Mama owns a buttload of clothes and loves a bargain. Mama takes two large suitcases with her anywhere she goes. She has spent the past thirty years accumulating Stuff: auctioned sets of china; Bedouin bangles from flea markets; beads and stones from Mecca turned into custom-made jewellery; Balouchi, Heriz, Isfahan, and Tabriz rugs. All of which have moved with her from house to house. Mama is currently living in interim. She has moved the majority of her things to a house in Cyprus where she hopes to retire, and in the meantime has relocated to a one-bedroom in Dubai, where her and baba will stay until they do.
Mama says to me, I miss my Stuff. I don’t know who I am without them. They are home. Her sentiment is stored in the material but that is in no way superficial. It’s a mechanism for dealing with trauma and I think it’s one of the only ones she knows. It’s from her that I’ve learned to hammer kilograms of weight and importance to the inanimate. I am meeting with Jean Bachoura and we are interrupted by a FaceTime call from his mum. I say hello. She is wearing a yellow 100% silk dress that she got at Myer on sale when she was visiting Melbourne. She is showing Jean how it looks on.
Because of our mums, we are always looking for bargains. We are always conscious of quality. We are always using superficiality to tell ourselves; we are fine. Look how fine we are! Would someone who is not fine do this?
My mum is currently visiting Melbourne and will not stop buying Stuff. She buys an all-white suit, new crockery, towels for the bathroom, a second-hand ball-claw chair, all because they are cheap. She buys me lunch. I compliment her shirt, jumper, pants, and she tells me, take it! Please take it! On god’s life take it! I swear to god I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t take it. I compliment her mother-of-pearl pendant and she tells me, take it! It’s actually yours. Please take it! And I do.
Stuff is a language for intimacy and we use it to talk others but we also use it to talk to ourselves.
LUJAYN: What was your best ever bargain? Was it material? Was it spiritual? Was it a conversation where you said nothing but, yeah, wow, and right and got back raw emotion you hadn’t even asked for?
As the title of the winning piece from the 2019 Prize for Experimental Nonfiction would suggest, ‘TRETINOIN’ is anchored by skincare, and when I meet with Jean/Flatwhite to talk through what made the piece a winner, we instead talk through our dads and their senility, our mums and their (war) trauma, and how to acquire a relationship with your GP good enough for a Tretinoin script. I also get a free skincare consultation, a tube of UV Double Cut sunscreen, samples for La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Sensitive Moisturiser and QV Intensive with Ceramides Light Moisturising Cream, and a Tony Moly TImeless Ferment Snail Eye Mask.
LUJAYN: During our meeting, you stopped talking and took a moment to reapply sunscreen. Is that the most annoying part of skincare? Having to follow such a strict routine?
FLATWHITE: اي والله
Flatwhite Damascus is Jean’s alter-ego and skincare is Flatwhite Damascus’s Stuff.
‘TRETINOIN’ digs holes shallow enough for us to jump into and instantly climb back out of in a way that mimics reading under late capitalism. We read a paragraph; we put the book down; we reply to a text; we read a paragraph; we put the book down; we check Instagram; we read a paragraph; we put the book down; we look out the tram window. ‘TRETINOIN’ already administers these tangents to us. ‘TRETINOIN’ is a suitcase crammed with Stuff. It’s telling us, take it! Please take it! On god’s life take it! I swear to god I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t take it.
LUJAYN: What are you trying to give us through this Stuff? Is this what you call a gift? A Facebook post from some white guy who thinks we solicit our trauma?
FLATWHITE: What I love about my piece ‘TRETINOIN’ is just how relatable it is, especially to us Australians. We are no strangers to how interconnected trauma and self-care is. Australia has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita, in the world. It’s obviously a cry for help. Being a coloniser is really traumatic. Like, it’s not easy being aware that in the Northern Territory, Indigenous infant mortality is like, 4 times higher than the national rate. So why not inject a bit of JUVÉDERM®? I’m sure there’s a direct correlation in there somewhere.
Jean talks about the intensity of sound. He explains the importance of his digital recordings in ‘TRETINOIN’. He talks about the way soundwaves are denoted and about how a bomb going off can look so structurally similar to a bird chirping. Beauty rings just as loud as trauma and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
FLATWHITE: I think we can all agree – war is bad; peace is good; snail mucin is amazing.
This article has been brought to you by Flatwhite Damascus Rose Water – only $23.99, available nowhere.
You can read Jean Bachoura/Flatwhite Damascus's prize-winning piece 'TRETINOIN' in Issue 43 of The Lifted Brow, out now and available in our online shop.
Lujayn Hourani is Online co-Editor at The Lifted Brow and uses little stories to ask and answer big questions. They have been published in Voiceworks, Djed Press, Going Down Swinging, and Overland.