Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens
by Shankari Chandran
Reviewed by MARIE-CLAIRE COLYER
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Shankari Chandran’s third published novel, is a narrative of substance. You could be excused for expecting a light-hearted romp through an old people’s home, if you judged this book by the cover and title alone. Indeed, there are light-hearted moments. But this is so much more. Beyond its cover illustration lies a powerful and interlaced tale.
Encompassing years of the Sri Lankan civil war, dispossession and migration, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens presents the hurdles many migrants to new lands face in merging with the accepted norm. The characters have powerful narratives to tell. Secrets that they hold close and divulge only in cathartic moments of revelation. A layering of two timelines, past and present, this is a novel about people and their stories, set against a backdrop of personal and national histories. Stories of resilience, sorrow and depth told with warmth and gentle humour. Darker moments are offset by the diverting interactions of the colourful residents of a nursing home in Western Sydney. The characters weave their lives into a rich tapestry offering insight into the dynamics of family and friendship, racism and identity.
Maya and her husband Zakhir are Tamil refugees, forced to flee the Sri Lankan civil war and settle in Australia. There they resurrect a neglected nursing home, providing a place of peace and inclusion for many senior residents, including other Tamils. We learn that Maya, matriarch, and owner of the nursing home, grieves for the loss of her husband scarred by his past. Their pasts unite and yet in many ways isolate the residents, haunting many of the characters, underpinning daily life. What is unresolved, what needs rectifying drives Maya’s husband Zakhir to return to a homeland where he is considered a traitor. And it is the interweaving history of Zakhir and another central character, Ruben that simmers until boiling point.
A Tamil refugee, Ruben is one of the many who fled under duress from a country divided. Chandran keeps us waiting to discover how Ruben is connected to Zakhir. Unravelling these interlocking experiences over the length of the novel, she provides flashes of the trauma so many Tamils endured. A trauma that few privileged within Australia know intimately.
Maya is a strong woman, with an empathy for history; both of country and of individuals. She unearths personal pasts, using these observations in the creation of a nursing home that best embraces each of the inhabitants’ needs. Facing inequality as an ethnic author, alongside her focus on the nursing home, Maya comes to write successfully under the pseudonym of a white Australian. A name that gives her national standing and influence when later confrontation erupts. As such she is a projection of writers of ethnic background straining to find a foothold in western literature.
A subplot is revealed through the course of the novel. Maya’s daughter Anjali and her husband Nathan are buttresses for their friend Nikki navigating her own loss. The devastation of parents whose estrangement becomes pronounced in suffering the death of a young child. Recriminations and blame eventuate, locked behind the cold demeanor of unburdened grief. Nikki acknowledges the distance between her and her husband Gareth, as she turns to the comfort of Ruben. Gareth lashes out at Ruben in his own struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter. The gulf between Gareth and his wife, Nikki propels the novel into an exposé on tolerance.
In the novel, Gareth is the antagonist. He counts Maya’s family as friends, offering the outward appearance of inclusivity. But by the close of the novel his reticence is unveiled, shouting through the cracks in his façade. Fuelling his indignation is the discovery of Maya and Zakhir’s toppling of a statue of Captain Cook. When he brings an accusation of anti-colonialism before The Human Rights Commission the national backlash is immediate. These incidents are sparks that set aflame smouldering racism in a community that now feels justified to revile immigrants. It is an excuse for open expressions of hatred, leading to the response of those taking a stand for minority groups.
In Gareth and the xenophobic we see the ugliness of fear. A mistrust of those that are unlike us. Just as we can in the flashbacks to scenes in war, recognise a universal fear. The apprehension of not being accepted, the trepidation of loss. We glimpse a part of ourselves. An embodiment of humanity at its worst. And a wish to do better. This vulnerability makes Gareth human. His clinging to the world as he knows and wants it to be.
Tensions are visible threads that emerge as a wider description of Australia as a whole, exposing an often-shunned view of ourselves. The ways in which the diaspora is integrated into the fabric of society; the way they can be stymied by our reluctance or resistance in accepting those with differing backgrounds. Perhaps more so because of physical dissimilarities than culture.
Chandran’s willingness to bring these incidents to light, is commendable. Events and prejudices are revealed from the perspective of the Tamil people of her ancestral home. Though not always the case, Chandran here presents intolerance towards migrants entering a culturally different established group. She explores how through familiarity and routine people tend to hold to what they have been informed is their birthright. Whatever that upbringing may be, whether born into this society or assimilated into it. It is this turning over of the histories we have been aligned with, those indoctrinated through our education and the nation’s psyche where the book finally comes to rest.
Shankari Chandran paints a picture of Australian society that bares the fissures and flaws, the divisions that we tend to gloss over and hide. She states her position with a willingness to see beyond embedded opinions to the more subtle layering of what drives behaviour. And as such, her work is an exploration of human nature.
Chandran’s work addresses nationality, that of the Australian and Sri Lankan people. It offers glimpses of history; the histories we’ve been taught and those that have been rewritten or suppressed. It shows alternate notions of what we have taken for granted. And through the eyes of its characters allows us to experience cultures and antipathy many have never been exposed to.
The only comment that I would give is that I would have liked the inclusion of an intolerant, less obliging character of ethnic origin to offset the real bigotry in a segment of white society. But that perhaps is the mirror to discomfort in my own evaluation of the divisions inherent in the society I live in and my placement within it. There is in Chandran’s story, a wide margin in likeability between the main characters of different cultures, with Nikki being the chief favourable representation of white Australians. That is not to say that Chandran’s depiction of immigrants is homogenous. There are minor characters with personalities that I would find testing. But there is a tendency, which aligns with her message, to portray more racial acceptance or at least amiability from ethnic people and more intolerance from white. This though also relates to the pressure placed upon her characters to prove themselves as Australians grateful to be given sanctuary. Something that white Australians are not obliged to do.
It is refreshing to read a novel that calls us out on ingrained prejudice or habitual ways of thinking and regarding the world. Like in all Chandran’s work, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens turns a spotlight on the judgement, rejection and antagonism towards a minority ethnicity wanting only to live a peaceful life. It poses questions we as Australians and indeed those of other nations should contemplate. History is written by the victorious. This book asks us to contemplate parallels between the suppression and alteration of histories and identity of both Tamil and First Nations people. Ultimately, the question of who we are. To quote the novel in Maya’s words, ‘…we are all immigrants on stolen land.’ (p310). Further, a quote by Maya’s father, ‘…possession of land is nine-tenths of the law; possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’ (p 233).
Disclosure: The writer knows the author personally, however the opinions expressed are her own.
MARIE-CLAIRE COLYER is an award-winning Australian wildlife artist and writer. Her work covers personal essay, memoir, poetry, mainstream and literary fiction. Her writing and art have been published in magazines, journals and newspapers both in print internationally and online. www.marieclairecolyer.com
Kavita Ivy Nandan was born in New Delhi, grew up in Suva and migrated to Australia in 1987 after the Fiji military coups. She completed a PhD in Literature on the postcolonial narratives of Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul at the Australian National University. In 2017, she moved from Canberra to Sydney with her husband, Michael and son, Jesse. Kavita teaches Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She is the author of a book of poems, Return to what Remains (Ginninderra Press, 2022) and a novel, Home after Dark (USP Press, 2014). She is also the editor of a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-editor of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and a book of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her poetry and fiction are published in LiteLitOne, Not Very Quiet, Mindfood, Mascara Literary Review, Transnational Literature, Landfall, The Island Review and Asiatic. She has been a recipient of the artsACT grant three times.
Cartwheels in space
Remember those damn kids
Who did cartwheels on the front lawn
On your strip of earth, in front of your damn house
To show you how damn good they were?
Those sporty-straight-legged girls with golden skin
And you tried too, because you wanted to be like them
Never in front of those deep-blue-Pacific-Ocean eyes of course
But in private
But you never
Could achieve that spinning momentum
Dumped on the back lawn each time
With your legs feeling like two lamb shanks
Your dark hair and skin frizzing in the sun upside down
Experiencing disappointment, like a firecracker that fizzled out.
Today, the latest images from Webb’s telescope
Captured the collision of two galaxies:
A cartwheel galaxy.
And you swore to yourself:
failure is transitory/
miracles do exist.
The perfect weather
A colony of witches’ broom
swept over the sleeping reserve
a trident of coldness that
pried open the mouth with vapours,
set upon the mind, haunting it with unfavourable thoughts,
such as sidewalk paraphernalia – plugs and wires –
getting wet in the rain and
feet sinking in soggy ground;
all of which makes one queasy.
Yet it was the perfect weather
to buy a coffin: black, $1,050, until,
the street lamps flickered off
night transitioned into day, and
the sun came out.
Maki Morita (she/they) is a Japanese-Australian writer and performance maker on unceded Wurundjeri country. Recent projects include dance piece (live art, Labour Lexica exhibition, Linden New Art, 2022) and Trash Pop Butterflies, Dance Dance Paradise (fortyfivedownstairs 2022, Theatre Works 2023). She is a 2022 Wheeler Centre Playwright Hot Desk Fellow and has appeared in events including National Young Writers Festival, Feminist Book Week and Yardstick.
SUBURBAN QUEERNESS / THE ANOMALY OF DANDELIONS
Threaded through primrose suburbs are the anomaly of dandelions, soon to be tucked away. As I child I thought dandelions were beautiful, and my parents would say Good! Pick those dandelions, we don’t want them in our backyard. I liked arranging their sunny halos over a vase, in my bedroom, in a similar fashion to roses or tulips.
There’s nothing new about sweeping together (fairy)dust and stashing it away. After all there are hoarders, stamp collectors, and the like. My favourite thing is paper — I collect wrapping paper, tissue paper, clothing labels made with nice paper, magazine cut-outs, postcards… which mostly go unused. My mother would always say Why are you keeping these piles of rubbish! But to me they are not rubbish; they are keepsakes.
The thing is my mother also kept ‘rubbish’. She would carefully cut out shoeboxes to make draw dividers. Tissue boxes became pencil holders. There was the big plastic bag full of smaller plastic bags in our kitchen, because as most Asian mums will tell you, Plastic bags can be re-used for anything. However, the function and order of these refurbished items rendered them ‘acceptable’. For some, fading into the façade of white bread suburbia is a lifelong endeavour.
For others, there is room to question this penchant for order. We can afford to peer into twists and gaps, to crawl into dark corners. In searching for lost glitter and stranger forms of beauty, we seek to embrace disfunction. Whether we realise it or not. Why marry for security? Why mow the lawn? Why have sex for procreation? Why not wear a funny hat?
And like this, we may become an anomaly in the way of dandelions.
While anomalies coexist with suburbia, there are penalties for overgrowth. Take the case of a lone share house on a straight (in both senses of the word) tree-lined street, identifiable by its quintessential front-porch couch (with holes, slightly lopsided). This outlandish artefact teeters in the kind of place where white women wear lululemon leggings and overpriced t-shirts bearing slogans like ‘fitness gangster’. Where a war of attrition begins by occupying a resident’s regular parking spot. God knows why we lived there.
Over many months of neglect, our section of the nature strip climbed above those of our neighbours. A woman once walked past and began tearing out the stalks with her bare hands. The anger this small patch of knee-high grass caused in her was initially amusing, then slightly alarming. She threw fistfuls of it onto the pavement, to little avail, then stalked off muttering annoyances.
With overgrowth comes visibility, and with visibility comes the pressure to either admit to noncompliance or trim it away. As an adult, embracing this visibility is akin to queer puberty — the protracted youth and delayed hooliganism that comes with comfortably fitting into your skin a beat (or two) after adolescence. In this sense, there is a certain freedom to leaving bushy sprawls rather than manicuring neat hedges.
Like dandelion wreaths, the throwaway remnants of suburban maintenance can be weaved into something new. While delicate and ephemeral, they may gather again and again over time, like the joy of coming together in the queer underground. The act of shimmering bright comes with the threat of being uprooted. Yet it is precisely this daring act that can allow for the birth of reverie, of a dreamlike space crafted by collective outlandishness.
Towards the end of its life, the dandelion turns to seed, and at this late stage it acquires a strange usefulness: wishful thinking. What was once an enemy of the suburban lawn becomes a novel means of articulating desire. Children are encouraged to blow the aged dandelion’s wispy seedlings into the sky. To close your eyes and make a wish. This way we learn about ambition, hope, everyday magic. And so the possibility of something different is instilled in the fantasy of youth. Within the rigid outlines of suburban lawns, clouds of lust are sent floating upwards.
Ironically, this human act assists with spreading seeds so that more young dandelions can grow, who will then be treated as pests by much of the human population. That is, unless they survive gardening days and careless shoe tramples to make it till old age. Why is it that this object of otherness requires the passing of time to prove its unique worth? Or is it precisely the unwantedness of dandelions that make them a suitable thing to send scattering with a mere breath, on which to attach our runaway desires?
Our relationship with magical thinking in many ways defines suburban queerness. The experience of growing up while dreaming of something seemingly distant. A lingering sense of being an anomaly, and looking for the right place to sprout petals. This continuous search keeps us in a state of permanent adolescence, always wishing, defying, and sprawling over, to the great disgruntlement of some.
Anthea Yang is a writer and poet living on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her writing has appeared in Going Down Swinging, Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and the HEIDE+Rabbit House of Ideas: Modern Women anthology, among others. She has been longlisted for the 2021 Kuracca Prize for Australian Literature, shortlisted for the 2020 Dorothy Porter Award for Poetry, and has performed her poetry as part of Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, and Red Room Poetry’s 2022 Victorian Poetry Month Gala. Born in Perth, Western Australia, her favourite season is summer.
i do not know how this ends
except there is a line drawn between me
and my body / me and
the person sitting next to me on the train / me and
everyone i have ever loved deeply /
a line between me
and the place where i am hungry to be
my memory is desiring linearity
remembers touch as an unripened mango, firm except a thumb-shaped bruise touching the surface / soft but unclear of the cause
perhaps what i am trying to trace is a lineage
perhaps what i am always trying to find is a line
let me try one more time:
memory is reaching / is waking to
the moonlight casting a patchwork of shadows
on my throat / i wonder
how much language i am losing / every day
a character learned now missing a stroke
until i am left with just the beginning / 一
the first stroke from left to right: a horizon
one late afternoon i watch the sun blow through
a lineage of trees, casting a shadow
on the building opposite my balcony
and i think about how the word 梦 is made up of
a forest sitting above the evening / how this is a dream
of my real life / this landscape
where I am standing on a mountaintop watching time settle
comfortably into the horizon as if it has done so before / here
my body melts into the shadows and here / in the poem
in the archives / in the memory
i am in abundance.
Patrick Flanery is the author of four novels, including Absolution (2012), which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award, and a memoir, The Ginger Child. He is Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
Photograph by: Andrew van der Vlies
Logic aside, I blame my daughter. She was not here when it happened and has not been here for some time. And because she went ahead with the move only a week after the accident, I cannot stop blaming her. I know she knows I blame her and although this makes me fret from time to time it does not keep me awake, even in the afternoon when sleep overcomes me. Sometimes it concerns me so little I almost don’t recognize himself. My despair is to blame.
Ilse insisted she would go for a walk on her own. I was in the kitchen drinking an espresso and told her to be careful but did not drive up the hill to place myself at Ilse’s terrace door and prevent her going out when anyone would say a 95-year-old blind in one eye and deaf as granite should not be walking alone in the mist on a cold July morning. Natalie asked what I was doing at the time, but I can’t remember. It may have been the morning a brushtail fell down the chimney and sat dazed in the ash blinking until I put on the fireplace gloves and wrestled it screaming into a box while France whined from the bedroom.
What I do remember is that when I went to pick up Ilse for lunch that day, she was greyer than usual. At the organic market, she would not eat her sweet potato soup or slice of sourdough. After dropping her at home and insisting she turn on the heat, I phoned Natalie in Taipei and reported what Ilse had told me: that she took a fall on her walk and might have bruised her ribs. She said she was nauseated and having trouble breathing.
‘A fall to folly,’ I said.
‘What? You have to take her to hospital,’ Natalie said in her dogmatic way, ‘she might have broken something. And you’d better call her sons. We can’t do this again.’
‘I don’t want to go behind Ilse’s back. You know that’s part of our bargain.’
Later that afternoon, at Natalie’s urging, I went to check on Ilse. She wanted to go buy a crate of wine, which made no sense when she had a cellar full of it. I told her Natalie thought she should go to hospital and let her sons know what had happened. That was the first time I was seriously worried because I could see she did not understand what I was saying. I had to repeat myself three times and when she did finally understand she snapped.
‘I just want to go to the fucking bottle-o,’ she whispered, ‘so stop wasting my time.’
We were sitting in my car, which she had laboured into, wincing with every move. It was the second to last time we sat together in my car. For twenty years we had sat together in cars, going to Shakespeare in the Vines, Chardonnay May luncheons, La Bohème on the beach. It’s not Europe, but then nothing else is, Ilse always complained, even when she’d enjoyed herself. It’s not the Royal Shakespeare Company, but then nothing else is. It’s not Meursault, but then nothing else is. It’s not La Scala, but then nothing else is.
‘I don’t need to go to a hospital or phone my bastard sons,’ she gasped. ‘They will simply do what Natalie has done, which is to say respond as if this is the disaster,’ she wheezed, ‘that it clearly is not. Now take me to the bottle-o.’
I knew she meant the disaster for which her sons had been waiting to have an excuse to put her into a home. Six months earlier, the eldest, Laurent, sold the car out from under her after she changed lanes on the Prince’s Highway coming home from the theatre and sideswiped a Ute whose driver threatened to sue. Even though I disapproved of Laurent’s highhandedness, it was a relief not to have her driving anymore. A month later Laurent took away Ilse’s black pug, Fool, and rehomed it with one of his clients in Kenthurst because he said a dog as pudgy and aggressive as Fool would pull her off her feet and make her break a hip. She was never the same after.
The morning after her fall in Cleland, when I phoned Ilse at our usual check-in time, she did not answer. I drove to her house and found her unwashed and lying on the white Italian leather sofa in muddy jeans and sweatshirt. On the coffee table were two empty bottles of the single-vineyard pinot she’d bought the previous night. She blinked but did not reply when I spoke. I approached to see if she was alive and her breath was wind through sheoaks in my ear. At that point I told her we must seek medical attention.
‘No fucking ambulance,’ she whispered before struggling one last time into my car.
The young doctor who clearly fancied himself did an x-ray while we waited and after an hour returned and reported: ‘Two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. You’re going to hospital, Ilse, whether you like it or not.’ Dogmatic, like Natalie. He did not make eye contact with either of us but kept checking his own reflection in the mirror above the sink.
Laurent arrived after lunch on a flight from Sydney and the youngest, Florian, rolled in the next morning from Melbourne, by which time Ilse was no longer speaking and neither the doctor nor nurses could say why she was not speaking or whether her lung would reinflate. They did a scan to check for signs of stroke, but there were no such indications.
‘Sometimes,’ the doctor told Laurent in my hearing, ‘this happens with very old people. One significant trauma and they go headlong over the edge. It’s just nature culling, to put it bluntly.’
A short while later Ilse no longer recognized me and did not recognize her sons and by the time her middle child, Maurice, arrived from Singapore, she was thrashing around and had to be sedated. By the end of the week, she was dead. I was not in the room when it happened and did not for a while believe it had and then spent an hour alone with Ilse’s body and understood it had definitely happened. Her skin grew cold. I thought of my mother and father, how icy their hands were in death, how unresponsive.
That evening I phoned Natalie in Taipei as she was packing to move to Los Angeles with her husband. She made sympathetic noises and looked as though she might cry. Her new job was starting and they had been waiting on the American visas for more than a year. ‘I cannot fuck this up given the direction of travel vis-à-vis the whole China situation,’ she said, ‘and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it’s past time we got out.’
‘Does that mean you won’t come?’
‘It means I can’t come, Dad. I’m sorry. I wish I could be there for you. But I can’t let passion get in the way of reason.’
‘Passion? Is that what you’d call it?’
‘Don’t make this more difficult for me than it is. I was fond of Ilse, you know that.’
So, I blame her. I have tried to reason myself into a more forgiving frame of mind but cannot manage it. If Ilse had been her mother, or even, I believe, if Ilse and I had been married, Natalie would not have delayed. But because of the nature of the relationship, neither my daughter nor any of Ilse’s sons think we were anything other than flirtatious friends. So, I blame them. I blame all of them.
Laurent, Florian, and Maurice make all the arrangements without consulting me, going ahead with the cremation and not even doing me the courtesy of asking if I might want to attend. On top of it they have chosen a ghastly funeral home called Practical Services, which gets only two stars online. Ilse would have been furious. I also fail to understand why I was not named as a witness on the death certificate.
‘Yeah, but, you weren’t even in the room when Ilse died and therefore you cannot technically have been a witness. Do you understand that?’ Natalie says when I mention it. ‘Just because you think you see everything does not mean you are witness to the whole world.’
I want to tell my daughter I have repeatedly imagined the thrashing and rattle and frantic gaze followed by an exhalation and silence. I have seen it as if I had been there, so some part of me believes that I did witness Ilse’s passing.
Also, what does it matter whether I was there or not? Who does it serve, except Laurent, who was alone in the room and wants everyone to know it.
Ilse would not have quibbled over facts.
Florian phones the following afternoon.
‘Hi, hiya, Peter, I just wanted to see if maybe there’s anything from Mum’s house you want?’
‘No,’ I assure him, not a scrap, although there are several of my items in the house. Baking trays and muffin tins left behind over the course of years. A red enamel casserole dish of some value. Sheet music from when I still had the upright piano, the score to Puccini’s Tosca. LPs and CDs and cassette tapes. A complete recording of the Shostakovich quartets. Several rare books on music, a selection of modern novels. But I fear the sons would suspect me of inventing ownership to do them out of their inheritance, the fiends.
A few days later, Florian drops by with some blue napkins Ilse bought when Natalie and her husband took us to Kyoto a decade ago. Florian is thinner than I remember, balder too. I think of him as perpetually thirty but he is over fifty now and still dressing like a boy.
‘I thought you might like these little tokens as a remembrance of my mother. I know you were, you know, special friends.’
‘We were more than friends, Florian.’
‘Yes, of course, you know what I meant,’ Florian coughs, blushing.
‘Would you like to come in for a coffee?’
He peeks behind me as if assessing the state of the house. ‘No, I won’t trouble you. I’ve still got lots of clearing out to do before I head back to Melbourne. Thanks anyway. Okay, bye, Peter, bye. See you soon.’
The boys sell or donate most of the smaller articles and take away only a few pieces of furniture while their wives divvy up Ilse’s jewellery. Without the boys knowing I am the bidder, I purchase some of the discarded furniture at auction. That way I get Ilse’s cane porter chair in which I used to sit on summer afternoons during a break from working in her rose beds. I also buy back my casserole dish, a gift from my ex-wife more than forty years ago, and a box of my books that neither the boys nor the auctioneers noticed are all modern firsts. These, I note with horror, are sold by meterage of shelf space. For twenty dollars plus the buyer’s premium I get three metres of my own books and all of Ilse’s cookbooks. Someone outbids me on the Shostakovich LPs, most of which Natalie scratched beyond repair as a child.
As the weeks pass, I suspect my daughter is back-channelling with the bastard sons because Natalie keeps asking if I have keys to Ilse’s place, telling me if I do have a set I must absolutely not under any circumstances at all go in the house.
‘They’ve had an alarm system installed and if you do have keys and aren’t telling me—no, let me speak, Dad, stop interrupting—or you find a set that you’ve forgotten you have, you should courier them to Laurent.’
‘I have no keys, I assure you. That was one thing Ilse would not part with,’ I lie.
It is true I thought of entering the house after it was cleared but when I got to the front door I noticed the alarm panel just inside and did not want to face a security company or the police.
A month after Ilse’s death, the realtors dress the house professionally, filling it with ersatz French Country furniture and giant framed photos of kookaburras and banksias, lavender fields, and Highland cattle. They are unbecoming in the space, but that is what people want these days. While there is not a pool, the brochure acknowledges, the old croquet lawn could be dug up. There is staff accommodation that might be turned into a holiday rental. And the Bunya pine in the garden is described as ‘a tree of note’. The façade and roofline are both on the historic register, the terracing at the front all edged with box. At the open house the first Saturday after its listing there is a forty-minute queue to get inside. A koala has clambered into the gum near the front door.
The estate agent, a man who looks too young to be selling a house of this quality, nods at the koala: ‘That little bugger should add a hundred thousand to the price.’
Because it is ‘a large heritage property’ and significant expense has been put towards creating the illusion it is a naff boutique hotel, crowds have come to gawp, even those who clearly have neither the intention nor means to buy.
Ilse would have been horrified.
The house sells in less than a week. After the sale, I stop walking past it when I go on my daily to Cleland, although it’s on the most direct route. One night, however, I drive over and stop the car just short of the wrought-iron gate. As I watch, the new family goes about their evening routine, curtains open and lights on. It’s either too late or too early to phone Natalie and there is no one else to call but I can’t for some time pull myself together to drive the two minutes back home past the line of skeleton gums. When I do make it back, I feed France before pouring a large glass of finger-lime gin and slumping down to watch the food channel. In the morning I wake to find my laptop purring on the floor but cannot remember leaving it there.
Ilse’s sons conclude no one would come to a funeral held in winter, at least not the relatives from elsewhere, those who have emigrated or, now the borders are open, locals who might be spending the winter in scorching southern Europe or boiling North America. So the interment of the ashes has been delayed until summer, and I foolishly imagined Natalie and her scowling husband would attend. But getting settled in America is taking time and they have only just moved into a house in Echo Park where she claims to be too busy for such a long trip so soon after the move.
‘If I’m going to come,’ Natalie says, turning her face from the camera, ‘it needs to be a trip of, you know, real consequence.’ These days she rarely speaks without looking away from me. Eye contact appears to cause her almost physical pain.
I wake one morning having dreamt I was looking for a job as a music teacher in Santa Monica. A few days later, I begin receiving job alerts for such positions and disconcertingly personal communications from recruiters who thank me for having already taken the time to speak to them and asking for a follow-up meeting or evidence of my credentials, C.V., etc. These messages come in such quantities I begin to wonder if I am really alone in my own house, dealing with my grief, alone, and there is not some secret companion, Ilse even, haunting like a dark angel or foul fiend, making mischief for me.
So you find me now, abandoned by my daughter and left alone to negotiate with Laurent, Maurice, and Florian, plus their four-score cavalcade of relatives flying in from Auckland and the south of France, from Switzerland and Bali. I have thought of saying to Natalie, if Ilse’s all-and-sundry can pitch up, then why can’t you?
Since I began receiving those recruiting messages, Natalie has started managing my email. She relays only what she judges important, so I no longer hear from the local Labor Party. I no longer hear from the World Wildlife Fund or the State Theatre or the vineyard outside Hahndorf where I’m certain I’m still a member of the wine club but from which I have not received my usual half case. I communicate with my book group and other friends via message or phone. I suspect Natalie has been betraying me but have no proof. She insists on scheduling my doctors’ appointments for early morning so she can join by phone from Los Angeles.
There is to be a graveside service and a luncheon at Mount Lofty House where, I am aghast to discover, ‘people are invited to tell stories about Ilse, whether or not they are true’. All of Laurent’s communications about his mother have an edge of glibness, as if the man is relieved she is gone and wants to needle her in the grave. In the evening there will be a dinner at a wine estate near Uraidla whose whites Ilse judged pale imitations of their European antecedents. The beggarly sons have spared no expense on the events where their own enjoyment is paramount. Ilse is paying for it all, even in death.
The morning of the service I get up at six and take a terracotta pot full of pink pelargoniums, drag it on a tarp to the car, drive to the Stirling Cemetery, and manoeuvre it to the plot. With my phone I snap a photo of the crypt and my terracotta pot next to it and send this to Natalie, who responds asking whether it would not have been a good idea to take a newer looking pot and not one covered in moss. She fails to understand that Ilse would have thought such a pot perfectly right, because used and useful. Ilse, in fact, might have been the one who bought the pot in the first place, but Natalie does not know that.
I drive home. The grouting in the bathroom should be redone but is unlikely to reach a crisis before my death. Although Ilse did not want a stuffy funeral, I put on a suit and collar shirt and tie. Ilse would say someone dressed in such attire risks being mistaken for hired help. Ilse is not here to say it.
The sons have brought their spouses and children and their children have brought their spouses and children, and those children, in two cases, have brought their own spouses and children. Ilse could never remember the names of her great-grandchildren because there were already twelve grands and she struggled with them as well. In recent months she could not retrieve her son Maurice’s name and often blurted out ‘Mollusc’ or ‘Mortice’ and after three or four false starts might land on ‘Morris’ which is not, in Ilse’s family, homophonous. I can remember the names of the grandchildren (bar two whose faces I find offensively smug) but none of the great-grandchildren.
The sons greet me. Their spouses greet me. Some of the grandchildren nod in my direction but do not speak. In the parlance of Ilse’s family, I am the late matriarch’s ‘boyfriend’. They look at me as if I were some geriatric gigolo, fifteen years younger than Ilse and with designs on her fortune. Only the point about age is true. Would they be surprised to know Ilse and I never did anything more intimate in two decades than hold hands, share a bed on travels, and kiss chastely, which is to say only on the lips, always with eyes closed. It was what she wished. As with all things, she had been frank about that when her husband died and I, passing the house on my daily walk to Cleland, began stopping to chat once we discovered common tastes. Blues and pinks in a garden, no hot colours. Pinot Noir and Grüner Veltliner, no Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc. Wagner and Shostakovich, no Haydn or Prokofiev. How easy. A case of happy casualty, as someone might have put it.
Because Ilse did not want a traditional funeral there is no clergy. Laurent officiates. It is hot with no shade. A flock of fairy wrens flits chattering around the monuments. Laurent tells a story about his mother that describes a person I do not recognize. Maurice reads a rhyming poem by a poet no actual poet would credit. Florian is the only one who tries to speak from the heart, as it were, the only one who appears moved. Leave it to the youngest, the one picked upon by his older brothers, to mention his mother’s garden and love of birds, walks, and even the joy she found after their father’s death. It is as close as anyone comes to acknowledging their mother’s relationship to me. Florian invited me to speak but I could not find words I trusted myself to pronounce without losing the capacity to finish. She is dead, I would say, gone forever, dead in the earth. I see my reflection in the polished stone her breath no longer stains.
A few of my friends from the university retirees club and book club have come to support me but the only person I wish were here is in Los Angeles waiting for the opportunity to make a trip of consequence. I suppose she has in mind the consequence of a retirement village in Hahndorf. She can get stuffed if that is the idea.
The family tomb, Ilse’s rather than her late husband’s, is in the corner of the cemetery, at the juncture of the pine forest and valley of gums to the southeast. It was the late husband who chose the dour black granite and neoclassical design with engraved thistles because his family was once Scottish. It is a two-person tomb. If I wished to be buried near Ilse it would be at some distance, not even in the same alley of graves. Natalie will not approve of me being interred so far from wherever she chooses to live—if she ever makes a definitive choice. More likely she will have the ashes compressed into a diamond she can set in platinum or port me about in an urn as the political winds shift. There is a strong chance she will be moving on from Los Angeles in less time than it took her to flee Taipei.
At least Stirling’s is a well-kept cemetery. Not like British cemeteries so often neglected, overrun with ivy. This is more like a French or Austrian, even a Swedish burial ground, although it has not quite achieved the refinement of those countries that raise tending the dead to a national art. A cemetery in Uppsala once made me weep, after the divorce, because I could not imagine anyone tending my own grave so assiduously. The only signs of neglect here are several of the older graves whose plots were topped with concrete and the surface has collapsed in grisly, body-shaped oblongs. Stone is more durable. The monuments to those killed at Gallipoli look as new as the day they were erected. In another century, Ilse’s grave, notwithstanding earthquake or fire, will appear just as it does today.
At the last minute I decide not to attend the luncheon or dinner, offering an excuse about the new variants and being around so many unmasked people, but I can tell that none of the sons, not even sympathetic Florian, really believes me. Instead, I go home to prune the Japanese maples and send Natalie a message asking her to arrange for garden services to do a full clean-up before it gets any hotter or drier. The flowers are wilting in the heat because I’ve not turned on the irrigation system. The bore needs a new pump. I take France for a walk past Ilse’s old house and don’t even clean up when it squats in her driveway. At home I pour a double measure of finger-lime gin and then a second and turn on the high-brow movie channel where a Japanese film featuring an old man in a medieval setting is reaching its violent conclusion. Superimposed on the beard and long white hair of the actor I again notice my own reflection in the rain and wind and thunder. France sticks his snout in the glass trying to get the last of my gin.
Tomorrow the boys will be returning to their homes. Flights out on Sunday morning. Late that afternoon, I drive back to the cemetery where the arrangements of flowers have been heaped on Ilse’s side of the tomb. In the heat they are already drooping. Since there is no one else about, I gather the arrangements, half a dozen bouquets, and carry them to the car.
At home, I pick out what can be salvaged and put the rearranged flowers in five vases along the sideboard as France watches, panting. When I tell Natalie about it on Monday morning she acts as if I have committed a crime, as if she does not see that I am, although never married to Ilse, her widower.
‘But the point is to leave the flowers, Dad. That’s why people take arrangements to graves,’ Natalie says. She does not say what I imagine she is thinking: the only people entitled to take the arrangements are the bastard sons, who are, legally speaking, Ilse’s only next of kin. I know I am a legal nonentity. ‘There might have been surveillance cameras.’ No, I assure her, there are no such devices. ‘What if the police had come?’ she asks.
‘The police have graver concerns.’
‘Is that meant to be a joke?’
‘Take it as you like, Natalie. Don’t let it disquiet you.’
‘I don’t think it’s funny.’
‘As far as I can tell, you think very little is funny.’
On her side of the planet she is sitting in the evening glow of a wildfire sky. When the day comes that my doctor tells me I have no choice, I am going to hospital, when the words stop arranging themselves in my mind, when the faces of strangers look like friends and friends like strangers, I wonder if Natalie will have time in her schedule to make the trip from Los Angeles, or wherever else she may be living. In her face there is stark concern, not for wildfires in the San Gabriel Mountains, but for a father who does what she thinks he should not. Imagine her asking friends for a gut check to see whether others think it strange that I should transgress an unwritten social contract with the dead. He would not do well in Asia, I imagine Natalie saying to her husband. No, perhaps not. Some new facet of myself, new to the self who is present on this call with Natalie, sees that the self who took the arrangements from Ilse’s grave was not acting out of love or common sense but was instead fired by malice. New selves are best handled as mercy cases. Put them down before they suffer.
But how dare Ilse’s sons? How dare she herself? Did Ilse not think, even in her final months, that I might wish to accompany her, as was long the case, wherever she might travel?
The next day I drive to the half-acre burial ground next to a vineyard where my parents are interred. With kitchen shears I cut the grass around their monument, collect dead leaves, wipe dust from the stone. Using an old toothbrush, I scrub away what has accumulated in the engraved letters. My mother’s determination to be buried next to my father still troubles me; I cannot understand why she should wish to spend eternity lying next to a man who had been so cruel to her, so cruel to me. I scrub my father’s side of the grave, harder than my mother’s. My grandparents are here, and great-grandparents, and their parents who came from England as Primitive Methodists. Though not a Primitive Methodist I have a plot here, adjacent to my parents’; I do not wish to be buried with my forebears. There is little reason to believe such a feeling will translate into action. This is where I will lie, in sight of the vineyard, down the road from the house where my people first settled. They came and they stayed and I have stayed, as if that great leap from North to South was so taxing that every generation hence could not imagine moving on, until Natalie.
Natalie will not be tending my grave. Perhaps if she puts up a monument, she will visit when she returns to the city where she grew up. With no family left in these parts, however, my death may mark her final trip home. My resting place will be left to the mercy of the council or whatever volunteers take it upon themselves to tend the forgotten.
On the drive home, I recall my mother’s funeral. There had been solemnity and kindness for her. Ilse’s family seemed to feel little more than relief that this chapter of their lives had reached its conclusion and they would no longer have to tolerate her sharp tongue. The promise of inheritance perverts relations between the generations. I have written Natalie out of my will, though she does not know it.
When I turn the key in the lock, I wonder why France is not at the door to greet me, why I suddenly catch Ilse’s scent. A woman stands a few paces from me. Her face collapses as she cries out. A man has appeared, shouting, and children are sobbing in the corridor behind the adults, a little girl wailing as if she has, at last, seen the ghost of her nightmares in the flesh.
‘Oh,’ I hear myself say, ‘oh.’ Ilse’s scent flows from the kitchen cupboards, from the parquet and sisal rugs. I raise the key in my hand, dangling its chain. ‘This must be yours.’
Natalie phones me the next morning. It is late afternoon in Los Angeles. Laurent has been in touch with her. Police were involved, although the new owners have been persuaded not to press charges.
‘I had to explain that you were deranged by grief,’ Natalie says, dogmatic.
‘Mad as the sea?’
‘Huh? Stop it, Dad.’ Her features are fixed. She scarcely moves her lips. It is obvious she is in some kind of state. A consequential state, perhaps. ‘I’ve booked a flight for tomorrow,’ she says, staring off to one side. ‘It is time we made arrangements.’
The judging panel for the 2023 Mascara Writers’ and Editors’ Varuna Residency was impressed by the outstanding quality of many of the submissions. Of 78 entries, the range and breadth of voices, styles and genres on display is an indicative sign of the innovation pursued at the desks of First Nations and CALD writers across Australia, whether in cities or small towns, by the coast or in the bush, whether young and emerging, or older and emerging, or more established in their writing career. Many works evoke little-known aspects of Australian life, ranging from individual biographical studies to stories of local families and communities, to large-scale retrievals of national history. These explorations draw from experiments with archival records, as well as experiments with the writing body, all contributing to an ongoing questioning of what it means to document presence and history in this country. A dominant theme running through these works is the complexity of place, whether encountered as a recent arrival to these shores, or as a writer holding deep ancestral ties to the land. The courage and ambition propelling these undertakings are to be commended in the highest possible terms.
Of this high-quality field, four submissions were exceptional for the grace, precision, and perception of their writing. These submissions resonate with a contemporary edge, vividly foreshadowing new futures in Australian writing. Poetic modes of inquiry prevail across a rich array of genres, not only in lyric and experimental poetry, but also in long form fiction and non-fiction. They are also projects that are eminently realisable within the scope of the residency and hold the potential to be significantly developed through the editorial process. We are thrilled to announce that the four residencies go to: Timmah Ball’s Blue Print for Another World; Alison J. Barton’s Not Telling; Maria van Neerven’s To Give Them a Voice; and Vivienne Cleven’s Beautiful Monsters. These strong submissions reflect a considerable diversity of genre, aesthetic, and style, and represent a range of ages, backgrounds, and experiences within First Nations’ writing.
Timmah Ball is a writer and zine maker of Ballardong Noongar heritage. Previous zines and micro publications include Wild Tongue in collaboration with Loving Feminist Literature for Melbourne Fringe (2016), Wild Tongue Vol. 2 in collaboration with Azja Kulpinska for Next Wave Festival (2018) and Do Planners Dream of Electric Trees? (2021) created through Arts House Makeshift public residency. Her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and literary magazines including Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin, The Griffith Review and Columbia University’s The Avery Review. In 2016 she won the Westerly Patricia Hackett Prize.
BLUE PRINT FOR ANOTHER WORLD
Timmah Ball’s collection of experimental non-fiction examines dispossession in the context of contemporary urban planning. Through playful yet committed theoretical engagement and radical self-reading of her own experience as an urbanist, Ball sets out to deconstruct the western logic of space (states, borders, regions, cities) and recast place in terms of the ‘powerful tapestry of First Nation countries that make up this continent.’ Her writing is richly engaged, revealing a strong social commitment to the connection between poetics and cartography, between language and country.
Alison J. Barton
Alison J Barton is a Wiradjuri poet based in Naarm. Themes of race relations, Aboriginal-Australian history, colonisation, gender and psychoanalytic theory are central to her work. Her work appears in Meanjin, Overland, Best of Australian Poetry 2022 (APJ), the Liquid Amber Prize Anthology: Poetry of Encounter, Australian Poetry Journal, Otoliths, Rabbit, Westerly Mag, StylusLit, Resilience (Ed. Mascara) , The Storms (Ireland), Poethead (Ireland), The Night Heron Barks (USA), Under Bunjil, Yarra Libraries Receipt Poetry, Bluebottle Journal and LinkBund. In 2022 Alison received a commended place in the WB Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia, was shortlisted for both the Queensland Poetry Oodgeroo Noonuccal Poetry Prize (for ‘buried light’) and the Pratik Magazine Fire and Rain edition prize (for ‘How to grieve in the open air’) and longlisted for the inaugural Liquid Amber Press Poetry Prize.
She can be found on Instagram @alison_j_barton
Alison J. Barton’s first full-length collection of poetry draws from family lore, Australian history, archival material, and psychoanalytic theory in its attempt to realise the potential of language to retrieve identity. Barton’s poetry proceeds as an act of literary decolonisation, in pursuit of the healing, relatedness, and telling the truth.
Kamilaroi author Vivienne Cleven was born in 1968 and grew up in outback Queensland. She left school at thirteen to work with her father as a jillaroo: building fences and mustering sheep and cattle. She also worked as a cleaner, barmaid, roustabout, nanny, and photographer, among other jobs. Her novel Bitin’ Back won the David Unaipon Award and shortlisted in the 2002 Courier-Mail Book of the Year Award and the 2002 South Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction. She wrote the playscript for Bitin’ Back, which was performed by Brisbane’s Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Theatre Company. Sister’s Eye was published in 2002 and was chosen in the 2003 People’s Choice shortlist of One Book One Brisbane. Her writing is included in Fresh Cuttings, the first anthology of UQP Black Australian Writing, published in 2003.
Beautiful Monsters is a dark satire about small town life, beauty, false identities, racism, belonging and self-love. Cleven’s language is wry, imagistic and lexically creative; her narrative focalisations of direct and indirect Aboriginal English are are deft, seamless and culturally specific. Her characters and idioms are memorable and original in subverting the settler tropes of crime and outback noir.
Maria Van Neerven
Maria van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh women from south-east Queensland. She is a retired library technician who loves reading and writing poetry. Her first published story was in the journal The Lifted Brow: Blak Brow (2018) and she has also published poetry in In Our Hands, (2022) a collection of poetry from Elders and knowledge keepers. Maria has performed her work on stages across Alice Springs and Brisbane and is working on her first collection.
TO GIVE THEM A VOICE
The poems in this collection are as poignant as they are assured in the smallest movement of the heart, in the caesura of the spoken word, in the multi-tonal shape of the page which honours the rituals of daily life through trauma, violence, poverty and joy. These lyrical cameos remind us of family, colonisation, discrimination and mental health. They are precise, carefully restored through memory’s portal and gentle in their healing as they look to the future.
by Shannon Burns
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Anyone writing about their childhood must grapple with the intervening gulf of time, and with the strange slipperiness of memory. This is especially so for Shannon Burns, who today lives a stable, contented life in the higher echelons of Australia’s middle class, but whose early years, he now recognises, were chaotic and perilous, peopled by adults who were unreliable, volatile, and sometimes violent. Childhood charts Burns’ upbringing in 1980s suburban Adelaide: he is passed between his mother (his ‘true home’ (88)), his father and stepmother, various relatives, and foster carers. Aged fifteen, he leaves school, escapes his father’s place, and finds work in a recycling centre. Despite all this dislocation and instability, and despite Burns’ well-developed talent for forgetting, Childhood doesn’t read as fragmentary or disjointed: rather, the narrative is sculpted so skilfully that it is never less than propulsive.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burns mentions his house’s slatted windowpanes, ‘which I can remove when my mother fails to come home or if I’m locked out and desperate to go to the toilet’ (11). This striking matter-of-factness is borne of the simple fact that this world — however troubling or unusual the adult reader may find it — is all the boy knows. Not yet five, he reflects:
I will be told, many times, that my mother ‘sleeps with men for money’, but I have no way of understanding what it means beyond the literal sense: she falls asleep with men, perhaps snuggling. I’m jealous of those men, of the comfort she brings them. (40)
Here we have a boy oblivious to the adult world, and to his mother’s reality, but also, the reader gathers, a boy prematurely exposed to and implicated in that world. Hunger and need and neglect; intimacy and estrangement: all is contained in these two sentences. The passage exemplifies Burns’ achievement throughout Childhood: he writes about his past with remarkable, clear-eyed objectivity, and yet he always honours his child-self’s innocence, subjectivity, and purity of feeling. He never slips into self-pity, nor roundly condemns anyone.
Burns has stated that while for him this story is ‘just my life’, for a lot of readers it becomes a story about certain things (1). This is certainly evident among reviewers, who have characterised Childhood as a memoir about disadvantage, poverty, suffering, and trauma. Many of Burns’ memories read as textbook descriptions of what a contemporary reader might diagnose as instances of abuse, dissociation, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Yet this sort of psychologising language is notably absent in Burns’ account. This is, of course, in keeping with his child-self’s limited worldview; the boy can only glean how atypical his circumstances are in accidental or oblique ways. Looking in other children’s lunchboxes, for example, he is envious of his classmates’ mothers, who ‘fuss over their wellbeing, who prove their love daily by providing this outsized and richly scented nourishment’ (63). At a women’s shelter, he discovers that ‘remarkably, the mothers are not permitted to hit us’ (126). And when a friend’s father scolds Shannon’s friend for coming home late, the young Shannon finds the scene ‘oddly reassuring’ in demonstrating such obvious ‘fatherly care’ (101). As well as being faithful to his boy-self’s perspective, this sort of narration fleshes out for the reader what ‘neglect’ or ‘poverty’ (or other potentially reductive, nebulous terms) look and feel like in the physical world.
In an extended interview with Peter Rose, Burns mentions reading testimonial literature (such as Primo Levi) and being struck by its ‘coldness of style’ and its ‘willingness to look at things directly’: ‘The language is not overly emotional – it just allows a fairly plain description to hold all the emotional force’(2). Certainly, the stark power of many of Burns’ images is such that they require no embellishment: perpetually hungry, he resorts to stealing food from the dog’s bowl; he soothes himself to sleep each night by banging his head against the floor; when a bunch of roosting pigeons at the recycling factory are exterminated, his hostile workmates tear the dazed creatures’ heads off, ‘forcing him to watch’ (288). Tellingly, the rare figurative language Burns does deploy relates to his foster family’s bull terriers: the animals are good training for a child in his circumstances, since ‘to live with creatures who have sharp teeth and erratic moods requires discipline and skill’ (111). When he eventually begins to disappear into himself, he likens himself to the dog who begins to absorb its own stomach and ‘eat its own shit’ (247).
The most obvious facet of Burns’ sustained objectivity is his decision to describe his boy-self in the third person, in all but the book’s opening and closing sections. This allows him to stand outside events; to write about the deeply personal in an impersonal way. It’s an unusual device, one also used by Annie Ernaux in The Years. In her experience, the autobiographical third person is liberating: it ‘makes it easier for me to speak, to write. I think I could not have written about everything that happened to the young woman of 1958 if I had written it in the first person’(3). In his Epilogue Burns refers to a similar sense of remoteness from his early years.
Burns’ understated style calls to mind Ernaux’s ecriture plate, as well as the unadorned prose of Edouard Louis. All three writers are defectors from the social class of their childhoods: Ernaux and Louis from working-class France; Burns from the Australian ‘welfare class’ (18). Louis’ End of Eddy and Burns’ Childhood bear almost uncanny resemblances when it comes to their narrators’ outsider-ness and sensitivity as children, and their consequent attempts to project ‘toughness’. Both books include fraught scenes of sexual contact between children; both explore masculinity, sexuality and physicality; both narrators ultimately experience the shock of encountering a more privileged strata of society.
Among Childhood’s most memorable passages are those which explore the boy’s inner self, and his eventual discovery of literature as a source of immense solace. From age ten, he leads a double life: the authentic boy ‘lives in his own mind… never comes out, never gives himself to anyone’ (146). He finds the Russian classics — in their concern with questions of inheritance, betrayal, suffering and redemption — revelatory and ‘astonishingly close’ (314). Reading becomes ‘its own form of intimate human connection’ (27). The flat he moves into as a teenager has no furniture nor electricity, but he is thankful for its proximity to the train station, since it means that at night he can read books by its bright light. Current defences of literature tend to espouse its capacity to foster empathy towards others, or conceive of it as a social good. Childhood’s framing of literature as something more personally precious and consoling is immensely moving. Books become the boy’s surrogate guardian, or soulmate.
The impoverished world Burns paints is one rarely depicted in Australian literature. (A notable recent exception is Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light, a fictional — yet meticulously researched — story of a girl shunted between foster homes and other institutional care settings). Certainly, Childhood redresses this absence. But more broadly, it troubles — and expands — our accepted understanding of childhood, for those who might presume to associate childhood with protection, freedom, and unconditional trust and love. In the particular setting Burns depicts, children can be regarded as burdensome, or even punitive: of himself, he writes ‘I am what happens to people like my mother’ (117). Burns’ account complicates, too, our understanding of motherhood, and maternal love. Mothers, according to Burns, are children’s idols, and synonymous with love. Fathers, conversely, are ‘comparatively replaceable’ (an echoing of Coetzee’s description of fathering as ‘a rather abstract business’(4)). The status of mothers leads Burns to draw this unsettling conclusion: ‘A child fears losing his mother more than the violence she might inflict’ (352). As ever though, Burns with-holds judgement of his (or any) mother: his was never cut out for such a ‘godlike existence’ (355); and mothers, he says are, in the end, ‘prone to all the frailties and vulnerabilities common to us all’ (354).
Childhood subverts the standard journey of a bildungsroman: in one sense, the protagonist does journey from innocence to maturity, but in another, he is robbed of the trappings of childhood that most in Australia take for granted, and exposed to the sort of bleak truths and hardships that even adults in this country might never fathom:
As far as I can tell, adults are compelled to do the most improbable and destructive things imaginable, and it’s their children’s job to come to terms with this however they can. (125)
1. The Bookshelf, Radio National, 28th October 2022.
2. The ABR Podcast, 12th October 2022. Burns stresses that the influence of testimonial (e.g. Holocaust) literature here is strictly stylistic, not thematic, but ‘if these writers could go through much more horrific experiences and come out and write about it in that way, then I should be able to do that as well’.
3. The White Review, Interview with Annie Ernaux, Issue 23, October 2022.
4. J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace.
ADELE DUMONT is the author of No Man is an Island. Her second book, a collection of essays exploring mental illness, is forthcoming with Scribe in 2024.
This Devastating Fever
by Sophie Cunningham
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
I go on believing in the power of literature, and also in the politics of literature.
—- Adrienne Rich
Sophie Cunningham messaged me on Twitter when I was working on the edits of my novel, Daisy & Woolf, then titled, Woolf, to ask what my novel was about, as she was also writing a novel on the Woolfs, Leonard in particular, This Devastating Fever. As it turned out, in 2022, we both published metafictional novels whose peripatetic Australian narrators, Alice and Mina re-examine Bloomsbury. Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever is in dialogue with Leonard Woolf’s years in Sri Lanka, his marriage to Virginia and her mental health, while casting reflections on the pandemic, imperialism, the writing life and post-modernity’s urgent ecological concerns.
The past is a prologue in This Devastating Fever, which opens with a memorable and wry take on the Woolf marriage: Virginia, Leonard, Julian, dress-ups, parties, bookshelves; literary genres. This spirited tone is woven throughout Cunningham’s text. Both these novels are non-linear, diachronic, alternating from present to past and thematically resonant. Both are concerned with the writing life, its distractions, digressions and contemporary difficulties, its consuming drives. I did not realise further, when she warmly and graciously launched Daisy & Woolf in Melbourne that Sophie and I have also shared not one, but two publishers, a reflection, perhaps, on the narrow circle and echo chamber that is the Australian publishing industry. Imbued with a visceral sense of the frustrations and demands of any novelistic project in these fraught times for literature, and in the precarious worlds we inhabit, our respective narrators, Alice and Mina navigate across time, culture, geography as well as industry dynamics.
Alice Fox meets frequently with her literary agent, Sarah, in scenes which are witty and relatable. Cunningham provides a candid insight into how Alice’s artistic ambition and vulnerabilities brush against Sarah’s business interest to secure a profitable book deal. Their meetings, and lunches span 16 years from 2004 to 2021, beginning with a Zoom then flashing back to pre-pandemic times. Sarah’s initial reservations and hesitancy about the manuscript include concerns around the perceived resistance to an Australian angle on Bloomsbury, as well as the change in direction that Alice has charted from non-fiction. Sarah’s other speculations are whether there should be more or less of Ceylon; and whether Alice should remove Virginia Woolf altogether, making the novel just about Leonard (p10). Sarah suggests, and later insists that more sex in the novel will make it a better proposal to pitch to prospective publishers. This leads to a humorous list of possibilities, a three-page “Sex List or Who Fucked Who” (p86) and another concerning the subject of Alice: her bisexuality, her marriage to a woman, her childlessness, her work as a publisher, her relationships to ‘paternalistic father figures’ and her own experience of abuse. (p12) It becomes apparent that the novel is semi-autobiographical.
Indeed, like Cunningham, Alice is well connected to the literary establishment, has travelled to Sri Lanka, San Francisco, the Sussex Downes, and Bloomington Indiana; she loves cats, native animals and frets about extinctions. She advocates for trees and the non-human world; and at the time the novel begins, she is teaching in a literary academy. With its seamless textual weaving of memory and narrative, letter extracts, diary extracts, biographical footnotes, Cunningham deftly complicates the genres of memoir, biography and fiction with a touch of magical realism and a pleasingly wry style.
A deliberate choice is made not to use an autobiographical third person as in Shannon Burns’ memoir, Childhood for example. Cunningham does not swerve from presenting Alice’s consciousness through the auto-fictional third person past tense. Through the past tense she fictionalises and interprets the lives of Leonard, Virginia, Vita, Leonard’s sister Bella, Lytton Strachey, reifying colonialist attitudes, stereotypes and ideological conditioning. With disturbing casualness, the binary imperial logic of civilisation versus the jungle is sustained throughout the novel notably through its representation of colonial subjects (p278), and its language. Alice’s repeated metaphors of “beasts” (p109, p243) exemplifies the negative stereotypes, while the Ceylon-shaped teardrop shed by an older Leonard, grieving for Virginia (p295) exemplifies the exotic. The characterisation of Sri Lankans and Tamils is also limited, a narrative gap which warrants closer analysis, given the novel’s purported interest in race.
Descriptively speaking, This Devastating Fever is intensely invested in what Said refers to as Orientalism, a “mode of discourse” and “a style of thought” of images, disciplines, disciples, a ‘worlding’ while absenting brown people entirely from its intertextual richness, even from its humour. The brown people are serious, grateful, sad, with the exception of a waiter, Andrew, who serves Alice when she visits Hambantota where 4000 people died in the tsunami. He curtly puts Alice in her place:
“Everyone is very interested in what has happened to us here. Tourists come, tourists go. I would rather not talk about the deaths and the loss.” (60)
He is right to feel cautious of saviourism. A veritable tsunami of whiteness washes away the lives and stories of First peoples by appropriation and cultural tourism. Elsewhere, the historical Leonard, Imaginary Leonard and Alice do not actively resist the domination, nor the legal and moral superiority of West over East. Following a narrative arc of redemption, Leonard is excused because he had opened a Tamil Girls school (p287), yet we know that collaboratively education and religion were part of the machinery of colonial violence.
Racism, colonial exploitation and antisemitism are referenced directly through dialogue and indirect speech. As Cunningham has stated the racism of Bloomsbury should not be allowed to stand unchecked. In October 1917, Virginia Woolf is known to have written the following diary entry when a Ceylonese official awaited Leonard at Hogarth House:
We came back to find Perera, wearing his clip and diamond initial in his tie as usual; in fact, the poor little mahogany-coloured wretch has no variety of subjects. The character of the Governor, and the sins of the Colonial Office, these are his topics, always the same stories, the same point of view, the same likeness to a caged monkey, suave on the surface, inscrutable.
Yet, Cunningham has a way of casually amplifying this disparagement, and more worryingly the underlying politics of domination. In a conversation with Leonard in 1911, she has Virginia first mistaking the Ceylonese for Indians, then, when corrected by Leonard, dismissively replying, “But Blacks anyway” (p111). Virginia’s strong ancestral connections to India made this conversation seem unlikely. Virginia’s mother Julia Prinsep Stephen was born in Kolkata; and her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron nee Pattle was born in Kolkata and died in the western province of Sri Lanka, known then as British Ceylon. Her Franco-Indian descendants had lived in Pondicherry. “Blacks” is cruder than what we expect of Virginia, who describes “a very fine negress” in A Room of One’s Own.
The Woolfs were both semi-racist and anti-imperialists. Their conservative peers upheld a racist suspicion that Asians and ‘Negros’ were barbarians. Particularly reviling was Julian Bell’s attitude towards Indians, described as “revolting blacks” in a 1936 letter to Eddie Playfair. (See Patricia Laurence’s Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes, “Performing Englishness”.) Lytton Strachey had also criticised The Village in the Jungle for being “about nothing but the blacks.”
But does accuracy matter, anyway for the purposes of fiction? I would say it does matter who is speaking what, and whom they are addressing. It matters because we cannot overlook that the history of colonial economic expansion, occupation, exploitation and its aftermath are grounded in discourse, in laws, in education, in novels, not to mention that the repetition of racist tropes is triggering and re-traumatising for many of us. There’s an insensitivity to the fact that readers and writers of colour find this altogether tone deaf, even offensive.
Whether it is Mohammed, Alice’s driver, or Shelton Fernando, Cunningham’s Sri Lankan characters are restricted in their representation, and in their fictional destiny. They are mostly neutral in their emotions, their speech predictably serving the needs of Alice and Leonard, both descendants of the ruling class West. For me this was most grievous when Cunningham describes Leonard describing his ayah, who remains nameless and then a few pages along he is also described visiting a Sinhalese woman whom it becomes apparent he uses for sexual gratification. Leonard visits this woman for longer than expected, leaving “with a curious mixture of shame and over excitement (as) the stallion tossed his mane in salutation…” As elsewhere, the imperialist axiomatic blurs the distinction between colonised human and beast while preserving the power of the coloniser. As Alice explains to her agent, Sarah when they are considering titles for her novel, This Devastating Fever is “a phrase Leonard used about himself to describe lust and the problems of repression. It strikes me as even better now” Alice says, “because of the whole Covid thing.” (p8) Such inversions of past into present offer insights into, and relief from the messy chaos of our post-pandemic lives. Covid-19 has undoubtedly altered our perception of time, by lockdowns, curfews, by new technology and mental health challenges making a story that moves across centuries resonant on so many levels. But the question is for whom?
For the brown women in This Devastating Fever, their psychology and sexuality are never given a voice or a body as subjects. Nor are we permitted as readers to even enter the domestic space of that molested and coercively abused mother and her mixed-ancestry child. They remain as shadows, described passively and fleetingly in the past tense as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” (p69). Repeatedly, the conditions of animals are of greater concern to Alice and to Leonard than the Sinhalese. By ventriloquising what Gurmeet Kaur describes as the “colonial voice” Cunningham assigns colonial and feminist space as a wholly exclusive one where the mental and physical health of brown women and men and their communities and children, their abilities to participate in cross-cultural exchange is quarantined. Consider the following:
“Leonard barely saw a woman for months on end ̶ if by woman one meant a white woman, which is exactly what Leonard meant.” (p70)
“Nothing like his Ceylon “girlfriends” as Bella liked to call them. No, Virginia was a woman with whom he could share his soul.” (p111)
In a letter to Lytton Strachey, Leonard boasted of his visits to brothels: “I suppose you want to know everything — well, I am worn out or rather supine through a night of purely degraded debauch. The pleasure of it is of course exaggerated, certainly with a half-caste whore”. Cunningham does nothing to challenge the male power-fantasy of Leonard’s Orientalism, assigning Sinhalese women to a category that lies outside the “universal” woman, and beneath the individualist mission of soul-making. There is no private space to mock Leonard, no shadow existence or threshold in writing for these brown women. This emphasises the weakness of using fiction to represent Leonard’s opinions since there is no convincing argument or trajectory of reform, and no effort to remedy racist oppression in the space of cultural production.
In her fine appraisal of Cunningham’s novel in Sydney Review of Books, Gurmeet Kaur points out that there are jarring passages that are retraumatising for non-white readers, those from the “global majority”. She writes:
Whilst archival specificity breathes life into the Woolfs, in the Sri Lanka material, the insistence on historical accuracy feels oppressive and destabilising, in part because it conflicts with the playfulness of the non-linear narrative. Though there may be repetitions and loops in the expressions and effects of imperial power, there are also clearly linear chains of events and their consequences that are not considered in such a discontinuous narrative.
Much later in the novel when Alice gives a panel, ironically on cancel culture in Adelaide the epidemic of violence against women is discussed, with its mental health sequelae of bipolar and personality disorder. Personal memories of trauma flood Alice’s mind and she is visited by Imaginary Leonard with his cute marmoset and spaniel, and they converse about Virginia’s trauma and abuse. Yet all the while women such as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” remain unnamed, invisible and their abuse and mental trauma for the purposes of this novel appear relevant only in so far as to provide a description of colonial power.
The narrative is focalised on the thoughts, actions and emotions of its white characters, their communities and families: Alice, Sarah, Hen, the elite circle of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Leonard’s conversations with the village headman, Mr Nallaperuma are proselytising, with Mr Nallaperuma’s responses being overly compliant and dull. When Leonard is derisive about his views on horoscopes predicting the date of onset of a girl’s menstruation, he is described by a passive stereotype. “He was used to being patronised.” (p81) As Kaur argues, Alice and Leonard’s statements that past happenings were “not nice”(p53), racist or “cruel”(p288), does nothing to ameliorate or to recompense those who have suffered; those whose stories have for centuries been silenced.
While Leonard’s service as a colonial administrator politicised him to advocate for reforms of colonial oppression the reason was to improve Europe’s moral position. Privately, his attitudes appear to have remained conflicted and tinged with racist assumptions towards the Sinhalese, going by extracts from his diaries, such as the following:
“the three things which make up the education of most of the children in Hambantota are obscenity, ill manners and the torturing of animals.”
(Woolf, L. 1965)
Cunningham neutralises the private bigotry of Leonard and Virginia. Fleeting, internalised glimpses of racism contextualised by an early twentieth century world order, are transported and packaged into the public space of her novel. Complex intersections such as these between paratextuality and whiteness continue to mediate identity, feminist and colonial space, authorship and power.
Despite, or perhaps because of what Peter Rose has described as the “burgeoning Bloomsbury industry,” both Mina and Alice carry out intensive research. Alice focusses on Leonard’s Ceylon writings, the Glendinning biography about his life, and other Bloomsburians. Mina focusses on Virginia’s novels and the Chinese modernist Shu-Hua Ling, whom Hogarth Press published in 1953. They seek out libraries: for Mina, The British Library and the library at Wuhan University. While in 2004 Alice Fox spends much time in Sussex library, where a ‘hot librarian’ explains that Thoby’s death from cholera in 1909 accounts for the flatness of Virginia’s diaries in the year that follows. Fast forward to 2018, and Alice is in Indiana, Bloomington at the Lilley Library reading from that circulation of letters and diaries by the Cambridge apostles, or “navigating the rapids” (p115). She comes across Ottoline Morrell’s description of Virginia Woolf appearing as “a lovely phantom, a far away, far gazing lively ghost.’(p117)
Alice is endearingly cognisant of the ways she channels fictional ghosts. Yet there is a watershed between the fictional and the real. In Leonard’s autobiography, Beginning Again, he emphasised the many houses he lived in, innovating a spatial metonymy that turns a history of self into a geography of self. In contrast the characters of Virginia and Leonard manifest as temporal figures, even while we know, as readers, that Cunningham ventriloquises and improvises their lives. This extensive reimagining culminates after the death of Hen in 2021 when Alice is at Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River, during heavy rains. She worries about ‘fish suffocating, a drowning of sorts’ (p213) and she suffers from a slowly healing leech wound, while reading Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia, as well as Leonard’s autobiography, and whilst bookmarking and watching The Edge of Tomorrow on iTunes. From the messiness of grief, illness, technology and intertextuality springs the possibility of a new narrative arc, seemingly revelatory of fiction’s ability to shapeshift, even to interrogate historical injustice: “It occurred to Alice that she could use the power of fiction to write Virginia’s end differently. She could save her!” (p217).
Cunningham stretches and elaborates the written record, skilfully conjecturing psychological explanations for Leonard and Virginia’s bisexual and polyamorous relationships, their attitudes to Leonard’s Jewishness, and to the ambivalence of repression and trauma. She skims over the politics of Leonard’s social and economic reforms as founder of the League of Nations and in the Labour Party. Historical facts such as Virginia’s suicide are revisited providing explanatory and narrative emplotments that extemporise playfully from the official version.
A similar hermeneutic ambivalence animates Daisy & Woolf. Mina’s scaffolding of the fictional (and metafictional) lives of Daisy, Charlotte, Radhika and Rezia is positioned with fictional letters from Sylvia Pankhurst, a British missionary from Rodmell and Vanessa Bell who catches a glimpse of Daisy and Rezia, “two outsiders” in Padua (p272). Through her serial letters and diary entries, Daisy Simmon’s fate and the fate of her daughter Charlotte could be interpreted as legitimate historical events. Charlotte dies of cholera onboard the S.S. Ranchi, and is buried at sea, in keeping with horrific casualties suffered on such voyages. She first appears to Daisy as a ghost when the passengers are quarantined in the lazzaretto on L’Isolotto, Malta. Could Charlotte’s ghost be as material to the reader as the knowledge of other infant mortalities associated with migration across the centuries, and even in 2023? It is well established that migrant fatalities don’t necessarily align with the recorded statistics; that some children in remote or less monitored waters, die without trace.
Historiographic metafiction and meta biography allow new approaches to the past, purposely overlapping fiction, diary writing and history. It questions the function of history and biography as primary or impartial sources of knowledge. The reader may not clearly distinguish Virginia and Leonard Woolf from Cunningham’s iterations, nor from Ghost Virginia and Imaginary Leonard of the afterlife. What is private, what is real, what is history and what is speculative gets blurred, woven into discursive possibilities on biography, memoir, novel writing, genre, environmental activism, marriage, polyamorous love, grief, illness and trauma. This Devastating Fever is a novel of dazzling parodic meta-dimensions, self-deprecating humour, and a real tenderness for the non-human animals in our world, but one that is deeply Orientalist. It sustains a collective self that whilst speculative and supple, addresses only its white constituents and Western characters.
It is difficult to write this. I am reminded of an essay by Adrienne Rich in which she describes her father’s library and her belief that books would teach her how to live and what was possible. She writes about being taught whiteness, about how white women are forced to betray black women, how “they are cast as antagonists in the patriarchal drama…”; that there is a “silence out of which they have had to assert themselves.” I have really appreciated Sophie’s willingness as a white feminist to offer support and allyship to so many writers. She has done so for other women and trans writers during the years that I’ve known her. I know as readers we are more than passive witnesses to the lies, secrets and silences of systemic whiteness. We are an interconnected global community that as Kaur suggests bears “collective responsibility” for the less visible crimes of colonialism: those embedded in discourse, in paratextual frames that have marginalised minority stories, in archival erasures, in the unevenly prioritised disciplines of philology, literary criticism, and in the publishing world which remains today as inseparable from writing for Alice and Mina, as it was for Leonard and Virginia.
Brayshaw, Meg. “Sophie Cunningham’s pandemic novel admits literature can’t save us but treasures it for trying”
Kaur, Gurmeet. “Sophie Cunningham’s Orbits” https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/sophie-cunningham-devastating-fever/
Laurence, Patricia. Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China. University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Ranasinha, Ruvani. “The shifting reception of The Village in the Jungle (1913) in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 50.1 (2015): 33-43.
Rich, Adrienne. On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978. WW Norton & Company, 1995. p 201
Rose, Peter. On the Peculiar Charms of E.M. Forster, ABR Podcasts, December 22 2022
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Penguin, 2000), 2, 5
Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918. New York: Harcourt.
Woolf L (1990) Letters of Leonard Woolf (Ed. Spotts F). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. p102