‘After Parents: a review of Vincent Silk’s “Sisters of No Mercy”’, by Alice Robinson

Credit: Brio Books

Credit: Brio Books


Our nation is hurtling towards the federal election as I consider Vincent Silk’s debut novel, Sisters of No Mercy. I am alert to public commentary, the kind I pay attention to anyway, which suggests that climate change has finally made itself sufficiently known to us so as to influence votes—perhaps for the first time—in terms that are both decisive and wide-spread. To me, more daunting than the looming question of who might triumph to take charge of the nation, is the spectre of climate change itself, which to my mind is something that exists, like a sweat-soaked nightmare, like God, on the periphery of imagination, at the limits of my talent as a writer to meaningfully articulate. I imagine the catastrophe as a dust-storm, something bonding land to sky with darkness and debris, rolling over the earth like a shroud. I imagine it as thirst; water clotted with the phlegm of plastic particles. Climate change is the experience of being buried alive. An unending scream – until the scream does end, cut off mid-note, because there is no world left to populate with sound.

As if pre-empting a fate in which we have failed to put into office a leader with the will to fight for the planet that sustains us, Silk conjures an imagined Australian city decomposing under the impacts of Mega-storm Martha. The storm, he writes, had “thrust the spectre of Nature inside the common living room, and the effect was undeniable…the panic that This Could Happen Here cascaded through the city’s consciousness more violently than the freak waves that had rolled in along the coast”. It could happen here – but in day-to-day discourse, that message still feels at once too opaque and too slippery to convey. My attempts to pin climate change down are just images – linguistic struggles to reach toward a conceptual framework for total annihilation (or something much more horrific and plausible, which is having to live on indefinitely, as Silk’s band of plucky young characters must, in a collapsing world). Almond, one of the resourceful survivors who populate Silk’s prescient novel, notes that, “When you can see the pattern, you can see where the pattern breaks. You might not be able to avoid it, but if you can see it coming you can at least prepare”. But how to articulate the pattern so that we are forearmed? Time and again, I attempt to conjure climate change beyond the alliteration of its nomenclature – bandied about so loosely and frequently these days, thankfully and unfortunately, that it is almost meaningless. Even as drought and fire and flooding occurs with preternatural severity and duration in Australia and globally, the term climate change fails to relay any meaningful electrocution to its audience: it has become that ubiquitous.

That said, there has been a call to arms, popularly personified recently by adolescent activist Greta Thunberg, to shift the discourse away from change and toward breakdown and/or emergency. Whatever we call it, bald-faced fear of the catastrophe manifesting should make us howl until our throats are raw, drive us wailing into the night, into the sea – anywhere so long as we shift completely outside of our minds and our bodies, just so we won’t have to endure with any cognisance, or bear witness to, what the science says is coming. Of course, we could take action to avoid complete disaster. That is an option, impossible to achieve or dangerously necessary, depending on your view – and, perhaps, the generation to which you belong.

Thunberg has had the most success in bridging the chasm between the abstract and our reality. Her discourse—heartfelt, impassioned, critical in both senses of the word—and her age, conspire to bypass the lethargy that has attached itself to climate change. In this, she is a real-world avatar for Silk’s activists and troublemakers: Pinky, Del, Neeah-Nancy, Jameson and Almond. “When social infrastructure, all of it, the buildings, the very shape of public spaces, the ways the city allows or prevents people from moving, flowing, from existing in public, when all of that is against you, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Aren’t you?”

 You are, but young people hold one advantage conceptually if not practically at the coalface of disaster, because generally speaking they have nothing to lose (unlike, for example, Baby Boomers) by advocating for massive social upheaval in the name of the common good. Silk’s characters are more transient and disadvantaged than most, given that they are living in the natural outcome of neo-liberalist structures destabilised by environmental collapse. The nation’s contemporary fixation on real estate and inflated housing costs have given rise, in Sisters of No Mercy, to ruin and perpetual homelessness for ordinary folks. “Thousands of buildings had sat empty for years, until Martha had decimated a portion of the city, tipping the scales of property value in the favour of banks and developers…The worst affected buildings still just sat there, ruined, abandoned, squalid and huge”. Some, like the villain of the story Dirk Trench, whose disproportionate and horrifying wealth draws the force of the band’s intelligence as they try to rip him off, signal that whatever systemic inequities exist today will only be exacerbated under pressure of the weather. The fact that Trench is slated to have grown his own jungle is a heartrending signpost for his incredible privilege, and this small but powerful detail haunted me, even beyond other more expansive descriptions of characters and lands in crisis.  

 Various writers, myself included, have come at the problem of portraying climate change with bleak earnestness, trying to find the right tenor, the right language, the right metaphors to bring the issue home. Vincent Silk takes a different tact – and his efforts are admirable. Critic James Wood infamously coined the genre ‘Hysterical Realism’ to describe the mode of modernist fiction to which Silk’s novel has also been assigned (as per the novel’s blurb). Wood originally wrote of the genre, “One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark that travel is the way to avoid despair…these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish”. Such novels, which include those written by David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith—and now Silk—among others, share a relentless energy, many plotlines, and as Wood points out, a marked (perhaps irresponsible, perhaps necessary) absence of despair.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, such rambunctious approaches to storytelling suddenly seemed implausible, redundant, when considered in the context of such pervasive evil and disaster, provoking Wood to write, “It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted”. Perhaps this is even more true with something as globally and irrevocably devastating as climate change, but Sisters of No Mercy seems to hover above the crumbling foundations of the genre to which it has been assigned – to find a way to articulate the unsayable in ways that can be both stomached and heard. Ultimately, Sisters of No Mercy poses a vision for what the outcome of our failings may not only look like, but how it might be expressed. The tone is mocking, ironic, clever and cynical, something like how the future might be told if narrated by characters from The West Wing. “Just because you’re a slave to your neo-liberal lifestyle, and you’re sucked into a toxic, state-sanctioned treadmill of profit doesn’t mean I’ve got to do what you say!” crows an unpopular member of the ensemble, Clancy. The novel is funny and energetic, and also poignantly impactful. At times, I found the writing almost transcendently tender. When Pinky’s parents disappear overnight without telling him where they are going, Pinky joins the ranks of many young dystopian protagonists before him who are left to fend for themselves with their peers. Silk writes, heartbreakingly, that Pinky, “accepted, gently, silently, that he was now in a period that could be labelled ‘After Parents’”.

But perhaps an era categorised by being After Parents—after the generations who royally fucked the environment and those, like mine, who failed to rise up sufficiently to repair it—is what we should all be fleeing toward without a backward glance, painful as the progression might be. For a fighting chance of, first, being able to express to ourselves the scope and severity of the disaster looming, and second, to survive its unfolding, we will be relying on folks like the ones Silk has created, and a mode of narration, a way of getting at the issue, that is at once incisive and imbued with humour.

Although Silk’s characters are resourceful because their hands are tied by circumstance, they are not only surviving the instability of their time but, impressively, fighting back. Meanwhile, in the present, we don’t even know how to scare ourselves into action, to make this looming terminal diagnosis relevant, current or undeniable. I came away from reading Sisters of No Mercy thinking, Aha! This is how we must tell our story to ourselves.

Alice Robinson earned a Bachelor of Creative Arts from The University of Melbourne and a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research. Alice’s debut novel, Anchor Point (Affirm Press, 2015), was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards (debut fiction) in 2016. Her second novel, The Glad Shout (Affirm Press, 2019), was published in March.

'You Swallowed The Ocean Then You Dug The Earth ' a response to the 2019 Fair Play Symposium by Magan Magan

Magan Magan wrote this short story as part of a two-day symposium hosted by Diversity Arts Australian, The Wheeler Centre and Creative Victoria to improve equity and inclusive practice in creative industries.

Photo by Andrew Bennett. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

‘You don’t say much, Zack,' says Amina. 'You’re always in your head.' She continues, 'I can see your thoughts running amok in that small head of yours.’
  A hollow air of distance moves throughout their wooden house, through the bedrooms of loss with tile floors, across the bathroom of rage covered in plastic. Devastation seems to linger uninvited. Eventually words tussle out of his mouth, ‘How do you move past pain so easily aunty? I’m still trying to work out why mum left after all these years.'
  ‘You get sick of yourself as time goes by’ says his aunty. 'When your mother walked out on us, all those years ago, I had no choice but to push through or else you would have suffered more than you did kiddo. If you aren’t intentional about surviving, this world will eat you, blame you and then forget you. You grow wise. You take less crap from people and you begin to see right through the bullshit.’
  Zack’s mouth begins to click. ‘I just   I mean   I don’t know.’

 ‘It’s sunny outside. Let’s go out to the backyard and lay in the sun like we used to.’

Amina and Zack walk to the backyard. Amina grabs a large towel from the clothes hanger and spreads it across the cement. Next to the towel is a small coffee table with cigarette butts lying lifeless. ‘You can lie on the hammock, love. Get yourself comfortable while I fix us some smoothies to drink.’
 Zack gets lost in the hammock. The material overcomes his thin body. It swallows him whole. Amina returns with the smoothies. The front of her dress is tucked in her undergarment. Her stomach demands more space lately, it is the fifth time she has fallen pregnant in the past two years.
 ‘Here Zack, grab the drinks. Lord knows it’ll be a mess if I pretend to be able to place the drinks on the ground this swollen.’ Zack takes the tray off her. He blows the cigarette butts off the table and places the plate on the coffee stand. Amina’s whole body claims the towel. They are both looking at the sky. The sky is unapologetically blue. Not a single blot of white in the sky. Nothing is sauntering across the sky. Zack feels the sky looking at him, giving him all the attention of the universe. He feels safe. He lets out a sigh. This is the first time he has felt inner peace in a long time.

‘I heard you’re no longer talking to Sami. Is this true, Zack? He feels tense again. The hammock that was hugging him now feels like it is suffocating him. He feels paralysed.

 ‘You know you can talk to me about anything.'

 'People will get away with a lot if they can.’

 ‘Talk to me, Zack! Please!'

Zacks face opens up. His exhaustion begins to gush out of his body like a sprinkler silencing a burning home.
 ‘People like me are run by emotions, aunt.’
 ‘We’re all emotional honey.’
 ‘No. You don’t get it.’ Zack’s voice begins to crack. Shame is seeping through the hammock. ‘I’m feeling so burnt out by life. I don’t know how to explain it. I want to change how my emotions run my world and how my past slips through the cracks.’
 ‘What happened, Zack? What did Sami do?’

A warm breeze begins to pronounce its name; it holds its head up high as if to say my life and what I’ve been through isn’t a joke to me. Zack wants to go away with the wind, to leave this conversation. But there is nowhere to go. There are wolves and bears in the world that speak politely and wear silk, that wait to devour him.

 ‘You were right about him, aunt. You were.'

 ‘Everything you said was going to happen, happened’

 ‘God dammit. I’m so fucking stupid.’

Amina sits up, looks at Zack lying on the hammock as though he is dead.
 ‘You get nothing out of shaming yourself. It gives evil more power.’
 ‘How do you know all this? Why wasn’t this taught to us in school? I spent my entire life trying to be good. Believing if I just did the right fucking thing, I would be happy.’ Zack is crying.
 'That is the first lesson my love. You have to unlearn the lies told to you.    It’s not a conspiracy it’s the truth. Everyone lied to you. And the ones that know the truth always appear crazy.’
 Zack begins to feel a tight knot in his throat. His body begins to shake uncontrollably. He tries to wrap the hammock around his entire body. His heart is beating faster.

Amina makes her way up. She sits up, puts her palms on the floor, she bends over, releases a sigh that can consume the both of them and everything in the house. When she is up she draws closer to Zack and puts her hand on his head.
 ‘I can see you’re in pain honey.’ She turns around and picks the glass from the tray. ‘Have some of the smoothy. You’ll feel better.’
 He gets up, takes the glass Amina is hovering over him with. Before he drinks the smoothie, he takes a deep breath as though he is about to swim, as though everything that has happened up to this moment can be swallowed and mutilated in the same way he has been throttled, as though he has the power to reverse universal law.

‘It comes out, you know. It all comes out’ says his aunty. 'And when it does,’ she continues, 'it is relentless, it is unforgiving. All those years you spend looking away, all the small moments life gently taps you on the shoulder to look at your world, to look at the claws digging into your body.'

 ‘And then life gets angry at your denial. Your commitment to maintain the status quo and all the while you’re screaming on the inside, wanting it all to stop’

 ‘You hear the truth and then you turn away once again thinking it will be more painful if you look and acknowledge the pain you’re in. And so the world dizzies you and my poor child, aren’t you in pain anyway?’

The creaking sound of the clothesline gets louder as the wind strengthens its voice. The branches of the tree beside are swaying to the demands of the wind. The tray on the coffee table is quivering. Amina puts the tray out of its misery as she puts her hand on the tray. The wind is unhinged, it’s motivation for causing havoc is in the detail of its ruckus.
 They get up. Amina takes the tray while Zack is finding his balance to get out of the hammock. When he does, he picks his glass and scurries past Amina towards the house. When Amina walks into the house waddling like a penguin she finds Zack crouched over the sink sobbing.
 She puts the tray on the kitchen bench, walks over to him and begins to rub his back. Snot is rolling out of his nose; he is beginning to fight his own body. ‘We were friends since we were kids, aunt.   How could he do it?’

 ‘Do what sweetheart?’
 Zack shakes his head as he takes a deep breath.
 ‘He spread that rumour about me.    He is still maintaining his innocence.    I am wishing and praying he is telling the truth.’

The wind outside is howling louder and louder. It begins to rain as the clothesline is bowing. Amina is looking out the window to witness the chaos and she sees the wind push the coffee table across the yard. Everything in this moment is conspiring towards the ugly nature of this world.
 ‘You can swallow the ocean and then dig the earth to find a story that fits neatly into Sami’s justification. You can’t fight against law.’
 Everything stops, the wind quietens its feet, the screeching sound of the clothesline halts and time sinks back into the earth. And now Zack is panting like a dog. He wants to dance with clarity, he wants to touch it, to hold it’s hand, to bend it; to allow its equilibrium to wraps itself around his body until it all makes sense. ‘I want this to end’ screams Zack as the sunsets and darkness blinds them in their home once more. Amina wraps her arms around him and for the first time she sees the way time has been punishing him, his body suddenly feels different, it feels parentless yet covered.

Magan Magan is the author of From Grains to Gold (Vulgar Press, 2018). He was a 2018 Hot Desk Fellow and co edited the Black Inc anthology Growing Up African In Australia and Volume 7 of the Australian Poetry Anthology.

'A Gloomy Shade of Death: This Year’s Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award' by Alexandra Dane

Maybe next year?

Maybe next year?


The news arrived on Monday. Writing is dead. The novel is dead. Australian unpublished authors aged under 35 are no good, and there is no point publishing or reading anything anymore. The good old days, where we could revel in the coming-of-age story of scrappy Western Australian surfer kids, are over. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. There is nothing to see here but high standards. RIP Australian fiction.

On Monday, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript declared that there would be no winner in 2019. Annette Barlow, publisher at Allen & Unwin, was heard among certain circles to say, “I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.” For those of us left with this decision, it is important to heed Barlow’s words: we will not have new writing to read, but we do still have excellent standards to admire.

This is not, however, the first time the Vogel has rung the death knell for Australian fiction. They are, one could say, a little alarmist. 1985 was just as bad a year for young Australian writers. As was 2013. (Where were you when you heard the news?)

Established in 1980, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is awarded annually for an unpublished manuscript written by an Australian author under 35 years of age. The winner receives a handful of cash and a publishing deal with Allen & Unwin. Both of these things are extremely valuable to an author: a deal with Australia’s largest independent press creates a career and helps to get your novel into bookstores and into the hands of readers; the cash affords you time to write the next book.

A number of writers have already weighed in on the decision not to award the Vogel in 2019, highlighting not only the problematic nature of the prize’s eligibility guidelines but also the reality of this decision for emerging writers. Jane Rawson captured the sentiment of the Australian literary community, writing, “Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius?” [Side note: if you’re a published author who does not agree that mediocre books get published and win prizes all the time, it follows that your book is mediocre.]

Karen Wyld’s blistering Twitter thread provided a powerful account of the experiences of an emerging writer, concluding that the Vogel’s decision was making it harder for writers, that the eligibility guidelines for the award are ageist, and that not awarding the prize completely undermines the unpaid labour that authors put into their manuscripts to enter the award. Emily O’Grady, the 2018 winner of the Vogel, worked for close to four years on her manuscript before submitting it to the prize. So, for the Vogel prize judges to declare no winning manuscript in 2019, to not even announce a shortlist, to reveal that nothing will come from the work the authors put into their manuscripts is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Allen & Unwin and the Australian should know that this is possibly the worst example of gatekeeping by cultural intermediaries that the Australian publishing industry has managed to produce since 2013, the last time the prize refused to name a winner.

The Vogel, however, is not the only award that has the tendency to flex like this. There are three occasions in the history of the Miles Franklin Literary Award when no prize was given: in 1988 there was a brief administrative pause, but in 1973 and 1983 no title was considered worthy. A 1973 press release from Miles Franklin HQ stated, “This is the first time since the award was established in 1957 that the judges have failed to find a novel of sufficient merit among the entries to warrant the prize ... it was regrettable that more eligible published novels were not entered”. Similar disappointment was also expressed by the judging panel in 1983. However, in a speech at the 1984 Miles Franklin Award ceremony, David Davis, representing the trustees of the Miles Franklin estate, noted that although no entry was good enough in 1983, the winner of the 1984 Miles Franklin “went a long way towards rehabilitating the Award’s high standing”. The winner in 1984 was Tim Winton’s Shallows, which does not speak very well for the authors who entered the 1983 award.

Perhaps the most egregious example of a prize violating the unwritten-yet-universally-accepted “no take-backs” rule has to be that of Australian Book Review’s Gender Fellowship 2017. It was early in that year that ABR announced they would be awarding $7500 to an Australian writer to produce a long-form essay on the topic “gender in contemporary Australian creative writing in all its forms”. What an excellent initiative! However, editor of ABR Peter Rose, on International Women’s Day no less, announced that no submission to the Australian Book Review Gender Fellowship met the standards or requirements set out by the judging panel. Rose stated, “We received some interesting proposals, but none that, in the unanimous view of the selection panel — myself, Anne Edwards, Andrea Goldsmith — addressed the specific criteria in sufficiently new, focused and compelling ways”.

By not announcing a winner, a prize and its judges have an opportunity to spotlight and underline the literary standards that they claim to celebrate and uphold. Even more pointedly, this move serves to validate the past decisions that the prize has made, shoring up the prize’s own reputation rather than performing its own basic function.

Prizes operate separately to the marketplace, and the adjudication of literary prizes is usually based on vague aesthetic criteria. The ability of these prizes to hold our collective attention and engage in an exchange of symbolic capital with authors requires a collective belief — our belief — in their power to do so. This belief, this illusio, is the foundation of the power of the literary prize, and is the reason they command so much space in the cultural discourse. Much of the contemporary research into literary prize culture interrogates the balance between the role of the prize as the “sober consecrator of genius” (as Beth Driscoll says in her 2013 article ‘Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital’) and the delicate system of beliefs and symbolic rewards that maintain this power. While the real reasons why the Vogel refused to declare a winner this year or in 2013 or in 1985 are unknown, for them to cite their high literary standards as the reason is a good way to secure their in own reputation and the collective belief in their past and future decisions. What is lost in this conversation is the actual utility of the prize.

Prizes are a top-down approach to funding a small number of authors’ careers. When an author wins either the Miles Franklin or the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award or the Prime Minister’s Literary Award or the Stella Prize, the cash reward and the promotion of their work can fund this author’s writing career for at least a couple of years, giving them opportunity to write another book. Similarly, prizes for unpublished manuscripts give emerging authors the opportunity to publish and the time to dedicate to writing. Is it a perfect system? Not by any stretch. But it is the system that we have chosen? Well, no – it’s been chosen for us. But is it the system we have? Yes, and it’s not for any small group of judges to snatch away at their whim.

Dr Alexandra Dane researches contemporary book cultures, focussing on the relationship between gender, literary consecration and the influence of formal and informal literary networks.

‘The smallest of things: a review of Sharon Lam’s “Lonely Asian Woman”’, by Shu-Ling Chua

Credit: Lawrence & Gibson

Credit: Lawrence & Gibson


Lonely Asian Woman, Sharon Lam’s debut novel, explores various ways of not fitting in: not fitting in with one’s friends because they all have jobs, not fitting in with white/western society, not fitting in with expectations of adulthood. It examines the purpose of life as one’s low-humming worries cascade into post-uni existential crisis. How does one find one’s place in the world? What is one’s role, function, utility? What does a meaningful contribution look like?

Twenty-something Paula Mo is a ‘Multisector Freelancer’ between jobs. She lives in her parents’ apartment in Wellington with four fish. Her ‘crush’ (read: kind-of-boyfriend) Eric has just left for an internship in Copenhagen. She has an architecture degree. Since graduating, she has worked as a worm-farm attendant, coffee packer, mushroom picker, tutor for DESP220, tutor for WHAT221, cattery cleaner and textbook copywriter. When Paula wishes for a job that gives their employees lanyards (“Those people always seemed the most grounded to her, walking around with their ID photos around their necks”), I want to tell her, “A lanyard won’t save you bb.” Because I know.

When I was twenty-one, I moved to Canberra and joined the public service. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world. Instead, I was a tiny cog in a giant machine, making a difference somewhere, sometime over the forward estimates. I was yet to make close friends there and had no interest in climbing the APS ladder, buying a home, marrying and having children. My identity shrank to that of public servant/neglectful daughter. I was a seemingly put-together adult, destined for great! things! but just as Paula gleans, this was all a façade:

[The corporate people] looked more serious and more clueless at the same time…Now, as she watched an adult get off their scooter to drag it across the road, she saw in them the inexpertness of a child rather than a carefree spirit. If anything, they were uneasy as they scootered along, vaguely suspicious that they were complicit in something not quite right.

Lam’s irreverent depictions of adulthood, work, responsibility, friendship and disappointment steer clear of binaries. Rather, Paula ponders the meaning of work and parenthood. Are they not also forms of pointlessness, albeit socially sanctioned forms?

Those with salaried, nine-to-five jobs have an easy life…You can go through the motions and still feel like you’ve done something towards something, even if it was nothing else but money.

While watching repairman Avinesh fix her broken fan, Paula’s “mind drifted to the wish for some near-death but ultimately harmless experience, so that her own exact purpose would spill out”. I remember wishing for a similar epiphany in my early twenties. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, on the cusp of twenty-four, and feeling Esther’s fig-tree dream scene so damn hard:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I quickly learnt, as most young people do, that the world was not my oyster.


Lam uses tables to explain how Paula and Eric are the same type of person and how they are not. Lonely Asian Woman’s experimental structure provides detours into Paula’s personality and preoccupations. Lists include: PAULA’S LOW-HUMMING WORRIES, THINGS PAULA HAD GIVEN UP ON and THINGS PAULA HASN’T DONE. While stuck at home for four days because of a storm, Paula runs through a series of one-player games, ranging from confusing (DICTIONARY EYES and A B U N D A N C E) to ha-ha-funny (POW POW POST-IT PARTY) to ha-ha-funny-bam-why-life-so-futile (SPA DAY ROLE PLAY, EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and DAIRY DELIRIUM):

Decide to attempt making butter…Keep whisking. Feel your arm and grip get tired. Cheer yourself on with the thought that it’s good hand-job practice…Have momentary day-dreams about starting up an artisanal hand-whipped butter boutique. Do some quick maths and realise it won’t ever be financially feasible. Accept that it’s just another thing you’ll never be able to do.

The novel’s more surreal elements are judiciously timed and spaced. For the most part, they add to, rather than detract from, the narrative. A glitching, abandoned baby provides a critical plot twist, nudging Paula towards adulthood. Paula’s alter ego Paulab is part comic foil, part manifestation of her inability to let go of a past love. Paulab is confident and all tough love, constantly prodding Paula into action. Paulab, however, is also unnecessarily depicted as morbidly obese and as loud, bossy, constantly eating, sloppy and childish – stereotypes commonly associated with fat people.

Lam’s portrayal of Paula’s interiority, in contrast, is a highlight, veering from banal to philosophical to brutal. Paula’s sharp bursts of insight, cutting at times, give emotional heft and keep her tethered to reality. While prone to mistakes (stealing a shopping trolley! taking a baby clubbing! meeting Jake for coffee!), she remains self-aware, rather than wallowing in self-pity. She sees through people’s BS:

People from Paula’s town loved moving to Melbourne. It was the most unimaginative thing you could do. From Melbourne they could pretend they were happy from a safe, inscrutable distance. Perhaps they all made a pact once they got there – no one could tell anyone back home that they were still miserable.

I laugh-cringe in recognition. I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I thought moving to Canberra would make me happy.


After Eric relocates to Copenhagen, he quickly fades to the background. Emails become their preferred form of contact. Before he leaves, Paula deflects that conversation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they stay together; this story isn’t about Eric.

Similarly, Paula’s relationship with her parents hovers like a mirage, difficult to articulate. Unlike most Asian diasporic memoir and fiction, the novel focuses on friendship, rather than blood family. There is only one conversation between Paula and her mother, part Cantonese, part English. Like most migrant children, Paula’s existential crisis is tinged with a sense of familial debt and guilt:

Maybe the gratitude she felt towards her parents was too large for any language. No, I will not shoplift that hairclip, Ashley. My parents left everyone they ever knew for a completely foreign land just for me. Also, it’s like a dollar. All her parents wanted was for her to be happy, and she wasn’t sure she was.

Reading this, I think of Yassmin’s Story by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and No Country Woman by Zoya Patel, both memoirs. That sense of debt is a big deal but it’s also not. I don’t think of it every minute of every day but it’s there and it’ll always be there, significant, but not in a feel-sorry-for-me way. Abdel-Magied’s articulation, like Lam’s, struck me: “There is a level of existential responsibility, debt even, which sits in the mind of migrant children that means sometimes our decisions are made, whether consciously or unconsciously, out of respect to our parents and the sacrifice they made…To know that but for one decision made by our parents, our lives could have been entirely different – that tugs on a person’s soul, either anchoring you to reality, or drowning you.”

For all its confusion and angst, Lonely Asian Woman is quietly triumphant. It is small-l lonely, the most recognisable form of lonely, an incomplete but valid form of lonely. Paula is not an outcast; she is not in any real danger of slipping beneath the poverty line. She has a safety net of friends—Odie, Shogo and Jay are the only people to whom Paula reveals all—and successfully applies for an overdraft.


My introduction to New Zealand literature is Hera Lindsay Bird at National Young Writers’ Festival in 2015. The following year, I am deeply touched by Courtney Sina Meredith’s performance of ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’ and keynote speech at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and see Hera again and Freya Daly Sadgrove at NYWF. Through Twitter, I swoon over poetry by Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tse and become friends with Rose Lu, also a writer of non-fiction.

Our friendship begins as DMs on Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and Chinese-Australian (Alice Pung, Ben Law and Julie Koh) and Chinese-New Zealand (Nina, Chris, Emma Ng and Gregory Kan) recommendations, segueing from Guo’s memoir Once Upon a Time in the East to whether it’s a ‘Chinese thing’ to not want to talk about the past. We later exchange long emails about our lives and writing. When Rose shares a piece on language, identity and memory, I recognise the argument she had with her mother about Saturday Chinese classes, word for word.

While reading Lonely Asian Woman, I kept thinking about how I'm similar to and different from Paula. This led me to ponder the appropriateness of ‘relatability’ as a measure of literary merit and cultural importance. To what extent is it appropriate to consider (un)relatability, as a critic? I know better than to judge Lam’s novel—indeed, any work—on how closely it hews to my lived experience; all the same, no work is created, or read, in isolation from this experience. As critics, we need to be aware of, and interrogate, the lens/bias we bring to a work. We need to ask: Have I done my research? To whom might this narrative be (un)relatable and why? Am I ‘qualified’ to review this work? As Evelyn Araluen writes in ‘The Other people: CALD and the ‘Cat person’’:

We [writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds] cannot afford to publish fiction that assumes relatability will allow readers to overlook clichés and cringe because we are not coded as relatable by white Australia; we are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language.

I appreciated Lam’s attention to detail—Eric taking his shoes off in Paula’s hallway, Paula making spring onion pancakes, her conversation in Cantonese with her mother (“Aiyaaaa, Paula why are you always so laow bao bao”, “Me laow bao bao! NO! I’m not! YOU’RE LAOW BAO BAO”), her not knowing how to respond to being ni hao-ed—for its verve and its familiarity. As Paula notes, “even the smallest of things made a difference, the reason a patch of masking tape on the underside of a ruler could save a drawing”. For writers and readers from marginalised backgrounds, relatability cannot be taken for granted; it is rare, magical, fun and empowering, an ‘I see you’ moment.

That is no small thing.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, Triangle House Review and Meanjin, among others. She tweets @hellopollyanna and is working on an essay collection exploring the intersections between life and art.

'maybe gabriel fauré turns in his grave and I’m drinking his favourite champagne' by Kiara Lindsay

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

ANH Kiara Blue.gif

part i

élégie my first true love
I fall into each note clumsy from overwhelm
and feel it all like any teenaged girl

I decide I want to make emotion look easy
fool my hands steady
though from the chest they
agitate with anticipation

I make five phrases and end up on the river
admiring smooth stones under viridian water
relish any chance I get to play
an octave or more below middle C

I’m told it’s about the death of his wife
so hypothetical or not
I do it all thinking of her

I truly believe that I know what it’s like
to have a dead wife too
never having loved before
not realising I might like a wife one day

I feel her death in the
devastating repetition
imagine myself as a middle-aged fauré
contemplating a memory by the office window
glassy-eyed but reticent

my father asks me what I feel when I play
what I feel when I hear it
I look away abashed and say
of course I feel nothing

I’m embarrassed by the extent of my emotion
shove people out of the way of the sound
tell them to pretend
they heard nothing

part ii

I remember why I loved him
in the back of the salon
I let the electric blue light fall on my face
and return to teenaged-self

at the top of the andante
the piano rolls out in mechanical chords
and the cello soars on top like a proud albatross
my stomach flips in the moment the first bar mirrors
while it fakes the beginning of my first love élégie

I sink into a disappointment
padded by sound and soft rosehip light
at least the let-down is gentle and self-induced
so I get over it quickly
find something new to focus on

the finale ends in allegro vivo
the white-haired man in front of me erupts in applause
he puts his body into it
commits to it like a marriage

I’m reminded of a scene I’ve watched on repeat
replace the white-haired man with my grandfather
I never saw him so happy as he was in
a myriad matching moments
the suspense of the finish line
breaking his heart or at least
his nervous system

when I see the man wrapped in his own elation
I think how far I could come from the self
who’d roll her eyes or misapprehend
and pin it all on the resentment
she developed for catholicism

here in the back of the salon
I mourn concealed
until interrupted by the cellist
announcing fauré’s favourite drink (champagne)

he serves it to us in the foyer
I drink gingerly while I think
how strange it might’ve been
to be famous for putting people
in their memories

Kiara Lindsay is a poet. She completed her Honours in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne in 2017. Alongside Bridget Gilmartin, she co-edits Inhabit Journal and runs a poetry reading series called ‘Evening Swim’. In 2018, Kiara was the recipient of the H.B Higgins Poetry Scholarship. You can find her work in Voiceworks, Lor and Marrickville Pause.

‘Small Acts of Planning: a review of Annaleese Jochems’s “Baby”’, by Emma Marie Jones

Credit: Scribe Publications

Credit: Scribe Publications


Last year on Australia’s The Bachelor, the Bachelor, known primarily as ‘the Honey Badger’—one of those private-schoolboy-faux-bogan types, if that explains anything at all about the naming situation—did not choose a bachelorette. This television moment was like peeking behind a curtain, even while knowing that all I would ever see was another curtain: surely, the Honey Badger’s uncertainty and commitment-phobia was not real, and he was not allowed such consequential agency at this late stage of the game? Surely the network had planned and staged this awkward impasse to give us a little shock after years of insipid Cinderella finales?

The image my mind keeps returning to is the reunion of the two rejected bachelorettes, the juicy glitch in reality television’s smooth veneer as they figure out what’s happened. There’s a practical brunette and a vampish blonde and they’re both laughing and crying. A kind of adrenaline rush has hit them. There’s a sense of horrifying possibility that these women might do absolutely anything. The camera movements are shaky; everything in this moment has an urgency that comes from these visual nods to the impromptu. This is what we’re not supposed to see, right? Is this footage proof that what happened was unplanned, or is it part of the planning?

It’s only natural that I want to see the mechanism of the planning. In 2019, our whole selves are made up of small acts of planning. We’re living in an age where you can’t really participate in society unless you cultivate a shadow of yourself on the internet – and our main goal in these harsh online spaces is to project, or at least approximate, total authenticity. If you think about it, that’s an oxymoron: you can’t control your authentic self, you can only be it, and being something in real life where nobody is looking at you isn’t going to get you any likes or new followers. So we plan. How many times have my friends private messaged me images—a pear, a book, pale linen, a limb askew—“should I story this?”

Annaleese Jochems’ debut novel Baby enters the scene, then, at an interesting moment. Jochems gives us Cynthia, a blonde “skinny-fat” millennial ingénue, as our point of entry. Unlikeable protagonists are something of a trend among millennial literary novels—think Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, Alice in Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, Paul in Tao Lin’s Taipei, Megan in Halle Butler’s Jillian, or the nameless narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation—and Cynthia doesn’t disappoint. As we meet her, she embodies everything a baby boomer has ever whinged about millennials in a newspaper or on talkback radio: she’s twenty-one, lazy, entitled, unmotivated and self-absorbed. She thinks, perhaps knows, that she’s beautiful and that being beautiful is enough, although for what remains uncertain for the time being. She’s glued to her phone and thus detached from whatever reality exists outside of its glass pane. Another apathetic pouting white girl who assumes that she’ll get whatever she wants by default and so follows her quarry around, waiting for wish fulfilment. (Yes, like me at twenty-one.) You could suggest that Jochems is doing some broad metaphorical work here, that Cynthia’s apathy is all of our apathy, that the consequences Cynthia must face are all of our consequences. But really, isn’t it possible that Jochems is just having a little fun?

 Cynthia’s quarry—the thing she wants most of all, the thing she’s risked everything for—is her gorgeous gym trainer, Anahera. Anahera is the book’s opening line, but not its beating heart. Its beating heart is Cynthia. Impulsive, lying-on-her-feet Cynthia! You feel a kind of affection for her, even as Jochems uses textural descriptions to repulse you from her: custard, snot, porridge. Cynthia is emotionally in tune with Anahera: she can “understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body”. When Anahera leaves her husband, Cynthia—unsatisfied by her own love affairs with insipid men, men whose idea of flirting is texting photographs of dogs, “men who don’t like educational television”—steals sixteen thousand dollars from her father’s bank account and convinces Anahera to run away with her. With Cynthia’s father’s money, they drive to the Bay of Islands and buy a boat called Baby.

During the long, long period of Cynthia’s languid boredom on board Baby in the book’s first act—repetitive motions, canned foods on the stove, soaping her swim-suited body in the salty ocean, folding out Baby’s Murphy bed and folding it away again—the possibility of desire overshadows every word. Even the ones like “is” and “and” are stretched as taut as rubber bands about to be flicked. There’s an undercurrent of shame during this period, too: while Cynthia’s bored, Anahera is as nervous as a caged animal. But Cynthia’s not really observant like that. She’s avoiding a reality check, one that’s so long it spills over the character limit of a single text message into several text messages: one that would force her to ask herself a question no millennial wants to ask: what am I doing here? So instead, the canned food, her phone on landscape mode, streaming The Bachelor Pad and The Newlywed Game on an unlimited data plan. Escapism, raw and unfiltered. Cynthia’s eyebrows grow hairy, shapeless and wild. Perfect beauty is something you can’t maintain on the run, even though the movies would have you believe otherwise.

Later, Cynthia’s pursuit of Anahera becomes, circumstantially, more calculated. She can no longer rest on the laurels of her youth and beauty to simply hold out her hand and receive what she would like to have; she must fight for it. Cynthia—millennialism distilled to its purest form—doesn’t strike you as a fighter. Not in the Charlie’s Angels sense, anyway. But she’s confident that she can control what people think of her, and if you think about it, as you craft the specific timbre of each individual Tweet, as you ensure that all your Instagram stories have an aesthetic flow that is both uniform and unique, as you remove all the uppercase “I”s from your text messages: aren’t you, too? In his 2009 essay ‘Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility’, art theorist Boris Groys writes that:

 The virtual space of the Internet is primarily an arena in which my website on Facebook is permanently designed and redesigned to be presented on YouTube—and vice versa. But likewise in the real—or let’s say, analog—world, one is expected to be responsible for the image that he or she presents to the gaze of others.

Cynthia, who in her life before Baby and Anahera “did things on Facebook” during most of her downtime, is no stranger to Groys’ endless work of designing and redesigning her self. The Cynthia that appears on Facebook is redesigned to be presented anew on Instagram, and presumably again on dating apps and in private messages, and on and on. In the real—or, as Groys calls it, “analog”—world, Cynthia continues this work of designing and redesigning, showing herself to Anahera as someone who Anahera might like, or maybe as someone who could be like Anahera. Either way, it’s just projection.

As readers, the Cynthia that we know—the authentic Cynthia, maybe—goes a little deeper. We know about her secret guilts and shames, her innermost fantasies and most desperate boredoms: and yet we know the fake Cynthia, too. The peppy Cynthia who knows what she’s doing and is up for the challenge. The Cynthia who will see each lie through to its logical conclusion, however crushing. This is the way it has to be: anyone who’s ever lied knows that revealing yourself at the climax is like spending hours baking a beautiful cake and then icing it with your own shit.

 For months or even for her whole life, Cynthia’s felt a furious desperation to go somewhere, to feel things, and be a real person. Well, Anahera is the over-heated centre of the world, the point of rupturing where it becomes too big and too strong to hold itself, and Cynthia feels close to her now. At last, she’s content.

You can’t cultivate an authentic self, only be it – and Cynthia’s authentic self lays around a boat all day streaming reality television, while Anahera’s body grows stronger and perhaps more prepared for what lies ahead. A conclusion Jochems invites us to draw is that Cynthia’s idea of a ‘real person’ is tainted by having allowed her digital and analog worlds, and selves, to blend into one shadowy space, one shadowy self. A shadow is unknowable, intangible, impenetrable. But Cynthia has learned from The Bachelor, and other, similar shows, that “You have to ask for love, and do anything for it”. She has done something crazy, something reality-television-worthy: she is living on a boat with a divorced woman whom she loves. But something’s missing. You’re wondering, right: is it the audience? Or is it something as simple, as corny, as brilliant and wrenching as love?

A lot of people find The Bachelor compelling viewing, but to be honest I’ve only ever enjoyed the first and last episodes. Both are little parades of humiliation, monuments to a kind of heterosexual romance that, in my experience of the world at least, doesn’t exist beyond anybody’s surface. But perhaps that’s the problem – or maybe less of a problem, and more of a point. Our surfaces reflect all that careful work we’ve done; the designing and redesigning, the planning. If you expect the love in your life to look like the love in The Bachelor, you’ll plan your life around it. And that is exactly what Cynthia does, until she can’t anymore, and she has to turn to Plan B.

 She watches The Bachelor for three hours. It’s all about how to fight your enemies by lying, kissing, fucking and dressing really well. All she needs to do is remember everything she knew in her old life. … It doesn’t matter about the truth of anyone’s love. You either have the gumption and talent to win a place for what you’ll call your love, or you don’t and it means nothing – if you can’t swim, the water won’t hold you.

For Cynthia—and maybe for Jochems, and maybe in a broader way for us, for millennials—this rings true. Love is like The Bachelor. It’s a peek behind a curtain to another curtain. You’re planning and planning and sometimes love is not the goal but just part of the detail. Sometimes you spurn two bachelorettes at once in order to advance your perfect image as Australia’s cheekiest rugby-player-slash-underwear-model. Love, and the dance around it, becomes an act of self-projection, a tile in the pathway to your own understanding of a winner: a brilliantly, totally authentic you.

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of chapbook Something To Be Tiptoed Around (2018). She’s a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

In Full: 'Root Bed', by Cassandra Rockwood-Rice

Root Bed is an excerpt from Cassandra’s manuscript, <i>The Bed Roots</i>, which she calls a "Troema": her definition of a 'troema' is a poetic narrative, spanning many pages, that maps the language of a traumatic experience across an experience or across an entire lifetime. In so writing the troema, the writer observes and bears witness to the trauma in an effort to help de-stigmatize the nature of living in a traumatized body and/or mind. It asks the reader to look closely at the damages resulting from oppressive and abusive behaviors, in our interpersonal relationships and in society at large. It asks that we build compassion and take responsibility for our actions.

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Brow Books to Publish Duanwad Pimwana's ‘Bright’

We at Brow Books team are excited to announce that we are to publish Duanwad Pimwana’s exuberant and melancholic novel Bright, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. Bright is the first novel by a Thai woman to appear in English. It is out this month in the United States through Two Lines Press.

Bright will be out in Australia in June, but you can pre-order it now. Here’s a sneak peak of our cover:


About the book:

Five-year-old Kampol’s father tells him to sit on the kerb and await his return. The confused boy does  as he’s told, he waits and waits, until eventually he realises  his father may not be coming back.  In his parents’ absence, Kampol is adopted by the community and raised on rotation by the local adults.

Flea markets, the search for a ten-baht coin, pet crickets eaten for dinner, bouncy ball fads, and loneliness so merciless that it kills a boy’s appetite: Duanwad Pimwana’s urban vignettes form an off-beat and myth-like coming-of-age story about an unforgettable young boy and the community surrounding him.

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About the author:

Duanwad Pimwana is a major voice in contemporary Thai literature. She won Southeast Asia’s most prestigious literary prize, the S.E.A. Write Award, in 2003 for her novel Bright and she is also the recipient of awards from PEN International Thailand among others. Acclaimed for her subtle fusing of magic realism with Thai urban culture, she has published nine books. Bright is her first novel to be translated into English, and Arid Dreams is her first collection of stories.

Born to farmer parents, Pimwana attended a vocational school and started off as a journalist at a local newspaper. She is one of only six women to have won the Thai section of the S.E.A. Write in its thirty-seven-year history. Known for fusing touches of magic realism with social realism, she has published nine books, including a novella and collections of short stories, poetry, and cross-genre writing, and is currently working on a political novel. She often draws inspiration from the fishing and farming communities of her native Chonburi, a seaside province on the Thai east coast, where she now lives with her partner, the poet Prakai Pratchaya.

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About the translator:

Mui Poopoksakul is a lawyer-turned-translator. She grew up in Bangkok and Boston, and practiced law in New York City before returning to the literary field.  She is the translator of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was (2017) and Moving Parts (2018),  both winners of a PEN Translates award. The Sad Part Was was also shortlisted for the UK Translators’ Association First Translation Prize. She previously guest-edited the Thailand issue of Words Without Borders, and her work has also appeared in various literary journals, including Two Lines, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation, and In Other Words. She is based in Berlin.

Praise for Bright:

Bright  is an authentic portrait of a working class community in Thailand, written in a remarkably clean prose style and with profound compassion. Duanwad Pimwana’s bittersweet novel reveals glimpses of the inner life of Thai culture in such an entertaining and jocular manner that one can’t help but absorb its social realist ingredients with pleasure and ease. With Pimwana’s contribution, contemporary Thai literature is stronger, and I believe that this wonderful translation of one of her best works will prove to be seminal for Thailand’s place in the literary world.”

Prabda Yoon, author of  Moving Parts 

“Duanwad Pimwana has a knack for finding the gap between who we are and who we’d like to be, and deftly inserting her scalpel there. Across the villages and cities of Thailand, her characters exist in a state of constant anxiety, unable to fit in but having nowhere else to go.”

Jeremy Tiang, author of  State of Emergency 

“Pimwana’s enchanting debut (the first novel by a Thai woman translated into English) captures the vivid life of a small Thai child abandoned by his family. ... Readers will enjoy Kampol’s antics, the colorful side characters, and glimpses of Thai culture in this melancholy-tinged but still exuberant novel.”

Publishers Weekly