In February of 1985, ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood was attacked by a saltwater crocodile. She was in a red plastic canoe, in the part of the river she was told not to go to. She tried to jump from the canoe into a tree to escape the crocodile, but the crocodile jumped too. It death-rolled her three times in the water before she managed to escape and crawl to a place where a ranger found her.
After surviving this attack, Val Plumwood wrote extensively about how the experience had illuminated the ways humans separate ourselves from nature by denying that we can (and, according to her, should) be eaten by other things. We imagine that we and we alone own our bodies and that we are above being eaten, but we are wrong.
Val Plumwood was a colleague of my father, and when I was nine we visited her at her house below Plumwood Mountain. The house was a stone hexagon, one room except for a curtained-off shower in the centre. There was an outhouse and a glass-walled guest room, both detached from the house. The furniture in the kitchen had been chewed by a wombat, who she said went in and out of the house as it pleased every night. In The Eye of the Crocodile, Val Plumwood writes:
Upon death the human essence is conventionally seen as departing for a disembodied, non-earthly realm, rather than nurturing those earth others who have nurtured us. This concept of human identity positions humans outside and above the food web, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity but as external manipulators and masters separate from it. Death becomes a site for apartness, domination and individual salvation, rather than for sharing and for nurturing a community of life. Being food for other animals shakes our image of human mastery.
Val Plumwood said she wanted to introduce us to her friends. She led us to a patch of mud a few steps outside of her house. She was wearing sandals and she put her feet into the mud and stood still as leeches wriggled up and began to bite her. She told us she liked to come out and feed them maybe once a day.
Plumwood writes about the existence of two parallel universes—the universe humans live in, where the body belongs to the individual, and the universe of the food chain, where all bodies belong to all others. The golden eye of the crocodile is the portal she travelled through from one universe to the other. She says, ‘Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating live or dead humans, and various levels of hysteria are elicited when we are nibbled by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes. But humans are food, food for sharks, lions, tigers, bears and crocodiles, food for crows, snakes, vultures, pigs, rats and goannas, and fora huge variety of smaller creatures and micro-organisms.’ She writes that the body is like a library book, subject to recall by any other organism, at any time.
We went for a hike in the forest. My sister and I knelt down to play in a stream and when I stood up again I felt a cold thing crawling up my leg. I screamed. Val Plumwood calmly demonstrated how to get rid of a leech that hasn’t bitten you yet—rolling it up into a ball in her palm and flicking it away. My parents say they had to give me whiskey to make me sleep that night.
I feel happy so I stop going to therapy. I begin to experience irrational anxiety walking home at night that I may encounter a ghost or a demon. I develop anxiety around cars; that I will die in a crash. I look in the mirror and feel I am looking out from far, far inside my body. I get a haircut and it doesn’t help. I get a tattoo and it doesn’t help. I have an anxiety attack while watching Killing Eve, begin to panic at my own impending death. For over a month the world seems unreal, the participation of others in it unbelievable. Every indication of the passage of time distresses me. Looking in the mirror or letting one body part touch another body part distresses me. The part of my leg that I shaved to get the tattoo feels cursed. I am crying into Eloise’s faux fur coat. She is putting her hand on my hands to hold them still and I didn’t even realise I was wringing them. I am spending every free moment watching TV in bed, lying as still as possible.
I read an article about Hereditary and how horror movies use transness as a plot for demonic possessions. In Hereditary apparently Toni Collette has two children; the girl is possessed by a demon, but the demon is unhappy in a female body, and so the girl is killed so it can move into the body of her brother.
I remember as a teenager watching Toni Collette and Julianne Moore kiss in The Hours during English class. Both of them in terror at not being able to be women in the right way. In the opening scene, where Virginia Woolf drowns, her shoe floated off and some girl said, ‘I want those shoes.’
Val Plumwood writes, ‘I met the crocodile like a child who has just become aware of the evil in the world, a sharply demonic experience of some great wrong done to another.’
I can’t remember when my fear of insects began to centre on cockroaches, only know that my body’s response to them is the worst of all. Hot flash, heart pounding, dizziness, clawing at my intestines. The fear is simply that they will touch me. And the sounds they make—scratching, fluttering, swooping—make me the most nauseated, because in the sound you can hear the weight of the bug and know how heavy it would be on your body.
I can remember being less afraid of cockroaches,or at least able to get over it more quickly once the insect had been killed or trapped inside a vacuum (plastic bag fastened over vacuum hose to prevent escape). Remember opening my eyes during sex on Valentine’s Day to see a roach crawling on the ceiling above us. At this time I had a partner who would kill and catch them for me. One night I was woken up by the sound of a cockroach’s wings in the room. After that, my fear became ridiculous. I took beta blockers, Valium, Xanax, drank whiskey, wore earplugs, but I would still lie awake the whole night, my entire body wrapped tightly in the doona. Eventually I began to sneak out when my partner had fallen asleep and go back to my own house.
When I see other insects in the house, the fear spirals to cockroaches, and to global warming, and to money. The hotter the summers get, the more cockroaches there will be. If a smaller bug can get into the house, then a larger one might. If I don’t save enough money to move to a colder climate, I will be trapped with the threat of these insects crawling on me always until death.
This above is an excerpt from a piece originally published in The Lifted Brow Issue #42.To read this and many more brilliant works in full, get your copy here.
Mira Schlosberg is a writer and comics artist whose work has appeared in Meanjin, Rabbit, and others. They are the editor of Voiceworks magazine and edit comics for Scum Mag. Their comic book
Guidebook to Queer Jewish Spirituality is available through Glom Press.
Will Thompson (they/he) is a self-taught illustrator and animation student. They work mainly with traditional mediums and enjoy making things with their hands
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.
Fadi, Leila, Michael, Georgette, Paul, Helen, Elie, Rosa, Antoine, Josepha, Peter and I have arrived at an abandoned warehouse rooftop nightclub called White Beirut. Everything is a stark, blinding white, except for the people. You’re only allowed in if you adhere to the strict dress code: you must be dressed head-to-toe in white.
Hot pink and aqua coloured strobe lights beam across bright glossy white tables, booths and stools, illuminating those wearing neon coloured fedoras. It smells like someone has thrown buckets of ice and vodka over everything. The glasses and the floor fog up with mist, so if you put your hands to the glasses or to the floor like a game of Twister, it leaves a precise, crisp handprint. There’s no space to move without touching another person. Random strangers, both male and female, grab us by the shoulders and kiss us on each cheek three times, like a threat. I squirm at first but put up with it because I have trained for this day back in Australia, growing up in Redfern where the only social gathering we’d attend were church hall barbeques in which everyone in the Lebanese-Maronite community kissed you even if they didn’t know you. By the thirteenth kiss, my head moves from cheek to cheek with rhythm and dexterity. We’ve only just arrived but already my carefully swirled makeup starts running like calligraphy in the summer heat.
The twelve of us walk in like we’re the disciples of Christ—a motley mix of Lebanese youth from the northern village of Kfarsghab, nestled in the mountains three hours away, and their Lebanese-Australian descendants. We inch our way in, strutting like the brothers in A Night at the Roxbury. Georgette and Leila walk hand-in-hand with their fake Louis Vuitton bags in tow. I lose my balance because the floor is slippery like lube. Michael, a loud, confident Lebanese-Australian guy from Meadowbank, who is always in the front row church pew at Our Lady of Lebanon and who is from the same village as my father but not related to me and who comes to Lebanon every year to see his relatives, lifts his hand up. He’s holding his phone out in front of him like a staff, trying to part the crowd because his last name is Moses and he takes it literally. But nobody budges, they stand still and rooted to the ground, like sculpted golden wax statues, auditioning to be extras in Kanye’s ‘Famous’ video.
The Beirutis glance casually at us and they all seem to dry retch. They can smell the sunscreen on us, so they know we are from Australia, as though our Lebanese-ness is a prop. They look down at us with their air-brushed faces. One woman turns, and her fake breasts almost knock out her friends. All of the women’s noses are suspiciously small and straight, their fake eyelashes rimmed with actual coal, because in Beirut they do not fuck around. One woman’s lips are so freshly plumped with injections, it looks like she did it at the bar. She stares straight at me and pouts. I stumble back on my stiletto heel from the sheer force of her.
Another woman I recognise amidst the clubbers is Miss Lebanon Australia. I know who she is because I used to stalk her on MySpace, followed by Facebook after she won, and regularly Google her to find out which hair products she uses. Then she dated my cousin Rob for two months and I had to stop myself from saying, “Good to see you again.” She wears a small silk Versace dress, her boobs perking under a slab of Swarovski crystals, her long legs towering in clear plastic platform shoes—you can see right through them. On her arm is a shiny olive-skinned man, a perfectly trimmed beard dressed in a white robe with gold trim and a Rolex watch—he must be a millionaire Saudi. The local men hover around Miss Lebanon Australia like clumps of congealed glue, wearing billowing linen shirts unbuttoned all the way down. Every few minutes you get hit in the face as one of the women, and some of the men in the club, flick their long, black hair extensions in your face, whiplash.
The girls in our group—Leila, Georgette, Helen, Rosa, Josepha and I—look at our outfits and then each other. Helen’s “Made in China” label is hanging out of her synthetic white dress, flapping gently. We make a run for it to the two booths we have booked two weeks in advance. The girls are embarrassed because they can’t afford expensive designer clothes and I am embarrassed because I am wearing their clothes thanks to an unfortunate miscommunication around the dress code (usually I wear ethically sourced fabrics made locally in Melbourne or Sydney). We squeeze and pour ourselves into the booths, hoping to take up less space, elbows and knees digging into soft flesh. The boys—Michael; Paul, who is Michael’s brother; Elie, the son of the village Sheik; Fadi, the village clown; Antoine, our driver (who is my third cousin); and Peter, my friend from Sydney—follow us reluctantly. They spread themselves out, draping and flopping in all the spare holes left by the women. Michael, Paul and Peter begin scanning the room for their future wives. Elie, Antoine and Fadi are, on the other hand, judging the women like they’re Peter at the gates of heaven. My Arabic is not good enough to understand everything they’re saying, but I hear the word sharmouta—slut—at least seven times.
To my right sits Josepha, a nineteen-year-old from Ehden. Her name is Josepha because her dad really wanted a boy and was too sad to think of a new name so he just added an A to the end of Joseph. She has the same light green eyes of her older brother Antoine, but that’s all she inherited, luckily for her, since Antoine looks like a bloated pig. I’m mesmerised by how “not Lebanese” she looks with her fair skin, freckles and green-grape eyes, and because of her high pointy cheekbones, big breasts and slim frame. She is a poor man’s Adriana Lima. She seems bored and disinterested, her head on her hand as she flicks through photos on her iPhone 5. I smile at her desperately. She doesn’t smile back. She is the only one the Beirutis approve of thanks to her nonchalance and white-passing natural beauty—the men and women grab at her, lift her from her seat and suck her into the vortex. In her wake, she leaves her pudgy, moody brother, who stares at me and looks away when I catch him.
Three large chandeliers shaped in a circle hover from the sky. Tall thin palm trees sprout from the ground and tower over us. Four young women clad in white angel wings, bikinis and little else dance on the bars, stepping over drinks and waving white pom poms. The lights start to flicker so fast, people look like they’re moving in slow motion. A giant screen that hangs from one end of the club says in capitalised English: ‘THIS IS BEIRUT’—in case we had forgotten. Electronica house music drones on and on in a repetitive trance with three competing DJs elevated high on floating stages. The bass is shaking the ground and the walls, pummelling through. It rises in crescendo until it climaxes.
The music here is even louder than at Lebanese weddings back home, the ones where the speakers were turned up so high that mouths would move but no one could hear anything, so you’d wildly gesticulate instead, knocking over the seafood sticks and labne mezze plates.
Suddenly the music changes. A woman sings out, like an Arab Christina Aguilera, deep and throaty. The DJs play a mix of house music with French and Arabic thrown in like an unwanted guest, but the crowd loves it anyway, singing in the same breath, “We’re up all night to get lucky... boos el wa wa!”
Next, an Arabic–French hybrid song comes on that I keep hearing everywhere in bars and clubs through-out Beirut. Most of the song is a group of voices singing together. “C’est la vie,” it sings. “La la la la la. That’s life. We’re going to love and we’re going to dance. La la la la la la.” There is no translation for the five “la’s.” The song always makes me stop and remember I’m not alone, that there might still be someone out there who will lift me up and give my life purpose, even if that purpose is just to wave my arms around like I’m drowning. And yet it also reminds me that I am alone because I was dumped three times in the space of a year by Khalil, a Leba-nese-Syrian refugee from Sweden. Each time I was more surprised than the last, believing that it was just a matter of time before Khalil and I would end up married with kids, following the same path set out for everyone in my community. When it didn’t happen over and over again, I was left without goalposts, the map ripped out from under me, starting over and on my own without protection. My hands fall limp to my side. I snap out of it and notice that everyone is adding their voices to the chorus, all hands raised, no longer conscious of how they appear, particularly Paul, who has climbed over the bar and fallen into an ice bucket but is still, somehow, dancing.
Some people around me stand up and climb onto the seats and tables and start gyrating on top of each other, spilling drinks, their bodies, their sweat, blending together in a blur. I stand up too, so as to not feel left out, but I get knocked over immediately by a stray heel and grab at the marble table for balance. It feels hard under my palms.
Antoine leans over and whispers in my ear. “Good to show skin!”
I ignore him although I know he’s referring to how I arrived at the club wearing a modest black baggy dress and stocky Mary Jane flats. I didn’t know there was an all-white dress code. They had me take Leila’s spare dress in the parking lot (she always keeps a wardrobe of clothes in her car in case of emergencies). Leila, who was the daughter of the sheik and could normally be seen in the village wearing jeans and a hoodie, had now seized the opportunity to squeeze into a lace bodysuit and tight mini shorts. This prompted Michael to say, “She was hiding that body under those baggy jeans!” She pulled out a handkerchief from her purse, waved it around like a flag and then dangled her white stilettos at me like keys. I squeezed into the thin, crepe-like material which fell across my arse and was so small, my breasts were spilling out.
I keep flicking my brown hair over my chest to cover myself but it’s not long enough to conceal my breasts and I can hear my mother and my sita screaming at me from Sydney to cover myself before someone puts something in my drink, or worse, I catch a cold. I fold my arms over my chest and hobble around the booths, like I’m holding something between my legs.
“Wow, you look Lebanese now!” Antoine says, making me wonder if looking Lebanese means looking constipated.
“Why you don’t talk to me?” he adds, English broken. He has already drunk half a bottle of whiskey in the fifteen minutes we’ve been here. I’m pretty sure he brought the bottle in with him because he can’t afford table service. He gets mad if anyone tries to pay for him, even though he works in the fields picking fruit and his weekly salary wouldn’t cover a meal at Icebergs in Bondi. On top of this, he has to help pay for his family of six siblings, who all still live at home in the village. With each sip the buttons on his shirt stretch, making hourglass-shaped gaping holes over his protruding hairy belly. “When I see you first day from rooftop, I swear hat Allah, my heart stop, I fall in love at first look,” he shouts over the music, his round, droop-ing face completely red, choking and spitting out each English word. He’s talking about the time I was exiting my cousin’s beat-up Mitsubishi, swimming in sweat from the tight-dark-faux-denim-skinny-stretch jeans I wore on the plane because I thought the stretch waist would make them more comfortable. Spoiler alert: they did not. I had patches of sweat under my arms and I smelt like a damp cloth dipped in urine after pissing myself a bit during the death-defying car trip.
“I looked like shit,” I reply.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s why I know... this true love.”
I mime throwing up. He swats my hand away from my lips with too much force and I hit the inside of my mouth, scraping my inner cheek.
“Don’t touch me,” I say.
“Don’t be rude,” he replies.
“You’re not my type,” I say to him.
“What this mean?’ he says.
“I’m too good for you,” I say, because saying he is simple and basic, dropped out of school, works in the field picking fruit, believes in antiquated gender roles, isn’t very attractive, and keeps trying to pay for every-thing with money his dad gave him but is secretly relieved when I offer to pay, even though he pretends to get mad at me for paying, is too hard to translate into Arabic.
“And anyway, I’m pretty sure we’re like distantly related or something,” I reply. All around me the club-goers are singing, “Turn the lights out now!”
“Killoun cousin,” he says, which means, everyone is a cousin. He’s not wrong. If I’m being really honest with myself, it’s not that we might be distantly related; it’s that I have already cast judgement on the type of guy he is—the hyper-masculine wog type that pretends to joke about you going back to the kitchen while your mothers and aunts are literally in the kitchen, so you know it’s not really a joke at all. The type of guys who remind me of my distant cousins back home who laugh when you say you need to study. I have convinced myself that I am not like anyone else in my family or my community, and so I have always found reasons to reject anyone who brings me back into that world.
Michael orders table service at the booth and a waiter in a white vest and white leather pants screams out, “Yalla, vodka here!” and single-handedly brings a giant tray of oversized frosty bottles of Grey Goose vodka in crystal ice buckets, and jugs of orange juice. A disembodied hand gives me a delicate glass of what I think is vodka, and I take a big gulp and drink it in one go before they have time to add orange juice. Detached hands appear to pull me up and I am hoisted onto disembodied, floating shoulders. I am only sure of one thing: that there are lights bouncing off my exposed arse cheeks like a disco ball. I can’t seem to move my arms and legs. My head dangles around like a broken doll. Everything goes from white to black.
I wake up in a single bed, the tube dress so tight and drenched in sweat, it feels like it has melded to my skin. I reach around for my phone. I’m surprised when my hand touches the cool, cracked glass screen of the iPhone 5—it feels like it's something that would have disappeared. I squint and see that I have no wifi because, priorities. I then notice the time. It’s 12pm the next day. My eyes are darting everywhere and my hands are shaking. I try to lift my head, but it’s full of metal. I roll over but the bed is so small, I fall toward the yellow lino floor which looks like vomit, still holding my phone like a weapon. I fall into actual vomit which was camouflaged by the colour of the floor and smells like rancid butter. I look at my hand, wipe it on my sleeve.
Up from the ground I spot another single bed on the other side of the room. That’s weird, I think. Who would ask for two single beds? I squint and see a naked man lying there, his back covered in red dots where the hair used to be... I gasp and let out a nervous, childish giggle when I notice two hairy butt cheeks protruding in the air—it seems rude to me and betrays my shy and prudish sensibilities.
I look away and commando roll out of the room. I am in some kind of garden oasis with draping ferns hanging over concrete, pot plants lining the path in front of me. I crawl to the front desk. “I need to report a kidnapping,” I say from the ground, looking up at the man at reception, who spreads out his arms on the counter like he owns the hostel.
“Shu?” he says, leaning forward, his voice lined with smoke, hand tapping an ashtray.
“I have been kidnapped,” I say.
The owner laughs like a bloated walrus. A man who is carrying a bucket and mop asks him in Arabic, “Who is this drunk American girl on the ground and why does she smell like vomit?"
The owner replies in Arabic, “It’s the Lebanese-American girl who was brought in last night by her cousin, be careful, she might understand Arabic.”
“I have no cousin!” I scream in English. It’s a lie. I have hundreds of cousins. “And I’m not American!”
“She speaks, walla!” the cleaner says and sniggers at me.
The hostel owner looks down at me again and frowns, his mouth turned up in one corner like he pities me.
“See here girl,” he says in Arabic, “I don’t care what you are. If you village people want to come and have sex with your cousin, that’s fine, just be quiet about it.” •
An embroidered silk detail on the sixteenth-century linen panel The Shepheard Buss (The Shepherd’s Kiss) depicts an adder lurking beneath a strawberry plant. The pattern evokes a common metaphor of the time, taken from a line by the poet Virgil, where the fruit and its leaves represent an apparent good concealing the real malevolence below—the origin of the proverbial ‘snake in the grass.’ The strawberry held an exalted status in Medieval thought, and its use as a symbol was both widespread and of comparatively early origin; such that its fruit, flowers and leaves are among the most frequently occurring objects in European art. They stain the fatal white handkerchief that passes through Shakespeare’s Othello—a mark of fidelity and chastity coupled with deceitful intentions—and giant strawberries are eaten by figures frolicking naked in the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, a powerful representation of the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures and ambitions. In Christian imagery, they were almost always treated as “the symbol of perfect righteousness.” An old folk tradition holds that the Virgin Mary led the souls of dead children to pick strawberries on the feast of St. John the Baptist, the fruit standing for the garden of Eden and the food of the saved in Paradise. In other contexts, the three partitioned leaves were a reminder of the Holy Trinity, while the red fruits, hanging downward, were the drops of the blood of Christ.
Strawberries were also a favoured motif during the great flowering of domestic embroidery during the Elizabethan era. They were an exception to the Elizabethan gardener’s belief that a plant’s neighbours determined its quality: even though the ground-creeping strawberry plant was exposed to every sort of contamination, no evil companionship could taint their purity. Whereas embroidery during the Renaissance was intended for the church, the Elizabethans' needlework was secularised and reflected their love for nature. Amateur needlewomen drew their designs from pattern books, along with woodcuts and engravings in bestiaries, and herbals and illustrations in natural history books. Rather than simply serving as guides to nature, these books were storehouses for similes and moral lessons that instructed the preacher and layperson on how to live righteously. Domestic needleworkers placed strawberries among flowers and trees, birds, animals and insects, filling their homes with beauty and stitching strawberries onto every conceivable surface. Rosemary Freedman has remarked that this decoration was universally emblematic: “Wherever the needle could penetrate the tendency to personification and allegory finds expression.”
Who could have imagined that sewing needles and strawberries would be linked together in such a violent way hundreds of years later? The first, on 9th September 2018, ended with a man being treated in hospital for severe abdominal pain after swallowing half a sewing needle lodged inside a strawberry bought from a Woolworths supermarket in North Brisbane. Three days later, a child in Gladstone bit into a needle embedded in a strawberry packed in his lunchbox. By the time the contamination crisis was over there were 186 reported needle incidents around the country, with copycats, hoaxes and tampering incidents spreading to all six states. These were taken at face value, as a straightforward story of saboteurs and pranksters sticking pins into fruit with malevolent intent.
Our understanding of even the most mundane social and political thought, according to the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, requires an appreciation of the extensive use of metaphorical concepts embedded in everyday language. Just as Elizabethan needleworkers gazed at wild strawberries and found in them everything that was beautiful and lovely about their world, the modern commercial strawberry embodies much of the way food is produced in industrial agriculture and the social pressures under late capitalism. And wherever the needle penetrates, the tendency for symbolism finds expression.
In the beginning, plastic punnets full of pierced red flesh were the handbaskets of fear. A seven-year-old girl in South Australia found a sewing needle inside a punnet of Western Australian strawberries; another needle was found inside a banana, and punctured Australian strawberries even turned up in New Zealand. Soon, Queensland’s chief health officer was urging consumers to throw away their strawberries and wholesalers were slashing their prices, selling boxes of strawberries that would ordinarily fetch $16 for $3. As supermarket chains pulled punnets from their shelves, growers accused health authorities, the government and the media of creating a ‘hysteria' that threatened the 500-million-dollar national strawberry market. The Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers, the peak representative in the state with a third of the nation’s 620 farmers, called the needles an act of “commercial terrorism.” Speaking for the mood of many, South Australian farmer Brenton Sherry warned that producers in his state could be wiped out within a month, adding: “Strawberries may never return.”
The needles seemed to unleash the dark libidinal fears of those who see adders lurking everywhere in the long grass of polite society. In a closed, grimly racist Facebook group I monitor, one member fretted that sewing needles were being placed in fruit by African gangs or ISIS and went on to speculate that those responsible were also, improbably, lighting the small spot fires being reported around the start of Queensland’s bushfire season. While Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud labelled those responsible “parasites,” a Griffith University criminologist told the ABC such berry-violence was “the epitome of free will” and posited the needles were a calculated act to instil fear. The Australian collected its online stories under a splash page entitled ‘FRUIT TERROR', and a senior security analyst writing for the newspaper suggested counter-terrorism measures were required to shore up the food system, with growers linking up with law enforcement and the intelligence community—the national security of the country tied to its bountiful production of juicy fruits. Unsurprisingly, the term commonly used by the media and polity was “sabotage,” as though the needles were the attacks of a foreign agent on production during a time of war.
Sewing needles were hardly the most dangerous by-product of the industrial food system that year. On four occasions in 2018, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised 325 million Americans to avoid eating romaine lettuce altogether, while the agency hunted for the cause of the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria that had, by that stage, infected people across eleven states, sickening at least thirty-two and hospitalising thirteen. Likewise, rockmelons tainted with the listeria bacteria led to seven deaths, and a miscarriage, across Australia in 2018. The contaminated melons were ultimately traced to a single farm in New South Wales, which had been affected by dust storms and was scrubbing and washing the fruit with a chlorine solution prior to packing. If indeed the needles were an act of sabotage—as some sections of the media and polity claim—then what motivated the agents and who (or what) was the enemy? It behoves many of us to answer why we are more terrorised by the thought of a group of individuals wielding the cold steel of malevolence than we are the seemingly unavoidable—but far more harmful and widespread—consequences of an impersonal food system.
For one, fears about the influence of migrants and hostile outsiders have always attended the fruit picking industry. Eight years earlier, Today Tonight reported shocking conditions for migrant workers in the industry under the tagline of ‘Asians stealing Aussie jobs’. Underpaid or not paid at all, abused and degraded, the workers filmed at one farm bemoaned that “strawberries come from hell.”
Merely three days after the first needle appeared, the Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers was already on record stating that a “disgruntled former employee” could be responsible for the tampering, in direct contradiction to the police. “We’re not agreeing with that at all at this point in time,” countered Detective Acting Chief Superintendent Terry Lawrence, dismissing the Grower’s Association statements as “speculation.” One wonders how the association could be so brazen in its announcement; so convinced of its suspicions that a former worker with a grudge against the industry was behind the incident.
It had only been a few months since the Fair Work Ombudsman released the final report of its three-year Harvest Trail Inquiry and revealed how some workers in Australian horticulture were “bonded like slaves” to dodgy labour hire contractors. After visiting hundreds of farms around the country, the inquiry found an industry that relies on migrants and backpackers for labour, and uncovered instances where workers were threatened with having their visas withdrawn unless they remained with the company, or driven to ATMs to provide money upfront for a “job bond,” or ripped off for thousands of dollars and housed in substandard accommodation. There have been attempts in recent years to create an auditable industry standard to identify legally compliant labour hire companies, but signing on is voluntary.
Growers themselves are under intense pressure to produce fruit at the lowest possible cost for Coles and Woolworths, which account for eighty per cent of the fresh berries sold in Australia. Strawberries Australia chair John Calle has complained that while it costs around $2 to produce a punnet of strawberries, many growers were selling them for between $1.50 and $3.50. “Sometimes we’re making 20 cents after costs,” he said. The Strawberries Australia website notes that workers are the last obstacle to full-automation of farms: “Picking labour cost remains as a major issue, as mechanical harvesting is not an option for strawberry fruit.”
The propensity of consumers to fix these issues—to ‘vote with their dollar’—was addressed in the Harvest Trail Inquiry report, which found that only eleven per cent of shoppers would be willing to pay more for produce labelled with a “domestic fair trade” certification denoting a farm that had been audited for providing workers with fair wages and conditions. Even more discouraging was that just under half of all respondents said they would buy the ethical product even if the price were the same as other produce.
Two months after the strawberries were deemed safe to eat again, police arrested the first person with an alleged connection to the needle tampering. My Ut Trinh, fifty—who was born in Vietnam but came to Australia as a refugee twenty years ago—was a picking supervisor at the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession fruit farm north of Brisbane. She faces seven counts of contamination of goods with intent to cause economic loss, normally carrying a three-year maximum penalty, but police have alleged “aggravation,” which increases the maximum jail term to ten years. After Ms Trinh’s arrest, the Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers vice president Adrian Schultz said he hoped the industry could move on. “This should put a full stop to this situation,” he said.
It is possible that no other fruit has been as radically transformed by industrial agriculture as the strawberry. In a 1771 article for Encyclopédie Méthodique Botanique, the French botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne—one of the most important chroniclers of the early development of the modern garden strawberry—lists twenty-five varieties including the small woodland strawberries, fraises des bois, still beloved by backyard gardeners in Europe. The Roman poet Ovid tells that humans lived on mountain strawberries that nature brought forth without cultivation. The musk strawberry, otherwise known by the delightful name of hautboy, grew wild in the forests of central Europe and was widely cultivated by gardeners for centuries. Their complex aroma was said to be so powerful that a few berries could perfume a room, with hints of honey, musk and wine and—according to a recent analysis by German flavour chemists—notes of melon, raspberry and cheese. With tender white flesh and brownish red skin, the soft berries are mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma, where guests at a garden party rave about their superior flavour.
Arguably the most important event in the history of the modern strawberry is the 1714 journey of Fragariachiloensis from the beaches and mountains of Chile to France, which introduced the Old World to the large berries of the New. A French spy working for King Louis XIV was so taken by the large fruits of the Chilean plant that he tended to five specimens on the six-month voyage home. The spy’s family name, Frézier, happened to be an ancient one deriving from fraise, the French word for wild strawberry. His decades of experimentation and cross-breeding of the female plants he brought home eventually yielded the garden strawberry we know today. The Chilean berry, already cultivated for centuries by Indigenous Chileans, was pollinated with Fragaria virginiana, a hardy meadow variety from North America (otherwise known as the Scarlet or Virginian strawberry) that was popular in English gardens at the time. The new berry inherited the hardiness, sharp flavour and redness of the Virginian, and the firmness and large fruit size of the Chilean.
It may have originated in France, but it was the English who first produced the best specimens of this strawberry, Fragaria ananassa—so named because its perfume and shape was said to resemble a pineapple—which would later spread to Europe and North America and emerge as the first iteration of the hundreds of commercial varieties grown today. California alone now produces a billion tonnes of berries each year, but until the end of the nineteenth-century nearly all strawberries in the US came from plants growing wild in pastures and meadows between farming seasons. Following the introduction of Fragaria ananassa, the history of commercial strawberries has been the repeated substitution of new varieties for old and, subsequently, the rapid expansion of productivity.
Breeders over the decades have favoured commercial properties such as large fruit, high yield, firmness, attractive and uniform appearance, long shelf-life and resistance to pests and diseases. By concentrating on these genetic factors, others have been lost, namely some of those responsible for flavour. Writing for The Conversation, University of Birmingham chemist Simon Cotton describes experiments that have shown wild varieties of strawberries like the wood strawberry and musk strawberry have a greater range of flavour molecules than those found in supermarkets today.
In some ways, the berries we eat all these years later are much the same. They still strike a fine balance between sweetness and acidity, one that shifts in favour of the former as the berries ripen. They still rely on changes to the concentration and composition of anthocyanins to develop their vibrant red pigments. However, what is missing most from commercial berries is fragrance, the original quality that gave the strawberry genus its name. Even the first cultivated berries of Fragaria ananassa were once noted for their extraordinary richness and diversity of flavour, impressing fruit connoisseurs of the time with their strong hints of raspberry, apricot, cherry and currant. Aiming for commercial production has, in other words, lead to bland, generic fruit.
As late as the 1950s, strawberries were only available in England for a few weeks in summer, usually coinciding with Wimbledon. Alongside genetic changes within the strawberry that made them hardier, the development of refrigeration and cool chain management has helped preserve fresh strawberries long enough to open up national and international commodity markets. Soils used for growing strawberries are often fumigated and covered with long plastic tarps to control microorganisms prior to planting, and experimentation with planting techniques that manipulate the earliness of crops has further blurred the traditional production seasons between climatic regions, meaning berries are available year-round.
These developments are written plainly in Australian horticulture industry R&D reports. You can track the development of new cultivars, with names like ‘Red Rhapsody’, ‘Parisienne Kiss’ and ‘Sundrench,’ from their earliest trials in the National Strawberry Breeding Program to the moment they enter commercial production after four years of development. The breeding program, funded by industry and state and federal governments, has the specific aim of creating a “nationally more profitable strawberry industry” and selects varieties from its trials based on criteria weighted between profitability and “consumer-related traits.” These R&D documents hint at a broader trend in the production of food: that the profit motive directs farmers towards particular varieties, encourages investment in certain types of equipment, preserves larger farms over small producers, determines processing and distribution and even shapes our tastes and preferences.
The strawberry is a living contradiction of the capitalist promise: the unstated justification that it is the only economic system that provides us with better stuff. Expecting a world of better gadgets, more comfortable lives, everything in supposed abundance and for our enjoyment, hides a process of homogenisation and mass-production; one that requires the biosphere be destroyed and most of the planet’s population worked to the grave. The poor and middle classes are exhorted to cherish the system that makes supposed luxuries like enormous televisions and strawberries affordable, at the same time as home ownership, education and child care slip beyond their reach. Supermarkets work hard to play on the cultural imagination that strawberries manifest as a natural abundance that simply pops out of the earth—seasonal treats that sing of springtime and harvest—rather than a manufactured food embodying hundreds of years of refinement. This history shows that instead of tastier and more intoxicating berries, what capitalism actually excels at creating is more profitable commodities.
The rebound came as suddenly as the crash. With millions of dollars lost from the strawberry industry, thousands of people around the country attended fundraisers and bought five-dollar strawberry sundaes to support struggling farmers. NewsCorp reported enthusiastically on Qantas’s “act of kindness” when the airline bought a tonne of berries—equivalent to 4000 punnets—to make strawberry daquiris and compote for their business lounge travellers, with staff volunteers cutting the fruit to ensure the safety of their delicate mouths. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others encouraged consumer activism with the federal government’s “cut them up, don’t cut them out” campaign and the “SmashaStrawb” hashtag, giving this crisis of consumerism a fitting solution. It was our national duty to buy more strawberries and eat them with pride.
Public sentiment seemed to turn on these narratives of desperate farmers, laid-off workers, and the compelling footage of hundreds of tonnes of ripe and perfectly edible strawberries being buried in ditches by tractors at the height of the harvest season. While most responses focused on the economic loss and the tragic wastage of fruit, what went unremarked was the deeply strange spectacle that less than 200 needles haphazardly inserted into strawberries could bring the entire Australian industry to its knees.
Part of the reason why there was so much fruit to bury in ditches was that, since 1998, strawberry production in Australia has nearly tripled—an exponential growth that Strawberries Australia notes has outpaced the increase in the national population. In the same period, the number of strawberry growers more than halved, part of the inexorable march towards monopoly and consolidation. In the words of the strawberry industry, this production boom is thanks to increased consumer demand brought about by its research and development programs. The American economist J.K. Galbraith wrote sixty years ago that, contrary to popular wisdom, it is not consumer demand alone that drives commodity production. Instead, producers induce more wants and shape human needs and thereby create the need for further production.
The tragedy of the commodity, a term devised by the sociologist Stefano B. Longo and his colleagues in their book of the same title, is a story of a social order that pursues endless growth, intensifying pressure on ecosystems as ever more raw materials are necessary to create commodities for market. Instead of reducing resource consumption, efficiencies brought about by technological change are directed towards ever more intensive production, and paradoxically lead to greater demand on ecosystems. This commodification structure is focused on the outcome of an accountant’s balance sheet—not the wellbeing of farming communities, the survival of farmers, the flourishing of wildlife populations, the resiliency of ecosystems, or even, in the final analysis, providing food. “The rhetoric of mainstream economics,” they write, “is that these other qualitative outcomes will eventually emerge through the pursuit of profit; the reality is that, time and again, they have not.”
These pressures are not unique, and they are certainly not limited to strawberries. They are changes that can be tracked in the histories of avocados, tomatoes and Atlantic salmon. Apples have undergone a similar transformation of marketing, genetic meddling and homogenisation. The New York Times has profiled a former detective who spends his time tracking down the remaining orchards—sometimes consisting of just a few individual trees—of the Pacific Northwest’s lost apples. He hunts for the thousands of varieties that all but disappeared with the advent of industrial agriculture, where fifteen commercial varieties now constitute ninety percent of the apple market. The old varieties, a commercial apple farmer told the Times, are no longer worth growing because they either “bruise easily, don’t store well or don’t produce enough apples per tree.” And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.
This is why it is reductive to consider strawberries rotting in ditches as buried food instead of a routine outcome of the system in which plants are grown not to feed people, but to supply commodity markets. The needles obscured the fact that massive wastage is already inherent to our food system, where most waste is incurred from the farm gate to check-out and from the check-out to consumer, and as much as forty per cent of fruit and vegetables don’t even make it to shelves for cosmetic reasons. Meanwhile, households are coerced into feeling individual responsibility for taking action at the end of the supply chain, where it is perhaps least effective. Like the flesh of the berries themselves, demand has been plumped up by cheap prices, mass production and consumer expectations. The lifecycle of strawberries adapted to the social metabolism of the market, geared for perpetual production; commodities inflated to such a level that all it took was a small disturbance to bring about a collapse. Just a little pinprick.
A freer and more natural artistic style spread through Europe toward the end of the 1300s. This flowering of human tenderness began with St Francis of Assisi, who aroused in his fellow European monks a love for nature and the need to express it. As the artists of their time, monks were tasked with illuminating prayer books and religious texts that they copied by hand and filled with tiny illustrations and paintings. In their newly awoken sentiments they began to look at the world around them, to see the details of nature and of everyday life, and paint what appealed to them and what they considered beautiful.
This new artistic spirit coincided with the desire of the mystics to come nearer to, and glorify, the Virgin Mary. Spending hours in contemplation of her and the Infant Jesus, they wrote poems in her honour, bestowing upon her all the virtues, and calling her by the names of all the flowers. “They lost themselves in veneration of her,” writes the biologist G.M. Darrow, “and when they made pictures of her, they adorned them with all that was precious and rare.”
Even in a milieu where every painted object held a particular significance, the strawberry stood apart from all other symbolic fruits. In The Madonna with Wild Strawberry, Mary holds aloft a leaved wild strawberry; in others, she sits inside her enclosed garden, on a bed of strawberry plants, adorned by a crown of strawberry leaves. Just as millennia earlier, when the Romans associated them with the Goddess Venus, wild strawberries were a symbol of devotion and the heart.
Jennifer M Silva has charted the corrosive effects of neoliberalism on intimacy in her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. The hundreds of young Americans she interviews repeatedly exhibit a “hardened” character that prides itself on independence from others. They feel unable to make any sort of long-term commitment in a social environment of competition and insecurity that erodes their ability to imagine a secure future. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share these stresses, they view relationships as an additional source of stress. Into this space of rapid change and tenuous loyalties, the language and institution of therapy—and the heroic self-transformation it promises—enters as a means of making sense of a world where institutions can no longer be relied upon to support or nurture individuals.
This proliferation of therapeutic narratives, and the fusing of psychology and consumerism, gives rise to what sociologist Eva Illouz calls “emotional capitalism.” According to Illouz, romantic relations in the internet age are not only organised within the market, they themselves have become commodities produced “on an assembly line, to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply and in great abundance.” Illouz writes that at the same time as economic relations have become deeply emotional, intimate relations have become defined by models of bargaining, exchange and equity. The result, she says, is that the vocabulary of emotions is now more exclusively dictated by the market, a consumerist logic that unleashes fantasy but inhibits romantic feeling.
As the needle saga came to a close, so too was my relatively brief and capricious relationship with an ex-girlfriend in Sydney. A short summary of why it didn’t work would abound with clichés from the late-stage romantic mode: the timing wasn’t right, we wanted different things. We told each other about our heartache, and lamented our inability to make things work despite our best intentions. Around the same time as I started writing this column, she changed the default emoji of our Facebook messenger thread to a strawberry; soon its digital green calyx and vivid red skin, dreamed by a Unicode designer, became a regular substitute in our conversation for the blue thumbs-up or a red heart.
Whenever I was consumed with yearning, I returned to Facebook to read our exchanges and would see this strawberry, the last message she sent me. Maybe anyone who has been through a painful breakup would recognise the strange logic of this: it was as if I wanted to hold myself voluntarily in that space, and stay there until it no longer hurt me. As T.E. Lawrence puts it: “till the burnt child no longer feels the fire.” Through it all, I knew I still loved her; on some days this meant nothing, and other times it meant everything. And so, while everyone else freaked out over needles, the strawberry began to take on a new meaning for me: it represented devotion, a reminder that I love. It showed my capacity for these feelings despite the atomisation and wilting of intimacy under neoliberalism, and that true connection can be reclaimed, growing free and untainted from the noxious plants that surround us in the enclosed garden of late capitalism. It became, unexpectedly, a symbol of all that was precious and rare. •
We’re mid-way through the official release week of Mandy Ord’s quietly affecting graphic non-fiction book When One Person Dies The Whole World Is Over (did we mention yet how excited we are? Very excited is the answer.) Ord’s work is the latest addition to Brow Books and is just the most poignant, funny and unassuming story of one person’s life.
To celebrate its launch we’re sharing an excerpt from the book, which spans a year in the life of the protagonist and those who surround her. Dive into the first 33 days below.
This above is an excerpt from When One Person Dies The Whole World Is Over, published by Brow Books. You can purchase a copy of this book by clicking here or at all good bookstores.
Mandy Ord is a comics artist, a cartoonist, an illustrator, a speaker and teacher of comics, a greengrocer, and a disability support worker. Mandy’s first graphic novel Rooftops was published in 2008, followed by her second book Sensitive Creatures, published in 2011 and which received a White Ravens award at the Bologna Book Fair. Mandy’s comic stories have also been included in a variety of local and international publications, such as Meanjin, The Age, Voiceworks, The Australian Rationalist Magazine, The Wheeler Centre website, Trouble magazine, SBS Cornerfold, Going Down Swinging, Tango, and Inscribe magazine. In 2018 Mandy illustrated her first book for children, Chalk Boy, written by Margaret Wild.
Mum received an invoice for $1000 the other day, seemingly a fee expected to be paid by the next of kin of someone who has died in custody. My brother Wayne spent six days on remand at Yatala prison prior to the three days he endured on life support in the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Ceasing to regain consciousness following the events of spit hood and positional asphyxia, he died. Two years on and the coronial inquest into his death has commenced. As I sit in the coroner’s court each day I grow more uncertain about the likelihood of charges being laid upon the state, who were responsible for Wayne’s care in his final days.
A young man becomes the victim of a heinous crime. While out on the town one night, he is dealt a blow to the back of the head by another man’s fist, enters a coma and, days later, dies of his injuries. The young man is a victim of something unspeakable. That an innocent person could be attacked at random and for no apparent reason speaks to some festering wound in the organ of society. The media and social commentators call for swift justice to be sought against his perpetrator, and the morally righteous demand deep institutional changes in society. No one questions the validity of this young man’s experience, nor the suffering of his family and friends. We take at face value the urgent need to address the causes of an act so deplorable, and everyone feels personally affected without insisting upon the details. Alcohol is to blame; lock-out laws are put in place, and police presence in popular nightspots is increased.
I like to eat the low-hanging fruit. Twist plump figs from the neighbour’s tree. Soft-fleshed and strange. Just a lump of purpling skin like me. There is something in the act of admitting what you want that’s terrifying: this is at work when we eat. Eating is not just when you press your teeth into the skin of the fig and let its guts spill out. Not just that sweet mouthful of twisted pink and white tendrils. It’s the moments of planning, thinking of the tree out there on the corner, bulky in the sun. It’s putting the dog on his leash and checking for people on the street. It’s putting your hand up to that first perfect fig. The twist of your wrist, your fingers pressing lightly around the fruit. The release as it snaps from the tree.
Until a century ago there persisted a scientific belief, propagated by leading scientists like evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley, that nature was inexhaustible and that no human endeavour could deplete or even reduce the north western Atlantic fishing stock. As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture declared that “unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile.”
1. in which Edwin Barnes is a man to be reckoned with
Tony Collingwood, whose London-based animation studio would later be responsible for Dennis the Menace, launched his career on the unexpected international success of a tiny 23-minute independent cartoon he made in 1988 about a place called Rarg.
When Franz Kafka wrote “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he was describing a need for writing that cut through cultural insensibilities. Now that we are living in the epoch of the Anthropocene, writers are reprising Kafka’s call to “read only books that bite and sting us.” Theorists, such as Kate Rigby, are asking whether stories can rupture indifference, cut through “the psychic numbness” engendered by ways of thinking and being that “render us insouciant towards suffering, heedless of injustice, content with affluence, and dangerously unaware of our own imperilment.”
In 2016, the British Library held a major exhibition entitled Punk 1976-78. Viv Albertine, the former guitarist of punk band the Slits—who formed in 1976—was set to speak at the exhibition one night. A yellow sign bearing a blurb about the show attempted to explain the movement’s early beginnings for those who didn’t have any precursory knowledge in a few, simple paragraphs. Punk was “rowdy” and “confrontational” and “exhilarating,” the sign read. It did not make mention of any women artists or bands with women in them.
Purple silk sheets, wind chimes and a closed door. Curly makes me wait in the living room while she follows Miss Diamond into the bedroom. I hear Curly’s high-pitched voice through the fibro walls. Why did her boyfriend ditch her at the Prairiewood Macca’s drive-through? Would she ever get to lick the cheese off his greasy Quarter Pounder again? Miss Diamond’s response is buffered by thick phlegm.
“I wish I was gay so I could like… Kelly Ray Jetson?” said my girlfriend Lauren, rubbing her fingers against her dark buzzed undercut. We were driving past Helen’s Pavlova Palace in Yagoona, red and white lightbox sign illuminating the baby pink storefront, where a couple of weeks ago the owner kicked out a hijabi for asking if the food was halal. I was playing Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Favourite Colour’ from 2015’s E•MO•TION.
I wake up at 4am unable to breathe as usual and I check my phone to see if Liam Gallagher has texted me back, which he hasn’t. I take my inhaler and shoot four puffs into my mouth. I’m supposed to take two puffs with two short, sharp inhales, which right now would be like telling someone with two broken legs crawling on the floor to jump twice, just two little jumps, and their legs will be fixed. All I can do is rasp, unwillingly slow.
aka the creation of an eighty-three billion dollar market out of thin air
Before approaching my desk today, I walked for half an hour along the coast where I live. On my walk, I saw nautical-striped stretch camisoles, floral sports bras, and quick-drying ballet crops. I saw gorgeous leopard-print midi pants and silky monochrome tanks matched perfectly with oversized sunglasses and enormous takeaway coffee cups. I saw lightweight silver jogging shorts, metallic snake-print bandeaus, seamless perforated micro-shorts, and draped jersey tees.
This is the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Out here, the look is tight, bronzed, and highlighted. Diversity is down to blondes and brunettes of the caucasian variety, and the dress code is activewear—the term now synonymous with sporty fashion. This is the ground zero of sports luxe: an eighty-three billion dollar industry targeted to women who want to look hot, comfy and athletic.
“I went on a big journey with that one,” a gay man in his mid-twenties told me, referring to the reboot of Queer Eye, which was released on Netflix in February. “I went public with my disdain after episode one, and then had to walk my comments back when I watched the rest.” I knew what my friend was talking about—I’d done a version of this myself.
In mid-2015, I received an email from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), a contractor for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It was an invitation for an ophthalmologist to visit the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and provide eye care for detainees. It posed a moral dilemma, which I mulled over for a while.
As a migrant from Iran, it was easy to identify with people who sought refuge from danger or oppression. As an Australian citizen, I was upset by the appalling reports of how asylum seekers, including children, were being housed and treated. I was angered by our government’s punitive, rather than humanitarian response to a global refugee crisis—a crisis that we arguably helped foment through military support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oddly or not, this treatment also reminded me of my work in Indigenous communities where the biggest buildings in town are often the police station and jailhouse. I imagined a national tagline to capture this panoptic treatment of the destitute:
AUSTRALIA: land grabbing since 1788, handcuffing those who plead a share.
Would a visit to Nauru or Manus constitute tacit acceptance of these policies? Would I be a pawn for Australian Border Force? If I didn’t accept, who’d provide the necessary eye care for detainees? How many Australian ophthalmologists spoke Farsi, had lived in Pakistan, and were familiar with Sri Lanka and the Middle East? Was it morally unacceptable to not go?
Since my visits to Nauru and Manus in 2015–16, things have changed. The centre on Manus was declared illegal by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, and the fraught process of shutting it down continues. The Australian government agreed to our country’s largest human rights payout, tantamount to accepting the harm done to refugees. An undisclosed number of asylum seekers were granted resettlement in the US, but the Trump administration has stalled the process. Section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 was changed so that doctors, teachers and other workers are free from its secrecy provisions, making it safer for them to speak out without fear of legal reprisal. Previously, all employees and contractors risked being sacked, prosecuted and imprisoned if they disclosed information about detention centres to anyone. The coalition government announced an additional intake of twelve thousand Syrian refugees, but expressed a preference for Christians over Muslims, in spite of a non-discriminatory mandate. More recently, in the face of a global refugee crisis, Peter Dutton advocated fast-track visas for a select minority of immigrants—white South African farmers—in a shameless display of systemic, unprincipled bias towards white Christian migrants.
The passages that follow were written before the gag order was lifted. At the time, I faced the unsatisfactory choice between speaking out and facing possible prosecution, or remaining silent and returning to visit the detainees. I chose the latter and shelved the writing. However, in 2017 my offshore visits fell through, due to the frustrating bureaucracy of IHMS. Now that I can’t visit the detainees, I’m blowing my whistle alongside the dedicated others who have been doing likewise for years. At the time of writing, over fifteen hundred detainees remain in limbo, and they need witnesses, not handcuffs.
22nd August, 2015
At a dining table in the staff mess, the doctors gather for lunch. As a newcomer to their group, I join them to eat and chat, hoping to learn more about the centre. I listen as they discuss the difficulties of becoming accredited to work on Nauru, about hopes to emigrate from their homes in the Philippines, Poland and Zimbabwe, to Australia or the United States. They talk shop, compare the earnings of different specialists, contrasting their deployment here with facilities elsewhere: military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, oil rigs in Nigeria. They speak about their rostered days off, cruising the island, visiting the Chinese eateries, checking out Anibare Bay.
Their tone is light, humorous, coloured with aspirations toward a better life.
Rarely do they speak about the detainees. When they do, they refer to them as ‘clients’, rather than ‘patients’ or ‘people’. Over a buffet of roast lamb and vegetables, detainees are mentioned with a roll of the eyes, a knowing look, a shift in tone. Scepticism moves in like a low cloud, undeclared but tangible. At times, the feeling verges on scorn.
What is implied, again and again, is that the detainees are not real patients, their conditions not real pathology. Their vague symptoms, such as headaches, non-specific pain or malaise, are difficult to diagnose or alleviate. Some have genuine afflictions, such as atopic dermatitis or upper respiratory tract infections. But their symptoms seem amplified, bordering on hysteria or the bizarre. Consequently, detainees are labelled malingerers: the scourge of doctors, feigning illness for personal gain.
My colleagues seem unaware or uninterested in the psychological impacts of detention. As a more sympa-thetic counsellor tells me, “Asylum seekers arrive here with post-traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of their home countries, develop anxiety about the welfare of family left behind, and fall into depression when we lock them up.” At our table, there seems to be little appetite to consider these more complex dynamics and how they may manifest as somatic symptoms among trapped and disempowered fugitives.
I peer around at the painted grey walls in the staff mess, the fluorescent tubes over stainless steel surfaces. I feel discomfited; I swear the aircon is dialled to Arctic. The mess, like the rest of the compound, is militarised and highly administered: monitored hand-hygiene stations, high-visibility vests, muscle men with buzz cuts. Last night, a security guard did me a kindness, permitting me a second orange after dinner by looking the other way. Even citrus can be contraband here.
23rd August, 2015
The eye conditions afflicting detainees on Nauru range from mysterious to tragic. Many suffer a form of allergic conjunctivitis, where the eyes become red, gritty and sore for weeks on end. I suspect it’s due to a local antigen, perhaps phosphate dust from the ubiquitous open-cut mines, or airborne fungal spores from mouldy accommodation. I see a three-year-old boy from Nepal with this condition. His eyelids are swollen and excoriated, and he has similar changes on the soft skin of his armpits and behind his knees. I prescribe anti-allergy eye drops and show his dad how to administer a steroid cream for him. But as long as he and the other detainees are exposed to the environmental toxins here, it all seems like band-aid medicine.
19th September, 2015
On Manus, I meet an Iraqi man who is blind in one eye from traumatic optic neuropathy. This is a case of ‘damaged wiring’ between the eye and brain, which occurs when the eye is struck so hard that a shock wave passes through the bony socket and shears the nerve fibres where they enter the skull. The nerve atrophies and the blind spot expands until eyesight is extinguished. The man tells me he sustained this when local Papua New Guinea (PNG) men stormed the centre and bashed his head in with a wooden bat. Another asylum seeker, 23-year-old Reza Barati, was beaten to death in the same riot.
I tell this man that his blindness is permanent and he slumps to weep in front of me. Has he not lost enough? What’s the price of his sight, to him and to us? On our government’s watch, his vision had been halved, his future prospects permanently diminished. Yet I doubt many Australians will ever hear his story. I trace the cause of his blindness back to the illegal invasion of his country by Western governments including ours, a spiral of dominoes fanning out to flatten the dignity of civilians.
Hessom Razavi is a doctor and writer, born in Hamadan, Iran. He grew up in Tehran, Karachi and the UK, before his family moved to Perth. His poetry has been published in Australia and the UK, and his travel writing and videos are available online. He works as an ‘outreach eye doctor’ in remote communities in Australia and overseas.