On David Malouf
Black Inc, 2019
Reviewed by JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY
“Identity can be experienced in two ways. Either as a confident being-in the-world or as anxiety about our-place-in-the-world; as something we live for ourselves, or as something that demands for its confirmation the approval of others.”
David Malouf (1)
Published by Black Inc in association with the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria, Nam Le’s On David Malouf is the fifth volume in the Writers on Writers Series. This hybrid exercise in literary sensitivity, halfway between biography (that of a prominent Australian writer) and personal memoir, aims at eschewing the typical university-level critical practice engaged in close readings. Such analyses are mainly to be found in academic exegeses of which Malouf’s work has often been the focus, with no less than 8 theses and countless monographs.
A former academic, David Malouf (born in 1934) has grown over the decades into a prolific writer tapping into various genres: poetry, novels, short stories, essays, drama and libretti. At the core of his œuvre lies the idea that Australia needs to be re-imagined, constructed verbally in the form of literary and cultural representations. Throughout his literary career, Malouf has unflaggingly served this myth-making process in the imaginative space of his fiction. By combining mind and body, the individual and nature, past and present, place and identity, his books substantially treat polymorphic exile inherent in the Australian postcolonial condition. Beyond the multiple Australian accolades, Malouf has reaped an impressive harvest of international literary prizes such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australia-Asia Literary Award, the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Femina Étranger, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and he was even shortlisted for the 1994 Man Booker Prize.
This potted introduction is all the more necessary as On David Malouf is a slim monograph not so much about David Malouf as it is about Nam Le: his background and lineage, his childhood and schooling, his literary tastes and aspirations, his writing gigs, but also his vision of identity and immigration politics. The book-length hommage is divided into four sections whose titles are poetically playing with alliterations: Prime, Pigeon, Patria, and Peril. The first section establishes the elective affinities between Malouf and Le; the second part discusses sovereignty and territory in relation to communities; while the penultimate and last chapters cover Australian identity, history and politics. In these sections, Nam Le turns into a social commentator whose insightful observations might occasionally stir the pot, as this one: “The White Australia policy may have been abolished in the ’70s but all non-whites know it’s as deeply situated in our DNA as our Western inheritance.” (90)
No matter how erudite, Le’s roundabout way of paying tribute to Malouf is executed in a rather formal prose with a taste for sophisticated words and Latin phrases. The following excerpt aptly encapsulates the essence of Le’s literary hallmark and somewhat convoluted arguments: “Auden, to whom we both owe early and enduring faith, writes in Horae Canonicae that we should ‘bless what there is for being’. This is as close as I come to creed. This is what I see in Malouf’s eidetic writing. We share, I think, a sense of wonder towards a world that is both sui generis and palimpsestic, sacred with beauty and mystery — against which epiphany serves not as literary reaction but as dialectic of being alive. The world makes us. We can, in our small way, through our writing, perform the mimic miracle. Make a new world.” (20) Not to put too fine a point on it, it is unlikely that most readers, who are not university undergraduates enrolled in literary studies, will understand what eidetic, palimpsestic, epiphany and dialectic mean.
Nam Le starts by sharing his first engagement with David Malouf’s work, which dates back to Year 12, when Remembering Babylon (1993) was placed on the VCE list. The first part of a colonial period diptych which was eventually matched by Conversations at Curlow Creek, Remembering Babylon is stylistically described as “a sentence-level novel” (7) and David Malouf as a poetic wordsmith “attuned to the molecular level of syllable and sound” (7). While Nam Le opens a productive dialogue with the intimacy of Malouf’s mind style, he rarely touches on the philosophical and psychological implications of Malouf’s variegated narratives, most of which lie beyond the remit of this book-length essay. Out of the thirty-nine books listed at the end of On David Malouf, Nam Le only draws on five novels (Johnno, An Imaginary Life, Harland’s Half Acre, The Great World, Remembering Babylon), one short story collection (The Complete Stories) and two non-fiction books (12 Edmondstone Street, A Spirit of Play: the Making of Australian Consciousness). Le eventually lists the commonalities between his background and Malouf’s to reveal the hidden connections which underly their writing lives: poetry, euphony, literary erudition, philosophical influences, to name a few.
The last section is perhaps the one which pays the greater tribute to the Brisbane-born “multivalent writer” (68). Given the diversity and prolificness of Malouf’s fine writings, Le’s bird’s-eye view of such complexity becomes a perilous exercise in conciseness. The latter can only be expressed through thematic binaries which converge in a coincidencia oppositorum of sorts: “There is, in Malouf, a tendency towards wholeness. He creates tension through binaries (self/other, mind/body, past/present, human/non-human, human/world, European/Australian, Australian/Aboriginal, civilised/primitive, adult/child, experience/innocence, inside/outside, white/black, fate/free will, etc.) and then yearns, and seeks, naturally and inexorably, to syllogise them — often through lyrical transcendence — into reconciled wholes. At bottom, this is his entire method. At its best, it results in writing that is surpassingly beautiful, moving and profound.” (80)
The reader’s pertinacity (I’m deliberately using this word as a discreet hommage to Le’s style) will be rewarded as the Melbourne-based memoirist provides useful insights into Australian history and culture in his polished and intellectually mature essay.
David Malouf, A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness (Sydney: ABC Books, 1988), 99.
Jean-François VERNAY’s The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press) were both released in 2016. His latest book, La séduction de la fiction (Paris: Hermann, 2019), the sequel to his Palgrave monograph, deals with all the cognitive mechanisms underlying literary passion.
Sergius Seeks Bacchus
by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
translated by Tiffany Tsao
Reviewed by DMETRI KAKMI
Born to a Muslim father and a Protestant mother, Norman Erikson Pasaribu was raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, but his roots lie in the ethnic Christian Batak community of Sumatra. Though he writes in Indonesian, Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus (translated by Tiffany Tsao) is a vehicle for queer voices outside western Anglophone experience, offering a glimpse into a world that is all too real for non-conforming individuals in much of the contemporary world.
As of this writing, in more than seventy countries it is a crime to be gay. In ten it incurs the death penalty, and in no country in the world are LGBTQI people treated equally under the law. Exposure, humiliation, forced medical intervention to affect a ‘cure’, and curtailment of basic freedoms are everyday realities. ISIS tossed gays from minarets, and in Chechnya men and women suspected of homosexual practices are incarcerated in concentration camps. In parts of Indonesia, homosexuality is illegal under Sharia Law and punishable by flogging.
This in effect is the shadow under which Pasaribu writes—the kind of world western urban gays might believe was left behind in the 1970s, with the rise of gay liberation. And although the poet writes about Indonesia, his references are recognisable and relatable because they are drawn largely from a western pop culture ethos that pulls in television, magazines, social media, as well as the Judea-Christian tradition. Even Dante Alighieri gets a look-in with poems such as “Inferno”. “Purgatorio”, “Paradiso”, and “La Vita Nuova”, representing the symbolic journey of ascent and renewal that is at the heart of the book.
From the outset, however, Pasaribu evokes the spirits of Sergius and Bacchus, two early Christian martyrs who, like Saint Sebastian, have been absorbed into the global male queer sensibility. Mixing defiance and submission, all three are part victim, part rebel, true believers who suffer for their convictions; and, therefore, transcend oppression and persecution. As seen in the eponymous poem, death is not final but a doorway to redemption.
Snake-like, you shed your short-lived skin
and commence/continue your quest. Now the light from on high
passes through you. You’re luminous. Meanwhile, out west
in decrepit Rome sits Galerius, oblivious his end is nigh.
You seek your beloved — he appeared to you in your cell,
his body glowing silver as he whispered, Endure,
for I will always watch over you. With him you will rise
up to heaven and wonder at how familiar
it all feels. Hand in hand, you two will stroll the streets,
introducing one another to everyone you meet.
Far from saying homosexuals are better of dead, Pasaribu disavows doctrinaire notions of martyrdom in favour of an earthly paradise in which same-sex couples walk hand-in-hand without fear. His lines are metaphor for a lapsed Christian who follows in the footsteps of gay club anthems like ‘Go West’ by the Village People (later covered by The Pet Shop Boys) and ‘In the Evening’ by Sheryl Lee Ralph.
An admission. As an atheist who has lived most of his life in Australia, I had trouble getting my head around the notion that gay people continue to hide in the 21st century, especially to appease religious dictates. It seemed retrograde, like reading a book about homosexuality from the 1950s. But such is Pasaribu’s sleight of hand that he quickly popped my insular bubble to remind me what life would be like if I still lived in Turkey, where I was born. Indeed, most of my Turkish gay friends seek shelter in the closet or sham marriage.
The most revealing poem in this regard is ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Car Park at fX Sudirman Mall’. Here two young men sit in a Toyota Rush ‘parked in the corner of level P3,/stealing a little time and space for themselves,’ and poignantly ‘exchanging kisses wide-eyed — keeping watch as one/for security guards or janitors’ that might interrupt their stolen moments.
Two things stand out in this cornerstone poem. First, the poem recalls the tone set by C. P Cavafy, the Greek godfather of all queer clandestine confessionals. Second, the secretive location, (simultaneously public and private), brings to mind early Christians worshipping in catacombs beneath Rome streets, awaiting their turn to rise and take over.
Literally and metaphorically driven underground by unorthodox desires, Pasaribu’s primary stance is seeking; his is a restless questing as his cast of characters search for a shared history that is textually present but remains elusively out of reach. And because the queer body politic walks a fine line between visibility and invisibility, acceptance and rejection, it could be said that this collections is about absence in presence, and presence in absence.
Despite advances in some parts of the world, the homosexual is still contested territory. Both present and absent in society, the homosexual is made painfully visible and inextricably invisible through obsessive, circular, discourse that seeks to simultaneously comprehend and to exclude. This contradiction is central to Pasaribu’s poems. Caught in the crossfire are men and women who continue to assert the validity of their lives against a tyrannical ideology.
The other emblem Pasaribu draws on is the tree—not surprising, given the book’s original title was Like Trees. But Pasaribu had a last minute change of heart, perhaps to align the book with evolving queer narratives; and, more important, to signal that in each of the fifty-nine poems the emphasis is on pairing, bringing people together, whether in love, quest, or Socratic dialogue.
As an animist, I lean more towards trees than to Christian iconography. That is just as well since the tree is a universal archetype that can be found in different traditions around the world. They are symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation, liberation, and union. Moreover, Jungian psychology sees the tree as a symbol of individuation, bringing together the feminine and masculine principles.
In light of this, it is interesting to follow Pasaribu as he weaves a path between doctrinaire religion and tree-worshipping paganism. This is best seen in “He and the Tree” where an individual stands at the border of civilisation and the natural world, seeking forgiveness from the tree that shelters his car from the sun in the company parking lot. As the tree listens, it remembers his friend who was ‘ripped from the earth for being too close to the foundation’, thus losing a chance to tell his friend ‘how much he loved him’.
If he were here, he would take him to a church. At the altar
they would be joined together before god, who had three branches
— like a tree — and their children would fill the lot, every
single square inch, so that someday everyone who passed
would think a forest had sprung up in the city’s heart.
The man hugged the tree and tree hugged the man.
This poignant, wryly observed poem would have been an ideal way to end the collection. It brings together the book’s main symbolic and ideological positions in an act of compassion and empathy that yields fruit; and that in a way is what Pasaribu hopes to achieve in this slender but weighty tome that both affirms and transcends the classification of queer poetry.
DMETRI KAKMI is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. For 15 years he worked as a senior editor at Penguin Books. His fictionalised memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He is the editor of the acclaimed children’s anthology When We Were Young. His new book The Door and other Uncanny Tales will be published in 2020.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born in 1892. She left Russia in 1922, returned in 1939, and was to die two years later. She is celebrated as one of the greatest Russian poets of the Twentieth Century. Her first book was entitled Evening Album.
За этот ад,
За этот бред,
Пошли мне сад
На старость лет.
На старость лет,
На старость бед:
Рабочих — лет,
Горбатых — лет...
На старость лет
Собачьих — клад:
Горячих лет —
Мне сад пошли:
Сад: ни шажка!
Сад: ни глазка!
Сад: ни смешка!
Сад: ни свистка!
Мне сад пошли:
Скажи: довольно мýки — нá
Сад — одинокий, как сама.
(Но около и Сам не стань!)
— Сад, одинокий, как ты Сам.
Такой мне сад на старость лет...
— Тот сад? А может быть — тот свет? —
На старость лет моих пошли —
На отпущение души.
To cope with this underworld
you’ve sent me, and madness,
make it a garden
for the years that age.
For the years that age,
for the griefs I’ve to live through,
the years of work coming
and the groanings in my back.
For the years that age.
Bone for that dog.
For the hell-burnt years.
A garden in the breeze
for their refugee.
Bless me with a garden
and nobody there,
a soulless place.
Garden no one steps in.
Garden no one looks in.
A laughterless garden,
a no whistling there
bless me with a garden.
Nothing has a scent there,
not a soul.
Speak: you’ve tortured enough.
A garden on its own.
But don’t come near me here or there.
Yes, he says, it’s as alone as me.
That’s your garden for me and the years
I age. That. Or your paradise?
Bless me in the years that age.
Deliver me from here.
Paul Magee is author of Stone Postcard (2014), Cube Root of Book (2006) and the prose ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego (2000). Paul majored in Russian and Classical languages, and has published translations of Vergil, Catullus, Horace and Ovid. He is currently working on a third book of poems, ‘The Collection of Space’. Paul is Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Canberra.
Paul de Brancion is the author of about fifteen novels and poems. He is regularly involved in transversal artistic projects, with contemporary art centres or music composers (T. Pécou, J-L. Petit, G. Cagnard, N. Prost, …). He lives and works between Paris, Corsica and Nantes. Where he organises and presents “Les Rendez-vous du Bois Chevalier”, annual events dedicated to literature, science and poetry.
He is editor-in-chief of the magazine Sarrazine, president of the Union des Poètes & Cie and representative in France of the WPM (World Poetry Movement).
Ça fait tout drôle, ce manque de légèreté. Des maisons, des meubles, des tapis, des mauvais livres, une sorte d’indélicatesse du goût. Comment peut-on survivre à cet environnement d’un si mauvais genre ?
Profusion, c’est le mot en français. Excès. Mor avait quelque chose d’excessif que je craignais infiniment. Il était dangereux pour moi d’être en relation avec elle. Même mon amour pour elle était inconvenant. Elle parlait très vite et beaucoup. Un déluge de mots était prononcé et je m’éloignais en marchant le plus loin possible du courant continu de ses phrases. Elle était le maître de la vérité. Elle priait et sa prière était un écroulement. Elle ruisselait devant le Seigneur Dieu. Comment peut-on dire cela sans être fauteur de scandal ?
Je n’arrive pas à rassembler une idée globale ou une image fixe. Toujours mouvante, elle était toujours mouvante, émouvante, éprouvante, épouvante, Mor.
Cette nuit cauchemar, cauchemère, j’en ai honte. Je crois qu’elle est tombée par terre dans l’entrée de damier noir et blanc froide et humide de l’enfance. Elle portait une longue robe bleu-gris sombre qui collait à son corps. Elle était allongée, elle se sentait faible. Je suis venu pour l’aider. Elle n’a pas appelé. Elle était allongée sur le sol, ses yeux étaient fermés et le teint blafard. Je sentais son cœur qui battait la chamade. C’est la fin pensai-je avec émotion.
De fait, elle est morte du cœur, d’une faiblesse du cœur et non du cancer qui rongeait ses entrailles. Voilà, cela arrive enfin. Presque soulagé parce que j’ai attendu ce moment précis toute ma vie. Je les considérais, elle et le vieux panard mon père comme immortels, éternels, alors c’était cela, ils pouvaient bien mourir, eux aussi. On y était arrivé. Le grand passage de Mor.
Elle est morte d’une attaque cardiaque. Elle avait pris beaucoup de médicaments. Son corps était en train de pourrir. Il a été décidé de ne pas lui inoculer des produits stabilisateurs qui empêchent qu’elle ne pourrisse de l’intérieur.
Translator’s note: In Danish, 'Mor'means Mother. The original version of this poem was written in French, Danish and English. French and English were common to mother and son but Danish was his alone.
It feels weird, this lack of lightness. Houses, furniture, carpets, bad books, a sort of indelicacy of taste. How can one survive in such a hopeless kind of environment?
Profusion, that’s the word in French. Excess. There was something excessive about Mor that I feared greatly. It was dangerous for me to have a relationship with her. Even my love for her was unseemly. She spoke very quickly and a lot. A deluge of words was delivered and I walked as far away as possible from Mor’s continual stream of sentences. She was the master of Truth. She prayed and her prayers tumbled down. She gushed in front of the Lord God. How can one say that without stirring up a scandal?
I can’t put together an overall idea or a fixed image. Always moving, she was always moving, emotional, difficult, frightening Mor.
That nightmare of a night, nightmother, I’m ashamed of it. I think she fell over on the cold and damp black and white checked porch of our childhood. She was wearing a sombre long blue-grey dress that clung to her body. She was stretched out, she felt weak. I came to help her. She didn’t call out. She was lying on the floor, her eyes closed and her complexion pale. I felt her heart beating wildly. This is the end, I thought emotionally.
In fact, she died of a heart disease, a weakness of the heart, and not of the cancer that gnawed at her entrails. There it was, happening at last. I am almost relieved because I’ve waited all my life for this precise moment. I always considered them, her and that old dog my father, everlasting, then this was it, they too could die. It had happened. Mor’s great passing.
She died of a heart attack. She took a lot of medicines. Her body was rotting away. It had been decided not to inject her with any stabilising drugs to stop the deterioration of her insides.
Formerly a music educator and writer, Elaine Lewis created the Australian Bookshop in Paris in 1996. She met poet Jacques Rancourt and began translating for the Franco-anglais Poetry Festival. Her book Left Bank Waltz was published by Random House Australia in 2006. She is currently co-editor and book review editor of The French Australian Review, the journal of the Institute for the Study of French Australian Relations and is a committee member of AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation). She has translated poetry from Guadeloupe, Haiti, Switzerland, Canada, La Réunion, Belgium and France, published in La Traductière and Etchings (Ilura Press).
by John Kinsella
Reviewed by GABRIELA BOURKE
Can art make things happen? John Kinsella says ‘yes’. ‘Poetry functions more directly in cultures at different times, but it is part of most things we do. Consciousness of poetic language informs reading the newspaper as much as it does listening to songs on the radio.’ (Watts 2013) Kinsella’s most recent novel, Lucida Intervalla, is set in a frantic and failing world almost indistinguishable from our own, except that the things we fear happening – coastlines that are no longer coastlines, fire hail raining from the sky – are already happening. Lucida Intervalla might be read as a deliberative novel, one intended to provoke discussion and inform change, or it might be read as a novel resigned; to climate change and climate denial, to fallen cities and interminably displaced refugees, to an end ‘…without style. So bland. So fated.’ (233)
The world may be plummeting ever closer to self-destruction, but Lucida grants it little attention. As a child, she creates self-portraits in vomit and menstrual blood, the latter for which she is expelled. References to rising temperatures are rife and the planet seems on the precipice of collapse, if not already there. If this novel is a bildungsroman describing Lucida’s trajectory from troublesome child to super-celebrity; it is also one reflecting the gradual and uncomfortable movement of humanity toward accepting what is has done: to the earth, to the animals, and to ourselves, ‘…drowning and choking on its own goo and efflatus’ (219). This is unsurprising from Kinsella, a self-proclaimed anarchist pacifist vegan (link to Kinsella’s blog provided below) who coined the terms ‘pleasurism’ and ‘leisurism’ to describe acts of environmental degradation for, you guessed it, the purposes of pleasure and leisure. Uneasy and destructive relationships between humans, other species and the natural environment appear often in this novel. Wildlife is synonymous with road kill and forests only exist in conjunction to bulldozers. Young Lucida keeps mice as pets, one of which aggressively procreates and then eats its own offspring (32). Although mice are identified as herbivores and it is true that they can exist as such, they are opportunistic eaters who feed on what is available, much like humans. The incorrigible Pinkie, then, with the blood of his own and others’ infants on his snout, is the harbinger of society in this novel as in life.
This is the battle that rages between the old and new world in Lucida Intervalla, foregrounded by measured references to Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Lucida’s big break comes in the form of a trip to interview an aging and reclusive artist who has rejected the brave new world and retired to Centralia – a state which thus far does not exist, but is borne from the tentative idea raised by former Territory and federal MPs to merge parts of South Australia and the Northern Territory into one state. This move is touted as being a significant opportunity to reinvigorate this part of the country by taking advantage of its relative proximity to Asia, but Centralia as represented by Kinsella is as weary and shrivelled as the artist who has taken up residence there.
‘He is an artist and he should be in his prime…but his brushes dried with the wet and he’s not even done a sketch. It’s gone, whatever he had and whatever he hoped for. In the open, he is confined. In the open, and the blue sky, he is isolated. The birds are thoughts flitting by, or pecking at their stems. The heat haze shimmering within a few metres is the mirage he’ll never reach, never have.’ (50)
Centralia is hot, dusty, uninhabitable but for the regular delivery of water and other resources. The earth will not provide, not for aged celebrities nor ‘stray cows with calves, nibbling at the thin sheen of dead grass soon to be skin and bones…’ (54) yet it is from this dead earth that Lucida mines her fortune, capitalising on the fame that comes with proximity to celebrity. ‘Industrialism, consumerism, greed and general rapacity seem universal wrongs to me,’ says Kinsella (Watts 2013).
Lucida is an anti-heroine in that she actively profits from these things. At one point, envious of an author’s success, Lucida along with her team of managers and creators put together a book branded with her name which is published ‘…in a first print run of three million copies which took out a large chunk of forest’ (173) while the e-version ‘ate the energy from a dozen power stations around the world’ (173). Trapped and unable to cope with a conversation concerning indigenous land rights, she interrogates the speaker about the ways in which rodents are poisoned on his farm (183). This refusal to participate in imperative discussion concerning the future or lack thereof of postcolonial society repeats often throughout the novel, as each reference to climate change is followed by the increasingly desperate responses of deniers, each person willing to make positive changes stymied by the raising of a separate topic that successfully halts progress of any kind. This distraction away from imperative discussion of indigenous land rights toward an altogether unrelated – and comparatively unimportant – topic is an apt example. These kinds of unproductive conversations where significant issues are countered by irrelevant rejoinders abound in the media. Perhaps Kinsella, a vegan of many years, has participated in fruitless discussions with those claiming that the growing movement toward rejecting animal agriculture is pointless when rats continue to be poisoned in the process of wheat production.
Passivity is a violent act in Lucida Intervalla. Pro-Green artwork is funded with mining magnate dollars, activism is inefficient and often tainted with that which it seeks to reject and overall, things seem fairly hopeless. The characters are frogs sweating in water fast coming to the boil, unable or unwilling to leap out. And yet, perhaps Kinsella’s forlorn imaginings are deliberative. Perhaps the call-to-action is to jump from of the pot as quickly as possible, in any way possible. Lucida is an antonym to John Kinsella. He notes ‘[Lucida] …doesn’t like me much, and would disagree with most of what I have to say. She determines her own paths, many of which I find frightening.’ (Acknowledgements) Lucida is not a likeable character, but she is painfully familiar to anyone who has chosen to circumvent the difficult conversation and engage in behaviours we probably shouldn’t. She’s familiar to us all.
Humans should leave well enough alone, according to Kinsella. ‘People don’t have to occupy every square metre of the planet. Some places should just be left to do their ‘own’ thing.’ (Watts 2013) Reading is to be enjoyed, and books don’t need a takeaway to be satisfying, but if Lucida Intervalla is to continue to be speculative fiction rather than contemporary fiction, we need to do better.
Ryan, Tracy, and John Kinsella. 2019. “Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist”. Poetsvegananarchistpacifist.Blogspot.Com. http://poetsvegananarchistpacifist.blogspot.com/.
Watts, Madeleine. 2013. “Interview With John Kinsella”. Griffith Review. https://griffithreview.com/articles/interview-with-john-kinsella/.
GABRIELA BOURKE is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at USYD
by Lindsay Tuggle
Reviewed by HELEN GILDFIND
The striking title of Lindsay Tuggle’s poetry collection is immediately defined in her preface:
A fever incident to sailors within the tropics, characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it. (ix)
This title, Tuggle’s preface, the book’s dedication to her dead sister, Kate Middleton’s introduction, and the notes that complete the text, provide an intriguing and welcome frame through which readers can ‘leap into’ Tuggle’s darkly beautiful worded-world.
Tuggle’s preface notes that: ‘Every elegy needs an author. And then, an autopsy’ (ix). The themes and impulses shaping her book are thus clear, and she describes her collection as an:
ossuary to a constellation of deaths, some sudden, all strange. It is also a catalogue of medical and mercurial oddities, curiosities that call forth the exquisite corpse hard at work beneath our living flesh. The echolalic duet between what is lost and what is left behind. The phantom limb. The wandering womb. The book bound in skin. The face that ghosts itself. The fever dream that ends in drowning. (ix)
Tuggle clearly loves language that is ‘diagnostic, archaic, hysteric, mesmeric’ (ix). She writes knowing that the ‘management of thresholds / is perilous business’ (49), and her collection thus maps the obscure imaginative landscape that joins the living to the dead, the personal to the universal, and the abstract to the concrete.
Tuggle’s collection is divided into two suites. The first shares the title of the book, and is introduced by three eerie quotes, including ‘We need a dead woman to begin’ (Hélène Cixous), and ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted’ (Emily Dickenson). In this suite, we meet a woman who cannot live ‘within her limbs’: she feels ‘on fire’ and ‘cut to pieces’ (34). We meet another woman (the same woman?) who ‘wakes to remember / her garnet cluster of early deaths’ (9). We glimpse ‘wrists / graced in the master’s hand’ (8), ‘mouthfuls of gravel’ (41), ‘bruised’ and ‘bandaged’ tongues (3, 5), and ‘feral anorexics’ (5)—including ‘the concave half of a sister’ (5).
This reference to ‘a’ sister shows how it is never quite clear who the subject and object of these poems are. This ambiguity is elaborated by the poems themselves: ‘Some days her face obliterates my own’ (15), and ‘we wear / each other’s faces’ (4), and ‘I trespass her name as my own’ (25). Of course the reader assumes, as they’ve been directed to, that such phrases refer to an actual ‘sister,’ and Tuggle’s ambivalence towards this relational identity is expressed when she refers to the ‘ambiguous wound’ (19) of her loss, to the ‘old grievances’ (‘shame’ and ‘blame’) that riddle such relationships (20, 21), and to the archetypal sibling emotion of jealousy—expressed when she looks upon a female corpse and wonders: ‘do I covet her still / diluted by sleep.’ (5) The narrator chillingly concludes: ‘I love the dead more than you / always will’ (6). Tuggle’s ambivalence towards the ‘biological gift’ (21) of a sister can also be read from the poems’ most common structural constraint of couplets—two lines, coerced into a relationship, across time and space.
More ambiguity is built into this first suite by reference to other deaths, including that of a man who lay ‘lay unfound’ for days (27), and the ‘integral burial’ of a flooded town where the ‘measure of loss’ lies in the ‘submergence of trees’ (31):
in the vanishing tendency
of the object
is watery and burns.
The wet are pretty. (33)
This deadly flooding is mirrored in a later poem, when a woman ‘walks in blindfolds’ into ‘bitumen tributaries,’ where ‘drowning ends in a glassy sprawl’ and roadside altars whisper ‘fire soars’ (41). As above, such vivid and violent references to suicide, death, drowning, burning, basalt and glass are often juxtaposed against the ostensibly trivial notion of ‘prettiness.’ Is drowning ‘a pretty way to die’ (19)? The ‘pretty suicide guide,’ would say so: ‘beauties never harm their faces’ (27). Of course, there’s nothing benign about the value of feminine beauty. This is made clear when the narrator looks upon a female corpse and thinks: ‘she’s prettier now / in coffined silhouette’ (5). Isn’t this the ideal woman? Pretty—and inert, silent, and surrendered to others’ devouring gaze? The narrator defies this value system: the female which dazzles (3) her gaze is a ‘raving’ (39), ‘ungroomed and carnivorous’ (3) ‘slattern’ (41).
The second suite of poems responds to the work of anatomist and naturalist Joseph Leidy (1832-1891), and the poet and naturalist Arsène Houssaye. Both men shared a bibliophilic ‘fetish’ for ‘anthropodermic’ books—that is, books bound in human skin. These books were normally created by surgeons, with Houssaye’s own book of essays bound in skin sourced from the ‘unclaimed’ body of a French, female mental patient (63,64).
The woman (women?) alluded to in this second suite call out to the women-sisters of the first—relating the latter’s more personal specificity to the more universal history of ‘the diasporic womb’ (56). In the first suite, the very ambiguity of the poems’ subject-object allows them to enlarge on their own anyway, especially in the poems referring to medicine and asylums, like in ‘Asylum, Pageantry’ (‘it is best not to dream for long / here medicine disallows her florid stutter,’ 3), and ‘The Heretics’ Asylum’:
The physician knows nothing
of angels with proper names.
Reverence is permitted only
toward unseen patients,
an innate distrust of that
which can be embodied
in a creed. (24)
In the second suite, we enter a world where a woman is literally disembodied—torn from her skin:
A splayed book attracts all the gazes.
You are the title closeted gazelle.
Just another posthumous seduction
To best display her character
no other decoration is placed. This
book deserves its own human cover. (53)
Sickened, furious—and utterly entranced—the reader asks: what does the woman deserve? This ‘brutal homage’ (54)? Here, the woman becomes another version of the inert ‘pretty’ female corpse in the first suite—one which others can literally ‘open’ and inscribe their own ‘creed’ into. This ‘echolalic duet’ between the first and second suites thus evokes the notion of an everywoman—an anywoman—who literally fights-to-the-death against patriarchy’s reduction of her to ‘flesh / toying architecturally with bone’ (56).
What Flannery O’Connor says of prose, surely applies to poetry also:
‘The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning… A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.’
In Calenture, two sisters are absolutely more than the sum of their parts, and the sophistication of Tuggle’s tightly crafted, cryptic and compelling ossuary—her home for the bones of the dead—becomes evident with each reading. Like the best poetry, this book is first and foremost an experience—one which no analysis can do justice to.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970 (c. 1957), pp.96-102
H.C. GILDFIND (hcgildfind.com) is the author of The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press.
Jill Jones has published eleven books of poetry, and a number of chapbooks. The most recent are Viva La Real with UQP, Brink, The Leaves Are My Sisters, The Beautiful Anxiety, which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2015, and Breaking the Days, which was shortlisted for the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her work is represented in major anthologies including the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Ed. Nicholas Jose and The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. In 2014 she was poet-in-residence at Stockholm University. She is a member of the J.M.Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide.
Patience Without Virtue
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again, the moon goes as it came.
There’s nothing transcendental within reach.
What must I do amongst sweat
grey flannel, car parks, and theories?
I can only be a certain kind of lunatic
and women are vaster than history.
It’s the way I don’t step forward politely.
No point sitting on the fence.
It’s the way I have to fix things
by painting a sign. ‘I can’t believe
I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
I can’t put the leaves back.
My affinity is always a question.
I can’t recall when these things didn’t happen
in my cells or beaten-up memories.
I’ll never be as dead as a man.
The short story of you and I
by Richard James Allen
Reviewed by Kyra Bandte
At first, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen seems to exist in the liminal space between awake and asleep; the space where your psyche turns the familiar sound and scene around you into something altogether unfamiliar; the space where love and death coexist in the same ghostly breath.
The epigraph to The short story of you and I includes a black and white photograph of the poet, Richard James Allen, along with the imploring words: “My poems are sleeping in these pages, waiting for you to rouse them.” This connection between writer and reader continues throughout the book with Allen’s use of second person “you”. Whoever the poet truly speaks to, the persistent use of second person draws the reader close in a faceless kind of intimacy.
The book’s dedication whispers “for you”, and the first poem of the collection, ‘Delicate Awakening’, shows the poet’s persona vulnerable in sleep like a lover in a bed, needing to be woken “delicately / like raising an ancient shipwreck” (10).
The short story of you and I is, ultimately, a story of love and life (and death) from the moment the book is opened; from the moment the reader rouses the poems, gently awakening the sleeping poet in the opening stanza.
We slip through time and dreams in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, in “the long tail of a tall tale” (12) where “you were fairly certain it would be a normal sleep… but on the contrary” (13). We awaken into poems rich with seemingly everyday moments that Richard James Allen expertly transforms to spin a yarn so familiar it aches. One poem, ‘Espresso’, is a single exquisite line that holds a well of subtext within it: “There is no such thing as an innocent cup of coffee” (38).
But these everyday occurrences converge with the unreality of dreaming in ‘A Party in Small Moments’, which seamlessly slips between the macro and micro of our lives, asking “How can we have survived so many generations… and yet still come back to the tinkle of a spoon in a china bowl?” (17). Allen repeats the words “every moment” and the motif of tea cups and tinkling spoons, bringing the reader home with these everyday domesticities before asking “did you follow your dreams / or did you just fall asleep?” (20).
Using prosaic sentence structure and constantly addressing the “you” in the reader, Allen turns his poems into the little fictions of our lives. “I think maybe you thought your life was going to be a wall-size narrative painting… but somehow it turned out to be a quietly reflective line drawing” (23), Allen writes in ‘how life turned out, or Details of the Now’, making the reader feel quite insignificant for “this miniature of your life” (24).
A beautiful example of the way Allen uses colloquial prose in his poetry is in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the poet’s persona tells the story of how Sydney’s Central Station used to be a cemetary, now filled with ghosts “peering out from their unresolved darknesses / at the relentlessly colourful parade / of generation after generation” (33-34). This poem feels like a conversation, a casual story told from one commuter to another on one of Central’s suffocatingly humid underground platforms.
The poem not only demonstrates Allen’s articulate use of everyday scenes but brings two of the book’s main themes to light: life and death dance together in ‘Central Dreaming’, where the ghosts of the past drift alongside the “newer and newer Australians / right up to the drag queen in the hijab / standing nervously next to you” (34). The reader even becomes a ghost themself in ‘How we met’, where “The taxi stopped to let out its ghosts. / You were among them” (71).
The haunting middle between life and death is most obvious in one of the book’s final poems, ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’; a phrase referring to the sicknesses of consumption and pneumonia. The poem encapsulates the collection’s key themes of life and death while showcasing Allen’s technical poetic skill using language, structure and white space.
Filled with metaphysical, rhetorical questions (“What stands between you / and your dreams? [p93], “What can one patch of blue teach an overcast sky?” , “Who knows anything about souls anyway?” ), the poem is one of the most introspective in the collection. The shroud of everyday moments and conversational prose falls away in this long poem of constant questions, repetition and the grim motifs of body parts, sickness, trees and dreams.
Allen implores “you” to find un/consciousness: “You must understand now. You must understand now. / You must imagine now. You must sleep now. You must remember now, old friend.” (101) Then revives the reader with the state of familiarity that the rest of The short story of you and I presents, telling us to brush our teeth, shower, dress, step outside and “become just another metaphor for incompleteness” (102-103).
The collection shows the variety in Allen’s writing style, with the contast between seemingly simple poems (like ‘Espresso’ or ‘How we met’) and the more complex or sprawling poems like ‘The Captain of the Men of Death’. But more than that, The short story of you and I by Richard James Allen is an exploration of binaries and the ghosts between them; life and death, love and hate, you and I. It all starts with awakening the poet, and slipping into his dream.
KYRA THOMSEN lives and works on Dharawal Country. Her fiction and poetry have been published most recently in Cordite, AntipodeanSF, and Seizure, and she has reviewed books for Mascara, RABBIT Poetry Journal, the NSW Writer’s Centre and Writer’s Edit. Kyra was selected for the ‘Slinkies Under 30s’ program by Spineless Wonders in 2016, and co-won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012.
The Red Pearl and Other Stories
By Beth Yahp
Vagabond Press, 2017
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Australian, Malaysian-born writer Beth Yahp’s short story collection The Red Pearl and Other Stories (2017) navigates between different locations and time periods. It is resolutely transnational and transhistorical in nature. At times, the collection veers towards the metaphysical and abstract. Yahp also experiments with different forms, styles, modes and genres of writing. The title story draws its suggestive force from what a specialist in Asian Australian fiction, Tseen Khoo, had defined as “Oriental grunge” in her analysis of Lillian Ng’s novel Swallowing Clouds. As often in Asian Australian women’s writing, the “sexotic” is deployed as a strategic (al)lure. The cultural politics of the collection’s cover page is relevant in this matter. A young Orientalised woman appears dressed in a crimson cheongsam, looking passive, her lips closed, with the top of her face cropped out from the cover frame. In so doing the Orient comes to be marketed and packaged as a desired object of fantasy deprived of the basic attributes of subjecthood, such as the power to think and reflect, as well as to see and develop a critical worldview, or speak of its own volition. “The Red Pearl” is a love tale between a sailor and a dancer met at the Shanghai Bar. Located in an unnamed Asian port city (most likely Singapore), the story bears “the promise of anonymity, abandonment, delirium, dream,” (Yahp 43) as well as poetic grace. Counter to what might be expected from the book cover, the lover clearly has an agency and power of her own, as proven by the fact that “when she agrees to dance, the sailor lies mesmerised.” (44)
Male-female relationships are also addressed in Yahp’s introductory story in the collection, entitled “The Other Room,” about a woman apparently gone mad. From her side of their adjoining wall, she observes through a peephole a man fashioning doll-like female faces made of clay or glass that he hangs on the wall. This “other room” adjacent to hers is in many ways a product of her imagination and a metaphor for the mind. The female narrator’s mind is utterly alienated and colonised by her obsession with faces and inability to move beyond her “imago.” The term in psychoanalysis stands for “an unconscious idealised mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behaviour.” (Oxford Dictionary of English) I am here reminded of Lyn Jacobs’s literary essay, “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home,” concerned with fiction that may indeed remain about face unless women authors of colour have a creative room of their own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf. The mysterious, unnamed craftsman situated in the other room “shapes faces in the dark. In the sweltering dark he traces the outline of my face, the roughness of my skin, and his hand is sometimes cold, sometimes burning.” (9) On display in this brief extract is the surgical care for symmetry and balance used by Yahp to craft her sentences. Yahp’s streamlined style matches in turn the man’s plan to rectify the narrator’s psyche: “You are in my image although you are other than I. You are not perfect. You are a scar. You watch and listen but you cannot speak. You watch through a crack in the wall like a thief. You are a slur, yet you are nearest to me. I will make you perfect.” (11)
The theme of gender oppression runs throughout the collection, as befits current debates in the West and beyond over sexual violence and predatory behaviour in the wake of the #metoo movement. It is made particularly poignant in “Point of no Return,” a story that tackles the Malaysian youth’s relation to sexuality in the face of a highly conservative society. As Nicholas Jose notes in the collection’s afterword, Yahp keeps returning to her native country, “realis[ing] how deeply and passionately she is invested in Malaysia as sometime citizen and activist,” (217) although Yahp left her homeland as a student for Australia decades ago. This Nietzschean eternal return of the diasporic back to its roots is a gesture I have observed before in this literary journal amongst more mature Asian Australian writers. Such writers do not so much aim at reconnecting with their origins as they intend to shed new light on the neighbouring Asian region for Australian readers, beyond Orientalist clichés. For Yahp, this preoccupation with Malaysia is nothing new but has indeed remained a constant in her work, from her award-winning novel The Crocodile Fury (1992) — a foundational literary text in Asian Australian fiction — to the publication of her family memoir Eat First, Talk Later (2015), which to a large extent discusses contemporary Malaysian politics and the resurgence of grassroots contestation from the late 1990s onwards. Yahp’s valuable contribution to demystifying Asia in the eyes of Australian readers challenges the widespread view that Malaysia is a successfully democratic, multiracial society similar to other multicultural nations such as Australia.
“Point of no Return” is a phrase that refers to a woman’s loss of virginity. Malaysia turns out to be a religiously intolerant, deeply divided country that polices its citizens and in particular its youth over private sexual matters and mores, in the same way that other hardline Islamic nations such as Iran do elsewhere. Yahp forcefully demonstrates the extent to which in Malaysia, the dominant, state-controlled media have played a decisive role in moulding the youth’s mindset and desires. Interwoven into the main narrative are newspaper clippings that the two protagonists, Bel and Deen, start collecting in a desperate bid to seam back those cut out pieces metaphorically standing for mutilated female body parts. As the postcolonial feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak warns, “couture carries the echo of the coupure or cut — the cut from the place or origin.” (172) These clippings (coupures in French) tragically project onto the young couple an image of their shared future with no outlet in sight but death, rape, murder, or the necessity for the youth to abstain from sex as a means of self-protection. These clippings constitute a most brutal rite of initiation into adulthood, a lesson that perhaps only the anecdotes or self-help sections of newspapers or popular magazines could teach them concerning violence (to gloss Frantz Fanon’s classic anticolonial essay) and the policing of youth deemed “deviant” or “sexually offensive;” the arrest of female teens at nightclubs for wearing “provocative” clothing; how there persists a strong incentive for Malay girls to remain virgin before marrying; how murdering a woman is deemed a lesser crime if she is not a virgin, based on a forensic examination of her vagina; the State’s repression of queer minorities; cases involving young girls or students or even women who, being unwed, decide to get rid of their babies; or the lingering taboo of divorce; plastic surgery and racial bleaching. In this regard, the irony consisting in forbidding plastic surgery and Botox injection under Islamic law, on the one hand, while tacitly condoning the disfigurement and dismembering of women by sexual predators, on the other, is not lost on Yahp:
She read: Two Syariah Law lecturers [stated] that the use of Botulinum Toxic A (Botox) to enhance beauty is haram (prohibited)…[since] Botox injections [were] not part of general regulation governing beauty process and procedure as allowed by Islam… [They] based their finding on the fact that the use of Botox would alter one’s look permanently and this could be considered as an act of deceit.
He read: Bone fragments of a Mongolian model who was shot twice and her body blown to bits with explosives were found on a hill near the Empangan Tasik Subang…Sources said [she] was shot in the head…before explosives were taped to her body and detonated. (103)
Yahp’s collection contains multiple instances of violent rupture changing the course of history and interrupting the main thread of the narrative, as in “Time and Again,” or constituting its chief fabric, as in “In 1969.” In “Time and Again”, the female protagonist, who happens to be a writer sojourning in Paris, like Yahp, bears witness to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which terrorists opened fire on the headquarters of a satirical newspaper, killing dozens in the name of jihad. This resulted in the implementation of a more or less permanent state of emergency vindicating the curbing of press freedom and freedom of speech, the widespread use of preventive detention and house arrest of all types of dissidents — a situation, proportion wise of course, that Yahp would have been familiar with, having lived under Malaysia’s authoritarian regime. 1969 is an allusion to the Malaysian race riots, a historical event officially described as a case of Sino-Malay sectarian violence that led to hundreds of casualties, but which effectively marked the start of bumiputra rule (or ethnic Malay supremacy) in areas of employment, education, or the administration, and the ensuing relegation of other minorities — Chinese, Indians, Eurasians — to a second-class status. In both of these instances of violence, those who have had to suffer consequences have not been the perpetrators but the victims instead; the French population as a whole, on the one hand, and the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, on the other, who represent the overwhelming bulk of those lynched to death in the riots, so that it would be more appropriate to call these a pogrom. It is in the midst of such a terminal atmosphere that the protagonist’s fellow writer in “Time and Again” reminds the reader of the enduring power of literature: “It’s there, and will never leave. No one can take it away, even if the ink dries in its pen, the pages rot, the buildings crumble, the stony ground turns to dust.” (187)
Yahp’s collection conveys other elements of violence still that are in some sense far more insidious than being the target of anti-Asian racism in a suburban train, as happens to Lisa, a freshly arrived migrant and university student in Sydney: “In one carriage someone has drawn large anti-Asian signs, like anti-smoking signs, an Asiatic face cancelled out.” (160) The story where this incident is narrated, “So we walked down Abercrombie Street,” takes on a nostalgic tonality for Yahp, by featuring a group of tertiary students in creative arts who share a flat in the largely immigrant outer Sydney suburbs, using it as a kind of bohemian haunt. In their film-making project, Janie and Lisa freely embrace a Kantian view of art — purposeless, disinterested, immanent — yielding to the pleasure principle of communion and communication: “Form is content. The telling of a story is the story. The film is about boredom and escape, they write. If form is content should the film be boring, escapist? And they draw a vase the shape of a heart and they fill it with flowers. They talk about everything except the film.” (154) Violence, then, consists in the abandonment of youthful innocence, of the ability to dream and of the will to resist to growing disillusionment born out of the pressure to conform and access relative material security.
In “The Beautiful Hour,” migration is initially experienced as an epiphany by its central character, Prabhu, who left Malaysia for Australia in 1958, after Australia somewhat eased out its immigration policy regarding non-white applicants. Yet Prabhu actually epitomises the “reluctant migrant,” an allusion to Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, since Prabhu is not grateful towards his adopted country, as might have been expected from him. He prefers to cultivate Meursault’s position of the Stranger in Albert Camus’s eponymous novel, who refused to cry on command at his mother’s funerals, as decency and convention would have required. Both Changez, the protagonist in Hamid’s novel, who left Pakistan for New York in the midst of 9/11, and Meursault, a pied noir, a person of French origin living in colonial Algeria under French rule, retain a critical, detached outlook towards the respective societies in which they have remained outsiders. Prabhu’s vehement views of Australian society, as being struck by “cultural poverty,” excess “freedom” and the lure of opulence and stability, must be placed in the context of the White Australia Policy and Australia’s ignorance of its indigenous past and Asian neighbours. Instead of the Lucky Country, Prabhu dubs Australia the “Great Southern Lassitudes.” Prabhu refuses to let himself put to sleep by the slow, quiet drone of the status quo as questions keep buzzing back to him in the manner of a fly, a flea or gnat. Here, to “resist” (145) means withstanding the false appeal of pacified domestication and middle class bliss from Sydney’s ethno-proletarian urban sprawls, where Prabhu now lives. It also means recalling the violence upon which White Australia as a settler colony was founded.
The last story title in the collection, “Dogs in Love,” can be understood as a metaphorical description of the academic workforce, or what Yahp calls the “lowest common denominator.” Yahp draws a parallel with the impassioned yet pauperised figure of the Clerk in Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic medieval epic poem The Canterbury Tales, from which she quotes this pentameter: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” (202) Lecturers and researchers are often passionate about what they do, yet their job has become increasingly absurd and dehumanising in the face of the onslaught of a market-driven nature on universities across Australia and around the world. Many Asian Australian writers, perhaps compelled by the precariousness of their position on the literary market, must complement their revenues with an additional occupation. Some, like Yahp, have joined academia as creative writing lecturers. In this regard, “Dogs in Love” demonstrates how lecturing has been downsized to an accounting, managerial logic. As the narrator’s ill-named HR explains to her:
‘That’s what the numbers say,’ she tells me. She taps on her keyboard, gives me a bonus of twenty percent here, five percent there in a different column, but my overall numbers are still too low.
‘You’ve got to make the percentages up in teaching,’ she sighs, adding three tutorials to my workload, over three courses I haven’t taught before. It’s a week before the new semester begins. She says: ‘Yours is a teaching contract anyway.’ If I reduce my hours, she tells me, I’ll lose my bonuses, and I’ll have to teach the old full workload, at half pay. (208-9)
There is violence in numbers, just as there is violence in certain words that are hammered in by those performance review jargonauts of the newly corporatised higher education system. Overall, Yahp may be considered an itinerant writer, not so much because she happens to be an experienced traveller who has lived across several continents, but rather because she has moved in and out of the academic profession, as well as in and out of the business of writing, publishing and marking other people’s work. Significantly, Yahp’s collection was published by a small, independent publishing house, Vagabond Press, which specialises in Asia-Pacific literatures and has headquarters in both Sydney and Tokyo. More than two decades stand apart between the publication of The Crocodile Fury and Yahp’s family memoir Eat First, Talk Later, aside from essays and short stories, some of which appear in The Red Pearl. A mode of living and being in the world encapsulated by Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth figure of the Parisian metropolitan flâneur (Yahp 182), itinerancy seems especially suited to the short story format and to this collection in particular — stories directly drawn from Yahp’s rich, multifaceted imagination and life as a creative writing practitioner, traveller, and committed activist.
Jacobs, Lyn. “About Face: Asian-Australians at Home.” Australian Literary Studies 20(3), 2002.
Khoo, Tseen. “Selling Sexotica: Oriental Grunge and Suburbia in Lillian Ng’s Swallowing Clouds.” Journal of Australian Studies 24(65), 2000.
Spivak, Gayatri C. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard University Press, 2012.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD in Anglophone postcolonial literatures from Monash University in Australia. He works as a sessional lecturer in English at La Sorbonne University, Paris. He is involved in political activism and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).
by Tom Lee
ISBN : 9781925336900
Reviewed by JAKE GOETZ
Ever since the Little Athletics of my youth, I’ve always felt Australia to be a sporting nation. One that if viewed from an alien planet, could be mistaken as preparing for war through daily gym appointments, jogs and football. From my earthly confinement though, it is perhaps easier to consider this nation’s love of sport, or fitness more generally, as a type of religion: one in which people seek a ‘higher’ (endorphin-fuelled) meaning in life, or at least, a communal sense of belonging bought on by the routine devotion to a particular activity. Reading through Tom Lee’s debut book, Coach Fitz, it was hard for me not to reflect back on such feelings, and to then also look forward, following Lee’s ability to craft a narrative around a national fixation not often found in the pages of Australian literature.
Coach Fitz is narrated from the first-person perspective of the main character, Tom, who like the author himself, grew up near Orange in regional New South Wales. From the outset we come to understand Tom through his youth – as a boy plagued by self-consciousness and struggling to come to terms with his masculinity:
I began with a small body. Late to mature, I measured myself against my thicker, hairier peers. I sought advice from the magazines that displayed the bodies I desired. I needed muscle, a good layer of it, to make up for my lack of pubic hair (1).
Living in Sydney’s inner-city, Tom is now in what we gather to be his late 20s, and finds himself in a similar ‘emotional rift’ (3). Spurred on by thoughts of his once supportive, and recently deceased, grandfather, and the inner-crises provoked by the time he spent abroad with his ex-girlfriend, Alex, he again seeks to ‘use exercise to bring focus’ to his life (3). Employing the efforts of Coach Fitz – a middle-aged woman ‘rumoured’ to have once been an exceptional long-distance runner, as well as a student of psychoanalysis in the UK – Tom becomes immersed in her ‘training philosophy: a dynamic relationship between exercise of controlled intensity and a steadily growing curiosity about places, buildings, aesthetic and history’ (10). Fields which no doubt draw from author Tom Lee’s own interest in ‘landscape, technology and the senses’, and his experience as a lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Technology, Sydney (Author bio, back-cover).
If exercise can be considered a type of religion, then the book’s key activity, jogging, is the main form of prayer, or perhaps more apt, meditation: as Coach Fitz equips Tom with his very own mantra or ‘breath friend’: ‘hick-a-chee’ (25). The first half of the book centres around the pair indulging in the act of jogging and provides the narrative (to use the words of Tom) with a ‘direct, unmediated, sensory immersion’ in the micro-environments of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets (44). A narratological approach that harks back to Modernist texts such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses. On their first jog through Centennial Park, for example, we are taken through a ‘gauntlet of Moreton Bay figs, their roots a web of tripwires in the sandy soil’, before climbing a hill from where Tom sees a ‘pavilion through the trees sitting like a UFO from ancient Rome in the fields’ – drawing attention to the alien-like nature of colonial architecture in the context of the Australian environment (8). On a later jog the pair find themselves on Botany Road, running ‘past the remnants of brick factories converted into apartments, self-storage facilities and car dealerships’ – what coach Fitz is quick to quip as aspects of a ‘postmodern city’ – with ‘the ‘heritage-listed brick shells of industry giving birth to minimalist apartment blocks distinguishing themselves in a contradiction of gaudy minor flourishes …’ (77).
Through the pairs observations and conversations, Lee’s narrative finds itself balanced by richly-cinematic and critical evocations of the places the two pass through; the pursuit of ‘lasting delight, psychological expansion and nourishment of the spirit’ through jogging (13); and the ‘failings’ in Tom’s personal life, which Coach Fitz seeks to remediate and turn into strengths. One of the finest expressions of such psychological mentoring occurs during their run along the soft sands of Curl Curl Beach, when Coach Fitz remarks to Tom that ‘Adolescence is just perceived as this problematic, disagreeable thing that arrives and then stops … What I reckon happens is that young men don’t recognise they need to transform in order to live well’ (38). She goes on to meditate on how a flawed cultural understanding of masculinity has led to ‘raising generations of man-children who suckle on entertainment as a mild source of amusement’ (39). Feeding on such insights, Tom feels a renewed sense of empowerment, and goes on to reflect how such advice could have aided his past relationship with Alex, which saw him flee London in a state of ‘emotional turmoil’ (46).
Within such place-based dirges, surprising historical snippets also often emerge. During their jog through Sir Joseph Banks park, for example, Coach Fitz details that the area once housed a zoo, as well as a track renowned for foot races in the 1880s: the ‘golden age of sprint racing’ (28). This observation then leads into the story of Indigenous runner, Charlie Samuels, who ran ‘134 yards in 12.3 seconds in this very spot in 1888, barefoot, complete with the nicotine and alcohol addiction that was one of the many gifts bestowed on his people after white settlement’ (28). In light of such historical engagements, and for a text that is so attuned to the nuances of place, I could have only hoped for more aspects of Sydney’s Indigenous history to be elucidated – allowing for a more multi-faceted understanding of the places the two absorb themselves in. However, this aspect is not the key topic in the book, and perhaps Tom’s narcissistic desire to improve his own mental and physical health could act as an appropriate reflection of contemporary Australia’s inability to look past their own wants and needs in an un-reconciled country.
Plodding through Sydney’s varied ambiances, I couldn’t help but think of Coach Fitz as a type-of Antipodean feminising of French Marxist theorist, Guy Debord, who instead of walking a city’s streets, has been forced to run to keep up with the frantic nature of contemporary life. This psychogeographic, or physical and mental engagement with the world, coupled with Fitz’s belief in using ‘history, memory and imagination’ (30) to inform her jogging practice, enables Tom and Fitz like Debord, to criticise the shortcomings of capitalisms use of space, transcend the ‘métro, boulot, métro, dodo (subway, work, subway, sleep)’ of everyday life and nut out what it is to be a ‘man’ beyond the expectations propagated by mainstream culture (Waxman 2010, p. 87). Such a claim is illustrated in the book’s second section, where Tom feels that their jogging elongates time ‘and refreshes a sense of the city’ (22). Even earlier in the book, following their first meeting, Tom is so enthused by Coach Fitz’s practice and the idea of becoming ‘faster on foot, sensitive to the environment and mentally resilient’ that he takes on extra work and moves from his Balmain house into his beloved Honda Odyssey in order to save the money to pay Coach Fitz (11). This drastic transition into a car-sleeping and fitness-obsessed bohemian is rolled out in just over one page of the book, and was perhaps a part of the narrative that I felt could have been better realised.
Through Coach Fitz’s attempts to remedy Tom’s ‘failings’, Tom too eventually uncovers cracks in the mental and physical make-up of Fitz, such as her smartphone use during practice, which goes against her spatially immersive training exercises, and the ‘grog-lover’ scent she often carries on their jogs (59-60). Following a bout of beer-drinking and novelty games at Coach Fitz’s house in Annandale one afternoon, a drunk and naked Fitz embraces Tom in her bathroom. Tired of the ‘discrepancies’ in Coach Fitz’s ‘theory and practice’ (106), and feeling confident enough in his own devices, Tom flees the scene and his relationship with Fitz: seeking to refine his own spatially-engaged and psychologically-charged fitness training methods. This leads into the second half of the narrative, which centres on Tom mentoring his ex-girlfriend’s brother, Morgan: providing him with the opportunity to put his own methods into practice. It isn’t long though, before he again feels plagued by a self-consciousness reminiscent of his youth – recalling Fitz’s advice, that men fail to understand they need ‘to transform in order to live well’ (38). The situation is only made more troubling by his perverse attempts to infiltrate Morgan’s family in a somewhat demented longing for Alex, and to, in his own words: ‘observe their phenotypical relatedness and share in the general effervescence of their group behaviour’ (192).
In addition to the complex and often humorous relationships on display in Coach Fitz, I feel the book’s greatest merit lies in the steady jogging rhythm of Lee’s prose, the ode-like evocations of Sydney’s parklands, beaches and streets, and a philosophy of remaining open, aware and engaged with one’s environment. I like to think of it as a wake-up call to all those locked in a passive discourse with the world, and a critical engagement with what it is to try and truly see, hear, taste and feel a place. As (the character) Tom ruminates after a swim at Bondi: ‘I spent the afternoon swimming and uttering expressions of deep thanks to the climate and geography’ (140). Anyone interested in exercise and its psychological imperatives; the complexities of masculinity and male adolescence; or Sydney’s geography, history, ecology or architecture, will find a point of immersion, and a rewarding read, in Tom Lee’s debut book.
Waxman, L 2010, ‘Writing A Few Steps in a Revolution of Everyday Life’, PhD Thesis, New York University, viewed 15 April 2017, via ProQuest database.
JAKE GOETZ lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Creative Writing from Griffith University. His poetry has most recently appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overland, Plumwood Mountain, Tell Me Like You Mean It Vol. 2, Rabbit, Pink Cover Zine, past simple, Otoliths and Cordite. His first book, meditations with passing water, a long-poem written alongside the Maiwar (Brisbane River) was published by Rabbit in 2018. He edits Marrickville Pause.