I am a 26 year old trans masculine and disabled person based near Newcastle, NSW. I am currently completing a Masters of Writing and Literature, and am also one of the ABC’s 2023 Regional Storyteller Scholars. I write both fiction and non-fiction, and am also enthusiastic about anything to do with being a dog dad, photography, fitness, and making cis people uncomfortable.
The Mirror World
The dim interior of the barbershop takes a long moment to precipitate as my eyes struggle to adjust to the abrupt change in light. I hear where I am before I see it: the raucous buzz of clippers, the occasional rumble of baritone voices.
“Name?” asks a voice. My vision begins to piece itself back together, pixels of light and colour resolving into finer detail like an image sluggishly loading. The centre loads first, and I see the wet flash of teeth, the curve of a polite smile—then there is a pause and a strange scratching sound. Gradually, the rest of the image sharpens, like the focus ring of a camera being slowly twisted. I see now that the man who’d spoken is messily scrawling my name on a chalkboard.
“You’re after Ryan,” he says, stepping back to the stony-faced man currently enthroned in front of the vanity. I nod and position my wheelchair into a vacant spot against the waiting room wall. I open Instagram and, not wanting to break the silence with the robotic voice of my screen reader, attempt to decode the images without the contextualising information of the captions, occasionally casting an overt glance in the direction of the barber and the man in the vanity chair, whom I assume to be Ryan. When I see the telltale flash of silver that indicates that the barber has retrieved a hand mirror to show him the back, I know he must almost be done. But just as the barber begins to unfasten the gown from around his neck, he raises a finger and asks, as if he’d forgotten, for a beard trim. I swallow a groan and glance at my support worker, who is perched delicately on the chair nearest the door. I imagine I can hear the distant jingle of coins streaming past with every minute, like grains of sand disappearing down the funnel of an hourglass. For approximately the seventh time that hour, I silently give thanks that I don’t have to dig in my own pockets to pay her exorbitant fees, but the pulse of gratitude is quickly followed by one of guilt. I scour my brain for some useful tasks I could get her to help me with while we wait, but I don’t want to leave the radius of the barber and risk losing my precious place on the chalkboard.
Nearly half an hour later, it’s finally my turn. The barber pulls one of the padded chairs out of the way and I wheel into the vacated spot.
“So, what’re we doing?” He asks, tucking a piece of paper towel into my collar. I snap on my brakes and take my glasses off. Instantly, my unaided vision causes the scene to blur and split in two, like a wet ink blot folded against a piece of paper.
“Uhh, pretty short on the back and sides—” I start to say, but my voice dies in my throat. Hidden by the black satin gown fastened around my neck, my wheelchair has vanished, and my face has been reduced to a handful of expressive brushstrokes. With a shiver of de ja vu, I recognise this man. He’d inhabited my imaginings during adolescence—he’d hovered like static just above my skin. I’d only ever known him by his silhouette. The details of his face had never been clear—alternatively resembling Cole Sprouse, Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Hemsworth—and his body was a confusing collage of the muscle-bound men that appeared, again and again, on the glossy covers of magazines, and shirtless on cinema screens, but every glimpse dissolved and I could never be sure that I’d really seen anything at all. As my body became ravaged by an oestrogen-fuelled puberty, he had begun to fade. It had been his face that had disappeared first: his headless torso remaining for just a split second longer, like the decapitated body of a snake writhing for a moment before falling still. And after my diagnosis and surgery, when I’d found my reflection radically amended to include the bulky silhouette of a wheelchair, he’d vanished entirely. Only, here he was, a handsome Frankenstein, miraculously imbued with the semblance of life by some arcane quality, some ancient magic crackling in the air of the barbershop.
The moment flickers, light ricocheting in rainbow lines between two versions of reality—one shedding a slightly translucent twin, a ghostly double. I feel myself become disoriented, as if someone has spun me around and around by my shoulders: I could be here, in this twenty-six-year-old body, the clippers vibrating against my skull, or I could be thirteen again, miraculously transported to the other side of the glass window through which I’d gazed so longingly, the window belonging to the barbershop on the main street of the town I’d grown up in. Like this one, one wall of the shop had been made a window, exhibiting the scene within like a precious jewel in a display case. I remember workbenches studded with a glittering array of razors and scissors and combs; upturned faces daubed with a thick, creamy foam evocative of liquid marshmallows, and, when the sky was overcast, thick slabs of golden light spilling from the windows and stretching across the footpath. I imagined that the golden air inside the shop would be clean and sweet, like that on a mountain-top, a rarefied pocket of atmosphere superior to the slurry of the street outside. But at the same time, I knew that it could never survive the brutish intrusion of my touch—it could exist only behind the glass, like the tiny, perfect diorama inside a snow globe.
Almost two decades later, the barbershop is still there—but the parallelograms of honeyed light have vanished, and in the window, I see only the hard glare of sunlight and the topmost quarter of my waist-high reflection. I also see what has, of course, always been there, but that I had before failed to notice: two thick concrete steps at the entrance, their unforgiving silhouette casting a hard shadow like a hole punched in the earth. Of course, the part I did get right is the candy cane pole. It’s slightly faded, the red now more pink, but it’s still there—twirling cheerfully above the door.
The stripes of the barber’s pole are thought to be emblematic of the practice of bloodletting commonly performed by “barber-surgeons” prior to the 18th century. Barbers also pulled teeth and performed minor surgeries.
More euphemistically, one may consider the stripes as signifying metamorphosis: a constantly turning engine taking in, from one direction, bodies calloused and imperfect, and spitting them out, from the other, polished and cleaned. It was the job of the barber to distinguish between what was to be preserved and what was to be trimmed away. It was, and remains, his job to define the average man, what Adolphe Quetlet termed l’homme moyen, and if he did his job well, he might uncover the exquisite core, the David waiting to be unearthed from within his tomb of marble. Only, what fell around his feet was not ribbons of stone, but loose hair, congealed blood, rotten teeth.
My legs are beginning to ache, and for once I welcome the pain. It pulls me back into the present, into this body that I now recognise as my own. The past that had never been begins to fade, like a polaroid developing in reverse. It does not disappear, but I know it is not real. It is the false twin, the hollow duplicate, the shimmering mirage that will remain forever fixed on the horizon.
We lapse into silence as the barber begins to work. When I hear him take a breath in preparation to speak, I grit my teeth, expecting the usual demand that I explain the scars clearly visible through my shortly buzzed hair, my wheelchair and my slurred voice, but he only says: “Try and hold your head still.”
“Sorry.” I mumble, blushing furiously.
I’m impressed by his restraint, but still know that I will not return. I’d sworn off barbershops after the emergence of a disturbing pattern of experiences, exemplified by one barber trying to physically lift me out of my chair despite my repeated protests (such incidents seemed to occur much less frequently in mixed-gender salons). I had only made an exception because my regular place had been blocked off by recent flooding, and I’d already made a booking with my support worker.
As the barber works, parts of his body creep into my square of clear vision, like photographs taken at maximum zoom. I realise that he is much younger than I’d initially thought—an assumption no doubt caused by the long, bushy beard reaching halfway down his chest, a wiry mass strongly evocative of frayed rope. The beard is a sure sign of a pair of testicles generously ejaculating testosterone into his blood. Despite his skinny jeans and the shoes that my parents would call trendy, the guy looks like a bushranger who has travelled through time. I wonder if, when he’s getting ready in the morning—maybe brushing his beard, maybe coating it with a tiny blob of obscenely expensive wax called Adventure or some shit—if he is aware that his beard will leave behind a gory trail, like a bristly paintbrush dipped in crimson.
Within six months of starting testosterone, hairs began to sprout above my lip: a soft, blonde down that my wavering vision had no chance of bringing into focus. I knew they were there only by touch: when I first ran my finger against the skin and felt the slight cushioning of fuzz my breath caught in my chest, as if I’d spotted a butterfly perched an inch from my hand and knew that to breathe would doubtlessly scare it away. Soon came the sheer sensory pleasure of shaving: sweeping gentle waveforms of creamy foam across my cheeks, pulling it away again in neat stripes, each pass of the razor like that of a sculptor’s chisel. Then the unbelievable ecstasy of a hand rubbed over a stubbled jaw: more a vibration than a sound, like a cat purring.
But almost four years later, my facial hair had plateaued at a wispy little moustache above my upper lip, and I had become thoroughly accustomed to these phenomenological pleasures. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw not the vague smudge above my upper lip, not the sparse peppering of darker hairs across my cheeks and chin, but the great swathes of pink skin, the obscene nudity of my jaw, the lewdly exposed plumpness of my lips. I saw the diminutive warrior I had been allotted for my champion: a soft-featured boy who looked barely to have scraped puberty.
For a couple of months, I tried to bolster my epithelial productivity by smearing my face each night with a foul-smelling liquid marketed to treat male-pattern baldness. The active ingredient was minoxidil, and it came in a bottle with a little dropper. The instructions directed you to apply it to the scalp, but an alternative use was to smack it onto your cheeks and chin like aftershave.
“I better not grow a beard!” My partner had cried once, when I’d kissed her after forgetting that I’d applied minoxidil a few hours previously.
Judging from my own experiences, the likelihood of that eventuality was low. The alleged benefits of minoxidil in stimulating facial hair growth have mostly been established by anecdotal evidence. The most notable exception came in 2016, when a study out of Thailand showed that 3% minoxidil significantly enhanced beard growth in 48 men when compared to a placebo.
The authors of this study, which was written as a letter to the editor of The Journal of Dermatology, were unambiguous when justifying their research: ‘beard enhancement’ they wrote, ‘improves masculine and attractive appearance, signalling dominance, strength and self-confidence’. I am ashamed to admit that my own motivations for pursuing the treatment were not much different—while I felt nothing but overjoyed by the sensations unlocked to me in the first-person, under the scalding gaze of others, I wished for more facial hair. No one would question Ned Kelly or insist to Abraham Lincoln that he was making a mistake. I could do with all the dominance, strength, and self-confidence I could get. But much to my disappointment, no miraculous proliferation of the follicles on my jawline could be discerned, and after a few months, it seemed pointless to continue the expensive and unpleasant regime.
For my birthday that year, my partner gifted me a sleek black electric razor that didn’t require me to stand over the sink to rinse the blade after each stroke. I began to shave from my wheelchair, the mirror reflecting the empty space above my head. I shaved better by feel, anyway: with my eyes closed, tracing my fingers over the Braille of a holy text I’d almost forgotten.
When I came out as trans to my family, my father responded by collecting dozens of scientific papers about transgender biology. He quietly deposited these as PDFs saved in a shared computer folder labelled Papers. I am certain that this campaign was fundamentally well-intentioned—in those dense columns of text, my father was attempting to express his acceptance, or at least his openness to acceptance. He was trying to tell me, to show me, that the transgender experience, at least of the rigidly binary variety, had biological veracity. I remember one such study, which claimed that functional MRI (fMRI) data revealed similar brain activity in transgender individuals and cisgender members of their “aspired gender”. When I read it, each sentence seemed to trail off in an ominous ellipsis. The “objective” delineation of how a transgender brain could work silently brought into existence it’s negative. Between each declaration of data was the shadow of its absence, the obscenity of its inversion. I instantly wondered if such patterns would be evident in my brain: if the enigmatic secrets within my skull would reflect what I felt as the truth?
The opportunity to see inside my own skull came when I was twenty-one. Only, I did not see the painterly brushstrokes of the fMRI study, but the glowing silhouette of a tumour. It was likely benign but had begun to press on my optic nerve, hence the double vision that had sent me to the emergency room. If it wasn’t removed as soon as possible, it would doubtlessly cause what the doctors called “significant issues” (translation: blindness and death). The good news was that surgery alone should be curative, and I was very low risk for any complications. The most likely scenario was just a few days of nausea and the inevitable discomfort of a surgical wound. I would only need to stay in the hospital for a couple of days before I was back to normal.
As one glance at me will reveal, the most likely scenario failed to arrive. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have recognised the cloying incense of statistical premonition, the prayer-like chanting of averages and norms, and prepared myself for the worst. To move, to breathe, to reveal oneself as a living human being rather than a statue, was to fall, to tumble down the steep slope of the bell curve.
Without the orientating pole of the normal, my entire prognosis became uncertain. Would I walk again? Would my vision correct itself? The doctors could only shrug. I was lost, a lonely data point adrift in the negative space beyond statistical expectation.
“How’s that?” The barber asks, and I answer in an octave lower than my normal voice.
“That’s great. Cheers, mate.” He unfastens the cape and I wheel to the register—the cheerful ding of my card against the machine sounding like something from a video game—and then I leave.
Outside, it seems unbelievable that I have escaped. It seems absurd that I am alive, that this queer, trans, disabled body is permitted to exist in the same world where candy cane poles still decorate the street.
I think of the barbershop on the main street of my childhood town. The image I see is two-dimensional, flattened like a photograph. I imagine I see a version of me: a man who is handsome in an overwrought kind of way, with darkly stubbled cheeks and two thickly muscled legs sticking out from below his satin gown. His eyes did not follow mine, did not regard me with familiar tenderness or the bubbling heat of loathing or, in fact, anything at all. They are the painted-on eyes of a doll—hollow, lifeless. His form flickers, and through his skin, I can see the faded vinyl of the barbershop chair, the pale-yellow light. He begins to fade. I know that he will not disappear entirely, but I will become used to seeing him as he is: blurred, slightly translucent, and totally unimportant.
By Fernanda Trías
Reviewed by NATALIA FIGUEROA BARROSO
Within the womb we are connected to our mothers by an umbilical cord. After birth, that cord is cut, but our psychological attachment remains no matter the complexities of our relationship. Under the metrics of neoliberalism, the inequalities of carbon trading and the forces of neocolonialism our connection to Mother Earth is obscured.
Peeling back the layers of motherhood and caregiving and mother earth-hood, right to the muscular tissue, multi award winning Uruguayan author Fernanda Trías’ latest sci-fi novel Pink Slime, translated from Spanish to English, by Heather Cleary is an agonisingly beautiful read.
Written in first person peripheral, but often slipping into future tense, a nameless narrator waits for her ambiguous end, in a nameless port, in a raceless society, in a timeless era, all alone. Through this unnerving and anonymous lens, the narrative unfolds amid a bloodcurdling toxic pink algae-born disease that brings forth lethal red winds, baptised, El Principe (The Prince). Next the fish die, followed by the birds disappearing. Then the haves flee Inland while the have-nots stay behind to fend for themselves.
If anyone becomes infected by this deadly eco-superbug phenomenon their “skin cracked open to the muscle” (p. 17). The city’s inhabitants are forced into lockdown with their cans of Meatrite, “twenty grams of protein per portion, served in a plastic cup” (p. 83). This food product goes into such high demand that its processing plants spit out pink slime, the origin of the title (p. 83). However, it’s the setting’s tone and mood, where this book stands out, well, that and, its striking poetic prose.
Although, Pink Slime is set in a sci-fi post-apocalyptic setting, it is not too far removed from reality, where the global south suffers from environmental pollution, lack of quality healthcare and economic inequality, trapping its disadvantaged citizens in crisis after crisis, directly and indirectly caused by the global north.
Within this grim and contagious environment, Trías examines human nature, relationships and isolation. The nameless narrator ignores her body’s demands, surpassing hunger and survives by keeping herself busy. She quits her copywriting job at a content agency and dissects her days and nights among visiting the last that remain close to her, risking the kiss of death from the not so charming El Principe.
She checks in on her bedridden childhood sweetheart and ex-husband Max, who’s been infected in a self-destructive moment and now a patient at Clinics, conveniently (and inconveniently) not too far from her rundown apartment. And lives with Mauro, a morbidly obese boy with a nameless disability that she’s paid to care for by his affluent and aloof parents, “to watch him get fat and eventually (when?) to watch him die, without feeling the pain a mother would” (p.95).
Oddly she drops in, uninvited, at her mother’s, whom she’s both estranged from, and geographically distant. Their relationship is uncomfortable, like sunburnt skin. Her mother lives Inland, up north of the (almost) nameless South American country near Brazil (p.54). I say almost because there are little clues, in particular for Latinx readers, like the insertion of the sweet, dulce de leche (p. 92), a word used in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and parts of Colombia and Venezuela. But the inclusion of the tart, pastafrola (p. 100), a dessert that Italian immigrants brought to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, refines the location of this book.
Cyanobacterial blooms in Uruguay’s Río de la Plata are a common occurrence. Now with climate change at our riverbanks, ever more so. And as I dive into each sensory image in Pink Slime, such as, “Unless you’ve lived it, you could never imagine the nauseating stench, the sudden heat, the river swelling like an octopus, foam tinted crimson by algae” (p.15), my mind travels back to Uruguay, January 2016, when I held a glass filled with tap water to the sunlight and found: tiny phlegm-like blue-green algae floating in my drink at my sweaty pale grip.
This memory triggered by the novel’s atmosphere, made me wonder where Trías got the grim, but brilliant idea for her Orwellian narrative. I close its pages for a moment and google the following:
“It began with a nightmare. Night after night, I would dream about pollution spreading in waves and ripping off my skin. I would look down and see my skin hanging off me in strips.” (Trías, F. 2023, Scribe Publications)
After reading the author’s note the novel’s non-linear structure makes even more sense to me, as the beginnings and endings, and the passing of time itself are questioned throughout the story’s arc. The beginning of this book is not the true beginning of this dystopian world. As the nameless narrator on the first page declares, “I was never any good with beginnings,” and it’s not until page 154 that she redeclares, “This is how our new official story begins.”
As well there’s the motif of inhabiting a timeless world, where Trías explores living in a place where clocks and calendars are a thing of the distant past.
Take the following:
“… time was measured by a different kind of clock: wind or fog, grey or red, power or blackout; it passed according to Mauro’s cycles of hunger, the preparation of meals, and my ability to keep my distance from Max. So when I talk about days, weeks, and hours, I do it as a way to organise my thoughts, to give meaning to the stagnant memory” (p.194).
The novel’s structure flows like an unnerving nightmare. As a reader I am thrown from one timeless moment to the next, and a lot of foretelling occurs as I land in different points in this non-time within the narrative, creating a cunning sense of dramatic tension like an anxiety blistering at the face of the environmental, the viral and the emotional.
“I was afraid the world would come crashing down around me if I stopped moving, and when I say the world what I mean is the past, because the fragile and wavering present I’d had until a few hours ago was coming to an end” (p.135).
I am hooked, even at the face of the utterly uninviting.
Additionally, the juxtaposition of the ecological catastrophe alongside the sluggishly painful ending of the nameless narrator’s complex relationships with her mother, ex and Mauro, generates a visceral sense of an outer and inner turmoil. This is further coupled with anonymity of self, place, and time evoking an ingenious metaphor for an emotional world in crisis, which again adds to the dramatic tension.
Hopelessness and meaninglessness are prominent themes in the plot. And the strong visual imagery that represents these ideas, in addition, become metaphors for the nameless narrator’s state of mind. Such as, when she wakes up exhausted next to Mauro, and continues doing her caregiving task mechanically and absentmindedly, and expresses how, “Sometimes I picture myself digging a long, deep tunnel to another land. But all my escape routes led me back to Max, like those circular highway exits that spit you back out right where you started” (p. 87).
A few pages later in the novel, in another timeless moment, the nameless narrator dials for a taxi out of the port and to the Inland, and is led to an automated message with three options to press. But unfortunately, like her internal predicament she, “circled around the maze of options leading nowhere for a while …” (p. 93).
Finally, I want to bring attention to Trías’ gorgeous poetic prose through her use of poignant similes, as they added an extra layer of skin to peel back and examine throughout the text. When describing her mother’s ironically named, country suburb of Los Pozos (The Pitts), at the non-beginning of the novel, when the nameless narrator goes to visit her, she compares it to, “It was as if the clouds formed there, exhaled by the earth itself, and you could feel the moisture on your face as slow and cold as a slug’s trail” (p. 8).
Immediately, I feel uncomfortable arriving at Los Pozos as I read this. Making me innately mimic the protagonist’s internal world in calamity via Trías’ clever use of one emotionally stirring comparison.
I adored Pink Slime by Fernanda Trías translated by Heather Cleary, its atmosphere, its poetry, its politics, its humanity peeled back to the muscular tissue like a lab rat under the knife of a scientist, and I would be more than happy to reread it in Spanish. Perhaps by revisiting it in my mother tongue, I too could circle back to a new beginning.
Mugre Rosa was released 5 October 2020, and its translation Pink Slime was released 1 August 2023. Follow the author on Instagram: @triasfernanda.
NATALIA FIGUEROA BAROSSO is a Uruguayan-Australian poet and storyteller of Charrúa, African and Iberian origins who lives on Dharug Country. Her work has appeared in the collections Sweatshop Women: Volume One, Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry, Any Saturday, 2021. Running Westward and Between Two Worlds and various literary magazines. Natalia’s currently working on her debut novel, Hailstones Fell without Rain (2025, UQP). She posts at @ms_figueroa_barroso
Ed. David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Awad
Reviewed by NICOLE SMITH
Within these pages is a cohort of activist consumers, neurodivergent creatives, psychiatric and trauma survivors, dreamers, community leaders and mind-bending writers.
I dive into Admissions: Voices Within Mental Health. A mosaic of 105 Australian voices follows, in the form of poetry, short fiction, rap lyrics, essays and illustrations. Well-known names Anna Spargo-Ryan, Krissy Kneen, Omar Sakr, Felicity Ward, and Grace Tame are anthologised with 30 emerging writers who were chosen through a 2021 MAD Poetry callout by Red Room Poetry. The foreword affirms:
Everything within these pages is someone’s truth.
The editors pledged to approach the works in Admissions with ‘radical empathy’ imploring readers to do the same, because we are all human, regardless of mental health challenges. As Luka Lesson reminds us:
There are 206 bones in our bodies
are just like yours.
The readers are reminded of this shared humanity so that they may come to the anthology without prejudice and join the writers and editors on a mission to rid the world of stigma around mental health.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is only cited twice, demonstrating that the anthology’s interest does not lie in pathology, but in the interpersonal experience of living with such challenges.
In the words of editors David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury and Mohammad Awad Admissions seeks to show how:
…art and language can expiate suffering. Art as release, art as relief, art as recovery, remission, remediation.
Such words are echoes lines by Quinn Eades that evoke the complicated relationship we have with writing, and explore writing as therapy:
we are mad to write and mad to not write we carry this book for so long that it is become
Artist and contributor, Amani Haydar’s cover image shows a woman with one eye closed, symbolising both a phobia of seeing ourselves, and a desire to be acknowledged by others.
The anthology is organised in reverse alphabetical order by surname, echoing Alice Blayney’s inclusion ‘The Z-A of Crazy’. Each piece questions and reframes stereotypes of mental illness, and associated trauma and recovery, using different tones and a vast vocabulary to regain power and convey identity.
The collection has narratives, in the first person such as Chowdhury’s ‘Motherlines’:
In our preliminary session, my first psych told me that I should think of treatment and recovery as a nonlinear path with an ever-shifting end point.;
the second person, such as Hefferan’s ‘from the book of puns and other altered sentences’:
it is twenty minutes since you took your meds Zyprexa, the communion wafer the blasphemous one instead of taking it on the tongue you take it under the roof of your mouth.;
and third person, such as Mununggurr’s ‘Point of No Return;
She closes her eyes
only starless skies, opens then
Still only darkness.
The collection explores a variety of environments and themes including the uncertainty of COVID-19, the emotional turmoil caused by intrusive thoughts, body image, growing up with a parent with mental illness, psychiatric hospital stays, face-blindness on a first date, swimming with dolphins as treatment for depression and smart ovens keeping the lonely company. This variety, while certainly part of the book’s charm, is one reason I would caution against reading Admissions in one sitting. The use of figurative language and symbolism means some lines delight in ways that can be easily missed. Here is an example from ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’:
I ran a bubble bath, it went flat
I had a falling out with myself, I’m not talking to myself anymore.
My favourite are the grounded memoir pieces, particularly those with a familial focus, for example: Kristen Dunphy struggling with a loss of control surrounding her wife’s illness and a feeling of helplessness when supporting their daughter:
When will Mummy stop being sad? She asks me. …The woman I married is no longer here. She is the ghost of her former self.
The genetic nature of mental health is referenced by Samson L. Soulsby :
Madness runs in the family like greyhounds.
Krissy Kneen continues the familial thread:
I am learning about time
who look nothing like my father
who remind me of his absence.
The familial theme takes a hauntingly beautiful turn with the inclusion of a piece by Annette and Stuart Baker reflecting on their deep sorrow on the loss of their daughter Mary. The reflection is placed directly after Mary ‘s poem ‘The Key’, in which she speaks of freedom and longing to break out of a cage like a bird:
So unravel this cocoon of your protection,
Untie this chain of your love
Open the door, release me.
Trust that I won’t fly away.
But if I do, Trust that it is for the best.
The inclusion of Mary Baker as well as Benjamin Frater, two artists whose mental health battles also ended in suicide is evidence that words live on and emphasises the strength of those fighting mental ill-health.
Parts of Admissions feel frenetic, especially those written in a loud collective voice (often written in capital letters) such as Steven Oliver’s CARRY ALL THE HURT AWAY.
The abstract nature of the poetry is admirable yet alienating. At times it feels the poetry is deliberately obscure, as I was left to infer meaning from syntax, structure and meter I’d never seen before. No doubt many of the poems are it is intelligent, and evocative, however the non-linearity meant I had to read the poems multiple times which prevented me from becoming fully immersed. One wonders I wondered if the chaotic and at times nonsensical elements are included to evoke the disconcerting nature of dissociation and ill-health ‘episodes’. For, as the anthology makes clear, although there can be a sense of pride for those with diverse brain chemistry, many wish to no longer be on the outskirts of their own lives.
Conversely, the pieces that read as inner monologues, for example, Olivia Hamilton’s ‘Time Lapse’, or have excerpts of academic text, for example, Martin Ingle’s exploration of OCD ‘A victim who feels like a villain’ are consumed with ease.
A word of caution: the book takes a candid approach to taboo topics such as sexual assault and rape that may prove confronting for some.
The contributions by First Nations writers Brooke Scobie and Kirli Saunders conjure the Australian landscape, flora and fauna, connecting it to vulnerability and emotions:
…measured by acacia blooming, echidna trains, winds that change, moon who wanes.
Throughout Admissions, the failing mental health system, and its need for more funding is variously hinted at and explicitly stated. At times, readers could be forgiven for thinking that works are set in prisons, rather than mental health facilities. For example, KJ writes:
Escorted to my room My packed-the day-before bag holds my hand
Inside the remnants of my sanity;
I was not there in my self while my body
lay on the bare mattress and screamed
for my return.
However, as Jeffs reminds us:
The madwoman in this poem
is any woman
is a mother, daughter, sister, lover, friend –
the madwoman in this poem –
Admissions reminds all of us that as beautiful, confronting, confusing, funning, disorienting, brave, sorrowful, infuriating or joyous the experience of mental illness can be, these writers are us. These stories are, or could be at any moment our stories, and it is in all our interests to pay attention to, and improve the narratives surrounding mental health in Australia.
NICOLE SMITH is a writer with Cerebral Palsy living and working on Wurundjeri land. She has a blog where she interviews social entrepreneurs. Last year she was a Storming the City mentor with the Writeability program and ran an ‘Effective Interviewing’ workshop.
Eva Hale is a young Australian writer and poet, currently based out of Hobart, Tasmania. She has several publications under her belt, including several features in Pure Slush, The Platform Project Magazine, and Togatus. She has been a state finalist in the Australian National Poetry Slam in 2021, winner of the Platform Project in 2021 and a winner of ASA Tasmanian Writers and Illustrators Mentorship Program in 2022, wherein she has been studying under mentor Mark Macleod in 2023. She completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Writing at the University of Tasmania in 2023 and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at the UTAS student magazine, Togatus.
It accumulates over months. Small teasing gestures and outright teasing that simmers with a yearning that tugs at my chest. There are inside jokes about his flaccid bowl-cut and my unruly baby hairs that curl around my forehead in the humidity. I am still somewhat shiny and new to town after moving in with my father. He is desperate for any sort of spark after a damning childhood as the chubby kid. It is tragic and brutal, the way we twist together. It is the cruellest part of me that I can never undo.
At the ancient theatre in town, I drag my best friend along on what I am worried is my first date with him. We arrive early, and in the disappearing light of dusk, I spot him with a group of friends. They are all popular and clique and known-each-other-since-kindergarten. I have always kept my chin tucked around them. He pretends not to notice me, so I duck away in a cavern of the wooden structure. The custard yellow paint is cracked with moisture and pulling away from the timber. The theatre is almost one hundred years old, apparently, and proudly advertises being held together by over two-hundred and fifty-thousand nails, which I find peculiar. When I first visited the establishment with my previous best friend (the turnaround is fast in these early days of high school), I whispered to her as we stood in front of the counter, “I wonder who was counting.”
My current best friend stares past my shoulder as she leans against a lamppost. “He’s staring at you,” she tells me. But when I turn, he is talking to the pretty girl on the swim team.
I pay for our tickets, as she is both crabby and thrilled to be dragged along to watch the new Captain America. “We haven’t even seen the first one,” she whines as we drape in the canvas camper chairs and wait for the low-budget local advertisements to begin.
“I’m sure we can pick it up.” I tell her, but I myself am deflated at the thought of watching a superhero movie separate from the boy who invited me. He is with his group up the front, and we are tucked up the back, terrified of addressing the elephant in the room. Several times, I hear the deep echo of his voice, laughing.
After forty minutes, my friend and I have made a game of the film, cracking jokes every time an action scene occurs and picking apart the viability of the plot. We are insufferable and squawking with pubescent giggles when I notice him duck out of the row and skirt the perimeter of the seating area. I fall silent as my heart thumps in my chest, staring straight ahead at Chris Evans, who is flirting with Scarlet Johanson. Even when he falls into the seat beside me, I don’t look away from the screen. I don’t remember what we whisper about, but I remember that he nervously stares at my mouth and the side of my face as my body threatens to tear in two from the tension of it. When he retreats to his group of friends, I stare at his back, hunched over as he tries not to block the screen.
On our actual first date, we return to the old theatre. The ceiling arches in a massive bell curve, framing his shape as he leans against the posters of what’s showing. We watch a romcom that I don’t really find funny or romantic, and our hands drift closer and closer together until, in the last few minutes, our pinkies overlap with an electric simplicity.
Someone from the grade above us calls him Joshua and he doesn’t correct her. Neither do I. When his dad is waiting in the car to pick him up, I feel dejected and slightly put-off by it. Other kids relying on their parents has always felt embarrassing to me. I have taken to walking everywhere, even in the pouring rain. My father wakes up late and starts drinking early. At night, I walk through the haunted oval littered with needles and I scan the shadows with unblinking eyes. I pretend to yearn for nothing, as I am worried that asking for anything will make me seem weak. Or worse, it will land me back with my mother.
After barely a month of us officially ‘going-out’, he tells me that he loves me at the sports carnival. I glare at him as my friends look away, wide-eyed and uneasy. How could he put me on the spot like this, in a crowd of people?
Cold and annoyed, I say, “No, you don’t.”
He insists and insists as I push him away from me. He clings onto my knees, tenderly, like a lifeline as I scowl at him. I kick my sneakers into the red clay of the slope we sit on, adamant on ignoring him. He wilts and sulks into me, desperate for a crumb of affection.
At school, everyone says that he is wrapped around my finger. His doting, although irritating and demanding of attention, fills me with a clean, crisp wholeness. When people ask his name, he tells them mine first. It is thrilling to have someone so devoted to me after a childhood of dejection and loneliness, of being warned that the foster home is a phone call away.
I have figured out how to kick the dog and keep it coming back for more.
I take his foggy-eyed puppy love and I grind it into a paste of bones and blood and sinew. When he watches me as though I am his entire world, I decide that this is both lovely and annoying. How stupid he is, I think. How blind to the gritty and violating truth of loving someone. At just fourteen years old, I am jaded, and he is not, and I decide that this is a crime worth punishing.
One night, he tells me that his mother used to date some really scary men. He tells me that he would have to watch as they hit her, and he was too small to do anything. He felt so powerless, and he tells me that sometimes, he still feels that way. When I ask if the men ever did anything to hurt him, he says no. I don’t remember what I say in response, but I am sure it is bad.
I am so deeply embarrassed by my attachment to him that I keep him a secret for as long as possible. When my older sister pesters me about my pubescent love life, I easily slip into a hard, marble version of myself. After almost six months, I finally give in. Regret fills me immediately, as this secret vulnerability spills over to her boyfriend, our other sisters, even our mother. I am mortified, disgusted, humiliated.
Withdrawn and frigid, I hold myself out of reach. Still, he reaches and caresses and reassures me, like I am a scruffy alley cat suspicious of a dish of milk.
After a trivia night fundraiser in the school gymnasium, I leave the bright lights and pressing discomfort of mixing teenagers with the general public. He walks me toward an eerily empty Kiss & Go Zone, a few steps behind. My body fills with heavy, viscous dread as I see the headlights of my sister’s car pull into the lot. Of course, I realise, my father would never have been in a state to drive so late.
“You can go now,” I assure, trying to proverbially shake him off. As always, he insists and dotes, wanting to make sure I get to the car safe. It is gentlemanly and chivalrous and irritating like an itch that has been scratched to a wound but still has the audacity to itch.
My sister shouts hello to him, and my body becomes rigid. He kisses me on the cheek and pulls away, but she objects.
“Give her a real kiss!” She bellows from the driver’s seat, and I’m petrified that the crowd in the gymnasium might hear. He seems equal parts ecstatic and frightened at the prospect of sharing our first kiss here, now. His eyes are wide and longing, searching mine. I look past him, at the railings lining the cement footpath, the kind that leave an unavoidably sharp and bitter metallic scent when touched. The footpath around the school is covered by a tin roof to protect from the almost constant cover of rain. The assault of raindrops rattles in my ears, the perfume of it heavy in the wet air. I can even smell the tinny whisper of the railings if I focus hard enough. The shadows from the headlights stretch and claw at everything behind him, but when I close my eyes to block it out, I think he mistakes this for a permission.
Almost a year passes between us. At the old theatre, we see movies as an excuse to make out and whisper adorations to one another. I squeak and moan as he kisses my neck, making the entire audience squirm with discomfort. In the everchanging shadows of the theatre, we are mostly symbiotic. In the dark, I let myself fall into it the way I think I’m supposed to.
It’s here that, after months of alluding and implying, I tell him that I love him. I have avoided it for so long, spurring on a narrative of being too afraid to say the exact words. I don’t know when I decide that I can’t draw it out any longer. In a way, it feels like a mercy, despite being the cruellest lie I could spin. Outside of the movie theatre, I am robotic and cold with him. I drive him to desperate frustration and then dare him to break up with me (a sort of pleading). He never does. I am so far removed from him, yet am drawn to sinking my roots even deeper, clinging on to a half-dead thing. I am skin over bones with a gnawingly sweet disposition. I have run out of superficial ways to keep him enamoured with me.
And so, in the dank concave cavern of the decrepit movie theatre, I finally say the words, so ridiculously long after he first gave his heart to me. I do this because, after so long, I am certain that it should be true. I am also almost certain that it is not.
“Do you want to break up?” His voice shakes, quiet in the forest.
I have been trying to say it for half an hour, opening and closing my mouth like a jittery fish as I avoid his eyes. I couldn’t even do this without his undercurrent of support. I stare at the roots gnarled, twisting out of and back into the dirt. I toy with a stick, some grass, anything to keep my hands busy. I’ve been wanting this for a long time, frightened of the tired familiarity of our relationship. I am repulsed by any hint of my soft underbelly. He met my mother recently, and that hot brand of shame that pressed into me made me sure that we had reached our end.
I nod, unable to form words. We stay silent for a long time, and I can feel him concave but say nothing. He walks me home, and when we go to part ways, I awkwardly jut out my hand for him to shake. He stares at it for a moment, then smiles affectionately, the skin around his eyes crinkling in a way only meant for me. His eyes are so sleepily sad, like he’s waiting to wake up from a horrible dream. I cannot tell if I’m the horrible dream or me leaving him is the horrible dream.
The grief knots itself into my body until I am a fabric of it. It does not feel the way I want it to feel, the way I expected it to feel. Something gluey and saccharine emerges from the cracks, something that instils me with fear. Early the next morning, I call him, feeling hysteric. I don’t understand why I’m doing this. It’s not fair to him. I do it anyway.
He picks up on the second ring.
“Hey,” he says, soft.
“Hey.” I reply, struggling to find the words. After a long time, I ask, “How are you?”
He laughs, once. “Um,”
“Sorry, I mean,” I inhale, shake my head. “Are you going to school today?”
“Yeah,” he says, still soft, “Are you?”
I sit on this for a moment. I truly had expected him to skip after yesterday. A small part of me bristles at this; have I not broken him completely? Do I not have the power to do even that? I try to push this thought away.
When I tell him that I think we should just go on a break, he is relieved. I tell him that I need space. That I need to work on myself to be better for him. That I haven’t been good, and I want to be better. It’s usually quite easy to convince him, so that’s not too impressive. The impressive part is that I manage to convince myself.
I have always been frigid and avoidant of intimacy, and sexual intimacy is no exception to that. I’ve been clear about this with him, and he’s never pushed me, but there is a quiet yearnful tug from him. It grates on me. Once, he asks if he can move my bra strap while kissing my shoulder and I become detached and cold, pulling away from him completely. The thought of sex is a daunting and ever-present fear I try desperately to avoid.
At this point, I aware that there is something wrong with me, but I cannot comprehend what it is. I find the world’s obsession with sex grotesque and distorted. I cannot look directly into the face of it, I am constantly averting my eyes. At this point, I have been assaulted many times, but will not remember for several years to come. I am terrified of my own ever-changing body. Thus, I am repulsed by him trying to love it.
When he asks why I wanted to break up with him, I tell him that I wanted to kill myself, but didn’t want him to feel guilty about it. This is both true and untrue. He tries to hold me, panicked at the possibility of losing me, grappling at the second chance, but it doesn’t reach me. I have felt so alien for so long, so far removed from everyone else. I am worried about this, so I lean into him, trying to be more upset than I feel. It’s like I am calcified, cut off from the whole world, lost in a tomb of myself.
I do not understand how he can love me like I do not understand how my father ever loved my mother. My poor mother. Her screaming furies and cold indifference. Her cheekbones. Her pestering phone calls and threatening affection. To me, he is something of a gross experiment and I am dismayed by the outcome. If he can still want me after all I’ve done to him, I can still want my mother.
I break up with him again, over text, one month before I turn sixteen. I am terrified that once I am the age of consent, he will expect me to have sex with him. It is callous and cruel and easy because I know that if I wait to do it in person, I will be too much of a coward. Again.
The new school year is bitter. It is clear he still loves me and is furious about it. He glares at me, and I glare at him. We spit acid at one another, with me petrified that he will make me look weak or vulnerable, and him inconsolably heartbroken. We are the picture of a young love gone sour, the two people who are not put in a room together. In classes, he is sullen and resentful. He flirts with my friends to get my attention and I look at him like he is an ugly wound that won’t close. We are not fair to each other.
In these years after, he breaks his leg and drops out of school midway through our final year. I starve myself and attempt suicide half a dozen times. My body is stubborn and refuses to let go. On his last day, the class asks me to write the farewell card because I have nice handwriting. I wonder if he notices.
In the narrowing months wherein we still inhabit the same small-town-planet, there is a moment of indignation in which I harshly admit to a girl in my class that I never loved him (I did have love for him, I’m sure. I hated so much of him but loved the feeling of being so blindly adored. I had cared for him deeply, I think; a regretful and pitying fondness). At a party I’m not invited to, she gets drunk and this secret spills over into the textile of the student body, drenching him in renewed despair and humiliation. It is only now that I begin to feel sorry for him, for what I’ve done. After I have delivered this final, gut-wrenching blow to a boy who made the mistake of falling for me, I see myself for the snarling animal I’ve always been. So frightened of losing control that I will create the illusion of it wherever possible. When I see an old photograph of us together, I realise that I’ve grown to look a lot like my mother.
by Brenda Saunders
Reviewed by BEN HESSION
Inland Sea is the third full collection by Brenda Saunders, a Wiradjuri writer, following a somewhat lengthy hiatus. Saunders’ last collection, The Sound of Red, was published back in 2014. Her debut volume, Looking for Bullin Bullin, had won the 2014 Scanlon Prize for Indigenous poetry. Like that collection, Inland Sea, provides a particular focus on Aboriginality, although doing so via the intimate connection with Country through which the impact of colonization is also examined. The title, itself, is an ironic play on that body of water which had eluded the expectations of the English explorer, Charles Sturt. We see in Inland Sea Saunders conducting her own explorations from an Aboriginal perspective and throughout the collection, her poems are infused with energy and precision, marking a welcome return.
Importantly, Saunders is not solely a writer, but is also a visual artist, with ekphrastic poetry being a significant feature of her work generally. The Sound of Red, for instance, had seen Saunders respond to paintings by Rothko, de Chirico and Goya among others. Ironically, with ‘Reinventing the landscape’ Country is viewed through the literal and figurative framing of a non Aboriginal painter, Fred Williams. Yet, as the concluding stanzas show, there is a kind of retrieval of an Aboriginal perspective through an intensely personal response to Williams’ portraits:
I move through rooms of golden summers, smell the sun
in scumbled oils. A patch of yellow becomes a sway
of native grasses. Across a field his stunted bushes
hold the horizon against the white heat of the sky.
If I could reach out. I would follow the fence line
finger my way through a patch of scrub. Rows of acacias
in scabby dots, the stumps of trees felled after a fire.
Feel charcoal under my nails, bush crackling as I pass.
(76-7 The Sound of Red)
Arguably, for Saunders, this is a continuation of her interpretation of five portraits of Aboriginal people by Russell Drysdale, another non-Indigenous painter, in Looking for Bullin Bullin, where also, there have been acts of retrieval, with the most overt being in ‘Mother and Child’
Subtle fingers control her son ready
to leave this three-minute sketch.
Her eyes look out to a distant time
when the tribe roamed freely
out of the white man’s gaze.
(69 Looking for Bullin Bullin)
And in ‘Sketch of a girl’, as well:
She looks up, her stance demure
Uncertain under the artist’s scrutiny.
His pen scratches bold lines,
captures her image as ‘exotic other’
framed to a white man’s needs.
(70 Looking for Bullin Bullin)
With Inland Sea, the poem ‘Figures in a Landscape’ has Saunders continue this practice of retrieval, as well as re-inscribing the Indigenous history of place as she responds to Charles
Conden’s painting, Sydney Harbour:
I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall
easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk
float as white sails on water. Ignore
the man waving from the house.
They wander, as dark clouds mass above
peer into rock pools, where we once
collected guatuma, a fishing site
of the Gadigal we still call Banarung. (67)
In ‘At the Falls’ I and II, she goes further, detailing the impact of settler presence on Country:
This is no place of wonderment or renewal.
There is no magic, no sprites to leap from
the bower. Darker forces half-revealed
hide behind the weight of water. Whispers
of ancient rites surface on shallow ponds.
Below the falls, stories of desecration
and death flow on through tribal memory. (71)
For the most part, however, in this present collection, Saunders has eschewed the white Australian filter in re-tracing identity. What comes first in the collection – and what puts these latter ekphrastic pieces into context – are the direct responses to Country that Saunders paints with vivid detail. As we see in ‘Spinifex rings’:
These creatures hide in rasping folds
of hummock grass, hunt with night vision
for invisible gnats breeding in shadow
caught off guard by a cloudy moon.
Corellas fly low over lignum bush, swing
and dip on a spinifex stalk. Sharp eyes
spy a beetle or moth in their path (10)
Here, a crisp lyricism of action highlights the vitality of Country, raising it from abstraction and affirming its essence. With the poem, ‘inland sea’ Saunders, again, focuses on a ‘micro cosmos/ teeming with life’:
flash a miniature flame
through tiny succulents
carnivores varied as coral
wave vivid flowers
to their water garden (12)
With short lines and sans punctuation, Saunders allows a greater sense of flux among the depicted activities. From this perspective, the inland sea reveals itself as something brimming with promise, rather than an appellation for disappointment. What this poem demonstrates also, as does ‘Spinifex rings’ and others in this collection, is a kind of Imagist restraint, with ‘presentation rather than representation’ (Jones 31) being at the fore. It is perhaps no surprise that we find in the second part of ‘bird brain’:
at his lover
in the cold glint
of mercury (48)
The direct treatment of phenomena allows the life within Country to appear as an innate language and voice within itself. Yet, Country is not solely a physical presence, as Saunders observes from the start in ‘Echidna Chasm’, it is necessarily born from the Dreaming:
She leads us through a narrow cleft
sheer walls scraped clean
with her spiny back a gorge red hot
bounces from white light to shadow
the sky a blue slit above
Rounded sockets mark her journey
the ball of a heel a trail left behind
as she rushes through mud shaping
Bungle Bungle Country (9)
The acknowledgement of the Dreaming offers a holistic understanding of place, where the land, and the world it supports, are viewed as a single entity. This is contrasted in the collection with the European empiricism and its consequent logic. In the poem ‘Dead Centre’ Saunders quotes Sturt’s observation that the ‘scrub without a break in its monotonous surface’ should be necessarily indicative of an interior coastal shore. Thereafter, she juxtaposes Aboriginal perspectives of Sturt’s expedition with those of his own. Finally, we see Sturt defeated, his thoughts pooling in an intermittent stream of consciousness:
a promised sea
shimmers the horizon
a wooden boat
drives every footstep
of the valiant (15)
Elsewhere, the settler colonial perspective that quantifies Country is also shown to commodify it. One of the central themes in Inland Sea is the conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conceptualisations of land – somewhere to find harmony within it versus exploiting its resources, especially for individual or corporate profit. In the poem,‘Inland Sea’, for example, farming competes with wildlife for water (13). In ‘Scarred Landscape’ ‘ Moving like ants, giant loaders dredge the inside out of the iron ore plain’ (16). Against this, we may compare ‘Black boys’, ‘Wild Honey Tour’ and ‘Mulga stories’. Here, in this latter poem, we can see:
He speaks fondly of this ancient tree
of many cycles yielding flowers
and seeds, a steady food always
ripe for picking. Shows us bark
easily shed for a woman’s carry-all
wood that burns brightest, cools
to a white ash, good for Ceremony (59)
The poem, ‘Red Centre’, notes with a laconic sense of humour the treatment of cultural connection as a spectacle:
Mpartntwe springs lie reflex blue in a rim of rock
From the camp nearby women shuffle red earth
Dance a mulga ant story. Amaze the drop-in tourists. (17)
The sad impact of this, however, runs deep, as does the consequent irony:
Some take souvenirs, send them back, complaining
of bad luck. The Mala woman’s grief weighs down stones
in their pockets. She sighs, finds her tchurunga stolen,
stored in a city museum, for safety and prosterity. (17)
The tension is more pronounced where, in ‘Cullen Bullen’, the violence inflicted on Country, is mirrored by that suffered by local Indigenous people:
This working mine has cut a swath for miles
worked underground ‘til the last seam is spent
Up close, I find a hill sliced in two, the cliff-face
left gaping red
Remember fragments passed down. Generations
of hillside burials, ground slaked
with the blood of Ancestors after ‘the Round Up’ (73)
The poem reflects on the attempted erasure of history and connection:
The web reports on wealthy Developers
building roads over hunting tracks
Woodland cleared to mine the black rock
in the name of progress
Has nothing to say on our history. First People
living, thriving here, who left without a trace
Driven off Country. Lost in plain sight. (74)
In Poor fella Country connection and erasure are particularly current concerns:
Scattered clans can no longer care for Country
Without Language, the Elders have no power
Over young ones living the white man’s dream
I see sorrow in our people sitting on Country
Wasted in spirit, they suffer, hold a sickness
inside, as mining grinds their stories away. (23)
In an article for the Writing NSW website, Saunders, herself, says she seems to have been writing for her community all her adult life. (Writing NSW) This may not have always been obvious in her previous collection, but it is certainly clear in Inland Sea, where it finds expression replete with skill and confidence. In the same article, she adds: ‘Our cultural history has survived dispossession: ties to Country continue to sustain Aboriginal people today and, as a poet, I feel impelled to write to this power.’ (Writing NSW)
The final poem of this collection, ‘Singing the land’, echoes this statement, where there connection remains, there is a vibrant continuity and an intrinsic sense of hope:
Along the quay painted Kooris
play the didge add clapsticks
chant to sell their CDs
Amplified the music thunders
under my feet
wakes the yidaki spirit first music
sings this ancient land. (81)
As we see here, the politics of identity is not without passion. This is true throughout Inland Sea. More than retrieval, perhaps, the collection is about reclaiming and a re-affirmation of Indigeneity. In this it may be viewed as a return to first principles, and articulating the voice of Country, which, despite the referendum result, as Saunders shows, will not be silenced.
Imagist Poetry, ed. Peter Jones, Penguin Classics, London, England, 2001
Saunders, Brenda. Looking for Bullin Bullin, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne Victoria Australia 2012.
Saunders, Brenda. The Sound of Red, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, 2013.
Saunders, Brenda. ‘Feature Articles/ Brenda Saunders on writing about, for and within communities’, Writing NSW, March 29, 2022, writingnsw.org.au/brenda-saunders-on-writing-about-for-and-within-communities.
BEN HESSION is a writer and critic based in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib, Live Encounters: Poetry and Writing and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.
Natasha Rai, an Indian-Australian woman, was born in India, migrating to Australia with her parents at the age of ten. She lived in the UK for several years as an adult, and the influence of three homes features in her writing. Her work has appeared in Australia’s first #MeToo anthology, Enough anthology about gender violence, Overland, Verity La, StylusLit, and New-York based Adelaide magazine. Her first novel, AN ONSLAUGHT OF LIGHT, longlisted for the 2017 Richell Prize, 2018 KYD Unpublished Manuscript award, and highly commended for the Ultimo Press/Westwords 2020 Prize, will be published by Pantera Press in 2025.
The first pair are thongs. She almost misses them, running past the yellow house on the pretty street with overhanging trees. For a moment, she considers stopping, but doesn’t want to break the rhythm of her run. The image of the thongs glues itself onto her brain. She deliberately loops back on the way home. They’re still there, undisturbed.
‘They looked so weird. On the street, one in front of the other facing the house, as though the person wearing them evaporated and left their thongs behind,’ she says to her husband, at home, after a cool shower.
He grunts, staring at his phone.
‘Did you hear what I said?’ She wants to rip the phone from his hand and smash it on the kitchen tiles.
‘Flip flops,’ says her husband, smiling at his phone.
She leaves the room, knowing he hasn’t noticed she’s gone.
Her Friday run is by the water’s edge on a street where a straggly row of houses looms silently. Trees with triumphant roots bursting out of the tarmac, watch impassively as she dodges the bumps. This time she stops. A pair of women’s black flats. Like the thongs, they are placed in the style of someone who has stepped out of them mid stride. Should she take a photo? She looks up and down the street, empty apart from her and the shoes, the promise of day showing in the gold and pink edging of clouds.
She takes a photo and runs up the hill, irritated at herself for stopping for something that is so obviously a joke. Or a prank? Is she going to stumble across a Tik Tok of her staring dumbly at shoes while the world laughs at her? At home, she shows the photo to her husband, who glances at it and away as though she’s shown him hardcore porn. Looking at the photo anew, she sees the banality of the shoes. One click, and it’s deleted.
Her best friend, Chloe, comes over. They stroll down to the shops – coffee, shopping, maybe a cheeky afternoon wine.
‘There’s a house I saw online for sale,’ says Chloe. ‘Wanna see?’
They head down one of the steep streets towards the glinting water. A trickle of sweat runs down her back, and her face is awash with it. They go past the pub, a blast of aircon through the open door beckoning to her.
‘Let’s go in here. It’s so hot,’ she says, wishing she could tug Chloe’s hand and pull her into the cold interior of the pub; the promise of oblivion in every bottle, winking at her behind the bar.
‘We’re nearly there,’ says Chloe. ‘C’mon.’
The house is gorgeous – two storeys, recently painted, a miniscule rectangle of waving plants lining the short path to the front door.
‘It’s nice,’ she says to Chloe, knowing her friend’s penchant for looking and not buying.
‘It’s just big enough. But as the girls get older, they won’t want to share a room, so there’s that issue. It’s only two bedrooms.’ Chloe’s brow furrows as though she is serious about this house.
‘Hmm,’ she says, calculating the quickest route back to the pub. She turns and her heart hammers unsteadily.
At the base of the large tree on the edge of the pavement, is a pair of red, strappy heels. Like the other pairs, they are not side by side, but mimic the stance of a walk.
‘Do you see them?’ she asks, pointing.
Chloe looks at them and laughs. ‘Do you need a pair of shoes?’
A nervous giggle rises unsteadily from her throat into her mouth. ‘I’ve been seeing different shoes everywhere. Placed like these. All of them are women’s shoes. Do you think it’s a joke?’
‘If it is, it’s not very funny.’ Chloe turns her back on the shoes. ‘I’ll talk to Adam about the house. C’mon, let’s get a drink.’
She turns back several times to look at the shoes as they walk away. Why are they getting to her so much? What do the shoes mean? In the pub, they order a bottle of sparkling wine. Amid their conversation, the shoes flash in and out of her thoughts like a lighthouse beacon, luring her closer. Did the women intentionally leave their shoes on the street? Were they stolen and arranged like that? Perhaps it’s the same woman. She realises she never checked the sizes of the shoes.
‘I’ll be back.’ Chloe heads to the toilet.
She checks her phone – no messages. A woman sitting at a nearby table is staring at her. Her brown hair is trimmed and shaped like a halo around her face. The woman’s dark eyes lock onto hers, and she’s embarrassed by the slow flush of arousal that starts in her groin and moves up into her belly, shooting up into her chest and face.
Chloe returns to the table, and she wrenches her gaze away from the woman, forcing herself not to check if she’s still looking at her.
‘Should we have another bottle?’ Chloe asks.
‘Let me check what Matt’s doing.’ She sends the message. Seconds later her husband replies telling her to stay out and have fun – he isn’t home.
She goes to the bar, clutching her card. The haloed hottie materialises by her side.
‘You saw the shoes,’ she whispers into her ear. The haloed woman is so close, her lips graze the top of her ear, sending waves of desire through her.
She’s misheard. ‘What?’ She tilts her head to look up into the woman’s eyes.
‘The shoes. You know about them.’
She’s drunk. That’s what it is. Her drunk mind is weaving the stupid shoes and this sexy woman together.
‘It’s not a joke.’ Her tone is insistent. ‘You choose. You choose to leave them behind.’
‘And then what? Buy a new pair?’ She giggles. What would happen if she leant into her to smell her neck? Tell her she’s hot and that she wants to feel her naked chest against her own.
‘You’ll see. You’ll know your moment when it arrives.’
The bartender interrupts and when she turns to resume the conversation after ordering, the woman is gone. Back at the table, she’s disappointed at the sight of the empty glass where she was sitting earlier.
‘Did you see that woman?’ she asks Chloe, pouring prosecco into their glasses.
‘The one with the short dark hair. She spoke to me at the bar.’
Chloe’s eyes light up with mischief. ‘What did she say? Where is she?’ She looks around the pub.
‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter. I think I’m pissed.’
‘Me too!’ They clink glasses.
Once home, her head buzzing with prosecco, she thinks about the woman and the shoes. She can choose to leave them behind. What does that mean?
Her phone pings. It’s her husband texting to say he’ll stay at a mate’s place. She sighs. There was a time when he hated being away from her. She messages a couple of friends, suddenly wanting to be out in the world, seen by others. No one replies. Is this her life now? Flinging crumbs of longing into the world that are met with indifference and silence. When did she become invisible?
Her routine shudders along, the connection to her husband growing fainter. They now spend entire evenings in silence on their devices, sitting together, separated by a continent of unsaid things. Netflix is always on, actors playing out lives vibrant and brighter than her own.
She sees the shoes everywhere, during her runs, buying groceries, out for a coffee. Each pair different, worn. She checks on the ones she’s seen before. Some are still there, others have gone. She no longer wonders why their owners left them; she wonders where they are. Do those women miss their lost shoes? Increasingly, she thinks about that woman in the pub. About what she said. She can just choose to leave them. Where will she go if she chooses? Can she return and reclaim them?
One night without a word of explanation, her husband sleeps in the spare room. In the morning, when she asks, he says he didn’t want to disturb her as she went to bed hours before him. Without any further discussion, he sleeps in the spare room most nights returning to their bedroom, occasionally, wearing an expression of distaste when she asks him. Summoning her courage, she strokes his arm, leaning in for a kiss.
He recoils like he’s been bitten. ‘I’m tired,’ he says, his gaze already returning to his phone. ‘Ask me tomorrow.’
Summer sharpens to winter, and back to spring. The shoes multiply, becoming more visible even as her life disappears before her own eyes. She brings a brown pair of sandals home, cleans them, gets them repaired by the local shoe place, and stares at them at night as her husband laughs in another room. Nothing happens. The shoes are inanimate, lifeless next to the other pairs she owns. Cleaning and mending them feels like a desecration.
She doesn’t tell Chloe or any other of her friends about her decaying marriage. She knows she needs to talk to Matt, but she’s so scared. What if he says things she doesn’t want to hear? She’s taken to weeping silently in bed, hating herself for being so weak, but finding solace in the wet pillow. Perhaps, tomorrow she will be stronger. Perhaps, tomorrow the words trapped in her throat will fly out of her mouth like birds released.
On Saturday, Matt puts on his suit and knots a blue silk tie.
‘Where are you going?’ she asks.
‘I told you. Dave’s invited me to Randwick. He’s a member.’
She stares at his back; absolutely certain he never said a word. Do you still love me? The question hovers in the space between them, but she snatches it out of the air unable to bear the look that might settle on his face if she utters it aloud.
After he leaves, restlessness urges her into the car. She drives down to the bay, deciding on a different, longer run. She’ll reward herself at the bay side café with breakfast afterwards. The usual loop of thoughts jog through her mind in rhythm with her feet. She realises as she sweeps up the path, there are no shoes here. She stops, looks up and down the empty track. It’s time. She decides. Today, she’ll leave her shoes here. Make a mark in an untouched place. Another woman will run by and wonder about her shoes. Someone will wonder about her; someone will want to know more about her. First, she’ll finish her run. Then, she will offer her shoes.
She rounds a bend, the golden sun dancing on the lapping water, when she glances behind. Her running shoes are behind her. When she looks down at her feet, she still wears them, yet they are also behind her, left in the same position as all the other pairs. Slowing down, she walks back to the shoes on the path. Yes, they are hers. And yet, not. There are two pairs, the ones on the path and the ones on her feet. She can choose.
She feels no curiosity about this contradiction. For the first time, in a long time, a space opens in her chest. She breathes a lungful of sweet air, noticing the loveliness of the water, the bright pink flowers of the trees lining the path. She feels free. She resumes her run. Nearing the café, she is unsurprised to see the halo-haired woman from the pub nearly a year ago who told her she could choose. Well, she’s chosen. She comes to a halt in front of her, for once breathing easily after such a long run.
She takes her outstretched hand. Her shoes are forgotten, as is everything else. The world brims with possibilities.
Marcelle Freiman’s poetry collections are Spirit Level (Puncher & Wattmann 2021), White Lines (Vertical) (Hybrid 2010), and Monkey’s Wedding (Island Press). Her poetry has appeared in anthologies and literary journals that include Antipodes, Axon, Cordite, Mascara Literary Review, Meanjin, Meniscus, Southerly, StylusLit and Westerly. She is an Honorary Associate Professor at Macquarie University.
Camera Lucida – photograph of my mother as a child c.1931
A few seconds of time, a day
when you were four, maybe five –
your gaze intent
towards the camera’s lens –
and it’s only in the way
the light is caught by the right side
of your cheek, your white socks
and bedroll held on a shoulder,
silver birches alongside, pathways
crossing behind you lit between shadows,
the far shimmer of a lake beyond the trees –
that you were there
that moment, that day – the click
of a shutter, your mother? your nurse?
who had cropped the dark hair
framing your face – your clear eyes
seem to see into facets of a future
you could not possibly envision, then.
as negative turns to image –
it’s in the captures of light that day
that I am given your confident stance
the sassiness of your gaze – transformations
of light – the way that overlapping scales
of a butterfly wing
will come alive and multiple
with falling angles of the light –
you, in a deep shaded forest
Dorothy Lune is a Yorta Yorta poet, born in Australia & a best of the net 2024 nominee. Her poems have appeared in Overland journal, Many Nice Donkeys & more. She is looking to publish her manuscripts, can be found online @dorothylune, & has a substack at https://dorothylune.substack.com/
Author photo: royalty free picture of a ladybug
foreground is italicized, it lifts,
the first to die in the sun is my Phoenix,
she incarnates as a rifle—
protector of all placeholder-kind,
I send an inquiry to the Australian government
& it reads: why do I
burn before I tan, perhaps it’s true
that it’s the same with death— death of skin,
death of language,
something inexact comes to be
a spokesperson. I enshrine my unbelonging as a
self invitation, my
unbeknownst to Australasia,
despite this I’m identified as unfurled. My womb
rose up & the
insolvent babe dried away
two thirds of its material— I was the last to break on
a screed, damp &
pale like an English settler,
the ivory turret strayed from his castle— there are no
English crowns here.
I aestheticise my identity
with maroon knit turtlenecks & buoyant hair that curls
upward like a
beach’s evening crest—
enclosed yet open & furled in public winds.
Raised in a family of step-siblings and a procession of stepmothers, Ellen soon learnt the art of resilience and the importance of finding her own voice in the world. From early on, poetry was the
language she used to align the uncertainty of her world. Delving around wires of disconnect, her words find strength from wherever she calls home at the time. Ellen’s work appears in The Canberra Times, on a footpath in Adelaide, Cordite, Manly Ekphrastic Challenge, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Woman of Words, Rabbit, Australian Poetry Anthology and Westerly. Out of the Blocks is out with Puncher and Wattmann.
it rained and the tv went numb
the atmospheric antenna
dialled-in the wild
then fogged up the bulb
i wanted to be more than my surrounds
unaffected by storms and poor reception
but my fortress of rock collapsed
they gave me a test
and labelled me antisocial
pegged me to a journey
to define the triggers inside
an answer to the speeding
an explanation to the experimental
too ready too reactive too risky
i harnessed heat
to weld the friction
and still i strayed
those stark corners of acceptance
my hands reaching
for the physical attributes
of a connection
Son of Sin
By Omar Sakr
Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA
On Laylat al-Qadr, Islam’s sacred Night of Power, the young protagonist of Omar Sakr’s debut novel, Son of Sin, dies. Jamal is dead, if death is to be filled with the absence of what life could have been. On the night angels descend to wipe clean the slate, Jamal finally gives himself to desire of another boy and so comes alive in the same moment he suffers a more ancient, eschatological demise. Sakr’s novel then obsesses over the subtle parallels – simultaneous yet unable to meet – between what one can be born into and born as: into a lineage of faith and adherence, as a bisexual male. One demands the refusal of the other, and here begins the stasis from which young Jamal is ruled.
A prominent Sydney-based poet, Sakr’s turn to fiction is similarly preoccupied with the themes of The Lost Arabs, his earlier collection. Jamal is queer, gauche, third-generation Turkish Lebanese and subject of the novel’s bildungsroman plot. Like his counterparts in poetry, Jamal is cornered by the intractable ties of family and a modern identity floundering on diaspora legacy. Unrest is commonplace, thickening ‘the air, a vestige of the wars that flung his people here’ (p193). Yet life in Australia is preferred to Turkey and Lebanon, and such tension is ‘the smallest price to pay’ for it (p93). So, Jamal becomes the reprobate to this history’s largesse, the unbeaten track keeping in line of sight the path clearly set out by the labours and pains of his forbears.
The novel is demarcated into two passages of Jamal’s life. First, with his family during Ramadan as his schooling comes to an end, and, afterwards, temporarily relocating to Turkey to live with his estranged father. Jamal is a zombie throughout, fixated on desire yet pulled through events as though unable to oppose them, though agency were something not yet bestowed upon him within the echelons of family. The twain embodiments of Jamal’s sexuality and faith – obligations he vacillates between – accumulate victories against the other and in doing so gradually wear down Jamal’s resolve, a sort of death spiral that none around Jamal can name. Sakr offers the trials of a queer Muslim teenager as introspection on the mechanisms that drive these adjectives and challenge their absolutes.
To love a man as a man is the ultimate sin, and no shortage of his community fail to remind Jamal of this. His body tied to his sin, Sakr imbues Jamal with the ability of flight, often described as vacating the space he is in: Jamal disappears beside his mother as she smokes (p43); absents his body as he becomes a spirit up alongside the bats in the trees (p53); inhabits the feeling ‘inside (of) Ali’s heart,’ before ‘falling out of Jihad’s eyes,’ as his cousin’s battle (p62). By quitting the present so frequently, Jamal remains without voice to challenge while proving unable to detach from his community. Earlier in the novel, Jamal laments that ‘[t]here was no proof you could trust, except the word – that was the measure of faith, and perhaps why they kept failing’ (p26). There is no word to absolve Jamal. Community sustains the sublunary quagmire that jars Jamal’s psyche, burying him.
Sakr advances the plot chronologically but refuses to let Jamal dwell in the present. Jamal’s imaginative and histrionic nature, his circumstance, his criticism: all form a dragnet that preoccupies him. He yearns to be good but cannot wholly convince himself of what this means or looks like. Frequently, an instance of the present has its roots located far deeper within Jamal’s psyche: police violence harks back to Jamal’s first trip in a paddy wagon (p63); waving to the neighbours dredges up the confusion of Christian youth group attendance in boyhood (p78). Sakr insists we return to the origins of tragedy and tenderness as they continue to reappear. This is the world of which Jamal is convinced: everything comes from everything before it, blossoming, smothering, trampling.
Sakr’s prose is certainly fluent enough to accommodate this movement in time, however in pursuit of instantaneous depth Sakr can err toward an overreliance on this tool. Jamal routinely obsesses over what might have been and the ‘moment of possibility’ lost to him forever (p46), and such relentless undulations across time can begin to lose their punch. Take the example in which Jamal parses the wrong look that ignited the Cronulla Riots as comparable to the private instance of an irate cousin’s glare (p94). Electing to process such largescale violence through the prism of ones limited lived experience is consistent with Jamal’s impression of his centrality to misfortune, yet even by this relatively early stage of the novel such propinquity to this violence can seem somewhat shoehorned, while the motives of the riots require little interpretation.
Set circa 2005 and beyond, Jamal endures violence-induced lockdowns in Sydney’s west, the 2017 plebiscite and its bigots, toxic masculinity, Trump’s Muslim ban – all beside life’s more penetrating tragedies, the loss of loved ones, abandonment, sexual assault. Sakr constructs a teenager who is dramatic and colourful but withdrawn, so couples some of the darker moments of recent history with a difficult and burdensome teenage coming of age and coming out. Jamal does not have the fortune of subtlety in either of these quests, and Sakr doesn’t pretend he does.
In lesser hands, Jamal’s pessimism, buttressed by deleterious events, could threaten to overcook the significance of a life Sakr wants us to value. Yet while these events pile up, what rubbishes any threat of monotonality is the vitality of Sakr’s prose. In juxtaposition to Jamal, who has no ease within his language, Sakr shows how effortlessly he is able to move through it. Applying the poets whet for register, Sakr can make delicate the injustice of attacking, swarming police like water to sand (p61), and then describe someone as, simply, ‘fucking funny’ (p69); replacing page breaks with ampersands furthers the notion that this narrative is happening, and happening, both breaking the idea of chronological time and stuffing it; engaging motifs of bats, snakes, and ropes; the application of green and blue adjectives as markers of masculinity and caution – Sakr’s bag of tricks is precise and calculated, rendering the lines of Son of Sin with precision and care, leavening ruin with beauty, horror with lyric.
And yet, while queer stories like Jamal’s can often carve out a small space in which the subject achieves dignity and the welcome of complacency, make no mistake that Sakr is tempted here. Despite Jamal’s learning he has always been visible, and always held space, Sakr refuses to indulge this position as a resolution. Setting the narrative before significant social events of the recent twenty-first century seeks to remind the secular world that despite what progress may have been made, Abrahamic faiths remain bound to the word. For subsequent generations, diaspora presents an incongruity between old world virtues and contemporary practice. Jamal grapples with a family life that has ‘unconsciously replicated a way of being that no longer exist(s)’ (pg179), and always will, and so Jamal will continue to live a life on the edge, along the contiguous lines of faith: in what he is, and what he believes.
Following a skirmish between the police and his family, Jamal overhears his cousin, Fatima, recounting the story to friends. What starts as ‘tremulous’ and exciting eventually, by way of repetition, settles. Our stories can be sharp with life, says Sakr, though ‘each telling dull(s) the edge’ (p64). Jamal’s story is not unique of its time, yet its experience in Sakr’s hands is acerbic and candid and dedicated, like the first telling of a story. Rather than dulling, Son of Sin further prepares Australian literature for the normalising of queer religious lives within it, colouring a quietly suffering concentration of its populace, and suggesting there is a space to be held, if we allow there be.
JOSHUA KLARICA is a writer who lives and works on Gadigal and Wangal land. He recently finished up his Honours year studying English Literature at The University of Sydney, and has written previously for Griffith Review, Overland, and Aniko Press. He is studying postgraduate English Literature at The University of Cambridge