by Alison Croggon
Reviewed by GAYATRI NAIR
I initially didn’t want to review this book. It is written by a white woman, and as a person of colour (POC) who wants to elevate diverse writing, I thought it was important to only review other diverse writers. However, after discussion with a mentor and writer I realised that it is also important that we, as POC women especially, participate in criticism, not just of diverse literature but also more established writers. It is possible also to challenge and change traditional criticism by introducing diverse perspectives from diverse critic-subjects. This is called auto-ethnographic criticism, which acknowledges the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural and makes room for non-traditional forms of inquiry and expression. It is a way to quietly address the assumed authority of the ‘literary review’ or the role of ‘critic’. So, in this way it’s subversive for a POC to review white authors and writing.
Alison Croggon I think would appreciate and understand this. Her work ‘Monsters’ – part essay, interwoven with part memoir – interrogates her role as a white woman and how colonialism and the establishment of the empire has caused harm, not only to those outside it but those who built it. She asks difficult questions, not only of herself but of the reader.
“This figure I see in the foreground, this me. How monstrous am I? What does it mean to be a monster? From Latin monstrum, meaning an abomination…grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible …” (pg 160)
Croggon is herself an immigrant, she researches her family’s heritage through murky British military history to both South Africa during the Boer War and India; her family were foot soldiers of the empire. She questions how she can escape this dynasty including spending her formative years under apartheid – and the most racist country in the world.
Croggon’s descriptive way with words and unexpected adjectives and sentence structures demonstrate her expertise as a poet. The rhythms of her writing replicate the ocean and we are sometimes dragged within its depths. The references to other writers, especially poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath are interlaced with her own criticisms in unique ways. But the stories she tells of her family life and in particular her motherhood are glittering, told with both stylistic prowess and integrity. The way she writes about being a woman, her mother and her own experience of domestic abuse which fractured her life and relationships, and her later recognition of what it was is both compassionate and unrelenting. Her refusal to be a nice woman, her anger at structures that contain women is refreshing.
The critical relationship explored in this this book though is the one with her sister, which is sometimes hard to read. Their relationship is marked by cruelty and stems from their experiences as children, the violence Croggon describes as well as the anger is at once palpable, intimate but also sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy. Their subsequent estrangement marked by their shared inheritance of violence is traced back in a wonky line to their history as colonisers. This is not an easy read.
“When people feel there isn’t enough to go around, conflict can be vicious. Maybe that’s part of what happened between me and my sister, that sense that there was so little of everything. There wasn’t enough money, there wasn’t enough love. Everything turned into a deadly competition. And we both lost.” (pg 154)
The book asks questions, but it doesn’t give answers. As a reader this can sometimes be frustrating as we are dragged along, it can feel relentless, and it’s unclear what Croggon wants from us as the reader. But there is also an understanding that the reader can accept that life doesn’t have neat conclusions and we can sit with her in trying to make sense of it.
Croggon’s critique of colonialism, which threads its way through the entire book, is her most interesting but also at times jarring. She traces a faint line through her lineage as colonisers and their cruelty to her family’s recent experiences of violence which led to both the fracture in her parents’ relationship and her relationship with her sister. She investigates the idea that like patriarchy hurts everyone (including men), white supremacy also hurts white people. Not only does it hurt those that are colonised, but it also hurts those that perpetrate it. Croggon explains:
“I’m not interested in writing a mea culpa. I’m not interested in throwing ashes on my head and throwing myself on the ground in penitence. I’m not interested in displays of my guilt or my culpability. Take this as read: I was raised in a racist, sexist, hierarchical culture, and just as I had to learn (am still learning) how to undo all the prohibitions imposed by the patriarchs, rows and rows of them in their robes like in medieval paintings, leading all the up to the Throne of God, so I am learning to unlearn racism.” (pg 241)
Whilst this is a novel and valid theory that deserves to be interrogated further, one of the problems with this assertion is that too much focus is on the white experience and not enough on the experiences of those who were oppressed. To her credit Croggon acknowledges this but some of it does feel a bit self-pitying and has elements of white saviour complex. Whilst it is a memoir and this self-reflection is important, there is perhaps too much focus on this narrative when she could have further amplified the stories of the oppressed. She does refer to other Black and brown thinkers like Audre Lorde and Ruby Hamad, but it also feels like a checklist in a post #blacklivesmatter world. This narrative takes away from the stories that need to be told.
Her descriptions and unravelling of the misogynies in canonical works are sharp. And the way she uses theory to unpack her own personal history whilst at times raw is also compelling. Croggon’s use of the English language is superb. Her condemnation of the empire, its inheritance and how it’s destroyed not only external, but her inner world is both uneasy and powerful.
“I was born as part of a monstruous structure – the grotesque, hideous, ugly, ghastly, gruesome, horrible relations of power that constituted colonial Britain. A structure that shaped, me that shapes the very language that I speak and use and love. I am the daughter of an empire that declared itself the natural order of the world.” (pg 160)
“Those voiceless ghosts, only audible in their absence.” (pg 35) By writing her own story, and asking these questions, she gives those ghosts a voice and encourages other stories by those that have been oppressed, to be told. In Monsters, Croggon also makes space for these questions to be answered.
GAYATRI NAIR is an Indian-Australian writer, poet and DJ based on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney’s inner west. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and has qualifications in Law and Arts, working in human rights policy, research and advocacy. Gayatri has been published in Sweatshop Women and Swampland Magazine.
Against Certain Capture
by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Reviewed by JACKSON
The interestingly eccentric Apothecary Archive recently re-issued Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s collection, Against Certain Capture, which won the 2004 WA Premier’s Book Award for Poetry.
Like many Australian citizens, Lo has a complicated background. She was born in Canada and grew up in Singapore. She has Chinese-Malaysian and Anglo-Australian parents (Lo, About), and their meeting is part of the story of this book, which presents two parallel biographies, one of her Chinese paternal grandmother 梁月仙 (Liáng Yuè Xiān) and one of her Australian grandmother Eva Sounness.
While a prose biography may be lengthy and detailed, a successful verse biography is like a good biopic: it showcases the pivotal events, allowing the reader to extrapolate the story and its significance. Against Certain Capture adopts this approach, offering 21 shortish poems, devoting half to each grandmother. Within their brevity, Lo lucidly evokes these women’s characters and times.
She does so by subtly deploying poetic craft. The life of 梁月仙 amid the scrabble and crush of twentieth-century China and Malaysia, choosing romance over money and giving birth to Lo’s father in a narrow room above a shop (Lo, Home), is given quick-stepping lines, free-flowing, fast-changing stanzas, and fragments of Chinese. A striking example is “Run”, which appears on the page in three narrow columns, suggesting not only the young woman’s literal and metaphorical journey but also the vertical presentation of traditional Chinese poetry. It opens:
Through Lo’s skill with phrase and pattern, we feel the young woman clinging to her cultural identity while labouring for her family’s survival (“the coffeeshop / bankrupt”).
In contrast to 梁月仙, Sounness raised ten children in the dry, expansive Australian rural landscape. Accordingly, her section tends toward slower, prosier lines and more regular stanza patterns. Assessing the farmer she would marry,
she notes that his arms are steady, although his dancing
leaves something to be desired. As they move, she weights
his soberness against bandy legs, his shuffling
two-step, the smell of the farm on his collar. She sways.
(“Saturday Night Dances”)
These examples illustrate how throughout this book the style serves the subject matter. There are no egregious verbal gymnastics. As Andrew Burke comments, Lo’s “diction is so unobtrusive you never notice the words — just what they’re saying”. After all,
There are no pretty words
Only a thin white dribble
squeezed from a cracked nipple,
(“No Pretty Words”)
and dignified maturity deserves understated metaphor:
Eva rises, drawing her years about her —
a cloak of thick and silvering hair
that hangs past her shoulders.
Refreshingly, this book is written in the third person. This enhances the sense of intermittently peeking at the two families’ lives as if through a camera. Elsewhere, Lo remarks that she likes “experimenting with aesthetic distance. The practice of Keats’ negative capability … of writing without drawing attention to oneself … was in the back of my mind” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness, especially, is seen from a distance. In an essay, Lo compares the experiences of researching and writing the two lives. She says writing about Sounness was much more challenging although — and maybe because — she was still alive and Lo interviewed her instead of replying solely upon others’ narratives. This made creating a coherent story more difficult (Lo, “Reconfiguring” 205–207). Perhaps as a result, the Sounness work tends, for me, to be less successful. In particular, there is a good deal of quoted speech which, although Lo handles it skilfully, appears to have been somewhat resistant to rendering in verse. These lines do not ring in my mind after reading like the ones in Lo’s own voice.
Nevertheless, the poems memorably capture the tone of Sounness’s life. Michael Brennan comments that through her poems, Lo “explores family histories with openness, sincerity and a gift for characterisation, giving detail and depth to the conflicts and prejudice, nurturing and love, of the strong women of her family.” He calls Against Certain Capture “an adroit sequence of poems” in which “Lo’s formidable grandmothers … are vividly present” (Miriam). Intriguingly, no-one ever describes a man as “formidable”. Lo herself comments, “I wrote about my grandmothers partly because we live in a world that does not take old ladies very seriously, when I feel that they ought to be taken very seriously indeed” (Brennan, Interview).
Sounness’s recollections are taken especially seriously in “Between a Mother and her Mongol Child”, which juxtaposes the book’s only foray into mid-line whitespace and chopped-up syntax (“connectthe wiring start / the stop heart startstop / the stopheart”) with a passage from Sounness’s journal (“It took some time before the Mongol became a child”) to vividly express Sounness’s conflicting feelings about raising a child with Down syndrome.
I hope that dated term “Mongol” makes you squirm as I did upon encountering it quoted by a person with Chinese heritage. One reason we read poems is to examine ourselves. As Brennan notes, Lo’s work highlights the “ethnic, cultural and political divisions and contradictions from which contemporary Australian identity evolves, as well as a vital and realistic picture of how the minutiae of culture and identity reshape us over generations” (Miriam).
I would add that the reason Lo’s poems do this so well is because she chooses not to delineate her sociopolitical concerns explicitly. Hence, readers are free to experience her work on multiple levels, see its connections for themselves, and draw their own conclusions.
Lo herself comments on this. Discussing poets she terms “hybrid” or “multi-racial” whose work she read as background, she says:
I was also bothered by a general obsession with alienation and the way in which the poetry seemed to become a repetitive performance of various poets’ marginal credentials. I wanted to write something that emphasised not only the relational and communal context of experiences of cultural difference, but also the positive possibilities of hybridity as a mode of being that does not have to be characterised primarily by alienation. (Brennan, Interview)
Perhaps the most important reason Lo writes about her grandmothers is to articulate her personal definition of hybridity, a theoretical term she seems to find apposite, but also uncomfortable because of its “dark linguistic history” (Lo, “Towards” 9–10). To be able to use it, she defines it as seeing oneself as a collection of cultural “parts” in “relationship with each other”. She comments that these “parts” are shaped by familial and historical “factors” and that by writing about her grandmothers, she is attempting to create a “positive” view of hybridity without forgetting how it is affected by prejudiced discourses (“Towards ” 13–14).
One way to do this is through language. The 梁月仙 poems, like Lo, use English as their first language and Chinese as a second (Lo, Home; Brennan, Interview). Because of their appearance and sound, the Chinese fragments significantly enhance the poems’ atmosphere. Lo explains that using Mandarin helped her get inside her grandmother’s head and milieu (Lo, “Towards” 16). It helps the reader, too:
(“Like the Autumn Clouds, They Are Gone”)
Um … something about flowers and years? I turn to Google, which translates the first line idiomatically as “In the mood for love”, adding wistful romance to Lo’s English version, which beautifully preserves the poetry:
Like flowers, the days of my youth —
they came like the sweet breath of spring
in my dreams, like the autumn clouds
they are gone where they cannot be found.
As Burke observes, this 32-page book is large “in intention and scope”. On finishing it, I felt a little short-changed! I wished I could learn more about the grandmothers’ fascinating lives.
I would also have liked more of the poetry to savour. As Lo herself remarks, “Poetry has to be about pleasure (poetry for its own sake) and it will be relevant and valuable as long as some of us enjoy reading and writing it” (Brennan, Interview). I have certainly enjoyed reading and contemplating this book.
Brennan, Michael. Interview with Miriam Wei Wei Lo. July 2011, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/cou_article/19021/Interview-with-Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. Sept. 2009, https://www.poetryinternational.org/pi/poet/14885/Miriam-Wei-Wei-Lo/en/tile.
Burke, Andrew. Miriam Lo’s ’Against Certain Capture’. Sept. 2004, https://hispirits.blogspot.com/2004/09/miriam-los-against-certain-capture.html.
Lo, Miriam Wei Wei. About. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/.
“Home” FAQ. 2021, https://miriamweiweilo.com/home-faq.
“Reconfiguring a Necessary Entrapment : A Tale of Two Grandmothers.” Beyond Good and Evil? : Essays on the Literature and Culture of the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Dennis Haskell et al., University of Western Australia Press for the Westerly Centre, 2005, pp. 199–209.
“Towards a Particular Hybridity: A Beginning.” Westerly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1999, pp. 9–20, https://westerlymag.com.au//wp-content/uploads/2016/02/WesterlyVol.44no.4.pdf.
JACKSON was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. During 2018 and 2019 she taught English in China. She works as a poetry editor and casual academic. thepoetjackson.com
I Said The Sea Was Folded
by Erik Jensen
Reviewed by JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE
The first poem, chronologically, in I said the sea was folded begins
I don’t know if you read poetry
I don’t know if I write it.
Jane Hirshfield tells the speaker of the book, in another, that poems “are a diary note/ to remember what happened”. Poetry— its writing, language and the ways it can make sense of love/wounded time— is the first preoccupation of Erik Jensen’s book, in spite of its promotion as “love poems”.
If I said the sea was folded has a unifying trick, it is the framing of poetry— as an activity, an artefact, a mediation of language— as inherently concerned with itself. This isn’t new— every kind of poetry is implicated by the limits of its field— but through its dramatization, Jensen makes it the engine of his poems, and the narrative at their core. It insists that any kind of therapy or catharsis poetry can affect first passes through the poem as a text, revelatory and profoundly alienating at the same time, for reader and speaker. It’s no surprise that the book ends with a gloss on what is inexpressible, as “the background against which/ anything I could express has its meaning”; any poetry concerned with itself-as-poetry ends in the same place, turns liberating and restrictive.
Most of the poems directly enact this passage through themselves—and the medium of the speaker— detailing their own construction. The book is divided into 3 non-linear chronological segments, starting from the end of a relationship. Some play on a motif that appears across each segment, decontextualizing as time rewinds. Poems refer back to each other, to their germ at the beginning of the relationship, only to emerge bitter and accusatory at the end. A poem about the love language of turtles— precious in its inexpressibility through human terms, its lack of projection— is foreshadowed by its later, first appearance, when the speaker spits
why did you shout last night, when all we wanted
was to feel the simple, placable love
of a turtle stacked up on a turtle?
Other works— ‘Pinter’s Betrayal’, ‘Nick Payne’s Constellations’— use non-linear time to excavate the normativity of works inspired by love: inverting the dramatic arc of meet cute, juxtaposing romantic gestures with their fizzling out, coupling them the self-interest. It has the effect— ironically— of emphasising the radical contingency of romantic relationships. Something portrayed as normal/monolithic is tessellated with a thousand shards of gender-play, class signifiers and naturalisation. Addressing their partner, the speaker defines the poems in their book, subject and object, as “the ways I’ve tried to look”, approaching their partner’s non-binary self, “broken off in the parts I’ve wanted to see”. This “trying to look”, defined by its engagement with failure, finds its corollary in the inexpressibility of poetry, that “Words are not enough… they exist too much/ for the people that made them”, as the speaker reports their partner saying.
If the poems pass through themselves in I said the sea was folded, that passage involves reaching for each other, and— through each other— the absent beloved, remote in space/ time and— the speaker dramatizes— driven away by the normativity of poetic discursiveness and— the speaker insinuates— the speaker’s own norminess, their reproductions of those norms in speech. The poems as a result are sparse, connotative, to the point of vagueness, the recording of imagistic details, juggling/juxtaposing poetic diction with simple, deliberately banal records of the relationship, as if to invite and stave off interpretation. They “hold in place/even when the other/is no longer here”.
Linguistic reference, not only to themselves but as a whole, becomes a key technical, thematic and ethical concern of the poems. Through reference they transcend, feed back into each other’s use of metaphor/imagery and establish a poetic whole out of the disjointed timeline, all while their essential emptiness and arbitrariness are emphasised. Individually, the poems can read as circling a void. A list of vague, deliberately poeticized descriptions of trees “fixed against the sky… their branches bent/as if the cold had stunted them”, “hedges of agapanthus” and “money/after it had been spent” conclude with “I suppose what I’m trying to say is/ I love you”, direct address immediately couched in/ out of the speaker’s suspicion of language and its stock trade. In one poem the speaker’s grandmother offers a warning, in two lines, “against poems/ she said they are forever”, the rest of the blank page almost a literalisation of this. There’s a sense of almost-tragic irony in the poems: they enact a double movement between sense-making and performative contradiction. In the prologue Jensen offers a mea culpa to the poem’s addressee: “I wish I met you now/but of course I met you then/and the rest of that time/is just what happened”. Reading through the book linearly, using the poetry’s logic to piece the continuity together, following the speaker’s own desire to “let you be/ to feel it for yourself”, we end in a place full of promise and retroactive empathy that cannot be real.
It’s in this continually moving/retreating space that the ethical desire of I said the sea was folded lives. In writing “love poetry” where the beloved is conspicuously absent, their construction put in air-quotes, Jensen tries to build a space where the deferral of reference comes to signify a queer, non-binary being, the “background against which/ whatever I could express has its meaning” . In this he mirrors, and directly draws on, Maggie Nelson, citing her “complaint/about the instability of likeness” that retroactively informs the poetics of the book. As the speaker murmurs: “one tree is like another tree/but not too much”. In this space hollowed out by the poems— Jensen implies— a love poem that can adequately represent a non-binary beloved, from a cisgender perspective, can take shape. A kind of representation— the paradox is intentional— predicated on inexpressibility, the perfect silence of a “good ally” that doesn’t overstep their boundaries. Jensen frames this as a hard won ethical lesson on his part, after the breakup, “Nothing occurs in order/although it takes a whole life to realise/so I haven’t”. At the same, it’s a lesson predicated on cis incomprehension, and inevitable tragedy. If the cisnormativity of love poetry is critiqued through the book’s structure/poetic style, it seems to conclude in a fatalism complementary to “good allies”: I will inevitably, tragically misrepresent you in my poetry, and I’m truly sorry. My intentions were good. Cis people, this is what you must take heed of to avoid my sorry fate, the limits of my poetic language and world.
If the poems of the book set up a negative dialectic, opening up space for non-binary reference/critique, the cis speaker remains an unmoved mover, perfectly still, separated from all that gender through their work. But the true issue is, as a non-binary person, I can’t believe in the inexpressible. Or at least the version reified by Jensen or Nelson. A reckoning with what being non-binary implies— a critique of colonial gender construction, the ongoing role of gender in upholding white patriarchy and capitalist accumulation, the kind of limiting subjectivity that is affixed to the “non-binary beloved”— seems beyond it. If non-binary space— Jensen writes— is a kind of via negativa, I couldn’t think of something more obstructive to it than this deployment of the “inexpressible”, or the poetry it suggests. It makes me think of the tweet: a weeping voice tells someone that they can’t simply say everything is a gender. The person, unmoved, points at a weird cloud, a cat, a sloth-mug: gender, gender, gender.
What does this all add up to? A series of finely detailed, observant poems that don’t hang together? A structure and poetics that turns that lack into a good technique, a kind of join-the-dots that performs an interesting self-critique of poetic language and tradition, which— like Nelson’s work— is more important for what it crystalizes than opens up? In the end, I’m encouraged to take this kind of poetry from cis lovers of non-binary people, in the same way I’m encouraged to accept good allyship… What I have time for in the work I should appreciate, and the idea of the inexpressible I’ll try to disabuse, to prevent it causing potential mischief among the good cis people. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my partners.
- Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts, Minneapolis, Greywolf Press, 2015, print.
JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE is a writer/student at the University of Melbourne. Their work has appeared in Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal and Overland, among others. In 2021 they were one of the recipients of the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis award. They live on unceded Wurundjeri land.
Song of the Crocodile
by Nardi Simpson
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
To read Song of the Crocodile is to immerse yourself in an unfolding relationship to place. You may not recognise it immediately but the profound connection to place shared by Simpson through this story is a slow build to love, yearning, recognition and respect for Country. The novel is a confident and accomplished debut by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman best known for her singing and song writing as a member of the Sydney band the Stiff Gins. It is a profound intergenerational Australian story of family and Country that deserves to be as celebrated and well-read as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
The novel illuminates a way of thinking, of loving and of living. Simpson’s musicality, the fluid way she uses language, both English and Yuwaalaraay, throughout underscores the narrative by creating landscapes of emotion. It reveals connectedness and relationship across time and place, allowing language and Country to breathe. Song of the Crocodile is a lyrical achievement of story, language, and heart.
Set in a time resembling the 1950s, the book opens with Simpson walking us into Darnmoor, a small regional town in the north-west of NSW with the tag line ‘Gateway to Happiness’ on its welcome sign. We see the early morning quiet streets, the shuttered shops and the war memorial in the centre that provides the focus for the town. We walk through the town, leaving the ‘inoffensive, modest and calm’ façade of Darnmoor, to the Council tip, a bora ground now covered in the town rubbish, and then on further to the Mangamanga, a great river near where the local Aboriginal people live on a place called the Campgrounds located at the end of Old Black Road.
This introduction sets the foundation for all that will follow; the demarcation of bodies, dreams and knowledge, and what happens when boundaries are pushed. Powerfully, the story is told only through the experience of the Aboriginal characters. The white characters are significant actors, changing hopes and lives, but they are not the emotional or narrative focus.
The story is of three generations of women, Margaret Lightning, her daughter Celie Billymil, and Mili, Celie’s daughter.
Living on the Campgrounds and working in Darnmoor, Margaret is quiet and hardworking, navigating the white town with caution. She works at the hospital, doing the laundry and walks into town each day using side streets to reach her destination. The demarcation of race occurs in the hospital too, with Aboriginal patients installed on a side verandah with Margaret acting as their nurse, cleaner and counsellor, and conduit to the white management. Racism is ever present, in the demand that the sheets used for the Aboriginal patients are burnt rather than washed and re-used, in the level of care for the Aboriginal patients, the amount of information Aboriginal patients are provided about their health.
Celie is a kind, calm constant energy in the story. She suffers loss with dignity and determination to provide a future for Mili, her daughter, and she uses her knowledge of the town to create opportunity.
Mili is the future generation. She lives in change, where her newly fashioned hopes are regularly pushed down and obstructed by the white systems of power in the town. Mili becomes a bridge between the Aboriginal and white worlds, a burden of much weight.
Ancestors feature too, some being stars, trees and dust. They are ever present and active, guiding and preparing the earthbound people for the future while drawing on the old ones for advice and support. The sky-bound observe from the ‘the roof of the plains’ and move across the Milky Way, called Warrambool in Yuwaalaraay language.
Some ancestors that drive the story are Jakybird, the Songman who brings the choir together for the song of the crocodile; Garriya, the malevolent single-minded crocodile who lies in the earth far below the town waiting for his chance to return; Margaret and Celie’s lightning kin who herald the rain; Murrudhi Gindamalaa (Laughing Star) who protects and provides for the newly dead; Malawildhuulmuranga (the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn) who disappears into dark nights hiding diamonds, stars, within her; and Burrenjean, (the featherless bird) the human form of magpie lark who ‘makes the country sing’ despite being name-called as mudlark. Her feather father reassures her of the significance of her earth-bound origin when he tells her:
‘The mud is the beginning of our connectedness. The beginning of our responsibility, the reason we are needed…
What is mud but the joining of all that is above and all below?’ (p210)
Simpson seamlessly conveys the world above, on and below the plains as one. Her telling of Aboriginal philosophy, of Country, belonging and lore, details consequence and relationship for all creatures, not just human. In Song of the Crocodile, all things are elemental and connected; all things are in fluid relationship to each other, including the writer and reader.
Her inventive way of weaving Yuwaalaraay words and meaning throughout the English without direct explanation, creates space and invites the reader to read in a different way, from a different angle. There is no singular understanding or story in this novel. It is layered and readers will find different connections within it.
The characters experience connections, often surprising themselves. By the river, when the women gather to comfort Margaret, who has been disrespected and disappointed (again) by white townspeople actions, Idy, an older Aboriginal woman, begins singing. Margaret joins in. She knows the words, and the power of the song, but can’t remember when she learnt it. Celie and Mili both, find comfort from tragedy in the Double D, an ancient coolabah tree by the river that saw the boras, long before the town was first laid out.
Another tree, where Celie’s husband died, along the Old Black Road, draws Celie, newborn baby Mili and Celie’s young nephews:
‘Aunty Ceil, Nan told me about the trees, how they remember everything. How they hold memories for people… But here, around here, is where he lived too. Aunt, sit down.
… Nan taught me all about it. They hold life. The bad stuff they take away through their roots and release it into the ground.’ (p67)
For Malawildhuulmuranga, her connection is planetary, as her Dhaa explains, ‘You are a daughter of dawn, the only thing separating darkness from light and the only thing that joins them.’ (p82)
Jakybird assesses and marvels at Paddy, Mili’s son who is in deep despair:
‘He watched Paddy sway into town, messy, loose, stumbling, but erect. This must have been powerful magic, remaining upright when all conspired to pull him down’. (p344)
Paddy reminds Jakybird of Garriya, now crocodile but who was once a friend, and the connection is made again between the ancient and the now.
The connection of life and death is always close too. At one point, Wil, Mili’s husband who has died, tries to reach Paddy his son, to induce a flicker of hope in Paddy’s heart:
‘High in the star, Wil moved memories into his son. They were only colours: the deep blue of a uniform, the bright orange of a council hat. Flashes of smiles, places they’d been, or the feel of a fishing line or the ruffling of his hair.’ (p350)
Connection is everywhere in this story, connection to all creatures, to the past and to the future. Even when the characters feel most alone, the reader knows they are not.
Demarcations and boundaries
The town geographically delineates between Aboriginal and white clearly. Darnmoor, as most real Australian towns did, corrals the local Aboriginal people outside the white perimeter, past the rubbish tip at the end of the Old Black Road. The history of this practice extends back through to the first settler fence-builders and town planners on this land. For instance, the town I grew up in, Taree on Biripi Country on the NSW mid north coast, pushed/ took/stole/drove local Biripi people to a reserve, Purfleet, south of the town across the river.
Song of the Crocodile reveals these practices as oppressive, common and complex. Some Aboriginal people are allowed inside the unspecified fence, but this comes with negotiation and always a cost. We see the cost to Margaret first:
‘When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tared road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent.’ (p11).
In the novel, just as in the real world, Aboriginal women use their intimate knowledge of the white world strategically, while the white characters have no insight into how little they understand of – or are required by – the Aboriginal world. This considered and deliberate reveal, of how an oppressed people know their oppressors intimately while the oppressors have no clue, was a highlight in the story for me.
White actions have impacts on the Campgrounds community. These impacts are frequently dismissed – or even unimagined – because white people believe they hold the power and can choose not to notice, not to listen. We see the impacts roll down the generations affecting people and land the same. The white settler idea of progress – unsustainable growth through exploitation of land and people – clashes fundamentally with the integrated, cyclical nurturing and honouring connections to past, present and future that most of the Aboriginal characters carry in the story.
The Darnmoor inhabitants praise the achievements of white men above all else. Like many real Australian towns, the townspeople invest in appearances not community, in short term thinking, unsustainable futures and ignore or decry other ways and other people. The town rubbish tip placed on the bora grounds is just one example. Another is the construction of a levee around Darnmoor to hold back flood waters.
The town celebrates the completion of the levee, but the levee creates further demarcation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the area. When Mili’s tears begin to flow, and all the travesties of humanity she has had to endure come to fruition, the danger of ignoring Country is clear. Garriya gathers his energy and slowly surfaces, the sky inhabitants dance the old bora grounds, which never disappear or age no matter how significant their apparent destruction appears, and:
‘… the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed and washed away.’ (p401)
These practices of demarcation – white choices – are damaging and shamefully long-lived ones. They are still present in many towns across Australia. Through fiction, Simpson powerfully writes the truth of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Jakybird warns the sky inhabitants, sitting around icy fires in Warrambool, the Milky Way, that the singing of Garriya ‘… is a hard one; some of you will die a second time in its singing’. (p354).
Darnmoor is not a generative gateway, and certainly not one to happiness as that welcome sign states. Warrambool, the literal heavens, is a gateway to the next place, for some a return to the earth, for others to sing again, others to sleep and wait some more. The act of singing is also a gateway, for it is part of culture, of belonging, of the turnabout of the world. It leads us to another place, another future.
The novel itself is a gateway too. Its landscape is wide and considered as Simpson tells the truth of our ongoing relationship with First Nations people of this Country. She details the changes to landscape that compound negatively and highlights the lack of accountability and short-sightedness of our settler society.
While Song of the Crocodile is a local, family saga, it speaks to our national story, and Simpson, with heart, attention and tenderness, shows readers a perspective that most of us will never have imagined before. This is what great fiction does, implicates and expands the reader’s emotional and philosophical terrain.
Towards the end of the novel, Malawildhuulmuranga asks one of the old ones ‘… why do you want to destroy it?’ and he answers, ‘How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go?’. (p365)
These are powerful cycles of renewal. We know change will only be made if we learn the lessons of the old ones. There is hope here, in this story, if we listen and learn.
PIP NEWLING was born on unceded Wirrayaraay Country, grew up on Biripi Country and lives and works on Dharawahl and Gadigal Country. She thanks all Elders from these lands, past, present, emerging and future, for blessing her with the health Country provides and the opportunity to benefit from their custodianship.
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by MICHELLE HAMADACHE
The Other Half of You isn’t written just for all the readers out there who get what it’s like to be the child of migrant parents. It’s not just written for those who know already what it’s like to deal with growing up in a home where the culture on your doorstep is interpreted as threatening by the adults in the house. It’s not just written for those who know what it’s like to grow up where the only home you have known, Australia, consistently rejects you by asking you to be something other than yourself in order to belong. Arab people in particular, Muslim people more broadly speaking—for they are not interchangeable terms—are overwhelmingly regarded with suspicion and hostility here, and that changes what it is possible to say now.
If a book is going to avoid being trapped in a fallen language, where everything it says or does judges and is then in turn judged by others, then it is remembering that stories are uncertain, sometimes difficult, gifts that matters most. Stories are the threads that draw together disparate communities and bind new ways of knowing to a collective consciousness, to forge the newly imagined community.
The Other Half of You is as much about what is, as what might be, and in its gritty, graphic and unforgettable detail, it contains the storyteller’s ability to exchange lived experiences in such a way that those experiences are not just shared with the reader, but integrated, via memory, via the body, as stories with lessons for living. It is the rubber-gloved hand on the delicate skin of a penis that conveys, unforgettably, the lesson: raise daughters solely to be wives to the detriment of all (especially their husbands); marry against your will and risk self-destruction, and, like all the lessons to be imparted by The Other Half of You, these two lessons are underscored by the prevailing moral: if anything is going to get us through the shit we’re in, it’s love.
The Other Half of You marks the end of Bani Adam’s bildungsroman spanning The Tribe and The Lebs. Regardless of whether Michael Mohammad Ahmad intends to continue with Bani, the journey to adulthood ends here. This is because in the birth of Bani’s son Kahlil, and the father’s story of his conception given to his son, a fiercely poetic and mature voice emerges. It is a voice that also channels the energies of rich literary genealogies, that draw together Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, most resoundingly Lebanese diasporic writer and poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, for whom Bani’s son is named and from where the novel’s epigraph is drawn. Ahmad also nods to The Book of Khalid, an experimental novel by Ameen Rihani written in 1911, and sometimes referred to as the first Arab novel (with all the contentions that come along with ‘firsts’ and the novel as form and genre).
Ahmad formally organises his novel into three parts, each referring to time and destiny, ‘All That Was’; ‘All That Is’; and ‘All That Will Be’. It is loosely structured as an address, or as a gift, to Bani’s newborn son, Kahlil. In order to explain just how an Alawite Muslim forbidden to marry outside the tribe ends up with his Anglo-Australian wife Oli and their baby, ‘my half-caste, half-insider, half-outsider’, Bani begins with the story of his unconsummated first love, Sahara. Sahara is a Christian Lebanese girl he met online living in a housing commission flat in Glebe with her single mother. It is Bani’s father’s discovery via gossip of this relatively innocent, but consuming, first love that precipitates Bani’s disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima. Fatima is a nineteen-year-old girl looking to escape her father’s household, and it is the inevitable implosion of that marriage that sees Bani ultimately, through despair rather than defiance, reject his marriage and fall into the arms of Oli.
Bani meets Oli at the PCYC boxing gym. It is Ahmad’s strength that he harnesses the metaphoric potential of places like the PCYC. Here, in the egalitarian, if brutal, world of boxing, racial and homophobic epithets abound, yet the atmosphere is inclusive. The boxing ring, despite its violence, its duelling opponents, ironically flattening binaries of us and them, while upholding identities, is a place that binds rather than divides, through the shared understanding of a set of rules that are agreed upon and entered into freely, without eradicating differences. The gym upholds identities, forming something like a Foucauldian heterotopia—a space that exists within the dominant hegemony of white settler Australia.
Bani’s father’s disposal store, like the PCYC where he trains, is another example of the powerful representation of places that resist. The store is aptly named Cave of Wonders and is stocked with wares that draw a variety of customers seeking sleeping bags and the possibility of bartering. Here, Ahmad strategically deploys the history of many Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Australia who were granted provisional, limited, unequal resident status based on their role as ‘hawkers’. Many chose to anglicise their names and erase their origins in order to be accepted into an Australia hell-bent on whiteness.
Jumana Bayeh discusses Patrick White’s problematic characterisation of a Syrian hawker in her Southerly essay, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’. Bayeh poses a perspicacious question: ‘But what story could be uncovered if we were able to hear the Syrian narrate his own life and his experiences in Australia?’ (131). This challenge underscores the silences and erasures that have characterised Australia’s literary spaces to date. The presence of the store in the novel returns this lost history, as does Bani’s acknowledgment of his own family’s history of naming (Bani/Benny 295). In his representation of Cave of Wonders, Ahmad creates a space of reversals, while also memorialising the history of a group of people who came to Australia with a conditional and ambivalent welcome. With its intertextual reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the Cave is a place that gives Bani the opportunity to read Persian poetry, to escape family and wife. It is also where misogyny and racism are given open mic, but where, as the owner’s son, Bani gets to call the shots and thus level the playing field. As always, the representations of sexist and racist outbursts are framed by the novel’s ideological focalisation that captures what is with a deliberate and crafted goal: to bring into the literary space the flawed, the ugly, the inappropriate, the shocking—the human. When Bani grapples with the limits of his own conflicted mixture of feminism and tribalism, it is a dramatized battle that Ahmad is orchestrating.
The mix of autobiography and fiction is part of its fascination: that age-old dilemma concerning itself with ontological distinctions between fiction and lie; truth in fiction. The ideological focalisation of the novel is not sexist or misogynistic, though it certainly represents both standpoints through its characters.
As with The Tribe and The Lebs, this third novel in the series draws on Ahmad’s lived experience. The fictional mode of The Other Half of You means its characters and storylines are both metaphoric and literal. The strength of Ahmad’s prose often rests in his ability to strikingly and relentlessly bring to life scenes: characters, action and setting, from weddings to fights, capturing them in a mix of vivid language and heightened observation. But most importantly, Ahmad’s prose frames these situations in Bani’s unique mix of insouciance and wisdom.
At stake in the story of the love affair between Bani and Oli and the birth of Kahlil, is the knitting together of what, up until The Other Half of You, has been divided, or at least incongruent: the world of children descended from Anglo-Saxon heritage and the world of children descended from everywhere else, and in a context where racism divides and culture prohibits, the romance plot between Oli and Bani is a powerful and productive trope.
If Oli’s characterisation never matches the unforgettable Sahara and Fatima, it is in part because her character is understated. It was always going to be a tough gig for a pale girl with thin arms to compete with Bani’s first love, the hirsute and stocky Sahara, whose thirst to understand apostrophes was quenched during a pizza night in Glebe. Likewise, it is hard for Oli to be as memorable as Fatima, whose desire to leave her father’s house is realised in her marriage to Bani, living in a converted garage, wearing only a G-string and watching never-ending episodes of Friends. Coming at the end of the novel and with so much at stake, a lot of pressure was placed on the realisation of Oli’s character and the introduction of an Anglo-Australian parallel backstory. It is perhaps deliberate that the White girl and her family didn’t hold-up to the depth and the vibrancy of the realisation of the Adam family, Sahara or Fatima.
Even the disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima is propelled by love. It is a marriage Bani enters into from love for the father, the family, the tribe. If willpower and looks alone make a marriage, then on paper the marriage between Fatima and Bani should have been rock solid. Ahmad deploys the perspective of the older narrator which imbues the entire section with a sense of impending disaster, but also allows the younger Bani to blindly suffer through the honeymoon and marriage as they unfold with tragi-comedy and bathos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the book is the father’s outcry, ‘I should have let him go’. This cry echoes throughout the rooms of this book, because ultimately, Ahmad is telling the story of the break and the fold between father and son, the present and posterity, and of histories based not on continuity but on ruptures.
In many respects, the love Bani feels for his world with all its bathos and brutality, courage and fierceness establishes The Other Half of You as the work of a storyteller, rather than novelist or memoirist. The novel is strongest when it shares experiences, whether lived, observed or imagined, in their raw materiality, boldly capturing what is. This is not lack of craft, rather it’s a concerted effort to create a territory free of the relentless drive towards conformity, or permissible difference that characterises much of contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Within the pages of The Other Half of You, anger, frustration, ignorance and despair hold centre stage with forgiveness, acceptance and the transformative power of love. The novel doesn’t try to silence what is unpalatable about lived human experience. While there might be more information than Kahlil (or any child) wants to know from his father about their conception, and the various sexual experiences that led to that conception, the body is centred as a way of knowing. The ‘over-sharing’ draws attention to the conceit, The Other Half of You is fiction after all, while also consciously drawing on the relentlessness of a confessional mode that breaks down social mores and prioritises the need for a story to be told over and above other considerations.
Randa Abdel-Fattah describes writing as a Muslim writer in Australia as the necessity of writing from a double position: a need to write for a Muslim audience, while writing to a white audience. She describes the frustration of her experiences of being refused the right to write a literature of universal concern, needing to particularise her story, and have it ‘kept’ particular, so that it is heard in a mainstream culture where whiteness is normative. Received literary wisdom that the universal is reached by way of the particular doesn’t apply for everyone. Negotiating this challenge is a task that the writer writing into a minor literature, such as Australia’s, faces, in addition to all the other authorial challenges.
I am not sure that the language exists yet for a relationship of love between marginalised Arabic and Muslim communities and a white settler Australia, but I am sure that it will take novels like The Other Half of You, and writers like Mohammad Ahmad, to bring that language into being.
Consider The Other Half of You as a difficult, uncertain gift. In the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: receivers of the gift, remember, gratitude should have no weight ‘lest you lay a yoke’ upon giver and receiver alike (29). We should have the ability to receive literature as a living thing that needs to grow and change and fail and succeed, all within a single book, so the greater thing of literature, beyond major and minor concerns, might continue to thrive.
Works drawn upon or cited:
Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘The Double Bind of Writing as an Australian Muslim Woman’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 97-117.
Jumana Bayeh, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’, Southerly, Vol. 79 No.1, 2019, pp. 129-149.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico: London, 1999, (83-107).
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann: London, 1926, repr. 1973.
Anne Monsour, ‘Tell Me My Story: The Contribution of Historical Research to an Understanding of the Australian Lebanese Experience’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 9-39.
Ameeni Rihani, The Book of Khalid, Melville House Publishing: New York, 2012.
MICHELLE HAMADACHE has had publications in Australian and international journals. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. ‘Zohira’, a short story appeared in the British Journal of International Writing 2021.
Second City: Essays From Western Sydney
Edited by Luke Carman & Catriona Menzies-Pike
Sydney Review of Books
Reviewed by CHER TAN
In ‘Second City’, the titular essay by Eda Gunaydin in Second City, an anthology of essays collected and published by the Sydney Review of Books, Gunaydin begins: ‘I spent the summer between 2013 and 2014 as many 20-year-olds do: working at a restaurant.’ It’s a sentence that includes as much as it excludes, echoing the popular internet phrase ‘if you know, you know’. The essay goes on to explore the ramifications of gentrification in Parramatta, alongside a certain gentrification of the self through education and upward mobility. With a stylistic panache and an erudite wit, Gunaydin goes on to ask, towards the end of the essay, ‘… if displacement did not begin five years ago but two hundred and thirty years ago, what use is there in attempting to freeze its current class and racial composition in amber?’ This mode of writing is something I’ve observed amongst writers on the so-called ‘margins’ in the last few years: as writers move away from the giddy nascence of a minoritised literature that is nevertheless situated inside an anglophone canon, narratives become less concerned with a centre and more interested in interrogating the complexities that arise from marginal conditions. Struggle is considered alongside joy, privileges alongside oppressions.
Second City is another anthology that adds to the burgeoning list of anthologies which display a range of writing in its variegated styles, tendencies and textures, particularly in an ‘Australian’ publishing landscape which has historically been exclusionary in both form and identity. Its subtitle, ‘Essays From Western Sydney’, is as sly as it is earnest, a marketing device that winks at you as much as it is true. Without belabouring the point (as I hope no readers of this publication have been living under a rock), Western Sydney is a location that has plagued the popular ‘Australian’ imaginary as a hotbed of chaos since the 1990s, when mainstream news media painted the area as one that was teeming with criminals and drug users. Even today, at the time of writing, certain (working-class and/or POC-majority) suburbs see an increase in police presence ostensibly to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Sydney but which we all know is a ruse to further criminalise bla(c)k and brown people.
As Felicity Castagna notes, in her essay ‘Hopefully the Future is Dark’, ‘The problem is that Western Sydney is a place but it’s also an idea. You can either write to that idea—think Struggle Street, Housos, The Combination, every protest you’ve ever seen on the rooftop of Villawood Detention Centre, every ‘dole bludger’ you’ve seen on A Current Affair—or you can write against it.’ I remember speaking with Gunaydin (full disclosure: she is a friend) about the popularisation of narratives ‘from Western Sydney’, where she observed that some writers from the area would play into preconceived notions of ‘Western Sydney identity’ while the dominant forces of Ozlit would look on with pity, guilt, shame and exoticised fascination. These forces are diminishing as ‘Australian’ publishing enters a new(er) epoch helmed by minoritised writers, creating a stronger understanding there is a need to move away from the centre, but doubtlessly in some circles it is still proliferating. Perhaps this is a paradox that can arise with critiquing marginalisation, which sometimes ends up entrenching those same ideas that resulted in the critique in the first place.
But the essays in Second City would rather dispose of those tendencies, and as a result they are as varied in subject as well as in style—what editor Luke Carman states in the book’s introduction ‘can be represented by no single politics, mindset, opinion, style, aesthetic or poetics.’ Frances An, in ‘(Feminist) Sages’, echoes the above-mentioned conversation with Gunaydin when she refers to ‘postcolonial cults who started every sentence with “as an [ethnic minority] …” and threw in terms like “Otherness” and “decolonise” to assert their status as messiahs of racial justice’, situated within a larger critique about left or left-adjacent movements that are exclusionary in their language and aesthetics even if they proclaim inclusivity. Further complexities are articulated in Sheila Ngoc Pham’s ‘An Elite Education’, an unpretentious personal narrative about the differences between her Vietnamese diaspora family and her husband Josh’s Anglo one, where the former is Liberal-voting and middle-class, and how she is ‘actually not the first in my family to receive a university education in this country’; whilst he is. Zohra Aly’s ‘Of Mosques and Men’ looks into the travails involved in her husband Abbas’s experiences building a mosque in the Christian-dominated area of Annangrove post-9/11, and May Ngo’s ‘Shopping Night’ expresses a vexed relationship to Western Sydney as a returnee.
Yumna Kassab’s ‘Borges and the Tiger’ stands out for its experimentalism, as it takes the reader through dream-like vignettes that analyse the work of Jorge Luis Borges and the perplexing allure of writing inside ‘the labyrinth’ (the library). Much like her debut collection of short stories, The House of Youssef, the author possesses a deft hand when it comes to crafting philosophical fables, resulting in a non didacticism that reveal intimacies as much as they allow for imagination to fill in the gaps, like how, as she puts it, reading Borges is ‘to be in a loop of symbols in endless conversation with one another’. In ‘Raise Your Needles in Defence of Public Knitting’, Aleesha Paz writes with a joyous energy, as she revels in making public what is commonly regarded as a private pleasure, while Martin Reyes’s ‘Excuse Me, Tabi Tabi Po’ is a light-hearted essay on his Filipino family’s superstitions alongside a serious contemplation of pre-colonial folklore and attitudes towards natural surroundings and land.
Castagna’s provocation about writing to or against preconceived ideas are at work in some of the essays in Second City: to Rawah Arja (in ‘An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving an Arab Family of Extroverts’), living in Western Sydney growing up was thought to ‘always going to be second best’; Raaza Jamshed (in ‘Muhammad’) recalls moving away from Bankstown because she doesn’t want her kids ‘to grow up as strangers to this country’, and to Ngo her childhood in Western Sydney ‘felt like we were so far away from everything—at least from anything that was interesting, away from the places where things were happening.’ Otherwise Western Sydney is hardly referred to at all; the words ‘Western Sydney’ appear in the anthology only 35 times (or thereabouts, otherwise I apologise for my ineptitude with numbers). The problem that Castagna points out is perhaps the biggest conundrum faced by minoritised writers and artists, that by virtue of our sexuality or our ability or our race or our socioeconomic position or the places in which we reside and/or come from, there is an impulse to either 1) explain, 2) smooth over, or 3) react against the status quo—that which places those preconceived images in the first place. Are there other ways to imagine? Indeed, as Castagna continues towards the end of her essay, ‘It is an invitation to undo the ways ‘things are done’ and invite alternatives into the equation.’
I won’t be so glib as to say that writing against preconceived ideas is easy, especially in a publishing landscape that is at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by a certain section of society divorced from the so-called ‘real world’. It is even more difficult when they’ve bled into the dominant cultural narrative for it to appear as if it is the inherent truth. As George Haddad writes in ‘Uprooted’, an essay that contemplates identity as he is made to feel like an outsider in the inner city where he now lives: ‘How do I convey this cornucopia of identity to a stranger in a split second?’ Castagna even goes so far as to delineate her multi-faceted cultural background, but with a caveat: ‘None of that really says who I am though. It’s really only just a beginning.’ The fact that some essays in the anthology grapple with these concerns show that the playing field for more complex writing from what has been called ‘the subaltern’—at least within Australian literature—is undergoing a sea change, as many begin to move away from assimilationist desires and questions of what it ‘means’ to be such-and-such identity, instead focusing on minute joys and entanglements that would also rather entertain a devotion towards craft. As such, it would be prudent to consider what Gayatri Spivak once posed in a 1986 ABC Radio National interview about multiculturalism in Australia: ‘[…] the question “Who should speak?”is less crucial than “Who will listen?”’
Second City is one of those books at the precipice of this sea change. In this context, writers on the so-called margins can make the case again and again about why we should be seen and heard and read. But who are we trying to convince? Instead, like this anthology has exemplified, I urge us to continue delving into our myriad obsessions and complexities again and again until it becomes matter of fact.
CHER TAN is an essayist & critic in Naarm/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide & Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Runway Journal, The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She is an editor at LIMINAL magazine & the reviews editor at Meanjin.
by Anwen Crawford
Reviewed by NEHA KALE
Anwen Crawford’s No Document, a memorial to the casualties of late capitalism, occupies the space between elegy and witness, language and art.
In February 1991, a strange billboard materialised on New York’s Van Dam Street, perplexing commuters who happened to be travelling under the overpass. It featured a black-and-white photo of an empty bed curiously devoid of signage, rumpled sheets revealing gradations of light and shadow like mountains covered in snow. Two pillows are arranged, side by side. But the bodies that lay there announced themselves through impressions and indents. Existence and absence, different sides of a concave mirror. Each part, the form itself.
The billboard is part of Untitled (1991), an installation by the Cuban-American artist and activist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The same year, the artist’s lover, Ross Laycock, died of AIDS complications. The bed in the picture is less cipher than artefact. It’s where the couple slept when they were both alive.
“I knew that you would die young/ I didn’t know it at all,” writes Anwen Crawford in her book-length essay, No Document. A page before this: “I change tense, and travel back across your death’s border.” What to write when those we love leave us? Can the tricks of grammar reverse the passage of time?
The elegy is a fixture of art and literature. Gonzalez-Torres’ work, of course, but also Patti Smith’s Just Kids, the poet’s 2010 lament for the New York she once shared with her late friend and co-conspirator, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Above Crawford’s desk, the reader learns, there’s a postcard of Mapplethorpe’s Two Men Dancing, a gelatin silver print in which two figures hold each other made in 1974.
In her first year at the Sydney College of the Arts, Crawford meets the fellow artist, Ned Sevil. “Your brown panelled nylon zip-up jacket; the rat’s tail of red hair that ran below your shoulders,” she writes. They climb silos on Glebe Island. They “photograph using now obsolete materials” and sleep in railway underpasses after “spray-painting stencils of helicopters.” Their friendship burns bright, forged in the fire of art and activism. “So suddenly, vividly; your gentleness, the way you were always proud of me,” she writes.
At 30, Sevil, who suffered cystic fibrosis, dies of cancer. Crawford returns from New York, where she is working towards an MFA in poetry, six weeks later. “Sometimes, just for seconds the extent of my grief for you reveals itself and my breath dissolves,” she writes in an incandescent passage, “because it has no edges at all […]”
In Sydney, edges blur. Suburban pavements give way to old waterways. Sandstone cliffs end with a sheer drop into the ocean. For Crawford, grief is fractal. It radiates beyond her own body, into the spaces she moves through.
She thinks of her friend when “the train lifts from a tunnel and the built world manifests again” and when she sees “a line of three sulphur-crested cockatoos wheeling a line into the sky.”
When someone dies young, elegy can easily descend into hagiography. But in No Document, the gift of loss is a kind of X-ray vision. It can see beyond the strictures of place, time and history – and understands how these are bound together.
Crawford watches the planes hitting the twin towers. The pair cut the word ‘terrorist’ out of the newspaper, “spray-painting the letters into signifying order onto lengths of paper” to cover “over a billboard that edges a four-lane highway.” Two pages on, she tells us that the “last Siberian crane reported seen in Afghanistan was shot dead in 2002.”
Years after they climb onto silos in Glebe Island, Crawford discovers that it was once the site of the city’s first abattoir. Decades before, in 1818, “the first of the white surveyors ventured onto countries past the mountains – Wiradjuri country, Gamilaraay country.” Cattle, she tells us, comes from the Latin for capitale – ‘property, stock.’
Western imperialism changes form, sowing the seeds for modern conquest. Colonialism and capitalism, inextricable forces, knit living creatures into a constellation of death and displacement.
“Three billion animals have burnt in this place bordered as Australia since I began this, and the fact that all the sound of it is dampened by the painting being paint – well, it haunts me,” she writes.
No Document pushes up against borders – geographical, historical, imaginary. In a way, to have no document is to engage in the act of trespass, to enter places unauthorised. But who can trust authorities that are the legacy of violent systems? Records, we know, are famously unreliable. East African soldiers, we learn, who died in the First World War for the German Empire, were disappeared from history.
During the Tampa Crisis, John Howard famously accused asylum seekers of throwing their children into the water. The Australian government’s acronym for boats occupied by asylum seekers – suspected illegal entry vessels – is SIEV. For Crawford, this is “too close to sieve for coincidence.” In the sea, humans leak.
Throughout the book, Crawford writes letters to Alya Satta, a two-year-old girl who was among the 353 who drowned when the Indonesian fishing boat, SIEV-X, overturned on the way to Australia. “I call myself into this space with you,” Crawford starts. Then, “I redeem nothing: not in words, not any way.”
Words have their limits. Late capitalism strives to turn writing into content, story into commodity. No Document is interested in what art can do, where language can’t venture. In art school, Crawford studies photography and upon re-reading No Document, sentences reveal their meanings like negatives in a darkroom.
On my weekly walk, past Glebe Island, the landscape shows its bones. Places acquire a shimmer. I remember that in the 19th century, to take a photo was to render what was missing. That a camera was once considered powerful enough to capture ghosts.
No Document is a study in blank space. Sentences stand by themselves. Each section is marked by a rectangle. “You scratch the negatives,” Crawford observes of her friend, “sometimes for what the damage signifies: that the document is not neutral but emerges.”
When her friend Sevil dies, he leaves Crawford a book of images, made from mesh and contact sheets, “the whole thing smaller than a matchbox.” Someone tells her that “objects are just objects.” Friendships exist outside institutions, without ritual. She knows theirs has been “deemed insubstantial.” The book asks you, the reader, to weigh what matters, what to mourn according to an inner calculus.
There is no elegy without witness, even if “no document can make you manifest.”
Crawford and Sevil admired artists who died young. “Such an impulse isn’t rare at age nineteen, but for you at least, an early death was neither an abstraction or romance,” she reflects, in retrospect.
Gonzalez-Torres, who died at 38 of AIDS was among their favourites. Before he left, the artist strung lightbulbs in galleries, allowing them to flicker and fade, as fleeting as a lifespan. He arranged a pair of clocks that ticked together in the knowledge that one battery would fail before the other. That in time these objects – like bodies that exist together – would fall out of sync.
In 1989, he made sculptures out of block-like stacks of paper. To complete them, viewers were invited to pick up a sheet, to take it home. No Document, too, is an artwork – one that asks us to notice what’s absent. And love, through the act of paying attention, the things that might never return.
NEHA KALE is a writer, critic and the former editor of VAULT magazine. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, SBS, ArtReview, Art Guide and many other places.
Know Your Country
by Kerri Shying
Puncher and Wattman
Reviewed by DANNI NETHERCLIFT
Mark Berryman’s original artwork on the cover of Kerri Shying’s Know Your Country is a study in aqueous blues and greens, reminiscent of underwater scenes, long neglected sites of lostness and loss, the kind of world inhabited by forgotten shipwrecks. This shadowy opacity seems a fitting introduction to the poems contained within, a nod to the idea of landscapes you think you know but which, diving beneath the surface find you are unfamiliar with after all. This impression limns the sense that a closer reading of your surroundings is required, so sit back and pay attention if you want to in some sense know your (?) country.
The collection as a whole presents a densely knit weft of landscape, character, voice, detail and sub-text where the poems fully inhabit all of the senses, so as to immerse the reader not only in visual poetic images, but also the smells, sounds and tactility of each scene and place. In this way, I was reminded of the literary localities created by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, with its layers of varying interiors, exteriors, sounds, (his)stories and laments.
The almost complete absence of punctuation throughout works to enact a joining of narratives. The fragmented words pieced together eloquently mosaic a whole, a window onto the possibilities immanent in the substances of life in this particular country: earth and seawater, the sticky silver of snail trails and suspicious powders, of human traces, dirt, blood, shit and fragility, of circumstance in every overlooked flavour and hue. This is an inspired vision of country on a micro scale. In these poems, the gaps between the words and phrasing are apertures into spaces of entry, gesturing towards what you think you know and what perhaps you don’t know anything at all about.
The first poem, ‘talented regardless’ ominously foreshadows the dark potential inherent in this locus of page and space, with on the one hand ‘laughter and applause’ while on the other, there is
the sound of burrs being taken
off of knives and the thump of hessian onto truck beds
This possible proximity to or for violence is woven through the body of the text of these fifty-five poems, unsettling notions of certainty or firm ground upon which to stand.
The country of Shying’s vision holds itself open, for instance, to the hypocrisy of those who would stake claims to knowing better. Poems like ‘in my skin’ talk back and up to the noise of ubiquitous ‘saloon bars’ with resolute retort,
oh how colossal
that courses through the veins of every total prick
that questions who we are
because the call to ‘know your country’ also enacts a rallying cry to stare racism in the face without looking away,
to tear up the post in post-colonialism, and the notion of assimilation and its insult, as being
the kind of turd who smacks you in the mouth
get up you’re bleeding on the carpet
Correspondingly, the use of Aboriginal language and translation in some of the poems, like ‘galmalngidyalu nhal gaghaanggilinya’ (this song delights me) encapsulates generous notions of inclusion that have most often not been reciprocated. The juxtaposition of these magnanimities of spirit jar tellingly against the past and present policymaking of race but Shying’s work illuminates the power of poetics to transcend, and describes their innate qualities of protection. The claim that
words are lands and faces special
is followed by an appreciation of the true nature of land beneath the surface, where
a million tonnes of ballast sang out a song from beneath me
a million tonne extracted from the soil of everywhere
which describes also the connection between this ballast – an important motif in both literal and figurative senses – of earth and rock and its corresponding connections to relationships with family, with grandmothers –
I hold tight to all her stories given
to me moving mouth to
ear mouth to ear mouth
and as in ‘Cootamundra institute of education’, elucidations of both distance and closeness, past and present, and bonds that remain, come what may –
I wonder if in that other city
my sister’s hair is safe
from magpie swoops
These ties of memory and reverence for family and belonging bear relation to Natalie Harkins work in Dirty Words, with its white space, gaps, and recognition/space-holding of untold stories, lost time, separated families, elided pasts.
In the titular poem, ‘know your country’, the opening line, that
deep roots fend off heat
reads as a realisation of the strength and resilience contained within the nexus of family/cultural ties and history. To know your country for the speaker is to write into a hope for future days
I am planting for the green tomorrow
that is pragmatically rooted in both what has already been borne, survived and surpassed, and what shared knowledge remains to be drawn upon.
The shapes and hues and hefts of sky, water and soil, of morning, and the stifling forbearance of the hottest summer nights together form a vivid panorama in which the inhabitants reveal themselves in all their shabby, precious smallness; the minutiae of land/urban scapes but also the domestic intimacy of life-scapes.
An exhortation to smallness is repeated throughout, the text, in the forms of creatures, snails/cicadas, but also in gestures towards modes of existing in the world, where you must
grow small grow
small in thrall
don’t go large be small
if you wish to live peaceably, and to appreciate the community in which you live for what it is. It is only in being small that one can truly get to know your country, that one might penetrate what has been overlooked within the cracks and crevices and white spaces behind the doors and closed curtains of interior lives. Smallness grants entry to all kinds of environments, from the water to the ballast grounds, to the wet house or the dealer’s kitchen, their bathroom, to the ghastly knife collection of an erstwhile world traveller, though one must also remember, tongue-in-cheek, that
snails play to the cheap seats
they need the cash
The poetics of these revealed scenes and vignettes expose unsettling connections between the innocent pleasure of hot chips and imminent peril in ‘crime lords’, or visits from clients buying drugs juxtaposed against the domestic niceties of packets of biscuits and flavoured coffee sachets, in ‘crime lords #2’, or relations between seemingly benign ocean shallows and the trauma that it might deliver along with its usual offerings, the nightmare jetsam
a mesh of small holes and slits
emerging as a black lacy wrack extending
from the lower back
of a dead child who washes up, is held in the arms of the speaker, in ‘blue bubble’. Always, there is the sense that if one should scratch the surface veneer of this country, that there is
that tiny bit of drama
of knife-steel exposed
but if the poems seem to evoke moods that are often sinister, with their intimations of menace seeding a tension that never quite lifts, they are at other times quelled with tenderness, a sweet give of solace to the edges of days, and even perhaps of history, a consolation gathered in accumulated images of sea/water. In ‘the inbox’
the water laps the sky
while in ‘hey you’, the speaker of the poem ‘backstrokes’
the lifting sea
The presence of a newborn baby in ‘unlock’ illuminates another kind of ballast, granting the immensely moving certainty above all that
I was a mother nobody
could remove that
These images of calm steadfastness culminate in the panacea of the final poem, ‘rise’, where
the blue sky is a crutch
in all its blankness, its possibility, and hopefulness.
DANI NETHERCLIFT lives and works on Taungurung country, surrounded by mountains. She is the winner of the 2020 AAWP / Slow Canoe Creative nonfiction prize and has upcoming work in Rabbit 33, Stilts, and Meniscus.
Where the Fruit Falls
by Karen Wyld
Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
Karen Wyld’s Where the Fruit Falls is an important new novel in the field of Australian Aboriginal literature and a tribute to the work of UWAP under the stewardship of its out-going director Terri-Ann White who, as Wyld says in her Acknowledgements, ‘helped grow UWAP into a treasured Australian publisher’.
It tells a powerful story of an Aboriginal family, focusing largely on the young woman, Brigid, and her twin daughters Victoria (Tori) and Maggie, and their journey to find family, reunite with Country and discover the inland sea where the ‘giant aquatic creatures’ and ‘wondrous beasts’ (287) of Aboriginal cosmology reside. On this journey they struggle against the brutal impacts of racism in rural and metropolitan settings. There are references to the effects of the Protection Era and other events such as the Maralinga bomb tests.
The title refers to the central image of the two very different trees in Brigid’s life, the apple tree of her non-Aboriginal grandmother’s garden (which could be a reference to British colonial immigration) and the Bloodwood tree (and its fruit, the bush apple) under which she was born, shown to her by her Indigenous nana.
There is a striking image of the two trees intertwined at a critical nexus in the narrative. Brigid had grown up with the trees, fruits and plants of her non-Aboriginal grandmother’s garden, and although she has an immense affection for her grandmother who had largely raised her, she has to painfully unlearn her grandmother’s indoctrination that she (Brigid) is a potato: ‘her skin might be brown like the earth, but inside she was [white] just like everyone else’ (12). Despite the damage her grandmother had wreaked in her life, Brigid continues to love her, and to respect the role that trees had in the lives of immigrants’ such as her grandmother.
She tells her Jewish friend, Bethel, whose partner, Omer, had carried a small olive sapling all the way from his homeland to Australia, that ‘my granny also brought treasured saplings from her country … she’d planted them with purpose, to set down stronger roots in a country strange to her. Those trees from her home country helped her to create a new home, for a new family’ (98). In the affectionate portrayal of Brigid’s grandmother and the image of the intertwined bloodwood and apple trees, Wyld seems to be figuring Brigid’s complex and nuanced bi-culturality, or at least the continuing (and sometimes contestatory) interplay of her dual heritages.
The novel demonstrates that racism against Indigenous people remains a constant in colonial and post-colonial (ie the federated) Australia, with even more recent immigrants, as Bethel complains, treating First Nations people ‘with disdain’ (77). However, as Bethel and Brigid’s friendship indicates, First Nations people’s connectivities are multidirectional, and her friendship with Bethel and her partner Omer is vital and life sustaining. Omer observes that war, horror and inhumanity come in many forms and impact many peoples, producing loss and trauma. He suggests that, like many people across the globe, Indigenous people are ‘still engaged in a combat of sorts’ (77). We realize that, in his vocation as an opal miner, Omer has both material and imaginative access to the inland sea for which Brigid searches, with its ancient archive of huge ‘wondrous’ creatures and the ‘carnage’ (288) they index.
In its portrayal of Brigid’s twin daughters, one of whom is dark (Tori) and the other light-skinned (Maggie), Wyld’s novel strenuously uncouples Aboriginality from biology and skin colour. In a powerful narrative, which recalls Tony Birch’s intensely moving recent novel, The White Girl, we see the painful impact of the difference in the way white-skinned Aboriginal people have been treated by white settler-Australians. The many biting ironies of the scopic regime are played out painfully and, occasionally, with wry humour, in Maggie and Tori’s lives.
Brigid and Tori, in particular, struggle with a sense of not belonging, of being outsiders. They are on a journey seeking their family and Country, reminiscent of Sally Morgan’s iconic text My Place. It is indeed fitting that Morgan provides the cover blurb, in which she notes that ‘this evocative family saga celebrates the strength and resilience of First Nation women’. In spite of the lethal impact of violence in their lives, Brigid and her daughters are, in Tori’s words, ‘strong, independent and fearless’ (233). They defend themselves and each other from the corrosive effect of racist ‘hate’ and the brutal necropolitical drive of colonization, with strength and determination. They sometimes struggle to strengthen their Aboriginality, supported by their connections with birds and trees, with shadowy creatures in the world around them, and with stories from their ancestors.
Wyld also demonstrates the significance of global anti-racist activism from the 1960s onwards, referencing various movements such as the American civil rights movement and black power, borrowing an iconic image to salute ‘the fire in the belly of black peoples fighting for rights’ (287). She shows how the discourse and iconography of global activism gave many Indigenous people in rural and metropolitan Australia the tools to analyse history and to re-shape their understanding of themselves as a collective. Numerous Aboriginal novelists have mapped in fiction the intersection of politicized Aboriginal activism and personal transformation; Tori’s incipient emergence from suffering and struggle reminds us in some respects of Sue Wilson’s consciousness-raising journey in Melissa Lucashenko’s paradigm-shifting novel, Steam Pigs.
Wyld’s homage to global activism is complemented with local references, in for example, what seems to be a nod to South Australian ex-premier, Don Dunstan, who makes an appearance at a political rally that Tori and Maggie attend, as ‘a white man in tiny pink shorts, a white figure-hugging T-shirt and long white socks’ (296). The extra-diegetic references in the novel and Wyld’s interest in the impact of political activism on her protagonists indicate the proximity of some Aboriginal fiction to political activism. In her Author’s Note for example, Wyld suggests that ‘the call for action … often lies hidden in fiction’ (341); she adds that she sees this novel as working to ‘reimagine a more just and truthful present and future’ (341).
The novel’s narrative climax, which unmasks the shocking effects of toxic white masculinity, raises deeply disturbing questions about the graphic representation of racialised and gendered violence and race crimes. It resonates with the broad scholarly field of research on trauma and witnessing, bringing a unique Aboriginal iconography to this field, in the imagery of the three black birds which are Brigid’s witness. (One might also recall the crows in Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise.) In Where the Fruit Falls the toxic white masculinity is offset with the presence of several benevolent, wise, compassionate and resourceful Aboriginal men who adjudicate in the rendition of justice according to Aboriginal protocols (recalling the Aboriginal male elders’ adjudication in Roo’s conflict with his girlfriend’s brother, in Melissa Lucashenko’s second novel Hard Yards).
In a recent article in the Journal of Australian Studies, Indigenous studies scholar, Clint Bracknell, notes the ever-increasing non-Indigenous interest in and demand for Indigenous cultural texts and analyses the impact of this demand on Indigenous researchers and communities. He talks about the lack of space and time for communities to “claim, consolidate and enhance our heritage and knowledge amongst ourselves” (Clint Bracknell JAS, 44.2 :213).
The racialised graphic commodification of Aboriginal women’s bodies which Where the Fruit Falls puts under the spotlight (while simultaneously deftly removing it from that spotlight through the wise actions of the Aboriginal men) raises questions about the non-Aboriginal reader’s presence in conversations about Indigenous literature. As a non-Indigenous reader and reviewer of Indigenous literature I am aware of the implications of Bracknell’s comment for my own work in this review. I aspire to join an ethical conversation about Indigenous literature with Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, scholars and commentators in a way that is mindful of the conditions of commodification of Aboriginal bodies and texts and seeks to acknowledge and not encroach upon the Aboriginal space that Bracknell identifies.
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
by Evelyn Araluen
Reviewed by TIMMAH BALL
Dropbear: writing as an act of defiance
when my body is mine i will tell them
do not touch this prefix
or let you hands burn black
with your unsettlement
there are no metaphors here
-decolonial poetics (avant gubba)
Multiple modes and literary disciplines weave through Evelyn Araleun’s first collection Dropbear, shifting between poetry, prose, micro-fiction and essay seamlessly. The taut threads are a reflection of her interdisciplinary work where writing and social justice intersect. There are no metaphors instead resistance is displayed through her piercingly accurate understanding of the flawed settler nation we inhabit. As she describes in the collections notes ‘our resistance, therefore must also be literary’ an acknowledgment that the social, environmental and political change being sought must also engage with the literary culture we inherited such as May Gibbs problematic Australian classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. A much loved children’s book series where the bush is represented through terra nullius. As a scholar, poet, teacher, activist, editor, essayist and fiction writer Araleun resists and defies imposed colonialism, which is most fiercely embodied through Dropbear. The collection speaks back to defunct systems and shows that Aboriginal Sovereignty is crystalline. As she writes:
when I own my tongue I will sing
for I will be
where I am for
Each stanza in Decolonial poetics (avant gubba) speaks back to white Australia’s dictatorial approach to fixing ‘the Blak problem’ (aka closing the gap) be it through the Avant-garde or government policy which views Aboriginal people through a deficit lens. The biting tone unsettles the settler writer and wider Australian consciousness whose literary interests in decolonization and institutional preoccupations with reconciliation are hollow. As Araleun writes at the end of the poem:
and when you are dead,
you can have poems
The incredulous construction of Australia is further revealed in other poems (PYRO, Acknowledgement of Cuntery and Index Australis), which illuminate the chronic power imbalances, where the perpetrator seeks recognition for resolving the damage they covertly maintain. She writes:
A GIRL IN AMERICA POSTS LINKS TO PURCHARSE HER UPCOMMING CLI-FI NOVEL UNDER HEADLINES FOR THE PYROCOMULUS// SCOTT MORRISON SITS SANGUINE IN A WREATH OF FRANGAPAINI
in the age of entitlement
in the Decolonial Dundee
and well may we say, we will decide
who and how
well may we be not lectured and well
may we do it slow
I would like to wear your flag
On shirt and tote and Facebook filter
–Acknowledgement of Cuntery
These poems capture both mainstream and literary preoccupations with Blak rights, climate change and social inequity whereby non-Indigenous writers, policy makers and activists reveal ‘truths’ which are already known, extracting uncomfortable histories and admissions of guilt unaware that this doesn’t undo ongoing complicity. Or as Araluen cheekily laments it is easy to change your social media profile mirroring the latest cause or wear a t-shirt with the flag of oppressed peoples. In a strange social milieu progress is accessorized and often reads more like passing trends as Aussi icons are decolonized and every white girl is writing a book about the anthropocene to grieve. In this era outrage and discomfort is omnipresent and people acknowledge country but radical change still feels distant. Dropbear asks that we don’t let this distract us but instead remain cognitive of its trickery.
Araluen’s writing emerges from an extraordinary body of work by Blak women and non-binary writers, which re-asserts Sovereignty by dispelling settler myths. Given the literary canon preceding this and the structural whiteness that persists this is important. As Araluen concedes in her Sydney Review of Books essay Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum a precursor to this collection:
The entanglement of complexes which have, since invasion, structured settler responses to, and representations of Aboriginal land and its custodians, ruptures at its most readable in Australian poetics…… If Aboriginal presence is considered in such work, it is a representation predominantly concerned with symbols of atavistic inconvenience to the colonial project, charged with psychic significance in the symbolic evocation of a ghostly spectre haunting land lost to Aboriginal people, but which ultimately clears space for the discovery and cultivation of that land by the appropriate settler.
Like Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, Ellen Van Neerven’s Throat, Jeanine Leane’s Walk Back Over, Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics, Kirli Saunder’s Kindred, Charmaine Papertalk Green’s Nganajungu Yagu and more recent publications such as Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land and Elfie Shiosakis’s Homecoming Araluen fortifies a Blak literary position which defies First Nations erasure and ridicule epidemic in settler Australian poetics. Stylistically she achieves this with subtle lyricism, humor, intertextual reframing of settler texts and a beguiling sense of sadness and hope for a decolonial future. There is great power in displaying work that defies clear categorization or stereotyping as protest poetry. Something that has often characterized Blak writers pejoratively within the wider literary industry suggesting that we have no more to say or are incapable of expressing our survival with nuance and depth. By contrast her work remains transformative and radical but without the troupes a white reader may expect. In the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction the Cowlitz writer Elissa Washuta asserts that ‘Native writers don’t shy away from experimenting with form in order to explore the painful and the violent. However, they refuse a voyeuristic obsession with tragedy as the ultimate contribution of Native literatures to the broader field.’
Dropbear realises this with astonishing precision and power. Pain is evident but it ruminates with a critical awareness, which refuses to excite a non-Indigenous reader. Araluen is aware of these voyeuristic tendencies, which both fetishize and manipulate Aboriginal voices and decolonial agendas but also maintains a sense of urgency and demand to address this nations’ flaws. She writes:
I’ve read the work done to demonstrate how this literature triangulates our elimination against the archipelago where you move to your innocence. But no-one’s ever asked you how we are both colonized by and inheritors of these words. J asks- what is a world, and what does it mean to end it? I want to know what it means to lose the world you’re still standing in.
-To the Poets
These questions linger throughout Dropbear reaffirming that there is no clear answer to the horrors we have inherited but instead a need to confront the messy and the painful with honesty and criticality if we are to find resolve. Araluen is starting conversations that are needed while engaging with the fervent Blak activism driving change. In this way she writes for us and refuses the settler gaze in literature while reminding the white reader to recognize their responsibility. In Colonial Horror, Blak Mediocrity and Mumblecore: A conversation between Alison Whittaker and Nayuka Gorrie Whittaker explains how:
‘There’s not much that unifies blak women and non-binary mob writing except for the drive behind it. I am always surprised by the innovation and genius in blak literature, and it happens as much in the writing of blak literature as it does in the reading of blak literature by mob. It’s networked. It’s plural. It can, when we make it, work like kinship.’
Dropbear enters into this kinship where our words carry power and strengthen communities both in the writing and the reading. Araluen’s critical mind moves between writing, activism and community organising, which elevates her textual output beyond a literary vacuum. Dropbear will be read and praised by the white literary canon but her words hold space within wider public discourses led by Blak thinkers and activists. It’s networked and offers resilience to the Blak readership she writes for.
1.Evelyn Araluen, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum, Sydney Review of Books, 2019 https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/snugglepot-and-cuddlepie-in-the-ghost-gum-evelyn-araluen/
2. Ellisa Washuta ad Theresa Warburton, Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected essays by cotemporary writers, University of Washington Press, 2019
TIMMAH BALL is a nonfiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage. She is the editor for First Nations writing at The Westerly Magazine.