Hi hi hello hi hi! Have you heard all about the thing we like to call The Lifted Brow & non/fictionLAB Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction yet? (If not: where even have you been hiding? Don’t bother answering that, just click on the link above – it will tell you everything you need to know.) Did you know that entries for the prize close on May 29, i.e. in a mere ten days? Yep, that’s right – you’ve only got ten whole days left in which to burnish your piece of experimental non-fiction to the kind of shiny lustre that will impress our judges.
Thanks to the generous support of new partners Copyright Agency and RMIT University’s non/fictionLab, the prize winner will receive AU$5000 and publication in Issue #31 of The Lifted Brow – available September 2016. Two runners-up will receive AU$500 and an opportunity to discuss publication prospects with the Brow editors. Why on earth wouldn’t you want to enter this prize? In fact, why haven’t you already closed this browser window so that you can work on your entry?
If you’re stuck for inspiration or information, don’t worry, we have you covered. You can learn all about our four wonderful judges, with links to their work and reviews and interviews, right here:
Read! But don’t read too much, because if you want to have a chance at winning this prize you should be writing and editing and directing all of your energy at making your piece the best it can possibly be. You have only ten days left! Get to it! And once you’re happy with your piece, go right ahead and submit it.
Helen Macdonald is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is best known as the author of H Is for Hawk, which won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award.
For more information about The Lifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-Fictionclick here. Enter via our Submittable page. There’s exactly one month left before submissions close! Get stuck into it!
If you’ve been paying attention to all things Brow—and if you haven’t, why haven’t you?—you’ll know that we recently ran an experimental non-fiction workshop as part of the lead-up to The Lifted Brow & non/fictionLab’s Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. You’ll also probably know that all the places in that workshop were booked so, so quickly: like lickety-split quickly; like “by the time we went to tell people about it on our website it was already booked out” quickly. This was obviously both good and bad news: good news insofar as it shows just how popular experimental non-fiction is,* and bad news insofar as many people who wanted to attend the workshop either had to settle for a live stream, or simply not participate.
Here, then, is some news that’s only good, and not at all bad: we’ll be running a repeat workshop (in a larger capacity venue) on May 14! As with the first, it will be led by Lifted Brow editor Ellena Savage and long-time contributor Rebecca Harkins-Cross. As with the first, it will be held in Melbourne, Australia, and as with the first, the introductory lecture will also be streamed across the internet for your listening/slideshow reading pleasure if you can’t make it to Melbourne on the day.
You can book your place in the workshop – free for subscribers and RMIT students/staff, $20 for everyone else – by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to stream the workshop – free for subscribers and RMIT students/staff, $10 for everyone else – please send an email to the same address. (Electronic mail: we’re mad for it; it’s gonna be huge.)
Want to know more about what this workshop will entail before you commit your precious money/time to it? Lookie here: a link to the (second) Experimental Non-Fiction Workshop page is just here for your clicking pleasure. Or you could just look at these lovely photographs from the first workshop and imagine yourself in them. See how much fun everyone is having? Wouldn’t you like to have as much fun as these people?
Maria Tumarkin writes books (Traumascapes, 2005, Courage, 2007, and Otherland, 2010), as well as reviews, pieces for performance and essays. She has collaborated with visual artists, psychologists and pubic historians, and her work has been published, performed, carved into dockside tiles and set to music.
For more information about The Lifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-Fictionclick here. Enter via our Submittable page. There’s only a little more than a month left before submissions close – so what are you waiting for? Get writing!
Kate Zambreno is an American writer. She is the author of the novella O Fallen Angel, winner of the “Undoing the Novel—First Book Contest,” by Chiasmus Press, as well as the novel Green Girl, published by Harper Perennial. Heroines, her “critical memoir” centred on the women of modernism, partially incubated on her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister, was published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents, edited by Chris Kraus. A chapbook, Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write was released as part of the Guillotine series in 2013.
Dodie Bellamy is an American novelist, nonfiction author, journalist and editor. She is one of the originators in the New Narrative literary movement of the early and mid 1980s, which attempts to use the tools of experimental fiction and critical theory and apply them to narrative storytelling. Bellamy also directed the San Francisco writing lab, Small Press Traffic, and has taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mills College, University of California, Santa Cruz, University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Antioch University Los Angeles, San Francisco State University, California College of the Arts, and the California Institute of the Arts.
As we’re sure you already know, we here at the Brow are running our second annual Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction with help of RMIT’s non/fictionLab and The Copyright Agency. (If you don’t yet know all about the prize, what are you doing with yourself and your life? Get on over to the Prize page to learn everything there is to know about it!) But what is experimental non-fiction, exactly? Well, you can get a sense of what we’re after by reading some works by the authors we recommend on the prize page, but you can also get a sense of it by reading the winner of the inaugural TLB Experimental Non-Fiction Prize, Oscar Schwartz’s essay ‘Humans Pretending to be Computers Pretending to be Humans’. We’re republishing it on our site not because we want to see more essays like it—what could be less experimental than cribbing notes from the previous winner of a literary prize?—but in the hope that it will inspire you to consider different ways of experimenting with form, voice, style, point-of-view, and so on. We hope you enjoy reading it, and, even more, we hope it gets you fired up to submit something of your own to the prize, which closes on May 29th of this year.
In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen stood in front of Empress Maria Theresa at her court in Vienna and proclaimed to have built a mechanical man that could beat humans at chess. The mechanical man—or ‘the Turk’, as von Kempelen named him—was life-sized, carved from maple-wood, dressed in ornate robes and aturban, and sat behind a large cabinet, on top of which was a chess set. Von Kempelen opened the cabinet to reveal a labyrinth of levers, cogs and clockwork machinery. He then closed the cabinet, inserted a large key, wound it up, and after some ticking and whirring the Turk lifted its head, studied the board, took hold of a white pawn and moved it forward two places. News of the Turk spread, and chess masters from across the empire travelled for their opportunity to play the machine; they usually returned home defeated. For the next few decades the Turk toured Europe and America, trouncing some of the most formidable minds of the time – Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon. Legend has it that Napoleon tested the Turk by making illegal moves, but the Turk grew fed up, and swiped the board.
PULL QUOTE: A young ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Edgar Allan Poe, who was obsessed with the machine, suggested that the Turk was a hoax. Poe was right.
The Turk’s success evoked varied responses. While some conceded that humans had actually been surpassed by machines, there were a host of counter theories. One was that the Turk was controlled via magnets from a distance. Others believed that it was operated by a spirit held captive in the machine. A young ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Edgar Allan Poe, who was obsessed with the machine, suggested that the Turk was a hoax, a brilliantly constructed diversion machine that was controlled by a human hiding in the cabinet. Poe was right. The cabinet on which the Turk sat was constructed to conceal a person, and most of the gears and levers were for show. When the cabinet was open, the human would shuffle quietly among them to avoid detection.
This story, with its cast of famous characters, provides an almost mythological dawn for the age of artificial intelligence, signifying some of the radical adjustments human consciousness has had to make in coming to terms with the fact that intelligence might not be what makes us unique. But when the story is retold, there is a certain character that always remains invisible and voiceless. No one ever talks about the person sitting inside the cabinet controlling the Turk, scurrying among the levers and clogs to avoid detection. The Turk was essentially just an elaborate puppet, and all of its many great achievements were thanks to a real human hiding inside. History has made the Turk into a star, whereas the person inside is a ghost in the machine. We are willing to ignore the human for the romance of a thinking machine.
My name is Beverly and my day started out at 8:45 AM. I hadn’t slept well, and had a late night. I had a lot on my mind from this past week and I was feeling very tired and down, right from the start. I came out into my kitchen (I live in a small two bedroom apartment with my husband and two cats) and decided it was time to make breakfast… I couldn’t decide what I wanted because I was too focused on talking myself out of crawling back into bed. It was probably 9am when I said to myself “I NEED coffee.” Once I had the coffee water boiling I prepped my French press for the job, 2 tablespoons of 8 O’clock original roast coffee. Once that was steeping, I decided to grab a package of pop-tarts to eat for breakfast while I began my day working on the computer. At this point I realized that my husband (Daryl) was already awake and watching TV in the living room, he had the day off of work and I had completely forgot. I went in to greet him and say good morning. It was at this point probably 9:15 AM. After we had our normal “good morning, what are your plans for the day” conversation I finally went and poured my coffee and sat down at the computer to begin my work on Amazon Mechanical Turk.
My name is not actually Beverly. I didn’t wake up at 8:45am, or eat Pop Tarts for breakfast, and I don’t have a husband called Daryl. These experiences belong to someone else. But I did pay for them using Amazon Mechanical Turk—$5 to be precise—and now, in a way, I own them. Amazon Mechanical Turk, or mTurk for short, is a service offered by Amazon that promises a scalable, on-demand workforce for menial, computer-based work that requires human intelligence. This workforce is not made up of Amazon employees, but an internationally dispersed and anonymous group of workers who sign up to mTurk and complete tasks, which usually require no specific skill or training, for small sums of money. mTurk advertises itself as “artificial artificial intelligence.” The tasks that the human workforce complete are rote and repetitive — like transcribing audio or captioning photos — but which computers still find challenging.
Those who use mTurk can be divided in two groups: Requesters, who outsource work; and Workers (affectionately known as Turkers), who complete the tasks that the Requesters set. A Requester logs into mTurk and creates what is called a HIT (Human Intelligence Task). For example, a Requester might put out a HIT asking for Workers to read a receipt, extract all of the purchased items and their price, and then calculate the total. Often, the Requester will put out tens of thousands of these HITS at one time, and pay around ten cents or so for the completion of each one. If a Worker wants to complete this request, they accept the HIT, read the receipt, total the price, and then send the data back to the Requester.
PULL QUOTE: Like the chess-playing mechanical Turk of the eighteenth century, mTurk is designed to make human behind the machine invisible.
Earlier this year I became a Requester on mTurk. The first and only HIT I made was as follows: “Please send me a minimum 2000 word journal entry about your day. Please provide as many concrete details as possible without providing any information that would give up your identity. Please use fake names.” I set the price at $5, an expiry time of twenty-four hours, and total budget of $35, meaning that after the first seven Turkers submitted, the HIT would terminate. I filled this quota within the first four hours of posting the HIT. That evening I sat in my room and read through the private thoughts and private conversations of seven people I had never met. The strangest thing was that this whole process was mediated entirely via the Amazon webpage. There was no personal interaction required between me as Requester and them as Workers. In fact, it feels like the site is set up to discourage any type of personal communication, as the Worker is presented to the Requester not by name, but as serial number. If you’re requesting large scale, impersonalised work—like totalling purchased items on a receipt—the effect of this computer-mediated service is to make the interaction appear not between a human and a human, but a human and software, as if it’s just a matter of executing a program. Like the chess-playing mechanical Turk of the eighteenth century, mTurk is designed to make human behind the machine invisible.
Seeing as though I am self-employed and make my own hours, I was not in a terrible rush to get to work. So, I just sort of hung around the living room with my dogs and mother until I felt I needed to get started on work or I’d be working all day. I unenthusiastically walked back to my room, “my office” as I call it, and sat down on my bed. My room is where I work every day in my pajamas. It’s the coldest room in the house, so I slipped on my slippers and covered my feet and legs with two blankets and a comforter. Before I start actually working, I go through a ritual of checking all of my social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, my email, Youtube, and sometimes eBay if I’m looking to bid on something in a certain timeframe. I spend a little time looking at my notifications, going through messages, etc until about 1:00 p.m. when I actually get down to looking at what I have to do for the day for work. I do transcription from home and usually have an abundance of files that are waiting to be done. I opened up my folder that contained the files that needed to be transcribed and grabbed my mechanical keyboard from under my bed where I keep it in order to get started. I began typing out the day’s work.
John Maynard Keynes pointed out that although new technology can cause short-term unemployment by automating tasks previously done by humans, because automation raises productivity by economising on the use of labour, it ultimately generates new products and services leading to previously unimaginable forms of employment. These new forms of employment, Keynes acknowledged, destabilise the work force, creating what he euphemistically called a “temporary phase of maladjustment”, in which the idea of labour is turned on its head. For example, during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing was done on a small scale at home or in a small workshop. This meant that manufacturers were essentially artisans creating products from start to finish. In the later stages of industrialisation, large-scale manufacturing moved to the factory. Suddenly, workers were given one or a few repetitive tasks, making components of finished products rather than whole pieces. The disconnection between labour and product created disillusionment, and productivity suffered. Bosses subsequently learned to impose tight schedules to maintain productivity. Workers were made to feel expendable, as their labour required hardly any artisanal expertise specific to them as an individual. The machine technology of the Industrial Revolution did not just automate previously human tasks, but reshaped the concept of human labour into the sort of precisely defined mechanisms that the new technology needed–cogs in a much larger system.
Like the steam-powered machines of the nineteenth century, digital technology is now forcing us to re-evaluate the meaning of human labour. Increasing algorithmic sophistication has meant that software is encroaching on fields that previously seemed uniquely human. Think about how seamlessly we accept self-checkout at the supermarket, or how familiar we’ve become with speaking to automated voices on the phone. It’s been suggested that nearly half of the jobs in the developed world could be automated within the next two decades. The question is: if all these jobs are being taken by computers, what and where are those new jobs that Keynes promised follow technological development?
PULL QUOTE: I explained, as usual, that I had done basically nothing with my day other than work and sit around relaxing.
For lunch I found a chicken melt type sandwich that you put in the microwave and placed it on a paper plate. I placed it in the microwave for two minutes until it was sufficiently melted and opened the microwave door. Because my life is so boring, I then returned back to my room which also doubles as an entertainment center where I turned on my TV and started to eat the lukewarm chicken melt that I had just nuked. I’m constantly on my laptop as I do this and went to Facebook where I spend the majority of my days posting statuses about oddball things I come in contact with and sharing memes with the rest of my pack of weirdo followers. I talked online to my friend Bill for a while until around 5 o’clock about what we had been up to for most of the day. I explained, as usual, that I had done basically nothing with my day other than work and sit around relaxing. I turned on some Bob Dylan, muted the TV, and still proceeded to zone￼￼ ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼out while looking simultaneously for HiTs I could do on mTurk for a bit of extra money. This whole time the only real-life person I had come in contact with today was my mother.
Tech-utopians are hopeful that when computers become sophisticated enough, they will take over all the jobs we don’t like doing, allowing us to focus on more creative and compassionate occupations, inherently unsuited to machines: a workforce of dancers, relationship therapists, and yoga instructors. Realistically, though, the type of labour performed on mTurk—menial, freelance, context-specific, as-yet-to-be-automated-but-seemingly-automated work—seems more representative of the future of human labour. mTurk was launched in 2005 and already its workforce has grown to 500,000 from 190 countries. Luis Von Ahn, a Guatemalan entrepreneur and computer scientist believes that mTurk falls under a broader category of what he calls “human computation”. Human computation, Ahn explains on his blog, “harnesses the combined power of humans and computers to solve problems that would be impossible for either to solve alone.” An example of human computation is reCAPTCHA. The way reCAPTCHA works is much like a normal CAPTCHA – those weird letter/number combinations you have to type into your browser to prove that you’re not a bot. Instead of making the verification code random letters and numbers, reCAPTCHA uses scanned images of a few letters from not-yet-digitised books. This means that when you type in the code you are helping transcribe the book into digital format, one word fragment at a time. Ahn’s reCAPTCHA takes a specifically human skill, and uses digital networks to transform it into massive-scale collaboration. He says that over 750 million different people—more than ten per cent of humanity—have helped transcribe at least one word of a book using reCAPTCHA.
Like reCAPTCHA, mTurk integrates the not-yet-automated and entirely ordinary capacities of human workers located all over the world and organises them via digital networks so as to function with the power of a computational resource. This is why Amazon calls mTurk artificial artificial intelligence: it is powered by humans pretending to be computers pretending to be human. Just as the human became a cog in the wheel during the Industrial Revolution, the human becomes an iteration of code in a piece of software during the digital revolution.
PULL QUOTE: This is why Amazon calls mTurk artificial artificial intelligence: it is powered by humans pretending to be computers pretending to be human.
New types of labour made possible by digital networks have some obvious upside. For Requesters, mTurk provides a cheap, reliable, online flow of replaceable workers. From the perspective of the Worker, the best thing about mTurk-like employment is that it does not discriminate. If the task is completed according to the rules, it makes no difference who is doing it. Consequently, mTurk provides a means of self-employment for those who have previously not had access to the workforce. A study of mTurk demographics conducted in 2010 revealed that many Turkers are US-based single parents, usually female, who use the service as a secondary source of income to support their families. Also significant is the fact that thirty-four per cent of Turkers come from India, where differentials in minimum wage means that working on mTurk can become a primary source of income. mTurk’s relatively frictionless point of entry—you still need internet connection and a computer—coupled with the fact that Turkers control their hours and work from home, means that mTurk is the perfect employer for those who are often excluded from the workforce in developed Western nations, and breaks down national boundaries that limit those in the developing world from accessing commercial benefits from the global network.
At 1:00 pm, I brushed my teeth. I looked for my outfit for the day. I picked out underwear, a bra, and a shirt. I got a towel and placed them all in the bathroom. I took a shower. I first washed my hair with head and shoulders, conditioner my hair, and then I scrubbed myself with Dawn dish wash soap. We are currently out of body wash. I keep meaning to buy some but I keep forgetting. I turned off the water when ever I scrubbed to minimize water usage. I dried myself and put on my clothes. I opened the bathroom door, washed my hands, and left the restroom. I put a layer of almond oil on my skin. It was very heavy. I applied a layer of sunscreen to get rid of the oiliness. It takes forever to all sink in. This is not enough. I then apply Monistat chafing cream as primer. I apply BB cream and wait a while for this to sink it. I apply lip liner and then a bit of lipstick. I apply concealer under my eye and on blemishes. I then used BB powder all over. I apply more on problem areas. I apply a nice pink blush on the apples of my cheek. Next I fill in my eyebrows with Anastasia dip brow with my MAC brow brush. I do not do a good job. I next curled my eyelashes and applied two layers of mascara. I used a finishing powder on my entire face. Next, I sprayed it with finishing spray. I plugged in my blow dryer and dried my hair. I looked for some pants, put them on, looked for socks, put them on, and put on some boots. I found my glasses, lip gloss, and an evaluation form for my supervisor and stuffed it all into a bag.
One of the most troubling side effects of human computation is that it obliterates difference and personal identity in a human workforce. mTurk’s design encourages Requesters to perceive Workers as lines of code, or part of a software-based cloud. This allows Requesters to experiment with human labour like a programmer might experiment with a line of code. If it doesn’t run, you get rid of it, and try again. There is no human accountability or ongoing commitment to those employed in the experiments. Seeing Turkers as human software makes it easier to charge tiny amounts for work that may take a fair amount of labour time; wages on the site average between $2 to $3 an hour. In fact, Requesters can refuse to pay for work if it doesn’t meet their standards with no legal consequences. Recourse for Turkers is limited to contacting the Requester through mTurk’s web interface, but even then, Amazon does not require Requesters to respond. The problem with this model of labour is that any form of human labour that competes with computation must accept the economic conditions of computers. By repackaging human labour as a form of computation, mTurk is implicitly comparing its labour market to that of a slave workforce: a workforce that has no autonomy, that exists to be exploited, that does not receive compensation for labour.
PULL QUOTE: By repackaging human labour as a form of computation, mTurk is implicitly comparing its labour market to that of a slave workforce.
This is not to say that Turkers are slaves. They are not. They can choose whether or not they sign up, and they also choose what work they do and when. But using the metaphor of computation for human labour has psychological implications, particularly for the person completing the work. To begin with, mTurk labour is conditional on the failure of developers to make new programs that could replace you. Like software, your work will quickly become obsolete, and once the update comes, you can be sure that no one will revert back to using the old stuff. Also, the computational nature of HITs on mTurk creates an even larger disconnect between labour and product than in the factory. You don’t know who you’re calculating these shopping lists for, why you’re doing it, and what impact your labour will have on the world. It’s as if the model of the factory has gone wireless and entered people’s homes, creating an ever-shifting, concatenating production line. Finally, unlike machinery, software is incorporeal. Software is idle until it is executed. It exists to work, has nobody extending in space and doesn’t do anything unless instructed.
After my lunch break ended at 12:00 noon, my next class arrived. This was a geometry class, and we were going over graphing slope and solving for y-intercept equations. Some of my students did not fully understand what we were going over together, but I did my best to demonstrate to them how to solve the material. Since I am not their regular teacher, there is only so much that I am able to do in order to help them, and I have to accept the limitations of my role as a substitute teacher. Reluctantly, I let each student know to just do their best and moved on to the next class. The next course started at 1:00 pm, and was another algebra class.This class was extremely routine, and very little out of the ordinary happened. It was a refreshing break, and I enjoyed the ease with which this class progressed. At 2:00 pm, my planning period began. This was an hour-long break period with no students and no course work to teach. During this break period, I logged in to my computer and signed in to Amazon Mechanical Turk in order to complete some assignments and to make a little extra money during my brief period of down time. I am always looking for new ways to earn more money, and Amazon Mechanical Turk provides me with just such an opportunity to supplement my substitute teaching income and keep me productive during my down time. Finally, at 2:00 pm, my final class of the day arrived. This was another geometry class, and we went over the same material, covering slope and y-intercept equations on graphs. The class went well, and I encountered no problems during it. At 3:00 pm, the bell rang, dismissing school for the day. I dismissed my students, packed my belongings, and headed down the stairs to my car in order to leave the school for the day.
Kristy Milland signed up as a Worker on mTurk in November 2005. She was in her late twenties, a mother of one, and running an at home day-care centre in Toronto. At first she used the service to subsidise her income, but now, almost ten years later, she tells me that Turking is her full-time job. Milland, who studied psychology at Ryerson University, has been carefully examining the emotional effects of her long-term engagement with mTurk. Like most jobs, Turking involves significant stress. But this stress is compounded, Milland tells me, by the fact that her ability to earn money on mTurk is less dependent on her work ethic and more on who happens to post work at any given time. “If it’s a good Requester with lots of work, maybe I can end my day early. If there isn’t much to do I may be chained to my desk from sunrise to sunset, and I still might not make my goals. Not making my goals means not buying groceries, paying the rent or utility bills, or purchasing needed prescriptions.”
PULL QUOTE: Her ability to earn money on mTurk is less dependent on her work ethic and more on who happens to post work at any given time.
The novelty of working as a Turker, Milland explains, also implies a certain type of alienation. Her friends that work in IT do not consider Turking part of the industry, because it doesn’t require specific technical training. And her friends that work offline don’t consider Turking to be “real work”. “Anyone I tell about my problems tells me I should thank my lucky stars I can work in my pajamas,” Milland says. “I am an outcast, a black sheep, outside of societal norms of what a worker is, and that leaves me with little leverage to change things for the better. It also leaves me feeling lonely. I can’t tell my friends and family about the troubles or triumphs I face as they just don’t get it. The amount of effort it takes to explain it often leaves me drained and them confused.”
These feelings of alienation prompted Milland to search for other Turkers online. She found Turker Nation, the oldest continuous forum for the discussion of mTurk-related things. Turker Nation, Milland discovered, has huge upside for both Workers and Requesters. The forum allows both halves of the market to talk in a human way in order to figure out how a HIT might be tweaked so that tasks can be completed more quickly and accurately. It allows Workers to voice their grievances with certain Requesters who don’t pay up when a HIT is complete. And it also provides Requesters a forum on which to discuss the growing issue of Workers who automate spam responses to HITs, in the hope that Requesters do not review work, but just pay the five cents automatically. Spam undermines the integrity of mTurk, which is bad for Requesters and Workers; so on Turker Nation, they have worked together to make lists of Workers who are known to spam, and lists of Requesters who are reliable. Beyond the optimisation of the system, there is an entire ‘social area’ on the forum, where Workers share personal anecdotes, and give each other tips on how to avoid red-eye and back pain after long sessions of sitting in front of the monitor.
Milland is now a community moderator on Turker Nation. She is adamant that these forums illustrate that online, crowd-sourced work is a sustainable form of labour, but only if communication between Requesters and Workers remains open, to make sure both feel a sense of accountability towards one another. Rather than falling back on failed examples from the offline work environment, Milland wants to use mTurk as an experiment for new labour relationships: “Online work makes failures obvious, such as wage theft and precarity of employment, so it also stands as a perfect place for experimentation.”
Late last year, Milland started an online campaign called “Dear Jeff Bezos”, which encouraged Turkers to write the Amazon CEO an email about how they feel about their work. Milland also asked that those writing emails forward them to her, so that she could publish them online. The purpose of this exercise, Milland told me, wasn’t to troll Bezos or denigrate Amazon, but to “help change the reputation of workers by showing who we truly are as educated, skilled, intelligent people with a wide variety of talents and abilities.” For instance, a letter from Manish, a Turker from India, begins by thanking Bezos for creating a platform that allows him to “earn a living from the comfort of our homes.” The rest of the email lists a number of grievances Manish has with the system – in particular the fact that Indian workers have no option but to withdraw money from Amazon via mailed cheques that take six weeks to arrive, and are often lost in transit. “If I had to sum up all my demands in one sentence,” Manish writes, “it would be that I want Amazon to start caring for the workers a bit more.”
The power of a letter like Manish’s, Milland explains, is that it breaks open the idea that mTurk workers are an anonymous, computational resource, or that human labour can be used in an algorithmic way. It provides a human voice to the menial task. This is precisely what Milland believes has to happen in order for mTurk to be a viable, ethical form of labour in the future.
I worked on the computer for another few hours desperately scrounging, hunting, and picking up jobs until around
just after midnight, when I found this writing hit: “A two thousand word report about your day.” I looked at it and decided why not give it a shot. Yes, it sounds weird to write a report about my day that a complete stranger will see, but somehow it was almost relieving, and liberating to do it. It made me feel invigorated, and was sort of a way for me to vent some of my stress without worrying whether the person I’m telling is listening or not, knowing that I can get it all out before something interrupts me. I honestly enjoyed it in a weird way, and now at 1:50 AM i plan to go finally call it a day and relax and try to get some much needed restful and restorative sleep.
PULL QUOTE: What is the underlying ideology of Amazon that it wants to make us see each other as computers?
Like many new labour technologies, mTurk creates new workforce markets accessible to people previously barred from finding employment, and it also facilitates new methods of exploitation. Kristy Milland is saying that we should try to reduce exploitation as early as possible, and the best way to do that in this case, is to listen carefully to the grievances of the Workers. The difficulty is, like von Kempelen’s Turk, mTurk is designed to disguise the human behind the machine. This design increases exploitation by reducing a sense of accountability or communication between Requesters and Workers. Requesters not paying Workers, or Workers spamming Requesters – these are symptoms of an underlying cause: the reduction of the human worker into source code. Milland doesn’t understand why Amazon advertises Workers as artificial artificial intelligence instead of what it really is: human freelancers. What is the benefit, she wonders? What is the underlying ideology of Amazon that it wants to make us see each other as computers?
For von Kempelen, the success of his Turk required that the human remain well hidden inside the machine, and also required that the person inside was willing to pretend that their very human intelligence was mechanical. But who was this person? It turns out that it was no one in particular, but an ever-changing collection of talented, but not professional, chess players. As the Turk toured around Europe and America, von Kempelen would send his assistant ahead to find a local chess player who needed work badly enough to spend a few weeks playing chess cramped inside a mechanical man. The success of von Kempelen’s Turk required not only that the audience believe that a mechanical chess player was possible, but also on the existence of a workforce of talented yet underpaid chess players willing to merge their identity with the machine for a bit of extra cash.
What an eventful day this was! I hope to have many more days just like it, and that tomorrow will be a wonderful day as well. My life can be very busy, but I enjoy living it, and am grateful for all the wonderful experiences and people that I come into contact with on a daily basis. Let’s hope tomorrow is just as great as today was, and that all days in my future are wonderful as well! Each day is what you make of it, and I hope to make as many days as I can memorable, fun experiences that I can look back on with fondness. In the end, I can thankfully say that I made today count.
Oscar Schwartz is a writer from Melbourne. He is currently writing a PhD on whether computers can write literature. He tweets at @scarschwartz.
Dodie Bellamy is friends with Eileen Myles and gets to go to her birthday party. I am jealous. Like all female poets of a certain persuasion, I’m a little bit in love with Eileen Myles, and it’s only gotten more acute as I’ve grown older. Dodie Bellamy broke Eileen Myles’ toilet. I’ve broken toilets. Several toilets. Clogged up dodgy drainage at a friend’s parents’ holiday house, after a big communal meal had made me sick, or made me barf, as Bellamy and Myles would say. I like the word ‘barf’. It’s almost onomatopoeic. My brother uses the word ‘ralph’ to the same effect; one of my friends likes ‘calling moose on the porcelain telephone’; ‘chunder’ is pretty good as well. I guess I most often use ‘spew’, which is almost onomatopoeic too.
Dodie Bellamy writes about Eileen Myles, and her poem ‘Everyday Barf’, which opens with the lines, “I don’t mind today, but the everyday makes me barf … Puking would put something on the sidewalk of the everyday so it could begin to be now.” There’s a central tension in the poem, Bellamy argues, between the general, the essential, the ordinary, the predetermined form, and the specific, the uncontainable, the spew. It’s a tension encapsulated (at least, for most people) in in the poem’s very title. Barf is disruptive. It is messy, it is visceral, it is an aberration. It is not everyday. Except that it is, for me.
PULL QUOTE: Barf is disruptive. It is not everyday. Except that it is, for me.
Which is to say, I’ve had to work very hard to make barf everyday, to make it ordinary, to shrug it off, when it happens (not every day, but at least, still, twice a week) as meaningless, unspectacular, to not consider it evidence of wrong-doing, over-indulgence, failure, hysteria, madness. To rinse out my mouth and come back to the table and smile.
In Myles’ poem, she takes her 83-year-old mother on a ferry that hits a storm, and as the commuters start vomiting violently around her, she writes/barfs her mother a poem, “The puking I do. This. Dear Mom. Blah,” vomiting up the primal, the repressed.
Dodie Bellamy argues that Barf is a literary form. “The Barf comes naturally to women because women like to throw up …” she writes, “[t]he Barf is an upheaval, born of our hangover from imbibing too much Western Civ … The Barf is not so much anti-logocentric, anti-dichotomy as outside the whole fucking system.” And I’m thrilled by this, I am, but my illness is not your fucking metaphor.
Chapter Two: When the Sick Rule the World
Dodie Bellamy joins a listserve for the sick, and goes to a meeting, having prepared herself bodily with perfume-free soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, moisturiser, deodorant, washing powder; wrapped her hair, cleaned with olive oil, in two cotton scarves to stop it giving others headaches. Dodie Bellamy does this because she has been feeling vaguely, nebulously sick: “I’ve been tired and headachy, with a chronic ADD-esque lack of focus. I’ve been having allergic reactions to everything, and if I eat the wrong thing I’m up with … god-awful nausea for like seven hours.”
Dodie Bellamy has been to a naturopath, who told her to move house. I once went to a naturopath, exhausted by doing the rounds of baffled doctors; she mixed me a thick green liquid so bitter that it made me gag, as if this might cure my barfing. Dodie Bellamy says the sick are sympathetic, and she names them, Sick Bonnie, Sick Catherine, Sick Rhonda, Sick Nina, Sick Tom. The sick live in vans and trailers and tents and move around the country, trying to avoid pesticides and electromagnetic fields, exhaust fumes and burning wood.
PULL QUOTE: When the sick rule the world, cars will no longer be perfumed into that new-car-smell, health insurance will actually cover specialists and procedures in their entirety.
“When the sick rule the world,” Dodie Bellamy writes, “roses, gardenias, freesias and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown.” When the sick rule the world, cars will no longer be perfumed into that new-car-smell, health insurance will actually cover specialists and procedures in their entirety, “all writing will be short and succinct,” and “mortality will be sexy.” “The well,” Dodie Bellamy writes, “will no longer delete the email of the sick.” Restaurants will not exist, Bellamy writes, and I cheer inside. I think, when the sick rule the world it will be illegal for service stations and convenience stores and cafés to make people request a key to use their toilets, set banquet menus will be outlawed, the working day will be no longer than six hours, there will be free tissues at every bus stop and bar. Dodie Bellamy gets it, writes about the sick falling in love and finding solace in each other, but she also writes the following:
There is no such thing as a hypochondriac; there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.
I saw eight different specialists over eighteen months before someone could figure out what was wrong with me and it was real and it still is and it is not a fucking metaphor.
Chapter Eight: Phone Home
Dodie Bellamy watches E.T. with her dying mother, and remembers that she watched E.T. with her grandmother the last time she saw her alive. “You watch E.T. with someone you love, then E.T. harvests their soul and you never see them again,” Dodie Bellamy writes, and, “E.T. is the angel of death.” Dodie Bellamy is terrified for her husband’s safety when she watches the film at home, alone, one more time.
Dodie Bellamy’s mother is dying, slowly and awfully, her lungs filling with fluid, and she looks just like E.T, thin-limbed and gangly, grey-skinned and big-headed. It’s not until Dodie Bellamy’s mother is in hospital, dying across the night, that she realises this, watching her gasp and jerk, her mouth open wide and gulping at the air. It’s a terrible intimacy to bring us here, to seat us by the deathbed, let us witness the “scurrying tremors” of the last seconds of life. I imagine my own mother’s death. I can’t imagine my own mother’s death.
When Dodie Bellamy’s mother dies, she can no longer phone home, because home “no longer exists.”
Dodie Bellamy’s writing students tell her E.T. was scary, was creepy, gave them nightmares. I watched E.T. as a child on Christmas night—they always screen it on Christmas night—sitting on the creamy carpet of the living room at home, sobbing uncontrollably as E.T. moved towards the stars. The story has grown to family legend, how inconsolable I was, how wretched, how I almost choked on my own tears, gulping at the air, and everybody chuckles at the memory. “You’ve always been thin-skinned,” my mother always tells me when we tell this story, but all I think is I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it.
Chapter Fourteen: In The Shadow of Twitter Towers
Dodie Bellamy lives in San Francisco, on streets named “in homage … to famous 19th Century madams”, just south of the New Market district, renamed NEMA by the tech workers who have moved in there and ENEMA by the older San Franciscans. Dodie Bellamy’s home city is rapidly changing, gentrifying, ugly word that that is, growing and pushing its poor more prominently to the streets.
Dodie Bellamy writes about these people, the wrack and refuse, and wants to give them dignity, wants to prefer them to the blank-faced, sexlessly-thin, designer-dogged tech-hipsters that are suddenly everywhere, carried to work in double-decked, wifi-ed ‘Google buses’, which “glide through the street like snakes—no, worms—no, slugs … giant white slugs of capitalism clogging traffic with their slime.” The foyer of Twitter HQ contains two 1870s cabins from Montana, which were disassembled, cleaned, shipped to San Francisco and rebuilt indoors to make a lounge space within the cafeteria. Dodie Bellamy watches a homeless woman bury trinkets in the jade plants near her building, a man take a shit on the street, does online battle with a condo-dwelling neighbour who shouts and hoses them down.
PULL QUOTE: The café that sold ‘slutcake’ now sells cold-drip and quinoa salads.
“It’s not just the fear of losing housing and having nowhere to go, it’s this sense of having one’s habitat destroyed around you,” Dodie Bellamy writes, and I get this, I feel this, I do. I live in Newtown, and when I say that now, people almost sneer, but when I moved here, almost eight years ago, things were different. The pubs were still full of prune-faced, wiry old men, the shops selling corsetry and latex bodysuits were yet to disappear. The café that sold ‘slutcake’ now sells cold-drip and quinoa salads. The dreadlocks on men and buzz-cuts on women are now man-buns on everyone. My rent has increased by 230% and my income has never matched this. But I’ll also spend $18 on a cocktail, buy vintage dresses from petticoated women with French-rolled hair and bright-red lips, and the only reason I don’t eat quinoa is that it makes me barf. And I also know the people who lived here before me were already bemoaning, eight years ago, how much the place had changed. Dodie Bellamy drinks a $10 cup of tea and knows that cities change, inexorably and inevitably, and she too is not unimplicated.
Manifesto: When The Sick call the Twitter Towers Home
Leslie Miley, an ex-employee of Twitter, a black man, left the company because of the lack of diversity in its workforce. Leslie Miley argues that diversity is integral to design, because designers with different backgrounds, the different neural and mental pathways that different languages and cultural norms engender, make different associations, find different solutions to the same problems. I think of this because I have a new iPhone, a newer model than the one I had; it has a Health app, a pedometer, designed into its OS. I only just threw out my Fitbit, after finally admitting that it wasn’t helping me control my exercise, that the thought I’d had—that when it buzzed to tell me I had reached my daily limit I would stop walking and start catching buses—was not how things were panning out at all. After realising that, once again, I was losing weight that I didn’t have to spare. And now I have a pedometer built into my phone, which cannot be deleted, which upgrades my daily average of steps every half hour and has me thinking, constantly, oh, I can do better than that. If more women worked for Apple, more of the everyday barfers, the sick, the refused, the otherwise-alien, I don’t think that this would have happened.
Fiona Wright’s poetry collection, Knuckled, won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award, and her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance was published by Giramondo in 2015. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre.
Laughter, anger, annoyance. These are all the different ways I grew out of feeling embarrassed about others’ fear of the unknown.
Maybe White Australia can take a leaf out of my book? I moved past embarrassment years ago, made fat with pride from a steady diet of art made by Aboriginal people. Tiddas, Christine Anu, Ian Abdulla, Bangarra, Warwick Thornton, Kunyi McInerney; I am forever shaped by the lyrics of the song ‘We Have Survived’ by No Fixed Address, inspired by the crafting of Kim Scott’s words in Benang, haunted by the poems—the life and death—of Robert Walker.
If I imagine myself sitting cross-legged in that same classroom—I’m me now, but they are still them then—the memory changes, and I can fantasise that the pride from a thousand art works and performances fuels my resistance. They laugh, and there I am: a little black duck with water running off its back.
In late 2007, an advertising agency based in Manchester produced what is generally recognised to be the most horrifying and ruinous shampoo commercial in human history. For legal reasons the agency can’t be named, and all copies of the film have been incinerated, but this is what they made. The ad takes us to a chilly, distant world, some dwarf planet at the furthest edge of the Sun’s ebbing warmth. We swoop over its computer-generated desolation: the ground here is rocky and fractured, broken up by cliffs like rough quartz. Everything is dry and utterly lifeless, but still somehow greasy; there’s an unhealthy gleam to these scars, as if some hideously organic slime were seeping through, as if the planet itself were alive, housing in its fizzling core an alien intelligence driven to madness by ten billion lonely years on the crumbling edge of infinity.
As we look up something appears in the near distance: an enormous tower, cylindrical, made from what looks like cast iron. There was life here once: someone came to this planet and built this structure, but the thing’s rank with age. The visitors, and their reasons for coming, must have died out while we on Earth were still toothy fish gulping our way through the boiling seas. But the camera keeps on rising, and the truth rises up from your stomach like vomit. This isn’t a tower at all. It’s a follicle, a single human hair. We’re on a scalp. The wind blasts like a solar storm, and the dandruff is torn from the surface of this planet to float sparkling through the void, as cold and indifferent as the furthest stars. This shampoo commercial generated a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. By the time the dust settled there had been eight lawsuits, two involuntary committals to a psychiatric facility, and one six-month prison sentence. The agency went bankrupt shortly afterwards; so did the shampoo manufacturer. Fredric Jameson describes the discursive field of postmodern society as one of “heterogeneity without a norm,” but even in these liberated times one unbreakable rule remains: Thou Shalt Not Show Dandruff On TV.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy begins with a series of shots of a shipyard in Viana do Castelo – the camera apparently drifting on a boat easing past the dock, pointed at a group of workers clustered on the edge of water. In voiceover, a number of men describe their earliest memories of the shipyard. These are presumably members of the some six hundred workers whose jobs, the film reveals soon, are imperilled, due to a series of stringent austerity measures enacted by the Portuguese government in 2013/2014, under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF.
One voice describes his amazement at the monumental spectacle of industry and commerce the shipyard first presented to him, with its giant cranes reaching to the heavens. Here, he remembers thinking, is evidence that “the world has no limits”.
Arabian Nights is a multi-faceted examination of Portuguese austerity, wrung through the prism of the One Thousand and One Nights. As in the original legend, the wily storyteller Scheherazade each night distracts her murderous husband, the king, with a story. But here — across three two-hour films, or ‘volumes’ — Gomes stages the action in a kind of hybrid setting of modern Portugal and Arabian wonderland, while the stories themselves veer across some combination of comedy, drama, documentary, and all stages in-between.
In an explanatory note preceding each volume, Gomes declares that these stories are adapted from “facts” occurring in Portugal across 2013-2014, when, under a government “devoid of social justice”, the country was “held hostage to austerity” and almost all Portuguese were impoverished.
For a time, the film descends into polyphony, as voiceovers directed at each strand compete for space on the soundtrack.
Even beyond the framing device borrowed from the Thousand and One Nights, Gomes’ film unfurls as a labyrinth of stories within stories. The director himself appears onscreen in the first movement of Volume 1, ‘The Restless One’, explaining his impulse to document Portuguese austerity, and his frustration over his inability to settle on the correct form. He tries to combine an account of the situation of the Castelo shipyard workers with a separate strand concerning an infestation of wasps that is plaguing Portuguese beekeepers, but professes to be unable to see how the pieces fit together. For a time, the film descends into polyphony, as voiceovers directed at each strand compete for space on the soundtrack.
Gomes himself, on screen again, tries to escape from his own film, leaping up from his chair and racing out of shot. His befuddled crew gives chase, eventually burying their director up to his neck in sand, and — in quasi-Marxist, kangaroo court style — announcing their intention to execute him. Gomes stalls them, offering to tell them the tale of the Thousands and One Nights, and it is only here that the story ‘proper’ begins, with Scheherazade (played by Crista Alfaiate) suddenly speeding into frame on a cruise boat, on her way to a fanciful Arabian island, where she dines with a procession of virgins.
This brief episode is followed by ‘The Men with Hard-Ons’, a bluntly satirical look at austerity negotiations between the Portuguese government and international finance. Three representatives from the IMF and World Bank are attempting to strong arm the government into accepting exorbitant rates of debt repayment, when a local wizard, correctly attributing the misanthropy of the entire negotiating party as being due to male impotency, offers them an aerosol spray that bestows enormous, long-lasting erections. Flush with the thrill of their own engorged phalluses (“The whole world is revolving around my cock”, one IMF man says, “It’s so cool.”) the bankers relax their economic proscriptions, until the absolute permanency of their erections becomes tiresome, and they decide to level stringent austerity measures in order to pay the wizard to reverse the spell.
In the bankers’ negotiations with the Portuguese government they adopt the universal language of creditors toward debtors everywhere: you have spent too freely, and are now morally obligated to make amends. The illusion of endless and endlessly repayable credit is itself a kind of world without limit (a dream encouraged by large lending organisations), one of many such worlds whose horizons are shrinking and reforming throughout the trilogy.
Arabian Nights Vol 2: The Desolate One
The centrepiece episode of Volume 2 is a courtroom farce given a playful, Brechtian staging in an open stone amphitheatre. An exasperated court official, adjudicating a case in which a pair of tenants sold their apartment’s furnishing, which belonged to their landlord, finds that the guilty party defers responsibility for the crime back onto the landlord, who himself defers it elsewhere. An absurd chain of culpability unfolds, eventually indicting almost the entire courtroom audience, including a genie, a passel of Chinese mail order brides, and a kidnapped cow (who shows up to provide testimony).
“I’m feeling sick,” says the judge (played by Luísa Cruz). “This grotesque chain of stupidity, evil, desperation is beginning to test my competence and above all my patience.” She breaks down in tears. Here’s another kind of world without limits, in which economic desperation has caused a breakdown in the social fabric, leaving an entire society floundering through an ethical and legal vacuum.
Early reports had each volume of Gomes’ trilogy being essentially disconnected from the other two, which is true inasmuch as each presents a series of self-contained episodes. But when watched together (I saw the trilogy at the Melbourne International Film Festival this month, where they screened consecutively on one Sunday) a thematic through line develops. Volume 1 conveys the shock of austerity measures, suggesting a society on the brink of a precipice, and the stresses that await (its third episode features documentary testimony from the recently unemployed).
Volume 2, ‘The Desolate One’, suggests a society in upheaval, as the pressures of austerity make themselves felt. In its charming, melancholy final episode, a small dog is passed around the residents of a housing complex, few of whom can afford to keep it.
Arabian Nights Vol 3: The Enchanted One
Volume 3, titled ‘The Enchanted One’ and the most difficult by far, conveys a sense of the slow passage back to social equilibrium or acceptance. Its key episode (and, running across roughly eighty minutes, the longest in the entire trilogy) is ‘The Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches’, a documentary portrait of a finch-trapping subculture among the lower echelons of Portuguese society, whose members hunt and train finches to compete in song competitions.
Even in captivity, there is song.
Although somewhat enlivened by frequent textual interruptions onscreen, which convey Scheherazade’s ongoing narration, this episode is provocatively low-key, even dull – honing in on the minutiae of finch hunting and cultivation, and the history and varieties of their songs. Gomes playfully suggests that the story of the chaffinches is being related over many nights by the princess: onscreen titles indicate when she pauses for daybreak and, inevitably, when she resumes at night – to the sighs of some audience members. The message becomes clear: day by day, hour by hour, life grinds on, and there is craft and activity to be found in the most impoverished places. Even in captivity, there is song.
Although the nameless ship builder’s dream of a world with no limits register as a dramatic irony — a passing fancy in an economy now defined by shrinking horizons — Gomes’ trilogy itself, playfully, thoughtfully, episode by episode, comes to reify the ambition of that dream. In its narrative adventurousness, epic scope, and freewheeling formal invention, Arabian Nights presents nothing less than a cinema without limits.
I often play this game and now and then I find it quite satisfying. A game can involve a handful of players and at other times maybe over one hundred people will participate. Most of these players are good-hearted people, even though they are ambitious writers. Some are established and some are simply trying to emerge from out of the shadows. It’s a passive-aggressive game; a game of opportunity and survival.
The players assemble in a room, standing in a circle around one to three chairs. Music starts playing and we all march around these chairs, maintaining the circle and never over-taking each other. Without warning the music will end. And that’s when the brutality starts. We gang-rush the chairs. You need to get your butt on one of those three seats! Sometimes played with three seats, and sometimes just one, there are the winners and of course the losers. Hardly ever are there prizes offered for a second place or even highly commended.
PULL QUOTE: I’ve played this game repeatedly for the last twenty years.
I’ve played this game repeatedly for the last twenty years. Sometimes I chalk-up luck and sometimes I’m just not even in the running for a seat. It does feel good to score. For the most part, as a full-time writer, this game of ‘musical literary chairs’ it is just another day at the office. I try to be a good sport about it.
When the successful merger of Penguin and Random House was announced a couple of years ago it was during a recession in which lucrative publishing opportunities in Australia had almost become ghosts. Many of us hoped this merger would open doors wider to the world market. At the same time, the writing community felt cold winds pick up when the newly elected Queensland government announced immediately that one of their first orders of business was to scrap the state’s literary awards to help a struggling economy.
PULL QUOTE: I begin almost every day wondering where my next good, original idea is coming from.
There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: how do we arm the other 11?
That’s the opening line in the 2005 Andrew Niccol film Lord of War. The protagonist, Yuri Orlov, a struggling Ukrainian immigrant played by Nicholas Cage, becomes an international weapons dealer in order to reach his share of the American Dream.
I don’t fantasise about becoming a character like Yuri Orlov, but do I understand his rationale. Is there a concept in my festering mind that I am yet to decipher? Did I use all my “A” material last week? Is it healthy to talk to myself so much?
Samuel Wagan Watsonis an award-winning Indigenous poet and professional raconteur. Born in Brisbane in 1972, he is of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish descent. Samuel’s first collection of poems won the 1998 David Unaipon Award. His latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats.
When you were a kitten I found you in the pet store on my twentieth birthday, sleeping with your seven brothers. Huddled in a row, all facing the same way, except you: squeezed right in the middle, the odd one out. The only girl, the only tabby with those seven little brothers of yours, all white and grey.
My first and only pet. I have just turned 34, so now we are both old.
Straight away you burrowed inside my open jacket and refused to come out, so I did up the zipper and sat in the front seat of the car with you sleeping propped on my stomach. I could cover all of you up with one hand. Dan came over to see you that afternoon and you were so tiny you ran up the inside of his pant leg.
One afternoon on those first days we came home and found you swinging from the middle of the washing line. It wasn’t clear how you came to be there, or for how long you had been gently rocking to and fro. The whole day, perhaps, silently hanging from your front claws. After we retrieved you, you were so relieved that we never found you trying to imitate a drying shirt again.
After I brought you home I was suddenly and horribly sick. It lasted for many months. It began with a low-grade fever, which increased and then would not go away. The glands in my neck were swollen like golf balls from a virus in my spinal cord, and I passed out frequently. I was beset by migraine and my bones ached. I stayed that way from autumn until spring. I left university, moved back into my parents’ house, and waited, with an increasing certainty that I would never be well again. In the end, I was in my bed, unable to do anything but ride out the occasional wave of motion sickness that came over me. I developed a panic disorder.
PULL QUOTE: I developed a panic disorder.
Often I would wake up mornings after knocking myself out the night before on the painkillers I had become addicted to. I took them to help me sleep. I would be so lethargic from having been unable to either leave my bed or sleep unaided, that on waking I would often be on the verge of delirium. Then I would see your tiny face and enormous eyes peering down at me from where you stood on my chest, and it would take a second to reconcile that you were really there. I would lift up the covers and you would scoot in and curl up against my neck because you liked to feel my heartbeat there. I wore you like a little scarf.
Every day, all night and day, you would stay there with me, until I was well enough to get out of bed.
About this time you made a friend. He was a scruffy grey and white street cat we thought was probably homeless, with his weirdly tufted fur and love of eating your food. You never objected to this, you just watched silently. Sometimes you would roll over on the floor beside your bowl, surrendering. Your courtship had been slow to develop. You loved to sit in the kitchen window and be warmed by the sun, and when you did this your friend would sit on the other side of this window and stare at you for hours. He seemed to be in love with you, coming at the same time each afternoon, waiting for you to come out. After all, you always were a great beauty. Everyone says so, not just me. In fact, a vet once said you were the prettiest cat she had ever seen.
Eventually the glass between you was opened, and the homeless cat, so much bigger than you, gave you an enormous lick on the top of the head, as if you were an ice cream; claiming you, perhaps. You were small enough to come up only to his chin, which he liked to rest on the back of your neck. Tentatively you followed him into the yard, where you sat side by side, until the sun was gone, when he would jump over the fence and you would come back inside and into bed. This happened every day we lived in the house.
We never did know what you spoke about.
Later we moved a few streets away and you spent nights sitting on the fence, hoping your friend would find you. Sometimes you sat there all night. Once, weeks later, your patience was rewarded: he came bounding over the gate, and again you were two silhouettes.
PULL QUOTE: We never did know what you spoke about.
Once, suddenly, you were gone for three days. We were distraught, since you never normally left the confines of the yard. One night, just as suddenly as you had left, you returned from your quest, as I learned when my mother wordlessly deposited you – filthy and sodden – on my head where I lay in bed, so relieved that she couldn’t find the words to explain. Where had you been? In a hole on a construction site? Down a well? The frustration we felt in never being able to know! But we didn’t care, because you were back, and you never left the boundary of any of your homes again. You suffered a bath in mute obedience.
Another time, you had tried to leave the front gate, and on doing so immediately come face to face with a large dog. You turned and ran back, straight into the fence, where you were caught: suspended between two railings with your back legs pedalling hopelessly in the air like a cartoon character. You never dared tread beyond the front step again. Sometimes, if the wind blew too harshly in your face while you sat there surveying the street, you would run back inside, and that was quite enough outdoors for one day.
You came with me to the house on Stanley Street. The other house in Five Ways. To the city warehouse with the Doberman that ran unimpeded through the building. To Sue’s house near the park, where I lived after dad died, where you would lie by the fire in winter. To the house with Kate, in Paddington near the fancy shops. To Darlinghurst again, then again. To Surry Hills with Alice, and then Nick, and then when the man moved in. Then to the country house with the apple tree you slept under during the three summers.
There, at the first hint of the chill that greeted the end of summer you would refuse to spend time outside. You would stay in and follow the patches of sun where they fell in through the windows around the house, or burrow in under the bed covers. But in the summer mornings, I would look out at the yard through the glass doors and see your small silhouette lit by the sun, where you had been lying in the same spot for hours. Your ears would prick at the sound of the door handle turning, and you would run quickly down the three stone steps and across the courtyard to the door.
Meow, you would say brightly. Hello.
PULL QUOTE: These were our days: passing contentedly, one after another.
You would come inside for breakfast and I would make coffee and our day would start together. You would keep me company at my desk all day while I worked. These were our days: passing contentedly, one after another. You would talk just about constantly through the day, a series of short inflections, and I would read things to you aloud to see if they were working and you would make sounds that to me at least imparted advice that was extremely meaningful, until you was truly bored or more often hungry, and would stand on the desk and butt my forehead with yours. On the odd days when it was warm enough to eat outside in the sun I liked to follow you onto the grass, lie down beside you for a moment, and try and see everything in the yard from your perspective. Then I would go back to work for a few more hours and some time later the man would be home and he and I would go out for dinner. He always liked to carry you around a bit first, like a football, and promise to bring you home a lobster if we saw one, though where we were they were very rare.
Then I moved alone to a place where you could not come.
Now you live with Bridget and Nick and their little black cat Stella, and their baby daughter Bea. You have lived with Bea for nearly half her life now so naturally she thinks you are hers. Her mother writes to me and says that Bea will cuddle you before she does anything else first thing in the morning, every day. If she sees you sleeping she will cover you with a blanket. Her mother asks her, What does the cat say, and Bea will say, Meow. One time in her sleep Bridget says Bea just said your name, Miro, Miro, over and over. Her father sends me photos of you wearing a small hat, or sleeping in the soft dirt of the garden, or sitting inside someone’s bag. In other photos you lie asleep on someone’s lap while Bea uses you as a cushion, which I know you enjoy, because you always did love the feeling of being slightly squashed.
You still love to talk, also, all the time. You have so many ideas. So many thoughts and feelings you like to share in all manner of unique intonations. So much to say that I always felt by day you must be very busy, perhaps an important executive at a city firm. Or at least a diplomat. Your favourite thing in the world is to be allowed under the covers, into the crook of an arm, and to be rolled up in the duvet so that you cannot move. You will stay there sleeping, purring all night. You do not enjoy for the pads of your paws to be cold or wet, and if that should happen you shake them, doing the weird, jangly dance of someone trying to not let their feet touch the ground.
PULL QUOTE: Your countenance is so even, your patience so infinite, that perhaps you are a reincarnated monk or a very wise elderly woman.
Your countenance is so even, your patience so infinite, that perhaps you are a reincarnated monk or a very wise elderly woman. Bridget and Nick have taught Bea to be so gentle with you when expressing her affections, but even the odd accidental poke in the eye is not too much for you. You have never scratched me, or anyone, ever, except for the time when I got into bed and lay, heavily, right on top of you where you sleeping when I came home drunk to the lights all switched off. I am still very sorry about that.
Sometimes I mistakenly think I might just call you on the telephone. Other times I think that maybe I will try and talk to you over the internet, because I heard people do that with their dogs. But it would be too hard to see you and not be able to give you the scratch under the chin you love so much, or for you to really hear me when I tell you that you are very smart and good looking, which is what the vet said I should do when I first took you home, that I should tell you that once a day to bolster your self-esteem, so I have always taken that advice to heart and also it is the truth. It’s too hard, already, to think of not telling you about my day each night before bed. So I pretend that I can’t talk to you because we are in the past, back when people could only communicate with the occasional postcard, which I send you from wherever I am.
The last night I saw you we slept on the couch, where I lay you along my ribs and over my stomach so your heart was on top of mine, and I pinned you there with the covers as tight as I could, tucked in like a little burrito, and you purred all through the night, which I know, because I hardly slept, because I wanted to be awake with you.
When I left, Nick sent a photo of you and me to my phone, taken from behind your head, your little ears in frame. Through the window you are watching me walk across the street. The last time you saw me, I was leaving you behind. But I did not know that at the time, I hope you will believe me. I know that on the day I found you I promised that I would never leave you, and one day I lied.
As I turned the corner and crossed the city, I did not care who saw me crying. My phone pinged with the photo, and by that point I cared even less who could see my face, streaked and red.
Bridget writes now, all these months later, and says that though they can never be what I am to you, that you are so loved where you are. That you are a great old dame and that travel would be hard on the elderly. That they love you now like you are part of their family. That they will always look after you.
PULL QUOTE: But the other day Bridget had to tell me that you are dying.
But the other day Bridget had to tell me that you are dying. We cried for a very long time. There are tumours on your belly, but you don’t feel any pain. I want you to know how glad I am for that last part. You don’t know anything is wrong, which is so like you. You will just bask in the extra attention like a grand dame. Bridget also said that the vet could tell that you are one who is very loved. She says that all that will happen now is that you will be spoiled more than you already are, taken under the covers into bed and allowed to eat ice cream from a spoon. People will come and see you when I can’t be there and give you a scratch between the ears for me.
The city I live in now is hard. Everyone who comes here says that about it, like an incantation you must murmur aloud to gain admission. Every day I think about you. I think about how you would have loved to watch the squirrels I see running in the yard from the desk where I write this. You would have sat next to me on the sill while I worked, and looked at the sparrows on the branches of the tree just outside the window. I know you would have been a busy and important cat of New York.
I was, I guess, in some ways dimly aware of your mortality, though not in any real way, because to me you are eternal; life is divided into the time before you came along (a dull void) and the time after (the sum of all things). I wonder if you did this now to let me go? So I could stop living in two places at once in my heart, always thinking of coming back to you? So I could let go of you and the place where you and I were together for so long, with everyone we have loved, along with everything that goes with that? And that when you are to leave I will be the one to see you off; I will come back and see you one last time, if I can, and I will hold you close to me like I always will, and then some day maybe I will see you again.
Best girl, little bean, I love you so. No one in my entire life will ever be what you are to me.
“What language does light speak? Vowels hang down from the pepper tree in their green and their gold.” – Charles Wright, Cryopexy
The pepper tree is an ornamental, invasive tree from South America, but it can sometimes be found lining the sides of Melbourne roads. Transplanted across the Pacific, it’s an oddly graceful tree: gnarled, twisted trunks made of splintery, rough grey bark; graceful, dark-green glossy and delicate leaves like fern fronds; fruit like bunches of peppercorns. Some use these pepperberries as substitutes for real peppercorns; the leaves are poisonous. The pepperberries take on hues of pink, green and yellow, literal “vowels” of light: absorbing some wavelengths, releasing others. The wavelengths the pigments reject, what we see as colour, form the language we use to describe the world. But the entire tree is transformed light: light captured, converted to wood, sugar, pepperberry, leaf; light made flesh, light made colour. The tree tells the story of the life of light, from the dawn of the universe to a petrified record of our star, the sun.
PULL QUOTE: Light controls our world, gave rise to life and colour, and enables us to understand the universe.
Our days are governed by the apparent movement of the sun across the bowl of the sky; illuminated by it, warmed by it, our food depending upon the right balance of light and water. Our lives in turn are controlled by the rotation of our planet around our sun; we are inextricably linked to the interaction of sunlight with everything on Earth. Light controls our world, gave rise to life and colour, and enables us to understand the universe.
What is light?
That light is a strange substance has been known since we first perceived it. Its nature has been debated since antiquity. The Greek philosopher Empedocles thought fire shot out from the eyes, but could not account for our lack of night vision. The Renaissance scientist Robert Hooke imagined it as a “pulse,” similar to the waves and ripples you can see in a pond if you drop a pebble into it. Descartes found that light always travelled in a straight line. Isaac Newton thought that light was made of “corpuscles,” or particles. Particles of light. That would mean discrete entities, but we see sunbeams spreading like waves, soft edges around pale shadows in late morning. Newton studied the behaviour of light extensively; his great work Opticks taught us the first rules of light: that light slows down when passing through water and glass, and how light behaves with mirrors of different shapes. But most importantly, Newton was the first to split light. Passing a beam of sunlight through a prism, he found he had created an earthly rainbow. Passing this rainbow through another prism at the correct angle, he reunited the colours and made the light white again. From the one came many, a rainbow and a whole world hidden from our view. Here was the first part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the radiation which extends from very high-energy X-rays, through the seven colours of visible light, to low-energy infrared – that warping of your vision, that shimmering heat haze you see over a fire. All of this energy is of the same nature, related to each other.
A friend tells us about how she’d gone on a silent retreat for nine days. She wasn’t allowed to talk or use her phone or read. I say that I probably wouldn’t be able to do this. She says she was bored from day one. They’d give her breakfast and lunch and then dinner was a single mandarin. She says: “I’d spend time by looking for dog faces in the knots of wood in the ceiling. I would do this each morning while lying on my back in bed and then think to myself, there, that’s one hour down.”
My girlfriend and I travel, four hours by car, to a wedding, with a friend and the friend’s new boyfriend, who has just moved here from Colombia and is the kindest person we’ve ever met. We talk about it when he’s not around. He is kind, we say to each other. On the way we stop at a tourist attraction; a petting zoo and pancake restaurant made to look like a castle. We eat ice cream and look around, but it’s almost entirely disappointing.
Please do not leave me in this castle, the Colombian says when we’re getting into the car to leave.
We go to the northern most tip of the country, then go out to a reef on a speed boat. I have a hangover, from a wedding, a different one this time, the night before. While we speed across the choppy waves I try to arrange my face so it looks like I’m both calm and having a great time. Everyone else in the boat is having a good time. The reef is amazing, so are the fish. I float above them on a pool noodle, feeling sick. Some sharks pass under us, and even though they seem not to notice the nine of us all floating together on pool noodles, I still freeze up for a second when I see them.
It’s the Easter break and there’s a lot of people everywhere. This is the magic of travelling; you ignore everyone else that exists so in your memories you are alone. I talk about this, at length, to my girlfriend, while we’re lying on our backs, staring at the ceiling fan. I don’t cope well with the heat, and the air around us is thick and tropical. I am constantly damp and angry about it. My girlfriend says she has no idea what I’m talking about.
A friend had gone back to his hometown of Wellington to go on a hike. He lives in Australia now. He tells us that he wasn’t as fit as he used to be, so a week before the walk he filled a backpack with water bottles—twelve of them, all weighing a litre—and trudged around the city. He said it was a strange experience, to walk around with a giant pack in your hometown. People kept asking him where he was from and he would say, “Here. I’m actually from here.”
My girlfriend’s godmother died a day before one of the weddings; the day after her grandmother had a stroke in a car park and went to hospital. We were travelling between to two different weddings in two different states, neither of which we lived in. We had to take our clothes to a drycleaner. “All I have is bad news,” my girlfriend says, while we walk home from the reception, in the middle of the night. “I’m a huge downer at the moment.”
The problem is that I’m supposed to be writing a second book, but instead I’m not.
The problem is that I’m supposed to be writing a second book, but instead I‘m not. I travel around with my laptop with, but I only use it on the plane, and then only to watch TV shows. It’s in the background of all of this, constantly. Instead I read magazines. People sometimes ask me, How’s the second book coming along? and I say Great and then our conversation trails off and I feel bad about it. If anyone ever asks me what it;s about I just say ‘Discoveries,’ and leave it at that, which isn’t very helpful to anybody.
In our hotel room I wake up from the heat at around five in the morning. I figure that I may as well just give in and go running because I’m already sweating. I don’t know the town, which is small and dotted with palm trees, but I end up at a sports oval. I see no one else the entire time, apart from another person doing sprints in the middle of the oval, and I avoid eye contact with him. At some point I step awkwardly in the grass and make a weird noise, like a disturbed horse, and that seems to be all until the next day when my back seizes up.
Years later he went to jail for armed robbery.
I can’t drive a car so I talk to my girlfriend while she drives our rental car. I tell her about a son my parents’ close friends adopted, and how we were about the same age and our parents were always lightly competitive with each other about their kids. We’d visited them out at their farm and I’d gone swimming with this kid in a dam, which I’d hated. I hate swimming in dams because of the mud when you’re climbing out and how the water is always brown. The kid leant me a t-shirt because I’d gotten mine wet, and I went home wearing it, and I didn’t see them again so I held onto the shirt. I tell this to my girlfriend while she drives. I say, Years later he went to jail for armed robbery.
I start renting an office to try and work better, because I’m sitting around at home doing nothing. I imagine that the pressure of paying for a desk will somehow make me work better. In an odd fit of desperation, I start walking to my office because I think that I’ll be able to see interesting people, but in truth I don’t see anything noteworthy and I begin to worry that I’m only really interested in myself. When it comes time to work I write group emails to the other people in the office about who’s watering the plants, because they’re looking dead and then I delete the email before sending it.
It’s a joke but neither of us really laugh about it.
I tell my girlfriend that my book has no point, like my entire life. It’s a joke but neither of us really laugh about it. I say this while we’re on a river cruise. I learnt on the boat, while we were floating around looking for crocodiles on the banks, that salt collects in the leaves of mangrove trees until they turn yellow and fall off. This way the tree can filter the seawater that it absorbs. They’re sitting in saltwater. I nod when I’m told this because it makes complete sense. I look out for yellow leaves on the trees we’re floating past and notice that they’re everywhere. They were there the whole time.
I go to see a physio about my back. He looks younger than me and is from Wellington and I say I have a friend from there, even though it’s technically not true. I’ve mixed it up with Christchurch. I tell him I’m a teacher because I sometimes do that. I spend a long time looking through a hole in a table, at the floor, while he pushes his knuckles into my back. Later he shows me an exercise on how to fix myself, because my body is slowly deteriorating. He lies with a foam noodle under his back and lets his arms fall to the side, like he’s being crucified. I see the whites of his eyes and he makes an involuntary sound. It is alarmingly haunting and beautiful.
Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
At the turn of the century I became bored writing about homosexuality. Most of my writings for three decades, since my first book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, had touched on it in some way or another, even though I had escaped along the way into several other subjects, including a coffee table book which in the language of cultural studies set out to deconstruct postage stamps. Surely, I felt, in a new century, the need to explore and uncover the depths of fear, dislike, and opprobrium of homosexuality had given way to a new normality; when discussing one’s sexuality no longer seemed a pre-eminent intellectual and emotional demand.
Of course that desire didn’t last; yes, I wrote one book, and helped co-edit another, about human security and Australian foreign policy. But the need to explain and interrogate the ways in which homosex remains central at both the personal and collective levels remained. There is a point in one’s life when one recognises that what for us is memory becomes, for younger people, history. Over the past few years I have spent considerable time with people far younger than me who are fascinated by the history of the gay and AIDS movements, and are often engaged in archival projects to recover the memories of the past several decades. Of course this is not an impulse confined to the queer world, but it seems stronger there for two interconnected reasons: firstly, there is no biological family to pass on these stories, and secondly, the deaths from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s have hollowed out the generation who should now be reaching retirement.
One much younger friend, a leading HIV activist in Sydney, once told me he was conscious of having lost most of his fathers, meaning those men who should have been there as he came into the gay world. He is one of a number of young men—and some women—who are deeply invested in our communal history, and at the same time constantly struggling with the absence of it in any mainstream historical records. The explosion of websites devoted to a gay past suggests there is a palpable need to relive and recreate this history.
Over the past two years, during which I have had to come to terms with the death of a long term partner, much of my comfort has come from younger gay men who are able to reach across decades to provide genuine comfort and friendship. At the same time [homo]sexuality remains as politicised as ever, indeed it has now entered the international arena as a major testing point for a new cold war around individual rights versus traditional religious and political authorities; Presidents Obama and Putin have both appealed to very different understandings of sexuality in a dispute that has been the subject of increasing numbers of heated debates within international fora.
It is often assumed that the world at large accepts sexual diversity, a polite way of saying homosexuality. After all we have many gay and lesbian public figures, and there is popular, if not political support for same sex marriage. The quip that the love that cannot speak its name has become the identity that will not cease bragging about itself has become tired.
And yet… the odd reluctance to acknowledge homosexuality is still present, and often where one least suspects it. The very people who rail against religious intolerance and name-calling in professional sports themselves practise what Christopher Isherwood long ago called “annihilation by blandness”, the refusal to acknowledge that a different sexuality is central to understanding one’s life, even if it is not, necessarily, the dominant way in which we present to the world. I thought of Isherwood’s phrase when reading John Lahr’s massive study of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury, 2014). The recent film, The Imitation Game, based on the life of Alan Turing, who helped create the computer as part of breaking German codes during World War II, continues this sort of annihilation. While the film is framed by Turing’s infatuation with a fellow school boy and his suicide after being chemically castrated as a result of homosexual soliciting, he is never allowed any sexual intimacy with another man.
When Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda was published I was struck by the reluctance of reviewers to discuss the sexual anxieties and desires of the central character; yes, Barracuda is a novel about class, sport and private schools, but Danny’s life makes no sense unless one ponders his sexual confusions. Almost all of the reviewers identified Danny as “gay”, but to do so is to confuse identity with behaviour and desire, and to miss the point that the world is not divided neatly, as one reviewer suggested in the rather snide comment that Tsiolkas was “writing gay for straight readers”. “I didn’t want to write a coming out novel” Christos deliberately, it seems, imagined a character who struggles to come to terms with his homosexual desires without adopting the politically correct language of a social movement. This, and not the actual descriptions of sex, is what is most subversive about Barracuda.
Does this matter? Yes, when it means the central themes of life and literature are distorted. Both gay critics—and here I use the term “gay” for both women and men—and those who are not can be guilty of omission, either out of embarrassment or because they resist “special pleading”. But in a world which assumes stable gender and heterosexuality as the norm, any artists who struggles against this norm will reflect this in their work, even if it goes unmentioned. Misogyny, as Julia Gillard said of the attacks on her as leader, does not explain everything, but it is always present. The same is true of sexuality for a homosexual artist.
Dennis Altman, a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at LaTrobe University, is the author of 13 books, most recently The End of the Homosexual? In 2006 he was listed by The Bulletin as one of the 100 most influential Australians, and he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008.
The first time I smelt eggplant frying, I was eighteen years old and over at my new friend Eleni Papadakis’s parents’ place. The house had exposed brick and bronze reliefs on the wall, and as first year architecture students, we were allowed to exchange glances about this. Later, I fucked a boy that she liked and later still, she cried about that on my kitchen floor. I told her that she meant more to me than any boy, while I thought, you didn’t have a chance, lovie.
It was the olive oil that got me, shimmering in the air, pale and lucid, bringing me visions of Greek Islands stained by Lawrence Durrell and soft racism. As we stood around, watching Eleni’s mother beat béchamel, El told us about her cousin in Sydney who had a stained glass window with a picture of the acropolis of one side of her front door, and one with a picture of the Sydney Opera House on the other. We laughed, comfortable in the assumption that we were both laughing at the same thing. Then we ate the moussaka, a shapeless meal, this pile of lamb and cinnamon and béchamel that wandered into my mouth and then slid happily down my throat, but also shapeless in its endless succession of mezze and scooping salads and sweets and coffees and fruits and liqueurs that meant it was really hard to find a polite time to leave and head for the pub.
Years later, my then-mother-in-law, Cypriot, crazy as she liked and a terrifyingly good cook, made me Cypriot moussaka, and it was very important to her, and so to me, that it wasn’t made with eggplant, it was made with potato. She made us eat it at 10:30 in the morning because we had a train to catch, and it was both delicious and made me feel like I was going to die. My belly groaned at the floor through my pants, and she gave us some plastic-wrapped baklava and walnut-stuffed figs to eat on the train for when we got hungry again which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.
Michael, the boy I fucked back then, was probably gay, in the end. His bones were too big for his body and he always drank Midori, which might’ve been a clue, although that clue might’ve been to the fact that he was eighteen. I spent long hours in his bed, looking at myself in the blank side of CDs, checking that I could find something desirable in that face, even if he didn’t. He seemed to be always in the next room, waiting for me to leave, probably, most likely, or hanging out with his DJ mate in a way that was entirely appropriate.
Later, as it crawled in from the migrant to the gourmet to the mainstream, I sliced and salted and fried eggplant myself more times than I can remember. This was as I crawled around in hospitality, pretending to be a writer who was just doing chef work for the next little while. I mostly prepared eggplant as a part of making ratatouille, a stew that, it being the nineties, wasn’t yet naff, brought to me via the curly stylings of Gabriel Gate: heartfelt, European. He knew his potatoes and I wanted to know his potatoes too. There were many recipes for ratatouille that just dumped all of the vegetables into the pan at once, but I fried each of them separately, and roasted the capsicums over a naked gas flame, peeling back the burns that had become of its skin. The end result tasted better than the all-in-one-pot ratatouille, and I got the added bonus of being able to tell people that this was the proper way to make ratatouille, as if they had a deep knowledge of exactly what the fuck ratatouille was in suburban Australia in 1993.
I made this for my sister a few times, in an attempt to make her like me more.
You can eat ratatouille just as a stew, or with a fried egg, but I always made it into a pie. All the vegetably bits went into a roasting pan, then I whisked up yoghurt and some eggs, covered the top with parmesan and put it in the oven until it puffed as big as Gordon Ramsay’s hair. I made this for my sister a few times, in an attempt to make her like me more. This is what I remember most: placing down the pie, piles of washing up and six hours of frying behind me, and her saying that it was delicious, but never in quite the right way. “It has a lot of oil in it, hey?” she’d say, planning her run for the next morning.
Later, living in Canberra, leaving Canberra, I had a party. At the time, I was hanging out with two almost entirely separate crowds of people. The first was the decent folk, often drunker than was polite, with good jobs and an interest in rugby and legal firecrackers and probably some legal porn there too. My boyfriend was one of those guys. The other group were my people, the no-goodniks, who took any substance that came to hand and drank through the night and stole large pieces of metal and slept in the park and sometimes wrote some stuff and played some music and did some readings that may or may not have been amazing. They weren’t invited to my goodbye party. They were leaving with me, and the two groups wouldn’t mix anyway, I thought.
I had the party at my friend Frank’s house, so the no-goodniks wouldn’t drop round by mistake to hit me up for some goey. Frank was one of the decent ones, a handsome guy of the Brideshead Revisited mould, who had once had a girlfriend who had dissipated somehow into the endless stream of beers. He was highish up in the civil service, and I always remember him with his tie crooked and a bit of stubble, but that just could be because my memory is a breeding ground for clichés. He made a bonfire for my party - he liked to burn stuff when he was drunk, which meant he liked to burn stuff - and at some stage of the night he spent a lot of time poking at something on the fire. I watched him sway and thought that he would probably be fine. Then he came my way, with a bowl of greyish slop and a handful of Turkish bread. “Baba ghanoush,” he said, and I ate, and he ate, and maybe we let some other people eat too. It was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten, drunk love made into a paste with garlic and lemon and tahini.
When the century became the twenty-first, eggplant became middle-aged and middle-class. It lurked in the supermarket deli sections in snot-like vinegary strings, destined for an antipasto platter on an outside dining terrace, washed down with Pinot Grigio or somesuch, the lips that embraced it thick with Revlon. It appeared many times during various catering gigs that I did: salted, fried, marinated in either balsamic or pomegranate molasses depending on the decade, wrapped around bocconcini like a natty little cloak, stabbed together with a toothpick in a way that must have hurt the baby cheeses. I watched those treats go into many a bourgeois mouth as they discussed the state of universities or how books made of paper are just better or who was doing what to whose orifice right now and how that was a bit wrong. They would make awkward small talk with me because word got around that I had a PhD, but here I was, still frying eggplant and handing it out. “It seems like such a pity that you still have to do this kind of work,” one of them said to me, radiating well-meaning and duty free perfume.
I managed not to think about breaking up with him again until the lineup for the sarcophagus at MONA the next day, but to be fair, I probably wasn’t alone, it’s a long line, and there’s no mobile phone reception down there.
Last year, my then-boyfriend and I were in Hobart, to set the record straight and do a hard restart after yet another breakup. Our relationship had so many breakups that it looked like a mosaic birdbath at a midrange garden centre. This time, we were trying to heal our relationship by eating a 10,000 course degustation menu with matching wines at a restaurant so right-on that it didn’t even have a menu at all, just a list of ingredients you could choose from. One of those was eggplant, and luckily the eggplant came out quite early, because later on, I was so drunk that the courses became a delicious blur. The eggplant was pureed, like a baba ghanoush, but it was black. It tasted like smoke and earth and caviar and like all the good things from the ground had been sent to heaven. We smiled and nodded at each other as we tasted it, pleased in each other’s taste, pleased to be having the same taste for once, pleased not to be staring into the mid-distance, thinking about how the other person was not quite who we’d like them to be. The night went well, and I managed not to think about breaking up with him again until the lineup for the sarcophagus at MONA the next day, but to be fair, I probably wasn’t alone, it’s a long line, and there’s no mobile phone reception down there.
Eggplant was the first thing I cooked for the same boyfriend after he had his wisdom teeth out. It hadn’t gone well, and his mouth was a small puffy hole in which his tongue hung like so much antipasto. Fried gently, covered in white miso and soy and sesame oil – the eggplant, that is. He got it down in the end, making unpalatable noises, pushing it around with his numb tongue. “I can’t really taste anything,” he said, which was, embarrassingly enough, immensely annoying to me, because I may as well just have steamed rice. We later found out that part of his tongue was pretty much permanently damaged by the operation, so he would never have a full range of taste or be able to move his tongue completely again. This put a major dint in our relationship and we broke up soon afterwards. He loved eggplant very much. He loved vermentino too, and many cheeses, and Tori Amos, and assorted lesbians. He was good at loving things that couldn’t love him back.
Helen Addison-Smith has been previously published in journals such as Island, Hecate and refo, and was featured in Overland’s first e-book Women’s Work. She’s a reformed chef and a persistent single mother.
Image by Wolfgang von Kempelen - Copper engraving from Freiherr Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz, Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen, 1789. Licensed under Public Domain
In 1770, Wolfgang von Kempelen stood in front of Empress Maria Theresa at her court in Vienna and proclaimed to have built a mechanical man that could beat humans at chess. The mechanical man – or ‘the Turk’, as von Kempelen named him – was life-sized, carved from maple-wood, dressed in ornate robes and a turban, and sat behind a large cabinet on top of which was a chess set. Von Kempelen opened the cabinet to reveal a labyrinth of levers, cogs and clockwork machinery. He then closed the cabinet, inserted a large key, wound it up, and after some ticking and whirring the Turk lifted its head, studied the board, took hold of a white pawn and moved it forward two places. News of the Turk spread, and chess masters from across the empire travelled for their opportunity to play the machine; they usually returned home defeated. For the next few decades the Turk toured Europe and America, trouncing some of the most formidable minds of the time – Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon. Legend has it that Napoleon tested the Turk by making illegal moves, but the Turk grew fed up, and swiped the board.
The Turk’s success evoked varied responses. While some conceded that humans had actually been surpassed by machines, there were a host of counter theories. One was that the Turk was controlled via magnets from a distance. Others believed that it was operated by a spirit held captive in the machine. A young Edgar Allan Poe, who was obsessed with the machine, suggested that the Turk was a hoax, a brilliantly constructed diversion machine that was controlled by a human hiding in the cabinet. Poe was right. The cabinet on which the Turk sat was constructed to conceal a person, and most of the gears and levers were for show. When the cabinet was open, the human would shuffle quietly among them to avoid detection.
PULL QUOTE: History has made the Turk into a star, whereas the person inside is a ghost in the machine.
This story, with its cast of famous characters, provides an almost mythological dawn for the age of Artificial Intelligence, signifying some of the radical adjustments human consciousness has had to make in coming to terms with the fact that intelligence might not be what makes us unique. But when the story is retold, there is a certain character that always remains invisible and voiceless. No one ever talks about the person sitting inside the cabinet controlling the Turk, scurrying among the levers and clogs to avoid detection. The Turk was essentially just an elaborate puppet, and all of its many great achievements were thanks to a real human hiding inside. History has made the Turk into a star, whereas the person inside is a ghost in the machine. We are willing to ignore the human for the romance of a thinking machine.
My name is Beverly and my day started out at 8:45 AM. I hadn’t slept well, and had a late night. I had a lot on my mind from this past week and I was feeling very tired and down, right from the start. I came out into my kitchen (I live in a small two bedroom apartment with my husband and two cats) and decided it was time to make breakfast… I couldn’t decide what I wanted because I was too focused on talking myself out of crawling back into bed. It was probably 9am when I said to myself “I NEED coffee.” Once I had the coffee water boiling I prepped my French press for the job, 2 tablespoons of 8 O'clock original roast coffee. Once that was steeping, I decided to grab a package of pop-tarts to eat for breakfast while I began my day working on the computer. At this point I realised that my husband (Daryl) was already awake and watching TV in the living room, he had the day off of work and I had completely forgot. I went in to greet him and say good morning. It was at this point probably 9:15 AM. After we had our normal “good morning, what are your plans for the day” conversation I finally went and poured my coffee and sat down at the computer to begin my work on Amazon Mechanical Turk.
My name is not actually Beverly. I didn’t wake up at 8.45am, or eat pop tarts for breakfast, and I don’t have a husband called Daryl. These experiences belong to someone else. But I did pay for them using Amazon Mechanical Turk – $5 to be precise – and now, in a way, I own them. Amazon Mechanical Turk, or mTurk for short, is a service offered by Amazon that promises a scalable, on-demand workforce for menial, computer-based work that requires human intelligence. This workforce is not made up of Amazon employees, but an internationally dispersed and anonymous group of workers who sign up to mTurk and complete tasks, which usually require no specific skill or training, for small sums of money. mTurk advertises itself as “artificial artificial intelligence.” The tasks that the human workforce complete are rote and repetitive – like transcribing audio or captioning photos – but which computers still find challenging.
Those who use mTurk can be divided in two groups: Requesters, who outsource work; and Workers (affectionately known as Turkers) who complete the tasks that the Requesters set. A Requester logs into mTurk and creates what is called a HIT (Human Intelligence Task). For example, a Requester might put out a HIT asking for Workers to read a receipt, extract all of the purchased items and their price, and then calculate the total. Often, the Requester will put out tens of thousands of these HITS at one time, and pay around 10 cents or so for the completion of each one. If a Worker wants to complete this request, they accept the HIT, read the receipt, total the price, and then send the data back to the Requester.
PULL QUOTE: Earlier this year I became a Requester on mTurk.
Earlier this year I became a Requester on mTurk. The first and only HIT I made was as follows: “Please send me a minimum 2000 word journal entry about your day. Please provide as many concrete details as possible without providing any information that would give up your identity. Please use fake names.” I set the price at $5, an expiry time of twenty-four hours, and total budget of $35, meaning that after the first seven Turkers submitted, the HIT would terminate. I filled this quota within the first four hours of posting the HIT. That evening I sat in my room and read through the private thoughts and private conversations of seven people I had never met. The strangest thing was that this whole process was mediated entirely via the Amazon webpage. There was no personal interaction required between me as Requester and them as Workers. In fact, it feels like the site is set up to discourage any type of personal communication, as the Worker is presented to the Requester not by names, but as serial numbers. If you’re requesting large scale, impersonalised work – like totalling purchased items on a receipt – the effect of this computer-mediated service is to make the interaction appear not between a human and a human, but a human and software, as if it’s just a matter of executing a program. Like the chess playing mechanical Turk of the eighteenth century, mTurk is designed to make the human behind the machine invisible.
This is an excerpt from the winning piece of The Lifted Brow Experimental Non-fiction Prize, 2015. It appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue.Get your copy now.
Oscar Schwartz is a writer from Melbourne. He is currently writing a PhD on whether computers can write literature. He tweets at @scarschwartz.
Animal: a living creature. —L. a breathing creature. —L. anima, breath
Some sort of canine, I reckon. My thoughts are pack-thoughts, I know that much. I’m all over the place all at once. There is other evidence, too. There is the sporadic, transformative heat, that salt-water slick between my tits in the night; there is this accumulating fur. There is the impulse to bite, and the insatiable, reckless hunger. There is the horniness, the excessive, wild suddenness of it. And there is the rage — rage so massive it’s outside me, nipping my neck, worrying me behind the knees. I swear I am turning into a wild dog.
In the last years I’ve written animals into my stories. Feral dogs tumble down into the subway system, a seal-woman flees her fishmonger husband, a deer is hunted through an urban park. These animals populate the city I live in, the city of Toronto, in Canada, the city that resides more in my mind than in real space. The animals are significant effigies, pulsing, moving. In this regard, they are mementoes, inserted to recall and repopulate and awaken. In All The Broken Things, the novel I published in 2014, a performing bear circumnavigates an area of Toronto where streams once flowed south to Lake Ontario.
As human dwellers encroach on animal territories, we are seeing more and more previously annexed creatures in the urban space: deer, coyote, fox, opossum. We have buried waterways to make room for our homes, but to bury is not to eradicate. The curatorial approach colonialists have historically taken to landscape, to First Nations, and to fauna is an open, haunting wound. If I disrespect the earth’s body, I do an egregious disrespect to my own body. I think this: a (money) machine was put in motion a few hundred years ago, one that plunders what it can and scarifies what it can’t — and no one remembers how to turn it off.
In a long meditation called The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida begins with the shame he feels as his pet cat gazes upon his naked body. He argues that the word “Animal” places the wordy human into a dangerous power position:
Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. These humans are found giving it to themselves, this word, but as if they had received it as an inheritance. They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept: “the Animal,” they say… All the philosophers we will investigate (from Aristotle to Lacan, and including Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, and Levinas), all of them say the same thing: the animal is without language.
If I become a dog, I feel this will make me more me, not less me. I will have allowed something authentic to transpire in my mind. Let me explain:
According to Derrida, how we then locate those human-animals we do not wish to recognise as linguistically responsive, is by an appalling reconfiguration of those marginalised persons whose lives can be reduced, semantically, to the status of creature. Since “the animal” cannot legally be murdered, genocide becomes a kind of permissible “abattoir.” Incidentally, genocide can look like a manufactory, or it can look like a physical annexation, where that annexation is bound so that it can be forgotten, dismissed, or neglected. The words “reserve,” “reservation,” “internment,” and “refugee camp” come to my mind. I know that Hitler’s early inspiration for concentration camps came through readings of Western pulp fiction by Karl May, and specifically, through reading descriptions of American Indian reservations. I know that Australian Aboriginals were, until the mid-1960s, not counted as humans, and were managed through the same administrations that managed flora and fauna in Australia.
What is sweat? What is it to generate heat? I am soaked in my own production. I’m sure you find this repugnant. Woman plus body fluid plus words equals ew. But here’s what I am thinking: until we all begin to manage ourselves as integral to flora and fauna the earth will deteriorate. This corralling — of humans — tending at heart to be an economic decision — begins and ends in narrative, in the stories we reproduce. If we define ourselves as not-animal, and divided from the land, then it becomes much easier to manipulate (by metaphor, by exoticising, by othering) those persons and animals we wish to plunder or eradicate. The word “Animal,” then, is as important as any word to the current crisis to which the world has arrived. It is time we began to reclaim the animal that therefore we all are. We are fauna! I myself am a dog (although maybe I aim too high here — maybe I am a rat, a worm, a snail, a bacteria, a parasite). My deepest humility resides here. The hum of my true self is no less singular than the hum of the true self of one bee, one spider, one wolf, were we to get to know that singularity. Our hubris in thinking otherwise has led us astray.
Words have begun to lose their stability.
I pluck the black hairs from my chin. Something — a strand of blonde, long and wavy hair from each cheek — whiskers! It seems there is always more hair. This is a “symptom” of menopause, the biological change described by Wikipedia (and so, by everyone!) as the “opposite of menarche.” Completely wrong! In my experience, menopause opposes nothing. It is rather a continuum of increasing bewilderment. It is feral excess. Linearity blurs, and with it sense, and with it what we call rationality. Words have begun to lose their stability. I begin to speak and can’t locate nouns, the names for things. I’m trying to listen to this strange transformation. What is it telling me, what is it remarking upon? For instance, what is language without nouns? It is the indefinite that emerges. Language without nouns privileges the constant propulsive motion of verbs. Run, breathe, see, feel. Without nouns, language becomes seeking, becomes desire without object. Is this animal yearning? Folklore features bear-women, and seal-women, and all manner of story-women who marry or have sexual encounters with animals — beasts and snakes and frogs and wolves. They are not metaphorically devolving. They are admitting to their animal bewilderment. Their beautiful full selves. Selkies —seal-women — will abandon their human children to reunite with their animal selves. I myself am leaving human bounds. My hips are changing shape. I snarl when I feel my autonomy impinged upon. The smell of dog persists, too, and to mask it, I slather rose cream over my whole body.
My Dutch husband’s grandmother had tendrilling chin and moustache hairs — renegades that were beautiful because they expressed her in her entirety. She lived her life amid artists, philosophers, and writers, gave birth fifteen times. What aspect of my full integrity am I limiting by plucking, shaving, threading, waxing? “Just leave it,” my husband says. It makes me squirm to imagine leaving it grow, but I will say, there is pleasure in the wisps and jags of it, the secret coat, the hidden wild, the oily stink I imagine gathering.
In fact, the animals do talk. Of course, they talk! They have a language of gesture, of piss, of shit, of the rot they roll in, of tick, of grass, of body. Biologist Cam McTavish studies what are known as bear rub trees:
As remote camera technology improved, McTavish expanded his studies of what he once thought of as bear trees. He has now captured images of mule and white-tailed deer, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, wolverines, martens, squirrels, wood rats and porcupines using the same trees. Some mark the trees with urine or by rubbing up against it. Others appear only to be “reading” the information on the trees with their noses. But one way or the other, the whole wildlife community seems to use many of these trees to pass on or to collect information (Bears Without Fear, Kevin Van Tighem).
Animals can talk, they just aren’t speaking to us. Or they are, but we aren’t patient or nuanced enough to listen. There is the story I heard recently about a man who had his face eaten by a fox. He’d been out hunting and was blowing a duck call. The fox made an honest mistake. There is the story of the hunter who was attacked by a deer. That one is on YouTube. There is the story of the feral dogs of St Petersburg who have learned to ride the subway. There is the cat who barks when she thinks no one is paying attention. These animals are significant. That is to say, they signify, and are wordy.
In the short film Tungijuq, the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq mutates from feral human —dressed as wolf — to elk, from human swimmer to seal, from predator to prey to consumer — eating herself. In the penultimate sequence of the video, the camera lens luxuriates on the slit body of a seal, a vaginal gape, filled with organ meat that Tagaq fondles before devouring.
This film is an experiment in meaning-making, in which all of life seems to converge into desire and, its correlative, fear. In this strange sequence a kind of truth can be found — to speak of hierarchy is senseless in a worldview in which we fully participate. We eat, we fuck, we reproduce, we kill, we are killed. When Tagaq sings she is animal. Fully free, fully smart, fully realised. The songs on her new album Animism—improvised, guttural, repetitive, unrepentant, and sung directly from the cunt — are my current soundtrack. Sometimes she emits the soft padding of a mouse in the walls of my brain, at other times, the darkest victimised rage screaming out to be heard. The last is the sound of an animal no longer willing to be annexed, corralled, or slaughtered hygienically, systematically. It’s a new story, it’s an old story.
On a screen behind Tanya Tagaq at her stunning Polaris Prize performance are the names of the eleven hundred or more murdered or missing Canadian Aboriginal women. Canada’s democratically elected prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced recently that a public inquiry into this issue “isn’t high on our radar, to be honest.” Eleven hundred people! In 2012, Harper refused to meet “nation to nation” with the chief of Attawapiskat First Nation, Theresa Spence, to discuss an omnibus legislation that sought to hide changes to bills that would weaken the sovereignty of First Nations people in Canada. Spence waited for Harper, in the nation’s capital city, Ottawa, enduring a six-week hunger strike in a teepee on an island about ten minute’s walk from Parliament. In a clear refusal to admit her singular power, her fullness as an entity, Harper would not make the short trip to see her. The animal in me burbles up, enraged, and this fury puts me outside, in precisely the wild exterior, the madspace of not-civilised, that all the Harpers of the world prefer me to be in. “The Animal”. In this regard, I am not of the machine. I feel my legs grow strong, ready to pounce, to attack. When I rip in, it will be bloody.
I have heard that Annie Pootoogook wanders somewhere in that Ottawa landscape — the landscape in which the prime minister keeps the murdered and missing Aboriginal women of Canada low on his radar. Annie Pootoogook is the lauded artist who won the Sobey Art award in 2006 for her drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset. Images of people watching Jerry Springer on TV, enjoying threesomes, of skidoos, polar bears and domestic abuse commingle in her work. When I first saw a Pootoogook drawing my heart skipped a beat. It seemed to be the opposite of much of the art I’d seen from the north — which is often beautiful formally, but more archetypal, more mythological. Pootoogook gave me the fleeting glimpse of her particularity. I gazed into something sublimely real. Since Annie Pootoogook’s meteoric success less than ten years ago, she has been selling her work on the streets of Ottawa, plagued with substance abuse and housing problems. I do not know Annie, or Theresa, or Tanya. But I have been agitated and awakened by them. They are working against the machine-with-no-off-switch. What does it mean to be “missing”?
I met with an old girlfriend the other day and told her I was writing an essay about menopause. She thinks this is brave. I tell her about the facial hair, and she recounts about her own moustache.
“It’s not that we are becoming like men,” I say.
“No, not at all. We are being reminded that we are animals.”
Now I am thinking that to fail at being human is to fail at being animal, at accepting, at embracing this. My disgust at my body is a deep failure. This reminds me of the machine that I imagined earlier. Its gears and clank. The machine has a built-in forgetting impulse. We forget how to stop the machine, we forget there is a machine, and then, we become the machine. The machine is what happens to us when we try to repress “the Animal.” The machine replaces that freedom, personhood — flora and fauna — with money. I do not think money compensates us for the loss we incur when we neglect the free, wild, animal interior space of our humanity.
My labia is sweating!
The heat my body has been generating these last months is incredible. I wake in the night, or am shocked into a kind of thought-paralysis in the middle of the day. It is only heat. But it’s not a heat that is easy to explain. I think of fission heat. It comes up into the skin of my legs and feels like hair standing on end in quickening waves over the whole surface of my body. Suddenly, there is a salty ocean of sweat behind my knees, between my breasts, in my genitals. My labia is sweating! It’s a burning heat, not like exercise heat, or sun-soaked heat. It’s alchemical, turning what into what I do not know. A bear pelt is attached to my skin. It comes with adrenal panic. I need to run, need my freedom.
All the animals are potentially human, in the old stories, and many of those animals who are not human can still talk. Red Riding Hood and the wolf have no trouble conversing. I wish I were better at communicating with my dog. I know Chester’s simple desires, the certain bark for water, the one for going out, and the song he sings when he wants us out of the room so he can sneak onto the forbidden couch. He knows something is up with me, though. I can see the careful way he is around me, how he defers by averting his eyes, and how he watches and watches. He lets me bite him, then yawns to relieve his anxiety.
In the circa 890 AD text, The Life of St Edmund by Ælfric, Edmund loses his head to marauding pagans. Lost in the bushes, the decapitated “speaking” head is protected by a wolf. That the head talks and that the wolf protects it are two of the several miracles defining Edmund as a Saint. The wolf is mutable as a metaphoric figure in the text, but can also be seen as a humanised animal, as real, protective and Christian. A Christian animal in 890 — imagine! We’ve come a long way, baby. By the time of the fourteenth century Gawain-poem, animals are only textual devices —metaphors — that Gawain fails to recognize as cryptic signifiers of danger. When the enchanted Green knight, Bertilak, gives Gawain the gift of boar meat in an epoch where there are no boars remaining (they’d been overhunted), Gawain fails the test of noticing that the boar meat must be a puzzle with some deeper meaning. He cannot read “the animal” as metaphor. He only sees the meat as meat. Three hundred years later, Shakespeare’s Iago will diminish the Moor Othello with animal epithets. It is Iago’s singular, voracious ambition that drives his interest in annexing Othello to “the animal.” Iago is the machine. He fails by failing in every way to be humiliated. I believe that humanity relies on the embrace of what is creature in us. But what is that? Can we even recall it after all these years of lying about it? It’s a smell, a bristle along the back of the neck, it’s sex, that feeling of impossible horniness, it’s the opposite of grammar, of word, of syntax. Lake swimming. Digging. Fear. Food. Shit. Snot. Well, the words carry the whiff of it still, don’t they?
Chester gets up to shake out his toy giraffe, snapping its neck. “Good hunting, Kaa,” I say, and he seems to get the reference, seems to know about Mowgli, and the simplicity of man cooperating with beast. He lets me growl and bite his snout. It’s cool between us. I bite my husband, too. He lets me bite down until I cast a trench the shape of my mouth into his skin.
“Even if it hurts?”
I bite again hard under his rib cage, and I bite his stomach.“
And I bite again hard just under his rib cage, and I bite his stomach, and then I say, “Go to sleep now, that’s all you get.”
In the morning, he says, “You’re perfect.”
And I don’t know what to say back. Jostling for attention are the part-recalled dreams of elderly men gambling at bingo and someone climbing a hill, and something about a flea-ragged kitten, a confusion of thought, and I don’t, I don’t, I don’t — can’t he smell me? I notice the dried spots of blood on the duvet cover, and squint. I did that?
“Yeah, you bit through my skin.”
“I’m sorry.” Before he heads off to work, I ask him if I look different. “Is there is anything weird?”
He says, “No.”
But I know everything is different. I know it in the way a person knows, a hunger in my gut, a tumult, the agitation of knowing. I keep close to the house, send the children out on errands and spend hours on all fours. Open the windows. It’s so damn hot, despite November. A gale couldn’t cool me. And when they are all back home, I’m upright, pretending to be the old me.
At night, my husband, coming in the door, says, “Hey, you look well.”
“I won’t know it when I am really changed,” I say. “But you will, though.”
“Why are you groaning?” he says, a strange look on his face that might be concern. “Is everything okay?”
It’s all I can do to rub myself up against him, try to make the gesture mean something. If I rub and rub, maybe I can find back the feeling. What did we used to call it?
We used to call it Love. Now, I think of it as Want. I feel a switch being flicked off, like that.
I push open the door, my husband’s mouth is agape, smiling. The blast of air, the shock of cold through my fur, and the sound — it stings at my ears — of a siren. I sing to it, and bound toward the gate. I press myself up against it, feel my throbbing body tense into a bundle. There is nothing better than adrenaline. There is nothing better than the shift of a chainlink gate as it soughs open. It is dinner and I am hungry but the sky the night the free place pulls me like a gut thread on fresh kill. Chester is with me! Come! Yes! I run, everything alive, everything that was outside me now inside me. The other canines are at the city limits waiting. They moan when they see me, and sniff, their snouts on the windstream. I’ve got my teeth, my nails. They admire the awful way I slice their meal, the ease with which I dig between the doe’s meat and her pelt.
I catalogue trauma. My memory touches on it, a thumbnail of anguish, but it won’t let me zoom in. My flight home is like this, a cameo framed in an airline window.
I last spoke to my family on the phone on Christmas morning. It was just past midnight in Germany, and I had a mug of Glühwein in my hands, thick socks on my feet. There was a pile of presents under the tree, a real tree, dropping needles on the floorboards. I spoke to my mother first. I knew she’d been waiting for my call; I pictured her, sleeping with the cordless handset in her loose hand like a baby monitor. She didn’t sound like she was 15,000 kilometres away. She sounded like a light pressure on the end of my bed, calling me “darling”. She passed me to my father, who doesn’t like talking on the phone, and to my brother, my sister. I guess I miss you, my sister said, but only ‘cause it’s Christmas. I called her a little shit. She told Mum.
We fly in from the west, over the sea, and Adelaide’s lazy domestic sprawl comes up to meet us unannounced. As the plane tilts steeply over the neat lawns, corrugated iron fences and second-hand caryards of the western suburbs, I catch a glimpse of the modest skyline, the sun winking slackly off the brown waters of the Torrens. Summer coats the city in tar, movements slow and deliberate. Heat quivers visibly over the roads and roofs and I’m dreading it. The last time the air touched my skin it was whistling with snow. I imagine pieces of it, of Germany, nestled between my sock and the sole of my shoe.
I have left behind a small house on the Buchenstraße. It had a steep driveway and a perfectly square front lawn and it belonged to my borrowed family. I have left them, too. Behind their house was a meadow, grazing goats. I used to walk there after school, photographing the leaves on the ground, chestnut and blonde, fading to silver around the edges as winter seeped slowly nearer to the village. The Viktoras lived at Number 8, at the top of the hill. We spoke German to one another. The language was unexpectedly beautiful, never quite as fluid as French or Spanish, but husky and a little reticent. They saved the bad news.
I had been skiing in the Alps, brushing my fingers on cool stone in medieval castles, eating marzipan by the ounce in Austrian sweetshops. I climbed from the train, rehearsing the German for the stories I wanted to tell. My pockets burned with trinkets, my lips with the blush of a first kiss in the laundry room of a Jugendherberge in the shadow of the Untersberg, momentous, crystalline. The Viktoras greeted me at the station with uncustomary silence.
Inside Number 8, my exchange father sat me at the kitchen table and presented me with a shot glass which, he later told me, was full of medicine to calm me down. His gaze was direct, his white beard heavy with a new sadness. Drink this, he told me. With such halting English there was no softening the blow. Four words: your sister has died.
We fly over the house my grandfather used to live in. I recognise it by the brightly painted shop on the corner of his street, the one that gets away with selling bongs by calling them assorted glassware. The plane spits out its wheels and I wonder how something so small can carry such weight. It has been three months, says Adelaide, leaning blankly below me. You’re different from the last time I saw you, thinner, bleaker. You’ve cut your hair. You’ve kissed a boy, you’ve let him put his hand underneath your shirt but not underneath your bra, you’re still a good girl really. But I can see her gone from you, says Adelaide, blinking up at me with the sun on shed roofs. It’s like you’ve lost a limb.
We were close in age, my sister and I. That should have made us allies, but she was more like my brother, dark-haired and skinned-kneed. I have no memory of being an only child. From the first there was her, red and nutlike in a blue lacy dress that I must once have worn, wagging fat fists, soft pink gums. My brother came later, so for a little while, it was just the two of us in matching pink tracksuits, in colour co-ordinated dresses with shiny party shoes and lacy socks. My mother cut our fringes while we sat on the yellow stool, my clippings gold and hers brown against the grained linoleum.
It was November when I left. On our last night together we walked after dinner, the bitumen too hot to stand on with bare feet. On one side of the road sprawled malignant yellow-brick bungalows, five bedrooms with a swing set and a swimming pool, splashing and shrieking floating over the high fences to the footpath below. The other side dropped steeply into the Sturt Gorge, to starveling gum trees rasping their dry leaves together and dropping their lank grey bark like so many dead, curling skins. How impenetrable was the leaning white veranda our father had installed the same summer we got cable TV, a veranda we never played beneath?
We paused for breath at the top of the hill and stared out at the coy city skyline curled up between the hills to the east, at the moody ocean to the west under the ravenous sunset. Mosquitoes feasted on our sunburnt shoulders. My sister sighed here, a contented sigh like the ones she made after eating a meal, and we left the sizzling road behind us for the narrow dirt path. It was almost dark by the time we reached the barbed-wire fence and climbed it, me first so I could help her over, scratching our bare knees and ankles. We were alone.
We walked out along the concrete knowing we’d die if we fell and we sat on it.
The path rose silently before us, crowded by emaciated stringybarks lit like wraiths by the swollen summer moon. The dense wood opened without warning onto the dam, a wall of cement exposed like a bone, which fell away to bold, greedy scrub on the left-hand side and a wide, black expanse of water on the right, a staggering yawn in the bleached undergrowth. We walked out along the concrete knowing we’d die if we fell and we sat on it, dangling our feet, facing whichever view fuelled the mood of our conversation, talking about boys and our blooming bodies and our futures, gleaming just within our reach like ripe fucking fruit. She said she’d be my maid of honour but only if I’d be hers. She said don’t forget about me while you’re in Germany. She had made me a friendship bracelet out of three strands of wool, brown, white and blue.
After she died I would take a high-school boyfriend to the dam and we would fuck there, my bare ass pressed against the grainy concrete, but I could not exorcise her. I would never go back but I can feel the sun set there, every night in summer, bleeding and terrible over the dark mouth of the river. Four years after she died that scrub would burn up in a bushfire. It would become black, skeletal. A charred and withered corpse, a pot of ashes like the one on my parents’ mantelpiece.
Chapter One of my high school German textbook: Transport. Flughafen is airport. Flugzeug is aeroplane. Fegefeuer is purgatory. It’s late at night, or early in the morning: the light is artificial, the air is filtered. My Converse sneakers squeak on the shiny airport floors and echo. In the food court, a few tired travellers pick at food from Burger King and Starbucks, in between flights, in between places. I am in between selves. The exultant self and the grieving self. Neither has met the other, not yet. Her ghost hangs here in the vaulted halls but I can’t be sure it’s her because I haven’t seen her face for three months. I hugged her before leaving. Her body was real. She stood in the kitchen making sandwiches. How long was her hair? How quickly did it grow? I chopped mine off and dyed it black in the basement of a boy who was teaching me how to play the bass guitar. I cannot use it as a yardstick. I eat a cheeseburger. I buy some headphones and listen to a CD. I can’t remember what the CD is called but it’s distracting, it’s lending me a rhythm. I cannot remember whether I should be awake or asleep or buried, buried under six feet of earth or under warm, shallow water in the backyard pool. My hair fans out in the water beneath my head. We used to pretend we were mermaids. I’m floating and the sun is on my skin, the water’s in my lungs, my uncle calls an ambulance but they don’t come in time. The neat chiming cadence shatters my reverie: it’s time to board my flight. I walk along the aisle, counting seat numbers. How big is a body? How big is a life? How does one contain the other? The overhead luggage compartment clicks smoothly shut over my backpack: snug, final.
She had a lazy eye and heavy brows. A prettier mouth than mine, a prettier woman than me perhaps, a prettier girl certainly. Taller. Well, she was taller when she was fourteen and I was seventeen, and with bigger feet, but I’ve grown now and without her to measure by.
We’ll be told we cannot touch her but I will anyway.
The viewing. She’ll wear the blue v-neck blouse and a necklace bought for her in Thailand by a cousin. I have a matching one and I’ll wear it like a rosary. They say the dead look like they’re sleeping but the stillness will be alarming. The coffin will be white and her face will look slack like a groan and she will already be decomposing, I’ll smell the formaldehyde and I won’t want to remember her this way. We’ll be told we cannot touch her but I will anyway.
The funeral service. The church will be full. It will be a hot day, in January, but the men will still wear suits. I’ll sit in the front pew but I won’t be there. I’ll feel the heaving behind me, smell the sweat on upper lips and armpits polluting the dry-cleaned Sunday bests, hear the quiet soak of the tears leaking down the lined cheeks of men with flowers in their buttonholes.
The wake. Our house will be so full of flowers my mother will have to sweep the falling petals into a dustpan three times a day and she’ll say she likes doing it, it keeps her busy. The bedroom at the end of the hallway, across from mine, the door closed for the first time in fourteen years. I’ll speak to myself, ridding my tongue of clotted German vowels, practicing the past tense. My sister was. There will be heat, my body limp and insipid in that heat. It will veil the world from me, give everything a milky tone like photos from a blown-out roll of film, a cataract from the inside.
Parts of her have been lost forever. I have forgotten the sound of her voice, her particular inflection, her tight little vowels. There was a brightness to her, a plumpness that had nothing to do with her soft belly; a fullness, an allness, a borrowed sense of comfort. She bounced on her feet, or have I added that?
I don’t know, so I pull on memory. It’s evasive. It’s a thin, thin string attached to something deeply anchored, something it would hurt to dislodge, something vital and pulsing and chemical that will react to, will evaporate in sunlight. Those little brushes, the fine-haired ones that archaeologists sweep lovingly over fragments of pottery, of glass, of bone. A root canal, a quick clean snap and you see it, a flash and it vanishes, an imprint on your eyelids like blinking after staring at the sun.
I’ve been thirty-six hours inside this beige expanse of plane, of carpeted surfaces and tinkling chimes. They changed my seat to business class in Darwin when we stopped for fuel. I am shrinking, or maybe the chairs are just getting bigger. The air hostess touches my hand. It’s time to get off, Miss Jones, she says. Your family is waiting for you.
Swimming first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 11, Issue 2.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer and the Sex Editor at SPOOK Magazine. Her short fiction, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in SPOOK, Scum, The Lifted Brow, Stilts and The Suburban Review.