'Sweat and Strings: A Response to "English Baroque with Circa"' by Caitlin McGregor

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

Photo by Hugh Letheren. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

   i. the court

A week or so after I see the English Baroque with Circa show, I bump into a friend I haven’t seen for years. She has a circus background, and when I tell her about the show she promises to send me some thoughts and articles. She does, and I read. I read about the history of circus in Australia; tensions between it and animal-rights activists; the ways socio-political issues intersect with its history, practice and consumption. I find out the first time a seal wheel had been used in an Australian circus performance was in the English Baroque show. I find out there is no such thing as a seal wheel. I misheard the audio: the big hoop is called a Cyr wheel.

New information keeps spreading across my desk and tabs and mind. I’m reminded of Janet Malcolm’s analogy in The Silent Woman of writing being like cleaning out a house:

Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his [sic] own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart.

I’m not new to writing, but I am new to writing about performance. I am new to criticism. I am at a loss as to how—or whether—to trust my own judgement about what I should be noticing, what I should be keeping. ‘There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in,’ writes Malcolm. ‘There is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.’

There is also the danger of inadvertently revealing something uncomfortable about yourself as you go (Marie Kondo: ‘We become so accustomed to living in our space that it is difficult to see it objectively’). What I remember, what I write—what I choose to keep—says more about me than it does about what I’m looking at.


I am watching the livestream of an appeal at the Supreme Court of Victoria. I could, instead, read the court reporters’ summaries after the hearing is finished, which would be a lot more time efficient, but I can’t switch the livestream off. I feel invested in the outcome—I need to see every tedious courtroom exchange for myself.

The Crown’s case rests largely on the argument that the complainant, at the original trial, had been a compelling one: they were believable and should therefore be believed. Much of the debate is about how heavily a jury’s verdict should be weighed when considering evidence for an appeal. This is a question about authority of judgement—who has it, and to what degree. It is also, given a jury’s opportunity to witness live evidence, a question about body language and the reading of it, about who sees what when they look at something.

‘We never look at just one thing,’ writes John Berger in Ways of Seeing, ‘we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.’ I spend hours closely watching the judges’ faces, listening to their voices, noting the inflections in their questions and building my own theories about what is going on in their heads. But I know I’m not trying to work out any objective measure of truth, or to even predict the trial’s outcome. I’m not that kind of judge.


English Baroque with Circa is the third collaboration between the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Brisbane-based contemporary circus company, Circa. The first was French Baroque with Circa, in 2015, and then in 2017 they collaborated on Spanish Baroque. In each, the orchestra shares the stage with the Circa artists, who perform acts choreographed specifically for the Baroque pieces played by the musicians.

The English Baroque show is split into four main scenes: The Court, The Chapel, The Bedroom, and The Fairground. The orchestra plays a pasticcio of period music from the English Baroque, including pieces composed by Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel and Arcangelo Corelli, on period instruments that include the theorbo (a plucked string instrument that resembles a lute, designed to complement the sound of the human voice) and gut-string violins.

I was unaware of most of these details until I picked up a brochure on my way out of the show. There was a lot about Baroque music and circus I didn’t know while I was watching the show—now, afterwards, I remain oblivious to the majority of it.

Here is my memory of the opening: the haze clears, the houselights go down. I focus on what I can see. Large statues covered in sheets are being carried onto stage. Each is placed on a square block and, one by one, the sheets are pulled off to reveal a living human body. The bodies start to move and dance.

   ii: the chapel

Mum and I sit up in the wings to the left of the stage. The performances begin, and I am determined to watch the Baroque musicians at least as much as I watch the Circa artists. I lean over a wall to make sure every musician is in my line of sight. I am looking for strings.


A chapel facilitates a more inward-pulling experience of faith than a church or a cathedral; they are smaller, more private. This is not the official or technical difference, but, to me, it’s the one that sticks.

When I was in Year 7, the chapel at my high school’s senior campus was refurbished. I only know this because my dad was the school principal, and, while waiting for him to take me home, I found myself in the chapel listening to a group of adults talking through the plans. Removal of the carpet. Extension of the raised floor. Dark-red paint on the back wall to accentuate the tessellated tiles. Later that year, I walked into the renovated chapel with my dad, who had just lost a friend. He prayed and grieved and I sat on a chair against the wall, a little away from him but quietly sharing the space. I don’t believe in any kind of god anymore, but the closest I’ve come to any sense of spirituality are in moments like those: when spaces seem to be infused with something more than the sum of their parts. The cynic (/recovering ex-Catholic) in me is always looking for the hows and whys of this feeling. Don’t forget the raised floor. Look at the architecture of the altar. See the way the windows have been designed so that the light drifts and hangs, ethereal. Tricks!


A sign outside the venue warns us the Circa performance will involve haze. I picture flashing lights, loud music and smoke, spectacular, everywhere. The haze is minimal though, and nothing is obscured: the sweat, the grunts, the visible strain of muscles and tendons as the performers throw and catch one another, balancing on each other’s bodies, contorting—gracefully!—their bodies into shapes I would have thought unnatural, inhuman. We call circus performances ‘tricks’: the pared-backness of this performance renders that term a misnomer. The few times the performers stumble, or drop a prop, we see. There is nothing for trickery to hide behind.

I quickly realise I don’t need to crane my neck to watch the musicians: I can see most of them easily from my seat. I sit back. The acrobats lift and catch each other, the music swells and falls. Human sweat and strings are wilfully exposed. The haze hides nothing: it’s there to enhance something real. The awe feels deserved, and I let myself feel it.

   iii. the bedroom

One of the acrobats begins to balance on one leg, and I say, involuntarily: ‘No.’ He is about to step onto the abdomen of a woman who is simultaneously being lifted into the air and bending herself backwards into a bridge, using the raised arms of two other acrobats as her support. He steps onto her belly. Mine flips. Hers stays steady. From where I’m sitting, he could be stepping onto rock.


When you see a show, you take your body with you. My body is riddled with muscle memories of contortions: habitual twisting to hide this, display that. When I was still in high school, I identified, after much consideration in front of a bathroom mirror, the least flattering angle my face could possibly be viewed from. I am less vain now, but I still feel antsy if anyone spends too long looking at me from that angle. When I feel watched, my feet and hands grow bigger and bigger until they are unwieldly and comical; my teeth shift in their gums, become more pronouncedly crooked; my jawline skews itself even further to my left. I never feel confident I will make it through a supermarket trip without losing control of my breath, without my hands starting to shake: my body can start panicking for little to no reason. I cannot imagine ever being sure enough of my body to move and take risks in the ways the artists on stage do. They look impossibly freed.

My partner is big on proprioception. He says that when he’s feeling anxious, he likes to remind himself of where his feet are. I’m baffled: when I’m anxious, I do my best to climb as far as I can into my mind, or somebody else’s, and forget I have a body at all.


This performance is a masterpiece of precision. Time after time, one performer catches another just before their head hits the floor; tumbling bodies miss colliding with one another by mere millimetres. The trust required between artists in this kind of collaboration can surely only come with rigorous, endless practice. You trust this person will catch you because they have done so hundreds of times before; because they’ve trained and trained and caught you and caught you to make sure that now, when you fall, they can catch you again.

I had a friend in high school whose reason for doing lots of things, including fighting people in the park after school and practising parkour, was that he wanted to know he could end up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and trust his body to do whatever he needed to. My motivation for doing lots of things, including running on empty stomachs and hauling too-heavy schoolbags up hills, used to be that I wanted to control how my body looked. Now, I mostly want to be able to carry what—and who—I’ve promised to.

There are newer memories in my muscles now. Call-and-response instincts of care, as well as of anxiety. When a particular voice cries out at night, I am out of bed before waking. Maggie Nelson: ‘I gave my body to my baby. I gave my body to my baby.’ I gave my body to my baby, too, but it sometimes feels like a fraught gift. Push. In the twenty-fourth hour of labour, I could not push any more, and my baby had still not been born. The midwife said You need to push, Caitlin, and I said I AM PUSHING, and they said Oh, and sent for the obstetrician and her forceps. My baby would not latch, and when I took my bra off so the obstetrician could look at my boobs, she said Well, that will be why, your nipples are too small for him to latch on to! Just bottle feed him. I pumped milk every three hours for six months, I gave my body to my baby and when those months were over, I emailed a cosmetic surgery clinic (I haven’t told anyone that before, except perhaps my mother—what does it mean to give your body to a reader?). I guess I wanted my body back. The receptionist emailed back to say that a mastopexy would cost ten thousand dollars. I deleted the emails.

There is a circa artist balancing a tower of blocks on his chin. The year my body started to feel like my own again was the first year we lived in the city without a car. He throws more and more blocks, one at a time, up onto the tower. My baby, a toddler now, would get tired on our walks to and from childcare, or up and down the stairs of our apartment building. I would scoop his densely heavy body up and carry him. Slowly, the strain starts to show: the tension of his muscles, the speed and brevity of his movements. He is pushing up against the limit of how many he can hold. I’d get tired. Sometimes I’d get impatient, or we’d need to stop for a while because my body couldn’t do what I was pushing it to. At one point, he drops some: wavers, tries again. Eventually we’d get where we were going, and my muscles strengthened because they had to. One of the other performers lets him lift her body into the air—trusts him to be the body between her and a fall to the ground.

   iv. the fairground

I am a serious person. This has always embarrassed me deeply, and I have tried in various ways to become somehow lighter, more ‘playful’: colourful clothes phases, excessive drinking and the development of signature dance moves. It’s painful to think about. Most recently, I spent a good chunk of a thesis arguing that the best essays embody a certain type of playing. I want my seriousness and my playfulness, both.


I read and re-read D. W. Winnicott’s work on playing:

To get to the idea of playing, it is helpful to think of the preoccupation that characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions.

For Winnicott, playing is a serious state. It occurs in a ‘potential space’ that is ‘outside the individual, but … is not the external world’: a space not unlike the one Berger alludes to when he writes of us ‘always looking at the relation between things and ourselves’. Play is precarious, writes Winnicott, because ‘it is always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived’.

For children—and, in many instances I saw onstage, for Circa artists and musicians—playing involves the manipulation of objects, infusing them with what Winnicott calls ‘dream meaning and feeling’. For the rest of us, playing mostly operates in verbal communication: ‘It manifests itself, for instance, in the choice of words, in the inflections of the voice, and indeed in the sense of humour.’ Whatever its manifestation, its purpose is the same: ‘creative apperception’. To take something new—to take what we see—and make sense of it through creativity and play, working it through and testing it against what we already feel and know.


My son’s kinder centre sends updates through an app called StoryPark. I am always moved by, and grateful for, the care with which his teachers observe and record his play. This afternoon, I received an update titled ‘Building an island’:

This afternoon S and O built an island. The island started off small and was a project amongst five friends. Slowly as the time ticked by the other children drifted off and O and S remained together to continue their play.

The storyline was long and winding with the island taking many forms and supporting a range of characters. At various points it had a forest (trees made by rosemary plucked from the garden), it had wild animals (courtesy of the lego table on the veranda) stomping through it leaving tracks and further on it was surrounded by deep holes in the earth, cut off from the rest of the world. Through it all the two children negotiated the direction of play and encouraged each other to engage in the evolving story.

In the attached photos, you can see the light getting more and more golden—their island-building had taken up most of the day. I’d spent the same hours a few kilometres away, building an essay with pieces of theory and memory and words in the same near-withdrawal state that allowed S and O access to their island.


English Baroque with Circa embodies play taken seriously. You have to be serious about playing to learn how to balance on a wobbling tower of criss-crossed pipes, or how to give your body over to the roll of a Cyr wheel. The collaboration between musicians and Circa artists onstage is also a perfect example of what Winnicott calls shared play—the bridge between playing and ‘cultural experiences’.

What drives an artist to pursue play so seriously? Is it the same force(s) that drive me—us—to watch them do it? Is it the same force that brings me to write? I find Winnicott helpful again: he writes of playing as a type of creativity that ‘belongs to being alive’, of creative apperception as the thing that ‘more than anything else…makes the individual feel that life is worth living.’ I’ve been given to thinking of play as something extra, as something indulgent and unnecessary once we hit adulthood. But writing an essay is cleaning a house is playing is reading is performing is watching is listening, is taking what we see and asking what it means—or could mean—in the context of the rest of our lives. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in.

I keep playing.

Caitlin McGregor is an essayist. Her work has been published by a range of magazines and literary journals, including The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and Overland. She has edited nonfiction for Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow and Farrago, and in 2018 was an Express Media judge for the John Marsden Prize for Young Writers. Caitlin is currently a writer-in-residence at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and is working on her first essay collection.

‘Dedicated to Tenderness: a review of Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”’, by Léa Antigny

Credit: Bloomsbury

Credit: Bloomsbury


What is the point of writing about oneself? What is the point of writing at all? I will spoil the ending of this review for you right now: I do not know. I am not convinced that there is one. All I can tell you is that when I watch the edges of a cloud turn from yellow to grey in the evening, I feel something catch in my chest, and have an urge to find the words for it. Words for what that feels like, what exactly is caught, and how I choose whether to swallow it down or scream it out loud. I can tell you that when my mind starts wandering, my fingers start dancing over an imagined keyboard. I have always done this – think of certain sentences and imitate the movements of typing them. It’s subconscious. Sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes, I write a sentence that I read to myself later and think, yes, I understood myself. I never feel that I have understood myself when communicating with speech. With speech, I am clumsy, I need more time than it allows. On the page, I can wait. So that is the why, for me, or at least a small part of it. Why I write about myself, mostly only ever to myself. Because to live inside myself—my self—without writing seems dangerous. It would be like hooking a water balloon over the lip of a tap, turning the faucet, and letting it run too long, watching the balloon stretch and sag with the weight of everything inside. It will split into pieces before you have readied yourself for the sound of the snap. But why do we share our writing? What are we really saying when we say, here, have this piece of me? Why do we even try?

In one essay in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, titled ‘Becoming an American Writer’, Alexander Chee is confronted with this question the morning after the unthinkable has come to pass. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States of America. The morning after the election, Chee was expected to deliver a creative writing class. The air charged with a dread that would only intensify as time wore on, a student asked Chee: “What’s the point of writing when this can happen?”

Chee himself has been a student of writing his whole life, which is to say he has been a student of life and he has found the words for what he has learnt. There were stories of psychic mutants written as a young boy, poems as elegies written as a young man intimate with death far too early and far too often, book reviews, essays, short stories. Novels (only one of them autobiographical). In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel—not, it should be obvious, a how-to guide at all—Chee charts a writing life. It is a life in which writing is the product of a singular devotion to paying close attention to the world around him. It is a life in which writing is a tool for making sense of the most earthly, most human of horrors. The loosely chronological collection opens with a gorgeously drawn coming-of-age story set behind the tall concrete walls of a wealthy host family’s Mexico home, where mangoes fall freely from trees and Chee is still blissfully naïve, in the precious flush of youth before truths of class and social hierarchy make themselves known. Throughout, we meet the different versions of Chee that he chooses to present to us: the version that lost his father at the age of sixteen, the version that marched the streets and met with police batons in 1980s San Francisco, the version that fought with his body to prove his life worthy to a government that believed he was less than human. The version that lost friends thanks to that government’s inaction, the version that studied literary non-fiction under Annie Dillard, the version of Chee in drag, the version of Chee behind other kinds of masks. The version that learns the truth of his betrayals, deep and indefensible, decades after they were acted upon him.

In one of the most striking essays of the collection, ‘Girl’, Chee describes the exhilarating freedom to be found in disguise. Made up in drag, Chee discovers a second self, not under a mask but through a mask, through his new reflection. He delights in the sensuality of makeup. His  hands are forced to slow down, they move carefully as they colour his mouth slick. His boyfriend at the time is bewitched and, with the realisation that Chee might ‘pass’ in public, the tension wrought by a lifetime of pained self-surveillance is released. Chee imagines that they might walk through the night as lovers, holding hands, an act of togetherness without being political and without being in danger. Chee learns quickly that the power of successfully performing femininity—what he calls “the theatre of being female”—is hardly a power at all. A woman walks down the street, lips painted, hair caressing her neck and ears, and men perceive her to have power. The men who have perceived power in a woman then feel that something has been taken from them—the power should be theirs—and that this is the woman’s fault. There is a pleasure in making a head turn, pleasure in making someone aware that they want you, and aware that you are aware that they want you, but the pleasure is brief. It can turn deadly. To ‘pass’ is something Chee has been told he should aim for his whole life. He is asked not who, but what, he is. “You could pass,” he is often told. “Pass as what?” he demands. “When people use the word ‘passing’ in talking about race, they only ever mean one thing, but I still make them say it,” he writes.

Drag is only the most explicit kind of mask worn in this collection. The others are much more ordinary, and they are many, and if you say you don’t wear different masks all the time you are either lying or you have not even begun to know yourself. Like Chee writes, “we are not what we think we are…The stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like an ocean. A mask afloat on the open sea.” This is true – we each are made up of flimsy threads held together only by our own narratives. The urge to tell the story of my own life back to myself is one I have felt for as long as I can remember. I feel it so keenly that it is hard for me to fathom that others might not think this way. Telling stories, I don’t mean to an audience, but to myself—at least one of my selves, the interior self—is a way of making sense of life which can, at times, feel comically senseless. But just because telling myself stories might feel as urgent and necessary as drawing breath, it does not mean those stories are truthful. They may be truthful to the self, but it’s possible—probable—they are not truthful to others. I am sure that to some, this way of viewing the world must seem like a desire to exist in a semi-conscious reality. To detach from the real world, whatever that is, to pad oneself with stories as cotton wool. In fact, to confess to playing so many different roles, to wearing and removing masks with ease, is only the beginning of honestly connecting with ourselves, which is necessary before we can connect with the world around us. To understand that we are, most of the time, floating like the tremulous sea foam, can be extraordinarily grounding.

In ‘My Parade’, Chee takes on the exhausting and ongoing debate of whether or not good writing can be taught. He believes that it can, as does his own teacher Annie Dillard (as do I for whatever that’s worth). What that means—to teach writing—is not what most people think. It is, as Chee teaches throughout this collection, about putting in the work: “What separates those who write from those who don’t is being able to stand it.” In urging a young Chee to pursue an MFA, Dillard tells him “you want to delay the real world as long as possible”. But to Chee’s mind, an MFA is “not an escape of the real world but a confrontation with it” – even if it did also feel like a “fantasy” to study under writers including Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, and Deborah Eisenberg to name a few. This marriage of real world and fantasy is apparent in all Chee’s writing. His essays are rich and vivid, full of sentences that insist the reader pause and read twice, insist the reader hold and feel the weight of them. The care with which Chee deploys each word is so clear that, after a short while reading, it becomes near imperceptible. He makes every sentence seem impossibly easy. It is anything but.

So if we believe that writing can be taught—if we understand that means to work hard at paying attention to the world, to listen to which stories are asking to be told, to respond to the flashes of thought when they happen, as in now, as in write it down right now, you won’t be able to summon it later—what, then, is the point of it? Wondering about the point, though, is a distraction. It’s the wrong question. It is by design that we feel despair and that we question our purpose and value. Thinking about ‘the point’ is a trick played on us by the insidious neoliberalism that has crept into every little aspect of creative work, demanding that we operate with maximum productivity as the goal. It is a trick that works. Each time I ask myself, ‘What’s the point?’, I become stuck, because of course there is no satisfactory answer. Chee believes the good writer is the writer that can become unstuck. But I think to unstick ourselves is a lesson we all, writers or otherwise, need to learn. You can let the question of ‘why’ weigh so heavily on you that before long you will be unable to move. To move forward, to proceed in life, requires courage. Courage is a hard thing to hold when Donald Trump is President, when there is a horse in the hospital, when climate disaster is knocking at our door and those with the power to turn it away will let it right in. When each day we give hours of ourselves to the internet, we open our mouths wide and drink it in and it is sour and it is choking us and we need more all the time.

We can ask why all we want. We should also ask why not? “I learned quickly that if you stop writing, nothing happens, but I also learned that I had nowhere else to go,” writes Chee. It is a cliché, but it is also the truth, and it’s a truth we should remind ourselves every time we become stuck: your time here on earth is going to pass anyway. If there is a story asking to be told, listen to it. If there is colour changing at the edge of a cloud; if there is a heavy tulip hanging over the edge of a vase just so; if any of the tiny, tender moments of everyday life lodge themselves in your chest, listen. And tell. Tell it with your dancing fingers, with your tight chest, let the balloon swell but never, ever break. Writing need not save the world or overthrow the government (which is not to say that it can’t, I just don’t think it need be the goal). It is enough that writing might just hold the self together. It is enough that it might move a single reader. It can be small, like most lives are, it can be, like Chee writes, “dedicated somehow to tenderness”. ◆

Léa Antigny is a writer and student completing her MA at Western Sydney University with a focus on creative non-fiction and memoir. She has been published in the Guardian and The Lifted Brow. She is publicity manager at Giramondo Publishing and tries not to tweet at @leaantigny.

‘Revealing the Patient: Portraits by Jade Harland’ by Daniella Trimboli

This image and all that follow by Jade Harland, reproduced with permission of the artist.

Since the turn of the century, contemporary art has arguably become less about aesthetics and more about social interactions. Relational art, social practice, community-based art, participatory art—these are just some of the terms used to describe this new artistic focus, where outcome is replaced with process, audience with ongoing participation, and aesthetic quality with public engagement. At the same time, art therapy has become a burgeoning field, buoyed by research that indicates engaging with art can help those suffering with mental illness to express, recover, and heal from symptoms.

Located at the indices of these two trends is the new Glenside Rural and Remote Artist-in-Residency Program, an annual six-month residency in South Australia, resulting from a partnership between Country Health SA, SALA Festival, and UniSA. Designed to ‘bring new ways to communicate about and with people experiencing mental health challenges’, the partnership is an example of art as social practice, particularly reflective of the growing trend for art and healthcare services to interact (other examples that exist in the same veing are the NSW/ACT Arts and Health Leadership Group, Arts for Health at Manchester School of Art, and Tangible Memories project, to mention a few).

With discussions of mental health recovery being fraught with a lack of clarity, concerns raised about social practice are exacerbated. In a seminal critique of social practice, art theorist Claire Bishop asks: ‘If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?’ Extending on Bishop’s work, Jason Miller has illustrated that artists engaging in relational art sometimes overlook these questions, viewing their social engagement as aesthetic merit in and of itself, therefore removed from ethical considerations. Such a disposition can be problematic given that the terms on which people engage with art are laden with differential power relations, but it becomes particularly concerning—if not dangerous—in a setting such as an art residency at Glenside; a site of care, distress, and public marginalisation.

The Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit opened in 2014 as an extension of the Glenside Health Service, South Australia’s oldest and largest public psychiatric hospital. The 23-bed ward offers urban-based psychiatric and mental health services for regional patients whose needs are different to urban patients, due in part to limited access to mental health services. The first Artist-in-Residence Program at the Unit occurred in 2017 and has continued into 2018. The Chair of Mental Health Nursing, Professor Nicholas Proctor, worked with his colleague, Dr Amy Baker, to conduct research into how the residency enabled new kinds of knowledges to develop about mental health. In particular, the study aimed to offer alternative modes of therapy for inpatients, while seeking to explore the relationship between art, therapy, and recovery.

Adelaide-based painter Jade Harland was one of two artists selected for the residency’s inaugural year. Her excitement was quickly replaced with apprehension: ‘It’s hard to go into that setting and be like “hey, guys, let’s make some artwork” … [Many patients were] pretty bored, but at the same time, not everyone wants to make artwork.’ Sometimes, Harland questioned if she really had ‘any business being there’; at others, the experience of being in the environment felt ‘a bit too close to home,’ bringing up her own familial experiences with mental illness.

The first instalment of the residency looked different to how it was first envisioned. In my interview, Harland explained how the realities of institutional protocols, as well as ethical considerations pertaining to artist-patient interactions, were pronounced in this context:

It was pretty confusing because—so it was the first time they’d ever done it […] there was all this logistics stuff that they hadn’t thought of before, like getting all clearances done and police checks and things like that, which took months.

While the latter exploratory aspects of Baker’s goal were met, the capacity to make art with patients was difficult if not impossible for Harland during the pilot residency. The artists were encouraged to interact with inpatients. However, Harland was acutely mindful of patients’ personal reasons for being in the Unit and their need for privacy. Management staff supported the program, but nursing staff were less invested in the program, (rightly) focussing on the demands of their shift work rather than on fostering an environment for art making. Additionally, the duration of both the patients’ stays and the artists’ residencies were relatively short. Typically, patients stay in the Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit for a couple of weeks at a time, and although the residencies were designed to be six-months, hiccups getting the program off the ground in its first year meant the artists only had approximately two months of site access prior to their first exhibition. Together, these circumstances limited the amount of meaningful interaction that occurred between artists and patients.

Harland was driven by the opportunity to recast the portrayal of the mental health patient. At the same time, she remained aware to the danger that making art about mental health recovery could come off glibly. These kinds of artistic programs, together with public days such as RUOK? Day, are helping to shed light on formerly taboo psychological issues. While there is no doubt these days are driven with purpose and goodwill, these public-awareness efforts run the risk of alienating people with mental illness if they frame mental health insufficiently, as Elizabeth Saunders astutely points out. There remains, quite simply, too much lip service and little knowledge about how mental health affects the day-to-day functioning of 1 in 5 Australians, let alone how to follow through with support for those affected.

Mental health illnesses are complex. They’re also highly individualised and largely ‘invisible’, so gaining this knowledge is made difficult. As a society invested in Western liberal philosophy—in which the individual mind is split from the physical body—a holistic understanding of mental health is at odds with our present understanding, and the negative connotation of mental illness framed as an individual ‘failure’ is a very real fear. The risk of perpetuating the stigma that mental health issues are an indictment on a person’s character is also real.

Gaining a better understanding of the minutia of mental health illness and reframing the idea of ‘success’ became a priority for Harland. Her aim for the residency turned to capturing the environment of the Unit in a non-intrusive manner and providing a quiet but powerful narrative pertaining to mental health resilience. A small studio space was available in the Unit for the two artists to work. While both artists spent time with patients and staff in the ward, the majority of the work happened in the studio. Harland spent most of her weekly visits sketching and researching mental health care and recovery. She became particularly interested in the discourse of ‘rest’: meaning, the way rest seemed to mean something different in a mental health paradigm, and especially in a mental health recovery ward.

When people are physically ill with a cold or a broken bone, there is a common understanding that rest is required for their bodies to recover. Even though medical literature illustrates the amount of rest required for mental health recovery, this aspect isn’t as broadly recognised in public rhetoric. Harland describes:

I think what I found interesting is something I read that said […] when you think about recovery you think—I don’t know, from like injury or even alcohol or drugs [it’s something] you can’t do […] you’ve got to cut it out completely, but recovering from mental health is completely different—it’s not sequential like you start from one point and then keep going, it’s a constant going forward and back. And that kind of sparked something I think…

This spark led to the creation of seven mixed-media paintings, which formed material for two exhibitions held during the 2017 SALA Festival and Mental Health Week respectively: Rural and Remote at Peter Walker Gallery and R&R at Kerry Packer Civic Gallery.

I organised a private viewing of Harland’s works in early 2018 (easy enough to do since Harland is a cousin I regularly visit on routine trips to Adelaide).

On a tar-melting hot day in January, I entered Harland’s studio apartment. I was disappointed that I had missed viewing the works in a gallery (How would they feel in a curated arts space? How would they translate?). However, as I took in the works in Harland’s darkly-lit home, organised in order against her apartment wall, I realised there was something quietly powerful about the contrast between the relentless heat ‘out there’ and the cool stillness ‘in here.’

Harland’s paintings honoured the necessary rest of mental illness and the slow (if not pained) motions of a body in recovery. The paintings featured the same female subject, her movements (or non-movements) accentuated beautifully by Harland’s expertise as a figurative painter. The subject wrestles with her bed rest in such a way that the sheer magnitude of seemingly mundane actions, such as turning over (02:27) or sitting up (00:58), is palpably portrayed. In PM and AM, I felt as though I was shadowing the woman as she eventually moved out of bed and towards the door of her room—feeling both the tremendousness and the trepidation present in this act. Whether she makes it out of the room or not is unknown but nor is that the point.

Harland tells me she wanted to focus on the significance of actions normatively perceived as simple:

05:05 was for just thinking about someone getting out of bed and how something that we do every day and don’t really think about, you know, don’t give much thought to it ... that could be a massive goal for somebody.

The relativity of goals is precisely the kind of dimension of mental health needs to be examined in, especially in workplaces and other public settings that are attempting to normalise mental health experiences. Public efforts and campaigns designed to help normalise mental illness—the act of ‘showing up’, the talking about symptoms with those who often cannot relate—can exhaust nervous systems that are already stretched, compounding the amount of rest required. In the context of an in-patient ward, where mental illness symptoms have become unmanageable, this oft-dismissed aspect of rest becomes even more critical.

Harland’s paintings use only black and white, aiding their capacity to convey both the monotony and the vastness of mental health goals. ‘I just want to strip it back and have it just be about the image or the material that it’s painted with,’ Harland explains.

The use of black and white creates a sense of order, the careful arrangement of time, and the drawn-out experience of ‘waiting for wellness’ in the Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit. At the same time, the shades of grey bring to life shadowy elements that also form part of the experience of mental health recovery—the inarticulate struggles, experiences, and memories that lurk and disrupt the linearity of recovery for patients and those who care for them.

A black and white palette is becoming a signature trait of Harland’s artwork. Her work in the Bachelor of Visual Arts’ graduating exhibition Pretty Ugly (2016) was comprised of a series of black and white oil paintings that exaggerated the mirrored effects of time. So, too, the works in her Ragamuffins (2017) exhibition, a homage to movies she rented from the local video store in the country town she grew up in. Her 2016 works Prequel and The Passing of the Gold Mask use some colour, but only as a juxtaposing technique for the black and white portraits that form their respective subjects. ‘I feel like colour’s just a whole world that—I just can’t even wrap my head around, and it just brings … new things that I’m not ready for yet,’ Harland says.

The fact that Harland doesn’t paint in colour incidentally matches the mood of her paintings in Rural and Remote and R&R. The mix of black and white in some sections of the works creates a blueish-white, or bright white, reminiscent of fluorescent light common in hospitals. Anyone who has suffered through mental health recovery will likely know how dim light can feel like fluorescent light—painful, difficult, and overwhelming. Combined, these techniques give the impression that time is exaggerated for the woman in the paintings. Time has a regular rhythm in the Unit, but it can still feel stretched and unending. Sometimes, it’s as if time breaks off completely, perhaps folding back on itself or simply disappearing. In 07:12 and 02:27, for example, the works gradually become whiter—and then this white gradually becomes brighter. The whiteness is stretched and stretched to the point of almost-transparency before abruptly hitting a dense section of black resin that then fills the remainder of the canvas. The black resin is flat and smooth in 07:12, but dense and cragged in 02:27. The blackness in these paintings might be relief or it might be despair. Maybe it is both.

Harland explains how individual paintings in bodies of her work frequently speak to one another. In Rural and Remote and R&R the works have a sequential feeling to them, and a closer inspection of the titles reveals each image corresponds to a time of day.

A lot of my works kind of lead on from one to the next [...] I don’t know if you noticed, but that section there [points to the first painting in the series] is replicated in the very last painting [of the series] so … I kind of wanted it to be like coming full circle.

The placement of paintings and their subtle interaction with one another reflects a looped experience of time, ultimately resisting the pressures that come with the word ‘recovery’. Recovery is, after all, referential of a completed process, but framing mental illness as something to be resolved or ‘conquered’ is often detrimental to people with mental illness whose symptoms might be constantly present and/or capable of surprising them in unpredictable ways. The space Harland creates for the repetitiveness of mental health symptoms is oddly refreshing. Importantly, the idea of ‘recovery’ as a completed process is held at bay by Harland, and yet, the paintings never streamline the subject’s experience into a single narrative or represent it simply as vacuous repetition.

Indeed, an affective push/pull circulates throughout the paintings, animating ‘the mentally ill body’ as both a public and private entanglement, a body that is both familiar and strange, common and individual. Each work draws attention to details such as folds in blankets and creases in skin, accentuating the woman’s corporeality. Meanwhile, the precision and density of some sections are troubled by the splattering of thick, white impasto, which creates bordered spaces of chaos in some of the works. In others, brick walls cut sharply into voids of white light or crumpled mounds of linen and limbs. As a result, the incredibly private, bodily experience of being ‘mentally ill’ is put into dialogue with the very public experience of being in a mental health hospital, a place where ‘mentally ill people go’. This is a subtle but important intervention into representations of people with mental health illness and those Glenside Health Services more broadly.

Having grown up in South Australia, I am aware of the history of this service. Its former name, ‘The Parkside Lunatic Asylum’, was overridden in the early twentieth-century, but its dehumanising associations continue to stick to the hospital and those requiring its care.

Rural and Remote and R&R deftly work to undo these dehumanising associations. Harland’s paintings, as well as her overall approach to the residency, indicate her capacity to ensure her social practice is turned back onto itself in a reflexive and deeply intuitive manner. Public representations of the Glenside Health Services and mental illness at large are troubled ones and Harland was attuned to how social practice about mental health is implicated in these representations. Her paintings emphasise the complexities, fissures, and gaps in mental health experiences and associated representations, and yet manage to emanate agency and empowerment for the mentally ill. While Harland was clearly apprehensive about elements of her residency, her apprehensiveness is what allowed her to capture the experience of mental health illness in such a nuanced manner.

When I ask her why this body of work, like much of her practice, takes the form of portraiture, she responds:

I’ve never really thought too much about portraits in general. I’ve always just done that, kind of been more interested in people... I think it’s really... at the end of the day just about connecting with other people.

Harland’s desire to connect with others through her portraiture seems to sit alongside her desire to connect with herself. To unpack how her own experiences with mental health have been constructed and shaped, to understand how she is implicated in discourses of identity. It is no small coincidence that the woman featured in the paintings takes the form of Harland herself: she has encountered mental illness in various forms. It gives her a deep affinity with this project.

Towards the end of the interview, I comment on the materials and textures that Harland has carefully choreographed onto the canvases, noting the reflective nature of the resin. Harland enthusiastically describes the resin’s methodical application:

applying it kind of felt like it was part of the process as well, like when I laid this on I did it in a way that I would go across [the canvas] and then each time I would try and get it as perfectly straight as I could, and I just kept going over and over and that kind of felt like it was part of... the kind of—

She pauses, and I know this hesitation is because she is wary about projecting herself onto the canvas, to personalise or locate these paintings too precisely.

I make the most of one of the liberties granted to me as her older cousin and finish her sentence with a rhetorical question: ‘…the healing process?’

She sighs, equally relieved and embarrassed. ‘Yes.’

When Harland peels masking tape off her canvases to reveal straight edges of resin, she embodies a considered mode of creation and deconstruction. Her art practice helps to unravel the pathologising of the mental health patient while simultaneously allowing the effects of this pathologising to experience some catharsis.

Rural and Remote and R&R were promoted as exhibitions that communicated new understandings about mental illness and recovery. Harland’s works were described in aesthetic terms as provoking the portrait form and expanding the genre of contemporary painting. A small but crucial link between these social and aesthetic descriptions remains missing; namely: it is precisely through the process of creatively provoking the portrait of ‘the mentally ill woman’ that enables Harland to communicate new understandings of mental illness and recovery. Harland’s paintings, and the residency program at large, ultimately work to expand public knowledge of mental illness and extend discussions about mental health beyond single, disconnected days of public awareness. Her paintings provoke portraiture, but they also interrogate commonly misguided attempts to pin down mental illness, reminding us of the need for dynamic and meaningful interactions.

Much the same way that Harland peels strips of masking tape off her canvases with deference, uncovering relieving straight edges, we must also peel and reveal the ambiguous and multi-faceted experiences of mental illness: gently, committedly, respectfully.

Dr Daniella Trimboli is a postdoctoral research fellow (Cultural Studies) at the Alfred Deakin Institute of Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. Contemporary art and digital media frequently form the sites of her research on performative identities, multiculturalism and diaspora studies, and critical race theory.

Excerpt: 'The Chicken of Tomorrow' by Michael Dulaney

Art by Max Mose

Art by Max Mose


Eyes have always been central in defining the worth of animals to man. The Australian journalist Ambrose Pratt defended lyrebirds from the lodging and urbanisation of their Victorian habitat by declaring the species artists, shown by their “eyes of genius.” Nature writer Sy Montgomery imbued octopuses with souls, thanks, in part, to their expression, which reminded her of “the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.” Animal eyes reveal a soul. They reveal a conveniently human presence within.

Almost no-one says this about the domestic chicken. German filmmaker and droll pessimist Werner Herzog calls chickens “the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures” in the world. Chicken eyes, for Herzog, reveal the “completely flat, frightening stupidity” trapped within their fiendish brains. In his short story ‘The Egg’, Sherwood Anderson is horrified that a typical chicken is born “hideously naked,” fattened on grains, and “stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies.” In their cosmic obliviousness, chickens are so much like people that they mix one up in one’s judgment of life, Anderson says.

“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms,” he concludes.

Over the last few months I have had many occasions to look into avian eyes. At the start of the year I moved with two housemates into a sharehouse in Dulwich Hillan old Greek place with fig and lemon trees, and a massive chicken coop out the back. The previous tenants sold us their four chickens for $100two black-and-white speckled Plymouth Rocks and two ISA Browns.

In the months following, we set about learning what it means to be chicken parents, including, but not limited to, building a chicken run, making nesting boxes for them to lay eggs, finding ways for them to roost, learning what scraps they like the best, and entertaining them (and ourselves) by hanging ears of corn from string at a height just high enough that they have to jump with their little squat legs and peck at the kernels. We learned about their bumbling curiosity, and that straw is very exciting to them. In their incessant scratching and foraging, they always seem to be expecting to find something amazing under the straw. Whether scratching, or walking around the yard, they always hold their necks straight and their heads high and proud. They remind me of haughty socialites out for a stroll.

They have also revealed to me that our urban ecosystem contains violent potentialities. Before the chickens came I thought the only predators hunting among the homes of suburban Sydney were property developers and credit operatives; but now I know there are also foxes and snakes and other carnivores lurking in the shadows.

We’re in the process of giving them names based on their personalities: Alice is skittish but gentle, an escape artist named in honour of the neighbourhood cat who visited our former sharehouse. Battle Chicken is the most brave and assertive, the alpha. Simone is independent; an adventurer and the dreamy wanderer of the group. The personality of the fourththe smallest of the two Plymouth Rocksremains elusive.

Although there is much to love about our chickens, an undeniable charm and softness, I cannot shake my sense of unease whenever I look in their eyes. Their irises are blunt and reptilian, and contain a coldness that seems impenetrable. My housemate, Tanya, puts it succinctly when she tells me she sees “chaos” in their supermassive black pupils.

Our vaguely unsettling feelings seem to me, to echo Freud’s concept of ‘the uncanny’the dread that accompanies sensing the strange within the familiar. Chickens have been ubiquitous, in a very specific commodity form, my whole life. But it was only recently that I learned how little I knew of them.

In the last two centuries, according to John Berger, capitalism has reached a stage, whereby animals have gradually disappeared from human view. Where once they lived at the centre of our worldin our yards, on our farmstoday we live without them. In zoos, as pets and as representations, they are fetishised as entertainment. And in post-industrial society, their bodies are mostly treated as raw material.

The breeds in our backyard come from this system, one where chickens are bred to be processed as manufactured commodities. In our interactions, both specieschicken and humanlook across similar, but not identical, abysses of non-comprehension. To look and to be seen is to begin to perceive something of what has been lost, and to wonder if there is any way to bring some understanding back.

Battle Chicken and her sisters are radically different from their predecessors, the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, from which all modern chickens originate. Red jungle-fowl made their way around the world on trade ships and as domestic livestock, but rarely as edible meat.

Until the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea of eating a productive laying bird was an extravagance limited only to rich nobility. Apart from the occasional luxury of a capon (or castrated rooster), most American housewives in the early twentieth century would only cook laying hens that had outlived their fertility. Specialised companies collected spent fowl and fattened them with a pre-digested mash of buttermilk and grains until their body weight doubled. These “fryers” were not easy to cook, and yielded a dry, gamey meat that was suitable only for Sunday roasts or stocks.

By any economic standard, the post-World War II growth of the US chicken industry has been remarkable. The chicken’s journey to the centre of dinner plates throughout the world is part of a larger process of agro-industrialisation that has transformed our food practices and diet. It is the story of a profound restructuring of the relationship between nature and technology, one whereby avian biology has been subordinated to the needs of industrial production. This transformation refashioned chickens into what historian William Boyd calls an “efficient machine for converting corn and soybean into animal flesh protein” in the case of broiler (meat) chickens, and “mechanical oviducts” in the case of laying hens.

In this story, the chicken came before the egg. Chickens got their start in the late-19th century with “HenFever” when they were bred for their ornamental features like rainbow tails and feathered feet and sold as show breeds to US chicken fanciers. When this bubble burst in the 1890s, fanciers recouped their investment by turning their flock towards egg laying. Up to five-to-ten-million Americans tried and failed at egg farming.

Table eggs gave chickens their industrial future. But first hens had to be stripped of their maternal instincts. Farmers learned that hens would become “broody” after laying 15 eggs and refuse to lay more until the chicks had hatched and learned to forage for themselves. To subvert this, factories began to favour breeds found to be “non-broody”. The introduction of electricity meant their day-old chicks were put in kerosene or electric incubators that kept them warm until they grew their feathers.

The introduction of electricity for lighting and heating also altered their circadian rhythms and kept them working well into the night, and through their winter pause. The breakthrough which led to their confinement in the massive sheds we see today was the addition of vitamins and antibiotics to their feed.

Vitamin D, in particular, allowed chickens to be taken out of the sunlight and fortified them against ailments of confinement, particularly leg-wasting diseases.

As an example of the explosive growth in this period: in 1925, Delaware produced 50,000 chickens for meat. By 1940 Delaware poultry farmers had sold 35 million. One half of all chickens raised in this first decade died of disease or malnutrition before reaching market age.

Around 80 per cent of antibiotics produced today are used for livestock. Antibiotics were introduced to agriculture with experiments in the 1950s, which discovered that feed laced with antibiotics encourages chickens to grow twice as fast.

Confinement and improved nutrition played their part in the early decades, but most of the gains in poultry output from the 1960s were driven by genetic and breeding improvements. Some of these earliest ventures were direct spin-offs from attempts to develop hybrid corn. The new chicken industry grew in parallel with the massive roll-out of cheap corn and soybean mono-cultures in the Midwest.

The real watershed in breeding came when the US Department of Agriculture sponsored A&P Supermarket’s Chicken of Tomorrow contests in 1948 and 1951, otherwise billed as “the World Series of Poultrydom.” Thousands of breeders entered the competition, hoping to help the supermarketa 1920s equivalent to Walmartdevelop a bird: “chunky enough for the whole family – a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried inlayers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.”

The two winners of this competitionbred by Charles Vantress from California, and Arbor Acreswere crossed into hybrid chickens that would eventually become the breeding stock worldwide. They were celebrated with a parade through Georgetown, Delaware, replete with a smiling, waving Festival BroilerQueen perched on top of a car.

Thanks to their efforts, the modern chicken puts on weight fives times faster than the chickens of the 1950s. A full-grown broiler can be slaughter-ready in five weeks, and it can do this on less than half the feed of a chicken from the 1930s. The trade-off is that their tiny skeletons can no longer accommodate the weight of their growing bodies. Chronic pain, tibial necrosis (i.e. rotting bones), and bowed or broken legs are all common ailments among factory-farmed chickens.

A few years after the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, Arbor Acres was bought by the American businessman Nelson Rockefeller, who integrated the company with others that brought modern consumer capitalism to countries like Brazil and Venezuela. Peasant food production was undercut and replaced with a capital-intensive system reliant on US agriculture.

Arbor Acres thus went global, starting in Latin America and moving quickly to Africa, Asia and Europe. For more than four decades, the company sold as much as eighty per cent of the world’s broiler breeding stock. Still today, this stock accounts for half of the chickens raised in China.

The complexity of broiler genetics has protected these investments. The intricate family trees of modern chickensthe ones most profitable for factory farmingcan only be replicated by the companies that bred them. As with hybrid corn or soy, chicken farmers have no option but to return to these massive companies for new chicks to start each new crop. A biological lock has been put on a species that populated millions of farms and gardens for centuries, imprisoning the chicken behind a wall of intellectual property and trade secrets. The keys are owned by only a handful of companies in the world.

We are still eating the Chicken of Tomorrow. Today, the average American consumes more than three times the amount of chicken they did 50 years ago, while consumption of other animal flesh protein has stayed level or declined. The broiler chicken outweighs all other birds on earth by three to one. 60 billion of them are killed every year. About 650 million of those are killed in Australia, where the per-capita annual consumption of chicken meat has increased ten-fold since 1965. We have transformed the chicken, and the chicken has transformed the world. To take one example, the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), which produces six hundred million chickens a year, has to deal with 1.5 billion pounds of manure annuallyequivalent to a city of four million people.

Above all, industrialisation is about simplification, and there is much that has been lost. Thousands of small farmers who took part in the Chicken of Tomorrow contest were replaced by immense transnational chicken operations that control the birds from hatching to carcass. These birds are often contracted out to independent farmers to be grown and fattened using cheap labour. In the US South one in five of these farmers earns below the poverty line.

Genetic uniformity has made the industry more susceptible to disease. In addition, an estimated 50 percent or more of ancestral chicken breeds have been lost, the greatest decline taking place in the 1950s with the introduction of industrial chicken production. Around 1,500 irreplaceable global mammalian and avian live-stock breeds are at risk of being lost.

The ubiquity of the chicken, of course, means they area vivid marker of the Anthropocene, the new epoch that marks the overwhelming impact of humans on the Earth’s geological processes. Billions of the chicken’s distinctive bones, scattered through dumpsites across the globe, will become traces of this geological instant. Possibly, in the future, the chicken of tomorrowincluding Battle Chicken and her friendswill be uncovered along with all our other technofossils from the bitter sands and even from within the remains of buried humans; an undeniable marker of capitalism’s rapacious spread across the globe. There is an irony that the more their eviscerated and dismembered parts intersect with ours, via meat, feathers and eggs, the more chickensand all animalsultimately disappear from human life. It would be unimaginable, from the fossil record, just how alienated from them we were.


The only visible path through our unmown lawn is the one that leads through the backyard to the henhouse. Interacting with the chickens has become the joy of our days. They coo excitedly in the morning when I let them out of their coop to roam the yard, and rush with curiosity to the fence throughout the day to see whatever we’re up to. At dusk they trundle back together and I watch them bed down for the night before locking the gate. Battling for roosting position in the coop, they enact the pecking order and reveal their capacity for hierarchical violence.

Most wonderful of all is finding their eggs, sometimes sheltered precariously in corners of the yard or in the shed. The eggs have buttery yolks the colour of bright saffronthey glow like a Turner sunset. Especially in the beginning, we would treat each new egg with a reverence and sense of wonder. By contrast, their taste revealed the dreariness of store-bought eggstheir sad, greying yolks and brittle shells borne of stressful confinement. Overtime, I’ve found myself surprised by my contentment in knowing that our eggs come from happy, healthy chooks. Consumerist guilt revealed to me only in its absence.

Half of all Australian eggs sold come from caged chickens, as of 2017. A veterinarian friend from Perth recently recounted to me her experience as a student on a factory farm that produced a million eggs per day. In the hatchery she oversaw minutes-old male chicks, fluffy things such as you would see on Easter cards, dumped straight into bins to be gassed. The vaccinated and de-beaked females were stuffed in cages and taken to sheds where their natural curiosity and boredom meant they stampeded towards anyone who entered. People walking through the shed were told to slow down to avoid “whirl-pools” within the mass of birds so desperate for any stimulus they will trample each other to get a look.

Most disturbing for my friend was witnessing one of the routine purges of a laying shed, when 50,000 hens whose productivity had declined were thrown into giant bins to be gassed ahead of the arrival of their replacements. Every time a hen was grabbed she could hear their brittle bones crack, and again when they were slammed through the metal bin lid. After the purge the birds were dumped outside, some survivors running panicked around a pile of dead and injured hens as high as the ceiling.

As I write this, in early 2019, up to half a million chickens could be destroyed by Bridgewater Poultry inVictoria, due to the sheds being infected with salmonella from wild birds flying overhead. Such unfathomable carnage is routine within factory farming.

Sometimes, as I’m stacking homegrown eggs into our fridge, I find myself going down strange mental detours. Are chickens part of the working class? Are these eggs an appropriation of their surplus value? Is our small backyard coop a capitalist enterprise? I think of ridiculous images, like chickens in overalls carrying little hard-hats and toolkits and punching the clock. But for certain others these questions are not so absurd. For some animal studies theorists, the unpaid labour of animals has provided the structural conditions for the rise of capitalism. They work to grow meat or milk, the main difference being that in their case, their bodies are both the means and the product.

The reduction of animals to objects, which has a philosophical as well as an economic history, has preceded the same approach to man. Nearly all techniques of human social conditioning and control have started with animal experiments. F.W. Taylor, who developed time motion studies and the “scientific” management of industry, proposed that ideally workers must be “so stupid” that they resemble ox.

Before he became a major figure in American eugenics, Charles B. Davenport praised the chicken for their great variety, fecundity and diversity of characteristics. Using language that anticipated his later enthusiasm for eugenics, Davenport said poultry breeding should focus on racial “purification” as a step toward creating “a new race which shall combine various desirable characteristics found in two or more races.”

The closest my housemates and I came to exerting direct control over our chickens was when we bought a blue dog harness and tried to take Battle Chicken for a walk. It soon became apparent that Battle Chicken did not like being chained to the yoke of our amusement. She struggled with the saddle, got her feathers and her wings tangled and, eventually, won her freedom. In other words, she resisted. Her sisters do this in other waysAlice, for example, confounds us with her ability to escape the chicken run no matter how many fencing adjustments we make.


This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full piece alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney

Max Mose (b. 1985) is a cartoonist/illustrator/programmer currently based in Madison Wisconsin, USA.

‘Class Clown: A Review of Heike Geissler’s “Seasonal Associate”’, by Cher Tan

heike geissler mit press.jpg

Recently, I made a zine titled To All The Shit Jobs I've Worked Before, a cheeky nod to a TV show of a similar name. The zine is literally an ode to my entire working life, a seventeen-year hodgepodge of largely low-level—or so-called ‘unskilled’—jobs I've held since the age of fifteen.

 I’ve never completed any kind of tertiary education. Throw in a dash of poor mental health and a working-class family who were too preoccupied and unhappy to care about what I ‘became’, and I’ve ended up with no real qualifications. Finally, nurtured by my fervent involvement in the punk underground (which nonetheless provided a fulfilling life), I ended up neglecting to pursue mainstream ‘goals’. In other words, I don’t have what people traditionally call a ‘career path’. Maybe some people will say that I've squandered my time. Regardless, it's been shit job after shit job, means-to-an-end after means-to-an-end, in the hopes of gaining a new skill or landing that one job that will be the most tolerable of shit jobs, at least until the day I die.

 In environments where eking out a shit living is par for the course, conditions are generally miserable. Workers are unhappy, unconcerned and/or mean spirited. Sometimes, you luck out and there are formal niceties, or you end up going for drinks at the local after work, but ultimately it's palpable that no one gives a shit. Yet we're all there for the same reasons: to make ends meet.

 This bleak reality is the backdrop of Heike Geissler's novel Seasonal Associate, published in German in 2014 and newly translated into English by Katy Derbyshire. Forced by increasing debt and a precarious financial situation, as well as needing to support her two young sons, the unnamed protagonist (who is loosely based on Geissler herself) takes up a temporary, low-level position at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig during the busy pre-Christmas rush. It's the “first job that comes up”, and the underemployed writer and translator has to take it, “to put some money in the bank”. When desperate times call for desperate measures, there's no time for hesitation. Time is money.

 Presented as a combination of memoir and theory, Seasonal Associate uses second-person to fold the reader into the text. Its tone is at once accusatory and inviting – on one hand, the ‘you’ is universal, yet lines like “You walk around, go for a stroll, allow yourself the pleasure” presents a certain snideness. Geissler uses first-person occasionally however, and when she does, it is unexpected and jolts the reader back into their own present, a device that lays the groundwork for a recurring pathos. The first time she does this, it is to refer to her boyfriend and children: “I’m not going to share them. I can’t do that. You’re me, but you don’t have my entire life.”

The working conditions at Amazon turn out to be unrelentingly dismal, and Geissler manages to wring out every detail. Even so, nothing of consequence actually happens in the book; rather than a plot filled with twists and turns, it’s a composite of the non-events that make up the protagonist’s time at the warehouse, and the thoughts that occur to her during this tedious passage of time. As such, unless you're a trust-fund kid or someone who's miraculously escaped the mechanisms of the unskilled labour market, you're bound to have worked at least one shit job in your life to date, and this makes the contents of Seasonal Associate either terrifyingly relatable (because you're still there) or downright terrifying (because you don’t want to go back there). She calculates over and over how much money she'll make, worries about taking sick leave, and then worries some more about being thought to lie about being sick in order to take sick leave. She eats quickly at lunch break, cleans up her workstation fifteen minutes ahead of clock-off to avoid working unpaid minutes, and makes mistakes she doesn't bother correcting. Every day is routine. 


Geissler didn't set out to write about her time working for Amazon. But in an interview with The Creative Independent, she said that it was when her contract ended that she started thinking about writing about her experiences, “because I had not earned enough money [at Amazon], really.”

And there is the sucker punch. As Geissler’s protagonist laments early on in the novel:

You’ll learn to say, however, that you just need the money, that you have this job but you’re still a writer and translator. […] At some point you’ll find it easy to cast all your strange ideals of careers and life and success overboard, to say that you have this job, your actual job, and another one on the side. […] You’ll be constantly thinking about what ideas everyone has about making a living, why it sometimes feels like failure when you can’t live off your actual job.

For many artists in similarly dire socioeconomic circumstances, this is a dilemma that will sound very familiar. If I write about my hardships, maybe I will eventually catch the attention of someone who will give me more opportunities. Maybe I can then finally ‘make it’ as a writer. Seasonal Associate launched Geissler’s career as a literary writer, but the dismal working conditions and financial precarity that produced it undoubtedly took a psychological toll. As Amy Gray writes in an Overland op-ed on what she terms “the Bustle hustle”—the hyper-mining of personal experiences in writing, particularly in digital writing—“it's compelling for writers, especially those who want to break into publishing, and who haven't been able to enter the industry either due to circumstance or various layers of structural prejudice.”

At its very core, Seasonal Associate is a writer-labourer's book. While drolly interrogating today's burgeoning complexities around class and capital, Geissler queries what it means to work a shit job that has absolutely nothing to do with the art you make (in Geissler’s case, pre-Seasonal Associate) in order to—ironically—fund it, once you’ve covered the many important living costs which naturally take priority. At one point, while she wonders what her “mental bed” will look like at the end of her Amazon contract, she refers to Tracey Emin's notorious 1998 installation My Bed. The art work, the artist's bed with objects strewn haphazardly around it, acts as a simulation of the abject state someone's bedroom would look like if they were going through depression. Geissler cynically notes that her bed “won't be sold at Christie's for €2.5 million like Tracey Emin's bed; you'll have to clean it up yourself later.”

 Like a skittish servant, this linking of money with artistic success hovers in the background of the book. Within the creative industries, a false winner-takes-all meritocracy is often dangled from the ceiling like a pleasurable daydream: what if, as a labourer in the marketplace of the arts, I'm The One the system chooses for success? After all, Octavia Butler and Stephen King fucking made it against all odds. ‘Supporting yourself completely doing what you love? Congratulations, you've worked hard enough and made it!’ vs: ‘Pulling long hours at a non-creative day job and trying to make art in your spare time? You pitiful thing, but it's very admirable what you're doing!’ There's no middle ground, and two opposing ideas seem to exist in harmony: a good struggle makes good work, yet the most envied of all artists are the ones who manage to receive grant after grant, or those who are supported by external financial sources, like family or a partner. There remain no crumbs left. Back to the drawing board. Struggle. Envy. Win. Quit.

 And as the class gap between the haves and the have-nots in the creative industries widens, the farce is that labourers will have less and less conviction or confidence to pursue writing, especially if it looks like a vocation that is only sustainable for those with existing advantages. Books by privileged writers typically end up being the ones that get published, leading to a dearth of varied stories that, from the margins, make ‘the writerly life’ seem like an attainable goal, or one worth pursuing. As Roanna Gonsalves writes in an essay on the ‘double lives’ many marginalised writers often have to negotiate, “the aspiration of writers towards the perceived ‘sacredness’ of the creative process must be tempered with the ‘profane’ spectre of the need to earn a living.”

Due to the romanticisation of poverty within the creative industries, it is hard to tell who else comes from circumstances like mine. Who has access to an inheritance? Whose parents help pay their rent? Who is able to call their family members to help them out should they get into a financial rut? Nobody knows. If I'm wearing a t-shirt with holes in it, maybe I'm just being quirky. If I'm wearing a nice dress, maybe I bought it from an op-shop. If I'm buying a nice drink at someone's book launch, I'm either using my credit card and putting myself further in debt, or I have a cushy public servant job that gives me the nice life. Who can say? It is there, of course, in the difference between choosing to work in an undervalued arts industry and whining about $30,000 (or less) a year, and feeling $30,000 is actually a fair bit of money. But if everyone is ‘poor’ and ‘broke’, then no one is poor and broke.

When Geissler sees a book by an industry peer she recognises, on the Amazon conveyor belt as pre-ordered gifts waiting to be packed by her, she considers this disparity. “It was as if I were the chambermaid and he were the guest, […] as if we were showing our true faces,” she writes bitterly. “I bet he has time right now to think about his next work; it would have to be called a work, and he'd have to be called a successful writer.”


In the five years since I started my haphazard journey as a freelance writer, I have always worked non-arts jobs in order to support myself. Currently, I work within the gig economy: cleaning houses and engaging in business copy-writing to pay the bills, on top of other casual miscellaneous jobs, a sacrifice I decided to make to try and pursue this funny business that appears to reap little reward, but which undeniably keeps me existentially alive. Sometimes, I think about the fact that if I had stayed in my minimum-wage commis chef jobs and abandoned writing, I might have been promoted to a sous chef position by now. By no means glamorous either, but at least a source of income that would not rest on persistent precarity.

In the course of writing this review, I spoke to two writers who I know also explicitly identify as working-class. One of them, Peter Polites, echoed the difficult negotiation that often arises from this sacrifice:

For those of us who write and aren't trustafarians, there is a risk of pursuing literature creation – because it comes at a cost, the cost being the use of your mind, time and resources and that have been used to create a more stable financial future.

And while capitalism continues to thrive, alienation is the order of the day as not only are people pitted against one another, they are made to feel as if they are the only ones alone in their experiences. I didn't think anyone understood my position until I spoke to Stephen Pham, another working-class writer who emphasised the isolation he feels in a system that treats class as a single, isolated issue, and not one tied deeply to other markers such as race:

It's isolating. I bump up against white writers who treat poverty as a marker of authenticity, writers of colour who are privileged enough to not care about class, and a community of tertiary-educated Asian-Australians who don't read all that much but think being poor is for suckers.

When class is divorced from the other situational and statistical factors that inherently drive it, the conversation stalls. To use myself as an example, despite having no generational wealth or safety net, I'm privileged in that I'm able-bodied, and don't have any dependants. And while I'm a first-generation migrant of colour, English is my first language, and I don't have a discernible ‘foreign’ accent. Even as I write this, I feel a deep sense of shame: both from admitting my circumstances, as well as from feeling as if I am performing the working-class cosplay that many in the arts fetishise. Perhaps that's why I don't hear of many writers who talk openly about existing within similar class brackets; there exists both shame, and the underlying aspiration to leave it. Or, as Eda Gunaydin writes in her essay on gentrification in Sydney's Parramatta:

I think it is more important not to impute bootstrapping narratives onto the stories of people like myself or others fighting worse structural oppressions, who make writing or the arts work by cleaning toilets or mixing drinks: we represent overwhelming exceptions to the general rule that 'one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.' Possession of the means to write is strong evidence of, on average, a not-quite-proletarian status.

In Seasonal Associate, Geissler implicitly acknowledges this schism. When she points out mistakes her co-workers have made, they call her “Little Miss Professor”. She argues with and blatantly questions her superiors. When she orders food at a cafe and the waiter says “happy to serve you”, she taunts him by laughing and turning it into a question. When she sits next to a homeless man on the tram who tries to start a conversation with her, she barely wants to acknowledge him and thinks about her stopover at the bank instead. She puzzles over why a new co-worker has travelled from the next town to work at the warehouse. And despite being in debt, she still has “purchasing power” to afford a new pair of boots, bank overdraft be damned.

How much of class consciousness is class aspiration? Even if talking about class is awkward, its very existence points to a kind of signalling—“I'm poor, pity me” vs. “I'm rich, envy me”—variations on a scale that’s always about desiring and striving towards something. Within a capitalist system, as Guy Debord writes in the ever-relevant Society of the Spectacle, “every given commodity fights for itself, cannot acknowledge the others, and attempts to impose itself everywhere as if it were the only one.” 

Of course, as capitalism finds new ways to remake its own image, working-class writers today are a lot more varied than the down-and-out Dickens or Orwell sitting in their dank flats, even if they later wrangled a more-than-comfortable existence for themselves from their craft. But it's a tension that will keep plaguing the arts as long as these internal contradictions aren't addressed, especially in spaces that are at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by the middle- and upper-classes. Who wants to be Xu Lizhi when they can be J.K. Rowling? 

Seasonal Associate, in its form as a subjective account of precarious labour, lays out these uncomfortable truths in a time where many people are exhausted and disheartened by work that discourages solidarity. In a casualised economy rife with alienation, ‘hard work’ and ‘success’ become gifts to be won by those who most effectively manage to game the system, a trial-and-error roulette that rests on external factors completely unrelated to the myths that drive it. Like Geissler’s protagonist, I want my bosses to hear that I'm sweeping with intent outside their office, only to find out that it no longer matters whether I've finished sweeping or not. In the same scene, her team leader calls her to stop and return to her workstation. He doesn't even check, doesn't even ask how far she's got.

Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Westerly, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is Kill Your Darlings’ 2019 New Critic and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

Excerpt: 'Red Belly, Pink Skin, No Belly, Chicken Shit' by Katerina Gibson

Art by Angelica Roache-Wilson

Art by Angelica Roache-Wilson


A woman is telling me she’s basically my grandmother. She tells me this while we sit opposite each other in her backyard, over the scraps of an almost-finished Christmas lunch. Although it’s not Christmas; it’s Boxing Day. From her pocket she removes a fifty-pack of Peter Jacksons, and taps the bottom of the box so a single cigarette slides out. In the box I can see one cigarette turned upward, a bloom of tobacco in a sea of butts. A lucky cigarette, a friend told me once, although that friend has long-since moved onto the more economically viable pouch. The womanFinnie is her name, I have no idea what it’s short forlights her cigarette, picks at the carcass of a Coles rotisserie chicken. I think about how much more depressed I am since I got Netflix. She tells me she feels as if she is my grandmother; I can call her anytime, with any problem.

“You can call me Nanna,” she says. “I’ve always thought I’d make a great Nanna.”

This woman is not my grandmother. She is not even my step-grandmother. She is my stepmother’s father’s girlfriend. New girlfriend. They met three months ago at an Irish pub nestled between two banyan trees on the side of a dirt highway leading out to the desert. That’s how she tells it. When he walked in he put his helmet on the bar next to her. He was wearing a wolf shirt, she showed him her wolf tattoo. An hour later they rode off into the sunset and et cetera.

Right now the sun isn’t setting, it’s right there in the middle of the blue-bright sky. All over South-East Queensland, I imagine people at lunches like this one looking at each other and exclaiming: It’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity! Finnie’s way of doing this is non-vocal, she fans herself with her hand and says “Wewf.” Cigarette in mouth, she grabs her dirty blonde hair and wraps it in a knot on top of her head; it stays there, a self-induced bird's-nest, no hair-tie.

“Do you want one?” she says, shaking her packet, looking over her shoulder to the house where the rest of the adults are slumped on furniture in food-induced naps. I think of an uncle somewhere, his bald head sweating onto a crocheted blanket, and smile. She raises her eyebrow and smiles back at me.

“I’m good.” A part of me wants to reach over and take itto grant her this small corruption. I can see she thinks I’m scaredchicken shitbut I think she’s also under the impression I’m still in high school, and I don’t have the heart to tell her I have an unused art history degree and quit smoking four months ago. My chubbiness, I know, has afflicted me with eternal adolescence.

“Are you sure? They’re hybrid.” She pops the filter for effect and winks at me. “So your breath will always be minty fresh.” She puts the pack away and raises the left corner of her mouth. “Do you like it here?”

“It’s nice, yeah.” Ken’s house is a two-storey that knows it’s been lived in for forty, fifty years. The balcony railing is made of steel rods that curl and bend into a bulbous bottom. Above the doors and windows there are brown and white striped tarps, faded and fraying that have been there, surely, since at least the seventies. Underneath is Ken’sand now Finnie’sden: a bar, Ken’s bike, and an impressive collection of motorcycle magazines in large ready-to-topple heaps. Behind the bar is a gigantic framed picture of a bikini-clad woman straddling a Harley winking.

“That’s new.” Finnie follows my gaze and says: “I used to be a looker.” It takes me a second to fold thirty years into the girl’s body, but now she’s said it I can’t see how I missed itthe same wide-set eyes, tall cheekbones, top-heavy lips. Budget Kate Moss.

“I’ve done the place up a bit.” She’s right, although it hasn’t changed since I came here last, so much as become more of itselfsurged with Finnie. There are pot plants in varying states of decay, crowded around the back door, lining the garden walls and window ledges. One sad looking chilli bush has fallen over, recently, chillies litter the ground around it like angry caterpillars. Although the lawn is as overgrown as it ever was there’s a bird bath and, in the corner peeking from between the unkempt grass, a garden gnome, faded and jolly. Someone, one of the shrieking children we are meant to be keeping an eye on, I suspect, has fashioned a tiny Santa hat for his head.

“Such a bloody arsehole that effing thing. Look at his smug little face.”

Instead I look at her, her pink zebra-print top, the fine wrinkles collecting in crevasses around her eyes, nose, mouth, the pink lipstick almost, but not, the same shade of pink as her top, smudged around the rim of her mouth, her cracked lips. I look at her looking at the gnome until she looks back at me.

Her bottom jaw juts out, she exhales, smoke washes over her face, then she butts out, adding her cigarette to the bouquet of pink-tipped cigarettes in the ashtray.

“Alright kids, we’re gonna play pin the tail or what? What do you reckon, Elle? Money on Charlie?” Finnie gets up, but before she does I catch an eye roll in my direction.

She turns away and says, “Help yourself, sweetheart.” Although she doesn’t look at me and her voice drifts off as she does.

I sit there on the bench a while, then grab some tongs and serve myself the last of the coleslaw, a piece of bread, some prawns floating in water with slivers of remaining ice.

“Do you really need that extra plate?”

I turn around, livid, to reprimand one of the snot-nosed childrenCharlie, I guessbut they’re all on the other side of the backyard, in the carport. Against the closed rolling door, on a large scrap of butcher’s paper, a crayon donkey stares wall-eyed into the distance. Charlie has a bandanna fashioned as a blindfold. Finnie and the other children yell at himencouragement, detours, slurs.

I finish my meal anyway. Then I reach over and take Finnie’s half-drunk gin. The garden snorts at me, says, “Of course.”

I turn around and look where the voice came from, right into the gnome’s paint-flecked, smug little face and say: “Nice hat fucko.”

This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Katerina Gibson is a Brisbane writer living in Melbourne. She won the 2018 VU Short Story Prize, and has been published in Overland and Kill Your Darlings. .

Angelica Roache-Wilson lives in Brisbane and draws pictures in her bedroom of the whackdest peeps and creat(ure)s for fun.

'Notions of Technotopia' by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn

Image "come in Dipsy"by eversion is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

At the turn of the millennium, children’s television programming was dominated by the Technotopia. In this virtual realm, digitisation traverses the human/animal divide, producing utopic visions of human absence. We were only accessible through a screen of consciousness—Teletubbies ingested visual stimulation through antennae, digested static in their convex tummies, and suddenly the sparkling lozenge came alive with the mundanities of human existence as they consumed, embodied and disseminated information across the gazes of an estimated two million viewers. The programme was shot in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but instead of Shakespeare, the set was populated by rabbits and invisible birds twittering from the tennis ball meadows. The wordless script met criticism for regressing young toddlers’ speech with overly simplistic dialogue; the baby sun gurgled and the Teletubbies cooed. Little did I realise at the age of four that I was crawling in a postmodern hall of mirrors, watching screens through other screens.
 Ecological otherness refracts in kaleidoscopic mutations through the lenses of Technotopia. Jonothan Bignell writes in Teletubbies and Postmodern Childhood, ‘Teletubbies poses television as a mediator between human and inhuman.’ We receive many sanitised visions of Nature through a digital mesh; according to industry group Turf Australia, on an average day in 2017, children under twelve spent two and a half hours in front of a screen, and about one and a half hours playing outside. A special high-definition episode of the Teletubbies produced in 2015 is called ‘Go Outside’ and features three Scottish children who climb a tree.
 Children since the 90s have wielded tactile power touching a smooth piece of metal and plastic. I was thrilled when suddenly a whole world flittered and expanded at my fingertips: fields of sunflowers in Plants vs Zombies, where campaigns are fought to protect the boundary between living and nonliving creatures in a zombie apocalypse; dense pixels in Minecraft, where boundless grids splay outward to terraform and mine the biome. When I was a toddler, strategy games were more focussed on deactivating unexploded ordnances in Minesweeper and avoiding running into your own tail. ‘Do you have snake on your phone?’ was my constant refrain, and my Teletubby a steady companion. I loved my Po doll, who I carried everywhere. Sometimes I’d become anxious about where I had left her, ransacking the house only to find her tucked under my armpit.

Remember Neopets, the pelagic Flotsams and archaeopteryx-like Shoyrus found in a Happy Meal™: for whom you created an account and promptly forgot to ‘feed’—who upon returning after ten years were still somehow alive and evolved with frozen tears pixelating on their faces. A simple way to fix an unhappy Neopet is to buy a toy and select:
                  Play with Elliot_313.
 After a quick grunt from the PC’s internal modem, Elliot_313 says:
                 You are the best!
 I am impulsively drawn to the easy reward systems of Neopets. During exams at law school, when I was kicked out of home and disinclined to study, I would go to the library and play Neopets for hours. I didn't last at law school long.
 If you have depleted internal validation systems in your brain, the Internet can be a place of refuge, but it is not a stable place, even when you've had it your whole life. Nostos, home, is the etymological stem of nostalgia, and I kept feeling like my virtual pets were tugging towards previous places I'd lived, as well as previous people I'd been: in Sydney, among the throngs of five million people who I didn’t know; in Queenstown, the tiny mining hamlet where less than five thousand people lived, where we all seemed too familiar. No matter where I moved, the web was an ever-present safety net, and it drew me in when the world seemed on the verge of falling apart.

When I was eleven, my mother and stepfather’s relationship went south. The police came when a neighbour called them about the fight. 'He’s one that doesn’t know where to stop,' the bewildered policeman said to us. We moved four hours north/west to Queenstown, a remote mining town on the West Coast of Tasmania. It was devastatingly beautiful there: snow lay in the broken arms of Mt Lyell like crushed silk, and frost mixed with tar to glint on the gravel footy oval like beads of blood. The Queen River was a writhing brown rope soaked in the runoff of numerous gold and copper mines. Since the 1880s, around 150 million tonnes, or seventy-five Olympic swimming pools, of sulfidic tailings have been dumped into the river—the worst case of acid mine drainage in Australia. Copper Mines of Tasmania now owns the facility where three workers died in 2014, the year after my family left.
 At Queenstown’s library, I remember pretending to read a book about a girl whose life is manipulated by reality TV programmers (it’s called Loathing Lola and it’s very good) while between the shelves I was punched repeatedly by a boy a head shorter than me. I went for a walk by myself once of an evening in the main street, where I was pushed and pummelled by a gang of classmates, and had rocks thrown at me by groups of children. Young people had no opportunities there: the local Polytechnic was defunct, and to finish school you had to travel 100 kilometres to Burnie. One day, I made friends with a thirteen-year-old girl at the local swimming pool who I had never seen before; she and her brother didn’t go to school because of the bullying. There was a large family who lived on my street who were ostracised from the town because they gleaned a lot of furniture from the tip. ‘Tip rats!’ a classmate snarled as two of the boys, a pair of sandy-haired twins snuck into art class for a period. I kept my head down and didn’t look at the twins as we glued plastic feathers onto party masks. I don’t remember seeing them at school again.
 It was an oppressive feeling, being wasted youth. Neopets brought a surrogate source of freedom to the stuffy computer labs at high school, an institution where uniforms were policed, relationships were structured by unspoken hierarchies, and reward systems of educational attainment were called ‘pathways’. When I felt isolated, I turned to the game for a sense of belonging, a sense of prestige gained writing loosely plagiarised short stories for the online bulletin The Neopian Times, whose submission guidelines told writers that they weren’t allowed to discuss subjects from the ‘real world’. I wondered what they meant.
 Neopets and other online realms constitute a very real psychogeography for some. Cher Tan writes in 'Recurring Amnesia', ‘In a world where the lines between ‘URL’ and ‘IRL’ become less and less stark, how can we re-imagine a universe where we can see ourselves in many rooms, yet aren’t completely disconnected?’ Tan expresses an important question: where does the internet stop and life—'real', 'wild', 'natural'—begin?
 While the internet is not materially spatial or tactile, it creates inroads in our memory, algorithmic pathways that channel our psyche into echo chambers, rabbit hole tangents, Youtube binges, Twitter threads and Wikipedia trawls. The alphabet of light and dark that bonds the net is divisible into strings of code, as language and numerical order splits into chips to create Java, HTML, CSS.
 Similarly, all living organisms are connected by a code. DNA is made up of adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, strung on a spiralling abacus. There are sixty-four possible combinations and infinite patterns of deoxyribonucleic acid that eventually spool into a tangle of chromosomic blueprints. Sometimes I feel scared that maybe one day the Wild will only exist in this code—DNA for captive breeding programmes, wilderness photography cached in the image stocks of Technotopia.

Walking home, Queenstown’s old railway sleepers were littered with leaf skeletons shuddering at the approach of the tourist train to Strahan where Macquarie Harbour now glitters with aquaculture farms, the water deoxygenated and nitrogenous from fish waste. Morton writes in Queer Ecology,

excluding pollution is part of performing Nature as pristine, wild, immediate, and pure. By repressing the abject, environmentalisms claiming to subvert or reconcile the subject-object manifold only produce a new and improved brand of Nature.
There are few pristine areas in the sense that they are isolated from human activity – indeed, Nature has never been this way. (I’ll continue to use Nature and Wilderness as capitalised pronouns as Morton does, to emphasise their strangeness.) As Bruce Pascoe writes in Dark Emu, first peoples have practised land maintenance through firestick farming, seasonal burns and myriad farming techniques over millennia across a mosaic of nations. Ecologist David Bowman speculates on the role of Indigenous people 25,000–12,000 years ago in supporting endangered species through regimes of firestick farming: 'were it not for the presence of Aborigines at the height of the last ice-age, the combined effect of fire and aridity may have been the coup de grace for many species that had barely survived previous glacial cycles.' These connections between human and animal populations are partly symbiotic; through one’s actions towards survival, the other benefits.

Collective human impacts are often measured by inscrutable number crunching of damage zones. According to a report by the CSIRO in the journal of Pacific Conservation Biology, 1.2 million hectares of habitat were deforested in Queensland between 2012 and 2014, a rate proportionate to the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil. This unseen threat to biodiversity cannot be addressed with offsets, as many consumer-targeted environmental campaigns tend to suggest; Jane Rawson says in a recent Meanjin podcast that even if we do curb our greenhouse gas emissions, the current extinction crisis is likely to continue. We need drastically to change the way we organise the economy around the environment. Australian biodiversity is on the front lines of the sixth major extinction event in recorded history—in March 2018, the Australian Conservation Foundation released a report finding that Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammalian extinction, with twenty-nine species declared as extinct since colonisation.

Even as it is divided up and commodified, the Natural environment is often treated as a monolithic entity, as a charity case that needs to be ‘saved’, deserving of undiscerning sympathy even as it is culturally erased. In her lecture 'The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resource Boom', Marcia Langton says of environmental campaigning targets, ‘They are not wilderness areas. They are Aboriginal homelands, shaped over millennia by Aboriginal people.’ Erasing history from the environment does a disservice to communities living on the frontlines of ecological crises. It removes a collective sense of responsibility and agency towards the lands we inhabit, though this can go both ways: Technotopian impulses to colonise an isolated fragment of Nature often resemble Thomas Moore’s Eutopia. In games like Age of Empires, imperialism is eponymous; in Minecraft, extraction and dominion over other creatures is encouraged; in immaculately configured spaces like the Teletubbies’ rabbit-bitten meadows, all human activity is rendered invisible by its economic driver. As in the Real World, activities that damage ecosystems’ ability to function are usually externalised from the screen of consciousness.
 A subject/object dichotomy necessarily does violence to the subordinate outsider, says Judith Butler. But like the virtual realm of Technotopia, Nature is sprawling, hybrid, constantly evolving. It can be discomforting to acknowledge the stories embedded in the spaces around us: the violence of colonialism in Australia, where dominant White narratives of Nature often convey a sense of dislocated malaise, is pervasive as the cover-all ‘bush’ that is used to describe its varied ecologies. In An Anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America, Mark Tredinnick writes ‘it is impossible to overestimate the sheer otherness of this place.’ Like colonial landscapes where tree branches corkscrew like Medusic snakes and mountain spines arch like caterpillars, the storied inscrutability of frontier landscapes can be unnerving, and denial of interdependence between different organisms is often strengthened by the exoticisation of this unknowable Other.
 Derrida writes that ‘to us other life-forms are strangers whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivant, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for.’ A bit like the internet, Nature is rebelliously arrivant. It spurts through the asphalt crevices of our roads, dwindling through the corridors between extractive regimes, flourishing and cartwheeling in our blind spots. There can emerge a kind of deranged freedom in the simulated economy of Technotopias like Neopets, just as there is variability among the ignoble backwaters where pollution transforms. In Chernobyl, verdure has reclaimed the abandoned nuclear towns of Pripyat and Kopachi; in Fukushima, fields of sunflowers are planted to absorb caesium, breaking down radioactive compounds scattering the Pacific. These mechanisms cannot assuage largescale pollution without our engaging in wartime-scale collective efforts to reduce anthropogenic emissions, but it is an extraordinarily normal phenomenon how Nature regenerates in everyday mutation.
 ‘I am renewal,’ says Larapinta, in Ellen van Neerven’s Water. Larapinta is a plantperson, a mangrove and ancestral spirit and love interest to the novella’s protagonist, Kaden. The novella queers the boundary between past and present, natural and cultural, human and animal relationships in a 2028 Australian Republic. Place is enmeshed with history as plantpeople galvanise to oppose the islandisation project of Australia2 – a repetition of the colonial exiling of Indigenous people, by amalgamating islands and removing diverse groups from different regions to the archipelago. Kaden’s reconnection to land is illustrated by the trees taking root between the sea and the land. Mangroves are integral to many coastal ecosystems; their roots help maintain the salinity of their surroundings, by turning salty water to fresh. Larapinta can do this with her hands. The language van Neerven uses to describe the plantpeople is subtle, familiar and stark, bringing proximity to the reader: ‘She has a face that’s like me and you.’
 Contrastingly, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan describes the emaciated human bodies of POWs as mangrove trees, forgotten soldiers languishing in a medical tent where recovery is impossible:

Dorrigo Evans examined the strangely aged and shrivelled husks, the barked skin, mud-toned and black-shadowed, clutching twisted bones. Bodies, Dorrigo Evans thought, like mangrove roots. And for a moment the whole cholera tent swam in the kerosene flame before him. All he could see was a stinking mangrove swamp full of writhing, moaning mangrove roots seeking mud forever after to live in.
Far from their birthplace, the dying men become trees in their desire to sense home. In Samoa, the word toa means warrior, or a Pacific tree of the Casuarina variety, which are now strategically planted in some areas of South-East Asia to prevent erosion, the disintegration of land.
 Vigour and health are often associated with the Wild, but the English language struggles to convey Nature suffering beyond biological jargon, gendered depictions of Mother Earth and lacerating terms like ecocide. On the other hand, we can imagine computers getting sick with a virus – another supposedly ‘nonliving’ entity, as Timothy Morton writes, human and animal viruses are not supposed to be alive (technically, they are almost pure information, made up of DNA, membranes and the ability to promulgate themselves). Anna Krien’s metaphor in The Long Goodbye is powerful as it envisions the earth experiencing climate change as a human body with a fever. Krien notes a 2017 mass bleaching of mangrove forests in North Queensland linked to rising sea temperatures.

When I was seven, my family lived in a housing commission flat on the outskirts of Sydney where mangrove swamps rimmed the nearby wastewater management facility beside a sprawling golf course. Some of my best memories are of walking our pet chickens before school among the Medusic root systems and stalagmitic tendrils of ancient trees as they alchemised the effluent. Our chicks, Peatree and Hobo, would stalk the mangrove jungle like tiny, feathered dinosaurs.
 Mud and mire are noticeably absent from the Internet: a place where nothing disappears forever as information is immortalised in caches and supercomputers, data mapped and filed away. Virtual pets won’t die if you leave them for years – they just remain frozen in a state of pixelated malaise. Simulated waste can be artfully digitised in Technotopia: Neopets has lots of dung available for purchase, sale or acquisition through random events, including rainbow dung. In contrast, Teletubbies probably don’t have arseholes; the only embodied non-Teletubby inhabiting their Tubbytronic Superdome is Noo-Noo, the anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner employed to keep Teletubbyland spotless.
 Sealing off clean digital space and external ruggedness is a forcefield of relatively recent philosophy that frames our view of 'the natural world'. Rather than making the heart grow fonder, absence seems to be a virtue to the idealised relationship, or separation, between humans and other organisms. According to Tom Griffiths in Forests of Ash,

Ecological science as it first developed in the early twentieth century tended to seek out equilibrium, harmony and order in nature. Every biotic community was expected to reach a certain state of maturity or climax which was stable if left undisturbed. Often the source of disturbance was human. This definition left humans outside of nature, and nature outside of history.
On a micro level, we can probably all relate to the guilt of killing a cactus or a houseplant through over-attention to watering. ‘It’s weird knowing life thrives more when you exit,’ raps Aesop Rock in ‘Tuesday’.
 In 2016, Tasmania became the first state in Australia to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to zero, mostly through changes in land use and forestry practises. The island state is on track to achieve overall greenhouse gas emissions 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. An imperceptible but fundamental shift occurred in the way industries physically occupied Nature: by preserving old growth forests which sequester pollution, the state facilitated practises which are crucial as we collectively face the challenge to heal ecological damage. Technotopia might satisfy our attentions for a short while, but in an era of climate change, we have to shift our depth perception of ‘Nature’ and its tractability from our lives.

On the seven-hour drive to the Wild, I am bored by the frieze of vision strips limping by matchstick trees posted as windbreaks along blood-spattered bitumen. I like the sound of wind soughing through living trees, and the Saturn-like rings of bracket fungi feeding on dead trees, but travelling feels impersonal and detached. I wish I could stay on my outcrop of dolerite and rosebushes, where an occasional firework of palm tree erupts from the suburban shadow of the mountain beside a thundering overpass. It’s familiar and beautiful, chaotic, and not a little ugly.
 Does it render something less integral if it has been damaged beyond an image of stasis? I think sometimes the notion of ‘untouched wilderness’ is necessary to the fragmentation of habitats, by divorcing the process of existence for the product of ‘wilderness’, replacing sensory connection with branding, and denying Nature’s adaptive agency. Our personal histories are not passive, and the ecosystems that cradle us have histories. They respond to crises and support life amidst catastrophe.
 Queenstown is famous for its ecological degradation. My route to school ran along a prehistorically glacial basin punctuated by the King River crossing, where the rusted bridge shuddered above a pumpkin riverbed, flanked by turmeric yellow rocks. Quartz-studded conglomerate boulders littered the banks of rivers and waterfalls churned to wash away the dust from the bald hills. Slowly the green scrub started coming back, adding velvet trimmings to the gravel rugby field. As the town grew less and less like a wasteland, tourists stopped coming for the dark tourism and started flocking to its biannual arts festival: hosting experimental music, literary and artistic programmes, The Unconformity is a nod to the geological conflict zones between underworld and overworld formations of rock strata. Sponsored by MMG mining, the festival’s ad campaigns feature the orange Queen river as it diverges from its unpolluted twin, taking on a strange beauty.

Technotopia exists somewhere between a place and a feeling, between the 'real' world and the virtual. Rather than purifying the cultural divorce of ecology and humans, perhaps the Teletubbies and Neopets reveal an underlying nostalgia for Nature, sanitised and packaged in digital forms.
 The binaries between natural and technological are necessarily unstable, where life is implicated in both. As we near the end of the critical decade for action on climate change, maybe we can “get back to Nature” by revisiting the sacrifice zones, the Technotopias, and the old homes which continue to live on in our absence.

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a young writer living on stolen land in lutruwita/Tasmania. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Voiceworks, Cordite Poetry Review and Cutcommon magazine. In 2018 she won the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for her essay on fracking and climate, 'The Invisible Sea'. She tweets @earthlingstory.

'Exorcising Colonial Demons with a Blak Mass' by Angelina Hurley

This piece was produced as part of Blak Critics—a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics, and has been co-published with YIRRAMBOI. To read more work by this year's Blak Critics, and to find out more about this incredible festival, visit YIRRAMBOI's website.

Image taken by James Henry for YIRRAMBOI

Naretha Williams’ experimental electronic performance Blak Mass was a truly mesmerising experience. Drawing on data from traditional Aboriginal Songlines, she composed a musical sequence woven from the pattern of her own DNA.
 The work of Wiradjuri woman Williams, born in Melbourne, forms part of her ongoing series Cryptex, which began back in 2017 at the inaugural biennial YIRRAMBOI festival of First Nations art and culture with her piece Circle. Introduced at the opening of the 2019 festival by artistic director Caroline Martin, Blak Mass nicely followed on from Caroline’s dedication to the strength and talent of First Nations women.

Encompassing themes of identity, place and body, Williams’ pieces have been performed at both festivals late at night. The first on at an outdoor venue and the second at an indoor venue—the ambiance of which married well with the sentiment of Caroline's welcoming and acknowledging all First Nations peoples and reminding us of the importance of being able to walk on country in our own right.
 In this spirit, Caroline celebrated the fact of Williams’ work being performed with a distinct purpose to decolonise. Hence Blak Mass was performed in the epitome of colonial venues, at Melbourne's old Town Hall, ripe for decolonising.

The musical score was designed from the sequence of Naretha's own DNA pattern. The digitally and electronically created composition spoke to the legacy of colonisation, a commentary made all the more powerful by harnessing the voice of the venue’s historical instrument, the grand organ. But it wasn’t only the medium of sound through which this decolonisation occurred. It also took flight through extremes of colour and light.
 Two strategically placed spotlights trained on the organ resembled giant eyes, with the glowing bottom row of the keyboard taking on the appearance of a mouth, as if the face of a 147-year-old man patiently was waiting for his audience to arrive. A haunting blue mist caressed the stage to the backing sound of soft bells.
 The audience sat with placid anticipation at this vision, with a stark red light projected on the stage matching that of the Aboriginal flag atop the organ, with the yellowish beady-eyed spotlights and a Blak stage strewn with dots. The lighting of Blak Mass perfectly complemented the show. One minute the stage was totally engulfed in that dramatic red, the next decorated with light streams, which, to me, resembled the rarrk strokes of an Aboriginal painting.

The haunting old grand organ provided a heartbeat to Williams’ avant-garde, gothic techno music. Her overarching contemporary electronic score resonated with the nostalgia of a sci-fi movie, with the familiarity of a Doctor Who-type theme popping up in one section making me smile. As did distant clapstick sounds in the background. Williams moves so calmly through her performance, that its complexity look effortless.

The inauguration of a festival should hit you with an experience of anticipation, excitement and fun as YIRRAMBOI 2017 did me. A city wide Blak out, going from venue to venue to see an abundance of First Nations performances was amazing. I couldn't wait to return.
 The meditative experience of Blak Mass set me in good stead for YIRRAMBOI 2019. I gleefully cruised through the festival with a more conscious intake of the wonderful diversity of Indigenous story telling and performance. Both years have left me with a feeling of nothing but pride and joy. Here's to YIRRAMBOI 2021, bring it on.

Angelina Hurley is an Aboriginal woman from Brisbane, and from the Jagera, Gooreng Gooreng, Mununjali, Birriah, and Kamilaroi nations. Daughter of renowned Aboriginal artist Ron Hurley, her career spans Indigenous Arts, Education and Community Cultural Development. She's an emerging writer whose debut was her short film Aunty Maggie and the Womba Wakgun produced by Screen Australia's Short Black series in 2009. In 2011 she was awarded the Australian-American Fulbright Commission's Indigenous Scholarship. She is working on her Doctoral studies at Griffith University. Angelina is also co-host of the popular radio show Wild Black Women with Associate Professor Chelsea Bond on Brisbane's 98.9fms Let's Talk Program.

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

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

Image by Xanthea O'Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would be a
that I'd
marinate in.

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

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

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

Credit: Text Publishing

Credit: Text Publishing


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

My own list:

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

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

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

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

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

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