“I wish I was gay so I could like… Kelly Ray Jetson?” said my girlfriend Lauren, rubbing her fingers against her dark buzzed undercut. We were driving past Helen’s Pavlova Palace in Yagoona, red and white lightbox sign illuminating the baby pink storefront, where a couple of weeks ago the owner kicked out a hijabi for asking if the food was halal. I was playing Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Favourite Colour’ from 2015’s E•MO•TION.Read More
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Viv Albertine, guitarist and founding member of the Slits, has written two memoirs: the first, Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (2014) established her as a riveting storyteller with a warm, intimate, brutally frank crabs-and-all style. This first book is an extraordinary chronicle told from the coalface of punk in London, but her tales of navigating life as an artist, mother, cancer survivor and inveterate castigator of inadequate men are equally compelling. Throughout, enough snippets emerge of childhood and la famille Albertine to indicate that hers was an impoverished upbringing over which the devastation of World War II cast a long grim shadow.
Most people with interesting lives and the impetus and ability to write a memoir will pen one, channelling all their autobiographical efforts into that single piece of work. In Albertine’s case, a bizarre convergence of events around the launch of her very successful and critically-acclaimed first book ultimately ensured that she would write a second. None of this was a given though: toward the end of Clothes Music Boys, Albertine relates an incident in which her then-manager calls to say he’s found a twenty-three-year-old music journalist (who’s only ever written articles) to ghost-write her book. After being escorted out of Camden Waterstones by security staff for yelling an expletive-laden response down the phone to this proposition, Albertine’s conditioning overtakes her instinct:
I’m scared he might be right. I can’t write. The book will be shit. But I ignore my fears. I feel a fool, I’m sure the answer will be ‘no’ — but I call my new agent and the editor at Faber and ask if they would still be interested if I wrote the book myself. They are. I can’t overemphasise how difficult and embarrassing it was for me to make those calls, but I’m so glad I did.
No bluffing here: this is a fearless punk pioneer unafraid to be insecure and vulnerable and let thousands of strangers know about it. And herein lies one of many truths that surface in both of Albertine’s books: women who appear strong, brutal, fearless creators of high-quality oeuvres are beset by the same fears, insecurities and doubts that you are. They may appear Amazons and on many levels are, but the reality, should you care to see it, is much more complex; so too their vulnerability to manipulative men. And while we’re at it, another truth from the manager-ghost-writer anecdote: a vicious reality of ageing for women is the realisation that others see us as irrelevant and a bit of a nuisance, or worse, don’t see us at all, despite a trail of high-quality accomplishments. There is no warning system for this: you’re just suddenly…invisible. I’ll never forget the first time this happened to me. It was bewildering more than anything because I’d never given a thought to the possibility that my perceived personal currency was dependent on my age (and its trappings). And if totally hot axe-wielding mouthy punk legend Albertine cops this shit, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Early in To Throw Away Unopened, Albertine relates that on the night of the launch for Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, with DJ, booksellers, drinks, panellists all in position and guests arriving, she receives a phone call from her sister Pascale:
I didn’t think it was anything serious. This was the one night I was certain I could relax. Mum knew what writing the book had cost me: three years of trying to find a bit more time, a bit more money, supporting my daughter, negotiating a divorce, moving home four times.
Why aren’t there more female artists?
But no, Albertine’s ninety-five-year-old mother is turning blue and has twenty minutes to live. Albertine abandons the launch, bundles her teenage daughter into a cab and hightails it to her mother’s care home, where Pascale is already waiting. Thus ensues, over the course of some hours, a slow-motion deathbed showdown between the two sisters of such epic and shocking proportions that it propels Albertine into the deep past on a quest to understand how and why her family is so unutterably dysfunctional. To Throw Away Unopened maps those findings.
Significantly, both of Albertine’s books take their titles from utterances made by her mother Kathleen. The first, a “chanted refrain” that clothes, music and boys were all the young Viviane ever thought about; the second, a cryptic beyond-the-grave instruction written (in Liquid Paper) on the side of an old travel bag containing Kathleen’s diary, which Albertine found when sorting through her mother’s belongings. “To Throw Away Unopened”, knowing that—having vigilantly trained her daughters to question and defy—it would be understood as an invitation to do precisely the opposite. Simultaneously, this neatly absolved Kathleen of responsibility for any consequences.
Around the time To Throw Away Unopened was released in May of 2018, Albertine discussed her new memoir with award-winning writer Jeanette Winterson as part of the Manchester Literary Festival. This was a genius move, as Albertine’s book has much in common with Winterson’s own devastating memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? As well as having cryptic maternal utterances (again!) as titles, both works are attempts by daughters to make sense of extraordinary levels of family dysfunction largely meted out by their mothers in impoverished post-war British households. Although their Pentecostal (Winterson) and feminist (Albertine) mothers could not have been more different, the confusion and anger engendered in their daughters is palpable. It is at times uncontrollable and violent, as Winterson relates:
When I left the infant school in disgrace for burning down the play kitchen, the headmistress, who wore black tweed because she was in mourning for Scotland, told my mother that I was domineering and aggressive.
I was. I beat up the other kids, boys and girls alike, and when I couldn’t understand what was being said to me in a lesson I just left the classroom and bit the teachers if they tried to make me come back.
Albertine too has been grappling with anger for a long time. Much of To Throw Away Unopened navigates a course through this anger: where it came from, why, the various ways that the anger of women is silenced:
All the ugly emotions that should have stayed locked up inside me came slithering out. I could sense all our past resentments and rivalries vying for space, feel them pushing up against me in the little yellow room. Grotesque, thuggish, unforgiving creatures throwing twisted shapes and threatening shadows as they swung from the curtains and flapped around Mum’s head.
At the book’s core is the relationship between Albertine and her mother: from this all others spiral out. On one level this is no great surprise, since Albertine had little contact with her father after he left when she was thirteen. But for Albertine, this is essential context for the formation of the Slits:
It wasn’t just me; none of the Slits had a father. Both Palmolive and Ari’s fathers lived abroad and weren’t part of their lives, and Tessa’s father had died during the early days of the Slits. We dressed outrageously, behaved outrageously, and fought every obstacle that came our way with a zeal that would have been impossible at that time in history if we’d had fathers.
But although Albertine had an ostensibly ‘good’ relationship with her mother, who relentlessly encouraged her daughter’s creative pursuits (“to compensate for the freedom and opportunities she missed out on”) their relationship is revealed over the course of the book to be complex, contradictory and pathological. Structurally, the narrative reflects this, with two concurrent accounts interweaving in a dramatic arc that peaks on the night of her mother’s death. The pacing of these accounts is a triumph of contrast—episodic central narrative against frame-by-frame close-up—employed to powerful and hypnotic effect.
Albertine then found herself in the extraordinary situation of possessing both her parents’ diaries, which each had been keeping in stealth during the final few years of their marriage. This was documentation for divorce proceedings: in the late sixties, as Albertine points out, divorce required proof of adultery or maltreatment and a three-year wait. The diary entries are not easy reading. Albertine does not spare the reader nor herself, but the detail is essential for understanding the complex tangle of psychopathology at play.
The final chapter of Viv Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes, Music, Boys, opens with a quote from Winterson’s autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: “I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line.”
By the time I got to reading To Throw Away Unopened, I had completely forgotten this detail. Aside from its succinct metaphoric articulation of the autobiographical process, there is an inherent understanding that to comprehend the intricacies of your current finish line, you must go back to the blocks and run round that big track. As Winterson further observes:
When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that is the nature of love—its quality—to be unreliable. Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.
Reading those diaries and “finding out everything I ever wanted to know about my childhood” (I suspect there’s a very good therapist in there too) has allowed Albertine to reach a truce with the past, understanding and celebrating her anger and its complex origins rather than living in its thrall. To be fair, that all key protagonists and proponents of dysfunctionality are either dead or on the other side of the world is a great help.
Perhaps Albertine’s profoundest observation is that, as painful as it is and as much as she might wish it otherwise, the death of her mother is not unambiguously negative:
I’ve had to rebuild myself many times during my life, after numerous shocks and failures, but Mum was always by my side, helping and advising me. Now she’s dead I can build myself into anyone I want, someone new, if I like.
This completely unsentimental observation that her mother’s death might actually constitute a form of liberation and that this can be embraced is a position that can only be arrived at via a lack of guilt borne of genuine self-knowledge. None of this can happen without looking truth in the eye: few can, but Albertine is one of them. These are the words of someone who is, at last, unshackled from the past and its behavioural incarcerations and ready to bask in a messy peace.
Lisa MacKinney is a musician, historian and writer. She plays guitar and organ in Taipan Tiger Girls, Hospital Pass, Super-Luminum and solo as Mystic Eyes. Her PhD thesis is the first ever book-length study of New York pop group the Shangri-Las. MacKinney writes for Australian classical music magazine Limelight and occasionally for UK music magazine Uncut. She lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.
In the latest of our continuing Poets in Conversation series, award-winning poets Eileen Chong and Zeina Hashem Beck open unexpected doors.Read More
CARMEN: You would look beautiful without all that fat!
For all the films I’ve watched, it took me twenty-six years to find myself in one.
I am lying down, belly flat, on my bed, watching a scene from Real Women Have Curves (2002) unfold across the screen of my laptop. It’s the middle of summer, partway through the work-day, when Ana and her mother Carmen engage in a confrontation that feels all too familiar. Carmen gestures between Ana and her older sister, Estela in frustration. She asks, why are they not ashamed of the weight they carry on their hips and thighs and faces? It is between the steamer and the sewing machines that Ana makes her stand: she tells her mother that there is more to her than her appearance. We know, those watching, that Ana got accepted into good colleges, that she is a loving, smart person, that she works hard.
I watch Carmen tell her daughter that she would be better off thin. This scene feels so familiar that it burns hot and all over me. I mentally run through every time my mother has said something similar to me. The list of criticism is long, creative and unintentionally cruel.
Originally premiering in the 1990s as a play, the film Real Women Have Curves is iconic for its commentary on the immigrant experience, body positivity, intersections of class and colour, and explorations of family – particularly, relationships between mothers and daughters. The Patricia Cardoso–directed film was written by Josefina López and introduced America Ferrera into her first of many epochal roles. Having just turned eighteen and finished high school, Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) works in her sister’s dress factory in Los Angeles. Despite her family’s wishes, she is preparing to leave for Columbia University in New York. She butts heads with her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) constantly about her weight, her body and her ambition. It is the film’s focus on Ana’s body positivity, despite her mother’s constant commentary on her weight, that stayed with me.
Real Women Have Curves takes place during the transitional period between finishing high school and leaving for university. Its visual qualities are as purposeful as they are warm and beautiful: Patricia Cardoso interviewed a number of cinematographers who presented her with the typical industry approach to Latinx stories: grey, grit and downtrodden. The eventual choice for the position, Jim Denault, instead chose to show everything that was beautiful about Ana’s life, culture and surroundings. The film’s focus on Ana’s first job, her first love, her first acts of reclaiming her body for herself and her first acts of defiance, exemplify adolescent Latinx beauty.
While Real Women Have Curves has been heralded as an important piece of Latinx feminist popular culture, it received little recognition in Hollywood when released and remains niche to date. This sentiment is fresh in my mind as I watched Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated solo directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). Some Latinx film critics and fans have suggested Lady Bird is a whitewashed, perhaps even plagiarised, version of Real Women Have Curves. I myself can find at least three scenes from Lady Bird which appeared to be lifted from Real Women Have Curves and rewritten for white characters.
Pausing to consider the fact that Lady Bird, both film and character, traverses similar territory, it is evident that Real Women Have Curves has been overlooked for almost two decades not due to lack of universality but due to the brown, Latinx frame within which the narrative is presented.
As Yolanda Machado argues in her Marie Claire article: ‘It’s almost the exact storyline, beat by beat, as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, with only one glaringly obvious difference: Lady Bird – its director, its writer, and most of its cast – is white’. Machado goes on to say Lady Bird was influenced by Real Women Have Curves, but no one outside the Latinx community is talking about it. She is dismayed at the industry’s and audiences’ inability to correct the narrative:
Movies which are told from the perspective of a woman of color—even with today's social movements top of mind—are a rarity. Yet 15 years ago and against all odds, Real Women Have Curves made its debut with a Latina director at the helm (Patricia Cardoso), a Latina writer (Josefina López, whose stage play was the basis for the film), a black woman producer (Effie Brown), and a cast of almost entirely Latin actors (save for the boy who played Jimmy, Ana’s love interest, who was white). And not one white critic or pundit could even cite the movie when discussing Lady Bird. Not a single one.
While the case for plagiarism appears stronger than some might be willing to recognise, the purpose of the discussion, for some, has focused more on why such similar films received such differing treatment. Despite their similarities, only one film was considered worthy of an Oscar nomination. Why are the stories of young women from culturally diverse backgrounds boxed into a niche only to be forgotten, while the same stories told with thin, white women are considered universally relatable, earning them great mainstream success?
When discussing the similarities between the 2002 and 2017 fims, entertainment writer Mathew Rodriguez wrote:
Although Lady Bird boasts Gerwig’s strong directorial choices, writing and acting to its credit, there’s no denying that the film’s whiteness is part of its appeal … Just as Lady Bird’s parade of white woman talent is a part of its success, I’m inclined to think that Real Women Have Curves’ Latinx-centric world hinders it.
Real Women Have Curves remains niche not because it isn’t relatable to a wide audience, but, because, as Rodriguez points out:
Whiteness, in Hollywood and in our collective conscious, often means relatability, while latinidad does not.
In Australia, finding Latinx voices – to read, to listen to, to be inspired by – beyond your family and friends is difficult. The experience of growing up as a Latinx person in Australia is often very different to anything we may have seen of ourselves or our families in media from North America. Yet they do resonate. The representation (or lack thereof) highlights the complexities of community. Still, they are what we have and, for some, what we hold dear. I know that I am not alone in that experience. Just as I know this is not an experience unique to the Latinx community in this country, but rather a greater issue surrounding whiteness and gatekeeping in film, cultural commentary and the arts in general. So many reviews of Lady Bird didn’t recognise the influence Real Women evidently had on the film. It was frustrating – in part because I felt that they'd not even heard of the film’s inheritance.
ANA: Mama, I do want to lose weight. And part of me doesn’t because my weight says to everybody “fuck you!”!
I am eight years older — and more than a few sizes larger – than Ana when she took the words trapped behind my teeth and delivered them to her mother. They were the words I had only just begun to put together myself, and I have not use them aloud yet. To hear Ana say them – it is an out-of-body experience, at once comforting and confronting. Carmen could be my own mother – she who stares at my body, so different from her own at my age, slender and white. The mother who tests me with the cakes and biscuits she bakes, much in the way Ana’s mother tests her with flan at her own graduation party. The mother who asked me every single day, who still asks me, if I have been to the gym and when I plan to lose some weight. So preoccupied with my size and the things she believes will result from it (ill-health, loneliness, sadness), that everything else large about me – my laugh, my loyalty, my spirit – seems to be secondary, an afterthought. It feels like my size is just always there, lingering in the minds of other people. The largeness of my body is the but that counters every good thing about me.
ANA: How dare anybody tell me what I should look like … or what I should be … when there’s so much more to me than just my weight!
The characters I am interested in or empathise with in pop culture often get a raw deal. They’re either supporting characters with little screen time and even fewer lines – Julie, Miguel and Shelly in Lady Bird are prime examples – or the films themselves are not exactly considered refined pieces of art. It suggests that whiteness is not only more relatable and appealing in storytelling, but in the case of Real Women and Lady Bird, one story becomes more noteworthy than virtually the same one, originally told over a decade ago through a Latinx lens.
After viewing Lady Bird, Josefina López herself saw the similarities between Gerwig’s movie and her own. Speaking with Hoy Los Angeles, she discussed her art and experiences of the film industry, where her work was constantly disregarded due to her gender and her cultural background: ‘I also deserve a place in Hollywood and the opportunity to continue telling impactful stories.’
The reception of Lady Bird aligned with the unwillingness to recognise Real Women Have Curves as its predecessor serves to prove that this is very much still the case. The disparity between those who get to create, critique and experience art and those who do not remains. In 2017 an anniversary screening of Real Women Have Curves included a panel from the cast and creators. It took fifteen years for the Academy to catch up. Speaking on the panel, America Ferrera observed the different ways artistry is treated in the industry. Citing Lupe Ontiveros who portrayed her on-screen mother, she lamented that people (women in particular) of diverse backgrounds can go entire careers without recognition, despite the quality and prolificacy of their work. ‘Working with Lupe opened my eyes up from the very beginning about how people with enormous talent could go their whole careers and never get the real chance to express the entirety of their talent,’ she said. Josefina Lopez added, that in the year of her death, Ontiveros was not included in the Academy’s obituaries.
What does this mean for women of colour who are creating and telling stories? Women of colour (perhaps even more so, fat women of colour) are rarely afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories on screen, especially in Australia. If they do appear in ‘white’ films (and that’s a huge if), they are sidelined, or blindsided or stereotypes. Growing up in Australia, my only memory of an explicit reference made to a Latinx character of was an in-house Foxtel ad where Chilean-American actress Cote de Pablo’s NCIS character Ziva was labelled the “hot Latin chick”. To tell one's own coming-of-age story, or explore your own sexuality, in an empowered and considered manner is a privilege afforded predominantly to white, often slender, characters. It leaves very little room for people who fall outside of those terribly limiting parameters to find much of themselves at all represented, let alone engage in conversations about film and art.
I can think of one other character I might call my favourite. She too, was dealing with body image, class, culture, colour and their various intersections. She was also portrayed by America Ferrera; Carmen in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005) was as smart and vibrant as she was cynical and dealt with similar themes to Ana, albeit from a different viewpoint and life experience. Much the same way that Ana’s father reminds me of my own – a brown, hard-working Latino man who made a life in a country other than the one he was born – Carmen’s struggle to navigate the brownness of one parent and the whiteness of another was something I related to immensely.
Watching Carmen remind her step-family-to-be that she is Puerto Rican, and that trying to fit into the same bridesmaids’ dress as her thin white counterparts is an alienating and uncomfortable ordeal for her, tapped into some of the painful parts of my own experiences growing up in a mixed-household and being surrounded by a mostly white extended family here in Australia. One of the sharpest memories I have of my brother involves our family kitchen and his rapidly-escalating frustration over our mother’s blind spots when it came to raising mixed-children as a white woman. Our experiences growing up in Australia and interacting with family and friends and the wider community were so different to what she allowed us to know of hers. It was not aided by the existence of an ocean between us and the other half of our hearts.
The scene where Carmen tells her three slender (white) best friends that a pair of jeans that fit all of them wouldn’t possibly fit her is one I remember, frame-for-frame. I thought about it every time I stood outside the change rooms while my friends tried clothes on, keeping safe by the accessories and lipgloss. I still do. Granted, the pants do actually fit Carmen, but she goes on to face similar instances with her father’s new (white) family, and these scenes become increasingly painful to experience with her.
Back in Estela’s dress factory. They have eighteen dresses to finish for an order and Ana has had enough. Enough of the heat and enough of her mother’s criticisms about her body and her aspirations. They can’t put the fan on because it blows dust onto the dresses and so, in an effort to cool off, Ana takes her shirt off and inspires the women around her follow suit. What follows is a confrontation with her mother that isn’t intended to belittle Carmen, but rather is an effort to make her see that what she says is hurtful. Ana’s body positivity is glorious in its subtle defiance.
CARMEN: Have you all gone mad?
PANCHA: Ladies, look, how beautiful we are!
ESTELA: And how good this feels! To be rid of all these clothes and just let it all hang out!
CARMEN: Look at all of you.
ANA: This is who we are, Mama.
Being able to relate to this feeling – is this what other (white) girls felt when they named all those skinny, white girls their favourite characters? To be seen, understood, connected, comforted. This is why the overwhelming praise for Lady Bird feels something like a slap in the face: this movie existed before, in another form, in all its brown girl glory. If a film existed almost two decades ago with a brown main character, what makes it less worthy of acclaim, recognition and attention today as practically the same story told through a white character?
Seeing and hearing about Lady Bird constantly is a reminder of the disparity of merit and validity between art created by white women and women of colour. Films, light-hearted takes on girlhood from the perspectives of a young woman of colour (or even simply featuring women of colour on screen) are dismissed as low-brow, trashy teen movies while films about white girls moving through similar times in their lives are heralded as the epitome of wit and relatability.
In an essay for BuzzFeed Reader, culture writer Bim Adewunmi observed that of all the genres of film, coming-of-age tales are some of the more diverse, particularly when the scope for what can be considered a coming-of-age tale is widened. Similar to the voyeuristic cinematographers Patricia Cardoso found so determined to portray the Latinx-immigrant experience as a one dimensional, Adewunmi finds that trauma is a constant in the black-led films considered worthy of industry and Academy note. From 12 Years a Slave to Precious, trauma and violence has long been a common thread between Academy-nominated stories centered on blackness, themes she feels are ‘woven into the fabric of black girl-led coming-of-age stories.’
Adewunmi is concerned that when exploring the connections of race, trauma (and what the industry validates as an authentic portrayal of blackness), an anthropological approach to storytelling leaves much to be desired. Narratives focused on the downtrodden, agonizing and explicit are important but she notes that they also 'ring a little one-note'. In 2015 film The Fit, Adewunmi finds a subtle reason for celebration; connecting identity, culture and coming of age impeccably and with care. This is what leads her to question, why are only some films with coming-of-age stories are considered valuable? Is there value in a young black girl coming of age if isn’t a result of extreme adversity? Not as far as the industry seems to be concerned.
In an essay for The New York Times, Molly Ringwald recounted her experiences as a pop culture icon – an actress who starred in John Hughes’ coming-of-age films – through the lens of patriarchal power. Ringwald notes how little diversity (in terms of colour, culture and sexuality) there was on the screens where she reigned supreme: ‘There is barely a person of color to be found in the films, and no characters are openly gay’. She may have considered Duckie to be gay, but it was never explicitly referenced on screen. The hugely cis heteronormative focus of these films, which Ringwald references, could certainly be explored further. Perhaps in a different essay, lest this one never ends. Looking back at those films, a pallid picture of who is and isn’t allowed to come of age was painted. White heteronormativity remained, and remains, the norm.
Hughes’ movies, and their famed ‘classic’ status, somewhat reflect Adewunmi’s discussion of teen movies as against coming-of-age films: the ways in which the audience is expected to engage with stories about people from diverse backgrounds (that is, non-white characters) in order to consider them worthy of note. In the late nineties when Real Women Have Curves was first being optioned, the film seemed to hint at the beginning of the end when it came to the on-screen exclusivity. But as America Ferrera discussed at the film’s anniversary screening, it is painful to see how little had changed for women of colour in the industry. Not necessarily for Ferrera herself, but for those coming up after her.
Would things be different had I found Real Women earlier in life? Would I be less ashamed of naming a character from Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants as my favourite? Would my relationship with my body, my self-image, and my mother’s interactions have been less volatile? Would my own understanding of the way my mother’s whiteness and father’s brownness manifest in me have been clearer? Perhaps not. But I would have felt seen and understood enough to steel me through while I tried, as I continue now, to work it all out.
Ruby Pivet is a Latinx-Australian writer, poet, creator and astrology enthusiast from Melbourne’s inner west. She’s performed for Lor Journal and written for Girls Will Be Girls, Gusher, SBS Life, VICE AU and more. She is currently a Creative Producer at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
I wake up at 4am unable to breathe as usual and I check my phone to see if Liam Gallagher has texted me back, which he hasn’t. I take my inhaler and shoot four puffs into my mouth. I’m supposed to take two puffs with two short, sharp inhales, which right now would be like telling someone with two broken legs crawling on the floor to jump twice, just two little jumps, and their legs will be fixed. All I can do is rasp, unwillingly slow.Read More
We are thrilled to announce that sixteen excellent pieces have been longlisted for this year's The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. The prize, now in its fourth year, aims to unearth new, audacious, authentic and/or inauthentic voices from both Australia and the world.
We are delighted to announce that the following pieces have made the longlist for the 2018 Prize for Experimental Non-fiction:Read More
I once had a conversation with a book critic, a conversation that’s played on my mind ever since. We were standing at an author event, a wine glass in each hand, reading through the message history on her phone.
At the time the book critic was hung up on a man – another writer, it so happens. Like the man, she was intelligent and accomplished and good with words, both on the page and in person. But the man had recently gone quiet on her. His messages had become shorter and less inviting: a bad sign only people not invested in the exchange would quickly intuit.Read More
CW: rape, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, chronic illness
I have so much beautiful time.
— Olivia Gatwood, “Alternate universe in which I am unfazed by the men who do not love me.”
Growing up, I was a gymnast. The serious kind. The train-six-times-a-week-and-never-do-anything-else kind. By the time I was ten, I had represented New South Wales at national championships and won. I represented Australia by the time I was twelve.
By fifteen, I was preparing for my second World Championships. I had been training relentlessly; day in, day out. I visualised my routines every night as I fell asleep, ensuring I had the mental strength for the impossible stunts I would be called on to perform the next day.
Every morning I would drink raw eggs mixed with protein powder and milk. I was training so much that my body had started using my muscle mass for energy, and I needed to be consuming as much protein as possible to avoid getting weaker.
Weakness was the one thing we were all taught to avoid, and I took this lesson seriously. No amount of eggs, protein bars, crunches, toe-points, handstand push-ups or weightlifts could deter me. I would push my body right to its limits, then further. I felt invincible.
I assumed my body would be the driving force of my life, my greatest source of pride. I would grow up to be a professional gymnast, and when inevitably my career ended at thirty, I would join a professional circus. My body was a weapon.
The kind of gymnastics I was doing also required immense mental precision. I needed to synchronise wholly with my body, to pick up on every signal it sent me. It was the level of mindfulness you needed in order to step onto a velvet floor on a world stage, with five international judges ready to pick apart your every movement. My mind had to be so still that it could communicate with every pointed toe, every carefully balanced leg, every perfectly-positioned finger.
I had to be perfect, and it had to seem effortless. I had to be strong and powerful and graceful and light, all at the same time. I had to smile. To do all these things at once takes a kind of mind/body alignment that I have been dreaming of regaining, ever since I stepped off the floor for the last time. My body and my mind, it seemed then, belonged wholly to me.
I was obsessed with this feeling. When I wasn’t training, I would take ballet classes to fill the time.
But the thing about being a teenage girl is that at a certain point, the outside world intrudes on this internal narrative, the one in which you are strong, and powerful, and whole, and it reconstructs your perception of your body without your knowledge or permission.
Why would anyone want to leave their body? He asked,
And in that moment,
We had nothing in the world in common.
— Blythe Baird, “For the rapists who call themselves feminists”
It was 2007. I was out on a Saturday night with three friends, at a dingy karaoke bar in the city that smelled of must and damp and, crucially, sold over-priced vodka cruisers to underage girls like us.
We didn’t drink very much; we were too absorbed in the frivolity of singing nasty songs about boys we liked who were playing hard-to-get. I sang a truly awful rendition of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ and, with exactly no subtlety, tact or poetic integrity, inserted the name of the boy I was chasing into the end of every chorus. My friends joined in. It felt so good, as girls, to find a space in which we could safely scream about the boys who had wronged us with no-one watching.
We left the karaoke bar not long after the Justin Timberlake rendition because we’d run out of money. It was only about 9pm.
Emerging at the top of the creaky stairs, we found ourselves in the glow of Pitt Street on a Saturday night. In front of us stood the towering McDonalds on the corner. We were hungry from all that singing. We crossed the road towards it.
A group of four grown men approach us and started talking to us. Purposefully, I realised later, they distracted my three friends as a fifth, out of nowhere, appeared behind me and slipped his hand into mine. Come with me, he whispered.
The four remaining men closed in on my three friends and no-one noticed us leave. He was gripping my hand so tightly I thought he might break my fingers. He marched me toward a door on the left-hand side of the room, towards the bathrooms. We went up one flight of stairs, where the public bathrooms were. But still, he kept going.
He walked me up another flight of stairs to a dusty, disused bathroom. Perhaps it had once been for staff, or just an extra men’s toilets the franchise no longer needed. It was empty, and deathly quiet.
He took me into a stall, locked the door and violently assaulted me, again, and again, and again. I had never had sex consensually so I had no reference point for any of what was happening to me apart from what I’d seen in movies, but I knew for certain that it was the sharpest and most severe pain I had ever, and would ever, experience.
If you’ve done any reading about trauma you’ll know that the human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in this kind of situation: fight, flight, or freeze.
I lunged once at the latch of the stall door but he moved his heavy body in front of it and didn’t move from that position. Flight, my body instantly recognised, was not an option.
Next, fight. The man was about thirty-five, and made almost entirely of muscle. He looked like he went to the gym every day and had spent most of his twenties alternating between bulking for the gym and shredding for stereo. I was still just a little over 40 kilos, true to my sport’s dreams.
I tried once to push myself far enough away from him that I could reach around him for the door. At this point, he pulled out a Swiss army knife and held it against my throat. Fight, it seemed, was also out of the question.
When the first two options fail and the danger is still present, the autonomic nervous system sends a signal to the brain that death is imminent and the body begins to prepare itself.
It releases the most powerful natural analgesic known to the body and essentially cuts off signals from all major nerve endings. At the same moment that the body numbs, the major muscle groups shut down as well, and go into a state known to neuroscientists as ‘collapse’. Once entirely loosened, the muscles will cease to resist whatever is trying to hurt you and death will come faster, more mercifully.
The brain then sends itself into a state of total dissociation. In this state, one feels distinctly as though one is floating above one’s body, patiently watching, waiting, feeling nothing at all.
In these calm moments the brain surveys the scenario one final time for possible escape routes. In most traumatic situations, it is the moment in which the body resigns itself to death that the mind finds a way to survive.
I noticed a glass bottle sitting to the right of the toilet bowl, leaning slightly against the door. Without any conscious thought, I bent over – feeling, in that moment, not an ounce of the searing pain in my body – grabbed the bottle, and smashed it over the porcelain lid of the toilet bowl.
This startled my attacker for only a few seconds, but it was enough. As he drunkenly tried to figure out the source of the loud smash, the flying glass, the reverberations as my elbow hit the door of the stall as it recoiled from the effort of breaking the glass, I reached for the door, unlocked it, and ran away as fast as my tiny legs could carry me.
I ran down the first flight of stairs, the second, the third. I found my friends looking desperate, casting their eyes around the street wildly, panicked and wondering where I could have gone. Together, the four of us ran around the corner onto Pitt Street and I collapsed into a nook next to what was then a Hungry Jacks.
All I remember from those moments is the sound of my gasping breath, the strength of my hands as I clutched my stomach, my pitchy sobs, and the only words I could muster: It hurts.
When I got home, I collapsed in the shower, bleeding everywhere, staring blankly into a tiled abyss and thinking only of the sound that thick glass makes when it smashes.
I got up the next morning as usual. I washed the stale cigarette smell out of my hair. I faked an injury the next day at training as a cover for the now-bright purple bruises that snaked across my stomach.
I went to school on the Monday and shared stories about the cheesy pop songs we sang about the embarrassing crushes we couldn’t let go of. I waited for the bruises to heal and went back to training. I told no-one. I was fifteen.
Recently I read The Body Keeps The Score, by Dr Bessel van der Kolk. The culmination of a life’s work, the book gives a neurobiological, psychosocial and psychiatric account of post-traumatic stress. It outlines the ways in which traumatic events have lasting impacts on the immune system, the nervous system, the muscular system, and the brain.
There is now an authoritative body of research that shows that it is possible to heal almost all physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — but this, of course, requires that the person seek help. For the most stigmatised of traumas – sexual violence, of course, being the preeminent example – it might be years before patients get medical treatment, if at all.
The mind, it turns out, is very skilled at protecting us from painful memories. It stores them away where we cannot reach them; where they cannot scare us. But the body keeps the score.
About eighteen months after the assault – eighteen long months of avoiding any conscious thoughts about it, any memories, any nightmares – I was struck down suddenly by unbearable abdominal pain. I threw up from the sheer force of it. I started to bleed everywhere. I passed out.
Over the next few years my body started to break down, physically, in a way that I assumed to be entirely unconnected to the event I had tried so hard to forget. I lost my sense of balance and any degree of connection to my body. I stopped being able to perform gym routines I had long ago perfected.
I lost all sense of my physical self. I started injuring myself at training as a consequence of being unable to know precisely where the different parts of me begun and ended.
I remember picking myself up after disastrously under-rotating on a round off-flip-layout and casting my eyes around the gym in search of something that could explain the fall. Had the mats shifted underneath me? Had I tripped on another athlete’s abandoned ankle strap? No answers presented themselves.
In trauma discourse, this is described as a loss of proprioception: the ability of the mind to effectively gauge the relationship between the body and the world. Proprioception is how the mind tells the body how to move through the world; how to control its most delicate movements; how much space it takes up.
I read once that the reason cats can shape-shift to fit themselves into remarkably small spaces is that the tips of their whiskers are biologically coded to be exactly the same width as the widest parts of their body. They use them as a kind of proprioceptive radar.
All of a sudden I was without that sense, unable to orient myself, never quite sure which parts of the world I could fit into and which I couldn’t.
I had a major fall in the try-outs for my second World Championships. I injured my ankle so badly that my sports doctor told me I would be lucky if I went for a jog again. I have barely set foot on a gym floor since.
I then experienced a series of organic failures that grew, developed and shape-shifted over the seven years that followed. First my bladder, then my appendix, then my uterus, then my bowel. Finally, I was diagnosed with a disease called endometriosis.
This diagnosis came after a frustrating process of trying to convince doctors that my pain was real and that I needed help. My gynaecological surgeon is the first doctor who believed me, and it is no exaggeration to say that his understanding of the disease has changed my life. He and I have been working together on my illness for eight years now.
Some years later I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My body, it seemed, was in full-scale revolt.
When an everyday event concludes, the brain places it in a sequence, understanding how each moment, each event, led to the next, and analysing the experience based on this narrative.
Traumatic memories, however, get stuck. They cannot be rearranged into logical narratives, and instead remain trapped in the brain as flashes of light, sound, and smell — rogue fragments of an unbearable memory that leak out at the mind’s weakest moments. As a result, instead of understanding these stimuli as past events, the brain reacts to these fragments of memory as though it is still happening. The brain dutifully re-enters fight, flight or freeze, even if there’s no actual danger present.
Activating this response repeatedly wreaks havoc on the body. It suspends all physical functions not considered necessary for escape, and sends blood and oxygen to the major muscle groups, ready to run. The constant stagnation of these ‘non-essential’ functions such as digestion, hormone regulation, and the upkeep of the liver and kidneys eventually causes long-term damage to these organs.
The longer a physical assault or accident is held in the nervous system, the muscles and the brain, without being addressed or treated, the more likely it is that it will eventually manifest as a systemic physical dysfunction. This sentences the patient to a future defined by a life-long illness as penance for being unable to integrate traumatic experiences into the narrative of their lives.
Medical professionals now believe that the digestive system’s dysfunctional response to untreated trauma is one of the causes of abdominal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and endometriosis. It’s also now believed to cause migraines, fibromyalgia, and generalised chronic pain.
It had never occurred to me that my physical ailments, all appearing in the same part of me, at the same time, could have a common cause.
And perhaps they don’t. There is no exact formula for causation, no matter how desperately we might wish for one. My chronic physical illnesses could have been caused by any number of things, or an intricate combination of several factors, or just bad luck. I’ll never know for sure.
But one thing I now know to be true is that, in one way or another, the body keeps the score.
It’s strange that the body’s dissociative fight, flight or freeze response can be so destructive, because its evolutionary purpose is a very sensible one: it is designed to protect us from experiencing the pain of our dying moments; moments the brain does not think it will ever have to fold into any kind of narrative because it does not think it will live to tell the story at all.
Unfortunately this means that the act of living through these moments is a subversion with which the brain cannot fully cope, and it tortures us physically as it tries to make sense of it.
This home is what I came into this world with,
Was the first home,
Will be the last home,
You can’t take it.
— Rupi Kaur, “I’m taking my body back”
One Monday night, I ended up in emergency after avoiding having a major endometriosis surgery for too long. My surgeon came to my bedside with a kind but stern look on his face and said, I know you think you can outrun this thing, but you can’t.
Watch me, I thought.
He was talking about my endometriosis, but I was determined to outrun it all: I had spent ten years running from this memory, as if it still had the power to catch me. It was like one of those dreams where you are constantly running, but never move; you’re gasping and exhausted, but never catch your breath.
My attacker’s violence had trapped me in the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, running for her life, too young to understand this kind of danger, but old enough to be deeply ashamed.
I am twenty-six now, and I have finally realised that strength does not always mean feigning indifference. It had already happened, and that fight was over. The bravest thing to do was to let him catch me. It was the only way to process that I did not have to run anymore.
So I began to heal. I found a medical psychotherapist who has helped me more than I could have imagined. He is the first person I ever told this story to in full, from start to finish. To my great surprise, it was the first thing I told him about myself.
I have learned to identify the sensations that enliven the fragments of the memory in my mind – the sound of a glass bottle smashed accidentally at a house party, the smell of a particular mix of whiskey and cigarettes on a man’s breath, the faint echo you hear when you inadvertently knock an elbow against a wall in a public bathroom.
I have trusted him with my life. He has led me through sessions of a painful treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing; an intense therapy using rapid eye movements that forces the brain to recall a traumatic memory in full – not in fragments, not in flashes – in a safe environment, after which it can be processed as something already lived through, rather than still occurring.
I found a sex therapist who has dedicated herself to the sexual trauma aspects of my care. She taught me about a condition called vaginismus. My gynaecological surgeon referred me to a highly-skilled women’s health physiotherapist who is trained in dealing with the physical effects of severe sexual trauma. She has been using internal and external manual therapy techniques to release the muscle dysfunction this experience left me with. Through breathing exercises, stretching, mindfulness, pelvic floor ‘down training’ and massage, I have been retraining my body not to freeze up every time it is touched. This process has been painful and exhausting, but it’s working.
The psychological impacts of my treatment have been severe, too. Reliving moments of total helplessness can produce strong suicidal ideations, as it did in me. It seems cruel that your mind convinces you that you want to die after your body had done so much to keep you alive.
As I was trying to heal, I gradually learned to withdraw myself from the people who were hurting or draining me, and turned all of my energy inward. In some cases this required me telling them explicitly that this is what I was doing, a prospect that felt nearly impossible. I cringed at the thought that everyone would know that I was too fragile to handle fair-weather friends or careless lovers. I am usually a very extroverted person (read: chatty, annoying, prone to oversharing) but I was unable to communicate the physical and psychological pain I was in. I needed to be careful.
There is strength in vulnerability. There is also strength in honesty: I really was too fragile. I really couldn’t handle it.
I dedicated all of my time and my space to myself and kept the world out. I struggled through the end of a taxing law degree — I finished a few weeks ago! — and found a private bathroom near my office where I could cry unnoticed. I never knew who or what might upset me in public, so I perfected the art of leaving the party without saying goodbye. I would slip away before anyone could see me break down, slink into the safety of an Uber, comforted only by the unexpected kindness of the stranger behind the wheel.
In the back seat, I would have the uneasy sense of being both frozen and melting; half terror, half tears. I would call a trusted friend and ask them to meet me at home and stay with me until I fell asleep.
A few months ago I became physically sicker than I have ever been. The pain became unbearable and more difficult to hide. I lost seven kilos in four weeks. I was inexplicably throwing up half of what I ate and I started shaking so much I had to get friends to help me put on make-up. My blood pressure dropped dramatically and I started passing out at random intervals.
When it occurred to me that the physical and psychological therapy I was undergoing would making things worse before they got better, I wanted to rewind. To return to the body of the girl who had not acknowledged the gravity of her experience.
I went to a close friend’s wedding, in a quaint coastal town, and collapsed on the morning of the ceremony. As I lay on the floor of the apartment, I imagined myself approaching one of those big red signs on single-lane highways that says WRONG WAY, GO BACK. But every time I came close to giving up, I thought of the comforting words my best friend offers me when she notices that I’m in trouble: the only way out of it is through it.
So I kept going.
Crohn’s disease and endometriosis are life-long illnesses. They can be managed, but not cured. I will never have the physical capacity I had as a teenager; my body will never again be the driving force of my life.
This is a theft for which I will never be compensated. Living with that reality has been a difficult process, but I have come to accept it. It is no longer a source of anger, or fear, or resentment. It just is. As Cheryl Strayed wisely wrote: Acceptance is a small, quiet room. I won’t pretend: not everything can be healed.
My recovery has not been easy. It has been slow, and at times excruciatingly painful and demoralising. But I’m making progress. I have finally placed this memory into the narrative of my life in a way that makes sense. It’s not the story I would have chosen, or would choose for anyone. But I’ve found a way to live with that.
What I can choose, however, is how I respond to it, and how I can use it to help others. In one of her now-famous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns, Cheryl Strayed recounted the following anecdote when giving advice to a rape victim:
I have a friend who is twenty years older than me who was raped three different times over the course of her life… I asked her how she recovered from them, how she continued having healthy sexual relationships with men. She told me that at a certain point we get to decide who it is we allow to influence us. She said “I could allow myself to be influenced by three men who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by Van Gogh. I chose Van Gogh.”
When I read these words, I thought of all of the women writers who kept me company during the darkest moments of the last twelve months. The women whose strength pushed me ever on, convincing me that there was a world out there that was beautiful and kind and safe and that it would be waiting for me if I were brave enough to choose it.
I thought of my favourite author, Elena Ferrante, and the way her exquisite stories of female friendship showed me that women can be both soft and powerful; tenderness and strength are not antithetical, but equivalent. It takes vulnerability and resilience for women like her protagonist, Elena Greco, to overcome their dangerous pasts and possess their own narratives, in all of their complexity.
For myself, I can choose to be influenced by a violent man in an abandoned bathroom or I can choose to be influenced by the strength and vulnerability and honesty of Elena.
I am choosing Elena.
Last month, I went to a ballet class for the first time in years. It was devastating to see how stiff my body had become in the years I’d neglected it; how profoundly damaged it was. But it was also an unparalleled joy to be reminded, even for a moment, of the feeling of being strong and powerful and poised and graceful and beautiful all at once.
Last week I went to a private gymnastics lesson with one of the athletes I used to compete with. As she watched me re-learn my tricks, she scanned her eyes over my body and I heard in her words the echo of every coach, every athlete, and every judge I’d ever trained with. They had noticed the same things she was noticing now: my impressively high arches, my hyperextended knees, my stubborn hamstrings. She promised me everything would come back to me quickly, and it did. The memory of how to move like I used to was still there, in my muscles.
My body had kept everything in its rightful place, waiting for me to come back to it.
When I talk about my trauma
I am not asking you to carry it or relieve me from it;
I am just asking for it not to be too heavy for a conversation.
— Blythe Baird, “Yet another rape poem”
I am profoundly lucky that recovery was possible for me. I have a job and support network that has allowed me to scrape together enough money to see all the specialists I need, in a system that is prohibitively expensive for the majority of survivors. I’ve had colleagues buy me lunch on the days they knew I needed to see my psychotherapist so I wouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
I have specialists who make allowances when I need a few extra weeks to pay, who consistently invent ways to reduce the cost of my care. I have a workplace that gives me all the sick leave I need and offers me unconditional support. I am also lucky enough to work in an environment so focused on creating a supportive culture that my colleagues are also my closest friends. I have a best friend who loves and supports me unconditionally and a network of friends and family who are endlessly loving, generous and kind.
I am also fortunate that what happened to me was a blinding anomaly. A random act of violence committed by a stranger in the night. Statistically, most acts of sexual violence are not isolated; they’re visited upon us by people we know and trust, in circumstances where social and interpersonal dynamics may complicate a survivor’s understanding of their trauma, or the boundaries of consent may feel harder to clearly determine.
If just one of these factors had not aligned in my favour, I might not have been able to get better.
In Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends the last thing the narrator says to the reader is:
You have to live through things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
In NSW in 2018, the crime of sexual assault is listed in the statute books but only 5% of prosecutions result in conviction. In the legal profession, we refer to this as a crime that is formally illegal, but socially accepted. Making the law tougher on perpetrators and would-be perpetrators is the first step to changing that.
I watch as we launch inquiries into reforming consent laws and getting tougher on prosecuting sexual violence. I listen as we analyse how women could better protect themselves while walking home alone; while we pick apart the logic of streetlights, well-populated areas and always carrying a mobile phone.
All of this analysis is necessary, but none of it pays enough attention to the lived experience of victims of sexual violence. None of it takes on the more difficult task of trying to empathise with us; to see the world as we see it.
It does not consider the fact that viewing consent as the norm and requiring non-consent to be communicated puts trauma survivors in the untenable position of being asked to vocalise non-consent when they have likely already entered fight, flight, or freeze. When they are too terrified to say anything at all.
Presuming consent is fundamentally antithetical to the concept that women are an autonomous and dignified role in our sexual lives. That we are entitled to our boundaries, our pleasure, our pain. Saxon Mullins: If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s not enough. If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s a no.
If we listen to the stories of survivors, it’s evident how damaging it is to expose women to a public conversation in which we are held responsible for our own safety.
It’s a pragmatic approach, they tell us. Boys will be boys. Not all of us have the luxury of taking a pragmatic position. My response to these conversations is not rational but biological: I am being told that I must always be ready for run for my life. That if I fail to follow these rules, I might not be so lucky next time.
Just as traumatic memory evades narrative, a culture of victim-blaming and shame disrupts a survivor’s ability to comprehend traumatic experiences. Survivors are condemned not only to live through trauma and its pervasive psychological and physical effects, but also to suffer the indignity of being unable to clearly understand what is happening to us.
This post-traumatic response is replicated in victim-blaming media coverage. If this happens to me again and I do not escape, the story of my death will be taken from me and placed in a narrative about whether or not I chose a sufficiently well-lit park to walk home through.
The constant reminder of how unsafe the world is for us triggers our autonomic nervous system. It makes us fragile. It makes us scared. And as I have found, eventually, it makes us sick.
It also keeps us quiet. Every time we blame victims for the crimes of their perpetrators we construct a world in which traumatised people are too ashamed to seek help. Our society is so convinced that victims are complicit in their trauma that we are scared to admit what happened to us, in case it transpires that we did not follow the rules.
I wrote this essay because creating a safer world needs not only to be an exercise in logic but also in empathy.
If my experience of the world was not one in which I knew I would be blamed for the violence committed against me — in which my primary reaction to suffering trauma is shame — the last ten years of my life would have been profoundly different. I would have gone to the police that night, covered in DNA evidence, bruises, scratches, injuries.
Perhaps, eventually I would have been compensated by my assailant for the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve lost to medical bills, hospital bills, forgone wages, therapy. Perhaps I would have helped secure a criminal conviction that would have protected the potentially countless women he has assaulted in the ten years that I have remained silent.
If we lived in a world where this kind of experience was treated, both by the law and by our culture, like any other physical trauma or violent crime – a car accident, a severe sports injury – it would not have taken me ten years to ask for help.
It would not have caused me to spend years of my life running from it, hoping it might never catch up with me. It would not have left me with irrevocable physical damage.
It would not have taken me ten years to choose Elena, to choose recovery, to choose to speak. It might sound shocking, but the process of repossessing my narrative has left me feeling as though I might now be able to enjoy my life.
It is harder to bear witness to suffering than it is to analyse it, and until we are ready to do that, real change will evade us. You have to live through things before you can understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
Lifeline offers crisis support services if you need to speak with someone. You can call on 13 11 14.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and need assistance, call the 24-hour Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 424 017.
If you are suffering from a chronic illness and need assistance, please call Pain Link Australia on 1300 340 357.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a freelance journalist and writer and works as a paralegal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. She tweets at @LuciaOC_.
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aka the creation of an eighty-three billion dollar market out of thin air
Before approaching my desk today, I walked for half an hour along the coast where I live. On my walk, I saw nautical-striped stretch camisoles, floral sports bras, and quick-drying ballet crops. I saw gorgeous leopard-print midi pants and silky monochrome tanks matched perfectly with oversized sunglasses and enormous takeaway coffee cups. I saw lightweight silver jogging shorts, metallic snake-print bandeaus, seamless perforated micro-shorts, and draped jersey tees.
This is the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Out here, the look is tight, bronzed, and highlighted. Diversity is down to blondes and brunettes of the caucasian variety, and the dress code is activewear—the term now synonymous with sporty fashion. This is the ground zero of sports luxe: an eighty-three billion dollar industry targeted to women who want to look hot, comfy and athletic.Read More
Open the gate to a nighttime party
Good trouble for bad actors.
Fire in a barrel at the garden party
A delta of floodlight out of the black.
Alpha male at the office party. A good man™.
Blood on the dress. Blood. Blood on a dress.
Yes, yes, yes. Today's the official Australian release date of jiaqing wilson-yang's stunning debut, Small Beauty.
First published by Metonym Press in Canada in 2016, Small Beauty has garnered massive acclaim since its North American release. Last year it won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Transgender Fiction and was a finalist for the Writers Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize.
You can get your hands on this stunning debut novel (featuring cover art by Lee Lai) by ordering it online. Or you can find it in quality bookshops across Australia and New Zealand – this list of our stockists is a good place to start.Read More
Lurid, lyrical and at times disconcertingly joyous, Emma Glass’s gruesome rape revenge fable is a remarkable debut from the Swansea-based paediatric nurse. A slim volume, it can be read easily in one sitting. Yet, for all its perceptive insights into the traumatised subject, in some respects this novella dismays.Read More
The weather has softened. With slower winds, the trees look suddenly taller. Snow melts off their branches. They are hatching.
Even with the calming wind, Sandy’s old parka and her double scarves aren’t enough. She is freezing. Winter and snow are things she loves. She used to think she loved the cold, but now she understands she had just romanticised it, melted the memories, as if walking in someone else’s dream.
The city, despite all the ways it pushed callouses into her, sof¬tened her tolerance for cold. She used to spend whole days in snowy woods, lost and a little stoned. Now she stays on the path as best as she can, for a few hours at most. She feels her blood heating up as she takes step after careful step, keeping a pace that is more habit than intention. Her feet break through the crust of frozen snow, lost for an instant below the brittle curvature of the trail. A shell cracking. Her thighs sting from the cold, and her sweat freezes on the hair of her brow. Where she had been engulfed in the landscape as a child, she is now caught in her body’s reaction to it.Read More
“I went on a big journey with that one,” a gay man in his mid-twenties told me, referring to the reboot of Queer Eye, which was released on Netflix in February. “I went public with my disdain after episode one, and then had to walk my comments back when I watched the rest.” I knew what my friend was talking about—I’d done a version of this myself.Read More
‘So close to the end of my childbearing life
‘The Girl’, Marie Howe
I sat in the café while your friend railed at me
—if you knew you were going to leave why did you try,
and keep trying—he meant for children, of course,
though we did not have them in the end.
Which comes first, blame or consequence?
I sat there, crying, while waitresses tiptoed
In mid-2015, I received an email from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), a contractor for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It was an invitation for an ophthalmologist to visit the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and provide eye care for detainees. It posed a moral dilemma, which I mulled over for a while.
As a migrant from Iran, it was easy to identify with people who sought refuge from danger or oppression. As an Australian citizen, I was upset by the appalling reports of how asylum seekers, including children, were being housed and treated. I was angered by our government’s punitive, rather than humanitarian response to a global refugee crisis—a crisis that we arguably helped foment through military support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oddly or not, this treatment also reminded me of my work in Indigenous communities where the biggest buildings in town are often the police station and jailhouse. I imagined a national tagline to capture this panoptic treatment of the destitute:
AUSTRALIA: land grabbing since 1788, handcuffing those who plead a share.
Would a visit to Nauru or Manus constitute tacit acceptance of these policies? Would I be a pawn for Australian Border Force? If I didn’t accept, who’d provide the necessary eye care for detainees? How many Australian ophthalmologists spoke Farsi, had lived in Pakistan, and were familiar with Sri Lanka and the Middle East? Was it morally unacceptable to not go?
Since my visits to Nauru and Manus in 2015–16, things have changed. The centre on Manus was declared illegal by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, and the fraught process of shutting it down continues. The Australian government agreed to our country’s largest human rights payout, tantamount to accepting the harm done to refugees. An undisclosed number of asylum seekers were granted resettlement in the US, but the Trump administration has stalled the process. Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 was changed so that doctors, teachers and other workers are free from its secrecy provisions, making it safer for them to speak out without fear of legal reprisal. Previously, all employees and contractors risked being sacked, prosecuted and imprisoned if they disclosed information about detention centres to anyone. The coalition government announced an additional intake of twelve thousand Syrian refugees, but expressed a preference for Christians over Muslims, in spite of a non-discriminatory mandate. More recently, in the face of a global refugee crisis, Peter Dutton advocated fast-track visas for a select minority of immigrants—white South African farmers—in a shameless display of systemic, unprincipled bias towards white Christian migrants.
The passages that follow were written before the gag order was lifted. At the time, I faced the unsatisfactory choice between speaking out and facing possible prosecution, or remaining silent and returning to visit the detainees. I chose the latter and shelved the writing. However, in 2017 my offshore visits fell through, due to the frustrating bureaucracy of IHMS. Now that I can’t visit the detainees, I’m blowing my whistle alongside the dedicated others who have been doing likewise for years. At the time of writing, over fifteen hundred detainees remain in limbo, and they need witnesses, not handcuffs.
22nd August, 2015
At a dining table in the staff mess, the doctors gather for lunch. As a newcomer to their group, I join them to eat and chat, hoping to learn more about the centre. I listen as they discuss the difficulties of becoming accredited to work on Nauru, about hopes to emigrate from their homes in the Philippines, Poland and Zimbabwe, to Australia or the United States. They talk shop, compare the earnings of different specialists, contrasting their deployment here with facilities elsewhere: military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil rigs in Nigeria. They speak about their rostered days off, cruising the island, visiting the Chinese eateries, checking out Anibare Bay.
Their tone is light, humorous, coloured with aspirations toward a better life.
Rarely do they speak about the detainees. When they do, they refer to them as ‘clients’, rather than ‘patients’ or ‘people’. Over a buffet of roast lamb and vegetables, detainees are mentioned with a roll of the eyes, a knowing look, a shift in tone. Scepticism moves in like a low cloud, undeclared but tangible. At times, the feeling verges on scorn.
What is implied, again and again, is that the detainees are not real patients, their conditions not real pathology. Their vague symptoms, such as headaches, non-specific pain or malaise, are difficult to diagnose or alleviate. Some have genuine afflictions, such as atopic dermatitis or upper respiratory tract infections. But their symptoms seem amplified, bordering on hysteria or the bizarre. Consequently, detainees are labelled malingerers: the scourge of doctors, feigning illness for personal gain.
My colleagues seem unaware or uninterested in the psychological impacts of detention. As a more sympa-thetic counsellor tells me, “Asylum seekers arrive here with post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of their home countries, develop anxiety about the welfare of family left behind, and fall into depression when we lock them up.” At our table, there seems to be little appetite to consider these more complex dynamics and how they may manifest as somatic symptoms among trapped and disempowered fugitives.
I peer around at the painted grey walls in the staff mess, the fluorescent tubes over stainless steel surfaces. I feel discomfited; I swear the aircon is dialled to Arctic. The mess, like the rest of the compound, is militarised and highly administered: monitored hand-hygiene stations, high-visibility vests, muscle men with buzz cuts. Last night, a security guard did me a kindness, permitting me a second orange after dinner by looking the other way. Even citrus can be contraband here.
23rd August, 2015
The eye conditions afflicting detainees on Nauru range from mysterious to tragic. Many suffer a form of allergic conjunctivitis, where the eyes become red, gritty and sore for weeks on end. I suspect it’s due to a local antigen, perhaps phosphate dust from the ubiquitous open-cut mines, or airborne fungal spores from mouldy accommodation. I see a three-year-old boy from Nepal with this condition. His eyelids are swollen and excoriated, and he has similar changes on the soft skin of his armpits and behind his knees. I prescribe anti-allergy eye drops and show his dad how to administer a steroid cream for him. But as long as he and the other detainees are exposed to the environmental toxins here, it all seems like band-aid medicine.
19th September, 2015
On Manus, I meet an Iraqi man who is blind in one eye from traumatic optic neuropathy. This is a case of ‘damaged wiring’ between the eye and brain, which occurs when the eye is struck so hard that a shock wave passes through the bony socket and shears the nerve fibres where they enter the skull. The nerve atrophies and the blind spot expands until eyesight is extinguished. The man tells me he sustained this when local Papua New Guinea (PNG) men stormed the centre and bashed his head in with a wooden bat. Another asylum seeker, 23-year-old Reza Barati, was beaten to death in the same riot.
I tell this man that his blindness is permanent and he slumps to weep in front of me. Has he not lost enough? What’s the price of his sight, to him and to us? On our government’s watch, his vision had been halved, his future prospects permanently diminished. Yet I doubt many Australians will ever hear his story. I trace the cause of his blindness back to the illegal invasion of his country by Western governments including ours, a spiral of dominoes fanning out to flatten the dignity of civilians.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.
Hessom Razavi is a doctor and writer, born in Hamadan, Iran. He grew up in Tehran, Karachi and the UK, before his family moved to Perth. His poetry has been published in Australia and the UK, and his travel writing and videos are available online. He works as an ‘outreach eye doctor’ in remote communities in Australia and overseas.
Among the meditations on books and babies in Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a list of names appears under the heading “Notes on some twentieth-century writers”:
Flannery O’Connor: No children.
Eudora Welty: no children. One children’s book.
Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Irish Murdoch, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Mavis Gallant, Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Pym: No children.
Helen Gurley Brown, author of Having It All: no children.
Of the writer-mothers that appear, further down the list, most had a later start – presumably, after their children had grown, at what might be called, in somewhat archaic terms, the end of their childbearing years. Toni Morrison was forty-nine when her first book was published; Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty. The others, as Galchen notes, were hardly mothers at all beyond the biological sense: Murial Spark left her son in the care of local fruit-sellers when she escaped her marriage in Southern Rhodesia for London; Rebecca West tried to convince her lovechild with H.G. Wells that she was actually his aunt. Jean Rhys is not mentioned, but I read recently elsewhere of the way she was described by her daughter, at the age of six: “My mother tries to be an artist and she is always crying.” Galchen doesn’t need to elaborate on what her equations imply: that, for most of history, motherhood has been incompatible with having a productive creative career.
Closer to home, at a Melbourne art school in the 1980s, my mother was taught that a woman was ill-advised to pursue both. Her first-year painting professor was an influential figure in the emerging punk and feminist scene, celebrated for her works that combined images with confessional text to depict a particularly feminine interiority – a world of cats, horses, and lonely long-haired girls who were trapped in bell jars or had fallen down rabbit-holes. There was plenty of room for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in her vision of female experience, but not motherhood: a woman can’t be an artist and have children, this professor told her students, so you better decide now which one you want to be. My mother was seventeen, still seven years away from being anybody’s mother, but she has never taken very kindly to people telling her what to do.
Still, the suspicion persists that mothers can’t be good artists and artists don’t make good mothers. It’s a false dichotomy, as Galchen (herself a 21st-century mother-writer) and my mother know, but it continues to haunt. In Shelia Heti’s latest novel Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend puts it this way: “it sort of blows your load, parenting, because it’s the perfect job – it’s very hard but only you can do it. And isn’t making art like that?”
Like Heti, the narrator of Motherhood is a Canadian writer living in Toronto. She is thirty-six when the novel begins and arrested with indecision over whether or not to have a baby before she turns forty – her own self-imposed deadline. Despite her achievements—the relationship she has with her boyfriend, Miles, the six books she’s published with enough acclaim to earn an independent income from writing—she sees these small victories pale in comparison to the lives of those around her, which are crowned by the more traditional markers of success: marriages, mortgages, babies.
Over the next few years, she finds herself adrift in adulthood, suffering bouts of loneliness and depression as her peers become increasingly preoccupied with raising children – an activity she frames as something like a party she has been invited to, but doesn’t really wish to attend: “It’s fair to say I’m missing out on something, but also that I might prefer to miss out.” Sometimes this looks like emptiness; but also, radical possibility:
To have a child is like being a city with a mountain in the middle. Everyone sees the mountain. Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain. The city is built around it. A mountain, like a child, displays something real about the value of that town. In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning. They might suspect it doesn’t have one…How wonderful to tread an invisible path, where what matters most can hardly be seen.
The stakes are different for Miles, a criminal defense lawyer with a young child from a previous relationship (a character who remains curiously, if not conspicuously, on the periphery). In response to the narrator’s dilemma, he is indifferent, as she explains: “If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure,” and these words, cast in italics, seem to reverberate throughout the rest of the novel as she struggles to make a choice that feels ethical and true. It’s the equivalent of shrugging and saying I don’t mind – supposedly liberating, but also a way of opting out of the conversation. It doesn’t help that the narrator’s own impulses and desires are mysterious to her: “Whether or not I want kids is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”
She begins to seek answers elsewhere, employing logic, reasoning, mysticism, chance. She asks questions – of coins, of fortune tellers and East Village street psychics, friends, family, and most of all, herself. What kind of life for a woman is a life without children? And could this choice be as spiritually fulfilling, or equally valuable as motherhood? Does a productive life have to be biologically re-productive? Or, to use her words: “Can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing called babies?”
At the launch of Motherhood in New York, on the first day in May that truly felt like spring, I sat in the lower level of a Manhattan bookstore flushed with the sudden heat that had made white flowers bloom on the tree outside my window overnight, like a nature documentary time-lapse. I spoke eagerly with a woman I’d just met, another writer around my age, about our competing desires to have lives that produced both books and babies. For both of us, it felt important that the novels we were working on arrived first. I sort of feel like the book is the first baby, said my new friend, and then she paused, backtracked. Not that I have a partner, or anything. Our conversation seemed like an example of what Heti highlights in the novel – that women debate the idea of motherhood privately, internally, maddeningly (regardless of, prior to, or in the absence of any partnership) because the question of whether or not to have children is an existential one. To be or not to be a mother is ultimately a question of what makes a valuable, productive and meaningful life.
Later, at home, I Googled the term “competing desires”, which had become lodged in my brain, a recursive refrain, during my reading of Motherhood until the words began to lose all meaning. The recommended result was a Quora page titled “Cognitive Psychology: How are competing desires resolved?” The answer, according to the thread: “Competing desires are usually frustrating due to the sequential manner with which we usually do things. Even so, time is the ultimate master of conflict”.
Time also has mastery over the body, and to occupy a female body is to be made especially aware of your relationship to the corporeal clock. At twenty-eight, approaching twenty-nine, I feel sometimes like I’m constantly on a deadline. It’s like being an hourglass, or a lunar calendar: monthly, my body marks time, and I’m aware of it rushing through me. When I think of the men I know, one of the things I envy most is their unimpeded sense of time, the sense of all those years to stretch out into, ripe for chronological manspreading.
“The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or being allowed it”, states Heti’s narrator, and throughout Motherhood there are subtle references to the way time imposes structure on the lives of women – the narrator intends to work on a project that will explore her concept of “the soul of time”, and part of Motherhood is divided into sections according with the four stages of her menstrual cycle: PMS, Bleeding, Follicular, Ovulating.
But the questions of whether or not to have children, and if so, when, and how late is too late, and what else should happen first are not just biological, or existential – they’re literary, as Heti demonstrates, because they’re concerned with the order and arrangement of events in time. In other words, they’re the obsessions of plot.
If the life of a woman without children doesn’t fit the conventional biological arc, then to write and document it requires new structures. For this reason, it is easier to describe Motherhood in relation to what it is not: an essay or an argument, a memoir or a manifesto, or any kind of how-to. But as Heti’s narrator suggests, there’s something reductive about describing an experience in the negative, qualifying it by what it lacks:
Maybe if I can could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of—make it into action, rather than the lack of action—I might know what I was experiencing, and not feel so much like I was waiting to act. I might be able to choose my life, hold in my hands what I have chosen, and show it to other people, and call it mine.
So, what is Motherhood, then?
Loosely speaking, Motherhood is a novel – one that stretches the possibilities of genre and form with the same energy, humor and invention as Heti’s breakthrough, How Should a Person Be?, a novel that included transcripts of real conversations with friends, parts of a play-in-progress, and chapters with headings which read like hilarious title-cards in a subversive silent movie (“Interlude For Fucking”). In Motherhood, Heti also relies on what I like to think of as a combination of fictional and extra-fictional devices to structure an inquiry into maternal ambivalence. The concern here is not how should a mother be, but whether to be one at all, and what is gained or lost in making this choice.
One of the challenges Heti faces with this novel is how to create narrative tension and momentum out of indecision, and one notable device is the use of a divination method inspired by the I-Ching that involves asking a yes/no question and flipping three coins. A ‘yes’ answer requires two or three heads, while two or three tails equals a ‘no’. (A note from the author at the start of the novel states: “While not everything in books is true, in this book, all results from the flipping of coins are true.”) These passages create a frame that pushes back against the narrator’s doubt, while also drawing attention to the limitations of the yes/no binary. There is a playful element to the way she insists on wriggling out of this trap by arguing back with the coins, and their cryptic counsel:
I have to ask, am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don’t have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me?
Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way?
no Is there real shame in being that way?
Is that way basically selfish?
And not as connected to the life force as other women, being so shut up in my thoughts and my head?
Is there a male equivalent to this, well, barrenness?
Is there a romantic female figure that equals those male, romantic, artistic figures?
Women artists with children?
If I have children, will I be like those women?
There is truth, Heti knows, in uncertainty because every decision contains the shadow of what could have been, the what-if. Doubt and desire are not binary opposites, but simply two sides to the same coin: “On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them.”
These passages also inject the book with the spontaneous spirit of improvisation that has made Heti such a gifted collaborator – in Women in Clothes, an anthology produced with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, as well as her many interviews for The Believer, and the sections of How Should A Person Be? that incorporate real conversations with friends. The coins, in a way, provide a method of collaborating with the self—or the universe—and introducing the creative challenge of the unexpected within the deliberate, solitary act of writing a novel.
Motherhood was originally envisioned as another interviews project, and at times I found myself imagining what this could have looked like: another tome, perhaps, like Women In Clothes, with pictures of baby shoes and illustrations mapping cesarean scars. A book that could have had the space and flexibility to voice a wider diversity of maternal experiences: of young mothers, older mothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers and aunts, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, single mums, trans-parents, mothers who have adopted or given children up for adoption, mothers who have abandoned children and children who have been abandoned, surrogate mothers, incarcerated mothers, women who have had IVF, midwives, women who have had abortions, mothers of miscarried or stillborn babies, would-be mothers who wanted children but never had them, women who never wanted children at all.
If Motherhood is limited, it is because it contains one voice—the voice of the narrator—and in a sense she is the only character. Even when others do appear, their purpose seems to be to express different sides of the debate the narrator is having with herself, in a tradition that feels closer to philosophy than literature (although this technique is becoming more common in contemporary autofiction; Rachel Cusk’s recent novels Outline and Transit being a good example). Since these characters are similar to the narrator in terms of age, class and race, they might act as something like the controls in an experiment – a way of briefly glimpsing the paths her life could have taken. But since the novel takes place largely within “the greyish and muddy landscape” of the narrator’s mind, the reader is confined to her perspective. Dialogue is reported rather than transcribed – all interactions with friends, family, fortunetellers, are filtered through her consciousness. But this may have been a way of proving Heti’s original thesis: that when people give advice about motherhood, they are always speaking to themselves.
Some of the most insightful moments in the book come from Heti’s observation of how threatened we can feel by the decisions of others – especially when it comes to one as personal and irrevocable as having a baby. In one scene, a friend with a newborn asks the narrator if she plans to “do her time”, as if motherhood was something like a draft she was recruiting for, or a prison sentence. Then, leaving the apartment, the narrator runs into her former classics professor. “Please, don’t have children,” insists the professor, though she herself has a thirty-five-year-old daughter: “I knew she was trying to save me from a life of drudgery and pain”, explains the narrator. “I said, But wasn’t having a daughter the greatest experience of your life? She paused for a moment, then admitted it was”.
To decide to be a mother, or not to be – both involve letting go of one idea of yourself and embracing another. The only difference is the decision not-to is invisible. A baby, after all, is its own explanation. One day, it will even grow old enough to speak for itself.
When Heti was heralded, earlier this year, by The New York Times as part of a new vanguard of writers who are also women, the critic Dwight Garner praised her ability to deliver “prose that feels like actual, flickering, unmediated, sometimes humiliating thought.”
Part of Heti’s strength, and what makes her work so compelling, is her ability to translate a mind to the page in a way that feels unfiltered and confessional by embracing the honesty of contradictory feeling and finding beauty in ugliness and flaw. But this artistic feat is often missed by those who fail to recognize that all consciousness, in writing, is crafted, and insist on conflating Shelia Heti with her fictional persona. As Maggie Nelson once said, quoting Eileen Myles quoting the film director Carl Dryer: “in writing, you have to use artifice to strip artifice of artifice.” Yes, Heti is a master of something like that.
The aim of Motherhood is not necessarily to solve the narrator’s dilemma, but to evoke the anxiety of indecision and capture the texture of ambivalence on the page – the mind’s recursions, vacillations, obsessions, anxiety dreams, images, conversations, memories and competing desires. In many ways, the decision of whether or not to have a baby functions as a classic literary framework: create a character and give them desires, I was taught in graduate school. This is where story comes from. “I always believed there were several possible lives I could be living, and they were arranged in my head like dolls on a mantelpiece,” the narrator writes. “I would take them down, one by one, dust them off, and examine their contours and compare.” But what matters is not so much the choice that is made, but what that choice has the potential to reveal – especially in fiction like Heti’s, where authority, intimacy and drama is created primarily by voice and style.
Last time I had a difficult decision to make, my friend gave me some advice from her own mother: toss a coin, and then see how you feel about the answer. You’ll know what’s right from the way your heart will sink or lighten, but you’ll still be free to change your mind. Writing, in a way, is a trick like this – or a little like taking down one of those dolls from the shelf of the mind and imagining a life for it. As Milan Kundera once stated, about his own process:
The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities…Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
A novel then—especially one as flexible and formally unconventional as Motherhood—is a way, briefly, of springing out of the trap. The page is a space of possibility and play, where we can cross that border beyond the self we know and see what lies on the other side, and whether or not we might like it there, beyond the boundaries of our own life. “A life is just a proposition you ask by living it, Can a life be lived like this too?” states Heti’s narrator, but we could repurpose this: A novel is just a proposition you ask by writing it—or reading it—can a life be lived like this too?
Writing can be a way of exercising doubt, making peace with the what-if by whittling it into art. It can be a method of containing anxiety, “like combing your hair to get out knots,” as Heti suggested at her launch. Although we may be taught from a young age that stories are about things that happen, in Motherhood Heti proves that the things we didn’t do—the missed chances, whether or not we wanted to miss them, can also be rich, and yes, fertile—imaginative territory: “The problem is that life is long, and much happens by accident, and choices made in a single week can effect an entire life-time, and the decider within us is not always under our control,” writes Heti’s narrator. “So as much as I can’t see having a child, it’s strange to imagine I actually won’t. Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special as the having…To battle nature and to submit to nature, both feel very worthy. They both feel entirely valuable.”
Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the senior editor of NOON literary annual and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Lifted Brow.
In Married at First Sight the woman is running to a public toilet to escape from the rain and from the husband, who is chasing her. The husband is begging dispassionately. “Baby, please don’t cry.” He seems annoyed about the crying. He is looking in the opposite direction. Earlier in tonight’s episode, the husband could not tell the difference between camembert and butter. He put a slice of camembert into a hot frying pan. The camera zoomed in on the burning camembert while comedic stock music played, allowing us to pretend that his reality was not tragic. The woman, in the next room, appeared listless. The husband threw the piece of burnt cheese out of his kitchen window like the world was his trash can.
The theme of this couple is the Oedipus Complex. The husband is looking for a mother figure he can have sex with. The theme is failing because the woman is actually looking for a boyfriend.
When my boyfriend and I arrive in Yogyakarta there is a monsoon. We run through deep water on the way to a restaurant. I feel young. A strange man at the table asks us about the blood moon. The rice is served in a perfect orb, wrapped in yellow paper. The folding of the paper is so pure.
I am in the process of becoming estranged from my parents, I think. It sounds glamorous but feels remorseless. My feet are muddy from climbing the ancient Buddhist temple. I have touched a stone as old as the world! But every stone is as old as the world, even the ones that are composite.
It doesn’t stop raining for nine days. My boyfriend and I become restless in our hotel. The hotel becomes a prison of relaxation. I smoke berry-flavoured cigarettes and drink juice. The hotel has a large bathroom and cable. We watch Everybody Loves Raymond. We watch Khloe Kardashian help a teen lose forty-six pounds so that he can try and get a date. We watch the teen’s date look at him, thinner and wearing different clothes, and turn him down. We watch Gordon Ramsay teach his daughter how to cook a French stew.
My boyfriend is reading Madame Bovary, and I am reading a book whose protagonist is reading Madame Bovary.1 We keep saying things to each other while we wait for room service, like, “Homais is such a mansplainer,” and, “Female boredom is, like, catastrophic.” I try to use body language to emphasise how relatable Emma Bovary is to me without giving him any spoilers. “All my credit card applications get rejected,” I explain to my boyfriend. “It’s kind of like that.”
I used to tell my Tinder dates that my parents named me after Emma Bovary, to impress them and to liken myself to her, the most chic depressed person in literature. “We have so much in common,” I would joke. They would ask what and I would say, “Well we’re both named Emma.” I wanted her to be my namesake so badly, but I don’t even think my parents know who she is.
In Jakarta, our apartment is opposite the National Monument. Although it is so tall, our view is of a parking lot. When it is night and the parking lot is empty, thin cats run up and down its spiralling ramps, like they are playing a clandestine game.
There are so many outlet malls and they are vast like towns. Shoppers climb over one another to search through piles of fake handbags on the floor, shrink-wrapped Michael Kors and Guess. There is a whole zone for fake handbags. There are other zones: jeans, sunglasses, hijab, puffer jackets, DVDs, fast food, iPhones. Every vendor sees us pass and calls out to us. “Miss, mister, shopping?” I remember a video I watched a few weeks before coming here. In the video, part of the floor of the Jakarta Stock Exchange collapsed while a large group was standing on it. Everyone screamed but nobody died. The building looked just like this one does on the inside. I buy a Gucci T-shirt for twelve dollars. In the Uber home, I whisper to my boyfriend: “Malls are like monuments to us.” My boyfriend nods. The Uber driver blasts soft jazz and I watch theme parks and hotels pass by the window like they are ads during a movie.
In the early 2000s, many of the chefs on television were men. It was so uncool to be a woman and to be domestic. Cooking was technical, hard-edged. It was a skill that you would learn and master. Kitchens were clean, like places to do surgery, and the instruments of food-making were sharp and metallic. Did women no longer belong in the kitchen, or did the kitchen no longer belong to us? It didn’t matter to me. I was a teenage girl and I could buy diet versions of everything from the store.
Now it is 2018 and I have a kitchen of my own. But what do I do with it? I sauté kale tentatively. I eat the kale. The kale is bland and soggy. I need a man like Gordon Ramsay to yell at me in a clean, clinical space about how bland and soggy my kale is, so that I may learn to make it better. The domestic woman is cool again, but only in her leisure time. It is cool to make embroidery, to sell your embroidery. It is cool to cut flowers and put them in a vase, to post the flowers and the vase on Instagram. It is cool to bake a beau-tiful cake, to go on television for your cake, to go on MasterChef because of the beauty of your cake and to use MasterChef to boost your profile as an emerging baker or model or personal trainer.
I am having this crisis re: what work I can do. Really: what work can I do? What are my market-able skills? Maybe my parents believe that I am good for something. Maybe their silence is a way of releasing me into the wild, like animal parents do on National Geographic.
Whenever I get a manicure I have to throw up after-wards. It’s the tweezers, tearing up the cuticles. The removal of parts of me, quick and precise. When she is done with one hand, the manicurist wipes the pieces of my skin onto a napkin and moves onto the other hand. On the napkin are other piles of skin, belonging to other people. They’ve hardened into crusts. I think this is the part that always gets me.
I can’t stop drinking coffee. I can’t stop listening to the sad songs from my teenage years. I can’t stop buying sweet, pink wine. I spend hours online looking for a cheap copy of Rihanna’s Jessica Walsh parka that I can Afterpay. It is true that my therapist tells me my shopping is a safety behaviour: that I buy things to fill a void in my life, left by something we need to identify together. I ask her: Do we really need to identify the void? She says: Absolutely. She asks me if the parka will make me happy, and I say that it is self-improvement. The parka will change my life.
I know that in the past, men must have seemed so ugly to women: coming home from the world all dirty and exhausted, wanting things. The things men want. Emma Bovary was bored in that lavish house. There was nowhere inside of it that she could go.
I fell in love with my boyfriend when he was making green smoothies. I watched him put the spinach and the orange juice in the blender. It was like watching a beautiful film. I still watch him in this way, when he is doing tasks. Folding towels. Downward dog. It has been some years.
A memory: a child feeds koi in a pond with pellets from a paper bag. The fish throw their orange bodies out of the water and onto the stones, trying to catch each pellet. The child is young and can’t throw far. A fish flops around on smooth, round stones laid in a pattern to look like small flowers. The fish rocks itself back and forth until it gains enough momentum to fall back into the water. It seems fine, I guess.
One night in Yogyakarta, I scream at my boyfriend on the side of the road because neither of us can choose a restaurant and I am very hungry. Two men, smoking, watch us fight. I want to tell them that we sometimes love each other in this way and that it’s normal. The theme of this couple is... banal. The theme is working because it’s supposed to. But the two men do not speak English, and the only Indonesian words I know are “sorry”, “thank you”, and “this is too expensive”.
This piece was first published in The Lifted Brow #38.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something To Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfictino Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Pres in 2018. She is currently working on her first novel.
When I was in love with someone who didn’t love me I went to a psychic because I needed to be told otherwise. I was young, I was captivated by the narrative of my own longing. The psychic told me I would have a baby. I knew it would be his, I knew we were connected. We must be. I loved him so much I had gone looking for him in my future and so he would be there, it was certain.
While the psychic told me that his reasons for not loving me were circumstantial, I imagined what he might be doing. It felt necessary to make my movements anticipate his movements. There was, in my body, a desperate blind faith in the kinetic. I would cast myself into ancient forms that would supplicate me to him, that his eyes would understand but his brain would not, that would make him love me. If I put my arms this way—if I painted my lips this way; if I held objects in the ways I had been taught—I could become the figure that was loved by him and him alone. I could change the future even in the moment that the psychic was making it concrete.
I told the psychic: circumstances can be overcome. I know that this is true because I took home an audio recording of the session. There was determination in my young voice! But he never loved me. He got a different girlfriend.
I have lived like a hieroglyph. I have stared out of windows with a face composed especially for staring out of windows. Do our bodies speak languages, or are they their own languages? We are messages, forces, we pull near to one another, we orbit and collide. Our bodies surge with secret power like rivers after rain. Desire, admiration, aspiration, envy: the essays in Chelsea Hodson’s collection Tonight I’m Someone Else know this surge, they ride it effortlessly. The writing is turbulent, fluid. As the surge passes from one body to another, both bodies change; sometimes they don’t know that they are doing it, the passing or the surging or the changing, although of course, sometimes they do.
Of all the essays, ‘Red Letters from a Red Planet’ perhaps does most overtly what the collection does, implicitly, as a whole: it takes bodies and turns them into signs, it makes the bodies communicate, implicitly and explicitly, with each other and with the reader. In ‘Red Letters’, two of the bodies are the body of Hodson and the body of her bad-boy boyfriend Cody, which orbit one another in Tucson, Arizona in a way that is normal, predictable, human. The other two bodies are the body of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and the body of Mars, which interact with one another in ways that make a lot of humans—both in the essay and in memory, in the real world—hold their breath and watch, amazed.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University.
In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A poem is a way of talking to the person you’re not supposed to talk to anymore”. Hodson’s poems are breathless and surprising. I didn’t think it would be possible for an essay to do what a poem does in a way that is somehow wilder and more human but then—there is knowing that a Martian day, a sol, is forty minutes longer than an Earth day—there is loving a man for the very brutality with which he does not love you back—and there are swift, broad strokes of voice that draw these things together so that they become necessary to one another, so that there could not be a photograph of Mars in my mind without a Tucson I’ve never been to, without a Cody I have never met or loved.
I read my horoscope, and it tells me there is more power in surrender than in the illusion of control. I think about Donald Trump looking at the total solar eclipse without those special sunglasses. I think about the psychic, telling me my love was unrequited. The planets move vastly, with or without arcane power, around us. I will never touch Mars, maybe I will never touch Arizona, but they both impact me every day, in ways unknown to them and to me. Are Donald Trump’s eyes more invincible than the eyes of other people? Are horoscopes only rendered impotent when you think they are trash? Or can you just become immune to powers that you don’t believe in?
If such disbelief is a force, conviction is its necessary twin. My bodily certainty, at the table of the psychic: but he loves me back. Saying something aloud doesn’t always make it true, but then again: Mars is dusty and the Phoenix is searching for water. It has this one robotic arm that is always reaching. Hodson recalls overhearing someone at a press conference say: “We will find water; it is there. It was the same tone I used”, she writes, “to announce that I loved who I loved”. With what certainty I have loved! And Hodson loves, certainly, she loves Cody. She loves him even though…yes. She loves him anyway.
As a teenage girl I had one of those friendships that ruined me while at the same time giving me concrete form. She was someone I loved, someone I never stopped loving, yet she filled me with a hatred and envy so deep and profound I thought I would die. She was bold, she was pretty; I don’t know what I offered the friendship, perhaps in retrospect I was clever and the boys who adored her appreciated my jokes. I don’t know what she does now, it would be easy to find out but I haven’t tried. Her pull is surely still greater than my resistance.
It’s a classic trope, it’s Lila and Lenù, it’s Cher and Tai, it’s Heidi and LC. Every teenage girl has situated herself somewhere on that spectrum of toxic, urgent intimacy. In ‘Small Crimes’, Hodson enters such a friendship with Bianca, made fleeting by the confines of summer camp. Summer camp! I was a bookish child, I was always reading about wealthy girls in the American wilderness, restless in their cabins. I learned from them about pining: pining for boys across lakes, pining for friends at home, pining for the lost limbs of childhood, limbs that would be cumbersome with womanhood by the end of summer.
The body of Bianca is like this, arrested by Hodson’s curious gaze in its moments of transformation. Doubling, Bianca is arrested again by Hodson’s retrospect; a retrospect still tinged with curiosity, because of course even though Hodson later went through changes of her own they were foreshadowed by what she had already seen. Tampons in a duffel bag, words like dick and rape, lipstick on the rim of a glass. The two girls set out into the darkness, led by desires Hodson doesn’t yet feel or understand. But the body wants to want. The body orbits its models and learns how to become its future self. In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A theory my friend has: sleepovers are where girls learn to wake up in love. Remember when we knew our friends’ bodies as well as our own?” My teenage friend would sleep in her bed, and I on the floor, I would fall asleep by matching my breathing to her breathing. A thousand secrets hung in the air between us like living things.
Proximity, maybe, is the surging force, the secret power that pushes our bodies around like they’re dumb things at some casual mercy. There is a scramble for proximity in the magnetism, orbiting, and harm of ‘Red Letters’; there is an urgent proximity in the mirroring and learning of ‘Small Crimes’. Proximity becomes gendered in the collection’s exploration of themes of touch, beauty, and looking in ‘Simple Woman’.
Hodson was a model. In ‘Simple Woman’ she writes about it in a way that is blunt and deft and clean, there is no filmic glamour. What Hodson remembers about modelling is the touching of her body, how makeup artists and hairdressers would pat or brush her in ways that felt maternal. There is an equation implicit in this recollection: being beautiful means being touched. What Hodson thinks about when she turns her face to the camera is touch. She commands us to try it: “Think of the electricity between two hands about to touch, the language that exists in that silence.” It is this private anticipation, the imagining of another person’s skin and its nearness to the boundary of the self, that makes a face worth photographing.A body is an object – yes. A body is a spectacle – yes, too. In Tonight I’m Someone Else, all bodies, the motionless body and the object-body, the celestial body and the mundane body, the growing, changing body and the celebrity body, have their own power and allure. All of them speak differently, and all of them have proximity to, or perhaps momentarily engulf and become, Hodson’s. And as I read, mine.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something to Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Press in June 2018. She's a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, and is currently working on her first novel.