Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. She has written two books of short stories. “The End of the World” was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. She has a BA in international relations from Brown University and an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College (USA) She is currently working on a Ph.D on environmental governance at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, New Zealand.
This essay was written in 2018 and reflects some of the damaging environmental impacts of Nepal’s communist rule, before KP Oli’s administration and before the Nepali Congress took power. A sudden surge in car imports have exacerbated the situation even further since this essay was written four years ago.
No place like home
A few days ago, I went out to do my vegetable shopping at 4 pm, as I do every evening. Our neighborhood is called Handigaun, and it is known as the oldest settlement in the Kathmandu Valley. The ancient peepul tree at the end of the road has a Radha-Krishna temple nestled inside its roots. Nobody has been keeping track of how long the roots have grown around this small sanctum sanctorum for hundreds of years.
According to architect and cultural heritage conservationist Sudharshan Tiwari (full disclosure: he is an uncle by relation), Handigau was the ancient capital of Nepal during the reign of the Verma, Gupta and Licchavi Kings until 8th Century AD. This area later fell into obscurity with the rise of three kingdoms in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. Just down the road and down some small steps is the Satya-Narayan Mandir, where an Italian archaeological team came and excavated during 1984; the archaeologists found ancient statues and artifacts that go back to Licchavi times. I remember seeing graceful human-sized statues displayed in the square in front of the Saraswoti temple. The memory stayed with me, although I couldn’t remember much beyond the grace and style. I thought of the figure as a Buddha.
I have grown up knowing that Handigaun hides many secrets: somewhere deep inside the depths of this now squalid settlement is buried the remains of the renowned palace complexes of the Licchacvi Era, called Kailashkut Bhavan. Licchavi King Angshuverma constructed this palace after he ascended the throne in 598 AD. Chinese traveler and monk Xuanzang mentions this fabled structure in his writings: Kailashkut Bhawan had three adjoining buildings, known as Indragriha (Indra’s home), Managriha (Mana’s home) and Kailashkut (the mythical residence of Shiva and Parvati.) According to Zuangzang, a thousand people could be accommodated in the top floor of this building. Kailashkut was a giant palatial structure known for its artistic glory.
A few minutes down from our house is an open plaza where vendors set up wooden tables and sell fresh vegetables each evening. Tiny temples surround the plaza: the Bhimsenthan has a statue of Bhimsen, the strongest and most powerful of the Pandava brothers from the epic Mahabaharata, holding a club. It is tiny and exquisite, a small shrine with four wooden pillars standing in the middle of the crossroads. A new Dakshinkali temple with a yellow roof houses a shiny statue. Rajan, an energetic community figure, conducts daily pujas, organizes the vegetable vendors into the packed plaza, and adjudicates their disputes and violent brawls. For this service, without which the public square would be in chaos and unused due to conflicts regarding occupancy, he charges Rs.30 per day from each vendor.
Across the road is the Sankata complex, a strip of anaconic statues on the ground venerating the goddess Sankata, whose dasha or planetary ruling period is often the most feared and most soul-searingly difficult in the Hindu mindscape. In the jyotish astrological timeline, the yogini dasha (dasha is a time period ruled by a specific planet) has eight dashas. The eight year long dasha of Sankata, ruled by Rahu, brings with it the most upheaval, turmoil and downright catastrophe. Little Jyapu children take their drums and pipes and circumbulate this complex faithfully at each jatra festival to appease the fearsome goddess. It is a landscape mapped out by the architecture of belief and the rhythm of festivals, designed to be walked by old and young alike.
And yet, as I walked out that evening to try and do that most mundane of errands—
vegetable shopping—what I felt was an overwhelming sense of being swamped and trodden over. All around me were dozens of motorcycles, tooting their horns, swerving to get by, buzzing like angry hornets. I had to step aside, with my back to the walls, because otherwise they would have driven over me. I couldn’t cross the road to enter the market. I watched helplessly as the cars and motorcycles swarmed around me in this historic space, indifferent to my presence as a local resident, indifferent to my rights as a pedestrian. In their minds, getting home by the quickest route was more important than assuaging the grief of a local whose values and memories had become irrelevant, in this petroleum fueled internal combustion world.
As the evening traffic jam overwhelmed my neighborhood, bumper to bumper like an American highway, I stood behind and thought: What are they doing? How could they not see the historic significance of this space, and realize that this should be a pedestrian area where people walked places? How did the politicians imagine the world would sort itself out if thousands of these vehicles were added each year to this tiny valley, with no regulation to keep them in check?
As a pedestrian without a vehicle, I have no say in this republic of might. With an ankle injured during the 2015 earthquake, I have mobility problems. The slightest depression or uneven ground can make me stumble, but Kathmandu’s roads are never well built or well maintained in the current regime. The roads, it seems have gotten worse, rather than better. I try to maneuver over a non-existent sidewalk and kerb, holding onto an electric pole. A slight swelling of concrete indicates that one road has ended and is forking into another. The concrete has been slapped on by contractors from construction syndicates whose main goal had been to bid the lowest rates and get the contract, which they will split with their contacts inside the Department of Transport and inside political parties. The most famous of these is Shailung Construction, known to be owned by the landlord of Prachanda. Prachanda is one of the controversial leaders of the Maoist Revolution. The company has come under heavy media scrutiny for monopolizing dozens of government construction contracts while delivering very little infrastructure in return. Despite repeated reportage in the press about non-delivery or delivery of ill-constructed, dangerous structures, the company continues to get new contracts.
The traffic crushes the life out of the vegetable market, the neighborhood, the butcher, the dairy, and the sweetshop. At times, drivers hit children and dogs. The young woman who comes to help my mother clean was very upset this morning—a motorcycle, she said, dragged her six-year old on the way back from school, as he was holding her hand and skipping along. The hospital told her to bring him back for an ECG if he vomited. At night, she said, he got up and she thought perhaps he had vomited, but she wasn’t sure. The man who’d hit her child thankfully drove them immediately to the hospital. ‘My child is the same age, I have to make sure he’s fine,’ he said. Cruelty and compassion live side by side on the same streets.
My dog has a paw with a misshapen break in the middle of her leg—she was a street dog I rescued from the shelter, and during winters when it gets cold her bouncy step turns into a limp. It is not hard to guess where her injury came from: most likely a speeding motorcycle. While I was recovering from fractures I sustained during the 2015 earthquake, I would go to the physiotherapy room at Grande Hospital. During one of the sessions, I heard a physiotherapist share a story—he had been taking a midnight ride in his Enfield when he heard a ‘Splat!’ sound. ‘I look down and this dog had been totally smashed on the ground,’ he said in a casual, conversational tone. There was no indication in his story that he stopped to help the injured dog. He simply sped on his way. As I listened to the nice, kind-looking man who has been helping people diligently to get up on their feet after strokes and accidents, I can’t help but wonder at how such cruelty can exist side by side with such compassion. How could he spend his life healing people, spending all his time trying to get them up on their feet again after painful operations, while at the same time talk so casually about smashing up a dog with no acknowledgement of guilt or pain? Are we, as a human species, perhaps so anthropocentric we can’t feel the pain of animals other than our own species?
There are too many motorcycles in the Kathmandu Valley, all being driven at high speeds, responsible for many injuries of children, elderly people and dogs every single day. And yet there is no move to ban these vehicles. Politicians are indifferent to anything but taxes, which they pocket without transparency or accountability. There are no regulations to limit these vehicles in historic areas, or crowded pedestrian areas, because each motorcycle brings in tax. A taxi-driver listed for me the taxes he paid each year: Rs.16, 000 for annual tax; Rs.4000/each three months as road tax; Rs.1800 per year as municipal tax; Rs.1200 a year for navikaran fee; Rs.600 to recalculate the taxi meter’s fare, Rs.300 for meter navikaran. Another taxi-driver gave me a list of seven different taxes and insurance that he pays. Vehicles are profitable milking cows, and politicians don’t want this income source to stop. Profit dictates policy, what little there is of it. The political elites in power in Nepal used to run extortion operations in the People’s War. Now they tax people. It’s the same process, except back in the day it was illegal and now it’s done through the auspices of democracy. There seems to be no law—moral or ethical—that stops the politicians from allowing emission-spewing vehicles to pile up in this tiny valley. Nothing else, the air pollution, the rise of respiratory diseases, the chaos from vehicles parked randomly all over public space and speeding, hitting and disabling people — none of this matters.
It wasn’t always like this. The lane outside my house was a modest width—wide enough for water tankers and ambulances, not wide enough for hundreds of speeding motorcycles. The old brick walls, gently eroding rusty-orange, were high and covered with green moss. There was an overgrown stand of bamboo at the lane’s end. Trees covered the entire lane from one end to the other. Jacaranda trees that my grandfather had planted in the middle part of the twentieth century shaded my garden. I did not notice the slow erosion of the land in front of me as the houses built, and built, over what was once a large lake. The lake had been buried by real estate speculators and sold at some point in my childhood. I don’t remember when it happened; only that one day the lotus-covered lake beyond our house was gone.
The gas seller came by a week ago, and he said: ‘We used to run through the lane we thought a seven-headed naga lived in that lake. We were so afraid. And now people have built massive buildings. Nothing happened to them in the earthquake either.’
We look at each other, as if we can’t believe the naga would let these new people just go like this, without wreaking wrath on them. Building on lake bottoms has been discouraged because the mud liquefies and the bottom falls out during an earthquake, we’d always thought. Yet here was this set of giant buildings, with a new one being built at the speed of light by a young man who’s inherited his grandfather’s land and who seems indifferent to our concerns about seismic stability. Perhaps he did not know about the lake, or the seven-headed naga that could one day wreak his vengeance onto his investment.
Kathmandu had been a city full of beautiful ponds and lakes. Even the Dakshinkali temple and ward office of Handigaon had been build on a lotus pond that had been filled in. A well-connected man during the Panchayat era had decided to fill the pond and sell it. And that’s how the public ponds of Kathmandu vanished from the Eighties to now, one by one.
The leafy fans of the jacaranda leaves shaded my house from the outside world. I had only a dim idea of how it was changing outside. Then change came at the speed of light. The decade long People’s War, started in 1996, was followed by a ceasefire in 2006, then a comprehensive peace agreement. The rebels extorting people and making them flee from their ancestral villages were suddenly in power in Kathmandu, put there by the UN Mission to Nepal, which had brokered a peace agreement between the conflicting parties. Within a few short years, Baburam Bhattarai, architect of revolution and urban planner trained in JNU, was out there with his bulldozers smashing through the old streets of Kathmandu. This urban restructuring was going to be his magnum opus. A young man who lived at the end of our lane thought the pedestrian footpath in front of his house wasn’t grand enough. He had Maoist connections, people said. So in 2012 the bulldozers came by, relentlessly destroying the old growth trees in our lane. Jacaranda, bottlebrush, golden oaks, eucalyptus, trees whose names I did not know, they all fell, one by one. Hundred-year-old trees were gone within days. I think we lost three dozen trees in this fateful moment.
The bulldozer came by and kept hitting my jacaranda over and over, because the old tree refused to give way. It was a painful fight, with the tree groaning and screeching for days. Eventually the bulldozer won. The tree was cut to the nub, but it was still alive a year later, sprouting green fronds. Secretly I hoped the roots had survived and would sprout again. Sadly it was not to be—some person came by and chopped the last remaining bit of it for firewood one winter day during the Indian blockade three years later, leaving only emptiness behind. I screamed at the bulldozer driver. He bashed in my wall in revenge. You can still see the depression where he hit my bricks and caused damage. Our little corner of Kathmandu was now no longer a green and mossy sanctuary where children walked to school and breathed fresh air. It was filled with piston-firing Enfield motorcycles, roaring by at all times of the day and night. A motorbike called Crossfire, which made explosive gunshot like sounds, could be heard speeding by at night. I learnt from taxidrivers that the reason for the excruciatingly loud decibels was tampering with the Mobil oil, which was mixed with chemicals to make an extra loud sound. Expensive SUVs worth millions of rupees and battered water tankers filled with water tanks soon piled up outside, using the once green space as a parking lot. When once we used to have sweet-smelling eucalyptus, we now have the smell of diesel exhaust.
I look at the mark the bulldozer made bashing into my wall, the depression caved in, and see it as the mark of the government which couldn’t stand the outrage of an ordinary citizen beset by the oppressive illusion of democracy. Because this was no democratic process—this was a man drunk with his own ideology and power who’d relentlessly destroyed neighborhoods and homes, just as he’d destroyed the lives of people in the People’s War. But there was to be no accountability, because peace was all that mattered. We were not to make a commotion but to accept this is how things were going to be in our hometown, from now on.
In Lazimpat, a leafy neighborhood close to the former royal palace, they uprooted the shady green trees again, slapping on the concrete and making the road so wide it’s impossible to cross it now. The vehicles do not stop these days—it’s a wide highway of speeding motorcycles. In 2014, I was working to write a TV script in an office in Lazimpat. A colleague confided in me that he’s started the process to immigrate to Canada. ‘I am leaving Kathmandu for two reasons,’ he said. ‘First, I want my children to be able to breathe clean air. And secondly I want them to be able to cross the road. This is the only reason I want to immigrate to Canada.’
We will never see trees as big as my grandfather’s turn of the century trees in Kathmandu in my lifetime. Once you cut a tree that old, it’s gone. But there was a more sinister side effect. In the springtime, I could see women desperately running water pumps for hours. When I asked them if the water was coming, they’d shake their heads: ‘Only a trickle.’ As the trees were destroyed, so was the water table which fell many feet below. I see women running up to the tankers that provide free water in a frenzy, and sometimes there is a fight as people jostle to fill their plastic canisters. I’m terrified my water pump is going to break and I won’t have water, just like the time after the earthquake when I had my period and diarrhoea and would wake up and hobble with a crutch to go to my parents’ bathroom—only to find my sister-in-law had latched the door on the other side. My father ignored my pleas. He thought that old and dilapidated pump, which no longer worked, was enough for my needs. As the water table had dried up, we’d run it for hours and not a drop of water would come up. Fortunately I had enough savings to buy a new pump, which cost eight hundred US dollars. For many in Kathmandu, this is a luxury beyond reach.
I meet my neighbor Poppy who tells me her neighbor, the judge’s wife, can’t stand the leaf fall from her tree. They threaten her because some leaves have drifted into their yard. ‘At one point, they came over and set fire to the tree,’ she told me, her eyes full of tears. ‘Who would do such a thing to a tree? They want everything neat and clean.’ In modern developed minds, the ability to cover every inch of ground with concrete is regarded as a sign of gentrification and upward mobility.
In a few years, perhaps a decade or so, we’ll no longer have water in Kathmandu. If the Maoist ideal is to surround and capture the city, they did this excellently by killing trees. The first thing an enemy does when attacking a fortressed space is to attack the water source. The dhungay dhara, or stone spouts built by ancient inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley are a closely guarded secret—only a select handful of tantrics know their sources. The reason for the secrecy was practical—if enemies attacked the city, the first thing they did was disable the water system, so it was imperative to keep its workings subterranean and hidden. In the early 21st century, Maoists attacked Kathmandu and its water sources with great success. Once you deprive the “feudals” of water, they can no longer live in the city. The feudals are flushed out from water starvation, while the Maoists party onwards with bottled water and alcohol. But the donors who love the romance of revolution, even though they personally would never want to live through one, have installed these regimes, and we must make the most of it. Anybody who opposes this way of being is feudal, anti-democratic. Home no longer feels like home, as the relentless march of the feudal, secular Democratic regime’s progress piles up, destroying historic neighborhoods and cultural artifacts, century old trees and water tables, street dogs and children.
And it is in these moments of despair, when I look at the grey sunset and wonder whether Kathmandu will be inhabitable in 10, 20, 30 years time, that I see the planet’s future. We are all captured in this planet with people like the Maoists, who put forward the ideal of modern progress as the only way forward.
The insect population has plunged 80 times in the past thirty years, and with it has gone all the birds that used to subsist on insects. ‘The insect apocalypse is here,’ the New York Times proclaimed on 27 November 2018, in an article with the same title.
One day I saw bugs had eaten my ferns, and posted a photo of it on Twitter: ‘Some naughty bug has munched through my million year old angiosperm.’ The post was partly in jest, but partly I was drawing attention to the millennia old continuum of life, which respected the rights of the bug to munch through this plant. That is how life has always continued, with one life form depending upon another. The bug would die, and its body would fertilize the earth on which the fern grew. That is always how it has been. Before the humans came along, and started to spray organophosphates that destroyed the insects’ neurological system. They started to paralyze the cockroaches, and with it, also the humans. The insidious diseases we cannot name or identify all go back to these poisons we think will kill pests but end up killing us as well, because we are tied by the indivisible thread of life. The cancers, the dementia, the Alzheimer’s, the Parkinson. The dreadful wasting diseases to which there is no cure. All of which afflict people in developed countries in such greater proportion than in developing countries far from these neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters. But now it is hard to find any pristine place on the planet. The farthest reaches of Greenland is filling up with plastic, even though the people living there are so few in number they could not have possibly tossed that many plastic objects in their ice-clear drinking water. It is all coming from elsewhere.
Robert MacFarlane, a British nature writer, wrote a book called “The Lost Words.” In it, he tries to reconjure back the words which described the natural world, now being lost to this hypercapitalist, technological era. Oxford’s Junior Dictionary decided to take out fifty nature words like acorn, buttercup and conker and replace it with tech words like analogue, broadband and cut and paste. Celebrity replaced magpie and newt. This is a reflection of how our world has evolved—one ruled by the four square borders of a computer screen, and not the sounds and sights of nature. MacFarlane, along with a group of other writers, wrote a letter of protest which became a rallying cry against this literary erasure. As writers, we must all try to find our own ways of protesting this slow erasure of the natural world from our own locations and vantage points.
People have named this age the anthropocene—the age where humans influence climate and environment to such an extent they end up becoming its defining, dominant force. We are the apex predator of our own species. But the coinage of the word eromocene, by philosopher and biologist EO Wilson, captures our future with more eerie specificity: a time and place where insects die off, taking with them birds, animals and the entire chain of living beings with them. The eromocene is the age of loneliness, where the sounds and sights of all living creatures are silenced by our ecocidal ethos. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which pushed the world to understand the consequences of DDT on living beings, activists, writers, Nobel Prize winners and children from all over are now pushing us to face the unavoidable consequences of the sum of all human actions—from fossil fuel to plastics, from pesticides to chemical fertilizers, from our coltan-containing computers to our cobalt and tungsten containing cell phones, all destroying and silencing the web of life.
When will we stop thinking homo sapiens and their ability to use their hands and brains is the supreme intelligence that exists on this planet, and start thinking about ethics and morality in our use of lethal human inventions, science and technology? When will the shift occur, when humans understand that they are not god’s gift to planet earth, but her worst enemy? Until then, we have to live in this apocalyptic space—our mother earth, our planet—where despite the degradations, there is nowhere else to go but back home.
As if to echo this loss of nature, I also had the half-remembered vision of the statue excavated from Handigaon’s Satya Narayan Mandir reoccur in my memories. What was that statue? Where did it go? How do the layers of histories get erased by the plundering hand of time?
Writer William Dalrymple, who has been researching the spread of Hinduism to South East Asia, recently wrote in a tweet: ‘In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.’
The name “Jayavarman” struck a chord. “Varman” sounds like the suffixes in the names of the kings of Kathmandu Valley of the pre-modern past. So I looked it up. And lo and behold, the article that surfaced said a statue had been dug up from Maligaon, a five minute walk from my house, in 1992, and a Brahmi script said it was of a King Jayavarman. Brahmi and Sanskrit scripts on the pedestal dates the statue to 185 AD, making it the earliest known historical epigraphic record of the Kathmandu Valley.
I looked at the photograph in the article—and realized I had found my lost statue. I recognized the way the clothing was wrapped around his body, the Grecian similarities to style. The lost statue was not of a Buddha but of a Shaivite king.
Figure of King Jayavarma, A.D 185 (Mishra, 2000)
Dalrymple mentions that Jayavarman II of Cambodia was a passionate Shaivite. Could it be that the Jayavarman of my neighborhood and the Jayavarman of Angkor were related? Could the latter have descended from the former, 600 years later? Shiva continues to be worshipped in Nepal in all his forms, but his most loved incarnations is Pashupati, the peaceful, loving lord of the animals, and Bhairav, his angriest and most destructive form. As I walk down the narrow alleys of Handigaon, now so full of motorcars and motorcycles as to be almost unwalkable, it occurs to me that this neighborhood where I grew up in, which to most people is only perceived of as a poor, broken down neighborhood to be raced through impatiently, may have been the kingdom from where Shaivite Hinduism spread out throughout South-East Asia. Somewhere from the dusty cobwebs of time, a connection was made and came to life again, sparking a light on what was once lost and dead.
Perhaps in the same way the seeds of life of our mother earth can once again come to life, evoking secrets from the womb of the planet, weaving the threads of knowledge together, bringing together the pieces of what we once thought was shattered and broken. Perhaps the ecological wisdom of our ancestors, which saw divinity in mountains and rivers, rock and water, animate and inanimate forms, can once again spread throughout the lands, in all its glorious incarnations.
Antonini, Chiara Silvi, and Giovani Veradi. “Excavation in the Kathmandu Valley.” Ancient Nepal 89, 1985, pp. 17-36.
Carson, Rachel. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Jarvis, Brooke. “The Insect Apocalypse is here.” The New York Times, November 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html
Kharel, Samir, “Locals plead for Handigaun preservation.” Kathmandu Post, April 6, 2013.
Mishra, Tara Nanda. “Dated figure of King Jayavarma, the tradition of figure making and the historical importance of this discovery.” Ancient Nepal 146, 2000, pp. 1-23. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ancientnepal/pdf/ancient_nepal_146_01.pdf
Tiwari, Sudarshan Raj. The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal. Himal Books, 2002.
“‘Nowhere to go’ on the frontlines of climate change.” The New Humanitarian, December 13, 2018. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2018/12/13/nowhere-go-front-lines-climate-change
Dalrymple, William [@DalrympleWill] “In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.” Twitter, December 14, 2021. https://twitter.com/DalrympleWill/status/1470383978851057664
Luke Fischer is the author of the poetry collections Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the “New Poems” (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the book of bedtime stories The Blue Forest (Lindisfarne Books, 2015). He recently co-edited the volume of essays Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: Philosophical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press).
I am currently living in Tübingen, Germany, and these reflections on the coronavirus crisis have been shaped by the situation in Europe and considerations of the overarching similarities between the way in which numerous countries worldwide have been responding to the crisis. Although they are now being eased, the lockdowns in Germany have, in many respects, been more restrictive than in Australia, but not as severe as in Italy or France. Wherever one investigates, there are many gray areas and uncertainties around Covid-19, yet much of the public discourse has tended to reiterate one narrative. This essay is an attempt to ask and open up some vital questions.
––Luke Fischer, 16 May 2020
If an alien arrived on the earth sometime in April 2020 and, being already fluent in a number of languages, familiarised himself with the latest reports and news, he could be forgiven for coming to some of the following conclusions.
Human beings were virtually immortal creatures until a deadly new virus––Covid-19––spread across the world and became the greatest threat to human existence. This surmise would be confirmed by his first conversations with other human beings at a respectable distance of 1.5 metres.
After reading some history books on the twentieth and twenty-first century, and a little Sartre, he might identify a glaring example of bad faith. Western humanity claims to cherish democracy, which it almost believes in like a religion, but actually homo sapiens have very little trust in their fellow human beings acting responsibly out of their own freedom. Excluding Sweden and a few other countries, the majority of citizens around the world have welcomed the declarations of a state of emergency, the formation of governments with executive or authoritarian powers, a massive restriction of basic rights, extended forms of surveillance, and the deployment of police to protect them from the dangers of sitting on a bench. At present they are sequestered in their homes and passively await the next verdicts of politicians, CEOs, and a select group of experts as to what they are allowed and not allowed to do.
This alien meets a few individuals who question the official narrative and one has an especial liking for epidemiology and statistics; he paraphrases the findings of Stanford Professor John Ioannidis in the USA and University of Mainz Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, and their points about the unreliability of much of the current data. He also informs the alien that human beings were never close to being immortal (at least not physically––whether they are spiritually immortal is a whole other question) and that the average life expectancy of humans worldwide is 71 years old. This outlier also provides him with this list of estimations:
There are around 18 million poverty-related deaths each year
Around 9.5 million people die from cancer each year (this figure is an estimate for 2018)
Around 9 million people die from starvation each year
Around 2 million children die from a lack of access to clean water each year
Around 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year (and 20-50 million suffer non-fatal injuries)
Around 800,000 people die from suicide each year
Up to 650,000 people (and at least 290,000 people) die of the seasonal flu every year
Around 405,000 people die from malaria each year (this is an estimate for 2018)
At this moment (16 May 2020) an estimated 309,000 people have died ‘with’ or ‘from’ (we’re not quite sure) Covid-19. Estimates diverge widely as to how high this figure could climb. We lack reliable data!
But, the alien objects, I thought human beings were the most caring of creatures (far more caring than my alien race who dwell on a planet many light years away) in that the whole point of the lockdowns is to protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially the elderly who have pre-existing illnesses and are likely to die if they catch the coronavirus. Why, the alien asks, is so little being done to eradicate poverty and to ensure that everyone in the world has sufficient food to eat and access to clean drinking water? The outlier responds with a tilt of his head and a puzzled stare. Then he explains that the coronavirus has a rather high hospitalisation rate and that the lockdowns really have to do with the limited capacity of underfunded and understaffed hospitals––we need to ‘flatten the curve’ so the hospitals are not overwhelmed. ‘Oh’, replies the alien.
Problems of Abstraction
While much of the worldwide response to the coronavirus shows a care and concern for the most at-risk members of society, the observations of the above-mentioned alien serve to highlight a number of valid concerns: double standards, tunnel vision (humanity seems at present only to be able to recognize one crisis in the world), the rise and passive acceptance of draconian political measures, and an abstract way of thinking that fails to take into consideration the dynamic interconnections and delicate balance of human life, health, illness, and mortality. The sole ‘enemy’ is the virus and many governments have acted as if the only responsible option is to freeze almost all aspects of life to protect us from this enemy.
Many of the responses to the pandemic evince a problematically abstract way of thinking that overlooks the dynamic ecological balance of life and mortality, and the relationships that give meaning to human existence. In our fixation on addressing one problem, we are inadvertently bringing about many other problems.
In several controversial articles, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has voiced his concerns that in the government lockdowns and the correlated passivity of citizens, the value and richness of life has been reduced to the abstraction of mere biological survival. Agamben writes:
The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country [Italy] obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything—the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.
Another thought experiment might help to reinforce Agamben’s point. Imagine a grandmother who is 82 years old. She is told that she will be able to live until the age of 85 if she resides in a sterilised cell and has no contact with her children, grandchildren, and friends. She will have an internet connection and TV and all her food will be delivered to her front door. Alternatively, she has the choice to remain in her own home and receive visits from her family and friends, go for short walks in the park (she is still mobile) and so on, but if she chooses this option she will only live until the age of 84. Which one of these options provides for a richer conception and experience of life? It should be up to the grandmother to decide, but it is worthwhile for us to reflect on this question. Of course, this thought experiment is artificial. In real life we cannot predict the outcomes. Probabilistically speaking it is fairly unlikely that one will die in a car accident. Nevertheless, due to a moment of absent-mindedness on one’s own part or on the part of another driver, one might be the unfortunate victim of a fatal crash.
In ordinary life we are always negotiating a variety of risks and ideally strive to be responsible and caring, while being aware that the elimination of all risks is simply impossible. Life is a dangerous adventure, but, hopefully, nonetheless a rich and worthwhile one.
The new coronavirus took hold of the world by storm and the challenges of treating the little understood illness of Covid-19 should not be underestimated. And in this time of physical distancing, it is vital that we find ways to show sensitivity and compassion towards those who are at-risk and who have lost loved ones. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to ask: what level of risk does this coronavirus present?
Despite the sensationalism of the media and the draconian measures of some states, we are not confronting the Black Death. It is important to note that since March, estimates of the fatality rate for Covid-19 have significantly decreased––though medical experts continue to contest the various estimates. (While in early March the WHO was suggesting a case fatality rate of 3.4%, this was based on a recorded number of cases and not estimations of the amount of people infected. Later the Imperial College London estimated a fatality rate of 1%, but since then there have been some much lower estimations [based on antibody studies in various places].) A peer-reviewed study of the worst hit area of Germany has estimated an infection fatality rate of less than 0.36% (possibly as low as 0.24%) and a recent study in California (Santa Clara County) has estimated 0.17% (the flu is around 0.1%) for that area. Significantly, Ioannidis who was involved in the latter study, early on regarded other estimates as inflated.
As a philosopher I neither have the expertise to say how high the number of deaths could rise nor to offer a detailed assessment of the effectiveness of the measures being taken. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the arguments of the medical experts in Germany (and scientists elsewhere) that, contrary to the complete lockdowns, a better approach would have been to focus on protecting the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.  The current figures in Germany clearly indicate that the elderly population is primarily at risk (the average life expectancy in Germany is 81 years old and this is the average age of Covid-19-related deaths) and, in contrast to northern Italy, hospitals have not been stretched. A particular problem in various countries has been the spread of the virus in nursing homes. Nevertheless, leading virologists have spoken of some of the precautions that could be taken to minimise the risk of infecting elderly people while ensuring that they are able to receive company.
Complexities of Health and Mortality
Health is a complex matter because the human organism is a complex, dynamic whole, in which the health of the whole is dependent on the healthy functioning of the parts and vice versa. Illness and dying are similarly complex. When one part of the body becomes unhealthy it generally affects other parts. While some people infected with the new coronavirus remain asymptomatic or show only minor symptoms, elderly people with certain pre-existing conditions are at a greater risk of developing the severe acute respiratory syndrome. Thus, each case of Covid-19 is the expression of a particular relational dynamic between the virus and its host organism.
Most of the deaths relating to the coronavirus have involved comorbidities or pre-existing illnesses. The organism of someone who is already wrestling with cancer is less able to deal with the additional burden of the virus. If such a person dies, we can ask: did she die from cancer or from the coronavirus? The correct answer is neither (taken on its own) and both. Had she not contracted the coronavirus she may have lived longer, but the coronavirus was not the sole (or even the main) cause of death. Due to the complexity and interdependence of the part/whole relationship in a living organism, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described organisms with the contradictory-sounding formulation that they are both the cause and effect of themselves. In other words, living organisms exhibit a holistic complexity in which there is no simple, one-way causality.
In some of the more detailed studies thus far of the epicentres of the pandemic, we can see that a complex of factors contributed to the number of fatalities. In northern Italy, these factors included (among others) a large elderly population, years of living with bad air pollution, a relatively high percentage of smokers, and a limited number of ICU beds. We should not assume that everywhere will reproduce northern Italy, although various other places might and will involve a similarly lethal complex of factors (as we have witnessed in some cities in the USA). One study suggests that there have been a much higher number of fatalities in cities with bad air pollution. What is the cause of death here? Coronavirus or air pollution? Both and, in each individual case, a whole host of other factors.
One of the positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been the improved air quality in many parts of the world due to the limited number of flights and other forms of transport and the correlative reduction of exhaust fumes. Though this was not their original intention, these limitations on transport have literally saved lives and are also something to keep in mind with regard to the larger crisis that humanity faces and has largely failed to address, namely anthropogenic climate change and the broader environmental crisis. But, as should be clear by now, I hope that humanity will find democratic rather than autocratic ways to address this crisis.
This should really go without saying, but given the disturbing rise of the libertarian far right in the USA, it is perhaps important to clarify that my concerns about civil liberties and democracy have nothing to do with the emphasis on negative freedom (‘the state should let me do whatever the hell I like’) of libertarians, but rather have to do with the best democratic impulses of modernity. Concrete freedom (as opposed to mere negative freedom) and democracy presuppose that individuals will act responsibly towards each other out of their own insight into the good. A mature individual does not act kindly towards others because they are concerned that the state will punish them otherwise, but because the individual recognises the value of kindness. In a mature democracy, the details of individual behaviour should not be monitored and dictated by the state. (The infiltration of the state into the private sphere is a mark of what Hannah Arendt identified as totalitarianism.) In a true democracy the individual is neither subordinated to the general will of the state (a kind of super-tyrant that maintains order and peace), nor is society a chaos of self-interested desires that disregard social goods. Rather, as the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller argued, the common good is embodied in the free collaboration of individuals. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Swedish response to the epidemic, Sweden has as much as possible pursued a path which places trust in its citizens and gives advice and recommendations rather than encroaching on civil liberties. This strongly contrasts with Germany, in which basic rights have been restricted in a manner that has not occurred since the era of National Socialism and that contravenes the constitution. In Germany, where there has been a growing critique of the legality of the lockdown, lawyers have argued that, at this point, the denial of basic constitutional rights cannot be justified.
The fact that governments in many countries have declared a state of emergency, massively restricted civil liberties, and increased the policing and surveillance of residents (what Edward Snowden describes as the ‘architecture of oppression’) is perhaps a sign of the precariousness and immaturity of their democracies. (I am not saying that no sacrifices need to be made, rather I am questioning the extent of the restrictions, their consequences, and the undemocratic processes by which they have been instantiated.)
Complexities of Valuing Life
The famous Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek has politely disagreed with Agamben’s view that the lockdowns evince a reduction of value to a form of bare life that ultimately divides people. Rather, he regards them as showing a laudable concern for the lives of the most vulnerable. However, even if one thinks that our exclusive concern should be the preservation of lives, it is not clear that the lockdowns are the best strategy––though they may be for a time in specific places. (It’s worth noting that if we applied this logic universally, we would have long ago completely banned cars and countless other things.)
In a television interview, investigative journalist John Pilger recently mentioned studies that have indicated strong correlations between emotional isolation and the deterioration of health. Researchers at Oxford University have compared the health effects of chronic loneliness to ‘smoking 15 cigarettes a day’ and estimated that in 2019 there were 1.2 million chronically lonely people in the UK. There is growing evidence that the number of people suffering from loneliness and mental health issues as a result of the lockdown measures, self-isolation, and the climate of anxiety has significantly increased in the UK and various countries around the world (Japan is an interesting exception). There is now talk of an emerging global mental health crisis. In Australia, there are significant mental health concerns for Aboriginal communities (where suicide is the main cause of death for children between the age of 5 and 17) that are suffering under the lockdown.
The realities of loneliness and depression are only one example of the need to employ a broad concept of health that includes psychological, social, and mental health, as complementary to physical health. Since the lockdowns there has also been a marked increase in domestic violence, which not only causes physical injury (and deaths) but also psychological trauma for the members of a family.
The fixation on one health issue risks neglecting equally significant ones. We should question the logic and ethics involved in delaying cancer operations (however small the tumours) in Germany because a certain number of hospital beds need to be reserved for coronavirus ‘patients’, even when the beds are empty. In India, Arundhati Roy speaks of how healthcare for other illnesses has been placed on hold and describes cancer patients in Delhi being ‘driven away like cattle’ from the vicinity of a major hospital. In Africa, there are grave concerns that deaths from malaria could double this year (in comparison to 2018) to over 700,000 because of disruptions from Covid-19.
In the pandemic of panic, many people with other health concerns are afraid to visit doctors and such deferrals can lead to dire consequences. And we shouldn’t need doctors to tell us that sitting at home all day is unhealthy.
In debates about how best to respond to the pandemic, there has often been the articulation of a false dichotomy between protecting lives by means of the lockdowns and preventing an economic crisis. Of course, the current world economy is a disaster with its grotesque disparities between the wealth of the CEOs of mega-corporations and those on minimum wage struggling to make ends meet, from the devastating environmental impacts of many industries to the excess waste and consumption of our capitalist and consumerist societies.
But there is the very real danger that once the lockdowns end we will find ourselves in a situation in which the economy is even more unjust and destructive than at present. Due to the lockdowns around the world, the number of people facing the possibility of starvation has doubled to 265 million.
In a country like the US where healthcare largely depends on employment, a massive rise in unemployment and poverty will, of course, lead to many fatalities. Since the lockdowns, over 36 million people in the US have lost their jobs and there are predictions that, unless the government makes the requisite provisions the country will be facing a second great depression (given the current US government, something like a reiteration of the bailout of Wall Street in response to 2008 GFC, while millions of people lost their homes, is a more likely scenario).
Spain seems to have made a positive step forward in its plans to implement a permanent basic income. While Australia has increased its unemployment benefits, arts funding has been slashed in recent years and artists––musicians, actors, writers, poets, etc.––are suffering greatly due to the cancellation of so many events. To offer one example, all the members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recently lost their jobs for the indefinite duration of the shutdown. Australian universities are also in a precarious position; an estimated 21,000 researchers are facing the threat of losing their jobs.
So it is a dangerous abstraction––and perhaps a form of vague sentimentalism––to insist on the idea that to be in favour of strict lockdowns is to be in favour of life whereas to be concerned about the economy is to value money over human lives.
And what about the abstraction and inequality in the immense disparity between what a lockdown means for the wealthy and the poor? If you own a waterfront mansion with a large garden being ‘confined’ to your home is no great challenge. If you are a poor family cramped in a tiny city apartment, it’s a whole different story.
The German philosopher, Markus Gabriel, has highlighted the shortsightedness and problems of what he describes as the ‘new virological imperative’ that has been determining political decisions: all human beings should be isolated so that they don’t infect others. While virologists and epidemiologists (who themselves also disagree on the measures that should be taken) can best inform us about how to address the physical dimensions of the pandemic, they should not be the exclusive advisors on decisions that affect the whole of society, decisions that are undermining fundamental aspects of democracy. Gabriel mentions the need for input from political theorists and sociologists, ethicists and philosophers. To this list, I would add psychologists, artists, small-business owners, lawyers, economists, religious leaders, and representatives from all walks of life. Recently Germany made a positive step in this direction.
The last example of abstraction that I would like to mention is the illusion that we can replace vital, embodied, social interactions with the virtual space of online communication. A coffee with a friend cannot be substituted by a chat on Skype, the social dynamics and learning that take place between teachers and students in a classroom and in the playground cannot be replaced by Zoom. Or as Michael Leunig so aptly comments in the form of a cartoon, an elderly woman cannot walk her dog through a website instead of a park.
Towards a Context-Sensitive Approach
Within the life of an individual as well as within society more broadly, a crisis is often a painful opportunity and catalyst for much needed transformations. The inadequacies and shortsightedness of much of the response to the pandemic are a significant part of the crisis. As we move forward, I hope we can work towards realising a fairer and more sustainable economy, and a transformation of our thinking from one-sided abstractions to a concrete attentiveness to the nexuses of life. We need to find creative ways to take care––physically, emotionally and mentally––of those who are most vulnerable, while at the same time taking into consideration the complexities of the world.
The above thoughts are the concerns of a philosopher (and poet) and not the recommendations of an epidemiologist or a physician. I am not aiming to provide particular guidelines and calculations about which health factors should be weighted against others. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the complexities of life and the dangers (in some respects of catastrophic dimensions) of simplistic ‘solutions’. In response to the wave of panic that has spread across the world (greatly propelled by the media), measures have been applied by governments that fail to take into account the relations of life and the specificities of different societies, places, and cultures. In my view, it is crucial that we learn to approach life and the great crises that we face in a context-sensitive manner that considers all the dynamic interrelations and specificities of biology, social ties, individual freedoms, societies, cultures, and environments. There is no one enemy or problem. There is no silver bullet. One size doesn’t fit all.
Life is a light-footed circle dance on unstable ground. Or, as the poet and philosopher Novalis put it: ‘The whole rests more or less like persons playing, who without a chair, merely sit one on the knee of another and form a circle.’ Let us not overlook the relational complexities that constitute and give meaning to life.
 Sourced from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
 There are many issues around how Covid-19 deaths are being counted in different countries (and debates about whether they are being overestimated or underestimated). It is well-documented that in Italy no distinction has been made between deaths ‘from’ and deaths ‘with’ Covid-19 and there are similar issues in other countries. As the present essay elaborates, there are also many deaths resulting from the repercussions of the lockdown measures (rather than Covid-19).
 In a very recent article Ioannidis also gives a clear overview of what he regards as a balanced course of action given the data and evidence that are now available.
 One of the significant criticisms of Sweden has been that its number of fatalities is much higher than that of its neighbours, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Part of the reason for this, however, has less to do with the overall strategy and more to do with a problem in the management of nursing homes where over 50% of the deaths have occurred. Moreover, the per capita death rate in Sweden is lower than in a number of countries that have enforced strict lockdowns, including Spain, Italy, the UK, and Belgium. Finally, while there are gray areas around the development of immunity to the coronavirus, in the long term Sweden will quite likely be better placed than many other countries. Though the precise situation remains unclear, one recent study at Stockholm University suggests that Stockholm could reach community immunity by mid-June.
 Novalis Schriften: Die Werke von Friedrich von Hardenberg, vol. 2, ed. R. Samuel, H. J. Mähl and G. Schulz (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 1960-1988), p. 242.
Beth Spencer is the winner of the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award for The Age of Fibs (fiction). Other books include the verse memoir Vagabondage (UWAP), and How to Conceive of a Girl (Vintage/Random House) which was runner up for the Steele Rudd Award. She writes across genres and forms, her ABC-radio pieces have been collected on the double CD Body of Words, and she is also a contributor to the podcast Climactic. She lives and writes on Darkinjung land, and has a website at www.bethspencer.com
Playing cards on a red rattler
You always picked on my accent. ‘Are yous two gonna go?’ you’d laugh. When of course the ‘two’ was redundant, that’s what the ‘s’ is for. But you didn’t get that, like you didn’t get a lot of things.
And then the haitch/aitch thing. No, I’m not Catholic, it’s not about being Catholic, that’s just what you were told at your Proddy private school. (But really, if we’re talking about the letter ‘H’ then why leave the ‘H’ off? Makes no sense.)
The first time I met private school boys I was fifteen. We were standing around in a group at some inter-school Christian thing that I was into then and one of them asked me what school I went to. ‘Lilydale Tech,’ I replied. Silence. One of them reached into his pocket. ‘Here,’ he said, and handed me a cent.
It wasn’t until I went to uni and called home from telephone boxes that, with a shock, I began to hear the broadness of my father’s accent. The language goal posts shifting uneasily under my feet.
On the rare occasions my dad talked about the past he would say in them days, and refer to the toffy-nosed people on the other side of Balwyn.
(My grandfather’s blacksmith shop off Burke Street. My father’s clothes smelling of iron and steam and horses.)
Another time, with a similar bunch of private school friends, walking along a suburban street we saw a horse cropping grass in a paddock and stopped to say hello. One of the girls said something that prompted me to comment, ‘Well, my father is a farrier.’
‘Oooh!’ exclaimed an older boy. ‘Does he wear a big greasy apron?’
That fleeting rush of shame, just for a moment. (Well, yes. Yes, he does.)
Mostly I did manage to escape that shame and I think it was because my parents never desired that I be anything other than what they were, and what their parents were. A ‘good job in a shop’—what more could a girl want? (You certainly wouldn’t want to be like those toffy people! Goodness! Just the thought.)
I have a girlfriend who came from a similar working-class outer-suburb—a few stops down the train line—but her parents always dreamed that she would go to university. It was what they worked so hard for, aspired to. One day, sitting on her bed while she got ready to go out, I noticed when she opened her wardrobe that she had dozens of pairs of fine Italian leather shoes (and never enough).
Shoes, of course. I was slow about that. For years I had no idea that at uni, conferences, job interviews, writer’s festivals, I was being judged on my shoes. Like those men in Paris, years later, who followed me with invitations and suggestive comments whenever I went out walking, spotting me in my Doc Martens as an outsider, fair game. Like the professor who was asked once how he selected the right person for the job. ‘Well, it’s like looking in the mirror really.’
Did you notice this about me when we met when I was seventeen—my cheap and shabby shoes? ‘As long as it’s clean, washed and paid for,’ my father, a child of the Depression, would say. Meaning: good enough is good enough and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Cheap shoes. Cheap haircut. I started to notice it eventually when I would watch older and younger women bond over their stylish shoes, notice the swish of neat hair, not a strand out of place. (You don’t belong. You are an outsider.)
Is this what you spotted that singled me out as someone to take to bed, but not home to the parents?
In those early years at uni, while your parents lent you their Citroens and old Volvos and took you out to restaurants, I would catch the train back to the suburbs and my Dad would pick me up from the station in the P76 with the back seat removed for the horseshoes. Wiping down the seat with an old towel, taking me home to a prodigal daughter feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In them days, at uni, I learnt words like déclassé and embourgeoised.
I learnt to spread out the times I would visit my parents so the visits became infrequent, and grudging. Over with as fast as possible.
You drove me out there once in the Citroen, your tourist eyes taking in all that had been invisible to me. I watched you backing down the drive speedily, past my father’s cattle truck, the dogs barking.
What was it about you that was like my brothers and father but with a posh accent? Was it the way you drove? Relaxed, confident. Was it that faint attitude of contempt?
Later at uni, doing my Masters, I learnt words like intersectionality.
And still, in between all the private school-bred girlfriends, you would seek me out. And I would practice saying things to you, fucking and fighting, that I could never say to my brothers or my father. You worked out some need with me, I worked out some need with you.
I learned that in amongst the pride and arrogance there was a shame in you that I could never have imagined, and that no amount of expensive shoes or cars or restaurant meals or high class jobs and travel and the right postcodes and saying ‘aitch’ and ‘you two’ could ever cleanse.
Right side of the wrong tracks. First class, second class, the trains taking us in different directions.
Tell them as long as it’s clean, washed and paid for.
Paid for, there’s the rub. Both of us living on stolen land. You just had a lot more of it.
I never know how to end these stories about you. Even though after all these years our story is well and truly ended. Or so I hope. So I tell myself.
And my father died two decades ago.
But we partake of each other. We live in each other. Just as the boy with the one cent coin lives in me, and the greasy leather apron, my friend with the dozens of shoes, the academics admiring each other’s haircuts.
As we pick up the cards and lay down tracks. This one, that one. Steaming through life, me in a red rattler, you in a blue train. Hanging out the windows. Buying time. Buying up whole suburbs. A country. An ocean between us. Whole worlds.
But you see it’s never about the things you thought it was.
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. His essays and fiction have appeared in Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Meanjin, and Griffith Review. In 2018 Stephen received the NSW WRiters’ Fellowship from Create NSW to commence work on his debut manuscript ‘Vietnamatta’, to be published by Brow Books.
The Central express train rattles and sighs as it pulls up to Hornsby Station. I take a deep breath and hold it. Slide open the yellow door speckled with grime. Step on, look at the toilets. Neither of the doors are open but I’m not taking a chance. They’re sloshing with piss from Central Coast bogans. Turn, open the spring-loaded door, and step into the passenger’s section, which is carpeted with vinyl seats. It’s packed. I let go of my breath. The dampness of human bodies mixes with Lean Cuisine chicken, cheese, and pasta and burrows into the back of my throat. I gag. I should turn back. Stand between the carriages, where the air is fresh and the ground is shaky. No. It takes 30 seconds to get used to a bad smell. In a minute, it’ll be like I’m lounging in my White godfather’s TV room. Though last I heard, he’s living in a shipping container with his golliwog collection.
Upstairs, the seats are filled with people wearing red-and-white jerseys. Oh, it’s Friday. They’re headed to the footy. There’s a seat in the middle of the carriage. On the aisle side is a bag of Chicken Crimpy Shapes. I take the window seat, stepping over the glittery bits crushed into the carpet. It’s pretty dark outside. I can’t see much save for the streaks of rain outside and the line of steam creeping up on my reflection inside.
Behind me, someone with the nasally honk of Aussie Home Loans guy talks loudly. Instead of saying, ‘At Aussie, we’ll save you,’ he says, ‘The freckled moll’s place, ahh, it looks like housing, but, ahh, it’s not, so, ooh, she acts like she’s, ah, better than everyone.’
I grin at my reflection. I love this. The dumb-ass conversations on this train, which runs from Newcastle to Sydney, can’t be found anywhere else. The bogans, like Aussie Home Loans, are the loudest and crudest. One Wednesday arvo, a blonde lady in Mariah Carey bejewelled sunnies sat in the nigel seat yelling on the phone. She stood up and waved her free hand as she yelled, ‘Jayden, Jayden, Jayden. You fucked me, you fucked me reaaaaal bad. Real bad. Why’d you tell the court I was waving the knife around? Don’t ya remember how I was chopping tomatoes? I was chopping the tomatoes, and you said something. You said something, and I looked up. And I looked up and pointed the knife at you. And I pointed the knife at you and I pointed it away. Remember that? I was not waaaving the knife, I was pointing it.’
It took me everything to not laugh out loud then. I didn’t want her to point a knife at me.
Now Aussie is complaining about how the University of Newcastle pays him five dollars an hour to clean, but at least he makes 100 a week. My bad. He’s genuinely poor. I feel gross for laughing at him now.
His mate who has the deep, controlled drawl of Fitzy says, ‘Oi, but yeah…but nah…you take home…200 a fortnight, ay?’
That’s the same thing. We can’t all be Asians when it comes to maths, though. Shit. I’m doing it again. It’s not probbo if I’m laughing with them, but Fitzy seems dead serious.
He continues, ‘I’m so stoned, brah…Oi but, but…you know what they call my house? Cheech and Chong…come to Wyong.’
Aussie honks laughing. Guess I’m not with them after all. I’ve never seen Cheech and Chong, but I know it’s a stoner comedy. Toby McGuirk, the only other metalhead in high school, once told me he smoked dog shit. Was that like crack, or acid, or what? ‘I mean it’th thit. From a dog,’ he said. I’d seen him play Frisbee with dried cow dung before. I nodded. I guess it was only a matter of time.
‘I’m jutht kidding, man,’ he said. ‘It’th from Cheech and Chong. You thould thmoke with uth thome day. It’th a clathic.’
The train pulls up to Epping, black asphalt, grey metal ceiling jutting off the wall. Platform’s full of chinks and curries: black pantsuits, Herschel backpacks, puffer jackets and wire trolleys. Train’s about to get super crowded. I hope no-one sits next to me. But if they do, they’d better not be one of those dickheads that spread so much our knees are touching and the warmth of their leg makes me want to puke and retract mine but I also don’t want to seem weak so I just keep it there. That’s the worst.
The windows steam up completely as a procession of Asians fills the aisle. A burly Chinese guy with bulging, still eyes like a goldfish, plods forward. His white polo is splotched with pink. Rubber and blood floods my nostrils. Raw meat. An abattoir worker, maybe. If this was 2000 years ago, he’d be the town butcher. That’s what he was made for.
He’s hunched. Looks straight ahead as he gets closer to me. He’ll sit near the bogans. They’ll think he’s just gotten back from slaughtering strays in the neighbourhood. Nope. He grabs the handle on the seat in front of mine, swings his body around, and plops himself on top of the pack of Chicken Crimpy. It crunches. Did he even notice that? I scoot away. Our upper arms are touching. I’m pressed up against the window. Can’t be helped.
We’re moving. Conversations hum but the bogans have fallen quiet. Then Aussie says, ‘There’s, ah, so much Chinese, ay?’
Oh no. I hope this isn’t heading where I think it’s heading. Aussie’s in housing commission. Aussie makes five an hour cleaning up after uni shits like me. Aussie’s got nothing to look forward to but smoking up and watching the footy. They’re just not used to the city.
‘Yeah…but…what’s wrong with being…Chinese?’ says Fitzy.
‘Ah, everything!’ Aussie shouts. They piss themselves laughing.
Dickwad. I was rooting for you. I thought these idiots might be not-racist, but I’m the dumbarse for believing in them.
‘Hey, ah…sweet and sao-wah POK,’ says Aussie, in the voice of the City Wok guy on South Park.
Fitzy laughs, ‘Oi, but listen to this…Sweet and sao-wah POK.’
Cortisone floods my shoulders, stiffens my neck. I turn my head a little, not enough for the Butcher to catch me, and glance around. As far as I can tell, us Asians outnumber the Aussies by three to one. Maybe even more. We’ve got the numbers. But people are just talking to each other or looking right ahead. No-one’s turned around to check the bogans. Maybe it’s because most of us are old, or don’t speak English, or don’t care. Maybe we’re scared to break the silence.
Air conditioner whirs. Rain drums on the train’s tin top. I wipe the steamed window with my right shoulder. Outside is black.
‘Sweet and sao-wah POK,’ Fitzy says.
I breathe in deep, chest swelling. Fuck it. I stand up. Shoulder drags against Butcher’s. Out the corner of my eye, I see him watching me, his mouth ajar. My wrists pound. I turn around, gaze sweeping the suits, students, and oldies before locking onto Aussie. He’s a fat fuck with acne scars on his bright pink Wiffle ball face. St George Illawarra frayed at the bent bill. He stares at me, his grey eyes boring into mine. Fitzy props himself on an elbow, twists around to look at me. He’s got a buzzcut and Golden Arches hairline, face long like a mountain goat. ‘You hillbilly cunts better shut the fuck up,’ I shout.
Aussie’s thin lips draw back. Yellow teeth rest on his bottom lip. Hands rise to the sides of his face. They pull back the skin next to his eyes. His head wobbles from side to side as he says in the South Park accent, ‘Aw! Sutt da fuk ap!’
I’ve got nothing. I flip them off and sit back down. Carriage falls silent. My head’s throbbing. I couldn’t have done any better. You engage with idiots, you’re the idiot. Whatever, man. I can feel the Butcher staring at me. Maybe he’ll move away. He doesn’t. Just keeps staring.
‘Ahh, yaw mudda!’ sings Aussie.
A deep male voice pipes up. ‘Youse better stop it. This train’s full of them, youse know that? And one of them’s just gotten offended. I’ve been listening to youse go on since Gosford, and I’m sick of it. It’s not funny. I’m a cop on holiday, don’t make me do my job. It’s not funny. Don’t make me start up again. Don’t encourage him.’
In a small voice, Aussie says, ‘I, ah, won’t.’
The rest of the train ride is silent, save for Fitzy squeaking every now and then, trying to get Aussie to laugh.
At Strathfield, red brick, green poles, and black asphalt, the train starts to slow. Holiday Pig gets up and heads towards the bogans. He’s got a tiny face and a huge head like William H. Macy. Aussie honks, ‘I’m ah, sorry,’ to Holiday Pig. Pig replies, ‘You’re right, mate.’
I go in the direction I came. Hold my breath by the toilets in the mezzanine.
As the train comes to a stop, someone taps on my shoulder. I turn around. It’s the Butcher. Eyes shine, fat lip hangs, sounds like he’s trying to swallow air as he says, ‘You speak Chinese?’
I shake my head and say, ‘斩你做猪肉碎、喂畀狗.’
Nadine Schofield is an emerging writer living in Wollongong. She is a high school English teacher helping young women find the magic of words and the power of their own story. Nadine is completing a Master of Writing at Swinburne University.
‘As I begin to write now a feeling of peacefulness comes over me as if I need not for inexplicable half-hidden reasons refrain from writing any longer… it is often not possible to write about events until they are over or sufficiently of the past, … secrets, if they are revealed completely, become mere facts, something extra to real life.’
—Elizabeth Jolley, The Vera Wright Trilogy
* * *
I was thirty-eight. We had been married for two months. And then we were going to be parents.
What to Expect When You Are Expecting (Murkoff) became our manual, our source of wisdom. In his radio voice, Colin would read aloud from the couch the weekly update of what was happening inside my body. A strange food motif runs through the week-by-week descriptions:
- Poppy seed
- Orange seed
- Large raspberry
- Medium green olive
- A prune
- A large fresh plum
Then the fruit was replaced with a heartbeat; the ‘lub-dub’, a ‘fetal symphony’ (Murkoff 181).
* * *
The Women’s Ultrasound and Imaging Clinic is behind a working construction site; a single level red-brick building with long corridors of brown carpet illuminated by exit signs at regular intervals. The smell of concrete dust is cut through with disinfectant. We find the right door to the right waiting room and, after repeating names and dates and numbers, we are called into the imaging room by a young nurse. The room is a cave, illuminated by two computer monitors and a dimmed light over the bed. The nurse is friendly, and the directions come quickly.
‘Everything off from the waist down. Up on the bed and I’ll put this over you.’ She is holding up a sheet of paper. I am embarrassed to be pulling my pants down in front of my husband and a stranger.
The purpose of the ultrasound is to date and confirm the viability of the pregnancy via a transvaginal examination. The nurse sheathes the transducer with a condom and cold gel and asks me to spread my legs. Colin and I watch the shadowy, swirling mass appearing on the monitor until the nurse ends the guessing game and we hear the baby’s heartbeat: a fast, rhythmic sound like a wobble board.
‘155 beats per minute, but that’s normal,’ she informs us before withdrawing the probe.
* * *
What did we hear? What is a heartbeat? Any medical textbook defines the human heart as an electrical system; the heartbeat is the sound of ‘atria and ventricles at work pumping blood’ (Clinic). In these terms, the human heart becomes a switch, a light that can be turned on and off. The Oxford Dictionary defines the heart as evidence of ‘one’s inmost being; the soul, the spirit’; ‘the seat of love and affection’ (“Heart”, 879).
We made a heartbeat.
We take each other’s hand and with the sun in our eyes we walk back to the car, our large white envelope in hand. We haven’t expected a photo, not so soon, and we sit in the car looking at our shadowy mass with three straight arrows pointing at it, so we know where to look. Is this going on the fridge?
‘We made a heartbeat,’ I whisper as I turn to face Colin. And there he is, a father. He has become a photograph, caught shirtless with our child curled into the wiry, grey hairs of his chest, head lowered, and eyes half closed.
* * *
At the worst moment, What to Expect When You Are Expecting becomes our doctor. There is a chapter on miscarriage. ‘Signs and symptoms can include cramping or pain, heavy vaginal bleeding, similar to a period’ (Murkoff 534). In Emergency I cannot speak. I go to the bathroom several times to check that we need to be in Emergency. Parents come with vomiting children, bruised children and bleeding children. Colin and I sit in silence.
I answer the questions of a trainee nurse about my pain and when it started and how many hours and my periods and how many pads and then Colin is asked to wait outside.
‘How many sexual partners have you had?’; ‘So, is there any chance you have AIDS?’ I don’t understand. It has been three hours. I become desperate and demanding: ‘We want to know if our baby is alive.’ An older female nurse with a bright pink stethoscope arrives with a doppler machine on a trolley.
‘Not always accurate these machines. Come back in the morning. Go to the Pre-natal unit upstairs.’ There is no comfort in the nurse’s voice, and she leaves the room quickly to attend to the next patient.
In the Pre-Natal unit the light is electric white. Everyone and everything is overexposed: the white floor tiles, the white dispensers of hand sanitiser near the white door to the white toilet. Chairs are fixed in rows facing each other. On three of these chairs are the shapes of other women waiting. I don’t look at these women and am momentarily distracted as nurses pass through the brutal light—flashes of uniform blue moving down the corridor. My eyes flick to a notice board of neatly spaced posters on breastfeeding.
Colin is beside me. His face is grey. I grip his wrist and rub at the smooth, hairless skin just to stay present. I can smell my own body: tinny, salty.
‘Should I call the Real Estate? I don’t have to explain, just give them the keys.’ Colin’s voice is soft and gentle. We are selling our apartment and it will be open for inspection at ten.
Colin meets the agent at the front of the hospital. What about the bathroom? We didn’t make the bed.
The doctor in the Pre-natal unit offers us statistics as comfort. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (Hintz-Zambrano). We will discover we are not alone when we start talking about it with friends, the doctor tells us. How will we go about broaching this topic? We have three options and we take the first, ‘Expectant Management’, which involves letting the body expel the ‘baby’ naturally (“Treating miscarriage”).
In the third-floor apartment we are about to sell, I sit on the toilet with our ‘recognisable embryo’ on a piece of toilet paper in my hand.
I don’t know what to do.
Our baby goes in the bin.
* * *
There is a frangipani tree in the front garden of our new Miner’s cottage home. Our neighbours have a frangipani tree too, and there is an old, large one at the front gate of the college where I teach. Staff enjoy morning tea before the holidays in its shade; pink flowers bruised and browning on the ground. The first summer in our house the neighbours’ frangipani tree buds and blossoms. Ours doesn’t. We string Christmas lights among the waxy leaves and in the late spring of the following year my aging mother snaps off a branch declaring it ‘dead’. The frangipani tree becomes a portent. When the tree flowers we will have a family. This is pathetic.
On the last day of the school year, all the staff sit around a cross marked out on the floor with tealights. The Dean begins something of a homily about the Journey of the Magi: three Oriental Astrologers who place faith in a baby above science and reason. At the end of the day, I drive home past the Anglican Church: ‘Be filled with Hope this Christmas.’
* * *
Colin and I attend our second appointment with a fertility specialist. The IVF website claims such specialists are ‘dedicated to giving you the best possible chance of having a baby using the most advanced science’ (Australia). We have been undertaking the routine procedures associated with ovulation tracking for three months. In the waiting room, I stare at the Anne Geddes photograph of a baby curled asleep on top of a pumpkin, and another, in black and white, of age-spotted hands cradling a baby’s head. On the coffee table are home decorating magazines and a small wooden nativity scene.
T.S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ is in my head. The poem has new meaning:
‘A hard time we had of it…
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?…
This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death’ (Eliot 95).
* * *
The fertility doctor is a cowboy. Reclining in his chair with shoes off, it’s clear that he does not remember us. I am weighed and then there are the anecdotes and jokes about penises.
‘He had an erection, so I knew the spine was broken’; ‘No good being Errol Flynn unless you find a woman who can accommodate.’
I feel hot and irritated but I sit and smile because Colin and I need him. He talks about what he has done and what he is going to do; we need to keep going with another three months of tracking and then, if necessary, we will begin IVF. He asks us questions about tubal flushing and spermatocytes, and we look like children who missed out on sex education. Colin thanks him on our way out.
‘Don’t thank me until I get you pregnant,’ he replies with a grin.
On the first day of my menstrual cycle I call the doctor’s room. The receptionist takes a credit card payment and issues paperwork for an internal scan and blood tests. I am to take pre-natal supplements, an iron supplement and consume one cup of cream per day to gain five kilograms.
Then there are latex gloves. Condoms. Cold gel. Modesty blanket. Follicles counted. The pathologist, a woman close to retirement with frizzy hair, talks and talks about her grandson’s dyslexia. One day there is another pathologist, angular, no fuss. I arrive too late for the courier. Don’t I know what I’m doing?
We host Colin’s goddaughter, Emily. She is on holiday from Scotland during her university break. Emily watches me beneath her thick eyebrows and dark hair, seemingly unexcited by suggestions to eat out or visit the lighthouse. She mentions Ryan Gosling, so we drive into town to see La La Land, which she has promised to see with her mother. The fertility nurse sends a text message during the credits:
My dear you are surging
big time!! Lots of
hormones, LH 43 and
oestrogen 1689 so
ovulating this 24 hours
or so. Intercourse
tonight and tomorrow to
make the most of it!
Blood test next Thursday for
The directive acts like a contraceptive. I worry and hide the nurse’s message from Colin, foolishly hoping that wearing the right lingerie and dimming the lights will be enough to get us in the mood. Sex is no longer love, or even pleasure, but the pressure to time intercourse and conceive. This proves to be too much for us and I accuse Colin of not loving me enough; he is hurt and stops talking for the rest of the night.
Like Eliot’s Magi, the death of our old ways is cracking my heart. Celebrating New Year’s Eve seems too pointless. We stay home and cook steaks on the barbeque, but the limes stay in the fruit bowl. We can’t be bothered making mojitos, our ritual since we were married.
Ariel Levy, in 2013 her travel piece for The New Yorker, ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’, evokes the wretchedness of losing a child while based in Ulaanbaatar. She likens motherhood to ‘black magic’ and her loss leaves her with a ‘dark hurt’ that is primal. The final image of the writer is of a ‘wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone’ (Levy). Levy’s 2017 memoir The Rules Do Not Apply further explores the writer’s disorientation after her miscarriage. Her sense of guilt is palpable as she questions whether she had asked too much of life and been punished for her pride.
I am about to turn forty. There will be a big cake in the teacher’s staff room that won’t get eaten; next to it a sign, ‘Happy Birthday Nadine’. Colin and I have cancelled the IVF appointment. We are putting faith in the life force, since speaking of God has always been abstract and non-committal. It is the heartbeat that haunts me most. What have we lost? What makes the thought of being childless so difficult to accept? It is a schizophrenic headspace. There are websites, blogs and counselling services. There is Colin’s optimism in the face of statistics on IVF success rates for couples our age; a very low 6%. In a Four Corners program, ‘The Baby Business’, a childless woman who has undergone fertility treatment claims that IVF specialists do little more than ‘sell hope’ (Dingle). An article in The Conversation suggests that 80% of women forty-five years and over who bear a child have healthy pregnancies, and success rates with IVF increase with the use of a donor egg (Wilkinson). there are women in the public sphere and part of my micro-world who have given birth after forty.
* * *
Our Sunday lunch is not much. Salad.
‘Here is that article by Annabel that I was telling you about.’ Colin passes the iPad to me.
Annabel Crabb has written a commentary piece for The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘A Womb with a View Today’. The article is ‘a salute to the womb’ both as a source of life and a political space. Crabb refers to a public interview with Gladys Berejiklian, the Premier of NSW, that highlights how the role of female politicians is scrutinised and then trivialised dependent upon whether they have children. But it is Crabb’s ‘salute’ to the female body’s power to create life that defeats me: ‘This thing is the Thermomix of the human body. It can make everything from spleens to eyelashes; imagine that! Mine has made three entire human beings…’ I find her use of analogy simplistic and inaccurate; that it needs tempering with a complex discourse around motherhood.
Crabb is right to celebrate the power of the female body to produce life; it is one capacity that women will always have despite the other inequities we fight as a result of gender, and while celebrated journalists and social commentators like Crabb are quick to defend women who choose not to have a child, it is dangerous to perpetuate a myth around choice that does not include the reality of no choice, the frequency of miscarriage or failed IVF. It is tempting to run with Crabb’s analogy here and point out that a woman’s Thermomix might go on the blink. If your womb is not a magical machine capable of making human beings, if you are barren, then your place within the womanhood becomes tenuous.
Medical sociologists like Arthur Greil point to qualitative and quantitative research to suggest that infertility is a condition shaped by sociocultural context and not simply a medical condition that may or may not have psychological consequences. According to Greil, the perceptions of an infertile couple and those around them are understood to be ‘the product of social definitions’; couples attending appointments with specialists do not define themselves as ‘infertile’ but rather as individuals who wish to fulfil the social role of parenting. This is at odds with the medicalisation of infertility.
If the desired state of parenthood is a social construct, then filling this role ensures belonging to a group or community. The shared experience of parenting with peers allows participation in dialogue around common life experiences and bonding between adults who come together for family activities.
My filing cabinet in the teachers’ staffroom has been decorated with children’s drawings. Jane, a friend and fellow English teacher, has left them there after a visit from her daughter Molly. Jane has long, raven black hair and belly dances on the weekend. We talk about TV dramas and our frustrations as teachers, but not our private lives.
Last week Jane arrived with a paddle pop stick decorated with silver glitter and a pink feather pinned to her blouse: a gift from Molly for the World’s Best Mum. The other women in the staffroom quickly gathered to swap Mother’s Day stories, and Leah, the stylish Art teacher, produced a bag of toddler dresses for Jane.
Leah is hosting a birthday party for her son on the weekend and in a bubbly voice reminds everyone to arrive at ten on Sunday for the clown. I haven’t been invited. If there is no moral shame around being childless, there is still a silence.
* * *
I had called Mum from the waiting room outside the Pre-Natal Unit at the hospital: ‘We were going to have a baby and now we’re not.’
I do not remember the hugs we received as we entered the door of her unit, only that my mother made us toast with too much butter. There was strawberry jam if we wanted it. These were the practical needs of the day.
‘I thought you were. You just looked a bit plumper in the face.’ My mother enjoyed her toast and tea. ‘Oh well. It just wasn’t meant to be.’
The conversation was ended. There was nothing we could do but get on.
I have returned to my mother’s doorstep many times since the miscarriage and our subsequent failed attempts to start a family. She is not the source of comfort I often want and need but rather a woman of her generation: stoic and determined to make the most of what she has. She quickly imparts wise directives on ‘cheering up’ and then diverts my attention with updates on the pot plants in her courtyard.
Helen Garner, in Everywhere I Look, writes about her relationship with her mother, also a person of resilience who survived the hardships of World War II and the extraction of all her teeth at once. Garner’s respect and deep affection for her mother is evident in the chapter ‘Dreams of Her real Self’; at one moment the narration is broken with a single line, ‘Oh, if only she would walk in here now’ (Garner 100). Is the longing to be a mother in part a desire to be the source of comfort, or wisdom, or a role model of resilience, for another?
As I watch my mother feed parrots on the back doorstep and plan her week around cooking a corned beef, I feel a pain behind my eyes and a clamp around my throat. If only I could lay my head on her breast and feel peace. At home, the coffee table is littered with maps of Dublin City and Lonely Planet editions of road trips in Europe. On another table, in another room, is a referral to a new fertility specialist.
Statistics and medicine aside, there is a bigger moral quandary here. Not necessarily religious but a theological concern with the purpose of life. What can be the purpose of our lives? How to accept that we might not take a place in the line of ‘women bearing / women’, as in Gwen Harwood’s poem (“Mother Who Gave Me Life”, 170)—or parents bearing children? Acceptance and comfort do not come from academic research into the treatment of infertility or the social construct of parenthood.
I find myself reading blog posts of motherless women—websites dedicated to ‘Aunt’s Day’—but it is an article written by Lawrence Rifkin for the Scientific American that has stayed with me. Rifkin argues that the purpose of life cannot be reduced to the ‘making of babies’; that to do so is ‘an affront to human dignity’. The purpose of each life is to experience joy, relationships, and accomplishments. If we can add to the meaning of the life of another or improve the planet in some way, then all the better. It is difficult to disagree with Rifkin’s final statement: ‘human meanings are worthwhile regardless of long-term, universal, final consequences, because they are meaningful now.’ Here is comfort, a validation.
Holding onto hope in the life force or seeking out another fertility specialist is no longer necessary if the purpose of our lives is simply to live—even if that does mean getting on with an ache in my heart. This is where philosophy serves its purpose; when the twists and turns of life become inexplicable, the emotions too big, and we don’t understand.
Greil, Arthur et al. “The Social Construction of Infertility.” Sociology Compass, vol. 5, issue 8, 2011, pp. 736-746. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00397.x
Greil, Arthur et al. “The experience of infertility: A review of recent literature.” Sociology of Health & Illness, vol. 32, issue 1, 2010, pp. 140-162. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2009.01213.x
IVF Australia. “Fertility treatments.” IVF Australia, https://www.ivf.com.au/treatments
Cleveland Clinic. “The heart’s electrical system.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17064-heart-beat
Crabb, A. “A Womb with a View Today.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax, 28 January 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/a-womb-with-a-view-today-20170127-gu037h.htm.
Dingle, Sarah. “The Baby Business.” Four Corners, ABC, 30 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2016/05/30/4469652.htm
Eliot, TS. The Penguin Poets – T. S. Eliot: A selection by the author, Harmondsworth: Pengun, 1951.
Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2016.
Harwood, Gwen. “Mother Who Gave Me Life.” Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 170-71.“Heart”. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Hintz-Zambrano, Katie. “Miscarriage Stories: 10 Women Share Their Loss.” MOTHER, 31 August 2015, http://www.mothermag.com/miscarriage-stories/
“Treating Miscarriage.” The Royal Women’s Hospital, https://www.thewomens.org.au/health-information/pregnancy-and-birth/pregnancy-problems/early-pregnancy-problems/treating-miscarriage/
Levy, Ariel. “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” The New Yorker, 18 November 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/18/thanksgiving-in-mongolia
Levy. Ariel. The Rules Do Not Apply. London: Fleet, 2017.
Murkoff, Heidi. What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Sydney: HarperCollins, 2009.
Rifkin, Lawrence. “Is the Meaning of Life to Make Babies?” The Scientific American, 24 March 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/is-the-meaning-of-your-life-to-make-babies/
Wilkinson, Dominic. “Four Myths about IVF in Older Women.” The Conversation, 20 October 2016, https://theconversation.com/four-myths-about-ivf-in-older-women-67394
Sanaz Fotouhi is currently the director of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators. Born in Iran, she grew up across Asia and holds a PhD in English literature from the University of New South Wales. Her book The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution
was published in 2015 (I.B. Tauris). Her stories and creative fiction are a reflective of her multicultural background. Her work has appeared in anthologies in Australia and Hong Kong, including Southerly
, The Griffith Review
, as well as in the Guardian
UK and the Jakarta Post
. Sanaz is one of the founding members of the Persian Film Festival in Australia as well as the co-producer of the multi-award winning documentary film, Love Marriage in Kabul.
August 1997, one month after the historic handover from the British to the Chinese, as foreign businesses and banks were hustling to send their representatives back, we touched down in Hong Kong. We had left our relatively large unit in a complex of desolated chain-smoking coffee drinking Armenian exiles in Glendale, Los Angeles, packing up all that would one day become distant memory of America. We had gotten rid of the still grooveless and stainless sofas that we had not even had a chance to break into or stain with memories, and headed to a state that was now part of China.Tearfully I had broken this news to my then best friends. There was the Cuban beauty Rachelle. She refused to touch sugar and her skirt got shorter and shorter during the two years of high school as she kept rolling it on top, blaming her growing teenage legs when Sister Mary Jean, in her full habit, called her out on it; there was Grace, the Colombian. She lived in a zoo of a barely standing weatherboard house on top a hill with her dysfunctional family of a Catholic praying mother and drunk father. They cohabited with rabbits, cats, dogs, roosters, hamsters, and birds that flew and pooped everywhere in the house. There was the Armenian Maria who was constantly shamed for her overweight body. She lived on the last mansion on one of the long drives up the hill and used to compensate with stories of non-existent boyfriends. And the Filipino born Michelle. She escaped school from drive by shootings in her street and gang member brothers and friends, stinking of cigarettes in the morning, before we even said the first of the Marys.
A Muslim-born Iranian girl, after two and half years in LA, I had managed to find solace in the friendship of these outcast and marginal American girls. Without any sort of legal rights in the country, I was beginning, more or less, by the virtue having built a community and immersing myself into the culture, to consider myself American.
On the last days of Sophomore year on the grounds of the Holy Family High School, after we had finished our exam on the Bible, signing each other’s year books, my friends, some of whom didn’t and still do not have a passport, wondered about my parents’ sanity for accepting a posting in Hong Kong.
‘So, like why are you going back to Japan?’ Rachelle asked as we sat around exchanging and marking our memories on the back of each others’ books.
‘I am so not going to Japan. Hong Kong is totally not Japan!’
‘Totally Same thing. No?’
‘Totally not,’ I said eye rolling hands, gesturing Valley girl style.
‘Yea, whatever, and are you going to turn Japanese with eyes like this?’ Rachelle giggled as she pulled on her eyes to make them narrow and then signed ‘Wish you a great time in Japan haha!’
No matter how much I tried to explain that Japan and Hong Kong and China were not the same thing, they didn’t get it. But then I wasn’t very convincing. I wasn’t even sure if I got it myself. I had heard of what was to be some kind of a handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. Yet, to my sophomore brain preoccupied with other things, that meant nothing.
And yea whatever, unadmitted, was also as much my teenage understanding of Hong Kong then and it formed my attitude towards it. Pre-google days, with dial up internet, my only source of information on Hong Kong had been the school library. The only book on 70s Hong Kong described it as a concrete jungle with faded photos of tall buildings and pirate style ships.
After an ‘oh my God, we are going to crash into the buildings below,’ as the plane descended on Kai Tak airport in the middle of the crowded city, I landed in Hong Kong with yea whatever understanding of it. Unassuming, unexpecting. When the sliding doors opened and we stepped out, my glasses fogged up and it was like someone had opened a rice cooker mid-cook and I had voluntarily stuck my head in it and kept it there.
It was stinky, humid, raining, sticky, hot, and crowded.
If anything was worse than the moist entrance, it was the tiny shoe box of an apartment that my dad’s company had rented for us. The walk-in-closet in my LA room outsized, by far, the jigsaw puzzled space that was to be my bedroom. If I happened to leave my bag on the floor in the room, there was no space for the door to close smugly into the closet fitted right next to the bed framed at the bottom with a desk. And if feeling like an amphibian in the 99% humidity in a city that stank of dried seafood, and having to live in a shoe box as a room, was not enough to make me have a small bit of crisis, starting school gave me the last push into a tumble of identity crises.
Adjusting from an American school system to the the British HSC style; going to a co-ed school for the first time; encountering the boy species; and saying goodbye to most of my new friends at the international school at the end of two years after they left for various universities in the US, UK and Australia, and then heading to predominately Chinese populated University of Hong Kong to study English literature, are minor and mostly painful details of life that followed. While not in full, I mention these here because they contributed in someway or another to my transition and of later understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger in today’s transnational world.
It took me three and half years to come to terms with calling Hong Kong home. It was a gradual process evolving through disdain, anger, loneliness, confusion, to tolerance, acceptance, liking, loving and then feeling more at home in Hong Kong than I did in Iran, or America. Yet, I remember the exact moment when I felt like a Hong Konger.
By then I had moved into a tiny studio on Pokefield Road near the University with my best friend, Marina. She was a local Hong Kong girl, who had spent the majority of her life away and at international schools. We had become friends during university when we gravitated towards each other as the only people in our Spanish class who spoke English with an international school accent. From there we had met other confused souls around the campus who had found themselves, like us, stranded in a university that was meant to be English medium but which was often conditional in adapting that. By the end of the second year of university we had formed a group. We were the only bunch that could be heard speaking English at the campus café near the library, Oliver’s. While we all spoke in English, I was one of three in this group of fifteen or so, who was not local Chinese. There was really no need for me to learn Cantonese. However, by simply hanging out with my local friends, I had picked up a few words here and there and incorporated them into my everyday speech.
On the day in question Marina and I were standing in line at Café de Coral, a very local fast food restaurant that serves Chinese food. While an English menu did exist, by now I knew exactly what I wanted and could even order it in Cantonese when I was alone.
‘What are you having?’ Marina asked so that she could order.
‘Char Siu Faan,’ I said.
‘Yum meiya?’ – What do you want to drink. She asked.
‘Ling Cha,’ I said – Lemon tea.
‘Dung m Dung a?’ –Cold?
‘Always Dung ah,’ I said.
As we ordered and waited in line, we continued our conversation about a cousin of hers. ‘So, Ken is an astronaut child who has just come back from Sydney and he has been so maah faan. My aunty, poor woman, she has to deal with his attitude after she has spent all this time alone there for him and now she has come back to find that everyone knew that his husband has had that Mainland mistress.’
As I was listening to her, I saw that two blond girls were standing close by us and were trying to decipher the menu and overhearing our conversation, which I noticed, was probably not making any sense to anyone unless they had been localized in the diction and culture of Hong Kong.
One of the girls smiled at me and in an LA valley girl accent long forgotten by me and said, ‘You seem to be from here. Can you please help us make sense of this menu, or tell us where the closest western food is, like, other than McDonald’s. We haven’t been able to find anything to eat except McDonalds for the last two days. I can’t bring myself to eat off the street, I feel like barfing every time I smell the dried seafood everywhere.’
It was in that moment that I realized that I had actually become a Hong Konger. My immersion into the culture had been so gradual that I had missed the transition period and suddenly found myself transmuted on the other side as what my friends started calling, an egg – kind of white on the outside (or depending on where the eggs are from in my case olive) and yellow on the inside! My Chinese local friends, on the other side, referred to themselves as bananas – yellow on the outside and white on the inside. No matter which racially inappropriate metaphor we decided to imbibe, the truth was that together we were all Hong Kongers.
The strange reality is that while I stopped feeling like an American as soon as I left LA, even almost a decade after not continuously living in Hong Kong, I still feel like a Hong Konger.
Last time I was in Hong Kong it was a few months after the 20th anniversary of the Handover. During my absence a lot had happened. Hong Kong felt more Chinese in a way only locals can feel after a long absence. One of the most important changes had been the creeping of the Chinese government into the Hong Kong political system in ways that people had not anticipated. The ‘one country two systems’ had been a promise made by China at the time of the handover. It had meant that while still technically a Chinese state, Hong Kong was meant to have political autonomy. Individual rights and freedoms were enshrined in basic Hong Kong law. However, in 2014, the Chinese government declared that despite this independence the Chief Executive of Hong Kong was to be appointed by the Central People’s Government in Beijing. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets protesting. To guard themselves against police pepper spray people used their umbrellas as defence and the term Umbrella Movement quickly took on to describe the protests.
As the result of the recent events Hong Kong people found themselves increasingly confronted by the Chinese government and to a push towards a sense of Chineseness that didn’t belong to them. You see, while the majority of Hong Kong locals are of Chinese descent and ethnicity, the years of British rule, and Hong Kong’s exposure to the West, has made Hong Kong Chinese culture significantly different to the mainland Chinese. This difference is a crucial point of Hong Kong politics of identity. Although essentially of Chinese ethnic background, the question of Chineseness of identity for many local Hong Kong people is debatable.
In being back recently I found myself with a set of questions that stems from a similar origin. Yes, I feel like a Hong Konger but what does that even mean in the complicated terrain of identity politics and the larger Chinese question? Should I feel allegiances to any particular government, race or ethnicity to feel a sense of belonging in a place and construct my identity around it?
In a collection of essays, poems and fiction celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Handover, prominent Hong Kong writers, tackle this question from different aspects. In a moving piece, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s well known English writers with a complicated sense of identity herself, highlights the notion that identity politics should not be racialized or nationalized. As opposed to attaching identity to race or a nationality, she writes,
‘How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called Hong Kong from which I consequently derive an identity. Of course, if I happen to be Cantonese or Shanghainese or some other kind of Chinese, or perhaps, not even ethnically Chinese at all, but if I happen to exist here, this space will certainly lay some claim on me….Identity emerges from who we feel we are, who we have evolved to become over time, and is larger than mere nationality or political bias.’ (252)
In another piece, Umbrella Poetics, Jennifer Cheng describes best what I feel about my sense of identity in relation to Hong Kong. She writes,
‘As much as home is anchor in the body, a protected space no one else can ever know, we have always known how identity is yet also fluid, murky: how we have had to construct it and claim it with twigs we collected and terrains we named, here and there: how its boundaries shifted and burned with memories uncovered, histories relearned, linguistics transformed, distances and shadows narrowing and growing and looming.’ (193)
This has certainly been true in my case. As I grappled to come to terms with Hong Kong and my relation to it, I made it mine. It doesn’t matter that I do not have a Chinese ethnic background. What matters is that I too collected twigs, constructed a home, and built a community from which I derived, in Xu Xi’s words, my sense of identity not out of national belonging or race, but of spatial belonging. And in this I am not alone. There is a large subculture of people who share the same understanding of Hong Kong: expats, diplomats, long term travellers, and those who are actively reclaiming and reconstructing their identities and also along with it the meaning of what it means to be a Hong Konger. And Hong Kong, because of its transient sensibilities of the expat community, offers the perfect space for that.
Again I share the sentiments in Cheng’s words when she writes, ‘Hong Kong is the one place in the world where I can feel both familiar and lost in the best of both senses, where a sense of wildness and safety intersect.’ And I agree with her that ‘I’ too ‘have never developed a language beyond this to describe Hong Kong, deep inside my bones.’ (200)
There is a famous line from the colonial times of Hong Kong. To live in Hong Kong was being in ‘a borrowed place living on borrowed time.’ During the colonial times many expats knew that Hong Kong was a place that would eventually return to China and many of those who lived there never really planted roots of permanence. However, I feel that this statement still holds true, not in relation to its political standing but in other ways. Given Hong Kong’s transient nature, its fast paced lifestyle, continuously changing landscape, and the shifting nature of its population, it is hard to stipulate otherwise or expect anything that feels a sense of permanence in Hong Kong.
But then again, in reflecting on the larger question of identity politics and our sense of belonging, this is a statement that is applicable to our global lives and sense of identity. Which one of us can claim permanent full undisputed ownership on the land, culture, society, and a sense of identity that we live by, or claim immortal existence? If you think about it, we are all living in a borrowed place on borrowed time. Yet our human desire to construct meaning of this fleeting existence by giving it a sense of permanence has driven us to construct imagined homelands and identities.
Perhaps the natives of the Australian land know best to not claim ownership but custodianship it. Perhaps this is the approach that we should all embrace in approaching our sense of identity politics. Perhaps the sense of identity that we struggle to make so much sense of is is much less complicated that we make it mean. Xu Xi sums up this to the point when she concludes her piece by writing, ‘What I am is a Hong Kong yan, my gaze fixed on an evanescent home, trusting it will find form and footing somehow as a Chinese city.’ (258)
Jennifer Cheng, ‘Umbrella Poetics’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)
Xu Xi, ‘Keystrokes by Loong Hei,’ in Hong Kong 2/20: A PEN Hong Kong Anthology. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2017)
Heather Taylor Johnson’s recent publications are Meanwhile, the Oak (poetry, Five Islands Press) and Jean Harley was Here (novel, UQP). Heather is the poetry editor for Transnational Literature and is edited Shaping The Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain.
How do I talk about home? How do I communicate the distance between Adelaide and Sydney? It’s easy to calculate kilometres and round off to the half-hour how long it might take to drive the distance, but how do I measure the pull from one place to the other? I believe there was a beginning and there is a now (there can never be an end) and it’s the in-between we rip apart, trying to get at the bones of big things, like love and loss and home. How many minor poems begin and end like this:
Adelaide, I’ve seen the square of your heart pulsing in the heat,
your brown-veined river tapped-out and rank, your black fingers
touching the sea and pricked on the lovely vine – I have tasted
your blood and it tastes like wine. Once I considered getting lost
(an impossible fate) then decided to go home but the train
was late. I hear drums in the park and follow their beat,
discover giant fig trees at my feet. When I say your name Adelaide
my tongue is a snake sliding over your hills, all scales, no feet.
I pick late-night falafel from my teeth.
I’m in Sydney, on my way to the Blue Mountains, a writers’ residency, a yellow house. It once belonged to the writer Eleanor Dark and her husband, Eric, and they called it ‘Varuna’. There are stories of Eleanor’s ghost, how you can feel her beside you when walking down the stairs, how noisy she is when she climbs the ladder (it would seem she is always moving, a restless ghost). I’m going to Varuna to write about illness and art and live with ghosts for ten days: Eleanor’s, Vincent Van Gogh’s, the ghost of my healthy body. I have a beginning and I have a now, and in-between the beginning and now illness birthed a ghost that breathes in experience and exhales memory and I need to write the stories. I’m going to inhabit that ghost, make sense of its loves and losses, make sense of its homes.
There are five of us and a dog in Adelaide. I cannot write about myself without writing about ‘us’. To write about illness is to write about the body – the whole body – and they are each a part of mine. The boys are my limbs; without them I couldn’t jump or high-five. The girl is my core, giving me she-woman strength. When you roar, it comes from the core. Also when you sob. Also when you laugh. My husband is my heart and it’s his blood that fuels me. His blood which is mixed with the blood of so many others from the time he died, twice, then came back to life. He thinks he survived so that we could meet and my body make our babies. And let us not forget the dog. The dog is my bowel; I need him daily in a very basic and simple way. Like I need shitting, and I don’t mean it to sound cruel or crass – I always mean to sound like a poet. Without my family, my body breaks down, and I know from experience that the essential ‘I’ of me will follow. This then means: without my family, I cannot write.
And yet, and yet, it is near-impossible to write with them around me, touching me, demanding of me, taking from me. And yet, and yet, I find I want to write about them constantly when I’m away.
To write about my body, I must write about ‘us’. I must write about home.
Here is a short definition of home:
My agent, Jo, brought me to her home for the night, where her child slept in her bed and I slept in his. His stories hung on his walls and littered his floor; one was paused in the middle of the telling, lying patiently on his desk. Their dog snuffled about then left me to sleep, toddled into their room.
How nice it is to feel welcomed, to hear a person say, This is my home, all of this is me, and you are welcome. I think Jo likes my writing because I write about family.
In the morning she drove me to the ferry at Manly. ‘It’s much nicer than going through the traffic,’ she said, and what I didn’t say was ‘Travel by water makes me sick.’ But then so does traffic. Coming to the Blue Mountains will not only be good for my writing but for my illness, too. There are many complexities in trying to determine why this is but I think it has a lot to do with not driving. My peripheral vision is in overload whenever and wherever I drive and it tires me out. School pick-ups and drop-offs, the neverendingness of groceries, the children’s sports, their music – I’m looking forward to the speed of walking over the next two weeks, the heaviness of ghosts in the yellow house.
I’m sitting on the lower deck because any higher my stomach might fall overboard, scaring fish and scattering cigarette butts. What is it with smokers who don’t think their butts in the sea are as bad as an empty bottle? There is a man smoking on the upper deck and I wonder if it’s allowed. Where, these days, is smoking allowed? (Vincent with his pipe is my favourite self-portrait.)
Everyone has their phones out so they can take photos of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, but when we come to the blue gap between the land that is Manly and the land that is known as The Rocks – the place in the centre, where water expands unfathomably, where there is a certainty of far-away – I take a photo. It is nothing but an empty horizon. I call it longing.
How many waves between the country where I live and the country where I was born? How many breaths? Australia and America: both are my countries yet neither are, home being a multi-layered thing and liminal at the same time; inaccessible by travel alone; too many steps, or laps, or blind grasps. That water, between the gaps of raised rock and the thin outer soil, forms a line, a plane, a motionless expanse that I know to be false because life is moving, always. Life is shifting and sinking and flowing, as in the shallow water of this harbour and the deep water beyond, as in Van Gogh’s peasant fields and the paintings of them that won’t sit still, in the rumble of dirt beneath Adelaide’s streets, and in the sands that gather and pile and amalgamate with tiny bodyless spiders’ legs in the cracks of Adelaide’s sidewalks, where debris makes homes for Adelaide’s ants. What intricate scapes tunnel below our feet.
I grew up in a mobile family, my father accepting promotions and my mother organising moving vans. She was a nurse and my brother and I children, so the three of us slotted right into wherever we had to live (there is always need for a nurse; suburbs crave children). By the time I was twenty-two I had lived in eight different cities in seven different states, on both sides of the Mississippi, north and south of the Mason Dixon line, too. No landmark or smell connected me to home. What is home when the silverware drawer and the cupboard for cups elude me? Naturally I filled out an application to become an international student after I’d lost my first love and of course I was gone two months later: over-the-ocean, across-the-dateline, of-a-different-hemisphere gone. Home had always been a moveable feast and I was twenty-five, hungrier than ever. That was almost two decades ago. Since then: almost twenty years of the same city, the same local beach, the same land. Almost long enough to call Australia home.
Van Gogh shifted homes when he needed to run towards, traversing the Netherlands and Belgium for a connection to the people and the land and his family and God, London for work, Paris and Arels and Auvers for art. What was home to him but a string of failures that we see as steps to his martyrdom? How conspicuous he must’ve felt with his thick Dutch accent and strange surname. He hated how the French pronounced it ‘Van Gog’ so signed his paintings with ‘Vincent’ to avoid further frustration.
To talk about home we need to talk about language and accents, culture and history, family and, yes, the body. I’ll call Australia my eyes and America my mouth. Perhaps home is the space between the two and to the left: my ear, faulty and to blame for my disease. Is it coincidence I became sick with an imbalance disorder when I moved from one country to the next?
I come from six lane highways and bridges over creeks,
the kudzu vine, the ubiquitous pine, from toll roads
and squashed toads. I come from the North Star, Stone
Mountain, the crash of Big Sur’s waves. I am cactus poison
and acid rain; obesity and the tobacco leaf. I’m from humidity
and plastic Santas loud atop the silent snow, from lightning
bugs and those camp songs my children laugh at when I sing,
songs I sing to make them laugh.
When we dock in that iconic part of Sydney, when I step off the ferry and step onto land, I am nauseous, the waves too much for my travelling ambition. I am glad for the hour reprieve before I catch a train to the mountains. I am glad for my notebook, pen, these thoughts, this writing, though when I look up from all of this gratitude, I am even more unsteady. In need of a nap to set me straight. A Coca-Cola will do. Always does. Embarrassing to wear your country of birth not around your neck or on your sleeve but stuck to your mouth which sucks in the bubbles that settle your stomach because you suffer from nausea. Though I believe sometimes you have to give yourself a break. One needn’t be political about small vices when there are so many other things wrong in the world.
Right now, in America, there is Donald Trump raised higher than Trump Tower and having no fear of any aeroplane crashing into him and taking him down, no fear of a missile aimed at his gut. Does he comprehend an American implosion, an inside job where citizens fire away with all of those automatic guns? I’m rubbing my face now. Whenever I think about Trump or America’s gun problem, I obsessively rub my face.
I’m supposed to return home to see my parents and brother and his family soon. I won’t go home. But I will return to America.
It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once:
James Woods has described this other chronic condition as ‘homelooseness’, going on to say, ‘Such a tangle of feelings might then be a definition of luxurious freedom’. Because I’m not a forced exile. Because I’m not a refugee. I left the only home I’d ever known to make a new one. Because I wanted to. Because I could. And yes, I miss the rivers and lakes, miss the mountains of America, miss the roads that lead to anywhere and everywhere, miss my parents and brother, so yes I miss America. I’m tethered and the strings are taut. But is it home to me when I cannot fathom how a nation could support a man such as Donald Trump? Is it home now that my vowels, the lilt of my words and the jargon I use sound foreign even to my own ear let alone to those who ask me where I’m from? Can it be home if I no longer live there, know bus routes, have a favourite restaurant, favourite radio station? In the spirit of homelooseness, I will return to America only by refusing to return ‘home’. The two names have become such luxurious contradictions that it’s impossible to consider them one and the same.
Van Gogh went back to his family in the Netherlands again and again when he was sick, but it never worked. Feelings of failure. Angry words. His paintings of that homeland are dull in colour, so different from the yellows and teals of Arles, his haven-home, the one he chose, where he lived in his own yellow house and the people all thought him a madman. (How to communicate the lonely distance between his two homes? How to define his terms of condition and stamp it on a landscape?)
I can and will go back to America again and again because I know Adelaide, my own haven-home, will always be waiting for my return. It is why I will come to terms with the American population for voting in Trump, who is making the skin fall off of my face. It is why I can do this now: leave my husband and my children and my dog back home so that I can write about illness. So that I can write about them.
Just. Need. To get. To. The yellow. House.
And all around me at Central Station people are moving. I swear I can see the energy of the molecules between their busy bodies. It’s almost pixelated. A dance. Wrappers are moving on the concourse from the wind on the platform. Even the idling engines inside the trains are moving, their pollution sifting upward and mixing with that same wind. Everything is connected. The wind is my head. (It is always my head.) The fluid in my ear is moving in time with the lift and fall of bile in its intricate tunnel of intestines and sacs. What if the ferry ride has lasting effects and I’m sick for days or weeks? I’m on my way to the Blue Mountains without my family – who make up my body – to write about the body and illness, and I might be too sick to write. Who will I complain to? Who will I squeeze security from? I might find ‘home’ a difficult word to define but I know it’s partly a place where you are comfortable being sick. Anywhere else can be called ‘unfortunate’.
I’m anxious about the impending train ride, when the world will screech past my window – a stone wall blurred, stampeding trees. Even the sun will slam down its rays like a procession of gates trying to capture the forward-moving time. The tyres on the thing will roll as if trying to tame New South Wales, though it – the land – is unruly, uncompromising, will have its way through swells and swerves, through juggling ruptures. I know this already because I love to travel, just hate the travelling.
A long day, a wild journey for someone with the luxury of freedom, but it will be small in comparison to flying across the world to get back home. (See how I use the term fluidly? As if I was an underwater lava bridge connecting two lands.) My acupuncturist thinks a body isn’t meant to move from one magnetic pole to the other in a matter of hours and that a malfunctioning body will rebel. Why whenever I go to America she sticks on strips of tape holding tiny needles that quietly treat me for days. Why I see her within the first few days of my return to Adelaide for maintenance because travelling will always shake up my illness
But she thinks this is a good idea. Not the travelling but the travel, the space and the time on my own. A holiday away from home.
The house on Herbert Street, call it a rectangle. It’s got rooms on either side of the hallway. Most are bedrooms but one is the living room (the couch room, the fire room, the television room, the room of constant gathering), and that is the second most important room in the rectangle, the first being the kitchen. I could’ve said the most important room was the bathroom or the toilet but I’ll remind you: I am always trying to be a poet. And after all, the kitchen’s where the hallway leads, which is like the dot at the end of the exclamation point. A directive. A designation. A destination. The room revolves around food and, more than anything, bodies need food. So we are mostly there chopping and slicing in our bodies, perusing pantries and refrigerators in our bodies; eating, singing, hugging, screaming, dancing and talking in our bodies in the kitchen; the room is rarely bare of us. Outside is a backyard full of one-day-I’m-gonnas and scattered stinging nettle seeds. There’s a trampoline and a wooden cubby house with a rustic ladder that’s unattached to any tree, but because it sits among climbing vines we’ve always called it a treehouse. Green is good for the imagination just as it’s good for the lungs. And that’s really what I think about our backyard: it’s a place to breathe.
I board the train bound for Katoomba and sit near the front on the bottom level, where the least amount of perpetual motion occurs. I’ve been on this train before and sat on the upper level, threw up into my water bottle until it was full then asked someone close to me for their empty coffee cup. Two and a bit more hours of travel and I’ll put down my bags in my room at Varuna. I’ll lie on the bed and rest before the welcoming drinks, where I’ll try to appear happy-to-be-here when really I’ll be just-plain-tired. At night, I’ll lie down in bed, thinking about Van Gogh’s yellow house, how he wanted it to be an atelier for a host of painters in southern France and when it didn’t work out, he was devastated, hacked at his ear, got so sick he never really recovered. I’ll fall asleep, dizzy but exhausted, and if the ghost of Eleanor Dark wakes me, I’ll tell her thank you for welcoming me into her yellow house. Such a lovely home.
When the train starts to roll I’m looking out the window. Sydney spreading then thinning then suddenly gone. Then pockets of other ways of living: outer suburbs and mountain towns. In America, I trialled them all. I made a home in a desert city where front lawns traded boulders for grass and one in a suburb of contemporary houses, all angled and wooden and upper-middle class. One had a front porch overlooking a proud town preserving its Civil War façade. Women in bonnets swept the sidewalks on Saturdays. All of these, stepping stones to the rectangle which I call home, though naming it as such suggests that home is an object, when what I really want to say is that home is everything within and surrounding the rectangle, everything fragile about my upbringing, everything sacred about my connection or disconnection to America and to Australia. More than the beginning and the now, it’s the in-between.
 Woods, James. ‘On Not Going Home’. London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 4, 20 February 2014, pp. 3-8, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n04/james-wood/on-not-going-home
JT Tait is currently undertaking the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and is the mother of a recently turned teenage boy who laughs that they will be finishing uni together.
‘Between Trauma and Beauty Itself’: Mothers, Memory and Forgetting
We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative
—Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative
First, the elevator. The long ride up in the stench of piss and stale cigarette smoke. The grey metal clunking back to reveal the paint-chipped door of Nanna’s flat.
Mum’s hair long, thick and swinging before my sister and me as she knocks. Nanna, grey curls and wheezing breath, opening the door to greet us. Walk into the dining area, a round table with yellow plastic tablecloth, stiff plastic in folds. Four chairs, brown vinyl peeling back, exposing white tufts like fairy floss, which we would work at nervously while eating lunch or dinner. Brown plastic placemats with yellow flowers sit on the table, matching the floral curtains at the small window. In the middle of the table a gold stork statue holds pride of place. A bench separates the dining room from the kitchen. Here we would eat our breakfast seated on the tall orange stools, Nanna passing cereal and toast over the scratched surface. Homemade sausage rolls baking in the oven, boiled-meat scent swamping the cramped quarters.
On the left the living room, always in darkness with blinds drawn and TV flickering. Dougie sprawled in an armchair. For years we thought Dougie was another word for Grandpa, turns out it was just his name. He was my Nanna’s boyfriend and father to none. But he remained our Dougie.
Go straight through the dining area and into the kitchen, turn left at the second door and you reach a small hallway. I slipped there and hit my head on the wooden frame of the door; vision blood-soaked and reddened, twenty-five stitches right in the middle of my forehead. My cousin did the same thing in the same place a couple of months later. It was the mat at the end of the hallway that did it. We’d come hurtling down in our never-ending rush to be somewhere and the mat would slip right out from under our feet. Nanna got rid of it after the second time.
The kids’ room is first on the left, then Nanna’s room; at the end a sewing room, and on the right a bathroom. Nanna died in the kids’ room. She had an asthma attack. They say she went there to be closer to her grandchildren. I was nine and thought I’d killed her because she’d hit me on my last visit. When I told Mum my fears, she explained that not everything was about me.
That was the first time I saw what a small part I played in the world around me.
Nanna lived in the commission flats. An overriding sense of depression clouds my memories of that place.
She had a brother, messed up from the war. She was always slapping the back of his head. He’d just sit there, food dribbling down his chin. He scared us with his vacancy and his constant wet smile.
She fought with Mum and Dad all the time. Said they weren’t fit. Mum said Nanna was an alcoholic. That’s why Mum doesn’t drink.
We used to love it when she gave us money to go to the commission shop and buy mixed lollies. Half-cent lollies, a couple of dollars would go far.
We’d cross the road to Prahran swimming pool and spend the whole day there with our cousins. Just us, no adults nagging. Lips stained red by icy-poles. Afterward we’d take the elevator up to her flat to soak in a warm bath. We’d share the bath, my sister and I. Blowing bubbles in each other’s faces and wearing bubble beards. Then we’d sit beside Nanna on the couch with her aged hands entwined in our water-wrinkled fingers.
I got two black eyes from a girl half my size but twice my age in the playground at the base of the stairs. We knew her as Googie. She was queen muck of the commission play areas. She told me she could see my undies while I was standing on the swing, swaying back and forth, minding my own business. All I said was at least I had some on. My mouth was always getting me into trouble back then. In any case, girls like that don’t take nicely to talk like that. I was six.
There was a forbidden stairwell. Where a man was known to play with himself and watch kids. We would dare each other to run past. Double-dare. Go up the staircase. I dare you. No, you do it. The call of the darkness of that stairwell was a constant black whisper. From the slide in the playground you could see its shadows beckoning us across the way. We had our own mysterious ways of learning life lessons when we were young. The way we’d torture each other with our fears, egging each other on to yet more foolishness.
I can’t remember ever seeing Nanna outside of the dimness of those high-rise walls. We would run wild with our cousins who lived in different commission flats across the way and around the corner. They were so much tougher than us, little flower-children that we were. We wouldn’t come home ’til dinner. Then bath-time and warm in clean pyjamas we’d sit by her side watching TV or reading stories.
Nanna was warm and soft when she hugged you and her clothes smelled of jasmine. Looking back now I think she was trying to make up for something with us, something she missed in raising her own kids.
I came to hate those flats. I hated the way Nanna talked to my parents. She scared me when she spoke of taking us away from them. How she could be so nice and turn so mean in the same breath. But I loved my Nanna. I loved her cooking. I loved that she loved me. I often imagine her surrounded by crayoned drawings, gasping for breath. I hope being close to us, her grandchildren, helped her. Somehow.
Funny when writing about Nanna how the child’s voice always comes to play. Time stretches ever onwards yet bounces me back to the girl I was. For I never learned to know her as herself, a separate identity. In ‘Bracha’s Eurydice’—her foreword to Bracha Ettinger’s The Matrixial Borderspace—Judith Butler writes of the loss of Eurydice that ‘the gaze by which she is apprehended is the gaze through which she is banished. Our gaze pushes her back to death, since we are prohibited from looking, and we know that by looking we will lose her’ (viii). Nanna will forever be real only as an extension of my mother, myself. Her story, her rationale for behaving in certain ways, is lost to us. No matter how hard we try to capture her.
Nanna lived in an unforgiving time and place but this doesn’t explain her apparent dislike of only one of her surviving children, my mother. She was of the time when people accepted Freud’s theory that ‘the desire for a child is the desire for a penis, and in this sense, a substitute for phallic and symbolic dominion’ (Kristeva 206). The concept of losing one’s identity after childbirth would have been beyond comprehension. In the Prahran commission flats and pubs no one cared two hoots about the identity of that Irish Catholic mother dragging her six children around, begging for money to feed her children and spending it all on booze. Who was Noreen Fergus? How did she come to be here? I think in another time she would have been a fiery feminist, a passionate activist. Instead she found herself stuck in a patriarchal society with no chance of escape. Nanna was not made to be a mother; I imagine she would have wholeheartedly agreed with the concept of motherhood as ‘a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis’ (Kristeva 206). Kristeva writes:
Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and the other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech. This fundamental challenge to identity is then accompanied by a fantasy of totality – narcissistic completeness – a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis. (206)
All this is wholly imagined however, pieced together from stories told to me by my mother and told to her by hers. Butler begins her foreword by asking: ‘what does one do with early childhood? Or rather, what does early childhood do with us’ (vii)? All those misshapen memories, thwarted by time. How do they leave their mark on us? Who do we become because of them? I do not pretend to have the answers, just an enduring fascination with the complexities of intergenerational trauma.
Telling the story of generational addiction can be difficult: the tricks memory plays, the alternate perspectives. Telling one’s own family story can also be construed as self-indulgent. Fear of ridicule, of the dreaded ‘misery memoir’ tag, fear itself; all can skew the words on the page.
My nanna was an alcoholic; my father was an alcoholic and a heroin addict who died of an overdose; my mother is a heroin addict. I have an addictive personality; I am consumed by my passions. And all down this ‘wicked’ line, each addict has despised the others’ addictions.
My sister and I grew up with love in abundance: my mother did not. We all grew up with trauma. Butler writes:
We are speaking … not only of the loss of childhood, or the loss of a maternal connection that the child must undergo, but also of an enigmatic loss that is communicated from the mother to the child, from the parents to the child, from the adult world to the child, who is given this loss to handle when the child cannot handle it, when it is too large for the child, when it is too large for the adult, when the loss is trauma, and cannot be handled by anyone, anywhere, where the loss signifies what we cannot master. (ix).
Such phenomena are handed down to us through the generations, a family gift of unknown origin. Kristeva suggests in ‘Women’s Time’ that ‘there are cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality whose stereotyping may shock, but whose regularity and unison with what is experienced as extra-subjective time, cosmic time, occasion vertiginous visions and unnameable jouissance’ (191). Is it possible, within the reverberating tale of our family, there is joy in the sorrow? Are we now so tied to our past that we revel in our peculiar branch of divine melancholy?
In collating these seemingly random memories from my childhood I aim to create an overall sense of that place in time and how its echoes still reach us now. Ricoeur states that plot is first ‘a mediation between the individual events or incidents and a story taken as a whole’ (65). ‘In this respect,’ he goes on to write, ‘we may say equivalently that it draws a meaningful story from a diversity of events or incidents (Aristotle’s pragmata) or that it transforms the events or incidents into a story.’ The story you find behind the non-linear form may tell you more than even I know.
The greatest gift of growing up is, I believe, to meet your parent as a friend. A being beyond the extension of the self. My mother never had that opportunity. When you befriend your parents, much can be forgiven. When you’ve lived and known your own flaws, you can live with and love them in others.
First, the smell. Lemons. That sharp tang. It remains one of my first remembered sensations. I’m not sure why heroin cooking smells like lemons but cut one open and I’m transported back to that wide-eyed kid sitting on the staircase of our house in Birchgrove. Watching through the bannisters as Dad loosens the belt around Mum’s upper arm and slowly slides the needle from her vein. I watch her head roll to the side, her eyes grow heavily lidded. He makes sure she’s settled before pulling the loosened belt up his arm and tightening the cracked leather.
My sister comes creeping up behind me and I shoo her away, toward our bedroom. I feel the heavy weight of her lean against me, her stomach on my back, and sense her trying to look over my shoulder. Standing up, I take her hand and walk up the stairs. I look back once to see Dad put the needle in his own arm. I start chattering nonsense and watch my sister’s face light up.
In Birchgrove they were dealing. So we had lots of nice things and lived in a two-storey house with bars on all the ground-floor windows.
Our days were structured with lessons in the morning and play in the afternoon. On waking, we’d race down the stairs to find a message and maths sum from Mr Man. Mr Man was a stick figure on the blackboard. Once we’d answered the question we were allowed to wake Mum and Dad up. After breakfast Dad would teach us how to read, do a few more sums, and then focus on music. Dad was a trombone player and composer and he played Jazz.
Afternoons with Mum were endless and lazy play. Twice a week we had a Spanish tutor. Even when they weren’t dealing, the same structure remained. Lessons in the morning, play all day. That is, up until they separated.
We really felt we had the most normal of lives. Most of the time.
One day we came home from the shops and the bars on one window were bent. Dad told us Superman had come to visit while we were out. We asked why he’d made such a big mess? Drawers were pulled out of the cabinet and cushions were off the couch. Chairs were tipped over. Our Lego was spilt across the floor and Dad swore as he stepped on a piece. Mum put her bags on the floor in the hallway and quickly started tidying up. I went with my sister to the window and looked at the bent bars, our eyes filled with marvel. It was the side window in the lounge-room. We could see down the long garden pathway to the vegie patch. One of next-door’s rabbits hopped amongst the lettuces. My sister went to tell Dad, but I shushed her with a finger across her lips. I could feel something was wrong by the pressure on my back, my shoulders. I could sense something fearful behind their furious whispering. I grabbed her hand and pulled her across the room, up the stairs. Let’s play.
All was forgotten by dinner when we ate our lentils at the worn wooden table. Dad kicked up his feet and pulled the guitar onto his lap, softly tuning and humming under his breath. Mum started piling the dishes into the sink, flicking us with the tea towel to make us laugh. Bent spoons clattered into soapy water. Becky told Dad about the rabbits. Dad hooted and ran out to the back garden, making wild gestures and yelling. Taking the pesky rabbits to task. We followed laughing and he piled our crossed arms with ripe veggies. We dumped them on the kitchen table and Mum shooed us away, fondly grumbling about the mess. We sighed into our soft beds that night, safe and grateful for all things normal and comical.
The bars on the windows didn’t help when the cops busted us. They just put a ladder up to Mum and Dad’s balcony and entered through their bedroom door. The first I knew of it was the shouting. Gruff voices, violent. Then two police officers entered our bedroom, came up to our bunk bed. They told us everything was going to be okay. But I could hear the thuds and short breaths. I could hear my Mum screaming at someone to stop. And the faint sound of my Dad whimpering.
The next day Mum sold everything we owned to get Dad out on bail. It was the first time we got busted, but it wasn’t the last.
Living with addicts from a young age, you love them even when they’re hurting you and you don’t know it. The days they OD’d in front of us – mostly accidental, occasionally purposeful: dragging them to the shower and drenching them in cold water, the mad rush to the next-door neighbour for help, the ambulances, the misguided reassurances from adults who thought we knew nothing. The long hospital visits, the foster carers, the threats from family members to take us away.
Above all: an ever-abiding love and a longing to never be separated. Ever.
I was twelve when I first started wanting to write our story. Back then I wanted two things: I wanted to let other children of addicts know they weren’t alone, and I wanted people to understand addicts. I was tired of living a secret life. Of being afraid of being found out. I wanted to bust it open and just be. I wanted people to love my parents. Basically, I wanted to live without stigma before I knew what stigma was. Kristeva asks why we yearn to use literature as a means of affirmation: ‘is it because, faced with social norms, literature reveals a certain knowledge and sometimes the truth itself about an otherwise repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe? Because it thus redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid, the uncanny?’ (207) Perhaps at twelve I sensed that in making a game of the ‘frustrating order of social signs’ (Kristeva 207), I would in sense be making a place for myself, my family.
It was then that I realised I could never know my own story without knowing theirs. My parents’. Kristeva talks about how to ‘bring out … the singularity of each person and, even more, along with the multiplicity of every person’s possible identifications (with atoms, e.g., stretching from the family to the stars) – the relativity of his/her symbolic as well as biological existence, according to the variation in his/her specific symbolic capacities’ (210). We are all we are through a combination of biology and chance and hold a certain responsibility to represent our unique circumstance. So I bugged my parents day and night and I wrote down every word. All the hurt, all the mistakes, all the hopes and failed dreams. I gathered them and hoarded them like small treasures. But of course I was twelve, and didn’t yet know I’d make many mistakes of my own.
It was not pleasant, I am sure, to have one’s child ask the sorts of questions I did. But my parents had a knack for brutal honesty, which they delivered with a rhythmic beauty. Perhaps a perverse pride in their child’s inquisitiveness was also on display.
Growing up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ also lent my writerly aspirations a bent and socially awkward tangent. Exposés of the kind that poured from my pre-teen pen were unexpected to say the least. Ricoeur states that,
as a function of the norms immanent in a culture, actions can be estimated or evaluated, that is, judged according to a scale of moral preferences. They thereby receive a relative value, which says this action is more valuable than that one. These degrees of value, first attributed to actions, can be extended to the agents themselves, who are held to be good or bad, better or worse. (58)
The reader, then, bases a character’s worth on the ethical nature of their actions. For Ricouer, ‘There is no action that does not give rise to approbation or reprobation, to however small a degree, as a function of a hierarchy of values for which goodness and wickedness are the poles’ (59). But who decides these moral values? And can one thwart these values once embedded?
The aim of my twelve-year-old angst was to turn wickedness on its head and show the banality and ordinariness of an addict’s life. It was not a cry for help, for saving. It was a desperate plea for understanding. The years fly by and slowly the world awakens to hear the voices it has silenced for so long. Now, forty-plus, I still write to break open addiction taboos, though many have already been broken. I still struggle to find the right words. Simone de Beauvoir writes:
Old age. From a distance you take it to be an institution; but they are all young, these people who suddenly find that they are old. One day I said to myself: “I’m forty!” By the time I recovered from the shock of that discovery I had reached fifty. The stupor that seized me then has not left me. (672)
I look in the mirror and see Beauvoir’s words reflected back to me, to my mother, to my grandmother. And to all those mirror images I say, forgive yourself. Forgive.
The story of my Nanna’s dying words has become mythological. I’ll never truly understand the power she had over my mother. Her stories of abandonment and loss are etched into my brain. Every hurt word, every dismissal, every avowal of hatred from her mother’s mouth. And so my mother chooses her needle, to forget. She gives me her stories and I keep them safe. Her stories become mine but are not me, they imprint. Butler suggests that such stories are indeed ‘never fully made one’s own, for the claim of autonomy would involve the losing of the trace. And the trace, the sign of loss, the remnant of loss, is understood as the link, the occasional and nearly impossible connection, between trauma and beauty itself’ (xi). And I choose to not lose the trace, to remember.
The memories shift and change, as does my perspective within them. Sometimes I see the stories as from a great distance. At other times I’m right inside them, living and breathing each moment as it happens.
My Nanna’s last words were an affirmation of all my mother’s greatest fears. But also an inspiration that changed the way she parented, so changing the arc of her story. I inherit the trauma and beauty both.
First, the shaking. It was the middle of the night when Mum woke us. Rain pelted against the window leaving glistening trails against a backdrop of darkness.
All is confused and jumbled as I swim into focus. I sit in bed rubbing my eyes, noting the panic in her voice as she shakes my sister awake. The bedside lamp sends a soft glow of purple around the room, shining through the scarf draped over it.
Wake up. Nanna’s dead. We have to go to the flats. I ask if she’s kidding. Well, that wouldn’t be a very funny joke would it, she snaps. It’s unlike her and so I know this is Real. I stumble out of bed and let her bundle me into a dressing gown and slippers. I must’ve fallen asleep because suddenly I’m awake in the back seat of the car. My head leaning against the window, the rain now in a hurry across the pane. Mum and Ava are arguing in the front. Ava steers erratically and beeps the horn loudly, gesturing rudely out the window. Mum cries.
Mum and Dad had been separated for a few years when Nanna died. Mum had stolen us away in the dead of night, barely packing a thing. First we’d travelled to our friends in Queensland, but he’d found us. Then she went to hospital to get clean and sent us with a friend to Melbourne, to live with Nanna until she got better.
When Mum arrived we moved in with her girlfriend Ava and they shared a bed. Then she cut off her long hair. We didn’t cry until we saw her short cut. It seemed the final straw. Too many changes and too quick. That hair we’d seen swinging before us all our short lives. We’d played with it and poured honey in it when she wouldn’t wake up. It seemed to signify who she was, and now wasn’t. We had to adjust ourselves to this new Mum, and figure out our place in the world beside her.
Dad followed us eventually. He was arrested in Sydney for attempting suicide so couldn’t come straight away. That’s what I overheard, or thought I overheard. When he arrived and came to see us, Ava left a note on the door saying NO MEN ALLOWED. When we stayed at his house next and they came to pick us up, he left a note on the door saying NO AVAS ALLOWED. And so it went.
When we arrive at the flats, we take the elevator up one last time to Nanna’s. This time, instead of Mum’s long hair before us, there is Mum and Ava’s hands holding each other in fists. There is no Nanna with wheezing breath to greet us at the door. One of our uncles opens the door abruptly after the first knock. Mum hugs him briefly and walks in. He ignores Ava’s outstretched hand. We appear forgotten so straggle in quietly and lean against a wall.
The dining room is too small for all of them. All their bodies too grown for the space in which they’d grown up. There is muted conversation and a thick layer of smoke across the ceiling. The gold stork stands on the table amid a crowd of bottles, stretching its neck gracefully over bourbon and rum, wine and beer, overflowing ashtrays. We slide down the wall and sit on the floor, huddled together. They seem like brooding giants from that angle. And it isn’t just sorrow I felt from them in that confined space but menace also. Something angry simmering below the surface talk. Something in the way her brothers held themselves frightened me.
I heard Mum asking where she was and someone reply the kids’ room. Her sister walked with her towards the hallway. We just sit, watching. Ava stands to the side of the room, completely forgotten. I can hear Mum crying in the other room. Loud sobs.
It was then I saw Dougie. But he was no longer our Dougie. He was filled with some emotion I couldn’t place. It made him dark. He gloomed. He came through the dining room at a pace I’d never seen him take. I heard him say something guttural in the next room. Then my mother screamed. A never-to-be-forgotten type of scream. The room erupted. All of them shouting at each other, so many words unknown. All jumbled on top of one another. But my aunt’s whisper carried through it all. He told her. Mum strides into the room, stopping suddenly and staring at the table. At the gold beak of the stork rising above the bottles. As she leans forward, I can see a faint line of sweat across her forehead, her eyes red. She picks up the stork and walks straight out. Ava gathers us up and we take one last look through that paint-chipped door at all our family before they slam it shut behind us.
In the corridor Mum is punching the elevator button. Ava tries to hug her and is pushed away. I don’t think she remembered in that moment that we existed. The grief is too much. We take the elevator down and we never see that place or those people again.
Butler, Judith, ‘Foreword: Bracha’s Eurydice’, in Ettinger, Bracha L., The Matrixial Borderspace, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
de Beauvoir, Simone, Force of Circumstance, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Women’s Time’ in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, New York City: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
CB Mako is a member of West Writers Group and art student at Footscray Community Arts Centre. In 2016, she won the Grace Marion Wilson Prize for non-fiction. was a panelist at the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s ‘Late Night Lit: Fandom’, and read her non-fiction piece at the Melbourne Writers Festival’s ‘Storytelling at the Dock’. Her works were published in The Suburban Review, The Lifted Brow, The Victorian Writer, and Pencilled In. CB Mako can be found on Twitter as @cubbieberry and Instagram as @cb.mako
My Twitter app chimed a reply. ‘We’re called “caregiver” here in the USA.’ My American friend couldn’t understand the word I used when I chatted with her online. She was a caregiver to her eleven-year-old child with autism.
Later, a blogger-parent from the UK—who has an eight-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome—tweeted back, ‘We’re called “carer” here in London.’
While in the Huffington Post Australia, carers of young children were simply called ‘parents of children with special needs.’
Carers Victoria defines carers as ‘diverse as the Victorian population.’ The definition continues: ‘The work of unpaid carers contributes enormously are disadvantaged [sic] regarding health and safety, holidays, work, leisure and financial security … Many carers and the people they care for are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and experience additional difficulties.’
I am a mother, a carer of a child with Down Syndrome. My six-year-old daughter had open-heart surgery at three months of age, which was followed by a cancer diagnosis when she turned eighteen months old.
Exhausted from caring for my daughter during her eight months of chemotherapy, I barely knew how to get through the day. Meditation and mindfulness therapies didn’t work anymore. As my last resort, I went to see a psychiatrist, and was prescribed antidepressants.
Having two children born in Australia, my husband Chris and I—both migrants—have no immediate family to turn to in an emergency or in times of need. While it was said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, our own migrant community was wary of us and we were wary of them. Not only were we new migrants, we also bore a child with a disability. We didn’t follow the highly expected migrant story—fully employed, owned a large, well-furnished house in the suburbs, with more than one car. We didn’t give our parents back home the opportunity to brag to their “amigos” and “amigas” about their progeny overseas.
Whenever we attended familial or religious gatherings, there were two kinds of greetings. At the onset, they would say that our daughter was lucky to be born in Australia, with its universal healthcare, excellent paediatric cardiac surgeons, and Melbourne’s brand-new, state-of-the-art Royal Children’s Hospital. But their furtive glances gave away their strongly-held traditional, superstitious beliefs that we, as parents, were cursed because we disobeyed our parents, and we were being punished by God.
Were these simply imaginary interpretations and conversations in my mind? Were their furtive whispers actually their clumsy attempts to start an awkward dialogue about disability? Whatever they were, any future attempts of amicable discussions remained futile. In our reshaped, post-cancer lives, we found ourselves avoiding visiting old friends and relatives.
Online, it was difficult to assert myself as a carer. I only had one week—during National Carers Week—to rally to the cause for carers, and safely express my thoughts on social media. As Roxane Gay (2014) contends, ‘This is the modern age. When tragedies occur, we take to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to share our thoughts and feelings. We do this to know that maybe, just maybe, we are not alone in our confusion or grief or sorrow or to believe we have a voice in what happens in the world.’
However, on that same week, news broke about a migrant family from Colombia, South America—with two young children with autism—who had committed filicide.
On social media, disability advocates raised their angry voices, asking why news reports assumed that the family’s deaths had anything to do with autism?
I took a step back and observed the tweets and who tweeted them. The online critics were women. But were they white women or women of colour? Were they women born in Australia or were they migrants? Did these angry women have families and friends nearby to support them in their time of need?
As a migrant woman myself, a woman of colour, and a carer, the questions I wanted to ask were different: Was there help given to the migrant parents? Were the parents of these children—disconnected from organic, migrant communities—having a difficult time as carers? Was the mother the primary carer of her two children? Was she alone most of the day? Did her local council provide her some respite care in order to take a break for a few hours a week for self-care?
As Melanie Cheng writes in Meanjin (2016):
Migration is hard. To a great extent, the smoothness of the transition depends on the circumstances in which the individual migrates … The relationship a migrant has with their adopted home can an extraordinary complex one. Unfortunately such complexity is rarely explored in the media today. We tend to hear rags-to-riches tales about migrants who are eternally grateful or—at the other extreme—stories of radicalisation and extreme hatred.
Coming from a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) background, there was no direct translation for the words ‘mental health’ or ‘depression’ in my country of birth. The closest translation to the word ‘depression’ in the Philippines was ‘crazy’. Eventually, I learned that in other cultures as well, it is taboo for women to discuss or admit they have had mental health issues.
I woke up to a stark realisation that other forces—outside of caring for a child with a disability and cancer—had re-written our family’s story, altering the course of my narrative. The universe had a unique sense of humour. Apparently, not only was I cursed with bad karma, and punished by God; I was also crazy.
As a carer and a woman of colour, with mental health issues, where did I fit in?
I once enquired about applying for a writing group about disability and the first question they asked was, of course, ‘Do you have a disability?’
I paused, unable to reply. Should I openly admit that I had mental health issues? My deepest fear in admitting that, ‘yes, I am taking antidepressants and was clinically diagnosed with depression’, was that my children would be taken away from me.
This fear reminded me what Khalid Warsame wrote in Overland (2014):
I wanted to write a story about the “immigrant experience” but I didn’t want it to be a story just about the immigrant experience, as if that were the only kind of story someone like me could write. The reluctance came from a place of fear. Somewhere along the line, I accepted that how I see myself is intimately tied up with how I perceive others to see me … But the question remains: if one is scared to write one’s own story for fear of writing … too consciously, then what else is there to write about?
When an Australian literary journal put out a call for submissions on the topic of disability, I wondered if a carer’s narrative would be included in their special printed issue. Were there carers like myself, looking after their children with disability? Did they have disabilities themselves? Eventually, my piece about the carer’s voice was not accepted.
In Australia, whether on parenting websites or in literary magazines or literary journals, when mental health stories revolve around women and children, the stories are those of white women and children. An article in The Saturday Paper, despite being written by a person of colour, featured a white woman with postnatal depression from Footscray, an inner-west suburb of Melbourne. Didn’t Maribyrnong Council tweet last year that their city was the second most diverse city in Victoria?
Where were the people of colour who had mental health issues or disabilities? Why was there no representation of intersectionality in these areas? Were we too complex, too complicated to be part of the mainstream narrative?
In The Victorian Writer, Maxine Beneba Clarke (2016, p12), argues that:
the current dialogue around women’s writing in Australia is biased and stagnant. Few commentators seem game, engaged, or interested enough, to ask the uncomfortable questions … But we are so afraid to complicate things. It’s just too hard. Perhaps there’s a fear that highlighting this lack of diversity dilutes the primary cause of advancing women’s writing in general. White Feminism has operated on this basis for time immemorial. Perhaps there are some inconvenient truths. Perhaps we are those inconvenient truths.
Was writing about the narrative of the carer of colour an inconvenient truth?
Carers Victoria. ‘Carers in Victoria – the facts: Fact sheet’. Carers Victoria, http://www.carersvictoria.org.au/
Melanie Cheng. ‘Our Lucky Country: Finding home in a new land.’ Meanjin, vol. 75, issue 2 (winter 2016), pp. 132-133.
Maxine Beneba Clarke. ‘Inconvenient Truths.’ The Victorian Writer, (June-July 2016), pp. 10-13.
Roxane Gay. ‘Tragedy.Call.Compassion.Response.’ Bad Feminist, (2014), p. 297.
Khalid Warsame. ‘The Authentic Writer Self.’ Overland, issue 217 (summer 2014), pp. 3-7.
Pip’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.
Australia Twice Traversed
It’s big. No photo will do it justice, I realise. The way it sits on the horizon as we drive towards it, the way it hurts to crane my neck back to the point when I can see both sky and rock as I stand right next to it. All those postcards you’ve seen of it, they need a scale on them to indicate just how small we are in relation to the rock and its history.
History can’t be ignored out at Uluru. Neither can time. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre sits on the southern side of the rock and tells the story of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and of the people at Mutitjulu who are the primary custodians of these places. The centre itself is two mud brick snake-like buildings built to represent two Anangu ancestral beings, the Kuniya, the woma python, a woman, and the Liru, the poisonous snake man, who fought at the rock. The centre tells stories of the animals and plants, the environment and the languages of the area. There is no mention of ‘Ayers Rock’, ‘The Olgas’ or those white men who first climbed the women’s place. The piranpa history is just a blink of the eye when set against the continuity of Anangu culture.
‘Culture,’ says Jimmy our tour guide, ‘is everything to the Anangu. Tjukurpa,’ he explains, ‘is the word they use for law and language, and Country.’ I realise that Tjukurpa is also past, present, future and now. It is the story and the rules, the relationship to and ceremony conducted in the place.
Place seems so significant and obvious to me here; it isn’t hidden by buildings or houses or roads. The tussocky grass and the red sand seem resilient even by the standards of Uluru itself, a rusting monumental dome of sandstone that burns red due to the oxidation of the iron and content in the rock. But there is terrible fragility here. Areas are cordoned off. Tracks are laid and signs posted: ‘Please keep to the path as the area is fragile’. A footprint can last a year in the dry cracked earth.
Earth has many massive rock structures similar to Uluru and there is dispute about the definition and measurement standards of ‘monoliths’ but the rock tops most of the tourist lists of ‘Monoliths to see in the world’. It sits in an ancient landscape, a plain that used to be a sea bed and reaches 348 metres up from the ground. The rock is larger underneath the ground than it is above, with almost 2.5 kilometres of its mass buried below. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and was formed some 600 million years ago. Anangu believe that their ancestors created it as they travelled across the earth, leaving marks in the landscape and providing them with law and knowledge to live by. It is sacred to the Anangu and deserves to be seen in this way by piranpa.
Piranpa, and I am pleased to have a name for myself other than ‘tourist’, have been misunderstanding and not-seeing the rock since 1873 when the European explorer William Grosse first sighted Uluru. He called it ‘Ayers Rock’ after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. The Anangu, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, call it Uluru and now the rock’s official name is ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ is a name I thought we had moved away from but I find it consistently. I ask the head of marketing at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort why all of their marketing material still refers to ‘Ayers Rock’ and not ‘Uluru’. She tells me that I have misunderstood, that everything they do calls the rock ‘Uluru’, the park ‘Uluru-Kata Tjuta’ and the resort itself ‘Yulara’. “But even your company name contains the words ‘Ayers Rock’, the website that everyone has to book through is ayersrockresort.com.au, the airport, the tour company – everything refers to ‘Ayers Rock’. Why – after 30 years?’ There is silence on the end of the phone so I push further and ask, ‘Is there a plan to change it to Uluru? Or perhaps even ‘Yulara’?’ She refers me to her boss and to the public relations person of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the company that, in conjunction with the Anangu community group, Wana Ungkinytja, bought Yulara and the resort and the marketing and tour operating arm in 2010 for $300 million. The ILC acquired the entire Resort, including all hotels and accommodation, associated infrastructure, the airport and workers village, in an arrangement with Wana Ungkunytja. There is now interest in an enquiry into the deal, as it is thought they paid too much. When I ask Jimmy whether the Anangu are angered by the persistent use of the words ‘Ayers Rock’ he says, ‘Not much annoys Anangu but they don’t really understand why we can’t call it Uluru. They wait for us, though. They are good at waiting.’ I wonder why people think that tourists wouldn’t come to a place called ‘Uluru’ and how many dollars those two words ‘Ayers Rock’ are believed to attract.
Attractions and distractions abound at Uluru. Tourism here began to increase dramatically in the 1950s. By the 1970s Anangu and others were worried about the environmental damage and so began the process of forming what we now know as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Almost half a million tourists pass through the park per year. There are camel tours, motorbike tours, hot air balloon tours, helicopter tours, walking tours, camping tours, photography tours, food tours, kids tours and rock art tours. Traffic jams at sunrise are common as the resort evacuates for the rock, cars, station wagons, 4WD, buses, and campervans snake their way across the desert in the soft gossamer-like pre-dawn light to capture that one perfect photo of the rock as sunlight strikes the sandstone.
Sandstone, oxidising sandstone in particular, contains beautiful swirls of rich colour. In amongst these there are old ochre paintings. ‘See here?’ says Jimmy, ‘We can see the outlines of hands and of Anangu, shapes of people, blown onto the rock.’ We are lined up at the chain link fence looking at the rock art and one of our group leans in closer to examine something.
‘Is that recent?’ asks a man in a rabbit skin hat. I turn to where he is pointing and think that the white sprays of chalk on the rock, not far from the wooden deck we’re standing on, might be graffiti. Jimmy, our guide, is flummoxed and dismayed as he steps through the small crowd. He leans over the barrier to see better.
‘It’s ashes,’ he says. ‘Someone has thrown their loved one’s ashes here.’ We all take a breath in and edge away from the luminous dust. ‘This is such a problem,’ Jimmy says.
‘What’ll happen?’ asks a dumpy woman in a faded sloppy joe.
‘We will sweep it up,’ Jimmy says, ‘and the Anangu will decide what to do with it. The ashes can’t stay. Uluru has never been a burial place. It is fertility. Anangu aren’t even buried here.’ He pauses and looks at the ashes strewn on the ground. ‘The Anangu feel that they owe these ashes respect – despite the lack of respect and understanding offered by the spreading of them. It’s a complex discussion,’ he adds. The chain of dismay and consternation that this act initiates makes me appreciate the interrelationship of Anangu to this place in a more expansive and richer way.
Ways of seeing are altered by story, I realise too. Kata Tjuta is a collection of majestic rounded rocks that sits to the west of Uluru and is known as the men’s university, the place of ‘many heads’, the place boys go to become men. The piranpa refer to the highest peak of the rocks as ‘Mt Olga’, first sighted and mis-named in 1872 by Ernest Giles. Giles called the peak after the German Queen, Olga of Württemberg. Somewhere, I had picked up the notion that Uluru was a male place and that Kata Tjuta was a female place. But Uluru is a female place. The heart of Australia is female – perhaps that is why people still feel they are entitled to climb on her, in this nation where women have always been second-class citizens. This hangover of gender assignment, the wrong-seeing of piranpa, has marked our language and our thinking for generations.
Generations of piranpa have continued to come to Uluru. The Outback Pioneer Bar is friendlier than walking into the 5-star Sails in the Desert Resort or the 4.5-star Desert Gardens Hotel for a drink. I head to the toilet while my boyfriend buys the beers. When I get back to our table he is talking to an elderly piranpa man. He has been to the rock – ‘Ayers Rock, it’s always Ayers Rock to me -– I can never remember the other word for it’ -– many times and first came here in 1960s. It seems appropriate, and also not, that he tell us his outlandish stories (of flying a small plane through the domes of Kata Tjuta –‘I’m not going to call it that’ – of how people would camp anywhere, of the drinking and the drinking and the drinking, and that the hotels were put up at the base of the rock without licenses or money changing hands for the land they were built on), in this bar that celebrates a very male version of the ‘outback’ myth.
‘Myth’ is often used to explain Anangu relationship to their Country but I don’t think it is the same at all. The events and cultures that the classical myths are drawn from happened a long time ago, thousands of years ago. Anangu stories are drawn from creation stories, ways of explaining the world as they find it to themselves and others, but there is something very present, very immediate to their inma.
Inma is still performed at Uluru and Kata Tjuta and other places around the area. Jimmy tells us that at different times sections of the rock are closed off for tourists so ceremony can happen. I think of these ceremonies, rituals of story, song and dance, as expressions of religious belief, of celebration and recognition of ongoing connection to the land and of the Anangu’s acknowledgement of their ancestral spirits. Inma is looking after the land and the people, practically and spiritually.
‘Spiritually’: I wonder about that word. It isn’t that I am unmoved by our holiday to Uluru and the way the expanse of plain, the blue of the sky, the horizon stretching out and on into the distance, all lift my spirits. But I am cautious to say I understand what this word means for anyone other than me and especially not for Anangu people. I eschew formal religion of any sort, trust in science and have faith, absurdly I know, in humanity. This framework though does mean my white middle classness is never really challenged for I live in a bubble of like-minded people, a bubble I have chosen. This is the bind I always find myself in. As a piranpa, a non-Aboriginal, white middle class woman, I can always choose not to think about anyone or anything outside of my circle. I can choose to leave, choose to think only about what is next. There is no pressure on me to reflect or to still the voice inside my head or to cede power by listening.
Listening is a powerful aspect of most Aboriginal cultures, I discover. Story is taught through repetition and mimicry, the students need to listen closely to nuanced lifts and pauses in the teacher’s telling of each story. Language is life for the Anangu, Jimmy tells us. Language contains everything. Language is land. Language is Tjukurpa. Here the languages Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Nangantjatjara are spoken. Also Chinese and Japanese and French, and accented English emanating from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. And Australian English: ‘Get down here now, Damian, you little shit! We’re doing that later,’ was one fatherly display of Australian English as he yelled at his son who was already metres above the ground on the Uluru climbing track.
Tracks run around the base of the rock and spread out radiating between the few trees and hillocks in the plain. Feathery paw prints, tiny pad prints, and stencil art in the sand made by the skink that lives out here fan out across the ground. Many of the tracks emanate from Kapi Mutitjulu a waterhole on the south of the rock and the source of water for the Mutitjulu community based at the rock. The waterhole is reliant on runoff from Uluru and there is no water at Mutitjulu itself other than groundwater that also depends on the water from Uluru. ‘Kapi’ is the Pitjanjatjara word for water and is crucial at Uluru. When it rains, water cascades down its sides from the flat top. There are almost nine kilometres of grooved worn rock that act as a catchment area. Kapi Mutitjulu is believed to have an eternal water supply. Anangu women hadn’t known a season without water until the summer just one before last. In that season the flow into Kapi Mutitjulu stopped, the narrow watercourse that bursts through two folding curves of the rock faded from a glinting wet line to a black, rough, dry scar. Jimmy tells us that the water around the rock is tainted now. With tourists still climbing to the top of Uluru, and no toilets or rubbish bins up there, all manner of waste is left on the rock. I don’t tell Jimmy that I have seen photos on the Internet of the deep pools, taken by people who have climbed the rock and then gone swimming in them. The cool, clear water looks inviting but they are swimming in the Anangu’s drinking water. Even if they don’t swim much of the rubbish climbers leave up there makes its way into the pools of water that have been carved into the surface over millions of years. ‘Camera batteries, nappies, human waste, toilet paper, food scraps, plastic wrap. All of it gets left,’ he says. ‘And what that means is that this water is undrinkable, but also, I have to climb up the rock, against Anangu wishes, and clean up after them.’ Consternation and complexity abound here.
Here I wake up in the middle of the night hearing dingoes call as they pace around the edges of the campground. I read the signs warning of their cleverness and their watchfulness and their opportunistic attitude toward food. I don’t expect to see one but as we slow, she turns her head towards our car and sniffs. She trots leisurely across the bitumen a few metres in front of the car. She is thin and pale, her fur a sand-blasted bleached colour, and she is smaller than I thought a wild dingo would be. Canus lupus. Indigenous to this country. It is mid-afternoon and we are driving back from Kata Tjuta. It seems incongruous, a dingo in full sunlight. She looks tired, thirsty and focused. When I ran into Jimmy the ranger at the Kata Tjuta toilet block earlier, I asked him about Azaria Chamberlain. It was the thirtieth anniversary of her death and the news had reported that her father was coming to pay his respects at the place she was taken. Jimmy suggested that in 1984 Azaria’s death was the final straw for the Anangu in their fight to remove tourists from the national park at night. The Anangu wanted to be left alone to look after their Country, at least at night, and they thought the dingoes did too. Our dingo disappears into the scrubby grassland, melting into her landscape.
‘Landscape’ always puts me inside the place I am thinking about. The word ‘view’ places me on a high platform above it. I can imagine the thrill of climbing so high above the ground but I can’t understand why people still do it when it is spelt out so clearly why Anangu don’t want us to climb the rock. They don’t climb the rock except for ceremony and even then, only particular Anangu elders are allowed.
‘Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima – please don’t climb Uluru. That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing.’’
Kunmanara, traditional owner
Anangu want us to discover a deeper understanding of this place, to try to see it the way they do. It’s all about respect.
Respect versus disrespect. It seems quite simple, I think. Manners. It is simply good manners to acknowledge the Anangu wishes for their land. Except, of course, many of the people who come believe that they own Uluru and have rights as significant as Anangu rights. This is the fundamental disconnect of Australia that is made obvious here. Disrespect at Uluru, though, is not a new occurrence. As that pirinipa in the pub told us, ‘Back in the 60s, I piloted for an American man who wanted to make a film about Ayers Rock. We were flying 50 metres above the top of the rock. Terrific footage. And we filmed down around the base too. He sprayed a can of beer on the rock art to bring the colours out before we filmed.’ Jimmy mentioned a fertility cave on our tour of the base but we didn’t see it. It’s off limits to any pirinpa and to Anangu men. It is a fertility cave still used for inma and, as the old white Australian man talks, I realise that the cave with the rock art he is describing, the one where the American sprayed beer on the rock art, is this same fertility cave. He describes the rock art in great detail, images that excited him, confronted him, and that he has remembered all these years later. Drawings he, a man, should never have seen.
Seen on the road leading to the rock are buses, many buses full of Chinese and Japanese and retired piranpa who no longer drive themselves. There are also the smaller buses, the ones with the camping tours favoured by young people, from Alice Springs over three hundred kilometres away. The tourists stream out of their vehicles towards the rock in an ecstatic state, as though seeing the rock, touching it, is a religious experience. And then they climb, ticking off the experience as they would a fairground ride, being tourists.
Tourists often take a rock or some sand with them when they leave the park. This is also against Anangu wishes and Tjukurpa. Later, many of these tourists worry about their stolen rocks and send them back with notes apologising, hoping Anangu can forgive them. The Anangu refer to these rocks as ‘Sorry Rocks’. But because the rocks have been taken out of the area, the rocks can’t be put back into the national park, another dilemma for Anangu and Parks Australia.
‘Australia’ is a name derived from the Latin word for south, ‘Australis’. Matthew Flinders coined the expression ‘Terra Australis’ on his maps of his circumnavigation of the continent and Governor Macquarie shortened the phrase to ‘Australia’ in all his official paperwork. By the late 1820s the ‘name’ was commonplace for the continent. ‘Australian’ was originally a term that referred to the Indigenous people of this place, not the settlers. The switch in nomenclature occurred by the end of the eighteenth century and came about because a word had to be found for those Europeans who could not return ‘home’. Now the word denotes anyone who is a citizen of Australia.
Australians like shortening and inventing nicknames, don’t we. We are quite adept at this, I think. It makes me wonder why we are so resistant to adopting new (to us) names for places. The practice of including both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal names for places in Australia has been gathering pace since the late 1990s. This dual naming symbolically and locally acknowledges the history of colonisation and dissolution of Aboriginal culture that has occurred in this place. The Anangu name ‘Uluru’ was re-introduced in December 1993 and was initially written as ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru’. The word order was reversed to ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’ in November 2002. On government road signs throughout the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal word appears first. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park only Anangu words appear on road signs. Everywhere outside of the national park, the airport, ‘Ayers Rock Airport’, the website, the guide books, the tea towels, the post cards – the priority is still ‘Ayers Rock’.
‘Ayers Rock’ was handed back to the Anangu on 26th October 1985, just over thirty years ago. Within minutes of receiving their land back, the Anangu signed a 99-year lease for Parks Australia to co-manage the park. Co-management has meant employment and opportunity for Anangu and respect for their cultural knowledge. It has also allowed whitefella law to enforce many of their wishes. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is still seen as a betrayer of the Anangu as he promised that the climb of the rock would be closed upon the handback. It wasn’t. It seems ludicrous to me, especially from thirty years on, that the Northern Territory Government opposed the handback because they believed that piranpa wouldn’t come to the rock if it was managed by Aboriginal people:
‘Now we are living together, white people and black people. We are working together, white and black, equal. Everything at Uluru still runs according to our Law. All the rangers wear badges carrying the image of Uluru. That is as it should be.’
Being at Uluru makes me think about my relationship to Aboriginal Australia more broadly too. Even that expression, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is underpinned with power and implies an otherness. Aboriginal cultures name every little thing in relationship to something else. I am in relationship to you. The rock is in relationship to the water, the birds, the sand hills, to people. The fly is in relationship to the dingo, to the horizon, to the young bloodwood trees. But this naming isn’t like English. An Aboriginal word means different things in different contexts. The singularity with which I approach names, ‘this is this thing and it is always this thing’ is rendered meaningless and naïve.
Naïvely, as many white middle class people do, I have always thought there would be no consequence for my tourism, my travels. I just always thought they were mine. I have been to New York, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Kabul, Dubai too many times, London not enough times, Brighton, Paris, Creteil, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Florence, Genoa and Genova, Bali and Brisbane, Melbourne and Milton. An Aboriginal Elder once told me that I had an obligation, a responsibility to and for every place I had travelled. This took me aback. Responsibility? What kind? How? Will it take up too much of my time, I wondered. At Uluru, Jimmy tells us some stories to show us how the Anangu think about their lives, stories of spirits and dogs and birds. He also asks us not to take photos at a specific place because the site is sacred and only for female Anangu. If a man saw the place, even in a photo, they would get sick and perhaps die. Later, I see an older woman taking a photo of the site. She is standing beside the sign that states, ‘This is a sensitive Site: No Photos’. I point this out to her and she blushes and moves along the track. My boyfriend can’t believe I bothered. ‘But I have to say something now I know,’ I say to him.
‘But if she takes a photo and shows it to a man she knows and he dies, what does it matter? It might be what is deserved, needed,’ he says. It bothers me that I almost agree with him. When I run into Jimmy at Kata Tjuta I ask him about this. ‘Do I now have a responsibility or is that just my goody-two shoes whitefella ego talking – pointing out that “I’m not as racist as you, old lady”?’ He laughs and says, ‘Well, either outcome might be a fair call but I think that once we know some story we have obligation to people and Country. Why come here if you aren’t going to feel obligated to respect Anangu and Tjukurpa?’
Tjukurpa sneaks up on me, this word that has to be said with energy so as to capture the ‘ch’ of the ‘Tj’ at its beginning. It is said with frequency by the park staff, it is on much of the written material handed out at the cultural centre. It is an offering, this word, from the Anangu to assist us in understanding the deep connection they have to their Country and the place. It is offered in good faith and requires reciprocity, I realise. Reciprocity is the basis of all Aboriginal cultures. It is the manifestation of interconnectedness, of mutual benefit, of respect, and can be seen in social practices, in story and in the interrelationship between the past, present and future. I wonder though, how I can reciprocate. What can I offer? What could I possibly give that would be useful, might show my respect and thanks for being allowed onto their Country.
Country, for Anangu is alive and it is story, and language and dance and the air that we breathe here. Is their relationship to the world so different that we will never be able to appreciate theirs and always be limited by ours?
Our tour comes to an end and I ask Jimmy if he knows any of the men’s stories. He turns to look at Kata Tjuta sitting across the plain in the early morning sun and says, ‘Not really. It is old business over there and not so many of the Elders are keen to pass it to someone like me who isn’t Anangu. But I’ve been invited to go with them next time they have ceremony to do.’ I wonder, again, why we know so much about the female business at Uluru, why the men have been able to keep their stories and the women have had to give up some of theirs. I wonder about the dynamics of gender in our world and about relationship, the interdependency of all things, one on the other.
Other stories will be told as they have been for millennia but this, I come to understand, is the one I can be responsible for. This is my offering.