by Larissa Behrendt
St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by NADIA RHOOK
“She took a long great breath, lifted her petticoats, and ran headlong into the greatest adventure ever told!”[i]
– The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser, film poster, 1975
Larissa Behrendt’s latest work is a profound lesson for the gullible. Finding Eliza calls out narrative tricks that have been deployed with colonizing affect by white writers, artists, and legal authorities, not least dramatically those about cannibalism.
Drawing on her background in law and fiction, Behrendt guides the reader deep into the unsettling pathos of colonial fantasies and myth-making in Australia. The story of Eliza Frazer – a white woman who was shipwrecked in 1836, and then spent several weeks with the Butchalla people on Flinders Island off northeast Australia – provides an entrée for Behrendt’s core argument. Narratives colonize. Eliza’s alleged capture by cannibals enthralled 19th Century audiences, and functioned to reinforce stereotypes of Aboriginal people as ‘barbarous’ and therefore in need of white civilization.
As Behrendt admits, she’s by no means the first writer to enter the murky territory of the ‘actual’ and ‘fantastical’ accounts of cannibalism. Names as big as Sigmund Freud have made comment on the perversions embedded in European’s cannibal stories. Published, too, 15 years after Tracey Banivanua Mar’s interrogation of cannibal tropes of Pacific history, the imperatives behind the book remain pressing.[ii] It’s not only the enduring repetition of narratives about ‘native’ cannibalism that are of concern, but the material forces behind them. For, Behrendt reminds us, white writers continue to profit from narratives where they imagine Aboriginal people as objects of knowledge.
In each chapter, Behrendt offers her readers subtly different angles to view and reflect on the colonizing operation of stories. From Eliza’s stories about Butchalla cannibalism, she turns to the enduring popularity of cannibal stories in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and later, to the story of Elizabeth Durack, a white woman who, in the 1990s, fraudulently pretended to paint as an Aboriginal man, ‘Eddie Burrup’. Through these narratives, Behrendt exposes the ways in which blurring the line between fact and fiction has assisted white men and women to indorse their power and feign innocence, and make a buck (or many) along the way.
The opening chapters are a productive dialect between 19th Century historical narratives and critique thereof, all wrapped in cogent prose. As I entered the world of flesh-eating fantasies, I felt a swelling curiosity about why Behrendt was drawn to unpick narratives about Eliza Fraser; an historical character I found unarresting, if not annoying. (Admittedly, this may be because Eliza ‘mirrors’ an uncomfortable reflection of my own white woman-ness, to use Behrendt’s term.) But this book is not really about Eliza, or her likability. There’s more at stake in this interplay between narrative and its deconstruction. Something at once political and personal.
When Behrendt was in high school in Sydney she was nicknamed ‘Coonardoo’. It wasn’t until she fell on the 1928 published novel of the same name that she realised what this entailed. In Coonardoo the main character, an Aboriginal woman also called Coonardoo, is drawn into working for a white family. The book constructs Coonardo as lazy and, most violently, her death represents ‘the inevitable destruction of her country’.[iii]
For Behrendt, reading Coonardo hurt. As Kyungmi Shi has suggested in her work ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’: ‘Race enters writing … as a structure of feeling, as something that structures feelings, that lays down tracks of affection and repulsion, rage and hurt, desire and ache.’[iv] And other examples Behrendt draws on also illustrate how narratives create, and are created by, the feelings of readers on both sides of the non/Indigenous divide. At a number of points in the book, I wanted Behrendt to prod the affective work of the narratives further. In the introduction she evokes how stories take a ‘hold on our hearts’, but if narratives structure emotions then surely stories have a role to play in de-colonizing emotions. Is this a matter of avoiding white-centric narratives altogether? Or, is it more to do with finding a storyline that unsettles established colonial tropes? In her approval of Liam Davison’s ‘post-colonial’ fiction White Woman, which confronts the dark, patriarchal history of the Gippsland frontier, Behrendt seems to suggest the latter.[v]
Given the book’s persistent critique of colonial narratives, it’s not entirely clear whose hearts and thoughts Behrendt hopes it will remould. Despite the contemporary resonances of the figure of Eliza Fraser, and of the ‘classic Aussie’ 1976 film named after her, I’m not sure the book will attract readers who aren’t already invested in critiquing colonialism. Yet it’s the book’s model of vigilance that makes it so instructive, a valuable resource for thinkers, writers, lawyers, anthropologists, historians, and students. This is a book to reflect on, keep, and return to. It guides readers to realise the interconnectedness of history, law, literature, art, stories and colonial power.
Behrendt doesn’t stop at taking her reader behind white narratives. She also travels beyond them. By drawing on a rare oral history account of Eliza, Behrendt exposes the gap between white and Butchalla-made narratives about Eliza. She tells how an Aboriginal Elder, Olga Miller, has narrated that when Eliza met the Butchalla ‘the women had marked the stranger with with ochre signs which read “let this woman through”.’ Miller’s story turned white narratives upside down. ‘Far from being the danger to Eliza’, Behrendt observes, ‘the Butchalla women were responsible for her safety.’[vi]
Toward the end of the book, Behrendt drives home the ‘so what?’ of her argument for the need to call out the colonizing potential of storytelling. In 1993, she tells, the Yorta Yorta people became the first people to lodge a Native Title claim. Justice Olney of the Supreme Court denied their claim, asserting the Yorta Yorta were ‘no longer a traditional culture’. Then, in early 2004, a Yorta Yorta spokesperson, Henry Atkinson, asserted a counter narrative; ‘All societies evolve, some through their own progression and others because they are forced to.’ In April that year, the state invited the Yorta Yorta to enter a co-operative management agreement as a means to ‘involve’ the Yorta Yorta in the management of their own land.[vii] What legal matter are stories? Behrendt’s message on this is piercing, and delivered, like all the book’s messages, through a revealing example. ‘Law is a national story’, and through story-telling, Olney and others have supported the duress of white claims over Indigenous lands.
It would be difficult to overestimate the gravity of Finding Eliza’s lessons. Readers should take a long breath before they confront the strands of colonial power that have a binding grip on white psyches, and touch the structural corners of the settler nation that is Australia; invasion, violence, cultural appropriation, and land rights, no less.
[i] ‘The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser’, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074466/, accessed 5 May 2016.
[ii]Tracey Banivanua Mar, ‘Cannibalism and Colonialism: charting colonies and frontiers in nineteenth century Fiji’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2010, Vol.52(2), 255-281; See also Ian J McNiven, Lynette Russell and Kay Schaffer, Constructions of colonialism : perspectives on Eliza Fraser’s shipwreck, Washington, D.C : Leicester University Press, 1998.
[iii] Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, St.Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2016, 93
[iv] ‘Where Writers Go Wrong in Imagining the Lives of Others’, adapted from the foreword of Kyungmi Shin, The Racial Imaginary, 2003; http://lithub.com/on-whiteness-and-the-racial-imaginary/
[v] Behrendt, Finding Eliza, 99.
[vi] Ibid., 53.
[vii] ‘Case Summary: Yorta Yorta v Victoria’, August 2005, http://aiatsis.gov.au/publications/products/case-summary-yorta-yorta-v-victoria, accessed 1 May 2016.
NADIA RHOOK is a Melbourne-based historian and writer, published in Postcolonial Studies, the Journal of Women’s History and Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. She’s currently curating a City Library heritage exhibition, ‘Moving Tongues: language and difference in 1890s Melbourne’.
The Queen’s Play
by Aashish Kaul
Reviewed by SUBHASH JAIRETH
Queen Mandodari’s Clever Play
Once upon a time in a kingdom on a little island lived a queen by the name of Mandodari (the ‘soft-bellied’). The king was busy fighting wars and so bored, or perhaps to challenge her husband’s authority, she invented a new board game. No, the game wasn’t new but a modification of Chaturanga, a board game popular in ancient India. The changes the queen introduced turned the game into something similar to what we now know as chess.
This imagined invention of chess by Mandodari, the wife of King Ravana, one of the ultimate prototypes of evil in the Indian epic Ramayana, is at the centre of Aashish Kaul’s intriguing novel. The dare of this conceit played upon us by the author is as breathtaking as the act of disruption the queen herself crafts. The epic’s narrative fabric of stories within stories is sliced open to retrieve a little string from which a clever writer like Kaul can weave his own stories.
“The need for tales they say arose, when the fetters came stuck round our ankles with a clank of inevitability, when our wings were torn slowly the earth’s fierce pull, when even the skill of climbing trees or perching on a branch was forgotten. And yet the longing remained.” These are the words with which Kaul begins his story. Like most writers, a longing to explain the urge to tell stories also drives Kaul’s project. A writer self-conscious of his own design and intent, Kaul is ultimately aware of the limitations all stories, including epics, are burdened with. Limitations announced emphatically in the final pages of the book by one of the narrators: “Thus it occurred to you that not even of your story were you the hero. Privilege and history overran you there as well.” Desire to make and tell stories drive us because it is meant to remain unconsummated. The satisfaction that comes our way is not only transient but also illusory.
In a way, the longing that takes hold of Mandodari forcing her to transform the board game is quite similar to the longing most writers feel. The board game Mandodari invents is not merely a game but also a symbolic space within which new stories can be imagined and told by playing the game. In fact playing of the game, moving this or that piece, and imagining and calculating consequences of the moves aren’t different from the way writers make their stories. Thus, the board game, the origin of which Kaul wants to imagine, turns into a trope of story-telling itself.
Mandodari introduces two vital modifications to the game of Chaturanga: discarding the rolling of dice, and introducing the figure of queen as a piece on the board. Once the dice is removed the role of chance in the game and that of fate in life are challenged. One can now become a master of one’s own destiny. Freedom to exercise one’s will and act is there to enjoy. Suddenly Mandodari begins to remind me of a modernist informed by the traditions of European Enlightenment. “Why was the dice abandoned?” Asks the narrator in the novel. “For one reason alone. That fate ruled the board as it ruled us,” he explains soon after.
But Mandodari isn’t merely a modernist. In her I also spot traces of a latent proto-feminist. In the game invented by her, the most powerful piece on the board is the figure of the queen. All power resides with it. It can move freely in all directions. The power of the figure of the king, on the other hand, is drastically curtailed. The moves it is allowed are minor, restricted and almost ritualistic. His fate is nothing but to turn into a mere symbol of victory or defeat. Kaul’s Mandodari is clever. The ‘soft-bellied’ queen has guts.
Most of the story in the novel is told in the third-person voice of an omniscient narrator. His power is occasionally disrupted by two narrators who prefer to talk in first person. One of them is most probably Hanuman, commonly known to readers familiar with the epic Ramayana as the monkey-god. The identity of the other narrators remains illusive. He appears and disappears as if he were a piece on Mandodari’s board game. Narrative time also shifts from past to present without any warning. I found these changes abrupt and unsettling. But the irritation was soon assuaged by luminous prose, its rhythmic movement and its poetic cadences. There are many passages that lingered in my mind. Here is one: “During the day, sparrows the size of a child’s fist with indigo and blue patterned crowns and sword-like erect tails, flitted in the hedgerows enclosing the yard, splashing colour everywhere, and in the evening, before the pine torches had pushed the darkness further into itself, a martin returning to a nearby tree would sometimes brush its open wings against my cheek.”
The book begins with a note from the author. “Among many things that this book is,” it says, “that every book is, it is a book about chess. Not chess as we know it, but chess as was known at the time in which the story is based.” I deliberately ignored the note and read it after I had read the book and felt cheated by it. A book, at the centre of which is a daring move to get rid of the power the rolling of dice played in Chaturanga and thereby granting freedom to think, feel and move, doesn’t need the imposition of a note that tells its readers what should be read in it. The story is wonderful, told masterfully by a writer who knows his craft well. I don’t want to believe that the note, in some way, reflects the author’s doubt that without this clarification the story would fail to do the job it has been asked to. Why such doubt, such indecision?
This is Kaul’s second book. His first, A Dream of Horses and Other Stories (2014) is recommended by J.M. Coetzee who notes that “… dreamlike setting, the fastidious melancholy sensibility of their no-longer–young narrators, lead us directly into the territory of late modernism of Borges and Beckett and Nabokov.” A very high praise form a Nobel Laureate, reproduced deservedly on the back cover of The Queen’s Play.
Once the game is invented Mandodari invites the king to play and they play more than once. Often the queen wins but she is clever to let the king enjoy a win too. The game is followed by sex. It has to. It is often said that good description of sex scenes demands utmost control. Unfortunately the writing begins to fail and loose control in these passages some of which can easily place the book on the short list for the Bad Sex in Fiction award. Here is one: “At last the vulva surrounds the phallus, engulfs it. Like dark space engulfing matter, like a lake possessing a mountain’s image, like night covering the gloss of the world. Like a wedge his torso locks into her wet angular thighs.”
“Well, less is more Lucrezia,” reminds Robert Browning’s faultless painter. Fortunately Kaul does his best to follow the rule. The language, apart from the passage cited above, is precise and use of metaphors are disciplined and efficient. They add to the tonal quality of the narrative asking to be read and heard aloud.
I read the book twice and I am sure I’ll read it again to enjoy the resonant prose. The book is meant to be reread. Not because the prose is opaque and the plot complicated. No, it isn’t a plot-driven book. The book demands slow reading to appreciate its carefully crafted prose and to think about the ideas it explores deftly. I hope that this book is able to find the empathetic reader it has been written for.
SUBHASH JAIRETH was born in India. He spent nine years in Moscow and moved to Canberra in 1986. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published in 2011. Two plays adapted from the book were performed at Canberra’s Street Theatre in 2012. His novel After Love was released last year.
The Intervention: An Anthology
by Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss (eds)
Concerned Australians/New South Books
Reviewed by KATE HALL
In The Intervention: An Anthology (2015), editors Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss add their voices to a diverse and impressive range of writers and speakers, from renowned Northern Territory Elders like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks of Utopia and Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra of Galiwin’ku to literary heavy-weights like Alexis Wright and Bruce Pascoe. This is an important book, and the calibre of its contributors is only part of what makes it essential reading. As Scott explains in her launch speech, and in the acknowledgements, ‘This book has had a unique provenance. Being unable to find a publisher became a positive factor once the tide of support from the community and individuals [. . .] rolled in’ (261). The anthology was published through the combined efforts of social justice advocates Concerned Australians, crowd-funding and individual donations, and so it is a resource made possible by those whose opposition to the injustices of the NT Intervention has translated into concrete support for the anthology. This is heartening news for a country whose successive governments seem to care so little about the rights of its first peoples. As Larissa Behrendt notes in her contribution, ‘the intervention in the Northern Territory is a textbook example of why government policies continue to fail Aboriginal people’ (67), and the contributions The Intervention: An Anthology explain, in various ways, some of the reasons for this failure, while the book itself is a symbol of community support.
The Intervention: An Anthology contains several reports, essays and transcripts of speeches that document the NTER, and these are important forms of historical witnessing, from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. But this anthology gives equal weight to writing as truth-telling that doesn’t require footnotes, and the anthology also contains a wealth of such responses. Poetry from Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann sits alongside short stories from Debra Adelaide and P.M. Newton. There are several first-hand accounts of life lived during the Intervention, by what the fiction and life-writing pieces share with the essays and reports is a unifying tone comprised of outrage, pain, anger and despair, as well as solidarity and a commitment to social justice and the pursuit of human rights. What sets the life-writing contributions apart is the way they function simultaneously as protest statements, trauma narratives and testimonials; and many of the most powerful pieces of life-writing in the anthology come from people who are not well known as writers. Some of the life-writing in the collection is transcribed from recorded speeches and so the act of writing itself morphs into the act of recording; spoken into written testimony. The personal recollections of what it feels like have to pay for groceries with a basics card, or to be terrified when the inexplicable arrival of army and federal police troops evokes the intergenerational trauma of the child removal are powerful, affecting acts of testimony.
There is a call for immediate action evident in all of the statements, stories, personal essays, and works of creative non-fiction in the anthology, and the collection reminds readers that, like other human rights disasters in this country, there’s no belatedness about the intervention. It is not consigned to history, not finished, and not yet dealt with. As Heiss points out, ‘no Australian today can claim “not to know” what is happening in the Northern Territory’ (13). For those who might not know enough, the anthology should serve as a useful primer, as well as a scholarly resource for students and academics. The collection provides a number of factual accounts that offer insights into the intervention from its inception, such as Pat Anderson’s ‘The Intervention: Personal Reflections’, in which Anderson, as the co-author (with Rex Wild) of the Little Children are Sacred report describes the conflicting responses of Aboriginal people to the initial implementation of the intervention’s policies:
The Intervention presented a real dilemma for Aboriginal people, at the local community level as well as at the national level. For some, this was a long overdue recognition of the continuing disadvantage of Aboriginal communities and the need to act decisively to end it. On the other hand, there were those who opposed the Intervention for its attack on rights that had been hard won by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians over many years. (37)
The intervention is the term commonly used to describe both the initial thrust of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), in which a slew of new policies were imposed in a matter of days across seventy three remote communities, and the continuing impact of these policies up until July 2012. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act, to use the intervention’s official title, ended in name only at that time, but the paternalistic and racist policies continued under the banner of Labour’s Stronger Futures Act and remain in place today. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the NTER, which John Howard launched in response to Wild and Anderson’s Little Children are Sacred report, did not take up any of the recommendations in that report, and imposed a series of other initiatives not recommended in the report. Crucially, the NTER did not follow the first recommendation in that report, that governments ‘commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.’ (197)
Instead, as several commentators in the anthology point out, the Howard Government sent in the army and federal police to enforce a series of blatantly racist policies, some of which required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. These included quarantining of welfare payments, restrictions on alcohol and pornography, compulsory so called heath checks for children to check for signs of sexual abuse, the compulsory acquisition of land through long leases, the removal of permit systems and the exclusion of consideration of customary law in sentencing. Rosalie Kunoth Monks describes the fear and bewilderment when the army arrived in her community:
My recollection of the Intervention in my home community Urapuntja, commonly known as Utopia, was the day the soldiers in uniform, the police and public servants arrived and we were ushered up to the basketball stadium and we were all told that we were now under the Intervention. (15)
Opponents of the intervention do not deny the existence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, though the intervention failed to produce evidence of this during its so-called emergency response. But, as Jeff McMullen points out in his essay, the sexual abuse of children is wide-spread in this country and not limited to Aboriginal communities. The point to be made, of course, is that ‘no one ordered NT-style interventions into the church and state institutions, or into the barbed-wire detention camps where the children of asylum seekers had been locked up for years.’ (121) Jaowyn Elder Rachel Willika also points out the hypocrisy, the racism and the blindness that fueled the focus on Aboriginal people during the NTER: ‘I have been thinking about those words: little children are sacred. Who are the little children? Are they talking about all the children? Black children and white children? That’s what it says to me. We should be protecting all the children. Aren’t white children sacred too?’
In her 2015 speech commending the anthology, Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs acknowledges,
of course Little Children are Sacred and, of course, we must do what we can as a nation to stop their neglect and abuse. But we should do so consistently with human rights. To juxtapose human rights versus child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect our vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our first nations peoples to dignity and meaningful consultation and consent to laws that affect their lives.
The contributors to the anthology are in agreement about the need for change, but in a manner that is consultative and which respects Aboriginal people and cultures. In her contribution to the anthology, ‘what I heard about the intervention’, Melissa Lucashenko quotes Alexis Wright: ‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this . . .’ (111)
The Intervention: An Anthology has, since the writing of this review, been acquired by New South Books (forthcoming in July 2016).
Triggs, G (2015) ‘Northern Territory Intervention 2007’, Transcript, Australian Human Rights Commission, viewed 14/4/16 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/northern-territory-intervention-2007
KATE HALL lectures in Literary Studies at Deakin University Geelong. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with recent work appearing in Overland, New Community and Pure Slush (forthcoming in 2016).
Letter to Pessoa
by Michelle Cahill
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Letter to Pessoa fuses prose, poetry, and literary criticism, and is a hymn to the Republic of Letters. Michelle Cahill’s stories are set in multiple locations: Kenya where she was born; London and Australia where she grew up and now lives, respectively; India which is her family’s country of origin; but also Europe, Latin America, and the USA. As a writer, reader, and fellow traveler, she revisits through the power of fiction the literary canon and authors such as Lorca, Borges, Woolf, or Derrida. Like the South Asian-American character Gogol, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Cahill’s description as Indian-Australian as referenced on the Giramondo book cover, seems to be a misnomer. The sophistication of the collection’s display of a painting by Madeleine Kelly entitled Treatment for Hysteria is unusual of self-proclaimed Asian Australian literary works, whose cover often betrays the cultural provenance of their author by assimilating the latter to an archetypal Orient. Cahill uses the unmarkedness of the Western referent to develop universal themes linking hysteria (from Greek hustera meaning ‘womb’) to femininity, artistic creativity, and the pleasures of Eros.
Many stories in this collection deal with the subject of erotic relationships, although they are not all pleasurable. Inspired by the teachings of Buddhism, Cahill shows lust to be the cause of much of our suffering as human beings, drawn as it is by an illusory desire for completion. Yet at the same time, this is an illusion worth falling for and pursuing, like writing and reading. Lovers’ words and word lovers are treacherous, as Sartre realised when he published Les Mots, and as his complicated relationship with De Beauvoir attested. In post-structuralist fashion, for Cahill’s characters commitments of various kinds (religious, philosophical, political, amorous, humanitarian, filial or otherwise) are always-already fragmentary, postponed, and proxy-like, if only because of the self-referential, relative, and contingent nature of our identities. The part of self-control or randomness in the detours, distractions, and choices we face both as conscientious and conscious agents leave us stranded, exhausted, even suicidal. With an existentialist nausea, tempered by the difficulties of the writing life, Cahill’s characters long for spiritual detachment and freedom while remaining faithful to their elusive quest for meaning, as in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’: ‘Is it unassailable as death then, this fate of being a slave to signification? And who determines it? How did this happen? I am shattered and vaguely nauseous.’ (230)
Uncertainty is true of the human condition in general but is characteristic of the writing process in particular. Repetitions, draftings, effacements, are part and parcel of a ‘medium — language—’ which, unlike other forms of artistic expression such as painting or music, intrinsically involves precision of meaning.’ (Haskell) This is one reason, I believe, why Cahill used the letter form in her collection. Her fetishistic epistles to various totemic figures of the writing scene — Nabokov, Hemingway, Genet, Conrad, and many others — interpellate the reader with a directness that is as intimate as it is disquieting, for it inscribes the insignias of difference, absence, and death in the very place of the addressee. In some passages, Cahill lays bare the fallacy of first/third-person narratives, for ‘accordingly, this author, this narrator, this third person, is other than me entirely.’ (Cahill 40) One always writes for an idealised Cause or Other, if only for one’s projected, fictional selves, in the manner of ‘internal monologues.’ (Cahill, 60) Through the dreaming of reality, the origin, sex, or trace of an author’s haunting presence within the text matters little. With Barthesean sensibility, Cahill thoroughly deconstructs the artificial distinction between author and narrator/narration, since epistolary exchange always-already involves a double address, to the Self as to the Other; writing under erasure, thus.
Cahill’s collection further posits the impossibility of the presence of the body in writing, other than as an object of fantasy which must be distinct from its author. The body has its own logic, will, and language that cannot be captured in words, unless as prosody. Language’s failure to enshrine presence is where poetry starts: ‘Language is fundamentally abstract (unlike movement, colour and line) but literature uses the rhythms, sound patterns and textures of language to overcome that abstractness and capture something of the sensory qualities of experience.’ (Haskell) We can speak of the material and visual resonances that certain choices of words and assemblages Cahill’s aesthetics will not fail to elicit on the reader. Some metronomic cadence or ‘meretricious rhyme’ (60), such as the ‘automatic’ (Cahill 20) nature of physical pleasure or the ‘mechanical’ (21) to and fro of heart valves heard reverberating inside the head on sleepless, feverish, lonely nights, prove to be a source of pain while other, more soothingly ‘joyful repetitions’ (34) are found in the ostinato of a tenor saxophone (33) or in ‘tabla rhythms.’ (91)
For Cahill, writing, too, can be both a painstaking and indispensable activity. At times, her personas write to be loved or to be heard (‘words are all we have — they speak to us and we echo back’ (61). At others it is either the deeply ethical nature or the amoralism of writing; the way writers are ‘smugglers of the imagination,’ (232) which petty criminals such as the drug dealer in ‘Letter to Jean Genet’ find attractive. Most of the time, though, writing consists in a form of hallucinated daydream in which the Self is allowed temporary escape from pressing commitments (professional, marital, motherly or otherwise) as well as from the humdrum and agitation of modern city life, as in Cahill’s story ‘The Lucid Krishna.’ Her literary creations seem like playful recreations, as in ‘Letter to John Cotetzee.’ Melanie Isaacs, the marginal, silenced woman of colour and university professor David Lurie’s illicit, secret student lover in Coetzee’s Disgrace is given the possibility of a ‘write back’ in the manner of Susan Barton’s letters in Foe, Coetzee’s adaptation of Defoe’s classic Robinson Crusoe. Can we see in Melanie an avatar of Cahill’s own multiple personifications? Who is this voyeuristic eye/I addressing us as readers from the footnotes of history? As Cahill argues in the author’s note, ‘The letter form…creates a double address and a double narrative between two subjects, reader and author. In this way it can question the status of identities.’
Following Cahill, equally questionable is the status of the literary critic or ‘re-viewer’ as a cover-up for the belated gap which writing as immanence irreducibly inscribes. The commanding ‘you’ form may seek to destroy the illusion of the critic as an objective intermediary or neutral arbiter between author and reader. The letter form, besides, encourages such an intersubjective intimacy while at the same time situating the object of criticism in a slippery realm which, as soon we seek to grasp it, evades us. This is a similar ‘skittishness’ (Cahill 240) which Cahill’s characters, as outsiders, feel — their outsider status not always the product of actual marginalia (in fact, quite a few of them come from a privileged, middle-class background) as it is the manifest expression of an inner struggle for authenticity. As the ‘spirit’ of Cahill writes in her last envoi in ‘A Miko Coda’: ‘If you are passing through me for the first time please enjoy my characters, disguises, sabotages and micro-prose.’ (241-2)
As a reader I appreciate the sincerity, the insecurity, and subtlety of Cahill’s hypertextual montages, Purloined Letters, and Post Cards. I would like to address Cahill just as she addresses me ‘as subject, as author of my own desires, anxieties and caprices.’ (56) It was Derrida, without whom Cahill’s narrator is ‘powerless’ (41), who once declared or wrote that he’d never considered himself to be a philosopher or a critic but rather a careful and patient (re)reader; likewise, that deconstruction is not a school or theory but a methodology and practice. I remember Derrida also retorting in a YouTube video that he wasn’t interested in l’amour (love); or did the interviewer mean la mort (death)? La petite mort is a metaphor for orgasm, which in French translates into jouissance, another word for bliss. Cahill is aware of both the magnitudinal intricacies of language’s future anteriority, (as in ‘Borges and I,’ the story of a resuscitated scientist), and of the rejuvenating potential of love, as of death.
In this age of digital and smartphone romance, amateurish stardom, pathological narcissism, and the proliferation of empty signifiers in the form of social medias such as Twitter or Facebook, the lead story ‘Duende,’ which won the 2014 Hilary Mantel International Short Story Award, struck a chord with me. This has eventually little to do with its tragic ending, I believe. Rather, it must be the character Julio’s antiquated yet genuine understanding on seeing the killing of a bull at a corrida in Seville, of the practice of art and poetry in particular as akin to what Artaud called a Theatre of Cruelty: ‘There’s a café by the river bank in Arenal where he orders wine and starts to write. For the first time in months the poems bleed. They spill from his pen to the paper almost monotonously.’ (Cahill 51) As his soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Miguel also feels, ‘There’s a mutilation to art which can’t be named.’ (Cahill 53)
Writing involves sacrifices. This, Hemingway understood, as Cahill does. I do not have in mind the refugee crisis in ‘Sleep Has No Home’ or the Christmas Island disaster which she exposes so tragically in ‘A Wall of Water.’ As its title suggests, these are distant nightmares, although they ought not to be. Neither do I allude to her tackling of the subject of libidinous desire in ‘To Show A Little Hustle’ or ‘Chasing Nabokov.’ These are necessary engagements, especially in the field of self-identified Asian Australian women’s writing where the erotic often remains a non-issue or a commodity, and Cahill addresses them with elegance, insight and cleverness.
What I mean instead are the ‘tortured souls’ in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’ (Cahill 224) and the ‘apocryphal realms’ of ‘Borges and I’ (133) which, following historical precedents and political oppressions, may be invented by the minority writer for their own sanity, stranded as they are in a hostile material reality, with personal failures and industry hurdles to the letters being issued. There is an irony in this. Cahill knows perfectly well that her letters might remain forever unanswered; that they must stop somewhere, at some point, for ‘the book to find its destination’ (236) into the collective mainstream of a readers’ consciousness; though that may never be, for a book’s message, particularly as a short story collection, is bound to be fragmented, like two lovers parting or like a divorced couple. And yet it is the aesthetic of the fragment that most concerns the minority writer. Cahill’s anguish in ‘Letter to Tadeusz Rózewicz’ to unburden herself from the writing process, to be free of writing, makes of the text, a reader, interpreting the figurative voices, compiling all the fragments: ‘I am not the writer, it is Mochizuki that I see.’ she plangently confesses in ‘A Miko Coda.” (Cahill 240)
There is an intentional ambivalence to this text-author, text-critic correlation. It can appear at times like the relationship between patient and psychoanalyst; the latter not really there, a silent listener. Can this delayed conversation however, be more accurate and the only material available in this age of immediacy, the Internet? And does Cahill use the handmade flow of a pen and paper or the dictates of a computer machine to compose her Letter?
While these interrogations may be none of her concern, they are part of my own thread of thoughts as a devoted reader. Letter to Pessoa trembles under the structure of dialogic, incandescent narratives. It is a profound, subtle and important collection; one deserving of a deep appreciation through reading, and (re)reading.
Haskell, Dennis. “Seeing Eye to I: The Power of Asian Literatures.” Asialink, 01 Dec 2010.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
Black Rock, White City
by A.S. Patric
Reviewed by NICOLE THOMAS
The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ fuelled fierce debate during the 1990’s when it was applied to atrocities being committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The euphemism for genocide was coined by perpetrators and adopted by journalists and politicians, penetrating official language. The definition of ‘ethnic cleansing’ remains a scrutinised topic. Defined by intent, genocide is a punishable crime that signifies mass murder while the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ remains undefined and denotes a lesser degree of harm. Blum et al. believe the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ “corrupts observation, interpretation, [and] ethical judgement”.
Black Rock White City follows poet Jovan and his wife Suzana, exiles of Sarajevo, as they struggle to find purpose in their life in suburban Melbourne. They survive in a displaced reality, in an emotionless afterlife punctuated by a war that claimed the lives of their two children. The displaced poetry of Jovan’s past emerges when he is forced to remove cryptic messages embedded in graffiti from the bayside hospital where he is employed as a cleaner. As Dr. Graffito’s destructive acts become increasingly violent, Jovan is forced to confront the trauma of his past.
Set in a hospital, the novel comprises an arrangement of euphemistic expressions, exhibiting the obscurity of figurative language to convey distinct meaning. The title, born from Melbourne suburb Black Rock and Belgrade’s literal translation to White City, takes the form of equivocation. The title’s contrasting colours, black and white, indicate a clear distinction between right and wrong doing—evil and virtue. Patric’s discourse leaves no rock unturned and solicits with bone chilling intelligence an examination of ethical judgement and decision making; an agenda intended for a distinct recognition between the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide.
The destruction begins with a message, The / Trojan / Flea, written on the hospital X-Ray screen. Accumulating throughout the narrative is an assemblage of visual implements analogous to seeing and not seeing which stimulates an effect of clarity or obscurity. Words are engraved into optometry lenses, eye charts are altered with messages of graffiti, blurred reflections viewed through glass. The X-Ray screen acts as an object of awareness, prompting closer observation of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ in relation to genocide. Reference to the Trojan can be seen as a parable to the subterfuge the Greeks used to win the Trojan war, conveying by comparison the implications of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ which as a result of judicial interpretation excused perpetrators of war from legal consequence for atrocities which would otherwise be punishable in international law under the crime of genocide—by default making the perpetrators victorious. “Fleas on the Trojan Horse. Who knows what he actually meant?” (230). “Flea” is one of many words that comprise examples of word ambiguity. In this instance the character’s own interpretation offers an example of how meaning can evolve from common acceptance of a term, similarly in the way ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide are interpreted generically albeit far removed in meaning. Later in the narrative, Jovan comes upon stencil markings of dead bodies on the hospital floor and Dr. Graffito’s titled message “ethical cleansing”(200). Patric’s word evolution from ‘ethnic’ to ‘ethical’ supports an review of justice in relation to perpetrators of war and the ethical responsibility for genocide.
Patric’s main characters, Jovan and Suzana, exist without expression, rejecting language and communication in their struggle to survive displacement. In the afterlife of war, words written and spoken are as mute as the unspeakable deaths of their children, “Their names were Dejan and Ana. And there’s nothing more that can be said about the dead that doesn’t make them small, lost and forgotten” (51). The significance of rejecting words denies the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a euphemism to communicate acts of genocide. In contrast to the characters rejection of words, Patric has focused on communicating the senses both in content and form, with acute awareness of sight, sound, and language expression. Patric punctuates expressions to emphasise force of meaning, “A finger tapping him on the chest any time Jovan looked as if he might rise from his seat. Not as a threat, as punctuation for the story Mitrovich was telling…” (203). Punctuation too, is expressed by representation of exact words in their basic sense, which works to disambiguate meaning, “’A question for you,’ Jovan says loudly, placing a full stop into the doctor’s mouth” (44). This literal language—in contrast to symbolic marks of punctuation—is in a sense, another way of demonstrating the disambiguation of meaning. Patric’s literal translation of punctuation is seamlessly executed at the close of Chapter Two when the spotlight of focus is on the hospital Optometrist waiting at the station for a train.
“There has been a notion on many such occasions. It has always been a small idea barely the size of a full stop in whatever she was reading. She’s read that famous book by Tolstoy and remembers the images of a flame being blown out and a book being closed. But it’s not as easy as that. Or poetic. It is more like a pig hung from its rear legs and getting its throat cut. It is a mutilation the splintering bones of her skeleton had never prepared for. It is a demolition of her soul her imagination could never have conceived. There is no book to close. There is no candle. Such absurdly poetic images for the pages of a story.
When Miss Richards leaps off the platform at Hallam, she hits the shiny, clean, steel rails and breaks bones in her wrists and knees, and then the impact of the train shatters everything else, and tears her meat into bits, and spatters her blood across the hot dry rocks of Hallam station.” (53-54)
The scene at Hallam station ignites the senses. The shock of Miss Richards leap is a visceral sensation that plunges the reader into a punctuated vertical drop; the leap acting as a terminal line of exclamation above the “full stop”. Patric’s discourse is both figurative and literal and offers a collision of realities. The trauma of Miss Richards body hitting the rails and the impact of the train emphasises clarity and aids any uncertainty of meaning: In a sense the reader confronts the trauma head-on. The impact of pain and coming apart is contrast to a flickering image of death analogous to the scene from Anna Karenina, that expresses a metaphorical image that fails to convey the reality of death. The significance highlights the obscurity of figurative language to convey distinct meaning.
The narrative juxtaposes Jovan’s poetry and messages of graffiti to emphasise the disparity between forms of expression and interpreted meaning.
A river of Waste
Just below Your skin
your Bones rot in
history’s flowing shit
The poetry of Jovan’s past dislodges as it collides with the messages embedded in the graffiti, forcing Jovan to relive scenes from the war on Bosnia. Jovan’s recollections derive from actual news broadcasts of NATO’s air strikes on Belgrade in 1999. Patric’s use of discourse from real events imposes reflection and perspective, enforcing a way of understanding yet being far removed in experience from the reality of war; it’s a way of necessitating rememberance of events so the memory does not forget.
“Do not visualise the details. Do not try to imagine what husband and wife may, or may not, have thought or felt. As those images on television broadcasts could not fully penetrate the minds of Suzana and Jovan, or anyone watching anywhere else at the time, so no one will ever know anything of this experience… It can only excite brief feelings, the the way something might from a film, one of Jovan’s books, or the poetry that he used to put to paper…” (141-142)
The medical community and Jovan’s occupation as hospital janitor in this novel are details that spotlight attention on the delusion that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is as a measure for public health, the cleansing of a society or race, a euphemism that Blum et al. believe “bleaches the atrocities of genocide” (204). Dr. Graffito’s destructive acts turn to obliteration when a woman is found inside the hospital drowned in a bleach bath, and what emerges will leave no reader in two minds of this novels intent. Black Rock White City takes issue with war, examining the ethics of justice and crime in the case of Bosnia. It explores immigrant displacement and refugee experience, interrogating the nature of language to reveal how interpretive meaning can trivialise the realities and atrocities of war, impeding justice.
Blum, Rony, et al. “‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Bleaches the Atrocities of Genocide †.” European Journal of Public Health 18.2: 204-09. Print.
Singleterry, Douglas. “”Ethnic Cleansing” and Genocidal Intent: A Failure of Judicial Interpretation?” Genocide Studies and Prevention 5.1 (2010): 39-67. Print.
Sirkin, Micol. “Expanding the Crime of Genocide to Include Ethnic Cleansing: A Return to Established Principles in Light of Contemporary Interpretations.” Seattle University Law Review 33.2: 489-526. Print.
NICOLE THOMAS lives on the South Coast of NSW. She holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts with Distinction from the University of Wollongong, and was awarded The UoW Centre for Canadian Australian Studies (CCAS) Award. Nicole is currently working on her memoir.
Forged from Silver Dollar
by Li Feng
Reviewed by JESSICA YU
Li Feng’s memoir, Forged from Silver Dollar, traces the author’s matriarchal lineage, beginning with the story of her great grandmother-in law Silver Dollar, her grandmother Ming Xiu, and her mother Rong. Joining the tradition of memoirs and fictionalised accounts of Chinese womanhood and family life such as The Joy Luck Club, The Good Earth, Wild Swans and The Concubine’s Children, Forged from Silver Dollar adds a fresh voice for those who are interested in the re-writing of history on a Chinese woman’s terms.
The narratives of Li Feng’s ancestors are witty and pungent and, more importantly, they make for an interesting case study into Chinese motherhood and womanhood under Chairman Mao’s regime in China. Li Feng’s female warriors span several different classes, from meek Silver Dollar who rises to prosperity and matriarchal ferociousness in her later years, to the genteel Ming Xiu who loses everything in Mao’s Land Reform Campaign, to the well-educated but impoverished Rong who’s ‘landlord parentage’ prevents her from grasping the opportunities she deserves for the most part of her life.
Interestingly, apart from this key cast, Feng also zooms in on the minor players of this story: Ming Xiu’s husband and Silver Dollar’s second son, Lu is married twice before he marries Ming Xiu. We learn of how Lu abandons his first bride Le, who he is arranged to be married to by Silver Dollar. From their unconsummated wedding night till her death, Lu despises Le for her ugly, pockmarked face and perhaps also for the coercion he feels at being made to enter the traditional arranged marriage. Silver Dollar negotiates with Lu, offering him the option of living his life apart from his wife and away from his hometown if he makes Le fall pregnant with a son. Having done his marital duty, Lu lives and works in Guangyuan where he falls in love with and impregnates the young and delicate Zhao. Naively, Lu leaves Zhao in his mother and wife’s home where she and her newborn baby are abused and starved to death. Later on in the story, Le, having been rejected by her husband, takes several lovers from within the village for herself. When Le and her lover, Huai Chun, are caught by Lu’s younger brother, dunked into a pond and asked to confess, Le remains defiant. After Lu’s third marriage, when he offers to buy Le a lot of land and provide for her and her children saying, ‘You and your son Hong will not go hungry, but I really do not want to see either of you again,’ Le refuses and says, ‘You ruined my life … I hate you, heartless man! Even if you burned to ashes one day, I wouldn’t forget and forgive you!’ That these oftentimes tragic stories of desperate women who do not comprise the central plotline are told by Li Feng is crucial for me. It shows me that the author is interested in the experience of Chinese womanhood as a whole and tells the stories of a wide variety of lives in an effort to unloose the lips of these invisible and silenced women.
Unlike the women in many tragic Chinese stories, Li Feng’s women are not saints or martyrs. Just as often as they are abused, rejected or abandoned, they have the capacity, like Silver Dollar, to become complicit in and continue the cycle of abuse and control. Often their initial naivety changes to resentment as they are forced into power struggles with each other. At different times in their lives they reject filial piety towards their mothers and demand filial piety from their daughters. Yet neither are any of these women painted as monsters, bitches or whores. They are human and the strokes with which Li Feng’s brush draws out these characters are deeply empathetic ones. Each character carries its own complexities throughout their story. Fifteen year old Ming Xiu meets her husband briefly at a matchmaking meeting and is kept almost completely in the dark about her impending marriage. She is called inside from a game of shuttlecock by her mother and tricked into having her engagement photos taken with her fiancé. A few days later, Lu and Ming Xiu are married. She falls pregnant often but against her will, disliking having to care for so many children. During a financial crisis, Lu begins seeing a prostitute and, despite her outrage, Ming Xiu remains loyal to her husband and attempts to free him when he is jailed during Mao’s Land Reform Campaign.
For these desperate women, the hope and the tenacity to realise their dreams is an inheritance handed down from generation to generation. In different ways, each woman sees hope in education and the money-making potential of their children. Li Feng’s memoir interprets the pressure to succeed and feelings of filial loyalty which mark Chinese children as a by-product of the political unease and financial instability of recent Chinese history. Mothers whose dreams are snatched from them during their youth, whose own economic and vocational prospects are past their use-by-date are given a second-chance with their children. It is an impulse which is easy to condemn if one has never been in the same circumstance; how would you feel if, after tireless striving, the opportunity at tertiary education was taken away from you because of your family’s kulak background? And yet the reader’s empathy remains equally on Li Feng’s side (as it does on Rong’s) as she tells of how far Rong is willing to go to ensure her daughter’s success: giving her daughter ugly haircuts in high school and personally confronting a potential love interest to prevent her from being ‘distracted’. Extracting the resentment Li Feng initially felt towards her mother for demanding perfection from her in all areas of her academic life, she writes with absolute empathy and honesty of how damaging yet essential her relationship with her mother has been to her happiness. She writes of the wordless emotion she feels when an American university tutor, Tom, asks her to tell him who she is as part of a conversation class. Li Feng had identified herself not as an individual but as ‘a thread in my family tapestry which, when I looked closely at it, had been woven solely by my mother’. When Li Feng brings home a married lover, Da Ge, her mother yells at him, ‘Now tell me, young man…what made you think that you deserved my daughter? Do you know the price this family has paid to produce a postgraduate like her? … As a mother, I beg you – do not ruin the dream of my family.’ Following this episode, Li Feng considers suicide and matricide but never confides these feelings in Rong because she believes her mother who views ‘suicide as an act of a loser’.
Having long made peace with her mother and their violent love for each other, Li Feng wrote and dedicated Forged from Silver Dollar as an offering to her mother, a way to use the freedom she gave her to make her proud. So while Li Feng’s gripping read contains the flaws of a first-time writer—losing some of its fire through its writing of what sometimes reads like a transcript of a verbal re-telling of story which is in many ways less immersive than a memoir tempered by showing of story—it is nonetheless a passionate and inspiring success in its ability to humanise its characters who are so often born into inhuman circumstances.
JESSICA YU is a twenty-two year old Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Melbourne. She was selected as one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 under 30 in 2015. Her writing has been published (or are forthcoming) in The Best Australian Poems, Overland, Mascara, Cordite, The Lifted Brow, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Saturday Paper, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and more. She has received a ROSL Arts Travel Scholarship to complete a fellowship and public outcome in the UK, a Glenfern Fellowship and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. She is currently writing her first novel.
Strange Objects Covered With Fur
by University of Technology (Sydney) Students
Reviewed by KYRA THOMSEN
If the Greek poet Meleager considers an anthology as a garland of flowers, Strange Objects Covered With Fur is an outrageous arrangement of pastel-petal roses alongside long-pronged fern fronds and outrageous birds-of-paradise; its contrasts in theme and structure create a book that leaves the reader stunned and slightly unsettled. In the foreword, Ceridwen Dovey warns us that this anthology is “not a pretty bouquet… Some pieces are fetid or a little poisonous, unafraid of revealing their furry stems or filthy roots”, and this is true for a number of stories and poems within the collection.
I found myself being lulled into the fiction with the depth of characters and contemporary language only to be stumped by a plot twist at the last second; I found myself inspired by the non-fiction to the point that I discussed it with my work colleagues; I fell into the poetry and didn’t want to re-emerge. Reading Strange Objects Covered With Fur, I was in a constant state of flux, of knowing that nothing was quite as it seemed, that things here were indeed a little bit strange.
Striking language, such as that used in the prose piece ‘The Buzzing’ by Harriet McInerney (“He is feeling bruise. Black and blue. Sitting on the floor hugging himself as Mum is soothe”), is one of the first indications that Strange Objects Covered With Fur is going to be a book full of modern writing and intriguing challenges. One story, almost entirely dialogue between two men, ‘Yeah’ by William (Sam) Patterson takes the idea of talking-head characters and gives it an edge, having the two discuss their criminal convictions with language that is fast-paced, honest, and familiar to any modern Australian:
—First offence, assault, guilty, no conviction recorded
—Six fucking months
The poetry, too, embraces play in language and structure, such as Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s ‘She Imagines They Hold Hands in Silence’, which uses punctuation and repetition to create a stunted rhythm and emphasise key concepts surrounding love and relationships:
he-he does not understand this guilt/pleasure
the loved-she she tried to make him feel
and she succeeded—for a while
While such rule-bending and technical play may, in some other modern texts, feature as pure postmodern experimentation and lack any literary depth, the pieces in Strange Objects Covered With Fur always manage to balance story and character with contemporary form, artfully and with purpose.
Not only were there surprises in the structure and language of particular texts, but the content of the book itself is rich with labyrinthine turns. As with any collection, you’re not sure what you’re in for from piece to piece, from corner to corner, but this anthology leaves no safe place. Just when you think you’ve settled into a simple, contemporary story you’re presented with somewhat outlandish scenarios.
Benjamin Freeman’s short story ‘There is a Tide’ is a good example. A young male protagonist is coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis and attends a friend’s party. The story is written with realism, following him as he skirts around the party guests as an outsider, meets a girl and goes for a midnight swim, and disappears to his friend’s bathroom to cut a mole out of his face. Freeman confronts the reader with visceral imagery of sausage meat left of the serrated knife, ending on a note of madness to contrast the subdued realism of the rest of the piece, and providing a shock factor.
Another story, ‘You Cannot Comb A Hairy Ball’ by Emma Rayward, begins simply enough and then sinks into a strangely surreal narrative of a woman who eats a man, and the man who then eats the woman in return: “You fucking bitch, he says, as the last of her toes go in, I’m going to teach you a lesson in respect. Oh whatever mate, she says, you’re not the only one who can turn into stone… She has to decide where she wants to go. Jump in his ears and snap the hairs like tinnitus…Perhaps she should flamenco in his colon.” What is clear is that Strange Objects Covered With Fur aims to confront the reader at every step, to challenge our suspension of disbelief and our concepts of comfortable, ‘neat and tidy’ literature.
The non-fiction essays, too, were surprising in content by taking the most everyday objects and making them interesting. Shamin Fernando’s ‘The Oblong Mandala’ is about the hidden intricacies and history of the humble paperclip. Fernando’s metafictional style of writing (“When I submit this paper the last thing I will do is slide a paperclip onto the corner of it”) creates a fictional feel to support the anecdotal facts about the simplest of stationery: a clever way to frame an essay piece.
It is important to note that amidst the prose, poetry, and non-fiction there are two pieces of script writing. It’s generally less common to include script in printed anthologies, so coming across the stage directions and almost-distant feel of both ‘In The Deep End’ by Dale Alexander and ‘Pirate’s Play’ by Nicole Lame was another shock to my readerly system. The translation of commands and prompts to the written page is a unique one, where the reader begins to imagine the scenes playing out without the need for prosaic descriptions or poetic language. ‘In The Deep End’ is a surrealist piece, so it not only confronts the reader with its script structure and technique but also its Lynch-like scenes:
3. INT BEDROOM-NIGHT (SURREAL)
Luminous blue moonlight casts a ghostly hue on the MAN and the WOMAN entwined in and among rippled white sheets. The area of fabric around them is vast, so that they appear to be asleep in a kind of ocean. The couple are close in the space, yet they lie separately.
Though I was warned in Ceridwen Dovey’s apt foreword (“here is literature, in all its furry, heartbreaking strangeness”) I was still in wonder of the weirdness that was this anthology. While all the pieces are of a high quality, some do border on the stale side when compared with their playful and quirky counterparts; there is a level of risk when realism is published alongside fantastical writing; some pieces will stay with a reader for longer than others, and there may be unevenness.
That is not to say that the book, as a whole, was not impressive enough. Written by students from the University of Technology it is challenging, confronting, literary, and thought-provoking. In this, all the authors featured should be commended for their talents. Strange Objects Covered With Fur is a wild thing, a temperamental Venus Fly Trap ready to snap, or ready to be tamed.
KYRA THOMSEN is a writer and editor from Wollongong, NSW. She studied at the University of Wollongong and was the winner of the Questions Writing Prize in 2012. Kyra has worked with several literary publications, has been published numerous times both in print and online, and is Deputy Editor of Writer’s Edit.
Paths of Flight
by Luke Fischer
Black Pepper Press
Reviewed by ROBBIE COBURN
The philosophical subject of Luke Fischer’s poetics aligned with his astounding use of language and form create a poetry born of beauty and existential exploration. In Paths of Flight, his debut collection, the natural world and the internalized world of the poet collide and create a space beyond both.
Often, when a poet intends to create the perfect poem technically and structurally, the emotional drive that stimulates the reader can become quickly buried beneath the words, and the balance between quality writing and emotional honesty is undoubtedly a difficult one. Fischer himself ‘regards poetry as a mediation and articulation of truth’, and this book embodies this while still standing as a technically impressive body of work.
Fischer’s work has appeared in various places and has been appropriately acknowledged for its beauty and skill, but to categorize this as a “first collection” seems impossible. The poems demonstrate assurance, control, balance and precision, without becoming forced at any time. One of the most interesting aspects of Fischer’s poetry is the approach and careful execution of the work. A highly-regarded scholar, his work is deeply rooted in philosophy, with a focus on the work of Rilke.
‘I follow the fluent sequences’, a line quoted on the back cover of the book, indeed evokes the sequence of both living and poetry, seamlessly tied to the flight of birds as the poet watches two black birds ‘arcing more smoothly than figure skaters’. The startling imagery, which is characteristic of Paths of Flight, is deployed with immense subtlety and control, while detail is used as a device that evokes complexity and depth, such as in ‘Aristocratic Party’:
I notice in one corner
a hem of brittle lace
not quite hiding
Fischer’s poems notice aspects both prominent and hidden within the natural and the internal. There are a great many forms taken on, though the imagery that characterizes Fischer’s poetry has a way of pervading his oeuvre. The presence of birds, as the title suggests, is a recurring feature. Much like the work of Robert Adamson, Fischer views the bird as an intelligent, endlessly beautiful creature, despite acknowledging its capacity for violence out of necessity and survival.
Sometimes the bird is a vehicle for metaphor, or could describe an emotion, an experience or a landscape, such as in ‘Swift’:
Hawkish face and eyes,
pared to necessity;
planed by supernal winds,
The image of a ‘feathered-bullet’ to describe a bird is a breathtaking example of the way Fischer uses the man-made world to explore the subjectivity of birds, with ‘pared to necessity’ describing the bird in flight, doing as it must beneath the drive of nature.
Birds and landscapes are, also, often linked to history and mythology, demonstrating the immense knowledge possessed by the poet and his skilful ability to use it as a device in his work.
The excellent ‘Everything is water’, the title of which is itself a quote from the Pre-Socratic philosopher,Thales, uses nature as a metaphor for the body, while creating a history of understanding the ways in which the body operates in the natural world as ‘a system of currents/wrapped around the body/and limbs of a goddess/defying gravity’. This serves as a meditation on evolution and discovery in the ancient world, and contains some of Fischer’s most beautiful lines
They must have learned from water
and with fluent strokes
imparted their knowledge to marble
until the river itself stood up
Some of the poems that rely less on imagery are equally as powerful. These poems flow with sincerity and honesty, the seasons and landscape almost always still entering the poems minimally. In ‘Reverie’, the poet reflects on a simple moment of peace and clarity, sitting beside what appears to be a partner, watching the sun, celebrating the beauty of this moment and the solace it provides:
After a long winter,
imitating the lizards on their stones
we rest on benches strewn along the river
with our faces turned to the sun; closing our eyes
we dream of golden palaces forged by Hephaestus.
One of the finest poems in this collection, written from the point of view of a hermit in the 15th century, is so precise and haunting, so free of any excess, that it leaves the reader startled. Fischer writes starkly, brilliantly affirming his speaker ‘when the inner sun/dawned my mind turned/into the glittering face of the sea’. This is a moving, somewhat troubling piece, as the hermit contemplates the fact that his diary may never be read and his words may never be heard as he ‘[speaks] and does not speak’:
Even as I write
(“Transcription from the first page of a hermit’s diary (c. 1500)”
A stunning achievement within a book of many, the poetry of Luke Fischer is unquestionably diverse and unique. It is testament to his range, skill and depth that he can evoke and marry the natural landscape with the internal landscape, while also exploring many states of mind, and aspects of what it means to be human. Intelligent and filled with a deep sense of humanity, Paths of Flight shows us there is as much need to look into the sky for meaning as there is to simply look into the sky for beauty.
ROBBIE COBURN is a Melbourne-based poet. His second full-length The Other Flesh is due out in early 2017.
Michael R. Griffiths is a Lecturer in the English and Writing Discipline at the University of Wollongong. He received his PhD in English from Rice University in 2012 and was INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University from 2012 to 2014. As an academic, he has published on topics ranging from settler colonial biopolitics to indigenous life writing to the critical theory of decolonizing poetics, and much besides. He is writing a scholarly book, tentatively entitled The Distribution of Settlement: Indigeneity, Recognition and the Politics of Visibility (under contract, UWAP). His poetry has previously been published in Paper Nautilus.
Sidney Poitier Sighs
Now the green waste truck has gone,
they’re coming to take me away.
Moth-like I sit; Blanche DuBois
not swooning over Stanley,
but broken as the teapot they find
going through my garbage
in the surveillance van.
Sidney Poitier sighs.
If there is order to this world,
it is a reckoning of remainders.
With chips of brick on a building site,
bloody wedges, redolent of cartilage,
the earth reminds us of what is stripped away.
Three hundred and sixty five days in a year;
three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation—
those five days hang heavy as lead fishing weights
choking the wire even as they aid the lines passage—
to the depths where the dhufish live.
Lost in Mid-Verse
by Angela Costi
Reviewed by ALI JANE SMITH
Poet and graphic artist Peter Lyssiotis writes in his introduction to Lost in Mid-Verse, “Costi’s verse has been written when the movement of people from one country to another is probably the defining characteristic of the time.” Emigration is the central event of the book, and Costi’s poetry is worked in specific temporal and cultural detail, but as Lyssiotis hints, her themes of rupture and continuity, of the pains and freedoms that come from hiatus, have broad relevance.
This chapbook is one in a series from Owl Publishing, established by Helen Nickas to publish the work of Greek-Australian writers, a nomenclature that here includes Cypriot-Greek. Angela Costi’s Lost in Mid-Verse contains just seven poems, but each poem branches into recollection and reference to family and history with enough thoughtfulness and depth to make the chapbook a satisfying read that includes memorable images, phrases and ideas.
The first poem, ‘Sugared Almonds’ is visually as small, symmetrical and compact as the familiar but significant confectionary, a traditional wedding favour, for which it is named. In this poem, Costi makes the most of the possibilities of enjambement, using the words at the beginning and the end of lines almost like waymarkers, while retaining the pleasing, natural and speechlike patterns of each line’s rhythm. The poem describes the practice of sleeping with sugared almonds under one’s pillow and dreaming of one’s husband-to-be. Those future husbands appear in the poem, “coated in frightened white”. Thoughout Lost in Mid-Verse, husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers are faint presences, sometimes opressive, but marginal, dependant for their existence on the women at the centre of the experiences in these poems. In ‘Sugared Almonds’, possible husbands are overshadowed by the great-grandmothers who have passed on the almonds in the first place, symbolically inducting their grandaughters into “games of caress / hide and seek among fingers and / sheets.” The poem about sweetened seeds is a kind of conception, a beginning for the themes of matrilineal language, intimacy, inheritance, connection and hiatus, that are to come in the next six, longer, poems.
There is a narrative to be read in these poems. The reader could approach them as stories of generational experience, of great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. However, narrative and chronology is not the most important organising factor in this collection. All of the poems deal with continuity and rupture experienced in different ways, most often through migration, but also, as in the poem ‘Gate’ through the experience of the neoliberal institutions of care compared to care in the context of family and kinship ties.
In ‘The Question’, a woman lives the rupture between the old place and the new. Objects in her home show that her role within her family, her marriage, her religion and culture is both meaningful and burdensome. Photographs of female ancestral figures, the “nun and her battered suitcase”, and “the virgin bride and her heavy glory box” emphasise tradition as burden, but the company of a real life neighbour cannot compare with the company of these foremothers who cannot see the wattle and magpies of the new place, only the mouflon (wild sheep) and “drooping carobs dripping with their nectar” of Cyprus. The woman in this poem secretly plants a bottlebrush in her garden at night. Digging to plant the sapling, the woman discovers that the soil holds “no blood, the roots of trees don’t weep.” This absence is another expression of the double experience of loss and liberation, although perhaps the crimson of the flowering bottlebrush is a dormant image of blood associated with the new place.
The poem ‘Mothers’ describes the way one generation connects to the next, through breast and mouth in the feeding of infants, and through language, the mother-tongue, in song and speech. The context for all this is love, both wild and serene. Costi describes the strange undulating presence and disappearance that can be part of mothering, to experience oneself as a self but also as a part of a continuity of women feeding and fed, comforting and being comforted, teaching and learning. Interwoven with the physicality of this experience is the imaginative space that is opened up as a part of the work of caring for infants, nurturing them and inculcating them into their linguistic and cultural heritage. Passing on songs and stories, reading, dreaming, and singing again, old stories and new imaginings.
The notes at the end of the chapbook provide the translation for ‘Stede’, the word used for Grandmother in Cypriot-Greek. ‘Stede’s Monologue’ is an account of a reading of coffee grounds. An old woman and a young woman “travel the cup” and see a new place, a place the cup reader describes as cold “because politics and religion / were fought with pen and paper.” The poem uses the reading to foretell the choice implicit in the younger woman’s emigration – to stay and see her as yet unborn sons “die with the Cyprus we knew” or to go and share with her sons an “ache in their soul.” The poem ‘Another Letter’ is addressed to Cyprus as though she were herself a Stede, generous and loving, but busy with the demands of many mouths and hearts. The rupture of emigration is here expressed through a familiar, sad and funny description of Australian garages, “congested with tables of backgammon / cards, ashtrays, bins of salted olives / songs lost in mid-verse / … a spit with a stuck rotisserie / a souvla tough like mutton / the radio tuned to static.” The closing stanza of the poem finds a warm, fertile image to describe the narrator’s relationship with Cyprus, “In my Aunt Maroulla’s orchard, / you offered an apricot pregnant with juice, / … / Aunt ate one half and I the other / while you kept the stone.”
Costi makes the image of the apricot the centre of the final poem in the collection, ‘Golden Apple’. The poem opens with a reference to the Classical myth of Atalanta, a famously fast runner, reluctant to marry, who challenged would-be suitors to a race. The man who eventually outran – and married – her, Melanion, received a gift of three ‘golden apples’ from Aphrodite, and by throwing these at the feet of Atalanta he slowed her down enough to win the race. Costi argues in the poem that Aphrodite’s three irresistible fruits were apricots, “smaller than apple / sun-licked … soft and firm – Cupid’s bottom.” Aphrodite’s fruit, the fruit grown, in Ovid’s version of the myth “in a field upon Cyprus, known as Tamasus”, also grows in the poet’s backyard, “challenging / the lemon tree to an annual race”. Costi’s final image of the apricot, transformed by cooking and served on a crystal plate, has the power to briefly interrupt the past. In the act of eating the skilfully prepared and beautifully presented apricot, Costi’s recurrent images of mouth, breast, language, and land are unified, and culture and nature, myth and mundanity, past and present, are briefly, temporarily, brought into wholeness.