Tessa Lunney

Tessa Lunney writes fiction, short fiction, poetry, and reviews. Her work has been published in Mascara, Cordite, Southerly, Best Australian Poems 2014, and Griffith Review, among others. In 2016 she won the Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature. Her second novel, Autumn Leaves, 1922, was released in August 2021 by Pegasus Books USA. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University. She lives on Bidjigal land in Sydney.

 
 
 

Butterfly

A butterfly battles across Parramatta Road. It’s big and black, with white eyes on its wingtips. Even so, the wind in this storm-season is strong and each car and truck that rumbles beneath it sends fresh blasts to blow it off course. It tries to reach the other side of the highway, but it keeps falling, struggling up and then falling on to the road and almost smashed. Then it rises again, against the wind, against the traffic’s displaced air. I wait in my car and the radio blasts, a doctor from the children’s hospital in Kyiv, the broadcaster prompts him, the boy was six, he had bullet wounds, yes, in his chest, his abdomen, his head. The trucks are constant, the cars, the noise incessant. It’s not gridlock and the heavy vehicles, dirty after all the rain, barrel down the hill. The radio continues, the doctor’s words are scattergun, the baby had wounds. Yes. Shot wounds. Yes, the baby was shot in the head. They shot the ambulance. The Russian soldiers, yes. The ambulance called me. On the way to the hospital. The baby died. The butterfly crosses at the lights, where I wait, trying to get home before the next onslaught of flooding storm. The butterfly pushes itself up and up, black wings in a grey sky, up and up. The radio drones on, another city, another basement, I’m in Mariupol, still, I can’t get out. I saw them, my neighbours. They are on the road now, a mother and her boy and her girl. Before they were on the road, they went up, higher than the roof of the church, it seemed impossible, they went up and up, they were flying. Up and up, black wings in a grey sky, up and over the truck, over the next truck, it dips and is almost smashed, then it rises, it reaches the other side of the highway and the trees that stand staunch against the heavy, threatening sky. 

 

Peter Ramm

Peter Ramm is a poet and teacher who writes on the Gundungurra lands of the NSW Southern Highlands. His debut poetry collection Waterlines is out now with Vagabond Press. In 2022 he won the prestigious Manchester Poetry Prize. His poems have also won the Harri Jones Memorial Award, The South Coast Writers Centre Poetry Award, The Red Room Poetry Object, and have been shortlisted in the Bridport, ACU, Blake, and the Newcastle Poetry Prizes. His work has appeared in Westerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, The Rialto, Eureka Street, and more.

 

The Sedulity of Soldier Crabs

Red, red is the sun,
Heartlessly indifferent to time,
The wind knows, however,
The promise of early chill.
—Matsuo Bashō

It’s Boxing Day and the sun climbs a lattice work of cirrus clouds, dripping like treacle in the early afternoon. The sandflats are rinsed with the voices of a hundred children and the air teems with the smell of last week’s storm washing through the estuary after its journey down the Woodstock and Stoney Creeks. The inlet runs emerald green and blue in the deep places and three channel markers meander their way towards the point like a set of mis-thrown darts. 

        Whiting like razors
        
In the water; each one cuts
        
A new memory.

II.

This is Yuin country, and it remembers a time before its wealth was burnt in the lime pit at Dolphin Point and hauled by the Burrill Lake Timber company to Sydney; its cedar, iron bark and mahogany forests floated out to sea. A plaque on the Princess Highway recounts how the rock shelter on the lake’s edge makes children of the pyramids and the language the king used to claim the geology of the place—the basalt and siltstone forty million years in the making.

        Fourteen cormorants
        
Take wing; time written cursive
        
In pages of sea grass.

III

Now, my son’s fingers are little clumps of sand in mine and we run ankle deep across the bar—legs lurching like the loose brush strokes of an infant artist. The pools and pockets of water gleam like the scaled side of a great bream for hundreds of yards before us. He says I’m a sea monster; a shark, an octopus, a crab or whatever he wants me to play. All he knows is the next footfall, and more often, the fall of laughter and salt and the cast net of his father’s arms. 

        Onshore, paddle boards
        
Consume the car park, staking
        
Out their own claim.

IV

I grasp at his arm before he lands on the blue back of a lone soldier crab—an ancient of days, his bone-striped legs the first to walk this water. Sitting. Still. Sifting the sand against the budding toes of my boy. There’s music in the dactyls of his claws, in the iambs of his movement, in the breath of my toddler. Together, they share the notes of time, a semibreve on the boy’s lips—a pause, a new sonata strung in his mind. But he wants to squish it

        —Feel the crush of bone
        
And shell in the webs of feet.
        
There’s so much to learn.

V

The wind winds us up, it blows purple on our skin and black on the faces of a pair of pied oystercatchers, who pry the sand for the living, weighing the hour like Anubis, with beak and feather. Still, the crab remains. Long after we’ve passed. Out there—a relic of the tides, the small cadences of the cosmos marked in the milky way of its shell. We finish by skimming on the board, the boy riding it like a comet over the water, and I, collapsing Phaethon, at the reins. 

        Coolness in the shade
        
Of the wind. Always, the end
        
Begs quiet and time.

 

Alicia Marsden in conversation with Michelle Cahill

Michelle Cahill is an Australian novelist and poet of Indian origin. They live in Sydney; their prizes include the the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing, the Kingston Writing School Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize, the Val Vallis Award and the Red Room Poetry Fellowship. Their work appears in Future Library, ed Anjum Hassan & Sampurna Chatterjee, (Red Hen Press, 2022) and forthcoming in 4A Papers. Daisy & Woolf is published by Hachette.

This interview was recorded on 6 May 2022 on Woi Wurrung Country, on unceded Aboriginal land.

Photo: Nicola Bailey
 
 
 
A.M: I just wanted to start by acknowledging that I live and work and reside on the lands of the Jaggera and Turrbal people, and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded, before we started.

M.C: Thank you Alicia, I’m currently on Woi Wurrung country, and I’d like to thank the Aboriginal owners. I’d also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples of Guringai country, where I live, their elders past, present, and emerging, and thank them for their laws, their languages and their care of the land, for allowing me to live here on their lands. And to acknowledge that this is stolen land, and always will be Aboriginal land.

A.M: Absolutely. I have recently been studying Alexis Wright’s Boisbouvier oration from the 2018 Melbourne Writer’s Festival, and she has this beautiful quote: “We either ignoring or describing, exploring or grappling on the contested ground of stolen land with unsettled matters”. And I was reading a quote from you, where you talked about your poetry embodying “scrutiny over invasion”. How would you say Daisy & Woolf sits with those unsettled matters?

M.C: I think that it speaks of the story of a group of people who have been disenfranchised from their own country because of colonisation. The history of Anglo-Indians and Eurasian people is such a troubled one, with so much erasure, and has much in common, in many ways, with the history of Aboriginal people being moved, displaced and deracinated, and having to fight back against that to reclaim their language, their sovereignty and their culture. I think one review described this as a “novel of reclaiming” and that’s what I’m bringing into light is Daisy’s culture and Daisy’s language and her – well, not so much her language, I take that part back, but Daisy’s culture and her family and her absence of language, the fact that she resides in English as a result of colonisation. That’s mentioned in the first chapter where she speaks, when she talks about her children being tutored in Urdu and Bengali but they speak English better. There are little pointers in that first introduction to Daisy, where the conflicts for her as a mixed ancestry person are being dramatized by the fiction. So, I think in answer to your question, that’s really how it sits with unsettlement- I also think Mina, being the Australian author, who is also a migrant, an Anglo-Indian migrant, she’s able to sense, always, that she’s on stolen land and that this is Aboriginal land and this comes up for her in the first chapter when she’s talking about how colonisation came to the south coast of New South Wales where her family live, and how there were [coolies] from Bengal on those early ship journeys, and that they actually found their way with some of the colonisers because of Aboriginal people helping them walk from the south coast right up to Sydney, what was Sydney then, in Gadigal country. Mina’s aware of that and she’s also aware in the final chapter which was set in Varuna, not wanting to give too much away, on Gundungurra country where she’s aware, while speaking back to a white male who’s quite entitled. Mina tells him this isn’t even your land anyway, so I feel like Mina is a character who is aware of this fight against racism and this struggle of all disenfranchised people and First Nations people. In her own way, she’s so distanced from her culture, and she carries that grief with her every single day. There are obviously differences between her situation and how it might feel for Aboriginal people, but there are also some similarities and the sense of being able to share that struggle against the colony and against the oppression, which is often Eurocentric oppression and European oppression of First peoples.

A.M: I really liked how the story was cushioned on both sides by an acknowledgement of that, with the parts in the front and the parts in the back that you mentioned. Those were some of the first things that I highlighted that really struck me as poignant, especially with this sort of literature, writing back to the empire, these post-colonial excavations of literary canon, acknowledging that what’s there isn’t just what was always there; that there is so much more that’s been pushed to or resides in the margins, that isn’t spoken about or that stories aren’t recorded from but happened anyway. I thought that was a really beautiful theme throughout the entire text.

M.C: Thank you, Alicia. I love how you described that, as well. It’s a journey towards gathering the knowledge. You have to go back in order to reclaim, to go through the archives and piece together, and also new making as well, creating and adding and contributing to the archives in that process. I guess that was my process as a writer – there are so many gaps when you’ve had this experience as of being disenfranchised from culture and language and home. Having been so dislocated and removed from home, where do you call ‘home’?

In some ways you are always homeless. Those gaps make it very difficult and pose quite a challenge, but I found that on the positive side, there is substantial shared memory and shared collective history that can be added to narrative. I also use technology in terms of the internet to be able to help my research. So that was an enabling aspect to my research, I didn’t always have to go to libraries or rely on books.

A.M: Daisy & Woolf sits with such beautiful peers of texts like Wide Sargasso Sea, or Foe by Coetzee, doing the work of writing back to the empire and centring characters who were, to quote yourself, “devoured in the imperial closet” by the “wolves” of the Western canon. So it has such fine company, as well.

M.C: Thank you, Alicia. I’ve read those novelists and just admire so much the passion and the viscerality of their work, that it is multi-textured and vivid. I wanted to create that sort of narrative detail in Daisy’s journey, in her life and her voice, to give her an embodied voice. I was on residency at the Hurst in Wales at the time, and I was reading lots of journals from travellers who had travelled from India, or had travelled through the Suez Canal, and reading about the Indian independence struggle and so forth. When her voice finally came to me, it was just a wonderful moment that I could start that first chapter, where she speaks of stepping out into the dark morning, it was before dawn, and she was stepping out into the streets of Kolkata. I wanted that her appearance be similar to Clarissa Dalloway’s first appearance in Mrs Dalloway, where Virginia Woolf makes her opening sentence, “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”, and on it goes. I wanted something memorable and focused for Daisy, this woman who had an intention to do something that day, whilst conversing with her lover.

A.M: I really enjoyed finding the parallels between the beginning of Mrs Dalloway and the beginning of Daisy & Woolf, but when you departed from that, with Mrs Dalloway being a day in the life of Clarissa, but Daisy & Woolf is so much more, for Daisy and for Mina, it spans so much more time and space, and I really liked how you made that distinction.

M.C: I didn’t attempt to do anything in particular in terms of comparing the work to Mrs Dalloway, I was more focussed on the voice, getting the voice right, and then allowing the voice to follow its own journey. I had a good sense of where Daisy was going, so that helped me to structure the novel, because I knew she was traveling to England. Still, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. It’s a beautiful thing to have the story lead you as a writer and you trust that, as well as being the engineer of it. To allow that trust, I think it’s an interwoven relationship that you have with the text itself.

A.M: I love how Daisy has the agency, even in the structure and writing of her own story, I’m very fond of that idea, of characters having their own agency, if we’re just the scripters, I guess? That’s very interesting.

M.C: I experimented with the use of diary and letters. I thought a fair bit about whether to write in first person present or past tense or third person, as well, and I think a lot of my work I try in different tenses, POV as well and see how that works. The immediacy of the first person is powerful, it becomes quite separate from me as a writer. Even with Mina’s voice, although there are definitely autobiographical traces to it, having a first person POV, Mina becomes her own self and is released from me.

A.M: I really enjoyed how different and distinct the voice of Mina and Daisy were throughout the text. I very much enjoyed that, even though as a metafiction we understand the motions of writing but seeing the distinct voices and how they would tackle things was very interesting.

M.C: Mm, so how did you find the difference between Mina and Daisy’s voice in that respect?

A.M: I found they were both, not bleak so to speak but there was definitely an element of bleakness to the writing, in both perspectives. I think Mina’s was almost more visceral because there was more… not that there was more emotion, but there was more immediacy, because it was dated to 2017, and contextualised by events that she was mentioning, like the Grenfell tower collapse, and a lot of things that contemporary readers would see and remember. With Daisy, though, it was slightly different, but they both had elements of bleakness and viscerality, as you say, I totally agree.

M.C: Grenfell Tower and all the events that were happening, it is something that we find ourselves watching on social media, and all these things happening, the Black Lives Matter movement, landslides and environmental issues affecting Nepal and the Himalayan areas, all the changes that are happening, and we know that people of colour are suffering, right? They’re the ones who are going to be impacted, the ones who have housing insecurity, who are affected most in these situations, with economic vulnerability. There’s a sense of this world that we’re living in being so problematic on so many levels. Mina is also dealing with personal issues and past traumas, losses of her relationship with her offspring and the loss of her mother, her grief, and she’s trying to navigate personal intimacy as well. It’s a very fraught time for her that the novel is charting.

A.M: Both perspectives are saturated with grief, but especially with the modern events – I think because of social media, we have such an immediacy of knowledge, things pop up on Twitter or Instagram, we see them, we scroll. We think about it for a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, but then the next big, horrible event happens, and we’re distracted by it. But when we see those events harkened back to in fiction, it brings back all the emotions that were inherent to it, that we forgot about because of how readily information is available.

M.C: Absolutely, that is so true. How we just move on, it’s sort of overwhelming: a cascading current of issues and concerns; and so often re-traumatising.

A.M: There’s so much to pay attention to, so much to give nuanced thought to, but there isn’t a lot of time, because things are always happening.

M.C: It fragments us, doesn’t it?

A.M: Yes, absolutely.

M.C: It’s very hard to then focus on the work we have, the task of writing, which Mina has undertaken. In order to do that, to excavate that space, she has to sacrifice quite a fair bit. That’s where the bleakness comes through, the waves of bleakness and vulnerability.

A.M: Carving time for the people and the characters that haunt us, even though there’s already so much haunting us from contemporary events.

M.C: The haunting of Daisy’s voice through her life. And Shuhua Ling, the Chinese author who was in a relationship with Virginia Woolf’s nephew, she is also ghosting Mina’s writing of this novel.

A.M: Yes, this text is full of ghosts. But I like that we’re giving them, not so much a space to haunt but shining a light on them so they can tell their own stories, rather than just echoes through the text or other people’s works. I thought that was wonderful.

M.C: Ah, right. And how do you think it’s different in non-fiction? Does fiction do something different for you, reading these stories about these women, Shuhua Ling and Daisy – was that a different experience than say, if you had read about it in an essay, I’m curious about that.

A.M: I think so. It makes me think a lot about literary language and how that has such a different effect even if the words are the same, or have cousins in non-fiction, so to speak. I think the emotional aspect of literary language and fiction holds hands with the ghosts of these women. It’s much easier to read and see their experiences through literary language. It reminds me a little of Bakhtin, how he talks about literary language, specifically the language of novels is heteroglossic and it contains multiple different languages within the text – the languages of class difference, or race, or gender – and I think that is what’s happening here, in the literary language of Daisy & Woolf. I wouldn’t, I don’t think, get the same experience with non-fiction – I don’t the ghosts would be quite so loud, or prominent.

M.C: What Bakhtin says about heteroglossia and how literary language allows these interactions of different registers of voices. The silences become vocalised in all their different registers; I agree. In an essay, a writer can be scrutinised, and it’s so factually dependent, that your interpretation of facts in an essay could be criticised or turned around and used against the purpose that you had hoped to champion. I feel that in fiction, that’s less of the case because you don’t need to rely necessarily on the facts, although you can use fact, but you can use elements of the surreal, elements of embellishment or dream, or poetic language, or have different visualisations coming into the facts and merging with facts. In that respect, there’s a license for you to explore, and speak with greater liberty, to allow these aspects to be fleshed out. You’re doing that from behind a shield that protects not so much yourself but protects the truth that you want to give a space for as a creator and as a writer. I don’t like the word creator [laughs], I feel like it’s quite a dominating way of thinking about the writing process.

A.M: Hmm, is there a term you prefer?

M.C: I think ‘writer’, I don’t mind ‘writer’, but I find it’s a little bit precious, in a way, and I’m a little bit anxious about it, for myself anyway, I like to trust the work a lot and to build my intuition and work with that. I like to allow that to take on a life. Though, in some respects, it’s out of my control.

A.M: Yeah, it’s sort of as if the term ‘writer’ has a sense of something along the lines of ownership? Giving the text the agency to be what it wants be, the purpose that you wanted it to have, but also have its own sovereignty.

M.C: Absolutely. It’s such an interesting process, and it’s also interesting to talk about it, as well, because it’s a curious thing to talk about, that text that is quite separate from you, to talk about it objectively. Maybe that’s a tricky thing, in some ways. But I think what I’m really excited about is that it’s a story I hope will take on it’s own life. The most exciting thing for me, to be quite honest, is when people are reading it, for it to have its own life in their imagination, not in mine. In that respect, it isn’t my story anymore.

A.M: Absolutely. Perhaps not as concrete as death of the author, but letting it transform from not just a work but a text.

M.C: That’s right. I just have this little bit of confidence that it has a vividness, that it will come alive in people’s imaginations: the voices of these women, these brown women. It’s so exciting for me to see the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ used and being discussed in forums.

A.M: Well, it’s definitely taken a life in my own imagination, and I have been pestered quite a few of my friends about it, saying “you have to read it, you have to”, and using my bookseller privileges for evil [both laugh].

M.C: Oh, awesome, that is so good to hear.

A.M: So I can tell you for me it’s definitely taken a life in my head, and when I was reading it, there were so many times I put the book down to go “okay, that was a sentence I just read. I have to turn that around in my brain now” [laughs]. I’ve tabbed the life out of this poor book!

M.C: [laughs] I saw that lovely photo that you posted with the little tabs, that was amazing, that was so lovely. I’m really glad that you enjoyed it, I really enjoy hearing that people loved the characters or that they found it very vivid, that means a lot. There’s a lot of different aspects to the industry, but that’s a very special part of it, to hear readers responding in that way. To me, anyway, I don’t mean to be anyone else, I know there’s a clichéd persona of the ‘writer’ [laughs]. I’m just myself, just following my truths and pursuing and putting it out there and believing in it, being willing to say these things. For example, about storytelling, about how I like most when the story writes itself, it’s out of my control. There were parts when Daisy is in France, and some of the things that strike her were not planned, it was just my fingers tapping on the keyboard and these sentences coming out. They were deep feelings she was having about the losses she’d experienced as a brown woman leaving her home in Kolkata. I won’t say too much because I’d like readers to follow the story themselves but, yeah, it was really wonderful that it was just Daisy channelling through me. I do love that most about fiction, and poetry as well, but particularly in fiction, when that’s happening, you really trust the truth of it.

A.M: That’s such an endearing idea, that characters are just writing through us. You take a step back as a writer and ask them “where do you want to go, where does your story go next?” That’s such a brilliant idea, I really enjoy that concept, especially with work like this, and I think that’s how we get monumental works like Daisy & Woolf and like Wide Sargasso Sea and their peers, when characters really say “no, this is my story, and this is how it’s going to go.”

M.C: Oh, awesome. Talking to you, telling you, instructing you, taking on life and a body and language. I suppose it’s like the way we talk to plants, and plants talk to us. It’s that kind of thing, where there are these voices we can connect with and hear and respond to and channel.

A.M: Absolutely. We were just talking about the industry before, and I wanted to know, are there any pieces of wisdom or advice you would like to pass down to other writers, whether they’re new writers or young writers or any sort of writer? Or, is there anything you wish that someone would’ve told you about writing or the industry, not just before this book but before your other poetry pieces or essays?

M.C: I would definitely say persistence is important for writing. The most necessary thing is to believe in yourself and to believe in your work, and to trust that passion and believe in it. To not be swayed by society’s pressures about what you should be doing with your life. Be obsessed. Be okay with the obsession that writing is, keep finding your strengths and improving your weaknesses, where you see faults in your writing. In some ways I think, although it’s wonderful to have readers who go over your work and give you feedback, you are your best teacher. Finding what’s not working and what is working – you’ll do that by just doing the writing, the more you practice. I think there’s something technical about writing, as well, in that respect. The more you do, the better you become. You just get to be at the point where it happens, but it’s happening more easily. You also need to give yourself the space, to create spaces for yourself, and time and place and opportunities for you to immerse. Never be discouraged, because it is a long journey, but it’s so worthwhile. Even though you may have failures, in the short-term, in front of you, that’s just nothing in the scheme of time. Ahead of you are these successful pieces of work, they’re there, take your time. There’s no rush. Sometimes we feel that pressure, so-and-so’s got a novel out and they’re twenty-five, and they’ve got an agent, but there’s actually so much time. So, stay calm with that. Trust the real process and spend time with your writing, that’s my advice.

A.M: That’s so wonderful to hear, thank you very much for that! There is definitely that pressure, there are so many amazing young, successful authors, but there is always that feeling of “oh, they released their book at twenty-one and I’m twenty, when am I going to”, sort of thing. So, it is so nice to hear reaffirmed that there is that allowance of time.

M.C: Absolutely, there is so much time, and it is so worthwhile when you can have a book – I look at this now and I’m so happy and proud, it’s such a good book for myself. Nobody else’s measure, just my own measure, and I’m so proud of it. In some ways, it was a long time coming, in research and upskilling myself, and in other ways. So yeah, there’s that time and there’s time ahead; enjoy the journey, that’s what I say, enjoy. It’s so rich and there’s no rush.

A.M: That’s wonderful, and it is such an amazing novel, you should absolutely be so so proud of it, it is so good.

M.C: Oh, thank you, Alicia. I really appreciate your reading. The other thing I would say to writers is that I think it’s really refreshing to be amongst communities of writers, such as yourself, and younger people. That’s where the energy lies, actually. I was so looking forward to talking to you, I could just tell from your review you loved the book and your questions would be refreshing. It’s so important to not worry too much about the conventional and the heavy critics, don’t bother so much about reviews. Just connect with your audience, and with your communities, young communities, diverse communities, LGBTIQ+ communities, POC communities. It’s so important that we just open up the spaces.

A.M: Absolutely! When we get those voices that have been pushed to the margin, that’s when we get these beautiful, transformative works of art that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s terrible that they have to push themselves into the centre because they’ve been denied places, but when we finally start hearing from people who have either been denied the language or the agency or the space to make these pieces of art – the art that we get is just fantastic.

M.C: It is, it’s so rich. One of the things I’ve focused on, in talking about the book, is collaboration and the importance of allyship. The novel does speak to the non-encounter of white feminism with the other woman. That is something that allyship can address, and to me, it’s been an important part of activism. There are many very radical thinkers in Australia who really want to push things forward and change the literary landscape, and to allow for literature to be transformative. I think allyship and collaboration are really crucial, and that’s why, in part, I agreed to change the title from ‘Woolf’ to Daisy & Woolf. My initial title was Woolf, and it was suggested to me to change it and I totally embraced that, because I think book production is not something a single individual person can achieve, it’s a collaborative effort. Together we’re part of an industry that loops, and a collective community, and we all contribute. We can sulk and harden, but we can also vibe together. Through shared work, we can reform and transform.

A.M: Yes, definitely. As you talked a little about the decision to change the title, at first I didn’t quite understand, but when you explain the connection to allyship, it makes sense. The part in the novel, when you talk about the poetics and the etymology of ‘woolf’, and the different variations of that – that was such a fascinating passage, linguistically, and to tie that into the title and allyship is so very interesting.

M.C: Thanks Alicia, I enjoyed writing that part! The title ‘Woolf’, as a metaphor is quite powerful, and that was the title I wanted, however, I feel that metaphor itself is being challenged. It comes from an aesthetic tradition which tends to be apolitical in the way it negotiates meaning and representation. I think that the power of naming Daisy is specific and sets down her difference, exceeding the power of metaphor. Even though owing to my background as a poet, I’m naturally drawn to metaphor, I feel that just the naming of Daisy with Woolf, the appearance of [Daisy] on the cover, an Indian woman, a dark woman, dressed in European clothes with a European haircut. That hybridity centres her, the Eurasian woman beside Woolf, the white feminist, the privileged upper-class colonial. There is a subtle, unique presence.

A.M: There is always a sort of fondness, too, whenever Woolf is mentioned, even while excavating the Orientalism embedded in her work, especially Mrs Dalloway. By placing India and Daisy in the narrative’s peripheral, but there is always that imagining of Woolf. It was a very nuanced perspective and I very much enjoyed that reading as – I don’t want to say ‘as a Woolf fan’, but as a someone who has enjoyed her works – I thought it was a very interesting, very beautiful perspective.

M.C: So, you enjoyed the homage?

A.M: Yes. I definitely did. I wouldn’t say Mrs Dalloway is my favourite, but I did definitely like the connections. With Daisy & Woolf, you can’t forget that there is a homage aspect, but it becomes beautifully its own text. If that was worded well [laughs].

M.C: That was worded perfectly, I’m very happy to hear that you had that response to the text.

A.M: Thank you so much for your time, out of your very busy schedule I’m sure! And thank you for your lovely words on my review of Daisy & Woolf.

M.C: Thank you, that’s awesome. I’ve loved chatting with you, we’ve covered some great ground and topics, I’ve really enjoyed hearing your reflections.

A.M: Thank you so much!

 

 

ALICIA MARSDEN is an Australian reviewer, bookseller and student. She studies law, literature and politics at the University of Queensland, and is passionate about the overlap between legal studies and literature, namely the gothic. She blogs about books and her current literary musings on Instagram, @dashedwithprose.

 

Ben Hession reviews Sydney Spleen by Toby Fitch

Sydney Spleen

by Toby Fitch

Giramondo

ISBN 9781925818758

Reviewed by BEN HESSION
 
 
 
 
Sydney Spleen is the latest collection of poetry by Toby Fitch. Its title alludes to Charles Baudelaire’s volume of prose poems, Paris Spleen. Whilst for Baudelaire, there was a desire to import the expansiveness and consequent wider palette of nuances of prose into poetry, Fitch, in his collection, utilizes a mix of styles, including prosaic lyricism and a continuation of his experimentations with form and language as seen in Rawshock and Bloomin Notions of Other and Beau. The latter, in turn, owe more to the likes of Mallarmé, with their intrinsic strategies of deconstruction being explored in Fitch’s essay, Aussi/Or. The poems in Sydney Spleen are an acutely intimate response to a period of personal challenges for Fitch, with many focusing on the effects of a city wracked by the concurrent disasters of the 2019-2020 bushfires, the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitch writes with disarming candour, and his skill in intimating his experiences capture the unease that for many permeates the recent cultural memory.

Fitch does not attempt to re-write the individual pieces of Paris Spleen in a contemporary, Sydney context. However, he does, in this collection, share something of the spirit of Baudelaire, with work that is ‘always unsettled, always shifting and recoiling at each new and unforeseen experience.’ (MacKenzie, xv) As we see, in the collection’s second poem, ‘New Phantasmagorics’, the prosaic rhythms present a clear but restless movement of the personal amid the pretensions of a city:

My eyes are barcodes. I have one partner,
two daughters, one dog, three debts.
The city’s an organ ablated from the world. (4)

Importantly, the same poem acknowledges that the city occupies contested space, noting the attempted erasure and re-erasure of its Indigenous people, a people whose broad and respectful connection with the land is replaced by one where entrepreneurial concerns have become of primary interest:

At Mount Annan, a Stolen Generations
Memorial is maliciously damaged. Mass piles of
exoskeletons are deposited on the Kurnell foreshore.
*’Hard hit’ aquatic species* include soldier crabs,
urchins, soft sponges and coral like bryozoa.
Never profitable enough to become a priority. (6)

The potential for financial exploitation of the land is further explored in the ironically matter-of-fact prosaic poetry of ‘Beneath the Sparkle’ where the Plutonic railway tunnels become a place for plutocratic opportunity:

          God knows land above ground is too
expensive for anyone to buy, let alone cultivate and
be creatives on. And so, a fresh kind of colony in the
underworld is being floated by the minister. Whatever
happens, He on behalf of the State is determined to loot the
underground property market so that, even at the cost of
raiding the surplus, the lake will retain its cool. (11)

The colonial-capitalist conceptualisation of land, as noted here, is further examined in ‘Pink Sun’, where a suburban setting and the material hubris of settler culture and rhetoric is deconstructed through puns, broken colloquial speech and the visual contrast to the impact of the bushfires which recurs as a surreal and nightmarish refrain:

          at peak hour
                pink sun
          black sky
                you can return now
          for eternity
‘cause you’ve stood up with the Hellsong
hung loose and come out the other
sideline without a hose
to fan the arson online with
cooked roo matching
the way you beer every burden
yet still leave time to cash in
on the outskirts
milk the handshakes of town just look
at the beautiful housing bubble
blooming and pearling as marbled meat
          at peak hour
                pink sun
          black sky
                you’ll fly back for Sydney’s
          sparkling water (32-3)

In ‘Dust Red Dawn’ Fitch acknowledges an Indigenous sense of place expressed by Country. Here, its physical displacement in the dust storm of 2009, is not only representative of the disruptive effects of colonization, but also in what Meera Atkinson has recently described, while discussing the poem, in her essay in Cordite Poetry Review, as a ‘mash-up between the spectres of colonial trauma and climate trauma’. (Atkinson 4) The impacts of these both draw the individual perspective into a wider scope of disruption, as well as presaging disaster to come:

Country in its teeth. When the dust-red dawn
dwarfed Sydney it was much redder than this
orange-grey haze people are dissing on the tweets
like it’s nothing, like there aren’t still tonnes
of it settling on every windowsill, millions

of airborne specks turning sinuses to rage.
As a two-year old, Evie was afraid of specks;
Couldn’t comprehend them. She used to point and scream
At any tiny fleck invading her bath-time and –space–
they were alive, could morph into other forms. (68-9)

The sense of interconnectivity we see here is reinforced later:

          … How do I talk to my daughters
about all the tiny beliefs being part of the big ones,
about tipping points that have already been breached,
about the version of history they’ll inherit
that can’t go back to time immemorial and that’ll

probably soon completely cease reverberating
through the future’s waters….. (69-70)

Finally, the piece returns to re-affirming the Aboriginal identity of the place where the city sits, noting the consequences of a seemingly deliberate colonial ignorance in reading the land:

I return to land, watch the specks we picked up
get whisked over Gadigal and out to sea,
tiny flecks of red and black subsumed back in-
to the ongoing fallout and wash-up. (70)

As we can see, Fitch’s solidarity with Indigenous custodianship of the land is more than a purely political concern, it is a recognition of its respect for environmental interconnectivity – that’s also covered elsewhere in the collection – and the human responsibilities within it.

Against this, is the national political landscape and its priorities, with its constructed identity of Australianness, itself a largely white-Anglo import with subsequent variation. In ‘Captain’s Cull’ (34-40), verbal slippage is used to parody this, associating it with the Australorp, which the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as an ‘Australian breed of [English] Orpington fowl.’ (ACOD 82)

In an interview with Elena Gomez in Cordite Poetry Review, Fitch has stated that, among other things, poetry ‘For me it’s to make meaning of my world and the world around me – to make sense and critique.’ (Gomez 1) In one sense, this can be seen through a broader level of interconnectivity as demonstrated by streams of consciousness poems, where random and disparate phenomena are rendered as part of a whole, not only within the context of the body of the poem itself, but via Fitch’s perspective. One finds this in such poems as ‘33 Fleurs du Mal of Sydney’, ‘Pandemicondensation, or Dreams Refusing to be Sonnets’, and ‘Planned Obsolescences’. In this poem, there is a preparedness to detach oneself, through his children’s imaginings, from the world around him, which, itself, presents a seemingly unsettled space:

Safeguarding the future requires believing in one. Official
sources say. Bats no longer live rent-free in my head,

though I allow them to sublet. After being detected in the
deepest point in the ocean, microplastics were found

near the death zone of Mount Everest. Meanwhile, heads
of dog sculptures in cemeteries are even more moss free

‘cause people keep petting them. Cancel culture remains a bone
of contention. Not unique to this year, the world’s investment

in protective technologies was dwarfed by its spending on
ice cream. Moving to Net Zero, the ghost in my heart chips

away at its cell. That things just go on is the catastrophe.
This morning I asked my daughters to get dressed.

No, they replied, we’re making The Hidden World.
After a split second of apoplexy, I couldn’t fault them. (76)

On another level, making sense of his world has also meant examining his own position as non-Indigenous person on unceded Aboriginal land. In ‘Dust Red Dawn’, he acknowledges his own family’s “background in colonial poesis.” (69) In ‘January 26’, there is a distinct desire to be elsewhere, when the only available time to celebrate his first daughter’s birthday, coincides with the date of invasion:

and each time round this endeavour seems more designed to fail,
transporting us to where we were destined to be
from the moment a race with pale skin dropped anchor
and shook the sandstone, struggling and still unsure
of learning how to start over again, how to walk this back,
uninvite ourselves from this hot, manicured parkland,
then navigate through a capital ablaze
with idylls of our own making. (72)

It probably should be said that not all references to the personal sphere in Sydney Spleen are contextualized within the cityscape and the larger world it represents. The unsettled experience, for example, that is a lack of job security is explored in ‘A Massage from the Vice Chancellor’, where the managerial language of Fitch’s employer is deconstructed through puns and visibly interrupted stanzas, which break down the usual patterns for reading poetic lines. These serve to highlight a lack of fixity, and thus the impersonal nature of the communication and indifference to the consequences for the staff to whom it is addressed:

Since I wrote to you on ___, regarding                  projected
our new ‘new normal’ austerity              budgie shortfall
measures your staff               while a prudent app roach
Time frames              of great magnitude should poke
your         you in the coming days about what this

moans for your impact option, which                  national
has arisen intake, as outlied.               agents have roles
We anticipate some               to play in flattering your
deferral, loads              curve, but also in minimising our
Inter-         goading principle; and that, of course, is

to increase the rigour. We are currency                  to emerge
on track to achieve only core              from this timely
maintenance. And so               crisis and for your extra
thank you for              ordinary faculties in sustaining
managing         department head. Yours, _______ (43)

In this poem, the spacing speaks as much as the words used and what is implied. The interaction between text and the page seen here is characteristic of much of Fitch’s work, and, again, this, in turn, is elaborated upon in ‘Aussi/Or’. Of course, the more strident examples of these are in the visual punning of Fitch’s shape poems, to be found in this collection, such as ‘Spleen 2’, ‘Spleen 3’ and ‘Spleen 4’. In ‘Mate’s Rates’, shades of political compromise radiate out of an ideological black hole.

We see the strategies utilised in these poems have been reconciled toward a more demotic sensibility, bringing to the fore the otherwise latent politics of language and its constructs which had been seen in previous collections. This, itself, is reflective of the overall shift in tone to be found in Sydney Spleen.

The pervading sense of the current collection is probably best represented in the choice of the expansive ‘Morning Walks in the Time of Plague’ as the concluding piece of the collection. Here, the family as a basic social unit is set against a world estranged by COVID-19. Restrictions resulting from the pandemic have meant the local playground is no longer a place to play in. Instead, ironically, the children are forced play among the gravestones of Camperdown cemetery.

The prosaic rhythms offer a sense of casual intimacy and paradoxically, detachment too, as the narrator casts his all-seeing eye over a sequence of episodes of life. The detachment is heightened by the details of the new ordinary where a rising death toll is juxtaposed against the children’s imaginary world of unicorns and ‘alicorns’ with its escapist ideas of space being similar to the ‘Hidden World’, found earlier in ‘Planned Obsolecences’. In a typical scene we see:

A fallen leaf makes a crunchy blanket for the girls’ unicorn
toys. Grass blades as food and padding on a small square
sandstone plinth. Frankie and I sit on a much larger plinth,
shoulder-to-shoulder and doomscrolling, comparing news,
including the story of a young boy who died of the virus in
London.

Minky rips a branch to shreds. Frankie jumps down to play
chasey with the girls, running with a sense of abandon
only urban wildlife could rival. She chases them to the
FORCEFIELD, a flat grave surrounded by a knee-high cast-
iron fence. (94-5)

And later, we find:

We prefer bunnies today as we follow the chalked
direction along the footpath−hopscotch, run, left-
foot hop, right-foot hop, jump-jump-jump, now do it
backwards, and then, ‘the circle of the silly dance’. With
dozens of others in the park, Evie, Tilda and I could be
doing the Danse Macabre above 18,000 skeletons, part of a
community-vs-immunity Breugel painting. (96).

The poem ends with lines that reference previous scenes, intermingling the real and fantastic, as if what one actually encounters and what one creates in response are both part of the same, authentic experience. The parody of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ adds humour that is in keeping with this sense of authenticity:

Turning and now not turning, both the girls’ scooters’ back
wheels have come off their axles. The centre cannot hold
… and out beyond the FORCEFIELD, running in widening
circles around the plinth I’m on, Frankie and the girls
are each now out of sight, out of earshot, as I yell into the
cemetery air.

The gravel driveway crunches its broken star shards
beneath my feet, the same gravel that sent Evie and
Tilda sprawling the other day, beneath the giant bamboo,
the Moreton Bay Cthulhu and the line of Canary Island
palms like massive spiky lollipops, all of them swaying,
rustling, then headbanging in the wind as it picks up from
somewhere in the ground-glass sky. (99)

Phenomena, and their perceptions, pass fleetingly, yet are interconnected within the narrative. They are swept up into the ether, to be not unlike the clouds mentioned in the epigraph to this collection (taken from Baudelaire’s ‘The Foreigner’). And yet, articulated and agglomerated together, they form a conscious, human whole to be shored up against the ruins of a particular period of time.

Arguably, though, the period has not completely closed. Whilst the bushfires have been extinguished, the effects of climate change on the weather and the Earth remain a persistent threat. A cure for COVID-19 and its variants also remains elusive. Atkinson notes the particular ability of poetic texts to ‘have the power to bear witness to the threat and trauma produced by social-injustice crises.’ (Atkinson 2) Further, she notes how the poetic response remains relevant in the present, as trauma, itself, breaks down the boundaries of time. (Atkinson 3) In Sydney Spleen, Fitch offers nothing that might provide us with redemption in the face of disasters which beset us. He can’t. However, he does remind us that we are not alone in what we suffer. Indeed, the whole planet suffers with us. What we see depicted in this collection is a kind of resilience, which, again, is a highly personal response. Our survival, of course, shall always require collective action.
 
 
Citations

Fitch, Toby. Sydney Spleen, Giramondo Publishing Company, Artarmon, 2021.
MacKenzie, Raymond N. Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen and La Fanfarlo, trans. with introduction and notes by Raymond N. MacKenzie, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis.
Atkinson, Meera. ‘Writing Threat and Trauma: Poetic Witnessing to Social Injustice and Crisis’, Cordite Poetry Review, 15 September 2022.
Gomez, Elena. ‘“The amorphousness of meaning-making”: Elena Gomez Interviews Toby Fitch’, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 February 2022.
Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997.
 

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.

Laura Pettenuzzo reviews Open Secrets Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike

Open Secrets

Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike

Giramondo

ISBN 9780648062165

Reviewed by LAURA PETTENUZO
 

As both a reader and writer, I was eager to dive into Open Secrets, to immerse myself in the wisdom of those with far more literary experience. As a disabled writer still shielding from COVID-19 and knowing that many of these pieces were written at the height of nation-wide restrictions, I was curious to see how (or if), the authors would engage with the impact of the pandemic. I came away from Open Secrets feeling simultaneously impressed, soothed and challenged. The multiplicity of my reaction affirmed the cohesiveness of the collection.  

There’s no magical thinking here, no waxing lyrical about the elusive muse and the passion that more than makes up for the lack of recognition or remuneration awarded to writers in so-called Australia. This is a collection that boldly confronts the realities of the writing life, particularly during a pandemic: the challenge of making ends meet, the additional pressures for those living on the intersections of marginalized identities and despite it all, a commitment to the written word.

Open Secrets asserts the imperative to address the lack of recognition and compensation for writers in so-called Australia. As Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in the introduction, we live in a world that “measures value in dollars and widgets and accords so little to literature”. Fiona Kelly McGregor’s ‘Acts of Avoidance’ lists the pay rates for the publications she’s written for in the last few years and adds that, disappointingly, “these rates have remained the same since 2017.” In ‘Award Rate’ Laura Elizabeth Wollett recounts being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PLA). In an imagined acceptance speech, she says, “Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around”. Despite her simple aspiration “to live and write,” Woollett doubts her ability to write if she wins the PLA, asking her husband, “What if I get so comfortable, I stop trying?” Her fears are echoed by other contributors, for different reasons.

No excavation of the writing life would be complete without a focus on imposter syndrome, which Open Secrets tackles with a frankness and vulnerability that called out to my own sense of writerly inadequacy. While Elena Savage Lisa Fuller’s ‘Fight or Flight’ confronts “the horrors of the blank screen” and the “urge to run” that it evokes. It is both heartening and disappointing that success does not dispel the “dark passenger,” as Fuller calls her disparaging self-talk. There are few Australian authors who have known as much success as Fuller in recent years, yet she describes being gripped by “absolute terror.” Receiving an email from a student wrestling with similar doubts, Fuller tells them, “The only way through is never to stop writing or learning.” ‘Fight or Flight’ was written as Fuller was “trapped inside [her] house,” during lockdowns, an experience that stifled some writers and galvanized others. 

Several essays in Open Secrets explored the experience of writing (or attempting to write) amidst a global pandemic. For instance, Suneeta Peres da Costa described her mother visiting her unmasked, proclaiming, “COVID-19 is not contagious!” Throughout De Costa’s piece is the refrain, “I’m supposed to be writing this essay on technology,” even as she describes all the activities she does which are not writing. Peres da Costa captured the universal struggle of the literary craft, which, for some, was exacerbated by lockdowns: the way it seems we sometimes have to grapple with ourselves to simply sit down and do the work. She masterfully evoked the sense of futility of that work given all that was unfolding in the world, wondering if it “will matter even less now than any time before, given relative prospects of dying from an incurable virus”. But it was Fiona Wright’s piece, ‘On Being A Precedent’ with which I related most, which explicitly and bravely illuminated the ableism inherent in so much of the pandemic response and the writing life. Wright rejected the notion of a “new normal” because its precursor (normal) is so often “something that rejects us regardless of whether or not (and consciously or not) we mould ourselves to fit”. For Wright, and for many disabled people, the pandemic and restrictions brought a rare and unfamiliar sense of alignment with the able-bodied world, as well as opportunities to work and socialize that had previously been deemed impossible. Wright’s piece concludes with her defeated observation that she can only “watch on as wider society refuses to adapt for people like me, or to change”. The world, Wright noted, is vastly inaccessible to those of us with disability, as is much of literature.

The complexity of prose and ideas in some of the essays, ironically, mean that it is only accessible to a well-educated and/or highly literate audience. Writing, however, does not have to be intricate to the point of inaccessibility to be beautiful, engaging, and successful. I imagine this collection may have had a wider potential audience if it approached some of its ideas in a way with which readers with varying levels of literacy and/or education could more easily engage. 

Open Secrets is not so much a celebration of the writing life as it is a collective, frustrated lament at the economic uncertainty with which creatives in this country must live, the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the long and often arduous and emotionally fraught writing process. And yet, each of the writers continue to sit down at their desk, at a table in their local café, in a park, pouring words onto a page or a screen. They believe, as one day I hope we all will, that literature and humanities mean “having a natural interest in the true, beautiful and the good,” which is worth all the rest.  
 
 
LAURA PETTENUZZO (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She has a Masters in Professional Psychology and writes Plain and Easy English for various organisations. Her words have appeared in SBS and The Age. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.

Stuart Barnes

Stuart Barnes is the author of Like to the Lark (Upswell Publishing, 2023) and Glasshouses (UQP, 2016), which won the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, was commended for the 2016 Anne Elder Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award. His work has been widely anthologised and published, including in Admissions: Voices within Mental HealthThe Anthology of Australian Prose PoetryBest of Australian Poems 2022, The Moth and POETRY (Chicago). Recently he guest co-edited, with Claire Gaskin, Australian Poetry Journal 11.1 ‘local, attention’. His ’Sestina after B. Carlisle’ won the 2021/22 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize. @StuartABarnes
 

Duplex 

                        (Eremophila ‘Blue Horizon’) 

I have always adored the desert,  
its transformative blues and solitude.      

            I transform the bluesy solitude    
             of winter—I polish small gold trumpets—  

gold-tinted blue-tongues polish off my trumpets—      
I raise my hands, lanceolate and blue. 

            Lancelot was raised by hands of blue;  
            I improvise—I play blue notes. Roll low

my soul cries. Playing blue notes, rolling low, 
I weave the earth and the atmospheres. 

            I grieve earth’s people, flatten their fears,  
             weather the emu, the stormy blues.

The emu untethers glorious blues.  
I have always adored the desert. 

Sher Ting Chim

Originally from a sunny island in Southeast Asia, Sher Ting is a Singaporean-Chinese currently residing in Australia. She is a 2021 Writeability Fellow with Writers Victoria and a Pushcart and Best of The Net nominee with work published/forthcoming in Pleiades, Colorado Review, OSU The Journal, The Pinch, Salamander, Chestnut Review, Rust+Moth and elsewhere. Her debut chapbook, Bodies of Separation, is forthcoming with Cathexis Northwest Press, and her second chapbook, The Long-Lasting Grief of Foxes, is forthcoming with CLASH! Books in 2023. She tweets at @sherttt and writes at sherting.carrd.co

 

Bak Kut Teh

肉: You peel the chilli, layer by layer, unearthing a clot of
seeds from its copper pith. The soup simmers on the stove,
frothing sunset gold over the blue-gas flames, drowned out by
radio talk of the day’s weather.

How’s your day at school?

The meat melts off the bones in the pressure cooker, pork fat
dripping from softened limbs like snow from black root on a
winter morning.

It’s fine.

You sift the remaining bone-stock with a colander, flushed
with thyme and aniseed. You tell me to scrape the flesh off the
bones with a knife and laugh when my fingers slip, wrangling
silver against each cord-like sinew.

Honey, there’s more than one way
to get to the heart of things,

You whisper as you pull out a larger knife and, taking the pig
trotter from my hands, whistle each hardened tendon – splitting
the ropes – off of the skeleton flower.

骨: Some nights, snow swathes the streets in silent, sleet-wet
pavements. You call me on the phone while you’re peeling an
orange, and like muscle memory, I say I’m busy, distracted.

Okay then listen to me.

You tell me about the lady who stops by the store every day,
never buys anything, just stares at the row of wooden horses.
You tell me how you walked the extra mile to get your
favourite diner coffee, chortling eggs and beans while watching
the busker ignite one-half of a weary skyline. This way, you
can tell your friends we still talk.

There’s more than one way
to get to the heart of things

茶: You tell me about driftwood, sangria, cherry blossoms and
tea, while splitting an orange down the middle, spooning the
seeds off its insides. I fall asleep, cord entwined around my
finger, having heard all about your day. You listen to the rise
and fall of my breath, dip a slice of orange into your cup of tea,

Long over-steeped, almost bitter to taste, still waiting to hear
mine.

 

Notes on Loss by Brooke Maddison

Brooke Maddison is a writer and editor working on unceded Turrbal and Yuggera land. She is completing a Masters of Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Queensland and is the founder and co-editor of Crackle (Corella Press, 2021), the university’s anthology of creative writing. Her work has been published by Kill Your Darlings, Antithesis and Spineless Wonders, among others. She has a mentorship with University of Queensland Press and is a 2022 recipient of The Next Chapter fellowship.

 

 

Notes on Loss

My husband went out to our boxed-in garden so that he could take a call from his sister. She was going under: still a child herself, not able to care for her baby son. Too many other things were pulling at the edges of her attention. She was tangled within the net of a gang and had been placed in an emergency mother and baby residential unit so she could be assessed on her parenting ability. She was 16 years old.

I watched as my husband paced across the thin patch of grass that I had been trying desperately to grow. The bass-heavy drone from the ramshackle Carnival speakers rumbled in the distance. I wandered outside so that I could listen to what was being said.

The sun beat down. A welcome long-weekend reprieve at the end of another disappointing London summer. My husband’s face was tense as he told his sister it was a bad idea to try and head to the Notting Hill Carnival with her seven-month-old baby. An even worse idea to leave him with the neighbours.

The air throbbed, thick with smoke from the jerk chicken stalls. There was a palpable thrill of anticipation on the breeze. Our friends would be arriving soon, and we too would be following the masses on foot towards the epicentre of the carnival. Somewhere on the street a glass bottle smashed. Snatches of conversation floated out of open windows, little portals into stranger’s lives.

‘I’m on road already, bruv.’
‘Nah fam, don’t come at me like that—’
‘I beg you grab me a bottle of Appleton, sis.’
‘She was well vexed. And then—’
‘Tune! Turn it up.’

The plastic chair cooled the back of my legs as I perched under the lone tree in our garden. I stretched, accidently kicking over an empty can of baked beans that had morphed into an ashtray. I used a hand to shelter my eyes from the glare. It was hard to make out the subtext of what my sister-in-law was saying over the phone, but it sounded serious. When she was pregnant, she had held her body differently, walking upright with loaded pride instead of her usual teenage swag. Now it seemed like she was going to fail her parenting assessment.

Was I ready for this?

To take on someone else’s story, to be pinned to this place forever? Tied to this country, this man and to his disintegrating family?

***

I read over my son’s adoption reports and the forms filled out by social workers in an attempt to piece together his story. So much was left behind. The section on ethnicity says simply: Black, Zimbabwean. But there is no such thing. Zimbabwean is a nationality, not an ethnicity. On his biological mother’s side my son is Ndebele, an ethnic minority more closely related to South Africa’s Zulus in language and culture than to the majority Shona people of Zimbabwe. The identity of his biological father is unknown, a blank space on both his original birth certificate and his adoption file. If he had been adopted by another family, which was an absolute possibility, even what little was known about his ethnic and cultural background would have been lost, omitted from his story forever.

***

A year before he was mine, I watched as my sister-in-law carted her baby out of the family home and sat at the nearest bus stop. She had no intention of going anywhere—didn’t have any money, her phone, or a bus pass—but her parents were seemingly powerless to stop her from sitting at a bus stop on a cold winter night with her baby. She was like an unmoored ship, crashing from one shore to the next.

From the confines of the sitting room I saw her balancing the baby on her lap, bracing herself against the chill. The night air bit at our faces when we stepped outside to coax her back in. I wondered what was going through her mind. Was she was waiting for a new story to appear, so that she could grab a hold of it and use it to yank herself free from her own life?

Before I could ask her, her parents called the police. Eight officers escorted her back inside, and without much fuss she was out of the cold and back within the walls of the family home. But she never did manage to find a clear path through the mess of her story. When I look back at photographs from that time I see that my son’s eyes look haunted.

***

In the jumble of my son’s adoption files I find the letters that I wrote to the judge presiding over the case in the family court:

Sunday the 13th of October 2013
To the Honourable Judge,

We are writing this letter to you as we have concerns for the welfare of our nephew, M.
M has been in foster care for almost a year. As he nears his second birthday the local authority still does not have a clear care plan or position regarding his long-term care.
We write this with M’s best interests at heart. We feel that he needs a secure, stable, and loving environment in which to grow and that we are the ones best able to give this to him.

The letters were written when it seemed likely that the adoption would not proceed. We had already completed an in-depth assessment and been through an intensive one-week introductions period, where we tried to transition from being periphery family members to primary carers. Each day we spent an increasing amount of time with him, firstly at his foster carer’s house, then out in the community or back at our flat. The first time I tried to put him down for a nap he screamed so much that I lay down with him in my bed, but he continued to cry and wouldn’t settle. The second time I walked the long way home from the train station, hoping he would fall asleep in his stroller. He did but woke when we got to the flat. I left him to scream himself to sleep, with the bedroom door shut, just like his foster carers told me to.

After the intensity of the introductions week we were presented to a panel of experts so that we could be matched to our nephew for the adoption to proceed. We were turned down at that initial panel, as the basic paperwork requirements had not been met by the local authority handling the case. He had already been in foster care for over a year. We had been through months of home visits by at least five different social workers, completed the police and medical checks, provided references and financial statements. We had taken time off work and spent every weekend crossing the expanse of London on a train to spend time with him.

As I look back over my frantic letter to the judge, written ten days after we were rejected at the panel, I’m reminded of the names of the social workers involved and the events that seemed to loom over those days.

***

When my son finally came to live with us, 15 months after he went into foster care, we were given two pages of notes.

These are the things they told us were necessary:

An afro comb,
Plantain (not a Zimbabwean food),
To use the same washing detergent as his foster carers (so his clothes and bedsheets would smell familiar to him),
A bottle at bedtime and another at midnight,
Peppa Pig on television when he woke up at five am,
Ready Brek oats every morning at seven.

Things they didn’t tell us (not a comprehensive list by any means):

He would sometimes wake up in rages so bad that he didn’t recognise where he was or who he was with,
That he would call all Black women mama (on the bus, at the playground, even the social workers who came to check on us),
That he didn’t like to be held when he went to sleep,
That you really can’t sum up a human being with two pages of notes,
That the tremendous love I felt towards him would sometimes masquerade as shame and guilt.

***

In the years after the adoption is finalised the trauma spools out into other areas of my life. There are times when it gathers and pools like blood on a hard wood floor. I don’t want to see it but can’t look away. The trauma feels like a barrier that no one, least of all me, can get past.

Almost three years after the adoption we move to Australia as a family of three. I let the process of applying for migration visas for my son and my partner consume me and I spend a whole summer scanning statutory declarations, photographs, bills, and tenancy agreements as my son naps. Picking up our lives and moving them to Australia is more difficult than we imagined. My marriage falters and dies in a sudden explosion. It is over quickly but the shame of failure remains, especially when I think about the enduring losses for my son, who now must face seismic loss and trauma once again. The night my son finds out that his dad is leaving I watch as sobs wrack his little body with deep noiseless spasms. I fold his form into me, and we lie together in bed, united in grief.

I read books on adoption and attachment, learning that trauma can manifest in unusual sleep patterns like sleep disruption, nightmares, or the need for too much sleep. I think back to those early years, and how he always seemed to need sleep, more and more of it, and I wonder if that was his way of trying to sleep away the trauma and pain. At age nine he still sleeps in my bed, with one foot touching me, always seeking reassurance that I am there, that I won’t leave him.

He struggles to read and write, the narrative thread that should run through his neural pathways have been disrupted. Teachers remark on the stark disparity between his vocabulary, vivid imagination, and the jumble of letters that he manages to write down. I take him to be screened for dyslexia, and it seems to be that it’s all bound by trauma.

The missing stories, the learning difficulties; how much does this change the way he makes sense of the world? When he can’t begin to understand how to read, write or process language? Does he feel like the absence of story leaves him adrift in the world? Without the geography of a story, I wonder how he can even begin to make sense of himself. Which way is it—has the trauma robbed him of an ability to process information or does his inability to read and write stop him from making sense of the past?

***

What I know now: we will always carry this trauma with us in our bodies. Stuck to our bones, nestled between our organs, and concealed in our veins. Adoption is a kind of exile, a loss so deep that it reverberates through families forever. My son must feel a kind of ever-present and eternal absence, similar to what immigrants and refugees experience. I picture his loss folding in on him in layers: he has lost his birth parents and extended family, his home, his foster carers, his cultural heritage, language, and history. He has lost the stories that should have been his birthright.

One day I overhear my son and his best friend talking about his biological mum. The two of them are crouched closely together, eating ice blocks which drip onto the smooth wooden floor. His friend wants to know, was she a good mum like Brooke? My son uses his hands to indicate. So-so. And then: not really. But really, there is so much that he can’t remember. I don’t know whether to be grateful for this or not.

Under all of this is something deeper, and our relationship remains tenuous for him. Sure, it is deep and constant and full of love, all of those things. But in the pit of his stomach is the fear that I could be taken from him at any moment. This is after all what has happened to him throughout his life, he is no stranger to losing people. Sometimes he can verbalise his fears: I can’t get myself to trust myself. And he tells me that during the night, when he is in my bed and I’m working at the kitchen table in the next room or having a shower, that he imagines that someone will break into our house and something terrible will happen to me. He tells me that if this happens he will run to his best friend’s house, in the middle of the night, to get help. To get there would involve him running through his darkened school and crossing several roads. I make a note to teach him how to use the emergency call function on my phone.

The strongest link I have with my son will always be based on narrative, not genetics. We are a family because it was written so. Because of child protection reports, the issuing of a new birth certificate and a chain of emails that crisscrossed between a network of social workers. I even wrote my name into his by interweaving my surname into his birth name.

I could say that I wish it hadn’t happened this way. That I wish my son hadn’t experienced the trauma of separation, multiple times over. That I wish that I had stayed married and that we still lived in that little flat in Northwest London with the yellow bedroom that opened out onto the garden. I can wish for all of this, but that’s not the way it happened.

So much was lost, but there are other stories waiting for us. Adoption and parenthood are layered in complex narratives, stories that are moored in culture, tradition, language, and memory that have been piled on top of one another, melted and merged for thousands of years until we end up here. Our relationship is the story that binds us.

And with the story comes meaning. The narrative creates order, gives structure to the events that shattered lives along the way. I might not get this version of the story right, but that is not the point. There is plurality here. Who did what to who, who remembers what, even who owns whom. There are so many disparate parts of this story, of any story. Blurred memories, faded photographs, forgotten conversations, personal mythologies that place blame at the feet of everyone else. Would my now ex-husband remember that fateful phone call in our garden in London? I fantasise about picking up the phone and asking him but realise it’s not important.

I still find myself questioning whether this narrative enough. It seems like such a fragile thread on which to hang a family, a life. But writing this story is a kind of alchemy: it carries with it the power to transform. I write to give the story space, to let it breathe. I write to let it out of my body, my mind, and into the light. I let it vibrate through us as a living, breathing thing. I do my best to remember it all, the story of me and him. And as I write I find that he is at the centre of my story, and that I am at the centre of his.

***

I write my way back to the beginning of us, to the start of you and me. I write back to when you were first imagined, just a faint glimmer in your birth mother’s eye. I write myself to you, stitching our past and future together at the seams, wrapping you tightly in our memories so that you will never forget. I hold you in our story, I cover you with it and all the while I am telling you: you are loved, you are mine, you are the story.

Dean Mokrozhaevy

Dean Mokrozhaevy moved to Australia in 2008 and grew up reading and writing in various suburbs of Sydney. They use their writing to work through their emotions and make something meaningful out of distress. Outside of their writing endeavours they also enjoy bushwalking, watching moon jellyfish in the Sydney harbour and sewing with their assistant Concrete the cat.

 

 

Foundation

Everything’s fixed up.
Everything but the pink stain in the kitchen grout.
I told you I wanted to keep it.

I don’t know what you were preparing for
But I think you’re done now.

I can’t tell what you’re feeling anymore.
Not from your face.
Your hands are still gentle
You still hold the back of my head when we sleep
You still let me sink into your body and cover us with the
blanket.

You say that the paint is peeling

But I like it

You say that you’re scared

But I’m here

You say that you love me and that you’ll always love me and that I’m the best thing that’s
ever happened to you

And I tell you that we still have decades to love
each other

You give a chuckle and change the subject
 
 
 
Note

When I wake up
You aren’t there.
The sunrise paints gold on the sheets
Not on your face.

I get out of the gold.
It’s not mine.
It’s yours.

The shower’s off.
The living room is empty.
There’s no one in the kitchen.

There’s a note on our shoe cabinet.
Your keys are the paperweight.

I love you.
I’m sorry.

Alison Hatzantonis reviews Stamiata X by Effie Carr

Stamiata X

by Effie Carr

Primer Fiction 

Reviewed by ALISON HATZANTONIS

 

Years ago, when my first baby was a few months old, my half Greek, Australian born husband and I took Greek language lessons. In the depth of winter on cold cold nights I would leave my baby sound asleep in her Yia yia’s care and traipse across the city to a freezing concrete classroom to study the language with a Cretan lady called Crisanthe.

All these years later I still have only a rudimentary grasp of the basics of the Greek language. I can, though, introduce myself, ask how much something is and, thanks to practising on my two small children who could easily grasp any language, even two at once, I know all the Greek names of colours, body parts, fruit and a myriad of animals. But mainly, I remember the complexity of conjugation in the Greek language.

It was on common ground with the protagonist, Stamatia, that I found myself when I started reading this novel by Effie Carr. With a flash of recognition in the first few pages, the difficulty and rote learning that is needed to conjugate verbs were a jolt to my memories. Stamatia’s struggle with past tense and past participle terms becomes one of the underlying themes running through this novel. Her focus and interest in the history of the Greek people, the nation of Greece and the trauma passed down through generations were all expressed through the use of tense, past present and future, that she applies to her verbs.

At the centre of this multi-level and, at times, multi-perspective novel, is a young Greek Australian girl named Stamatia. In the Greek language, Stamatia means ‘stop’. A fact that is pointed out early with the birth of Stamatia and the response by her rigid and traditional father. Vasili wanted to stop any more female children being born to the family. This was an effective strategy apparently as two younger brothers are later born into the family after Stamatia. They live in Stanmore, in inner west Sydney around 1973 when the family (or rather Vasili) decide to return to Greece. This move coincides with the aftermath of the 1967 coup that occurred in Greece. On the 21st of April 1967 the military took control of the country and for the next seven years this dictatorship severely curtailed basic democratic freedoms.

Stamatia is a great dreamer. She asks a lot of questions. In fact, most of her musings are expressed in the form of questions. This style of narrative is fine when used immoderately and cautiously but the novel is overwhelmed by the rhetorical format. We, the reader, understand that she is a curious and intelligent girl, but the continuous phrasing of her thoughts as unanswered questions takes the reader out of the story. The narrative veers into memoir territory as the author employs an omnipotent narrative style. This leads to Stamatia thinking and pondering things that a young girl couldn’t possibly know or understand. The novel could be viewed as a collection of essays. Each chapter is not necessarily linear and there is a lack of plot progression to keep the story moving forward. Stamatia is very observational but tying together her musing is fractured and, in some instances, not clearly linking with the storyline at all. This fusion of genres could be part of the author’s strategy. To combine rhetoric, fiction and non-fiction historical reportage and blend it through the narrative is an unusual and different way to tell complex stories of displacement, migration and inter-generational trauma. I am not sure though, if I agree that this is a successful interpretation.

There are a few chapters that are not fully realised. The lack of backgrounding, characterisation and world building left what was actually on the page, a bit aimless. A curiously out of place chapter concerns Stamatia’s tutor from when she lived in Australia, Mr Lalas, and how he came to have a glass eye. This flashback to a minor character’s past seems to serve no purpose in the novel and merely provides a vehicle for Stamatia to compare him to a ‘cigarette-smoking cyclopes’.

In chapter 6 ‘Stamatia Aged 6’ there is a foray into existential angst with the arrival of her baby brother. Stamatia feels supplanted by this male child and even tries to kill the baby by holding a pillow over his face. Stamatia is maybe trying to express an existential feeling that she could live perfectly happily by being only one. She can imagine that she could lock herself in a cupboard, not go anywhere but because she has this inner life, she is perfectly content. The arrival of brothers and her upheaval and move to Greece throws her into great turmoil. But the portrayal of a 6-year-old suffering existential angst draws a long bow. In another chapter, one that focuses on Stamatia’s arrival at her new Greek high school, there is a slightly bizarre meandering into a simile of Darwinism and comparing students in her classroom with wild animals.

The novel’s foray into the past is cleverly explored. Through the use of grammar, an effective metaphor for the way the past is viewed by the Greek people is nicely done. ‘Stamatia knew that there were three tenses that described the past: the aorist, imperfect and the perfect. But there was only one future tense’(p31). Stamatia starts to understand how much the past, the country’s history, runs through the people and the places of Greece. Her tutor, Mr Lalas points this out to her before she even leaves Australia. ‘To be a Greek means to remember the past, Stamatia’ (p31) he tells her when she questions why there are numerous ways to conjugate the past.

The rhythm and excitement of the novel is at its best when the story is moving forward. The pace picks up when the narrative focuses on actual movement like the flight back to Greece. Upon landing at the airport, with the family’s re-migration journey back to their homeland just starting, there is a fascinating scene involving Stamatia, her suitcase of books and the military running the airport. The irony with which Stamatia views the soldiers proclaiming order in their processing of the passengers, is very amusing. ‘We will have order in Greece booms a voice through a loudspeaker. Stamatia thought this was strange. The Greeks she knew didn’t like too much order at all. Her observation was that Greeks liked disorder and a bit of chaos, the excitement of the spontaneous and elusive kefi, a Dionysian spirit which could only be captured in the moment’ (p50).

Thematically, Carr weaves together migration, Greek culture and religion, the collective trauma felt by the Greek people after being occupied in WW2, the impact of a dictatorial coup and the resulting restriction on freedoms, teenage existential angst and the difficulty of Greek grammar, to name a few.

The novel ends with a return to the beginning and the journey being embarked upon by Maria and Vasili to Australia, pregnant with their first child, a girl who will be called Stamatia. In the circle of life, of heritage, of ancestors and descendants, stopping is not possible.

Effie Carr was awarded a Commendation for Foreign Literature at the Book Awards organised by the Greek-Australian Cultural Association of Melbourne and Victoria for Stamatia X. The novel’s complexity of prose, dialogue, themes and imagery make for a confident debut for an emerging writer. I do await her next foray with anticipation.

 

ALISON HATZANTONIS is a country born and bred, Sydney writer currently undertaking a master’s degree at Macquarie University which she is hoping to finish soon. She completed her BA Degree majoring in Creative Writing in 2020. Twitter @a_hatz5