Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Anam by André Dao

Anam

by André Dao

Penguin

ISBN:9781761046940

Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
 
 
André Dao’s debut novel Anam is like a house with many rooms and windows, to use an image employed by its author. Its multiple locales account for the shattering, scattering, and smattering of Vietnamese people across the globe, and their resettlement in outer migrant suburbs, in Paris’ Boissy-Saint-Léger or Melbourne’s Footscray. Alongside a distinctly cosmopolitan, diasporic feel, the novel opens up a thought-provoking cultural conversation on Vietnam’s colonial and postcolonial histories – and in so doing, digs up a lot of mud. This endeavour may have been facilitated by Dao’s outsider perspective as a Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) born and having grown up in Australia, which provides him with sufficient hindsight. It is no surprise, then, that the names excavated from Vietnam’s past ought to be figures of exile, beginning with Dao’s grandfather. While a Penguin review noted how this “work of autofiction, this part-memoir, part-novel is twelve years in the making”, Dao’s grandfather spent ten years throughout the 1980s at the infamous Chi Hoa jail located in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a political prisoner of conscience under the Communist regime, before being sent away on a plane to France upon release. The narrator compares his grandfather to those decimated Angolan antelopes who are the victims of inter-imperialist rivalry and proxy wars in Africa – “he, a colonial subject of an empire that no longer exists, a forgotten ghost of an already embarrassing past”.

Exile
Despite associating with a political current of anti-colonial Catholic nationalists, his grandfather collaborated both with the French and Americans in their fight against Communism, failing to understand, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, that he was now on the losing side of history. Identified as a traitor, he is reluctant to leave the scene and defers his departure from Vietnam. The themes of losing, failing, and waiting (until it is too late) recur over and over again in Dao’s novel. This makes his characters all the more humane and sympathetic as anti-heroes. Dao’s grandfather’s failure to exist in the nation’s archives echoes a fêlure (French for crack, a homonym of the word ‘failure’) in Vietnam’s psyche through its inability to reconcile both streaks of its identity: North and South, East and West. In identifying with none, the narrator looks up instead to interlopers such as Tran Duc Tao or Ngo Vinh Long for authoritative models. The former’s life as an intellectual trained and versed in Western philosophy but keen on liberating his country from colonialism led to the silencing of his voice and turned him into an outcast, both in France and Vietnam. The latter became the first Viet to go to Harvard on a scholarship, in part thanks to his role as native informant (“at fifteen he convinced American officers to hire him as a map-maker”) and ‘mimic man’ (“He taught himself English with a bilingual dictionary and a copy of Great Expectations”). Yet his later involvement in, and commitment to, the anti-war movement would be mocked and dismissed at Harvard, while “on the anti-war speaking circuit” he remained sidelined as a “token Viet”.

Much of the story’s appeal precisely comes from Dao’s refusal to play the token Viet in the eyes of Australia. Indeed, can a narrative taking place to a large extent in France and in Cambridge, England – where the narrator writes his thesis and contemplates settling down on a permanent basis – still be called Australian, or Asian Australian for that matter? Do these territorial labels still make sense when one is aware, as Dao is, of the fact that mapping (of the imagination) precedes and to a certain extent forecloses the possibility of place? When asked whether Australia is home during an interview with an academic researching on an oral history of second-generation Vietnamese in Australia at a community centre in Footscray, the narrator’s answer is no:

She didn’t seem convinced. She pressed me: But you were born here, you grew up here, didn’t you? Your family lived here. Your daughter was born here. How can you say Australia isn’t home for you? Haven’t you had a good education here? Haven’t you prospered here? If Australia isn’t your home, then what is it? A playground, or a marketplace from which you grabbed what you needed? And now you’re off to England, to Cambridge. Will that be home? Or will you wander the earth like – she stretched for the right words – like a rootless thing, like one with no place to rest?

The narrator’s superficial emotional attachment, though, does not stem from lack of care or cold materialism but from the multiple fêlures opened up by the failures to remember and to forget/forgive the past at once. One therefore cannot be nostalgic about home when home no longer exists or never existed, except as a figment of the imagination. One can only melancholically mourn the ghostly traces of that which remains, those haunted fragments or slices of life we dare to call memory, and which make Being a deeply traumatic, problematic event in itself. Though chiefly focused on an attempt at memorialising his grandparents’ and grandfather’s life in particular (whose half-effaced photo features on the book cover), Dao’s novel thus raises metaphysical, existential questions that are larger than the merely anecdotic. In researching on memories of his grandfather, the narrator ends up projecting his personality onto him as a prodigal son of sorts, feeling guilty about endlessly postponing the writing of his memoir. Yet the exercise remains an arduous task, akin to observing far-away galaxies, which, owing to the speed of light, may already be long gone and dead by the time their image reaches the astronomer’s telescope. It means accepting to warp and write oneself into another’s spatial temporality in the disjointed mode of future anteriority. The narration of the novel, indeed, starts off by means of such a mode and creative black hole: “This will be the last time that I will have begun again – the last, because I will have learnt to see what I failed to see at the beginning.”

Exist
The novel’s title, Anam (otherwise spelled Annam), once referred to the French protectorate for Vietnam, which was part of French Indochina. Its lost currency as a term allows Dao to recall the spirit of Vietnam, which under its spectral shadow becomes the site of an aporia. Dao throughout the novel asks: What makes a people’s collective unconscious when riven by guilt and strategic amnesia and erasure of its own past, as is Vietnam? Can it possibly be based on remembering, on traditions passed on from one generation to the next, when this heritage appears dubious and truncated? As a result, Anam is not a hagiography of Dao’s grandfather, who never had the benefit of having his bronze statue sitting “in pride of place” in the middle of his relatives’ wealthy home in Hanoi, unlike his brother, a former general to Bac Ho (Ho Chi Minh). Nor is it, strictly speaking, a biography since Dao is aware of the shortcomings of reception and representation of someone else’s experience, especially one as incommensurate as the collective famine that took place in 1944-5 and is believed to have killed between one to two million Vietnamese (about one tenth of the total population). Instead, Dao in his writing deploys a number of devices to circumvent some of the pitfalls associated with the literary genre of the memoir. To start with, he makes frequent use of interpolation (i.e, the insertion of something of a different nature into something else) by interweaving and blurring borders between sundry narratives (actual, remembered, imagined), discourses (academic, historiographic, personal) or registers (factual, introspective, fictitious). Interpolation can be opposed to interpellation, that is, the hailing or arrest of the sign and memory attached to it, thereby leading to its reification as monument (like his great-uncle’s bronze bust at the narrator’s relatives’). Another device related to that of interpolation between the author-as-narrator (Dao) and the narrated (Dao’s grandfather) is anamnesis (i.e., the recollection, especially of a supposed previous existence). Dao is acutely cognizant of those filial echoes of the past repeating upon the present and does not seek truthfulness at all costs, only its effects and affects, instead working in part through blind faith in his task as ghost-writer walking in the footsteps of his predecessors and eager to repay his debt. He will work as a lawyer, partly to please his grandfather and partly because his father had failed to do so, owing to the interruptions of war. As a review of the novel by Tess Do reminded, Dao is “a refugee advocate who co-founded Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting people’s experience of immigration detention”. The narrator’s function is that of an amanuensis (i.e., a literary assistant taking dictation). Hence, the narration bears from within a ventriloquising resonance as Dao records his grandparents’ voice in their tiny apartment on the outskirts of Paris in Boissy-Saint-Léger, where the Eiffel Tower can be seen in “the far distance, a little upright prick on the horizon”, or as he listens to the audio recordings of S., a refugee from Sri Lanka indefinitely stuck in an offshore prison facility by Australian customs on the remote Pacific Island of Manus.

Exit
S.’ reported predicament operates a further line of flight as parallels are made with the narrator’s grandfather’s time at Chi Hoa, and with other celebrated manuscripts about, or devised in, jail, from Gramsci to Mandela. Dao does not seek to hide the traces of these multiple transfers but instead questions his legitimacy upon visiting and inhabiting them through his writing, having never been incarcerated himself, albeit also hailing from a family of refugees. Thus, Dao’s novel is also a book about other books (yet another interpolation), besides dealing with family. His philosophical musings embrace the thoughts of Derrida, Levinas, or Arendt, but Dao is especially interested in phenomenology (i.e., an approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience), perhaps because in so doing, he hopes to grasp the unfathomable trauma endured by jailed refugees or political dissidents lingering in limbo, or the shared atrocities of the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. Though we may wish to rank one atrocity above the other in a magnitude scale of suffering, pain can hardly be measured up. Eventually, it has little to do with issues of right or wrong, with political or ideological affiliations and leanings, harkening back instead to our being (all too) human as suggested in this exchange between the narrator and his Vietnamese Australian interviewer in Melbourne’s Footscray:

When we compared crimes – me, the 1945 famine caused, I said, by French and Japanese and American imperial policies, her, the kangaroo courts and summary executions of landlords and wealthy peasants and the socially unpopular during the mid-fifties land reforms in Communist DRV, me, the Agent Orange and the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, her, the massacre at Huê during the Têt Offensive, me, Lieutenant William Calley and My Lai, her, the re-education camps and prisons like Chi Hoa where for years and years men and women, including my grandfather, rotted away (a mistake, that, to use the cliché about rotting – it made it so much easier for me not to hear, not to feel, the sting in her words) – when we compared crimes like that, we were really trying to interrupt the other’s nostos, their return home.

While indicative of a failure to commiserate with the Other, these interruptions (from the Latin inter ‘between’ + rumpere ‘to break’) are also the site and the expression of a reciprocal fêlure, thus marking the possibility of an exit breakthrough in the form of a pause or a cesura – a suspended truce of sorts for want of reaching a final truth, which would allow for redemption. A small victory still for a hugely promising debut novel and writer.
 
 

CITATIONS
“This ‘transcendent’ new novel is a must-read for literary fiction fans.” Review of Anam, by André Dao. Penguin Books Australia, 12 May 2023.

Do, Tess. Review of Anam, by André Dao. The Conversation, 30 April 2023.

 

PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, on the subject of Southeast Asian Australian women’s writing. He lives in Paris, where he teaches English across various academic locations and carries out research on postcolonial literatures while being politically committed as an activist on the French far left.

Marie-Claire Colyer reviews Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

by Shankari Chandran

ISBN 9781761151408

Ultimo Press

Reviewed by MARIE-CLAIRE COLYER
 
 
 
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Shankari Chandran’s third published novel, is a narrative of substance. You could be excused for expecting a light-hearted romp through an old people’s home, if you judged this book by the cover and title alone. Indeed, there are light-hearted moments. But this is so much more. Beyond its cover illustration lies a powerful and interlaced tale.

Encompassing years of the Sri Lankan civil war, dispossession and migration, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens presents the hurdles many migrants to new lands face in merging with the accepted norm. The characters have powerful narratives to tell. Secrets that they hold close and divulge only in cathartic moments of revelation. A layering of two timelines, past and present, this is a novel about people and their stories, set against a backdrop of personal and national histories. Stories of resilience, sorrow and depth told with warmth and gentle humour. Darker moments are offset by the diverting interactions of the colourful residents of a nursing home in Western Sydney. The characters weave their lives into a rich tapestry offering insight into the dynamics of family and friendship, racism and identity.

Maya and her husband Zakhir are Tamil refugees, forced to flee the Sri Lankan civil war and settle in Australia. There they resurrect a neglected nursing home, providing a place of peace and inclusion for many senior residents, including other Tamils. We learn that Maya, matriarch, and owner of the nursing home, grieves for the loss of her husband scarred by his past. Their pasts unite and yet in many ways isolate the residents, haunting many of the characters, underpinning daily life. What is unresolved, what needs rectifying drives Maya’s husband Zakhir to return to a homeland where he is considered a traitor. And it is the interweaving history of Zakhir and another central character, Ruben that simmers until boiling point.

A Tamil refugee, Ruben is one of the many who fled under duress from a country divided. Chandran keeps us waiting to discover how Ruben is connected to Zakhir. Unravelling these interlocking experiences over the length of the novel, she provides flashes of the trauma so many Tamils endured. A trauma that few privileged within Australia know intimately.

Maya is a strong woman, with an empathy for history; both of country and of individuals. She unearths personal pasts, using these observations in the creation of a nursing home that best embraces each of the inhabitants’ needs. Facing inequality as an ethnic author, alongside her focus on the nursing home, Maya comes to write successfully under the pseudonym of a white Australian. A name that gives her national standing and influence when later confrontation erupts. As such she is a projection of writers of ethnic background straining to find a foothold in western literature.

A subplot is revealed through the course of the novel. Maya’s daughter Anjali and her husband Nathan are buttresses for their friend Nikki navigating her own loss. The devastation of parents whose estrangement becomes pronounced in suffering the death of a young child. Recriminations and blame eventuate, locked behind the cold demeanor of unburdened grief. Nikki acknowledges the distance between her and her husband Gareth, as she turns to the comfort of Ruben. Gareth lashes out at Ruben in his own struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter. The gulf between Gareth and his wife, Nikki propels the novel into an exposé on tolerance.

In the novel, Gareth is the antagonist. He counts Maya’s family as friends, offering the outward appearance of inclusivity. But by the close of the novel his reticence is unveiled, shouting through the cracks in his façade. Fuelling his indignation is the discovery of Maya and Zakhir’s toppling of a statue of Captain Cook. When he brings an accusation of anti-colonialism before The Human Rights Commission the national backlash is immediate. These incidents are sparks that set aflame smouldering racism in a community that now feels justified to revile immigrants. It is an excuse for open expressions of hatred, leading to the response of those taking a stand for minority groups.

In Gareth and the xenophobic we see the ugliness of fear. A mistrust of those that are unlike us. Just as we can in the flashbacks to scenes in war, recognise a universal fear. The apprehension of not being accepted, the trepidation of loss. We glimpse a part of ourselves. An embodiment of humanity at its worst. And a wish to do better. This vulnerability makes Gareth human. His clinging to the world as he knows and wants it to be.

Tensions are visible threads that emerge as a wider description of Australia as a whole, exposing an often-shunned view of ourselves. The ways in which the diaspora is integrated into the fabric of society; the way they can be stymied by our reluctance or resistance in accepting those with differing backgrounds. Perhaps more so because of physical dissimilarities than culture.

Chandran’s willingness to bring these incidents to light, is commendable. Events and prejudices are revealed from the perspective of the Tamil people of her ancestral home. Though not always the case, Chandran here presents intolerance towards migrants entering a culturally different established group. She explores how through familiarity and routine people tend to hold to what they have been informed is their birthright. Whatever that upbringing may be, whether born into this society or assimilated into it. It is this turning over of the histories we have been aligned with, those indoctrinated through our education and the nation’s psyche where the book finally comes to rest.

Shankari Chandran paints a picture of Australian society that bares the fissures and flaws, the divisions that we tend to gloss over and hide. She states her position with a willingness to see beyond embedded opinions to the more subtle layering of what drives behaviour. And as such, her work is an exploration of human nature.

Chandran’s work addresses nationality, that of the Australian and Sri Lankan people. It offers glimpses of history; the histories we’ve been taught and those that have been rewritten or suppressed. It shows alternate notions of what we have taken for granted. And through the eyes of its characters allows us to experience cultures and antipathy many have never been exposed to.

The only comment that I would give is that I would have liked the inclusion of an intolerant, less obliging character of ethnic origin to offset the real bigotry in a segment of white society. But that perhaps is the mirror to discomfort in my own evaluation of the divisions inherent in the society I live in and my placement within it. There is in Chandran’s story, a wide margin in likeability between the main characters of different cultures, with Nikki being the chief favourable representation of white Australians. That is not to say that Chandran’s depiction of immigrants is homogenous. There are minor characters with personalities that I would find testing. But there is a tendency, which aligns with her message, to portray more racial acceptance or at least amiability from ethnic people and more intolerance from white. This though also relates to the pressure placed upon her characters to prove themselves as Australians grateful to be given sanctuary. Something that white Australians are not obliged to do.

It is refreshing to read a novel that calls us out on ingrained prejudice or habitual ways of thinking and regarding the world. Like in all Chandran’s work, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens turns a spotlight on the judgement, rejection and antagonism towards a minority ethnicity wanting only to live a peaceful life. It poses questions we as Australians and indeed those of other nations should contemplate. History is written by the victorious. This book asks us to contemplate parallels between the suppression and alteration of histories and identity of both Tamil and First Nations people. Ultimately, the question of who we are. To quote the novel in Maya’s words, ‘…we are all immigrants on stolen land.’ (p310). Further, a quote by Maya’s father, ‘…possession of land is nine-tenths of the law; possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’ (p 233).

 

Disclosure: The writer knows the author personally, however the opinions expressed are her own.
 
MARIE-CLAIRE COLYER is an award-winning Australian wildlife artist and writer. Her work covers personal essay, memoir, poetry, mainstream and literary fiction. Her writing and art have been published in magazines, journals and newspapers both in print internationally and online. www.marieclairecolyer.com

Why specific strategy is needed for the CaLD literary sector

There is currently in Australia’s literary sector a discussion about fair employment, fair payment for authors, and promises of greater funding with the announcement of the National Cultural Policy by the Arts Minister, Hon. Tony Burke. As Jinghua Qian and Jennifer Mills wrote preliminary to a recent discussion on superannuation payments for journal contributors: “Many of us are looking forward to a stronger funding environment and the opportunity to affirm and protect the rights of writers, artists, and other literary journal contributors. Policy-level change is important, but the direct relationships between contributors and the publications that support us are also vital.”

The push for the legal rights of writers to be protected cannot be overlooked and is long overdue. Mills described this as “the fix”. What is also overdue however is the need for specific strategy to protect the CaLD sector of Australian writers and editors. We urgently need policy that recognizes the many ways that structural discrimination diminishes, depletes and compromises writers and editors of colour. Of these writers, the CaLD sector are overlooked by research, theory, activism and policy, which work concurrently.

By CaLD, we refer to the acronym for ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ or ‘cultural and linguistic diversity’. One in every four Australians was born overseas. Linguistic diversity is also significant. One in five people in NSW, where we are based, speak a language other than English (LOTE).

Structural racism is poorly understood because it has not been adequately researched or theorised. It refers to wider political and social disadvantages within society. It normalises historical, cultural and institutional practices that benefit white people and disadvantage people of colour. It also replicates the racial hierarchy established through slavery and colonialism, which values white people as superior.

By structural discrimination we refer to the alarming discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts. Small CaLD organisations such as Mascara that do not have institutional support are permanently contingent on the ad hoc grants system, peer reviewed which require garnering of popular support bases to fund projects. It is not hard to see how this becomes exploitative. Within the sector, the absence of means testing the distribution of Government funds allocated to the literary arts ends up augmenting the described structural barriers.

It is worthwhile to consider the 2019 National Arts Participation study which was a cornerstone evaluation of the impact of the arts and engagement with the arts. This tool and the data identifies behavioural indexes (page 7: the amount Australians engaged with arts activities,) and attitudinal indexes (page 8: how strongly an individual valued and supported the arts and their perception of the impact of the arts: which included arts funding, creativity, and wellbeing.) The results of NAPS demonstrate that CaLD individuals score significantly higher than average (indexes of 142 and 106 where the average is 100). However, following on from this research there has been substantial occlusions and oversights in researching, measuring and evaluating the discrepancies and inequalities in CaLD participation in the literary arts. The ongoing lack of specific data and ensuing body of research on Australian literary journals leaves a gap in our deeper awareness of the dynamics impacting on vulnerable demographic groups in the literary sector. The CaLD community remain neither proportionately nor commensurably represented in the paid workforce, by which we mean in universities, the state Writers’ Centres, publishing houses, mainstream media. This discrepancy is a fundamental problem and makes them vulnerable to exploitative dynamics, that ends up limiting their repertoire of literary tropes. Our community is very vulnerable to white power.

Yet what does the state of publishing look like? We know it is predominantly, indeed almost exclusively white, with the exception of a handful of CaLD literary editors and journalists, Jinghua Qian works at Overland, Cher Tan at Meanjin. Meanjin’s appointment of Esther Anatolitis, and SRB’s appointment of James Jiang signal new directions; but there are very few South Asian, Caribbean, African editors in the well-established supported paid positions reflecting the cultural tenets of the White Australia Policy, which although it was progressively legally dismantled between 1943 and 1973, unfortunately continues to inform how we see ourselves as a nation. The unspoken/unspeakable racist taboos persist and remain about the colour of skin, which in no way reflects our culture or the authenticity of our voices. Moreover, as Katherine Day writes recently in The Conversation, the corporate powerhouse of publishing spins in a climate of risk, that is notoriously unpredictable and unforgiving.

It is important to note that Mascara editors have not applied for positions with Sydney Review of Books or with Meanjin, Southerly or Westerly, as we see our brief to continue the work we have begun, to develop non-institutional readings of work by First Nations and CaLD writers as a unique and vital contribution to literary criticism.

Race and skin colour are both protected attributes under the Fair Work Act. Under the Fair Work Act what constitutes an adverse action includes offering a potential employee different and unfair terms and conditions for the job compared to other employees. Perhaps we need as an artistic community to reconsider the racialised framing of fair and equitable work.
 
 
Same, same? So why do we need more targeted, and thorough research?

In October 2022 we were approached by Catriona Menzies-Pike, then editor of Sydney Review of Books to join SRB’s project on literary journals in an advisory capacity. Specifically, the brief was to provide consultation on their survey of literary journals. The survey’s emphasis was on digital practice, audience engagement and who gets paid for what. It was put to Mascara that the research would provide a detailed account of the current state of literary journals operating as arts organisations – and point to areas of greatest need in terms of funding and other forms of support. The premise of shared interest was that our literary ecology would be less diverse and less interesting without a thriving cohort of journals. Mascara was also informed that SRB’s research will help the Australia Council identify areas for funding priority – and it will help those of us who work on literary journals advocate for our needs. We are so pleased to report that as a result of Mascara’s research and consultation, that SRB have taken up our primary recommendation.
 
 
PRIMARY RECOMMENDATION TO SRB

Looking back over past grant applications we noted that we had proposed a diversity survey for literary journals in 2016 to the Australia Council, which was not successful in achieving funding. We were intending to obtain demographic data particularly as concerns the opportunities and participation of the CaLD cohort, their paid and voluntary workloads and correlate this with population demographics.

We provided a specific recommendation to SRB that this is much needed quantitative data under the section on Creative Labour. We noted that questions 57-59 of their draft survey needed to include questions designed to provide information on who is being paid in the sector.

In our proposed questionnaire we had the following questions:
1. Of your paid editorial staff how many identify as First Nations?
2. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as First Nations?
3. Of your paid editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?
4. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?

We recommended that the additional sub-questions could be considered:
● If paid, what is the frequency of payment (e.g. salary, stipend per issue)?
● Does your organisation follow any award classifications (e.g Book Industry Award,
iPed rates)? If not, how does your organisation determine payment rates?

Noting that many literary arts workers are also writers we further recommended the following questions addressing creative practice, and issues of burnout and health:

1. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have their own creative practice?
2. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have another job as their main
source of income?
3. For CaLD staff who have a creative practice, have they felt that their work has
negatively impacted on their creative practice?
• What factors have made it difficult for staff to work on their creative
practice?
• Lack of time, limited creative capacity with energy going to other
work, lack of support, burnout, or other factors?
4. If you or your CaLD staff have experienced burnout, and/or other mental health
challenges has any support been in place?
We suggest unpacking the breakdown of paid vs unpaid work as follows:
● Which roles are volunteer in the organisation and which roles are paid?
● For CaLD staff who have paid roles but also volunteer their time, approximately how
many hours per fortnight (or what percentage of their total work time) is spent
undertaking unpaid work?

General recommendations on digital practice were also provided by Mascara‘s then team: Anthea Yang, Monique Nair and Michelle Cahill. We note that the subquestions and Creative Practice questions (1-4) that we recommended were not included in SRB’s final survey. This leaves an important gap where further research is needed.

Cultural Outcomes

We considered that cultural outcomes of literary journals could also be measured in terms of books
published, which have been associated with the journal. Mascara has over the last 16 years in partnership with publishers co-edited CaLD collections including Contemporary Asian Australian Poets(Puncher and Wattmann), deciBels3 a series of ten poetry chapbooks by CaLD poets (Vagabond Press), and most recently, Resilience (Ultimo Press).

Mascara considered that the above questions are fundamental in 2022-2023 and should be included
in SRB’s survey of literary journals, particularly given that Mascara did not receive funding in 2016 to carry out this research. Despite our rich literary outcomes, the journal relies on the generosity of its CaLD editors, a substantial proportion of which is unpaid labour. We do not believe that our experience is unique for the CaLD sector. Mascara noted that if SRB were to run the questions which we recommended, it would become alarmingly apparent that there is a major discrepancy between CaLD participation at a paid level (far below average) despite the higher than average behavioural and attitudinal indexes for our cohort as recorded in NAPS. We note that NAPS is meant to be used to “inform advocacy, audience development and strategic planning initiatives.”

In conclusion, we identified to SRB that the absence of economic planning and strategy for our cohort warranted targeted questions in SRB’s proposed Survey of Literary Journals. Mascara is a foundational journal that has played an important role in advocacy, research as well as publishing and platforming CaLD writers.

 
 
So why do we need specific strategy?

The NAPS tools published by the Australia Council indicates that the CaLD sector has stronger engagement in the arts, support for the arts and appreciation of the arts than some other cohorts, yet it remains a fact that the Australia Council and other funding organisations do not have Specific Strategic Initiatives for our cohort. This has a direct impact on funding outcomes for CaLD literary journals.

Like many other CaLD organisations, we have been navigating the limitations of structural racism in trying to grow and strengthen as a community of writers and critics. Mascara has built on the legacy of CaLD theorists such as Sneja Gunew, but also the creative activist lives of CaLD poets and writers, such as Antigone Kefala, Sudesh Mishra and Dîpti Saravanamuttu. As a community we have needed visionary and symbolic guidance, and continuing lines of leadership. Mascara has been foundational to the pioneering field of creative and critical production and strategic interventions for non-white settlers in Australian literature. However, our ongoing concerns relate to the endemic nature of unpaid labour by CaLD writers and editors and the absence of strategy to improve these conditions. We have noted for many years the absence of strategic planning for our cohort makes it harder for them to break through as writers, to build career pathways or foster agency. The Australia Council and other funding organisations appear to have overlooked the impact of structural racism on the capacity of CaLD writers and editors to participate equitably in the literary arts or to sustain a career in editing, creative writing, literary publishing, literary arts work, or in academia. Under these prevailing conditions it is well described that the CaLD cohort are more vulnerable to tokenising dynamics, to bullying as well as to depletion and burnout.

The cohorts which most often have strategic planning initiatives include First Nations writers, Remote and Regional writers and individual writers and organisations living with disability. Whilst applauding these important initiatives, we cannot fail to notice the absence of strategic planning for our cohort. Without statistical data and strategy that is focused on economic viability and economic planning for the CaLD sector, the publishing industry remains blind to the privileges enabled because of ethnic difference. Further, the industry is equally neutral to the structural problems CaLD literary journals face.

Without strategy for such a significant demographic group of writers, it follows that forms of meritocracy are thrown to the “industry” heavyweights: right wing media, festivals, the generic mainstream, a handful of institutional gatekeepers; literary agents with commercial interests who forge coalitions with the sector. This is effectively silencing significant CaLD literary talent in Australia.

It is time to do better. Australian readers deserve so much more richness and true diversity of literary editing and storytelling.
 
 
Mascara’s Proposed Feedback to Writers Australia:

CaLD writers and allies: We need you to be proactive. Writers Australia is now calling for guidance by the expertise of writers and the literature sector. You have the opportunity to make a difference and provide feedback via the form below.

As a small organization, we’ve endeavoured to break ground by opening the conversation across culture and institutions while there have been enormous barriers to funding in the absence of strategy for our cohort. We are vulnerable as writers and arts workers. It is our lives and our bodies that are being exploited by unpaid work and absence of strategy to recognize structural discrimination and its impacts. We need more than bandaids. We therefore make the following recommendations to the sector and we urge our cohort to lobby now by filling in the below form to Writers Australia

At question 1: Given the role of Writers Australia, as determined by Government in the National Cultural Policy (see page 69), what are the top two priorities that Writers Australia should focus on?

1. Specific strategic initiatives for the CaLD community in policy that recognises the extent to which structural discrimination impacts writers and editors of colour. By structural discrimination we refer to the discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts, augmenting these barriers.

2. A code of behaviour to include respectful conduct on the part of literary organisations and publishers who partner with organisations representing editors and writers of colour. There is no place for erasure, bullying, gas lighting, targeting or scapegoating of POC editors, or POC arts workers as a means to an end where arts funding or outcomes are concerned.

At question 2: What are the measures of success you want to have in place when Writers Australia is evaluated in 2026?

Minimum payment rates for editors of colour must be enabled, preferably by policy as a matter of urgency to support the survival of small organisations such as Mascara Literary Review which has been at the forefront of platforming POC writers, and publishing criticism of First Nations and POC publications.

 
 
We are aware that the Feedback Form to Writers Australia is now closed. Please contact the Office for the Arts, please email culturalpolicy@arts.gov.au,
Formal submissions to Minister for the Arts Hon Tony Burke, OR your local Member for Parliament.
 
 

Cited

1. Katherine Day, The Conversation September 5, 2022 https://theconversation.com/the-entire-industry-is-based-on-hunches-is-australian-publishing-an-art-a-science-or-a-gamble-189621
2. National Arts Participation Survey 2019 Australia Council for the Arts

Samuel Cox reviews Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty

Harvest Lingo

Lionel Fogarty

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925336177

Reviewed by SAMUEL COX

Despite having been named the ‘poet laureate’ of Aboriginal literature by author Alexis Wright and the ‘greatest living poet in Australia’ by poet John Kinsella, Lionel Fogarty’s poetry, previously published by small independent presses, has remained both critically and popularly underappreciated. I count myself as a relative newcomer to Fogarty’s work, but with the weight of his body of work growing, the publication of his fourteenth collection, Harvest Lingo by Giramondo, presents the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with Fogarty’s fiery and yet sophisticated poetics. As Fogarty reminds us in this collection, being a poet, let alone a black protest poet in Australia, is bloody ‘Hard Work’ (4). However, for those readers who are ready to roll up their sleeves, this collection offers a rich harvest indeed: lingo that unearths a sense of global solidarity through transit across cultural and linguistic boundaries, disrupting underlying assumptions that form the solid ground of the English language in the process.

Lionel Fogarty is a Yugambeh man from South Western Queensland who, since publishing his first collection in 1980, has built up a formidable body of work. His longstanding commitment to poetry is deeply intertwined with his experiences as an Indigenous rights activist, which led Fogarty to arrive at the realisation that poetic understanding must precede (and enable) politics. Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is divided into four sections and taking a cursory look across the poems in this work, the reader will recognise the Indigenous fight for land and rights in Australia as a common theme. However, what makes this collection especially distinctive is the geographic reach of Fogarty’s work, most strikingly in Section Two’s ‘India Poems,’ but also apparent in poems such as ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ ‘Save Our Inland Sea G20,’ ‘By Our Memories Zapata.’ Fogarty looks out onto the world, often to inevitably look back upon Australia, finding common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, revolutionary spirit and with those who Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano famously referred to as ‘Los Nadies’ (The Nobodies): the poor and the oppressed of the world. Underlying Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is a rich lingua franca of experience and history that has slipped through the cracks of official records.

The collection opens strongly, with the second poem ‘Hands Bleeding,’ allusively grabbing the attention. On the back of this edition, Fogarty declares that he seeks to use English ‘as a tool,’ and this poem reminds the reader of the complexities of this undertaking. Fogarty self-reflexively writes of the ‘protest poet’ (4) struggling with his task. This ‘protest poet’ must labour in the open fields of language, even as his very tools and hands – calloused, we must assume, by the difficulty of the task – drip with blood. Fogarty writes, ‘massacre the thoughts of murderers’ before concluding, ‘Be a Poet: Fucking Hard Work’ (4). This final line not only resonates with Fogarty’s present personal precarity (https://www.gofundme.com/f/donate-to-support-lionel-fogarty), but undoubtedly refers to the protest poet’s task of grappling with politics, history and that double-edged tool (the English language itself), which finds itself implicated in the very thoughts he seeks to fight.

Patrick White once spoke of struggling with the rocks and sticks of words to describe the struggle to match the English language to the Australian environment. For an Indigenous writer, this difficulty is doubled by the need to fight against oppression in the very language of the oppressor, with poetics – the question of how we represent – the natural and arguably the most fundamental battleground. Fogarty labours, hands bloody, at his task – ‘Fucking Hard Work’ – but it is not simply the author who toils; Fogarty puts his reader to work, defamiliarising the working tools that create that seemingly stable ground of the English language, disrupting the established roots and spreading new tendrils, only to enlist the resulting harvest in the fight. Familiar words combine in unusual ways, as language takes on an opacity that makes the familiar terrain of English appear suddenly a foreign land.

The ‘fields’ Fogarty is tending might have deep resonances with the history of colonial oppression, but they are conceptually antagonistic to that heritage. He makes this clear in the final poem of Section One, ‘Modern Canvas Boats Comfort Who Cares’:

This world is not homeland
The earth is a homeland …
Seasons are the timeless fields
Set them to write speak sing the struggles
(18)

Fogarty seems to suggest that this world, in its current form, shaped by Western modernity through colonialism (often mediated through the English language), offers a false home. The earth, which is in many senses has become merely another of the oppressed, is truly home and this collection suggests that it is not only the Indigenous people of Australia but the native and exploited people of the world who possess the knowledge to ‘write speak sing’ its song.

However, the English Language is not merely a tool of oppression; its spread across the globe has led to creolisation and the development of many keys and registers, not least, the Aboriginal English within which Fogarty has been said to operate. Tyson Yunkaporta has noted that English was a trading language – a conduit to other places and lingo – and Fogarty retraces some of these routes: through dirty back streets and tea fields of the subcontinent; over the Tasman and out into the Pacific; across to the revolutionary plantations of Central America, even as the roots of his poetry are grounded in those who ‘write speak sing the struggles.’ Inverting many of the dominant associations and viewpoints of one who might travel through these regions using the English language, Fogarty finds common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, those who are native, and solidarity with the poor underbelly of society in all places. There is a sense across this collection that these are the places where the fight (for land and rights), human life (intertwined with the earth), and even language itself truly flourishes, yielding lingo ripe for the harvest.

‘Ideal Crowded Streets’ from Fogarty’s India poems catches the many moods and sheer dynamism of India’s street life; however, his authentic sense of identification with the underclass of Indian society speaks to a common cause that elevates his work beyond what we might deem ‘touristic.’ From this place of authenticity, there is a rich cross-pollination of lingo and resultant ideas. ‘Dalit Lets Fees Histories’ (22) references ‘Dalit’ identities and the oppression that has subjugated those previously known in India as ‘untouchables’. Fogarty uses wordplay and the fertile shifting ground between languages to great effect. The poem continues with ‘Coffee pays fees, tea rewriting history’ (22), drawing on two colonial ‘harvest’ crops, before Fogarty plays on the presence of the abbreviation ‘lit’ for literature in ‘Dalit’, writing, ‘Lit area coming century / Dalit must light the writers / Where multilingual arise powers must’ (22). Fogarty appears to suggest that in this century, it is the Dalit – the broken and scattered in society – where stories will flourish. His final sentence shows how his disruption of conventional sentence structures is not merely a technique of defamiliarisation, as I have highlighted, but is a tool to undermine the emphasis and meaning of words. A conventional construction of this sentence might read, ‘Where multilingual powers must arise’; in Fogarty’s creation, instead of the emphasis falling on ‘powers,’ which evokes the nation-state and geopolitics, it centres on ‘multilingual,’ altering the hermeneutic yield.

Such techniques are evident in the excellent and expansive poem that dominates Section Three, ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ where Fogarty utilises the homophonetic similarities between ‘Murri’ and ‘Maori’ (39) to poetically and humorously entwine the two; this is a fraternal and sororal relationship based on the shared groundwork of Trans-(Tasman-)Indigeneity. Native is a term Fogarty uses throughout the collection, and like so many English terms it carries with it colonial baggage, but Fogarty imbibes it with fresh meaning when he writes, ‘… Maori brother and sister are native wise bright’ (43).

‘Aloha for Aotearoa’ references 1840 as the year of The Treaty of Waitangi, but this date is also roughly approximate to when Europeans first entered Yugambeh lands, a connection Fogarty appears to draw upon in Section Four’s ‘MINYUGAI (WHEN) BUD’HERA.’ Seemingly asking ‘When Good’ (78) the poem begins:

DIRTY ORIGIN
HARVEST LINGO
1840 IS NO DIFFERENT
BAD BLOOD BREW
(78).

On one hand, the poem confronts the endurance of racialised ideas and structures in society, a reminder, as the collection opened, that Fogarty’s poetics is gritty and even bloody work; on the other hand, it draws upon the global connections he has mustered across this collection. Fogarty alludes to these connections through the modern technological language of networks, presenting a ‘bite-sized’ ‘international interface’ of ‘modules’, and intertwining them with ‘warrior’ encounters and strategies (78).

Fogarty’s final poem, ‘By Our Memories Zapata,’ expands this interface to include the iconic Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a people’s revolution centred on land rights and agrarian reform, based on the premise that the land belongs to the tiller. Making common cause, Fogarty declares ‘We are these Mexican Australian’ (84), connecting the year of Zapata’s birth, 1879, with August 2018, a month in which far-right politics made an obvious resurgence as One Nation Senator Fraser Anning advocated for the return of the White Australia policy in parliament. In response the poem, and indeed the collection, concludes defiantly:

… rasping flags causes we’ll
Sone your ideas down.
Non poets never revolutionary
Señor ZAPATA
VIVA
(84).

Cultivating his poetics through outrage at enduring colonial and societal oppression and a deep sense of relation to the earth, Fogarty has his hands on the tiller: the resulting yield is one that lingers and continues to grow, in the mind of this reviewer at least, long after the initial harvest.
 
 
SAMUEL COX is a PhD candidate and researcher of Australian literature at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in The Saltbush ReviewWesterly, JASALALSMotifsSWAMP and selected for Raining Poetry in Adelaide. He won ASAL’s A.D. Hope Prize in 2022.

Marion May Campbell reviews I Have Decided To Remain Vertical by Gayelene Carbis

I Have Decided To Remain Vertical

by Gayelene Carbis

ISBN: 978122571489

Puncher and Wattmann

Reviewed by MARION MAY CAMPBELL

I Have Decided To Remain Vertical is an exhilarating extension and intensification of some of the major themes of Carbis’s first collection Anecdotal Evidence: her never leaving Carnegie; a family strangely functional in the wake of brokenness, as poesis summons vivid mosaics from the fragments; the devastated heart and the paradoxical sustenance it finds by revisiting the penumbra of relations; the contradiction between word and gesture; the magnetism of the loving body while the erotic body feels cancelled in its relegation to mere companionship, and the fearless probing of domestic anguish in the wake of paternal carelessness.

Memory is performed as always transformative of the event it revisits—so true to what’s known of the mnemonic process—it’s volatile, apt to ignite the scene and act out the shadow-fire of rage or panic in the domestic or intimate space. The wonder of several key poems in this new collection is their integration of heartbreak, loss, even terror, and of comic, Alice-like defiance. Surreality is presented with hyperreal acuity. Carbis’s dream-envoy arrogates agency at her risk and peril to rescue the very poem we’re reading. This kind of mise-en-abyme or nesting, whereby the making of the very poem we’re immersed in is narratively embedded in the text is a feature here: poetry-making, often snatched from the jaws of disaster, is both agent and catalyst for the ‘I’persona’s survival, no matter into what pits life and love have thrown her. This is done with great comic brio and, often, hilarity, all the more liberating for the catastrophe she skirts.

The collection is framed by two brilliant poems, ‘Marrying Freud’ (p. 13) and the final ‘The Memory of Colour’ (p. 102) containing the title line, both of which manage, in their formal economy, to conduct the lightning of insight and offer fierce, earthy resistance to a perceptual charge that otherwise might blow things apart. The dream scenario of ‘Marrying Freud’ conveys a sense of wild exuberance, not just through its refusal to espouse the Great Man myth, but also through the matter-of-factness which domesticates Freud, turning him into a kind of housemaid. Again, it’s Dora’s revenge; ‘Dora’ being the pseudonym for the gifted young woman of Freud’s ‘Case Histories’ who dared dismiss him, he said, like a maid of all work. Freud here expects to be both sexually and domestically serviced. This savage brand of feminism is all the more hilarious through its continence in constraining form. Freud awaits in the marriage bed whose sheet he has folded back (he’s already unconsciously become the chamber maid) in anticipation, while his dream ‘wife’ in the kitchen, through the night, writes her glorious resistance—the poem we are reading, refusing to bring the anticipated coffee: ‘I’m not his fucking mother’ (p.14).

In ‘Our house’ (p. 20), the domestic sphere is a charged space, where contradictions stage their tug-of-war; where vitriolic fury and loving acceptance are veined together in an always-compromised stream. The forensic eye returns unflinching in memory, telling it without a hint of pastelised sentiment. It is thus acutely recognizable as authentic to the reader, beautiful, heartbreaking and, at times, irrecoverable from—as in ‘The Price we Pay’ (p. 25), for instance.

In ‘The Baker’s Daughter’ (p. 31)—an allusion to Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s invocation of the owl—Gayelene indicts a weakness that countless feminine avatars of Ophelia share, imploring fathers as potential saviors, recued neither by generations of Poloniuses nor Hamlets: these superbly haunting lines brought the shiver of the graveyard to my warm living room:

        too mindful, we die to our truer selves, calling father!
        But the fathers, all air, walk as ghosts over the grave ground            (p.31)

There’s genius in the spooky effect of the caesura after ‘all air’ (and, as we know, garrulous Polonius was all air), and in the fatefully sounding final spondee ‘grave ground’. This double stress (and alliteration) brings home how hanging on the father’s word kills ‘our truer selves’: bang bang. In variously inventive ways, Carbis’s work so far in her plays, stories and now, two poetry collections, has explored both the comedy of feminine identifications and the devastation wreaked by the models of masculinity that men and boys strive to enact or refuse at their peril. How does the golden-haired little boy, hauled along the swimming pool lane on his father’s back become, freely and creatively, a man, when this same loving father subsequently seems to enact man-as-flight-from-responsibility-and-presence? (‘Love Like This’, p. 24)

If compassionate identification is not enough to save from mortality—art, whether painting or poetry—gives back life, as in the beautiful ekphrastic ‘Red Horse by the River’ (p. 64) that takes off from Anselm van Rood’s ‘St Kilda Morning’. What does save, after relationship breakdown (‘I made Tarek and Egypt into a story’, ‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 46 ), is the openness to wonder beyond the pathways of flatfooted rationality: the red horse appears in its transcendent beauty by the river: ‘But your eyes were always open to the light’ (‘St Kilda Morning’, p. 47).

And consider ‘After Sylvia’ (p. 41)

        Don’t editorialise. Just say it. Read Sylvia.
        Her poems. For their surgical precision.’

        He adds: ‘You need to take up that scalpel.’

The lover-friend-mentor instructs, if not how to heal, then at least how to make a better poem by taking up the scalpel, to lay bare, with forensic wit, the damage he bequeaths her. And does she ever. Again, the last line is a unmitigated triumph: ‘I hold my pen—like a knife’.

Then, reading ‘Family’ (p. 53), I am breath-taken by Carbis’s metamorphic verve, up there with Ovid and Calvino—

        The tree told us we were temporary guests.
                […]
                Our sanctuary
        wouldn’t save us. We swept our tears into
        the streets, hid in the bark of our brooms
        as if wood had become new skin.
        (p. 53)

Here fabulism triumphs over sadness though magical metamorphosis: the humble domestic broom, remembering its origin, offers a retreat.

With several poems it’s art itself that bonds, that connects and transfigures. With ‘Writing Companion’ (for Alicia Sometimes, p. 74), language is celebrated as a reciprocal giving of nurture, a companion being etymologically, as Gaylene’s epigraph points out, a sharer of bread—thus the synesthetic transfer of shared words, whereby sounds become taste:

        … The taste of
        sounds on the tongue,
        the sharp tang
        of consonants,
        how the vowels curl.
        (p.74)

This oblique and all the more haunting ekphrastic magic runs right through the ‘Red Horse by the River’ section.

What is said and what is not said, the throat-freezing unspeakable features heartbreakingly in ‘The call’ (p. 82), where the screen topic of daughter-mother conversation is about a hairdresser’s phone number, but the not-so-well-hidden content is a mother’s possibly impending death from cancer:

        Her voice was full of stones
        I heard the dampness in her breath.
        […]
        Stones in my throat, as I
        hung up the phone and watched the brilliant lights
        of the train hurtling closer and closer.
        (82-83)

The brilliant lights of the hurtling train are the onrush of death as the terrifying real.
What is not said, the ellipsis, becomes literalised, actually materialised, in ‘Annotated Memories’ (p. 84). Here, the persona seems to have set herself the punishing task of making, for the ex-lover’s birthday, an annotated collage of his previous lives and loves; how then can she find the words for her own absence? The pendant to this conundrum is magnificently realised in ‘The Day You Left’ (pp. 88-90) where the imminently massive absence, the negative shape of the departing ship (taking the now ex-lover definitively from her), diminishes, in inverse proportion, all the wonder of the world—the moon being reduced to only a mention, a speck (p.88):

        And then, the absence
                of the ship

        I stared at the space
                where the ship had been

        And I thought
                now I understand.

        Negative capability
                Finally made sense to me.
        (p. 88)

The layout and lineation enact the cumulative insistence of absence. Here Gayelene makes over Keats’s phrase negative capability—to mean gaping absence, one that takes on more density and potency than presence.

Losing language as mediating and instrumental, Carbis lets the strangeness of body sensation impinge; it’s no longer a question of fatality, but of body as an improvisation. The deliberately anachronistic quill in ‘Embodiment in Quill’ refers to the bodily empowerment of a Victorian woman writer. Things and beings lose their names: through entries and exits and passages—vectors become all:

     A living being is making his way through the house.
        I shut out dishes in the kitchen,
        and keep my door open.
(p. 99)

In the closing, brilliant sequence culminating in ‘The Memory of Colour’, we are returned to the marvellous metamorphic power of art. Beyond the visual, Carbis writes the sensation—

        The walk back is about twenty steps
        and sometimes that is all it takes
        to remember green, to feel it

        in your feet. To feel practically feline.
        I hover on the first step then wade right in.
        I hold the colour of the sky
        in my arms, and swim.
        (p. 102)

The passage towards the water is shot through with EE, thus sending the sense of greenness coursing through the reader’s limbs and preparing an openness in the reader for the colour of the sky. Notably, this provides a space for readers to paint themselves in. Is the sky cerulean blue; is it egg-yolk yellow; or is it a thundery gunmetal? Thus armed, we slide with Carbis into the gorgeously embodying element: it’s performed in the transition from in to swim.

Finally, then, whatever our physical propensities, it’s the synaesthetic power of this whole collection that lends us such imaginative embodiment: eyes for the colour of the sky and arms to swim with.

 
References

Keats, John 1958 [1817] re. ‘negative capability’ see The Letters of John Keats, ed. H E Rollins, Vol I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958 , pp. 193–4.
Freud, Sigmund 1990 [1905] Case Histories 1: ‘Dora’ in The Penguin Freud Library,Vol.8, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1990.
 
 
MARION MAY CAMPBELL is an acclaimed poet and novelist, and essayist. Marion has taught literature and writing in various universities, including Murdoch University, the University of Melbourne and, most recently, at Deakin University. She now lives in Drouin in GunaiKurnai country with her two border collie companions.

Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Freedom, Only Freedom by Behrouz Boochani

Freedom, Only Freedom

By Behrouz Boochani (Author), Moones Mansoubi
(Anthology Editor), Omid Tofighian (Anthology Editor)

Bloomsbury

Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM
 
 
 
 
For the years that he was in immigration detention on Manus Island, Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrooz Boochani was known as ‘the voice of Manus.’ Writing on a smartphone, Boochani documented events, conditions and everyday life in the hellish detention centre he dubbed Manus prison. His writing first appeared in Mascara Literary Review, and was subsequently published by The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and Overland. In 2020, he released a book, No Friend But The Mountains, which he smuggled out in a series of Whatsapp messages sent to his translator Omid Tofighian. Many Australians came to know Boochani through his newspaper articles and his robust social media presence, which presented unfiltered updates on Manus prison until the centre’s closure in 2017. Freedom, Only Freedom is a collection of his prison writings together with essays by 19 other experts discussing the public conversation around offshore detention and where Boochani’s work can be situated in the history of incarceration, colonialism and Australian history. 

Manus prison was formally closed after a ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court that the centre was illegal. Locals were angered by the loss of over 2,000 jobs and the proposal to transfer the 800 foreign men to a ‘refugee transit centre’ that was still under construction in the small community of Lorengau. Facing threats of violence, the asylum seekers resisted leaving the centre in a remarkable siege that lasted 23 days and is documented in detail in Freedom, Only Freedom. The men were eventually forcibly transferred to Lorengua and numerous violent attacks on them were reported in the years that followed. After the release of No Friend But The Mountains in 2020, Boochani travelled to Christchurch on a one-month visa to attend a writers festival. He was granted asylum by New Zealand and was made a Senior Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. 

No Friend But the Mountains won a suite of awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and the Australian National Biography Award and is now taught in some Australian schools. It is a harrowing account of daily indignities, human rights abuses and deaths that combines autobiography with political theory. In contrast, Freedom, Only Freedom collates Boochani’s short writings together with essays by other contributors reflecting on his creative and journalistic practice. The book is divided into ten sections, each focussed on a different aspect and time period of Boochani’s experience and prefaced by a short summary of where offshore detention policy stood at the time of writing. This gives readers an overview of Boochani’s work and places it in the context of the tumultuous political events surrounding the detention centre. Assembled like this, we can more clearly see the role that Boochani’s work while on Manus played in the evolution of our thinking about offshore detention and in his own evolution as a journalist and academic.

Many of Boochani’s articles will be familiar to readers of The Guardian. They recount his arrival on Manus Island just four days after Kevin Rudd declared that boat arrivals would never set foot in Australia. They highlight the human cost of this cruel policy; the self-harm and solitary confinement that was rife in Manus prison; the constant strip searches and extreme hunger faced by detainees; and the death of his friend Hamid Khazaei from a simple infection that went untreated. But this writing is far too important to be relegated to the ephemera of the 24-hour news cycle. This collection allows readers to revisit these stories knowing how the saga of Manus prison ended and knowing that Boochani eventually found safety and recognition as a journalist and theorist. In Freedom, Only Freedom, we learn the processes that got Boochani’s writing from his smartphone to the Australian public. We read that early reporting based on information that he provided referred to him as a ‘source’ within Manus, and of the realisation in 2014 by Ben Doherty, The Guardian’s newly appointed immigration correspondent, that ‘We don’t need Behrooz as a source…we need him as a reporter.’ (p. 22) 

Boochani studied political science in Iran and his work as a journalist brought him to the attention of the Iranian government, which made him sign an agreement to stop writing about Kurdish autonomy. He did not stop and in 2013, he fled the country fearing persecution. He thought he would be free to write in Australia. Instead, he spent seven years ‘gazing over at Australia from here on Manus Island’ (p. 169) and analysing the twisted bureaucratic system of offshore detention as part of a larger ‘web of intersecting oppressions’ (p. 168) that he calls ‘kyriarchy’, a term borrowed from feminist theory. From his analysis of Manus prison, he extrapolates an analysis of all Australia, a central part of whose history ‘relates to its forgotten people’ (p. 116), a nation still stuck in a colonial mindset where the policy of offshore detention for boat arrivals represents ‘a budding fascism’. (p. 35) Writing from Lorengau, he observes: 

The system that created and governs Manus prison is in the process of replicating itself throughout Australian society, reproducing itself in unlimited numbers. This is the merciless system that takes humans as captives and subjects them to rules and regulations of micro-control and macro control, a system that takes their human identities. (p. 170)

Prior to being detained, Boochani and other contributors had an image of Australia as a peaceful country that respected human rights. In this collection, they highlight the importance of writing and translating as ways of speaking back against the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and informing Australians of what was being done in their name and with their money. Translator Moones Mansoubi describes a network of advocates, writers and translators who encouraged detainees to write. It was through this network that Boochani’s work came to be published. As jail terms could be imposed for disclosing the conditions in immigration detention, his articles first appeared under a pseudonym. Mansoubi writes of waiting for Boochani to send her the next installation via Whatsapp and worrying that his phone may have been confiscated or vandalised by the guards. ‘By collaborating and translating, I could stand side by side with them in an asymmetrical war,’ she recalls. (p. 13)

In the early years of Manus prison, detainees were not allowed smartphones, but obtained them clandestinely. After the centre was ruled illegal, smartphones were allowed, and Boochani and others used social media openly to reclaim their collective and individual identities. The importance of smartphones on Manus is documented by academic Arianna Grasso in an essay called ‘Documentation, Language and Social Media’ (pp. 241 – 244), which describes how Boochani used online platforms to report on events and provide insight into the Manus Prison Kyriarchal System. Boochani’s smartphone also allowed him to create the 2017 documentary Chauka Please Tell Us The Time, which screened at film festivals around Australia and overseas. ‘Chauka’ is the name of a bird native to Manus Island, famous for telling locals the time through its regular singing. It was also the name of a windowless and oppressively hot isolation unit, which did not feature on any official maps of the detention centre’s infrastructure. Boochani also used his phone to report on the 23-day siege that preceded the closure of Manus prison, when Australian authorities ‘commenced the strange shuffling of a person who knows they are wrong and who fears they will be caught’. (p. 128) During this time, posts by detainees published from inside the camp focussed public attention on Manus and ignited condemnation of the government. Photos and videos were shared widely in what Mansoubi calls ‘self-representation activism’. (p. 15) Many readers of Freedom, Only Freedom will have watched the Manus prison siege unfolding on Facebook during November 2017 and marvelled, in real time, at the work Boochani and others were doing. They may recall the image of Boochani being marched out of the compound by guards and the appeals to the public from refugee advocates to contact the Department of Immigration and demand assurances of the men’s safety. Six years later, we can see even more clearly how important these acts of micro-blogging were. 

Cultural historian Jordana Silverstein places Boochani in the same tradition of history writing as the writing about the ghettos, camps and bureaucracies of violence that made up the holocaust. She argues that both Primo Levi and Behrooz Boochani testify to history ‘in order to make clear the workings of the world,’ (p.41) and the insights and language of those who were in such places, ‘echo through time, across generations.’ (p. 39)  

As I was reading Freedom, Only Freedom, it struck me as incongruous, in light of Silverstein’s and Mansoubi’s commentary, that Boochani and other contributors refer to No Friend But the Mountains as an ‘autobiographical novel’, as opposed to a memoir, autobiography or work of long-form journalism. ‘Autobiographical novel’ is a classification that to my mind implies a fictional reworking of lived experiences, while Boochani and others have been adamant that his account is a testimony of real events, albeit with composite characters who are referred to by nicknames. Elsewhere, Boochani has called the book ‘genre-bending’ and Tofighian has named it ‘horrific surrealism’. It is a difficult piece of work to classify. There are a few other anomalies in Freedom, Only Freedom that can be put down to lapses of translation or editing. One example is where Boochani states that Hamid Khazaei had an infection ‘in his body for six months’ (p. 37), then goes on to detail what happened on each of the six days, after which his friend died due to lack of proper treatment. (The Queensland coroner found that Khazaei’s death occurred 12 days after he presented with flulike symptoms and a small lesion on his leg.) Boochani also repeatedly describes the detainees on Manus as being ‘under pressure’ but does not clarify whether he means a specific type of pressure – perhaps pressure to return to their countries of origin, despite it being unsafe to do so – or if he is referring to general stress. Boochani has spoken of his desire to be viewed foremost as a writer, rather than as a refugee, and of the ongoing trauma of persistently being described in dehumanising terms. While living in Christchurch, he has started working on a book of fiction.
 
The short sections and variety of voices in Freedom, Only Freedom contrast with the relentlessness of No Friend But The Mountains. Boochani’s second book also answers some of the questions that may have been niggling away in the minds of readers of his first. How his writing was received, translated, and broadcast to the Australian public; the circumstances of his flight from Iran; what became of him after the centre closed. His antipathy towards the journalists he saw reporting on asylum seekers arriving in Australia, which went unexplained in the first book, is also elucidated here. Boochani explains that he observed officers ‘shaking hands with the reporters. I felt that they were partners in crime.’ (p. 5) Freedom, Only Freedom contextualises Boochani’s journalism and advocacy and places his work firmly in the canon. 

Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton told Boochani he would never come to Australia. In December 2022, he entered the country to promote this book. Speaking at a sold-out event at the Brisbane Powerhouse in early February, Boochani and Tofighian were interviewed by Aleem Ali, CEO of Welcome Australia. ‘So you’re here in Australia’, Ali said to Boochani, provoking a round of applause. ‘How does it feel?’ To this, Boochani replied that he never fought to come to Australia specifically, as politicians sought to portray, but rather to get freedom and to challenge the system. ‘But I was sure one day I’d come to Australia if I wanted to,’ he said. ‘The good news is I can go back to New Zealand whenever I want.’ 

Notes
1. Davidson, Helen. Iranian refugee on Manus Island violently assaulted | Manus Island | The Guardian
2. Ryan, 2018. Inquest into the death of Hamid KHAZAEI. (Ref. no. 2014/3292) Coroners Court of Queensland. 3. https://www.courts.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/577607/cif-khazaei-h-20180730.pdf
3. Stack, Megan K, Behrooz Boochani Just Wants To Be Free, New York Times, 4 August 2020

 

FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. She completed a Master of Arts at Deakin University in 2017. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide.

Anne Brewster reviews Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill

Daisy and Woolf

by Michelle Cahill

Hachette

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daisy and Woolf is an outstanding contribution to the global literary canon in general, and to localised and specific canons such as Australian literature, women’s literature, and literature by people of colour (POC), to name but a few. Cahill’s ground-breaking novel, in its layered inter-textuality, in effect maps out the dialogues and traffic between these various canons, outlining the discursive politics which inform their (troubled) white histories of inclusion and exclusion, of orientalism and subordination.

 

Works Cited

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

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

Adele Dumont reviews Childhood by Shannon Burns

Childhood

by Shannon Burns

Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922330789

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cited

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

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

Michelle Cahill reviews This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham

This Devastating Fever

by Sophie Cunningham

Ultimo Press

ISBN 9781761150937

Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Woolf, L. 1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cited

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

Ben Hession reviews Sydney Spleen by Toby Fitch

Sydney Spleen

by Toby Fitch

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818758

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sense of interconnectivity we see here is reinforced later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later, we find:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEN HESSION is a writer and critic based in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib, Live Encounters: Poetry and Writing and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.