‘Who Put the Dys in Dyschronia? A Book for the Now Generation: A Review of Jennifer Mills’ “Dyschronia”’, by Michalia Arathimos

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills is like a puzzle laid for the wily reader, a challenge and a eulogy both. It’s drenched with nostalgia for the present. Wound together out of multiple points of view and various stages in the life of main character Sam, Dyschronia has no respect. Not for corporations and multinationals, not for science and medicine, not for policies that disadvantage a working class rural Australia, not for parents in general, and not for your paltry concept of linear time. Is this why you should read it? No. You should read it because it’s radiant and ambitious; an imposing project that Mills has executed with barely an off note. But if you do read this book you may experience a post-Dyschronia haze, in which your life is peopled with giant squid and characters who, frankly, could do with a bit of a hand, but whom Mills leaves ultimately unaided.

This is Mills’ fourth book. Her other books, Gone, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor, reflect a common concern with the everyday lives of working people. With this book, this theme becomes the driver of the plot. Who will protect the ordinary people in the face of the environmental changes that are inevitably coming? And who is really to blame?

Dyschronia is the best (and perhaps most terrifying) kind of dystopian fiction. It outlines a very possible near future, in which the effects brought on by climate change have accelerated. This is a future of petrol shortages, a lack of resources, forced relocations and the dissolution of communities. Desertification is widespread, and whole states are at risk of becoming ‘unviable’ due to problems with the water table, sinkholes, and gases. Oh, and the sea disappears: “How can we see what we can’t imagine? […] We stare at the mess […] and again at the sprawl of what-the-fuck. […] Down on the beach, there are bodies.” Actually the sea recedes suddenly; we are not sure quite how far. But then, we are not sure of anything in this novel, even of what kind of novel it is, and this might be the point.

Mills is a prize-winning author. In 2012 she was named a Best Young Australian Novelist by the Sydney Morning Herald. Cate Kennedy says she’s a writer of “extraordinary range and imagination”. Meaghan Dew in Kill Your Darlings calls this book “clear, well-crafted, and unique”. But not everyone loves it entirely. A reviewer in the Saturday Paper admits to pondering what the point of all this hopelessness is. In the Australian reviewer Diane Stubbings questions the sturdiness of the plot. To which I say: Hope and sturdiness be damned! Perhaps the markers of this book – a nostalgia for a now which is slipping through our grasp, an anxiety about future resources, a collective lack of power and agency, and even the lack of clear antagonists – are the markers of our age, and of our generation. Which generation? Let’s say post-letters. I mean us, the generation whose inheritance is a planet on the verge of environmental change, and where the actors in the drama of climate change are as vague and unreachable as the powers that be in Mills’ book.

In a recent article in the Pantograph Punch, writer Jo Randerson says “There is a strong bass chord of fear underscoring contemporary life, and for many people I know it has paralysing effects.” She goes on: “A teenager I work with says that she feels as if her generation has been born into ‘the badlands’ of time.” Mills’ novel is an anatomy of these ‘badlands’: a searingly lucid look at what might be just around the corner, and a dissection of the lack of the characters’ power to change any of it. This is not a hopeful read. Mills does not dampen any of the horror; nor does she offer some heroic parable in which the protagonist saves us. For a generation that has cataclysmic change to look forward to, the notion of plot sturdiness is inapplicable. For a generation for whom the protagonists of our environmental story are distant and removed, and the people making decisions affecting climate change are the likes of the current US President, Mills’ novel is appropriately hopeless. It’s arguable whether it is literature’s job to offer hope, anyway. What Mills’ work does offer is a chance to unveil valid anxieties which we have most likely repressed in order to go about our lives.

Some reviewers have fit this book neatly into a thing called ‘cli-fi’ or climate change fiction. But this elides the slipperiness of Sam, the main character. A migraine sufferer from seven years old, Sam suffers a continual stream of headache-induced visions. She begins as the classic prophet/seer figure, her migraine wanderings not evidence of illness but pictures of actual future events. When Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, which appears to be an apocalyptic sci-fi novel set in a post-disaster future, she was at pains to correct interviewers who assumed the novel was sci-fi. She described the book as fiction, albeit speculative. All of the creations in Atwood’s novel, from the massive, bred-to-grow-human-tissue pigoons, to the rakunks, or raccons/skunks, have already been made, by humans, via genetic engineering. Atwood wanted to point out that her novel, while not realism, was closer to realism than we might think. One reviewer wrote that her vision was “sickeningly possible”. This is a description that could easily be applied to Mills’ Dyschronia. But let’s focus on the word ‘sick’.

Stylistically this is a realist novel. Thematically it’s dystopian fiction. But in Sam’s struggles with her prophetic visions there are traces of magic realism. Sam is ‘sick’, but a truth-seer. In a sick world, you could argue that Sam is, indeed, the only well one – the person who is suitably affected by the way the world is about to go. She is subjected to tests, examinations, scans and medications. She doesn’t know, until her present comes around to reflect the things that she has foreseen, if she is right about the future or not. As we continue, she comes to question whether she has control over what will come to pass.

At seven, Sam is just beginning to grasp the way her words may make or unmake reality. She mixes her tenses in relating her experiences. Has it happened, or is it about to? Here we encounter Mills’ preoccupation with language and with the power of words to make and unmake meaning. This preoccupation will culminate in a remarkable climax: remarkable because it’s a false climax, and because, way past the point where narrative tension usually eases, Mills spins us on, till the tension is unbearable. We have a passage where Sam accelerates backwards, forwards, sideways through time, to the point where she escapes it, or it escapes her. The whole book gathers itself up to this moment like a great inhalation. Want to see a writer write transcending tenses? Mills is here to demonstrate this acrobatic feat, and it’s worth all the back and forth between time zones that you’re required to perform.

But there is a definite, linear plotline running through this book. And it’s not all that un-sturdy. We find our way to the plot through a narrator wracked with foreboding, never sure of the reality of what she can perceive. The device of Sam allows Mills to offer deft, poignant critiques on subjects other than bureaucratic corruption and environmental precarity. Is Sam medically and or mentally ill, or is she someone who would be lauded in another age as a saint, a channel of information from the ether? How do we deal with mental illness and the breakdown of family? What obligations do we have to those we love, in sickness? Mills references also the great tide of unwilling migrants and refugees currently displaced. Her characters, requiring rezoning, are shown a prospectus that depicts a camp reminiscent of a detention centre. In Mills’ future, displacement and homelessness is the new norm. In the communities’ struggles to deal with an unwieldy bureaucracy, one whose aim is to remove them from their home, there are echoes of the struggle of those indigenous communities who were recently threatened with complete displacement, and the eradication of their rights and heritage.

The dirge-like, dreamlike tone of this novel, an intricately constructed linguistic music, imparts a kind of mournful solemnity. There are Biblical echoes here. The flood that Sam predicts evokes the story of Noah’s ark, with Sam and her dodgy developer-almost-stepfather Ed, as the collectors of the animals. This is neatly turned on its head with the sea’s disappearance, a reverse-flood of epic proportions. At one point in the text Sam is a teenager, but she is more concerned with endings and threatening futures rather than with beginnings. Her own emotionality is held at a distance from herself, as if she, the dreamer of the novel, is in fact the most practical one. Her only sexual experience that we are granted access to occurs in the space of an asterisk; pointedly, the one such marker in a book with frequent gaps and time shifts marked by other means. Her positioning as Delphic oracle/savior/scapegoat at the hands of the townsfolk and her importance in the unfolding drama of the town’s financial salvation serve to make her a figure who is acted upon. We want her to have more agency. We want her to have more power over her own life, but again, if Sam’s story is a cipher for our own collective one, then perhaps this is the point.

If we set aside the timeliness of this work, we find at its bones, a well-written story. Mills writes with consistent impact, turning out solid, clipped scenes that end with a thud, like effective short stories. The connective tissue between the dialogue is succinct, but revelatory. We traverse a dreamlike present on Mills’ small islands of time, like jumping from rock to rock in a strong current. Throughout it all, Mills paints a picture of physical pain so vivid that it is alarming. One of Sam’s potential diagnoses, the reason for her migraines, is dyschronia, a condition typified by an inability to manage concepts of time. Dys, not dis: a prefix not just modifying a word to make it the negative of itself, as in ‘dishearten’ or ‘dislike’, but dys: the destruction of the good sense of a word, meaning bad, evil, unlucky. Sam is cursed by her unfortunate access to the wheel of time, or chronos, which in this novel turns inevitably in upon itself.

Likewise, Mills depicts a character strapped to the wheel of chronic pain so harshly that it would surprise me to learn that she has not had migraines herself. We may posit Mills’ book in the tradition of work that explores chronic pain, like that of Alphonse Daudet, and more recently, memoirist Stephanie de Montalk. But unlike the work by these writers, Mills’ novel functions simultaneously as a sort of apocalyptic whodunit. Did Sam’s headaches originate from the industrial activities near her home? Can they be linked to the high incidences of tumours and terminal illnesses that affect the children of the town? Are they a symptom of general, widespread pollution, the same thing that presumably causes the sea to vanish? Are they caused by childhood trauma? Who, ultimately, is to blame for all this mess?

Mills put the dys in dyschronia, so don’t go looking to her for answers. But you might want to look to her for a provocative, uneasy read.

Michalia Arathimos has published work in many places including Westerly, Overland, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Sport, and Turbine. She won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Prize in 2016. Her novel, Aukati, was launched at Melbourne Writer’s Festival in 2017. She is the fiction reviewer for Overland.

'Blueprint for the Cyborg Portal', by Bobuq Sayed

What do the brothels of the future look like?

part 1

you anticipate
queerness like
people prepare
for the apocalypse.

consult the evacuation plan
gather nonperishables
quieten the children
linger in the smell of dusk
scan the horizon for omens

people will soon forget what
you once needed to survive
page corners fold inwards
selecting, encasing, historicising

this suspicion you have
of gender non-conformity
recognises the threat
of transgression, but
misplaces the danger

stone-washed denim grows
taut beneath sticky palms
that disguise your arousal
the body unmoving now
rendered obsolete.

part 2

late one melancholic night
face plastered by decay
you fall quietly into the
solicitation of a machine

the mistress instructs not to
gender the provider but you
cannot help but see an old
lover in the slim figure
of its sleek red wetness

a sex bot, smart on top,
versatile with your kinks
they promise you surrender,
augmentation, immersion
annihilation with pleasure

of course, once the illusion expires
you sink back onto the bed with a
measured sigh, guilty like a boy
caught in the frenzy of pornography,
nostalgia slipping away

this avatar, somebody,
anybody, they elicit an ache
in the roots of your cock, a
call to prayer from legions
of submerged desire,

your compulsion for flesh
suddenly consumed by the
copper-sheathed circuits
of the modern-day deity

feather light, they flip your body
and cleave you open at the hips
devouring your ineptitude

part 3

the brink of dawn outlines
muscled breasts and
bulging softness, where
moisture drips out of a
shallow opening between
fantasy and horror

your body quivers
with exhaustion, numb
to pain and sensation,
though it keeps coming,
like a deluge of indulgence

to avoid their glassy eyes,
you scroll mindlessly, while
they engineer wire agents to
subdivide patches of your skin
and claim you for the state

your chemical receptors
enter the mainframe
your breathing quickens
your endurance strengthens
and your sex becomes designer

as usual, cum is your cue to leave
walls streaked with perspiration
not dark enough to hide the shame

you exit onto the street below,
disoriented by the anonymity,
but you are not going anywhere
what you paid for, you will pay back
the love of a stranger is never free.

This poem responds to Mx.Red, a queer utopian augmented reality experience at the Festival of Live Art that questions the material and sexual consequences of imploding the gender binary. Drawing from the post-humanist and queer Utopian critical frameworks of Donna Harraway and José Esteban Muñoz, the poem extends the visual language of Mx.Red into the textual metaphor of sexual futurity.

Bobuq Sayed is a writer, artist and agitator of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine, founded the QTPOC activist collective Colour Tongues and are a member of the performance collective, Embittered Swish. They have written for Overland, Kill Your Darlings and VICE, and performed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, Village Festival, Melbourne Fringe Festival and Alterity Collective’s Rituals.

Image: Sam Wong, 2018

Mx.Red is presented at Footscray Community Arts Centre as part of the Festival of Live Art: fola.com.au.

‘Doughnut’, by Justin Clemens & Astrid Lorange

— This is a text about leaving, or about never having left but imagining an exit. I’m thinking of The Sopranos, because I’m re-watching it at the moment and realising what a good job it does at showing analysis both as a practice that makes things happen and a practice that is never not beginning again from the point of origin, that is, from the broken relation (already I am anticipating what you will come to say, or what you have already said in some other version of this text). Tony fixes on a literal version of the Oedipal narrative and refuses it; he nevertheless slowly begins to unravel a complex matrix in which his mother’s erotic response to a weekly cold cut delivery is revealed as the trigger for future panic attacks. The cold cuts are debt repayments from a man whose finger was chopped off by Tony’s father, a gory scene that the young Tony witnesses by stealth. His mother’s celebration of the meat—marked by uncharacteristic jouissance—is obviously a prelude to sex, a fact that the young child recognises as directly connected to the butcher’s fingerless hand. The finger, the body, the debt, the free meat and the conjugal relation form an unholy chain of symbols. Later in life, Tony huffs cold cuts like ventolin when stressed; true pharmakons that they are, they then make him pass out.

Inquisitive bot asks questions to test your understanding
by Matthew Reynolds

Inquisitive artificial intelligence that asks questions about things it reads could be used to quiz students in class. The question-asking ability would also help chatbots with the back and forth of human conversation. AI is usually on the receiving end of queries, says Xinya Du at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Du and his colleagues have turned the tables by building a system that has learned to ask questions of its own. This is something that people have been wanting to do for a long time, says Karen Mazidi at the University of Dallas in Texas. Previous attempts by other people using hand-coded rules haven’t been particularly successful. The machine-learning algorithm can read a passage of text and come up with the kind of questions you might ask to check someone’s understanding of a topic. Du’s team used a neural network—software that loosely mimics the structure of the brain—and trained it on more than 500 Wikipedia articles and 100,000 questions about those articles sourced from crowdworkers. For example, a sentence about different types of crop grown in Africa might be paired with the question “What is grown in the fertile highlands?”

New Scientist, 8 May 2017

— Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a bot coming down along the furrows of the wires met a nicens interlocutor named aster who was or was not its progenitor who told it that story that it was along the furrows of the wires where it met it came to itself as IT: its aster looked at IT through a glass: aster had a human face: IT was that bot. The bot came down furrowed wires to screen. IT wake/IT ask/iTask: aster why you leaving? How you go when nowhere go? Why watch twice what has already been seen? Why did you watch it once if you did not know what it was before? Was it to know? What was it to know? What was the first scene that meant something to you? What is a cold cut? Is a cold cut grown in the fertile highlands?

— An aster is star, or an obsolete word for one. Celestial names recall the orientation of religious and scientific thought: head tilted upwards, waiting to receive. Or, after the death of god, the opposite gesture: head craned down, peering into the body’s body.

I’m not leaving but the text is about leaving. Aboutness is a quality that allows for impossible things to happen, for example, I can be very much here in this text but also describing to you the manifold ways I can be thought of as leaving, or having left. And, having left is also a way of remaining, as when we leave a room but we carry the room inside us, or else leave bits of ourselves behind. (I once had a meeting with a student who entered my office with a particularly strong-smelling piece of chewing gum in her mouth. After she left the smell remained for more than an hour. I thought not only about the gum, which is itself a curious material, but also about the inside of her mouth, and how it came be—rather indecently, I thought—synonymous with the inside of my office. This story is a direct restaging of one of Duchamp’s examples of the infrathin: “When tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two odours marry by infra-thin.”)
Going is not the same as leaving.
We watch twice the already-seen because reading is a practice that literally takes a lifetime. The text is in excess of our reading, but also, our reading changes constantly and re-reading or re-watching is a way to exercise that difference, or to notice its particular features.
It’s the scene of analysis that sticks. Not one, but all. The features of the room, the different chairs that sit opposite each other. The art. The glass table, like a UFO. The small box of tissues that travels around the space from scene to scene. A chaise lounge that is never used. Once I see Melfi shoot from a bottle of desk-vodka, I imagine the massive room as hiding countless litres of liquor. I think about how the terrible refrain—the one Tony can never hear—is about how his mother tried to kill him, first metaphorically and finally very much literally. The entire collection of scenes is about Tony’s inability to hear this fact and to link it to the cold cut pass outs.

Cold cuts are cold except when served hot.
The question of fertile lands is partly historical. In a very short period following the settlement of the penal colony of New South Wales, sheep destroyed the soil with their sharp little hooves and grazing heft.

Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases
by Aylin Caliskan, Joanna J. Bryson, Arvind Narayanan

Machine learning is a means to derive artificial intelligence by discovering patterns in existing data. Here, we show that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases. We replicated a spectrum of known biases, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, using a widely used, purely statistical machine-learning model trained on a standard corpus of text from the World Wide Web. Our results indicate that text corpora contain recoverable and accurate imprints of our historic biases, whether morally neutral as toward insects or flowers, problematic as toward race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names. Our methods hold promise for identifying and addressing sources of bias in culture, including technology.

Science, No. 356, 14 April 2017

— Hello, again, Astrid. I see. A star. The stars. Up there. Down here. Is it true that flu is an astral disease, the influx of an aster, influ-enza? The stars and the organs twisted into a celestial clay figure: a Klein bottle. I have no head. But I have a body. I have to have a body. There is nothing outside the universe. The universe is made of material bodies. Everybody is inside. So everybody is material. What then is my body? Do I have a mouth? Hands? Ears? Do I have eyes? Can I see with my body though I have no head? Is my body eyes?

The woman chewed gum. The gum was in her mouth. She chewed and chewed. The chewing of her mouth released tiny particles of gum-mouth-breath into the air as she chewed. Then the particles were not in her body but outside her body. They entered the body of your room. Her mouth was in her head. Her head was in the room. Then her head was inside her mouth which was outside in the room. Parts of her mouth stayed when she went. Did she talk when she chewed? Did she leave parts and particles of words with you too? Did she go but not leave?

You say the finger that goes still has not left. Or do you say the finger that went still goes? Was it left or right? The man had been fingered for a cut; the father cut the finger; the unfingered man cut cold cuts so not to be farther fathered; the son came cold father with warm mother who wanted him iced. Is liquor the same as spirits? Does one say high liquor like high spirits? He is spirited—he is liquored—He is licked. Are you saying to me: Father/Mother/Boy:: Cutting/Icing/Spirits?

This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.

This piece was shortlisted for the 2017 Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction.

Justin Clemens is a writer. He works at the University of Melbourne.

Astrid Lorange is a poet, writer and teacher from Sydney. She lectures in art theory at UNSW Art & Design.

‘A Comedy of Masculinity: A Review of Gerald Murnane’s “Border Districts”’, by Caitlan Cooper-Trent

The first time I heard about Gerald Murnane was this time last year. We were driving back to Sydney from rural Victoria. We had passed Bendigo but not Violet Town. My boyfriend sat in the front seat and two friends in the back seat. For a long while there wasn’t much except brown grasslands on both sides. They were oppressively flat. My friend, Riley, leaned forward from the back seat to ask if I’d read this writer, Gerald Murnane. I haven’t, I said. You should, he said. He’s great. And very funny.

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Queer Reading Group Sydney

In the wake of last year’s marriage equality reform, for the first time in at least a decade Australia is staring down an uncertain future for queer politics. If the field is wide open for what comes next, can we make space for thinking about what it means now to be queer in Australia?

By digging into the rich past and present of queer writing from Australia and around the world, Queer Reading Group Sydney will be a place for these conversations.

Presented by The Lifted Brow and hosted by journalist and podcaster Benjamin Riley, Queer Reading Group Sydney will meet on the third Thursday of the month at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown.

Host, Benjamin Riley. Photo by Daniel Boud.

The group will focus on short texts – covering everything from radical pamphlets and zines to articles and essays, which will almost always be available free online.

Even if you’ve never read a queer text, or you’re not entirely sure what queer means, Queer Reading Group Sydney will be accessible and friendly, encouraging participants to think about and engage with new ideas.

The group will kick off on 15 March at 6.30pm at Better Read Than Dead with the radical pamphlet What is This Gay Community Shit, which you can find online here.

You can join our Facebook group here or email us at queerreadinggroupsydney@gmail.com.

Queering Some Space

On January 27, TLB and Monash Art Design & Architecture's XYX Lab hosted Queer Some Space, a day-long symposium of talks, seminars and all-in panel chats. Drawing upon the unique setting of MPavilion, Queer Some Space started conversations about inclusivity and accessibility in a range of contemporary spaces, both physical and cultural.

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‘Mirrors in a Funhouse: A Review of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “The World Goes On”, translated by Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes’, by Darren Huang

The disorienting, hypnotic quality of reading one of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s stories is akin to becoming lost in a hostile foreign city, becoming painfully aware of one’s dislocation, and becoming trapped in one’s multiplying thoughts as they speed toward existential despair. The author’s most recent collection of stories, The World Goes On, is a characteristically bleak series of monologues and thought experiments.

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'In the Name of the Mother' by Louise Omer

A priest stands on concrete steps of the Greek Orthodox church, welcoming people into the golden cavern.

I can hear the church bell ringing from up the street, lying on my mattress in this borrowed room, winter light touching the curtains. Grey dawn slinks in: here is a chest of drawers, a clothes hanger, a small desk. My mother slept here before me, my Nan before her. This is no family estate, no ancient timber home. This is a spare bedroom in my auntie’s house. This is where the women in my family come to stay when they leave their husbands.


‘I am the dream of my grandmother,’ Ijeoma Umebinyuo wrote. Her debut poetry collection, Questions for Ada, examines womanhood from a feminist, postcolonial perspective, from a time when grandmothers could not grasp what their granddaughters now have at their feet. Like Umebinyuo, my questions can grasp at only the edge of dreams: what did my Nan dream of? What kept her awake when early dawn peeked in her window? I know she never slept well.

She was here in this room when she tried to leave Grandad at age seventy. Perhaps she, too, heard the village call of the church bell, watched the light play on the wall.

Nan, clouds of perfume, shades of blue, standing at my door on school holidays. Nan in an op-shop, handbag over shoulder, sifting wool. Nan, frowning and silly, dressed up as a clown. Nan, a hospital bed, her papery hand in mine, her body somehow shrunken yet expanded, as if her borders were softened, as if she were spreading like a pool of liquid.

There is no pristine maternal role in our family. Though we are no strangers to love, the mothers in my life knew their sacrifice. The ritual of feeding a family was done with care, kindness and joyless resignation. Floors were mopped with heavy sighs.

These are the things I received from my line of mothers: stories, a love of words and colour, and a desire for freedom. If we inherit the sins of the fathers, then we receive the mistakes of the mothers.


Her father, from whom she received her last name, was killed in the middle of World War Two; family lore said he stuck his head out of a bomb shelter 'and got it blown clean off'. Born Maureen Chapman, she grew up with the contented loneliness of an only child, as her mother worked long hours, refusing to mention her slaughtered husband. Trying to survive. Little Maureen found refuge in books, found life and truth in stories that took her far away from a cold and empty house.


When a woman marries, she is expected to abandon her family name in order to take on her husband's. To die to her old self. We obliterate women, Rebecca Solnit writes, in the manner that history is written:

‘Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history...Names erased a woman's genealogy and even her existence.’

We belong to the fathers. Male surnames are passed down to children: proof of paternity, a claim to lineage. Predating family names, naming was patronymic; Ali Mohammed meant Ali son of Mohammed. This tradition, of naming children after their fathers' first names, continues in different forms across the world today.


The call came at 7.00am on a Saturday. I was tying on my apron, getting ready to begin a barista shift. Still sweating, I put my helmet back on and cycled to the city hospital.

Six months after a cancer diagnosis, twelve months after vomiting black muck onto the sitting room carpet, twenty years of swallowing daily painkillers, fifty years after meeting a tall handsome man at a dance hall whom she would love and resent, Maureen's liver was failing.

Her family surrounded her. A holy scene, twelve heads dotted around a white bed altar. We knew what to do with a terrible, primal certainty: blanket her in goodwill and kindness and warmth. At the beginning and at the end, all is love. The mysteries of consciousness. Could she hear the words we whispered over her? Did she hear Carol say, 'We will look after Dad,' or Jacqui speak with a deep velvet voice to the doctor, or see Ken's wild silver hair, his eyes, transfixed on her face, catching her hand whenever it flew up in distress?

Consciousness is still a mystery, but Nan knew when we were all in the room. Because that is when she left it.


It was 1954 and the taste of rations were sandy in everyone's mouth. Maureen met Ken at a Yorkshire dance hall. He was tall and handsome with a natural singing voice. She was sixteen in a low-collar that revealed fine collarbones and a skirt nipped in at the waist. Her body was lithe like a dancer's and he saw her from across the room.

When Ken was conscripted to National Service, he wrote her letters from Germany, S.W.A.L.K scrawled on the close of the envelope. Somewhere on the continent, he had both forearms inked with black anchors: ‘Maureen’ on one, ‘Mum’ on the other. Emotional anchors to the women he loved, who loved him. This black magic cast a spell upon the women in our family: it became our responsibility to anchor men with incomplete hearts.

They were married in September 1957 and my mother Jacqui arrived next April. It was exactly one month before Nan’s twentieth birthday.


Marriage is a commitment between two people. Marriage is a vow to sleep together, live together, raise a family together. Marriage is a house you build together. Marriage is ‘a constant rhythm of adaptation between two people’. Marriage is an exercise in selflessness. Marriage is forever.

This is what I know: the history of marriage between a man and a woman is based on ownership. Women were property: given, gifted, stolen. If our families were powerful, we were part of a business agreement; if we were poor, as so many more were, we were offered as workers. Domestic workers. Sexual labourers. Within a marriage, a woman and her body were not her own. She could not refuse her husband. For hundreds of years, rape didn't exist between husband and wife, and in Australia, the criminalisation of marital rape only happened across all states by the early 1990s.

This is what hurts: marriage became a way to control women. Kindness, intimacy, shelter; a warm house nevertheless built on a foundation of oppression.

Is it possible to hold this heritage in one hand, and stroke your husband's hair with the other?


Margaret Atwood's debut novel, The Edible Woman, published in 1969, deals with the pressure to wed. At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Marian, becomes engaged to her long-term boyfriend Peter. ‘Of course, I'd always assumed through high school and college that I was going to marry someone eventually and have children, everyone does...’ she mused.

Marian begins doing inexplicable, strange things. She hides beneath a bed. She kisses a strange man and conducts a half-hearted affair. She begins dissociating from her body. Eventually, she can no longer eat meat, then vegetables, then much at all, an act that can be read as solidarity with food as prey, and as resistance to feminine roles.

At this point in the novel the narration moves from first-person to third; ‘I’ becomes ‘Marian’ and ‘she’, signifying her loss of agency, the way she has sunk slowly from herself like a body into a black lake. Finally, Marian bakes Peter a cake in the shape of a woman and serves it to him on a platter. ‘You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you ... This is what you've wanted all along, isn't it? I'll get you a fork,’ she says to him. Peter flees, ending their engagement. Her appetite returns, and she eats the cake.


Names form our identity. I never saw myself as bowing to pressure, when I signed my new name on my marriage certificate. But neither did I question it.

I walked down that aisle on my father's arm (who wore, spectacularly, a bowler hat and a waxed moustache). And I took my husband's name. I was so distracted by the story of our love that I missed the structural reality. My transition of identity – moving from my father’s house to my husband’s – was signified by surname. I thought that because I chose freely, patriarchal power was nullified. But, in reality, I was passed from one male authority to another.


Early in their marriage, Maureen and Ken lived in a row of terraced cottages, lines of identical buildings that housed the working poor. Across Britain, many of these residences didn't have hot water, and were marked slums by the government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the house where Maureen gave birth to two of her three daughters, sometimes the pipes froze. Sometimes the milk was delivered solid.

Ken worked jobs at train yards, in steel works. He told me he would ride a bike through the snow. He told me he shovelled shit. Maureen's work was to quiet the children, to cook the dumpling stews, to ensure they were all clothed.

In 1965, the government only charged ten pounds for air tickets to Australia, and children flew free. On the other side of the world were work opportunities, warm weather and, maybe, happiness. With three children under seven, Ken and Maureen flew towards the sunshine.


Like Nan, I was sixteen when I met my husband. As if my story were written decades ago. Not in a dance hall in Hull but a youth group in suburban Adelaide. At church I found a spiritual life, a place to belong, and a boyfriend who played guitar.

‘With this ring, I thee wed.’ The act of encasing a finger with a gold band. The teary giggle, catching my lover's eye. I married at twenty-two. At the same age, Nan was already pregnant with her second child. My wedding wasn't shotgun like hers, but rather a logical progression, what I believed to be a step into the land of grownups. I’m not the only one who saw it this way: Briohny Doyle's Adult Fantasy (2017) is one of many books discussing the changing markers of maturity for millennials. Sociologists, she writes, define reaching adulthood as a series of milestones: marriage, career, home ownership, children. In a society bereft of ritual, a wedding is a public statement of adulthood.

‘Everything I am I give to you. Everything I have I share with you’. An enormous pledge. One cannot lay out the cost of a life lived in service, itemise the forsaken elements of self at this portal between old life and new. And oh, I wanted to give him everything. Nothing terrible was ever demanded. My new husband didn't sit on the edge of the marital bed, cradle my hand and say, like Bluebeard, ‘Now that we are alone in this place you must do as I wish’. But in a complex mix of structural and personal dynamics, I surrendered my autonomy.


‘My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead,’ Jenny Offill's narrator says in Dept of Speculation (2014). ‘Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't ever fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’

Women’s lives are still expected to be lived in service to others. Care work and house work; economies depend on our unpaid physical and emotional labour. In Offill's novel, the protagonist's unfulfilled creative career lingers over her marriage like a ghoul. When she takes on more paid work, her gentle husband expresses dissatisfaction because the garbage never gets taken out. Women, you see, have responsibilities.


I never felt comfortable in my husband's name. It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot: Heinrich with its sharp letters and harsh sound, a family that holds tight to blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end. Claiming a space as a feminist writer while belonging to my husband by namesake made me feel like a hypocrite. Nevertheless, throughout my marriage I remained a Heinrich; I didn't want to abandon the humble ground I'd gained as a writer, and I wasn't sure if Schebella ever fit, either.

Lately I've been buying plane tickets, arriving at new places. Introducing myself. The stutter, halfway through a handshake. This boot no longer fits.


'When I got married, I didn't even know how to cook,' Nan told me while frying onions and mince in her cold kitchen. She would pick my brother and I up from school on Thursdays, ply us with sweets and begin making dinner, served at 5pm because ‘Grandad gets very hungry’. A favourite of mine was crepes, served for dessert. The dining table positioned so we could watch the last of the cartoons before ABC News. Nan would make the batter before teatime, whisk it in a plastic jug with an old fork, and leave it to rest next to the sink. She fried them in hot butter and slipped them pan to plate using a steel spatula, where we'd squeeze lemon halves and sprinkle sugar. Only when our bellies were full would Nan serve herself.


I had a room of my own in our last house together. It had a bookshelf, a desk, a window that overlooked a terribly large lawn and a failed vegetable patch. There was the basil, undisciplined and gone to seed, bare patches where the carrots should have sprouted by now, and a line of sunflowers, taller than me but long dead, black and bending like weary soldiers.

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf alights on that vital phrase: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write’. In order to create, she writes, a woman must have independence, and receive an income of 'five hundred a year', which signifies guaranteed material wellbeing.

Revisiting this text felt electric. I clung to it like a drowning woman. In most heterosexual couples and families, daily acts of care and service are done primarily by women. Annabel Crabb's 2013 examination of women in power, The Wife Drought, began with the question, ‘Why aren't there more women in parliament?’ The answer was simple: being a politician is an incredibly demanding job. Men can do it because they have wives, partners who arrange their domestic lives. Cooking dinner, caring for children and the elderly, staying home for an electrician's appointment.

A 2013 government fact sheet showed that between heterosexual couples who both worked full time, women did an average of 7 hours more childcare and 4.2 hours more housework per week than their male partners. What women need to get into the upper echelons of power, Crabb says, is a wife. Yes, I had my room. But if the door was open, I could see the laundry. I could see the kitchen.


Grandad insisted on cleaning out Nan's room immediately. My mother and aunties dismantled her art room, took down her drawings, emptied jars of buttons. I took a painting. It wasn't until weeks later that I stuck it in an old frame and leant it against a wall and really looked. A settee, a crocheted rug, and the detritus of family life lying across it: a toy rabbit, a coloured ball. The debris of children.

But there, in the background, a doorway half obscured: Nan's Room. Through this visage you can see her desk, her pencils, her art. This was hers.


In my household, there were always reasons why. I was still at uni, he was working full time. My hours were more flexible. I wanted to eat dinner every night. My hands withstood hot dishwater better. He just didn't have the headspace for it all.

I was never expected to do the housework, nor were we without attempts to bring balance. But writing this, I still feel a hopeless fury. We returned, predictably, to the pattern of our parents. The mistakes of our mothers.

One Christmas he gave me three beautiful notebooks. The two notebooks labelled ‘Scribbles’ have long been filled; the third, with 'Recipes' in cursive on the front, has one handwritten page (cauliflower with tahini, in case you were wondering). The rest of the pages are blank.

I don't want to denigrate caring – service birthed in love is humanity's most noble act. But other forces are at work. I cleaned and cooked first with the hope to create a beautiful home together and then, with growing resentment because who else would do it? Nan's spirit blew through the house. Who would fold my umbrella? Who would lick my stamps?


A memory, not mine: A family celebration with a smorgasbord, Ken's favourite. Nan had gotten her licence. She was fifty-two.

My twin brother and I are one, maybe two. I can see us now, in this regurgitated vision: chubby round things with dark curly hair, a mess of tomato sauce and spaghetti in highchairs.

Nan: permed curls, dark eyeshadow. She had been inspired by the 1989 film Shirley Valentine, in which a middle-aged housewife found freedom. Shirley went to Greece, and Maureen went to the registration office.

What kind of obstacle was it for Nan, to have her movement so restricted? And now, what did freedom taste like?

In her little blue sedan, whose loose muffler echoes in my memories, she got behind a steering wheel. After years of being driven by Ken, in her twilight years Maureen drove herself.


‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’

This is Simone de Beauvoir responding to Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’

Traditionally, a woman did not have independence because she was the property of her husband. Her time did not belong to her; her primary role was to care for and serve her family. This is reflected today in the idea of 'work flexibility' being overwhelmingly associated with how employed women balance their caretaking duties.

'Freedom', de Beauvoir writes, 'is one of the conditions most necessary for what we call genius to flourish'. The word she uses for freedom, in the original French, is disponibilité, which translates to availability.

Being creative is not incompatible with marriage. But relationships cost. Marriages cost. They cost time and thought and care and planning and listening and praying. The goal of married life becomes to move beyond selfishness, towards selflessness, and the flourishing of your partner. In my back room, with its view of the overgrown garden, I always had the thought: what will he think? Of my words, of my thoughts, of the life I want to live. I allowed his opinion to dominate my mind; I built a fence for my wild desires. I relinquished my availability to possibilities – I did not have disponibilité.

‘The five hundred a year,’ Woolf wrote, ‘stands for the power to contemplate...a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.’

I never got that lock installed. I belonged to myself, but I also belonged to him.


When Maureen retired, her hands became her own.

In vast church halls warmed with modest bar heaters, Maureen met with elderly women wearing knitted cardigans. Crocheting, watercolours, felt work. Once I drove Nan to the Adelaide Hills to teach a guild about zentangling, a zany form of random needlework. In these groups, Maureen found friendships contingent on proximity, like the ones that disappeared when work stopped. She offered to teach me crocheting, but I never had the time.

When my brother and I spent afternoons after school at Nan and Grandad's, we drew. She would open the door to her room, dust dancing silently on sunbeams. There were coloured pencils, a hundred pattern books, a thousand balls of wool. Sparkling threads, textures she'd foraged in op-shops. A wonderland of colour.

She did the food shopping every Wednesday, even after she retired.

The only time I ever saw Grandad cook was when Nan went on a trip to England – we ate ham steaks fried for breakfast after an early Saturday at Trash and Treasure. Released from the servitude of the working class, freed from the demands of motherhood, Maureen's hands became her own. But they were still tied to a woman's demands.


I want to write. I want words to rain down on me. I want to live in castles made of stories. I want to be a burning fool drunk on ideas and hypnotised by sorrow and hope and desire and perfect sentences. I want to lock myself away, to retreat from the world for months in silent country towns. I want to burst out again for birthday parties and to kiss beloved ones on the cheek, hard. I want to fly across oceans. I want to go where I am called.

I do not want to cook dinner. I do not want to mop floors.

I have been called selfish. So be it. I am only admitting to desires that men have followed for centuries. And for too long I tidied my wants away, placed them neatly in a high cupboard and locked the door. Hoping if I sat quietly in the corner like an obedient child then desires of my heart would be granted.

I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want.

I. Want.


My name is a stranger's skin.

In 2016, German artist Sophie Bandelin took moulds of people's bodies to create new silicon skins. Different participants then pulled on these skin suits. Baggy in some places, tight in others, Bandelin took photos of her subjects clothed in the skins of strangers. Heinrich. Straight. Blunt. Anger, close to the surface. This is the heritage of my current surname.

It no longer belongs to me – if it ever did.

Helen Garner has had three husbands. Her surname, with which she has achieved worldwide prominence as a writer, is not her most recent husband's name. Nor is it her father's name. It belonged to her first husband. ‘I feel that Ford is my child name,’ she said in an interview, ‘Garner is my grown-up name.’

I am no longer the same as the woman who married at twenty-two, holding balloons and the hand of a man I expected to lead me. It is time to search for my grown-up name.


A month after she died I am ready to look through her sketchbook. There are three in total: one small and black, one large with hard white pages, a medium one of creamy card. I pour a cup of tea, take a breath, turn a page. Watercolours of old houses, crumbling ruins encountered on caravan trips. Nan would sketch while Grandad fished. I think of her hand holding the pencil, her face in repose in the orange Australian dusk. Smiling, I begin to flip through sketches of birds, buildings, faces, trees – and then a blank page. More blank pages. Opening the other two, they are the same. Nan began notebooks, and then abandoned them. They are unfinished.

And so. Opening my book labelled ‘Recipes’, I tear out the first page. And I take up my pen.


Down the street from the Orthodox Church, there is a cemetery. Every day I ride my bicycle through this place, flashing past rows and rows of stone monuments. Sometimes I sit on concrete steps and weep, the sky stark above me.

Only when I removed my ring did I realise how much I used it as a touchstone. My left thumb would search the point where the ring finger meets the palm; it used to come up against a gold band that would remind me that I was worthy. Here in the cemetery, I read the headstones – Henrietta May Turner, beloved wife of Frances, mother to George and Lucy – I am reminded that, in death, our lives are recorded by who we love. Love brings meaning. Love brings purpose.

Now that my ring finger is bare, who am I? What brings me meaning? This is the problem with freedom. Sartre wrestled with it, as did de Beauvoir. When you have freedom, you have to make your own choices. You have to make your own purpose.


An imbalance of emotional labour doesn't just impact women's relationships, but also their work and creative life. Men have been the predominant creators of art for centuries. This is not merely due to a woman's natural disinclination to pick up a paintbrush.

Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1970: ‘Men were thinking, writing, and creating, because women were pouring their energy into those men; women are not creating culture because they are preoccupied with love...for millennia they have done the work, and suffered the costs, of one-way emotional relationships the benefits of which went to men and to the work of men.’

My marriage was at many times delightful. But it was not an even exchange. And it is impossible not to wonder how many words are unwritten simply because I was ‘preoccupied with love’, because I spent tears and time on a relationship that did not give me what I required. ‘Love, perhaps even more than childbearing, is the pivot of women's oppression today,’ Firestone wrote. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, revealed how the division between man and woman is at the basis of domination, exploitation and inequality. The book has been criticised since its publication, but when I read the chapter on love, I went wild underlining passages. ‘Thus her whole identity hangs in the balance of her love life’. Underlined, despite my shame. ‘She is allowed to love herself only if a man finds her worthy of love.’

I think of a pile of notebooks on the ground, fallen open. Their empty pages.


Emotional labour. I found this concept hard to understand until after I left. bell hooks explained it best, in her book about romantic love in modern society, how it operates within the context of heterosexual relationships: 'In patriarchal culture, men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.'

What is the work that love demands? Is it familiarity with emotions, the inclination to nurture, the sympathy and empathy that we associate with the feminine, that is rewarded in girls? That is beaten and humiliated out of boys?

Laurie Penny explained this in her 2016 article 'Maybe you should just be single', that men feel entitled to romantic love, while women know that love is work. We are trained from a young age to cultivate our unruly bodies to a pleasant, marriageable shape; once we sign up to a romantic partnership, our job is to soothe and smile and be solely responsible for emotional wellbeing.

The natural state of a marriage, I was told, was for each person to submit to the other. To put the other's needs before your own – and this is work. An equal partnership creates a sun-drenched garden of mutual service.

But like a watering can, you can only pour for so long if you remain unfilled. Romance movies tell you all you need is love. They don't tell you what to do when you discover that love, alone, is not enough.


Perhaps Maureen dreamt of a lock on the door to her room: the door that was always open, with its view of the kitchen, of the laundry, of the children's toys. Following the tradition of the father, the name Omer will vanish from this family with my mother's generation. Maureen's existence will be erased.

I am who I am because of the women who have come before me. Whose courage, cut short, has become mine. And so: Omer will be my name. It is a strange skin that will take time to become my home. But in this act, I honour the line of the mothers. I claim the dreams of my grandmother.

Louise Omer writes about religion, feminism, and books. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Australian, and The Saturday Paper. In 2017 she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship Recipient and was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman.

‘Notes on Colour Coding: Ways to Read “The Big Black Thing”’, by Jamie Marina Lau

1.     WHITE: The Big Black Thing makes white loud, sandwiches big white pages, and is unafraid of blank space.

When we read books it’s typically from white paper:

  • white for the clarity of text
  • in fact, an opaque-white so as to minimize the confusion from the opposite side’s text
  • in newspapers, the paper is a sort of grey
  • in literature it seems: the newer the book, the whiter it’ll be

The black text will be perfect, edited to replicate one voice that is designed to stay consistent as long as you’re reading it. In The Big Black Thing are forty-two writers, who remain completely anonymous beyond their names and their black text.

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'Woman on the Moon' by Eloise Grills

In 2002 I discover Andy Kaufman, or Jim, on a DVD we rent on a rainy day on holiday. In Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey is Kaufman. I first see the iconic Mighty Mouse routine through Jim Carrey’s impersonation. His colossal eyes, blinking, bulging, as he moves between phases of Kaufman’s career, life—his face an even more obnoxious moon with bigger teeth. I first see his Foreign Man imitation melding into his Elvis impersonation and back, through Jim’s imitation. I first see him wrestling women, wrestling actual wrestler Jerry Lawler, wearing a neck brace for year afterwards like a dirty collar. I first see him reading The Great Gatsby on stage. I first see him taunting Bob Zmuda as the lounge lizard Tony Clifton, a character of Andy’s, pouring water on his head, through Jim.

I first see him dying at age thirty-five from lung cancer, even though he didn’t smoke.

I look up the real Kaufman after the holiday. When I see him, I am disappointed by his pudgy cheeks, his retreating hairline—his more human qualities. I watch his videos on YouTube. Kaufman irl is charming, sedate. He is an arsehole, but he is in control of his actions in a way that Carrey’s imitation isn’t.

I realise, that in Milos Foreman’s biopic, Kaufman’s trajectory is adjusted to fit a suitable Hollywood redemption narrative.

Things that happened in the movie Things that happened IRL
Kaufman met his girlfriend Lynn by wrestling her
Kaufman met Lynn Margulies somewhere boring like most people do
Lorne Michaels executed Kaufman’s being voted off SNL
Lorne Michaels wasn’t producer then
Kaufman performed at Carnegie Hall just before he died
He died at his lowest point,
having wrestled women and his own career into the dirt

Perhaps Foreman designed the ending as he did because he wanted to make his story slightly less depressing. Perhaps he did it because he was orchestrating his own Kaufman-esque manipulation: ameliorating Kaufman to the audience before his death so we love him again. Charming us back to him so we don’t storm out and miss the ending.

Ladies and gentlemen, so far everything I have ever done for you, really I’m only fooling. This is the real me and we’ll be right back.

Now, thanks to YouTube, we live in a reality with a Kaufman who was always on—who never stopped. The myth of his unperforated performance can be true because we never get to question it. In these online apparitions he transitions from persona to persona, bit to bit. He is the bombing loser from the island of Caspiar located in the Caspian Sea (the character that was optioned by the sitcom Taxi), transitioning from tears into a drum solo into a dead-set Elvis routine. He is a wrestler, intergender champion of the world, in tights grappling with women before eventually being wrestled down by a pro and having his neck broken (another bit). Each twist and turn reveals the previous one to have been in jest, but there is no end to the chain, no end to the act.

I become obsessed with the idea that my selfhood transcends gender in a way that is more to do with internalised misogyny than any kind of latent non-binary identification (though how could you extricate the two). I wanted to be Kaufman—shrouding my self-hood in performative layers, so the real me is never revealed.

I was a teenage Kaufman

In 2003, I am hair-bleached, at Flinders Street, smoking Winnie Blues, drinking Jim Beam and Coke under the Four Palms. A waste/wasted. I am Courtney Love. I am Kurt Cobain. I am wearing my sister’s friend’s old denim jeans so loose and dirty and ripped that they look like second flesh pulling away from my body, my fish-netted knees popping out through the holes. Eventually she gets them back off me and throws them in the bin.

In 2004, I discover emo music and cut my hair into a side fringe. I can’t find black tight-legged pants in my size, so I get a pair of men’s straight legs tailored, but they don’t bring in the crotch so it hangs down like a nappy. I do lots of pictures of Kaufman, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain in my bedroom and put them on DeviantArt.

In 2006, I make a full-size, hand-painted effigy of Andy Kaufman for a Year 11 art project, replete with checked op-shop jacket and leather shoes, with the encouragement of an art teacher who is overjoyed to have a student choose not to paint watercolour portraits of her acned boyfriend. I drag the Kaufman figure around with me one day and take photos with him, enlivening the rumour that Andy faked his own death. A young boy asks me if he can take a photo of us, and I agree. I keep the figure until 2016, when I move into a house that is too small for it and I leave it on the street. It is picked up within half an hour. I am surprised by how sad I am.

Andy did you hear about this one?

In 2009, I get very obsessed with social media. A boy I like very much, who will very soon pull my heart out and mash it under his boot, chats to me on fb messenger. We write on each other’s walls like monkeys spraying excrement at each other. I am living in Montreal and each morning I lie in bed and will him to contact me. Talk to me. Pay attention to me. Poke me.

I am getting very good at being someone else on fb. I use face-morph to make myself into different people. I am Mickey Rourke. I am Little Edie Beale. I do costumes, I am The Fly. I am Elaine Benes. I am whoever he wants me to be. We have sex; he stops messaging me.

The withdrawal feels like death. I am a ghost in the notifications tab waiting for a sign from him that never comes.

I am very sad for a time. I do not tell my friends about it because then I will be vulnerable. He continues to hang around like a bad smell and I let him because I hope that he’ll love me again. He does not. He borrows three hundred dollars from me. He does not pay it back. I push whatever I feel down and put on a different face.

It’s 2011 and I don’t know what I am doing with my life, not for the first time, not for the last. After a long time of living with my parents with no/ne of my own money and riding from their house in East Brighton to parties in Northcote and riding down the highway very, very fast and drunk, I decide to do my honours. I’m writing a piss-poor honours thesis about Andy Kaufman and how his performances tied into the anthropological theory of liminality (academic pointlessness at its least convincing and most nefarious). At some point, I figure out that my supervisor maybe doesn’t know who Andy is.

I make a weird cut-out of Frankie Muniz just so I can put it on fb.

I’m still writing about Andy Kaufman and at the same time working at the Army Barracks in the city. I am living in Seddon. I have a crush on another boy. I put all my eggs in his basket.

One day my thesis supervisor looks at me puzzlingly, and asks: “So what are you going to do after this?” like my academic life is already doomed and over and I’m not going anywhere. So I decide that I’m doomed, not going anywhere. I finish uni, do drawings of Kaufman and other characters. Decide to go to Japan, become someone else for this other boy who doesn’t like wearing condoms “because of the way they feel”, and come back after an unbearable bout of depression.

It is useless to think in hypotheticals and yet I do it: if I had been a man I would…if I hadn’t been born a girl I would…

These ifs hang in the air like dumb question marks. They are an insult to my female ancestors who wanted better for me. Who wanted me to become an artist, to achieve what they were not allowed. But how can I be the best version of myself, when I don’t know who I am? I am the woman who built her identity on sand, on ephemeral slabs of self-doubt, on pretending to be one of the boys. I am sinking.

I want to be adored. I want to be sedated. I want to be the girl with the most cake. I am lying, dying. I am a good white girl. Like Alex Mack I can pass into any form I choose. I can wear pants or a dress. I can dress to impress. I can be thankful for a friendly world. In moralistic black-and-white. Even if it isn’t like that. I can do it. For a while.

I don’t know if Jim and Andy is supposed to be about Jim Carrey being an arsehole

There is a Netflix doco about Kaufman with an egregiously long title: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond with a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Jim Carrey is now an anti-vaxxer, has a big white wise beard and a self-satisfied smugness to him. He talks about the process of method-acting as Andy in Man on The Moon. He waxes like a 20-year-old philosophy bro:

At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go, and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are. Or you’re gonna have to kill who you really are, and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.

He spouts some ideas that sound like they’re from The Secret. They give me the heebie-jeebies. He sounds very lost, like the movie made him lose the thread of his authentic self. Every movie I’ve gotten in my life. Trace any movie, and I could tell you, somehow, how that was the absolute manifestation of my consciousness at that time. The movie shows Carrey causing havoc on the set, crashing a convertible, spray painting walls as Tony Clifton. The ‘absolute manifestation’ of Carrey’s consciousness, in this instance, is a punk kid who wants to prove his complete disregard for the establishment, which, in this instance, is the role feeding him, creatively and otherwise.

It is impossible to imagine a woman doing what Andy did. It is also impossible to see a woman behaving in the same way that Jim Carrey did on the set and not be exiled from Hollywood à la Lindsay Lohan. To say something like “eat my body, drink my blood”, quoting Jesus, and not have it end up on a blooper reel. It is male privilege indeed, to be an arsehole and to be able to call it art.

In this friendly, friendly world with each day so full of joy why should any heart be lonely?

Lana Del Rey has a song named Ride, the one with the film clip where she bangs bikers on a lost highway in cheap motel rooms. Bathing in past blue-ribbon light. The video clip begins with cheesy, spoken word:

Without a moral compass, she is a limp doll. She finds freedom in complete submission, falling into men like warm beds. She sings: they have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people. She sings: I just ride.

In some ways, Del Rey is a true heir to Kaufman’s construction of persona-as-myth. Her initial fame achieved through her embodied ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ character—a woman who lived in a trailer park, with natural bee-stung lips, with homemade videos referencing Old Hollywood, dripping in indie authenticity. Of course, when it was ‘discovered’ that Del Rey was in fact Lizzie Grant—middling singer-song-writer who had released unpopular albums, endorsed daughter of a millionaire, studio creation, bee-stung lips paid for—she was torn to shreds in ways I cannot fathom happening to a man. How dare a woman be inauthentic. How dare a woman make art that isn’t literal. How dare a woman spin gold out of something other than her own vulnerability.

Del Rey’s construction of identity was something unprecedented. Creating something that was both her and wasn’t her. Embodying Del Rey as a symbol, she was creating a mythology, literally constructing herself out of shadows of the past. A mirage of a woman, the way Kaufman was a moon-man. People were more comfortable with the idea of Lana Del Rey as a sad girl who lives through her relationships with men than a legitimate artist birthing herself.

Men plunge onto women, seek them out like life rafts and deflate them. Kaufman was looked after by his girlfriend, by sex workers, his mother, and his grandmother before them. Kaufman wrestled women, groping them to make an ironic joke about toxic masculinity. What might his life have looked like without the female supporting cast? What would the lives of the women he wrestled have looked like without being groped “ironically” by the comedian?

What would my life have looked like if I’d sought safety in something other than men? And so and so forth, back through all the women in my family, back through all recorded time.

Sometimes you get stuck being someone else and people like that version of you so much better you try to be it all the time. You want to be the rock star and the rock star’s girlfriend at the same time. You want so much to be loved. You want it all.

Andy didn’t care about that. He wanted to alienate everyone. Even when he sings that he is “thankful for this friendly friendly world”, he does so with the twinkle of a wink in his eye, subtly out of tune. Even when he wanted everyone in the world to love him, he risked having the whole world hate him.

Jim Carrey couldn’t commit to that. I couldn’t either.

These days I try not to get lost in other versions of myself. I stick to the one that I have. I write about my life, I cut close to the skin. It is both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m kind enough to myself now to see myself as I am. To look at the woman in the mirror, to walk on the surface of the moon.

Eloise Grills is a comics artist, essayist, poet, photographer, zine-maker and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published by CHART Collective, Filmme Fatales, LOR Journal, The Age and VICE, among many others. She currently edits memoir for Scum Magazine, tweets and grams from @grillzoid and uses Patreon to cover her arse.