'Flavours of Forgiveness — What Bao tells us about Family', by Bridget Harilaou

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.

OFFICIALLY OUT TODAY: ‘Going Postal: More than 'Yes' or 'No'’

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'.

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'On The Road', by Katerina Bryant

In 1966, 3,242 Australians died on the road.

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.

‘On the Problem of White Men (in a “Postmodern” World)’, by Mark Dean

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.

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‘Not a Tiger at All: A Review of Krissy Kneen’s “Wintering”’, by Madeleine Laing

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.

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‘Luck; Loops and Variations: A Review of Carys Davies' “West”’, by Laura Stortenbeker

Text Publishing

I have been thinking about the word luck and how it is an ugly word to speak. Maybe mostly the feeling is good, but the sound of it is heavy, maybe I feel this because I’ve said it too many times. I like how it looks written down, and of course, when it’s good luck, how it feels. Lucky is an easier and better word, the ‘y’ makes it so.

In a search of my recent digital conversations the word lucky is used, in each, 57, 38, 32, 27 times. Lucky is used with extensive frequency both from and to me, appearing in a deep yellow highlight when searched for: ‘lucky you didn’t drive’, ‘so lucky’, ‘stay lucky’, ‘I feel very lucky’, ‘that’s lucky’, ‘I feel lucky to have – ’, ‘I am v v lucky with – ’, ‘I’m lucky to have – ’, ‘lucky lucky lucky’, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’, ‘I’m lucky to know you’, ‘(I feel lucky)’, ‘(feeling lucky)’, ‘(feeling so lucky) x’.

In these conversations, the idea of luck is most often used as an expression of gratitude, or as an expression of wanting something for someone else, ‘wish me luck’, + ‘good luck’. I want to describe it as a non-religious blessing, good luck, good luck, good luck. In one message, a friend says, ‘sending all my luck to you’. This is an impossible transfer, but is tied into other lucky feelings.

When I think of lucky things, I think of Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Good Luck Orange, I think of a note on my friend’s wall that says ‘You are so lucky, do something with this luck’. I think of early August, when someone sends me a photograph of a series of pressed out four-leaf clovers and how that made me feel lucky, not just because of the symbolism of the clovers, the repetition of their flat forms on my phone screen, but at the gesture, that I am known enough to be thought of, texted, transferred thoughts of good luck. It’s the same feeling as ‘sending all my luck to you’; knowing someone cares for you enough to want to give their own luck away.

If we begin talking about bad luck this will quickly become exhausting, but of course there’s that too. Bad luck is as common as good, feeling unlucky is often followed by the feeling that you’ll never be lucky again: and then the luck loops. The scale of all luck can be huge, can be small, can be barely noticeable, can be a feeling that swallows you with joy, or a sour feeling you must swallow.

When good luck or bad luck happens it feels hot in the body, at least this is how it feels for me. This is only when it’s very good, revelatory, or very bad, crushing; only for significant things. More commonly, and I’m glad for this, most instances of luck are small, everyday intersections, insignificant instances of chance.

The first thing I heard about West, also before reading, was from a friend who said it had been described as being like Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, but funny. I started associating luck with the novel from this point because this conversation made me remember when I felt long-term unlucky earlier in the year I opened my copy of Train Dreams in the middle of the night and found a twenty-dollar note wedged in at the exact page I’d been wanting to reread.

By the time luck is actually mentioned by name in West, we already know that Cy Bellman is setting off to the American west: to find, to discover, to be awed by “mammoth creatures”, and that this is a task, an experience that will of course rely on luck. And of course, we can expect his luck to be both good and bad. We also know that Bellman is a beloved fool, whose actions are forgiven, or at least rationalised because of previous bad luck. His wife has died, well before the events of the book take place. We have luck as the explainer, some bad luck that Bellman couldn’t control and yeah, he’s doing something reckless, but at least everyone knows why. Luck allows reason to be applied to his actions.

Before luck, Davies writes of hope. Bellman tells his neighbour, Elmer Jackson, about the task he’s set himself, “in the hope that I can find my way to what I’m looking for” and then soon after, “but I’m hoping I won’t need to go that far. I’m hoping that if I don’t find what I’m after near the river then they’ll be here, before the mountains.”

If hope is a desire for something good to happen, maybe good luck fits best as getting something you desired but knew you weren’t guaranteed, as a positive when something was likely to be negative, or remaining remarkably well-off when it’s apparent it should have been otherwise.

Early in West, Bellman hires a Native American boy, Old Woman From A Distance, to lead him through the shifting seasons. This transaction is undeniably exploitative, but it is one that represents Bellman’s good luck, it’s obvious his luck would be much worse, much sooner without the guide, and the companionship. The two press on for most of the novel, with landscapes and time and seasons passing in sudden cuts. The beautiful, rapid way Davies writes is simple and grounded, everything sits where it should (I’d forgotten the thrill of what it’s like to see an ugly word perfectly placed in a beautiful sentence and remembering that felt lucky): “and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.”

There’s an incident that takes place in just over a page, where the bad luck of Old Woman From A Distance immediately becomes Bellman’s, and they think they’ve lost all of their supplies in a river. Bellman cannot control his anger, lashes out, shakes the boy. Then, “In the tranquil pool at the bottom of the falls, Bellman’s things floated or twinkled beneath the water. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I suppose we’ve been lucky this time.’”

Most of the time when I think of luck, I’m thinking of it personally, as something that solely belongs to me and doesn’t really affect anyone else. But luck does transfer in that way, or at least overlaps. In fictional worlds, the main character’s luck will influence the luck of almost all others, and the luck of others will transfer to others still. In West, Cy Bellman’s luck is the initial determiner. His bad luck is Elmer Jackson’s good, it’s Bess, Bellman’s daughter’s bad, it’s both for Old Woman From A Distance.

Everyone is lucky until they’re not, and then depending on which character you look at, the luck loops again through good and bad. For some in the space of West, this is endless, for others, there’s an endpoint, which is obviously tied to death. In a fictional world these overlaps of luck propel narrative and allow us to apply levels of empathy to characters, did they deserve this good/bad/ugly/kind outcome, even while knowing that luck is senseless (part of the appeal of believing in something completely out of your own control).

But what about controlling luck? — can you? And — does it still count as luck if you’re attempting to influence it?

I want to talk about Bess, who is ten, eleven, twelve, who stays at home as her father moves farther and farther west. Bess the devoted and precocious child who borders on understanding everything, but who still believes her father is brave and right, who hopes, no, knows he’ll come home. Ultimately Bess is lucky, although like all luck, hers wavers between good, bad, tragic, small, vast.

While awaiting Bellman’s return, Bess looks for signs in nature and the people around her to determine whether her father is safe, well, heading home. If a flower blooms early, if her aunt’s mood in the morning is a particular way:

She did this all the time now — daily, sometimes hourly, and always last thing at night before she went to sleep, marking time by accumulating signs of good luck in her father’s favor.

It’s simple enough to say that to believe in luck is to relinquish control, but what about the ways in which we influence luck, or at least feel like we have small powers over it.

Even as a child, Bess knows that her luck can be manipulated:

On balance, of course, things tended to come out on his side, because Bess always weighted the odds in his favor by setting outcomes she had some power to influence, or at least knew were likely.

She cycles through repetitive thought to control both her own perception of luck and her father’s. The narrator goes on to say, that despite Bess’ awareness of the falsity of this luck, “Still, it was comfort.”

As I move through West I start thinking about how assigning ‘back luck’ to something becomes a cover for horrible things, makes it neat don’t you think, bad luck as the easy explanation. I cared the most about the luck of Bess and the things that happened, and almost happened, to her and again began turning a common thought; is it bad luck or basic fact that predatory men will always align themselves with young people like Bess, and then is it a matter of luck as to whether such insidious advances will land. I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about myself in this because I feel I’ve been relatively ‘lucky’, in that the things that have happened to me, as have happened to many of us, still feel manageable, could have been worse, my luck could have been worse. So, in that sense, luck is just a matter of framing, of limits, of fulfilling a certain capacity between your experiences and what they could have been, what they reached and what they were close to, your own perception of good/bad luck. I like the idea of being able to control the perception post-event, so if luck is indeterminable and unpredictable, at least you can align it differently after. But is that framing a different kind of pressure, one forced upon us after such luck, to take comfort in the possibility that there is always something, someone unluckier, you could be unluckier. Is it good or bad luck to be able to imagine worse things, know that your good luck is someone else’s bad? More loops of good and bad luck. See, that’s the transfer again, I can’t explain it much more.

There is a scene in West where Old Woman From A Distance speaks to the horse he’s walking with, “sometimes, to encourage himself, he laid his mouth against its soft, leaflike ears and whispered, ‘Remember, there are no gods. We have ourselves and nothing else.’”

I often urge myself to remember bad luck during good moods. I think this is to protect myself from feeling too joyful or too out of control.

I remember a phone call last year with someone close to me, them telling me they didn’t believe in luck. I extended the call thirty minutes longer than I’d planned, paced outside the front of my house, knotted my free hand in my hair, had to call someone else after to ask the same question, “but do you really believe in luck?” Asked myself the same thing all night.

There is always bad luck, we’re all lucky until we’re not, then lucky again. Acknowledging luck must come with parameters, decisions, choices, control. Again, it’s a looping thought, whether I believe in it fully or not, me who thinks that if I wear all blue (including my underwear) my day will be a good and lucky one (and like Bess, knowing that’s a controlled luck, knowing that blue doesn’t protect from bad luck). And still even if I believe in this created and controlled form of luck, I don’t dress like that every day; feel like I’d be pushing something, wearing out the trick. But it isn’t just me, I know the rituals of my friends, know the lucky objects they keep close, who keeps something in their pocket or in their car or pressed loosely to their skin.

Throughout West, Davis describes the ways Old Woman From A Distance has tied various items he’s collected, won, earned, throughout the distance travelled, in his hair. Although this could be read as an aesthetic act, his deliberateness, and the protective way he holds on to these items makes me think they symbolise good luck. A man he meets asks him to remove the items so they can create a makeshift map, and before he understands the intention, Old Woman From A Distance is hesitant to give up these objects, the ribbon, the inkwell behind his ear that he sees as a flower, a signifier of good luck.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is, needing to believe in luck, or performing the rituals close to it, is inherently personal. Even while knowing luck truly can’t be influenced or predetermined, even if the belief, the rituals, are only tricks. That loop, wanting to know you’ll have good luck between the bad, is important, regardless of it being based in collected clovers and plastic childhood figurines and pulling at your necklace at the right moment. The repetitions in conversations, good luck, good luck, the overlap, me in my all-blue clothes, “Still, it was comfort”, right?

Laura Stortenbeker is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and Overland.

Excerpt: ‘Consuming Homonyms for Desirable Traits’, by Nancy Lee

I could never really pin down why I cared about food, or why I felt like I needed a reason. So when I first read Anthony Bourdain’s account of eating his first oyster, an experience which completely blew his mind as a young boy, it was like having an epiphany with him. “It tasted of seawater… of brine and flesh… and somehow… of the future. Everything was different now. Everything… Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight, and impress. It had the power to please me, and others. This was valuable information.”

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“‘Oh Look, a Ferry’; or The Smell of Paper Books”, by Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires

‘I’ll drown my book’
The Tempest, William Shakespeare

PART A: Salt Spring Island

Crossing the strait between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island in June 2017 following the annual Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) conference, the two authors of this article, both researchers in contemporary publishing studies, fell into a conversation with a stranger.

‘What I really love,’ the woman said, ‘is the smell of books.’
‘Oh look, a ferry,’ one of us replied.

This diplomatic non-sequitur has since become something of a catchphrase in our research.

PART B: The Smell of Books

The smell of books, or bibliosmia, is a cipher. It is a popular shorthand for a nostalgic attachment to print books that invokes a (possibly imagined) olfactory memory. As with all forms of nostalgia, an expression of love for the smell of books usually involves looking backwards to how things used to be, and a desire to return to that state. It’s a bittersweet longing to preserve an older way; in this case, an older way of interacting with books. The idea of the smell of books comes up quite often in media articles about the rise/decline of print books/ebooks. A thoughtful example is a 2016 article in the Huffington Post, titled ‘Why I Still Love Printed Books’. The author, Lev Raphael, lists a number of reasons for his preference for print over ebooks, concluding with the immersive sensory experience offered by print objects: ‘I love the smell and weight and feel of a book.’

Googling ‘the smell of books’, though, doesn’t take you straight to such pieces of cultural journalism. The smell of books has become its own commodifiable property—a trope that can be invoked to badge oneself as a book lover. There are discussion boards about the smell of books on Goodreads and LibraryThing, human interest pieces about the science of book smell on websites, and reams of merchandise, mostly perfumed, including candles, eau de toilette, and an aerosol with which to spray an ereader. Such merchandise represents a commitment to the objectness of the book and its status as quirky, personal and material rather than digital. Expressing fondness for the smell of books, either in words or through purchasing decisions, is a performance of bookishness.

PART C: Anecdotes

Rather than accepting, critiquing, or deconstructing this mode of engagement with book culture, our research proposes a non-traditional, arts-informed response. Following experimentations with a series of book festival card and board games in ‘Serious Fun: Gaming the Book Festival’, we are pursuing creative, playful and material forms of exploring and re-directing discussions about print books amongst academia, industry and members of the public.

Is the comment ‘Oh look, a ferry’ really unrelated to the smell of books? No. Because ferries turn out to be linked to print books in all sorts of ways. Ferries can, we argue, be seen as metaphors.

We have explored this idea through a YouTube channel, featuring two short films of things getting on and off of ferries.

Are the things getting on and off ferries—lorries laden with logs, cars carrying commuters—metaphors for books, which are also material objects that do the work of conveying? At a meta level, our contemplative, meditative videos are acts of digital communication that reference practical tasks, logistics and material challenges. The thoughts prompted by a metaphorical consideration of ferries and books lead to more extended engagements, in which we also explore how ferries are literally relevant to book objects; ferries and books are both inside and outside each other. Books may be transported or read on ferries, and other aquatic vessels. Books are also published about boats. Books meet watery deaths.

i) Books Afloat

Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy had a library on the Beagle during their round-the-world voyage. Cruise liners would have ship’s libraries, in times of old. The QE2, for example, had over 6000 volumes on board, as commemorated by an Isle of Man postage stamp. We have ourselves pleasingly arranged books along the shelf of a tightly packed canal boat; or turned to an ereader when baggage weight was a concern. But when things go bad at sea, reading on the waves takes a turn. Raging storms, an overbearing ship’s captain, even a mutiny. In our childhood reading, the Lost Boys are threatened by Captain Hook with walking the plank while Wendy watches aghast, lashed to the mast; Billy Bones tells ‘dreadful stories’ of plank walking and storms at sea in Treasure Island; and the Swallows and Amazons make their ‘Captain Flint’ walk the plank, in piratical homage.

Books fall in the water. Pages swim in the sea. An electric charge bolts through the ocean. The tide waxes and wanes with the moon.

ii) 21st Century Seamanship

Some visiting speakers come to talk to students learning about publishing. They work for the nation’s oldest publisher, producing guides for the marine industry. They don’t have the glamour of trade publishers with their stories of launch parties and canapés. Instead they speak of precision and regulation, the importance of editorial control and house style, literally a life-and-death matter at sea. Their titles use laminate pages, fold flat with spiral binding, have maps which open out across the ship’s bridge. They show us a manual which details berthing for commercial ports around the world (how to park your boat, for the non-specialist). It’s also available as an ebook. (This is definitely not a stupid product.) They tell us about unauthorised copies of their content circulating on the web, and take-down notices served to an amenable Russian pirate.

At the end of the session they give out branded pens and mints. One of us gets the cardboard box in which the goodies were stored. It advertises a new title, 21st Century Seamanship.

Later, the box turns into a boat, with a whisky bottle box for its funnel. The cat gets into the box. She dreams of mince and slices of quince.

iii) It’s Like Drowning Kittens

We’re on a trip. The life cycle of book production. First, we’re at a printer. Books roll off the presses: school textbooks, novels, political biographies, picture books. Gilted covers, special effects. Digital presses, the smell of glue and the guillotine. Hope and aspiration in the hundreds of thousands.

Goods in. Despatch.

Next we go to the book distribution warehouse. Carefully stacked and stocked, metres high, forklift trucks finding the right pallet, moving and shipping it out to bookshops around the country. Slow-moving books, gathering dust. Overstock.

Out the back in the yard, we’re shown a container of books, surplus to requirements. ‘What will happen to them?’ someone asks.

The warehouse manager shakes his head. ‘Pulping,’ he says.

‘Oh no!’ she replies. ‘It’s like drowning kittens.’

A publisher liquidates. Its books are pulped. Dead books, dead Kindles.

(Freight Books was the publisher of, among other titles, 101 Uses of a Dead Kindle).

PART D: Ferry Pyjamas

In happier times, everyone likes curling up with a good book. Or lying with it on the beach, sun tan cream and sand smearing its pages. Or maybe in the bath, steam rising, curling the pages. This intimacy is precious. But also potentially dangerous. To reader and to book.

We have built upon these thoughts, experiences and reflections to develop some experiments with Bookish Boats, and Boat(ish) Books. In our first extended attempt to consider ‘Oh Look a Ferry’ and its relationship to books and reading, we wondered: what might it be like to curl up in bed with a good book and some ferry pyjamas? So we took the following steps:

  1. An internet search for ferry fabric.
  2. We were not satisfied with the results.
  3. Next, realising we could get custom-digital printed fabric, we decided to self-publish.
  4. Using our favourite ferry picture - the Stornoway boat coming into Ullapool - we manipulated it using a web picture editor.
  5. We uploaded some of the images to a digital fabric printer.
  6. We waited for the samples.
  7. The samples came through the post.
  8. We elicited opinion face-to-face and via social media about the best design.
  9. Members of our focus groups requested ferry pyjamas.
  10. We ordered some more samples.
  11. The new samples came through the post.
  12. We ordered fabric.
  13. To be continued.

This experiment is, as yet, only partially actualised. The sewing machine awaits.

PART E: Do Books Float?

Our most thorough experiment on books, boats and materiality had two aims: to expand material experiences of the book (beyond holding or smelling it), and to investigate how it feels to destroy a book in a playful and aesthetically pleasing way. We developed the following method:

  1. Rip pages from book.
  2. Fold a page (into origami shapes if desired) and place in water (first tub of water, then nearby fishpond). Assess if page floats or sinks.
  3. Place an unfolded page from book in water. Assess if page floats or sinks.
  4. Place the rest of the book itself in water. Assess if book floats or sinks.

Before this method could be followed, materials needed to be assembled. The most important step was choosing a book. A large number of books that we own were eliminated from consideration, because they were needed for other purposes (for example, reading). We roamed the corridors of our workplaces and asked our colleagues for discarded books. However, many of these were contemporary novels and poetry. We decided not to publicly destroy a living author’s work. A colleague suggested we might also want to stay away from any holy book.

As a last resort, we examined our own office shelves. One of us had an old copy of Moby Dick, which instantly felt like the right book object for the experiment. It is an old edition (circa late 1990s) and the print is tiny, blurry and nearly unreadable. In fact—confession—this particular book is unread. One of us prefers ebooks for long, classic books that are unwieldy to hold and usually aren’t nicely typeset. (Note that neither of us was prepared to sacrifice a Kindle for this experiment). Besides these practical considerations, the experiment was about water, and Moby Dick is about whales and boats and unrealistic expectations. Having chosen the book, the steps outlined in the method were carried out.

The experiment yielded several key findings. First was our experience of shock on destroying a book. This, we imagine, is how the woman on the ferry might have felt if she tore a page out of a classic novel. There is a reverence surrounding the book object, particularly for those (like ourselves) who were brought up in the aspirational middle-class. As academics in publishing studies, we can critique this reverence, but it is still part of us. Desecrating books for the purposes of art and scholarship—drowning them, even just annotating them—requires confidence born from the possession of significant cultural capital. Acceptable middlebrow ways of handling the material object of the book sit within defined limits (holding, smelling, collecting, arranging, alphabeticising) and extending this set of physical practices challenges deeply-felt cultural norms. A second finding concerned the effect on the fish. As a bystander observed, fish are very sensitive to changes in their environment, including the addition of chemicals. This produced a moment of anxiety about research ethics. As it transpired, the fish were fine. However we were prompted to consider unexpected dimensions of the materiality of books—the chemicals in paper and glue.

Finally, we were struck by the prettiness of this experiment. Cutting up and folding book pages creates beautiful physical objects. Flicking through pages underwater feels lovely, especially when surrounded by the warm scented air of an Australian summer. The cover of the book stood up like a sail as the book slowly sank. The wet book was satisfyingly heavy. Handling the book object in this way was meditative and rewarding. As a result of this experiment, we are resolved anew not to dismiss lovers of the print book, but rather to continue exploring different aspects of the book’s materiality.

PART F: Concluding Reflections Towards a Manifesto for Book Cultures Research

We have an abiding interest in the epistemology of book culture—how best to understand and gain knowledge about the circulation of books in contemporary society, in ways that move beyond case studies and empirical data. Our make-and-do experiments are not designed to produce merchandise for Etsy stores or the Literary Gift Company; rather, we aim to create opportunities and prompts for thinking about the materiality of books.

Our research manifesto, which is still in development, is a way for us to set out some guiding principles. Two of its eleven principles are ‘Materiality’ and ‘Oh Look, A Ferry’.

Here, we’ve explained how those ideas intersect to generate new ways of looking at, touching, and perhaps even smelling books. Bon voyage.

Dr Beth Driscoll is Senior Lecturer in Publishing and Communications and Program Coordinator for the Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project, “New Tastemakers and Australia’s Post-Digital Literary Culture”.

Professor Claire Squires is the Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Her publications include Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (2007) and, with Padmini Ray Murray, The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit (2013). She is a judge for the Saltire Society Publisher of the Year Award, and, in 2015, a recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.

‘Uneasy Habits: A Review of Fiona Wright’s “The World Was Whole”’, by Alexandra Hollis

In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed talks about spaces as being “like a second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body”. Becoming at home in a place, she writes, is:

…a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others. Loving one’s home is not about being fixed into place, but rather it is about becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body, saturating the space with bodily matter: home as overflowing and flowing over.

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Excerpt: ‘A Conversation with Leslie Jamison’, by Madelaine Lucas

Leslie Jamison is the author of a novel The Gin Closet, the essay collection The Empathy Exams, and, most recently, The Recovering, a hybrid memoir that questions and considers the stories we tell when we talk about drinking and sobriety: in recovery circles, in literature, and in the myths that conflate artistic genius with damage, and in the punitive rhetoric that has surrounded addiction in America tracing back to the Prohibition era. Here, genre is elastic. The personal is political, Jamison knows, because every individual life is shaped by larger social and cultural forces. She allows these influences to intersect in textual forms: memories exist alongside literary biography, journalistic reportage alongside critical analysis.

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‘Fuck you, Australia: a review of Ouyang Yu’s “Billy Sing”’, by Terri Ann Quan Sing

In the barest sense, Ouyang Yu’s fifth novel is a fictionalized biography of celebrated World War I ANZAC sniper William Edward ‘Billy’ Sing — an Australian-born Eurasian of Chinese and British parentage. These basic details have led many reviewers to celebrate the novel for all the wrong reasons; as if it were simply a history, a cog in the machinations of Australian nationalist ANZAC memorialization, or self-congratulatory multiculturalism (which Yu has called elsewhere “malticulturalism” pointing to its frequent malfunction).

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