by Mariana Dimópulos
translated by Alice Whitmore
Reviewed by SAMANTHA TRAYHURN
We’re alone together, for the first time. I have to touch him now. I try stroking a foot, then a shoulder. But no current lifts in me, nothing pulls at my chest the way they said it would… (p.1).
There is something strangely refreshing about a book that opens with a mother staring down at her newborn and feeling nothing. For a woman in her thirties who does not yet have children, it is the perfect antidote to scrolling through social media and seeing countless images of my friends’ perfect babies. While not immune to the appeal of maternal joy, I am circumspect about our dominant cultural representations of motherhood. It is rare when another story is presented. And that’s just what I found in Argentine author Mariana Dimópulos’ second novel translated into English, Imminence. Here is the moment that women are so often told will be the happiest experience of their lives, flipped and presented as a stark reconfiguration. However, this isn’t just a book about becoming a mother, it is also a book about becoming a woman, and what that might mean to a narrator who bounces between the orbits of authoritative men. Through the use of surreal and abstract elements, Dimópulos also hints at what it might mean to be a woman writer. She presents a fragmented novel, layered not only by overlapping narratives, but also multiple significances.
Imminence (or Pendiente in the original Spanish) is a clever title because it suggests to readers that something is going to happen whether we like it or not. Alice Whitmore’s translation is deft not only for bringing the novel into English, but doing so with close attention to its nuanced, embedded meanings. We are pulled through the novel’s broken mirror like shards as we try to assemble a clear picture of a story that takes place on a single evening, but by memory, is dispersed across place and time. It begins with a new mother returning home from the hospital with her son after an extended illness following childbirth. How this nameless narrator came to have a son, and why she is having trouble touching him, will be unravelled in a braided story that criss-crosses between her life with current partner Ivan, her previous relationship with the intellectual Pedro, and her trysts with a domineering cousin. Along the way we will examine patterns – numerical, relational, personal – and will be confronted by recurring images that hint at unsettling correlations.
The blowfly of that other night needs shooing. Last time we ended up with a dead cat, and nobody should die today (p. 14).
Suspense is built around a box containing a cat into which our narrator drove a knife on the final night of her relationship with Pedro. As she reflects from her Buenos Aires apartment, readers are left to wonder how the cat is going to relate to the child in a thoroughly page-turning experience.
At its core, Imminence explores what it means to be a woman nearing forty who does not yet have children. The fragments trace the narrator’s life during her twenties and thirties, a time when she is strongly influenced by friends Ludmilla and Mara; two women whom she admires for their rebellious qualities.
Mara and Ludmilla didn’t have parties. They didn’t go to weddings or family gatherings, and they had sworn never to sign a piece of paper with any man. When they spoke about the future they would carefully weed out anything rose coloured: they didn’t believe in love the way most young women do (p. 24).
After Ludmilla dies, another imminent event we must wait to find out the details of, Mara surrounds herself with other childless ‘beer-drinking women’ (p. 91). However, when later in life Mara decides that she does want children after all, our narrator must move through her own process of questioning what it could mean to become a nurturer.
Kindness: some women say it grows on its own, like a weed, once you have a child. But sometimes a man is enough. Or a brother. Or a sick friend (p. 56).
Such a concept seems foreign to a woman who, in her relationships with men, is not nurturing, but heavily reliant on her own subordination.
The passivity of the central character is extremely interesting, because on the one hand she surrounds herself by strong-headed women, and in many ways considers herself to be one of them. On the other hand, she is seemingly incapable of saying no to the forceful cousin who incessantly pursues her, and always submits to the will of her partners. With Pedro:
I drank the several glasses he handed me. I did it for his sake, since I never drink… He insisted on walking, so we walked (p. 6).
Whereas with Ivan her acquiescence seems motivated by a belief that he has access to some superior source of knowledge:
He says something and then it happens. ‘The fever will go down’ he says, and the fever goes down. (p. 17)
Dimópulos paints a world that is certainly ruled by men – one in which even women who rebel are still not certain of their roles. This is clearest when Mara’s friends sit around ‘trying to understand, without centuries of literature and philosophy to orientate them, what it might mean not to be a man’ (p. 91). Therefore, when our narrator continually declares ‘I am not a woman’ (p. 5) perhaps what she is really saying is ‘I am not not a man.’ In refusing traditional feminine roles she is absorbed into masculinity; there is no liminal space for her to occupy.
The narrator’s post-natal depression is exacerbated by the fact that her child is a boy. She exhibits a large amount of distrust towards men, and often refers to repeated rejection. When Ivan leaves the room she sits
…spinning those threadbare, faithful stories that women like me cling to in the hope of forestalling the abandonment that always seems to lurk on the other side of waiting’ (p. 13).
It is unsurprising then that this woman is confronted by the fact that she must form an attachment to an infant man without knowing whether he will also hurt, deceive, or leave her. Through the narrator’s infatuation with mathematics, Imminence in many ways comments on patterns and cyclicity. We see how a woman finds comfort in numbers but can’t find a formula to solve the recurring problems of her relationships. Ultimately, it is the profoundly new experience of conceiving a child that is transformative in a way that nothing else has been.
I was a woman now… (p. 112)
When I speak, I have to be someone new (p. 113).
The traits and perspectives of this new iteration of our narrator are revealed alongside the events that have shaped them – like flowers traced down to their roots – so that by the time the novel ends, we feel a deep connection to her.
At times it is difficult to tell whether the surreal atmosphere that shrouds Dimópulos text is an intentional nod to Borges, or her own commentary on the way that all female writing that ventures into the abstract will still be absorbed into a male canon. She could also be drawing on the strangely unsettling affects created by predecessors like Norah Lange and Silvina Okampo positioning her work alongside contemporaries like Mariana Enriquez with her darkly surreal feminism. Perhaps, in allowing for multiple readings, Dimópulos embarks on a different kind of feminist protest. Imminence is not only an enthralling novel; it is a complex project that highlights the congruent struggles that exist between giving birth to a child and birthing a novel. It suggests that one seemingly can’t escape what is prescribed, but if looking for a silver lining, or the inclination to reach out and touch the ‘lustre of a silver foot’ (p.2), it is possible to rework the formula to arrive at an entirely unexpected result.
SAMANTHA TRAYHURN is a writer living on the Central Coast of NSW. Her work has appeared in Westerly, Overland, LiNQ Journal, eTropic, and others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University. She is also the editor of Pink Cover Zine.
The Burning Elephant
by Christoher Raja
Book Launch Speech by NICHOLAS JOSE
Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Guangzhou
Kuei Yuan Café Gallery 24 November 2016
Who would have thought I would be launching Chris Raja’s beautiful book here in Guangzhou? Such is the river of life that flows into the ocean here at Canton, as Borges reminds us … There are many things to say about The Burning Elephant but, since we’re standing, I’ll keep it simple. The story is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy called Govinda whose world is his school and his family and his Kolkata neighbourhood—a world into which he doesn’t quite fit. This unease is focussed when an elephant is killed and then cremated in the schoolyard, providing an image that grows and mutates, disturbingly, through the book. ‘He was a strange boy, the way an elephant’s tail or Kali’s face is strange. He existed, and was perfectly made in every way … but he seemed not quite right for the world’ (8).
By the end of the book the burning elephant has become a ‘burning man’ (149). Sectarian violence has erupted into Govinda’s little world with political terror and the destructiveness of Kali. As he was warned: ‘Death and destruction rule. Bastard of a time.’ (21)
The family is taking ‘the Australian option’ – migrating, getting out. Amidst the extreme tragedy with which the novel ends Govinda boards a plane and makes the link between death and rebirth: ‘The flashing ruby-red lights on the wings of the aircraft reminded him of Kali’s tongue. The black tarmac looked like her arms and legs … Would home be a place he had never been to?’ (181)
This outline gives you an idea of The Burning Elephant. What starts as a memoir of boyhood becomes a story of larger disruption. Yet it remains personal at the same time. Things are seen from the inside. Raja’s writing is lucid and lyrical, replete with lists that find order in chaos and vice versa. His imagination animates the animal life of physicality and appetite in everyone and everything. Hierarchies of being are tumbled and churned. There’s a subtle distance too, even in the most intimate emotional turmoil. I am reminded of the young Marcel in Proust’s great novel of memory as he remembers his mother’s goodnight kiss, and of Alain Fournier’s recreation of adolescence in Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes called the lost domain. One world is seen from another, across a divide. One lost, one complexly found. The distance is spanned by language, story, memory. It is the migrant’s fate. The adult condition. Where Govinda’s father was an orphan turned sahib, the son’s life has a reverse pattern, as he is severed forcibly and in different ways from his filial position.
All of this is handled lightly, experienced vividly, as The Burning Elephant unfolds. We recognise other resonances and versions. Violence, flight: we see it everywhere if we look. Truly it is ‘a dark age’ (21). But as Govinda’s father advises us at the end of the novel: ‘The trick is not to panic. That is Kali’s whisper.’ (182)
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
by Tricia Dearborn
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
What are the elements – multiple, multivalent – which constitute and compose us as individuals, as bodies in time and place? What are the factors which make each of us precisely who we are, as well as who we might become? In her third book of poetry Autobiochemistry, Tricia Dearborn uses the analogy of the chemical elements which comprise physical matter as a framework for understanding a range of elements which contribute to a building of ‘self’: memory, childhood, the specificity of experience, sexual desire and love, the mesmerising world of ideas and of language itself. This is powerful poetry, engaging in its directness and emotional honesty and further establishing Dearborn’s position as an important voice in Australian poetry.
Riffing on an undergraduate experience in biochemistry, the poems in the first section are clustered under the signs of the periodic table; both separately and as a sequence, they gather and interpret various aspects of the speaker’s experience. In ‘Fe Iron,’ for instance, the poet recalls her first bleeding, recorded in her ‘pale blue Hollie Hobbie diary’ (p. 26); in ‘O Oxygen,’ she re-inhabits the gasping for breath as a childhood asthmatic, ‘hauling in triumphant/catch after catch of air’ (p. 15). In ‘C Carbon,’ the poet recognises and celebrates the permeability between the individual body and the structures of the universe, between the brief passage of our personal lives and the wider currents of time:
When my body stops, its carbon
will be freed as carbon dioxide
by fire or decay
and a tree may breathe me.
The poem ‘Na Sodium’ explicitly explores a fundamental tension between the search for a mythical element of stability and purity – a kind of prima materia ‘incorruptible’ as she describes in ‘Au Gold’ (p.35) – and a recognition of impurity or change as the only possible constant:
I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient,
swaddled in the safety
of needing no one
now I know we’re never pure
beginning as we do admixture
of the genetically new,
from the outset, chemically intermingled
then we separate, but never completely
even when we feel entirely alone
our mirror neurons
prove us liars…/
I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate
but humans are never
found free in nature
Connecting and being separate, wanting engagement yet feeling at the margins of acceptance, celebrating individuality and pushing the world away – these ambivalence and defences mark the recollections and re-inhabitations of childhood encountered in these poems. However, in the section ‘Covalent Bonds,’ there is a definite movement toward connection and an acceptance of the risks and sustenance of loving in its different forms. ‘…how lucky/that I outlasted/my inability to feel loved,’ she writes in ‘At last’ (p. 44). It may be painful to reach the point of release, but eventually ‘unexpectedly love/came flooding in/throwing the world open.’ Such connection is not sentimentalised in these poems. In ‘Phelgm: a love poem’ for instance, the labour of loving, ‘its energy and joy,’ survives even the contrariness and staleness of illness with its ‘fluorescent yellow-green phlegm’ (p. 40) and the disturbances of sleep. Similarly, ‘Ride’ explores the incipient violence of sexual encounter to identify the abrasion of surfaces which might exist even between two people who love each other: ‘my stubborn selfishness, your willingness/when pushed to ride roughshod’ (p. 39).
In the poems included in ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs,’ Dearborn shifts the focus from a more introspective style to consider how another person – someone else who is also a writer, who has documented and narrativized aspects of their experience and thinking – manages the complex elements of her ‘autobiochemistry.’ The Woolf whom Dearborn delineates, a little like the artist Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, is both overshadowed by a-figure powerful father – ‘while he was in focus/you could not be’ (p. 50) – and struggles to be seen by a mother who would always serve husband and sons first:
Despite your singularity
her eyes, which were yours,
never saw you (p. 51)
And when Woolf undertakes her own explorations of self and memory, she too finds ‘liars in the house,’ a violence at the heart of the family romance:
…When you started tunnelling
in earnest, excavating
the caves behind yourself,
a small you was spotlit
on that ledge, your half-brother’s
hand under your clothes
The ‘Elephant Poems’ see Dearborn undertaking her own tunnellings of memory and psyche, enabled by the caring structures of therapy. As in ‘The invisible elephant,’ this involves the excruciating process of admitting to the dominating element which has always crowded the psychic space of her life, ‘us[ing] up the room,/ breath[ing] my air/ fou[ing] the floor’ (p. 62) – no longer avoiding or pretending, but actually naming the debilitating shape of pain: ‘the shape of/stifled cries in the dark/fear of footsteps/waking in puddles’ (p. 63). This psychic and linguistic process of addressing what has been unaddressable – ‘to discover, astonished,/that the world is not made of amber/then to haul myself bodily/from the viscid exudate/of my father’s lies’ (p. 69) – is to find the possibilities of making one’s own self, of moving into a life which might exist ‘beyond amber’ and its frozen denials.
The poems included in ‘The change: some notes from the field’ are, by comparison with the emotional suffering and labour alluded to in the Elephant poems, celebratory. In these poems, which detail the inexorable rising of the hot flush, the loss of predictable patterns of ‘’bodily knowledge’ and being largely bodily and emotionally adrift where ‘conditions are choppy out on the water/storms blow up from nowhere’ (p. 93), there is nevertheless an acceptance of the literal integration of self and biology. In the playful concrete poem ‘Perimenopause, in which everything is a fan’ (p. 96) a life of love, creativity, family, connections, art and the physical body are brought together, seemingly no longer at war. Indeed, as ‘Perimenopause as uncertainty and invitation’ would suggest, this ‘change’ in the life of a woman is as much opportunity as loss, a space and time enabled by the biochemical in which to grasp a challenge for directness and courage and excitement:
you never dared
should you choose to accept it
to take no shit
for the rest of your life
Not only is it refreshing to read about hormonal changes in a woman’s life as part of the vital stuff of poetry, but these final poems do also suggest something of a triumphant gathering together of the troubling elements of experience, of being one’s self in the world.
Autobiochemistry is about the relationship between parts and whole, between the elements which shape us and the selves who emerge from that process of influence; these poems traverse that tension and impel us to enquire into the extent of the agency which might be possible in the emergence of self. As Dearborn writes so movingly in the poem ‘Your life as a jigsaw,’ we can only work with what we’ve got – analysing the pieces, trying to find what’s missing, trying to interpret and reincorporate fragments of colour and shape into an overall pattern that is meaningful, to take a path forward:
enough pieces matched
by painstaking experiment, by guesswork, by luck
until there is enough tree, or sky, or land or water
for you to see
which way is up
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (WAP, 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.
Kavita Nandan recently moved to Sydney and teaches creative writing and literature at Macquarie University. Her first novel Home after Dark was published in 2014. She is the editor of Stolen Worlds: Fijiindian Fragments. Her short stories have been published in Transnational Literature, The Island Review and Landfall.
Photo: by Michael Kosmider
The Family Circle
Arjun steps onto the cool marble floor of the Se Cathedral. Away from the hot stickiness of the street front, he can breathe. They have cleared four tourist attractions so far, and this is to be the last for the day. A giant chandelier spills like a waterfall from the ceiling. Brass candelabras rise like stalagmites from the low altar, and above it, in a panel of the gold screen, Saint Catherine awaits martyrdom. Sublime paintings of biblical scenes suddenly turn feral on a ragged wall, throwing up his suspicion that God is more absent than present in these holy structures. A loud clatter echoes behind Arjun and he turns. His aunts sit in the pews with their digits darting into bags of salty cashew nuts and one of them, probably Aunt May, has let fall the gaudy plaster model of the Se Cathedral with a digital clock face embedded in the remaining bell tower. Bloody aunty fingers! Perspiring nephews and nieces in their ‘I love Goa’ flea market T-shirts trot in twos down the aisle. Uncles fling themselves this way and that way as if part of a dance routine, in their attempts to capture every angle of the architectural wonder. How they gushed all over the centuries-old Portuguese church like a tidal wave. Surely, only his family possessed this special talent of diminishing grandeur so completely.
At first, Arjun had ignored the summons to the reunion. But as he sat outside under a cloudless Sydney sky eating carbonara pasta in a café he liked, the email with its subject heading, ‘Reunion is the go in Goa’, revisited him. A red-tipped tailed shark of a Qantas plane, slipped away in the distance. The sky’s spectacular clarity unnerved him and a feeling of loneliness reawakened in his heart. It had been a decade since he had gone back to the country of his birth. Then, whether vision or visitation, he swore he saw his long dead grandmother, gesturing North-West with her fleshless finger from heaven. Arjun booked his flight from Sydney to Goa.
The family commandeer six standard rooms at an inexpensive beach resort. The aunties, who had promised their mother before she died that they would remain a close-knit family despite the geographical challenges, organised for the clan to meet, every ten years, in a different part of India. On this occasion, May, Maggie, June and Preeti bubbled with moral superiority at the absence of the two elder sisters who lived in the UK and Australia. At least, they consoled themselves with exaggerated sighs, their strange children, with their Indian faces but foreign accents and values had come from overseas.
Jetlagged, Arjun, and his cousin Arti and her husband who have come from London, go to bed early. The domestic travellers settle in industriously, putting clothes away in cupboards, storing cooked food and snacks brought from home in the mini fridges, scolding the children for turning the ceiling fan on and off, pressing the buttons of the TV remote control at random, juggling ornaments and stabbing at the fruit pyramid gleefully.
The next morning, Maggie, dressed in a floral-patterned kaftan, is jubilant that consensus has been achieved: all 16 of them are visiting the Spice Plantation. A keen cook, she savours the aroma of vanilla, then cinnamon, then cardamom. Andrew, her son, excavates his nose with a grubby finger and retracting it says, “Look ma, spice!”
Arjun grins to himself. Obnoxious kid. Then a glimpse of a scarf the colour of kingfisher blue. He remembers that afternoon in Uncle Joseph’s and Aunt May’s bedroom – the first and only time Lara and he were together – how carefully she had placed her scarf on the side-table as if it was a fledgling bird. His cousin Lara darts through the spice trees chasing after her own child.
The guide leads them though the leafy green plantation, stopping often to point out the different spices and tropical trees. He hands out bananas and star fruit to the kids to soften their boredom.
Like the others, Arjun tries what’s on offer but he is not satisfied. He remembers this gnawing sense of want, of wanting more, from his year spent staying with his Aunties in his twenties. For a moment, he thinks back to those nights he smoked hash on his Uncle’s and Aunt’s terrace and how he’d stare up at the night sky, smeared with stars, seeing a portal warbling between a familiar and an unknown world. Always, Lara, there, by his side. Squeezing his hand. Back then, they’d thought fuck parents, fuck the establishment . . . fuck making money when the family already had enough to see them through to kingdom come. Now, he can’t get to that state of being high with a pre-party Ecstasy tab or hit of LSD.
One of the twins’ stuffs a handful of black pepper into his mouth and yells for a straight five minutes. The little potbelly of the other twin is convulsing with shrieking laughter as Aunt May skips and hops and scolds.
After the plantation excursion, the family return to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. Light-hearted banter between family members soon turns personal and vicious.
Maggie, his mother’s sister reaches for two of the extra-large Goan chapatis, and looking first at May, then at the chapati pile again, says “The twins have grown fat, May, but poor little Bunty . . . is he not getting enough food? Look at him. Thin as a bhindee.”
May like a snake provoked, bites immediately, “Andrew has become very naughty, don’t you think? And his sister seems a little behind at school. I hope she doesn’t have to repeat class four.”
“Arjun, are you losing your hair?” Asks Uncle Harry as he runs his hand through his own, then repeats the gesture. “Pity your parents couldn’t make it. They always seem to be going to some overseas conference. Intellectuals eh?”
The bastard, Arjun thinks. He wouldn’t have minded so much about the hair comment if Lara, still cold as hell towards him, wasn’t in earshot.
Uncle Rai slurring and slurping his third glass of Feni begins his worn-out tirade: “It was Maggie’s butter chicken that finally killed the old bird. She knew Mummy’s doctor had expressly forbidden rich foods.” Maggie’s fingers are greasy and flakes of chapati are all over her lap, but Arjun can see her left ankle beginning to shake and he wants to stride across the room and slap his uncle for being such a patriarchal jerk.
Uncle Rai can’t stop himself: “So Maggie, I suppose it’s all decided now that the kids are going to private schools?”
“Rai! It was in our mother’s will that we get the house. We did spend a lot of time with her after you and June moved to Chennai.”
“Maggie!” June says heatedly, “You know we moved to be closer to Rai’s family after his father had the triple bypass.”
Aunt Preeti, who had been listening silently to the conversation up to this point, explodes like corn kernels hitting hot oil, one after the other. “YOU. ARE. ALL. OBSESSED. DID. ANY. OF. YOU. CARE. WHEN. MY. HUSBAND. WAS. DYING!”
Aunt May, red faced and perspiring replies, “Preeti, you never did see the value of money.”
“That’s why we all pay for her now!” shouts Uncle Joseph from the opposite end of the table.
“What an ass,” Arti mutters under her breath to her husband. Mark hurriedly hides the sucked curried prawns on his plate under the serviette, conscious that he might have taken too many.
Why do they bother? Arjun thinks. It’s as if the weeks of goodwill it took to work out the logistics for every family member coming from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and as far away as Sydney and London, and meeting in one spot – Goa – had only pushed their divisive emotions underground temporarily. They toured the churches, the beaches, the plantations, the markets together, but seemed only vaguely interested in the attractions themselves, and only too willing to argue at every turn. A gap of ten years was a reasonable time to expect quarrels to be forgiven if not forgotten, but neither seemed to be the case. The family’s differences were returning like resurrection plants.
Maybe his cynicism came from his lack of innocence. Since nobody had committed murder within the family yet, he was probably the biggest deviant here. Though sleeping with his first cousin had felt. . . inevitable. . . for both of them.
Knowing that the year was almost up and he would be returning to Australia to start an MBA had made him daring and insanely horny. Lara had been willing, flirty and in unison they had drunk several whiskey gulps from Uncle Joseph’s liquor stash kept in his cupboard that he thought no one knew about. Three days later, he had left.
It was almost annoying how she gave nothing away, no secret looks in his direction or holding his gaze a little longer than necessary. She was behaving as if nothing had ever happened between them and seemed completely engrossed in the child. Since when did Lara have a child? He regretted now that he never hit send on that email he wrote to her. On all those emails he wrote her. What kind of an insensitive bastard was he? He had only thought of his own embarrassment.
Lara yanks back the pallu of her sari from Max who is gripping it with both hands and using it to slide around the room. Then she cuddles the boy and gives him a piece of papaya.
He needs her to look at him. He remembers the diffused, sexiness of her eyes like she was either tipsy or in a state of desire that she used to have. He feels guilty for wanting her, again. Christ. He’s nearly thirty-five, surely . . . He thinks of Michelle back home redecorating their small Sydney apartment so they might sell it and buy a house, start a family.
Lara grips the knife she is using to cut up the papaya and turns to him, transforming into Kali, the goddess of death, with human heads around her neck and arms of men in a girdle around her waist.
He knows then that he’s terribly wrong: of course she remembers and hasn’t even come close to forgiving him. Max is sticking out his orange-Fanta tongue at him.
The family spend the next day at the beach. They encircle three tables joined together in a beach shack. They are practically hijacking the place with their sheer numbers. But then he remembers this isn’t Darlinghurst. The waiters gossip amongst themselves in Konkani. His uncles consume bottles of local Kingfisher beer, except for Uncle Rai who is silently reading a philosophical tract at the table and avoiding everyone’s eyes, especially Maggie’s, after the insults of yesterday.
Boney M and Michael Jackson interspersed with Indian movie hits spin around the room, escape outside, tumble and disappear into radiant waves.
His aunts are chatting with each other and laughing as if they have forgotten the angry things that were said to each other the day before. Aunt Preeti, however, is sitting apart, on a deck chair. She wears her hair in a stylish knot under her European-styled hat and the leg of her salwar billows in the wind. A young man prances on a jet ski in gold speedos near the seashore. Arjun sees that his aunt is older and sadder but still beautiful like her daughter Lara.
The men, having eaten and drunk too much at lunch, lie like overcooked lobsters in deck chairs on the beach and the women fret about the kids drowning and what to prepare for the next meal. They pass the usual comments about the tourists being too fat, too skinny and too liberal. When a topless woman walks past them, Aunt May does not have enough hands to cover all three sets of eyes of her unruly boys. When she realises that the woman in the white triangle barely covering her private parts is her niece, Arti, her hands drop, enabling her sons to get an eyeful.
The next morning, Arjun wakes up before the others to go sightseeing on his own. Walking around the seventeenth century church, he looks at the revered statues of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and remains unmoved. The broken body of Jesus on the Cross, however, strikes a chord. All those years of going to church and reading the bible to please his grandmother, what did they amount to? He feels regret at all the wasted Sunday mornings at bible study, but not a lot, too much time has passed.
He finds Sonya, Aunt June’s and Uncle Rai’s grandchild, sitting on a pew, head bent deep in concentration. Perhaps like him, she had wanted some time alone. Sonya is sketching something on a large notebook. He sits silently behind her, taking a peek over her shoulder, which is newly branded with a thick white stripe from yesterday’s swim. She is drawing a caricature of Jesus on the Cross. Her Jesus looks a lot like Uncle Harry, the family’s only politician and self-proclaimed martyr. He wishes he’d been that savvy at her age.
At the Bom Basilica, he stops several times to take photographs for Michelle. Photos were the only thing she asked for apart from some Goan silk, ‘preferably in marigold yellow, beaded along the edges and large enough to cover a Queen sized bed.’
“Arjun,” she had asked while she was chipping away at the tiles in the splashback, “is the real reason you don’t want me to come that you are ashamed of me?”
Why does she walk like a giraffe? Arree, her clothes are so drab. She should close her mouth when she smiles – her teeth are too big, don’t you think? How could he explain to her that his family would find fault in everything he loved about her. So instead he offered no explanation at all and reiterated that of course he wasn’t ashamed of her. When he discovers extra pairs of underwear and sunscreen in his suitcase, he knows that this is Michelle’s way of forgiving him.
He notices Mark, Arti’s husband, up ahead talking to a dark and pretty Goanese girl. It is the waitress who served them yesterday at the beach shack. He sees Mark touch the girl’s arm and he strides forward, not willing to wait for something more to happen as it does so easily in this hot and fleshy city, when he hears a sudden braking followed by a series of skids, a loud bang and waves of screaming.
As he turns around, the crowd rushes past him leaving him isolated on a square of concrete, dwarfed in front of the great church with the heat piercing his brain like a bullet.
He can hear Mark’s voice, dream-like, as he runs past in the same direction: “Shit man, are you coming?” The crowd is forming a circle on the road up ahead.
Arjun is standing by Mark now who looks unsure of himself. He grabs Mark’s arm to steady him, but when it looks like Mark is about to spew, he shoves him away.
A person lies under a vehicle with his knees facing upwards. It almost seems as if he is repairing the bus. But why would he be doing that in the middle of the road? And holding up all this traffic? Now that he looks more closely the legs are remarkably still. He starts to notice, even though he doesn’t want to, other things like the paleness of the legs, the tattoo of a tribal lion covering a large area of thigh and one bright red flip flop still clinging to a foot.
The bus driver is sitting in his seat, his eyes darting everywhere and sweat running down his face like monsoonal rain. Soon they are surrounded by noises and activity: ambulance sirens blaring, cars screeching to a halt, doors being slammed, and policemen running about dispersing the unheeding crowd. The commotion dies down and some people within the circle leave, satisfied that they are abreast of the latest in Goa. They are easily replaced by others whose curiosity is yet to be satiated.
“Some poor foreigner,” Mark says in a hopelessly Scottish accent.
Arjun looks down at his shaking hands and legs. As he raises his head again he sees familiar faces interspersed in the crowd. Maggie is standing next to Rai and June next to Harry as if they have swapped husbands. Joseph picks up Preeti’s hat that has fallen on the road and gives it to her. May’s three boys are holding hands and Lara is covering her child’s eyes with the pallu of her sari and waving. It seems as if the whole family are there, looking through the multitudes and smiling tenderly at him.
As the ambulance workers are piling the foreigner onto the stretcher as they might a dead body, the bloodied and broken corpse sits up. The crowd gasps collectively, cheers collectively.
Arjun trembles as the ring of people holds fast, then breaks, and breaks again.
AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’
by a.j. carruthers
Reviewed by TERRI ANN QUAN SING
Ambitious beyond itself; larger than the sum of a single collection; AXIS is a ‘lifelong long poem’; it is the first book-length installment spanning axes one through thirty-one. Since the publication of AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ an additional eighteen or so axes have been published in various journals in print and online; and Vagabond Press have just announced that AXIS Book II will be coming out later this year. So in anticipation of the impending release of Book II, let’s start at the beginning with AXIS Book I: ‘Areal’ by a.j. carruthers.
An ‘axis’ is a straight line around which a body⸺figurative or physical⸺rotates. Throughout most of the collection the page is split down the centre; to columns of text form ‘hemispheres’ (untitled, 14) in parallel to one another across the gap; the AXIS; and this interval is crossed and subverted in the course of the collection. The recurrence of a gap bifurcating the poems suggests a focus on relationality. Relation across the gap; possibilities of frisson, dissonance, subversion, rapprochement, and wreckage emerge. ‘I wanted / to sometimes tell two different stories at once, and / sometimes tell one story twice. Well-worn form: the / split page’ (untitled, 13). ‘Areal’ makes reference to space; an areal is a geographical field, or field of thought; the gap making visible the interstices between fields produces dynamism throughout the collection.
Sometimes subverting its own convention, twin pillars of text flow down the page, but cross over and interleave in a DNA formation (Axis 5. ‘Aria’); or, words tilt and tumble down the page a dry, falling leaf swaying from side to side (Axis 11. ‘Assemblage’ -below); crossing the AXIS, musical notation with latinate letters floating side to side movement gives a sing-song feel, a slow gravity pulling softly down on the page out of word-processor enforced alignment (Axis 4. ‘Act’); producing a sometimes nauseous aesthetic. This collection yawns open to the edges of the visual and sonic possibilities of language; words, sounds and symbols play out on the page; notation, typography, and found-arrangements of speech.
Indeed, ‘play’ might be a guiding principle for approaching AXIS as a body of work. In the Derridean sense of the possibilities for movement and difference within any given order. These poems serves as ‘An improvocation’ (untitled, 13); they are playing with given language and meaning. ‘These poems are systems’ (untitled, 12); improvisations provoking new questions and new entries into old ones. The collection begins with an untitled ‘entrance’; an ‘overture’ functioning as a sort of glossary; an ars poetica; an opening orientation to the work, the reader, the world. ‘These gaps gap registers. Vectors’ (untitled, 22).
In his constant play with, across, and between the axis, carruthers offers a discordant discourse to the idea of ‘hybridity.’ AXIS could be read as a ‘hybrid’ text; mixing musical notation, concrete, and sound poetry, the poetic, the political, the philosophical; but this idea of ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixing’ is itself problematic, since these divisions are artificial in the first place. The reader that I am has in common with carruthers a mixed Chinese and European heritage. Giving us both (from the perspective of certain historical ways of taxonomising ‘race’) an uneasy relation to genre. From this vantage, one rejoices in reading this work as, in part, a response to being bifurcated by hegemonic orders; a resistance to the irritation of having to answer to the axis⸺borders made to appear natural and inevitable. In this context of racialised-reading the words ‘blazon me’ from Axis 7. ‘Arise’ come to mind⸺
you know what
‘blazon me’, repeated, becomes an imperative verb; ‘blazon me’⸺something to be done to the speaker. To blazon; to make a catalogue of the subject; a description of appearances. Historically, (white) women have been the typical subject of the blazon, made popular by fourteenth century italian poet-scholar Petrarch. Turning the conceit inside out, carruthers’ evokes and inverts the courtly love poetic tradition of lovingly dissecting a sweetheart. The love affair between reader and poet is at stake; to paraphrase: read/write me. Blazon me⸺as what? To be taxonofied, to be pinned like a butterfly under glass, to name is to ossify and carruthers’ work resists this capture. In Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’ he again references this impulse to quantify, again in imperative grammar⸺‘reach for the dictionary. / Reach for the dictionary’. Blazon me; name me and record that naming for all time in the aspirational immortality of poetry. Then again, perhaps by naming our shared racial heritage here I am pinning us both under glass. Performing the wrong move of keeping score being fixed by the sense of dichotomy (Axis 7. ‘Arise’ -see above). ‘Q. Should I ask? Is my / question wrong? / Is my question wrong?’ (Axis 13. ‘Antiphonal’). In Axis 8. ‘And’, small supporting words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs) turn up in the gap; left to fend for themselves, expressing a refusal of fixity; playing on the limits of genre: ‘receptive | to | infinities / suspicious | of | limits / language language / language’. Resisting the reification of binary thinking, carruthers often plays with portmanteau⸺‘madeupword in tinted aureolin sunglimmer sung’ (Axis 30. ‘Androgyne’).
In Axis 22. ‘Annals,’ the reader reading for the autobiographical ‘I’ is disrupted. carruthers gives form to de- or rearrangements of the world; a resistance to ossification in the constant play of sight and sound⸺ ‘I, i, an you’ is bolded in the axis space in the centre of the page, the speaker/s continue: ‘Suspicious / of hybridity / we choose / not convergence / but specificity // Something new / is happening, you sing // (All, the commons)’.
In fact, throughout the collection the ‘I’ is never alone⸺but instead we read/hear a ‘choralyric’ (Axis 15. ‘Abut’); a poetic-political ‘capacious form’ (89)⸺this collection speaks to an ethics of relationality so important in a world that is increasingly split along certain axes. This work is ‘A chorale. Choral poetry as an improvocation / of the epilyric ‘we’ […] written under the influence of choral & cosmic / harmonies. […] Speaking / in registers I hardly know’ (untitled, 15, 16). AXIS is polyvocal; with many different voices speaking in concert; sometimes to each other, sometimes over one another. The formal split down the centre of the page draws a constant attentiveness to relationality. carruthers writes⸺‘As instrumentalists / must learn to play with two hands, and intone up to / 4 to 5 voices simultaneously […] so / I have tried to learn as a poet how to play on several registers at once’ (untitled, 12).
Formal musical language and symbols are used throughout⸺‘A notational poetics. The origins of / this project, Axis, are obscure’ (untitled, 12). Obscured to myself as someone who is not so literate in musical notation; and there is also linguistic notation. In Axis 31. ‘Apostrophe’ the reader/performer is invited to read the adapted linguistic notation of Chinese linguist Yuen Ren Chow⸺not literally, but according to what the symbols on the page suggest to them. (For an example of carruthers’ sound work please see carruthers’ recent work ‘Consonata’which includes letter-notation and an audio recording.) So readers like myself needn’t fret when they approach a space of their own illiteracy⸺with references to, or lines in Latin, Cantonese, French, Italian, Greek, musical and linguistic notation.
The letter is a symbol and sound. It is caught in the eye and throat; in the play of light and vibration. Of course poetry is always linked to the living breathing body (of the reader, of the poet, & of others) carruthers makes this relation inescapably physical; stage directions, indicate that this is live, living, action, happening in multiple times and spaces not strictly confined to the page; imperative instructions meant to be embodied; that go beyond the page; recalling the work of Langston Hughes and Yoko Ono, among others. Stage directions in parenthesis; or ‘pianissimo’ ‘allegro’; indicates the volume and pace in space and time; ‘four trombones’ or ‘three voices counted as two’ ‘[laughter.’ ‘ (hum of / a bass clarinet / following / the tin / tones of / a honky-tonk)’ (Axis 12. ‘Addenda’). A call and response across the axis. ‘The law of the people is unwritten, choral intersector enters the universe’ (Axis 3. ‘Axiom’).
AXIS Book I : ‘Areal’ conjures and calls readers into ‘a literary commons’ (untitled, 15). Voice, score, notation, image, typography, sound, performance; AXIS sounds out the poethical in a polyvocal world; it is a virus that disrupts normative habits of reading; an expansive poetics reaching toward our collective future/s and the future/s of this lifelong, long poem.
TERRI ANN QUAN SING is a poet and writer living in Naarm. You can find her on twitter here.
Claire Albrecht is writing her PhD in Poetry at the University of Newcastle. Her current work investigates the connections between poetry/photography and sex/politics. Claire’s poems appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Overland Literary Journal, Plumwood Mountain, The Suburban Review and elsewhere. Her manuscript sediment was shortlisted for the 2018 Subbed In chapbook prize, and the poem ‘mindfulness’ won the Secret Spaces prize. Her debut chapbook pinky swear launched in 2018 and she edited the 2018 Cuplet Anthology The Clambake.
I want to break my own wrist
into the curve of my blundstone boot
no farmer, just a subscriber
to the trade aesthetic
[if only we knew all we needed to do
to support drought affected Aussie farmers
was shop at Woolworths this Saturday]
but I never could stand watching Landline.
I’d rather buy a bale of hay
spread it around the house
and propagate hayfever.
is this cynical? am I unfeeling?
I’ve watched this country die
I’m not afraid of fire
my bones are fine ground dust
a whirlybird out the car window
my breath the last clean water in the dam
bring your buffalo. put a gold coin
on its tongue. you’ve done your part.
Autumn Royal is a poet and researcher. Autumn’s poetry and criticism have appeared in publications such as Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, Overland Literary Journal, Southerly Journal and TEXT Journal. She is interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review and author of the poetry collection She Woke & Rose. Autumn’s second collection of poetry is forthcoming with Giramondo Publishing.
Culmination concept / for Philomela
Why does signalling
towards an end always
need to shudder
within the curvature
of a climax?
Must you kneel & crouch
down with beak
to throat — then chest?
The thrust & brine of evening
burrows under feathered
pleas — as if orange sparks
will burst directly over
& you’re almost in a state
but still unaltered —
with fingers & palms sticky
above the loam you might lapse
lower into — if it wasn’t for
these lines & the way
they break off & against —
The Book of Thistles
by Noëlle Janaczewska
Review by VIVIENNE GLANCE
ISBN: 978 174 258 8049
“Plants that stand for us
that stand for themselves
as we stand for ourselves.” P. 164
These lines appear around half-way through Noëlle Janaczewska’s The Book of Thistles. They are an apt summary of this ‘part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page’, as she describes it in the Introduction (p.9).
To fully appreciate this unique book, a close reading of the introduction places you into the mindset of the author. It is a work of ‘unaccompanied language, of ‘collage’, of ‘jump-cut across genres’. It is a contemplation of the author’s perspective on history and humanity’s interaction with the environment; and it explores this through the lens of Botany, in particular, the family of plants know as Asteraceae, the thistles.
The Book of Thistles is structured into five sections with rather mundane titles: Names, Law, War, Food and Outliers. But Janaczewska’s approach is to defamiliarize us with each of these and to stretch them beyond a mere application to the humble thistle, and take us into a deeper and less-defined understanding of place and history – both human and natural.
This book is not an easy read by any means; it is unsettling and has minimal narrative drive to pull the reader along. However, it is a fascinating and unusual treatment of what could be described as a philosophical exploration of the nature of ‘thistle’.
Names are important to not only botanists describing individual species, but to people and communities. To be named by your community defines your relationship with it and bestows you with connections and relevance to place. And place is an important aspect of the first section, Name, where Janaczewska talks of her English heritage and her move to Australia, where she has made her name as a playwright. Alongside and weaving into this are the names of various migrant thistles who have made this country their home. Because at its heart this book is about coming to terms with migration, and a reconciliation with both the effect of that, and with how one cannot fully detach from one’s native origin.
The author’s fascination with thistles began when she came across the yellow melancholy thistle whilst browsing a field guide to wildflowers in Britain and the United Kingdom ‘recharged my interest in the plant realm and our human interactions with it’ (p. 27). This takes her on to a contemplation not only of botany, but of colour, on melancholy as an emotion, and on memory.
The book continues in this way, jumping across genres, hoarding interesting gems like a bowerbird, laying out her research on a wide table for the reader to glance over and pause on whatever catches her eye. It is underpinned with some scientific notes, but is by no means a work of science, being more a flirtation with the botanist’s view of plants. In fact, the front matter recommends the book is classified under ‘Culture’, ‘Home’, ‘Emigration and Immigration’.
Other sections, such as Law, reflect Janaczewska’s flirtation with legal studies; and the following one, War, highlights how we not only fight each other, but are in a continuous battle with Nature, in order to control and to dominate. Both are unapologetic and stark reminders of our colonial heritage. This is concisely summarised by a single sentence ‘Weeds challenge our sense of entitlement’ (p. 152). It is also ironic to note that most of the attempts to eradicate thistles by weeding or by herbicides were carried out on the very same plants introduced either intentional unintentionally by Europeans.
There are few references to native Australian plants, but she does she highlight the Afghan thistle (Solonum holopetalum) which despite its name, is originally from Western Australia, and although prickly, is not a true thistle of the Asteraceae family. Originally thought to have arrived with the Afghan cameleers whose particular skills with camels were essential in colonising and exploring the desert country, Janaczewska uses the story of this plant to reveal the bigotry, racism and exploitation of these particular migrants during the colonial push into Australia’s desert interior in the 1800s.
The Food section is the most tenuous with its links to the main theme of the book. Janaczewska explores so- called ‘wild foods’ – uncultivated foods that are found growing in the bush or as ‘weeds’ in gardens. Janaczewska describes four native Australian thistles that she says are ‘out-and-out thistles’ (p. 203): the sow thistle (Sonchus hydrophilus), the Austral cornflower (Rhaponticum australe), the dune or beach thistle (Actites megalocarpus), and what she calls the ‘ghost thistle’ (Hemistepta lyrata). She is also unable to confirm if their indigneous names refer to a particular species or to thistles more generally (p. 204). However, Janaczewska has found some accounts of how local Aboriginal people ate these native thistles, although they are seen from the persepctive of the coloniser unaware of the value of the plant. For example, she references how a South Australian settler, Edward Stephens, “recalled how an Aboriginal party asked permission to harvest a large plot of sow thistles on the land he occupied. Take the lot, he told them. And ‘ten minutes later the ground was bare of thistles, and the tribe passed on gratefully devouring the juicy weed.’” (p. 233)
The thistle most commonly eaten in Australia, the globe artichoke, is an introduced species and is widely cultivated. The second most commonly eaten thistle, the cardoon, did not attract the Australian palette despite its popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Nonetheless, our fascination with food and eating (a primal need if ever there was one!) makes this section a fascinating read. This is enhanced by the way Janaczewska engages us with her poetic and playful use of language, blended in with newspaper reports and personal reflections. It creates a kaleidoscope of musings on our relationship with some of the more unusual plants we eat as food.
The final section, Outliers, seems to be a repository for all those other interesting and eccentric plants that could not be included elsewhere. It is here that Janaczewska is her most free with language and presentation, verging from anthropomorphism, poetry, lists, notes, scant impressions and inner monologues. This is the style of the journal, the ephemera of ideas that come together to show us more about the writer than the subject.
As a playwright, Janaczewska works in an artform that deals with immediacy: the words spoken on stage must convey meaning as they are heard. They can inform us about the characters on stage, or about the plot, or at times the philosophical obsessions of the playwright. Her approach to this book has a performative resonance throughout, particularly in her use of imagery and juxtaposing perspectives, and at times I felt the language demanded to be spoke aloud. Indeed, some parts are written in the format of a play text or film script.
It is not an easy read, but it is a refreshing and innovative exploration of thistles in all their variety. Janaczewska does not hold the reader’s hand and lead her along a carefully constructed path as if this were a documentary account. But like the wildflowers that have so fascinated her for most of her life, she allows the seeds of her contemplations to float on the breeze and lodge themselves into the fertile soil of our imaginations so we can cultivate our own impressions of this prickly topic.
VIVIENNE GLANCE is the Drama Studio London and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance; and diversity and multiculturalism in the Arts. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.
By Harriet McKnight
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Harriet McKnight’s brilliant, moving novel reminded me of a book I had read a long time before, in 2006. That was Kate Legge’s The Unexpected Elements of Love, a novel that explores some of the same themes that McKnight incorporates into her 2017 novel: namely, dementia and climate change. Another that McKnight works into her book is the theme of domestic violence, and she also touches on racism especially (but not exclusively) as it relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.
The narrative in this novel is exclusively and alternatively focalised through two characters. One is Pina Marinelli, a woman in late middle age whose husband Alan aged 60, has developed dementia. Alan is not from an Italian background and so has a different surname, although it is not disclosed. The other woman used to focalise the narrative is Arianna Brandt, a biologist with a Canberra university who is in charge of a program to release mating pairs of glossy black cockatoos into the countryside in East Gippsland where the action takes place. Boney Point is a small community that becomes acrimoniously divided when Sol Petroleum, the petroleum company that is funding Arianna’s work, starts exploration and well development nearby.
The narrative relies for some of the time on a stream-of-consciousness produced by either one or other of these women, although there is plenty of dialogue, for example passages that show the interactions that take place between Arianna and her colleague Tim, or between Pina and Alan. All of this enables the writer to develop the plot, which is deceptively slow to emerge at first. Forward movement has moderate strength but it is persistent. There is consequently plenty of scope for lateral movement, which gives the author opportunities to obey her instincts and examine byways and small branches stemming off the novel’s mainstream as she develops the major themes she has chosen.
The thoroughness of the preparation makes the denouement, when it arrives, especially powerful. The stories of both Arianna and of Pina are tied up cleverly within a few pages of an event that lends considerable drama to the book’s final section. So even though you are asked to be patient at first, the quality of the conclusion is far better than it might otherwise have been, simply due to the preparation the author has made sure to undertake.
The main vehicle for the theme of domestic violence is Arianna, whose personality is a little rebarbative, making it hard for her to socialise with other people and making it even difficult for her to maintain normal working relationships. The reader can understand what is going on, but people around her can feel excluded. Arianna is also slightly too dogged in the pursuit of her goals. It is as if, having been denied a normal childhood, she is unable to regulate her own desires or even, at times, think rationally. Like someone who is deeply committed to a narrow ideology, she can sometimes seem to be unyielding in the face of reverses, the kinds of barriers that people normally come across in the course of their regular lives and that can force them to reassess their goals. In one situation described in the novel, Arianna just ploughs on regardless, and struggles with circumstances that, for someone who had not suffered as she had as a child, would otherwise be unremarkable.
Arianna and Tim have released their birds in the forest and have prepared nesting boxes for them to use, but the creatures unaccountably abscond and the two scientists go looking for them using a radiofrequency tracking rig that picks up signals from devices that had earlier been strapped to some of the birds’ bodies.
Pina is meanwhile confronting the problem of single-handedly looking after her husband in their little cottage out in the bush at the very end of a lonely road. Every day, it seems, there are new challenges confronting Pina as she goes about the job of looking after Alan. She has to get him out of bed in the morning, put him on the toilet, bathe him and dress him, give him food and make sure he eats it, then make sure he doesn’t escape from the garden. She also has to do the shopping and most of the housework although she does have help sometimes from Tracey, a local woman who is also a volunteer with the Country Fire Authority. Pina keeps down a job at a local nursery run by an Aboriginal woman named Lil who is looking after a young man named Harley. Harley comes to mow Pina’s lawn from time to time and he also gets involved in a demonstration that is set up to protest the drilling out in the bush away from town.
McKnight often uses seemingly random sentences, that are set in italics, to help move the drama along. These instances serve to orient the narrative around recurring themes, such as Arianna’s childhood and her experience of a father who hit his wife. They can also serve to redirect the path the story is taking, and to bring to the forefront the interior life of the character in question, like a chorus can do in a song, by giving you access to elements of the character that are not currently being exposed by the immediate circumstances of the narrative. These short sentences become leitmotivs that help to develop character and thus to progress the plot.
One instance can serve to illustrate how this works in practice. When Arianna first encounters Alan, who is labile (he experiences steep mood swings) and who tends to vocalise negative emotions in a way that can be surprising for onlookers who don’t understand their biological causes, she experiences a flashback to her childhood that triggers physical symptoms. The narrative is suddenly broken by one of these italicised sentences that functions as an echo of something heard earlier in her life. The way that this kind of interaction is handled demonstrates the strength of the artistry involved in this work.
What strikes the reader about Arianna is how she tends to see the world through a distorting lens that has been moulded according to the dictates of her early life experiences, and the experiences she has had in the subsequent years, years she has been busy forging a career while at the same time dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. As the author shows, however, nature is a powerful force and so however much you might wish for a certain outcome you have to work with the limitations placed on you by the people, animals, and places that surround you.
Arianna is an interesting character that performs several key functions in the narrative. Beyond this kind of imaginative creativity, there is also a gentle wisdom is threaded through this wonderful book. Just as you might wish to chide Arianna, you are tempted at certain moments to want to scold Pina for clumsy attempts to control her husband’s personality. Nature is a hard taskmaster and people are well-advised to obey its dictates as far as they can be rationally accommodated, because the alternatives can be terrifying.
I was brought to tears at the end, where the narrative arc terminates proceedings with decisive force. It is not too strong an endorsement to say that the book embodies a deep humanity. The author’s recent passing at a tragically young age is to be double regretted inasmuch as it deprives the broader community of potentially great books. It is also notable that this book, like so many good recent works of fiction by talented female Australian authors, is set in a small country town. Who said we ignore that part of the world?
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
Karina Ko is from Sydney and graduated from a arts-law degrees. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Things I Used to Believe
That I shouldn’t go near the dragonflies that hover over our pool because they could release a fine white powder and make my hair fall out.
That I was already bald enough at seven, the hair so fine at the corners of my forehead.
That my forehead bulged out too much, and was too high, whatever that meant.
That I was the reincarnate of my great grandmother on my father’s side because we were born on the same lunar calendar day at three in the morning. Also when I was born, I had the same big eyes and flat nose as in her funeral photo, the one on my grandparent’s ancestral shrine.
That when my grandmother saw my baby face, her big hands went up to rub her collarbones. Oh heavens, her mother-in-law has come back to keep an eye on her.
That it was why my grandmother always talked more to my brother when he and I flew over to see her. It was why her chopsticks struck the back of my hands when my fingers picked up the soy sauce chicken wing in my bowl.
That it also had something to do with my dark skin (like a Filipino’s they said). And the only time she really loved me was when she pulled up my shirt to rub a bitter minty oil and she beamed at the paleness of my aching belly.
That my cousin was more beautiful than me because she had pale skin, long thick black hair and no double chin. That if I put a clothes peg on my nose, as my mum instructed, it would grow to be more pointy.
That my mum was the most beautiful woman in the world but her nails were too sharp and scratched my scalp when she washed my thin hair with Johnson’s shampoo.
That a few nights into Chinese new year, I should walk through the streets outside our small federation house in Bexley North, past the Banksia and gum trees and announce that I am selling my laziness.
“Beautiful and delicious laziness for sale. Come and look. Come and choose. Discounted for big clearance. Look, you can even have it for free.” I mimicked the stall vendors’ calls at the markets in Hong Kong, the ones with pigs heads hanging on hooks and severed eels swimming in their own blood. My hands flew out at my sides flinging my laziness like rice grains at the dark front lawns of two storey brick houses where rich families lived.
That the spirits were too clever to believe my wares were worth taking. But that I was cute enough to make my mum laugh, happy to see her daughter making an effort.
That I could make her happy by telling her I would become a lawyer and buy her a Porsche.
That my dad was handsome when my mum met him, and that his perm, a small afro of Chinese hair, was fashionable at the time.
That Jesus walked on water and made it rain fish.
That as my mum warned, nine out of ten men were cheats and liars, the lot of them, especially the handsome ones. Except Jesus.
That ghosts liked to wander along the hall in our house. That they leaned against the tiled bathroom walls in the middle of the night when I needed to pee.
That you could hold them off by making a sign of the cross. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
That when Kirsten told me to blow the dandelion fluff and make a wish, it was because the fluff could capture the moment of my wish like a video. It would fly up to God where he had a special fluff VHS player and he would watch me wishing for my parents to be happy.
That as long as I kept the necklace Kirsten gave me with half a heart on it and she kept hers with the other half, we would stay best friends forever.
That everyone needed to have favourites to have personality. A favourite colour. A favourite scented crayon. A favourite dinosaur.
That in scripture class when Miriam with glasses so thick that it made her look cross-eyed, sputtered about a visit from an angel, the people who laughed were faithless hypocrites, even though I didn’t know this word then.
That there were things I couldn’t tell anyone.
That the way to be popular was to laugh at people’s jokes even if you didn’t find them funny. That most of the things people said at school were jokes, even if they didn’t start with knock knock or why did the chicken.
That when my mum was pushed against the dresser and the wedding photo fell to the floor, the shattered glass said something I couldn’t.
That the only tea one should order at yum cha is Tiet Kwun Yum oolong because it was what my mum always ordered.
That if I unveiled the pink table cloth hanging over the mirror at my mother’s dressing table, a banshee with long flowing hair would climb out. She would grab me with her bony coral fingers and pull my soul out like a flimsy silk scarf. “Children’s souls are the easiest to extract,” she would tell me in a scratchy voice, “because they are still getting used to their human form.” Then she would possess my body and trap my soul behind the mirror.
That I should never wear indigo in my hair because that is what girls wear to their mother’s funeral.
That as the palmistry book at the library said, the four vertical lines at the base of my mother’s right pinky, meant she was fated to have four children.
The fourth line was meant to be a younger sister. She would not have been good at maths but she would have been warm like the first day of spring. She would have belonged the way I tried to but never could.
Belonging was like one of those cards with an optical illusion made up of tiny coloured dots. You had to stare at it a certain way to reveal a picture. According to Thomas, a friend of our big brother, it was a picture of a snake. Sensing their growing boredom, I had said, “Yes, I see it now,” when all I saw was a mess of dots scattering over each other again and again. My sister would have been the first to see the snake.
That I was a traitor of a daughter for just standing there at the end of the bed, my mum crawling on the floor with my sister bleeding inside her.
That I would have gotten in trouble if my dad found me talking on the phone, reciting our address the way school had taught us.
That I should have called even if he hit me.
That when I grew up I would never fall in love with a man. That there was no good man who would love me and my bulging forehead.
That my unborn sister was behind the mirror and watched me through the pink cloth.
That I had to kneel near the mirror each night to go through my plastic rosary beads.
That the fifty Hail Marys would help calm my sister’s sadness, which swelled at eight twenty, her approximate time of death.
That even if Jesus had forgiven us, I never would.