Second City: Essays From Western Sydney
Edited by Luke Carman & Catriona Menzies-Pike
Sydney Review of Books
Reviewed by CHER TAN
In ‘Second City’, the titular essay by Eda Gunaydin in Second City, an anthology of essays collected and published by the Sydney Review of Books, Gunaydin begins: ‘I spent the summer between 2013 and 2014 as many 20-year-olds do: working at a restaurant.’ It’s a sentence that includes as much as it excludes, echoing the popular internet phrase ‘if you know, you know’. The essay goes on to explore the ramifications of gentrification in Parramatta, alongside a certain gentrification of the self through education and upward mobility. With a stylistic panache and an erudite wit, Gunaydin goes on to ask, towards the end of the essay, ‘… if displacement did not begin five years ago but two hundred and thirty years ago, what use is there in attempting to freeze its current class and racial composition in amber?’ This mode of writing is something I’ve observed amongst writers on the so-called ‘margins’ in the last few years: as writers move away from the giddy nascence of a minoritised literature that is nevertheless situated inside an anglophone canon, narratives become less concerned with a centre and more interested in interrogating the complexities that arise from marginal conditions. Struggle is considered alongside joy, privileges alongside oppressions.
Second City is another anthology that adds to the burgeoning list of anthologies which display a range of writing in its variegated styles, tendencies and textures, particularly in an ‘Australian’ publishing landscape which has historically been exclusionary in both form and identity. Its subtitle, ‘Essays From Western Sydney’, is as sly as it is earnest, a marketing device that winks at you as much as it is true. Without belabouring the point (as I hope no readers of this publication have been living under a rock), Western Sydney is a location that has plagued the popular ‘Australian’ imaginary as a hotbed of chaos since the 1990s, when mainstream news media painted the area as one that was teeming with criminals and drug users. Even today, at the time of writing, certain (working-class and/or POC-majority) suburbs see an increase in police presence ostensibly to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Sydney but which we all know is a ruse to further criminalise bla(c)k and brown people.
As Felicity Castagna notes, in her essay ‘Hopefully the Future is Dark’, ‘The problem is that Western Sydney is a place but it’s also an idea. You can either write to that idea—think Struggle Street, Housos, The Combination, every protest you’ve ever seen on the rooftop of Villawood Detention Centre, every ‘dole bludger’ you’ve seen on A Current Affair—or you can write against it.’ I remember speaking with Gunaydin (full disclosure: she is a friend) about the popularisation of narratives ‘from Western Sydney’, where she observed that some writers from the area would play into preconceived notions of ‘Western Sydney identity’ while the dominant forces of Ozlit would look on with pity, guilt, shame and exoticised fascination. These forces are diminishing as ‘Australian’ publishing enters a new(er) epoch helmed by minoritised writers, creating a stronger understanding there is a need to move away from the centre, but doubtlessly in some circles it is still proliferating. Perhaps this is a paradox that can arise with critiquing marginalisation, which sometimes ends up entrenching those same ideas that resulted in the critique in the first place.
But the essays in Second City would rather dispose of those tendencies, and as a result they are as varied in subject as well as in style—what editor Luke Carman states in the book’s introduction ‘can be represented by no single politics, mindset, opinion, style, aesthetic or poetics.’ Frances An, in ‘(Feminist) Sages’, echoes the above-mentioned conversation with Gunaydin when she refers to ‘postcolonial cults who started every sentence with “as an [ethnic minority] …” and threw in terms like “Otherness” and “decolonise” to assert their status as messiahs of racial justice’, situated within a larger critique about left or left-adjacent movements that are exclusionary in their language and aesthetics even if they proclaim inclusivity. Further complexities are articulated in Sheila Ngoc Pham’s ‘An Elite Education’, an unpretentious personal narrative about the differences between her Vietnamese diaspora family and her husband Josh’s Anglo one, where the former is Liberal-voting and middle-class, and how she is ‘actually not the first in my family to receive a university education in this country’; whilst he is. Zohra Aly’s ‘Of Mosques and Men’ looks into the travails involved in her husband Abbas’s experiences building a mosque in the Christian-dominated area of Annangrove post-9/11, and May Ngo’s ‘Shopping Night’ expresses a vexed relationship to Western Sydney as a returnee.
Yumna Kassab’s ‘Borges and the Tiger’ stands out for its experimentalism, as it takes the reader through dream-like vignettes that analyse the work of Jorge Luis Borges and the perplexing allure of writing inside ‘the labyrinth’ (the library). Much like her debut collection of short stories, The House of Youssef, the author possesses a deft hand when it comes to crafting philosophical fables, resulting in a non didacticism that reveal intimacies as much as they allow for imagination to fill in the gaps, like how, as she puts it, reading Borges is ‘to be in a loop of symbols in endless conversation with one another’. In ‘Raise Your Needles in Defence of Public Knitting’, Aleesha Paz writes with a joyous energy, as she revels in making public what is commonly regarded as a private pleasure, while Martin Reyes’s ‘Excuse Me, Tabi Tabi Po’ is a light-hearted essay on his Filipino family’s superstitions alongside a serious contemplation of pre-colonial folklore and attitudes towards natural surroundings and land.
Castagna’s provocation about writing to or against preconceived ideas are at work in some of the essays in Second City: to Rawah Arja (in ‘An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving an Arab Family of Extroverts’), living in Western Sydney growing up was thought to ‘always going to be second best’; Raaza Jamshed (in ‘Muhammad’) recalls moving away from Bankstown because she doesn’t want her kids ‘to grow up as strangers to this country’, and to Ngo her childhood in Western Sydney ‘felt like we were so far away from everything—at least from anything that was interesting, away from the places where things were happening.’ Otherwise Western Sydney is hardly referred to at all; the words ‘Western Sydney’ appear in the anthology only 35 times (or thereabouts, otherwise I apologise for my ineptitude with numbers). The problem that Castagna points out is perhaps the biggest conundrum faced by minoritised writers and artists, that by virtue of our sexuality or our ability or our race or our socioeconomic position or the places in which we reside and/or come from, there is an impulse to either 1) explain, 2) smooth over, or 3) react against the status quo—that which places those preconceived images in the first place. Are there other ways to imagine? Indeed, as Castagna continues towards the end of her essay, ‘It is an invitation to undo the ways ‘things are done’ and invite alternatives into the equation.’
I won’t be so glib as to say that writing against preconceived ideas is easy, especially in a publishing landscape that is at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by a certain section of society divorced from the so-called ‘real world’. It is even more difficult when they’ve bled into the dominant cultural narrative for it to appear as if it is the inherent truth. As George Haddad writes in ‘Uprooted’, an essay that contemplates identity as he is made to feel like an outsider in the inner city where he now lives: ‘How do I convey this cornucopia of identity to a stranger in a split second?’ Castagna even goes so far as to delineate her multi-faceted cultural background, but with a caveat: ‘None of that really says who I am though. It’s really only just a beginning.’ The fact that some essays in the anthology grapple with these concerns show that the playing field for more complex writing from what has been called ‘the subaltern’—at least within Australian literature—is undergoing a sea change, as many begin to move away from assimilationist desires and questions of what it ‘means’ to be such-and-such identity, instead focusing on minute joys and entanglements that would also rather entertain a devotion towards craft. As such, it would be prudent to consider what Gayatri Spivak once posed in a 1986 ABC Radio National interview about multiculturalism in Australia: ‘[…] the question “Who should speak?”is less crucial than “Who will listen?”’
Second City is one of those books at the precipice of this sea change. In this context, writers on the so-called margins can make the case again and again about why we should be seen and heard and read. But who are we trying to convince? Instead, like this anthology has exemplified, I urge us to continue delving into our myriad obsessions and complexities again and again until it becomes matter of fact.
CHER TAN is an essayist & critic in Naarm/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide & Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Runway Journal, The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She is an editor at LIMINAL magazine & the reviews editor at Meanjin.
Zoe Karpin lives in Sydney’s inner west with her partner and dog and also works as a Learning and support teacher at a south west multicultural Sydney High School. She has had short stories published in journals such as Going Down Swinging, Gathering Force, Hecate & Femzine recently and online journals such as Dotlit and Sūdō journal recently.
After the Bushfire
Jack’s house burnt down in the year with the terrible bushfires and the driest spell since records began in this part of southern NSW. He would often travel from there to see Sophie in Sydney, expelling carbon and burning rubber on the way. When the bushfires began he was stuck in Sydney. He built the house with his brother and father. He had lived there with some other woman. The woman had left a long time ago. She told him she couldn’t cope with her loneliness, the use of glyphosate in all the gardens and the plastic waste; water bottles, bags and bottle tops, which not only rattled along the gutters of the town’s centre, but along the bush trails edged with wattles and eucalypts out where they lived. She had miscarried twice, one had to be birthed in hospital and it was born dead with a tail. Thank goodness it didn’t live then.
It was not too soon in their relationship for Sophie to tell him. ‘But we will have lots of happy children.’
He looked at her with a half-smile.
Doesn’t he believe her?
When he can, he drives back to his home that is now a block to be cleared. This time he will do it alone. There is not very much left of the house anyway, a skip full.
He will tell her, ‘last time I breathed in the scent of hope but now the smell is of nothing but shovelfuls of charred, crippled tree skeletons dangling torn roots, bricks and glass.’
On his return to the city she sees there are deep cuts in the webbing of his right thumb and index finger. He has bound them together with band aids.
‘You should have stitches,’ she gently takes the plasters off and reapplies fresh ones so he can still move these vital digits. He doesn’t even wince.
In her third storey brick flat in bed at night, with the cool air conditioner turned on so it will run through their torrid dreams, she strolls her hands down the long caterpillar shaped spinal column of his body – although the spinal column is hard not soft. The vertebras one after the other are like joined together shells. His ligaments hold these shells together; stabilising his spine, and protecting the internal discs. There are three ligaments but she can’t see them only feel their rope length and breadth as she massages his back in the after light. He hasn’t asked for this massage but she gives it to him anyway.
His ligaments have not been torn nor worn away with the weight of what he has carried for all these years; black handled axes, red bricks, tawny wood, glass, wooden furniture, ghosts of children, other people’s children, chickens, dogs, herbs and vegetables and even her today. He is like many men. His yellow ligaments are rubber, bouncing the weights he has carried as easily as a leather ball. Then there are his discs, shock absorbers, hard on the outside and soft in the core as she has learnt. The discs have never bulged or slipped. However, his spine can get too stiff and he aches before sleeping.
Her palms have five flesh coloured sailing boat extensions each and they travel his body.
But will it become her task every night now to tack the shells apart with her transporting hands?
‘You must talk about the pain,’ she tells him.
‘What pain?’ he says.
However, it’s only after the massage he can make noiseless love to her.
In the morning, he takes her to his no-longer house. They are engulfed in a special smell, a stench, rolling along the freeways, running through the bush. It is the odour of endangered dead native animals. She has never felt like crying because of a fetidness before. However, this time is not like other times and she catches sight through the smudged car’s window pane of one brown, grey kangaroo by itself in the bush; a thin, straggly kangaroo. She hasn’t seen a kangaroo alone in the bush before. Its back is curved like a singular fluted pearl shell on a wide expanse of beach-like peat. Finally, at his no-longer house there is the garage he never mentioned, somehow left clinging to its purpose. The Roll-A-Door was up during the fire and it is curiously undamaged. However, all his fine tools he carefully kept on a crumbling bench of withered steel are now reduced to ornamental shadows of their former, solid metal utility. She sees how he clasps these old broken implements in large strong fists, holds them for a while and says, ‘I’ve done a lot with these.’
Her black eyes blur and the tools he clutches merge into his hands. She says, ‘No doubt.’
She can’t see any self-pity in his gaze nor does he look at her in a way that suggests he wants it.
They move on to the rest of the burnt emptiness. Yet, there are still the concrete steps out the back that don’t go into the no-longer house.
She knows what he means about this particular smell. It is of smoke and burning; the charcoal soil is steeped in the brew. She is young enough though not to be daunted by any of this.
However, in the once tree filled backyard, a little bird, a young sooty myna bird flies down to land and block their pathway. The myna with its small specially flight built back and head with the yellow patch behind its eye, shakes itself at them – as if to say, ‘what have you done to my world?’
Then Jack weeps.
by Anwen Crawford
Reviewed by NEHA KALE
Anwen Crawford’s No Document, a memorial to the casualties of late capitalism, occupies the space between elegy and witness, language and art.
In February 1991, a strange billboard materialised on New York’s Van Dam Street, perplexing commuters who happened to be travelling under the overpass. It featured a black-and-white photo of an empty bed curiously devoid of signage, rumpled sheets revealing gradations of light and shadow like mountains covered in snow. Two pillows are arranged, side by side. But the bodies that lay there announced themselves through impressions and indents. Existence and absence, different sides of a concave mirror. Each part, the form itself.
The billboard is part of Untitled (1991), an installation by the Cuban-American artist and activist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The same year, the artist’s lover, Ross Laycock, died of AIDS complications. The bed in the picture is less cipher than artefact. It’s where the couple slept when they were both alive.
“I knew that you would die young/ I didn’t know it at all,” writes Anwen Crawford in her book-length essay, No Document. A page before this: “I change tense, and travel back across your death’s border.” What to write when those we love leave us? Can the tricks of grammar reverse the passage of time?
The elegy is a fixture of art and literature. Gonzalez-Torres’ work, of course, but also Patti Smith’s Just Kids, the poet’s 2010 lament for the New York she once shared with her late friend and co-conspirator, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Above Crawford’s desk, the reader learns, there’s a postcard of Mapplethorpe’s Two Men Dancing, a gelatin silver print in which two figures hold each other made in 1974.
In her first year at the Sydney College of the Arts, Crawford meets the fellow artist, Ned Sevil. “Your brown panelled nylon zip-up jacket; the rat’s tail of red hair that ran below your shoulders,” she writes. They climb silos on Glebe Island. They “photograph using now obsolete materials” and sleep in railway underpasses after “spray-painting stencils of helicopters.” Their friendship burns bright, forged in the fire of art and activism. “So suddenly, vividly; your gentleness, the way you were always proud of me,” she writes.
At 30, Sevil, who suffered cystic fibrosis, dies of cancer. Crawford returns from New York, where she is working towards an MFA in poetry, six weeks later. “Sometimes, just for seconds the extent of my grief for you reveals itself and my breath dissolves,” she writes in an incandescent passage, “because it has no edges at all […]”
In Sydney, edges blur. Suburban pavements give way to old waterways. Sandstone cliffs end with a sheer drop into the ocean. For Crawford, grief is fractal. It radiates beyond her own body, into the spaces she moves through.
She thinks of her friend when “the train lifts from a tunnel and the built world manifests again” and when she sees “a line of three sulphur-crested cockatoos wheeling a line into the sky.”
When someone dies young, elegy can easily descend into hagiography. But in No Document, the gift of loss is a kind of X-ray vision. It can see beyond the strictures of place, time and history – and understands how these are bound together.
Crawford watches the planes hitting the twin towers. The pair cut the word ‘terrorist’ out of the newspaper, “spray-painting the letters into signifying order onto lengths of paper” to cover “over a billboard that edges a four-lane highway.” Two pages on, she tells us that the “last Siberian crane reported seen in Afghanistan was shot dead in 2002.”
Years after they climb onto silos in Glebe Island, Crawford discovers that it was once the site of the city’s first abattoir. Decades before, in 1818, “the first of the white surveyors ventured onto countries past the mountains – Wiradjuri country, Gamilaraay country.” Cattle, she tells us, comes from the Latin for capitale – ‘property, stock.’
Western imperialism changes form, sowing the seeds for modern conquest. Colonialism and capitalism, inextricable forces, knit living creatures into a constellation of death and displacement.
“Three billion animals have burnt in this place bordered as Australia since I began this, and the fact that all the sound of it is dampened by the painting being paint – well, it haunts me,” she writes.
No Document pushes up against borders – geographical, historical, imaginary. In a way, to have no document is to engage in the act of trespass, to enter places unauthorised. But who can trust authorities that are the legacy of violent systems? Records, we know, are famously unreliable. East African soldiers, we learn, who died in the First World War for the German Empire, were disappeared from history.
During the Tampa Crisis, John Howard famously accused asylum seekers of throwing their children into the water. The Australian government’s acronym for boats occupied by asylum seekers – suspected illegal entry vessels – is SIEV. For Crawford, this is “too close to sieve for coincidence.” In the sea, humans leak.
Throughout the book, Crawford writes letters to Alya Satta, a two-year-old girl who was among the 353 who drowned when the Indonesian fishing boat, SIEV-X, overturned on the way to Australia. “I call myself into this space with you,” Crawford starts. Then, “I redeem nothing: not in words, not any way.”
Words have their limits. Late capitalism strives to turn writing into content, story into commodity. No Document is interested in what art can do, where language can’t venture. In art school, Crawford studies photography and upon re-reading No Document, sentences reveal their meanings like negatives in a darkroom.
On my weekly walk, past Glebe Island, the landscape shows its bones. Places acquire a shimmer. I remember that in the 19th century, to take a photo was to render what was missing. That a camera was once considered powerful enough to capture ghosts.
No Document is a study in blank space. Sentences stand by themselves. Each section is marked by a rectangle. “You scratch the negatives,” Crawford observes of her friend, “sometimes for what the damage signifies: that the document is not neutral but emerges.”
When her friend Sevil dies, he leaves Crawford a book of images, made from mesh and contact sheets, “the whole thing smaller than a matchbox.” Someone tells her that “objects are just objects.” Friendships exist outside institutions, without ritual. She knows theirs has been “deemed insubstantial.” The book asks you, the reader, to weigh what matters, what to mourn according to an inner calculus.
There is no elegy without witness, even if “no document can make you manifest.”
Crawford and Sevil admired artists who died young. “Such an impulse isn’t rare at age nineteen, but for you at least, an early death was neither an abstraction or romance,” she reflects, in retrospect.
Gonzalez-Torres, who died at 38 of AIDS was among their favourites. Before he left, the artist strung lightbulbs in galleries, allowing them to flicker and fade, as fleeting as a lifespan. He arranged a pair of clocks that ticked together in the knowledge that one battery would fail before the other. That in time these objects – like bodies that exist together – would fall out of sync.
In 1989, he made sculptures out of block-like stacks of paper. To complete them, viewers were invited to pick up a sheet, to take it home. No Document, too, is an artwork – one that asks us to notice what’s absent. And love, through the act of paying attention, the things that might never return.
NEHA KALE is a writer, critic and the former editor of VAULT magazine. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, SBS, ArtReview, Art Guide and many other places.
Know Your Country
by Kerri Shying
Puncher and Wattman
Reviewed by DANNI NETHERCLIFT
Mark Berryman’s original artwork on the cover of Kerri Shying’s Know Your Country is a study in aqueous blues and greens, reminiscent of underwater scenes, long neglected sites of lostness and loss, the kind of world inhabited by forgotten shipwrecks. This shadowy opacity seems a fitting introduction to the poems contained within, a nod to the idea of landscapes you think you know but which, diving beneath the surface find you are unfamiliar with after all. This impression limns the sense that a closer reading of your surroundings is required, so sit back and pay attention if you want to in some sense know your (?) country.
The collection as a whole presents a densely knit weft of landscape, character, voice, detail and sub-text where the poems fully inhabit all of the senses, so as to immerse the reader not only in visual poetic images, but also the smells, sounds and tactility of each scene and place. In this way, I was reminded of the literary localities created by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, with its layers of varying interiors, exteriors, sounds, (his)stories and laments.
The almost complete absence of punctuation throughout works to enact a joining of narratives. The fragmented words pieced together eloquently mosaic a whole, a window onto the possibilities immanent in the substances of life in this particular country: earth and seawater, the sticky silver of snail trails and suspicious powders, of human traces, dirt, blood, shit and fragility, of circumstance in every overlooked flavour and hue. This is an inspired vision of country on a micro scale. In these poems, the gaps between the words and phrasing are apertures into spaces of entry, gesturing towards what you think you know and what perhaps you don’t know anything at all about.
The first poem, ‘talented regardless’ ominously foreshadows the dark potential inherent in this locus of page and space, with on the one hand ‘laughter and applause’ while on the other, there is
the sound of burrs being taken
off of knives and the thump of hessian onto truck beds
This possible proximity to or for violence is woven through the body of the text of these fifty-five poems, unsettling notions of certainty or firm ground upon which to stand.
The country of Shying’s vision holds itself open, for instance, to the hypocrisy of those who would stake claims to knowing better. Poems like ‘in my skin’ talk back and up to the noise of ubiquitous ‘saloon bars’ with resolute retort,
oh how colossal
that courses through the veins of every total prick
that questions who we are
because the call to ‘know your country’ also enacts a rallying cry to stare racism in the face without looking away,
to tear up the post in post-colonialism, and the notion of assimilation and its insult, as being
the kind of turd who smacks you in the mouth
get up you’re bleeding on the carpet
Correspondingly, the use of Aboriginal language and translation in some of the poems, like ‘galmalngidyalu nhal gaghaanggilinya’ (this song delights me) encapsulates generous notions of inclusion that have most often not been reciprocated. The juxtaposition of these magnanimities of spirit jar tellingly against the past and present policymaking of race but Shying’s work illuminates the power of poetics to transcend, and describes their innate qualities of protection. The claim that
words are lands and faces special
is followed by an appreciation of the true nature of land beneath the surface, where
a million tonnes of ballast sang out a song from beneath me
a million tonne extracted from the soil of everywhere
which describes also the connection between this ballast – an important motif in both literal and figurative senses – of earth and rock and its corresponding connections to relationships with family, with grandmothers –
I hold tight to all her stories given
to me moving mouth to
ear mouth to ear mouth
and as in ‘Cootamundra institute of education’, elucidations of both distance and closeness, past and present, and bonds that remain, come what may –
I wonder if in that other city
my sister’s hair is safe
from magpie swoops
These ties of memory and reverence for family and belonging bear relation to Natalie Harkins work in Dirty Words, with its white space, gaps, and recognition/space-holding of untold stories, lost time, separated families, elided pasts.
In the titular poem, ‘know your country’, the opening line, that
deep roots fend off heat
reads as a realisation of the strength and resilience contained within the nexus of family/cultural ties and history. To know your country for the speaker is to write into a hope for future days
I am planting for the green tomorrow
that is pragmatically rooted in both what has already been borne, survived and surpassed, and what shared knowledge remains to be drawn upon.
The shapes and hues and hefts of sky, water and soil, of morning, and the stifling forbearance of the hottest summer nights together form a vivid panorama in which the inhabitants reveal themselves in all their shabby, precious smallness; the minutiae of land/urban scapes but also the domestic intimacy of life-scapes.
An exhortation to smallness is repeated throughout, the text, in the forms of creatures, snails/cicadas, but also in gestures towards modes of existing in the world, where you must
grow small grow
small in thrall
don’t go large be small
if you wish to live peaceably, and to appreciate the community in which you live for what it is. It is only in being small that one can truly get to know your country, that one might penetrate what has been overlooked within the cracks and crevices and white spaces behind the doors and closed curtains of interior lives. Smallness grants entry to all kinds of environments, from the water to the ballast grounds, to the wet house or the dealer’s kitchen, their bathroom, to the ghastly knife collection of an erstwhile world traveller, though one must also remember, tongue-in-cheek, that
snails play to the cheap seats
they need the cash
The poetics of these revealed scenes and vignettes expose unsettling connections between the innocent pleasure of hot chips and imminent peril in ‘crime lords’, or visits from clients buying drugs juxtaposed against the domestic niceties of packets of biscuits and flavoured coffee sachets, in ‘crime lords #2’, or relations between seemingly benign ocean shallows and the trauma that it might deliver along with its usual offerings, the nightmare jetsam
a mesh of small holes and slits
emerging as a black lacy wrack extending
from the lower back
of a dead child who washes up, is held in the arms of the speaker, in ‘blue bubble’. Always, there is the sense that if one should scratch the surface veneer of this country, that there is
that tiny bit of drama
of knife-steel exposed
but if the poems seem to evoke moods that are often sinister, with their intimations of menace seeding a tension that never quite lifts, they are at other times quelled with tenderness, a sweet give of solace to the edges of days, and even perhaps of history, a consolation gathered in accumulated images of sea/water. In ‘the inbox’
the water laps the sky
while in ‘hey you’, the speaker of the poem ‘backstrokes’
the lifting sea
The presence of a newborn baby in ‘unlock’ illuminates another kind of ballast, granting the immensely moving certainty above all that
I was a mother nobody
could remove that
These images of calm steadfastness culminate in the panacea of the final poem, ‘rise’, where
the blue sky is a crutch
in all its blankness, its possibility, and hopefulness.
DANI NETHERCLIFT lives and works on Taungurung country, surrounded by mountains. She is the winner of the 2020 AAWP / Slow Canoe Creative nonfiction prize and has upcoming work in Rabbit 33, Stilts, and Meniscus.
Where the Fruit Falls
by Karen Wyld
Reviewed by ANNE BREWSTER
Karen Wyld’s Where the Fruit Falls is an important new novel in the field of Australian Aboriginal literature and a tribute to the work of UWAP under the stewardship of its out-going director Terri-Ann White who, as Wyld says in her Acknowledgements, ‘helped grow UWAP into a treasured Australian publisher’.
It tells a powerful story of an Aboriginal family, focusing largely on the young woman, Brigid, and her twin daughters Victoria (Tori) and Maggie, and their journey to find family, reunite with Country and discover the inland sea where the ‘giant aquatic creatures’ and ‘wondrous beasts’ (287) of Aboriginal cosmology reside. On this journey they struggle against the brutal impacts of racism in rural and metropolitan settings. There are references to the effects of the Protection Era and other events such as the Maralinga bomb tests.
The title refers to the central image of the two very different trees in Brigid’s life, the apple tree of her non-Aboriginal grandmother’s garden (which could be a reference to British colonial immigration) and the Bloodwood tree (and its fruit, the bush apple) under which she was born, shown to her by her Indigenous nana.
There is a striking image of the two trees intertwined at a critical nexus in the narrative. Brigid had grown up with the trees, fruits and plants of her non-Aboriginal grandmother’s garden, and although she has an immense affection for her grandmother who had largely raised her, she has to painfully unlearn her grandmother’s indoctrination that she (Brigid) is a potato: ‘her skin might be brown like the earth, but inside she was [white] just like everyone else’ (12). Despite the damage her grandmother had wreaked in her life, Brigid continues to love her, and to respect the role that trees had in the lives of immigrants’ such as her grandmother.
She tells her Jewish friend, Bethel, whose partner, Omer, had carried a small olive sapling all the way from his homeland to Australia, that ‘my granny also brought treasured saplings from her country … she’d planted them with purpose, to set down stronger roots in a country strange to her. Those trees from her home country helped her to create a new home, for a new family’ (98). In the affectionate portrayal of Brigid’s grandmother and the image of the intertwined bloodwood and apple trees, Wyld seems to be figuring Brigid’s complex and nuanced bi-culturality, or at least the continuing (and sometimes contestatory) interplay of her dual heritages.
The novel demonstrates that racism against Indigenous people remains a constant in colonial and post-colonial (ie the federated) Australia, with even more recent immigrants, as Bethel complains, treating First Nations people ‘with disdain’ (77). However, as Bethel and Brigid’s friendship indicates, First Nations people’s connectivities are multidirectional, and her friendship with Bethel and her partner Omer is vital and life sustaining. Omer observes that war, horror and inhumanity come in many forms and impact many peoples, producing loss and trauma. He suggests that, like many people across the globe, Indigenous people are ‘still engaged in a combat of sorts’ (77). We realize that, in his vocation as an opal miner, Omer has both material and imaginative access to the inland sea for which Brigid searches, with its ancient archive of huge ‘wondrous’ creatures and the ‘carnage’ (288) they index.
In its portrayal of Brigid’s twin daughters, one of whom is dark (Tori) and the other light-skinned (Maggie), Wyld’s novel strenuously uncouples Aboriginality from biology and skin colour. In a powerful narrative, which recalls Tony Birch’s intensely moving recent novel, The White Girl, we see the painful impact of the difference in the way white-skinned Aboriginal people have been treated by white settler-Australians. The many biting ironies of the scopic regime are played out painfully and, occasionally, with wry humour, in Maggie and Tori’s lives.
Brigid and Tori, in particular, struggle with a sense of not belonging, of being outsiders. They are on a journey seeking their family and Country, reminiscent of Sally Morgan’s iconic text My Place. It is indeed fitting that Morgan provides the cover blurb, in which she notes that ‘this evocative family saga celebrates the strength and resilience of First Nation women’. In spite of the lethal impact of violence in their lives, Brigid and her daughters are, in Tori’s words, ‘strong, independent and fearless’ (233). They defend themselves and each other from the corrosive effect of racist ‘hate’ and the brutal necropolitical drive of colonization, with strength and determination. They sometimes struggle to strengthen their Aboriginality, supported by their connections with birds and trees, with shadowy creatures in the world around them, and with stories from their ancestors.
Wyld also demonstrates the significance of global anti-racist activism from the 1960s onwards, referencing various movements such as the American civil rights movement and black power, borrowing an iconic image to salute ‘the fire in the belly of black peoples fighting for rights’ (287). She shows how the discourse and iconography of global activism gave many Indigenous people in rural and metropolitan Australia the tools to analyse history and to re-shape their understanding of themselves as a collective. Numerous Aboriginal novelists have mapped in fiction the intersection of politicized Aboriginal activism and personal transformation; Tori’s incipient emergence from suffering and struggle reminds us in some respects of Sue Wilson’s consciousness-raising journey in Melissa Lucashenko’s paradigm-shifting novel, Steam Pigs.
Wyld’s homage to global activism is complemented with local references, in for example, what seems to be a nod to South Australian ex-premier, Don Dunstan, who makes an appearance at a political rally that Tori and Maggie attend, as ‘a white man in tiny pink shorts, a white figure-hugging T-shirt and long white socks’ (296). The extra-diegetic references in the novel and Wyld’s interest in the impact of political activism on her protagonists indicate the proximity of some Aboriginal fiction to political activism. In her Author’s Note for example, Wyld suggests that ‘the call for action … often lies hidden in fiction’ (341); she adds that she sees this novel as working to ‘reimagine a more just and truthful present and future’ (341).
The novel’s narrative climax, which unmasks the shocking effects of toxic white masculinity, raises deeply disturbing questions about the graphic representation of racialised and gendered violence and race crimes. It resonates with the broad scholarly field of research on trauma and witnessing, bringing a unique Aboriginal iconography to this field, in the imagery of the three black birds which are Brigid’s witness. (One might also recall the crows in Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise.) In Where the Fruit Falls the toxic white masculinity is offset with the presence of several benevolent, wise, compassionate and resourceful Aboriginal men who adjudicate in the rendition of justice according to Aboriginal protocols (recalling the Aboriginal male elders’ adjudication in Roo’s conflict with his girlfriend’s brother, in Melissa Lucashenko’s second novel Hard Yards).
In a recent article in the Journal of Australian Studies, Indigenous studies scholar, Clint Bracknell, notes the ever-increasing non-Indigenous interest in and demand for Indigenous cultural texts and analyses the impact of this demand on Indigenous researchers and communities. He talks about the lack of space and time for communities to “claim, consolidate and enhance our heritage and knowledge amongst ourselves” (Clint Bracknell JAS, 44.2 :213).
The racialised graphic commodification of Aboriginal women’s bodies which Where the Fruit Falls puts under the spotlight (while simultaneously deftly removing it from that spotlight through the wise actions of the Aboriginal men) raises questions about the non-Aboriginal reader’s presence in conversations about Indigenous literature. As a non-Indigenous reader and reviewer of Indigenous literature I am aware of the implications of Bracknell’s comment for my own work in this review. I aspire to join an ethical conversation about Indigenous literature with Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, scholars and commentators in a way that is mindful of the conditions of commodification of Aboriginal bodies and texts and seeks to acknowledge and not encroach upon the Aboriginal space that Bracknell identifies.
ANNE BREWSTER is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her books include Giving This Country a Memory: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices of Australia, (2015), Literary Formations: Postcoloniality, Nationalism, Globalism (1996) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography (1995, 2015). She is series editor for Australian Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.
Marcelo Svirsky is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong. He researches on questions of social transformation and subjectivity, decolonisation, settler-colonial societies and political -activism. He focuses on Palestine/Israel, and addresses these topics by drawing on continental European philosophy – particularly the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault. He has published several articles in the journals Cultural Politics, Subjectivity, Intercultural Education, Deleuze Studies, and Settler Colonial Studies among others, and various books and edited collections: Deleuze and Political Activism (Edinburgh University Press, 2010); Arab-Jewish Activism in Israel-Palestine (Ashgate, 2012); Agamben and Colonialism with Simone Bignall (Edinburgh University Press, 2012); Collaborative Struggles in Australia and Israel-Palestine (2014); After Israel: Towards Cultural Transformation (Zed Books, 2014), and together with Ronnen Ben-Arie – From Shared Life to Co-Resistance in Historic Palestine (Rowman & Littlefield International 2017).
Grown to provide
And for no other task,
That was the might,
Of those roses
On a shared soil,
Just, and no more than,
To service life as roses
And when the spells changed,
Forced by trade,
It was made barren.
Barren of a vile craving,
That sent you without regret,
Making the land a castle,
By giving harvest a name.
Of your tears and cries, barren,
Of your pain,
Barren, until your return…
‘Roses of Sharon’, refers to a field of roses in the Plain of Sharon in Palestine (Ottoman times). The photograph 1900-1905 was part of a collection that was initiated and published by Underwood and Underwood and was accompanied by the book Traveling in The Holy Land through the Stereoscope, written by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut. This photograph, was presented in March 2017 as part of the exhibition ‘Time Machine: Stereoscopic Views from Palestine, 1900’, at Brown University (US) and curated by Ariella Azoulay and Issam Nassar.
by Evelyn Araluen
Reviewed by TIMMAH BALL
Dropbear: writing as an act of defiance
when my body is mine i will tell them
do not touch this prefix
or let you hands burn black
with your unsettlement
there are no metaphors here
-decolonial poetics (avant gubba)
Multiple modes and literary disciplines weave through Evelyn Araleun’s first collection Dropbear, shifting between poetry, prose, micro-fiction and essay seamlessly. The taut threads are a reflection of her interdisciplinary work where writing and social justice intersect. There are no metaphors instead resistance is displayed through her piercingly accurate understanding of the flawed settler nation we inhabit. As she describes in the collections notes ‘our resistance, therefore must also be literary’ an acknowledgment that the social, environmental and political change being sought must also engage with the literary culture we inherited such as May Gibbs problematic Australian classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. A much loved children’s book series where the bush is represented through terra nullius. As a scholar, poet, teacher, activist, editor, essayist and fiction writer Araleun resists and defies imposed colonialism, which is most fiercely embodied through Dropbear. The collection speaks back to defunct systems and shows that Aboriginal Sovereignty is crystalline. As she writes:
when I own my tongue I will sing
for I will be
where I am for
Each stanza in Decolonial poetics (avant gubba) speaks back to white Australia’s dictatorial approach to fixing ‘the Blak problem’ (aka closing the gap) be it through the Avant-garde or government policy which views Aboriginal people through a deficit lens. The biting tone unsettles the settler writer and wider Australian consciousness whose literary interests in decolonization and institutional preoccupations with reconciliation are hollow. As Araleun writes at the end of the poem:
and when you are dead,
you can have poems
The incredulous construction of Australia is further revealed in other poems (PYRO, Acknowledgement of Cuntery and Index Australis), which illuminate the chronic power imbalances, where the perpetrator seeks recognition for resolving the damage they covertly maintain. She writes:
A GIRL IN AMERICA POSTS LINKS TO PURCHARSE HER UPCOMMING CLI-FI NOVEL UNDER HEADLINES FOR THE PYROCOMULUS// SCOTT MORRISON SITS SANGUINE IN A WREATH OF FRANGAPAINI
in the age of entitlement
in the Decolonial Dundee
and well may we say, we will decide
who and how
well may we be not lectured and well
may we do it slow
I would like to wear your flag
On shirt and tote and Facebook filter
–Acknowledgement of Cuntery
These poems capture both mainstream and literary preoccupations with Blak rights, climate change and social inequity whereby non-Indigenous writers, policy makers and activists reveal ‘truths’ which are already known, extracting uncomfortable histories and admissions of guilt unaware that this doesn’t undo ongoing complicity. Or as Araluen cheekily laments it is easy to change your social media profile mirroring the latest cause or wear a t-shirt with the flag of oppressed peoples. In a strange social milieu progress is accessorized and often reads more like passing trends as Aussi icons are decolonized and every white girl is writing a book about the anthropocene to grieve. In this era outrage and discomfort is omnipresent and people acknowledge country but radical change still feels distant. Dropbear asks that we don’t let this distract us but instead remain cognitive of its trickery.
Araluen’s writing emerges from an extraordinary body of work by Blak women and non-binary writers, which re-asserts Sovereignty by dispelling settler myths. Given the literary canon preceding this and the structural whiteness that persists this is important. As Araluen concedes in her Sydney Review of Books essay Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum a precursor to this collection:
The entanglement of complexes which have, since invasion, structured settler responses to, and representations of Aboriginal land and its custodians, ruptures at its most readable in Australian poetics…… If Aboriginal presence is considered in such work, it is a representation predominantly concerned with symbols of atavistic inconvenience to the colonial project, charged with psychic significance in the symbolic evocation of a ghostly spectre haunting land lost to Aboriginal people, but which ultimately clears space for the discovery and cultivation of that land by the appropriate settler.
Like Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, Ellen Van Neerven’s Throat, Jeanine Leane’s Walk Back Over, Natalie Harkin’s Archival Poetics, Kirli Saunder’s Kindred, Charmaine Papertalk Green’s Nganajungu Yagu and more recent publications such as Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land and Elfie Shiosakis’s Homecoming Araluen fortifies a Blak literary position which defies First Nations erasure and ridicule epidemic in settler Australian poetics. Stylistically she achieves this with subtle lyricism, humor, intertextual reframing of settler texts and a beguiling sense of sadness and hope for a decolonial future. There is great power in displaying work that defies clear categorization or stereotyping as protest poetry. Something that has often characterized Blak writers pejoratively within the wider literary industry suggesting that we have no more to say or are incapable of expressing our survival with nuance and depth. By contrast her work remains transformative and radical but without the troupes a white reader may expect. In the introduction to Shapes of Native Nonfiction the Cowlitz writer Elissa Washuta asserts that ‘Native writers don’t shy away from experimenting with form in order to explore the painful and the violent. However, they refuse a voyeuristic obsession with tragedy as the ultimate contribution of Native literatures to the broader field.’
Dropbear realises this with astonishing precision and power. Pain is evident but it ruminates with a critical awareness, which refuses to excite a non-Indigenous reader. Araluen is aware of these voyeuristic tendencies, which both fetishize and manipulate Aboriginal voices and decolonial agendas but also maintains a sense of urgency and demand to address this nations’ flaws. She writes:
I’ve read the work done to demonstrate how this literature triangulates our elimination against the archipelago where you move to your innocence. But no-one’s ever asked you how we are both colonized by and inheritors of these words. J asks- what is a world, and what does it mean to end it? I want to know what it means to lose the world you’re still standing in.
-To the Poets
These questions linger throughout Dropbear reaffirming that there is no clear answer to the horrors we have inherited but instead a need to confront the messy and the painful with honesty and criticality if we are to find resolve. Araluen is starting conversations that are needed while engaging with the fervent Blak activism driving change. In this way she writes for us and refuses the settler gaze in literature while reminding the white reader to recognize their responsibility. In Colonial Horror, Blak Mediocrity and Mumblecore: A conversation between Alison Whittaker and Nayuka Gorrie Whittaker explains how:
‘There’s not much that unifies blak women and non-binary mob writing except for the drive behind it. I am always surprised by the innovation and genius in blak literature, and it happens as much in the writing of blak literature as it does in the reading of blak literature by mob. It’s networked. It’s plural. It can, when we make it, work like kinship.’
Dropbear enters into this kinship where our words carry power and strengthen communities both in the writing and the reading. Araluen’s critical mind moves between writing, activism and community organising, which elevates her textual output beyond a literary vacuum. Dropbear will be read and praised by the white literary canon but her words hold space within wider public discourses led by Blak thinkers and activists. It’s networked and offers resilience to the Blak readership she writes for.
1.Evelyn Araluen, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum, Sydney Review of Books, 2019 https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/snugglepot-and-cuddlepie-in-the-ghost-gum-evelyn-araluen/
2. Ellisa Washuta ad Theresa Warburton, Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected essays by cotemporary writers, University of Washington Press, 2019
TIMMAH BALL is a nonfiction writer, researcher and creative practitioner of Ballardong Noongar heritage. She is the editor for First Nations writing at The Westerly Magazine.
Josie/Jocelyn Deane is a writer/student at the University of Melbourne. Their work has appeared in Cordite
, Australian Poetry Journal
, among others. In 2021 they were one of the recipients of the Queensland Poetry Festival Ekphrasis award. They live on unceded Wurundjeri land.
News of Animals/Nature is healing
The waters of Venice are clear,
almost. There aren’t any sudden swans
or dolphins out of the blue,
the elephants do not get drunk
in tea-fields cleared of the social
distancing efforts of the redoubtable
Yunan workers. It not even
the same photo of the same
elephants, curled up like content
deer in Nara prefecture, Tokyo, without
their vinegar/grain crackers
from tourists, inquire after safe
food in the metro, empty
malls, galleries of “Western” art, disinterested as
that one doe in a cathedral, or that one
dog meme, sitting in a flaming cockpit bottom text I Have
No Idea What I’m Doing, going
viral, haphazardly. Nature
is recolonising Venice, says the owner
of the Venice Hilton. “The water
is so blue and pure”, she says. “Nature
has no name, only what is given”. You’re still
in quarantine, buses are still trickling
over your window, you look at your arm, primate
hairs poking through sunburn.
Gay Jesus as You
I like gay Jesus almost as much
as I like you. I like the water
congealing in his side, clear trans-
-substantiation, from a cop’s spear
as much as I like you. The touch
enflames, the matter
-of-fact saying now things will be
different: your body will not be
that of your forebears. I like
the orange pips with gay Jesus’
face inside, conch shells
on the shores of Galilee whispering Christ
is come to the thirsting ear as much as
I like you. I like the hole he made
of his rib-cage, a beautiful before-after
mastectomy photo, of his hands like
a glory-hole almost as much as I
like you. I like the time passing and time
to come, time hiding like the devil
in a stratum of chalk/sandstone,
the outline of an Ichthyosaur or
bird-dinosaur, saying Christ this is
a long time to yourself… as much
as I like you. I like the generations
of spiders you hate— the parallel
church of our gay, eight legged lord
they form— that saw gay human Jesus
saying nothing in their language
going back to cocooning their food
as much as I like you. I like the sense
of a gay beginning and ending, the word
split, tentatively as much as I
Australianama: the South Asian Odyssey in Australia
by Samia Khatun
Reviewed by MATTHEW da SILVA
Samia Khatun takes a tack pioneered by Peter Drew, an Australian who made posters labelled with the word “Aussie” and featuring a migrant cameleer. He wrote about the development of his art practice in ‘Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics,’ (2019). It’s a slightly confused account of a life spent looking for battles to fight. Khatun fights her own battle but uses different language and aims stronger barbs at a long-absent colonial power.
As though every question in life might be answered satisfactorily by apportioning blame. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Jewish author whom Indians cherish as one of their own, uses instead of incisive academic prose the language of sentiment filtered through a screen of humour.
Perhaps their twin aims are not running in parallel, but instead intersect – such as here, now. Khatun provides a much-needed lens through which to view South Asians in Australia in the colonial period. I was enchanted by the propriety of giving voice to such subaltern figures as a Pakistani merchant or an Indian peddler. The “lascars” – South Asian seamen used in the period following the abolition of slavery to crew steamships – also figure prominently in Khatun’s narrative, offering different ways to see White Australia and the developing form of nationalism Khatun acknowledges multiculturalism to be.
Given all these qualifications, how accessible is her book? Who might buy and read it? Is it a book for the general trade market or is it, rather, a work that must lie within the ambit of academic circles? I think that, as in the case of its focus, it is an intersectional work that can fit into multiple settings, much like a designer handbag or a 4-wheel-drive automobile. It will feel just as “right” if you carry such an accessory with jeans or with a Chanel suit. Similarly, with a modern 4-wheel-drive SUV, it looks fine in a CBD carpark or out on the open road climbing up a steep incline among trees with peeling bark that are filled with the sounds of cicadas.
Khatun’s register is elevated and her concern is, as is common with academic writing, to speak truth to power. She won’t concede anything her principles refuse to allow, so, for example, she refers to the Flinder’s Ranges in South Australia as having a name that is “current”. Not conceding allows her to embark upon a radical course of change, and she writes sympathetically of the dispossession of Aboriginal people in the process of writing about South Asians in Australia.
While the language is taut and the plan lofty – bringing the reader into contact with discourse systems that dominate elite circles – Khatun also tells a solid tale, and engages in a bit of novel coinage, as when she uses the word “tracks” to talk about storylines used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. As such Khatun is writing a new “track” for her own people, locating them within the grip of a trading web stretching from Perth to Medina, and from Mombasa to Dhaka. She early on signals her intention to offer readers an alternative psychogeographical realm within which to tell her stories, and delivers on her promise, dredging up a range of colourful characters, each of whom, like Mohammed Bux, is able to tell stories that help to create new ways of living.
In Bux’s case the telling of stories not only made him a rich man, but saved his life. When on a hajj in the Arabian Peninsula, and robbed of everything including his clothes, it was his ability to describe what had happened to him that led to the provision of not only new clothes, but a place to sleep, and food. Telling stories continues to be an important way for Indigenous people in Australia to achieve their cultural and political goals, and this process is of course contested in the public sphere. Khatun is scathing in regard to former prime minister Tony Abbott and his 2014 “terra nullius” claim, part of a public performance during which, in typically blunt style, the politician tried to settle old scores – the “black armband” culture wars of a decade earlier.
Unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Khatun’s work forms a stepping stone for people who enjoy Drew’s art but my initial reservation – what appears at the outset of this article – should actually be taken as an index of my esteem as I thought that to dwell on such minor matters was unequal to the gorgeousness of what else is conveyed in this marvellous, and profoundly entertaining, work of nonfiction.
I was a tad disappointed that 19th century debates about knowledge that have been abandoned by all but the rumbling amateur and the most reactionary scholar animate Khatun’s narrative, which is otherwise – and, once you get over this opening hurdle – engrossing and rich in design and in execution. I’m really not sure that it’s all that useful to start quoting James Mill and Thomas Macaulay as though they were reliable witnesses to the fact of colonialism. Perhaps they are – in India?
They certainly cannot be in the West. It seems, in any case, unnecessary to drag out these particular skeletons, as though by displaying the bones you can resolve questions about why they’re not suitable to be used in a life drawing class. Nobody nowadays reads Mill or Macaulay anyway. Khatun has to ensure that people read her work. I prefer her investigations into the literatures of the subcontinent, for it is here that the incipient beauty of her text for the first time becomes apparent.
But Australianama not only charts waters rarely ventured into, and communicates effectively with what should be – if there’s any justice in the world (and of this many despair) – a wide audience, it also explores new avenues of enquiry that others might be tempted to pursue. Some of the tracks that Khatun follows reveal surprising truths about, for example, Aboriginal culture and the history of dispossession they’ve faced over much of the past 230-odd years.
Finding herself in the South Australian desert, Khatun takes a lesson in reading tracks left by passing animals, including a lizard that is taken by a snake. She writes:
This episode of high drama that Reg [Dodd] decrypted in the sand lies outside the bounds of what are recognised as significant events in most English-language history books today. In conventional histories of this Arabunna sandhill, the lizard and the eagle would not feature as central actors. And yet, it was this asymmetrical encounter between two creatures that gave me an invaluable insight into some of the principles of Arabunna storytelling. Beginning with the predatory gaze of the eagle, the central motif of these sand dune dramas was one of pursuit and escape, actions that left a trail in the sand. Like so many other narratives imprinted on the sandhill, the tracks of the lizard ended with dismemberment, consumption and disappearance from the face of Arabunna geography. Eating! Here, being eaten, the apprehension of being eaten, and the pursuit of other creatures in order to eat were ever-present prospects shaping how creatures moved across the land. (p.138 – 139)
Dodd had heard a story of South Asian cameleers from his grandmother, Barralda. In the story, two Aboriginal women were waiting for a train but it was late, and would not come. While they were waiting two cameleers arrived, with their beasts, and spoke to them, asking to see their breasts. The women showed the men their breasts. The men then asked to see their thighs. They showed the men their thighs. But in the telling the story evolved in a surprising way as the two women consider eventually – according to each teller of the tale – that the men want to eat them and thus want to see their flesh.
This is the central fact in the retelling as the story was passed down from mother to son, from aunt to niece. A cautionary tale told for the benefit of children, this particular track – Khatun discerned – was anchored in the same dynamic as that which resulted in the leaving of animal tracks upon the landscape. An ephemeral moment in world history, but a telling one.
MATTHEW da SILVA was born in Brighton, Victoria, and grew up in Sydney. He has Bachelor of Arts and Master of Media Practice degrees from the University of Sydney and lived for just under a decade in Tokyo. He has two adult children and lives in Sydney.
Paul Collis is a Barkindji person. He was born in Bourke, in far north/west NSW. His early life was informed by Barkindji and Kunya and Murawarri, and Wongamara and Nyempa story tellers and artists. Paul grew hearing traditional stories of Aboriginal culture and Law. He earned a Doctorate at University Canberra in 2015. His first novel, Dancing Home, won the 2017 David Uniopon Award for a previously unpublished work by an Indigenous author, and the 2019 ACT Book of the year Award. Nightmares Run Like Mercury his first poetry collection is published by Recent Studies Press in 2021. Paul lives in Canberra and teaches occasionally at University of Canberra.
(26th January) – Mend That !
I’m too black to be Blue…
too black I am, to be true Blue Aussie, like you.
I’m not like Johnno and Crew,
too black I am, to be that Blue.
so no happy birthday, Australia,
Oi, Oi, Oi,
Situation In Sydney…
“Na. Not doin’ that. Not goin’ to rehab”.
And then, there’s that silence. You know?
Denial in silence.
(her skinny little body, a tremble. her eyes fill with shame and pain)
I search her face for a sign, for one little memory, of her.
She knows what I’m looking for.
Eye’s overflow. “I’m sorry, Uncle”.
I think of Christmas morns in PJ’s, and her, lost beneath a mountain of wrapping papers.
Laughter with smiley faces.
Tears of joy as seven bells rang out loud.
Everywhere the Christmas bells.
Think . . .First day at school and new uniform,
slowly turn into first cigarettes and later to boyfriend kisses.
Movie dates and birthday cakes,
and she slowly slips away into a grown-up world.
For a moment, for just a moment, she’s back – that shiny face little kid
back with me, for a second.
I searched the city for a bed in a Rehab.
But all the beds were taken.
All the doors turned closed.
Despair. Now everywhere despair.
They’re all buried out there,
near Fred’s grave. All in a line. We lovingly called them ‘The Black Sisters’.
The Nuns built a small little place for the dying, named it Bethlehem…old drunks and cancers from grog boys and old girls went there and were nursed by these beautiful Nuns until they passed on.
They were dearly respected and loved by us Murrdie people in Bourke…The Black Sisters were Ours.
Most of the Nuns worked the rest of their life and died in Service at Bourke.
An Aboriginal man suicided in front of their Altar one night after being jilted by his lover (a married woman).
Duncan’s suicide announced the end of the Nun’s service in Bourke.
When I was back home there 3 years ago, I ran into some of the Blacks Sisters at the Bakery, early one morning before going to Brewarrina. “Lovely to see you Sister’s” I happily said.
“Lovely to see you, Brother” one Nun spoke, as they all held their hands in prayer position and bowed to me.
“I think you Sisters are all Barkindji now, hey! Its so good to see you again. Will you be here long?”
“Not long. Ha ha…Not Barkindji, ha ha.” The speaking Nun joked.
“Just a short visit, this time.” she finished.
“All us Aboriginal people…. we all love you, Sisters” I said and began to wipe tears from my eyes.
“As we all love You,” Sister concluded.
I waved goodbye.
I walked to the car; it was already a hot day, revved up the air con and we drove the dusty road to Bre. I began thinking of kindness and love acts.
The next day was my last one in Bourke that trip. I went to the Cemetery to say goodbye to my deceased relatives. I noticed fresh prayer papers at the graves of the Black Sisters. I realised that it must have been one of the purposes of the Nun’s visit, all the way from India again was to pay their respects to their Black Sisters.