Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (University of WA Publishing), won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2014; her second collection was Unexpected Clearing (UWAP, 2016). She is currently working on her next collection At the Point of Seeing.
She is also a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate Research Centre at Victoria University
Van Dyck, c. 1619
In their best Flemish clothes –
lace ruffs and jewelry, brocaded fabric –
this young couple gaze
intense and hopeful
out of the canvas;
they lean toward me as though
were as fast as the shuttering
of a lens;
their bonneted child,
dandled on her mother’s knee,
looks behind and up –
she has no need to look my way;
Her parents are vibrant with
youth and prosperity,
their connection to each other,
their pride in the child;
like every family –
holy in their ordinariness –
they hold the unfolding generations
in their richly upholstered arms:
Look! we have made this future –
it belongs to us.
Only consider –
(and here the benefit of hindsight)
their willingness to pause,
to sit while a painter
takes their likenesses
in pigment and brushstroke,
within the rushes of time –
Look carefully –
hold fast to the slipperiness of this moment –
it will not always
be like this.
Heaving out from the harbour,
its narrow lean of wooden houses,
salt-weathered in a cloudy light –
a ferry clanks and judders
picking its way past little boats,
their tangle of nets
and out into the slap and wash of darkening water:
stink of diesel and fish swim
in freshets of air,
rubbing cheeks into ruddiness;
until the hump of island
sails into view –
its possibilities of destination,
palette of smudged greys and greens
flickering through the glass;
the angular spine of the Cuillins
a loamy sky,
writhing in channels of wind;
while, deep in boggy fields,
restless in peat –
These tannin-soaked fields,
this permeable membrane,
this elongated moment when a boat might
clip and ride,
a shoreline in sight.
By Huo Yan (trans. Duncan M. Campbell)
Reviewed by MAKS SIPOWICZ
Huo Yan’s Dry Milk is a book about many things all at once. It is a meticulous character study of an unpleasant man who never quite settles in a new country. It is a philosophical parable about following the path our lives set before us. It is a cautionary tale about greed. Huo draws these threads together in creating the rich world of the book.
Set in Auckland, Dry Milk focuses on John Lee, a Chinese man who married a disabled woman so that he could leave move to New Zealand in search of a better life. Instead, he ends up as the owner of a failing antique store, renting out the spare rooms in his house to Chinese exchange students, and attending meetings of a community group he despises, but which he feels obligated to attend. Huo gives us an idea of the kind of man John is in the second paragraph of the book, in the description of him closing his store for the day: “Just as his last would-be customer was about to enter the shop, [John] flipped over the sign in the front window read CLOSED. Having beaten the customer to the door by a pace or two, John Lee locked it and ducked back out of sight” (1). The pettiness characterizing his behaviour is the guiding force of the entire novella.
We begin on the 30th anniversary of John’s moving to New Zealand. As an immigrant, John embodies the many aspects of the foreigner’s experience. I was struck by how universal certain parts of his life in New Zealand were. He is uneasy around other Chinese expats, whom he meets as part of their local community group. Equally, he is uneasy about any prospects of a return to China. My own experience as a migrant confirms this – as a migrant one can begin to feel like a tourist not only in one’s adopted home, but at their origin as well. John’s story highlights the additional difficulties faced by migrants at the intersection of race and culture, but also the changing nature of this experience. He remarks that when he first moved, he tried hard to fit in, but now there are young Chinese migrants everywhere. “Walking around nowadays, you see Chinese faces everywhere. This place has become Chinese. John Lee sighed. How careful he had been, thirty years ago, to try to fit in, to try to become like them” (55).
Throughout Dry Milk John reaches multiple times for the Book of Master Zhuang. Master Zhuang, or Zhuangzi as he is also commonly known, was a Daoist philosopher active in the mid-fourth century before common era. His philosophy is characterized by its skepticism about our ability to know about certain kinds of truths and its relativism with regard to morality. For Zhuangzi, the answer to questions about right or wrong depends on who is asking them. This is connected closely with the principle of non-action, that is, acting naturally without having to carefully consider every aspect of one’s action. Acting in a way that comes naturally to us and living our life accordingly is how we can come to embody the Dao (Way).
John is eager to apply these teachings to his life. He thinks much of Zhuangzi is still relevant, and in conversation with a visiting scholar he agrees eagerly to the suggestion that “all of the various truths we moderns talk about were known long ago by the ancients” and that in this respect “nobody can compare with the wisdom of the ancient Chinese” (16-17). The practical aspects of John’s affinity for Daoist philosophy can be seen throughout Dry Milk. For instance, he decides to marry his wife as soon as he hears that the government is intending to send her to live with her family in New Zealand, following a eugenic turn after the Cultural Revolution. Later, John is similarly sure of himself in his pursuit of Jiang Xiaoyu – the student lodger renting a room from him. Each decision, whether it is consciously so or not, seems to be an attempt for John to act naturally. Unfortunately, consistently throughout the book, the lesson John learns from Zhuangzi is the wrong one. Where for Zhuangzi striving to act naturally means we can come to enjoy our lives as we can come to accept what is offered to us, John’s actions produce a string of disappointments, fostering his resentments against his wife, the social workers who come to help him care for her, other members of his community, and the few New Zealanders he interacts with on a regular basis. This pushes him to go on with the opportunity offered to him by a business acquaintance to begin exporting dry milk powder. Ultimately, the only thing borne of John’s constant striving is more darkness.
Huo captures well the sort of social competition and attitudes all too common among long-term migrants. Faced with an increasingly changing reality, wherein his own luck seems to remain poor, John’s finding comfort in classical philosophy underlines the chief source of his discontent – the changing fortunes of those who had remained in China, and its growing middle-class, and experience he feels he missed out on but deserved. Looking at the new wave of migrants, whom he considers to not have to struggle as he had, and who in his mind are not attempting to blend into their new environment, he turns to tradition. Ironically, it is through a visiting scholar who gives a talk on Zhuangzi to the Chinese Community Hope Association he belongs to that John gets elected to the group’s executive, finally gaining some of the status he craves, noting with satisfaction that the jealousy of his rival in the group will become “all-consuming” (59).
Dry Milk is a dark book, but it is not without hope, even if this the kind of hope Josef K is given by Franz Kafka in The Trial. And while its protagonist is unlikeable, abusive, and petty, his flaws and striving for a life beyond the possibilities on offer drew me in even as they shocked me. Duncan M. Campbell’s craft as a translator doubtlessly helps in this – the text is colourful and rich, presenting a vibrant portrait of the community it concerns. Huo captures the sense of foreignness that all migrants experience. Beyond this, she captures the generational differences that are ever present in expatriated communities. At the same time, she gives voice to some of the challenges that are unique to Chinese migrants, and thus offers her readers a perspective that is at once broad and particular.
MAKS SIPOWICZ is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Australian Book Review, Colloquy, Parergon, and others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.
Toward the End
By Ali Alizadeh
Reviewed by KIRAN BHAT
While it was a mainstay of early 20th century writing, the styles, tendencies, and structures of social realist literature went out of vogue fairly quickly. Perhaps it is because of the proselytising nature of such texts, or because works of only one particular vision or message tend to lose freshness on multiple reads. Nonetheless, we live in a time where plenty has gone awry, and the world needs stronger voices yet. From the pages of Towards the End, it is clear that Ali Alizadeh aspires to be one such voice. He is eager to observe the hypocrisies and toxicities of an Australia connected to the global economy, and he aspires to use poetry as a space to right his country’s wrongs.
Alizadeh is a master of the cynical and the bare. He often likes to string words together into the most uncomplex sentences, to make sure that the theme or topic of his words hit with the greatest impact. The poem ‘Refugee’ begins with the warning, ‘If you come to this country without a visa you won’t be settled in this country,’ just as the poem ‘P.S.’ begins with a proclamation: ‘We are decent. We love our country and our liberty.’ Though Alizadeh is writing so directly, his words do not speak with an intimacy. Rather, there’s a deep frustration embedded at how things are in Australia. There’s a sense that no matter how much people of colour give themselves to Australia, the last thing they will be given is acceptance, or a place in society, and Alizadeh uses his poetry to call it it what it is: messed up.
What makes these poems more than exercises in didacticism is how Alizadeh’s poems move from the stark to the unexpected. Returning to the poem, ‘P.S.,’ one assumes that the poem is meant to be a stripping down of everything that makes Australia an inherently difficult country for its outsiders. What it becomes in the middle is an ode to the impossibilities of capitalism, instead.
of feeling happiness as psyches rejoice
at buying iJunk and designer socks, a life
finally expiating its futility
if lucky, with a (record low) pay rise.’
The tone of the poem remains colloquial, but the jumble of words like ‘expiating’ with ‘futility’ create a unique sound, while images of ‘iJunk’ next to ‘designer socks’ render a clear vision of an archetype – Melbournian, hipster, most likely addicted to anything Apple throws their way – Alizadeh is trying to criticise. But, Alizadeh is not trying to stereotype, nor is he trying to cast judgment. He’s just tired of the way things are, and he wants it to change, hence why he concludes his poem on a summoning of the ‘immeasurable power’ of human will to ‘rupture the reality of the world and instigate new worlds.’
Alizadeh is also a master of wordplay. Most of his poems demonstrate a unique use of vocabulary to allow the sounds of the English language to reach greater heights. Take his poem, ‘Destinal,’ in which one casually intrudes upon sentences like ‘ink stains on the paper occlude the noumenon.’ The long /o/ of ‘occlude’ along with the length of syllables in ‘noumonen’ create an extremely satisfying mouth muddle that is hard to imagine succeeding if penned by another writer. In the poem ‘Post-Marx,’ Alizadeh remarks,
‘Landlords don’t lord
it over overindulged
poised between domination and damnation
by market’s melodramatics.’
Each line is built on an alliteration, and a subversion of words that appear similar in length and consonant (‘landlord’ and ‘lord,’ ‘domination’ and ‘damnation, ‘market’ and melodramatic’). The meaning of the words clash, however. As a result, the pairing of these words create harmony and cacophony, nonsense and consequence, all at once.
In my opinion, the strongest poem in the collection is ‘Australian Day.’ The poem showcases all of Alizadeh’s strengths in one piece of writing, and does so with cohesion. For example, the beginning few lines have all of the trademark punch and power of Alizadeh’s starts.
‘Barbeque and cricket
and now you’re a citizen. I’d slap
my own ungrateful
Yet, lines like ‘I’d kick my heart for its failure to attract another’ inspire a rare empathy and pathos. There’s a sense that as Alizadeh reflects on his inabilities to measure up to the Australian standard, he is more willing to be vulnerable. He even ends his poem on a very real desire that most second generation people feel when they are born and raised in a country that does not understand them.
for an encounter, a place
in the universe
of the loved.’
Liminal and exciting, deceptively simple on a language level, yet eagerly complex on a conceptual one, Towards the End is a unique space where memory, sentence, and language align. Alizadeh’s lines live in the blasé, and yet yearn for what appears to be futile. Alizadeh wants to see an end towards the oppressions that occur from the awkward alignments of capitalism, racism, and societal socialisation. Towards that end, he has fused all the distrustfulness of his voice with all of the registers of postmodern style and structure, to invent a style of social realism that belongs not only to the early 21st century, but very much to Ali Alizadeh himself.
KIRAN BHAT is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. An avid world traveler, polyglot, and digital nomad, he has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. His heart remains in Mumbai, but he currently lives in Melbourne.
Amanda Lucas-Frith lives on Wangal land in Sydney’s inner west with her partner and two children. She’s a communications and publishing consultant, and is currently completing the final subjects of a Master of Strategic Communication at UTS. She attended the 2019 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is a member of Youngstreet Poets. Her poems have appeared in Snorkel and Cordite Poetry Review.
My life in lockdown looks
the same as it did before—
I search for my daughters’
hats, make snacks and play-
dough, and lavish colour
on each letter of the alphabet
just to tickle my tongue
to yellow, lilac, vermillion.
So many ways to make
bright things brighter
now the days close
and open like paper
fortune tellers. I write
to silence the chatterbox
to a single answer
and in this imaginary,
wage my Machiavellian
war against the diminutive
queens that surround me,
nesting between bathroom
walls or fortified around
the cubby house. The pest
control company kept
its social distance and said
they only use natural
chemicals, but at this stage
of the pandemic, I’ve lost
my organic moral advantage
and crave the kind of
annihilation only pesticide
can give. In the face
of diminishing freedom,
it’s curious how much
I desire to tame the dissenting
rattle, to be listened to
and obeyed as the single
absolute power of my
house, not minding at all
the cognitive dissonance
of wanting my daughters to
only do as I say, and never
as I do.
A Bright Room
When you arrived, I snapped
open like a purse and the surgeon
lifted you out, one sleek penny
at a time. He held you
level to his gaze and assessed
you like a rare coin, while a wake
of midwives pressed their fingers
to your mauve flesh.
Your father cut the cord
connecting us and we waited
for your cry in the bright room,
under the theatre light, where nobody
had mouths and every pair of eyes
held mine. I looked up to see,
reflected in the light’s mirror,
a kaleidoscope of myself
separate to my body—a ruby smile
from hip to hip—not mended
but altered by a blanket stitch.
Born again in a sea of sedatives,
I saw you there first: pools of black
gusting the surface to glass.
You arrived as a southerly wind
howling to the bright room,
your squalling cry cooling to my
touch, as I held you skin to skin.
By Thuy On
Reviewed by JACKIE SMITH
If you pay attention to the nation’s arts sector, you’re probably familiar with Thuy On. For many years, she has worked as a freelance writer and arts critic with The Age and The Saturday Paper and Books+Publishing as well as holding the books editor position at The Big Issue. Earlier this year, On released her debut poetry collection Turbulence to rave reviews of her own.
I’ve been wanting to read Turbulence since it was released, largely due to the praise it has received not only from On’s contemporaries, such as Maxine Beneba Clarke and Kevin Brophy, both of whom praise On’s work with Brophy stating, “It’s fluid, it’s vibrant and it doesn’t stop talking to you. Thuy On has (as she says) a cynic’s head and a poet’s heart.” (UWA Publishing 2020)
Reading is subjective. Dependent on the reader, all the accolades in the world mean nothing. On addressed this in a 2013 interview with The Big Issue, “Just because every other critic in the land loves the book and has showered it in accolades, doesn’t necessarily mean that I would feel the same. Diversity of voices in the media culture is a good thing.” (White 2013).
On doesn’t shy away from tackling a wide variety of emotions with her first collection. She touches upon themes of hope, love, loss, dating, envy, and sadness, sparked by the breakdown of her marriage and the relationships she has tried to build in the aftermath. And it’s all tied together with perseverance, as evidenced by the koi that feature on the book’s cover. This is then divided into four parts, which she discusses in an interview with Liminal Magazine. “’Wreckage’ deals with the aftermath of separation, ‘Chimera’ with the trajectory of the affair I had not long after, while ‘Fish’ is about online dating and ‘Turbulence’ is about the general upheavals of life.” (Liminal Magazine 2020)
To say that reading Thuy On’s poetry is as if we are on that emotional rollercoaster with her is an understatement. One minute, you’re excited by the prospect of new love, and the next you’re aggrieved with loss.
And On’s gift is in being able to spark this catalogue of feeling within her readers. But the the skilful way in which she can manipulate words with such vivid imagery that we can almost reach out and touch it is impressive. The opening poem, ‘Surface’, is one example of this.
“Let others wax mauve
about dandelions and baby’s breath
braving cool breezes
that brush off regret
these winsome odes to blades of grass
dewy mists and sheaves of corn. (10)”
While love and relationships are at the forefront of this collection, romantic love is not always the main focus. Featured in the first part of the book, which focused on the aftermath of On’s marriage breakdown, there is a beautiful ode to the maternal love On has for her daughter in ‘Lodestar: For Ava’.
is an inbetweener
from what is
to what will be …
Shield your eyes darling girl
I don’t know
what will become of us …
but you are the lodestar
to light me out
of a life to be kissed.”
What I like most about this piece is how vulnerable and honest it is. Most parents in her situation would be hiding the fact that anything is wrong, and trying to be strong for the benefit of their child. In this poem, On acknowledges that it’s not always true and, as much as she is trying to shield her daughter from the worst of her separation, she is still sorting through it all herself.
Another thing that I enjoy about this collection is the way some of the pieces play with language. As an arts critic, On presumably spends most of her working life critiquing books and language in accordance with how literature conforms and disregards these rules. Therefore, it’s refreshing to see her play with those certain rules, or at least acknowledge these metareferences in her use of language with poems like ‘FIN’.
“I’m turning the last page
it was supposed to be a short story
but unwilling for it to end
I kept tacking on chapters
footnotes where emotions cross-refer
erased stet highlighted
blanked out (66)”
This poem, the title of which comes from the French word for finish or ending, is a subtext in itself. It also closes the ‘Chimera’ portion of the collection, which gives it even more of a reference to the subtleties of language and meta-references. But the way On uses references to things like unreliable protagonists and mistakes (things she no doubt would call out if found in a book she was critiquing) is a nice way of tying the collection in with her work sphere. If I was to list favourites from Turbulence, this would be one of them.
With the current political climate, it would be remiss of me not to mention ‘To Date an Asian Woman’ (80 – 81).
“Learn my name
I’m not a mass of continents
a chopstick dish
to be poked.”
There is no denying the poignancy this particular piece has in the midst of Black Lives Matter and race relations protests, both overseas and in Australia. There’s an underlying anger to this poem that comes through quite clearly and if, like me, it’s not something you’d really considered, it’s a little confrontational and unsettling.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, at least in my opinion. Part of the reason I enjoy poetry so much is the way it’s able to draw attention to things and feelings you hadn’t considered before, and ‘To Date An Asian Woman’ certainly does this.
I’d also like to draw attention to ‘Vale Anthony Bourdain’(135) ‘Vale Eurydice’ (136). Both are poems of loss, lamenting a life cut short but with more of a public focus, given Anthony Bourdain’s status as something of a celebrity chef during his lifetime and how Eurydice Dixon’s made headlines nationally.
The way these poems are crafted is beautiful yet incredibly respectful of the impact the subject’s passing would have on friends, family members and even strangers. The below snippet of On’s tribute to Eurydice Dixon is an example of how she deftly combines feelings of loss, tragedy, anger and justice to create something that is tender and lyrical.
‘… saying your name
means wide justice
but now once again
shadows will be jumped
twig break a warning
the sky on the crack
of becoming a bruise.’ (136)
It highlights the way in which poetry can draw attention to life’s important moment, shining a light on complex issues and breaking them down for others to understand, and experience.
Despite having been in the arts industry for some time, Turbulence cements On’s place not only as a critic but as a refreshing poetic voice to be heard. If this is any indication of future work, I cannot wait to read more.
1. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing. Turbulence. UWA Publishing, 2020.
2. On, Thuy/UWA Publishing (2020). Thuy On Reads From ‘Turbulence’. Accessed via <https://youtu.be/uuTn7USYt4w> 28/7/2020
3. White, Patrick (2013). Q & A with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.thebigissue.org.au/blog/2013/01/28/q-a-with-thuy-on/> 31/7/2020
4. Liminal Magazine (2020). 5 Questions with Thuy On. Accessed via <https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/thuy-on-turbulence> 29/7/2020
JACKIE SMITH is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.
Janette Chen is a Chinese-Australian writer from Lidcombe. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the 2019 winner of the Deborah Cass Prize.
Wall of Men
Every time mum starts the car, Teresa Teng starts singing. Mum’s 80s Chinese pop ballads blare from the stereo as we pull out of the driveway. Mum is driving me to Lidcombe train station so I can trek it to Veina’s house in Turrella. Outside it’s so hot the heat makes the fibro walls our house look wobbly. I put the windows all the way down because we never use the air con. Teresa Teng’s voice drifts down the street from our car. She sounds so sweet even when she’s accusing her lover of lying to her. As we drive, Mum asks me if Veina has a boyfriend yet. Mum’s face looks dry and red from the heat. She has so many red hairs now, which are white hairs dyed with henna she bought from the Arab shops in Auburn. She glances at me as we slow at a red light and turns off the music. Since I finished high school two months ago, Mum has asked me four times already if there will be any boys when I go out.
‘No, Ma,’ I sigh as we start moving again. It was technically true. As far as I knew, Veina is texting a guy called Andre and hanging out with some guy called Jason but she’s never called either of them her boyfriend.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks in Cantonese.
‘Noooo, Ma,’ I groan. Mum flicks her black eyes at me and then back at the road.
‘I was the same age as you are now when I first got married,’ she says. ‘Your Ba is not my first husband.’
I hold my breath. This is the first time Mum has told me about her first marriage but I already know. I overheard her talking to Dad in the kitchen once about a fortune teller she saw back in Guangzhou when she was 17. ‘He told me I would be married twice and he was right about that,’ I had heard her say. In traffic, we inch past an empty lot of weeds and rubble that is fenced off with a glossy sign advertising new apartment blocks. ‘I was so in love with my first husband,’ Mum says. ‘But one day he started locking doors. He started swearing at me. When he slapped me, I thought it would only be one time.’
My muscles tense up when I imagine Mum being hit. We pass the Korean BBQ restaurants on the turn into the station and Mum parks crookedly in the drop-off zone. She keeps talking, her words spilling out like water. ‘He dragged me across our bedroom and strangled me until I realised that if this man loved me he would kill me with his love.’ I put my hand on Mum’s shoulder. I don’t know what else to do with this information. Mum brings her hand to mine and holds it tightly. ‘I know you’re a smart girl. But just be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’
Some dickhead in a white ute blasts his horn and cuts Mum off at the end of the sentence. I grab the plastic bag of cherries I’m bringing to Veina’s and tell Mum that I won’t be home for dinner.
On the train to Turrella, I sit in a three-seater behind a young Nepalese couple. The woman’s head is nestled in the space between the man’s shoulder and his brown ear. I think about how I used to see my parent’s wedding photo all the time as a kid. It was propped on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The man in the photo was my dad. The woman in the photo had skin as pale as the moon. Yi yi, I had called her, which means Auntie. I couldn’t believe it was my mum. This is because in real life, mum’s skin is the colour of wholemeal bread with lots of seeds in it. In real life, her lips are more brown than red. I knew so little about this other life she had before that photo was even taken.
I get off at Central and change platforms for the airport line. I had never heard of the suburb of Turrella until Veina moved there. Veina is my only high school friend who moved out of home immediately after graduating. Now she lives with four housemates and they all share one tiny bathroom. ‘Fun fact: The Streets ice cream factory used to be in Turrella,’ Veina said when she first told me she was moving. I believed the fun fact, I just couldn’t believe she was moving so far from Lidcombe, away from me. The afternoon heat wraps around me like a blanket when I step off the train. I am the only person standing on the platform. The plastic bag of cherries sweats in my hand.
Veina’s house is a long pink rectangle on a concrete block with a brown roof. When I arrive at the house, I’m sweating from my pits. I tap on the window of Veina’s room but when I get to the front door, it’s her housemate Peter who opens it.
‘Hello,’ he nods. Peter’s tiny head at odds with his massive shoulders. He steps back and holds the door for me. The thin white t-shirt he is wearing is stretched out around the collar and the skin around his neck is pale and pink. All I know about Peter is that he’s a backpacker from Slovakia. And he’s a prawn. He has a body good enough to eat and a head you can throw away. I realise Peter’s holding a big plastic rubbish bag and quickly step inside as he steps out.
The front door of the Turrella house opens straight into the living room with all its random old furniture, plus the sleek black chair Veina and I carried straight out of the new food court in Town Hall one time. I take off my sandals at the door. The pale blue tiles are cool beneath my feet but I know they’re dirty. I can see the dust and hair and dried boogers on the floor. The living room extends into the kitchen on the right, both overlooking the backyard where the laundry is still flapping on the lop-sided Hills Hoist.
Veina’s in the kitchen wearing a big faded black t-shirt with her hair is all over the place. She looks as if she only woke up a couple of hours ago and hasn’t gotten changed yet. Her kitchen is made up of custard coloured plastic laminate cupboards and drawers with golden brown trimmings. Veina gets me started on cutting up onions for our dinner: slut spaghetti. We started calling it that in Year 8 Food Tech because boiling pasta is easy. As I’m tossing onions into the hot pan, Veina tells me about the date Peter brought to the house the night before.
‘He was cooking chicken for this tiny Asian chick and was getting her a chair and everything. But it was like, all so he could fuck her,’ Veina says dryly. When she’s not wearing makeup, Veina looks like she’s fourteen but when she opens her mouth, her voice sounds like she’s smoked a pack a day for as long as she’s been alive. Today, Veina has a thick line of black gel eyeliner painted over her eyelids.
As I pour the contents of a jar of pasta sauce into a saucepan, Veina dumps a handful of oregano and the good bits of a green capsicum we found going soft in the fridge. ‘I always see him looking Asian chicks up and down and up and down,’ Veina says.
‘I would be looking him up and down and up and down if I lived here,’ I confess. But then, I imagine making out with him with his big nose sticking into the side of my face. His mouth would be dry and floury and his pale, slippery body would be squirming on top of mine, crushing me under a mattress of muscle. The thought of it makes my throat tighten.
Peter comes into the kitchen wearing only a pair of baggy track pants. The t-shirt he was wearing earlier is gone. I wonder if he just heard what I said and if all this skin is an invitation. I decline by only looking at him above the neck. His face is long and small in proportion to his wide shoulders and thick neck. His nose sticks out like an arrow. But then he goes to grab a Coke from the fridge and the long line of his back smooths and stretches.
‘Time to eat out this slut spaghetti,’ Veina says after putting the final touch: chilli flakes. In addition to being easy, slut spaghetti needs to be hot. Veina uses chopsticks to put the pasta into two bowls for us and we take them to eat outside.
I have one foot out the front door when it sounds like Peter is saying, ‘Hey, Jen, Jen, Jen, come back.’ His voice is deep and nasally. I turn around. Peter is standing right in front of me. His collarbones are at my eye level and they look like small, featherless wings that spread beneath his skin.
‘You forgot this,’ he says and hands me a fork.
‘Thanks,’ I say to the fork and hurry out the door after Veina.
The front yard is a concrete slab with an old single mattress on the floor. I brush off the dirt and dried leaves and sit down on the mattress next to Veina, leaning my back on the pink stucco exterior of the house. The air around us is starting to cool but the wall is warm against my back. Veina hands me a pair of chopsticks and starts slurping at her spaghetti, her head of black hair bobbing over her bowl. I put Peter’s fork on the floor beside the mattress.
A pair of lanky teenage boys walking a St Bernard are the only people out on the empty suburban streets. The long, pale arm holding the leash looks like a noodle stretching with every step the dog takes. Veina swallows her spaghetti and whistles at the boys. One of them turns around to look at us. He has dark eyes and hair and his skin looks warm and buttery. He might be Eurasian or it might just be the way he looks in the sunset.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I tell her.
‘They’re cute,’ Veina says, holding up her hand in greeting. She turns and grins at me. The liner around her eyes makes them look like black crescents with eyelashes.
‘Don’t worry, I know you’ve got it in you,’ Veina says. ‘You just need to be pushed out of the nest. Then you’ll fly like the skank bird you truly are.’
I roll my eyes and watch the boys walk away. In high school, Veina and I cut out all the pictures of cute boys from university brochures and stuck them on the wall in our Year Twelve common room. ‘So Many Opportunities at University’, the caption read. It was Veina’s idea. We called it the Wall of Men, and it was opposite the Wall of Ramen where we pinned up empty instant noodle packets. During our free periods, Veina smoked out the windows of the spare music rooms and I did maths practice papers next to the Wall of Men. The boys in those pictures all had smooth, white skin and were smiling straight at me.
Veina and I went to Sydney Girls High School, an uppity institution for Asian overachievers. Our school motto was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which is Latin for ‘Homework Always Pays’. It was the motto of my mum and the mums of one thousand black-haired teenage girls pressing textbooks to their chests. The ATAR we got was the life we got. I stared back at the boys on the Wall of Men and wondered if they would still be smiling when I beat the living shit out of them at the HSC.
Now that we finished school, me and Veina are melting into lazy flesh bags in the summer. We move from the dirty mattress when the mosquitoes start to bite. Back in the house, the last light is coming through the kitchen window. I wash the cherries I had brought and inspect them under running water. They’re plump and brown and cold from the fridge. A lot of them are scarred or bruised or overripe. Dad had bought a big box of cherries for ten dollars at Flemington markets and my family has been eating cherries at home every night. I pick out a dodgy one, bite out its open sore and put the rest of the cherry in my mouth. It’s so sweet and so cold.
In the living room, Veina turns on the TV to watch If You Are the One on SBS. It’s starting to get dark now, but no one has bothered to turn on the lights. I join her on the lumpy brown couch. A new male contestant steps out of the single-man cylinder that lowers Chinese bachelors to the stage like a love delivery chute. He’s buff with tanned skin. Beijing Beefcake.
Veina and I give the male contestants a score from one to ten depending on how likely we would go on a date with them. We have different selection criteria to the female contestants date to get married. The women on the show want to know if the man has an apartment, a car and a high-paying job. The men want to know what the women look like without any makeup on. Veina and I heckle the television when the contestants talk that shit, which is every episode. We’re going to get our own apartments, cars and high-paying jobs. We don’t do maths practice papers because we like maths.
On screen, Beijing Beefcake smiles and waves at the audience as he walks out of the man capsule and on to the stage. The fabric of his white shirt strains against his pecs.
The back door opens with the broken flyscreen flapping around and Peter steps inside, hulking a basket of laundry against his bare chest. Veina offers him some cherries and Peter puts down his laundry and slides down the armrest of the couch. Now I’m sandwiched between him and Veina. I shift in my seat so we’re not sitting so close. My body thinks it wants one thing but my mind is in control. Don’t throw away the head for a prawn.
We all watch Beijing Beefcake’s pre-recorded video of his life as a personal trainer. I pick out a handful of super soft cherries with wide, open sores dried into dark scabs. I’m feeling stiff from sitting next to Peter. His abs look like skinless chicken nuggets set into two neat rows. They cuddle and curl against each other as Peter leans forward to spit a pip into the bowl. I look away when something starts buzzing beneath me. It’s Veina’s phone, half submerged in the crumby gap between the sections of the couch, vibrating deeper into the fold. I slip my fingers between the couch cushions and grab the phone.
‘Ugh, sorry,’ Veina says. ‘Mum calls every day to check on me.’ She answers the phone with a, ‘Wei’ as she walks off towards her room.
I move over to where Veina had just been sitting so there’s more space between me and Peter. He sneezes. His hands go from covering his nose to stretching across the back of the couch, bridging the distance I had just created between us. It’s cooling down. He needs to put a shirt on. On If You Are The One, Beijing Beefcake is sitting in his living room in a white singlet. I would give him a 6.8. Maybe 8 if he looked a little less inflated. He could be a 9 if he talked about something besides his muscles.
‘My big muscles give me big responsibilities,’ the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen translate as Beijing Beefcake nods at me through the television. ‘I swear to the whole nation I would never hit a woman. I can look after her and protect her,’ Beijing Beefcake says. He flexes one bare, bulging brown arm after the other. ‘She can kiss my biceps every day.’
Next to me, Peter shifts in his seat. I hope Veina will come out of her room soon so I don’t have to be alone with Peter. I stuff my mouth with three cherries and sink back into the sofa and stare at the TV. What would it feel like for his strong arms to hold me gently? As I imagine the tenderness of resting my head against his chest, a sharp pain shoots through my mouth. I hold my cheek with my head turned away like I had just been slapped. It feels like someone had cut the right side of my cheek with a pair of scissors. I lean forward and let the contents of my mouth drop into my other hand. The living room lights turn on.
‘Fuck your dad,’ I curse. ‘Oww.’
‘Are you okay?’ Peter says, putting his big, warm hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy there. I look up and see Veina walking across the room.
‘My dad says that when you bite yourself it’s because you’re not eating enough meat,’ she says. ‘Your mouth wants meat in it,’ Veina wiggles her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Ugh, well fuck your dad too,’ I say. I look down at the half-chewed cherries in my open palm. The wet, red flesh glistens like mashed and bloody brains.
Anna Kortschak is an emerging writer who is frequently mobile. She has recently returned to Australia after almost twenty itinerant years in the Americas, Europe and the UK. Anna was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing and winner of the 2019 Spring Nowhere Magazine Travel Writing Competition. Her writing and photos have been published in Nowhere Magazine, The Other Hundred, The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (3rd Ed.) and various other print and online publications. With a background in visual and performing arts Anna has worked extremely variously but most passionately – a aside from her writing – on a number of community development story-telling projects in Australia and internationally.
Pieces of Nothing
The child is standing alone on the side of the sand pit, humming tunelessly. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Her gaze is blank and unfocussed. She is not playing a game. She is just standing there waiting for time to move on.
She is alone and being alone makes her hungry. She bites her arm, intently studying the crooked crescent indented in the flesh, livid white and bruise blue. She wants to feel something.
She cannot see inside herself. She believes she has swallowed a stone.
She is a small child. Skinny, ribs visible, blonde wispy hair, eyes wide and surprising black, all pupil. Difficult, they say. A difficult child. Given to sudden rage or tears. Sullen. Lashing out and then fleeing. A secretive child.
There was a girl who hid her heart among stones to keep it safe. She tied her heart to a string but lost hold of the string. When she went to recover it she mistook her heart for a stone, a stone for her heart. Heavy and cold. Hard.
Once lost, what next?
A series of endeavours, all doomed, all heartless.
If I am to write a story it has to start with this child; the girl who has lost her heart. She is not remarkable, she is not especially good or kind. She is just like any child, a little grubby, bony knees and wispy hair. Perhaps she is rather small for her age.
A fairy tale needs a hero but no-one appears to rescue the child from her fate and a series of evils befall the girl. First she loses the power of speech. No-one can hear her speak.
There are others but I (or is it the girl?) cannot see them clearly. There is a mother, a stepfather, a brother. Many others. She is surrounded by these people but she cannot see them and they do not touch her. They are insubstantial, see-through and slippery, ungraspable. Bewitched, I guess. No help there.
I’m talking as if I don’t know these people but I have to confess an interest. Let me try to clarify the situation. My mother. My stepfather. There are brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And the circle will widen. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A veritable host. Even my father will appear, if I wait long enough.
And I, too, have become multiple. I am the storyteller in this tale. And that is fair. Everyone must have their turn to speak. But what to do, then, with the child? She is me, and not me. And she is the greatest unknown. The most difficult of all to discern in the bewildering fog.
I beg you for indulgence as I try to find a way to accommodate this mute child who struggles with silence and nausea, who believes she is poisonous and that everything she touches dies.
As I try to excavate memory I constantly ask myself, what is true? One must, of course, but I find that there is no concrete answer to the question. There is no indisputable truth to be brought into the light of day, no facts that can be matter-of-factly reported from the past which, from the most certain perspective we have, quite simply does not exist.
My stepfather, for example, can say, that never happened. If I’d picked you up by your ear it would have ripped clean off your head. And I will be silenced by his logic and his convincing certainty. Only days later will an image that has always hung dimly suspended in my mind, unaccounted for, pop suddenly to the surface.
(The child picks, for days, at a crusty line of scabs in that soft crease where the skin of the ear attaches to the skin that covers the bony shell of the skull.)
It is unfortunate that it is my step-father that is the first figure to come forward. But there it is.
And here is his refrain:
She was a child, he says. She didn’t understand. She is mistaken.
What is strange is that I cannot remember my mother’s face and that there is no point in time that I can see us together.
But of course nothing is absolute and I must immediately contradict myself.
I do in fact remember that once I spent an afternoon with her on a lake in a small rowing boat. Even so, I have no sense of her, or my own, physical presence on that occasion. I cannot, for example, remember which one of us rowed the boat.
It is only my imagination which creates the picture of a boat moving across the water as the shouts and noise from the shore fade away, hears the creak of the heavy wooden oars moving in the rowlocks, the slap of water against the hull, the quiet rustle of wind in trees and reeds, light playing over a shining expanse of water.
Where does this child live?
What comes to mind are houses full of silence: in memory, always empty. A series of disconnected spaces. Rooms without exit, hallways that lead nowhere, blank windows without vista.
Footsteps on the polished wooden floorboards, darkness, a doorway.
My grandmother’s house, where my mother spent her childhood, was on Castle Street and it seemed to me that the street had been named for the house which was, therefore, a castle. Certainly, it was a house possessed by a sense of grandeur. It pointed to a noble history.
Decades later, it is in England, that I will find my dead grandmother close to me, hovering at my shoulder, or seated on the other side of a table watching me. If she had a message for me then she could not find a way to make it explicit but it is no wonder she came to me there in England. Her faraway garden, in Australia, was a half-acre England of spring bluebells and cherry blossom trees, violets and pansies, clipped lawns and deciduous oak and birch. All England, except for the tree we called the Mother Tree, a box gum, home to giant emperor moth larvae, jewelled, green, and fatter than a child’s finger.
The house and garden were bounded by a cypress hedge, dense and dark, fragrant. It is in the hedge that my brother arrives. The Hedge was capitalised in our minds, as the name of any unexplored continent would be, and we would disappear inside it, my brother and I. Sometimes we emerged scratched and sticky with cypress resin to walk along the neatly clipped upper surface which formed an inviting green pathway but with a misjudged step an unwary child would suddenly vanish again below the smooth surface, plunged back into the harsh twiggy dusty interior, trapped and struggling.
The house, this enchanted castle, is spell-bound. Always silent. No laughter ringing through it. No raised voices, not in anger or in song.
Tick. Tock. Grandfather clock.
Wide hallways with patterned oriental rugs that form maps of unknown territory, a jungle, perhaps, or wide river plains, islands; a mutable terrain inhabited by serpents and mythic creatures, topography to be explored on endless tedious afternoons.
The child is often there, in the care of her grandmother. Can we perhaps catch a glimpse of them together? What is it they are doing?
They are sitting opposite each other at a table, separated by a wide expanse of dark polished wood. The child is labouring at the task she has been set. A peach, rosy and fragrant, sits on a tiny china plate carefully set between a silver knife and fork. The implements would be small and delicate in adult hands but the child clutches the opalescent mother-of-pearl handles clumsily. She must peel and eat the peach without touching its tender flesh with her fingers.
The fruit rolls and slides on the plate as the child struggles to impale it. Once it is secured she works to push the knife point beneath delicate downy skin and strip it from the flesh. Finally, she has a hard won morsel on the slender tines of the fork. She pauses to take a spoonful of sugar from a silver bowl and scatters it across the plate. She dips the scrap of fruit in the crystals and conveys it to her mouth.
Her grandmother watches impassive.
I never saw my mother and my father together. The possibility was inconceivable.
I knew my father was from elsewhere and for a long time it seemed to me that the place he came from must be called The War.
My mother sometimes told people that my paternal grandfather was a Nazi but she did not mean anything in particular by it. She just thought it was something interesting to say. I would not even remember it except that my sister still repeats it, as though it were fact, today. My half-sister. It is not her grandfather she is talking about. She phrases her statement as a question: Your grandfather had a Nazi uniform, didn’t he?
On weekends my brother and I were pushed out the front door onto the veranda where this grandfather, my father’s father, stood waiting. Formal, in pleated trousers, collar and tie, hair smooth and shiny with Brylcreem, he would lean stiffly across the threshold to shake hands with my stepfather standing inside the door.
How do you do? Sunday? Yes, Sunday.
We would climb into my grandfather’s immaculate fawn and white Holden Kingswood and speed away, my brother and I cannoning from one side of the car to the other across the beige vinyl bench-seat as my grandfather cursed the Australian drivers. Blod-ee eedi-yot! You blod-ee eedi-yot!
My paternal grandparent’s house was not silent, but the languages were foreign. Here my brother and I were always collective: the children. Die Kinder sind heir, my nanna would say on the phone to her friends, and we knew she was talking about us.
We went to this house to wait for my father to arrive.
At my grandparent’s house my brother and I were always addressed in English but adult conversation took place above our heads in a babble of other tongues. We knew that the alien words which hummed and roared and wailed in the air of my grandparent’s house were all of The War. The War was all encompassing and without location but there was also a more distant place, never talked about directly, hinted at in picture books and old photos, postcards and the arrival of pale blue airmail envelopes.
Czechoslovakia. The child wrote the strange word, next to her foreign surname, over and over on pieces of paper which she pushed into a tiny glass bottle that was one of the treasures on the mantelpiece in the bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house. She poked the secret messages through the vessel’s narrow mouth with a pencil and rammed them down. Over and over, until the blue green bottle was packed solid with crushed paper.
A land of castles. Mountains. Woods. Trees, tender in the springtime. Bright streams and sunny meadows. Wild flowers and berries at the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon.
But at night, in her dreams, she wandered a lonely wooded place, bare bony arms of trees raised up to a lowering dark sky, the tenebrous air thick with nightfall and snowfall. Black on black. This was the landscape of her dreams. Snow falling ceaselessly in darkness. Night after night the child trod these woods alone.
The possibility of physically going to this place was nonsensical. There was an unfathomable period of time in which the child’s nanna was absent from her Balwyn home. Months passed, during which occasional postcards with pictures of unknown cities arrived in the mail. The pedestrian images of bridges over rivers and municipal buildings baffled the girl.
Her nanna eventually returned, with gifts; a tiny carved wooden dog and a china Siamese cat. The child studied them minutely for clues and, although they explained nothing, she decided to treasure them. When she was not playing with the cat and dog the child carefully placed them on the mantelpiece next to her talismanic bottle. Soon the cat’s ears were chipped and the dog had lost a paw. The child cherished the little dog, especially, with an all-consuming love. She often carried it with her, in her pocket, until one day it vanished.
She searched in the school yard over and over again and scanned the ground at her feet with every step of the long walk home, through the suburban streets, across the park, along the railway line, over Prospect Hill Road and then finally down the street in which she returned each afternoon to the house where her mother and stepfather lived. Day after day she traversed this route searching for the lost token of the lost place.
The child and her brother sit on either side of their nanna on a low red brick wall at the front of a house in a quiet tree-lined street. They are counting cars.
Which one of you can guess how many cars will pass before your father comes?
Three. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
If he had arrived he would have tumbled out of some car, wearing no shoes, dirty white moleskin trousers tattered and patched, a soft brown leather jacket with the elbows out. He would have lounged lazily on the square modern couch, nursing a glass of red wine while the table was set. He would have sat wreathed in smoke, grey flaky tubes of ash trembling above the smouldering ember of a filterless cigarette.
And sometime, maybe after lunch, if she had been able to stand close enough to his chair, he might have turned to her and rumpled her hair and called her his beetle, or skinny rabbit.
So, here we are. Here we are with a handful of shards, pretty and sharp. What do they tell us?
As the story-teller, I realise that I am in a privileged position. A privileged position, but one also filled with difficulties and danger. I do not want to abuse my power and I recognise the seductive temptation to overstep the mark. I can see that what I am searching for is a story that will mend all the rents in the fabric of the universe. An impossible task, I know. I know.
I want to hear the child speak.
I have to tread carefully because I have so much more information at my disposal than she did. So much more. But I do promise to try to limit myself to the things that can be vouched for.
What I know for certain is that the child grows up and I know what kind of stories that have been told of her. Listen to some of the names she has been called:
the child / a girl (poison child)
dropper of bombshells (family terrorist)
liar / junkie / whore (the poltergeist)
squatter / criminal (trouble maker)
victim / survivor (the hungry ghost)
a trapeze artist (sweet falling angel / sweet f.a.)
How did she come to know herself differently? Could it be explained like this?
The child was a sleep-walker. She would be found wandering the house at night, rummaging in cupboards. On one occasion she left the house by the front door and ran down the street. But she does not remember these somnambulisms. They have been reported to her.
But the child remembers one incident. She was at her grandmother’s place in the country. A number of other children were there and they were sleeping outdoors in tents. The tents were pitched within the confines of a grassy, long disused, stockyard. There were probably five or six children present – these details do not matter – the older children, no doubt, with the toddlers and babies remaining with the grown ups in the big tin shed. The children must have behaved as children do in such circumstances, telling scary stories, bickering, joking, teasing. I remember none of that. Eventually they all would have slept.
And what the child – who possibly is the same person that I am – can to this day recall is waking to find herself alone under the wide starry sky in the paddock half way down towards the rocky gully. She is standing in her pyjamas, barefoot on frosty ground. She has woken because she is standing on a thistle in the grass. There she is, a child, standing on a dark hillside under the infinite sky and the moment has a startling clarity that she stores carefully inside herself as she makes her way back up the steep slope and climbs the five foot wooden post and paling fence and enters the tent and finds her sleeping bag again amongst the still slumbering children.
She recognises the size of the night. She is not afraid.
Belinda is a part-time lawyer, adminstrative assistant and mother of two young boys. She is completing a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and has published work on-line, in the Grieve Anthology 2018 and in the University of Sydney Student Anthology 2016. ‘On Becoming One’ was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
On Becoming One
I am that one.
The one in question.
Red Jordan Arabateau
I – A Chronology of Connection
1821 Anglo-yellows are popping up all over the Empire’s pristine lawn faster than they can be pulled out. It is upsetting to the Britons:
The most rapidly accumulating evil in Bengal is the increase of half-caste children . . . their increase in India is beyond calculation . . . it may justly be apprehended that this tribe may hereafter become too powerful for control . . . what may not in the future time be dreaded from them?(1)
The Empire doesn’t want any part of them. Many anglo-yellows are deemed not to be British subjects.(2)
1857 The Natives don’t like anglo-yellows either. (3) So the anglo-yellows try to merge into the background of the Empire. They emphasise their anglo parts, speaking only English and inflicting names like Nigel on their children (4). They disown their yellow parts by helping the Empire enforce a Dandelion-specific caste system based on degrees of yellow.
1898 Anglo-yellows merge so well that they are nearly invisible. An Empire-commissioned list of Burmese cultural sub-groups makes no mention of them.(5) They are overlooked by both Briton and Native welfare and legal systems.
1925 After a while, the anglo-yellows get some laws but not in relation to labour: the Empire needs someone cheap and white-ish to do its low-grade admin tasks. (6)
1939 Marrying an anglo-yellow is a lot like marrying an orangutan (7) , so anglo-yellows tend to marry each other. In this way, they form a distinct cultural community. When anglo-yellows marry, other anglo-yellows display good Empire-building skills by carefully noting degrees of yellow in the marrying parties.
My really-rather-yellow grandmother marries my hardly-that-yellow grandfather, which is well beyond her station (‘Quite!’).
1940 The anglo-yellows just want to be part of something. Well of course they do, because they’ve fallen in love. They sing little songs to the Empire, praising all things British and pointing out their usefulness. (8) They are always on their best behaviour for the Empire and if anyone comes to hurt it, nobody is quicker than the anglo-yellows to put their bodies in the path. (9) Still, after the war, the Britons go back to Britain and the anglo-yellows are left to scatter across the globe like dandelion seeds.
1950 My grandmother and grandfather waft onto a sausage-shaped island that floats like a turd in the water above another forgotten place.
My grandmother is not a happy woman. She picks at her beautiful rather-yellow face until scabs form. When she’s not picking at her face, she picks at her pale daughter, Wendy.
1952 Wendy picks at her beautiful barely-yellow face until it is scarred and pocked. She’s nervy, cries a lot and can’t settle. All my grandparents’ hopes are in their quite-yellow son, David.
1954 My grandparents just want to be part of something. Preferably something powerful. In Papua New Guinea, they borrow money to send really-quite-yellow David to the whitest Queensland boarding school they can find. Alone in post-war Queensland, Jap-yellow David absorbs pressure until his jaw muscles are deformed by constant clenching. Musculature protrudes from either side of his jaw like wing-nuts.
1969 David marries my mother – a relaxed white woman whose family has been part of Australia for generations. My grandparents just can’t get enough of her.
1970 I am born.
1985 I develop an insatiable urge to pick at my face until it is pocked. Thinking it might be helpful, my mother says, “You’re just like Wendy.” When Wendy commits suicide, I distract myself with intensified face-picking.
1995 Someone has been compiling statistics about face-picking and deformed jaw musculature: ‘Racism Linked to Depression and Anxiety in Youth’(10) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian CALD Communities(11) ; Stigma and Discrimination Associated with Depression(12) ; Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Australia: A Cross Sectional Survey(13) ; Cultural Aspects in Social Anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder (14). I wonder if there is any connection.
2000 I am friendly with two girls and we do everything together. One has Chinese heritage, the other is Fijian anglo-yellow. I wonder if there is any connection.
2005 I discover Hanif Kureishi is anglo-yellow and think about how his work resonates with me. I wonder if there is any connection.
2014 I stop picking at my face at around the same time that I start writing. I write to make connections between all the disowned parts of myself.
II – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. From the Latin ‘lacus’ for ‘lake’.
Story 1: Awww. Look at her, e’nt she cute? Belinda at six years old. Blonde hair in a bowl cut juts out at angles from her scalp. Swathe of snot lime-washed across her top lip. Puny chest, white shins covered in bruises. This afternoon, she’s been throwing acorns at the boys next door but now she’s tired. Sitting cross legged on the lounge-room floor, she watches telly in her undies. When the ads come on, she sings a song they’ve learnt at school: ‘Carra Barra Wirra Canna’. It’s a pretty tune and she warbles it exuberantly at the top of her voice:
There’s a lake in South Australia
Little lake with lovely name;
And the stories woven ‘round it;
From the piccaninnies came.
Suddenly, her Dad is there standing before her. “What is that shit you’re singing?” His tone is measured but menacing. She recognises the wretched set of his eyes, the jaw muscle pulsating dangerously and falls silent. She returns her gaze to the television but is watching him from the corner of her eye. He has a habit of lashing out unexpectedly, a clip with his hand or with his blade-sharp tongue. Both equally excoriating.
At school, the kids ask her, “Why is your Dad Chinese?” He is something, Dad, but he’s not Chinese. She doesn’t know much more than that because race is unmentionable in her family. A simple children’s song can set him off.
Now he leaves and she relaxes. Hunched in front of the telly, you might notice that the dome of Belinda’s ribs is like a bell jar. The ‘piccaninnies’ and their lake are sealed in there, along with the race-related stories they might have told. She won’t remember them again until she is an adult and runs across a pile of old school song books at a garage sale. Then she will wonder at the shame and confusion she felt as a child, and at the woven net of silence that she and her Dad are caught up in.
‘Lacuna’. That beautiful word. On one definition, it means ‘space’ or ‘gap’, as in:
The rocket shot off into Outer Lacuna;
You have a lacuna between your front teeth;
There is a lacuna in your family history.
Culture, being an experience that is shared between members of a social group, is usually public. It includes religious beliefs, festivals, stories, arts – all the things that bind people together and give their lives richness and meaning. Culture is something to be celebrated.
But Eurasians under the British Raj were a tiny minority in a multitude of nationals increasingly disaffected with British imperialism. Eurasian ties to the oppressors showed in their very faces and it is no surprise that their exclusion from Indian social and economic life was nearly absolute. In the circumstances, and since many Eurasians were not easily identified as non-white, the thing to do was deny one’s Eurasian identity altogether and align oneself, as far as possible, with the Empire:
“Throughout my life I had asked him why the family was (in India). Were his parents Indian? Did he speak Urdu? Did he have an elephant? He always told me simply, ‘We were an English family who happened to be living in India.”(15)
This strategy was necessary for Eurasians to survive as a culture. Even now in India there remains a vibrant and politically active, though diminishing, Eurasian community. But in my family’s experience, the consequences of silence have been mostly tragic.
Story 2: My grandmother and her sisters were very fond of the school that they boarded at in Moulmein, Burma. It was called St Mathews High School for Girls, and was an Anglican missionary school for Eurasian girls. My grandmother and her sisters were lucky enough to have parents that they stayed with over the school holidays. But it was not uncommon for Eurasian children to be abandoned or removed from their parents and many of my grandmother’s cohorts were orphans.
My grandmother loves to tell us about a time she tried to wear make-up at the school. The nuns told my grandmother, no, you can’t use make-up – there are orphans here and they can’t afford it. There is a faux brightness to the way my grandmother tells this story and she loves re-telling it. With each re-telling, she laughs too sweetly and too insistently. Even as a child, I can sense a discordance in this story that makes me wonder. What is my grandmother is hiding?
III – Straddling the Space
In 2016, in her key-note speech to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Lionel Shriver was critical of the increasing presence of ‘cultural misappropriation’ debates in literature. (16) These arguments, regarding the unauthorised use of cultural knowledge and expressions, arise in relation to writing which deals in identities distinct from the author’s own identity. An example that has been controversial in Shriver’s own work is her use of an elderly African-American character though Shriver herself is white. Shriver’s broad approach to these debates is that there can be no ownership in social identity. To hold otherwise, she says, is impractical and burdensome. Since the most that can occur via identity misuse is a few hurt feelings, Shriver is not sure why the debate exists and wonders if it is a fashionable pose. Shriver argues that the cultural misappropriation debate is flawed at its core since social identity is not a real thing:
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.(18)
Shriver’s 2016 speech is remembered, not just for its content, but for the way she delivered it, donning a cheeky sombrero to underline her arguments about hypersensitivity in Latino cultural debates and comparing herself to a Great White Shark in a sea of earnest community builders. In her reckless approach to wide-spread upset, Shriver reminds me of my favourite iconoclast, Hanif Kureishi, who commenced each morning of filming on the set of My Beautiful Laundrette (19) by getting into a huddle with director Stephen Frears and screaming ‘Filth and Anarchy!”’ repeatedly. Even with the consternation caused by Shriver’s 2016 comments, she hasn’t approached the entrenched controversiality of Kureishi who, it has been suggested, has only narrowly avoided eliciting a fatwa. (20) He is not an Empire Eurasian but a modern Eurasian born and raised in Britain and this culturally-specific heritage is revealed by his notable lack of silence.
But Shriver and Kureishi’s common maverick status is just one of several intersections they seem to share as writers. For instance, when Shriver uses her 2016 speech to rail against the ‘culture police’ who objected to her African-American character, she puts me in mind of the normative provocations frequently posed by Kureish’s identity representations. This was most apparent early in his career when his holistic representations of Asians upset just about everybody – conservative Asian communities, of course, by depicting sexually transgressive Muslims but also progressive Asian commentators by depicting Asians in ways that failed, they thought, to optimize Asian interests: showing Asians in a bad light. (21)
People ask why my Asian characters are bad, and it’s only because villains are more interesting on the whole. I’m very interested in how complex people are. People in films are often divided very quickly. You know early on who’s good and who’s bad. But I’m more interested in how complex we all are.”(22)
Shriver, too, resists treating her minority identities with kid gloves (23) and she might agree with Kureishi who considers that the freedom to depict the whole complexity of a character is as important as Art itself, which “represents freedom of thought – not merely in a political or moral sense – but the freedom of the mind to go where it wishes; to express dangerous wishes.”(24)
The most obvious result of the freedom that Kureishi claims for his characters in bucking identity norms is fun. See Omar in My Beautiful Laundrette allying himself with the best-looking member of the local skin-head gang to establish a successful business and score nookie. Or Karim, in Buddah of Suburbia, consenting to play a humiliating depiction of Mowglie and thereby grounding his acting career, escaping suburbia and scoring a mountain of nookie. Kureishi extends this freeing facility to his Asian characters – such as Karim’s father who shamelessly squeezes himself into the ‘Oriental Mystic’ persona, providing himself with a new income source and, you guessed it, scoring nookie.
But another result of all this opportunism is power:
The [mulatto] kids I knew were not tragic. They were like Karim: pushy, wild, charismatic, street-smart, impudent, often hilarious. Despite their relatively lowly position in the British class system they suspected they were cool, and knew they had talent and brains.(25)
Divested of the constraints of ‘proper’ Asian representations, Kureishi’s characters are free to consider how their internal desires and interests might be met given their oppressive externalities. Their identity lacuna becomes a grab-bag to be dipped into for whichever persona best suits for the time being. English one day, Indian the next.(26)
This shuffling of identity norms can be experienced as subversive but it is key to a powerful Eurasian identity. Of course it is. The almost (27) , the in-between(28) , the space in the Empire’s cultural index. Our mojo was always going to be mutable.
Which leads to a further overlap evident in Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings about writing identity: an awareness of identity as a means of accruing power. Shriver terms this aspect of identity, ‘offendedness as a weapon’. She could be referring to Tracey, an actress in Karim’s acting troupe, who takes advantage of her minority racial status and her cleaning-lady mother to manipulate the white guilt of the rest of the troupe. Her political aptitude helps her to obtain the dramatic representations she wants.(29)
But it is within this particular overlap that Shriver and Kureishi’s understandings on writing identity finally diverge. For Shriver’s 2016 comments on the politicisation of identity, ‘gotcha hypersensitivity’, reveal a blind spot at the precise point of Kureishi’s most essential acuity. The divergence is revealed here in the reckoning that Omar’s alliance with Johnny requires before it may progress:
What were they doing on marches through Lewisham? It was bricks and bottles and Union Jacks. It was immigrants out. It was kill us. People we knew. And it was you. He saw you marching. You saw his face, watching you. Don’t deny it. We were there when you went past . . . Papa hated himself and his job. He was afraid on the streets for me . . . Oh, such failure. Such emptiness. (30)
And again when Karim is forced to face the folly he has committed against himself in yearning for the English rose, Elenor;
My depression and self-hatred, my desire to mutilate myself with broken bottles, and numbness and crying fits, my inability to get out of bed for days and days, the feeling of the world moving in to crush me, went on and on . . .(31)
Also apparent in Karim’s experience of school. Enduring the nick-names Shitface and Curryface is least of his problems. He is also punched and kicked to the ground by his teachers, threatened with chisels to the throat, imprisoned and branded with hot metal: Every day, I considered myself lucky to get home from school without serious injury. (32)
Pain. Shriver doesn’t get it. This is why she acknowledges every type of identity politics but her own; why she resents being asked to consider others’ perspectives; why, to her, identity politics is a ‘tempest in a tea-cup’ of hurt feelings.
Admittedly, Kureishi has an advantage in perceiving identity injuries. First Asian at his Bromley Tech High School, Pakistani Pete to his teachers, squired around Pakistani beating grounds by his skin-head mates, Kureishi speaks openly about intense feelings of shame and loneliness. He has said that the war-zone traumas that Karim endures at high school are autobiographical.
Lived experience is not essential to empathy and pain is not unique to Eurasians. But I hope that any person endeavoring to represent Eurasian identity is capable of seeing Eurasian pain, just as I hope that any writer advocating the free-wheeling adoption of others’ cultural identities, is also capable of seeing pain.
Until then, I might gather my Eurasian parts around me and wield them, as Shriver could have predicted, like weapons. Because my father is just a few years older than Kureishi. Because like Kureishi, my father has a string of ‘firsts’ – first non-white at his elite Queensland boarding school, first non-white in his course at university, first non-white in the Queensland Veterinary Association. Because, after 49 years I still don’t know what that was like for him and the silence feels ominous.
Silence is the flipside of offendedness. And it has, until relatively recently, been the most salient feature of identity writing:
At their best the Eurasians of the novels are as kindhearted as their natural indolence and slovenliness will allow; at their worst they are heartless, vicious, self-seeking, and completely unscrupulous. At a time when racial separateness, symbolizing racial superiority, seemed so necessary for the task of ruling an empire, the Eurasians posed a special kind of threat. The trouble with half-castes, argue the novels, is that they take only the worst qualities of each parent race – the stubbornness and pride of the English, without their courage and principle; the deviousness of the Indians, without their cultivation and dignity.(34)
It is the novelty of identity debates that causes Shriver to suspect fashionable posturing but I hope these debates are not just a passing fad. I feel happy to see Eurasians and others wield their offendedness. Let’s keep it up because I think we’re making something new and interesting, something that might be a useful political implement in the management of in that other political, and potentially cruel, implement – the appropriated identity.
IV – Lacuna /la’kjluna , n., pl. –nae. 1. Space or hiatus. 2. A cavity or depression in bone, containing nucleate cells.
Story 3 At the age of about 23, I reach a kind of hiatus in life. At a dead end in my relationship and in my studies, I schlepp around in someone else’s sharehouse and do shift-work. I am on hold until I can save enough money to escape overseas. I brood. I have strange dreams. I come across My Beautiful Laundrette at the local video store. It appears that Omar has also been on hold and knows what to do. I watch it and feel myself start to heal. Parts of myself are being knitted together. I wait until the house is empty and play it and re-play it. Then I play it again. It starts to run through my veins. I am absorbing a story intravenously, like fluid through a drip feed.
As well as referring to a gap or hiatus, ‘lacuna’ is an anatomical term, referring to cavities in the bone that cup its living matter: ‘osteocytes’ or bone cells. On this definition, space is not an absence but a presence of life-giving possibility.
A story can be like that. The delight that spans the abyss of unbelonging (35), the water play across a racial schism(36) . A story can take a lacuna and make it world-cracking, life-changing, art-inspiring.(37) That sort of connectivity can actually save lives:
Kureishi’s “almost” got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between. I could be almost.(38)
Kureishi’s characters were vibrant because the stories he told about their racial ambivalence made something from it – a Eurasian identity. It was enough to lift the writer Shukla out of her suicidality and I wonder whether things might have been different for my aunt (my aunt, my aunt; acerbic, funny, tender-hearted, sad; I remember her slender hands; it is said I have hands like hers) if she had known about these sorts of identities when she was struggling.
Maybe not though. Because she had to deal with, not just the Empire’s identity lacuna, but the one created by her own family.
My grandmother was pleased when the nuns drew a distinction between herself and the Moulmein orphans because she had more in common with the orphans than she cared to admit. Wrenched away from her Native mother, her culture, the language she had spoken as a baby. Sent to school to be re-shaped in the ways of the Empire. Underlying my grandmother’s story was the desire to separate from her orphaned cohort and from the horrifying suspicion that she, like them, was unwanted. A weed thrown onto a garbage heap. One of the Empire’s discards. Her story was not a connection but an attempt at disconnection. It was another type of silence.
All to no avail. Come Independence, my grandmother’s British father would return to his British family and she would be left wheeling across the globe like the orphan she truly was. Nothing between my grandmother and oblivion but the Eurasian family she had married into, itself intent on performing an act of disconnect because she was way too yellow.
There’s a curious glitch in Shriver’s 2016 speech. When she makes her statement that identity doesn’t exist, she does so baldly, without any logical underpinning, and nests the observation amongst unrelated arguments. It stands out in an otherwise flawless stream of witticisms and I don’t think it’s an oversight. I think Shriver is really saying that social identity doesn’t matter. We writers can do what we like with social identity because what difference does it make?
Shriver’s arguments about identity ownership have become pertinent again in relation to another in-betweener (40) – Bruce Pascoe, author of much-lauded work Dark Emu (41) whose genealogical connection to his Bunurong and Yuin identity is too tenuous for some. The connection between genealogy and identity is a central one. But an equally important insight to be gleaned from Pascoe’s case is apparent, not in the case itself, but in the furor surrounding it: community schisms, police investigations, political intervention, advisory board re-shuffles.
Social identity is incredibly important to us. We can expect writers to take care with our social identity because it matters. It matters in the same way as our stories matter. It matters, in fact, in the same way that we ourselves matter because being connected to a larger whole is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
I have one last story. It is my grandmother’s story but she had no voice for it. I heard it, once only, from my father:
Story 4: Before settling in New Guinea, my grandparents alight briefly in Sydney where they stay with friends at Kirribilli. Each day, my grandmother takes my Dad and his sister to a playground on Kirribilli Bay. While my Dad and his sister play on the swings, my grandmother goes to the water’s edge where there is a low limestone wall separating the Bay from the park.
All around the edges of the strange harbour, sailing skips bob and duck. Diamond wavelets sparkle and recede back into the grey-green water. But before my grandmother, the water is dark and eerie, blackened by kelp which beckons to my grandmother like writhing arms. Come, come, enter our shadowy depths. Join us.
On the swings, my dad and his sister keep their small backs to my grandmother and do not turn around. They know what will happen, and cannot bare the alarming sight. My grandmother puts her knees to the limestone wall, leans out as far as she can over the Bay’s arc and sobs. It seems to last for hours. Endless tears fall from her eyes in a single diamond stream and join the dark water. She is submerged by sadness.
My grandmother saw her beloved mother maybe one more time in her life. She almost never saw her sisters and brother who were scattered across the world. She lived, not just without her family, but without stories to provide her with an understanding of her place in a community of others. She faced her abandonment in isolation.
How could she know that she was never the weed? How could she know that she was the resilient herb? The Dandelion with its face turned always to the limitless sky.
Lest my family’s story be dismissed as a quirk of history, I want to finish with an aside I came across recently in Alexander Chee’s luminous book of autobiographical essays. (42) Chee is an Amerasian whose heritage is partly Korean and he describes his family’s vigilance whenever, as a child, he visited relatives living in Korea:
Biracial Korean and white Amerasian children in Seoul in 1968 . . . were often kidnapped and sold as, for some time, your patrimony was your access to personhood. Put another way, if your father was a white GI, no government authority automatically thought of you as a citizen. (43)
The Empire has ended but my family’s story will never end. There will always be fly-in fly-out incursions of boundaries, the breaches of war or commerce that leave in their wake a trail of people who do not know who they are. Untethered and drifting but I won’t abandon them. I won’t let them float away. I’ll build them a net of connection and join them up with my stories.
1. Viscount George Valentia, cited in Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India. Leiden, (Netherlands: E. J. Brill 1973) at 13
2. Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity for Anglo-indians” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) at 17
3. Eurasian communities targeted in the Indian Rebellion 1857. “Shunned by the Indians, despised by the whites . . . the unfortunate Anglo-Indian found himself cut off from the main economic and social bases of Indian life.” Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in 1933 cited in L Jacobsen, The Eurasian Question: The Colonial Position and Postcolonial Options of Colonial Mixed Ancestry Groups from British India, Dutch East Indies and French Indochina Compared (Uitgeverij Verloren 2018) at 82, web, accessed 10 January 2019, See also Mills, M. “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001) at 225; Mannsaker, F. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914” Victorian Studies 24.1 (1980) at 37.
4. Kris Griffiths, “Anglo-Indians: Is their culture dying out?” BBC Magazine, 4 January 2013, web, accessed 3 February 2018
5. Elementary Handbook of the Burmese Language 1898 cited in Edwards, P “Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma.” Postcolonial Studies 5.3 (2002) at 285
6. Gist, Noel P. and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity: Anglo-Indians as a Racially-Mixed Minority in India (Netherlands Leiden1973), 18
7. Hervey, A soldier of the Company, cited in Sen, A Distant Sovreignity, (Routledge 2002) 148
8. ‘The Eurasian Anthem’ cited in Brent Otto, “Navigating Race and National Identity” International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies 15 no. 1 (2015) 14
9. Mills, M “A Most Remarkable Community: Anglo-Indian Contributions to Sport in India” Contemporary South Asia 10.2 (2001): 223–236, web, accessed 11 1 20, detailing disproportionate levels of Eurasian military and sporting achievement. Probably Empire Eurasians display disproportionate achievement in entertainment also, but no one in public life will admit to their Eurasian heritage: Kris Griffiths, op cit.
15. Kris Griffiths, op cit. I experienced a flash of recognition when Griffiths says: ‘The Anglo-Indians also have a distinctive cuisine – jalfrezi was a staple in our household, but unlike anything on Indian restaurant menus.’ Even the most slavish imitators of British customs would balk at adopting that country’s cuisine. My grandmother cooked beautiful curries that were like Asian curries but different, as well as a type of balachaung (shrimp paste) that we ate on toast and which I have never tasted elsewhere
16. Shriver, L “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation is a Passing Fad” The Guardian 13 September 2017, web, 3 February 2020
17. Abdel-Magied, Y “As Shriver Made Light of Identity I had no Choice but to Walk Out” The Guardian 10 September 2016, web, 2 January 2020; Wong Y, “Dangerous Ideas” inexorablist.com 8 September 2016 web, accessed 18 January 2020
18. Shriver, L op cit.
19. Frears, Stephen. et al. My Beautiful Laundrette. London: FilmFour, 1985. Film.
20. For Kureishi’s particularly controversial status, see Ruvani Ranasinha, South Asian Writers in Twentieth Century Britain: Culture in Translation (Oxford Scholarship Online 2011) 260, comparing Kureishi’s critical reception to that of Meena Syal; Alberto Fernandez, ‘Hanif Kureishi: The Assemblage of a Native Informant’ Queering Islam 6 March 2015 web 2 Jan 2020, suggesting Kureishi is as controversial than the fatwa-eliciting Rushdie, Mick Brown ‘Hanif Kureishi: A Life Laid Bare’ The Telegraph 23 February 2008:
21. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia , London, Faber and Faber, 1990, print at 180
22. Interview with Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi, The Movie Show, 7 July 1988, www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11716675713/sammy-and-rosie-get-laid-stephen-frears-and-hanif-kureishi
23. Shriver, L, op cit, “That’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing.”
24. Hanif Kureishi, ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’ in Collected Essays Faber and Faber 2013 at 286
25. Zaidie Smith, ‘Introduction’ to Kureishi, H, op cit, vi
26. Kureishi, H, op cit, at 213: “If I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to invent it.”
Ibid at 3
28. Kureishi, H , My Beautiful Laundrette and The Rainbow Sign, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986. Print.
29. Her representations are later shown to be impotent in comparison to Karim’s as they require validation by white liberal authority. But this does not detract from the skillful way in which she has managed her minority identity.
30. Kureishi, H, op cit 84
31. Ibid 250
32. Ibid 63
33. Kureishi, H, op cit .12
34. Mannsaker, Frances M. “East and West: Anglo-Indian Racial Attitudes as Reflected in Popular Fiction, 1890-1914.” Victorian Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1980, at 33
35. With thanks to Rilke, “As Once the Winged Energy of Delight”, allpoetry.com, web, 2 February 2020
36. Kureishi, H, op cit 111
37. Sandhu, S “Paradise Syndrome”, London Review of Books, 18 May 2000; Fortini A, “From Justin Bieber to Martin Buber, Zadie Smith’s Essays Showcase Her Exuberance and Range”, nytimes.com, 21 February 2018, web, 2 February 2020
38. Shukla, N, “How the Buddha of Suburbia Let Me Into a Much Wider World” The Guardian, 17 February 2017 web 2 February 2020
39. Shukla N, loc cit.
40. Pascoe identifies with both white and Indigenous aspects of his heritage, “Andrew Bolt’s Disappointment”, griffithreview.com, web, 2 February 2020
41. Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident? Sydney: Magabala Books, 2014. Print.
42. Chee A, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, London:Bloomsbury, 2018
43. Loc cit at 182
Reviewed by ABIGAIL FISHER
Trying unsuccessfully to write this review in June, I ride alongside the Eastern Freeway to Bulleen. The gallery is closed but I visit the bees, the bare trees, the corrugated cows. Plaques along the path by the river gloss over the Wurundjeri history of Bolin (‘lyrebird’, later Anglicised to Bulleen) and the process by which Indigenous custodians of the land were ‘driven out’ of the area throughout the 1850s, while documenting with painstaking detail the white settler casualties of severe floods in the following decades. That night I google the scar-tree, a red gum towering over the entrance to the kitchen garden, and learn its Woiwurrung name: Yingabeal, or ‘song tree’. Yingabeal is also a marker tree, situated at the convergence of five song lines and estimated to be between 600 and 700 years old. I am reminded of a line in Π.O.’s Heide:
A ceremony was held
under an old Red gum (in
the Botanic Gardens);
separation from NSW, was officially declared.
Without a verb
it’s impossible to make sense of a sentence.
A train of thought, doesn’t need a ticket
A honey-bee doesn’t need a compass.
A council is a group, of people
still there. (29)
Meanwhile, on Instagram, heidemoma reminds me ‘to be sure to pop in for a takeaway coffee and tasty snack’ when ‘taking a stroll through the Heide gardens and sculpture park’, and offers the recipe for Sunday’s Orange Brandy, a ‘simple aperitif that is popular in France’ replete with black and white image of Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed and Joy Hester around the fireplace.
In Heide Π.O. tackles the sticky, cloying cocktail that is the myth of the Heide Circle — along with the more expansive clique that is the Australian cultural canon — with the same disciplined anarchism that characterises 24 Hours (1996) and Fitzroy (2015), producing a third epic, encyclopaedic volume on culture, power, and place. Heide is the first of the trilogy to move away from the streets of Fitzroy, and away from the attention to migrant and working class lives so characteristic of the previous volumes. Instead Heide focusses primarily on the individuals both central to and marginalised by white settler Australian art history, with particular attention given to bohemian movements in and around Melbourne. The first section focusses on Australian history pre-Federation, with a particular emphasis on art and literature, and part two pivots towards the 20th century and the lives of the Heide Circle: their art, literature and infamous affairs. Π.O. does not shy from the latter subject, but rather interrogates the politics of Bohemian relationships, posing questions that are both nuanced and unashamedly didactic: How are such romantic entanglements anarchic? And how are they conservative? To whom do the lives, the artworks, even the children of the Heide Circle really belong?
In the process of formulating these questions, Heide enacts a number of artistic, literary and personal encounters in a way that is constantly and deeply attuned to the role of privilege in artistic production and consumption. Through imitation, ekphrasis, adaptation, and parody, Π.O. produces a poetics that, like Joy Hester’s art, delights in having ‘[come] into existence rubbing up against other people’s’ (365). Echoing Michael Farrell on Amanda Stewart, we could even say that Π.O.’s technique ‘suggests the copying mode of the lyrebird’ (or ‘bulin’), with both the ‘comic aspect’ that such a repetition entails, but also the ‘sense of both contingency and agency in its song, in that it could always be or have been a different sound that they cho(o)se to make’ . This is Π.O.’s disciplined anarchism, and a joyful challenge to observe. Certainly of the best and most entertaining poems in the collection are reprisals of others’ work — whether offering a doubly parodic rendition of Ern Malley’s ‘Darkening Ecliptic’, (409), or reimagining the work of Lawson (149), MacKellar (164), Durer (242) and Buvelot (71), Π.O. never misses a chance to remind us that ‘Imitation isn’t creation, / it’s re-creation!’ (261).
Typical of Π.O.’s work, there is a preoccupation in Heide with the notion of selection: who gets a seat by the fire when the cocktails are served? This speaks to Π.O.’s complex relationship to the canon, and to his anarchist methods of poetic production. The effect of the encyclopaedic range of facts and source texts in his poetry gives the impression that nothing is necessarily included, but rather that in writing a line he selects from everything in the world, constantly emphasising processes of inclusion and exclusion, emphasis and absence. The effect is that his work simultaneously public and deeply personal, as the ‘character’ of the ever-present selecting agent becomes increasingly distinct. As in Fitzroy, much of the material in Heide is sampled from historical records and newspaper articles, although there is a shift away from police reports towards art reviews, poetry and literature. Π.O. uses dominant material, the fabric of canon, but unpicks the stitches and lets down the hem. In speaking to the lives and labour that Art History neglects, he interrogates the potential for art and literature to hold hegemonic institutions accountable. Heide is history, tribute and protest, all caught up and eddying in Π.O.’s characteristic rivers and creeks of abstracted data and sampled material.
Something that sets Heide apart from Π.O,’s previous works is the emphasis on ekphrasis, the primary method in this work by which Π.O. insists that ‘the (eye) has to be led back to the place it has been ignoring the most’ (226). In a kind of manifesto, the narrator explains that ‘Frank Stella (the artist said, his paintings were “based / on the fact that only what can be seen” / ditto here, / same’ (12); Heide is preoccupied with the materiality of Art on the page, but also on the notion of making the hitherto unseen visible, and challenging our patterns of perception and historical memory. Π.O. unashamedly aligns himself with those whose lives and creative output serve to ‘frame’ the canonical greats — like Tom Robert’s wife, Lillie Williamson, a flower painter who ‘got into carving / “wooden picha frames” / the flowers & tendrils, loops & / vines that run round the edges’ of her husband’s paintings —
i.e. the bits that
get “cut” out as irrelevant, when you get to see the painting
reproduced in a book, or online. (145)
This lends nuance to the narrators previous confession that ‘Often, i leave an Art Gallery, or a painting, feeling / uncertain, about what I just saw’ (19). Π.O. experiments with ekphrasis to blend poetic methods with ‘minor’ modes of artistic production, noting that ‘Art distinguishes between paint and stoneware products, (on one hand) and ////// threads and ## fabrics on the other’ (69). This method is neatly expressed in the concrete poem ‘Textiles’ (179), dedicated to the author’s sister Athena, and comprised of diagonally intersecting repetitions of the word TEXT and TILE. Another highlight is the reproduction of Ellis Rowan’s ‘A Bunch of Australian Wild Flowers’, which uses various text sizes, styles and orientation to replicate the artist’s floral bouquet, achieving the same calm discordance as Rowan’s original, a kind of lyrebird cacophony which takes up the statement in the preceding poem on Rowan that ‘Representation absorbs, the object’ (140).
Philip Mead, among others, has pointed out Π.O.’s affinity with the Objectivist poetry movement, given his focus on Breath (spoken word/ performance), the tendency to approach the page as a ‘field’, and attention to the materiality of language. Mead writes that in Π.O.’s work ‘is brusquely impatient of generic comformity, radically insistent on the materiality of language’, thus representing the ‘plain contingencies of everyday speech, but in uncommon, innovative poetic language’ . This is certainly true of Π.O.’s latest volume, in which each poem takes up Olson’s call for words ‘be treated as solids, objects, things’, and thus be ‘allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions’ . Heide responds to Olsen’s insistence that ‘all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetable in the patch, when you work it, come spring’ . This analogy is particularly fitting in case of the joyfully visceral ‘To Granny Smith’, which ploughs the proper confusions of turnip, carrot, fly, spider, rabbit, wasp, sunlight and caterpillar before relishing the ‘)cHew CruNch ^ # mUsh ) M*uNch!’ of an apple in a way that distinctly resembles playing with one’s food (163).
At times, Heide veers towards something slightly Edenic, seeming to buy into the ‘fairytale’ of the Heide bohemia, dwelling a moment too long in the delicately-curated-as-chaotic kitchen garden and verging on namedropping the poet’s own connections (perhaps gesturing towards an interesting parallel between the author’s own self-conscious myth-making and that of the Heide Circle). Certainly ΠO is not willing to dismiss his subjects outright. To Kershaw’s question, ‘“just what the hell” was Heide for?’, the narrator asserts ‘Everything!’ and reminds us that ‘we all have “a little Heide” in us yet’ (506). Happily, these sentimental moments rarely come at an expense to Π.O.’s unflinching attention to the white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, elitism and disfunction of the modernist art movement, whether quoting at length John Reed’s racist letter lambasting the artwork of Western Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira (525), or the role of entrenched privilege in founding Melbourne’s cultural bohemia — ‘Love her / hate her / [Sunday’s] father’s / a Bailieau’, and the ‘dead weight of / a Patron’s hand, is always in the work’ (343). In Π.O.’s hands, the fact that ‘John and Sunday are RICH!’ informs a somewhat cynical interpretation of their vision of ‘Art’ as having ‘an organic quality about it’ and thus the necessity for it ‘to grow out of the soil, as it were’ (343).
It would be fair to say that Heide never fully dismisses nor embraces what Alexander Kershaw derided as the ‘collective farming’ of the ‘cocktail-swilling cretins’ out in Bulleen (448). Yet nor does it stroll through the grounds and sculpture park, flat white in hand. Rather, it examines the materiality of culture and oppression, celebrates minor’ and marginalised art forms, teases out the tensions in the Australian artistic canon and interrogates the potential for creative production to be truly radical. At its best, Heide jumps the hedge into the kitchen garden and proceeds, like the larrikins in Fitzroy, to
pull / up the pumpkins
and other plants, and throw
them about /
the place 
1. Farrell, Michael. “The Conceptual Lyrebird: Imitation as Lyric in the Poetry of Amanda Stewart.” Journal of the European Association for Studies on Australia 9.1 (2018).
2. Mead, Philip. “Unsettling Language: π. o.’s 24 Hours.” Aberration in Modern Poetry: Essays on Atypical Works by Yeats, Auden, Moore, Heaney and Others (2011): 161.
3. Olson, Charles. Projective verse. Brooklyn NY: Totem Press, 1959.
5. Π.O., Fitzroy: The Biography. Collective Effort Press, 2015.
ABIGAIL FISHER is a writer, editor and part-time Zoom tutor living on unceded Wurundjeri land.
Art by Amani Haydar