‘Sweatshop’s Literary Dominance Takes Hold: a Review of Peter Polites’s Down the Hume’, by Ennis Cehic


I read Down the Hume in one sitting. I haven’t read a book like that in a long time. Part of me thinks I simply found the time to devote a whole day to reading, but another part can’t shake off the images that jumped out at me with every sentence. The controlled voice, the sharp and raw prose—“he flipped the table. Wood went bang. It settled into a spot”—all this had a big impact on me, both as a reader and a writer.

Peter Polites is the associate director of SWEATSHOP: a literacy movement based out of the Western Sydney University that empowers its local, marginalised communities with writing. I first learnt of SWEATSHOP through the West Writers Group Program I was part of at Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne. Over two-years, from 2014–2016, I participated in workshops with Polites’s colleagues, authors Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman.

They didn’t only give me a taste of their engrossing work, they inspired me to rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about writing. They pushed me to confront myself and think not only about how to evoke a feeling, but how to provoke it in fiction. I learned how to be more specific with imagery and more economical so everything on a page had value.

Ever since that first encounter, I’ve maintained that SWEATSHOP is producing some of the most interesting writing in Australia. Writing that—like the work of writers such as Christos Tsiolkas and Alexis Wright before them, and now Maxine Beneba Clarke and Omar Musa—is non-white.

But while SWEATSHOP writers share thematic similarities and preoccupations with these authors, their work is distinct. It’s more confronting and more concretely linked to place because the stories stem from their own realities. Polites has said this about his own work and that of SWEATSHOP more generally: “Our experiences are in-your-face, but part of that is just living in this area, an area which as the highest multicultural community in all of Australia, the highest number of languages spoken, the highest density of Indigenous people in Australia as well.”

Down the Hume, in essence, is a direct result of SWEATSHOP’s emphasis on producing literary work that focuses on places and protagonists that are typically underrepresented in literature.

The confronting and highly visual style that’s found in both Ahmad’s The Tribe and Carman’s An Elegant Young Man is also evident in Polites’s début: “I threw up on a dick that I was sucking. It was the second big Aha! moment in my life.” In this sense, Down the Hume feels like another chapter of their strategically-guided assault on the Australian literary scene. They genuinely want to give a voice to Western Sydney, and they don’t give a fuck who they offend on their quest.

Like The Tribe, which in the Sydney Review of Books was described as “a book about a middle-eastern, Muslim ‘subculture’ living in Australia,” Down the Hume deals with a marginalised group – but in this book, it isn’t just a cultural minority we’re shown but also a sexual one, because the character deals with being both Greek and gay. “It’s a queer, Western Sydney noir.” Polites said of Down the Hume in 2015. “There’s a main wogboy like me, and he falls for a man-fatale, and he kind of loses everything.”

This element of noir sets it apart from its SWEATSHOP counterparts because it adds another layer to its portrayal of life in Western Sydney. It inserts minorities into a genre that is typically dominated by white protagonists.

The story is told in first-person by Bux: a cynical, gay, Greek-Australian who lives in a small shitty apartment near a train line. He’s addicted to painkillers, has a shitty relationship with an abusive gym junkie called Nice Arms Pete and works a shitty job at an old folks’ home where he tends to ageing patients. When not working, he stalks his abusive boyfriend, reminisces about his past and visits his mum, all the while navigating the queer world of Western Sydney.

And the story, as it unfolds, finishes with the kind of thing that makes noir novels so fascinating: criminality. Crime is the element in Down the Hume you don’t expect. It comes to light subtly towards the end of the book. The way it arrives makes you feel like you’ve been taken for a ride.

But beneath all this lies a series of misfortunes and an attitude of cynicism. The world of Down the Hume is dark and dramatic. Along with the rest of the SWEATSHOP collective, Polites shows us a side of Sydney that seems to possess hardly any beauty at all – just the dreariness of multi-cultural suburbia: “Went for a walk, ended up at a park toilet block. Everything boarded up. Planks of wood fastened to the entrances, fist-sized iron boltsn … graffiti tags all over it.”

What fascinates me most about Bux is that he’s a true fatalist. But of the arrogant kind that seems to enjoy the brutal things that happen to him: “Me and Nice Arms Pete in front of Hercules’ Odyssey, waiting for gold wreaths. The swelling on my face had receded. I looked like a bar room brawler.”

You never get the full picture from Bux, nor fully understand why he can’t shake off his addiction to painkillers and why he lets himself be subjected to physical abuse from his boyfriend without ever saying enough. This is because Polites’s writing isn’t psychological. It’s active. There’s very little ‘I feel this, I feel that.’ You only experience Bux through the things he submits to and the things he lets happen to him:

He touched my face. When his hand went along my bruised top lip and my almost broken nose, I winced from the pain. His fist went into a deep denim pocket. Pulled out a Syrinapx bottle, twisted the cap off and handed me two light blue pills.

But despite the noir-ish preoccupations of the book, Down the Hume is a story about place. This is its strength. It depicts a place you know but don’t read much about in novels. It highlights clearly the struggles of the area’s minorities and how they view themselves in contrast to white Australia. In many scenes, you can feel the invisible line of class divisions as well: “Who’s gonna give a dumb wog like you a job? The skips? You’ve never even met one. Never even met anyone with blue eyes.”

Every chapter is named after a street or a place in Western Sydney. We are taken through streets in Lakemba, Yagoona, and Belmore, parks and carparks in Birrong and Bankstown. But they all encircle a pocket of Sydney that is migrant heavy and where encounters with the so-called “Colonial Anglos” aren’t taken lightly. Even when Bux reminisces about his first encounter with Nice Arms Pete this is evident: “Sandy hair, skin still smooth but slightly sun-aged and you could see clean living on him. The kind of Australian I could never be.”

Arguably, Polites’s début has similar aims to Christos Tsiolkas’s first novel, Loaded. Both characters are gay and of Greek origin. The story has vulgarity, explicit homosexuality, drugs and violence, but there are differences, one of the biggest being the historical moment in which they are written.

Loaded was published in 1995. It suited the times of the grunge era and I can understand why the book would’ve raised hell when it was first released. But Down the Hume is of today. And we’re living in an age where women, migrants, the LGBQT community, and Muslims are fighting to be heard and accepted. That’s why this book’s theme, place, rawness, and explicit homosexuality isn’t as confronting to me as it might have been; nor should it be to you.

Today, people living these lives are no longer required to hide. And their stories are being told. With Down the Hume, Polites has told one such story. He has brought to light an underbelly that’s no longer really an underbelly, but an increasingly visible part of Australia’s socio-cultural tapestry. In 2015, Polites spoke about the book he was writing in these terms:

I think my project is, apart from queering Western Sydney, a form of criticism on the Nation State of Australia, and there is a lot to criticise there, you know. And I think I can only do that through fiction. Really, I hope I can create engaging, interesting shit that doesn’t bore people.

If this was his aim, he’s achieved it. Brilliantly.

Ennis Cehic is a writer and creative from Melbourne. Aside from working on brands and developing advertising campaigns, Ennis writes fiction, poetry, and essays. He’s been published in The Lifted Brow, The Age, FourW, Retort Magazine and Dialect (Express Media). He’s a former member of the West Writers Group from Footscray Arts.