By Fernanda Trías
Reviewed by NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO
Within the womb we are connected to our mothers by an umbilical cord. After birth, that cord is cut, but our psychological attachment remains no matter the complexities of our relationship. Under the metrics of neoliberalism, the inequalities of carbon trading and the forces of neocolonialism our connection to Mother Earth is obscured.
Peeling back the layers of motherhood and caregiving and mother earth-hood, right to the muscular tissue, multi award winning Uruguayan author Fernanda Trías’ latest sci-fi novel Pink Slime, translated from Spanish to English, by Heather Cleary is an agonisingly beautiful read.
Written in first person peripheral, but often slipping into future tense, a nameless narrator waits for her ambiguous end, in a nameless port, in a raceless society, in a timeless era, all alone. Through this unnerving and anonymous lens, the narrative unfolds amid a bloodcurdling toxic pink algae-born disease that brings forth lethal red winds, baptised, El Principe (The Prince). Next the fish die, followed by the birds disappearing. Then the haves flee Inland while the have-nots stay behind to fend for themselves.
If anyone becomes infected by this deadly eco-superbug phenomenon their “skin cracked open to the muscle” (p. 17). The city’s inhabitants are forced into lockdown with their cans of Meatrite, “twenty grams of protein per portion, served in a plastic cup” (p. 83). This food product goes into such high demand that its processing plants spit out pink slime, the origin of the title (p. 83). However, it’s the setting’s tone and mood, where this book stands out, well, that and, its striking poetic prose.
Although, Pink Slime is set in a sci-fi post-apocalyptic setting, it is not too far removed from reality, where the global south suffers from environmental pollution, lack of quality healthcare and economic inequality, trapping its disadvantaged citizens in crisis after crisis, directly and indirectly caused by the global north.
Within this grim and contagious environment, Trías examines human nature, relationships and isolation. The nameless narrator ignores her body’s demands, surpassing hunger and survives by keeping herself busy. She quits her copywriting job at a content agency and dissects her days and nights among visiting the last that remain close to her, risking the kiss of death from the not so charming El Principe.
She checks in on her bedridden childhood sweetheart and ex-husband Max, who’s been infected in a self-destructive moment and now a patient at Clinics, conveniently (and inconveniently) not too far from her rundown apartment. And lives with Mauro, a morbidly obese boy with a nameless disability that she’s paid to care for by his affluent and aloof parents, “to watch him get fat and eventually (when?) to watch him die, without feeling the pain a mother would” (p.95).
Oddly she drops in, uninvited, at her mother’s, whom she’s both estranged from, and geographically distant. Their relationship is uncomfortable, like sunburnt skin. Her mother lives Inland, up north of the (almost) nameless South American country near Brazil (p.54). I say almost because there are little clues, in particular for Latinx readers, like the insertion of the sweet, dulce de leche (p. 92), a word used in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and parts of Colombia and Venezuela. But the inclusion of the tart, pastafrola (p. 100), a dessert that Italian immigrants brought to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, refines the location of this book.
Cyanobacterial blooms in Uruguay’s Río de la Plata are a common occurrence. Now with climate change at our riverbanks, ever more so. And as I dive into each sensory image in Pink Slime, such as, “Unless you’ve lived it, you could never imagine the nauseating stench, the sudden heat, the river swelling like an octopus, foam tinted crimson by algae” (p.15), my mind travels back to Uruguay, January 2016, when I held a glass filled with tap water to the sunlight and found: tiny phlegm-like blue-green algae floating in my drink at my sweaty pale grip.
This memory triggered by the novel’s atmosphere, made me wonder where Trías got the grim, but brilliant idea for her Orwellian narrative. I close its pages for a moment and google the following:
“It began with a nightmare. Night after night, I would dream about pollution spreading in waves and ripping off my skin. I would look down and see my skin hanging off me in strips.” (Trías, F. 2023, Scribe Publications)
After reading the author’s note the novel’s non-linear structure makes even more sense to me, as the beginnings and endings, and the passing of time itself are questioned throughout the story’s arc. The beginning of this book is not the true beginning of this dystopian world. As the nameless narrator on the first page declares, “I was never any good with beginnings,” and it’s not until page 154 that she redeclares, “This is how our new official story begins.”
As well there’s the motif of inhabiting a timeless world, where Trías explores living in a place where clocks and calendars are a thing of the distant past.
Take the following:
“… time was measured by a different kind of clock: wind or fog, grey or red, power or blackout; it passed according to Mauro’s cycles of hunger, the preparation of meals, and my ability to keep my distance from Max. So when I talk about days, weeks, and hours, I do it as a way to organise my thoughts, to give meaning to the stagnant memory” (p.194).
The novel’s structure flows like an unnerving nightmare. As a reader I am thrown from one timeless moment to the next, and a lot of foretelling occurs as I land in different points in this non-time within the narrative, creating a cunning sense of dramatic tension like an anxiety blistering at the face of the environmental, the viral and the emotional.
“I was afraid the world would come crashing down around me if I stopped moving, and when I say the world what I mean is the past, because the fragile and wavering present I’d had until a few hours ago was coming to an end” (p.135).
I am hooked, even at the face of the utterly uninviting.
Additionally, the juxtaposition of the ecological catastrophe alongside the sluggishly painful ending of the nameless narrator’s complex relationships with her mother, ex and Mauro, generates a visceral sense of an outer and inner turmoil. This is further coupled with anonymity of self, place, and time evoking an ingenious metaphor for an emotional world in crisis, which again adds to the dramatic tension.
Hopelessness and meaninglessness are prominent themes in the plot. And the strong visual imagery that represents these ideas, in addition, become metaphors for the nameless narrator’s state of mind. Such as, when she wakes up exhausted next to Mauro, and continues doing her caregiving task mechanically and absentmindedly, and expresses how, “Sometimes I picture myself digging a long, deep tunnel to another land. But all my escape routes led me back to Max, like those circular highway exits that spit you back out right where you started” (p. 87).
A few pages later in the novel, in another timeless moment, the nameless narrator dials for a taxi out of the port and to the Inland, and is led to an automated message with three options to press. But unfortunately, like her internal predicament she, “circled around the maze of options leading nowhere for a while …” (p. 93).
Finally, I want to bring attention to Trías’ gorgeous poetic prose through her use of poignant similes, as they added an extra layer of skin to peel back and examine throughout the text. When describing her mother’s ironically named, country suburb of Los Pozos (The Pitts), at the non-beginning of the novel, when the nameless narrator goes to visit her, she compares it to, “It was as if the clouds formed there, exhaled by the earth itself, and you could feel the moisture on your face as slow and cold as a slug’s trail” (p. 8).
Immediately, I feel uncomfortable arriving at Los Pozos as I read this. Making me innately mimic the protagonist’s internal world in calamity via Trías’ clever use of one emotionally stirring comparison.
I adored Pink Slime by Fernanda Trías translated by Heather Cleary, its atmosphere, its poetry, its politics, its humanity peeled back to the muscular tissue like a lab rat under the knife of a scientist, and I would be more than happy to reread it in Spanish. Perhaps by revisiting it in my mother tongue, I too could circle back to a new beginning.
Mugre Rosa was released 5 October 2020, and its translation Pink Slime was released 1 August 2023. Follow the author on Instagram: @triasfernanda.
NATALIA FIGUEROA BAROSSO is a Uruguayan-Australian poet and storyteller of Charrúa, African and Iberian origins who lives on Dharug Country. Her work has appeared in the collections Sweatshop Women: Volume One, Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry, Any Saturday, 2021. Running Westward and Between Two Worlds and various literary magazines. Natalia’s currently working on her debut novel, Hailstones Fell without Rain (2025, UQP). She posts at @ms_figueroa_barroso
Ed. David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Awad
Reviewed by NICOLE SMITH
Within these pages is a cohort of activist consumers, neurodivergent creatives, psychiatric and trauma survivors, dreamers, community leaders and mind-bending writers.
I dive into Admissions: Voices Within Mental Health. A mosaic of 105 Australian voices follows, in the form of poetry, short fiction, rap lyrics, essays and illustrations. Well-known names Anna Spargo-Ryan, Krissy Kneen, Omar Sakr, Felicity Ward, and Grace Tame are anthologised with 30 emerging writers who were chosen through a 2021 MAD Poetry callout by Red Room Poetry. The foreword affirms:
Everything within these pages is someone’s truth.
The editors pledged to approach the works in Admissions with ‘radical empathy’ imploring readers to do the same, because we are all human, regardless of mental health challenges. As Luka Lesson reminds us:
There are 206 bones in our bodies
are just like yours.
The readers are reminded of this shared humanity so that they may come to the anthology without prejudice and join the writers and editors on a mission to rid the world of stigma around mental health.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is only cited twice, demonstrating that the anthology’s interest does not lie in pathology, but in the interpersonal experience of living with such challenges.
In the words of editors David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury and Mohammad Awad Admissions seeks to show how:
…art and language can expiate suffering. Art as release, art as relief, art as recovery, remission, remediation.
Such words are echoes lines by Quinn Eades that evoke the complicated relationship we have with writing, and explore writing as therapy:
we are mad to write and mad to not write we carry this book for so long that it is become
Artist and contributor, Amani Haydar’s cover image shows a woman with one eye closed, symbolising both a phobia of seeing ourselves, and a desire to be acknowledged by others.
The anthology is organised in reverse alphabetical order by surname, echoing Alice Blayney’s inclusion ‘The Z-A of Crazy’. Each piece questions and reframes stereotypes of mental illness, and associated trauma and recovery, using different tones and a vast vocabulary to regain power and convey identity.
The collection has narratives, in the first person such as Chowdhury’s ‘Motherlines’:
In our preliminary session, my first psych told me that I should think of treatment and recovery as a nonlinear path with an ever-shifting end point.;
the second person, such as Hefferan’s ‘from the book of puns and other altered sentences’:
it is twenty minutes since you took your meds Zyprexa, the communion wafer the blasphemous one instead of taking it on the tongue you take it under the roof of your mouth.;
and third person, such as Mununggurr’s ‘Point of No Return;
She closes her eyes
only starless skies, opens then
Still only darkness.
The collection explores a variety of environments and themes including the uncertainty of COVID-19, the emotional turmoil caused by intrusive thoughts, body image, growing up with a parent with mental illness, psychiatric hospital stays, face-blindness on a first date, swimming with dolphins as treatment for depression and smart ovens keeping the lonely company. This variety, while certainly part of the book’s charm, is one reason I would caution against reading Admissions in one sitting. The use of figurative language and symbolism means some lines delight in ways that can be easily missed. Here is an example from ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’:
I ran a bubble bath, it went flat
I had a falling out with myself, I’m not talking to myself anymore.
My favourite are the grounded memoir pieces, particularly those with a familial focus, for example: Kristen Dunphy struggling with a loss of control surrounding her wife’s illness and a feeling of helplessness when supporting their daughter:
When will Mummy stop being sad? She asks me. …The woman I married is no longer here. She is the ghost of her former self.
The genetic nature of mental health is referenced by Samson L. Soulsby :
Madness runs in the family like greyhounds.
Krissy Kneen continues the familial thread:
I am learning about time
who look nothing like my father
who remind me of his absence.
The familial theme takes a hauntingly beautiful turn with the inclusion of a piece by Annette and Stuart Baker reflecting on their deep sorrow on the loss of their daughter Mary. The reflection is placed directly after Mary ‘s poem ‘The Key’, in which she speaks of freedom and longing to break out of a cage like a bird:
So unravel this cocoon of your protection,
Untie this chain of your love
Open the door, release me.
Trust that I won’t fly away.
But if I do, Trust that it is for the best.
The inclusion of Mary Baker as well as Benjamin Frater, two artists whose mental health battles also ended in suicide is evidence that words live on and emphasises the strength of those fighting mental ill-health.
Parts of Admissions feel frenetic, especially those written in a loud collective voice (often written in capital letters) such as Steven Oliver’s CARRY ALL THE HURT AWAY.
The abstract nature of the poetry is admirable yet alienating. At times it feels the poetry is deliberately obscure, as I was left to infer meaning from syntax, structure and meter I’d never seen before. No doubt many of the poems are it is intelligent, and evocative, however the non-linearity meant I had to read the poems multiple times which prevented me from becoming fully immersed. One wonders I wondered if the chaotic and at times nonsensical elements are included to evoke the disconcerting nature of dissociation and ill-health ‘episodes’. For, as the anthology makes clear, although there can be a sense of pride for those with diverse brain chemistry, many wish to no longer be on the outskirts of their own lives.
Conversely, the pieces that read as inner monologues, for example, Olivia Hamilton’s ‘Time Lapse’, or have excerpts of academic text, for example, Martin Ingle’s exploration of OCD ‘A victim who feels like a villain’ are consumed with ease.
A word of caution: the book takes a candid approach to taboo topics such as sexual assault and rape that may prove confronting for some.
The contributions by First Nations writers Brooke Scobie and Kirli Saunders conjure the Australian landscape, flora and fauna, connecting it to vulnerability and emotions:
…measured by acacia blooming, echidna trains, winds that change, moon who wanes.
Throughout Admissions, the failing mental health system, and its need for more funding is variously hinted at and explicitly stated. At times, readers could be forgiven for thinking that works are set in prisons, rather than mental health facilities. For example, KJ writes:
Escorted to my room My packed-the day-before bag holds my hand
Inside the remnants of my sanity;
I was not there in my self while my body
lay on the bare mattress and screamed
for my return.
However, as Jeffs reminds us:
The madwoman in this poem
is any woman
is a mother, daughter, sister, lover, friend –
the madwoman in this poem –
Admissions reminds all of us that as beautiful, confronting, confusing, funning, disorienting, brave, sorrowful, infuriating or joyous the experience of mental illness can be, these writers are us. These stories are, or could be at any moment our stories, and it is in all our interests to pay attention to, and improve the narratives surrounding mental health in Australia.
NICOLE SMITH is a writer with Cerebral Palsy living and working on Wurundjeri land. She has a blog where she interviews social entrepreneurs. Last year she was a Storming the City mentor with the Writeability program and ran an ‘Effective Interviewing’ workshop.
by Brenda Saunders
Reviewed by BEN HESSION
Inland Sea is the third full collection by Brenda Saunders, a Wiradjuri writer, following a somewhat lengthy hiatus. Saunders’ last collection, The Sound of Red, was published back in 2014. Her debut volume, Looking for Bullin Bullin, had won the 2014 Scanlon Prize for Indigenous poetry. Like that collection, Inland Sea, provides a particular focus on Aboriginality, although doing so via the intimate connection with Country through which the impact of colonization is also examined. The title, itself, is an ironic play on that body of water which had eluded the expectations of the English explorer, Charles Sturt. We see in Inland Sea Saunders conducting her own explorations from an Aboriginal perspective and throughout the collection, her poems are infused with energy and precision, marking a welcome return.
Importantly, Saunders is not solely a writer, but is also a visual artist, with ekphrastic poetry being a significant feature of her work generally. The Sound of Red, for instance, had seen Saunders respond to paintings by Rothko, de Chirico and Goya among others. Ironically, with ‘Reinventing the landscape’ Country is viewed through the literal and figurative framing of a non Aboriginal painter, Fred Williams. Yet, as the concluding stanzas show, there is a kind of retrieval of an Aboriginal perspective through an intensely personal response to Williams’ portraits:
I move through rooms of golden summers, smell the sun
in scumbled oils. A patch of yellow becomes a sway
of native grasses. Across a field his stunted bushes
hold the horizon against the white heat of the sky.
If I could reach out. I would follow the fence line
finger my way through a patch of scrub. Rows of acacias
in scabby dots, the stumps of trees felled after a fire.
Feel charcoal under my nails, bush crackling as I pass.
(76-7 The Sound of Red)
Arguably, for Saunders, this is a continuation of her interpretation of five portraits of Aboriginal people by Russell Drysdale, another non-Indigenous painter, in Looking for Bullin Bullin, where also, there have been acts of retrieval, with the most overt being in ‘Mother and Child’
Subtle fingers control her son ready
to leave this three-minute sketch.
Her eyes look out to a distant time
when the tribe roamed freely
out of the white man’s gaze.
(69 Looking for Bullin Bullin)
And in ‘Sketch of a girl’, as well:
She looks up, her stance demure
Uncertain under the artist’s scrutiny.
His pen scratches bold lines,
captures her image as ‘exotic other’
framed to a white man’s needs.
(70 Looking for Bullin Bullin)
With Inland Sea, the poem ‘Figures in a Landscape’ has Saunders continue this practice of retrieval, as well as re-inscribing the Indigenous history of place as she responds to Charles
Conden’s painting, Sydney Harbour:
I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall
easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk
float as white sails on water. Ignore
the man waving from the house.
They wander, as dark clouds mass above
peer into rock pools, where we once
collected guatuma, a fishing site
of the Gadigal we still call Banarung. (67)
In ‘At the Falls’ I and II, she goes further, detailing the impact of settler presence on Country:
This is no place of wonderment or renewal.
There is no magic, no sprites to leap from
the bower. Darker forces half-revealed
hide behind the weight of water. Whispers
of ancient rites surface on shallow ponds.
Below the falls, stories of desecration
and death flow on through tribal memory. (71)
For the most part, however, in this present collection, Saunders has eschewed the white Australian filter in re-tracing identity. What comes first in the collection – and what puts these latter ekphrastic pieces into context – are the direct responses to Country that Saunders paints with vivid detail. As we see in ‘Spinifex rings’:
These creatures hide in rasping folds
of hummock grass, hunt with night vision
for invisible gnats breeding in shadow
caught off guard by a cloudy moon.
Corellas fly low over lignum bush, swing
and dip on a spinifex stalk. Sharp eyes
spy a beetle or moth in their path (10)
Here, a crisp lyricism of action highlights the vitality of Country, raising it from abstraction and affirming its essence. With the poem, ‘inland sea’ Saunders, again, focuses on a ‘micro cosmos/ teeming with life’:
flash a miniature flame
through tiny succulents
carnivores varied as coral
wave vivid flowers
to their water garden (12)
With short lines and sans punctuation, Saunders allows a greater sense of flux among the depicted activities. From this perspective, the inland sea reveals itself as something brimming with promise, rather than an appellation for disappointment. What this poem demonstrates also, as does ‘Spinifex rings’ and others in this collection, is a kind of Imagist restraint, with ‘presentation rather than representation’ (Jones 31) being at the fore. It is perhaps no surprise that we find in the second part of ‘bird brain’:
at his lover
in the cold glint
of mercury (48)
The direct treatment of phenomena allows the life within Country to appear as an innate language and voice within itself. Yet, Country is not solely a physical presence, as Saunders observes from the start in ‘Echidna Chasm’, it is necessarily born from the Dreaming:
She leads us through a narrow cleft
sheer walls scraped clean
with her spiny back a gorge red hot
bounces from white light to shadow
the sky a blue slit above
Rounded sockets mark her journey
the ball of a heel a trail left behind
as she rushes through mud shaping
Bungle Bungle Country (9)
The acknowledgement of the Dreaming offers a holistic understanding of place, where the land, and the world it supports, are viewed as a single entity. This is contrasted in the collection with the European empiricism and its consequent logic. In the poem ‘Dead Centre’ Saunders quotes Sturt’s observation that the ‘scrub without a break in its monotonous surface’ should be necessarily indicative of an interior coastal shore. Thereafter, she juxtaposes Aboriginal perspectives of Sturt’s expedition with those of his own. Finally, we see Sturt defeated, his thoughts pooling in an intermittent stream of consciousness:
a promised sea
shimmers the horizon
a wooden boat
drives every footstep
of the valiant (15)
Elsewhere, the settler colonial perspective that quantifies Country is also shown to commodify it. One of the central themes in Inland Sea is the conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conceptualisations of land – somewhere to find harmony within it versus exploiting its resources, especially for individual or corporate profit. In the poem,‘Inland Sea’, for example, farming competes with wildlife for water (13). In ‘Scarred Landscape’ ‘ Moving like ants, giant loaders dredge the inside out of the iron ore plain’ (16). Against this, we may compare ‘Black boys’, ‘Wild Honey Tour’ and ‘Mulga stories’. Here, in this latter poem, we can see:
He speaks fondly of this ancient tree
of many cycles yielding flowers
and seeds, a steady food always
ripe for picking. Shows us bark
easily shed for a woman’s carry-all
wood that burns brightest, cools
to a white ash, good for Ceremony (59)
The poem, ‘Red Centre’, notes with a laconic sense of humour the treatment of cultural connection as a spectacle:
Mpartntwe springs lie reflex blue in a rim of rock
From the camp nearby women shuffle red earth
Dance a mulga ant story. Amaze the drop-in tourists. (17)
The sad impact of this, however, runs deep, as does the consequent irony:
Some take souvenirs, send them back, complaining
of bad luck. The Mala woman’s grief weighs down stones
in their pockets. She sighs, finds her tchurunga stolen,
stored in a city museum, for safety and prosterity. (17)
The tension is more pronounced where, in ‘Cullen Bullen’, the violence inflicted on Country, is mirrored by that suffered by local Indigenous people:
This working mine has cut a swath for miles
worked underground ‘til the last seam is spent
Up close, I find a hill sliced in two, the cliff-face
left gaping red
Remember fragments passed down. Generations
of hillside burials, ground slaked
with the blood of Ancestors after ‘the Round Up’ (73)
The poem reflects on the attempted erasure of history and connection:
The web reports on wealthy Developers
building roads over hunting tracks
Woodland cleared to mine the black rock
in the name of progress
Has nothing to say on our history. First People
living, thriving here, who left without a trace
Driven off Country. Lost in plain sight. (74)
In Poor fella Country connection and erasure are particularly current concerns:
Scattered clans can no longer care for Country
Without Language, the Elders have no power
Over young ones living the white man’s dream
I see sorrow in our people sitting on Country
Wasted in spirit, they suffer, hold a sickness
inside, as mining grinds their stories away. (23)
In an article for the Writing NSW website, Saunders, herself, says she seems to have been writing for her community all her adult life. (Writing NSW) This may not have always been obvious in her previous collection, but it is certainly clear in Inland Sea, where it finds expression replete with skill and confidence. In the same article, she adds: ‘Our cultural history has survived dispossession: ties to Country continue to sustain Aboriginal people today and, as a poet, I feel impelled to write to this power.’ (Writing NSW)
The final poem of this collection, ‘Singing the land’, echoes this statement, where there connection remains, there is a vibrant continuity and an intrinsic sense of hope:
Along the quay painted Kooris
play the didge add clapsticks
chant to sell their CDs
Amplified the music thunders
under my feet
wakes the yidaki spirit first music
sings this ancient land. (81)
As we see here, the politics of identity is not without passion. This is true throughout Inland Sea. More than retrieval, perhaps, the collection is about reclaiming and a re-affirmation of Indigeneity. In this it may be viewed as a return to first principles, and articulating the voice of Country, which, despite the referendum result, as Saunders shows, will not be silenced.
Imagist Poetry, ed. Peter Jones, Penguin Classics, London, England, 2001
Saunders, Brenda. Looking for Bullin Bullin, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne Victoria Australia 2012.
Saunders, Brenda. The Sound of Red, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, 2013.
Saunders, Brenda. ‘Feature Articles/ Brenda Saunders on writing about, for and within communities’, Writing NSW, March 29, 2022, writingnsw.org.au/brenda-saunders-on-writing-about-for-and-within-communities.
BEN HESSION is a writer and critic based in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib, Live Encounters: Poetry and Writing and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.
Son of Sin
By Omar Sakr
Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA
On Laylat al-Qadr, Islam’s sacred Night of Power, the young protagonist of Omar Sakr’s debut novel, Son of Sin, dies. Jamal is dead, if death is to be filled with the absence of what life could have been. On the night angels descend to wipe clean the slate, Jamal finally gives himself to desire of another boy and so comes alive in the same moment he suffers a more ancient, eschatological demise. Sakr’s novel then obsesses over the subtle parallels – simultaneous yet unable to meet – between what one can be born into and born as: into a lineage of faith and adherence, as a bisexual male. One demands the refusal of the other, and here begins the stasis from which young Jamal is ruled.
A prominent Sydney-based poet, Sakr’s turn to fiction is similarly preoccupied with the themes of The Lost Arabs, his earlier collection. Jamal is queer, gauche, third-generation Turkish Lebanese and subject of the novel’s bildungsroman plot. Like his counterparts in poetry, Jamal is cornered by the intractable ties of family and a modern identity floundering on diaspora legacy. Unrest is commonplace, thickening ‘the air, a vestige of the wars that flung his people here’ (p193). Yet life in Australia is preferred to Turkey and Lebanon, and such tension is ‘the smallest price to pay’ for it (p93). So, Jamal becomes the reprobate to this history’s largesse, the unbeaten track keeping in line of sight the path clearly set out by the labours and pains of his forbears.
The novel is demarcated into two passages of Jamal’s life. First, with his family during Ramadan as his schooling comes to an end, and, afterwards, temporarily relocating to Turkey to live with his estranged father. Jamal is a zombie throughout, fixated on desire yet pulled through events as though unable to oppose them, though agency were something not yet bestowed upon him within the echelons of family. The twain embodiments of Jamal’s sexuality and faith – obligations he vacillates between – accumulate victories against the other and in doing so gradually wear down Jamal’s resolve, a sort of death spiral that none around Jamal can name. Sakr offers the trials of a queer Muslim teenager as introspection on the mechanisms that drive these adjectives and challenge their absolutes.
To love a man as a man is the ultimate sin, and no shortage of his community fail to remind Jamal of this. His body tied to his sin, Sakr imbues Jamal with the ability of flight, often described as vacating the space he is in: Jamal disappears beside his mother as she smokes (p43); absents his body as he becomes a spirit up alongside the bats in the trees (p53); inhabits the feeling ‘inside (of) Ali’s heart,’ before ‘falling out of Jihad’s eyes,’ as his cousin’s battle (p62). By quitting the present so frequently, Jamal remains without voice to challenge while proving unable to detach from his community. Earlier in the novel, Jamal laments that ‘[t]here was no proof you could trust, except the word – that was the measure of faith, and perhaps why they kept failing’ (p26). There is no word to absolve Jamal. Community sustains the sublunary quagmire that jars Jamal’s psyche, burying him.
Sakr advances the plot chronologically but refuses to let Jamal dwell in the present. Jamal’s imaginative and histrionic nature, his circumstance, his criticism: all form a dragnet that preoccupies him. He yearns to be good but cannot wholly convince himself of what this means or looks like. Frequently, an instance of the present has its roots located far deeper within Jamal’s psyche: police violence harks back to Jamal’s first trip in a paddy wagon (p63); waving to the neighbours dredges up the confusion of Christian youth group attendance in boyhood (p78). Sakr insists we return to the origins of tragedy and tenderness as they continue to reappear. This is the world of which Jamal is convinced: everything comes from everything before it, blossoming, smothering, trampling.
Sakr’s prose is certainly fluent enough to accommodate this movement in time, however in pursuit of instantaneous depth Sakr can err toward an overreliance on this tool. Jamal routinely obsesses over what might have been and the ‘moment of possibility’ lost to him forever (p46), and such relentless undulations across time can begin to lose their punch. Take the example in which Jamal parses the wrong look that ignited the Cronulla Riots as comparable to the private instance of an irate cousin’s glare (p94). Electing to process such largescale violence through the prism of ones limited lived experience is consistent with Jamal’s impression of his centrality to misfortune, yet even by this relatively early stage of the novel such propinquity to this violence can seem somewhat shoehorned, while the motives of the riots require little interpretation.
Set circa 2005 and beyond, Jamal endures violence-induced lockdowns in Sydney’s west, the 2017 plebiscite and its bigots, toxic masculinity, Trump’s Muslim ban – all beside life’s more penetrating tragedies, the loss of loved ones, abandonment, sexual assault. Sakr constructs a teenager who is dramatic and colourful but withdrawn, so couples some of the darker moments of recent history with a difficult and burdensome teenage coming of age and coming out. Jamal does not have the fortune of subtlety in either of these quests, and Sakr doesn’t pretend he does.
In lesser hands, Jamal’s pessimism, buttressed by deleterious events, could threaten to overcook the significance of a life Sakr wants us to value. Yet while these events pile up, what rubbishes any threat of monotonality is the vitality of Sakr’s prose. In juxtaposition to Jamal, who has no ease within his language, Sakr shows how effortlessly he is able to move through it. Applying the poets whet for register, Sakr can make delicate the injustice of attacking, swarming police like water to sand (p61), and then describe someone as, simply, ‘fucking funny’ (p69); replacing page breaks with ampersands furthers the notion that this narrative is happening, and happening, both breaking the idea of chronological time and stuffing it; engaging motifs of bats, snakes, and ropes; the application of green and blue adjectives as markers of masculinity and caution – Sakr’s bag of tricks is precise and calculated, rendering the lines of Son of Sin with precision and care, leavening ruin with beauty, horror with lyric.
And yet, while queer stories like Jamal’s can often carve out a small space in which the subject achieves dignity and the welcome of complacency, make no mistake that Sakr is tempted here. Despite Jamal’s learning he has always been visible, and always held space, Sakr refuses to indulge this position as a resolution. Setting the narrative before significant social events of the recent twenty-first century seeks to remind the secular world that despite what progress may have been made, Abrahamic faiths remain bound to the word. For subsequent generations, diaspora presents an incongruity between old world virtues and contemporary practice. Jamal grapples with a family life that has ‘unconsciously replicated a way of being that no longer exist(s)’ (pg179), and always will, and so Jamal will continue to live a life on the edge, along the contiguous lines of faith: in what he is, and what he believes.
Following a skirmish between the police and his family, Jamal overhears his cousin, Fatima, recounting the story to friends. What starts as ‘tremulous’ and exciting eventually, by way of repetition, settles. Our stories can be sharp with life, says Sakr, though ‘each telling dull(s) the edge’ (p64). Jamal’s story is not unique of its time, yet its experience in Sakr’s hands is acerbic and candid and dedicated, like the first telling of a story. Rather than dulling, Son of Sin further prepares Australian literature for the normalising of queer religious lives within it, colouring a quietly suffering concentration of its populace, and suggesting there is a space to be held, if we allow there be.
JOSHUA KLARICA is a writer who lives and works on Gadigal and Wangal land. He recently finished up his Honours year studying English Literature at The University of Sydney, and has written previously for Griffith Review, Overland, and Aniko Press. He is studying postgraduate English Literature at The University of Cambridge
by Sanya Rushdi
translated by Arunava Sinha
Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE
Hospital was released in May this year and has been very favourably reviewed. Reviewers
have commended it as a remarkable study of self and of ‘mind outside of its mind’ (Eda
Gunaydin). Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll sum up the novel astutely when they recommend that it should be read by psychiatrists, ‘because it gives a sharp and humane perspective on the narrowness of medical approaches to mental health, queries whose interests are being served, and explores with subtlety how social and cultural considerations can influence the experience of mental illness, and come into conflict with assumptions underlying treatment, further marginalising already vulnerable patients’. Rushdi’s novel has also been praised as ‘unadorned, powerful, and raises big questions about society, the self and what passes as sanity’ (Chris Fleming). The insightful comments above set up high expectations that the book lives up to.
Sanya Rushdi’s Hospital plunges us deep inside the distressing world of the mentally ill.
The cover image of the book shows a crowd of people with undifferentiated, tense faces
descending the stairs of a building uneasily reminding one of images of herds of animals
readied to be shipped to their slaughter destinations. This analogy may seem brutal, but the
dire situation of the mentally ill is strongly established at the outset. Rushdi’s debut novella written originally in Bengali in 2019 and translated very competently by Arunava Sinha was published earlier this year by Giramondo. This work of autofiction explores the inner world of a devout Bengali Muslim woman in her thirties who is struggling to process her experiences of psychosis and her treatment for it in a Melbourne hospital. A clear narrative arc is established in the novel and the plot is neatly arranged so that the story captures the instances of hallucinations leading to a couple of psychotic episodes to a finale, perhaps a recovery.
The characters are not complexly presented. Perhaps, an intentional authorial choice to stay
focused on the theme. The protagonist/writer, Sanya, finds solace in the holy Quran, wears a
veil and feels strongly about living in accordance with Islamic faith, for example, she plans to
refuse taking interest from her bank in deference to Islamic principles. Her family seems to
be nurturing and affectionate. Her mother cooks her favourite meals, her father reads verses
of the Quran with her even if it is the middle of the night and her sister encourages her to use
art as a creative outlet to process her intense reflections on the world and herself. Strewn
through the novel are endearments in Bengali such as Sanya’s parents calling her, ‘baba’
(father) or ‘ma’ (mother). In Bengali, these endearments are markers of a tender, caring bond.
There seems to be no evidence of ruptures in family connections that could be a cause of a
break down, but that is what happens in the story.
After the instances of hallucinations, the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team recommend
that Sanya spend some time at a community house. The community house is an enormous
building where Sanya ends up feeling overwhelmingly alienated and excluded. The mechanisms of exclusion are subtle. An instance of this is when the residents, who prepare the meals preparation for the group, add ham to a dinner of chicken parmigiana so that as a Muslim, Sanya would not be able to partake of the meal. Her stint at the community house, despite minimally imposed restrictions, turns out to be unpleasant. Her condition deteriorates further so that she is coercively taken to a hospital in Melbourne as a critical case. It is in this stultifying space that most of the story unfolds.
A beautiful metaphor embodies Sanya’s state of mind in the hospital:
I could see three trees as long as there was daylight, the leaves they had shed were gathering in ones and twos at their feet. Falling off the branches to which they had clung lovingly, they added to the pile of leaves like children gathering at an orphanage. Then a gust of wind scattered them; whatever refuge they had from one another was lost. Now all they had was themselves, along with the wind and its whims. Where will this take me, this wind, this system? (p. 49)
The extract captures the momentary solidarity with the other patients/fellow sufferers of
various mental health conditions. But the incompatibility and agony of an individual trapped
in an incomprehensible system becomes an all-consuming fear for Sanya. Sanya protests against the doctor’s mantra of, “Lithium, lithium, lithium” (p. 71), and suggests counselling as a more effective approach for her psychosis to cope with fear and unbearable sadness. The hospital professes all the right things by announcing its mission:
‘Working collaboratively to provide individualised care that promotes wellness and
recovery’. However, in actual practice, patients’ voices are drowned in assertions made by the doctors that, “In the case of science, though, evidence-based research is the new trend” (p.108).
Sanya is baffled by the duplicity and feels trapped in the system.
‘Language alone can unsnarl it (the mind), medicine cannot’ (p.107) is Sanya’s strongly held
belief despite being aware of the complexities of language. Four languages jostle in her:
Bengali (her first language), Arabic (the language of Quran) Urdu/Hindi (language of the
ghazals/bhajans that eulogise unrequited love) and English a language in which she grapples
with Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. She tries to make sense of the theory and practice of
language. One of the perceptive remarks that she makes on language reflects her doubts about
its capacity to ‘unsnarl’ the mind: ‘One might assume that everything will become easier if
you and the members of this ‘different’ society use the same language. But this is not always
true. Those who speak the same language often introduce complexities and nuances into their
discussions by the very virtue of using the same language, which speakers of the different
languages cannot’ (p. 88). Barriers to inclusion are set by different registers and discourses
that are impenetrable to the those who do not have the linguistic capital in the dominant
Ultimately, Sanya resigns herself to the rituals of medication, listening to the sounds of the
food trolleys trundling down the corridors, prayers and brief periods of relief offered by the
camaraderie of other patients in the smoker’s zone. However, she is unsure of how reliable
these experiences are as one of the patients says to her, ‘…we are in an artificial environment,
it’s difficult to judge what’s true and what’s false, what is right and what is wrong…’ (p. 73).
She realises eventually that the only way she can win small freedoms and eventually get a
discharge is through compliance. It is by surrendering to the system, the regime of
medications, that she is finally released.
Hospital has the look and feel of an autoethnographic study. It reads like a collection of qualitative data, that needs to be sifted through to make sense of a research question. Snatches of conversations are inserted in the form of texts seemingly extracted out of an interview/journal entry in the form of quotations often followed by a deconstruction of the exchange, but this is not always the case. For most part, dialogue/conversations are reported within quotation marks in the novel. However, sometimes exchanges are inserted into the narrative as if from a script of a play. It is hard to tell what the writer aims to achieve with this intriguing technique. On one hand, this element, along with a conspicuously pared down language signals an cautious exploration of a research topic in a mental hospital setting. On the other hand, it seems as if Rushdi highlights the exchanges as a performance of sorts that deserves scrutiny beyond the realms of research findings to interrogate the universal struggle of mental health patients against inflexible, medical systems.
‘The translated text must allow itself to be read in all the different ways that the original can, and since the translator can never know what all these ways might be, the only choice is to adhere to the text and the text alone’, responds Arunava Sinha to a question on the responsibility of a translator. It seems that the ambivalences and the tone of the authorial voice has been rendered intact in this book. It is great to read such an extraordinarily moving novel published in translation by an Australian publisher.
Notes and References:
Chris Fleming, review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
Eda Gunaydin. review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
Rushdi, Sanya, and Arunava Sinha. “5 Questions with Sanya Rushdi and Arunava Sinha.”
LIMINAL Magazine, 27 June 2023. Sourced at: https://www.liminalmag.com/5-
Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll June 30, 2023. The review of Hospital is part of a
few other books with the title, ‘Everything’s fine’: Can two political rivals fall in love?
MEETA CHATERJEE is a retired academic from the University of Wollongong. She is an
independent scholar, writer, and poet and is the co-editor of Of Indian Origin: Writings from
Australia. She lives in Canberra. Her area of interest is diasporic writing.
By Ayesha Inoon
Reviewed by MISBAH WOLF
In the act of reading, an ostensibly solitary and intimate experience unfolds as a journey not just within the pages of one book but as an exploration of the myriad conversations that books engage in with each other. Books, whether intentionally or not, are in perpetual dialogue. This review of Untethered, penned by Sri-Lankan writer Ayesha Inoon, is composed in reflection of this notion, emphasizing how literature shapes, challenges, and informs our understanding of the world.
At the time of beginning to read Untethered, I was coincidentally reading the 1970s feminist science fiction novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and I began to see a conversation occurring between them. By juxtaposing Untethered with The Dispossessed, we unearth a rich tapestry of themes, exploring how contemporary post-colonial fiction intersects with feminist science fiction from the 1970s.
Untethered and The Dispossessed may initially seem worlds apart in genre and narrative, but they share a profound kinship in their exploration of clashing ideologies and the quest for knowledge unburdened by constraints. Le Guin’s work portrays two contrasting planets, one driven by anarchic feminist ideals and the other by patriarchal capitalism. This cosmic juxtaposition finds an unexpected resonance in Untethered, where Zia, a Muslim Sri Lankan woman, confronts the realities of religious and cultural clashes after she emigrates to Australia with her family. She moves from one set of intricate ideologies that value obedience, faith, inter-family loyalty and connection, caste and wealth systems to a world that values independence, the nuclear family, wealth, and white privilege—cross-overs from one planet—I mean one country—are inevitable.
As a reader with a culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) Muslim background and a personal history of defiance against authoritarian religious figures, I find myself simultaneously sympathizing with and feeling at odds with Zia’s character. I share a profound impatience for Zia’s liberation from the patriarchal confines of her religio-cultural background. I also see the wealth entitlement she inhabits in Sri Lanka, which is mostly taken for granted until she gets to Australia. I know deep in my heart that Zia and I could not be friends; I would seem like a working-class betrayer of faith. My impatience extends to Zia’s tolerance of her husband’s violence, which is juxtaposed with her husband Rashid’s own experience of oppression in a racist Australian culture that fails to recognize his qualifications. Rashid reminds me of my own father, who, despite holding a Masters in Business and Teaching, struggled to find work and was subsequently attacked in a factory, resulting in the loss of an eye. This occurred in the 1980s, almost 34 years before Rashid’s experience of discrimination. The ties that bind me to this story cross over from fiction to fact.
Zia’s journey in Untethered unfolds as a classic Hero’s journey, with Zia assuming the role of the Fool in the Tarot Deck. She ventures into an unfamiliar land, seeking to shed the safe yet restrictive bonds of her family in pursuit of a better life in Australia. This experience mirrors the Stranger’s journey in The Dispossessed, where one risks everything to impart knowledge to an ostensibly advanced society, only to uncover latent forms of oppression within this new planet of opportunity. Zia, having the new vast spaces of Canberra to explore is limited to catching erratic public transport until she gets her driver’s licence. For a large part of the novel, she is still trapped within the house, scrounging away with food to make meals that will bring comfort for her isolated husband, who is also undergoing his own forms of oppression.
Although Zia eventually finds support that encourages her independence, her husband also grapples with systemic oppression that favors highly qualified white individuals over equally qualified immigrants of color. Can you imagine if Rashid, Zia’s husband, was called Ray and hailed from England, Sweden, or New Zealand? Ray would likely transition seamlessly into a job commensurate with his skills and education. This aspect of the novel compels readers to confront the uncomfortable reality of racial discrimination in Australia, what ‘passing’ as Aussie looks and sounds like, and how tokenistic acts of ‘discrimination awareness’ are just that, when this society still continually validates and supports rich white privilege.
The novel introduces a cast of characters, such as the driving instructor and the independent single-mum friend Jenny, who serve as archetypes along Zia’s heroic journey. These characters, though seemingly alien to her, embody facets of her own identity and aspirations. One represents independence and love, while the single mother symbolizes the freedom to prioritize oneself over marriage. This intricate character development enriches Zia’s narrative.
Furthermore, Zia’s character exhibits resonances with Jane Austen’s heroines, particularly evident in her admiration for Austen’s works. Austen’s novels consistently challenge societal expectations of marriage and advocate for female agency and independence. Zia’s reverence for Austen adds layers to her character, highlighting her desire for autonomy.
Zia’s early life in Colombo, marked by a clash between her literary passion and her parents’ traditional expectations of marriage, underscores the tension between individual aspirations and societal norms. Despite her inner disappointment, Zia complies with her family’s wishes, participating in traditional wedding preparations and embracing her role as a devoted wife. This conflict between personal desire and familial obligation serves as a central theme in the novel.
The novel navigates the complexities of familial relationships and societal expectations, highlighting the interdependence within Zia’s family as the bedrock of stability and identity. Yet, this interdependence also reinforces traditional gender roles, emphasizing the importance of procreation and adherence to religious and cultural norms. Amid these familial dynamics, the novel weaves a backdrop of political instability and religious conflict targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka. This context intensifies the family’s need to preserve their religio-cultural identity while living as a minority within Sri Lankan culture. It also fuels their fear of being targeted as Muslims. This motif drives Zia, her husband, and daughter to seek a new life abroad.
The extended family dynamic further illuminates the theme of otherness, as Zia’s mother-in-law quickly admonishes the darkness of Zia’s skin. Unfortunately, Zia was not “blessed” with her mother’s lighter complexion, instead inheriting her father’s darker skin tone. This difference serves as a poignant reminder of the deeper seeds of racism and the enduring caste system that associates lighter skin with higher status in many countries other than ‘European’. This insidious system, as I emphasize, persists across oceans.
In summary, Untethered is a masterfully crafted novel that deftly interweaves themes of cultural identity, feminism, discrimination, and the pursuit of independence. Through the lens of Zia’s journey, readers are confronted with the complexities of societal expectations, the strength of family bonds, and the enduring impact of discrimination. My personal connection to the narrative underscores the novel’s ability to evoke empathy and challenge readers’ assumptions, making it a poignant addition to contemporary post-colonial CALD Australian literature. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with the echoes of her own voice, woven into the fabric of her family’s story.
The novel compels readers to reflect on their own experiences and the stories that shape them, ultimately urging us to confront uncomfortable truths about discrimination and otherness within this great unceded First nations land. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with her coming home to her love of story-telling.
So, how much further can Zia rebel? What would be the last great act of emancipation from all-consuming ideologies of patriarchal power and belief? I’ll leave that decision up to Zia to make, and if she wants to have a conversation about the kind of faiths we might need to hold onto, and the ones that if we let go of, may mean re-writing entire narratives of belief, then I’d love to have one with her.
MISBAH WOLF, a multi-dimensional artist holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of QLD and post-graduate qualifications in Research Methods, resides on Wurundjeri land.She has served as a poetry reviewer for Hecate Women’s Journal and was a guest editor for Mascara Literary Review in 2014. Wolf is the author of Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press 2018) and Carapace (Vagabond Press 2022), has been active in poetry for over 15 years, participating in festivals like Queensland Poetry Festival and the Sydney Writers Festival. She also contributed to the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 as a costume and art developer for theater. Wolf was awarded a Creative Victoria Grant in 2022. She performed her work, including a feature at La Mama Poetica and the Emerging Writers Festival and participated in a radio podcast in 2023. Explore her journey at www.misbahwolf.com, where she continues to engage in various artistic projects.
The Archipelago of Us
by Renee Pettitt-Schipp
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Renee-Pettitt Schipp first journeys to Christmas Island in early 2011, arriving in the immediate aftermath of a boat tragedy which has claimed the lives of some fifty asylum seekers. Some of the victims, she assumes, would have become her students. What strikes her, foremost, is the silence surrounding the incident. Nobody ever informs her which of her new students have lost family members in the accident; at the memorial service, no asylum seekers are even present – they’ve been ‘carefully edited out of official versions of their own story’ (158). Nor is she permitted to talk about her teaching experiences: ‘my class full of children bursting with life was not to be spoken of, never to be named’ (130). By the time Pettitt-Schipp returns to the island, in 2016, the island’s detention centre facilities have either been drastically scaled down, or vanished without trace. This pattern of concealment, of strange suppression and disappearance is, of course, in keeping with Australia’s maritime border policies, and the excision of Indian Ocean Territories from Australia’s migration zone and from our sovereign obligations. It is this silencing which Pettitt-Schipp wishes to redress; she wants to ‘resist the forces of forgetting’ (76).
The Archipelago of Us is mostly framed as a present-tense narrative, unfolding over the ten days of Pettitt-Schipp’s return trip to Christmas Island (and then Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where she subsequently worked). But the past intrudes into her present: in the opening chapters, she repeatedly alludes to what she has ‘witnessed’ on the island, which was the reason for her departure, and which troubles her deeply, still. This creates a real curiosity, on the reader’s part, to know what, exactly, she has borne witness to. But before sating this curiosity, Pettitt-Schipp provides extended (at times over-written) descriptions of place – of birdlife and sealife and graveyards; factual information about the British Phosphate Commission and the island’s local residents; and details of her own present-day health scare. This stalling of the narrative might be attributed to the author’s understandable resistance to revisiting certain memories, stirred up by being in situ. As a readerly experience though, this with-holding is somewhat frustrating.
Once interviews with various island residents are underway, the book finds its rhythm. Christmas Island is typically viewed in terms of its remoteness from the mainland; the book’s own blurb describes it as ‘out of sight and out of mind’. But it is also its own place, and so it’s refreshing that Pettitt-Schipp centres the voices of locals, for whom the island is home. Several of her interviewees describe the island’s appeal in similar terms: it’s a place where life is pared back; ‘raw and elemental… there’s not a buffer here… It is not very often that you are really up against things in such an immediate way on the mainland’ (147). As a narrator, and as an interviewer, Pettitt-Schipp is sensitive, always ready to reconsider her own beliefs and preconceptions. Zainal Majad (President of the local Islamic Council and mine-worker), for example, sees value in the island’s white, Chinese, and Malay populations being distinct, and maintaining their cultural integrity; Pettitt-Schipp admits her surprise, for she had assumed integration was the ideal. For Zainal, mining on the island is a source of employment and of future prosperity, giving the island ‘vitality and holding the community together’ (118), whereas Pettitt-Schipp had only ever equated the industry with devastation of the local ecosystem.
And while in the (mainland) Australian imagination island territories like Christmas Island are typically viewed through the lens of ‘border protection’, we’re reminded of the island’s broader history and cultural makeup. Peter Wei Cheon Ch’ng, for example, recalls the hostility he faced as a Chinese person growing up here in the 70s: for a period, ‘Asians’ were not allowed to swim in the ‘white’ swimming pool; white people could call the police if an ‘Asian’ so much as walked through Settlement. Pettitt-Schipp’s return visit coincides with the Festival of the Hungry Ghost. The tables of food, a man tells her, ‘are for the people who were buried but do not have a grave’ (139): at one level, this description might be read as a subtle honouring of those who’ve lost their lives at sea, but at another, it provides a window onto the local Chinese community, and their Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Pettitt-Schipp’s vignettes of the natural world serve a literary function in providing a helpful reprieve for the reader from some of the book’s heavier contents, but they are also quite simply a reminder of the island’s rich biodiversity. She describes the lichen and mosses, mineral formations, mist, and the ‘glinting cerulean plain’ (88) of the ocean. Hughs Dale is ‘a place of beauty expressed in the extreme’ (86), and the Blowholes have a ‘striking, mythical feel’ (102). The book’s twinning of present and past timelines complicates the island’s depiction; though its darkness haunts the author, she concludes that ‘perhaps this place has reclaimed a measure of what seems like a former innocence, a side of this island I was previously unable to see’ (143).
When it comes to detention-related material – which is likely what will draw readers to this story – the memoir contains one particularly powerful interview with “Tom”, who gives a first-hand account of watching the Janga boat tragedy unfold. Here, and elsewhere in the book, Pettitt-Schipp retreats, resisting the urge to provide too much commentary or response; ‘I don’t move, don’t make a sound, just try to hold, to contain the weight of what he has just told me’ (79). She also summons memories of some of the children in her charge, skilfully conveying the intimacy of the classroom, all the more precious for being situated in an otherwise hostile environment. When, newly returned, she has to drive past the turn-off to the North-West Point Detention Centre, ‘even the thought fills me with rage, and I thump the steering wheel, feel my shoulders tense’ (83). In fact, recollections of her time inside the centres are scant. The scenes she includes instead focus on the instances when she was able to organise for two asylum seekers, Massom and Ehsan, to leave the centre for a few hours. In one poignant scene, Massom hand-feeds pieces of coconut-meat to a crab; in another, they happen upon a girl in a bikini standing under a waterfall. Each time she takes Massom out, Pettitt-Schipp tells us:
He stood taller, his eyes became animated, responding more and more to the world around him. I was heartened. It was breathtaking to watch, a confronting power to own. For just a moment, I was able to gift another human being their freedom… I had never seen Massom look so alive and was moved that something so simple could bring so much pleasure to another human being (97).
It’s an interesting artistic decision, on the author’s part, to depict asylum seekers outside the centre in this way, given this was such an extremely rare occurrence and one that the overwhelming majority of detainees were denied. Was she unwilling to revisit distressing memories of detention head-on? Or did she decide not to add to the stock of narratives, reports, and inquiries published, which all already testify to the damage that prolonged detention can wreak? Is it, after all, more humanising to depict incarcerated people momentarily unburdened? Whatever the reasoning, her decision means the usual tropes of books set in detention (guards, razor wire, security cameras) are mostly avoided, and the reader is entrusted with more imaginative work.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands is a ‘similarly excised world’ (200) to Christmas Island. When Pettitt-Schipp first moves there in 2012, the arrival of asylum seekers is virtually unheard of. The tone of the island changes, though, once boats do begin to arrive: the locals have seen what played out on Christmas Island, and the price that small community paid when swamped by transient workers. What impels the author to return to Cocos, on her 2016 trip, is not what she witnessed in the two ‘largely peaceful’ (191) years she spent teaching there, but rather a ‘vague need to address what I had experienced as an unsettling silence, in part when inquiring about the atoll’s history’ (191). Her focus in this latter section of the book is on the Clunies-Ross family, who were the original settlers of the island, and who have a reputation as caring colonalists. Elder Nek Su tells Pettitt-Schipp a starkly different story though: the family with-held education from the Coco Malay people, severely limiting their freedom of movement and communication.
Throughout her memoir, Pettitt-Schipp is overwhelmed by her own ‘powerlessness’ (121) and ‘impotence’ (123) in the face of such ‘pointless suffering’ (125), and she concludes that ‘even in their diversity, these stories point to the common conclusion that our present hostilities at the border are not an aberration… ‘Fair Go’ Australia is a myth’ (289). Despite this, The Archipelago of Us remains a quietly optimistic book, for in the individuals she interviews, Pettitt-Schipp finds immense generosity, courage, and open-ness. In her doctoral thesis (out of which this book grew) Pettitt-Schipp refers to the field of ‘tidalectics’, an approach which challenges traditional binaries such as land and sea; self and other. The Archipelago of Us encapsulates this approach in its shifts between the natural and the historical; its organic interview style; and its blurring of the author’s past and present worlds, such that nothing and no-one is ever fenced in, and all is fluid.
ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, The Pulling, is forthcoming with Scribe in early 2024.
Coming out as Dalit
by Yashica Dutt
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Yashica Dutt’s memoir about coming out as Dalit, written in the tone of a manifesto, ought to be seen against the backdrop of a burgeoning literary scene by lower-caste women authors hailing from the Indian subcontinent or the diaspora, including recent publications such as Kalyani Thakur Charal’s poetry collection I belong to Nowhere: Poems of Hope and Resistance, or Anjali Kajal’s short story collection Ma is Scared and Other Stories. Although Dutt’s text is non-fictional (part autobiographical, part sociological), its aesthetic quality shares with these publications a language and style whereby the personal is political and ‘herstory’ part of larger allegories of collective struggle, suffering and resilience, but also self-assertion, autonomy, and success. As Dutt reminds, Dalit authors are often taxed with “lacking aesthetic sophistication [though] many took inspiration from the works of African American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and wrote rich, deeply painful stories” (123). Dutt also stresses Dalit activists’ debt to the politics of black liberation, from the Black Panthers Party to the Black Lives Matters movement, to bell hook’s pamphlet-like seminal text Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.
Dutt displays an acute awareness of the intersectionality of identity formation, as well as a cross-cultural sensitivity towards the intricacies of expressing and representing what being Dalit means. Her opening statement, “I hope to speak for those whose voices haven’t been heard before” (x), is to be nuanced in light of queries coming forth later on, as to the epistemic violence involved when speaking of/about an oppressed group while claiming to reach out to this group from a (relatively) privileged position, as does Dutt. These are issues Gayatri Spivak, who made Columbia University her new home after migrating from India like Dutt, has written about extensively. Dutt does not shy away from tackling these issues head-on, and her memoir regularly morphs into a valuable social commentary on race, caste, gender, class, and to a lesser extent sexuality (the phrase ‘coming out’ is a vivid evocation of the queer community from which it was borrowed).
Being lower-caste, or Dalit, in effect cuts across very different realities and experiences (in classical Sanskrit, ‘dalita’ stands for ‘divided, split, broken, scattered’). Dutt’s memoir is both a celebration of, and a coming to terms with, the sheer diversity of Dalit lives and trajectories. Her own family is a good illustration of what French philosopher Michel Foucault dubs heterotopia (From Ancient Greek, ‘different place’). Dutt’s family history comprises ‘untouchable’ sweepers and toilet cleaners, also known as manual ‘scavengers’ (her grandmother) but also small (her father) and bigger (her grandfather) functionaries, while she herself managed to attend some of the most prestigious educational institutions, both in India and the United States. Bearing this heterotopic social tapestry in mind, Dalit stories making headway into the mainstream run the risk of falling prey to ‘cannibalistic’ appropriation and at times point-blank plagiarism on the part of unscrupulous intellectuals, academics, researchers, journalists, or artists, especially if these are Dalits playing the role of ‘native informants’.
The recent controversy in which Dutt has become embroiled over an episode of the Indian romantic drama web series Made in Heaven, produced by Amazon Prime, is a case in point. In one episode of Season 2, ‘the Heart Skipped a Bit’, the lead female character Pallavi Menke, who studied in Columbia, confesses about her Dalit origins. She mentions her grandmother, who happened to be a manual scavenger. The similarities with Dutt’s life-story are striking, and Dutt should have been given due credit for it. Its director Neeraj Ghaywan (himself a Dalit) must have deemed it was sufficient to acknowledge her name only in passing by means of an Instagram post. Following heated exchanges with Dutt on social media, the show later retracted from identifying Dutt’s book as an obvious source of inspiration, thereby denying Dutt the right to claim her own story back. This goes to show the extent to which Dalit labour and property remain vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and theft. Having passed as upper-caste most of her life, Dutt was herself ‘bypassed’ and her Dalitness usurped by one of the biggest corporations in the world at the point when it had been so rightly represented on screen, as Dutt noticed with bittersweet pleasure.
Portraying Dalits remains a fraught exercise, on screen as elsewhere, if only because lead roles end up being almost always upper-caste. Whether conscious or not, minoritizing strategies rely on bypassing, as in the case of Dutt’s row with Made in Heaven’s producers, but also involve trespassing (not to say trampling or violating) as well as passing by without a sign of acknowledgement. In so doing, one deprives the ‘Other’ of the possibility of agency by reducing the latter to a state of social invisibility or to the status of a mere passer-by as passive victim. Thus, the difficulties of giving full justice to the constellation of practices characterising Dalits amount instead to a ‘single story’ (158). Dutt borrows the phrase from the Nigerian authoress Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who also studied in the United States. Both Dutt and Adichie are commanding enough to allow for a fairer, more balanced, and nuanced characterisation, beyond victimising or wallowing in ‘poverty porn’ (176).
In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison captured the condition of being Black in America, in particular having to face indifference from (white) society. As Dutt recalls, the novel proved highly popular among an emerging Dalit middle-class readership who could identify and sympathise with the main character’s feeling of anomie and ostracised position as an outcast, all the more since caste unlike race or gender forms an ‘invisible package’ (90) turning out to be just as pernicious. Growing up ‘Bhangi’ (the name of a Dalit caste used as a cuss word in India) while pretending to be Brahmin (upper caste) helped Dutt pass various interviews and entrance exams at convent, private schools like St Stephens College in New Delhi. Yet her performances would have to mean surpassing herself, both financially and academically, this at the risk of passing out or even away like her tutelary figure Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and activist at Hyderabad University whose suicide letter triggered Dutt’s outing and was written in the wake of seeing his scholarship blocked. As she puts it: “I had to work harder so ‘they’ could overlook my ‘inferiority’. I couldn’t pause to recognize my ‘triumphs’ or take it easy every now and then because then I would fall behind and they would stop respecting me.” (37)
Internalised casteism in part stems from the belief that mimicking the upper-caste through adopting their lifestyle and codes of conduct may save one from persecution and offer a pathway to a better life. It means believing life is undeserving as it is, without merit, and worthless to such an extent that a quota-based system of affirmative action known as ‘reservation’ in India, is needed to compensate for otherwise menial, mediocre, and miserable career prospects. Hence, passing-as-hiding both serves as an existential act of survival and an economic necessity. Part of the disguised performance involves, above all, the mastery of the former coloniser’s medium of communication – namely the English language. Ironically, English allowed for the upper-caste to pass as Western (and for Dalits to pass as upper-caste), alongside bleaching or wearing ‘ubtan’ (face mask), as Dutt was ritualistically forced to as a child in the hope of posing as fair-skinned. In a poignant passage, Dutt describes Dalitness as a ‘carcass’ to be borne (perhaps an allusion to the Chamar caste’s disposal of dead cattle as tanners) and English at which she excelled, as a ‘crutch’ to lean on:
English—the language I had hoped would help me escape my own Dalit identity. The language I had stubbornly practised since I was five. Flawless English was supposed to bring me to the same level as my upper-caste classmates in school and college. I leaned on it when the carcass of my Dalitness became too heavy. Later, writing in this language became my career. It is very likely that English was Rohith [Vemula]’s crutch too. He was probably still honing it so he could stand tall against those he had decided to take on—those who perhaps equated his Dalitness with an inherent sub-humanness. (xiv)
Following independence from Britain in 1947, India abolished the caste system that the British colonisers had exploited to their benefit, relying as they did on upper-caste Brahmins to fill up the ranks of their bureaucratic apparatus. India now projects itself as a caste-blind society despite having a head of state as a Hindu nationalist whose latest stunt was to rebrand India as ‘Bharat’. Chaturvarna’ (the caste system) is a legacy of Vedic scriptures and of Hinduism though it extends across other religions of the Indian subcontinent. The spiritual concept of ‘karma’ has been central to the maintenance of a caste-based, endogamous, apartheid-like structure, and to the acceptance of their lower status by Dalits as “pay[ment] for the sins of previous lives in subsequent lifetimes” (12).
Dutt’s memoir shows contemporary discrimination against Dalits to be rampant, even in urban, cosmopolitan settings like New Delhi. One falls under the impression that Dutt, while working there as a journalist for the fashion industry, was indeed better off hiding her caste, since it gave her privileged access (passe-droit in French) to an otherwise exclusive, glamorous milieu. The dressing up of her origins behind the make-up of her impeccable English, somehow to be expected from her, did not matter so long as it was swept under the carpet as mentioning her caste would have been socially awkward – a fatal faux pas deemed de mauvais goût. This is testament to the level of hypocrisy and corruption of Indian society, especially among the brightest and best educated sectors. To paraphrase a famous line, it feels while reading Dutt as if something is deeply rotten in the state of Hindustan (the land of the Hindus).
The fiction that India is a meritocracy also seeps into Dalits’ minds, and many regard education as a shield against casteism and vehicle for social ‘upliftment’ – a term Mahatma Gandhi himself was particularly fond of using concerning those he patronisingly called ‘Harijans’ (God’s children), to mean Dalits. By contrast, Dutt’s vehement defence of reservation, from which she benefited, originates in her understanding that sheer merit plays little or no part in order to climb the social ladder. This comes in spite of her reluctance to see herself classified among the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and stigmatised as such. To quote from her memoir:
A month after the admission interview, I attended the ‘first assembly’ at St. Stephen’s. Mum had hastily sold off the land that had been our backyard garden which she had lovingly tended. The money would cover the rent for a shared PG I was to stay in. As we filled out the admission form, Mum suggested, for the very first time, that I tick the box that said I was an SC/ST candidate. Like so many Dalit students who don’t understand how systemic casteism works and buy into the casteist narrative of ‘proving themselves without a crutch’, I didn’t think I needed reservation. If I checked that box, I would taint my achievements with the ‘quota student’ tag. My lifetime of lessons to successfully appear upper caste would be rendered useless with that single stroke. But I didn’t have a choice. I needed the financial aid and scholarships to pay even the heavily subsidized Delhi University fees. (60)
The reservation system remains limited in scope as it covers the public sector only, which has historically provided Dalits with employment opportunities that come with the hope “that some of the respect linked with a civil service position might rub off on them and go some way towards negating their Dalitness” (1), even though Dalits disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of government. However tepid and timid, attempts by the Indian state to redress inequalities have come under fierce attack from some of the most conservative, reactionary corners of society, paralleling the US supreme court’s recent decision to overturn affirmative action in US colleges. Dutt writes about the anti-reservation demonstrations that took place at a medical school in Delhi in 2006, though in effect, it is the lower-caste and religious minorities who face daily discriminations at colleges and universities, including ‘hazing’ and ‘ragging’ (73). Anoop Kumar’s documentary film The Death of Merit forcefully chronicles these practices in India’s higher ed (74).
Dutt’s narrative is a treasure trove of intertextual references facilitated by her background as a journalist. Her blog, ‘Documents of Dalit Discrimination’, for instance inventories both testimonies and eye-witness accounts of casteism. Secondary sources Dutt builds upon in her memoir include Kakoos (2017), a documentary on the officially abolished practice of manual scavenging, or English Vinglish (2012), a film dealing with India’s “unnatural deference to English [which] is a result of our internalized colonial hangover” (21-2). Dutt’s ability to shed light on Indian contemporary society by means of her personal – and at times heart-rending – family history (her dad’s alcoholism, her mother’s suicide attempt, or Dutt’s inner turmoil while growing up), is what makes her memoir so vibrantly lively. Precious in particular is her overview of India’s media landscape, ‘culture wars’, and Dalit activism. In spite of India’s hardening stance and crackdown on dissenting voices under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term (the latest controversy being the assassination of Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil), Dutt shows independent news reporting to be thriving thanks to the use of social media and alternative news outlets on Dali issues such as RTI, Ambedkar’s Caravan, Savri, Velivada and Dalit Camera (166).
While reminiscent of the divide between white and black/brown feminists in the US, her depiction of an ongoing rift between ‘Savarna’ (upper-caste) and ‘Bahujan’ (people’s) feminism is proof of the rise and empowerment of Dalit women in India. Though Dutt admits Dalit stories and struggles still find it hard to break into the mainstream, she makes a point of ensuring these will not go unheard of in her memoir, which was published by an independent publishing firm in India. The case of 23 years old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey (Brahmin), gangraped and left dead in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, helped shift public opinion by initiating a national conversation about sexual violence and abuse in India. This outpour of support must be weighed against the similar fate befalling 29 years old law student Jisha (Dalit) in 2016, which comparatively generated little reaction from the media. The alleged ‘availability’ and ‘impurity’ of Dalit women as peddled by the dominant masculinist, casteist discourse make them particularly vulnerable to rape culture, so the onus is on journalists and progressives to spotlight their case.
In the same vein, Dutt recalls the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha initiated by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the untouchables’ right to use water in public tanks (‘satyagraha’ standing for a non-violent act of resistance and civil disobedience). This historic event was overshadowed three years later by a march against British colonial rule’s imposition of a salt tax, led by the well-known (upper-caste) figure of Mahatma Gandhi. Ambedkar’s writings and actions, including the drafting of India’s first constitution, have provided Dalits with spiritual solace and guidance, and his momentous legacy hovers over the pages of Dutt’s memoir. Not incidentally, Ambedkar would need a nod from another public (upper-caste) intellectual, Arundhati Roy, for his writing to find a larger echo, although “in the introduction to Ambedkar’s most radical and significant work [Annihilation of Caste], Roy positions Gandhi front and centre” (173).
As Dutt’s book unfolds, its aim stands clearer: to popularise and position Dalit stories ‘front and centre’ by capitalising on Dutt’s vantage point as a New York-based, Columbia graduate like Ambedkar, who received his PhD in economics from this same Ivy League institution in 1927. Hence, Dutt’s outing reveals itself as a deeply altruistic, humanist gesture instead of an attempt to take all the credit, as some of her detractors following her dispute with the producers of Made in Heaven have hinted at. Her memoir is an invitation to – quite literally –come out and take to the streets as Dalit and can be seen as part of a recent rise in Dalit militancy. In 2016, Dalits from the Chamar community in Modi’s historic state of Gujarat withdrew their labour by refusing to pick up carcasses of cows. The disposal of dead cattle is an activity traditionally reserved to the lower-caste, who find themselves looked down upon as manual workers and violently targeted by Hindu hardliners as ‘meat-eaters’ – “vegetarianism [being] the gold standard for caste purity” (xiii). Upper-caste mobs severely beat up strikers with police complicity, although “the simple gesture of Dalits refusing to do the job that the caste system had forced on them for centuries had such a powerful effect that it led to months of protests across the country and ultimately resulted in one of the largest Dalit uprisings in thirty years” (48). It led in particular to the Azadi Kooch March for equality, justice, and land reform – “land that had been allotted to thousands of Dalits on paper but was still waiting to be assigned after decades” (48).
As Dutt’s memoir moves to its final sections, the word Dalit gets hammered into, as if to suggest Dutt is now on her way to recovery after many years of self-loathing and denial. It also leaves the reader with a sense that Dalit lives matter; an allusion to the name of the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement that, as stated on its website, aims to “build constructive resistance against caste-based inequalities, indignities, and adversities globally”. As the generic character of Dutt’s book title suggests, coming out as Dalit (as opposed to ‘a Dalit’) is to belong to a community and be part of a collective with a rich and proud heritage attached to it. That Dutt will be able to share this heritage again through a US reedition of her memoir, out in 2024, is a gift worth waiting for. It is no small treat (and feat) either that in 2020, the book won India’s National Academy of Letters award for outstanding young writers, the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Readers who may not be familiar with India’s caste system will find a useful, thorough introduction on the subject while a more attuned audience may also enjoy Dutt’s bold journalistic cross over to the autobiographical genre.
Dalit Lives Matter
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, on the subject of Southeast Asian Australian women’s writing. He lives in Paris, where he teaches English across various academic locations and carries out research on postcolonial literatures while being politically committed as an activist on the French far left.
by Graham Akhurst
Graham Akhurst’s debut young adult novel Borderland is a tour de force. It is a coming-of-age story, set on the lands of the Turrbal, Yuggera and Gungarri people. We are introduced to Jonathan Lane, the first-person narrator, who has just graduated from St Lucia Private, an oppressive private secondary school where he had been a scholarship student. His time at St Lucia had not been an altogether happy experience for him. We are told that he ‘hated the attention he got for looking different and being poor in a school full of rich white kids’ (6).
The novel opens as he and his best friend, Jenny Pohatu – who also graduated from St Lucia – have enrolled at the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre (APAC) in Brisbane where they are studying acting and dance. Jenny is a beautiful, popular young woman – warm, intelligent and articulate – and a supportive, caring friend and mentor to Jonathan. But Jono does not completely fit into the social world at APAC. He struggles with identity issues. He lives with his mother – a single mother – but knows little about his family: only that his mother grew up in Cherbourg with her parents and that her father was a lawman who also worked as a police officer and later died in jail (72). Jonathan does not know from his mother who his people are or where his Country is (71). He feels like he is in limbo, with ‘no community, language or tradition’ (68). The moving portrait of a struggling young man who doesn’t know his ancestry recalls in some respects Melissa Lucashenko’s powerful second novel, Hard Yards.
Self-doubt and insecurity plague Jonathan at APAC where he struggles to fit in and feels like a ‘fraud’ (22), convinced that people see him as an ‘impostor’ (22). He tells us that he measures himself even against Jenny. She ‘owned her Ngarabal heritage proudly’ and was active in the community. She ‘tried to get [him] to go to all the rallies at Musgrave Park and every other Black event in town’ (6). He feels that ‘she knew so much more about mob and culture than [he] ever would’ (6). At APAC, some of the other students mercilessly torment him as a coconut and he has major issues with anxiety as a result. On top of all this, he has a huge crush on Jenny, who is busy flirting with other students.
Jonathan seems to be spiralling downwards, mired in anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, when he has a stroke of good fortune in landing a short acting role in a documentary film being made for the Aboriginal community about mining on First Nations Country. Jenny has a factotum role in the same production and the two head off excitedly to the fictional town of Gambarri, for what they think will be a fun adventure in the Queensland bush. The trip turns out to be far more difficult than anyone in the group expected with strange happenings disrupting everyone’s plans and delaying the making of the film. Jonathan’s encounter with the land and the people in it is hugely challenging and transformative, opening up the possibility that he may be able to find a way through his crippling self-doubt and move his life forward.
These opening scenes establish the novel as a bildungsroman about the yearned for – but painful getting of – knowledge. They are a powerful evocation of the inner world of a young Aboriginal man, infused with searing affect – strong conflicting feelings of love, fear, remorse, hope and responsibility – as he slowly learns about his heritage and the urgent obligations and sacrifices this knowledge brings with it.
As Jonathan struggles with the aggression and violence directed to him as a so-called ‘coconut’, he becomes aware of a different terrifying liminal zone impacting on him and his life – physically and psychically – but not in ways which he initially recognises or understands. Magpies dive apparently threateningly into his personal space, and, as the action ratchets up a level, strange ‘hallucinations’ beset and derange him. These ‘horrific visions’ set off panic attacks. He feels his life is in mortal danger after he encounters a malevolent spirit from the Dreaming. Eventually, after numerous false leads, he meets an ally who can provide a measure of guidance and help him protect himself from the ‘sickness’ in which he is enmeshed. He finds answers to some of the questions that have tormented him. But, in the process, further questions are raised.
Akhurst chooses a non-realist mode of fiction to invoke the Dreaming and the young man’s acquisition of difficult knowledge (which is both dangerous and protective). In numerous ways the narrative does touch upon the referential and documentary real – for example it acknowledges Country paratextually in the book’s front matter and outlines the consultation process Akhurst undertook in writing the novel. Further, within the narrative there is a documentary recognition of histories of struggle such as that against the damage caused by fracking in Gungarri Country. Nevertheless, a hybrid non-realist textuality emerges at points where it facilitates the fictional figuring of the Dreaming and of Jonathan’s engagement with the spirits of the Dreaming. Akhurst identifies this non-realist narrative practice as ‘the fictional… rendering of cultural and cosmological elements’ which has been undertaken in an ethical way which avoids ‘the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage’ (ix).
Akhurst insists on the fictionality of the ‘cultural and cosmological’ aspects of the novel and makes a significant paratextual interjection to differentiate fiction (characters and imaginative events) from the specific materiality of the real (in this instance Country). However, it is beyond the purview of this short, non-Aboriginal authored review, to detail the binary between the real and the imaginative. Both elements are entangled within the narrative. A Kokomini man, Akhurst outlines the protocols which guided his writing practice:
While this novel is set primarily on Turrbal, Yuggera, and Gungarri Country, specific places, characters, and events existonly in the author’s imagination. Great care was given to the fictional rendering of cultural and cosmological elements in thisnovel to avoid the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage. All Dreaming stories and cosmological elements are fictional. The stories and totemic symbolic meanings in this book are fictitious and of the author’s imagination. (ix)
* * *
In the ‘fictional rendering of the cultural and cosmological’ the novelist portrays Jonathan gaining insight, physical strength, knowledge of and connection with his ancestors and an ability to protect Country. When Jonathan returns to Brisbane and his mother, he is ‘a new man’ (71), as his mother had predicted, with new friendships forged and old friendships reconfigured. But it is also with a new awareness of his and others’ mortality.
Is this entanglement the ‘borderland’ of the title, where the cosmological meets the everyday, and where First-Nations novelists carve out new imaginative temporo-spatial textual zones for action and transformation? The borderland also seems to me a trope for the bildungsroman, Jonathan’s passage from anxiety and doubt to self-realisation and well-being as a young First Nations person. This is itself a troubled and fraught process for Jonathan. Towards the end of the story, for example, when he has established a more secure sense of belonging, Jonathan pauses to reflect on his journey: ‘it felt as though my identity was something others decided’ (197).
Jonathan’s psychical journey is embedded in his physical journey into rural Queensland. The crew with whom Jonathan is making the film is a motley group with their own crises, confused agendas and troubled identities. In negotiating the relationships between these complicated personalities Jonathan also comes to understand more about the film they are making and the implications it has for all of them. He also comes to a political awareness of the need to protect the land from exploitation and expropriation.
Needless to say, the novel is not dry or didactic. Akhurst is an adroit storyteller and has a keen ear for the nuances of dialogue. This allows him to flesh out his characters as complex and believable, revealed to Jonathan and themselves as at times vain and a touch self-seeking. There’s plenty of clever humour here and some of it is quite far-reaching such as the irony with which Jenny is portrayed (which, it seems to me, is both gentle and potentially devastating). However, essentially, this book has a light touch even if there are many twists and turns, including adjustments to some of the characters’ most cherished beliefs. Some, like Jenny, have answers deferred. Perhaps Akhurst is setting up the narrative for a sequel. Borderland is an assured and well-crafted book. Akhurst handles all aspects of the multi-layered and challenging story adroitly, especially the suspenseful and charged connections between the key characters. Here is an example of the novel’s narrative intensity:
The lights in the house came on suddenly and I saw the dark figure of a man in the window. It looked as though he was staring directly at me. He moved to the front door and the entrance to the verandah lit up. A blackfella around Keith’s age walked slowly down the front stairs, his dark eyes, under a furrowed brow, locked on me. I felt incredibly uncomfortable but returned his gaze. He had thick wavy grey hair. His skin was dark and weathered; his body wiry. He wore similar clothes to Keith without the wide brimmed hat. He had a rifle strapped to his back. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen this man before.
‘This is Norman, my head ringer,’ said Keith.
‘Evening all,’ Norman said, and nodded. His wavy white hair moved in the wind. ‘I’m gonna head out and take a look at that fence real quick.’
‘Yep, see you in the morning,’ Keith said. ‘Now everyone, grab your bags and let’s head in.’
I could feel Norman’s eyes on me. When I reached the car I turned, and he was standing right in front of me.
‘I see you, boy,’ he said. A vein pulsed along his temple as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Norman’s steely eyes stared through me for a moment before he spoke again.
‘And so does Wudun.’ (150)
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
Text Messages from the Universe
by Richard James Allen
Flying Islands Press
Reviewed by MARK SETON
It’s 2023, and our world flounders under an encroaching deluge of Artificial Intelligence apps, especially ChatGPT, that might enable anyone to ‘generate’ poetry, so why bother! The good news, I believe, is that the poetry that touches us, moves us and connects us still emerges from a living, breathing, feeling, embodied poet. That’s what Richard James Allen generously offers the reader in his latest work Text Messages from the Universe. And it’s fun too!
This is the fourth work of Allen’s that I have reviewed over the years and he never ceases to delight and surprise with new modes and constructions of words and images that overlap and bounce off each other. The initial treats of this new work are the physical size (the book of poetry fits in the shape of one’s hand) and, accompanying the text, one encounters colourful pages of photographic images, many incorporating dancers in bright, flowing strips of cloth, intermingled with textures and ambiguous light sources. It’s all an invitation to enter into the flow of sensation before making any attempt at meaning-making.
In a past life (or maybe it’s just an ongoing present life?) I’m sure Allen was/is a detective, a Philip Marlow of the 21st century. Through an omnipresent framing of address, in second person, he asks you, the reader, numerous investigative questions. He proffers multiple, possible meanings. He knows he sometimes makes miscalculations. He acknowledges that life can be messy. And he asserts that life is worth living no matter how short it is. I suspect there is a clue to the puzzle of this text, proffered in his dedication – “for my Virgils” – a reference, perhaps, to the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, a master poet of antiquity, who structured his most famous poetic epic Aeneid into several ‘books’. Likewise, Allen crafts a textual container of two parts, collectively containing three chapters.
Part One consists of two counter-pointed chapters, ‘An Introduction to Dying and An Odd Way to be Born.’ Two confronting themes, yet Allen seduces the reader to keep reading by means of playful, image-triggering phrases about the reader’s mind and body that strangely convey an everyday normality within the fantastical – “Your head feels like it is under attack from a swarm of alien starships, trying to blast their way through your mind core” (p.9) followed shortly by “The vehicle [body] is so tremendously powerful. It’s the Holy Grail for floating spirits, waiting aeons for the chance to act again in the world” (p.15). The second theme invokes a ritual-like multiplicity of ways to be ‘born’. Almost every page insists that you “wake up!” and offers you various narratives that you might choose to bring you into some new state of being and becoming. This section of texts is most powerfully counter-pointed by the photographic images of dancers in various modes and moods of movement – sometimes their eyes address the reader, sometimes their eyes indicate where the reader might go. But it is the dynamism in their frozen moments of ‘the dance’ that is most striking in how it shapes one’s feeling and/or interpretation of these different story offers. This second theme wanes, at a critical transition, where the message of the Universe observes, “You’ve got it all wrong, strange things happen to everybody – it’s just that mostly they don’t pay attention to them, or if they do, they don’t tell anyone about them, they just keep them a secret” (p.47).
This launches the reader into a wilder ride through Part Two of this collection of messages, entitled ‘The Book of Bad Dreams’, that are far more scattered between pages of dancers and textured lighting, creating a sense of acceleration towards some kind of finality or paradoxical crisis/opportunity. It’s almost like a textual version of the psychedelic ‘stargate sequence’ in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the textual messages seem more urgent and demanding of a readerly response, it’s in these latter pages that the very words begin to blur into a stream of consciousness:
If you were to speak the perfect words, what would they be? The onlythingyourememberisthatthebodyyou entered, or thought you entered, was walking across, a street talking on their phone. You can’t remember to whom. The conversation was interrupted by a text message.(p46)
This becomes the point of no return – or unending return – where texts finally subside and lift the reader to a place where there is no place or need for text messages. Only bold colours, dynamic dancers and sensual textures remain to fill in the last few pages of this playful, provocative and in-sight-ful work. Another sensual, innovative and rewarding accomplishment from the embodied exploration and expression of the poet who is Richard James Allen.
Dr Mark Seton (PhD) is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, at The University of Sydney. He is an Educator and Consultant for Sense Connexion, which he established to teach empowering vulnerability to actors and other professionals, such as lawyers and health practitioners, whose capacity for empathy and sensitivity is crucial to their effectiveness and success. Alongside membership of the Editorial Board of the “Journal of Applied Arts and Health”, Mark is Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for the Australian College of Theology and is a founding member of the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare.