Ledya Khamou

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



Houses and Homes


I grew up in a house I do not remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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.



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?”


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,


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. 

Javeria Hasnain

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mohamed Irba

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


Taaf طاف

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maki Morita

Maki Morita (she/they) is a Japanese-Australian writer and performance maker on unceded Wurundjeri country. Recent projects include dance piece (live art, Labour Lexica exhibition, Linden New Art, 2022) and Trash Pop Butterflies, Dance Dance Paradise (fortyfivedownstairs 2022, Theatre Works 2023). She is a 2022 Wheeler Centre Playwright Hot Desk Fellow and has appeared in events including National Young Writers Festival, Feminist Book Week and Yardstick.



Threaded through primrose suburbs are the anomaly of dandelions, soon to be tucked away. As I child I thought dandelions were beautiful, and my parents would say Good! Pick those dandelions, we don’t want them in our backyard. I liked arranging their sunny halos over a vase, in my bedroom, in a similar fashion to roses or tulips.  

There’s nothing new about sweeping together (fairy)dust and stashing it away. After all there are hoarders, stamp collectors, and the like. My favourite thing is paper — I collect wrapping paper, tissue paper, clothing labels made with nice paper, magazine cut-outs, postcards… which mostly go unused. My mother would always say Why are you keeping these piles of rubbish! But to me they are not rubbish; they are keepsakes.

The thing is my mother also kept ‘rubbish’. She would carefully cut out shoeboxes to make draw dividers. Tissue boxes became pencil holders. There was the big plastic bag full of smaller plastic bags in our kitchen, because as most Asian mums will tell you, Plastic bags can be re-used for anything. However, the function and order of these refurbished items rendered them ‘acceptable’. For some, fading into the façade of white bread suburbia is a lifelong endeavour. 

For others, there is room to question this penchant for order. We can afford to peer into twists and gaps, to crawl into dark corners. In searching for lost glitter and stranger forms of beauty, we seek to embrace disfunction. Whether we realise it or not. Why marry for security? Why mow the lawn?  Why have sex for procreation? Why not wear a funny hat? 

And like this, we may become an anomaly in the way of dandelions. 


While anomalies coexist with suburbia, there are penalties for overgrowth. Take the case of a lone share house on a straight (in both senses of the word) tree-lined street, identifiable by its quintessential front-porch couch (with holes, slightly lopsided). This outlandish artefact teeters in the kind of place where white women wear lululemon leggings and overpriced t-shirts bearing slogans like ‘fitness gangster’. Where a war of attrition begins by occupying a resident’s regular parking spot. God knows why we lived there. 

Over many months of neglect, our section of the nature strip climbed above those of our neighbours. A woman once walked past and began tearing out the stalks with her bare hands. The anger this small patch of knee-high grass caused in her was initially amusing, then slightly alarming. She threw fistfuls of it onto the pavement, to little avail, then stalked off muttering annoyances. 

With overgrowth comes visibility, and with visibility comes the pressure to either admit to noncompliance or trim it away. As an adult, embracing this visibility is akin to queer puberty — the protracted youth and delayed hooliganism that comes with comfortably fitting into your skin a beat (or two) after adolescence. In this sense, there is a certain freedom to leaving bushy sprawls rather than manicuring neat hedges. 

Like dandelion wreaths, the throwaway remnants of suburban maintenance can be weaved into something new. While delicate and ephemeral, they may gather again and again over time, like the joy of coming together in the queer underground. The act of shimmering bright comes with the threat of being uprooted. Yet it is precisely this daring act that can allow for the birth of reverie, of a dreamlike space crafted by collective outlandishness. 


Towards the end of its life, the dandelion turns to seed, and at this late stage it acquires a strange usefulness: wishful thinking. What was once an enemy of the suburban lawn becomes a novel means of articulating desire. Children are encouraged to blow the aged dandelion’s wispy seedlings into the sky. To close your eyes and make a wish. This way we learn about ambition, hope, everyday magic. And so the possibility of something different is instilled in the fantasy of youth. Within the rigid outlines of suburban lawns, clouds of lust are sent floating upwards.

Ironically, this human act assists with spreading seeds so that more young dandelions can grow, who will then be treated as pests by much of the human population. That is, unless they survive gardening days and careless shoe tramples to make it till old age. Why is it that this object of otherness requires the passing of time to prove its unique worth? Or is it precisely the unwantedness of dandelions that make them a suitable thing to send scattering with a mere breath, on which to attach our runaway desires?

Our relationship with magical thinking in many ways defines suburban queerness. The experience of growing up while dreaming of something seemingly distant. A lingering sense of being an anomaly, and looking for the right place to sprout petals. This continuous search keeps us in a state of permanent adolescence, always wishing, defying, and sprawling over, to the great disgruntlement of some.