Daniel Sleiman reviews Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat

By Ellen Van Neerven

UQP

Reviewed by DANIEL SLEIMAN

 

 

In reading poetry, we look for those rare moments where a creative sequence of words thoroughly subjects our thinking, our feeling and our knowledge to a momentary realisation of reinterpreted or interrupted truth. There are many of those moments one finds while reading Ellen Van Neerven’s poetry collection Throat (2020). Take these three lines appearing in different poems. 

Take me to the back of your throat, I’ll stay
(p123)

Language is empty without ceremony
(p128)

Climate is our only bank
(p33)

Neerven can say so much with so little. In fact, that’s poetry’s appeal and the/ir craft in writing reflects the tightness and complexity of its form. They display a matured economy of expression but are as comfortable writing longer narrative-driven verse.

One of my favourite pieces in Throat is only ten words long and finds its place in the section called ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It is a title, which based on the section’s themes, could have easily worked as ‘Whiteness is always encroaching’.  

I was a perfect GF                                                                                    but sometimes I was black.
(p42-43)

These words are presented on two full pages, the otherwise emptiness or silence gives them so much more meaning. One is tempted to even continue the writing with their own insecure reflected prepositions in the empty space. There is so much more to be said, and those thoughts are instinctively taking place in the reader’s cognitive play. 

The conscious stylistic choices are also replete throughout the collection. The use of the Aboriginal flag along with text in ‘Logonliveon’ serves as a punctuating reminder, self-identification and reconstructed meaning to fit the changing moment of technology and living. A treaty is drafted and presented to the reader questioning the/ir relationship with the production of the book but also of white Australia—a status quo, often neglectful of Aboriginal voices on the question of sovereignty. Australia of course remains the only Commonwealth country without a treaty with its Indigenous population. 

‘Treaty’ presents the reader with so many questions to unpack. And Neerven does that poignantly. Hard truths demand hard questions. Neerven takes up the role not only of a poet but as an educator. The book comes with a reading list for ‘Whiteness is always approaching’. It includes writers like Ghassan Hage, Toni Morrison and Vivek Shraya. The white reader is undoubtedly urged to spend some time in this section. 

Expertand ‘White Excellenceare two poems that really hit the nail when it comes to white presumptions, white language and the critique of Black Excellence centred around the white gaze. 

Think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she’s an expert
don’t know how she got her expertise
(45)

There have been too many white ‘experts’ on what matters to Black people. This was especially noted during the #BLM movement where Australian TV panels got a lot of flak for not inviting any Black speakers on issues that directly affected them.

‘White Excellence’ comes in many forms but my favourites are the ones who cook for me. Listen, make space. Buy black books, buy black music. Never assume to know what we think or what we want.

(56)

T.S Eliot once wrote that poetry is ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. There is a measured concern in Neerven’s writing, whether it’s the devaluing of Indigenous languages, connection to land and water or gendering. It is a judgment both in critique and insight, but one that opens conversation rather than shutting it down. Whilst subtlety has always been the measure of art, there is nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade, and Neerven even titles one of their poems ‘Call a spade a spade’ where they take issue with the mealy mouthed semantics in our everyday political discourse. Don’t say ‘no worries’ say ‘I worry’.

In ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’ they write: 

We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
(58)

Blunt. 

As a queer Black writer, Neerven explores the sometimes-knotty intersection of sex and race politics. It is a lived experience, and it comes through in their words both genuinely, and in exploratory ways giving no defining answers but retaining our attention nonetheless vividly and honestly. In the section titled ‘I can’t wait to meet my future genders’ their poem ‘Body Flow’ imparts a resounding expectation or even resignation in describing their body. 

I guess it would be fitting to describe my body here.
Spidery
Flowy
nothing to hide
hips in the wrong place
unambitious arms
(67)

Neerven’s writing however is anything but unambitious, with Throat being her third published work following on from Heat and Light and Comfort Food. It is a work that tackles familiar themes, but one that is done with a uniquely sustained style and an undeniably fresh voice; a voice that one can return to on the page and in recitation and find added nuance and meaning and a reason to care. One cannot help but to find a certain affinity with the poems, and the writer, as one reads and rereads Throat.  It feels like a crush. 

In ‘Crushed Ellen writes: 

All my crushes
have been books
(98)

What a wonderful way to think about our relationship with books. With a red, sinuously coloured cover featuring lips, eyes, and with an evocative title in Throat many readers will feel attuned to Neerven’s latest work.

Notes

  1. T.S Eliot, ‘The function of criticism’ first appeared in the journal he founded, The Criterion, Vol 2, No 5, Oct.1923

 

DANIEL SLEIMAN is a Canberra based freelance writer. You can find his articles and works in Eureka Street, Crikey, The Quo, Meanjin, Peril, SBS and Overland.

Gabriela Bourke reviews The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

The Wandering

by Intan Paramaditha

ISBN

Harvill Secker

Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE

 

Reading Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering during a global pandemic and in a time where all but essential travel within state borders is forbidden is a strange experience. In the author’s acknowledgement included at the end of this book, Paramaditha writes that the novel was ‘…conceived in New York, published in Jakarta and written over the course of nine years as I moved across continents…’. The imposed stasis in which I read this book though forced a contemplation of some of the most pressing themes of the novel: how do power, position and privilege determine where you’re allowed to go, and perhaps even more importantly, where you’re allowed to stay? Paramaditha’s ‘choose-your-own-adventure’, second-person narrative invites you to jet-set, from Jakarta to New York to Berlin and beyond, the impetus of the story depending on the choices you make and those choices formed by your own desires, ambitions and longings. The Wandering considers what freedom means, in a world where a yearning for elsewhere underpins so many of our encounters, and where travel is borne of boredom for some, but terrible desperation for others.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s line ‘Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living’ occurred to me more than once while reading this novel. A create-your-own adventure story imparts a responsibility: of choosing right, making choices that will carry you to a satisfactory ending. In fact, the decision fatigue I was already feeling as a result of moving house in corona-times was exacerbated by the requirement of choosing a path through the narrative, and by my desire to ‘choose right’. My first foray brought me to an end all too quickly – an ending that did not bring me the satisfaction for which I yearned. Retracing my fictive footsteps and finding a new way resulted in a relationship with an old, white man who seemed to have an obsession with young, Asian women. How did I get here? I wondered, despairing, moving backwards again, hoping there was a better way, and then again, backwards and forwards, realising as I did so that usually a novel, like life, won’t give second chances. In life, death signifies the end of one’s story on earth, whereas The Wandering gifts its reader that fantasy of acting on hindsight. Unhappy with reaching an untimely demise, I return to the point where I can salvage my life. Unfulfilled by a relationship, I travel back, choose someone else, carry on once more.

So who has the freedom to make mistakes? This is the fundamental idea on which The Wandering is built. Who has, as Tiffany Tsao puts it on the back of the book, the freedom to wander the earth? Not Fernando, with whom the narrator flees the US upon Trump’s election in 2016. Not Meena, the narrator’s friend and neighbour whose freedoms are curtailed by geographic and financial borders. What about the narrator herself, who has agreed to a lifetime of wandering, denied forever the opportunity to return home? Paramaditha’s commentary on the nature of globalisation and neo-liberal consumer-capitalism is both thoughtful and provocative. The realisation that the ‘you’ of the story and the ‘you’ who is me reading the text are chasms apart in terms of the restrictions placed on our passports is discomforting. The Faustian pact on which the story is premised forces a consideration of other real-life pacts made by people bargaining for their freedom as borders are erected and both the freedom to move and the freedom to stay is forbidden to all but a privileged few.

The Wandering poses questions, rather than providing answers. The encounters between people and places may bring home the sad realities of life for many, but somehow Paramaditha retains a sense of playfulness and spontaneity that makes this novel fantastically readable. For a novel premised on a Faustian pact and peppered with allusions to Greek mythology and Indian philosophy, sections like the blow imbue liveliness into references that otherwise might be slightly stuffy.

‘How will I be able to reach you when you’re travelling?’ asks Demon Lover. He looks despondent.
You stare at him, stupefied.
‘For God’s sake! Stop snivelling. Since when does a devil need a visa?’(6)

The Qur’an quoting, Cerberean-chihuahua toting Hecate is another good example of this novel’s light-hearted reimaginings of well-known myths and symbols, which provide a necessary counterpoint to the grimmer elements of the story.

In leafing through the book in readiness to write this review, some names and places leapt out at me that I did not encounter on my first reading. This is surprising, as I was diligent in my attempts to locate and travel along all of the offered narratives. I’m interested by these stories I’ve not read, and interested to consider why I’ve not reached them. Are some strains of the narrative too far out of my comfort zone that I subconsciously avoided them? Is not reaching these stories indicative of some truth about my own identity, about the limitations of myself and where I’m willing to go, what opportunities I’m willing to run with?

Paramaditha’s novel allows for a uniquely individual experience, and one which might be borne from the reader’s cultural, financial, generational or other background. An individual’s experience of this book is likely to be as diverse as one’s experience of the world – an admirable feat, and one in which it’s worth immersing oneself. The Wandering may have had some teething issues, but it’s strong enough, creative enough, joyful enough and certainly ambitious enough that I’m already looking forward to Paramaditha’s next book.

 

GABRIELA BOURKE is a sessional academic and doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. Her work explores the representation of nonhuman animals in contemporary literature. Her work appears in Southerly and Mascara Literary Review.

Dave Clark Reviews Case Notes by David Stavanger

Case Notes

By David Stavanger

UWA Publishing

ISBN 978-1-76080-119-9

Reviewed by DAVE CLARK

I recently attended a training course that looked into depression. As I sat, sipping on an Earl Grey tea, the presenter went on an acronym spree, throwing them around like a farmer with an excess of seeds. I was beginning to feel lost with the terminology when a lady across the room called out.
     ‘None of this will help the people I work with.’
We all paused in wonder. The presenter, flustered by what they felt was an unnecessary interruption, ploughed ahead with the phrasing that he knew, continuing to lock many of us out of the discussion. The lady threw her hands up in the air and called out again.
     ‘This isn’t how people describe their experience of mental illness.’
Sweat pooling on his brow, the presenter was now the one who seemed lost.
     ‘Well, um, you’ll have to find ways of explaining it to them,’ before reverting back to jargon that put the barriers back up.

Working in the field of mental health as a counsellor, I have seen for many years how the language used around mental health can block people out of their own experience. It constrains them, shames them. People can be reduced to a number, a label, a stereotype, a problem, an illness. Their find themselves on the other side of the door, locked out of their own story.

David Stavanger’s latest collection of poetry, Case Notes (UWA Publishing, 2020), picks up a crowbar at the outset and pries open the door for more than a peek inside. As the poems unfold, there are times where his works cut open a hole in the wall and leads the reader through, bypassing dehumanising phraseology and into an intimate, raw and illuminating insight of lived experience with mental illness.

The book of thirty-seven poems steps immediately into the impact of bi-polar depression, suicide, medication and electroconvulsive therapy, revealing them with wording that puts skin and bones back onto mental health. About medication, he writes,
     ‘They taste like a mixture of chalk and talk shows’
     (p23)
About the complexity of depression, we see that ‘he wants guarantees that can’t be given’ (p12) and that ‘Certainty is the strangest thing’ (p23).

No hard-and-fast words that package it up neatly. Instead, Stavanger steps beyond bland phrasing and poignantly describes an intricate world of ambiguity. His poem, ‘Electric Journal’, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Newcastle Poetry Prize, sees the writer trying to keep hold of his mind. Stavanger is able to breathe words into corners of mental illness that are usually, at best, misunderstood, and often, disregarded.

Halfway through the book is a poem called ‘P is for Power,’ listing roles starting with ‘P’ who hold influence. Patient is not one of them, and Stavanger uses his writing to claim some of his power back, and in doing so, giving some to the reader. This is a compelling skill and one that I was moved by throughout the collection.

The works not only deal with mental illness. They pivot into balding, bingo, fading relationships with fathers and being a father to his son. And yes, dogs. Dogs are mentioned over fifty times in Case Notes, including a discussion between the writer and his dog in ‘Dog Minding.’ Who’s the writer and who’s the dog is up in the air and adds to the enjoyment of the piece.

I found a trilogy of poems about his relationship with his Dad especially touching. The lines

‘…but sometimes
there’s no way
to resurrect the living’
(p69)

will surely strike home for anyone who has found it difficult to relate with a parent and the regret over what has been, and what continues to be, when looking at those figures that raised us. There is a tenderness expressed in these writings, lamenting that it is possible to have a pulse and yet still not be fully alive.

Another topic to explore in his works is the one around toxic masculinity. ‘How to be an Alpha Male’ highlights the destructive façade of the social script fed to many of us men over the years. It is an area that needs to continue to be discussed and pulled apart, and I would be interested to hear more of it from Stavanger’s satirical perspective.

Not only is there clever pivoting of topics throughout the collection, Stavanger uses an array of forms – free verse, lyric, cut-and-creatively-paste from discussion forums, poetic memoir, prose – to keep the reader’s interest up. And throughout is a playful, wonderfully absurd use of language. At no point did I find the humour degrading his experience of mental illness. Rather, the black humour and flat-out whimsy provided a clever counterbalance to the weight of what he addressed and left me laughing at regular intervals.

In the poem ‘Mental Health Week,’ he writes:
     ‘If you tell them such things
     they will tie you to the nearest chemist.’
    (p61)

There’s this outstanding line in ‘Male Patterns:’
     ‘In the savannah of middle-class suburbs
     you seldom see a bald man lose a street fight
     with a wheelie bin’
    (p81)

And also this cracker – ‘I got into $ for the art’ (p76).
These turns of phrase occur at a pleasing rate and caught me off guard every time. I dare anyone to read his glossary of terms at the back of the book and not burst into a blazing smile.

Each line in this book is well-crafted, bumping you further along a path you didn’t know you were walking down, but glad you did traverse. In a recent interview with Jackie Smith (Smith 2020), David spoke about how he wrote some poems as an unreliable narrator. To my reading, this cleverly reflected the variability we find in our own minds, regardless of the state of our mental health, sometimes stumbling along to who-knows-where. Case Notes does this with deliberate vulnerability and incisive wit.

I agree with Ali Whitelock’s (Rochford Street Review 2020) assessment of the book, that it gets inside you and reminds you of your humanity. In a world where stigma and acronyms and labels predominantly fill up the experience around mental illness, this work pushes that aside to reveal a beating heart and a mind fighting hard to get itself back. It brings clarity and gives an approachable language to complexity. That is a welcomed feat. And while he says in interviews that he does not write for awards or his peers, it is no surprise that four of the poems in this collection have been shortlisted for prizes over the years. Unsought-for but worthy recognition for one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.

The final three poems in the collection release some of the pressure built up from a tightly coiled selection, showing us an author finding hope, recovering in the waters of the ocean and a sauna. He remarks at the start of the final poem, ‘New Age,’
     ‘We dream, we heal, we are reborn’
     (p112)

To capture in poetic form the struggle of mental illness and the steps towards healing is an achievement. To capture it in a way that leaves the reader wanting more of it is a sign of a collection worth reading, recommending and reflecting upon. And whether it was Stavanger’s intention or not, this work provides one more key to the doors that usually lock people out of their own experience when it comes to mental health. Thanks to the poems in Case Notes, the barriers of stigma and acronym-filled-labels are one step closer to being undone.
 
 
Notes
Rochford Street Review, 2020, Reaching inside you: Ali Whitelock reviews ‘Case Notes’ by David Stavanger, https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2020/09/03/ali-whitelock-reviews-case-notes-by-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Smith, Jackie 2020, Exploring ‘Case Notes’: an Interview with David Stavanger, https://jackiesmithwrites.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/exploring-case-notes-an-interview-with-david-stavanger/. Accessed 2/10/20
Stavanger, David 2020, Case Notes, UWA Publishing, Australia.
 
 
DAVE CLARK in an emerging writer-poet who does his living and breathing in Alice Springs. He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to silenced stories. His works have appeared in Verdant, Adelaide, Glow and read on 8CCC and ABC Radio.
Twitter: @DaveClarkWriter

Megan Cheong reviews Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

Kokomo

by Victoria Hannan

Hachette

ISBN 9780733643323

Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
 

In lockdown, distance regained some of its former authority. For six of the last twelve months, many Melburnians have lived, worked and didn’t work within a five kilometre radius of their home. My parents live 22 kilometres away, and though there isn’t a great tradition of hugging in my family, I spent much of lockdown longing to see my two-year-old wrap his arms around his grandfather’s neck.

I think it was this particular longing which made me feel, acutely, the distance between Mina and Elaine in Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo.

‘I guess you know why I’m here,’ she’d said the day before as she’d pulled out a wooden chair to sit opposite Elaine at the table.
‘Why don’t you tell me,’ Elaine said, her voice taut.
‘Mum…’ Mina studied Elaine’s face, her long thin nose, her cool blue eyes; she looked older, tired, just as sad. She wanted to hug her mother, but instead she reached over and put her hand on Elaine’s hand. Her skin felt cold like paper. They sat there for a minute, their hands touching. ‘Are you –’ Mina started, but Elaine stood.
(28)

It has been seven years since Mina left to work in London, and 12 years since Elaine last stepped out the front door of the family home. When Elaine is seen out on the street, Mina is called and immediately flies back to Melbourne full of questions that Elaine seems to have no intention of answering.

Across the road, the Chengs offer a different model of family life. Both Kira and her mother, Valerie, wrap their arms around Mina when they first see her after her long absence. Their house smells like ‘fabric softener on just-washed sheets’ (10) and glows golden, ‘warm light beaming from all the windows’ (33). The contrast between Elaine’s cool reception and Valerie’s garrulous welcome is so stark that I am briefly worried about the dimensionality of the characters. I am tired of reading mothers whose lives seem to begin and end with motherhood, mothers like a stain on the intricate tapestry of the protagonist’s past. Then, gazing at a family portrait of the Chengs in matching red velvet outfits, Mina is struck by a feeling, a ‘want’ that ‘growl[s] and stir[s] deep down inside her’ (11), a surge of unmistakably sexual desire that interrupts my mounting indignation about the prevalence of flat literary mothers.

This kind of uninhibited swerve characterises the acuity of Hannan’s depiction of Mina’s psyche as a tortuous network of lacunae and hunger. Though it is a rare pleasure to read a novel set in Melbourne, and so to be able to fill out the details of the brown brick porches and the birdsong, Kokomo is deeply rooted in the psychological, presenting readers with a highly filtered version of reality. As Mina circles in and around her childhood home, her thoughts range from Melbourne to London, past to present, love to sex, cycling endlessly back to Jack, her co-worker and the object of the desire that permeates the novel. She tugs compulsively at the screen of her phone, waiting for a message, some kind of contact, some sign of reciprocal feeling:

She looked at the message to Jack again. Delivered. Ignored. She knew his phone was never out of reach, that he slept with it under his pillow, that he looked at it when he woke up, in meetings, constantly. He must’ve seen her message. He must’ve. This was the longest they’d gone without talking since they started working together just over a year ago. She reread the message. Maybe it was too cold.
I’m too cold, she thought. I’m a bitch. I should’ve said something cute, something sexy. It should’ve been a small x, two? One big, one small. I’ve fucked it all up.
(98-9)

The swarm of assumptions and images that rush in to fill Jack’s silence and the way in which Mina obsesses over the orthography of her message is uncomfortably familiar. In the moments between Mina and her phone, Hannan captures the work we put into constructing ourselves with embarrassing clarity, yet something beyond flirtation is at stake here. For Hannan, the social media age is one of distance and longing. The distance between who we are and the person we carefully curate in text messages and posts only adds to the distance between me and you. In Kokomo, social media is a form of surveillance, everyone watching each other without ever reaching out, the ‘double tap…an easy substitute for friendship’ (64).

The distance between what is real and what is imagined is situated at the focal point of the novel. As well as struggling to rediscover the self that was swallowed up by the tragedies of her past, Mina works hard to reach Elaine, the Elaine buried under years of motherhood. And far from neglecting the character of the mother, Hannan makes a poignant centrepiece of Elaine’s life in a way that reminds me of all the stories and all the living stored up in every one of us. All of it within reach if you just reach out.

 

MEGAN CHEONG lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is currently working as an editor and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be found in Overland and Farrago.

Katelin Farnsworth reviews Stone Sky, Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe

Stone Sky Gold Mountain

by Mirandi Riwoe

UQP

Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH

‘Meriem hopes that her wounds too will mend, that her jagged edges and disfigured depths will fade. Disappear. That one day she is restored enough to abide a loved one’s touch upon her skin’

I like stories that are raw, unflinching in their portrayals. Stories that pull you apart in some way, stretch you out, move you slowly, deeply, viscerally.

Dirt, sweat, rust, red, blisters, gullies, scrubland, blood. Cicadas and birdsong. These are some of the arresting images Stone Sky Gold Mountain conjures up. Bristling with poetry, almost every line in the book cuts in, places you somewhere else. Unsettling and thought-provoking, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is an accomplished piece of literary writing from a controlled and highly talented author. Indeed, Riwoe has many awards under her belt already, with a Stella Prize shortlisting for her novella The Fish Girl (Seizure, 2017) and a recent The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award for Stone Sky Gold Mountain.

We begin with Ying, and her brother, Lai Yue. Arriving in North Queensland, to a Chinese settlement, the two siblings hope to earn enough money to travel back home and buy back their enslaved siblings. It is 1877, the Gold Rush era. The camp they live in prickles with violence, teeming with gut-wrenching horrors and racism. Heavy but yet not difficult to read, Riowe is careful with her displays of racism; the writing is never didactic or moralising; instead the prose feels free and honest, acknowledging a harsh and sick reality without trying to glorify or shock for shock’s sake. In male dominated goldfields, Ying disguises herself as a boy, terrified that the truth will be uncovered.

Atmospheric, bringing to light an aspect of history in colonial Australia that’s often forgotten or simply disregarded, the story, particularly at the start, progresses slowly and took me time to digest and understand. But I am better for it. This isn’t a book that should be read quickly, although the writing is lush, full, and deep with nuanced observations. I think this is a that book yearns to be sat with, to linger within you, right inside your body, to be felt. Riwoe is one of those special writers; creating worlds and putting words together that truly feel transformative as you read, allowing you to uncover new layers of understanding all the time.

Strongly character driven and sparser on plot, the narrative shifts between three perspectives (Ying’s, Lai Yue’s, and Meriem’s). Lai Yue finds work as a carrier on an overland expedition; in Maytown, Meriem is a white girl, disliked and excluded by the town, working as a maid for local sex worker, Sophie. Ying befriends Meriem, finding a joyful space away from her brother, who is desperately unhappy and self-destructive. While an unlikely friendship, Ying and Meriem strike up a close bond. The relationship between Ying and Meriem was a pleasure to read, touching in its sentimentality without being cloying or over the top. While their verbal communication is light, they communicate in other ways; gifting food and sharing what little they can with one another. It was these scenes I loved these most, the gentleness the two of them shared was striking:

‘Merri smiles, revealing pink gums…Ying smiles back at her, her face softening into the tree. The air is muggy with the threat of rain and smoke…they listen to the comfortable dollop of a fish breaching the water’s surface, and along the river’s shingle banks, the branches of the paperbarks reach for each other and entwine’ (chapter 25, location 2160)

Ying also finds comfort working for Jimmy, a local shop owner. Each character in the novel is rendered convincingly:

‘Jimmy has the grace of a crane, his soft face is long and his hair thins a little on top. Behind his spectacles his eyes are kind. He doesn’t allow spitting, smoking or swearing in the shop, and always insists on a washed face, clean hands’ (chapter 10, location 1064)

The tone and mood of the novel is deployed seemingly effortlessly. The language is unpretentious but always vivid, original, captivating. All three characters wrestle with their own demons in varying ways. When a serious crime takes place in the town of Maytown, suspicion falls on Ying. The book shows us the best and worst of people, culminating in an exciting and well-paced finish.

Stone Sky Gold Mountain
is consistently powerful, filled with tension. It’s well-paced and readable, despite its heavy themes of pain and loss. Feelings of connection and displacement are dealt with unflinchingly, and we are drawn intimately into the characters, into their emotions and challenging circumstances.

Significant questions are explored throughout – questions of identity and self, belonging, gender, resettlement, and migration. A destabilising story, the novel breaks down many of the dominant narratives we know about the nation called Australia, giving space to marginalised voices and examining ‘us and them’ notions. The narrative suggests history has not been accurately understood or documented, and as you read, questions rise to the surface: How far has this nation really come in its own prejudices? Do we know the full story? Can ever know the full story? In subtle terms, it poses the question: Do we, white Australia, even want to know the full story? Do we care?

‘Perhaps he doesn’t have loved ones across the ocean far from here, waiting for him. Perhaps they are lost. She has heard of her countrymen who have fled violence and homelessness to come to this place. But to not return! She’s never considered the idea’ (chapter 10, location 1029).

Without sanctimony, the book asks the reader to examine their prejudices, to consider the stories they’ve been told, and the stories that are still continually shared and perpetuated.

History, or we what know of history, does not always tell the truth, is not always accurate. In Australia, stories go unheard all the time, unacknowledged, pushed to the sidelines, forgotten about. With a refusal to listen, Australia is land of hidden layers, unheard narratives, and narrow view points. It’s these hidden layers the book is occupied with, giving voice to the unvoiced, making space for the those who’ve rarely been given such room.

As Mindy Gill writes in Sydney Review of Books ‘there is the way things have been told, and the way things were’. In other words, in this colonised land, single perspectives become the only perspective. Stone Sky Gold Mountain deftly challenges these skewed angles, asking us to reconsider what we think is true, and why we think it’s true. In doing so, the novel unpacks and disrupts our notion of this country and its brutal past (and ongoing present). This is brave writing, and Riwoe allows breathing space for the reader to sit between words, to consider what has been left absent, and imagine from there.

Riwoe steers the narrative ahead confidently; the writing is finely structured, with intricate detail and lyrical descriptions. An acute book of extreme strength, from its depictions of the land, to its layered characters, readers are invited to break open stale ideas and pre-conceived notions. With depth and insight, Riwoe digs into structural racism in a novel that I suspect will reveal more with each subsequent read. Rendered in enthralling and exquisite detail, Stone Sky Gold Mountain gives us a way in to realties we may never before have encountered in our reading. It deserves all of its awards.
 
 
Notes
Gill, Mandy, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/riwoe-stone-sky-gold-mountain/
 
 
KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer from the Dandenong Ranges. She has been published in Overland, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer and Award Winning Australian Writing 2015 and 2017. Her manuscript ‘Found Again’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.

Miriam Wei Wei Lo reviews Entries by Prithvi Varatharajan

Entries

by Prithvi Varatharajan

ISBN: 9780648511632

Cordite

Reviewed by MIRIAM WEI WEI LO

Reading Prithvi Varatharajan’s Entries, is like tuning in to an erudite conversation. At first my brain struggles. Then, like a middle-aged woman on the tenth day of exercise boot-camp, I suddenly find myself keeping up.

Twelve poems in, I’m not only keeping up, but I’m transfixed by a moment of connection in the (Proustian) prose poem “Speak, Memory”:

Writing memory transforms a beautifully shifting thought-picture into a static one, there for you to re-read but not to re-remember. It preserves memory while at the same time killing it. (15)

Varatharajan is discussing the fluidity of pre-written memory, of how it “seems to be fluid, letting you remember the same event in slightly different ways each time you recall it”. This may seem impossibly intellectual (like, oh, historiography) but I’ve had just that experience when I’ve written down memories of my own. Writing them down seems to kill, or at least fix, them in some way – like a dead butterfly pinned and mounted in a display box.

Other points of connection emerge, like the star-points of a constellation. Before I dot them out, I will venture some comments on form. Most of Varatharajan’s ‘entries’ are prose poems. There is the occasional foray into free verse (playing with many different line lengths), a couple of odes (one very cryptic), and one ghazal (that keeps the radif and dispenses with the qafia). The prose poems push at the ‘poem’ end of the boundary – there is a very deliberate prosaic-ness to their rhythm and diction as well as a palpable resistance to the kind of closure one often expects in a poem: the kind exemplified in, say, the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. This resistance to closure is also a resistance to synthesis and evaluation – this gives many of the prose poems the feel of an unedited documentary: reading them feels like watching live-stream footage from someone’s webcam. Except there are two crucial differences: first, these episodes include interior monologue; second, these episodes of footage are curated. They are carefully snipped-out portions.

The points of connection that emerge for me from Varatharajan’s curated entries include a sense of ambivalence towards cosmopolitanism. The poem “Inner City Reflection” submerges the reader, via the body of the narrator, in a pool of sparkling light – the inner-city lap pools of a thousand hotels come to mind – as our thoughts are directed to the sameness of the global urban landscape: “I’m in an everywhen of the central business district” (22). Varatharajan is summoning up metaphors for the cosmopolitan urban professional experience – an experience he participates in, like a swimmer entering a pool; but also steps out from, troubled. Varatharajan keeps disturbing the smooth aesthetic surface of cosmopolitan life in subsequent poems:

I was put off, in that group, by the pride taken in an appearance of effortless cosmopolitanism; I say ‘the appearance of’ because I’m sure it’s effortful – going through complex visa and immigration processes, not to mention the daily difficulty of communication in second and third languages (“Sombre Reflections” 71).

Bonny Cassidy, in her introduction to this book, highlights the ambivalence of Varatharajan’s poetic posture and celebrates it as “the most honest position” (xiv). In this instance, the ambivalence is fuelled by tension between the desire to obey the conventions of cosmopolitan etiquette and the desire to achieve more meaningful human contact.

Love and death twine their way through this collection in a double-dance of presence and absence – appearing occasionally as muted erotic touch: “I think of the exact weight and shape of you” (“Love Poem” 4); manifesting in the dead bodies of birds (“Bird Death” 5); materializing in gestures of friendship: “Julene in Spain says next time I’m in Europe she’ll visit me in whichever country I’m staying in” (“Ode to European Friends” 36); and receding through loss: “A Literary Shadow” documents the entry and exit of a significant connection – the South Indian writer Ashokamitran.

Travel is a constant reference. There are major and minor movements. The major movements take place between cities: Turin, Chennai, Adelaide, Melbourne, Istanbul – each of these places, and others, are captured in unique poems of anecdote and description (including “Opera Diary”, “A Literary Shadow”, “City Selves”, and “Nazim Hikmet and Radiohead in Cihangir”). The minor movements are between a succession of share-houses – “(Im)permanence” is a particularly helpful exploration of the difficulties of shared accommodation.
Some of Varatharajan’s most resonant poems, for me, are those that document minority experiences. I admire Varatharajan’s exquisite attention to the detail of these experiences:

The music is folky with paradoxical touches of darkness and whimsy. There’s no-one else like me there, so of course, I wear my difference heavily; of course, I berate myself for being so self-conscious: get over it, idiot (“Identity Anecdote” 23).

I don’t often come across representations of non-white traveller anxiety, so I am grateful for this, from a poem recounting experiences in Budapest:

I’m not sure where my defensiveness has come from … The Hungarian Prime Minister addressed the Viennese parliament today, and said Hungary was not interested in replicating Western Europe’s ‘failed’ experiment with multiculturalism by letting in non-European migrants. That is probably preying on my mind (“Incident in a Café, Incident in a Supermarket” 38-9).

I laughed out loud, with a sense of déjà vu, at this:

What’s to be done about being in the margins, since I find myself here all the time, even if I tell myself, some years, that I’m not going to keep putting myself in that position through my obstinate self-identifications? All that’s left to do now is to get comfortable, put my feet up in this virtual armchair, and find incisive perspectives on the world beyond the margin – perspectives that only a life in the margins could provide. Or – another option – suppress thinking about the margin and the mainstream, because this is after all just a story we tell ourselves, even if that story appears grounded in lived experience (“Occupying the Margins” 52).

I have chafed, as a writer, at the restrictions of the ‘Majority Gaze’ which seems to want to position me, always, in terms of my Asian-Australian ethnicity; with less interest in the many other dimensions of identity I currently occupy (‘housewife’, for example, seems particularly unworthy). I am anxious not to frame Varatharajan in a similarly restrictive manner; his work certainly resists any easy ‘ethnic’ categorisation; and yet, ironically, I am drawn to his poems about family, precisely for the deftness and honesty with which he handles the ethnic dimension of minority experience:

Last night I recorded a conversation in the kitchen … We dig up some dirt from the past. I describe my feeling of being embarrassed by our religious culture as a teenager, being embarrassed to bring my friends home because of this (nearly all my friends were white); I ask whether they were aware of this embarrassment, and if so, how it made them feel. In their answer they describe some of the other things that me and my brother did that were upsetting to them, which are heart-rending to hear; they relate to how we characterised their way of speaking English to schoolfriends we brought home. I say, ‘That must have been hurtful.’ It goes on like this for a while. It’s like a family therapy session (“Memories in the Kitchen” 62-3).

Entries is not an easy read. I confess there are a couple of poems that completely eluded me (“Apperceptions” and “Informal Poetics”) but it is still worthy of close attention. Other readers might like to mine it for its range and depth of literary references. Fans of arthouse films might find their own points of connection too. Readers looking for ‘Australia’ will find it here – in ironic refractions. I’ll conclude with one of them, from “The Australian Bicentenary, and a Memory”:

A friend of mine today recalled how he sat in a cinema in St Louis as a young boy (in 1989 or 1990), watching a selection of footage from the Australian Bicentenary … Going to see the Bicentenary was his father’s attempt to get his son enthused about the country they’d soon be moving to. As he was describing the scene to me – a childhood memory that seemed incongruous (You watched the Australian Bicentenary in a cinema in St Louis?) – I warmed a little, thinking: ‘Ah, this is real. I’m writing about something real.’ (50)

 

MIRIAM WEI WEI LO is intrigued by complexity and seduced by simplicity. Simultaneously. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia. Find her online @miriamweiweilo (Instagram).

 

Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Sreedhevi Iyer’s The Tiniest House of Time

The Tiniest House of Time

By Sreedhevi Iyer

Wild Dingo Press

9781925893069

Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE

“How will you remember her?”
“As someone who knew so much, and kept it well hidden.” (316)

Sreedhevi Iyer’s The Tiniest House of Time is a book for our time, examining as it does the profound silences that a family lives with, silences embedded in a history of displacement, and the uprooting from what was considered home. In tracking hidden and unspoken histories, of which there is little written record, the author has written something of a psychoanalytically focused and politically acute narrative, as she explores through her finely structured novel, an evocation of generational trauma across migratory continental space. With much sensitivity and intelligence, Iyer delineates the colonial legacy of race relations, and how this legacy weighs down on those societies still navigating them.

The novel begins with Sandhya, who has lived and worked in Melbourne for some time, returning to Kuala Lumpur to be at the bedside of her beloved grandmother, Susheela. It is clear that Sandhya’s departure from Malaysia some years before has been a painful one, with unresolved and awkward family issues emerging as the narrative proceeds.

The scope of the novel, moving as it does from contemporary Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s during the Reformasi period, and back to colonial Burma in the 1930s, allows themes of recurrent events, of the emotional resonance of love and terror to ricochet over time and place. The structure of the novel is very effective in the way it allows Susheela’s story in particular to emerge in a piecemeal fashion, and to connect it to the growing crisis in the life of Sandhya. Iyer’s skill as a writer is displayed in the way she employs slightly different techniques in the Burma and Kuala Lumpur sections without in any way sacrificing the overall unity of the novel. Somehow, she has managed to pull off a sense in the Burmese sections of both a dreamlike yet naturalistic portrayal of an Indian family’s life in what was then Rangoon. With careful delineation, Iyer, with exceptional clarity and restraint, floods a number of events rich with incipient trauma. Scenes that appear to render the calm placidity of family life, transform into incidents so utterly terrifying that they resonate as a kind of collective and generational stigmata.

The Sastri family is introduced as living a comfortable life, centred on traditional and domestic ritual, in British occupied Rangoon, where the family patriarch works as a Postmaster. His daughter, Susheela, displays a strong relationship with places of ritual, from the family domestic shrine to the imposing structure of the Shwedagon, and inhabiting such spaces becomes for her a source of strength and comfort for the rest of her life.

The security of the family soon appears to be illusory as world events overtake their lives. Being part of the Indian population in Rangoon, a liminal presence between the British colonisers and the subjugated and increasingly restive Burmese, they become a highly visible target for communal violence. A heartbreaking sense of carefully insisted upon racial divisions is highlighted through Susheela’s friendship with Zaw, a Burmese boy, a friendship which results in his public humiliation. The first indication of imminent conflagration is presented in a devastatingly restrained manner in a paragraph describing why Susheela was now staying home from school:

She had been forced to stop school the previous year, but not due to poor results….But one day, the school bus was stopped mid-trip on Campbell Road. All the passengers had to get out. Susheela climbed down with her friends and stood by the side of the road. They watched the Burmese men burn it, with the Indian driver still inside. Since then, Susheela stayed home.. given to sudden quietude that only a trip to the Shwedagon would dispel. (161/2)

The novel also addresses the difficulties and constraints of decision making when the world as one knows it is on the brink of collapse. With the Japanese about to attack as World War Two accelerates, Postmaster Sastri, confounded by his loyalty to, and pressure from, the British, makes two fatal decisions. On seeming impulse, he unaccountably decides to take the family to the Shwedagon, when reports of large-scale trouble are rife, and when the streets are mysteriously empty of the bustle of the everyday. The scenes of their return home from the pagoda are terrifying, and result in family tragedy. His second decision, to delay his family’s departure by boat to India, leads to them joining a very large contingent of refugees who are forced to make the long trek by foot to the relative safety of Assam:

Trudge, shuffle, clink, flap, wail. These were the only noises Susheela could hear from crying babies to clanging pots and pans. From morning, when she stood up from her dry, baked earth, till night, when Father decided they would stop, along with some other families, and rest under a tree. (194/5) and:
Later, Susheela would have no memory of actually reaching Mandalay, the place of a thousand temples. She only would recall reaching a camp with the multitudes who swallowed space till the horizon. (200)

The sections of The Tiniest House of Time set in the Kuala Lumpur of the 1990s reflect the vitality and random topography of a large city. The almost dreamlike Burmese sections here have a different quality of urgency, as the writing becomes more incidental, incremental, and grungy in effect. Just as the narrative in Rangoon is underpinned by Susheela’s relationship with Zaw, and his growing political activism, Sandhya’s engagement with the politics of Reformasi, and the rise and fall of Anwar Ibrahim, is set in motion by her relationship with Faisal. A charismatic student leader, intellectually gifted, multilingual and well-connected, he appears to be too good to be true. A couple of incidents reveal his darker side, and during a massive demonstration, where the crowd is bombarded with water cannon, he is arrested and disappears from Sandya’s life, although he makes a brief and telling re-appearance late in the novel.

The Kuala Lumpur scenes sweep beautifully over the messiness and camaraderie of student life, the excitement of widening political awareness and subsequent disillusionment. The novel describes well the excitement, the current passing through the body, which can accompany political engagement:

She played with the percussion of the movement, acutely aware of being present, being relevant. The thrill of operating underground, of voicing in the streets what they normally shared in whispers. (238)

A crucial event occurs when Sandhya is travelling on a train, after going out to buy Faisal a birthday present. Just as Iyer excelled in presenting scenes of imminent violence in the Rangoon sections, in this episode thugs roam the carriages, shouting “Anwar or Mahathir?”, and brutally beating those who give the wrong answer. Sandhya manages to escape, but in the aftermath, Faisal appears to be more taken by the drama of the event vulnerability, its moral implications, and Sandhya’s vulnerability.

In the wash up, Sandhya is expelled for taking part in the demonstration that sees Faisal arrested. His mother categorically rules out any future marriage, and Sandhya in great distress returns to the family home. With Susheela, she goes to the local temple, and together they partake in ritual catharsis, as Sandhya, with great strength brought upon by overwhelming grief, smashes 108 coconuts. .(prologue, 278)

The Tiniest House of Time is an illuminating portrayal of the Indian diaspora across decades, with a sense of non-belonging, of always being a foreigner. Susheela in particular takes comfort in what remains in any situation, because no matter what difficulty, it cannot compare with the embodiment of the earlier apprehension of the ineluctable nature of trauma. The long trek to India, the disease and filth, the bombing, the sudden disappearance of her Anglo-Indian companion, Stuart, who attaches himself to her family, remain images which can erupt painfully at any time. The contemporary scenes where Sandhya, and a number of family members, visit Susheela in hospital provide the ballast and essential reference point for Sandhya’s growing understanding of forgotten episodes in family history, and provide her with the determination to seek out further information in Burma. These sections could have been shortened, with a few too many family scenes, well written as they are. However, this is a minor issue in what is an illuminating, warm-hearted and courageous novel; a moving tribute to those many who have been caught in a migratory impulse not of their own making.

 
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020).

Paul Scully reviews A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina by Paul Kane

A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina

By Paul Kane

White Crane Books

ISBN 978-0-648337-11-9

Reviewed by PAUL SCULLY

“Paul Kane is a poet, critic, scholar and librettist” who splits his time between Australia (principally rural Victoria) and the USA and is well-known in the former as a driving force in the Mildura Writers Festival, along with Tina Kane, a textile artist and conservator who “has published numerous essays, translations and reviews” in both countries.  “Tina died in Australia on 25 July 2015” after a two-year battle with motor neurone disease.

“The road I walk is one of sadness/ …. /Every time my step falls upon the road, I admit my bondage.” (Ghazal 72)

“Our love was always a response to the anguish of this world/ … / How could our anguish not be beautiful?” (Ghazal 73)

Paul Kane’s A Passing Bell abounds in phrases that could be extracted as summaries of the work.  I chose the above to capture the tones of litany, compulsion and grief that pervade it, and the striving for some species of beauty that is part of all poets’ motivation.

A Passing Bell is book-ended by a Prologue in the voice of a third person commentator, witness or presence – a God or a God-substitute, the unnamed Master (perhaps Hafiz ), the spirit of love – that frames the ghazals that follow as involuntary exercises shaped by “a loss so fundamental he is shocked to be alive.” There is also an Epilogue, which is in Tina’s voice and which acknowledges her role in leading him out of his “underworld” “of cavernous grief” at her death to a point where he can turn his Orpheus away from her Eurydice.

Tina was (remains?) Kane’s wife and collaborator in the 2014 translation and illustration of twelve Hafiz ghazals, so the choice of the ghazal form within the Sufic remit seems natural and even an extension of that earlier work.  (Kane mentions Hafiz by name in Ghazal 8, though he does not venture equivalence between himself and the great poet in any way).  It might even be viewed as another joint project of his words and her animating spirit.  This may speak of a deeper affiliation, it may hark back to collaboration, or it may be the product of aptness to themes. There are signs suggestive of the former– the work’s character as a verbal pilgrimage of sorts, the congruence of earthly and spiritual love, the marriage of truth and love, the invocation of a Master presence, the implication of stages in the grieving process (à la Kübler-Ross) and/or stations of enlightenment, e.g. “Passing” in the title, and references to an afterlife.

The ghazal’s last bayt (couplet) usually mentions the poet or narrator by name or requires a reversion to him or her in some way, whereas this occurs only in the Prologue, and then in the voice of the third person.  All the ghazals in the body of the work revert to Tina and the Epilogue reverts to them both.  This variation is consistent with the work’s inferred joint authorship, and its devotional and Sufic compass – the lover becomes the beloved and both manifest love itself.

While I am not overly familiar with Kane’s other poetry, internet samplings (Cordite, Snorkel, for example) make clear that A Passing Bell is a conscious, if natural, departure from all but the Hafiz translations.  These samplings are quite different in construction and tone, and more modernistic, though there is a not infrequent correspondence in themes. Kane’s career demonstrates both a deep and broad interest in collaboration and cross-cultural forms, such as his and John Kinsella’s Renga: 100 Poems; and it is worth noting that Ouyang Yu has translated Kane’s poetry into Chinese.

There is a concept in the Qu’ran known as tawhid that signifies the uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe and is sometimes interpreted in Sufism as making us all part of God – in Attar’s A Conference of the Birds, for example, the birds resolve their pilgrimage to find their king, Simorgh, by peering into a mirror.

These comments are not intended as a religious or form-centred reduction of A Passing Bell.  It so pulses with emotion and both light and dark humanity, and so alternates between the dirge-song and the lyric that it can be savoured without religious overtones and resonates beyond the form’s strictures.  Nor do I want to stray into arguments of appropriation.  The poetry is too organic to sustain such an accusation.  Despite its deeply personal content, there is no sense of voyeurism in reading this book, though readers will naturally reach out to their own experiences and that is perhaps intended.

By the publication of A Passing Bell, Kane reasserts his faith in poetry – he is no Laura Riding – despite the traumatic disjuncture of Tina’s death. Meaning is neither necessarily singular nor requires certitude.  Poetry is living by “words whose purpose is to say what cannot be said” (Ghazal 8), though “poetry” is itself “merely a word”.  Poems are “like newborns shocked by the harsh alien air” of utterance and “part of a larger life which includes death, naturally,/ but only because, for them, death is another kind of life”, a life to be treasured “for it has touched you, Tina, and I cannot let it go” (Ghazal 46).  In any event, “I wrote everything for you and waited like a child for notice” and this long poem is “at most a hint, perhaps an invitation or petition” for an acknowledgement in absentia and thus a “prayer” (Ghazal 130).

We all might be warmed by a prayer said by or for us, be it religious, secular or a simple contemplation of nature.  Paul Kane has been brave and caring enough to share his and Tina’s.
 
 
PAUL SCULLY is a Sydney-based writer. His second collection, Suture Lines, was published in December, 2016 by Guillotine Press. His work has been published in print and online journals in Australia and the USA.

Maks Sipowicz reviews Dry Milk by Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)

Dry Milk

By Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)

Giramondo

ISBN 978-1-925336-99-3

Reviewed by MAKS SIPOWICZ

Huo Yan’s Dry Milk is a book about many things all at once. It is a meticulous character study of an unpleasant man who never quite settles in a new country. It is a philosophical parable about following the path our lives set before us. It is a cautionary tale about greed. Huo draws these threads together in creating the rich world of the book.

Set in Auckland, Dry Milk focuses on John Lee, a Chinese man who married a disabled woman so that he could leave move to New Zealand in search of a better life. Instead, he ends up as the owner of a failing antique store, renting out the spare rooms in his house to Chinese exchange students, and attending meetings of a community group he despises, but which he feels obligated to attend. Huo gives us an idea of the kind of man John is in the second paragraph of the book, in the description of him closing his store for the day: “Just as his last would-be customer was about to enter the shop, [John] flipped over the sign in the front window read CLOSED. Having beaten the customer to the door by a pace or two, John Lee locked it and ducked back out of sight” (1). The pettiness characterizing his behaviour is the guiding force of the entire novella.

We begin on the 30th anniversary of John’s moving to New Zealand. As an immigrant, John embodies the many aspects of the foreigner’s experience. I was struck by how universal certain parts of his life in New Zealand were. He is uneasy around other Chinese expats, whom he meets as part of their local community group. Equally, he is uneasy about any prospects of a return to China. My own experience as a migrant confirms this – as a migrant one can begin to feel like a tourist not only in one’s adopted home, but at their origin as well. John’s story highlights the additional difficulties faced by migrants at the intersection of race and culture, but also the changing nature of this experience. He remarks that when he first moved, he tried hard to fit in, but now there are young Chinese migrants everywhere. “Walking around nowadays, you see Chinese faces everywhere. This place has become Chinese. John Lee sighed. How careful he had been, thirty years ago, to try to fit in, to try to become like them” (55).

Throughout Dry Milk John reaches multiple times for the Book of Master Zhuang. Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi as he is also commonly known, was a Daoist philosopher active in the mid-fourth century before common era. His philosophy is characterized by its skepticism about our ability to know about certain kinds of truths and its relativism with regard to morality. For Zhuangzi, the answer to questions about right or wrong depends on who is asking them. This is connected closely with the principle of non-action, that is, acting naturally without having to carefully consider every aspect of one’s action. Acting in a way that comes naturally to us and living our life accordingly is how we can come to embody the Dao (Way).

John is eager to apply these teachings to his life. He thinks much of Zhuangzi is still relevant, and in conversation with a visiting scholar he agrees eagerly to the suggestion that “all of the various truths we moderns talk about were known long ago by the ancients” and that in this respect “nobody can compare with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese” (16-17). The practical aspects of John’s affinity for Daoist philosophy can be seen throughout Dry Milk. For instance, he decides to marry his wife as soon as he hears that the government is intending to send her to live with her family in New Zealand, following a eugenic turn after the Cultural Revolution. Later, John is similarly sure of himself in his pursuit of Jiang Xiaoyu – the student lodger renting a room from him. Each decision, whether it is consciously so or not, seems to be an attempt for John to act naturally. Unfortunately, consistently throughout the book, the lesson John learns from Zhuangzi is the wrong one. Where for Zhuangzi striving to act naturally means we can come to enjoy our lives as we can come to accept what is offered to us, John’s actions produce a string of disappointments, fostering his resentments against his wife, the social workers who come to help him care for her, other members of his community, and the few New Zealanders he interacts with on a regular basis. This pushes him to go on with the opportunity offered to him by a business acquaintance to begin exporting dry milk powder. Ultimately, the only thing borne of John’s constant striving is more darkness.

Huo captures well the sort of social competition and attitudes all too common among long-term migrants. Faced with an increasingly changing reality, wherein his own luck seems to remain poor, John’s finding comfort in classical philosophy underlines the chief source of his discontent – the changing fortunes of those who had remained in China, and its growing middle-class, and experience he feels he missed out on but deserved. Looking at the new wave of migrants, whom he considers to not have to struggle as he had, and who in his mind are not attempting to blend into their new environment, he turns to tradition. Ironically, it is through a visiting scholar who gives a talk on Zhuangzi to the Chinese Community Hope Association he belongs to that John gets elected to the group’s executive, finally gaining some of the status he craves, noting with satisfaction that the jealousy of his rival in the group will become “all-consuming” (59).

Dry Milk is a dark book, but it is not without hope, even if this the kind of hope Josef K is given by Franz Kafka in The Trial. And while its protagonist is unlikeable, abusive, and petty, his flaws and striving for a life beyond the possibilities on offer drew me in even as they shocked me. Duncan M. Campbell’s craft as a translator doubtlessly helps in this – the text is colourful and rich, presenting a vibrant portrait of the community it concerns. Huo captures the sense of foreignness that all migrants experience. Beyond this, she captures the generational differences that are ever present in expatriated communities. At the same time, she gives voice to some of the challenges that are unique to Chinese migrants, and thus offers her readers a perspective that is at once broad and particular.

 

MAKS SIPOWICZ is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Australian Book Review, Colloquy, Parergon, and others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.

Kiran Bhat reviews Toward the End by Ali Alizadeh

Toward the End

By Ali Alizadeh

Giramondo

ISBN 978-1-925818-22-2

Reviewed by KIRAN BHAT

While it was a mainstay of early 20th century writing, the styles, tendencies, and structures of social realist literature went out of vogue fairly quickly. Perhaps it is because of the proselytising nature of such texts, or because works of only one particular vision or message tend to lose freshness on multiple reads. Nonetheless, we live in a time where plenty has gone awry, and the world needs stronger voices yet. From the pages of Towards the End, it is clear that Ali Alizadeh aspires to be one such voice. He is eager to observe the hypocrisies and toxicities of an Australia connected to the global economy, and he aspires to use poetry as a space to right his country’s wrongs.

Alizadeh is a master of the cynical and the bare. He often likes to string words together into the most uncomplex sentences, to make sure that the theme or topic of his words hit with the greatest impact. The poem ‘Refugee’ begins with the warning, ‘If you come to this country without a visa you won’t be settled in this country,’ just as the poem ‘P.S.’ begins with a proclamation: ‘We are decent. We love our country and our liberty.’ Though Alizadeh is writing so directly, his words do not speak with an intimacy. Rather, there’s a deep frustration embedded at how things are in Australia. There’s a sense that no matter how much people of colour give themselves to Australia, the last thing they will be given is acceptance, or a place in society, and Alizadeh uses his poetry to call it it what it is: messed up.

What makes these poems more than exercises in didacticism is how Alizadeh’s poems move from the stark to the unexpected. Returning to the poem, ‘P.S.,’ one assumes that the poem is meant to be a stripping down of everything that makes Australia an inherently difficult country for its outsiders. What it becomes in the middle is an ode to the impossibilities of capitalism, instead.

‘We dream
of feeling happiness as psyches rejoice
at buying iJunk and designer socks, a life
finally expiating its futility
if lucky, with a (record low) pay rise.’

The tone of the poem remains colloquial, but the jumble of words like ‘expiating’ with ‘futility’ create a unique sound, while images of ‘iJunk’ next to ‘designer socks’ render a clear vision of an archetype – Melbournian, hipster, most likely addicted to anything Apple throws their way – Alizadeh is trying to criticise. But, Alizadeh is not trying to stereotype, nor is he trying to cast judgment. He’s just tired of the way things are, and he wants it to change, hence why he concludes his poem on a summoning of the ‘immeasurable power’ of human will to ‘rupture the reality of the world and instigate new worlds.’

Alizadeh is also a master of wordplay. Most of his poems demonstrate a unique use of vocabulary to allow the sounds of the English language to reach greater heights. Take his poem, ‘Destinal,’ in which one casually intrudes upon sentences like ‘ink stains on the paper occlude the noumenon.’ The long /o/ of ‘occlude’ along with the length of syllables in ‘noumonen’ create an extremely satisfying mouth muddle that is hard to imagine succeeding if penned by another writer. In the poem ‘Post-Marx,’ Alizadeh remarks,

‘Landlords don’t lord
it over overindulged
go-betweens
poised between domination and damnation
by market’s melodramatics.’

Each line is built on an alliteration, and a subversion of words that appear similar in length and consonant (‘landlord’ and ‘lord,’ ‘domination’ and ‘damnation, ‘market’ and melodramatic’).  The meaning of the words clash, however. As a result, the pairing of these words create harmony and cacophony, nonsense and consequence, all at once.

In my opinion, the strongest poem in the collection is ‘Australian Day.’ The poem showcases all of Alizadeh’s strengths in one piece of writing, and does so with cohesion. For example, the beginning few lines have all of the trademark punch and power of Alizadeh’s starts.

‘Barbeque and cricket
and now you’re a citizen. I’d slap
my own ungrateful
subject’s face.’

Yet, lines like ‘I’d kick my heart for its failure to attract another’ inspire a rare empathy and pathos. There’s a sense that as Alizadeh reflects on his inabilities to measure up to the Australian standard, he is more willing to be vulnerable. He even ends his poem on a very real desire that most second generation people feel when they are born and raised in a country that does not understand them.

‘It’s called
hope
for an encounter, a place
in the universe
of the loved.’

Liminal and exciting, deceptively simple on a language level, yet eagerly complex on a conceptual one, Towards the End is a unique space where memory, sentence, and language align. Alizadeh’s lines live in the blasé, and yet yearn for what appears to be futile. Alizadeh wants to see an end towards the oppressions that occur from the awkward alignments of capitalism, racism, and societal socialisation. Towards that end, he has fused all the distrustfulness of his voice with all of the registers of postmodern style and structure, to invent a style of social realism that belongs not only to the early 21st century, but very much to Ali Alizadeh himself.
 

KIRAN BHAT is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. An avid world traveler, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His heart remains in Mumbai, but he currently lives in Melbourne.