Carielyn Tunion-Lam

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

*

Separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

The first time I remember drowning:

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

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

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

*

When I tell my mother this, she gasps.

Da, the same thing happened to me!

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

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

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

*

Transition

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

That’s when I knew, he tells me.

There is no such thing as ghosts. Only spirits.

 
Incorporation

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

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

*

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

She’ll rewrite herself again.

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

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

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

 

Cited

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

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

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

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

Grace Hall

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

 

Red brick linoleum palace

The first house is Red Brick

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

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

I might fall in, I tell her. 

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

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

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

 

Brown house with carpeted stairs 

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

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

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

I don’t know what a sea change is. 

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

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

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

 

This log cabin could be an air bnb

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

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

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

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

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

 

Linoleum palace 

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

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

I’m like a yoyo, tightening and loosening. 

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

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

I do, I say. Of course I do. 

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

                                                              

Stain glass means you’ve made it       

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

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

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

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

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

 

The house with cracks                                                                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

Thank you for your work 

But

My sons want to move in 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 
 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

 

II

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.

 

III

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.

 

IV

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.

 

V

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. 

 

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. 

 

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.

Eva Hale

Eva Hale is a young Australian writer and poet, currently based out of Hobart, Tasmania. She has several publications under her belt, including several features in Pure Slush, The Platform Project Magazine, and Togatus. She has been a state finalist in the Australian National Poetry Slam in 2021, winner of the Platform Project in 2021 and a winner of ASA Tasmanian Writers and Illustrators Mentorship Program in 2022, wherein she has been studying under mentor Mark Macleod in 2023. She completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Writing at the University of Tasmania in 2023 and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at the UTAS student magazine, Togatus.

 

puppy/love/story

It accumulates over months. Small teasing gestures and outright teasing that simmers with a yearning that tugs at my chest. There are inside jokes about his flaccid bowl-cut and my unruly baby hairs that curl around my forehead in the humidity. I am still somewhat shiny and new to town after moving in with my father. He is desperate for any sort of spark after a damning childhood as the chubby kid. It is tragic and brutal, the way we twist together. It is the cruellest part of me that I can never undo. 

At the ancient theatre in town, I drag my best friend along on what I am worried is my first date with him. We arrive early, and in the disappearing light of dusk, I spot him with a group of friends. They are all popular and clique and known-each-other-since-kindergarten. I have always kept my chin tucked around them. He pretends not to notice me, so I duck away in a cavern of the wooden structure. The custard yellow paint is cracked with moisture and pulling away from the timber. The theatre is almost one hundred years old, apparently, and proudly advertises being held together by over two-hundred and fifty-thousand nails, which I find peculiar. When I first visited the establishment with my previous best friend (the turnaround is fast in these early days of high school), I whispered to her as we stood in front of the counter, “I wonder who was counting.”

My current best friend stares past my shoulder as she leans against a lamppost. “He’s staring at you,” she tells me. But when I turn, he is talking to the pretty girl on the swim team. 

I pay for our tickets, as she is both crabby and thrilled to be dragged along to watch the new Captain America. “We haven’t even seen the first one,” she whines as we drape in the canvas camper chairs and wait for the low-budget local advertisements to begin. 

“I’m sure we can pick it up.” I tell her, but I myself am deflated at the thought of watching a superhero movie separate from the boy who invited me. He is with his group up the front, and we are tucked up the back, terrified of addressing the elephant in the room. Several times, I hear the deep echo of his voice, laughing. 

After forty minutes, my friend and I have made a game of the film, cracking jokes every time an action scene occurs and picking apart the viability of the plot. We are insufferable and squawking with pubescent giggles when I notice him duck out of the row and skirt the perimeter of the seating area. I fall silent as my heart thumps in my chest, staring straight ahead at Chris Evans, who is flirting with Scarlet Johanson. Even when he falls into the seat beside me, I don’t look away from the screen. I don’t remember what we whisper about, but I remember that he nervously stares at my mouth and the side of my face as my body threatens to tear in two from the tension of it. When he retreats to his group of friends, I stare at his back, hunched over as he tries not to block the screen. 
 
 
On our actual first date, we return to the old theatre. The ceiling arches in a massive bell curve, framing his shape as he leans against the posters of what’s showing. We watch a romcom that I don’t really find funny or romantic, and our hands drift closer and closer together until, in the last few minutes, our pinkies overlap with an electric simplicity. 

Someone from the grade above us calls him Joshua and he doesn’t correct her. Neither do I. When his dad is waiting in the car to pick him up, I feel dejected and slightly put-off by it. Other kids relying on their parents has always felt embarrassing to me. I have taken to walking everywhere, even in the pouring rain. My father wakes up late and starts drinking early. At night, I walk through the haunted oval littered with needles and I scan the shadows with unblinking eyes. I pretend to yearn for nothing, as I am worried that asking for anything will make me seem weak. Or worse, it will land me back with my mother. 
 
After barely a month of us officially ‘going-out’, he tells me that he loves me at the sports carnival. I glare at him as my friends look away, wide-eyed and uneasy. How could he put me on the spot like this, in a crowd of people? 

Cold and annoyed, I say, “No, you don’t.”

He insists and insists as I push him away from me. He clings onto my knees, tenderly, like a lifeline as I scowl at him. I kick my sneakers into the red clay of the slope we sit on, adamant on ignoring him. He wilts and sulks into me, desperate for a crumb of affection. 
 
 
At school, everyone says that he is wrapped around my finger. His doting, although irritating and demanding of attention, fills me with a clean, crisp wholeness. When people ask his name, he tells them mine first. It is thrilling to have someone so devoted to me after a childhood of dejection and loneliness, of being warned that the foster home is a phone call away.

I have figured out how to kick the dog and keep it coming back for more.

I take his foggy-eyed puppy love and I grind it into a paste of bones and blood and sinew. When he watches me as though I am his entire world, I decide that this is both lovely and annoying. How stupid he is, I think. How blind to the gritty and violating truth of loving someone. At just fourteen years old, I am jaded, and he is not, and I decide that this is a crime worth punishing. 
 
 
One night, he tells me that his mother used to date some really scary men. He tells me that he would have to watch as they hit her, and he was too small to do anything. He felt so powerless, and he tells me that sometimes, he still feels that way. When I ask if the men ever did anything to hurt him, he says no. I don’t remember what I say in response, but I am sure it is bad. 
 
 
I am so deeply embarrassed by my attachment to him that I keep him a secret for as long as possible. When my older sister pesters me about my pubescent love life, I easily slip into a hard, marble version of myself. After almost six months, I finally give in. Regret fills me immediately, as this secret vulnerability spills over to her boyfriend, our other sisters, even our mother. I am mortified, disgusted, humiliated. 

Withdrawn and frigid, I hold myself out of reach. Still, he reaches and caresses and reassures me, like I am a scruffy alley cat suspicious of a dish of milk. 

After a trivia night fundraiser in the school gymnasium, I leave the bright lights and pressing discomfort of mixing teenagers with the general public. He walks me toward an eerily empty Kiss & Go Zone, a few steps behind. My body fills with heavy, viscous dread as I see the headlights of my sister’s car pull into the lot. Of course, I realise, my father would never have been in a state to drive so late. 

“You can go now,” I assure, trying to proverbially shake him off. As always, he insists and dotes, wanting to make sure I get to the car safe. It is gentlemanly and chivalrous and irritating like an itch that has been scratched to a wound but still has the audacity to itch. 

My sister shouts hello to him, and my body becomes rigid. He kisses me on the cheek and pulls away, but she objects. 

“Give her a real kiss!” She bellows from the driver’s seat, and I’m petrified that the crowd in the gymnasium might hear. He seems equal parts ecstatic and frightened at the prospect of sharing our first kiss here, now. His eyes are wide and longing, searching mine. I look past him, at the railings lining the cement footpath, the kind that leave an unavoidably sharp and bitter metallic scent when touched. The footpath around the school is covered by a tin roof to protect from the almost constant cover of rain. The assault of raindrops rattles in my ears, the perfume of it heavy in the wet air. I can even smell the tinny whisper of the railings if I focus hard enough. The shadows from the headlights stretch and claw at everything behind him, but when I close my eyes to block it out, I think he mistakes this for a permission.
 
 
Almost a year passes between us. At the old theatre, we see movies as an excuse to make out and whisper adorations to one another. I squeak and moan as he kisses my neck, making the entire audience squirm with discomfort. In the everchanging shadows of the theatre, we are mostly symbiotic. In the dark, I let myself fall into it the way I think I’m supposed to. 

It’s here that, after months of alluding and implying, I tell him that I love him. I have avoided it for so long, spurring on a narrative of being too afraid to say the exact words. I don’t know when I decide that I can’t draw it out any longer. In a way, it feels like a mercy, despite being the cruellest lie I could spin. Outside of the movie theatre, I am robotic and cold with him. I drive him to desperate frustration and then dare him to break up with me (a sort of pleading). He never does. I am so far removed from him, yet am drawn to sinking my roots even deeper, clinging on to a half-dead thing. I am skin over bones with a gnawingly sweet disposition. I have run out of superficial ways to keep him enamoured with me. 

And so, in the dank concave cavern of the decrepit movie theatre, I finally say the words, so ridiculously long after he first gave his heart to me. I do this because, after so long, I am certain that it should be true. I am also almost certain that it is not. 
 
 
“Do you want to break up?” His voice shakes, quiet in the forest. 

I have been trying to say it for half an hour, opening and closing my mouth like a jittery fish as I avoid his eyes. I couldn’t even do this without his undercurrent of support. I stare at the roots gnarled, twisting out of and back into the dirt. I toy with a stick, some grass, anything to keep my hands busy. I’ve been wanting this for a long time, frightened of the tired familiarity of our relationship. I am repulsed by any hint of my soft underbelly. He met my mother recently, and that hot brand of shame that pressed into me made me sure that we had reached our end. 

I nod, unable to form words. We stay silent for a long time, and I can feel him concave but say nothing. He walks me home, and when we go to part ways, I awkwardly jut out my hand for him to shake. He stares at it for a moment, then smiles affectionately, the skin around his eyes crinkling in a way only meant for me. His eyes are so sleepily sad, like he’s waiting to wake up from a horrible dream. I cannot tell if I’m the horrible dream or me leaving him is the horrible dream. 

The grief knots itself into my body until I am a fabric of it. It does not feel the way I want it to feel, the way I expected it to feel. Something gluey and saccharine emerges from the cracks, something that instils me with fear. Early the next morning, I call him, feeling hysteric. I don’t understand why I’m doing this. It’s not fair to him. I do it anyway.

He picks up on the second ring. 

“Hey,” he says, soft. 

“Hey.” I reply, struggling to find the words. After a long time, I ask, “How are you?”

 He laughs, once. “Um,” 

“Sorry, I mean,” I inhale, shake my head. “Are you going to school today?”

“Yeah,” he says, still soft, “Are you?”

“Yeah.”

I sit on this for a moment. I truly had expected him to skip after yesterday. A small part of me bristles at this; have I not broken him completely? Do I not have the power to do even that? I try to push this thought away.

When I tell him that I think we should just go on a break, he is relieved. I tell him that I need space. That I need to work on myself to be better for him. That I haven’t been good, and I want to be better. It’s usually quite easy to convince him, so that’s not too impressive. The impressive part is that I manage to convince myself. 
 
 
I have always been frigid and avoidant of intimacy, and sexual intimacy is no exception to that. I’ve been clear about this with him, and he’s never pushed me, but there is a quiet yearnful tug from him. It grates on me. Once, he asks if he can move my bra strap while kissing my shoulder and I become detached and cold, pulling away from him completely. The thought of sex is a daunting and ever-present fear I try desperately to avoid. 

At this point, I aware that there is something wrong with me, but I cannot comprehend what it is. I find the world’s obsession with sex grotesque and distorted. I cannot look directly into the face of it, I am constantly averting my eyes. At this point, I have been assaulted many times, but will not remember for several years to come. I am terrified of my own ever-changing body. Thus, I am repulsed by him trying to love it. 

When he asks why I wanted to break up with him, I tell him that I wanted to kill myself, but didn’t want him to feel guilty about it. This is both true and untrue. He tries to hold me, panicked at the possibility of losing me, grappling at the second chance, but it doesn’t reach me. I have felt so alien for so long, so far removed from everyone else. I am worried about this, so I lean into him, trying to be more upset than I feel. It’s like I am calcified, cut off from the whole world, lost in a tomb of myself. 
 
 
I do not understand how he can love me like I do not understand how my father ever loved my mother. My poor mother. Her screaming furies and cold indifference. Her cheekbones. Her pestering phone calls and threatening affection. To me, he is something of a gross experiment and I am dismayed by the outcome. If he can still want me after all I’ve done to him, I can still want my mother. 
 
 
I break up with him again, over text, one month before I turn sixteen. I am terrified that once I am the age of consent, he will expect me to have sex with him. It is callous and cruel and easy because I know that if I wait to do it in person, I will be too much of a coward. Again. 

The new school year is bitter. It is clear he still loves me and is furious about it. He glares at me, and I glare at him. We spit acid at one another, with me petrified that he will make me look weak or vulnerable, and him inconsolably heartbroken. We are the picture of a young love gone sour, the two people who are not put in a room together. In classes, he is sullen and resentful. He flirts with my friends to get my attention and I look at him like he is an ugly wound that won’t close. We are not fair to each other. 

In these years after, he breaks his leg and drops out of school midway through our final year. I starve myself and attempt suicide half a dozen times. My body is stubborn and refuses to let go. On his last day, the class asks me to write the farewell card because I have nice handwriting. I wonder if he notices.

In the narrowing months wherein we still inhabit the same small-town-planet, there is a moment of indignation in which I harshly admit to a girl in my class that I never loved him (I did have love for him, I’m sure. I hated so much of him but loved the feeling of being so blindly adored. I had cared for him deeply, I think; a regretful and pitying fondness). At a party I’m not invited to, she gets drunk and this secret spills over into the textile of the student body, drenching him in renewed despair and humiliation. It is only now that I begin to feel sorry for him, for what I’ve done. After I have delivered this final, gut-wrenching blow to a boy who made the mistake of falling for me, I see myself for the snarling animal I’ve always been. So frightened of losing control that I will create the illusion of it wherever possible. When I see an old photograph of us together, I realise that I’ve grown to look a lot like my mother. 

Monique Nair

Monique Nair is a Melbourne/Naarm based writer of Indian-Italian-Polish heritage. She is a screenwriter for My Melbourne, an upcoming anthology film produced by Mind Blowing Films and supported by VicScreen and Screen Australia. She is the co-editor of Mascara Literary Review’s debut anthology, Resilience (2022), published with Ultimo Press. She is an alumni of the West Writers program with Footscray Community Arts and her writing has been published in Kill Your DarlingsVoiceworksPeril and The Indian Weekly. She has performed or presented at Emerging Writers’ Festival and National Young Writers’ Festival.

Photograph: Gianna Rizzo
 
 
To the Languages

To the languages that died crossing the sea and I never inherited: Malayalam, Hindi, a northern Italian dialect and Polish. I miss you. I long for you.  I mourn your loss – as if languages can get lost and die in the gap between parent and child. But in reality, you were never really mine.

Were you? It’s not like I ever fluently held you on my tongue or you were intentionally passed down like a family heirloom or a birthright. But you always felt so near – a familiarity unparalleled to other foreign languages.

So then perhaps you didn’t really die crossing the sea; you survived the journey, the aftermath, but not the endurance to the next generation. As if the seas made you sterile – unable to breed yourself into existence for the next generations to come.

I was born into a colonial English-speaking country, on unceded land holding so many languages itself, some faded, some on the edges of survival, some revitalizing, some thriving. Born to an English-speaking mother, who sometimes speaks English in a kind of Italian rhythm but carries the death of Italian and Polish forever at the tip of her tongue from migrant parents who spoke to each other in their languages but only English to their children. And to my father whose tongue twists in multiple Indian languages but speaks a polished brand of colonial English – a result of his English medium Mumbai schooling: a remnant of colonial days and the illusion of Western supremacy.

So, it was only English he passed on. Unrealised mother tongues faded to ‘unnecessary’ and too hard to teach and maintain amongst pervasive English and without community.

But, I love English too – it’s the only language I truly inhabit and express through, yet it doesn’t always feel like enough.

When we are born, we have all the languages in the world. Our ears have the capacity to distinguish every sound in every human language, but depending on our surroundings our range reduces and we are conditioned not to notice the subtle differences between consonants that don’t exist in English but are integral in Hindi. In that way, not feeding children a language takes away from their born ability.

But I can’t resent my parents, my grandparents – there are forces beyond them, validity to their choices, and I always have my own agency to learn a language myself.

I was still offered languages – washed over by Hindi in a childhood dancing and singing to Bollywood songs, learned to say ‘hot water’ and ‘cold water’, count and muster greetings in Hindi and recite Sanskrit prayers. My tongue’s muscle memory will always find the Gayatri mantra, although I could never tell you what each word means unless I pull up a definition I found on a WhatsApp forward image.

As a teenager I cultivated an affinity for Italian to roll off my tongue in songs when I found Jazz and my grandfather’s Dean Martin records and CDs and tried to learn all the words to ‘Volare’ and ‘That’s Amore’. Jazz ebbs and flows in syncopated currents, sprawling and shifting between languages – English and Italian – and I was teeming with pride that many of the 1950s/60s jazz greats were Italian and I had one quarter belonging to that diaspora.

Or, perhaps no claim at all with only one to ten in Italian and a handful of greetings and nouns. My teenage bedroom singing: a hollow illusion in tumbling tongue rolls and wavy vowels.

(And, I’m not even sure I would recognise Polish if I heard it)

Yet still, there are Hindi songs I can recall – the instrumentals start and the forthcoming words emerge in the corners of my mind, intangible to my tongue, in inarticulate knowing. Sometimes my tongue can stumble through them, embodied memory, but unknown meaning. And at times I hear conversation and I understand words I forgot I knew but would be forever terrified to say aloud and mispronounce. It’s all disparate fragments that can never amount to the full existence of language – never fully carried on these rhythms, just transiently suspended in fleeting waves of sound.

To the languages that crossed the sea – perhaps you did survive, and you’re still here with me. Except, it’s a subdued existence on the peripheries.

 

CB Mako

CB Mako is a non-fiction, fiction, and fan-fiction writer. Winner of the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition, shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize, and longlisted for the inaugural Liminal Fiction Prize, Cubbie has been published in The Suburban Review, Mascara Literary Review, The Victorian Writer, Peril Magazine, Djed Press, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Liminal Fiction Prize Anthology (Pantera Press, November 2020), Growing Up Disabled in Australia (Black Inc Books, February 2021) and Resilience Anthology (Ultimo Press, November 2022).

 

An Existential Age

An existential age, a particular number, felt like levelling up, achievement unlocked.
Thanks to modern medicine, you outlived your maternal grandmother, who passed the inherited hypertension to you.

Thus, at this existential age, you want to celebrate. You made it the halfway mark, despite the invisible complications and myriad of medications. 

You even make all the preparations for food and feast – but still end up washing the dishes and cleaning up after the mess from your household. 

The Household eats and devours but refuses to sing ‘Happy Birthday!’ or even allow you the pleasure to blow the candle on your tiny birthday gluten-free cake. 

All this because your natal day is also the anniversary of your father-in-law’s death. 

Your household’s patriarch refuses to give you the satisfaction of celebrating.

Instead, you go out to the city for the first time since the pandemic. 

You saved up a lot, to tick a bucket-list: your first ever Afternoon High Tea in the city with fellow disabled, queer femme parent. You never had the opportunity to dress up and experience until your existential age – all this while constantly reminding your household via sms how to care for your disabled child.

And at this milestone age, you are now expected – required even – to travel overseas to the land of your birth, because ‘Pandemic is Over’ – while ableist relatives ignore and not acknowledge the immunocompromised, Disabled child is among your household members,

That you have #LongCOVID, too. Their denial is strong, ‘It’s just like a flu’, refusing to give you agency. 

Instead, they chide and diminish your bucket-list experience with ‘And I have had many high teas with my friends,’
and then she travels overseas to watch a K-pop concert on the very same week
you barely had capacity to feed the hangry household. 

Two individuals
of such different worlds,
from two different cities,
yet shared the same womb.

*

Remember that time when you told your relatives at a recent reunion that you’re autistic? Everyone burst out laughing and you don’t even know why.

*

You take a casual Work From Home (WFH) role to feed the household, to meet rental payments.
Poverty plunges you deeper into debt to keep the hangry household fed.
The additional income was to append the meagre carer payment and low-income earnings of the patriarch.
And yet, you are penalised by Services Australia. They reduce your carer payment. 

*

You’re not eligible for NDIS because your autism (even with a co-morbidity), under the DSM-5 is only level one. You are not qualified for DSP despite having multiple underlying conditions, and Hard-of-Hearing.

*

Meanwhile, the man-child buys fake Lego sets to build the Star Wars Razor Crest; In the patriarch’s inner world, there is no such thing as financial abuse.

*

Meanwhile, ableists don’t know the extent of the damage of #LongCOVID, D Dimer test showed that you have blood clots. Your family GP recommended that you go to the hospital for tests. But who will care for your immunocompromised child?

‘You will die,’ the doctor says. And your mobile phone line goes dead.

*

But you forge on, as life goes on.

The FVIO respondent continues the circular abusive pattern:

– passive aggressive
– walking on eggshells
– hyperawareness

You prepare for the next arts gig via Zoom [to pay for incurred debt of BNPLs],
to feed & clothe growing teenagers,
while you carry the weight of unpaid labour,
of unsupported, non-NDIS level one autism, of multiple underlying conditions,
of diminished carer payment
of deteriorating organ functions due to #LongCOVID,

You put your mask on – autistic masking is deeply embedded.

You live another day,

to survive,

fight,

and advocate,

against racism, ageism, ableism.

Because whiteness is structural
Because #DisabilitySoWhite.

You shout into the void.
Hoping someone out there will listen.

 

 

Liel Bridgford

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

 

Marble Track 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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