The Pigeons Are Taking Over: The Kindness of Birds
by Merlinda Bobis
Reviewed by WINNIE DUNN
The beloved bin chicken is always feeding off scraps of bread whenever I walk to Fairfield station. Because it is a sin to throw away the sacredness of bread, those leftovers become a well-meaning gesture shared by members of the south-west Sydney community. I clutched my copy of The Kindness of Birds (Spinifex, 2021), a short story collection by Merlinda Bobis, as I watched the ibises peck peacefully between pigeons for crumbs.
Short stories are like ibises. Ibises are displaced from their homes due to global warming yet they still choose to stay in large groups and consistently work towards common goals. Likewise, short stories are in themselves self-contained. But when interconnected, their morals, moments and memories take over time and space in a deliberate way for the reader. Short stories aggregate like a flock (Bobis’ collection has 14 individual stories) and yet are shunted to the margins when one thinks of books (short story collections are the least sold or noticed in our industry).
It is the image of the ibises gathering together which I carried into my reading of Bobis’ latest work. Her collection is a series of small gestures, revelation of cultures and feathered symbolism that make up the book’s overall theme – kindness and its many forms in the face of adversity.
The title of this review takes inspiration from Vietnamese-Australian writer, Shirley Le. It was her narrator’s opening line in our co-written play, Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls (UTP, 2021). Used as a symbol for British colonialism, the pigeons flock at the narrator’s Yagoona home window, leaving dirty marks on the glass. Yet, the pigeon is remarked by the narrator’s mother as “much nicer” than the native magpie – the magpie in this sense being used as a symbol for First Nations people’s sovereignty, which was never ceded. As migrant settlers who are writers, it is a constant privilege to know how best to respect this sovereignty, when and where to tell our own stories, and when we are taking up too much space.
In this way, Bobis acknowledged and paid respect to First Nations people’s sovereignty throughout her collection. The stories ‘Candido’s Revolution’ and ‘My Tender Tender’ especially speak to the complex history of colonialism, migration and sovereignty on this continent.
It is the singing of a folksong, reimagined by a Filipinx poet named Remy, that stays with me as I read ‘Candido’s Revolution’. An infamous Manilaman pearl diver hums from atop a tree, “Dandansoy bayaan ta icao” (p54), capturing the attention of Mary (1893 Australia would simply refer to her as “a native woman”). Without a shared language between them besides the complimentary phrase, “Can-do good song” (p55) they still look at each other through the trees. The initial allure they shared is eventually cut short by racist laws and the call for a revolution in the Philippines. For The Kindness of Birds, this interaction marks the historical beginning of inter-cultural dialogue between First Nations people and Filipinx migrants – a connection that is often left unrecognised.
This connection continues in the short story, ‘My Tender Tender’. One of the main characters Uncle Freddy Corpus, swears on the Bible when he tells Nenita of their shared Asian ancestry – she Filipina and he Filipino and Yuwuru. After telling stories to Nenita of miraculous feats of diving to survive the perils of colonialism, Uncle Freddy Corpus eventually “takes out various memorabilia from [a] satchel. He opens one: it’s a copy of a marriage certificate of his Filipino grandfather Servo Corpus Felipe and Yawuru grandmother Maria Emma Ngobing. She’s speechless, honoured […] touched by this gesture affirming their Philippine connection.” (p82) In this way, Uncle Freddy and Nenita’s intercultural dialogue shows how us settlers should act as we walk on stolen lands – nothing but intent listeners, sharing only when asked and only when it will foster healing.
Colonialism would have us all believe that there are only pigeons at the centre of history, Bobis’ writing shows us how wrong that is.
In Tongan culture, an omen of death arrives in the form of a bird entering our houses. One summer, a common mynah flew into the open doors of the top-storey balcony and flittered in circles on the living room ceiling. Even with the doors wide open, the petite brown blur still struggled to find the exit again. ‘Shoo-shoo-shoo!’ my aunty Lahi pleaded, her doughy belly rolling as she battered a straw broom above her head, hitting the plastic chandelier as she did so. ‘Fuck!’ Lahi swore, sweat dripping from her short strands of brown-black hair and into her freckled and frumpled face. Hearing someone swear, (that someone being technically my mother in Tongan culture), made me stifle a giggle. The mynah gave a series of squeaks before finally finding the open balcony. I watched as its fluffed mass disappeared over the streets of Mt Druitt.
Within the short story ‘When the Crow Turns White’, a half-dead bird is carried into parliament injured from the hailstorm raging outside. Two cleaners of Filipinx heritage, Orla and Corazon, wrap the crow in white cloth remarking, “Climate change is scary.” (p14) Throughout their debates in the empty chamber rooms about legislations, the constant arguing of old white men and the winds of change with the first Aboriginal woman elected into the house of representatives, Corazon holds a secret. She is a descendant of crows, a unique culture connection that makes her a born healer. From acts of miracles long ago, she still has memorised the chant, “Ilayog, ilayog ang ilo sa bagà. Ilayog, ilayog ang sakit ni padabà. Fly, fly away the poison in the lungs. Fly, fly away the pain of the beloved!” (p20)
So what happened when the mynah visited us? My grandmother died a week later from a heart attack.
And what happened when the crow flew up in a bundle of white cloth within our parliament? A series of “bipartisan”, “polite” and “caring” (p25) MPs across the political spectrum seemingly overnight.
Why? Only the birds know.
The mammal (not a bird) that started COVID (racists love to use this as an excuse to call east and south-east Asian people “dirty”). The pandemic is threaded throughout Bobis’ short story collection – a grandmother and grandson are quarantining in an apartment together after returning from a trip to the Philippines (‘Grandma Owl’), a lover’s well-meaning yet blasé attitude towards mask-wearing (‘My Love, My Nerūsē’) and a nurse holding a pained patient’s hand even as it went against protocol (‘Angels’). It is these small gestures, hidden between dialogue, that readers should pay close attention to when reading The Kindness of Birds. Bobis’ work on the subject reveals it was not COVID that reshaped our society but rather all the small acts of kindness individuals chose in order to look after each other.
The only school assignment my father ever helped me with was a cardboard presentation about pelicans I did in Year 2. We printed out blurry Google images of the impossibly large white birds and glued them (using a mixture of flour and water) onto purple cardboard we bought at the Plumpton Newsagency for two bucks.
My favourite story in Bobis’ collection is ‘My Father’s Australia’. Nenita (a recurring character), stares at the tailored suit she had once bought for her father. The suit, a pasalubong (homecoming gift), was given to her father with the intention that he would wear it when he took his first steps in Australia. In its navy hues, Nenita remembers how her father lived “on tilted earth” (p91) at the base of volcano in Legazpi, fixing people’s aircons in order to provide a better future for his children. In the suit, Nenita hears the memory of her father reciting in English, “To Oz, to Oz”(p92) for a trip that would never eventuate.
The love between Nenita and her dad reminds me of the only time in my childhood when my father was not existing in survival mode (being a Tongan man with eight children would do that). When we spoke of pelicans, he seemingly had all the time in the world for me as we took our first steps in my education together. ‘To uni, to uni,’ my father, who dropped out of Year 12, would remind me after each school year ended.
In this way, ‘My Father’s Australia’ is the standout of the collection.
It was only when I moved to Fairfield in south-west Sydney that I saw the native parrot of South America. The suburb is home to a small yet strong Latinx Australian community. But it still didn’t make sense to me how the blue-feathered bird the size of a small television was caged away in a dilapidated second-storey balcony.
What I found the most striking about Bobis’ writing, was how effortlessly she was able to reflect the true diversity of Australia without it ever feeling like it was forced or there simply for the sake of it. A woman Nenita passes by when swimming at the beach yells out “Jidoo!” (p222), Grandma Lou’s Chilean neighbour Matilda is the only person that calls Lou by her real name “Luningning” and reminds readers that as people of colour we’re always being interrogated for our skin, our accent and our names (p174). Nenita with her Latvian partner, who is always leaving her sweet notes like, “Gone walking. ♥” (p138) – a gesture that makes all the difference when choosing to grow old with someone. All realistic depictions of the inter-cultural connections we all share with neighbours, friends and even family.
Halfway through my reading, I took a break and went outside onto my own second-storey balcony. I stared at the yellow underside of the parrot. Still wondering why on Earth a giant South American bird was flapping its wings with the sound echoing off the brick and concrete of endless rundown apartments. Laughing as I realised I was standing beside my own cultural marker – a potted frangipani tree.
To me, the lorikeet is the kindest bird there is. Eternally squawking in bushes as if laughing. Eating with such fever and frenzy because they’re so cheerful that they hardly notice what is in their beaks. Darting in pairs across busy streets. Flocking in the afternoon sky so fast they become little black spots, dotting the daytime like stars. From Orla and Corazon, Lou and Matilda, Ella and Nenita and finally Remy and Belen – it was the sacred sisterhood of the women characters Bobis’ paired together that carried this collection. Remy put it perfectly in ‘The Air of The Times’ when she penned in poem:
“So enter, sister,
without gun or armour,
still magnificent.” (p52)
If the ibis is what I took into my reading of The Kindness of Birds, the Rainbow lorikeet is what I took away from it, long after I had turned the last page.
WINNIE DUNN is the General Manager of Western Sydney based literacy movement, Sweatshop. She is a writer of Tongan descent from Mount Druitt and holds a Bachelor of Arts from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, Griffith Review, Meanjin, SBS Voices, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Red Room Poetry and Cordite. She is the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, and currently working on her debut novel as the recipient of a CAL Ignite grant.
Love & Virtue
By Diana Reid
Reviewed by CLAIRE QU
The prim and vaguely Austenian title of Diana Reid’s debut novel offers a tongue-in-cheek self-description consistent with the book’s plentiful irony. Many labels could be applied to it: campus novel, bildungsroman, #MeToo novel, story of contemporary female friendship. Perhaps that is why it is so constantly self-aware, so unremitting in its parody of all the stock characters – the insecure freshmen, urbane professors, greasy suitors, and smugly ‘liberated’ women – that people these genres. It isn’t satire alone which saves Reid’s book from vanishing into the slew of Millennial Novels however; crucially, it also has heart. Though no sweeping epic or philosophical heavyweight, Love & Virtue is winning, clever, and self-deprecating.
The novel captures the first year of Michaela’s university life among elite Sydney high school graduates. At its frothy beginning, I’ll admit I shrank from what seemed a somewhat stale montage: house-parties, drunkenness, and superficial friendships. Modern social alienation, that increasingly common theme, crops up abundantly at the start of Love & Virtue, in wry narratorial observations. ‘Alcohol was useful for making friends,’ Michaela notes, attractive, ‘liquid-limbed’ friends who are ‘intelligent enough to realise that nothing is sexier to a young and fragile man than not understanding what he is saying’ (14, 17). The sheer, drug-addled stupidity of O-week hijinks is vividly evoked, along with a brutal projection of where it all too often leads: these bright young things ‘will grow up to work in banks, and then cheat on their wives with their secretaries, and have a panic attack when they realise they don’t have an inner life’ (48). Even throughout the scenes of fun, Reid peppers reminders of class privilege and ubiquitous sexism, a sweet-and-sour formula that could have rendered the novel dryly moralistic were it not for the heady and complex female relationship blooming at its centre.
Eve Shaw is the archetypal ‘frenemy’, and the whole novel is framed by her ambivalent friendship with Michaela. This fact alone merits praise in a world where significant literary relationships between women, while on the increase, are still a rarity. More importantly, the individual characters of Eve and Michaela, as well as their tense chemistry, are realised with rare charisma and authenticity. ‘[I]n spite of everything,’ confesses the latter of the former, ‘I’m still a bit in love with her’ (2) – and so am I. Despite being in many ways a caricature of the hypocritically ‘woke’ undergraduate, with her performances of selfless erudition and willingness to mine painful situations for ‘broader social benefit’ (292), Eve is eminently seductive. Her warmth and physicality permeate the novel, and her flashes of humour, generosity, and infuriating egotism are the rhythm the plot responds to. Michaela’s regard for Eve is, for me, one of the most unexpectedly likeable things about Love & Virtue. For, though we recognise a hollowness to Eve in the importance she attaches to being ‘both a person and an idea of a person’ (10), her own belief in ideals of aesthetics and ethics (also the name of a subject she takes) feels genuine. And if Michaela, cynical with our times, doesn’t appreciate Wildean self-invention, at least readers may.
It is Eve, too, who stands in the shadow of the novel’s twin dramatic centres, plotlines which at first appear to gravitate around two men. In this triangle of desire, triumph, and irritation lies Reid’s greatest achievement. Turning the marriage plot on its head, she presents instead a fiercely competitive homosociality between Eve and Michaela in light of which heterosexual romantic entanglements seem contingent. Through Michaela’s messy sexual encounter with a peer and her developing relationship with an older man, Reid explores issues of consent and power imbalances with unusual attention to the finer shades of guilt, pride, self-consciousness, and shame. Eve’s part in these episodes further refines the book’s nuanced discussion of consent, and it is her secondhand involvement in Michaela’s sex life which makes Love & Virtue’s treatment of the topic so fresh and believable. In the one case, Michaela’s anticipation of her friend’s shock and envy at being ‘if not beaten, then at least passed over’ (169) is deliciously vitriolic; in the other, Eve’s betrayal takes the words out of Michaela’s mouth, leaving her to mourn ‘[her] own version of events’ (294).
Personal crises, political and philosophical musings, and the affected gloss of first-year banter – Reid handles all these in unpretentious prose which warms from flippancy to eloquence as Michaela forges deeper emotional connections. The dialogue, in particular, is a stand-out, treading the line between stiffness and excessive glibness admirably. Reid’s experience with writing for theatre shows in the remarkable inflections of intimacy and attitude that she is able to give with conversation alone. It is also to this deftness with dialogue that we owe the sympathetic, three-dimensional image of Michaela; readers experience her wit, worldliness, generosity, insecurity, and occasional pettiness through her conversations with others, rather than learning of them by way of clumsy self-description.
Reid has cited Donna Tartt’s classic campus novel, The Secret History, as a major inspiration for Love & Virtue, an influence perceptible in the aura of dark drama surrounding the mutually vengeful relationship between Michaela and Eve. Reid’s novel doesn’t quite achieve the symmetry between academic discussions and the surrounding plot so successful in The Secret History. An exchange between Michaela and her Philosophy professor hints at a theoretical understructure to the book’s critique of campus culture:
‘So Michaela, from where are we deriving moral knowledge in week ten, semester one?’ ‘I want to say “social constructs”, but that depresses me.’ (117)
The discussion stops there, curtailing the book’s generic potential for a blend of the abstract and the concrete. Excepting this minor shortcoming, however, Love & Virtue is to be lauded for its difference from its model. Reid has created her own kind of campus novel, candid and irreverent – a far cry from earnest dark academia stylings. At once typically Australian, with its Bondi panoramas and unsophisticated college party scenes, and crushingly universal in its dissection of institutionalised sexism, class privilege, and new adult identity formation, Love & Virtue is a poised debut offering. Reid’s novel is a timely reflection on the manifold ways in which the #MeToo movement has failed and a lively intervention in the ranks of increasingly apathetic Millennial fiction – and most importantly, it’s a really fun read.
Reid, Diana. Love & Virtue. Ultimo Press, 2021.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Penguin, 1993.
CLAIRE QU recently graduated from an honour’s degree in English at the University of Melbourne and is looking forward to continuing her studies overseas. Her interests include the Gothic, ecocriticism, and women’s writing, topics she hopes to explore in her postgraduate thesis.
Born Into This
by Adam Thompson
Reviewed by DAVE CLARK
As a technique pioneered and refined over the past hundred years, keyhole surgery involves a surgeon making small incisions in the skin, so tiny that at times it is hard to tell afterwards that something significant has taken place beneath the surface of the patient. It is a method used to diagnose health conditions, as well as to begin treating them.
From the first short story in Born Into This by Adam Thompson[i], I felt that I was in seasoned, steady hands. As the stories unfolded, each one was a penned incision, surgical and precise, cutting beneath the surface, diagnosing the ongoing impacts of colonisation/invasion. The writing within these sixteen short stories deftly slides beyond the synapses and impacts the heart.
I was surprised to learn that this was Thompson’s debut book. I was not surprised to see that this collection was shortlisted for multiple awards, including the Queensland Literary Awards 2021, the Age Fiction Book of the Year 2021 and the USQ Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection. If his name isn’t familiar in your writing and reading circles, that will change once you get hold of his work.
Adam Thompson is an Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Launceston. He has worked for almost twenty years in roles caring for Lutruwita (Tasmania) Country and preserving culture and heritage. His passion for these endeavours clearly influences his writing and themes. His writing career has been gathering momentum over the last five years, with some of his short stories being recognised with writers’ festival awards. Born Into This is his first full collection of short fiction.
The sixteen stories in this book traverse across Tasmania, taking place on tiny islands, beaches, the streets of Launceston, in forests, at a funeral, in a school and a pub and suburban houses. Tasmania is a part of Australia not often captured in contemporary fiction. It is a refreshing insight into an often-overlooked region.
The characters within his book are blistering and humorous, compassionately created. Many of the characters are engaging enough to justify an entire book. The stories are fierce and political, leading to a collection that sizzles. It confronts. It takes tropes and myths and shreds them in an accomplished manner. It mixes world-class writing with his unique take on each character’s inner world. This is contemporary Australian fiction at its most impacting, sitting comfortably alongside the works of Tara June Winch, Melissa Lucashenko and the poetry of Evelyn Araluen.
Thematically, Thompson looks intently into the ongoing impacts of colonisation in current day Tasmania. As Noongar author Claire G. Coleman writes about in her recent book, Lies Damned Lies, colonisation/invasion in Australia was not an event. It’s ongoing.[ii] Any current writing about it needs to acknowledge this and challenge the power, privilege, and the very Anglo understandings of history. Thompson doesn’t tiptoe around this. The elephants in the room are pointed at and prodded. He does it with clever turns of narrative that lead the reader to see the world in personal ways that whiter parts of Australia can often turn a blind eye to.
For example, the second story, ‘Honey,’ looks at the commodification of language and how Aboriginal culture matters only to some when it can generate them a buck. The fourth story ‘Invasion Day’ takes places during a protest and has the line,
‘Looming above, like a love sonnet to colonisation, stood the sandstone monstrosity of Parliament House’ (p49).
Stories like ‘Jack’s Island,’ ‘Black Eye’ and ‘Time and Tide’ stride into the devastating, way-of-life-altering impact that climate change is having on the characters’ connection to Country. ‘Descendent’ wrestles with who gets to decide Indigenous identity and the persistent myth that Indigenous people in Tasmania died out with Truganini. The story seems to be saying that we were invaded, but not erased. Still here.
The experience of characters as minorities in their region often see them facing racism. As someone who has lived in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) for twelve years, I see and hear many acts of racism towards Arrernte people most days. Some of the acts are personal. Some are in way they are policed and treated in court or in the local shops, the societal structures that continue to try to kick them down to the bottom rung. It’s horrible to witness people and their families being targeted, based solely on their skin colour and culture. Those of us who are privileged will never fully understand what it is like and just how resilient people are living in the face of such ongoing injustice.
Acts of racism – the ‘in your face’ versions, the far-reaching political decisions, the removal of agency and the subtler, pervasive microaggressions – are shown and felt in many of the characters’ stories of Thompson’s book. The story ‘Sonny,’ about a white man who yells out ‘Run, Darky, run,’ (p101) to his friend on the footy field, sat heavy in my gut for days, sounding all-too familiar to instances around town.
It is deeply confronting – and necessarily so – to see how explicit and implicit forms of racism are still so prevalent. If, as a white reader of this book, we don’t feel sick and embarrassed and angry by Australia’s past and present, then we aren’t hearing the beating heart of this collection.
Tokenistic and paternalistic responses to colonisation/invasion are on display in these stories. ‘The Blackfellas From Here’ bitingly looks at the shallowness of acknowledgement of whose land it is, with Kat challenging James to hand over the deed to his house. It asks the question of what a deep acknowledgement of the past and present would look like. It shows that current political responses are still largely like acknowledging that someone has a flat tyre, but then just walking on by and doing nothing about it. Acknowledgement must be more than a cursory nod towards someone’s experience.
As a whole collection, there are many standout stories, including ‘Kite’ and ‘Born Into This’ to go with the ones already mentioned. On both the first and second readings of the collection, I felt however that the power of the book drops away in two of the final stories. As their own entities, ‘Time and Tide’ and ‘Morpork’ would find happy homes in many publications. In contributing to the overall theme though, it felt that these lingered in comparison to the crackling nature of the rest of it.
One subject that crops up regularly in the book is around survival. An example of this is the character Kara, secretly planting young eucalypt trees in areas that have been hacked away by forestry and mining companies. She contemplates this as she tends to the trees,
‘Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive’ (p40).
Plants survive Tasmania’s climate as well as the brutality and the upheaval of exploitative human damage. These delicate pictures of flora and fauna are placed in many of Thompson’s stories, alongside their human equivalents. They are beautiful and telling reminders of people and culture that are deep-rooted, living and breathing in the present. Finding ways to survive, and thrive, even amidst significant change, Thompson weaves in his theme of hope. The reader is not left depressed, but more so, impressed upon: that there is horror in this country. And there is hope.
Several websites and interviews refer to Adam Thompson as an emerging writer. With a book this good, with prose and dialogue this splendid, ’emerging’ seems to be a misguided stamp. With Born Into This, he has well-and-truly added his works to the strongest writers in Australian contemporary fiction. To tackle content as heavy as the themes of racism and survival, and to do so elegantly and originally, is a remarkable achievement.
[i] Thompson, Adam 2021, Born Into This, University of Queensland Press, Australia.
[ii] Coleman, Claire G 2021, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, NSW.
DAVE CLARK is a writer-poet with CFS who lives in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to quieter stories. His works have been published in Mascara, Imprint, Pure Slush Books, Adelaide Lit, Quillopia, Slippage Lit, Melbourne Culture Corner and Right Now. Twitter @DaveClarkWriter
Exo-Dimensions, Mixed Feelings, Storm Warning
by Seraphina Newberry & Justin Randall, Declan Miller, Lauren Boyle & Alyssa Mason
Stick Mob Studio
Black eyes and a scaly, reptilian maw are met with fist and boomerang upon the unmistakable dusty red, muted tones of the Central Australian landscape. No, this is not a closed door Liberal National discussion on emissions targets, although it may be a message to them. Mparntwe youth offer ways for us to consider what it means to be Australian and living on Indigenous lands. Artist Seraphina Newberry’s Exo Dimensions interrupts the public imagination with its bold declaration of a post-apocalyptic world of survival horror and climate catastrophe. We are greeted with zombies, cyborgs, clones, a scorpion man and a pet crocodile. Make no mistake, the work seems to be saying, ‘History is dead, the Future is already here. We are still here, and in this fierce declaration of survival, we can envisage how the past collapses into a conflicting narrative of national and cultural dystopia.’
This is shape-shifting at its best.
Exo Dimensions is produced by Stick Mob Studios, a collective of graphic artists and writers based in Central Australia. The collective was founded by creative director Declan Miller with the support of his mentor and art teacher Wendy Cowan while he was still in year 8. Stick Mob’s goal is to support and celebrate the creative efforts of their artists, a group of young people with strong Indigenous cultural connections, many of whom, like Declan, began their creative works while still in high school.
As a thirty-something graphic artist, I can attest to the focus and dedication required to put together a graphic novel. For a group of young artists and writers to have accomplished this is truly impressive and something that they should be immensely proud of. There is enormous value in the idea of Indigenous self-representation through ongoing cultural practices and the work that Stick Mob are doing serves as a source of cultural pride and resurgence.
It is clear that a lot of work has gone into building the world (or worlds) of Exo Dimensions, which leaps from one cast of characters to another. Explosive revelations and flashbacks detail previously unknown connections and backgrounds, altering the meaning behind events and requiring a re-evaluation of the actions and motivations of key figures through a more sympathetic lens.
The second chapter begins with a more subdued and grounded tone, following Konan who, at the behest of his white, adoptive parents, reluctantly embarks on a journey to explore his cultural roots in an attempt to resolve his inner tumult and combative behaviour. Upon arriving in the Northern Territory things quickly get intense for Konan who discovers a hidden world filled with mysterious power, challenging his sense of reality and emotional regulation. The apprehension of leaving the security and familiarity of his suburban life initially reaffirmed in an encounter with the monstrous and unknown. Yet these same forces compel him forward, literally and figuratively kicking and screaming.
Exo Dimensions is a bold, kinetic, dystopian sci-fi action frenzy, merging art styles reminiscent of Sweet Tooth’s Jeff Lemire, with a host of characters that look like they could go toe-to-toe with the X-Men, John McClane and Mad Max at the same time. All of this lurks uneasily within a story that, at its heart, is about a family, torn apart by sinister external forces and struggling to reunite against complex obstacles including trauma, tension and rejection. The work explores themes of loss and longing that echo the painful cultural experience of forced removals and intergenerational dislocation. Seraphina has crafted a fantastical allegory detailing the power of cultural connection, its magnetic pull, role in identity-making, and the damaging impact of absence in all its destructive forms.
The maturity and nuance of Declan Miller’s Mixed Feelings is impressive, successfully exploring themes of adolescence, vulnerability and alienation with a mixture of humour and earnest authenticity that surpasses the offerings of many established graphic novelists. The story focusses on a group of flawed but largely relatable characters.
The work hits many beats that will appeal to lovers of Young Adult fiction as well as those who can recall the best and worst parts of being a teenager with all its struggles of awkwardness and angst. Beneath this veneer, there lies an unsettling and supernatural force, a lingering sense of fear and doubt. This haunting weight skulks in the image and threatens to unravel our hero’s understanding of self.
Protagonist Pam is conflicted by her desire to win the acceptance of her peers and the guilt she experiences in acting counter to the values instilled by her Uncle. Her Uncle is a positive role model in her life, who exhibits his kindness, generosity and vulnerability.
It is clear that his influence on Pam’s life is powerful. She is a strong woman who does not fit outdated notions of womanhood. Far from being demure, she challenges the people and forces that surround her. She’s not afraid to fight or tell people where to go. Far from being godlike, she is never one to doubt herself. She does not reveal her vulnerabilities and yet, beneath the tough exterior there is a hint of softness. The unique strengths of the comic medium allow us to witness her crisis of conscience and in doing so it is made clear that her humanity is what drives her forward. We are not voyeurs in this story, but positioned uncomfortably as a voice in Pam’s head, one among many in a rising chorus, shouting through the cacophony, urging her to stay true to her values.
Pam’s inner turmoil manifests in the form of a demonic entity hidden behind a white mask and clad in Victorian-era clothing, taunting and pulling her away from her family and friends. I couldn’t help but interpret this as an embodiment of ongoing colonial assimilation pressures undermining Indigenous cultural identities and values, of the resultant trauma and impact on mental health.
The subversion of typical palette conventions in applying colour to backgrounds only is a simple and elegant method of bringing characters into focus by leaving them largely greyscale with occasional highlights à la film noir. The ambiguity of skin colour could also be read as a clever representation of the contested relationship between the Indigenous, cultural and personal identities, within a coming of age story set in Declan’s own hometown, Mparntwe.
Storm Warning, the product of a collaboration between writer Lauren Boyle and illustrator Alyssa Mason, follows Skai, whose teenage life is thrown into sudden chaos by a series of increasingly bizarre natural and supernatural forces. Inspired by manga, here plot, art and life combine in magical ways and merges with an Australian earthiness to question the very nature of the present. Where are we going? What does the future look like? What CAN it look like?
The story takes place in a not too distant future with climate change and severe weather a major focus. Adults and parental figures are largely absent, hinting at present anxieties around the absence of parental duties concerning climate change and inaction. The results of this inaction fall from the sky in enormous chunks of ice, erupt from the ground in balls of fire and slither around the corners of crumbling institutions.
That these ideas are being expressed by young creators like Lauren and Alyssa is telling. Their writing indicates an awareness of the challenges ahead and of the potential to alleviate their severity. The mood is tense. There is a great sense of displacement and doom. Where are the grown-ups? Will they be able to fend for themselves despite the many obstacles they face? Growing up is scary enough without giant mutant rats.
Ultimately Storm Warning is funny and compelling. Characters pull together and remain kind to each other in the face of adversity. Tension smoulders from the page. The initial lightness transforms along with the sky, growing ever darker through the slow but constant roll of thunder, the rumble of an earthquake, the protagonists watch frozen in fear (much as they might within a Liberal National climate change meeting) before the sudden splash of red and KERRUNSCH!!!
Heads will roll, or at least they might if the messages of these young creators are not heeded.
Each of these stories are unique, the messages, art and writing styles are distinct to their creators, coloured by their own experiences and expertise. What they have in common is the expression of the urgency with which actions must be taken to address the issues they raise. Difficult themes such as climate emergency, assimilation practices and intergenerational trauma are made accessible through relatable characters. That these themes should appear within the works of Indigenous creators is no coincidence. The ability of these young writers to engage readers with these challenging ideas is indicative of their relevance within their communities and their own lived experiences of them.
These emerging artists are taking positions of leadership within communities as they build upon and innovate links to cultural knowledge. Through their work these artists express their perspectives which are shaped by lived experiences of the issues and realities of the cultural communities they live in. The inclusion of these perspectives, even when fictionalised, are self-representative expressions, which reflect and archive the standpoints of creators.
TOM MUNRO-HARRISON is a Wiradjuri activist, writer and artist living on Boon Wurrung County. His work and PhD research focusses on self-determined cultural practices and their impact and relationship on cultural connection and identity. He regularly contributes art to Indigenous X, and his work has been featured in publications such as Design with Indigenous Nations and Overland. He is currently developing a graphic novel which explores these experiences and themes.
By Sudeep Sen
Salt Desert Media Group Ltd.
Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE
Sudeep Sen, the poet, is in his study — where he can usually be found when in Delhi, sequestered, engaged with the world. His companion is the neem tree, light refracting through the pattern of its leaves. The tree, provider of shade and solace, is now under duress itself. The climate, once providing a reliable indicator of the passing seasons (as in ‘Climate Change 1. Yesterday’ (29)) is now registering an unseasonal pattern. Experiences of extremes of heat and cold, sometimes unexpected torrential rain or no rain at all, flood the senses, and from left field, another crisis emerges, attaching itself to this disequilibrium. Contagion threatens everyone, disrupts the political landscape and the wherewithal of the populace; the body isolates, the body succumbs, the poet rallies.
Sudeep Sen’s Anthropocene is a stellar example of what poetry can be in a time of crisis. The poet achieves this quality through his control of the essential poetic elements of image, argument and sound, underpinned by a sense of structure seemingly rooted in a consciousness of form and its possibilities. Sen’s awareness of form, the measure of the voice, is tied to a sense of design encompassing his facility with traditional poetic forms and their connectivity to other art forms, such as architecture, photography and classical Indian dance. It can also be seen in the design of the book, including its typography, undertaken by the poet himself. The depth of this attention enables Sen to successfully vary the form of the poems, opening up to the white space of the page to create a sense of variety, a kind of musical progression throughout the book, while the poems themselves resonate with the clarity of a bell. A variety of tone in the book is accentuated by its division into nine sections, including one devoted to a series of Sen’s own photographs, taken from his terrace at the same time of day. Throughout Anthropocene, there is a sense of the writing being done, of the scratch of the pen or pencil upon the page. ‘Fountain Pen’ (149), for example, effects the tactile pleasure of a nib slowly caressing the skin of a page, while what is at stake hovers, enacting crisis and on occasion, hope.
In the Introduction to the collection in Section 1, ‘The Role of the Artist is Not to Look Away’, Sen notes that:
I spend most of my waking hours in the day (and night) in my book-lined study. The panoramic picture window across my desk is the lens through which I view the changing of seasons imprinted on the magnificent wide-topped neem tree. The bough’s intricate armature, the leaves’ serrated floret-pattern, the tree’s broccoli-shaped structure — all provide an exo-skeleton for my canvas — and the constantly-altering skyscape, provide a sideshow cyclorama. (19)
In Section 2, ‘Anthropocene | Climate Change’, Sen acknowledges his debt to Amitav Ghosh, and his work on climate change, particularly in The Great Derangement, in the poem Disembodied. Here, the body registers a vivid exposition of connection and disconnection to the world:
My body carved from the abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
from minaret-shards of an old mosque,
from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
from soil tilled by my ancestors.
My bones don’t fit together correctly as they should —
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
patches and etch-corrects my orientation —
magnetic pulses prove potent.
My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by brown bark of Indian teak.
My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
Echo asthmatic sounds, a new vinyl dub-remix.
while the earth itself buckles under the strain:
Ice-caps are rapidly melting — too fast to arrest the glacial slide.
In the near future — there will be no water left
or too much water that is undrinkable,
excess water that will drown us all.
The declamatory tone here is replaced by a number of short, sharp impressionistic poems in dense couplets, such as ‘Pollution’:
Neem’s serrated leaves
outside my study
wear season’s toxicity
on their exposed skin —
Neem, once acted as
a filter for us,
now needs one herself.
In a small counter-move, in ‘The Third Pole’ (42) a trip to the mountains near to the home in exile of the Dalai Lama presents a sliver of hope, an awareness of possibility:
Dharamshala is a few hours away
on foot, through pine wood paths.
Prayer chants waft. In this thin air
floats an immutable magic — a hope,
perhaps, to arrest the glacial slide.
Section 3, ‘Pandemic’, opens up to a further variety of form, embracing visual poetry, prose poems, the haiku, and even features an imagined play script. It begins with ‘Asthma’ (51), presenting an onomatopoetic exposition of bodily malady: ‘Wheeze whistles — piercing shrill pan-flute notes … My rib-cage tangled in its brutalist architecture’ and progresses to the global, to couched politics, in Anthropocene’s signature poem, riffing off Marquez, ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ (52):
In thousands, migrant workers march home —
hungry footsteps on empty highways
accentuate an irony – ‘social distancing’,
a privilege only powerful can afford.
Toward the end of the ‘Pandemic’ section, ‘Corona Haiku’ (62/63) extends this theme:
Fighter jets shower
flower-petals on the poor —
why not food, money?
migrants chew dry leaves
off the streets — no food, water —
‘Obituary’ (55) sits between images of the widely published pages from The New York Times, with the epigraph ‘They were not simply names on a list. / They were us’. The sense of the global continues in the fine poem dedicated to Fiona Sampson, ‘Speaking in Silence’ (58), at once a celebration of and lament to the absence of friendship:
We speak in poetic phrases, punctuated by dactyls
and trochees, inundating line-breaks with half-rhymes —
this is the only language left, our private renga —
ancient codes dictating our syntax, not our accent.
This sense of connection through the modus operandi of poetry, and through a shared exploration of the natural world suggests a symbiosis of form
It was centuries ago, yet I know this place well —
we have walked together in this slurry and squelch.
In the coppice, I picked a driftwood piece —
sculpt-etched by wind-water — a paleolithic
talisman I left on your rustic kitchen window.
Section 4, ‘Contagion | Corona Red’, consists principally of prose poems, plus a photograph of a still life, fine in composition. This section in the collection is intense, heart-breaking, and resplendent in a plethora of original imagery. A distillation of illness, mortality, hones in on what could be termed the structure of what is illuminated. In ‘Implosion’, the poet, desperately ill, writes:
On my bedside table, even the electric
bulb under the lamp’s hood cannot hold
its wattage steady with all the fluctuations
inside me – mirroring only mildly, the
I need to call an ambulance, but I hesitate.
More eucalyptus steam inhalation, Ventolin
sprays, mixed concoctions of ginger, black
pepper, turmeric and organic honey,
provide only a temporary respite.
In ‘Fever Pitch’, a hospital story is measured in terms of glass, test tubes, thermometers, of assisted breathing:
This is the third thermometer I have
bought in a day, and yet I cannot trust it.
Twice before, the reading shot out beyond
the graduated scale itself, hinting either i
was heated to the point of insanity or it was
a case of the glass’s own neutral impotence.
‘Icarus’ (92) and ‘The Legacy of Bones’ (94) are two of the most spectacular poems in Anthropocene, and both are deserving of a lengthy close reading. ‘The Legacy of Bones’ delves deep into form, into bone and blood, into writing itself, where ‘the singing of the eternal purity of bone music’ seeks to reside; there is a hard-won sense of release, from death and tragedy, a propulsion to universal song, a nod to Apollinaire: “It’s high time the stars were re-lit.”
In a master-stroke of design, and one of the pleasures of reading this book, is coming upon a series of photographs, taken from Sen’s terrace. Section 5, ‘Atmosphere | Skyscrapes’ opens up to an ethereal set of images, tethered to the accompanying snippets of verse from various poems in the collection. Section 6, ‘Holocene | Geographies’ takes on a global reach, reflecting the poet’s cosmopolitan positioning of his poetics. In ‘Driftwood’ (118), Derek Walcott’s home in St Lucia is celebrated, as is visiting friends in Herefordshire, immersed in a different climate, in ‘Witherstone’ (122):
Traversing a four-acre fenced land in borrowed Wellies,
my pugmarks leave a foreign imprint on this soil.
I find among the muddy squelch,
a piece of dead bark.
Haiku is an exceptionally difficult poetic form, and Sen’s Irish-based ‘Undercurrents: 20 Lake Haiku’, are a personal favourite, with precision of language suggesting consciousness’ sheen:
lake’s blue-black ink
runs deep, piercing sinews —
leaving scars, unseen
The sequence suggests what is to come in Section 7. ‘Consolation | Hope’, where images of renewal produce a sense of joy and inner peace. In ‘The Gift of Light’, Sen writes:
The gift of light
is life’s benediction
in these dark times —
no matter what or where,
there is always light.
Forest fires conflagrate,
but cannot raze
the incandescent love
for my beloved
and ‘Corona: Elliptical Light’ celebrates the perfection of form in the neem tree:
Falling on new buds, the ray’s glare
splits open their perfect coronas —
pollen shower-burst, an ochre flare,
In Section 8. ‘Lockdown: Reading | Writing’, Anthropocene returns, after all this, to the act of writing. There is a pen in the hand, a sense of the bloom of writing, in ‘Handwriting’ (155), dedicated to Michael Ondaatje. In fact, inter-textuality is a delicate thread running through the book, with references to Brecht, Celan, Eliot, and others. Photographic images of paper, books, merge into statements on poetics and reading, of being at home in the world, Sen compares his sense of himself to the banyan tree with its ‘tertiary trunks and branches resembling fused stalactites and stalagmites’. (150)
Section 9, ‘Epilogue | Prayer’ concludes the collection with three short poems, ‘Meditation’, ‘Prayer’ and ‘Chant’. Perhaps if Sudeep Sen’s method could be couched in a few words, then these few from ‘Prayer’ (172) could suggest it:
I try to catch
their flight —
their song, their words,
Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge, 2020), a homage to the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
An Embroidery of Old Maps and New
by Angela Costi
Reviewed by GEORGE MOURATIDIS
In some topoi of poesy lore, it is believed that the first iteration of Homeric oral verse as a material text was woven by women on a loom – deft fingers spinning, immortalising epic tales. In the Odyssey, an abandoned Penelope sits at her loom, creating, then destroying, her tapestries, waiting for her husband Odysseus’ return to Ithaca from his decade-long voyage. Angela Costi reveals a honed, acute awareness of the traditions, epics, journeys, traumas, travails and triumphs that shaped and brought her to write the existential topography that is her latest collection of poetry, An Embroidery of Old Maps and New (Spinifex, 2021). In these pages, the poet is at once Penelope and Odysseus – speaks as weaver and voyager, sufferer and seeker. But here, when the poet takes up the thread, she does not tear; she tenderly and compassionately unwinds and uncovers those stories, people and worlds in which she recognises who, how and why she is, and in so doing, she reconnects, remakes.
Fittingly, the collection opens out at sea, a voyage (“From Bondi to Kyrenia”, “Arrival”) which is one of countless threads suturing together lives and lands, continuing a ruptured story line begun elsewhere – in Cyprus. Costi artfully employs as the collection’s central trope, Lefkarithika (Λευκαρίτικα) – the traditional linen embroidery and lace making of Cyprus (also known as Lefkara lace). Bearing the name of the Cypriot village renowned for producing it (Λεύκαρα / Lefkara) from where, as the story goes, it was taken to adorn the courts of Europe, the craft of Lefkarithika remains closely tied to place, preserving a culture. In “Making Lace” Costi makes plain the living connections, transmissions, continuities fostered by this masterful handling of the thread:
I see her as I see me, sitting on chairs before the impact of our craft,
both intent on making a story from sequence, a gift out of repetition,
her stitch is my letter, her design is my phrase,
thread weave through out and in.
Costi is at once embroiderer, storyteller and cartographer. Her thread entwines generations, voices, stories, places, homes lost and found:
she is the story on linen,
no longer woman in small village sitting under a tree for days, months,
years of thread weave through out and in, our skin
an embroidery of old maps and new
Lefkara, Larnaca, Kyrenia, Hartchia,
Riverwood, Bankstown, Lalor, Reservoir,
thread weave through out and in,
she lives in each strand
This embroidery weaves a visionary window into a hopeful yet uncertain legacy:
she peeks through gofti [κόφτη], through fairy windows, and sees me
letter by letter, crossing the keyboard
thread weave through out and in,
she sees her children’s children not work in fields harvesting rotting crops,
not work in factories making hard, rough, poisonous things,
not work in shops selling dry, fried food,
she sees a series of baby girls named after her, dressed in white,
she lives in the stroke of a foreign letter by letter, word by word,
thread, weave through out and in.
The mandalic intricacies of this thread connects a series of thematic suites of stories – episodes of psyche and affect recalled, recounted, recorded. Some are written on the body (“Refugee Aerobics”, “Land Mines”, “Heavy”, “Knock Knock”) at once vulnerable, mortal, and resilient. Others are scrawled on the walls and margins of academe (“Outskirts”, “The Quadrangle of Dreams”, “To Identify the Apostate”, “Goddess Nike”). The latter cluster bomb of poems in particular – indeed the collection more broadly – reverberates with what Maria Tumarkin refers to as the “psychic struggle” of the culturally and linguistically diverse in higher education and the arts, especially women and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Only halfway through the collection, and Costi already has the reader contemplating their own relationship to these sites and spaces upon and within which identity and its expression are renegotiated and forged, leading to new threads, new maps.
Costi never seeks to dazzle or impress the reader through linguistic, aesthetic, and typographical gymnastics. The artistry of her poetic language here is its ability to gain the readers trust almost at first glance with an unpretentious and authentic language that verges on that perennial punk maxim of say what you mean / mean what you say / put a beat to it. Costi’s unassuming versification allows the language to move with ease and breathe, and it is never difficult to locate the pulse in these lines. You will not find much abstraction, metaphor, symbolism, layers of arcane references: in this cartography these would only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the poet’s bare-naked home truths. Costi makes it clear why what she is sharing with you is important and needs to be said. Though her poetic language is clean, clear and simple, it is in no way simplistic. On the contrary, the embroiderer here immerses the reader in a confluence of poetic languages from the idiomatic to the lyrical, not only from poem to poem, but stanza to stanza, even line to line. This draws the reader into the rich nuance and complexity of the speaker’s consciousness, a pathway that is uncluttered and uncomplicated. The other extraordinary aspect of the poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New is exactly this strong sense of a unique, even idiosyncratic speaker, of voice – one connected to viscera and heart and mind/memory/vision but never bound by any one of them. Even within surrealistic moments, there is no abstraction of the human experience, of body, of woman, of migrant, of worker. Every poem in this collection has a human face.
For Costi, language and communication become sites of conflict, negotiation, resolution, and as she reminds us, vehicles of autonomy (“Looping the Waves”, “The Good Citizens of Melbourne”). To some extent this plays out through the poet’s occasional use of Greek Cypriot dialect, which reads quite organically. However, the deployment of italics and marginalia, which your humble reviewer can only assume is at the insistence of the publisher, is distracting: it inadvertently generates a sense of foreignness within the text that is uncomfortable and at odds with the intimacy of the poems. On the other hand, these and similar moments of linguistic disconnection and slippage illustrate a kind of inter-generational discord under repair. Where the ambivalent and at times antagonistic relationship between “first” and “second” generations of Cypriot Australian apodemes (and what these represent for the poet culturally and politically) is classic Costi, in this collection she appears to have reached a satori: previously unbridgeable divisions begin to blur, and the two begin to merge, at least in moments. The teller of the story here realises she cannot extricate and separate herself from the world and assumed values of previous generations because she is, in various forms, a continuation of them, but on her own terms and always with humanity and compassion. In “Ocean View”, the collection’s penultimate poem, the change brought about by shifting sands at first appears to reconcile two incarnations of life continents apart:
My age was no longer a division of stories
easily mapped with tales of strife,
since birth, my skin, an erosion
of views by Eleni and Kostaki
However, any such resolution is bittersweet: the onetime “teenager leaving home”, having now long outgrown the struggle, finally allows themselves to see the humanity of living ancestors in all its vulnerability and strength – the “grey hair” of a yiayia “slapping the wind” and her “arms strong and swift”. Hidden in the folds of this this perception, however, is the “taste of regret”. The poet recognises that weaving this tapestry has a price: to take up the thread and continue a story that will in turn be taken up is arduous, harsh and embittering work, but crucial, a question of survival. There is no possibility of return the poems in this collection seem to say, especially when the point of the journey’s departure is no longer there: you can only carry it with you, as you keep weaving into life that which you may well lose. Costi does precisely this, both recreates and reappraises a gone world through anecdote and character and place, named and unnamed, in a language so vivid and visceral, and often very moving, they read as unmistakable extension of her, and she of them.
And so, we return to Costi’s acute sensibility of legacy and inheritance. The teller of these stories is finally able to valorise and draw strength and purpose from a lineage of the migrant working class woman. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Kinaesthetic Grace”, one of the collection’s brightest and penetratingly candid and affective moments. The poet begins with an admission, as much to herself as the reader:
This woman talks to me with her hands
she always has, since birth
I have failed to grasp them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
left this woman to create her own story
her fingers are an alphabet
I had no patience for.”
And yet she knows this woman so well, “the woman who knows how to hold / with her lined and stained hands / the story of all other women”: the women “on the General Motors assembly line”, those who “spray / jeans and their lungs into shreds”, those whose “fingers twitch when they tell / of the Thomastown factory’s sewing machine, / stitch by never-ending stitch, / bleeding before a stop for break, / the dip and throb of migraine fighting quota”, the woman “silenced by statistics”. The poet concludes by inviting the reader to join her in seeking and humbling themselves before this woman, and allow themselves to hear and be shaped by her, declaring:
We must search for her
not in photo albums or newspapers,
we must go out in the wild woods
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and when we see her
hold out our hands
as children willing to learn.
This inheritance for the poet can be both corporealised and verbalised, expressed as much by the body as the breath, the voice. For the poet, this ultimately points to an awareness that whatever she has created, whatever it may be worth, has been built upon the shoulders – the backs – of those who’ve come before her, who’ve toiled the fields in which she now toils, who pass on the thread of the tale to be woven and spoken, and not forgotten:
Some stories remain like bruises,
others are bullets, those told
with fear pounding the phone.
There is the breath you listen for as well as the word,
each one counts, the breath, the word, the breath.
(“Frontline” p. 53)
The poet leaves us with a reminder that what has passed, been lost and gone – spaces, states, experiences – are re-remembered by the embroiderers deft hand, reconstituted and made anew, and saved:
Those spaces named house, office, tower
we can visit
after the war, the plague, the fire,
bullets rested with stained blankets, with charred stoves
with quiet reprieve,
they will proudly show us what they’ve made
out of the damp, from the debris, by the dusk,
these things we left to perish
entwine like a thick braid.
This, however, is no resolution but a juncture in the story that Costi leaves ambiguous: the reader is haunted by irony that leads them to question whether the journey across sutured topographies from old homes to new was worth the nature of the “abundance” it has brought.
These poems in An Embroidery of Old Maps and New are at once incisively candid and transcendent in the humility of their offering. They speak directly to a powerful sense of dignity – particularly that of the working class migrant, refugee, or poor woman – always hard won through constant struggle, resilience, fearlessness, indeed, in spite of ongoing conditions and efforts to the contrary. With this collection Costi offers her unique contribution to something she is ever aware is so much bigger than herself. It is precisely this sensibility of transcendence and liberating (self)recognition that makes An Embroidery of Old Maps and New a moment of thrilling apogee and culmination the poet’s oeuvre. From the nexus and intertwining of the lines of Costi’s existential enquiry in preceding collections, from Dinted Halos (2003) to Lost in Mid-Verse (2014): all threads lead here, where Costi is already moving towards another horizon.
George Mouratidis is a Research Associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of the poetry collection Angel Frankenstein (Soul Bay Press, 2018) and translator of Noted Transparencies by poet Nikos Nomikos (Owl Press, 2016). He is also the co-founder of literary magazine Kalliope X.
Issue 27 Transitions: Ecopoetics from the Global South arrives at a time of uncertainty—which is perhaps a cliché to say now— but also at the titular time of transitions. Extremely rapidly, the earth and our climates are changing and we are adapting the way we live in order to sustain life. As writers and creators, we are attempting to make sense of these transitions, to deconstruct our human damages, to imagine futures, and discern meaning and hold a lens to the current and the past. This collection of ecopoetry, fiction and nonfiction offers fresh insights on climate and environmental discourse from across Australia and the global south.
Our guest poetry editor Caitlin Maling, shares her insights on this issue’s poetry collection:
In the call out for this edition, the editors specified they/we were looking for work ‘from those whose connection to land, culture and community are often silenced’ to ask ‘how can we use writing to explore the complex relationships between the natural environment, human experience, culture, place, urbanisation, colonisation and climate change?’
We received hundreds of very good poems submitted, but the ones I’ve chosen for the issue, I chose in light of these incitations. I was interested in work that pushed into the uncomfortable spaces of ecopoetics, whether thematic or formal, so Greg Page asserts that ‘B\barbed Wire’ is ‘no bigger symbol of the invasion / … the continent is still covered in the stuff’ and Ojo Taiye asks ‘What is it that makes me see myself / more loving than the capitalist world?’, while Rachel Mead reworks Terrance Haye’s in the form of a golden shovel to state ‘the answers are needed the world staring down its own destruction / and here I sit twiddling around with rhythm and the fall of a word’ and Craig Santos Perez puts the sonnet to use to show us ‘California / where fire is harvesting four million acres / of ash’. This is not to say there is not beauty to be found in the ashes of these poems; we have many poems that insist on specificity, on valuing the minutiae of the extra-than-human world; Debbie Lim brings us the blue-ringed octopus ‘flashing its blue halos’, while Vinita Agrawal offers us what has been lost of the ‘Splendid Poison Frog’ with its ‘skin, brilliant coral, eyes, kohl black’.
What I found in each of the poems selected was a complexity of thought, one that consistently implicated language – the poem – in the patterns of power linked to ecological destruction, but conversely also offered us language as a productive creative force. They are not peaceful poems, because these are not peaceful times, but they are poems from which we might draw solace, even respite, and above all they are poems that insist on joining, bringing together times, themes, forms, places and species.
— Caitlin Maling
Following similar thematic concerns, our fiction and nonfiction decentre the anthropocene or deeply embed ecological life and destructive climatic consequences with human realities. Ruminations of the past, the future, displacement and colonial dominance permeate these stories, as well as a sense that all life forms are fundamentally connected and dependent. We are invited to see from nonhuman beings: Zoë Meager’s koalas clinging for life entangled in hedonistic human entertainment, and an ageing Fig Tree in Dinasha Edirisinghe’s Vesak which fluidly shifts between human perspectives and the tree in connecting contemplations. Jenni Mazaraki and Juanita Broderick reflect on the ongoing repercussions of natural disaster, loss and rebuilding life. Broderick’s Cathedral Thinking in particular provides a unique link between environmental destruction for Iceland and Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Moving beyond Australia, Sushma Joshi’s essay offers a rich and sharp insight into the damaging environmental impacts of Nepal’s communist rule on daily life.
We also have glimpses of the near future: Isabelle Quilty imagines an evocative planet of absence, while April DeMoyer constructs a catastrophic dystopian near future filled with corruption, synthetic substances and a new-world climate largely incompatible with the plants we know today. And lastly, the intimacy and tenderness of Megan Cheong’s narrative is an opportunity to reflect on our role as parents or nurturers of vulnerable humans on an ever more vulnerable planet.
This issue also features two new reviews alongside seventeen reviews published throughout the second half of the year—the collection spanning a broad and fresh range of ideas and critical considerations. We are very proud to continue our partnership with the Deborah Cass Prize and publish the winning entry: Bryant Apolio’s ‘Independencia’. It is also a pleasure to publish the two runner ups: Ira Frolova and Patrick Arulanadam. Congratulations to the winners, and to another year of these integral awards celebrating writers from migrant backgrounds.
We are thrilled to feature Stickmob artist Alyssa Mason’s stunning ‘Rainbow Serpent’ as our cover art. The human-animal-environment interaction in her work opens up deep considerations.
Finally, we offer our congratulations and a warm thank you to all our talented contributing writers, our guest poetry editor Caitlin Maling, our founding editor Michelle Cahill for her guidance, and our wonderful readers.
Editors Monique Nair & Anthea Yang
AJ DeMoyer is an emerging writer of eco-dystopian short fiction, currently studying an MA Writing and Literature at Deakin University. April lives with her husband, two tiny dogs and an oversize cat on Dharawal Country (regional NSW). When she’s not studying, reading or writing, she’s either propagating succulents in her garden, obsessively sorting the recycling, baking a sugary treat, or streaming dystopian programming.
‘Good evening, Jo,’ AIoFE™ says. ‘You have three new messages.’
Jo picks up her phone and slides her thumb over the screen, which unlocks after authenticating her irises.
Extended Warning: X5 Class Solar Flare. Prepare for power grid disruptions.
Warning: UV Level 9 tomorrow. Please stay indoors between 6am – 7pm.
Be SolarSafe! Is your Geomagnetic Disruption Critical Response Plan ready? Contact your local—
Jo places her device on the table. Along the edge of the crepuscular sky, an apricot glow hugs the horizon.
A few days later, Jo sits on her small balcony in a wooden chair, book in hand, a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™ sweating on a low table beside her.
Duke is just about to rip the satin bodice from Victoria’s quivering body when an electronic rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ pierces Jo’s eardrums, shocking her from the quiet mid-afternoon reverie. She places the book, its pages swollen and warped from touch and temperature, on the table next to her glass. Jo sighs. Why do I even bother? Most of her books and other belongings had been destroyed in the Terrible Flood; these tacky romance novels—that anachronistic ice-cream van—are like cockroaches in a nuclear holocaust. She has learned to be content with whatever she can get.
Jo surveys the street with its single-family heritage houses repurposed for multiple occupancy. She feels lucky to have been assigned to this block, to a property with a garden. The rusty van trundles up the street; children, drawn to its song like sailors to Sirens, abandon their makeshift bicycles and rush toward it. Uniformed mothers, between shifts at The Factory, watch closely.
The tune cuts out; the van has stopped. In the quiet, Jo recalls the hot summers of her own youth, some 17,000 kilometres and seventy years from where she finds herself now. She remembers hours spent running through reticulated sprinklers under a clear blue sky, toes squelching over lush green lawns, the excitement of the ice-cream truck cruising her neighbourhood, even then summoning children with a warbled, tinny rendition of ‘Greensleeves’. Flaky chocolate sticks in soft, aerated ice-creams; ice lollies that turned lips and tongues blue and red. What could they possibly get from that van now? Jo shudders.
Shrill and mechanical, the tune starts up again. Jo returns to her chair, stretches her spider-veined legs, rests her calloused feet on a threadbare cushion. She reaches for the book and begins to read, with some longing, details of Victoria and Duke delighting in each other’s company.
‘Good morning,’ AIoFE™ says, handing Jo her daily packet of vitamins and a glass of verbena H2Oh!™. ‘You are advised to stay indoors today. We are currently experiencing an X3 class geomagnetic storm, which is expected to increase to X5 in the next 48 hours.’
Wiping down her breakfast plate, Jo studies her desiccated Survival Garden™ planted with GMO crops designed to thrive in the ‘new normal’ climate. She longs for the verdant gardens of her childhood and the permaculture gardens of her adulthood, carefully landscaped with a mixture of flowers and produce—fragrant roses, juicy strawberries, passionfruit dangling from vines. And yet, just five weeks ago, between spells of torrential rain, Jo had spotted Filipendula ulmania—meadowsweet—in a far corner of her plot. She marvels at Nature’s tenacity, her resilience.
Jo spends the day tidying her living space, making mental lists. Her AIoFE™ could do this, but Jo wants to keep her ageing mind agile and sharp. She fears becoming like her neighbours Logan and Barb, whose AIoFE™ does everything for them; who, instead of enjoying what remains of nature or humankind, binge-watch reality TV (Barb, grid permitting) and re-enact VR wars (Logan, sobriety permitting).
That night, Jo dreams she’s atop a tall mountain in springtime bloom. The peak’s outdoor restaurant is busy. As she walks toward it, the sky flashes white. In the distance, a slow-moving silver arc appears, raining fire as it advances, consuming everything in its path. No-one else notices. People gorge themselves on piles of food, their mouths and fingers greasy with the fat of animals; they ignore her cries, her pleas. It is too late. The arc is upon them; its flames engulf them.
AIoFE™ enters the bedroom, eyes burning bright LED white before softening to an ethereal blue. ‘Wake up, sleepy head,’ it says. ‘The Assembly begins in 90 minutes.’
Jo eases herself out of bed, stretches her arms over her head then side to side. The climate curfew has been lifted; she is meeting friends ahead of The Assembly.
‘Honestly, Jo, it’s not that bad with Wheatmylk™ and a lump of Shugar™.’ Maren sips her tepid drink and grimaces, her lips peeled back and bloodless over her tombstone teeth in mock pleasure.
Jo fingers the chip in the ancient mug. She does not like Koffee™ and has only ordered one to be sociable.
Harriet squeezes her friend’s hand. ‘I miss the real thing, too. Remember the smell of freshly ground beans? What I wouldn’t do for—even for a Nescafe!’
The women finish their drinks in silence. They leave the cafeteria, cross a covered courtyard secured by the Civil Guard and peppered with protesters holding hand-drawn placards.
Jo and her friends join the throng of people moving along a corridor into a cavernous building—a former dairy acquired through compulsory purchase. Jo had heard that the farmer had been paid a token sum, his cattle slaughtered and quietly distributed to government officials. The women sit near the stage: a floor-to-ceiling digital screen for the global simulcast. At precisely 10.30am, the lights dim and the crowd hushes.
An AIoFE™ moves to the dais. ‘Children, I greet you in the name of His Excellency, Our Great Father.’ The AIoFE™ continues, ‘I remind you that full-duplex device jamming is activated and the room is sealed until The Assembly has concluded.’
The robot moves aside. The screen comes to life with an avatar of His Excellency, Our Great Father: a small, average-looking, fair-skinned, grey-haired man in his fifties dressed in a deep purple tunic adorned with a gold sash, standing in front of a red velvet drape. Jo can’t help but think of Oscar Diggs; she stifles a dangerous laugh with a cough.
‘Children!’ The avatar raises his hands in blessing. ‘My peace be with you.’
The room rises to its feet, responds in unison, ‘And also with you, Our Great Father’.
‘Today, Children, I bring you wonderful news. Behold! I have made all things new. The first earth is passing away and will not be remembered. My chosen ones shall inherit a new Earth. No longer shall you toil. Relieved of your labours, you will be free to pursue enlightened interests here in New Eden.’
The avatar disappears, replaced with drone footage of enormous domed sanctuaries: a breathtaking feat of bio-engineering, conservation and artificial intelligence. The audience watches advanced AIoFE™ models labouring while humans enjoy manmade forests, lakes, and meadows interspersed with natural landscapes and habitats filled with a Noah’s Ark of animals, fishes, birds, reptiles, insects—a curated selection of extinct species re-animated through the wonders of science, rewilded into synthetic habitats.
Over pseudo-chorale background music the AIoFE™ narrates: ‘His Excellency, Our Great Father has created a new world where humans and animals and technology will live together in peace and prosperity, in God’s own country.’
Jo’s stomach knots. An entire continent seized, repurposed as New Eden—the zenith of man’s paradisiacal neo-creation. She had known, of course, about the depopulation of the former continent-nation of Australia, which officials had declared uninhabitable after a series of severe climate disasters. Its people had been forcibly redistributed to overcrowded, resource-depleted northern hemisphere countries, where protests against these unwanted Antipodean refugees had resulted in vicious attacks on the newcomers. Jo knows some of these families from The Centre for Cultural Assimilation, where she serves two days a week. She knows what it’s like to be in a strange, new place—when she was 14, Jo’s parents moved their family to the northern hemisphere after the earthquake that levelled Canberra. They are no different to us, she thinks, just traumatised in different ways.
From the screen, the Ministers for New Eden and Global Reassignment outline the timetable, migration process and the lottery system—only one billion people will reside in His Excellency’s utopia. Jo scans the hall, searching to find her incredulity mirrored in the faces of others; instead, she finds only faces shining with desperate optimism.
That afternoon, fragments of a poem Jo’s mother used to recite tickle her memory.
‘AIoFE™,’ she asks, ‘what is that poem about … cybernetic meadows?’
The robot’s chest panel lights up, emits a soft whir. ‘The poem is “All watched over by machines of loving grace”, written by Richard Brautigan in 1967 when he was the poet-in-residence at Cal—’
‘Thank you, AIoFE™. Will you read it, please?’
Later that evening, Jo sits in her wooden chair on the balcony with a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™. She reflects on The Assembly’s announcement that morning. She closes her eyes, recites the poem’s last stanza into the night air:
‘I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.’
Jo sighs. What choice do any of us have?
Over the rooftops of her neighbours’ dimly lit homes, the apricot glow looms.
Juanita is an emerging writer who lives in a small town in rural Victoria, on the unceded land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. She has only recently tapped into a deep desire to write. Having successfully navigated away from a long career as a professional photographer, Juanita is now completing her arts degree in anthropology and creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
After Andri Snær Magnason
There is a man sitting outside a café in Reykjavik harbour, drinking his second double espresso and writing a eulogy for a glacier.
The man takes a crumpled packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket, digs out the last one, and stares vacantly across the harbour at the Harpa Concert Hall. It is perched on the edge of the water like a giant metallic beast from the future; scales glinting in the sun. He lights the cigarette, and while the match burns down until it singes his finger, he wonders what kind of world the glacier was born into. He quickly waves out the match, places it carefully in the ashtray with the others, and squints out at the bay through an exhalation of smoke.
What did it feel like, to be alive ten thousand years ago?
Katja Edelmann is driving a rented Audi north from the Munich airport towards a nursing-home in Aalen, where she will help celebrate her grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday. She has flown in from Reykjavik, straight from an interview with a climate scientist, who gave her a view of the world so immense, it has dislodged something solid, deep inside her. And while she was busy navigating her way out of the airport terminal, her story on the disappearing glaciers of Iceland was rewriting itself in her brain, without her even noticing.
As she drives further from the airport, the terrain beyond the Autobahn slowly transforms. As if in a time-lapse. The distant hills become dotted with clusters of fretworked farm-houses, and patches of thick forest appear. Familiar landmarks pass by and scenes from childhood visits with her grandmother layer themselves upon the landscape. For an unsettling moment, time no longer has a linear flow.
Katja looks at the clock on the dashboard and decides she needs one more coffee before re-uniting with her German relatives. She hates that it will make her late, but she’s been up since four a.m. and is starting to feel the ache in her throat that comes from holding in too many emotions. Or from smoking too many cigarettes, she’s not sure which.
She takes the next exit into a Raststätte the size of a small town and drives to the furthest end of the parking area. She pulls up in front of an enormous tree at the edge of the bitumen, turns off the ignition and sits in the car for a moment. The tree before her is a splendid, twisted old thing. An oak maybe. There’s a crow sitting on an outstretched branch, its head cocked and alert, examining her carefully. She leans forward over the steering wheel, and watches its inky feathers shimmer blue-green in the sun.
‘We are living in biblical times,’ the scientist had said to her, just a few hours earlier. He had paused, offered her a cigarette and explained, ‘when geologically-scaled events like ocean acidification and species extinction happen on a human time-scale, reality takes on a mythical quality.’ He had looked at her with an intensity that reminded her of an ex-lover who had become unhinged, some years ago, obsessed with dark internet conspiracies.
As Katja gets out of the car, the crow makes a sound like a baby wailing. It hops, open-winged along the branch a few times before flying off. She watches it disappear into a row of birch trees and it occurs to her that she has been writing the wrong story.
She buys a coffee and a packet of throat lozenges and takes them back to the car. The crow reappears abruptly in a blur of black. It hops along the same gnarled branch and stares at her. She sips her coffee and stares back, admiring the magnificent oak in which it is perched. Yes, definitely oak.
She remembers a story her father once told her about the wooden beams in the roof of a dining hall in Oxford. The building itself was over seven-hundred-years-old, but about a century ago—her father had explained—an infestation of beetles was found in the huge lengths of oak that were supporting the roof. Unsure where to find such massive pieces of wood to replace the beams, the college council called on the college forester for advice. Unsurprised by the situation, the forester said something like, ‘I’ve been wondering when you lot would turn up!’
The forester explained that back when the college was built, six centuries earlier, a grove of oak trees was planted to replace those very beams. The inevitability of a beetle infestation at some point in the future was calculated into the construction. And this knowledge was passed on from forester to forester, down through the generations: the oaks in that grove were for the dining hall in Oxford.
Why do we no longer hold our vision so far into the future? She suddenly realises that the story she needs to write isn’t about climate change. It is about time.
‘We have to change the way we think about time,’ the man in Reykjavik had said. Cathedral thinking, he had called it. Cathedrals in Europe would take generations to build. Hundreds of years. Fathers would lay the foundations, knowing they would never see it finished. And their grandsons would teach their sons how to chisel rocks and place stones, one upon the other, knowing they would be long dead before the first congregation gathered under its vaulted ceiling.
Katja checks the time on the dashboard again. She unwraps the lozenges, pops one in her mouth and starts the car. She regrets smoking so many of the scientist’s cigarettes.
‘Katja, Schatz! Wie geht’s? You’re here!’
Her uncle engulfs her in a joyful hug as she enters the foyer of the nursing-home. She laughs and hugs him back, apologising for being late. ‘Ach, don’t worry about it. Oma is in the dining room with everyone, go in, I’m just organising the cake.’
Katja is taken in by her relatives: into the room and back into their lives. Her grandmother is helped out of her chair and gives her a long, surprisingly firm hug. ‘How long are you staying this time Kati?’ she says, her voice slower and deeper than Katja remembers.
‘Just a few days, Oma, but I will make the most of every moment.’ She smiles and gives her grandmother’s hand a squeeze. As Katja helps the old woman back into her chair, her cousin appears with her newborn son asleep in her arms. ‘Hallo Katja! Meet Ulli…’ She reorganises her body to reveal a tiny pink face in the bundle folded into her arms.
‘Hello Ulli,’ says Katja, touching his soft fuzzy head. She tries to imagine what the world will be like in the year 2118, when this brand-new human turns one-hundred.
The line between past and present blurs again as Katja is immersed in an afternoon of conversation and reminiscence. Jan finally arrives with a birthday cake big enough for Ulli to take a nap on, and someone leads them in song.
A middle-aged woman with wild hair and thick-rimmed glasses approaches Katja with a plate of birthday cake in each hand. ‘The last time I talked to you, you were writing a story about some Aboriginal people—trying to save those trees in Australia.’ She hands her niece the slab of darkly layered torte, the thick white frosting threatening to topple to the floor.
‘Oh, my! Thank you, Tante Lina,’ Katja says taking the plate. ‘Yes, you’re right. That was couple of years ago now.’ Her mind cast back to the sparse, dry landscape of central Victoria, and the scorching summer that she wrote about those trees. Eight-hundred-year-old birthing trees. Sacred to the local Djab Wurrung people, they were to be cut down to widen a section of highway. She had spent a week at the protest site, camping alongside those magnificent trees and their custodians. She felt the distress of the Traditional Owners as they talked about the importance of the tress, and the sacred land that they were on. How that land connected the Djab Wurrung people to their ancestors, to the beginning of time.
Fifty generations of women had birthed their children under the protection of those trees, and countless generations of women and trees were in relationship before that. For the Djab Wurrung, the past, like the present, was always all around them. For them, the horror of colonisation was ongoing.
‘What ever happened to those trees? Did you save them?’
‘No.’ She swallows a mouthful of cake but forgets to taste it.
When she visits again the next day, Katja finds her grandmother alone, dozing in a large hospital-grade recliner in her room. Katja sits down opposite her and quietly watches her breathe. A nurse marches in announcing teatime and clunks a cup of tea down on the small table in front of her grandmother, startling her awake. This small violence makes Katja want to follow the nurse down the corridor and yell at her. Instead, she bundles her grandmother into a wheelchair and drives her to Bucher-Stausee, the place her grandmother took her swimming as child.
‘I haven’t been here for a long time,’ says the old woman as Katja slowly wheels her to the edge of the lake.
The two women watch the ducks bobbing up and down on the water, and Katja listens to her grandmother talk about her husband. A good, kind man, who always gave her the best of everything he had. The old woman tells of long-ago adventures with her favourite uncle, who had secretly taught her to hunt rabbits in the spruce forest behind his house. She tells of a dear friend, her closest, oldest friend, who helped her care for her husband when he was dying.
All of them, already claimed by God, she says.
She tells Katja of her mother, Hildegard, a fierce woman born in 1891 in a small town near Berlin, in what was then Prussia. The daughter of a carriage builder, she would frequently test drive her father’s handiwork, to his continual horror.
Hildegard’s great-grand-daughter looks out over the water, and counts back in her head how many great-grandmothers it would take to get to the time when the birthing trees were just saplings; to when a stonemason in Paris was laying the foundation for Notre-Dame. Twenty? Fifty? For the now dead glacier, fifty human generations was surely just a blip in its life. Eight-hundred-years ago might have felt like its last hours on earth. Did it feel the oncoming warming, the shifting of ideologies and warring of men? Did it sense then, the stirring of a population about to explode?
‘Do you think God has forgotten me?’
‘Technology has given us the power of gods,’ the scientist had said, looking down at his hands like he was confessing something. He paused, looked up, and gave Katja a beatific smile. ‘Of course, the problem is, we lack the wisdom of gods.’
A crow hops along the branch of a tree, where a parking lot will one day be built. A young man in Paris gently lowers the foundation stone at a construction site on the edge of the Seine. A forester in Oxford presses a row of acorns into the soil. And a eucalypt seedling, fifteen-thousand kilometres away, has just broken through the earth.
In Iceland, a glacier heaves and groans.
And the man in the Reykjavik café still can’t figure out how say good-bye to a ten-thousand-year-old god.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. She has written two books of short stories. “The End of the World” was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. She has a BA in international relations from Brown University and an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College (USA) She is currently working on a Ph.D on environmental governance at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University, New Zealand.
This essay was written in 2018 and reflects some of the damaging environmental impacts of Nepal’s communist rule, before KP Oli’s administration and before the Nepali Congress took power. A sudden surge in car imports have exacerbated the situation even further since this essay was written four years ago.
No place like home
A few days ago, I went out to do my vegetable shopping at 4 pm, as I do every evening. Our neighborhood is called Handigaun, and it is known as the oldest settlement in the Kathmandu Valley. The ancient peepul tree at the end of the road has a Radha-Krishna temple nestled inside its roots. Nobody has been keeping track of how long the roots have grown around this small sanctum sanctorum for hundreds of years.
According to architect and cultural heritage conservationist Sudharshan Tiwari (full disclosure: he is an uncle by relation), Handigau was the ancient capital of Nepal during the reign of the Verma, Gupta and Licchavi Kings until 8th Century AD. This area later fell into obscurity with the rise of three kingdoms in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. Just down the road and down some small steps is the Satya-Narayan Mandir, where an Italian archaeological team came and excavated during 1984; the archaeologists found ancient statues and artifacts that go back to Licchavi times. I remember seeing graceful human-sized statues displayed in the square in front of the Saraswoti temple. The memory stayed with me, although I couldn’t remember much beyond the grace and style. I thought of the figure as a Buddha.
I have grown up knowing that Handigaun hides many secrets: somewhere deep inside the depths of this now squalid settlement is buried the remains of the renowned palace complexes of the Licchacvi Era, called Kailashkut Bhavan. Licchavi King Angshuverma constructed this palace after he ascended the throne in 598 AD. Chinese traveler and monk Xuanzang mentions this fabled structure in his writings: Kailashkut Bhawan had three adjoining buildings, known as Indragriha (Indra’s home), Managriha (Mana’s home) and Kailashkut (the mythical residence of Shiva and Parvati.) According to Zuangzang, a thousand people could be accommodated in the top floor of this building. Kailashkut was a giant palatial structure known for its artistic glory.
A few minutes down from our house is an open plaza where vendors set up wooden tables and sell fresh vegetables each evening. Tiny temples surround the plaza: the Bhimsenthan has a statue of Bhimsen, the strongest and most powerful of the Pandava brothers from the epic Mahabaharata, holding a club. It is tiny and exquisite, a small shrine with four wooden pillars standing in the middle of the crossroads. A new Dakshinkali temple with a yellow roof houses a shiny statue. Rajan, an energetic community figure, conducts daily pujas, organizes the vegetable vendors into the packed plaza, and adjudicates their disputes and violent brawls. For this service, without which the public square would be in chaos and unused due to conflicts regarding occupancy, he charges Rs.30 per day from each vendor.
Across the road is the Sankata complex, a strip of anaconic statues on the ground venerating the goddess Sankata, whose dasha or planetary ruling period is often the most feared and most soul-searingly difficult in the Hindu mindscape. In the jyotish astrological timeline, the yogini dasha (dasha is a time period ruled by a specific planet) has eight dashas. The eight year long dasha of Sankata, ruled by Rahu, brings with it the most upheaval, turmoil and downright catastrophe. Little Jyapu children take their drums and pipes and circumbulate this complex faithfully at each jatra festival to appease the fearsome goddess. It is a landscape mapped out by the architecture of belief and the rhythm of festivals, designed to be walked by old and young alike.
And yet, as I walked out that evening to try and do that most mundane of errands—
vegetable shopping—what I felt was an overwhelming sense of being swamped and trodden over. All around me were dozens of motorcycles, tooting their horns, swerving to get by, buzzing like angry hornets. I had to step aside, with my back to the walls, because otherwise they would have driven over me. I couldn’t cross the road to enter the market. I watched helplessly as the cars and motorcycles swarmed around me in this historic space, indifferent to my presence as a local resident, indifferent to my rights as a pedestrian. In their minds, getting home by the quickest route was more important than assuaging the grief of a local whose values and memories had become irrelevant, in this petroleum fueled internal combustion world.
As the evening traffic jam overwhelmed my neighborhood, bumper to bumper like an American highway, I stood behind and thought: What are they doing? How could they not see the historic significance of this space, and realize that this should be a pedestrian area where people walked places? How did the politicians imagine the world would sort itself out if thousands of these vehicles were added each year to this tiny valley, with no regulation to keep them in check?
As a pedestrian without a vehicle, I have no say in this republic of might. With an ankle injured during the 2015 earthquake, I have mobility problems. The slightest depression or uneven ground can make me stumble, but Kathmandu’s roads are never well built or well maintained in the current regime. The roads, it seems have gotten worse, rather than better. I try to maneuver over a non-existent sidewalk and kerb, holding onto an electric pole. A slight swelling of concrete indicates that one road has ended and is forking into another. The concrete has been slapped on by contractors from construction syndicates whose main goal had been to bid the lowest rates and get the contract, which they will split with their contacts inside the Department of Transport and inside political parties. The most famous of these is Shailung Construction, known to be owned by the landlord of Prachanda. Prachanda is one of the controversial leaders of the Maoist Revolution. The company has come under heavy media scrutiny for monopolizing dozens of government construction contracts while delivering very little infrastructure in return. Despite repeated reportage in the press about non-delivery or delivery of ill-constructed, dangerous structures, the company continues to get new contracts.
The traffic crushes the life out of the vegetable market, the neighborhood, the butcher, the dairy, and the sweetshop. At times, drivers hit children and dogs. The young woman who comes to help my mother clean was very upset this morning—a motorcycle, she said, dragged her six-year old on the way back from school, as he was holding her hand and skipping along. The hospital told her to bring him back for an ECG if he vomited. At night, she said, he got up and she thought perhaps he had vomited, but she wasn’t sure. The man who’d hit her child thankfully drove them immediately to the hospital. ‘My child is the same age, I have to make sure he’s fine,’ he said. Cruelty and compassion live side by side on the same streets.
My dog has a paw with a misshapen break in the middle of her leg—she was a street dog I rescued from the shelter, and during winters when it gets cold her bouncy step turns into a limp. It is not hard to guess where her injury came from: most likely a speeding motorcycle. While I was recovering from fractures I sustained during the 2015 earthquake, I would go to the physiotherapy room at Grande Hospital. During one of the sessions, I heard a physiotherapist share a story—he had been taking a midnight ride in his Enfield when he heard a ‘Splat!’ sound. ‘I look down and this dog had been totally smashed on the ground,’ he said in a casual, conversational tone. There was no indication in his story that he stopped to help the injured dog. He simply sped on his way. As I listened to the nice, kind-looking man who has been helping people diligently to get up on their feet after strokes and accidents, I can’t help but wonder at how such cruelty can exist side by side with such compassion. How could he spend his life healing people, spending all his time trying to get them up on their feet again after painful operations, while at the same time talk so casually about smashing up a dog with no acknowledgement of guilt or pain? Are we, as a human species, perhaps so anthropocentric we can’t feel the pain of animals other than our own species?
There are too many motorcycles in the Kathmandu Valley, all being driven at high speeds, responsible for many injuries of children, elderly people and dogs every single day. And yet there is no move to ban these vehicles. Politicians are indifferent to anything but taxes, which they pocket without transparency or accountability. There are no regulations to limit these vehicles in historic areas, or crowded pedestrian areas, because each motorcycle brings in tax. A taxi-driver listed for me the taxes he paid each year: Rs.16, 000 for annual tax; Rs.4000/each three months as road tax; Rs.1800 per year as municipal tax; Rs.1200 a year for navikaran fee; Rs.600 to recalculate the taxi meter’s fare, Rs.300 for meter navikaran. Another taxi-driver gave me a list of seven different taxes and insurance that he pays. Vehicles are profitable milking cows, and politicians don’t want this income source to stop. Profit dictates policy, what little there is of it. The political elites in power in Nepal used to run extortion operations in the People’s War. Now they tax people. It’s the same process, except back in the day it was illegal and now it’s done through the auspices of democracy. There seems to be no law—moral or ethical—that stops the politicians from allowing emission-spewing vehicles to pile up in this tiny valley. Nothing else, the air pollution, the rise of respiratory diseases, the chaos from vehicles parked randomly all over public space and speeding, hitting and disabling people — none of this matters.
It wasn’t always like this. The lane outside my house was a modest width—wide enough for water tankers and ambulances, not wide enough for hundreds of speeding motorcycles. The old brick walls, gently eroding rusty-orange, were high and covered with green moss. There was an overgrown stand of bamboo at the lane’s end. Trees covered the entire lane from one end to the other. Jacaranda trees that my grandfather had planted in the middle part of the twentieth century shaded my garden. I did not notice the slow erosion of the land in front of me as the houses built, and built, over what was once a large lake. The lake had been buried by real estate speculators and sold at some point in my childhood. I don’t remember when it happened; only that one day the lotus-covered lake beyond our house was gone.
The gas seller came by a week ago, and he said: ‘We used to run through the lane we thought a seven-headed naga lived in that lake. We were so afraid. And now people have built massive buildings. Nothing happened to them in the earthquake either.’
We look at each other, as if we can’t believe the naga would let these new people just go like this, without wreaking wrath on them. Building on lake bottoms has been discouraged because the mud liquefies and the bottom falls out during an earthquake, we’d always thought. Yet here was this set of giant buildings, with a new one being built at the speed of light by a young man who’s inherited his grandfather’s land and who seems indifferent to our concerns about seismic stability. Perhaps he did not know about the lake, or the seven-headed naga that could one day wreak his vengeance onto his investment.
Kathmandu had been a city full of beautiful ponds and lakes. Even the Dakshinkali temple and ward office of Handigaon had been build on a lotus pond that had been filled in. A well-connected man during the Panchayat era had decided to fill the pond and sell it. And that’s how the public ponds of Kathmandu vanished from the Eighties to now, one by one.
The leafy fans of the jacaranda leaves shaded my house from the outside world. I had only a dim idea of how it was changing outside. Then change came at the speed of light. The decade long People’s War, started in 1996, was followed by a ceasefire in 2006, then a comprehensive peace agreement. The rebels extorting people and making them flee from their ancestral villages were suddenly in power in Kathmandu, put there by the UN Mission to Nepal, which had brokered a peace agreement between the conflicting parties. Within a few short years, Baburam Bhattarai, architect of revolution and urban planner trained in JNU, was out there with his bulldozers smashing through the old streets of Kathmandu. This urban restructuring was going to be his magnum opus. A young man who lived at the end of our lane thought the pedestrian footpath in front of his house wasn’t grand enough. He had Maoist connections, people said. So in 2012 the bulldozers came by, relentlessly destroying the old growth trees in our lane. Jacaranda, bottlebrush, golden oaks, eucalyptus, trees whose names I did not know, they all fell, one by one. Hundred-year-old trees were gone within days. I think we lost three dozen trees in this fateful moment.
The bulldozer came by and kept hitting my jacaranda over and over, because the old tree refused to give way. It was a painful fight, with the tree groaning and screeching for days. Eventually the bulldozer won. The tree was cut to the nub, but it was still alive a year later, sprouting green fronds. Secretly I hoped the roots had survived and would sprout again. Sadly it was not to be—some person came by and chopped the last remaining bit of it for firewood one winter day during the Indian blockade three years later, leaving only emptiness behind. I screamed at the bulldozer driver. He bashed in my wall in revenge. You can still see the depression where he hit my bricks and caused damage. Our little corner of Kathmandu was now no longer a green and mossy sanctuary where children walked to school and breathed fresh air. It was filled with piston-firing Enfield motorcycles, roaring by at all times of the day and night. A motorbike called Crossfire, which made explosive gunshot like sounds, could be heard speeding by at night. I learnt from taxidrivers that the reason for the excruciatingly loud decibels was tampering with the Mobil oil, which was mixed with chemicals to make an extra loud sound. Expensive SUVs worth millions of rupees and battered water tankers filled with water tanks soon piled up outside, using the once green space as a parking lot. When once we used to have sweet-smelling eucalyptus, we now have the smell of diesel exhaust.
I look at the mark the bulldozer made bashing into my wall, the depression caved in, and see it as the mark of the government which couldn’t stand the outrage of an ordinary citizen beset by the oppressive illusion of democracy. Because this was no democratic process—this was a man drunk with his own ideology and power who’d relentlessly destroyed neighborhoods and homes, just as he’d destroyed the lives of people in the People’s War. But there was to be no accountability, because peace was all that mattered. We were not to make a commotion but to accept this is how things were going to be in our hometown, from now on.
In Lazimpat, a leafy neighborhood close to the former royal palace, they uprooted the shady green trees again, slapping on the concrete and making the road so wide it’s impossible to cross it now. The vehicles do not stop these days—it’s a wide highway of speeding motorcycles. In 2014, I was working to write a TV script in an office in Lazimpat. A colleague confided in me that he’s started the process to immigrate to Canada. ‘I am leaving Kathmandu for two reasons,’ he said. ‘First, I want my children to be able to breathe clean air. And secondly I want them to be able to cross the road. This is the only reason I want to immigrate to Canada.’
We will never see trees as big as my grandfather’s turn of the century trees in Kathmandu in my lifetime. Once you cut a tree that old, it’s gone. But there was a more sinister side effect. In the springtime, I could see women desperately running water pumps for hours. When I asked them if the water was coming, they’d shake their heads: ‘Only a trickle.’ As the trees were destroyed, so was the water table which fell many feet below. I see women running up to the tankers that provide free water in a frenzy, and sometimes there is a fight as people jostle to fill their plastic canisters. I’m terrified my water pump is going to break and I won’t have water, just like the time after the earthquake when I had my period and diarrhoea and would wake up and hobble with a crutch to go to my parents’ bathroom—only to find my sister-in-law had latched the door on the other side. My father ignored my pleas. He thought that old and dilapidated pump, which no longer worked, was enough for my needs. As the water table had dried up, we’d run it for hours and not a drop of water would come up. Fortunately I had enough savings to buy a new pump, which cost eight hundred US dollars. For many in Kathmandu, this is a luxury beyond reach.
I meet my neighbor Poppy who tells me her neighbor, the judge’s wife, can’t stand the leaf fall from her tree. They threaten her because some leaves have drifted into their yard. ‘At one point, they came over and set fire to the tree,’ she told me, her eyes full of tears. ‘Who would do such a thing to a tree? They want everything neat and clean.’ In modern developed minds, the ability to cover every inch of ground with concrete is regarded as a sign of gentrification and upward mobility.
In a few years, perhaps a decade or so, we’ll no longer have water in Kathmandu. If the Maoist ideal is to surround and capture the city, they did this excellently by killing trees. The first thing an enemy does when attacking a fortressed space is to attack the water source. The dhungay dhara, or stone spouts built by ancient inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley are a closely guarded secret—only a select handful of tantrics know their sources. The reason for the secrecy was practical—if enemies attacked the city, the first thing they did was disable the water system, so it was imperative to keep its workings subterranean and hidden. In the early 21st century, Maoists attacked Kathmandu and its water sources with great success. Once you deprive the “feudals” of water, they can no longer live in the city. The feudals are flushed out from water starvation, while the Maoists party onwards with bottled water and alcohol. But the donors who love the romance of revolution, even though they personally would never want to live through one, have installed these regimes, and we must make the most of it. Anybody who opposes this way of being is feudal, anti-democratic. Home no longer feels like home, as the relentless march of the feudal, secular Democratic regime’s progress piles up, destroying historic neighborhoods and cultural artifacts, century old trees and water tables, street dogs and children.
And it is in these moments of despair, when I look at the grey sunset and wonder whether Kathmandu will be inhabitable in 10, 20, 30 years time, that I see the planet’s future. We are all captured in this planet with people like the Maoists, who put forward the ideal of modern progress as the only way forward.
The insect population has plunged 80 times in the past thirty years, and with it has gone all the birds that used to subsist on insects. ‘The insect apocalypse is here,’ the New York Times proclaimed on 27 November 2018, in an article with the same title.
One day I saw bugs had eaten my ferns, and posted a photo of it on Twitter: ‘Some naughty bug has munched through my million year old angiosperm.’ The post was partly in jest, but partly I was drawing attention to the millennia old continuum of life, which respected the rights of the bug to munch through this plant. That is how life has always continued, with one life form depending upon another. The bug would die, and its body would fertilize the earth on which the fern grew. That is always how it has been. Before the humans came along, and started to spray organophosphates that destroyed the insects’ neurological system. They started to paralyze the cockroaches, and with it, also the humans. The insidious diseases we cannot name or identify all go back to these poisons we think will kill pests but end up killing us as well, because we are tied by the indivisible thread of life. The cancers, the dementia, the Alzheimer’s, the Parkinson. The dreadful wasting diseases to which there is no cure. All of which afflict people in developed countries in such greater proportion than in developing countries far from these neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters. But now it is hard to find any pristine place on the planet. The farthest reaches of Greenland is filling up with plastic, even though the people living there are so few in number they could not have possibly tossed that many plastic objects in their ice-clear drinking water. It is all coming from elsewhere.
Robert MacFarlane, a British nature writer, wrote a book called “The Lost Words.” In it, he tries to reconjure back the words which described the natural world, now being lost to this hypercapitalist, technological era. Oxford’s Junior Dictionary decided to take out fifty nature words like acorn, buttercup and conker and replace it with tech words like analogue, broadband and cut and paste. Celebrity replaced magpie and newt. This is a reflection of how our world has evolved—one ruled by the four square borders of a computer screen, and not the sounds and sights of nature. MacFarlane, along with a group of other writers, wrote a letter of protest which became a rallying cry against this literary erasure. As writers, we must all try to find our own ways of protesting this slow erasure of the natural world from our own locations and vantage points.
People have named this age the anthropocene—the age where humans influence climate and environment to such an extent they end up becoming its defining, dominant force. We are the apex predator of our own species. But the coinage of the word eromocene, by philosopher and biologist EO Wilson, captures our future with more eerie specificity: a time and place where insects die off, taking with them birds, animals and the entire chain of living beings with them. The eromocene is the age of loneliness, where the sounds and sights of all living creatures are silenced by our ecocidal ethos. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which pushed the world to understand the consequences of DDT on living beings, activists, writers, Nobel Prize winners and children from all over are now pushing us to face the unavoidable consequences of the sum of all human actions—from fossil fuel to plastics, from pesticides to chemical fertilizers, from our coltan-containing computers to our cobalt and tungsten containing cell phones, all destroying and silencing the web of life.
When will we stop thinking homo sapiens and their ability to use their hands and brains is the supreme intelligence that exists on this planet, and start thinking about ethics and morality in our use of lethal human inventions, science and technology? When will the shift occur, when humans understand that they are not god’s gift to planet earth, but her worst enemy? Until then, we have to live in this apocalyptic space—our mother earth, our planet—where despite the degradations, there is nowhere else to go but back home.
As if to echo this loss of nature, I also had the half-remembered vision of the statue excavated from Handigaon’s Satya Narayan Mandir reoccur in my memories. What was that statue? Where did it go? How do the layers of histories get erased by the plundering hand of time?
Writer William Dalrymple, who has been researching the spread of Hinduism to South East Asia, recently wrote in a tweet: ‘In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.’
The name “Jayavarman” struck a chord. “Varman” sounds like the suffixes in the names of the kings of Kathmandu Valley of the pre-modern past. So I looked it up. And lo and behold, the article that surfaced said a statue had been dug up from Maligaon, a five minute walk from my house, in 1992, and a Brahmi script said it was of a King Jayavarman. Brahmi and Sanskrit scripts on the pedestal dates the statue to 185 AD, making it the earliest known historical epigraphic record of the Kathmandu Valley.
I looked at the photograph in the article—and realized I had found my lost statue. I recognized the way the clothing was wrapped around his body, the Grecian similarities to style. The lost statue was not of a Buddha but of a Shaivite king.
Figure of King Jayavarma, A.D 185 (Mishra, 2000)
Dalrymple mentions that Jayavarman II of Cambodia was a passionate Shaivite. Could it be that the Jayavarman of my neighborhood and the Jayavarman of Angkor were related? Could the latter have descended from the former, 600 years later? Shiva continues to be worshipped in Nepal in all his forms, but his most loved incarnations is Pashupati, the peaceful, loving lord of the animals, and Bhairav, his angriest and most destructive form. As I walk down the narrow alleys of Handigaon, now so full of motorcars and motorcycles as to be almost unwalkable, it occurs to me that this neighborhood where I grew up in, which to most people is only perceived of as a poor, broken down neighborhood to be raced through impatiently, may have been the kingdom from where Shaivite Hinduism spread out throughout South-East Asia. Somewhere from the dusty cobwebs of time, a connection was made and came to life again, sparking a light on what was once lost and dead.
Perhaps in the same way the seeds of life of our mother earth can once again come to life, evoking secrets from the womb of the planet, weaving the threads of knowledge together, bringing together the pieces of what we once thought was shattered and broken. Perhaps the ecological wisdom of our ancestors, which saw divinity in mountains and rivers, rock and water, animate and inanimate forms, can once again spread throughout the lands, in all its glorious incarnations.
Antonini, Chiara Silvi, and Giovani Veradi. “Excavation in the Kathmandu Valley.” Ancient Nepal 89, 1985, pp. 17-36.
Carson, Rachel. Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Jarvis, Brooke. “The Insect Apocalypse is here.” The New York Times, November 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html
Kharel, Samir, “Locals plead for Handigaun preservation.” Kathmandu Post, April 6, 2013.
Mishra, Tara Nanda. “Dated figure of King Jayavarma, the tradition of figure making and the historical importance of this discovery.” Ancient Nepal 146, 2000, pp. 1-23. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ancientnepal/pdf/ancient_nepal_146_01.pdf
Tiwari, Sudarshan Raj. The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal. Himal Books, 2002.
“‘Nowhere to go’ on the frontlines of climate change.” The New Humanitarian, December 13, 2018. https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2018/12/13/nowhere-go-front-lines-climate-change
Dalrymple, William [@DalrympleWill] “In 802, two years after Charlemagne declared the birth of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day in St. Peters, on the remote hilltop of Phnom Kulen, the young Khmer Prince Jayavarman II was declared chakravartin of what would become the great Empire of Angkor.” Twitter, December 14, 2021. https://twitter.com/DalrympleWill/status/1470383978851057664