The news arrived on Monday. Writing is dead. The novel is dead. Australian unpublished authors aged under 35 are no good, and there is no point publishing or reading anything anymore. The good old days, where we could revel in the coming-of-age story of scrappy Western Australian surfer kids, are over. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. There is nothing to see here but high standards. RIP Australian fiction.
On Monday, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript declared that there would be no winner in 2019. Annette Barlow, publisher at Allen & Unwin, was heard among certain circles to say, “I feel the judges’ decision speaks to their respect for the award and their desire to maintain the excellent standards of previous winning manuscripts.” For those of us left with this decision, it is important to heed Barlow’s words: we will not have new writing to read, but we do still have excellent standards to admire.
This is not, however, the first time the Vogel has rung the death knell for Australian fiction. They are, one could say, a little alarmist. 1985 was just as bad a year for young Australian writers. As was 2013. (Where were you when you heard the news?)
Established in 1980, the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is awarded annually for an unpublished manuscript written by an Australian author under 35 years of age. The winner receives a handful of cash and a publishing deal with Allen & Unwin. Both of these things are extremely valuable to an author: a deal with Australia’s largest independent press creates a career and helps to get your novel into bookstores and into the hands of readers; the cash affords you time to write the next book.
A number of writers have already weighed in on the decision not to award the Vogel in 2019, highlighting not only the problematic nature of the prize’s eligibility guidelines but also the reality of this decision for emerging writers. Jane Rawson captured the sentiment of the Australian literary community, writing, “Not awarding the Vogel’s this year is downright cruel. Mediocre books get published all the time, and some of them even win multiple awards: who cares if you give the Vogel’s to a manuscript that isn’t a work of utter genius?” [Side note: if you’re a published author who does not agree that mediocre books get published and win prizes all the time, it follows that your book is mediocre.]
Karen Wyld’s blistering Twitter thread provided a powerful account of the experiences of an emerging writer, concluding that the Vogel’s decision was making it harder for writers, that the eligibility guidelines for the award are ageist, and that not awarding the prize completely undermines the unpaid labour that authors put into their manuscripts to enter the award. Emily O’Grady, the 2018 winner of the Vogel, worked for close to four years on her manuscript before submitting it to the prize. So, for the Vogel prize judges to declare no winning manuscript in 2019, to not even announce a shortlist, to reveal that nothing will come from the work the authors put into their manuscripts is, quite frankly, unacceptable. Allen & Unwin and the Australian should know that this is possibly the worst example of gatekeeping by cultural intermediaries that the Australian publishing industry has managed to produce since 2013, the last time the prize refused to name a winner.
The Vogel, however, is not the only award that has the tendency to flex like this. There are three occasions in the history of the Miles Franklin Literary Award when no prize was given: in 1988 there was a brief administrative pause, but in 1973 and 1983 no title was considered worthy. A 1973 press release from Miles Franklin HQ stated, “This is the first time since the award was established in 1957 that the judges have failed to find a novel of sufficient merit among the entries to warrant the prize ... it was regrettable that more eligible published novels were not entered”. Similar disappointment was also expressed by the judging panel in 1983. However, in a speech at the 1984 Miles Franklin Award ceremony, David Davis, representing the trustees of the Miles Franklin estate, noted that although no entry was good enough in 1983, the winner of the 1984 Miles Franklin “went a long way towards rehabilitating the Award’s high standing”. The winner in 1984 was Tim Winton’s Shallows, which does not speak very well for the authors who entered the 1983 award.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a prize violating the unwritten-yet-universally-accepted “no take-backs” rule has to be that of Australian Book Review’s Gender Fellowship 2017. It was early in that year that ABR announced they would be awarding $7500 to an Australian writer to produce a long-form essay on the topic “gender in contemporary Australian creative writing in all its forms”. What an excellent initiative! However, editor of ABR Peter Rose, on International Women’s Day no less, announced that no submission to the Australian Book Review Gender Fellowship met the standards or requirements set out by the judging panel. Rose stated, “We received some interesting proposals, but none that, in the unanimous view of the selection panel — myself, Anne Edwards, Andrea Goldsmith — addressed the specific criteria in sufficiently new, focused and compelling ways”.
By not announcing a winner, a prize and its judges have an opportunity to spotlight and underline the literary standards that they claim to celebrate and uphold. Even more pointedly, this move serves to validate the past decisions that the prize has made, shoring up the prize’s own reputation rather than performing its own basic function.
Prizes operate separately to the marketplace, and the adjudication of literary prizes is usually based on vague aesthetic criteria. The ability of these prizes to hold our collective attention and engage in an exchange of symbolic capital with authors requires a collective belief — our belief — in their power to do so. This belief, this illusio, is the foundation of the power of the literary prize, and is the reason they command so much space in the cultural discourse. Much of the contemporary research into literary prize culture interrogates the balance between the role of the prize as the “sober consecrator of genius” (as Beth Driscoll says in her 2013 article ‘Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital’) and the delicate system of beliefs and symbolic rewards that maintain this power. While the real reasons why the Vogel refused to declare a winner this year or in 2013 or in 1985 are unknown, for them to cite their high literary standards as the reason is a good way to secure their in own reputation and the collective belief in their past and future decisions. What is lost in this conversation is the actual utility of the prize.
Prizes are a top-down approach to funding a small number of authors’ careers. When an author wins either the Miles Franklin or the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award or the Prime Minister’s Literary Award or the Stella Prize, the cash reward and the promotion of their work can fund this author’s writing career for at least a couple of years, giving them opportunity to write another book. Similarly, prizes for unpublished manuscripts give emerging authors the opportunity to publish and the time to dedicate to writing. Is it a perfect system? Not by any stretch. But it is the system that we have chosen? Well, no – it’s been chosen for us. But is it the system we have? Yes, and it’s not for any small group of judges to snatch away at their whim.
Dr Alexandra Dane researches contemporary book cultures, focussing on the relationship between gender, literary consecration and the influence of formal and informal literary networks.
While it lacks the gothic tones of these 2018 films, the recent Netflix series Maniac, the work of director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville, also has a disputed diagnosis at its heart. A young man, Owen Milgrim, is taking medication to treat paranoid schizophrenia. But is he really ill, or just alienated? Katie Dobbs investigates the artisanal sadness of millennial mental illness in Netflix’s Maniac (2018).
madison moore is the author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale, 2018). He obtained his PhD in American Studies from Yale University, and did postdoctoral research at King’s College London before becoming an Assistant Professor of Queer Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also a DJ who has played sets in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Crack Magazine, Interview, Thought Catalog, Art in America, Theater, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, among many. He was a recent guest of The School Of Life in Melbourne and the Perth Writers Week.
We met at 2pm on the Monday he was scheduled to speak at The School Of Life. He wore a black sequined bolero, gold bangles and a studded ring that span two and a half fingers. I wore my pastel pink wig and Wild Barra leggings. After the interview, we discussed the prospect of him DJ-ing in Melbourne. In less than 24 hours, we found ourselves promoting a free-entry book reading and techno dance party event at Evie’s Disco Diner in Fitzroy, which took place on Wednesday. He flew to Perth on Thursday and will be back teaching in Virginia by the time you read this interview.
Angelita Sofia Biscotti: So you were a classically trained violinist. And then you became a DJ, a pop culture critic, and a queer studies academic. How did that happen?
I often get asked about my different practices. To me, they’re not different practices. It’s the same thing. When I’m writing a piece or DJ-ing or writing a book, it’s still about sharing knowledge. I have a point of view and maybe I’ll use a DJ set or maybe a book or the classroom to get across a point of view. That’s really what it is.
I always have tried to just be myself. I know this sounds New Age and mystical, but just be yourself. But to be honest, I don’t have a secret. I don’t have a special trick that I use or a special potion or something. Literally I just did what occurs naturally. I don’t know how else to be. So I don’t know how not to see this (fingers sequined bolero) and not wear it, or like not be interested in something and not pursue it. I don’t have things all figured out. I just do what interests me.
ASB: The title of the book is Fabulous. I guess the opposite of fab is drab. Or boring. Is there something dangerous about being boring?
MM: (evil laugh) Diabolical laughter. I think boring, or boredom rather, is fundamentally about norms. The status quo. Stasis.
I remember hitting the men’s section in the department stores: I didn’t understand why all the fun stuff was in the women’s section. Why was it over there? But of course. Culture and norms and family values tell you to have to be in the men’s section and I didn’t want to be in the men’s section.
We suppress ourselves to make other people comfortable. And fabulousness, as much as it is fun and exciting and voluminous and full, that it is also about choosing when you can do it. Sometimes you just can’t do it. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it. Sometimes you don’t have the energy. It’s an ebb and a flow.
If you are 100% comfortable how you are in your body, how you are in the world, and you don’t want to make any changes, good on you. For many people who are marginalised that is not necessarily the case. We live under whiteness, under white supremacy, and are told that our bodies are not desirable because we are not thin enough, not white enough, our hair is not blonde enough, because we don’t have enough hair, we don’t speak a certain way, we don’t have the right accent.
ASB: In the book, there’s a section—and I don’t know if it was you or someone you were interviewing—and they said, ‘you or they felt more themselves wearing makeup and wigs and a full look’. And I remember a therapist judging me for wearing wigs everyday, as though I was being ashamed of my ‘natural self’. And that’s not the reason why I wear wigs. I wear wigs because my skin is extremely sensitive to colouring material and it’s also very expensive to lighten my hair enough to naturally colour it the way I would like. Would you say there is something problematic about the idea of ‘the natural?’
MM: Of course, there is. Biology and what’s considered natural are always socially, historically and medically constructed. And largely by colonialism. In that interview, the person who said that at the time was an untenured university professor. She told me her real self is when she’s in makeup and heels. That is her real self. But it’s norms and systems and departments and individuals that make us feel like we have to turn off those aspects of ourselves because they don’t like it or because it makes them uncomfortable.
And that’s what I was saying about the danger of boredom. It forces us to think we have to blend in. If you want to blend in and that’s your tea, run and go with it and live your best life. Do what you gotta do. But if that’s not for you, you should not be penalised because you want to wear wigs everyday, or wear makeup, or get dressed up a certain way.
ASB: Onto things that are most definitely not boring: say, clubbing. You’ve written about how clubs in Europe get community grants. And you’ve also written about the legendary club Berghain in Berlin and how it feels like a church. So, I want to ask what makes the club such a special place? And what makes a club good?
MM: The US doesn’t have a club culture in the same way that you’d find in Europe. I’m not sure that there would be a night club that would be taxed at the same rate as the New York Philharmonic. That blows my mind. It’s the idea that it happens less the sort of result or the why.
Club culture in Amsterdam, or in Berlin or, to some extent, London—it’s seen as a cultural engine, it drives culture. It’s a force, an idea. I’m thinking about how a couple of weeks ago, there was a review in the New York Times about a venue in London called The Yard. In a New York Times-way, the club has been there for five years but they’re only writing about it now. They’re so late. Which probably means the club is reaching its peak.
But the point is the article was saying ‘wow, this is a night club, this is a theatre space, all in one’. And I’m like, “Where have you been?” but also that’s the model. I would love to see more of that kind of space; a club that has club nights, but is also a theatre space, but also has concerts and maybe is also a gym. Maybe also a coffee shop. So, you go there during the day to hang out, do some work. Maybe you also go there at night to club. But the point is that the club or the venue is a space that has multiple purposes so different people can find their way in.
What makes a club memorable, what makes a club worth talking about, is the owners have invested in creating a particular experience, a world, that people are desperate to be a part of. Because night life is often about escape, finding community, through music and through people.
ASB: You DJ for a queer techno collective called Opulence. Tell me about that.
MM: I run Opulence with good friends I met in London. We wanted to create a space that was femme-centred, a space that did not revolve around cis white men. A space that’s femme-positive, but also has techno music and experimental music. And it’s really fun to work with everyone on the team because we’re all so different but all so passionate. It’s our child, our queer techno child.
One of my good friends, my sister, Shaun J. Wright, is an amazing DJ. A black queer person from Chicago. He played a show in Pittsburgh and oh my God, he slayed my tits off. These are the kinds of artists we engage with, not the cis white men who’s getting probably paid several thousands of dollars to play at a festival. It’s someone like Shaun J. Wright who’s the heart and soul of the culture. Cis white DJs will always get gigs anyway. So, they don’t particularly need every space. They will get booked regardless. That’s what we care about at opulence. Highlighting everybody else.
ASB: Going back to the idea of fabulousness: the progressive scene can feel so basic, or so grim sometimes. Is fabulousness a fantasy, a distraction, from political goals? Or is it an emancipatory endeavor that reminds us to keep pushing the horizons of our dreaming?
MM: I think it’s both. Fabulousness is absolutely a narcissistic, fun, pleasure-ful space. And by the way, what’s wrong with narcissism if you are in a body that is constantly told that you shouldn’t exist? That you don’t get to exist? That you don’t ever see yourself in movies, or on the cover of magazines? That you are constantly told you are not beautiful, you don’t have the right body shape or complexion? So what’s wrong with a little bit of self-love?
In saying that, fabulousness is revolution. It is about arming yourself through style as a way to make it through the world. What I love about style is it’s taking up space, but it’s also creating possibility for someone else. There may be someone on the tram or in the bus or walking on the street who sees you and go ‘wow, how can I push myself’? The kind of conversation that allows us to speak to each other without words.
So, yes, it is about narcissism and self-love, and it is also about revolution. Staging a revolution through style, through wigs, through sequins.
ASB: I was just thinking about your chapter on vogueing and ideas surrounding cultural appropriation and gentrification. Do you think these can be defeated or slowed down? I am thinking about style and performance as for the lack of better words, cultural and intellectual property. Or heritage. Can style ever be owned? Or can it ever only be sold, as in someone looking at you and saying “I’m buying this” or “I’m not buying this”?
MM: Style always starts on the bottom then goes to the tip-top of consumerism, then makes its way back down to the fast fashion space. Ten years later, it’s at Louis Vuitton then it hits H&M.
And when we talk about cultural appropriation, we talk about the question of money: who’s getting paid. You have working-class folks from the hood, who have certain style practices, who have ways of being in their bodies or ways of dancing that are utterly demeaned or seen as inappropriate or not respectable. And then when somebody white does it, it becomes cool.
ASB: Like Iggy Azalea.
MM: I wasn’t gonna say it. You said it.
ASB: She’s Australian, I’m Australian, so I guess I can.
MM: It isn’t only about the practice of taking something that came from working-class communities and doing it. It’s about the fact that they’re getting paid. Millions. In the same way that people who started it—and do it better by the way—are overlooked and told that they are a problem.
One of the things I’m particularly wary of is cornrows or braided hair. One thing I noticed when I was in Berlin was all these white women in cornrows and braided hair and I just don’t understand. I remember how my mother braided my sister’s hair because she was a single mom. She didn’t have time to braid my sister’s hair every day for school so she would braid her hair for a month to save time. This is what I think about when I think about black hair. So when I see white women with braids, it’s not to say that they can’t have braids or whatever, but I’m wondering why: What is it doing? What is the point? What is this for, for you? And I think you have to have a meaningful answer, to be honest.
ASB: They can’t just feel entitled to it and not be able to account for why they do it, because it is an act of family and love and community and sharing and generosity. And to them, it is just an aesthetic.
MM: And they do it because they’ve seen it in Vogue, they’ve seen it in a music video, they’ve seen one of their favourite models do it.
ASB: Tell me: what are you loving right now? Like books, TV, night life, music.
MM: We already keekee-ed about Sex Education which I love. One of my other favourite podcasts is ‘The Read’. It’s two queer black people talking about pop culture and it’s sassy and it gives me everything I need.
What else? There’s a singer I’m obsessed called Moses Sumney. He’s a black singer, and baby he will take you to church (collective squeal) His voice, I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s bluesy, he’s got this impeccable falsetto and you are like what is going on. There’s a track called “Make Out In My Car.”
ASB: If I’m bawling tonight it’s gonna be because I listened that.
MM: And that’s the whole point. I got friends who call me and say, “Baby you made me listen to Moses Sumney, and I am crying. Please send reinforcements!”
Angelita Sofia Biscotti is a model, photo-artist and writer who used to publish work under the name 'Angela Serrano' and tweet as @angelita_serra. She was a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She has been published in Archer, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Peril, Cordite Poetry Review and elsewhere. Her erotic poetry chapbook Else But A Madness Most Discreet is available through Vagabond Press. Her modelling work has appeared in Pencilled In, Hot Chicks with Big Brains, We Are Something Else, and Demasque. Her photography has been exhibited at Midsumma Festival's Queer Economies St Heliers St Gallery and the BlackCat Gallery's Square-Circle show. She is an alumna of the Footscray Community Arts Centre's West Writers Group.
Rarely does the announcement of a literary prize (and state government literary prize, at that) radiate so far beyond the tight-knit Australian literary field. But last week it did. The New York Times, CNN, the BBC and France 24, along with almost every news outlet in Australia, turned their attention to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award ceremony where the Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, announced (and mispronounced) that Behrouz Boochani had won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (VPLA) for Non-Fiction (worth $25,000) and the overall Victorian Prize for Literature—Australia’s richest literary prize—worth $100, 000, for his book No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador, 2018), translated by Omid Tofighian.
Root Bed is an excerpt from Cassandra’s manuscript, <i>The Bed Roots</i>, which she calls a "Troema": her definition of a 'troema' is a poetic narrative, spanning many pages, that maps the language of a traumatic experience across an experience or across an entire lifetime. In so writing the troema, the writer observes and bears witness to the trauma in an effort to help de-stigmatize the nature of living in a traumatized body and/or mind. It asks the reader to look closely at the damages resulting from oppressive and abusive behaviors, in our interpersonal relationships and in society at large. It asks that we build compassion and take responsibility for our actions.
In 2017 the queer and gender-diverse community of Australia undertook an incredible campaign of everyday activism around marriage equality. As individuals and collectives we shared our personal stories with our networks – from social media, to workplace to school playground. We purged our tears and our rage – documented as poems, articles, photos, short stories, status updates, tweets, blog posts, political cartoons, and short videos. Many of us were shocked at the vitriol directed at us, to our faces, in our letter boxes and online, even in ‘secret’ Facebook groups. Many of us were hurt by the unspoken tensions and the conversations we couldn’t have with some of our nearest and dearest. By the end, we were truly exhausted.
We at Brow Books are thrilled to publish Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or No’, a book that collects a diverse array of perspectives and narratives, a book that is a journal of record of a time when the value of human beings was debated, a book that tells an overall story that is much larger than the sum of its parts.
'On Queer Grieving: The Community Crisis of Vicarious Trauma' is written by Cee Frances and is one of the pieces you can read in Going Postal.
I have lost count of how many times I have woken from a nightmare involving the death of a queer loved one, and today is no exception. After waking, I lie in bed for hours, unable to shift a sense of incapacitating dread—it becomes a physical ache that spreads throughout my body.
Last week, I travelled to a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne to give a presentation for The International Day Against Hombphobia, Transphobia and Biophobia (IDAHOBIT). Since I started specialising in the area of queer & trans trauma writing and research, speaking about LGBTQIA+ issues has become part of my job. For this particular event, it means I have the opportunity to speak to more than 200 people about my experiences navigating trauma as someone who is both queer and nonbinary, as well as an academic and community advocate. In preparation for these gigs, I usually ask organisers what angle they wish my presentation to take: Trans terms 101? Political commentary? An overview of my current PhD research? To my surprise and slight discomfort, the organisers of the event asked that I simply “tell my own story”. Having based my career on convincing others that marginalised identities need more than a cursory, abstracted political platform, I have grown accustomed to using careful, persuasive language to carry personal narratives. Being asked to tell the story of my life seems both too difficult and too easy. How could I confidently implore a room of predominately white, heterosexual, cis government staff to respond to the current mental health crisis facing my community? Without focusing on my meticulously collected accolades, why would they listen to me? And of course, the ever familiar ode to imposter syndrome: what right do I have?
Going Postal: More than 'Yes' or 'No', out November 2018
Being an intersectional researcher means acknowl edging that privilege will always inform what stories we tell, who tells them, and how they get told. There is a certain irony in going through one’s life navigating certain identity categories and the oppressions that come attached to them, only to end up as an advocate who must decide what to speak of and when—to stand back from the mic or step up to it.
As IDAHOBIT approaches I think of all of the queer and trans stories that need to be told. About the current epidemics of racism and ableism plaguing both our immediate and broader communities. More than anything, I begin to think of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves. Generational and immediate community mourning is the underpinning of every project in which a queer person becomes a representative of our own cause.
Most of us learn to shake off our nightmares, attributing them to an overactive imagination or that cheese we ate before bed. I, along with so many queer and trans people, was forced to stop dismissing night terrors around the same time I started burying young, vulnerable members of my community.
In around my second year of being immersed in Melbourne queer spaces and relationships, I lost an online friend to suicide. This event precipitated a breakdown longcoming, and I lost my job in community health due to needing to extend my bereavement leave. Upon telling both my previous employer and other (nonqueer) friends and family members, I was faced with the same series of questions: Were they a close friend? How did I know them? What happened?
As my mental health hit rock bottom, the echo of these painfully insensitive enquiries and their speculative undertones began to haunt me. I received a new psychiatric diagnosis and became suicidal. I did not want to tell anyone in my life how bad things were—after all, what right did I have? My friend who died was somebody I only met once, I was not suffering nearly as much as their closest friends and family.
I could not find a way of articulating how gravely the point of my grief and health decline was both entirely separate from, and tied to, these disqualifications. I was so impacted by Gem’s death because I never got the chance to know her better, and because we both spent a lot of time in an online space designed for women and queers to discuss our mental health in detail. There, we received the kind of support that we couldn’t get anywhere else.
The reasons for our loyalty to this digital space were varied, but united by acute need. The some 300 people in this space knew more about my mental health struggles than most of my IRL loved ones. Online, friends and strangers alike could “opt in” to offer support, and mediate this choice through both the distance and strange closeness of an internet forum. From suicide alerts to counselling recommendations, we held each other up daily. When Gem died, our lovingly sheltered community was blown apart.
The point I see absent from most discussions of queer community (particularly from mainstream, outsider perspectives) is just how much of our lives are anchored by, and negotiated through, the online spaces that hold us. Part of existing in a community facing daily hardships is learning about the limitations faced by others as well as ourselves; the reality that IRL support is not only difficult, but often dangerously scarce in supply. Alongside this, many of us have a backcatalogue of failed relationships and support systems, which can prevent us from seeking out new, healthier, intimate connections: typical ‘stable’ friendships are instead sublimated by online meme groups, political communities and party culture. This is not to say that healthy friendships cannot grow from such contexts, but simply acknowledges these divergences from traditional relationship frameworks. In the historical context of LGBTQIA+ party culture, we rarely discuss the fact that this is the result of the swing between bunkering down or going OUT, because sometimes destructive urges are about choosing the least harmful vice, and damn it, we deserve a break.
The reality underpinning these changes to our internal social structures is that all of us have experienced traumatic events in our lives, though in different ways and to differing extents. Assumptions from outsiders based around questions regarding suicide such as “Were you close?” don’t hold up when loss and harm reduction are fundamental, daily experiences. Already, so few of us can fully articulate how traumatic events have shaped our lives, and if we do, we are often continually forced to qualify our suffering. Not only does such gatekeeping perpetuate cycles of silence and harm, but we are prevented from developing necessary strategies for managing the shockwaves. The strategies we need range from managing the ongoing nature of vicarious trauma, grief support, and an acknowledgement of who carries the burden of emotional labour when community traumas occur. Overwhelmingly, it is the most marginalised individuals; those socialised as women, femmes and People of Colour, who end up shouldering the bulk of the load, and who are expected to step up and forego their own wellbeing for the more pressing crises at hand. It is of no surprise that in the last two years, the community suicides I have been most affected by have sat at the intersections of women, femmes, POC, and sex work.
Those who look the strongest are often experiencing the highest labour demands—and yet, we continue to ignore these critical internal community realities. And so we burn out our most precious resources, contribute to further lateral violences, and isolate ourselves in a desperate attempt to reduce our own suffering. At best, we barely keep our fragmented communities afloat; at worst, those who have become isolated drift further and further away from any possibility of support when they need it most. And yes, people get sick, and they die. They aren’t here anymore to tell us how we could have done better. If the AIDS crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our community absorbs the pain of members far and wide, and exchanges this load generationally by necessity. We feel the loss of strangers through their close proximity to our social orbits, political values and personhood—we grieve, through sharing the stories of their suffering. By remembering, we are reminded of why we must continue fighting current crises.
This is the nightmare we are living in postplebiscite, in the era of “Equal Love”. This is what I wake up to and from, today, on the day of this year’s IDAHOBIT. This is why questions like “Were you close?” don’t even begin to address the devastation of suicide for LGBTQIA+ individ uals and their broader networks. In this game of dominos we are pushed to an illogical extreme, only to be faced with incredulity at the causes of our inevitable collapse.
On the way to last week’s presentation, the reasons for my restless sleep the night before settled on my shoulders and refused to budge. I realised that the most important story I had to tell to a room of strangers with little context for LGBTQIA+ issues was not the trajectory from closet to New Queer World; this place where finally, every now and again, I get paid to teach others what inclusion actually means for my community, and how the frameworks through which we view trauma must be expanded far beyond their current parameters. It is my story, colliding with that of my friends who have died, and who will continue to suffer if we do not learn how to effectively address current realities of violence as both an institutionally-regulated reality, and an everyday, vicarious burden we all share.
If we do not receive support to develop our own action plans, destructive cycles of crisis and burnout will continue to ripple through our communities and their unique kinship structures. Too many lives, and the stories connected to these lives, have already been lost. And so, I tell a room full of strangers about my friends,
about my most recent queer loss and its true, devastating weight. The room is silent, punctuated by discomfort. As the event wraps up, however, I am flooded by bodies and shuffled towards a rainbow photo wall. Strangers beam at me from all sides and pose for the camera, shiny-eyed with gratitude. I agree to stay for lunch, summoning the
energy to answer their enthusiastic questions. Witnessing this level of optimism floods my chest with warmth, but it is exhausting, and I am relieved when the crowd finally thins.
After driving home, I cancel my plans for the next twenty-four hours. I do what I feel I must—I go to bed, even though I will dream on high alert. Most importantly, I continue to tell our stories. I speak to the crisis within them, in the hopes it might fall on listening ears.
Cee France is / mad as / a cut snake / rising / a watermark / seven loose teeth / an ode to femme-fags / and / a wardrobe of pink slime.
Going Postal, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne, is officially out in stores around Australia on Thursday 15th November—the first anniversary of the historic ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage equality postal survey. You can also order it here.
Whether you know what a bao is or not, the slow and comforting preparation of one is the perfect set-up to the deep, complex and layered metaphor that food can play in our lives.
The calm rolling out of the dough, the visceral act of hand-mixing the filling, squelching raw meat between your fingers and the companionship of assembling the two parts into a dumpling. Bao, the Pixar short film that played in cinemas paired back-to-back with the film The Incredibles 2, perfectly encapsulated this moment in its opening scenes.
Concept art — Disney/ BAO
As a huge fan of the family with superpowers, I went to the screening of The Incredibles 2 expecting a comedic yet exciting two hours of being transported back to my childhood. Within a few moments I was taken back to a childhood I had lived, where I could see a story with characters that reflected my family on screen.
In Chinese culture, where verbal declarations of devotion and affection are rare, food plays an integral role in parenting — it is a method of loving, nurturing and growing, a way of showing how much you care. Feeding children by hand continues into young adulthood, a contrast to most Western children’s experiences, and finishing the food on your plate is absolutely non-negotiable. From a young age, I realised the way to my mother’s heart was to compliment her cooking and thank her for the effort, time and labour it took for her to feed me every meal of the day.
The centrality of food in Bao is evident in much more than the name. Using a humorous allegory, the protagonist—a Chinese-Canadian woman whom I like to call Mama Bao—raises a bao that anthropomorphically comes to life. She tends to him by feeding him, teaching him and protecting him from harm.
As with many real parent-child relationships in diasporic communities, intergenerational culture clash between Mama Bao and Baby Bao causes conflict. First-generation migrants who move to Western countries often don’t realise the internal struggles their children may encounter, growing up caught between two (or even more) cultures. As a child, it took me just one year of primary school to learn and understand with deep anxiety that ‘our’ food and culture was considered abnormal, something shameful. I felt my only option was to distance myself from my Asianness and, in the process, this created huge barriers between my mother and me.
Her perception of my endeavours for independence and acceptance by my peers as vapid, unimportant and in pursuit of whiteness—which it sometimes was—only served to drive the wedge deeper. The expectation that we, as children of migrants, can disregard the culture we are surrounded by leaves no room for us to grapple with our desire for acceptance and connection. This expectation can overshadow the very real and difficult experience of feeling as though you do not truly belong anywhere. I could see so much of myself and my mother in the culture clash depicted on-screen between Mama Bao and Baby Bao, a space where overwhelming love and conflict can co-exist. This is not to say that all the problems between Mama Bao and Baby Bao are driven entirely by a lack of understanding—her overprotective parenting is a relatable experience many children of migrants know all too well.
Similarly, children of migrants can often lack the cultural knowledge or even verbal language to truly understand where their parents are coming from. I would always bristle and complain about my mother’s cloying questions about my day while I was in my teens: “Where are you going? Who did you see? Have you eaten yet? Have you had a shower?” I felt claustrophobic in my own home, unable to move without being interrogated. You can imagine my surprise when, on my university exchange to Indonesia, I learned how to make small-talk and found these questions turned out to be everyday chit-chat, similar to “How have you been? What have you been up to? How are you going?” All that teen angst for nothing!
The conflict between a parent’s overprotection and a child’s desire for independence often comes down to different conceptions of selflessness and selfishness. Anglo-Celtic cultures place more emphasis on individualism, particularly in the current climate of neoliberalism. Comparatively, the notion of sacrifice in order to give your children ‘a better life’ was a very prevalent narrative in my life, whether from my own family or the stories in our community. I grew up with numerous confronting stories of my family and our friends coming together to support undocumented folks, organise marriages for citizenship papers, visit people in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and help children who were born here naturalise their parents. Taking on the economic burden of caring for your relatives was a given; sending money made in Australia back to relatives living in poverty, caring for our parents into their old-age and taking on the children of poor, widowed or deceased relatives.
Does this familial ‘selflessness’ still have a price though? For many second-generation migrants, their parents’ sacrifice means that any pursuits that contradict what their parents want can become a point of conflict. Never mind that restricting the independence, personal growth and dreams of your children seems a little selfish...This is reflected in Bao when Mama Bao’s attempts to control Baby Bao only results in his decision to move out, with a white girlfriend to boot; a conclusive rejection of his culture. His attempt to leave the family home, after everything Mama Bao had done to raise him, is the final straw for their relationship.
In a climatic struggle to stop him running out the door with a suitcase, Mama Bao eats him.
It is the ultimate destruction of their relationship and Mama Bao cries as she comes to terms with what she has done. The toxicity and inflexibility of parental relationships can result in an unbridgeable distance between parent and child, and this is what Mama Bao’s actions exemplify.
In the next scene, her real son enters the room as she cries on her bed; definitely human but with the same dumpling-shaped head as Baby Bao. It becomes evident that Baby Bao was a curious manifestation of Mama Bao’s relationship with her son, whom she has clearly not been speaking with since he left home (suitcase, white girlfriend and convertible in tow). Mama Bao may not have eaten her real son, but she did kill their relationship. It was the pain and regret from this relationship breakdown that resulted in the sad loneliness she was experiencing at the top of the film before Baby Bao came to life.
Mama Bao and her son eat together and cry together over their favourite snack, the motif of food granting them both forgiveness. In the last scene, the whole family (father and white girlfriend included) cook and prepare dumplings and baos. It is food that brings these characters back together; for nourishment, their growth as people, and their love for each other.
The metaphorical use of food in Bao resonated with me on so many levels. Food and recipes passed down, generation to generation, are a form of cultural knowledge, as important as language or custom. One of my favourite dishes is Ham Choy Kon—a homely meal of pickled mustard greens with pork. It is a distinctly Hakka dish, not fancy, not made with the best cuts of meat, a kind of peasant food. It has taught me about the ingenuity of fermentation, nutrition and survival. It has taught me about resourcefulness and flavouring when ingredients are scarce. Most of all, this dish has taught me so much about who I am. In our food, we find our histories and the knowledge of our ancestors.
Food is specific to its environment. It teaches us what vegetables and spices could grow in what climates, which animals were for food and which for worship, what methods of preserving, fermenting and pickling food were utilised to nourish our bodies, to bring us to where we are right now.
Bao brought me to tears more than once throughout its poignant story. I was astonished at just how much it affected me to see the digitally animated chopsticks, Chinese food, representations of Chinese people with authentic, three-dimensional personalities, and a story that spoke to my heart. There is such potential for this story to bring modern parents and children together into a better understanding of each other—how might my relationship with my mother be different if she and I had watched a short film like Bao together when I was ten years old? Maybe she would have understood my desperation to attend sleepovers or catch the train by myself, maybe I wouldn’t have corrected her English and ridiculed her to my friends. Maybe we would have gotten to where we are now: a supportive, flexible and proud relationship, without all the heartache.
Progress, however giant or incremental, is necessary: while 2018 has been a big year for Asian representation, from Bao to Crazy Rich Asians, these films were developed in the wake of other Asian-led films in previous years, like The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire and Sanjay’s Super Team.
Sanjay’s Super Team is a Pixar short film with a culturally-diverse storyline. Released in 2015, the short explores a young boy’s fascination with the world of superheroes and cartoons, and his father’s frustration and disappointment at his son's lack of interest in Hinduism and prayer. It has the same premise as Bao— the generational gap between parent and child in the context of diaspora — and just as beautifully pulls together Sanjay’s wild imagination of his Super Team and the Hindu gods Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman. What is most touching about this story is the real cartoon drawings of writer and director Sanjay Patel in the closing credits, illustrating his synthesis of Hinduism and superhero cartoons from his childhood.
This synthesis, from Sanjay’s cartoons to Mama Bao’s interracial dumpling cook-up, is what gets so deeply to the root of being part of the diaspora. We must accommodate, compromise and become culturally flexible in order to survive and thrive after migration. Concurrently, we must move through these clashes in culture in a healthy and understanding manner to maintain our ties to family and identity.
Diverse children’s media has the ability to bridge so many cultural gaps between migrant parents and their children. Had this kind of media been accessible during my own childhood, I can only imagine the positive impact on my parental relationships, self-esteem and internalised understandings about race.
Bao’s power as a story lies in giving kids the opportunity to learn and take on new empathetic ways of understanding each other and their different cultural backgrounds. In sharing this media with their parents, they open the door to a whole new world of authentic relating.
Bridget Harilaou is a mixed-race Asian-Australian and social justice activist who writes extensively about politics and race. She has been published in The Guardian, SBS Life, New Matilda and Feminist Writers Festival, and tweets @fightloudly.
In 1966, a stranger found my pappous and his brother sprawled out on the road in Hay, a town between Adelaide and Sydney. They were travelling home for my uncle’s birth. They were working in Sydney. Packing bananas, Mum thinks. Her recollection is hazy. She remembers visiting her father in the hospital for months after the accident, her baby brother still new. She remembers hearing of the guilt that clouded her father when, after days of asking after his little brother, his brother’s wife came in yelling. My pappou’s brother had died on the road back in Hay.
Pappou taught his body how to move again. And quickly. He had to work. They were an immigrant family. They didn’t know that compensation for accidents existed. That is, until the court case came. Pappou could not remember who was driving and so the unknown left the insurance agency with questions. An unknown that has loomed over our family ever since.
In a motel room, somewhere between the curved Great Ocean Road between Adelaide and Melbourne, I peel plastic off a fresh tattoo. Mat and I had driven seven hours that day and I had been watching as the ink and plasma bubbled under the plastic medical bandage.
I start peeling in the bathroom. It hurts to slowly rip plastic from skin. I pause incrementally but can’t stop myself from falling prey to the satisfaction of peeling. It’s intoxicating. I murmur and peel and yell and peel and stand in the shower waiting for the steam to help, learning quickly that the steam only helps in washing away the slime when the plastic is half off and flapping.
After, I settle in bed wrapped up in a white towel hard from being bleached. Sleep comes quick and when I wake up, I see the towel is scrunched in the corner of the bed and my arm is stuck to the sheets in a grey ooze. I peel myself up and away from the bed. Mat packs the car as I wet the towel and scrub at the bled ink.
It was Tolstoy who said, ‘all happy families are alike; each traumatized family experiences trauma in its own way’. Or something like that.
Secondary trauma is what you would imagine. When we live together, we experience trauma together so in that, while we are not physically harmed by a loved one being assaulted, we can mourn for them. We can fear with them. We can make changes to our own lives to protect them and ourselves. And so, trauma can move through the generations. Intergenerational trauma happens when, according to psychotherapist Crista Brett, ‘trauma and loss issues are not dealt with actively and mourned’. The family ‘can set the stage for the avoidance of a resolution of a trauma, and the following generations unwittingly continue that avoidance’. Brett says while it is clear trauma can be perpetuated in this way, trauma is exacerbated by family dysfunction. Or, family dysfunction is exacerbated by trauma. Or something like that.
Mount Gambier is five hours out of Adelaide, home to a lake that looks highlighter blue. Mat and I are driving home from Melbourne, and that night, we sleep in a converted prison with thick limestone walls. At dusk, we walk the perimeter of the prison. Walls still high with barbed wire trim. A small sign denotes an unmarked grave near our sleeping quarters. We are silent, reading from plaques that speak of the children who lived in the prison. We learn that prisoners were allowed pets if the prisoners were here for a number of years. Most kept birds that would fly back to them at night. That evening, lying in my single bed parallel to Mat, I think of birds living in this cold limestone place. Birds and children: one unable to fly away.
The next day, we visit Penola, the place where Dad was born, where I have never been before. A young woman brings us coffee at a bakery. She asks what I do, and I say, ‘writer’ and feel like a liar. She says she’d like to do that, ‘but no one would care what a country girl has to say’. I tell her, ‘I would,’ and she laughs in such a sweet way that it replays in my head for days.
I’ve driven through the damp forests of Oregon, down roads that wind through Northern Californian mountains. I’ve stopped by the Columbia River in Winter and pushed my hands into the ice blue stream, feeling the skin over my knuckles go numb and tight. I’ve driven from Adelaide to Melbourne and back again, watching the bugs collect on my windscreen like pressed flowers.
When I’m driving through country, I feel as if my life takes shape. My life shrinks into the simplicity that only a road pointing in one direction promises. It is that allusive sense of desire being fulfilled, even if my desire is only a petrol station toilet. Walt Whitman wrote, ‘O Highway, you express me better than I can express myself’ and in this, I understand him. I read a trucker magazine and think, ‘I could do that. That could be me’. My friends laugh but the thought sits there, appearing closer like the reflection in a rear mirror.
We drive up to Mat’s family farm. I’m not sure if it’s a road trip; an hour out of Adelaide barely counts. But we pack up the car all the same with our pilled scarves and hats. Suzie comes with us, her slim greyhound body fitted tight with her jumper and harness. I’ve never slept at the farm and I look forward to waking up with the light instead of the sound of street sweepers outside my window.
After dinner, Mat and I walk through the slush of the paddocks to see the cows. It’s not bright like the morning of my imagining but dark and quiet. I can barely see my feet through the smog of grey and stay metres behind Mat who walks briskly. Lying together–again–in a single bed that night, Mat tells me only in the country at night he can imagine aliens to be real. ‘It’s something about the quiet out here,’ he says. I nod, knowing exactly what he means.
In the morning, I wake to see the sun at the edges of thick green curtains. Mat calls me down to the rocky paddock: an alpaca baby is being born. I walk through wet weeds and see an alpaca lying. Mat and his brother are hovering nearby. I catch the unnatural blue of latex gloves sticking to fingers. I walk around the alpaca, and behind it I see the baby.
It’s half in, half out. The baby’s head is lying on a towel as it mews. Long ears pointing back. Its front legs are out, covered in goop. I try not to look at how wide the mother has been stretched and how much of the baby is still inside. I clench my stomach. The baby’s eyes are barely open and as we watch, the mum yells and stands and squats and yells until baby’s back legs ooze out of her onto damp dirt.
Trauma feels most at home in silence. In the things not said. It’s strange that silences can pass through generations. Perhaps tradition is as much about absence as performance.
With Mum, the accident had always been a conversation expressed through worry. Using language, she protected herself; she protected me. ‘Don’t drive to Melbourne. Get on a plane’. Pleading, ‘rest and don’t drive at night. Call me when you get there’. Dad was quieter. He inherited a different history, one not of roads but elements. His family had lost everything in a bush fire. He once told me of the way they cut the animals loose as the fire approached. ‘To give them a chance.’
It took years for me to speak back. To say, ‘I will drive but I’ll make stops and won’t drive at night’. I’ll text you, I mouth as the car slides out the driveway and we leave the dog with them.
I tell Mat to pull over as we near Snowtown. We’re driving out to Whyalla for cuttlefish mating season and the winter sun bakes my skin, the air passing through with a comforting touch. A sign points us to ‘The Big Blade’ and we drive towards the thicket of trees, over the railway line, into the town. When we pull up to the blade–a scale model blade of a windfarm mill–I laugh. I had expected a knife, large and comical, perhaps with red eyes like the Giant Koala as tribute to the town’s past. A past where a man once sliced off a piece of his victim’s flesh, fried and ate it, before storing a body in a barrel in the town’s bank.
Disappointed, I take the opportunity to switch places with Mat and drive back onto the long freeway. On the way home a day later, Mat orders a naan bread from the petrol station cum Indian takeaway at Snowtown’s border.
Mum texts me: Are you safe?
I reply: Do you want pickled olives from this roo mettwurst shop?
One Mum told me about her dad—a man of which I have no memory—and how his kidney was destroyed. Burst within him, or something to that effect. Her language was limited; she was four at the time of the accident. When she speaks, her hands slide against one another as if the kidney itself slid against the road.
She remembers his dressing gown, how a patch of blood was soaked into it. How scared she was of him and of the hospital he seemed to live in.
In 2016, I was in an accident. No injuries besides a sore neck and a crumpled yellow car. It happened outside an old Greek woman’s home. So much like my relatives. Strong, tough, but warm and generous. A touch of judgement, too. Once she knew I was Greek, she called me the ‘poor girl’. Mat arrives and she asks if he’s Greek. When he says no, she nods. ‘It’s okay’. I laugh later, knowing that if I was her granddaughter the answer would have been different.
The accident didn’t stop me from driving. Not much would, I’d like to say, but the words can’t quite form. There’s a hidden wariness inside my chest. I know how much damage the road can do.
In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton writes, ‘our imagination [was] so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills, that there was inexhaustible delight in penetrating to the remoter parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, discovering derelict villages with Georgian churches and balustraded house-fronts, exploring slumberous mountain valleys, and coming back, weary but laden with a new harvest of beauty.’
Almost a hundred years ago, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald embarked on a long trip. As legend goes, after she expressed dissatisfaction with her breakfast not being like she was used to, he said to her: ‘I will dress, and we will go downstairs and get in our car. Seating ourselves in the front seat we will drive from here to Montgomery, Alabama, where we will eat biscuits and peaches.’
Yia yia couldn’t drive: high blood pressure meant she was prone to fainting. I remember being pulled along as a kid from bus stop to bus stop. I wonder what she’d think of me, driving from state to state after her husband was thrown from a car and left, almost dead, on the road.
What is the cost of feeling free? Letting mum panic while I drink warm Coke, passing through another town? I’d like to think the trauma stops with me but that would be dishonest. When Mat drove out to the Riverland for work–three hours there and then back—I’d feel the muscles tighten in my gut waiting to hear from him. To know that he was safe.
Maybe love is living with another’s trauma, accommodating it until it becomes a part of you.
Katerina Bryant is a writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Southerly and Island Magazine, amongst others. She tweets @katerina_bry.
‘I’ll drown my book’ The Tempest, William Shakespeare
PART A: Salt Spring Island
Crossing the strait between Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island in June 2017 following the annual Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) conference, the two authors of this article, both researchers in contemporary publishing studies, fell into a conversation with a stranger.
‘What I really love,’ the woman said, ‘is the smell of books.’
‘Oh look, a ferry,’ one of us replied.
This diplomatic non-sequitur has since become something of a catchphrase in our research.
PART B: The Smell of Books
The smell of books, or bibliosmia, is a cipher. It is a popular shorthand for a nostalgic attachment to print books that invokes a (possibly imagined) olfactory memory. As with all forms of nostalgia, an expression of love for the smell of books usually involves looking backwards to how things used to be, and a desire to return to that state. It’s a bittersweet longing to preserve an older way; in this case, an older way of interacting with books. The idea of the smell of books comes up quite often in media articles about the rise/decline of print books/ebooks. A thoughtful example is a 2016 article in the Huffington Post, titled ‘Why I Still Love Printed Books’. The author, Lev Raphael, lists a number of reasons for his preference for print over ebooks, concluding with the immersive sensory experience offered by print objects: ‘I love the smell and weight and feel of a book.’
Googling ‘the smell of books’, though, doesn’t take you straight to such pieces of cultural journalism. The smell of books has become its own commodifiable property—a trope that can be invoked to badge oneself as a book lover. There are discussion boards about the smell of books on Goodreads and LibraryThing, human interest pieces about the science of book smell on websites, and reams of merchandise, mostly perfumed, including candles, eau de toilette, and an aerosol with which to spray an ereader. Such merchandise represents a commitment to the objectness of the book and its status as quirky, personal and material rather than digital. Expressing fondness for the smell of books, either in words or through purchasing decisions, is a performance of bookishness.
PART C: Anecdotes
Rather than accepting, critiquing, or deconstructing this mode of engagement with book culture, our research proposes a non-traditional, arts-informed response. Following experimentations with a series of book festival card and board games in ‘Serious Fun: Gaming the Book Festival’, we are pursuing creative, playful and material forms of exploring and re-directing discussions about print books amongst academia, industry and members of the public.
Is the comment ‘Oh look, a ferry’ really unrelated to the smell of books? No. Because ferries turn out to be linked to print books in all sorts of ways. Ferries can, we argue, be seen as metaphors.
We have explored this idea through a YouTube channel, featuring two short films of things getting on and off of ferries.
Are the things getting on and off ferries—lorries laden with logs, cars carrying commuters—metaphors for books, which are also material objects that do the work of conveying? At a meta level, our contemplative, meditative videos are acts of digital communication that reference practical tasks, logistics and material challenges. The thoughts prompted by a metaphorical consideration of ferries and books lead to more extended engagements, in which we also explore how ferries are literally relevant to book objects; ferries and books are both inside and outside each other. Books may be transported or read on ferries, and other aquatic vessels. Books are also published about boats. Books meet watery deaths.
i) Books Afloat
Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy had a library on the Beagle during their round-the-world voyage. Cruise liners would have ship’s libraries, in times of old. The QE2, for example, had over 6000 volumes on board, as commemorated by an Isle of Man postage stamp. We have ourselves pleasingly arranged books along the shelf of a tightly packed canal boat; or turned to an ereader when baggage weight was a concern. But when things go bad at sea, reading on the waves takes a turn. Raging storms, an overbearing ship’s captain, even a mutiny. In our childhood reading, the Lost Boys are threatened by Captain Hook with walking the plank while Wendy watches aghast, lashed to the mast; Billy Bones tells ‘dreadful stories’ of plank walking and storms at sea in Treasure Island; and the Swallows and Amazons make their ‘Captain Flint’ walk the plank, in piratical homage.
Books fall in the water. Pages swim in the sea. An electric charge bolts through the ocean. The tide waxes and wanes with the moon.
ii) 21st Century Seamanship
Some visiting speakers come to talk to students learning about publishing. They work for the nation’s oldest publisher, producing guides for the marine industry. They don’t have the glamour of trade publishers with their stories of launch parties and canapés. Instead they speak of precision and regulation, the importance of editorial control and house style, literally a life-and-death matter at sea. Their titles use laminate pages, fold flat with spiral binding, have maps which open out across the ship’s bridge. They show us a manual which details berthing for commercial ports around the world (how to park your boat, for the non-specialist). It’s also available as an ebook. (This is definitely not a stupid product.) They tell us about unauthorised copies of their content circulating on the web, and take-down notices served to an amenable Russian pirate.
At the end of the session they give out branded pens and mints. One of us gets the cardboard box in which the goodies were stored. It advertises a new title, 21st Century Seamanship.
Later, the box turns into a boat, with a whisky bottle box for its funnel. The cat gets into the box. She dreams of mince and slices of quince.
iii) It’s Like Drowning Kittens
We’re on a trip. The life cycle of book production. First, we’re at a printer. Books roll off the presses: school textbooks, novels, political biographies, picture books. Gilted covers, special effects. Digital presses, the smell of glue and the guillotine. Hope and aspiration in the hundreds of thousands.
Goods in. Despatch.
Next we go to the book distribution warehouse. Carefully stacked and stocked, metres high, forklift trucks finding the right pallet, moving and shipping it out to bookshops around the country. Slow-moving books, gathering dust. Overstock.
Out the back in the yard, we’re shown a container of books, surplus to requirements. ‘What will happen to them?’ someone asks.
The warehouse manager shakes his head. ‘Pulping,’ he says.
‘Oh no!’ she replies. ‘It’s like drowning kittens.’
A publisher liquidates. Its books are pulped. Dead books, dead Kindles.
(Freight Books was the publisher of, among other titles, 101 Uses of a Dead Kindle).
PART D: Ferry Pyjamas
In happier times, everyone likes curling up with a good book. Or lying with it on the beach, sun tan cream and sand smearing its pages. Or maybe in the bath, steam rising, curling the pages. This intimacy is precious. But also potentially dangerous. To reader and to book.
We have built upon these thoughts, experiences and reflections to develop some experiments with Bookish Boats, and Boat(ish) Books. In our first extended attempt to consider ‘Oh Look a Ferry’ and its relationship to books and reading, we wondered: what might it be like to curl up in bed with a good book and some ferry pyjamas? So we took the following steps:
An internet search for ferry fabric.
We were not satisfied with the results.
Next, realising we could get custom-digital printed fabric, we decided to self-publish.
Using our favourite ferry picture - the Stornoway boat coming into Ullapool - we manipulated it using a web picture editor.
We uploaded some of the images to a digital fabric printer.
We waited for the samples.
The samples came through the post.
We elicited opinion face-to-face and via social media about the best design.
Members of our focus groups requested ferry pyjamas.
We ordered some more samples.
The new samples came through the post.
We ordered fabric.
To be continued.
This experiment is, as yet, only partially actualised. The sewing machine awaits.
PART E: Do Books Float?
Our most thorough experiment on books, boats and materiality had two aims: to expand material experiences of the book (beyond holding or smelling it), and to investigate how it feels to destroy a book in a playful and aesthetically pleasing way. We developed the following method:
Rip pages from book.
Fold a page (into origami shapes if desired) and place in water (first tub of water, then nearby fishpond). Assess if page floats or sinks.
Place an unfolded page from book in water. Assess if page floats or sinks.
Place the rest of the book itself in water. Assess if book floats or sinks.
Before this method could be followed, materials needed to be assembled. The most important step was choosing a book. A large number of books that we own were eliminated from consideration, because they were needed for other purposes (for example, reading). We roamed the corridors of our workplaces and asked our colleagues for discarded books. However, many of these were contemporary novels and poetry. We decided not to publicly destroy a living author’s work. A colleague suggested we might also want to stay away from any holy book.
As a last resort, we examined our own office shelves. One of us had an old copy of Moby Dick, which instantly felt like the right book object for the experiment. It is an old edition (circa late 1990s) and the print is tiny, blurry and nearly unreadable. In fact—confession—this particular book is unread. One of us prefers ebooks for long, classic books that are unwieldy to hold and usually aren’t nicely typeset. (Note that neither of us was prepared to sacrifice a Kindle for this experiment). Besides these practical considerations, the experiment was about water, and Moby Dick is about whales and boats and unrealistic expectations. Having chosen the book, the steps outlined in the method were carried out.
The experiment yielded several key findings. First was our experience of shock on destroying a book. This, we imagine, is how the woman on the ferry might have felt if she tore a page out of a classic novel. There is a reverence surrounding the book object, particularly for those (like ourselves) who were brought up in the aspirational middle-class. As academics in publishing studies, we can critique this reverence, but it is still part of us. Desecrating books for the purposes of art and scholarship—drowning them, even just annotating them—requires confidence born from the possession of significant cultural capital. Acceptable middlebrow ways of handling the material object of the book sit within defined limits (holding, smelling, collecting, arranging, alphabeticising) and extending this set of physical practices challenges deeply-felt cultural norms.
A second finding concerned the effect on the fish. As a bystander observed, fish are very sensitive to changes in their environment, including the addition of chemicals. This produced a moment of anxiety about research ethics. As it transpired, the fish were fine. However we were prompted to consider unexpected dimensions of the materiality of books—the chemicals in paper and glue.
Finally, we were struck by the prettiness of this experiment. Cutting up and folding book pages creates beautiful physical objects. Flicking through pages underwater feels lovely, especially when surrounded by the warm scented air of an Australian summer. The cover of the book stood up like a sail as the book slowly sank. The wet book was satisfyingly heavy. Handling the book object in this way was meditative and rewarding. As a result of this experiment, we are resolved anew not to dismiss lovers of the print book, but rather to continue exploring different aspects of the book’s materiality.
PART F: Concluding Reflections Towards a Manifesto for Book Cultures Research
We have an abiding interest in the epistemology of book culture—how best to understand and gain knowledge about the circulation of books in contemporary society, in ways that move beyond case studies and empirical data. Our make-and-do experiments are not designed to produce merchandise for Etsy stores or the Literary Gift Company; rather, we aim to create opportunities and prompts for thinking about the materiality of books.
Our research manifesto, which is still in development, is a way for us to set out some guiding principles. Two of its eleven principles are ‘Materiality’ and ‘Oh Look, A Ferry’.
Here, we’ve explained how those ideas intersect to generate new ways of looking at, touching, and perhaps even smelling books. Bon voyage.
Dr Beth Driscoll is Senior Lecturer in Publishing and Communications and Program Coordinator for the Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project, “New Tastemakers and Australia’s Post-Digital Literary Culture”.
Professor Claire Squires is the Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Her publications include Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (2007) and, with Padmini Ray Murray, The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit (2013). She is a judge for the Saltire Society Publisher of the Year Award, and, in 2015, a recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.
I heard the screaming in the dark. I rose to change my newborn son’s diaper just before dawn. The inside was stained orange at the crotch. In the blush of the nightlight, it looked like blood. I knew that it was common in the weeks following birth, I knew it was dehydration, but panic panged inside me. Is he passing blood? I had lost patience with his crying a few hours earlier and been startled at how roughly I had handled him. Had I been that angry?
Had I hurt him?
His skin and arteries were like paper; the contents of his tiny body could just slip out of place. His mind, a palm-full of mud and lightning — it could have just stopped firing and fallen dark, breath slipping out of his mouth like a ghost.
In that moment, I saw it all. I saw my son come apart in my hands.
The breath caught in his throat. The eyes, grey as my own, locked still. Blood appeared at his dough-like seams. It ran. He fell limp. I heard the sound of snapping. He slid apart and the pieces fell into a pile: eyes, lungs, ribs, folds of flesh, an ankle alongside. Genitals like small, unripe fruit lay on the floor.
I closed the fresh nappy and lifted my son into my arms. No, I hadn’t hurt him. He remained whole, alive, tired.
I was 21 when my grandfather died. I helped my father clean out his father’s workers cottage after the funeral. In that old house, my father told me stories of the fury and abuse that working-class families lived out in bygone times. There was the returned serviceman up the street who’d beat his boys with whatever was at hand. There was the rageaholic neighbour who would be found sleeping it off in the gutters. There was one tale of a mother who chased her sons around the dinner table with a kitchen knife. Most of the stories were of men, however; broken men who fumed and snapped. Fathers ruled then. Bitterness and battery went hand-in-hand with poverty. Mine and my father’s relationship was of a staid and suburban father and son, but this act of storytelling taught me that like every family, our one bears enough of its own tragedies in its working-class history, and the history of the family can be a history of male violence.
It isn’t just history. As a father, I am aware of the legacies that I inherit with that title — the stereotypes, that fathers discipline and mothers nurture — but we can still measure the worst of this legacy by counting the deaths of women; one, on average, murdered by their partner each week in Australia. Men still hurt, still kill, their partners and children. And many of those who do, do so as fathers.
The truth is that fathers hurt their families.
Fathers can kill their families.
Our son had woken in the early hours of the night before, as he did most nights. He had been home with us for a few weeks and each night he would wake and act as if he needed to feed, but when he was put to his mother’s breast, he would fall back asleep. The moment we quietly laid him into the cot, he stirred, and the crying began again.
That night I hoped to settle him, by holding him to me in the hallway, so my partner could sleep. He squirmed against my chest and the crying broke into a scream. He wouldn’t feed. He wouldn’t sleep. He screamed. He screamed, when we barely slept, when we hadn’t slept through the night in almost a month, and he screamed for things he couldn’t have and didn’t actually want. He screamed again, and my best intentions gave way to sheer bitterness.
I held him in the air above me, hoping the movement might distract him. At least that’s what I told myself. In reality, I held him in the air because weary rage put him there. My arms grew tense, thinking around the swaddling and a thousand horror stories came to mind of exhausted fathers who crippled limbs and shook their babies blind in their grip. I held the fragile bundle to my chest again and groaned, not just for my tiredness, not just for my son who was crying in the night, but for the horror of this moment, where a father’s love gives way to anger and a sudden realization: I could hurt him.
My partner and I discovered that our firstborn struggled with sleep difficulties in the first month home from the hospital. Babies often fight sleep, but ours persisted beyond the first few weeks. His condition worsened. I returned to work. During our nights, we rose every hour or so, as our son’s wailing rang out from the cot at the end of our bed.
When babies don’t sleep, they scream.
Make it stop.
I could kill him.
The first stage of intervention for infants struggling with sleep difficulties is a consultation at a child health service. We booked the appointment. Our son fought sleep and wailed. The nurses recommended a teddy bear. We gave him an elephant named Ziggy Stardust. It did nothing.
Make it stop.
I’ve never hurt my partner. I’ve never hurt our child. I have no history of committing violence, but I feel this legacy of punishment all the same. Patriarchy, the rule of the father, started, and continues, in the social system of the family. A father’s authority over the family was historically implemented through use of force, which was a lawful right in early modern England. Historian and author Philippa Maddern termed this the ‘moral hierarchy of violence’, where fathers had an ethical and legal right to physically punish their wives and children. The legislation may have been dismantled, but the rule of the father is something that our society remembers, a function of cultural and collective memory. It is passed on, inherited, from father to son.
As a child at Sunday School, I learned that the patriarchs of the Bible would transfer inheritance and bestow their own patriarchal authority to their sons through the laying on of hands. My generation grew up with the semblance of a blunt, but publicly acceptable, paternal discipline: suburban sons have been smacked by suburban fathers, but those fathers and their fathers were beaten in the slums. This mode of discipline descended from a far darker age, imbued with a working-class history of anger and abuse. When it wasn’t fathers, it was teachers. The use of corporal punishment in government schools was legal in most states until the 1990s.
I wonder what inheritance is bestowed through an act of punishment? What is passed on through the excessive force of a father’s hands? The Australian Institute of Family Studies has shown that corporal punishment is typically directed towards males and is affiliated with anti-social outcomes of aggression and mental illness. Children subject to corporal punishment are also more likely to practice it as adults. This legacy of punishment results in generations of fathers and sons, trained in aggression, and doomed to repeat it.
When the anger wakes, the first place I feel it stir is in my hands.
Make it stop.
The second stage of intervention for infants with sleep difficulties is for a nurse to come to the house for a day’s training. My partner and I were instructed to bend over the cot and to continually coach our son to remain in place. He struggled and screamed at us and after 45 minutes, he fell asleep. This is how we were to stop his squalling, grimacing in the face of it before each nap, at every bedtime, in the middle of the night. When it worked, it was exhausting.
When it did not work, it was worse.
I lay awake for hours one night as I finished reading The Shining and cried in traffic the next day. Stephen King wrote the book as a confession, an admission of the anger he held within him and an expression of his deepest fears as a father. That line from the novel — Come on and take your medicine! Take it like a man! — becomes a mantra for an aspiring writer who loses his grip on sanity and is overcome by impulses to hurt, and kill, his own son.
Take it like a man. I went for a walk and turned the words over in my mind. This particular desire to punish is uniquely gendered; practiced by men, suffered by boys. It also implies that suffering violence is formative for masculinity. Behaviours that don’t conform to the masculine type are met with punishment. Fear is met with anger. Fragility is met with force.
This isn’t a reflection on my father specifically, but on all of the fathers, the teachers, the strangers, the male authority figures, that this legacy produced. It is passed on through the social systems we engage with as children.
There is a mosaic of patriarchal figures acting out this ritual; the snap of anger, a pointed finger in the face, but it’s not just a finger. It’s the father’s hand, the physical language of threat. Nine years old. I visited a friend’s house. He had made a mess in his kitchen, laughing. His father entered and became enraged. The boy was smacked, hard, and reacted. The father was offended by his son’s expression of pain and threatened a harsher punishment.
11 years old. I knelt beneath a school desk to pick up a pencil. A man took a handful of my hair and pulled upwards until I was on my feet. A teacher had seen me away from my chair and acted in anger. Eye-contact, too much cologne. We could smell it on him from across the classroom, the temper. I was afraid. He sat me down with something like disgust. “You ok”. It wasn’t a question.
The scream is silenced. The scream is held in. The scream becomes internalised.
Our son still struggled at night, still squealed. I began to take walks, obsessively, hoping to escape the headaches each morning. I lost weight. A stale cough crept into my throat, my mouth already turned stiff with ulcers. Sleep deprivation changes you. Fatigue cripples the immune system. It alters brain chemistry, precipitates anxiety and depression. It affects judgment.
My partner asked me about the broken things she was finding in our home: the remnants of a smashed bowl after breakfast; a toy tambourine bashed on the nursery floor. I was surprised at the anger. The outbursts came without warning, delicious and unsettling, but my stomach turned as I considered the tell-tale bits and pieces: my son is more fragile than any of the things I broke.
I thought back to that first night I held my son, the terror I felt. He was new, barely made. He was confused, ignorant of everything, uncertain of where he ended and where we began. He was consumed by needs, already haunted by physical tensions and unforgiving phantom cravings. He could feel hunger and wonder and horror but was barely able to lift his own head without help. His eyes, his skin, his ribs, like origami. He didn’t even know his own name.
He knew emptiness, the hunger for milk, the nirvana of the breast. He knew the cold that comes, the weight of gravity. He knew our voices. He knew how to scream. With something like grim awe, I considered our newborn’s state of being; looking for the light, fearful of the dark, as fragile as ash, with no language but a cry.
Make it stop?
I can’t stop this.
How could he not scream?
The third and final stage of intervention for infants with sleep difficulties is to check into a residential unit for three days of round-the-clock training. We had just thrown out the last of our son’s leftover birthday cake when the regression began and his tenuous windows of sleep suddenly slammed shut. The full-time training service was provided for children up to the age of one, but our son got sick and didn’t recover for weeks. The window for accessing the service closed.
One night in the middle of this winter, he woke up and started shrieking for the fourth time since sunset. My partner was too exhausted to get up to him again. My back rang with pain as I leant over the cot and dipped my pounding head into the noise. I tried to coach him into place, he bucked and wriggled.
Screaming… make it stop… I couldn’t.
After 10 minutes, I lifted him from the cot. My hands were shaking.
I heard myself speak four words aloud.
I’ll make you stop.
Do I remember what happened next? The recall is both vivid and fragmented. I remember the shadows in the room, impenetrable. I remember the walls as red, though I don’t know why. I remember the screaming, but also the sounds of things, noise. Everything felt loud, alive, like the darkness and the cold were livid and crawling. My partner then came and took our son from my hands. Like a dog slipping a leash, I searched for something to attack and lashed out at the room. I kicked the furniture over and over until the tip of my toe was red and cracked. I limped to the bedroom, fell onto the floor.
I can hear him, ringing in my ears, screaming.
No. It wasn’t him. It was me. I had been screaming.
I heard the crying in the night, the screaming, as always, but it vanished as I opened my eyes. I had been dreaming, often, and when I slept I had been hearing infants beaten, seeing them operated on or dashed against rocks. Sometimes the baby being hurt was my own, other times it was a child I didn’t recognise. If my son cried in the light of day, the nightmares suddenly came to mind, and the foulest dread I’d ever tasted filled me from the gut to the tongue.
Make it stop.
I sat in a therapist’s office. My toe was stiff from the expulsion of fury from that night. During that session, I learned that much of the anger I had been experiencing was a normal reaction to a year of sleep deprivation. Post-natal depression arises in women directly following birth, but paternal post-natal depression can take months, even years, to manifest in men and it can often go undiagnosed when it does.
Some of the anger, however, did relate to what I had experienced as a boy: the mosaic of angry patriarchal figures. Research shows that children absorb the gender roles and parenting patterns that they witness early in life. They will often see those roles instinctually reoccur in adulthood. I wondered if these patterns could be forgotten (an inheritance handed back?). While some of my anger would naturally decline with proper sleep, they said, some will remain for as long as I am a father.
I am consequently faced with a dilemma: the legacy of patriarchal punishment cannot be lived out, and it hurts, and kills, in families each week. But this pattern of anger and abuse has been inherited, whether welcome or not.
I visited my father’s house. He gave me a cup of tea, black, calming, tannic. I tell him about the frustration and anger of being a father. My father and I talked and, again, I heard the stories. I realised there is more to these than anger and abuse.
I am leaving this punitive legacy behind, walking from it, as are the men of many families, generation after generation. I see a baby photo. I mistake it for my son before I realise it’s a photo of me at the same age.
I walked that night. My toe still throbbed with pain and I enjoyed the way it warmed my foot. I thought back to the therapist’s office and the baby photo. Standard psychological practice suggests that when you dream of a child, you are often dreaming of yourself. The therapist had explained that the image of the child in my nightmares can mirror my own past feelings returned.
The buzzing heat in my foot became overwhelming as I limped to a stop on a street corner. I thought back to the sounds I heard in the night, the images of an infant I did not recognise. When I screamed, the infant was met with anger and force. I was fragile. I was afraid. I was punished for it. The scream was then internalised. I became a man, but the child that screams in my dreams was me.
Father was my son’s first word. He curled around my arm after I returned home from a week of travel and uttered the word in broken syllables. It is my name now. I won’t just imagine what it may be like for my son to be fearful and fragile, but remember that I was, as well. I am the father, but I was the son once too, and when I sleep, I am crying still. Screaming, on the inside. I must practice recall and compassion. The legacy of patriarchy can be punishment, but parenting must be empathy.
I hear the crying in the dark. My son is awake. I stand at the side of his cot, the cry breaking into a scream. I feel the exhaustion, the frustration, the anger stirs in my hands, but just as I saw him fall apart in my mind’s eye, I can also piece him back together.
I see myself reach down, gather the scattered parts against me, organs like smooth stones, and slip the limbs into place. I set the head straight, touch the softness of his cheeks with the back of my fingers. My arms begin to interlock and as I draw him closer I hear bone come to bone and flesh thread with flesh inside the hull of his pink belly.
He is whole in my arms, in my imagination, again.
Sleep difficulties in infants are typically resolved within two years and one of the dull discoveries of parenting is that, after the initial trauma of birth, all the clichés are true. My partner and I are content. My son and my father wander the garden together, smelling the passionfruit. The bloodstain beneath my toenail has almost grown out.
Our child sleeps through the night now, but if he wakes and the screaming returns, I take him in my arms and practice the recall. I practice the empathy. I look down at my son in the dark and remember: I am screaming too.
Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based author and journalist. He has written about social justice and religion for The Guardian and other national publications. His twitter is @A_N_Castle
Myuran Sukumaran, one of the “Bali Nine”, was executed by the Indonesian government in 2015. A prodigious painter, he left behind a raw and powerful body of work.
Earlier this year, I went to meet the Australian, New York-based visual artist Matthew Sleeth at his immaculate, high-tech studio. I was there to talk about one of his projects for an article, but when he opened his laptop, a series of photos appeared on his screen. They were paintings of politicians: Julia Gillard, Joko Widodo, Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott. Their faces were wrought in unusual violence, vibrant reds and yellows and purples in strong, thick brushstrokes; paint dripped from Abbott’s face.
They were nothing like Sleeth’s work, so I asked him who painted them. He told me that the artist was Myuran Sukumaran, a man belonging to the “Bali Nine” who was executed by the Indonesian government over three years ago. These paintings formed part of Sukumaran’s first exhibition, which was held at Sleeth’s studio in 2014. The exhibition wasn’t intended to launch Sukumaran’s career, says Sleeth. It was intended to save his life. It was a plea for clemency.
The exhibition is disturbing not just because Sukumaran’s plea went unanswered. Sukumaran knew his life was in these politicians’ hands. These paintings depicted, in Sleeth’s words, ‘the people who could have done something. The people he thought about every day’. Sukumaran didn’t have the luxury of scoffing at their hollow words, as we do. Languishing in Bali’s Kerobokan prison, he obsessed over them, committing their likenesses to canvas.
Sleeth met Sukumaran while running art classes at Kerobakan prison with fellow Australian artist Ben Quilty. In the five years he spent at the prison, Sleeth watched Sukumaran grow from a troubled 23-year-old into a centred, magnanimous man and a talented painter. Sleeth says that Sukumaran was “one of the hungriest artists [he has] ever met”. Sukumaran had developed his practice so quickly and deeply that Sleeth believes that his series from Nusa Kambangan—where he was executed—will become as important as Nolan’s Ned Kelly series to Australian art history.
Sukumaran wasn’t ignorant of his talent either. He called Sleeth on the day before his execution. With no one to sit for him, Sukumaran’s art reached a higher, more abstract level. Instead of painting others—like the series he did of the politicians—he turned inward. He painted himself. At the end of the call, as they were saying goodbye, Sukumaran said: ‘They’re killing me just as I’m getting good.’
On Wednesday, 10 October, a new film by Sleeth about Sukumaran’s last 72 hours was shown nationally for World Day Against The Death Penalty: Guilty. Part documentary, part video art, the film bears Sleeth’s unmistakeable signature as a visual artist, with precise and stylised recreations soundtracked by samples—the Indonesian jungle, media soundbites—which composer Robin Fox weaves, in tonal freedom, with a minimalist electronic score. Though these scenes hang together in a coherent, compelling whole, it remains, like Sleeth’s earlier video art, cinema for the gallery.
And, just as art played a central role in their friendship, so it does in Guilty. Sleeth shows us Sukumaran in his cell, frantically painting one of his self-portraits as the guards politely arrange for his execution. Instead of raging against his fate, Sukumaran creates. This is what he wants to leave behind. This is how he will escape.
In one of these scenes, Sukumaran uses similar colours to the other pieces he painted while on Nusa Kambangan—reds and browns and greys and whites—but instead of the confident, generous, Lucian Freud-esque strokes of his other work, the colours run, in violent liquid and scrapes, distorting his face. On the back of the painting, Sukumaran titled the piece: Self-portrait beneath the shadow. This captures the heart of the film. Sleeth shows us little of Sukumaran before these last few days. His film is a tightly focused portrait, not so much of Sukumaran, as of the condemned man. It is a portrait beneath the shadow.
Sleeth’s film shows us that an execution of this kind doesn’t just take a life; it desecrates the most sacred of moments for a person and their family. It stains death with profane noise. From his cell, Sukumaran is forced to listen to guards sawing wood to make the post that they will tie him to, while a cacophony of jabbering media, a baying populace and cynical politicians plays in the background.
I asked Sleeth why he made the film. He said that his project was to break down the ‘absurd equation’ that the answer to a crime, however serious, is death. This ‘equation’ is laid bare by Sukumaran himself in one scene, where he is asked by Indonesian officials to sign his death warrant. He stands and makes an impassioned speech: ‘It is true that I was a criminal. But it also seems true that you want to tie me to a post and shoot me’. Sleeth wanted to make a political abstraction of an execution visceral, forcing his audience to watch, in real time, a detailed version of Sukumaran’s death.
This was not the part of the film that affected me most. I was speaking recently with my Mum and Dad’s cleaner, Karen, about Sukumaran. Karen is an artist, and she cleans houses to help her ‘ruminate.’ She was cleaning the windows with Windex, and I asked her whether she knew Sukumaran’s work. She stopped wiping, looked at me knowingly, and said without pause: ‘He showed us how to find solitude in the chaos’. Even against this mad and violent backdrop, Sukumaran created. Karen had seen an exhibition of his work at the Bendigo Art Gallery earlier this year, which included the raw self-portraits he painted while on Nusa Kambangan. ‘Maybe all artists are close to death,’ she mused.
These words were an insightful observation of the artist’s condition—what does an artist require if not solitude in the chaos?—because they saw through the execution that Guilty portrays. Instead of seeing a tragedy or a cause, Karen saw a man and his message. The achievement of Sleeth’s film is that it exposes the full horror of the ‘administrative machine’ of a state-sanctioned murder, and the power of the oeuvre that Sukumaran left behind is the evidence of the real and vulnerable existence of the man.
In one scene, we are offered a glimpse of the phenomenon behind Sukumaran’s execution: why would anyone want someone to be put to death? The scene shows an Indonesian judge hand down the death sentence to Sukumaran. As the Judge says the Indonesian word for death, “mati”, a man standing behind Sukumaran begins jumping up and down, not unlike an excited schoolboy, shouting: “Mati! Mati! Mati!” The answer to this man’s reaction, I think, is less about the execution than it is about Sukumaran himself. This man was not blind to the violence; it is violence he wanted. He was blind to the humanity of Sukumaran.
The most powerful scene in Guilty is when the families spend their last day with the condemned. Ignoring for a moment the stone walls and the guards on watch, the image is almost idyllic: containers of food and a thermos on a table; grass and trees beneath sunlight; children playing and laughing. It is the only moment where Sleeth permits the prisoners their humanity. And in that humanity, you see the full weight of this horrible punishment. As Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca knew, the soulfulness of a story like this doesn’t live in the wound, but instead on its rim. In the same sense, this goodbye—and Sukumaran’s art—sits on the rim of his execution.
Guilty ends in the same place that Sleeth and I started this conversation: Sukumaran’s exhibition. The camera follows Sukumaran’s mother Raji through a gallery as she considers her son’s portraits. She walks into a dark room to watch a video that Sleeth made of Sukumaran while visiting the prison. It is Sukumaran, looking back at the camera, micro-expressions of joy and sadness flickering across his face. It is the first time we see Sukumaran unfiltered, as he was. This final moment serves as a reminder that at the heart of this tragic story, if beneath the shadow, stood a man, his friend and his art. Maybe it is here, rather than steeped in the tragedy, that we may begin to break down this absurd equation.
Sam Flynn is a writer from Melbourne. His work has appeared in Archer Magazine, Swampland, Right Now and an upcoming selection of essays by Brow Books, Going Postal. You can follow him on Twitter at @oldunderhead.
In 2017 I wrote a piece for The Lifted Brow about the cinematic potential of Instagram Stories. The medium, I suggested, is capable of offering increasingly sophisticated narratives possessed of artistic intrigue. While time has yet to reveal the potency of my suggestions, my research gave me a gift perhaps even greater than the smugness of prophecy—it gave me Cardi B. She wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at the time, more Rosie Perez than Rosselini, but the 25-year-old Bronx native, nails dripping in Swarovski, mouth firing like an automatic weapon, had me at “ju know what’s crazy doe?!”
With her hair in an impossibly-large bun, she pointed a jewel-encrusted talon at an equally jewel-encrusted wristwatch: “A hunred thousan’dollars on tha wrist” she said in her thick Latinx accent, switching her stack of curves on a stilettoed heel and assuming the frisk position against the wall. Flicking her head over her shoulder she teased, “my outfit doe bitch, sixty dollars!” Examining the timepiece with mock astonishment she offered: “On some G shit doe, I can’t even tell the time on this shits”. A perfectly-timed curl distorted her face into droll provocation. The clip ended suddenly, instantly giving way to another. I laughed out loud. Who the hell was this chick?
Since Cardi’s stratospheric ascent to mainstream notoriety last year, it’s a question many people have asked. Dozens of profiles, from New York Magazine to Cosmopolitan, have catalogued her unprecedented path to hip-pop culture domination, most speculating on how exactly she ‘arrived.’ How did this loose cannon of female fortitude get past industry gatekeepers to become a bonafide V.I.P? It’s not an easy question to answer. Part of what is so appealing about Cardi B is that the usual formulas don’t apply and labels don’t stick. To borrow phrase from her fellow New Yorker, and likewise canny self-promoter, Walt Whitman: Cardi B is 'vast, [she] contains multitudes' and she doesn’t shy away from those contradictions.
Born Belcalis Almanzar in October 1992, the daughter of Trinidadian cashier and a Dominican cab driver, Cardi B was raised in the Bronx and attended a performing arts high school. As a teen she became a Brim (a subsidiary of the notorious LA gang, the Bloods)—an affiliation she has, until recently, kept vague. She went to community college with the hope of becoming a history teacher until one of her tutors told her she didn’t speak English properly. She dropped out and was working as a checkout chick in a supermarket and living with an abusive boyfriend when her boss fired her, suggesting she’d make more money across the street dancing at a gentleman’s club. Around the same time, Cardi began posting energetic, expletive rants on Vine and Instagram, sounding off at full volume on whatever came to mind—mostly the transgressions of many a hater, love-interest, customer or food server. A natural comedian with a flair for no-bullshit soapboxing, she quickly gathered a significant following (#bardigang) and was booking gigs as a hype-girl in clubs in New York and across the country. Her job—as she has put it—was to “get things turnt up.” Her social media success and undeniable charisma gave her appeal as a reality TV candidate: the show Love & Hip Hop cast her on its sixth season, despite the fact she wasn’t even making music at the time. A natural born show-off with a first-generation work ethic, Cardi got down to business putting her mouth where the shmoney was. The mixtapes born of her time on Love & Hip Hop’s sixth and seventh seasons, Gangsta Bitch Music Volumes 1&2, are heady testimonials on the life of a self-proclaimed ‘stripper hoe’ that pull no punches and have some serious, honest-to-hoodness, hip-hop chops.
Eighteen months later, just weeks after I first encountered her on Instagram, she unseated Taylor Swift at the top of the US Billboard charts, exploding into the mainstream with the gravelly trap anthem ‘Bodak Yellow’: “I don’t dance now” she pummels into the hook with something between a drawl and a provocation. “I make money moves”.
She was the first solo female rapper to take the top spot in nearly twenty years, and only the second in history. Lauryn Hill’s catchy sermon ‘Doo-Wop That Thing’ was the first. With typical aplomb and earnest, Hill preached with caution about the misdirection of a certain type of young woman: loudmouthed, money-driven and cockstruck. Two decades later, Cardi B’s bawdy, unabashed rants and flashy style contrast starkly, even comically, with the type of asceticism that defines Hill as an artist.
It’s easy to ridicule and label a woman like Cardi B, to equate her haywire ratchetness with some kind of moral or intellectual deficiency. But in many ways Cardi’s candour and contradictions are beacons. They are reminders that, despite Hill’s stern lyrical warnings (and Western culture’s general prevailing sentiment), ‘hard rocks’ and ‘gems’ shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Cardi’s knack for subverting such exclusionary archetypes is refreshing. Just try to define her singularly as a slut, tom-boy, diva, funny-girl or earth-mother. Cardi B defies that type of mechanistic corralling, the social stereo typing that not only limits women’s capacity and willingness to explore and develop their richness, but also sets them in wasted competition with one another. If you’re funny, don’t try to be sexy, females are warned, if your M.O is sexiness, don’t think you can play it smart; if you’re smart, forget sporty or creative, or whatever, and so on and so on and so on ad nauseum. In other words—stay in your lane, bitch.
Part of Cardi’s credibility is her ability to transcend this trap. Bouncing imperviously between sex-bomb, screwball and scrapper, she embodies her multiplicity without ever mentioning it. In her posts, and in her music, Cardi weaves her textures in a way you will seldom see other females in the public eye allow themselves to do. In her IG posts, she waxes on about everything from socio-economics to yeast infections, applying her hood-spun philosophy to all matters be they federal tax laws or fellatio. The track ‘I Went Thru Your Phone’, splices dewy heartache with funny and furious Eminem-esque revenge fantasies. A heart that’s “beating like it’s bleeding out” doesn’t negate threats of poisoned cereal and prank calls to his mother. The speed and randomness with which she interchanges between such diverse feelings is dizzying, but their intensity and good-humour captures the hurly-burly that bubbles away, often suppressed, beneath the female facade. Keeping others comfortable by feigning unreasonable consistency is a skill that is expected and applauded in women. The consequent expectation, for women to curate an image from a socially-approved playbook that insists they evolve on a one-way trajectory, through a series of culturally-sanctioned redemption myths, is at best reductive.
Cardi rejects this self-defeating charade; indeed she often seems oblivious to it. This is powerful. Too often, the more realistic fits and starts, concurrent, conflicting growth and digressions people go through are conflated with some kind of mental instability. ‘That bitch is crazy’ an all-too-frequent sub-in for the more accurate ‘that woman is human’. Cardi doesn’t give a shit if you think she’s nuts, stupid, or slutty because Cardi knows what’s up, and judgement calls like that only show a lack of empathy and self-awareness: “Everyone has a me inside them,” she says, “that loud girl that just wanna go ‘ayyyy!’.” She knows that her social media presence, and her music, have the power to validate that spirit of DILIGAF in her audience: “No matter if you a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, it comes out. Like, aha, I got you being yourself for a lil two minutes or three, huh?” How condescending would that sound coming from most other celebrities?
Almost nothing Cardi says or does alienates her from her fans. Cardi maintains a level of relatability. Her come-up was witnessed by followers in real-time and continues through an all-hours-access pass to her life via social media: “Went from makin’ tuna sandwiches to makin’ the news/I started speakin’ my mind and tripled my views/Real bitch/only thing fake is the boobs.” The rags-to-riches shtick is heavily drawn on in her track ‘Get Up 10’, an intentional nod to Meek Mill’s haunting ‘Dreams and Nightmares’. The monologue captures Cardi’s utter lack of pretence about her journey—her ability to be vulnerable without being a victim, and to promote resilience without relying on excessive self-aggrandising, is part of her charm. When asked about the illegal butt injections she got in a basement in Queens and why she felt she needed them, Cardi chose not to concoct a politically-correct empowerment rhetoric about a woman’s body’s being her own. She simply said, “girls wit big fat asses was getting what I wanted.” The logic behind her subsequent course of action is undoubtedly flawed and no one, least of all Cardi, is suggesting women undertake life-threatening black-market procedures to compete with each other for jobs, relationships or validation.
Nevertheless, there’s something really appealing about the lack of spin she puts on it. Such unashamed kernels of ugly truth are an aberration in our culture, one that has found itself increasingly more comfortable pathologising and politicising raw emotions, and the dubious ideas they inspire. Most can relate to making a questionable choice based on a notion that someone else’s success is reflective of one’s own perceived deficiencies. More regrettably though, most women can relate to side-eyeing other women’s personal choices. But Cardi’s not snoozing on that bullshit either: “You know though, a lot of women be saying they is feminists, that they all like there to support other women and this and that – but low-key, they be judging.”
Of course Cardi isn’t above dishing out judgements of her own. In some of her most amusing tirades and lyrics, other women are on the receiving end of her formidable shade throwing. Her very first single ‘Cheap Ass Weave’ is pure, but light-hearted snobbery and she regularly torments her haters with her antics and rebuttals to the point of making them (according to one of her more evocative turns of phrase) “wanna pull they pussy hairs out.”
The parallel levity and ferocity that Cardi brings to the table can make people uncomfortable and often leaves her open to condescension. She knows she’s an easy target, but it’s surprising how few condemnations actually stick. “Some people think I’m just a dumb Bitch/If that was true I wouldn’t have shit – YEAH!” she fires at her detractors on the potent and skilful ‘Pull Up’. Given her starting point, the obstacles she’s navigated and her remarkable successes, it’s hard to argue with her. At the moment she seemingly has it all: she’s a huge star collaborating with the best in her game, regularly smashing industry records, recently married (to Migos member OffSet) and a smitten new mum to a 2-month-old daughter. Her recent pregnancy could have been career suicide, but true to form, Cardi has done Cardi. It leaves little doubt that she is steering her ship by an internal compass that is stronger than the pressures her recent fame can mount.
This tendency to disregard popular expectations was demonstrated somewhat unflatteringly at a recent New York Fashion Week event when she threw her shoe at Nicki Minaj, claiming Minaj had insulted her parenting abilities. Cardi was removed from the venue in disgrace. As inappropriate as throwing your shoe at someone might be, Cardi is clearly driven by an underlying set of ethics to which she strictly adheres; and integrity, however it may manifest, is a quality woefully absent in much of modern life.
Cardi’s paradoxes are radiant and fierce; she wears them truly as they come, with little concern for popular opinion. The word ‘unapologetic’, used as a thinly veiled substitute for ‘obnoxious’, irks me, but it’s not the latter that we see with Cardi. Cardi brings an authenticity to the artifice that plagues (and is inherent to) social media and the music industry. True, a scrag fight at The Plaza is unseemly in the extreme, but in a culture of inconsistent personal morals and general flakeyness there’s something to be said for such abidance to one’s core values. It’s the kind of fidelity to principle that defines truly decent people. So, as low-rent as that fracas might seem, the moral consistency Cardi shows in her online presence, and the flow-on sense that she is (to those close to her) a truly loyal friend, is the inoculation against petty judgement that other celebrities seldom earn.
For such a long time, a pop-culture figure like Cardi could not have existed: the mainstream would not have accepted her as she was, from where she came. Full Stop. As a flash in the pan bimbo, a cash cow with some novelty value and a dirty mouth perhaps, but not as an actual contender. Things have changed. Social media means Cardi has always had total control over the Cardi her fans see on a daily basis, and no recording label could ever hope to curtail that. Why would they even try? Her skills as an emcee and entertainer have developed with the right support but it’s Cardi’s infectious, raw personality that earned her the love and respect of millions. In that sense, Cardi B is not only a pioneer but a miracle. Beyond decades of hopeful Girl Power refrains of ‘just be yourself!!!’ Cardi is a real mainstream, mega-success story who has got there on her own terms, while seriously, actually doing just that..
People like Cardi B don’t come around very often. They only ascend into popular consciousness when that mainstream has somehow aligned itself with what they represent. If Cardi’s popularity is indicative of society accepting women’s multidimensional qualities, then perhaps Cardi B is the court jester that the kingdom of pop-culture has been waiting for.
Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and critic. She enjoys strong coffee, cold beer, deep breaths and big laughs.
“Paris may be a capital famous for cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also a city where unknown men and women have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians, Cambodians, Lebanese, Senegalese, Peruvians.”
—Edward Said, Reflections on Exile (2000)
The metro doors shut behind me. I cling to the passenger pole in the centre of the carriage as people push past, step on my toes, crowd into the space. I can’t breathe in here. I wonder again why I live in a city, why this city. Close my eyes to block out sight; but sound, smell, touch, invade the senses instead. Especially sound. Snatches of conversations, the whoosh of doors opening and closing, loud American voices. And then…the strains of a melody played by a lonely keyboard, so out of place not because it’s music, but because of the tune it’s playing. I look over to where it’s coming from but can’t see the player. Too many people crowding the carriage, too many backs of heads. All I can do is follow the sound.
The music continues, lamenting, lamenting. A voice picks up the strain. It’s so different to what is usually heard on the metro that others turn to look. Parisians are used to people busking in the carriages of the metro. Not only buskers, also beggars. Sometimes there is no difference: a young man, barely a man, with a stereo blaring out techno music, dancing to it and then going through the carriage to collect money. Is that busking or begging? The voice is singing in another language, a man’s voice. It cracks and strains and reaches out over the metro noise like a prayer. Like a call to prayer in a mosque. Do I find it poignant because so many buskers and beggars in this city are foreigners, like I am? Not only in exile from their own country, but also living in exile in this city; occupying a separate stratum: same city, same metro. Another world.
The carriage stops and the doors open. It’s La Muette. Most people get off, including the bearer of the music and the voice. I don’t see who it is but I imagine he is a foreigner. Like me, but not like me. I imagine that he will move on to the next carriage to start again, or perhaps wait for the next train. He will do this over and over, all day before returning ‘home’. I wonder if he has a family, or if he came over here alone. What was his homeland like. People get on and off, but he is always in transit, playing his music; always between stations.
As you travel on the metro from one end of the line to another, you notice the difference in how people dress themselves. For example, the line 9 goes from the wealthy bourgeois west of Paris where you will pass through the 15th and 16th arrondissements of La Muette and Trocadero, the site of many Embassies and within walking distance to the Eiffel Tower. Mingled with the tourists (in their comfortable sports shoes, t-shirts, cameras and unsightly parkas) who get off at these places, you can find Parisians who epitomise the stereotype: expensive handbags, designer clothes, slim, fashionable.
As the line passes through central Paris, the change is imperceptible at first but gradually, the clothes change, as do the people who wear them. People of different sizes and colour board the train. More sports shoes. Hooded sweaters. Not a designer handbag in sight, unless it’s a knockoff. Line 9 ends in the poorer eastern suburbs of Paris where a lot of immigrants and diverse communities live, though increasingly you have the bobos (bourgeois bohème: the hipster, organic-food loving, artsy version of a yuppie) encroaching and hiking up rent prices in areas that used to be poor; the kind of gentrification that happens everywhere now.
In a way, the metro is a great social leveler as people from all social classes use it. But in other ways, it reflects the existing social stratification in the city by the stations in which people stop off—or in terms of the buskers and beggars, those who never get off.
The internet is adrift with endless blogs by (white) anglophone expats who have made their home here, mostly American and English, who seem to be living and espousing that well-rehearsed story about Paris that is quaint, cultured, exotic. Their lives are spent surrounded by cheese, wine and summers in the countryside, gallery visits and sitting in cafés. Reading these blogs, I realise that Paris represents something in the imagination for a lot of expats who come to visit or live here. It’s as if Paris has been sprinkled with magic fairy dust, where a life less ordinary and more whimsical can be lived (think of the movie Amélie), where you can almost be trapped in a time or cultural zone. Exotic, but at the same time not too exotic as to be completely alien to the anglophone expat—after all it is still Europe.
The archetypal Parisien is still imagined to be a white person. Even when the reality of Paris includes high levels of immigration, diverse ethnic quarters ¬and a working class you can see immediately once in certain areas of the city but also outside of Paris, particularly in the sprawling concrete banlieues, the suburbs. Why can’t the reality sear itself into our imaginations of this city? Why do we cling on to a particular dream of Paris?
When the Paris attacks occurred in November 2015, many in the media touted it as an assault on French culture and values. It was not only the extreme brutality of what happened in the attacks that struck a chord with many Westerners—it was the fact that it happened in Paris and what this city represented, for its residents and for the rest of the world. The fact that the attacks mainly targeted the 10th and 11th arrondissements, the gentrified areas inhabited by mostly progressive middle-class young hipster bobos, was, according to one journalist, evidence that the terrorists were aiming to attack ‘the embodiment of French insouciance and joie de vivre’. And as reiterated by a resident who was interviewed in another article, ‘we feel that what was attacked is youth, freedom but also more specifically, smoking cigarettes with a beer on a terrace in Paris, which pretty much equals our daily life’. This was further echoed in a comic that was widely shared in the aftermath of the attacks by Charlie Hebdo artist Joann Sfar. Its eighth panel read: ‘Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to Music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #ParisisaboutLife’
I talked to many white Parisians afterwards, mostly students who were in my English language class. Many echoed what was being said in the media—that the terrorists hated their culture of freedom and wanted to destroy it, that the French were simply being hated for their ‘civilisation’. But this line of thinking conveniently ignores the fact that all of the terrorists were either French or Belgian nationals who grew up in Europe. It ignores questions of migrant young people’s experiences of growing up in France, and how they actually experience the touted French values of liberty, equality and fraternity. It sidelines the question of who has been given ‘freedom’, both within the country and outside of it. How many people in Paris were actually sipping champagne and living ‘a life of music’ before the attacks? How many people outside of Europe are able to live in freedom with the consequences of both French foreign policy and a history of French colonialism?
And what’s on the other side, in the shadows of this City of Light? There roam the outcasts, so many in number that they could constitute a city in themselves. The shadows include the homeless, the ‘illegal’ immigrants, the mentally ill, the beggars, the prostitutes, the buskers, the legal immigrants, the elderly, the poor. They live in shadows not because they are invisible (sometimes they are highly visible, like the homeless), but because they cannot exist in a city that culturally denies the parts of itself that doesn’t fit its own glorified image. The City of Light casts a shadow over those who do not live up to this vision; it can then continue projecting the image we all know of Paris to tourists and expats who lap it up, while those outside of that definition are conveniently thought of as not being part of the ‘real’ Paris, not truly Parisian. Tourists can dine in a typical French bistro, ignoring the fact that in the kitchen cooking up their typical French cuisine are often underpaid and undocumented African workers.
I visited Paris for the first time when I was living in London over ten years ago. I came over for work and they put me up in one of those hotel chains like the Mercure, near the centre of the city. When I went down to the dining room for breakfast, I walked past the kitchen and with shock, saw that all the kitchen staff were black. In contrast, the front desk staff were all white. I remember feeling like something was completely wrong with this picture; the subtle, hidden racism shone through like a blight in the landscape. Was I the only one who could see this? More than that, I felt like I was on the wrong side. I’m one of you guys, I wanted to say to them, I’m not a privileged white guest. My parents are like you. I would discover once I moved to Paris that in most middle and upper-class cafes and restaurants, including trendy hipster ones, it would be rare to see a person of colour as a waiter or front of house staff.
And perhaps the shadow people of Paris par excellence are that of the immigrant, the perpetual outsider.
What I find particularly disingenuous is that those usually celebrating the ‘good life’ of Paris inevitably ignore the role of the migrant and their exploitation in upholding the functioning of the city. That in order for some people to have a life of champagne and kisses, there is a much larger group of underpaid, usually migrant, underclass that is cleaning their offices, looking after their children, and cooking their food. Refugee, immigrant, asylum seeker, economic migrant, illegal alien. In France there’s the term sans-papiers, literally meaning without papers or visas. There are simply those with proper documentation, and those without. But what I see is a homeless man sitting on a grill vent to keep warm, his sole possession, a suitcase with a label that says ‘Paris, France’. Or the young African men who sell Eiffel Tower key rings to tourists near the monument, the bunches of key rings rattle like chains around their wrists. On a boulevard in the mixed migrant area near metro Strasbourg Saint-Denis, the Chinese street prostitutes stand waiting in their high heels, their pimps lurking nearby. I try to hurry by so as not to be mistaken for one of them.
This is the other side of Paris, and with each of them, I wonder, what mammoth Odysseus-like journey did they have to go on to get here?
I came to Paris on the back of a cliché: I married a Frenchman and moved to Paris over ten years ago. But contrary to the cliché, I had married a Frenchman of Asian origin, also Chinese–Cambodian whose family came to France as refugees. His family live on a housing estate in one of the less depressing banlieues and when I first moved to Paris, non-French friends assumed I lived a life drinking wine and visiting museums. Instead I was eating at McDonalds and watching DVDs at home because it was cheaper.
How different would my first experience of Paris have been if I had married a white, bourgeois man? Class is another unspoken aspect of the city, unspoken aspect of French culture. When class is raised in conversation at all, it is often assumed that the working class are predominately white, that it is a white experience even though migrants make up a large part of the working class, especially in this city. Paris, like many European cities, has endured immense waves of immigration over centuries, but the influence and physical manifestation of this migration is confined to the suburbs or to pockets of the city and not to touch the collective imagination. Where my husband’s family lives and where he grew up, Bagnolet, is so different from the picture postcard of Paris, so far removed from the novels, movies and blogs that depict life in Paris. It is a mixed community of African, Asian, and Arab migrants, amongst others. It is dominated by concrete government—subsidised apartment blocks, a garish shopping centre, depressing café bars—but is still considered one of the ‘better’ working-class suburbs because it has a metro station and the bobos are coming in to open their hipster cafes.
This suburb is at the end of one of the metro lines in the east of Paris. Walking around, you will hear languages other than French being spoken. You will see people of all shapes and colours in the streets, so different from the stereotype of the chic Parisien that we have. No restaurants with haute cuisine, but rather brasseries and PMU’s where mostly men go to bet on the horses. My husband’s parents still live in the area in a thirty-story grey concrete apartment block, and it is in housing estates and in suburbs like these where many Parisians live, where the majority of migrants live. Not least because the rent significantly drops once you go outside the périphérique, the ring road that circles around the city like a dividing line, like a physical barrier that encloses the city of Paris and separates it from the suburbs. You are not considered as living in Paris if you live beyond this ring road, and there could not be a better symbol of the divide between the city and the banlieue, between what is considered Parisien and what is not.
It was only in moving to Paris that I could really comprehend the uphill climb that is the migrant experience. The painful experience of trying to settle into a new alien country helped me to imagine my parents’ experiences of migration from Cambodia, a country ravaged by the Cold War between the superpowers, to Australia when I was 3 years old. Coming over to Paris—without a visa, not speaking the language, having to look for a job—in essence, having to start all over again, brought me closer to what it must have been like for my parents, who as the cliché goes (which just happens to be true), arrived in Australia with only the clothes on their backs.
In reality, I experienced on a minuscule scale what many migrants like my parents experienced. Because I had the privilege of holding an Australian passport, had English as a native language, had a local (my husband) to support me, did not come here after war and trauma, did not come here with four children…the list goes on. Yet in the countless interactions over the years that I’ve had to have with French bureaucracy in my David and Goliath battle for French citizenship, struggling in daily life to communicate in French and being looked down upon for it, having to take lower position jobs that have been underpaid and menial, having periods of extreme anxiety about money—I did experience to a limited extent the alienation and the rupture that is moving countries in difficult circumstances. But even more than that, the everyday eking out of a living on a precarious, thin line of existence. Where all energy is put into building, constructing and consolidating in whatever way you can.
Paris is a city deeply stratified by class. As French writer Édouard Louis succinctly put it:
Among the Parisian bourgeois, I realised that politics is absolutely not about life or death, about being able to eat and afford medical care or not; that whatever the government right or left does will not stop them living, eating.
The migrant in Paris cannot afford to have such a laissez-faire attitude towards politics, with increasing government laws and policies cracking down on undocumented workers and ‘illegal’ migrants, as well as refugee and asylum seekers. In April this year, under Macron the French National Assembly passed a tough new immigration law that shortened asylum application deadlines, doubled the time for which illegal migrants can be detained from 45 days to 90 days, as well as introducing a one- year prison sentence for entering France illegally. The French Interior Ministry has also forcibly evacuated migrant camps in Paris, and has recently pledged to evict the 2,300 migrants camped next to Parisian canals many of whom are from Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Macron government’s instigation of labour reform, including signing a wide range of decrees to make it easier for employers to hire and fire as well as reducing the power of collective bargaining, will also affect migrant workers disproportionately. It is indeed a privilege to be able to live as if politics does not your affect your daily life, to continue living in a bubble of Paris as being primarily about food, wine, art, literature, cinema and fashion.
Of course, this illusion of Paris is something cultivated by the city itself and the tourism industry here. It reminds me of where I’m from, Sydney, where there too exists a contrast between the sprawling Western suburbs where I grew up and the postcard image of Sydney of sun, beaches and the Harbour. Maybe it is the dilemma of all global cities especially in the Easyjet age: so much a victim of its own aggressive marketing that its image never goes beyond the 2D one in the imaginations of most people. A city that is always gazing at itself, I sometimes feel trapped in this city and its cult of the image. Sometimes I walk around central Paris and I feel like I am walking in a city of symbols. There’s this and that monument, this one a reminder of a past event, that a reminder of another time. Like being frozen in a museum. I have an idea of the city’s past, but not of its recent history or future. I can’t perceive the layers of change that time brings or the way that diverse groups of people affect a place. Undoubtedly Paris has culture: but it’s largely a museum piece that has left me cold and untouched.
I long for authenticity—where there is some coherence between the image projected and the reality. Where a city reflects and manifests visible signs of a plethora of truths and a multitude of different lives. A city that embraces its changing nature, rather than always referring back to its grand past. Most of all, a city that gives cultural and physical space to its ‘shadow people’ so that they no longer occupy the margins. Because it is an inherently political act to recognise the shadows of a city, a culture, a society. To ignore it means to leave unrecognised whole groups of people and their experiences, their struggles and their joys; to ignore how much we live off their backs.
May Ngo is a researcher in the social sciences, focusing on development and politics in Cambodia. Her interests include theology, migration, diaspora and food. She is currently developing her father’s memories of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a novel. She has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away and tweets at @mayngo2.
Was it a set up or a punchline when you accused me of being a fuckboy? We’d been dm’ing for a few days when you said something kind of serious, I responded with you’re pretty sexy when you’re angry, and you responded with the allegation that I was a fuckboy. I knew that what I’d said was a tacky nod to rom-com, frat-boy fuckery but I thought that between us it would be read as both ironic and sincere. I thought it was obviously an eye roll that ends with a wink – a flirtatious lampooning of cliché hetero-banter that passes as critique which, especially in a dm thread that includes admissions like omg you’re such a flirt! … it’s working?, is also underscored by the residual flirtatiousness still associated with such a silly come on; when straight vocabularies and straight grammars of courting, however ridiculous, come into queer language, whatever eroticism can actually be found in heterosexuality still remains–albeit fractured and reset through displacement. Het-erotics and their politics short circuit into something a bit different when they’re bent by queer contexts of pitching and catching meaning. Or at least that was what I latently believed when I threw out you’re pretty sexy when you’re angry. I only had to consciously think about how I used language after this passing comment became a landmark conflict in our conversation—and in my public/private performance of identity.
CUT BACK TO—MY CYBER PERFORMANCE OF MY FORMER DRAG KING/CATFISH ALIAS, GERRY PRIESTMAN
LINE UP YOUR GROIN TO A KALEIDESCOPE’S VIEWFINDER TO MAKE DE-, RE-, UN-, NON- AND POST-DRAGING GRIND AND TESSELATE
GERRY PRIESTMAN V.O.
I came into my cyber alter ego, Gerry, as a university-educated feminist without a (conscious) queer prerogative. But Gerry grew alongside my growing understanding of my lifelong inability to perform desire and gender according to standard protocols. As I performed Gerry online, and then in person using my dad’s old clothes, I felt myself forming new relationships to masculinity that were predicated on criticality, theatre, instinct, familiarity, distance, resentment, suspicion, disgust and sympathy.
CUT FORWARD TO—A MONTAGE OF ME “SINCERELY” BUYING THE SAME COLOGNE AS MY DAD, WEARING MY DAD’S OLD CRICKET KNIT, BUYING THE SAME DEODERANT AS MY HOUSEMATE’S BOYFRIEND AND HAVING MY HOUSEMATE GIVE ME THE SAME HAIRCUT THAT SHE GIVES HER BOYFRIEND
It took me so long to understand that I didn’t have to pathologise or deny the anxiety and exhaustion that I felt in, or after I was in, certain spaces and situations—sometimes it actually surprises me, now that I live the way that I do, that I was able to metabolise so much discomfort, so rapidly and continuously, for so many years. It’s not that now I have no discomfort but it’s discomfort of a different kind: now I am aware of the way that being in public space demands your participation in an unending, unstable series of internal and interpersonal reckonings.
CUT TO—A DRY RUN, BREAKING A LEG, SAYING “MACBETH” IN THE THEATRE
Yeah, thanks but I don’t do that! I’m a woman.
[laughs, believing we’re laughing together and relating as a woman and a gay male feminist ally]
CUT TO—ME WITH A WIG ON, IN DRAG AS MY FORMER FEMME-PRESENTING SELF, MIMING GERRY’S V.O. SLIGHTLY OUT OF SYNC
GERRY PRIESTMAN V.O.
I made a joke about being a woman specifically because I knew you would misread it as a performative declaration of cis-womanhood when in my head it was a joke about how you think I’m a woman.
CUT BACK TO—ME DRESSED AS GERRY PRIESTMAN IN A GALLERY AND SOME ART PERSON’S KID YELLING “THAT’S A GIRL! YOU NAUGHTY GIRL!”
THEN CUT TO—A MONTAGE OF EYES WINKING AND SPHINCTERS TIGHTENING
Instead of being annoyed that you conveniently forget all the times that I’ve alluded to the fact, or directly told you, that I don’t feel like a woman, I use humour laced with dog-whistle meaning to keep skipping through all the gender replays. Some things I say are only for me to hear; I might be speaking in public but that doesn’t mean that I’m always speaking for a public. I have in-jokes with myself in order to keep rolling through your corpsing.
CUT BACK TO—ME POSTING ABOUT SOMETHING REAL THAT HAPPENED TO ME AS “EMMA” ON MOTHER’S DAY LAST YEAR
LAUGH-CRY INTO—SLOW MOTION SHAKKAS THEN CUT TO—LOCKING EYES WITH TWO DUDE BROS ON THE STREET AND ONE SAYS “HEY I THOUGHT THAT WAS MAX” WHILE MAINTAINING EYE CONTACT WITH YOU AND YOU KEEP STARING AT HIM BUT RAISE YOUR EYEBROWS LIKE REALLY DUDE YOU WANNA SAY THAT IN THAT TONE OF VOICE WHILE LOOKING AT ME AND HE JUST SAYS “NO?” OUT LOUD WHILE LAUGHING AND YOU ROLL YOUR EYES AT HIM AND KEEP WALKING THEN LAUGH OUT LOUD TO YOURSELF ONCE YOU’RE OUT OF EARSHOT
THE FLUORESCENT LIGHTING OF SOCIAL GRIEF FADES INTO THE MOOD LIGHTING OF A CRUSH BURNING WITH THE EXTRA INTIMACY OF QUEER ‘BELONGING’—THEN THE CAMERA BLINKS AWAY THE HYSTERIA OF A BELLY LAUGH AND RE-FOCUSES THE LENS ON AN IMESSAGE THREAD BETWEEN TWO TRANS*-Y DYKE-Y ACTORS
I wanna send [explicit] pics not provocations that incite tears or something […] Also it’s funny, for me I think as we get to know each other a bit better, even though we still talk about gender heaps as something that mediates our experiences of the world, when I’m talking to you or with you I think about gender and sexuality less and less. It fades more for me and words don’t mean much and that’s a real relief and a special experience for me
[…] But also at certain points after leaving u or whatever I’m like woah why do I feel completely dysphoric when I was just feeling so good. N then I’m like oh it’s because I’ve been talking abt shit that I know is fucking triggering or whatever and trying to digest like …… my place in a matrix of layers of violence and misunderstanding and invisibility
ASK YOURSELF WHY SHARING YOUR LIFE WITH A LOVER CAN FEEL LIKE YOU’RE THROWING A PIE IN THEIR FACE THEN DISSOLVE INTO—THE HISTORICAL SPECIFICITIES OF “LESBIAN CULTURE”
I think all the time about how the practices of feeling and expressing intimacy and desire can never be ahistorical or acultural, purely interior or instinctive. I think about how libidinal protocols, courting behaviours, genres of desire, and modes of being in a ‘sexuality’ are bundled up into bouquets that are tossed up in the air for the next generation to catch.
REGRESS INTO A MONTAGE OF YOUR INFINITE COLLATORAL ANCESTORS AND THEN CUE A BLOOPER REEL FOR THE LABOUR ASSOCIATED WITH BEING DENIED THE HISTORY THAT LIVES ON IN YOUR BODY AND THE WAY OTHER PEOPLE LOOK AT YOUR BODY
In the elasticity and forgiveness of two people coming together under the premise of romance there’s space and budget to reshoot scenes, real-time dub over each other’s dialogue and reimagine what you calling us ‘dykes’ or ‘butches’ means in my own director’s cut of the action that’s still rolling,
CUT TO—TRANS-NESS TRIPPING BACKWARDS TO AN OUT-OF-TIME LOONY TUNES FOLEY SOUND OF A PUNCH
What if an awareness of the historical and cultural specificities of gender performance doesn’t undermine transmasculinity but instead give it more power?
INFINITE CLOSE-UP ON TRANSMASCULINITY AS SATIRICAL PRACTICE FORGED THROUGH SINCERITY, TRANSMASCULINITY AS ALWAYS BOTH ON AND OFF-STAGE, TRANSMASCULINITY AS CRITICAL COMPILATION MIX, TRANSMASCULINITY AS POLITICO-JOKE COLLAGE, TRANSMASCULINITY AS ULTIMATE PISS TAKE AND SITE OF MY FIRST WATERSPORTS FANTASY, TRANSMASCULINITY AS THE MOST NECESSARY, MILITANTLY SINCERE SELF-REFLEXIVE FARCE, TRANSMASCULINITY AS CONSTANTLY INTERROGATED AND NEVER KNOWABLE, TRANSMASCULINITY AS HAVING TO QUESTION BOTH ITS OWN VIOLENT POTENTIALITY AND THE VIOLENCE OF ITS SOCIAL REALITY, TRANSMASCULINITY AS RADICAL POSSIBILITY GAGGING FOR REAL HARD HOT INTERSECTIONAL TAKE DOWNS, TRANSMASCULINITY AS LOOKING AT A WATERFALL NOT AS FUGITIVE DEFECTION TO A MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL GENDER WITH A SINGULARLY TOXIC POLITICS
I left the room to cry when we went through old photos because I remembered a time when total body anxiety didn’t overwhelm and redefine the feeling of being naked.
I feel memories doubly, or triply: as a phantom self, as an idea of who I might be now passing as a ghost through my old body, as a foreign body with a hand pressed up against the glass that separates how I can think and feel and live now from what I could understand in the past. My memories are both my own and those of a stranger. And it’s not a split between then and now; I’ve been a million different strangers to myself, estranged in a million different ways, and sometimes I move through it all in one day. Saturn takes 29 years to orbit the sun but I’m always running towards nothing in particular, in retrograde. I’m making it up as I go along, ad-libbing where there’s a script and dress rehearsing a voice over for someone else’s life when we’re meant to be staring at each other in silent montage. I’m re-reading email admissions from my parents like “I have no problem with your life choices and your sexuality” with different laugh tracks and Cate-Blanchet-Oscar-acceptance-speeches superimposed.
CUT TO—LANGUAGE PINNING THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY THEN RAISING THE LIMBO BAR TO AN IMPOSSIBLE HEIGHT
She says, “I actually hate the word ‘cuck’. Why do you use it all the time?”
I think, gender and sexuality are illegitimate social systems but gender and sexuality legitimately orientate and compress bodies; how can I speak about anything just in jest or totally sincerely when these two realities don’t exist in opposition but as relational truths that make each other?
I’m constantly re-metabolising and re-wiring and de- and re- and post- embodying, performing, acting, feeling, joking, meaning and not-meaning words and archetypes like cuck, fuckboy, daddy, lesbian dad, dyke, transmasc, modern man, celesbian, power dyke, bisexual playboy, amateur trans-chippendale, post-gender dominatrix… the list goes on because the show must go on. These ideas are all memes; total jokes made out of the seriousness of everyday dramedy. It’s all serious and it’s all a joke, a riff, a tête-à-tête, a think piece, an innuendo, a skit, a preview, an opening night, an encore, an adaptation, a tour de force, a body of work, an out-of-time oeuvre, the magnum opus of an auteur.
CUT BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION—THE DISTANCE BETWEEN HOW EASY IT IS TO LOVE IN EMBODIED MODES OF FEMININITY VERSUS HOW IMPOSSIBLE IT IS TO START LOVING PEOPLE AS A MAN
Instead of saying sorry, my dad goes to the bathroom and when he comes back he says, “I’m not as rigid as I appear, Em”. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and I think about how impossible masculinity often becomes during emotional encounters. Women are raised to be social and work in teams; men are raised to gird their loins and evade taxes.
CUT BACK TO—BEING ACCUSED OF BEING A FUCKBOY
At the time, this unprecedented association between me and fuckboy-ery felt like the car crashing, the leg breaking, and the pain hitting when the inevitable collision and snap happens after the excruciating slow-mo experience of waiting to go ass over tit once you realise that you’re slipping on a banana peel. Seeing fuckboy materialise in my dm’s, as an arrow aimed to bullseye me, felt like finally finding the fire that had, for years, gone unseen but never not felt in a psyche made of smoke. Finally, in my first thrilling, confusing, impossible, meaningful, romantic, queer dialogue from a public position of masculinity, here it was: evidence that moving through life nearer to men than women, more masculine than feminine, could only mean getting closer to violence, toxicity, carelessness and suspicious behaviour. With the word ‘fuckboy’, an interpersonal mirror was being held up as a gauntlet thrown: if masculinity is worked out, in, and on me, then I’m not barricaded in a stairwell watching smoke threaten me from the gap between the door and the floor. I am the open flame. I am volatile. And I need to figure out how to play with myself (before I play with others).
Em Size is many things, but a writer of one-line bios isn’t one of them. Follow @genderauteur.
“I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful."
“Movie commentary is no longer confined to ‘critics,’ and that might be a problem”
—Kaitlyn Lo, Pilcrow Magazine
“Everyone’s a critic!”
“A flaming, burning, dumpster fire. That’s how I’d describe the state of film criticism in America. It sucks, and there was a time when it didn’t.” —Paul Allen Hunton, some guy on Medium
I’ve never really trusted film criticism, as in, I’m never really thought movies are things that people can formulate original opinions on.
I participated in MIFF’s Critics Campus as a baby critic a few years ago and it seemed quite clear, given the way my mentor ripped my writing apart, day after day, that I didn’t have the intellectual rigor or inclination to be a critic, beyond writing about myself, beyond writing about movies in an unconventional sense. If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. I don’t even know how to keep cupboard doors shut (ask my mum) and at twenty-nine I’m not about to start learning.
I wondered how to approach binding the films I watched this weekend together, at least well enough to sell a pitch to my editor. I thought a bit about the gaze (because the gaze is a great fallback for a cinema critic), about how it can be used to provide a window into a culture, to expose the body at its limit, or to enact a retro-kitsch sensibility—and what doing so, adding the spectacle of cinema, does to its subject. I thought about the power of gloss as opposed to grit, parody as opposed to an unflinching eye. About what position we need to be in to see one and not the other. I thought about these questions and addressed them, kind of, but I also came up with something smaller, and stranger, more honest maybe, or maybe just more deliberate.
So here is everything all at once, like a kid ate a bunch of movies and is throwing them up all over your backseat, in the order that it occurred to them to eat the movies. Or, like in a cartoon where a body is stripped away by some flesh-eating animal, like a piranha, to a skeleton, in reverse. Hold onto your sick-bag, hold onto your popcorn bag, because here we go.
Film I: GOOD LUCK
Directed by Ben Russell
A jungle shrouded in mist
A symbol, what does it mean?
A coin, to be flipped
Two halves of a whole
Or, two holes of a half
Or—a split lip barely healed
My circle is hand-drawn (the one in the film was perfect)
But you, my dear reader, get the general gist
A deep crevasse
Old men in blue suits play a maudlin-happy slow moving song on brass as they march towards the camera
As they march way from the pit
A man's face grey and haunting and up close: “Everything went into the pit”
Copper mine with an electric blue interior like funky 80s jacket lining
Men in an elevator go down down down into the ground
Things I know before I watch the movie:
Ben Russell is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker
He makes slow films
Using slow old film, 16mm
Spending months on location
Things I don’t know:
The purpose of ethnography
(other than to Other)
Perhaps rather than giving us a window, the form displays disconnection
I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Serbian copper miner
Smoking cigarettes beneath the surface with a coffee cup that says Coffee on it
Watching television on a rock wall: someone jokes: I can’t change the channel, someone rubbed out the remote control
I’m trying to give myself an “in” to this
Deep deep into the pit
The elevator empties
The elevator empties
The men walk into the black distance hardhats and headlights
Light hearts and hard heads
Light bounces everywhere with the rhythm of footsteps
Like drunk lightning
Everything shrinking shrinking over the horizon though there is no horizon down here just rocks and earth
Small shafts of light prickle against too much dark
Maybe I will never get it
Men impassively avert their eyes to ignore the camera
Men drilling into rock
What is the purpose if not to understand?
How could I imagine the brutality of masculinity?
How could I know what it is like to plunge miles below daylight for months on end?
How would it be if I had to mine for my keep?
When all I do is mine my own life
Just because you've seen inside a pit doesn't mean you know what it's like inside
Every few minutes
There is an interruption
A man’s face, a close-up
Andy Warhol screen test
Faces glowing silver like rocks in torchlight
Awkward, wide awake
What if the point is to see the world as a series of alienations?
Some of these men have been here for twenty years
“What are you afraid of?”
The filmmaker, off-camera, asks again, again, again
“That Prime Minister Vučić will win the election"
They joke, they laugh
“I have been down here too long, I don't pay attention to dreams,” a man says.
“What are you afraid of?”
“He's afraid of his wife!
Then the filmmaker asks: “What are you searching for?”
A man says: “For gold”
A man says: “I don't know, nothing special”
A man says: “For a better life”
A man plays “Heart of Gold” on accordion miles below the ground
Second half is filmed in Suriname
Men work outside in a sweltering goldmine
Tracking shots follow men through red dirt through mud
Mist and oppressive heat
Rules of the jungle:
Women cannot work
Some people have bad luck, some people have good luck but it is bad luck to say who has what
You must respect the jungle or it will punish you
And you will perish
Reds and browns
Earth and mud
Men playing soccer
The men seem young
Wicking off them, such a shimmering
The filmmaker asks the men: what would you say if your children wanted to work here?
Most say they want something better for the next generation
“To work in an office, to work with a pen”
Two of the men went to school but the war ended school
They sing a song of gold
The song says that anyone can come here and find gold
That everyone is welcome
A weary-eyed man smiles at the camera when he explains this
A chance for everyone
I think perhaps no man can understand another fully
Every person a lock with a different combination
The connection is that there is no connection
If I am just a shadow inside your shadow
Maybe we just cancel one another out
Film II: OVER THE LIMIT
Directed by Marta Prus
A film about a Russian woman training for the Rio Olympics
Her name is Margarita Mamun but to her trainers, when they scream at her, she is just Rita
The documentary does not offer new questions, but poses powerful extensions
of well-worn ones, that get more pertinent, beguiling with repetition:
At what point does love become obsession?
At what point does discipline become abuse?
At what point does perfection become torture?
At what point does beauty become pain?
At what point would this break you?
The pair of coaches abuse Rita relentlessly:
“Follow your heart not your body for fuck’s sake!”
As the Olympics approach it reaches a fever pitch
Collapsing in pain, Rita is accosted by her trainer who asks her why she cannot do it she says:
“Because I am a human being!”
And the coach replies: “You are not a human being you are an athlete!”
Not content with that cartoon-evil sound byte she adds: “Find your humanity!
Fix your eyebrows!”
The body in motion has a beauty that does not transfer to the still image
Since this film is about the pain of beauty I feel bad putting any dancing in this review
And so don’t
Performance as self-denial
Real life seems like an alternate universe
A room filled with trophies, relics from an alien planet when Rita is at home
She finds time to call her boyfriend while running on a treadmill
What is the purpose of excellence?
What is the purpose of pain?
What is the purpose of excellent pain?
What is the cost of excellence?
What justifies sacrifice?
Her father’s cancer diagnosis revealed
She keeps on training
Maybe if I was good at sport, or enjoyed it, I would get her persistence a little more
When Rita is injured her coach says:
“Rita, there’s no such thing as a healthy professional athlete”
Hurtful words strung through the narrative like a demotivational pearl necklace
Quiet moments are most powerful
I think, of how in millions of rooms, dance halls, ballrooms, studios, houses, workplaces around the world, people are suffering for beauty
I think of Tonya Harding, and her portrayal in that movie, of her cruel mother
Ms. Irina, the head, scary coach, says to Rita and her other, comparatively less scary, coach: “Losers, both of you”
Why do we give so much power to objective judgement for subjective things? Why is art more valid if suffered for?
Ritual pain, pain as ritual
“It hurts here as well”
Being perfect is the loneliest suffering you could do
Film III: LET THE CORPSES TAN
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzano
Gun gun gun
BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD
A woman whipped
Tits out tits out
Spaghetti Western fever dream
Woman and child
Who is shooting who? And why? I don’t care!
Men eat disgustingly
Blood and guts and fucking
Ants crawling over dirt
Ants crawling over a moon
Ants crawling over a dead body
New day new grave
Dirt sweat tears
Sweat dirt tears
If you go looking for connection you will find it
A woman is tied to a cross and whipped
The whip wraps around her small hot waist
Intense eye contact
What’s the point of pastiche again?
What purpose is it supposed to have?
Throw together a bunch of old tropes
To make a new one
Like a bricoleur taking scraps of old shit fabric
To make something new
But still steeped in the shit of the old
There is nothing new under the sun
Is it supposed to be fun?
How come I’m not having any?
“There’s something beautiful about being in nature”
Chintzy seventies mirror effect
A woman painted gold
(image courtesy of Roy Luck)
GUn GUn Gun Gun end
Admittedly, I didn’t get to the end
This is one of the films I watched on my laptop
A screener with a watermark
Which is one of the things they don’t tell you about critics
Always waxing lyrical about the joy of the big screen
While they watch things huddled at home on a small, streaked monitor with the wrong resolution
It is much easier to walk away without an audience
And so I close my laptop
Sick and tired
Close my ugly curtains
I make myself a cup of tea
And get into bed
Eloise Grills is an award-winning writer and comics artist specialising in hybrid visual-written form—she's like a more sexily literary Dr Moreau. She recently won the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Nonfiction. In 2018 she was awarded a Felix Meyer Travel Scholarship, was a finalist for the mid-year Walkleys, and is currently shortlisted for TheLifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. Her debut comics chapbook, Sexy Female Murderesses, will be published by Glom Press later this year. She tweets and grams as @grillzoid and edits memoir for Scum.
I am obsessed with a video. It’s the most beautiful ice-skating video in existence, of Adam Rippon executing a near-perfect routine. His spins are precise and elegant, his sequined leotard glints down the curves of his body, thick threads of muscle twisting over through the air. He leaves small scars in the floor each time he lands, where the ice chips into tiny white piles beneath his blade. This is the important part: a moment where the camera lingers on Rippon’s face just before he starts his routine. If you watch closely, you can pinpoint the second his face transforms from flesh to steel. I slow the video down by 1.5 seconds. His eyebrows lower, his eyes go solid – a chemical process. ‘Hungry,’ the commentator says, ‘is the way to describe Adam Rippon right now.’
I see how hunger invades every cell. How his body goes sheer, delicate, sinewy. From that moment, every movement – every muscle in his thigh, and calf, and finger – is controlled. It’s like we are watching a projection of Rippon cast from his own head over the ice. A rare unity with no space between them. Rippon wants this, and the force of his desire perfects every muscle fibre.
We think desire = empty. We think it implies a space to be filled. I know it as a different feeling, a kind of energy instead of a hole. No, that’s not exactly it either, because I have desired the emptiness itself. Sometimes it’s wanting that reveals the emptiness. It is motivating, it seeks heat. The emptiness is what allows desire to grow inside, unbroken. Something like: desire / emptiness = energy.
Hunger conceptualised as resistance to being complacent (a Lacanian hunger): ‘for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction if I were fucking’. This hunger is a defence against the false belief that we are fucking when we are only talking, which would ruin any species chances of survival. It protects us from not doing enough. I remember that feeling – satiety, not food, as the real enemy.
But I have not been hungry in over two years. Now the sensation is just like any other knowledge faded into my body – breaking a finger, burns, tooth extraction. I know how hunger affects a body, and so does my body, but I don’t exactly remember the pain. There are anecdotes: I was scared – horror-film terrified – of sourdough bread. I got heart palpitations when walking near bakeries, and I cried whenever someone brought a loaf into the house. One Sunday, I ran the City 2 Surf then played a 90-minute soccer match where we had no reserves. I had blisters so bad I couldn’t walk for three days. On the fourth, I went to the gym.
There were the strange places I cried in: a Thai restaurant, into a bowl of squid-ink linguine, a hip minimalist coffee shop after accidentally consuming whole milk instead of skim (poor barista, such a pretty Rosetta). There was the time I threw a tub of ice cream in the bin and fished it out, twice, whispering “seven-second rule”. I laugh now – it’s okay to laugh – in retrospect, it is funny. In an essay about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007), Blake Butler listed the general symptoms perfectly: ‘I get anxious in social situations, have a tenuous interest in sex, am victim to violent mood swings, methodically plan meals I never cook, and keep myself awake watching cooking videos online’.
The saddest part is I’ve never tried so hard at anything else. I dropped maths before the HSC, but I was a beast at calorie-based arithmetic. Like Eloise Grills wrote in her Meanjin article, ‘Counting calories. Counting wrinkles. Counting kilos. I’ve never been much at maths but keeping a leger of all these things comes easily to me’. Part of getting better was letting go of that kind of rigidity. The hardcore morning routines and lemon water before bed routines, the self-flagellating 12-hour days like gym-work-gym-study, the alarms and timers and scales. Because that kind of discipline requires dissociation, the kind I relied on while starving: an almost total refusal to inhabit my body. But without the numbers, pegs I used to hang up my day, I am just wading deeper and deeper into uncertainty. I am filling out my body, fleshy and warm. I am feeling my feelings. They are melodramatic and boring, like the time I ripped a plot for a radio play off my wall and flung myself to the bed, crying. “It’s hopeless”, I wailed (it wasn’t). “You don’t understand,” I screamed at my boyfriend (he didn’t). It’s hard to invest so much in such soft things. There is no guaranteed return.
This is the problem: desire and that destructive hunger feel the same in my body, and I don’t know how to untangle them. Sometimes, quietly, I think hunger = good art. I don’t want physical hunger – that would be reckless (I was lucky enough to get out the first time, mostly okay). I want a hunger that is about getting more solid instead of disappearing. I miss the singularity of vision, the intense desire to succeed. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017), Roxane Gay writes: ‘The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires’. From where I’m sitting, Adam Rippon’s hunger looks close. It’s the kind I have tried to move towards, and so far, mostly failed at.
I am not the first person to think about the relationship between art and hunger. Kafka wrote The Hunger Artist in 1922, telling the story of a starving man who fasts for forty days at a time. His hunger is the reason why he’s a great showman, but it’s also killing him. The hunger artist knows ‘how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world’. Much easier than eating, engaging. Much easier, for someone like him, than living.
Hunger reminds us of our proximity to the animal world. It releases impulses we’d prefer to control. Every cell in my body used to conspire to make me eat. Ghrelin flooded my veins and my brain would wander to food over and over, like a perverse meditation. But after a while, something strange would start to happen. The animal in my stomach, growling and scrolling through pictures of three-cheese pizzas, would quieten down. I’d get lethargic and want to lie down, but the hunger stopped hurting. It became easier to avoid the question of food than keep trying to eat perfectly.
The thing about avoidance as a method of control is that it fails. Things get chaotic quickly: empty boxes, empty bank accounts, a barista who is now also crying. Energy consumption through eating is one of the ways that the natural and human worlds maintain order. Animals eat plants and other animals, they get energy, they continue to live. Raymond Tallis wrote in Hunger (The Art of Living) (2008):
The maintenance of the order seen in living matter costs energy. A living organism may, at one level, be seen as a device for securing energy exchanges with the nearest parts of the rest of the universe, on terms favourable to itself.
What does it mean to refuse to engage in that exchange of energy, to lie down in your cage? For the hunger artist, it meant being replaced with a panther, a sleek creature with a real appetite. An animal that eats everything he is thrown happily, relishes the raw meat. But is physical hunger just a refusal to engage with a social order that requires us to eat? If anything, I wanted to participate more fully, become more absorbed by the world. I think that’s the same for so many that I watched fight harder and harder for things, for a life they wanted, even at the lowest points of their illness.
I think there is something else at play. For me, the hunger always felt like protection. It was a tool for punishing myself for complacency, sure, but it was also a way of keeping my appetite intact. Hunger isn’t about food, but about a gap, as Tallis says, ‘between the state we are in and the state we would like to be in’. This is the emptiness I know. Tallis goes on to say, ‘The art of living consists in great part in managing your hungers so that they do not destroy your own or anyone else’s happiness’. There must have been a time I felt my desire was under threat, when I could see it splinter in shards at my feet. So I doubled down on physical appetite to entrap myself. I wrapped it around my body like a cage.
Living = hunger / pain management. The equation seems simple, but the practice is not. I have tried simply switching out my hungers – from being food-based to being art-based. But my feelings don’t understand my clever plan. These are the kinds of things my nervous system will confuse: waking at 7 AM to write / waking at 7 AM to sprint; rejection letters / weighted scales; editing and editing and editing early drafts / changing rooms with an infinity of mirrors, reflecting back rolls on and on; hunger ten minutes before lunch / hunger three days and counting; creating / dissipating; necessary / unnecessary hardening (my sex tape); hunger / hungers.
My hungers feel the same because they are the same, holding dually desire and self-destruction. Kafka himself was starving to death as he edited his story, like Chris Kraus starved and Paul Aster starved and so many of my favourite writers, the writers I’ve quoted in this essay, starved. That might suggest that there is no way to achieve my aesthetic goals without the destructive kind of hunger. Except, I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it’s more that my ‘near-miss’ experiences with disordered eating are so common (even cliched, especially for a white girl from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, let’s be honest) that their prevalence in literature has nothing to do with good art. Writers are probably just more willing to overshare. It’s a mistake to think creativity is inherently self-destructive.
Alternative reading on art and hunger: Adam Rippon was injured before he carried out the perfect routine in the video. Before the commentator called him “hungry”. Was his accident the catalyst that made him hungry, or did it cause the injury? Maybe the only trick is separation. To recognise the nuances in pain. Good pain / bad pain. Bad pain / good pain.
New goals: I want to eat a slice of thick, buttered sourdough bread. And I want to let my hunger grow, delicate and shimmery as ice.
Em Meller writes non-fiction and poetry which appear in places like Scum, The Lifted Brow and Voiceworks. Her essay ‘Blueprint for a Theory of the Teen Girl’s Best Friend’ is longlisted for the 2018 TLB and non/fictionLab Experimental Nonfiction Prize.
CARMEN: You would look beautiful without all that fat!
For all the films I’ve watched, it took me twenty-six years to find myself in one.
I am lying down, belly flat, on my bed, watching a scene from Real Women Have Curves (2002) unfold across the screen of my laptop. It’s the middle of summer, partway through the work-day, when Ana and her mother Carmen engage in a confrontation that feels all too familiar. Carmen gestures between Ana and her older sister, Estela in frustration. She asks, why are they not ashamed of the weight they carry on their hips and thighs and faces? It is between the steamer and the sewing machines that Ana makes her stand: she tells her mother that there is more to her than her appearance. We know, those watching, that Ana got accepted into good colleges, that she is a loving, smart person, that she works hard.
I watch Carmen tell her daughter that she would be better off thin. This scene feels so familiar that it burns hot and all over me. I mentally run through every time my mother has said something similar to me. The list of criticism is long, creative and unintentionally cruel.
Originally premiering in the 1990s as a play, the film Real Women Have Curves is iconic for its commentary on the immigrant experience, body positivity, intersections of class and colour, and explorations of family – particularly, relationships between mothers and daughters. The Patricia Cardoso–directed film was written by Josefina López and introduced America Ferrera into her first of many epochal roles. Having just turned eighteen and finished high school, Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) works in her sister’s dress factory in Los Angeles. Despite her family’s wishes, she is preparing to leave for Columbia University in New York. She butts heads with her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) constantly about her weight, her body and her ambition. It is the film’s focus on Ana’s body positivity, despite her mother’s constant commentary on her weight, that stayed with me.
Real Women Have Curves takes place during the transitional period between finishing high school and leaving for university. Its visual qualities are as purposeful as they are warm and beautiful: Patricia Cardoso interviewed a number of cinematographers who presented her with the typical industry approach to Latinx stories: grey, grit and downtrodden. The eventual choice for the position, Jim Denault, instead chose to show everything that was beautiful about Ana’s life, culture and surroundings. The film’s focus on Ana’s first job, her first love, her first acts of reclaiming her body for herself and her first acts of defiance, exemplify adolescent Latinx beauty.
While Real Women Have Curves has been heralded as an important piece of Latinx feminist popular culture, it received little recognition in Hollywood when released and remains niche to date. This sentiment is fresh in my mind as I watched Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated solo directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). Some Latinx film critics and fans have suggested Lady Bird is a whitewashed, perhaps even plagiarised, version of Real Women Have Curves. I myself can find at least three scenes from Lady Bird which appeared to be lifted from Real Women Have Curves and rewritten for white characters.
Pausing to consider the fact that Lady Bird, both film and character, traverses similar territory, it is evident that Real Women Have Curves has been overlooked for almost two decades not due to lack of universality but due to the brown, Latinx frame within which the narrative is presented.
As Yolanda Machado argues in her Marie Claire article: ‘It’s almost the exact storyline, beat by beat, as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, with only one glaringly obvious difference: Lady Bird – its director, its writer, and most of its cast – is white’. Machado goes on to say Lady Bird was influenced by Real Women Have Curves, but no one outside the Latinx community is talking about it. She is dismayed at the industry’s and audiences’ inability to correct the narrative:
Movies which are told from the perspective of a woman of color—even with today's social movements top of mind—are a rarity. Yet 15 years ago and against all odds, Real Women Have Curves made its debut with a Latina director at the helm (Patricia Cardoso), a Latina writer (Josefina López, whose stage play was the basis for the film), a black woman producer (Effie Brown), and a cast of almost entirely Latin actors (save for the boy who played Jimmy, Ana’s love interest, who was white). And not one white critic or pundit could even cite the movie when discussing Lady Bird. Not a single one.
While the case for plagiarism appears stronger than some might be willing to recognise, the purpose of the discussion, for some, has focused more on why such similar films received such differing treatment. Despite their similarities, only one film was considered worthy of an Oscar nomination. Why are the stories of young women from culturally diverse backgrounds boxed into a niche only to be forgotten, while the same stories told with thin, white women are considered universally relatable, earning them great mainstream success?
When discussing the similarities between the 2002 and 2017 fims, entertainment writer Mathew Rodriguez wrote:
Although Lady Bird boasts Gerwig’s strong directorial choices, writing and acting to its credit, there’s no denying that the film’s whiteness is part of its appeal … Just as Lady Bird’s parade of white woman talent is a part of its success, I’m inclined to think that Real Women Have Curves’ Latinx-centric world hinders it.
Real Women Have Curves remains niche not because it isn’t relatable to a wide audience, but, because, as Rodriguez points out:
Whiteness, in Hollywood and in our collective conscious, often means relatability, while latinidad does not.
In Australia, finding Latinx voices – to read, to listen to, to be inspired by – beyond your family and friends is difficult. The experience of growing up as a Latinx person in Australia is often very different to anything we may have seen of ourselves or our families in media from North America. Yet they do resonate. The representation (or lack thereof) highlights the complexities of community. Still, they are what we have and, for some, what we hold dear. I know that I am not alone in that experience. Just as I know this is not an experience unique to the Latinx community in this country, but rather a greater issue surrounding whiteness and gatekeeping in film, cultural commentary and the arts in general. So many reviews of Lady Bird didn’t recognise the influence Real Women evidently had on the film. It was frustrating – in part because I felt that they'd not even heard of the film’s inheritance.
ANA: Mama, I do want to lose weight. And part of me doesn’t because my weight says to everybody “fuck you!”!
I am eight years older — and more than a few sizes larger – than Ana when she took the words trapped behind my teeth and delivered them to her mother. They were the words I had only just begun to put together myself, and I have not use them aloud yet. To hear Ana say them – it is an out-of-body experience, at once comforting and confronting. Carmen could be my own mother – she who stares at my body, so different from her own at my age, slender and white. The mother who tests me with the cakes and biscuits she bakes, much in the way Ana’s mother tests her with flan at her own graduation party. The mother who asked me every single day, who still asks me, if I have been to the gym and when I plan to lose some weight. So preoccupied with my size and the things she believes will result from it (ill-health, loneliness, sadness), that everything else large about me – my laugh, my loyalty, my spirit – seems to be secondary, an afterthought. It feels like my size is just always there, lingering in the minds of other people. The largeness of my body is the but that counters every good thing about me.
ANA: How dare anybody tell me what I should look like … or what I should be … when there’s so much more to me than just my weight!
The characters I am interested in or empathise with in pop culture often get a raw deal. They’re either supporting characters with little screen time and even fewer lines – Julie, Miguel and Shelly in Lady Bird are prime examples – or the films themselves are not exactly considered refined pieces of art. It suggests that whiteness is not only more relatable and appealing in storytelling, but in the case of Real Women and Lady Bird, one story becomes more noteworthy than virtually the same one, originally told over a decade ago through a Latinx lens.
After viewing Lady Bird, Josefina López herself saw the similarities between Gerwig’s movie and her own. Speaking with Hoy Los Angeles, she discussed her art and experiences of the film industry, where her work was constantly disregarded due to her gender and her cultural background: ‘I also deserve a place in Hollywood and the opportunity to continue telling impactful stories.’
The reception of Lady Bird aligned with the unwillingness to recognise Real Women Have Curves as its predecessor serves to prove that this is very much still the case. The disparity between those who get to create, critique and experience art and those who do not remains. In 2017 an anniversary screening of Real Women Have Curves included a panel from the cast and creators. It took fifteen years for the Academy to catch up. Speaking on the panel, America Ferrera observed the different ways artistry is treated in the industry. Citing Lupe Ontiveros who portrayed her on-screen mother, she lamented that people (women in particular) of diverse backgrounds can go entire careers without recognition, despite the quality and prolificacy of their work. ‘Working with Lupe opened my eyes up from the very beginning about how people with enormous talent could go their whole careers and never get the real chance to express the entirety of their talent,’ she said. Josefina Lopez added, that in the year of her death, Ontiveros was not included in the Academy’s obituaries.
What does this mean for women of colour who are creating and telling stories? Women of colour (perhaps even more so, fat women of colour) are rarely afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories on screen, especially in Australia. If they do appear in ‘white’ films (and that’s a huge if), they are sidelined, or blindsided or stereotypes. Growing up in Australia, my only memory of an explicit reference made to a Latinx character of was an in-house Foxtel ad where Chilean-American actress Cote de Pablo’s NCIS character Ziva was labelled the “hot Latin chick”. To tell one's own coming-of-age story, or explore your own sexuality, in an empowered and considered manner is a privilege afforded predominantly to white, often slender, characters. It leaves very little room for people who fall outside of those terribly limiting parameters to find much of themselves at all represented, let alone engage in conversations about film and art.
I can think of one other character I might call my favourite. She too, was dealing with body image, class, culture, colour and their various intersections. She was also portrayed by America Ferrera; Carmen in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005) was as smart and vibrant as she was cynical and dealt with similar themes to Ana, albeit from a different viewpoint and life experience. Much the same way that Ana’s father reminds me of my own – a brown, hard-working Latino man who made a life in a country other than the one he was born – Carmen’s struggle to navigate the brownness of one parent and the whiteness of another was something I related to immensely.
Watching Carmen remind her step-family-to-be that she is Puerto Rican, and that trying to fit into the same bridesmaids’ dress as her thin white counterparts is an alienating and uncomfortable ordeal for her, tapped into some of the painful parts of my own experiences growing up in a mixed-household and being surrounded by a mostly white extended family here in Australia. One of the sharpest memories I have of my brother involves our family kitchen and his rapidly-escalating frustration over our mother’s blind spots when it came to raising mixed-children as a white woman. Our experiences growing up in Australia and interacting with family and friends and the wider community were so different to what she allowed us to know of hers. It was not aided by the existence of an ocean between us and the other half of our hearts.
The scene where Carmen tells her three slender (white) best friends that a pair of jeans that fit all of them wouldn’t possibly fit her is one I remember, frame-for-frame. I thought about it every time I stood outside the change rooms while my friends tried clothes on, keeping safe by the accessories and lipgloss. I still do. Granted, the pants do actually fit Carmen, but she goes on to face similar instances with her father’s new (white) family, and these scenes become increasingly painful to experience with her.
Back in Estela’s dress factory. They have eighteen dresses to finish for an order and Ana has had enough. Enough of the heat and enough of her mother’s criticisms about her body and her aspirations. They can’t put the fan on because it blows dust onto the dresses and so, in an effort to cool off, Ana takes her shirt off and inspires the women around her follow suit. What follows is a confrontation with her mother that isn’t intended to belittle Carmen, but rather is an effort to make her see that what she says is hurtful. Ana’s body positivity is glorious in its subtle defiance.
CARMEN: Have you all gone mad?
PANCHA: Ladies, look, how beautiful we are!
ESTELA: And how good this feels! To be rid of all these clothes and just let it all hang out!
CARMEN: Look at all of you.
ANA: This is who we are, Mama.
Being able to relate to this feeling – is this what other (white) girls felt when they named all those skinny, white girls their favourite characters? To be seen, understood, connected, comforted. This is why the overwhelming praise for Lady Bird feels something like a slap in the face: this movie existed before, in another form, in all its brown girl glory. If a film existed almost two decades ago with a brown main character, what makes it less worthy of acclaim, recognition and attention today as practically the same story told through a white character?
Seeing and hearing about Lady Bird constantly is a reminder of the disparity of merit and validity between art created by white women and women of colour. Films, light-hearted takes on girlhood from the perspectives of a young woman of colour (or even simply featuring women of colour on screen) are dismissed as low-brow, trashy teen movies while films about white girls moving through similar times in their lives are heralded as the epitome of wit and relatability.
In an essay for BuzzFeed Reader, culture writer Bim Adewunmi observed that of all the genres of film, coming-of-age tales are some of the more diverse, particularly when the scope for what can be considered a coming-of-age tale is widened. Similar to the voyeuristic cinematographers Patricia Cardoso found so determined to portray the Latinx-immigrant experience as a one dimensional, Adewunmi finds that trauma is a constant in the black-led films considered worthy of industry and Academy note. From 12 Years a Slave to Precious, trauma and violence has long been a common thread between Academy-nominated stories centered on blackness, themes she feels are ‘woven into the fabric of black girl-led coming-of-age stories.’
Adewunmi is concerned that when exploring the connections of race, trauma (and what the industry validates as an authentic portrayal of blackness), an anthropological approach to storytelling leaves much to be desired. Narratives focused on the downtrodden, agonizing and explicit are important but she notes that they also 'ring a little one-note'. In 2015 film The Fit, Adewunmi finds a subtle reason for celebration; connecting identity, culture and coming of age impeccably and with care. This is what leads her to question, why are only some films with coming-of-age stories are considered valuable? Is there value in a young black girl coming of age if isn’t a result of extreme adversity? Not as far as the industry seems to be concerned.
In an essay for The New York Times, Molly Ringwald recounted her experiences as a pop culture icon – an actress who starred in John Hughes’ coming-of-age films – through the lens of patriarchal power. Ringwald notes how little diversity (in terms of colour, culture and sexuality) there was on the screens where she reigned supreme: ‘There is barely a person of color to be found in the films, and no characters are openly gay’. She may have considered Duckie to be gay, but it was never explicitly referenced on screen. The hugely cis heteronormative focus of these films, which Ringwald references, could certainly be explored further. Perhaps in a different essay, lest this one never ends. Looking back at those films, a pallid picture of who is and isn’t allowed to come of age was painted. White heteronormativity remained, and remains, the norm.
Hughes’ movies, and their famed ‘classic’ status, somewhat reflect Adewunmi’s discussion of teen movies as against coming-of-age films: the ways in which the audience is expected to engage with stories about people from diverse backgrounds (that is, non-white characters) in order to consider them worthy of note. In the late nineties when Real Women Have Curves was first being optioned, the film seemed to hint at the beginning of the end when it came to the on-screen exclusivity. But as America Ferrera discussed at the film’s anniversary screening, it is painful to see how little had changed for women of colour in the industry. Not necessarily for Ferrera herself, but for those coming up after her.
Would things be different had I found Real Women earlier in life? Would I be less ashamed of naming a character from Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants as my favourite? Would my relationship with my body, my self-image, and my mother’s interactions have been less volatile? Would my own understanding of the way my mother’s whiteness and father’s brownness manifest in me have been clearer? Perhaps not. But I would have felt seen and understood enough to steel me through while I tried, as I continue now, to work it all out.
Ruby Pivet is a Latinx-Australian writer, poet, creator and astrology enthusiast from Melbourne’s inner west. She’s performed for Lor Journal and written for Girls Will Be Girls, Gusher, SBS Life, VICE AU and more. She is currently a Creative Producer at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
Image by Raphael Goetter, reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
CW: rape, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, chronic illness
I have so much beautiful time. — Olivia Gatwood, “Alternate universe in which I am unfazed by the men who do not love me.”
Growing up, I was a gymnast. The serious kind. The train-six-times-a-week-and-never-do-anything-else kind. By the time I was ten, I had represented New South Wales at national championships and won. I represented Australia by the time I was twelve.
By fifteen, I was preparing for my second World Championships. I had been training relentlessly; day in, day out. I visualised my routines every night as I fell asleep, ensuring I had the mental strength for the impossible stunts I would be called on to perform the next day.
Every morning I would drink raw eggs mixed with protein powder and milk. I was training so much that my body had started using my muscle mass for energy, and I needed to be consuming as much protein as possible to avoid getting weaker.
Weakness was the one thing we were all taught to avoid, and I took this lesson seriously. No amount of eggs, protein bars, crunches, toe-points, handstand push-ups or weightlifts could deter me. I would push my body right to its limits, then further. I felt invincible.
I assumed my body would be the driving force of my life, my greatest source of pride. I would grow up to be a professional gymnast, and when inevitably my career ended at thirty, I would join a professional circus. My body was a weapon.
The kind of gymnastics I was doing also required immense mental precision. I needed to synchronise wholly with my body, to pick up on every signal it sent me. It was the level of mindfulness you needed in order to step onto a velvet floor on a world stage, with five international judges ready to pick apart your every movement. My mind had to be so still that it could communicate with every pointed toe, every carefully balanced leg, every perfectly-positioned finger.
I had to be perfect, and it had to seem effortless. I had to be strong and powerful and graceful and light, all at the same time. I had to smile. To do all these things at once takes a kind of mind/body alignment that I have been dreaming of regaining, ever since I stepped off the floor for the last time. My body and my mind, it seemed then, belonged wholly to me.
I was obsessed with this feeling. When I wasn’t training, I would take ballet classes to fill the time.
But the thing about being a teenage girl is that at a certain point, the outside world intrudes on this internal narrative, the one in which you are strong, and powerful, and whole, and it reconstructs your perception of your body without your knowledge or permission.
Why would anyone want to leave their body? He asked,
And in that moment,
We had nothing in the world in common.
— Blythe Baird, “For the rapists who call themselves feminists”
It was 2007. I was out on a Saturday night with three friends, at a dingy karaoke bar in the city that smelled of must and damp and, crucially, sold over-priced vodka cruisers to underage girls like us.
We didn’t drink very much; we were too absorbed in the frivolity of singing nasty songs about boys we liked who were playing hard-to-get. I sang a truly awful rendition of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ and, with exactly no subtlety, tact or poetic integrity, inserted the name of the boy I was chasing into the end of every chorus. My friends joined in. It felt so good, as girls, to find a space in which we could safely scream about the boys who had wronged us with no-one watching.
We left the karaoke bar not long after the Justin Timberlake rendition because we’d run out of money. It was only about 9pm.
Emerging at the top of the creaky stairs, we found ourselves in the glow of Pitt Street on a Saturday night. In front of us stood the towering McDonalds on the corner. We were hungry from all that singing. We crossed the road towards it.
A group of four grown men approach us and started talking to us. Purposefully, I realised later, they distracted my three friends as a fifth, out of nowhere, appeared behind me and slipped his hand into mine. Come with me, he whispered.
The four remaining men closed in on my three friends and no-one noticed us leave. He was gripping my hand so tightly I thought he might break my fingers. He marched me toward a door on the left-hand side of the room, towards the bathrooms. We went up one flight of stairs, where the public bathrooms were. But still, he kept going.
He walked me up another flight of stairs to a dusty, disused bathroom. Perhaps it had once been for staff, or just an extra men’s toilets the franchise no longer needed. It was empty, and deathly quiet.
He took me into a stall, locked the door and violently assaulted me, again, and again, and again. I had never had sex consensually so I had no reference point for any of what was happening to me apart from what I’d seen in movies, but I knew for certain that it was the sharpest and most severe pain I had ever, and would ever, experience.
If you’ve done any reading about trauma you’ll know that the human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in this kind of situation: fight, flight, or freeze.
I lunged once at the latch of the stall door but he moved his heavy body in front of it and didn’t move from that position. Flight, my body instantly recognised, was not an option.
Next, fight. The man was about thirty-five, and made almost entirely of muscle. He looked like he went to the gym every day and had spent most of his twenties alternating between bulking for the gym and shredding for stereo. I was still just a little over 40 kilos, true to my sport’s dreams.
I tried once to push myself far enough away from him that I could reach around him for the door. At this point, he pulled out a Swiss army knife and held it against my throat. Fight, it seemed, was also out of the question.
When the first two options fail and the danger is still present, the autonomic nervous system sends a signal to the brain that death is imminent and the body begins to prepare itself.
It releases the most powerful natural analgesic known to the body and essentially cuts off signals from all major nerve endings. At the same moment that the body numbs, the major muscle groups shut down as well, and go into a state known to neuroscientists as ‘collapse’. Once entirely loosened, the muscles will cease to resist whatever is trying to hurt you and death will come faster, more mercifully.
The brain then sends itself into a state of total dissociation. In this state, one feels distinctly as though one is floating above one’s body, patiently watching, waiting, feeling nothing at all.
In these calm moments the brain surveys the scenario one final time for possible escape routes. In most traumatic situations, it is the moment in which the body resigns itself to death that the mind finds a way to survive.
I noticed a glass bottle sitting to the right of the toilet bowl, leaning slightly against the door. Without any conscious thought, I bent over – feeling, in that moment, not an ounce of the searing pain in my body – grabbed the bottle, and smashed it over the porcelain lid of the toilet bowl.
This startled my attacker for only a few seconds, but it was enough. As he drunkenly tried to figure out the source of the loud smash, the flying glass, the reverberations as my elbow hit the door of the stall as it recoiled from the effort of breaking the glass, I reached for the door, unlocked it, and ran away as fast as my tiny legs could carry me.
I ran down the first flight of stairs, the second, the third. I found my friends looking desperate, casting their eyes around the street wildly, panicked and wondering where I could have gone. Together, the four of us ran around the corner onto Pitt Street and I collapsed into a nook next to what was then a Hungry Jacks.
All I remember from those moments is the sound of my gasping breath, the strength of my hands as I clutched my stomach, my pitchy sobs, and the only words I could muster: It hurts.
When I got home, I collapsed in the shower, bleeding everywhere, staring blankly into a tiled abyss and thinking only of the sound that thick glass makes when it smashes.
I got up the next morning as usual. I washed the stale cigarette smell out of my hair. I faked an injury the next day at training as a cover for the now-bright purple bruises that snaked across my stomach.
I went to school on the Monday and shared stories about the cheesy pop songs we sang about the embarrassing crushes we couldn’t let go of. I waited for the bruises to heal and went back to training. I told no-one. I was fifteen.
Recently I read The Body Keeps The Score, by Dr Bessel van der Kolk. The culmination of a life’s work, the book gives a neurobiological, psychosocial and psychiatric account of post-traumatic stress. It outlines the ways in which traumatic events have lasting impacts on the immune system, the nervous system, the muscular system, and the brain.
There is now an authoritative body of research that shows that it is possible to heal almost all physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — but this, of course, requires that the person seek help. For the most stigmatised of traumas – sexual violence, of course, being the preeminent example – it might be years before patients get medical treatment, if at all.
The mind, it turns out, is very skilled at protecting us from painful memories. It stores them away where we cannot reach them; where they cannot scare us. But the body keeps the score.
About eighteen months after the assault – eighteen long months of avoiding any conscious thoughts about it, any memories, any nightmares – I was struck down suddenly by unbearable abdominal pain. I threw up from the sheer force of it. I started to bleed everywhere. I passed out.
Over the next few years my body started to break down, physically, in a way that I assumed to be entirely unconnected to the event I had tried so hard to forget. I lost my sense of balance and any degree of connection to my body. I stopped being able to perform gym routines I had long ago perfected.
I lost all sense of my physical self. I started injuring myself at training as a consequence of being unable to know precisely where the different parts of me begun and ended.
I remember picking myself up after disastrously under-rotating on a round off-flip-layout and casting my eyes around the gym in search of something that could explain the fall. Had the mats shifted underneath me? Had I tripped on another athlete’s abandoned ankle strap? No answers presented themselves.
In trauma discourse, this is described as a loss of proprioception: the ability of the mind to effectively gauge the relationship between the body and the world. Proprioception is how the mind tells the body how to move through the world; how to control its most delicate movements; how much space it takes up.
I read once that the reason cats can shape-shift to fit themselves into remarkably small spaces is that the tips of their whiskers are biologically coded to be exactly the same width as the widest parts of their body. They use them as a kind of proprioceptive radar.
All of a sudden I was without that sense, unable to orient myself, never quite sure which parts of the world I could fit into and which I couldn’t.
I had a major fall in the try-outs for my second World Championships. I injured my ankle so badly that my sports doctor told me I would be lucky if I went for a jog again. I have barely set foot on a gym floor since.
I then experienced a series of organic failures that grew, developed and shape-shifted over the seven years that followed. First my bladder, then my appendix, then my uterus, then my bowel. Finally, I was diagnosed with a disease called endometriosis.
This diagnosis came after a frustrating process of trying to convince doctors that my pain was real and that I needed help. My gynaecological surgeon is the first doctor who believed me, and it is no exaggeration to say that his understanding of the disease has changed my life. He and I have been working together on my illness for eight years now.
Some years later I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My body, it seemed, was in full-scale revolt.
When an everyday event concludes, the brain places it in a sequence, understanding how each moment, each event, led to the next, and analysing the experience based on this narrative.
Traumatic memories, however, get stuck. They cannot be rearranged into logical narratives, and instead remain trapped in the brain as flashes of light, sound, and smell — rogue fragments of an unbearable memory that leak out at the mind’s weakest moments. As a result, instead of understanding these stimuli as past events, the brain reacts to these fragments of memory as though it is still happening. The brain dutifully re-enters fight, flight or freeze, even if there’s no actual danger present.
Activating this response repeatedly wreaks havoc on the body. It suspends all physical functions not considered necessary for escape, and sends blood and oxygen to the major muscle groups, ready to run. The constant stagnation of these ‘non-essential’ functions such as digestion, hormone regulation, and the upkeep of the liver and kidneys eventually causes long-term damage to these organs.
The longer a physical assault or accident is held in the nervous system, the muscles and the brain, without being addressed or treated, the more likely it is that it will eventually manifest as a systemic physical dysfunction. This sentences the patient to a future defined by a life-long illness as penance for being unable to integrate traumatic experiences into the narrative of their lives.
It had never occurred to me that my physical ailments, all appearing in the same part of me, at the same time, could have a common cause.
And perhaps they don’t. There is no exact formula for causation, no matter how desperately we might wish for one. My chronic physical illnesses could have been caused by any number of things, or an intricate combination of several factors, or just bad luck. I’ll never know for sure.
But one thing I now know to be true is that, in one way or another, the body keeps the score.
It’s strange that the body’s dissociative fight, flight or freeze response can be so destructive, because its evolutionary purpose is a very sensible one: it is designed to protect us from experiencing the pain of our dying moments; moments the brain does not think it will ever have to fold into any kind of narrative because it does not think it will live to tell the story at all.
Unfortunately this means that the act of living through these moments is a subversion with which the brain cannot fully cope, and it tortures us physically as it tries to make sense of it.
Image by Maria Eklind, reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
This home is what I came into this world with,
Was the first home,
Will be the last home,
You can’t take it.
— Rupi Kaur, “I’m taking my body back”
One Monday night, I ended up in emergency after avoiding having a major endometriosis surgery for too long. My surgeon came to my bedside with a kind but stern look on his face and said, I know you think you can outrun this thing, but you can’t.
Watch me, I thought.
He was talking about my endometriosis, but I was determined to outrun it all: I had spent ten years running from this memory, as if it still had the power to catch me. It was like one of those dreams where you are constantly running, but never move; you’re gasping and exhausted, but never catch your breath.
My attacker’s violence had trapped me in the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, running for her life, too young to understand this kind of danger, but old enough to be deeply ashamed.
I am twenty-six now, and I have finally realised that strength does not always mean feigning indifference. It had already happened, and that fight was over. The bravest thing to do was to let him catch me. It was the only way to process that I did not have to run anymore.
So I began to heal. I found a medical psychotherapist who has helped me more than I could have imagined. He is the first person I ever told this story to in full, from start to finish. To my great surprise, it was the first thing I told him about myself.
I have learned to identify the sensations that enliven the fragments of the memory in my mind – the sound of a glass bottle smashed accidentally at a house party, the smell of a particular mix of whiskey and cigarettes on a man’s breath, the faint echo you hear when you inadvertently knock an elbow against a wall in a public bathroom.
I have trusted him with my life. He has led me through sessions of a painful treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing; an intense therapy using rapid eye movements that forces the brain to recall a traumatic memory in full – not in fragments, not in flashes – in a safe environment, after which it can be processed as something already lived through, rather than still occurring.
I found a sex therapist who has dedicated herself to the sexual trauma aspects of my care. She taught me about a condition called vaginismus. My gynaecological surgeon referred me to a highly-skilled women’s health physiotherapist who is trained in dealing with the physical effects of severe sexual trauma. She has been using internal and external manual therapy techniques to release the muscle dysfunction this experience left me with. Through breathing exercises, stretching, mindfulness, pelvic floor ‘down training’ and massage, I have been retraining my body not to freeze up every time it is touched. This process has been painful and exhausting, but it’s working.
The psychological impacts of my treatment have been severe, too. Reliving moments of total helplessness can produce strong suicidal ideations, as it did in me. It seems cruel that your mind convinces you that you want to die after your body had done so much to keep you alive.
As I was trying to heal, I gradually learned to withdraw myself from the people who were hurting or draining me, and turned all of my energy inward. In some cases this required me telling them explicitly that this is what I was doing, a prospect that felt nearly impossible. I cringed at the thought that everyone would know that I was too fragile to handle fair-weather friends or careless lovers. I am usually a very extroverted person (read: chatty, annoying, prone to oversharing) but I was unable to communicate the physical and psychological pain I was in. I needed to be careful.
There is strength in vulnerability. There is also strength in honesty: I really was too fragile. I really couldn’t handle it.
I dedicated all of my time and my space to myself and kept the world out. I struggled through the end of a taxing law degree — I finished a few weeks ago! — and found a private bathroom near my office where I could cry unnoticed. I never knew who or what might upset me in public, so I perfected the art of leaving the party without saying goodbye. I would slip away before anyone could see me break down, slink into the safety of an Uber, comforted only by the unexpected kindness of the stranger behind the wheel.
In the back seat, I would have the uneasy sense of being both frozen and melting; half terror, half tears. I would call a trusted friend and ask them to meet me at home and stay with me until I fell asleep.
A few months ago I became physically sicker than I have ever been. The pain became unbearable and more difficult to hide. I lost seven kilos in four weeks. I was inexplicably throwing up half of what I ate and I started shaking so much I had to get friends to help me put on make-up. My blood pressure dropped dramatically and I started passing out at random intervals.
When it occurred to me that the physical and psychological therapy I was undergoing would making things worse before they got better, I wanted to rewind. To return to the body of the girl who had not acknowledged the gravity of her experience.
I went to a close friend’s wedding, in a quaint coastal town, and collapsed on the morning of the ceremony. As I lay on the floor of the apartment, I imagined myself approaching one of those big red signs on single-lane highways that says WRONG WAY, GO BACK. But every time I came close to giving up, I thought of the comforting words my best friend offers me when she notices that I’m in trouble: the only way out of it is through it.
So I kept going.
Crohn’s disease and endometriosis are life-long illnesses. They can be managed, but not cured. I will never have the physical capacity I had as a teenager; my body will never again be the driving force of my life.
This is a theft for which I will never be compensated. Living with that reality has been a difficult process, but I have come to accept it. It is no longer a source of anger, or fear, or resentment. It just is. As Cheryl Strayed wisely wrote: Acceptance is a small, quiet room. I won’t pretend: not everything can be healed.
My recovery has not been easy. It has been slow, and at times excruciatingly painful and demoralising. But I’m making progress. I have finally placed this memory into the narrative of my life in a way that makes sense. It’s not the story I would have chosen, or would choose for anyone. But I’ve found a way to live with that.
What I can choose, however, is how I respond to it, and how I can use it to help others. In one of her now-famous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns, Cheryl Strayed recounted the following anecdote when giving advice to a rape victim:
I have a friend who is twenty years older than me who was raped three different times over the course of her life… I asked her how she recovered from them, how she continued having healthy sexual relationships with men. She told me that at a certain point we get to decide who it is we allow to influence us. She said “I could allow myself to be influenced by three men who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by Van Gogh. I chose Van Gogh.”
When I read these words, I thought of all of the women writers who kept me company during the darkest moments of the last twelve months. The women whose strength pushed me ever on, convincing me that there was a world out there that was beautiful and kind and safe and that it would be waiting for me if I were brave enough to choose it.
I thought of my favourite author, Elena Ferrante, and the way her exquisite stories of female friendship showed me that women can be both soft and powerful; tenderness and strength are not antithetical, but equivalent. It takes vulnerability and resilience for women like her protagonist, Elena Greco, to overcome their dangerous pasts and possess their own narratives, in all of their complexity.
For myself, I can choose to be influenced by a violent man in an abandoned bathroom or I can choose to be influenced by the strength and vulnerability and honesty of Elena.
I am choosing Elena.
Last month, I went to a ballet class for the first time in years. It was devastating to see how stiff my body had become in the years I’d neglected it; how profoundly damaged it was. But it was also an unparalleled joy to be reminded, even for a moment, of the feeling of being strong and powerful and poised and graceful and beautiful all at once.
Last week I went to a private gymnastics lesson with one of the athletes I used to compete with. As she watched me re-learn my tricks, she scanned her eyes over my body and I heard in her words the echo of every coach, every athlete, and every judge I’d ever trained with. They had noticed the same things she was noticing now: my impressively high arches, my hyperextended knees, my stubborn hamstrings. She promised me everything would come back to me quickly, and it did. The memory of how to move like I used to was still there, in my muscles.
My body had kept everything in its rightful place, waiting for me to come back to it.
Image by Marco Verch, reproduced under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).
When I talk about my trauma I am not asking you to carry it or relieve me from it; I am just asking for it not to be too heavy for a conversation.
— Blythe Baird, “Yet another rape poem”
I am profoundly lucky that recovery was possible for me. I have a job and support network that has allowed me to scrape together enough money to see all the specialists I need, in a system that is prohibitively expensive for the majority of survivors. I’ve had colleagues buy me lunch on the days they knew I needed to see my psychotherapist so I wouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
I have specialists who make allowances when I need a few extra weeks to pay, who consistently invent ways to reduce the cost of my care. I have a workplace that gives me all the sick leave I need and offers me unconditional support. I am also lucky enough to work in an environment so focused on creating a supportive culture that my colleagues are also my closest friends. I have a best friend who loves and supports me unconditionally and a network of friends and family who are endlessly loving, generous and kind.
I am also fortunate that what happened to me was a blinding anomaly. A random act of violence committed by a stranger in the night. Statistically, most acts of sexual violence are not isolated; they’re visited upon us by people we know and trust, in circumstances where social and interpersonal dynamics may complicate a survivor’s understanding of their trauma, or the boundaries of consent may feel harder to clearly determine.
If just one of these factors had not aligned in my favour, I might not have been able to get better.
In Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends the last thing the narrator says to the reader is:
You have to live through things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
In NSW in 2018, the crime of sexual assault is listed in the statute books but only 5% of prosecutions result in conviction. In the legal profession, we refer to this as a crime that is formally illegal, but socially accepted. Making the law tougher on perpetrators and would-be perpetrators is the first step to changing that.
I watch as we launch inquiries into reforming consent laws and getting tougher on prosecuting sexual violence. I listen as we analyse how women could better protect themselves while walking home alone; while we pick apart the logic of streetlights, well-populated areas and always carrying a mobile phone.
All of this analysis is necessary, but none of it pays enough attention to the lived experience of victims of sexual violence. None of it takes on the more difficult task of trying to empathise with us; to see the world as we see it.
It does not consider the fact that viewing consent as the norm and requiring non-consent to be communicated puts trauma survivors in the untenable position of being asked to vocalise non-consent when they have likely already entered fight, flight, or freeze. When they are too terrified to say anything at all.
Presuming consent is fundamentally antithetical to the concept that women are an autonomous and dignified role in our sexual lives. That we are entitled to our boundaries, our pleasure, our pain. Saxon Mullins: If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s not enough. If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s a no.
If we listen to the stories of survivors, it’s evident how damaging it is to expose women to a public conversation in which we are held responsible for our own safety.
It’s a pragmatic approach, they tell us. Boys will be boys. Not all of us have the luxury of taking a pragmatic position. My response to these conversations is not rational but biological: I am being told that I must always be ready for run for my life. That if I fail to follow these rules, I might not be so lucky next time.
Just as traumatic memory evades narrative, a culture of victim-blaming and shame disrupts a survivor’s ability to comprehend traumatic experiences. Survivors are condemned not only to live through trauma and its pervasive psychological and physical effects, but also to suffer the indignity of being unable to clearly understand what is happening to us.
This post-traumatic response is replicated in victim-blaming media coverage. If this happens to me again and I do not escape, the story of my death will be taken from me and placed in a narrative about whether or not I chose a sufficiently well-lit park to walk home through.
The constant reminder of how unsafe the world is for us triggers our autonomic nervous system. It makes us fragile. It makes us scared. And as I have found, eventually, it makes us sick.
It also keeps us quiet. Every time we blame victims for the crimes of their perpetrators we construct a world in which traumatised people are too ashamed to seek help. Our society is so convinced that victims are complicit in their trauma that we are scared to admit what happened to us, in case it transpires that we did not follow the rules.
I wrote this essay because creating a safer world needs not only to be an exercise in logic but also in empathy.
If my experience of the world was not one in which I knew I would be blamed for the violence committed against me — in which my primary reaction to suffering trauma is shame — the last ten years of my life would have been profoundly different. I would have gone to the police that night, covered in DNA evidence, bruises, scratches, injuries.
Perhaps, eventually I would have been compensated by my assailant for the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve lost to medical bills, hospital bills, forgone wages, therapy. Perhaps I would have helped secure a criminal conviction that would have protected the potentially countless women he has assaulted in the ten years that I have remained silent.
If we lived in a world where this kind of experience was treated, both by the law and by our culture, like any other physical trauma or violent crime – a car accident, a severe sports injury – it would not have taken me ten years to ask for help.
It would not have caused me to spend years of my life running from it, hoping it might never catch up with me. It would not have left me with irrevocable physical damage.
It would not have taken me ten years to choose Elena, to choose recovery, to choose to speak. It might sound shocking, but the process of repossessing my narrative has left me feeling as though I might now be able to enjoy my life.
It is harder to bear witness to suffering than it is to analyse it, and until we are ready to do that, real change will evade us. You have to live through things before you can understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
Lifeline offers crisis support services if you need to speak with someone. You can call on 13 11 14.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and need assistance, call the 24-hour Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 424 017.
If you are suffering from a chronic illness and need assistance, please call Pain Link Australia on 1300 340 357.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a freelance journalist and writer and works as a paralegal at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. She tweets at @LuciaOC_.
“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” –Gandalf the Grey
“As long as I'm alive, I want 'em. But they're not to cry out, and they're not to be rescued. Bind their legs!” –Uglúk, Uruk-hai Captain
What Do You Smell?
There’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) where a group of orcs are transporting their hobbit hostages across the plains of Rohan. The band comprises Sauron’s soldiers from Mordor and Saruman’s Uruk-hai from Isengard. The orcs stop to rest and the question of food arises. “We’ve had nothing but maggoty bread for three stinking days!” one says. “Yeah, why can’t we have some meats?” replies an orc credited as ‘Snaga’. His gaze settles on their captives: “What about them? They’re fresh!”
While the Uruk-hai captain Uglúk explains “those are not for eating!” Snaga creeps up behind the two halflings, knife raised: “just a mouthful, a bit off the flank!”
Here I pause my two tape LoTR:TTT The Extended Edition VHS. Something about Snaga’s shaky menace strikes me as familiar. The pinched lips, the round skull, the shifty eyes: he is a Weta-Workshop Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection. Unchecked, unbowed, and unforgiving, there is something decidedly monstrous in the way the Member for Dickson carries himself. Photo after photo shows him lurking in the shadows like some Gundabad war chief.
But his monstrousness goes beyond his cartoonish grim visage. Despite scandal after bungle after scandal, Dutton seems destined to hold dominion over the Commonwealth. He has moved Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition to the far-right with the ease of an au-pair pushing a bawling baby in a pram. With the creation of the Department of Home Affairs in December 2017, he became one of the most powerful men in the nation, with an accumulation of strength that has progressed unchecked and is now spreading beyond the department’s ill-kept murky borders.
In the age of Trump, Dutton is not so much a projection of conservatism’s future as a paragon of its present. What Saruman would describe as a “ruined and terrible form of life” has now been “perfected.” Dutton leads the establishment fringe in the post-Abbott era: you will not know pain, you will not know fear, you will taste raw onion.
People treat Dutton as though he sprang fully formed from the pit of Gorgoroth itself. As if he is a riddle in the dark, spoken in a wet-mouthed whisper. We are too scared to ask what’s in his pocketsess.
Well, speak friend and enter: like an Elvish riddle on a Dwarven door all it takes is the simplest paradigm shift to see the Ents for the trees. Call me Thorin Oakenshield, because I hold the key to grokking our would-be future PM. To understand Dutton you just have to understand this simple truth:
The age of man is over.
The time of the orc has come.
Through popular culture and the film adaptations, most of us have a clear idea of how an orc looks and acts, just as we have a rough idea of how Peter Dutton looks and acts thanks to Sky News and Janet Albrechtson puff-pieces.
The origin of orcs is often overlooked. Tolkien posited various creation myths for orcs. The best known and most commonly accepted comes from The Silmarillion (1977), which hinted that they were Elves transformed by Melkor’s “slow arts of cruelty…in envy and mockery”. Another theory appears in The History of Middle-earth, a 12-volume series published posthumously, which states that orcs were “…bred by Melkor of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal”. Here the orcs are described like machines of war, which in a sense, they are.
In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien offered this description of orcs: “They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes.” He goes on to explain that “the Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men”. As corruptions, be it through torture or interbreeding, orcs maintained a recognizable humanity. Christopher Tolkien explains in Morgoth’s Ring (the tenth volume of The History of Middle-earth), “…my father’s final view of the matter: orcs were bred from men.”
There are conflicting views about the origins of orcs. In one, they are corrupted reflections; in another, they are manufactured projections. What is important is not so much how they were made, but what they were made to represent. Tolkien, a World War I veteran who fought in the Battle of the Somme, witnessed industrial warfare firsthand. Recuperating from trench fever in 1917, he began writing fables about dwarves, “gnomes”, and orcs. Many years later, in a letter to his son who was then fighting in World War II, Tolkien wrote: “I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction…only in real life they are on both sides, of course.”
In Tolkien’s universe, Evil is unable to create anything new. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey states that “though [Tolkien] became increasingly concerned over the implications of orcs in his story, and tried out several explanations for them, their analogousness for humanity always remained clear”. Although Tolkien grew uneasy with it, the corrupted elf/man theory stuck because it allowed orcs to be simple ciphers for the man-made horrors of the 20th century. Evil lacks empathy, and thus imagination. As Frodo explains “…the Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”
The orcs are the result of Evil’s failure of imagination. Peter Dutton is the result of Australia’s.
Born in 1970, Peter Dutton, son of Bruce, grew up in the heats and slime of the Northern Brisbane suburb of Boondall. Flat-nosed and sallow-skinned, it is impossible to determine whether his heart was born of, or crafted with, granite, but his father was a bricklayer, so granite was probably at some point present. His working-class family sent Dutton, eldest of five, to St Paul’s School, a private Anglican college in Bald Hills. In 1988 an 18-year-old Dutton joined the Young Liberals. In 1989 he unsuccessfully ran for the state seat of Lytton, and by 1990 he was chair of their Bayside branch.
That same year he graduated from the Queensland Police Academy, having begun his training at the height of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Misconduct. The Inquiry would see the deposition of Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson and the jailing of three former ministers, as well as a knighted police commissioner. Like Aragorn’s time ranging for the Dunedein, his time in the QPF would shape him as well as his policies. “I was a police officer at a young age and in those formative years I’d seen good and bad in that job. So I do think that shapes your world view,” he recently told Guardian Australia.
Terry O’Gormann, who cross-examined ‘Uncle Joh’ in the Fitzgerald inquiry, told that same Guardian reporter that Dutton is “…the unofficial national police minister.” In his Inside Story article ‘Prime Minister in Waiting,’ Norman Abjornsen recalls an interaction with a senior minister at an airport, to whom Abjornsen quipped that Dutton ‘still talked like a Queensland cop, impassive and deadpan’. The minister replied, “yes, and he thinks like one too.”
After nine years working in the Drug Squad, the Sex Offenders Squad, and the National Crime Authority, Dutton completed his Bachelor of Business at QUT and joined his father’s building business. They founded Dutton Holdings in 2000 (now Dutton Building and Development). Dutton currently owns six properties, including a $2.3 million mansion on Queensland’s “Millionaire’s Row.”
From the son of a bricklayer and childcare worker to cop to real-estate mogul to potential Prime Minister, Dutton’s life traces the heroic arc of the self-made man: the central protagonist in modern conservatism’s mythology. He is the fantasy of the “aspirational conservative” realised. A post-Menzies Gil-galad wielding a determinist spear; an epic Elven ballad penned by Ayn Rand. Like the orcs, he has “maintained a certain level of recognisable humanity”, but also like the orcs, he can’t help but resemble the intention behind his own creation. Dutton is the continuation of the Australian conservative tradition – that which defined Uncle Joh’s reign, precipitated the rise of John Howard, and formed the foundational logic of Australia’s refugee policy.
A tradition that schooled Dutton in the ‘slow arts of cruelty.’
Drums In The Deep (they are coming)
In 2001, the year of 9/11, the Tampa Affair, and the cinematic release of The Fellowship of the Ring, a 30-year-old Dutton was elected to the seat of Dickson. His defeat of former Australian Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot was an ambush worthy of the orcs who slew Isildur at the Gladden Fields, and for this he was swiftly rewarded. In his maiden speech to Parliament, he said that as a police officer he had seen “the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society.”
By 2004 Dutton was workforce participation minister, one of the youngest ministers since Federation. He rapidly shot up the ranks. In 2006 he was appointed Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Revenue. In 2007 he boycotted the apology to the stolen generations, stating he did not believe it would “to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century”. A year later Turnbull made him Shadow Minister for Health.
During his rapid ascent to power, Australia would enter both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The reign of the Great Goblin (Howard) ended, but his legacy lingered. The hysteria around refugees – aka “boat people” – would continue to grow. The Rudd Government maintained Australia’s gulag archipelago.
The Shadow loomed.
Dutton had visited Ground Zero just prior to taking office. America’s open wound spoke to his sense of injustice, his outrage. There, he framed his career within the context of a crusade. The Denethor-like paranoia which followed the attacks, and the subsequent desire for revenge and reclamation, gave Dutton direction. The Balrog awoke, the smoke took shape. Dutton’s rhetoric began to match, even outpace, the reaction politics of the post-9/11 West. “When does the right of privacy for the individual start to impinge on the common good of society?” he asked in his maiden speech.
When did Australia abandon reason for madness?
The Scum Tried to Knife Me
As with Sauron’s return to Dol Guldur, Dutton’s rise to power wasn’t all smooth sailing and necromancy.
Tony Abbott appointed Dutton Minister for Health (and Sport) in 2013, a job he kept for a little over a year. It was Dutton who tried to force the $7 GP co-payment on the public, like Uglúk forcing the black draught down Merry’s gullet. Orcs don’t know much about medicine. A 2015 poll by Australian Doctor magazine voted Dutton “the worst health minister in living history”. Abbott made Dutton Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in a cabinet reshuffle on December 21, 2014. The Nazgûl finally had their fell-beast. No more fuck ups.
In 2015 Senator Hanson-Young accused Peter Dutton of spying on her when she visited Nauru. Dutton retorted that “she’s got a track record of making these things up”. It was later confirmed that Wilson Security and the Immigration Department, and perhaps Crebain crows from Dunland, had indeed spied on Senator Young.
Later that year, on September 11, an open mic caught Dutton joking with Tony Abbott about rising sea levels and Pacific Island Nations: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”. A comment not dissimilar from the orc Grishnákh’s suggestion that Merry and Pippin “don’t need” their legs. Dutton sided with Abbott during the 2015 leadership spill; he was after all the Azog to Abbott’s Bolg. Although the “scum tried to knife” him, Turnbull kept Dutton on in the front bench. It was a move that may yet prove fateful for Turnbull, who has preceded over a Coalition where alliances are as fraught as that between the orcs of Mordor, the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and the Lyle’s of Shit-eât.
Tolkien wrote of orcs that “if Morgoth and his agents were far away, they might neglect his commands. They hated each other and often fought among themselves, to the detriment of Morgoth's plans”. Such is the chaos of the Coalition post-Howard. It is a chaos that Dutton, like the orc Gorbag, has artfully thrived in.*
(…other than that time he sent a text calling Samantha Maiden “the mad fucking witch” to Samantha Maiden.)
You Will Taste Man Flesh
Tolkien wrote that orcs were “so corrupted that they were pitiless, and there was no cruelty or wickedness that they would not commit; but this was the corruption of independent wills, and they took pleasure in their deeds.”
Most orcs are interchangeable: Shagrat, Grishnákh, Gorbag, Uglúk, Lurtz – dumb snarling faces that spit out hatred through gnashing teeth. Ruddock, Vanstone, Evans, Morrison, Dutton – Australia’s immigration ministers are much the same. Dutton took to the Immigration portfolio like a warg to horse flesh. “I enjoy it a lot,” he recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. He takes pleasure in his deeds.
That visit to Ground Zero, and a decade of the West’s self-perpetuating xenophobia, cemented his zealous self-assurance that his way was the righteous way. To oppose it was to side with the enemy. “Where we are guided by principles and objectives,” he said on entering Parliament, “the others in Australia have adopted this third way of operation, in which the end result is that they now stand for nothing. They have lost.”
Those guiding principles are as coolly simple as an orc’s. To Dutton, the mission to “stop the boats” was handled with the same ruthless efficiency of Lurtz’s mission to “find the halflings”. Both Lurtz and Dutton had no room for “misguided compassion”. Dutton inherited a violent system and ran it as doggedly as the Uruk-hai berserker who throws himself, torch in hand, into the bomb beneath Helm’s Deep. A few arrows, be they from Legolas or First Dog On The Moon, would not slow him down. The Sydney Morning Herald could run as many “Jihads” against him as they liked – this orc was going to blow himself up and take that mad lefty Haldir with him. If the utility of a system is solely violence – be it explosive or institutional – the only way to work efficiently is with the single-mindedness and amorality of an orc.
The rape of 23-year-old Somalian refugee known as Abyan, protests crushed by violent reprisal, reckless medical negligence, several deaths in detention, and a string of attempted suicides (the latest by a boy as young as 10) all took place under the watchful eye of Peter Dutton. In Appendix F of the third volume of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King (1955), Tolkien explains that orcs stole other languages and “perverted it to their own liking,” and that orc speech sounded at all times “full of hate and anger”. In 2015 seven pregnant asylum seekers refused medical treatment on Nauru, urging Turnbull and Dutton to bring them to Australia. Dutton promised upgrades to healthcare facilities, but told 2GB that the government would “not be taken for mugs.”
Just prior to the 2016 election Dutton told Sky News presenter Paul Murray that many refugees “won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, no question about that”. It was a base bit of racist rhetoric from Dutton, who usually couches his bigotry in the poison tongue of the protector. What had been subtext in the post-Howard era briefly shone through like a vein of Mithril along a dark cave wall.
Turnbull defended him, stating that Dutton “is an outstanding Immigration Minister”. Dutton became another unflushable turd in the Prime Minister’s increasingly clogged plumbing. Their relationship not unlike that of Saruman and the Uruk-hai Lurtz: Dutton the willing boogeyman of the far-right in a party that loves that movements’ product if not its brand. That year’s election would see Dutton’s margin “take a little tumble off the cliff”, falling from 6.7% to 1.6%, holding Dickson with a margin of less that 3,000 votes (i.e. less than 1/3 of the orc host gathered at Helm’s Deep.)
In 2016 Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali committed suicide via self-immolation in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the plight of those imprisoned in purgatory on Nauru. A year later, after 50 refugees left Nauru for the US, a frustrated Dutton told Ray Hadley that somebody once told him “the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags [was] up on Nauru, waiting for people to collect when they depart.”
He went on to say:
“The reality is that these people had, at the generosity of the Australian taxpayer, received an enormous amount of support for a long period of time.”
There are countless examples of Dutton’s dog-whistle blaring like an orc horn over the barbarisms of our detention system. He is glib to a fault, an orc indifferently giving the order to catapult decapitated heads over enemy walls. Despite all this calamity, Dutton’s apologies are few and far between. Those he’s given are laced with self-pity, reluctance, and deferred blame. Take his recent statement regarding the latest incident on Nauru: “even the Biggest, can make mistakes,” he told the ABC, “something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we've got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don't forget: the enemies don't love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we're done too.”
(NOTE: That was either Peter Dutton or the orc Gorbag – unable to confirm.)
An orc cannot apologise for being an orc. They are bred for a purpose. Cruelty is part of the orc’s job description, so the job and the orc are indistinguishable. The reason the Shadow of Mordor games give orcs names like “Tugog Man-Breaker” is because their function forms their identity. The same is true of “Dutton Boat-Stopper.”
To Dutton and his predecessors Australia’s immigration policy is, like the road to Sammath Naur, paved with good intentions. The Immigration Minister is a protector as much as he is an enforcer. “Operation Sovereign Borders has brought maritime people smuggling to a standstill and saved countless lives,” Dutton said, marking “1000 days of strong and secure borders.”
But as Gimli, son of Glóin, once observed, when listening to the words of Saruman “in the language of Orthanc, help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain.”
A Palantir is a Dangerous Tool
The immense power gifted to Australia’s Immigration Minister by the Migration Act of 1958 is, frankly, Sauron-esque. With the creation of the Home Affairs Office last year, Dutton has managed to expand his dominion beyond the already fragile outlands of accountability.
Former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Evans once remarked: “I have formed the view that I have too much power…I am uncomfortable with that not just because of a concern about playing God but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability…what I thought was to be a power to be used in rare cases has become very much the norm.”
This is not unlike Gandalf and Saruman’s debate over the power of the Palantir.
“A Palantir is a dangerous tool, Saruman,” Gandalf councils.
“Why? Why should we fear to use it?” his superior retorts.
“They are not all accounted for, the lost seeing stones,” Gandalf explains, “We do not know who else may be watching!”
Like Saruman and his Palantir, Dutton has wielded his new authority with the singular thinking of the overpowered: why should we fear to use it? Who cares who is watching? So he took to the Department of Immigration the way the orcs took to Fangorn Forrest. With an axe.
In his recent feature for The Monthly, ‘Dutton’s Dark Victory’, James Button discusses how the old Department of Immigration could be divided into the two branches of “inclusion and exclusion”; what staffers nicknamed “Disneyland” and “The Dark Side”. Writer Henry Martin, who interviewed officials from the department’s first forty years, labeled those deciding the fate of Australia’s potential citizens as “angels and arrogant gods.”
Being the spawn of god – Valar Melkor himself – Dutton seems to prefer the latter. In a speech made to the Trans-Tasman Circle in October 2017, Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo made reference to AC/DC, The Leviathan, and at length, The Lord of the Rings. He recounted Frodo’s journey for “those of you who know the books preferably, the movies if you must”. He talked about how upon their return, Frodo and company were shunned by the other Hobbits for seeming “a bit above themselves.” Pezzullo continued by chiding the Shire Hobbits (I MUST STRESS THAT THIS IS VERY REAL) for “not knowing the sacrifices that have been endured to keep them safe”. He lamented that the Hobbits were woefully unaware that evil was “on the borders of the Shire, seeking to penetrate their very comfortable, safe, and blissfully ignorant existence.” He then rambled on about an emerging “dark universe” and “the end of days.”
To Pezzullo, Frodo and friends were a kind of border force, unfairly maligned by a naïve and ungrateful public.
Only a lunatic would go to such lengths to link Australia’s immigration policy to The Lord of the Rings like this. Pezzullo had forgotten that in the books (“preferably”) Frodo and friends return to a Shire overrun by orcs, led by ‘Sharky’ aka Saruman the White. Our heroes find themselves stateless. Frodo embarked on this journey – where he was smuggled across borders by boat, barter, and disguise by a fanatic, a guerilla leader, and an addict – so his friends and kinfolk would be spared this very fate. It was not the shapeless void of Sauron that destroyed the Shire, but the self-certain Saruman: who convinced himself that the only way to overcome the Dark Lord was to supersede him, and who consequently collapsed under the weight of his rapidly accumulated and unchecked power. It is not the Hobbits that resent Frodo’s return, but the orcs that bare the White Hand.
Fouler Things than Orcs
I was ten and at the height of my LotR mania when John Howard announced: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. My parents, particularly my mother, raised me to view Howard as the Big Bad. A Great Eye with thick spectacles, he came to embody all that was defective in the Australian character. He had slain Gil-galad (Keating), he had returned from defeat, he had slapped the GST on Old-Toby pipe-weed. He was a Dark Lord in an Akubra and jogging-gear.
I would often retreat into LotR as a way to understand the world around me. I remember reading the chapter where Gandalf falls to the Balrog, a week after my grandmother had died, feeling inconsolable with grief. My grandmother, once John Curtin’s secretary at The Daily Worker, had been one half of my moral compass, the other had been Gandalf. They both taught me the value of empathy, and how one man’s pity may rule the fate of many.
As an adult, I see Dutton, Howard, our refugee policy, and the great Shadow that darkens them as the nation’s norm. The web of violence and cruelty is now inextricably attached to who we are as Australians. We have become Shelob, snagged in her own mess. Our borders are kept safe by our white nationalism. Be it fear of African gangs, or a sudden concern for South African farmers, our press, policies and politicians reveal a nation who wear the White Hand with pride.
I have drawn on orcs and Middle Earth because the nature of this Evil is so immense that it has become fantastical. Tolkien’s descriptions of orcs remained inscrutable because the wickedness they symbolized was inscrutable. The orcs are simple ciphers for difficult times.
From Abbott and Trump, to Latham and Milo, to Uncle Joh and Dutton, there and back again: we are living in the time of the orc. But orcs are merely vessels for grander schemes. Orcs like Dutton are a small part of a meaner darkness buried deep within our national conscience. And as Gandalf made clear, “there are fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
A LotR wiki tells me that Snaga is actually “the name of the lowest or lesser breed of orc. They were used as slaves, warg riders, messengers, and were lower in ranking and size than the Uruks, Morannon orcs, Orcs of Minas Morgul, and other larger ones in Mordor.”
Staring at the frozen image of Snaga on my TV, I suddenly realise why he reminds me of Peter Dutton. It’s not his egg-like head, it’s not the smile that’s in fact a snarl, it’s not his hungry eyes. It’s his stupidity – the kind that is unique to the cruel. If Snaga ate the hobbits (even their legs) he’d immediately have to reckon with his smallness in the grand scheme of things. He’d have to challenge Uglúk, the captain of the other faction, but beyond that, the will of Saruman, and potentially, Sauron himself.
Dutton and Snaga are both monsters powered by an unwavering prowess for monstrousness. Ultimately, what makes them orcs is their subservience. To fail at that would be to fail at being an orc: all good orcs, the ones that make it to the top that is, know this.
I press play. Snaga is immediately decapitated by Uglúk, who roars:
“Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”
The orcs cheer and Snaga is devoured.
Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian living in Fremantle with the other Shire-folk. He talks to his dog about Evel Knievel and his stalled There Will Be Blood musical. His work has been published here and elsewhere, translated into several languages, and mainly focuses on mental illness and Waluigi. In 2017 he released a stand-up album, ‘Barely Bombings,’ which touches on everything from Boko Haram to the Care Bears, and all that’s in between.