‘Notes on Colour Coding: Ways to Read “The Big Black Thing”’, by Jamie Marina Lau


  1. WHITE: The Big Black Thing makes white loud, sandwiches big white pages, and is unafraid of blank space.

    When we read books it’s typically from white paper:

    • white for the clarity of text
    • in fact, an opaque-white so as to minimize the confusion from the opposite side’s text
    • in newspapers, the paper is a sort of grey
    • in literature it seems: the newer the book, the whiter it’ll be
    The black text will be perfect, edited to replicate one voice that is designed to stay consistent as long as you’re reading it. In The Big Black Thing are forty-two writers, who remain completely anonymous beyond their names and their black text.


  2. ORANGE: If you want to feel orange – simmering family driveway, “sweat like a River Nile”, father’s reeking car, mother cooking “narrow eggplant, vine leaves” – refer to Ricky Tran, Teddy Owuor, Jessica Tran and Mary Al-Nashy.

    There is sticky nostalgia in these spaces we share, it is nostalgia that creates a safeness for us. We are Hamani Tanginoa’s story: watching YouTube in her bedroom, simultaneously considering how life is like a monkey throwing shit at us.

    The stories where you feel orange are only short, ‘slice of life’, ‘stream of consciousness’, operating between memory and now. They are raw – this is the first thing you will notice about The Big Black Thing: its frankness. We not only see Louisa Badayala’s picture of a garden: “ancient rose bushes curling along the house’s walls”, but also Jessica Tran’s broken auto-garage door. We’re Owuor and Stanley in a faceless family’s home where butter-oil chicken is a plate of marijuana.

    We tend to dress up our memories in the ‘safety orange’, so as to find refuge in our past experiences. The problem with recollecting memory is that it cannot encompass a day in one go – it will locate you in an afternoon, or an evening – is it ever 6:30am after a night playing Ark Survival Evolved? Refer to Omar El-Ali on exhaustion.

    When we are sentimental are we ever thinking about our brothers drawing on television screens, or our sister’s multiple personalities? Refer to Al Nashy and Hanane Elnajjar for loud familial spaces. It is not always a glossed home, nor is it always an unstable home. In these stories, the concrete home is dislocated. It is the smells and the behaviours. In ‘Campeões’ it is the modest half-page where Masen Guerreiro describes cheering on Portugal in the Eurocup; “mum’s rules”. From their couch to being on Channel 9; the whole family in the newspaper.

    It is the transport we carried our families in.



  3. GREEN: Read green like: “the colour of the branches are brown same with the colour of my hands, and leaves are green like the colour of the grass” from Idarosareen Soolo.

    Something that’s always been unique about the textual form is its ability to talk about the exterior using an interior medium.

    What’s unique about the reading form is its ability to reflect the outside using an ‘inside’ ritual.

    When reading The Big Black Thing I travel from reading outside, at the university, in the city, to inside different homes. The book moves similarly, a different earth with each page.

    We tend to read with landscapes or faces in mind. In The Big Black Thing, we are constantly defamiliarised. We are given a story momentarily and then it is taken back from us.

    Matati Hunt gives us a hand, calls it a ‘fish’, shows us her feet, which are like birds, but this only lasts for the moments she is dancing. Maryian Nagib advises, “let your hands to do the greatest things and the best you have” while you have them in ‘Pirouettes’.

    Every place and time stands still and hovers for a moment in The Big Black Thing.

    In her story, Nancy Huynh describes her teacher, whose name means Shining Moon, telling the class about a teacher-and-student flash mob. Huynh says, “it was soon time we went home but I wanted to stay more.” If we write to make time and place stand still, then how do we write about movement?



  4. BLUE: Van Gogh said there is no blue without yellow and without orange when comparing the sky to soil and sand. This is a way to write about movement.

    There is a sense of seeing one thing clearer by seeing another in all the stories of The Big Black Thing, whether it’s from inside the writer’s mother-country or from inside the writer’s home in sunburnt suburbia, whether it is from the writer’s bloodline or from their history of movement.

    Though cultural and linguistic diversity is a significantly distinct quality of the book, as prefaced by its editors, we are never directly told where each writer is ‘from’, no age is specified, nor which language comes naturally to their tongue when they open their mouths. You refer to the back for a biographical index, and instead there is one white page before the opposite black cover. Such minimal detail is rare in an era saturated by celebrity culture, saturated by tokenism.

    In The Big Black Thing we don’t proceed because of the pre-existing sheen accredited to each writer or their place of heritage.

    Transit each place and ‘un-place’ shown to you the same way Eteroma Hunt describes seeing a clock the first time: it is moving though not living. It tells us not only about now but also ‘about the past’ – so perhaps take this book like time and how it moves forward whilst showing a reflection of itself trailing behind. The way we move across its pages.

    The way Iina Kastoumis records ‘#commutorama’: Iina “trusts that something will be recorded...an unperceived beauty, grace, surprise or even irony, in that split second will be revealed.” You will read this without knowing where it is taking you, or why it’s taking you.

    The way we move across borders to our new homes, the way our family travels, the way our cars are Japanese, or European, Corollas or Mercedes, the way our vehicles make noise after school or at 12am. Refer to Mohamed Lababidi and Hisham Mallah and Kelvin Yu’s one-page sonnets to the Mazda 6 and to the Chinese family’s Mercedes dreams. The things we say in our cars at night, compared to the things we say on the phone – this is Kiarna Evans.

    The way our idea of someone shifts when they laugh “like Joni Mitchell at the end of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’”. The way we are dislocated against our will: the way you hear a baby cry in the middle of a forest – refer to Jason Gray and Courtney Miller. The way beautiful or strange can be made depending where they’re put.

    The cousin who lives “above a highway…says he can’t think without the noise.” This is Nitin Vengurlekar.

    “Wheels stick shit, Kelvin smash him dead” is movement geographically displacing us and disowning us.

    Put the lines of Gray, Miller, Vengurlekar and Gilbert Tran side by side for comparisons about the different ways movement changes minds and detaches body.

    You wonder how many times your mind changes in this book, how many landscapes and how many years you’ve been through.

    Refer to Winnie Dunn for an example of non-chronology. And how when we go to write – placing things out of order can often make more sense.

    Dunn moves from ‘Number Two’: “only Tonga can decide when we die”, to ‘Number One’: in which “Tonga is now in a state of emergency” from airport loudspeakers. Moving the order and changing the way you read each piece will show you that the way you read different peoples’ stories is one of the most important parts of reading anything.



  5. PINK: Prepossessions about the colour pink. The idea still, that it denotes female. Misconception that female equates to femininity. Repossession of how to represent, how to think of ourselves and become ourselves amidst traditional enclosures such as these.

    Refer to the way The Big Black Thing reformats how to look at identity. It is noted unequivocally in Jessica Mensah, Maryam Azam, Shirley Le, Stephen Pham, Miller and Elnajar.

    The exploration of preconceived ideas about being gendered is poeticized in Mensah’s “valentine to girls/royalty to boys/power to men/fertility to women” in the form of a Kente cloth. The hijab as couture in Azam’s four-part poem, and how we materialize and commercialize an identity that extends beyond what we can see from just the colour, or the texture of fabric. We not only look for how to embody where we come from or what we stand for using physical methods – sometimes we already are what fabricates our bodies. Le manifests this in her piece in which one becomes unusually aware of the way her skin behaves in certain places, the presuppositions we do not want there.

    • Refer also to how the digitization of Pham’s generation endorses tacit codes like this: Instagram etiquette and customs.
    • Refer to the material things that decorate our homes, and decorate our hands so as to keep our family and our friends.
    • Refer to Monikka Eliah in ‘Retail’ in which bags are female names, the image of Destiny’s Child members all wearing ‘Beyonce’ t-shirts.

    We have learnt to use fabric as code.

    To be in charge of how we are seen in an unsentimentally digital generation, is equivalent to the incongruity of you blessing your elders in Arabic while trying to hush your cousin yelling “Ching chong ching chong” – refer to Ali Haydar. Or how Breeze Makiri writes the brother who is also Sister Mary, a holy nun – he wears cloth over his head to prove it.

    Translate us so that we are simpler than we are, distract us while we try to explore or excavate our bloodline.



  6. YELLOW: When you think of yellow, you think of the golden arches, or you think about how it feels to be happy, and about stars, but somehow we also associate it with feeling indefinite. These pages are lines long, conversations with selves and stars, in McDonald’s kitchens, on YouTube tabs, on how stars are stupid. Refer to Evans, Tanginoa, Kane Harrington, Mark Streeter.

    There is a section in the middle of the book called ‘Work Talk Later’. These writings came out of a workshop organized by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (who co-edited the book with Dunn), Emma Hicks, Ellen van Neerven and Partnerships for Success: Ngara Wingara. The group of outstanding young Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander writers produce prose which digests not only the transitory and intimate nature of conversation, but also captures the operation of oral storytelling in text form.

    These pages are formatted differently from the rest of the book, the author’s name above the writing first in bold and then faded.

    The same way we make stories with voices.

    • We are worried in a society where text is taken advantage of, that our stories end up untold unless they pull heart-strings or take readers across an ocean or more. We are worried as people of colour that the only story we have to tell is the story of how we are coloured.
    • The entire book embodies this concept but it is only here, right in the centre with ‘Work Talk Later’, where it is visually encoded into the text and publication – that it reminds you so directly.

  7. RED: In the same way the book does not acquaint you with the writers’ biography, The Big Black Thing does not specify which pieces of writing are fiction, which are non-fiction, which are poetry or prose. Within ‘Work Talk Later’ are two parallel works: Adina Aslett-Robertson and Shanae Hajsinger. One tries to open a jar, one sees a unicorn and faints – and both could be true but both could be fiction.

    We are in charge of how we choose to read, just as the writers are in charge of how they are represented.

    The authors are not required to talk about a specific moment in their journey, they are not forced to talk about the most emotionally ‘difficult’ or controversial part of their lives that undoubtedly exists beyond their chosen words. Because there is no easy way to textually embody or even recall certain things which happen to us: the grey shoebox left behind, the guns which sound “like waterfalls”, the unfinished Titanic left playing on the television, the “beer soaked up by his hair”, the holy book of Ginzai is the only thing undamaged, and how making friends depends on the “level of rich”. These are the details we tell when we try to translate, told by Taylah Hansen, Kyaw Kyaw Phyo, Samer Mejbel, Peter Polites, Dani Mejbel and Alex Aditia respectively.



  8. GREY: The Big Black Thing does not separate colours, it does not rank the intensities or importance of its stories, it is an exploration of language – it is a look at the way we’ve told and are told stories over time; orally and textually. It makes the whiteness of the pages we’ve read for decades strange. The stories told are made physical, without attaching them to what we look like on our faces or what we wear on our bodies. It is more than stories told about different kinds of earths, it is stories from stolen land, which has been made strange by systems and rulings, and so which we walk and speak and read from a little tentatively. And to read this book is to begin to think about the stories that need to be told louder; where the text needs to be larger and blacker on white paper.




Jamie Marina Lau is a writer from Melbourne. A lot of her work involves highways and cheap Chinese. Her first novel, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, will be published by Brow Books.