by Sheila Heti
Reviewed by DIVYA VENKATARAMAN
When I arrive at a decision about motherhood – to be, or not to be? – I almost certainly won’t get there by employing the kind of esoteric abstraction Sheila Heti’s unnamed narrator does. That being said, Heti’s discursive, conversational monologue of a novel is clarifying, poignant and devastating at times in its ability to condense the societal pressures that women – that is, women of Heti’s whiteness and relatively high socio-economic status – face in our age.
We meet Heti’s narrator just before she turns 37. She’s been bitten by the “bug” of wondering whether she will procreate. “The question of a child is a bug in the brain—it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future.”
Heti’s narrator decides to embark on an intellectual quest, determined to interrogate the reasons for which she does and does not want to have a child. To illuminate her journey, in a common trope, the narrator looks to Eastern wisdom: here, the role of guiding light is given to the Chinese tradition of I-Ching, a method of tossing three coins and gleaning ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers for the combination of faces they show. The answers her coins give her lead her to her next question. There’s a dialogue between coin and question which gives away a great deal in its sparseness.
Heti’s narrator describes the feeling of being left out in the cold of childlessness in a touching, deeply felt way. “I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same?” The flowing present tense of the novel allows us to weave in and out of New York City life, in and out of her apartment, in and remain mired in, her arguments with her partner Miles. She writes honestly and deeply poignantly about the pain of not knowing how to feel in the face of societal pressure. “I fear that without children, it doesn’t look like you have made a choice, or that you’re doing anything but just continuing on – drifting.”
The circuitous conversations the protagonist has with herself evoke the circular nature of her mood swings and hormonal fluctuations. While being so concerned with motherhood, an event so rooted in the physical, Heti’s narrator often feels disconnected from her own body. Her period cycles are unpredictable, her moods more so. “On the one hand, the joy of children,” Heti writes. “On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them—but what is there to lose?” At the novel’s close, she finds comfort and a hazy kind of bliss in a prescription for anti-depressants.
The novel reads, in its confessionalism and oscillations of a mind not-quite-made-up, as more of a memoir or extended essay than anything fictional. The unnamed narrator at the centre of the book and the dilemma, frames her decision on motherhood as a choice to be made by the individual and the individual alone. In Heti’s narrator’s world – a white, upperclass heterosexual world – there is firstly a choice about whether or not to become a mother, and such a choice is framed as being one about sacrificing creative ambition and art for the creation of life. Motherhood, for Heti is conceptual, lofty, and understood in the context of a woman occupying several spheres of privilege making claims about motherhood. Should she create life or create art? The novel is driven more by the internal cogitation than any actual events – except for her conversations (which are very Rachel Cusk-esque in the way they are distilled only through the protagonist’s worldview), and the (somewhat repetitive) fights between her and Miles.
While Heti’s protagonist moves through a series of thrice-removed, theorised concepts about the sacrifices and privileges that motherhood will afford her, the decision that so many women around the world take is a result of myriad, competing desires – not exclusive to, but including cultural guilt, familial pressure, and financial stability. But this is not to say that, through her ambivalent, see-sawing conversations with herself about motherhood, she doesn’t delve into misconceptions about motherhood with humour, insight and painful acuity. While it’s perhaps unfair to ask Heti to write from the perspective of anyone else, the novel does not factor into its philosophising any broader sense of what motherhood is as understood in different parts of the world – or even different parts of her own city.
However, she is comprehensive about and critical of the overemphasis of women’s abilities as child-rearers and the conditioning of women as ‘natural’ in the role, and the challenge they pose to a society organised by nuclear families. “There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children,” says Heti. “What sort of trouble will she make?”
While these quotes, plucked out of context, may spark a feeling of recognition – of being able to relate – it is the process of her repetitive, rhetorical question-asking through flipping coins which grounds them in place.
While the novel is not as universal as it imagines itself to be, Motherhood is a crucial, deeply personal sketch of the conversations women have with themselves. In it, Heti sums up the anxiety of the constant wavering between freedom and being joyfully tethered – to create art, or to create life? No questions are answered, no conclusions drawn – but she finds a way to give shape to the anxiety and constant, underlying thrum of the indecision she feels as she decides what she will make next.
DIVYA VENKATARAMAN is an Indian-Australian lawyer and writer based in Sydney. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Time Out, the Sydney Morning Herald, Sweatshop Women and more. She was a finalist for the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Premier’s Multicultural Media Award.
by Jennifer McKenzie
Reviewed by ANNEE LAWRENCE
Jennifer Mackenzie’s collection of poems Navigable Ink takes inspiration from, reveres and amplifies the life events, writings, reflections and concerns with history of the Indonesian author and activist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). The idea of writing the poems emerged after Mackenzie was asked to translate Pramoedya’s Arus Balik (Cross-Currents) in 1993.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was born in the small Javanese town of Blora in what was then the Netherlands East Indies. His most famous work, the Buru Quartet novels – This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass – covers, in his own words, Indonesia’s time of Nationalist Awakening during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Based on the life of the pioneer journalist Tirto Adi Suryo 1, the novels follow a young man, Minke’s, developing political awareness and consciousness of the colonial apartheid system. As his story unfolds, the reader is drawn into an emerging vision of a new country – Indonesia, and of a new national language and cultural identity – Indonesian. 2
When Suharto’s New Order government came to power after a military coup in 1965, it did so by overthrowing the government of the nation’s first President, Sukarno (in power since 1945) 3. The coup unleashed widespread violence and the extrajudicial bloody deaths of more than half a million people who were labelled communist or communist sympathiser. Feminists, trade union leaders, teachers, artists, writers, doctors, farmers, university lecturers, and all kinds of progressive community leaders lost their lives. Of those who survived, many were shipped without trial or sentence to the island of Buru where they were forced to do hard labour.
Pramoedya was imprisoned three times during his life: in 1947-1949 by the Dutch, for nine months in the 1950s by the Sukarno government, and in 1965-1979 by Suharto’s New Order regime. At the time of his arrest and imprisonment in Jakarta on 13 October 1965, his house was ransacked and his library and eight of his manuscripts were burned.
Mackenzie’s poem, ‘Manuscripts in My Library Destroyed by the Mob’ lists Pramoedya’s works and writing that were stolen or burned in 1965 – works about and by Kartini and other women writers before Kartini, a collection of Sukarno’s short stories, a preliminary Study of the History of the Indonesian Language – the list is telling. They represent the voices that must be silenced, histories that must be erased or reinterpreted including that of the birth of the country’s national language. When Pramoedya sought to recover ‘two volumes of Pre-Indonesian Literature’ he was told by the director of the Balai Pustaka (the Government Publishing and Printing House) that they were ‘burned at the request of his superiors’.
After four years in prison, Pramoedya was taken 1500 kilometres east by ship to the island of Buru on 16 August 1969, where he remained as a political prisoner until 12 November 1979. Buru was a barren, infertile swamp and life for the political prisoners was characterised by daily beatings, hard labour, hunger and filthy conditions. In the poem ‘Writing Materials’, Mackenzie captures the insane mechanics of the arbitrary and senseless repression on Buru that denied the author pen and paper.
there was no pen, no paper
then there was
after many years
pen and paper
I remember none of
At the poem’s conclusion Mackenzie does not look away from the trauma that has done its work: ‘nightmares lap the house/which wall is crumbling?’
The eventual provision of writing materials allowed Pramoedya to finally begin to write the four novels of the Buru quartet that had been kept alive in his memory by narrating them to his fellow political prisoners.
On returning home to East Jakarta on 21 December 1979, Pramoedya was placed under house arrest and made to report weekly to the local police station. For almost two decades, he and his family endured constant and systemic discrimination and surveillance. As each of his books was published during the 1980s and 1990s, they were banned – allegedly for spreading Marxism-Leninism and Communism.
During Suharto’s thirty-three-year New Order regime, the gap between rich and poor widened, and corruption, cronyism and fraud became widespread. When the economic crisis took hold in the latter part of 1997, the country’s students faced down the authorities and took to the streets, and the seemingly entrenched President was finally forced to stand down on 21 May 1998.
In Navigable Ink’s opening poem, ‘Before Nightfall’, there is at first moonlight and tranquillity, but attention soon shifts to the sea – gara gara – turbulence, trouble, stormy weather, and ‘frenzied moonlit waves’ that threaten those on board. On the shore there is the howling of forest dogs. From the darkness, having disappeared from view of family and society for more than fourteen years, the political exile returns white-headed to his family, finds his daughters once more at his side, ‘forest and grassland will always greet/each other’, while they giggle and tease ‘You look like Hanuman’, the white monkey general of the Ramayana.
Images of the sea, the coast, boats, boat journeys, and foreign armadas appearing to bomb the islands’ ports with cannon ball – ‘they want to plant their flags on this very shore!’ – are threaded throughout different poems. They mark devastating invasion and journeys into exile. Life goes on and there is a unity of design, the link to precolonial and colonial events, the death or enforced exile of those who use words to agitate and need to be shut up, and the relentless environmental destruction caused by cutting down forests to make way for cash crops (most recently palm oil plantations).
In ‘Daendels as Wayang Puppet Watching Over Us’ Mackenzie draws on Pramoedya’s film essay, Jalan Raya Pos (the Great Post Road) 4, with translations of Pramoedya’s text captured on the right side of the poem, alongside the scenes filmed on the road of workers ‘sodden, flooded, collecting sand/this rushing river’, ‘stoking the furnace of the sugar mill’, trying to repair ‘a mudslide’, and of ‘a wayang performance/the puppets of Daendels, the Regent of Sumedang/a cracking gamelan/battle it out’.
The one-thousand-kilometre Great Post Road extends across northern Java, from Anyer on the West coast to the port of Panurukan in the East. It is the ghosted legacy of the Dutch Governor-General Daendels who in just one year in 1809 conscripted Javanese labourers to build it. Many died in the process.
In the film essay, the road remains the lifeblood of transport and communication for cars, carts, public buses, and trucks, but its history echoes the Suharto era’s own use of the unpaid labour of the political prisoners to build roads and bridges on Buru, and the inequality, poverty and poor working conditions of those at work along the road.
One of the scenes of ordinary daily life and survival captured is the attempt of a driver to repair his broken down truck in pouring rain. Mackenzie captures this in ‘Writer’s Block’.
a break down
diesel fumes rising like clouds
a rinse in the river of spare parts
the bus will rattle into life
The poem draws on other scenes from the film essay including one in which Pramoedya admits that when he is affected by writer’s block, the study of his homeland and its history are a key tool for organising his thoughts.
The film also bears witness to Pramoedya’s daily routine. The passing of time. The push-ups, the burning of rubbish, the ‘click click click’ of the typewriter. The joy of grandchildren. Trauma kept at bay.
Mackenzie’s poems reflect the contemporary as well as the past. Young people leave their rural towns and villages to seek better lives on the coast where they find themselves living on the margins of broken dreams – as drivers, tea pickers, sand miners, or carting bamboo as in ‘The Buffaloes’:
the buffaloes, in a choreography of the tethered,
lift their feet lightly
above the wagon
drooping bamboo branches
sway, leaves catching the light
at the swirling’s centre the driver’s steady gaze
In the three-part poem ‘Memories of the Revolution’, ‘Bandung Conference 1955’ recalls the coming together of emerging nations called on by Sukarno (as NEFOS – new emerging forces) to refuse allegiance to one or other side of the Cold War. In the second part, ‘Borobodur 1959’ depicts a visit to Indonesia by Che Guevara. In part three, ‘Jakarta 1995’, the Cold War has ended, the prisoners from Buru have returned to their families where they are demeaned and discriminated against as ex political prisoners (TAPOL). This ongoing persecution (denial of jobs and education) under the New Order government extends to their children and other close family members.
In ‘Jakarta 1995’ the snapshot of scenes from daily life at home skews to the right across the page, fulfilling a pattern of days in the present, ‘watering the plants’, ‘gazing over to the/neighbourhood kids/springing about/flying kites’, but still reckoning with the past, still ‘thinking of Sukarno’, and arriving at a single word, ‘sunyata’ – in truth.
For Pramoedya, remembering is agency, truth telling, and revolutionary act. And personal survival, relationship and day-to-day living are necessarily intertwined with the political.
The poems in Mackenzie’s collection are a brilliantly realised weaving of Pramoedya’s preoccupation with the images and episodes of history which flow like ghosts into the present. If the nation could be ‘unified politically and administratively by Soekarno without spilling blood – an exceptional occurrence in humanity’s history’,5 – then how are we to understand the widespread horrific violence against their own that exploded in the wake of the US military-backed coup in 1965?
Pramoedya interrogates history and demands that the present be understood, and if it can be understood, he asks, then what is the role of the literary writer? In his essay, ‘My Apologies, in the Name of Experience’ he writes that ‘as a person and a writer who shares in bearing the burden of change’, he regards the era of Sukarno (until 1965) and the Trisakti doctrine as ‘nothing but a sort of thesis. The New Order, an antithesis. Therefore, for me, it is something that in fact cannot be written about yet, a process that cannot yet be written as literature, that does not yet constitute a national process in its totality, because it is in fact still heading for its synthesis.’6
In the last poem in the collection ‘Dawn’, the train heads east from Gambir station, crossing through the countryside,
red mounds of earth high as small hills
on either side of the narrow track farewell
what I sense of
And, at the end, a self that wears the marks and traces of brutal capture and incarceration, but who also goes on amid the details of daily living.
a chattering of bicycles and tea stalls
among the mud and puddles left after rain
hoed, black beaten, weathered, flaking away
Mackenzie’s Navigable Ink honours the inspiring, rich literary legacy of Indonesia’s most notable writer and pays tribute to his refusal to be silenced, subjugated or compromised. It is a wonderful collection that repays multiple readings.
1. Max Lane translated the Buru Quartet and as he writes in his Introduction to Footsteps (1990): ‘Tirto Adi Suryo was publisher and editor of the first native-owned daily paper, instigator of the first “legal aid service”, co-founder of the first modern political organization, co-publisher of the first magazine for women, and a pioneer of indigenous literature in the language of the nation yet to be born. All this and more is brought to life for the reader in an amazing adventure of intellectual discovery and emotion.’
2. Max Lane, Introduction, in Footsteps by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Penguin, 1990, p. 10.
3. In 1942 the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese and, after the war ended, the
Indonesian nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Hatta, declared Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945. Sukarno was the nation’s first president and Hatta its vice-president. After four years of struggle, the Netherlands recognised Indonesian independence in 1949.
4. Jalan Raya Pos 1996, with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Directed by Bernie IJdis.
5. Chris GoGwilt, 1996. ‘Pramoedya's Fiction and History: An Interview With Indonesian Novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, January 16, 1995, Jakarta, Indonesia’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1: 147-164. http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.uws.edu.au/journals/yale_journal_of_criticism/v009/9.1toer01.html
6. See Pramoedya Ananta Toer, 1991. ‘My Apologies in the Name of Experience’. Translation and
Afterword by Alex G Bardsley, 1996. https://sites.google.com/site/pramoedyasite/home/works-in-
translation/my-apologies-in-the-name-of-experience In the essay, Pramoedya relates that ‘the period of Guided Democracy in the last years of the 50s and first half of the 60s, [was] the period of the Trisakti doctrine – political sovereignty, economic self-reliance, cultural integrity – a doctrine that, while universal among nationalist states everywhere, was, however, a bogey for the countries stuffed with capital, and hungry for new fields of enterprise around the world. History teaches much about the power of capital. … The governments of so many states it turns into mere instruments of its will; and when they are no longer wanted, they are overthrown.'
ANNEE LAWRENCE’S debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro, UK, 2020), engages with the rich cultural life that exists between Indonesians and Australians. She was the inaugural recipient of the Asialink Arts Tulis Australia-Indonesia Writing Exchange in 2018 (at Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta) and has published in New Writing, Griffith Review, Hecate, Cultural Studies Review and the online University of Edinburgh Dangerous Women Project.
by Shu-Ling Chua
Reviewed by Dženana Vucic
I raced through Echoes the first time I read it. Raced through it the second time, too. At under 85 pages it’s a short book—a chapbook, almost—and easily inhaled over an idle afternoon. If you can resist, the three essays can be spread over a few idle afternoons. But it’s hard to resist—Shu-Ling Chua’s writing is compelling, the kind of simple but lyrical language that propels you through the text at pace. It’s not exactly sparse prose, but unadorned, elegant like a figure-hugging structured dress from Cue. Chua is economical with her words, and direct. She avoids heavy description or lapsing into discursive commentary and instead, she takes the concrete and mundane—clothing, songs, water—as the loci from which to gently probe her broader concern, crystallised in the book’s blurb as ‘what does one unknowingly inherit?’
In the first essay, ‘(Im)material Inheritance’, Chua searches for an understanding of self in photographs of her grandmother, in her seeming divergence from her mother. The essay circles questions of glamour and the feminine, and what it means to dress for the world or for the self. Her economy of language leads to moments of ambiguity and momentary discomfort, as when, for example, Chua writes that she ‘was not like other girls’, a sentiment that lives in the space between the then (she is writing of herself in school), and the now (she is affirming, in 2020, that she was different). It is a niggling tension felt on a personal and political level: we at once know that this is an unfair and sexist disavowal of womanhood and know, too, that we have felt this way, have felt our failures to live up to idealized femininity, and have felt our refusal of idealized femininity as a special badge of honour (indeed, some of us still do).
In another instance, Chua tells her mother ‘You’re lucky I’m not anorexic,’ and soon after notes: ‘My stomach is not as flat as it used to be. (Neither is my mother’s),’ and the lack of contextualisation, explanation, makes the reader wince. This is intentional, Chua is not attempting to save face; she offers the self in all its embarrassing exceptionalism and cruelty, setting in relief our imposed relationship to beauty, a relationship which sets us to defining ourselves in relation to others in ways that make us feel better and worse, but which also denies us joy in our physicality. The essay traces Chua’s (self-)consciousness of this tension, played out through three generations of women in her family. And though Chua ultimately finds connection to femininity through her grandmother, and with her grandmother to femininity, she lets the tension linger on the page, unresolved.
In ‘Echoes’, Chua sifts through Chinese pop songs and their modern iterations, exploring her interweaving past and present to push at the limits of language and translation, and the gaps in between. Chua was born in Australia to Malaysian-Chinese parents and, like many immigrants and children of immigrants, she inhabits a space of linguistic inbetween-ness, a space whose contours she maps out through her relationship to Chinese music. Chua describes listening to songs whose lyrics she doesn’t fully understand, lyrics that she must google and google-translate and ask friends about. It is an exploration of second language that is full of the wonder of discovery, with that special attention to meaning that non-fluent speakers often have, a tentative peeling back of definitional layers to grasp a word that native speakers take for granted. In this, there is a nostalgia—and hunger—for something only partly-known that I, an immigrant to Australia who lost much of my mother tongue in the move, recognise.
Though Chinese characters or anglicised Chinese words (Cantonese and Mandarin) appear throughout the book, they are most common in ‘Echoes’. It is a choice that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), in which Anzaldúa used Spanish and Chicano dialects alongside English in parsing through and representing her multiply inflected Chicana identity. Languages co-existing on the page, without italicization or footnoted definition, is becoming increasingly common as publishers become aware of the othering and English-language hegemony that these choices represent. However the decision to slide between languages is not just political, it is deeply personal too. As Chua, and Anzaldúa before her, show, multi-lingual works are a textual performance of the in-betweeness and multiplicity of their authors’ linguistic and cultural identities, a way of letting aspects of the self sit together on the page without subordinating one to the other.
For Chua, the decision seems also to perform her coming-to-language, and, in this, a coming-to-be. She is always googling, translating, looking up, asking for help, for information. She takes lessons, practices. Chua is always active in her linguistic and cultural inheritance and she has to be—unlike English language songs, which are so ubiquitous in Australia that you neither have to try (nor even want) to learn their lyrics to absorb them; Chinese songs require effort from Chua. She is forced to use the internet, and youtube in particular, as access points to a culture that she is very much a part of but which a predominantly white, Anglo-centric Australian (and western) media attempt to obfuscate, if not override. Hence the importance of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the sound track of which is fundamental to Chua’s essayistic musings.
The decision to leave lyrics untranslated, or partially translated, enacts instances of exclusion for readers who aren’t familiar with the script, forcing them to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and affectively bringing them into an experience paralleling Chua’s own language-acquisition. It forces them into participation. To know how the words are said, or what they mean, the reader must act, must watch the youtube video, must flick between pages to find where a line has previously been given meaning, or look up the songs and seek translations for themselves. The uncertainty and insecurity of this process, felt keenly by Chua, is offered to readers, too.
For me, it is Chua’s attempt to render as whole a self which is often split into parts that is most moving. Chua describes calling herself ‘half Chinese and half Australian’ in grade 3, while her mother suggest she use ‘ABC… Australian Born Chinese’. Both iterations split Chua in two, both evoking the neat split suggested by the hyphen in ‘Chinese-Australian (or, indeed, Chinse-Malaysian), as though anything could be so neatly parsed or disentangled. Chua does not describe herself, in any bio that I could see, as any iteration of the above, nor does she do so in ‘Echoes’. She has no time for the lazy signifier that is this hyphen and, in each essay of her collection, she speaks to, without directly speaking about, how poorly such a forced construction captures the breadth of her cultural relationality.
The final essay, ‘To Fish for the Moon’, details domestic life, habits and rituals, through water and washing. Chua describes water being saved in her parents’ home, the washing machines she has had, her (great) grandparent’s laundry business, sipping hot water, baths. Each anecdote is dropped into this flow of water and let go. Chua is gentle in this release, but unsentimental. To me, she doesn’t seem to be yearning for an imagined intimacy with the past, but rather seems to create and inhabit a present-future dimensionality that extends in all directions and take all things with it. Water is ordinary but it is also, implicitly, a connecting force, ubiquitous and mundane but life giving. To quote Anzaldúa, ‘I struggle with naming without fragmenting, without excluding… Identity flows between, over, aspects of a person. Identity is a river—a process.’ Chua takes this river, acknowledging the ways that it is communal and ongoing, and offers readers sips along its path.
Chua is an essayist and poet and in Echoes, her debut collection, these two worlds converge in an unexpected way. Rather than writing poetic lines into the essay form (and thus bearing the risk of sounding overwrought, tedious), Chua seems to do the opposite by writing essayistic sentences which slowly combine and accrete into a poetic form. She favours a sort of nimble restraint and the immediacy of concrete imagery on a sentence by sentence level. This is something of a contrast to the essays themselves which feel uninhibited, with a tendency to drifting: tangents, digressions, fleeting connections, departures and returns. They aren’t meandering per se, but multi-directional. Chua is writing towards knowledge, forgoing conclusions in favour of continuation and discovery. In tracing her connections and inheritances, she documents herself striving towards both, a process of self-actualisation rendered through her familial relationships and connection to things (tangible and otherwise) that bring her joy and pleasure.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, poet and editor. Her work has been published in Cordite, Overland, Meanjin, Stilts, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Australian Poetry Journal, the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Rabbit, and others. She is a 2020 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and tweets at @dzenanabanana.
Dasha Maiorova is a Belarus-born writer who lives and works on Dharawal Country in Sydney’s southwest. In 2020 she was runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize, and won the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize for fiction. Her writing has been published in The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Baby Teeth. She writes about books, reading and more at www.dashamaiorova.com
The train will derail.
The Pobedy departed Leningrad’s Moskovsky Station on a summer morning still yawning awake, on the fifteenth of June nineteen-ninety – but it would not arrive in Moscow. It was destined to collide with another train heading in the opposite direction, the inverse journey of its own.
The sun lingered behind swathes of cloud and a girl with her face pressed to the window did not finish her game of counting them. Ahead, at the gradual turn of the tracks, she saw the engine of the Pobedy as it travelled through the pine trees, and the cracked paintwork of the driver’s compartment.
Teaspoons rattling on the tea lady’s cart mimicked the onward chugging of the passenger train and the chatter of school children aboard, returning to country fields in the village pockets on the way to Moscow.
They would never come home.
The girl heard a bird-like shriek. A whistle. Then the brakes, screaming in agony. The Pobedy shuddered. School bags and satchels spilled from ceiling nets. Brakes seizing, the Pobedy continued its slide forward, seeming not to slow at all.
Through the pines, the girl watched as sparks shot from under the other train. The white eye lit up in warning; blinking at its twin once, twice, in disbelief. She whimpered. At the midpoint between the Pobedy and the oncoming train a figure stood unmoving: a man on the tracks, unfazed by the machines’ roaring approach. He glowed white under the glare of the locomotive headlight. His head bowed in mournful reproach. This small girl already knew what it meant to mourn.
Too late, the brakes gained purchase. An explosion bellowed through the carriages, an impact not only of force but sound. The train crumpled inwards. Vapour scorched through the full length of the thirteen passenger cars, obliterating glass from windows.
The carriages settled on their sides, twisted as wooden toys discarded by a child. The dead were silent and the dying held their breaths. Those children still able to scream, screamed. A bar pierced the girl’s thin chest. A new smile was torn beside a mouth that never had cause to smile before.
Spilled, charred limbs crowded Alyona’s thoughts as she waited in a holding area of Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The corridor bore the resigned shabbiness of an interrogation cell. Discarded customs declarations and incoming passenger cards formed a patchwork on the linoleum. Fluorescent bulbs spat yellow light over the pockmarked ceiling tiles.
Following the flight, it seemed time would remain suspended. Alyona spied a glance at the Soviet clock mounted on the wall across the hallway. An object of functional lines, a face without character.
Hunching on the bench with her suitcase wedged between her knees, Alyona began again to gnaw at her cuticles. Her spare hand strayed to her collar button, then to her hair. She brushed it behind one ear and then back in front again. To appear at-ease and inconspicuous she tried to maintain a slow, steady breath. It was a wasted effort. No matter what she did, Alyona could not hide her face.
A light flashed above the door opposite, indicating that she could finally enter the office. Inside, an immigration clerk peered over the frame of her glasses at Alyona. The officer had eyebrows thin as spiders’ legs and they rose in appraisal of the young woman. Alyona’s photo lay atop the open file on her desk.
She had supplied the passport-sized image months ago. In it, an indignant Alyona stared from under a fringe since grown out. Her hair loose around her cheeks, to cover her marked face. They warned Alyona in the consulate that any mistake in her application, even a photograph too much in shadow, would likely terminate her chances of entering Russia. She still refused to pull back her hair.
That image, that file, had since passed between many examining hands. The paleness of her skin surprised her. The blue-grey gash beside her mouth did not. She appeared older in the photo than she expected.
The clerk indicated the empty chair before the desk and began clacking at her keyboard. She hesitated, her gaze hovering over her monitor. Her glasses glowed with the reflection of the screen, obscuring her expression. She did not look at Alyona but rather through her. In return, Alyona averted her eyes, studying the brutal Cyrillic letters labelling a badge on the desk. She could not decipher and name and title scored there.
The speechless moment dragged on. Alyona’s heartbeat echoed through her body. She wondered if even the clerk could hear it: the drumming of her fear. She refocused her attention on a calendar pinned to the back wall of the clerk’s office. A mountain range. Snow-capped forest glowing against a red sky. Today’s date unmarked, of no significance to the woman who hung it there.
A printer on the desk groaned to life, making Alyona jump. Several pages of dense text spewed from its mouth. The clerk gathered them together and stamped them each with a flourishing emblem. From her position, Alyona distinguished an inverted crown and a pair of hooked anchors. The crest of Saint Petersburg.
“Sign here.” The immigration officer tapped a long fingernail against a blank line at the end of the document. Alyona’s breath quickened. The cryptic letters on the page blurred. She scrawled her signature and pushed the papers back toward the clerk, who stapled them without ceremony.
“Very good. The matter of entry is resolved. It is done.” The officer’s tone intended as a brush-off. She spoke English with a laboured, throaty accent. “A statement of validity will be issued to your designated place of residence. You are required to register with the nearest legal authority within three days, with your host acting as witness. Penalties apply if you do not do so.”
A fresh stack of papers appeared before Alyona. On the second line: her name, typed in that square, formidable language.
“My grandmother is unwell. She cannot leave her apartment,” Alyona stuttered in a tongue grown unfamiliar.
“Oh, you speak Russian.” A raised eyebrow. A fingernail trailed the text of Alyona’s documentation. “I see here, she is on a widow’s pension. Have her sign for you, then. I’ll give you a declaration form.”
Relief and uncertainty in equal measure collapsed like lead through Alyona’s chest. “I am surprised. I was expecting–”
“What did you expect?” The clerk narrowed her eyes. Alyona held that gaze for a second. Beneath the desk, she pressed her nails into her palms.
“Your application took into concern… special circumstances. In truth, I don’t understand it. Your case is the first of this category I’ve come across – and from Australia, of all places. You should be glad for the expedited process. Next year, upon reaching the age of twenty-five, you’d be stamped a ‘stateless person’, with no recourse to enter the country with such ease.”
No. It had not been easy.
The clerk’s authority reminded her of Lena, her guardian. The woman who had so nearly prevented Alyona from coming to Russia. From coming home. Another year, and Alyona could not have returned.
“Thank you,” she said instead.
“The arrivals hall is that way. You should be able to get a taxi to the city without any difficulty at this time of day. Unless someone is meeting you?”
Alyona shook her head, but the clerk had already dismissed her with a vague gesture in the direction of the door. “Welcome to Saint Petersburg.”
Alyona knew she overpaid for the journey. The cab was meterless. She gave the driver an address on a slip of paper, and he quoted a price. That was all he said.
The car wove through a city bearing no resemblance to the Saint Petersburg Alyona had imagined. She was unprepared for a route landmarked by soot-coloured bridges, factories enclosed in barbed-wire fences, and multi-storey complexes glittering with smashed windows. She alternated her attention between watching the dismal passing suburbs and the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Faded tattoos marked the backs of his fingers. His eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Bloodshot and unperturbed by the marks on her face, as though scars by a woman’s mouth were a frequent sight in his world.
He left her at a road heaped with rotted leaves. Concrete slab khrushchyovka apartment blocks towered above her. Each more dismal than its neighbour. If the driver had not flicked a hand in the direction of a particular block, Alyona would never have guessed which of those sixties’ government-constructed buildings was her grandmother’s. The blocks cast bulky shadows over the road, mirroring the rows of yet more disposable Soviet-era khrushchyovkii. Each flat had its own small balcony. Some were cheery with ornate gardens of vines and potted flowers so lush they spilled into neighbours’ territories. Others were stacked with debris.
Alyona could not remember when she last felt so small. Even her lungs tightened, a sensation of her body wanting to close in on itself. She had arrived in Saint Petersburg. She was on the cusp of discovery, of unearthing all that remained of her history, yet she felt no sense of homecoming.
She tried to guess which window in the dirty grey expanse she would soon be looking out of. Her body acted before she made the decision to key the flat number into the intercom – 11. The device crackled to life. An entry buzzer sounded.
As Alyona pushed through the security door, she glimpsed a clutch of wilted sunflowers tethered to hooks on the side of the building. Though weak and bent by early autumnal chill, they were bright flares compared to the darkness within.
A bare bulb spit light in erratic bursts from the ceiling. The rustle of Alyona’s coat and the tread of her boots too loud against the blistered walls. Ahead, a timber block propped open the doors to a graffiti-emblazoned lift. A hand-lettered sign hung from the wood, declaring a hazardous proposition in exclamation marks. Alyona peered through the jagged spiral of stairs stretching six or seven landings above. She estimated flat eleven would be on the fourth floor.
Nowhere else to go except up.
Movement above. Light shimmered on a metal door, opened just for her. As Alyona climbed the final steps of the landing, she saw the figure silhouetted there.
“Irina Alexandrovna?” she asked.
The figure – a woman – shuffled forward. She was very small, and very old. She wore a long cotton dress beneath a pilled cardigan and slippers covered in stains.
“Alyonochka!” The old woman’s voice wavered in the stairway.
Alyona stood awkwardly at the last step. She turned her face down as she dropped the suitcase by her feet. The old woman addressed her again by the diminutive Alyonochka!, her voice made small by weeping. She seemed unable to contain herself.
The old woman placed her hands on either side of Alyona’s arms. She drew Alyona against her bird-like chest in a stilted embrace. Their height difference made it easier for Alyona to turn her face away. She hoped the old woman could not detect the mad beating of her heart. In Alyona’s ears, the thudding smothered all other sound.
“Finally, you’ve come back. You’re home!” Irina Alexandrovna sobbed. Her familiar, bittersweet smell struck Alyona as savagely as a blow. Coarse grey hair tied in a bun with an aroma… salt, sugar, cooked apples.
Sunshine baking dust in a carpeted room. Toys in a wicker basket. Alyona’s child-self reached for a worn doll. The memory was devastation. Alyona clutched back. She gripped the fabric of her grandmother’s cardigan as though to cling tighter to the memory-scent overwhelming her.
Wooden ornaments lined the windowsills of Irina Alexandrovna’s flat. Hand-hewn spoons, rearing bears, wolves arch-backed and howling. Browned tapestries hung on the walls, speckled with flakes of paper crackled from the ceiling. Irina Alexandrovna watched Alyona expectantly, as though wishing for some recognition on her granddaughter’s behalf.
A threadbare sofa designated the sitting room, its centre dominated by an unceremonious pile of books, stacked like chopped wood. Each title stripped of its spine.
Alyona finally spoke, though without directly addressing her grandmother: “You’re a reader…”
Irina Alexandrovna stared at the torn covers. Her expression carried surprise. “I gathered them when I was able to go up and down the stairs. Everyone throws books away nowadays. They throw everything away. No one knows what’s needed until the time comes, but everything can be useful in the end.”
She smiled a distant, unhappy smile. Alyona saw the glimmer of gold-capped molars at the back of her mouth.
“My girl, you must not be used to these things. Here, take off your boots. You must wear these when you’re inside.”
The old woman practically fell to the floor beside Alyona to help pull off her shoes. She presented Alyona with a pair of indoor slippers. They were paper light, with thin rubber soles designed for nothing more than to keep the immediate chill of the bare floor from her feet.
“These are your tapochki. I kept them especially for you. Look – they fit perfectly. I knew you would come.” Her voice turned hoarse. She sank back onto her knees, in a crouch virtually animal. “It hurts to know you will only see me like this.”
A chord snapped in Alyona. She kept it tight within her, that anger at Lena. She could have come earlier, would have – if only she’d known. But Lena kept everything from her, even the existence of this poor, frail woman.
“I came because I’m going to help you. You won’t be alone here anymore.”
Alyona thought she should place her hand on the shivering angle of Irina Alexandrovna’s shoulder. The moment she did so, a terrible jagged rasp came from her lungs. Irina Alexandrovna staggered to her feet. Her next steps took her to the adjoining kitchenette.
Alyona followed her. Words of panic slipped from her lips. “Please – babushka – what’s wrong? Let me – let me help.”
Irina Alexandrovna’s eyes were half-moon crescents of pain. She doubled over, degraded, feeble. Almost the feeblest creature Alyona had ever seen.
In the helpless eyes of the old woman, Alyona saw the eyes of another. She had seen such pain before in her false mother Lena. Lena, staring heavy-lidded at blood spilling from her body, unalarmed but aching. Alyona hadn’t helped her. The sight of pain made her afraid.
Irina Alexandrovna was fumbling with a glass jar containing a small quantity of pills. Alyona took it from her jolting hands.
Her grandmother held up two fingers and Alyona dispensed a pair of circular tablets into her palm. The old woman’s hand quivered so violently she nearly threw the pills clear. Her motions reminiscent of a baby bird, she managed to swallow them. The image made Alyona uneasy. She inspected the pill bottle with its faded label. The text, even to one able to read Russian, was an indecipherable scramble of typewritten characters. She replaced it on a shelf beside a collection of similarly indistinguishable medications.
Irina Alexandrovna slumped onto a stool by the kitchen window. “Is this really what you want? To see an old woman live out her last days? I never wanted to become like this. There is no one left. Except you, my dear Alyonochka. You are the last I have in the world.”
To her own amazement, Alyona reached out again to the old woman. Touch – initiated of her own volition – a rare and unimaginable thing in her former life. She clasped her grandmother’s hand, the fingers gnarled as knots in an ancient tree branch.
In English Alyona told her: “It’s my duty to look after you. You asked Lena for me. All these years, I did not come, because she never told me. I’m here now.”
There was no way Irina Alexandrovna could have understood, but she smiled again, faintly, knowingly. “You have a lovely voice, my kind girl. But I like it better in Russian.”
Alyona sat in the bedroom she would now call her own. She studied its sparse furnishings: the bare wooden desk, the chipboard drawer in cherry veneer, the upholstered chair curdling foam at its seams. She listened to Irina Alexandrovna pottering in the kitchen down the hallway. The clink of plates and cutlery pierced the walls.
Grateful for a moment of reprieve, no longer watched or waited on, she mapped out the apartment in her mind. None of it appeared through familiarity.
A steel door shut away both the stairway and the outside world. A storage alcove for coats and shoes made up the entryway immediately within the flat. Following the entry, the sitting room with its sunken sofa and mutilated books. The doors to two bedrooms, Irina Alexandrovna’s and Alyona’s, framed either side of the lounge. Then there was the kitchen, almost too small for both grandmother and granddaughter to stand within together, and a bathroom dominated by a freestanding tub veined with rust.
No room spoke to Alyona’s memory. She had been there before, according to Lena’s retelling, for a short time in her childhood after her injury. The thought of it made her place a fingertip to the fibrous tissue at her collarbone, as though the scar might make her remember.
The fingers of her other hand pinched the zipper tongue of her unopened suitcase.
Lena warned Alyona she would only find pain and loss in Russia. Alyona refused to trust her: the woman who kept the truth out of reach. In Sydney, as Alyona peeled away layers of fabrication, milling through forged birth certificates and paperwork bonded in red tape, the name of an elderly woman remained. Irina Alexandrovna Stepanova remained. Some of those documents identifying her grandmother’s address remained buried in her luggage, but Alyona could not reveal them. Fragments of a foreign life cluttered the rest – clothes, planning documents, the practical miscellanea of a former Alyona who did not belong here.
Sahib Nazari is a writer of Hazara descent from Afghanistan. He studied creative writing and literature at Griffith University. Other than his mother language Hazaragi, and adopted language English, Sahib is also literate in Dari/Fiarsi and Urdu.
He lived in Pakistan for a few years before moving to Australia in 2005. Sahib voices his words in the form of short-fiction and poetry. He was the runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing in 2020. His other stories have been published in Meridian – The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, Bengaluru Review, TEXT Journal, and Talent Implied – New Writing from Griffith University in 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Tall Darren was twice my height and as hilarious. A true-blue Aussie and the most down to earth person I knew since beginning work on the slaughter-floor. He was so tall that calling him just Darren was enough, but the nickname told him apart from five other Darrens employed in the abattoir. When I first met him, I thought his first name was ‘Tall.’
‘Oi, fucking smoko, mate,’ Tall Darren yelled into my earplugs.. Everyone wore earplugs or earmuff radio headsets like the ones nested around Tall Darren’s neck. Alarmed and oblivious, I ran for the nearest exit, but in the packed washroom I realised he meant something different.
I entered the mess room.
‘Oi, smoko means break not fucking fire,’ Darren announced, and the other butchers joined him in laughter. That’s how Tall Darren and I became friends. He helped me learn Aussie slang like fair dinkum, what it means to chuck a sickie and say fuck for no reason at all.
‘Keep your fuckin’ knives sharp and your fuckin’ eyes open. That’s half of your fucking job done mate.’ His face glowed red, bending over and grinding his blade against a whetstone.
‘But why would I say fuck for no reason at all?’
He straightened his back and took a deep breath. ‘O for fuck sake mate.’
Sleeping mask still on, Mr. Bean drops the ringing alarm clock in a glass of water. Mom laughs which she scarcely did since coming to Australia. With no literacy in English or any other languages, she struggled inside and outside the house. But laughter does not transcend literacy. If it were not a universal language, Rowan Atkinson would need Hazaragi, my mother language, to make Mom laugh. I watch her enjoy the moment, wondering how many Mr. Beans are in the world bringing laughter without talking. I’d seen many who made people cry. Moments later Mr-funny-Bean changes clothes while steering a car with his feet. Mom laughs again and I’m ready to go to work with her smile in my mind.
When I met Kathy three months ago, she was brunette, blond and back again. Today, a pink fringe flirted with her shoulder length brunette hair like Nelly Furtado in Promiscuous. Half the Dubbo girls wanted to be Nelly, copying her dresses and dance moves. like her. We bought beers and walked up to smoke on the balcony of the Amaroo Hotel – the only spot I liked in the place. Kathy dressed promiscuous as always, but she never played me, never pushed an impression. To hide her heartbeats, she downed half her beer in one go. I could barely drink beer, so as always, I topped her schooner. Her glass was always half empty. When it came to drinking, Kathy could skull a barrel of beer in a night. But alcohol didn’t’ explain her loud, silly and aggressive attitude. She was a mess ever since some kids strangled her staffy when she was fourteen. The girl responsible spent a year in a Sydney hospital with multiple fractures to both legs. It took physicians and physios around twelve months to repair the damage. Kathy had repeatedly smashed her with a cricket bat.
‘Hey Matty,’ Kathy called out as Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty was ripping up the roof. But the music was too damn loud, and the guy didn’t hear anything as he disappeared in the crowd.
‘Matt’s an old mate, I took his virginity in high school.’ She took a puff and blew the smoke to blur up the scene.
‘I thought you didn’t make it to high school,’ I said, eyes fixed, as if talking to my cigarette.
‘Nor did he.’
‘I didn’t either.’
‘You fucking smart ass. Are you still a virgin?’ Dark brown skin wrinkled her forehead.
Tryin’ ta catch me riding dirty bounced off my brain. I blushed. ‘Despite the fact that most Afghan men think with their dicks, yes. I am.’
My first ever job was a real bloody killer. Routine, afternoon shifts, starting midday. Finishing before mid-night meant I missed more sunrises and sunsets in my five years in Dubbo than the eighteen years preceding. I could only cuddle sunlight over the weekends. It was all the same inside the slaughterhouse: meat, blood and shit. Eight-hour shifts with thousands of blood-dripping carcasses hanging upside down, running on a chain one after the other. Seeing animals getting slaughtered was less traumatic a transition compared to seeing people getting butchered in the streets because, as an Afghan, I’d seen enough humans spilling human blood that those blood-dripping, headless carcasses couldn’t disrupt my nightmares.
I bought The Alchemist with my first ever pay from the abattoir job. With no skills and next to nothing schooling qualifications, joining the slaughterhouse was the only choice in an outback town like Dubbo. We weren’t fair dinkum Aussies. Not entitled to government benefits so, like Dad and my two older siblings, I worked to support the family. But deep down I knew it wasn’t for me. This was not the dream.
Tall Darren, skinning knife in right hand, steel in left, pointed in the direction of a round and bouncy bloke who looked like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. ‘Here comes short Darren.’
Walking in holding a can of sugar water in one hand, knife kit in the other, Short Darren greeted us with a ‘fuck off.’ His uniform soaked in sweat. His breaths outpacing his body by the time he settled around the table.
‘His nickname is Human Balloon.’ Tall Darren stroked his knife on the smooth steel.
‘Oi fuck you, Lizard of Oz,’ Short Darren scowled. His rotund face turned pink behind rounded spectacles. ‘My nickname is fat boner. You want some?’
Tall Darren ignored him. ‘And that’s Victoria’s Secret,’ he said, pointing with his knife towards a handsome bloke with a Ned Kelly kind of bush beard who waved his hand from across the table. ‘He’s obsessed with girls named Victoria.’
‘Or beer,’ Short Darren shouted.
‘That’s one piss of a fucking beer mate.’ Tall Darren adjusted his hair net, preparing for the day.
The bush bearded bloke smiled and silently raised his middle finger.
Short Darren asked where Blunt Fuck was. Tall Darren said he was off for the day.
‘You mean off or chuck a sickie off?’ I tested myself.
‘Finally, someone from Afghanistan who’s not a sheep shagger,’ Darren cracked.
‘Is that his nickname?’ Short Darren fired, pointing at me with his sausage fingers.
Darren said, ‘Na, he’s our fucking Baba. Ay Baba?’ He was laughing his lungs out. Only the two of us knew the joke. Short Darren sipped his sugar water, while Victoria’s Secret bushranger ran his blade along one forearm to check if it was sharp enough to shear a sheep.
Tall Darren called me Baba because one day on the floor when the lairage was waiting refill. He asked if I knew any songs I could sing. I started baa baa black sheep except I rhymed, baa baa white sheep have you any wool. No sir, no sir, fuck off you fool. Darren instantly gathered other butchers around to listen. He pointed out that it’s actually baa baa black sheep, not white sheep. But I kept to my version because, I told Darren, we are the black sheep in this case. He started calling me Baba. I explained, in Afghan language and some others between south Asia and the Balkan region, baba means father. He chuckled like a child about to say something cheeky. ‘You mean father, or daddy?’
In a park’s playground, three kids hold a skinny brown girl by the arms. A skinny freckle-faced teenage girl and a fat boy in crew-cut hair are pulling a strap wrapped around an aging staffy’s neck. Bleeding, huffing, dry tongued, lying on its side, the dog tries to bark but there’s no hiss, or sound. Saliva form bubbles. Helpless, the staffy’s eyes pop in and out with each breath. Its legs start trembling, ears vibrate, then the tail stops wiggling. The heart stops pumping air. It finds peace. Breathless but peaceful. Tears run rivers from the brown girl’s eyes; and perhaps revenge too. Then a blackout.
I bet Mom would have been a bright storyteller, had she been educated. Would she have become a teacher, a writer or an alchemist, I often wondered. Once I asked how she felt about illiteracy. She replied, ‘You cannot lose something you never had. I’d feel sorry if I were the only woman in Afghanistan but it’s the whole country.’
Kathy’s uncle often poked his head into her room pretending to see if she was alright, offering her the first joint to smoke when she was just thirteen. Cigarettes followed; she helped herself, taking one out of the pack when her uncle was stoned. Soon enough beer became the beverage of choice. One led to two, two led to trouble, and before she knew, she was smoking like a vacuum and drinking beer like a baby drinks a bottle.
At first, it was her hair. Then all the places not covered by her shirt: arms, neck and shoulders. Then whatever was left out of shorts in the hot and sweaty Dubbo summer: feet, calves, thighs. When it all started, Kathy knew what her uncle was doing but she didn’t bother and cared too little to confront him because she depended on the dope. But she noticed his hands travelled a few inches further every new day. One still-air hot day his fingers unhooked the bra from under her light blue shirt. He spilled half a can of beer down her front until her small bosoms surfaced like the sail of a submarine from a blue sea, nipples erect like radio antennae. She started cursing and punching him, smashing his head with a wooden chair, making him bleed and freaking the fuck out of him. But they always settled things down before her grandma returned home from work in the afternoons.
By that evening Kathy had come up with a plan, to play, to negotiate a term; she’d keep quiet if her uncle drove her around until the day she found Freckles.
We had another Afghan family, that also called Dubbo home, over for dinner. Mom cooked lamb curry, prepared pulao, sorted out salad with the help of my sisters. But the guests seemed reluctant to touch the food for fear that the meat might not have come from a halal shop. This furthered Mom’s frustrations; she took painkillers for her backache, for the stiffness of hour-long food preparations. Afghans can stomach anything but change. They are concerned if the meat is halal but receiving Centrelink benefits while working cash-in-hand is fine. Because God has no problem how money is made as long as meat is blessed.
‘I gave him head.’ Kathy and I were spending another drunken Sunday near the bank of Macquarie River. We often drove up to that spot out of town to get stoned so the coppers and creeps in town didn’t bother us. I was stoned. She was drunk, and stoned.
‘What?’ I said, barely able to stand straight under the sun.
‘My uncle, I gave him head to get him to drive me around to find Freckles.’
‘You are a fucking caveman, aren’t ya? I sucked off his cock.’
I felt more ancient than a caveman for not knowing giving head. Fossilized.
We drove back to town late in the afternoon. Kathy was still spilling beer on her singlet.
‘Wanna go out tonight?’
‘Yeah, I’m dying to get pissed and see you pick a fight with the girlfriends of all the guys you wanna fuck.’
‘We’ll do something different tonight, I promise.’
‘I doubt that.’
She lit a cigarette. ‘You want to fuck me. Isn’t that what you want?’
I pulled the car up behind Amaroo Hotel. ‘Kaths, I just want to know where we stand and where we’re going. I mean when will we stop this get-stoned-get-drunk-as-fuck-catch-up game?’
She squashes the container spilling beer all over. ‘Just fucking drive, will ya?’ she snapped.
‘No. You’re drunk and you’ve no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Let’s go home and talk about it some other day. I need time to think things over.’
A police car slowed down to check on us as it drove by. Kathy dropped her beer-can under her feet. She picked up her bag, and out she jumped, walking towards Amaroo. The coppers didn’t stop, nor did Kathy. I pressed on the gas thinking that sometimes it’s better to remain a caveman on purpose.
Mom’s backache, the symptoms of slaving away as an Afghan housewife all her life, was worsening every day. As if raising seven children wasn’t hard enough, now she was slaving away all over again in Australia. Afghan men don’t change. They only like the idea of change.
Cables rustled about the rusty poles of swings; seats were missing. Birds sang, trees hissed in the hot windy afternoon. In a distance, a girl with freckles and a fat boy with a crew-cut kept hammering something against the solid surface of a basketball court. They took turns smashing it on the ground. Then the fat boy stood up, swung his arm skywards, and it came down, hitting the concrete with a thud. They’d cracked the shell: It was a tortoise.
A moment later, a skinny brown girl is standing over their heads holding a cricket bat firmly in her both hands. She swings the bat without a warning hitting the freckled girl mildly in the forehead as she ducked right in time colliding with the fat boy in turn. The boy makes a run for it but the girl can’t. Slightly concussed, she covers her head and screams. The brown girl made another swing aimed at her legs. She keeps coming harder and faster, with all her vigor and vengeance until cries of the freckled girl overcome the singing birds. Trees hiss. Rusty cables wring about as the brown girl walked away in silence, and tears.
The butchers were sweating and swearing outside the mess-room. Inside, a grave silence creeped all over when I walked in. Blunt Fuck was dead. He’d lost it in a head-on collision with a truck on a November morning. He’d been doing double-shift to save up for the Christmas break. Tall Darren said he owed the bastard a meat pie. His tears wouldn’t stop. That was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.
Autumns were the most surreal spell in Dubbo, when trees said goodbye to leaves, one by one, coloring the streets in red, brown and yellow. Mom walked up and down Macquarie Street, taking photos of the fallen leaves, the naked trees, as she strolled in the cooling breeze. The clown without a mask, Mr. Bean, still cracked her up like cartoons crack up kids. She found peace in her solitude as the communication gap remained hugely unfulfilled. Only Rowan Atkinson filled that void. But she smiled more often since joining TAFE to learn the English language, attending three days a week. She made new friends too because, like laughter, food doesn’t need a language to bring people closer. Food fathoms solidarity just as laughter apprehends love. Like the autumnal trees, Mom too understood that she must let go the timeworn leaves to welcome the new ones.
In my loneliness, I found peace. In my peace, though, there was no loneliness; only a dream. Whenever knives were at work, I told myself that one day, the butchery will be behind me. Whenever silence ruled, I dreamed that one day my dream will realise me because fate didn’t bring me to Australia just to butcher, drink beer, eat kebabs and die. And that sooner or later I’ll hang up my slaughter-gloves, swap whetstone with
One weekend, under the spell of a red and orange outback sunset, I texted Kathy.
‘Virgin no more.’ I pressed send.
‘Let’s catch up,’ her text popped up.
Instead of a textual argument on the old Nokia headset, playing with buttons, I thought it’d be better to fight face to face. Half an hour later, as she got into my car, I tried to kiss her on the cheek.
‘No!’ She eye-balled me and backed away. ‘You slept with a chick.’ She was loud. ‘You’re a fucking cheat.’
‘What the fuck Kathy. Take it easy. We’re not together. We haven’t even kissed despite knowing each other for months.’
‘Fuck you.’ She threw a punch at me.
I caught her fist with both hands. ‘Are you fucking serious? Because from where I see things, it doesn’t look like we’d ever sleep together even if we were the last two people on earth.’
‘If I don’t sleep with you, doesn’t mean I don’t care for you.’ She plucked a cigarette from the pack.
‘If you don’t sleep with me but care for me then you should be happy that I got laid.’
She put out the flame on the lighter. ‘Who’s she? Do I know her?’
‘You’re not making much sense Kathy. You don’t want me, but you also don’t want to see me with another chick. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any virgins waiting for me in the afterlife if I drop dead today. So we must draw a line somewhere. I know that what happened to you, and to your dog, was wrong but you gotta give yourself another chance. You must move on.’
‘It’s not that easy.’ She blew smoke on my face.
I rolled down the window. ‘Maybe. But you can’t just take a friend hostage.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m moving on.’
‘Fuck you.’ She took her purse, cigarette pack, and jumped out of my car. ‘Go fuck yourself.’ She slammed the door shut.
From then on, we travelled back in time to become the strangers we still are today.
Anith Mukherjee is an artist based in Sydney. He has a brief publication history.
He is currently studying film at AFTRS. Anith is the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize Winner.
I am full of love
Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing.
– James Baldwin
You wanted to fight for a cause
Then go out and love someone
-Gang Of Youths
On the tram to film school I feel sick from my morning medication. The tram stops and I walk off, Nick Cave songs playing through my headphones. Inside a public toilet I vomit, cough and spit. Kneeling on the cracked tiles I wipe my face with toilet paper. Nick Cave sings in my head, ‘if you’re in Hell what can I say, you probably deserve it anyway.’ Everything is prophecy, signs and symbols. There is no mirror above the sink where I wash my face and I wonder whether my eyes are red. On campus I buy a coffee and sit down. Ryan tells me the morning’s lecture is on Italian Neorealism. Sitting in the lecture theatre, watching clips from La Notte, I fall asleep. Ryan wakes me when the lecture is finished and we walk outside. Indira and Jackie are smoking on the lawn. Jackie offers me a cigarette and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say. Indira asks me what we should make as a documentary for this semester. Let’s do something on brown diaspora, she suggests. I shrug and say I don’t want to make something about being brown just because I’m brown. It’s all they expect of us, I continue, why can’t I make a film about love or trout fishing? Indira laughs. They eat that shit up, she says, besides what do you know about love or trout fishing.
In class Ava shows me her latest short story. I’m thinking of leaving my boyfriend, she says. Good, I reply, then you can date me. Ava rolls her eyes. You wish, she says. The tutor discusses the male gaze in cinema and an argument between Felix and Melissa ensues. Ava shows me another piece of writing. What do you think, she asks. It’s too sad, I reply. Ava scowls and says, fuck I don’t want to only make people sad. My doctor put me on Lexapro, she says idly, I think it’s making me confused. She looks at me and asks what meds I take. Atypical antipsychotics, I say. Sounds intense, she replies. After class Ava and I sit outside on the grass. She lies on her back and closes her eyes. The sun shimmers across her face and causes little specks of glitter under her eyes to sparkle. I lie next to her and look up at the sky. What do you see when you look at the clouds, I ask. Ava opens her eyes. Ice cream, she says.
In the evening I walk to the train station. The sunset sky is pink and blue and orange. The daily procession of fruit bats streak across the horizon. On the train ride home I idly consider whether I have wasted my life. Somewhere along the way it seems that I failed deeply, made some fatal error at a critical juncture. The result being my current life. What do I do now, I ask myself as the train arrives at my stop. At a local falafel joint I buy two slices of pizza and sit waiting for the bus, eating. Grease covers my fingers and above me nocturnal birds screech themselves awake. At home I lie in bed and scroll through pornography on my phone. Bored I decide to microwave my fingernails, to slice off my ear, to drown a kitten. Something has to happen, I think, before I ossify. At midnight I walk the local park track down to the river. The water is still and calm and black. Lying on the soil with my jumper folded beneath my head I fall asleep. In my dream I am a lizard king, I am a rat spider, I am a junkie priest. In the early morning I walk home to visions of a Holy War – chariots and lighting and swords on fire. At home I quickly swallow my meds and brew a coffee. In the yard outside I close my eyes under the sun. Gary walks out and lights a cigarette. He gestures to me and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say.
Patti sits up in my bed and runs a hand through her neon green hair. I take lots of medication, I say. I have a lot of needs, she replies, I’m too horny for this shit. Do you love me, I ask. Don’t ask me that, she says, not now. I stare at my soft brown cock, all limp and lifeless. What kind of man am I, I think. Fuck it, I was never any kind of man at all. I could stop taking my meds, I suggest. Patti shakes her head. I don’t want you to do that, she says, don’t put me in that position. We sit in bed for a while, silent and tense. Patti exhales deeply. I’m going to take a bath, she says finally. The phrase ‘emotionally avoidant’ passes through my head. I search to remember where the phrase comes from. Something I must have read. I read too much, I think, all those useless books.
When I was younger all I wanted was sex. Then everything became about art. Now all I think about is money. I hope Patti doesn’t use up all the hot water, I think to myself. I hope she doesn’t notice that half the light sockets are empty. Some time later Patti walks back into the room, wrapped in a towel. She sits on the edge of the bed and smiles. Baths are so consciousness cleansing, she says. What do you want to do today, Patti asks. I shrug. How about checking out the Gauguin exhibition in the city, she suggests. Wasn’t he some kind of racist, I ask. Patti shrugs. Probably, she says, they all were back then.
We sit in the gallery cafe, each sipping black coffee. When did we stop having conversations, Patti says, when we first met we would have these long sprawling conversations. She watches the strangers in the cafe for a moment, then looks me in the eye. Her eyes are speckled and blue and for a brief moment I am filled with regret. We were getting to know each other, I reply, our brains were fuelled by novelty. Patti furrows her brow. I don’t accept that, she says. Talk to me about something, she says, what’s been on your mind? I shrug and look around. I’m worried I’ll never have any money, I say, I’m worried I’ll never learn how to survive. Patti smiles and twirls a strand of green hair around her index finger. You, me and the rest of us, she says half sarcastically. La génération condamnée, Patti says, Hemingway would be proud.
The gallery is mostly empty and Patti stops to study a self portrait of Gauguin. I look into his hollow oil eyes – deranged and syphilitic and anaesthetised. He went all the way, I think. We stand next to each other, staring at D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. He was beautiful, Patti sighs. He was sick, I reply. He went all the way, I think again, to paint like this you have to relinquish your claim to reality. I feel fear and repulsion and admiration. What is it to be a person with no place, no future, no desire? How do I exit this game, I think, when do I get to wake up.
Inside Patti’s apartment spins a vinyl of Bitches Brew. Patti pours two glasses of red wine and sits next to me on the couch. It’s true, I think, our relationship used to be hyper intellectualised. She’s disappointed in me and I am bored of her. Inertia keeps us connected. This pattern repeats itself endlessly. Somewhere along the way I confused lust for love. Somewhere along the way I forgot to become a person. Patti stands up and begins to dance as Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays from her vintage Hi-Fi. She sways side to side in the middle of the room, her moonlight skin scattered with rainbow tattoos. It occurs to me that I have no love for her. Love is the missing link between myself and life, I think, a link I have no idea how to repair.
Patti’s naked body presses against mine. I hold her in bed and she is warm underneath the soft cotton blanket. Gently she kisses me on the cheek. You don’t know how to love someone, she whispers into my ear, you don’t know what it means to love. In the morning I put on my clothes and leave the apartment while Patti sleeps. Outside the air is clean and cold. The streets are not yet busy and I walk around until I find a cafe. I try to buy a coffee but my card is rejected. To hell with everything, I think. My phone buzzes with a call from Patti but I don’t pick up. Instead I catch a bus back to my place.
My whole life is a fucking mess, Ava says without affect, I have zero idea how to function in the world. She plays with her hair and sighs. Why can’t you just do nothing with your life, she says, I don’t want to have to do things. Ava and I sit in the school’s foyer, skipping screenwriting class. Marry me, I reply, we’ll move to Paris and write dysfunctional novels. Ava rolls her eyes. You have no money to fly to Paris, she argues back, besides the French are annoying.
After class Ava and I walk to the bar. We both order the house red wine and sit outside, watching the construction of a circus in the field nearby. By evening we are tipsy and when Ava looks at me I feel compelled to hold her and kiss her. Her lips are soft and her spit tastes like cheap wine and cheap tobacco. She places a small hand on my arm and for a moment I feel overwhelmingly lonely. I pull away and Ava smiles slightly before closing her eyes and rubbing her nose. I’m still with Jack, she says, you know that. Jack sucks, I reply, you only stay together because you’re both too afraid to break up with the other. It’s the same between me and Patti, I continue, this way we both have an excuse.
In my room I lie in bed while Ava undresses. She lies next to me and reaches between my legs. With Ava there is no issue and we fuck until our bodies are tired and sore and sweaty. Afterwards Ava wraps her arms around mine and rests her head on my chest. Now we’re both free, she says.
In the morning Ava is gone and I wake up alone. On the pillow next to mine is a handwritten note: ‘Forget last night. I am happy with Jack.’ Above me I notice a dark, damp spot growing on the ceiling. I crumple the note and throw it across the room in the vague direction of my waste basket. It’s 8:30 AM and class starts in an hour. Fuck it, I think, I’d rather do anything else today. But what, I ask myself, what is worth doing? An entire world, a whole life, given to me for nothing -and I have zero interest in any of it. It all adds up to nothing. Samantha ran away to help the environment and faced the evil of fossil fuel capital until she collapsed exhausted, Jesse smoked weed for a hundred years and melted back into the Earth, Rachel lost interest in music and slit her wrists live on 4Chan, Jackson became a lawyer and jumped off his penthouse balcony, Mandy wrote poetry that no one read and cried silently into to the neutral eyes of her twelve rescue cats, Priya joined a hippie cult in the mountains and renounced money for sex, Ashwin stuck a silver needle in his veins and thought he was Coltrane, my father ripped out his own catheter dying from a brain tumour in hospice and blood spurted out his great brown cock enough to drown even his own screams. And here I lie, feeling nothing.
In the bathroom I unwrap an Astra Platinum razor blade. Gently and without malice I run it across the palm of my hand. The lack of pain surprises me. Thin streaks of blood flow down my arm as I hold it up to the light. Good, I think, I still bleed and I am still free. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the power of my own freedom. Anything can happen now, there are no limits, no boundaries. I exist in a timeless, spaceless vacuum. Today is only another day.
All I want to do is eat shit food and watch pornography and sleep, I tell Sun, why is there no space in culture for my aimlessness? Sun scratches his scraggly black beard. He says nothing, opens his rainbow cloth backpack and reaches inside. He takes out a small brown paper bag and hands it to me. Tonight, he says, if you are ready to leave Hell. At night I pour the contents of the paper bag onto my desk. A handful of dried psilocybin mushrooms fall out. Intense waves of anxiety and anticipation pass through me. Fuck it, I tell myself as I scoop up the dried mushrooms and swallow them in one motion.
I lie naked on the grass in my small backyard and everything feels inevitable. I ruined my life, I think, I wasted it with banal malaise. So begin now, a soft voice replies. I’m a bad person, I think. No, the voice replies, you’re flawed like everyone. I use women, I think, I treat women like shit. So change, the voice replies. No one has ever loved me, I think. Then love first, the voice replies. I am so afraid, I think. That is OK, the voice replies. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel sickly, broken, exhausted, alienated, bored, self-loathing, hateful, lustful, impotent, enraged, transient. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel mirthful, funny, entertained, calm, hungry, warm, healing, motivated, interesting, peaceful, connected, eternal. In this moment I am very young. Violet petals stream through the parted clouds and morph into butterflies – fluttering and free and graceful. With little kisses they relinquish me of the poison in my blood. My lilac skin soft and blossoming. Seized by instinct I run to the bathroom and vomit in the toilet. Blue and purple bile leaks from my gut – little maggots writhing in the liquid. Help me, I cry, please forgive me. I was never supposed to come here, I was never supposed to fall this far. All I ever wanted was a real love, an undying love that would absolve me of this pain and guilt and waste and failure and regret. Great sunflowers bloom from my fingers, my eyes, my chest. Everything is golden and shimmering. Pink tears ooze down my glowing face and when I look into the mirror I am alive.
The morning sun rises as I sit outside, holding a blanket and a jug of fresh orange juice. My neighbour walks outside and unlocks her car. Good morning, she says with a smile, you’re up early. Three years I’ve lived here, I think, and I’ve never noticed my own neighbour, never knew she existed, never even said hello. Good morning, I reply.
Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, National Security and Dissent
by Kieran Finnane
ISBN 978 0 7022 6044 5
Reviewed by TAMARA LAZAROFF
I have to admit I jumped at the chance to review Peace Crimes, partly because I know two of the six so-called ‘criminals’ – the Peace Pilgrims – who are Finnane’s subjects. Andy Paine and I have moved in some of the same circles for close to a decade, including the Brisbane zine community. I have become acquainted with Franz Dowling more recently through my occasional volunteering at the Friday night Food Not Bombs street kitchen in West End, which Franz co-coordinates. Way, way back in late 2016, I also knew that Andy – I hadn’t yet met Franz – had an upcoming trial in Darwin. It had something to do with a direct action, a non-violent trespass into the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap (just 19 kilometres outside of Alice Springs), and he was – all six Pilgrims were – facing up to seven years in gaol. But my understanding about what exactly the group did, why they did it, and how their action fit in with the larger picture of war; war crimes, Australia’s involvement, resistance and civil disobedience, was vague. Of the enormity of their considered, courageous act of protest, I had no idea.
Helpfully, Finnane begins her book on the night the Pilgrims begin their journey by foot to the facility. She draws links, and not incidentally, I don’t think. (If anything, the entire narrative’s undercurrent is concerned with our undeniable connectedness.) In any case, in her recounting of that 28 September, 2016 late evening, she is looking up at the starry sky on her bush block on the southern side of Alice while the Peace Pilgrims – Jim and Franz Dowling, father and son, Margaret Pestorius (whom the police cast as an ‘elderly woman’, though she self-describes as a ‘direct action goddess’), Timothy Webb and Andy Paine are only just setting out on their 15 kilometre walk through the darkness, spinifex and scrub, and rocky, unknown terrain, sometimes uphill. It is the very same night that a missile from a US drone strikes the village of Shadal Bazar in Afghanistan, killing 15 people and wounding 19, most of them civilians – though the group do not know this yet. When they reach Pine Gap, Franz and Margaret, who have carried along their musical instruments, a guitar and viola respectively, begin to play a lament for the dead, for the victims of war. Andy livestreams the event on a borrowed mobile phone. They all pray, especially for those who have died by drone strike because of Pine Gap. As Finnane clearly details, this military facility supplies targeting data ‘used for drone killings in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and in countries with which Australia is not at war, such as Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen’ (12), making Australia potentially responsible for war crimes and the terrorism that is returned in response, not to mention incomprehensible human suffering. The number of strikes are rising, too. In Afghanistan alone, there are currently about a hundred a month – that’s about three a day. It is this the Pilgrims wanted to draw attention to – even at risk of their own incarceration – and they did. As a result of their on-site arrest, there was the subsequent trial at the NT Supreme Court and the international media interest that followed. Peace Crimes ultimately contributes to and advances this project of awareness-building.
Finnane is a journalist by trade. She is, in fact, one of the founders of the Alice Spring News, which has been publishing since 1994; and she personally reported on, and was present for, the entire two weeks of the Peace Pilgrims’ court case. Her first book, too – Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia (2016) – is focussed on the courtroom, violence (domestic, this time) and is also centred in Alice, where she has been living since 1987. With such long and close links to the town, Peace Crimes definitely has an insider’s perspective – and a lot of heart – alongside being incredibly well-researched, as would be expected. Particularly fascinating – engrossing even – are the sections on the history of the anti-war movement in Australia and overseas, which serve to foreground the Pilgrims’ actions. For example, during the Australian anti-conscription movement of the early 1910s, 34,000 citizens were prosecuted and 7,000 were imprisoned for their anti-conscription activities, including the future Prime Minister John Curtin! These details and more on the purposes, successes and challenges of civil disobedience, recent and past, are intertwined with the history of Pine Gap and those who oppose it (including another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser). It is all compelling. Equally compelling is the court case itself – Nobel Peace Prize winner Richard Tanter, among many other public figures, come to give expert evidence for the defence – and the legal machinations on display are also, on occasion, a little farcical. All of this makes for mind-boggling, mind-expanding reading. Really, however, it is the protagonists themselves who shine the most brightly in the story that Finnane tells. She writes:
I was drawn to write about the Peace Pilgrims because of the large view they take of their social responsibilities. They may join campaigns, but really, their field of action is the whole of their life, as far as their capacities and nonviolence can take them. They are connected to movements, and even specific groups within them, but within the bounds of their strong spiritual and moral frameworks they seem remarkably free – unconstrained by waiting for consensus, or theoretical coherence, or numeric strength … (247-48).
For me too, as a reader, it is the parts of the book in which Finnane illustrates the ways the Pilgrims ‘embody justice’ (190) in their everyday lives – not only their more pronounced political actions – that are some of the most engaging, and heartening. Franz Dowling, for instance, co-facilitates a house of hospitality in Greenslopes, which is also his own home, providing free shelter and food for people in need in the Catholic Worker tradition to which he belongs. Jim Dowling, Franz’s father, a long-time peace activist also motivated by his Christian faith, lives in voluntary poverty on a farm in Dayboro with his wife Anne Rampa where they have brought up their seven children. They have a biogas toilet that fuels the stove, and other ingenious green power facilities, including a veggie oil-powered vehicle. Similarly, Timothy Webb, who was raised in hand-built house in New Zealand, lives a life that seeks to harm others as little as possible; his parents, like Franz’s, instilled in him the understanding that ‘the luxury and convenience of Western lifestyles were paid for by the ‘short, unbelievably miserable lives’ of other people halfway around the world’ (24). Andy, too, practises radical renunciation; he lives on less than $5,000 a year (without Centrelink), though his days are filled with endeavour – the production of his weekly community radio program The Paradigm Shift, for one. At the time of the writing of the book, too, he was ‘sailing towards Manus Island with a group intent on protesting Australia’s asylum seeker policies’ (243) in order to, once again, stand up for others. On the other hand, Margaret Pestorius, a social worker and therapist, ‘questions, gently, her friends’ dedication to voluntary poverty’ (25) – though she, too, shares her house Peace by Peace with others, including a friend she was at the time nursing through cancer. At home in Cairns, she has long been involved in organising healing rituals, such as the Frontier War memorial on Anzac Day eve for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. And finally, Paul Christie – the sixth Pilgrim who walked alone a few days later on 3 October, 2016 and had his own separate trial – moved to a rural cooperative upon the hearing’s resolution as a response to and action against climate change.
Like the Peace Pilgrims themselves, Peace Crimes is an inspiring and radical work – though it shouldn’t be. Hopefully in these post-COVID times we will together begin to recreate our society for the better, and for all, in a spirit similar to the Peace Pilgrims’. For a further taster of Peace Crimes, you can watch this short video of author Kieran Finnane speaking about her motivation for writing the book against the backdrop of Arrernte land and the Pine Gap base, the huge information-collecting radomes in the distance.
Here is the link for the bolded section above:
TAMARA LAZAROFF is a Macedonian-Australian writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives in Brisbane on Yuggera and Turrbal country. Her collection In My Father’s Village & Other Freedom Stories (Pollitecon Publications) was shortlisted for the 2020 Woollahra Literary Digital Literary Award; and her novella Husk, Root, Bone was recently published by Big Fiction Magazine (USA).
Peter Gilkes is a writer, artist and previously an operations and business manager based in Kuala Lumpur. He recently returned to Australia after working in SE Asia for nine years. He has had articles published with the Sydney Morning Herald and is now compiling a book of images and memories of travel from the last 30 years.
The Man with Shaking Hands
June 1980. Baluchistan. Pakistan.
My bus to the Iranian border slowed down and the driver steered off the highway and parked beneath the canopies of some welcome trees.
It was 11am, a roadside shop cum restaurant for drink and food and ablutions in the Kharan desert of Baluchistan. The scenery was arid. Flat sand plains in 35+ Celsius heat. The hills on the distant horizon were blocks of gold, ethereal in the hazy light, almost imagined.
The coach I travelled on was a landscape itself, a brilliant glistening beetle. Pakistani buses are crazy, colourful creations so distinct from the drab brick cities. The metal frame was adorned with lights and painted colour. There were blooming flowers and strutting peacocks bannered across the front cabin. Between and around the windows were swirling tendrils in rose and green. Lower down the bus fuselage were patterns of gold circles bordered by bright silver squares. Even the tyres were rimmed in fluorescent blues and orange. For the show of night, strings of coloured globes criss- crossed the roof and sides. Inside the cabin, above and around the driver’s windscreen were strips of multi-coloured mirror embroidery and little threads of swaying beads and sepia pictures of the Kaaba. The vehicle was an amulet on wheels, a talisman.
We stepped down from the bus to be met by the silence of the desert. The passengers soon filled the quiet as they entered the restaurant with their chatter in Urdu and Farsi and the seating fuss of the scrapping of wooden benches and chairs across cement, the kitchen clatter of pots and dishes, the wails of tired infants and the sudden scratchy sound of background radio music, now that customers were here.
This was an old route for travel. Thousands of travellers had come before, even Alexander the Great had travelled through Baluchistan. Alexander had entered India via the Khyber Pass but after many campaigns he led his tired armies on an epic journey back towards their Macedonian home via southern Baluchistan around 324 BCE – hear the smack of leather against flesh, the whinnying of horses, the grunting of camels, the shout of foreign tongues.
There were a few armed soldiers on the hill above the roadside halt, guarding the desolate desert highway. There had been a special carriage on my immediate train travel before the bus, an open roofless carriage set in the middle of the train with high armoured sides with firing slits and soldiers on watch for attack.
Though its population is small, Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan. Relations with the government in the capital Islamabad have always been bad. The Baluch are a proud tribal people with many grievances against the Pakistan government. Sudden violent flare ups of resentment have always been likely in this region.
I entered the roadside world, thinking of some tea or drink and wondering what food I could eat and let’s be careful not to get sick. As I looked around, and as I was looked at in turn, I saw a man who looked different from the rest, sitting just outside the main dining space.
He was perhaps 30 years old, gaunt and tall. I couldn’t place his culture, perhaps Mediterranean, seemingly not a Pakistani and probably not Iranian.
He wore a black business suit that was creased and stained. His skin was taunt across his cheekbones and his lined forehead glinted sweat yet he had a handsome well-rounded face except for some acne scars across the cheeks. He had a long narrow nose and milky green brown eyes that glowed and he was clean shaven with a thin black moustache carefully shaped to the edges of his dry pale lips. His black hair was a thick lustrous clump that he kept tussling and fidgeting with. He could have been a musician, a classical violinist I thought, or some thin gangster type but there was a dignity to him that spoke of responsibility and something earnest.
His white shirt needed a good wash but it was still a business shirt and his laced black shoes still had some patches of shine. I spotted him first because he stood out amongst the other people who were wearing local clothes in pale tones of brown and green and crème. Shalwar Kameez – long loose cotton shirts down to the knees and baggy trousers of the same colour – coupled with shawls and sandals. There were some other travellers in jeans and t shirts but most of the forty or so men and women and children at the roadside halt wore the practical, traditional dress.
His suit caught my eye, as he sat on a bench on the other side of the tea shop, keeping away from the bustle of my fellow bus passengers, resting in the half shadow beneath a tarpaulin stretched from the corrugated iron tea shop roof.
I took the wooden bench seat near him and watched him light his cigarette.
His two hands tried to move toward each other to light the cigarette. The matchbox in his right-hand palm gripped tight by his long thin forefinger and his thumb. The match held in his left hand like a needle or a wand.
His pale lips held the cigarette in place, pucking, as it slipped and slid in the waiting, a thin black line of moustache twitching up and down.
The hand holding the matchbox tried so hard to hold the cardboard box still, and his eyes watched the process so intently, but the box and the match would not meet.
The match and the box were held in hands that shook so much that after two minutes of trying to strike the match against the flint side of the box there was no success. He could not control his wildly shaking hands.
He seemed as surprised and perplexed as I was. His hands would simply not do his bidding, they shook desperately like the panicking wings of some trapped bird, refusing his will. He turned his eyes up at me and I leaned down taking the box and the match from his fingers and with one strike I lit the match and cupped the flame and he leant down and sucked in the fire and inhaled the magic smoke of the crackling tobacco.
I asked, “Why are you like this?”.
He stared at me, regarding me for a long time, a piercing regard, and then he began to explain in carefully pronounced English.
“We were in a car accident in Paris, near the Champs Elysees. One month ago. A big truck was out of control. It came across the traffic and hit our car. I was driving. My baby daughter was in the backseat, she was crushed and killed. My wife was decapitated. I was hardly injured”. He spoke so softly. He was so completely and utterly exhausted. He could have been talking to the whole planet.
I bought him a cooled bottle of Coca Cola, fished up from a dank well by a young boy, a clanging bucket of clinking bottles dripping wet brown water, and after the flipped rusty bottle top, the stain of rusty grime around the rim. I wiped the rim and he drank.
The cool sweet fizz and the blue tobacco smoke were a breakfast for travellers.
He sat beside a large battered silver metal trunk and he told me all he owned was inside, but each country’s customs inspectors took a little of what they fancied and it had become lighter and easier to lift, but it weighed heavier on his mind – I later thought to myself that perhaps soon all he would have left after the thieving would be an empty trunk and people would think he only carried it to put things in, not comprehending his loss.
He had a Portuguese passport. He’d worked in the Paris embassy. He had travelled across Europe and had come through Greece and Turkey and Iran to Pakistan. He was now heading to India. “I am going to Goa. I was born in Goa.I want to open a restaurant”. I lit another cigarette for him and smoked one too. He seemed a bit calmer and we talked some more.
But I was travelling in the other direction. My bus going west to the Iranian border blasted its air horn and I said goodbye and left him and went across the highway with the other passengers and we climbed back aboard and I took my place on the roof. I waved back to him and he waved and we were both gone – but he stayed restless in my memory – that awful image of his shaking hands.
The House of Youssef
by Yumna Kassab
Reviewed by SHEILA NGOC PHAM
“The two chairs: tea, coffee, fruit. They discuss the house, banking, they keep away from the future. The birds play in their bath. She thinks of karma and pain and suffering. There is a world beyond this yard and she knows little of it. Her son used to say to her, There is a whole world beyond this one if only you would reach for it.”—from ‘The Two Voices’ in The House of Youssef
Yumna Kassab’s debut, The House of Youssef, arrived on my doorstep without forewarning. So this is how I first encountered the author: through her words. Léa Antigny, Giramondo’s then-publicist, sent me the book because she thought I would appreciate it; even though Antigny only knew me through my writing. Later, she suggested to Kassab that I might be a good candidate to speak at the book’s launch. In retrospect, Antigny’s literary matchmaking feels inspired, how her writerly mind was able to see a connection between the two of us before we saw it for ourselves.
It was an honour to launch such an unusual and accomplished book, and the event marked the start of a lively literary friendship. Reading my launch speech more than a year later, my understanding of The House of Youssefis now coloured by knowing more about the author herself. In any case, my first impressions of the book largely stand, though it’s fair to say how I now see that Kassab’s best work lies ahead of her.
Revisiting the book now, I find myself once again appreciating the crisp prose; how the restraint on the page demonstrates a woman in command of her ideas. But what struck me most then, and perhaps even moreso now, is the enormous feat of imagination and empathy that Kassab has pulled off. She honours the experiences of migrants without necessarily chastising or valorising them. The House of Youssef expresses the questions raised by the first generation, and attempts to describe the struggles of their offspring to seek answers as they grow up in a different world. In such a scenario, there are no obvious ripostes, only fragments, scenes and moments stretching out over the years.
“The house, some say it was unlucky. You hear stories, they make you not want to live there. It is good they knocked it down and took out the foundations too. It is a hole now but soon they make it flat and put in concrete and then it will be something new.”—from ‘The House of Youssef’ in The House of Youssef.
The dialogue is sparse, often absent: “The silence, the mountain, the words that will never see the light of day”. Many of us know this silence intimately. Kassab’s book attempts to provide a shape to this mountain, though does not attempt to conquer it. Narrative coherence is what so many of us yearn for—a novel—but perhaps the reality is closer to the book itself: a series of short stories, a novella, and two monologues from elders. What the structure also reveals is something of the fragmentary nature of diaspora, how it feels to grow up in a displaced community; particularly as we find ourselves living in societies which have come to be characterised by at-times aggressive individualism. The children of exiles and other kinds of settlers embody grief in different ways. All of which brings the following passage from Edward Said to mind:
“Exile is…the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”
There is nothing heroic, romantic or glorious in Kassab’s stories; on the contrary, by focusing on the mundane her work depicts a community and its many complexities without apology. But that’s not to say that it’s not audacious, which is evident from how she dares to explore the shadows:
“Why a burning? Why not? A burning, a trampling, a stoning, a shooting.”
I recognised the insularity of the community depicted in The House of Youssef as being not dissimilar to what I had grown up with in another part of western Sydney. The specificity of place and culture is, in fact, what made it possible for me to relate in concrete ways. The stories were not a mirror; it’s more that I recognised the depth of feeling and emotional truths of the stories. In ‘Disgrace’, for example, a daughter is rejected by her parents for marrying ‘out’:
“She had always assumed there was time, that one day they would talk again, that her dad might be a grandfather to her kids. She had assumed that given enough time it would happen; they could be one big happy family.”
However, it seems important to state that being able to relate to these stories and characters in The House of Youssefis not the book’s key value. There is a strong emphasis nowadays about needing to see ourselves explicitly reflected in art—and how this mirroring needs to be external, with visible markers of our identity such as race described on the page. But this idea strikes me as being potentially solipsistic. While there is no doubt that representation is important as well as the need to enrich our national literature with stories from places like western Sydney, demanding representation at the cost of artistic sovereignty diminishes the power of artists and their works.
If you wanted to read The House of Youssef as a window into the lives of Lebanese Australians, you certainly could do that though. Kassab provides much-needed nuance, which has helped me to better understand what I have observed in the decades spent living in areas such as Lakemba and Bankstown. A little while ago I stopped by the Abu Youssef Fruit Market in Yagoona. It’s a short walk from home, though I only started visiting it because the pandemic forced me to spend more time in my neighbourhood. It was only on my last visit, however, that I finally noticed its name.
“Who is Abu Youssef?” I asked the handsome young man behind the counter. He’s the one who always calls me sister in a way that makes me want to learn more Arabic.
“He’s my oldest brother,” he said, while weighing the cheaper Chinese pinenuts I had chosen.
“So that means his son is named Youssef, right?”
I could tell he was impressed at my handle on Arabic titles, no doubt because of my outward appearance as an Asian woman. He went on to explain that the name Youssef has been passed down through every generation in his family. In turn, I tell him about my Lebanese friend who grew up around Parramatta and wrote a book called—The House of Youssef.
So I did not read this book to learn about a cultural group I feel are profoundly different to me. I have often felt a sense of kinship and even common struggle with the Lebanese I have lived alongside. It’s why I even visited Lebanon to see it for myself some years ago. Having been there made it easier for me to understand the narratives in the book that involved travelling back and forth.
“Why had she come to Lebanon? Everyone had an idea why she was visiting, everyone but her.”
At its heart, The House of Youssef is about the human condition. Understanding the similarities and differences between us is the only way multicultural societies can thrive and how we will ever truly accept each other. This is obvious but is worth restating nonetheless, in these times more than ever.
At some point, an unnamed narrator towards the end of the novella says, “Keep the plane in the air, keep the plane in the air, you can’t keep the plane in the air.” I paused after that sentence, thinking about the miracle of flight. How understanding the physics of flight does not necessarily make it easier to believe we are able to fly. Perhaps the truth is, sometimes we simply can’t stay afloat and we can’t keep the plane in the air—but we can create something meaningful from the wreckage.
The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab has been listed for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (UTS Glenda Adams Award), Queensland Literary Awards and the Stella Prize.
SHEILA NGOC PHAM is a writer, editor and producer working in radio, print, online and film. She regularly writes for a wide range of literary and mainstream publications, and is a current judge for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Sheila has held digital and editorial roles at the ABC and continues to produce radio documentaries and stories for ABC Radio National, most recently Tongue Tied and Fluent, a five-part series exploring multilingualism in Australia.
Šime Knežević was born in 1985 and lives in Sydney. His debut poetry chapbook, The Hostage, was published by Subbed In. His poetry has appeared in Ambit (UK), Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, Magma (UK), SAND (Germany), Signal House Edition, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and elsewhere.
Šime was a recipient of the Subbed In Chapbook Prize, an Australia Council grant, and shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Playwright Award. He studied playwriting at the NIDA Playwrights Studio, completed a Master of Arts in creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney, and in 2019 attended the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Summer School in Belfast.
I hear a helicopter. I hear the motor, the rotating hum, of a helicopter, a helicopter motoring across the sky. I am alone on a white rug and I hear a helicopter. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. The helicopter is outside, motoring across the sky. I am alone on a white rug, orienting myself toward a blue sky I say, inside orienting myself toward a blue sky, a blue sky I say. Outside a helicopter motors yet I hear it from inside the quiet room. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room orienting myself toward the phrase blue sky. I try to orient myself toward the phrase blue sky. I say blue sky. I say blue sky to try to orient myself toward the phrase as I say it. I am orienting myself toward the phrase blue sky with the high-hope it being said out-loud will somehow provoke something soothing inside me. In the quite room on the white rug I hear a helicopter in the distance, flying away. I hear how feint the helicopter’s motor has grown. No, I hear how feint the helicopter’s motor has diminished. No, wait. I orient myself toward the phrase blue sky with the high hope it will provoke a soothing reaction, even provoke a memory of a sky the colour blue. I am alone. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. The door is closed. I face the white-wall of the quiet room. On the white rug. The helicopter has since flown. I no longer hear the helicopter. I say ‘helicopter’. I say ‘helicopter’. No, I no longer hear the helicopter. Of a sky the colour blue, I say the phrase ‘blue-sky’, I orient myself toward the phrase. I want to connect to this phrase. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. Say blue sky. I say blue sky on the white rug in the quiet room. The phrase calms me, it must. Say blue sky. I say it twice. I say it to make it a hymn. Blue sky. Blue sky. On the white rug, I am alone in the quiet room. The door is closed and I face the white-wall. There must be breathing. Why am I not breathing? I breathe. I breathe and orient myself toward the blue sky I say on a white rug to the white-wall. I make it a hymn. Lean toward the phrase. Say it. To my surprise, it’s impossible to visualise a blue skyin my mind. Even though I say those words clearly, as clear as a whole blue sky, I can’t seem to visualise a blue sky. Is there something wrong with me? What exactly did a blue sky look like on its own? In my mind, I could see clouds of different shapes. Suddenly a moon. Some unidentifiable flying birds. I hear piano music, as if played from a Casio keyboard. None of these drew me closer to visualise a blue sky in my mind. There it is. A background element. Is there something wrong with me? It seemed, to my mind, to visualise a blue sky without clouds or moon or birds or piano music, proved impossible. Yes, inaccessible. Just like the whole blue sky itself, it eluded me, I feel unclear. I can’t seem to visualise one thing without another thing. I can’t seem to visualise a blue sky without piano music. One thing must be paired to another thing. Birds must fly in the foreground and the blue sky must be somewhere in the background. On the white rug I face the white-wall, I inhale and exhale. To re-orient myself to the present moment. Yes, to re-orient myself. This is why I’m here. Why am I here in the quiet room? To orient myself, to re-orient myself. I am alone in the quiet room. Why am I here alone in the quiet room? I inhale and exhale, unable to visualise a simple blue sky, orienting, re-orienting myself on the white rug in the quiet room. I got myself to the quiet room to breathe, to understand breathing. To visualise a blue sky and I struggled to do so. I got myself, to gather myself. And its sudden burst into splinters, I gathered myself and I got myself to the quiet room. This is why I’m here.