To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. First up: CMG on class and queerness.
this little boy ON MIKE WILLESEE whose father was an
unemployed glass-blower from Newcastle
“i think it’s terrible
that my dad’s not working
because nobody’s making glass swans
and there are a lot of people who
will never get a glass swan now”
— Mary Fallon, Working Hot
In the 1980s on Smith Street, Fitzroy, inside what is now a clothing shop that goes by the affirming and/or cringe-worthy name of Somebuddy Loves You, women who were part of a worker co-op pressed ink into paper. This small feminist publishing collective was Sybylla Press, and for over two decades these workers circulated words that rose from the bodies of women, words that were being defaced or simply refused by mainhouse Australian publishers. The Press was named after Sybylla Melvyn, the protagonist of Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career (spoiler: Sybylla doesn’t have a brilliant writing career). Recently I clicked up an old Sybylla Press poster from the interwebs. In that classic, chunky 1980s lettering that seems that little bit hardier and friendlier than the typefaces we use today, the brown and yellow poster reads, “The freedom of the press belongs to those who control the press.” By making space for women who otherwise did not have a place in print—including Aboriginal women and women who were not straight—these small homes for defiant text also produced a vision of what is possible by owning the means of production. Nowadays, small publishers still exist and publish along the same lines, but distribution is another story. Take, for instance, how a Miles Franklin award–winning novel, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright (published by Giramondo), couldn’t be found in major bookstores because of the retail chain monopoly that crushes small presses.
In 1986, a package was left at the door of Sybylla Press on Smith Street. Inside was a rough draft of what became Working Hot (1989) by Kathleen Mary Fallon (who at the time was also “working on Establishing a Credit Rating and A More Convincing Curriculum Vitae”). Working Hot is a novel about love and pain. It’s about emotional work and sex work and their freedoms and constraints. About desires that are direct and intense but never straightforward. It’s about people who are poor and about people who are well-off, and the friction in-between. It’s a playful and powerful account of lesbian love and sex, that tells of women who love women in a world that declares their love can only be a fiction. It manages to sit the languages of high theory and TV together on a bus, that takes the beautiful mess of life and relationships as its window view, and brakes hard just when you think you’re starting to read into a rhythm.
“you have a perfect whip hand said Gizmo the Pimp to Toto in the
café taking her hand and squeezing it slightly as if it were a
precious rotten thing and he wanted to make something
seep out ‘are you a mistress of discipline’
‘no I am the mistress of the marvellous mixed-metaphor want me
to flog you with one’”
— Mary Fallon, Working Hot.
Earlier this year, I went to a Cherchez la Femme “talk on class”, actually around the corner from Somebuddy Loves You (or the ghost of Sybylla). The concluding line of the night was something like “in the Australian context, you can tell class from accent.” Bogans have bogan accents, and snobs have snobby accents. While this was said in slight jest it was also said with a buzz of certainty that made the room shake with head nodding. Suddenly everyone had their own accounts of how they had been class-shamed. My mate turned to me and said how great the talk was. “I remember being so ashamed,” she told me, “on the days my Dad would pick me up from school in a panel van.” The school was a private school. Her Dad was developing a property.
I found this idea about accent and being working class difficult and unfamiliar. It made me remember something I have no memory of: my Dad as a young kid. A small table, overflowing with his brothers and sisters. Sheep brains on floral patterned plates. Dad’s “old man” walking through the door. A day’s work behind him. Hours of bending over to weld chunks of metal together. Hot sparks flicking onto his skinny body. Coming home and hearing his children utter words in that grisly, outer northern suburban Melbourne accent. And hitting each child over the head until they picked up their vowels and held them as round as their dinner plates and as sharp as their knives (not “playyyts”, and not “nyffes”). They were told to speak properly, and eat their offal properly too. These were the stories me and my brothers ran into whenever we dropped a vowel in front of our Dad, or used yeah for yes or nah for no. The heaviness of those stories was enough to tell me that I should “speak properly” or not speak at all. Accent doesn’t speak for class. But it does speak for the caricatures that get in the way when we try to talk about what being working class might mean.
“Don’t worry, the middle class like being offended. It helps them feel better about themselves.”
— A friend telling me to write this article.
Sometimes class is a label, and sometimes it’s printed somewhere beyond your control. The label of class is shifty, sticking itself on you when you want to forget about it, and unread or misread when you stick it on yourself. It’s ungraspable, fluctuating but somehow definitive, maybe more than any other identity category or collective experience. What actually is class? Is it how much land you or your parents ‘own’? Or how much you have in the bank (or under the bed)? Is it your job? Your former job? Your education? Your upbringing? What if you grew up poor, but have an elitist education or job? (What does elitist mean?) If your family are rolling in it but you’re unemployed, what do you call yourself, and what are you called by? What are the right questions to ask about the day to day realities of class and what it means to people?
Among all the talk of neoliberalism and capital, where do we turn to hear about social capital, which says so much about how people move through space, and is so much about the pressures and dispositions people carry within them, and then let out into the world? Being variable in such immeasurable ways, social capital often impossible to pin down – sometimes transacted in silences, glares or other untraceable subtleties that don’t accumulate visibly in the way cash does.
“C., don’t you know, the red wine doesn’t go in the fridge.”
— A rich friend after I put red wine in the fridge.
I am consciously ashamed, and ashamed that I am ashamed, of where I grew up, and what it was like to grow up poor and then realise it (beetroots don’t just come in tins?). One of the places where I grew up—in my teenage years as I was becoming class conscious—was on the industrial outskirts of a small regional city. In the few years I lived there, a baby was murdered across the road from my bedroom window, and there were bushfires that took homes and a life. As the generic country-queer-kid story goes, I didn’t know anyone queer and I wanted desperately to move to a big city and find ‘people like myself’. When I did, I found myself relieved to share in a sense of queer community. But something still felt different. It was being among middle-class city dwellers while being working class and queer, and not having a story to fall back on that spoke for both.
“Do you think my family are bourgie?”
— A lover to me after a budget dinner at my Mum’s commission flat.
Once my Dad showed me one of his scars from working. The scar stretches the width of one of his gentle hands, on his palm. The tissue is white and ropy. He cut it from an accident with a box cutter, after he left school at fourteen to work. When he showed it to me was one of first times I felt there was something not right about being poor.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever pinpoint what exactly feels not right about growing up poor and being queer, but I’m not sure I want to, either. Because identity is not static. Class is not static – everyone’s realities differ. I’ll spare you the “now, more than ever” drivel, but maybe holding the power of literature and life narratives close to our own bodies is one way to put pressure on class, as a coherent category and as an incoherent reality. Not necessarily as a way to find the answers, but to ask the questions.
Places change over time, as does the way we move through space and where we look to locate identity. We can try to map the coordinates of class to pinpoint ourselves and each other, but I think there is something vital to be learned from the workers of the old co-op presses and the works they pressed out to contest oppression, like Working Hot. They worked (out) class off-grid, on their own terms, and on their own paper, and they came together like letters and words can to turn questions into readable visions.
CMG is an intern at Writing from Below, a gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal. She is a cricket enthusiast (it’s only boring sometimes), and is currently completing her Honours in English at La Trobe University, Melbourne.