Robert Wood grew up in a multicultural household in Perth. He holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. He has edited for Margaret River Press, Wild Dingo Press and Overland, and volunteered for the Small Press Network, Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Books through Bars. He has published work in literary journals such as Southerly, Plumwood Mountain and Counterpunch and a academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research. He currently hosts a reading and conversation series at The School of Life and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
What is the hybrid to do?
I have passed as a white man for most of my life. I have a name – Robert Wood – that is invisible in the hegemonic Anglo society of suburban Australia. I have a body that if a little tanned, a little hook nosed, a little ‘Latin’ or ‘Mediterranean’, is nevertheless unthreateningly, benignly unnoticeable. I present in dress and language, in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, as white. But I am also a person of colour. My mother is brown. She is Malayalee from Kerala in South India. Although there are degrees of complexity and complexion in the vales and folds of family history, through her I participate in a network of colouredness. Colouredness means both the aesthetic reality of the body itself, how we look, and the political meaning of bodies, how we are represented. In other words my mother’s skin is literally not ‘white’ (or for that matter ‘pink’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’) and we have a shared history of colonial oppression that is racially based, which involves the British, the Portugese and northern India.
When I was young my mother’s parents, in sari and tracksuit pants, migrated to Australia. They had come to die where their children had come to live. My grandparents were from adjoining fishing villages ‘close’ to what is now Thiruvananthapuram. They grew up in an era before Indian independence and had markedly divergent political attitudes towards colonialism. My grandfather, Winifred, dark as the ace of spades, was an Anglophile. When I went back to his village in 2012, people said I looked just like him, ‘except he was an African’. These old people – my distant relations and my grandfather’s friends – laughed about who my grandfather was: how he would wear white linen suits, how he listened to classical music, how he drank gin and tonics. He was attracted in part to my grandmother, Gertrude, because her skin was so fair. She meanwhile was an Indian nationalist, a passionate supporter of unions, a radical opposed to the British occupation. I don’t know enough to understand what bound them together but there must have been something to allow those paradoxes of body, of ideology to be united.
Their children – my mother and my aunts – had come to Australia when the White Australia Policy ended in 1974. Some of them were early international students at universities; others came and began work straight away. Their story over the last forty years resonates with the known narrative of migration – hard work, education, opportunity – and they have, in their own definition, been successful. But their story also has its particular idiosyncrasies and challenges. Before Australia my Uncle Eddie, for example, had moved to Singapore and was Lee Kwan Yu’s bodyguard for a number of years. A committed socialist, his contribution to a newly independent nation was to keep the leader safe. He read what Lee Kwan Yu read; he ate what Lee Kwan Yu ate; he slept on a cot at the foot of Lee Kwan Yu’s bedroom door. When he came to Australia, the only job he could get was at Midland Brickworks. The racism from other workers there was a long way from the multicultural, red left utopia he thought he was helping to build in South East Asia. These are the personal takes on a story, increasingly told, about what it is to migrate to Australia.
I knew I was not quite white from very early on. My mother’s family, from midnight to caramel to café au lait, was a chocolate box of brownness. There were gingers and blondes and brunettes in my father’s family, but Mum’s made me realise that diversity is skin deep. It was home to me. It still is. In other societies and times I would not be allowed to exist; the brown would be far away from the white. When my family went to South Africa in 2001 we often found we were the only mixed race, the only ‘coloured’ family in various bourgeois restaurants. Class was now doing the role of race. There was a palpable sense of unease at our presence. We were in a sea of tense, paranoid, leftover apartheid beneficiaries, many of whom have subsequently made sunny Perth their putative home.
But it did not take a trip to South Africa to realise I was not white and that being non-white was different. We knew this when our grandparents dropped us at school, when we opened our lunchboxes, when we went to friend’s family homes with their saccharine smell sans spice. This is not to say I had white friends only but that we were not people like them. But it was a source of strength for the most part. This is not to say there are not structural forms of racism that one experiences personally, but that one’s identity is formed partly by familial recognition, solidarity and validation.
In thinking through identity though, in thinking through what I am, I am first led towards clichés. The phrase that seems to be deployed most often is ‘walking in two worlds’. In Australia this is used particularly often for Indigenous people, but one can discern it in post-colonial conversations as well. I have a mata mata brother-in-law who is half Ngarluma (Aboriginal) and half white (mongrel Irish, French, English). Although people no longer use this phrase, he, like me on a different axis, is a ‘half-caste’. We could be forgiven for thinking that ‘we walk in two worlds’. In a more intellectual iteration, this might be ‘hybrid’. But hybrid unifies the duality of the two worlds phrase, it seeks to bring together the ‘double consciousness’ that half-halfs seem to have and so it is distinct. Hybridity too, in the literary theory of Homi Bhabha, seems to represent a process over time rather than a state of being. We are apparently creating a new mode of interaction that is neither here nor there. This may account for the either/or discussion that happens, whereby one says I am proud of my heritage or I am in conflict. But people feel various points at various times and I often think of myself ‘homonymically’.
A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. It is about unity (of sound and spelling) and multiplicity (of meaning). It is then not about two autonomous histories coming together in one body, about my parents as individuals who come from separate, independent places, but about how they have always been linked dialogically and materially. There has always been a little bit of curry in Scotland, always a little bit of whiskey in Kerala. Water connects us all.
Passing, of course, has a long and complicated global history including for African American communities, for Anglo-Indian people, for Indigenous Stolen Generations. Colouredness used to be a secret to keep hidden because there were material advantages to presenting as white. That has most certainly changed due in part to the end of White Australia, Civil Rights, Land Rights, ‘black is beautiful’, United Colours of Bennetton as well as the material opportunities afforded to Othered subjects by a whole host of cultural, economic and political changes. Now there is cultural capital to be gained from identifying as a person of colour, even as we should think of it as a heuristic and imperfect category. In the Australian conversation, the myth we have of being white, of being a European or American society has been discredited, but it lingers in television, in corporate boardrooms, in advertising, in cricket, in mining. It is not only about placing people of colour in the conversation but about changing the frame of representation to begin with. We don’t need to assimilate to it; it needs to accommodate us.
Indians now have recently outpaced English people as the source of new migrants in Australia. This is only surprising to me in that English people had clung on for so long. Of course I knew there were whites arriving here, aiming for a slice of the good-Home-and-Away-sunny-side-of-the-street-hot-pie-cold-beer-roses-out-front-green-lawn-out-back-red-brick-own-your-own-home-life, but I had not believed they were still the source of so many new arrivals. That the biggest group of ‘illegals’ in Australia are backpackers from the United Kingdom who overstay their visa is a fact worth highlighting publicly, if only to reinforce the claim that Australia is structurally racist. Why one rule for someone fleeing persecution who happens to be brown as opposed to someone larking about on the beach who happens to be white? Australia still seems to be a paradise for the white working man.
I though in other conditions, conditions of my own making, see myself as a white man. It is not without some hesitation that I identify as such, if only because being a white man now means, in certain circles, prostrating for one’s historical sins. And well they/we should. What white men fail to see, what are invisible, are their forms of group solidarity, their shared experiences of the body, their political ideation as collective rather than as individual subjects. If us people of colour have historically been stereotyped and viewed as a group lacking individual identification, white men have rejoiced in the opposite. I do though reflect on my father’s position and heritage. I drink whiskey and think of the fatherland, I read Robbie Burns and think of the fatherland, I get angry at the fatherland as an interested and invested party.
I was living in New Delhi at the time of all the ‘curry bashing’ in Melbourne, 2009. Front page after front page in India was filled with commentary about racist Australia. It was shaming but it corroborated personal experiences. I remember visiting my teenage cousin in hospital when I was a child because a football team had beaten him up in a racially motivated attack on the streets of Cottesloe. In 2009 though, Indian newspapers showed Indians in Australia protesting and mass rallies against violence. As heartening to see this pushback, it was to my mind only the opening of a possible conversation about anti-violence has not yet been taken up in a lasting way. That initial energy has not coalesced into meaningful institutional and cohesive forms of anti-racism. That is surely the task now: To not only take these disparate experiences into the cultural conversation but then to politicise what it means to be coloured in Australia in a way that has lasting material impacts.
By virtue of shared experience and bodily aesthetics there are bridges to build between people of Indian origin and other communities too. When I visited Broome I was assailed by long lost family members from my mind. Who were all these South Indians I thought looking at the faces of local Indigenous people? That people of colour may translate well to certain Indigenous communities is important for allowing us to consider possibilities for addressing the ills of modern Australia. In my interactions in the Pilbara, locals respond very differently by virtue of skin. There is solidarity between brown bodies there that needs exploring.
For years I have been reluctant to identify myself as a person of colour. This is because I want to be recognised on my own terms, as an individual rather than as a set of histories or a position in the world. I have, in other words, wanted to be white where my identity is all but invisible and I can proclaim my universality without consideration or conscience. But the body returns, heritage returns. There is opportunity to think through what it means to be neither/nor, either/or, two worlds, hybrid, homonymic, dialogic, multiple. And in a style that breaks down the assumption that people can only be one thing, that identity is fixed and personal rather than mutating and structural.
Welsh-born Olivia Rushin lives in Brisbane and is currently studying a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and Arts (Writing) at the University of Queensland. She’s been a bakery assistant for more years than anyone should, but did spend her gap year traveling and working in Germany, so it’s not all bread.
There’s something about the river. Peg wades out of its grip and runs home.
She runs because she has to, because the sky is turning and the gaslights on this side of the city are few and far between. The rows of terraced houses hum like a hive. Numb old men with leaden tongues are having a pissing contest in the gutter, and a one-armed child squats and strains on the cobblestones nearby. Peg sidesteps sleeping bodies and ducks the cords of neglected clotheslines. She pelts from one lamppost to the next, below factory chimneys that pipe scud into the clouds.
Home is in the west, detached from the city, where the dark gaps between streetlights hide only trellises of jessamines and honey-suckle, and the husks of sleeping carriages. Peg scrabbles onto the slate roof outside her sister’s room, and her wet hands squeal on the sash window as she slips in through the gap. The west wind streams in after her, swills around the walls like freshwater, spits the stale air out onto the street.
There’s movement from the four-poster inside, and Amy’s head lifts into view.
“I’m dripping all over,” says Peg. “Need a blanket.”
She catches the flying bundle with one hand and sops up the puddle at her feet; wrings out her sodden dress.
“You went to the river again,” says Amy.
The river, the river. Her milky little grin floats in the darkness.
“What was it like?”
Peg’s stomach shifts; she can’t stand that awed look.
“Tell me,” says Amy.
The crescents of Peg’s nails are packed stiff with silt the colour of boiled tealeaves, but it tastes like coal and grease and riverweed when she bites it out. The grit crunches between her teeth.
“It’s beautiful,” she says eventually, spitting into her sleeve. “Really.”
“But beautiful how?”
“Beautiful same as last time. You know I can’t describe it how you like.”
“In the morning, maybe,” says Peg. She helps Amy shift onto her side, so the bedsores won’t scab onto the sheets. “You should be asleep. But I have something for you first. For your collection.”
She tips a faceted gem of river-glass, scarlet and glinting, onto her sister’s palm.
Amy is breathless. “Is it a real ruby?”
“Looks that way,” says Peg. “And it was only a shard of old bottle when I threw it in.”
Amy finishes inspecting the thing and solemnly hands it over.
“Put it with the others.”
Peg crosses the room, sets the glass ruby on the shelf. It rolls on its axis and settles beside a whittled coil of wood that hadn’t started out that way at all; the first thing Peg ever fished out of the river’s hungry tongue.
She’d thrown it in up by the overgrown thicket near Cotchett’s old mill, for no reason, really. It was a crude hunk of oak she’d hacked out of a trunk with a sharpened butter knife, and throwing it into the river had just been something to do. She’d chased after it along the bank, past the steep slant of the weir, and fished it out where it surfaced in that eddy down by the millstream, right in the tailrace of Lombe’s silk mill. By then, something about the river had changed the simple thing – found it, drowned it, chewed it up and spat it out – and it was a perfect spiral, carved of oak.
Further along the shelf is what used to be the jawbone of a cow, until the river decided it should be a fine-toothed comb. Beside that is a goatskin pouch that went in empty and resurfaced full of glass marbles, and a broken tile of red brick that came back monogrammed with the letter ‘A’ in cursive. Peg feeds things to the river, they come out better. Changed.
“I want to see it,” says Amy behind her. “Peggy? The river. You have to take me with you.”
The air suddenly seems stale again, stagnant. For a moment, Peg seethes, heaves at the unfairness of all these pretty things destined to die here on the shelf. Better if they’d sunk and stayed like they were supposed to, or been swept all those miles and dumped out at sea. The ruby glares back at her. Peg calms, and turns.
She carries Amy downstairs, outside, and slowly back east. Amy hugs onto her neck at first but falls asleep before they reach the slums. Hollow eyes blink awake, tracking them through the streets, and the fetid air hangs heavy in their wake. Peg’s glad Amy misses it. Her little head is still limp against her chest when they emerge from the thicket by the mill and step out onto the slippery rocks.
The cracked glaze of Amy’s prosthetic gleams pearlescent in the moonlight. Their father used to boast that it was made from Derby’s finest porcelain. A fired composite of ground glass, eggshell, and human ash, he’d said, and Amelia should be proud to have such a pretty thing for a leg. She’ll never be confused for one of those mutilated urchins again.
He might have mentioned how she’d never be able to walk again either, for fear of shattering. How the socket joint of her porcelain knee would shriek and scrape whenever she tried to stand, grinding away at itself like a mortar and pestle. How Peg would have to watch her sister grow smaller and paler with every passing day, living only off second-hand stories about the magic of a black river and a promise that one day she’d see it for herself.
The rapids roar as they take Amy away. Peg pounds along the bank; races them downstream as they surge over the weir and into the eddy by the millstream. She squats there and waits – at the foot of the great waterwheel, always turning, churning – but all that washes up is white porcelain dust that sifts through her fingers and is gone.
by Khulud Khamis
Reviewed by SELMA DABBAGH
The protagonist of Khulud Khamis’s first novel, Haifa Fragments, Maisoon, is a jewellery designer and her story resembles an assemblage on a jeweller’s worktop; a thickly strung necklace that tailors off without a clasp, several loose, coloured stones lying around and about it – glass fragments and dark shards among textured stones.
Khulud Khamis is the first Palestinian women writer with Israeli citizenship I have come across. Several of the most prominent Palestinian writers hold Israeli citizenship, being from ’48 Palestine (i.e. present day Israel); Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and Said Kashua. Shammas and Kashua write in Hebrew. All three are male. Their gender is not necessarily relevant, as a writer who believes that it is the way that texts are read, rather than written, that is gendered. It is, however, relevant to Khamis’ work as her focus is very much the feminine, the female, the sensual and the sexual. One senses that this work, despite being fictionalised, draws heavily on her own autobiographical experience, dealing with her everyday life as a young woman of Palestinian origin living in Haifa: a Christian, an Arab, a person with a negated past, a subject of discrimination, second class and potentially a security threat. The challenge that Maisoon takes on lustily, is to not to allow any of these labels to define her. Working against the confines of family, partnerships, territorial borders, checkpoints and gender roles Maisoon emerges as a hedonistic free spirit, with an eye for beauty, a commitment to change, an extraordinary talent for design and an ability to change the perceptions of others around her, through kindness, patience, hard work and generosity.
There is no definitive plot line in Haifa Fragments. It is a late coming of age novel; an existing relationship with a man is redefined, the acceptance and love of family is renegotiated, a woman is loved, bedded and enabled to move on, with nothing but friendship and good will between the two of them, a Jewish woman supports Maisoon and learns (and profits) from the process. To reveal these steps does not spoil the book, for it is evident from the opening pages that little hardship will befall those who come within Maisoon’s orbit. Unlike most novels set in the Arab world where the female characters are romantically hung up and sexually gauche, Maisoon even forgets that there is a man in bed with her, ‘The alarm clock went off at 3:45. Maisoon fumbled in the dark, brushing her arm on something warm and hairy. Yamma! She forgot ZIyad was spending the night.’
This book is very different from one with a similar title, Beirut Fragments, (1990, Persea Books) written by another Palestinian Christian woman living across a border, Jean Said Makdisi. Makdisi’s work is sharper in observation and reportage, but her ambitions are also very different to those of Khamis. Khamis appears intent on humanizing, softening and showing beauty and hope in an ongoing situation of inequality. Said Makdisi’s book is labeled as a ‘war memoir,’ Khamis’ is no such thing.
It is not easy to avoid dates, political events and national catastrophes in Palestinian literature, but Khamis is determined not to catalogue or explain out. The work is contemporary and those who are familiar with the political background would be able to place events that are alluded to, but this vibrant novel is completely open to those with little or no knowledge of Palestinian history. It does not seek to instruct the reader, but allows them to understand how a reality can feel, how it impacts behavior, relationships and allegiances. Everything is political and yet many of the key aspects of Maisoon’s life (family, lovers, work) aren’t overtly so. There is a luxury, Khamis concedes, in having the status that she has, as a second-class citizen of a state, rather than as a subject of occupation. She can struggle to live as fully as she desires, but she does not have to struggle to survive and she appreciates the space allowed to her not to have to do so.
For all Palestinians, there was a moment in their own or their family’s history when their parents or grandparents were faced with a decision: to stay or to go. The process of dispossession is ongoing and unrelenting and many (in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem) are still forced to consider this question every day. In Maisoon’s family the last battle of Haifa is described as the time when her family had to decide whether to leave and despite the fearful ‘barrels that were rolled down from Share’a El-Jabal,’ Maisoon’s family stayed. They even stay in the same house. This potentially sounds banal, but the references to the house, its history and contents were as baffling to this reader as they were heart wrenching. In Palestinian literature houses are usually lost, confiscated, destroyed, fled from and abandoned and characters are forced to move on, move on. It is rare for them to be transferred from generation to generation, with stories as to who sat where and whose coffee table or cupboard it was. Palestinians are more used to being separated from their past to stepping into the footprints of it.
To return to the analogy of the half strung necklace, the cord in Haifa Fragments is made from recurring images central to the culture Khamis describes: shay bi naa naa (mint tea), drums, dancing the darbuka, the salu, the souk, the sea, the food. These are overly repeated, but they link in and out with the past, the present, across borders and checkpoints. Towards the end of the book the shards, in the form of scrawls of Death to Arabs! graffiti in Maisoon’s neighbourhood, references to bombs on buses and rockets falling on Haifa, are explained as are moments that come and go.
The colour in Haifa Fragments though is intense. Khamis is unusual in her rejoicing of sexuality and sensuality in a way that is more familiar to writings from and about the Arab world of the 19th not the 21st Century, where the ‘Orient’ was almost wholly associated with licentious sexuality rather than bombs, religion and death. The novel also made me realize how culturally variable our approaches to personal vanity can be and Maisoon’s awareness of her own desirability to others, can be off putting.
Khamis’s work is playful and it can come across as deliberately naive. Maisoon seeks to engage with the Palestinian political situation, but she does not talk about that side of her life with her family or boyfriend. Her family have learnt to endure, to know societal ills and political injustices, but to put up with them. It is a politics of avoidance, rather than overt resistance. The situation is too precarious, they believe, for the demand for equality and a historical recognition to be made. For decades after the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, ’48 Palestinians were cut off from their families and former neighbours; a host of legislation made communication nearly impossible. There was a stigma of dealing with the enemy attached to those who remained, as well as not a small amount of jealousy from the majority of Palestinians who were forced into becoming refugees. It is only in recent decades, that prejudices have diminished and a new political cohesion has been sought. Maisoon is more confident than most Palestinians in Israeli society, possibly because as an attractive woman she has advantages her Muslim boyfriend Ziyyad is denied; she is a woman who has learnt to charm par excellence as well as to play a little dumb in order to break free. She is determined to live however she wants despite the constraints forced upon her, without compromising her beliefs. Khamis’ is an interesting voice; one that bears a message that goes beyond the political situation that she and her characters live under.
SELMA DABBAGH is a British Palestinian novelist, author of Out of It, published by Bloomsbury in 2011 and 2012 (pbk). Out of It was positively reviewed in the UK, the US and the Middle East. It was nominated as a Guardian Book of the Year in 2011 and 2012. The Arabic edition, Gaze Tahta Al-Jild (Gaza Under The Skin) translated by Khulood Amr, was published by BQFP in August 2015.
by Ken Canning
Reviewed by BRENDA SAUNDERS
The poetry in this collection covers the full range of social and cultural conditions facing Aboriginal people today. Burraga Gutya writes of imprisonment, mental illness, domestic violence, dislocation and the injustice due to racism or ignorance. On the back cover notes to this collection, the poet explains that “some of the poems reflect my feelings of political treachery, oppression and the mental state this leaves.”… “It is important to note that while I am writing my own experiences, I am [also] writing about the First Nations People’s survival against some horrific experiences”.
These “experiences” were also the driving force behind the work of well-known Aboriginal poets from the past such as Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. From time to time racism still rears its head in Australian sport, politics and public debate. This is the theme of many poems in this collection such as ‘Name Game’ the first poem. Here the poet sees racism and discrimination all around him.
You call me racist names
You call me not quite right
You call me law breaker
You call me a social disturbance
You call me a low form of life
Repetition of word and line is used for emphasis and dramatic effect. As a political activist Canning employs the chanting style reminiscent of a street march. And again in ‘Visibility Zero’, the cry is for equality and recognition.
Any big street
any big town.’
I am invisible
the visible invisible
I am black
In these poems, anger and defiance lie close to the surface. The voice is powerful and defiant, the style punchy and direct, with the immediacy of a ‘rap’ performance, a style now popular with Indigenous writers. Throughout this collection the line breaks are uneven, the lines short.
Gutya employs rhyme and half rhyme to great effect in many of these poems, for example in ‘Black Diggers’ he demands recognition and ‘visibility’ for Aboriginal ex-servicemen.
the strong Black Diggers
stood tall and proud
and gave honour
to all Peoples
of this land
some came home
to be shunned
you fought for,
turned its back
the brave Black Digger.
‘Mother Tongue’ is a lament for the loss of his native Kunja language, which for him has the power to expresses deep spiritual connections to Country and the inner emotions of his people. The short line construction slows down each word and thought. We have time to pause and reflect.
The english language
my inner being,
I yearn to tell
of my world
my sacred country
I try forgiveness
of mindless acts,
but every time I speak
you pierce my heart
as the words you left
are without meaning,
The poems related in Aboriginal ‘lingo’ are some of the best in this collection. They display a humorous insight and a first person immediacy often lacking in many of the other more political poems. In ‘Old Clever Woman’, a woman recounts her journey by bus and her encounter with white people, perhaps tourists, taking photos. Here the story is told in a singular, consistent voice revealing the gulf, the ignorance and misunderstanding that sometimes exists between the two cultures.
click ― click alla same.
This lot take picture
put ‘em in big book.
Tell em world they good,
they just love blackfella.
click ―click― same one,
gun― camera no matter.
And later we hear a cry for country, see the differing attitudes in ‘Tree Talk’, as the Old People confront the Conservationists and have the last word.
Old one Tree been talkin’
long time speak.
Them ones deaf for Tree talk
they hear only creak.
Old one Tree been screamin’
NO CHOP ― NO CUT.
Silly buggers talk wrong way
TALK TALK — CHATTER CHATTER
Old one Tree been talkin’
long before greenie time.
Old one Tree knows,
this one watch long time.
Gutya calls for understanding from the big developers and miners and speaks of the need to conserve his ‘sacred country’. Its value and importance to Aboriginal communities is stressed in ‘The Mother of Love’
why do they not live
in your reflection,
witness your perfection.
Why they can only see
everything you are
all that’s sacred
only in a dollar way.
Individual survival and resilience too is encouraged. In ‘Paths’ he calls to his fellow Aborigines to have confidence, to learn from the wisdom of the Dreaming stories.
for you are born,
with your own special ways
Explore your own purpose
do not fear the unknown,
listen to those born
In a series of poems, the poet confronts his own inner demons. These have titles such as “Relapse”, “Isolation”, “Psychotic Serenade” and” Rapid Demise”. They speak to Gutya’s battle with mental illness, his fear and sense of deprivation whilst in prison.
The short line breaks and the repetition of sound and word maintain an effective jagged rhythm. In ‘Rapid Demise’, alliteration and half rhymes add to the distress and urgency.
beating, beating, beating,
chases its prey
closing down of patterns
Remember, think, respond
the sheltered shock
Reliving these episodes, he relates his struggles with intense clarity. The poem ‘Psychotic Serenade’ (20) speaks of the “bleakness in rhapsody/ misery in D minor/ singing the madness — ”. He tries to understand the disturbing visions he encounters: looks for reason in confusion. Relief only comes as ‘the soothers sooth/ comfort. / the seers see revelations, / Corrections of reflection (‘Relapse’ 36).
As the poet explains in the back cover notes, he was “fortunate” to “write some of these poems while he was ill” but “a gentleness survives and overcomes the bitterness”. There is a cry for understanding and acceptance and a more playful word pattern in ‘We Said’
You said, I said, you said
that I should, you should — I
You did, I did, you did,
we both didn’t
You said. I said, you said.
We both said instead,
Neither of us did,
and in ‘Reflect’ there is a gentler voice welcoming the reader to join as one in accepting Aboriginal culture.
You must first learn
to walk the path
of those tracks
commenced at the dawning.
Planned by spirit ones
in the Dreaming.
maybe just maybe
you will find answers
To live in a way
of harmony, to survive
the mistakes of the past.
“Sharing” is the last poem in this collection and in these lines the poet offers the hand of reconciliation. He invites us to go with him on a “journey of soul /carried by wind spirit” for “tranquility — /to exist in my place”.
This collection reflects the writer’s convictions and his awareness that the political struggle goes on. Many of the poems speak of the anger and frustration felt by many Aboriginal people deprived of a voice. In the final poems the poet offers the hand of reconciliation, asking the reader to listen and learn the great lessons of Aboriginal culture.
BRENDA SAUNDERS is a Sydney writer and artist of Wiradjuri and British descent. She has published three collections of poetry her work has been published on the web and in literary journals here and overseas and she has read her poetry on Awaye and Poetica ABCRN. Brenda was short-listed for the David Unaipon Prize in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards 2011 and she was awarded the Varuna Dorothy Hewitt Poetry Fellowship for 2012. Her most poetry collection The Sound of Red was published by Hybrid in 2013. She recently returned from a Resident Fellowship at CAMAC Arts Centre in France where she worked translating her poetry into French.
The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War
by Sumia Sukkar
Reviewed by TESSA LUNNEY
The main character’s name looks grey, which mean I won’t like him. Gustave Aschenbach is a very dark name; he must be bad. I don’t want to finish the book in case it upsets me. Thinking about it forms hexagons in my mind with bees roaming around the shape, stinging. He is certainly a bad character then. Just the thought of reading on scares me. (p13)
These were my feelings on reading this book. Not because I was scared, but because I was moved. The naïve voice of the main character Adam, his sensual rendering of pain in colour, the misery of the war in Syria – perhaps I have read too many war novels, perhaps I have read too much news, perhaps it was the end of a cold, dark, and difficult winter, but sometimes I wanted it to stop. Adam’s clear voice is too direct, his emotional use of colour, his literal reaction to cruelty and its effects, involved me in a way that my PhD years reading trauma theory could never do.
Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome, a fact made clear by the cover blurbs and the essay that ends the book. What we see is a teenage boy who is sensitive, intelligent, easily overwhelmed, and literal-minded. Written in first person, we travel with Adam through the beginning of the current war in Syria. As the war breaks out around him and every routine is broken, as people disappear and others appears in their place, as they die and break down, Adam’s coping mechanisms are tested as much as those around him.
‘Why do you always paint war?’
‘Because it’s filled with endless painting possibilities, and the range of colours is so wide.’ (p17)
His main coping strategy, and the one that is most moving in the book, is that he gives his emotions colour. His favourite family member, his sister Yasmine, is a ruby red colour when she smiles, but changes colour as she becomes angry, defeated, scared and sad. As people smile or shout colour pours from their mouths, they shimmer and glow and ooze. Adam’s language is simple but his use of colour is sophisticated, making a scene that might have been cliché or repetitive vibrant and visceral. He paints his life, then he paints the war, when he has no food left he eats his paints to become the good colours, when he needs to paint again he paints in blood that he collects from the corpses at his doorstep.
He told me that blood is the substitute of paint. How can blood replace paint? But now with the blood in front of me, I have a part of me that is pushing me to take some blood and paint. So I do. (p152)
Each sentence is simple and direct, without irony or sarcasm. He eats his paints because he must eat. He paints in blood because he must paint. His childlike thought patterns combine with common impulses of desire or fear to devastating effect.
The progress of the plot is not what ‘happens’ in the book. These events are awful and the family suffers and suffers. But if you have read the news in the last three years, you can piece together what they do – their story must be one of thousands. What makes this book worth reading is how Adam understands the war, how he copes with its chaos, how he relates his understanding to us through his sensitivity to smell, taste, touch, sound, and of course, colour. He can say the obvious without it appearing out of place – This war is unfair, there are no uniforms or clues (p89). His reactions are physical, he wants to vomit or shake, he is fascinated and repelled by the smell of blood. His naïve intelligence comes straight to the point.
In some ways, his autism protects him. Life was already overwhelming, so he has an arsenal of coping strategies; he understands all things literally, so he does not drown in emotional subtext; he has no need or impulse to fight, as his brothers do. In other ways, of course, he falls apart just as his family does, rocking and spitting and finding himself unable to breathe. His frame of reference is constantly shifting – what frightened him in the beginning of the book is nothing by the end. His reaction to the absurdity of wartime life is particularly vivid. After a bomb blast, he finds an ear on the ground and pockets it.
It’s an ear! It’s an ear! Oh my God! Does it belong to the man with his brain on the ground? I want to walk back to check if he has his ear but I am scared of feeling sick again. I clench my heart and grab the ear again. It feels just as disgusting as the first time but I hold my breath and wipe the blood on my trousers. It looks beautiful. I didn’t know an ear could be this beautiful. I put it in my pocket and walk on. (p267)
He says what we might think but never say – the odd beauty of a disembodied ear, or not wanting to view a corpse simply because it’s frightening. Then he does what we might imagine but never do – he begins to talk to the ear, when he is lonely, whenever his family is too sick, injured, or preoccupied to talk to him. Who doesn’t want to bend an ear in times of trouble? But for Adam, his ear is literal. This literality also shows the reactions of those around him to be absurd. His father and cousin refuse what is happening and retreat into fantasy, they believe the dead are still alive and call for them. Adam’s confusion means the madness of their actions remains startling.
The only wrong note, I found, was when the voice switched to his sister Yasmine. Adam’s voice had a lightness that could be funny and sweet even while the events around him were horrific. Yasmine has none of this interest, and the plot of her chapter is unrelentingly dark. Her part of the story is important, but it is Adam who can carry us through these events. Yasmine’s resilience is rendered heroic through his eyes, but her own voice does not have his sensual playfulness.
But Yasmine has only two chapters. The rest is Adam’s rollicking voice as his family tries to hide, then desperately flees Aleppo for Damascus. Sukkar is British writer of Syrian and Algerian ancestry and her own family’s story informed the action. Read this book but be warned – you’ll need your comforters beside you.
…I lie down opposite Ali and take the ear out. It is now clean, I think the blood rubbed off in my pocket. There is still dry blood where the ear was cut off but it isn’t a lot. I pull it up to my mouth and start whispering about what I dream of doing in Damascus. (p270)
TESSA LUNNEY has a Doctorate of Creative Arts on silence in Australian war fiction. In 2014 she was the recipient of an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She has had her poetry, short fiction, and reviews published in Southerly, Cordite, Mascara, and Contrapasso, among others, as well as Best Australian Poems 2014. She lives in Sydney. www.tessalunney.com
‘I Have to Recuperate Love, and Grow it Back’—An Interview with Merlinda Bobis
Merlinda Bobis is an award-winning author and performer of four novels, five poetry books, a short story collection, seven performance works, and a monograph on creative research. She was born in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at University of Wollongong. She writes across multiple languages and cultures and her works are notable for their transnational expansiveness. Her first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) was short-listed for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, and her novel Fish-Hair Woman (2012) won a 2014 Philippine National Book Award. She is also the winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award, the Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories, and the Philippine Balagtas Award (a lifetime award) for her poetry and fiction. This interview focuses on her fourth novel Locust Girl. A Love Song (Spinifex) launched in July 2015, with occasional reference to her third novel Fish-Hair Woman.
Emily Yu Zong (EZ): Locust Girl really challenges my expectations, especially if we consider your previous works. I mean, usually we get the impression of a combination of your Filipino sensibility with a focus on the Australian readership. Most of your works are set in the Philippines, including the first novel Banana Heart Summer (2005) and the second novel The Solemn Lantern Maker (2008) Fish-Hair Woman (2012) and White Turtle (1999) are set across the Philippines and Australia. But this one stands out distinctly and appeals to a wider audience in the world. Can you share with us the inspirations for this book? And what motivated you to jump out of that trapping/productive dialectic of Filipino/Australian to write this novel?
Merlinda Bobis (MB): When I write, and I think when anyone writes, it is towards a story in search of a form and a location, while responding to one’s own location in the world. I write about what worries me. Australian playwright Katherine Thomson says that we write about what we worry about. I started writing Locust Girl in 2004, when George Bush declared his global ‘War on Terror,’ and I worried no end. How do you respond to this worry? Back then the question was, ‘Are you with us or against us?’ The border was so clear-cut. I felt the air we were breathing was full of fear, hate, and the judgment of the other—anyone who is not like us, those who are outside of our border. I am talking here about anyone’s positioning from whatever side of a border, whatever politics. We have created very entrenched borders because of this fear of the other. This judgment of the other is made by all sides of the border about their own other in terms of race, culture, or gender. So to respond to this worry, as a writer, I could not just remain in my Filipino-Australian imaginary. I had to break out of it and dream globally. When you think about territory globally, you often think in terms of borders: physical borders, cultural borders, and political borders, etc. In this case, we are all thinking about (or worrying about) geopolitics externally. But my main worry in 2004, and what I was more afraid of, was the border within that cuts the heart. At the height of Bush’s global war on terror, we were worrying about that external explosion—but what about the internal corrosion or even implosion? We were so engrossed in looking out at the other that we forgot the internal impact of the fear, hatred, and the judgment of the other that we nurtured within. I thought that we had developed an ‘inner dry,’ which then became the main landscape of Locust Girl: the desert. This became the terrain of the human heart: dry, without water. And this is what should truly terrify us. In Fish-Hair Woman, there are these lines that evoke something similar: ‘In a while, dryness will slip into malice, where it will feel at home, because there is never any moisture in malice. Malice is always deprived.’ This dryness in the human heart is the state of lovelessness, an inner death, no vegetation—we become as dry as kindling, thus the possible implosion and self-destruction. But how do you respond to this worry, or one might say, this existential terror? Well, as a writer I have to recuperate love, and grow it back, and make it the major premise of this book. I have to write the outer and inner borders, and to interrogate both. But at the same time, I don’t want this framework to point to a specific culture, because this is what we’ve already done to the planet—we have made its geography, its resources, its worries/problems/blames so culturally/racially specific, when, in fact, all of these are shared, and must be shared for our survival as a species. So the novel is open to all cultures and differences, while also illuminating/interrogating our fixation on differences. This means I cannot be culturally specific. I have to set the novel in an allegorical place; I have to create a mythical space. So the story can be owned by anybody, even the names. I invented the names, from A to Z. There is no specific clue to the setting. The whole point is that this story is about all of us. I have to write outside of my culture/s, I have to imagine something that accommodates all: the heroes, the villains, the victims, the perpetrators. But everything (love-and-the plague) is shared. Everyone is us.
EZ: Does this mean you would rather be known as a writer, instead of a ‘Filipino-Australian’ or ‘Asian-Australian’ writer?
MB: Well, even if I write this ‘global vision,’ the imaginary that drives it still originates from the Philippines, because I came to Australia when I was 31 and my sensibility was fully formed then. I write my memories (both stories and modes of storytelling), and wherever I go, I carry them. When I write, it feels like I’m going home. Writing is a literary homecoming. When I was writing Fish-Hair Woman, I’d close my eyes and would be back instantly in my grandmother’s house—which incidentally became the ancestral house of the novel’s protagonist. I think that even if I write about other things or places, this is the base, my Filipino sensibility: my ‘ancestral house.’ Even in Locust Girl, even in this mythical space, its ‘once upon a time’ mode of storytelling is, I believe, evocative of how my grandparents used to tell stories. Until now, I still introduce myself as a Filipino-Australian writer, because of that pull of the ancestral home. It’s like gravity, it pulls you back—but I will not be trapped by it. I can do other things; dream up other spaces. The world is bigger than one’s culture!
EZ: This gives rise to cognitive transformations in the readers too. When we interpret Asian-Australian literature, we are forced to go beyond this dialectic: Asia/Australia.
MB: Exactly. I don’t want you to think of the work or of me in binary terms. Of course, I could be as guilty of this dialectic, but I can also break out of it and hopefully be as multiple as anyone else. I don’t want to be trapped in the framework ‘Asia/Australia’ or ‘Filipino/Australia.’ Sometimes I find I am also trapping myself in binaries—because if you’re producing that binary all the time, you have a problem. I think Locust Girl attempts to address this problem. But the premise of Locust Girl is already embedded in Fish-Hair Woman, a transnational novel that escapes the trap by crossing cultures and professing a reciprocal love between cultures. Locust Girl goes further, though. In fact, here, I am questioning that reciprocal act (or expectation) of love: must love be reciprocal, for it to be love? In all my books, even in my poetry, there is a continuum of thinking and questioning of myself as well. The following book could be an argument against the previous book. For instance, in Fish-Hair Woman, I set up the idea of accommodating both self and other: ‘… how much can the heart accommodate? Only four chambers, but with infinite space like memory, where there is room even for those whom we do not love.’ This is echoed in Locust Girl, which adds reciprocity to the accommodation, but in the end, I argue against the expectation of reciprocity. You won’t give me water, even if I’m dying of thirst, because I can’t pay for it—but I have no resources to pay for it! Or you won’t give me water because you believe I haven’t cared for it according to your idea of caring—but isn’t that the same water that you siphoned from our wells a long time ago? Reciprocity is more complex than simple give and take. These are some of the questions and arguments in Locust Girl. So this is what I mean by continuum: you could build upon an idea/theme/vision in a previous book, or you could argue against it, or you could do both—because you keep learning new ways of knowing, thinking through, and articulating the world, as you ‘grow up’ as a storyteller.
EZ: Considering the book’s allegorical frame, would you call Locust Girl a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel about the global challenges of our age?
MB: It is definitely a post-apocalyptic novel set in this futuristic nightmare, but not without hope. However, it is also very much about the present times. It is about the colonisation and control of resources, sometimes in the pretext of preserving them—but who are you preserving them for? Who are you conserving the earth for—only for your people? These realities of colonisation (and globalisation) have been happening through the ages. In the novel you have ‘the familiar’ Minister of Mouth and Minister of Legs—what are they doing here? They are controlling resources and the movements of peoples, and preventing them from crossing the border to the last green haven on earth. Then you have the Minister of Arms, the defence force. You have these Ministers controlling the seeds, the oil, and the water. They’re making sure that the earth’s last resources are preserved only for the elite, ‘the Kingdom builders.’ It’s happening now. Yes, Locust Girl is post-apocalyptic, but what I am saying is that we are already experiencing the post-apocalyptic. The post-apocalyptic is already in us. It is part of our reality now.
EZ: By depicting another take on our society, our culture, and the world, do you think fiction can influence people in ways that politics and newspaper headlines cannot do in our times?
MB: I am not the ‘art for art’s sake’ type, or someone that privileges text above all things. What I really believe in, paraphrasing novelist Alexis Wright, is the seeing-and-acting. You cannot divorce the two. In fact, for me, apprehending and acting form an organic whole. I believe in feeling-thinking-doing. You can’t just feel and think and do nothing. Writing is a doing process. When I read, I like books that make me actively do something. I remember being in a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival, and we were talking about war and trauma in literature, and there was this question from the audience (I’m paraphrasing this from memory): We’ve been talking and telling stories about these for a long time, but humanity never learns. We keep repeating history, so do these literature still matter? My answer was: When you read a book that affects you, if the next day you are a little kinder to your wife or your husband, or your neighbour, that is something. It is action, even if it’s small. Something happened within the reader, so something concrete happens from and outside the reader—because of that story. And I wish that this happens for all ages. These days, when I write I really want to write something that an adult and a child can ‘get,’ in their respective ways. I want a twelve-year-old and a fifty-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl, albeit in different ways. I want a twelve-year-old to be able to read Locust Girl as a fairytale about friendship between two girls lost in this strange desert, and somehow learn about love and the other. And I want the fifty- or the ninety-year old to be able to go beyond the fairytale and appreciate the novel as political allegory. I like writing layered texts. The style and aesthetics of Fish-Hair Woman are complex, it’s densely layered and a difficult read—but with Locust Girl, while also layered, I wanted even a child to ‘hear’ the simple storytelling, the singing. I’d like you to hear it when you read, and to listen to the musicality of this lovesong, because the novel is indeed my lovesong to the reader. I am not a composer, but the songs of Locust Girl just came as I wrote. I even sing them now.
EZ: The novel reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, particularly on the parts of authoritarian rules. In the Orwellian authoritarian rule, there is ‘thoughtcrime,’ but here you carry that further to ‘singingcrime.’ Were these Orwellian texts paratextual points of reference for Locust Girl?
MB: I haven’t read 1984, a shameful confession, but I read Animal Farm a long time ago. After finishing Locust Girl, I thought people would read it as Orwellian. If there is anything I borrowed from Orwell, it’s the idea of the ‘political fairytale’ or ‘political fable.’ In fact, I also describe Locust Girl as a political fairytale/fable in its use of allegory and the fantastical in narrating the political exigencies of our times. But I do not want to describe my novel as Orwellian, because this is such a masculine brand. I think Locust Girl does something else. It’s mythical and proudly wears the ‘once upon a time’ tone, and its protagonists are two girls. Initially I was a bit worried that the novel won’t be taken seriously by Australian critics, as it’s too strange compared to what’s being published here. Then my publisher Susan Hawthorne assured me that Locust Girl reminds her of a number of South American and European (with links to Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian tradition) novels written by women. She mentioned some names: Cristina Peri Rossi, Luisa Valenzuela, Marta Traba, Claribel Alegria. I’m comforted that I’m not alone, and that I’m in a good company of women! I hope critics/readers do not just reference the masculine model, the Orwellian tradition, when they read Locust Girl.
EZ: Again our imagination is pushed to the fore here. In Fish-Hair Woman there is Estrella with her twelve-metre-long, ever-growing hair that functions as a tool for salvation. In Locust Girl, there is a locust buried in the brow of the protagonist Amedea. It is ‘a sensing compass’ that copies sounds, reveals interior landscapes, but also at times betrays her, mocks her, and argues with her. How to make of the locust? Does it allude to our human ego, or the ability to love that we don’t know about ourselves, in the sense that we all have a locust in our forehead, waiting to be released?
MB: We are afraid of the song of the locust, because the moment the farmers hear it, we know we’ll suffer the plague and then, possibly, hunger. But I am subverting this locust stereotype. The songs of the locust in Locust Girl are the compass helping us find water, find our journey out of devastation, find each other, find love, and find redemption. But it’s also a warning. We all have a locust (both plague and redemption) inside us, and it is trapped, snug and hidden. Amedea’s singing locust gets buried in her brow, after the bombing of her village, but the realisation comes in the end that, in fact, we all have it: small, snug, and hidden. I think of the locust as the doubleness of humanity. We have a capacity for the plague and destruction that we do to the environment and to each other, but we also have the capacity for love and the capacity to redeem ourselves and our environment. We are all a plague to each other, but we are also each other’s lovers and beloved. That’s why the locust sings to Amedea, gives her hope, but also mocks her. It’s an alter ego, yes, but then the real point, as the locust sings, is this:
What greater plague is there
Than what we do to each other
What greater love is there
Than what we do for each other (175)
It’s this doubleness that matters. Remember, as far as Amedea’s hungry village is concerned, the locust is no longer disgusting or a source of fear, but a source of protein when their food rations from the Kingdoms never arrive. This employment of a subverted/subversive image is similar to what I have done in Fish-Hair Woman: when people go through trauma, their hair grows grey overnight or they lose their hair, but I subverted this expectation. Instead of losing her hair, the opposite happens to the protagonist Estrella: her hair grows longer.
EZ: Furthering this point, when you start writing, how do you employ the aesthetic tools of magic realism and the uncanny?
MB: The word ‘magic realism’ was initially coined by the German art critic Franz Roh. In Latin America, they call it ‘lo real maravilloso,’ ‘the marvelous real’ conceptualised and developed by French-Russian Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. It’s a literary genre that’s often related to the uncanny, which has also been theorised in literary studies. But in the Philippines, we’ve had the tradition of magic realism since pre-colonial times, long before it became a literary genre. We have beliefs in which the magical and the real are one, organically explaining daily life. And we have always known the uncanny and believed it. As a writer, I am informed by my Filipino traditions of magical realism and the uncanny, but I am living and writing in the West now, and I am also equipped with Western aesthetics to write for my Western audience. So I can play with magical realism and the uncanny as aesthetic tools familiar to the West, using both as a means to create metaphor and allegory that engender political critique and subversion, and, let’s not forget, the layered story that produces literary delight and magic. However, I think what drives the creative urge to put something on paper the moment I visualise and imagine it, is very much the magical and the uncanny from my first home. Everything originates from that tradition: the seamless connection among cultural beliefs, environment, and daily life.
EZ: Is the singing in Locust Girl also related to the Filipino tradition of singing, weeping, and telling stories?
MB: Where does the singing come from? Again, it comes from my own culture, because we sing stories. Even if I am writing about another place, the story grows out of the pull of gravity: the pull of the ancestral home, which I mentioned earlier. The orality of the telling is very much a Filipino tradition. My early works of poetry in Australia, particularly Cantata of the Warrior Woman Daragang Magayon, the epic poem that I did for my doctorate, is also performance. I’ve performed it in various countries as a one-woman show, as I’ve performed River, River, my one-woman play adaptation of Fish-Hair Woman. You see, even if I’m working with text for the page, I’m already singing it in my head, in my body. It is easy for me to chant it, to sing it, because it is inevitably returning to the tradition that my body and my sensibility know. The musicality of Locust Girl also returns to that storytelling-singing tradition. I remember that when my grandparents told stories, they took on an almost singsong tone, with a particular rhythm: ‘Kaidtong enot na panahon—Once upon a time . . . ’
EZ: Are the magical and the uncanny also part of the ‘survival mechanism’ of the people of a particular locality?
MB: In fact, that’s what I touched on in Fish-Hair Woman. When you are in the village of Iraya during a Total War, a village locked in with no resources, no food supply, and the river (the main source of water), is contaminated by corpses, what helps you survive? The beliefs in the magical, the uncanny, the salvation of the dead, and the redemption of the living. You believe you can have a ‘fish-hair woman’ to save you. Every culture, including Western cultures, have or used to have their own magical-survival beliefs. But we are becoming enslaved by rationalism. We have just shrugged off these survival beliefs and we have created a rational and distinct border between the magical and the real worlds. I remember being told by a publisher (to whom I was pitching Locust Girl initially) that they’re not interested in the novel because they publish literature about ‘the real world.’ What is the real world, and who defines/demarcates realness? Remember, there are many things that we still don’t understand about the earth, the planet/s, our brain, and our bodies. How are indigenous people’s beliefs explained through theory? Not possible; you just believe, and this very belief helps you survive natural catastrophes that no science, technology or the rational brain can hold back, even if they can explain most of these phenomena though not all of them, not completely or perfectly. The magical and the uncanny are sources of strength that we can draw from. And also, how boring would the world be if we’re reduced to this: I believe this is a table because there is a corporeal table before me, and I can see and touch it!
EZ: Let’s talk about the ending of the novel. I almost hoped there would be a revolt to overthrow the pseudo-democratic rule of the Kingdoms. But in the end, Locust Girl is consumed and burnt by the combustion of multiple voices inside her, the weight of multiplicity and history. She acts out that giving of love. How does that ending work, considering that redemption is a consistent theme in your fiction?
MB: Yes, the weight of multiplicity is such a burden. Amedea, the Locust Girl, literally implodes and is destroyed when she starts accommodating all the voices inside her, singing all of them. It is true that the accommodation of the other/s is difficult, even a burden, and entails self-sacrifice. Somehow the self cedes power as it accommodates the other/s. So, accommodating all, Locust Girl implodes. She has had a choice, and she could have denied that option of multiplicity, but instead she accommodates all voices. Because she wants to show everyone that regardless of borders, we are all in this together—in this love-and-plague or redemption-destruction of our world, or what we have reduced it to. But everyone around her in the Five Kingdoms is in search of a culprit, someone (an other) to blame, in order to save the self. And in a moment of doubleness (again), Locust Girl takes on the burden of both culprit and lover. She wants to save, an urge that is born of love. Hers is the greatest sacrifice: self-immolation. She accommodates everyone and she implodes. This time, the negative premise of implosion (because of the ‘inner dry’) at the beginning is turned on its head: it becomes the ultimate act of love. And from the ashes, she rises: both phoenix and female Christ. I think I have subconsciously employed the Christian ideal love called Agape. Agape is selfless and unconditional love, and is very much about the other. Agape is Christ’s love for humanity when he dies on the cross. It sounds ideal (or ‘magical’ for the doubting, hard-core realists?), but considering the fact that we manage to dream about it, the fact that we have an idea for it and have worded it—agape—then it is possible. In times of conflict, people do heroic things and they totally forget themselves to save, to extend compassion and to redeem the other. If we have the capacity to talk about Agape, we can possess part of it. In fact, we have it and we have to set it free. It should not remain small, snug, and hidden.
EZ: I am very interested in the character of Beenabe with whom I actually identify more than with Amedea. She achieves the awakening of love in the end, but she is also torn by hesitation and mixed allegiances. Can you talk about her as well?
MB: The protagonist Amedea is the transcendent one, but Beenabe is more like the rest of us, the ordinary. She is more real, and she is vain. There is her vanity, human frailty, jealousy, and the rejection of her friend Amedea’s monstrosity. But there are also moments when she rips off her own clothes to clothe Amedea. Beenabe is more like us. We have the burden of ambivalence and mixed loyalties. We get confused because we are always looking after Number One, and how we can remain Number One. Human beings are selfish and vain, but we also have the capacity to love, and love deeply. But ‘Love is clumsy, because it has so many hands’—Beenabe’s love is clumsy, because she has to deal with many exigencies for her own survival. Her love is not the Agape kind. She has become a trafficked sex worker in the Kingdoms, and she is there to service. But she says it’s love and that she is loved—she needs to trick herself into believing this in order to survive. She says she has crossed the border and has become a Kingdom builder, already accepted by the elite, but very clearly the Ministers declare that she is and will always be an outsider. But within this enslavement, she tries to muster some dignity, some humanity, and she does—but her love is clumsy. And can we fault her for this? Love is clumsy: such is our burden as human beings, whether or not we are in a difficult circumstance like Beenabe. Our love is clumsy, so we trick ourselves into believing that we are better than this, better than who we are, and sometimes, we do become better. Remember, we have a locust in our respective hearts or brows, this love-and-plague capacity—and while we plague each other and our earth, sometimes we surprise ourselves in moments of transcendence when we suddenly forget the self for the sake of the other. And we soar!
EZ: Thank you Merlinda, for sharing with us your creative ethics and the powerful songs of Locust Girl.
Emily Yu Zong is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication and Arts, the University of Queensland. She works on diasporic Asian women’s literatures and the transnational critique. She has published academic essays and book reviews on diasporic Asian identity, hybridity, female agency, and cosmopolitanism.
Ellen van Neerven is a young Yugambeh woman from South-East Queensland. She is the author of Heat and Light (2014), winner of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists Prize.
At 3 p.m. I looked out of the window to see the three men standing with bags by their boots. They were dressed in camouflage and looked slightly ridiculous considering the weather. Their waterproof pants made their legs look like parachutes. They looked at Pearl’s bright dress.‘Why you wearing that? ’ She shrugged.
‘You dumb bitch, we’ll see how you go.’
I followed them down the streets. I had the advantage of knowing the town and the paths very well. Pearl was in front. Goh coughed on occasion and Bandit smirked. I saw them look at each other and communicate a shared want they could not say out loud.
When they went into the bushland with their gear, the decoys they carried began to weigh them down and they walked slowly – all three were unfit or weak. Pearl carried nothing and walked easy. I noticed she had slipped off the clogs she wore at work and was barefoot.
When the lake was in sight I stopped to find a vantage point. I found the old wooden lookout that had been there since I was a kid and surveyed the surroundings below. The men stepped out and surveyed the area and where they would set up the blind. Pearl half-turned; her eyes found me and she nodded in recognition. The little flecks of light flicking up from the lake caught their expressions and I felt I could see them perfectly. The men crouched to set their plastic painted decoys down in the mud. From where I was, the decoys looked quite lifelike. Pearl had found her spot a little bit further down, closer to where I was. She also knelt and opened her hands, and I saw she had made a grass duck, out of reeds. It was beautiful.
Bandit looked – his mouth gaped for a moment and then he laughed at her creation. I couldn’t help but share his sentiment, as remarkable as it was, there was only one.
They stepped back thirty metres or so into the vegeta- tion and started to get their gear out of the bags. George handed Pearl a shotgun. ‘Don’t miss,’ he said. And they put on their gloves and face masks, and held their calls and their guns. Pearl stood straight and stripped her dress off, spread out her arms and slipped off her undergarments.
‘Shit,’ George said and they exchanged a placating look between the three of them that made them carry on as if nothing had happened.
With her feet, Pearl covered the red garment with leaves. Bandit gave a nod to indicate the start of their hunt and they widened their stance.
Pearl put the call in her mouth. The wind picked up and melded with her hail call, a long, low note. The wind began to pull at the tassels of the lake, and I held my hair in place. The wind shuddered the ten or so decoys the men had laid out, and they fell down in a row.
The men swore loudly but Pearl kept calling. She went to a new call – a rapid round of short, sharp notes. This is what the men in their conversations at the shop had called a feed call, when a hen has found food. I heard the ducks above, and I looked up to see their formation swooping down. The mallards slowed their wings and came towards the outstretched Pearl like a train to a station. There were at least two dozen. Pearl raised the gun and fired. But nothing was shot. The mallards landed unaffected around her. She looked down, confused, at the gun.
That’s when the camouflaged men made their move. With their masks they looked like executioners and that’s what they were. They grabbed Pearl by the shoulders. Goh on the left, George on the right and Bandit at the front.
I got to my feet but there was nothing I could do. Though the wind, as always, was on her side. The gale swept back – it was a wind that bit – and George let go. He flailed his arms out and toppled backwards into the lake.
In the confusion Pearl got away and then she was running and Bandit and Goh were chasing hard and I could not see everything exactly. The heat from the day had carved a dull headache in my mind.
On the way home I find a lover, in a hotel in a one-street country town. She smells like apricots and is too pure for me. I started surfing when I realised I needed something to quell my undiagnosed sex addiction. When I go out to the beach it’s usually to clear my head from anyone muddled up in there. Mystery does not always equal desire, and for every woman I’ve been with there has been one who turned me down. Like that Fleetwood Mac song, women, they will come and they will go.
This woman doesn’t turn me down. We giggle as we pay the clerk for a room upstairs. As she unlocks the door I search her hands for a ring or tattoo or some sort of sign that will remind me that she is not mine. She is the kind of girl I would have thought about being with when I was younger and hadn’t yet fucked up a million times. She gardens and she volunteers at the school near Hune Hill where lots of my mob went. She says she will take me to see the farm where she lives and show me her orange trees. They are the biggest oranges, the size of basketballs and they taste like love.
‘Will you cut them up for me? ’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ she says, slipping off her singlet top.
‘And take the skin off ? ’
We take the covers off the bed and she gently puts her hand on my chest and drives me back onto the mattress. She lowers herself and her legs come around my waist – I squeeze her ankles and we kiss like we’ve kissed each other before. How can it be that I don’t feel the weight of her. That there is no taste on her tongue. No drug, no cigarette, alcohol or coffee. I thought she’d taste like apricots or oranges. I’m getting sick, it might be the flu I’ve resisted all winter. Because I can’t continue. My breath is ragged and the shapes and colours of her are blurring.
This extract appears in Heat and Light, page 15-19 first published in 2014 by University of Queensland Press, and reprinted here with permission.
Elena Gomez co-hosts the occasional apartment poetry series, CELL, and co-edits SUS press. She is the author of two chapbooks, CHILL FLAKES (SUS press) and PER, a collaborative work with Eddie Hopely (Make Now Books). Her work can also be found online, at The Claudius App and Cordite.
Sweeping leaves is a weekly chore
she liked [found pleasure in it]
to click her tongue and displace
a wire & plastic retainer while
staring into the faces of young
children who turned to seek out
strangers on the south-west bus.
I prefer to describe myself
as plucky rather than as
allergic to scholarship
though it becomes easier
to feign allergy if one embodies
the disease-like components of
it such as limp limbs,
a dim eye
an untended ‘garden’
[to chuckle now would be rude].
the very minute you admit weakness
of literal concepts a fresh spring air
takes hold and carries you forth
to the edge of the football field.
you swoon at the thought of dialectics
not a swoon from desire but from
an overwhelming sense of the walls that
close in you also must perfect the
blank stare, the short-tempered child-like
frustration that occasionally
very occasionally, involves hurling
a remote through a nearby doorway.
would have preferred to be visited
by the ghost of alma mahler.
the beauty of names is they can inspire
thoughts of pleasantness in a woman.
I used to be afraid of long lines, the way
they snaked across a page the way they
furiously eluded my grasp, which already
was a weak sick thing.
K A Nelson studied at the University of New England, and once lived and worked in New Zealand, PNG, and Central Australia. She now lives in Canberra. Since 2010 she has won three poetry prizes, had poems published in The Canberra Times, Award Winning Australian Writing, Australian Poetry and anthologised (Canberra poets). She is working on her first collection.
This is a Woman Who Travels the Land
In the early hours of these bitter mornings
when the fog comes down and stays down;
when the only cars on Commonwealth Avenue
are taxis changing shifts or ministerial staff cars
taking the lackeys home; when flags hang slack
in the dark and stiffen in the cold on their steel poles;
my thoughts fly north to the desert – to a woman
who calls me daughter, who took me to Dinner Camp
told me a story, taught me a song, showed me a dance:
She is a woman who travels the land
Where stories are danced and country is sung
Where magic and myth is retold in the sand
Where kinship and totems are like lines on a hand
This is a woman who travels with women
Whose customs and life move in time with the moon
Whose birth on a songline means obligation
Whose night sky is peopled with ancestral kin
This is a woman who travels with crows
Who glides across country as hunter and healer
Who teaches clanswomen all that she knows
Who carries the lore wherever she goes
This is a woman who travels around
on everywhere roads criss-crossing the land
She knows bitumen highways lead to trouble in town
gridlock the cities; spoil old hunting grounds
Kapirnangku nyanyi, kapirnangku nyanyi, kapirnangku nyanyi *
In the early hours of these bitter mornings
when the fog comes down and stays down
my thoughts fly north to the desert – to a woman
I call mother, who took me to Dinner Camp
told me a story, taught me a song, showed me a dance.
She is a woman now elder and leader
She is a woman who travels the land
She is a woman who longs for old times –
God love her!
She is a woman, the last of her kind.
* kapirnangku nyanyi: Warpiri farewell: ‘I will see you’
Shannon Burns is an Adelaide-based writer, reviewer/critic and sometimes-academic. He is a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and has written for Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books and Music & Literature. He won the 2009 Adelaide Review Prize for Short Fiction and the 2015 Salisbury Writers’ Festival Short Fiction Prize. He’s had fiction published in various magazines and journals, most recently in Overland and Verity La.
He was sleeping when I slipped away – I could bear it no longer – he seems to have gone blind – his eyes are grey – they were once like mine – it’s as though they’ve grown younger – perhaps he has too – his body turned inward – an overpowering desire – he will not speak of it – there’s nothing to be done – he sees nothing – he’s deaf as well – I was not quiet when I left – I thought to give him one last chance – if he’d called to me I’d still be there
there’s nothing about – all have gone quiet – I once heard mowers in the distance – every weekend they would hum – that was long ago – there are no weekends – the journey will be long – my only wish is for water – to see it at last will be the last thing – I once visited the sea – it whispered gently – my feet followed it out – when it came in I howled – it marked me out – it seemed to yearn for something – I chased it yelling – for hours we did this – they took me away – I refused drink for days – no thirst could quench my fear of it – it went out and returned, went out and returned – I still see it in my mind – it smiles whitely – it draws close and whispers – I tremble to listen
the road is flat – I picture small inclinations – they spring to life – when I left it was grey – the gate was unlatched – the garden wild – branches torn by something – perhaps the wind – there is no wind – I recall days driven by weather – to go outside or stay in? – today it is grey – yesterday I was inside – perhaps it hasn’t changed – the days are alike – it may be night – the world has spun on its axis – we are at bottom – I am alone – he is too – we may meet again – it won’t be here – someone may walk me back – but they won’t know the way –
my voice is hoarse – perhaps it will vanish – I won’t argue – there’s nothing else for it – I have no say – the weather is fine – I’ll bear it easily – my feet are cold – they never freeze – they’re soft on the soles – when I walk they burn – the road is harsh – there’s no one to clear it – the vehicles are still – they are shells of vehicles – I’ll take cover when it rains – it will not rain – the sky is clear – but there is no blue – I haven’t seen blue for years – perhaps blue is gone– it may have risen further – beyond the grey – I was never fond of it – the word is thick – my mouth won’t shape it – my lips blubber – it is their way – I don’t require them – there is no blue
I seek out the water – once it was green – it seems black in my dreams – it will devour me – I am for the most part water already – this I know – it’s getting worse – I overfill with it – there’s none there – our supply stopped – I left him dry – it felt like a verdict – the taps have deserted us – they do not approve – I cannot blame them – no simpler message – the water is gone – we are to follow – if that then this
the path is monotonous – why so flat? – do I walk on the spot? – how to tell the difference between here and there? – perhaps there is none – I’ve never considered it – my thoughts are clouded – there are no clouds – my thoughts are empty – but emptiness abounds – my thoughts are grey – but grey is the world
there’s something ahead – a large ragged dog – its hair thick and grey – I walk his way – he sniffs the air – I turn back – there’s nothing to be said for it – perhaps the dog is the sea, come to greet me from afar – nothing is friendly – hunger universal – nothing lost nothing gained – I go on bleating – I breathe – I walk – to what? – the devouring sea – opening its wide mouth – inviting – welcoming – it’s made a bed for me – that is where the others are – asleep on the sea-bed – I’ll nuzzle them soon – so long since I touched one
I follow the dog down the road – it lifts its leg on a signpost – nothing comes – an empty pizzle – we are as though one thing – I hang back until he disappears – I cannot watch the performance – he’s dwindling to nothing – everything does – he’ll reach the beachhead before me – I’ll follow his pawprints to the water – lie down by his stinking corpse – smell the sea on his putrid fur – breathe the moisture – close my eyes – hold him