Samuel Cox reviews Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty

Harvest Lingo

Lionel Fogarty


ISBN 9781925336177

Reviewed by SAMUEL COX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

… rasping flags causes we’ll
Sone your ideas down.
Non poets never revolutionary

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

Purbasha Roy

Purbasha Roy is a writer from Jharkhand India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Channel, SUSPECT, Space and Time magazine, Strange Horizons, Acta Victoriana, Pulp Literary Review and elsewhere. She attained second position in 8th Singapore Poetry Contest, and has been a Best of the Net Nominee.
This Heart, This Heart

Who would I show it to — W S Merwin

This heart is a salt lake that cries
its fate of longings. Ways to keep
a season forever inside needs attention.
I found autumn easy for this task. The
gulmohar that saffroned early this year
outside the room window now is an
autumn epic I byhearted twig-by-twig.
Branch-by-branch. A little beauty always
stays in every atom of the cosmos. What
it waits for but a new-angled discovery.
I am mirroring curiosity of a bywind upon
a street. Giving meaning to what but distance.
Many times I desired my heart becomes
a train. At least its march would receive
a settle down. When I want to write this
world, all I can think of is a field. I in the
company of a stubble. How there spentness
has answers but in a language of my sleeping
self. I have a terrible dream memory. After
I wake I can’t recall what goes through my
body, stand between dream life. Morning I received
a hamper from a friend. Flowers two hours
far from wilt. This triggered the memory
of a sandcastle two feet far from strong
tides. How I stood to see it collapse. Sincerely
heartbroken I dug my knees in its no longer
owned plot. The moment became an elegy
while it cradled a sad finish. It had something
magnetic like the night guard whistles. The
thin reach of it to my quilt covered body like
forgiveness fashioned out of ruins. There are
always things that don’t need metaphors. Today
I completed drawing the map of my longings.
Then among the light of my consciousness I
didn’t know the way to explain its crowdedness
and to whom in the language I speak in dreams.
Somedays I act forgetful. That it’s you holding
me like the running blood held by a confident body

Javeria Hasnain

Javeria Hasnain is a Pakistani poet and writer, a Fulbright scholar, and an MFA student at The New School, NY. Her prose and poetry have appeared/is forthcoming in Poet Lore, The Margins, Isele, and elsewhere. She was a runner-up for the 2022 The Bird in Your Hands prize and an honorable mention in the 2022 Penrose Poetry Prize. She currently works at Cave Canem and reads poetry for Alice James Books. She has received support from Tin House Workshops, The Kenyon Review, Sundress, and International Writing Program.


Every evening in Ramzan, alone in my Bed-Stuy apartment kitchen, I pick three bananas, an apple, a peach, and an orange. I slice the bananas, dice the apple and peach, mix them in a small tupperware that belonged to the previous tenant. I punch a hole in the orange and squeeze its juice directly into the fruit mix. I let loose in the melodic tunes of Sabri brothers’ Tajdar-e-haram—grip the orange harder as it creates more holes, filling my palms with pulp that drips, drop by drop, into the mix. I don’t care for the seeds or the grime that infiltrates my otherwise purified delicacy.

Every evening during this small ritual, I think of Mama, my aunt, the eldest of all seven siblings who cooked the best food. No one could return from her home hungry or underwhelmed. Every Ramzan, she called everyone at least once for iftar. I have the most vivid memory of her making fruit chaat, squeezing the orange into the fruit mix with naked hands, grime mixing with pulp. She didn’t care for the seeds either. 

I was an unhappy child and only I knew that. I was embarrassed by my father’s hiroof van and preferred going and coming back with other friends in their regular-roofed cars. I was embarrassed by my small home and never invited any of my friends over. So whenever I saw Mama, I fixated on things she lacked, which were (to my defense) abundant. What was more surprising to me was that she never did.

She had a love-marriage at 25 to a Navy Captain. She recalled with an arrogance peculiar to her how all the neighborhood girls and her cousins, even her aunts, were extremely jealous of her. Owing to the long stretches of work in the Navy, her husband used to be away for weeks, sometimes, even months. He left for work one day, and never returned. She never married again. 

After my nana passed away, she kept shifting to various apartments, never living in any one for more than a year, tagging her brother that she cared for along as well. At one point during this five-year-long cruise, maybe in the third year, she stopped unpacking most of the stuff. Cupboards were replaced by cartons and beds by air mattresses. Whatever little room for furniture the apartment provided remained empty. Her dark circles had deepened further and light-spots occurred unevenly on her face, probably because of smearing very old, often expired, make-up products that she bought from the local Sunday bazaar.

She was keen about appearing pretty. She always dressed nicely and scolded my mother and khala when they didn’t. Several times she handed me or my sister, whoever was nearer, a hair plucker (a staple of her make-up bag) to clean out her chin or upper lip or the middle part of the eyebrow, just above her nose. Oh, she absolutely loved her nose! She wore a little pea-sized gold nose ring shaped like a flower. It was a joy to watch her put on make-up before leaving for the office. Dressed in a lilac & pink Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) uniform, hair tied in a tight bun secured with a black net, black pumps with heels—she looked exquisite. After she left, the smell of her make-up and perfume lingered around the apartment for hours. 

Mama—that’s how every kid in my family addressed my aunt—worked at PIA as a Boarding Officer at Jinnah International airport in Karachi. She received a discount coupon book for the airport McDonald’s and the breakfast lounge at the start of every month, which she spent all on her siblings and their children. Almost every weekend, we gathered at her place and went to the bus-stop to wait for the 4K bus. It was a thrilling adventure. I always felt anxious that somebody would be left behind in the bus because they were not vigilant and the bus only paused for three seconds at a stop before it sped up again. The drivers do not care about anyone. Karachi bus-riding is a high-stakes game, everyone is looking out for only themselves. If you are not fast enough, you will end up at Saddar even though you journeyed out for Nazimabad. Although, when she had money, we took a taxi. Amma usually offered to pay the taxi fare, “bachhon ko taxi mein le jao,” a gesture we all anticipated, and welcomed when it came, including Mama. After all, the taxi took us all the way to McDonald’s, whereas, the nearest bus-stop to the airport was a good 15 minute walk away. 

My cousins and I spent many weekends at her apartment, nights sleeping like sardines on separate mattresses joined together. She woke up early in the morning to pray fajr, and immediately afterwards, switched on the TV to 9XM, the Bollywood music channel, still sitting, cross-legged on her prayer mat, her fingers rolling one bead after the other of the tasbih. We woke up, one by one, irritated at the noise getting louder, the sun shining directly on our skin, piercing the eyes. When we protested she closed the curtains and turned off the TV so we could sleep in peace, she laughed. Then she said, “if you go back to sleep, no parathas for you.” And none of us were stupid enough to say no to her parathas. 

Mama was the only one interested in our teenage love lives, and the only one we weren’t scared to tell them to. On weekends with her, we stayed up through the night talking about the people we had a crush on and stalking them on Facebook. In return, Mama told us about hers. She was so nonchalant about the men—like those heroines you see in Bollywood films. Too cool for the boys. Casual and unbothered, and secretly playing hard to get. I could still sense some sadness in how she talked, so dissociated from herself, as if recounting a story from a past life, or of another person. She never told us about her husband or her marriage. And we knew better than to ask. 

As I was growing up, my relatives, including distant cousins, started saying I resembled Mama. One of my aunts used to say I looked more like Mama than my own amma. The same round face, a delicate nose piercing, the penchant to appear beautiful. I got offended at such comments, even though I knew they were true.  

In the summer of 2015, she announced she could no longer live in Karachi. She told my mother and khala that she was bored. We had also grown older and busier with studies taking priority, and didn’t visit her as often. Her friends had also moved to other cities and countries. “Moreover,” she said, “there are financial issues. And I am tired of having to move houses every year.” 

A month later, she took my mamu, the brother she cared for, and moved to Rawalpindi. Her office relocated to the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. She said the pay was better and she had two friends living with their families in the same apartment building. Her other brothers weren’t happy with her decision and persuaded her to come back. When she remained firm on her decision, they distanced themselves from her.

 Mama often called my mother to tell her about the weather in Islamabad or its tasteless food and ask what she had made for lunch. She occasionally messaged me to ask about the meaning of a difficult English word or phrase, to which I always responded only hours later, with an irritation peculiar to teenagers. She often said she missed us, but she was building a life for herself. She missed us but she did not want to come back. 

Early in 2016, Mama called to tell amma about a man she recently reconnected with. They had been friends for a long time who lost contact with each other due to adulthood and distance, both physical and otherwise. He was a veterinarian, divorced, and had two kids; a boy who was seven and a girl who was 15. Mama had developed a good relationship with her son, who now also called her “Mama.” Mama said he reminded her of me: the boy also loved reading and writing stories and topped his classes. 

On December 29 2016, I woke up to a loud scream. In the dining room, baba was holding amma’s one hand, while she cried holding a phone to her ear with the other. He asked me to switch on the TV in the next room. The little red ticker in the bottom of the news channel read one after another: “a hotel in Islamabad burned down,” “one casualty known,” “the body identified to be of a PIA employee.”

We were later told the fire erupted around 4am and that Mama died of suffocation from the resulting smoke. All the other guests had fled the building. A man who was staying in the next room told us they knocked at her door repeatedly to wake her up and help her escape. When they finally reached the room, they found her on the bathroom floor passed out. 

On New Year’s Eve, one of Mama’s brothers and his wife flew to Islamabad to bring back Mama’s body. She was brought back to Karachi, to one of her brothers’ homes. It was time to look at her and say goodbye. She looked so beautiful. Draped in the simplest white. She would have never liked it. I imagined her saying, “White is so boring! Bury me in red.” But of course she never said it. We never talked about death. We actually didn’t talk much at all. She never even told us about her navy husband. She never told us why she didn’t marry all these years. I never asked. I always thought I would have enough time to talk to her once I’m older.  

The day she was leaving for Islamabad, amma, I, and my sister had gone to drop her at the airport. There was still some time left in her flight, so she took us to McDonald’s to spend the last few coupons she still had. My sister and I bought Oreo McFlurries and amma and Mama bought soft serve vanilla. She looked at me while slurping her cone, her eyes glassy as if brewing tears, and kept looking for what seemed like a long time, her lips quaking steadily. She cried all the way walking to her terminal. 

Now, when she lay so still, all I wanted was to hear her laugh. I gawked at her as if drawing her inside my mind. I thought if I gazed at her long enough, I may always remember her face—round, high cheekbones, a protruding chin. Her lips, small and pink, like a baby’s. Her petite nose that she was extremely proud of, “Hum Nagpur waalon ki naak sabse achi hoti hai.” Every inch of her crystalline—no spots, no burns.

All of us who have left homes, families, countries—willingly or reluctantly—know it is devastating. Also liberating. I could not understand why I began thinking so much about Mama’s life as I was starting my own, in a new country, two oceans away from that of my birth. I understand now. We had more in common than we cared for. We both wanted to make something of our lives. 

On phone calls with amma, I hold back telling her how much I miss her. It’s true that I miss her. It is also true I do not want to go back. Now whenever I am flaneuring in the streets of Manhattan, kissing men I do not intend to kiss a second time, dancing to cheap Bollywood songs in bars, I feel her in myself and it makes me happy. This feeling comes after years of feeling myself in her, and being angry and sad because of it. 

Throughout Mama’s funeral processions, my amma and khala were told of how Mama was a shaheed. And martyrs never die. 

I continue to bear witness to her life. In my dreams, she is always dressed as a bride.  


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

I Have Decided To Remain Vertical

by Gayelene Carbis

ISBN: 978122571489

Puncher and Wattmann


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And consider ‘After Sylvia’ (p. 41)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Her voice was full of stones
        I heard the dampness in her breath.
        Stones in my throat, as I
        hung up the phone and watched the brilliant lights
        of the train hurtling closer and closer.

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

        And then, the absence
                of the ship

        I stared at the space
                where the ship had been

        And I thought
                now I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mohamed Irba

Mohamed Irba / محمد (he/him/هو) is an Omani Lebanese cis man who came to Australia in 2007 at sixteen to study and stayed for safety. He is an active member of his communities and continues to explore the meaning of belonging in everyday life and the intersections of his identity as a Queer Arab person living with HIV.


Taaf طاف

I was 16 years old when I landed in Melbourne airport on a cold winter morning. I came to study but stayed for safety.

My new guardian was waiting to pick me up. “Your English is really good!” she said. I will never forget her surprise and relief that I could speak. I was bewildered by that as most people spoke English where I came from, and sometimes English would be the third or fourth language. It was more than a statement. It came with a history of society that looked at me as uncivilised and barbaric. I also had not experienced winter before and could not stop shivering. 

I wish I could hold my younger self now. I know he would never believe we could be writing a story like this one; telling my story to help others. I would not change any of my life experiences but I need to stop burying them deep inside where I cannot even remember them. If I do not speak of it, there can be no healing and I want to make sure my lessons are passed on to those who face similar challenges.

From the beginning, I had the responsibilities of the eldest son to carry. My culture puts so much pressure on the eldest son to be successful, study, get a well regarded job, marry and have many children. The parents are often called “Abu” and “Om” (name of eldest son) and it is very shameful if their son is not successful. These responsibilities meant additonal pressure. I was not “worldly” but I knew I was different and had to escape. I was the darkest out of my siblings and I was reminded of it daily. My mother tried to scrub the black out of me every day as a child. It did not work. If she knew about my difference, no doubt she would have tried to scrub that out too. Words like “queer” and “gay” were not in my vocabulary. Though it would be years before I learned, somehow I embodied them. In the sense of defiance, standing out, being strange and different. The words I did have were “haram”, “deviant”, and “pervert”. 

I had so many questions for my parents and the answer was always, “We do not talk about these things, do not ask again,” with fear in their eyes. I knew that my urges were seen as sinful, so I pushed and pushed until I could not feel them, but there was no end to the racism and colourism I experienced and saw. No end to consumerism and obsession with material things, money and brands. I hated the focus on class and family origins that were so rooted in the culture, and convinced myself I did not belong in my desert home.

There was a fairy-tale across the sea, and I pointed to it: freedom of speech, democracy, minimum wage, queerness, dressing as you please, everything you could want. 

Or so I thought, until I found my way here. Initially things were good, I loved the public transport and uncensored internet. Having access to all the knowledge I wanted and porn could not have come at a better time! I surfed websites such as, manjam, and manhunt and indulged the urge I couldn’t even name. It was like opening a big bucket of Maltesers and not being able to stop (which also happens). Despite the pleasure, these experiences still brought on extreme guilt. All the Islamic teachings from my parents and school did not suddenly go away. I felt like the worst person, that I was going to hell for sure. As my Islamic studies teacher taught me: “The fires of hell never stop and you will be tortured by their flames up until the brink of death only to be brought back again and go through the whole experience once more and more and more.” 

Yet this did not stop me, and I fell for every (white) boy under the sun. What I did not know is that chasing these fruits would bring so much sorrow. Using these hook-up apps and websites muddied my understanding of what I was feeling, and of love itself. What I wanted more than anything was validation, but for every gratifying reply to my messages, there were hundreds of others that went ignored or blocked. Sex became my new hobby. I never had hobbies growing up as studying was my only purpose. I was to become the successful first born son that would make my parents proud and that was drilled into me before I was even ten. But sex was so much fun. I kept a record of them all—43 in the first 30 days I would proudly boast! I did it with everyone: old, young, educated, rich, poor, but especially white as that is what I was taught counted as “beautiful”. It took 10 years to unlearn this toxic and damaging racism, a product of how I was brought up, a product of white supremacist ideology. 

Yet before I could unlearn the racism that plagued me, I practised it. I experienced it. Words like “sand monkey”, “N*****”, “curry muncher” (yes, I got the pleasure of receiving slurs for Arabs and South Asians too), “terrorist”, “takeaway”, and many more micro-aggressions. “What natio are you?” was the most common response I got. Brown skin stopped the white gaze at its place and resulted in a block. And still, I wanted their validation. I wanted a white prince to fulfil all my dreams and I would do anything for them. I was stereotyped, humiliated, and fetishized, yet I played along and laughed. The validation was too strong and I had nothing to fall back on anyway. 

I wanted to fit in. I wanted it all. I remember going to my first gay bar called “the X-change” in Melbourne, the energy and excitement. I stared at every person without a shirt on kissing another, or more. I stared at a freedom I’d never imagined. I had fun, took on the Australian culture of over-drinking, danced, partied and met many temporary friends. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga and “What’s my name?” by Rihanna were on repeat as I washed away the past with binge drinking and blacking out.

At some point, I developed my own way of “coming out”. In order not to be discovered by family and friends back home, I did not talk to them. I deleted them all from social media so as not to accidentally be tagged in a “gay” photo. I wanted it all but would not risk it all. Time to make new friends, I said. No time for homophobia. And by homophobia I meant my own culture. I did everything I could to block it off. Like it never existed. This is Australia. I stopped using my mother tongue, and wouldn’t use it consistently for at least ten years, until I even started to lose confidence speaking it. There are displacements forced upon us, and there are displacements we put upon ourselves. What I really needed was real friendship. But it would take another few years to realise that. 

My obsession with sex translated to what I thought was love and that was the beginning of many important life lessons. Relationships certainly started off strong and I insisted on moving in quickly even though I did not really know these men. I was seeking validation and safety in the wrong places again. The amount of emotional abuse I took on was compounding on my lack of self-worth and co-dependence. When I got my permanent residency through a de-facto relationship, his friends judged me and openly joked that I was an “overseas bride”. It reminded me of the white woman at the airport, the condescension. The way she spoke to me back on the first day I landed was that of an exotic being that she could not understand. The way they spoke to me now felt the same, as someone othered. I am not an Aussie and would never be, even as a resident. even as a citizen. I laughed it off as I have before. I knew it was wrong but I was so madly in love. Nine years later at the age of twenty seven, I finally ended the fairy-tale and saw reality. 

Nothing prepared me for the disillusionment, the sense of rootlessness, the loss of identity, survivor’s guilt, the helplessness when things go wrong. I was so alone and yet did not know it. Sex did not equal friendship. Sex did not equal love. Sex did not equal validation. White Patriarchal Supremacy is in place and I will never gain its approval, which I no longer want, nor its validation, which I do not need.

I think many of us seek to escape to the West for the fantasy of safety and freedom. We all have our own personal journeys and this is mine. Lately, I have started reconnecting with my culture through language, books, food, music, films, and visits where possible. Finding other Queer Displaced people to connect with has been magical to me. I have also started helping others still in the homeland through online support groups who provide advice and information. Activism is extremely difficult and dangerous as it can result in arrest and prison sentence, but small actions like providing support through the knowledge gained here or the people on the ground providing safe spaces and social connections can help. This is very important to me—through it I’ve regained a sense of my own identity and purpose. 

I am still not exactly sure what belonging means. This is my home now and a home should function as a safe haven for its occupants. I like to think I can still bring my culture to it. I do not have to assimilate in a way that erases me but rather, belong in a way that I can be proud of. With a long road ahead to acknowledging the history of this land and oppression facing First Nations peoples, I am grateful to be here. I am reminded of this not only by First Nations peoples but by others whose ancestors laid claim to the land. The colonial oppression continues here and overseas with our homelands continuing to suffer daily whether it is from real warfare or intergenerational and systemic damage caused by colonisation. We need to acknowledge as displaced people here that we are benefiting from stolen lands and colonisation, and that moving forward any progress has to benefit the First Nations peoples of this land and not come at their expense. 

I do not want to beg or claim a space where others are in power and I am not. We are already here. We are to be acknowledged as part of the conversation and more importantly as active members of decision making. 

There is freedom in being here and much to gain, but also loss. Loss does not go away easily. You do not have to disassociate from your cultures to belong. It’s a harder road but worth taking. Our existence is resistance, but we deserve more than to be seen only in opposition: we can and we will thrive.

I want to stand tall in front of you, I am a voice for others like me everywhere I go, and a changemaker. Speaking up is something I have struggled with as I sought to fit in and not cause waves. I am not afraid anymore; I look to the ocean which is not afraid of land, not afraid of itself. Waves that are powerful in unity and move where the sea goes. Waves that heal.

Taaf طاف: A word used in Khaleeji Arabic meaning to float but also as a means to brush someone off and not give them attention.

Lesh Karan reviews Acanthus by Claire Potter


by Claire Potter


Reviewed by LESH KARAN
Acanthus is Claire Potter’s fourth collection of poetry. Potter writes in a language that weaves mythology with nature, fantasy with reality and then wraps it all up in tulle. If I had to write a one-word review, surreal feels apt, but I don’t, so I’ll start with another one: “acanthus”. This is to say that my first instinct is to look for a titular poem, because in my mind titular poems somehow tie up the work in a loose bow. There isn’t one. Instead, I find a note that follows the contents page, where I learn that acanthus is a plant. Here, I am also offered a sliver of ancient Greek history, of how the leaves became a motif: ‘Passing this votive basket entwined in foliage [on the grave], Callimachus decided to carve it in stone’. A Google search reveals that acanthus leaves are the leaves typically carved into Corinthian columns to symbolise rebirth, immortality and resurrection. This hints at both transmigration and transmutation – of transforming into another being in another time-place.

In her introductory note Potter also quotes Derrida: ‘everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb’, and writes that ‘it is on the overlapping edges of these two accounts that this writing might be said to begin.’ I take the words ‘overlapping edges’ to be the heart of the collection. What happens in overlapping edges? The blurb on the back cover tells me of other-worldly ‘literary spaces’ that the reader can fall through. However, it is the self-referential nature of the poem ‘Counterintuitive’ (p17) that further illuminates:

I could never avoid the truth I’d discovered when I first engaged with texts: the self-evident fact of there being no reader nor subject-matter – only images and feelings in a sort of eternity…
— Gerald Murnane

There is writing that escapes the head, rustles
            like stars of purple thistle,
moves like the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
            a compass from the centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
        cannot be analysed or
understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
     in a vine that veins a crumbling ledge, the foliage
            of a dream in amber, a map folded then refolded
into the shingles of a summer fan

The Gerald Murnane quote could stand in as the epigraph to the entire collection, and the poem itself, an addendum to the note. A handful of poems feel meta and/or performative in this way. For example, I see the first stanza of the poem ‘Errand’ (p38) as what Potter is doing with her poetry:

In and out of leaves the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird in my mind I’ve tied
an infinite string     as she zig-     zags fervently     shirring
distance in a loose smocking of air

By which I mean Potter is the blue mother bird fervently shirring distance with an infinite (eternal) string to create a loose smocking air: the writing that escape the head.

Another poem I want to speak to is ‘The Art of Sideways’ (p 55), because I feel it could stand in as the loose bow that ties the work together. Here, things are ‘layered / and overlapping like shelves of ancient papyruses’. They are also askew: ‘rain can fall sideways’, ‘eyes look aslant’ and ‘there is an angle of forty-five degrees’. Direction (winter light is ‘a trajectory that points in all directions’) and time (a snake’s skin is ‘a simple clock / turning every so often leaving a scaled topography behind’) are messed with, too. Because in such worlds, time, beings and direction don’t play by reality’s rules. To various degrees, these are the themes that imbue the collection’s 45 poems.

Themes and self-referentiality aside, it is the imagery – alluded to at the tail end of the Gerald Murnane quote – that simply astounds me.

A swan sails her cygnets along a stretch of river
—momentarily they rouse in a ghostly armada

a flotilla of milk wings billowing across the grey water
the mother dips her head beneath a lid of duckweed

leaving a swivel of white teardrop behind

Newspapers describe the father as having flown straight into
a building and died without mentioning how or why

The thought takes me back to Greece, to a girl called Scylla who ended
a war by cutting a lock of hair from her father’s sleeping head

and passing it to Minos, his enemy. Scylla was shunned
then chased by her father until a deity changed her into a seabird

The swans preen layer by layer, a soft smoothing by the underside
of the beak, the ruffle and discard of superfluous feathers

The river plays like a silver hook in their glass eyes

(‘The Glass Eye’, p9)

Potter’s imagery is startling in its originality, and at times haunting, such as in ‘The Glass Eye’. But when it is sewn together with narratives and spheres of another time-place, such as Greek mythology, the poem erupts little sparks in my mind: How does the swan’s preening and discarding of feathers relate to cutting a lock of hair? Is the mother swan Scylla? And why is the river a silver hook? The answers don’t necessarily matter, but the questions, the doors that open into thinking and seeing and feeling, do.

Another favourite is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (p25). It feels personal – autobiographical – given the first-person voice, and is simultaneously magical, melding the domestic with the natural:

All summer, the bees worked
between the bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
—they saw a task and rose to it

I busy myself with the washing
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

The images in this first part of the poem sets up the overlapping of the bees with the speaker: ‘the bells of laburnum / sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender’ mirror ‘funnels of sock, boughs of jumper / rosettes of flannel’. This is how the speaker and the bees are subsumed into one being; likewise, their seeing a task and rising to it without being asked. And in the second half of the poem –

I look down my dress and see spikes of burdock
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs—

They all gather to me

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically
until I disengage everything

to its proper place
and emerge like a queen

made anew from decades of trying

– I see the burdock thistles stuck to the speaker’s dress as the chores that gather to her. And her decades of trying as acts of love, where a worker bee can become a Queen bee. Such is the magic of such love, and its music (there is much beautiful slant rhyme in Potter’s poetry, too).

‘The Hidden Side to Love’, I discover, was published in Meanjin (Summer 2016 and online). The only difference I note is the lack of full stops in the collection’s version. This aspect of form is representative of the whole collection: there is, pointedly, no full stops at the end of lines (if a sentence ends there) or paragraphs (in the case of prose poems) – in fact, there’s minimal punctuation altogether; and when full stops appear, they do so rarely, only in the middle of a line, where a sentence has ended, but not always. Instead, Potter uses line breaks, cesura, dashes (sometime multiple in a row to create a solid line) and indented text. Also, many of the works are prose poems; if not, then the lines in several lineated poems echo prose in their line lengths. It’s all very contemporary and lends to the orphic atmosphere of blurring the edges: Where does one thought/idea/image begin and end?

The last poem I want to speak to is my absolute favourite: ‘Metamorphosis’ (p 19). It is a prose poem of two paragraphs and the speaker is a spider; no, the speaker is inside a spider, and we see the world through the speaker’s eyes looking through the spider’s eight eyes:

I wake inside a spider at the pivot of a web. It feels like a graduation from my previous state until the breeze starts up and my webbed skirt starts to give. I cling to the silk threads, tilting backwards and forwards as though pinned to a warbling rocking chair …

I peer out from my lacy steeple. My eight eyes dissect ‘IL ov eN ew Yo rk 20 07’ on a mossed-over mug—crossed-eyed, the sun rotates in a wheel of sixteen. I’m whispering a name—Rumpelstilzchen? … I will wrap my golden thread …

This poem gives me joy to no end. It is playful. I can see then webbed skirt and feel the warbling rocking chair, but what gives me the most child-like glee is the visual representation of ‘I love New York 2007’ dissected into eight pairs of letters, for the spiders eight eyes, and then sun rotating in a wheel of sixteen, for the cross-eyed-ness. And, of course, anything is possible here because we have the whisper of the name Rumpelstilzchen, he who turned silk into gold in the eponymous fairy tale.

To circle back to the beginning, the introductory note, blurb and self-referential nature of ‘Counterintuitive’ might feel as if Potter has gone to much length to explain the work, suggesting that the poetry is challenging; and it is, in that it asks you to disrupt the logical. Thus, as a reader, I see these elements as foundational: that ‘crumbling ledge’ from which to enter the work. I also see them as an invitation: to follow Alice down the rabbit hole, so your subconscious, your inner world, can meet Potters’ on the page. And with that invitation, I find I am free to fall in, to tumble through the labyrinthine worlds without the need to land on my feet – because there is much joy in letting go. And there is much joy to be had here, in Potter’s original, surreal and musical Acanthus.

लेश करण LESH KARAN is a Naarm/Melbourne-based poet and essayist. Recent publications include Admissions, a Red Room Poetry anthology, Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Lesh is of Fiji Indian heritage.

Announcing the new Mascara team ….

Laura Pettenuzzo: Junior Commissioning Editor



Laura (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She writes Plain and Easy English content for various organisations and has been published by The Big Issue, ABC Everyday, The Age and SBS Voices. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.
लेश करण Lesh Karan: Poetry Editor




लेश करण (Lesh Karan) is a Naarm/Melbourne-based poet and essayist. Recent publications include Admissions, a Red Room Poetry anthology, Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Lesh is of Fiji Indian heritage.

Monique Nair: Marketing Manager

Monique Nair is a Melbourne/Naarm based writer of Indian-Italian-Polish heritage. She was a participant of the West Writers program with Footscray Community Arts and is a screenwriter for an upcoming anthology feature, My Melbourne, produced by Mind Blowing Films and supported by VicScreen and Screen Australia. She has performed her work at Emerging Writers’ Festival and other events and her writing is published in Peril, Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings and The Indian Weekly.

Carielyn Tunion: Multimedia 

Carielyn is a multimedia artist, content producer & cultural worker, working from a decolonial perspective to promote the social & holistic wellbeing of marginalised peoples & communities. Drawing on her background in video and screen production, Carielyn uses videopoetry to explore the impacts of colonialism, intergenerational trauma and recovery. She also dabbles in writing, illustration, pin-making and works as a professional arts model. Carielyn occupies space as an immigrant-settler woman of colour in the matrix of coloniality – and identifies as a Tagalog daughter of the archipelago beyond the gender binary. She currently lives on unceded Darkinjung country.

Michelle Cahill: Artistic Director

Michelle Cahill (she/they) is of Goan Anglo-Indian heritage living on unceded Guringai lands. An award-winning novelist and poet, their collection Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo) won the UTS Glenda Adams Award and was shortlisted in the Steele Rudd Award. Cahill was awarded a Red Room Poetry Fellowship and was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the ABR Peter Porter Prize and the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Daisy & Woolf is published with Hachette. Cahill’s essays have appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Weekend Australian and Wasafari

Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews Freedom, Only Freedom by Behrouz Boochani

Freedom, Only Freedom

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Davidson, Helen. Iranian refugee on Manus Island violently assaulted | Manus Island | The Guardian
2. Ryan, 2018. Inquest into the death of Hamid KHAZAEI. (Ref. no. 2014/3292) Coroners Court of Queensland. 3.
3. Stack, Megan K, Behrooz Boochani Just Wants To Be Free, New York Times, 4 August 2020


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

Kirli Saunders

Kirli Saunders (OAM) is a proud Gunai Woman and award-winning multidisciplinary artist and consultant. An experienced writer, speaker and facilitator advocating for the environment and equality, Kirli creates to connect to make change. She was the NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year (2020) and was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2022 for her contribution to the arts, particularly literature.
Kirli’s celebrated books include Bindi, Our Dreaming, Kindred and The Incredible Freedom Machines. Kirli’s writing features in magazines and journals with Vogue, National Geographic, Kill Your Darlings, and in public art with partners, Red Room Poetry, Aesop, and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Victoria.
Her art has been commissioned by Google, Fender, Sydney Opera House and Government. She is currently working on a world pride exhibition at Cement Fondue and developing her solo play, Going Home, and her second Visual Poetry Collection, Returning (Magabala, 2023).


Community Possum Skin Cloak

(forthcoming in Returning, Magabala, 2023)

~ With thanks to Aunty Loretta Parsley, Nicole Smede, Jo and the O&S Foundation & Bundanon for supporting Aunt & I to teach a community possum skin cloak making project on the river. And to all of the Aunties and Sissys who participated in this magical week of making, thank you.

monoprinted ferns
bakers dozen emerald bower birds
wattle marbled on Banggali
like creamed honey 

sore thumb
cherry blossom
and fire weed
beneath shea-oak and gum

a meditation begun
with singing-bowl bees.

the Blue Wren
fluffs feathers
and cleans beak
of insect crumbs 

currawong slinks between
spotted and fig-strangled trees

skips the stones
of her belly
on river skin
within, the marra
rejoice for the warmth of this day 

noting the skies
and with them, seasons
always change,

rays of sun
sling sticky silver linings
on clouds in celebration,
they knead the path
from mountains to sea
and seven generations 

are proud
of the sewing
we’ve done. 

Kavita Nandan

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 on the postcolonial narratives of Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul at the Australian National University. In 2017, she moved from Canberra to Sydney with her husband, Michael and son, Jesse. Kavita teaches Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She is the author of a book of poems, Return to what Remains (Ginninderra Press, 2022) and a novel, Home after Dark (USP Press, 2014). She is also the editor of a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-editor of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and a book of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her poetry and fiction are published in LiteLitOne, Not Very Quiet, Mindfood, Mascara Literary Review, Transnational Literature, Landfall, The Island Review and Asiatic. She has been a recipient of the artsACT grant three times.


Cartwheels in space

Remember those damn kids
Who did cartwheels on the front lawn
On your strip of earth, in front of your damn house
To show you how damn good they were?
Those sporty-straight-legged girls with golden skin
And you tried too, because you wanted to be like them
Never in front of those deep-blue-Pacific-Ocean eyes of course
But in private
But you never
Could achieve that spinning momentum
Dumped on the back lawn each time
With your legs feeling like two lamb shanks
Your dark hair and skin frizzing in the sun upside down
Experiencing disappointment, like a firecracker that fizzled out.

Today, the latest images from Webb’s telescope
Captured the collision of two galaxies:
A cartwheel galaxy.
And you swore to yourself:
failure is transitory/
miracles do exist.

The perfect weather

A colony of witches’ broom
swept over the sleeping reserve
a trident of coldness that
pried open the mouth with vapours,
set upon the mind, haunting it with unfavourable thoughts,
such as sidewalk paraphernalia – plugs and wires –
getting wet in the rain and
feet sinking in soggy ground;
all of which makes one queasy.
Yet it was the perfect weather
to buy a coffin: black, $1,050, until,
the street lamps flickered off
night transitioned into day, and
the sun came out.