Adele Dumont reviews Childhood by Shannon Burns

Childhood

by Shannon Burns

Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922330789

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT

 

Anyone writing about their childhood must grapple with the intervening gulf of time, and with the strange slipperiness of memory. This is especially so for Shannon Burns, who today lives a stable, contented life in the higher echelons of Australia’s middle class, but whose early years, he now recognises, were chaotic and perilous, peopled by adults who were unreliable, volatile, and sometimes violent. Childhood charts Burns’ upbringing in 1980s suburban Adelaide: he is passed between his mother (his ‘true home’ (88)), his father and stepmother, various relatives, and foster carers. Aged fifteen, he leaves school, escapes his father’s place, and finds work in a recycling centre. Despite all this dislocation and instability, and despite Burns’ well-developed talent for forgetting, Childhood doesn’t read as fragmentary or disjointed: rather, the narrative is sculpted so skilfully that it is never less than propulsive.

In the book’s opening paragraph, Burns mentions his house’s slatted windowpanes, ‘which I can remove when my mother fails to come home or if I’m locked out and desperate to go to the toilet’ (11). This striking matter-of-factness is borne of the simple fact that this world — however troubling or unusual the adult reader may find it — is all the boy knows. Not yet five, he reflects:

I will be told, many times, that my mother ‘sleeps with men for money’, but I have no way of understanding what it means beyond the literal sense: she falls asleep with men, perhaps snuggling. I’m jealous of those men, of the comfort she brings them. (40)

Here we have a boy oblivious to the adult world, and to his mother’s reality, but also, the reader gathers, a boy prematurely exposed to and implicated in that world. Hunger and need and neglect; intimacy and estrangement: all is contained in these two sentences. The passage exemplifies Burns’ achievement throughout Childhood: he writes about his past with remarkable, clear-eyed objectivity, and yet he always honours his child-self’s innocence, subjectivity, and purity of feeling. He never slips into self-pity, nor roundly condemns anyone.

Burns has stated that while for him this story is ‘just my life’, for a lot of readers it becomes a story about certain things (1). This is certainly evident among reviewers, who have characterised Childhood as a memoir about disadvantage, poverty, suffering, and trauma. Many of Burns’ memories read as textbook descriptions of what a contemporary reader might diagnose as instances of abuse, dissociation, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Yet this sort of psychologising language is notably absent in Burns’ account. This is, of course, in keeping with his child-self’s limited worldview; the boy can only glean how atypical his circumstances are in accidental or oblique ways. Looking in other children’s lunchboxes, for example, he is envious of his classmates’ mothers, who ‘fuss over their wellbeing, who prove their love daily by providing this outsized and richly scented nourishment’ (63). At a women’s shelter, he discovers that ‘remarkably, the mothers are not permitted to hit us’ (126). And when a friend’s father scolds Shannon’s friend for coming home late, the young Shannon finds the scene ‘oddly reassuring’ in demonstrating such obvious ‘fatherly care’ (101). As well as being faithful to his boy-self’s perspective, this sort of narration fleshes out for the reader what ‘neglect’ or ‘poverty’ (or other potentially reductive, nebulous terms) look and feel like in the physical world.

In an extended interview with Peter Rose, Burns mentions reading testimonial literature (such as Primo Levi) and being struck by its ‘coldness of style’ and its ‘willingness to look at things directly’: ‘The language is not overly emotional – it just allows a fairly plain description to hold all the emotional force’(2). Certainly, the stark power of many of Burns’ images is such that they require no embellishment: perpetually hungry, he resorts to stealing food from the dog’s bowl; he soothes himself to sleep each night by banging his head against the floor; when a bunch of roosting pigeons at the recycling factory are exterminated, his hostile workmates tear the dazed creatures’ heads off, ‘forcing him to watch’ (288). Tellingly, the rare figurative language Burns does deploy relates to his foster family’s bull terriers: the animals are good training for a child in his circumstances, since ‘to live with creatures who have sharp teeth and erratic moods requires discipline and skill’ (111). When he eventually begins to disappear into himself, he likens himself to the dog who begins to absorb its own stomach and ‘eat its own shit’ (247).

The most obvious facet of Burns’ sustained objectivity is his decision to describe his boy-self in the third person, in all but the book’s opening and closing sections. This allows him to stand outside events; to write about the deeply personal in an impersonal way. It’s an unusual device, one also used by Annie Ernaux in The Years. In her experience, the autobiographical third person is liberating:  it ‘makes it easier for me to speak, to write. I think I could not have written about everything that happened to the young woman of 1958 if I had written it in the first person’(3). In his Epilogue Burns refers to a similar sense of remoteness from his early years.

Burns’ understated style calls to mind Ernaux’s ecriture plate, as well as the unadorned prose of Edouard Louis. All three writers are defectors from the social class of their childhoods: Ernaux and Louis from working-class France; Burns from the Australian ‘welfare class’ (18). Louis’ End of Eddy and Burns’ Childhood bear almost uncanny resemblances when it comes to their narrators’ outsider-ness and sensitivity as children, and their consequent attempts to project ‘toughness’. Both books include fraught scenes of sexual contact between children; both explore masculinity, sexuality and physicality; both narrators ultimately experience the shock of encountering a more privileged strata of society.

Among Childhood’s most memorable passages are those which explore the boy’s inner self, and his eventual discovery of literature as a source of immense solace. From age ten, he leads a double life: the authentic boy ‘lives in his own mind… never comes out, never gives himself to anyone’ (146). He finds the Russian classics — in their concern with questions of inheritance, betrayal, suffering and redemption — revelatory and ‘astonishingly close’ (314). Reading becomes ‘its own form of intimate human connection’ (27). The flat he moves into as a teenager has no furniture nor electricity, but he is thankful for its proximity to the train station, since it means that at night he can read books by its bright light. Current defences of literature tend to espouse its capacity to foster empathy towards others, or conceive of it as a social good. Childhood’s framing of literature as something more personally precious and consoling is immensely moving. Books become the boy’s surrogate guardian, or soulmate.

The impoverished world Burns paints is one rarely depicted in Australian literature. (A notable recent exception is Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light, a fictional — yet meticulously researched — story of a girl shunted between foster homes and other institutional care settings). Certainly, Childhood redresses this absence. But more broadly, it troubles — and expands — our accepted understanding of childhood, for those who might presume to associate childhood with protection, freedom, and unconditional trust and love. In the particular setting Burns depicts, children can be regarded as burdensome, or even punitive: of himself, he writes ‘I am what happens to people like my mother’ (117). Burns’ account complicates, too, our understanding of motherhood, and maternal love. Mothers, according to Burns, are children’s idols, and synonymous with love. Fathers, conversely, are ‘comparatively replaceable’ (an echoing of Coetzee’s description of fathering as ‘a rather abstract business’(4)). The status of mothers leads Burns to draw this unsettling conclusion: ‘A child fears losing his mother more than the violence she might inflict’ (352). As ever though, Burns with-holds judgement of his (or any) mother: his was never cut out for such a ‘godlike existence’ (355); and mothers, he says are, in the end, ‘prone to all the frailties and vulnerabilities common to us all’ (354).

Childhood subverts the standard journey of a bildungsroman: in one sense, the protagonist does journey from innocence to maturity, but in another, he is robbed of the trappings of childhood that most in Australia take for granted, and exposed to the sort of bleak truths and hardships that even adults in this country might never fathom:

As far as I can tell, adults are compelled to do the most improbable and destructive things imaginable, and it’s their children’s job to come to terms with this however they can. (125)


Cited

1. The Bookshelf, Radio National, 28th October 2022.
2. The ABR Podcast, 12th October 2022. Burns stresses that the influence of testimonial (e.g. Holocaust) literature here is strictly stylistic, not thematic, but ‘if these writers could go through much more horrific experiences and come out and write about it in that way, then I should be able to do that as well’.
3. The White Review, Interview with Annie Ernaux, Issue 23, October 2022.
4. J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace.

ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, a collection of essays exploring mental illness, is forthcoming with Scribe in 2024.

Michelle Cahill reviews This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham

This Devastating Fever

by Sophie Cunningham

Ultimo Press

ISBN 9781761150937

Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
 

I go on believing in the power of literature, and also in the politics of literature.
—- Adrienne Rich

Sophie Cunningham messaged me on Twitter when I was working on the edits of my novel, Daisy & Woolf, then titled, Woolf, to ask what my novel was about, as she was also writing a novel on the Woolfs, Leonard in particular, This Devastating Fever. As it turned out, in 2022, we both published metafictional novels whose peripatetic Australian narrators, Alice and Mina re-examine Bloomsbury. Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever is in dialogue with Leonard Woolf’s years in Sri Lanka, his marriage to Virginia and her mental health, while casting reflections on the pandemic, imperialism, the writing life and post-modernity’s urgent ecological concerns.

The past is a prologue in This Devastating Fever, which opens with a memorable and wry take on the Woolf marriage: Virginia, Leonard, Julian, dress-ups, parties, bookshelves; literary genres. This spirited tone is woven throughout Cunningham’s text. Both these novels are non-linear, diachronic, alternating from present to past and thematically resonant. Both are concerned with the writing life, its distractions, digressions and contemporary difficulties, its consuming drives. I did not realise further, when she warmly and graciously launched Daisy & Woolf in Melbourne that Sophie and I have also shared not one, but two publishers, a reflection, perhaps, on the narrow circle and echo chamber that is the Australian publishing industry. Imbued with a visceral sense of the frustrations and demands of any novelistic project in these fraught times for literature, and in the precarious worlds we inhabit, our respective narrators, Alice and Mina navigate across time, culture, geography as well as industry dynamics.

Alice Fox meets frequently with her literary agent, Sarah, in scenes which are witty and relatable. Cunningham provides a candid insight into how Alice’s artistic ambition and vulnerabilities brush against Sarah’s business interest to secure a profitable book deal. Their meetings, and lunches span 16 years from 2004 to 2021, beginning with a Zoom then flashing back to pre-pandemic times. Sarah’s initial reservations and hesitancy about the manuscript include concerns around the perceived resistance to an Australian angle on Bloomsbury, as well as the change in direction that Alice has charted from non-fiction. Sarah’s other speculations are whether there should be more or less of Ceylon; and whether Alice should remove Virginia Woolf altogether, making the novel just about Leonard (p10). Sarah suggests, and later insists that more sex in the novel will make it a better proposal to pitch to prospective publishers. This leads to a humorous list of possibilities, a three-page “Sex List or Who Fucked Who” (p86) and another concerning the subject of Alice: her bisexuality, her marriage to a woman, her childlessness, her work as a publisher, her relationships to ‘paternalistic father figures’ and her own experience of abuse. (p12) It becomes apparent that the novel is semi-autobiographical.

Indeed, like Cunningham, Alice is well connected to the literary establishment, has travelled to Sri Lanka, San Francisco, the Sussex Downes, and Bloomington Indiana; she loves cats, native animals and frets about extinctions. She advocates for trees and the non-human world; and at the time the novel begins, she is teaching in a literary academy. With its seamless textual weaving of memory and narrative, letter extracts, diary extracts, biographical footnotes, Cunningham deftly complicates the genres of memoir, biography and fiction with a touch of magical realism and a pleasingly wry style.

A deliberate choice is made not to use an autobiographical third person as in Shannon Burns’ memoir, Childhood for example. Cunningham does not swerve from presenting Alice’s consciousness through the auto-fictional third person past tense. Through the past tense she fictionalises and interprets the lives of Leonard, Virginia, Vita, Leonard’s sister Bella, Lytton Strachey, reifying colonialist attitudes, stereotypes and ideological conditioning. With disturbing casualness, the binary imperial logic of civilisation versus the jungle is sustained throughout the novel notably through its representation of colonial subjects (p278), and its language. Alice’s repeated metaphors of “beasts” (p109, p243) exemplifies the negative stereotypes, while the Ceylon-shaped teardrop shed by an older Leonard, grieving for Virginia (p295) exemplifies the exotic. The characterisation of Sri Lankans and Tamils is also limited, a narrative gap which warrants closer analysis, given the novel’s purported interest in race.

Descriptively speaking, This Devastating Fever is intensely invested in what Said refers to as Orientalism, a “mode of discourse” and “a style of thought” of images, disciplines, disciples, a ‘worlding’ while absenting brown people entirely from its intertextual richness, even from its humour. The brown people are serious, grateful, sad, with the exception of a waiter, Andrew, who serves Alice when she visits Hambantota where 4000 people died in the tsunami. He curtly puts Alice in her place:

“Everyone is very interested in what has happened to us here. Tourists come, tourists go. I would rather not talk about the deaths and the loss.” (60)

He is right to feel cautious of saviourism. A veritable tsunami of whiteness washes away the lives and stories of First peoples by appropriation and cultural tourism. Elsewhere, the historical Leonard, Imaginary Leonard and Alice do not actively resist the domination, nor the legal and moral superiority of West over East. Following a narrative arc of redemption, Leonard is excused because he had opened a Tamil Girls school (p287), yet we know that collaboratively education and religion were part of the machinery of colonial violence.

Racism, colonial exploitation and antisemitism are referenced directly through dialogue and indirect speech. As Cunningham has stated the racism of Bloomsbury should not be allowed to stand unchecked. In October 1917, Virginia Woolf is known to have written the following diary entry when a Ceylonese official awaited Leonard at Hogarth House:

We came back to find Perera, wearing his clip and diamond initial in his tie as usual; in fact, the poor little mahogany-coloured wretch has no variety of subjects. The character of the Governor, and the sins of the Colonial Office, these are his topics, always the same stories, the same point of view, the same likeness to a caged monkey, suave on the surface, inscrutable.

Yet, Cunningham has a way of casually amplifying this disparagement, and more worryingly the underlying politics of domination. In a conversation with Leonard in 1911, she has Virginia first mistaking the Ceylonese for Indians, then, when corrected by Leonard, dismissively replying, “But Blacks anyway” (p111). Virginia’s strong ancestral connections to India made this conversation seem unlikely. Virginia’s mother Julia Prinsep Stephen was born in Kolkata; and her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron nee Pattle was born in Kolkata and died in the western province of Sri Lanka, known then as British Ceylon. Her Franco-Indian descendants had lived in Pondicherry. “Blacks” is cruder than what we expect of Virginia, who describes “a very fine negress” in A Room of One’s Own.

The Woolfs were both semi-racist and anti-imperialists. Their conservative peers upheld a racist suspicion that Asians and ‘Negros’ were barbarians. Particularly reviling was Julian Bell’s attitude towards Indians, described as “revolting blacks” in a 1936 letter to Eddie Playfair. (See Patricia Laurence’s Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes, “Performing Englishness”.) Lytton Strachey had also criticised The Village in the Jungle for being “about nothing but the blacks.”

But does accuracy matter, anyway for the purposes of fiction? I would say it does matter who is speaking what, and whom they are addressing. It matters because we cannot overlook that the history of colonial economic expansion, occupation, exploitation and its aftermath are grounded in discourse, in laws, in education, in novels, not to mention that the repetition of racist tropes is triggering and re-traumatising for many of us. There’s an insensitivity to the fact that readers and writers of colour find this altogether tone deaf, even offensive.

Whether it is Mohammed, Alice’s driver, or Shelton Fernando, Cunningham’s Sri Lankan characters are restricted in their representation, and in their fictional destiny. They are mostly neutral in their emotions, their speech predictably serving the needs of Alice and Leonard, both descendants of the ruling class West. For me this was most grievous when Cunningham describes Leonard describing his ayah, who remains nameless and then a few pages along he is also described visiting a Sinhalese woman whom it becomes apparent he uses for sexual gratification. Leonard visits this woman for longer than expected, leaving “with a curious mixture of shame and over excitement (as) the stallion tossed his mane in salutation…” As elsewhere, the imperialist axiomatic blurs the distinction between colonised human and beast while preserving the power of the coloniser. As Alice explains to her agent, Sarah when they are considering titles for her novel, This Devastating Fever is “a phrase Leonard used about himself to describe lust and the problems of repression. It strikes me as even better now” Alice says, “because of the whole Covid thing.” (p8) Such inversions of past into present offer insights into, and relief from the messy chaos of our post-pandemic lives. Covid-19 has undoubtedly altered our perception of time, by lockdowns, curfews, by new technology and mental health challenges making a story that moves across centuries resonant on so many levels. But the question is for whom?

For the brown women in This Devastating Fever, their psychology and sexuality are never given a voice or a body as subjects. Nor are we permitted as readers to even enter the domestic space of that molested and coercively abused mother and her mixed-ancestry child. They remain as shadows, described passively and fleetingly in the past tense as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” (p69). Repeatedly, the conditions of animals are of greater concern to Alice and to Leonard than the Sinhalese. By ventriloquising what Gurmeet Kaur describes as the “colonial voice” Cunningham assigns colonial and feminist space as a wholly exclusive one where the mental and physical health of brown women and men and their communities and children, their abilities to participate in cross-cultural exchange is quarantined. Consider the following:

“Leonard barely saw a woman for months on end  ̶  if by woman one meant a white woman, which is exactly what Leonard meant.” (p70)

and

“Nothing like his Ceylon “girlfriends” as Bella liked to call them. No, Virginia was a woman with whom he could share his soul.” (p111)

In a letter to Lytton Strachey, Leonard boasted of his visits to brothels: “I suppose you want to know everything — well, I am worn out or rather supine through a night of purely degraded debauch. The pleasure of it is of course exaggerated, certainly with a half-caste whore”. Cunningham does nothing to challenge the male power-fantasy of Leonard’s Orientalism, assigning Sinhalese women to a category that lies outside the “universal” woman, and beneath the individualist mission of soul-making. There is no private space to mock Leonard, no shadow existence or threshold in writing for these brown women. This emphasises the weakness of using fiction to represent Leonard’s opinions since there is no convincing argument or trajectory of reform, and no effort to remedy racist oppression in the space of cultural production.

In her fine appraisal of Cunningham’s novel in Sydney Review of Books, Gurmeet Kaur points out that there are jarring passages that are retraumatising for non-white readers, those from the “global majority”. She writes:

Whilst archival specificity breathes life into the Woolfs, in the Sri Lanka material, the insistence on historical accuracy feels oppressive and destabilising, in part because it conflicts with the playfulness of the non-linear narrative. Though there may be repetitions and loops in the expressions and effects of imperial power, there are also clearly linear chains of events and their consequences that are not considered in such a discontinuous narrative.

Much later in the novel when Alice gives a panel, ironically on cancel culture in Adelaide the epidemic of violence against women is discussed, with its mental health sequelae of bipolar and personality disorder. Personal memories of trauma flood Alice’s mind and she is visited by Imaginary Leonard with his cute marmoset and spaniel, and they converse about Virginia’s trauma and abuse. Yet all the while women such as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” remain unnamed, invisible and their abuse and mental trauma for the purposes of this novel appear relevant only in so far as to provide a description of colonial power.

The narrative is focalised on the thoughts, actions and emotions of its white characters, their communities and families: Alice, Sarah, Hen, the elite circle of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Leonard’s conversations with the village headman, Mr Nallaperuma are proselytising, with Mr Nallaperuma’s responses being overly compliant and dull. When Leonard is derisive about his views on horoscopes predicting the date of onset of a girl’s menstruation, he is described by a passive stereotype. “He was used to being patronised.” (p81) As Kaur argues, Alice and Leonard’s statements that past happenings were “not nice”(p53), racist or “cruel”(p288), does nothing to ameliorate or to recompense those who have suffered; those whose stories have for centuries been silenced.

While Leonard’s service as a colonial administrator politicised him to advocate for reforms of colonial oppression the reason was to improve Europe’s moral position. Privately, his attitudes appear to have remained conflicted and tinged with racist assumptions towards the Sinhalese, going by extracts from his diaries, such as the following:

“the three things which make up the education of most of the children in Hambantota are obscenity, ill manners and the torturing of animals.”

(Woolf, L. 1965)

Cunningham neutralises the private bigotry of Leonard and Virginia. Fleeting, internalised glimpses of racism contextualised by an early twentieth century world order, are transported and packaged into the public space of her novel. Complex intersections such as these between paratextuality and whiteness continue to mediate identity, feminist and colonial space, authorship and power.

Despite, or perhaps because of what Peter Rose has described as the “burgeoning Bloomsbury industry,” both Mina and Alice carry out intensive research. Alice focusses on Leonard’s Ceylon writings, the Glendinning biography about his life, and other Bloomsburians. Mina focusses on Virginia’s novels and the Chinese modernist Shu-Hua Ling, whom Hogarth Press published in 1953. They seek out libraries: for Mina, The British Library and the library at Wuhan University. While in 2004 Alice Fox spends much time in Sussex library, where a ‘hot librarian’ explains that Thoby’s death from cholera in 1909 accounts for the flatness of Virginia’s diaries in the year that follows. Fast forward to 2018, and Alice is in Indiana, Bloomington at the Lilley Library reading from that circulation of letters and diaries by the Cambridge apostles, or “navigating the rapids” (p115). She comes across Ottoline Morrell’s description of Virginia Woolf appearing as “a lovely phantom, a far away, far gazing lively ghost.’(p117)

Alice is endearingly cognisant of the ways she channels fictional ghosts. Yet there is a watershed between the fictional and the real. In Leonard’s autobiography, Beginning Again, he emphasised the many houses he lived in, innovating a spatial metonymy that turns a history of self into a geography of self. In contrast the characters of Virginia and Leonard manifest as temporal figures, even while we know, as readers, that Cunningham ventriloquises and improvises their lives. This extensive reimagining culminates after the death of Hen in 2021 when Alice is at Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River, during heavy rains. She worries about ‘fish suffocating, a drowning of sorts’ (p213) and she suffers from a slowly healing leech wound, while reading Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia, as well as Leonard’s autobiography, and whilst bookmarking and watching The Edge of Tomorrow on iTunes. From the messiness of grief, illness, technology and intertextuality springs the possibility of a new narrative arc, seemingly revelatory of fiction’s ability to shapeshift, even to interrogate historical injustice: “It occurred to Alice that she could use the power of fiction to write Virginia’s end differently. She could save her!” (p217).

Cunningham stretches and elaborates the written record, skilfully conjecturing psychological explanations for Leonard and Virginia’s bisexual and polyamorous relationships, their attitudes to Leonard’s Jewishness, and to the ambivalence of repression and trauma. She skims over the politics of Leonard’s social and economic reforms as founder of the League of Nations and in the Labour Party. Historical facts such as Virginia’s suicide are revisited providing explanatory and narrative emplotments that extemporise playfully from the official version.

A similar hermeneutic ambivalence animates Daisy & Woolf. Mina’s scaffolding of the fictional (and metafictional) lives of Daisy, Charlotte, Radhika and Rezia is positioned with fictional letters from Sylvia Pankhurst, a British missionary from Rodmell and Vanessa Bell who catches a glimpse of Daisy and Rezia, “two outsiders” in Padua (p272). Through her serial letters and diary entries, Daisy Simmon’s fate and the fate of her daughter Charlotte could be interpreted as legitimate historical events. Charlotte dies of cholera onboard the S.S. Ranchi, and is buried at sea, in keeping with horrific casualties suffered on such voyages. She first appears to Daisy as a ghost when the passengers are quarantined in the lazzaretto on L’Isolotto, Malta. Could Charlotte’s ghost be as material to the reader as the knowledge of other infant mortalities associated with migration across the centuries, and even in 2023? It is well established that migrant fatalities don’t necessarily align with the recorded statistics; that some children in remote or less monitored waters, die without trace.

Historiographic metafiction and meta biography allow new approaches to the past, purposely overlapping fiction, diary writing and history. It questions the function of history and biography as primary or impartial sources of knowledge. The reader may not clearly distinguish Virginia and Leonard Woolf from Cunningham’s iterations, nor from Ghost Virginia and Imaginary Leonard of the afterlife. What is private, what is real, what is history and what is speculative gets blurred, woven into discursive possibilities on biography, memoir, novel writing, genre, environmental activism, marriage, polyamorous love, grief, illness and trauma. This Devastating Fever is a novel of dazzling parodic meta-dimensions, self-deprecating humour, and a real tenderness for the non-human animals in our world, but one that is deeply Orientalist. It sustains a collective self that whilst speculative and supple, addresses only its white constituents and Western characters.

It is difficult to write this. I am reminded of an essay by Adrienne Rich in which she describes her father’s library and her belief that books would teach her how to live and what was possible. She writes about being taught whiteness, about how white women are forced to betray black women, how “they are cast as antagonists in the patriarchal drama…”; that there is a “silence out of which they have had to assert themselves.” I have really appreciated Sophie’s willingness as a white feminist to offer support and allyship to so many writers. She has done so for other women and trans writers during the years that I’ve known her. I know as readers we are more than passive witnesses to the lies, secrets and silences of systemic whiteness. We are an interconnected global community that as Kaur suggests bears “collective responsibility” for the less visible crimes of colonialism: those embedded in discourse, in paratextual frames that have marginalised minority stories, in archival erasures, in the unevenly prioritised disciplines of philology, literary criticism, and in the publishing world which remains today as inseparable from writing for Alice and Mina, as it was for Leonard and Virginia.
 
 

Cited

Brayshaw, Meg. “Sophie Cunningham’s pandemic novel admits literature can’t save us but treasures it for trying”
Kaur, Gurmeet. “Sophie Cunningham’s Orbits” https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/sophie-cunningham-devastating-fever/
Laurence, Patricia. Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China. University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Ranasinha, Ruvani. “The shifting reception of The Village in the Jungle (1913) in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 50.1 (2015): 33-43.
Rich, Adrienne. On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978. WW Norton & Company, 1995. p 201
Rose, Peter. On the Peculiar Charms of E.M. Forster, ABR Podcasts, December 22 2022
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Penguin, 2000), 2, 5
Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918. New York: Harcourt.
Woolf L (1990) Letters of Leonard Woolf (Ed. Spotts F). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. p102
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Ben Hession reviews Sydney Spleen by Toby Fitch

Sydney Spleen

by Toby Fitch

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818758

Reviewed by BEN HESSION
 
 
 
 
Sydney Spleen is the latest collection of poetry by Toby Fitch. Its title alludes to Charles Baudelaire’s volume of prose poems, Paris Spleen. Whilst for Baudelaire, there was a desire to import the expansiveness and consequent wider palette of nuances of prose into poetry, Fitch, in his collection, utilizes a mix of styles, including prosaic lyricism and a continuation of his experimentations with form and language as seen in Rawshock and Bloomin Notions of Other and Beau. The latter, in turn, owe more to the likes of Mallarmé, with their intrinsic strategies of deconstruction being explored in Fitch’s essay, Aussi/Or. The poems in Sydney Spleen are an acutely intimate response to a period of personal challenges for Fitch, with many focusing on the effects of a city wracked by the concurrent disasters of the 2019-2020 bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitch writes with disarming candour, and his skill in intimating his experiences capture the unease that for many permeates the recent cultural memory.

Fitch does not attempt to re-write the individual pieces of Paris Spleen in a contemporary, Sydney context. However, he does, in this collection, share something of the spirit of Baudelaire, with work that is ‘always unsettled, always shifting and recoiling at each new and unforeseen experience.’ (MacKenzie, xv) As we see, in the collection’s second poem, ‘New Phantasmagorics’, the prosaic rhythms present a clear but restless movement of the personal amid the pretensions of a city:

My eyes are barcodes. I have one partner,
two daughters, one dog, three debts.
The city’s an organ ablated from the world. (4)

Importantly, the same poem acknowledges that the city occupies contested space, noting the attempted erasure and re-erasure of its Indigenous people, a people whose broad and respectful connection with the land is replaced by one where entrepreneurial concerns have become of primary interest:

At Mount Annan, a Stolen Generations
Memorial is maliciously damaged. Mass piles of
exoskeletons are deposited on the Kurnell foreshore.
*’Hard hit’ aquatic species* include soldier crabs,
urchins, soft sponges and coral like bryozoa.
Never profitable enough to become a priority. (6)

The potential for financial exploitation of the land is further explored in the ironically matter-of-fact prosaic poetry of ‘Beneath the Sparkle’ where the Plutonic railway tunnels become a place for plutocratic opportunity:

          God knows land above ground is too
expensive for anyone to buy, let alone cultivate and
be creatives on. And so, a fresh kind of colony in the
underworld is being floated by the minister. Whatever
happens, He on behalf of the State is determined to loot the
underground property market so that, even at the cost of
raiding the surplus, the lake will retain its cool. (11)

The colonial-capitalist conceptualisation of land, as noted here, is further examined in ‘Pink Sun’, where a suburban setting and the material hubris of settler culture and rhetoric is deconstructed through puns, broken colloquial speech and the visual contrast to the impact of the bushfires which recurs as a surreal and nightmarish refrain:

          at peak hour
                pink sun
          black sky
                you can return now
          for eternity
‘cause you’ve stood up with the Hellsong
hung loose and come out the other
sideline without a hose
to fan the arson online with
cooked roo matching
the way you beer every burden
yet still leave time to cash in
on the outskirts
milk the handshakes of town just look
at the beautiful housing bubble
blooming and pearling as marbled meat
          at peak hour
                pink sun
          black sky
                you’ll fly back for Sydney’s
          sparkling water (32-3)

In ‘Dust Red Dawn’ Fitch acknowledges an Indigenous sense of place expressed by Country. Here, its physical displacement in the dust storm of 2009, is not only representative of the disruptive effects of colonization, but also in what Meera Atkinson has recently described, while discussing the poem, in her essay in Cordite Poetry Review, as a ‘mash-up between the spectres of colonial trauma and climate trauma’. (Atkinson 4) The impacts of these both draw the individual perspective into a wider scope of disruption, as well as presaging disaster to come:

Country in its teeth. When the dust-red dawn
dwarfed Sydney it was much redder than this
orange-grey haze people are dissing on the tweets
like it’s nothing, like there aren’t still tonnes
of it settling on every windowsill, millions

of airborne specks turning sinuses to rage.
As a two-year old, Evie was afraid of specks;
Couldn’t comprehend them. She used to point and scream
At any tiny fleck invading her bath-time and –space–
they were alive, could morph into other forms. (68-9)

The sense of interconnectivity we see here is reinforced later:

          … How do I talk to my daughters
about all the tiny beliefs being part of the big ones,
about tipping points that have already been breached,
about the version of history they’ll inherit
that can’t go back to time immemorial and that’ll

probably soon completely cease reverberating
through the future’s waters….. (69-70)

Finally, the piece returns to re-affirming the Aboriginal identity of the place where the city sits, noting the consequences of a seemingly deliberate colonial ignorance in reading the land:

I return to land, watch the specks we picked up
get whisked over Gadigal and out to sea,
tiny flecks of red and black subsumed back in-
to the ongoing fallout and wash-up. (70)

As we can see, Fitch’s solidarity with Indigenous custodianship of the land is more than a purely political concern, it is a recognition of its respect for environmental interconnectivity – that’s also covered elsewhere in the collection – and the human responsibilities within it.

Against this, is the national political landscape and its priorities, with its constructed identity of Australianness, itself a largely white-Anglo import with subsequent variation. In ‘Captain’s Cull’ (34-40), verbal slippage is used to parody this, associating it with the Australorp, which the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as an ‘Australian breed of [English] Orpington fowl.’ (ACOD 82)

In an interview with Elena Gomez in Cordite Poetry Review, Fitch has stated that, among other things, poetry ‘For me it’s to make meaning of my world and the world around me – to make sense and critique.’ (Gomez 1) In one sense, this can be seen through a broader level of interconnectivity as demonstrated by streams of consciousness poems, where random and disparate phenomena are rendered as part of a whole, not only within the context of the body of the poem itself, but via Fitch’s perspective. One finds this in such poems as ‘33 Fleurs du Mal of Sydney’, ‘Pandemicondensation, or Dreams Refusing to be Sonnets’, and ‘Planned Obsolescences’. In this poem, there is a preparedness to detach oneself, through his children’s imaginings, from the world around him, which, itself, presents a seemingly unsettled space:

Safeguarding the future requires believing in one. Official
sources say. Bats no longer live rent-free in my head,

though I allow them to sublet. After being detected in the
deepest point in the ocean, microplastics were found

near the death zone of Mount Everest. Meanwhile, heads
of dog sculptures in cemeteries are even more moss free

‘cause people keep petting them. Cancel culture remains a bone
of contention. Not unique to this year, the world’s investment

in protective technologies was dwarfed by its spending on
ice cream. Moving to Net Zero, the ghost in my heart chips

away at its cell. That things just go on is the catastrophe.
This morning I asked my daughters to get dressed.

No, they replied, we’re making The Hidden World.
After a split second of apoplexy, I couldn’t fault them. (76)

On another level, making sense of his world has also meant examining his own position as non-Indigenous person on unceded Aboriginal land. In ‘Dust Red Dawn’, he acknowledges his own family’s “background in colonial poesis.” (69) In ‘January 26’, there is a distinct desire to be elsewhere, when the only available time to celebrate his first daughter’s birthday, coincides with the date of invasion:

and each time round this endeavour seems more designed to fail,
transporting us to where we were destined to be
from the moment a race with pale skin dropped anchor
and shook the sandstone, struggling and still unsure
of learning how to start over again, how to walk this back,
uninvite ourselves from this hot, manicured parkland,
then navigate through a capital ablaze
with idylls of our own making. (72)

It probably should be said that not all references to the personal sphere in Sydney Spleen are contextualized within the cityscape and the larger world it represents. The unsettled experience, for example, that is a lack of job security is explored in ‘A Massage from the Vice Chancellor’, where the managerial language of Fitch’s employer is deconstructed through puns and visibly interrupted stanzas, which break down the usual patterns for reading poetic lines. These serve to highlight a lack of fixity, and thus the impersonal nature of the communication and indifference to the consequences for the staff to whom it is addressed:

Since I wrote to you on ___, regarding                  projected
our new ‘new normal’ austerity              budgie shortfall
measures your staff               while a prudent app roach
Time frames              of great magnitude should poke
your         you in the coming days about what this

moans for your impact option, which                  national
has arisen intake, as outlied.               agents have roles
We anticipate some               to play in flattering your
deferral, loads              curve, but also in minimising our
Inter-         goading principle; and that, of course, is

to increase the rigour. We are currency                  to emerge
on track to achieve only core              from this timely
maintenance. And so               crisis and for your extra
thank you for              ordinary faculties in sustaining
managing         department head. Yours, _______ (43)

In this poem, the spacing speaks as much as the words used and what is implied. The interaction between text and the page seen here is characteristic of much of Fitch’s work, and, again, this, in turn, is elaborated upon in ‘Aussi/Or’. Of course, the more strident examples of these are in the visual punning of Fitch’s shape poems, to be found in this collection, such as ‘Spleen 2’, ‘Spleen 3’ and ‘Spleen 4’. In ‘Mate’s Rates’, shades of political compromise radiate out of an ideological black hole.

We see the strategies utilised in these poems have been reconciled toward a more demotic sensibility, bringing to the fore the otherwise latent politics of language and its constructs which had been seen in previous collections. This, itself, is reflective of the overall shift in tone to be found in Sydney Spleen.

The pervading sense of the current collection is probably best represented in the choice of the expansive ‘Morning Walks in the Time of Plague’ as the concluding piece of the collection. Here, the family as a basic social unit is set against a world estranged by COVID-19. Restrictions resulting from the pandemic have meant the local playground is no longer a place to play in. Instead, ironically, the children are forced play among the gravestones of Camperdown cemetery.

The prosaic rhythms offer a sense of casual intimacy and paradoxically, detachment too, as the narrator casts his all-seeing eye over a sequence of episodes of life. The detachment is heightened by the details of the new ordinary where a rising death toll is juxtaposed against the children’s imaginary world of unicorns and ‘alicorns’ with its escapist ideas of space being similar to the ‘Hidden World’, found earlier in ‘Planned Obsolecences’. In a typical scene we see:

A fallen leaf makes a crunchy blanket for the girls’ unicorn
toys. Grass blades as food and padding on a small square
sandstone plinth. Frankie and I sit on a much larger plinth,
shoulder-to-shoulder and doomscrolling, comparing news,
including the story of a young boy who died of the virus in
London.

Minky rips a branch to shreds. Frankie jumps down to play
chasey with the girls, running with a sense of abandon
only urban wildlife could rival. She chases them to the
FORCEFIELD, a flat grave surrounded by a knee-high cast-
iron fence. (94-5)

And later, we find:

We prefer bunnies today as we follow the chalked
direction along the footpath−hopscotch, run, left-
foot hop, right-foot hop, jump-jump-jump, now do it
backwards, and then, ‘the circle of the silly dance’. With
dozens of others in the park, Evie, Tilda and I could be
doing the Danse Macabre above 18,000 skeletons, part of a
community-vs-immunity Breugel painting. (96).

The poem ends with lines that reference previous scenes, intermingling the real and fantastic, as if what one actually encounters and what one creates in response are both part of the same, authentic experience. The parody of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ adds humour that is in keeping with this sense of authenticity:

Turning and now not turning, both the girls’ scooters’ back
wheels have come off their axles. The centre cannot hold
… and out beyond the FORCEFIELD, running in widening
circles around the plinth I’m on, Frankie and the girls
are each now out of sight, out of earshot, as I yell into the
cemetery air.

The gravel driveway crunches its broken star shards
beneath my feet, the same gravel that sent Evie and
Tilda sprawling the other day, beneath the giant bamboo,
the Moreton Bay Cthulhu and the line of Canary Island
palms like massive spiky lollipops, all of them swaying,
rustling, then headbanging in the wind as it picks up from
somewhere in the ground-glass sky. (99)

Phenomena, and their perceptions, pass fleetingly, yet are interconnected within the narrative. They are swept up into the ether, to be not unlike the clouds mentioned in the epigraph to this collection (taken from Baudelaire’s ‘The Foreigner’). And yet, articulated and agglomerated together, they form a conscious, human whole to be shored up against the ruins of a particular period of time.

Arguably, though, the period has not completely closed. Whilst the bushfires have been extinguished, the effects of climate change on the weather and the Earth remain a persistent threat. A cure for COVID-19 and its variants also remains elusive. Atkinson notes the particular ability of poetic texts to ‘have the power to bear witness to the threat and trauma produced by social-injustice crises.’ (Atkinson 2) Further, she notes how the poetic response remains relevant in the present, as trauma, itself, breaks down the boundaries of time. (Atkinson 3) In Sydney Spleen, Fitch offers nothing that might provide us with redemption in the face of disasters which beset us. He can’t. However, he does remind us that we are not alone in what we suffer. Indeed, the whole planet suffers with us. What we see depicted in this collection is a kind of resilience, which, again, is a highly personal response. Our survival, of course, shall always require collective action.
 
 
Citations

Fitch, Toby. Sydney Spleen, Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, 2021.
MacKenzie, Raymond N. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen and La Fanfarlo, trans. with introduction and notes by Raymond N. MacKenzie, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis.
Atkinson, Meera. ‘Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis’, Cordite Poetry Review, 15 September 2022.
Gomez, Elena. ‘“The amorphousness of meaning-making”: Elena Gomez Interviews Toby Fitch’, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 February 2022.
Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997.
 

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.

Laura Pettenuzzo reviews Open Secrets Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike

Open Secrets

Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike

Giramondo

ISBN 9780648062165

Reviewed by LAURA PETTENUZO
 

As both a reader and writer, I was eager to dive into Open Secrets, to immerse myself in the wisdom of those with far more literary experience. As a disabled writer still shielding from COVID-19 and knowing that many of these pieces were written at the height of nation-wide restrictions, I was curious to see how (or if), the authors would engage with the impact of the pandemic. I came away from Open Secrets feeling simultaneously impressed, soothed and challenged. The multiplicity of my reaction affirmed the cohesiveness of the collection.  

There’s no magical thinking here, no waxing lyrical about the elusive muse and the passion that more than makes up for the lack of recognition or remuneration awarded to writers in so-called Australia. This is a collection that boldly confronts the realities of the writing life, particularly during a pandemic: the challenge of making ends meet, the additional pressures for those living on the intersections of marginalized identities and despite it all, a commitment to the written word.

Open Secrets asserts the imperative to address the lack of recognition and compensation for writers in so-called Australia. As Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in the introduction, we live in a world that “measures value in dollars and widgets and accords so little to literature”. Fiona Kelly McGregor’s ‘Acts of Avoidance’ lists the pay rates for the publications she’s written for in the last few years and adds that, disappointingly, “these rates have remained the same since 2017.” In ‘Award Rate’ Laura Elizabeth Wollett recounts being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PLA). In an imagined acceptance speech, she says, “Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around”. Despite her simple aspiration “to live and write,” Woollett doubts her ability to write if she wins the PLA, asking her husband, “What if I get so comfortable, I stop trying?” Her fears are echoed by other contributors, for different reasons.

No excavation of the writing life would be complete without a focus on imposter syndrome, which Open Secrets tackles with a frankness and vulnerability that called out to my own sense of writerly inadequacy. While Elena Savage Lisa Fuller’s ‘Fight or Flight’ confronts “the horrors of the blank screen” and the “urge to run” that it evokes. It is both heartening and disappointing that success does not dispel the “dark passenger,” as Fuller calls her disparaging self-talk. There are few Australian authors who have known as much success as Fuller in recent years, yet she describes being gripped by “absolute terror.” Receiving an email from a student wrestling with similar doubts, Fuller tells them, “The only way through is never to stop writing or learning.” ‘Fight or Flight’ was written as Fuller was “trapped inside [her] house,” during lockdowns, an experience that stifled some writers and galvanized others. 

Several essays in Open Secrets explored the experience of writing (or attempting to write) amidst a global pandemic. For instance, Suneeta Peres da Costa described her mother visiting her unmasked, proclaiming, “COVID-19 is not contagious!” Throughout De Costa’s piece is the refrain, “I’m supposed to be writing this essay on technology,” even as she describes all the activities she does which are not writing. Peres da Costa captured the universal struggle of the literary craft, which, for some, was exacerbated by lockdowns: the way it seems we sometimes have to grapple with ourselves to simply sit down and do the work. She masterfully evoked the sense of futility of that work given all that was unfolding in the world, wondering if it “will matter even less now than any time before, given relative prospects of dying from an incurable virus”. But it was Fiona Wright’s piece, ‘On Being A Precedent’ with which I related most, which explicitly and bravely illuminated the ableism inherent in so much of the pandemic response and the writing life. Wright rejected the notion of a “new normal” because its precursor (normal) is so often “something that rejects us regardless of whether or not (and consciously or not) we mould ourselves to fit”. For Wright, and for many disabled people, the pandemic and restrictions brought a rare and unfamiliar sense of alignment with the able-bodied world, as well as opportunities to work and socialize that had previously been deemed impossible. Wright’s piece concludes with her defeated observation that she can only “watch on as wider society refuses to adapt for people like me, or to change”. The world, Wright noted, is vastly inaccessible to those of us with disability, as is much of literature.

The complexity of prose and ideas in some of the essays, ironically, mean that it is only accessible to a well-educated and/or highly literate audience. Writing, however, does not have to be intricate to the point of inaccessibility to be beautiful, engaging, and successful. I imagine this collection may have had a wider potential audience if it approached some of its ideas in a way with which readers with varying levels of literacy and/or education could more easily engage. 

Open Secrets is not so much a celebration of the writing life as it is a collective, frustrated lament at the economic uncertainty with which creatives in this country must live, the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the long and often arduous and emotionally fraught writing process. And yet, each of the writers continue to sit down at their desk, at a table in their local café, in a park, pouring words onto a page or a screen. They believe, as one day I hope we all will, that literature and humanities mean “having a natural interest in the true, beautiful and the good,” which is worth all the rest.  
 
 
LAURA PETTENUZZO (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She has a Masters in Professional Psychology and writes Plain and Easy English for various organisations. Her words have appeared in SBS and The Age. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.

A distinct personal vocabulary by Audrey Molloy

Audrey Molloy is an Irish-Australian poet based in Sydney. Her debut collection, The Important Things (The Gallery Press, 2021), received the 2021 Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the 2022 Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize. Ordinary Time, a collaboration with Anthony Lawrence, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2022. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Cordite, Overland, Magma, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Mslexia, and Stand.
 
 
 

A distinct, personal vocabulary as a key device in creating intimacy in the work of Natalie Diaz and Nii Ayikwei Parkes

How does poetry draw you in? Are there certain poems you feel you inhabit, almost as though you have lived them? Questions of intimacy in poetry have always intrigued me. When reading poetry, it’s possible to simply enjoy the effect, without having to lift the curtain to see the mechanism at work. But in order to write intimacy well, it is useful to understand various techniques that can be employed by the poet.

Emotional intimacy, or closeness, in writing, can be created using a range of tools, including tone, imagery, syntax, and, as I intend to illustrate here, vocabulary. This is exemplified in two recently-published (and personal-favourite) poetry collections, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber & Faber, 2020) and Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ The Geez (Peepal Tree, 2020). Throughout these works, each poet uses a distinguished and highly personal lexicon that effectively communes with their subjects and conveys intimacy, not only with the body (of the self and the beloved), but also with family and with the land. This has the effect, in both works, of crystalising and heightening desire – as well as loss – of parent, lover, home, identity and family.

These themes overlap with much of what I explore in my own work. As an Irish emigrant living permanently in Australia, on Gadigal land, I believe that my transnational experience of dislocation and restlessness, and my search for identity and home, are relatable to other people of diasporic communities – those who spent their childhood and formative years in regions far from where they now live, and who never lost the early programming of their cultural heritage: flora and fauna, seasons and weather, music, food, traditions and rituals, languages, untranslatable words, i.e. everything that adds up to a sense of home. My physical distance from my original home has heightened the emotional value of these various elements of belonging. I was struck by how much the poetry of Diaz and Parkes resonated with me and, through my close reading of their work, I became acutely aware of the key role their distinct vocabulary plays in the poetics of bringing the reader close to the subjects and obsessions of these two poets.

Richard Hugo, writing in The Triggering Town, makes a distinction between two kinds of poet – the public and the private – with these two categories having little to do with the poets’ themes, and everything to do with their relationship with language itself. With the private poet, he says, ‘certain key words mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader.’ Citing specific examples of vocabulary choices such as William Butler Yeats’ gyre and Gerard Manly Hopkins’ dappled / pied / stippled, he argues that a poet ‘emotionally possesses his vocabulary’ and that a poet’s obsessions, or ‘triggering subjects’, curate a lexicon to generate his meaning.

Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, says that the ‘voice’ of the poet is as distinctive as their fingerprint, and identifiable as their unique instrument. While there is more to ‘voice’ than lexicon, for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the specific, hallmark vocabulary of Diaz and Parkes – the words that have particular meaning to them – and how, in these collections, this allows the reader to get to know the poets and understand their obsessions.

DIAZ’S OPENING (AND TITLE) POEM – ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ – sets the tone for her vocabulary throughout the book. Her lexicon of both unusual and recurring words is so rich and varied in this poem that I have organised it into a number of categories: wounds, water, minerals, desert country and skies, the body, light and colour, and Spanish, Mojave or other Native American words:

• bleeding /war /wound /hurt
• lagoon /thirsts /Drink /drought /flash floods /current /hundred-year flood /rain
• bloodstones /stones/cabochon /lapidary /jaspers /geodes /feldspar /copper /diamonds /quartz
• wildflowers /heliotrope, /scorpion weed /blue phacelia / snakebite /desert wash
• skin / breast /mouths /ribs /shoulders /back /thighs /hips /throat / hand / bodies
• pale /silver /dark /green /red /light /rose /blue
• arroyo /culebra

All this in one poem! The following two poems, ‘Blood-Light’ and ‘These Hands, If Not Gods’, as well as ‘From the Desire Field’ and ‘Manhattan is a Lenape Word’ add the following words to the above lists:

• blood /knife /stab /bleed
• rivers / water
• white mud / mica / mineral / salt
• stars /scorpions /Orion /Scorpius / Antares /fig tree /nightingale /bees /nectar /sweetgrass /coyote / gold grasshoppers /honey
• bellies /heels /bone /muscle /wrists /knees /thumb /leg /heart /stomach /horns /eye /carpals /metacarpals /lunate bone
• yellow /black /blue-brown /white /rosen /green /gold
• alacranes /verde /bestia /sonámbula

Notably, the list of words for the body and the land grow most significantly. This pattern continues throughout the collection. Diaz knows her indigenous country in a way not possible to those who haven’t lived on (or off) the land. While specific words such as feldspar or cabochon may be unfamiliar to the average reader, the sheer variety of terms for minerals and gems builds a rich tapestry of the traditional land of her ancestors. Diaz also writes the body intimately, particularly the body of the beloved. Anatomical words in common usage, such as throat, shoulder, and hips, build their effect by the extraordinary frequency at which they appear in the collection. The word ‘bone’, for example, appears eleven times on one page of ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’. This intimacy with the body and with land draws the reader into the poet’s world and conveys the personal significance of her subjects.

In an interview with Janet Rodriguez for Rumpus, when asked about the way ‘ingredients and materials’ used to make ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ informs the whole collection, Diaz’s response was that no single poem is ‘the key’ to the others, but that they all work together. She says ‘they were built from my image system, my way of constellating languages and images.’ She talks about intentionally ‘leaning in’ to words that are emotional for her – her life, land, hour, pleasure, grief, lover etc. Diaz deflects what might appear as mere repetition of words in her personal vocabulary by imagining each time these words recur as a new beginning.

Irish author Manchán Magan writes, in Thirty-Two Words for Field, when discussing the decline and disappearance of Irish (Gaelic) words, such as ‘colpa’ – a word that describes the grazing potential of a piece of land (one cow or two yearling heifers) – that ‘thinking about the term even for a moment makes you reassess your relationship with land. […] It requires getting to know a piece of soil, spending time observing it before laying claim to it. To appreciate it you need to be outdoors, immersed in the landscape.’ According to a recent review of Postcolonial Love Poem in The New Statesman, Diaz has, like Magan, worked alongside the last living speakers of her indigenous language on programmes to preserve it.

Diaz grew up on a reservation where her language was ‘taken’ from her, writes Sandeep Parmar in an interview in The Guardian. ‘This theft of language, and the superimposition of the occupier’s tongue, is imprinted on her,’ she writes. In part 3 of her poem ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz writes, of the traditional name for her people:

Translated into English, Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.

This is a poor translation, like all translations.

In part 7 of the same poem, Diaz writes, ‘In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same.’ She writes that the words for body (‘iimat’) and land (‘amat’) are both shortened to ‘mat’: ‘you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land.’

Erotic intimacy is taken to new heights in Postcolonial Love Poem through the startling array of words for the beloved’s body that Diaz employs. Open any page at random and you are likely to encounter the words mouth, thigh, body, skin, thirst, river, bone, etc. The poem ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’ takes this motif to another level. Here, we get hips, throat, pelvis, sacrum, femur, mouth, ossa coxae, ilium, ischium, thumb, tongue, coccyx, bone, thighs, teeth, belly, legs, iliac crest. (Diaz admits, in an interview with Abigail McFee in The Adroit Journal, that one of her earliest images of obsession was the image of hips; her grandmother, with whom she was very close, was a double amputee. ) The reader cannot come away from such a list of anatomical words without being affected by it, without feeling close to the subject. The final poem of the collection, ‘Grief Work’, comes full circle, repeating many of the words from the opening poems – horns, hip, lips, mouth, red, thigh, hands, throat, breast, sweet, river(ed).

By weaving her collection through with traditional – often untranslatable – words as well as Spanish words for her locale, such as arroyo or alacranes, the poet weaves herself and her people into Mojave country and carries the reader with her. And by excavating the river, desert and skies through her familiarity with the vocabulary relating to gemstones, rocks, minerals, bones, the body parts of animals, star constellations, flowers, and so on, Diaz demonstrates her intimacy and kinship with her traditional lands, and her profound grief at the loss of not only her people, but of their proud stewardship of the land and river, and even the sustainability of the land itself.

NII AYIKWEI PARKES’ COLLECTION The Geez also builds emotional intimacy through several techniques, not least his novel 21-line poetic form, the gimbal, which evolves from logical to emotional thought, pivoting around a central axis. He employs an intimate tone from early in the collection, as in the opening lines of ‘Frankenstein’: ‘You know that Kareem Abdul Jabbar hook / shot, right?’ Parkes frequently uses intimate imagery, as in ‘a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club’ in ‘Hangman’. But the focus of this critique is his distinct and personal lexicon, and how that private language conveys emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual intimacy and invites the reader to share his experiences, understand his vulnerabilities and become close to his subjects of family, loss, romantic love and cultural identity.

When examined in terms of specific word choice and frequency, there are similarities between Parkes’ collection and Diaz’s. Parkes also explores the body – especially the face – using recurring words such lips, smile, laugh, kiss, and mouth, in many of his poems. The series of nine poems that make up ‘Caress’ are peppered with words like thigh, skin, hand, shoulder, chest, flesh, heart, tongue, hair, neck, head, lap, ear, cheekbone, fingers, arms, and limbs.

There is also some similarity in words relating to sweetness. While Diaz, in ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’, uses sweet, honey, sticky, nectar, candy, and cake, to evoke erotic intimacy, Parkes uses similar words to conjure sexual intimacy in several poems, most notably ‘Bottle’ (on my tongue the dance of her /sweat and the sugarcane’s trapped burn), ‘Break/Able’ (the berried tip of your left breast), ‘Dark Spirits’ (with the burn and treacly aftertaste of dark dark spirits) and ‘Caress, iii’ (how sweet it is to be loved…It is easy to forget in those treacle-sweet moments).

But there are clear distinctions that make Parkes’ vocabulary uniquely his. The counterpoint to sweet is salt, and the word salt, along with its cousin, sweat, recurs in Parkes’ collection. Starting in the last two stanzas of ‘One Night We Hold’ (We are salt separating into its elements…we are sweat without words), and recurring in ‘Bottle’ (the dance of her /sweat… the salt-charged taste of her), ‘Defences, ii’ (our first sweat-/ heavy coupling) and, in the following extracts from ‘Defences, iii’, salt prevails:

• thinking about the sheen of sweat that brewed /on your skin
• has sweat / far less salty than yours
• how you can never tell how much //salt hides in a tear /or a drop of sweat
• how much salt // will sour a heart?

We can almost taste it. Parkes, in an interview with Toni Stuart, when asked about the recurrence of salt in the collection, replied that he wasn’t aware of the extent of its recurrence, but that his family were fishermen and close to the sea, and fish, and all the salt that goes with that, as well as sweating a lot when he was growing up in Ghana.

It is interesting that these formative influences find their way into a poet’s vocabulary whether they realise it or not. In this instance, the tropes of the body, sweetness, and salt, build an intimacy and eroticism that seduce the reader and open up the lived experience of the poet to the uninitiated. In the Stuart interview, Parkes says, when asked about writing through the body in a visceral way, that, for him, ‘experience of the world is very much to do with my senses’. Stuart responds that ‘there is definitely a sense of living through a poem, like we are with you, in every breath, standing next to you.’ A key device in achieving this effect is the particular word-bank Parkes uses.

Parkes’ lexicon also reveals his obsession with ‘darkness’ and its relatives – dark, darker, shadow, night, blackness, blacken, ebony – all of which feature prominently throughout The Geez, not least in ‘A Gimbal of Blackness’, which includes blackness, night, blackens, darker, night, a dark thing, dark thoughts, black liquid, blacken me. The recurrence of these words evokes the frequently dark colonial history of the African continent. This family of words recurs notably in ‘How I Know’ (darkness, ebony), ‘Locking Doors’ (night /and darkness), ‘Dark Spirits’ and ‘Obscura Y Sus Obras’ (meaning shadow play), which contain the words blackness, charcoal, darker, dark, black, night, dark, black and nights. The effect is to communicate a closeness with, and understanding of, Parkes’ subjects – grief for his dead father, or for his country and extended family left behind.

Balancing and highlighting the dark trope deftly is the vocabulary around reflections. Shine, gleam, burnished, sweat, lustre, slick, sheen, and similar words are scattered throughout the collection. In a grisaille-like effect, they serve to highlight the images of darkness and dark skin, such as in stanza 2 of ‘Hangman’:

Round midnight, when the faded lip of the rim still
gleams from the desperate reach of a weak streetlamp,
like a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club,

Tenderness, a key aspect of intimacy, is conveyed throughout this book via the specific vocabulary of Parkes’ cultural background, such as the shea butter mentioned first in ‘Ballade for Wested Girls Who Want the Rainbow’ (‘shea butter in dark male hands, fingers in grandmother’s hair’), again in ‘How I Know’ (‘the smell of almond and shea butter in the warmth of an embrace’) and for the third time in ‘Caress, iii.’ (‘and it absorbs sun, hatred, fire and shea butter’). Including these specific words in the collection builds an intimate picture of home life, and vulnerability, that brings the reader close to the poet and his subjects of family, home and love. That Parkes is close to his family – his immediate family, diasporic family, and the family left behind in Africa – is clear. This closeness is conveyed through the sheer variety of slang words for addressing family members – Brer, Anyemi, Omanfo, Manyo, I’naa nabi, Money, Ma, Ace, Abusua, all of which appear in ‘11-Page Letter to (A)nyemi (A)Kpa’.

‘Caress’ is a poem sequence where certain words are repeated like a motif, building a sexual intimacy: bud, fruit, flower, blossom, seed, as well as feather, tenderness, fondle, caress, kiss. There is also a concentration of anatomically erotic words that appear throughout the collection: heart, tongue, lips, shoulders, limbs, mouth, thigh, skin, hand, ear, shoulders. In the nine short poems that make up ‘Caress’, key words appear in greater frequency than in regular language, most notably, bud (x5) flower (x10) and fruit (x13). These words, along with petal, blossom, lily, stamen and pollen, create a combined effect that is erotic, sexual, tender and delicate. Humour, warmth and the enjoyment of kinship, or closeness with family, are similarly conveyed through an oral lexicon that includes smile, mouth, laugh, and giggle.

In her interview for the collection’s launch, Toni Stuart puts to Parkes that the intimacy in The Geez spans continents and generations – ‘parent and child, friends, self and world, self and history, continent and diaspora.’ This last intimacy (between the African continent and its diasporas) is transmitted in a subset of recurring words around pairings: twins, reflections, boomerang, mirror, echo chamber, and echo, such as in ‘Caress, iii’:

your very intestines are echo chambers
of dreams swallowed under an umbrella of whips

Like Diaz, Parkes has access to a language other than English with which to explore his experiences. As he says in his launch interview with Toni Stuart: ‘if we only have the language that colonised us, we are never going to be in a good place to speak about these things.’ Parkes incorporates some unique words into the collection, including ‘geez’ from its title. In an online tweet in Dec 2021, he has elucidated the derivation of this word: ‘My use derives from 3 sources: the ancient script & liturgical lang(uage) of the Eritrean/Ethio orthodox church, a play on the resultant homophone ‘gaze’, & the first letters of the book’s sections.’ The poem title ‘Lenguaje’ also provides the aural clue that ‘geez’ is how the word ‘gaze’ sounds in a West African accent.

I WRITE THIS AS AN IRISH emigrant-by-choice, coming from a country where the indigenous Gaelic language, Irish, was forbidden under the British by the Penal Laws of 1695 and never recovered. Even into the early 20th century, school children were whipped if they spoke Irish (Franks, 2015) . Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s, where English was (and is) spoken as the first language by almost all citizens, the Irish language was learned reluctantly and spoken rarely by many schoolchildren, despite being a mandatory subject. Reading the works of Diaz and Parkes has reinforced to me the importance of preserving indigenous language and, in particular, ‘untranslatable’ words. The Scots Gaelic word ‘scrìob’, which has no English equivalent, features in the opening line of the title poem of my collection, The Important Things (Gallery Press, 2021). While the overuse of non-English words could possibly confuse or even alienate a reader, judicious inclusion of such words can bring the reader closer to the cultural identity, heritage and personal obsessions of the writer.

The reader becomes more intimately connected to the work when the poet places trust in them, exposing vulnerabilities, revealing secrets and writing their own truth. As the work of Diaz and Parkes illustrates, the use of a highly personal vocabulary is one way a poet can invite the reader into their world. The discovery of the personal lexicon of Diaz and Parkes has emboldened me to permit a broader usage and greater repetition of personally-significant words in my own writing in order to better communicate my own vulnerabilities and passions. Uncommon words appearing in The Important Things, such as the verb ‘fossick’ – to rummage or search for – and the nautical term ‘leeward’ (both in ‘Curracloe Revisited’) can serve to not only place the work in location and time, but to bring the reader closer. I’ve also become more aware of the build-up, through my own collection, of a personally-significant lexicon of scientific and anatomical words (pudendum, gular, scapulae, mandible), fabrics (shantung, rick-rack, silk, velvet, taffeta, gingham, mohair, chintz, toile), colours (veridian, sap, olive, emerald, rose-madder) varietals of wine and other alcoholic drinks (vermouth, Negroni, tequila, whisky, Sauv Blanc) and so on. All these words, by the fact of their variety and repetition, highlight and share, intimately, my own subjects: the sea, the heart, female identity, family, diasporic dislocation, heritage, and home.

Cited Works

1. Hugo R. (1982) The Triggering Town. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 14-15.
2. Hirshfield, J. (2015) Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York: A.A Knopf, p.
226.
3. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘Ways to become unpinnable: talking with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview with Janet
Rodriguez for The Rumpus, 4 March 2020
4. Magan, M. (2020) Thirty-Two Words for Field. Dublin: M.H. Gill, p. 123.
5. Diaz, N. (2021) ‘Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: a powerful reckoning with violence.’
Interview in The New Statesman, 31 March 2021
6. Parmar, S. (2020) Interview with Natalie Diaz ‘It’s an important and dangerous time for language.’ The Guardian, 2 July 2020
7. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘A conversation with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview by Abigail McFee, The Adroit Journal,
Issue 33
8. Parkes, N. (2020) ‘The Geez Launch 1: Nii Ayikwei Parkes chats with Toni Stuart’
9. Franks, M. (2015) ‘Ireland and the Penal Laws’
10. Molloy, A. (2021) The Important Things. Oldcastle: The Gallery Press

Alison Hatzantonis reviews Stamiata X by Effie Carr

Stamiata X

by Effie Carr

Primer Fiction 

Reviewed by ALISON HATZANTONIS

 

Years ago, when my first baby was a few months old, my half Greek, Australian born husband and I took Greek language lessons. In the depth of winter on cold cold nights I would leave my baby sound asleep in her Yia yia’s care and traipse across the city to a freezing concrete classroom to study the language with a Cretan lady called Crisanthe.

All these years later I still have only a rudimentary grasp of the basics of the Greek language. I can, though, introduce myself, ask how much something is and, thanks to practising on my two small children who could easily grasp any language, even two at once, I know all the Greek names of colours, body parts, fruit and a myriad of animals. But mainly, I remember the complexity of conjugation in the Greek language.

It was on common ground with the protagonist, Stamatia, that I found myself when I started reading this novel by Effie Carr. With a flash of recognition in the first few pages, the difficulty and rote learning that is needed to conjugate verbs were a jolt to my memories. Stamatia’s struggle with past tense and past participle terms becomes one of the underlying themes running through this novel. Her focus and interest in the history of the Greek people, the nation of Greece and the trauma passed down through generations were all expressed through the use of tense, past present and future, that she applies to her verbs.

At the centre of this multi-level and, at times, multi-perspective novel, is a young Greek Australian girl named Stamatia. In the Greek language, Stamatia means ‘stop’. A fact that is pointed out early with the birth of Stamatia and the response by her rigid and traditional father. Vasili wanted to stop any more female children being born to the family. This was an effective strategy apparently as two younger brothers are later born into the family after Stamatia. They live in Stanmore, in inner west Sydney around 1973 when the family (or rather Vasili) decide to return to Greece. This move coincides with the aftermath of the 1967 coup that occurred in Greece. On the 21st of April 1967 the military took control of the country and for the next seven years this dictatorship severely curtailed basic democratic freedoms.

Stamatia is a great dreamer. She asks a lot of questions. In fact, most of her musings are expressed in the form of questions. This style of narrative is fine when used immoderately and cautiously but the novel is overwhelmed by the rhetorical format. We, the reader, understand that she is a curious and intelligent girl, but the continuous phrasing of her thoughts as unanswered questions takes the reader out of the story. The narrative veers into memoir territory as the author employs an omnipotent narrative style. This leads to Stamatia thinking and pondering things that a young girl couldn’t possibly know or understand. The novel could be viewed as a collection of essays. Each chapter is not necessarily linear and there is a lack of plot progression to keep the story moving forward. Stamatia is very observational but tying together her musing is fractured and, in some instances, not clearly linking with the storyline at all. This fusion of genres could be part of the author’s strategy. To combine rhetoric, fiction and non-fiction historical reportage and blend it through the narrative is an unusual and different way to tell complex stories of displacement, migration and inter-generational trauma. I am not sure though, if I agree that this is a successful interpretation.

There are a few chapters that are not fully realised. The lack of backgrounding, characterisation and world building left what was actually on the page, a bit aimless. A curiously out of place chapter concerns Stamatia’s tutor from when she lived in Australia, Mr Lalas, and how he came to have a glass eye. This flashback to a minor character’s past seems to serve no purpose in the novel and merely provides a vehicle for Stamatia to compare him to a ‘cigarette-smoking cyclopes’.

In chapter 6 ‘Stamatia Aged 6’ there is a foray into existential angst with the arrival of her baby brother. Stamatia feels supplanted by this male child and even tries to kill the baby by holding a pillow over his face. Stamatia is maybe trying to express an existential feeling that she could live perfectly happily by being only one. She can imagine that she could lock herself in a cupboard, not go anywhere but because she has this inner life, she is perfectly content. The arrival of brothers and her upheaval and move to Greece throws her into great turmoil. But the portrayal of a 6-year-old suffering existential angst draws a long bow. In another chapter, one that focuses on Stamatia’s arrival at her new Greek high school, there is a slightly bizarre meandering into a simile of Darwinism and comparing students in her classroom with wild animals.

The novel’s foray into the past is cleverly explored. Through the use of grammar, an effective metaphor for the way the past is viewed by the Greek people is nicely done. ‘Stamatia knew that there were three tenses that described the past: the aorist, imperfect and the perfect. But there was only one future tense’(p31). Stamatia starts to understand how much the past, the country’s history, runs through the people and the places of Greece. Her tutor, Mr Lalas points this out to her before she even leaves Australia. ‘To be a Greek means to remember the past, Stamatia’ (p31) he tells her when she questions why there are numerous ways to conjugate the past.

The rhythm and excitement of the novel is at its best when the story is moving forward. The pace picks up when the narrative focuses on actual movement like the flight back to Greece. Upon landing at the airport, with the family’s re-migration journey back to their homeland just starting, there is a fascinating scene involving Stamatia, her suitcase of books and the military running the airport. The irony with which Stamatia views the soldiers proclaiming order in their processing of the passengers, is very amusing. ‘We will have order in Greece booms a voice through a loudspeaker. Stamatia thought this was strange. The Greeks she knew didn’t like too much order at all. Her observation was that Greeks liked disorder and a bit of chaos, the excitement of the spontaneous and elusive kefi, a Dionysian spirit which could only be captured in the moment’ (p50).

Thematically, Carr weaves together migration, Greek culture and religion, the collective trauma felt by the Greek people after being occupied in WW2, the impact of a dictatorial coup and the resulting restriction on freedoms, teenage existential angst and the difficulty of Greek grammar, to name a few.

The novel ends with a return to the beginning and the journey being embarked upon by Maria and Vasili to Australia, pregnant with their first child, a girl who will be called Stamatia. In the circle of life, of heritage, of ancestors and descendants, stopping is not possible.

Effie Carr was awarded a Commendation for Foreign Literature at the Book Awards organised by the Greek-Australian Cultural Association of Melbourne and Victoria for Stamatia X. The novel’s complexity of prose, dialogue, themes and imagery make for a confident debut for an emerging writer. I do await her next foray with anticipation.

 

ALISON HATZANTONIS is a country born and bred, Sydney writer currently undertaking a master’s degree at Macquarie University which she is hoping to finish soon. She completed her BA Degree majoring in Creative Writing in 2020. Twitter @a_hatz5

Natalia Figueroa Barroso reviews How not to Drown in a Glass of Water

How not to Drown in a Glass of Water

by Angie Cruz

Macmillan

Reviewed by NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO
 
 
 

Over a round of yerba mate is where I’ve heard the best storytellers. In these circles of trust, tongues and tales become tangible and ideas are formed. Before the written word came to lay claim of colonial histories around the world, this is how my ancestors passed on our truths in conversations as such. And precisely in this manner is how Angie Cruz’s fourth novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water speaks to us. The title’s even a clue. One that gringos may miss. In Latin America we use an expression that reminds us not to sweat small stuff. But of course, we don’t say it that way, instead we tell you, ‘No te ahogues en un vaso de agua’ which directly translates to, ‘Don’t drown in a glass of water’. And usually, 99.999 per cent of the time when you’re warned by members of our community by this idiom it’s because you’ve just desahogarte with them. Which the chatty protagonist of Cruz’s latest novel, Cara Romero, perfectly translates as, “Desahogar: to undrown, to cry until you don’t need to cry no more.” 

Within the book, Cara undrowns her entire life story and knowledge in a mere six hours. The vignette-like capture of time through documents alongside the use of second-person monologue is skilfully done; “But listen. This is what I wanted to tell you today. Look, look at this. Like my life needs more problems. The management gave me this paper. Read it. They say if I don’t pay the rent I owe, they will throw me out of the building.” Through this narrative-breaking structure readers get a full insight as to what it’s like to live on ‘Obama checks’ (cheques) as a Dominican migrant woman in her mid-50s, whilst living in an apartment in Washington Heights during the Great Recession of 2009. 

This poignant and specific tale got me thinking about my hometown in south-west Sydney, Fairfield, where a large part of the Latinx community reside and the unemployment rate is currently at 10.6 per cent. Three times that of the national unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent! In Cara’s misfortunes, I see mi gente on Barbara Street queuing up at Centrelink for hours—something I’ve done myself on more than one occasion—desperate to work and angry at a system that fails us. Because our names are too long on our resumes. Because our public transport is unreliable. Because our mother tongue has marked her rolling r’s on us.  

With seamless codeswitching from English to Spanish, we continue to listen to Cara and her tales because she feels like a living breathing person standing before us. Why do I say listen instead of read? Well, because Cruz brilliantly crafts each sentence to sound like the madres, tías, vecinas and co-madres of our Latinx community which she dedicates this blood and bone of a book to. Dr. Janine M. Schall explains in World of Words (The University of Arizona) that, “Codeswitching is a purposeful literary device that can serve a number of different purposes. If the author wants to tell a story about a particular group of people, such as Latinos in the borderland, codeswitching can be a natural and authentic way to establish characters and setting.” And although this novel is not set at the border, it does speak to the large Dominican immigrants that settled in Washington Heights. “Codeswitching often signals a more casual register and offers the author to play with language. Sometimes, too, concepts work better in one language than the other.” In this way, when Cruz codeswitches between languages, she sets the novel in a tongue that’s recognisable by those from its diaspora. “What age do you have?” Cara asks her career advisor, which is how Latinx people literally enquire about someone’s age in Spanish. When reading dialogue like this, I felt like a child again, walking through Ware Street for Thursday night shopping and then quickly stopping at La Torre Cake Shop on Nelson Street – the Latinx bakery that I now take my children to years later.

Moreover, what I love about this novel is how Cruz amplifies the importance of community, especially through Cara’s care of her ninety-year-old neighbour, La Vieja Caridad. If it wasn’t for Cara’s tending of the old woman’s mandados at the bodega to cooking homely dinners of “the moro with habichuelas negras, the plátanos, and the salad of aguacate”, La Vieja Caridad would live alone, in filth and emptiness. This kind of solidarity is one I also recognise. In my tía, Jenny, who always helps with cleaning and cooking for her friends and family without them asking her to. My prima, Tania, immediately begins to knit booties and beanies at the news of any baby on the way. My husband, Gerard, has tiled, painted and plastered an extensive number of relative’s homes in exchange for a round of yerba mate.

Finally, what this novel has done exceptionally is explore Latinx parenting over the generations and how it has changed. From Cara’s parents who, “If we looked to them wrong, cocotazo. If we cried from the cocotazo, another cocotazo.” The novel compares this outdated strict and violent parenting style with that of Cara’s fifteen years younger sister, Ángela. Ángela uses a behaviour management plan with her children that offers choices and praise for positive behaviour. As I listened to Cara examine and critique both her mother and her younger sister, I could hear the common debates we have about parenting between my mother and my sister. From to co-sleep or not. Through to the taboo of smacking. 

How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water is a masterful exploration of our Latinx community. Through Cara’s witty tongue she punctuates their value as migrants in western culture, transcending space and time. From vignette to codeswitching to second-person narration, the Latinx diaspora from the United States of America (Washington Heights, New York) to Australia (Fairfield, south-west Sydney) is drawn ever closer. 

How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water was release 13 September 2022. Follow the author on Instagram: @writercruz and Twitter: @acruzwriter.  Buy her books on angiecruz.com/books 

 

NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO is a Uruguayan-Australian writer who lives on Dharug Country. She is a member of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and has degrees in Communication, Screenwriting and Media Production from the University of Technology, Sydney. Natalia has appeared in Sweatshop Women: Volume OneRacism: Stories on Fear, Hate & BigotrySBS VoicesStory CastersAny Saturday, 2021. Running WestwardKindling and SageBetween Two WorldsThe Big IssuePuentes ReviewMeanjin and ABC Everyday.

Adam Aitken reviews Spirit Level by Marcelle Freiman

Spirit Level

by Marcelle Freiman

Puncher and Wattmann, 2021

ISBN 9781922571144

Reviewed by ADAM AITKEN

Marcelle Freiman’s collection poems Spirit Level, her third book, surely deserves Jill Jones’ endorsement as a book where ‘clarity of memory [sits] alongside a shimmer of location’, whose ‘presences and absences’ are to be savoured. As restless, dynamic, and ‘unsettled’ as her earlier two collections, White Lines and Monkey’s Wedding, (which I reviewed on its publication). This new collection is structured into two parts, the first contains many poems about memories: of childhood in South Africa, of Freiman’s student days as an anti-Apartheid activist, and of parents and Jewish relatives killed and dispersed by the Holocaust. The second part of the collection explores various subjects, with many poems with Australian locations and subjects, including a number of poems on art and photography. Together the poems provide a vivid picture of the life of a South African migrant now settled in Australia. The deeper theme is the poet’s engagement with the past, not so much as nostalgia, but about how her present sensibility is now ineluctably imbricated with these memories. The poems bring a sense of presence to memory and amplify memory’s affective power, because the affect is often tied to traumatic events.

Freiman is clearly aware of the issues around South African history and questions of identity, and she is keenly sensitive to the way the ‘other’, the non-white or the indigenous is represented in this collection. Freiman examines white privilege and she empathises with those whose suffering is and was qualitatively different to her own. The collection shines a critical light on how poetry can be written on what it means to be a white woman who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. Freiman is aware that privilege is complex, and that oppression comes from multiple directions, for she is a woman and a Jew who has migrated twice and feels the loss of her ancestors in WW2. The poems emphasise Freiman’s constant meditation on her motivations for leaving one home to make another in the postcolonial settler country of Australia. Other poems pose spiritual questions, for example, what a Jewish idea of faith could mean in a violent secular world that has done so much to sunder that faith.

Other poems grapple with the question of the settler’s place in the (colonised) landscape of savanna and desert, and with the aesthetic challenges for both poets and visual artist. Each poem is in one way or another about the way who we are much depends on what we choose to remember or forget. Being South African in Australia Freiman does NOT elide racism and many of the poems re-frame the settler as falling far short of a land or state that promises a settled and comfortable existence. As such some of the poems of place ironise a tradition of pastoral idyll. In the poem ‘In Forster (Sand up the Coast)’, Freiman acutely feels how identity, landscape and place are profoundly estranged. The poem considers the fate of Scottish woman Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on a traditional Aboriginal island off Queensland. The poem figures the settler/castaway as a prodigal who must learn to adapt to new surroundings:

And I think of Eliza Fraser
            in her fringe of leaves
on an island of sand
alien, harsh as salt
and beautiful
the pools of water filtered clean
            through the grains –
how she had no choosing,
had to find in the straps
of the leaf bracts,
            learn how to seek out
the toughness

and her feet scratched and bare
were pushing down,
            sucked into sand
            as the wind blew
            her green and leathery.

In other poems there is a strong post-romantic lens, (signalled from the start by the books’ epigraph from David Malouf:

‘The world not as it was, or as
we were, but as we find ourselves
again in its presence.’

David Malouf, ‘A la Recherche,’ An Open Book, 2018

Freiman’s poems about her childhood are seen through a lens of Wordworthian/Blakean innocence, and from there the critical context builds to a critique of settler “innocence” assumptions themselves. ‘The Dam’, a poem about her childhood holidays in South Africa, ambivalently deconstructs the figure of the innocent childlike visionary. ‘The Dam’ is a superb example of nostalgia with a sting to it, as the nostalgia becomes a critique of apartheid’s power over her as a child. The holidays are idyllic, and Freiman learns the workings of windmill pumps. But as in traditional pastoral Freiman acknowledges the other. We learn of Jacob, her family’s black worker, ‘who helped me to see which side of the scale was mine’. In this way the poem is driven by a need to speak truth to the past.

Poems about the poet’s university days in the end days of Apartheid period are fascinating and give a nuanced idea of her and her father’s strategies for rebellion. Her style is both lyrical and investigative, and her history is accessible, clear, and vividly described. Without being didactic the poems provide a rich recollection of Freiman’s South Africa and its contradictions, its beauty and ugliness. It deals with guilt too, the guilt of leaving, and the sorrow of having lost her Jewish ancestors in the Holocaust in Europe. Freiman takes the strengths of lyricism and combines it with a strong documentary base.

Freiman also address historical gaps and lacunae, silences and absences that haunt postcolonial spaces. The poem ‘Country of my birth, written 27 June 2013’ Freiman names South Africa ‘a country of misery’ and mentions the mine dumps and townships like Soweto, and asks

‘How did I love (hate a country
Where I knew so much silence?

This poem spans a period of her childhood to her student days as a student activist. With superb simplicity and a devastating pun on the word “white” she writes

I had no language
            for the lost –

we lived in white houses of indifference

She goes on to ask parenthetically ‘(Can childhood draw blame?)’. Her father was able to survive and helped black South Africans as well, by bribing officials, for he had

‘ worked the system / and kept it quiet – the whispered names / the safe houses of the 1960s / for friends in banished parties’.

Freiman recounts how white citizens were literally kept in the dark about what was happening to Black South Africans, and white opponents of Apartheid were regularly harassed and victimised by the police.

Such questions about the blindness of colonial oppression are raised again in ‘Gold Miner’s Hut, Hill End 1872’, Freiman describes herself viewing a photograph by the early Australia photographer Holtermann. Her eye is withering: ‘Soaring eucalypt frames the foreground’. Freiman is reminded of Constable or Corot, a pastoral idyll with ‘cosy hut’ and smoking chimney. Crucially the mythic fiction behind the work is revealed.

but the ground here is unstable:
something has happened –
trees are stripped of their bark,
skin exposed out of season, broken
branches mess the valley floor

In ‘Feathered’, a fine ekphrastic poem describing an Arthur Boyd painting in the Art Gallery of NSW the text unpacks the viewing process – how does the viewer look upon Boyd’s antipodean Adam and Eve and his vision of the Old Testament parable. Freiman reads the painting as a dramatization of a colonial dilemma: the setters Adam and Eve ejected from privilege/paradise and cast into a haunted and subterranean hell.

In poems like these Freiman progressively reveals the layers of meaning in the title of Spirit Level, which is absolutely appropriate for this collection, as this is poetry that intends to do the levelling, and levelling by way of unpacking certain colonial epistemologies, and “balancing” those with the thinking of the indigenous Other. The poems achieve a “just” way of representing Freiman’s past, by way of gazing back at the past through today’s ‘presences’, a gaze solidly based in empiricism and facticity.

It is thus not surprising that Freiman pays homage to the great documentary photographer August Sander in ‘The Names – Photograph by August Sander’, a standout ekphrastic poem. Sander was a member of the Social Workers Party and made photographic portraits and catalogues his subjects by way of trade, profession, and by social status. Sander catalogued his Jewish subjects under ‘Victims of Persecution’, photography that prompts Freiman’s acknowledgement of an artist who can depict suffering and survival. Like Sander Freiman presents her history on a broad humane canvas with great empathy for the suffering endured.

Another balancing is achieved in the way Freiman uses fact alongside more oblique lyrical poems. In ‘Seven Ways of Mourning’, the effect of a suite of haiku-like stanzas gathers the metaphors for the way we mourn – ‘coins in black water, a favourite plant once mutually admired; ‘a bench / by the sea’; as well as the more traditional image of elegies, the engraved gravestone.

Forgetting is like
light on sharp edged fences,
clears spaces between

These spaces lie between the two scales, literally the space between the living and those mourned, white and black, empowered and the dispossessed.

The book is also giving voice to more traumatic ‘silences’. ‘The Mother Poems’ are enduring recollections of the murder of her own Jewish relatives in Lithuania. Here Freiman slowly unveils a matriarchal narrative, revealing in the most sensitive and respectful of ways the pain her mother and grandmother endured on learning about their death. The poem can only end where all such enquiries end, at the final barrier to our memory being the silence of the dead, as in this case her mother can’t speak of such a loss, and Freiman conveys this heavy burden. With remarkable modesty she writes of her ‘limited grappling’ and narrow vision of what her mother’s experience was.

In ‘Obliquely’, Freiman recounts her recovery in hospital in Sydney after an operation to mend a fractured skull. Freiman describes her time looking out at a view. Then one day her consciousness of her perception changes. Is it the effect of the trauma or something else she asks? Freiman experiences the aftermath of a coup de tête, the clarté du jour, or enlightening, which she terms ‘the ache of the real’. Freiman starts to perceive the most ordinary surrounds of suburban hospital with new clarity. ‘Obliquely’ is a fine poem that reminds me of the French poet Apollinaire’s own recovery from a head wound he sustained in WW1, which clearly damaged his faculties though he could be accepting rather than angry that he had suffered and survived. I read ‘Obliquely’ as a thanksgiving to the work of poets who shape memory and in turn are shaped by memory. But Freiman proposes nothing “divine”, or supernatural, just that the survival of the injured mind/body can seem ‘miraculous’, as imagination and indeed our power to remember, is magical. ‘Obliquely’ demonstrates a way to move beyond the melancholia of historical tragedy and the somewhat limited recounts of colonial histories.

Describing Freiman as ‘settler migrant poet’ does not do justice to this poet. But the book profits from Freiman’s lifetime of writing and researching (post)colonial literature. Such a career has been constantly ‘unsettled and resettled’ for a poet who has migrated twice, from her birthplace in South Africa then to the UK, hence to Australia. But such unsettling opens up so many vectors. Starting from the child’s vision of “nothing or nothingness” and then the immersing oneself in this world and this sensation is at the heart of Freiman’s writing process. The poem ‘What next?’ sheds ideological baggage and begins with no ready-made subject (or theme). Like the mind cleared, it can begin with a completely unpremeditated intention. Poems take shape in this ambivalent process of asking “what was it like, what happened, what did I NOT know what I know now?”. The question of “What next?” becomes “Where to next? Like her favourite painters, the subject of the representation can only be certain once the work is complete or abandoned. But then perhaps no collection of poems is ever ‘completed’ and no work of memory is ever complete, and no trauma is ever quite ‘cured’. Freiman’s poems are like the plants and people she most admires for their toughness, a toughness that she likens to drought resistant trees and plants in the veldt, to the spirit of old mining towns (despite their role in colonialism), and to the black South Africans who looked after her as a child and whom her father helped during the Anti-Apartheid struggle. Spirit Level is thus, a book that remembers the spirit of the survivor but looks to the future with great optimism and openness.

 

 

ADAM AITKEN’s last poetry collection is Revenants (Giramondo). He received the Patrick White Award in 2021.

Michael Hannan reviews Unsettled by Gay Lynch

Unsettled

by Gay Lynch

Ligature Publishers

ISBN 192588323X

Reviewed by MICHAEL HANNAN

What does it mean to tell the stories of one’s ancestors? How do human beings endure landscapes dominated by scarcity, isolation, gruelling labour, and patriarchal cruelty? And what is the price to be paid for survival?

These questions animate Gay Lynch’s Unsettled, an historical novel focusing on a Galway family adjusting to life in south-eastern South Australia during the mid-nineteenth century. In struggling to forge a new existence on the colonial frontier, the Lynches are forced to navigate the unforgiving Australian landscape, hostile English neighbours, life-threatening diseases and injuries, the spectre of financial ruin, and an ever-niggling sense that a better life lies elsewhere. This last is felt particularly strongly by the two Lynch children who serve as the narrators. Rosanna, the headstrong eldest daughter, dreams of running away to the Victorian goldfields, while gentle Skelly, her younger brother, spends most of his time immersed in sketching rocks and fossils. As their surname suggests, the Lynches are modelled on the author’s own family; the novel is dedicated to her children and grandchildren “so that they might imagine their Lynch ancestors.”

Historical concerns are a change of pace for Lynch, whose last offering, cleanskin (2006), was a novel of manners about playgroup mothers in latter-day Port Lincoln. In that book, Lynch mined the social dynamics of pathologically bored small-towners for crackling interpersonal drama, which developed into rivalry, infidelity, and (maybe) murder. While she (eventually) demonstrates similar skills in Unsettled, sustained drama is largely sidelined in Part 1 in favour of setting the pastoral scene. Lynch relies heavily on sensual, lyrical similes: a flock of corellas, when disturbed, “[flies] up like a tossed hand of cards” (50), while morning “passes slow and steady like treacle poured from a spoon” (40) and foam “sets like chantilly around their horses’ mouths” (90). Those who live for imaginative description executed with technical finesse will find plenty here to savour.

If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of reader who sees description primarily as a means of rendering character and not an end in itself, Lynch’s prose style can veer into what Zadie Smith, in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”, calls “lyrical realism”. In this mode, according to Smith, “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers… [the] possibility of transcendence”. Thus, “personal things are… relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth”. The end result is often an onslaught of over description which “colonizes all space by way of voracious image”. Lynch can often be guilty of such imagism. A gown is never simply yellow, but “as pale yellow as early sunshine” (109). Words never just waft away; they have to “waft away on breezes sculpting the shea oaks” (181). Such, to again borrow Smith’s words, is the “anxiety of excess” where “everything must be made literary”.

For readers who find this kind of prose a bit much, the first hundred of Unsettled’s 417 pages, largely held together by verbal portraiture, is a somewhat tangled mix of events. Lynch’s unusually short chapters, some of them only two pages long, don’t initially provide a particularly cohesive reading experience. Each chapter, it seems, offers up a new, potentially intriguing situation, only to introduce an entirely new one in the next. The Lynches, we are told, have recently lost a baby. We don’t hear much about this, although it seems to be why Garrick, the grief-stricken family patriarch, slaps Rosanna, who retaliates by absconding into the bush. This is the kind of conflict which could be milked for suspense, but no; Rosanna comes straight back in the next chapter and hatches a plot to flee to the goldfields, only to be side-tracked when she accidentally lands a job with a family of wealthy English landowners. Throw in a few more subplots involving a visiting priest, a bullock found with a spear in its neck, and elder brother Edwin’s tendency to gamble away most of his money, and it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on.

This kind of constant cycling between loosely-connected narrative morsels so early in the novel, when we don’t yet know (or care) about the characters, makes it hard for any particular situation to hook the reader. We’re presented with a mosaic of the hardships (and tight-knit relationships) comprising the Lynches’ lives. Yet nothing from that mosaic is given the necessary space to help the reader invest in the characters, something that might have been achieved with longer chapters and fewer subplots. In lieu of a central narrative thread holding all the pieces together, we have Lynch’s lyrical realism converting everything in sight to image. If you’re not into that, Part 1 is tough going.

That said, things pick up in Part 2, when one of these fragments finally blooms into a compelling plotline. Through her job in The Big House, Rosanna is drawn into an affair with one of the guests, a handsome young actor from Melbourne. Any potential qualms about Lynch’s prose style are immediately made redundant; finally, we have real stakes. Secret trysts, close calls, and the constant threat of social ruin are all failsafes for weaving a suspenseful story, and the sustained human drama Lynch draws out of the relationship makes for captivating writing.

It’s also around this point that Lynch’s carefully cultivated brand of nineteenth-century Irish English comes into its own. Once Lynch’s dialogue gets more to do than simply establish her characters as Irish, there are some wonderful interactions. Take this exchange between Edwin and Skelly:

Edwin takes it [a newspaper] from him. “Skelly darling, look at this. Moffat’s Vegetable Life Medicines: for flatulence and foulness of the complexion… Shall I order some for you?”
‘Pog mo toin.’ [Irish for ‘kiss my arse’] (153).

Such a quintessentially rivalrous sibling interaction, for all its nineteenth-century points of reference, could have taken place yesterday. It’s a four-line demonstration of how closely the best historical fiction can mirror the present, and an indicator of how easy it is to find contemporary concerns in the societies of long ago.

One particularly relevant concern for Unsettled is modern Australia’s ongoing reckoning with the colonial violence conducted against Indigenous people during the novel’s time period. One consequent literary corollary of this reckoning has been the question of how (or even if) non-Indigenous novelists should engage with these atrocities, as well as how they might represent Indigenous Australian characters in their work. Much of Lynch’s engagement with these debates comes via the character of Moorecke, a Booandik girl of Rosanna’s age from a nearby station; the two girls are presented as fast friends. While it’s not for someone like me to critique whether Lynch gets Moorecke ‘right’, there’s no doubt she endows her with considerable humanity, thanks largely to Moorecke’s irrepressible personality. Despite Rosanna’s entreaties, she cheerfully trespasses on the English settlers’ (read: her) land as she pleases, kills their livestock, and steals their clothes to dance around in “like a brolga displaying its wings” (137). Moorecke is substantially more than a prop for the white characters, and challenges the flat, highly stereotyped representations of Indigenous people of which white writers have historically been guilty. Lynch is also smart enough not to narrate directly through Moorecke; such a step would be for Indigenous writers, and Indigenous writers alone, to take.

Interestingly, Lynch depicts relations between the Galway Lynches and the Booandik people as largely cordial. I admit to being initially surprised at the friendliness of this relationship, although I have no personal knowledge of whether or not Lynch’s portrayal of these relations passes historical muster. (The English landowners, by contrast, pursue the Booandik people more than once with intent to kill.) It should be noted that in the acknowledgments, Lynch namechecks contemporary Booandik custodians and linguists who have provided her with information about Country and even proofread early drafts of the novel. This collaborative spirit suggests a preferred path forward for future settler writers who attempt to write about the brutality in Australia’s colonial past in an ethical manner.

The approach taken to such a worryingly sensitive issue once again reflects Lynch’s chief preoccupations: the enduring power of ancestry, and the capacity of human beings to survive against all odds in environments filled with forces determined to erase their existence. Unsettled is a defiant riposte to such attempts, honouring the hardship and sacrifice of those who came before by creating a family whose members linger in the imagination long after the final page is turned.

Cited

Lynch, G 2006, cleanskin, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.
Smith, Z 2008, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, The New York Review of Books, November 20, vol. 55, no. 18, <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/11/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/>.
 
 
MICHAEL HANNAN is a PhD candidate and tutor in English literature at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His research interests include contemporary British literature and narrative theory. He has written for artsHub, Express Media, FORUM, Mascara Literary Review, and TEXT.

Anne Brewster reviews Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill

Daisy and Woolf

by Michelle Cahill

Hachette

Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
 
 
 
Daisy & Woolf : An investigation of the novel-essay

Michelle Cahill’s debut novel Daisy & Woolf is accomplished and exhilarating. A re-reading of Virginia Woolf’s iconic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway, it excavates and reconstructs the literary worlding of a minor character, Daisy Simmons – the ‘dark, adorable’ Eurasian woman that Clarissa Dalloway’s longtime admirer, Peter Walsh, plans to marry. If you are thinking about the coupling of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre you are on the right track.

Daisy & Woolf relates the journeys of two Anglo-Indian women – Daisy, as she travels from Calcutta to London in the 1920s to meet her beloved Peter Walsh and her subsequent peregrinations in England and Europe – and Mina, the present-day writer recreating Daisy’s story in her own novel as she follows in Daisy’s footsteps, and as she re-traces the geographical trajectories and geopolitical underpinnings of Woolf’s writerly life.

The novel has been widely – and mostly positively – reviewed. Reviewers have acknowledged the significant cultural work that the novel undertakes in investigating the impact of race on women of colour. Marina Sano, for example, praises the novel’s ‘organic’ treatment of this issue (Books+Publishing) and Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen in the Sydney Morning Herald comments on the book’s challenge to the whiteness of the western canon, saying that there is something ‘wonderfully subversive’ about taking ‘a well-known Western text and flipping it inside out to reveal societal truths’ as Cahill does in Daisy & Woolf

An exception to these reviews is a review which simply fails to recognise the workings of race as they are laid bare within the poetic aesthetics of this powerful and complex novel. Attending to this omission is important, I suggest, as it indicates to us how resilient white power is in reproducing itself and how the operations of race remain invisible and unremarked in so many locations. It prompts me to respond by analysing the novel’s deconstructive aesthetics and how Cahill skilfully borrows from Woolf to rewrite the racialising narrative.

***

I was more than a little taken aback by the reviewer’s comment that the novel offers 

‘scant insight into the degree to which Daisy’s race (as opposed to her class or the scandal of her adultery) affects either her social standing or her eventual fate. The only time we are jolted into acknowledging the social and political repercussions of her Anglo-Indian heritage is when she is refused the designation “British subject” on her passport because her ‘skin colour is too dark.’
(Stubbings, 2022)

I was surprised that anyone could miss the novel’s forensic examination of the multiple ways both Daisy and Mina (and their families) have been racialised through the operations of the category Anglo-Indian/Eurasian. 

Mina, the young writer whose story becomes intertwined with Daisy’s reflects, in the first few pages of the novel, on Australia’s colonial history and the little-recorded history of the early migrants on the south coast of NSW where her family lived. She thinks about the Bengali lascars who, as indentured non-Indigenous labourers in the British colonies, represent ‘the invisible ink in the history of cross-cultural connections between India, China, Australia and England’ (6). The novel introduces us early to the tropes of migration/travel and ‘cross-cultural connections’ which comprise the overarching narrative framework of the novel and inform the character arcs of three central writerly female figures of the novel (Woolf, Daisy and Mina). Each of these women is cosmopolitan, cross-hatched by multiple cultural connections, translations and globalised histories. 

The canonical weight of Virginia Woolf and the privileged sure-footedness of her creation, Mrs Dalloway, serve as both inspiration and challenge to Mina and to Daisy. Cahill’s novel excavates Woolf’s familial connections (via Empire) with India and Sri Lanka/Ceylon. While Mina acknowledges, in the first pages of the novel, that ‘Woolf sought to question … empire’ (13), the novel proceeds to demonstrate the shortcomings of this enterprise. It problematizes Woolf’s representation of India and Anglo-Indians and demonstrates that, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf ultimately could only ‘ke[ep] Daisy stunted’ (75), rendering her through the trace of stereotype. It would seem that Woolf did not have the imaginative resources – that is, an adequate political understanding and knowledge of the classed and raced history of empire – to create for Daisy any substantive ‘interior space’ (248) within the novel in spite of its experimental approach to literary realism. Ultimately, Mina insists, Daisy’s world was impenetrable to Woolf: ‘Daisy walks the streets of … postwar London in a way that Clarissa Dalloway cannot appreciate’ (177). Woolf’s apparent cosmopolitanism was marked by classed and raced elisions and disavowals which reproduced the hegemonies she aimed to challenge. 

This cultural blindness is understood by Mina as Woolf committing a discursive violence on the Anglo-Indian gendered subject, of whom Daisy is indexical. These discursive elisions become wider acts of gatekeeping by the literary industry; Mina reflects on the fact that Woolf and ‘the critics that came after her’ in effect ‘refus[e] to let Daisy in’ (69) or to give her a substantive presence within the narratives and the literary worldings that comprise the Anglophone canon. As Mina observes, ‘there’s barely a critic who is aware of, let alone interested in, poor Daisy Simmons’ (76). Indeed, in reality, even in progressive criticism Daisy has been mis-read, for example as ‘an English woman in India’ (Reed Hickman, 65). We can understand Daisy’s exclusion from canonical literary texts as being aligned with the exclusion of Anglo-Indian (along with other BIPOC) writers from the canon.

In her depiction of Daisy’s world, Mina, in a corrective move, decenters Mrs Dalloway’s hegemonic view of the ‘post-war London’ (177) to showcase the other aspects of that city and its denizens that Woolf’s novel largely omits – the many exiles, activists and impoverished people who call it home (however partially or temporarily). Cahill’s novel (like other literary work by BIPOC writers in other contexts) brings the spotlight to bear on the histories and bodies of minoritised people and their struggles against the hegemonic cultural and political histories we see enshrined in the literary canon and its aesthetics. 

***

However, this is not to argue that Mina or the novel, Daisy & Woolf, rejects Woolf and her work tout court. Mina avers an affiliation with Woolf as a feminist who fought against ‘the gender binary and patriarchy’ (175). She affirms that Woolf  ‘knew that women’s bodies are exploited and pursued’ (118). For example, she salutes Woolf for her efforts in testifying to the sexual abuse hidden beneath the niceties of upper-class English life, acknowledging Woolf’s courage in disclosing her sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother (18).

Nor, despite its criticisms of Mrs Dalloway, does Daisy & Woolf advocate casting Woolf on the scrapheap of what we might call dead white women, or banishing the novel in disgrace. As well as mounting a sturdy and unflinching critique of Woolf’s classism and racism as they manifest in her representation of Daisy, Daisy & Woolf constitutes a homage to Woolf’s radical modernist aesthetics. Mina’s writing is an important and generative site of experimentation and subversion of literary realism (175). Mina admires Woolf’s interest in what she calls ‘the malleable nature of experience’ and ‘the trick of narrative’ (176). Further, Mina applauds Woolf’s efforts in forging a ‘new form’ (118), hailing her as ‘perhaps one of the first to attempt the novel-essay’ (176). 

Woolf’s aesthetics, I’d suggest, have deeply inspired Cahill’s own work. I’d argue, for example, that the novel-essay intersects with and informs Daisy & Woolf’s literary project. In reflecting on how to shape and fashion Daisy outside the strictures of the orientalising colonial gaze, Mina says:

Is it right to assume that a story alone can liberate Daisy of race and gender? Without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]. (176)

Mina explains that the novel-essay – made up of historical fact and documentary material which in turn is combined with fictional speculation – is the genre which provides the means to ‘liberate’ Daisy. So can we identify the two constitutive elements of the novel-essay – argument and history – in Daisy & Woolf, and what literary work they undertake there?  

As I have argued, the novel documents the historical operations of white power, race and class and their impact on Daisy and Mina. When Daisy writes to Peter Walsh of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in India that ‘all our communities have been woken to the politics and economics of the times’ (27), she is summarising what we could, in effect, describe as one of the novel’s implicit ‘arguments’ about minoritised identities in the aftermath of colonisation, namely, that minoritised identities are shaped on multiple fronts by racialising forces beyond their control. Further, they are cognisant of these forces which many white constituencies disavow. In her portraiture of Daisy, Mina documents the historical context of the Anglo-Indians/Eurasians in both India and the UK. For example, Daisy’s decision to leave India is motivated not only by her desire to be with Peter Walsh but by her sense of the precarity of the Anglo-Indians’ position there. Mina makes reference to the stirrings of the political unrest and violence – along lines of racial/ethnic and religious difference – that we know would lead, twenty years later, to Partition (33). 

Mina’s family (like Daisy’s) is constantly sensitive to racialised tensions in India (and in her case, East Africa), which impact on them as Eurasians and precipitate their multiple migrations. Racialisation meant that issues of citizenship and identity loomed large for both Daisy (55) and Mina’s mother (72). Mina describes the ambivalent positioning of Anglo-Indians/Eurasians within the colonial governance in India which had ‘taught them to assimilate and to behave in all ways as if they were English’ (50-51). She outlines the stigma of ‘mixed ancestry’ (51) and the structural poverty which beset Anglo-Indians after the late 1900s (50). Mina writes, ‘I felt ill when I was growing up encountering some Indians: the ridicule and scorn they heaped on us’ (51). When her family migrated to Britain the racism continued. She described how her mother internalised the ‘colour conscious’ (49) racism in Britain; how Mina and her siblings were teased for being coloured and how, as a result, Mina ‘avoided other children’ (50). These racialised tensions persist in the contemporary world. While researching Woolf in Britain some years later, Mina is acutely aware of the racialised violence constantly profiled in the media there (such as the Westminster attack by Khalid Masood) (20). 

I quoted above Mina’s statement – ‘without an argument, without a history, Daisy’s voice is exotic or historical fiction [my emphasis]’ (176) – suggesting that argument and history might be read as the core elements of the novel-essay. Daisy & Woolf, as a novel-essay, can be understood as emerging at the intersection of these two discursivities. In my reading of Cahill’s novel, to this point, I’ve argued that Mina’s documentation of how her own and Daisy’s complex worlds are shaped by colonial histories allows us to understand the two women’s fraught positionality as Anglo-Indians. This documentary discursivity, I’m proposing, could be identified as the ‘essayistic’ trajectory of Cahill’s novel-essay. Mina asserts that research on/documentation of Anglo-Indians is indispensable to her novel whose main work, she declares, is ‘the historical restoring of my community’ (75). There is a convergence here between her work and Cahill’s.

The relationship between Mina and Cahill is complex. At the core of the novel is Cahill’s project to resurrect Daisy. Daisy’s story is in part Mina’s story which in turn resonates with autofictional echoes of Cahill’s life. These complex layerings are mediated by the epistolary first-person address, which both Mina and Daisy adopt. We can note the significance of the analytical, investigative, first-person voice in the context of the documentary imperative of the novel where Daisy and Mina – in their letters and journal entries – observe, chronicle, and salvage the daily and the political life of the world around them. (They draw on the same style of ‘moments accruing’ (171) through which Mrs Dalloway records her world). Their end goal, however, as I have argued, is quite different from Woolf’s. It is to ‘refus[e] demise’ (291) of what Mina describes as ‘my people’ (16) and, further, to ‘control their own destiny’ (219) through acts of narration. The immediacy of the first-person in Mina’s and Daisy’s stories bears a personalised testimony to the silences, elisions and losses which, when exhumed, bring to light a newly recognised history. We must not forget that this is Daisy’s story too; the reviewer quoted at the start of this review comments that Mina’s story overpowers Daisy and ‘swamps’ her. This comment is hard to justify given the complex and rich evocation of Daisy’s journey and its beautifully elaborated water themes; her psychological journey through grief and spurned love which shadow her physical voyage, and the motifs of travel as survival and reinvention.

***

In light of the prominent and avowed documentary/essayistic aesthetics in the novel the reviewer’s comment – with which I started this review – concerns me. The reviewer singles out the incident where Daisy is refused a British passport as the sole incident in which race impacts on her. This is to ignore the novel’s textual organisation as a novel-essay which, I suggest, is identified in Mina’s insistence that Daisy’s story cannot be told without a retelling of history. The central project of investigating race is undertaken by two distinct discursivities. Daisy & Woolf is both essayistic (in its inclusion of historical ‘research’ [120]) and fictional – in the imaginative worlding of Daisy’s and Mina’s lives. Is it possible that the historical and documentary discursivity is completely invisible to some readers? Such readers duplicate the race blindness that Cahill identifies in Woolf‘s aesthetics. It’s disturbing to see this blindness reappearing in contemporary literary criticism, especially when that criticism addresses the work of writers of colour. The enterprise of critics who are, like me, non-Indigenous and not people of colour, and who analyse the literary work of BIPOC writers, is a precarious one. There are many twists and turns within our readings which may prove to be blind spots like the one I have identified. The works we examine are also precarious in that they are open to mis-reading and mis-representation in our hands. 

 

Works Cited

Cahill, Michelle. 2022. Daisy & Woolf. Sydney: Hachette.
Hickman, Valerie Reed.”Clarissa and the Coolies’ Wives: Mrs. Dalloway figuring transnational feminism.” Modern Fiction Studies 60.1 (2014): 52-77.
Stubbings, Diane. July 2022. “Delible Impressions Liberating Daisy Simmons”.  Australian Book Review.

Read a review of Daisy and Woolf by Fijian-Indian Australian writer, Varuna Naicker

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