I Said The Sea Was Folded
by Erik Jensen
Reviewed by JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE
The first poem, chronologically, in I said the sea was folded begins
I don’t know if you read poetry
I don’t know if I write it.
Jane Hirshfield tells the speaker of the book, in another, that poems “are a diary note/ to remember what happened”. Poetry— its writing, language and the ways it can make sense of love/wounded time— is the first preoccupation of Erik Jensen’s book, in spite of its promotion as “love poems”.
If I said the sea was folded has a unifying trick, it is the framing of poetry— as an activity, an artefact, a mediation of language— as inherently concerned with itself. This isn’t new— every kind of poetry is implicated by the limits of its field— but through its dramatization, Jensen makes it the engine of his poems, and the narrative at their core. It insists that any kind of therapy or catharsis poetry can affect first passes through the poem as a text, revelatory and profoundly alienating at the same time, for reader and speaker. It’s no surprise that the book ends with a gloss on what is inexpressible, as “the background against which/ anything I could express has its meaning”; any poetry concerned with itself-as-poetry ends in the same place, turns liberating and restrictive.
Most of the poems directly enact this passage through themselves—and the medium of the speaker— detailing their own construction. The book is divided into 3 non-linear chronological segments, starting from the end of a relationship. Some play on a motif that appears across each segment, decontextualizing as time rewinds. Poems refer back to each other, to their germ at the beginning of the relationship, only to emerge bitter and accusatory at the end. A poem about the love language of turtles— precious in its inexpressibility through human terms, its lack of projection— is foreshadowed by its later, first appearance, when the speaker spits
why did you shout last night, when all we wanted
was to feel the simple, placable love
of a turtle stacked up on a turtle?
Other works— ‘Pinter’s Betrayal’, ‘Nick Payne’s Constellations’— use non-linear time to excavate the normativity of works inspired by love: inverting the dramatic arc of meet cute, juxtaposing romantic gestures with their fizzling out, coupling them the self-interest. It has the effect— ironically— of emphasising the radical contingency of romantic relationships. Something portrayed as normal/monolithic is tessellated with a thousand shards of gender-play, class signifiers and naturalisation. Addressing their partner, the speaker defines the poems in their book, subject and object, as “the ways I’ve tried to look”, approaching their partner’s non-binary self, “broken off in the parts I’ve wanted to see”. This “trying to look”, defined by its engagement with failure, finds its corollary in the inexpressibility of poetry, that “Words are not enough… they exist too much/ for the people that made them”, as the speaker reports their partner saying.
If the poems pass through themselves in I said the sea was folded, that passage involves reaching for each other, and— through each other— the absent beloved, remote in space/ time and— the speaker dramatizes— driven away by the normativity of poetic discursiveness and— the speaker insinuates— the speaker’s own norminess, their reproductions of those norms in speech. The poems as a result are sparse, connotative, to the point of vagueness, the recording of imagistic details, juggling/juxtaposing poetic diction with simple, deliberately banal records of the relationship, as if to invite and stave off interpretation. They “hold in place/even when the other/is no longer here”.
Linguistic reference, not only to themselves but as a whole, becomes a key technical, thematic and ethical concern of the poems. Through reference they transcend, feed back into each other’s use of metaphor/imagery and establish a poetic whole out of the disjointed timeline, all while their essential emptiness and arbitrariness are emphasised. Individually, the poems can read as circling a void. A list of vague, deliberately poeticized descriptions of trees “fixed against the sky… their branches bent/as if the cold had stunted them”, “hedges of agapanthus” and “money/after it had been spent” conclude with “I suppose what I’m trying to say is/ I love you”, direct address immediately couched in/ out of the speaker’s suspicion of language and its stock trade. In one poem the speaker’s grandmother offers a warning, in two lines, “against poems/ she said they are forever”, the rest of the blank page almost a literalisation of this. There’s a sense of almost-tragic irony in the poems: they enact a double movement between sense-making and performative contradiction. In the prologue Jensen offers a mea culpa to the poem’s addressee: “I wish I met you now/but of course I met you then/and the rest of that time/is just what happened”. Reading through the book linearly, using the poetry’s logic to piece the continuity together, following the speaker’s own desire to “let you be/ to feel it for yourself”, we end in a place full of promise and retroactive empathy that cannot be real.
It’s in this continually moving/retreating space that the ethical desire of I said the sea was folded lives. In writing “love poetry” where the beloved is conspicuously absent, their construction put in air-quotes, Jensen tries to build a space where the deferral of reference comes to signify a queer, non-binary being, the “background against which/ whatever I could express has its meaning” . In this he mirrors, and directly draws on, Maggie Nelson, citing her “complaint/about the instability of likeness” that retroactively informs the poetics of the book. As the speaker murmurs: “one tree is like another tree/but not too much”. In this space hollowed out by the poems— Jensen implies— a love poem that can adequately represent a non-binary beloved, from a cisgender perspective, can take shape. A kind of representation— the paradox is intentional— predicated on inexpressibility, the perfect silence of a “good ally” that doesn’t overstep their boundaries. Jensen frames this as a hard won ethical lesson on his part, after the breakup, “Nothing occurs in order/although it takes a whole life to realise/so I haven’t”. At the same, it’s a lesson predicated on cis incomprehension, and inevitable tragedy. If the cisnormativity of love poetry is critiqued through the book’s structure/poetic style, it seems to conclude in a fatalism complementary to “good allies”: I will inevitably, tragically misrepresent you in my poetry, and I’m truly sorry. My intentions were good. Cis people, this is what you must take heed of to avoid my sorry fate, the limits of my poetic language and world.
If the poems of the book set up a negative dialectic, opening up space for non-binary reference/critique, the cis speaker remains an unmoved mover, perfectly still, separated from all that gender through their work. But the true issue is, as a non-binary person, I can’t believe in the inexpressible. Or at least the version reified by Jensen or Nelson. A reckoning with what being non-binary implies— a critique of colonial gender construction, the ongoing role of gender in upholding white patriarchy and capitalist accumulation, the kind of limiting subjectivity that is affixed to the “non-binary beloved”— seems beyond it. If non-binary space— Jensen writes— is a kind of via negativa, I couldn’t think of something more obstructive to it than this deployment of the “inexpressible”, or the poetry it suggests. It makes me think of the tweet: a weeping voice tells someone that they can’t simply say everything is a gender. The person, unmoved, points at a weird cloud, a cat, a sloth-mug: gender, gender, gender.
What does this all add up to? A series of finely detailed, observant poems that don’t hang together? A structure and poetics that turns that lack into a good technique, a kind of join-the-dots that performs an interesting self-critique of poetic language and tradition, which— like Nelson’s work— is more important for what it crystalizes than opens up? In the end, I’m encouraged to take this kind of poetry from cis lovers of non-binary people, in the same way I’m encouraged to accept good allyship… What I have time for in the work I should appreciate, and the idea of the inexpressible I’ll try to disabuse, to prevent it causing potential mischief among the good cis people. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my partners.
- Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts, Minneapolis, Greywolf Press, 2015, print.
JOSIE/JOCELYN DEANE is a writer/student at the University of Melbourne. Their work has appeared in Cordite, Australian Poetry Journal and Overland, among others. In 2021 they were one of the recipients of the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis award. They live on unceded Wurundjeri land.
Song of the Crocodile
by Nardi Simpson
Reviewed by PIP NEWLING
To read Song of the Crocodile is to immerse yourself in an unfolding relationship to place. You may not recognise it immediately but the profound connection to place shared by Simpson through this story is a slow build to love, yearning, recognition and respect for Country. The novel is a confident and accomplished debut by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman best known for her singing and song writing as a member of the Sydney band the Stiff Gins. It is a profound intergenerational Australian story of family and Country that deserves to be as celebrated and well-read as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.
The novel illuminates a way of thinking, of loving and of living. Simpson’s musicality, the fluid way she uses language, both English and Yuwaalaraay, throughout underscores the narrative by creating landscapes of emotion. It reveals connectedness and relationship across time and place, allowing language and Country to breathe. Song of the Crocodile is a lyrical achievement of story, language, and heart.
Set in a time resembling the 1950s, the book opens with Simpson walking us into Darnmoor, a small regional town in the north-west of NSW with the tag line ‘Gateway to Happiness’ on its welcome sign. We see the early morning quiet streets, the shuttered shops and the war memorial in the centre that provides the focus for the town. We walk through the town, leaving the ‘inoffensive, modest and calm’ façade of Darnmoor, to the Council tip, a bora ground now covered in the town rubbish, and then on further to the Mangamanga, a great river near where the local Aboriginal people live on a place called the Campgrounds located at the end of Old Black Road.
This introduction sets the foundation for all that will follow; the demarcation of bodies, dreams and knowledge, and what happens when boundaries are pushed. Powerfully, the story is told only through the experience of the Aboriginal characters. The white characters are significant actors, changing hopes and lives, but they are not the emotional or narrative focus.
The story is of three generations of women, Margaret Lightning, her daughter Celie Billymil, and Mili, Celie’s daughter.
Living on the Campgrounds and working in Darnmoor, Margaret is quiet and hardworking, navigating the white town with caution. She works at the hospital, doing the laundry and walks into town each day using side streets to reach her destination. The demarcation of race occurs in the hospital too, with Aboriginal patients installed on a side verandah with Margaret acting as their nurse, cleaner and counsellor, and conduit to the white management. Racism is ever present, in the demand that the sheets used for the Aboriginal patients are burnt rather than washed and re-used, in the level of care for the Aboriginal patients, the amount of information Aboriginal patients are provided about their health.
Celie is a kind, calm constant energy in the story. She suffers loss with dignity and determination to provide a future for Mili, her daughter, and she uses her knowledge of the town to create opportunity.
Mili is the future generation. She lives in change, where her newly fashioned hopes are regularly pushed down and obstructed by the white systems of power in the town. Mili becomes a bridge between the Aboriginal and white worlds, a burden of much weight.
Ancestors feature too, some being stars, trees and dust. They are ever present and active, guiding and preparing the earthbound people for the future while drawing on the old ones for advice and support. The sky-bound observe from the ‘the roof of the plains’ and move across the Milky Way, called Warrambool in Yuwaalaraay language.
Some ancestors that drive the story are Jakybird, the Songman who brings the choir together for the song of the crocodile; Garriya, the malevolent single-minded crocodile who lies in the earth far below the town waiting for his chance to return; Margaret and Celie’s lightning kin who herald the rain; Murrudhi Gindamalaa (Laughing Star) who protects and provides for the newly dead; Malawildhuulmuranga (the Littlest Shadow at the Darkest Time Before the Dawn) who disappears into dark nights hiding diamonds, stars, within her; and Burrenjean, (the featherless bird) the human form of magpie lark who ‘makes the country sing’ despite being name-called as mudlark. Her feather father reassures her of the significance of her earth-bound origin when he tells her:
‘The mud is the beginning of our connectedness. The beginning of our responsibility, the reason we are needed…
What is mud but the joining of all that is above and all below?’ (p210)
Simpson seamlessly conveys the world above, on and below the plains as one. Her telling of Aboriginal philosophy, of Country, belonging and lore, details consequence and relationship for all creatures, not just human. In Song of the Crocodile, all things are elemental and connected; all things are in fluid relationship to each other, including the writer and reader.
Her inventive way of weaving Yuwaalaraay words and meaning throughout the English without direct explanation, creates space and invites the reader to read in a different way, from a different angle. There is no singular understanding or story in this novel. It is layered and readers will find different connections within it.
The characters experience connections, often surprising themselves. By the river, when the women gather to comfort Margaret, who has been disrespected and disappointed (again) by white townspeople actions, Idy, an older Aboriginal woman, begins singing. Margaret joins in. She knows the words, and the power of the song, but can’t remember when she learnt it. Celie and Mili both, find comfort from tragedy in the Double D, an ancient coolabah tree by the river that saw the boras, long before the town was first laid out.
Another tree, where Celie’s husband died, along the Old Black Road, draws Celie, newborn baby Mili and Celie’s young nephews:
‘Aunty Ceil, Nan told me about the trees, how they remember everything. How they hold memories for people… But here, around here, is where he lived too. Aunt, sit down.
… Nan taught me all about it. They hold life. The bad stuff they take away through their roots and release it into the ground.’ (p67)
For Malawildhuulmuranga, her connection is planetary, as her Dhaa explains, ‘You are a daughter of dawn, the only thing separating darkness from light and the only thing that joins them.’ (p82)
Jakybird assesses and marvels at Paddy, Mili’s son who is in deep despair:
‘He watched Paddy sway into town, messy, loose, stumbling, but erect. This must have been powerful magic, remaining upright when all conspired to pull him down’. (p344)
Paddy reminds Jakybird of Garriya, now crocodile but who was once a friend, and the connection is made again between the ancient and the now.
The connection of life and death is always close too. At one point, Wil, Mili’s husband who has died, tries to reach Paddy his son, to induce a flicker of hope in Paddy’s heart:
‘High in the star, Wil moved memories into his son. They were only colours: the deep blue of a uniform, the bright orange of a council hat. Flashes of smiles, places they’d been, or the feel of a fishing line or the ruffling of his hair.’ (p350)
Connection is everywhere in this story, connection to all creatures, to the past and to the future. Even when the characters feel most alone, the reader knows they are not.
Demarcations and boundaries
The town geographically delineates between Aboriginal and white clearly. Darnmoor, as most real Australian towns did, corrals the local Aboriginal people outside the white perimeter, past the rubbish tip at the end of the Old Black Road. The history of this practice extends back through to the first settler fence-builders and town planners on this land. For instance, the town I grew up in, Taree on Biripi Country on the NSW mid north coast, pushed/ took/stole/drove local Biripi people to a reserve, Purfleet, south of the town across the river.
Song of the Crocodile reveals these practices as oppressive, common and complex. Some Aboriginal people are allowed inside the unspecified fence, but this comes with negotiation and always a cost. We see the cost to Margaret first:
‘When the purple bush blooms began to thin then disappear and the edge of a tared road loomed ahead, Margaret’s voice began to soften. At the street sign, she pushed the notes further into the back of her throat, constricting their flow and burying them within her body once again. As her shoes hit the asphalt of Charity Street, she fell completely silent.’ (p11).
In the novel, just as in the real world, Aboriginal women use their intimate knowledge of the white world strategically, while the white characters have no insight into how little they understand of – or are required by – the Aboriginal world. This considered and deliberate reveal, of how an oppressed people know their oppressors intimately while the oppressors have no clue, was a highlight in the story for me.
White actions have impacts on the Campgrounds community. These impacts are frequently dismissed – or even unimagined – because white people believe they hold the power and can choose not to notice, not to listen. We see the impacts roll down the generations affecting people and land the same. The white settler idea of progress – unsustainable growth through exploitation of land and people – clashes fundamentally with the integrated, cyclical nurturing and honouring connections to past, present and future that most of the Aboriginal characters carry in the story.
The Darnmoor inhabitants praise the achievements of white men above all else. Like many real Australian towns, the townspeople invest in appearances not community, in short term thinking, unsustainable futures and ignore or decry other ways and other people. The town rubbish tip placed on the bora grounds is just one example. Another is the construction of a levee around Darnmoor to hold back flood waters.
The town celebrates the completion of the levee, but the levee creates further demarcation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the area. When Mili’s tears begin to flow, and all the travesties of humanity she has had to endure come to fruition, the danger of ignoring Country is clear. Garriya gathers his energy and slowly surfaces, the sky inhabitants dance the old bora grounds, which never disappear or age no matter how significant their apparent destruction appears, and:
‘… the townspeople watched the levee, holding their breath, waiting to see if the mound would breach, wondering if all they had created would be destroyed and washed away.’ (p401)
These practices of demarcation – white choices – are damaging and shamefully long-lived ones. They are still present in many towns across Australia. Through fiction, Simpson powerfully writes the truth of the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Jakybird warns the sky inhabitants, sitting around icy fires in Warrambool, the Milky Way, that the singing of Garriya ‘… is a hard one; some of you will die a second time in its singing’. (p354).
Darnmoor is not a generative gateway, and certainly not one to happiness as that welcome sign states. Warrambool, the literal heavens, is a gateway to the next place, for some a return to the earth, for others to sing again, others to sleep and wait some more. The act of singing is also a gateway, for it is part of culture, of belonging, of the turnabout of the world. It leads us to another place, another future.
The novel itself is a gateway too. Its landscape is wide and considered as Simpson tells the truth of our ongoing relationship with First Nations people of this Country. She details the changes to landscape that compound negatively and highlights the lack of accountability and short-sightedness of our settler society.
While Song of the Crocodile is a local, family saga, it speaks to our national story, and Simpson, with heart, attention and tenderness, shows readers a perspective that most of us will never have imagined before. This is what great fiction does, implicates and expands the reader’s emotional and philosophical terrain.
Towards the end of the novel, Malawildhuulmuranga asks one of the old ones ‘… why do you want to destroy it?’ and he answers, ‘How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go?’. (p365)
These are powerful cycles of renewal. We know change will only be made if we learn the lessons of the old ones. There is hope here, in this story, if we listen and learn.
PIP NEWLING was born on unceded Wirrayaraay Country, grew up on Biripi Country and lives and works on Dharawahl and Gadigal Country. She thanks all Elders from these lands, past, present, emerging and future, for blessing her with the health Country provides and the opportunity to benefit from their custodianship.
Michael Aiken is a four-time recipient of a unique and delightful child, and the founder, owner and servant-in-chief of Garden Lounge Creative Space, Sydney’s only specialist poetry shop and licenced café. His first poetry collection, A Vicious Example (Grand Parade 2014) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, the Mary Gilmore Prize and an Australian Book Design Award. His second book, the verse novel Satan Repentant (UWAP 2018) was commissioned by Australian Book Review for their inaugural Laureate’s Fellowship, as selected and mentored by David Malouf. His most recent poetry collection is The Little Book of Sunlight and Maggots (UWAP 2019).
Artemis, the moon, and a handball: nightscape
Playing with the moon
blue in my shadow
while you, my little guy
smile about slugs, treetops,
old school or new,
proper service during King’s Revenge…
Practicing your Spongebob voice
mein kinderlein, lÖcken
running on the field again
There are no accidents
Said the turtle to the panda
Said the panda to the giant panda
Said the child to the man
and the man realises
he is a man
and the child goes on
realising nothing, realising little
Nothing will come of nothing
a serpent consuming its tail
like it, a queen
the people talking
the Odyssey on its journey through space
family all put to sleep, the world
all gone to sleep
the world all gone…
Steps into water
There are no accidents
You’re a great dad
I’ll be your mirror
Now the glass is absolute
The Other Half of You
Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Reviewed by MICHELLE HAMADACHE
The Other Half of You isn’t written just for all the readers out there who get what it’s like to be the child of migrant parents. It’s not just written for those who know already what it’s like to deal with growing up in a home where the culture on your doorstep is interpreted as threatening by the adults in the house. It’s not just written for those who know what it’s like to grow up where the only home you have known, Australia, consistently rejects you by asking you to be something other than yourself in order to belong. Arab people in particular, Muslim people more broadly speaking—for they are not interchangeable terms—are overwhelmingly regarded with suspicion and hostility here, and that changes what it is possible to say now.
If a book is going to avoid being trapped in a fallen language, where everything it says or does judges and is then in turn judged by others, then it is remembering that stories are uncertain, sometimes difficult, gifts that matters most. Stories are the threads that draw together disparate communities and bind new ways of knowing to a collective consciousness, to forge the newly imagined community.
The Other Half of You is as much about what is, as what might be, and in its gritty, graphic and unforgettable detail, it contains the storyteller’s ability to exchange lived experiences in such a way that those experiences are not just shared with the reader, but integrated, via memory, via the body, as stories with lessons for living. It is the rubber-gloved hand on the delicate skin of a penis that conveys, unforgettably, the lesson: raise daughters solely to be wives to the detriment of all (especially their husbands); marry against your will and risk self-destruction, and, like all the lessons to be imparted by The Other Half of You, these two lessons are underscored by the prevailing moral: if anything is going to get us through the shit we’re in, it’s love.
The Other Half of You marks the end of Bani Adam’s bildungsroman spanning The Tribe and The Lebs. Regardless of whether Michael Mohammad Ahmad intends to continue with Bani, the journey to adulthood ends here. This is because in the birth of Bani’s son Kahlil, and the father’s story of his conception given to his son, a fiercely poetic and mature voice emerges. It is a voice that also channels the energies of rich literary genealogies, that draw together Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, most resoundingly Lebanese diasporic writer and poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, for whom Bani’s son is named and from where the novel’s epigraph is drawn. Ahmad also nods to The Book of Khalid, an experimental novel by Ameen Rihani written in 1911, and sometimes referred to as the first Arab novel (with all the contentions that come along with ‘firsts’ and the novel as form and genre).
Ahmad formally organises his novel into three parts, each referring to time and destiny, ‘All That Was’; ‘All That Is’; and ‘All That Will Be’. It is loosely structured as an address, or as a gift, to Bani’s newborn son, Kahlil. In order to explain just how an Alawite Muslim forbidden to marry outside the tribe ends up with his Anglo-Australian wife Oli and their baby, ‘my half-caste, half-insider, half-outsider’, Bani begins with the story of his unconsummated first love, Sahara. Sahara is a Christian Lebanese girl he met online living in a housing commission flat in Glebe with her single mother. It is Bani’s father’s discovery via gossip of this relatively innocent, but consuming, first love that precipitates Bani’s disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima. Fatima is a nineteen-year-old girl looking to escape her father’s household, and it is the inevitable implosion of that marriage that sees Bani ultimately, through despair rather than defiance, reject his marriage and fall into the arms of Oli.
Bani meets Oli at the PCYC boxing gym. It is Ahmad’s strength that he harnesses the metaphoric potential of places like the PCYC. Here, in the egalitarian, if brutal, world of boxing, racial and homophobic epithets abound, yet the atmosphere is inclusive. The boxing ring, despite its violence, its duelling opponents, ironically flattening binaries of us and them, while upholding identities, is a place that binds rather than divides, through the shared understanding of a set of rules that are agreed upon and entered into freely, without eradicating differences. The gym upholds identities, forming something like a Foucauldian heterotopia—a space that exists within the dominant hegemony of white settler Australia.
Bani’s father’s disposal store, like the PCYC where he trains, is another example of the powerful representation of places that resist. The store is aptly named Cave of Wonders and is stocked with wares that draw a variety of customers seeking sleeping bags and the possibility of bartering. Here, Ahmad strategically deploys the history of many Syrian and Lebanese migrants to Australia who were granted provisional, limited, unequal resident status based on their role as ‘hawkers’. Many chose to anglicise their names and erase their origins in order to be accepted into an Australia hell-bent on whiteness.
Jumana Bayeh discusses Patrick White’s problematic characterisation of a Syrian hawker in her Southerly essay, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’. Bayeh poses a perspicacious question: ‘But what story could be uncovered if we were able to hear the Syrian narrate his own life and his experiences in Australia?’ (131). This challenge underscores the silences and erasures that have characterised Australia’s literary spaces to date. The presence of the store in the novel returns this lost history, as does Bani’s acknowledgment of his own family’s history of naming (Bani/Benny 295). In his representation of Cave of Wonders, Ahmad creates a space of reversals, while also memorialising the history of a group of people who came to Australia with a conditional and ambivalent welcome. With its intertextual reference to A Thousand and One Nights, the Cave is a place that gives Bani the opportunity to read Persian poetry, to escape family and wife. It is also where misogyny and racism are given open mic, but where, as the owner’s son, Bani gets to call the shots and thus level the playing field. As always, the representations of sexist and racist outbursts are framed by the novel’s ideological focalisation that captures what is with a deliberate and crafted goal: to bring into the literary space the flawed, the ugly, the inappropriate, the shocking—the human. When Bani grapples with the limits of his own conflicted mixture of feminism and tribalism, it is a dramatized battle that Ahmad is orchestrating.
The mix of autobiography and fiction is part of its fascination: that age-old dilemma concerning itself with ontological distinctions between fiction and lie; truth in fiction. The ideological focalisation of the novel is not sexist or misogynistic, though it certainly represents both standpoints through its characters.
As with The Tribe and The Lebs, this third novel in the series draws on Ahmad’s lived experience. The fictional mode of The Other Half of You means its characters and storylines are both metaphoric and literal. The strength of Ahmad’s prose often rests in his ability to strikingly and relentlessly bring to life scenes: characters, action and setting, from weddings to fights, capturing them in a mix of vivid language and heightened observation. But most importantly, Ahmad’s prose frames these situations in Bani’s unique mix of insouciance and wisdom.
At stake in the story of the love affair between Bani and Oli and the birth of Kahlil, is the knitting together of what, up until The Other Half of You, has been divided, or at least incongruent: the world of children descended from Anglo-Saxon heritage and the world of children descended from everywhere else, and in a context where racism divides and culture prohibits, the romance plot between Oli and Bani is a powerful and productive trope.
If Oli’s characterisation never matches the unforgettable Sahara and Fatima, it is in part because her character is understated. It was always going to be a tough gig for a pale girl with thin arms to compete with Bani’s first love, the hirsute and stocky Sahara, whose thirst to understand apostrophes was quenched during a pizza night in Glebe. Likewise, it is hard for Oli to be as memorable as Fatima, whose desire to leave her father’s house is realised in her marriage to Bani, living in a converted garage, wearing only a G-string and watching never-ending episodes of Friends. Coming at the end of the novel and with so much at stake, a lot of pressure was placed on the realisation of Oli’s character and the introduction of an Anglo-Australian parallel backstory. It is perhaps deliberate that the White girl and her family didn’t hold-up to the depth and the vibrancy of the realisation of the Adam family, Sahara or Fatima.
Even the disastrous arranged marriage to Fatima is propelled by love. It is a marriage Bani enters into from love for the father, the family, the tribe. If willpower and looks alone make a marriage, then on paper the marriage between Fatima and Bani should have been rock solid. Ahmad deploys the perspective of the older narrator which imbues the entire section with a sense of impending disaster, but also allows the younger Bani to blindly suffer through the honeymoon and marriage as they unfold with tragi-comedy and bathos. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the book is the father’s outcry, ‘I should have let him go’. This cry echoes throughout the rooms of this book, because ultimately, Ahmad is telling the story of the break and the fold between father and son, the present and posterity, and of histories based not on continuity but on ruptures.
In many respects, the love Bani feels for his world with all its bathos and brutality, courage and fierceness establishes The Other Half of You as the work of a storyteller, rather than novelist or memoirist. The novel is strongest when it shares experiences, whether lived, observed or imagined, in their raw materiality, boldly capturing what is. This is not lack of craft, rather it’s a concerted effort to create a territory free of the relentless drive towards conformity, or permissible difference that characterises much of contemporary Australian multiculturalism. Within the pages of The Other Half of You, anger, frustration, ignorance and despair hold centre stage with forgiveness, acceptance and the transformative power of love. The novel doesn’t try to silence what is unpalatable about lived human experience. While there might be more information than Kahlil (or any child) wants to know from his father about their conception, and the various sexual experiences that led to that conception, the body is centred as a way of knowing. The ‘over-sharing’ draws attention to the conceit, The Other Half of You is fiction after all, while also consciously drawing on the relentlessness of a confessional mode that breaks down social mores and prioritises the need for a story to be told over and above other considerations.
Randa Abdel-Fattah describes writing as a Muslim writer in Australia as the necessity of writing from a double position: a need to write for a Muslim audience, while writing to a white audience. She describes the frustration of her experiences of being refused the right to write a literature of universal concern, needing to particularise her story, and have it ‘kept’ particular, so that it is heard in a mainstream culture where whiteness is normative. Received literary wisdom that the universal is reached by way of the particular doesn’t apply for everyone. Negotiating this challenge is a task that the writer writing into a minor literature, such as Australia’s, faces, in addition to all the other authorial challenges.
I am not sure that the language exists yet for a relationship of love between marginalised Arabic and Muslim communities and a white settler Australia, but I am sure that it will take novels like The Other Half of You, and writers like Mohammad Ahmad, to bring that language into being.
Consider The Other Half of You as a difficult, uncertain gift. In the words of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: receivers of the gift, remember, gratitude should have no weight ‘lest you lay a yoke’ upon giver and receiver alike (29). We should have the ability to receive literature as a living thing that needs to grow and change and fail and succeed, all within a single book, so the greater thing of literature, beyond major and minor concerns, might continue to thrive.
Works drawn upon or cited:
Randa Abdel-Fattah, ‘The Double Bind of Writing as an Australian Muslim Woman’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 97-117.
Jumana Bayeh, ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’, Southerly, Vol. 79 No.1, 2019, pp. 129-149.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico: London, 1999, (83-107).
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Heinemann: London, 1926, repr. 1973.
Anne Monsour, ‘Tell Me My Story: The Contribution of Historical Research to an Understanding of the Australian Lebanese Experience’, Mashriq & Mahjar, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2017, pp. 9-39.
Ameeni Rihani, The Book of Khalid, Melville House Publishing: New York, 2012.
MICHELLE HAMADACHE has had publications in Australian and international journals. She teaches creative writing at Macquarie University. ‘Zohira’, a short story appeared in the British Journal of International Writing 2021.
We are thrilled to launch our first issue as Mascara’s new team, after almost one year since our last issue ‘Covid Contingencies’. It has been difficult to keep track of time amidst all the challenges we are facing in our communities on a local, national and international level. These challenges that have permeated our lives, our screens, our minds and our writing.
We recall the many lockdowns in Melbourne, particularly the trauma caused by the hard lockdowns in the North Melbourne and Flemington towers, revealing the discrimination and systemic racism that underpins our government’s responses when it comes to migrant communities. Globally, the ongoing fight to dismantle colonialism and white supremacy is sandwiched between the continuous action against police brutality, the enormous increase in Asian hate crimes in the US, and the oppression and dispossession of Palestinians. Amidst the grief, the anger, the disbelief, we find the way forward is through community and collectiveness. Which is why we are honoured to continue Mascara’s work to push against racism and expand the literary space for talented CALD and First Nations creators, allies and writers extending craft to new experimental territories.
This is displayed in issue 26 where we bring together the work of nine poets and three works of fiction as well as the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize winners. The inaugural Mascara x Bundanon Writers Residency announced this year is also a reflection of our need for creative extension. Congratulations again to Deborah Cass prize winner Anith Mukherjee and the two runner ups, Dasha Maiorova and Sahib Nazari. This issue also includes fifteen reviews that we have published throughout the year, offering close and critical considerations on a range of diverse and urgent new publications. Our beautiful and vibrant cover art was created by Melbourne based writer and artist Eloise Grills.
This year, with two Melbourne based editors we have extended our bases across both Sydney and Melbourne and are excited about engaging more closely with Melbourne’s literary scene. We are delighted to publish reviews on books written by Jennifer Mackenzie and Shu-ling Chua as well as publishing work from Josie/Jocelyn Deane and Dani Netherclift. We are deeply thankful to be funded this year by Creative Victoria and the Australia Council for the Arts. We hope to provide opportunities to support Victoria’s dynamic literary community as well as maintain our Australia wide and global outreach with exciting projects in the near future.
Thank you to all our contributing writers and thank you readers for your patience and support. In this Naidoc week of Healing Country this issue proudly features reviews of Nardi Simpson’s Song of the Crocodile by Pip Newling, Timmah Ball’s review of Evelyn Araluen’s DropBear and Anne Brewster’s review of Karen Wyld’s Where Only the Fruit Falls as well as poetry by Samia Goudie and Paul Collis. We thank our First Nations editor, Lyndsay Urquhart whose knowledge of elders, community and language is enrichening. We acknowledge that the lands we live and work on are unceded Aboriginal Country.
Mascara has flourished because of our dedicated collective of past commissioning editors, guest editors, and co-founding editors. Their support, encouragement and continued work with the journal is enormously appreciated.
We are delighted to take this issue live and excited for Mascara’s next steps, for our upcoming special issues and other forthcoming projects.
Editors Anthea Yang & Monique Nair
Nathanael O’Reilly is an Irish-Australian residing in Texas. His books include (Un)belonging (Recent Work Press, 2020); BLUE (above/ground press, 2020); Preparations for Departure (UWAP, 2017), named a Book of the Year in Australian Book Review; Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016); Distance (Ginninderra Press, 2015); Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011); and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010). More than 200 of his poems have appeared in journals and anthologies published in thirteen countries, including Antipodes, Anthropocene, Backstory, Cordite, fourW, FourXFour, Headstuff, Marathon, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Skylight 47, Snorkel, Strukturiss, Transnational Literature, Westerly and The Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2017.
From Ballarat to Brisbane
After Joe Brainard
I remember falling out of a pine tree
at number 2 Waller Avenue in Ballarat
I remember my eyes puffing up
after playing in waist-high grass
on the vacant block down the street
and the pretty nurse sticking
a needle in my bum at the hospital
I remember riding a black horse
sixteen hands high while wearing red
gumboots and red corduroy jeans
I remember burning my tongue
with tomato soup at recess
in the shelter shed
at Redan Primary School
I remember the neighbour’s German Shepherd
nipping at my arse when I scaled the fence
after retrieving a tennis ball from their backyard
I remember riding my red bike
into a puddle beside Lake Wendouree
sinking in mud up to my handlebars
I remember carving my initials
into a branch high up inside
the eucalyptus tree with a pocketknife
I remember breaking my mate’s thumb
while taking a mark playing footy
on the oval at lunchtime in grade one
I remember moving from Ballarat to Brisbane
when I was six – leaving behind my mates
and everything I’d ever known
I remember standing in the dirt driveway
of 50 Larbonya Crescent, Capalaba
on New Year’s Day thinking It’s 1980!
I remember my mate Ian finding a wallet
stuffed with eight fifty-dollar notes
at the shopping centre and buying
a dozen cinnamon doughnuts
I remember playing barefoot
lunchtime rugby and red rover
ripping uniforms and skinning knees
I remember the headmaster
summoning me to his office
giving me six of the best
for playing outside in the rain
Paul Dawson’s first book of poems, Imagining Winter (IP, 2006), won the national IP Picks Best Poetry award in 2006, and his work has been anthologised in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013) and Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1888-2008 (Puncher & Wattmann, 2009). His poetry and fiction appear in journals such as Meanjin, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, Peril Magazine, Australian Poetry Journal and The Sydney Morning Herald. Paul is currently an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.
Thanks for the poems, Covid-19
Here’s me, face-masked in a supermarket
swamped by white people, who are
angry all over again about the yellow peril
now an invisible airborne enemy speaking in tongues
through the inscrutable hospital-blue fabric
that obscures my features, that signals its silent intent
while I peer at the shelves, ensconced in the conch-shell
of my mask – until the bald, wobbly-eyed face of a
Woolworth’s worker appears suddenly beside me
and barks: ‘Social distancing still applies in here!’
Oh sorry, what was I doing? SOCIAL DISTANCING
STILL APPLIES IN HERE he repeats, as if I can’t hear
as if English escapes me, as if this is groundhog day
as if his words were a talisman to keep the threat at bay.
Yes, I say, but I don’t know what I was doing?
And then, from behind, a woman’s voice chimes in
to explain that she had complained because I
was blocking her path, now averting her gaze
as she swerves her trolley past, and I am left
with my own trapped breath, watching the worker
move on to stack shelves within hugging distance
of a white couple, within a whisper of their faces
as they contemplate trays of beef mince. I refrain
from repeating his talisman back to him
because really I want to scream it hysterically in his face
because I take it personally, because I’m not from, and have
never been, to China, because I know that’s the wrong response
and maybe this had nothing to do with race anyway
and why the fuck did I wear this mask in the first place?
And I can’t help but think of Pauline Hanson, circa the turn of the millennium
and all the incidents like this, which I thought had been eradicated
as if the trope of Asian contagion that lay dormant
while Islamic terrorism helped fashion Hanson’s comeback
has now been revived in a virulent new strain
that cannot be warded off by hoarding toilet paper
for this behaviour is every bit as Australian
as our coming together to battle the bushfires
that tear across the nation, and to be Asian-Australian
in a pandemic is – like hoarding – to be suddenly
un-Australian, where one minor encounter can unmask
the searing loss of belonging, the sense of
impotence, the persistent second-guessing
of one’s own thoughts, that typically present
as asymptomatic on all those inscrutable faces.
Vasilka Pateras is a Melbourne-based poet and emerging writer whose work is published in n-SCRIBE, Mediterranean Poetry, The Blue Nib and Poetry on the Move. She regularly reads as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word community.
The curve of my spine
with the clarinet’s call
I am in its grip
pure majestic phrasing
a gentle hop step of feet
if there was a verse this would be it
if there was a curse it would be my love
for the life of notes that gather as we gather
in the oro
a step in unison
a circle’s embrace
this is our protest
of release in the rattle and clack of
I wipe the sweat from my brow
the clarinet’s hold
into the unknown
frayed across new and old worlds
trying to pick up the lost stitch
in this I am found
Melbourne how do I love you?
industry, billboards stream
flat grey basalt plains of the west
into freeway channels
of fast fast fast
how do I love you
true wog wogness of north
Veni vidi vici
market square of Preston
from the ravages of war
to tamed lions, eagles
lemon trees lemon scented
fruit of dislocation
how do I love you
endless endless suburbs of east
Metricon, Glenville and anon
faux Provincial, Federation, Bungalow Californian
the home beautiful of
low maintenance thinking
to the row row of hedge groves
how do I love you
foreign beige of aspen
dales and vales
lap of bay
against the hush hush hush
how do I love you
oh Yarra, smell of brown
the glass sheen of Maribyrnong,
canals of Elwood
concreted Moonee Ponds creek
do I dare dip my feet?
how do I love you
oh big city heart
playground of successive elites
huddled laneways of mystery
artisanal, literary, labyrinths
cannibalised by capital
that cannot been seen
once crane adorned
now pandemic forlorn
oh Kulin Nation
people, country, language
with stories of legend and lore
I hail the cries for restitution
of what was
and is yours yours yours
1. Translations from Macedonian:
pusteno – to release/let go/set free
oro – folk dance
Gemma Parker is a poet and a teacher at the University of Adelaide. Her poems and essays have been published in Transnational Literature, Award Winning Australian Writing, Writ Poetry Review and the Tokyo Poetry Journal. She was the 2016 winner of the Shoalhaven Literary Award for Poetry. She is a PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide as part of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. She is one of the project managers of the Raining Poetry in Adelaide festival for 2021. She lives in Adelaide with her husband Guillaume and their two children.
Studies in Moonlight
The sparkle on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with
moonlight strikes one to the heart. One suddenly misses the capital,
longing for a friend who could share the moment.
– Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283-1350)
I don’t even know
what a hickory leaf
looks like. I yearn
to write poems about moonlight,
the wet darkness, solitude.
Far from the light-noise of cities,
to write in a place of true night,
in the medicinal north.
To compose more
than opportunistic poems
about the marginalia of life.
Doesn’t one also miss
the rush of loneliness,
and long for distance
from every capital?
Samia Goudie is a Queer Bundjalung woman currently living on Ngunnawal country. She has published widely both as an academic working in health and the arts, and as a film and digital story maker. Samia is a member of Canberra based UsMob writers and FNAWN, First Nations Australian writers network. She has received an AFC mentor award for a short award winning film US Deadly mob and has had four documentaries screened and toured at festivals. Her various digital story projects are available on line and archived with the state library Old and FNQ’S Indigenous knowledge centres. Samia received a Fulbright fellowship in 2006 based around research in creative practices using digital story telling as a method to archive oral stories using new media and as a curative healing practice in First Nations communities dealing with intergenerational trauma. She has had multi media/word/installations and exhibitions of visual art and poetry at various locations including the Wollongong gallery, M16 gallery Canberra, ‘Territories’ at Laboratory of Arts and Media (LAM/LETA) University of Paris. Her multimedia/artwork has been is held in private collections nationally and internationally.
Samia has been publishing poetry and short stories more frequently over the last several years and has works published in the Southerly, IWP Iowa press, Wakefield press, Norton and Norton, 3CCmedia journal, Aiatsis Press, Too Deadly: Our Voice, Our way Our business (Us Mob Writers anthology), Giant Steps (2019) and What We Carry (2020), Recent Work Press and Routledge press. More recently she was highly commended for her submission to the Varuna First Nations Fellowship which gives access and support to Varuna’s residential writing space in the Blue Mountains. She has also won support and runner up with the Boundless Indigenous Writers Mentorships, supported by the NSW Writers centre and Text publishers, which matched her with Melissa Lucashenko as a mentor for her current work in progress, which is a novel.
Won’t fit in The box
Don’t fit, won’t fit, can’t fit
Believe me I tried
Even the box rejected me
There must be something wrong
I contorted, twisted
My shape, my voice
My hair, my hands,
You even tried to alter my soul
I was never enough
Even when you medicate me,
debate about me,
Aint nothing wrong
with my voice, my hands, MY shape
My gender, my colour
who I am
I am large and round
have limbs bound with the roots of trees
I can touch the sky
Why would I give any of that up?
To fit in your box
There is fear haunting us in shadows
Now walking amongst us in full sunlight
My friend, tells me,
In her community nearly all the Elders lie dead.
There is fear haunting us in shadows
All those Stories gone
All the language lost
Who will teach the young?
Was it like this
When the tall ships sailed in?
Fear grips my broken heart
And now like the last cruel blow
her 11-year-old niece
There is fear haunting us in shadows
She attends funerals everyday
They drive hours to stand in long lines
hoping today they can get a Vaccine
Instead of body bags
She asks for prayers
Please pray for us
She always ends her posts,
It’s raining here
I’m so far across the southern sky
Across the wide ocean
a dark afternoon
On a good day
I spend time outside under open sky
Seeking solace where none seems possible
There is fear haunting us in shadows
I choose to turn towards the sun
Miigwech means loosely, thank you, in Anishinaabemowin also known as Ojibwa. However, it has also a tone that conveys respect and request, recognition and integrity. Gratitude.