British India, White Australia
by Kama Maclean
New South Books
Reviewed by JOSHUA BIRD
Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated elements of systems of racial discrimination is their sheer banality.
Whether it be the efficient genocidal bureaucracy of the Nazi holocaust or the complex racist laws and policies that held together the system of Apartheid in South Africa, their existence reminds us that racism and prejudice are not just the remit of bad people—‘racists’—doing ‘racist’ things. Rather, racism is a concept that explains—indeed generates—entire systems of oppression and exclusion. Such systems are administered soberly and dutifully by governments and their representatives often in pursuit of their own perception of the common good.
For a real-world example of countries whose histories are informed by the administration of racism you could not find two clearer cases in India and Australia. Both countries are connected by a shared experience of colonialism of the British variety yet they participated on quite different ends of the imperial spectrum. The central explanation of that difference is, of course, race. Australia was not only a part of an empire constructed with Whiteness at its core, it was a nation who had only just recently declared most proudly its intention to be the purest, whitest nation in the British Empire. India, on the other hand, was a proud ancient civilisation now denied equal standing within the Empire, despite representing its largest source of resources and income, solely on the basis of its non-White status.
Using race and colonialism as a common thread, British India, White Australia, by Kama Maclean, attempts to explore this complex set of inter-relationships between Australia, India and Britain (as both nations and peoples) from Australian Federation in 1901 until India’s independence in 1947. In the first half of the twentieth century, British propaganda efforts went to great pains to emphasise the kinship of the Imperial relationship. This narrative was particularly emphasised during World War II when the survival of the Empire itself rested very heavily on India’s contribution to the war effort. Yes, despite this narrative of brotherhood, it would be some time before Australia even approached recognising India as a sovereign nation.
Historically, Australian perspectives on India were mediated through the triangulated prism of Britain – and the British Empire. For example, while Australian trade to India was robust, such trade was transacted largely with British colonial enterprises and seen as a component of global Imperial Trade rather than a bilateral economic relationship with India itself. India’s economy was shackled to Britain’s as a prime source of raw materials for British industry and a captive market for British manufactured goods. As Maclean notes, “India was more imagined than experienced in Australia, with the vast majority of transnational connections heavily mediated through the white mechanisms of the British Raj” (Maclean, p55). This was not an accident. Rather, it was by British design and intent.
From India’s perspective, the ties of Empire served to increase tensions with Australia rather than bind them closer. Australia’s stridently racist immigration policies—which treated British Indians just as unfairly as Chinese or other non-whites—put it at odds with a country looking to assert itself on equal footing within the Empire. Australia, for its part, tended to see Indian criticism of its restrictive policies as indicative of the Indian people’s ‘hyper-sensitive’ nature (Maclean, p233), rather than a genuine grievance borne of justifiable concern. In international forums Australian diplomats did their best to frame the country’s policies of prejudicial exclusion in economic terms rather than explicitly race-based ones. Australia’s concern was with non-whites’ willingness to work for low wages without union membership, it was argued, rather than any sense of racial superiority or prejudice that motivated Australia’s actions. Those paying attention will recognise similarities to contemporary Australian political discourses around migration (for both refugees and non-refugee).
Arguably, for much of the 20th century content to follow Britain’s lead, Australia was most active internationally when combating attempts to progress racial equality. For the antipodean colony, the issues of challenging apartheid, softening the White Australia policy and Indian home rule were all connected—each an equally slippery slope which must be defended against at all costs lest the Empire come undone. Most famously, the advocacy of Australian Prime Minister Hughes was instrumental in halting a resolution in favour of a racial equality clause during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Maclean covers negotiations of this kind in great detail in the book, although the casual reader may find the content covering various international agreements and domestic legislation a dense read.
However, British India, White Australia is as much about British hypocrisy on the issue of race as it is about Australia’s own discriminatory policies in relation to Indians. While Britain often joined India in showing dismay over Australia’s policies, this was only because of their perceived impact on the stability of the Empire rather than any higher moral argument. Indeed, Maclean argues that Australia’s race-based immigration regime was entirely consistent with the Empire’s principles and values rather than an aberration from them.
Race and inherent white superiority were used to justify Britain’s refusal to extend self-rule to India just as much as they were used to justify the exclusion of non-whites from Australia. As Australia’s third Prime Minister Chris Watson argued:
“The British Government do not think of putting the Hindoo (sic) or any other native of India upon the same plane as the people of the United Kingdom. The ground I take is that the natives of India are British subjects and subjects only, whilst the people of the United Kingdom are citizens as well, and British subjects in Australia are citizens also. That constitutes a wide distinction” (Maclean, pp25-26)
The sensitives of relations within the Empire meant that the reasoning for this distinction was seldom explicitly stated—the racist assumption that Indians were not capable of self-rule (at least not currently). Similarly, Australia’s selective application of a theoretically colour-blind language test allowed the country to effectively bar the migration of non-Whites without stating their true intent.
Ironically, Australians themselves balked at Britain’s use of bureaucracy to discriminate against them in the form of access to roles in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). At the time, Britain required applicants for work in the Indian colonial administration to attend examinations that were held in London, thus limiting access to only those Australians with the time and funds to allow for the trip to Britain. Australian lobbying for the holding of examinations locally were resisted by Britain at least partially on the grounds that giving in to such a request would increase pressure on them to hold similar examinations in India itself—thus opening the door for increased numbers of Indians working in the ICS. As with Australia’s language test, Britain felt the need to maintain a veneer of procedural fairness in enacting its racial discrimination. As Maclean notes, “discrimination was effectively concealed in the garb of the efficient and procedural bureaucracy of the examination” (Maclean, p41).
While the low numbers of Indians migrating to Australia in the early Twentieth Century meant that they were never a target of specific legislation or policies to curb their numbers or influence, they nonetheless suffered at the hands of Australia’s racist policies which aimed to discriminate against all non-Whites equally. Indeed, it was this failure to give British Indians the proper standing expected of fellow members of the Empire that was the greatest source of grievance for Indians in Australia.
Those Indians resident in Australia balked at their second-class standing and were very active in petitioning governments—both domestically and internationally—for a recognition of their special status. Having spilled blood for the Empire in the recent war, surely they had done enough to prove themselves loyal subjects and worthy of respect? ‘No’, was Australia’s response. If anything, Indian migration to Australia represented a new threat to the Australian worker and fed into the long-running inferiority complex of the Colonial Australian. The expansion of Western models of education to the Indian middle classes, including English language training, had created a generation of Indians who could not only compete with Australian workers but exceed them in capacity and skills.
Despite these tensions, there was engagement and contact between Indians living in Australia and local people. However, given the scarcity of first-person Indian accounts, Maclean is generally forced to adopt the perspective of non-Indian Australians in painting a picture of the lives of Indians in Australia at the time. This includes a fascinating analysis of the presence of Indian hawkers through the family photos and remembrances of those rural Australian families with whom they traded. For many of these isolated families, particularly women, the arrival of a travelling Indian hawker represented an opportunity to sample new wares, share local gossip and access the world beyond the farm. However, such representations are just snippets; distant and casual.
While Maclean herself acknowledges the limitations of first-person sources, the book would have benefited from more illustration of the internal life of Indians resident in Australia at the time. How did they reconcile their identities as Indians, Australians and British subjects? Instead, the greater availability of official documentation over personal accounts means that much of the book is concerned with the formal administrative aspects of Indian identity in Australia in the early twentieth century—such as the advocacy for equal legal and/or residential status.
In the end, Australia’s reticence in engaging directly with India and Indians gave way to shifting political realities. Even by the 1920s, Britain’s primary role in mediating the Australia-India relationship had started to recede. This allowed for both parties to establish more direct engagement for the first time. Oftentimes this engagement was led by niche organisations; Communists, Theosophists and Friendship societies. The Australian public’s impact on India’s independence movement was minimal at best. Despite this, the book explores the activities and internal machinations of a number of these well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual efforts.
With Britain’s retreat from Asia during World War II and India’s newly won independence, Australian policy-makers quickly acknowledged the need for a recalibration of its diplomatic priorities. As European powers retreated from their former colonial territories in the region Australia was now looking at a more isolated future. Cultivation of stronger diplomatic ties with India was needed as Australia pivoted to face a new foe—global Communism. Soon both countries would establish respective diplomatic representation, opening channels for direct political communication without British involvement. This would eventually be followed by the first cracks in the White Australia policy, allowing Indians to study, work and migrate to Australia.
In recent years, political necessity sparked by shifts in international power relations has once again seen Australian political leaders turn their attention to India. This time, however, it is China to whom the West seeks India’s help in balancing. India has become one of Australia’s key strategic partners in responding to the growing economic and military might of China, joining the United States and Japan as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘the Quad’). On the economic front, Australia’s two-way goods and services trade with India now totals a massive $24.4 billion per year, and has become a key market for Australian exporters looking to avoid an over-reliance on China. At the individual level, engagement has never been higher. India is now the second largest country of origin for overseas-born Australian residents, and last year well over 100,000 Indians studied in Australia. Exchange goes both ways, as Australian cricketers ply their wares throughout the Indian Premier League and Indian cuisine and culture now firmly within the mainstream.
And yet, the central question raised by British India, White Australia remains. Do Australia and India truly share a set of common values and understandings? The poor treatment of Indian-Australians trying to return to Australia during the recent surge of Covid-19’s Delta variant revealed fractures in the relationship. Racist incidents, such as the apparent targeting of Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne, have also undermined any argument that racist attitudes towards Indians are now in the country’s rear-view mirror. While some may suggest that any hope for long-term engagement between India and Australia rests on an embrace of their common history, others like Maclean will continue to assert that in fact it is this shared colonial experience that has prevented the relationship from evolving beyond its racist origins.
JOSHUA BIRD is a community development specialist and scholar who focuses on minority rights and multicultural policy. He has spent the last twenty years living and working across the Asia-Pacific and has a Masters of Asia-Pacific Studies (2010) and a Doctor of Philosophy in China Studies (2016). Joshua is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books and Cha Asian Literary Journal, and his first book Economic Development in China’s Northwest: Entrepreneurship and Identity Along China’s Multi-ethnic Borderland was published by Routledge in 2017.
Anonymous is a POC health worker and poet living in one of the LGAs on unceded Gadigal country. They write on the Covid delta strain crisis.
Let it RIP, Australia
The dawn of a new decade came with a sting
that became an explosion,
a sniff of opportunity.
And the powerful lined up to strut and pose
they got through 2020 by sheer luck, rising,
as they silenced and crushed all opposition!
They spun a smorgasbord of false narratives
to keep the masses asleep.
They reminded us in other countries
women get shot.
December 2020 Israel vaccinates, Australia is silent.
If there’s a goal, it’s secret and hidden.
Inside the dark wooden cabinet of white men
is a vaccination vacuum.
Strut, pose, wait and watch the world. It’s not a race!
Smiling and lying, they squander the gains,
strutting, posing and rewarding the sycophants
Only 4% fully vaccinated when Bondi starts
as it spreads to Walgett, and Victoria,
New Zealand even. A catch-up game
No intention of defeating this plague.
Deliberate, calculated spread
because when it is everywhere
there is nothing to lose in opening the borders. Ha ha!
1200 cases today and we smile and boast
dissonant, cheerful one-liners.
The price is paid in the hospitals of Sydney
by the beaten and battered clinicians,
falling one by one to radio silence.
By patients who came in for gallstones
but never left because of COVID.
In small country towns where there is no hospital
and no prospect of evacuation because Dubbo is falling
in the dark corridors of the prisons
and the forgotten people in Wilcannia
starving and unvaccinated
Is this planned genocide?
While the experts muse about global equit
While Pfizer is fast-tracked to the Eastern suburbs
So they can be free sooner
Strutting. Posing. The strong will survive and the weak….
Well they were unvaccinated. Ha ha!
Let’s go full Great Barrington today, Haha, they laugh.
Live with COVID, haha!
The children are the sacrifice,
held up to the money god.
The ultimate sacrifice in cringing worship of the UK
Desperate doctors whisper about whole wards infected
Emergency beds prepared in concrete car parks
Hastening death with morphine and midazolam
to allow new admissions.
Live with COVID, they say, as they strut and pose.
We have thousands of ventilators. Haha!
It’s just the Untermensch that are dying
Westies and Muslims.
Not the important people of Mona Vale.
In the rich suburbs a lady browsing in a non-essential shop
was heard saying “That’s not us. It’s just the LGAs”.
The experts who built their careers trumpeting their commitment
to the vulnerable and disadvantaged
are silent, still grovelling for small favours like obedient dogs
Servants to the state with one foot
crushing the heads of the dying, so eager to help
masturbating at the fate of the poor
as the carnage flows
as the merchants of death conduct their deadly orchestra
The complicit media who fawned and enabled this symphony of sorrow
are starting to fidget and fuss
Some sense belatedly they are stakeholders too.
Their children will be sacrificed. Oh no.
A few speak out and finally ask the right questions
Too little too late.
A small group of besieged warriors
fought for what was right
but were silenced and destroyed
by the despots and their fawning colluders
by laws twisted to punish
those who dared to speak truth
North Korea style.
The righteous painted as bad guys.
Black is white
And white is black.
Some lost their jobs for speaking up.
While the posing pretenders climbed higher
on the bodies of the dead
and the mountains of their profit
shouting out their propaganda
We have to live with COVID!
Death is inevitable!
Song of the Crocodile
by Nardi Simpson
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
To read Song of the Crocodile is to immerse yourself in an unfolding relationship to place. You may not recognise it immediately but the profound connection to place shared by Simpson through this story is a slow build to love, yearning, recognition and respect for Country. The novel is a confident and accomplished debut by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman best known for her singing and song writing as a member of the Sydney band the Stiff Gins. It is a profound intergenerational Australian story of family and Country that deserves to be as celebrated and well-read as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
The novel illuminates a way of thinking, of loving and of living. Simpson’s musicality, the fluid way she uses language, both English and Yuwaalaraay, throughout underscores the narrative by creating landscapes of emotion. It reveals connectedness and relationship across time and place, allowing language and Country to breathe. Song of the Crocodile is a lyrical achievement of story, language, and heart.
Set in a time resembling the 1950s, the book opens with Simpson walking us into Darnmoor, a small regional town in the north-west of NSW with the tag line ‘Gateway to Happiness’ on its welcome sign. We see the early morning quiet streets, the shuttered shops and the war memorial in the centre that provides the focus for the town. We walk through the town, leaving the ‘inoffensive, modest and calm’ façade of Darnmoor, to the Council tip, a bora ground now covered in the town rubbish, and then on further to the Mangamanga, a great river near where the local Aboriginal people live on a place called the Campgrounds located at the end of Old Black Road.
This introduction sets the foundation for all that will follow; the demarcation of bodies, dreams and knowledge, and what happens when boundaries are pushed. Powerfully, the story is told only through the experience of the Aboriginal characters. The white characters are significant actors, changing hopes and lives, but they are not the emotional or narrative focus.
The story is of three generations of women, Margaret Lightning, her daughter Celie Billymil, and Mili, Celie’s daughter.
Living on the Campgrounds and working in Darnmoor, Margaret is quiet and hardworking, navigating the white town with caution. She works at the hospital, doing the laundry and walks into town each day using side streets to reach her destination. The demarcation of race occurs in the hospital too, with Aboriginal patients installed on a side verandah with Margaret acting as their nurse, cleaner and counsellor, and conduit to the white management. Racism is ever present, in the demand that the sheets used for the Aboriginal patients are burnt rather than washed and re-used, in the level of care for the Aboriginal patients, the amount of information Aboriginal patients are provided about their health.
Celie is a kind, calm constant energy in the story. She suffers loss with dignity and determination to provide a future for Mili, her daughter, and she uses her knowledge of the town to create opportunity.
Mili is the future generation. She lives in change, where her newly fashioned hopes are regularly pushed down and obstructed by the white systems of power in the town. Mili becomes a bridge between the Aboriginal and white worlds, a burden of much weight.
Ancestors feature too, some being stars, trees and dust. They are ever present and active, guiding and preparing the earthbound people for the future while drawing on the old ones for advice and support. The sky-bound observe from the ‘the roof of the plains’ and move across the Milky Way, called Warrambool in Yuwaalaraay language.
Some ancestors that drive the story are Jakybird, the Songman who brings the choir together for the song of the crocodile; Garriya, the malevolent single-minded crocodile who lies in the earth far below the town waiting for his chance to return; Margaret and Celie’s lightning kin who herald the rain; Murrudhi Gindamalaa (Laughing Star) who protects and provides for the newly dead; Malawildhuulmuranga (the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn) who disappears into dark nights hiding diamonds, stars, within her; and Burrenjean, (the featherless bird) the human form of magpie lark who ‘makes the country sing’ despite being name-called as mudlark. Her feather father reassures her of the significance of her earth-bound origin when he tells her:
‘The mud is the beginning of our connectedness. The beginning of our responsibility, the reason we are needed…
What is mud but the joining of all that is above and all below?’ (p210)
Simpson seamlessly conveys the world above, on and below the plains as one. Her telling of Aboriginal philosophy, of Country, belonging and lore, details consequence and relationship for all creatures, not just human. In Song of the Crocodile, all things are elemental and connected; all things are in fluid relationship to each other, including the writer and reader.
Her inventive way of weaving Yuwaalaraay words and meaning throughout the English without direct explanation, creates space and invites the reader to read in a different way, from a different angle. There is no singular understanding or story in this novel. It is layered and readers will find different connections within it.
The characters experience connections, often surprising themselves. By the river, when the women gather to comfort Margaret, who has been disrespected and disappointed (again) by white townspeople actions, Idy, an older Aboriginal woman, begins singing. Margaret joins in. She knows the words, and the power of the song, but can’t remember when she learnt it. Celie and Mili both, find comfort from tragedy in the Double D, an ancient coolabah tree by the river that saw the boras, long before the town was first laid out.
Another tree, where Celie’s husband died, along the Old Black Road, draws Celie, newborn baby Mili and Celie’s young nephews:
‘Aunty Ceil, Nan told me about the trees, how they remember everything. How they hold memories for people… But here, around here, is where he lived too. Aunt, sit down.
… Nan taught me all about it. They hold life. The bad stuff they take away through their roots and release it into the ground.’ (p67)
For Malawildhuulmuranga, her connection is planetary, as her Dhaa explains, ‘You are a daughter of dawn, the only thing separating darkness from light and the only thing that joins them.’ (p82)
Jakybird assesses and marvels at Paddy, Mili’s son who is in deep despair:
‘He watched Paddy sway into town, messy, loose, stumbling, but erect. This must have been powerful magic, remaining upright when all conspired to pull him down’. (p344)
Paddy reminds Jakybird of Garriya, now crocodile but who was once a friend, and the connection is made again between the ancient and the now.
The connection of life and death is always close too. At one point, Wil, Mili’s husband who has died, tries to reach Paddy his son, to induce a flicker of hope in Paddy’s heart:
‘High in the star, Wil moved memories into his son. They were only colours: the deep blue of a uniform, the bright orange of a council hat. Flashes of smiles, places they’d been, or the feel of a fishing line or the ruffling of his hair.’ (p350)
Connection is everywhere in this story, connection to all creatures, to the past and to the future. Even when the characters feel most alone, the reader knows they are not.
Demarcations and boundaries
The town geographically delineates between Aboriginal and white clearly. Darnmoor, as most real Australian towns did, corrals the local Aboriginal people outside the white perimeter, past the rubbish tip at the end of the Old Black Road. The history of this practice extends back through to the first settler fence-builders and town planners on this land. For instance, the town I grew up in, Taree on Biripi Country on the NSW mid north coast, pushed/ took/stole/drove local Biripi people to a reserve, Purfleet, south of the town across the river.
Song of the Crocodile reveals these practices as oppressive, common and complex. Some Aboriginal people are allowed inside the unspecified fence, but this comes with negotiation and always a cost. We see the cost to Margaret first:
‘When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tared road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent.’ (p11).
In the novel, just as in the real world, Aboriginal women use their intimate knowledge of the white world strategically, while the white characters have no insight into how little they understand of – or are required by – the Aboriginal world. This considered and deliberate reveal, of how an oppressed people know their oppressors intimately while the oppressors have no clue, was a highlight in the story for me.
White actions have impacts on the Campgrounds community. These impacts are frequently dismissed – or even unimagined – because white people believe they hold the power and can choose not to notice, not to listen. We see the impacts roll down the generations affecting people and land the same. The white settler idea of progress – unsustainable growth through exploitation of land and people – clashes fundamentally with the integrated, cyclical nurturing and honouring connections to past, present and future that most of the Aboriginal characters carry in the story.
The Darnmoor inhabitants praise the achievements of white men above all else. Like many real Australian towns, the townspeople invest in appearances not community, in short term thinking, unsustainable futures and ignore or decry other ways and other people. The town rubbish tip placed on the bora grounds is just one example. Another is the construction of a levee around Darnmoor to hold back flood waters.
The town celebrates the completion of the levee, but the levee creates further demarcation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the area. When Mili’s tears begin to flow, and all the travesties of humanity she has had to endure come to fruition, the danger of ignoring Country is clear. Garriya gathers his energy and slowly surfaces, the sky inhabitants dance the old bora grounds, which never disappear or age no matter how significant their apparent destruction appears, and:
‘… the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed and washed away.’ (p401)
These practices of demarcation – white choices – are damaging and shamefully long-lived ones. They are still present in many towns across Australia. Through fiction, Simpson powerfully writes the truth of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Jakybird warns the sky inhabitants, sitting around icy fires in Warrambool, the Milky Way, that the singing of Garriya ‘… is a hard one; some of you will die a second time in its singing’. (p354).
Darnmoor is not a generative gateway, and certainly not one to happiness as that welcome sign states. Warrambool, the literal heavens, is a gateway to the next place, for some a return to the earth, for others to sing again, others to sleep and wait some more. The act of singing is also a gateway, for it is part of culture, of belonging, of the turnabout of the world. It leads us to another place, another future.
The novel itself is a gateway too. Its landscape is wide and considered as Simpson tells the truth of our ongoing relationship with First Nations people of this Country. She details the changes to landscape that compound negatively and highlights the lack of accountability and short-sightedness of our settler society.
While Song of the Crocodile is a local, family saga, it speaks to our national story, and Simpson, with heart, attention and tenderness, shows readers a perspective that most of us will never have imagined before. This is what great fiction does, implicates and expands the reader’s emotional and philosophical terrain.
Towards the end of the novel, Malawildhuulmuranga asks one of the old ones ‘… why do you want to destroy it?’ and he answers, ‘How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go?’. (p365)
These are powerful cycles of renewal. We know change will only be made if we learn the lessons of the old ones. There is hope here, in this story, if we listen and learn.
PIP NEWLING was born on unceded Wirrayaraay Country, grew up on Biripi Country and lives and works on Dharawahl and Gadigal Country. She thanks all Elders from these lands, past, present, emerging and future, for blessing her with the health Country provides and the opportunity to benefit from their custodianship.
Michael Aiken is a four-time recipient of a unique and delightful child, and the founder, owner and servant-in-chief of Garden Lounge Creative Space, Sydney’s only specialist poetry shop and licenced café. His first poetry collection, A Vicious Example (Grand Parade 2014) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, the Mary Gilmore Prize and an Australian Book Design Award. His second book, the verse novel Satan Repentant (UWAP 2018) was commissioned by Australian Book Review for their inaugural Laureate’s Fellowship, as selected and mentored by David Malouf. His most recent poetry collection is The Little Book of Sunlight and Maggots (UWAP 2019).
Artemis, the moon, and a handball: nightscape
Playing with the moon
blue in my shadow
while you, my little guy
smile about slugs, treetops,
old school or new,
proper service during King’s Revenge…
Practicing your Spongebob voice
mein kinderlein, lÖcken
running on the field again
There are no accidents
Said the turtle to the panda
Said the panda to the giant panda
Said the child to the man
and the man realises
he is a man
and the child goes on
realising nothing, realising little
Nothing will come of nothing
a serpent consuming its tail
like it, a queen
the people talking
the Odyssey on its journey through space
family all put to sleep, the world
all gone to sleep
the world all gone…
Steps into water
There are no accidents
You’re a great dad
I’ll be your mirror
Now the glass is absolute
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by MICHELLE HAMADACHE
The Other Half of You isn’t written just for all the readers out there who get what it’s like to be the child of migrant parents. It’s not just written for those who know already what it’s like to deal with growing up in a home where the culture on your doorstep is interpreted as threatening by the adults in the house. It’s not just written for those who know what it’s like to grow up where the only home you have known, Australia, consistently rejects you by asking you to be something other than yourself in order to belong. Arab people in particular, Muslim people more broadly speaking—for they are not interchangeable terms—are overwhelmingly regarded with suspicion and hostility here, and that changes what it is possible to say now.
If a book is going to avoid being trapped in a fallen language, where everything it says or does judges and is then in turn judged by others, then it is remembering that stories are uncertain, sometimes difficult, gifts that matters most. Stories are the threads that draw together disparate communities and bind new ways of knowing to a collective consciousness, to forge the newly imagined community.
The Other Half of You is as much about what is, as what might be, and in its gritty, graphic and unforgettable detail, it contains the storyteller’s ability to exchange lived experiences in such a way that those experiences are not just shared with the reader, but integrated, via memory, via the body, as stories with lessons for living. It is the rubber-gloved hand on the delicate skin of a penis that conveys, unforgettably, the lesson: raise daughters solely to be wives to the detriment of all (especially their husbands); marry against your will and risk self-destruction, and, like all the lessons to be imparted by The Other Half of You, these two lessons are underscored by the prevailing moral: if anything is going to get us through the shit we’re in, it’s love.
The Other Half of You marks the end of Bani Adam’s bildungsroman spanning The Tribe and The Lebs. Regardless of whether Michael Mohammad Ahmad intends to continue with Bani, the journey to adulthood ends here. This is because in the birth of Bani’s son Kahlil, and the father’s story of his conception given to his son, a fiercely poetic and mature voice emerges. It is a voice that also channels the energies of rich literary genealogies, that draw together Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, most resoundingly Lebanese diasporic writer and poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, for whom Bani’s son is named and from where the novel’s epigraph is drawn. Ahmad also nods to The Book of Khalid, an experimental novel by Ameen Rihani written in 1911, and sometimes referred to as the first Arab novel (with all the contentions that come along with ‘firsts’ and the novel as form and genre).
Ahmad formally organises his novel into three parts, each referring to time and destiny, ‘All That Was’; ‘All That Is’; and ‘All That Will Be’. It is loosely structured as an address, or as a gift, to Bani’s newborn son, Kahlil. In order to explain just how an Alawite Muslim forbidden to marry outside the tribe ends up with his Anglo-Australian wife Oli and their baby, ‘my half-caste, half-insider, half-outsider’, Bani begins with the story of his unconsummated first love, Sahara. Sahara is a Christian Lebanese girl he met online living in a housing commission flat in Glebe with her single mother. It is Bani’s father’s discovery via gossip of this relatively innocent, but consuming, first love that precipitates Bani’s disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima. Fatima is a nineteen-year-old girl looking to escape her father’s household, and it is the inevitable implosion of that marriage that sees Bani ultimately, through despair rather than defiance, reject his marriage and fall into the arms of Oli.
Bani meets Oli at the PCYC boxing gym. It is Ahmad’s strength that he harnesses the metaphoric potential of places like the PCYC. Here, in the egalitarian, if brutal, world of boxing, racial and homophobic epithets abound, yet the atmosphere is inclusive. The boxing ring, despite its violence, its duelling opponents, ironically flattening binaries of us and them, while upholding identities, is a place that binds rather than divides, through the shared understanding of a set of rules that are agreed upon and entered into freely, without eradicating differences. The gym upholds identities, forming something like a Foucauldian heterotopia—a space that exists within the dominant hegemony of white settler Australia.
Bani’s father’s disposal store, like the PCYC where he trains, is another example of the powerful representation of places that resist. The store is aptly named Cave of Wonders and is stocked with wares that draw a variety of customers seeking sleeping bags and the possibility of bartering. Here, Ahmad strategically deploys the history of many Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Australia who were granted provisional, limited, unequal resident status based on their role as ‘hawkers’. Many chose to anglicise their names and erase their origins in order to be accepted into an Australia hell-bent on whiteness.
Jumana Bayeh discusses Patrick White’s problematic characterisation of a Syrian hawker in her Southerly essay, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’. Bayeh poses a perspicacious question: ‘But what story could be uncovered if we were able to hear the Syrian narrate his own life and his experiences in Australia?’ (131). This challenge underscores the silences and erasures that have characterised Australia’s literary spaces to date. The presence of the store in the novel returns this lost history, as does Bani’s acknowledgment of his own family’s history of naming (Bani/Benny 295). In his representation of Cave of Wonders, Ahmad creates a space of reversals, while also memorialising the history of a group of people who came to Australia with a conditional and ambivalent welcome. With its intertextual reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the Cave is a place that gives Bani the opportunity to read Persian poetry, to escape family and wife. It is also where misogyny and racism are given open mic, but where, as the owner’s son, Bani gets to call the shots and thus level the playing field. As always, the representations of sexist and racist outbursts are framed by the novel’s ideological focalisation that captures what is with a deliberate and crafted goal: to bring into the literary space the flawed, the ugly, the inappropriate, the shocking—the human. When Bani grapples with the limits of his own conflicted mixture of feminism and tribalism, it is a dramatized battle that Ahmad is orchestrating.
The mix of autobiography and fiction is part of its fascination: that age-old dilemma concerning itself with ontological distinctions between fiction and lie; truth in fiction. The ideological focalisation of the novel is not sexist or misogynistic, though it certainly represents both standpoints through its characters.
As with The Tribe and The Lebs, this third novel in the series draws on Ahmad’s lived experience. The fictional mode of The Other Half of You means its characters and storylines are both metaphoric and literal. The strength of Ahmad’s prose often rests in his ability to strikingly and relentlessly bring to life scenes: characters, action and setting, from weddings to fights, capturing them in a mix of vivid language and heightened observation. But most importantly, Ahmad’s prose frames these situations in Bani’s unique mix of insouciance and wisdom.
At stake in the story of the love affair between Bani and Oli and the birth of Kahlil, is the knitting together of what, up until The Other Half of You, has been divided, or at least incongruent: the world of children descended from Anglo-Saxon heritage and the world of children descended from everywhere else, and in a context where racism divides and culture prohibits, the romance plot between Oli and Bani is a powerful and productive trope.
If Oli’s characterisation never matches the unforgettable Sahara and Fatima, it is in part because her character is understated. It was always going to be a tough gig for a pale girl with thin arms to compete with Bani’s first love, the hirsute and stocky Sahara, whose thirst to understand apostrophes was quenched during a pizza night in Glebe. Likewise, it is hard for Oli to be as memorable as Fatima, whose desire to leave her father’s house is realised in her marriage to Bani, living in a converted garage, wearing only a G-string and watching never-ending episodes of Friends. Coming at the end of the novel and with so much at stake, a lot of pressure was placed on the realisation of Oli’s character and the introduction of an Anglo-Australian parallel backstory. It is perhaps deliberate that the White girl and her family didn’t hold-up to the depth and the vibrancy of the realisation of the Adam family, Sahara or Fatima.
Even the disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima is propelled by love. It is a marriage Bani enters into from love for the father, the family, the tribe. If willpower and looks alone make a marriage, then on paper the marriage between Fatima and Bani should have been rock solid. Ahmad deploys the perspective of the older narrator which imbues the entire section with a sense of impending disaster, but also allows the younger Bani to blindly suffer through the honeymoon and marriage as they unfold with tragi-comedy and bathos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the book is the father’s outcry, ‘I should have let him go’. This cry echoes throughout the rooms of this book, because ultimately, Ahmad is telling the story of the break and the fold between father and son, the present and posterity, and of histories based not on continuity but on ruptures.
In many respects, the love Bani feels for his world with all its bathos and brutality, courage and fierceness establishes The Other Half of You as the work of a storyteller, rather than novelist or memoirist. The novel is strongest when it shares experiences, whether lived, observed or imagined, in their raw materiality, boldly capturing what is. This is not lack of craft, rather it’s a concerted effort to create a territory free of the relentless drive towards conformity, or permissible difference that characterises much of contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Within the pages of The Other Half of You, anger, frustration, ignorance and despair hold centre stage with forgiveness, acceptance and the transformative power of love. The novel doesn’t try to silence what is unpalatable about lived human experience. While there might be more information than Kahlil (or any child) wants to know from his father about their conception, and the various sexual experiences that led to that conception, the body is centred as a way of knowing. The ‘over-sharing’ draws attention to the conceit, The Other Half of You is fiction after all, while also consciously drawing on the relentlessness of a confessional mode that breaks down social mores and prioritises the need for a story to be told over and above other considerations.
Randa Abdel-Fattah describes writing as a Muslim writer in Australia as the necessity of writing from a double position: a need to write for a Muslim audience, while writing to a white audience. She describes the frustration of her experiences of being refused the right to write a literature of universal concern, needing to particularise her story, and have it ‘kept’ particular, so that it is heard in a mainstream culture where whiteness is normative. Received literary wisdom that the universal is reached by way of the particular doesn’t apply for everyone. Negotiating this challenge is a task that the writer writing into a minor literature, such as Australia’s, faces, in addition to all the other authorial challenges.
I am not sure that the language exists yet for a relationship of love between marginalised Arabic and Muslim communities and a white settler Australia, but I am sure that it will take novels like The Other Half of You, and writers like Mohammad Ahmad, to bring that language into being.
Consider The Other Half of You as a difficult, uncertain gift. In the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: receivers of the gift, remember, gratitude should have no weight ‘lest you lay a yoke’ upon giver and receiver alike (29). We should have the ability to receive literature as a living thing that needs to grow and change and fail and succeed, all within a single book, so the greater thing of literature, beyond major and minor concerns, might continue to thrive.
Works drawn upon or cited:
Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘The Double Bind of Writing as an Australian Muslim Woman’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 97-117.
Jumana Bayeh, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’, Southerly, Vol. 79 No.1, 2019, pp. 129-149.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico: London, 1999, (83-107).
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann: London, 1926, repr. 1973.
Anne Monsour, ‘Tell Me My Story: The Contribution of Historical Research to an Understanding of the Australian Lebanese Experience’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 9-39.
Ameeni Rihani, The Book of Khalid, Melville House Publishing: New York, 2012.
MICHELLE HAMADACHE has had publications in Australian and international journals. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. ‘Zohira’, a short story appeared in the British Journal of International Writing 2021.
We are thrilled to launch our first issue as Mascara’s new team, after almost one year since our last issue ‘Covid Contingencies’. It has been difficult to keep track of time amidst all the challenges we are facing in our communities on a local, national and international level. These challenges that have permeated our lives, our screens, our minds and our writing.
We recall the many lockdowns in Melbourne, particularly the trauma caused by the hard lockdowns in the North Melbourne and Flemington towers, revealing the discrimination and systemic racism that underpins our government’s responses when it comes to migrant communities. Globally, the ongoing fight to dismantle colonialism and white supremacy is sandwiched between the continuous action against police brutality, the enormous increase in Asian hate crimes in the US, and the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians. Amidst the grief, the anger, the disbelief, we find the way forward is through community and collectiveness. Which is why we are honoured to continue Mascara’s work to push against racism and expand the literary space for talented CALD and First Nations creators, allies and writers extending craft to new experimental territories.
This is displayed in issue 26 where we bring together the work of nine poets and three works of fiction as well as the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize winners. The inaugural Mascara x Bundanon Writers Residency announced this year is also a reflection of our need for creative extension. Congratulations again to Deborah Cass prize winner Anith Mukherjee and the two runner ups, Dasha Maiorova and Sahib Nazari. This issue also includes fifteen reviews that we have published throughout the year, offering close and critical considerations on a range of diverse and urgent new publications. Our beautiful and vibrant cover art was created by Melbourne based writer and artist Eloise Grills.
This year, with two Melbourne based editors we have extended our bases across both Sydney and Melbourne and are excited about engaging more closely with Melbourne’s literary scene. We are delighted to publish reviews on books written by Jennifer Mackenzie and Shu-ling Chua as well as publishing work from Josie/Jocelyn Deane and Dani Netherclift. We are deeply thankful to be funded this year by Creative Victoria and the Australia Council for the Arts. We hope to provide opportunities to support Victoria’s dynamic literary community as well as maintain our Australia wide and global outreach with exciting projects in the near future.
Thank you to all our contributing writers and thank you readers for your patience and support. In this Naidoc week of Healing Country this issue proudly features reviews of Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile by Pip Newling, Timmah Ball’s review of Evelyn Araluen’s DropBear and Anne Brewster’s review of Karen Wyld’s Where Only the Fruit Falls as well as poetry by Samia Goudie and Paul Collis. We thank our First Nations editor, Lyndsay Urquhart whose knowledge of elders, community and language is enrichening. We acknowledge that the lands we live and work on are unceded Aboriginal Country.
Mascara has flourished because of our dedicated collective of past commissioning editors, guest editors, and co-founding editors. Their support, encouragement and continued work with the journal is enormously appreciated.
We are delighted to take this issue live and excited for Mascara’s next steps, for our upcoming special issues and other forthcoming projects.
Editors Anthea Yang & Monique Nair
Nathanael O’Reilly is an Irish-Australian residing in Texas. His books include (Un)belonging (Recent Work Press, 2020); BLUE (above/ground press, 2020); Preparations for Departure (UWAP, 2017), named a Book of the Year in Australian Book Review; Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016); Distance (Ginninderra Press, 2015); Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011); and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010). More than 200 of his poems have appeared in journals and anthologies published in thirteen countries, including Antipodes, Anthropocene, Backstory, Cordite, fourW, FourXFour, Headstuff, Marathon, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Skylight 47, Snorkel, Strukturiss, Transnational Literature, Westerly and The Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2017.
From Ballarat to Brisbane
After Joe Brainard
I remember falling out of a pine tree
at number 2 Waller Avenue in Ballarat
I remember my eyes puffing up
after playing in waist-high grass
on the vacant block down the street
and the pretty nurse sticking
a needle in my bum at the hospital
I remember riding a black horse
sixteen hands high while wearing red
gumboots and red corduroy jeans
I remember burning my tongue
with tomato soup at recess
in the shelter shed
at Redan Primary School
I remember the neighbour’s German Shepherd
nipping at my arse when I scaled the fence
after retrieving a tennis ball from their backyard
I remember riding my red bike
into a puddle beside Lake Wendouree
sinking in mud up to my handlebars
I remember carving my initials
into a branch high up inside
the eucalyptus tree with a pocketknife
I remember breaking my mate’s thumb
while taking a mark playing footy
on the oval at lunchtime in grade one
I remember moving from Ballarat to Brisbane
when I was six – leaving behind my mates
and everything I’d ever known
I remember standing in the dirt driveway
of 50 Larbonya Crescent, Capalaba
on New Year’s Day thinking It’s 1980!
I remember my mate Ian finding a wallet
stuffed with eight fifty-dollar notes
at the shopping centre and buying
a dozen cinnamon doughnuts
I remember playing barefoot
lunchtime rugby and red rover
ripping uniforms and skinning knees
I remember the headmaster
summoning me to his office
giving me six of the best
for playing outside in the rain
Paul Dawson’s first book of poems, Imagining Winter (IP, 2006), won the national IP Picks Best Poetry award in 2006, and his work has been anthologised in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013) and Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1888-2008 (Puncher & Wattmann, 2009). His poetry and fiction appear in journals such as Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, Peril Magazine, Australian Poetry Journal and The Sydney Morning Herald. Paul is currently an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.
Thanks for the poems, Covid-19
Here’s me, face-masked in a supermarket
swamped by white people, who are
angry all over again about the yellow peril
now an invisible airborne enemy speaking in tongues
through the inscrutable hospital-blue fabric
that obscures my features, that signals its silent intent
while I peer at the shelves, ensconced in the conch-shell
of my mask – until the bald, wobbly-eyed face of a
Woolworth’s worker appears suddenly beside me
and barks: ‘Social distancing still applies in here!’
Oh sorry, what was I doing? SOCIAL DISTANCING
STILL APPLIES IN HERE he repeats, as if I can’t hear
as if English escapes me, as if this is groundhog day
as if his words were a talisman to keep the threat at bay.
Yes, I say, but I don’t know what I was doing?
And then, from behind, a woman’s voice chimes in
to explain that she had complained because I
was blocking her path, now averting her gaze
as she swerves her trolley past, and I am left
with my own trapped breath, watching the worker
move on to stack shelves within hugging distance
of a white couple, within a whisper of their faces
as they contemplate trays of beef mince. I refrain
from repeating his talisman back to him
because really I want to scream it hysterically in his face
because I take it personally, because I’m not from, and have
never been, to China, because I know that’s the wrong response
and maybe this had nothing to do with race anyway
and why the fuck did I wear this mask in the first place?
And I can’t help but think of Pauline Hanson, circa the turn of the millennium
and all the incidents like this, which I thought had been eradicated
as if the trope of Asian contagion that lay dormant
while Islamic terrorism helped fashion Hanson’s comeback
has now been revived in a virulent new strain
that cannot be warded off by hoarding toilet paper
for this behaviour is every bit as Australian
as our coming together to battle the bushfires
that tear across the nation, and to be Asian-Australian
in a pandemic is – like hoarding – to be suddenly
un-Australian, where one minor encounter can unmask
the searing loss of belonging, the sense of
impotence, the persistent second-guessing
of one’s own thoughts, that typically present
as asymptomatic on all those inscrutable faces.
Vasilka Pateras is a Melbourne-based poet and emerging writer whose work is published in n-SCRIBE, Mediterranean Poetry, The Blue Nib and Poetry on the Move. She regularly reads as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word community.
The curve of my spine
with the clarinet’s call
I am in its grip
pure majestic phrasing
a gentle hop step of feet
if there was a verse this would be it
if there was a curse it would be my love
for the life of notes that gather as we gather
in the oro
a step in unison
a circle’s embrace
this is our protest
of release in the rattle and clack of
I wipe the sweat from my brow
the clarinet’s hold
into the unknown
frayed across new and old worlds
trying to pick up the lost stitch
in this I am found
Melbourne how do I love you?
industry, billboards stream
flat grey basalt plains of the west
into freeway channels
of fast fast fast
how do I love you
true wog wogness of north
Veni vidi vici
market square of Preston
from the ravages of war
to tamed lions, eagles
lemon trees lemon scented
fruit of dislocation
how do I love you
endless endless suburbs of east
Metricon, Glenville and anon
faux Provincial, Federation, Bungalow Californian
the home beautiful of
low maintenance thinking
to the row row of hedge groves
how do I love you
foreign beige of aspen
dales and vales
lap of bay
against the hush hush hush
how do I love you
oh Yarra, smell of brown
the glass sheen of Maribyrnong,
canals of Elwood
concreted Moonee Ponds creek
do I dare dip my feet?
how do I love you
oh big city heart
playground of successive elites
huddled laneways of mystery
artisanal, literary, labyrinths
cannibalised by capital
that cannot been seen
once crane adorned
now pandemic forlorn
oh Kulin Nation
people, country, language
with stories of legend and lore
I hail the cries for restitution
of what was
and is yours yours yours
1. Translations from Macedonian:
pusteno – to release/let go/set free
oro – folk dance
Gemma Parker is a poet and a teacher at the University of Adelaide. Her poems and essays have been published in Transnational Literature, Award Winning Australian Writing, Writ Poetry Review and the Tokyo Poetry Journal. She was the 2016 winner of the Shoalhaven Literary Award for Poetry. She is a PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide as part of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. She is one of the project managers of the Raining Poetry in Adelaide festival for 2021. She lives in Adelaide with her husband Guillaume and their two children.
Studies in Moonlight
The sparkle on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with
moonlight strikes one to the heart. One suddenly misses the capital,
longing for a friend who could share the moment.
– Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283-1350)
I don’t even know
what a hickory leaf
looks like. I yearn
to write poems about moonlight,
the wet darkness, solitude.
Far from the light-noise of cities,
to write in a place of true night,
in the medicinal north.
To compose more
than opportunistic poems
about the marginalia of life.
Doesn’t one also miss
the rush of loneliness,
and long for distance
from every capital?