag back into an AC-ed classroom after lunch. The smell of the teacher’s staff room lasagne and glossy picture book pages and a bruised, warm apple snatched out of somebody’s backpack. Something close to hope, like the breathless, cruel beauty of a glinting city skyscraper—though something I can never really reach.



Still in Syria, though hardly at home: we attended some sort of educational institute for to-be migrants. We spent every day there, as if we were cramming Western-isms before the official test of immigration.

My parents sat in a lecture room learning elementary English phrases. Us, the children—either shoved on a table in the corner, or in an entirely different kids’ room—drew crayoned monsters on every white surface available. Fluorescent lights, early morning toothpaste mouth, awkward air. On the projector screen, there was a slide of example sentences located on the beach, or maybe about beach etiquette (“Hello, is this your towel?”), and I remember the ripple of low laughter in the room, occupied mostly by middle-aged, conservative Assyrians. Chaste women who covered their hair in church, and respectable, God-fearing men who lined the front church pews, bowed their heads before a mightier patriarch. No, we would not be wearing bikinis and shorts on the beach. Though, in retrospect, their chuckles could have been an excited, incredulous sort of laughter—an “imagine us, out of our stuffy one-bedroom apartments, laying on the beach.”

Everything in me hesitates to admit any excitement in relation to arriving in Australia. Writing this as the person I am now, after being fed on white media about people gratefully ‘escaping’ third-world countries for a so-called ‘better’ future in Western countries, I desperately want to divert any trope tinged with white supremacy. My memories are so transparent, so flimsy and fragile, that I can easily twist them into a transgressive story debunking popular myths about refugees.

Though, truthfully, I think I recall the exact moment that we received our visas. I remember distinctly that it was a moment caught off-guard, across the street from the education institute, or maybe the post-office—across somewhere from where everybody else was, lining up. A white envelope, an ineligible, thick document, my dad’s quietly gleeful grin. My dad must have called out to his classmates across the street, and there must have been a celebratory cheer from them, all lining up, waiting for the exact same letter. Walking home, there was an explanation from mum about what a visa was, and what it meant for us, and a sense of the ground shifting, a breathless air opening before us.



My dad is the youngest of his two brothers, but older than his sisters. He is a shabby young man posing in a bomber jacket in one photo, then my mustached, serious father in the next. I know that he went to university, or pursued a higher education than my mum, because there is a photo of jean-clad young adults wearing familiar faces in front of a large, smart building. But other than that…

Once, on a video call with my aunt, he reminisced about a camping trip wherein his brothers shot stray dogs for sport, and teased him when he, scared and hesitant, refused. Or maybe I misheard (or my brain mistranslated the words when I was eavesdropping, or I’ve forgotten the exact turn of phrase he used) and my dad meant that he missed the shot, rather than refused. Still, in my imagination: coarse, dried grass, brown jackets and muddied boots, a brutal green-blue sun, sweaty palms on a rifle (not the more practical shotgun, my mind decides, for some reason) foam-mouthed dogs jumping in the dimmed distance. I’d like to think that my dad refused, instead of attempted, and missed.

My mum was a farm girl. She dropped out of high school as soon as she could, professing to enjoy home life more than education. In childhood, she was protected by a throng of older brothers and a gentle, gravel-voiced father, his dark face wrinkled like a date. At least that’s how I see my grandfather now, in his old age: his voice a sweet, weathered cloud of cigarette smoke, his skin tough leather. My mum fondly reminisces about her family’s backyard full of chickens, who peck-kissed her when she fed them. Now, watching the pigeons and crows eat the rice she made for lunch outside our front door, her eyes grow watery and distant—when I crack a joke, she glances up blankly, as if she didn’t expect me there, this Australian stranger who will never know her childhood.

In one photo she is unsmiling and doe-eyed, ringlets in her hair, in an 80s shoulder-padded suit. In another, she is my mother, rounded and red-cheeked. There is an Arabic turn of phrase, a compliment for a kind person, that roughly translates to “(their) blood is sweet”, “sweet” pronounced in the pitched, sickly warmth of “sugar”. Though I do not know how to say the phrase, its shadow passes my mind in every photo I see of my mother. We share a birthplace—Iraq lives in my mum, a nestled, golden nostalgia sugaring her veins. But it eludes me.



So: Australia. A ‘better’ future. In Australia, there are calendar dates, and places I can point to in Google Maps, and names on my phone that I can text.

Our first Australian house was our cousins’ house. A brief holiday, a dreamy lapse into the before-days, close relation again. Play-Station days and barbecue picnic days and ice-cream days and TV marathon days. Big couches, too intimidating to sit on, glass-surface coffee tables, and high, plush mattresses against headboards decorated with baby pictures. In the backyard, unruly grass overlapped concrete (always planning on adding more concrete, my uncle with his hands behind his back, sucking a toothpick, discussing construction with my dad), and half-deflated soccer balls shot cruelly to paunchy, well-fed stomachs. The garage door gaped open and faulty water-guns were fished out of the cluttered cardboard boxes, teams arranged for a battle of boys vs girls—screaming bloody murder until we were ordered back indoors.

Our second and third and fourth homes—houses—were rented. Here, memories scurry from me yet again. In the second house: an unusually wide hall as soon as you walked in, empty like Iraq, except for a computer on a desk in the corner. In the third house, there is nothing. The fourth house was directly across the street from our high school—the school bell blaring, the rapid, chattering silhouettes of after-school kids filtering in through the windows. Summer was inescapable walls and a living room with one couch and suitcases still unpacked, sparse cutlery in the drawers. Looking back, the fourth house could have been a brief stint before:

The fifth house—home—was bought. This home is still lived in. I find that it’s hard to write about places that I have not yet left.

The belly of my life, the spine of who I am, was formed in Australia. Dusty libraries and humming computers and blistering summers. Now, I resist the urge to contrast Melbourne to Mosul.

Instead of the closeness within the wideness in Iraq, Melbourne is a compact, familiar closeness that is cooled with an innate distance. A detachment which gnaws, and haunts, and, in its clinginess, forces a friendship. I form myself from Melbourne’s indifference. Empty, carpeted school corridors make me teary. I befriend buses and trams and train routes, and form a mix-and-match friend group composed of strays from previous friend groups. I can joke about my past selves, because I created them—in photos I can laugh at my bulging under-eye circles in primary school (when I had nothing to be tired about) and my disgruntled, angsty disposition in high school (when I had invented a lot of things to be mad about).

Occasionally, I think: this is me, living in the ‘better’ future.

My dad tells me about racist encounters he faces as a casual UberEats driver. I have learned about race and xenophobia and class and sexuality and gender. I know how to write research essays about genocide and white supremacy and classism. I know how to trace everyday exhibitions of prejudice to their root, historical cause. If academically necessary (say, for a creative writing assignment) I could throw my ‘immigrant experience’ under a microscope, dissect the points of injury, all the ruptured cells, and bleed them into a narrative, into cause and effect. But when my dad says, “That Woolies employee would not have spoken to me like that if I were Aussie,” I cannot think of a succinct response. Unspoken, it simmers inside me.

Here I am in my ‘better’ future: adequately educated and entirely helpless.



In my bedroom, above my mattress: blu-tacked poems printed out from the local library. They are not my poems, but they are something of me. Books tabbed and annotated and highlighted and underlined, a desperate library of anything that makes me feel. Desk of knick-knack stationery, cheap pastel plastic, acrylic crochet tid-bits. Burnt matchsticks. Half-filled notebooks. Sludgy coffee grounds in cooled mugs. Hollow energy drink cans. A solitary dinner after work with the yellow lamp for company, awake and alone in the exhausted creaks of a begrudgingly loved home.

Mum hangs a wooden-beaded rosary off my headboard, though it barely clings on. In the mornings, scrambling out of bed, I accidentally knock Jesus to the floor and curse at him for being in the way. Coming back home, he is a pitiful, betrayed father on my bedroom floor, and I am a bad daughter, a faithless Christian, hanging him back on a headboard that does not want to hold him.

Cousins now behind phone glass, pixelated social media presences. I wonder if her parents know that she’s dating a white boy or dating at all. I would never ask her.

Now, I spend my days walking up and down stairs and elevators, and arriving nowhere. I am the same age as my mother was when she married my father, and in the same age bracket as my parents when they left their beloved homelands for foreign territory. I cannot imagine marrying anybody; and I lack any maternal ambitions or instincts; and though I profess that I hate Melbourne, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I have lived in Australia for longer than I was in Iraq, or Syria, or the general Middle East. What does this mean? Overseas, my home, my emergency touchdown, would be the Australian embassy. Here, I would never call myself an Aussie.

Now, at a birthday party, somebody shines a lighter over a green Sprite bottle, and I am back in Syria, repeating my mother’s prayers. Then I am mute in the backseat of an Uber heading home, tired of myself and my friends, wanting my bed with its annoying rosary, with its dead poets.

Or not my bed but a mattress, flung off a balcony, bouncing off the concrete, or shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, locked in. Wanting a home I can only remember in inflatable swimming pools, in out-stretched, tongued runners, stomping up the stairs all petty with childish arguments, to that room with its flickering green light. 


Suyanti Winoto-Lewin

On my friend’s ankle

Tipping Points

On my friend’s ankle, painstakingly inked with individual pricks of a four-pointed needle, is a symbol that ecologists may recognise as a sign of our times.

A sine wave steadily swells and falls across their skin, holding two seeds in its valleys. One rests sleepily at the base of a valley. Another, one wave to the right, is climbing steadily up the rollercoaster. Bit by bit it climbs, defying gravity. Once it reaches the peak it is in danger of rolling unimpeded into the next dip.

This symbol represents the concept of alternative stable states and tipping points. Each valley represents a state in which a system can be. Even when the system is perturbed (that is, internal or external pressures cause a system to become off-balance), negative feedback loops draw it back to its stable norm. However, large changes, either sudden or occurring in persistent increments, can push a system to a tipping point, where the seed rolls down to the next valley, a new state of being which is reinforced by a new set of feedback responses.

We feel our present to be a precipice. We stand at the edge of all manner of tipping points. One push, and we could roll in any direction away from all the patterns and truths of the system we know. The picture is of chaos and off-balance, any new stable regime on the other side of the hill far away and unknown.

I imagine the seeds on my friend’s ankle racing over the hummocks, careering off the end of the line and rolling down his foot, over his toes, into the dirt beneath his feet.


When I was young, I would crouch in the soil of my mum’s garden in naarm/Melbourne, watching the buds of poppies intently. Surely, if I looked for long enough, I would catch the moment when the first petal peeped out from the green. I never did.

The continent known as Australia travels north at a steady pace of 7 centimetres per year, yet rarely do we feel the ground shift beneath our feet. It has been resolutely ploughing away from the south pole since it started to pull itself free of Antarctica, a divorce which begun about 30 million years ago. I am intrigued by the idea of a moment in which the final tear occurred between the two land masses and water rushed into the scar. That gap allowed an oceanic current to form a tight, ceaseless ring, circling round and round the south pole, unimpeded by land. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (AAC) is the only oceanic current to circumnavigate the world. The formation of this current barred Antarctica from warmth delivered south from the equator by the East Australian Current and the Leeuwin Current, which could not pass the ceaseless whirl of the ACC. Though Antarctica sat over the south pole long before the formation of the ACC, only when this current gained momentum did it lose its forests to a permanent blanket of ice. This change, like so many of the catastrophes of geological history, happened unimaginably slowly. Even so, the glaciation of Antarctica formed part of the mass extinction event which marked the end of the Eocene epoch.

In that forested southern world over 30 million years ago, as Tasmania drifted north and ocean started to gather its furious momentum around Antarctica, I imagine the tree ferns and myrtle beeches unfurling fertile growth and sending their spores and seeds off into the wind. Some of those seeds may have caught a northward breeze, or hitched a ride on a dinosaur feather to land on fertile soil of the new island of lutruwita/Tasmania. As I walk amongst myrtle beaches and tree ferns in the Gondwanan forests of lutruwita, I imagine that I am shaded by the descendants of some of these refugees. As I breathe in the perfume of a leatherwood, I imagine its ancestors summoning Antarctic insects with their scent.

Antarctica has been trapped within a whirling ring of cold water for about 30 million years—time enough for some of the hardiest and most specialised marine life forms on our planet to evolve. A complex community of tiny animals, fungi, bacteria, protists and stranger things creep across the dark underside of the icepack or thrive within the network of briny channels etched within sea ice. Like most beings, their energy comes from the sun, alchemised from within the ice by algae.

In this frozen world, each fraction of a degree of warming makes some difference; more briny channels; less light as snow heaps up on top of the sea ice; changing growth rates of organisms. Trophic webs flail, recalibrate, adjust. But it is when the temperature crosses melting point that we humans stand to attention. Glaciers calve in loud surrender and the comfort of predictability is lost. Creatures which rely on sea ice die, while other waiting spores bloom. We watch the seed topple from a rise to a deep crevasse.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is changing. Driven by the roar of increasing westerlies, eddies which fling warm water south through the ACC are becoming stronger. This warm water travels under the sea ice pack and melts it from below, allowing glaciers to speed up behind it. The ACC long ago condemned Antarctica to apocalypse, but now protects the unique systems which have evolved there. Recent research warns that we have reached a critical threshold of warming, a tipping point, which determines even if we stop emitting fossil fuels today, the icepack of the West Antarctic Peninsula will continue to melt at increasing speed for the next one hundred years.

Spirals (contacting)

At the time of writing, there are 686 species of plant, animal, algae and insect recognised to be at risk of extinction in my home state of Tasmania. Climatic tipping points endanger many more. Some of these species have existed since Antarctica was lost to the cold; they may call that white continent their ancestral home.

Though I don’t feel that I am ready to grieve, the work I do as an ecological consultant resembles a form of mourning. I spend my working days documenting the decline of species. The small losses; a trigger plant smaller than a fingernail growing in drainage depressions of the site of a new factory; a skink distinguished by the arrangement of scales on its head losing habitat to a road. My job is to survey areas proposed to be covered in concrete or dug up for minerals, searching for signs of these 686. What I find, I carefully identify, count, photograph and map. I may make 500 mapping points in a day marking threatened plants, hollow bearing trees and vegetation communities. My colleagues produce a map and upload the information onto Tasmania’s online database called the ‘Natural Values Atlas’. We write a report describing all the life in that area that we can. The proponent then applies for a permit to ‘take’ any threatened species we have identified within their project area. Unwilling to stand in the way of development, government generally grants these permits. Concrete is poured. With a disturbing symmetry, living beings are lost in the physical world just as they become represented in the virtual. The state database collects points on a map as if this could substitute for plants in the soil, as if to codify what we have lost is to justify losing it. The Natural Values Atlas is becoming a virtual graveyard where we may visit and grieve. Our report becomes a callous obituary.

Sometimes, the design of a project will be altered somewhat to avoid harming some critters considered significant. Often, conditions of the permit require an environmental offset – take from here, but protect over there. Offsets only make sense if a norm of destruction is assumed, so that even decreasing the possibility of destruction can be considered a positive action. Further, offsets deny individuality, functioning on the premise that individuals lumped under the same name by taxonomists, or vegetation communities considered similar by ecologists, are interchangeable. Recent legislation provides for a ‘Nature Repair Market.’ Though this offers some promise of promoting good restoration work, it is based on similar principles of interchangeability. Our ‘natural values’ have become currency; the rarer the more valuable.

The independent review of our current federal environment laws found that ‘surveillance, compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act is ineffective.’ The legislation relies on developers self-assessing whether the impact they will have on natural values is ‘significant’ or not – only if a developer decides their impact is significant will they present it to the federal regulator for assessment. This means that the regulator does not see most of the projects which chip away at our continent’s ecosystems. When a project is referred, the odds are on the side of approval, with only 13 projects out of over 7000 refused approval between 1999 and 2022. Often a permit has conditions, but there is little to no oversight on whether these conditions are followed. In the decade from 2010-2020 the federal regulator issued $230,000 in fines for compliance breaches. By comparison, Hobart City Council expects to issue 8.3 million in parking fines in 2023-24.

I recently met with a representative of Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCEEW) about offsets for a road project. She calmly informed us that ‘in perpetuity’ means ‘20 years.’ I was stunned, as she only looked about 30 herself. A standard logging cycle for eucalypts is about 80 years. It takes at least one hundred years for a eucalypt to form hollows suitable for birds or gliders to raise their young in. 20 years is less than a human generation, a mining lease, a life sentence in jail. In 20 years’ time, that offset will have done its job. It can either be destroyed or it can be used to justify another round of destruction. So we spiral inward, towards extinctions.

While the separation of Antarctica and Australia occurred (and is occurring) at a speed beyond the comprehension of human senses, and human induced climate change can be perceived within my own 26 years, many of the factors causing extinctions occur at the pace of a bulldozer or a supertrawler. Whales which depend on the sea ice-reliant Antarctic krill were almost driven to extinction long before the effects of global warming were recognised. Today, regional overfishing of Antarctic krill is adversely affecting colonies of krill-dependent species such as penguins and seabirds. Scientists worry that catch limits for krill do not take into account the effects of climate change on krill populations. Australia has lost 38 mammal species in the 250 of European colonialism which has brought feral predators, habitat loss and hunting. These are threatening processes which have barely relented their breakneck pace for the past 200 years. They continue in the form of some of the projects I work on. Each extinction, each loss of a population of a species or a of community of beings, reduces our resilience to global warming and adaptive capacity in the face of change.

The seed

As a young person peering over the precipice of the present while grieving the past, I cling to uncertainty as a tired polar bear clings to drift ice. Planetary systems are so complex we can never fully emulate them within our computer models, which seem to spit out the future like a curse. We don’t know how the ground will shift beneath us, only that it will shift. We don’t know which way the seed will roll, nor in which valley it will get trapped. For me, uncertainty provokes hope and curiosity.

Ecologists use the word resilience to describe the ability of a system to remain stable in the face of environmental perturbations. This could mean raising those hills higher, so that the seed has a little further to climb before it falls to other side. It could also mean forming that seed into a tough little bugger with a thick skin – a system with high adaptive capacity. One of the key ways of building adaptive capacity and maintaining resilience of a system is by nurturing diversity. This includes diversity in genetics as well as in human communities, and importantly, in relationships. This is the work of our generation—a turn back to nurture and stewardship. A building and rebuilding of relationships in creative ways. We also need fertile ground, places for seeds to land as continents shift, such as healthy soil, hollow bearing trees for breeding critters and unpolluted waterbodies.

So, whilst we do all we can to slow the climate crisis, we must take loss of biodiversity on home soil seriously. Even ‘single-mindedly,’ the term Tasmania’s liberal government recently used to dismiss advice against a windfarm offered by experts on migratory birds. Themselves employed by the government, these experts cited the harm it may do to critically endangered orange-bellied parrots. We are not supported by the good nature laws we need, but our government is rewriting them, and there will be opportunities for community to be involved in this process. Rather than turning the protection and rehabilitation of particular ecosystems into a commodity that becomes more valuable as each one becomes more rare, stewardship of nature needs to become standard practice, written into law rather than governed by economy. Offsetting needs to be tightly regulated, and permit conditions policed. In a political and social environment in which protecting planetary resilience is as ordinary as maintaining public infrastructure we can find a more creative form of development. We can strengthen the seed and nurture the soil.


As the individual pricks of a tattoo artist’s needle create an image on skin, ecologists’ mapping points paint lines and blots across the landscape. Often these draw out patterns of destruction that follow mineral riches, ever expanding roads and fertile soils. But there are also patches of growth such as where plans have changed to avoid harm to critters, where rehabilitation has occurred, or where seeds have been collected to spread to new places.

Our current system shows that we can take notice of diversity, and record it with the precision of an artist. If we add an artist’s intentionality to this, and take note of the bigger picture we are drawing, we can create a constellation of hope at the scale of our continent. With our actions and our noticing of the beings around us we can create an image that, beyond the uncertainty of tipping points, holds fertile ground where resilient seeds can grow.
SUYANTI WINOTO-LEWIN lives by the Derwent in lutruwita/Tasmania. She is an ecologist working in consulting and land management. Her creative work has been published in Overland Journal, and her research has been published in the Australian Journal of Botany.

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Every Version of You by Grace Chan

Every Version of You

by Grace Chan

ISBN: 9781922806017

Reviewed by Zowie Douglas


In 2022, as AI-generated images began to populate our social media feeds, RnB artist SZA released Ghost in the Machine, in which she sings: ‘Robot got future, I don’t.’ The future and the present are uncomfortably close in Grace Chan’s Every Version of You, where the characters inhabit a world that is startingly familiar to ours. The protagonist, a young woman named Tao-Yi and her partner Navin live in Southbank, Melbourne, where the average outdoor temperature is too hot for prolonged exposure. Other than the climate, places such as Berwick, Townsville and Port Douglas are recognizable. Most people wear ‘Revisions’, AI-augmented interfaces which filter the world and provide useful information, including temperature, radiation, and airborne pollution levels. Characters consume ersatz food like Koffee and use robotic vacuum cleaners. Nursing homes employ droids to deal with old people. All these things build on current trajectories to create a mid-2100 era that feels too close to home, from technology to language use. Internet slang like ‘meatspace’, for example, has been adapted to become vernacular to describe the physical world as opposed to being in Gaia, where most of the characters in Every Version of You spend their time.

The novel plot turns on the decision to ‘upload’, that is whereby characters physically die, giving up their bodies in exchange for eternal ‘life’ in hyperspace. In this way, Every Version of You introduces humanoid technologies similar to other recent works of science fiction, such as Olga Ravn’s The Employees, whose narrator says: ‘It’s my job to get rid of terminated workers and, in a few instances, bodies left over after sickness or re-uploading.’ Instead of being a ship steward, Tao-Yi is a woman overboard. The plot of Every Version of You operates as an Odyssey of sorts: Tao-Yi could upload to Gaia with her lover and ‘exist’ in a state of eternal youth, but she decides not to; instead, she remains on earth, where she is determined to return to her grandmother’s ancestral home. Tao-Yi grew up in Malaysia, where her attachment to earth appears to be rooted in childhood memories and obligations: ‘Honouring Poh-Poh is more important than playing with friends in a make-believe world,’ her mother, Xin-Yi scolds a young Tao-Yi. ‘How would you feel if no one paid respects to your soul after death?’ To which Tao-Yi replies, ‘I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t feel anything.’

In Every Version of You, hyperspace becomes the locus of existence, even though its permanent residents are technically, corporeally dead. Those who visit Gaia experience a host of larger-than-life experiences, while life on Earth is stifling and depressing. Tao-Yi’s partner Nevin, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, is one of the first characters to abandon the crumbling spectre of Melbourne to upload into Gaia. Notably, the first subject to undertake the uploading process is a disabled woman. ‘A car accident at the age of three rendered Marisa quadriplegic. She moved and fed and bathed with integrated assistive technology.’ Here, Marisa’s state of being is similar to the experience of people who access Gaia inside the Neupod, a kind of isolation tank filled with gel. The user needs to shave their head to attach the equipment, rendering them infant-like in appearance. There is an element of body horror to the book’s tactile fleshiness; while the user is physically motionless, the body breaks down in graphic detail. In this way, the world building of Every Version of You is not always the most original, but it builds on influences from The Matrix and other science fiction in a compelling fashion, tempered by detailed character arcs and emotional depth.

In terms of augmented reality and artificial intelligence, the book feels prescient. In August of 2023, a 47-year-old woman was able to speak for the first time in 18 years through an avatar with the assistance of a brain-computer-interface, or BCI. The woman had lost her mobility at age 29 as a result of a brainstem stroke. The BCI is attached via electrodes to an area of her brain and runs a on language model similar to Chat GPT, where her electrical signals are ‘translated’ into words and conveyed by an avatar on screen, simulating speech much more quickly and accurately than earlier speech synthesisers.

In a similar way, language and technology are tightly intertwined in Every Version of You, where everything is bodily, earthy, tactile. Tao-Yi’s Revision is ‘clotted’ with advertisements. Bundles of wires are described as being like ‘spilled guts’. Nevin and Tao-Yi argue ‘with their mouths to each other’s ears, breathing in synchrony.’ Nevin is far less attached than Tao-Yi to the physical world. ‘We kill off our old selves all the time,’ he says to Tao-Yi. This idea of reinvention as self-obliteration is a recurring duality in Every Version of You, alongside the blurred border between information and language, mind and body.

Throughout the novel, Tao-Yi is haunted by her grandmother’s history of depression. ‘Her poh-poh died in 2043, fifty-four years old, alone in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. A suicide note, torn from the pages of a journal, crumped between the sheets.’ Tao-Yi’s maternal lineage forms a bastion of reality that is returned to over and over, bringing her literally down to earth while her peers are rushing to escape into hyperspace. ‘The earliest Uploaders will be seen as pioneers,’ said Zach, a friend of Tao-Yi and Navin. Here, I was reminded of Shoshana Zuboff’s nonfiction book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, in which Zuboff likens the advance of Big Data as a kind of digital dispossession, harvesting private citizens’ information to enrich tech empires while controlling their access to the online world. But those who upload see themselves as explorers of a new frontier, even as their memories are being absorbed into servers at a high financial and physical cost.

Gaia might provide an escape from mortality, but it’s no panacea. As Tao-Yi says, ‘We built the same spaces and borders, the same sort of bodies, and set everything ticking to the same flow of time.’ To this her friend Zach replies, ‘We stick to the boring utopias.’ I was reminded of Steve Toltz’s novel Here Goes Nothing, where heaven turns out to be a bureaucratic world of austerity, full of the same inconveniences and absurdity of earthly life.

In Gaia, the line between commerce and life remains nebulous, creating an anxiety between what is ‘real’ and what is artificially manufactured: ‘Her tummy grumbles. Is the system telling her that her actual tummy is grumbling, or has the Neupod tracked her blood sugars dropping and triggered an artificial signal? Or has the cafeteria paid for hunger triggers?’ Marketing imbues the world in ‘comm’ speak, and most human art including music is widely designed by algorithm. The characters inhabit a world where mathematical order rules, but this tends to recreate inequalities rather than level them out. For instance, bots abound in poorer, outdated districts: ‘Some have been bought by earnest shopkeepers from developing countries, taking advantage of the cheaper real estate to find a way into Gaia.’

In any case, for Tao-Yi and those few who remain on earth, their commitment runs through the knowledge that they are the outliers in a world saturated by artificial intelligence, a kind of hanger-on to a sinking ship as the earth’s regulatory systems break down. They are the ghost in the machine, even as the avatars who flit between servers lose their bodily forms.


ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.

A.D. John

A. D. John is a Wiradjuri writer residing on Gadigal land. He is a recipient of the 2023 Penguin Random House “Write It” Fellowship and the 2023 Writing NSW Diverse Writers Mentorship with World Fantasy Award finalist Eugen Bacon. He is currently studying for an MA in creative writing at the University of Sydney.


My Blood, Your Blood

Beyond the distant scrub on a strangled ridge, rhythmic rifle fire snapped and cracked – the powder smoke lifting like a delicate veil and dispersing as it cleared a dense regiment of parched saplings. Jimmy heaved the saddle onto the officer’s horse as another volley of shots pierced the damp evening air. He watched as the men around him flinched. 

“Jimmy,” a white officer called from his seat near a smouldering fire. “You see them boy?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Nah boss, can’t see a thing in this light.”

The officer scratched at his shabby beard, nodded and went back to stoking his piteous heap of embers. 

It was a lie. Jimmy could see the soldiers perfectly but was in no mood to play “spot the white fullah.” He secured the saddle and started with the bridling. 

They called him Jimmy Jackson. That’s how he introduced himself around camp and to his troop, even though he hated the name. It was a white fullah’s name, and it didn’t fit. Whenever he got the chance, he would introduce himself with the name his mother gave him – Mugi. The night before her son was born, she dreamed of birthing an eaglehawk and took that as a sign, dubbing him accordingly. Like the formidable raptor of his name’s sake, Mugi had the gift of sight. Put a jag-spear, knife, or rifle in his hand and he’d find his mark – sometimes from hundreds of metres away. 

His sight wasn’t limited to hunting. 

Mugi could cast visions of the abstract and slip into a place most other folk couldn’t. He’d soar above the hushed paddocks and the dense, suffocating scrub bordering their perimeters, rushing high over the magnificence of gumtrees. From up yonder, he took in everything. His mind’s eye traversed the expansive, sapphire skies tangled with wisps of cloud and surveyed the ravaged landscape below. 

He was all at once untethered up there in the eternal blue, but a slave chained mercilessly to the earth. Mugi would never mention the Dreaming to the white fullahs. He could only imagine they’d hack off his head or burn him alive. These men only believed in the Bible and that was that. 


Every so often, Lieutenant Wilson would be full of the spirit, rum or a mixture, and he’d limp up onto a discarded supply crate and begin spitting verses from his tattered St James Bible. There he’d be, unsteady in his boots, swaying and gabbling, fighting to keep his eyes from rolling back into his skull, as spittle caught in the nest of hair around his mouth. He’d speak of the end of days and Mugi wondered if those times had already come for his lot.

“Watcha doing?” A voice called from behind him.

Mugi turned to see Paul standing next to an open tent, its flaps whipping and snapping in the wind.

Paul was Koori as well, but no one knew his real name. He was tall, lanky yet strong. His skin stretched taut across his face and betrayed a menacing intent when he smiled – like he was now.

“I’m saddling the horse for the Lieutenant.”

“Which?” Paul’s eyes squinted into slits. He spat a peach seed that landed not far from Mugi’s boots.


“Uh huh, goin’ get it done then.” 

Paul buttoned his jacket and marched into the open tent. 


Mugi had noticed Paul striding through the camp from time to time as if he owned the place – like he was one of the white fullahs. This was his first interaction with the man, and it went as well as he imagined. The other Kooris nicknamed Paul “the White Dog”. Stories about him spread through the troop quicker than any cold or flu. These weren’t the type of tales Mugi would have recounted to his nephew back home. Rumours were that Paul played his part in desecrating a whole mob close by. The mob were charged with stealing cattle – so the settlers said. 

Other Kooris told Mugi that Paul had unsheathed his sabre during the battle and hacked at limbs and sheared off heads, all the while grinning that maniac grin of his. Mugi had seen enough bloodshed to last him an eternity. He could feel the malevolence of the mission weigh damp and heavy on his spirit. 

Mugi and his unit were sent to arrest the warrior Dawarang, whose mob was accused of disturbing the day-to-day lives of the nearby settlement. Mugi knew what it meant when white fullahs said “arrest.” Dawarang and his mob’s so-called crimes were miniscule to start with. Snatching a few chickens here, some pigs there. When cattle began to vanish, the settlers called in a local regiment of soldiers. 

Then there was the clash and the mob speared a few of the soldiers, one fatally. This was the story that the white fullahs drilled into their heads along the dusty trails all the way from Wagga Wagga. A young Koori officer named Dirru spread rumours that the real reason they (the white men) wanted Dawarang and his mob gone had less to do with protecting settlers and more to do with panning for gold. 


Mugi had spotted unfamiliar faces mulling around the creek beds with all sorts of equipment – he’d never had the chance to stand still long enough to gander at what they were up to. He also noticed they were clearing the forests slowly, two or three trees at a time. Mugi was beginning to agree with Dirru. There was foulness in the air, and he wanted to know which direction it was blowing in from. 

Mugi didn’t want to fight anymore. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hunt, cook damper and brew billy tea with his nephew. This wasn’t his nation. This was some other mob’s and now he was here trying to pry it away on behalf of these white bastards. 

He hated the way the white fullahs strode around like they had a right to it all – like they were some kind of gods. The only thing godlike about them was their opinion of themselves. He’d seen them bleed just like his mob. They weren’t anything ethereal. Just blood and bone like anyone else. Mugi wasn’t sure what he despised most: the white dog’s greed or their ignorance. They wanted to take, conquer and rape the land. Like it was a prize to be won. They had their heads so far up their own arses they didn’t realise how deluded they truly were. The land wouldn’t allow itself to be conquered. It wasn’t some fruit that sat heavy and plump on the lowest limbs of a tree. It was as harsh as it was beautiful, and it could show you who was really in charge if you were stupid enough to give it a good hard poke. 

Mugi closed his eyes so he could recalibrate. He was doing this for his sister and her boy back home.  That’s why he was here, no other reason he could think of. 

After they came in and stole the land from his people, they sold it back to them. They called it civilisation, but Mugi couldn’t find the civility in anything they were doing. The only white folk he gave a good goddamn about were the Irish. They were the only ones that seemed to cop it as sweet as the Kooris did. Poor bastards – all of them – poor, poor bastards. His lot and theirs. 

Mugi stood there with his eyes closed. The breeze lapped sweat from his cheeks. He imagined peeking through the kitchen window of his sister’s house. Her and the boy would be making damper or soda bread and laughing and gently elbowing each other. A fire blazed somewhere and it cast a long shadow that moved back and forth like someone pacing. He saw her, in his mind’s eye, the woman from the creek. 

Then he remembered he did have other reasons for being out here.


At night Mugi would sneak away. He crept past the tents and the officers snoring like smokestacks of old locomotives. He stayed low to the ground and waded through waist-high grass. He dove into the deep, cool shadows of the towering gum trees. He sprinted, hard, into the heart of the bush. His legs burning and his chest heaving until he reached the creek.

Until he reached her.


Mugi rounded a clump of tents. As he crept past the last one, he heard Captain Miller conversing with Lieutenant Daniels. The night had truly settled over the camp now and he crouched down behind a stack of logs, assured that the darkness would shroud him from the camp’s collection of paranoid eyes. 

“I don’t know how they know we’re coming. It’s like someone is giving us up.” Captain Miller’s voice was distinct—rough and deep like a rockslide in a quarry.

“Yes sir. It is quite perplexing,” Daniels said.

“I’m glad to hear you’re perplexed, Lieutenant. It shows you care. I was beginning to think you wanted to tend the land and raise cattle here.”

“We should have dispatched this Dawarang fellow weeks ago and been back home with our wives and children. I was beginning to think you liked it out here so much, you wanted to stay.”

Mugi listened as Daniel’s cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, sir, I am not following.”

“If you truly hated the heat and the stink and the general sense of melancholy this place imposes on one, really felt it on a day-to-day basis, I’d have thought you’d do everything in your power to achieve your objective?”

“Yes, sir I –”

“I don’t want to hear any more words from you Daniels. I want action. You hear me? Action.”

“Yes, sir,” Daniels said again.

“Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags bloody full, sir. Just find the bastard, understood?”

There was the loud sharp click as Daniel’s snapped the heels of his boots together and then – silence.

Mugi waited in the shadows, waited for the tent flaps to open and the light to spill out and a dejected Daniels to slink past. A few seconds and nothing. Mugi froze as he heard hurrying boots clomping towards him. He turned to see Daniels striding for him, the weight of his footsteps kicking up plumes of dust. He must have exited Miller’s tent from the rear.

“You, there. What the hell are you up to?” 

Daniels stood over Mugi – a looming storm cloud.

Mugi began to gather logs from the pile and bundle them into his arms. He stood so he was face-to-face with the lieutenant.

“Sorry, sir, I’m just collecting wood for the fire.”
Daniels looked him up and down, his thin lips curling into a sneer.

“Well bloody hurry up then will you. Get back to your tent officer. I’m imposing a curfew tonight.”

Mugi saluted, almost dropping some of the logs. Daniels didn’t break eye contact until he’d stomped off behind one of the tents. 


Mugi knew that when a curfew was imposed, the white fullahs employed an extra level of vigilance. They’d have sentries strewn all around camp. Most officers who had the pleasure of a night shift were already exhausted and it was inevitable that they’d nod off – it was just a matter of time. Then there was the lackies, like Paul, who loved to catch a dissenter just so his white masters would pat his head and say “good boy.”


The horse Mugi had saddled earlier was still tied to the log where he’d left him. No officer had bothered to investigate why one of the horses wasn’t back in the stable with the rest, or why it was still wearing a saddle.

Mugi stalked his way toward the animal. The horse dug at the dirt with its hoof and whinnied when it saw him approach. 

“Shhh, ya dumb bugger,” Mugi said.

The horse flicked it’s head up and down and started pulling at the rope clipped to its bridal. Mugi reached the animal and stroked its mane, until it stopped jerking.

A calm fell over beast. 

Mugi spotted one of the sentries standing in the paddock only a few meters away. Yawning, the officer gazed up at the luminous stars that exploded across the canvas of the night sky.

Mugi searched around in the dust. He stood once he found it, a small round stone. He ran his fingers over the rock’s smooth edges and then lined up his target. 

 “Sorry, Brother,” he said. He wound back his arm and snapped it forward in a fast whip. 

The stone cut through the cool night air and struck the distracted sentry on the back of the skull. He didn’t want to cave the man’s head in – just blow out his lights. 

Mugi watched the man’s knees buckle and his whole body seemed to crumple in on itself and the tall grass swallowed him.

The sentry now asleep—probably the deepest he’d had since being deployed—Mugi didn’t waste any time. He knew there’d be more sentries milling about and didn’t think there’d be enough rocks for all of them. 

He led the horse through the long grass, making sure to crouch down and stay out of sight. He appreciated the symphony of insects. Crickets and frogs and the slow buzz of cicadas. He reached the middle of the clearing when a bat screeched and swooped overhead. 

Mugi felt his heart slide into his throat and stood frozen until he was able to regain his composure and push on. As he reached the deep, elongated shadows of the tree line, he glanced up at the sky. He could see why the sentry had been so enraptured. Thousands of jewels burned through the blackness, their sharp trails of light reaching down toward him. 

Mugi sunk into the darkness of the thick bushland, and he and the horse clambered over the dense scrub and fallen branches. They crept carefully through the brush until he could no longer smell the whispers of the campfire. He then mounted the horse and charged towards the creek.

He heard the creek before he saw it. The burbling of tannin-stained water trickling over the pock ridden stones that cut the bed of water in two. Mugi jumped from the horse and tied it to a nearby tree branch. He went on foot until he reached the creek bed, lit by the radiance of the full moon. 

She was there. 

The woman knelt by the bank, her hands cutting circles in the water, humming an unfamiliar tune. She turned ever so slowly, and her onyx eyes caught his in their rapture. Mugi felt his heart soar. No matter how many times he saw her, he swore she was the most beautiful vision. She was the ethereal shimmer of the moonlight.  Her name was Alinta, a name that meant fire or flame, he couldn’t remember which. The woman rose and floated towards him.

Mugi didn’t move – couldn’t move. 

Alinta threw her slender arms around his neck. Mugi felt the chill of her flesh, which soothed him. He slipped one arm around the small of her back and pulled her body tightly against his. Eyes shut, two white hot mouths heat seeking, soft wet lips melting together. It took everything Mugi had to breakaway away from the ache of her want.  

“We don’t have much time,” Mugi said. “Those dogs mean business this time. You must warn Dawarang. You must tell him to leave this place.”

Alinta smiled, and she let go of Mugi.

“He can’t leave this place. It’s not that easy. This place owns him. Needs him.”

“I’ve seen what these bastards are capable of. They’ll burn this place. They’ll take it all.” Mugi stood closer to Alinta and took a handful of her soft curls, spinning them around his fingers.

“It’s getting harder to leave,” he said. “What if I can’t tell you when they’re coming for yas?

Alinta swatted away his hand and smiled again. 

“Let them come, let them see what happens.”

There was a sharp crack as a heavy footstep splintered a branch, then a metallic click. Mugi and Alinta turned to see Paul, the White Dog, who had thumbed back the hammer of his rifle.

“We’re already ’ere.” He smiled that sadistic grin of his and levelled the weapon at Mugi’s chest and pulled the trigger. 

Mugi felt the impact snatch the breath from his lungs and the creeping heat of the wound slowly enveloped his entire body. He fell backwards onto the soft wet earth of the creek and tried to cough up the torrent of blood lurching through his windpipe. He waited to die, waited for Alinta to scream but instead thought he saw her laughing. 

“What are you smiling at ya daft bitch,” Paul said as he began to slide the rifle’s trigger back.

What happened next, Mugi thought was conjured from the dying embers of his imagination. 

The trees seemed to move. Not like they did in the wind. They appeared to take steps. Their roots tore free from the ground dredging up dirt and dead leaves. They circled Paul like a pack of ravenous dingos. Their skeletal branches tore at his clothes, grabbed at his arms and he dropped the rifle. 

He screamed as angry limbs hoisted him high into the air and, as if they’d practiced it a thousand times before, they wrenched his arms and legs from their sockets simultaneously. His body broke and shuddered violently. Paul’s eyes were wide and Mugi thought they’d burst but they grew dim and closed. His mouth went slack and hung open in a frozen twisted howl.

Alinta kneeled and ran her hand over Mugi’s chest, slick with blood. Her soft caress stole his mind from thoughts of death that swarmed like flies.

Those eyes locked onto his and she grinned.

“See,” she said. “Let them come.”

Jing Cramb

Born and raised in China, Jing Cramb came to Australia for postgraduate study and is a teacher in Brisbane. Her short stories have received a Highly Commended Award in Peter Cowan competition and have been shortlisted for Deborah Cass Prize.

Lisa looked like a Laughing Buddha when she was talking about her son Oliver. It was quite remarkable because Lisa was not Asian, but an Australian redhead. Her eyes squinted into a slit almost disappearing from her face, only leaving her nose, permanently shining with sweat from the heat in the café kitchen. Her face looked happy and content. My grandpa would say with a face like that she ought to have good luck. 

“Oliver got into this prestigious local school”. Her voice was infused with sweet excitement sounding like a chirping bird. I had already heard the news. I was not sure if the word “prestigious” should be used for a public school, even in a good suburb, perhaps I was wrong. English is a difficult language.

 “The kids from the school look…”, she paused searching for the right word and then said “clean”. As if I didn’t understand she stared at me, drew closer, whispered it slowly in her low husky voice “C-leeaann”. 

The word echoed around me.

So, Oliver will become as clean as the other students, who wear freshly laundered and ironed clothes, shiny polished shoes, shower twice a day, rarely have acne on their faces and are all fit because of the healthy food they eat. As opposed to someone who looks “dirty”. 

I looked clean I suppose. Last week, a grey-haired, stern-faced lady told me “You don’t look like a waitress, you are…too clean”, as she examined me making her coffee. Her silver- rimmed glasses seemed to emanate cold air and sent a chill down my spine. I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed, trying to work out the meaning behind her comment and being the centre of attention. I looked at her and smiled. She did not smile back. 

The coffee I made her was burnt. 

I might have accidentally fallen into the “clean girl” category, as proven by my pale-yellow skin and the lady with the authoritative look. It should be an honour for a girl like me. I grew up in a heavily polluted industrial city in the north of China. The sky was permanently grey. A big open rubbish dump was a few hundred metres away from the little one-bedroom flat where my grandparents and I lived. Sometimes stray dogs roamed around with unknown items dangling from their mouths, followed by a swarm of flies. The public squat toilet, with window frames but no glass, was always freezing in winter and boiling hot in summer. There were no divisions in the toilet, everyone was on display, everyone was equal. Giant white maggots moved slowly over the cubicle floors. 

My thin, brown, wrinkly no Laughing Buddha-faced grandpa always sat cross-legged on the couch next to the little dining table. At lunch time, he would fling his head back, scull a shot of warm rice wine and smile at me. His teeth were stained with excess alcohol, black tea and low-quality tobacco, a couple of teeth missing. He wished that one day I could go to a university in the capital city, unlike him. He had never been away from his hometown. He and I did not know that a decade later, I would come to this clean country, live in the clean city, breathe in its clean air and become a clean person. Unlike my grandpa, who never had a chance to become, clean. 

Olivia De Zilva

Olivia De Zilva is a writer based in Meanjin. She was awarded the Deakin University Non-Fiction Prize by Express Media in 2019, shortlisted for the University of Queensland Press Mentorship Award and The Deborah Cass Prize in 2022. In 2023, she was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and 20/40 prize by Finlay Lloyd. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Westerly, Liminal, SBS, Cordite Poetry Review and Australian Poetry Journal among others. She is currently working on a full-length creative non-fiction manuscript.
Swimming Lessons

During the school holidays, we make the journey up and down the hill to the Adelaide Aquatic Centre every day. O’Halloran Hill is a long bus ride to the city and I try to pass the time by counting each McDonalds we pass on the way. There’s Flagstaff Hill with all the cars parked out in front, South Road with the massive Drive-Thru line and West Terrace where all the workers smoke cigarettes out the front and share bubble gum by the bins. 

Soon, we won’t be able to the Aquatic Centre because my grandmother’s, I call her Apoh, hips are getting bent like an old pipe cleaner because of the arthritis. The doctor told us that swimming was supposed to help her, but walking up the steep footpath from our house to the bus stop each day is causing her ankles to swell up like ready-to-burst water balloons. When we make the trek home in the afternoon, we avoid the kids playing endless games of footy on the sizzling bitumen so that there’s no risk of her tripping over.

 During the winter school holidays, when the Aquatic Centre is closed, we stay at home and watch the Hong Kong Jade World channel all day while eating instant noodles on TV trays emblazoned with puppies and flowers. Though she loves it when the heater warms her slippers on a particularly cold day, I know Apoh is aching for the summer song of squeaking plastic floaties, water fights and chlorine rip tides from dive-bombing teens in loose-fitting Billabong board shorts.

Apoh was sad that she never got to swim when she was my age. It was too busy in China. There was no time to go swimming because someone had to chop the vegetables, round the chickens, play with the little brothers and sisters, feed the pigs and keep the evil spirits away by lighting incense by the front door. Where she lived, there was also no public pool, so kids had to try their luck in polluted rivers and watering holes teeming with an ecosystem of litter; discarded beer bottles and runoff from the city’s sewer pipes.  

When Apoh made it to Australia with a baby on her hip, she was enticed by the sparkling blue waters at Brighton Beach that seemed to stretch for endless miles to the ends of the earth. She’d take my auntie, then my mum and uncle down there when my Agung finally got their old Holden working. They’d splash and play in the shallows but never ventured far enough to where their tippy toes could barely touch the golden sand. Agung and Apoh sat on straw mats and smoked cigarettes on the shore while snacking on dried prawn crackers and a tube of home-brand Pringles they found in the discount section at the Happy Valley Coles. Back then, Apoh could still wear a bikini without looking like a lumpy bag of rice. They couldn’t afford deck chairs like the other Gweilo’s who congregated around the beach eating sausages in bread, sipping Coca Cola and listening to the Beach Boys on repeat. When Apoh first saw a white guy’s butt crack showing at the beach, she was tempted to throw a dollar coin in there to see what she would win. The straw mats also made them feel closer to home. In China, everything was made from straw; the beds where six people slept in one room, the pointy hats to protect you from the rain when you cycled to the market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for a Friday night banquet and the doors that were supposed to keep you safe at night from intruders who wanted to steal the fake gold Buddha statue from the living room. 

Apoh never left her mat back in the Brighton Beach days. She was too scared to get wet, to make a mess of her ornate swimsuit she hand-sewed when everyone finally fell asleep. She also wanted to keep her perm afloat. She had wanted to look like the sophisticated ladies who trawled Kowloon wearing luxury cotton while cradling designer handbags, but because Agung tended to scrimp and save, she ended up looking more like Leo Sayer after spending hours in the chair at Ying’s Hair Emporium in China Town.

Sometimes she was tempted to go in, but she was too scared to make a fool out of herself in front of all the tanned Aussie babes in bikinis. She didn’t want to be the typical Chinese lady drowning in the warm salty current because she was too ignorant to swim between the flags. People still made fun of Asians going to the beach back in those days, my Mum told me once. We were all supposed to be working in the market and playing mah-jong in the basement of Chinese restaurants on Gouger Street. 

There had to be a cultural distance between us and Aussies because we were still guests to their country whom they deigned to let borrow the beach once a week. Mum said that we had our section, near the rocks and under the jetty, and the Aussies had theirs, right where the sun shone on the sand, near the giant volleyball nets and boutique ice cream shops.

Agung and Apoh stopped taking the kids to the beach when school started. She wanted them to focus on beating the Aussies at maths, English and science so that they finally earned their place in society. The plan backfired though. Mum became a low-earning travel agent at a Chinese version of Flight Centre where she booked budget trips to Bali and Thailand with all-inclusive Continental Breakfasts at three-star hotels. My Auntie dropped out of school at sixteen and ran away with a guy named Dragon who rode a motorcycle and had a tattoo of her name somewhere that I’m not allowed to ask about. My Uncle moved straight back to China as soon he realised that a steady job as a furniture salesman with an obedient wife beat living out of the caravan, trying to make it big as the next Asian Michael Hutchence. They were tired of a life where they were shoved into lockers and called Ching Chong Chinaman, so they just gave up trying to fit in.

It’s different now, though. There are heaps of Asians in Australia. We’re doctors, smart people who can own businesses and live in three-storey houses with Range Rovers parked in the driveway. My grandparents never left their three-bedroom shoebox at the top of the hill, though. I go there every day after school because Mum works late in the city. She picks me up after dinner. We used to take the bus down to the city just to go shopping at the market. Apoh would see his friends at Charlie’s Café in the Central Market, but my Apoh was lonely. She never could say much to these people because she felt she lost her Chinese-ness. She didn’t speak English very well either, so she couldn’t make friends with the Aussies who sold flowers and pretty trinkets to hang in your house. At first, she said we should go swimming at the Aquatic Centre because it would be good for me. I didn’t argue, any excuse to get out of the house was a good one. It could get a little bit claustrophobic in there with the incense and Chinese gangster movies, so climbing onto the bus and looking out the window at all the greenery as we rumbled down the hill kind of became like a mini-holiday. 

Apoh makes us swim in the shallow end. She clutches onto my shoulders, begging Buddha not to let her drown, as we swim around all the little kids doing backstroke in their fluoro swimming costumes. We probably looked a bit stupid, the pair of us, bobbing through the water like squishy jellyfish without any direction. But she got better when the pool was empty and just us. No one is looking at her then, so she pierced through the chlorine, band-aids and urine streams like an Olympic swimmer, her fingers dancing through the water like tiny ribbons. It was nice to see her this peaceful. Usually, she is hidden behind the kitchen counter, sweating, chopping up meat and arguing with my Mum about whether to use ginger in the chicken or not. There was always something going on in her mind, but when she goes swimming, she seemed to just let it all go.

It’s nearly midday. The sun is blazing through our windows making the worn carpet a perfect spot for me to veg out while listening to I Want It That Way on repeat through my Walkman. I am like a lizard absorbing all the heat through the pores of my skin.

‘Yucky girl!’ my Apoh laughs. 

In Chinese culture, the floor is usually associated with hungry beggars and matted dogs eating trash in the street. Though she vacuumed the carpet once a day, Apoh consistently maintained that it was dirty. The house is never clean, according to her standards. There is consistently a stray speck of dust on the dewy spritzed money plants, a fresh footprint staining the linoleum in the kitchen. If guests ever came over, a shoe out of place on the rack would cause her to go into cardiac arrest.

Today, she’s wearing an XXL Kmart over some old swimmers she found at the opp shop. Gone are the days when she cares about her hair or figure. My grandparents sleep in separate rooms because Agung has a snoring problem and Apoh’s let her leg hair grow out. Mum says that women stop caring about their figures after they get married and have kids.

‘I was skinny before I had you,’ she tells me while thumbing through a gossip magazine, sucking on a lemon lime and bitters. 

I look down at my flat, twelve-year-old melted into the warm carpet. I could never imagine it holding anything but food and water. I worry that if a baby got put in there, I’d explode or it’d grow to the size of me and there’d be two of us sharing the same body. Then once it exploded, it would probably make me look like Mum or Apoh and I’d be fat for the rest of my life. I pinch the soft, tight skin, making red marks under my Seafolly tankini top. 

‘What are you doing?! Let’s go!’ Grandma scoops me up from the floor and shoves a giant t-shirt over my chest.  

‘It’s ugly!’ I protest, looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a hot air balloon reflected.

‘Dirty man look at you on the bus,’ she hisses. 

She was paranoid about pervy men because she watches those soppy Chinese soap operas where a sneaky, corrupt man tried to taint the pristine, woman in white who is meant to be with the sleek and shiny Prince Charming. Mum and Apoh love their soaps. Though Mum can’t stand the whining and wailing of the Chinese ones. She watched Home and Away religiously, taking in the thrills and sexiness of salacious beachside affairs with buff police officers. When I’d beg them to watch something fun like those game shows where people got punched in the face by giant balls and water guns, they’d call me primeval like my Agung, who enjoyed watching similar things, but with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Sometimes there was nothing wrong with the simple things, but they never seemed to understand. They wanted sex, drama, abs – everything their lives lacked.

We wait for the bus near the tennis court and playground. I fiddle with the ugly material of the t-shirt, poking my finger through a hole in the armpit. I hope that people won’t think I’m pregnant. Grandma moans as she is almost hit by a stray football from the sidewalk. She rests her hands on her hips and sucks in the dry air.

Ah Ma, don’t slouch. Doctor says stand up straight,’ I tell her in in broken English because she doesn’t understand me when I put full sentences together. 

She slaps my hand away and points to the bus rolling down the street. She doesn’t want to acknowledge she’s in pain because it’ll mean that she’s getting older.

Ah Ma, lie down! Ah Ma, sit here! You won’t be able to walk if you keep going on the way you do,’ Mum shouts at her as if she is a child.

She’ll huff and keep sweeping the floors. Mum becomes her shadow, barking at her about health insurance and pensions. Apoh will ignore her and bend down all the way to the floor to light her incense, bowing her head and folding her hands into a frantic prayer. Keep me here for my children, she’ll whisper. Make me strong. 

The bus is half-empty except for tired uni students and retirees who read the obituaries to see who they’ve outlived. We sit at the back after the driver has given us our ticket. I get a student’s return fare – $4 all up. Grandma gets an elderly concession trip – $3.50. She resents the label and shoves the ticket in her purse, grinding her yellow teeth and focusing her button brown eyes out the window. Her jade bangle hangs limply from her tiny wrists as she plays with her hands in her lap. Every movement she makes looks painful. I grab her hand and she’s shaking. We don’t say anything as the bus pulls over to pick up a construction worker chewing bubble gum. Apoh sighs, loudly, so the whole bus can hear. I couldn’t even imagine the feeling of my body giving up on me. It would be the ultimate betrayal after all those years of hard work. I pull at my skin again, making sure it is just as tight as it was earlier at the house.

We are near the small freeway into the city. Because it’s early in the afternoon, there’s not much traffic. We’re cut off by a motorbike and the bus driver swears his head off with the kind of words you’d find scrawled in Sharpie in the boys’ locker room. Apoh is shaking. She and Agung got in an accident here once. He wasn’t looking where he was driving when he was deep into the chorus of some Chinese love ballad and proceeded to drive into a barrier and the car fell straight into a ditch. That’s probably why their hips are so bad. The construction worker flips the bird at the motorcyclist. The retiree humphs at all the bad language and continues on to see who has died of Dementia this week. The uni student has fallen asleep reading his anatomy homework. 

黐㞗線 (fucking crazy),’ Apoh mutters. 

She’s not supposed to swear in front of me in Cantonese or English. But my sensitivity for fucks and shits was broken after I stayed up late and watched Big Brother Uncut one night. I kind of like it when she drops an f-bomb in front of me because I feel grown up. I just agree with her in the best adult face I can muster. I look slightly concerned, slightly constipated. 

‘You sick?’ she asks.

 I go red. 

‘No!’ I grab her hand again, feeling like a baby.

The bus lurches past the suburbs, down the hill into traffic lights and billboards for gyms and fast food. We pass the Flagstaff Hill McDonalds where Grandpa brings me burgers whenever he’s in the city. The university is near the hospital where the students scramble to get off the bus. The old restaurant my family used to own has now become a Dominoes. We drive through the smoke of the factories, and shopping centres with four-storey car parks. I get a little quiver of excitement when the bus reaches the outskirts – where the factories and shopping centres are hidden under the large shadows of the tall buildings and rows of apartments and offices stacked up like a thousand mah-jong blocks. Grandma looks out the window too. She came from a country where the tallest building barely reached a hop-scotch jump. When she came to Australia, the buildings were still small, like growing roots in a pot plant. Now they tower over her like she is a tiny ant in the dirt. I take it for granted, the buildings, all the craziness of the 21st century. I’m always comfortable and gratified. If I’m hungry, I can go to a vending machine and get a Coke. If I’m tired, I can sleep whenever I want, nobody cares. Grandma never had that luxury growing up. If she was hungry, she’d have to wait till her ten brothers and sisters got their share first. If she was tired, she had to wait till it was time to stop working and sleep under her little brother in her family’s shared bed. 

The bus is near the Aquatic Centre and we amble to the front. I scrunch the flimsy material of my t-shirt in my hands. A man notices this, (and my bare chicken legs underneath), and winks at me. I’m scared, but flattered, like when Tony first spots Maria in West Side Story. But instead of a quiff and leather jacket, this man has a ponytail and is wearing round John Lennon-style glasses–a druggie Harry Potter. Apoh notices our exchange and pulls me off the bus as soon as it stops in front of the grassy grounds of our destination. 

‘Dirty man!’ she pinches my t-shirt and tuts. 

The bus zooms down the road and he’s still looking at us. The old Chinese woman and the pathetic little girl in an obese man’s crew neck. 

The changing rooms are the worst part of going swimming. Wrinkly old ladies like Apoh change in and out of their togs. They don’t care that I’m there and walk around full nuddy–saggy boobs and all. Grandma, still haunted by the social segregation of her beach days finds the available changing cubicle to slip her dress over her head. She wears sandals in the changing rooms, unlike the other ladies. She tells me that we’ll get a disease if we let our feet touch the dirty floor. I bunch up my t-shirt and throw it into the corner with our bag and towels. 

‘You ready?’ she asks.

Apoh is decked out in her Kmart swimmers and goggles. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be standing next to her big belly and veiny legs. She looks so old. Her jade bangle clinks against her bones as she wades into the shallow end of the kid’s pool.

 Apoh practises her breathing like a goldfish. She gulps in then out underwater, big bubbles forming until she brings her head to the surface. I float around her in case she gets scared. Her black hair is all messy and sticks to her goggles. She grabs my hand and begins to stroke her fingers through the water.

‘I swim, look!’

She lets go of me and kicks off the pool wall. The water is so shallow that her belly nearly touches the floor. But it doesn’t matter now, because despite her arthritic hip, and her fear of being watched, she is swimming. She kicks her legs, making a huge splash onto the kids doing backstroke in their floaties. I follow her through the water as she does another lap, head cracking through the cold water for air. 

Ah Ma, stop before you get too tired,’ I yell, sounding exactly like my mother.  sounding like the exact echo of my mother. 

Apoh pushes me away, hyper like a kid who drank too much red cordial. The little kids laugh at the big woman lugging herself up and down their pool. I glare at them as Apoh swims another lap. I don’t see the old lady they’re laughing at. Rather, the young woman, skinny like me, with the perm and ornate swimsuit on Brighton Beach all those years ago. I see arthritis, senior concession cards and soap operas melt away in the aqua-blue chlorine. I wish she could always be this happy. 

‘Ah! Good swim!’ Apoh grabs my shoulders and smiles. 

I flick some water in her face and she splashes me back feebly. I create a current with my hands and get her square in the eyes. We start splashing like crazy people till a lifeguard blows his whistle at us. All the little kids laugh and we wave at them. I show Grandma my attempt at a handstand. She tickles the backs of my feet as they jiggle above the water. I point my toes like a ballerina and kick them at her chest. She pulls me toward her and cradles me like a baby. In the water, I’m weightless and she takes full advantage of this.

We wait for the bus. It’s colder now, but we’ve bought some hot chips from the canteen for the long journey home. By the time we reach the outskirts of the city, I feel myself dozing on Apoh’s shoulder. I grab her hands, they’re no longer shaking, they’re warm and soft from the water. I use my big t-shirt as a blanket. The bus ambles up the hill, back into the suburbs. We reach our stop and walk towards the house. She starts to struggle with her hip again, so she leans on me until we make it to the front steps. Someone’s already cooking dinner. 


Dominique Hecq reviews she doesn’t seem autistic by Esther Ottaway

she doesn’t seem autistic

by Esther Ottaway

Puncher and Wattman

ISBN 978-1-922571-76-2


Esther Ottaway’s third book of poetry, she doesn’t seem autistic, explores a neglected area of psychological medicine: autism in women. It is by default that Ottaway herself was diagnosed, when a specialist established that her youngest daughter was autistic. Although partly autobiographical, the persona in the poems is ‘a composite woman and girl,’ Ottaway tells us in her foreword: she wants ‘to show [us] a profile of autism that [we] are not familiar with’ (12). 

The collection documents the symptoms of female autism across a spectrum as well as the inevitable misdiagnoses. It also poignantly exposes the core of the speaker’s humanity—in this case, what affects her. In Andy Jackson’s words, the book is ‘a revelation.’

Symptoms of female autism include empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, hypotonia, dyscalculia, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, narcolepsy, pathological demand avoidance, dysautonomia, panic disorder, depression, etc. Repress the desire to laugh, because this is not funny. Miss Diagnosis is psychological medicine’s own worst symptom. As Ottaway shows triumphantly towards the end of the collection, labels come unstuck. Are torn to shreds. And yes, as she affirms in ‘Joy to my world,’ her own ‘revelation’ (74) means a belief in change.

And the poems? Ah, the poems. They show how poetry is created from the bodymind, its affects and memories. Riposting to Ottaway’s dismissal of the word ‘good’ in ‘How are you?’ (57), I’d say the poems are achingly good. These are not poems trapped on the surface—the surface of observation, information, narration, sleek language.  Here, there is rhythmic intensity that fuses emotion, breath and thought, incorporating profound, associative insight.

Consider, for example the opening to ‘There is always a giraffe,’ which takes us back to the persona’s childhood:

Cool as a whale
Mrs Haydon is stepping backwards through water

patient with this small giraffe
who has failed at every sport

all neck and skittery hooves,
large-eyed, patterned with shame.

Consider how it catches gracefully the movement it needs for grief. How it carries with dismay the child’s terror, and then with respect the newly found knowledge of death, ‘asking if it’s worse to drown, or fall’

Perhaps these unknowns associated with terror and death present Ottaway’s powering creativity with a tempering negativity. This would seem to be the implication of the book’s first poem, ‘After writing a book on female autism, I decide to bury it,’ where birth and death, breath and dread are intertwined in the figure of ‘that bleating woman’ (13) who nonetheless dares to offer the danger of poetry. 

‘The shamed body addresses its owner,’ responding to a sense of dissociation, is achingly good, too: its feeling is finely judged, its observation has a convincing mix of deflection, fixation and ambivalence. It is almost speechless:

You say my names: but will you introduce me
to your friends?  Are you still ashamed –

Another standout in this collection is ‘Illanelle,‘ where the body is at war with itself, its ‘lifelong illness… auto-immune,’ adumbrating as it does its own ‘release’ (53). There is something about death that is teaching Esther Ottaway’s layered poetry a new clarity. Perhaps it is a particular kind of newly found carelessness. Or confidence.

At another level, it encourages just a little too much care, as if presence, evoked through sensate detail, might compensate for absence, as in ‘Perennially gaslit, the autistics reject humanity,’ where the persona talks to (her)self and needs more detachment so that desire can get free of guilt and shame:

We aren’t’ wanted,
won’t be missed. Little wonder
that we shy now at this pillory

go to the insects, plants, land, sky. (65)

In the face of such debilitating condition, Ottaway finds in poetic practice a way of enacting a discipline. It might seem effortless, but not many poets can achieve this balancing of the imponderable and impermanent, this balancing of lines so that they incorporate at once the movement of breath and bodymind. Ottaway has learned how to set her subject free: she exercises a discipline of line; she practices precise observation and sometimes self-deprecation; she discreetly deploys a specialised lexicon and, above all, empathy. Some might say that she writes without ego, but I disagree: wit and humour undercut a refreshing self-consciousness.

In ‘Neurodiverse’ Ottaway achieves a level of imaginative embodiment I find puzzling. Through a linguistic play of deferrals and reversals, the poem achieves something close to spiritual power. Something I only experienced by accident in a yoga practice I failed at again and again—and have long since abandoned. Here suffering, emptiness and desire coalesce:

Deserve in our
derive. No ruse.
Revise, undo re
overused rein.
Never die sour! (75)

The imaginative process rests on inter reaching reciprocities; it is useless to want one dimension to explain another, as if the poem were a response to an idea that had some temporal, causal and linguistic priority. It is a pared down, even compact poem. And yet it spawns innumerable interpretations through letter reconfiguration and linguistic border crossing.  Never die sour / [nev-uh-duh-zai-uh]. Rein / rien (nothing). Derive / dérive (drift). Who is writing here? Esther, or me? Until fairly recently, ours (ours?) was not a subject-position from which autism was usually considered, writes another poet grappling, as I do, with what it means to write from the perspective of an autistic subject.1

Themes recur and resonate throughout Esther Ottaway’s work: pregnancy, parenthood, loss, grief and more generally, family ties, but it seems to me that she has found ways to embody them more fully in she doesn’t seem autistic than in her two previous collections to amplify the architecture of her poetry so that what might have been mere observation or information acquires layers of narrative and thought that convey a more profound, a more fully realised experience of interconnectedness. Here is the opening to ‘How to have an autistic friend,’ where the syntax performs this interconnectedness:

See that my scales flash gilt:
the prowess, gift.
Acknowledge the lack in me,
how baffling the lacunae.
Invite me, fit the schedule to me.
If I can’t answer. If I forget,
remind. Remind anyway. When I can’t follow through,
be kind. Remember the iceberg
balancing under this peak,
how intensely I’m thrashing
underwater. See
what can’t be seen, like city stars. Give me rest
and more rest, time, time
and more time.

Above all, what strikes in this collection is the inventiveness of the language. Enjoy the full response to ‘How have you succeeded despite having autism?’. Here is the hilarious beginning:

At first, I am disauder, distressed auganism. I cannot count on the
audinary. Efforts come to naut – I triage, relinquish, harden up: hindsight
and forethaut my advisors, flight my reliable last resaut. I am an auphan
in this singular authogenesis, autonomous but so hamstrung, my
writing my only authodox ability, stamp on my passpaut…

My own revelation comes intertwined with an anecdaut. 

… empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, sensory processing disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, pathological demand avoidance, panic disorder, depression… mania and hypervigilance …

My youngest (a boy) says: We’re all on the spectrum, mum. That includes you. My jaw drops. F. labels. Mind the book’s last poem, ‘The autistic woman’s self-compassion blessing,’ I sway to myself. 2


1 Joanne Limburg 2017 ‘The Shape of the Problem’, The Poetry Review, 131.
2 Pun intended.

DOMINIQUE HECQ was born in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She now lives on unceded Wurundjeri land. Hecq writes in English and French. Her creative works comprise a novel, six collections of short stories and  fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry. Her latest publications  include After Cage (2nd ed., 2022, Liquid Amber Press) Endgame with No Ending (2023, SurVision), winner of the 2022 James Tate Poetry Prize, and a bilingual poetry sequence titled Songlines / Pistes de rêve, with photographs by Natia Zvhania (Transignum, 2023).

Joanna Cleary

Joanna Cleary (she/her) is an emerging queer artist. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ ReviewThe HungerGordon Square ReviewApricity PressDigging Through The FatTypehouse MagazineThe Gravity of the ThingFunicularCanthius, and Queer Toronto Literary Magazine, among others. Follow her on Instagram @joannacleary121.



Tree Poem

Today, my ecology professor starts class by asking
what a tree is and all I know is that they’re hulking,
impenetrable things I could never climb: my palms
breaking on bark and my body stuck stupidly below
while my brothers clambered from branch to branch,
but occasionally I catch myself thinking of the time
when I almost did it—clung to a low-hanging branch
and lifted my feet off the ground, found my footing
on the trunk, allowed myself to become suspended
in air—until my arms gave way and I dropped down
like all the other times before, my face red, the tree
unmoved as I leaned against it in either silent prayer
or defeat, waiting for the poem I started that moment
to end, though it wrote and rewrote and rewrote itself
even after both my brothers outgrew climbing trees
and the hours they spent hoisting themselves higher
became memories, even as a pretentious grad student
raises his hand to say how we can find god in nature
(like it’s that easy), and I could reply saying I haven’t
but perhaps I once did: in that moment above ground,
no longer standing on tree roots, I could’ve believed.

Varuna Naicker reviews We Need to Talk by Manveen Kholi

We Need To Talk

by Manveen Kholi

ISBN-10 ‏  9392494297

Red River Press

in partnership with Centre for Stories


We Need To Talk is raw, truthful and confronting. Manveen Kohli, a British-Indian poet, captures the brutal hypocrisy of what it is like to live in a society where the existence of women is a contradiction. The honesty in which Kohli writes her poetry leaves the reader nowhere to turn but to confront the harsh truth that we force young women into a lion’s den without raising a finger to tame the many lions. From the title, Kohli had my attention. We Need To Talk. The masterful 4 words instill an alertness for what is to come next. The title foreshadows the content of the entire book: I need you to listen to what I have to say. 

The first section of eight, the poem “When My Home Country isn’t Home” dives headfirst into exploring the contradictions of Indian society. What is immediately noticeable is the choice of language Kohli employs. Her verses are sparse and not overly layered with descriptive metaphors and similes. She lets the subject matter do the talking and her poetry is all the more powerful for it. “When My Home Country isn’t Home” immediately acknowledges Kohli’s position to the reader as an Indian living outside of India; an insider and outsider in the eyes of Indian society: 

These people always remind me
that India is home,
but won’t ever talk about how I am treated
as a foreigner.

She quickly transitions topic, highlighting the unbalanced accountability women and men are subject to in this society. Using emotive religious language, Kohli drives home the point that piety is preached whereas respect for women’s bodies and their agency are not: 

an uncle will put his hands
on his niece’s body
and use those very hands to pray,

The verses move quickly and cut to the heart of the issue. The minimal, blunt language creates a sombre tone which aids Kohli’s overall objective; this is necessary conversation, not a nice one. 

As We Need To Talk continues, it is clear that the entire book will be unapologetic in its commentary of the society the author sees around her. For some, this may be confronting but if so, that is all the more reason why it is needed. This is incredibly true for the next two poems “Daddy’s Issues” and “Don’t Call Me Pretty”. The two poems are dark and reference the violence the author is subjugated to by those she trusts. In “Daddy’s Issues”, Kohli challenges the primordial pedestal which the concept of ‘family’ sits upon within Indian society. 

She refuses to dilute the experiences of her father’s abuse to save their relationship, challenging the patriarchy entrenching Indian society through her closest source: her father. Indian women see this time and time again. We are told to forget our grievances in favour of protecting the family dynamic. Familial domestic violence is punctuated with an asterisk as if to say that it is less severe than violence outside the home because forgiveness is waiting behind the door, biding time until the victimised family member walks through. But Kohli draws a clear line in the sand, instead opting to not absolve her father of his crimes; she will not carry the burden of forgiving him, as if she does, she is betraying herself:

so I will stop here
because Dad,
writing about you
is like returning
to war while
still having PTSD.

“Don’t Call Me Pretty” returns to examine the societal contradiction rooted in misogyny where women are framed as instigators, despite the fact that sexual violence being inflicted upon them. The repetitive phrase: 

Didn’t you know?(30) 

The phrase punctuates each double standard, reinforcing femininity as dangerous for purely existing: 

Didn’t you know that
your breasts and legs
should have
been concealed
for your body is a meal,

The verses poke holes in how we understand consent through a harrowing account of sexual violence. The author begs the question: what is the point of teaching girls consent when it is the boys who need to learn? The simple, plain language puts the irony of blaming women front and centre. The reader is hard pressed to concede that this is anything but injustice at its worst. 

While the earlier poems in We Need To Talk are imbued with anger, grief, and a demand for accountability from the external forces at play, Kholi’s later poems take on an introspective and reflective nature: they are letters to herself (in fact one is titled “Love Letters to Myself’). “Intrusive Thoughts” uses perhaps the most poetic language out of the entire collection. Kohli describes to the reader how insidious her anxiety can be and the various ways it manifests itself by sabotaging her daily existence. She does not break away from her pattern of using minimalist language, and although the tone is still direct, there is a trepidation that is not as apparent in her previous poems. It only adds to the rawness of her work and shows that We Need To Talk encompasses many topics that are not broached in Indian society, mental health being a core one. The juxtaposition between the fleeting nature of anxiety attacks, yet its anxiety’s permanency demonstrates Kohli’s talent at communicating the visceral through language: 

Sometimes anxiety
feels like the only
constant in my life
for it may leave
for a while but
never permanently,
and when it reappears,
it grips me with
such ferocity
that it takes
the oxygen
out of my body.”

We may not see her anxiety but we feel it. 

Kohli’s skill as a poet is flexed as she traverses many different emotions without losing the reader’s attention through the directness in her address. “Tribute” is an ode to the loved ones in Kohli’s life. In the last verses, Kohli proves that she does not paint men with a broad brush stroke. The verses concerning her grandfather, her brother and her lover are written with tenderness and love. For me, the poems serve a dual purpose. They are an homage to the men who showed her true love, and on a broader level are a reminder that misogyny is not a sickness, where the sick have no choice but to succumb. The tales of her brother and his love for her demonstrate that men have agency to choose love over complicit violence, and this love the author basked in: 

Having a father
who starved
me of love
and a brother
who gave it
in abundance
taught me
one of the most
important lessons
of my life.
A man is not
always defined
by the one
who raised him.”

The final verses bring We Need To Talk full circle, with Kohli dedicating her last sonnets to her mother’s experiences dealing with the very same patriarchy and misogyny examined in prior pages. There is solace in Kohli’s words to her mother and she acknowledges that the grief she feels, her mother is not a stranger to either. 

We Need To Talk is a holistic retelling of what it means to be a young Indian woman. The ferocity in its censure of Indian society, of the reproduction of toxic masculinity, to me, comes from needing to speak the truth into existence so that these topics do not remain in the shadows. The power of Kohli’s poetry comes from interweaving the bad and the good, the light and dark, to create a complex world that is brave and truthful to the experiences of many Indian women. The poems will no doubt spark discussion and be the catalyst for inspecting how we replicate the world around us in our own relationship dynamics. We Need To Talk is a work that deserves a wide audience and pause for conversation for many years to come. 


VARUNA NAICKER is a Fijian-Indian writer from Penrith, immigrating to Australia when her parents moved from Fiji in 1999. She holds a Bachelor of Communication degree and a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Governance. Varuna has deep interest in how social institutions form people’s perception of themselves and the perception of the world around them. She has worked in various media, including film and writing.

Az Cosgrove

I am a 26 year old trans masculine and disabled person based near Newcastle, NSW. I am currently completing a Masters of Writing and Literature, and am also one of the ABC’s 2023 Regional Storyteller Scholars. I write both fiction and non-fiction, and am also enthusiastic about anything to do with being a dog dad, photography, fitness, and making cis people uncomfortable.

The Mirror World

The dim interior of the barbershop takes a long moment to precipitate as my eyes struggle to adjust to the abrupt change in light. I hear where I am before I see it: the raucous buzz of clippers, the occasional rumble of baritone voices.

“Name?” asks a voice. My vision begins to piece itself back together, pixels of light and colour resolving into finer detail like an image sluggishly loading. The centre loads first, and I see the wet flash of teeth, the curve of a polite smile—then there is a pause and a strange scratching sound. Gradually, the rest of the image sharpens, like the focus ring of a camera being slowly twisted. I see now that the man who’d spoken is messily scrawling my name on a chalkboard.

“You’re after Ryan,” he says, stepping back to the stony-faced man currently enthroned in front of the vanity. I nod and position my wheelchair into a vacant spot against the waiting room wall. I open Instagram and, not wanting to break the silence with the robotic voice of my screen reader, attempt to decode the images without the contextualising information of the captions, occasionally casting an overt glance in the direction of the barber and the man in the vanity chair, whom I assume to be Ryan. When I see the telltale flash of silver that indicates that the barber has retrieved a hand mirror to show him the back, I know he must almost be done. But just as the barber begins to unfasten the gown from around his neck, he raises a finger and asks, as if he’d forgotten, for a beard trim. I swallow a groan and glance at my support worker, who is perched delicately on the chair nearest the door.  I imagine I can hear the distant jingle of coins streaming past with every minute, like grains of sand disappearing down the funnel of an hourglass. For approximately the seventh time that hour, I silently give thanks that I don’t have to dig in my own pockets to pay her exorbitant fees, but the pulse of gratitude is quickly followed by one of guilt. I scour my brain for some useful tasks I could get her to help me with while we wait, but I don’t want to leave the radius of the barber and risk losing my precious place on the chalkboard.   

Nearly half an hour later, it’s finally my turn. The barber pulls one of the padded chairs out of the way and I wheel into the vacated spot.

“So, what’re we doing?” He asks, tucking a piece of paper towel into my collar. I snap on my brakes and take my glasses off. Instantly, my unaided vision causes the scene to blur and split in two, like a wet ink blot folded against a piece of paper.

“Uhh, pretty short on the back and sides—” I start to say, but my voice dies in my throat. Hidden by the black satin gown fastened around my neck, my wheelchair has vanished, and my face has been reduced to a handful of expressive brushstrokes. With a shiver of de ja vu, I recognise this man. He’d inhabited my imaginings during adolescence—he’d hovered like static just above my skin. I’d only ever known him by his silhouette. The details of his face had never been clear—alternatively resembling Cole Sprouse, Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Hemsworth—and his body was a confusing collage of the muscle-bound men that appeared, again and again, on the glossy covers of magazines, and shirtless on cinema screens, but every glimpse dissolved and I could never be sure that I’d really seen anything at all. As my body became ravaged by an oestrogen-fuelled puberty, he had begun to fade. It had been his face that had disappeared first: his headless torso remaining for just a split second longer, like the decapitated body of a snake writhing for a moment before falling still. And after my diagnosis and surgery, when I’d found my reflection radically amended to include the bulky silhouette of a wheelchair, he’d vanished entirely. Only, here he was, a handsome Frankenstein, miraculously imbued with the semblance of life by some arcane quality, some ancient magic crackling in the air of the barbershop. 

The moment flickers, light ricocheting in rainbow lines between two versions of reality—one shedding a slightly translucent twin, a ghostly double. I feel myself become disoriented, as if someone has spun me around and around by my shoulders: I could be here, in this twenty-six-year-old body, the clippers vibrating against my skull, or I could be thirteen again, miraculously transported to the other side of the glass window through which I’d gazed so longingly, the window belonging to the barbershop on the main street of the town I’d grown up in. Like this one, one wall of the shop had been made a window, exhibiting the scene within like a precious jewel in a display case. I remember workbenches studded with a glittering array of razors and scissors and combs; upturned faces daubed with a thick, creamy foam evocative of liquid marshmallows, and, when the sky was overcast, thick slabs of golden light spilling from the windows and stretching across the footpath. I imagined that the golden air inside the shop would be clean and sweet, like that on a mountain-top, a rarefied pocket of atmosphere superior to the slurry of the street outside. But at the same time, I knew that it could never survive the brutish intrusion of my touch—it could exist only behind the glass, like the tiny, perfect diorama inside a snow globe.

Almost two decades later, the barbershop is still there—but the parallelograms of honeyed light have vanished, and in the window, I see only the hard glare of sunlight and the topmost quarter of my waist-high reflection. I also see what has, of course, always been there, but that I had before failed to notice: two thick concrete steps at the entrance, their unforgiving silhouette casting a hard shadow like a hole punched in the earth. Of course, the part I did get right is the candy cane pole. It’s slightly faded, the red now more pink, but it’s still there—twirling cheerfully above the door.

The stripes of the barber’s pole are thought to be emblematic of the practice of bloodletting commonly performed by “barber-surgeons” prior to the 18th century. Barbers also pulled teeth and performed minor surgeries. 

More euphemistically, one may consider the stripes as signifying metamorphosis: a constantly turning engine taking in, from one direction, bodies calloused and imperfect, and spitting them out, from the other, polished and cleaned. It was the job of the barber to distinguish between what was to be preserved and what was to be trimmed away. It was, and remains, his job to define the average man, what Adolphe Quetlet termed l’homme moyen, and if he did his job well, he might uncover the exquisite core, the David waiting to be unearthed from within his tomb of marble. Only, what fell around his feet was not ribbons of stone, but loose hair, congealed blood, rotten teeth.

My legs are beginning to ache, and for once I welcome the pain. It pulls me back into the present, into this body that I now recognise as my own. The past that had never been begins to fade, like a polaroid developing in reverse. It does not disappear, but I know it is not real. It is the false twin, the hollow duplicate, the shimmering mirage that will remain forever fixed on the horizon.

We lapse into silence as the barber begins to work. When I hear him take a breath in preparation to speak, I grit my teeth, expecting the usual demand that I explain the scars clearly visible through my shortly buzzed hair, my wheelchair and my slurred voice, but he only says: “Try and hold your head still.” 

“Sorry.” I mumble, blushing furiously.

I’m impressed by his restraint, but still know that I will not return. I’d sworn off barbershops after the emergence of a disturbing pattern of experiences, exemplified by one barber trying to physically lift me out of my chair despite my repeated protests (such incidents seemed to occur much less frequently in mixed-gender salons). I had only made an exception because my regular place had been blocked off by recent flooding, and I’d already made a booking with my support worker.

As the barber works, parts of his body creep into my square of clear vision, like photographs taken at maximum zoom. I realise that he is much younger than I’d initially thought—an assumption no doubt caused by the long, bushy beard reaching halfway down his chest, a wiry mass strongly evocative of frayed rope. The beard is a sure sign of a pair of testicles generously ejaculating testosterone into his blood. Despite his skinny jeans and the shoes that my parents would call trendy, the guy looks like a bushranger who has travelled through time. I wonder if, when he’s getting ready in the morning—maybe brushing his beard, maybe coating it with a tiny blob of obscenely expensive wax called Adventure or some shitif he is aware that his beard will leave behind a gory trail, like a bristly paintbrush dipped in crimson. 

Within six months of starting testosterone, hairs began to sprout above my lip: a soft, blonde down that my wavering vision had no chance of bringing into focus. I knew they were there only by touch: when I first ran my finger against the skin and felt the slight cushioning of fuzz my breath caught in my chest, as if I’d spotted a butterfly perched an inch from my hand and knew that to breathe would doubtlessly scare it away. Soon came the sheer sensory pleasure of shaving: sweeping gentle waveforms of creamy foam across my cheeks, pulling it away again in neat stripes, each pass of the razor like that of a sculptor’s chisel. Then the unbelievable ecstasy of a hand rubbed over a stubbled jaw: more a vibration than a sound, like a cat purring. 

But almost four years later, my facial hair had plateaued at a wispy little moustache above my upper lip, and I had become thoroughly accustomed to these phenomenological pleasures. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw not the vague smudge above my upper lip, not the sparse peppering of darker hairs across my cheeks and chin, but the great swathes of pink skin, the obscene nudity of my jaw, the lewdly exposed plumpness of my lips. I saw the diminutive warrior I had been allotted for my champion:  a soft-featured boy who looked barely to have scraped puberty.  

For a couple of months, I tried to bolster my epithelial productivity by smearing my face each night with a foul-smelling liquid marketed to treat male-pattern baldness. The active ingredient was minoxidil, and it came in a bottle with a little dropper. The instructions directed you to apply it to the scalp, but an alternative use was to smack it onto your cheeks and chin like aftershave.

 “I better not grow a beard!” My partner had cried once, when I’d kissed her after forgetting that I’d applied minoxidil a few hours previously. 

 Judging from my own experiences, the likelihood of that eventuality was low. The alleged benefits of minoxidil in stimulating facial hair growth have mostly been established by anecdotal evidence. The most notable exception came in 2016, when a study out of Thailand showed that 3% minoxidil significantly enhanced beard growth in 48 men when compared to a placebo.

The authors of this study, which was written as a letter to the editor of The Journal of Dermatology, were unambiguous when justifying their research: ‘beard enhancement’ they wrote, ‘improves masculine and attractive appearance, signalling dominance, strength and self-confidence’. I am ashamed to admit that my own motivations for pursuing the treatment were not much different—while I felt nothing but overjoyed by the sensations unlocked to me in the first-person, under the scalding gaze of others, I wished for more facial hair. No one would question Ned Kelly or insist to Abraham Lincoln that he was making a mistake. I could do with all the dominance, strength, and self-confidence I could get. But much to my disappointment, no miraculous proliferation of the follicles on my jawline could be discerned, and after a few months, it seemed pointless to continue the expensive and unpleasant regime. 

For my birthday that year, my partner gifted me a sleek black electric razor that didn’t require me to stand over the sink to rinse the blade after each stroke. I began to shave from my wheelchair, the mirror reflecting the empty space above my head. I shaved better by feel, anyway: with my eyes closed, tracing my fingers over the Braille of a holy text I’d almost forgotten. 

When I came out as trans to my family, my father responded by collecting dozens of scientific papers about transgender biology. He quietly deposited these as PDFs saved in a shared computer folder labelled Papers. I am certain that this campaign was fundamentally well-intentioned—in those dense columns of text, my father was attempting to express his acceptance, or at least his openness to acceptance. He was trying to tell me, to show me, that the transgender experience, at least of the rigidly binary variety, had biological veracity. I remember one such study, which claimed that functional MRI (fMRI) data revealed similar brain activity in transgender individuals and cisgender members of their “aspired gender”. When I read it, each sentence seemed to trail off in an ominous ellipsis. The “objective” delineation of how a transgender brain could work silently brought into existence it’s negative. Between each declaration of data was the shadow of its absence, the obscenity of its inversion. I instantly wondered if such patterns would be evident in my brain: if the enigmatic secrets within my skull would reflect what I felt as the truth?  

The opportunity to see inside my own skull came when I was twenty-one. Only, I did not see the painterly brushstrokes of the fMRI study, but the glowing silhouette of a tumour. It was likely benign but had begun to press on my optic nerve, hence the double vision that had sent me to the emergency room. If it wasn’t removed as soon as possible, it would doubtlessly cause what the doctors called “significant issues” (translation: blindness and death). The good news was that surgery alone should be curative, and I was very low risk for any complications. The most likely scenario was just a few days of nausea and the inevitable discomfort of a surgical wound. I would only need to stay in the hospital for a couple of days before I was back to normal. 

As one glance at me will reveal, the most likely scenario failed to arrive. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have recognised the cloying incense of statistical premonition, the prayer-like chanting of averages and norms, and prepared myself for the worst. To move, to breathe, to reveal oneself as a living human being rather than a statue, was to fall, to tumble down the steep slope of the bell curve. 

Without the orientating pole of the normal, my entire prognosis became uncertain. Would I walk again? Would my vision correct itself? The doctors could only shrug. I was lost, a lonely data point adrift in the negative space beyond statistical expectation. 

“How’s that?” The barber asks, and I answer in an octave lower than my normal voice. 

“That’s great. Cheers, mate.” He unfastens the cape and I wheel to the register—the cheerful ding of my card against the machine sounding like something from a video game—and then I leave. 

Outside, it seems unbelievable that I have escaped. It seems absurd that I am alive, that this queer, trans, disabled body is permitted to exist in the same world where candy cane poles still decorate the street.

I think of the barbershop on the main street of my childhood town. The image I see is two-dimensional, flattened like a photograph. I imagine I see a version of me: a man who is handsome in an overwrought kind of way, with darkly stubbled cheeks and two thickly muscled legs sticking out from below his satin gown. His eyes did not follow mine, did not regard me with familiar tenderness or the bubbling heat of loathing or, in fact, anything at all. They are the painted-on eyes of a doll—hollow, lifeless. His form flickers, and through his skin, I can see the faded vinyl of the barbershop chair, the pale-yellow light. He begins to fade. I know that he will not disappear entirely, but I will become used to seeing him as he is: blurred, slightly translucent, and totally unimportant.