In the latest of our continuing Poets in Conversation series, award-winning poets Eileen Chong and Zeina Hashem Beck open unexpected doors.Read More
aka the creation of an eighty-three billion dollar market out of thin air
Before approaching my desk today, I walked for half an hour along the coast where I live. On my walk, I saw nautical-striped stretch camisoles, floral sports bras, and quick-drying ballet crops. I saw gorgeous leopard-print midi pants and silky monochrome tanks matched perfectly with oversized sunglasses and enormous takeaway coffee cups. I saw lightweight silver jogging shorts, metallic snake-print bandeaus, seamless perforated micro-shorts, and draped jersey tees.
This is the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Out here, the look is tight, bronzed, and highlighted. Diversity is down to blondes and brunettes of the caucasian variety, and the dress code is activewear—the term now synonymous with sporty fashion. This is the ground zero of sports luxe: an eighty-three billion dollar industry targeted to women who want to look hot, comfy and athletic.Read More
Open the gate to a nighttime party
Good trouble for bad actors.
Fire in a barrel at the garden party
A delta of floodlight out of the black.
Alpha male at the office party. A good man™.
Blood on the dress. Blood. Blood on a dress.
“I went on a big journey with that one,” a gay man in his mid-twenties told me, referring to the reboot of Queer Eye, which was released on Netflix in February. “I went public with my disdain after episode one, and then had to walk my comments back when I watched the rest.” I knew what my friend was talking about—I’d done a version of this myself.Read More
‘So close to the end of my childbearing life
‘The Girl’, Marie Howe
I sat in the café while your friend railed at me
—if you knew you were going to leave why did you try,
and keep trying—he meant for children, of course,
though we did not have them in the end.
Which comes first, blame or consequence?
I sat there, crying, while waitresses tiptoed
In mid-2015, I received an email from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), a contractor for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It was an invitation for an ophthalmologist to visit the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and provide eye care for detainees. It posed a moral dilemma, which I mulled over for a while.
As a migrant from Iran, it was easy to identify with people who sought refuge from danger or oppression. As an Australian citizen, I was upset by the appalling reports of how asylum seekers, including children, were being housed and treated. I was angered by our government’s punitive, rather than humanitarian response to a global refugee crisis—a crisis that we arguably helped foment through military support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oddly or not, this treatment also reminded me of my work in Indigenous communities where the biggest buildings in town are often the police station and jailhouse. I imagined a national tagline to capture this panoptic treatment of the destitute:
AUSTRALIA: land grabbing since 1788, handcuffing those who plead a share.
Would a visit to Nauru or Manus constitute tacit acceptance of these policies? Would I be a pawn for Australian Border Force? If I didn’t accept, who’d provide the necessary eye care for detainees? How many Australian ophthalmologists spoke Farsi, had lived in Pakistan, and were familiar with Sri Lanka and the Middle East? Was it morally unacceptable to not go?
Since my visits to Nauru and Manus in 2015–16, things have changed. The centre on Manus was declared illegal by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, and the fraught process of shutting it down continues. The Australian government agreed to our country’s largest human rights payout, tantamount to accepting the harm done to refugees. An undisclosed number of asylum seekers were granted resettlement in the US, but the Trump administration has stalled the process. Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 was changed so that doctors, teachers and other workers are free from its secrecy provisions, making it safer for them to speak out without fear of legal reprisal. Previously, all employees and contractors risked being sacked, prosecuted and imprisoned if they disclosed information about detention centres to anyone. The coalition government announced an additional intake of twelve thousand Syrian refugees, but expressed a preference for Christians over Muslims, in spite of a non-discriminatory mandate. More recently, in the face of a global refugee crisis, Peter Dutton advocated fast-track visas for a select minority of immigrants—white South African farmers—in a shameless display of systemic, unprincipled bias towards white Christian migrants.
The passages that follow were written before the gag order was lifted. At the time, I faced the unsatisfactory choice between speaking out and facing possible prosecution, or remaining silent and returning to visit the detainees. I chose the latter and shelved the writing. However, in 2017 my offshore visits fell through, due to the frustrating bureaucracy of IHMS. Now that I can’t visit the detainees, I’m blowing my whistle alongside the dedicated others who have been doing likewise for years. At the time of writing, over fifteen hundred detainees remain in limbo, and they need witnesses, not handcuffs.
22nd August, 2015
At a dining table in the staff mess, the doctors gather for lunch. As a newcomer to their group, I join them to eat and chat, hoping to learn more about the centre. I listen as they discuss the difficulties of becoming accredited to work on Nauru, about hopes to emigrate from their homes in the Philippines, Poland and Zimbabwe, to Australia or the United States. They talk shop, compare the earnings of different specialists, contrasting their deployment here with facilities elsewhere: military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil rigs in Nigeria. They speak about their rostered days off, cruising the island, visiting the Chinese eateries, checking out Anibare Bay.
Their tone is light, humorous, coloured with aspirations toward a better life.
Rarely do they speak about the detainees. When they do, they refer to them as ‘clients’, rather than ‘patients’ or ‘people’. Over a buffet of roast lamb and vegetables, detainees are mentioned with a roll of the eyes, a knowing look, a shift in tone. Scepticism moves in like a low cloud, undeclared but tangible. At times, the feeling verges on scorn.
What is implied, again and again, is that the detainees are not real patients, their conditions not real pathology. Their vague symptoms, such as headaches, non-specific pain or malaise, are difficult to diagnose or alleviate. Some have genuine afflictions, such as atopic dermatitis or upper respiratory tract infections. But their symptoms seem amplified, bordering on hysteria or the bizarre. Consequently, detainees are labelled malingerers: the scourge of doctors, feigning illness for personal gain.
My colleagues seem unaware or uninterested in the psychological impacts of detention. As a more sympa-thetic counsellor tells me, “Asylum seekers arrive here with post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of their home countries, develop anxiety about the welfare of family left behind, and fall into depression when we lock them up.” At our table, there seems to be little appetite to consider these more complex dynamics and how they may manifest as somatic symptoms among trapped and disempowered fugitives.
I peer around at the painted grey walls in the staff mess, the fluorescent tubes over stainless steel surfaces. I feel discomfited; I swear the aircon is dialled to Arctic. The mess, like the rest of the compound, is militarised and highly administered: monitored hand-hygiene stations, high-visibility vests, muscle men with buzz cuts. Last night, a security guard did me a kindness, permitting me a second orange after dinner by looking the other way. Even citrus can be contraband here.
23rd August, 2015
The eye conditions afflicting detainees on Nauru range from mysterious to tragic. Many suffer a form of allergic conjunctivitis, where the eyes become red, gritty and sore for weeks on end. I suspect it’s due to a local antigen, perhaps phosphate dust from the ubiquitous open-cut mines, or airborne fungal spores from mouldy accommodation. I see a three-year-old boy from Nepal with this condition. His eyelids are swollen and excoriated, and he has similar changes on the soft skin of his armpits and behind his knees. I prescribe anti-allergy eye drops and show his dad how to administer a steroid cream for him. But as long as he and the other detainees are exposed to the environmental toxins here, it all seems like band-aid medicine.
19th September, 2015
On Manus, I meet an Iraqi man who is blind in one eye from traumatic optic neuropathy. This is a case of ‘damaged wiring’ between the eye and brain, which occurs when the eye is struck so hard that a shock wave passes through the bony socket and shears the nerve fibres where they enter the skull. The nerve atrophies and the blind spot expands until eyesight is extinguished. The man tells me he sustained this when local Papua New Guinea (PNG) men stormed the centre and bashed his head in with a wooden bat. Another asylum seeker, 23-year-old Reza Barati, was beaten to death in the same riot.
I tell this man that his blindness is permanent and he slumps to weep in front of me. Has he not lost enough? What’s the price of his sight, to him and to us? On our government’s watch, his vision had been halved, his future prospects permanently diminished. Yet I doubt many Australians will ever hear his story. I trace the cause of his blindness back to the illegal invasion of his country by Western governments including ours, a spiral of dominoes fanning out to flatten the dignity of civilians.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.
Hessom Razavi is a doctor and writer, born in Hamadan, Iran. He grew up in Tehran, Karachi and the UK, before his family moved to Perth. His poetry has been published in Australia and the UK, and his travel writing and videos are available online. He works as an ‘outreach eye doctor’ in remote communities in Australia and overseas.
In Married at First Sight the woman is running to a public toilet to escape from the rain and from the husband, who is chasing her. The husband is begging dispassionately. “Baby, please don’t cry.” He seems annoyed about the crying. He is looking in the opposite direction. Earlier in tonight’s episode, the husband could not tell the difference between camembert and butter. He put a slice of camembert into a hot frying pan. The camera zoomed in on the burning camembert while comedic stock music played, allowing us to pretend that his reality was not tragic. The woman, in the next room, appeared listless. The husband threw the piece of burnt cheese out of his kitchen window like the world was his trash can.
The theme of this couple is the Oedipus Complex. The husband is looking for a mother figure he can have sex with. The theme is failing because the woman is actually looking for a boyfriend.
When my boyfriend and I arrive in Yogyakarta there is a monsoon. We run through deep water on the way to a restaurant. I feel young. A strange man at the table asks us about the blood moon. The rice is served in a perfect orb, wrapped in yellow paper. The folding of the paper is so pure.
I am in the process of becoming estranged from my parents, I think. It sounds glamorous but feels remorseless. My feet are muddy from climbing the ancient Buddhist temple. I have touched a stone as old as the world! But every stone is as old as the world, even the ones that are composite.
It doesn’t stop raining for nine days. My boyfriend and I become restless in our hotel. The hotel becomes a prison of relaxation. I smoke berry-flavoured cigarettes and drink juice. The hotel has a large bathroom and cable. We watch Everybody Loves Raymond. We watch Khloe Kardashian help a teen lose forty-six pounds so that he can try and get a date. We watch the teen’s date look at him, thinner and wearing different clothes, and turn him down. We watch Gordon Ramsay teach his daughter how to cook a French stew.
My boyfriend is reading Madame Bovary, and I am reading a book whose protagonist is reading Madame Bovary.1 We keep saying things to each other while we wait for room service, like, “Homais is such a mansplainer,” and, “Female boredom is, like, catastrophic.” I try to use body language to emphasise how relatable Emma Bovary is to me without giving him any spoilers. “All my credit card applications get rejected,” I explain to my boyfriend. “It’s kind of like that.”
I used to tell my Tinder dates that my parents named me after Emma Bovary, to impress them and to liken myself to her, the most chic depressed person in literature. “We have so much in common,” I would joke. They would ask what and I would say, “Well we’re both named Emma.” I wanted her to be my namesake so badly, but I don’t even think my parents know who she is.
In Jakarta, our apartment is opposite the National Monument. Although it is so tall, our view is of a parking lot. When it is night and the parking lot is empty, thin cats run up and down its spiralling ramps, like they are playing a clandestine game.
There are so many outlet malls and they are vast like towns. Shoppers climb over one another to search through piles of fake handbags on the floor, shrink-wrapped Michael Kors and Guess. There is a whole zone for fake handbags. There are other zones: jeans, sunglasses, hijab, puffer jackets, DVDs, fast food, iPhones. Every vendor sees us pass and calls out to us. “Miss, mister, shopping?” I remember a video I watched a few weeks before coming here. In the video, part of the floor of the Jakarta Stock Exchange collapsed while a large group was standing on it. Everyone screamed but nobody died. The building looked just like this one does on the inside. I buy a Gucci T-shirt for twelve dollars. In the Uber home, I whisper to my boyfriend: “Malls are like monuments to us.” My boyfriend nods. The Uber driver blasts soft jazz and I watch theme parks and hotels pass by the window like they are ads during a movie.
In the early 2000s, many of the chefs on television were men. It was so uncool to be a woman and to be domestic. Cooking was technical, hard-edged. It was a skill that you would learn and master. Kitchens were clean, like places to do surgery, and the instruments of food-making were sharp and metallic. Did women no longer belong in the kitchen, or did the kitchen no longer belong to us? It didn’t matter to me. I was a teenage girl and I could buy diet versions of everything from the store.
Now it is 2018 and I have a kitchen of my own. But what do I do with it? I sauté kale tentatively. I eat the kale. The kale is bland and soggy. I need a man like Gordon Ramsay to yell at me in a clean, clinical space about how bland and soggy my kale is, so that I may learn to make it better. The domestic woman is cool again, but only in her leisure time. It is cool to make embroidery, to sell your embroidery. It is cool to cut flowers and put them in a vase, to post the flowers and the vase on Instagram. It is cool to bake a beau-tiful cake, to go on television for your cake, to go on MasterChef because of the beauty of your cake and to use MasterChef to boost your profile as an emerging baker or model or personal trainer.
I am having this crisis re: what work I can do. Really: what work can I do? What are my market-able skills? Maybe my parents believe that I am good for something. Maybe their silence is a way of releasing me into the wild, like animal parents do on National Geographic.
Whenever I get a manicure I have to throw up after-wards. It’s the tweezers, tearing up the cuticles. The removal of parts of me, quick and precise. When she is done with one hand, the manicurist wipes the pieces of my skin onto a napkin and moves onto the other hand. On the napkin are other piles of skin, belonging to other people. They’ve hardened into crusts. I think this is the part that always gets me.
I can’t stop drinking coffee. I can’t stop listening to the sad songs from my teenage years. I can’t stop buying sweet, pink wine. I spend hours online looking for a cheap copy of Rihanna’s Jessica Walsh parka that I can Afterpay. It is true that my therapist tells me my shopping is a safety behaviour: that I buy things to fill a void in my life, left by something we need to identify together. I ask her: Do we really need to identify the void? She says: Absolutely. She asks me if the parka will make me happy, and I say that it is self-improvement. The parka will change my life.
I know that in the past, men must have seemed so ugly to women: coming home from the world all dirty and exhausted, wanting things. The things men want. Emma Bovary was bored in that lavish house. There was nowhere inside of it that she could go.
I fell in love with my boyfriend when he was making green smoothies. I watched him put the spinach and the orange juice in the blender. It was like watching a beautiful film. I still watch him in this way, when he is doing tasks. Folding towels. Downward dog. It has been some years.
A memory: a child feeds koi in a pond with pellets from a paper bag. The fish throw their orange bodies out of the water and onto the stones, trying to catch each pellet. The child is young and can’t throw far. A fish flops around on smooth, round stones laid in a pattern to look like small flowers. The fish rocks itself back and forth until it gains enough momentum to fall back into the water. It seems fine, I guess.
One night in Yogyakarta, I scream at my boyfriend on the side of the road because neither of us can choose a restaurant and I am very hungry. Two men, smoking, watch us fight. I want to tell them that we sometimes love each other in this way and that it’s normal. The theme of this couple is... banal. The theme is working because it’s supposed to. But the two men do not speak English, and the only Indonesian words I know are “sorry”, “thank you”, and “this is too expensive”.
This piece was first published in The Lifted Brow #38.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of Something To Be Tiptoed Around, a work of experimental memoir shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfictino Prize for Young Writers in 2015 and to be released by Grattan Street Pres in 2018. She is currently working on her first novel.