Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Fish Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis

Fish-Hair Woman

by Merlinda Bobis

Spinifex Press

ISBN 9781876756970



Silencing Voice, Voicing Silence: A Review of Fish-Hair Woman



In her previous novel The Solemn Lantern Maker, Merlinda Bobis had developed what the literary critic Susan Sontag once called as an “aesthetic of silence”. Bobis’ sparse, economical style so unlike the usual lyricism of her prose reflected her central character’s very own muteness (aptly named Noland), as well as the difficulty of expressing what can hardly be represented in words, but perhaps only felt catachrestically. Noland’s grim story of child prostitution and abject poverty in the Philippines imposes silence because, and as Sontag argued, ‘ “silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence.’[1] What happens out there in the so-called “Third World” thus looms large over our consciousness, disturbingly close from home – and in this silence, we as readers cannot but feel complicit:

There is no room for another time. The hut is too small even for the present. Life must be squeezed to pocket size, breath must be kept spare, so there’s enough left for the next day, so the walls hold up. Be frugal where life is fragile.[2]

What Sontag viewed as a form of ‘impoverished art, purged by silence’[3] also constituted an attempt by the author of The Solemn Lantern Maker to paradoxically draw attention to the particular timbre of her literary voice, an act of resistance in the face of censure and overdetermined readings of her work. This gesture was similar, albeit in another context, to Arte Povera’s minimalism in the late 60s as a means of thwarting philistine approaches to use-value and the seamless transparency of meaning in art. In her essay, ‘‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness’, Bobis quotes Frederic Jameson on the work of Ernest Hemingway to remind that “ethnic” writers, beyond their nationality or gender, are first and foremost artists in their own right.

It is a mistake to think that [his books] deal essentially with such things as courage, love, and death; in reality, their deepest subject is simply the writing of a certain type of sentence, the practice of a determinate style.[4]


The “Gate”

While this is not a review of The Solemn Lantern Maker, this novel and the aesthetic of silence impregnating it informs in turn the story behind Bobis’ first (and until now) unpublished novel Fish-Hair Woman (2011). If her previous novel represented an outcry of a mute sort, and had to be first published in the United States after facing initial rejection in Australia, Fish-Hair Woman stands as revenge against fate and what Bobis defined elsewhere in a recent essay as the “gatekeepers” of the Australian publishing industry. In effect, it took more than seventeen years for the novel to be published, interspersed by multiple rejections, editing, and ‘silence.’[5]

As it happens, the novel’s chief “vice” is that it is set in a militarised village in the Philippines during the Filipino government’s crackdown on communist insurgency from the late 70s onwards, and that, therefore, Australia and the “Australian story” appear marginalised. Bobis prefers to deal instead with subaltern voices and to ‘privilege the underclass – peasants, labourers, and the like – as agents of historical change’[6] in what represents a decolonising gesture akin to the work of Filipino scholars known as Pantayong Pananaw (‘for-us-from-us’ perspective).

The culture industry and its tendency towards compartmentalisation does not wish a diasporic author like Bobis to “dabble” with style; neither is it inclined to giving full reign to the diasporic voice unless it is domesticated, made heimlich. The dominant paradigm for the Asian Australian author has so far been the “migrant story”, a movement from A (Asia) to B (Australia), and sometimes back to A so as to remind the reader that the “Asian story” is Australian enough but not quite. In so doing, the Australian “gate” is safeguarded while “enriched” at the same time. However, Fish-Hair Woman, like Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance (2010) a year before, reverses this movement in a “conspiratorial” attempt (Bobis’ own term) to regionalize Australian identities and open the floodgates by immersing white Australian characters in foreign, menacing Asian settings instead.

In so doing, the garde-fou (French for parapet, literally “madness keeper”) is let loose, perhaps irreversibly, as an effect of globalising trends and the fact that (Asian) Australian authors are now transnational in what may be deemed a post-diasporic world. In this new paradigm, the hyphen in Asian-Australia is not a straightforward road from A to B that can be easily co-opted into the migrant narrative, but a conflictive zone of incommensurability and “abject” resistance writing back to the gatekeepers of the industry.

Behind the Philippine Commercial and Industrial Bank, among the garbage bags, a vagrant is abusing the security guard. […] He’d been scavenging, throwing out ‘unusable’ garbage onto the street before the guard found him. […] Suddenly, the vagrant jumps up, gripping Luke’s arm and shouting, ‘Mr Amerkano, Mr Amerkano, my bank, my bank!’ He’s pointing to the garbage, demanding affirmation. (119)

As Bobis reflects in her essay: ‘Should one exit from the diasporic narrative to break this bind? Why not shift the gate?’[7] This is what Bobis does in Fish-Hair Woman, and by shifting the gate she also shifts perspectives. The novel starts off in the century-old tradition of an ‘Australian thriller about a past crisis in some Asian country [with] the questing Australian male (usually) who was tempted and challenged, and muddled through mayhem.’[8] Centered on the mysterious disappearance of Australian writer Tony McIntyre in the Philippines and his son Luke who sets out to find him, and with all the ingredients of the oriental thriller in place – including a revolution, a corrupt leader, and a love affair with one of the “natives” – Fish-Hair Woman however quickly departs from what the Australian literary critic Alison Broinowski once described as ‘the fictional Asia we used to know and love (or not know and fear).’[9]

It is in that sense that this novel can be deemed “avant-gardiste”, that is, at once one “story ahead” and standing before, rather than inside or outside, the gate.

Luke freezes, unable to look away from the man’s demented eyes, the whites turned blue by the light. Stella shouts at the vagrant to back off, he does, and she grabs Luke and they both run to the Australia Centre. Behind them the altercation continues: ‘My bank, my bank!’

She leans against the silver column, both hands catching her brow. ‘I’m sorry…I’m sorry for my country.’

She’s apologising to me? But Luke misses the tone of despair in which he does not even figure. (119-120) (italics mine)



Merlinda Bobis has often described herself as a “border lover” with a deeply humanist and planetary vision. Her work travels wide and far, relentlessly straddling various art forms, genres, languages and cultures, inscribing difference and alterity in place of reified categorisations and the strangleholds of identity-thinking as few writers have been able to. For Bobis, literature starts with the body, ‘a technique which is not just of the word, but of the body.’[10] Through the bodily metaphor of hair-growing, weaving and unknotting, remembering and forgetting, the reader is caught into the rhizomic nets of “text-ility” in this magico-realist tale of a woman with twelve metre-long hair who fishes out the dead river bodies of a torn cultural fabric, the product of a ‘senseless war’ (9).

My memories weave in and out of death and love. […] I wept over the enemy as my hair grew, its red and black strands shooting from all ventricles up to the scalp, to declare that the heartspace is not just the size of a fist, because each encounter threads a million others. The capillaries of love and war flow into each other, into a handspan of hair. (142)

While we are told that there is no hero in this story, with ‘too many stories weaving into each other, only to unweave themselves at each telling,’ (259) there are also too many vividly painted characters in this family saga à la Garcia Marquez to give them full justice here. The novel spans across three decades and continents, from the Marcos regime’s “Total War” against the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party, through to the February 1986 People Power Revolution and onto the year 1997, as Luke flies to the Philippines from Sydney on a cryptic note sent his father after thirteen years of silence that the latter is dying. There he meets instead with Dr. Alvarado, just returned from years of political exile in Hawaii and who claims to have known his father very well.

These are stories that demand to be told – and heard – stories all too familiar for anyone who is aware that ‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’ (6); stories of farmers’ expropriation, being pushed off their land and turned into landless wage labourers by power-greedy mestizo elites like Dr. Alvarado, alias Governor Estradero and his private army, the Anghel de la Guardia; stories of rape, torture and murder by the State with the complicit backing of the West, including Australia; stories of first-world do-gooders and eco-tourists who ‘look for villages still at one with nature, unadulterated by progress [but] who might just run into problems if the farmer in the village suddenly demands. ‘But I want your BMW too, and your toilets that flush and all your wonderful amenities. Is this possible?’ (121). For those who refuse to hear and see, Bobis will ‘weave an alternative tale about us nice folks brewing this exotic spot with coffee cups on our heads and dancing up a fiesta. A postcard shot if you wish…so you can quell your shudder with a longing sigh for this village in the East.’ (57)



Finally, there is the author’s own meta-story, Bobis’ awareness that she, too, is partly complicit in that ‘your [her] author is only interested in saving a white man [Luke’s father]’ (227). Professor Inez Carillo’s husband was murdered while investigating on the deaths of the villagers of Iraya, north of the island of Luzon, where Bobis was born. As she further explains to the Australian diplomat Matt Baker: ‘the worst are our own expatriate writers, those migratory birds. First they abandon us to fly to greener pastures, then return as vultures to feed on our despair. Then they take off again. Take, then take off.’ (226)

In this complicity, we as readers, along with Bobis’s fish-hair woman, cannot but feel silent – an oxymoronic act of penitence for an author and a book with so fulsome and generous a voice that it leaves one emptied out at the reading end.

But can words ever rewrite a landscape? Can the berries suddenly uncrimson with talk? Can bullets be swallowed back by the gun? Can hearts unbreak, because for a moment its ventricles are confused at the sight of a refurbished coffee grove, besieged by peace and domesticity?

I can dive a hundred times into the river, fish out this or that beloved and tenderly wrap a body with my hair, then croon to it in futile language such as this, but when I lay the dead at the feet of kin and lovers, their grief will just shame my attempt to save it from dumbness. Listen to the mute eloquence that trails all losses, the undeclaimed umbrage at having been had by life. This is a silence no one can ever write and least of rewrite. (58)


[1] Sontag, Susan. ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’. Styles of Radical Will, Penguin Classics, 2009, p. 11.

[2] Bobis, Merlinda. The Solemn Lanter Maker, Pier 9, 2008, p. 24.

[3] Sontag, opcit, p. 13.

[4] Bobis, Merlinda.‘Voice-Niche-Brand: Marketing Asian-Australianness’, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 45, Nov 2008, p. 119

[5] Bobis, Merlinda. ‘The Asian Conspiracy: Deploying Voice/ Deploying Story’, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, Oct 2010, p. 15.

[6] Reyes, Portia L. ‘Fighting Over A Nation: Theorizing a Filipino Historiography’, Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, p. 241.

[7] Bobis, Merlinda. The Asian Conspiracy, opcit, p. 10.

[8] Broinowski, Alison. ‘The No-Name Australians and the Missing Subaltern: Asian Australian Fiction’, Asian Australian Identities Conference, 27-29 September 1999.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Bobis, Merlinda. ‘Border Lover.’ Not Home, But Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora (Igloria, Luisa A ed.), Anvil Publishing, Manila, 2003, p. 128.

Abdul Karim reviews The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

The Honey Thief

by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman


ISBN: 9780980757040

Reviewed by ABDUL KARIM




In a small village in Afghanistan, a man by the name of Abdul Hussain who stole honey hives was taken as apprentice by the honey hives’ owner because of his extraordinary skills for caring for the bees. It is this story that makes the title of the book, The Honey Thief, a collection of oral stories, which has been co-authored by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman. This follows their successful book, The Rug Maker of Mazar-e-Sharif, set in the Woomera detention centre, detailing the journey of Mazari to Australia.

Robert Hillman is a Melbourne based writer. Najaf Mazari, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who arrived to Australia in 2001. Although from such different cultures, their companionship found common thread in the tradition of storytelling. In the breaking down of these cultural barriers an interesting story emerges.

As an Afghan and a Hazar like Najaf who migrated to Australia, I read this book with much curiosity and interest. In the first chapter, Najaf Mazari tells the readers that the stories in the book are the ones he has heard from his brothers and were common in his village, some of which are based on actual events and real characters, some are not. This is not a book about the whole of Afghanistan, the authors reflect on Hazara experience and identity.

‘Perhaps this is because we are a mystery people; no one knows for certain where we came from, and we have been resented for generations by those who live in Afghanistan in greater numbers than ourselves.’

Although the Hazara situation has changed somewhat in the post-Taliban period, talking about past injustices against Hazara is still taboo in Afghanistan.  For example, in May 2009, officials from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture threw tens of thousands of books relating to Hazara history into the Helmand River because they believed the books would promote disharmony in Afghan society. In Afghanistan, the publication of this book would never have been permitted. The condition of exile has provided Hazaras like Najaf some freedom to speak out without the fear of censorship.

The Honey Thief offers an insight into Afghanistan political complexities that goes beyond the contemporary conflict and particularly the ethnic tension.  The focus on the Hazara experience is an attempt to provide a narrative for the Hazara people, who after many generations in Afghanistan are still considered outsiders there. A good portion of the fourth chapter describes in detail the massacres of Hazara that occurred in the late nineteen century.

‘The great massacre became part of who we are – we, the Hazaras. I say ‘part of who we are’ rather than ‘part of our history’ because history is a thing apart; something that you can study, if you wish, and write books about. The massacres are not ‘history’ in that sense; they have a place in our minds and our hearts from which they can’t be torn. But don’t imagine that it is something we wish to have living inside us. No, it is a burden. It is like the burden of the Jews. They can’t stop being Jews – they are Jews every second of their lives, being a Jew means carrying a burden of grief, because the Jews too had an Abdur Rahman in their past.’

The book is structured into thirteen chapters, so that the reader leaps from fairy tales to real life; from ordinary people to heroes; from rural to city. The last two chapters are about Afghan recipe. In a lengthy two chapters, the authors recount the horrifying story of Abdul Khaliq, a young Hazara boy who killed Nadir Shah, an oppressive ruler in Afghanistan.

‘It seems more likely that Abdul Khaliq decided to kill the King to avenge the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hazara years earlier,’ the authors write in page 62. ‘But it is not Mohammad Nadir he will be killing; it is a symbol of the oppression that the Barakzai family has subjected the Hazara to for fifty years.’

The king assassin, Abdul Khaliq, is portrayed not as a modern martyr going to heaven to meet virgin girls but somebody who stood up against injustice so those he left behind could live in dignity. But it came with a heavy price for him and his family. Although he was alone in the act, he was hanged along with his friends, school teachers, his father and uncles, all of whom who had nothing to do with the killing

Some of stories in The Honey Thief are fictitious -stories about demons, devils and superstitions that are deeply rooted in Afghanistan culture and manifested in the characters’ dialogue and thought. In the second to last chapter, Jawad rescues his parents from the scaffold by delivering gold dug from the hard earth to the doorstep of the Myer of Kandahar. ‘Jawad swung his pick at the hard earth, and again, each time he struck the ground, nuggets of gold came to the surface.’ The book blends facts with fiction in a way that is sometimes indistinguishable.

Some of the strongest themes are about forgiveness and resilience in a country that has been torn apart by war and enmity. In chapter nine and ten, a beekeeper, Abbas was summoned by Abdul Ali Mazari, a great leader of Hazara. During the Soviet Union occupation, Mazari asked the beekeeper to travel to another province in Afghanistan to ask for forgiveness for a dying patient who had betrayed his grandfather during the rule of Zahir Shah. He accepted this mission reluctantly and met the dying patient.  On his returned he was a changed man.  On the way back, he had lost his accompanying friend in a Russian air attack which killed another two bandits – Mujhid (fighters). The only surviving person from the incident was an injured young Russian soldier. The beekeeper nursed his wounds, fed him, saved his life and asked his leader to release him.

Najaf and Robert’s style is simple, following the oral storytelling tradition and yet remaining somehow formal. At times, I wanted the story to be more detailed and reflect the local dialects and lyrical language. But this is probably because of the difficulties of two writers from such different cultures collaborating and also because Robert Hillman, the main writer has not lived in Afghanistan. The stories in The Honey Thief are contemporary stories mostly drawn from personal anecdotes and do not reflect folkloric popular stories that are the most common among Hazaras for example Buz-e-Chini. As a Hazara, I could only relate to the story about Abdul Khaliq but the rest were unfamiliar to me.  This shows that even a small village in Afghanistan is pregnant with so many stories.

Over all this is a compelling read in a political climate where there is little understanding of the Hazara who in fact make up the majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Using the power of storytelling, it narrates the past suffering of Hazaras in Afghanistan in ways that surprises and astound us with insights and interesting tales. They are the first stories to appear in English language and so the authors should be commended.  It also highlights the rich culture that remains so hidden behind the current conflict.



ABDUL KARIM is a freelance writer based in Sydney and a former refugee from Afghanistan. He has participated in many forums, conferences and media debates focussing on refugee issues. He has participated in the Sydney Writers’ Festival and his articles on refugees have appeared in The Australian, National Times, The Age. A photgraphy exhibiton, Unsafe Haven, has showed at UTS and currently at RMIT Gallery.

Cui Yuwei

Cui Yuwei was born and brought up in Xinyang, a small city with beautiful hills and clear waters in central China. In 2005, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Central South University, where she studied as an English major. Shortly afterwards, she continued her study in Wuhan University and learned creative writing from Ouyang Yu, a renowned Australian poet and writer. In 2007, she completed an MA in English Literature there. After graduation, she moved to Zhuhai, a southern city in China. Currently, she is an English teacher in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, while she takes a great interest in writing poems and short stories.



We sat at dusk.
On the pebble walk we saw a child
his watery lips shimmering in the westering sun.
A slim shadow of his little figure
fell like a petal
on my feet.
I heard the lines she said:
One day when I’m too sick to speak,
or kill myself,
I want a lethal injection to end it.

Slowly descended these words, 
as light as feathers;
they brushed by my leg,
twirled to the soil,
as if expecting no one to listen.