Harry Goddard reviews Infinite Threads Ed. Alison Whittaker
Ed. Alison Whittaker
Reviewed by HARRY GODDARD
Alison Whittaker begins her foreword to the 2019 UTS Writers’ Anthology with an image of infinite threads converging ‘through some tiny waterways and floodplains and mudflats’ (p.vii). She traces these pathways through the soles of our shoes as they melt onto a road, up through our tongues as ice disintegrates from body heat, and onto a train as we are carried deeper into the country of writing. As readers, we can escape to somewhere less sweltering.
‘Breath defies us to appreciate the scale of it all,’ (p.viii), Whittaker says, trying to encapsulate our relationship with the ecological systems that we have abandoned – the ones that are fast abandoning us. The 33rd UTS Writers’ Anthology was developed in early 2019, during one of the hottest summers in Australian history.
In Infinite Threads, climate anxiety is linked with a desperate, profound hope, the courage to imagine something better, and the strength to argue on behalf of these possibilities. These are the rivulets that make up this collection: 29 works of fiction, essay, poetry and playwriting from current UTS students and the student-led team that collated and edited them.
Helen Meany’s ‘The Stars, Millie’, begins in the dark: ‘Proper dark. Safe Dark. The sort of dark you could hide in forever’ (p.1). A single mother, with her kid asleep in the back seat, cleans animal corpses from the side of the Hume Highway. Distinctly Australian Gothic, the rotting creatures reek of guilt, questioning the isolation she’s built for herself and her child. The story hints at past abuse when the protagonist mentions the woman who worked the job before her: ‘Her ex had tracked her down, somehow, so she just dropped everything and left.’ (p.3). But she focuses on the next day of school, and latches onto moments of security. She cleans snot off her daughter’s nose without waking her.
The theme of abuse recurs in Christine Afoa’s ‘Halfling’, a story about a young woman coming to terms with her life in Sydney while processing a disconnection from her Samoan heritage. We are taken into a moment of violence, this time from the perspective of a daughter: ‘Mum’s bedroom door slams shut and I hear her voice, dulled by his shouting. Like
vinegar on oil’ (p.35).The two stories are linked: motherhood and its apprentice, daughterhood, stand against abuse as generational stages of survival.
Many stories focus on motherhood in its most physically intimate stages, right down to the sensations and transformations of pregnancy. In Verity Borthwick’s ‘Chrysalis’, motherhood becomes a metonym for hope. The story charts a week-by-week account of a mother’s pregnancy as she witnesses the inverse process of a friend fighting cancer – of dying, while life begins. For the tiniest moment three lives are held in a balance: ‘Much later, when we visit her in the hospital and she is in too much pain to hold him, I lay him on the bed beside her.’ (pp.212-213).
Hope is challenged by uncertainty in Cameron Stewart’s ‘Deep Valley, Twinkling Lights’. In a couple’s bedroom, late at night, a void grows between two people who are trying to conceive. There is a deep-seated fear within the relationship, a niggling doubt at the back of their minds, compounded by the constant presence of paralysing backache: ‘Any wrong movement delivers jolting pain, and Lucia has to hold on grimly until something unclamps to release her from the agony.’ (p.176). Perhaps it’s just ‘cold-feet’, but Stewart plants the seeds of doubt and leaves the reader speculating.
Our fears for the future – the manifestation of our interlinked hopes and anxieties – forms the core of Infinite Threads’ sensed reality. Will we ever be good enough? In Benjamin Lee’s ‘Breaking Point’, within the claustrophobic din of a plastics factory, a young woman operates the same machine where her mother worked herself to death. ‘There are still some instructions on it in her handwriting, basic operations, warnings.’ (p.245).These shadows of connection are the only things guiding her – hands moving in the same patterns, bodies giving in to the same pressures while a ruthless production schedule looms overhead.
Motherhood reflects our connection with nature; our bodies are changing, our rivers are drying. Sydney Khoo’s poem ‘Bak Kut Teh’, perhaps recalling the spare rib soup of a childhood past, renders this relationship into intensely personal expression. Khoo’s writing is confidently expressed, animalistic and vulnerable. It contains the same echoes of loneliness as ‘Breaking Point’, with roots reaching backwards into time:
“You are a sapling
As your mother was once
She planted you on the same earth
In a different time
This rain will taste different
In your new veins”
Veins, extending through ourselves and into the lives of others, into the knowledge of the past and burden of the future, are a perfect representation of the stories contained in this anthology. Khoo encapsulates this in their poetry, which was an absolute pleasure to read.
The world our children will inherit has been put into question; our disconnection with ecology makes it difficult to justify bringing ‘new life’ into this world. In Catherine Mah’s ‘The Towers’, childhood innocence is set against an uncaring, irradiated backdrop. Mah’s writing depicts a flicker of imagination lost against a barren, unfeeling setting – a quiet, unseen tragedy.
Zerene Joy Catacutan’s ‘Gayuma’, set in Intramuros, Manila, is a similar examination of loss, in which a humble, personal tragedy – the loss of a daughter – is overshadowed by the looming dread of World War II. As war erupts, a family’s trauma is forgotten. Both ‘Gayuma’ and ‘The Towers’ end with despair – not with exaggerated, drawn out darkness, but blunt, chilling understatement.
Judi Morison’s ‘Coast Line Dreaming’, takes a different path, arguing for resilience over despair. On the South Coast of New South Wales, a sister returns to her hometown – skipping uni classes she can’t afford to miss – after her brother is caught driving under the influence of ice. In Morison’s story, isolation doesn’t come from a fear or misunderstanding of the land, but from a sense of disconnection within it. ‘Not sure who my mob is, bruz. You know how it is’ (p.15). But this loneliness is countered by the warmth of community, a spark of hope, a connection and a possible romance. The characters in Infinite Threads find strength in small things.
A sense of resilience is shared in Lachlan Parry’s ‘Unwritten, Undelivered, Unopened’ – a series of epistolary pieces which discuss our bodies and the control placed upon them by external factors. A mother writes to her long-distant child, refusing to acknowledge their gender identity; a survivor writes to their sexual abuser, refusing to forget; and a teenager writes to his biological father – he’s dating an older man and everyone says it’s because of a missing ‘father figure’. The pieces can be brutal and manipulative in the way that people can be when they are close to you: ‘I miss my baby boy. I miss the little man who would win every soccer game.’ (p.63) But they end in defiance, with a moving declaration of resistance and pride.
Erica Wheadon’s ‘The Gospel of Kai’, is set against a call towards a supposed utopia, where those who fit into the patriarchal designations of society can expect to survive, if only to be subjugated. A telling allegory that echoes current, online trends of renouncing or mocking feminism. The story takes a firm stand, sets itself down in tribute to women who live on the outside of mainstream gender roles.
Chloe Michele’s ‘Ways to Exist in Fields out of Reach’ is an insightful personal essay that investigates the expectations of Sydney’s class culture while taking us through the song titles of a Violent Femmes tape. Michele illustrates how it feels to step beyond what is expected of you, to exist in a third space beyond what you know and where you came from. It is a portrait of the gratitude and guilt attached to our parents, and a scathing critique of Sydney’s insidious, segregated cultures.
An amazing aspect of these stories, and a testament to the skill of their writers, is how they give us room to examine ourselves in the spaces outside of a relentless neoliberal society. We can witness the interactions of locally famous weirdos, their rituals, their overarching reliance on gambling and beer. We see sexism, addiction, and strangely enough, a desire for community. This is exemplified in Susie Newton’s ‘Robertson Inn’, which brings us to a pub where lonely people gather away from family and work. From the point of view of someone working behind the bar, cleaning the ashtrays and turning on the TVs in the TAB, we can observe the underlying insecurities of Australian culture.
By examining these physical locations we can begin to process our losses. Luka Skandle’s ‘Gumbramorra Pond’ alternates between a history of Sydney’s colonial heritage and a contemporary experience of a friend dying from cancer. ‘It changed the course of our lives, the pathways of our friendships, the ways we look back and forward to what must come’ (p.49.) Skandle’s perfectly balanced writing examines the trajectory of human lives, how the spaces around us hold our tragedies and our potential.
Similarly, Jane Sharman’s ‘Darryl of the Sea’, a biographical piece, portrays a man dealing with his loss in a peculiar way: living out of the back of his van after relinquishing various properties to a series of ex-wives. He has found a life by the sea, surfing and doing odd jobs around the Northern Beaches. The piece is a reassuring image of a kind, gentle figure. Someone we can relate to, laugh with. As Darryl says, ‘We create the world we live in,’ (p.220), so perhaps we should lighten up.
It is curious to think that these stories share so many similarities. There was no specific call out to fit a particular theme, and the student editors did not assemble Infinite Threads to fit a rubric. Instead, each piece was chosen based on their individual strengths.
But these shared meanings are more than coincidental. The stories are underpinned by central questions about our world’s insecurities: motherhood, and the self-doubt and fragile hope that it represents; abuse and domestic violence, how families – women across generations – help each other survive.
Whittaker ends her foreword with an image of ‘a stranger on the train with you to somewhere with a cool breeze’ (p.ix). We are connected to this stranger, to each other, through our melting shoes, through the rivulets within the soil, and into the ocean of our collected doubts.
HARRY GODDARD is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in Speculative Australian Gothic (SPAG) short fiction. He has written for Going Down Swinging, Seizure Online, and previous editions of the UTS Writers’ Anthology. .