To celebrate the release of Issue 40: Blak Brow, we are sharing some of our favourite pieces from the issue.
by Neika Lehman
When I was 24 I was cheating on my boyfriend
and my mother had cancer. Now I’m 28 I sleep with
women, read dirty poetry and laugh at jokes about
theorists I don’t understand.
My country is dry, but when you think of my country
it is wet. I am de-colonial frantic, a blip in your ocean.
These days I have more freckles than I do sins. I
carry my ancestor’s see-through jawbone on a string
around my neck. I am beneath a she-oak of social
media. I am always already falling for you. We have
already broken up.
Neika Lehman is a writer and artist living and working on Wurundjeri country. Her
poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in un Mag, Next Wave, Island, Voiceworks
and in the short story collection I Sleep in Haysheds and Corners. Raised at the mouth
of the Derwent river on Muwinina country, Neika descends from the Trawlwoolway
people of north east Tasmania.
We acknowledge and pay our respect to all the Grandmothers, Mothers, Aunties, Sistas, and Sistergirls, Cuzzies and Tiddas gone before us, those lost too young, and those to come. We love you, your strength, knowledge, humility, grief and anger. Youse are all Most Deadly!
Does it matter where you read a book? I was reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone in a court waiting room, where my friend’s asylum case had been adjourned (again) until the interpreter showed up. The interpreter’s arrival didn’t bring clarity. Instead, I felt a tightening of the chest; bitterness: she was doing a great job translating words, but it felt like no one was telling the story that mattered. Or maybe no one had a language that allowed them to hear it.
It’s been barely a year since I lost someone important to me. When it happened I thought it was a joke. When I realised it wasn’t I lay in bed for a week. Staying in bed wasn’t a choice. Any energy I had expended itself on thoughts. Thoughts that came, stayed and went of their own volition — I was jealous of how much willpower they had. Thoughts. Questions. Sobbing. At times, loud and guttural like an animal had climbed into my throat. Other times, silent, like the animal had died there, withered away into nothing.
“Good God, where did this wise-beyond-his-years 25-year-old critic’s voice come from? His breath of proudly putrefied air is something to behold. Finally, a new Parker Tyler is on the scene. Yep. Mr. Fox is the real thing.”
—John Waters, New York Times
We at Brow Books are thrilled to announce that we recently bought Charlie Fox’s idiosyncratic essay collection This Young Monsterfrom UK publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions. We will publish the book in March 2019 – you can see our cover for the book below. (Special shout-out to Aloy the one-year-old Siberian Husky for allowing us to take photos of her face/mouth/teeth for the cover.)
About the book
This Young Monster is a hallucinatory celebration of artists who raise hell, transform their bodies, anger their elders and show their audience dark, disturbing things. What does it mean to be a freak? Why might we be wise to think of the present as a time of monstrosity? And how does the concept of the monster irradiate our thinking about queerness, disability, children and adolescents? From Twin Peaks to Leigh Bowery, Harmony Korine to Alice in Wonderland, This Young Monster gets high on a whole range of riotous art as its voice and form shape-shift, all in the name of dealing with the strange wonders of what Nabokov once called ‘monsterhood’. Ready or not, here they come...
About the author
Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London. His work has appeared in Artforum, The New York Times, frieze and many other publications. He was born in 1991.
“Charlie Fox writes about scary and fabulous monsters, but he really writes about culture, which is the monster’s best and only escape. He is a dazzling writer, unbelievably erudite, and this book is a pleasure to read. Fox’s essays spin out across galaxies of knowledge. Domesticating the difficult, he invites us as his readers to become monsters as well.”
—Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick
“Charlie Fox is a ferociously gifted critic, whose prose, like a punk Walter Pater’s, attains pure flame. Fox’s sentences, never “matchy-matchy”, clash with orthodoxy; I love how extravagantly he leaps between different cultural climes, and how intemperately — and with what impressive erudition! — he pledges allegiance to perversity. Take This Young Monster with you to a desert island; his bons mots will supply you with all the protein you need.”
—Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Humiliation
“This Young Monster is a hybrid animal in its own right, suturing biographical essays with stranger things: a “dumb fan letter” to the Beast, a meandering confession from Alice, bombed out after her many years in Wonderland. ... There’s not enough of this sort of playfulness and frank enthusiasm in art criticism.”
Last month we announced that Issue 40 of The Lifted Brow, Blak Brow, would be created entirely by a First Nations collective of editors, curators, academics, designers and activists. We're happy to report that Blak Brow has been sent to print and is looking absolutely incredible.
The Yabba, 1971. My genesis is a panorama of nothing on some faraway blasted plain where the closest thing to life is the way vision warps in the heat. I’d be lying if I were to tell you I remembered anything before this desolation. Who is at home nowhere? This isn’t a riddle, it’s a failure of imagination.
The opening shot of Wake in Fright is - for me anyway - where Australian film begins, if we allow image to be unshackled from chronology. National cinema arises in this conception of ‘woop woop', the back of beyond, not here but out there. Nobody’s land, crowded with the ghosts killed to conceive of nothingness. The red earth hungers for more blood.
Fifty-seven years ago, in 1961, before the conglomerisation of the book-publishing industry, before the canny invention of ‘literary fiction’ as a distinctly sellable genre, and eight years before the Man Booker Prize for Fiction had even been established, novelist Iris Murdoch wrote her now infamous polemical sketch, ‘Against Dryness’, for Encounter magazine. In this essay, Murdoch boldly characterised what she saw as the two competing modes of thinking and writing about the self that had developed in the twentieth century. On the one hand, she asserted, there was the notion of the self as a free, self-determining, discrete, rational agent — a Liberal mirage of wishful thinking in the wake of fascist totalitarianism, and then of the intellectually stultifying Welfare State. On the other hand, there existed the post-Humean conception of the self, which saw individuals not as “isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy”.
In 2017 the queer and gender-diverse community of Australia undertook an incredible campaign of everyday activism around marriage equality. As individuals and collectives we shared our personal stories with our networks – from social media, to workplace to school playground. We purged our tears and our rage – documented as poems, articles, photos, short stories, status updates, tweets, blog posts, political cartoons, and short videos. Many of us were shocked at the vitriol directed at us, to our faces, in our letter boxes and online, even in ‘secret’ Facebook groups. Many of us were hurt by the unspoken tensions and the conversations we couldn’t have with some of our nearest and dearest. By the end, we were truly exhausted.
We at Brow Books are thrilled to publish Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or No’, a book that collects a diverse array of perspectives and narratives, a book that is a journal of record of a time when the value of human beings was debated, a book that tells an overall story that is much larger than the sum of its parts.
'On Queer Grieving: The Community Crisis of Vicarious Trauma' is written by Cee Frances and is one of the pieces you can read in Going Postal.
I have lost count of how many times I have woken from a nightmare involving the death of a queer loved one, and today is no exception. After waking, I lie in bed for hours, unable to shift a sense of incapacitating dread—it becomes a physical ache that spreads throughout my body.
Last week, I travelled to a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne to give a presentation for The International Day Against Hombphobia, Transphobia and Biophobia (IDAHOBIT). Since I started specialising in the area of queer & trans trauma writing and research, speaking about LGBTQIA+ issues has become part of my job. For this particular event, it means I have the opportunity to speak to more than 200 people about my experiences navigating trauma as someone who is both queer and nonbinary, as well as an academic and community advocate. In preparation for these gigs, I usually ask organisers what angle they wish my presentation to take: Trans terms 101? Political commentary? An overview of my current PhD research? To my surprise and slight discomfort, the organisers of the event asked that I simply “tell my own story”. Having based my career on convincing others that marginalised identities need more than a cursory, abstracted political platform, I have grown accustomed to using careful, persuasive language to carry personal narratives. Being asked to tell the story of my life seems both too difficult and too easy. How could I confidently implore a room of predominately white, heterosexual, cis government staff to respond to the current mental health crisis facing my community? Without focusing on my meticulously collected accolades, why would they listen to me? And of course, the ever familiar ode to imposter syndrome: what right do I have?
Going Postal: More than 'Yes' or 'No', out November 2018
Being an intersectional researcher means acknowl edging that privilege will always inform what stories we tell, who tells them, and how they get told. There is a certain irony in going through one’s life navigating certain identity categories and the oppressions that come attached to them, only to end up as an advocate who must decide what to speak of and when—to stand back from the mic or step up to it.
As IDAHOBIT approaches I think of all of the queer and trans stories that need to be told. About the current epidemics of racism and ableism plaguing both our immediate and broader communities. More than anything, I begin to think of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves. Generational and immediate community mourning is the underpinning of every project in which a queer person becomes a representative of our own cause.
Most of us learn to shake off our nightmares, attributing them to an overactive imagination or that cheese we ate before bed. I, along with so many queer and trans people, was forced to stop dismissing night terrors around the same time I started burying young, vulnerable members of my community.
In around my second year of being immersed in Melbourne queer spaces and relationships, I lost an online friend to suicide. This event precipitated a breakdown longcoming, and I lost my job in community health due to needing to extend my bereavement leave. Upon telling both my previous employer and other (nonqueer) friends and family members, I was faced with the same series of questions: Were they a close friend? How did I know them? What happened?
As my mental health hit rock bottom, the echo of these painfully insensitive enquiries and their speculative undertones began to haunt me. I received a new psychiatric diagnosis and became suicidal. I did not want to tell anyone in my life how bad things were—after all, what right did I have? My friend who died was somebody I only met once, I was not suffering nearly as much as their closest friends and family.
I could not find a way of articulating how gravely the point of my grief and health decline was both entirely separate from, and tied to, these disqualifications. I was so impacted by Gem’s death because I never got the chance to know her better, and because we both spent a lot of time in an online space designed for women and queers to discuss our mental health in detail. There, we received the kind of support that we couldn’t get anywhere else.
The reasons for our loyalty to this digital space were varied, but united by acute need. The some 300 people in this space knew more about my mental health struggles than most of my IRL loved ones. Online, friends and strangers alike could “opt in” to offer support, and mediate this choice through both the distance and strange closeness of an internet forum. From suicide alerts to counselling recommendations, we held each other up daily. When Gem died, our lovingly sheltered community was blown apart.
The point I see absent from most discussions of queer community (particularly from mainstream, outsider perspectives) is just how much of our lives are anchored by, and negotiated through, the online spaces that hold us. Part of existing in a community facing daily hardships is learning about the limitations faced by others as well as ourselves; the reality that IRL support is not only difficult, but often dangerously scarce in supply. Alongside this, many of us have a backcatalogue of failed relationships and support systems, which can prevent us from seeking out new, healthier, intimate connections: typical ‘stable’ friendships are instead sublimated by online meme groups, political communities and party culture. This is not to say that healthy friendships cannot grow from such contexts, but simply acknowledges these divergences from traditional relationship frameworks. In the historical context of LGBTQIA+ party culture, we rarely discuss the fact that this is the result of the swing between bunkering down or going OUT, because sometimes destructive urges are about choosing the least harmful vice, and damn it, we deserve a break.
The reality underpinning these changes to our internal social structures is that all of us have experienced traumatic events in our lives, though in different ways and to differing extents. Assumptions from outsiders based around questions regarding suicide such as “Were you close?” don’t hold up when loss and harm reduction are fundamental, daily experiences. Already, so few of us can fully articulate how traumatic events have shaped our lives, and if we do, we are often continually forced to qualify our suffering. Not only does such gatekeeping perpetuate cycles of silence and harm, but we are prevented from developing necessary strategies for managing the shockwaves. The strategies we need range from managing the ongoing nature of vicarious trauma, grief support, and an acknowledgement of who carries the burden of emotional labour when community traumas occur. Overwhelmingly, it is the most marginalised individuals; those socialised as women, femmes and People of Colour, who end up shouldering the bulk of the load, and who are expected to step up and forego their own wellbeing for the more pressing crises at hand. It is of no surprise that in the last two years, the community suicides I have been most affected by have sat at the intersections of women, femmes, POC, and sex work.
Those who look the strongest are often experiencing the highest labour demands—and yet, we continue to ignore these critical internal community realities. And so we burn out our most precious resources, contribute to further lateral violences, and isolate ourselves in a desperate attempt to reduce our own suffering. At best, we barely keep our fragmented communities afloat; at worst, those who have become isolated drift further and further away from any possibility of support when they need it most. And yes, people get sick, and they die. They aren’t here anymore to tell us how we could have done better. If the AIDS crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our community absorbs the pain of members far and wide, and exchanges this load generationally by necessity. We feel the loss of strangers through their close proximity to our social orbits, political values and personhood—we grieve, through sharing the stories of their suffering. By remembering, we are reminded of why we must continue fighting current crises.
This is the nightmare we are living in postplebiscite, in the era of “Equal Love”. This is what I wake up to and from, today, on the day of this year’s IDAHOBIT. This is why questions like “Were you close?” don’t even begin to address the devastation of suicide for LGBTQIA+ individ uals and their broader networks. In this game of dominos we are pushed to an illogical extreme, only to be faced with incredulity at the causes of our inevitable collapse.
On the way to last week’s presentation, the reasons for my restless sleep the night before settled on my shoulders and refused to budge. I realised that the most important story I had to tell to a room of strangers with little context for LGBTQIA+ issues was not the trajectory from closet to New Queer World; this place where finally, every now and again, I get paid to teach others what inclusion actually means for my community, and how the frameworks through which we view trauma must be expanded far beyond their current parameters. It is my story, colliding with that of my friends who have died, and who will continue to suffer if we do not learn how to effectively address current realities of violence as both an institutionally-regulated reality, and an everyday, vicarious burden we all share.
If we do not receive support to develop our own action plans, destructive cycles of crisis and burnout will continue to ripple through our communities and their unique kinship structures. Too many lives, and the stories connected to these lives, have already been lost. And so, I tell a room full of strangers about my friends,
about my most recent queer loss and its true, devastating weight. The room is silent, punctuated by discomfort. As the event wraps up, however, I am flooded by bodies and shuffled towards a rainbow photo wall. Strangers beam at me from all sides and pose for the camera, shiny-eyed with gratitude. I agree to stay for lunch, summoning the
energy to answer their enthusiastic questions. Witnessing this level of optimism floods my chest with warmth, but it is exhausting, and I am relieved when the crowd finally thins.
After driving home, I cancel my plans for the next twenty-four hours. I do what I feel I must—I go to bed, even though I will dream on high alert. Most importantly, I continue to tell our stories. I speak to the crisis within them, in the hopes it might fall on listening ears.
Cee France is / mad as / a cut snake / rising / a watermark / seven loose teeth / an ode to femme-fags / and / a wardrobe of pink slime.
Going Postal, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne, is officially out in stores around Australia on Thursday 15th November—the first anniversary of the historic ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage equality postal survey. You can also order it here.
Whether you know what a bao is or not, the slow and comforting preparation of one is the perfect set-up to the deep, complex and layered metaphor that food can play in our lives.
The calm rolling out of the dough, the visceral act of hand-mixing the filling, squelching raw meat between your fingers and the companionship of assembling the two parts into a dumpling. Bao, the Pixar short film that played in cinemas paired back-to-back with the film The Incredibles 2, perfectly encapsulated this moment in its opening scenes.
Concept art — Disney/ BAO
As a huge fan of the family with superpowers, I went to the screening of The Incredibles 2 expecting a comedic yet exciting two hours of being transported back to my childhood. Within a few moments I was taken back to a childhood I had lived, where I could see a story with characters that reflected my family on screen.
In Chinese culture, where verbal declarations of devotion and affection are rare, food plays an integral role in parenting — it is a method of loving, nurturing and growing, a way of showing how much you care. Feeding children by hand continues into young adulthood, a contrast to most Western children’s experiences, and finishing the food on your plate is absolutely non-negotiable. From a young age, I realised the way to my mother’s heart was to compliment her cooking and thank her for the effort, time and labour it took for her to feed me every meal of the day.
The centrality of food in Bao is evident in much more than the name. Using a humorous allegory, the protagonist—a Chinese-Canadian woman whom I like to call Mama Bao—raises a bao that anthropomorphically comes to life. She tends to him by feeding him, teaching him and protecting him from harm.
As with many real parent-child relationships in diasporic communities, intergenerational culture clash between Mama Bao and Baby Bao causes conflict. First-generation migrants who move to Western countries often don’t realise the internal struggles their children may encounter, growing up caught between two (or even more) cultures. As a child, it took me just one year of primary school to learn and understand with deep anxiety that ‘our’ food and culture was considered abnormal, something shameful. I felt my only option was to distance myself from my Asianness and, in the process, this created huge barriers between my mother and me.
Her perception of my endeavours for independence and acceptance by my peers as vapid, unimportant and in pursuit of whiteness—which it sometimes was—only served to drive the wedge deeper. The expectation that we, as children of migrants, can disregard the culture we are surrounded by leaves no room for us to grapple with our desire for acceptance and connection. This expectation can overshadow the very real and difficult experience of feeling as though you do not truly belong anywhere. I could see so much of myself and my mother in the culture clash depicted on-screen between Mama Bao and Baby Bao, a space where overwhelming love and conflict can co-exist. This is not to say that all the problems between Mama Bao and Baby Bao are driven entirely by a lack of understanding—her overprotective parenting is a relatable experience many children of migrants know all too well.
Similarly, children of migrants can often lack the cultural knowledge or even verbal language to truly understand where their parents are coming from. I would always bristle and complain about my mother’s cloying questions about my day while I was in my teens: “Where are you going? Who did you see? Have you eaten yet? Have you had a shower?” I felt claustrophobic in my own home, unable to move without being interrogated. You can imagine my surprise when, on my university exchange to Indonesia, I learned how to make small-talk and found these questions turned out to be everyday chit-chat, similar to “How have you been? What have you been up to? How are you going?” All that teen angst for nothing!
The conflict between a parent’s overprotection and a child’s desire for independence often comes down to different conceptions of selflessness and selfishness. Anglo-Celtic cultures place more emphasis on individualism, particularly in the current climate of neoliberalism. Comparatively, the notion of sacrifice in order to give your children ‘a better life’ was a very prevalent narrative in my life, whether from my own family or the stories in our community. I grew up with numerous confronting stories of my family and our friends coming together to support undocumented folks, organise marriages for citizenship papers, visit people in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and help children who were born here naturalise their parents. Taking on the economic burden of caring for your relatives was a given; sending money made in Australia back to relatives living in poverty, caring for our parents into their old-age and taking on the children of poor, widowed or deceased relatives.
Does this familial ‘selflessness’ still have a price though? For many second-generation migrants, their parents’ sacrifice means that any pursuits that contradict what their parents want can become a point of conflict. Never mind that restricting the independence, personal growth and dreams of your children seems a little selfish...This is reflected in Bao when Mama Bao’s attempts to control Baby Bao only results in his decision to move out, with a white girlfriend to boot; a conclusive rejection of his culture. His attempt to leave the family home, after everything Mama Bao had done to raise him, is the final straw for their relationship.
In a climatic struggle to stop him running out the door with a suitcase, Mama Bao eats him.
It is the ultimate destruction of their relationship and Mama Bao cries as she comes to terms with what she has done. The toxicity and inflexibility of parental relationships can result in an unbridgeable distance between parent and child, and this is what Mama Bao’s actions exemplify.
In the next scene, her real son enters the room as she cries on her bed; definitely human but with the same dumpling-shaped head as Baby Bao. It becomes evident that Baby Bao was a curious manifestation of Mama Bao’s relationship with her son, whom she has clearly not been speaking with since he left home (suitcase, white girlfriend and convertible in tow). Mama Bao may not have eaten her real son, but she did kill their relationship. It was the pain and regret from this relationship breakdown that resulted in the sad loneliness she was experiencing at the top of the film before Baby Bao came to life.
Mama Bao and her son eat together and cry together over their favourite snack, the motif of food granting them both forgiveness. In the last scene, the whole family (father and white girlfriend included) cook and prepare dumplings and baos. It is food that brings these characters back together; for nourishment, their growth as people, and their love for each other.
The metaphorical use of food in Bao resonated with me on so many levels. Food and recipes passed down, generation to generation, are a form of cultural knowledge, as important as language or custom. One of my favourite dishes is Ham Choy Kon—a homely meal of pickled mustard greens with pork. It is a distinctly Hakka dish, not fancy, not made with the best cuts of meat, a kind of peasant food. It has taught me about the ingenuity of fermentation, nutrition and survival. It has taught me about resourcefulness and flavouring when ingredients are scarce. Most of all, this dish has taught me so much about who I am. In our food, we find our histories and the knowledge of our ancestors.
Food is specific to its environment. It teaches us what vegetables and spices could grow in what climates, which animals were for food and which for worship, what methods of preserving, fermenting and pickling food were utilised to nourish our bodies, to bring us to where we are right now.
Bao brought me to tears more than once throughout its poignant story. I was astonished at just how much it affected me to see the digitally animated chopsticks, Chinese food, representations of Chinese people with authentic, three-dimensional personalities, and a story that spoke to my heart. There is such potential for this story to bring modern parents and children together into a better understanding of each other—how might my relationship with my mother be different if she and I had watched a short film like Bao together when I was ten years old? Maybe she would have understood my desperation to attend sleepovers or catch the train by myself, maybe I wouldn’t have corrected her English and ridiculed her to my friends. Maybe we would have gotten to where we are now: a supportive, flexible and proud relationship, without all the heartache.
Progress, however giant or incremental, is necessary: while 2018 has been a big year for Asian representation, from Bao to Crazy Rich Asians, these films were developed in the wake of other Asian-led films in previous years, like The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire and Sanjay’s Super Team.
Sanjay’s Super Team is a Pixar short film with a culturally-diverse storyline. Released in 2015, the short explores a young boy’s fascination with the world of superheroes and cartoons, and his father’s frustration and disappointment at his son's lack of interest in Hinduism and prayer. It has the same premise as Bao— the generational gap between parent and child in the context of diaspora — and just as beautifully pulls together Sanjay’s wild imagination of his Super Team and the Hindu gods Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman. What is most touching about this story is the real cartoon drawings of writer and director Sanjay Patel in the closing credits, illustrating his synthesis of Hinduism and superhero cartoons from his childhood.
This synthesis, from Sanjay’s cartoons to Mama Bao’s interracial dumpling cook-up, is what gets so deeply to the root of being part of the diaspora. We must accommodate, compromise and become culturally flexible in order to survive and thrive after migration. Concurrently, we must move through these clashes in culture in a healthy and understanding manner to maintain our ties to family and identity.
Diverse children’s media has the ability to bridge so many cultural gaps between migrant parents and their children. Had this kind of media been accessible during my own childhood, I can only imagine the positive impact on my parental relationships, self-esteem and internalised understandings about race.
Bao’s power as a story lies in giving kids the opportunity to learn and take on new empathetic ways of understanding each other and their different cultural backgrounds. In sharing this media with their parents, they open the door to a whole new world of authentic relating.
Bridget Harilaou is a mixed-race Asian-Australian and social justice activist who writes extensively about politics and race. She has been published in The Guardian, SBS Life, New Matilda and Feminist Writers Festival, and tweets @fightloudly.
Last year almost 80 per cent of the population had its say on the rights of queer Australians. Commonsense ultimately won out and marriage equality was passed; but the dehumanising debate that preceded this victory has been hard to forget. Today, on the first anniversary of the announcement of the result of the controversial 2017 Australian Marriage Postal Survey, Brow Books is proud to publish Going Postal: More than 'Yes' or 'No'.
In 1966, a stranger found my pappous and his brother sprawled out on the road in Hay, a town between Adelaide and Sydney. They were travelling home for my uncle’s birth. They were working in Sydney. Packing bananas, Mum thinks. Her recollection is hazy. She remembers visiting her father in the hospital for months after the accident, her baby brother still new. She remembers hearing of the guilt that clouded her father when, after days of asking after his little brother, his brother’s wife came in yelling. My pappou’s brother had died on the road back in Hay.
Pappou taught his body how to move again. And quickly. He had to work. They were an immigrant family. They didn’t know that compensation for accidents existed. That is, until the court case came. Pappou could not remember who was driving and so the unknown left the insurance agency with questions. An unknown that has loomed over our family ever since.
In a motel room, somewhere between the curved Great Ocean Road between Adelaide and Melbourne, I peel plastic off a fresh tattoo. Mat and I had driven seven hours that day and I had been watching as the ink and plasma bubbled under the plastic medical bandage.
I start peeling in the bathroom. It hurts to slowly rip plastic from skin. I pause incrementally but can’t stop myself from falling prey to the satisfaction of peeling. It’s intoxicating. I murmur and peel and yell and peel and stand in the shower waiting for the steam to help, learning quickly that the steam only helps in washing away the slime when the plastic is half off and flapping.
After, I settle in bed wrapped up in a white towel hard from being bleached. Sleep comes quick and when I wake up, I see the towel is scrunched in the corner of the bed and my arm is stuck to the sheets in a grey ooze. I peel myself up and away from the bed. Mat packs the car as I wet the towel and scrub at the bled ink.
It was Tolstoy who said, ‘all happy families are alike; each traumatized family experiences trauma in its own way’. Or something like that.
Secondary trauma is what you would imagine. When we live together, we experience trauma together so in that, while we are not physically harmed by a loved one being assaulted, we can mourn for them. We can fear with them. We can make changes to our own lives to protect them and ourselves. And so, trauma can move through the generations. Intergenerational trauma happens when, according to psychotherapist Crista Brett, ‘trauma and loss issues are not dealt with actively and mourned’. The family ‘can set the stage for the avoidance of a resolution of a trauma, and the following generations unwittingly continue that avoidance’. Brett says while it is clear trauma can be perpetuated in this way, trauma is exacerbated by family dysfunction. Or, family dysfunction is exacerbated by trauma. Or something like that.
Mount Gambier is five hours out of Adelaide, home to a lake that looks highlighter blue. Mat and I are driving home from Melbourne, and that night, we sleep in a converted prison with thick limestone walls. At dusk, we walk the perimeter of the prison. Walls still high with barbed wire trim. A small sign denotes an unmarked grave near our sleeping quarters. We are silent, reading from plaques that speak of the children who lived in the prison. We learn that prisoners were allowed pets if the prisoners were here for a number of years. Most kept birds that would fly back to them at night. That evening, lying in my single bed parallel to Mat, I think of birds living in this cold limestone place. Birds and children: one unable to fly away.
The next day, we visit Penola, the place where Dad was born, where I have never been before. A young woman brings us coffee at a bakery. She asks what I do, and I say, ‘writer’ and feel like a liar. She says she’d like to do that, ‘but no one would care what a country girl has to say’. I tell her, ‘I would,’ and she laughs in such a sweet way that it replays in my head for days.
I’ve driven through the damp forests of Oregon, down roads that wind through Northern Californian mountains. I’ve stopped by the Columbia River in Winter and pushed my hands into the ice blue stream, feeling the skin over my knuckles go numb and tight. I’ve driven from Adelaide to Melbourne and back again, watching the bugs collect on my windscreen like pressed flowers.
When I’m driving through country, I feel as if my life takes shape. My life shrinks into the simplicity that only a road pointing in one direction promises. It is that allusive sense of desire being fulfilled, even if my desire is only a petrol station toilet. Walt Whitman wrote, ‘O Highway, you express me better than I can express myself’ and in this, I understand him. I read a trucker magazine and think, ‘I could do that. That could be me’. My friends laugh but the thought sits there, appearing closer like the reflection in a rear mirror.
We drive up to Mat’s family farm. I’m not sure if it’s a road trip; an hour out of Adelaide barely counts. But we pack up the car all the same with our pilled scarves and hats. Suzie comes with us, her slim greyhound body fitted tight with her jumper and harness. I’ve never slept at the farm and I look forward to waking up with the light instead of the sound of street sweepers outside my window.
After dinner, Mat and I walk through the slush of the paddocks to see the cows. It’s not bright like the morning of my imagining but dark and quiet. I can barely see my feet through the smog of grey and stay metres behind Mat who walks briskly. Lying together–again–in a single bed that night, Mat tells me only in the country at night he can imagine aliens to be real. ‘It’s something about the quiet out here,’ he says. I nod, knowing exactly what he means.
In the morning, I wake to see the sun at the edges of thick green curtains. Mat calls me down to the rocky paddock: an alpaca baby is being born. I walk through wet weeds and see an alpaca lying. Mat and his brother are hovering nearby. I catch the unnatural blue of latex gloves sticking to fingers. I walk around the alpaca, and behind it I see the baby.
It’s half in, half out. The baby’s head is lying on a towel as it mews. Long ears pointing back. Its front legs are out, covered in goop. I try not to look at how wide the mother has been stretched and how much of the baby is still inside. I clench my stomach. The baby’s eyes are barely open and as we watch, the mum yells and stands and squats and yells until baby’s back legs ooze out of her onto damp dirt.
Trauma feels most at home in silence. In the things not said. It’s strange that silences can pass through generations. Perhaps tradition is as much about absence as performance.
With Mum, the accident had always been a conversation expressed through worry. Using language, she protected herself; she protected me. ‘Don’t drive to Melbourne. Get on a plane’. Pleading, ‘rest and don’t drive at night. Call me when you get there’. Dad was quieter. He inherited a different history, one not of roads but elements. His family had lost everything in a bush fire. He once told me of the way they cut the animals loose as the fire approached. ‘To give them a chance.’
It took years for me to speak back. To say, ‘I will drive but I’ll make stops and won’t drive at night’. I’ll text you, I mouth as the car slides out the driveway and we leave the dog with them.
I tell Mat to pull over as we near Snowtown. We’re driving out to Whyalla for cuttlefish mating season and the winter sun bakes my skin, the air passing through with a comforting touch. A sign points us to ‘The Big Blade’ and we drive towards the thicket of trees, over the railway line, into the town. When we pull up to the blade–a scale model blade of a windfarm mill–I laugh. I had expected a knife, large and comical, perhaps with red eyes like the Giant Koala as tribute to the town’s past. A past where a man once sliced off a piece of his victim’s flesh, fried and ate it, before storing a body in a barrel in the town’s bank.
Disappointed, I take the opportunity to switch places with Mat and drive back onto the long freeway. On the way home a day later, Mat orders a naan bread from the petrol station cum Indian takeaway at Snowtown’s border.
Mum texts me: Are you safe?
I reply: Do you want pickled olives from this roo mettwurst shop?
One Mum told me about her dad—a man of which I have no memory—and how his kidney was destroyed. Burst within him, or something to that effect. Her language was limited; she was four at the time of the accident. When she speaks, her hands slide against one another as if the kidney itself slid against the road.
She remembers his dressing gown, how a patch of blood was soaked into it. How scared she was of him and of the hospital he seemed to live in.
In 2016, I was in an accident. No injuries besides a sore neck and a crumpled yellow car. It happened outside an old Greek woman’s home. So much like my relatives. Strong, tough, but warm and generous. A touch of judgement, too. Once she knew I was Greek, she called me the ‘poor girl’. Mat arrives and she asks if he’s Greek. When he says no, she nods. ‘It’s okay’. I laugh later, knowing that if I was her granddaughter the answer would have been different.
The accident didn’t stop me from driving. Not much would, I’d like to say, but the words can’t quite form. There’s a hidden wariness inside my chest. I know how much damage the road can do.
In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton writes, ‘our imagination [was] so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills, that there was inexhaustible delight in penetrating to the remoter parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, discovering derelict villages with Georgian churches and balustraded house-fronts, exploring slumberous mountain valleys, and coming back, weary but laden with a new harvest of beauty.’
Almost a hundred years ago, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald embarked on a long trip. As legend goes, after she expressed dissatisfaction with her breakfast not being like she was used to, he said to her: ‘I will dress, and we will go downstairs and get in our car. Seating ourselves in the front seat we will drive from here to Montgomery, Alabama, where we will eat biscuits and peaches.’
Yia yia couldn’t drive: high blood pressure meant she was prone to fainting. I remember being pulled along as a kid from bus stop to bus stop. I wonder what she’d think of me, driving from state to state after her husband was thrown from a car and left, almost dead, on the road.
What is the cost of feeling free? Letting mum panic while I drink warm Coke, passing through another town? I’d like to think the trauma stops with me but that would be dishonest. When Mat drove out to the Riverland for work–three hours there and then back—I’d feel the muscles tighten in my gut waiting to hear from him. To know that he was safe.
Maybe love is living with another’s trauma, accommodating it until it becomes a part of you.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Southerly and Island Magazine, amongst others. She tweets @katerina_bry.
A young man becomes the victim of a heinous crime. While out on the town one night, he is dealt a blow to the back of the head by another man’s fist, enters a coma and, days later, dies of his injuries. The young man is a victim of something unspeakable. That an innocent person could be attacked at random and for no apparent reason speaks to some festering wound in the organ of society. The media and social commentators call for swift justice to be sought against his perpetrator, and the morally righteous demand deep institutional changes in society. No one questions the validity of this young man’s experience, nor the suffering of his family and friends. We take at face value the urgent need to address the causes of an act so deplorable, and everyone feels personally affected without insisting upon the details. Alcohol is to blame; lock-out laws are put in place, and police presence in popular nightspots is increased.
I wanted to introduce this review with the premise that it seems like there’s a lot of books set in Tasmania at the moment — but really I can only name two: Wintering, and Di Morrisey’s latest Australian Epic Arcadia. Maybe it’s more that Tassie is in the air, generally. The population of Hobart is growing faster than anywhere else in Australia (just ask anyone who’s tried to rent a house there). Its produce and chefs are being lauded as the best in the country; tourism from Australia and overseas is booming. And it just seems the perfect setting for a dramatic Australian mystery — it’s spectacularly beautiful, with a dark history and a people often regarded as insular and inscrutable. Against this moment, Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, the story of a flaky-but-genius glow worm scientist confronting a monster in an isolated part of south east Tassie, captures one isolated pocket with her typically rich and beautiful prose.