In mid-2015, I received an email from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), a contractor for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It was an invitation for an ophthalmologist to visit the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and provide eye care for detainees. It posed a moral dilemma, which I mulled over for a while.
As a migrant from Iran, it was easy to identify with people who sought refuge from danger or oppression. As an Australian citizen, I was upset by the appalling reports of how asylum seekers, including children, were being housed and treated. I was angered by our government’s punitive, rather than humanitarian response to a global refugee crisis—a crisis that we arguably helped foment through military support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oddly or not, this treatment also reminded me of my work in Indigenous communities where the biggest buildings in town are often the police station and jailhouse. I imagined a national tagline to capture this panoptic treatment of the destitute:
AUSTRALIA: land grabbing since 1788, handcuffing those who plead a share.
Would a visit to Nauru or Manus constitute tacit acceptance of these policies? Would I be a pawn for Australian Border Force? If I didn’t accept, who’d provide the necessary eye care for detainees? How many Australian ophthalmologists spoke Farsi, had lived in Pakistan, and were familiar with Sri Lanka and the Middle East? Was it morally unacceptable to not go?
Since my visits to Nauru and Manus in 2015–16, things have changed. The centre on Manus was declared illegal by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, and the fraught process of shutting it down continues. The Australian government agreed to our country’s largest human rights payout, tantamount to accepting the harm done to refugees. An undisclosed number of asylum seekers were granted resettlement in the US, but the Trump administration has stalled the process. Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 was changed so that doctors, teachers and other workers are free from its secrecy provisions, making it safer for them to speak out without fear of legal reprisal. Previously, all employees and contractors risked being sacked, prosecuted and imprisoned if they disclosed information about detention centres to anyone. The coalition government announced an additional intake of twelve thousand Syrian refugees, but expressed a preference for Christians over Muslims, in spite of a non-discriminatory mandate. More recently, in the face of a global refugee crisis, Peter Dutton advocated fast-track visas for a select minority of immigrants—white South African farmers—in a shameless display of systemic, unprincipled bias towards white Christian migrants.
The passages that follow were written before the gag order was lifted. At the time, I faced the unsatisfactory choice between speaking out and facing possible prosecution, or remaining silent and returning to visit the detainees. I chose the latter and shelved the writing. However, in 2017 my offshore visits fell through, due to the frustrating bureaucracy of IHMS. Now that I can’t visit the detainees, I’m blowing my whistle alongside the dedicated others who have been doing likewise for years. At the time of writing, over fifteen hundred detainees remain in limbo, and they need witnesses, not handcuffs.
22nd August, 2015
At a dining table in the staff mess, the doctors gather for lunch. As a newcomer to their group, I join them to eat and chat, hoping to learn more about the centre. I listen as they discuss the difficulties of becoming accredited to work on Nauru, about hopes to emigrate from their homes in the Philippines, Poland and Zimbabwe, to Australia or the United States. They talk shop, compare the earnings of different specialists, contrasting their deployment here with facilities elsewhere: military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil rigs in Nigeria. They speak about their rostered days off, cruising the island, visiting the Chinese eateries, checking out Anibare Bay.
Their tone is light, humorous, coloured with aspirations toward a better life.
Rarely do they speak about the detainees. When they do, they refer to them as ‘clients’, rather than ‘patients’ or ‘people’. Over a buffet of roast lamb and vegetables, detainees are mentioned with a roll of the eyes, a knowing look, a shift in tone. Scepticism moves in like a low cloud, undeclared but tangible. At times, the feeling verges on scorn.
What is implied, again and again, is that the detainees are not real patients, their conditions not real pathology. Their vague symptoms, such as headaches, non-specific pain or malaise, are difficult to diagnose or alleviate. Some have genuine afflictions, such as atopic dermatitis or upper respiratory tract infections. But their symptoms seem amplified, bordering on hysteria or the bizarre. Consequently, detainees are labelled malingerers: the scourge of doctors, feigning illness for personal gain.
My colleagues seem unaware or uninterested in the psychological impacts of detention. As a more sympa-thetic counsellor tells me, “Asylum seekers arrive here with post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of their home countries, develop anxiety about the welfare of family left behind, and fall into depression when we lock them up.” At our table, there seems to be little appetite to consider these more complex dynamics and how they may manifest as somatic symptoms among trapped and disempowered fugitives.
I peer around at the painted grey walls in the staff mess, the fluorescent tubes over stainless steel surfaces. I feel discomfited; I swear the aircon is dialled to Arctic. The mess, like the rest of the compound, is militarised and highly administered: monitored hand-hygiene stations, high-visibility vests, muscle men with buzz cuts. Last night, a security guard did me a kindness, permitting me a second orange after dinner by looking the other way. Even citrus can be contraband here.
23rd August, 2015
The eye conditions afflicting detainees on Nauru range from mysterious to tragic. Many suffer a form of allergic conjunctivitis, where the eyes become red, gritty and sore for weeks on end. I suspect it’s due to a local antigen, perhaps phosphate dust from the ubiquitous open-cut mines, or airborne fungal spores from mouldy accommodation. I see a three-year-old boy from Nepal with this condition. His eyelids are swollen and excoriated, and he has similar changes on the soft skin of his armpits and behind his knees. I prescribe anti-allergy eye drops and show his dad how to administer a steroid cream for him. But as long as he and the other detainees are exposed to the environmental toxins here, it all seems like band-aid medicine.
19th September, 2015
On Manus, I meet an Iraqi man who is blind in one eye from traumatic optic neuropathy. This is a case of ‘damaged wiring’ between the eye and brain, which occurs when the eye is struck so hard that a shock wave passes through the bony socket and shears the nerve fibres where they enter the skull. The nerve atrophies and the blind spot expands until eyesight is extinguished. The man tells me he sustained this when local Papua New Guinea (PNG) men stormed the centre and bashed his head in with a wooden bat. Another asylum seeker, 23-year-old Reza Barati, was beaten to death in the same riot.
I tell this man that his blindness is permanent and he slumps to weep in front of me. Has he not lost enough? What’s the price of his sight, to him and to us? On our government’s watch, his vision had been halved, his future prospects permanently diminished. Yet I doubt many Australians will ever hear his story. I trace the cause of his blindness back to the illegal invasion of his country by Western governments including ours, a spiral of dominoes fanning out to flatten the dignity of civilians.
Hessom Razavi is a doctor and writer, born in Hamadan, Iran. He grew up in Tehran, Karachi and the UK, before his family moved to Perth. His poetry has been published in Australia and the UK, and his travel writing and videos are available online. He works as an ‘outreach eye doctor’ in remote communities in Australia and overseas.
Among the meditations on books and babies in Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a list of names appears under the heading “Notes on some twentieth-century writers”:
Flannery O’Connor: No children.
Eudora Welty: no children. One children’s book.
Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Irish Murdoch, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Mavis Gallant, Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Pym: No children.
Helen Gurley Brown, author of Having It All: no children.
Of the writer-mothers that appear, further down the list, most had a later start – presumably, after their children had grown, at what might be called, in somewhat archaic terms, the end of their childbearing years. Toni Morrison was forty-nine when her first book was published; Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty. The others, as Galchen notes, were hardly mothers at all beyond the biological sense: Murial Spark left her son in the care of local fruit-sellers when she escaped her marriage in Southern Rhodesia for London; Rebecca West tried to convince her lovechild with H.G. Wells that she was actually his aunt. Jean Rhys is not mentioned, but I read recently elsewhere of the way she was described by her daughter, at the age of six: “My mother tries to be an artist and she is always crying.”
Galchen doesn’t need to elaborate on what her equations imply: that, for most of history, motherhood has been incompatible with having a productive creative career.
Closer to home, at a Melbourne art school in the 1980s, my mother was taught that a woman was ill-advised to pursue both. Her first-year painting professor was an influential figure in the emerging punk and feminist scene, celebrated for her works that combined images with confessional text to depict a particularly feminine interiority – a world of cats, horses, and lonely long-haired girls who were trapped in bell jars or had fallen down rabbit-holes. There was plenty of room for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in her vision of female experience, but not motherhood: a woman can’t be an artist and have children, this professor told her students, so you better decide now which one you want to be. My mother was seventeen, still seven years away from being anybody’s mother, but she has never taken very kindly to people telling her what to do.
Still, the suspicion persists that mothers can’t be good artists and artists don’t make good mothers. It’s a false dichotomy, as Galchen (herself a 21st-century mother-writer) and my mother know, but it continues to haunt. In Shelia Heti’s latest novel Motherhood, the narrator’s boyfriend puts it this way: “it sort of blows your load, parenting, because it’s the perfect job – it’s very hard but only you can do it. And isn’t making art like that?”
Like Heti, the narrator of Motherhood is a Canadian writer living in Toronto. She is thirty-six when the novel begins and arrested with indecision over whether or not to have a baby before she turns forty – her own self-imposed deadline. Despite her achievements—the relationship she has with her boyfriend, Miles, the six books she’s published with enough acclaim to earn an independent income from writing—she sees these small victories pale in comparison to the lives of those around her, which are crowned by the more traditional markers of success: marriages, mortgages, babies.
Over the next few years, she finds herself adrift in adulthood, suffering bouts of loneliness and depression as her peers become increasingly preoccupied with raising children – an activity she frames as something like a party she has been invited to, but doesn’t really wish to attend: “It’s fair to say I’m missing out on something, but also that I might prefer to miss out.” Sometimes this looks like emptiness; but also, radical possibility:
To have a child is like being a city with a mountain in the middle. Everyone sees the mountain. Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain. The city is built around it. A mountain, like a child, displays something real about the value of that town. In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning. They might suspect it doesn’t have one…How wonderful to tread an invisible path, where what matters most can hardly be seen.
The stakes are different for Miles, a criminal defense lawyer with a young child from a previous relationship (a character who remains curiously, if not conspicuously, on the periphery). In response to the narrator’s dilemma, he is indifferent, as she explains: “If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure,” and these words, cast in italics, seem to reverberate throughout the rest of the novel as she struggles to make a choice that feels ethical and true. It’s the equivalent of shrugging and saying I don’t mind – supposedly liberating, but also a way of opting out of the conversation. It doesn’t help that the narrator’s own impulses and desires are mysterious to her: “Whether or not I want kids is a secret I keep from myself – it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”
She begins to seek answers elsewhere, employing logic, reasoning, mysticism, chance. She asks questions – of coins, of fortune tellers and East Village street psychics, friends, family, and most of all, herself. What kind of life for a woman is a life without children? And could this choice be as spiritually fulfilling, or equally valuable as motherhood? Does a productive life have to be biologically re-productive? Or, to use her words: “Can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing called babies?”
At the launch of Motherhood in New York, on the first day in May that truly felt like spring, I sat in the lower level of a Manhattan bookstore flushed with the sudden heat that had made white flowers bloom on the tree outside my window overnight, like a nature documentary time-lapse. I spoke eagerly with a woman I’d just met, another writer around my age, about our competing desires to have lives that produced both books and babies. For both of us, it felt important that the novels we were working on arrived first. I sort of feel like the book is the first baby, said my new friend, and then she paused, backtracked. Not that I have a partner, or anything. Our conversation seemed like an example of what Heti highlights in the novel – that women debate the idea of motherhood privately, internally, maddeningly (regardless of, prior to, or in the absence of any partnership) because the question of whether or not to have children is an existential one. To be or not to be a mother is ultimately a question of what makes a valuable, productive and meaningful life.
Later, at home, I Googled the term “competing desires”, which had become lodged in my brain, a recursive refrain, during my reading of Motherhood until the words began to lose all meaning. The recommended result was a Quora page titled “Cognitive Psychology: How are competing desires resolved?” The answer, according to the thread: “Competing desires are usually frustrating due to the sequential manner with which we usually do things. Even so, time is the ultimate master of conflict”.
Time also has mastery over the body, and to occupy a female body is to be made especially aware of your relationship to the corporeal clock. At twenty-eight, approaching twenty-nine, I feel sometimes like I’m constantly on a deadline. It’s like being an hourglass, or a lunar calendar: monthly, my body marks time, and I’m aware of it rushing through me. When I think of the men I know, one of the things I envy most is their unimpeded sense of time, the sense of all those years to stretch out into, ripe for chronological manspreading.
“The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or being allowed it”, states Heti’s narrator, and throughout Motherhood there are subtle references to the way time imposes structure on the lives of women – the narrator intends to work on a project that will explore her concept of “the soul of time”, and part of Motherhood is divided into sections according with the four stages of her menstrual cycle: PMS, Bleeding, Follicular, Ovulating.
But the questions of whether or not to have children, and if so, when, and how late is too late, and what else should happen first are not just biological, or existential – they’re literary, as Heti demonstrates, because they’re concerned with the order and arrangement of events in time. In other words, they’re the obsessions of plot.
If the life of a woman without children doesn’t fit the conventional biological arc, then to write and document it requires new structures. For this reason, it is easier to describe Motherhood in relation to what it is not: an essay or an argument, a memoir or a manifesto, or any kind of how-to. But as Heti’s narrator suggests, there’s something reductive about describing an experience in the negative, qualifying it by what it lacks:
Maybe if I can could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of—make it into action, rather than the lack of action—I might know what I was experiencing, and not feel so much like I was waiting to act. I might be able to choose my life, hold in my hands what I have chosen, and show it to other people, and call it mine.
So, what is Motherhood, then?
Loosely speaking, Motherhood is a novel – one that stretches the possibilities of genre and form with the same energy, humor and invention as Heti’s breakthrough, How Should a Person Be?, a novel that included transcripts of real conversations with friends, parts of a play-in-progress, and chapters with headings which read like hilarious title-cards in a subversive silent movie (“Interlude For Fucking”). In Motherhood, Heti also relies on what I like to think of as a combination of fictional and extra-fictional devices to structure an inquiry into maternal ambivalence. The concern here is not how should a mother be, but whether to be one at all, and what is gained or lost in making this choice.
One of the challenges Heti faces with this novel is how to create narrative tension and momentum out of indecision, and one notable device is the use of a divination method inspired by the I-Ching that involves asking a yes/no question and flipping three coins. A ‘yes’ answer requires two or three heads, while two or three tails equals a ‘no’. (A note from the author at the start of the novel states: “While not everything in books is true, in this book, all results from the flipping of coins are true.”) These passages create a frame that pushes back against the narrator’s doubt, while also drawing attention to the limitations of the yes/no binary. There is a playful element to the way she insists on wriggling out of this trap by arguing back with the coins, and their cryptic counsel:
I have to ask, am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don’t have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me? yes
Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way? no
Is there real shame in being that way? yes
Is that way basically selfish? yes
And not as connected to the life force as other women, being so shut up in my thoughts and my head? yes
Is there a male equivalent to this, well, barrenness? no
Is there a romantic female figure that equals those male, romantic, artistic figures? yes
Women artists with children? yes
If I have children, will I be like those women? no
There is truth, Heti knows, in uncertainty because every decision contains the shadow of what could have been, the what-if. Doubt and desire are not binary opposites, but simply two sides to the same coin: “On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them.”
These passages also inject the book with the spontaneous spirit of improvisation that has made Heti such a gifted collaborator – in Women in Clothes, an anthology produced with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, as well as her many interviews for The Believer, and the sections of How Should A Person Be? that incorporate real conversations with friends. The coins, in a way, provide a method of collaborating with the self—or the universe—and introducing the creative challenge of the unexpected within the deliberate, solitary act of writing a novel.
Motherhood was originally envisioned as another interviews project, and at times I found myself imagining what this could have looked like: another tome, perhaps, like Women In Clothes, with pictures of baby shoes and illustrations mapping cesarean scars. A book that could have had the space and flexibility to voice a wider diversity of maternal experiences: of young mothers, older mothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law, grandmothers and aunts, lesbian mothers and gay fathers, single mums, trans-parents, mothers who have adopted or given children up for adoption, mothers who have abandoned children and children who have been abandoned, surrogate mothers, incarcerated mothers, women who have had IVF, midwives, women who have had abortions, mothers of miscarried or stillborn babies, would-be mothers who wanted children but never had them, women who never wanted children at all.
If Motherhood is limited, it is because it contains one voice—the voice of the narrator—and in a sense she is the only character. Even when others do appear, their purpose seems to be to express different sides of the debate the narrator is having with herself, in a tradition that feels closer to philosophy than literature (although this technique is becoming more common in contemporary autofiction; Rachel Cusk’s recent novels Outline and Transit being a good example). Since these characters are similar to the narrator in terms of age, class and race, they might act as something like the controls in an experiment – a way of briefly glimpsing the paths her life could have taken. But since the novel takes place largely within “the greyish and muddy landscape” of the narrator’s mind, the reader is confined to her perspective. Dialogue is reported rather than transcribed – all interactions with friends, family, fortunetellers, are filtered through her consciousness. But this may have been a way of proving Heti’s original thesis: that when people give advice about motherhood, they are always speaking to themselves.
Some of the most insightful moments in the book come from Heti’s observation of how threatened we can feel by the decisions of others – especially when it comes to one as personal and irrevocable as having a baby. In one scene, a friend with a newborn asks the narrator if she plans to “do her time”, as if motherhood was something like a draft she was recruiting for, or a prison sentence. Then, leaving the apartment, the narrator runs into her former classics professor. “Please, don’t have children,” insists the professor, though she herself has a thirty-five-year-old daughter: “I knew she was trying to save me from a life of drudgery and pain”, explains the narrator. “I said, But wasn’t having a daughter the greatest experience of your life? She paused for a moment, then admitted it was”.
To decide to be a mother, or not to be – both involve letting go of one idea of yourself and embracing another. The only difference is the decision not-to is invisible. A baby, after all, is its own explanation. One day, it will even grow old enough to speak for itself.
When Heti was heralded, earlier this year, by The New York Times as part of a new vanguard of writers who are also women, the critic Dwight Garner praised her ability to deliver “prose that feels like actual, flickering, unmediated, sometimes humiliating thought.”
Part of Heti’s strength, and what makes her work so compelling, is her ability to translate a mind to the page in a way that feels unfiltered and confessional by embracing the honesty of contradictory feeling and finding beauty in ugliness and flaw. But this artistic feat is often missed by those who fail to recognize that all consciousness, in writing, is crafted, and insist on conflating Shelia Heti with her fictional persona. As Maggie Nelson once said, quoting Eileen Myles quoting the film director Carl Dryer: “in writing, you have to use artifice to strip artifice of artifice.” Yes, Heti is a master of something like that.
The aim of Motherhood is not necessarily to solve the narrator’s dilemma, but to evoke the anxiety of indecision and capture the texture of ambivalence on the page – the mind’s recursions, vacillations, obsessions, anxiety dreams, images, conversations, memories and competing desires. In many ways, the decision of whether or not to have a baby functions as a classic literary framework: create a character and give them desires, I was taught in graduate school. This is where story comes from. “I always believed there were several possible lives I could be living, and they were arranged in my head like dolls on a mantelpiece,” the narrator writes. “I would take them down, one by one, dust them off, and examine their contours and compare.” But what matters is not so much the choice that is made, but what that choice has the potential to reveal – especially in fiction like Heti’s, where authority, intimacy and drama is created primarily by voice and style.
Last time I had a difficult decision to make, my friend gave me some advice from her own mother: toss a coin, and then see how you feel about the answer. You’ll know what’s right from the way your heart will sink or lighten, but you’ll still be free to change your mind. Writing, in a way, is a trick like this – or a little like taking down one of those dolls from the shelf of the mind and imagining a life for it. As Milan Kundera once stated, about his own process:
The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities…Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
A novel then—especially one as flexible and formally unconventional as Motherhood—is a way, briefly, of springing out of the trap. The page is a space of possibility and play, where we can cross that border beyond the self we know and see what lies on the other side, and whether or not we might like it there, beyond the boundaries of our own life. “A life is just a proposition you ask by living it, Can a life be lived like this too?” states Heti’s narrator, but we could repurpose this: A novel is just a proposition you ask by writing it—or reading it—can a life be lived like this too?
Writing can be a way of exercising doubt, making peace with the what-if by whittling it into art. It can be a method of containing anxiety, “like combing your hair to get out knots,” as Heti suggested at her launch. Although we may be taught from a young age that stories are about things that happen, in Motherhood Heti proves that the things we didn’t do—the missed chances, whether or not we wanted to miss them, can also be rich, and yes, fertile—imaginative territory: “The problem is that life is long, and much happens by accident, and choices made in a single week can effect an entire life-time, and the decider within us is not always under our control,” writes Heti’s narrator. “So as much as I can’t see having a child, it’s strange to imagine I actually won’t. Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special as the having…To battle nature and to submit to nature, both feel very worthy. They both feel entirely valuable.”
Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the senior editor of NOON literary annual and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Lifted Brow.
In Married at First Sight the woman is running to a public toilet to escape from the rain and from the husband, who is chasing her. The husband is begging dispassionately. “Baby, please don’t cry.” He seems annoyed about the crying. He is looking in the opposite direction. Earlier in tonight’s episode, the husband could not tell the difference between camembert and butter. He put a slice of camembert into a hot frying pan. The camera zoomed in on the burning camembert while comedic stock music played, allowing us to pretend that his reality was not tragic. The woman, in the next room, appeared listless. The husband threw the piece of burnt cheese out of his kitchen window like the world was his trash can.
The theme of this couple is the Oedipus Complex. The husband is looking for a mother figure he can have sex with. The theme is failing because the woman is actually looking for a boyfriend.
When my boyfriend and I arrive in Yogyakarta there is a monsoon. We run through deep water on the way to a restaurant. I feel young. A strange man at the table asks us about the blood moon. The rice is served in a perfect orb, wrapped in yellow paper. The folding of the paper is so pure.
I am in the process of becoming estranged from my parents, I think. It sounds glamorous but feels remorseless. My feet are muddy from climbing the ancient Buddhist temple. I have touched a stone as old as the world! But every stone is as old as the world, even the ones that are composite.
It doesn’t stop raining for nine days. My boyfriend and I become restless in our hotel. The hotel becomes a prison of relaxation. I smoke berry-flavoured cigarettes and drink juice. The hotel has a large bathroom and cable. We watch Everybody Loves Raymond. We watch Khloe Kardashian help a teen lose forty-six pounds so that he can try and get a date. We watch the teen’s date look at him, thinner and wearing different clothes, and turn him down. We watch Gordon Ramsay teach his daughter how to cook a French stew.
My boyfriend is reading Madame Bovary, and I am reading a book whose protagonist is reading Madame Bovary.1 We keep saying things to each other while we wait for room service, like, “Homais is such a mansplainer,” and, “Female boredom is, like, catastrophic.” I try to use body language to emphasise how relatable Emma Bovary is to me without giving him any spoilers. “All my credit card applications get rejected,” I explain to my boyfriend. “It’s kind of like that.”
I used to tell my Tinder dates that my parents named me after Emma Bovary, to impress them and to liken myself to her, the most chic depressed person in literature. “We have so much in common,” I would joke. They would ask what and I would say, “Well we’re both named Emma.” I wanted her to be my namesake so badly, but I don’t even think my parents know who she is.
In Jakarta, our apartment is opposite the National Monument. Although it is so tall, our view is of a parking lot. When it is night and the parking lot is empty, thin cats run up and down its spiralling ramps, like they are playing a clandestine game.
There are so many outlet malls and they are vast like towns. Shoppers climb over one another to search through piles of fake handbags on the floor, shrink-wrapped Michael Kors and Guess. There is a whole zone for fake handbags. There are other zones: jeans, sunglasses, hijab, puffer jackets, DVDs, fast food, iPhones. Every vendor sees us pass and calls out to us. “Miss, mister, shopping?” I remember a video I watched a few weeks before coming here. In the video, part of the floor of the Jakarta Stock Exchange collapsed while a large group was standing on it. Everyone screamed but nobody died. The building looked just like this one does on the inside. I buy a Gucci T-shirt for twelve dollars. In the Uber home, I whisper to my boyfriend: “Malls are like monuments to us.” My boyfriend nods. The Uber driver blasts soft jazz and I watch theme parks and hotels pass by the window like they are ads during a movie.
In the early 2000s, many of the chefs on television were men. It was so uncool to be a woman and to be domestic. Cooking was technical, hard-edged. It was a skill that you would learn and master. Kitchens were clean, like places to do surgery, and the instruments of food-making were sharp and metallic. Did women no longer belong in the kitchen, or did the kitchen no longer belong to us? It didn’t matter to me. I was a teenage girl and I could buy diet versions of everything from the store.
Now it is 2018 and I have a kitchen of my own. But what do I do with it? I sauté kale tentatively. I eat the kale. The kale is bland and soggy. I need a man like Gordon Ramsay to yell at me in a clean, clinical space about how bland and soggy my kale is, so that I may learn to make it better. The domestic woman is cool again, but only in her leisure time. It is cool to make embroidery, to sell your embroidery. It is cool to cut flowers and put them in a vase, to post the flowers and the vase on Instagram. It is cool to bake a beau-tiful cake, to go on television for your cake, to go on MasterChef because of the beauty of your cake and to use MasterChef to boost your profile as an emerging baker or model or personal trainer.
I am having this crisis re: what work I can do. Really: what work can I do? What are my market-able skills? Maybe my parents believe that I am good for something. Maybe their silence is a way of releasing me into the wild, like animal parents do on National Geographic.
Whenever I get a manicure I have to throw up after-wards. It’s the tweezers, tearing up the cuticles. The removal of parts of me, quick and precise. When she is done with one hand, the manicurist wipes the pieces of my skin onto a napkin and moves onto the other hand. On the napkin are other piles of skin, belonging to other people. They’ve hardened into crusts. I think this is the part that always gets me.
I can’t stop drinking coffee. I can’t stop listening to the sad songs from my teenage years. I can’t stop buying sweet, pink wine. I spend hours online looking for a cheap copy of Rihanna’s Jessica Walsh parka that I can Afterpay. It is true that my therapist tells me my shopping is a safety behaviour: that I buy things to fill a void in my life, left by something we need to identify together. I ask her: Do we really need to identify the void? She says: Absolutely. She asks me if the parka will make me happy, and I say that it is self-improvement. The parka will change my life.
I know that in the past, men must have seemed so ugly to women: coming home from the world all dirty and exhausted, wanting things. The things men want. Emma Bovary was bored in that lavish house. There was nowhere inside of it that she could go.
I fell in love with my boyfriend when he was making green smoothies. I watched him put the spinach and the orange juice in the blender. It was like watching a beautiful film. I still watch him in this way, when he is doing tasks. Folding towels. Downward dog. It has been some years.
A memory: a child feeds koi in a pond with pellets from a paper bag. The fish throw their orange bodies out of the water and onto the stones, trying to catch each pellet. The child is young and can’t throw far. A fish flops around on smooth, round stones laid in a pattern to look like small flowers. The fish rocks itself back and forth until it gains enough momentum to fall back into the water. It seems fine, I guess.
One night in Yogyakarta, I scream at my boyfriend on the side of the road because neither of us can choose a restaurant and I am very hungry. Two men, smoking, watch us fight. I want to tell them that we sometimes love each other in this way and that it’s normal. The theme of this couple is... banal. The theme is working because it’s supposed to. But the two men do not speak English, and the only Indonesian words I know are “sorry”, “thank you”, and “this is too expensive”.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something To Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfictino Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Pres in 2018. She is currently working on her first novel.
When I was in love with someone who didn’t love me I went to a psychic because I needed to be told otherwise. I was young, I was captivated by the narrative of my own longing. The psychic told me I would have a baby. I knew it would be his, I knew we were connected. We must be. I loved him so much I had gone looking for him in my future and so he would be there, it was certain.
While the psychic told me that his reasons for not loving me were circumstantial, I imagined what he might be doing. It felt necessary to make my movements anticipate his movements. There was, in my body, a desperate blind faith in the kinetic. I would cast myself into ancient forms that would supplicate me to him, that his eyes would understand but his brain would not, that would make him love me. If I put my arms this way—if I painted my lips this way; if I held objects in the ways I had been taught—I could become the figure that was loved by him and him alone. I could change the future even in the moment that the psychic was making it concrete.
I told the psychic: circumstances can be overcome. I know that this is true because I took home an audio recording of the session. There was determination in my young voice! But he never loved me. He got a different girlfriend.
I have lived like a hieroglyph. I have stared out of windows with a face composed especially for staring out of windows. Do our bodies speak languages, or are they their own languages? We are messages, forces, we pull near to one another, we orbit and collide. Our bodies surge with secret power like rivers after rain. Desire, admiration, aspiration, envy: the essays in Chelsea Hodson’s collection Tonight I’m Someone Else know this surge, they ride it effortlessly. The writing is turbulent, fluid. As the surge passes from one body to another, both bodies change; sometimes they don’t know that they are doing it, the passing or the surging or the changing, although of course, sometimes they do.
Of all the essays, ‘Red Letters from a Red Planet’ perhaps does most overtly what the collection does, implicitly, as a whole: it takes bodies and turns them into signs, it makes the bodies communicate, implicitly and explicitly, with each other and with the reader. In ‘Red Letters’, two of the bodies are the body of Hodson and the body of her bad-boy boyfriend Cody, which orbit one another in Tucson, Arizona in a way that is normal, predictable, human. The other two bodies are the body of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander and the body of Mars, which interact with one another in ways that make a lot of humans—both in the essay and in memory, in the real world—hold their breath and watch, amazed.
In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A poem is a way of talking to the person you’re not supposed to talk to anymore”. Hodson’spoems are breathless and surprising. I didn’t think it would be possible for an essay to do what a poem does in a way that is somehow wilder and more human but then—there is knowing that a Martian day, a sol, is forty minutes longer than an Earth day—there is loving a man for the very brutality with which he does not love you back—and there are swift, broad strokes of voice that draw these things together so that they become necessary to one another, so that there could not be a photograph of Mars in my mind without a Tucson I’ve never been to, without a Cody I have never met or loved.
I read my horoscope, and it tells me there is more power in surrender than in the illusion of control. I think about Donald Trump looking at the total solar eclipse without those special sunglasses. I think about the psychic, telling me my love was unrequited. The planets move vastly, with or without arcane power, around us. I will never touch Mars, maybe I will never touch Arizona, but they both impact me every day, in ways unknown to them and to me. Are Donald Trump’s eyes more invincible than the eyes of other people? Are horoscopes only rendered impotent when you think they are trash? Or can you just become immune to powers that you don’t believe in?
If such disbelief is a force, conviction is its necessary twin. My bodily certainty, at the table of the psychic: but he loves me back. Saying something aloud doesn’t always make it true, but then again: Mars is dusty and the Phoenix is searching for water. It has this one robotic arm that is always reaching. Hodson recalls overhearing someone at a press conference say: “We will find water; it is there. It was the same tone I used”, she writes, “to announce that I loved who I loved”. With what certainty I have loved! And Hodson loves, certainly, she loves Cody. She loves him even though…yes. She loves him anyway.
As a teenage girl I had one of those friendships that ruined me while at the same time giving me concrete form. She was someone I loved, someone I never stopped loving, yet she filled me with a hatred and envy so deep and profound I thought I would die. She was bold, she was pretty; I don’t know what I offered the friendship, perhaps in retrospect I was clever and the boys who adored her appreciated my jokes. I don’t know what she does now, it would be easy to find out but I haven’t tried. Her pull is surely still greater than my resistance.
It’s a classic trope, it’s Lila and Lenù, it’s Cher and Tai, it’s Heidi and LC. Every teenage girl has situated herself somewhere on that spectrum of toxic, urgent intimacy. In ‘Small Crimes’, Hodson enters such a friendship with Bianca, made fleeting by the confines of summer camp. Summer camp! I was a bookish child, I was always reading about wealthy girls in the American wilderness, restless in their cabins. I learned from them about pining: pining for boys across lakes, pining for friends at home, pining for the lost limbs of childhood, limbs that would be cumbersome with womanhood by the end of summer.
The body of Bianca is like this, arrested by Hodson’s curious gaze in its moments of transformation. Doubling, Bianca is arrested again by Hodson’s retrospect; a retrospect still tinged with curiosity, because of course even though Hodson later went through changes of her own they were foreshadowed by what she had already seen. Tampons in a duffel bag, words like dick and rape, lipstick on the rim of a glass. The two girls set out into the darkness, led by desires Hodson doesn’t yet feel or understand. But the body wants to want. The body orbits its models and learns how to become its future self. In ‘The End of Longing’, Hodson writes, “A theory my friend has: sleepovers are where girls learn to wake up in love. Remember when we knew our friends’ bodies as well as our own?” My teenage friend would sleep in her bed, and I on the floor, I would fall asleep by matching my breathing to her breathing. A thousand secrets hung in the air between us like living things.
Proximity, maybe, is the surging force, the secret power that pushes our bodies around like they’re dumb things at some casual mercy. There is a scramble for proximity in the magnetism, orbiting, and harm of ‘Red Letters’; there is an urgent proximity in the mirroring and learning of ‘Small Crimes’. Proximity becomes gendered in the collection’s exploration of themes of touch, beauty, and looking in ‘Simple Woman’.
Hodson was a model. In ‘Simple Woman’ she writes about it in a way that is blunt and deft and clean, there is no filmic glamour. What Hodson remembers about modelling is the touching of her body, how makeup artists and hairdressers would pat or brush her in ways that felt maternal. There is an equation implicit in this recollection: being beautiful means being touched. What Hodson thinks about when she turns her face to the camera is touch. She commands us to try it: “Think of the electricity between two hands about to touch, the language that exists in that silence.” It is this private anticipation, the imagining of another person’s skin and its nearness to the boundary of the self, that makes a face worth photographing.
A body is an object – yes. A body is a spectacle – yes, too. In Tonight I’m Someone Else, all bodies, the motionless body and the object-body, the celestial body and the mundane body, the growing, changing body and the celebrity body, have their own power and allure. All of them speak differently, and all of them have proximity to, or perhaps momentarily engulf and become, Hodson’s. And as I read, mine.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something to Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Press in June 2018. She's a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, and is currently working on her first novel.
What do Elon Musk, activewear, the Fab Five, bees, Madame Bovary and Carly Rae Jepson have in common? Nothing really, except that they're all in the crosshairs of the latest issue of The Lifted Brow to hit shelves around the world. That's right – issue 38 is officially out tooodaaaayyy!
This issue is a blast from cover to cover, which is not surprising given it's Annabel Brady-Brown's last hurrah as co-editor of The Lifted Brow. She and the other editors have pulled out all the stops to bring you a lineup of writing and artworks you'll want to devour like popcorn. In this issue you'll find:
truly iconic essays by Stephen Pham, Lauren Carroll Harris, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Emma Marie Jones, Hessom Razavi, Monikka Eliah, Kate Prendergast, and Isabella Trimboli;
columns by the reliably brilliant Dion Kagan, Jana Perković, Hayley Singer and Michael Dulaney;
enjoyably weird fiction by Allee Richards and Tom Lee;
poetry by Eileen Chong, Zeina Hashem Beck, and Sumudu Samarawickrama;
and comics and artworks by too many talented folks to list (but you can find them all here).
Whether it's the ethical minefield of providing medical care on Nauru or the simple pleasures of listening to your favourite pop diva, these pieces cut to the crux of the issue, regardless of how many feathers they ruffle along the way. As Annabel Brady-Brown says in her editorial,
An important, ongoing re-appraisal of our gatekeepers and creative heroes—and, in turn, their works—is seeing artistic landscapes redrawn, canons debunked, rappers winning Pulitzers, and lecherous writers being ditched from festival line-ups. Living through this process can be disorientating; a heady mix of thrills, suspicion, and relief. We've become increasingly inured to the fact that marketing coffers raise mediocre works up, while systemic subjugation can push exceptional works down. This makes it all the more exhilarating when an undeniable piece of writing or art intervenes: when somone cuts through the slosh, or reclaims something from the fray.
If you're a subscriber, this lil' package of joy should already be making its way to your doorstep. For the unsubscribed, you can order a copy below or find it in-store at one of our local or international stockists. Or you can read it in digital format on your device, or online! Or you can subscribe now to save yourself 35% off the cover price over four issues. You do the math, Australia.
As we announced last month, creative powerhouse and all-round delightful person Annabel Brady-Brown is stepping down from her role as co-editor of The Lifted Brow. We’ve taken some time to sigh and mope and make sad faces, but of course we totally understand that life means nothing without its inherent impermanence!! Plus we know that Annabel is going to do just the most incredible things with her newfound time – and also she'll be remaining part of the TLB communities (just try and leave!) in small and big ways in both the near and far future.
We’re thrilled to be able to announce that Annabel’s position will be filled by Jini Maxwell, who will join current co-editors Zoe Dzunko and Justin Wolfers as they start work on issue 39. Jini writes, draws, and works as an arts producer. She is currently co-directing National Young Writers Festival, and making immersive, playful work with PlayReactive. Her recent bylines include The Saturday Paper, Melbourne Recital Centre’s Soundescapes, Scum Mag, and Cordite Poetry Review.
Here's what some of the relevant folks wanted to say about all this:
As the latest edition of The Lifted Brow hits shelves this week and I step down from my position as co-editor, the feeling is bittersweet. I’ve been kicking around TLB in various capacities since 2014, and have been editing the magazine for a couple of years, and I know it’s now time to make space for a new person to come in and do brilliant things. I couldn't be happier to be handing over to the wonderful Jini Maxwell. As many of you will already know, every interaction with Jini is stamped with her irresistible energy, generosity and imagination, and this also radiates from every project in which she has a hand. Watching the Brow continue to bloom under her editorship, alongside my ever inspiring co-editors Zoe Dzunko, Justin Wolfers, and the entire incredible volunteer team at TLB, is going to be a blast for us all.
I don’t know what to say except: thanks for having me! I’m absolutely fucken stoked to be here! Ah! The Brow is my favourite publication, and I’ve had the pleasure of being involved, at various points, as a reader, writer, artist, and intern. It’s an incredible and overwhelming feeling to be so warmly welcomed by an organisation I have loved for long.
My first priority as an editor is helping people find the words and form that are exactly right for them, and that reflect exactly what they want to say. That will mean publishing lyrical and experimental work, but I’d also really like to hear more from people who might not necessarily think of their work as having a place in a literary journal. At the Brow, as in all of my practice, I want to facilitate playful, inclusive, challenging work, in whatever shape that takes. Pitch me something outlandish; I’m invested in making this space a space for you, too.
As I have told Annabel emphatically while eating dumplings, her energy, integrity, and wonderful editorial eye are utterly irreplaceable! There is no box to the left that can contain them. It's tragic for us to see her go, but I am so extremely proud of her, and excited by her next steps, both in writing and editing pursuits, and dare I say it, in financial security.
Luckily for us, Jini has agreed to offer us her immensely generous and rigorous approach to writing and art-making, along with her extraordinary empathy and commissioning brilliance. Let's get to it!
The opportunity to work alongside Annabel these past few years has been blissful, endlessly inspiring, full of lessons in kindness and profound generosity, a testament to the force of collaboration. It has been nothing short of a privilege. Anyone who has worked with or beside Annabel will be aware of her infectious enthusiasm, her deep deep goodness, and her ferocious integrity—anybody who has worked with her is very lucky to have done so.
In the strange space between friends and colleagues, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing one of the most talented and committed humans I’ve ever met give herself over—daily, entirely, without hesitation—to the work she believes in. I’m better for every conversation I’ve had with Annabel, for every time she’s challenged me, encouraged more from me, revealed to me the true face of dedication. For every idea she has nurtured; for her tenderness, optimism and exactitude in equal measure, the Brow is hugely indebted to her for these things.
As a volunteer in a volunteer-run organisation, I have long joked that the Brow is my social life—both takes the place of my social life and is full of the richness that people seek there—but this isn’t a joke, really. Writing is community, and this magazine is about people first and foremost. I’m buoyed by that we can move and grow, evolve just as people do, and I’m so excited to welcome Jini as our new co-editor. She is sublime, fiercely intelligent and will bring so much to her role. I can’t wait to begin working with her and to witness all of her many bright and brilliant ideas materialise.
Jini Maxwell knows TLB inside-out—she’s been reading our magazine, book and website, for years, she’s contributed both writing and artwork to both our magazine and to our website, she’s attended many of our events, she’s interned with us, and she’s been involved in the doing of several key projects—so it feels 100% perfect that she now steps into the role of Editor alongside Justin Wolfers and Zoe Dzunko. It’s a particularly germane coincidence that Jini has officially joined our team the same week that she published this piece in The Saturday Paper – it’s well-known in our flawed industry that all staff at our organisation are unpaid for their time, skills, knowledge and labour. We are slowly and surely working to change this permanently. The kind of writing that Jini will publish in our magazine—and the energy she will bring to the role–will go some way to helping us realise our goals of making our whole organisation healthy and sustainable, including with the paying of all the makers and doers behind the scenes here. I can’t wait to work alongside her.
With all the joy we’re feeling welcoming Jini into the organisation, it’s equalled by a flipside sadness as we say an official farewell to Annabel Brady-Brown, who has been involved in so much of what we’ve done over the past few years. Although we know Annabel won’t be a stranger to TLB, and although we know that she’s stepping down from her Editor role with us so she can continue pursuing so many extraordinary opportunities in her work editing her journal Fireflies, in her Film Editor role at The Big Issue, and with her own creative writing, we can’t help but already realise how much we are going to miss her brains and her warmth. Annabel is a person who encourages and cajoles everyone around her to be better artists and better people, and we have been incredibly fortunate to have benefited from her talents and personality for so long. I’m so stoked for all you do, Annabel, and I’m so so excited by what’s on the horizon for you.
To commemorate Annabel's time at the helm of the Brow, grab a copy of her final issue, Issue 38 (officially out Monday!). It's a swan song, it's a last splash, it's a bona fide cracking read.
Furthermore, TLB Online has also recently had to say goodbye to one of the stars in its editorial constellation. Linh Thùy Nguyễn has stepped down from her position as online editor to focus on her many other roles, including at the Emerging Writers' Festival, which kicks off in June and looks like it'll be marvellous. Linh has been responsible for a tonne of excellent online features we've published in the last year or so, and has put in many, many hours of work behind the scenes. Linh, thank you for being such a champion.
We're absolutely stoked to have found someone truly excellent to fill Linh's position – we welcome longtime friend (and ex-intern) of TLB, Adalya Nash Hussein, who will be taking on the role of online editor. Adalya Nash Hussein writes and edits nonfiction – her work has been published in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow and Going Down Swinging. She has been programmed at the National Young Writers Festival, YWCA’s ‘Dear Diary’, and The Wheeler Centre.
Welcome to the team, Adalya – we're super excited to work with you!
We've been incredibly overwhelmed by all the love that you all have shown for Balancing Acts: Women in Sport. We've had events so far at Sydney Writers Festival, Gleebooks, and Readings – and we have a big event coming up next week at The Wheeler Centre. And so many of you are talking about the book on social media – we've loved eavesdropping on all your conversations.
We've also seen such favourable reviews of the book be posted online, and we've seen extracts from the book run in national publications, and our editors and many of our contributors have been interviewed about the book in various places. Scroll down for all the links and embedded media.
Before you do, though – if you haven't yet read the book, do consider doing so? We're even prepared to offer you free shipping – if you use the discount code BALANCINGACTS in our webshop checkout, you'll pay $0 postage, anywhere in Australia or around the world.
Thinking about the current massive transformation of the earth’s systems, the... destruction? flattening? of global ecosystems, the mass extinction that we’re currently perpetrating against the planet, tends to make me feel a combination of angry, depressed, guilty and ashamed.
The shame is the worst. We’ve come this far as a species, figured out how to occupy all these planetary niches, we have the science to be able to see in excruciating detail how our behaviour is affecting the earth, and yet we can’t stop ourselves ripping out our own life support systems? It’s embarrassing, truly.
No other species has developed the self-awareness to be able to observe its own behaviour in the depth that we have, no other species has photographed itself from outer space, but the only thing we’re using these powers for is to watch ourselves commit planetwide murder-suicide in excruciating high definition.
There’s no reason to expect that we’ll go extinct in the next few centuries – some humans will manage to eke out an existence on a depleted, damaged planet, why not? – but like all complex organisms, we’re undoubtedly susceptible to changes in our environment. Our ability to use our brains to extract resources from our surroundings is going to become less valuable as our environment degrades into patchy deserts and algal blooms.
Humans have been around, give or take, for 300,000 years. I wouldn’t put money on us lasting another 300,000. And when we go, we’ll leave behind a world in which 90 per cent of the world’s rivers no longer reach the sea, a world full of jellyfish, rodents and beetles struggling to get by on a diet of delicious microplastics.
In time, it will work itself out. Earth has ways of taking care of itself. Over tens of thousands of years, all the excess CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere will be drawn back down into rocks, through a process called silicate rock weathering. Last time we had a runaway greenhouse effect (an event called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, around fifty-five million years ago), it took about 100,000 years before the atmosphere stabilised again.
Over the next couple of million years, one adaptable species that manages to survive the current mass extinction will blossom and spread widely. Its descendants will gradually diverge into more and more specialised species, until they grow to fill all the niches of a rich ecosystem. After the dinosaurs perished, it took less than ten million years for a kind of tiny mammalian dog to spread out and give rise to everything from whales to elephants to wolves to tigers to monkeys to bats.
(Which lowly creature will be the progenitor of the next great dispersal of terrestrial fauna, the ancestor of the future Earth's grazers, climbers, burrowers, massive herbivores and apex predators? ? Will it be rats? Pigeons?)
Eventually, tens or hundreds of million years from now, another species will emerge with a complex social structure and an extraordinary cognitive ability. They’ll find ways to draw energy from their environment and buy themselves leisure time. Then with that leisure time, as any species in their situation would, they’ll begin to speculate about the planet they live on. How did it get to be this way? They’ll dig down, start examining rocks, and put together some facts about their planet’s history.
Looking at the rock strata and fossil record, they’ll be able to tell that Earth has had a number of periods of flourishing life, interrupted by sharp shocks. One shock was caused by a massive asteroid smashing into it and triggering a nuclear winter, which ended the dominance of the (flightless) dinosaurs and ushered in a phase of mammal-dominated life.
But the sixth mass extinction, the one that wiped out the big cats, the elephants, the whales, the monkeys, what caused that? I imagine this future sentient species puzzling over the evidence, trying to put it together.
It wasn’t a massive asteroid. It wasn’t a period of unusual volcanic activity. It looks like it was a runaway greenhouse effect: the atmosphere rapidly heated and triggered a whole series of other feedbacks. The methane trapped under the northern oceans broke loose and bubbled to the surface, the oceans acidifying out of control.
But what caused that greenhouse effect in the first place? And how do you explain the fact that in the period just before that mass extinction, the earth’s geology seemed to go crazy? Heavy minerals that had been buried in rock deposits all around the world suddenly vanished from those mountains and appeared in weird clusters all over the planet. Nitrates that virtually never occurred naturally were unexpectedly everywhere. Species that had always been confined to one continent abruptly appeared all over the planet, like the deck of ecosystems was reshuffled at random. Fossil fuel deposits buried under the earth for hundreds of millions of years were inexplicably released back into the atmosphere. And most incredibly, a massive spike of radioactive dust settled all over the globe.
How do you explain all that?
These future scientists, if they’re perceptive enough, might just be able to piece the evidence together and conclude the truth. If not, the aluminium will give it away.
There’s really only one way to produce aluminium: smelting tin in a very powerful furnace. Traces of aluminium in the fossil record are a clear indication that someone was here.
So these sleuthing historians will be able to come to this conclusion: it was a particular animal that did it, probably one of the mammal species that were prolific at that time. They somehow achieved a kind of global domination, enough that they were able to transform the planet to suit their needs, exploit the earth’s systems to their advantage, and in doing so, utterly devastated the planet. So much so that even they couldn’t survive the long-term impacts of the changes they made.
But here’s the joyful bit, for me: these scientists may be able to tell that it was one out-of-control species that fucked up the earth, but they’ll never guess it was us.
Once the dust has settled (in the geological sense), our legacy on Earth will be no more than a thin smear of plastic, crumbled concrete and decimated ecosystems. There’ll be the occasional fossilised Homo sapiens skeleton drowned in a muddy lagoon, sure, but no solid proof connecting them with the destruction we caused. Any other species active on the earth at this time might also have been at fault.
Our future scientists might blame the big cats. They were everywhere on the planet, and they look pretty ferocious, even in fossil form. Or it could have been dolphins – they had a suspiciously large brain for their body size. What were they doing with all those thoughts?
But in the end, I think they’ll pinpoint chickens as the real culprit. Their beaks and claws look far more capable of manipulating objects than our clumsy primate opposable thumbs. In the span of less than a century, these small flightless birds ballooned from an average weight of 800gm to 4.2kg – they grew five times in size. And where they’d previously been confined to a few temperate ecosystems, they were suddenly everywhere, and there were billions of them. If that’s not a sign that they were running the planet, what is?
My friends are concerned that we’ll leave behind some evidence that fingerprints us. Muttley says, “There’ll be fossilised chairs clearly designed for humans, that will last tens of millions of years.” Jack says, “All it takes is finding one fossilised primate with a gold tooth.” These are smoking guns, it’s true.
“But,” Jack continues, “while it feels like hard, thankless work trying to arrest our planetary slide into catastrophe, it would be relatively easy to spend our last hundred years as a species erasing evidence and pinning it on another creature.”
(In my head I’m imagining taping a mobile phone to a lion’s paw and dropping it in a muddy swamp where it’s certain to fossilise.)
Jack’s right, it’s far easier to cover up the scene of your crime than to try and repair the damage you've caused. It’s a strong and viable Plan B. And given our species is midway through a gleeful, fevered kamikaze trip, I’m all for Plan Bs.
Yes, we’re committing a kind of planetary-scale annihilation that is claiming a vast range of creatures and will, in the long term, claim us too. But once the earth recovers from the shock we’re inflicting on it, life will continue on, in all its wonderful complex weirdness. The earth won’t blame us, the earth won’t remember us. And if we’re lucky, future sentient species won’t either.
These days we take our solace where we can find it, hey.
David Finnigan is a writer, theatre-maker and pharmacy assistant from Canberra. He is a member of science-theatre ensemble Boho and an associate of Coney (UK) and the Sipat Lawin Ensemble (Philippines). davidfinig.com
“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” –Gandalf the Grey
“As long as I'm alive, I want 'em. But they're not to cry out, and they're not to be rescued. Bind their legs!” –Uglúk, Uruk-hai Captain
What Do You Smell?
There’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) where a group of orcs are transporting their hobbit hostages across the plains of Rohan. The band comprises Sauron’s soldiers from Mordor and Saruman’s Uruk-hai from Isengard. The orcs stop to rest and the question of food arises. “We’ve had nothing but maggoty bread for three stinking days!” one says. “Yeah, why can’t we have some meats?” replies an orc credited as ‘Snaga’. His gaze settles on their captives: “What about them? They’re fresh!”
While the Uruk-hai captain Uglúk explains “those are not for eating!” Snaga creeps up behind the two halflings, knife raised: “just a mouthful, a bit off the flank!”
Here I pause my two tape LoTR:TTT The Extended Edition VHS. Something about Snaga’s shaky menace strikes me as familiar. The pinched lips, the round skull, the shifty eyes: he is a Weta-Workshop Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection. Unchecked, unbowed, and unforgiving, there is something decidedly monstrous in the way the Member for Dickson carries himself. Photo after photo shows him lurking in the shadows like some Gundabad war chief.
But his monstrousness goes beyond his cartoonish grim visage. Despite scandal after bungle after scandal, Dutton seems destined to hold dominion over the Commonwealth. He has moved Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition to the far-right with the ease of an au-pair pushing a bawling baby in a pram. With the creation of the Department of Home Affairs in December 2017, he became one of the most powerful men in the nation, with an accumulation of strength that has progressed unchecked and is now spreading beyond the department’s ill-kept murky borders.
In the age of Trump, Dutton is not so much a projection of conservatism’s future as a paragon of its present. What Saruman would describe as a “ruined and terrible form of life” has now been “perfected.” Dutton leads the establishment fringe in the post-Abbott era: you will not know pain, you will not know fear, you will taste raw onion.
People treat Dutton as though he sprang fully formed from the pit of Gorgoroth itself. As if he is a riddle in the dark, spoken in a wet-mouthed whisper. We are too scared to ask what’s in his pocketsess.
Well, speak friend and enter: like an Elvish riddle on a Dwarven door all it takes is the simplest paradigm shift to see the Ents for the trees. Call me Thorin Oakenshield, because I hold the key to grokking our would-be future PM. To understand Dutton you just have to understand this simple truth:
The age of man is over.
The time of the orc has come.
Through popular culture and the film adaptations, most of us have a clear idea of how an orc looks and acts, just as we have a rough idea of how Peter Dutton looks and acts thanks to Sky News and Janet Albrechtson puff-pieces.
The origin of orcs is often overlooked. Tolkien posited various creation myths for orcs. The best known and most commonly accepted comes from The Silmarillion (1977), which hinted that they were Elves transformed by Melkor’s “slow arts of cruelty…in envy and mockery”. Another theory appears in The History of Middle-earth, a 12-volume series published posthumously, which states that orcs were “…bred by Melkor of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal”. Here the orcs are described like machines of war, which in a sense, they are.
In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien offered this description of orcs: “They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes.” He goes on to explain that “the Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men”. As corruptions, be it through torture or interbreeding, orcs maintained a recognizable humanity. Christopher Tolkien explains in Morgoth’s Ring (the tenth volume of The History of Middle-earth), “…my father’s final view of the matter: orcs were bred from men.”
There are conflicting views about the origins of orcs. In one, they are corrupted reflections; in another, they are manufactured projections. What is important is not so much how they were made, but what they were made to represent. Tolkien, a World War I veteran who fought in the Battle of the Somme, witnessed industrial warfare firsthand. Recuperating from trench fever in 1917, he began writing fables about dwarves, “gnomes”, and orcs. Many years later, in a letter to his son who was then fighting in World War II, Tolkien wrote: “I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction…only in real life they are on both sides, of course.”
In Tolkien’s universe, Evil is unable to create anything new. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey states that “though [Tolkien] became increasingly concerned over the implications of orcs in his story, and tried out several explanations for them, their analogousness for humanity always remained clear”. Although Tolkien grew uneasy with it, the corrupted elf/man theory stuck because it allowed orcs to be simple ciphers for the man-made horrors of the 20th century. Evil lacks empathy, and thus imagination. As Frodo explains “…the Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”
The orcs are the result of Evil’s failure of imagination. Peter Dutton is the result of Australia’s.
Born in 1970, Peter Dutton, son of Bruce, grew up in the heats and slime of the Northern Brisbane suburb of Boondall. Flat-nosed and sallow-skinned, it is impossible to determine whether his heart was born of, or crafted with, granite, but his father was a bricklayer, so granite was probably at some point present. His working-class family sent Dutton, eldest of five, to St Paul’s School, a private Anglican college in Bald Hills. In 1988 an 18-year-old Dutton joined the Young Liberals. In 1989 he unsuccessfully ran for the state seat of Lytton, and by 1990 he was chair of their Bayside branch.
That same year he graduated from the Queensland Police Academy, having begun his training at the height of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Misconduct. The Inquiry would see the deposition of Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson and the jailing of three former ministers, as well as a knighted police commissioner. Like Aragorn’s time ranging for the Dunedein, his time in the QPF would shape him as well as his policies. “I was a police officer at a young age and in those formative years I’d seen good and bad in that job. So I do think that shapes your world view,” he recently told Guardian Australia.
Terry O’Gormann, who cross-examined ‘Uncle Joh’ in the Fitzgerald inquiry, told that same Guardian reporter that Dutton is “…the unofficial national police minister.” In his Inside Story article ‘Prime Minister in Waiting,’ Norman Abjornsen recalls an interaction with a senior minister at an airport, to whom Abjornsen quipped that Dutton ‘still talked like a Queensland cop, impassive and deadpan’. The minister replied, “yes, and he thinks like one too.”
After nine years working in the Drug Squad, the Sex Offenders Squad, and the National Crime Authority, Dutton completed his Bachelor of Business at QUT and joined his father’s building business. They founded Dutton Holdings in 2000 (now Dutton Building and Development). Dutton currently owns six properties, including a $2.3 million mansion on Queensland’s “Millionaire’s Row.”
From the son of a bricklayer and childcare worker to cop to real-estate mogul to potential Prime Minister, Dutton’s life traces the heroic arc of the self-made man: the central protagonist in modern conservatism’s mythology. He is the fantasy of the “aspirational conservative” realised. A post-Menzies Gil-galad wielding a determinist spear; an epic Elven ballad penned by Ayn Rand. Like the orcs, he has “maintained a certain level of recognisable humanity”, but also like the orcs, he can’t help but resemble the intention behind his own creation. Dutton is the continuation of the Australian conservative tradition – that which defined Uncle Joh’s reign, precipitated the rise of John Howard, and formed the foundational logic of Australia’s refugee policy.
A tradition that schooled Dutton in the ‘slow arts of cruelty.’
Drums In The Deep (they are coming)
In 2001, the year of 9/11, the Tampa Affair, and the cinematic release of The Fellowship of the Ring, a 30-year-old Dutton was elected to the seat of Dickson. His defeat of former Australian Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot was an ambush worthy of the orcs who slew Isildur at the Gladden Fields, and for this he was swiftly rewarded. In his maiden speech to Parliament, he said that as a police officer he had seen “the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society.”
By 2004 Dutton was workforce participation minister, one of the youngest ministers since Federation. He rapidly shot up the ranks. In 2006 he was appointed Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Revenue. In 2007 he boycotted the apology to the stolen generations, stating he did not believe it would “to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century”. A year later Turnbull made him Shadow Minister for Health.
During his rapid ascent to power, Australia would enter both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The reign of the Great Goblin (Howard) ended, but his legacy lingered. The hysteria around refugees – aka “boat people” – would continue to grow. The Rudd Government maintained Australia’s gulag archipelago.
The Shadow loomed.
Dutton had visited Ground Zero just prior to taking office. America’s open wound spoke to his sense of injustice, his outrage. There, he framed his career within the context of a crusade. The Denethor-like paranoia which followed the attacks, and the subsequent desire for revenge and reclamation, gave Dutton direction. The Balrog awoke, the smoke took shape. Dutton’s rhetoric began to match, even outpace, the reaction politics of the post-9/11 West. “When does the right of privacy for the individual start to impinge on the common good of society?” he asked in his maiden speech.
When did Australia abandon reason for madness?
The Scum Tried to Knife Me
As with Sauron’s return to Dol Guldur, Dutton’s rise to power wasn’t all smooth sailing and necromancy.
Tony Abbott appointed Dutton Minister for Health (and Sport) in 2013, a job he kept for a little over a year. It was Dutton who tried to force the $7 GP co-payment on the public, like Uglúk forcing the black draught down Merry’s gullet. Orcs don’t know much about medicine. A 2015 poll by Australian Doctor magazine voted Dutton “the worst health minister in living history”. Abbott made Dutton Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in a cabinet reshuffle on December 21, 2014. The Nazgûl finally had their fell-beast. No more fuck ups.
In 2015 Senator Hanson-Young accused Peter Dutton of spying on her when she visited Nauru. Dutton retorted that “she’s got a track record of making these things up”. It was later confirmed that Wilson Security and the Immigration Department, and perhaps Crebain crows from Dunland, had indeed spied on Senator Young.
Later that year, on September 11, an open mic caught Dutton joking with Tony Abbott about rising sea levels and Pacific Island Nations: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”. A comment not dissimilar from the orc Grishnákh’s suggestion that Merry and Pippin “don’t need” their legs. Dutton sided with Abbott during the 2015 leadership spill; he was after all the Azog to Abbott’s Bolg. Although the “scum tried to knife” him, Turnbull kept Dutton on in the front bench. It was a move that may yet prove fateful for Turnbull, who has preceded over a Coalition where alliances are as fraught as that between the orcs of Mordor, the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and the Lyle’s of Shit-eât.
Tolkien wrote of orcs that “if Morgoth and his agents were far away, they might neglect his commands. They hated each other and often fought among themselves, to the detriment of Morgoth's plans”. Such is the chaos of the Coalition post-Howard. It is a chaos that Dutton, like the orc Gorbag, has artfully thrived in.*
(…other than that time he sent a text calling Samantha Maiden “the mad fucking witch” to Samantha Maiden.)
You Will Taste Man Flesh
Tolkien wrote that orcs were “so corrupted that they were pitiless, and there was no cruelty or wickedness that they would not commit; but this was the corruption of independent wills, and they took pleasure in their deeds.”
Most orcs are interchangeable: Shagrat, Grishnákh, Gorbag, Uglúk, Lurtz – dumb snarling faces that spit out hatred through gnashing teeth. Ruddock, Vanstone, Evans, Morrison, Dutton – Australia’s immigration ministers are much the same. Dutton took to the Immigration portfolio like a warg to horse flesh. “I enjoy it a lot,” he recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. He takes pleasure in his deeds.
That visit to Ground Zero, and a decade of the West’s self-perpetuating xenophobia, cemented his zealous self-assurance that his way was the righteous way. To oppose it was to side with the enemy. “Where we are guided by principles and objectives,” he said on entering Parliament, “the others in Australia have adopted this third way of operation, in which the end result is that they now stand for nothing. They have lost.”
Those guiding principles are as coolly simple as an orc’s. To Dutton, the mission to “stop the boats” was handled with the same ruthless efficiency of Lurtz’s mission to “find the halflings”. Both Lurtz and Dutton had no room for “misguided compassion”. Dutton inherited a violent system and ran it as doggedly as the Uruk-hai berserker who throws himself, torch in hand, into the bomb beneath Helm’s Deep. A few arrows, be they from Legolas or First Dog On The Moon, would not slow him down. The Sydney Morning Herald could run as many “Jihads” against him as they liked – this orc was going to blow himself up and take that mad lefty Haldir with him. If the utility of a system is solely violence – be it explosive or institutional – the only way to work efficiently is with the single-mindedness and amorality of an orc.
The rape of 23-year-old Somalian refugee known as Abyan, protests crushed by violent reprisal, reckless medical negligence, several deaths in detention, and a string of attempted suicides (the latest by a boy as young as 10) all took place under the watchful eye of Peter Dutton. In Appendix F of the third volume of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King (1955), Tolkien explains that orcs stole other languages and “perverted it to their own liking,” and that orc speech sounded at all times “full of hate and anger”. In 2015 seven pregnant asylum seekers refused medical treatment on Nauru, urging Turnbull and Dutton to bring them to Australia. Dutton promised upgrades to healthcare facilities, but told 2GB that the government would “not be taken for mugs.”
Just prior to the 2016 election Dutton told Sky News presenter Paul Murray that many refugees “won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, no question about that”. It was a base bit of racist rhetoric from Dutton, who usually couches his bigotry in the poison tongue of the protector. What had been subtext in the post-Howard era briefly shone through like a vein of Mithril along a dark cave wall.
Turnbull defended him, stating that Dutton “is an outstanding Immigration Minister”. Dutton became another unflushable turd in the Prime Minister’s increasingly clogged plumbing. Their relationship not unlike that of Saruman and the Uruk-hai Lurtz: Dutton the willing boogeyman of the far-right in a party that loves that movements’ product if not its brand. That year’s election would see Dutton’s margin “take a little tumble off the cliff”, falling from 6.7% to 1.6%, holding Dickson with a margin of less that 3,000 votes (i.e. less than 1/3 of the orc host gathered at Helm’s Deep.)
In 2016 Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali committed suicide via self-immolation in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the plight of those imprisoned in purgatory on Nauru. A year later, after 50 refugees left Nauru for the US, a frustrated Dutton told Ray Hadley that somebody once told him “the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags [was] up on Nauru, waiting for people to collect when they depart.”
He went on to say:
“The reality is that these people had, at the generosity of the Australian taxpayer, received an enormous amount of support for a long period of time.”
There are countless examples of Dutton’s dog-whistle blaring like an orc horn over the barbarisms of our detention system. He is glib to a fault, an orc indifferently giving the order to catapult decapitated heads over enemy walls. Despite all this calamity, Dutton’s apologies are few and far between. Those he’s given are laced with self-pity, reluctance, and deferred blame. Take his recent statement regarding the latest incident on Nauru: “even the Biggest, can make mistakes,” he told the ABC, “something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we've got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don't forget: the enemies don't love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we're done too.”
(NOTE: That was either Peter Dutton or the orc Gorbag – unable to confirm.)
An orc cannot apologise for being an orc. They are bred for a purpose. Cruelty is part of the orc’s job description, so the job and the orc are indistinguishable. The reason the Shadow of Mordor games give orcs names like “Tugog Man-Breaker” is because their function forms their identity. The same is true of “Dutton Boat-Stopper.”
To Dutton and his predecessors Australia’s immigration policy is, like the road to Sammath Naur, paved with good intentions. The Immigration Minister is a protector as much as he is an enforcer. “Operation Sovereign Borders has brought maritime people smuggling to a standstill and saved countless lives,” Dutton said, marking “1000 days of strong and secure borders.”
But as Gimli, son of Glóin, once observed, when listening to the words of Saruman “in the language of Orthanc, help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain.”
A Palantir is a Dangerous Tool
The immense power gifted to Australia’s Immigration Minister by the Migration Act of 1958 is, frankly, Sauron-esque. With the creation of the Home Affairs Office last year, Dutton has managed to expand his dominion beyond the already fragile outlands of accountability.
Former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Evans once remarked: “I have formed the view that I have too much power…I am uncomfortable with that not just because of a concern about playing God but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability…what I thought was to be a power to be used in rare cases has become very much the norm.”
This is not unlike Gandalf and Saruman’s debate over the power of the Palantir.
“A Palantir is a dangerous tool, Saruman,” Gandalf councils.
“Why? Why should we fear to use it?” his superior retorts.
“They are not all accounted for, the lost seeing stones,” Gandalf explains, “We do not know who else may be watching!”
Like Saruman and his Palantir, Dutton has wielded his new authority with the singular thinking of the overpowered: why should we fear to use it? Who cares who is watching? So he took to the Department of Immigration the way the orcs took to Fangorn Forrest. With an axe.
In his recent feature for The Monthly, ‘Dutton’s Dark Victory’, James Button discusses how the old Department of Immigration could be divided into the two branches of “inclusion and exclusion”; what staffers nicknamed “Disneyland” and “The Dark Side”. Writer Henry Martin, who interviewed officials from the department’s first forty years, labeled those deciding the fate of Australia’s potential citizens as “angels and arrogant gods.”
Being the spawn of god – Valar Melkor himself – Dutton seems to prefer the latter. In a speech made to the Trans-Tasman Circle in October 2017, Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo made reference to AC/DC, The Leviathan, and at length, The Lord of the Rings. He recounted Frodo’s journey for “those of you who know the books preferably, the movies if you must”. He talked about how upon their return, Frodo and company were shunned by the other Hobbits for seeming “a bit above themselves.” Pezzullo continued by chiding the Shire Hobbits (I MUST STRESS THAT THIS IS VERY REAL) for “not knowing the sacrifices that have been endured to keep them safe”. He lamented that the Hobbits were woefully unaware that evil was “on the borders of the Shire, seeking to penetrate their very comfortable, safe, and blissfully ignorant existence.” He then rambled on about an emerging “dark universe” and “the end of days.”
To Pezzullo, Frodo and friends were a kind of border force, unfairly maligned by a naïve and ungrateful public.
Only a lunatic would go to such lengths to link Australia’s immigration policy to The Lord of the Rings like this. Pezzullo had forgotten that in the books (“preferably”) Frodo and friends return to a Shire overrun by orcs, led by ‘Sharky’ aka Saruman the White. Our heroes find themselves stateless. Frodo embarked on this journey – where he was smuggled across borders by boat, barter, and disguise by a fanatic, a guerilla leader, and an addict – so his friends and kinfolk would be spared this very fate. It was not the shapeless void of Sauron that destroyed the Shire, but the self-certain Saruman: who convinced himself that the only way to overcome the Dark Lord was to supersede him, and who consequently collapsed under the weight of his rapidly accumulated and unchecked power. It is not the Hobbits that resent Frodo’s return, but the orcs that bare the White Hand.
Fouler Things than Orcs
I was ten and at the height of my LotR mania when John Howard announced: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. My parents, particularly my mother, raised me to view Howard as the Big Bad. A Great Eye with thick spectacles, he came to embody all that was defective in the Australian character. He had slain Gil-galad (Keating), he had returned from defeat, he had slapped the GST on Old-Toby pipe-weed. He was a Dark Lord in an Akubra and jogging-gear.
I would often retreat into LotR as a way to understand the world around me. I remember reading the chapter where Gandalf falls to the Balrog, a week after my grandmother had died, feeling inconsolable with grief. My grandmother, once John Curtin’s secretary at The Daily Worker, had been one half of my moral compass, the other had been Gandalf. They both taught me the value of empathy, and how one man’s pity may rule the fate of many.
As an adult, I see Dutton, Howard, our refugee policy, and the great Shadow that darkens them as the nation’s norm. The web of violence and cruelty is now inextricably attached to who we are as Australians. We have become Shelob, snagged in her own mess. Our borders are kept safe by our white nationalism. Be it fear of African gangs, or a sudden concern for South African farmers, our press, policies and politicians reveal a nation who wear the White Hand with pride.
I have drawn on orcs and Middle Earth because the nature of this Evil is so immense that it has become fantastical. Tolkien’s descriptions of orcs remained inscrutable because the wickedness they symbolized was inscrutable. The orcs are simple ciphers for difficult times.
From Abbott and Trump, to Latham and Milo, to Uncle Joh and Dutton, there and back again: we are living in the time of the orc. But orcs are merely vessels for grander schemes. Orcs like Dutton are a small part of a meaner darkness buried deep within our national conscience. And as Gandalf made clear, “there are fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
A LotR wiki tells me that Snaga is actually “the name of the lowest or lesser breed of orc. They were used as slaves, warg riders, messengers, and were lower in ranking and size than the Uruks, Morannon orcs, Orcs of Minas Morgul, and other larger ones in Mordor.”
Staring at the frozen image of Snaga on my TV, I suddenly realise why he reminds me of Peter Dutton. It’s not his egg-like head, it’s not the smile that’s in fact a snarl, it’s not his hungry eyes. It’s his stupidity – the kind that is unique to the cruel. If Snaga ate the hobbits (even their legs) he’d immediately have to reckon with his smallness in the grand scheme of things. He’d have to challenge Uglúk, the captain of the other faction, but beyond that, the will of Saruman, and potentially, Sauron himself.
Dutton and Snaga are both monsters powered by an unwavering prowess for monstrousness. Ultimately, what makes them orcs is their subservience. To fail at that would be to fail at being an orc: all good orcs, the ones that make it to the top that is, know this.
I press play. Snaga is immediately decapitated by Uglúk, who roars:
“Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”
The orcs cheer and Snaga is devoured.
Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian living in Fremantle with the other Shire-folk. He talks to his dog about Evel Knievel and his stalled There Will Be Blood musical. His work has been published here and elsewhere, translated into several languages, and mainly focuses on mental illness and Waluigi. In 2017 he released a stand-up album, ‘Barely Bombings,’ which touches on everything from Boko Haram to the Care Bears, and all that’s in between.
Good news! Issue 38 of The Lifted Brow has hit the printers and, boy, are we filled with Emotion. This issue is a one of our best – packed with essays, fiction, commentary, poetry, comics and artwork that'll knock your socks off. Take a look at the stellar list of contributors below, and you'll see why we really really really really really really like this issue.
At the start of Jesse Ball’s Census there is a brief foreword. In characteristically spare sentences, Ball writes:
My brother Abram Ball died in 1998. He was twenty-four years old and had Down syndrome. At the time of his death he had been on a ventilator for years, been quadriplegic for years, had had dozens of operations. His misfortune was complicated, yet his magnificent and beautiful nature never flagged.
As a child, Ball imagined a future in which he and Abram were always together; even worried about finding a partner who would be willing to live with the two of them. He would be his brother’s caretaker. Recently, he decided he wanted to write about “what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl”.
Both the distance of time and the intimacy of a sibling relationship made it difficult to write about his brother; so Ball decided to recast their relationship as that of ageing father and son. A caregiving role not unlike the one he’d imagined for himself as a child. And with this, he set out to create a “hollow” book, writing not about, but around his brother: “He would be there in his effect.”
Consider the semantic difference between the words caretaker and caregiver, typically used interchangeably. Ball prefers the former in his introduction. I tend toward the latter, though only, I suspect, because it’s more common in Australian English. If I were a non-native speaker of English, I could imagine myself confusing the two words, or assuming them to be antonyms.
To take care of: a phrasal verb that carries the similar but distinct meaning of deal with or see to. One might take care of a plant in another’s absence, or take care of a child for an afternoon. Equally, one might take care of a problem; that is, eliminate or rectify it.
To give care is not a common phrase, except in the negative construction; as in, “They didn’t give a care”.
Does it matter that the novel’s central conceit (the objective of its narrator; its title) is never fully explained? I don’t think so. The census is a plot device. We are never sure of its purpose, nor the murky bureaucratic entity responsible for its administration. But this ceases to matter.
In the opening pages, the unnamed narrator – an ageing surgeon and widower – learns he has a terminal illness. He accepts his diagnosis with apparent equanimity. Having always wanted to “take to the road”, he decides to become a census-taker, a position that will permit him to travel the length of the country through towns denoted only A to Z accompanied by his son. He reasons that they will enjoy a final season together, and when at last they reach Z, he will be approaching the end of his life, at which time he will put his son on a train back to A. There, per a prearranged agreement, he will be met by a neighbour and friend, who will look after him.
Episodic and fragmented, as we have come to expect from Ball’s previous works, the narrative is divided according to each of the cities and towns visited over the course of the census-taking exercise; which is to say by the letters of the alphabet.
The census is merely a reason for father and son to get from A to Z, in both the literal and figurative sense. It does not seem to resemble the data collection familiar to us, concerned with demographic statistics. In this world, the census taker (caretaker, father) stops at a house, or a business, where he conducts a questionnaire and tattoos a mark on the participant’s rib. But it is not long before he decides to eschew this approach, instead developing a “New Method of the Census”, whereby he arrives in a town and attempts to detect what is worthy of note.
This is a story of encounters: much of the novel involves father and son speaking with strangers, being hosted or turned away; being met with kindness, cruelty, compassion, disinterest, hostility. They speak with a toll operator, a puzzle-maker, a comic writer and her sister (reminiscent of Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edies). They visit a rope factory where workers’ conditions are so bleak and dangerous that a doctor is employed on site full-time; a police officer, his son and his son’s doll Henry, who is also counted in the census; a roadside diner where the waitress cheerfully divulges her failed career as an actress and her gambling addiction.
From time to time, though, the narrative feels freighted with moralism. Each of the encounters with strangers functions as a small fable, a beam supporting the architecture of the parable as a whole. And about a third of the way into the book, this begins to sag a little.
Given the voice tends toward the aphoristic, the cumulative effect of these meetings, and their moral implications – whether suggested, or explicitly teased out by the narrator, often in exhausting detail – begin to weigh heavy. I get it! I wanted to yell, more than once.
It is true that we can all afford to be kinder. It is also true that we ought to be reminded of this, particularly in the current political moment. But a fable loses its potency when it hammers the reader with its message over and over, and midway through, I had the creeping feeling that Census may have been more compelling if condensed. And yet, after the census taker’s approach to his job changes, so too does the story. The tempo increases. The landscapes become less familiar. The narrator is weaker, and further from home.
Hardly two pages long, the foreword remains like a film over one’s eyes for the duration of the book. It’s a curtain as the reader passes from reality into the ethereal world of Census, a spectre that trails the car from the city of A, through the industrial landscape of factories and fields of the mid-alphabet, to the wilderness of Z. This is a parable, and also a memory.
It is quite some time before we learn that in making the transition from physician to census taker, the father has relinquished all right to legal protection, a kind of homo sacer. In the world of the novel, “anyone may injure, attack, kill, harm a census taker and there is no legal recourse”.
Is it a coincidence that the phrases ‘caretaker’ and ‘census taker’ bear some similarity? I doubt it. Perhaps Ball is gesturing to the vulnerability of both recipient and provider of care. To exist as a disabled person is, all too often, to live at the margins of society, enduring systemic discrimination. The primary caregiver of such a person does not face the same oppression and cruelty, but they, too, may be othered. Any frailty of relationships, financial security or health imperils not only themselves, but the person for whom they care.
Just like Ball, I, too, find myself writing around the narrator’s son; the object of the phrase care for. The son’s disability, like so much else in the book, is unnamed. If not for the autobiographical note on Ball’s brother, and the sweetly grainy black-and-white family photographs that provide a coda to the novel, I’m not sure I would have identified him as having Down’s syndrome.
He is skilfully rendered; observed through the eyes of his father, who is deeply attuned to his son’s moods and tendencies, and describes them with parental pride:
My son has gotten lost on many occasions […] When he is found it is clear that he was, if anything, working adamantly to not be found, but in an entirely passive way. By that I mean, he joins the scenery of the place, delighted to learn the things he can learn there […] I have never sought to change what is essentially, to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound.
There is nothing condescending in how father describes son. It is joyful, honest, funny, smart. Again, I returned to the foreword, and considered how magnificently Ball celebrates his brother’s memory.
Kindness is not as rare as one might expect from a book like this. Certainly, there’s a pervasive nihilism to much of Ball’s work, and Census is no exception.
Father and son are met by outright aggression: when they disrupt the delicate domestic balance between a wife and her husband, who, it is suggested, suffers some kind of unnamed psychosis, or dementia, perhaps.
Casual brutality: when the toll-bridge operator suggests it is “funny” that the man’s wife, a famous clown, gave birth to a son “like that”.
But the moments of compassion are like sun flares. For instance, when father and son spend a few nights in the house of an elderly couple. They, too, had a child with Down’s syndrome, as the woman explains:
I want to tell you something, she said. My daughter was like your son. She is dead now for many years. But we raised her and she lived here with us, and joined with us in all the things that we did. She liked to sew things, although it was not easy for her, and she liked surprising people. She did not like to be surprised, but no one does. I wanted to tell you about her, because I think there are so few people in these later days who care about the kind of person they are. It even happens that no one has them anymore. I can see from the way you are with him that you see – you see what we saw, that they experience the world as we do, and maybe even, maybe even in a clearer light.
The father realises the census is an ineffective method for documenting and describing the citizens of a country. He recognises, too, that his son resists easy categorisation. In making the trip east to Z, sleeping side-by-side, often in the back of the car, they honour each other’s patience and love.
Long before embarking on his road trip, the census taker had intended to make a journey with his wife, but it never eventuated: “Although in a sense my son was the best possible reason to take to the road, he also prevented this taking to the road.” With his terminal diagnosis comes a new sense of urgency and purpose. Implicit in his abrupt decision to drive the length of the country with his son is the idea that if he does not do it, no one will. Although the census taker does not appear worried about his son’s future welfare, given the arrangement with his kindly neighbour, he understands that no one will love his son in the same way as he does, as his wife did. Ensuring someone is adequately fed and clothed and bathed and housed, Ball seems to suggest, is one thing. Showing them the world is quite another.
Memory swims in and out of the narrative. Rather than being digressive, however, it back-fills much of the father’s story – particularly detail about his late wife, a renowned performer described as a “clown”, but whose physical theatre seems more akin to mime or performance art – to furnish a complex picture of a family. The census taker recalls their courtship, their early marriage, the birth of their son, with no particular sense of nostalgia. These memories are fragmented, like the broader narrative, offering an impressionistic view of life.
Over the course of the book, the father’s condition worsens, and he is increasingly reliant on the care of strangers. As father and son begin to near their ultimate destination, they decide not to stop in the towns S, T, U, V, W, X, or Y, driving straight on to Z.
One Sunshine Coast-based website for mental health resources draws a distinction between the phrases caretaker and caregiver: “A caretaker puts the needs of others ahead of their own wellbeing and feels the need to ‘fix’ the person they care for. A caregiver takes care of themselves as well as the person they care for .” The latter, it is said, is the healthier option of the two.
Perhaps these differences are smoothed out with the synonym carer. An abbreviated, catch-all term with softened edges.
Quotidian meetings take on an earnestness, and the road trip a sense of the elegiac, when the final, implacable destination is death. It is both strange and a testament to Ball’s skill that despite the fact that once marked, we never meet the census participants again; and yet they haunt the pages to come. These characters feel both anonymous and fully realised. One has the impression they have merely been reanimated in the presence of our narrator and his son, and will return to stillness once we turn the page. I mean this not as a criticism: indeed, it seems entirely plausible and consistent with the logic of this peculiar book. Like Ball’s other works – Silence Once Begun and A Cure for Suicide spring to mind, though the more recent How to Set a Fire and Why also fits – there is an otherworldly, dreamlike mood to Census.
Rushing on through sparsely populated towns, abandoned villages, places pockmarked with factories, father and son incubated in their car. Outside the world speeds by. Letters collapse. This pace carries poignancy: the reader is only too aware of the finality of Z.
Statistics are only useful to a point. There is so much a census cannot describe or measure.
Z, when we reach it, is a “dismal little town, a flyspeck”. It is here that the father farewells his son, giving him over to the care of others. The final pages are both joyful and heartbreaking. Father entrusts the welfare of son to strangers. And Ball, it could be said, entrusts the reader to move through the world with more kindness than before.
As a writer, cultural critic, co-host of podcast Call Your Girlfriend and co-founder of Techlady Mafia, Aminatou Sow’s ideas cut across different mediums of expression effortlessly and inspirationally. Sow’s work is essential reading and listening for a nuanced understanding of our world.
Ava A spoke with Aminatou Sow at Sydney Writer’s Festival 2018 where Sow was a panellist, speaker and chair.
Let’s begin with a culture round-up. What writing and media have you been enjoying recently?
It’s funny, I’m coming off a stint of being sick. I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at the end of last year and I’m in remission so everything is great. But during that time the two things I consumed the most was allot of fiction, which for me is actually very strange. I mostly read non-fiction, which I think is because I’m afraid of my own imagination. I watched allot of very old television and it made me feel so much better. There was something very tangible about reading the novels that I did and watching things like MASH which is... you know.
Aren’t there like 60 seasons of it?
Exactly! There’s 13, I had never watched MASH before. There was something very comforting about reading and watching things that had been around for a long time, I felt nostalgic for a time I was not alive for. It really took my mind off of allot of things. There was someting about knowing that people have been making creative work for a long time, not that the 60’s or the 70’s is a long time ago. These forms have been here and they’re very consistent, we’re not really inventing anything new.
So you’ve been in a Twitter exchange with our mayor about how Sydney’s lock-out laws limit the cities capacity to be ‘truly global’.
I know, your mayor tweeted back at me this morning! It was very exciting.
With your experiences of Sydney in mind, what do you think it takes to become a truly global city?
This is the first time in a long time that I’m falling in love with a new city, there’s something really thrilling about that. What I’ve been struck by here is that on a Friday night when trying to find a meal and somewhere to sit down in the CBD, the place felt like a ghost town. As a Black woman in Australia I’m very aware that I’m Black. I’m very aware that I’m African, and there was something so lonely and ghostly about walking through what was supposed to be a big city at 11pm. Not seeing another soul did not make me feel safe, which I understand is the aim of the lock out laws. The ethos of limiting enjoyment and entertainment impacts community for people, it is so small minded.
I’ve only been here for a couple of days, and I knew that Sydney is bigger and more capable than that. It’s a real failure of the people who put the policies into place right? Where people who do not live in our spaces get to decide how we live. That is something in the US we’re very aware of and I felt that on a visceral level here.
‘Community’ is a strong theme across all your work. What does community feel like to you?
It feels safe. It’s a place where you can be your truest self, the place where you’re not ashamed to experiment with new thoughts, ideas and visions for yourself. It feels like home.
When you’re in an unfamiliar place, how do you know that you’ve found community?
It feels very nebulous. I do a thing that a lot of Black people do when I’m not at home, wherever home is: You come to places like Australia where you count the other Black people. Day one and two here, there was zero. And yesterday I had the distinct experience of seeing Black people that I didn’t know; they just nodded at me and I felt at home. They were happy for me, they hollered and we had this weird moment when a stranger hugged me and I hugged him back. It felt safe and familiar, it felt thrilling. I’m not sure that you’ve found community until you feel it. I think you can share a lot of affinities with people wether its race, class or the weird podcast t-shirt that you’re both wearing. Sometimes it's something as quiet as a nod that somebody gives you, or a laugh that you share. Or it’s something as profound as hugging a stranger and feeling at home in their arms.
I’d like to talk about your writing practise and career. Our world is increasingly comfortable with the idea of near-constant connection via the internet. What do you think that has done to writing?
I can’t speak to how it’s changed writing, but I can speak to how it’s changed my writing. I see that there’s something more frenetic at work because there’s a need to keep up with a pace that is ultimately a little destructive. Things have also changed for good in the sense that I have more access to other people’s writing than I’ve ever had in my own tiny history. French is my first language and for a long time I was not reading in French; allot of my life now happens in English and in a very American context. Through the power of technology I’ve started writing in French again, engaging with more French work and thoughts. And so I always want to caution the idea of blaming technology for any problems, I think that instinct is very human and that change is fine.
By submitting to this new way of communicating new forms of writing are emerging that were only possible because of the internet, and new voices are emerging whose importance is bolstered by the internet. But at the same time it’s ok to shut off the computer and write the thing and put it in the drawer. I think these are all individual choices that we have to make for ourselves and we have to live with their consequences.
You’ve worked at the intersection of technology and democratic process in the past. Can you speak to that point of tension: How do you see technology and democratic process intersecting?
Technology can amplify democracy in a way that is just undeniable. In the US we have states where certain people work very hard so that others do not have access to fair elections or to the information that they need to represent themselves at the poll. These are things that we feel all the time. These issues are things that technology is very effective at combatting right? You don’t have to go into an office, you don’t have to depend on people for information and when done right the technology can really be impartial. It’s not about propping up one party of the other, it is bolstering the whole process. It is providing access to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise.
I think that a lot of the tension comes from capitalism. It is a wild idea to profit off of tools for democracy. It is also dangerous when companies who don’t have an ethic that is clear and honourable step into this space, because we’re truly asking people to put their their livelihoods and the future of their countries into the hands of big technology companies. There are undestandably many reasons to not want to do that.
People can often face difficulties scaling their interpersonal and community building ethics in a workplace. How have you gone about trying to scale these ethics in your professional career?
I don’t know that I’ve scaled them yet and that’s a very vulnerable thing to say, I am still trying to figure that out. I think one very definite way I’ve done that is I’ve taken myself out of corporate office culture. I know that for the kind of work I do, and for the kind of community I want to build, sitting in an office is not helpful. My personality and interests are not suited to it, the rigidity does not work. And so I’m really lucky in that by being self employed I get to be around people who can really sharpen my ideas and strengths about what I believe community is. We can choose to make a new kind of work culture for ourselves. We’re all still trying to figure it out, I don’t know that anybody has fully scaled their personal ethics to a workplace. But I know that I’m changed by my work and how my chosen colleagues choose to experience me.
Could you talk a bit about the process of moving from that corporate office culture into your current career?
It really is a privilege, it’s something I want to be really careful to talk about. At least in the US, not everybody has the option to not work in corporate culture. Allot of our health care for example is given out by office work. Benefits, saving for retirement, all of those structures exist within the confines of office culture. And I’ve found allot of success doing that kind of work: I worked at Google, prestigious non profits and great PR agencies. But I was never happy. I was not happy with the work that I was doing because I was working in the service of somebody else. Simple things like office politics or the way that team work is supposed to be performed in the office are things that I really chafed at. Little by little they ate away at me, and the thought of spending sixty hours a week working for somebody else when I could be doing that kind of grind for myself was a no brainer for me. But I deeply acknowledge that my career change was from a place of privilege, I worked in offices for over a decade before I could be trusted to be self-employed. I think that speaks to who has access to the necessary knowledge, contacts and capital to really start off for themselves.
I’d love to conclude our chat with podcasting. Why did you want to pursue that type of media?
I’m a very curiosity driven person. I did not know how to make audio, and I wanted to learn. It seemed very hard, foreign and outside of my comfort zone. When our podcast producer and now dear friend Gina Delvac made me feel like I could do it, it changed my thinking around it. Having somebody who is a very successful and knowledgable podcast producer say ’you can do this too’ was very generous and big of her. My work has always centred around telling stories and you can do that in many different ways. One of the distinct advantages of podcasts or audio is how intimate it is. You are literally in somebodies ear and they hear you and every weird breath you take and how you pop your P’s and B’s. They get to hear your exasperated sighs exactly as you meant them. The kind of work I do is largely around telling stories of women and making other women feel that the things they care about are not frivolous but political, important, groundbreaking and revolutionary. Getting inside somebodies ears for that work is so important. I think what makes allot of really good audio is a rapport with the listener that comes in many different forms. There is something powerful about hearing somebody you can’t see.
I want to keep learning new things and having done this for four years now, there’s still so much I have to learn. It sounds so simple and frankly kind of juvenile but I love making things, and for someone like me who studied liberal arts and was so focused on words, reading and reason... there is something cathartic about taking all of that and saying ‘here is the thing I made that pushes these ideas further’. That’s really why I fell in love with audio.
Ava A is a writer and performer near you. He’s interested in what happens when different creative disciplines meet each-other. He’s on instagram @alumied.
Azja Kulpińska and Timmah Ball’s zine, Wild Tongue vol. 2, is an investigation of the struggles, joys and privileges of life as a creative practitioner. The zine is a collection of writing and visual art from local and international creative practitioners who reveal the often invisible processes of surviving as artists under neoliberalism: excessive amounts of unpaid labour, mental health struggles, coping with rejection.
To promote the launch of the zine taking place this Saturday, The Lifted Brow is sharing the editorial of Wild Tongue Vol. 2, written by Azja Kulpińska.
It’s March 2018 and I attend the Next Wave festival program launch. As one of the Next Wave Kickstart program recipients I’m excited to finally see the developed artistic concepts of my fellow Kickstarters and many other artists all come together. It’s been a great privilege to witness them evolve, shift and mature over the last year. I feel elated to see the placard with the description of the project Timmah and I have been working hard on displayed amongst so many other brilliant creators and their ideas. The event itself is what one would expect from a leading arts festival’s program launch: enthusiastic speeches, scrumptious food, decadent cocktails adorned with flowers, festival tote bags to carry the hard copy of the program and, needless to say, a DJ set to save everyone from the agony of small talk. Delighted to see a few fellow artists and writers I’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages, but our busy schedules got in the way, I do manage to have a brief conversation to each of them despite the loud music in the echoey space. One of them brings up her recent mental health struggles, another one talks about her need to move away from the arts scene and prioritise family and friendships, yet another casually mentions being the most stressed she’s ever been in her life and I think the last one says that she’s exhausted and needs to go home, but I can’t be sure – we stand too close to the speakers. On the way home a close friend who also attended the launch remarks that they’ve observed a few people looking like they were about to cry, ‘but maybe I’ve just been projecting my own feelings’.
A throwback to June 2017, second intensive for the Kickstart program. Timmah and I convene at the café at Footscray Community Arts Centre to talk about the presentation on our Next Wave zine project we’re due to give later in the afternoon. We both have a feeling of inadequacy for our project in the context of a major arts festival. We’ve been feeling a strange push to deliver a sexy arts event filled with inner city hipsters where look and social capital is what counts the most and art is secondary. As introverts in our 30s we generally dread such events. Throughout the intensives we also became painfully aware of our ineptitude at playing the creative entrepreneurship game: panic-striken by the idea of networking, repulsed by funding from ethically dubious sources, with boring social media profiles. At that café we hold back tears and express careful hope that our years-long friendship survives this project. A few hours later during the presentation in front of our fellow Kickstarters and the Next Wave staff the tears finally come out as we talk about our struggles with the arts industry, feeling under constant pressure to deliver, juggling our day jobs (which we both find meaningful) with our arts practice and the impact this has on our mental health. This is what we want to focus on in our project. The room falls completely silent, all eyes are on us and I feel held by that response. There is a lot of resonance amongst our peers and people feel it’s important and necessary to have a discussion about all the less visible and less glamorous aspects of having an arts practice. One of the Next Wave staff mentions a recent Victoria University study on labour conditions in the Australian arts and entertainment industry, which found that:
44% of industry workers reported moderate to severe anxiety. This is ten times higher than the prevalence of anxiety in the general population.
An indicator of depression suggested levels in arts and entertainment industry workers may be as much as five times higher than the general population.
Australian Entertainment Industry Workers experience suicidal ideation 5-7 times more than the general population and 2-3 times more over a lifetime.
Suicide planning for Australian Entertainment Industry workers is 4-5 times more than general population.
Isn’t it nice when academic research legitimates your feelings? We walk out of the second intensive feeling vulnerable, but with a new sense of direction for this project. What you’re about to read are the reflections from local and international artists and writers on the challenges and privilege of having an arts practice. They are brave, brutally honest, raw, vulnerable, witty, outraged, hilarious, sarcastic, analytical and depressing. At one point we deliberate on whether it’s ethical to release such a sorrow-fest into the world. Won’t it just put emerging artists off ever considering a career in the arts? Do we have a responsibility to instill hope in our readers? We quickly decide that sadly our submissions are a pretty accurate reflection of people’s experiences of being artists and writers under neoliberalism and in fact it would be unethical to conceal them or dilute them with forced optimism. This zine will not provide answers on how to survive the arts industry: you will not learn how to deal with rejection or how to maintain good mental health while constantly having to compete with your peers for limited opportunities. And you will definitely not learn the art of networking. But if you’re frustrated at the precarious labour conditions in the arts, tired of being asked to work for exposure again, if you’d rather cooperate than compete, if you fear that if you don’t play into the industry’s expectation of what kind of art you should be making given a particular aspect of your identity your art will go unnoticed, if you know that so many others have more social capital or are better placed to accept another unpaid internship, if you were one of the people holding back tears at the Next Wave festival launch you might feel a bit less alone.
Throughout the process of putting this publication together we endeavoured to create a working environment congruent with our values. To start with, we wanted to make sure the contributors and everyone else involved in the project gets paid properly and in a timely manner, within 3 days of submission (isn’t following up on unpaid invoices every freelancer’s pet peeve?). We also informed the contributors that the fee we can afford to pay is $100 per submission and asked them to consider how much effort they want to put into their pieces to make sure they’re remunerated accordingly. Later down the track we received an unexpected grant we did not apply for from New South Wales, which meant we could commission NSW-based writers to contribute to our publication. Given that our contacts in NSW are limited and long story short we were able to offer three NSW-based writers from Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement (honestly, look these folks up – they’re doing some amazing and much needed work!) $500 each for their submissions. Unsurprisingly, we noticed a stark difference in the amount of effort, detail and nuance put into these pieces in comparison to the ones valued at $100. Think of all the brilliant works of art that will never be born as their creators are forced to focus their energy on the activities that will pay their bills.
During the process we also called ourselves and each other out numerous times on the way we internalised the low monetary value of artistic labour as opposed to the value of other types of labour involved in our project. We had to remind ourselves that challenging the harmful notion that artists can work without being adequately rewarded, because, you know we all love what we do, is the whole point of this project. That being said, at the time of writing these words we are still unsure whether we will have enough money left in our budget to pay ourselves for hours of admin and creative labour put into this project. But perhaps self-exploitation and being one’s own worst boss is a topic for another zine. On a more positive note, at the time of writing these words Timmah and I still consider each other good friends.
The launch of 'Wild Tongue Vol.2' is on Saturday, May 19th, 2pm–4pm at the Southbank Library at Boyd Community Hub.
Azja Kulpińska is an immigrant from Poland currently based in Narrm on the land of the Kulin Nations. Azja is a writer, zine-maker, Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner and community mental health worker. Azja is a co-founder of Wild Tongue zine. The latest edition of Wild Tongue, which focuses on critiquing the mainstream arts industry, has just been launched at Next Wave Festival 2018.www.wildtonguezine.org.au
12.56am: Male states: F* me.
12.56am: Music begins. It is James Blunt, 'Nights Like These'.
Outside the Queensland Supreme Court stands a public artwork by celebrated contemporary artist, Yayoi Kusama. It’s bolted to the curved wall that faces the entrance to the courts. The work is a 90-metre-long installation consisting of cartoon-like eyes made out of steel and enamel. “Eyes are Singing Out” is Kusama’s only public work in Australia and, in a literal, dimensional sense, her biggest permanent work in the world. When I worked in a café attached to an art gallery on Mary Street, I would take the bus into the city. My bus would glide past the mural, those eyes peeking out between buildings, unnoticed, noticing.
People love to engage with Kusama’s art publicly. In 2017, thousands of people visited the retrospective of her work held at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Yet it seems like most people don’t recognise this public work as Kusama’s. The closest thing I have seen to a ‘selfie’ with ‘Eyes are Singing Out’ is a press photo from the high-profile trial of Gable Tostee. When reporters gathered outside the courts, the eyes, suggestive of a watchful public, would observe both him and the press. They were always in the background, unblinking.
1.03am: Male: Shut up or I will make you come again.
Female: Shut up or I will beat you up.
The first Kusama work I saw was her 'obliteration room' at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2005. When Kusama was a child, she says she saw the world through a screen of colourful dots. In this work, designed primarily for children, Kusama provides a sheet of colourful dot stickers and invites audiences to 'obliterate' a domestic setting by placing these dots across every white-painted surface. In 2014, the work returned to the Queensland Gallery. I watched adults, posing inside the colourfully dotted rooms, sitting at the brightly stippled dining room set or upright piano, posting photos of themselves online. The longer the exhibition remained open to the public, the furniture became less discernible in the photos. In 2005, when I was in high school, and before apps like Tinder and Instagram had caught on, students would take the sheet of stickers out of the gallery. Instead of placing them in the white room, on the white furniture, obliterating the scene as Kusama intended, they’d bring them to school and stick them all over the outside of their lockers. Predating social media but still publicly displaying their engagement with Kusama’s work.
1.06am: Female says she loves people and that 'she is all good with dying'.
1.07am: Female says: I know you want to kill me because you told me so. Further reference to dying from smoking.
1.08am: Further conversation about galaxies, travel to Alice Springs, religion and gods.
1.09am: Male says that he 'doesn't think there is anything after this, you die and that is it'. Male says: Throw me off the balcony and that is it. This is it, boom.
A few times a year Jetstar offers cheap flights from Brisbane to Japan. Nearly all of my friends have been to Japan now – except for me. When I used Tinder, I would decide who to match with based on almost the exact, same photo each time. In this photo, the ideal candidate would be crouching against Kusama’s Pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima, the ‘art island’ that has become a Mecca for contemporary art lovers. This photo in a potential match’s profile inferred that they were ‘hip’ and cool. This was the ultimate point of persuasion with regards to dating in my relatively conservative home state.
A search on Instagram for the public work’s title returns thirteen photos. A search for Naoshima returns 87,597 photos, with an image of Kusama’s pumpkin appearing every three or four posts. Noticeably, “Eyes are Singing Out” isn’t utilised for cultural capital in the same way as her other works. The Toby’s Estate coffee kiosk, implanted in its center, gets the bulk of audience interaction. Beyond a small plaque with an explanation from the curator, there’s no grand signifier indicating it’s a Kusama piece. And although there were initial press releases about the artwork, there was little mention of it in mainstream publications. I wonder if Brisbane's residents and visitors even know it’s Kusama’s work at all. When the work was unveiled, the former Queensland Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie bemoaned the cost. Purchased in the same round as a mural by Indigenous artist Sally Gabori and a geometric ceiling painted by Queensland artist Gemma Smith, the minister was quoted as saying: “White paint would have been good enough for me."
1.46am: Male asks how long she is living on the Gold Coast. Female says: Geez, God didn't want me here for long. He has kicked me out already.
1.48am: Female asks if she can go over to the window and have a look. Male says: Don't jump off or anything.
1.52am: Female calls male a 'social demon' and male asks if she got the photos he sent: 'our balcony photos'. Male says: You are so much more drunker than me. I need to catch up.
It’s strange, the visual access to people’s lives we’ve been granted. When I used to use Tinder I never read people’s bios. I enlarged photos and swiped through quickly. I moved to Melbourne at the same time as a friend, and I recommended Tinder as a means of meeting new people. She told me she couldn’t because she wouldn’t know what to write as a bio. I told her not to have one. I never looked at those anyway, I said. She shook her head at me and I was forced to defend myself: I’m not shallow. Not reading bios is the kinder thing to do. Everyone hates writing them. Putting yourself into words is terrifying. Sharing photos of your life, though – lounging on your bed with friends, driving in your car, cradling your dog – we’ll share these moments without a second thought.
1.56am: Male states that his mum is in Adelaide because his pa died of cancer. Conversation about male finding out about his pop dying.
1.57am: Doesn't think he has been so sad before. Female says: Sorry brah.
2.02am: Female: UK men are funnier and have bigger d*s. Male: Not bigger than mine. Conversation continues about (male genitalia). Male asks if his is 'the biggest'.
Queensland has always had a complicated history with artistic expression; it has long been criticised for its lack of high culture. It is a sporting state: sunshine, tanned bodies and relaxed citizens. When the Gallery of Modern Art opened in Brisbane’s South Bank cultural precinct in 2006, Queensland begun to construct a more refined cultural legacy. Queensland as a creative destination was arguably held back by the long-serving state Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was derided for his overuse of police brute force against demonstrators. He was a god-fearing, patriarchal figure who posed a threat to civil liberties. In focusing on developing physical infrastructure and largely ignoring intangible cultural investment, Bjelke-Petersen was nicknamed the “hillbilly dictator”. He was someone who firmly believed that the end would justify the means.
2.09am: Male states she is a ‘woos’ and offers her food. Says that if she ‘was going to go all kung fu on me then I will kick your a**’. Calm conversation.
2.10am: Sound of a struggle. Female: That really hurt my vagina. Male laughing and female replies: You sound like a f**.
What does art do? How did its prolonged absence affect the development of Queensland and its citizens? How did it change the way we were seen? When we don’t invest in the intangible benefits of creative inspiration, how does it affect us? If you only act according to precisely calculated benefits, what do you miss in the transaction?
When author and contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton held a public lecture in Brisbane in 2014, he caused a furore by referring to Brisbane as an “ugly city”. On Facebook, one of my friends jokingly threatened to form a queue of people who wanted to punch him in the face at his public event and tagged de Botton in the post. When de Botton actually replied, my friends all became deferential, and the aggression slipped off them like a silk gown.
2.14am: Male says: You are not my kind of girl. You have worn out your welcome. You have to leave. Female says: Ok, it is all good. Female is out of breath. Male states: You have to leave. Female replies: OK. It's all good. Male says: I thought you were a nice girl.
2.14am: Male says: You are f*ing insane.
In 2014 Gable Tostee and Warriena Wright met each other through Tinder. By the end of the night tonight, after drinking and going back to his apartment in the Gold Coast, Tostee locked Wright out on his balcony and she ultimately fell to her death. Tostee was charged with murder and manslaughter. Twenty-six months after Wright’s fall, Tostee was acquitted of both offences.
The whole case is reminiscent of artist Ana Mendieta in 1985 who, after an argument with her husband Carl Andre, the sculptor, fell to her death from their 34th floor apartment in Greenwich village. A 911 call by Andre has him tell the operator they were fighting over him having a greater public profile than her. He later told police that he had been watching television with his wife before she went to bed and when he got up later to join her, she was gone. Mendieta had been found to have consumed considerable amounts of alcohol before her death. Despite scratches found on Andre’s arms and face on the night of the incident, Andre was acquitted of her murder based on insufficient evidence.
What is remarkable about the Tostee case is the existence of an audio recording of the event. After a number of run-ins with the law in his youth, Tostee would often secretly record his nights out on his mobile phone in case anything happened. He said it had come in handy when people levelled unfounded accusations at him. The recordings are, at best, unclear about who is to blame: both Tostee and Wright use threatening language towards one another. Without being able to see what is happening, it’s difficult to distinguish between behaviour that led to the fatal accident, and what is simply two drunk people who seem to, at least for some of the recording, enjoy a dynamic of domination during sex. Either way, it sounds as though Tostee locked Wright out on the balcony. It sounds like Tostee was inside the apartment when she fell.
2.15.31am: Male says: I thought you were kidding and I have taken enough. This is f**ing bull** ... you are lucky I haven't chucked you off my balcony you god damn psycho little b** ... who the f** do you think you ...
Tostee frequented a bodybuilding forum, Misc, often. Using the username GT, he would brag about his many Tinder conquests. He referred to them as ‘sloots’. Tostee also revealed to the ‘Misc-ers’ that he kept a log with dates and times of all the girls he had slept with, revealing his obsession with documenting everything. He wrote, “I feel amazing after rooting a hot girl. It's a huge confidence boost”. During the trial, he used these forums to assert his innocence and defend himself. In a post titled ‘Regarding the balcony tragedy’, GT wrote:
“The death of Warriena was the most tragic and distressing event I have ever experienced. Knowing I was the last person to be with her, it has left me permanently scarred and not a day passes that I don't wish I could go back in time and prevent it … I know my lawyers might crucify me for writing this but I feel that I needed to speak out as I have had no voice so far and have sustained so much abuse having my hands tied.”
2.16am: Male states: I thought that you were just playing around but I am f*ing sick of this s*. You're a god damn psycho. I am going to let you go. I am going to walk you out of this apartment just the way you are.
You are not going to collect any of your belongings, you are just going to walk out and I am going to slam the door on you, do you understand? If you try and pull anything. I'll knock you out, I'll knock you the f* out. Do you understand? Do you understand? Do you understand?
2.17am: Male says: C'mon, get up. Get up. Female states: I am so sorry. Male states: I don't care. Struggling. Male: You don't understand do ya? You don't understand anything at all do you?
Struggle. Male states: Let go. You think that you hit me and I was going to fall down like in the movies. More laboured breathing sounds. Male states: Let go of it. Let go. Let go. More choking sounds.
There were reports that Tostee initially took to Tinder after being banned from nightclubs for ‘creeping out’ women. On the night Wright died, there’s evidence showing Tostee back on Tinder. After the trial ended, a woman who claimed to be his current partner defends him to a stranger through Facebook messenger chat. She says he is an extremely intelligent and misunderstood man.
2.16am: What. What - got something to say- say it. Female breathing heavily. Female states: (unintelligible) sexist. Male replies: Yeah right. I am the one who is injured. You don't have a god damn scratch on you.
2.18am: Still laboured breathing sounds. Breathing slows. Male: Let it go.
2.19am: Sound of something dropping (metallic).
2.19am: Movement and rustling and sounds of female calling out. Sound consistent with door unlocking. Female states: No. Possible sound of glass door being hit.
It’s funny the way we often link creativity to sensitivity, creating the impression that an artist is someone who must be approached delicately, their vulnerabilities respected, their emotions seen to be as profound. Gable Tostee was known as a skilled artist. When Tostee was a teenager, he was discovered to be involved in a small homemade Schoolies Fake ID racket. The judge in this case implored him to use his immense artistic talents for legitimate pursuits.
2.20.46am: Male: Who the f* do you think you are? Hey?
Female: No, no, no. No! No no no.
Male: You tried to kill me huh? Well, why did you try and hit me with that. Huh? Shut your filthy mouth.
Female: No, no, no, no, no. (screaming).
Male: It is all on recording you know. It is all being recorded.
Female: No no no no no no no no no no no no. Just let me go home.
Male: I would but you have been a bad girl. Sound of door sliding shut.
2.20am: Just let me go home. Just let me go home. Last words of just let me go home. Male: (heavy breathing). Faint scream detected.
In the photo from Tostee’s trial, the one with Kusama’s eyes in the background: Tostee, once lean, muscular and handsome, has become chubby. He’s spent time in prison, and the stress of months under public scrutiny are revealing themselves. During the trial, he wore conservative square glasses frames: they are removed in the photo. His head is tipped back, his eyes are closed and he is holding himself. The effect borders on devout and reverential. Members of the press are gathered behind him and there is a scrub of cameras, microphones and mobiles surrounding him. It is only in the background, behind the crowds, that a wedge of Kusama's artwork can be seen. A cluster of eyes.
2.22am: Male: Where the f** are my keys?
2.23am: Male: F**, f**, f**
2.23am: Oh my god. Sounds of getting dressed, pulling jeans up, belt etc.
2.26am: Sound of sirens in the background.
2.26am: Sound of lift button.
2.28am: Walking noises. Footsteps.
2.39am: Walking stops.
Kusama’s work is not only suggestive of surveillance and accountability. In the artist’s statement, the work is also about optimism and love.
The numerous eyes that we dreamed about have spread into the whole sky, carrying with them a message of visual sensation.
It is a message of world peace and the overflowing happiness of humankind we have been praying for all the time. There is no end to the glorification of the peoples around the world.
Their beautiful souls, having turned into hundreds of millions of eyes, continue to watch our future.
These eyes will keep on singing out louder and louder that love is forever and infinite, to the ends of the universe. – Yayoi Kusama Artist’s Statement (March 2010)
The small attached plaque explains that, “‘while all senses are integral’, Kusama’s work serves as a reminder that it is through the experience of seeing another that our empathy for humanity is instigated and negotiated.
When the news broke of Wright’s murder, I found myself immediately taking a side. I considered Tostee’s pretty-boy playboy arrogance and history of objectifying women. Recently, long since the trial, Tostee was criticised for posting an insensitive Facebook update: “Happy International Women’s Day to all ma hoes!! ;)”. On the night of Wright’s death, CCTV footage showed Tostee leaving his apartment moments after her fall, seemingly unshaken, ordering pizza nearby. It seemed irrefutable that he had the chilling profile of a murderer.
3.10am: Male states: Um a piece of supreme please.
3.11am: Paper rustling. (Eating pizza).
When excerpts of the audio recording transcript were released on nightly news broadcasts, the story started to slowly change. At first, only the clips affirming Tostee’s aggressive behaviour were released. Then followed clips of Wright’s equally aggressive use of language. I remember sitting at the airport with my parents in Brisbane, about to fly home to Melbourne, feeling uncomfortable, believing that news outlets were clearly taking this murdered woman’s behaviour out of context. I believed that Tostee was going to get away with scaring this woman to her death. When Carl Andre was acquitted of Ana Mendieta’s murder, feminists in the art world were furious. The feminist group No Wave Performance Task Force staged a protest outside a retrospective of Andre’s work at the Dia Art Foundation in 2014. When comparing the evidence in Tostee’s with the Mendieta case, it is similarly hazy. Based on the established onus of proof in the criminal justice system, acquitting Andre based on “reasonable doubt” had to be the correct decision. Still, I sympathised with the outrage – another female artist never got to reach the level of genius she was capable of achieving because of male arrogance.
I read the transcript of Tostee and Wright’s encounter and my judgment changed. I believed she had fallen as a result of her own actions. Tostee, a man whom I didn’t like and who repulsed me, seemed innocent. Wright’s behaviour was out of control, I thought. Then I thought, she was drunk off moonshine vodka that Tostee had inexpertly brewed at home. To convict Tostee of murder, the jury needed to be convinced that as a result of his actions, Wright had died. That Tostee locked her on the balcony without reason, that he could have foreseen the possibility she would try and escape. Even though Tostee had restrained Wright – choked her, even – minutes before her death. Wright, after all, had been violent towards him too, throwing objects and trying to hit him. It was only through their words – captured on Tostee’s recording – that my opinions about these two strangers would jostle for dominance, sliding over and across each other. Yet, despite understanding the fallibility that comes with listening, second-hand to a conversation, my conclusions were never delicate or unsure.
Back on the Misc forum: a poll above GT’s’ ‘regarding the balcony tragedy’ post asked the Misc-ers to vote on GT’s innocence. 76% believed he is innocent, 6% believed he is guilty of murder, 10% believed he is guilty of manslaughter and 12% believed he is guilty of a lesser crime. By recording their sexual encounter without Wright consent, one could argue that he was still misbehaving. However in Queensland, while it’s illegal to take photos or videos of someone’s private activities without their consent, recording conversations without the participants’ knowledge is not. But the morality of his recording is irrelevant.
Like Carl Andre, Tostee was acquitted of Wright’s murder. The image of Tostee with Kusama’s eyes in the background was taken after Tostee’s verdict was handed down.
Following the verdict, people were angry. The public believed Tostee got away with murder. News articles detailed all of the information the jury wasn’t allowed to consider, as if justifying the jury’s mistake in verdict. It strikes me that Wright wasn’t allowed a chance to explain herself. I wonder, if she had an online forum of supporters, what she would have said. Because, again, it all comes down to what was said. Nothing was seen.
Using apps like Tinder and Instagram is about watching and being watched. Our lives may be staged, filtered, cropped, but they still work to build an image of ourselves that we want to present to the world. We’ve always cropped parts of ourselves for public consumption, we’ve always censored ourselves in some way or another. By letting others see the results of those raw manipulation of ourselves, we engage in a process that reveals more about our internal motivations. Arguably our humanity is apparent now, more than ever.
Yayoi Kusama posing in "Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field," 1965.
In the late 1960s, Kusama staged a number of “Love Happenings” – orgies in studios – around Lower Manhattan. Press releases were sent out, photographers and journalists were invited. Elements of the work were reappropriated from her previous works to dress what would be considered the ‘stage’ for the performance: the fairy light ceiling from “Peep Show or Endless Love Show” (1966), the phalluses from “Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field)” (1965) strewn across mattresses. Audiences were invited to look into a hexagonal-mirrored chamber, watching models take their clothes off and began to fondle each other. Kusama would be present at the ‘happening’, painting bright polka dots on the nude bodies of the models. But the models never actually had sex during these orgies. According to Kusama’s manager James Golata, the situation, the lights, the cameras, and eyes of the press “precluded being aroused”. It became more about the aesthetic of sex than a corporeal experience. The experience of viewing, when itself seen, appears to self-combust.
3.23am: Phone call connects his father.
3.23am: Male states: Hello dad. I might have a bit of a situation. See, um, I met up with a girl for a date tonight and she started getting really aggressive. It was all right at first and like we, you know, had sex in bed and she kept drinking. We were both drinking and I think that she thought that it was like a joke or something and she kept like beating me up and whatever. It was ‘cos she was really drunk and whatever and I, like, forced her out on the balcony and I think that she might have jumped off.
We can’t be all-seeing, all-knowing. It is not a gift we should hope for. We can’t come to any conclusions about another person’s humanity, nor can we judge them entirely. Kusama’s work teaches us is that, even with a thousand eyes, we aren’t able to see every part of a person’s character. We will never see every element, every aspect of the context shaping a person’s decisions. All eyes go to the future, seeing as much as we can, feeling love for humans in all their unsettling weirdness, in all their attempts at a life worth living.
It’s a process. Seeing, not knowing, unseeing, and seeing again. It continues like that; ad infinitum.
Chloë Reeson is a non-binary writer and editor raised in Queensland. They are the co-creator and writer of Homecoming Queens, a web-series for SBS On Demand. Their fiction and essays have appeared with publications such as The Lifted Brow, Yen Magazine, Stilts, Overland, Voiceworks, and Bumf.
In the spring of 2016, I stood on a stage next to a piano in the dark back room of a bar in Manhattan. My voice was nearly gone, raspy and hoarse from one of the yearly winter plagues. I read about the college in California where I picked oranges and drank with my professors, about women I admired and wanted to love. Afterwards, sitting at a table with my friends and a hot toddy, an ethereal woman with severe dark hair parted down the middle came up behind me. “I loved your reading,” she said. I knew her writing, I could barely breathe I was so flattered. She asked if I’d be interested in taking one of her classes that summer. Of course I said yes.
This woman went on to become my mentor, and my friend. It was clear early on in the class that we had a similar aesthetic and a similar working process. We did a one-on-one manuscript consultation after the culmination of the class, and she invited me to readings. She introduced me to other young writers who quickly became my good friends. We sent Instagram messages about gel manicures, we gossiped about which books are Actually Bad. A year and a half after that first meeting in the dark back room of the bar, I went to Italy for a workshop she was teaching with an indie publisher.
This is all to say, I know intimately the magic and intoxication of meeting a woman you admire and, against your self-doubt, being taken under her wing. I know it is possible, and I know it is not an exaggeration to say that it is fundamentally life altering.
This is where we meet Greer, the protagonist of Meg Wolitzer’s most recent novel, The Female Persuasion. After seeing a spellbinding speech by Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque second wave feminist, Greer catches Faith in the bathroom and engages in a conversation about a notorious fraternity rapist. Faith gives Greer her business card, and Greer leaves the conversation awestruck. She doesn’t yet know what form her acquaintance with this woman will take, but she knows that the moment is the beginning of something, a future. It feels like destiny. Feels like? Insofar as destiny exists, this moment is destiny. If you’re lucky, you do meet people who set your life on a course you’ve only dreamed of.
Greer doesn’t speak to Faith again until after she graduates. She keeps the business card, and while floundering in the familiar aimlessness of post-graduation, sends Faith an email. Initially, Faith invites Greer to interview for a job at her old school feminist magazine, Bloomer, but on the day of her interview the staff receives the news that the magazine is shutting down. Ever persistent, Greer follows up with Faith anyway, and is offered a job at her new foundation, Loci, something of a feminist speaker’s bureau that claims it will eventually fund on-the-ground mentorship initiatives in developing countries.
In the midst of a discordant symphony of subplots involving tangential characters (a panic-attack inducing tragic accident, a decades old affair with a charismatic businessman, a stint with a Teach for America-esque program), Greer and Faith’s relationship, the supposed central force of the novel, emerges. If you can call it a relationship. The bond the two women share is the test tube baby of the corporate capitalism in which every arena of the novel operates.
This relationship is delivered in a somehow simultaneously stale and mawkish prose (Greer describing herself: "she still looked appealing in a very specific way, small and compact and determined, like a flying squirrel."). And the skeleton of the plot is as obvious as reading a blueprint for a poorly constructed building. Oh, the anti-abortion senator happened to be Faith Frank’s college roommate? As anyone who has read a commercial novel in the past twenty years could predict, of course she was.
Wolitzer is not blind to the fact that Faith Frank is a corporate stooge, tasked with blasting feminist propaganda with no basis in actual organizing or advocacy. Even before Greer begins working with Faith at Loci, she says: “The truth was that [Faith] wasn’t a rare or particularly original thinker.” She reports to the reader that more progressive feminist websites turn their sardonic lens on Faith: “The author of The Female Persuasion [also the title of Faith’s magnum opus] tries to persuade us that being in bed with ShraderCapital is perfectly fine. Corporate feminism much, Faith Frank?”
There is little evidence that Greer becomes any greater than a millimeter more progressive or actionable than Faith herself. Though the book doesn’t explicitly state the politics of the characters, it’s not hard to glean: they are the neoliberal kin who believe that everything would probably be okay today if only Hillary had campaigned in Wisconsin. Their white feminism is evidenced by their approach to ascension: Greer speaks on the phone to her college best friend, Zee, about the first summit of the speaker’s bureau: “The meaning and uses of power.”
Though Zee is arguably supposed to function as the progressive foil to Faith, she falls short of actually conceiving of a power that exists outside of a patriarchal structure: “To live in a world of female power – mutual power – felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.” Instead of imagining (or, for that matter, researching) a different type of world, one in which we strive for communalism instead of influence, Zee fantasizes about a power conceived by men, which is a power rooted in exploitation and subjugation.
There is evidence that Wolitzer understands the problems with the corporate feminism that she portrays:
But by now it was clear not only that Loci hadn’t kept up with all the galloping changes in feminism, but that the way it presented itself was also a reason for vilification. Loci was doing good business, and naturally people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism.
The question is, if she knows, why does she not offer an alternative? Why does she spend four hundred pages writing a four act play version of Lean In without spending even one chapter excavating the fact that there are, indeed, alternatives to the damaging and tiresome system that she portrays? Why does she set up Greer to be nothing but a supine heir to the second wave feminism that Faith espouses?
The novel never dares to imagine what might exist beyond the corporate, capitalist version of mentorship that it portrays. The strangest thing about this omission is that Wolitzer would not have to imagine or create the paradigms for a new kind of mentorship, one that is lateral rather than hierarchical. Those models already exist, and have for many years: among other options, in the form of the Italian concept of affidamentos and the practices of radical pedagogy in institutional education.
Eileen Myles, a contemporary of Wolitzer’s, defines affidamentos in this way:
There is a word in Italian, affidamento, which describes a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires. Women I know are turning around to see if that woman is here. The woman turning, that’s the revolution. The room is gigantic, the woman is here.
Taken literally from Italian, affidamento simply means entrustment, but the Italian feminist movements of the late 80's and early 90's turned it into a concept pivotal in their destabilization of traditional patriarchal society. “Affidamento focuses mainly upon the presence of another woman who functions as a referential point to the other, and whose role is to provide the required authority to visibly legitimize her desire at the time she attempts to culturally transmit it,” writes Noelia Diaz-Vicedo, and Myles is careful to denote that in her iteration of the concept, the relationship can and should take on a horizontal transmission of knowledge and access, a back and forth, rather than a traditional vertical one.
As I’m sure I’ve made clear, I’m no fan of the characiturish descriptions of emotion in The Female Persuasion or the parodic nature of the plot. What I struggle with even more however is what a missed opportunity it is. I’m lucky – I’ve had access to both the theory behind a new kind of relationship, and lived those relationships in practice. Most women across the country don’t have that. They might be able to go to the bookstore or library and read The Female Persuasion though, and find – what? No models of what they might hope for in a mentor or creative lifestyle, but simply a portrait of a past that deserves to be laid to rest. They can already read Lean In. Why do we need a fictionalized version?
It further baffles me that Wolitzer chose to take this route as it’s well documented that she herself has experienced more lateral forms of mentorship. She, among many other creative women of her generation, was a mentee and friend of Nora Ephron. In an article for The Cut, Catie L’Heureux wrote:
At Wolitzer’s book party last fall, dozens of women gathered in a Manhattan wine cellar to listen to her talk about her own mentor, Nora Ephron. In a conversation with New York’s Rebecca Traister, she remembered becoming one of Ephron’s many protegées in the 1980s, after Ephron made her novel This Is My Life into a feature film. The two were friends for 24 years, during which time Wolitzer watched Ephron mentor many women, including Traister and Lena Dunham, by calling up young writers to tell them she liked their work and offering to read more of their writing.
I don’t know if Ephron identified with the term affidamentos, but all the literature surrounding her relationships with other women suggests that her approach was at least related to the concept.
I’ve always had sympathy for writers whose books were finished before November 2016 but not set for publication until months later. The final chapter of The Female Persuasion was clearly tacked on to the book as an addendum after the election. This is an observation before it is a criticism: the election of Donald Trump put the political, social, and economic situation in the United States into a terrifying perspective. It’s never explicitly stated that the final chapter revolves around the aftermath the 2016 presidential election, but an explicit statement would have been better than the heavy handed allusions Wolitzer unspools, including referring to the unnamed event as “the big terribleness”.
This sloppily constructed chapter solidifies a suspicion: The Female Persuasion was written for the alternate universe where Hillary Clinton won the election, a universe where capitalism and neoliberal patriarchy would still flourish under a veneer of white feminist progress.
As the novel’s focus on the Loci foundation comes to an end, Faith says: “I know the things people say about our foundation. That our tickets cost too much, and that we mostly get wealthy white people to come hear our lectures. ‘Rich white ladies,’ they say, which is insulting. You know we’re always trying to bring in more diverse audiences and bring down costs. But I’ve had to adjust my expectations about what we do, and I’ve also had to perform the song and dance that they’ve been demanding upstairs.”
The book knows the flaws of the system it exposes, but in the final chapter we see no evidence that Greer herself is on a different path: she is poised to become exactly the same type of Rich White Lady as Faith Frank. Greer goes on speaking tours, has her own meaningless foundation, owns an apartment in gentrified Brooklyn, carts around a baby in a fancy stroller. She probably wears lululemon leggings and does promotional visits to The Wing.
Did Greer consider a more radical path but ultimately succumb to the comforts offered by her privilege, race, and education? Is she a cautionary tale? If this was Wolitzer’s intention, here too she falls short: there’s no way to make us sympathize with Greer’s pseudo progressive liberal facade if we’re never shown the ‘perils’ of an alternative.
The glimpses we get of Greer’s feminism are barely distinguishable from those of the generation above her. What is the point of noticing the flaws of your system if you aren’t going to break it from the inside? Why bother to learn the blueprint of the boiler room if you aren’t going to blow it up? In this way, Greer is a more poisonous actor than Faith: she knows the insidious, damaging flaws of the system, yet her actions all but ensure its survival.
Becca Schuh is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her criticism and interviews have been published in Bookforum, Electric Literature, Mask Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on novel contrasting the social dynamics of alternative college students and journalists in New York. Becca is the Editorial Director of the Triangle House Review.
Whether you’re a sex-positive slapper or a card-carrying misandrist, it’s fair to say that hegemonic porn is still a product made by and for the male gaze. So The Pornhub Podcast with Asa Akira, which purports to “discuss all things pop culture, sex, and feelings”, ostensibly seems like a radical yet accessible way to broadcast women’s sexual stories.
MCA Zine Fair is an annual festival featuring a stellar line-up of zinesters, distros, independent presses, and artists. Showcasing zines, small press, prints and comics from across the country, the fair celebrates the alternative, experimental and emerging.
The Lifted Brow is sharing the introduction to the MCA Zine Fair program written by Bastian Fox Phelan, MCA Zine Fair 2018 Advisor and Creative Collaborator. Here's Bastian's previous piece on the MCA Zine Fair, 'Instituting Change: The MCA Zine Fair and DIY Zine Culture', published as part of Capital Week.
Hello zinesters, and welcome to the MCA Zine Fair for 2018!
You might notice that things are a little different this year. For the first time, zine makers are working with the MCA to guide the Zine Fair. As Zine Fair Advisor and Creative Collaborator, I’ve been supported by the organisers to establish new events: the MCA Zine Fair Symposium, a Zine Making Night and a Zine Launch. That means more opportunities and support for you to share your zines and the ideas contained within them. I’ve also been advising the coordinators on how to make changes to processes – for example, this year zine makers contributed to the selection panel. Through our involvement, the MCA Zine Fair can be led by the unique DIY culture of zines.
Photo Credit: Jacquie Manning
Zine fairs are unique events where people can sell and trade zines, make friends and form projects, share skills and talk about issues that aren’t represented in mainstream media. Zine fairs have always been organised by zine makers – they present crucial opportunities for us to circulate our lo-fi, small run print publications, often in opposition to the world of glossy, mass-produced products designed to be consumed quickly and disposed of just as fast. Zines aren’t disposable. This is part of their mysterious pull. We need to protect what makes zines special – the communities that gather around zine making, and the ways we gather, is important.
Some zines are political, others are not, but to me there is something deeply political about the act of making and sharing a zine. They are seed packets of independent thought, opened by hands and minds eager for something different. We send out our zines and see what grows. In an increasingly controlled, censored, filtered and monitored world, they are one way to feel a sense of freedom. There’s no need to seek approval from the authorities before printing, no compromises on content because of advertising demands, nobody to counsel you against making a zine because it won’t make a profit. We make zines because we love zines. Creativity for the sake of creativity is almost unheard of, and creativity is a form of power.
I have a long and personal history of engagement (and disengagement) with this zine fair. In 2007 I proposed holding a zine fair at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The event was small but successful. The following year, the MCA teamed up with SWF to hold the zine fair at the MCA. Unfortunately, I wasn’t consulted by the MCA about this shift in management. The zine fair was no longer being organised by a zine maker. I continued to table at the zine fair, but my DIY ethos told me something wasn’t right. I felt that what made zine fairs special had been lost.
In 2014, I started attending the Other Worlds Zine Fair, boycotting the MCA along with the artists of the Biennale of Sydney due to the connection to Transfield. We were protesting against profiting from the inhumane treatment of refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres. The Biennale cut its ties to that funding, but for me, the boycott revealed how unethical practices can be deeply embedded in cultural institutions. It also showed me how important it is to keep speaking up, to raise your voice until the institution hears you, or to create organisations of your own that are founded on ethical practices.
Working with an institution on a zine fair presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. I worried about being co-opted. There’s a danger in working with institutions – that the individual or community will be swallowed up. But the process of working with Yael and Alice (MCA Public Programs team) has been wonderful. I feel that my knowledge and experience is respected, and that we can work together with shared values. This is the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that should have been established in the first year. Now, in the tenth year of the Zine Fair, I’m glad to be working towards change. In 2016 I wrote an article criticising the past decisions of the MCA Zine Fair. I wanted to see power transferred back into the hands of those who made zines and built zine fairs. I didn’t imagine this would be heard by the MCA, but here I am.
Photo Credit: Jacquie Manning
The Biennale boycott did not put an end to mandatory detention, but people continue to call for change. At this year’s Biennale, internationally acclaimed artist and activist Ai Weiwei is displaying his artwork Law of the Journey and his film Human Flow, both of which reveal the extent of suffering involved in fleeing one’s country, and the cruel indifference of nations that build fences, drive people away, and put human beings who need safe refuge in detention centres instead. What I took from this was the importance of working together and letting people into your heart. We need to care about refugees. We need to care about each other, wherever we come from, or we risk losing our humanity.
By getting involved in the MCA Zine Fair again, my aim has been to bring back a sense of community, sharing, and mutual empowerment through ‘do-it-yourself’ – and perhaps more importantly, by doing things together. Over the fourteen years I’ve been making zines, I have been supported and nurtured by zine organisations like Sticky Institute, and the many wonderful zine fairs around Australia – at This Is Not Art, Format Festival, The Festival of the Photocopier, Other Worlds, and more. They gave me the opportunity to share my voice, my vision, and my values. I hope that the new additions I’ve made this year give you those same opportunities. I hope that this zine fair can be exactly what it needs to be for you – if it isn’t, I hope that you get together with others and create something new.
Bastian Fox Phelan
MCA Zine Fair 2018 is on this Sunday 6 May, 10:30am - 4:30pm. See the Zine Fair Symposium, 10.30am - 4pm. Curated by Bastian Fox Phelan, the Symposium includes panels, workshop and talks.
Bastian Fox Phelan is a writer, musician and zinemaker living in Newcastle, Australia. They have been making zines since 2004, including cult classic Ladybeard and the How To Be Alone series. Bastian initiated the first Sydney Writers’ Festival Zine Fair in 2007, which became the MCA Zine Fair the following year. Bastian is currently writing a literary memoir about female facial hair. Their writing has been published in The Lifted Brow and Tincture Journal. Bastian is part of dream pop duo Moonsign.http://bastianfoxphelan.com/
In 2006, I interviewed the British author and journalist Jon Ronson in a North London café as part of my dissertation for an MA in Journalism. At one point, we talked about the critical reaction to his 2001 book Them: Adventures with Extremists, with Ronson expressing his delight that the book was featured as the lead review on the website Salon.
This was the first time I had experienced a notable literary figure celebrating the prestige of an online book review. And I admit that, with this awareness coming in 2006, I may have been a little late to the party (the actual Salon review of Them was published in 2002), but it was thanks to this exchange with Ronson that I began to see online literary criticism as something to be taken seriously and which could offer similar analytical standards, intellectual rigour and stylistic richness to print reviews.
In the opening essay of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, The Quarterly Conversation editor Veronica Scott Esposito cites 2002 as the year she became aware of a number of literary blogs that discussed books and literature in "deterritorialised" ways, and in 2004 she started a blog of his own, which she credits with launching her career. In her essay, editor and critic Sara Veale describes 3:AM Magazine , established in 2000, as the world’s first literary webzine, while Review 31 senior editor Marc Farrant in his refers to the near-legendary humanities portal Voice of the Shuttle, which began life positively in the Jurassic era, in 1994.
Do the dates matter that much? Perhaps it is useful to pinpoint what happened when, given that the internet, in its many iterations and evolving social and commercial capacities over the decades, has wrought such immense change for readers and reading, writers and writing and publishers and publishing – and arguably even redefined what exactly literature is. This book attempts, as set out in the editors’ introduction, to investigate the “pitfalls and possibilities” of “a revolution occurring in literary life made possible by new technology and networked culture”. The book’s three editors represent a number of the major players in this revolution, including 3:AM and Review 31.
The seventeen contributions range from essays on personal experiences in online publishing to insightful para-academic analyses of the economic structures of online publications and the sociological remapping of culture brought about by social media and the blogosphere. Among the editors’ most impressive feats is how these essays converse and interact with each other: one will lightly contradict the next, another still will develop or expand on some topic, while a cluster of essays will hover around an overarching subject, with each remaining distinct and focussed at the same time. The authors range from the well-known, such as Will Self and the brilliant Joanna Walsh, to various doyens of online literary criticism and a couple of writers ensconced in academia.
In his essay ‘Topical Criticism and the Cultural Logic of the Quick Take’, American critic and theorist Louis Bury sums up how plenty of us might regard the online echo chamber. He writes of:
the proliferation of vacuous think pieces; the race for immediacy of response; the endless patter of Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads; the clickbait headlines; the indignant witch hunts and sensationalist bonfires; the nutritionless listicles.
Many TLB Review of Books readers will recognise, and perhaps give a sigh at, all of these things. Yet this book shows that such a bleak summary of online literary culture is too simplistic (and Bury, in his essay on the exaggerated timeframe in which critical consensus is reached today thanks to Twitter and the rest, offers compelling complications on the matter).
For example, the idea that the freedom and ease of publishing online has democratised and brought egalitarianism to literary culture ripples through The Digital Critic. In her foreword, Cambridge University’s Kasia Boddy remarks on “the utopia from which mediating gatekeepers have been expelled, where expertise no longer entitles and where free democratic debate has finally become possible”. Farrant, in his essay about the changing parameters of literary theory in the digital domain, explores how the web “topples the previous hegemony of theory” and allows the populist to fruitfully merge with the elite and esoteric. Veale believes that the proliferation of small, non-profit internet journals allows “digitisation to democratise access to a historically exclusive sphere and to carve out niches where there were previously no markets or available platforms”.
This levelled playing field was our shared dream for the internet, was it not? Yet, as The Digital Critic shows, this idea was never going to be that simple either.
“Poetry is the social act of the solitary man” – WB Yeats
Among the most fascinating ways in which The Digital Critic illuminates the consequences of literature and criticism moving online comes in its exploration of how isolation is now absent from the literary experience. In a networked culture the text itself, the author who creates it and the reader who reads it cannot function without endless context, the whole spectrum of social and political interpretation and our increasingly pathological need for more and more information. The book’s introduction invokes Italian critic and publisher Roberto Calasso to make a stark point about how solitude, integral to the literary experience, is being eroded:
the secret, impenetrable, separate, discriminating, silent thought of the individual brain that reads has been replaced by society; an immense, all pervading brain consisting of all brains, whatever they are, provided they operate and speak through the web.
Calasso’s description truly is the stuff of nightmares, but it appears this is what we’ve got. As readers, our response to a text is no longer formed by things like our accumulated personal experiences, previous reading and political and aesthetic inclinations. As a result of an overreliance on and overabundance of networks, we now respond with a kind of ever-expanding hive mind, an “unrelenting background noise…crowded with meanings” as Calasso writes. The reader cannot find his or her own, let’s say, ‘authentic’ response amid this dense fug of interpretations.
The text, also, cannot now exist on its own terms. Emerging critic Theodora Hawlin’s essay, ‘The Re-Birth of the Author’, explains how in the digital age the author becomes a key character in the lifespan of a text, almost to the point that an author’s internet presence is part of the work itself. An author’s existence, she writes, “continues beyond the page in a way Barthes could never have dreamed”, the writer becoming “a central character in the continual making and remaking of their own text”. Hawlin’s excellent essay is a grim analysis of the contemporary fetishisation of the author figure, and how commercial imperatives ensure a certain author image is constructed, on social media predominantly, to complement and support a book’s publication. Such is the promotion of this persona that the text cannot possibly find its way among readers on its own. Hawlin takes particular aim at the empire of nonsense created by JK Rowling to build upon and sustain the commercial behemoth that is the Harry Potter books, reflecting upon, in a haunting encapsulation, how “the author has died and has been resurrected as a mythical deity, a god that the consumer worships”.
Of course, combining a book’s publication with a very strong online presence, replete with regular outpourings on social media, also has the potential to make the more curmudgeonly members of the literary community (and there are a few of us) recoil. On multiple occasions, the self-promoting bleating of authors and journalists on social media has only served to turn me away from their writing.
Self’s essay, ‘Isolation, Solitude, Loneliness and the Composition of Longform Fiction’, also brings together a number of ideas regarding isolation, or a lack thereof, in the digital age. He begins by stating that the writer “cannot write while having a conversation” and that our always-connected existence is the enemy of solitude and mental clarity, so vital to the creation of literature as we know it. Yet he goes on to suggest that as technology changes, so will our literary mediums, and that this very connectedness will give rise to new interactive, dialogic forms of writing that make this rather old-fashioned notion of the secluded writerly life redundant. I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s condemnation of the “pretentious, universal gesture of the book” – the Frankfurt School thinker surely would be excited by the direction in which Self sees literature going.
Self himself doesn’t seem entirely thrilled about these possible changes, yet describes the creative writing students who will usher in this new age as “adorable”, “bright” and “engaged”. He does, however, lament, with similar sentiments to Calasso, the inability of young people to stay within a text as they read:
it’s staying isolated with a text that students find particularly difficult. What they also find difficult, because they no longer live within the intellectual culture that gave rise to a book, is staying within the text intellectually. Now those of us with Gutenberg minds, we read a book and we expect to stay in the text…
I did not stay in the text whilst reading The Digital Critic. This may be a bad example with which to illustrate Self’s point given that this book is an eclectic collection of stimulating ideas that frequently prompts curiosity, but I regularly stopped reading to google a journal, look up an author or read about some event or controversy. Certainly, it was not just this book I was reading as I turned its pages; I read horizontally. And here I was thinking I was still hanging on to my 'Gutenberg mind’.
“In the future, everyone will be an online TV/film critic for fifteen minutes each night after their actual bill-paying job.” – Ryan McGee
Editor, critic and author Robert Barry’s essay, ‘A Media of One’s Own: The Future of Criticism, in Retrospect’, presents a brilliant dissection of the myth of self-publishing online and the dubious economic structures that prop up social media (Laura Waddell’s equally good ‘Digital Currency’ does a similar thing, and it is worth noting that had this book been published after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, the tone of these two essays may have been decidedly darker).
This multi-layered piece debunks the idea that our blog, website or social media handle allows us to “have our own printing press”. Barry uses MySpace as an example: he signed up in 2003 but then noticed major changes to the platform when it was purchased by News Corporation in 2005. Ads began to fill 'his’ page without his permission (and he never received his cut), and then in 2011 when the old version of MySpace was put out of its misery, ‘his’ page disappeared. We have no proprietary agency over our online publishing platforms, however much we might cherish our own personal ‘outlet’ or ‘mouthpiece’. As Barry points out, “to speak of having…a media of one’s own suggests infrastructure”, of which the casual online critic – certainly those posting for fifteen minutes in the evening as identified in the McGee quote above – almost always has none.
In essence, the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are merely publishers, reliant on users for their free content, which is then monetised. As Waddell outlines, this amounts to “commercialised user-generated content and data-driven personal profiles”. Any criticism that takes place on these platforms, with their market-driven priorities and mercantile raison d’etre, inherently lacks integrity. “For now”, Barry concludes:
criticism as a compulsory activity carried out by all people equally is inextricable from the circuits of consumption and exchange. Online, everyone is a critic – but only insofar as everyone is also a consumer.
The economic playing field of online literary criticism is also discussed by Veale in her essay, ‘Economics, Exposure and Ethics in the Digital Age’, with an emphasis on digital journals themselves more than issues surrounding social media. Veale adds nuance to the always-vexed question of writers and critics working for free, making the valuable distinction between ‘Big Guys’ and ‘Little Guys’. Certain profit-making Big Guys, such as The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and The Atlantic, according to Veale, “call upon unpaid commissions to boost their bottom line”, creating a stark imbalance of power that is exploitative and ultimately unforgivable. On the other hand, the Little Guys (Veale selects online journals 3:AM, The Literateur, Review 31 and Berfrois as such) are often entirely made up of editors and contributors who all work voluntarily. In lieu of money, writers for these publications receive quantifiable social media exposure, a sense of community and the opportunity to break new critical ground as the possibilities of digital platforms expand.
Veale’s essay implies that these non-profit, non-paying journals are essential to literary culture, and it’s hard to disagree. But one does wonder how such journals might one day remunerate their writers in a climate where government funding is increasingly difficult to come by. One thinks of Island magazine in Australia, which has benefitted from millionaire and owner of MONA, David Walsh, regarding it as a “trophy journal” and involving himself with its production. In the future, might progressive philanthropists bankroll innovative online journals? They would definitely lose money, but you could certainly call it arts patronage, so why not?
“The greatly increased mass of participants has a produced a change in the mode of participation. The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator.” – Walter Benjamin
The shadows of a number of influential authors loom large over The Digital Critic. Indeed, it is often impossible to discuss the impact of the internet without mentioning Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (from which the above quote is taken) or Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story, ‘The Library of Babel’. References to Benjamin, and ideas and views that clearly correspond with his, reflect The Digital Critic’s firmly liberal slant, while the daunting concept of textual 'superabundance’ (dealt with most thoroughly in an essay by author and researcher Michael Bhaskar) strongly recalls Borges’s inconceivably vast fictional library.
As well as channelling such prescient literary figures, The Digital Critic also contains some extremely fine writing, in which critical and creative writing converge (a hybrid form given new dimensions by the digital sphere). Jonathon Sturgeon’s poetic, personal and self-deprecating reflections on the frustrations of writing by rote for commercial reasons in ‘The Oeuvre is the Soul: Confessions of a 21st-Century Hack’ is along these lines, as is Joanna Walsh’s ‘Book Lovers: Literary Necrophilia in the Twenty-First Century’.
Many essays, cautiously and with conditions, acknowledge the potential advantages of literary criticism moving more and more online as we approach the century’s third decade, yet only one can be said to be wholly positive about what the web has done for literature up until now: Ellen Jones’s ‘Digital Palimpsesting: Literary Translation Online’. Using the example of the estimable journal Asymptote, Jones provides an intriguing explanation of how digital publishing has revolutionised translation by allowing for multi-media presentation. At journals like Asymptote, the original text is often published alongside the translated text as parallel columns, along with an audio recording of the original, a translator’s accompanying notes and even video of both author and translator giving a bilingual reading. The internet has brought about open-access discussion and illumination of a process, translation, which had previously been somewhat closed off to the general reader.
Each of the essays in The Digital Critic is an engrossing inquiry into some aspect of literary culture that many readers may not have considered, be it economic, political, aesthetic or otherwise. Some, such as those by Barry, Hawlin and Waddell, might alter a few opinions or even behaviour regarding social media and data sharing. Anyone who edits, reads or writes for an online literary publication will find this book rich in erudite analysis and topical relevance. That said, there are a number of areas I was hoping the book might explore, but did not.
One of these is non-text-based criticism. By this I predominantly mean podcasts. A podcast like the US-based PoemTalk (curated by The Poetry Foundation, Kelly Writer’s House and PennSound) has been a magnificent addition to the poetry criticism landscape since it began life in 2007. It is highly accessible and impressively diverse, its only drawback being that a new one is posted just once a month. In Australia, The Garrett and Penmanship have made valuable contributions, therefore some examination of the rise of the podcast, and its unique characteristics, would have been welcome.
Two more topics that might have earned more discussion are lightly touched upon by Granta online editor Luke Neima in ‘Fragmentation and Aggregation: The Future of Criticism’. The first is the endangered species that is the negative review. The disappearance of the bad review would be disastrous, and it seems to me that the phasing out of negative criticism stems from two things: one, the commercial concerns of journals and the need not to upset publishers who might advertise or partner with them. Secondly, because critics exist in networks and are constantly interacting, posting and engaging without isolation or anonymity, you might as well be reciting the bad review in the author’s face. It is understandable that critics are reluctant to pull the trigger on a terrible book when they know the write-up is likely to be read by the author if it is widely shared (especially if the author is of a younger generation). But a well-written, persuasive bad review is a thing of immense beauty and it would be a shame if it vanished from our screens altogether. Moreover, to discuss a work’s perceived flaws in depth often shows engagement with a text and offers it a kind of respect that the ubiquitous positive review, which at times feels written by automation, can lack.
Neima also briefly alludes to the fact that online reviews appear to have embraced the first person pronoun with gusto. Not long after the Ronson interview I interned with music paper The Stool Pigeon, and I recall an occasion where I was rightly scolded by the editor for using 'I’ in a live review. I have not quite stuck by the principle of never using the first person in critical writing (as this current review proves) but whether to take this plunge is always an important consideration. Neima writes of how networked publishing models demand charm, friendliness and suspense in their critical prose more than expertise or complexity of thought, and using the first person is perhaps the key ingredient in this compulsory relatability. Taking a more withering tone, Sturgeon puts the widespread employment of the first person in literary reviews down to our “mania of identification”.
Perhaps these topics can be taken up in the second version of The Digital Critic, which there will surely have to be one day given the pace of technological change and the new questions that will inevitably arise.
In the meantime, I suppose I’ll go and tweet this review to my precious seventy-odd followers.
Barnaby Smith is a writer, critic, poet and musician currently based in northern New South Wales. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Australian Book Review, The Quietus, Southerly, Cordite, Best Australian Poems and many others. In 2018 he won the Scarlett Award for art writing.www.seededelsewhere.com.
We are thrilled to finally be able to say: today is the official publication day of the timely and incisive Balancing Acts: Women in Sport, edited by Justin Wolfers with Erin Riley. Balancing Acts contains 21 essays that challenge the traditional representation of non-male bodies in a broad range of sports.
We'll be launching Balancing Acts in both Melbourne and Sydney over the coming weeks:
Melbourne friends can join us at Readings Carlton on May 11th at 6:30pm for a panel discussion of "My favourite moment in sport", featuring Nicole Hayes, Jodi McAlister, Kirby Fenwick, Kasey Symons and Savannah Indigo.
Sydney friends can come along to Gleebooks on May 17th at 6pm for a discussion on the same topic, featuring Laura Buzo, Danielle Warby,
Emma Jenkins, Gina Rushton, Stephanie King, Roslyn Helper and Nadia Bailey. Hope to see ya there!
About the book:
Focusing on a critically underrepresented part of Australian culture (the many ways non-male participants in sport negotiate the traditionally male spectacle of athleticism) this accessible and inclusive collection investigates the way sporting bodies and achievements are portrayed in Australian media and daily life.
The book understands the term ‘sport’ in the widest possible sense, and applies the definition of ‘women’ in the same broad way to include trans, gender diverse, non-binary, intersex and otherwise non-cis women. Several essays are also written from and/or about queer, gay, and bisexual women.
The essays examine the way women athletes’ experience are marginalised and under-reported, and attempt to de-centre the status quo of sports writing and commentary as currently dominated by male perspectives and expertise.
Imogen Smith – ‘Can We Be Equal: Mountain Biking, Prize Money, and Women’s Participation’ (mountain biking) Brunette Lenkić – ‘The Physical Is Feminine’ (AFLW & other sports) Ellen van Neerven – ‘Australia is Open! To Hold! Receive! Take!’ (tennis) Gina Rushton – ‘Yoga Poses’ (yoga) Danielle Warby – ‘Out On Instagram’ (AFLW & other sports) Nadia Bailey – ‘Pas de Quatre’ (ballet) Rebecca Slater – ‘A Coach's Hands, A Woman's Body’ (soccer) Stephanie King – ‘Becoming-Object, or, Body as Body of Work’ (dance) Jodi McAlister – ‘Love Hold’ (tennis) Erin Stewart – ‘Tennis, Outer Space & Breastfeeding in Public: the Surprising Relationship between Sports & Feminism’ (tennis) Kirby Fenwick – ‘Taking to the Field’ (AFLW) Roslyn Helper – ‘Late to the Game’ (soccer) Katerina Bryant – ‘Fuck You Bobby Fischer’ (chess) Emma Jenkins – ‘Under the Covers’ (cycling) Charlotte Guest – ‘The Thing About Sport and Poetry Is That They're Kind Of Similar’ (all sports) Savannah Indigo – ‘Cheering On The Boys’ (cheerleading) Kasey Symons – ‘Am I Fan Enough? ’ (AFLW) Laura Buzo – ‘Uniform Treatment’ (netball) Kate Doak – ‘All in the Bounce’ (trampolining) Holly Isemonger – ‘Surfing Is My Feminist Origin Story’ (surfing) Nicole Hayes – ‘From the Outer - and Back Again’ (AFLW)
“This book is a loud, solid testament to the fact that for so many women around Australia, sport has evolved. Regardless of whether these authors and writers have gone on to pursue their chosen sport, or found new footing in other creative fields, the essays, stories, poems, and the deeply personal admissions they share, prove that sport is not merely a hobby for women or something that can be given up. It is our identity. It shapes us. It gives us the moments that define us. ... Clearly, we still have a long way to go. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and now, there’s no going back.”
Tegan Higginbotham, in her introduction to this collection
“Stories of complicated dynamics between coach and athlete, homophobia on and off the field, fraught personal relationships to bodies, team camaraderie and intensely felt fandom are intimate and engrossing, and surprising parallels appear between the accounts in the book.”
Holly Anderson, Books+Publishing
Contributors include established sports writers and sports advocates like Brunette Lenkic, Imogen Smith, Jodi McAlister, Nicole Hayes, and Danielle Warby; academics and cultural critics such as Kasey Symons, Emma Jenkins and Erin Stewart; as well as writers published widely in books, magazines and newspapers including Ellen Van Neerven, Kate Doak, Holly Isemonger, Gina Rushton, Charlotte Guest, Katerina Bryant, Nadia Bailey, Savannah Indigo, Stephanie King, Laura Buzo, Roslyn Helper, and Rebecca Slater.