Jungle Without Water and Other Stories
by Sreedhevi Iyer
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
The good things in this collection of short stories, Jungle Without Water, are very good indeed. But before talking about some of them in detail I want to briefly touch on the major theme of this book, which is the migrant experience in many of its different phases. In each of the stories mentioned in this review the main subject of the work is the way that people fit into society when they, or their antecedents, come from somewhere else. In some of the stories the main characters are people from India living in Malaysia but the title story, for example, takes as its subject an Indian student living in Brisbane, in Australia.
While it’s easy to thus find a unifying theme for the book, the narratives Iyer creates are not totally dominated by it. The clash of identity and custom that in one of her stories troubles an Indian-Malay living in Kuala Lumpur might be equally relevant for an Anglo businessman living in a house in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. In fact, where Iyer stumbles it is where the standard postcolonial narrative gains unnecessary prominence and politics overshadows art. The best stories here focus on the seeming-random details of lived experience.
The second story in the collection, which is titled ‘The Lovely Village’, is written as a fairytale and it takes as its subject the treatment of migrants who want to come into a village where there is equality for all. This story stood out for me in that it seemed not to be as deeply rooted in lived experience as the other stories in the book, and I found it to be rather weak in conception and lacking in the kind of impact that characterises many of the other stories.
After finishing several of the stories I felt a physical thrill on the skin of my neck, which is always a sign to me that the work I have just completed was particularly successful. I more often get this kind of sensation when reading a good short story or a good poem, as such methods of storytelling tend to conclude on a strong tonic note that reverberates once the final word has been consumed. Novels do not usually finish in this way and their impact tends to be spread out over longer stretches of text, with less sudden impact.
The first story in the collection, which I have already mentioned, is its title story. It deals with a young man named Jogi who is living in the Queensland capital with the aim of studying at university. His links with his family back in India remain strong, and one day after he has arrived in Australia his mother, who has stayed behind in his homeland, asks him to say a prayer for her husband who has to undertake a transfer for work. She is worried about how the transfer will affect Jogi’s father and family tradition maintains that prayers Jogi says are particularly effective.
Jogi relies on his friend Sandeep, who has lived in Brisbane for three weeks longer than Jogi, to help him carry out his assigned task. They visit a holy man in a place of worship in multicultural Brisbane but when Jogi sits down to pray nothing comes out of his mouth. They visit another holy place, this time one run by Westerners who follow Krishna, and they tell him that the particular prayer he wants to say is not permitted. Once again Jogi leaves a place where he should have been able to perform his familial duty, without being able to do so. He eventually fulfils his obligation but it happens, almost by accident, with the aid of a teenage girl who does nothing more than talk to Jogi one day on the street.
I won’t say anything more, as I feel as though I have already given away more than I should, but I felt that this story served to say important things about multiculturalism and about the migrant experience, things that other types of document would struggle to say. The words of the title, “a jungle without water”, pop up at two places in the story and they function to bring together disparate parts of the narrative, making the interstices between things so narrow that what happens seems like fate. This is an elegant story that functions to convey truths about immigration in a way that everybody can understand.
The context of that story is local for an Australian and so the way into the narrative was easier for me than it was in some of the other stories in the collection, for example ‘The Man With Two Wives’. This story is focalised entirely through the consciousness of a Indian-Malay who runs shops in Malaysia retailing food and it is written using the kind of language that the man, who is not badly educated but who uses Malay, Indian, and English words in his daily conversations, would normally employ. It is a small tour-de-force that says much about the culture that underpins the story. You feel as though you know this man well and when you hear his story of starting a course of study in accountancy, and there meeting a young woman named Lata, you get to experience his feelings in a way that vividly brings his world to life.
The protagonist is never named and neither is his wife. His daughter is Malathi and she ends up gaining prominence at the end of the story. His relationship with Lata, which causes so many tongues in his town to wag, is one of great importance to the protagonist and it is clear that while he married for the sole purpose of satisfying his mother’s wishes, with Lata things are different. His wife is only interested in buying gold jewellery and sarees, but Lata listens to what he has to say and her attention serves to justify an interior existence that the man’s daily business and family life does little to fulfil.
One day, the protagonist attends a job interview that Lata has encouraged him to go to. He enters a tall building by the sea and sits down in a room in front of a group of men, one of whom is a Westerner. The way his wife and the way Lata behave once the interview is over, however, tell him things about his world that he didn’t understand before. This is an effective, thoughtful, and powerful work of fiction that efficiently performs the tasks the author has set for it.
I will take a quick look at one other story in the collection, and it is also one that appears in the first half of the book. This is ‘Green Grass’, and it deals with a man named Mohan and his wife, who is a Westerner named Rachel, who come back to India to visit family. The event is an important one for the whole village where Mohan grew up. The way people living in the village treat Rachel, because of where she comes from and because of her relationship with her husband, contains the dramatic material the story relies on to communicate its messages about globalisation. It is focalised entirely through the consciousness of one of the villagers.
Each of these stories is different from the others in so many ways: in the way the narrative evolves, in the kinds of characters portrayed, and in the plot devices that each relies on to fulfil its purpose. There is a wry and knowing candour in many of Iyer’s stories. It not only helps to give the reader confidence in the author’s sincerity and intelligence but it also, paradoxically, allows Iyer to set herself apart from the drama and to view the events that unfold with a dispassionate eye. Even as you sense she cares very much about her creations, she also situates herself at a certain distance from them as they go about their business in her narratives. And despite their differences, each story mentioned here is excellent because it communicates a large amount of information in a small space.
I found other stories in Jungle Without Water to be less powerful than these and there are others too that I have not mentioned that I also thought good. There is plenty in this collection, which was first published two years ago, for any reader, and especially for an Australian one. After all, we are living in an Asian nation.
I want to finish with a note about the cover illustration used for the book. The watercolour employed is by Julian Meagher and his gallerist is Edwina Corlette, who has her shop, appropriately for the collection, in Brisbane.
With my mother I lived up north for five-and-a-half years. On one occasion I drove her when she was elderly down to the capital to see Corlette’s shop. Corlette’s parents had lived in the same suburb in Sydney where I grew up and she remembered mum because of our family’s gift shop. In fact everybody living there knew about Miss Phyllis Caldecott’s Home Accessories – the name used for the shop was my paternal grandmother’s – and we did a roaring trade at Christmastime, when people give presents to family members and to friends. Among the items mum and granny sold in large numbers were Indian cotton print dresses; this was the 60s and these kinds of garments were all the rage.
The use of Meagher’s painting for this collection seemed to me to be something, therefore, like fate, like what happens in its title story. A small sign of a kind you sometimes come across telling you that there are things in the world that cannot be understood entirely through reason.
MATTHEW da SILVA is a journalist and writer who lives in Sydney.
Down The Hume
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by HAROLD LEGASPI
There is not a simple matter of homogenous ‘queer’ voice, literary or otherwise (Hurley, 2010). As poststructuralist theorists have contended, for various historical and social reasons, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are discursively unstable and contested categories (Jagose, 2002) and homosexuality is ‘a performative space of contradiction’ (Sedgwick , 1990). In highlighting Polites’ engagement through his noir, i.e. of the thornier breaches of the queer-racial diaspora, I seek to explore the ideals behind his proposed definitive ‘queer’. Are bodies racialised erotically? Can queer love be normative? The answers to these questions, as the chapters of Down The Hume have argued, is yes, and the implication is that a radical tension and a central paradox is characteristic—are queer relationships driven by sex?—and perhaps even definitional—of the very term “queer” (Sedgwick, 1990).’
I have felt, time and again, that the boundedness of Polites’ queer imaginations suggests delimiting factors. While at times, Polites novel outruns many heteronormative cultural constructions, thereby placing his work within the queer realm; his championing of a protagonist in Bux, a second-generation Greek-Australian lad, often horny, distinctly off-beat and mostly impotent, strips Polites’ voice from ideologies or institutions that might give queers a less troubled life, albeit one that is ‘mainstream or normative’: life-long marriage and offspring.
Down The Hume portrays Bux and his Aussie ‘boyf,’ Nice Arms Pete through a masochistic (and at times clandestine) relationship fuelled by addiction to ‘little moons’ (street name: Syrinapx), amidst violent outbursts and sexual encounters with other men, juxtaposed with Bux’s traditional Greek upbringing, marking him as an outsider. It is an attempt to ‘reconfigure the blinding whiteness of suburban history’ by taking us on a ‘flâneur’s tour through the Western suburbs of ‘Lebs, wogs, and reffos’, with streets evoking memories as he laments the disappeared places of his youth, his observations filtered through an urgent patois of clipped sentences’ (Caward, 2017).
Down The Hume and other novels within its constellation, e.g. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995, Random House) position ‘queer’ hegemony that feels disenchanting by depicting characters who ‘lack a sovereign mind’, yet to ‘wake up’ from the consequences of their nihilistic fury. In a sense, the queer representations may promulgate homophobia by way of its self-indulgence, its construction of alternative values and ceaseless hopelessness. While this ‘queering,’ serve Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘making-strange of identities’ through ‘derangement and reconfiguration of conventional taxonomies,’ (Davidson , 2004) more than anything, it exposes the dark crevices, the shadows that lurk within the ‘thematic trinity of class, race and sexuality’ (Andersen, Collins, 1997) discourses that are a quintessential part of the narrative of suburban Western Sydney.
Down The Hume reads like an essay on tribalism (Caward, 2017). The community structure in Western Sydney is a device in achieving this narrative. One of the features of a queer noir is that the protagonist often does not have a solid family structure around them, as evidenced by the flailing tapestry of Bux’s relations with his parents (he is an only child). Down The Hume broadens, deepens, and complicates the kind of purgatory these characters are in, particularly Bux, who loves irrationally, but cannot justify his queer love as normative on the grounds of his dysfunctional family life.
Polites cautions: ‘a lot of people from a queer background first identify themselves culturally, then they label themselves as queer.’ (Polites, 2017) In an Althusserian sense therefore, one is ‘born into a nation, not just a nation…but into a ‘nationness,’ the ideology of nation as category of identity, a category that is continually reinforced by the state’ (Ashcroft, 2009). Bux in particular, identifies himself as Greek first then gay second, as a measure of ‘saving face’ with his parents. Even against his better judgement, Bux finds himself feeling proud, or more often, ashamed of his ‘nation.’ This is because, whether he likes it or not, it is his. Though when his Greek heritage and queerness are taken together, certain paradoxes are revealed, of the underlying psychology and politics of his racial eroticism.
Polites uses philosophical theories from the ‘F-fathers’—Freud and Foucault to demonstrate the trajectory of desire, fantasy and sexuality of his plot. Freud’s theory that male homosexuality developed from an ‘unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex’ aligns with Bux’s psychology of seeking ‘male sexual objects whom he might love as he had been loved by his mother’ (Freud, 1933). Freud’s notion of only one kind of libido, i.e. the masculine one focused on the phallus, pays attention to hyper-sexed portrayal of Bux and Nice Arms Pete. Moreover, the masochism between them, and their compulsion to repeat aggressive impulses, ‘succeed in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards (Robinson, 1972):’
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other. His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites’ queer imagination exhibits a prejudiced, often complex set of power-relations, which oscillates: Bux feels, at times, superiority as well as a disenchantment of his Whiter counterparts.
‘Dark Rum just a bit older than me; Lakemba Street light wasn’t generous enough to get a make on him. Pretty shitty skin. Oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over his face. The other one was younger, a scumbag Aussie, a dirtbag colonial. Sturdy legs with red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth…Scumbag Rat’s Tail let out a laugh. A high femme laugh…When that scumbag Aussie laughed, it changed the distance between us. Only one or two feet away but I could feel their breath, noticed how their trackpants fit around their waists. Their fingers were calloused with dirt underneath. I realised they wanted to unwrap me’ (Polites, 2017).
Bux subjugates the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ whom with his ‘femme laugh’ he deems a ‘dirtbag colonial,’ typified by Bux’s awareness of Britain’s colonial history. Foucault’s notion of power is therefore evoked, that the ‘individual is a result of power turning upon itself,’ (Rozmarin, 2005) when Bux derives a ‘focal point of resistance’ (ibid) to the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ which is affected by ‘specific historical power relations,’ formed by governmental, economic, and cultural institutions’ (Deleuze, 1986). I want to suggest that Polites’ positions Bux as a Greek queer ‘maverick’ with a special perspective on sexual and class norms, especially as the narrative consolidates around race, which might also be said to particularise his brand of class-racism rather than to remove him from the its grip’ (Brim, 2014).
Paradoxically, Down The Hume non-chalantly if not ironically pokes fun at clichéd ethnic stereotypes: from ‘Viet dudes’ with their ‘God complex’, ‘muscle Indian gay boy doctors who (speak) with phony deep voices,’ ‘Persian hotties’ from the north side who evade local Iranians to ‘copper Spanish Filo’s’ with their ‘Filomerican drawl.’ There’s slang, reversions to Greek, SMS texts, queer appropriations and ESL diction that exemplify the isolating force of language, These classifications, central to this novel, fuel Polites’ engine of divisiveness but can also be used to establish identity and inclusion. It has driven the relevance of Western Sydney in the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian literature.
That Down The Hume’s protagonists ingest a haul of painkillers as a form of escapism, is symptomatic of the jaded possibilities of the ‘kind of life’ they couldn’t have—‘being some wog fag way out west…limited money…housing insecurity…never having a wedding that (their) parents would dance at (Polites, 2017).’ The story portrays these men as victims, unconscious of the possibilities of their imaginations. The characterisations are such that they illicit a base depiction of young gay men, insecure, addicted and broken, in their plight for a just existence. It’s not the sex they fight for, it’s the lifestyle. This book is a silent plea, most evident in its final pages—‘I didn’t want a fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house (Polites, 2017).’
What there is then, is this quixotic striving for a normative outcome, evidenced by Bux and Nice Arms Pete living together, as well as with Bux’s journey to his origins in Greece in the final pages, where the protagonist sinks into a literal arrest. Here, Bux resolves his existential dilemma by delving deeper into his ancestral village, but concedes that the streets are his real home—Haldon, Park, Caldwell, Brunker Road, Burwood, Lakemba, and others. Like a vagabond, he questions their relevance, but derives their meaning as the places that have ‘wrapped themselves around (him)’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites has articulated such a fragile but sordid voice in Bux. Bux’s voice lacks direction but is uninhibited. Polites’ queer imagination fluctuates as it seeks to transgress the bounds that queerness tests, penetrates, and fails to penetrate. The readers can revel in Down The Hume’s noir posturing of a complex psyche. In as much as this, Polites’ voice sometimes feels frustrated, bereft of spirituality, as it oozes machismo among the white noise inhibiting his troubled existence. Down The Hume has remnants of the queer struggle for conformity and is best read upon brooding or with an apprehensiveness to the state of Sydney’s queer culture, an openness to the complexities constituting queer formations, or at least an appreciation for suburban pride and the evolving institution of marriage.
- Brim M, 2014, ‘The Queer Imagination and the Gay Male Conundrum’, University of Michigan Press.
- Hurley M, ‘Gay and Lesbian Writing and Publishing in Australia, 1961-2001’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2010, Web: https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c2b14e180e, [Accessed: 2 May 2018].
- Jagose A, 2002, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, New York: Cornell UP.
- Sedgwick E, 1990, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: U of California P.
- Caward C, 2 Mar 2017, Down The Hume review: evocative, if flawed, urban debut’, Sydney Morning Herald, Web: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-review-evocative-if-flawed-urban-debut-20170301-guny1q.html [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Davidson G, 2004, ‘Minor Literature, Microculture: Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace’, Southerly: a review of Australian Literature, 64 (3).
- Polites P, 2017, Down The Hume, Hachette, Sydney.
- Andersen M L, Collins P H, eds., 1997, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Polites P, Scott R, 12 Dec 2017, Down The Hume, Sydney Writers Festival Podcasts, Web: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-bookshelf-abc-rn/id499762704?mt=2 [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Ashcroft B, 2009, ‘Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope, The Journal of European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol. 1, ISSN 1988-5946 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona.
- Robinson P, 1972, ‘The Modernisation of Sex’, Harper and Row, New York.
- Freud S, 1933, ‘Femininity’ in Strachey, J. (1933) editor, S.S., London: The Hogarth Press.
- Rozmarin M, 2005, ‘Power, Freedom and Individuality: Foucault and Sexual Difference’, Human Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1.
- Deleuze G, 1986, Foucault, S. Hand (Trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
HAROLD LEGASPI is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. He has lived in Manila, Sydney, London, Taipei and Beijing. His writing has been published internationally and in Australia. More of his writing can be found here.
The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.
The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.
As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.
Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).
Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).
The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.
The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).
Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).
Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.
Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).
In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.
The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.
As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
On Patrick White
by Christos Tsiolkas
Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay
“Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success, even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life.”
——- Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn
If one were to pool all the relevant evidence culled from his occasional excoriations of Australian academia, one would soon realise that Patrick White (1912-1990) was hardly ever generous with local researchers, despite the bountiful critical attention he received from them. Entrusting Christos Tsiolkas — a fellow writer outside of the scholarly arena — with the daunting task of reading and writing an appreciation of the entire opus of Australia’s sole Nobel-Prize for Literature therefore comes across as a rather shrewd editorial strategy.
The idea for this third publication in the emergent Black Inc “Writers on Writers” series, was triggered by a haunting question which arose from the Cheltenham Literature Festival audience. Back in 2015, one of the attendees queried: “Christos, what do Australians think of Patrick White these days?” (2). Interestingly, that same question — in a slightly different wording: “Is anyone reading Patrick White nowadays?” — was put to me again and again in 2011 by fellow Australians who were befuddled as to why I would draft an editing project intended to be a tribute to Patrick White and his legacy.
Even more so since the 2006 Wraith Picket hoax, there has always been the sneaking suspicion that Patrick White is a cultural artefact of his time, a précieux wordsmith whose elitism and stylish (yet affected) eloquence would alienate him the support of modern-day publishers, if not a bourgeois intellectual estranged from the bread-and-butter concerns of the working-class people. While there is probably a grit of truth to it all, White remains, very much like Christopher Koch, one of the happy few writers who have successfully passed the duration test — even in the eyes of a skeptical reader such as Tsiolkas, who has grown from a high-schooler’s lukewarm reception to a recent infatuation of White’s literary output.
In keeping with his working-class and Greek origins, Tsiolkas chiefly praises White for pioneering “the migrant’s story” (26), for “creating an immigrant language” (21) through a “symbolic language of terrain and isolation” (37), and sees Manoly Lascaris — White’s lifelong gay partner — as instrumental in shaping White’s singular vision of the world: “It is as an Australian writer — and as an Australian writer seeing both his country and the world partly through Lascaris’s eyes — that he achieves greatness” (23). While this line could be construed as an optimistic overstatement, it is not difficult to perceive in this instance how literature responds to the desire of readers embodied as much in the reader’s horizon of expectations as in the craving need to interpret, itself derived from a need to share one’s emotional response to literary aesthetics. As Wolfgang Iser points out, “Perhaps this is the prime usefulness of literary criticism—it helps to make conscious those aspects of the text which would otherwise remain concealed in the subconscious; it satisfies (or helps to satisfy) our desire to talk about what we have read.”
In this game of literary seduction, what I would term specular desire here combines two fantasising activities: the writer’s desire subtly reflecting the reader’s through a series of shared interests and the reader’s desire which is being projected onto the writer’s. Thanks to this short monograph, readers of Loaded and Dead Europe (among other titles), who are already cognisant with Tsiolkas’s “erotics of writing”(31), will now also become familiar with his “erotics of reading” (31):
“The miracle of these perfect novels is that, from the opening sentence to the final word, the real world collapses and we are enfolded in a fictional reality that is stronger and more present than our material surroundings. The gift of being enraptured by such novels is that they continue to feed our desire as readers, to keep us hungrily reading, greedily searching for that experience once more.” (31)
A decade ago, Brigid Rooney duly noted the kaleidoscopic attempts at rekindling the literary and cultural importance of Patrick White, building up to the centenary of his birth: Whether Christos Tsiolkas’s On Patrick White partakes of that effort or is simply meant to be read as a deeply affectionate homage paid to the overwhelming importance of a heavyweight literary monster is scarcely relevant. What matters more perhaps is to discern the interplay of influences between these two eminent versatile writers, namely how Tsiolkas’s vision might now affect our reading of White’s œuvre and how White’s œuvre has revealed a new dimension of Tsiolkas’ mind.
Paul Brennan & Christine Flynn (eds.), Patrick White Speaks (Sydney: Primavera Press, 1989), 15.
David Coad & Jean-François Vernay, Patrick White Centenary: A Tribute, CERCLES 26, Special Issue (2012).
For further particulars, see Jean-François Vernay, A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016), 203.
JEAN-FRANCOIS VERNAY’s latest released books are The Seduction of Fiction (New York: Palgrave, 2016) and A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2016).
Annihilation of Caste
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
When I was living in Chembur (Bombay) in 2016, there was a statue of a portly and bespectacled B. R. Ambedkar at the end of my street. This suggests he has been lionised in India, if not quite canonised, something aided in ‘the West’ by Arundhati Roy’s well-publicised talk ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ that favourably compares Ambedkar to Gandhi. And so, it was with the contour of knowledge that I opened Annihilation of Caste. I do, of course, come from an Indian family and have parents who were born as colonial subjects in occupied Kerala. But our path to liberation was different from the national story, inflected by a regional identity, a Communist atmosphere and a Catholic bent. So what was I to make of the lessons in Annihilation of Caste and what can we learn from them to make sense of contemporary India?
The Annihilation of Caste was a radical work for its time, a critique too of the establishment as it set about decolonising itself. Its central plank revolves around the negative impact of the caste system as it matters for ‘untouchables’ like Ambedkar himself. This was about the liberation from a centuries old social structure that oppressed a huge number of people. Ambedkar highlights one particular case, where Hindus demanded that Balais (‘untouchables’) follow the rules listed below:
Balais must not wear gold-lace-bordered pugrees.
They must not wear dhotis with coloured or fancy borders.
They must convey intimation [=information] of the death of any Hindu to relatives of the deceased—no matter how
far away these relatives may be living.
In all Hindu marriages, Balais must play music before the processions and during the marriage.
Balai women must not wear gold or silver ornaments; they must not wear fancy gowns or jackets.
Balai women must attend all cases of confinement [= childbirth] of Hindu women.
Balais must render services without demanding remuneration, and must accept whatever a Hindu is pleased to
If the Balais do not agree to abide by these terms, they must clear out of the villages.
Having established this as a fact of dalit life, Ambedkar asks a series of rhetorical questions to political-minded Hindus, namely:
Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a large class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though class of your own countrymen like the untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public wells? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to wear what apparel or ornaments they like? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them to eat any food they like?
The effect of this is to pierce the Hindu consciousness, to highlight the inequality through emphasising the basic conditions of India at the time. This political question, or the question of political reform is coupled with social reform and economic reform, thinking through the entirety of Indian society from the perspectives of dalits. For Ambedkar, it is caste that prohibits real progress including the ability to form a truly national society; it is caste that prevents a fellow feeling of social inclusion; caste that inhibits uplift of aboriginal peoples. His ideal social contract is one of true equality and liberty, an India of genuine freedom at all levels of society. To destroy the caste system is possible only with the destruction of the shastras and so Annihilation of Caste ends up being a critique of the holy scriptures of Hinduism itself as well as its material manifestations. This is a critique levelled with passion, logic, panache, flair and evidence. It is written from a truly subaltern perspective and informed by liberalism, freedom and personal experience. Reading Ambedkar today still gives one nerves, hope and possibility.
The caste system is still one of the central aspects of Indian politics, society and economy today. However, and thanks in large part to Ambedkar’s articulation, there is most definitely a self-aware subaltern politics just as there is a broader sectarian/communal question that focuses on religion in general. However, both of these seem to prevent a conversation about gender rather than leading to liberal intersectionalities as they matter in ‘the West’. The true liberation of India must involve the material freedom of women, girls and those who female identify. That is what it is to read Ambedkar now and learn from his example. One can only hope that the opening he makes in the field can lead us away from female infanticide, the negative aspects of the dowry system and towards femme empowerment in the workforce and home as well as making public space safer on the whole. It is not only the annihilation of caste that we seek then but also the annihilation of chauvinism in the 21st century.
ROBERT WOOD grew up in suburban Perth. He has published work in Southerly, Cordite, Jacket2 and other journals. At present he lives at Redgate in Wardandi country and is working on a series of essays.