Goirick Brahmachari lives in New Delhi. He hails from Silchar, Assam. His poems and articles have appeared in various journals and magazines.
An old building near Adchini with a warning sign that reads, “Danger” in black
probably speaks my mind. As the world around counts time, I lick the garbage bin clean
and it rains.
Only sometimes, a lonesome training center for the deaf and dumb
can illuminate a smile through the strangers’ lips and fingers and tongue through the glass windows without a sound and eat magic for lunch.
I see the moving faces of government employees who have always gone back home together, in the same bus, year after year, for all of their lives; starting for office, at the same time, early morning,
with some fried potato and few rotis, packed in their steel lunch boxes, and their sullen faces, each framed within the square glass windows of a bus which overtakes yours.
I see the coaching centers and those spoken English institutes where students are still dreaming. I hear the laughter of young girls carrying document tubes; see a few urban potheads who smoke by the private film school which morphs into a Yoga training center by morning. I pass by the stupid, stupid academic council where, every day, at least a thousand school books are raped and slaughtered.
But when the evening comes, I spread my wings and jump into the well of darkness of my room, in liquid dead hunger, in search of the night.
Aquiles Nazoa (born in Caracas 17 May 1920 – 26 April 1976) was a Venezuelan writer, journalist, poet and satirist. His work expressed the values of popular Venezuelan culture though in 1940 he was arrested for defamation and criticism of the municipal government. In 1948, Nazoa obtained the Premio Nacional de Periodismo (National Journalism Prize) in the humour and customs section. He was also awarded the Premio Municipal de Literatura del Distrito Federal (Municipal Prize for Literature of the Federal District) in 1967. He wrote for the Colombian magazine, Sábado and lived in Cuba. He was expelled by the Jiménez regime in 1956 for two years. His poems have been reproduced as lyrics by musical artists throughout Latin America from the 1970s to this day.
Rezo el Credo o Credo de Aquiles Nazóa
Creo en Pablo Picasso,Todopoderoso, Creador del Cielo y de la Tierra;
creo en Charlie Chaplin, hijo de las violetas y de los ratones,
que fué crucificado, muerto y sepultado por el tiempo
pero que cada día resucita en el corazón de los hombres,
creo en el amor y en el arte como vías hacia el disfrute de la vida perdurable,
creo en el amolador que vive de fabricar estrellas de oro con su rueda maravillosa,
creo en la cualidad aérea del ser humano,
configurada en el recuerdo de Isadora Duncan abatíendose
como una purísima paloma herida bajo el cielo del mediterráneo;
creo en las monedas de chocolate que atesoro secretamente
debajo de la almohada de mi niñez;
creo en la fábula de Orfeo, creo en el sortilegio de la música,
yo que en las horas de mi angustia ví al conjuro de la Pavana de Fauré,
salir liberada y radiante de la dulce Eurídice del infierno de mi alma,
creo en Rainer María Rilken héroe de la lucha del hombre por la belleza,
que sacrificó su vida por el acto de cortar una rosa para una mujer,
creo en las flores que brotaron del cadaver adolescente de Ofelia,
creo en el llanto silencioso de Aquiles frente al mar;
creo en un barco esbelto y distantísimo
que salió hace un siglo al encuentro de la aurora;
su capitán Lord Byron, al cinto la espada de los arcángeles,
junto a sus cienes un resplandor de estrellas,
creo en el perro de Ulises,
en el gato risueño de Alicia en el país de las maravillas,
en el loro de Robinson Crusoe,
creo en los ratoncitos que tiraron del coche de la Cenicienta,
el beralfiro el caballo de Rolando,
y en las abejas que laboran en su colmena dentro del corazón de Martín Tinajero,
creo en la amistad como el invento más bello del hombre,
creo en los poderes creadores del pueblo,
creo en la poesía y en fín,
creo en mí mismo, puesto que sé que alguien me ama...
El Mayordomo y El Gato
Recientemente falleció en Montana
una viejecita norteamericana
que, en calidad de único heredero
le dejó a un mayordomo su dinero.
Mas la anciana del caso que relato
dejó también un gato
que ha venido a plantearle al mayordomo
un problema, lector, de tomo y lomo,
ya que en el testamento hay un mandato
que le impide aunque llegue a la indigencia,
disponer ni una puya de la herencia
hasta que no se muera dicho gato.
Me diréis: - ¿Y por qué ese mayordomo
no se arma de una estaca o de un zapato
y acaba de una vez con ese gato
que debe de caerle como un plomo?
Ah, porque la viejecita, en previsión
de que ocurrir pudiera cosa tal
aclaró al imponer su condición
que del gato en cuestión la defunción
debe ser natural,
y si no muere así, tampoco hay real.
Lo que le queda, pues, al mayordomo
ante este caso, es conservar su aplomo,
con paciencia llevar su dura cruz
y esperar que se muera el micifuz.
y como el gato tiene siete vidas,
¡esas puyas, lector, están perdidas!
The Credo according to Aquiles Nazoa
I believe in Pablo Picasso, Almighty, Creator of Skies and Earth;
I believe in Charlie Chaplin, son of rats and violets,
who was crucified, dead and buried by the time
but who is resurrected daily in the hearts of men,
I believe in love and in art as the path to enjoy everlasting life
I believe in the miller who lives off making golden stars on his marvelous millstone
I believe in the aerial qualities of human beings
set in the memory of a swooping Isadora Duncan
like the purest dove wounded under Mediterranean skies
I believe in the chocolate gold coins I secretly stowed
under childhood pillows;
I believe in the myth of Orpheus and the magic of music
When, in the hours of my anguish I saw Faure’s Pavane evoked
walk free radiantly from sweet Eurydice in the hell of my soul
I believe in Rainier Maria Rilke, hero of our struggle for beauty,
who sacrificed his life by plucking a rose for a woman,
I believed in the blossoming flowers of Ophelia’s adolescent corpse,
I believe in the silent lament of Achilles facing the sea,
I believe in a sleek and distant ship
that embarked a century ago in search of the aurora;
whose captain, Lord Byron, by the scabbard of archangels,
a blaze of stars on his brow,
I believe in Ulysses’ dog,
I believe in Alice’s Cheshire Cat in Wonderland,
in Robinson Crusoe’s parrot,
I believe in Cinderella's ratty coachmen,
Veillantif, Roland’s steed,
and in the worker bees in their hive within the heart of Martin Tinajero,
I believe in friendship - mankind's most beautiful invention,
I believe in the creative power of the people,
I believe in poetry and to end,
I believe in myself, since I know someone loves me…
The Butler and The Cat
An old American lady
passed away recently
and made the butler
her sole inheritor
Furthermore, the old woman
in this case also left a cat
that caused contention
my learned friend, of books and spines,
because there was a clause in the will
that put pause to any pay
even on pains of penury
‘til said cat died
And may well you ask:
why wouldn’t the butler
take hold of a stake or shoe
and finish off said cat
which must be gnawing at him by now?
Oh, it’s because the grand old dame foresaw
that such a thing could happen
and clearly imposed this condition
that the cat in question
should die of natural cause
and if this did not occur,
there would be no recourse
So what’s left in this case
is that the butler should
keep calm and composed
bare his heavy cross
and wait for the furball to croak
but as a cat has nine lives
my learned friend, to all those bucks
you might as well say goodbye.
Ariel Riveros Pavez is a Sydney-based creative writer, publisher and poetry translator. He also writes on experience-dependant Neuroplasticity. Ariel was convener of The Blue Space! Poetry Jam and is founding editor of Australian Latino Press. His work has appeared in various publications including Arena Magazine, Journal of Postcolonial Text, Southerly and Verity La.
Val Plumwood wrote, “the ecological crisis requires from us a new kind of culture”. She was of course referring to the set of human/nature dualisms that underpin the contemporary West, and which “promote human distance from, control of and ruthlessness towards the sphere of nature as the Other”. Unprecedented anthropogenic climate change and ecological degradation threaten not only the survival of our species but myriad others: we must reevaluate our definitions of our humanity or “face extinction” (Environmental Culture 4-5).
Researcher and writer Anne Elvey’s first full-length collection of poetry, Kin, shortlisted for the 2015 Kenneth Slessor Prize, emerges out of this need for “a new kind of culture”, exploring human identity in relation to, in relationship with – what Elvey has described as – “ecological networks of kind, otherkind, country, air, sea and cosmos” (Plumwood Mountain). At her best, Elvey observes human embeddedness within complex, vibrant, non-human spheres with keen linguistic control and playfulness. It is a pleasure to return to the crisp imagery, and trim, silvery music of lines such as, “the cool acreage of canary light” (12); “All at once, bees fill the flowering gum. / Seed pods tick their dry rain / on the ground” (24); “he dips his finger into a font / to wet your tongue” (72). In “Romancing the creek” (39)
a lizard slips
where the rock face
shears from the earth
and stone stands
stacked like crates
against the sky.
a gap with serried
pick out a corner
and an edge.
…beside the track
a rusted bike,
a guitar past
a frail skin
to toss over a lamp…
…the rock wall
pulls the creek
up to its chin.
The human presence – in the form of our detritus, as well as the more subtle presence of the speaker – is decentralised within a sphere of other-than-human, interconnecting lives. Lizard, rock wall, moss, weeds all have their own agenda and agency. The poem bears witness to ecologist Barry Commoner’s observation that “everything is connected to everything else”: there is no “away” to which rubbish can be thrown (19-20).
Even within the highly-developed context of the highway in “Over Eastlink” (37) – where, as Judith Wright wrote in her poem “Sanctuary”, “only the road has meaning” (139): the “wide-winged body” of a pelican “steps / down the air, hangs / at each turn as if at a landing”, and perches “high up on [a] tollway light!”. The poem captures the bird’s strength and agility, its “gravity”, as well as its utter disregard for human demarcations: the pelican is a palpable, powerful presence, “surveying the traffic” with a will, that disrupts the human-centrism of the urbanised landscape. Everything is in relationship: “the cup” of the bird’s “under- / beak / shapes [its] silhouette against / the sky”; the human speaker “drive[s] on” only because she is “neither fish nor water” to the bird.
Elvey’s acute attention to these “ecological networks” means Kin also bears witness to their degradation, to profound loss, including as a result of colonialism. We see this in poems such as “Ecos echoes” (42), which addresses Australia’s extinction crisis. The poem’s disjunctive line signals brokenness: how “(earth things)” are “(riven from) / (the well world)”. In the repeating, dirge-like refrain cataloguing the losses: “gone the eastern hare wallaby / gone the pig-footed bandicoot / gone the silver mulga”, we hear echoes of the last lines of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s famous poem, “We Are Going” – “The scrubs are gone… /The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. / The bora ring is gone. / The corroboree is gone. / And we are going” (78) – which hint at the ties between cultural and ecological losses.
Explicitly and more subtly, Christian symbolism and ritual permeate the ecopoetic framework of Kin. From the description of Elvey’s mother in “The honour of things” who “told the beads” (19), to the “nails / hammered on a Friday” in the powerfully poignant “Nanoq” (48). Significantly, Elvey’s opening poem “Sheet Music”, begins with two line’s from Kevin Hart’s “Mud”: “We met there, Dark One, all those years ago / You smelled of mud” (11). “Mud” is one in a series of poems by Hart which address the “Dark One”, who, as Davidson points out in Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry, “is undoubtedly God” (203). Given Western Christianity’s influence on contemporary Western secular thinking (White 1204-1205), and its culpability in the human/nature dualisms that not only underpin the ecological crisis but have authorised colonialism and its violence (Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature 88-89; 41-68) – perhaps engaging with its tropes is part and parcel of the ecopoetic task.
In her essay “On (not) speaking about God ecologically”, Elvey writes that in addressing “patterns of domination and alienation” which “Christianity and the biblical images on which it draws have in part at least supported…[w]hat may be needed is to hold our Christian faith story loosely, not necessarily to turn away from it, but to be open to a mode of attentiveness to Earth and its atmosphere…as part of an ecological spirituality attuned to the community of more than human others with which we are intimately interconnected and interdependent”. In many ways, Kin shapes itself in these terms: not necessarily seeking to scrutinise these “patterns of domination and alienation”, but rather considering ways aspects of the Christian tradition might be re-imagined or reinterpreted to encompass an “ecological spirituality”. This proves both ingeniously dynamic – offering inclusive alternatives; and problematic.
In “Bayside Suburban”, Elvey deftly re-imagines the Eucharist as a ceremony in which everything – humans, gulls, possums, light, wind, sea – takes part. The poem, divided into five parts, is not presided over by the ceremony. Rather, the ceremony is gently inferred in the fabric of everyday goings-on of “Port Phillip” – in the “old / meals the gulls enjoy…the refuse of blood / and wine, the suburb’s flesh, the greasy joes”(61); in the “sand…thin / and brittle as a wafer. The skin…the tongue / to which it clings” (63). We see those who eat and drink are not only human. Everything is implicated in an ongoing sacrament of relationships, exchanges, communions: “A soft light traces the shore’s / length. The wind pushes southward along / the beach. A dog romps and a woman / dressed in rough wool casts a line. Banksias are sculpted against the sky” (62). The passing of time, the rhythms of natural systems and of human and non-human activity inform and open out the ceremony. The poem concludes: “Strewer of a communion march, the day / empties its apron of blossom… / …The sacrament is celebrated slow / with gulls like restive children… / …the tide arrives with the bounding-sea, the soul-fetching night” (63). This inclusive re-visioning of the Christian service of bread and wine engenders a sense of the “radical equality” of all “members of a larger earth community” that Plumwood called for (“Tasteless” 71); or of Mary Oliver’s “citizenry of all things within one world” (34). Here Elvey is indeed “hold[ing] [her] Christian faith story loosely”, allowing other-than-human presences and systems, and our relationships with these, to move through it and develop it.
This re-visioning stumbles in “Claimed by country 3”, the last of Kin’s “Claimed by country” set. The speaker of “Claimed by country 2”, observing how colonialism is an ongoing process as she “com[es] into, out of / country”, asks, “is this / the colonising moment / once again?”(65). In “Claimed by country 3” (66), one has the troubling sense that this is indeed the “colonising moment”, that the land and its inhabitants are being co-opted into a “Christian faith story”. The opening declaration, “This is the rose on the gum”, seems to deny, or seek to supersede, the agency of an already storied land. The rose’s religious connotations, its association with Christ’s five wounds as well as the blood of the Christian martyrs, are heightened in the context of the poem’s other religious imagery. Superimposed on the gum, it not only has the effect of “put[ting] the flag” (Munnganyi qtd. in Rose 24) – a kind of colonial staking of land, but it also converts the tree into a cross, sublimating the tree’s “own meaning”. Similarly, in the lines –
where rocks shift to wallaby
and edge toward the altar,
the congregation stirs as
by degrees, a full moon
climbs the far side
of the range. With vested
hills, the dancers and the priests
attempt a fugue of ways…
…Insects light upon my
hair and on my skin.
We stand. We sing.
We give a peace
that takes a breath.
– we see country converted into a church; it’s inhabitants into a “congregation” and “priests”. All the complexity of the land’s “own meanings”, the agendas and agencies, the interactions and relationships are reduced to, are described as being in the service of, a very particular kind of worship.
While the closing image of the speaker, who “by the iconographer’s / grace” is “a smudge of white / in the corner of the frame”, acknowledges the smallness of the human element in larger systems, it also literally and figuratively flattens out the dimensionality of country into a religious painting – an image intensified by the metaphor, presumably, of falling sunlight at the beginning of the poem: “the fragile leaf of gold’s / applied to the ground”. Ultimately, the poem lacks the suppleness and expansiveness of other poems such as “Bayside Suburban”.
Despite one-offs such as “Claimed by country 3”, Kin’s strength is its awareness of poetry’s potential to step outside of presiding cultural and social paradigms, to imagine more ethical and compassionate ways of being with each other and our other-than-human kin. As Elvey writes in her poem “Recycling the possible”: “tear into / pieces / the possible /…feel for a place / in the grain and start / writing” (74-75).
Though Kin emerges out of the trauma of ecological crisis, ultimately it gives voice to hope: that through attentiveness to our deep kinship, to our inextricable entanglement with the other-than-human, we are capable of embracing another mode of life on earth.
Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology. New York: Knof 1971. 19-20.
Elvey, Anne. Editorial. Plumwood Mountain. Volume 1 Number 1 (2014). Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <http://plumwoodmountain.com/editorial/>
—. “On (not) speaking about God ecologically: Ecofaith conference presentation 23-25 May 2014”. Leaf Litter – Anne Elvey’s research and poetry blog. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <https://anneelvey.wordpress.com/on-not-speaking-about-god-ecologically/>
Davidson, Toby. Christian Mysticism and Australian Poetry. New York: Cambria Press 2013. 203.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge 1993. 41-68; 88-89.
—. Environmental Culture: The ecological crisis of reason. London and New York: Routledge 2002. 4-5.
—. “Tasteless: Towards a Food-based Approach to Death”. PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature. Number 5 (2008). 71.
Oliver, Mary. Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. Cambridge: Da Capo Press 2004. 34.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal. My People: A Kath Walker Collection. Milton, QLD: Jacaranda 1981. 78.
Rose, Deborah Bird. Nourishing Terrains. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission 1996. 24.
White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” Science. Volume 155 Number 3767 (1967). 1204-1205.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems. Pymble NSW: Angus and Robertson 1994. 139.
DIMITRA HARVEY has a Bachelor of Performance Studies from UWS and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Her poems have been published in Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara, the Jean Cecily Drake-Brockman Prize anthology Long Glances, and speculative poetry anthology The Stars Like Sand. In 2012, she won the ASA’s Ray Koppe Young Writer’s Residency.
Candy Royalle is an award-winning performance artist and poet who fuses cinematic storytelling, poetry and unique vocal rhythms with confronting, political and heart thumping content. She tackles topics ranging from sexual obsession to social injustice, illuminating the darker areas of the human psyche for her audiences. Few who see her can forget her intensity, her combustible blend of intellect, imagination and heart. Recent accolades include being awarded the 2014 Marten Bequest Traveling Scholarship for poetry, a highly commended award for the Queensland Poetry Filmakers Challenge, and winner of the 2012 World Performance Poetry Cup as well as the AIPF Excellence in Poetry Award in both 2012 and 2013. She has won numerous competitions and has been nominated and highly commended for a number of awards. Her work has been published and featured both in publications and online including Overland, Australian Love Poems, Radio National’s Poetica, AIPF’s Diversity anthology and many more.
In Australia, Royalle is a festival veteran – from the Woodford Folk Festival to the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, the Sydney Writers Festival to the Adelaide Fringe Festival to name just a small few. Her Butch Priestess Tour sold out in the UK and the USA.
“Through the art of poetry and story telling I have a unique privilege to rehumanise not just my own story, but the story of others.” (ABC Radio Interview)
“I’m very pleased that you would like to run with “Stained”, it’s an important piece for me. I think the theme “Between Black and White” really speaks to me. I have always existed on the fringes – never quite Arab enough, never quite “Australian” enough. It’s like an embraced purgatory because I get to choose the parts I identify with. It also means I am comfortable being critical of both.”
Ivy Alvarez is the author of Disturbance (Seren, 2013) and Mortal (2006). Her latest chapbook is Hollywood Starlet (dancing girl press). Her poems appears in many publications, including Best Australian Poems, with several translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, she lived many years in the UK before moving to New Zealand. www.ivyalvarez.com
What Clara Bow Stole
Walking through Kowloon Park, I blow
to cool my gai-daan-jai — steamy treats
crunchy-sweet. Ooh, that fool director’s so beastly! Don’t speak, he’d said, look pretty.
Too easy. Winking, I opened wide,
facing his one dark eye. Boop-boop-be-doo!
We knew. I won. Plunge fingers,
twist off pastry pieces and chew. A man,
his wife, sit, leaning on each other in the dark.
It scratches my heart. When I stole
my mother’s coat, after she held the butcher’s
knife to my throat, it scratched like that.
One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed
to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.
What Ava Gardner Delivered
Under the bridge, a dim lagoon.
Slow notes from a saxophone
glow in the trees. The pool
becomes a black sky, fallen leaves collapsed stars.
Angel, he calls me. Frankie’s name for me. I remember how he
stroked my skin, his wedding ring scratching my chin
as I stood to deliver us from the second gift
of my belly. Afterwards, he gave me jewellery.
Here I am a raven calling out to borders, guards,
the staring crowds: goodbye.
A soldier looks into my eyes, murmurs
something low and kind to me.
I fold into my dark coat,
say thank you.
Zahid Gamieldien is a writer, tutor and former lawyer. In 2015, his fiction has been published in Overland, Tincture Journal, Bahamut Journal and Pantheon Magazine.
The Boy Who Believed in Magic
The camp gets attacked on a Monday afternoon. I’m in the antechamber of the medical tent, administering the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella to a young girl. She’s afraid of the syringe, and I tell her not to worry, that everything will be okay. Her mother soothes her in Manding language, probably Dioula, but even she seems tense. The girl is bawling and I call the Dutch nurse, Klaas, into the antechamber.
I’ll show you a magic trick, I say to the girl.
Klaas nods and I turn to a cabinet, on top of which is a Styrofoam cup. I make a small hole in the cup and push my thumb through it, and then I grip it with both hands. Feigning intense concentration, I lever my fingers and palms from the cup, which is held in place by my obscured thumb, and I shiver the cup through the air as if it’s levitating. The girl goes quiet. Klaas kneels beside her and swabs her upper arm with an alcohol wipe. He jabs her with the syringe. She begins to wail and I grab hold of the cup while Klaas and the girl’s mother apply a bandage to her puncture. Sighing loudly, I return the cup to the cabinet and listen to the girl’s crying fade from the medical tent.
You should give this doctor business up and get into the magic shows, Klaas remarks. We chuckle; I like the way he shushes his S’s.
I’m about to reply when I hear a convoy of jeeps in the distance. Klaas and I step out of the medical tent and stand there, watching. The camp is in chaos. People are running every which way: some roil the dirt as they sprint to nowhere; others dash into their tents, which are draped in white sheets like Halloween houses or Californian bungalows being fumigated. The sheets carry UNHCR branding.
Through a rust-coloured cloud of dust, I spy a man that I recognise. He’s barefoot, carrying a machete, leading his family toward the dirt road.
What’s happening? I ask.
It’s better for you to run, doctor, is all he says.
I don’t move.
The regular doctor at the camp, a South African named Sissy, sprints past me and into the medical tent. Klaas and I follow her. She heads for the tent’s main room, which has two rows of eight hospital beds divided by a narrow aisle. I realise that most of the patients must have fled behind my back: only four remain, and each of them is unconscious.
Too late to move them, Sissy grunts.
Klaas and I wear guilty expressions and now, close by, I hear peals of gunfire, the screech of brakes. My skin feels numb, tinnitus in my ears — no, not tinnitus: I can isolate the screams of individuals, of children, of women, of men, and they get cut short, these screams, abruptly, like when you press the mute button on a TV remote.
Klaas’s brow is moist; he wipes it with a shaky hand. Sissy, the only one of us with her wits about her, drags a sheet up over the face of one of the patients. Klaas and I realise what she’s doing and we follow suit, until the four patients are entirely covered. We head back to the antechamber and wait.
The footsteps on the ground are heavy, jackbooted perhaps, and I know immediately that the people sheltering in their tents are not going to survive: their choral screams rise and grow elliptical and fall silent, the tempo dictated by a grim layer of percussion. I dap my Adam’s apple in my throat and try not to picture it, but I can’t help it. Klaas whimpers; he’s pale as a waxwork and wet with sweat. Sissy places her hand on his back, as if to steady him in case he passes out. Her mouth is shut tight.
Two soldiers, dressed in black shirts and camouflage pants, enter the antechamber. Both have AK47s. One of the soldiers is tall, not yet twenty; he’s wielding a machete as well as a gun. The other is pubescent, a boy, although he has no laugh in him and his brow is as creased as a forty-year-old’s. The tall soldier raps something in a Kru dialect, directing his question at Sissy. He jerks his rifle toward the main room. Sissy stares at him dumbly and he repeats the question in French.
C’est une morgue, Sissy responds. Allez jeter un oeil. She’s defiant, but her voice quavers. Squinting dubiously, the tall soldier issues a command to his accomplice, the boy, who adjusts his aim.
The tall soldier ambles into the main room. He pauses near a covered patient and slings his AK47 over his shoulder, and then he takes out his machete and drives it through the patient’s chest. There’s the crack of a ribcage and the gurgle of blood in a throat, the strain of ungreased bedsprings. I stifle a scream, Sissy’s eyes go to her feet, and Klaas holds his breath. We don’t watch any more. The tall soldier returns to the antechamber, dragging behind him a white sheet with which he wipes the stains from his machete. He shrugs and says something to the boy, before he drops the sheet and exits the medical tent.
The boy’s forehead grows more serious and he’s yelling at us in Kru which, of course, none of us can understand. He’s becoming frustrated and I realise that he’s asking us — no, ordering us — to turn around so that he can shoot us in the back. We comply, slowly.
Don’t do this, Sissy pleads. We’re doctors. Médecins.
I glance over my shoulder: the boy is unmoved, or otherwise, he doesn’t understand. I see that Sissy and Klaas are holding hands. Klaas is muttering a prayer. They’re resigned to their fate.
I’m about to clasp Sissy’s other hand when I spot the Styrofoam cup on the cabinet, and I don’t know why, but I grab it and push my thumb through the little hollow in it.
I’ll show you a magic trick, I offer.
There’s confusion on the boy’s face, yet I press on with the routine, releasing the cup from my hands, leaving it perched on the end of my thumb, giving the illusion that it’s defying gravity.
See, it’s magic, I say.
Mah-jik, the boy repeats.
That’s right, I say. Magic.
He takes a couple of paces back and glances outside of the tent. I crush the cup in my hand. Sissy’s expression betrays her puzzlement, Klaas’s his relief. The boy mimics turning a key in a lock, and I’m confused.
Unlock? I ask uncertainly.
I think he wants a car, Klaas observes.
I take my keys from my pocket and jangle them, as if I’m performing another trick. The boy beckons with his rifle and I cant my head to the others, indicating that we should follow.
In single file we step out of the medical tent. In Dutch, Klaas recites the Lord’s Prayer. The camp is a Golgotha of corpses upon which dust is settling like ash, like in the aftermath of a volcano. The tents are silent and riddled with buckshot. Sissy’s hand is over her mouth. I also want to vomit. The boy prods me in the side with his AK47 and we walk — the three of us now in front of him — toward the dirt road, past booted and barefoot soldiers, and the dead, and firewood that is being kindled for a pyre. In the shade of a palm tree is a group of armed men, who laugh out of the sides of their mouths, gravely, or as if they’re chewing tobacco.
As we reach the dirt road, I can hear yelling from behind us. It’s the tall soldier. He’s about thirty metres away, striding toward us and waving his hand to call the boy back to the camp. I expect the boy to stop, but he presses the AK47 against my spine, forces us to quicken our pace. We get to my four wheel drive, which is near the parked convoy of jeeps, and the yelling is getting louder, closer.
I jump into the driver’s seat and the boy gets in the other side, pointing his gun at me. Sissy and Klaas hop in the back.
Make it fast, Sissy urges.
Ja, ja, ja, Klaas adds.
They buckle their seatbelts. I start the engine and immediately my window smashes. The tall soldier is opening fire on us. I reverse and lose the back wheels in a ditch, and I hear them spin unavailingly, and the spittle of bullets against the side door, and then the tyres gain traction and we’re away.
Once we’re out of sight, I move to switch on my GPS and the boy stays my hand.
Where do you want me to go? I ask, and he shuts his eyes in meditation.
He doesn’t know where he’s going, Klaas says.
He saved our lives, Sissy replies quietly.
The boy opens his eyes and yawns. Miles of dead road drift by, and when we reach a fork he indicates that we should take the road to the left.
The other way goes to the city, I suggest, pointing. He sits up straight and places his finger on the trigger; he’ll brook no argument. I say, Okay, okay.
After we’ve been driving for ninety minutes, the boy straightens his fingers. I bring the car to a halt near a village that’s been burned to the ground. There’s no sign of life; only the outlines of the dwellings remain. The boy taps his chest and blinks back tears.
I think he was kidnapped from here, I say. We drive a little farther down the road and then get out of the car. Beside us is a dried up cocoa plantation, the trees forked like dowsing rods that have lost the art of divination.
As we enter the plantation I notice that there’s a camp there, hidden from the road. Tarpaulins are tied to the branches of the cocoa trees and curious people with sunken eyes begin to emerge, to study us as we approach. The boy says something to a middle-aged woman, who nods approvingly. He guides us between rows of trees to one of the campsites near the end. It’s sheltered by a faded tarp and there’s an old man seated there. He’s fanning flies from the face of a woman, an elderly woman, who’s lying on the ground; she has a severely infected wound on her neck and her lips have gone white. The boy puts down his weapon and holds her hand in both of his.
He gazes up at Sissy. Dok-toor? he implores.
The breath flows heavy through her chest. She shakes her head. Sorry, she says. There’s nothing I can do. Désolée.
The news sinks in, and then the boy’s eyebrows rise with hope as he looks to me. Mah-jik, he says, and I begin to sob, and I see that Sissy’s jaw is tight, and Klaas has his head tilted to the sky, and I watch as the boy realises that there’s no such thing.
Laurel Fantauzzo is a writer and teacher. Much of her work finds her studying appetite, identity, the signals for real love, and the search for home. She is largely a nonfiction writer and an essayist, but she also writes young adult fiction. Laurel Fantauzzo was born in Southern California to a Filipina mother and an Italian-American father.
Laurel Fantauzzo on identity, writing, and finding a way through.
Born in Southern California to a Filipina mother and an Italian-American father, Laurel Fantauzzo has called Brooklyn, Manila and Iowa City home. Currently, she lives in Singapore and teaches literature and creative writing at Yale-NUS.
Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Manila Review, and Esquire Philippines to name a few. She earned a 2011 Fulbright research scholarship, a 2012 Iowa Arts Fellowship, and a 2013 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature. Her unpublished non-fiction manuscript, The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film, and Death in the Philippines, is an investigation into the unsolved deaths of two young film critics, and she is currently at work on a memoir.
There is an undercurrent to Laurel’s work that is hard to define. An acknowledgement of the complexities of the emotional and social worlds she finds herself in, a consideration of the intrinsic nature of social and political discourse and the everyday, and an intelligence that would make approaching her in an interview context potentially intimidating. But in person, Laurel is a lot like her writing: generous, sharp, and affecting.
Harriet: Do you consider your work to be political?
Harriet: Can you define the political nature of your work? Would you consider it to be political in terms of critiquing the broad, social structures of society or in terms of it subscribing to the second-wave feminist concept of ‘the personal is political’?
Laurel: Again: yes. Ha!
But it’s true! When it comes to writing, I don’t necessarily believe in the application of “either/ or.” I avoid dichotomies, because if dichotomies were broadly applied, I, a hybrid person, would not exist! And (today, anyway), I rather like existing.
I do critique the broad social structures of society, and I do it through my documentation of small, personal gestures. Where do we feel oppression most intimately? I’d argue that we feel it the most in quiet interactions, where we assume ourselves to be safe, and / or innocent. A writer whose work I follow, Elaine Castillo, paraphrased Frantz Fanon when she told me we should examine our privileges with as much passion as we examine our oppressions. I’m interested in examining how we both suffer from, and perpetuate, damaging social structures in our day-to-day decisions. It’s a weighty examination, but I think it’s important to be conscious.
Harriet: You write often of being an outsider in your motherland, the Philippines, but particularly in the beautiful essay ‘Under My Invisible Umbrella’, you discuss the complexities of being white-skinned in a brown land. Would you consider the ability to espouse politics to be a position of privilege? And how do you negotiate that within your work?
Laurel: Yes, it is a position of privilege. I was born in Southern California and speak American English. Growing up with a frequently frustrated Filipina mother and a Filipina grandmother with limited English, I became somewhat fluent in code-switching, subtly changing my reactions and language around groups of Filipinos versus groups of white Americans. The language I know best, English, is the world’s favored linguistic currency of business and power. My pallid complexion is still associated with high beauty standards. I try to name the relevant, unearned advantages I hold as the writer and narrator. But I am sure I make errors, fail, and carry blind spots of my own.
A friend teased me for feeling annoyed at pale foreigners who come to the Philippines, often men who drone on and on to Filipinos with their so-called outsider expertise. “But you’re white!” she said, and laughed. Yes, in the Philippines, I am considered white; in the US, my race is a question mark, and in Romania I was asked if I was from China or Japan. I said to my friend, “Don’t worry. I have plenty of contempt for myself as well.” It’s a difficult balance, in nonfiction: making confident assertions while carrying a modicum of humility and a sense of humor. I try.
Harriet: As is the case in your essay ‘The Animals in My Home’, there is a real weaving of your life in the Philippines with your past in the United States, including your use of Tagalog words mixed in with the English. Is this “code-switching” between cultures something that you find challenging to translate into your non-fiction? At a craft level, was it ever something that you had to reconcile? Or in your opinion, is the written word a space you feel most allows for a fluidity of identity?
Laurel: No, it’s not challenging. It’s just my life.
I never had to reconcile any of my cultural subjects on a craft level. I mostly had to reconcile with myself on a psychological level before I was able to write the stories I have inside me. I felt apologetic and sheepish about identifying as Filipina and claiming the Philippines as a home. Now I am more inclined to embrace my sense of unbelonging. I’ve let go of the idea that any one country or any one label will ever offer me a complete sense of home, much less a complete sense of self. The hyphen is where I live.
Harriet: That is a really beautiful answer. I’d be interested to know however how much you feel that you draw from your environment. Outside the usual progression with your craft, do you think your writing has changed since your move to the Philippines?
Laurel: Yes. In the US I was laboring under the unspoken assumption that my ultimate audience would be white Americans who have very little patience for hybrid people and stories from abroad. Whether or not it was ultimately true, or just my own fears, I think this assumption weighed on me, making me feel a bit hopeless and constrained about the worth of my work. In the Philippines I was somehow able to realign my conscious and unconscious priorities and free my voice. In both graduate school and from Manila, I was also fortunate to work with supportive teachers and editors.
Speaking of privilege, the cost of living in the Philippines, while unjustly burdensome to the vast majority Filipino citizens, is also unjustly easier for persons from abroad. So whereas in the US, I would have had to have several roommates and jobs to support myself as a teacher and a writer, I was able to have my own apartment in Metro Manila and even a cat. The space of my own was, and remains, important.
Harriet: Which is sort of a tricky emotional space to inhabit at times I’d imagine. Do you feel a sense of conflict between your privileged “white” background and your less privileged “non-white” backgrounds? As a writer who is conscious of exposing social oppression and differences, do you feel it difficult to reconcile your own lifestyle in comparison to those around you, and does this complicate your writing process?
Laurel: This line of questioning gives me a tension headache!
Harriet: Oh no! Sorry about that! The summary of your thesis/ first non-fiction, full-length manuscript The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film, and Death in the Philippines describes it as your “attempt at literature as a form of justice”. How far do you see literature can go towards obtaining justice and “writing” wrongs?
Laurel: I think literature can be both a first and last resort. In a society where justice and the truth are elusive, accurate storytelling can be nothing less than an act of revolution. But the kind of revolution that leads to repair, not more violence. That is my hope at least.
Harriet: That’s my hope also. It would be lovely to finish on a lighter note. Can you talk a little about what is exciting you at the moment?
Laurel: You can leave in my response about the tension headache! But I’ll return to your earlier question now.
In a world that requires binaries and absolutes, those of us with mixed identities are often looked at with assumptions that do not have room for our realities. As the scholar Alex Orquiza says, it is very dangerous and usually a mistake to use absolute terms when discussing identity. I suppose that’s what makes me wince; the premise of your question. I feel it assumes that as a mixed race, mixed culture person, I transform in manipulative ways. That I am inevitably the perpetual traitor and outsider in whatever space I occupy. There is a trope in popular 20th century fiction that mixed race people are inevitably tragic, not able to fit anywhere. I don’t think I’m particularly tragic. Most days I simply am. Or try to be.
I suppose you’re right, though. Clearly I do feel a sense of conflict! But unresolvable conflicts can be healthy for essayists, even if they cause pain and frustration.
As for what’s exciting me at the moment: fresh squash blossoms, sold curbside, roasted with cheese in my little toaster oven. My cat, asleep with her face in the palm of my hand. The Legend of Korra, with its sense of humor, strong female physicality, scenes of terror and post-traumatic stress disorder, and its development of a sweet, genuine lesbian love story at its apex.
Harriet McKnight currently lives in Melbourne. In 2014, she was shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Her work has been published in The Lifted Brow and The Suburban Review digital editions and she has worked since 2013 as the deputy editor of The Canary Press.
Early in Kavita Nandan’s Home After Dark, the protagonist Kamini meets V.S. Naipaul and tells him that A House for Mr. Biswas is her favourite book. He asks her where she is from; when she says she is Fijian, he simply says “Ah, that’s why you like the book.” This congruence between Fiji and Trinidad, two island nations that were former British colonies, is deeply frustrating to Kamini: “Yet we knew very little about the specifics of each other’s lives, content to exist in our separate worlds.” The protagonist’s deliberation on the specificity of postcolonial experience seems indicative that this is something that Nandan’s novel aspires to.
If J.M Coetzee’s assertion that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography” is true, then it finds especial resonance with Home After Dark. The novel reads as though there is a lot of the author’s own life being traced out in the narrative. On paper, there are elements of Nandan’s life that are in common with the novel’s protagonist. Nandan has spent her life between Australia, Fiji and India, and she is also an academic. But the synonymy between Nandan’s biographic details and the narrative plotted out for Kamini are not of themselves interesting. Nandan’s storytelling skill relies on the weaving together of various cultural, personal and geographic spaces and endowing them with engaging detail, and she does this well.
The initial chapters lay a strong foundation for the rest of the novel, and the novel begins with an arresting incident: Kamini recounts choking on her own mother’s milk as a child in Delhi. Ironically, her rescuer in this instance turns out to be the very same man who takes her father hostage in Fiji eighteen years later. The details of her father’s imprisonment during the Fijian coup of 1987 are skilfully woven together with the young Kamini’s intimate experiences of home and anxieties about her life outside of it. There is a lot for Kamini to take in. The violence that her father is subject to in the coup is painful to contemplate, and is coupled with the unnerving distractedness of her family in light of the situation. Nandan cites Yeats to capture the sudden reality that is thrust upon Kamini as she enters adulthood: ‘the centre cannot hold ‘. In describing the new found chaos of Kamini’s life, Nandan makes implicit the previous part of this line in Yeats’ poem – ‘things fall apart;’.
After Kamini’s formative experiences are described the main story arc is introduced. The middle thirds of the novel mainly moves between her relationship with her family and her relationship with her Australian husband, Gavin. When she moves to Fiji she is happy to be among her relatives, and finds a comfortable place in their lives. Within these familial spaces she is able to sift through the various pieces of her past. These parts of the novel make for deeply satisfying reading. Nandan deftly draws small incidents so they have symbolic significance: “If I saw a coconut lying at the bottom of one of the trees, I called out to my father so he could slice through the husk to reach its heart… I was eager to replace my small island for the vast unknown world. But only when I thought I had the luxury of possession.” This movement outwards from metaphor to broader postcolonial implications gives the story specificity in the nexus of place, culture and experience.
Ultimately though, the novel moves to a crescendo along the narrative lines of her relationship with Gavin, and for this reason it warrants some unpacking. The reason why Kamini moves to Fiji is primarily for an academic position, and she brings Gavin with her. However, Kamini’s relationship with Gavin is far from ideal. The emotional isolation that her relationship with Gavin threatens to cause is brought in contrast with the support that she gets from her family. Gavin has been unemployed and suffers from depression. After initially being enamoured with the newness of Fijian life and the sights of Suva he becomes bored, and his unhappiness becomes even more apparent.
The confidence of Nandan’s lyrical prose and weighty metaphor gives way to a different style of writing. Nandan’s rendering of Gavin is still highly detailed, but they are also matter-of-fact, more quotidian than flowery: “[h]e had packed two pairs of shorts, three T-shirts, a Sydney FC jumper, a grey cosmetic bag with toothpaste smeared on the zipper, his medications and the adoption folder in its special plastic casing.” But these unadorned descriptions are no less interesting than the lush imagery that Nandan deploys in relation to her family and past. Nandan simultaneously sketches Gavin’s low emotional ebb and Kamini’s ambivalence towards him. Revulsion, pathos and love move together with breathtaking economy as Nandan describes the inner world of Kamini and Gavin. Although less assured than Nandan’s writing on Kamini’s family and childhood, Kamini and Gavin’s fragile emotional world is just as engaging.
The book ends a little hurriedly; Nandan ties together the loose ends of the Fiji-oriented plot too quickly as she tries to circle back to the themes that she began with. It is as if the novel has taken a long walk in a particular direction before trying to rush back to the point of origin along the very same route. The novel could be a little longer; after taking the time to go along with Nandan’s unpacking of various geographic places, relationships and cultural spaces it isn’t unreasonable for the novel to take a little more time to reach its conclusion.
But the slightly abrupt ending is not nearly enough to take away from the joy of reading Home After Dark. As Nandan deftly ties together various aspects of Kamini’s reality – the everyday, the intimate, the cultural and political – what comes through is an imaginatively complete novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.
SUMEDHA IYER is a PhD candidate in English at the University of New South Wales. Her thesis examines works of contemporary Australian fiction in terms of multiculturalism and transnation.
The Life of Houses opens with one of the central characters, Anna, awaiting her lover’s arrival in a hotel dining room. The setting is ornate, the hour early and the space as yet unpopulated. “It had become the part of her evenings with him she enjoyed most simply,” the novel muses: “this solitude in which she felt closest to the simple existence of knives and forks and spoons” (p. 3). Immediately the domestic materials of daily life are elevated from the modesty of mere function to signifiers of deeper importance. From the knives and forks and spoons of this scene to furniture, houses and family heirlooms, objects and spaces in The Life of Houses far outweigh the matter of their substance and play a descriptive role in vivifying or devitalising the narrative landscape. More often than not their connotations are dark, with objects implying the burdens of the past and spaces rendered by their shadows and deficiencies. Though Anna awaits Peter, her lover, taking a certain pleasure in the anonymous surroundings that are “a world away from her own taste” (p. 3) it’s hardly an optimistic image: her happiness is predicated on the absence of intimacy and human connection.
Award-winning poet Lisa Gorton uses the material world to great lyrical effect in The Life of Houses, her first novel for adults. Inward-looking and psychologically specular, the book initially vacillates between Anna and her teenaged daughter Kit’s points of view. While Anna stays behind in Melbourne to weigh-up her romantic future Kit is sent to visit her grandparents and aunt in the “Sea House”, the family home in which Anna grew up and resolutely left behind. Once-grand and now rapidly decaying, “Sea House” is an antiquated memorial to the past in which her grandparents live an insular life in genteel poverty. It’s only Kit’s second time visiting yet the morning following her arrival her grandmother tells her she’ll inherit the place, an announcement that stirs little in Kit but awkward self-consciousness.
The novel eventually settles with Kit and follows her meanderings around the shadowy, dank old house and equally claustrophobic, if quaint, seaside town. This works because although Anna’s narrative offers the sharpest and most acerbic insights in the text it’s Kit who pads the halls of the house at the heart of the novel in real time. Moreover, she is the most rounded and realised of the two characters: unlike her dry and rather brittle mother, Kit is considerably more sympathetic, emotionally approachable and engaging. Readers who want to “fall in love” with characters take note: this book is unlikely to inspire great passion for any member of its cast. The Life of Houses is populated by guarded characters tainted by failure and disappointment: Scott, Anna’s childhood friend, is a talented artist reduced to running life-drawing classes in the local hall; Treen, Kit’s aunt, returned to the family home nursing a broken heart and never moved on; Kit’s grandparents, Audrey and Patrick, are overtly contemptuous of the outside world and have no desire to be part of it. Their bitterness and discontent bleeds into all relationships and an acute sense of alienation and estrangement characterises human connections in the novel, from the familial and romantic to encounters between acquaintances and strangers. Despite being a character-driven novel The Life of Houses is unrelentingly mired in the complexity and complications of human connection: all in all it’s a bleak reflection of social being which emphasises the breaches and divisions between individuals. Personally, I found this strain eventually detracted from Gorton’s rich, lustrous prose – there was a monotony about it that left me craving some glimmer of humour or hope in the darkness.
Like its characters, the narrative continually retreats inwards to the architectural security of containment and domesticity. In the opening scene mentioned Anna experiences relative happiness in the baroque dining room as she waits, alone, for Peter to arrive. But the benign comfort of her material consolation represents a potential trap for in The Life of Houses spaces inscribed by habit, routine and familiarity tend to exert a tyrannous hold on the people and families who inhabit or frequent them. There is a burdensome weight in trodden hallways, shadowy corners and the shared past; it is as if a house or a room could manifest the bitterness and discontent of those who occupy it. At one point, musing on the family home into which she’s invited her lover, Anna concedes to herself that “all that she had come to think of as belonging to the house itself she had to acknowledge lived in her only” (p. 46).
The “Sea House” epitomises this trope of oppressive interiority. In an illustrative recollection Anna, struggling to explain the family home to Peter, remembers that she and Treen “were always walking out of wide sunlight into the permanent indoorness of the house” (p. 11) as girls. In the present time the reader arrives with Kit in the dead of night: the dimly lit, depressingly fluorescent kitchen leaves a very glum first impression. Inducted by her grandfather’s historical ramblings and overwhelmed by the damp, dilapidated, labyrinthine confines of the decrepit residence, Kit longs to be outside again. The house is funereal and static and its aged, worse for wear furnishings are set on display as if in a permanent and private exhibition. Her grandparents are bound by their immovable obsession with preserving the past and self-righteously wield the narratives and artefacts of history as a kind of power. As Anna tells Peter of her parent’s inheritance “(i)t isn’t property for them; it’s history, so long as you take history to be a sort of borrowed self-importance” (p. 12). Fearful of such a burden and resistant to her family’s legacy Anna imagines bulldozers tearing down the house in a fantasy of defiance and then reflexively wonders: “(t)his house, could it be destroyed?” (p.184). Her doubt emphasises the gravity of the house, its shadow looming larger than the bricks-and-mortar fact of its existence.
The Life of Houses is heady with sensory detail and precise, exacting descriptions. Gorton’s style is evocative and fluid and carries the reader along with haunting momentum. Rather than slowing the narrative down with poetic density her keenly observational eye guides us through interior worlds both psychological and architectural. The acute prose shapes spaces according to the predisposition of the subject experiencing it so that the shadows and illuminations distinct to the characters’ impressions render each scene a kind of portrait that allows us access to the characters’ psyche. Yet the proximity of Gorton’s close focus accentuates their isolation and dwells on the shortcomings and failures of close relationships. It’s testament to her skill as a writer that the reader is left with a lingering sense of desolation and detachment upon closing the book but this coldness may leave readers like myself, who desire a connectedness in fiction, wanting.
ALEXANDRA MCLEAVY has recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong. Her major project comprises a novel that explores the intersection of autobiography and fiction.
Geoff Page’s 1953 (UQP) was shortlisted for the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. He lives in Canberra and has published 21 poetry collections, as well as novels, memoir and biography. He edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc.)
for two good friends
Forty years or so ago
the same straight back of conscience had them
fleeing the police.
The war was wrong. They wouldn’t go
though both had army fathers.
One torched his card in public;
the other did a week in Goulburn
before the draft was dumped.
Today, here in our group of five,
they’re meeting over coffee,
one, flat white, the other, black,
one still fresh from picketing
some notably obnoxious mine,
the other fired with new results
disproving warmist claims
from vaticans of scientists who
will brook no heretics.
Each man is well aware the other
knows his slant on carbon.
Their temperaments are of a kind.
One starts to talk about the forest
his open-cut will tear away.
The other counters ‘Well, you know’
but finds he’s trailing off.
They share a slow, reluctant smile;
we’re all too old for this.
Minds at our age don’t shift much.
They both look round to check the weather:
two of them and three of us.
The argument they’d planned to stage
would probably have proved uncivil.
Seamlessly, without intent,
we move to something different.