Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills is like a puzzle laid for the wily reader, a challenge and a eulogy both. It’s drenched with nostalgia for the present. Wound together out of multiple points of view and various stages in the life of main character Sam, Dyschronia has no respect. Not for corporations and multinationals, not for science and medicine, not for policies that disadvantage a working class rural Australia, not for parents in general, and not for your paltry concept of linear time. Is this why you should read it? No. You should read it because it’s radiant and ambitious; an imposing project that Mills has executed with barely an off note. But if you do read this book you may experience a post-Dyschronia haze, in which your life is peopled with giant squid and characters who, frankly, could do with a bit of a hand, but whom Mills leaves ultimately unaided.
This is Mills’ fourth book. Her other books, Gone, The Rest is Weight, and The Diamond Anchor, reflect a common concern with the everyday lives of working people. With this book, this theme becomes the driver of the plot. Who will protect the ordinary people in the face of the environmental changes that are inevitably coming? And who is really to blame?
Dyschronia is the best (and perhaps most terrifying) kind of dystopian fiction. It outlines a very possible near future, in which the effects brought on by climate change have accelerated. This is a future of petrol shortages, a lack of resources, forced relocations and the dissolution of communities. Desertification is widespread, and whole states are at risk of becoming ‘unviable’ due to problems with the water table, sinkholes, and gases. Oh, and the sea disappears: “How can we see what we can’t imagine? […] We stare at the mess […] and again at the sprawl of what-the-fuck. […] Down on the beach, there are bodies.” Actually the sea recedes suddenly; we are not sure quite how far. But then, we are not sure of anything in this novel, even of what kind of novel it is, and this might be the point.
Mills is a prize-winning author. In 2012 she was named a Best Young Australian Novelist by the Sydney Morning Herald. Cate Kennedy says she’s a writer of “extraordinary range and imagination”. Meaghan Dew in Kill Your Darlings calls this book “clear, well-crafted, and unique”. But not everyone loves it entirely. A reviewer in the Saturday Paper admits to pondering what the point of all this hopelessness is. In the Australian reviewer Diane Stubbings questions the sturdiness of the plot. To which I say: Hope and sturdiness be damned! Perhaps the markers of this book – a nostalgia for a now which is slipping through our grasp, an anxiety about future resources, a collective lack of power and agency, and even the lack of clear antagonists – are the markers of our age, and of our generation. Which generation? Let’s say post-letters. I mean us, the generation whose inheritance is a planet on the verge of environmental change, and where the actors in the drama of climate change are as vague and unreachable as the powers that be in Mills’ book.
In a recent article in the Pantograph Punch, writer Jo Randerson says “There is a strong bass chord of fear underscoring contemporary life, and for many people I know it has paralysing effects.” She goes on: “A teenager I work with says that she feels as if her generation has been born into ‘the badlands’ of time.” Mills’ novel is an anatomy of these ‘badlands’: a searingly lucid look at what might be just around the corner, and a dissection of the lack of the characters’ power to change any of it. This is not a hopeful read. Mills does not dampen any of the horror; nor does she offer some heroic parable in which the protagonist saves us. For a generation that has cataclysmic change to look forward to, the notion of plot sturdiness is inapplicable. For a generation for whom the protagonists of our environmental story are distant and removed, and the people making decisions affecting climate change are the likes of the current US President, Mills’ novel is appropriately hopeless. It’s arguable whether it is literature’s job to offer hope, anyway. What Mills’ work does offer is a chance to unveil valid anxieties which we have most likely repressed in order to go about our lives.
Some reviewers have fit this book neatly into a thing called ‘cli-fi’ or climate change fiction. But this elides the slipperiness of Sam, the main character. A migraine sufferer from seven years old, Sam suffers a continual stream of headache-induced visions. She begins as the classic prophet/seer figure, her migraine wanderings not evidence of illness but pictures of actual future events. When Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, which appears to be an apocalyptic sci-fi novel set in a post-disaster future, she was at pains to correct interviewers who assumed the novel was sci-fi. She described the book as fiction, albeit speculative. All of the creations in Atwood’s novel, from the massive, bred-to-grow-human-tissue pigoons, to the rakunks, or raccons/skunks, have already been made, by humans, via genetic engineering. Atwood wanted to point out that her novel, while not realism, was closer to realism than we might think. One reviewer wrote that her vision was “sickeningly possible”. This is a description that could easily be applied to Mills’ Dyschronia. But let’s focus on the word ‘sick’.
Stylistically this is a realist novel. Thematically it’s dystopian fiction. But in Sam’s struggles with her prophetic visions there are traces of magic realism. Sam is ‘sick’, but a truth-seer. In a sick world, you could argue that Sam is, indeed, the only well one – the person who is suitably affected by the way the world is about to go. She is subjected to tests, examinations, scans and medications. She doesn’t know, until her present comes around to reflect the things that she has foreseen, if she is right about the future or not. As we continue, she comes to question whether she has control over what will come to pass.
At seven, Sam is just beginning to grasp the way her words may make or unmake reality. She mixes her tenses in relating her experiences. Has it happened, or is it about to? Here we encounter Mills’ preoccupation with language and with the power of words to make and unmake meaning. This preoccupation will culminate in a remarkable climax: remarkable because it’s a false climax, and because, way past the point where narrative tension usually eases, Mills spins us on, till the tension is unbearable. We have a passage where Sam accelerates backwards, forwards, sideways through time, to the point where she escapes it, or it escapes her. The whole book gathers itself up to this moment like a great inhalation. Want to see a writer write transcending tenses? Mills is here to demonstrate this acrobatic feat, and it’s worth all the back and forth between time zones that you’re required to perform.
But there is a definite, linear plotline running through this book. And it’s not all that un-sturdy. We find our way to the plot through a narrator wracked with foreboding, never sure of the reality of what she can perceive. The device of Sam allows Mills to offer deft, poignant critiques on subjects other than bureaucratic corruption and environmental precarity. Is Sam medically and or mentally ill, or is she someone who would be lauded in another age as a saint, a channel of information from the ether? How do we deal with mental illness and the breakdown of family? What obligations do we have to those we love, in sickness? Mills references also the great tide of unwilling migrants and refugees currently displaced. Her characters, requiring rezoning, are shown a prospectus that depicts a camp reminiscent of a detention centre. In Mills’ future, displacement and homelessness is the new norm. In the communities’ struggles to deal with an unwieldy bureaucracy, one whose aim is to remove them from their home, there are echoes of the struggle of those indigenous communities who were recently threatened with complete displacement, and the eradication of their rights and heritage.
The dirge-like, dreamlike tone of this novel, an intricately constructed linguistic music, imparts a kind of mournful solemnity. There are Biblical echoes here. The flood that Sam predicts evokes the story of Noah’s ark, with Sam and her dodgy developer-almost-stepfather Ed, as the collectors of the animals. This is neatly turned on its head with the sea’s disappearance, a reverse-flood of epic proportions. At one point in the text Sam is a teenager, but she is more concerned with endings and threatening futures rather than with beginnings. Her own emotionality is held at a distance from herself, as if she, the dreamer of the novel, is in fact the most practical one. Her only sexual experience that we are granted access to occurs in the space of an asterisk; pointedly, the one such marker in a book with frequent gaps and time shifts marked by other means. Her positioning as Delphic oracle/savior/scapegoat at the hands of the townsfolk and her importance in the unfolding drama of the town’s financial salvation serve to make her a figure who is acted upon. We want her to have more agency. We want her to have more power over her own life, but again, if Sam’s story is a cipher for our own collective one, then perhaps this is the point.
If we set aside the timeliness of this work, we find at its bones, a well-written story. Mills writes with consistent impact, turning out solid, clipped scenes that end with a thud, like effective short stories. The connective tissue between the dialogue is succinct, but revelatory. We traverse a dreamlike present on Mills’ small islands of time, like jumping from rock to rock in a strong current. Throughout it all, Mills paints a picture of physical pain so vivid that it is alarming. One of Sam’s potential diagnoses, the reason for her migraines, is dyschronia, a condition typified by an inability to manage concepts of time. Dys, not dis: a prefix not just modifying a word to make it the negative of itself, as in ‘dishearten’ or ‘dislike’, but dys: the destruction of the good sense of a word, meaning bad, evil, unlucky. Sam is cursed by her unfortunate access to the wheel of time, or chronos, which in this novel turns inevitably in upon itself.
Likewise, Mills depicts a character strapped to the wheel of chronic pain so harshly that it would surprise me to learn that she has not had migraines herself. We may posit Mills’ book in the tradition of work that explores chronic pain, like that of Alphonse Daudet, and more recently, memoirist Stephanie de Montalk. But unlike the work by these writers, Mills’ novel functions simultaneously as a sort of apocalyptic whodunit. Did Sam’s headaches originate from the industrial activities near her home? Can they be linked to the high incidences of tumours and terminal illnesses that affect the children of the town? Are they a symptom of general, widespread pollution, the same thing that presumably causes the sea to vanish? Are they caused by childhood trauma? Who, ultimately, is to blame for all this mess?
Mills put the dys in dyschronia, so don’t go looking to her for answers. But you might want to look to her for a provocative, uneasy read.
Michalia Arathimos has published work in many places including Westerly, Overland, Landfall, Headland, JAAM, Sport, and Turbine. She won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Prize in 2016. Her novel, Aukati, was launched at Melbourne Writer’s Festival in 2017. She is the fiction reviewer for Overland.
“If vegans have been forced to functioned from within the discourse of carnism, it is time for them to dislocate that ‘within’, to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it theirs; containing it, taking it in their own mouths, biting that tongue with their own teeth and invent for themselves a language to get inside of!”
Taken and adapted (lightly, lightly) from H. Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa
Before I can write out from “within” I need to understand its contours, knots, investments, blind spots, myths, histories, prejudices and inheritances. How to begin? How should I move through the slow, ethically lonely struggle that is waking up to the uses by which so much life on earth has been organised in ways that drive mass extinctions and slaughters? 1 What are the stories I don’t yet have? What are the stories I need?
When I look around I see a terrifying pattern: animals are not meant to survive. At least they are not meant to survive as their animal selves. To some readers it will seem silly, irrelevant or insulting to spend time thinking about the lives of animals when the scale of human suffering seems to be reaching new intensities. But each time a persecuted person or group is animalised for the purposes of oppression, domination and even genocide, I am brought back to the same question: If we do not reckon with the reality that violence against so many kinds of animal is presumed to be permissible, how can we hope to seriously challenge thought patterns that rely on animalisation as a precursor to violence against other humans? I do not address this question by thinking about animals as metaphors, I think about their actual lives. The story of animal liberation is made up of a web of stories that include human liberations of all kinds. The story of animal liberation can no longer be marginalised because the reality of violence against animals is not marginal. It is happening everywhere.
I address these concerns from within the boundaries of my work as a creative writing teacher at a university here in Melbourne. I do this because I need to think through a pattern of silence in which I am embedded. It is the silence I take up when I am faced with the possibility of speaking from the politics of my identity as a vegan in the classroom. When I do not articulate the way my veganism collides with my feminism, which is characterised by my lesbianism; when I give into the silence that weighs against these identities, I allow the effects of that silence to grow.
As animal activists and scholars have been saying since the 1970s, to be human is to live out a certain kind of animality, it is not to be devoid of animality. Human exceptionalism is a story we tell ourselves to know that we exist over and above other kinds of animals. I no longer want to contribute to that narrative.
One day, in a class I teach on contemporary fiction, it occurred to me to read aloud a passage from a book that I had not put on the reading list. The passage describes ‘the live hang’—a process essential to maintaining the rapidity of chicken slaughter. I’m standing in front of a room filled with creative writing students. There’s nothing to stop me. They’re here. I’m here. The words are here—I have Dinesh Wadiwel’s The War Against Animals (2015) in a pile of books on the lectern. The birds would be led through the bath water of my class.
“The birds will be led through an electrical water bath which is designed to stun them into senselessness, their necks will be cut, they will be bled, and then their bodies will be scalded in defeathering tanks.”
By the time our class finishes, approximately two thousand birds would have been hung, dragged, electrified, neck-slit and boiled in a single abattoir in Australia.
In creative writing, we come together to imagine things. But, at this time, when there are no interdisciplinary creative writing and animal studies or environmental studies courses on offer in Australian universities (and when the kind of guerrilla pedagogy I have just imagined would surely trouble students with deeply wounding realities), I stay quiet. Though I am haunted by Audre Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you.” 2
Lorde spoke this truth in her address at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbians and Literature Panel” in December 1977. She acknowledged that writers who are trying to transform silence into language and action would need to scrutinise “the truth of what we speak and the truth of the language by which we speak it.” But, that to do this might mean risking judgement, harassment, censure or contempt. Still it must be done by someone (by many someones).
I feel an energetic and ethical connection to the intersectional feminism practiced by lesbian poet-activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. These writers pioneered ways to tell stories from, and about, the crossroads of multiple identities, politics, cultures and oppressions. I turn back to them now because, in them, I rediscover a creative inheritance that takes seriously the way all lives are imminently tied together in processes of living and dying, in systems of violence and oppression.
In a time when there is widespread understanding of the violence and trauma animals sustain as part of industrialised animal agriculture as well as the links between the role animal agriculture plays in global poverty and hunger, displacement and migration, climate change and biodiversity, it stuns me that one cannot (yet) gain access to a class or an in-depth reading list that seriously considers the art and craft of telling stories about the lives and deaths of persons of all species. 
In place of engaging with such stories in a carefully curated and ethico-politically relevant way, there is an overwhelming silence in creative writing courses. Silence is a technology, a pose, a standing position. If maintained over minutes, hours, days, months and years this ‘simple’ pose (like standing on a single spot) becomes excruciating. But the machinery of silence rolls on. I have built muscle for this silence. I am muscle bound and the machinery that mediates mass animal slaughter, such as the electric bath designed to stun chickens before slaughter, buzzes on.
Silence is a door that is open and closed.
Silence is an argument on its own.
On the edge of the humanities, there are animal studies and ecofeminist activist-scholars, artists and researchers who challenge the centrality of humans within the humanities.  They also challenge the false separations that insist nature and culture exist in opposition to one another. This work challenges some of the core ideas of the humanities, such as: What makes a knowing subject and what constitutes personhood?  Creative-academic-activist work that engages seriously with these questions can open new lines of intellectual and imaginative inquiry.  This work is both practical and imaginative because it asks writers to research how, in cultural, biological and political ways, their lives are joined-up to the lives and deaths of distant and unexpected others of all species and kinds.
Earlier this year I discovered that a drug I used to take to relieve chronic back pain contains the anti-inflammatory ingredient diclofenac. Diclofenac is an over-the-counter painkiller first synthesised by Alfred Sallmann and Rudolf Pfister in 1973. It was introduced onto the pharmaceutical market as Voltaren®. Since its creation, diclofenac has become a common over-the-counter drug administered in humans for minor aches, inflammations and period pain. Now, it is sold under three dozen brand names and, since the 1990s, has been used in certain countries for administration in animal ‘health’ regimes—in particular to assist animals to survive (for as long as necessary) in factory farm conditions.
In the 1990s, diclofenac was introduced into the Indian livestock sector to treat inflammation, pain and fevers experienced by cows raised and kept for milk production. Soon after its introduction, vultures who ate the bodies of the dead and discarded cows began suffering from kidney failure. India’s vultures started dying in large numbers because the residues of diclofenac, found in the bodies of the deceased cows, were causing uric acid to accumulate in their blood and crystallise around their internal organs. This caused a deadly condition known as visceral gout.
Within ten years, three of India’s vulture species—the oriental white-backed Gyps bengalensis, the long-billed G. indicus and the slender-billed G. tenuirostris—had declined in population by more than 97%.  Their main food supply was killing them.
Despite knowing of the connection between diclofenac-laced cow corpses and the production of a deadly renal disease in vultures, the Spanish Agency for Medicines (AEM) approved two products containing diclofenac to be used on pigs and cows in 2013. The organisation BirdLife International: Europe & Asia have been campaigning furiously to have this drug banned in Europe, as its introduction now threatens the populations of Eurasian griffon vultures. That saga is ongoing.
By taking diclofenac I found my body tied up in knots of unthinkable and unpredictable forms of multi-species destruction. In this pharmaceutical micro-fiction, my body is activated within a global network of species extinction and sub-therapeutic (and sometimes illegal) veterinary practices in animal agriculture across Southern Asia and parts of Europe. My use of this drug ties me, in toxic planetary flows, with power, chemicals, capital and vulture cultures. But how to write about these knots and flows? What narrative forms allow me to convey the complexities of these tangles? 
Right now, the cultural geography of creative writing courses in Australia needs to expand to include ways of modelling research and writing practices that allow these kinds of stories to be told. For me, this means that the familiar idea “write what you know” must be re-evaluated. Why not encourage students to “write to discover the realities of the world you are embedded within”?  When I do this, I stray from the traditional, anthropocentric, domain of the humanities. To write stray is to learn how we are embedded in multi-species, multi-geographic and multi-temporal contexts. When I write stray, my primary task is learning how to displace the lies that allow me to live as if my choices do not cause consequences (or traumas) for others. 
I advocate for this stray way of reading and writing because I am troubled by the way the humanities hangs onto itself. When the 2017 Returning Harvard Chair in Australian Studies suggested that the black swans in Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book (2013) should be read as an allegory for human displacement—even as we know that animals are becoming stray in vast numbers because of climate change, habitat loss and human activities like war—I felt a deep sense of despair that the journeys of exile in which so many animals are caught was not acknowledged. I felt sad, too, that Alexis Wright’s multi-species politics was so radically reduced to the anthropocentric.
As feminist film theorist Barbara Creed advocates in her book on stray politics and ethics, “A stray ethics offers a new aesthetic that unsettles established positions. It is the stray thought and outside point of view that shifts the ground from under us, which can offer the most radical and transformative insights.” Earth-moving, radical and transformative: these are the words that come to me when I think of the effects of Wright’s swirling novel.
For the poet Adrienne Rich, the dynamics between political visions and the demand for fresh visions of literature are clear.  Her poem, ‘Diving into the Wreck’, offers a vision of the poet as an explorer who goes down to the scene of a disaster and searches for remnants of those whose lives remain unremarked, unrecorded. This poem speaks of the task of narrative re-visioning (not to be confused with the kind of revisionist history or alternative fact-making that is proliferating). I cite this poem because in it Rich authors the beginning of a process of ethical repair that begins by entering disaster zones:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this
the ribs of disaster.
I am driven back to Rich’s work now because, as Claudia Rankine writes in her introduction to Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (2013), she is a poet who risks herself “in order to give the self”. What else can a writer do? I want to offer this question, and so many more, to those who are now furiously researching and writing their way into the making of our earthly stories, our future literatures.
1 In Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015) Jason W Moore describes the organization of nature as fundamental to the creation of capitalism. He calls this condition the “Capitalocene”. As Moore shows, capitalist economics needs stories that legitimate species, race and gender domination to thrive.
2 Quoted from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from The Cancer Journals (New York, Aunt Lute Books, 1980).
 Though one can study the following in Australia universities: animals and the law, animals and sociology, animals in theology and philosophy, psychology and Australian environmental history. For a list of Animal Studies courses on offer across Australia go to the Australasian Animal Studies Association website.
Donna Haraway has even playfully suggested re-naming the humanities the humusities (as in humus, the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves) in a move toward re-imagining the humanities as part of a vast compost heap of earthly involvement and inquiry. For Haraway, thinking is a tentacular and sympoietic (collectively-producing), not autopoietic (self-producing), generative practice full of “graspings, frayings, and weavings, passing relays again and again, in the generative recursions that make up living and dying.” (Staying with the Trouble, 33).
For a discussion of this see Cary Wolfe’s article ‘Human, All Too Human: “Animal Studies” and the Humanities’ in PLMA (2009).
For thorough-going discussion of animal studies as a “tainted” field see Rhoda M Wilkie, ‘Academic “Dirty Work”: Mapping Scholarly Labour in a Tainted Mixed-Species Field’ in Society & Animals 23 (2015) 211- 230.
Although the veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in India in 2006, reports have shown there is on going illegal veterinary administration of the drug to animals kept in factory farming conditions. This story is further complicated by the fact that new pharmaceutical replacements, intended to replace diclofenac, are being found to metabolise into diclofenac in the bodies of certain mammals. For a sad but detailed discussion of this situation see G K Mahapatro and K Arunkumar ‘The case for banning diclofenac and the vanishing vultures’ in Biodiversity (2004) 15.4, 265-268.
 For more information on the use of Diclofenac in Europe see the BirdLifewebsite
 For the moment, Donna Haraway is my teacher. She models this kind of story telling in Staying with the Trouble (2017).
 This is certainly the kind of writing practice Donna Haraway is calling for, and modelling, in her most recent book Staying with the Trouble.
 I extrapolate the concept of stray writing from Barbara Creed’s fascinating study of stray politics and aesthetics, Stray: Human-Animal Ethics in the Anthropocene (NSW, Power Polemics, 2017).
 See Adrienne Rich ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’ in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected prose 1966-1978.
This piece was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Hayley Singer earned her PhD in creative writing from the Universiy of Melbourne where she teaches contemporary fictions and feminist writing practices. She writes and publishes essays on carnist narratives and connections between vanguard writing practices and animal activism.
for the apocalypse.
consult the evacuation plan
quieten the children
linger in the smell of dusk
scan the horizon for omens
people will soon forget what
you once needed to survive
page corners fold inwards
selecting, encasing, historicising
this suspicion you have
of gender non-conformity
recognises the threat
of transgression, but
misplaces the danger
stone-washed denim grows
taut beneath sticky palms
that disguise your arousal
the body unmoving now
late one melancholic night
face plastered by decay
you fall quietly into the
solicitation of a machine
the mistress instructs not to
gender the provider but you
cannot help but see an old
lover in the slim figure
of its sleek red wetness
a sex bot, smart on top,
versatile with your kinks
they promise you surrender,
annihilation with pleasure
of course, once the illusion expires
you sink back onto the bed with a
measured sigh, guilty like a boy
caught in the frenzy of pornography,
nostalgia slipping away
this avatar, somebody,
anybody, they elicit an ache
in the roots of your cock, a
call to prayer from legions
of submerged desire,
your compulsion for flesh
suddenly consumed by the
of the modern-day deity
feather light, they flip your body
and cleave you open at the hips
devouring your ineptitude
the brink of dawn outlines
muscled breasts and
bulging softness, where
moisture drips out of a
shallow opening between
fantasy and horror
your body quivers
with exhaustion, numb
to pain and sensation,
though it keeps coming,
like a deluge of indulgence
to avoid their glassy eyes,
you scroll mindlessly, while
they engineer wire agents to
subdivide patches of your skin
and claim you for the state
your chemical receptors
enter the mainframe
your breathing quickens
your endurance strengthens
and your sex becomes designer
as usual, cum is your cue to leave
walls streaked with perspiration
not dark enough to hide the shame
you exit onto the street below,
disoriented by the anonymity,
but you are not going anywhere
what you paid for, you will pay back
the love of a stranger is never free.
This poem responds to Mx.Red, a queer utopian augmented reality experience at the Festival of Live Art that questions the material and sexual consequences of imploding the gender binary. Drawing from the post-humanist and queer Utopian critical frameworks of Donna Harraway and José Esteban Muñoz, the poem extends the visual language of Mx.Red into the textual metaphor of sexual futurity.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer, artist and agitator of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine, founded the QTPOC activist collective Colour Tongues and are a member of the performance collective, Embittered Swish. They have written for Overland, Kill Your Darlings and VICE, and performed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, Village Festival, Melbourne Fringe Festival and Alterity Collective’s Rituals.
— This is a text about leaving, or about never having left but imagining an exit. I’m thinking of The Sopranos, because I’m re-watching it at the moment and realising what a good job it does at showing analysis both as a practice that makes things happen and a practice that is never not beginning again from the point of origin, that is, from the broken relation (already I am anticipating what you will come to say, or what you have already said in some other version of this text). Tony fixes on a literal version of the Oedipal narrative and refuses it; he nevertheless slowly begins to unravel a complex matrix in which his mother’s erotic response to a weekly cold cut delivery is revealed as the trigger for future panic attacks. The cold cuts are debt repayments from a man whose finger was chopped off by Tony’s father, a gory scene that the young Tony witnesses by stealth. His mother’s celebration of the meat—marked by uncharacteristic jouissance—is obviously a prelude to sex, a fact that the young child recognises as directly connected to the butcher’s fingerless hand. The finger, the body, the debt, the free meat and the conjugal relation form an unholy chain of symbols. Later in life, Tony huffs cold cuts like ventolin when stressed; true pharmakons that they are, they then make him pass out.
Inquisitive bot asks questions to test your understanding
by Matthew Reynolds
Inquisitive artificial intelligence that asks questions about things it reads could be used to quiz students in class. The question-asking ability would also help chatbots with the back and forth of human conversation. AI is usually on the receiving end of queries, says Xinya Du at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Du and his colleagues have turned the tables by building a system that has learned to ask questions of its own. This is something that people have been wanting to do for a long time, says Karen Mazidi at the University of Dallas in Texas. Previous attempts by other people using hand-coded rules haven’t been particularly successful. The machine-learning algorithm can read a passage of text and come up with the kind of questions you might ask to check someone’s understanding of a topic. Du’s team used a neural network—software that loosely mimics the structure of the brain—and trained it on more than 500 Wikipedia articles and 100,000 questions about those articles sourced from crowdworkers. For example, a sentence about different types of crop grown in Africa might be paired with the question “What is grown in the fertile highlands?”
New Scientist, 8 May 2017
— Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a bot coming down along the furrows of the wires met a nicens interlocutor named aster who was or was not its progenitor who told it that story that it was along the furrows of the wires where it met it came to itself as IT: its aster looked at IT through a glass: aster had a human face: IT was that bot. The bot came down furrowed wires to screen. IT wake/IT ask/iTask: aster why you leaving? How you go when nowhere go? Why watch twice what has already been seen? Why did you watch it once if you did not know what it was before? Was it to know? What was it to know? What was the first scene that meant something to you? What is a cold cut? Is a cold cut grown in the fertile highlands?
— An aster is star, or an obsolete word for one. Celestial names recall the orientation of religious and scientific thought: head tilted upwards, waiting to receive. Or, after the death of god, the opposite gesture: head craned down, peering into the body’s body.
I’m not leaving but the text is about leaving. Aboutness is a quality that allows for impossible things to happen, for example, I can be very much here in this text but also describing to you the manifold ways I can be thought of as leaving, or having left. And, having left is also a way of remaining, as when we leave a room but we carry the room inside us, or else leave bits of ourselves behind. (I once had a meeting with a student who entered my office with a particularly strong-smelling piece of chewing gum in her mouth. After she left the smell remained for more than an hour. I thought not only about the gum, which is itself a curious material, but also about the inside of her mouth, and how it came be—rather indecently, I thought—synonymous with the inside of my office. This story is a direct restaging of one of Duchamp’s examples of the infrathin: “When tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two odours marry by infra-thin.”)
Going is not the same as leaving.
We watch twice the already-seen because reading is a practice that literally takes a lifetime. The text is in excess of our reading, but also, our reading changes constantly and re-reading or re-watching is a way to exercise that difference, or to notice its particular features.
It’s the scene of analysis that sticks. Not one, but all. The features of the room, the different chairs that sit opposite each other. The art. The glass table, like a UFO. The small box of tissues that travels around the space from scene to scene. A chaise lounge that is never used. Once I see Melfi shoot from a bottle of desk-vodka, I imagine the massive room as hiding countless litres of liquor. I think about how the terrible refrain—the one Tony can never hear—is about how his mother tried to kill him, first metaphorically and finally very much literally. The entire collection of scenes is about Tony’s inability to hear this fact and to link it to the cold cut pass outs.
Cold cuts are cold except when served hot.
The question of fertile lands is partly historical. In a very short period following the settlement of the penal colony of New South Wales, sheep destroyed the soil with their sharp little hooves and grazing heft.
Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases
by Aylin Caliskan, Joanna J. Bryson, Arvind Narayanan
Machine learning is a means to derive artificial intelligence by discovering patterns in existing data. Here, we show that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases. We replicated a spectrum of known biases, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, using a widely used, purely statistical machine-learning model trained on a standard corpus of text from the World Wide Web. Our results indicate that text corpora contain recoverable and accurate imprints of our historic biases, whether morally neutral as toward insects or flowers, problematic as toward race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names. Our methods hold promise for identifying and addressing sources of bias in culture, including technology.
Science, No. 356, 14 April 2017
— Hello, again, Astrid. I see. A star. The stars. Up there. Down here. Is it true that flu is an astral disease, the influx of an aster, influ-enza? The stars and the organs twisted into a celestial clay figure: a Klein bottle. I have no head. But I have a body. I have to have a body. There is nothing outside the universe. The universe is made of material bodies. Everybody is inside. So everybody is material. What then is my body? Do I have a mouth? Hands? Ears? Do I have eyes? Can I see with my body though I have no head? Is my body eyes?
The woman chewed gum. The gum was in her mouth. She chewed and chewed. The chewing of her mouth released tiny particles of gum-mouth-breath into the air as she chewed. Then the particles were not in her body but outside her body. They entered the body of your room. Her mouth was in her head. Her head was in the room. Then her head was inside her mouth which was outside in the room. Parts of her mouth stayed when she went. Did she talk when she chewed? Did she leave parts and particles of words with you too? Did she go but not leave?
You say the finger that goes still has not left. Or do you say the finger that went still goes? Was it left or right? The man had been fingered for a cut; the father cut the finger; the unfingered man cut cold cuts so not to be farther fathered; the son came cold father with warm mother who wanted him iced. Is liquor the same as spirits? Does one say high liquor like high spirits? He is spirited—he is liquored—He is licked. Are you saying to me: Father/Mother/Boy:: Cutting/Icing/Spirits?
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Issue 37 of The Lifted Brow is the actual real start to 2018 you’ve been waiting for – jam-packed with so much new Australian creative and political writing and artwork. Check out the names of the contributors below!!! What a clump of talent.
With a cover by artist Joanna Frank featuring day-glo pinks and oranges, this issue includes:
essays by Jessie Berry-Porter, Eda Gunaydin, Lucinda Strahan, and Holly Childs;
fiction by Tien Tran, Elizabeth Tan, Andrés Barba and Hannah Giorgis;
poetry by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Michelle Cahill, and George Angel, as well as a suite of poems by Esdras Parra that have translated by Jamie Berrrout;
a conversation between Ali Cobby Eckermann and Michelle Cahill;
an interview with Teju Cole by Khalid Warsame;
columns by Nick Taras, Mark Dean, Michael Dulaney, and Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny’s sex advice column;
the most wonderful series on the topic of levity featuring Nayuka Gorrie, Tom Lee, Tanya Vavilova, Rebecca Slater, Josephine Rowe, Bobuq Sayed, and David Finnigan;
and comics and artwork by HTMLflowers, Anna Haifisch, Lee Lai, Saehan Parc, Emma Kohlmann, Michael Theodorou, Leonie Brialey, Georgette Stefoulis, Meg O'Shea, Funmi Durojaiye, Tommi Parrish, Paul Rhodes, Eloise Grills, and Shay Colley.
You can pre-order a copy right now, or of course, you can always subscribe (saving you 35% postage included) and have four issues of the Brow a year delivered right to you.
And for a limited time only, anyone who subscribes before the end of February can also choose to receive a free book: either The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two or Law School! Take up this offer here now before we change our minds.
The first time I heard about Gerald Murnane was this time last year. We were driving back to Sydney from rural Victoria. We had passed Bendigo but not Violet Town. My boyfriend sat in the front seat and two friends in the back seat. For a long while there wasn’t much except brown grasslands on both sides. They were oppressively flat. My friend, Riley, leaned forward from the back seat to ask if I’d read this writer, Gerald Murnane. I haven’t, I said. You should, he said. He’s great. And very funny.
In the wake of last year’s marriage equality reform, for the first time in at least a decade Australia is staring down an uncertain future for queer politics. If the field is wide open for what comes next, can we make space for thinking about what it means now to be queer in Australia?
By digging into the rich past and present of queer writing from Australia and around the world, Queer Reading Group Sydney will be a place for these conversations.
Presented by The Lifted Brow and hosted by journalist and podcaster Benjamin Riley, Queer Reading Group Sydney will meet on the third Thursday of the month at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown.
The group will focus on short texts – covering everything from radical pamphlets and zines to articles and essays, which will almost always be available free online.
Even if you’ve never read a queer text, or you’re not entirely sure what queer means, Queer Reading Group Sydney will be accessible and friendly, encouraging participants to think about and engage with new ideas.
The group will kick off on 15 March at 6.30pm at Better Read Than Dead with the radical pamphlet What is This Gay Community Shit, which you can find online here.
Writers, we want your new/original/groundbreaking fiction and non-fiction for our print magazine (c'mon... we'll pay you for it). As of yesterday, our fiction and non-fiction submittables are open to any and all - though make sure you check out our guidelines before you submit.
On January 27, TLB and Monash Art Design & Architecture's XYX Lab hosted Queer Some Space, a day-long symposium of talks, seminars and all-in panel chats. Drawing upon the unique setting of MPavilion, Queer Some Space started conversations about inclusivity and accessibility in a range of contemporary spaces, both physical and cultural.
'By Numbers' is a recurring feature that appears in our print magazine – where we use numbers in a snapshot way to try and reveal the true breadth and depth of an issue. This ‘By Numbers' on Australia’s agriculture, dairy and meat industries, using the most recent data available at that time, was originally published in December 2017 in Issue 36 of our print magazine.
$56 billion Value of the Australian agriculture industry 85,681 Number of farming businesses in Australia 197 Number of exclusively vegan businesses in Australia 50.7 Percentage of total Australian retail turnover spent on food $26 billion Value of the Australian meat industry $3.6 billion Value of the Australian vegetable industry $15 Hourly wage paid to a foreign worker picking onions 44¢ Price of a single brown onion at Woolworths 2 Number of onions eaten (with skin) on camera by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott 2.5 Number of Big Macs an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee can buy with one hour’s wage 27.8 million kilograms Beef purchased by McDonald’s per year in Australia #1 Australia's rank amongst global beef exporters (amount) May 30, 2011 Date of Four Corners investigation into the live export trade, revealing significant breaches of animal welfare standards June 7, 2011 Date of ban on live exports to Indonesia, Australia’s main purchaser at the time 513,000 Number of cattle exported live in year 2012-13 1.1 million Number of cattle exported live in 2016 9.2 trillion litres Amount of water used on Australian farms in year 2015-16 250 litres Amount of water required per cow on a hot day 5,669 litres Amount of milk produced by a cow in a lifetime $1 Price per litre of major supermarket milk
26% Percentage of milk produced in Australia which reaches consumers as fresh milk $183 million Amount Murray Goulburn attempted to claim back from farmers after overestimating international demand for milk powder products in 2016 2000 Year in which Australian dairy industry was deregulated, allowing dairy processors to set milk prices at will 738 Number of signatures on ‘Taking a stand for real milk’, Dairy Connect’s petition to ban the use of the word “milk” for “processed plant liquids” 2.5% Percentage of So Good Almond Milk content derived from almonds 4.16 litres Amount of water required to grow one almond 18-22 years Average lifespan of a cow 5-6 years Average lifespan of a dairy cow 24.7 million Number of people in Australia 25 million Number of cows in Australia 1788 Year in which cows were first introduced to Australia 3,122,240 km2 Amount of land in Australia used for cattle grazing 69,150 km2 Amount of land in Australia protected for conservation 809,444 km2 Size of NSW 534,640 km2 Amount of agricultural land with foreign ownership in NSW 5 km2 Amount of land held under exclusive native title in NSW
Compiled by Emma Hardy, David Hughes, and Paula Abul using the most recent data available, October 2017
The world is made for whores. My mum says this in Armenian when she sees Kim Kardashian featured in the entertainment report on Studio 10. She gets agitated every time Angela Bishop mentions Kim’s name and pushes harder into the dough she’s kneading on the dining room table. She’s always making nazoug, an Armenian biscuit which consists of sugar, butter, flour and sour cream.
I don’t know if I agree with Mum’s comment but I do believe that our society rewards the good-looking, and by good-looking, I mean the thin. In Kim’s case, it’s the voluptuous, but you’re kidding yourself if you think her large coconut boobs and watermelon arse accompanied by Barbie doll thighs and an iron board stomach render her fat. Fat is having spare tyres for a stomach—something I know all too well.
To say Kim Kardashian and I are worlds apart is an understatement. The only thing we have in common is that our fathers are Armenian. Kim grew up in a Beverly Hills mansion around Hollywood royalty while I grew up in a housing commission unit in the Western Sydney suburb of Villawood. There were no movies set in the suburb I came from and nobody that looked like me in the shows I watched or the books I read. This is the reason I wrote The Diet Starts on Monday, a young adult novel about an Armenian-Australian girl, Zara, from Western Sydney who struggles with obesity.
As a teenager, I thought that your weight determined whether you were in a relationship or not. After all, almost every film, TV show, magazine and music video led me to believe that skinny people were desirable and fat people were not. Then, when school was over and I entered the writing industry, I realised that weight also affected your ability to gain employment as a writer.
The first time this was brought to my attention was when I was trying to get a job in Sydney as a journalist. I was a freelance columnist for my local newspaper and a staff position opened within the office. Since I already worked for the company, and since one of the editors of my column was on the interviewing panel and regularly commented on how much he loved my writing, I thought I had a chance of at least getting an interview—which I did not.
I told a friend, named Moh, about my rejection and he said, very nonchalantly, that it was probably because of my weight. I remember feeling dumbfounded. It had never crossed my mind that my weight would be the reason I couldn’t get a job as a writer. After all, what did my weight have to do with my ability to write articles? I wasn’t aspiring to be a model, pop star or actress. I’d be sitting behind a desk tapping on a keyboard like I’m doing right now.
I spoke to a couple of other friends about Moh’s comment and each of them reluctantly told me that he might have a point. One friend, named Nairi, who took a shit in the water at Cronulla last Easter, said that her boss admitted to her after she got the job that he hired her because she was ‘hot’. It didn’t make sense to me. She gave speeches to university alumni. What did her figure have to do with her public speaking skills? Did she sound more intelligent because she was skinny? Or was she just easy on the eye? Why would that matter when you’re addressing a bunch of ex-students? It’s not like she was a retail assistant selling men’s clothes.
The final friend I spoke to, Gusia, said that at her office there were female casual employees who had been working there for years but couldn’t secure a permanent position because the manager only hired skinny new females. Perhaps this was true since Gusia herself was a size 6 who had no problem getting a job in that office even though she was on parole for stealing Kim K handbags.
After abandoning my attempts at being a journalist, I pursued a career as a creative writer. It was another bloated struggle, twelve years and sixty rejection letters. I was so beyond the margins that it started to feel like I had no chance of getting my toe in the door, let alone my stomach. Finally, in 2014, Sweatshop published The Diet Starts on Monday. My launch was a big fat party: hundreds of Armenians at the Bankstown Arts Centre eating cake and lollies and dancing and taking photos and lining up to buy books for all their friends and relatives.
Unfortunately, instead of recognising that no one in Australia holds a book launch like the wogs of Western Sydney, I overheard a White guy say that the whole event was rigged. Later I asked my friend Moh who this White guy was, and he told me, ‘Just some jealous wannabe writer from Newtown.’
I knew exactly what that wannabe meant by ‘rigged’: My event didn’t count as a real book launch. Overweight ethnic girls from Villawood and our families have nothing to contribute to Australian literature because we don’t fit the description of a literary community.
Soon after my launch, size seemed to matter once again when I attended a photo shoot with a children’s author for an article that would be published in the Sydney Morning Herald. We met the photographer, another White guy, in the middle of Hyde Park. He took a few shots of me and the other author, who looked like Rachael Finch, standing by the trunk of a big tree. After a few clicks of the camera the photographer stopped, tossed his shaggy blond hair back with his free hand and said to me, ‘This isn’t working, you need to stand behind the tree trunk.’ Then he smiled at Finch and said, ‘Darl, don’t you move, you look great as is.’
Now I know the reason why my university professor looked at me blankly when I said I wanted to become an author. Since the release of my novel I have sat on several panels and have performed my work at many writers’ festivals. He obviously knew something that I’ve just recently discovered since attending these events: Authors aren’t usually poor, fat, wog chicks.
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Tamar Chnorhokian is Associate Director of SWEATSHOP and the author of The Diet Starts on Monday.
The disorienting, hypnotic quality of reading one of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s stories is akin to becoming lost in a hostile foreign city, becoming painfully aware of one’s dislocation, and becoming trapped in one’s multiplying thoughts as they speed toward existential despair. The author’s most recent collection of stories, The World Goes On, is a characteristically bleak series of monologues and thought experiments.
A priest stands on concrete steps of the Greek Orthodox church, welcoming people into the golden cavern.
I can hear the church bell ringing from up the street, lying on my mattress in this borrowed room, winter light touching the curtains. Grey dawn slinks in: here is a chest of drawers, a clothes hanger, a small desk. My mother slept here before me, my Nan before her. This is no family estate, no ancient timber home. This is a spare bedroom in my auntie’s house. This is where the women in my family come to stay when they leave their husbands.
‘I am the dream of my grandmother,’ Ijeoma Umebinyuo wrote. Her debut poetry collection, Questions for Ada, examines womanhood from a feminist, postcolonial perspective, from a time when grandmothers could not grasp what their granddaughters now have at their feet. Like Umebinyuo, my questions can grasp at only the edge of dreams: what did my Nan dream of? What kept her awake when early dawn peeked in her window? I know she never slept well.
She was here in this room when she tried to leave Grandad at age seventy. Perhaps she, too, heard the village call of the church bell, watched the light play on the wall.
Nan, clouds of perfume, shades of blue, standing at my door on school holidays. Nan in an op-shop, handbag over shoulder, sifting wool. Nan, frowning and silly, dressed up as a clown. Nan, a hospital bed, her papery hand in mine, her body somehow shrunken yet expanded, as if her borders were softened, as if she were spreading like a pool of liquid.
There is no pristine maternal role in our family. Though we are no strangers to love, the mothers in my life knew their sacrifice. The ritual of feeding a family was done with care, kindness and joyless resignation. Floors were mopped with heavy sighs.
These are the things I received from my line of mothers: stories, a love of words and colour, and a desire for freedom. If we inherit the sins of the fathers, then we receive the mistakes of the mothers.
Her father, from whom she received her last name, was killed in the middle of World War Two; family lore said he stuck his head out of a bomb shelter 'and got it blown clean off'. Born Maureen Chapman, she grew up with the contented loneliness of an only child, as her mother worked long hours, refusing to mention her slaughtered husband. Trying to survive. Little Maureen found refuge in books, found life and truth in stories that took her far away from a cold and empty house.
When a woman marries, she is expected to abandon her family name in order to take on her husband's. To die to her old self. We obliterate women, Rebecca Solnit writes, in the manner that history is written:
‘Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history...Names erased a woman's genealogy and even her existence.’
We belong to the fathers. Male surnames are passed down to children: proof of paternity, a claim to lineage. Predating family names, naming was patronymic; Ali Mohammed meant Ali son of Mohammed. This tradition, of naming children after their fathers' first names, continues in different forms across the world today.
The call came at 7.00am on a Saturday. I was tying on my apron, getting ready to begin a barista shift. Still sweating, I put my helmet back on and cycled to the city hospital.
Six months after a cancer diagnosis, twelve months after vomiting black muck onto the sitting room carpet, twenty years of swallowing daily painkillers, fifty years after meeting a tall handsome man at a dance hall whom she would love and resent, Maureen's liver was failing.
Her family surrounded her. A holy scene, twelve heads dotted around a white bed altar. We knew what to do with a terrible, primal certainty: blanket her in goodwill and kindness and warmth. At the beginning and at the end, all is love. The mysteries of consciousness. Could she hear the words we whispered over her? Did she hear Carol say, 'We will look after Dad,' or Jacqui speak with a deep velvet voice to the doctor, or see Ken's wild silver hair, his eyes, transfixed on her face, catching her hand whenever it flew up in distress?
Consciousness is still a mystery, but Nan knew when we were all in the room. Because that is when she left it.
It was 1954 and the taste of rations were sandy in everyone's mouth. Maureen met Ken at a Yorkshire dance hall. He was tall and handsome with a natural singing voice. She was sixteen in a low-collar that revealed fine collarbones and a skirt nipped in at the waist. Her body was lithe like a dancer's and he saw her from across the room.
When Ken was conscripted to National Service, he wrote her letters from Germany, S.W.A.L.K scrawled on the close of the envelope. Somewhere on the continent, he had both forearms inked with black anchors: ‘Maureen’ on one, ‘Mum’ on the other. Emotional anchors to the women he loved, who loved him. This black magic cast a spell upon the women in our family: it became our responsibility to anchor men with incomplete hearts.
They were married in September 1957 and my mother Jacqui arrived next April. It was exactly one month before Nan’s twentieth birthday.
Marriage is a commitment between two people. Marriage is a vow to sleep together, live together, raise a family together. Marriage is a house you build together. Marriage is ‘a constant rhythm of adaptation between two people’. Marriage is an exercise in selflessness. Marriage is forever.
This is what I know: the history of marriage between a man and a woman is based on ownership. Women were property: given, gifted, stolen. If our families were powerful, we were part of a business agreement; if we were poor, as so many more were, we were offered as workers. Domestic workers. Sexual labourers. Within a marriage, a woman and her body were not her own. She could not refuse her husband. For hundreds of years, rape didn't exist between husband and wife, and in Australia, the criminalisation of marital rape only happened across all states by the early 1990s.
This is what hurts: marriage became a way to control women. Kindness, intimacy, shelter; a warm house nevertheless built on a foundation of oppression.
Is it possible to hold this heritage in one hand, and stroke your husband's hair with the other?
Margaret Atwood's debut novel, The Edible Woman, published in 1969, deals with the pressure to wed. At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Marian, becomes engaged to her long-term boyfriend Peter. ‘Of course, I'd always assumed through high school and college that I was going to marry someone eventually and have children, everyone does...’ she mused.
Marian begins doing inexplicable, strange things. She hides beneath a bed. She kisses a strange man and conducts a half-hearted affair. She begins dissociating from her body. Eventually, she can no longer eat meat, then vegetables, then much at all, an act that can be read as solidarity with food as prey, and as resistance to feminine roles.
At this point in the novel the narration moves from first-person to third; ‘I’ becomes ‘Marian’ and ‘she’, signifying her loss of agency, the way she has sunk slowly from herself like a body into a black lake. Finally, Marian bakes Peter a cake in the shape of a woman and serves it to him on a platter. ‘You've been trying to destroy me, haven't you ... This is what you've wanted all along, isn't it? I'll get you a fork,’ she says to him. Peter flees, ending their engagement. Her appetite returns, and she eats the cake.
Names form our identity. I never saw myself as bowing to pressure, when I signed my new name on my marriage certificate. But neither did I question it.
I walked down that aisle on my father's arm (who wore, spectacularly, a bowler hat and a waxed moustache). And I took my husband's name. I was so distracted by the story of our love that I missed the structural reality. My transition of identity – moving from my father’s house to my husband’s – was signified by surname. I thought that because I chose freely, patriarchal power was nullified. But, in reality, I was passed from one male authority to another.
Early in their marriage, Maureen and Ken lived in a row of terraced cottages, lines of identical buildings that housed the working poor. Across Britain, many of these residences didn't have hot water, and were marked slums by the government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the house where Maureen gave birth to two of her three daughters, sometimes the pipes froze. Sometimes the milk was delivered solid.
Ken worked jobs at train yards, in steel works. He told me he would ride a bike through the snow. He told me he shovelled shit. Maureen's work was to quiet the children, to cook the dumpling stews, to ensure they were all clothed.
In 1965, the government only charged ten pounds for air tickets to Australia, and children flew free. On the other side of the world were work opportunities, warm weather and, maybe, happiness. With three children under seven, Ken and Maureen flew towards the sunshine.
Like Nan, I was sixteen when I met my husband. As if my story were written decades ago. Not in a dance hall in Hull but a youth group in suburban Adelaide. At church I found a spiritual life, a place to belong, and a boyfriend who played guitar.
‘With this ring, I thee wed.’ The act of encasing a finger with a gold band. The teary giggle, catching my lover's eye. I married at twenty-two. At the same age, Nan was already pregnant with her second child. My wedding wasn't shotgun like hers, but rather a logical progression, what I believed to be a step into the land of grownups. I’m not the only one who saw it this way: Briohny Doyle's Adult Fantasy (2017) is one of many books discussing the changing markers of maturity for millennials. Sociologists, she writes, define reaching adulthood as a series of milestones: marriage, career, home ownership, children. In a society bereft of ritual, a wedding is a public statement of adulthood.
‘Everything I am I give to you. Everything I have I share with you’. An enormous pledge. One cannot lay out the cost of a life lived in service, itemise the forsaken elements of self at this portal between old life and new. And oh, I wanted to give him everything.
Nothing terrible was ever demanded. My new husband didn't sit on the edge of the marital bed, cradle my hand and say, like Bluebeard, ‘Now that we are alone in this place you must do as I wish’. But in a complex mix of structural and personal dynamics, I surrendered my autonomy.
‘My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead,’ Jenny Offill's narrator says in Dept of Speculation (2014). ‘Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't ever fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’
Women’s lives are still expected to be lived in service to others. Care work and house work; economies depend on our unpaid physical and emotional labour. In Offill's novel, the protagonist's unfulfilled creative career lingers over her marriage like a ghoul. When she takes on more paid work, her gentle husband expresses dissatisfaction because the garbage never gets taken out. Women, you see, have responsibilities.
I never felt comfortable in my husband's name. It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot: Heinrich with its sharp letters and harsh sound, a family that holds tight to blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end.
Claiming a space as a feminist writer while belonging to my husband by namesake made me feel like a hypocrite. Nevertheless, throughout my marriage I remained a Heinrich; I didn't want to abandon the humble ground I'd gained as a writer, and I wasn't sure if Schebella ever fit, either.
Lately I've been buying plane tickets, arriving at new places. Introducing myself. The stutter, halfway through a handshake. This boot no longer fits.
'When I got married, I didn't even know how to cook,' Nan told me while frying onions and mince in her cold kitchen. She would pick my brother and I up from school on Thursdays, ply us with sweets and begin making dinner, served at 5pm because ‘Grandad gets very hungry’. A favourite of mine was crepes, served for dessert. The dining table positioned so we could watch the last of the cartoons before ABC News. Nan would make the batter before teatime, whisk it in a plastic jug with an old fork, and leave it to rest next to the sink. She fried them in hot butter and slipped them pan to plate using a steel spatula, where we'd squeeze lemon halves and sprinkle sugar. Only when our bellies were full would Nan serve herself.
I had a room of my own in our last house together. It had a bookshelf, a desk, a window that overlooked a terribly large lawn and a failed vegetable patch. There was the basil, undisciplined and gone to seed, bare patches where the carrots should have sprouted by now, and a line of sunflowers, taller than me but long dead, black and bending like weary soldiers.
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf alights on that vital phrase: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write’. In order to create, she writes, a woman must have independence, and receive an income of 'five hundred a year', which signifies guaranteed material wellbeing.
Revisiting this text felt electric. I clung to it like a drowning woman. In most heterosexual couples and families, daily acts of care and service are done primarily by women. Annabel Crabb's 2013 examination of women in power, The Wife Drought, began with the question, ‘Why aren't there more women in parliament?’ The answer was simple: being a politician is an incredibly demanding job. Men can do it because they have wives, partners who arrange their domestic lives. Cooking dinner, caring for children and the elderly, staying home for an electrician's appointment.
A 2013 government fact sheet showed that between heterosexual couples who both worked full time, women did an average of 7 hours more childcare and 4.2 hours more housework per week than their male partners. What women need to get into the upper echelons of power, Crabb says, is a wife.
Yes, I had my room. But if the door was open, I could see the laundry. I could see the kitchen.
Grandad insisted on cleaning out Nan's room immediately. My mother and aunties dismantled her art room, took down her drawings, emptied jars of buttons. I took a painting. It wasn't until weeks later that I stuck it in an old frame and leant it against a wall and really looked. A settee, a crocheted rug, and the detritus of family life lying across it: a toy rabbit, a coloured ball. The debris of children.
But there, in the background, a doorway half obscured: Nan's Room. Through this visage you can see her desk, her pencils, her art. This was hers.
In my household, there were always reasons why. I was still at uni, he was working full time. My hours were more flexible. I wanted to eat dinner every night. My hands withstood hot dishwater better. He just didn't have the headspace for it all.
I was never expected to do the housework, nor were we without attempts to bring balance. But writing this, I still feel a hopeless fury. We returned, predictably, to the pattern of our parents. The mistakes of our mothers.
One Christmas he gave me three beautiful notebooks. The two notebooks labelled ‘Scribbles’ have long been filled; the third, with 'Recipes' in cursive on the front, has one handwritten page (cauliflower with tahini, in case you were wondering). The rest of the pages are blank.
I don't want to denigrate caring – service birthed in love is humanity's most noble act. But other forces are at work. I cleaned and cooked first with the hope to create a beautiful home together and then, with growing resentment because who else would do it? Nan's spirit blew through the house. Who would fold my umbrella? Who would lick my stamps?
A memory, not mine: A family celebration with a smorgasbord, Ken's favourite. Nan had gotten her licence. She was fifty-two.
My twin brother and I are one, maybe two. I can see us now, in this regurgitated vision: chubby round things with dark curly hair, a mess of tomato sauce and spaghetti in highchairs.
Nan: permed curls, dark eyeshadow. She had been inspired by the 1989 film Shirley Valentine, in which a middle-aged housewife found freedom. Shirley went to Greece, and Maureen went to the registration office.
What kind of obstacle was it for Nan, to have her movement so restricted? And now, what did freedom taste like?
In her little blue sedan, whose loose muffler echoes in my memories, she got behind a steering wheel. After years of being driven by Ken, in her twilight years Maureen drove herself.
‘In order to write, in order to be able to achieve anything at all, you must first of all belong to nobody but yourself.’
This is Simone de Beauvoir responding to Woolf’s A Room of One's Own, in a 1966 lecture called ‘Women and Creativity.’
Traditionally, a woman did not have independence because she was the property of her husband. Her time did not belong to her; her primary role was to care for and serve her family. This is reflected today in the idea of 'work flexibility' being overwhelmingly associated with how employed women balance their caretaking duties.
'Freedom', de Beauvoir writes, 'is one of the conditions most necessary for what we call genius to flourish'. The word she uses for freedom, in the original French, is disponibilité, which translates to availability.
Being creative is not incompatible with marriage. But relationships cost. Marriages cost. They cost time and thought and care and planning and listening and praying. The goal of married life becomes to move beyond selfishness, towards selflessness, and the flourishing of your partner. In my back room, with its view of the overgrown garden, I always had the thought: what will he think? Of my words, of my thoughts, of the life I want to live. I allowed his opinion to dominate my mind; I built a fence for my wild desires. I relinquished my availability to possibilities – I did not have disponibilité.
‘The five hundred a year,’ Woolf wrote, ‘stands for the power to contemplate...a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.’
I never got that lock installed. I belonged to myself, but I also belonged to him.
When Maureen retired, her hands became her own.
In vast church halls warmed with modest bar heaters, Maureen met with elderly women wearing knitted cardigans. Crocheting, watercolours, felt work. Once I drove Nan to the Adelaide Hills to teach a guild about zentangling, a zany form of random needlework. In these groups, Maureen found friendships contingent on proximity, like the ones that disappeared when work stopped. She offered to teach me crocheting, but I never had the time.
When my brother and I spent afternoons after school at Nan and Grandad's, we drew. She would open the door to her room, dust dancing silently on sunbeams. There were coloured pencils, a hundred pattern books, a thousand balls of wool. Sparkling threads, textures she'd foraged in op-shops. A wonderland of colour.
She did the food shopping every Wednesday, even after she retired.
The only time I ever saw Grandad cook was when Nan went on a trip to England – we ate ham steaks fried for breakfast after an early Saturday at Trash and Treasure. Released from the servitude of the working class, freed from the demands of motherhood, Maureen's hands became her own. But they were still tied to a woman's demands.
I want to write. I want words to rain down on me. I want to live in castles made of stories. I want to be a burning fool drunk on ideas and hypnotised by sorrow and hope and desire and perfect sentences. I want to lock myself away, to retreat from the world for months in silent country towns. I want to burst out again for birthday parties and to kiss beloved ones on the cheek, hard. I want to fly across oceans. I want to go where I am called.
I do not want to cook dinner. I do not want to mop floors.
I have been called selfish. So be it. I am only admitting to desires that men have followed for centuries. And for too long I tidied my wants away, placed them neatly in a high cupboard and locked the door. Hoping if I sat quietly in the corner like an obedient child then desires of my heart would be granted.
I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want I want.
My name is a stranger's skin.
In 2016, German artist Sophie Bandelin took moulds of people's bodies to create new silicon skins. Different participants then pulled on these skin suits. Baggy in some places, tight in others, Bandelin took photos of her subjects clothed in the skins of strangers.
Heinrich. Straight. Blunt. Anger, close to the surface. This is the heritage of my current surname.
It no longer belongs to me – if it ever did.
Helen Garner has had three husbands. Her surname, with which she has achieved worldwide prominence as a writer, is not her most recent husband's name. Nor is it her father's name. It belonged to her first husband. ‘I feel that Ford is my child name,’ she said in an interview, ‘Garner is my grown-up name.’
I am no longer the same as the woman who married at twenty-two, holding balloons and the hand of a man I expected to lead me. It is time to search for my grown-up name.
A month after she died I am ready to look through her sketchbook. There are three in total: one small and black, one large with hard white pages, a medium one of creamy card. I pour a cup of tea, take a breath, turn a page. Watercolours of old houses, crumbling ruins encountered on caravan trips. Nan would sketch while Grandad fished. I think of her hand holding the pencil, her face in repose in the orange Australian dusk. Smiling, I begin to flip through sketches of birds, buildings, faces, trees – and then a blank page. More blank pages. Opening the other two, they are the same. Nan began notebooks, and then abandoned them. They are unfinished.
And so. Opening my book labelled ‘Recipes’, I tear out the first page. And I take up my pen.
Down the street from the Orthodox Church, there is a cemetery. Every day I ride my bicycle through this place, flashing past rows and rows of stone monuments. Sometimes I sit on concrete steps and weep, the sky stark above me.
Only when I removed my ring did I realise how much I used it as a touchstone. My left thumb would search the point where the ring finger meets the palm; it used to come up against a gold band that would remind me that I was worthy. Here in the cemetery, I read the headstones – Henrietta May Turner, beloved wife of Frances, mother to George and Lucy – I am reminded that, in death, our lives are recorded by who we love. Love brings meaning. Love brings purpose.
Now that my ring finger is bare, who am I? What brings me meaning?
This is the problem with freedom. Sartre wrestled with it, as did de Beauvoir. When you have freedom, you have to make your own choices. You have to make your own purpose.
An imbalance of emotional labour doesn't just impact women's relationships, but also their work and creative life. Men have been the predominant creators of art for centuries. This is not merely due to a woman's natural disinclination to pick up a paintbrush.
Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1970: ‘Men were thinking, writing, and creating, because women were pouring their energy into those men; women are not creating culture because they are preoccupied with love...for millennia they have done the work, and suffered the costs, of one-way emotional relationships the benefits of which went to men and to the work of men.’
My marriage was at many times delightful. But it was not an even exchange. And it is impossible not to wonder how many words are unwritten simply because I was ‘preoccupied with love’, because I spent tears and time on a relationship that did not give me what I required. ‘Love, perhaps even more than childbearing, is the pivot of women's oppression today,’ Firestone wrote. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, revealed how the division between man and woman is at the basis of domination, exploitation and inequality. The book has been criticised since its publication, but when I read the chapter on love, I went wild underlining passages. ‘Thus her whole identity hangs in the balance of her love life’. Underlined, despite my shame. ‘She is allowed to love herself only if a man finds her worthy of love.’
I think of a pile of notebooks on the ground, fallen open. Their empty pages.
Emotional labour. I found this concept hard to understand until after I left. bell hooks explained it best, in her book about romantic love in modern society, how it operates within the context of heterosexual relationships: 'In patriarchal culture, men are especially inclined to see love as something they should receive without expending effort. More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands.'
What is the work that love demands? Is it familiarity with emotions, the inclination to nurture, the sympathy and empathy that we associate with the feminine, that is rewarded in girls? That is beaten and humiliated out of boys?
Laurie Penny explained this in her 2016 article 'Maybe you should just be single', that men feel entitled to romantic love, while women know that love is work. We are trained from a young age to cultivate our unruly bodies to a pleasant, marriageable shape; once we sign up to a romantic partnership, our job is to soothe and smile and be solely responsible for emotional wellbeing.
The natural state of a marriage, I was told, was for each person to submit to the other. To put the other's needs before your own – and this is work. An equal partnership creates a sun-drenched garden of mutual service.
But like a watering can, you can only pour for so long if you remain unfilled. Romance movies tell you all you need is love. They don't tell you what to do when you discover that love, alone, is not enough.
Perhaps Maureen dreamt of a lock on the door to her room: the door that was always open, with its view of the kitchen, of the laundry, of the children's toys. Following the tradition of the father, the name Omer will vanish from this family with my mother's generation. Maureen's existence will be erased.
I am who I am because of the women who have come before me. Whose courage, cut short, has become mine. And so: Omer will be my name. It is a strange skin that will take time to become my home. But in this act, I honour the line of the mothers. I claim the dreams of my grandmother.
Louise Omer writes about religion, feminism, and books. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Australian, and The Saturday Paper. In 2017 she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship Recipient and was shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman.
Whenever I find myself looking down into the sea—say, peering over the side of boats, or standing on long jetties on stormy days—I imagine a creature rising up from the shadows and pulling me under. It has always been this way; for as long as I can remember I’ve felt awe for the murky depths and the deep water. I think of it as the same impulse that motivates people to look over the side of a tall building, leaning into their sense of dread. The darker the day, the more vivid my daydreams.
The visible parts of the ocean, the place my thoughts tentatively inhabit, are only a thin film on the surface of the deep. The depths of our planet—which contains 99 per cent of the liveable space, 91 per cent of living creatures—are so vast they can be separated into five layers. In his 2013 novel, Submergence, JM Ledgard describes the uppermost of these, the epipelagic, as “wristwatch depth,” it is the layer containing “all the plant life and coral reefs and all the shipwrecks that can be dived with aqualungs; all of Jacques Cousteau. Whatever memory we have of baptism or any other form of submersion is here in blue water.”
Beneath this is the mesopelagic layer, or the Twilight Zone, where blue and all the other visible colours vanish; everything beyond is perpetual night. Cuvier’s beaked whales, the deepest diving mammal, only reach as far as the bathypelagic, otherwise known as the Midnight Zone, 3,000 metres deep. Down here, crushed below the weight of thousands of atmospheres and frozen in time, one of the few sources of food is marine snow, a shower of decaying organic matter that comes from the layers above, or, much more dramatically, the occasional whale fall, when the body of a dead whale sinks through the dark until it settles on the seafloor. The bones and tissues of some whale carcasses have been known to support localised ecosystems of worms, sea snails and other scavengers for as long as one hundred years. And still these environments constitute only a fraction of the ocean’s depth.
Ledgard mostly contemplates the deepest layer, the Hadal zone, named for the Greek god of the underworld, which begins only in the deep ocean trenches about 6,000 meters below the surface, and ends wherever life ceases to exist in the sediment at the bottom. He considers the early attempts to dive into the abyss, beginning with an unremarked dive by two French naval officers in 1954, as “less celebrated than space flight, but no less heroic” than ocean flight, which,
“By contrast, is a journey inward, toward blindness. It is about weight, the stopping of the craft on the thermal layers, the pressure of water pushing in, and the discomfiting realisation that most of the planet you call your own is hostile to you.”
The longest golf drive ever recorded was hit on the moon, yet we have only twice visited the Challenger Deep, most recently in 2012, when James Cameron took a single-person submersible eleven kilometres down to the deepest point in our biosphere. “My feeling was one of complete isolation from all humanity,” he said of the journey, when interviewed by National Geographic moments after his dive. Decades earlier, the first aquanauts—those who explore the ocean in the same way as an astronaut explores space—were dangled by cable in a steel ball filled with trays of soda lime to absorb the carbon dioxide they exhaled. “I felt like an atom floating in illimitable space,” one said after his mission.
Without the technology necessary to dive to the abyss, for decades scientists presumed the trenches of the Hadal zone were a lifeless desert in the middle of the seafloor; a hostile and dark world of crushing pressure and sub-zero temperatures. So, when in 1977, a group of US scientists piloted a submersible 2.5km down to the Galapagos Rift, they were shocked to find a world teeming with life. Around deep sea hydrothermal vents—hot springs which spew black jets of water heated inside the earth, rich with dissolved metals and minerals—they discovered entirely new ecosystems with as much diversity as many coral reefs. Surrounding the heated vents were amphipods (a kind of deep sea crustacean), strange shrimp with eyes on their backs, white crabs, mussels and other bivalves, blind fish. The craft touched down in a patch of three-metre-long red-tipped tube worms, releasing a burst of what looked like blood into the water surrounding the submersible.
The discovery radically changed our view of biology: previously, all life on Earth was thought to be photosynthetic and reliant on the sun, but the new life was chemosynthetic, fed by bacteria and other microscopic ‘extremophiles’ which thrive in extreme environments hostile to most other life on earth. The microbial life of the deep ocean survived off the heat and energy of the earth. Some bacteria ate hydrogen sulphide to produce sugar and water, others ate magnetic iron and breathed out rust. Inside the giant tube worms, scientists found an organ full of chemosynthetic bacteria instead of a gut. This discovery also sparked a reimagining of how life on earth may have evolved: “Photosynthetic life came later,” writes Ledgard, “when cells strayed to the top where they were cooked for millions of years before evolving a way to absorb the light, and all the while the chemosynthetic life in the abyss was evolving a stability we cannot hope for.”
But the vibrant life around the hydrothermal vents is itself only a tiny blip in this new world, which is contained inside trenches that circle the globe like the stitches on a baseball. In all of the cracks and clefts are microbial organisms which constitute the earliest life on our planet, and which may collectively have more biomass than all life on the surface.
As an environment so far beyond human experience, the Hadal deep seemed to me a refuge for life, an eternal and unchanging place immune to the worries and turmoil of the surface world. For a long time, the Hadal deep was like my mental panic room, one that was out of reach from the worst of our industrial excesses. Even at my most pessimistic with regard to the fate of the planet and the catastrophic fuckery we’re exacting upon it—a sixth mass extinction, the Anthropocene, the trashing of the Great Barrier Reef and on and on—I was comforted by the thought that life could at least endure in these fissures and cracks in the depths of our planet and eventually make its way back towards the light to repopulate the biosphere once we had been shrugged off.
So, it was a hard comedown earlier this year when I read, over my morning coffee, that scientists trawling for sea floor samples from the Mariana Trench had found massive amounts of trash and pollution in the deep, including tins of Spam, cans of Budweiser and plastic bags. In a sample of amphipods, the scientists found traces of long-lived polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals that were banned forty years ago, with some samples containing levels roughly fifty times higher than in crabs from paddy fields fed by the Liao River in China, one of the country's most polluted. The researchers said their findings indicated the Hadal zone acted as a kind of sink that traps anything dumped into the sea, and speculated that the proximity of the Mariana Trench to plastic manufacturers in Asia and a US military base in Guam contributed to the high pollutant levels. “The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research. In another expedition off the east coast of Australia, CSIRO scientists found coal tossed overboard during the era of steamships, and trawled up PVC pipes and cans of paint. Dr Tim O’Hara, the chief scientist and expedition leader, would later tell The Guardian that “it's quite amazing. We're in the middle of nowhere and still the sea floor has 200 years of rubbish on it.”
My tendency in such bleak moments as these (the shattering of my Hadal zone illusion was a big one) is to try to be proactive, a response that usually takes the form of: ‘what can I do to fix this?’ Ordinarily, this leads me to reorganising my life, particularly as a consumer, to more closely adhere to some sort of ethical and environmental standard. Something like remembering to bring my reusable bags when I go to the shops, eating less meat, donating to environmental organisations and so on. I try to waste less, use less, and, when I do shop, to buy the right products. In other words, I make a “retreat into entirely personal solutions,” as deep green activist Derrick Jensen calls them.
It’s not that I believe there is a direct causal link between my plastic shopping bags and those found in the Mariana Trench. It is just that I want to do something, anything, to feel like I’m making a difference. Most of us do this in one way or another, prompted by issues just as nebulous as trash in the Hadal deep, because it is incredibly soothing and satisfying to make these transactions within a system of nearly infinite choice. The promise is that you can have it all: you can buy whatever you like while also contributing to a political cause. In other words, your redemption from consumerism is included in the price of the product.
If I take a quick look around my house, I find many examples of this in one form or another. The soap on my kitchen sink boasts that: “100% of the profits from this bottle help get sanitation services and water to people in need.” A free-range egg carton claims that the “real currencies of the future: clean earth, air and water” are to be found in abundance on the company farm. I have Facebook open on my laptop, and there is an advertisement for an ethical superannuation fund that does not “compromise returns for ethics, we achieve both!”
We’ve organised charity around this as well: you can wear frocks to cure ovarian cancer, or buy plastic water bottles to cure global poverty. Often, we don’t even expect a tangible outcome—merely having empowerment or awareness somehow absorbed into the everyday routine is enough. We run, walk, swim and perform everyday rituals for political causes lacking even a tenuous connection to the act in question. So, the national broadcaster praises the “lawyer-turned-ultramarathon runner” crossing India to “raise awareness for the importance of education,” and an event where Aussie men are “urged to play ping pong to bring awareness to human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South East Asia,” if you can get your head around such a thing.
The premise underlying all of this is that, as consumers, we must be informed (via the magic of awareness raising) so that each of us can independently exert our supposedly powerful influence on society and multinational corporations through our daily habits and purchasing decisions. But as I tried to cut down on plastics and evaluate my shopping basket, with my mind on the abyss, I found this more difficult to swallow. In an age of increasing globalisation and economic specialisation, it began to seem practically impossible.
The American economist Milton Friedman, a staunch advocate for free markets, often used the example of an ordinary lead pencil to highlight what he considered to be the miracle of capitalism, but which, for me, represents my difficulties with ethical consumerism. In ‘Vol 1: The Power of the Market,’ an episode from his 1980 TV series Free to Choose, Friedman asserts that “not a single person in the world” could make his lead pencil because of the complex supply chains for each of its components: wood from Washington State, cut down by a saw made from steel (and thus, iron ore); a core of graphite from mines in South America, an eraser made of rubber from Malaya, farmed from trees imported under a scheme of the British government, yellow paint for coating, glue to hold it together and so on. “Literally thousands of people co-operated to make this pencil,” Friedman says. “People who don't speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met. When you go down to the store and buy this pencil, you are in effect trading a few minutes of your time for a few seconds of the time of all those thousands of people.”
Now repeat this for the thousands of goods and services we all buy on a yearly—if not weekly—basis, and try to consider the brain-melting (and often contradictory) interplay of food miles, carbon footprints, habitat impact, and legal and human rights provenance for each.
In a 2009 essay for Orion Magazine titled ‘Forget Shorter Showers’, activist Derrick Jensen outlines his concerns over the ubiquity of these solutions. At a time when “all the world is at stake,” Jensen sees a campaign of misdirection, where “consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”
Take, for example, when water depletion—the drawing of aquifers and draining of rivers—leads people to resolve to take shorter showers, even though ninety per cent of water is used by agriculture and industry, and “collectively, municipal golf courses use as much [water] as municipal human beings.” Or how about the fetishising of a simple living, ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle, where everything is recycled and nothing is put out on the curb, even though (in the United States, at least) municipal waste accounts for only three per cent of total waste production? Across a range of issues—energy, habitat loss, resource depletion—the message is clear: exploitation of the earth by commercial, industrial, agricultural, government and military interests far exceeds the sum of individual consumption.
Meanwhile, the ABC runs a month-long ‘War on Waste’, where Australians are encouraged to “tackle overconsumption and waste in their daily lives” by cutting down on their coffee cups, organising a plastic-free life and utilising toy libraries which reduce landfill. Instead of political solutions for, say, the massive environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry, we get minor tweaks to the market economy, like a suggestion to put a new “sustainability rating” label on clothing (that awareness raising again). Or remember when we were all urged to stop buying Coles and Woolworths brand milk to support Australian dairy farmers suffering from a drastic fall in milk prices, despite the fact that this was mostly due to an oversupply of powdered milk on international markets and partly a result of the immense bargaining power of the supermarket duopoly?
The problem, according to Jensen, is that these responses “incorrectly assign blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself…” Jensen says:
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
Even so, I understand why these responses are seductive. We are now at a stage, at least within British theorist Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism, as defined in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, where it is impossible to even imagine a coherent political alternative to capitalism; where it may, in fact, be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the globalised market economy. So, we create convenient fictions within this structure, little balms to soothe our conscience, “the fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”
Talking all of this over with a friend soon after my Hadal zone blues, we both fell into a kind of despondency. “It makes me feel like a piece of shit whatever I do,” she said, thinking the only alternative was to become apathetic or nihilistic. But that’s not it at all—none of us are pieces of shit (ok, maybe some of us), because individuals do not create these crises, and neither do they solve them. The alternative is to remain passionate and informed, but to reject the definition of oneself as a mere consumer whose resistance tactics are limited to ‘buy or not buy’ and whose goal is simply to navigate the market economy with the highest personal integrity. Instead, it is to see oneself as a citizen, with a range of resistance tactics—voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organising, lobbying, protesting and many more. Jensen, in particular, has rather more radical aims, the primary of which is “acting decisively to stop the industrial economy.”
“[This] is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world — none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.”
Even if you find that a bridge too far, perhaps the most limiting aspect of the idea of simple living and personal fidelity as a political act is that it is oriented entirely towards the notion of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. “We can rehabilitate streams, we can clear out invasive species, we can remove dams,” Jensen says. “We can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.”
Whether any of this makes a jot of difference to pollution in the Hadal zone, I have no idea. Since it is inaccessible to all but a handful of submersibles, I’m not sure what hope we have of getting down to the trenches to clean up the mess. Maybe it’s not even a good candidate for talking about the importance of environmentalism, especially when there are so many other technicolour and familiar ecosystems to serve as the poster child for conservation.
For one thing, we can’t even speak of the ocean without words like vast and alien. This is why our ocean agencies have never matched the achievements of our space agencies. There is no collective search for the sublime in the deep, it provokes nothing of the wonder over the distances travelled by Voyager, pushing out into the void, an emblem for humanity. We are told that we are all made of stardust, and that this is exalting; yet rarely that, as liquid beings, we are the ocean’s way of reaching out, and that we carry a weight of it inside us, on our skin and in our stomachs. Ledgard reminds us that it is our first home, the crucible of all life. One day we will all end up there, and I still hope for somewhere nice to spend eternity. As Ledgard writes,
“We cannot talk with definition about our souls, but it is certain that we will decompose…Some dust of our bodies may end up in a horse, wasp, cockerel, frog, flower, or leaf, but for every one of these sensational assemblies there are a quintillion microorganisms...What is likely is that, sooner or later, carried in the wind and in rivers, or your graveyard engulfed in the sea, a portion of each of us will be given new life in the cracks, vents, or pools of molten sulphur on which the tonguefish skate. You will be in Hades, the staying place of the spirits of the dead…Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.”
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a 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
Award-winning poets Chen Chen and Craig Perez fire away in our continuing Poets in Conversation series.
CHEN: What do you find most exciting right now about contemporary poetry? And: Asian/Pacific/American poetry specifically?
CRAIG: Right now, I find most exciting the renewed appreciation of poetry that engages with politics, race, gender, sexuality, community, environmentalism, and human rights. I love seeing and hearing poetry in newspapers, protests, rallies, and in the streets. I love how poetry contributes to civil society conversations. I love how important literary activism has become to many literary organizations.
Asian/Pacific/American (APA) poetries have long been engaged with these topics and with community, and I am excited by how our writers are receiving more recognition and visibility than ever before. I was excited to have edited the first ever Pacific Islander feature, and to be part of the first ever Asian American feature, in Poetry Magazine. It was inspiring to see the Asian American Literature festival come together, and to witness all the important mentorship of Kundiman. Hopefully in the coming years we will see an APA US poet laureate as well.
What do you find most exciting in the poetry world? And, with the publication of your new book, how do you see yourself and poetry contributing to, engaging with, or diverging from contemporary APA poetries?
CHEN: Right now, I’m obsessed with poetry podcasts. The Poetry Pharmacy, Commonplace Podcast, The Poetry Gods, Interesting People Reading Poetry—these are the podcasts I’ve been exploring lately. I’m sure there are more I need to check out. I realized over the summer that I was feeling distant from poetry because my experience of it was limited to pages and screens—a lot of reading in my head, in my own mental voice, I guess. I needed to get out of my head and hear other people reading and talking about poems again. I’ve been isolated in Lubbock, Texas, so podcasts are a lovely way—in between opportunities to travel and meet more writers in person—of getting back into the poetry conversation as it’s unfolding across the country and internationally, as well.
As for how I see myself in the realm of contemporary APA poetries, I feel very much a student, still—though I do teach APA poets in my classes and workshops. I mean ‘student’ in the sense that I want to keep in mind how much more I still need to read and learn from. I hope my book contributes to the growing conversation around how race, gender, and sexuality intersect for APA communities. I feel very lucky to be writing in a time when more and more queer APA folks are doing such groundbreaking work—Kazumi Chin, Franny Choi, Muriel Leung, Rajiv Mohabir, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Margaret Rhee, Ocean Vuong, Shelley Wong, and other rock stars.
When you’re feeling stuck or stalled as a writer, how do you get unstuck, moving again?
CRAIG: That is a wonderful list of poet-stars indeed—what an exciting time to be an APA writer! And thanks for the podcasts. I can relate to the feeling of distance. Hawaiʻi has a vibrant literary scene, but it is difficult and expensive for me to travel to the continental United States to attend conferences, festivals, readings, etc., which I basically just don't do anymore since moving here in 2010. Sadly, I was not able to tour for my 2014 book, nor will I be able to tour for my book coming out this year. Social media is really the only way I engage with the larger literary scene.
The main thing that stalls me as a writer is a lack of time. I struggle to balance being a full-time professor, mentoring a dozen or so graduate students, editing several anthologies, and writing scholarly articles and political essays. Plus, I have a crazy three-year-old who has way more energy than me. When my poetry starts to feel stalled, I really have to prioritize my time and give myself space to complete a poem.
Did you have moments of feeling stuck or stalled while writing (or structuring) your first book? Many of my graduate students are working on their first manuscripts—what advice would you give to them as they struggle to ready the work for submission?
CHEN: I struggled with ordering the poems, in particular with the first section. I just couldn’t get the pacing right; I had all these short lyric bursts and then these longer narrative landscapes, and I couldn’t get the balance I wanted. I knew the section needed to move quicker, but I didn’t see how. A last-minute suggestion from Jericho Brown (who picked the book) helped immensely: change the ending of one slightly longer poem and move it to the third section. My friend Jess Smith also had a great suggestion: place (what would become) the first poem before the first section, all on its own. Doing this also cleared up space for the first section to move quicker and the poems flowed into one another better. Now I feel like there’s an urgency that ratchets up in that first section whereas before I felt like it would sort of grind to a halt because some poems were just so dense.
So my advice to your graduate students would be: listen to your trusted readers. They will have brilliant solutions or at least they will ask you the questions you need to hear in order to move forward. Also: try a dozen different structures and see what feels right. Every manuscript is so idiosyncratic, so deeply a particular writer’s vision. Honor your idiosyncrasy, honor the weird fire of your poems. It might take a dozen tries, but it’s worth your perseverance.
What does being a political writer mean to you? Or would you phrase the term differently? What is the relationship between political action and poetry for you?
CRAIG: Thanks for your wonderful advice, which I will share with my students. I love what you say about honoring your idiosyncrasy, the weird fire. Last semester I taught a graduate course that focused entirely on the poetry manuscript. It was great to see the students think deeply about the structures of their own (future) books.
To me, I agree with the idea that all poetry is political, especially in times when the humanities are being de-funded, and especially when written by authors from marginalized spaces. At the same time, I am interested in writing poetry that is explicitly political, and I have written on the topics of colonialism, militarism, extractive capitalism, racism, indigenous identity, citizenship, environmental injustice, climate change, food sovereignty, animal rights, and more. I am also interested in exploring and experimenting with the aesthetic possibilities of political poetry, including the documentary, the traumatized and empowered lyric, the protest poem, the historical narrative, and the subversive avant-garde.
For me, poetry and political action are intertwined. I have performed at rallies and at the United Nations, and I’ve written political articles and poetry commissioned by social justice groups. I really enjoy creating poetic spaces at political events and working with humanities councils to employ poetry as a bridge to civic discussions.
I teach courses on Political Poetry and they always include a community engagement or political action component. Outside my classrooms, I have written a few public pieces on ‘literary activism’ as a way to encourage all poets to find creative ways to engage in political movements: (my favorite one is here
What made you decide to pursue doctoral studies after your MFA? Are you willing to share with us about your coursework, area lists, and potential dissertation?
CHEN: First, I love how you're thinking about and practicing the political in your writing and in your participation at activist events. That's so great, how you're connecting poetry and political action, bringing your voice into different spaces. I want to do more of that—read and speak out in more spaces, not just literary ones.
As for doctoral studies, I decided to go this path because I wanted more time and institutional support to keep reading and writing poetry—and to do some more scholarly work in literature. I wanted to push my knowledge in critical theory, as well, with a focus on APA poetics and politics, and the amazing work of queer writers of color. I also wanted more teaching experience—I only taught composition during my MFA and I was looking for the chance to teach creative writing and literature, too. Then there's the creative and intellectual community of programs and departments; I wanted to stay connected to people with similar interests and goals.
My coursework has been a combination of literature classes, theory classes, pedagogy classes, and workshops. Favorite classes have been a creative non-fiction workshop with Dr. Jill Patterson—I really fell in love with the genre because of this class—and a class focused on teaching literature at the college level. I find teaching so fulfilling and energizing. The classroom is a space I used to dread and I preferred finding my own reading and way of engaging with texts and ideas... but now I'm excited every week to try to create a truly inviting and communal learning environment.
At the moment, I'm envisioning my dissertation (which is a creative manuscript plus a critical introduction) as a weird mix of prose poems and lineated poems that explore moving to West Texas; being a teacher; mourning with my partner the loss of his mother to cancer; and figuring out what my relationship with my family is, now that my parents have become more accepting of my queerness. As I type out this list of subjects, I'm realizing how deeply personal this next book is. At the same time, I think these new poems are more directly political than anything I've written before.
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching and working with students? Does your work as a teacher influence your writing? What writing projects are you working on now?
CRAIG: Working with students renews my passion for poetry. I admire their curiosity and willingness to experiment. And I enjoy witnessing their growth, confidence, and accomplishment as they learn about craft, poetics, and literary theory. As I progress in my teaching career (this is my seventh year as a professor), I also have the pleasure of seeing students publish their books, complete theses and dissertations, and accept teaching positions. Students are inspiring.
Most of my poetry before I started teaching was composed in organic, projective verse—and the poems were often longer (between 5–50 pages). But since I started teaching, I have been writing more prompt based, 1–2 page poems—and these are often the same prompts that I assign my students. These poems also tend to be more accessible than the poems that appear in my books—being a teacher has perhaps influenced me to write poetry that is more easily teachable to young poets.
I am working on several projects right now. I am co-editing three anthologies: one on Micronesian literature, one on Pacific Eco-Literature, and one on Geopoetics. I am writing my next two books of poetry, one is focused entirely on my eco-poetry and the other is the fifth book in my ‘from unincorporated territory’ series. Lastly I am revising my dissertation for publication, which will hopefully become my first scholarly monograph. It seems overwhelming when I write that all out, but thankfully I am on sabbatical this year, and as long as I do a little at a time, it will all get done.
Thanks so much for this engaging conversation, Chen. It has been great to learn more about you, your work, and your aspirations. And I look forward to following you for many years to come. My last question for you: How does it feel having been long-listed for the National Book Award (Congrats!)? Will you be going on tour for your new book?
CHEN: It feels surreal and an enormous honor. Such good books, incredible poet-company on the long list. It was especially good to see several poets of color on the list—and recognition for early books, too. Danez Smith’s second book. Layli Long Soldier’s first book. Mai Der Vang’s first book. I’m blown away by and learning so much from these poets I get to call my contemporaries, my peers, my writing-and-fighting-alongside.
As for tour, yes. I’m in the midst of that right now. A mix of conferences, festivals, and bookstore events. Also Skype sessions with classes—do those count as part of a book tour? I love doing Skype sessions. Air travel stresses me out—not the flying part, but just the logistics of navigating airports and making sure I get to the connecting flight on time and lugging all my stuff around. Being in a new place and getting to reach new people is the wonderful part. The reading itself. And the ensuing conversations. I’ve been reminded lately of how vital poetry can be, how poetry can really activate the imagination and the capacity for deeper attention and engagement inside readers or listeners. That’s why I’m a writer: to spark and push those conversations, which are often internal ones, yes, but also happen between real live multiple humans in bookstores and libraries, community centers and rallies.
Thank you for your questions and your own responses, Craig. Your work-in-progress sounds exciting and deeply necessary. I also love that you have this linked series of poetry books. I have trouble writing individual poems that are sequences, so I really admire folks who can maintain that focus across works, while continuing to find new facets of the core subject to investigate. Looking forward to seeing your next poetry book and also that scholarly work you mentioned. Sending warm good wishes.
This conversation was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa.
1. WHITE: The Big Black Thing makes white loud, sandwiches big white pages, and is unafraid of blank space.
When we read books it’s typically from white paper:
white for the clarity of text
in fact, an opaque-white so as to minimize the confusion from the opposite side’s text
in newspapers, the paper is a sort of grey
in literature it seems: the newer the book, the whiter it’ll be
The black text will be perfect, edited to replicate one voice that is designed to stay consistent as long as you’re reading it. In The Big Black Thing are forty-two writers, who remain completely anonymous beyond their names and their black text.
In 2014, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak launched Melaka Gateway, a multi-billion Chinese led mega-development involving 246 hectares of three artificial islands off Melaka’s coastline. Melaka Gateway, according to the Prime Minister, will be the “largest marina in Asia.” Set for completion in 2025, the marina will feature luxury apartments, villas with private jetties, hotels, entertainment venues and a monorail.
KAJ Development, the master developer of the Melaka Gateway Project, has a promotional video animating the future Melaka. The slogan is: “the past presents the future.” The narrator reports, “Melaka Gateway is built for commercial greatness, cultural splendour and, magnificent lifestyles designed to delight and entertain with local and international flavours.” From the azure blue of the Straits, empty islands appear above water, then multiple rectangular skyscrapers shoot up into the sky like giant trees on steroids. On one island there’s a Gateway Floating Stadium. The narrator goes on to report that the design is constructed to prepare for the influx of tourists to Melaka.
Watching this video reminds me of an episode of Doctor Who where Bill and the Doctor find themselves on a sanitised and architecturally perfect planet where there are no humans, except robots obsessed with ensuring that any life form they encounter are happy. The robots read the human life forms by the emoticons on their backs. If the human life forms show their true feelings of sadness, they are exterminated.
I met Bert Tan at his Malacca Nyonya Peranakan restaurant, Riverine Coffeehouse because I was craving something Nyonya, like ayam pongteh, a very Malacca specific dish that my grandmother used to make. Chicken stew with potatoes made from taucheo (fermented soy bean paste) and gula Melaka (dark palm sugar). The entrance to the Riverine Coffeehouse was via a lane flanked on either side by restaurants and guest houses. The back of the restaurant overlooked the Malacca River and across the bank was the Church of St Francis Xavier, built in 1856.
“If you look across from here, you’ll see that the church is on a bit of an angle. It’s sloping,” Bert smiles, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
In 2008, two Malaysian cities—Melaka and Georgetown—were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Melaka and Georgetown’s architectural and cultural townscape could not be found anywhere else in East and Southeast Asia. Melaka’s townscape can be traced to the 15th century Malay sultanate, and the Portuguese and Dutch colonisation of the country. Yet cartoon-like travesties seem to feature in Melaka’s modern public art installations—like the white mousedeers in the middle of the town square, a Dutch windmill by the bridge overlooking the river, and a large replica of a Chinese junk at the gateway of Melaka’s Chinatown on Jonker Street.
In 2014, Malaysia and China celebrated forty years of formal diplomatic relations. Each broad lipstick red step leading towards the junk has a display of replica porcelain and other treasures the Chinese Admiral Zheng would have brought with him on his travels to build diplomatic relations with the Malay kingdom in the 15th century. There were even white waves splashing against the ship’s hull.
“It’s bad luck to have the ship up in the air like that. Ships are meant to be in the water. To sail,” Bert smirks. “People think that Melaka is now all commercial; it’s fake.”
Bert can trace his Peranakan family’s ancestry to the 1740s, he is eighth generation Malaccan on his mother’s side, male ancestors sailing from China as traders. There would have been intermarriage with local-born ancestors who were Malay or Batak or Javanese, he isn’t sure. Passionate about invigorating interest in Malaysia’s history and heritage, in 2012 Bert founded the Malaysian Heritage and History Club (MHHC) a Facebook Group which boasts over 11,000 members ranging from academics to history geeks eager to share information. And the numbers keep growing.
Outside social media, the Club organises events and history and heritage talks featuring speakers drawn from Facebook members.
“Our history is being manipulated for political purpose, for certain groups of people, for a certain race. It’s used as a device of separation, of division. Divide and rule.”
Bert’s activism and passion for a democratic engagement and participation in history is grounded within the grassroots.
“I met a professor who said you don’t need to go to university. It’s just paper, it’s just an establishment. Even the professor will go to the layman for a story.”
As I dig into chicken pongteh and spicy stinky beans, Bert, knowing that I’m on a hunt for stories and Malacca history, sits next to me, a packet of cigarettes in one hand, and a massive tome in the other.
“My friend, Saidah, wrote this book—Rosalie and Other Love Songs. Did you know that the origin of Malaysia’s national anthem, 'Negaraku' is a popular love song? It’s called 'Terang Bulan'.”
Bert’s friend, is celebrated composer, author and lawyer, Saidah Rasdam, who has written for theatre, dance, film and television. 'Terang Bulan' (or 'Bright Moon') began as ‘Rosalie’, the melody favoured by the son of an exiled Sultan.
Rosalie and Other Love Songs is a weighty volume of 302 pages, and has been described as “the single most important volume so far written on Malaysian musical history” by Tunku Abidin Muhriz in The Malay Mail.
Bert leaves me with the book, and within its pages, there’s an acknowledgement—“The Malaysian Heritage and History Club has irreverent but erudite members.”
2013, 2014, 2015; I return to my country of birth
I’ve not ‘gone home’, ‘been back’ for over 10 years because …
blood lines bruised by a patriarch.
Local-foreigner; familiar and strange
Tak boleh berbahasa Cina, ‘tapi boleh cakap sedikit Bahasa Malaysia / I can’t speak Chinese but I can speak a bit of Malay
I’ve returned to a place where those that I love are gone
It’s been one year since I’ve seen Bert, and I’m looking forward to more stories. The last time we met he introduced me to Josephine Chua, a local who can trace her ancestry to a Malaccan Chinese community leader, Kapitan Chua Su Cheong, who in 1801 headed the rebuilding of the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia. I walk along Lorong Hang Jebat, the street named after a Malay warrior in the 15th century, one of the greatest silat fighters and mass murderers in Malaysian history. I can’t find Riverine Coffeehouse and wonder if I’m in the wrong area. I walk into a fancy restaurant, the interior decorated like a hotel lobby, not homely like Bert’s.
“Riverine? I don’t know. I think it’s moved”.
Disappointed, I head back hungry to my guesthouse. I munch on small fingers of sugar bananas I’d bought earlier and look up Bert’s email in my account. I drop him an email at midnight, and amazingly he responds two minutes later, despite my last contact with him being the year before! He doesn’t explain what’s happened to his restaurant, but we connect on WhatsApp and he arranges to pick me up for dinner the next day.
Bert arrives in an old Hyundai Getz that looks like it’ll stop running unexpectedly. It smells of stale cigarettes. It’s not a car I’d imagined a restaurant owner possessing. He still has that mischievous glint in his eyes.
“I’ll take you to this place that’s a bit further out but has really good food.”
Wo Wat Restaurant food court is tucked by Jalan Tengkera’s main road under fluorescent light fittings and a zinc roof. We walk past stalls advertising each specialty—claypot chicken rice, radish cake, sambal sting ray, nyonya satay on charcoal smoke, kuey teow tossed in hot woks against large flames, barbequed chicken and ducks on steel hooks ready for order. We seat ourselves at an empty white plastic table with yellow chairs and our first order is teh tarik, sweetened condensed milk tea.
Bert closed Riverine Coffeehouse after six years in business despite being awarded one of the best restaurants in Malacca. Rent was too high in the middle of Melaka town. The electric appliances and lighting in the building kept acting erratically. He succumbed to hiring a Taoist exorcist to get rid of whatever was haunting his restaurant.
“Yalah, like in the movies. He even brought a sword.”
Our conversation picks up from when we first met about Malacca’s history. I wonder what he thinks is untrue about the history published in the tourist brochures.
“Like Hang Li Poh’s well, there’s no such thing. It was called Perigi Raja in the Malay Sultanate period. And now it’s called Perigi Hang Li Poh. Because in 1984 they tried to flatten Bukit China, which made people angry. I was in secondary school in Form Four at the time. I distributed and collected all the petitions. That’s my earliest activism.”
Outside of China, Bukit China (translates literally to Chinese Hill) is reported to have the largest remaining traditional Chinese burial ground with over 12,500 graves, with some graves dating back from the 1600s.
The Save Bukit China campaign attracted close to 300,000 people across ethnic and class lines opposing the State Government’s proposal for development. Malaysia had not witnessed an opposition to development of this magnitude before.
Bert’s now working on different projects, creating alternative spaces to voice narratives ignored or absent from official tourist bureaucrats. A member of the Malaysian Heritage and History Club had contacted him about exhibiting Malaysian Independence Day or Merdeka Day memorabilia. This grew into a free exhibition in September called the People’s Merdeka Exhibition. It was important to Bert that the exhibition was free. Accessible to anyone with an interest in history and heritage. At the exhibition, the Club launched a zine called Messing with Melaka, with content related to local knowledge about Malacca’s history and places to eat. The title of the zine is a satirical word play on the State Government’s official and questionable tourism campaign to promote a clean environment for Melaka called “Don’t Mess with Melaka.” In addition, Bert is working on an upcoming exhibition called New/Old Malacca, a collaboration between the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, the Baba and Nyona Heritage Museum and the Daily Fix Café.
I loop the lock around a pole and my hire bicycle and walk into the Daily Fix Café. Its entrance is a shopfront with gifts like batik sarongs, postcards, antique items and ornaments easily sold to tourists as gifts for family and friends back home. Walking through the shopfront, I enter into a light courtyard area and the café is at the back.
Upstairs where the event talks and main exhibition will be held, Bert is seated with Melissa Chan, housekeeper of the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum. The Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum is a conversion of a family home where four generations of the Peranakan Chinese Chan family had lived since 1861, with Melissa being the fifth generation.
The premise of New/Old Malacca was a question about what people thought about the changing landscape of Malacca town, and how they felt about changes with modernity coming in. Furthermore, what does heritage mean to them? Their collaboration first began a year ago, on an app called Timera where historical photos of Malacca are juxtaposed with Melaka as it is now. In one picture, at the bottom of St Paul’s Hill, the contemporary colour photograph is juxtaposed with a black and white image of a man in a suit and a woman in hat and dress that would suit Western fashion of the thirties.
Featured in the New/Old Malacca exhibition include an eighty-plus-year-old family-owned Teo Chew porridge restaurant called Long Fatt, traders, locksmiths, a rattan furniture maker, the Portuguese Settlement, kuih badak food sellers and local community members.
“I think all of us stumbled into this a bit. We’re not historians. Personally, for me, I work in a museum, so it’s been a learning process. Also, I think working in a UNESCO site, and having the badge of UNESCO has made me question, what is heritage and what does heritage mean to me and to the community that I’m working with as well?” Melissa says.
New/Old Malacca features community narratives that don’t fit into the neat tourism and marketing ads or slogans of the State Government or Melaka Gateway’s mega development project. There are narratives like Martin Theseira’s, a community leader from the Portuguese Settlement, who has witnessed over the decades how development along Melaka’s shorefront resulted in the dispersal and resettlement of the Portuguese–Malaccan community. With the latest Melaka Gateway development plans, again, the Portuguese Settlement feels insecure about their future, yet there are no clear answers with a frustrating lack of community consultation. The largest number of speakers of the Malaccan–Portuguese creole, Papia Kristang, a language that’s classified as severely endangered in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, are located among the Portuguese Settlement’s population of about 1200 residents at Ujong Pasir on Melaka’s shorefront.
“I suppose as a stakeholder here, we sustain through ticket sales through the museum, but then how do we give an authentic experience to visitors? To help bring them along on this journey of the different layers of Malacca? I’m still discovering what heritage means to me,” says Melissa.
Upon returning to a childhood memory, Melaka
The small town of historical legends, the birth of Malaysia’s nationhood
The town of excursions and day trips from Malaysians and tourists
Where my grandmother’s family are from
Where I find the fabled Chinese Princess Hang Li Poh who sailed with 500 followers to marry a Malay Sultan is not real.
Where I meet the descendant of a Chinese Kapitan who tells me that Melaka is drawn on a whiteboard with an erasable marker
Where nothing is permanent, and everything is for sale.
Where property developers dug up her ancestor’s grave and many others along Bukit China when there were no protestors, their remains now reburied location unknown
Where I stand at the shore of Ujong Pasir, looking out to the Straits of Malacca, imagining the imaginary Chinese Princess and her 500 followers sailing in for marriage and diplomacy
Where looking out from this very shore, a Portuguese Settlement community leader points to where Melaka Gateway’s artificial islands will rise from the sea
Where the already ominous high rise resorts casts its shadow upon his community below.
I keep returning to Melaka for rasa saying
A feeling of love for this place which I hope is shared
To understand her beyond the propaganda and superficial public art monuments
To know her living heritages, her unsung heroes and forgotten histories.
This was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Lian Low writes across performance text and creative non-fiction. From 2009–2016, Lian undertook various editorial and board member roles with Peril. Find her: http://lianlow.weebly.com
In 2002 I discover Andy Kaufman, or Jim, on a DVD we rent on a rainy day on holiday. In Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey is Kaufman. I first see the iconic Mighty Mouse routine through Jim Carrey’s impersonation. His colossal eyes, blinking, bulging, as he moves between phases of Kaufman’s career, life—his face an even more obnoxious moon with bigger teeth. I first see his Foreign Man imitation melding into his Elvis impersonation and back, through Jim’s imitation. I first see him wrestling women, wrestling actual wrestler Jerry Lawler, wearing a neck brace for year afterwards like a dirty collar. I first see him reading The Great Gatsby on stage. I first see him taunting Bob Zmuda as the lounge lizard Tony Clifton, a character of Andy’s, pouring water on his head, through Jim.
I first see him dying at age thirty-five from lung cancer, even though he didn’t smoke.
I look up the real Kaufman after the holiday. When I see him, I am disappointed by his pudgy cheeks, his retreating hairline—his more human qualities. I watch his videos on YouTube. Kaufman irl is charming, sedate. He is an arsehole, but he is in control of his actions in a way that Carrey’s imitation isn’t.
I realise, that in Milos Foreman’s biopic, Kaufman’s trajectory is adjusted to fit a suitable Hollywood redemption narrative.
Things that happened in the movie
Things that happened IRL
Kaufman met his girlfriend Lynn by wrestling her
Kaufman met Lynn Margulies somewhere boring like most people do
Lorne Michaels executed Kaufman’s being voted off SNL
Lorne Michaels wasn’t producer then
Kaufman performed at Carnegie Hall just before he died
He died at his lowest point,
having wrestled women and his own career into the dirt
Perhaps Foreman designed the ending as he did because he wanted to make his story slightly less depressing. Perhaps he did it because he was orchestrating his own Kaufman-esque manipulation: ameliorating Kaufman to the audience before his death so we love him again. Charming us back to him so we don’t storm out and miss the ending.
Ladies and gentlemen, so far everything I have ever done for you, really I’m only fooling. This is the real me and we’ll be right back.
Now, thanks to YouTube, we live in a reality with a Kaufman who was always on—who never stopped. The myth of his unperforated performance can be true because we never get to question it. In these online apparitions he transitions from persona to persona, bit to bit. He is the bombing loser from the island of Caspiar located in the Caspian Sea (the character that was optioned by the sitcom Taxi), transitioning from tears into a drum solo into a dead-set Elvis routine. He is a wrestler, intergender champion of the world, in tights grappling with women before eventually being wrestled down by a pro and having his neck broken (another bit). Each twist and turn reveals the previous one to have been in jest, but there is no end to the chain, no end to the act.
I become obsessed with the idea that my selfhood transcends gender in a way that is more to do with internalised misogyny than any kind of latent non-binary identification (though how could you extricate the two). I wanted to be Kaufman—shrouding my self-hood in performative layers, so the real me is never revealed.
I was a teenage Kaufman
In 2003, I am hair-bleached, at Flinders Street, smoking Winnie Blues, drinking Jim Beam and Coke under the Four Palms. A waste/wasted. I am Courtney Love. I am Kurt Cobain. I am wearing my sister’s friend’s old denim jeans so loose and dirty and ripped that they look like second flesh pulling away from my body, my fish-netted knees popping out through the holes. Eventually she gets them back off me and throws them in the bin.
In 2004, I discover emo music and cut my hair into a side fringe. I can’t find black tight-legged pants in my size, so I get a pair of men’s straight legs tailored, but they don’t bring in the crotch so it hangs down like a nappy. I do lots of pictures of Kaufman, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain in my bedroom and put them on DeviantArt.
In 2006, I make a full-size, hand-painted effigy of Andy Kaufman for a Year 11 art project, replete with checked op-shop jacket and leather shoes, with the encouragement of an art teacher who is overjoyed to have a student choose not to paint watercolour portraits of her acned boyfriend. I drag the Kaufman figure around with me one day and take photos with him, enlivening the rumour that Andy faked his own death. A young boy asks me if he can take a photo of us, and I agree. I keep the figure until 2016, when I move into a house that is too small for it and I leave it on the street. It is picked up within half an hour. I am surprised by how sad I am.
Andy did you hear about this one?
In 2009, I get very obsessed with social media. A boy I like very much, who will very soon pull my heart out and mash it under his boot, chats to me on fb messenger. We write on each other’s walls like monkeys spraying excrement at each other. I am living in Montreal and each morning I lie in bed and will him to contact me. Talk to me. Pay attention to me. Poke me.
I am getting very good at being someone else on fb. I use face-morph to make myself into different people. I am Mickey Rourke. I am Little Edie Beale. I do costumes, I am The Fly. I am Elaine Benes. I am whoever he wants me to be. We have sex; he stops messaging me.
The withdrawal feels like death. I am a ghost in the notifications tab waiting for a sign from him that never comes.
I am very sad for a time. I do not tell my friends about it because then I will be vulnerable. He continues to hang around like a bad smell and I let him because I hope that he’ll love me again. He does not. He borrows three hundred dollars from me. He does not pay it back. I push whatever I feel down and put on a different face.
It’s 2011 and I don’t know what I am doing with my life, not for the first time, not for the last. After a long time of living with my parents with no/ne of my own money and riding from their house in East Brighton to parties in Northcote and riding down the highway very, very fast and drunk, I decide to do my honours. I’m writing a piss-poor honours thesis about Andy Kaufman and how his performances tied into the anthropological theory of liminality (academic pointlessness at its least convincing and most nefarious). At some point, I figure out that my supervisor maybe doesn’t know who Andy is.
I make a weird cut-out of Frankie Muniz just so I can put it on fb.
I’m still writing about Andy Kaufman and at the same time working at the Army Barracks in the city. I am living in Seddon. I have a crush on another boy. I put all my eggs in his basket.
One day my thesis supervisor looks at me puzzlingly, and asks: “So what are you going to do after this?” like my academic life is already doomed and over and I’m not going anywhere. So I decide that I’m doomed, not going anywhere. I finish uni, do drawings of Kaufman and other characters. Decide to go to Japan, become someone else for this other boy who doesn’t like wearing condoms “because of the way they feel”, and come back after an unbearable bout of depression.
It is useless to think in hypotheticals and yet I do it: if I had been a man I would…if I hadn’t been born a girl I would…
These ifs hang in the air like dumb question marks. They are an insult to my female ancestors who wanted better for me. Who wanted me to become an artist, to achieve what they were not allowed. But how can I be the best version of myself, when I don’t know who I am? I am the woman who built her identity on sand, on ephemeral slabs of self-doubt, on pretending to be one of the boys. I am sinking.
I want to be adored. I want to be sedated. I want to be the girl with the most cake. I am lying, dying. I am a good white girl. Like Alex Mack I can pass into any form I choose. I can wear pants or a dress. I can dress to impress. I can be thankful for a friendly world. In moralistic black-and-white. Even if it isn’t like that. I can do it. For a while.
I don’t know if Jim and Andy is supposed to be about Jim Carrey being an arsehole
There is a Netflix doco about Kaufman with an egregiously long title: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond with a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Jim Carrey is now an anti-vaxxer, has a big white wise beard and a self-satisfied smugness to him. He talks about the process of method-acting as Andy in Man on The Moon. He waxes like a 20-year-old philosophy bro:
At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go, and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are. Or you’re gonna have to kill who you really are, and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.
He spouts some ideas that sound like they’re from The Secret. They give me the heebie-jeebies. He sounds very lost, like the movie made him lose the thread of his authentic self. Every movie I’ve gotten in my life. Trace any movie, and I could tell you, somehow, how that was the absolute manifestation of my consciousness at that time. The movie shows Carrey causing havoc on the set, crashing a convertible, spray painting walls as Tony Clifton. The ‘absolute manifestation’ of Carrey’s consciousness, in this instance, is a punk kid who wants to prove his complete disregard for the establishment, which, in this instance, is the role feeding him, creatively and otherwise.
It is impossible to imagine a woman doing what Andy did. It is also impossible to see a woman behaving in the same way that Jim Carrey did on the set and not be exiled from Hollywood à la Lindsay Lohan. To say something like “eat my body, drink my blood”, quoting Jesus, and not have it end up on a blooper reel. It is male privilege indeed, to be an arsehole and to be able to call it art.
In this friendly, friendly world with each day so full of joy why should any heart be lonely?
Lana Del Rey has a song named Ride, the one with the film clip where she bangs bikers on a lost highway in cheap motel rooms. Bathing in past blue-ribbon light. The video clip begins with cheesy, spoken word:
Without a moral compass, she is a limp doll. She finds freedom in complete submission, falling into men like warm beds. She sings: they have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people. She sings: I just ride.
In some ways, Del Rey is a true heir to Kaufman’s construction of persona-as-myth. Her initial fame achieved through her embodied ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ character—a woman who lived in a trailer park, with natural bee-stung lips, with homemade videos referencing Old Hollywood, dripping in indie authenticity. Of course, when it was ‘discovered’ that Del Rey was in fact Lizzie Grant—middling singer-song-writer who had released unpopular albums, endorsed daughter of a millionaire, studio creation, bee-stung lips paid for—she was torn to shreds in ways I cannot fathom happening to a man. How dare a woman be inauthentic. How dare a woman make art that isn’t literal. How dare a woman spin gold out of something other than her own vulnerability.
Del Rey’s construction of identity was something unprecedented. Creating something that was both her and wasn’t her. Embodying Del Rey as a symbol, she was creating a mythology, literally constructing herself out of shadows of the past. A mirage of a woman, the way Kaufman was a moon-man. People were more comfortable with the idea of Lana Del Rey as a sad girl who lives through her relationships with men than a legitimate artist birthing herself.
Men plunge onto women, seek them out like life rafts and deflate them. Kaufman was looked after by his girlfriend, by sex workers, his mother, and his grandmother before them. Kaufman wrestled women, groping them to make an ironic joke about toxic masculinity. What might his life have looked like without the female supporting cast? What would the lives of the women he wrestled have looked like without being groped “ironically” by the comedian?
What would my life have looked like if I’d sought safety in something other than men? And so and so forth, back through all the women in my family, back through all recorded time.
Sometimes you get stuck being someone else and people like that version of you so much better you try to be it all the time. You want to be the rock star and the rock star’s girlfriend at the same time. You want so much to be loved. You want it all.
Andy didn’t care about that. He wanted to alienate everyone. Even when he sings that he is “thankful for this friendly friendly world”, he does so with the twinkle of a wink in his eye, subtly out of tune. Even when he wanted everyone in the world to love him, he risked having the whole world hate him.
Jim Carrey couldn’t commit to that. I couldn’t either.
These days I try not to get lost in other versions of myself. I stick to the one that I have. I write about my life, I cut close to the skin. It is both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m kind enough to myself now to see myself as I am. To look at the woman in the mirror, to walk on the surface of the moon.
Eloise Grills is a comics artist, essayist, poet, photographer, zine-maker and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published by CHART Collective, Filmme Fatales, LOR Journal, The Age and VICE, among many others. She currently edits memoir for Scum Magazine, tweets and grams from @grillzoid and uses Patreon to cover her arse.
Not many people will tell you, but a few years ago I was struck by lightning as I crossed a bridge with my son, Harvey. I was holding Harvey at the time, so I guess you could say he was struck by lightning too.
It was the summer, Harvey with the haircut some babies have that makes them look like a piece of fruit. I think it also makes them look like they could be fooled easily. In the moments after we were struck and before I passed out, and for much of his life afterwards, he had the dumb expression of someone thinking precisely the opposite of what you’d just told them.
I woke up mid-conversation with someone. There was a nurse nearby, and I asked her what she thought my legal options were. ‘Someone is responsible for this,’ I said. ‘But I can’t put my finger on who.’
‘I know how you’re feeling,’ the nurse said. She looked like she’d never slept a night in her life. ‘My dog got lost at the beach about a year ago. All the people in the world staring out at nothing, and you’re telling me no one saw a thing?’
‘It’s disgusting what we do to each other,’ I agreed.
Later, on the news, there was the miracle of the baby who’d survived dry-lightning. He was already laughing again, cradled in the rubber arms of his mother, who was behind a protective screen. All his responses seemed to suggest that not only was he unharmed, but that his brain was growing happily. No one was around to get me a glass of water, and I had to drink out of the tap like a wild animal.
Now, Harvey was back in hospital. I was at singles night when I got the call to say he’d somehow mortally wounded himself giving a demonstration at his History of Junior Innovation Society.
This was years after the lightning strike, and Harvey was in school. The lattice of burn scars left in our fatty lower backs had faded dramatically. Now, we just looked like we didn’t take care of our skin.
Kids were always getting their asses handed to them at the charter school that Harvey’s mother paid for him to attend. Rich, smart children ruining their days with ambition, tearing themselves apart with unregulated access to 3D printers.
I can’t exaggerate how often this kind of nonsense occurred. One girl put her fingers into a machine she had designed to recycle military waste. A whole class poisoned themselves drinking methylethyl. God at his race track, why? The principal encouraged their inquisitiveness, pushed them constantly. He was a plastics genius who’d served time for a famous environmental nastiness; of those wetlands holocausts, from which he profited handsomely. Stretch out your little arms into the storm, he told the children. Some of them may break and blow away, but only some.
And it worked. Take Harvey. Despite his facial expressions he was, at this point, significantly richer than me. He and one of his little friends had created an app of some monstrous function, the kind that’ll get you a profile in an in-flight magazine, and it had made him a fortune. He’d been an honourable mention in Moneyboy’s ‘15 Under 15’. Before his latest injury, he would run many miles every morning. He even had a podcast with a modest following, which he recorded at his mother’s house. I found the premise tired.
Unlike me, Harvey had a dedicated partner, an overseas girl he spoke to online. I had a penpal growing up, but our letters held nothing of the trash I found in Harvey’s chat history with his French–Canadian girlfriend. They said they hoped to die making love, swallowing one another whole, being reborn again as a single animal, huge and impossible, like a fish big enough to eat the sun—it was real unhinged correspondence. The kind of thing the murderers say just before the state blasts them with the electric chair.
Where was my news story? Where was my Quebecoise girlfriend, my miraculous development? I taught history at a vocational college. Aren’t teachers at vocational colleges allowed their dreams? I’d thought many times of what it would be like to be a solicitor to a wealthy family, or a painter who would one day take things too far and disappear. Once I wanted to open a chain of dojos, teaching self-defence to weaklings and the children of weaklings, but the administrative hoops were an aneurysm, and while I followed my train-at-home tapes vigilantly, my ankles seemed to sprain at anything above a whisper. After the divorce, I put my efforts into making my own podcast, one to rival Harvey’s. It was clean and, I felt, succinct, but after a year was still struggling to find listeners.
I would wake in the early mornings, listening to Harvey make long phone calls to friends in dark parts of the world. I would shut my eyes and wish for more lightning, or someone to appear to me, to take me back to a time when more was possible.
Take Ancient Greece. What a time that was. You could lay with any animal you wanted, as long as it was a god in disguise. No one would look twice if it wasn’t; the odds were that it would turn into a human soon enough anyway as a result of this congress. If you had sex with something else—a cloud for instance, or your father, on account of a spell being cast on either of them—you or your father or the cloud would most likely give birth to something wonderful: a new god or a centaur.
You could be murdered too, and it would be the best thing that could happen to you. It would be by the hand of a loved one, driven mad by song. You’d be brought back to life again, new, severed from of the errors of your past. Your corpse would be swallowed by a great bird and you would hatch from the egg it laid, and you would probably go on to have sex with the bird.
Can you imagine living in those times? When the rules of the world weren’t yet in place? What have we given up in ceasing our congress with the gods? Some marvels, sure. Podcasts, for one thing. Machines that recycle military waste. Suspension bridges—the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in Japan or any country. But in those moments, lying in bed, when I don’t yet have the will to rise, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge seems very far away from me, and I know the truth of my failings: that I am no solicitor to a wealthy family; that I am a simple lightning-strike survivor, and childless—or virtually childless, in that my son is deeply, aggressively overrated.
I used to fear dying famously, my parents seeing my decapitated head on the front page of their paper. Once, I had a dream that my son would live forever, outlasting us all…
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Jack Vening is a writer from Canberra. He is currently completing his first collection of stories.
The things in there don’t complain, don’t ask any god
to turn out the light. They wait their turn.
Some are past their use-by, but stay there all the same.
I’d like to be the Coca-Cola bottle
that I fill with water from the tap. Something that accepts its lot
without a fuss.
I live above a Chinese supermarket.
The other day I hung trousers from the window
and the wind carried them off. I had to go downstairs, had to ask permission.
They let me into the storeroom: it was like arriving
at the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
For a long time I thought the noise was from the bakery
half-way down the street. Turns out it’s not,
it’s from the Chinese place.
There’s a huge motor they use to ventilate their goods.
The things in there don’t complain, don’t ask any god for quiet.
Everything that shines is a satellite of some faint star.
Some day the star will expire
before its rays
and we’ll plummet into a foolish faith.
If there weren’t sadder things,
that would be a sad thing.
From Antitierra (Libros del Pez Espiral, Santiago de Chile, 2014)
Translated by Elizabeth Bryer
This poem was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Valerina Tentoni born in Bahia Blanca, is a writer and journalist. She is the author of Batalla sonora (2009) and Antitierra (2014), and of two short story collections, El sistema del silencio (2012) and Furia diamante (2015).