Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt
by Elena Gomez
Puncher and Wattmann
Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
To read Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt (2020), Elena Gomez’s second full-length poetry collection, is to be propelled headlong through the dizzy intersect of postmodernity and Marxist-feminist critique, to be flooded with possibilities for distraction, and for engagement. It is a work that not only demands rereading but requires it. Which is not to say that it cannot be drunk down along with your breakfast coffee (it’s slim enough that this is possible), but it is to say that the work is best enjoyed over a series of re-readings, with time for the ideas to settle into your insides, digest.
In the first instance, one can let the references wash over them, become background to the compulsion forward and through. The writing is pacey, and the direct, sometimes conversational tone—so removed from the intellectual posturing that marks much academia-adjacent work—allows readers to slip easily into the pages without getting hung up on their theoretical or historical underpinnings. The critique is there, underscoring everything, but the first reading can be one of pure pleasure. Slowing down, or (as in my case) re-reading, leads to uncovering.
Gomez peppers her work with references to revolution, to Marxist-feminist theory, to pop culture and to our contemporary and each reading unfolds possibilities, invites further study and collaboration in meaning making. Names and dates appear with little preamble or explanation and re-readings lead to google searches and rabbit-hole Wikipedia binges, the collection sitting at the centre of a web of connections from which the reader is pushed to questioning what it means to exist in postmodernity. Objects, in particular, are everywhere in the work, cast into affective relation to one another, to world structures and to readers. There are batteries, bobby pins, snap back caps, calico rugs, silk scarfs, black patterned shawls, bloodstained bedsheets, mulberry lipstick, cowskin purses, pools, headphones, babydoll dresses (Courtney Love’s, in peach), ungainly frocks, pianos, lavender mist pillows, and more. The excesses of capitalism fill the pages, are turned and refracted across vectors of desire, need and obligation. For example, of a ‘ribbed cream short sleeve maxi’, Gomez writes:
Her judgement takes into account the labour involved
in anger vs the labour involved in disappointment.
She is to be worn by someone who withstands rotating
modules for productivity
Readers are gently oriented through Gomez’ experiences as a cis Woman of Colour and arts worker, and through this prism Gomez explores legacies and realities of labour, care, gender and bodies under neoliberal capitalism. The collection is a snapshot in time, but one which is careful to capture the generational nature of the project—the past and the present are in intimate communication, inextricable in a Marxist-feminist poetics that captures the Russian Revolution, the early Soviet era, the mid-to-late-20th century and our post-GFC moment.
The collection is at once an epic poem and a series of poems, each page offering both a discrete moment and a continuous slippage into past and future. This is evident from the first page where Gomez seems to draw the poem to a close only to throw it wide open again upon the turn:
ready 2 enable
like how you enable
me to be
demanding of pleasure
Gomez’ writing makes clear that history is open-ended and incomplete, ongoing. So too is the revolution.
The future is evoked too, through Gomez attention to intertextual clues and the paths she is sending readers on, and in her use of frequent rhetorical questions, calling the reader to attention: ‘Am I too far inwards? Is this a way to conduct a mob?’; ‘What does aesthetics even do these days’; ‘What kinds of poetry are you making? Why is this so hard to contemplate?’; ‘Could you shout more or are we sufficient’.
Alexandra Kollontai, revolutionary, politician, Marxist theorist and writer, is a central and recurring figure, one who allows Gomez to explore the gendered nature of precarious and unwaged labour, particularly in literary and/or artistic communities. Gomez calls to her, an apostrophic address that, through its invocation of one who cannot respond, implicates the reader in the search for answers:
dear Alexandra please where are the new women were the
old women somewhere is the un-born woman anywhere or
does work also abolish the rest
dear Alexandra how many lovers does it take to bring
down an empire
Kollontai, an oft-forgotten figure who experienced something of a revival in the seventies, was especially interested in parsing love, desire, gender and family under communism, weaving her lived experience with her theories of communist futures and often using literature to elaborate her ideas (for example in her novel Red Love (1927)). Her interests have been taken up by Gomez and reframed through our contemporary, and through poetry.
There’s a delicious irony in critiquing capitalism through poetry, a form which has little to offer in terms of ‘market value’ and a form which traditionally skews away from the type of ‘rationality’ underscoring capitalism as an economic system. Despite its low ‘profit margins’ and understanding the privilege inherent in having time to write, poetry allows a certain freedom to make this critique since poets know very well that they are mostly exempt from the limitations imposed by market pressures. Gomez nods to this, writing:
There is a question surrounding us i.e. how may poems
will recuperate the surplus value produced by a worker
who must read in order to produce the company’s
There is a curious balance, too, between surreal elements (I climbed away/ A mountain goat/ found me weeping / and I refused its offer’) and riffs on the language of work-place (A keyboard shortcut; you could’ve said something. / I watched for a bit before we packed up the office./ Whatever else was going on/ You were still supreme at note-taking / When pamphlet distribution was at an all-time low’). At moments these disparate threads meet:
After a boss leaked the surplus
labour all over your standing desk
we divided the chips from my
snack pockets. I was too girly
and it showed.
All through the collection, Gomez nods to the un/reality of our situation and to that which distracts us from this, in particular to objects and pop culture, offering us possibilities for reframing. For example, drawing on Kim Stanley’s utopian Mars trilogy she writes: ‘I am meant to be thinking about revolution RIGHT NOW/ but all I can think of is outer space.’ This, I think, neatly summarises the focus of the collection: the way that we are distracted (by neoliberalism, by the realities of waged and unwaged labour, by our many objects, and indeed, by love and desire) from our revolutionary goals and how we can reframe those distractions for revolutionary ends.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and critic. She has received the 2021 Kat Muscat Fellowship and a 2020-21 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on an autotheoretical book about her experience as a refugee, the Bosnian war, identity, memory and un/belonging. Her writing has appeared in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She tweets at @dzenanabanana.
British India, White Australia
by Kama Maclean
New South Books
Reviewed by JOSHUA BIRD
Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated elements of systems of racial discrimination is their sheer banality.
Whether it be the efficient genocidal bureaucracy of the Nazi holocaust or the complex racist laws and policies that held together the system of Apartheid in South Africa, their existence reminds us that racism and prejudice are not just the remit of bad people—‘racists’—doing ‘racist’ things. Rather, racism is a concept that explains—indeed generates—entire systems of oppression and exclusion. Such systems are administered soberly and dutifully by governments and their representatives often in pursuit of their own perception of the common good.
For a real-world example of countries whose histories are informed by the administration of racism you could not find two clearer cases in India and Australia. Both countries are connected by a shared experience of colonialism of the British variety yet they participated on quite different ends of the imperial spectrum. The central explanation of that difference is, of course, race. Australia was not only a part of an empire constructed with Whiteness at its core, it was a nation who had only just recently declared most proudly its intention to be the purest, whitest nation in the British Empire. India, on the other hand, was a proud ancient civilisation now denied equal standing within the Empire, despite representing its largest source of resources and income, solely on the basis of its non-White status.
Using race and colonialism as a common thread, British India, White Australia, by Kama Maclean, attempts to explore this complex set of inter-relationships between Australia, India and Britain (as both nations and peoples) from Australian Federation in 1901 until India’s independence in 1947. In the first half of the twentieth century, British propaganda efforts went to great pains to emphasise the kinship of the Imperial relationship. This narrative was particularly emphasised during World War II when the survival of the Empire itself rested very heavily on India’s contribution to the war effort. Yes, despite this narrative of brotherhood, it would be some time before Australia even approached recognising India as a sovereign nation.
Historically, Australian perspectives on India were mediated through the triangulated prism of Britain – and the British Empire. For example, while Australian trade to India was robust, such trade was transacted largely with British colonial enterprises and seen as a component of global Imperial Trade rather than a bilateral economic relationship with India itself. India’s economy was shackled to Britain’s as a prime source of raw materials for British industry and a captive market for British manufactured goods. As Maclean notes, “India was more imagined than experienced in Australia, with the vast majority of transnational connections heavily mediated through the white mechanisms of the British Raj” (Maclean, p55). This was not an accident. Rather, it was by British design and intent.
From India’s perspective, the ties of Empire served to increase tensions with Australia rather than bind them closer. Australia’s stridently racist immigration policies—which treated British Indians just as unfairly as Chinese or other non-whites—put it at odds with a country looking to assert itself on equal footing within the Empire. Australia, for its part, tended to see Indian criticism of its restrictive policies as indicative of the Indian people’s ‘hyper-sensitive’ nature (Maclean, p233), rather than a genuine grievance borne of justifiable concern. In international forums Australian diplomats did their best to frame the country’s policies of prejudicial exclusion in economic terms rather than explicitly race-based ones. Australia’s concern was with non-whites’ willingness to work for low wages without union membership, it was argued, rather than any sense of racial superiority or prejudice that motivated Australia’s actions. Those paying attention will recognise similarities to contemporary Australian political discourses around migration (for both refugees and non-refugee).
Arguably, for much of the 20th century content to follow Britain’s lead, Australia was most active internationally when combating attempts to progress racial equality. For the antipodean colony, the issues of challenging apartheid, softening the White Australia policy and Indian home rule were all connected—each an equally slippery slope which must be defended against at all costs lest the Empire come undone. Most famously, the advocacy of Australian Prime Minister Hughes was instrumental in halting a resolution in favour of a racial equality clause during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Maclean covers negotiations of this kind in great detail in the book, although the casual reader may find the content covering various international agreements and domestic legislation a dense read.
However, British India, White Australia is as much about British hypocrisy on the issue of race as it is about Australia’s own discriminatory policies in relation to Indians. While Britain often joined India in showing dismay over Australia’s policies, this was only because of their perceived impact on the stability of the Empire rather than any higher moral argument. Indeed, Maclean argues that Australia’s race-based immigration regime was entirely consistent with the Empire’s principles and values rather than an aberration from them.
Race and inherent white superiority were used to justify Britain’s refusal to extend self-rule to India just as much as they were used to justify the exclusion of non-whites from Australia. As Australia’s third Prime Minister Chris Watson argued:
“The British Government do not think of putting the Hindoo (sic) or any other native of India upon the same plane as the people of the United Kingdom. The ground I take is that the natives of India are British subjects and subjects only, whilst the people of the United Kingdom are citizens as well, and British subjects in Australia are citizens also. That constitutes a wide distinction” (Maclean, pp25-26)
The sensitives of relations within the Empire meant that the reasoning for this distinction was seldom explicitly stated—the racist assumption that Indians were not capable of self-rule (at least not currently). Similarly, Australia’s selective application of a theoretically colour-blind language test allowed the country to effectively bar the migration of non-Whites without stating their true intent.
Ironically, Australians themselves balked at Britain’s use of bureaucracy to discriminate against them in the form of access to roles in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). At the time, Britain required applicants for work in the Indian colonial administration to attend examinations that were held in London, thus limiting access to only those Australians with the time and funds to allow for the trip to Britain. Australian lobbying for the holding of examinations locally were resisted by Britain at least partially on the grounds that giving in to such a request would increase pressure on them to hold similar examinations in India itself—thus opening the door for increased numbers of Indians working in the ICS. As with Australia’s language test, Britain felt the need to maintain a veneer of procedural fairness in enacting its racial discrimination. As Maclean notes, “discrimination was effectively concealed in the garb of the efficient and procedural bureaucracy of the examination” (Maclean, p41).
While the low numbers of Indians migrating to Australia in the early Twentieth Century meant that they were never a target of specific legislation or policies to curb their numbers or influence, they nonetheless suffered at the hands of Australia’s racist policies which aimed to discriminate against all non-Whites equally. Indeed, it was this failure to give British Indians the proper standing expected of fellow members of the Empire that was the greatest source of grievance for Indians in Australia.
Those Indians resident in Australia balked at their second-class standing and were very active in petitioning governments—both domestically and internationally—for a recognition of their special status. Having spilled blood for the Empire in the recent war, surely they had done enough to prove themselves loyal subjects and worthy of respect? ‘No’, was Australia’s response. If anything, Indian migration to Australia represented a new threat to the Australian worker and fed into the long-running inferiority complex of the Colonial Australian. The expansion of Western models of education to the Indian middle classes, including English language training, had created a generation of Indians who could not only compete with Australian workers but exceed them in capacity and skills.
Despite these tensions, there was engagement and contact between Indians living in Australia and local people. However, given the scarcity of first-person Indian accounts, Maclean is generally forced to adopt the perspective of non-Indian Australians in painting a picture of the lives of Indians in Australia at the time. This includes a fascinating analysis of the presence of Indian hawkers through the family photos and remembrances of those rural Australian families with whom they traded. For many of these isolated families, particularly women, the arrival of a travelling Indian hawker represented an opportunity to sample new wares, share local gossip and access the world beyond the farm. However, such representations are just snippets; distant and casual.
While Maclean herself acknowledges the limitations of first-person sources, the book would have benefited from more illustration of the internal life of Indians resident in Australia at the time. How did they reconcile their identities as Indians, Australians and British subjects? Instead, the greater availability of official documentation over personal accounts means that much of the book is concerned with the formal administrative aspects of Indian identity in Australia in the early twentieth century—such as the advocacy for equal legal and/or residential status.
In the end, Australia’s reticence in engaging directly with India and Indians gave way to shifting political realities. Even by the 1920s, Britain’s primary role in mediating the Australia-India relationship had started to recede. This allowed for both parties to establish more direct engagement for the first time. Oftentimes this engagement was led by niche organisations; Communists, Theosophists and Friendship societies. The Australian public’s impact on India’s independence movement was minimal at best. Despite this, the book explores the activities and internal machinations of a number of these well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual efforts.
With Britain’s retreat from Asia during World War II and India’s newly won independence, Australian policy-makers quickly acknowledged the need for a recalibration of its diplomatic priorities. As European powers retreated from their former colonial territories in the region Australia was now looking at a more isolated future. Cultivation of stronger diplomatic ties with India was needed as Australia pivoted to face a new foe—global Communism. Soon both countries would establish respective diplomatic representation, opening channels for direct political communication without British involvement. This would eventually be followed by the first cracks in the White Australia policy, allowing Indians to study, work and migrate to Australia.
In recent years, political necessity sparked by shifts in international power relations has once again seen Australian political leaders turn their attention to India. This time, however, it is China to whom the West seeks India’s help in balancing. India has become one of Australia’s key strategic partners in responding to the growing economic and military might of China, joining the United States and Japan as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’). On the economic front, Australia’s two-way goods and services trade with India now totals a massive $24.4 billion per year, and has become a key market for Australian exporters looking to avoid an over-reliance on China. At the individual level, engagement has never been higher. India is now the second largest country of origin for overseas-born Australian residents, and last year well over 100,000 Indians studied in Australia. Exchange goes both ways, as Australian cricketers ply their wares throughout the Indian Premier League and Indian cuisine and culture now firmly within the mainstream.
And yet, the central question raised by British India, White Australia remains. Do Australia and India truly share a set of common values and understandings? The poor treatment of Indian-Australians trying to return to Australia during the recent surge of Covid-19’s Delta variant revealed fractures in the relationship. Racist incidents, such as the apparent targeting of Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne, have also undermined any argument that racist attitudes towards Indians are now in the country’s rear-view mirror. While some may suggest that any hope for long-term engagement between India and Australia rests on an embrace of their common history, others like Maclean will continue to assert that in fact it is this shared colonial experience that has prevented the relationship from evolving beyond its racist origins.
JOSHUA BIRD is a community development specialist and scholar who focuses on minority rights and multicultural policy. He has spent the last twenty years living and working across the Asia-Pacific and has a Masters of Asia-Pacific Studies (2010) and a Doctor of Philosophy in China Studies (2016). Joshua is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books and Cha Asian Literary Journal, and his first book Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity Along China’s Multi-ethnic Borderland was published by Routledge in 2017.
The Mother Wound
Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
Amani Haydar’s powerful memoir takes its title from Dr Oscar Serrallach’s term ‘the mother wound’, which describes how ‘the relationship between mothers and daughters is affected by unhealed traumatic experiences passed down matriarchal lines’ (333). In her family, Haydar says, the wounds have been inflicted by male aggression, war and migration (329).
If memoirists produce memoirs in order to make their lives count in the public record, Haydar’s memoir is motivated by the strong imperative to make her mother’s life count – for it to be recorded and commemorated publically – as her mother, Salwa Haydar, was the victim of lethal violence at the hands of her husband, Haydar’s father. Amani Haydar has a high profile as a writer, artist, lawyer, community activist, media commentator and advocate for women’s rights, and has talked a lot in the media about her mother’s death so I expect it’s not a spoiler for me to identify this as the event that galvanises Haydar as a memoirist. She herself refers to her mother’s passing proleptically early in the book, before the narrative has even touched much upon her mother.
Haydar spends the first section of the memoir establishing the close and mutually respectful (67) relationship she had with her father as a child and the way he had inspired and dominated her sense of herself and her future. This is a deftly written memoir which skilfully records the changing narrative point of view of the protagonist/memoirist. Haydar describes how as a child she internalised her father’s view of the world, and saw the world in effect through his eyes. This included being inadvertently complicit from the sidelines as a child in his disparagement of her mother. Haydar recognises all too late that her father’s pattern of coercive, controlling, belittling and intimidating behaviour comprises the gendered domestic abuse that would prove fatal to her mother (91). The memoir thus traces Amani Haydar’s rites of passage as she comes to understand the functions of patriarchy as they intersect with gender and race. It describes her dissatisfactions with mainstream feminism and her efforts to ‘carve out’ (58) a feminism that would account for these intersectional complexities.
The feminism that The Mother Wound articulates is informed by scholarship (in particular the history of Muslim women’s writing and feminists working in Islamic frameworks), grass-roots and local activism, and debates on social media. This repurposed feminism allows Haydar to address issues such as the pernicious stereotyping of Arab and Muslim people in the media (for example, the correlations of Muslims with violence), and to challenge the entrenched binaries that promulgate these stereotypes (such as the binary of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ which besets representations of CaLD communities and individuals, a binary mobilised by both the mainstream media and her father’s family alike, to the detriment of Muslim and Arab women).
Haydar identifies the ‘double bind’ that Muslim woman activists and survivors of gendered abuse often find themselves in of having to fend off Islamphobia on the one hand and to challenge patriarchy in their own communities on the other (304). This can result in self-censorship and a reluctance on the part of Muslim and Arab women to ‘share their truth freely’ (304). Haydar’s memoir makes an important contribution to Australian public life in countering this silence and I urge all Australians to buy and read this important book. Beautifully-written, intelligent and passionate, The Mother Wound is profoundly moving in its bravery and breathtakingly astute in its analysis of the operations of race, gender and class. It makes a paradigm-shifting contribution to the genre of life-writing and memoir in Australia.
In the course of reading this book I enthusiastically recommended it to a number of white friends and colleagues. It elicited virtually the same response: ‘oh, that sounds a bit grim’. Why are some things just too unpalatable for white readers? Haydar talks a lot about the lack – in the period following her mother’s death – of the recognition of and adequate ethical responses to her and her sisters’ grief: from her father’s family, the community, the mainstream media and other actors. The book forcefully draws my attention to a significant component of toxic whiteness – its refusal to acknowledge and commemorate the griefs of minoritised peoples and respectfully accord them mainstream space in public culture.
If Amani Haydar’s memoir is a commemoration of her mother and her untimely passing before she had time to realise the many different goals and ambitions of her public and private life, it is also a gesture to her grandmother and her shocking death in the South Lebanon conflict some years earlier. Haydar’s Teta was in a civilian convoy of three vehicles travelling through the countryside to escape shelling when they are killed in an apparently inexplicable Israeli drone attack. As one of her relatives stated: ‘there was nothing around the area where we were attacked, only fruit orchards – no people and no fighters. It was an empty area… we were clearly civilians, we had white flags’ (69).
Haydar meditates on the fact that the mortalities occasioned by war can leave people with a feeling of helplessness, and the sense that there is no recourse to justice. In her work as a lawyer she had attended a workshop on the investigation of war crimes with lawyers and investigators who had worked at the Hague Convention. She found the statistics of civilian mortalities particularly disturbing; ‘In modern warfare it is estimated that eighty per cent of casualties are civilians and seventy per cent of those civilians are estimated to be women and children’ (54). The rationale of ‘acceptable collateral in military operation[s]’ (55) was equally disturbing for her, given her family history. As the only Arab in the room at the workshop she was acutely aware that her own proximity to the Israeli-Lebanese war made her uncomfortable and distressed with the approach of the workshop to this material on civilian deaths which was on occasion cheerful and even jocular (55).
Haydar’s memoir demonstrates the many ways that war intrudes into diasporic peoples’ lives, not just in professional settings like the workshop but also their private living rooms: her family received news of Haydar’s Teta’s death in a tv news report. Hearing of her mother’s violent death with no warning in this way was deeply traumatic for Haydar’s mother and other family members (61). Haydar’s memoir raises the question for me: how can space be made in the national social imaginary (beyond the significant memorials in local communities) for the commemoration of those wars from which diasporic Australians have fled? The memory of these wars already exist within the memories of individuals and collectives; how can they be recognised at the national level?
In its dual homily to her mother’s and grandmother’s untimely deaths, The Mother’s Wound forensically analyses the intertwining of gender and violence in both the settings of the private home and in warfare. It aims to record truths that often remain unrecognised and unacknowledged. This analytical and memorial work comes at a cost. Haydar describes her acute sensitivity to war and violence; even watching the normalised stream of violence on mainstream tv provokes anxiety in her. The imagery is overwhelmingly immediate, real and ‘fleshy’ (129), reminding her inescapably of ‘a heightened sense of [her] own mortality, and the mortality of those around [her]’ (129). She describes numerous occasions when journalists and other people seeking to report on and commodify the grief of Haydar’s family (on the occasions of both her mother’s and her grandmother’s egregious deaths), showed little ethical awareness of and response to Haydar’s and her sisters’ grief. These anecdotes about normalised invisibility of minoritised people’s suffering make me as a middle-class white woman very much aware of the risk Haydar exposes herself to in offering her story to a variety of readers and audiences; and of my own responsibility to try to avoid contributing to this violence and harm.
Haydar insists that in spite of their violent deaths her mother and grandmother were strong women. Although she was indisputably the victim of wrong doing her mother was not only a victim but also a courageous and loving woman, an activist who ‘fought misogyny’ (93) and who left a legacy of resilience, intelligence and helping others (254). In bearing witness to the stories of her mother and grandmother Haydar herself celebrates the spiritual resources of gratitude, faith and joy (307) which sustained her during her writing of the memoir as well as her art practice, her family, community and her activism as a survivor-advocate.
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
by Jamie Marina Lau
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
Consumption and corporeality in late capitalism
A reading of Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby
After the deliquescent dream of Pink Mountain on Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby is a wake-up call from a silent number in the small hours of the morning. Leen lives in the fictional outer suburb of Par Mars, a typical sprawl of shopping centres, housing estates, and units fronted by flat open lawns. Yet just beneath all the grass and concrete runs an undertow of surveillance and violence that feels both strange and strangely familiar.
The most remarkable (and terrifying) feature of Lau’s hyperreality is the Topic Heights shopping complex which Leen selects as the site for her new business: a healing studio where she plans to offer the traditional Chinese ear-cleaning services she has learned from her mother. Topic Heights is ‘a perfect centrum, the exact summation of every need and every personality of the people residing around its hems. Where we get our clothes, where we find things to eat, what the inside of our houses look like.’ (7) Conversant with the comforting ‘sameness’ of the shopping complex are Leen’s reflections on the mind-body relationship and her role as a healer:
I tell her I’m passionate about relieving stress and tension in physical bodies and that we often abandon the concept that our nervous system, muscles, joints and organs carry the weight of us around. So much of our soul lives in our eyes and our fingers. The rest of our body gets heavy from being a vehicle for it. It needs relief. We have to start from the nervous system, the mind. (52)
The hypnotic slide between the philosophy of Chinese medicine and anatomisation of the capitalist machinery grinding away in the bowels of Topic Heights speaks directly to the reader as body and as consumer. My initial excitement at finding myself in a setting so familiar yet so under-scrutinised in contemporary literature was gradually subsumed by a profound discomfort stemming from a growing awareness of the myriad ways in which a life might be manipulated, even choreographed, by the insidious forces of late capitalism. Like so much of the novel, however, this discomfort, as well as a certain heightened consciousness of the sensations experienced by my ‘physical body’ (grasping my phone, peering at my computer screen), felt necessary, felt like waking up after drowsing for an indeterminate period of time in a malaise of uninterrogated habits.
Leen’s liminal status as a new business owner affords her a simultaneous view of both the exterior façade and the internal workings of the Topic Heights economy. Even as she curates furniture and music for her healing studio, carefully arranging her face and her words in accordance with the tenets of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power to obtain and maintain custom, she spends her breaks luxuriating in the infinite showrooms and product ranges of K.A.G., a fictional but uncannily familiar international chain store that sells minimal basics, stationary and homewares. Leen’s own awakening is instigated by Jean-Paul, her housemate’s disgruntled co-worker at the Topic Heights’s pharmacy. Talking incessantly, Jean-Paul half-asks/half-demands that Leen drive him to a ‘discussion group’ where members of the Par Mars community use Heidegger and Hegel to dissect the managerial practices of the franchises that populate Topic Heights.
The number of men and white women who talk without listening throughout the novel underscores Leen’s relative passivity, or more accurately the practised resignation from which she observes the power plays that propel the world around her. Leen shares her narratorial detachment (or, as Lau describes it, ‘existential boredom’) with Monk, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Pink Mountain on Locust Island. But while Monk’s status as an observer is largely a function of her disempowerment as an adolescent girl, Leen’s torpor is a product of the absurdities and violence of racism. As a young woman of colour Leen is less an actor than a body to be acted on, a view frequently embodied by her male clients:
I tried to pass him a sheet. But he didn’t take it, just smiled, his breath under his pressed lips. His body lurched, tilting a bit forward, as if ready to impel himself on me. A foully carnal exhale coming from his nostrils.
‘Take,’ I said. Basic English, no emotive words.
I tried not to look where his dick was. He performed a sort of sneer and went over to the massage table, leaned up against it. He looked down. His body looked like a pouch compared to it.
‘You take,’ he said, this time using a slight accent, or perhaps I had become too paranoid at that point. He had a ten-dollar bill scrunched between his fists. ‘You take.’ (138)
Although Jean-Paul never seems to pose a similarly physical threat, occupying space with his words rather than his body, the entitlement and rage of his rants flow forth from the same arterial vein that carries the violence coursing everywhere beneath the suburban monotony of Par Mars. In an effort to bring about ‘palpable change’, Jean-Paul begins to plan and carry out a series of ‘Resisting Acts’ – strange but harmless pranks designed to unsettle any Topic Heights managerial staff who he believes are too accustomed to and comfortable in the seat of power. In this way, the violent energy that surges beneath the surface of the novel has both reactionary and revolutionary origins. Yet if the ‘late’ in late capitalism hints at the imminence of revolution, with its odd cast of misfits, Gunk Baby wonders who will be driving the revolution and where we will end up.
MEGAN CHEONG is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on Wurundjeri land. Her writing has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging and Overland.
by Alison Croggon
Reviewed by GAYATRI NAIR
I initially didn’t want to review this book. It is written by a white woman, and as a person of colour (POC) who wants to elevate diverse writing, I thought it was important to only review other diverse writers. However, after discussion with a mentor and writer I realised that it is also important that we, as POC women especially, participate in criticism, not just of diverse literature but also more established writers. It is possible also to challenge and change traditional criticism by introducing diverse perspectives from diverse critic-subjects. This is called auto-ethnographic criticism, which acknowledges the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and makes room for non-traditional forms of inquiry and expression. It is a way to quietly address the assumed authority of the ‘literary review’ or the role of ‘critic’. So, in this way it’s subversive for a POC to review white authors and writing.
Alison Croggon I think would appreciate and understand this. Her work ‘Monsters’ – part essay, interwoven with part memoir – interrogates her role as a white woman and how colonialism and the establishment of the empire has caused harm, not only to those outside it but those who built it. She asks difficult questions, not only of herself but of the reader.
“This figure I see in the foreground, this me. How monstrous am I? What does it mean to be a monster? From Latin monstrum, meaning an abomination…grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible …” (pg 160)
Croggon is herself an immigrant, she researches her family’s heritage through murky British military history to both South Africa during the Boer War and India; her family were foot soldiers of the empire. She questions how she can escape this dynasty including spending her formative years under apartheid – and the most racist country in the world.
Croggon’s descriptive way with words and unexpected adjectives and sentence structures demonstrate her expertise as a poet. The rhythms of her writing replicate the ocean and we are sometimes dragged within its depths. The references to other writers, especially poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath are interlaced with her own criticisms in unique ways. But the stories she tells of her family life and in particular her motherhood are glittering, told with both stylistic prowess and integrity. The way she writes about being a woman, her mother and her own experience of domestic abuse which fractured her life and relationships, and her later recognition of what it was is both compassionate and unrelenting. Her refusal to be a nice woman, her anger at structures that contain women is refreshing.
The critical relationship explored in this this book though is the one with her sister, which is sometimes hard to read. Their relationship is marked by cruelty and stems from their experiences as children, the violence Croggon describes as well as the anger is at once palpable, intimate but also sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy. Their subsequent estrangement marked by their shared inheritance of violence is traced back in a wonky line to their history as colonisers. This is not an easy read.
“When people feel there isn’t enough to go around, conflict can be vicious. Maybe that’s part of what happened between me and my sister, that sense that there was so little of everything. There wasn’t enough money, there wasn’t enough love. Everything turned into a deadly competition. And we both lost.” (pg 154)
The book asks questions, but it doesn’t give answers. As a reader this can sometimes be frustrating as we are dragged along, it can feel relentless, and it’s unclear what Croggon wants from us as the reader. But there is also an understanding that the reader can accept that life doesn’t have neat conclusions and we can sit with her in trying to make sense of it.
Croggon’s critique of colonialism, which threads its way through the entire book, is her most interesting but also at times jarring. She traces a faint line through her lineage as colonisers and their cruelty to her family’s recent experiences of violence which led to both the fracture in her parents’ relationship and her relationship with her sister. She investigates the idea that like patriarchy hurts everyone (including men), white supremacy also hurts white people. Not only does it hurt those that are colonised, but it also hurts those that perpetrate it. Croggon explains:
“I’m not interested in writing a mea culpa. I’m not interested in throwing ashes on my head and throwing myself on the ground in penitence. I’m not interested in displays of my guilt or my culpability. Take this as read: I was raised in a racist, sexist, hierarchical culture, and just as I had to learn (am still learning) how to undo all the prohibitions imposed by the patriarchs, rows and rows of them in their robes like in medieval paintings, leading all the up to the Throne of God, so I am learning to unlearn racism.” (pg 241)
Whilst this is a novel and valid theory that deserves to be interrogated further, one of the problems with this assertion is that too much focus is on the white experience and not enough on the experiences of those who were oppressed. To her credit Croggon acknowledges this but some of it does feel a bit self-pitying and has elements of white saviour complex. Whilst it is a memoir and this self-reflection is important, there is perhaps too much focus on this narrative when she could have further amplified the stories of the oppressed. She does refer to other Black and brown thinkers like Audre Lorde and Ruby Hamad, but it also feels like a checklist in a post #blacklivesmatter world. This narrative takes away from the stories that need to be told.
Her descriptions and unravelling of the misogynies in canonical works are sharp. And the way she uses theory to unpack her own personal history whilst at times raw is also compelling. Croggon’s use of the English language is superb. Her condemnation of the empire, its inheritance and how it’s destroyed not only external, but her inner world is both uneasy and powerful.
“I was born as part of a monstruous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped, me that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire that declared itself the natural order of the world.” (pg 160)
“Those voiceless ghosts, only audible in their absence.” (pg 35) By writing her own story, and asking these questions, she gives those ghosts a voice and encourages other stories by those that have been oppressed, to be told. In Monsters, Croggon also makes space for these questions to be answered.
GAYATRI NAIR is an Indian-Australian writer, poet and DJ based on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney’s inner west. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and has qualifications in Law and Arts, working in human rights policy, research and advocacy. Gayatri has been published in Sweatshop Women and Swampland Magazine.
Against Certain Capture
by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Reviewed by JACKSON
The interestingly eccentric Apothecary Archive recently re-issued Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s collection, Against Certain Capture, which won the 2004 WA Premier’s Book Award for Poetry.
Like many Australian citizens, Lo has a complicated background. She was born in Canada and grew up in Singapore. She has Chinese-Malaysian and Anglo-Australian parents (Lo, About), and their meeting is part of the story of this book, which presents two parallel biographies, one of her Chinese paternal grandmother 梁月仙 (Liáng Yuè Xiān) and one of her Australian grandmother Eva Sounness.
While a prose biography may be lengthy and detailed, a successful verse biography is like a good biopic: it showcases the pivotal events, allowing the reader to extrapolate the story and its significance. Against Certain Capture adopts this approach, offering 21 shortish poems, devoting half to each grandmother. Within their brevity, Lo lucidly evokes these women’s characters and times.
She does so by subtly deploying poetic craft. The life of 梁月仙 amid the scrabble and crush of twentieth-century China and Malaysia, choosing romance over money and giving birth to Lo’s father in a narrow room above a shop (Lo, Home), is given quick-stepping lines, free-flowing, fast-changing stanzas, and fragments of Chinese. A striking example is “Run”, which appears on the page in three narrow columns, suggesting not only the young woman’s literal and metaphorical journey but also the vertical presentation of traditional Chinese poetry. It opens:
Through Lo’s skill with phrase and pattern, we feel the young woman clinging to her cultural identity while labouring for her family’s survival (“the coffeeshop / bankrupt”).
In contrast to 梁月仙, Sounness raised ten children in the dry, expansive Australian rural landscape. Accordingly, her section tends toward slower, prosier lines and more regular stanza patterns. Assessing the farmer she would marry,
she notes that his arms are steady, although his dancing
leaves something to be desired. As they move, she weights
his soberness against bandy legs, his shuffling
two-step, the smell of the farm on his collar. She sways.
(“Saturday Night Dances”)
These examples illustrate how throughout this book the style serves the subject matter. There are no egregious verbal gymnastics. As Andrew Burke comments, Lo’s “diction is so unobtrusive you never notice the words — just what they’re saying”. After all,
There are no pretty words
Only a thin white dribble
squeezed from a cracked nipple,
(“No Pretty Words”)
and dignified maturity deserves understated metaphor:
Eva rises, drawing her years about her —
a cloak of thick and silvering hair
that hangs past her shoulders.
Refreshingly, this book is written in the third person. This enhances the sense of intermittently peeking at the two families’ lives as if through a camera. Elsewhere, Lo remarks that she likes “experimenting with aesthetic distance. The practice of Keats’ negative capability … of writing without drawing attention to oneself … was in the back of my mind” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness, especially, is seen from a distance. In an essay, Lo compares the experiences of researching and writing the two lives. She says writing about Sounness was much more challenging although — and maybe because — she was still alive and Lo interviewed her instead of replying solely upon others’ narratives. This made creating a coherent story more difficult (Lo, “Reconfiguring” 205–207). Perhaps as a result, the Sounness work tends, for me, to be less successful. In particular, there is a good deal of quoted speech which, although Lo handles it skilfully, appears to have been somewhat resistant to rendering in verse. These lines do not ring in my mind after reading like the ones in Lo’s own voice.
Nevertheless, the poems memorably capture the tone of Sounness’s life. Michael Brennan comments that through her poems, Lo “explores family histories with openness, sincerity and a gift for characterisation, giving detail and depth to the conflicts and prejudice, nurturing and love, of the strong women of her family.” He calls Against Certain Capture “an adroit sequence of poems” in which “Lo’s formidable grandmothers … are vividly present” (Miriam). Intriguingly, no-one ever describes a man as “formidable”. Lo herself comments, “I wrote about my grandmothers partly because we live in a world that does not take old ladies very seriously, when I feel that they ought to be taken very seriously indeed” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness’s recollections are taken especially seriously in “Between a Mother and her Mongol Child”, which juxtaposes the book’s only foray into mid-line whitespace and chopped-up syntax (“connectthe wiring start / the stop heart startstop / the stopheart”) with a passage from Sounness’s journal (“It took some time before the Mongol became a child”) to vividly express Sounness’s conflicting feelings about raising a child with Down syndrome.
I hope that dated term “Mongol” makes you squirm as I did upon encountering it quoted by a person with Chinese heritage. One reason we read poems is to examine ourselves. As Brennan notes, Lo’s work highlights the “ethnic, cultural and political divisions and contradictions from which contemporary Australian identity evolves, as well as a vital and realistic picture of how the minutiae of culture and identity reshape us over generations” (Miriam).
I would add that the reason Lo’s poems do this so well is because she chooses not to delineate her sociopolitical concerns explicitly. Hence, readers are free to experience her work on multiple levels, see its connections for themselves, and draw their own conclusions.
Lo herself comments on this. Discussing poets she terms “hybrid” or “multi-racial” whose work she read as background, she says:
I was also bothered by a general obsession with alienation and the way in which the poetry seemed to become a repetitive performance of various poets’ marginal credentials. I wanted to write something that emphasised not only the relational and communal context of experiences of cultural difference, but also the positive possibilities of hybridity as a mode of being that does not have to be characterised primarily by alienation. (Brennan, Interview)
Perhaps the most important reason Lo writes about her grandmothers is to articulate her personal definition of hybridity, a theoretical term she seems to find apposite, but also uncomfortable because of its “dark linguistic history” (Lo, “Towards” 9–10). To be able to use it, she defines it as seeing oneself as a collection of cultural “parts” in “relationship with each other”. She comments that these “parts” are shaped by familial and historical “factors” and that by writing about her grandmothers, she is attempting to create a “positive” view of hybridity without forgetting how it is affected by prejudiced discourses (“Towards ” 13–14).
One way to do this is through language. The 梁月仙 poems, like Lo, use English as their first language and Chinese as a second (Lo, Home; Brennan, Interview). Because of their appearance and sound, the Chinese fragments significantly enhance the poems’ atmosphere. Lo explains that using Mandarin helped her get inside her grandmother’s head and milieu (Lo, “Towards” 16). It helps the reader, too:
(“Like the Autumn Clouds, They Are Gone”)
Um … something about flowers and years? I turn to Google, which translates the first line idiomatically as “In the mood for love”, adding wistful romance to Lo’s English version, which beautifully preserves the poetry:
Like flowers, the days of my youth —
they came like the sweet breath of spring
in my dreams, like the autumn clouds
they are gone where they cannot be found.
As Burke observes, this 32-page book is large “in intention and scope”. On finishing it, I felt a little short-changed! I wished I could learn more about the grandmothers’ fascinating lives.
I would also have liked more of the poetry to savour. As Lo herself remarks, “Poetry has to be about pleasure (poetry for its own sake) and it will be relevant and valuable as long as some of us enjoy reading and writing it” (Brennan, Interview). I have certainly enjoyed reading and contemplating this book.
Brennan, Michael. Interview with Miriam Wei Wei Lo. July 2011, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/cou_article/19021/Interview-with-Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. Sept. 2009, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/14885/Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Burke, Andrew. Miriam Lo’s ’Against Certain Capture’. Sept. 2004, https://hispirits.blogspot.com/2004/09/miriam-los-against-certain-capture.html.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. About. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/.
“Home” FAQ. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/home-faq.
“Reconfiguring a Necessary Entrapment : A Tale of Two Grandmothers.” Beyond Good and Evil? : Essays on the Literature and Culture of the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Dennis Haskell et al., University of Western Australia Press for the Westerly Centre, 2005, pp. 199–209.
“Towards a Particular Hybridity: A Beginning.” Westerly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1999, pp. 9–20, https://westerlymag.com.au//wp-content/uploads/2016/02/WesterlyVol.44no.4.pdf.
JACKSON was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. During 2018 and 2019 she taught English in China. She works as a poetry editor and casual academic. thepoetjackson.com
I Said The Sea Was Folded
by Erik Jensen
Reviewed by JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE
The first poem, chronologically, in I said the sea was folded begins
I don’t know if you read poetry
I don’t know if I write it.
Jane Hirshfield tells the speaker of the book, in another, that poems “are a diary note/ to remember what happened”. Poetry— its writing, language and the ways it can make sense of love/wounded time— is the first preoccupation of Erik Jensen’s book, in spite of its promotion as “love poems”.
If I said the sea was folded has a unifying trick, it is the framing of poetry— as an activity, an artefact, a mediation of language— as inherently concerned with itself. This isn’t new— every kind of poetry is implicated by the limits of its field— but through its dramatization, Jensen makes it the engine of his poems, and the narrative at their core. It insists that any kind of therapy or catharsis poetry can affect first passes through the poem as a text, revelatory and profoundly alienating at the same time, for reader and speaker. It’s no surprise that the book ends with a gloss on what is inexpressible, as “the background against which/ anything I could express has its meaning”; any poetry concerned with itself-as-poetry ends in the same place, turns liberating and restrictive.
Most of the poems directly enact this passage through themselves—and the medium of the speaker— detailing their own construction. The book is divided into 3 non-linear chronological segments, starting from the end of a relationship. Some play on a motif that appears across each segment, decontextualizing as time rewinds. Poems refer back to each other, to their germ at the beginning of the relationship, only to emerge bitter and accusatory at the end. A poem about the love language of turtles— precious in its inexpressibility through human terms, its lack of projection— is foreshadowed by its later, first appearance, when the speaker spits
why did you shout last night, when all we wanted
was to feel the simple, placable love
of a turtle stacked up on a turtle?
Other works— ‘Pinter’s Betrayal’, ‘Nick Payne’s Constellations’— use non-linear time to excavate the normativity of works inspired by love: inverting the dramatic arc of meet cute, juxtaposing romantic gestures with their fizzling out, coupling them the self-interest. It has the effect— ironically— of emphasising the radical contingency of romantic relationships. Something portrayed as normal/monolithic is tessellated with a thousand shards of gender-play, class signifiers and naturalisation. Addressing their partner, the speaker defines the poems in their book, subject and object, as “the ways I’ve tried to look”, approaching their partner’s non-binary self, “broken off in the parts I’ve wanted to see”. This “trying to look”, defined by its engagement with failure, finds its corollary in the inexpressibility of poetry, that “Words are not enough… they exist too much/ for the people that made them”, as the speaker reports their partner saying.
If the poems pass through themselves in I said the sea was folded, that passage involves reaching for each other, and— through each other— the absent beloved, remote in space/ time and— the speaker dramatizes— driven away by the normativity of poetic discursiveness and— the speaker insinuates— the speaker’s own norminess, their reproductions of those norms in speech. The poems as a result are sparse, connotative, to the point of vagueness, the recording of imagistic details, juggling/juxtaposing poetic diction with simple, deliberately banal records of the relationship, as if to invite and stave off interpretation. They “hold in place/even when the other/is no longer here”.
Linguistic reference, not only to themselves but as a whole, becomes a key technical, thematic and ethical concern of the poems. Through reference they transcend, feed back into each other’s use of metaphor/imagery and establish a poetic whole out of the disjointed timeline, all while their essential emptiness and arbitrariness are emphasised. Individually, the poems can read as circling a void. A list of vague, deliberately poeticized descriptions of trees “fixed against the sky… their branches bent/as if the cold had stunted them”, “hedges of agapanthus” and “money/after it had been spent” conclude with “I suppose what I’m trying to say is/ I love you”, direct address immediately couched in/ out of the speaker’s suspicion of language and its stock trade. In one poem the speaker’s grandmother offers a warning, in two lines, “against poems/ she said they are forever”, the rest of the blank page almost a literalisation of this. There’s a sense of almost-tragic irony in the poems: they enact a double movement between sense-making and performative contradiction. In the prologue Jensen offers a mea culpa to the poem’s addressee: “I wish I met you now/but of course I met you then/and the rest of that time/is just what happened”. Reading through the book linearly, using the poetry’s logic to piece the continuity together, following the speaker’s own desire to “let you be/ to feel it for yourself”, we end in a place full of promise and retroactive empathy that cannot be real.
It’s in this continually moving/retreating space that the ethical desire of I said the sea was folded lives. In writing “love poetry” where the beloved is conspicuously absent, their construction put in air-quotes, Jensen tries to build a space where the deferral of reference comes to signify a queer, non-binary being, the “background against which/ whatever I could express has its meaning” . In this he mirrors, and directly draws on, Maggie Nelson, citing her “complaint/about the instability of likeness” that retroactively informs the poetics of the book. As the speaker murmurs: “one tree is like another tree/but not too much”. In this space hollowed out by the poems— Jensen implies— a love poem that can adequately represent a non-binary beloved, from a cisgender perspective, can take shape. A kind of representation— the paradox is intentional— predicated on inexpressibility, the perfect silence of a “good ally” that doesn’t overstep their boundaries. Jensen frames this as a hard won ethical lesson on his part, after the breakup, “Nothing occurs in order/although it takes a whole life to realise/so I haven’t”. At the same, it’s a lesson predicated on cis incomprehension, and inevitable tragedy. If the cisnormativity of love poetry is critiqued through the book’s structure/poetic style, it seems to conclude in a fatalism complementary to “good allies”: I will inevitably, tragically misrepresent you in my poetry, and I’m truly sorry. My intentions were good. Cis people, this is what you must take heed of to avoid my sorry fate, the limits of my poetic language and world.
If the poems of the book set up a negative dialectic, opening up space for non-binary reference/critique, the cis speaker remains an unmoved mover, perfectly still, separated from all that gender through their work. But the true issue is, as a non-binary person, I can’t believe in the inexpressible. Or at least the version reified by Jensen or Nelson. A reckoning with what being non-binary implies— a critique of colonial gender construction, the ongoing role of gender in upholding white patriarchy and capitalist accumulation, the kind of limiting subjectivity that is affixed to the “non-binary beloved”— seems beyond it. If non-binary space— Jensen writes— is a kind of via negativa, I couldn’t think of something more obstructive to it than this deployment of the “inexpressible”, or the poetry it suggests. It makes me think of the tweet: a weeping voice tells someone that they can’t simply say everything is a gender. The person, unmoved, points at a weird cloud, a cat, a sloth-mug: gender, gender, gender.
What does this all add up to? A series of finely detailed, observant poems that don’t hang together? A structure and poetics that turns that lack into a good technique, a kind of join-the-dots that performs an interesting self-critique of poetic language and tradition, which— like Nelson’s work— is more important for what it crystalizes than opens up? In the end, I’m encouraged to take this kind of poetry from cis lovers of non-binary people, in the same way I’m encouraged to accept good allyship… What I have time for in the work I should appreciate, and the idea of the inexpressible I’ll try to disabuse, to prevent it causing potential mischief among the good cis people. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my partners.
- Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts, Minneapolis, Greywolf Press, 2015, print.
JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE is a writer/student at the University of Melbourne. Their work has appeared in Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal and Overland, among others. In 2021 they were one of the recipients of the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis award. They live on unceded Wurundjeri land.
Song of the Crocodile
by Nardi Simpson
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
To read Song of the Crocodile is to immerse yourself in an unfolding relationship to place. You may not recognise it immediately but the profound connection to place shared by Simpson through this story is a slow build to love, yearning, recognition and respect for Country. The novel is a confident and accomplished debut by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman best known for her singing and song writing as a member of the Sydney band the Stiff Gins. It is a profound intergenerational Australian story of family and Country that deserves to be as celebrated and well-read as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
The novel illuminates a way of thinking, of loving and of living. Simpson’s musicality, the fluid way she uses language, both English and Yuwaalaraay, throughout underscores the narrative by creating landscapes of emotion. It reveals connectedness and relationship across time and place, allowing language and Country to breathe. Song of the Crocodile is a lyrical achievement of story, language, and heart.
Set in a time resembling the 1950s, the book opens with Simpson walking us into Darnmoor, a small regional town in the north-west of NSW with the tag line ‘Gateway to Happiness’ on its welcome sign. We see the early morning quiet streets, the shuttered shops and the war memorial in the centre that provides the focus for the town. We walk through the town, leaving the ‘inoffensive, modest and calm’ façade of Darnmoor, to the Council tip, a bora ground now covered in the town rubbish, and then on further to the Mangamanga, a great river near where the local Aboriginal people live on a place called the Campgrounds located at the end of Old Black Road.
This introduction sets the foundation for all that will follow; the demarcation of bodies, dreams and knowledge, and what happens when boundaries are pushed. Powerfully, the story is told only through the experience of the Aboriginal characters. The white characters are significant actors, changing hopes and lives, but they are not the emotional or narrative focus.
The story is of three generations of women, Margaret Lightning, her daughter Celie Billymil, and Mili, Celie’s daughter.
Living on the Campgrounds and working in Darnmoor, Margaret is quiet and hardworking, navigating the white town with caution. She works at the hospital, doing the laundry and walks into town each day using side streets to reach her destination. The demarcation of race occurs in the hospital too, with Aboriginal patients installed on a side verandah with Margaret acting as their nurse, cleaner and counsellor, and conduit to the white management. Racism is ever present, in the demand that the sheets used for the Aboriginal patients are burnt rather than washed and re-used, in the level of care for the Aboriginal patients, the amount of information Aboriginal patients are provided about their health.
Celie is a kind, calm constant energy in the story. She suffers loss with dignity and determination to provide a future for Mili, her daughter, and she uses her knowledge of the town to create opportunity.
Mili is the future generation. She lives in change, where her newly fashioned hopes are regularly pushed down and obstructed by the white systems of power in the town. Mili becomes a bridge between the Aboriginal and white worlds, a burden of much weight.
Ancestors feature too, some being stars, trees and dust. They are ever present and active, guiding and preparing the earthbound people for the future while drawing on the old ones for advice and support. The sky-bound observe from the ‘the roof of the plains’ and move across the Milky Way, called Warrambool in Yuwaalaraay language.
Some ancestors that drive the story are Jakybird, the Songman who brings the choir together for the song of the crocodile; Garriya, the malevolent single-minded crocodile who lies in the earth far below the town waiting for his chance to return; Margaret and Celie’s lightning kin who herald the rain; Murrudhi Gindamalaa (Laughing Star) who protects and provides for the newly dead; Malawildhuulmuranga (the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn) who disappears into dark nights hiding diamonds, stars, within her; and Burrenjean, (the featherless bird) the human form of magpie lark who ‘makes the country sing’ despite being name-called as mudlark. Her feather father reassures her of the significance of her earth-bound origin when he tells her:
‘The mud is the beginning of our connectedness. The beginning of our responsibility, the reason we are needed…
What is mud but the joining of all that is above and all below?’ (p210)
Simpson seamlessly conveys the world above, on and below the plains as one. Her telling of Aboriginal philosophy, of Country, belonging and lore, details consequence and relationship for all creatures, not just human. In Song of the Crocodile, all things are elemental and connected; all things are in fluid relationship to each other, including the writer and reader.
Her inventive way of weaving Yuwaalaraay words and meaning throughout the English without direct explanation, creates space and invites the reader to read in a different way, from a different angle. There is no singular understanding or story in this novel. It is layered and readers will find different connections within it.
The characters experience connections, often surprising themselves. By the river, when the women gather to comfort Margaret, who has been disrespected and disappointed (again) by white townspeople actions, Idy, an older Aboriginal woman, begins singing. Margaret joins in. She knows the words, and the power of the song, but can’t remember when she learnt it. Celie and Mili both, find comfort from tragedy in the Double D, an ancient coolabah tree by the river that saw the boras, long before the town was first laid out.
Another tree, where Celie’s husband died, along the Old Black Road, draws Celie, newborn baby Mili and Celie’s young nephews:
‘Aunty Ceil, Nan told me about the trees, how they remember everything. How they hold memories for people… But here, around here, is where he lived too. Aunt, sit down.
… Nan taught me all about it. They hold life. The bad stuff they take away through their roots and release it into the ground.’ (p67)
For Malawildhuulmuranga, her connection is planetary, as her Dhaa explains, ‘You are a daughter of dawn, the only thing separating darkness from light and the only thing that joins them.’ (p82)
Jakybird assesses and marvels at Paddy, Mili’s son who is in deep despair:
‘He watched Paddy sway into town, messy, loose, stumbling, but erect. This must have been powerful magic, remaining upright when all conspired to pull him down’. (p344)
Paddy reminds Jakybird of Garriya, now crocodile but who was once a friend, and the connection is made again between the ancient and the now.
The connection of life and death is always close too. At one point, Wil, Mili’s husband who has died, tries to reach Paddy his son, to induce a flicker of hope in Paddy’s heart:
‘High in the star, Wil moved memories into his son. They were only colours: the deep blue of a uniform, the bright orange of a council hat. Flashes of smiles, places they’d been, or the feel of a fishing line or the ruffling of his hair.’ (p350)
Connection is everywhere in this story, connection to all creatures, to the past and to the future. Even when the characters feel most alone, the reader knows they are not.
Demarcations and boundaries
The town geographically delineates between Aboriginal and white clearly. Darnmoor, as most real Australian towns did, corrals the local Aboriginal people outside the white perimeter, past the rubbish tip at the end of the Old Black Road. The history of this practice extends back through to the first settler fence-builders and town planners on this land. For instance, the town I grew up in, Taree on Biripi Country on the NSW mid north coast, pushed/ took/stole/drove local Biripi people to a reserve, Purfleet, south of the town across the river.
Song of the Crocodile reveals these practices as oppressive, common and complex. Some Aboriginal people are allowed inside the unspecified fence, but this comes with negotiation and always a cost. We see the cost to Margaret first:
‘When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tared road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent.’ (p11).
In the novel, just as in the real world, Aboriginal women use their intimate knowledge of the white world strategically, while the white characters have no insight into how little they understand of – or are required by – the Aboriginal world. This considered and deliberate reveal, of how an oppressed people know their oppressors intimately while the oppressors have no clue, was a highlight in the story for me.
White actions have impacts on the Campgrounds community. These impacts are frequently dismissed – or even unimagined – because white people believe they hold the power and can choose not to notice, not to listen. We see the impacts roll down the generations affecting people and land the same. The white settler idea of progress – unsustainable growth through exploitation of land and people – clashes fundamentally with the integrated, cyclical nurturing and honouring connections to past, present and future that most of the Aboriginal characters carry in the story.
The Darnmoor inhabitants praise the achievements of white men above all else. Like many real Australian towns, the townspeople invest in appearances not community, in short term thinking, unsustainable futures and ignore or decry other ways and other people. The town rubbish tip placed on the bora grounds is just one example. Another is the construction of a levee around Darnmoor to hold back flood waters.
The town celebrates the completion of the levee, but the levee creates further demarcation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the area. When Mili’s tears begin to flow, and all the travesties of humanity she has had to endure come to fruition, the danger of ignoring Country is clear. Garriya gathers his energy and slowly surfaces, the sky inhabitants dance the old bora grounds, which never disappear or age no matter how significant their apparent destruction appears, and:
‘… the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed and washed away.’ (p401)
These practices of demarcation – white choices – are damaging and shamefully long-lived ones. They are still present in many towns across Australia. Through fiction, Simpson powerfully writes the truth of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Jakybird warns the sky inhabitants, sitting around icy fires in Warrambool, the Milky Way, that the singing of Garriya ‘… is a hard one; some of you will die a second time in its singing’. (p354).
Darnmoor is not a generative gateway, and certainly not one to happiness as that welcome sign states. Warrambool, the literal heavens, is a gateway to the next place, for some a return to the earth, for others to sing again, others to sleep and wait some more. The act of singing is also a gateway, for it is part of culture, of belonging, of the turnabout of the world. It leads us to another place, another future.
The novel itself is a gateway too. Its landscape is wide and considered as Simpson tells the truth of our ongoing relationship with First Nations people of this Country. She details the changes to landscape that compound negatively and highlights the lack of accountability and short-sightedness of our settler society.
While Song of the Crocodile is a local, family saga, it speaks to our national story, and Simpson, with heart, attention and tenderness, shows readers a perspective that most of us will never have imagined before. This is what great fiction does, implicates and expands the reader’s emotional and philosophical terrain.
Towards the end of the novel, Malawildhuulmuranga asks one of the old ones ‘… why do you want to destroy it?’ and he answers, ‘How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go?’. (p365)
These are powerful cycles of renewal. We know change will only be made if we learn the lessons of the old ones. There is hope here, in this story, if we listen and learn.
PIP NEWLING was born on unceded Wirrayaraay Country, grew up on Biripi Country and lives and works on Dharawahl and Gadigal Country. She thanks all Elders from these lands, past, present, emerging and future, for blessing her with the health Country provides and the opportunity to benefit from their custodianship.
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by MICHELLE HAMADACHE
The Other Half of You isn’t written just for all the readers out there who get what it’s like to be the child of migrant parents. It’s not just written for those who know already what it’s like to deal with growing up in a home where the culture on your doorstep is interpreted as threatening by the adults in the house. It’s not just written for those who know what it’s like to grow up where the only home you have known, Australia, consistently rejects you by asking you to be something other than yourself in order to belong. Arab people in particular, Muslim people more broadly speaking—for they are not interchangeable terms—are overwhelmingly regarded with suspicion and hostility here, and that changes what it is possible to say now.
If a book is going to avoid being trapped in a fallen language, where everything it says or does judges and is then in turn judged by others, then it is remembering that stories are uncertain, sometimes difficult, gifts that matters most. Stories are the threads that draw together disparate communities and bind new ways of knowing to a collective consciousness, to forge the newly imagined community.
The Other Half of You is as much about what is, as what might be, and in its gritty, graphic and unforgettable detail, it contains the storyteller’s ability to exchange lived experiences in such a way that those experiences are not just shared with the reader, but integrated, via memory, via the body, as stories with lessons for living. It is the rubber-gloved hand on the delicate skin of a penis that conveys, unforgettably, the lesson: raise daughters solely to be wives to the detriment of all (especially their husbands); marry against your will and risk self-destruction, and, like all the lessons to be imparted by The Other Half of You, these two lessons are underscored by the prevailing moral: if anything is going to get us through the shit we’re in, it’s love.
The Other Half of You marks the end of Bani Adam’s bildungsroman spanning The Tribe and The Lebs. Regardless of whether Michael Mohammad Ahmad intends to continue with Bani, the journey to adulthood ends here. This is because in the birth of Bani’s son Kahlil, and the father’s story of his conception given to his son, a fiercely poetic and mature voice emerges. It is a voice that also channels the energies of rich literary genealogies, that draw together Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, most resoundingly Lebanese diasporic writer and poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, for whom Bani’s son is named and from where the novel’s epigraph is drawn. Ahmad also nods to The Book of Khalid, an experimental novel by Ameen Rihani written in 1911, and sometimes referred to as the first Arab novel (with all the contentions that come along with ‘firsts’ and the novel as form and genre).
Ahmad formally organises his novel into three parts, each referring to time and destiny, ‘All That Was’; ‘All That Is’; and ‘All That Will Be’. It is loosely structured as an address, or as a gift, to Bani’s newborn son, Kahlil. In order to explain just how an Alawite Muslim forbidden to marry outside the tribe ends up with his Anglo-Australian wife Oli and their baby, ‘my half-caste, half-insider, half-outsider’, Bani begins with the story of his unconsummated first love, Sahara. Sahara is a Christian Lebanese girl he met online living in a housing commission flat in Glebe with her single mother. It is Bani’s father’s discovery via gossip of this relatively innocent, but consuming, first love that precipitates Bani’s disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima. Fatima is a nineteen-year-old girl looking to escape her father’s household, and it is the inevitable implosion of that marriage that sees Bani ultimately, through despair rather than defiance, reject his marriage and fall into the arms of Oli.
Bani meets Oli at the PCYC boxing gym. It is Ahmad’s strength that he harnesses the metaphoric potential of places like the PCYC. Here, in the egalitarian, if brutal, world of boxing, racial and homophobic epithets abound, yet the atmosphere is inclusive. The boxing ring, despite its violence, its duelling opponents, ironically flattening binaries of us and them, while upholding identities, is a place that binds rather than divides, through the shared understanding of a set of rules that are agreed upon and entered into freely, without eradicating differences. The gym upholds identities, forming something like a Foucauldian heterotopia—a space that exists within the dominant hegemony of white settler Australia.
Bani’s father’s disposal store, like the PCYC where he trains, is another example of the powerful representation of places that resist. The store is aptly named Cave of Wonders and is stocked with wares that draw a variety of customers seeking sleeping bags and the possibility of bartering. Here, Ahmad strategically deploys the history of many Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Australia who were granted provisional, limited, unequal resident status based on their role as ‘hawkers’. Many chose to anglicise their names and erase their origins in order to be accepted into an Australia hell-bent on whiteness.
Jumana Bayeh discusses Patrick White’s problematic characterisation of a Syrian hawker in her Southerly essay, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’. Bayeh poses a perspicacious question: ‘But what story could be uncovered if we were able to hear the Syrian narrate his own life and his experiences in Australia?’ (131). This challenge underscores the silences and erasures that have characterised Australia’s literary spaces to date. The presence of the store in the novel returns this lost history, as does Bani’s acknowledgment of his own family’s history of naming (Bani/Benny 295). In his representation of Cave of Wonders, Ahmad creates a space of reversals, while also memorialising the history of a group of people who came to Australia with a conditional and ambivalent welcome. With its intertextual reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the Cave is a place that gives Bani the opportunity to read Persian poetry, to escape family and wife. It is also where misogyny and racism are given open mic, but where, as the owner’s son, Bani gets to call the shots and thus level the playing field. As always, the representations of sexist and racist outbursts are framed by the novel’s ideological focalisation that captures what is with a deliberate and crafted goal: to bring into the literary space the flawed, the ugly, the inappropriate, the shocking—the human. When Bani grapples with the limits of his own conflicted mixture of feminism and tribalism, it is a dramatized battle that Ahmad is orchestrating.
The mix of autobiography and fiction is part of its fascination: that age-old dilemma concerning itself with ontological distinctions between fiction and lie; truth in fiction. The ideological focalisation of the novel is not sexist or misogynistic, though it certainly represents both standpoints through its characters.
As with The Tribe and The Lebs, this third novel in the series draws on Ahmad’s lived experience. The fictional mode of The Other Half of You means its characters and storylines are both metaphoric and literal. The strength of Ahmad’s prose often rests in his ability to strikingly and relentlessly bring to life scenes: characters, action and setting, from weddings to fights, capturing them in a mix of vivid language and heightened observation. But most importantly, Ahmad’s prose frames these situations in Bani’s unique mix of insouciance and wisdom.
At stake in the story of the love affair between Bani and Oli and the birth of Kahlil, is the knitting together of what, up until The Other Half of You, has been divided, or at least incongruent: the world of children descended from Anglo-Saxon heritage and the world of children descended from everywhere else, and in a context where racism divides and culture prohibits, the romance plot between Oli and Bani is a powerful and productive trope.
If Oli’s characterisation never matches the unforgettable Sahara and Fatima, it is in part because her character is understated. It was always going to be a tough gig for a pale girl with thin arms to compete with Bani’s first love, the hirsute and stocky Sahara, whose thirst to understand apostrophes was quenched during a pizza night in Glebe. Likewise, it is hard for Oli to be as memorable as Fatima, whose desire to leave her father’s house is realised in her marriage to Bani, living in a converted garage, wearing only a G-string and watching never-ending episodes of Friends. Coming at the end of the novel and with so much at stake, a lot of pressure was placed on the realisation of Oli’s character and the introduction of an Anglo-Australian parallel backstory. It is perhaps deliberate that the White girl and her family didn’t hold-up to the depth and the vibrancy of the realisation of the Adam family, Sahara or Fatima.
Even the disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima is propelled by love. It is a marriage Bani enters into from love for the father, the family, the tribe. If willpower and looks alone make a marriage, then on paper the marriage between Fatima and Bani should have been rock solid. Ahmad deploys the perspective of the older narrator which imbues the entire section with a sense of impending disaster, but also allows the younger Bani to blindly suffer through the honeymoon and marriage as they unfold with tragi-comedy and bathos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the book is the father’s outcry, ‘I should have let him go’. This cry echoes throughout the rooms of this book, because ultimately, Ahmad is telling the story of the break and the fold between father and son, the present and posterity, and of histories based not on continuity but on ruptures.
In many respects, the love Bani feels for his world with all its bathos and brutality, courage and fierceness establishes The Other Half of You as the work of a storyteller, rather than novelist or memoirist. The novel is strongest when it shares experiences, whether lived, observed or imagined, in their raw materiality, boldly capturing what is. This is not lack of craft, rather it’s a concerted effort to create a territory free of the relentless drive towards conformity, or permissible difference that characterises much of contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Within the pages of The Other Half of You, anger, frustration, ignorance and despair hold centre stage with forgiveness, acceptance and the transformative power of love. The novel doesn’t try to silence what is unpalatable about lived human experience. While there might be more information than Kahlil (or any child) wants to know from his father about their conception, and the various sexual experiences that led to that conception, the body is centred as a way of knowing. The ‘over-sharing’ draws attention to the conceit, The Other Half of You is fiction after all, while also consciously drawing on the relentlessness of a confessional mode that breaks down social mores and prioritises the need for a story to be told over and above other considerations.
Randa Abdel-Fattah describes writing as a Muslim writer in Australia as the necessity of writing from a double position: a need to write for a Muslim audience, while writing to a white audience. She describes the frustration of her experiences of being refused the right to write a literature of universal concern, needing to particularise her story, and have it ‘kept’ particular, so that it is heard in a mainstream culture where whiteness is normative. Received literary wisdom that the universal is reached by way of the particular doesn’t apply for everyone. Negotiating this challenge is a task that the writer writing into a minor literature, such as Australia’s, faces, in addition to all the other authorial challenges.
I am not sure that the language exists yet for a relationship of love between marginalised Arabic and Muslim communities and a white settler Australia, but I am sure that it will take novels like The Other Half of You, and writers like Mohammad Ahmad, to bring that language into being.
Consider The Other Half of You as a difficult, uncertain gift. In the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: receivers of the gift, remember, gratitude should have no weight ‘lest you lay a yoke’ upon giver and receiver alike (29). We should have the ability to receive literature as a living thing that needs to grow and change and fail and succeed, all within a single book, so the greater thing of literature, beyond major and minor concerns, might continue to thrive.
Works drawn upon or cited:
Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘The Double Bind of Writing as an Australian Muslim Woman’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 97-117.
Jumana Bayeh, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’, Southerly, Vol. 79 No.1, 2019, pp. 129-149.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico: London, 1999, (83-107).
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann: London, 1926, repr. 1973.
Anne Monsour, ‘Tell Me My Story: The Contribution of Historical Research to an Understanding of the Australian Lebanese Experience’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 9-39.
Ameeni Rihani, The Book of Khalid, Melville House Publishing: New York, 2012.
MICHELLE HAMADACHE has had publications in Australian and international journals. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. ‘Zohira’, a short story appeared in the British Journal of International Writing 2021.
Second City: Essays From Western Sydney
Edited by Luke Carman & Catriona Menzies-Pike
Sydney Review of Books
Reviewed by CHER TAN
In ‘Second City’, the titular essay by Eda Gunaydin in Second City, an anthology of essays collected and published by the Sydney Review of Books, Gunaydin begins: ‘I spent the summer between 2013 and 2014 as many 20-year-olds do: working at a restaurant.’ It’s a sentence that includes as much as it excludes, echoing the popular internet phrase ‘if you know, you know’. The essay goes on to explore the ramifications of gentrification in Parramatta, alongside a certain gentrification of the self through education and upward mobility. With a stylistic panache and an erudite wit, Gunaydin goes on to ask, towards the end of the essay, ‘… if displacement did not begin five years ago but two hundred and thirty years ago, what use is there in attempting to freeze its current class and racial composition in amber?’ This mode of writing is something I’ve observed amongst writers on the so-called ‘margins’ in the last few years: as writers move away from the giddy nascence of a minoritised literature that is nevertheless situated inside an anglophone canon, narratives become less concerned with a centre and more interested in interrogating the complexities that arise from marginal conditions. Struggle is considered alongside joy, privileges alongside oppressions.
Second City is another anthology that adds to the burgeoning list of anthologies which display a range of writing in its variegated styles, tendencies and textures, particularly in an ‘Australian’ publishing landscape which has historically been exclusionary in both form and identity. Its subtitle, ‘Essays From Western Sydney’, is as sly as it is earnest, a marketing device that winks at you as much as it is true. Without belabouring the point (as I hope no readers of this publication have been living under a rock), Western Sydney is a location that has plagued the popular ‘Australian’ imaginary as a hotbed of chaos since the 1990s, when mainstream news media painted the area as one that was teeming with criminals and drug users. Even today, at the time of writing, certain (working-class and/or POC-majority) suburbs see an increase in police presence ostensibly to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Sydney but which we all know is a ruse to further criminalise bla(c)k and brown people.
As Felicity Castagna notes, in her essay ‘Hopefully the Future is Dark’, ‘The problem is that Western Sydney is a place but it’s also an idea. You can either write to that idea—think Struggle Street, Housos, The Combination, every protest you’ve ever seen on the rooftop of Villawood Detention Centre, every ‘dole bludger’ you’ve seen on A Current Affair—or you can write against it.’ I remember speaking with Gunaydin (full disclosure: she is a friend) about the popularisation of narratives ‘from Western Sydney’, where she observed that some writers from the area would play into preconceived notions of ‘Western Sydney identity’ while the dominant forces of Ozlit would look on with pity, guilt, shame and exoticised fascination. These forces are diminishing as ‘Australian’ publishing enters a new(er) epoch helmed by minoritised writers, creating a stronger understanding there is a need to move away from the centre, but doubtlessly in some circles it is still proliferating. Perhaps this is a paradox that can arise with critiquing marginalisation, which sometimes ends up entrenching those same ideas that resulted in the critique in the first place.
But the essays in Second City would rather dispose of those tendencies, and as a result they are as varied in subject as well as in style—what editor Luke Carman states in the book’s introduction ‘can be represented by no single politics, mindset, opinion, style, aesthetic or poetics.’ Frances An, in ‘(Feminist) Sages’, echoes the above-mentioned conversation with Gunaydin when she refers to ‘postcolonial cults who started every sentence with “as an [ethnic minority] …” and threw in terms like “Otherness” and “decolonise” to assert their status as messiahs of racial justice’, situated within a larger critique about left or left-adjacent movements that are exclusionary in their language and aesthetics even if they proclaim inclusivity. Further complexities are articulated in Sheila Ngoc Pham’s ‘An Elite Education’, an unpretentious personal narrative about the differences between her Vietnamese diaspora family and her husband Josh’s Anglo one, where the former is Liberal-voting and middle-class, and how she is ‘actually not the first in my family to receive a university education in this country’; whilst he is. Zohra Aly’s ‘Of Mosques and Men’ looks into the travails involved in her husband Abbas’s experiences building a mosque in the Christian-dominated area of Annangrove post-9/11, and May Ngo’s ‘Shopping Night’ expresses a vexed relationship to Western Sydney as a returnee.
Yumna Kassab’s ‘Borges and the Tiger’ stands out for its experimentalism, as it takes the reader through dream-like vignettes that analyse the work of Jorge Luis Borges and the perplexing allure of writing inside ‘the labyrinth’ (the library). Much like her debut collection of short stories, The House of Youssef, the author possesses a deft hand when it comes to crafting philosophical fables, resulting in a non didacticism that reveal intimacies as much as they allow for imagination to fill in the gaps, like how, as she puts it, reading Borges is ‘to be in a loop of symbols in endless conversation with one another’. In ‘Raise Your Needles in Defence of Public Knitting’, Aleesha Paz writes with a joyous energy, as she revels in making public what is commonly regarded as a private pleasure, while Martin Reyes’s ‘Excuse Me, Tabi Tabi Po’ is a light-hearted essay on his Filipino family’s superstitions alongside a serious contemplation of pre-colonial folklore and attitudes towards natural surroundings and land.
Castagna’s provocation about writing to or against preconceived ideas are at work in some of the essays in Second City: to Rawah Arja (in ‘An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving an Arab Family of Extroverts’), living in Western Sydney growing up was thought to ‘always going to be second best’; Raaza Jamshed (in ‘Muhammad’) recalls moving away from Bankstown because she doesn’t want her kids ‘to grow up as strangers to this country’, and to Ngo her childhood in Western Sydney ‘felt like we were so far away from everything—at least from anything that was interesting, away from the places where things were happening.’ Otherwise Western Sydney is hardly referred to at all; the words ‘Western Sydney’ appear in the anthology only 35 times (or thereabouts, otherwise I apologise for my ineptitude with numbers). The problem that Castagna points out is perhaps the biggest conundrum faced by minoritised writers and artists, that by virtue of our sexuality or our ability or our race or our socioeconomic position or the places in which we reside and/or come from, there is an impulse to either 1) explain, 2) smooth over, or 3) react against the status quo—that which places those preconceived images in the first place. Are there other ways to imagine? Indeed, as Castagna continues towards the end of her essay, ‘It is an invitation to undo the ways ‘things are done’ and invite alternatives into the equation.’
I won’t be so glib as to say that writing against preconceived ideas is easy, especially in a publishing landscape that is at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by a certain section of society divorced from the so-called ‘real world’. It is even more difficult when they’ve bled into the dominant cultural narrative for it to appear as if it is the inherent truth. As George Haddad writes in ‘Uprooted’, an essay that contemplates identity as he is made to feel like an outsider in the inner city where he now lives: ‘How do I convey this cornucopia of identity to a stranger in a split second?’ Castagna even goes so far as to delineate her multi-faceted cultural background, but with a caveat: ‘None of that really says who I am though. It’s really only just a beginning.’ The fact that some essays in the anthology grapple with these concerns show that the playing field for more complex writing from what has been called ‘the subaltern’—at least within Australian literature—is undergoing a sea change, as many begin to move away from assimilationist desires and questions of what it ‘means’ to be such-and-such identity, instead focusing on minute joys and entanglements that would also rather entertain a devotion towards craft. As such, it would be prudent to consider what Gayatri Spivak once posed in a 1986 ABC Radio National interview about multiculturalism in Australia: ‘[…] the question “Who should speak?”is less crucial than “Who will listen?”’
Second City is one of those books at the precipice of this sea change. In this context, writers on the so-called margins can make the case again and again about why we should be seen and heard and read. But who are we trying to convince? Instead, like this anthology has exemplified, I urge us to continue delving into our myriad obsessions and complexities again and again until it becomes matter of fact.
CHER TAN is an essayist & critic in Naarm/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide & Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Runway Journal, The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She is an editor at LIMINAL magazine & the reviews editor at Meanjin.