‘To Freedom That Blooms on Stumps: A Review of Jackie Wang’s “Carceral Capitalism”’, by Cher Tan

One of the first zines I ever read, back in 2007, was Against Prisons by Catherine Baker. Still a new text at the time, the ideas outlined in this slim volume were at once humbling and mind-expanding. A family member of mine had just been released from prison, and having not gone to university (I still haven't), certain concepts that were perplexing and out of reach to me – in this case, ideas around criminality, innocence and justice – became coherent, like I was unlocking a new realm in a video game. After this, author-published zines became the decentralised medium that would act as a pathway between the previously-unknowable and a ravenous mind. This self-assembling of knowledge would help connect the dots, and help develop an attitude that would lead to inquiry and action outside the institution.

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'The Octopus and The Eyes', by Erin Hortle

As children, my brother, sister and I were warned to avoid the tiny, startlingly beautiful, blue-ringed octopuses native to the rock pools that pepper the Australian coastline. “If you so much as brush your skin against them, they’ll kill you-like that,” my father told us, snapping his fingers for dramatic effect.

Truth be told, my father’s warning was not entirely scientifically accurate. In fact, one has to be bitten by a blue-ringed octopus to be envenomed. That being said, they are deadly: each octopus contains enough venom to kill twenty-six adult humans. Once bitten, motor paralysis and respiratory arrest take effect within minutes, usually resulting in death. But in any case, his warning had the desired effect upon our malleable, kindergarten psyches: we were terrified.

This piece of advice was delivered at a point in my life when basic arithmetic skills, like counting, were still a mysterious, rote-learned class-room activity that had no bearing on my day-to-day life; I couldn’t instinctively tell the difference between, say, a creature with five legs and a creature with eight. Also, being colour-blind, I don’t move through the world confidently distinguishing one thing from another on the basis of its colour, particularly when my life could be at stake. As such, one result of my father’s warning was that, for a period of my childhood, whenever I was frolicking in a rock pool and I spotted a benign, five-limbed, orange starfish basking, I would halt in a state of abject terror, and slowly back away, fretting that it could be the death of me.

You can imagine my shock when, years later, I was lolling in a rock pool on Tasmania’s east coast and was confronted by an actual octopus—not a blue-ringed octopus but an orange monster. Trapped in a confined space, it was erratic, curling and unfurling in every direction at once; it was unanchored, and it was big – nothing like the stationary starfish with which I had confused it.

There was a large swell that day, and my wetsuit-clad siblings, cousins and I were pretending to be posh ladies reclining in a Jacuzzi. Every time a wave washed through our rock pool we would brace ourselves against its currents, raise our pretend champagne glasses and yabber, like posh ladies, “Yars, yars, oh yar? Oh real-ay? Isn’t this ja-coo-zi just dee-vine? Yars, yars, yars,” to one another while the white water bubbled and foamed around us.

The first wave of an especially large set rolled through, inciting many joyous ‘yars’. But as the turbulence subsided, we realised we were no longer alone; a mess of orange limbs was undulating in the space between us. We squealed and flew from the rock pool as the next wave washed in and frothed the water opaque. We perched like cormorants on the granite boulders that framed the rock pool and waited impatiently to see the monster below. But, to our disappointment, when the water became clear once more, we saw the pool was empty. The octopus had hitched a ride on the next wave back out into the surf.

If I could bellow words through the tunnel of time, I would shout to my child-self: “STAY IN THE ROCK POOL!” I would urge her, in whatever way I could, to take this opportunity to meet an octopus.

Maybe if she hadn’t scrambled, shrieking from the water, it would have lingered to watch her. The filmy surface of the water would have circled her middle like the waistline of the crystal and silk gown that she had been luxuriating in as a pretend-posh-lady just moments before. And she would gaze at it, just as it was gazing at her. It would have retreated to the other side of the pool, where it would have lurked for a moment or two, before swarming towards her. She would have let out a little gasp but she would have stood firm. It would have stopped a metre shy of her and gathered itself into a pulsing knot. Then, slowly, it would have loosened itself and unfurled one of its arms towards her. It would have touched her lightly—scraping its suckers on her neoprene thigh to test her—to see what she was. Octopuses are notoriously curious. (Or some are. Others are notoriously paranoid.)

If I could bend words back to her, I would reassure her that this creature is not a monster, but a distant cousin—different, and yet not so different. If I could, I would inform her that her ancestors, and the octopus’s ancestors, were both primitive, tube-shaped creatures which had neither brains nor eyes. I would explain to her that, more than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the lineage that resulted in humans had separated.

And yet,” I would tell her (taking care to emphasise my words, to encourage her to grasp just how fascinating this fact is), “despite our divergent evolutionary paths, both humans and octopuses have evolved independently to develop eyelids. Look at the octopus,” I would urge her. “See if you can spy them.”

“You said it wrong,” she would accuse. “It’s not octopuses; it’s octopi.”

“Well, actually,” I would tell her, “the etymologically correct plural isn’t octopi, because, technically, you shouldn’t add a Latin suffix to a word derived from Greek, and the word octopus comes from the Greek word oktōpous.”

I butcher the pronunciation—perhaps this is why she’s frowning. She opens her mouth to say something more but we’re getting off topic, so I cut her off. “Go on,” I urge her again. “See if you can spot its eyelids.”

She peers down to the arm still winding around her leg and traces her eyes along to where the soft fruit of its head floats, and she notices that indeed, it does have eyelids. She also notices that unlike her pupils, which are like black little full stops, its pupils are dashes.

“I’m so pleased you observed this!” I exclaim. I tell her that if the octopus had pupils like hers—pupils that focus light through a narrow pinhole—it would have been colour-blind, just like her. But because it has these dash-like pupils, it can distinguish colours in a completely unique way.

“Cephalopods are completely unique in this!” I repeat. “They’re unlike any other creatures on earth—or unlike any other creatures that we know of. What happens is, their unusual-shaped pupils act like prisms, scattering light in all directions.”

She looks a little confused by this, so I explain: “Kind of like a kaleidoscope. And once the light has been sorted into its component wavelengths, octopuses do things like change the depth of their eyeballs, or alter the distance between their lens and retina, in order to focus different wavelengths of light individually and as such, distinguish different colours.”

She still looks confused, but she’s clearly thinking about what I’ve just said.

“So, if I had pupils like this octopus,” she says slowly, still gazing intently at the octopus, “I would be able to see colour like a normal person and so be able to tell whether a banana is ripe or not?”

“Yep,” I say. “Except you wouldn’t really be seeing colour like a normal person, would you? You’d be seeing it like a normal octopus.”

I then explain that while their pupils are indeed different shapes, she and this creature both have eyes with lens-based focusing and transparent corneas, irises that regulate light, and retinas in the back of the eye to convert light to neutral signals that can be processed in the brain. Again, I tell her, this is a remarkable coincidence given their independent evolutionary path.

“Scientists call this convergent evolution,” I say. But as I say it, I notice I’ve lost her a little. More than a little, actually: I’ve lost her a lot. Her attention has wandered to the surfers who are paddling lazily to hold their position at the head of the rip that’s coursing along the edge of the rocky point and teasing the kelp into streamers. I follow her gaze and notice the way the rip is sitting the waves up into steep ledges as they hit the sandbank, causing them to curl into thick-rimmed cylinders as they break. There hasn’t been a bank like this at this beach in years.

But enough. There will be plenty of time for surfing when she’s older.

“Brush your hand against the octopus’s arm,” I urge her, in an attempt to regain her attention.

She hesitates, and then reaches down and gently strokes a finger along the orange arm that is still coiling about her legs. The octopus stills a little to let her, and it almost seems to butt up into her touch, much like a cat arching its back against its human’s hand.

“Guess what? The octopus just touched, tasted and saw you in that moment of contact. Scientists in the future have just discovered that octopuses can also see with their skin—or do something very similar to what we regard as seeing.” (I go easy on the physiological particulars here; I don’t want to lose her again.)

She looks from me—because in case you hadn’t noticed, the present, adult-me is now some kind of ghost from the future—to the octopus, and back to me, and her eyes and mouth turn to “o”s in awe (at the octopus, not at the ghost-adult-me; the child-me is suddenly very good at staying on topic).

She strokes it again, and grins widely as it turns its arm so that she can run her fingers along its suckers.

It is then that I observe my hand flicker. I peer down at it, and watch as it ghosts in, then out, of being. I look from it, to her. She is completely absorbed in the octopus and I realise what is happening: this brand of information I’m feeding her in is nudging her down a path that will lead her to a career in marine biology, and where will this leave me?

As if on cue, my entire presence flickers. This version is about to become obsolete.

“What does this make you think?” I blurt, desperately. “The octopus is looking at you. What does this make you think?”

She looks at me, confused.

So, I tell her: “A famous philosopher once said, ‘An animal looks at me. What should I think of this sentence?’”

She looks at me, confused.

I flicker.

“He emerged naked from the shower and his cat looked at him and he didn’t know what to make of it,” I continue.

She looks at me, confused.

I’m fading, fading.

“When you touched it, the octopus looked at you with its skin. What do you think of this sentence?” I cry.

But her colour-blind eyes—with their lens-based focusing and transparent corneas, irises that regulate light, and retinas in the back of the eye to convert light to neutral signals that can be processed in the brain—glaze. This tack isn’t working. She’s too young, too under-read in the fields of poststructuralism and critical animal studies.

I’m fading. I am nothing but a half-thought of a life that will never be lived.

And then I have a crafty idea. She doesn’t know it yet, but her colour-blindness means that she will never have a career as a visual artist. But if she nurtures her kernel of creativity by dabbling in different mediums, she might one day turn into the writer she’s already dreaming of becoming. The creative arts move and act analogously. Art’s commonality, as Elizabeth Grosz writes, drawing upon Gilles Deleuze, is in the way it “produces sensations, affects, intensities” which can be understood as compositions of materiality; while sciences is in the way it seeks to chart and contain materiality in order to dissect it and thus come to know it through a knowledge of its composite parts. By art, Grosz means ‘all forms of creativity or production’, including, amongst others, painting and creative writing. So, if my child-self were to, say, get busy with some paints and brushes, she would be taking half a step towards a life of creative writing, which would mean I could exist as I am today.

Slyly, I suggest to her: “Why don’t you go home and paint a picture of the octopus?” She smiles at the idea, and suddenly my own clarity is so sharp I’m nearly palpable. “Make sure you include its eyelids,” I call after her, as she climbs from the rock pool and trots off to find her paints and brushes.

The octopus and I are left in the rock pool, blinking at one another.

Erin Hortle is a Hobart-based writer of fiction and essay and a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania. Recently, her writing has been featured in Island, Overland and The Picton Grange Quarterly, and in 2017 she won the Tasmanian Young Writer’s Fellowship as a part of the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards.

We’re looking for a new editor for our magazine!

Sad news: all-round fantastic person Annabel Brady Brown is stepping down from her role as Editor of our quarterly print magazine The Lifted Brow. As unhappy as we are to see her go, we’re excited to see what she achieves with her new-found time.

On a related note, we’re on the lookout for someone to replace her! The successful applicant will be editing The Lifted Brow alongside current editors Zoe Dzunko and Justin Wolfers.

For this role, we are looking for someone who ideally is:

  • based in Melbourne;
  • knowledgeable about The Lifted Brow in its current form and its history;
  • deeply interested in social and cultural issues, both large and small;
  • plugged into contemporary literature, arts and political conversations;
  • proactive and forward-thinking in their engagement with writers;
  • experienced in commissioning and editing;
  • experienced in print publishing;
  • self-motivating;
  • and very organised.
  • You will hopefully be able to come into the TLB office every Friday, which is the day when we all meet and work together – though this role also requires a level of day-to-day attention in order to keep on top of pitches, correspondence, edits, editorial planning and internal communication etc.

    Please note: this is a volunteer/unpaid position. All people who work at TLB are volunteers because currently there's simply not enough dollarydoos to go around once all our other costs are covered.

    We particularly encourage people who identify as queer and/or trans and/or of any race, colour, religion, gender, and/or ability (our office is a couple of floors up, but is accessible by two different elevators) or identify as having any kind of hindrance, to apply. There are no age limits.

    For more information about the role and to apply, check out our Submittable page. If you have any questions, you can contact us at info@theliftedbrow.com.

    Applications close midnight AEST Monday 30th April. Any queries can be directed to sam@theliftedbrow.com

    ‘Not Another Brown Nostalgia Tale: A Review of Naben Ruthnum’s “Curry: Eating, Reading and Race”’, by Sonia Nair

    Whichever corner of the world you find yourself in, there is nothing as immediately synonymous with South Asian cultural identity as curry. Restaurants specialising in food hailing from the subcontinent more often than not have the word ‘curry’ in their titles – Curry Café, Punjabi Curry Café and Curry Vault are a few I can recall just off the top of my head. McCormick’s Keen’s Traditional Curry Powder is a proud pantry staple for Australians wishing to recreate the heady flavours of a curry in the safe confines of their home. On the other end of the spectrum, the derogatory term ‘curry muncher’ and accusations that they ‘smell like curry’ are levelled to exclude and demonise people of South Asian origin.

    But despite it being the catchall for South Asians, curry doesn’t exist. Or at least it didn’t exist in its current permutation until machinations of international trade and centuries of colonial rule made it so. As Sucharita Kanjilal writes in Quartz India, the homogenised term ‘curry’ is a figment of the British colonial imagination that reinforces imperialist power structures every time it is used in an Indian context:

    The continued use of a colonial term to categorise a complex nation is both reductive and factually flawed. It takes a country, obscures it and creates an imagined community on the coloniser’s own terms.

    In his razor-sharp, searing book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Canadian writer Naben Ruthnum similarly argues that a singular South Asian literary narrative doesn’t exist. Despite common themes of connection, nostalgia and homecoming pervading many diasporic narratives for a reason – they are truths that constitute the lived experience of many a South Asian migrant – neverending stereotypical encounters with just one story means they become the only story, and one static narrative can’t possibly begin to capture the multiplicities inherent in the fifteen-million strong South Asian diaspora.

    Ruthnum coins the term ‘currybooks’ to describe an explosion of literary works where salvation for the displaced South Asian person in the West is only possible amid the banyan trees, clutched mangoes and tangled red silk saris of the subcontinent. His loose definition for this genre is “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with-past family narratives”.

    “And if you’re a brown writer, it will be presumed to be your default genre, and you’d best recognise that”, writes Ruthnum on the strictures the publishing industry places on South Asian writers. Ruthnum is well aware of these limitations, publishing thrillers under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley to allow himself to “come to people’s desks under a different identity that’s not associated with his racial background”.

    Stock standard meditations on the overlap between personal and familial identity find as much of an adoring audience in white readers who crave the exoticism of a faraway, mysterious land as they do in brown readers who seek a salve to their feelings of alienation – tales of a heritage rediscovered, secrets unearthed and the mystical properties of spices are a dime a dozen in a genre that counts Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Monica Pradhan as some of its most well-known authors.

    Ruthnum kicks off his book with a mawkish ode to the country of his parents’ birth, Mauritius, which he visited for the first time at the age of nine. He recounts the oppressive heat, the unanticipated Hindu funeral of his grandmother and curry “that left a sting that lasted”. We expect this lilting reverie to continue as it charts the minutiae of the immigrant’s homecoming experience, and its subsequent revelatory qualities, but Ruthnum proceeds to pull the rug out from under us – challenging the common tropes we’ve come to expect from the classic diasporic South Asian novel:

    There’s no comfort or Truth to be found in my story of ‘going home’: only a series of incidents that revealed how isolated from the country of my family’s origin, how Westernised, I was at the time and, in many ways, still am.

    In a way, this book is very much for South Asians like me – that is, South Asians who have no tangible connection to the “core that we scattered from” but who, by virtue of inherited brown skin, belong to one of largest diasporas in the world. Our family history could not be more different, but like Ruthnum – whose antecedents’ migration path landed them in labour and administrative roles in Mauritius – my cultural identity can only be considered in light of the journey that propelled my grandparents, alongside hordes of other South Indian migrants lured by contract labour arrangements in rubber plantations and the promise of better life, to the British-colonised Malaya.

    Curry: Eating, Reading and Race is divided into the three sections that make up its title. In ‘Eating’, Ruthnum traces the historical and contemporary truths that shape the elusive, evolving identity of curry, informed as it is by the centuries of continual adaption and spirit of reinvention. But the very idea of curry has a vastly different meaning for multiple hyphenated first- and second-gens like myself and Ruthnum if compared to a native-born Indian such as Kanjilal.

    “Walk into a grocery store in India and you find that the singular curry powder does not exist, neither as material nor idea. In India, we use endless varieties of spice mixes instead”, Kanjilal writes in her excoriating takedown of the concept of curry.

    And yet, commercial masala mixes such as Baba’s Curry Powder and Alagappa’s Curry Powder are staples in many Malaysian-Indian households (though they are a few steps up from Keen’s). The comforting green-clad packets of Baba’s Meat Curry Powder filled my suitcase to the brim when I relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne. They’re not ‘one-size-fits-all’ curry powders – variations range from meat and fish ones to sambar and rasam mixes – but they are still broad stand-ins for the thousands of different regional varieties of spice concoctions that constitute dishes in India. Ruthnum concedes as much in ‘Eating’ when he observes that every diasporic kitchen that he’s ever entered has curry powder.

    As I’ve written about elsewhere, food is one of the few ways I feel unabashedly Indian. But if the elusive colonial construct of curry is one of the defining elements of the way I perceive myself as being Indian, how Indian am I really? Even my tolerance to spice, which I pride myself on, has roots that lie outside India – Ruthnum notes that chillies were transported from the Caribbean by Portuguese traders. They’re not native to India. And neither am I.

    In ‘Reading’, Ruthnum highlights outliers to currybooks – Romesh Gunsekera’s Reef, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Anita Desai’s In Custody and Gita Mehta’s Karma Cole, to name a few – but they’re all written by authors belonging to South Asian diasporas in the UK and the US.

    Closer to home, an advent of writing produced in Australia by writers of South Asian descent, as far as Ruthnum’s definition of currybooks go, are far removed from the nostalgic, reductive and clichéd narratives that Ruthnum derides. Sri Lankan-Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s award-winning books interrogate questions of identity and dislocation, while Goan-Anglo-Indian writer Michelle Cahill’s recent short story collection Letter to Pessoa transports readers from one disparate milieu to another. Singaporean-Australian writer Balli Jaswal’s latest work Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows delves into the womanhood and sexuality of older Sikh women in a creative writing class.

    But this wasn’t always the case. As Nicholas Jose writes on The Wheeler Centre blog, “imaginative engagement with the Asia Pacific region, despite its proximity, has been limited in Australia’s literary past”:

    The cultural cringe was about Europe, and that’s where literary ambition and creative energy were directed. When Asia was a subject, it was usually to mark distance and difference…Even in sensitive and well-intentioned hands, otherness has been the predominant trope.

    The romanticised place the homeland occupies in diasporic narratives owes itself, in part, to the physical and psychological distance that used to lie between the country of birth and the adopted country of choice. Before video calls and social media, as well as cheaper and quicker flight paths closed the gap between disparate locations, New Delhi-based poet and professor Makarand Paranjape says the “motherland remained frozen in the diasporic imagination as a sort of sacred site or symbol, almost like an idol of memory and imagination…Because a physical return was virtually impossible, an emotional or spiritual renewal was an ongoing necessity.”

    Second-generation Indian-Australian writer Mena Abdullah was born in a time before Skype and Facebook bridged the distance between Australia and her parents’ homeland, but her collection of short stories The Time of the Peacock (1965) challenges straightforward understandings of what it meant to belong to an Indian diaspora during this time. A child narrator called Nimmi lies at the centre of all the stories – through her eyes, we bear witness to the fondness and longing with which her parents regard India. In one of the stories, however, Nimmi watches on as her Australian-born cousin Hussainbreaks rank with his Muslim father due to his desire to marry a Christian girl called Anne. Here, the alienation of being a migrant in a foreign country isn’t as acute as age-old cultural conflicts that have been transposed from India to Australia.

    More recently, Roanna Gonsalves writes about the discombobulating experience of belonging to the Catholic Indian diaspora in Sydney in her short story collection The Permanent Resident (2016). Although Gonsalves’ characters, as Yen-Rong Wong observes in her review in The Lifted Brow Review of Books, share the common sensation of “looking, and sounding foreign in a country they are not sure wants them in the first place”, their homecoming process is inverted as they migrate from India to Australia in search of that elusive sense of peace and belonging. For many of Gonsalves’ characters, being Catholic Bombayites is an inextricable part of their identity – such as in the chilling ‘Christmas 2012’ where the Albuquerques enjoy spicy turkey and the revealing ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’ where Angelina D’Costa steps foot in a church five years after renouncing Catholicism – but for others, it is simply an aside. Sunita in ‘Straight, No Chaser’ is a divorcee simply seeking absolution in a nightclub; Nitin and Nalini in ‘Friending and Trending’ suffer a loss they’ll only grasp the significance of later. Each of these characters left India for different reasons, and while not all of them encounter happy endings in Sydney, their salve is never “the ancestral tonic of a voyage east”.

    Although Sri Lankan-Australian writer Su Dharmapala’s second novel Saree (2014) may dip in and out of the currybook genre, her first novel Wedding Season (2012) is anything but. Revolving around four city-dwelling Australian girls where three of them are of Sri Lankan heritage, the story chronicles their travails as they negotiate racism and sexism in the workplace, mental illness, and the weight of cultural expectations. There are sarees, curries and attempted arranged marriages, but the motherland is only evoked once and never spoken about with the spirit of rediscovery or homecoming so characteristic of currybooks – it is simply another place the girls visit in the novel. By allowing her characters to transcend the stereotype that they are lacking in some way because of their juggling of two identities at once, Dharmapala adroitly captures the experience of being a migrant, but one that is highly particular to the vagaries of the Sri Lankan-Australian experience.

    None of these narratives concern themselves with the pursuit of authenticity under an orientalist, western gaze – instead, to borrow Ruthnum’s words, these multifaceted narratives are “differentiated immigrant existences, ways of being and tasting that aren’t about pursuing the lost, truthful flavours of generations past”.

    The pervasiveness of the term ‘curry’ is something that we can control no more than we can control the immutable forces of transnational movement and colonisation that gave birth to the expression in the first place. But the homogeneity that erases nuance in favour of uniformity doesn’t have to be reflected in our ‘currybooks’ if we take a leaf out of Ruthnum’s book and see curry for what it actually is – “an ever-inauthentic mass of dishes that is a close parallel to the formation of South Asian diasporic identity”.

    In Curry: Eating, Reading and Race, Ruthnum has written a currybook – the word ‘curry’ certainly appears more times than one could count – but it’s one where he explores what it means to be a brown person on his own terms. It’s not a brown nostalgia tale. There are no mangoes. There are no scattered cardamom seeds. There are curries, but they include the incongruous ingredients of kale and sour cream, and Ruthnum cooks them not to reimagine his childhood and practise age-old Indian cooking techniques, but to feed himself.

    By defying what ingredients he’s expected to put into his curries, what he’s expected to read and what he should write about, Ruthnum issues to other brown writers a call to arms to break out of the box that the west insists on putting them in:

    The realities of racism and the white majority dominance of life in the west defines how brown people are seen, how they must act, and what they are allowed to achieve – but this doesn’t need to limit our imagination of ourselves, or lessen the distinctness and individual nature of experience, especially as expressed in art, in memoir. As brown people in the west, out stories don’t have to explain ourselves to white people, or to each other – they don’t have to explain shit.

    Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based writer and critic who has been published by The Wheeler Centre, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and Metro. She blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com and tweets @son_nair.

    ‘Feeling Girls and Disintegrating Worlds: A Review of Sharlene Teo’s “Ponti”’, by Jacinta Mulders

    When I was a fledgling fiction writer – at least more fledgling than I am now – I participated in a writing residency program whereby I had to produce four pieces of my own choosing. I wrote two essays and two pieces of fiction, both of which attempted to interrogate the gulf I often felt between my ideas of what a romantic relationship should look like and the actual experience of negotiating the murky, inconclusive world of courtship and love. I handed them to my editor. The feedback was positive, but equivocal. “Good”, she said. “But you have totally failed the Bechdel test”.

    Thankfully, it’s an issue not suffered in Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, a debut that is assured, mature, and which is totally occupied by the three women who sit at the heart of it. This does not feel like an authorial choice but an imperative, given how fulsome, real and varied the three women feel. I could have learnt a lot from the way Ponti is put together, apart from the perils of focusing solely on analogised versions of my own romantic tragedies. It’s a clear, vibrant work that honours the difficulties we all face being saddled with a past that we can’t always comprehend. Teo allows her characters to take full breadth, calling attention to the slights and inflictions we all receive and of which we are so readily dismissive.

    Ponti is told from the perspective of the three women, in clipped, spliced chapters. In 2003, Szu is a sixteen-year-old pupil at the Whampoa Convent of the Eternally Blessed. She hates school with the dull and crotchety rancour so typical of high school students. Szu, though, is smart and self-aware: she crisply iterates that despite attending a convent school, there’s “nothing pious about the things that teenage girls inflict upon each other”. Things begin to look better when she meets Circe, a fellow student who she first encounters sprawled on the concrete concourse of the school. Circe’s arrival in the novel, tinged with the supernatural, mirrors the way that many events unfold within the narrative. Like Szu, Circe is also given a first person voice – but hers largely operates retrospectively, told from her present as a thirty-three-year-old working as a social media consultant. The final perspective belongs to Szu’s mother, Amisa. Amisa is middle-aged in 2003 but her part of the story, told in third person, begins in the late 1960s, and narrates how she moved from a small village on a mangrove swamp to eventually star as a B-grade horror film actress in the cult 70s series, Ponti!

    Despite these three narrative streams, the novel really feels like Szu’s story: it is her teenage hood in the early naughties that forms the bulk of the novel and also the narrative crux. Both Amisa’s and Circe’s stories feel like they serve to mirror, complement and develop Szu’s struggles and progressions. One of the strongest images I have from the novel is of the soupy-aired house that Szu lives in with her now withholding, vicious mother and her Aunt Yunxi. The duo run a business as spiritual mediums, conversing with spirits and gods.

    The way Teo manages interchange between different timeframes is a real strength. The temporal shifts and the ease with which they are handled seem to intermingle each woman’s experience, showing how perspectives are curdled by past agonies and future dreams. Screens, memories, and movie theatres serve as conduits for deeper emotional reckonings and judgements. Not only do we feel Amisa’s squirming despair from her own story and from the daily crises she engenders in her daughter Szu (“One day I will learn to be as expertly cruel as she is”), but we see her as the film Ponti! comes to life in front of us. In it, Amisa plays a cannibalistic ghost monster, all white slip and gashed mouth screaming for male flesh as she erupts from the cover of banana leaves. Szu watches it, Szu remembers watching it; Circe watches it and is forced to create a social media strategy for its 2020 remake; Amisa imagines it, acts it, remembers it. It’s a patchwork that shows a deep understanding of the way we engage with screens, with images; how we use them to refract and reflect ourselves and the world.

    Narratives that straddle multiple timeframes or conjure up more than one lived experience often run the risk of being narrated vaguely, or in a voice that’s plump with the ephemeral dreaminess of an author caught in a world of their own creation. The instinct must be irresistible: if you as a writer have created a new space, surely you should also dictate the terms and tonality that describes that world in whatever way you choose. Ponti, thankfully, evades all of that. Teo observes her world acutely and sets it out with precision. Her attention to detail is fine and surprising, often throwing in devices that operate as eclectically as the world she is evoking. Her similes twang and are masterful: pop star Jolene is “dumb as bricks”; the ponytailed heads of lovesick girls “tilt like flowers dense with nectar”; Circe guards her brother Leslie “like a dagger”. I am hard pressed to think of a better description of it-girl cliques than this:

    Clara Chua, Lee Meixi and Trissy Kwok are a three-headed vision of stem-glass necks and crystal-clear skin, branded satchels and understated sexual experience. They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles. They are unknowable and invincible. Their limpid eyes judge and glint. Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulders like a rifle sling.

    Note, too, Teo’s skill in naming her character: the names ‘Clara Chua', ‘Lee Meixi' and ‘Trissy Kwok’ hum with the homely beauty and acerbic cruelty of this type of girl. This aptitude for naming recurs again and again: later on in the novel, Circe attends a training session at work on initiative and leadership skills with a chubby, oily instructor with a cowlick called ‘Clarents Goh Bok Tin’. Faultless.

    These details, and the humour with which they are presented, make the world of Ponti accessible to the reader. Teo describes common experiences we can all relate to – the hours spent drifting around malls after school, the listlessness of excursions, working on something meaningless in your dead-end job – with a care that suggests that these, too, are experiences that are important and they should be honoured: just as much as heroic action or more obvious plot points. The exactitude of her language is a tart complement to the steamy, latent feelings and environs of humid Singapore, ripe with spontaneous mists and spells of pollution haze. Characters sweat and drift in stupors, keep private counsel with themselves and brood with unseen objectives. Life seems to be in a perennial state of flux and disintegration: the heat makes things stagnate and rot just as Szu, Circe, and Amisa bathe themselves in memories and visions of their own creations: “Szu floats in the murky brine of my memory.” Helpfully, Teo’s sassy humour and clarity of style keep everything lifted.

    Though there are a lot of things to admire about this novel, one of the things that impressed me most was how definitively the spectral world, or world of energy we don’t understand, is treated as evident, as a matter of course. Apparitions appear without justification; strange people covered in oil emerge from the forest; several characters have faces that are simultaneously young and old. Aunt Yunxi speaks of energy, anticipates the future, communes with the spirits. It feels telling in a world so marked by uncertainty and where rationales are so unclear.

    Softer still is the emphasis Teo puts on the effects of hereditary damage and the importance of being kind to one another. Being a young person, or any person, can feel full of estrangement. Ponti, at its heart, seems most urgently to want to focus on negotiating kindness in a thoroughly mysterious and unsettling world.

    Anything that encourages empathy in this manner, particularly in light of the unscrupulousness and irrationality that we can inflict upon each other, should be celebrated. Rather than making ourselves hoarse and broody chasing each other in circles with daft insults about who in class has scaly legs, who does or doesn’t have a partner, who is smarmy or feels things too intensely, we should be focusing on things irrevocably more important: how to forgive, how to rise above being spurned, how to develop empathy even when presented with discomfort.

    Ponti leaves the work of other young writers panting hard in its shifting, sweaty wake. It feels as alive as a ghoul and as permanent as love, and marks the emergence of a sure and versatile new voice.

    Jacinta Mulders is an Australian writer based in London. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, and The Bohemyth, as well as in other publications.

    'Some Big Fatalism' – A Review of "Terror Nullius" by Soda_Jerk, by Ben Juers

    Expat sample-art duo Soda_Jerk’s new film Terror Nullius, masterfully patched together from scraps of Australian cinema and archival footage, is pitched alternately as a “political revenge fable”, “part political satire, eco-horror and road movie”, “a queering and othering of Australian cinema”, “a mix of the historical and the speculative, the grindhouse and art house”, “not a definitive counter-narrative but a meticulous ramshackle of connections that delivers an open invitation to a further cultural conversation”, a “rogue remapping” and “unwriting of national mythology”. I guess that’s all bases covered. The film was funded by a $100,000 grant, given out in 2017 by the Ian Potter Foundation in partnership with ACMI, only for the Ian Potter Foundation to rescind their support a day before the film’s release on 20 March this year. (ACMI held their ground.) According to an announcement made by Soda_Jerk on their Facebook page, the decision was made on the grounds that the finished product was “un-Australian.”

    What the Ian Potter Foundation expected from an “unwriting of national mythology” is unclear. Perhaps something more like Soda_Jerk’s previous work The Was (2016); a joyfully anarchic, psychedelic but less overtly political collaboration with the Avalanches, that drew primarily on American pop culture from the 70s onwards.

    Soda_Jerk’s post about the Ian Potter Foundation’s withdrawal went modestly viral, garnering solidarity on social media. The upside of this is that Terror Nullius’s PR becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, drumming up the same rage in the audience that the film claims to “wear on its sleeve”. Simply watching and supporting it feels vaguely like activism. But it also sets an unreasonable standard. Buoyed by the small scandal, you might go into the film expecting onscreen devastation: Australia burnt to the ground, as Indigenous activist Tarneen Onus-Williams put it neatly last Invasion Day (a statement for which she was hounded frothily by professional neo-con fear-mongers).

    The reality’s slightly different. Terror Nullius is a virtuoso cut-and-paste job that’s both rowdy and precise. It deftly rejigs the larrikinism we’re constantly told is so crucial to our national character (which, at the same time, is fenced off as inherently masculine), along with the old détournement techniques that have been knocking around in the lefty art arsenal since the Situationists. For a feature-length experimental piece, it’s also cohesive, rarely dipping. But it doesn’t quite reach the blistering, fever pitch, scorched earth polemic you’d infer from the fleeing Ian Potter Foundation.

    The impossibility of spinning a tidy, linear narrative out of the video collage results instead in a jagged series of vignettes. Righteous justice is doled out methodically to the toxic white ’Strayan macho canon. An eagle assassinates Russell Crowe-as-Hando-from-Romper-Stomper (1992) for assaulting beached refugees; Mel Gibson’s bilious phone rant at Oksana Grigoriev gets Mad Max mangled and his car eviscerated by an all-woman bike gang comprising Furiosa, Nicole Kidman, Olivia Newton-John and characters from Wolf Creek (2005) and Murial’s Wedding (1994); Linda Kozlowski answers Pal Hogan’s Dundee schtick with a shotgun, leaving him to be devoured by his famous namesake; John Howard and Tony Abbott get a metal boomerang to the face. (“Sure,” you find yourself salivating, “but what about Dutton?”) The climax – a bicentenary-turned-battlefield in the third and final act – is lifted heavily from Black Sheep (2006) and has some good, absurd moments thrown in from elsewhere. But the scene falls just short of catharsis, and feels like a missed chance to unite all the film’s various politics into one big, all-out Tory-bash. Perhaps this is because it’s carried out solely by sheep, rather than, say, an all-inclusive rabble of genderfluid, emu-riding black bloc, sentient she-oaks and Divide & Dissolve.

    The absence of this rowdy communality wouldn’t be so conspicuous if it hadn’t been achieved so easily in The Was through sheer density and rapidity of samples, packed into a shorter running time. Gibson’s fate comes close, because it’s the most elaborate: you can’t help but feel like a participant. Since it comes early on in the film, the skirmishes afterwards give diminishing returns and get increasingly nonchalant, reducing boiling-over rage to simmering contempt. But altogether they do give the sense of some big fatalism, so massive as to be unseeable in its entirety, looming over the landscape.

    The film’s framing, as though buckling under this immense but obscured weight (the weight of history) has an appropriately wonky, carnival-mirror asymmetry. It begins by overlaying the Wake in Fright (1971) country with David Gulpilil’s iconic Ten Canoes (2006) opener – “but I am going to tell you a story…not like my story, but a good story all the same” – and ends, shortly after John Pilger’s excoriating summary of Australian colonialism, with a ripe, Castle-era Stephen Curry, standing in for said colonialism, declaring gormlessly: “This is my story.” (Poor Curry: one minute he’s hawking chips, next he’s copping it for the whole flaming shit-pile.)

    The offhand shuffling around of Gulpilil’s voice starts you off warily. Presumably it was covered during the process of Indigenous consultation that Soda_Jerk described in our interview. Still, going into a “rogue remapping of national mythology” titled Terror Nullius, it’d be naïve not to be on the lookout for something well-intentioned but culturally accident-prone or fetishistic (as with Clinton Walker’s recent Deadly Woman Blues debacle). In fact, this is a point that the film makes. But the Gulpilil sound-bite, followed by the flawless superimposition of Archie Moore’s Aboriginal Anarchy (2012) onto the door of the jalopy in Walkabout (1971, the first film in which Gulpilil starred), turn out to be side-stepping stones. Afterwards, Terror Nullius settles into a pattern of featuring, but only occasionally centering, Indigenous characters – one way of avoiding fetishism.

    Of the instances that do center Indigenous concerns, most rely on animals as stand-ins for those issues. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo qualifies her feminism by questioning whether the fate of the white girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock will become, in her subtitled words, a “national obsession” that “exacerbates the ongoing obfuscation of our complicity in a colonial history of oppression, dispossession and genocide”. Whether or not academic jargon is being parodied here is unclear. So to drive the point home, Skippy hands Sonny an Aboriginal flag overlaid with the text, ‘White Australia has a Black History’. Later, berserk sheep refrain from killing a man because he’s wearing a “Land Rights Not Uranium” badge. The tone in these moments is hard to place, because their goofiness blends in with that of the cut-up visuals.

    Otherwise, the film focuses on taking the piss out of ’Straya. What’s revealed is unsurprising: that our thing for outdoorsy types is the symptom of a colonial society ill-at-ease in its own backyard and perpetually overcompensating for it. Pilger’s sound-bite, the real climax of the film, hints at why this might be. It harks back to an idea pioneered by American folklorist Gershon Legman in 1949: the dominant culture’s knack for industrial-scale violence and inventing abstract villains is fed by a low-key mass hysteria, arising from repressed, collective guilt over its genocidal past.

    If Terror Nullius isn’t quite as incendiary as you’d hope, it’s because the well of collective resentment and frustration that it taps into is simply too deep to find adequate expression in a medium that still, despite all Soda_Jerk’s code-switching, requires the audience to watch more or less passively. Maybe the film really comes into its own in a rowdy group setting, with accompanying Rocky Horror and Room-style rituals and drinking games: one shot per dead misogynist. The ACMI atmosphere is unlikely to be conducive to this; as of writing, the film has yet to spark any riots that result in the formation of a new Paris commune in Melbourne’s CBD. In the meantime, Terror Nullius’ revenge fantasies work as a primer, and a reminder that what’s really needed to edge them over into reality, apart from more free culture activists like Soda_Jerk, is 1) further concrete action, through strikes, protests, organizing, communality, Indigenous consultation, educating and workshopping, and 2) the recruitment and training of birdlife to assassinate naff celebrities.

    Ben Juers is the co-art editor at The Lifted Brow. In case you missed it, last week both TLB Art Editors, Ben Juers and Bailey Sharp spoke with Soda_Jerk about Terror Nullius and their work.

    Terror Nullius is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from the 20th of March to the 1st of July.

    ‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ out today

    The best news: Pink Mountain on Locust Island is officially out today. Jamie Marina Lau’s pulpy, provocative debut is available to buy online and in discerning bookstores across Australia and New Zealand. You can also buy the ebook at iBooks, Google Play or Amazon.

    Pink Mountain on Locust Island will be launched in Melbourne by Izzy Roberta-Orr. Join us on Wednesday 11 April at Readings Bookshop Carlton at 6pm for a 6:30pm start. For more info or to RSVP you can check out the Facebook event page here.

    About the book:

    Monk lives in Chinatown with her washed-up painter father. When Santa Coy—possible boyfriend, potential accomplice—enters their lives, an intoxicating hunger consumes their home. So begins a heady descent into art, casino resorts, drugs, vacant swimming pools, religion, pixelated tutorial videos, and senseless violence.

    In bursts of fizzing, staccato and claustrophobic prose, this modern Australian take on the classic hard-boiled novel bounces you between pulverised English, elastic Cantonese and the new dialect of a digitised world.

    Tip over into a subterranean noir of the most electronic generation.

    Rantings and ravings:

    Pink Mountain on Locust Island is bright, funny, and tender. Jamie Marina Lau’s surreal and self-possessed prose reads like a teenage daydream.”
    Briohny Doyle, author of The Island Will Sink and Adult Fantasy

    “Lau’s surreal prose captures the confusion of adolescence in the 21st century. Vivid, inventive descriptions of yum cha, high-school friendships and claustrophobic apartment living evoke the experience of growing up in a diasporic community and the sensory overload of being surrounded by people, yet still alone. A stylish yet moving glimpse into the loneliness of being a teenage girl, Pink Mountain on Locust Island heralds the arrival of an electric new Australian writer.”
    Kelsey Oldham, Books+Publishing

    About the author:

    Jamie Marina Lau (劉劍冰) is a 20-year-old writer and musician from Melbourne. Her work can be found in Cordite, ROOKIE magazine, Voiceworks, the Art Hoe Collective and in Monash University’s 2016 anthology Futures. She is currently studying film and literature, producing music, and working on more fiction.

    ‘Character is Fate: A Review of Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists”’, by Laura Wynne

    The Chinese devised a numerical system of divination 3,000 years ago, using hexagrams, piles of sticks and the I Ching, the ‘book of changes’. The ancient Greeks looked to the heavens and the Persians to the sands and rocks of the earth in search of divine predictions. From Africa to Greece and all the way to Russia, roosters were recruited in attempts to uncover the secrets of the universe. Tea leaves, palms, parakeets, the foamy froth of urine, the livers of sacrificed animals – you name it, someone somewhere has tried to use it to divine their future.

    Read More

    ‘Weaponising Frustration and Despair’ – An Interview with Soda_Jerk

    Australian Brooklyn-based sample-art collective Soda_Jerk, made up of sisters Dan and Dominique Angeloro, have followed up their giddy 2016 collaboration with The Avalanches, The Was, with a wily attack on officially-sanctioned Australian history and culture titled Terror Nullius. The film premiered at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) last week, and remixes fragments from Australian TV and cinema archives into a “political revenge fable in three acts” that envisions the timely demises of Howard, Abbott, Crowe, Gibson, Hogan, Rinehart and Hanson, among others.

    The film’s politics and imagery resulted in its patrons, the Ian Potter Foundation, pulling promotional and marketing support for the project at the last minute on the grounds that it was “un-Australian”. This occurred shortly after the following interview, which was conducted by The Lifted Brow art editors Bailey Sharp and Ben Juers, took place.

    TLB: Your last film The Was (2016) struck me as feeling definitely situated in America, from the New York subway system to suburban California. Terror Nullius is clearly Australian, but also questions what being Australian actually means. How different is it working with Australian pop culture as opposed to that of America?

    Soda_Jerk: For us there is no such thing as a fiction film. All films are documentaries in the sense that they are historical documents, thoroughly inscribed with concrete traces of their production, circulation and reception. So we treat working with any national archive as an opportunity to dig deep into these aspects of cultural specificity. Sometimes our intentions will be to draw out these kinds of cultural or historical particulars and other times to destabilise and trouble them.

    One of the origins of Terror Nullius was an interest in the cinematic genre of Australian Gothic and the way that these films function as a stealth repository for unspoken cultural anxieties. We were thinking about the way that the landscape so often has a malevolent and foreboding presence within Australian films and how this might relate to our nation's horrific history of settlement and its ongoing aftermath.

    TLB: Can you describe the process of Indigenous consultation involved in Terror Nullius?

    SJ: The process that evolved wasn’t the linear path of formalised consultation that we initially anticipated, but rather a more open, informal and rhizomic dialogue between many friends, colleagues and heroes. The last thing we wanted was to put anyone in a situation where they would be expected to act as some kind of stamp of approval or permission for the decisions made in the work. And in that sense we found that, by keeping discussions off-record, individuals felt they could contribute without claiming an authoritative voice beyond their own. This was not only true of Indigenous consultation but also the way we approached the many and varied political vectors and minority communities engaged in the work. So while there are just five people we acknowledge as official project advisors, really, the way that we developed our conceptual and ethical approach to the film is indebted to the generosity of a much larger community of peers.

    Specifically, one of the significant issues we negotiated was whether to image Indigenous Australians within the work or sample films by Indigenous Australian directors. Initially we had considered developing ways of inscribing the obscuring of Indigenous Australian history (the terror of terra nullius) into the project without relying on directly sampling this material, but the feedback we received overwhelmingly rejected this kind of approach. Instead what was affirmed was the necessity for inclusive representations, and the treatment of Indigenous Australian film as part of the official archive of Australian cinema, like any other.

    TLB: The way you free fictional characters from their original context seems to give them a new sense of agency. Does it feel liberating for you to liberate characters? Were there any particular characters, scenes or images in Terror Nullius that felt especially satisfying to cut and paste in this way?

    SJ: Guess there are forms of sampling-as-liberation in the project, in the sense of the hunted becoming the hunters – the roos attack their human attackers, the croc devours Mick Dundee. But perhaps what interests us more is the way that a sample can never truly escape its original context. This comes back to what we were saying about how we think of samples as encrypted historical documents that are embedded with clues about the histories, personal experiences and politics of where they are and where they have been. What interests us is trying to decrypt these cultural or historical vectors and reprogram them in a way that opens new possibilities or draws attention to latent or hidden dynamics. What does it mean, for example, for the character of Furiosa to seek vengeance on the fictional character of Mad Max for the misogynistic violence of Mel Gibson’s real life rant tape? The way the real and fictional interface is deeply complicated and difficult to unravel.

    TLB: In another interview, you say that you’re committed to free culture. Have you had to fight for free culture in a legal setting?

    SJ: Although we think of all our works as probes designed to test the parameters of the law, we’ve never received a cease and desist for any of the samples used in our work. This might have to do with the legal protections that already exist within copyright law, such as the Fair Dealing exemptions for works of parody and satire in Australia or the more robust protections of Fair Use within US copyright law. But we also suspect the real protection is simply that there’s not much financial gain, or reputation capital, to be had from suing a scrappy artist collective.

    TLB: What I like about Terror Nullius is that it makes a point of “wearing its rage on its sleeve”, and that it weaponises frustration and despair rather than succumbing. What utility do you see in this kind of revenge fantasy?

    SJ: Weaponising frustration and despair is a perfect way to put it. When you feel powerless to enact change, sometimes it’s a powerful thing to see it. We do have a lot of faith in the tactical power of alternative narratives or what Sun Ra calls ‘counter-mythologies’. The revenge fantasy is a particularly potent form of this, and one we felt was called for in response to what are some pretty dark and despairing political times. Like so many Australians we feel genuinely pissed and deeply ashamed about just how distant any form of social justice is from the contemporary national political agenda.

    Alongside this dimension of the revenge fable, it was also important for us to image positive forms of radical solidarity and collectivity such as political resistance, the bush doof, the gay beat, the girl gang.

    TLB: Are you into memes and their knack for interrogating pop culture?

    SJ: We’re into memes, absolutely. Not sure about the term “pop culture” though. Ever since the internet, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to demarcate a realm of consumable culture that is distinct from everything else – from the news or social media or politics or whatever. Actually this combustion of cultural boundaries is maybe what memes demonstrate best as they multiply and mutate across different domains; grafting an innocuous frog cartoon to an alt-right political movement and so on. William S. Burroughs wrote of the “reality studio”, Guy Debord called it the “society of the spectacle”, and Hito Steyerl has named this the era of “circulationism”. But whatever you call it, it does seem that we are shit deep in the collapse of image culture into the very fabric of reality.

    TLB: Do you have a favorite meme?

    SJ: We’ve always had a deep fondness for the Nicholas Cage image “MY HAIR IS A BIRD, YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID”. There’s just something bizarrely compelling and off-kilter about the way this image manages to be completely nonsensical and entirely articulate at the same time. That’s the logic of the internet all over.

    Terror Nullius is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from the 20th of March to the 1st of July.

    Brow Books begins co-publishing partnership with Tilted Axis Press

    We’re thrilled to announce that Brow Books has entered into a co-publishing arrangement with Tilted Axis Press (UK), meaning that we'll publish some Tilted Axis titles from here on in.

    It is very exciting to be partnering with a publisher that shares our commitment to seeking out innovative and exceptional writing from across the globe. Tilted Axis publishes superb translations of works from regions and languages that are sorely underrepresented in Western literary markets, and always focussing on the literary quality, steering away from publishing-as-cultural-tourism.

    In August we’ll be kicking off the partnership by publishing in Australia Han Yujoo’s electric and unsettling The Impossible Fairytale (translated from the Korean by Janet Hong). Han will be in Australia around the time of the book's publication, touring the country as a fellow of the 2018 Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program.

    Tilted Axis was founded and is run by the remarkable Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang among others. She had this to say about the agreement:

    We're longtime fans of The Lifted Brow, so were excited to learn of them branching out into print with Brow Books. Their tastes and production values are very much comparable with our own, and their diverse, exciting list seemed an obvious home for our titles. Plus, their willingness to try something new in terms of a co-publishing agreement fits perfectly with our own desire to explore innovative new models. And our Digital Producer Simon Collinson was a former TLB staffer, so this feels like a neat tie.

    Tilted Axis Press

    Founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press is a nonprofit dedicated to publishing contemporary Asian literature, mainly by women. Tilted Axis publishes the books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting – artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new. To date Tilted Axis has published seven novels translated from the Bengali, Uzbek, Thai, and Korean. Their most recent book is The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Uzbek by Donald Rayfield.

    ‘Breaking Anglophonia: A Meditation on Translation and Leila Slimani’s “Lullaby”’, by Rachel Wilson

    Musicians have to break America. Foreign authors have to break the English-speaking literary market. Translation as a craft and industry is something Anglophone readers are not often forced to reflect on; translations take up little space in English-language bookshops compared with the array of translated titles you’ll find front and centre in any French librairie. English readers may give no thought at all to the fact that their tome of Dostoevsky or Flaubert isn’t the original text. And in some respects, that’s a good thing: translation should be invisible – if it doesn’t read as such, it hasn’t been translated well. The translator should work at such a level in their native tongue that the selvedge between languages, where loss and compensation naturally occur, should be untraceable. But that’s translation as an object. What of translation as a practice?

    In recent years, there’s been more to prompt Anglophone readers to consider translation. Thanks largely to the gargantuan effect of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, attention has fallen on the craft of ‘les belles infidéles’. This is down to Ferrante’s anonymity: interviewers are denied interaction with the author but are given access to the author’s translator, Ann Goldstein, instead. Goldstein’s is the only face associated with Ferrante’s work, and her stepping in as an interviewee has invited readers to fully appreciate the fact that their copies of Ferrante’s novels are translations. The year before last the Booker Prize was also reconfigured to allow, for the first time, the prize to be shared between an author and her translator. Han Kang and Deborah Smith split the prize money for The Vegetarian (채식주의자) – they appeared smiling side by side in press photographs from the award ceremony – and focus fell not only on the work itself, but also included critiques of the quality of Smith’s translation too. It seemed, finally, that translation was no longer a necessary evil, but a topic worthy of wider discussion.

    This is the setting for the publication of the English translation of Leïla Slimani’s Chanson Douce, winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt, France’s most renowned literary award and one which tends predominantly to decorate middle-aged white Frenchmen. Lullaby, as it has become for British and Australian readers, was translated into myriad other languages before it was picked up for English readers. Now that it’s proved itself in the Anglophone market, seventeen more translations are forthcoming. The motivation for commissioning translations is laid bare by the disparate titles for the American and British editions of the novel. ‘Lullaby’ is much closer to the original French than the American title, ‘The Perfect Nanny’. If the latter seems on-the-nose, it’s for good reason. Hype has been whipped up using comparisons with Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby’, because that sounds sleepily forgettable and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership”, Slimani’s American editor at Penguin told The New Yorker. “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”

    “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” / “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”

    “Le bébé est mort. Il a suffi de quelques secondes.” / “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”

    It’s hard not to compare Slimani’s opening lines with the famous opening to Camus’ The Stranger. The effect is roughly the same: both are a stinging slap to the face of the reader’s morality, hooks to reel us in, to compel us to dive into the psyches of characters who commit sin with no apparent motivation. Both texts skirt around their central questions – the why – spiralling towards seemingly pre-determined fates. The likeness also speaks to the deftness of the French language; for a lyrical tongue, it’s also capable of elegant simplicity. Slimani’s prose is certainly economical, verging on basic at times. She uses the present historic, a tense that’s sustainable in French but becomes cloying in English, a little too marked in an otherwise simple style. On the morning they hold interviews for potential nannies, Myriam and Paul Massé make sure their home is presentable: “They bought flowers and now they are tidying up the apartment. They fold the children’s clothes, change the sheets on the beds […]. They want the nannies to see that they are good people; serious, orderly people who try to give their children the best of everything.” Slimani has said she expected this to be a “little book” in her career; she didn’t anticipate any interest in a novel that centres on the domestic relationship between two women; it wasn’t written with the Goncourt in mind. It reads as such.

    There’s no literary manoeuvring here. The focus remains, instead, on the social anxieties that course through the work. After the violent consternation of the opening, Slimani dials back to broad strokes. The dialogue between Paul and Myriam is stock-standard husband–wife stuff: “You’re going to work? Well, that’s fine, but what are we going to do about the children?” Paul asks. Their discussion of their requirements for the nanny – “No illegal immigrants, agreed? […] It’s too dangerous,” says the North African Myriam – betrays the guilt of the middle class, the “bobos” (“bourgeois-bohèmes”) as they are called in French. This culpability, tied so intrinsically to the modern-day hubris of wanting to ‘have it all’, is the work’s main artery and its depiction one of its strongest features. Not only does the guilt emanate from the couple’s economic status, which enables them to find a nanny who “arouses and fulfils the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses”, but also from the mother’s ambivalence towards maternity. Slimani sketches how the domestic bliss of motherhood quickly sours into anxious confinement:

    [Myriam] didn’t dare admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversations of strangers overheard in the supermarket.

    She is relieved to have found help, but the reprieve – the “gratuitous, selfish desire” she entertains for her colleague, or the “sudden sentimentality” she feels returning to her children after a day in the office – does not come without guilt churning in the back of her mind. This guilt is reflected back at her throughout the novel – by the “harpy” school teacher who attributes Mila’s poor behaviour to Myriam’s absence, and by Paul’s mother, who believes Myriam should stay at home with the children but does not apply the same pressure to her son – and this chorus transmutes into attributable blame after her children’s deaths. Tellingly, it is only the mother’s reaction to the murders that is described in the opening pages (“she let out a scream, a scream from deep within, the howl of a she-wolf”); the father and his feelings are absent.

    When the Massés find Louise, she is too good to be true. “You’re so lucky to have found her”, her previous employer tells them. “My nanny is a miracle worker”, Myriam tells friends. Louise is the only Caucasian applicant in a pool of African and Asian interviewees; it’s as rare for families to have a white nanny as it is for Louise’s landlord to be renting to one: “renting to a white in this neighbourhood is practically unheard of”, he says, betraying an attitude still too common in Paris today. From the start, Louise’s “magical powers” are heavily emphasised and the Massés feel as though “they have found a rare pearl, as if they’ve been blessed”. Louise tames not only the children but the apartment itself, which is “completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness”. Furthermore, Louise’s physical attributes – her whiteness, her blondeness, “so fragile, so slender” – all amplify this surreal perfection. The trouble, however, is that the perfection should be eerie. Given Slimani sketches it out just pages after Louise’s crime is revealed, it all feels rather hackneyed. When Louise tells fantastical bedtime stories and the narrative asks, “but in what deep forest has she found these cruel tales?”, it labours the point. Similarly, when it’s revealed that Louise has no relationship with her daughter Stéphanie, that her husband was abusive, that his debts follow her from his grave and that, after all the neglect in her life, she seizes the opportunity to “build her nest in the middle of the apartment” at the heart of this perfect modern family, it feels weak, like a laundry list of motives for double infanticide. Some turns of phrase – Louise’s perception of a woman sunbathing on holiday as a “corpse of a flayed torture victim”, for example – hint at the latent violence that lingers in her sweet exterior, but even when they are well-wrought, they feel somewhat expected.

    As I read Lullaby, I waited for the creeping sense of unease to build, the one the other critics mentioned: the sublime thrill; the uneasy atmosphere; the subtle dread; the spellbinding impulse to keep looking, even when you want to look away – all the crucial aspects of a thriller – but it never did. This isn’t Tartt’s virtuoso why-dunnit The Secret History, nor the creeping hysteria that pervades Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, or even the meticulous depiction of the fraught relationship between a successful working woman and her housekeeper, as is Magda Szabó’s The Door. The latter, another “lost” classic from a woman in translation, is literary pointillism: it builds in minute detail the tension between the female protagonists, who become vessels through which Szabó broaches the knots in the social tissue of post-war Hungarian society, making her characters both highly symbolic and realistic at the same time – something Lullaby ultimately fails to do.

    Slimani does paint an accurate picture of contemporary Paris, however, even if she falls short of deeper nuance. The city’s squalor belies its postcard beauty and this is where the writer is at her most convincing, depicting a Paris whose parks buzz with nannies speaking “snatches of Baoulé, Dyula, Arabic and Hindi, sweet nothings whispered in Filipino or Russian”, the women turning “the park into a cross between a recruitment office, a union headquarters, a claims centre and a classified-ads listing”. The parks are vacated when gangs of youths who “piss in flowerbeds and go looking for fights” appear and Louise’s street is home to a man who she spots “squatting on his haunches […] shitting in her street”, a degrading if obvious omen for her own unravelling. It’s a Paris that recalls the slums of Zola but reflects the multicultural fabric of the arrondissements and banlieues today. The photorealism is done well but Slimani does not sufficiently blend this perfect nanny – a patent dramatic harbinger – with the sharply focused modern world. Louise is incongruous within it and the juxtaposition ultimately grates. By the end of the novel, Louise has been caked in every possible reason that could make her capable of her final, fatal outburst: financial troubles, stress, loneliness, perennial servitude, belittling and a sprinkling of harassment. But still no tangible climax, no turning point to convince the reader, and not enough of an atmosphere to carry the novel without it. The opening of the work is a stab in the heart, perhaps, but the bleeding out drags until the final soggy pages of conclusion, which don’t so much culminate as congeal.

    And in the end, the novel’s boldest move – its audacious Camus-inspired opening lines – is its biggest downfall. The infanticide would be more shocking if the work wasn’t publicised everywhere as THE KILLER NANNY NOVEL, Louise’s off behaviour more threatening if the book’s front cover wasn’t plastered with the line THE BABY IS DEAD.

    So which novel has Slimani written then? Lullaby, the Faber-published, Goncourt-winning literary sensation? Or The Perfect Nanny, the psycho-thriller blockbuster coming soon to a Walmart near you? The bar for both of these kinds of novels is set almost impossibly high. Instead, Is this worth translating? became the question I asked myself the most while reading. My answer is yes. More women need to be published, more translations need to be published, more people of colour need to be published. Slimani, as a French-Moroccan writer, is a visible, positive voice. She’s an advocate for inclusivity and representation in the very white, patriarchal annals of French literature. Furthermore, we must move away from the idea that only the most excellent authors among underrepresented demographics are worthy of critical attention. Slimani has written a blockbuster; it’s not her fault that we are so starved of diverse voices that the very mention of a guilt-tripped working mother or a multicultural Paris sets every critic off fawning. Nor is it her fault that English-language publishers feel the need to ham the novel up to interest readers, simply because it’s a translation and not mother-tongue fiction. So if Slimani enjoys booming commercial success for a solid, if slightly underwhelming, novel, it does more good than harm: perhaps it will mean the likes of Faber and Penguin will take a bigger gamble next time, on voices that still desperately need to be heard.

    Rachel Wilson is a writer and translator currently based in Berlin whose work has appeared in The Guardian, i-D, Broadly, INDIE, Material, The Lifted Brow, Fusion and more.