'Youth, Death and Transfiguration' by Xanthea O'Connor

This piece was commissioned by Melbourne Recital Centre in collaboration with the Emerging Writers Festival for the 2019 Writers in Residence program, and was written in response to this concert. To learn more about the writers and the program, visit  Soundescapes, where stories, music and people intertwine

Image by Xanthea O'Connor

A mother forces her son to eat a slice of apple, while another rips a backpack off tiny, protesting shoulders and checks it into the cloak room. There’s someone around my age with their laptop open, reading a slide on the production of gamma radiation. Two grey-haired women thumb dutifully through their programs, doing their best to ignore the raucous crowd swelling around them. They are the families of Melbourne Youth Orchestra members, impervious bubbles of quickfire, chaotic reactions. Sitting in the foyer, I feel conspicuously without any similarly substantial distraction.

When I was very young, my grandmother took my sisters and me to see afternoon WASO concerts. We wore our best clothes, shared a cake at the Concert Hall café, then sat up in the choir stalls looking down on the orchestra and out to the audience. We were within spitting distance, literally. I remember noticing liquid pooling around the brass section. It fascinated me—dignified adults in such a grand theatre opening up a valve on their instrument and hocking up their drool. They were too gross to be human—more like an organelle within a cell reacting to stimuli and secreting waste. Each member was just one portion of The Orchestra; a greater and more impervious organism.

I never played in an orchestra—I took ballet classes instead. The mornings I didn’t have ballet, I’d wait outside the auditorium and listen to our school orchestra practice. Sound filled the grand old building and overflowed through open glass shutters on the second floor. Sitting on the old stone steps, I tried my best to listen past my balletically-trained quantisation of every piece of music into militant counts of six or eight—one, two, three, four, five, six, two, two, three, four, five, six, three, two, three, four, five six, four, two, three, four, five, six—until the bell sounded for form class.

The ballet studios were tucked into the lower east corner of the school, down a winding asphalt path beyond the tennis courts and staff car park. The director's jet-black Volkswagen Beetle perched overlooking the studios, a bird of prey biding its time. The two rooms were a clinically spotless white with a long, high window and a polished chrome barre that skirted three walls of the room. My perpetually clammy hands would leave nervous, dirty fingerprints on the barre every time I used it. Three-metre-high mirrors towered along the fourth wall. We'd be told to face the mirrored wall during centre exercises, but to only look in the mirror when instructed, to irradiate some personal imperfection. It was passionless and oppressive and made me hang onto every small piece of control that I could find.

Sitting in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, I wonder what led these young people to be here— holding instruments at an age where they’re whittling down their own identity, but still going through the motions of keeping people around them happy. Would the instruments gather dust in a childhood room for the next decade? Is this the end or the beginning?

During pas de deux class, when I was sixteen, I would lose the thread of intent within the choreography. I had to silently ask a partner to dance with me; gesture to myself, gesture to them, then roll my hands over each other in front of me; fingers poised in the gentlest of royal waves. My partner groaned involuntarily every time he lifted me, squeezing my waist so hard that a sharp pain ran up into my diaphragm. I was increasingly conscious of the sweat and menstrual blood congealing between my legs—it was a new sensation and I hoped no one else could smell it. I wilted into the stagnant summer air on each lift. He fumbled on my hips as I turned quickly. I caught his genitals with the point of my knee. When the music stopped, we both pointedly stepped two feet away from each other, arms crossed, wholly unqualified for this level of intimacy.

At the end of ‘Death and Transfiguration’, Melbourne Youth Orchestra rumbles through our applause; the sound of good shoes pounding floorboards. The conductor gestures for them to rise and standing, they turn to us; the whole spectrum of sheepish grimaces and goofy beaming faces on display. They’re each looking in a different, specific place in the audience, or pointedly anywhere but that one place. They unravel from The Orchestra, each member loved individually and fiercely by the people sitting around me.

Ever since my grandmother died in March, I have felt the weight of it in my writing, a medicine ball rolling over a sheet pulled tight. Every narrative falls back to her. While she lay in palliative this March, Mum held her phone out to me and asked me to play some music, me being the most musically minded in the room. I was paralysed with indecision. Everything seemed potently mocking of our grief or my grandmother’s immediate mortality. What would ever be of comfort for us all in these crucial, final moments?

Richard Strauss finished writing ‘Death and Transfiguration’—the score of a man grappling with, and finally yielding to death—130 years ago. He was 25, two years younger than me and a touch older than the members of Melbourne Youth Orchestra who were playing it now.

For the last few months, I’ve been trying to decide on what I should have played to my grandmother as she lay in palliative—her in memoriam. I’ve been looking for it, but I’m no longer sure it exists. I want to make it myself.

There would be the orchestra tuning to A 440,
growing louder and louder until it overwhelmed any room it was played in.

There would be a swell of steady violins looped indefinitely,                                                                   
urging her breathing sounds to rise and fall on the hospital monitor beside me.

                  There would be her saying goodbye to me over the
                  phone, cascading into an absurd number of quantifiers:
                  " I love you lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and

It would be a
that I'd
marinate in.

I wonder how Strauss managed to keep his work within a structure and under thirty minutes.

Xanthea O'Connor is a writer, musician and performer living between Melbourne and Perth. With a background in music journalism and radio broadcasting, she is interested in writing about music, feminism, our environment and how they all interconnect. Xanthea is currently completing the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT and is a 2019 Writer in Residence at Melbourne Recital Centre.

‘Joli pivert-chat pretty pussycat: A Review of Marie Darrieussecq’s “The Baby”’, by Frances Egan

Credit: Text Publishing

Credit: Text Publishing


“Why don’t you want kids?” I ask him in bed, keeping my face turned away so he doesn’t notice that I’m blushing. I don’t like that the question suggests that I might want them. And that I might want them with him. I want to be cooler.  

He hesitates for a while and I have to stop myself from saying something else. He always thinks before he speaks, much more likely to be on the verge of saying something than actually saying it.

“It just doesn’t interest me,” he replies eventually. He is lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “So I wouldn’t be good at it.”

 Fear about being a bad father is open for reassurance, even persuasion. But indifference is so slippery – there is nothing to push back against.


Marie Darrieussecq says that a book triggered her desire to have children. She was reading The Little Horses of Tarquinia by Marguerite Duras and came across the line: “since the moment he was born, I’ve been living in madness”. Was madness a good thing, I wondered? Darrieussecq craved it. She wanted to be swept up in the fiction of being a mother and entering a world almost alongside reality. “Folie”, she calls it. Or “folly” in the English translation. Such a neat match of French and English, the two words soft like their meaning. But is that what it is to be a mother? Frothy, excessive, frivolous, weird, unfathomable. The French ‘folie’ is larger than the English. It can house you: historically a folie was a luxurious place of leisure. But the term also refers to a deep and consuming kind of madness – not only light and whimsical but serious and debilitating.

In her book The Baby, Darrieussecq writes that she wants to “polish words the way you do silverware”. The baby, the mother – words whose sounds could be clearer. Perhaps if we push the terms this way and that, we will see the things themselves anew. I’m conscious of the fact that it is the translator, Penny Hueston, who chooses the words that we hear as she renders Darrieussecq’s French into English. And she chooses them prettily: the text has a lilting rhythm, soft sounds – it has shapes that sit neatly beside the original. Folly for folie. Chickadee honey bunny pretty pussycat for joli pivert-chat. They match like beautiful mirrors of Darrieussecq’s own intent, bébé and baby, reflecting over and over until we understand them.


 In the tea room of the School of Languages and Linguistics, a few of us are talking through a general ambivalence about having children.

“I don’t want children and I don’t want not to,” I say. The double negative is awkward, ugly – but it has to be that way.

E agrees with me: “I’m so glad someone else is ambivalent,” she effuses.

But is this ambivalence? I’m struck that both my feelings are refusals, apprehensions, and that the sentiment rings unpleasantly of fear. People pass in and out, eyes unsure where to look, as we turn the words around. Mother and mère. They dump their Dilma black-tea bags in hot water and wait quietly for the colour to deepen: wanting to chime in or offended by the personal in the public office space?

Darrieussecq begins her text with a problem: “A baby human being,” she writes, “there must be something to investigate, to understand here.” She goes on to document the tiny details of a new mother’s daily routine: tending to the baby as he sleeps, eats, cries, attempting to navigate the streets of Paris with a pram, and going on holiday “en famille”. The fact that she is a practising psychoanalyst as well as a writer informs her text. Where being a mother remains so wrapped in mystery, Darrieussecq aspires to concretise the feelings in words – for it is the expression of motherhood that she seeks as much as a study of the baby. Interlaced with the often-closed world of mother-newborn are the quotes and opinions of others: Darrieussecq’s personal life joins a larger discourse through The Baby’s explicit intertexuality. As such, the account is visceral yet detached, bodily yet scientific. Reading her text, I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson’s breathtaking The Argonauts – both clash the physical and taboo with the philosophical and the literary. But what is so crucial to Nelson’s and Darrieussecq’s work is that, somehow, there is no clash. The worlds meld seamlessly together, as though they should have always been that way.

Can a book tell me whether I want children, I wonder? I thought that one day I would know. But I’m in my thirties and everything remains the same – my answer is still, as ever, “not now”. What happens when the now moves and the statement becomes not ever. Subtly, without any action, without any moment of realisation. To what extent can we research the question, intellectualise it, work it out like a scientific trial?

I had a child because I knew I’d enjoy it.
I had a child because I met that man there.
I had a child because I am in favour of the production of decent people.
I had a child because I was told that I wouldn’t have any.
I had a child because life is better than nothing.

Darrieussecq lists the reasons she would give if she had to justify her choice to. So often the justification is about not to.

It is her first reason—enjoyment—that comes through most in the text. Darrieussecq takes pleasure in the baby in an all-consuming folly: her love is obsessive, beautiful, sensual, addictive. “I wanted to have two of him, three of him,” she writes, “collect his clones, give birth to him in an eternal present tense.” Hueston’s choice to add “tense” to “eternal present”, a nuance only implicit in the French, brings this sentence neatly to the importance of language itself. The baby’s routine seeps into and defines Darrieussecq’s writing. Its cries “slice through the […] pages, from paragraph to paragraph”, and the text moves with the mother’s experience of the moment. As he sleeps-eats-cries, The Baby’s questions jump in a way that is smooth yet fitful, repetitive yet not tautological.

Darrieussecq wonders where the baby is in words, in literature, in our intellectual world. Tenancière and romancière, housewife and female novelist; her mutual identities continue to sit uncomfortably beside each other. These terms are unconnected in English yet somehow comparable in French. ‘Tenancière’ and ‘romancière’ possess the same structure, the same feminine endings which, by separating the role from its default masculine, cast aspersion on the identity and alter the connotations. A ‘tenancier’ is a keeper, holder, possessor – in the feminine form, it has historically designated a brothel owner. A ‘romancier’ is respectable but a ‘romancière’ problematic – Darrieussecq recalls Rousseau’s conviction that women should not write but have babies.

Even today, Darrieussecq’s French critics wonder if what she has written is literature at all. One condescendingly calls it a diary between breastfeeds; another questions why we would read something so boring and self-satisfying when we don’t even know the baby. Significantly, The Baby was published in French in 2002, long before Text put it out in English this year. Since the original was released, the literary climate has changed, and English language publishing has seen a boom in texts on motherhood. But what Darrieussecq does so well, and that which remains innovative, is to write the banal aspects of looking after a baby. For it is boring, she admits. Yet delving into that boredom is less so – Darrieussecq probes the loss of mental stimulation, intellectualism and professionalism that so often remains a part of motherhood. She writes about the “happiness of being among adults” where one participates in a dialogue rather than simply receiving ‘areuh’ in return. What results, if not a conversation with the baby, are the words of her text.


I hesitated before pitching this review. Surely, I was not the right person to comment on such a book – I don’t know babies, I’m not maternal. And, more than that, for so long I had actively quashed the very topic, uncomfortable even entertaining the question of what if. But all my friends and family were talking about babies, having them, asking. And so was I, almost subconsciously, without premeditation. Moreover, The Baby begins from a premise that resonates with me: Darrieussecq approaches her project from a place of strangeness, shock, ignorance. For her too, ‘mother’ feels like someone (something?) else. I sense that I am on Darrieussecq’s team; she would surely be ok with the childless woman daring to write about mothering. And daring to indulge in her own story.

When I used to work at a hospital, colleagues would use the terms ‘baby’, ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, without the definite article. In the children’s ward, they would report on how ‘mum’ was doing. But it’s not your mum, I wanted to yell. And I could never pin down why it bothered me so much – why I felt a burning need to burst this bubble of cosiness. Like me, Darrieussecq cringes at the drop of the article. She says that, without it, intimacy is imposed, like someone using ‘tu’ when you seek the distance of ‘vous’. She takes the opposite approach. The Baby has no names but teems with definite articles: the baby, the mother, the father of the baby. All parties are defined by their relationship to the tiny little human in the centre. And the effect is one of detachment: a scientific gaze, and a reach towards universality. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know this baby.

“It is a love I had no idea about,” she acknowledges, going on to describe a sensuous, almost scandalous love. “I cuddle his delicious warm body against mine, I eat him, I kidnap him.” Darrieussecq breaks taboos with her urge to fondle the baby, to kill it, to express paedophilic love – a representation of babies that the literary world has long allowed, even if some among it continue to resist the more quotidian. Just for the pleasure of it, she writes in a refrain: “my son’s dick, my son’s dick.” At multiple points, she compares the love she feels for the baby to that between lovers. The analogy is unnerving but thought-provoking. I can’t imagine love for a baby, but what if it resembled that which I felt for a partner? That sort of love was the closest I came to understanding. It is a love that you learn and dissect, a love that moves from zero to something before your eyes.


I was the one who said “I love you” first. I had a cold at the time and my voice was husky instead of high pitched. Sexier, my friends told me. For once, the question at the end of my sentences was gone.

I wasn’t interested in saying I love you just because I felt it. I said it only because I knew he felt the same way and would say it back. Even so, I was sticky and hot with anticipation, the doona that was so cosy a moment ago suddenly stifling.  When I finally said the words, my sexy voice broke in the middle so that “I love you” was just “I” and “you”. I wasn’t sure he had heard.

Is it easier to love a baby? Certain that it feels the same way, or else, undesiring of its reciprocation. Infinite, unconditional – these are the words we associate with motherly love.

Darrieussecq’s second reason: “I had a child because I met that man there.” Does this logic work the other way? I didn’t have a child because I met that man there. Now that we are allowed to ask the question, it seems so many women (because it is still women, ultimately, who do the choosing) don’t know how to answer it. “With child”, as Darrieussecq writes in English in her French text, or “childfree”? And is it a problem if childfree results from circumstance? Some people seem to carry with them a strong and inherent “yes” – and he gave me an inherent “no”: “it just doesn’t interest me” – but how can I make such a decision irrespective of other parts of my life?

My own list:

I want children because I’m afraid of what it means not to.
I want children because my friends will, and our relationship will change.
I want children because I want to be seen as a normal woman, capable of having a family.
I want children because FOMO.
I want children because he does not, and the possibility is moving out of reach.
I want children because I want family and people all around. Not babies but grown-ups, like I have now.

Surely the justification has to be to. We start from a place of not, if only because we haven’t yet. But my last reason is the only one that isn’t about everyone else and that isn’t, at least not completely, about the problem of the alternative.

“Saint de Beauvoir” as Darrieussecq calls the French philosopher, wrote that “one cannot be an intellectual and a good mother”. In Darrieussecq’s words, “on peut pas penser et pouponner”: “think” and “dote on” in the translation. In order to write, then, she takes a pen in her right hand and puts the little finger of her left in the baby’s mouth. She waits until he shuts up or drifts off, or until the grandparents of the baby take him elsewhere. But ‘penser’ and ‘pouponner’ do go together: the soft bumpiness of the ps in these terms fit neatly into place. Like poussin, lapin-pin-pin, pussycat. In fact, Darrieussecq writes precisely because/from/of the baby. Her text is what brings writing and mothering together but, since any established distinction originated from men, it does so in a way that challenges and transforms both.

When Darrieussecq kills off the baby, writes about incest and indulges in a paedophilic reverie—for it is dreamy and alluring—her words make it smoothly into the English text, even beautifully. When she writes, though, that “le bébé rend les femmes idiotes”, or “babies make women crazy”, it is cut from the translation. The preceding paragraph speaks derisively of the way women envelope mothering in mystery and this line, a paragraph of its own, slices into the reader’s reverie, stopping her too from getting carried away. Perhaps this is the new taboo, at least in contemporary English literature. We can write what is shocking, and what is apparently ‘feminine’, but we shy away from anything that depicts women as hysterical, mothers as sentimental, females as hormonal.

I catch up with a friend who has struggled for a long time trying to conceive. The not having has entered her body and altered her consciousness. I mention the piece without thinking and immediately regret it. Reflected in her eyes, I feel frivolous, insulting, as though I’m asking the wrong questions and writing the wrong piece. But Darrieussecq’s point in The Baby is above all about more. We need more writing on babies and mères, more literature on feelings, more thoughts of folly turned this way and that. I just need to read the other book now – the one where the woman does not choose to.

Frances Egan is a translator, writer, and PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Her work centres on identity in translation.

The Lifted Brow x Emerging Writers’ Festival: Issue 42 Launch


The Lifted Brow Issue 42 is here and our friends at Emerging Writers Festival are throwing us a party! Celebrate with a dazzling night of dreamy poetry, surreal storytelling and wholesome laughter.

Issue 42 has arrived just in time for hibernation. Featuring a meditation on im/mortal bodies and their relationship to fear, nature, and spirituality by Mira Schlosberg; Léa Antigny on motherhood and fragility in the face of climate disaster; Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny Phang’s ‘Law School’ sex advice column; a beautiful poetry section guest-curated by Elena Gomez and a special series on libraries featuring Eileen Chong, Ruby Pivet, Nathan Sentance, Vanessa Giron, and Sumudu Samarawickrama.

What better way to celebrate than with a heart-warming night of words! Beloved comics artist Rachel Ang tells stories from her dream journal; multidisciplinary artist and writer Heather Joan Day bewitches us with her darkly funny tales; poet Darlene Silva Soberano enchants with words like music and Morgaine van Wingerden brings the vitality of Melbourne’s underground Slam scene to our festival stage. We are so lucky! Curated by three editors from The Lifted Brow - Bridget Caldwell, Paula Abul and Manisha Anjali.

Kiss the winter blues away with good company and good writing. We will be waiting for you on Friday 28 June at Brunswick Mechanics Institute for an 8.30pm start. Grab yourself a copy, sit back and enjoy the  dreamy live storytelling. This event is free and accessible. More deets here.





Rachel is a comics artist from Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published by The Lifted Brow, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, Scum and The Stella Prize. She is a co-editor of Comic Sans, a new anthology of excellent Australian comics. She makes this with her friend Leah Jing McIntosh. Her first book, a graphic novella called Swimsuit, was published in December 2018 by Glom Press and shortlisted for a Ledger Award. You can find her website here and she tweets at @drawbyfour.



Heather Joan Day is a mouthy trans woman of colour, multidisciplinary artist, musician, writer, and practising witch living in Melbourne on Wurundjeri Land. Her poetry and short memoir has been published by God Is In The TV Zine, Sea Foam Mag, Ibis House, Scum Mag, and Plaything Magazine. As Heather Joan, she makes what she calls “transsexual gothic grunge pop” and her debut EP, titled Songs For Vince, is a collection of love songs written for/performed with her fiancé. Follow her on Instagram @heatherjoanofficial and on Twitter @emo_flowers.



Darlene Silva Soberano is a Filipino poet. Their work has appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Australian Poetry, and Cordite Poetry Review. They were also a participant in Toolkits: Poetry with Express Media in 2017. You can find them on Twitter @DRLNSLVSBRN.



Morgaine is a Melbourne based poet and spoken word artist. She has featured at a number of poetry events across Australia and the US and was a member of the only Australian team to compete in the 2018 National Poetry Slam in Chicago. You can follow her on Instagram @morgaine.nova.

'The Fascists Aren't Coming, They're Here' by Adam Phillip Anderson

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I have seen spray paint swastikas on ethnic businesses in Epping. White power salutes directed at African drivers on pedestrian crossings in Newcastle. White supremacist club-houses in Ashfield and Tempe that have operated for at least a year.
  The current political environment has empowered and emboldened violent, white-supremacist racists and our government continues to drag its feet on direct action. Peter Dutton links Lebanese-Australian communities to terrorism, Pauline Hanson wears a Burqa in Parliament, Scott Morrison sees Islamophobia as a way to secure votes. Anyone who was surprised by the Christchurch Massacre on March 15th, in which a white supremacist murdered 51 Muslims praying inside a Mosque, I urge you to pay more attention.

As a mixed-race Australian Indonesian from Tamworth, institutionalised prejudices are not new to me. Growing up, I experienced an extremely particular kind of racial discrimination as a ‘nearly white’ inhabitant of a white majority, conservatively-thinking community. I even participated in racial discrimination myself. I enjoyed white-passing privilege, socioeconomic stability and a name that didn’t raise white eyebrows on a resume. Simultaneously, I was subjected to model minority frameworks, it was taken for granted that I conformed to society, behaved myself and succeeded in academia. I was perceived as a ‘good’ Asian.
 In the early 2000s, a Muslim family from Bangladesh came to live in our quiet country town. The family had two sons. Their dark skin was the same nutmeg brown as my Indonesian mother’s. One of the boys was my age and we became acquainted on the cricket field. While I was visiting his house, I noticed a weird locked room that prohibited shoes. I snuck in and found an empty room with a double-bladed sword pinned on the wall. I know now that was the Zulfiqar in the family’s Musollah. I had never met Muslims besides my relatives from Indonesia so this South-Asian variety of Islam looked unrecognisably different to my naïve westernized gaze. Alongside the white people in Tamworth, I would ignorantly mock the Bangladesh Muslim family’s accents and avoid them because I thought ‘they stank’. The family left Tamworth soon after.

After moving to the city for university, I was ecstatic to be percieved as ‘some Indo-halfie’ instead of ‘some Asian’. Western Sydney showed me the true face of humanity in all its staggering diversity. I began the process of unlearning my reductive perception of others, which consequently enriched my understanding of being Indonesian. It also made me question the atheist ideology I had decided on as a teenager. I currently identify as agnostic.

After the Christchurch Massacre I wanted to call my Indonesian family, but my sympathy towards the victims felt hypocritical and hollow. I felt so confronted by my familiarity with the white perpetrator that I was ashamed of the fairness of my own skin. Three days later I called my aunty in Java on Instagram. She practices Muhammadiyah Islam, a modernist and reformist movement of Islam established by Indonesians in 1912. Indonesian Muslims may be santri—devoted Muslims who might choose to live in pesantren religious boarding houses—or abangan—moderate Muslims who hold on to their cultural and ethnic ties to Hindu, Buddhist or Indigenous animist beliefs. Muhammadiyah worship is based on the Qu’ran and Sunnah texts with an emphasis on good deeds (Amar Ma'ruf Nahi Munkar). This emphasis means promoting Islam through education, health and social services. They also affiliate with Aisyiyah, a women’s organisation created in 1917 to elevate the status of women in Indonesia.
 When I asked my aunty how she felt about Christchurch she quoted the Prophet Muhammad: 'The Muslim Ummah [nation] is like one body. If the eye is in pain then the whole body is in pain, and if the head is in pain then the whole body is in pain.' I noticed the same idea shared by Prime Minister Jacinda Adern with thousands of mourners during the Muslim Friday prayers in Hagley Park.
 My aunty lives in Yogyakarta City, my mum’s home before she met my Australian dad, got married and eventually settled down in country NSW. On one side of the city stands the world’s largest Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. On the other side stands Prambanan temple complex which was built in the period dominated by Hinduism. This multi-religious history is the product of syncretism: as new religions arrive, the old ones are not thrown out, instead they are allowed to grow over each other like layers in the Earth’s crust. Since the 15th century, the majority of the Malay archipelago’s inhabitants have identified themselves as Muslims.
 Indonesia has been constitutionally secular since independence in 1949 and formally recognises six separate religions. When I think about Christchurch, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Indonesian 1965-66 anti-leftist massacre in which half a million Indonesian alleged communists were killed and another million were indefinitely detained. This was the harrowing end to the tumultuous post-independence period of first president, Sukarno’s leadership. Local militias were already trained from years of anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle. Violent extremist anti-left groups and right-wing members of the military were covertly armed and supported by the United States and other western powers, whose interest was in eliminating communism in South-East Asia.

Both the Christchurch Massacre and the Indonesian '65-'66 Massacres demonstrate ideological violence encouraged by politicians who twist fear into hatred in a bid for power. Individuals are manipulated into valorised acts of violence and the fantasy of white supremacy is always lurking near by.
 In 1997, students and community leaders petitioned, rallied and eventually succeeded in toppling the Suharto regime in Indonesia. My aunty was one of them. She once told me about the fear of police and military batons and bullets. How citizens would come out of their houses with damp cloths to aid tear-gassed activists. How her fellow students would ‘disappear in the night’ for being too vocal, and her disappointment that the resistance leaders she followed suddenly changed their ideas and behaviour after the reformation of a newly democratic government.

The historical lessons of Indonesia’s nationhood are highly relevant to today’s Australia. They demonstrate the pitfalls and speed bumps that lay on the path to the multicultural society that Australia claims to be. However, the two countries’ icy, business-first bilateral relations have created an inability for us to learn from each other. The fruits of cultural exchange have been othered to death and Australia has become unable and unwilling to understand its place in its region, the world and, consequently, to understand itself.

Adam Phillip Anderson is mixed-race Australian Indonesian writer and activist. He grew up on Gomeroi Land in Tamworth, New South Wales and is currently based out of Narwee, Dharawal land, in Sydney's south-west. His work has been published in Big Black Thing: Chapter 2.

Excerpt: 'Bloodthirst' by Mira Schlosberg

Art by Will Thompson

Art by Will Thompson

  1. Crocodile

    In February of 1985, ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood was attacked by a saltwater crocodile. She was in a red plastic canoe, in the part of the river she was told not to go to. She tried to jump from the canoe into a tree to escape the crocodile, but the crocodile jumped too. It death-rolled her three times in the water before she managed to escape and crawl to a place where a ranger found her.

    After surviving this attack, Val Plumwood wrote extensively about how the experience had illuminated the ways humans separate ourselves from nature by denying that we can (and, according to her, should) be eaten by other things. We imagine that we and we alone own our bodies and that we are above being eaten, but we are wrong.

  2. Vampire

    Val Plumwood was a colleague of my father, and when I was nine we visited her at her house below Plumwood Mountain. The house was a stone hexagon, one room except for a curtained-off shower in the centre. There was an outhouse and a glass-walled guest room, both detached from the house. The furniture in the kitchen had been chewed by a wombat, who she said went in and out of the house as it pleased every night. In The Eye of the Crocodile, Val Plumwood writes:

Upon death the human essence is conventionally seen as departing for a disembodied, non-earthly realm, rather than nurturing those earth others who have nurtured us. This concept of human identity positions humans outside and above the food web, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters separate from it. Death becomes a site for apartness, domination and individual salvation, rather than for sharing and for nurturing a community of life. Being food for other animals shakes our image of human mastery.

Val Plumwood said she wanted to introduce us to her friends. She led us to a patch of mud a few steps outside of her house. She was wearing sandals and she put her feet into the mud and stood still as leeches wriggled up and began to bite her. She told us she liked to come out and feed them maybe once a day.

Plumwood writes about the existence of two parallel universes—the universe humans live in, where the body belongs to the individual, and the universe of the food chain, where all bodies belong to all others. The golden eye of the crocodile is the portal she travelled through from one universe to the other. She says, ‘Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating live or dead humans, and various levels of hysteria are elicited when we are nibbled by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes. But humans are food, food for sharks, lions, tigers, bears and crocodiles, food for crows, snakes, vultures, pigs, rats and goannas, and fora huge variety of smaller creatures and micro-organisms.’ She writes that the body is like a library book, subject to recall by any other organism, at any time.

We went for a hike in the forest. My sister and I knelt down to play in a stream and when I stood up again I felt a cold thing crawling up my leg. I screamed. Val Plumwood calmly demonstrated how to get rid of a leech that hasn’t bitten you yet—rolling it up into a ball in her palm and flicking it away. My parents say they had to give me whiskey to make me sleep that night.

3. Ghost

I feel happy so I stop going to therapy. I begin to experience irrational anxiety walking home at night that I may encounter a ghost or a demon. I develop anxiety around cars; that I will die in a crash. I look in the mirror and feel I am looking out from far, far inside my body. I get a haircut and it doesn’t help. I get a tattoo and it doesn’t help. I have an anxiety attack while watching Killing Eve, begin to panic at my own impending death. For over a month the world seems unreal, the participation of others in it unbelievable. Every indication of the passage of time distresses me. Looking in the mirror or letting one body part touch another body part distresses me. The part of my leg that I shaved to get the tattoo feels cursed. I am crying into Eloise’s faux fur coat. She is putting her hand on my hands to hold them still and I didn’t even realise I was wringing them. I am spending every free moment watching TV in bed, lying as still as possible.

4. Vampire

I read an article about Hereditary and how horror movies use transness as a plot for demonic possessions. In Hereditary apparently Toni Collette has two children; the girl is possessed by a demon, but the demon is unhappy in a female body, and so the girl is killed so it can move into the body of her brother.

I remember as a teenager watching Toni Collette and Julianne Moore kiss in The Hours during English class. Both of them in terror at not being able to be women in the right way. In the opening scene, where Virginia Woolf drowns, her shoe floated off and some girl said, ‘I want those shoes.’

Val Plumwood writes, ‘I met the crocodile like a child who has just become aware of the evil in the world, a sharply demonic experience of some great wrong done to another.’

5. Crocodile

I can’t remember when my fear of insects began to centre on cockroaches, only know that my body’s response to them is the worst of all. Hot flash, heart pounding, dizziness, clawing at my intestines. The fear is simply that they will touch me. And the sounds they make—scratching, fluttering, swooping—make me the most nauseated, because in the sound you can hear the weight of the bug and know how heavy it would be on your body.

I can remember being less afraid of cockroaches,or at least able to get over it more quickly once the insect had been killed or trapped inside a vacuum (plastic bag fastened over vacuum hose to prevent escape). Remember opening my eyes during sex on Valentine’s Day to see a roach crawling on the ceiling above us. At this time I had a partner who would kill and catch them for me. One night I was woken up by the sound of a cockroach’s wings in the room. After that, my fear became ridiculous. I took beta blockers, Valium, Xanax, drank whiskey, wore earplugs, but I would still lie awake the whole night, my entire body wrapped tightly in the doona. Eventually I began to sneak out when my partner had fallen asleep and go back to my own house.

When I see other insects in the house, the fear spirals to cockroaches, and to global warming, and to money. The hotter the summers get, the more cockroaches there will be. If a smaller bug can get into the house, then a larger one might. If I don’t save enough money to move to a colder climate, I will be trapped with the threat of these insects crawling on me always until death.

This above is an excerpt from a piece originally published in The Lifted Brow Issue #42. To read this and many more brilliant works in full, get your copy here.

Mira Schlosberg is a writer and comics artist whose work has appeared in Meanjin, Rabbit, and others. They are the editor of Voiceworks magazine and edit comics for Scum Mag. Their comic book Guidebook to Queer Jewish Spirituality is available through Glom Press.

Will Thompson (they/he) is a self-taught illustrator and animation student. They work mainly with traditional mediums and enjoy making things with their hands

‘The dislocation of now: A Review of Ali Smith’s “Spring”’, by Will Cox

Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books


Now: in May 2019, it’s Spring.

Now is relative. Ours is a different now to the UK, where this book was published. Here, Spring comes out at the beginning of autumn.

Growing up in rural Tasmania in the 90s, now was a baffling concept. All our culture was imported. It happened in Britain or America, or possibly as close as the mainland, and it mostly happened years ago. At school we had textbooks from the 1980s and cultural attitudes from the 1950s. On the weekends my parents dragged me to National Trust homes, through sitting rooms perfectly preserved in the late nineteenth century, through gardens full of introduced flora, to public tea rooms serving scones and cream. I saw, through the cordons, homes frozen at the point of value; older, truer.

In the evenings we ate overboiled vegetables and watched repeats of Keeping Up Appearances and Blackadder, sitcoms about repulsive British eccentrics displaced in class and time. These episodes looped endlessly, with the occasional Christmas special, which would air in May or August or February, reaffirming my belief that the world happened elsewhere, and elsewhen. This was British soft power in action, and mine is a firmly colonised psyche.

Now: I lay in my front yard on unseasonably hot April days and read this book about now, set there. There, where I lived for a while, everything is closer together, accessible by rail, and the years are closer together too, the decades collapsing into an ever-present past. I put down the novel to take a nice photo of the sky, or to write some notes. I read a few more pages, some more notes, some more staring at the sky. I go running. I don’t run to dance music, I run to BBC Radio 4, catching Woman’s Hour and On Your Farm and the shipping forecast, current affairs programs with a calm, unflinching air of stately order, formats like remnants from a less urgent time. 

Maintaining a connection to the here and now has always been a problem of mine.

For the last few years Scottish writer Ali Smith has been working on a season cycle of novels. Each is written in the months before publication, and is intended as a record of now. It’s a willfully risky artistic move that could come out horribly, or worse, prosaically. Smith told The Guardian a few weeks ago:

The concept was always to do what the Victorian novelists did at a time when the novel was meant to be new…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible…That’s why it’s called the novel – what it can do, what it’s for, what it does.

In a scene set in an art gallery Smith describes a Tacita Dean picture: “an avalanche coming down the mountain picture towards anyone looking at it, an avalanche that had been stilled for just that moment so that whoever saw it had time to comprehend it”. Smith wants to write the avalanche, and she wants to do it as a series of four novels.

Every effort has been made to make Spring and its companions feel urgent. The type is huge and unjustified, sitting ragged on the page as if the text has been CTRL+C/CTRL+V’d into the template the night before it hits the printers, like a literary dispatch from an artistic front line, a work that can’t wait around for typesetters to sap its timeliness. The cover is a simple template holding David Hockney’s 2006 painting ‘Late Spring Tunnel’, capturing a spot in Woldgate Woods which Hockney has painted again and again and filmed for a video project. As in all of Smith’s season cycle novels, the stories just tumble out, full of asides and parables and flashbacks, and fictions within the fiction, nostalgias tucked inside nostalgias.

The huge type tells us: In Britain 2019, there’s a TV director, Richard, who’s sure his best work is behind him. That best work was all done on a series of Play For Today programs in the 1970s, collaborations with late writer and best friend Paddy. Richard is consumed with grief for her, and for the incisive creativity of her groundbreaking work, and for the past that she occupied and understood better than he did. He reads old postcards, fragments of now shot through with wish you were here sentiments. He recalls his father lamenting the disappearance of a busker with a saxophone, one day suddenly replaced by a guitarist: “Every day he makes me come back and check this bridge to see if the saxophone man is back. Apart from that having a lovely time. Wish you were here.”

“People spoke about it in parliament”, Richard recalls about one of their plays. “People understood more from it than they knew from a thousand newspaper reports”. This from the days of a small media, three TV channels. Play for Today was a series of high-minded, socially-conscious TV dramas which might reach tens of millions of viewers who had few other viewing options.

Elsewhere there’s Brit, a detention centre worker thoughtlessly upholding the immigration regime of an increasingly brutal government. This is about as now as it gets, as socially conscious and urgent as contemporary British fiction can hope to be. Brit works for SA4A, a private security firm doing the dirty business of detaining refugees, operating at arms-length of the government, perhaps a thinly-veiled analogue for real-life global security firm G4S. Brit is a DCO, and the inmates are “deets”, or details, and “all [the inmates] really had in common was shit, an open toilet and being stuck in here in indefinite detention”, and of course it’s harrowing and all very real, but Smith coats everything in an optimistic layer of magical whimsy. A mysterious schoolgirl walks straight into the centre, through all the security doors and past all the guards and, using little more than a child’s logic, convinces management to clean up their act.

But Spring and its counterparts are as much about reaching into the past as they are about probing the present, and therein lie the lazy bits. In Autumn, a bureaucratic nightmare trip to the post office took up a significant portion of a slim, quaint novel. Spring doesn’t quite plum those depths of boomerish whingeing, but a scene on a train in which ignorant drones sit glued to screens while our hero, Brit, has her mind opened by a mysteriously wise schoolgirl, comes damn close. 

It’s contemporary, it’s urgent, it’s now, but beneath the veneer of the frozen present, Smith presents Britain as a National Trust version of itself. This is the present rendered in broad strokes of oils, the realism of the moment hidden behind the thickness of the brush, the violence of the global refugee crisis sugared with a bright palette and whimsical artificiality.

It’s the Play For Today model that Smith aspires to in this cycle, that mode of contemporary, of-the-minute State-of-Britain drama. That sits strangely in 2019. We’re inundated with now now, and it’s easier than ever to publish and to share etc. etc., and this is a statement published in a book, which is a far more solid, real format, which we trust more, which we hold as a bound record of contemporary ills and attitudes that will stand the test of time. The tacit dream is that in the future it will be a fragment of now that will conjure respect, not nostalgia.

The presentation of Spring is of now. But any attempt to depict now with reference to a nineteenth century art form and a 1970s television format is going to get caught in a strange temporal feedback loop. And from that loop, that tangle of contradictions and histories and nostalgias, Spring emerges, blinking into the light, cloying with optimism, poised with stately calm.

 At the end of the novel, even with its narrative nods to documentary cinema and activism, the whole thing is frozen in an already dissolving immediate past. It’s Autumn and I’m running around the track near my house listening live to BBC Radio 4, and the announcer says good morning when it’s early evening. The delay of the international broadcast is a matter of seconds, but it feels old the second it goes out. It’s already glazed with the thin film that separates now and then. Cordoned off. Memorialised.

Will Cox writes about art and film in Broadsheet every week, and various other places occasionally, including Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and Vault. His first novel is on the way. He tweets: @dazzleships.

Brow Books To Publish Jade Lillie’s ‘The Relationship is the Project’


As reported over at Books + Publishing, we at Brow Books are very happy to announce that later this year we’ll be publishing The Relationship is the Project, a vital book and new resource that aims to help practitioners, artists and cultural workers better engage with community-based projects.

We’re beyond thrilled to be partnering up with creative producer Jade Lillie to realise this book – Jade has commissioned and curated all the contributions as part of her 2017 Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship.

The book is co-edited by Kate Larsen, Cara Kirkwood and Jax Jacki Brown, and will feature chapters and provocations from thought-leaders across Australia’s arts, cultural and community sectors.

The Relationship is the Project includes:

  • Genevieve Grieves on working in First Nations cultural contexts;

  • Caroline Bowditch on access and ableism;

  • Dianne Jones, Odette Kelada and Lilly Brown on Racial Literacy;

  • Ruth De Souza and Robyn Higgins on cultural safety in the arts;

  • Daniel Santangeli on engaging queer communities;

  • Adolfo Aranjuez;

  • Alia Gabres;

  • Anna Reece;

  • Eleanor Jackson;

  • Esther Anatolitis;

  • Fotis Kapetopoulos;

  • Lenine Bourke;

  • Lia Pa’apa’a;

  • Paschal Berry;

  • Rosie Dennis;

  • Samuel Kanaan-Oringo;

  • Tania Cañas;

  • co-editor Kate Larsen;

  • and Jade Lillie herself.

“From ‘CCD’ to ‘CACD’ to old-fashioned ‘community arts’, not having a shared terminology around community-engaged practice means we have not had a united message, voice or set of principles for this work,” Lillie says.  “Community engaged practice is a way of working in deep collaboration with artists and communities to develop an outcome that is specific to that community. In community engaged practice, the most important element of the work is to develop and nurture the relationships. It requires a level of personal investment, time and communication to create the best possible environment for that relationship to grow and flourish. The relationship really is the project.”

There are very few non-academic, practitioner-led resources on this topic currently available, so we are very excited to be a part of bringing such a vital project into the world.

We can’t wait to share more with you all in the coming months!


‘After Parents: a review of Vincent Silk’s “Sisters of No Mercy”’, by Alice Robinson

Credit: Brio Books

Credit: Brio Books


Our nation is hurtling towards the federal election as I consider Vincent Silk’s debut novel, Sisters of No Mercy. I am alert to public commentary, the kind I pay attention to anyway, which suggests that climate change has finally made itself sufficiently known to us so as to influence votes—perhaps for the first time—in terms that are both decisive and wide-spread. To me, more daunting than the looming question of who might triumph to take charge of the nation, is the spectre of climate change itself, which to my mind is something that exists, like a sweat-soaked nightmare, like God, on the periphery of imagination, at the limits of my talent as a writer to meaningfully articulate. I imagine the catastrophe as a dust-storm, something bonding land to sky with darkness and debris, rolling over the earth like a shroud. I imagine it as thirst; water clotted with the phlegm of plastic particles. Climate change is the experience of being buried alive. An unending scream – until the scream does end, cut off mid-note, because there is no world left to populate with sound.

As if pre-empting a fate in which we have failed to put into office a leader with the will to fight for the planet that sustains us, Silk conjures an imagined Australian city decomposing under the impacts of Mega-storm Martha. The storm, he writes, had “thrust the spectre of Nature inside the common living room, and the effect was undeniable…the panic that This Could Happen Here cascaded through the city’s consciousness more violently than the freak waves that had rolled in along the coast”. It could happen here – but in day-to-day discourse, that message still feels at once too opaque and too slippery to convey. My attempts to pin climate change down are just images – linguistic struggles to reach toward a conceptual framework for total annihilation (or something much more horrific and plausible, which is having to live on indefinitely, as Silk’s band of plucky young characters must, in a collapsing world). Almond, one of the resourceful survivors who populate Silk’s prescient novel, notes that, “When you can see the pattern, you can see where the pattern breaks. You might not be able to avoid it, but if you can see it coming you can at least prepare”. But how to articulate the pattern so that we are forearmed? Time and again, I attempt to conjure climate change beyond the alliteration of its nomenclature – bandied about so loosely and frequently these days, thankfully and unfortunately, that it is almost meaningless. Even as drought and fire and flooding occurs with preternatural severity and duration in Australia and globally, the term climate change fails to relay any meaningful electrocution to its audience: it has become that ubiquitous.

That said, there has been a call to arms, popularly personified recently by adolescent activist Greta Thunberg, to shift the discourse away from change and toward breakdown and/or emergency. Whatever we call it, bald-faced fear of the catastrophe manifesting should make us howl until our throats are raw, drive us wailing into the night, into the sea – anywhere so long as we shift completely outside of our minds and our bodies, just so we won’t have to endure with any cognisance, or bear witness to, what the science says is coming. Of course, we could take action to avoid complete disaster. That is an option, impossible to achieve or dangerously necessary, depending on your view – and, perhaps, the generation to which you belong.

Thunberg has had the most success in bridging the chasm between the abstract and our reality. Her discourse—heartfelt, impassioned, critical in both senses of the word—and her age, conspire to bypass the lethargy that has attached itself to climate change. In this, she is a real-world avatar for Silk’s activists and troublemakers: Pinky, Del, Neeah-Nancy, Jameson and Almond. “When social infrastructure, all of it, the buildings, the very shape of public spaces, the ways the city allows or prevents people from moving, flowing, from existing in public, when all of that is against you, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Aren’t you?”

 You are, but young people hold one advantage conceptually if not practically at the coalface of disaster, because generally speaking they have nothing to lose (unlike, for example, Baby Boomers) by advocating for massive social upheaval in the name of the common good. Silk’s characters are more transient and disadvantaged than most, given that they are living in the natural outcome of neo-liberalist structures destabilised by environmental collapse. The nation’s contemporary fixation on real estate and inflated housing costs have given rise, in Sisters of No Mercy, to ruin and perpetual homelessness for ordinary folks. “Thousands of buildings had sat empty for years, until Martha had decimated a portion of the city, tipping the scales of property value in the favour of banks and developers…The worst affected buildings still just sat there, ruined, abandoned, squalid and huge”. Some, like the villain of the story Dirk Trench, whose disproportionate and horrifying wealth draws the force of the band’s intelligence as they try to rip him off, signal that whatever systemic inequities exist today will only be exacerbated under pressure of the weather. The fact that Trench is slated to have grown his own jungle is a heartrending signpost for his incredible privilege, and this small but powerful detail haunted me, even beyond other more expansive descriptions of characters and lands in crisis.  

 Various writers, myself included, have come at the problem of portraying climate change with bleak earnestness, trying to find the right tenor, the right language, the right metaphors to bring the issue home. Vincent Silk takes a different tact – and his efforts are admirable. Critic James Wood infamously coined the genre ‘Hysterical Realism’ to describe the mode of modernist fiction to which Silk’s novel has also been assigned (as per the novel’s blurb). Wood originally wrote of the genre, “One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark that travel is the way to avoid despair…these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish”. Such novels, which include those written by David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith—and now Silk—among others, share a relentless energy, many plotlines, and as Wood points out, a marked (perhaps irresponsible, perhaps necessary) absence of despair.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, such rambunctious approaches to storytelling suddenly seemed implausible, redundant, when considered in the context of such pervasive evil and disaster, provoking Wood to write, “It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted”. Perhaps this is even more true with something as globally and irrevocably devastating as climate change, but Sisters of No Mercy seems to hover above the crumbling foundations of the genre to which it has been assigned – to find a way to articulate the unsayable in ways that can be both stomached and heard. Ultimately, Sisters of No Mercy poses a vision for what the outcome of our failings may not only look like, but how it might be expressed. The tone is mocking, ironic, clever and cynical, something like how the future might be told if narrated by characters from The West Wing. “Just because you’re a slave to your neo-liberal lifestyle, and you’re sucked into a toxic, state-sanctioned treadmill of profit doesn’t mean I’ve got to do what you say!” crows an unpopular member of the ensemble, Clancy. The novel is funny and energetic, and also poignantly impactful. At times, I found the writing almost transcendently tender. When Pinky’s parents disappear overnight without telling him where they are going, Pinky joins the ranks of many young dystopian protagonists before him who are left to fend for themselves with their peers. Silk writes, heartbreakingly, that Pinky, “accepted, gently, silently, that he was now in a period that could be labelled ‘After Parents’”.

But perhaps an era categorised by being After Parents—after the generations who royally fucked the environment and those, like mine, who failed to rise up sufficiently to repair it—is what we should all be fleeing toward without a backward glance, painful as the progression might be. For a fighting chance of, first, being able to express to ourselves the scope and severity of the disaster looming, and second, to survive its unfolding, we will be relying on folks like the ones Silk has created, and a mode of narration, a way of getting at the issue, that is at once incisive and imbued with humour.

Although Silk’s characters are resourceful because their hands are tied by circumstance, they are not only surviving the instability of their time but, impressively, fighting back. Meanwhile, in the present, we don’t even know how to scare ourselves into action, to make this looming terminal diagnosis relevant, current or undeniable. I came away from reading Sisters of No Mercy thinking, Aha! This is how we must tell our story to ourselves.

Alice Robinson earned a Bachelor of Creative Arts from The University of Melbourne and a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research. Alice’s debut novel, Anchor Point (Affirm Press, 2015), was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards (debut fiction) in 2016. Her second novel, The Glad Shout (Affirm Press, 2019), was published in March.

'You Swallowed The Ocean Then You Dug The Earth ' a response to the 2019 Fair Play Symposium by Magan Magan

Magan Magan wrote this short story as part of a two-day symposium hosted by Diversity Arts Australian, The Wheeler Centre and Creative Victoria to improve equity and inclusive practice in creative industries.

Photo by Andrew Bennett. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

‘You don’t say much, Zack,' says Amina. 'You’re always in your head.' She continues, 'I can see your thoughts running amok in that small head of yours.’
  A hollow air of distance moves throughout their wooden house, through the bedrooms of loss with tile floors, across the bathroom of rage covered in plastic. Devastation seems to linger uninvited. Eventually words tussle out of his mouth, ‘How do you move past pain so easily aunty? I’m still trying to work out why mum left after all these years.'
  ‘You get sick of yourself as time goes by’ says his aunty. 'When your mother walked out on us, all those years ago, I had no choice but to push through or else you would have suffered more than you did kiddo. If you aren’t intentional about surviving, this world will eat you, blame you and then forget you. You grow wise. You take less crap from people and you begin to see right through the bullshit.’
  Zack’s mouth begins to click. ‘I just   I mean   I don’t know.’

 ‘It’s sunny outside. Let’s go out to the backyard and lay in the sun like we used to.’

Amina and Zack walk to the backyard. Amina grabs a large towel from the clothes hanger and spreads it across the cement. Next to the towel is a small coffee table with cigarette butts lying lifeless. ‘You can lie on the hammock, love. Get yourself comfortable while I fix us some smoothies to drink.’
 Zack gets lost in the hammock. The material overcomes his thin body. It swallows him whole. Amina returns with the smoothies. The front of her dress is tucked in her undergarment. Her stomach demands more space lately, it is the fifth time she has fallen pregnant in the past two years.
 ‘Here Zack, grab the drinks. Lord knows it’ll be a mess if I pretend to be able to place the drinks on the ground this swollen.’ Zack takes the tray off her. He blows the cigarette butts off the table and places the plate on the coffee stand. Amina’s whole body claims the towel. They are both looking at the sky. The sky is unapologetically blue. Not a single blot of white in the sky. Nothing is sauntering across the sky. Zack feels the sky looking at him, giving him all the attention of the universe. He feels safe. He lets out a sigh. This is the first time he has felt inner peace in a long time.

‘I heard you’re no longer talking to Sami. Is this true, Zack? He feels tense again. The hammock that was hugging him now feels like it is suffocating him. He feels paralysed.

 ‘You know you can talk to me about anything.'

 'People will get away with a lot if they can.’

 ‘Talk to me, Zack! Please!'

Zacks face opens up. His exhaustion begins to gush out of his body like a sprinkler silencing a burning home.
 ‘People like me are run by emotions, aunt.’
 ‘We’re all emotional honey.’
 ‘No. You don’t get it.’ Zack’s voice begins to crack. Shame is seeping through the hammock. ‘I’m feeling so burnt out by life. I don’t know how to explain it. I want to change how my emotions run my world and how my past slips through the cracks.’
 ‘What happened, Zack? What did Sami do?’

A warm breeze begins to pronounce its name; it holds its head up high as if to say my life and what I’ve been through isn’t a joke to me. Zack wants to go away with the wind, to leave this conversation. But there is nowhere to go. There are wolves and bears in the world that speak politely and wear silk, that wait to devour him.

 ‘You were right about him, aunt. You were.'

 ‘Everything you said was going to happen, happened’

 ‘God dammit. I’m so fucking stupid.’

Amina sits up, looks at Zack lying on the hammock as though he is dead.
 ‘You get nothing out of shaming yourself. It gives evil more power.’
 ‘How do you know all this? Why wasn’t this taught to us in school? I spent my entire life trying to be good. Believing if I just did the right fucking thing, I would be happy.’ Zack is crying.
 'That is the first lesson my love. You have to unlearn the lies told to you.    It’s not a conspiracy it’s the truth. Everyone lied to you. And the ones that know the truth always appear crazy.’
 Zack begins to feel a tight knot in his throat. His body begins to shake uncontrollably. He tries to wrap the hammock around his entire body. His heart is beating faster.

Amina makes her way up. She sits up, puts her palms on the floor, she bends over, releases a sigh that can consume the both of them and everything in the house. When she is up she draws closer to Zack and puts her hand on his head.
 ‘I can see you’re in pain honey.’ She turns around and picks the glass from the tray. ‘Have some of the smoothy. You’ll feel better.’
 He gets up, takes the glass Amina is hovering over him with. Before he drinks the smoothie, he takes a deep breath as though he is about to swim, as though everything that has happened up to this moment can be swallowed and mutilated in the same way he has been throttled, as though he has the power to reverse universal law.

‘It comes out, you know. It all comes out’ says his aunty. 'And when it does,’ she continues, 'it is relentless, it is unforgiving. All those years you spend looking away, all the small moments life gently taps you on the shoulder to look at your world, to look at the claws digging into your body.'

 ‘And then life gets angry at your denial. Your commitment to maintain the status quo and all the while you’re screaming on the inside, wanting it all to stop’

 ‘You hear the truth and then you turn away once again thinking it will be more painful if you look and acknowledge the pain you’re in. And so the world dizzies you and my poor child, aren’t you in pain anyway?’

The creaking sound of the clothesline gets louder as the wind strengthens its voice. The branches of the tree beside are swaying to the demands of the wind. The tray on the coffee table is quivering. Amina puts the tray out of its misery as she puts her hand on the tray. The wind is unhinged, it’s motivation for causing havoc is in the detail of its ruckus.
 They get up. Amina takes the tray while Zack is finding his balance to get out of the hammock. When he does, he picks his glass and scurries past Amina towards the house. When Amina walks into the house waddling like a penguin she finds Zack crouched over the sink sobbing.
 She puts the tray on the kitchen bench, walks over to him and begins to rub his back. Snot is rolling out of his nose; he is beginning to fight his own body. ‘We were friends since we were kids, aunt.   How could he do it?’

 ‘Do what sweetheart?’
 Zack shakes his head as he takes a deep breath.
 ‘He spread that rumour about me.    He is still maintaining his innocence.    I am wishing and praying he is telling the truth.’

The wind outside is howling louder and louder. It begins to rain as the clothesline is bowing. Amina is looking out the window to witness the chaos and she sees the wind push the coffee table across the yard. Everything in this moment is conspiring towards the ugly nature of this world.
 ‘You can swallow the ocean and then dig the earth to find a story that fits neatly into Sami’s justification. You can’t fight against law.’
 Everything stops, the wind quietens its feet, the screeching sound of the clothesline halts and time sinks back into the earth. And now Zack is panting like a dog. He wants to dance with clarity, he wants to touch it, to hold it’s hand, to bend it; to allow its equilibrium to wraps itself around his body until it all makes sense. ‘I want this to end’ screams Zack as the sunsets and darkness blinds them in their home once more. Amina wraps her arms around him and for the first time she sees the way time has been punishing him, his body suddenly feels different, it feels parentless yet covered.

Magan Magan is the author of From Grains to Gold (Vulgar Press, 2018). He was a 2018 Hot Desk Fellow and co edited the Black Inc anthology Growing Up African In Australia and Volume 7 of the Australian Poetry Anthology.

'A Gloomy Shade of Death: This Year’s Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award' by Alexandra Dane

Maybe next year?

Maybe next year?


The news arrived on Monday. Writing is dead. The novel is dead. Australian unpublished authors aged under 35 are no good, and there is no point publishing or reading anything anymore. The good old days, where we could revel in the coming-of-age story of scrappy Western Australian surfer kids, are over. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. There is nothing to see here but high standards. RIP Australian fiction.

On Monday, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript declared that there would be no winner in 2019. Annette Barlow, publisher at Allen & Unwin, was heard among certain circles to say, “I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.” For those of us left with this decision, it is important to heed Barlow’s words: we will not have new writing to read, but we do still have excellent standards to admire.

This is not, however, the first time the Vogel has rung the death knell for Australian fiction. They are, one could say, a little alarmist. 1985 was just as bad a year for young Australian writers. As was 2013. (Where were you when you heard the news?)

Established in 1980, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is awarded annually for an unpublished manuscript written by an Australian author under 35 years of age. The winner receives a handful of cash and a publishing deal with Allen & Unwin. Both of these things are extremely valuable to an author: a deal with Australia’s largest independent press creates a career and helps to get your novel into bookstores and into the hands of readers; the cash affords you time to write the next book.

A number of writers have already weighed in on the decision not to award the Vogel in 2019, highlighting not only the problematic nature of the prize’s eligibility guidelines but also the reality of this decision for emerging writers. Jane Rawson captured the sentiment of the Australian literary community, writing, “Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius?” [Side note: if you’re a published author who does not agree that mediocre books get published and win prizes all the time, it follows that your book is mediocre.]

Karen Wyld’s blistering Twitter thread provided a powerful account of the experiences of an emerging writer, concluding that the Vogel’s decision was making it harder for writers, that the eligibility guidelines for the award are ageist, and that not awarding the prize completely undermines the unpaid labour that authors put into their manuscripts to enter the award. Emily O’Grady, the 2018 winner of the Vogel, worked for close to four years on her manuscript before submitting it to the prize. So, for the Vogel prize judges to declare no winning manuscript in 2019, to not even announce a shortlist, to reveal that nothing will come from the work the authors put into their manuscripts is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Allen & Unwin and the Australian should know that this is possibly the worst example of gatekeeping by cultural intermediaries that the Australian publishing industry has managed to produce since 2013, the last time the prize refused to name a winner.

The Vogel, however, is not the only award that has the tendency to flex like this. There are three occasions in the history of the Miles Franklin Literary Award when no prize was given: in 1988 there was a brief administrative pause, but in 1973 and 1983 no title was considered worthy. A 1973 press release from Miles Franklin HQ stated, “This is the first time since the award was established in 1957 that the judges have failed to find a novel of sufficient merit among the entries to warrant the prize ... it was regrettable that more eligible published novels were not entered”. Similar disappointment was also expressed by the judging panel in 1983. However, in a speech at the 1984 Miles Franklin Award ceremony, David Davis, representing the trustees of the Miles Franklin estate, noted that although no entry was good enough in 1983, the winner of the 1984 Miles Franklin “went a long way towards rehabilitating the Award’s high standing”. The winner in 1984 was Tim Winton’s Shallows, which does not speak very well for the authors who entered the 1983 award.

Perhaps the most egregious example of a prize violating the unwritten-yet-universally-accepted “no take-backs” rule has to be that of Australian Book Review’s Gender Fellowship 2017. It was early in that year that ABR announced they would be awarding $7500 to an Australian writer to produce a long-form essay on the topic “gender in contemporary Australian creative writing in all its forms”. What an excellent initiative! However, editor of ABR Peter Rose, on International Women’s Day no less, announced that no submission to the Australian Book Review Gender Fellowship met the standards or requirements set out by the judging panel. Rose stated, “We received some interesting proposals, but none that, in the unanimous view of the selection panel — myself, Anne Edwards, Andrea Goldsmith — addressed the specific criteria in sufficiently new, focused and compelling ways”.

By not announcing a winner, a prize and its judges have an opportunity to spotlight and underline the literary standards that they claim to celebrate and uphold. Even more pointedly, this move serves to validate the past decisions that the prize has made, shoring up the prize’s own reputation rather than performing its own basic function.

Prizes operate separately to the marketplace, and the adjudication of literary prizes is usually based on vague aesthetic criteria. The ability of these prizes to hold our collective attention and engage in an exchange of symbolic capital with authors requires a collective belief — our belief — in their power to do so. This belief, this illusio, is the foundation of the power of the literary prize, and is the reason they command so much space in the cultural discourse. Much of the contemporary research into literary prize culture interrogates the balance between the role of the prize as the “sober consecrator of genius” (as Beth Driscoll says in her 2013 article ‘Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital’) and the delicate system of beliefs and symbolic rewards that maintain this power. While the real reasons why the Vogel refused to declare a winner this year or in 2013 or in 1985 are unknown, for them to cite their high literary standards as the reason is a good way to secure their in own reputation and the collective belief in their past and future decisions. What is lost in this conversation is the actual utility of the prize.

Prizes are a top-down approach to funding a small number of authors’ careers. When an author wins either the Miles Franklin or the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award or the Prime Minister’s Literary Award or the Stella Prize, the cash reward and the promotion of their work can fund this author’s writing career for at least a couple of years, giving them opportunity to write another book. Similarly, prizes for unpublished manuscripts give emerging authors the opportunity to publish and the time to dedicate to writing. Is it a perfect system? Not by any stretch. But it is the system that we have chosen? Well, no – it’s been chosen for us. But is it the system we have? Yes, and it’s not for any small group of judges to snatch away at their whim.

Dr Alexandra Dane researches contemporary book cultures, focussing on the relationship between gender, literary consecration and the influence of formal and informal literary networks.

‘The smallest of things: a review of Sharon Lam’s “Lonely Asian Woman”’, by Shu-Ling Chua

Credit: Lawrence & Gibson

Credit: Lawrence & Gibson


Lonely Asian Woman, Sharon Lam’s debut novel, explores various ways of not fitting in: not fitting in with one’s friends because they all have jobs, not fitting in with white/western society, not fitting in with expectations of adulthood. It examines the purpose of life as one’s low-humming worries cascade into post-uni existential crisis. How does one find one’s place in the world? What is one’s role, function, utility? What does a meaningful contribution look like?

Twenty-something Paula Mo is a ‘Multisector Freelancer’ between jobs. She lives in her parents’ apartment in Wellington with four fish. Her ‘crush’ (read: kind-of-boyfriend) Eric has just left for an internship in Copenhagen. She has an architecture degree. Since graduating, she has worked as a worm-farm attendant, coffee packer, mushroom picker, tutor for DESP220, tutor for WHAT221, cattery cleaner and textbook copywriter. When Paula wishes for a job that gives their employees lanyards (“Those people always seemed the most grounded to her, walking around with their ID photos around their necks”), I want to tell her, “A lanyard won’t save you bb.” Because I know.

When I was twenty-one, I moved to Canberra and joined the public service. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world. Instead, I was a tiny cog in a giant machine, making a difference somewhere, sometime over the forward estimates. I was yet to make close friends there and had no interest in climbing the APS ladder, buying a home, marrying and having children. My identity shrank to that of public servant/neglectful daughter. I was a seemingly put-together adult, destined for great! things! but just as Paula gleans, this was all a façade:

[The corporate people] looked more serious and more clueless at the same time…Now, as she watched an adult get off their scooter to drag it across the road, she saw in them the inexpertness of a child rather than a carefree spirit. If anything, they were uneasy as they scootered along, vaguely suspicious that they were complicit in something not quite right.

Lam’s irreverent depictions of adulthood, work, responsibility, friendship and disappointment steer clear of binaries. Rather, Paula ponders the meaning of work and parenthood. Are they not also forms of pointlessness, albeit socially sanctioned forms?

Those with salaried, nine-to-five jobs have an easy life…You can go through the motions and still feel like you’ve done something towards something, even if it was nothing else but money.

While watching repairman Avinesh fix her broken fan, Paula’s “mind drifted to the wish for some near-death but ultimately harmless experience, so that her own exact purpose would spill out”. I remember wishing for a similar epiphany in my early twenties. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, on the cusp of twenty-four, and feeling Esther’s fig-tree dream scene so damn hard:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I quickly learnt, as most young people do, that the world was not my oyster.


Lam uses tables to explain how Paula and Eric are the same type of person and how they are not. Lonely Asian Woman’s experimental structure provides detours into Paula’s personality and preoccupations. Lists include: PAULA’S LOW-HUMMING WORRIES, THINGS PAULA HAD GIVEN UP ON and THINGS PAULA HASN’T DONE. While stuck at home for four days because of a storm, Paula runs through a series of one-player games, ranging from confusing (DICTIONARY EYES and A B U N D A N C E) to ha-ha-funny (POW POW POST-IT PARTY) to ha-ha-funny-bam-why-life-so-futile (SPA DAY ROLE PLAY, EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and DAIRY DELIRIUM):

Decide to attempt making butter…Keep whisking. Feel your arm and grip get tired. Cheer yourself on with the thought that it’s good hand-job practice…Have momentary day-dreams about starting up an artisanal hand-whipped butter boutique. Do some quick maths and realise it won’t ever be financially feasible. Accept that it’s just another thing you’ll never be able to do.

The novel’s more surreal elements are judiciously timed and spaced. For the most part, they add to, rather than detract from, the narrative. A glitching, abandoned baby provides a critical plot twist, nudging Paula towards adulthood. Paula’s alter ego Paulab is part comic foil, part manifestation of her inability to let go of a past love. Paulab is confident and all tough love, constantly prodding Paula into action. Paulab, however, is also unnecessarily depicted as morbidly obese and as loud, bossy, constantly eating, sloppy and childish – stereotypes commonly associated with fat people.

Lam’s portrayal of Paula’s interiority, in contrast, is a highlight, veering from banal to philosophical to brutal. Paula’s sharp bursts of insight, cutting at times, give emotional heft and keep her tethered to reality. While prone to mistakes (stealing a shopping trolley! taking a baby clubbing! meeting Jake for coffee!), she remains self-aware, rather than wallowing in self-pity. She sees through people’s BS:

People from Paula’s town loved moving to Melbourne. It was the most unimaginative thing you could do. From Melbourne they could pretend they were happy from a safe, inscrutable distance. Perhaps they all made a pact once they got there – no one could tell anyone back home that they were still miserable.

I laugh-cringe in recognition. I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I thought moving to Canberra would make me happy.


After Eric relocates to Copenhagen, he quickly fades to the background. Emails become their preferred form of contact. Before he leaves, Paula deflects that conversation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they stay together; this story isn’t about Eric.

Similarly, Paula’s relationship with her parents hovers like a mirage, difficult to articulate. Unlike most Asian diasporic memoir and fiction, the novel focuses on friendship, rather than blood family. There is only one conversation between Paula and her mother, part Cantonese, part English. Like most migrant children, Paula’s existential crisis is tinged with a sense of familial debt and guilt:

Maybe the gratitude she felt towards her parents was too large for any language. No, I will not shoplift that hairclip, Ashley. My parents left everyone they ever knew for a completely foreign land just for me. Also, it’s like a dollar. All her parents wanted was for her to be happy, and she wasn’t sure she was.

Reading this, I think of Yassmin’s Story by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and No Country Woman by Zoya Patel, both memoirs. That sense of debt is a big deal but it’s also not. I don’t think of it every minute of every day but it’s there and it’ll always be there, significant, but not in a feel-sorry-for-me way. Abdel-Magied’s articulation, like Lam’s, struck me: “There is a level of existential responsibility, debt even, which sits in the mind of migrant children that means sometimes our decisions are made, whether consciously or unconsciously, out of respect to our parents and the sacrifice they made…To know that but for one decision made by our parents, our lives could have been entirely different – that tugs on a person’s soul, either anchoring you to reality, or drowning you.”

For all its confusion and angst, Lonely Asian Woman is quietly triumphant. It is small-l lonely, the most recognisable form of lonely, an incomplete but valid form of lonely. Paula is not an outcast; she is not in any real danger of slipping beneath the poverty line. She has a safety net of friends—Odie, Shogo and Jay are the only people to whom Paula reveals all—and successfully applies for an overdraft.


My introduction to New Zealand literature is Hera Lindsay Bird at National Young Writers’ Festival in 2015. The following year, I am deeply touched by Courtney Sina Meredith’s performance of ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’ and keynote speech at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and see Hera again and Freya Daly Sadgrove at NYWF. Through Twitter, I swoon over poetry by Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tse and become friends with Rose Lu, also a writer of non-fiction.

Our friendship begins as DMs on Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and Chinese-Australian (Alice Pung, Ben Law and Julie Koh) and Chinese-New Zealand (Nina, Chris, Emma Ng and Gregory Kan) recommendations, segueing from Guo’s memoir Once Upon a Time in the East to whether it’s a ‘Chinese thing’ to not want to talk about the past. We later exchange long emails about our lives and writing. When Rose shares a piece on language, identity and memory, I recognise the argument she had with her mother about Saturday Chinese classes, word for word.

While reading Lonely Asian Woman, I kept thinking about how I'm similar to and different from Paula. This led me to ponder the appropriateness of ‘relatability’ as a measure of literary merit and cultural importance. To what extent is it appropriate to consider (un)relatability, as a critic? I know better than to judge Lam’s novel—indeed, any work—on how closely it hews to my lived experience; all the same, no work is created, or read, in isolation from this experience. As critics, we need to be aware of, and interrogate, the lens/bias we bring to a work. We need to ask: Have I done my research? To whom might this narrative be (un)relatable and why? Am I ‘qualified’ to review this work? As Evelyn Araluen writes in ‘The Other people: CALD and the ‘Cat person’’:

We [writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds] cannot afford to publish fiction that assumes relatability will allow readers to overlook clichés and cringe because we are not coded as relatable by white Australia; we are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language.

I appreciated Lam’s attention to detail—Eric taking his shoes off in Paula’s hallway, Paula making spring onion pancakes, her conversation in Cantonese with her mother (“Aiyaaaa, Paula why are you always so laow bao bao”, “Me laow bao bao! NO! I’m not! YOU’RE LAOW BAO BAO”), her not knowing how to respond to being ni hao-ed—for its verve and its familiarity. As Paula notes, “even the smallest of things made a difference, the reason a patch of masking tape on the underside of a ruler could save a drawing”. For writers and readers from marginalised backgrounds, relatability cannot be taken for granted; it is rare, magical, fun and empowering, an ‘I see you’ moment.

That is no small thing.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, Triangle House Review and Meanjin, among others. She tweets @hellopollyanna and is working on an essay collection exploring the intersections between life and art.