Linda Christanty is an Indonesian author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay “Militarism and Violence in East Timor” won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.
Linda Christanty begins her short story “The Flying House of Maria Pinto” with a seemingly mundane encounter: an Indonesian soldier gets on a train, sits down next to a young woman reading a Stephen King novel, and tells her a story. The story he recounts is that of Maria Pinto:
“Maria Pinto was originally just an ordinary young girl who had once studied literature at a renowned university in Jakarta, and held out until the third semester before returning to the land of oranges and coffee. The people in that land died too early; they disappeared, committed suicide, went mad or plunged into the forest to unite the wild boar and the reindeer.”
Maria Pinto’s people give her ancient weapons and a flying horse, choosing her as their protector and commander.
“As of that moment, Maria Pinto had become the leader of treacherous troops, trapping the enemy in every zone, deterring those who only relied on tangible things; those who shunted aside fairytales and dreams.”
We as readers will not be able to set aside so easily the fairytale aspects of this short story; the soldier’s dreamlike narrative comes to overtake the rest of the plot. The woman on the train tries to ignore the overly chatty soldier, returning to her book until finally arriving at her destination. But after parting, the soldier is tasked with killing the enemy rebel target. He shoots at a figure on the street from a neighboring skyscraper and, when he goes to recover the body, discovers that this rebel is actually woman on the train who had listened to his story. Is the woman from the train the same enemy rebel from the soldier’s tale, Maria Pinto? That question remains unanswered, but what becomes clear is how political conflict finds its articulation in close, personal encounters and everyday stories.
Christanty is an Indonesian author known for approaching social and political issues in her writing. A student activist who participated in the movement that forced Indonesian dictator Suharto from power in 1998, Christanty has long dedicated her life to activism as well as the written word. After Indonesia’s return to democracy, she worked as a journalist and human rights advocate for women’s issues. For her activism, she was nominated for the N-Peace Award in 2012 in the Asia Pacific category and won the Kartini Award in 2014. Meanwhile, her fiction has won a range of national awards as well as Thailand’s prestigious Southeast Asian Writers Award in 2013.
According to the introduction to her collection, Final Party and Other Stories, in which the short story “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” was published in Debra Yatim’s English translation, “[Christanty’s] political activism is reflected in her prose . . . It is as if she feels the need to tell these things in order for us not to forget, and also maybe not to flinch when facing the demons of history.”
“The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” is no exception. Though more implicit than her other stories in its political content, this narrative encodes questions of military violence and resistance. In fact, it is the inclusion of a second narrative plane–the mythical tale integrated into the direct encounter between the representative of the state (the soldier) and the representative of resistance (the woman)–that comes to command our attention and the progression of events itself. Indeed, the soldier’s story could be understood as a meta-narrative that reveals how this figure understands his own pursuit of this so-called “enemy.” The fascinating quality of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” and of Linda Christanty’s fiction more generally, lies not in literal depictions of conflict, but rather in the socially constructed narratives of conflict she interrogates through multiple layers of storytelling.
I spoke with Linda Christanty in Jakarta in 2019 as part of a series of interviews with contemporary Indonesian writers who represent Suharto’s New Order dictatorship in their work. The project is an effort to understand how authors construct counter-histories about an authoritarian past that the Indonesian state refuses to recognize for its brutality. As a U.S. American, I recognize the role my country played in supporting the anti-communist Suharto regime and turning a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights that took place. This traumatic past is not bounded by Indonesia’s nation-state boundaries; it is a history that incorporates global actors and that remains relevant beyond Indonesia. For foreigners, exploring how Indonesian writers revise and reconstruct narratives of the past can be a way to revisit questions of post-colonial, transnational leftism, which found its initial articulation through the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung before the Suharto era ruptured bourgeoning international solidarity between recently independent nations.
Christanty is well positioned to reflect on politically committed writing in Indonesia, both in terms of her role in her generation and independently, as an author. As a key figure in a literary movement that used words first for liberation against an authoritarian regime and then for the project of reckoning with that authoritarian past, Christanty has witnessed marked shifts in Indonesia’s literary scene. And, in her own short fiction, the question of how characters invent narratives to understand their own experiences of social upheaval remains central, whether in “The Wild-cherry Tree,” where we find ourselves immersed in the imaginative perspective of a young girl processing assault, or in “The Final Party,” where an informant who sent friends to prison copes with his choices while arranging his birthday party.
When Linda joined me in a bustling café in central Jakarta, we spoke about free expression under dictatorship, continuities in violence, literary categories, and the Western gaze on socially committed Southeast Asian fiction. Much in the line of “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto,” the question that spanned each topic was narrative itself, and how the language we use to tell stories frames history.
Lara Norgaard (LN): The memory of Suharto’s New Order dictatorship is a near-constant feature of your short fiction. Almost all of your short stories in the English-language collection Final Party and Other Stories relate in some way to that period’s violence, though sometimes that connection is not immediately apparent. Some of the moments that I found especially interesting are ones in which this history is implied in language rather than made explicit. For example, in “The Final Party,” when a man who had worked as a state informant recounts how he explained his job to his daughter for her school project:
“One day, little Alma asked about his work. ‘What do you actually do, Papa?’ ‘I’m a note-maker.’ ‘Note-maker?’ Little Alma laughed. ‘Yes,’ he answered firmly. But in his daughter’s report book, he wrote down: entrepreneur.”
On a level of language, how would you say Indonesian either contains the memory of Suharto-era state violence or actually obscures the history of that period?
Linda Christanty (LC): There are a few expressions that people would use in the Suharto era, and especially language used by Suharto’s government. For example, most people, including any member of the military or the police, would very rarely say, “that person was arrested” or “that person was taken to prison.” Instead, they would usually use the phrase, orang itu diamankan – “that person was secured.” As all of us who were alive in that era, secured means that someone was arrested. It immediately had that connotation, conjuring up an image of someone who confronted the state apparatus and had to be “secured.”
It was also unusual, or taboo, to use the word buruh in the Suharto era. Worker, working class, labor. The government preferred that people use the word – employee – so that power relations would disappear. As a result, there wouldn’t be any apparent power dynamic between higher-ups and subordinates, bosses and workers, or in fact any oppressive relationship at all. That’s because the term karyawan in Indonesian relates to the term berkarya, someone who creates, someone who says something in the world. Buruh, on the other hand, means laborer, someone who only has the power to work. That person does not have authority over anything else; for example, they do not control the means of production. In that sense, when we use the word labor, it means resistance, because it means that oppression is present. When Suharto was in power, if a person used the word buruh it meant that they were also radical. Buruh is a word that collects or contains radical social movements and a long history of struggle. That was erased. So you would use more neutral terms: karyawan, which means employee, and kerja, which means work or job.
Then there’s one more example from when I was little. One day, I was talking to my grandfather in our house on Bangka Island. A man passed by out front, the father of a friend of mine from elementary school. My grandfather told me that this person, my friend’s father, wouldn’t ever be able work again at his company because he was terlibat – involved. In the Indonesian of Suharto’s New Order, the word terlibat always connoted being involved with the Indonesian Communist Party. ‘That person was involved,’ and people immediately or automatically knew that they had connections to communism.
There were so many euphemisms back then, you would hear the word terlibat and diamankan, and then the word buruh was erased, it never appeared.
LN:After the Reformasi period in 1998, when Suharto was removed from power and Indonesia returned to democracy, did these euphemisms continue?
LC: When Reformasi took place, or even before Reformasi when social movements were growing stronger and labor strikes and student actions were more and more frequent, people did start using the term labor, buruh, again. For example, when they would talk about labor or factory movements. And progressive students, the ones concerned about labor, would also use the term. Indeed the intellectuals at the time became a kind of driving force for change, recuperating this language that had been banned.
LN:For you, specifically, how has this influenced your writing?
LC: I started writing fiction when the New Order regime was still in power. Back then, if you wanted to write something or send a short story to print media, like a newspaper, the government had established rules. You couldn’t break the rules, so your story couldn’t contain any elements related to politics, religion, race, or anything that was seen as going against Indonesian society. The point is, you couldn’t have critical thought in your stories. But you could package it with something other than what you meant.
In fact, in the early 1990s I was writing fiction and news stories about the lives of marginalized peoples. And I also wrote stories about factory life. Usually, I wouldn’t write those for mainstream media, but instead for student magazines. At the University of Indonesia, which was my university, and also at other schools in Solo or Yogya, a subset of the student body was involved in the student movement. And some students who were quite forward-thinking, brave, and critical would publish work more freely, allowing people to write relatively unfettered by censorship, at least in comparison to mainstream media.
LN: In an interview with the online publication Arsip Publik, you stated that you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature.”1 I see your argument that this label makes it seem as though no one was openly writing critical texts before the transition to democracy took place. At the same time, I imagine that the experience of writing was indeed different before, during, and after the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
If you don’t like the term “Reformasi literature,” how would you reframe shifts in the Indonesian literary world since the early 1990s?
LC: There are differences, of course, especially in what I was telling you about how certain words changed in their use. I still remember how, before Reformasi, right around 1997, we would usually use the term wanita (lady) when talking about perempuan (woman). The word for lady was seen as carrying more respect than the word for woman, as though the term perempuan had a certain negative connotation. But then, the Indonesian women’s movement was active at that time, and I still remember how in one issue of the magazine Kalyanamitra, they began to use the word perempuan to bring awareness to readers, to define the concept of perempuan and how it could in fact be emancipatory. The word perempuan, or woman, has something that could be understood as equality, a kind of strength. And so they began to use that term.
Writing under Suharto’s New Order is like what I already described. If you wrote for mainstream media, you would worry that they wouldn’t publish certain things. That wasn’t just about specific terms but also about certain topics. For example, it would of course be difficult to write realistic stories about Timor-Leste or disappearances. So writers like Seno Gumira Ajidarma, when he wrote about Timor-Leste, had to make the incident occur somewhere else, and make the characters from somewhere else so readers could maybe imagine this had happened in Latin America, for example.
I felt some of that myself, but I usually sent my stories to student publications because I wrote critically and said what I thought without allowing sensors to limit my work.
For literature after Reformasi, what’s actually very interesting is how varied the subject matter became. So many authors chose to write openly about their bodies after Reformasi. In the period before Reformasi, women were not free to write about their bodies. There are some personal aspects to that, but it also relates to how women’s bodies were associated with the leftist women’s organization Gerwani. During the Lubang Buaya incident2, these women allegedly danced naked and cut off the generals’ genitals. So, women’s bodies under the New Order regime were always associated with something evil, something immoral, something violent. And as a result, women could not easily speak openly about sex or sexuality.
But men could write exotic stories under New Order regime. No woman writer could so easily discuss the sorts of things that men wrote when they described women’s bodies or sex so openly. While men wouldn’t get any social pushback, women felt like it might be incriminating if they wrote about the same things. So, later, Reformasi was also marked by the appearance of novels that were more explicit because women were free to talk about their bodies, to write about eroticism and other aspects of their own experiences.
Of course, it was also during Reformasi that stories from the Suharto era—stories that people had been too afraid to talk about– started to be told. That includes political issues, injustices, and human rights violations that people hadn’t been brave enough to discuss.
LN: How about in the present?
LC: Actually, these problems from the New Order continue today. That includes, for example, human rights violations and gendered violence, which have continued since the New Order. Over the course of 50 years, not much has changed. Take women’s issues. Rates of sexual assault are still very high, violence is still very common. In 2019, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) published a report3 stating that violence against women increased by 14% from 2018. It’s unclear if that’s actually because there are more victims or because survivors are more and more likely to come forward, but regardless, the rates are high and the numbers haven’t dropped. Now, in terms of human rights violations or the criminalization of environmental activism, those are things that happened during the New Order and that still happen today.
Today, when people defend their land, or defend land that companies want to seize from communities, or when they defend the environment and try to prevent heavy metals from destroying rivers and fish, that’s considered a political act. That’s taking a stand, not just against companies, but also against a sector of the elite within our government. During the Suharto era, a political act was understood only as speaking out against the state and the military. Now, activists who don’t want companies on their land are also taking a stance against the state. Environmental issues are very crucial, on the same level as other human rights issues.
I see myself, along with Leila Chudori and Ayu Utami, as writers who grew up under the New Order and who were already in our twenties when Reformasi began. So we were born into that regime and lived under it through our early adult lives. That means our way of thinking, our memory, is very tied to that period. We are motivated to write about things like the 1965 Tragedy4 because that period, or stories about that period, are so strong in our memories. We write about what took place a bit later on, too, like activism under Suharto. That’s a common narrative in our lived experience. When we write about these topics, we’re also writing as witnesses, or maybe as people who grew up hearing these stories, as people who knew about or who may have been affected by the disappearances.
After us, there is a group that is far more distant from these stories. For some, their writing does touch on themes from our generation. But a different group has already moved on to write about other topics, which are not any less interesting but that also don’t necessarily depict authoritarian regimes or imagined dystopias.
For instance, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie is one writer from the current generation that’s very interesting, in my opinion. She writes about a completely different world, and politics come through in her selection of symbols. Her novel, Semua Ikan di Langit (All Fish in the Sky) really impressed me. It takes place in a huge trash heap. Her main character is the corpse of a little boy. Her other characters are a cockroach and some fish, and they all ride together in a broken city bus that had been dumped in the trash heap. It turns out that the corpse becomes a certain kind of god or idol for these strange creatures. So the bus is flying along in this universe of trash, and one day it stops and a little girl gets on. The girl, who is actually the boy’s sister, is a Holocaust survivor. In this sense, Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie writes about an event from the past, but her approach is very different from the one that my generation takes when we talk about similar topics.
LN: I’d like to hear more about your own approach. You’re a journalist as well as an author of fiction, and a lot of your stories have direct connections to real political issues. Your writing is far less surreal than Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s, for example. When you write fiction, are your stories grounded in the kinds of events you yourself witnessed or in reportage about specific events?
LC: Well, let’s look at one of my stories, “Fourth Grave”. It’s about a young girl who is disappeared. Actually, I never say that she is based on someone real because she and her family are not real at all. In the story, there is an old married couple of Chinese descent, and their daughter is involved in politics. Up to this point, it’s all fiction. But were the disappearances real? Yes, they were. So I imagined a situation in which the daughter is kidnapped, like what happened to so many people who really were disappeared.
The story is about what I don’t know, like how a family would react if their child is disappeared. How does that affect the relationship between husband and wife? How do they remember their daughter? What is most painful in day-to-day life? It turns out what hurts are the little things, like when the wife wants to cook fish, but then all of sudden the husband says, don’t, our daughter might have been thrown in the sea. Memories arise, and they imagine what it might be like if their daughter had ended up in the ocean and then was eaten by a shark. And then they saw the fish in a totally different light, and they can’t eat it again.
LN:There are readers who say your stories are very sad.
LC: That’s true.
LN:I agree that they’re dark, but at the same time you include some whimsical elements. “Fourth Grave” actually has a lot of fantastical references to comics like Kho Ping Hoo, and “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto” involves a supernatural flying horse, for instance. Could you comment on these dimensions of your work that are less realistic? What role does whimsy and fantasy play in political storytelling for you?
LC: Perhaps these elements, which many people would label magical or fantastical, are actually very everyday aspects of Southeast Asian societies. People believe that in addition to what we see in this dimension, there are also creatures alive in a different dimension. In belief systems or cultures around Southeast Asia, these elements are understood as ghosts or creatures on the threshold.
For example, where I was born on Bangka Island, people believe in 20 different kinds of ghosts. There’s a ghost that appears just as a head, for instance, called Anton, like the name for a little boy. Another one is called Hantu Burung Kuak, or Kuak Ghost Bird. If that one releases a specific kind of noise, it means something bad will happen. The ghost Menjadin can tear people apart. Aside from those, there are ghosts from Java that are pretty well known, like Kuntilanak, which is also called Pontianak in areas near Kalimantan. That means that in Malaysia, it’s also not uncommon to also hear about a ghost called Pontianak. Then there’s a snake ghost named Paul, like a white man. And there’s one called Mawang, too.
People who live on Bangka Island, in Sumatra, and even in the eastern islands of Indonesia, like Maluku or the Nusantara region, they take it for granted that these creatures are a part of their everyday lives. So when someone writes a story set in a society like ours, non-human characters are just normal. They aren’t strange. They just describe what’s going on in that other dimension.
When I wrote “The Flying Horse of Maria Pinto”, for instance, it was inspired by a trip I took by train. It was just one very brief moment. While I was in the train, I met a soldier. And during the New Order I really didn’t like soldiers, you know. I thought, oh no, a soldier is sitting next to me, how should I act? This was maybe five years before the New Order ended. Since I didn’t want to talk to him, I started reading some novel, I don’t remember which one.
That soldier wouldn’t stop talking to me, and then I noticed that he had a scar. From there, I started to imagine what I would end up writing in the short story.
1. Sastra Reformasi, or Reformasi literature, is a term used in Indonesian literature to refer to an outpouring of openly critical literary production in the wake of the country’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy in 1998. Linda Christanty’s argument as to how this literary category obscures the tradition of critical writing before Suharto’s fall from power can be found in her interview with Arsip Publik: http://arsippublik.blogspot.com/2015/01/wawancara-linda-christanty-2.html.
2. Lubang Buaya is an area on the outskirts of Jakarta where seven Indonesian generals were murdered in 1965 in an incident that came to be known as the 30 of September Movement. The incident became the justification for Suharto’s military coup d’état and the ensuing mass killings, imprisonment, and persecution of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and affiliate organizations (including the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani) and the Institute for the People’s Culture (Lekra)), as well as people with any perceived connection to the aforementioned groups. For more information on Lubang Buaya and its role in the foundational myth of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, see John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3938.htm).
3. The full annual report can be accessed online here: https://www.komnasperempuan.go.id/read-news-siaran-pers-catatan-tahunan-catahu-komnas-perempuan-2019%20.
4.The 1965 Tragedy refers to the mass killings of 1965-1966 that took place in the wake of Suharto’s coup d’état. Estimates on the number killed range from 500,000 to three million people, and researchers have made the argument that the killings should be considered genocide. For more, see The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres by Geoffrey Robinson
and The Army and the Indonesian Genocide: Mechanics of Mass Murder by Jess Melvin (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/15/killing-season-geoffrey-robinson-army-indonesian-genocide-jess-melvinreviews).
This interview, translated from the Indonesian by Lara Norgaard, was edited and condensed for clarity.
Lara Norgaard is an editor, essayist, and literary translator from Colorado. After graduating from Princeton University in 2017, she served as Editor-at-Large for Brazil for Asymptote Journal and directed Artememoria, a free-access arts magazine focused on the memory of Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship. Her essays, literary criticism, and translations can be found in publications such as the Mekong Review, the Jakarta Post, Asymtptoe Journal, Peixe-elétrico, and Agência Pública. Currently, she is a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia and will begin her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University in September 2020.
Anna Kazumi Stahl is a fiction writer based in Argentina. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, with a dissertation on transnational (East-West) identities in South American, U.S. and German literatures. Her current research explores South-South and East Asian-South American transnational cultural expressions in literature and visual media.As a fiction writer, she works almost exclusively in Spanish. Her book-length works are: Catastrofes naturales (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997) and Flores de un solo día (Seix Barral, 2003), the latter a finalist for the Romulos Gallegos Prize. Stahl’s fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in Latin America, Europe, Japan, and the USA. She is currently completing a novel based in Buenos Aires, in the southern neighborhoods where historically an Asian immigrant enclave took root and later other immigrants and regional migrations passed through.
The Crab and the Deer
Ten days ago my brother came back from the war. Two days ago they let me see him. He is sick, and has wounds that haven’t healed well. He has a bad fever and it makes him say things in his sleep. He’s been having nightmares. I can see from his eyelids how the monsters slink around inside his head, hurting him. But there’s nothing I can do. I can’t wake him; they’ve explained to me how dangerous it is to wrench a person with a sick heart and lungs out of a deep sleep. And I can’t reach the ghosts that are hunting him. So I sit and stare at his eyelids, where I’ve seen them moving. I try to send him as much strength as possible, so he can defend himself.
This is the first time I’ve ever met my brother. I’ve never met him before because he went away to military service when I was still inside mama’s belly.
The war ended. Finally. It ended not long ago. I say finally because it lasted a very long time, years and years. On the radio they announced “the end of the conflict” and people went out into the streets to discuss it in more detail, I guess. But nobody celebrated. That’s because we lost; as a country, we lost, and as people, each one of us lost too. Amputee is a word I learnt. So many of the things we had before are now missing: a mother is missing, or a father; a son, a brother, a cousin; houses are missing, and hands, and eyes. When peace came there was a lot of fuss. The city overflowed with people looking for work, food, medicine. Because they come from other parts of the country, the people speak funny and act different. But my brother also re-appeared.
I don’t know why there are wars, I don’t know what they’re for, but as soon as my brother wakes up I’m going to ask him. He’s the only person I know who actually fought in the war – as a conscript, they told me, which means he didn’t want to be sent, but he was sent anyway, and that’s why I think he must know something and can help me answer my questions.
For now, he sleeps all day and all night. He seems to be resting, but I hear the doctor talking to my father and he says something about a rapidly accelerating infection. The words sounds mechanical and I don’t understand how to relate them to my brother. I don’t have anyone to explain them to me (mama died in the first round of bombings, when everything was just beginning, and I don’t want to annoy my father – I’m afraid of how he might react, especially now that we’ve lost the war). It’s better if I try to figure it out on my own. That’s why I listen to everything, even though I don’t always understand it.
A nurse comes in with the doctor. I have to leave my brother’s room while she works. I hear water splashing and in my mind I see the nurse rinsing a small white towel to refresh my brother’s face and hands. But he doesn’t wake up.
When they let me back in, I sit in a corner while the doctor examines my brother. The doctor gives him medicine, and writes some notes down on a form that he then puts into a briefcase. When he’s finished I get closer. My usual place is right next to the bed, at head height. I watch my brother sleeping. There are things I didn’t see the first few times I visited, but now they are very clear. I—— has the same eyebrows as mama, thick in the middle and long, reaching almost to the temple. His forehead is like our father’s, and his mouth, too; the same fine, delicate lips, almost like they’ve been drawn in pencil. When I notice these traces of mama and papa in my brother’s face, I realise that he and I must look alike. I go to the mirror near the entrance, with the door open so I can see myself properly in the daylight, and it’s true. The eyebrows, the nose, the mouth – the similarity is there. Nothing else is left of our mother; we have her big cooking pots, her tea set, the little box of needles and thread, a basket with remnants of different-coloured fabrics, things she used to use and now nobody uses. But that small detail in my brother’s face, and in mine – the form of the curve above our eyes – means mama is still here, somehow.
When I’m in his room my brother has a nightmare: the globes of his eyeballs roll around behind the closed lids, and suddenly he opens his mouth so wide that a wound on his lip splits open and starts to bleed. He makes a strange sound, like a boiling kettle, and then screams: “Crabs! Save me!” He is still asleep but he arches his back and throws his head back so far that it looks like he’s about to break his neck. I don’t know what to do. I put my hands on his chest and push; as I’m doing this, another part of my mind thinks that my brother’s chest is like the wooden washboard we use for washing our clothes, with its deep grooves, and I realise this just means my brother is skinny, but then I get the thought that my brother might be turning into a machine, or an object, and the thought scares me. A moment later, the violent tension is gone. My brother goes back to how he was before, quiet and still, breathing deeply with his eyes closed. I look at him for a while until I also feel calmer. Before leaving, I clean the wound on his lip.
The doctor and the nurse don’t come for several days. Maybe my brother is better. He’s still asleep, but he hasn’t had any more fits or nightmares. Is he better? I visit him after we’ve taken our tea. He is very still. He seems to be breathing, but I can’t be sure. I approach him and touch his skin. He is freezing. I make a tent with my hands over his shoulders and breathe into it. My breath warms his chest. But his chest is only small, and he is big. By the time I reach his legs, his chest will be cold again. I don’t have time to go to the hospital for help; by the time I get back he’ll be worse, he’ll have turned to wood or ice or evaporated into steam, like a ghost. But as I’m thinking all of this the nurse and the doctor arrive, I don’t know if by chance or by good luck, but they arrive and I say: “Just in time!” They don’t say anything in reply, and they don’t turn to my brother, either. They grab me and force me to the ground. The nurse washes my hands with alcohol. She tells me I won’t be able to see my brother or anyone else for a week. I have to be quarantined.
I spend the week locked in a bedroom. The blinds are always down and eventually I lose track of how many days have passed. I watch the light at the borders of the windows, and think about the movement of the sun.
Today my brother is awake. I can’t believe it, but there he is, awake. When I enter his room I see a cup of tea in his hand, which is almost empty. I feel relieved that he’s drunk so much of the tea. It’s proof that he is better. I approach his bed and speak to him softly, in case he’s still not used to loud noises, but I feel an urgent need to know what happened, what he saw, what he did, because if I know then maybe I can figure out the solution, the cure.
“Brother,” I whisper. “Please tell me, Brother. Why are you like this? What was it that hurt you?”
He looks at me. He seems to know who I am. Now that his eyes are open, I don’t have to look in a mirror to see that we look alike.
“In war,” he says, looking at me the whole time, “doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you end up sick. If you want to learn something about life, Little Sister, you’re better off asking the animals. Forget human beings. That includes me. Forget about me.”
I’m horrified. “No!” I cry, and the nurse comes to separate us, to calm him down and to calm me down. But I don’t stop: “No, never, I won’t forget you! Do you hear me? Never!”
“You should go, Little Sister. I want to sleep.”
The nurse doesn’t have to escort me out – I respect my brother, so I leave. I go out into the garden. It’s a humid afternoon, warm. I can hear the toads singing, the birds, the odd cricket. I’m confused and worried by what my brother said.
Then, one morning, I run away. I can’t stop thinking about him. I know how easy it is for someone to die. I decide to take his advice: I’ll go and talk to the deer in the park of the old Temple of Dreams. They roam freely there, because they’re not regular animals, they are the messengers of the gods. I know this from reading a lot of kids’ books, and from my religion lessons, and now after what my brother said I think it might be true after all. Anyway, it’s the only option I have. If I don’t ask the deer, I’ll have to go back to depending on my father and the doctor and the nurse.
Sneaking out of the house is easier than I’d feared; nobody comes to stop me, or even asks what I’m doing.
As soon as I enter the park I start to feel dizzy, so I close my eyes and lean closer and closer to the ground until I’m squatting there. I think I might have a rest, but then I hear the heavy footsteps of an animal coming along the gravel path. With my eyes still closed, not daring to stand, I stretch out one of my hands. Nothing. Just air. I lift my hand a little higher and my fingers brush fur. There are only deer in this park, so it can’t be anything else, but how am I supposed to know if it’s The Deer? The deer who carries the message for my brother and I? As I’m thinking this I start to get a hot feeling. The deer is radiating heat, but not a heat like my brother’s fever – it’s like an internal force transforming into something that I can touch with my hands. I open my eyes and see the enormous, dark brown body. I am crouching right next to one of its front hooves, looking towards its stomach, which is like a big orb, because it is round, or like a planet, because it seems to have its own force of gravity, which pulls me to it like a magnet. I rest my cheek, my right hand, my shoulder against the deer’s body; I let my whole weight fall against it. And then I feel how the heat invades me, entering through the palm of my hand and travelling through my wrist, moving up my arm towards my shoulder, filling my lungs, my heart, my whole belly, and continuing to pulse into my legs, my ankles, right down into the soles of my feet. Suddenly all of me is strong, and I am shining – I can’t see it, but I’m sure I am because of the sensation – like a tiny sun.
Then, in a clear and melodic voice, as if singing it to me, the deer gives me the message: Put your eye into the crab and be like him. He adapts to the earth and the sea. He looks ahead and walks towards the shore. He sees everything one hundred times, and he is not bothered by any of it.
I keep listening but the deer doesn’t say anything else. Suddenly the strength leaves me, and it’s as if I am deaf. I blink in the midday sun. My deer has left. I didn’t even see him go.
The next time I speak to my brother, I don’t ask him about his experiences. I tell him about mine.
“I went to the park of the Temple of Dreams. To see the deer. And it was easy, one came to find me. He told me I have to be like the crab.”
“Ah, of course,” my brother replies, in a strange tone I now recognise as irony. “You have to follow his lead. Like Robin Hood.”
“Who is Robin Hood?”
“A Nobody. A character from long ago.”
“And who is the crab?”
“Who? No. What is it? It’s an amphibious crustacean.”
“I know that: it adapts to the earth and the sea. The deer told me. And why is that good?”
“Because, even if your environment changes, you survive. It’s like Confucius said: When things get bad, don’t act; hide.”
“Isn’t that what cowards do?”
“No. It isn’t.”
“Have you seen any?”
“Crabs. Have you seen any?”
He hesitates before answering. After a while he says: “Yes, but they weren’t alive.”
“Where did you see them?”
“South of H——, in a barrel that was used to trap them, but it had been left on the beach for many days, weeks even, so they rotted in there.”
“What were you doing with a barrel like that?”
“No, I got inside it. I was in a barrel like that.”
“To get away from the war, to hide until peace came. Or to die, whichever came first.”
A little while later, he is sicker again. For several days they don’t let anyone visit him. The doctor comes and goes. In the evening I hear the voice of the priest who looks after our family. When I go to see my brother the nurse tells me to act as if everything is fine, because that will give him the strength to get better.
I ask him: “Are you the crab?”
“You tell me. The deer spoke to you. It didn’t tell me anything at all.”
Suddenly, I’m not sure why, I start whispering to him quickly, telling him what I’ve heard here in the house: “Everyone here – the doctor, the nurse, even papa, thinks you’re going to die, but not me. I know you are the crab and you’ll come walking out the other side.”
The next morning he wakes up feeling good. Strong, lucid. He gets out of bed. The first thing he does is go to the garden. Then he gets dressed and says: “I’m going out with my little sister. For a walk, then we’ll come right back.”
He shows me the indoor market. I see some enormous buckets with a sign that says CRABS, and I ask to look at them up close. The crabs have tiny spherical eyes, like black beans, sitting on top of these flexible sticks that point around all over the place.
“Look at their eyes!” I say to my brother, excited by the discovery. “Are they blind?”
“No, actually they can see very well.”
“That’s right, I remember: they see everything one hundred times. Why is that?”
“I’m not an expert on crabs, but I know their eyes are formed sort of like prisms, and they capture images from many different angles. I learnt that back in high school, before the war. You’ll learn it too, now that you’re going back to school. Make the most of it.”
“What else can crabs do?”
“That’s enough for now. Let’s go for a walk. You ask too many questions. It’s not good for you to be so stuck on one thing. It’s not worth the effort. Look around you” – and he points at the young women standing near us, carrying their babies on their backs and baskets of vegetables in their hands, or the old women balancing loads wrapped up in fabric on their shoulders, or the young girls less fortunate than me selling rags in the street, trying to earn some money or trade something for a bowl of rice. “You have to get those ideas out of your head, Little Sister. Don’t go back to see the deer. Go to school and pay close attention to everything they tell you. Don’t believe all of it, but listen, investigate it as deeply as you can.”
After that day, my brother has a terrible relapse; his cough turns violent, his fever won’t go down, and blood comes out of his nose and mouth. Our father calls the doctor. In a calm but serious voice, the doctor tells us my brother won’t live through the night. Later I hear my father talking to the doctor; he asks if it’s really worth buying his son a cemetery plot and engraving his name of a piece of marble, since in the end he was nothing but a failed soldier.
I spend the whole night waiting outside my brother’s room, listening to the fierce, awful sounds of sickness. Then I don’t hear anything. It descends in an instant, or at least that’s how it seems: a silence that freezes me to me bones. I try to stand up but I fall to my knees; as I open the bedroom door my hands are clumsy, like gloves filled with stones. The room is semi-dark. The silence echoes off the walls like an earthquake. A voice inside my head says: Prepare yourself. You are the first person to see him. Prepare yourself for that, and for what comes next. But when I get to the bed, I see it is empty. The first light of the morning is just appearing at the window, and I can see him standing there, looking out. He turns and smiles at me, but I am frightened, because he is shining; I know he is shining, even though at the same time I want to doubt it, to deny it. The light is fine and soft, like a sun shower or the reflection thrown by the moon. He comes towards me and crouches down to tell me something in a soft voice; he smells like soap and cotton, and cough medicine. He whispers: “I’m all right. Don’t tell anyone.” His voice is clear, and he smiles at me again.
Surprising, incredible, says the doctor when he sees my brother later that morning. I listen silently. My brother starts walking around the room as if trying out his body. I watch him, his hair falling over his forehead, nearly reaching his eyebrows, and I see him concentrating, biting his lip like mama used to do when she was sowing. I don’t want to leave him ever again. Everything he does gives me strength, too, or something like strength. Sometimes the feeling reminds me – though it is much less intense – of when the deer gave me his energy.
A few days pass. My brother still hasn’t left his room (the doctor won’t let him) but one morning I go to see him and all his things are packed up. Some things – most of them – are in boxes, ready to be thrown out, and the rest is in a small bag sitting inside the doorway. His hands are dirty; there is a black crescent moon beneath every fingernail, and his knuckles have traces of ink or oil on them. I bring the washbowl to him so I can wash his hands, but he does it himself so I just watch, taking in every detail: the shallow pool of water at the bottom of the bowl; the hard, off-white soap; the old scrubbing brush with its yellowed fibres; the discoloured but clean hand towel, which has been dried in the sun. I notice the way he does everything carefully, as if learning it for the first time. He scrubs his sudsy hands without splashing the water, he cleans each nail one by one, and presses his thumb into the palm of his hand as if feeling for the many tiny bones and tendons beneath the surface. Then everything is put away neatly: the soap and brush don’t drip any water or create any puddles, and he dries his hands with slow, precise movements. When he’s finished he says, not to me but to the room, to the air: “So pure, and so simple.” And in that moment I know that his good health will stay with him forever.
He leaves the house before his scheduled medical check-up. I go with him.
At first we earn a living helping with the fruit harvest. Whenever we can, we take the train into the capital to visit the central market. We go there to buy crabs, as many as we can carry, and we take them home alive; we don’t plan on eating them. The fishmonger doesn’t know that. He thinks they’re destined for the cooking pot. I smile at the fishmonger, especially if he says: “Enjoy!” It makes me happy. I love those crabs. Then smell good, like the sea, like the Inland Sea of my country (which, by the way, has no more armies – no army of its own, and no occupying armies). I love my brother. He knows how to live, and he’s teaching me, and that’s the most important thing.
‘De Hombres, Ciervos y Cangrejos’ (‘Of Men, Deer, and Crabs’)first appeared in ADN Cultura, Cultural, La Nacion, 26 January 2008, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore.
ALICE WHITMORE is the Pushcart Prize and Mascara Avant-garde Award-nominated translator of Mariana Dimópulos’s All My Goodbyes and Guillermo Fadanelli’s See You at Breakfast?, as well as a number of poetry, short fiction and essay selections. She is the translations editor for Cordite Poetry Review and an assistant editor for The AALITRA Review. Her translation of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence is forthcoming in 2019 from Giramondo Publishing.
Dorothy Tse is the author of four short story collections in Chinese, including So Black and A Dictionary of Two Cities. Her collection, Snow and Shadow, translated by Nicky Harman, was long-listed for The University of Rochester’s 2015 Best Translated Book Award. A recipient of the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature and Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award, Tse is a co-founder of the Hong Kong literary magazine Fleurs de lettres. She currently teaches literature and writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.
translated by Natascha Bruce
By the time the men arrived, the sky was a swathe of bruise-dark purple, a red and blue concoction that seeped through the air like melting stage make-up. I leaned from a second-floor window and spied on them as they swaggered up the main street. They wore baggy, factory-issue windbreakers that puffed in the wind, like balloons ready to take flight. But when they reached the front door, their trapped shadows leaked away, leaving them more like deflated dolls.
They did not remove their shoes, which were caked in dust and mud. Instead, they marched straight inside, treading all over my wife’s well-swept floor and throwing themselves onto the sofa, and the chairs that circled the dining table (and, in one case, onto Lily’s wooden rocking horse), asking what I had to eat. I fetched a pear tart from the kitchen and, as I sliced through it with a wheel cutter, made sure to turn and watch them. Just as expected, they were immersed in their own gloomy worlds and failed to notice my wife’s masterpiece. I couldn’t help feeling sad for her, and her meticulous efforts; of course such a refined gesture was wasted, with guests as boorish as these.
My wife had made the tart the night before, kneading flour and water into a soft skin and pressing it into a circle, then laying on slices of pear in a spiral, working out from the centre. When she put it in the oven to cook, the crust rippled like waves and the pears glistened like molten gold.
‘There aren’t many moments in life as moving as this,’ I said to her, watching the transformation through the oven door. She was standing beside me and giggled behind her hand, elbowing me in the arm as though I’d made a joke.
The men devoured the tart in an instant, scraping down to the bottom of the dish and coming face-to-face with my pathetic reflection in its stainless-steel surface. I thought back to the last time my wife made one, and felt its lingering sweetness welling in my throat. She and Lily would probably be on the train by now, far outside the city. Now only the men were in the flat, with their chewing and belching, their periodic hearty slaps at something or the other, and their constantly jiggling legs. I moved to a far corner of the living room to escape them, sitting down on a low stool near the entrance to the kitchen.
I’d never been fond of these manly get-togethers. Inviting them over had been my wife’s idea. A few days holiday were coming up, and she’d put a hand over mine and asked about my plans. I had the idea of building a model castle with Lily (I’d bought a set and hidden it away under the bed). There was also a strip light in the kitchen that hung down at one end, and it was high time I fixed it. But my wife didn’t seem to be paying attention – she went to stretch out on the sofa, closed her eyes, and let out a soft, contented sigh.
‘The thing is, I’ve bought train tickets. I’ve decided to take Lily away for a couple of days, to a faraway guesthouse, and let you have a bit of freedom. Why don’t you invite your friends round?’
And, of course, those ‘friends’ she mentioned were the men I worked with in the furniture factory, fixing and inlaying wood. I didn’t have anybody else.
Several years before, in order to live with my wife in the city centre, I’d had to leave the little flat that I shared with my parents in District M, where we relied on one another for everything. At the time, Lily was still inside what I used to think of as my wife’s black aquarium. I would spread my fingers across her rounded belly, and feel the faint, rippling motions of a lonely aquatic creature. Perhaps another description could have been a train without a view? When I left, watching from the train as the icy night swallowed row upon row of squeezed-together houses, I suddenly realised that I didn’t recognise a single person in the fluorescent-lit carriage. My wife and I had known each other less than six months; she was fast asleep against the darkened window-glass, and her illuminated face took on the contours of a stranger, shaking with the rhythm of the train. I placed my hand on the high swell of her stomach and tried to imagine the child’s face, but Lily didn’t have a face yet, or a name. On public transport, nothing is more permitted than feeling like a stranger. I thought I’d miss the familiar people from back home, but the train entered a tunnel and my parents’ voices were crushed by the roar of the engine. Even I changed, turning into the flickers of light and shadow projected into the carriage from outside.
Starting a new life was easier than I imagined. I brought only one suitcase and moved into the flat where my wife had been living all along. Everything was already there. Light fixtures with cloth umbrella shades hung from the ceiling, casting a golden glow over the ripe peaches on the dining table. She had crocheted antimacassars, which extended like cobwebs along the length of her sofa, and there was a thriving tropical plant, grown to the same height as me. A coat pattern she was making spread across the work table in the living room (she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer, but had been drawing up patterns for other designers ever since art school). Pulling back the sunflower-print shower curtain and soaking in the tiny bathtub, I had the feeling that I’d become another part of the house. In her orderly space, I had come alive.
But after moving into my new home, I was much farther from the furniture factory, which was on the outskirts of District M. To get to work on time, I had to wake up at the crack of dawn, when even the dust motes were still asleep, and join the flow of commuters feeding into the sea of drab city faces. And once I became a regular passenger, there ceased to be anything charming about trains. In those years, the crush of passengers was rife with resentments, especially between locals and the many others who came from elsewhere. A good number of times, a muttered comment sparked an on-board fist fight. Nothing ever went quite so far as the poison gas attacks reported in other cities, but suspected bombs turned up at the station on more than one occasion. Eventually, they were all dismissed as pranks, but there were always a couple of skulls or shoulders trampled in the preceding panic.
On days off, I chose to stay at home as much as possible. I read, or fixed furniture, or simply stayed in bed with my wife until Lily pushed through our door, clutching her book of fairytales. She’d climb up and burrow her way in between our lazy bodies, demanding that we go through those crazy stories yet again: a mother who sold her own child to support her desperate craving for cabbage; a daughter who disguised herself in animal skins to escape the lascivious affections of her father; a blue-bearded monster who killed his wives and kept the corpses locked in a secret room.
Once in a while, I’d go with my wife to meet her friends and, to my surprise, did not dislike these gatherings. My wife refused to believe that I’d never really socialised before, because her friends always showered me with praise for my impeccable manners. She didn’t know it was precisely because I had no history in those situations – I didn’t have to act like ‘myself’, so I simply played the role of her husband.
My wife didn’t have the kind of girlfriends who were always heading out to the beauty salon or comparing latest shoe styles, but all sorts of people seemed to feel especially drawn to her. The building’s cleaning lady, for example, who was always taking her aside to share pieces of neighbourhood gossip. Or the man who came to fix the water pipes, who could recognise her from miles away and would wave enthusiastic greetings, even though he’d only been around once in months. Or the solitary old lady who used to sit out on the main street in her wheelchair, taking in the sun, still as a statue; at the sight of my wife, her head would dip and her fingers would suddenly spring to life, rapidly wheeling the chair towards her. My wife never told me what she heard, when she stooped down and pressed her ear to the old lady’s mouth. She’d just smile, firmly gripping the Chinese pear the lady had pressed into her hands. In the evening, once we were home, she’d slide its sweet, juicy flesh into my mouth like a secret, one slice at a time.
As for me, standing behind my wife, all I wanted was to make my presence as unobtrusive as a shadow. With a smile fixed to my face, I carefully remembered the names of all her friends, spoke very little, nodded at the appropriate moments and, every so often, made sure to place morsels of food in her bowl. In this way, it was easy enough to win everyone’s affection.
‘How come you don’t have friends of your own?’ my wife would ask me, and I never had an answer. I had my wife – and later, Lily – and because of my wife I had all her friends, in a way, and this was enough for me. But when she asked the question, my contentment made me doubly ashamed. I didn’t mind not having a social circle of my own. Wasn’t it just further proof that my reclusive character was unsuited for mainstream society? Before my marriage, in an attempt to keep up ‘appropriate’ levels of interaction, I sometimes dragged myself along to the staff socials organised by the factory, or joined my parents on low-cost outings with the local community centre. Afterwards, I was always exhausted, filled with shame and frustration at the thought of my chameleon-like facial expressions, and all the things I’d said but not meant. At the same time, I found it reassuring to have made the effort, as though I’d fulfilled a duty to act like a human being. Once I was married, I attached myself to the goodwill around my wife, like a cold shadow hitched to a warm human body, and found myself winning the approval of others without any struggle at all.
The men all lived near the factory, and to reach the city centre they had to endure the torture of the train ride. I’ve already explained what it was like – they liked to stress that, were it not for our great friendship, they would never put themselves through such torment on a day off. But I didn’t believe they would ever have let their dislike for the journey stand in their way. What they declared to be our ‘friendship’ could have been the reason, but there were other possible factors: the exciting buzz of the city, or the table laden with food that my wife prepared for every gathering, accompanied by an endless stream of beer. Perhaps even more to the point, they had bellies chock-full of complaints, and they needed to get far enough away from their own homes to vent in peace.
In the furniture factory, I never went near these men. I worked silently and alone, by a window with a view onto a line of cotton trees. If you walked deeper into the factory, passing through the angry sound of hammers banging against wood and steel, you’d see the irate, exhausted eyes of the men, turned a dull grey by the swirling sawdust. But now, enthusiastically recounting their misfortunes from the comforts of my home, their eyes emitted vivid beams of light. Sometimes, their faces would take on the expressions of dictators, lining up their personal tragedies like obedient citizens. Naturally, they would conclude that their wives were the eyes of every storm, or else their wives’ parents, or those foreigners who kept coming in to find work, or the tropical climate, or the pollen that filled the streets in springtime. If it hadn’t been for them, the men would have been bolder, and lived entirely different lives.
Listening to their endless, meandering talk, it was hard not to let my mind wander. I’d slip away down a little forked alley, walking further and further along, losing myself in my thoughts. In this sense, I had to be thankful for their boorish, oblivious natures, because it meant they were unlikely to notice that my attention was elsewhere. I suspected that even they ended up lost in their own chatter; lost in forests they had planted themselves. Then there’d be a few words that struck them like sharp stones, shocking them back to consciousness. Their faces flushed and their ears went hot, and they worked themselves into such aggressive, emotional states that I felt like a wild animal tamer, with a duty to calm them down. I’d keep their drinks topped up and bring more food from the kitchen.
On this occasion, I brought out the last of the comfort food: the chicken my wife had roasted the previous night. Such a beautiful bird, wings clamped tightly against its glistening body. Its head inclined slightly towards me, with its crest angrily sticking up. The eyes had been shut all morning, but somehow were now wide open and staring fixedly at me, as though sizing me up. I caught sight of my face reflected in the television screen; you couldn’t have called it a warm face, but I watched it crack into a winning smile. This was something I’d learned from experience: a facial expression is like any other domesticated life form, knowing when to nod and wag its tail, or when to burst out laughing.
I was surprised to see this same smile reciprocated on the men’s faces. Usually, they kept up an uninterrupted litany of grumbles and debates, only stopping after a string of reminders that the last train was due. That day, however, they lost interest in talking ahead of schedule, and had no appetite for the food left on the table. But they seemed to have no intention of leaving. I looked away from them, towards the door to the kitchen, thinking of the strip light hanging down at one end, wishing I could go in and fix it. But the men pinned me with their stares. Their silent smiles were like so many nails, keeping my buttocks tacked to my seat. Not knowing what to do, I turned to watch the sky changing colour through the window. At first, a big group of black jellyfish-like creatures seemed to be swimming through it, slowly devouring all other colours, but gradually I realised it was the other way around: the other colours were vomiting the black, and this was why it looked so mottled and fractious. And in front of that ominous roll of blackness, faces were pressing in on me, their hands reaching for my arms, clasping me in a brotherly embrace. One of them patted my back and said, ‘Don’t keep your feelings stuffed in your guts, how are things with the wife lately? If there’s something going on, you should tell us.’ Then he poured the second half of a bottle of beer into my glass, filling it to the brim, and cheerily told me that they weren’t leaving until I confessed the truth.
I took a sip of beer and, as the bubbles dissolved pleasurably in my mouth, wondered whether this was a rite of passage, and they were welcoming me as one of the guys. But all I could do was shake my head, because what could I tell them about my wife? That late every evening, once our kid was in bed, we huddled under the same sheet, tired but happy, discussing the menu for the next day’s dinner? That I liked to go food shopping in the market after work, examining the shape of an aubergine or an onion, contentedly imagining the delicious aroma once it arrived in her hands? That I would bury my head between her thighs and stick out my tongue, tasting her sweet, seaweed flavour? None of those things were suitable for sharing. Not because they were too private, but because they were too close to happiness. Pain and misfortune are the only gifts suitable for friends; only shared tragedy builds friendships. Perhaps because they’d had too much to drink, the men’s eyes glowed red and they encircled me like a pack of starving dogs, eager to gnaw on the bones of my hidden sadness. But what did I have to feed them?
There was nothing in my present life that I could really complain about. I couldn’t imagine doing any job other than working in the furniture factory. I loved the scents of the different kinds of wood, and how each had its own distinctive grain – to the point that, every time we shipped out a finished chair or bedframe or, most of all, big wooden farmer’s table, I felt a pang of regret. And my blissfully-happy marriage was surely some mysterious gift of fate, because until I was thirty-eight years old, I’d never even been in love.
It all started with the complimentary ticket to a Christmas party that came attached to my family’s new air conditioner, giving the address as a three-star hotel in the city centre. The moment my father solemnly pressed it into my hand, I knew there was no getting out of this assignment (we weren’t a well-off family and unexpected gifts were bright spots in our lives, certainly not things to be turned down). But when I stepped into the hotel ballroom, which was festooned with streamers and balloons, with my face freshly shaved, dressed in my only white shirt, I immediately regretted that I’d come. I walked into the crowd of men and women I’d never met before, and felt their chatter and laughter weighing against my chest, leaving me unable to breathe. I kept walking straight ahead, my eyes trained on the back of the room, where there was a row of long tables covered in white tablecloths. The tables were laden with all kinds of little delicacies – light glinted off the grease of flaky pastry rolls and the grooves of the fresh cream swirled on top of tiny cakes, and this was my salvation. I marched single-mindedly towards them and piled my plate high. Then, selecting an out-of-the-way corner, I settled into an unoccupied chair and promised myself that I could leave once I had eaten all my food.
I must have been too concentrated on the cakes, because until she whipped out a shiny silver fork, I didn’t notice my wife (although at that stage she was still just some unknown woman). She sat down in front of me and exclaimed: ‘This dessert’s all gone! You don’t mind if I have some of yours, do you?’
As though conducting a symphony, she held her shiny fork poised over the mini donuts on my plate (believe it or not, I’d taken two of every kind). I nodded immediately; I’m sure I blushed. She grinned, revealing a row of widely-spaced teeth. It thrilled me to discover that the gaps between her teeth were much bigger than other people’s; dark and mysterious, like tunnels waiting to be entered.
Her curtains were the gauzy, translucent kind that let light flood in, dispersing the last, muddled dreams of the early morning. I thought she was still in bed, but when I reached for her my fingers clutched at air. I staggered out of the bedroom, calling wildly through the unfamiliar flat, the events of the night before as uncertain as my footsteps. Back then, I didn’t even know her name. I followed the hallway, peering into another room, which led to another room, whose walls seemed to block the way to another. Confused, I walked back along the hall. The woman seemed to have vanished, until her face pressed against my shoulder, appearing as suddenly as a snake darting from a cave. ‘Where have you been hiding?’ I asked, and she smiled but said nothing, curling a hand round to pass me a cup of ink-black coffee and a mini donut dusted with icing sugar.
Her mini donut was much better than the ones in the hotel, just as she had promised. I still remember that morning, and the way we walked out onto the street hand in hand, mouths covered in icing sugar, inviting mockery from passers-by. But I had passed by the kitchen, and there had been no trace of cooking on the gleaming counter tops. I never said anything, but my wife’s ‘disappearance’ wasn’t a one-off occurrence; in her flat, the same thing happened again and again. Was there some kind of secret passage, where she could hide without making any sound? Any time I raised these kinds of questions, she would tap me lightly on the forehead and joke about my over-active imagination.
It’s true that it was just a small, two-bedroom flat. Walking out of the master bedroom, I was confronted by the gloomy hallway. The first room on the right was Lily’s – if I opened the door, I’d see her dolls and wooden building blocks strewn across the floor. To the left was the bathroom, and straight ahead was where we ate dinner every evening, which linked to the living room, which doubled as my wife’s studio. The kitchen was to the left of the living room, and at the back of the kitchen was a door. The door seemed like it must lead somewhere, but when I opened it, all I saw was a headless dressmaker’s mannequin, draped with a coat that hadn’t yet had its sleeves sewn on, a few boxes stuffed with my wife’s yarn and fabrics, stacked on top of one another, and some of her older projects. And if I shoved all this to one side, there was just a murky white wall, pressing in on me.
Before we married, my wife’s flat was like our private express train of snatched pleasures, and I never had the chance to explore it properly. She gave me a tour after I moved in – ‘This used to open out onto an illegal balcony with a view of the street,’ she told me, ‘but it had to be dismantled a few years ago.’ So why did she fail to mention the door? Later, while cleaning the flat, I discovered that, in the hallway, diagonally across from Lily’s room, there was another door; one that I’d never noticed before. It had always been concealed in the shadows, but with the light from Lily’s room spilling into the corridor, I could see its outline. Even in the light, it wasn’t an ordinary door. It looked as though it was afraid and trying to hide itself in the wall, like an enormous creature covered in camouflage. There was no handle and, no matter how I pushed, it wouldn’t budge. I gently stroked the surface, but it refused to respond. The gap between the door and doorframe was too narrow for my fingers to fit.
My wife shook her head when I mentioned it, asking what crazy thing I was talking about now. I brought her over to look but she played it down, saying it was probably just part of the decoration, because a door wouldn’t have anywhere to lead to. Did she think I was some kind of joke? She put her headphones back on, clearly in the middle of listening to something, and burst into hearty laughter. I stared at the black gaps between her teeth, now on full display, but had no way of guessing what they were hiding.
After Lily was born, I often carried her into the hallway and stood in front of the door, pointing at it, saying, ‘Look, Lily, don’t you want to go and play behind the door?’ I would take her hand and try to make her press it into the edges, but she always shook free and threw her arms around my neck, closing her eyes and burying her face in my shoulder. Once, I was firmer about it and forced her fingers into the crack, hoping they’d be able reach past the accumulated dust, but she wailed loudly, as though she’d touched something dangerous. She didn’t stop until my wife ran over, asking what had happened, brow furrowed with concern, and carried her away.
Perhaps my wife was right, and the door was just a figment of my imagination. Maybe it was a repeat of another door, one I’d seen in middle school. I had nothing to hide from my wife, but I’d never told her that, once, back then, you could almost have said that I fell in love (possibly, I hadn’t told her because I’d convinced myself I’d forgotten all about it).
Was it the very first day of middle school? I had arrived very early. Because of the sultry weather, or else my aversion to groups, I headed straight for a big, leafy acacia tree. I sat beneath it, enjoying the fresh breeze and imagining my face turning unrecognisable in the shadow, while listening attentively to the voices behind me.
Those two girls must have met before, because they exchanged nicknames and code words that only they could understand, excitedly sharing tales of their fathers being ‘pervy’ – they stretched out the word, making it peeeeervy, as though it had breath and feelings of its own. There was a pattern to their conversation: they took turns to give examples of ‘pervy’ behaviour, and then proceeded to assess it. For example, one girl would tell the other that when her father went downstairs to buy a paper, she’d seen him slipping porn magazines in between the pages. Then the other girl would talk about how her father always took the raised walkways to go home, so that he could ogle the breasts of women below. Sometimes, the fatherly wrongdoings were deemed suitable only for whispers and I couldn’t hear what was said, just the cackles of laughter that followed. After a while, I realised that for them the important thing wasn’t the content of what they were saying, but the exaggerated, mutually-affirming way in which they said it. It brought them closer together.
Once I worked this out, I lost interest and stopped listening. Surveying my surroundings, I saw that the playground had broken up into a series of little cliques. Even the new students had found companions, aside from a few loners who stood off to one side, emanating the wretched air of abandoned animals.
Of course, back then I thought that I was different. For some people, solitude is a choice; for others, it’s something life decides for them. I had actively rejected company, whereas those other students were flawed, and had been squeezed out and abandoned. There was a girl standing by herself, some distance from the other students, grinning in my direction, and I quickly determined that she was one such creature. I had nothing better to do, so looked back at her. A while later, I realised I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and the reason was the wide gaps between her teeth, which made me feel like I knew her. They reminded me of the street market and its row of grinning clowns, lips stretched back so that customers could shoot at their teeth.
When I was younger, there were a few boring streets in District M that would sometimes liven up at night. On the ground, or on makeshift tables, people would lay out random, messy assortments of cheap clothes, toys, household items, and electric appliances. These goods were dusty and dirty, leaving almost no doubt that they were second-hand, but most of the shoppers had no other choice. And thus, despite their sad appearances, the objects still glinted with a desperate kind of life.
For us kids, these rare transformations saw the streets turn into a fairground. A long queue always snaked from the entrance to the space shuttle ride, which charged two dollars to carry children two metres into the air and back again, and crowds clustered around a game of torturing goldfish with a little net. But I only ever had eyes for the wide, flat faces of the clowns. I had an insatiable passion for shooting at their teeth.
Repeated practice meant that my technique was honed to perfection, but even once I could easily have knocked out every single big clown tooth, I always made sure to leave one standing. My father used to accompany me to the market, and refused to let this go; he’d snatch the gun from my hands and shoot out that last tooth himself, winning me the toy bear jackpot but leaving me in tears. He didn’t understand that I couldn’t stand a completely empty mouth, but found a clown with only one tooth left hilarious.
I don’t know why the girl with gaps between her teeth looked at me with such affection, that first day of school. When the scratchy speaker-system voice started repeating orders for us to line up, the clown-girl followed me, and we walked together into the rank of students. Contrary to what I’d first thought, she wasn’t one of the abandoned creatures. As it turned out, she blended easily with all kinds of groups, and was welcomed by everyone. In my case, on the other hand, she was my only friend for the whole of junior high. Perhaps she thought I was the rejected one, and that was why she befriended me? The thought made me want to run away. But then, at lunchtime, when she invited me to sit with her on the old tyres on the school slope, and we traded side dishes from our lunch boxes, my resolve crumbled. And (I have to admit) when she laughed, showing those black gaps between her teeth, I felt indescribably happy.
After class one day, she suddenly asked whether I wanted to come over to hers. She said her mother had bought a lot of chocolate cake the day before, but there was only her at home and she couldn’t finish it by herself. It was the first time I’d ever been invited to a friend’s house. Embarrassed to tell my parents, I crept home to change my clothes, snuck a few pears out of the fridge and into a plastic bag, and then headed out.
The clown-girl lived on top of a hill, in a peaceful little neighbourhood that I’d never been to before, in what turned out to be a three-storey detached house. She came to the door and graciously accepted my bag of unappetising pears. Then, just like a grown-up, she brewed tea for me and served it in proper tea cups, and placed two slices of chocolate cake on two butterfly-patterned dessert plates. Usually, our interactions felt as natural as breathing, but that day, probably because of the unfamiliar surroundings, I felt awkward. For a long time, we sat side by side on the sofa. I was waiting for her to start eating her cake, so that I could follow suit, but she ignored all the refreshments in favour of meaningless chit-chat. I forget what we talked about; all I remember is that she was wearing a silk nightgown that she must have borrowed (stolen) from her mother’s wardrobe. Sitting beside her, every so often I’d glimpse the gentle swell of her still-growing breasts and, whenever she shifted position, feel the heat from her body waft against mine. I don’t know how much time passed before she announced that she was leaving for a bit, but we still hadn’t touched the cake. I watched her walk away and, for several seconds, was unable to react.
I looked up and realised that I was all alone in a spotlessly-clean living room. The ceiling was much higher than the one in my house, and the walls were covered in fragile glass and ceramics. To start with, I barely dared move for fear the house would rock and all those expensive-looking ornaments would come crashing down. But the girl was away a long time and, eventually, I couldn’t sit any longer and found myself walking out of the room. I passed through a room containing a piano and a collection of other musical instruments that I didn’t recognise, and then a room lined with what looked to be very serious books, and then another that was entirely empty aside from a red rug spread across the floor. And then I saw her, on the stairs to the second floor. I followed and remember very clearly that, when I reached the second floor, she was in a hallway not far from me, facing a wall. I called her name, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she vanished. I went to where she’d been standing, and discovered that it wasn’t a wall, it was a door, but there was no keyhole or handle to turn, just a thin seam where the door met the doorframe. I tried to shove it open, but it didn’t budge. Then I shouted for her again, but the house was silent. The door stood defiantly where it was. I gave it a couple of good, hard kicks, but it made no difference at all.
Disheartened, I went back downstairs. I wanted to return to the living room, but suddenly couldn’t remember where it was. I walked all over the house looking, and kept ending up in the room with the red rug. It was like being trapped inside a maze. When I finally made it to the living room, I was pouring with sweat. I went back to where I’d been sitting, and sat without moving a muscle, not daring to drink the tea or touch the cake. There was no clock, so I had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but the little flowers of hazelnut cream on the cake had collapsed, and the rays of sunlight hitting the wall had moved several inches closer to me. When the girl reappeared, I searched her face, convinced that something must have changed, but said nothing. She pointed to my belly and asked what was going on; I looked down, and saw that my trousers were tented like a mountain over my crotch, and my whole body was shaking.
I don’t quite know why, but that afternoon I found myself telling my boorish guests all about the door. Afterwards, they looked at me with excited, dream-filled eyes.‘There’s no such thing as unsolvable!’ they said, telling me that the world’s greatest locksmith was among us.
Giving me no time to think it over or object, the men leapt from their seats. They were like frightened cockroaches, scuttling around the hidden crevices of the flat. The only one I could see was in the hallway, in front of my door (although it hardly qualified as mine). He pressed his nose against it, as if trying to detect its scent. He sniffed up and down all four sides, and then cocked his head and looked thoughtful. Not long after, another man came out of the kitchen with my toolbox. One man – and I have no idea when he’d gone out there – climbed in through the living room window. Another emerged from the bedroom I shared with my wife, hurriedly throwing something on the floor. Surely not the full-length nightgown my wife had been wearing the previous night? Yet another had found Lily’s toy wand and was waving it around. The man in front of the door clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention, and loudly proclaimed his assessment. Without a doubt, most of this speech was just for show, because he added a quiet line right at the end, about only being able to open the door if he had a very fine wire or some other little thing, like a hairpin.
By this stage, the men were gathered in front of the door. What was inside? I watched from a distance, undecided as to whether I wanted them to succeed (not, of course, that I had any real say in the matter). The door looked frailer than usual, like it was barely existing.One of the men poked a piece of very fine wire into the crack, and the door emitted a piercing shriek, as though it wasn’t a door being opened, but a living organism being sliced apart. The whole room broke out in goose pimples.
The door opened. The men were delighted; they lined up and marched single-file into that place I’d never managed to reach. When the last man had disappeared through the door, I was alone in the flat once again. But I was still sitting on my stool. Strangely, I felt no urge to go through the door myself, and instead just stayed where I was. A long while later, I finally walked over. Now the opening was right in front of me, but it was hard to summon the will to enter. The door seemed smaller than it was supposed to be, like it would be impossible to fit through without stooping. What’s more, I’d always assumed it was a standard rectangle, but now that I looked more carefully, it was actually a trapezoid, its sides slanted at bizarre angles. I contorted my body into different shapes, trying to barge my way in, but the door kept forcing me out.
I couldn’t work out how the men had done it. From what I remembered, they’d walked in quite naturally. I tried to shout into the door opening, but the moment my voice passed the doorframe it stopped, as though hitting a muffler. Gusts of icy wind kept blowing in from the other side. I tried to stick my head through, hoping to see something, but the view was blocked by some kind of internal structure (almost as though the door was growing on top of another door).
The mists parted, although I couldn’t say when, revealing a crescent moon like a razored eyebrow on an infinite expanse of face. There was beer spilled on the table, its bubbles all gone, glowing with a soporific blue light.Minutes ticked past and not a single man reemerged from the door. What had they found in there? I thought I could hear a distant shrieking. Would my wife and Lily be asleep by now? I was very tired, and somehow ended up passed out on the sofa.
When I woke up, the sun had restored some reality to the world, including to the roast chicken, which had been stripped of most of its meat. What remained was a wingless, legless, olive-shaped skeleton, with its eyes wearily closed. I went the door, and found it returned to its original state. I traced my fingers along the rim. It was shallow, like a door-shaped shadow, or an imitation of a door. I crooked a finger and rapped with my knuckle, and it made a low, husky noise, like a voice coming from deep in someone’s throat.
After the holiday, aside from her prominent suntan, my wife was the same wife she’d been a few days before, and my daughter the same daughter. I shook the box containing the model castle, and Lily shrieked with excitement outside the front door, immediately letting go of my wife’s hand and rushing inside. Without pausing to take off her shoes, she pounced on the box and began tearing it open. At the sight of the fragments of model castle scattered across the floor, my wife gave me a helpless smile, and then announced she’d bought some squid and a bottle of squid ink to make us squid ink risotto for dinner.
The light in the kitchen was fixed, making the plates and bowls in the drying rack sparkle, and my wife looked extremely pleased. At dinnertime, she served us each a plate of the risotto, and placed a big bowl of peach and rocket salad in the centre of the table. As we ate, our mouths turned jet-black. My wife winked, and said: ‘Pretty good to have a couple of days freedom, then?’ Was she hinting at something? I waved the question away, and asked her and Lily about their trip. They looked at one another and smiled but said nothing, as though, inside their inky lips, there was some secret they couldn’t tell me.
Lily lay on the floor by herself, stacking tiny building blocks one on top of the other, completely absorbed in her castle. While my wife was showering, I knelt beside her and whispered, ‘Won’t you tell Daddy what happened while you were away?’ She shook her head, still focused on the construction. I scooped her up and put her on my knees, pressing my face close to hers. ‘First answer your father’s question,’ I said, ‘then you can go back to playing.’ Lily pouted and burst into tears. My wife walked out of the bathroom and took Lily in her arms, kissing her and saying something into her ear, so that the child was all smiles again. How had she done that? She turned to look at me. I expected her to blame me for upsetting Lily, but she just grinned. I saw the gaps between her teeth, black as black, and couldn’t help feeling a stab of resentment.
That evening, I went into the bedroom without waiting for my wife. But before arriving there, I had to pass the unopenable door and, when I did so, I heard a faint breathing sound, like a cry for help.
I wasn’t sleepy, and lay on the bed with my hands behind my head. I thought of how, early the next morning, before the city was awake, I’d have to rejoin the mass of strangers squeezing onto the train. In a city teeming with resentments, who knew what setbacks lay in wait? And in the factory, the air swirling with sawdust, I knew I’d see those men, swaggering past me in their identical windbreakers. I’d lower my gaze and keep on with my work in silence, avoiding their reddened eyes. I loved my work. An advantage to being a carpenter was that you could immerse yourself in voiceless, wordless wood, and a whole day could pass without the need to exchange a single word with anyone.
My wife had not yet come to bed, and Lily had not yet come to kiss me goodnight. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up again. Walking out of the bedroom, I was confronted with the gloomy hallway. The first room on the right was Lily’s – if I opened the door, I’d see her dolls and wooden building blocks strewn across the floor. To the left was the bathroom, and straight ahead was where we ate dinner every evening, which linked to the living room, which doubled as my wife’s studio. The kitchen was to the left of the living room, and at the back of the kitchen was a door. The door seemed like it must lead somewhere, but there was just a murky white wall, pressing in on me. The house was extremely quiet, and I couldn’t find Lily or my wife; it was as though they’d faded into the air. I went back into the hallway and saw the frail door still hiding in the wall, although its outline was blurred. Sitting down with my back against it, I thought I could hear a faint sound coming from the other side. But it could have been the wind rattling a distant window blind, making it chatter like a row of teeth.
Natascha Bruce translates fiction from Chinese. Recent short story translations have appeared in Granta, Words Without Borders, Wasafiri and Asia Literary Review. She was joint-winner of the 2015 Bai Meigui translation competition and recipient of a 2017 PEN Presents translation award. Current book-length projects include Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon (forthcoming from Balestier) and Lake Like A Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (forthcoming from Portobello). She lives in Hong Kong.
Ellen van Neerven is a young Yugambeh woman from South-East Queensland. She is the author of Heat and Light(2014), winner of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists Prize.
At 3 p.m. I looked out of the window to see the three men standing with bags by their boots. They were dressed in camouflage and looked slightly ridiculous considering the weather. Their waterproof pants made their legs look like parachutes. They looked at Pearl’s bright dress.‘Why you wearing that? ’ She shrugged.
‘You dumb bitch, we’ll see how you go.’
I followed them down the streets. I had the advantage of knowing the town and the paths very well. Pearl was in front. Goh coughed on occasion and Bandit smirked. I saw them look at each other and communicate a shared want they could not say out loud.
When they went into the bushland with their gear, the decoys they carried began to weigh them down and they walked slowly – all three were unfit or weak. Pearl carried nothing and walked easy. I noticed she had slipped off the clogs she wore at work and was barefoot.
When the lake was in sight I stopped to find a vantage point. I found the old wooden lookout that had been there since I was a kid and surveyed the surroundings below. The men stepped out and surveyed the area and where they would set up the blind. Pearl half-turned; her eyes found me and she nodded in recognition. The little flecks of light flicking up from the lake caught their expressions and I felt I could see them perfectly. The men crouched to set their plastic painted decoys down in the mud. From where I was, the decoys looked quite lifelike. Pearl had found her spot a little bit further down, closer to where I was. She also knelt and opened her hands, and I saw she had made a grass duck, out of reeds. It was beautiful.
Bandit looked – his mouth gaped for a moment and then he laughed at her creation. I couldn’t help but share his sentiment, as remarkable as it was, there was only one.
They stepped back thirty metres or so into the vegeta- tion and started to get their gear out of the bags. George handed Pearl a shotgun. ‘Don’t miss,’ he said. And they put on their gloves and face masks, and held their calls and their guns. Pearl stood straight and stripped her dress off, spread out her arms and slipped off her undergarments.
‘Shit,’ George said and they exchanged a placating look between the three of them that made them carry on as if nothing had happened.
With her feet, Pearl covered the red garment with leaves. Bandit gave a nod to indicate the start of their hunt and they widened their stance.
Pearl put the call in her mouth. The wind picked up and melded with her hail call, a long, low note. The wind began to pull at the tassels of the lake, and I held my hair in place. The wind shuddered the ten or so decoys the men had laid out, and they fell down in a row.
The men swore loudly but Pearl kept calling. She went to a new call – a rapid round of short, sharp notes. This is what the men in their conversations at the shop had called a feed call, when a hen has found food. I heard the ducks above, and I looked up to see their formation swooping down. The mallards slowed their wings and came towards the outstretched Pearl like a train to a station. There were at least two dozen. Pearl raised the gun and fired. But nothing was shot. The mallards landed unaffected around her. She looked down, confused, at the gun.
That’s when the camouflaged men made their move. With their masks they looked like executioners and that’s what they were. They grabbed Pearl by the shoulders. Goh on the left, George on the right and Bandit at the front.
I got to my feet but there was nothing I could do. Though the wind, as always, was on her side. The gale swept back – it was a wind that bit – and George let go. He flailed his arms out and toppled backwards into the lake.
In the confusion Pearl got away and then she was running and Bandit and Goh were chasing hard and I could not see everything exactly. The heat from the day had carved a dull headache in my mind.
On the way home I find a lover, in a hotel in a one-street country town. She smells like apricots and is too pure for me. I started surfing when I realised I needed something to quell my undiagnosed sex addiction. When I go out to the beach it’s usually to clear my head from anyone muddled up in there. Mystery does not always equal desire, and for every woman I’ve been with there has been one who turned me down. Like that Fleetwood Mac song, women, they will come and they will go.
This woman doesn’t turn me down. We giggle as we pay the clerk for a room upstairs. As she unlocks the door I search her hands for a ring or tattoo or some sort of sign that will remind me that she is not mine. She is the kind of girl I would have thought about being with when I was younger and hadn’t yet fucked up a million times. She gardens and she volunteers at the school near Hune Hill where lots of my mob went. She says she will take me to see the farm where she lives and show me her orange trees. They are the biggest oranges, the size of basketballs and they taste like love.
‘Will you cut them up for me? ’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ she says, slipping off her singlet top.
‘And take the skin off ? ’
We take the covers off the bed and she gently puts her hand on my chest and drives me back onto the mattress. She lowers herself and her legs come around my waist – I squeeze her ankles and we kiss like we’ve kissed each other before. How can it be that I don’t feel the weight of her. That there is no taste on her tongue. No drug, no cigarette, alcohol or coffee. I thought she’d taste like apricots or oranges. I’m getting sick, it might be the flu I’ve resisted all winter. Because I can’t continue. My breath is ragged and the shapes and colours of her are blurring.
This extract appears in Heat and Light, page 15-19 first published in 2014 by University of Queensland Press, and reprinted here with permission.
In Heat and Light Ellen Van Neerven tells us stories exploring ancestry and identity and the experiences particularly of Aboriginal women and girls in small Australian towns or dwelling on the metaphorical fringes of Brisbane and the surrounding regions, where its young Yugambeh author is based. As its title (taken from the Tracy Chapman song ‘Smoke and Ashes’) signals, Heat and Light is interested in the elemental, particularly sexual desire and familial bonds, the dangers, hopes, and sense of identity and place sought through these relationships, and the harsh natural environment on Country. Heat and Light is a book in three parts written in a simple, spare colloquial prose and has a tripartite formal and temporal structure, with ‘Heat’, ‘Water’, and ‘Light’ respectively focused mainly upon the past, the future, and the present, and the presence of the past in the present is one of the unifying themes of the collection. While ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ contain a series of mainly realist short stories, with some mixing myth and reality, ‘Water’ is a speculative fiction novella with elements of satire and political allegory, in a collection that traverses genres. Van Neerven’s achievement with Heat and Light has been recognised by receiving the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Aboriginal writer in 2013, and in 2015 both the Dobbie Literary Award for a first-time author and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelist Award.
The strongest writing in Heat and Light is mainly in ‘Heat’, which is comprised of interrelated stories about incidents in the fractured history of three generations of the Kresinger family, told from different narrative viewpoints and shifting between different times and places. The stand out story in the book is the first story, ‘Pearl’, whose eponymous protagonist is a free-spirited agent and object of desire, existing outside black and white codes of morality, and a mystical outcaste, both victim and shaman-like avenger. In ‘Pearl’ disrupted family histories and the search for identity – a major theme in heterogeneous Aboriginal Australian writing – is the consequence not of official state policies of the removal of children, but of the pack rape of an Aboriginal woman by white men. The itinerant Pearl gives the baby conceived in rape to her married sister Marie, who presents the boy as her son, while Pearl’s name disappears from the Kresinger family history. ‘Pearl’ is alternately narrated by an old woman in the local store, and the young Amy Kresinger, to whom the woman tells the true story of Amy’s ancestry, that she is the granddaughter of Pearl not Marie, disclosing family secrets and local historical silences.
Interestingly, the story and character of ‘Pearl’ seem inspired by the Chippewa novelist Louise Erdrich’s short story and character ‘Fleur’, which is also adapted as a chapter in the novel Tracks. There is no anxiety of influence here, as Van Neerven has commented that she was reading Erdrich when writing ‘Pearl’, and she employs the classical method of imitation well, adapting borrowed elements of language, plot, narrative structure, and characterisation to enrich a story that is her own. Fleur and Pearl are both native women whose mystical powers, sexuality, and daring make them pariah figures, the subjects of malicious gossip and fearful mythologies generated by the locals who try to drive them out of town, and we learn about both characters indirectly through jealous narrators. Fleur is a shaman believed to be the desired creature of the waterman monster of Chippewa myth, Misshepeshu. She seemingly drowns in the lake twice, and is said to have caused the deaths of the men who pull her from the waters the first time, and the man who approaches her ostensibly dead body the second time. Comparably, Pearl is a mystical creature of the wind, which seemingly takes her life twice when she goes out into wild storms and makes physical gestures resembling embraces. She is wind-hurled first into the waters, only to mysteriously re-emerge two days later, while the man who tried to save her was drowned. The second time Pearl dies is when the windman lifts her into electricity wires, ‘and they curled into each other like lovers as she was jolted.’ The electricity that killed her is conducted out of her body and into the brother who touches her and ‘he takes her place.’
Fleur is raped by three men who work with her in a butcher’s shop and Pearl is raped by three men who come into the café where she works, and both women seemingly conceive during the rapes. The attackers of both women die shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances. It is wild winds that destroy the town where Fleur is attacked and distract the townspeople from noticing the absence of the three men, who are found days later frozen to death. Pearl too is associated with the wind and later Kresingers continue to associate the wind with their spiritual ancestry. The wind is also a motif in ‘Heat’ for the way the past pervades the present and history repeats itself. The rape of Pearl is followed, two generations later, and in the third story ‘Hot Stones’, by the pack rape of Mia, a young Aboriginal girl. The schoolboys’ savage attack is a more extreme expression of the hostility the schoolchildren routinely direct at the dark-skinned, recognizably Aboriginal Mia. There are of course many differences between the works including Erdrich’s lyrical prose and engagement with history. Fleur, for example, attempts to save her tribe’s land and traditions from white encroachment in the era of the Dawes Act (1887) that served to destroy the Indian land base and in turn culture. Van Neerven’s first book focuses mainly on individual odysseys and family histories that register social issues of racism, domestic violence and mental illness.
A light satirical engagement with contemporary Australian politics and history is presented in part two, ‘Water’, which imagines a fantastical future as a fresh way of talking about past and present realities, notably in its allegory of the imperial genocide of the ‘plantpeople’, who are revealed as Aboriginal ancestral spirits. The final part of Heat and Light is comprised of ten stories mainly set in contemporary Brisbane and narrated by young, gay Aboriginal women finding space for self-expression and self-definition in the relative anonymity of the city, often having left small towns to attend university. Another interesting literary influence evident in stories from ‘Light’ and recurrently in the book is the magical realist novelist Jeanette Winterson. The young loners narrating some of these stories are searching for sexual connections of different kinds with other women, and the recurring motif of oranges as a gift to a lover, and a desire that does not fit the received social expectation, alludes to Winterson’s North of England lesbian bildungsroman, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Coincidentally, Van Neerven mentions that it was a mandarin Melissa Lucashenko handed to her to calm her nerves at an early book reading. The support Van Neerven has received from Lucashenko and other Indigenous Australian writers, including through high public praise of her writing, is the beginning of locating her in a lineage of Aboriginal women writers. Lucashenko’s literary influence is perhaps manifest in Van Neerven’s use of a light Aboriginal English in gritty, colloquially told tales of young working-class Aboriginal women in particular. Van Neerven’s influences in Heat and Light are Indigenous and European, local and cosmopolitan, and enhance the sense of her potential and readers’ interest in future publications.
CHRISTINE REGAN is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and former Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Hoa Pham is an author, playwright and psychologist. Her novella The Other Shore won the Viva La Novella prize in 2014. Her play Silence was selected as a text for VCE Drama in 2010 and has been performed at La Mama in Melbourne. It also toured throughout Victoria with the support of VicHealth. Hoa was awarded the Best Young Writer of the Year Award from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2001 for her novel Vixen. Hoa’s work has been published in numerous periodicals including HEAT, Griffith Review and TEXT Journal. She is also the founding editor of Peril Magazine of Asian Australian arts and culture.
Excerpts from The Other Shore
My name is Kim Nguyen. I’m sixteen years old and my secret middle name is from a poem that means ‘good heart’ in Vietnamese. I have kept many things I see and hear to myself. This protects me, being a plain ordinary schoolgirl in uniform, a white ao dâi that is impossible to keep clean. I do not show off at school, because the pressure of the student competition and the ritual picking on the weakest students by the teachers was too much for me. I learnt about competition on the first day of high school from my best friend, Lien, who told me not to get angry at the teachers’ jibes about me being the ugly sister. ‘They will be silent after they receive a gift,’ she told me. This was my first encounter with corruption—a corruption everyone expected.
In our house many people died, but all of Việt Nam bleeds ghosts from the wars. When I was growing up I would see other ghosts, like Americans, and would practise my English with them. Sometimes they would be wary, other times not. I have gradually learnt not to be afraid of strangers.
My family lived south of Hoan Kiem lake. When I closed my eyes at night I heard the steady whirr of traffic going by. Hà Nội only sleeps from midnight to four am. In the early morning old women like my grandmother would do tai chi on the shore of the green lake. At four am goods would be brought to the markets and to the noodle hawkers on the street. Then the traffic would ramp up and tourist touts and beggars would take to the lake, while the more affluent would lunch and eat ice cream.
In the middle of the lake is the One Temple Pagoda, fierce with a tiger guarding it, a constant reminder of King Le Loi and the legend of the turtle that carried his sword away.
To most people I am no one. To Bà, my grandmother, I was someone special that kept her secrets.
I was awake and dressed at four the next morning when the driver knocked on my door.
Huế was just beginning to wake up. The pho sellers were assembling their wares and the roads were almost empty. The dawn was mild and I was grateful for the thermos of tea that the driver thoughtfully provided us with.
It only took ten minutes of driving for us to reach the countryside outside Huế. Trees and greenery dominated and chickens ran across the road. I spotted a turn-off sign for Chùa Hương and knew we were close.
We came across the new highway suddenly in an open clearing. The road was newly asphalted and came to a halt at a large roped-off pit. Already two labourers were standing around, smoking. The driver parked and we got out, catching a glimpse of the pink dawn edging over the horizon.
Bác Phúc approached the workmen who straightened up and only surreptitiously glanced at me. ‘Are the novices from the temple here yet?’
One of the workmen shrugged.
Bác Phúc gestured to me. ‘Come have a look.’ He didn’t have to tell me to not touch anything.
‘The geomancer tells me that the discoloured soil here is decomposed bodies.’
I glanced into the pit. Mud and water oozed and I glimpsed shards of bone embedded in the sides of the pit.
‘Mass grave. Why did you bring a woman out here?’ one of the workmen said.
‘She’s a psychic. She’s part of the reburial team.’
The workmen’s eyes widened.. Then they nodded in understanding as the sound of a moped cut into the quiet of the dawn. Pulling up at the site was a brown-robed abbot and a novice robed in grey. The novice was holding onto ceramic pots, precariously bundled together, for the remains of the bones.
I bowed to the abbot, who smiled at me and Bác Phúc. ‘Thank you for coming,’ he said to us gently. ‘These disturbed souls have been troubling us greatly. We have been waiting for you.’
The novice set up incense on a little mound away from the pit. ‘I can assist you in finding the descendants of these men and women if they are from around here.’
The workmen holding small hand shovels bowed to the abbot, then jumped into the pit. Too soon I was presented with a shovel full of mud and earth from which shards of bone were poking out. I took off my gloves and gingerly reached out to touch the protruding bone.
A scream. A bolt of pain lanced through my insides. Then wailing. She had been abandoned, defiled, and murdered. Her family could not find her. They offered outdoor offerings to the lost souls but could not honour her at the altar.
‘She lived in the village not far from here. She was killed by Americans.’ I could not bring myself to say what had happened to her before her death. So I began describing the scenery around the village, the hills that backed her family’s farm and the closeness of Chùa Hương . She had three brothers and two sisters.
The abbot listened gravely to my babbling, then produced a notebook from a bag by his side. ‘I think I know which family this is,’ he said and motioned for the novice to bring over one of the reburial urns. The remains were put in the jar and the abbot murmured some instructions to the novice.
Bác Phúc watched approvingly and smiled at me for the first time. Putting a hand over my stomach from the phantom pains I tried to smile back, but instead found myself fighting tears.
Bác Phúc came over to my side with the thermos of tea. ‘Have a rest for a few minutes my dear, ‘ he said. Clumsily I walked away from the pit and sat on the car bonnet. I crossed my arms, hiding my head in my hands to conceal my shame from the men.
The hours passed by in a blur. I was hit by the pain and humiliation of death again and again. Bác Phúc began to work alongside me, his face stoic. He would squat down next to the remains, his face a frown, and close his eyes. Then he would tell the abbot what he saw.
With the help of the abbot we were able to identify nine people from nearby villages. Then I was presented with another mound of mud with bones protruding from the muck. I was reminded of the bones of a chicken after the slaughter as I braced myself for the impact of touching them.
The shock comes like a pistol shot to the back of the head. I am drenched in fear, standing in line, waiting. My mother stands next to me clutching my hand, sweating. I had been told to be quiet, and this time none of my cheekiness asserts itself; even the adults are quietly standing in the darkness down in the basement of the school.
Then a door opens and men in black come down the stairs with guns. With frightening efficiency they make us kneel on the concrete floor. A gun muzzle glints in the dim light and then a crack. My teacher Long falls forward. Someone screams.
Panic! . . . and Ma cowers to the ground, covering me with her body. More cracks and the smell of blood. Then a thunderclap in my ear. Mum goes limp above me and I am squashed under her weight. I wriggle and blinding pain shoots up my leg. Then I fall . . .
A child! The National Liberation Front had murdered families in cold blood, just like the Americans and the ARVN had. I recoiled from the knowledge. Opening my eyes I saw Bác Phúc looking at me with concern.
‘A child . . .’ I stammered.
‘Where did they come from?’ Bác Phúc asked, his stare fixed to my face.
‘South.’ The word was shaken out of me.
‘I see.’ Bác Phúc gestured at the workmen and the area of mud that the geomancer indicated was dug up and thrown to the side of the road. The abbot knelt by my side and I turned to him.
‘They aren’t honouring the dead . . . ’
The abbot looked at me with sorrowful large brown eyes. ‘These are Southern dead. Your colleagues are from the government.’
A chill ran down my spine as I realised the political implications of what I had seen. ‘They will still haunt the road . . .’ I murmured.
The abbot paused for a moment, then looked away. ‘In the eyes of the Buddha there are no political sides or ideology. We will look after them.’ He rose suddenly to his feet and Bác Phúc approached, indicating I should get back to work.
Fucking gooks. Never let a man sleep. Have to get out of this hellhole, stay alive for three more days then out of here. Never again.
‘American,’ I said. I wanted to sit down and cry and never get up again. The workmen heaped the soil and remains on the side of the road. The novice went away on his moped and came back with wooden boxes lined with red paper. The American remains were placed in the boxes and put in the back of our car.
‘The Americans like it when we can return remains to them,’ Bác Phúc said neutrally. The labourers returned to work and Bác Phúc clambered back into the pit.
Exhausted and covered with mud I sat down on the side of the road. I imagined I was covered with the bloody remains of the victims I had seen. Even the American was treated with more respect than the southern ers. It made no sense. Surely the souls from the south would haunt the road too?
Shivering, I unwillingly flashed to what I had seen of the American’s feelings. He had died slowly, suffering the same way our people had.
‘We will pray for them,’ the abbot said softly in my ear. I turned to the wise man standing impassively by my side. The novice had lit more incense and begun a quiet chant a few steps away from the open grave site. The sun had risen and the heat of the day was making itself felt. I glanced at Bác Phúc but his eyes were closed in trance talking to the geomancer about what he saw.
‘Politics keep men divided,’ the abbot said. ‘But we all suffer no matter which side we are on. After we die there are no distinctions. You are not like him. Your spirit is still young. If you need counsel please come to Chùa Hương and ask for me.’ The abbot left my side as if he had said nothing of import and returned to the pit.
Bác Phúc had identified more southern soldiers and the heap by the side of the road grew. I sipped a cup of tea, listening to the chant for the dead and then the sound of the bell from the novice. Its sound returned me to memories of my own temple in Hà Nội. A moment of peace came over me.
Then I began to cry for what I had lost.
(These excerpts are from page 1-2 and page 42-56 The Other Shore, Seizure, 2014)
‘…scattered to the winds Are the seeds of my good heart Each branching connected to the source To see with the eyes of compassion…’
(Epigraph, The Other Shore)
I have previously reviewed in this magazine recent Asian Australian fiction whose authors increasingly depart from archetypal diasporic tales with a theos (origin: Asia) and a telos (destination: Australia). Michelle Aung Thin’s The Monsoon Bride (2011), Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman (2011), Lily Chan’s Toyo (2012) as well as Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore (2014), are all concerned chiefly with Asia – its history, but also its contemporary societies. To what extent, thus, may we still consider those novels Asian Australian, or Australian at all? Although some of these writers may object to such labels, the imaginary space of “Asian Australia” in particular remains useful in situating – and anchoring – Australia in the Asian Century. This constitutes an attempt at “provincialising” Australia, not so much vis-à-vis the geographically distant West, but vis-à-vis its regional neighbours, with respect to whom Australia has retained a sense of exceptionalism (not to say superiority). As Olivia Khoo concurs, one must now reach an “understanding [of] Asian Australian identities and communities within regional and transnational contexts.” (461)
The Other Shore re-views superficial Orientalist pulp fiction about Asia designed to elicit in the reader a domesticated sense of frisson through the conjuration of phantasmagoric characters – spies, double agents, war heroes, reporters, natives in need of salvation, corrupt, despotic leaders and “sexotic”, easily available Eastern women. Here, Pham’s narrative is about trauma and its implications. Kim Nguyen, the first-person female protagonist, is a sixteen years old teenager recruited as a psychic by the Vietnamese government to identify the bones of people dead during the Vietnam War: soldiers, Americans, children, civilians. Those remains (restes) must be laid down to rest and returned to their family for the past to be exorcised, mourned and buried once and for all. This past also involves Kim’s family: “In our house many people died, but all of Viêt Nam bleeds ghosts from the wars.” (1) Pham alerts us to the possibility of a Freudian “return of the repressed”, despite the fact that Vietnamese, half of whom are under 26, have little memory of the war, seeking to enjoy the bounties of consumer capitalism (46) following the end of the trade embargo imposed by America in 1994, Vietnam joining the World Trade Organisation in 2007, and the subsequent rapprochement between the two nations.
The action takes place in 2010, a year or so after the little-reported destruction of the Buddhist Prajna Temple part of the Bàt Nha monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam. “ ‘Officially’,” as the abbess explains to Kim, “‘Bàt Nha monastery was destroyed by a rival group of Buddhists.’” (90) However, there is a long history of religious persecution by the State in Vietnam. Bàt Nha monastics are followers of peace activist and founder of Engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh, whose non-violent and non-partisan approach to conflicts would force the latter into exile in the aftermaths of the Vietnam War. Thanks to her supernatural gift, Kim is able to relive the event of the assault on the Prajna Temple by the secret police through the revived thoughts of a monk who was there that day. In this monk’s mind, “fear and anger is the enemy of mankind and the Communists are afraid of the Buddhists, President [of US-backed South Vietnam] Diêm was so long ago.” (85) In the same way that Thich Nhat Hanh was, Kim is accused of national treason and has to leave Vietnam for America for refusing to take side and discriminate between the remains of North and South Vietnamese. We see here how the history of Vietnam’s internecine wars is a nightmare from which the country, along with the narrator, is still trying to awake. The cause, as in James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses, is imperialism’s Great Game:
I closed the door…and lay down on the double bed. My eyes closed and I descended into chaos. I was being raped by American soldiers. My body turned to ash in the fire and a gag was being forced into my mouth. I killed children. They were spies for the [USSR-backed] Viet Minh. (104)
Unless Vietnam becomes truly independent, subaltern masses will remain (reste) in the fringes of society as permanent reserve (réserve) army of labour for future military uprisings (relève) that masquerade as liberationist revolutions. While the Cold War is long over, the hangover of imperialism looms large, with growing US-China geopolitical rivalries in the South China Sea. Once enemies, the Vietnamese communist government and the USA now work hand in hand as part of the Obama administration’s China Encirclement Policy and Pivot to Asia. To that effect, a revisionist work is underway. As historian Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox has shown, “After 1990, researchers began to deemphasize the 1954–1975 period in Vietnamese relations with the United States in favor of the 1941–1945 period. During the latter, the United States cooperated with the Việt Minh, and several members of the United States’ Office of Strategic Services [now the CIA] became personally acquainted with Hồ Chí Minh.” (par. 14)
Pham’s novel also points out the double standard enforced by the government, simultaneously ignoring – unless bribed (61) – to honour the southern dead while rolling out the red carpet for US contingents seeking to claim the remains of MIA (missing in action) soldiers. As Kim deplores, “this was wrong that we were pleasing the Americans and could not find peace among our countrymen.” (72) Indeed, there is something wrong in the way history, as Marx famously put it, repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Fleeing Vietnam (but not its history), Kim discovers in Orange County, Los Angeles the conundrum of Viêt Kiêu (overseas Vietnamese) community politics. As Khôi, also a psychic, and whose parents are boat people, tells her, “They will call anyone a Communist for daring to have anything to do with Viêt Nam. Even going here on holiday. If you use the southern flag in an artwork they will accuse you of dishonouring the flag no matter what your intentions were.” (93-4) There, too, Kim gets caught up by the phantoms of the past, as she is unable to disentangle reality from the daymares she gradually succumbs to. When she is denounced for overstaying her visa, ending up her journey in a prison-like (179) refugee detention, it becomes clear that the Vietnamese government, in the eyes of which she is a threat, has had a hand in her arrest. Here, psychic ubiquity becomes an allegory for totalitarianism – as in the case of Bác Phúc, Kim’s right-hand man, who turns out to be a fake and a dangerous con for the Communist Party.
However, the polysemic meaning of “the other shore” – the title of the novel – stands against monologic allegorisation, reflecting instead the multi-layered structure of Pham’s fictional work. It may refer, successively, to; the spirit other world of ghosts; “Asia”, from the perspective of an Australian author with family roots in Vietnam; southern Vietnam, from the viewpoint of Kim, who was born and grew up in Hanoi. Similarly, Kim’s “indigenous” ability to communicate with the dead (len dong) allows for the understanding of the radical otherness of colonial encounter, as well as for the confrontation of alternate meta-realities and various sites of discursive knowledge-power: the simulacrum of American paranormal TV shows (70); the scientism of academic psychology (78); the medical jargon of doctors who believe Kim to be brainsick (103); the arbitrary truth-seeking judgment of a court tribunal (173); or the classist functioning of the State apparatus, represented by Bác Phúc, for whom “spirits and ghosts are real, but loyalty to the old gods and goddesses is only for the masses.” (109) Seen as backward, ancestor worship was forbidden during doi moi, a period of economic reforms in the 1980s aiming at modernising Vietnam.
In The Political Unconscious, literary scholar and critical theorist Fredric Jameson writes of “magical naratives” that they challenge the “threefold imperatives of authorial depersonalization, unity of point of view, and restriction to scenic representation.” (104) Instead, as he adds, the subject in magical narratives can “accommodate a far greater sense of psychic dispersal, fragmentation, drops in “niveau,” [planes] fantasy and projective dimensions, hallucinogenic sensations, and temporal discontinuities.” (124-5) The double consciousness characteristic of diasporic subjectivity translates here into the collective subconscious of a scattered nation whose population includes about 3 million Overseas Vietnamese. From the Greek diaspeirein (disperse: dia “across”+ speirein “scatter”), diasporic consciousness as elaborated by Pham explores axes of transnational solidarity with Asian America, “emphasiz[ing] mobility and travelling as major tropes for unpacking the identity formations and knowledge productions of diasporic communities with cultural allegiances and political connections across a number of sites within and beyond the nation.” (Lo, Chan and Khoo xvii) The epigraph of the novel, taken from a family ancestral lineage poem and reproduced at the start of this review, is an invitation to sow the seeds of a transplanted Vietnamese wish fulfillment living on, and surviving in, the unconscious dream-like vision of a nation at last reunited and at peace with itself. Born in Tasmania of Vietnamese ancestry, Pham, who today works as a psychologist in Melbourne with her partner and two children, is a living embodiment of this cultural re-routing/rooting.
1. reste or restance: remain(der); réserve: reserve; relève: lifting up. These terms are borrowed from Francophone philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist lexicon. The third one (relève) has a double meaning. Alluding to Hegel’s “unity of opposites onto a higher plane”, la relève always-already risks translating into a mere “changing of the guard” instead, if and when conceived, psychoanalytically speaking, as a discourse seeking to “conceal its own contradictions and repress its own historicity by strategically framing its perspective so as to emit the negative, absence, contradiction, the non-dit, or the impensé.” (Jameson 109-10)
Gadkar-Wilcox, W. W. “An Ambiguous Relationship: Impressions of the United States in Vietnamese Historical Scholarship, 1986–2009.” World History Connected 7.3 (2010): 43 pars. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.3/gadkar-wilcox.html>.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981. Print.
Khoo, Olivia. “Regionalizing Asian Australian Identities.” Continuum 25.4 (2011): 461-464. Print.
Lo, Jacqueline; Chan, Dean; Khoo, Tseen. “Asian Australia and Asian America: Making Transnational Connections.” Amerasia Journal: the national interdisciplinary journal of scholarship, criticism, and literature on Asian and Pacific America 36.2 (2010): xiii-xxvii. Print.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained a PhD in postcolonial writing from Monash University. His doctoral thesis focuses on diasporic identities in Australian women’s fiction from Southeast Asia. Paul’s academic work appears in various literary journals, and he has been a regular contributor to Mascara.
Gaiutra Bahadur is an award-winning American journalist and book critic. She is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (HURST, 2013). Her essays, criticism and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The (London) Observer, The Nation, History Today, The Virginia Quarterly Review and Ms. Magazine, among other publications.
She writes frequently about literature, gender and migration and has reported from the Middle East, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and India. She’s a graduate of Yale and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 2007-2008 academic year. When she was six years old, her family immigrated to the United States, to the New York City area, from Guyana, the only country in South America that was once a British colony.
In 2013, Gaiutra won awards from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, the national feminist arts organization, both on the merits of the manuscript for Coolie Woman. The book was published in 2013 to critical acclaim in the U.S., U.K., India and the Caribbean. It was a finalist for the UK’s prestigious Orwell Book Prize, for political writing that is artful, and won the 2014 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize, awarded by scholars of the Caribbean to the best book about the Caribbean published in the previous three years. Coolie Woman was also one of three nonfiction finalists for the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.
Extracts from Coolie Woman, The Odyssey of Indenture
from PART ONE, EMBARKING
THE MAGICIAN”S BOX
… I was almost seven, old enough to have memories of Guyana and young enough to be severed in two by the act of leaving it. Emigrating was like stepping into a magician’s box. The sawing in half was just a trick. In time, limbs and coherence would be restored, and a whole, intact self sent back into the audience. But at my age, unformed and impressionable, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that everything seemed to split apart. Time became twofold, divided into the era BA, or before America, and the one after it, after 7 November 1981. Space was also sundered, torn slowly and excruciatingly into two conflicting realms, inside and out.
My memories of Guyana are almost all set outdoors. The houses there stand on stilts, to avoid the flood underfoot. That kicks open, underneath, a concrete terrain known as the Bottom House. There, curries are cooked and eaten, laundry washed and set to dry. There, life unfurls, exposed to the eyes of the lane, open to the comment of neighbors. And there, visits are paid. Hammocks rock back-and-forth, marking the absence of time, as hours pass in gyaffing, a West Indian brand of aimless talk, encompassing everything and nothing at once.*
I remember the outside of our house in Cumberland Village much better than the inside. The Bottom House opened into the front yard, where we posed for our photo that last day. To the left stood our guinep tree, the scant, sweet pulp of its fruit encased in a green shell. To the right stood our concrete temple, the size of a toolshed. It lay outside the frame of that final picture, but I remember it vividly. The mandir was honeycombed for ventilation and painted as blue as the clay gods within. It sat next to my grandmother’s garden, where so many times, zinnias tucked into our braids, sheets wrapped like saris around our waists, my cousin and I played at being brides. We staged our weddings in and around a curvaceous blue car parked inside the gate. It belonged to Brudda, a taxi-driving cousin renowned for his ability to squeeze in a dozen passengers in any one go. The car had died and, for some reason, Brudda had laid it to rest under the guinep tree. Three decades later, Brudda is in Canada, and we are in America; but the remains of the car still lie there, an indestructible shard of blue in the weeds choking our abandoned plot of Guyanese earth. The temple, the garden and the car comprise the hazy landscape of my first childhood, like stickers pasted onto a board-game map of the past. Flat, but brightly colored, they represent what was, in the wide-open place we left behind.
In the America we arrived in, it was too cold for all that. Our aunts gave me and my cousin matching grey winter coats. We wore them through our first season of snow. We learned how to speak and shoved indoors the Creole words that vibrated with Bottom House and playmates. There wasn’t much extra room for those words in the close spaces of our new life, on the first floor of my uncle’s house in New Jersey. We rented three tight rooms and slept five in a row, on two beds pushed together, for half a decade. My grandmother, who had crossed a border crawling on her belly to join us by then, made the fifth. From the fire escape, we could see the Twin Towers. Despite the panoramic view of Manhattan, our apartment promoted claustrophobia. The door swung into the windowless bathroom to reveal my mother balanced on the edge of the bathtub, attacking clothes in sudsy water, pummeling hand-me-down jeans until they screeched, beating the ugly green corduroys that made me look as awkward as I felt. She nearly fainted once, with the fumes of Clorox bleach concentrated in that tiny room.
The gods were also crowded; they, too, had been forced inside. From the airy temple perfumed by zinnias, they were driven into the closet—the linen closet in the bedroom, to be precise. There was a box of Barbie dolls on the bottom shelf, and nightly, the rats made incisions into the pale plastic of their perfectly formed legs. On the top shelf rested framed prints of the gods: elephant-trunked Ganesh, the remover of obstacles; Hanuman, the monkey with a mountain in his palm; and Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge.
Our journey took us past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern banks of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and eggplant by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine, a man pumping air into bicycle tyres, a camera-wallah behind his counter. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a massive human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.
We had travelled five hours over shell-shocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s national archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on 29 July 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta for the Caribbean.
Catalogued on this brittle artifact, sepia and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth
recording: “Name: Sheojari.” “Age: 27.” “Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches.” “Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured laborer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.
Though my great-grandmother claimed no husband, she did list coordinates for home. The pass pointed to it precisely, almost like a map to some mythic location with hidden riches. X marks the spot: the state of Bihar, the province of Chhapra, the police district of Majhi and the village of Bhurahupur. There the past rested, buried. And here we were, just a few miles away, more than a century later, hoping to excavate lost history. Bihar isn’t a place where people typically go in search of buried treasure. Outsiders typically don’t go there at all, although it’s the second most populous state in India. The few foreign tourists it attracts are on Buddha’s trail, making pilgrimage to the place where he attained enlightenment. Bihar was once the seat of a vast and ancient empire stretching to Iran, but few people see it now as anything but a corrupt and dangerous backwater. Its per capita income is among the lowest and its illiteracy rate among the highest nationwide. One historian has branded the state “a stinking skeleton in India’s democratic cupboard.”1
It was November 2005, four days before provincial elections—a bad time to be travelling in Bihar. Ballot boxes had been stolen at gunpoint in the past. And Marxist rebels had just broken out of a jail south of the capital, Patna, when we set out. The military had been ordered to keep civilian vehicles off the roads until the votes had been cast. One of my guides decided we would pose as journalists to get past the roadblocks. He taped a phony “PRESS” sign onto the windshield of our white Ambassador. This voluptuous vintage car is a relic from the pre-globalized era when Indians drank Thums Up instead of Coca-Cola, and its presence everywhere on Bihar’s potholed highways was another sign that the sleek, new India of nanos and glimmering shopping malls has not reached all corners of the subcontinent. Surprisingly, our Scotch-taped stratagem worked. Soldiers in khaki fatigues stopped us, but they did not ask for credentials. They took us at our word.
My guide Abhijit eyed the rocky little lane that stood between me and my great-grandmother’s village. It seemed impossible that the massive Ambassador could force its way through. He chuckled. “That’s a great scene, just like Veer Zara,” he said, with a sudden, sarcastic edge. “Preethi Zintha is searching for her forefathers.” He was referring to a Bollywood movie that had cast its dimpled starlet along village backroads in search of a lost love—not lost forefathers. But the imprecision of the analogy seemed somehow appropriate to my journey. Ancestral memory had told my family the story of who we are: brown-skinned people with many gods and peculiar, stubborn habits. It had told it imperfectly. Memory, after all, fails us. That we expect, especially over generations and across oceans. Details get smudged, and dialogue garbled. The will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget. Given how facts had fared with the passage of time, how could I do anything but fumble my way inaccurately through India? I had to rely on Abhijit to name things like the yellow fields, and the comedy was unavoidable. “Is it saffron?” I asked. Yes, he said—though saffron does not grow anywhere near this corner of the subcontinent, and those stalks were mustard.
We arrived at the village in the late afternoon, an hour before the winter sunset, and we had to be back in Patna by bedtime. Our time was limited. My second guide, Jitendra—a man with a face so straight and correct it could have been drawn with a protractor—took charge. He did not ask anyone about Sujaria. There would have been no point, he assured me. “Women,” he explained, “were not known persons at the time.” Instead, he dropped the name of Sujaria’s father: Mukhlal. It was listed on her emigration pass, along with a next-of-kin, a female cousin. Armed with this information, Jitendra approached a group of men loitering near the entrance to the village, off a gravel lane, along a tributary of the Ganges. He asked if anyone knew of a Mukhlal who had lived in Bhurahupur a century ago. No one did.
The villagers took us to a toothless man with a helmet of white hair, sitting on a bench outside his house, a mustard shawl draped over his bony body. He was a schoolteacher and an elder, the kind of man you might expect to be the keeper of local memory. He had, however, no information. My heart sank a little, although I wasn’t expecting anything concrete from this trip. I hadn’t even known whether or not the village would still be standing. I couldn’t really believe I was here. In Bhurahupur. X marks the spot. The precise point where an umbilical cord connected me to India. And here I was, being sized up by a curious crowd of real-life men who called it home.
“Alright,” I told Jitendra. “I just want to ask some general questions about the village. Can we do that?”
The schoolteacher called for three chairs, and we sat.
“Go ahead,” Abhijit snapped. “Ask your questions.”
It was my turn to speak, and I didn’t know where to start.
“My great-grandmother left this village,” I ventured, throat tight, conscious that our entire impromptu entourage was looking and listening. I turned to Abhijit, waiting for him to interpret my words into Bhojpuri, the dialect spoken in the district, but he was mute. Jitendra, thankfully, stepped into the breach. Though he spoke less English than Abhijit, he understood much better what I was after and how to help me get it.
The schoolteacher listened, his eyes on me, on the long white kurta I wore over red tapered leggings and on my hair, loose and tangled from the bumpy ride and contradicting my traditional dress. He fixed me in one penetrating gaze and pronounced: “You should be living here.” It was delivered like a reproach. India’s diaspora, now at 17 million worldwide, has quit India’s borders despite a prejudice with the force of religion behind it. To leave was to cross the kala pani, “the dark waters,”* of the Indian Ocean and therefore to lose caste, according to the strictures of Hinduism.
These two extracts are reprinted from Coolie Woman, The Odyssey of Indenture, Hurst and Co, London, 2013
At the heart of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, is Gaiutra Bahadur’s personal quest to discover one woman’s identity amongst the mass of people relocated during the period of indenture. Born in Guyana and immigrating to the United States at the age of six with her family, Bahadur, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2007-2008, is an American correspondent and book critic. With journalistic scrutiny, Bahadur embarks on a journey in search of her great-grandmother, Sujaria’s story; one of many women buried deep in the history of colonial discourse. Curious about her Indian origins, with desire to understand how her great-grandmother’s decision to cross the Indian Ocean in 1903 helped shape her destiny, she returns to India to engage with a past that has impacted on present perceptions of identity. Her exploration of the past excavates the injustices and degradation suffered by immigrants under the power of colonial authority.
Following the Abolition Act of 1833 that ended slavery in the British Empire in 1834, the system of indenture was introduced and thereafter became a second form of servitude. Over a million Indians were deployed and spread across the globe to work on sugar plantations, half of them transported to the Caribbean. Surviving the horrific journey was just the beginning of a life of inequality, mistreatment, and dislocation. Emigrants were stripped of caste and kin and turned into an indistinguishable mass of plantation labourers, forced into sub-standard social and contractual arrangements. Unruly recruiters misled and schemed in order to induce labourers and preyed on the vulnerabilities of desperate women to serve the over-population of men. A gender imbalance among the indentured contributed to the breakdown of families, igniting jealousy, which often lead to violence and the deaths of many coolie women.
The term “coolie” derived from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire. Over the eight decades that “coolies” were ferried across the globe the word evolved into an ethnic slur, and spilled fluidly from tongues of plantation managers and overseers as a reminder to indentured labourers of their menial origins and lowliness in the race hierarchy. It was “A subtle challenge to their claim to belong”, Bahadur states in the preface. The author re-inscribes the c-word, explaining that while it may be offensive and painful for some, it is true to her subject. “My great-grandmother was a high-caste Hindu. That is a fact. But she left India as a “coolie”. That is also a fact. She was one individual swept up in a particular mass movement of people, and the perceptions of those who controlled that process determined her identity at least as much as she did. To them, she was a coolie woman, a stock character possessing stereotyped qualities, which shaped who she was by limiting who she could ever be.” (p.xxi)
The struggle with identity emerges on the first page, when Bahadur takes a retrospective look at her point of departure, from her home in Guyana to a new life in America. At the impressionable age of six, still connected to the memories of home in Guyana but disconnected by the act of leaving, Bahadur describes her sense of displacement as being severed in two. This severing of self relates to the nature of diaspora, and a motif of connection and disconnection weaves throughout the narrative, drawing parallels to the experiences of indentured labourers severed from imaginary homelands, religion and culture. Bahadur’s personal severance reflects on the lives of the women who were physically dismembered by acts of violence from their men. Juxtaposition of the outside and inside spaces she inhabits expresses the diasporic struggle of trying to locate the self in the interior and exterior of new world culture. The memory of a distant home is the vein that draws her back to the Caribbean as a young woman where she describes her arrival as “a tingling fusion of inside and out, an electric union of outside and in, a sparks-flying soldering together of the soul” (9). The sensation describes a physical memory, expressing a psychological essence of belonging, whereby a return brings forth an imagined wholeness. As a whole, the narrative is a process of identification that oscillates between boundaries of culture and place, exploring the uncertainty of self and belonging.
From Guyana’s national archives, Bahadur exhumes an artefact that catalogues only a few details of her great-grandmother’s indentured life. In 1903, Sujaria, four-months pregnant and travelling alone, sailed with 560 adults on The Clyde, from Calcutta to the Caribbean. Bahadur’s exploration shifts from the potholed roads of Bihar to archives in England, where she locates a documented plethora of coolie sufferings from the shadowy repository of history. While the narrative exposes the power struggles that existed between indentured men and the repressive legal system that convicted and imprisoned them for minor labour violations, it engages a wider focus on the more nuanced stories of women; those who escaped the oppressions of their country and their men, for the social leverages that immigrating offered, only to meet with adversity. Through invoking place and reconstructing the trauma of indenture, the voices of coolie women speak against the colonial context and act as a collective narrative for subalterns who have been written out of history. We hear of Maharani, who at the age of five married a much older man, and was widowed at the age of twelve. Forced to cook and clean for her in-laws, she endured eight-years of beatings before escaping and crossing oceans to flee India: And later, from Doolarie, a remarried widower whose new partner beat her with a hoe for talking to another man, scarring her for life. Sujaria, however, remains silent, but her absence is a defining presence in the narrative. She appears fleetingly as an apparition. Bahadur attempts to locate her with the summoning of rhetoric questioning, “Did she look back over her shoulder as she boarded the ship? Was there regret in her glance?” (47). Through Bahadur’s speculations and conjectures the reader is able to imagine Sujaria, shifting between the alternate scenarios, inhabiting the shared spaces and experiencing similar injustices of indentured life, though this is only speculation on the moments that make up Sujaria’s life. While her exploration fails to excavate her great-grandmother’s story, her journey and research finds the suspended voices of other coolie women, who like Sujuaria, left their villages and travelled the middle passage, to reinvention in a new world. This new narrative gleaned from research and the stories of other coolie women is restorative literary practise, re-addressing the histories of coolie women suspended and forgotten. The writing functions as a restorative and reformative agent for memory, preventing the history of coolies from vanishing with the past.
The book shifts the balance of power from official colonial archives, to the unauthorised versions of indenture told by the memory keepers whose stories descended generations. Bahadur articulates the relationship between stories and the unreliable nature of memory. “The will to remember the past is undermined by an equally formidable will to forget” (18), and the stories that did descend often reveal as much about how families choose to see their histories as they do about the actual histories” (48). What emerges from the narrative is an exploration of story and its power to shape identity. “Unravelled, they began, ever so slowly, to spin the threads of a novel identity” (62). The style of the narrative relies on metaphor and figurative elements of language to weave what rests on the bare skeleton of story. The Ramayan, an ancient Hindu epic with religious and allegorical meaning, coursed through the veins of displaced Hindus’ and was their “lifeblood”, says Bahadur. “The epic, like the diaspora that identifies with it, is preoccupied with women who break the codes of accepted sexual behaviour” (108). While the adoption and telling of The Ramayan forged a sense of belonging and provided a social life for the indentured, it may have influenced men in their actions of violence against Indian women, serving as a powerful reminder to women of consequent punishment for uncontrolled sexuality. The stories that Bahadur weaves into her narrative show the power of story and language to generate meaning and provide a sense of reality.
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture traces the history of Indian migration, down the Hooghly river, around the Cape, and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, trawling through the complex lives of a generation of Indian women who sought exile from their country and their men, and delving into the depths of Indian diaspora and the struggle for identity. Gaiutra Bahadur does not return with the story that belonged to her great-grandmother but she brings home the acknowledgement that identity is as much about lived experience as it is about self-creation and what one believes to be true. The narrative proffers that the self is forever adapting, that identity is not anchored to the past but is perpetually shifting in order to belong.
NICOLE THOMAS lives on the South Coast of NSW and holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts with Distinction from the University of Wollongong. She was awarded The UoW Centre for Canadian Australian Studies (CCAS) Award.
David Malouf was born in Brisbane in 1934. Since ‘Interiors’ in Four Poets 1962, he has published poetry, novels and short stories, essays, opera libretto and a play, and he is widely translated. His novels include Ransom, The Great World (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize and the Prix Femina Etranger), Remembering Babylon (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), An Imaginary Life, Conversations at Curlow Creek, Dream Stuff, Every Move You Make and his autobiographical classic 12 Edmondstone Street. His Collected Stories won the 2008 Australia-Asia Literary Award. His latest poetry collection is Earth Hour(UQP), while his compiled essays, A First Place are published by Knopf. He was awarded the Scottish Arts’ Council Muriel Spark International Fellowship and was the sixteenth Neustadt Laureate. He lives in Sydney.
Photograph: Conrad del Villar
One of those sovereign days that might seem never
intended for the dark: the sea’s breath deepens
from oyster-shell to inky, blue upon blue,
heaped water, crowded sky. This is the day,
we tell ourselves, that will not end, and stroll
enchanted through its moods as if we shared
its gift and were immortal, till something in us
snaps, a spring, a nerve. There is more to darkness
than nightfall. Caught reversed in a mirror’s lens,
we’re struck by the prospect of a counterworld
to so much stir, such colour; loved animal
forms, shy otherlings our bodies turn to
when we turn towards sleep; like us the backward
children of a green original anti
-Eden from which we’ve never been expelled.
Out of such and such and so much brick-a-brac.
Cut-glass atomises. An Evening in Paris
stain, circa ’53, on taffeta.
Four napkin-rings, initialled. Playing cards, one pack
with views of Venice, the other the Greek key pattern
that unlocked the attic door our house
in strict truth did not run to. A wrist
arched above early Chopin: bridge across water
to a lawn where finch and cricket take what’s given
as gospel, and even the domino I lost
in the long grass by the passion-vine
fits white-to-white, four voices in close canon.
Where in all this are the small, hot, free
-associating selves, a constellation
of shoes, sweat, teacups, charms, magnetic debris?
In the ghost of a fingerprint all
that touched us, all that we touched, still glowing actual.
It is on our hands, it is in our mouths at every breath, how not
remember? Called back
to nights when we were wildlife, before kindling
or kine, we sit behind moonlit
glass in our McMansions, cool
millions at rehearsal
here for our rendezvous each with his own
We are feral
at heart, unhouseled creatures. Mind
is the maker, mad for light, for enlightenment, this late admission
of darkness the cost, and the silence
on our tongue as we count the hour down – the coin we bring,
long hoarded just for this – the extended cry of our first coming
to this ambulant, airy Schatzkammer and midden, our green accommodating tomb.
Shy gifts that come to us from a world that may not
even know we’re here. Windfalls, scantlings.
Breaking a bough like breathy flute-notes, a row
of puffed white almond-blossom, the word in hiding
among newsprint that has other news to tell.
In a packed aisle at the supermarket, I catch
the eye of a wordless one-year-old, whale-blue,
unblinking. It looks right through me, recognising
what? Wisely mistrustful but unwisely
impulsive as we are, we take these givings
as ours and meant for us – why else so leap
to receive them? – and go home lighter
of step to the table set, the bed turned down, the book
laid open under the desk-lamp, pages astream
with light like angels’ wings, arched for take-off.
These poems appear in Earth Hour, first published in 2014 by University of Queensland Press, and reprinted here with permission.
The Making of Australian Consciousness
Looking down the long line of coast this morning, I see the first rays of the sun strike Mount Warning and am aware, as the light floods west, what a distance it is to the far side of our country ─ two time zones and more than 3000 kilometres away, yet how easily the whole landmass sits in my head. As an island or, as I sometimes think of it, a raft we have all scrambled aboard, a new float of lives in busy interaction: of assembly lines and highways, of ideals given body as executives and courts, of routine housekeeping arrangements and objects in passage from hand to hand. To comprehend the thing in all its action and variety and contradiction is a task for the imagination, yet this morning, as always, it is simply there, substantial and ordinary.
When Europeans first came to these shores one of the things they brought with them, as a kind of gift to the land itself, was something that could never previously have existed: a vision of the continent in its true form as an island, which was not just a way of seeing it, and seeing it whole, but of seeing how it fitted into the world, and this seems to have happened even before circumnavigation established that it actually was an island. No group of Aboriginal Australians, however ancient and deep their understanding of the land, can ever have seen the place in just this way.
It has made a difference. If Aborigines are a land-dreaming people, what we latecomers share is a sea-dreaming, to which the image of Australia as an island has from the beginning been central.
This is hardly surprising. Sydney, in its early days was first and foremost a seaport; all its dealings were with the sea. Our earliest productive industries were not wheat-growing or sheep-raising but whaling and sealing. It took us nearly thirty years to cross the first land barrier. Right up to the end of the nineteenth century our settlements were linked by coastal steamer, not by road or rail. In his sonnet ‘Australia’, Bernard O’Dowd speaks of Australia’s ‘virgin helpmate, Ocean’, as if the island continent were mystically married to its surrounding ocean as Venice was to the Adriatic.
As the off-shoot of a great naval power we felt at home with the sea. It was an element over which we had control; more, certainly, than we had at the beginning over the land. It was what we looked to for all our comings and goings, for all that was new ─ for news. And this sense of being at home with the sea made distances that might otherwise have been unimaginable seem shorter. It brought Britain and Europe closer than 10,000 miles on the globe might have suggested, and kept us tethered, for longer than we might otherwise have been, by sea-routes whose ports of call, in the days before air travel, constituted a litany of connection that every child of my generation knew by heart. Distance is not always a matter of miles. Measured in feelings it can redefine itself as closeness.
And this notion of an island continent, contained and containable, had other consequences.
Most nations establish themselves through a long series of border conflicts with neighbours. This is often the major thrust of their history. Think of the various wars between Germany and France, or Russia and Poland, or of British history before the Union of the Crowns.
Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them. In our case, history and geography coincided, and we soon hit upon the idea that the single continent must one day be a single nation. What this means is that all our wars of conquest, all our sources of conflict, have been internal.
Conquest of space to begin with, in a series of daring explorations of the land, which were also acts of possession different from the one that made it ours merely in law. This was possession in the form of knowledge; by naming and mapping, by taking its spaces into our heads, and at last into our imagination and consciousness.
Conquest of every form of internal division and difference: conquest of the original possessors, for example, in a war more extensive than we have wanted to recognise. Later, there was the attempted resolution, through an act of Federation, of the fraternal division between the states; and, longer lasting and less amenable of solution, of the conflict, once Federation had been achieved, between the states and the Federal Government. Also, more darkly, suppression, in acts of law-making and social pressure and through subtle forms of exclusion, of all those whom we have, at one time or another, declared to be outsiders among us, and in their various ways alien, even when they were Australians like the rest.
That early vision of wholeness produced a corresponding anxiety, the fear of fragmentation, and for too long the only answer we had to it was the imposition of a deadening conformity.
In time, the vision of the continent as a whole and unique in its separation from the rest of the world produced the idea that it should be kept separate, that only in isolation could its uniqueness ─and ours─ be preserved.
Many of the ideas that have shaped our life here, and many of the themes on which our history has been argued, settle around these notions of isolation and containment, of wholeness and the fear of fragmentation. But isolation can lead to stagnation as well as concentrated richness, and wholeness does not necessarily mean uniformity, though that is how we have generally taken it. Nor does diversity always lead to fragmentation.
As for the gift of those natural, indisputable borders, that too had a cost. It burdened us with the duty of defending them, and the fear, almost from the beginning, that they may not, in fact, be defendable.
Our first settlements outside Sydney, at Hobart in 1804 and Perth in the 1820’s, were made to forestall the possibility of French occupation (and it seems Napoleon did plan a diversionary invasion for 1804). Then, at the time of the Crimean War, it was the Russians we had to keep an eye on. The Russian fleet was just seven days sailing away at Vladivostok. And then, from the beginning of this century, the Japanese.
This fear of actual invaders, of being unable to defend our borders, led to a fear of other and less tangible forms of invasion. By people, ‘lesser breeds without the Law’, who might sully the purity of our stock. By alien forms of culture that might prejudice our attempt to be uniquely ourselves. By ideas, and all those other forms of influence, out there in the world beyond our coast, that might undermine our morals or in various other ways divide and unsettle us. All this has made little-islanders of us; has made us decide, from time to time, to close ourselves off from influence and change, and by settling in behind our ocean wall, freeze and stop what has been from the beginning, and continues to be, a unique and exciting experiment.
From The Boyer Lectures, 1998, first broadcast on ABC Radio, later published in A Spirit of Play, ABC Books, 1998 Published in A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014
This extract is published in the chapter, titled, ‘A Spirit of Play’ page 124-129 from the collection of essays, A First Place, by Knopf, Random House, 2014