Meeta Chatterjee reviews Hospital by Sanya Rushdi

Hospital

by Sanya Rushdi
translated by Arunava Sinha

ISBN 9781922725455

Giramondo

Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE

Hospital was released in May this year and has been very favourably reviewed. Reviewers
have commended it as a remarkable study of self and of ‘mind outside of its mind’ (Eda
Gunaydin). Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll sum up the novel astutely when they recommend that it should be read by psychiatrists, ‘because it gives a sharp and humane perspective on the narrowness of medical approaches to mental health, queries whose interests are being served, and explores with subtlety how social and cultural considerations can influence the experience of mental illness, and come into conflict with assumptions underlying treatment, further marginalising already vulnerable patients’. Rushdi’s novel has also been praised as ‘unadorned, powerful, and raises big questions about society, the self and what passes as sanity’ (Chris Fleming). The insightful comments above set up high expectations that the book lives up to.

Sanya Rushdi’s Hospital plunges us deep inside the distressing world of the mentally ill.
The cover image of the book shows a crowd of people with undifferentiated, tense faces
descending the stairs of a building uneasily reminding one of images of herds of animals
readied to be shipped to their slaughter destinations. This analogy may seem brutal, but the
dire situation of the mentally ill is strongly established at the outset. Rushdi’s debut novella written originally in Bengali in 2019 and translated very competently by Arunava Sinha was published earlier this year by Giramondo. This work of autofiction explores the inner world of a devout Bengali Muslim woman in her thirties who is struggling to process her experiences of psychosis and her treatment for it in a Melbourne hospital. A clear narrative arc is established in the novel and the plot is neatly arranged so that the story captures the instances of hallucinations leading to a couple of psychotic episodes to a finale, perhaps a recovery.

The characters are not complexly presented. Perhaps, an intentional authorial choice to stay
focused on the theme. The protagonist/writer, Sanya, finds solace in the holy Quran, wears a
veil and feels strongly about living in accordance with Islamic faith, for example, she plans to
refuse taking interest from her bank in deference to Islamic principles. Her family seems to
be nurturing and affectionate. Her mother cooks her favourite meals, her father reads verses
of the Quran with her even if it is the middle of the night and her sister encourages her to use
art as a creative outlet to process her intense reflections on the world and herself. Strewn
through the novel are endearments in Bengali such as Sanya’s parents calling her, ‘baba’
(father) or ‘ma’ (mother). In Bengali, these endearments are markers of a tender, caring bond.
There seems to be no evidence of ruptures in family connections that could be a cause of a
break down, but that is what happens in the story.

After the instances of hallucinations, the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team recommend
that Sanya spend some time at a community house. The community house is an enormous
building where Sanya ends up feeling overwhelmingly alienated and excluded. The mechanisms of exclusion are subtle. An instance of this is when the residents, who prepare the meals preparation for the group, add ham to a dinner of chicken parmigiana so that as a Muslim, Sanya would not be able to partake of the meal. Her stint at the community house, despite minimally imposed restrictions, turns out to be unpleasant. Her condition deteriorates further so that she is coercively taken to a hospital in Melbourne as a critical case. It is in this stultifying space that most of the story unfolds.

A beautiful metaphor embodies Sanya’s state of mind in the hospital:

I could see three trees as long as there was daylight, the leaves they had shed were gathering in ones and twos at their feet. Falling off the branches to which they had clung lovingly, they added to the pile of leaves like children gathering at an orphanage. Then a gust of wind scattered them; whatever refuge they had from one another was lost. Now all they had was themselves, along with the wind and its whims. Where will this take me, this wind, this system? (p. 49)

The extract captures the momentary solidarity with the other patients/fellow sufferers of
various mental health conditions. But the incompatibility and agony of an individual trapped
in an incomprehensible system becomes an all-consuming fear for Sanya. Sanya protests against the doctor’s mantra of, “Lithium, lithium, lithium” (p. 71), and suggests counselling as a more effective approach for her psychosis to cope with fear and unbearable sadness. The hospital professes all the right things by announcing its mission:

‘Working collaboratively to provide individualised care that promotes wellness and
recovery’. However, in actual practice, patients’ voices are drowned in assertions made by the doctors that, “In the case of science, though, evidence-based research is the new trend” (p.108).

Sanya is baffled by the duplicity and feels trapped in the system.

‘Language alone can unsnarl it (the mind), medicine cannot’ (p.107) is Sanya’s strongly held
belief despite being aware of the complexities of language. Four languages jostle in her:
Bengali (her first language), Arabic (the language of Quran) Urdu/Hindi (language of the
ghazals/bhajans that eulogise unrequited love) and English a language in which she grapples
with Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. She tries to make sense of the theory and practice of
language. One of the perceptive remarks that she makes on language reflects her doubts about
its capacity to ‘unsnarl’ the mind: ‘One might assume that everything will become easier if
you and the members of this ‘different’ society use the same language. But this is not always
true. Those who speak the same language often introduce complexities and nuances into their
discussions by the very virtue of using the same language, which speakers of the different
languages cannot’ (p. 88). Barriers to inclusion are set by different registers and discourses
that are impenetrable to the those who do not have the linguistic capital in the dominant
language.

Ultimately, Sanya resigns herself to the rituals of medication, listening to the sounds of the
food trolleys trundling down the corridors, prayers and brief periods of relief offered by the
camaraderie of other patients in the smoker’s zone. However, she is unsure of how reliable
these experiences are as one of the patients says to her, ‘…we are in an artificial environment,
it’s difficult to judge what’s true and what’s false, what is right and what is wrong…’ (p. 73).
She realises eventually that the only way she can win small freedoms and eventually get a
discharge is through compliance. It is by surrendering to the system, the regime of
medications, that she is finally released.

Hospital has the look and feel of an autoethnographic study. It reads like a collection of qualitative data, that needs to be sifted through to make sense of a research question. Snatches of conversations are inserted in the form of texts seemingly extracted out of an interview/journal entry in the form of quotations often followed by a deconstruction of the exchange, but this is not always the case. For most part, dialogue/conversations are reported within quotation marks in the novel. However, sometimes exchanges are inserted into the narrative as if from a script of a play. It is hard to tell what the writer aims to achieve with this intriguing technique. On one hand, this element, along with a conspicuously pared down language signals an cautious exploration of a research topic in a mental hospital setting. On the other hand, it seems as if Rushdi highlights the exchanges as a performance of sorts that deserves scrutiny beyond the realms of research findings to interrogate the universal struggle of mental health patients against inflexible, medical systems.

‘The translated text must allow itself to be read in all the different ways that the original can, and since the translator can never know what all these ways might be, the only choice is to adhere to the text and the text alone’, responds Arunava Sinha to a question on the responsibility of a translator. It seems that the ambivalences and the tone of the authorial voice has been rendered intact in this book. It is great to read such an extraordinarily moving novel published in translation by an Australian publisher.

Notes and References:

Chris Fleming, review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
hospital/).
Eda Gunaydin. review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
hospital/).
Rushdi, Sanya, and Arunava Sinha. “5 Questions with Sanya Rushdi and Arunava Sinha.”
LIMINAL Magazine, 27 June 2023. Sourced at: https://www.liminalmag.com/5-
questions/hospital.
Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll June 30, 2023. The review of Hospital is part of a
few other books with the title, ‘Everything’s fine’: Can two political rivals fall in love?

MEETA CHATERJEE is a retired academic from the University of Wollongong. She is an
independent scholar, writer, and poet and is the co-editor of Of Indian Origin: Writings from
Australia
. She lives in Canberra. Her area of interest is diasporic writing.

Misbah Wolf reviews Untethered by Ayesha Inoon

Untethered

By Ayesha Inoon

ISBN: 9781867267065

HarperCollins

Reviewed by MISBAH WOLF
 
 
In the act of reading, an ostensibly solitary and intimate experience unfolds as a journey not just within the pages of one book but as an exploration of the myriad conversations that books engage in with each other. Books, whether intentionally or not, are in perpetual dialogue. This review of Untethered, penned by Sri-Lankan writer Ayesha Inoon, is composed in reflection of this notion, emphasizing how literature shapes, challenges, and informs our understanding of the world.

At the time of beginning to read Untethered, I was coincidentally reading the 1970s feminist science fiction novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and I began to see a conversation occurring between them. By juxtaposing Untethered with The Dispossessed, we unearth a rich tapestry of themes, exploring how contemporary post-colonial fiction intersects with feminist science fiction from the 1970s.

Untethered and The Dispossessed may initially seem worlds apart in genre and narrative, but they share a profound kinship in their exploration of clashing ideologies and the quest for knowledge unburdened by constraints. Le Guin’s work portrays two contrasting planets, one driven by anarchic feminist ideals and the other by patriarchal capitalism. This cosmic juxtaposition finds an unexpected resonance in Untethered, where Zia, a Muslim Sri Lankan woman, confronts the realities of religious and cultural clashes after she emigrates to Australia with her family. She moves from one set of intricate ideologies that value obedience, faith, inter-family loyalty and connection, caste and wealth systems to a world that values independence, the nuclear family, wealth, and white privilege—cross-overs from one planet—I mean one country—are inevitable.

As a reader with a culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) Muslim background and a personal history of defiance against authoritarian religious figures, I find myself simultaneously sympathizing with and feeling at odds with Zia’s character. I share a profound impatience for Zia’s liberation from the patriarchal confines of her religio-cultural background. I also see the wealth entitlement she inhabits in Sri Lanka, which is mostly taken for granted until she gets to Australia. I know deep in my heart that Zia and I could not be friends; I would seem like a working-class betrayer of faith. My impatience extends to Zia’s tolerance of her husband’s violence, which is juxtaposed with her husband Rashid’s own experience of oppression in a racist Australian culture that fails to recognize his qualifications. Rashid reminds me of my own father, who, despite holding a Masters in Business and Teaching, struggled to find work and was subsequently attacked in a factory, resulting in the loss of an eye. This occurred in the 1980s, almost 34 years before Rashid’s experience of discrimination. The ties that bind me to this story cross over from fiction to fact.

Zia’s journey in Untethered unfolds as a classic Hero’s journey, with Zia assuming the role of the Fool in the Tarot Deck. She ventures into an unfamiliar land, seeking to shed the safe yet restrictive bonds of her family in pursuit of a better life in Australia. This experience mirrors the Stranger’s journey in The Dispossessed, where one risks everything to impart knowledge to an ostensibly advanced society, only to uncover latent forms of oppression within this new planet of opportunity. Zia, having the new vast spaces of Canberra to explore is limited to catching erratic public transport until she gets her driver’s licence. For a large part of the novel, she is still trapped within the house, scrounging away with food to make meals that will bring comfort for her isolated husband, who is also undergoing his own forms of oppression.

Although Zia eventually finds support that encourages her independence, her husband also grapples with systemic oppression that favors highly qualified white individuals over equally qualified immigrants of color. Can you imagine if Rashid, Zia’s husband, was called Ray and hailed from England, Sweden, or New Zealand? Ray would likely transition seamlessly into a job commensurate with his skills and education. This aspect of the novel compels readers to confront the uncomfortable reality of racial discrimination in Australia, what ‘passing’ as Aussie looks and sounds like, and how tokenistic acts of ‘discrimination awareness’ are just that, when this society still continually validates and supports rich white privilege.

The novel introduces a cast of characters, such as the driving instructor and the independent single-mum friend Jenny, who serve as archetypes along Zia’s heroic journey. These characters, though seemingly alien to her, embody facets of her own identity and aspirations. One represents independence and love, while the single mother symbolizes the freedom to prioritize oneself over marriage. This intricate character development enriches Zia’s narrative.

Furthermore, Zia’s character exhibits resonances with Jane Austen’s heroines, particularly evident in her admiration for Austen’s works. Austen’s novels consistently challenge societal expectations of marriage and advocate for female agency and independence. Zia’s reverence for Austen adds layers to her character, highlighting her desire for autonomy.

Zia’s early life in Colombo, marked by a clash between her literary passion and her parents’ traditional expectations of marriage, underscores the tension between individual aspirations and societal norms. Despite her inner disappointment, Zia complies with her family’s wishes, participating in traditional wedding preparations and embracing her role as a devoted wife. This conflict between personal desire and familial obligation serves as a central theme in the novel.

The novel navigates the complexities of familial relationships and societal expectations, highlighting the interdependence within Zia’s family as the bedrock of stability and identity. Yet, this interdependence also reinforces traditional gender roles, emphasizing the importance of procreation and adherence to religious and cultural norms. Amid these familial dynamics, the novel weaves a backdrop of political instability and religious conflict targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka. This context intensifies the family’s need to preserve their religio-cultural identity while living as a minority within Sri Lankan culture. It also fuels their fear of being targeted as Muslims. This motif drives Zia, her husband, and daughter to seek a new life abroad.

The extended family dynamic further illuminates the theme of otherness, as Zia’s mother-in-law quickly admonishes the darkness of Zia’s skin. Unfortunately, Zia was not “blessed” with her mother’s lighter complexion, instead inheriting her father’s darker skin tone. This difference serves as a poignant reminder of the deeper seeds of racism and the enduring caste system that associates lighter skin with higher status in many countries other than ‘European’. This insidious system, as I emphasize, persists across oceans.

In summary, Untethered is a masterfully crafted novel that deftly interweaves themes of cultural identity, feminism, discrimination, and the pursuit of independence. Through the lens of Zia’s journey, readers are confronted with the complexities of societal expectations, the strength of family bonds, and the enduring impact of discrimination. My personal connection to the narrative underscores the novel’s ability to evoke empathy and challenge readers’ assumptions, making it a poignant addition to contemporary post-colonial CALD Australian literature. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with the echoes of her own voice, woven into the fabric of her family’s story.

The novel compels readers to reflect on their own experiences and the stories that shape them, ultimately urging us to confront uncomfortable truths about discrimination and otherness within this great unceded First nations land. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with her coming home to her love of story-telling.

So, how much further can Zia rebel? What would be the last great act of emancipation from all-consuming ideologies of patriarchal power and belief? I’ll leave that decision up to Zia to make, and if she wants to have a conversation about the kind of faiths we might need to hold onto, and the ones that if we let go of, may mean re-writing entire narratives of belief, then I’d love to have one with her.
 
 
MISBAH WOLF, a multi-dimensional artist holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of QLD and post-graduate qualifications in Research Methods, resides on Wurundjeri land.She has served as a poetry reviewer for Hecate Women’s Journal and was a guest editor for Mascara Literary Review in 2014. Wolf is the author of Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press 2018) and Carapace (Vagabond Press 2022), has been active in poetry for over 15 years, participating in festivals like Queensland Poetry Festival and the Sydney Writers Festival. She also contributed to the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 as a costume and art developer for theater. Wolf was awarded a Creative Victoria Grant in 2022. She performed her work, including a feature at La Mama Poetica and the Emerging Writers Festival and participated in a radio podcast in 2023. Explore her journey at www.misbahwolf.com, where she continues to engage in various artistic projects.

Adele Dumont reviews The Archipelago of Us by Renee Pettitt-Schipp

The Archipelago of Us

by Renee Pettitt-Schipp

Freemantle Press

Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
 
 
 
 
 
 
Renee-Pettitt Schipp first journeys to Christmas Island in early 2011, arriving in the immediate aftermath of a boat tragedy which has claimed the lives of some fifty asylum seekers. Some of the victims, she assumes, would have become her students. What strikes her, foremost, is the silence surrounding the incident. Nobody ever informs her which of her new students have lost family members in the accident; at the memorial service, no asylum seekers are even present – they’ve been ‘carefully edited out of official versions of their own story’ (158). Nor is she permitted to talk about her teaching experiences: ‘my class full of children bursting with life was not to be spoken of, never to be named’ (130). By the time Pettitt-Schipp returns to the island, in 2016, the island’s detention centre facilities have either been drastically scaled down, or vanished without trace. This pattern of concealment, of strange suppression and disappearance is, of course, in keeping with Australia’s maritime border policies, and the excision of Indian Ocean Territories from Australia’s migration zone and from our sovereign obligations. It is this silencing which Pettitt-Schipp wishes to redress; she wants to ‘resist the forces of forgetting’ (76).

The Archipelago of Us is mostly framed as a present-tense narrative, unfolding over the ten days of Pettitt-Schipp’s return trip to Christmas Island (and then Cocos (Keeling) Islands, where she subsequently worked). But the past intrudes into her present: in the opening chapters, she repeatedly alludes to what she has ‘witnessed’ on the island, which was the reason for her departure, and which troubles her deeply, still. This creates a real curiosity, on the reader’s part, to know what, exactly, she has borne witness to. But before sating this curiosity, Pettitt-Schipp provides extended (at times over-written) descriptions of place – of birdlife and sealife and graveyards; factual information about the British Phosphate Commission and the island’s local residents; and details of her own present-day health scare. This stalling of the narrative might be attributed to the author’s understandable resistance to revisiting certain memories, stirred up by being in situ. As a readerly experience though, this with-holding is somewhat frustrating. 

Once interviews with various island residents are underway, the book finds its rhythm. Christmas Island is typically viewed in terms of its remoteness from the mainland; the book’s own blurb describes it as ‘out of sight and out of mind’. But it is also its own place, and so it’s refreshing that Pettitt-Schipp centres the voices of locals, for whom the island is home. Several of her interviewees describe the island’s appeal in similar terms: it’s a place where life is pared back; ‘raw and elemental… there’s not a buffer here… It is not very often that you are really up against things in such an immediate way on the mainland’ (147). As a narrator, and as an interviewer, Pettitt-Schipp is sensitive, always ready to reconsider her own beliefs and preconceptions. Zainal Majad (President of the local Islamic Council and mine-worker), for example, sees value in the island’s white, Chinese, and Malay populations being distinct, and maintaining their cultural integrity; Pettitt-Schipp admits her surprise, for she had assumed integration was the ideal. For Zainal, mining on the island is a source of employment and of future prosperity, giving the island ‘vitality and holding the community together’ (118), whereas Pettitt-Schipp had only ever equated the industry with devastation of the local ecosystem. 

And while in the (mainland) Australian imagination island territories like Christmas Island are typically viewed through the lens of ‘border protection’, we’re reminded of the island’s broader history and cultural makeup. Peter Wei Cheon Ch’ng, for example, recalls the hostility he faced as a Chinese person growing up here in the 70s: for a period, ‘Asians’ were not allowed to swim in the ‘white’ swimming pool; white people could call the police if an ‘Asian’ so much as walked through Settlement. Pettitt-Schipp’s return visit coincides with the Festival of the Hungry Ghost. The tables of food, a man tells her, ‘are for the people who were buried but do not have a grave’ (139): at one level, this description might be read as a subtle honouring of those who’ve lost their lives at sea, but at another, it provides a window onto the local Chinese community, and their Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Pettitt-Schipp’s vignettes of the natural world serve a literary function in providing a helpful reprieve for the reader from some of the book’s heavier contents, but they are also quite simply a reminder of the island’s rich biodiversity. She describes the lichen and mosses, mineral formations, mist, and the ‘glinting cerulean plain’ (88) of the ocean. Hughs Dale is ‘a place of beauty expressed in the extreme’ (86), and the Blowholes have a ‘striking, mythical feel’ (102). The book’s twinning of present and past timelines complicates the island’s depiction; though its darkness haunts the author, she concludes that ‘perhaps this place has reclaimed a measure of what seems like a former innocence, a side of this island I was previously unable to see’ (143). 

When it comes to detention-related material – which is likely what will draw readers to this story – the memoir contains one particularly powerful interview with “Tom”, who gives a first-hand account of watching the Janga boat tragedy unfold. Here, and elsewhere in the book, Pettitt-Schipp retreats, resisting the urge to provide too much commentary or response; ‘I don’t move, don’t make a sound, just try to hold, to contain the weight of what he has just told me’ (79). She also summons memories of some of the children in her charge, skilfully conveying the intimacy of the classroom, all the more precious for being situated in an otherwise hostile environment. When, newly returned, she has to drive past the turn-off to the North-West Point Detention Centre, ‘even the thought fills me with rage, and I thump the steering wheel, feel my shoulders tense’ (83). In fact, recollections of her time inside the centres are scant. The scenes she includes instead focus on the instances when she was able to organise for two asylum seekers, Massom and Ehsan, to leave the centre for a few hours. In one poignant scene, Massom hand-feeds pieces of coconut-meat to a crab; in another, they happen upon a girl in a bikini standing under a waterfall. Each time she takes Massom out, Pettitt-Schipp tells us:

He stood taller, his eyes became animated, responding more and more to the world around him. I was heartened. It was breathtaking to watch, a confronting power to own. For just a moment, I was able to gift another human being their freedom… I had never seen Massom look so alive and was moved that something so simple could bring so much pleasure to another human being (97).

It’s an interesting artistic decision, on the author’s part, to depict asylum seekers outside the centre in this way, given this was such an extremely rare occurrence and one that the overwhelming majority of detainees were denied. Was she unwilling to revisit distressing memories of detention head-on? Or did she decide not to add to the stock of narratives, reports, and inquiries published, which all already testify to the damage that prolonged detention can wreak? Is it, after all, more humanising to depict incarcerated people momentarily unburdened? Whatever the reasoning, her decision means the usual tropes of books set in detention (guards, razor wire, security cameras) are mostly avoided, and the reader is entrusted with more imaginative work. 

Cocos (Keeling) Islands is a ‘similarly excised world’ (200) to Christmas Island. When Pettitt-Schipp first moves there in 2012, the arrival of asylum seekers is virtually unheard of. The tone of the island changes, though, once boats do begin to arrive: the locals have seen what played out on Christmas Island, and the price that small community paid when swamped by transient workers. What impels the author to return to Cocos, on her 2016 trip, is not what she witnessed in the two ‘largely peaceful’ (191) years she spent teaching there, but rather a ‘vague need to address what I had experienced as an unsettling silence, in part when inquiring about the atoll’s history’ (191). Her focus in this latter section of the book is on the Clunies-Ross family, who were the original settlers of the island, and who have a reputation as caring colonalists. Elder Nek Su tells Pettitt-Schipp a starkly different story though: the family with-held education from the Coco Malay people, severely limiting their freedom of movement and communication. 

Throughout her memoir, Pettitt-Schipp is overwhelmed by her own ‘powerlessness’ (121) and ‘impotence’ (123) in the face of such ‘pointless suffering’ (125), and she concludes that ‘even in their diversity, these stories point to the common conclusion that our present hostilities at the border are not an aberration… ‘Fair Go’ Australia is a myth’ (289). Despite this, The Archipelago of Us remains a quietly optimistic book, for in the individuals she interviews, Pettitt-Schipp finds immense generosity, courage, and open-ness. In her doctoral thesis (out of which this book grew) Pettitt-Schipp refers to the field of ‘tidalectics’, an approach which challenges traditional binaries such as land and sea; self and other. The Archipelago of Us encapsulates this approach in its shifts between the natural and the historical; its organic interview style; and its blurring of the author’s past and present worlds, such that nothing and no-one is ever fenced in, and all is fluid. 

ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, The Pulling, is forthcoming with Scribe in early 2024.

Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Coming out as Dalit by Yashica Dutt

Coming out as Dalit

by Yashica Dutt

Aleph Books

Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET

 

Yashica Dutt’s memoir about coming out as Dalit, written in the tone of a manifesto, ought to be seen against the backdrop of a burgeoning literary scene by lower-caste women authors hailing from the Indian subcontinent or the diaspora, including recent publications such as Kalyani Thakur Charal’s poetry collection I belong to Nowhere: Poems of Hope and Resistance, or Anjali Kajal’s short story collection Ma is Scared and Other Stories. Although Dutt’s text is non-fictional (part autobiographical, part sociological), its aesthetic quality shares with these publications a language and style whereby the personal is political and ‘herstory’ part of larger allegories of collective struggle, suffering and resilience, but also self-assertion, autonomy, and success. As Dutt reminds, Dalit authors are often taxed with “lacking aesthetic sophistication [though] many took inspiration from the works of African American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and wrote rich, deeply painful stories” (123). Dutt also stresses Dalit activists’ debt to the politics of black liberation, from the Black Panthers Party to the Black Lives Matters movement, to bell hook’s pamphlet-like seminal text Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

Dutt displays an acute awareness of the intersectionality of identity formation, as well as a cross-cultural sensitivity towards the intricacies of expressing and representing what being Dalit means. Her opening statement, “I hope to speak for those whose voices haven’t been heard before” (x), is to be nuanced in light of queries coming forth later on, as to the epistemic violence involved when speaking of/about an oppressed group while claiming to reach out to this group from a (relatively) privileged position, as does Dutt. These are issues Gayatri Spivak, who made Columbia University her new home after migrating from India like Dutt, has written about extensively. Dutt does not shy away from tackling these issues head-on, and her memoir regularly morphs into a valuable social commentary on race, caste, gender, class, and to a lesser extent sexuality (the phrase ‘coming out’ is a vivid evocation of the queer community from which it was borrowed).

Being lower-caste, or Dalit, in effect cuts across very different realities and experiences (in classical Sanskrit, ‘dalita’ stands for ‘divided, split, broken, scattered’). Dutt’s memoir is both a celebration of, and a coming to terms with, the sheer diversity of Dalit lives and trajectories. Her own family is a good illustration of what French philosopher Michel Foucault dubs heterotopia (From Ancient Greek, ‘different place’). Dutt’s family history comprises ‘untouchable’ sweepers and toilet cleaners, also known as manual ‘scavengers’ (her grandmother) but also small (her father) and bigger (her grandfather) functionaries, while she herself managed to attend some of the most prestigious educational institutions, both in India and the United States. Bearing this heterotopic social tapestry in mind, Dalit stories making headway into the mainstream run the risk of falling prey to ‘cannibalistic’ appropriation and at times point-blank plagiarism on the part of unscrupulous intellectuals, academics, researchers, journalists, or artists, especially if these are Dalits playing the role of ‘native informants’.

The recent controversy in which Dutt has become embroiled over an episode of the Indian romantic drama web series Made in Heaven, produced by Amazon Prime, is a case in point. In one episode of Season 2, ‘the Heart Skipped a Bit’, the lead female character Pallavi Menke, who studied in Columbia, confesses about her Dalit origins. She mentions her grandmother, who happened to be a manual scavenger. The similarities with Dutt’s life-story are striking, and Dutt should have been given due credit for it. Its director Neeraj Ghaywan (himself a Dalit) must have deemed it was sufficient to acknowledge her name only in passing by means of an Instagram post. Following heated exchanges with Dutt on social media, the show later retracted from identifying Dutt’s book as an obvious source of inspiration, thereby denying Dutt the right to claim her own story back. This goes to show the extent to which Dalit labour and property remain vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and theft. Having passed as upper-caste most of her life, Dutt was herself ‘bypassed’ and her Dalitness usurped by one of the biggest corporations in the world at the point when it had been so rightly represented on screen, as Dutt noticed with bittersweet pleasure.

Portraying Dalits remains a fraught exercise, on screen as elsewhere, if only because lead roles end up being almost always upper-caste. Whether conscious or not, minoritizing strategies rely on bypassing, as in the case of Dutt’s row with Made in Heaven’s producers, but also involve trespassing (not to say trampling or violating) as well as passing by without a sign of acknowledgement. In so doing, one deprives the ‘Other’ of the possibility of agency by reducing the latter to a state of social invisibility or to the status of a mere passer-by as passive victim. Thus, the difficulties of giving full justice to the constellation of practices characterising Dalits amount instead to a ‘single story’ (158). Dutt borrows the phrase from the Nigerian authoress Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who also studied in the United States. Both Dutt and Adichie are commanding enough to allow for a fairer, more balanced, and nuanced characterisation, beyond victimising or wallowing in ‘poverty porn’ (176).

In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison captured the condition of being Black in America, in particular having to face indifference from (white) society. As Dutt recalls, the novel proved highly popular among an emerging Dalit middle-class readership who could identify and sympathise with the main character’s feeling of anomie and ostracised position as an outcast, all the more since caste unlike race or gender forms an ‘invisible package’ (90) turning out to be just as pernicious. Growing up ‘Bhangi’ (the name of a Dalit caste used as a cuss word in India) while pretending to be Brahmin (upper caste) helped Dutt pass various interviews and entrance exams at convent, private schools like St Stephens College in New Delhi. Yet her performances would have to mean surpassing herself, both financially and academically, this at the risk of passing out or even away like her tutelary figure Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and activist at Hyderabad University whose suicide letter triggered Dutt’s outing and was written in the wake of seeing his scholarship blocked. As she puts it: “I had to work harder so ‘they’ could overlook my ‘inferiority’. I couldn’t pause to recognize my ‘triumphs’ or take it easy every now and then because then I would fall behind and they would stop respecting me.” (37)

Internalised casteism in part stems from the belief that mimicking the upper-caste through adopting their lifestyle and codes of conduct may save one from persecution and offer a pathway to a better life. It means believing life is undeserving as it is, without merit, and worthless to such an extent that a quota-based system of affirmative action known as ‘reservation’ in India, is needed to compensate for otherwise menial, mediocre, and miserable career prospects. Hence, passing-as-hiding both serves as an existential act of survival and an economic necessity. Part of the disguised performance involves, above all, the mastery of the former coloniser’s medium of communication – namely the English language. Ironically, English allowed for the upper-caste to pass as Western (and for Dalits to pass as upper-caste), alongside bleaching or wearing ‘ubtan’ (face mask), as Dutt was ritualistically forced to as a child in the hope of posing as fair-skinned. In a poignant passage, Dutt describes Dalitness as a ‘carcass’ to be borne (perhaps an allusion to the Chamar caste’s disposal of dead cattle as tanners) and English at which she excelled, as a ‘crutch’ to lean on:

English—the language I had hoped would help me escape my own Dalit identity. The language I had stubbornly practised since I was five. Flawless English was supposed to bring me to the same level as my upper-caste classmates in school and college. I leaned on it when the carcass of my Dalitness became too heavy. Later, writing in this language became my career. It is very likely that English was Rohith [Vemula]’s crutch too. He was probably still honing it so he could stand tall against those he had decided to take on—those who perhaps equated his Dalitness with an inherent sub-humanness. (xiv)

Following independence from Britain in 1947, India abolished the caste system that the British colonisers had exploited to their benefit, relying as they did on upper-caste Brahmins to fill up the ranks of their bureaucratic apparatus. India now projects itself as a caste-blind society despite having a head of state as a Hindu nationalist whose latest stunt was to rebrand India as ‘Bharat’. Chaturvarna’ (the caste system) is a legacy of Vedic scriptures and of Hinduism though it extends across other religions of the Indian subcontinent. The spiritual concept of ‘karma’ has been central to the maintenance of a caste-based, endogamous, apartheid-like structure, and to the acceptance of their lower status by Dalits as “pay[ment] for the sins of previous lives in subsequent lifetimes” (12).

Dutt’s memoir shows contemporary discrimination against Dalits to be rampant, even in urban, cosmopolitan settings like New Delhi. One falls under the impression that Dutt, while working there as a journalist for the fashion industry, was indeed better off hiding her caste, since it gave her privileged access (passe-droit in French) to an otherwise exclusive, glamorous milieu. The dressing up of her origins behind the make-up of her impeccable English, somehow to be expected from her, did not matter so long as it was swept under the carpet as mentioning her caste would have been socially awkward – a fatal faux pas deemed de mauvais goût. This is testament to the level of hypocrisy and corruption of Indian society, especially among the brightest and best educated sectors. To paraphrase a famous line, it feels while reading Dutt as if something is deeply rotten in the state of Hindustan (the land of the Hindus).

The fiction that India is a meritocracy also seeps into Dalits’ minds, and many regard education as a shield against casteism and vehicle for social ‘upliftment’ – a term Mahatma Gandhi himself was particularly fond of using concerning those he patronisingly called ‘Harijans’ (God’s children), to mean Dalits. By contrast, Dutt’s vehement defence of reservation, from which she benefited, originates in her understanding that sheer merit plays little or no part in order to climb the social ladder. This comes in spite of her reluctance to see herself classified among the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and stigmatised as such. To quote from her memoir:

A month after the admission interview, I attended the ‘first assembly’ at St. Stephen’s. Mum had hastily sold off the land that had been our backyard garden which she had lovingly tended. The money would cover the rent for a shared PG I was to stay in. As we filled out the admission form, Mum suggested, for the very first time, that I tick the box that said I was an SC/ST candidate. Like so many Dalit students who don’t understand how systemic casteism works and buy into the casteist narrative of ‘proving themselves without a crutch’, I didn’t think I needed reservation. If I checked that box, I would taint my achievements with the ‘quota student’ tag. My lifetime of lessons to successfully appear upper caste would be rendered useless with that single stroke. But I didn’t have a choice. I needed the financial aid and scholarships to pay even the heavily subsidized Delhi University fees. (60)

The reservation system remains limited in scope as it covers the public sector only, which has historically provided Dalits with employment opportunities that come with the hope “that some of the respect linked with a civil service position might rub off on them and go some way towards negating their Dalitness” (1), even though Dalits disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of government. However tepid and timid, attempts by the Indian state to redress inequalities have come under fierce attack from some of the most conservative, reactionary corners of society, paralleling the US supreme court’s recent decision to overturn affirmative action in US colleges. Dutt writes about the anti-reservation demonstrations that took place at a medical school in Delhi in 2006, though in effect, it is the lower-caste and religious minorities who face daily discriminations at colleges and universities, including ‘hazing’ and ‘ragging’ (73). Anoop Kumar’s documentary film The Death of Merit forcefully chronicles these practices in India’s higher ed (74).

Dutt’s narrative is a treasure trove of intertextual references facilitated by her background as a journalist. Her blog, ‘Documents of Dalit Discrimination’, for instance inventories both testimonies and eye-witness accounts of casteism. Secondary sources Dutt builds upon in her memoir include Kakoos (2017), a documentary on the officially abolished practice of manual scavenging, or English Vinglish (2012), a film dealing with India’s “unnatural deference to English [which] is a result of our internalized colonial hangover” (21-2). Dutt’s ability to shed light on Indian contemporary society by means of her personal – and at times heart-rending – family history (her dad’s alcoholism, her mother’s suicide attempt, or Dutt’s inner turmoil while growing up), is what makes her memoir so vibrantly lively. Precious in particular is her overview of India’s media landscape, ‘culture wars’, and Dalit activism. In spite of India’s hardening stance and crackdown on dissenting voices under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term (the latest controversy being the assassination of Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil), Dutt shows independent news reporting to be thriving thanks to the use of social media and alternative news outlets on Dali issues such as RTI, Ambedkar’s Caravan, Savri, Velivada and Dalit Camera (166).

While reminiscent of the divide between white and black/brown feminists in the US, her depiction of an ongoing rift between ‘Savarna’ (upper-caste) and ‘Bahujan’ (people’s) feminism is proof of the rise and empowerment of Dalit women in India. Though Dutt admits Dalit stories and struggles still find it hard to break into the mainstream, she makes a point of ensuring these will not go unheard of in her memoir, which was published by an independent publishing firm in India. The case of 23 years old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey (Brahmin), gangraped and left dead in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, helped shift public opinion by initiating a national conversation about sexual violence and abuse in India. This outpour of support must be weighed against the similar fate befalling 29 years old law student Jisha (Dalit) in 2016, which comparatively generated little reaction from the media. The alleged ‘availability’ and ‘impurity’ of Dalit women as peddled by the dominant masculinist, casteist discourse make them particularly vulnerable to rape culture, so the onus is on journalists and progressives to spotlight their case.

In the same vein, Dutt recalls the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha initiated by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the untouchables’ right to use water in public tanks (‘satyagraha’ standing for a non-violent act of resistance and civil disobedience). This historic event was overshadowed three years later by a march against British colonial rule’s imposition of a salt tax, led by the well-known (upper-caste) figure of Mahatma Gandhi. Ambedkar’s writings and actions, including the drafting of India’s first constitution, have provided Dalits with spiritual solace and guidance, and his momentous legacy hovers over the pages of Dutt’s memoir. Not incidentally, Ambedkar would need a nod from another public (upper-caste) intellectual, Arundhati Roy, for his writing to find a larger echo, although “in the introduction to Ambedkar’s most radical and significant work [Annihilation of Caste], Roy positions Gandhi front and centre” (173).

As Dutt’s book unfolds, its aim stands clearer: to popularise and position Dalit stories ‘front and centre’ by capitalising on Dutt’s vantage point as a New York-based, Columbia graduate like Ambedkar, who received his PhD in economics from this same Ivy League institution in 1927. Hence, Dutt’s outing reveals itself as a deeply altruistic, humanist gesture instead of an attempt to take all the credit, as some of her detractors following her dispute with the producers of Made in Heaven have hinted at. Her memoir is an invitation to – quite literally –come out and take to the streets as Dalit and can be seen as part of a recent rise in Dalit militancy. In 2016, Dalits from the Chamar community in Modi’s historic state of Gujarat withdrew their labour by refusing to pick up carcasses of cows. The disposal of dead cattle is an activity traditionally reserved to the lower-caste, who find themselves looked down upon as manual workers and violently targeted by Hindu hardliners as ‘meat-eaters’ – “vegetarianism [being] the gold standard for caste purity” (xiii). Upper-caste mobs severely beat up strikers with police complicity, although “the simple gesture of Dalits refusing to do the job that the caste system had forced on them for centuries had such a powerful effect that it led to months of protests across the country and ultimately resulted in one of the largest Dalit uprisings in thirty years” (48). It led in particular to the Azadi Kooch March for equality, justice, and land reform – “land that had been allotted to thousands of Dalits on paper but was still waiting to be assigned after decades” (48).

As Dutt’s memoir moves to its final sections, the word Dalit gets hammered into, as if to suggest Dutt is now on her way to recovery after many years of self-loathing and denial. It also leaves the reader with a sense that Dalit lives matter; an allusion to the name of the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement that, as stated on its website, aims to “build constructive resistance against caste-based inequalities, indignities, and adversities globally”. As the generic character of Dutt’s book title suggests, coming out as Dalit (as opposed to ‘a Dalit’) is to belong to a community and be part of a collective with a rich and proud heritage attached to it. That Dutt will be able to share this heritage again through a US reedition of her memoir, out in 2024, is a gift worth waiting for. It is no small treat (and feat) either that in 2020, the book won India’s National Academy of Letters award for outstanding young writers, the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Readers who may not be familiar with India’s caste system will find a useful, thorough introduction on the subject while a more attuned audience may also enjoy Dutt’s bold journalistic cross over to the autobiographical genre.

Works Cited
Dalit Lives Matter

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

Anne Brewster reviews Borderland by Graham Akhurst

Borderland

by Graham Akhurst

UWA Publishing

 

 

 

Answers Deferred

Graham Akhurst’s debut young adult novel Borderland is a tour de force. It is a coming-of-age story, set on the lands of the Turrbal, Yuggera and Gungarri people. We are introduced to Jonathan Lane, the first-person narrator, who has just graduated from St Lucia Private, an oppressive private secondary school where he had been a scholarship student. His time at St Lucia had not been an altogether happy experience for him. We are told that he ‘hated the attention he got for looking different and being poor in a school full of rich white kids’ (6). 

The novel opens as he and his best friend, Jenny Pohatu – who also graduated from St Lucia – have enrolled at the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre (APAC) in Brisbane where they are studying acting and dance. Jenny is a beautiful, popular young woman – warm, intelligent and articulate – and a supportive, caring friend and mentor to Jonathan. But Jono does not completely fit into the social world at APAC. He struggles with identity issues. He lives with his mother – a single mother – but knows little about his family: only that his mother grew up in Cherbourg with her parents and that her father was a lawman who also worked as a police officer and later died in jail (72). Jonathan does not know from his mother who his people are or where his Country is (71). He feels like he is in limbo, with ‘no community, language or tradition’ (68). The moving portrait of a struggling young man who doesn’t know his ancestry recalls in some respects Melissa Lucashenko’s powerful second novel, Hard Yards.  

Self-doubt and insecurity plague Jonathan at APAC where he struggles to fit in and feels like a ‘fraud’ (22), convinced that people see him as an ‘impostor’ (22). He tells us that he measures himself even against Jenny. She ‘owned her Ngarabal heritage proudly’ and was active in the community. She ‘tried to get [him] to go to all the rallies at Musgrave Park and every other Black event in town’ (6). He feels that ‘she knew so much more about mob and culture than [he] ever would’ (6). At APAC, some of the other students mercilessly torment him as a coconut and he has major issues with anxiety as a result. On top of all this, he has a huge crush on Jenny, who is busy flirting with other students. 

Jonathan seems to be spiralling downwards, mired in anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, when he has a stroke of good fortune in landing a short acting role in a documentary film being made for the Aboriginal community about mining on First Nations Country. Jenny has a factotum role in the same production and the two head off excitedly to the fictional town of Gambarri, for what they think will be a fun adventure in the Queensland bush. The trip turns out to be far more difficult than anyone in the group expected with strange happenings disrupting everyone’s plans and delaying the making of the film. Jonathan’s encounter with the land and the people in it is hugely challenging and transformative, opening up the possibility that he may be able to find a way through his crippling self-doubt and move his life forward.

These opening scenes establish the novel as a bildungsroman about the yearned for – but painful getting of – knowledge. They are a powerful evocation of the inner world of a young Aboriginal man, infused with searing affect – strong conflicting feelings of love, fear, remorse, hope and responsibility – as he slowly learns about his heritage and the urgent obligations and sacrifices this knowledge brings with it. 

As Jonathan struggles with the aggression and violence directed to him as a so-called ‘coconut’, he becomes aware of a different terrifying liminal zone impacting on him and his life – physically and psychically – but not in ways which he initially recognises or understands. Magpies dive apparently threateningly into his personal space, and, as the action ratchets up a level, strange ‘hallucinations’ beset and derange him. These ‘horrific visions’ set off panic attacks. He feels his life is in mortal danger after he encounters a malevolent spirit from the Dreaming. Eventually, after numerous false leads, he meets an ally who can provide a measure of guidance and help him protect himself from the ‘sickness’ in which he is enmeshed. He finds answers to some of the questions that have tormented him. But, in the process, further questions are raised.

Akhurst chooses a non-realist mode of fiction to invoke the Dreaming and the young man’s acquisition of difficult knowledge (which is both dangerous and protective). In numerous ways the narrative does touch upon the referential and documentary real – for example it acknowledges Country paratextually in the book’s front matter and outlines the consultation process Akhurst undertook in writing the novel. Further, within the narrative there is a documentary recognition of histories of struggle such as that against the damage caused by fracking in Gungarri Country. Nevertheless, a hybrid non-realist textuality emerges at points where it facilitates the fictional figuring of the Dreaming and of Jonathan’s engagement with the spirits of the Dreaming. Akhurst identifies this non-realist narrative practice as ‘the fictional… rendering of cultural and cosmological elements’ which has been undertaken in an ethical way which avoids ‘the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage’ (ix).

Akhurst insists on the fictionality of the ‘cultural and cosmological’ aspects of the novel and makes a significant paratextual interjection to differentiate fiction (characters and imaginative events) from the specific materiality of the real (in this instance Country). However, it is beyond the purview of this short, non-Aboriginal authored review, to detail the binary between the real and the imaginative. Both elements are entangled within the narrative. A Kokomini man, Akhurst outlines the protocols which guided his writing practice:

While this novel is set primarily on Turrbal, Yuggera, and Gungarri Country, specific places, characters, and events existonly in the author’s imagination. Great care was given to the fictional rendering of cultural and cosmological elements in thisnovel to avoid the appropriation of story, intellectual property, and heritage. All Dreaming stories and cosmological elements are fictional. The stories and totemic symbolic meanings in this book are fictitious and of the author’s imagination. (ix)

*  *  *

In the ‘fictional rendering of the cultural and cosmological’ the novelist portrays Jonathan gaining insight, physical strength, knowledge of and connection with his ancestors and an ability to protect Country. When Jonathan returns to Brisbane and his mother, he is ‘a new man’ (71), as his mother had predicted, with new friendships forged and old friendships reconfigured. But it is also with a new awareness of his and others’ mortality. 

Is this entanglement the ‘borderland’ of the title, where the cosmological meets the everyday, and where First-Nations novelists carve out new imaginative temporo-spatial textual zones for action and transformation? The borderland also seems to me a trope for the bildungsroman, Jonathan’s passage from anxiety and doubt to self-realisation and well-being as a young First Nations person. This is itself a troubled and fraught process for Jonathan. Towards the end of the story, for example, when he has established a more secure sense of belonging, Jonathan pauses to reflect on his journey: ‘it felt as though my identity was something others decided’ (197).

Jonathan’s psychical journey is embedded in his physical journey into rural Queensland. The crew with whom Jonathan is making the film is a motley group with their own crises, confused agendas and troubled identities. In negotiating the relationships between these complicated personalities Jonathan also comes to understand more about the film they are making and the implications it has for all of them. He also comes to a political awareness of the need to protect the land from exploitation and expropriation. 

Needless to say, the novel is not dry or didactic. Akhurst is an adroit storyteller and has a keen ear for the nuances of dialogue. This allows him to flesh out his characters as complex and believable, revealed to Jonathan and themselves as at times vain and a touch self-seeking. There’s plenty of clever humour here and some of it is quite far-reaching such as the irony with which Jenny is portrayed (which, it seems to me, is both gentle and potentially devastating). However, essentially, this book has a light touch even if there are many twists and turns, including adjustments to some of the characters’ most cherished beliefs. Some, like Jenny, have answers deferred. Perhaps Akhurst is setting up the narrative for a sequel. Borderland is an assured and well-crafted book. Akhurst handles all aspects of the multi-layered and challenging story adroitly, especially the suspenseful and charged connections between the key characters. Here is an example of the novel’s narrative intensity:

The lights in the house came on suddenly and I saw the dark figure of a man in the window. It looked as though he was staring directly at me. He moved to the front door and the entrance to the verandah lit up. A blackfella around Keith’s age walked slowly down the front stairs, his dark eyes, under a furrowed brow, locked on me. I felt incredibly uncomfortable but returned his gaze. He had thick wavy grey hair. His skin was dark and weathered; his body wiry. He wore similar clothes to Keith without the wide brimmed hat. He had a rifle strapped to his back. He looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen this man before.

‘This is Norman, my head ringer,’ said Keith.
‘Evening all,’ Norman said, and nodded. His wavy white hair moved in the wind. ‘I’m gonna head out and take a look at that fence real quick.’
‘Yep, see you in the morning,’ Keith said. ‘Now everyone, grab your bags and let’s head in.’

I could feel Norman’s eyes on me. When I reached the
car I turned, and he was standing right in front of me.

‘I see you, boy,’ he said. A vein pulsed along his temple as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Norman’s steely eyes stared through me for a moment before he spoke again.

‘And so does Wudun.’ (150)

 

ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

Mark Seton reviews Text Messages from the Universe by Richard James Allen

Text Messages from the Universe

by Richard James Allen

Flying Islands Press

Reviewed by MARK SETON

 
 
 
 

It’s 2023, and our world flounders under an encroaching deluge of Artificial Intelligence apps, especially ChatGPT, that might enable anyone to ‘generate’ poetry, so why bother! The good news, I believe, is that the poetry that touches us, moves us and connects us still emerges from a living, breathing, feeling, embodied poet. That’s what Richard James Allen generously offers the reader in his latest work Text Messages from the Universe. And it’s fun too!

This is the fourth work of Allen’s that I have reviewed over the years and he never ceases to delight and surprise with new modes and constructions of words and images that overlap and bounce off each other. The initial treats of this new work are the physical size (the book of poetry fits in the shape of one’s hand) and, accompanying the text, one encounters colourful pages of photographic images, many incorporating dancers in bright, flowing strips of cloth, intermingled with textures and ambiguous light sources. It’s all an invitation to enter into the flow of sensation before making any attempt at meaning-making.

In a past life (or maybe it’s just an ongoing present life?) I’m sure Allen was/is a detective, a Philip Marlow of the 21st century. Through an omnipresent framing of address, in second person, he asks you, the reader, numerous investigative questions. He proffers multiple, possible meanings. He knows he sometimes makes miscalculations. He acknowledges that life can be messy. And he asserts that life is worth living no matter how short it is. I suspect there is a clue to the puzzle of this text, proffered in his dedication – “for my Virgils” – a reference, perhaps, to the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, a master poet of antiquity, who structured his most famous poetic epic Aeneid into several ‘books’. Likewise, Allen crafts a textual container of two parts, collectively containing three chapters.

Part One consists of two counter-pointed chapters, ‘An Introduction to Dying and An Odd Way to be Born.’ Two confronting themes, yet Allen seduces the reader to keep reading by means of playful, image-triggering phrases about the reader’s mind and body that strangely convey an everyday normality within the fantastical – “Your head feels like it is under attack from a swarm of alien starships, trying to blast their way through your mind core” (p.9) followed shortly by “The vehicle [body] is so tremendously powerful. It’s the Holy Grail for floating spirits, waiting aeons for the chance to act again in the world” (p.15). The second theme invokes a ritual-like multiplicity of ways to be ‘born’. Almost every page insists that you “wake up!” and offers you various narratives that you might choose to bring you into some new state of being and becoming. This section of texts is most powerfully counter-pointed by the photographic images of dancers in various modes and moods of movement – sometimes their eyes address the reader, sometimes their eyes indicate where the reader might go. But it is the dynamism in their frozen moments of ‘the dance’ that is most striking in how it shapes one’s feeling and/or interpretation of these different story offers. This second theme wanes, at a critical transition, where the message of the Universe observes, “You’ve got it all wrong, strange things happen to everybody – it’s just that mostly they don’t pay attention to them, or if they do, they don’t tell anyone about them, they just keep them a secret” (p.47).

This launches the reader into a wilder ride through Part Two of this collection of messages, entitled ‘The Book of Bad Dreams’, that are far more scattered between pages of dancers and textured lighting, creating a sense of acceleration towards some kind of finality or paradoxical crisis/opportunity. It’s almost like a textual version of the psychedelic ‘stargate sequence’ in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the textual messages seem more urgent and demanding of a readerly response, it’s in these latter pages that the very words begin to blur into a stream of consciousness:

If you were to speak the perfect words, what would they be? The onlythingyourememberisthatthebodyyou entered, or thought you entered, was walking across, a street talking on their phone. You can’t remember to whom. The conversation was interrupted by a text message.(p46)

This becomes the point of no return – or unending return – where texts finally subside and lift the reader to a place where there is no place or need for text messages. Only bold colours, dynamic dancers and sensual textures remain to fill in the last few pages of this playful, provocative and in-sight-ful work. Another sensual, innovative and rewarding accomplishment from the embodied exploration and expression of the poet who is Richard James Allen.

 

Dr Mark Seton (PhD) is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, at The University of Sydney. He is an Educator and Consultant for Sense Connexion, which he established to teach empowering vulnerability to actors and other professionals, such as lawyers and health practitioners, whose capacity for empathy and sensitivity is crucial to their effectiveness and success. Alongside membership of the Editorial Board of the “Journal of Applied Arts and Health”, Mark is Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee for the Australian College of Theology and is a founding member of the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare.

Kavita Nandan reviews Once a Stranger by Zoya Patel

Once a Stranger

by Zoya Patel

Hachette

ISBN 9780733647079

Reviewed by KAVITA NANDAN
 
 
A significant part of the success of a story is the degree to which we are moved by it in some way. Once a Stranger, a novel about the search for acceptance, is written with heart and an awareness of loss in the negotiation of relationships with family, history and home. At first glance, the novel’s structure and conceit seem too straightforward – the past and present are navigated by the sub-headings ‘before’ and ‘now’ and feelings are conveyed quite simply: ‘Ayat felt the loss as deep as a punch to her stomach’ (48). However, while the language may sometimes be humble, more so in Part One than in Part Two in which the metaphors of belonging and alienation deepen, the message is not.

This novel is told from three points of view, those of two sisters, Ayat and Laila, and their mother, Khadija. It is about their relationships with each other and to the new home, Australia. The central narrative is Ayat’s, the younger sister and daughter, who is separated from her family in Canberra as a result of the mother’s ultimatum that she choose between them and that other life: Melbourne and her white Australian boyfriend, Harry. Ayat is wounded by her mother putting Islam and its traditions above her. She is also hurt by her sister, Laila, who sacrifices their sisterly relationship to win the approval of her mother. Laila pursues the life of a “a good Muslim girl”. As a school girl she spends her time studying, accepting that there will be no sleep overs and no boyfriends. Afterwards she responsibly gets a job and enters an arranged marriage to a Muslim. At moments in the story, this binary is questioned – is Khadija really that blind? Is Laila really that one dimensional? Even her mother, at some point, wonders if her older daughter is supressing her real self.

The novel interweaves between the past and the present to show that the present can make sense in the light of the past. We learn that the girls’ father and Khadija’s husband, Ahmed, dies in a tragic accident, leaving their mother as the sole protector of her family and even more vulnerable in the new country. Both Ayat and the reader begin to understand to a greater extent, the mother’s strict choices. Would she have behaved as stubbornly with Ayat if Ahmad were still by her side? Khadija’s rigidity is also offered as being characteristic of the behaviour of a first generation migrant who persists in maintaining the culture and values of a previous homeland in the new country. The catalyst for reconciliation is a stark email from Laila to Ayat, telling her that their mother is very sick.

Once a Stranger is an inter-generational story of migration. On her first day of school when she feels rejected by the other kids, Ayat wraps her hands around her waist to make herself smaller, mimicking her mother who does this intuitively when she feels rejected by Australians. This gesture is a motif carried through the novel by mother and daughter. When Ayat experiences a lack of reflection of herself in others, it brought me back to my first days at primary school in Canberra, being one, out of the only three, non-white kids in the entire school. The distance between Melbourne and Canberra is eight hours but the gulf between Ayat and her mother and sister is far deeper. The micro narrative of the family’s rejection of Ayat is paralleled with the macro narrative of the rejection of this Muslim family by white Australians.

Part Two is more sorrowful and hopeful at the same time. For Khadija, Australia is still a foreign country: “Decades in Australia hadn’t changed Khadija’s allegiance. India was not just a country, it was an entire world that she had lost, one she wasn’t able to let go of.” (134)
This point of view is written with sympathy: “this was the place where her mother made sense, where her history became real” (167). When Ayat travels with her mother and sister to India, she has a greater understanding of her mother’s perspective. This helps Ayat to begin to forgive her mother and ultimately herself while at the same time realising that some differences are irreconcilable.

The novel suggests that migrants live with uneasy contradictions and not in a state of happy hybridity. They survive psychically by aligning themselves to one kind of cultural illusion or the other, whether it’s feeling at one with the crowd in India or, as Khadija does, wanting the solidity of Islam for Ayat, knowing that she didn’t wholly fit in, but with an edge of awareness. For all her stubbornness, Khadija knows that life is dynamic:

Children were always leaving, from the moment they were born. They exited her womb, and kept going, stepping further away from her with each act of independence until, eventually, she became to them what her own mother had been to her – the past. (233)

The experience of migration involves both loss and acceptance. This novel gives an important voice to young migrant people in an accessible and palpable way. It ends with the past and the future coalescing. Laila is able to acknowledge both the loss of all those years without her sister and the joy of her child. The novel ends positively with the hint that the youngest clan member, Aysha, may not have the same struggles, unlike her grandparents who found it the hardest to adjust, and her parents who are still negotiating their mixed identities. This is a story about the love between mothers and daughters. If Khadija can’t let go of her own feelings of not-belonging, she can accept that Australia is the way forward for her daughters.

Ayat’s boyfriend, Harry, while not being one of the major characters in the novel is worth mentioning here because of his symbolic weight: he represents the Other for the migrant or what the migrant is travelling towards – a new country and a new life. Both a feeling of homesickness and home are attached to him. Living with him reminds Ayat of the family she is separated from and being away from him when she goes to Canberra and India makes her feel like a part of her is missing.

It was a clever narrative choice to make Harry join Ayat in India, as his courage in making himself visible to her family is a trigger for Ayat’s acceptance of the different parts of herself. There are barriers between Harry and Ayat; Ayat for example is portrayed as being uncomfortable with Harry’s affections – people from an Indian culture are often brought up in a way that traps them between their own desires and their parents’ approval. But this dis-ease is what the novel is about. Harry is both her anchor in the new world and the difference she battles with:

But something in her was too fragile now. It was as though there was only space in her for Harry or her family. They had never existed alongside each other, and Ayat still didn’t know how to surpass the discomfort she felt at her dual identities mingling. She hadn’t had time to learn how. (195)

While the Rushdian sense of a happy mongrelisation and ‘contaminated’ migrant identity is helpful in contending the idea of mythic purity, living with disharmony is not easy. Ayat finds herself caught between the diverse worlds of family bonds, loyalty, past identities and the challenge of integrating into a new world. Canberra becomes as important a place as India in this journey of reconciling with family and country. Although, the specifics of my background maybe different, I felt many moments of recognition when reading this book and I believe that other migrants will feel something similar. A significant achievement of the novel is giving voice to the non-Anglo migrant experience. Once a Stranger’s narrative engagement with familial relations is a vital expression of the female experience of the effects of migration.
 
 
KAVITA IVY NANDAN was born in New Delhi, grew up in Suva and migrated to Australia in 1987 after the Fiji military coups. She completed a PhD in Literature at the Australian National University. She taught at both the ANU and the University of Canberra before moving from Canberra to Sydney in 2017. Besides being a writer, Kavita teaches Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She is the author of a book of poems, Return to what Remains (2022) and a novel, Home after Dark(2014). She is currently working on a novel, The Smallest Hands. Kavita has edited a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-edited of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and an anthology of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction are published in ABR, Adda Magazine, Asiatic, Island Review, Landfall, LiteLitOne, Mascara Literary Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, Mindfood, Not Very Quiet, Poetry D’Amour Anthology, Ross Spencer Anthology and Transnational Literature.

Eman Elhelw reviews Bitter & Sweet by Amal Awad

Bitter & Sweet

by Amal Awad

Pantera Press

Reviewed by EMAN ELHELW

 

Kicking off in a flooding kitchen, Amal Awad’s Bitter & Sweet, as the title suggests, is a story of the highs-and-lows of life. The life of Zeina, Palestinian-Australian chef, unfolds in Sydney’s inner-city restaurant scene with its fusion of cuisines, fine dining, and familiar casual eats. Through Zeina’s eyes, we experience the fresh wounds of a marriage breakdown, the struggles of keeping her father’s restaurant dreams alive in the decaying restaurant Casablanca, and the relationship dynamics of one’s forties. Bitter & Sweet sits amongst the many acclaimed restaurant-based novels of recent years, yet stands apart as a story where food is a main character. Casablanca is not only the setting through which Bitter & Sweet’s story takes place but operates as a metaphor for Zeina’s journey to happiness.

It is Awads gift of creating familiar characters experiencing familiar situations, which makes Bitter & Sweet an immersive read. Awad centers universal human experiences – the loss of loved ones, a marriage breakdown, job changes – to create charmingly relatable characters. As with most of Awad’s eight published books, Bitter & Sweet is a soulful comfort read that warmed my Australian-Egyptian heart. I initially found Zeina to be a guarded character that I struggled to relate to, but the countless elements of the novel which mirrored my own experiences slowly provided glimpses into our connection. 

I became more invested with each thread I uncovered connecting Zeina and myself. I recognised the delicious traditional dishes of felafel, and kafta, served against the rundown interiors Casablanca in the many dinners I’ve devoured in Inner-Sydney’s oldest middle eastern institutions. The late afternoon icy swims at Bondi beach reminded me of my own frosty East coast dips. And Awad adds an extra unexpected thread when flashes from the past uncover a younger and impressionable Zeina’s time in Southern Spain working in the experimental kitchen of Isabella

With Zeina, I revisit Alhambra in all its Andalusian castle grandeur. As Zeina takes in the Arabic scripture carved into the castle’s walls, I recall my own awe at the remnants of the Middle Eastern presence on Southern Spain. Zeina’s reflection that ‘she felt like she had returned to a place she had known once,’ stole the words I uttered to my Spanish host family in my exchange to Southern Spain from my own mouth. 

Awads quietly confident storytelling creeps up on you slowly to leave you hungry for more. I realised early on that Awad had me hooked, when reading the novel feverishly one morning on the train and nearly missing my own stop. Through the non-linear novel structure, the layers are slowly peeled off our guarded Zeina. I couldn’t help but to be whisked up in the electrifying beginnings of her romance with the charming Ray while knowing of their impending separation. Awad cleverly paces the two timelines to avoid any premature sense of closure and keep you hoping for a happily ever after. 

Awad maintains a calm tone throughout the novel to handhold the reader through its bitter twists and sweet turns. If there is one thing Awad has mastered, it is frustratingly hyperreal depictions of relationships that pull on the heartstrings of readers. As to be expected with any book that begins with Oscar Wilde’s famous De Profundis quote, ‘hearts are made to be broken,’ Awad shows us that love – familial, romantic, or friendly – hurts sometimes more than it heals. Nothing comes easy for Zeina, and no matter how much the reader is fingers-crossed-praying for Zeina’s upturn, it is a slow burn to success for our main character. Just when it appears that Zeina is on the precipice of relief, another bitter blow pushes her further down. 

Awad’s treats each of her flawed characters with such tenderness that there is no space for villains – not even the heartbreaker, Ray. We are introduced to a cold and stoic Ray who appears to have as little love for Zeina as he does words. Yet, as the novel time jumps between the highs and lows of Ray and Zeina’s love story, we discover that Ray’s icy stature hides a deeply hurt man. And even when we think we will end the novel cursing Ray for his behaviour (see: the motel room mid-way through the motorcycle Blue Mountains road trip), his redemption is buried deep into the last half of the novel. 

No character is left two-dimensional – though Nasser, Zeina’s father, remains stubborn through to his very end. The man proves to be many things – a poor business mind, a stubbornly-ill Arab man, and a hoarder – of both household furniture and secrets. Nasser is a man guided by a need for the bare necessity, with everything else being considered faff. A man who prides himself on delicious dishes yet doesn’t have the patience for renovations. Nasser who raised his daughter on his lonesome yet doesn’t stop to consider the weight of a thirty-year secret. Though he leaves Zeina with more than a flooding restaurant in his wake, we still love Nasser, in all his messiness. 

The time jumps throughout the novel leads to the illusion that the reader has a false sense of the amount of time spent with the characters. I learned to love even the novel’s messiest character like a dear friend – Zeina herself. A novel that belongs on every bookshelf, Bitter & Sweet is a novel that captivates readers with its raw depiction of love, friendship, family, and most importantly, food. 
 
 
 
EMAN ELHELW is an Egyptian-Australian woman who grew up on the lands of the Kaurna people (known as Adelaide). She currently works and creates on the lands of the Gadigal people in Sydney’s inner-west. Eman holds a Bachelor of Law/Arts from the University of Adelaide. Her works exploring growing up in diaspora have been published in Egyptian Streets. As a senior engagement consultant, Eman advocates for equitable access for culturally and linguistically diverse audiences.

Judith Huang reviews Who Comes Calling? by Miriam Wei Wei Lo

Who Comes Calling

by Miriam Wei Wei Lo

WA Poets

Reviewed by JUDITH HUANG
 
 
 

Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s Who Comes Calling? begins with an open hand of a poem, its structure mimicking five uncurling fingers numbering off the things which Australia means to the persona, as a girl growing up in Singapore with family in Australia.

As the words step down across the page in five paragraphs, we are treated to a vivid picture of “a crowd of parrots/for a doorbell/squawking up like fireworks” (3), “dogs tearing up/to lick my face” (3), “the rasping smell of wheat/and the light, lemon tang of eucalyptus”(3), “Grandma and Grandpa/standing at the doorway”(3), a place immediately conjured in just a few spare lines. 

The poem is called “Opening Australia” and it immediately situates the poet as a person of two places grappling with the contradictions that that brings for identity. This Australia of intimate familial love and outback wildness is contrasted with the Australia the persona is expected to know by her Singaporean classmates – “as the Pinnacles, the Gold Coast/Ayers Rock, Melbourne/and the Sydney Opera House”, a tourist brochure Australia which she has, ironically, not encountered. 

The poem finally moves into a more interior space, the persona standing at home in front of the mirror, “stretching out my palm/before my face,/watching my eyes,/shuttered by my fingers…watching my own eyes,/burnt sienna brown,/watching my own eyes, blinking.” (5) The hand which had been stretched out to encompass the entire land of Australia, and which had been spread out too in the form of the poem, now overlays the far more domestic, far more intimate space of the persona’s face, in which her mixed heritage is also inscribed. 

Throughout the collection, this movement towards the internal and the domestic is performed again and again, as the poet interrogates grand questions of multiple identity – of being a mixed-race person with a life spanning Singapore and Australia, of being a poet and a Christian, of being a pastor’s wife and an artist in her own right. These roughly map onto the four sections of the book, Crossing Over, Juggling, Rearview Mirror and Hanging Around. 

As someone whose life also spans between Singapore and Australia and who has had to grapple with this multiple identity in my own poetry, I found an immediate intimacy to the poems in the first section describing many small but relatable moments of my own existence – from the despair of having a mooncake cut open by customs officials in Australia “armed with fresh gloves” (17) in “Mooncake”, to the fear and paranoia of being labelled a political troublemaker for having dissident views in tightly-controlled Singapore, where the persona overhears discussions of “who was most likely to be/the spy among the scholars” (15)  as described in “Smoke”. 

Symbolically, Lo places these two places side by side as two rivers of words in a play on form again in the poem “A Few Thoughts on Multiple Identity”. After the initial “family joke” of multiple identity is laid out in a prosepoem-like paragraph, two separate rivers, one in Asia, one in Australia, are described in two columns that may be read one after another or simultaneously. One is “like smooth liquid mud/lolloping,loll-lolloping” (6), the other “a river with water/wide choppy blue”. The two rivers run side by side on the page like two separate veins in two separate arms, perhaps following on from the previous poem’s form of an open hand. 

The figure that haunts the middle portion of the book, appearing again and again in various guises,  is the woman at the kitchen sink – a picture of almost retro domesticity which Lo nevertheless imbues with great creative power and dignity. In her Ars Poetica, she is given a centrality in the bold statement

Without the woman at the kitchen sink,

nothing is possible. (24)

Lo reminds her readers that “without the toilet-cleaning, clothes-washing, food-cooking, child-minding/kitchen-sink woman – nothing” is achieved in poetry. She becomes both a muse and an artist in her humble act of washing dishes, and Lo insists that this act in itself is poetic if the close attention is paid to it:

The sluice of water over cups and glasses,

the light thwack of plastic, the thud of good china. (25)

the accuracy of these words, the beauty of them, gives the “housewife” dignity (although there is a curiously unexamined retrograde assumption that this figure has to be female– what if men too were washing dishes?). 

She appears again as the grieving pastor’s wife receiving news about child abuse in the church in “A Pastor’s Wife Listens to Stories from the Royal Commission”. Here the dishes are imbued with cosmic significance

O my people     the lambs

left to the ravening wolves     what payment

could ever been      enough      how I wish

I could give       lives back      all of them

rinsed     stacked on the draining board     clean

(40)

where Lo “juggles” the roles of “singing her song” as the woman at the kitchen sink while contemplating the sins of those professing her own religion. As the dishes become a metaphor for the lives affected by abuse, the washing of them also becomes a kind of small, penitentiary act, a longing for absolution.

Finally, in the title poem of the book, Who Comes Calling? the woman at the sink is given a ferocious interiority, refusing the insistent calls of the poem that “came home to work on/me” (51)  with the bellows of “I am a housewife!…leave me alone!”(51) In this powerful poem, two parallel narratives form two side by side columns again, one of the poet working on the poem and one of the poem working on the poet. The poem behaves like a mischievous child, multiplying domestic tasks for the poet by making a mess of the house and crockery, “sprink(ling) five-spice and cumin on the kitchen floor” (51), “carefully paint(ing) shark fins on the wall with black vinegar and maple syrup” (51). Its rage is also that of the poet’s rage for an identity both vital and essential and too-often denied, but surprisingly compatible with the rest of her life, and also her faith, once admitted to its rightful place – around the kitchen table.

This second section is full of quietly moving poems about other women the poet encounters in her role as pastor’s wife, confronting the messy thick of things that make up a life – infertility, childbirth, abortion, with sensitivity and an unerring sense of compassion. “Friend” moved me to tears with its depiction of both the unfairness of God in blessing one woman with multiple children while another remained barren, as well as the unadulterated happiness of the former when the latter finally sends a photo of her daughter to her friend, having moved across the country and finally conceived. It is in these gifts of tiny glimpses of lives touched in the unpaid labour of being a pastor’s wife that meaning is wrought. 

It is against this backdrop of tiny triumphs and heartbreaks that the stand-out poem of the collection, “In Memory of Katrina Miles”, makes its appearance. Rightfully warranting a section to itself, it is a tour de force of grief, memory, horror and redemption in the face of an unspeakable act of domestic violence that resulted in the murder of a woman by her husband and the poet’s budding friendship with the victim, cut cruelly short by her death. 

Bookended by the simple act of a book (“The gifts of imperfection”) borrowed by the persona from her friend, and the same book borrowed again by the dead friend in an imaginary afterlife, the question “Friends?” echoes down the poem, unanswered until the very end, but not in this life. The weight of life unlived, a kindness reciprocated only after death, haunts the poem. It is a work of art that clearly cost the poet much to produce, a feat that anchors the collection.

The final section of the book, Hanging Around, has a slightly less cohesive quality to it in that its first half tends to feel a bit like a miscellany of things that didn’t quite fit in the previous sections, notably a few ekphrastic poems inspired by artworks by Jenny Potts Barr which feel a little out of place. 

However, there are still delights to be sampled in this section, particularly the incredibly moving “Still Searching”, which so sincerely depicts the love between a mother and son as a “primal dance” (86) of familiarity and unfamiliarity, a “wrestling match” (86) that the poet likens to the wrestling between Jacob and God “all night on the banks of the river: awake with longing and pain but fighting until he knows what he wants: the blessing” (86). It is bittersweet, as the mother senses the son’s imminent “departure”, but also names it a “gift”. 

It is such glimpses of these different kinds of love, familial, divine, transcendent, love of art and love of community that ultimately give this collection its otherworldly glow. These tiny moments of domesticity, collected, to quote the poet, like “tiny and large, smoth and spiked, dull and iridescent… So many delicate skeletons” (71), and displayed for us with exquisite craft and care. It is a hand offered in friendship, arms open for an embrace.

 
JUDITH HUANG is an Australian-based Singaporean author, poet, literary and science fiction translator, composer, musician, serial-arts-collective-founder, Web 1.0 entrepreneur and VR creator @ www.judithhuang.com. Her first novel, Sofia and the Utopia Machine, was shortlisted for the EBFP 2017 and Singapore Book Awards 2019. A three-time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, Judith graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. in English and American Literature and Language and taught creative and academic writing at the Harvard Writing Center and Yale-NUS College. She has published original work in Prairie Schooner, Asia Literary Review, Portside Review, Creatrix, The South China Morning Post, The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, QLRS and Cha as well as being a founding member of the Spittoon Collective and magazine in China, which currently has branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an, Dali, Tucson (AZ, USA) and Gothenburg (Sweden).

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn reviews Why We Are Here by Briohny Doyle

Why We Are Here

by Briohny Doyle

Penguin

ISBN:9781760899639

Reviewed by ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN
 
 
 
Clairaudience, says the Macquarie dictionary, is the alleged power of hearing voices of ‘spirits’, or sounds inaudible to normal ears. The protagonist of Why We Are Here is not a psychic, but she is an aspiring dog-whisperer, and her landscape is punctuated with muted strains of grief as she mourns the loss of her father and partner during the pandemic. In the absence of others, she ‘hears’ the voices of her loved ones. Her partner is deified in biblical pronouns, with ‘He’ and ‘His’ capitalised. ‘I never met Him then, but I love, love, love that child,’ she writes of her partner’s young self. Her father, also, has a distinct voice and character that weaves into BB’s narration. With her dog, a subtle inversion takes place. The name BB derives from the Spanish ‘Bebe’, which also means ‘baby’. BB’s voice is acerbic and tender, wryly observant, unmistakeably human. Baby the dog’s voice comes in staccato spurts of commands, evocative of the dialogue from The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay. The exception to this is a surprisingly affecting monologue by Baby at the conclusion of Why We Are Here. ‘I know that I was not always like this,’ the dog telegraphs.

The chorus of voices tell us that there’s no going back from what has changed, and we soon realise there is to be no clean break or end point to crisis, individual or collective. ‘We have all lost a lot and we are going to lose so much more,’ BB reflects. As the world goes into lockdown, the rituals that would accompany the process of mourning are attenuated, while the private business of grieving is prolonged and intensified by solitude. According to the Australian Funeral Directors Association, the pandemic has driven a dramatic shift in the way we mourn, with funeral directors reporting higher rates of cremation over burial and fewer public gatherings. At the same time, between 2021 and 2022, around 44 per cent of all funerals in Australia were live-streamed. The pandemic has changed everything from the way we work to the way we grieve. And yet despite its ongoing impact, the rate of infection no longer makes the news. It’s over, we’re told; we’re supposed to move on.

In her essay on aftermath for The Griffith Review, Doyle writes: ‘A voice-over might declare the time of after in which there is mourning but also simple happiness.’ At first, this seems to be what the move to Balboa Bay with Baby might represent for BB. A literal voice-over arrives from a loudspeaker at a nearby prison, reciting quotes from Simone Weil and Rainer Maria Rilke. Meanwhile, BB communes with dogs, consumes edibles, theorises with friends, has sexcapades with strangers, and sequesters herself in the faded glamour of the apartment. But it’s a short-term lease. BB is at sea in the midst of a pandemic and the bereavement of a parent and partner, and the block is primed for demolition, possibly subdivision into a grid of apartments.

Why We Are Here rails against uniformity, whether it be arbitrarily-drawn lockdown boundaries, golf courses, or the ‘grid of squares that used to be a university’ that is BB’s place of work. She cuts through the persistent ennui with wry humour. ‘The computer keeps the score,’ she writes, while noting her laptop has not been shut down for almost a year. Feedback with students, questions from her literary agent, news items including drug busts beside ‘a picture of titties’, the minutiae and ridiculousness of daily life brings a sense of levity to the novel’s ever-pressing conundrum: how to keep on going when the world has stopped. ‘I felt as though someone had put me in storage,’ BB reflects. Meanwhile, she explores bureaucracy’s attempts to contain bereavement, brushing up against the coldness of procedure. A friend’s call centre job results in a ‘canned’ direction for someone to call Lifeline, preceding an uncomfortable scene where a police officer takes BB’s statement about her partner. She examines the stilted formulas of catch-all crisis handling with humour: ‘In crisis? reads the sign at the really very good suicide spot by the ocean.’

Crisis is at the heart of Why We Are Here, where life as normal is no longer a possibility. Doyle’s wider body of work is concerned with turning points, from climate change to the changing rituals of adulthood, reading between the lines interrogating the unsaid in these collective experiences. In this novel, she looks at the impulse to cordon off intersecting emergencies. ‘Aftermath is a golf course laid over the site of a crisis,’ says the final passage, a scene which repeats the novel’s beginning, where BB is accosted for walking by the edge of the golf course. ‘The next few times, I defend myself with facts scavenged from the internet: the golf course is state land designated for public use. It’s stolen land on which we’re all trespassing.’ Here, the fictional inlet south of Silver City is evocative of Botany Bay, where the landing of Captain Cook and subsequently Governor Phillip was cataclysmic for the land’s owners. ‘The invasion had begun and the lives of the people from the Kamegal and Gwegal clans were never the same as violence and smallpox took its toll,’ writes scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson in the chapter ‘Bodies That Matter on the Beach’ in her book The White Possessive. ‘Despite the apparent promise of open access and use, public spaces are predicated upon the assumption of objectivity and rationality, which values but no longer explicitly marks or names whiteness or maleness.’

Such possessive logics are repeatedly challenged in Why We Are Here, which is concerned not only with the imploding spheres of public and private life, but also public and private land. In Doyle’s Meanjin essay ‘Money Shot: Golf and Public Land’, she writes: ‘A golf course reveals itself partially as a liminal space between the urban and the natural, the public and the private’, noting that almost half of Sydney’s 81 golf courses are on Crown land. An 18-hole course requires hundreds of millions of litres of water each year, and yet some privately owned golf clubs are a ‘green lung’, operating as nature reserves at the same time as playgrounds for the wealthy.

This tricky plurality persists in Why We Are Here, which navigates the shifting territory of the climate, biodiversity and health emergencies through a deeply funny, frank and multifaceted lens. At the heart of the novel is a dogged sense of commitment to hold on to what has been lost without the illusion of stasis. In an interview for The Garrett, Doyle says: ‘I had the voices of my father and my partner in my head all the time and I didn’t want to exorcise them. I wanted to keep them with me.’ These voices echo through Why We Are Here, creating a lyrical record of time.
 
 
ZOWIE DOUGLAS-KINGHORN lives in Tasmania. Her work has appeared recently in Overland, Island, Meanjin, The Age and others, and her essays and short stories have been awarded the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the Ultimo Prize for Young Writers. She is the previous editor of Voiceworks.