'To Un Fold A Body of Small Talks' by jessie berry-porter

This piece was joint second runner-up in The Lifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Prize for 2018. It was also published in Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here.

Content warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions of bodily harm.


 
Leonie Brialey

Leonie Brialey

 
 
 

Note:

If a person bitten by a mad dog looks in the mirror, they will see the animal’s image reflected there. These are not my words, they are Paul the Silentiary’s words. A silentiary is an advocate for silence: did Paul occupy a quiet body? I wonder this now but not often. When I imagine his words and his mirror, I assume a loud body, something collapsing. Either way, it does not matter. I only need to write the body down for it to remember itself.

1.

First there is a spider but it starts with an orange. Don’t remember the day, remember the knife and this counts. No, don’t remember the knife, remember strain in hand. Cutting an orange should not bruise finger but hand persists because mouth is hungry and hungry people are enduring people. Strain. Pain bites. Cut it open anyway. Snap it. Two and then four. Feel strong but only briefly. Cut it again. Turn it to eight. Eight is a balanced number and balanced numbers bring good luck. See the spider when it sounds. Tiny naked body wedged between two segments. Think it looks brand new but don’t know how. Think it is a cruel trick, never asked for it. Pick up eight segments and throw them into the pool. Spend twenty minutes watching the orange drown. Sit on the water’s edge and think of ratios: there is more orange than spider, it is not the orange’s fault. But it is too late for this kind of thought. The body is now the bridge between spider and orange. To remove association requires a removal of self. Cry for three hours because: just not there yet. Body is found by father squashed against the kitchen wall. He tries to unpack it. Maybe he tries three times? He hates unpacking. Tell him what was seen and he says I don’t believe you the last time I encountered an orange inside a spider was in September 1967. Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken. He says he stopped eating oranges after his mother was strapped to a bed and fed too much electricity. It was the oranges that killed her. He says you should switch to apples, and fast. When mentioning incident years later he throws an insane look shared with mother. How does a spider eat an orange? Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken.

2.

Stare at the pile of potato and say the white is more of a grey isn’t it. Look to father and father says you do not surprise me I know what this is. Put down fork, rest it with knife in its right place. Small relief. Order gaze and look to plate, apply each eye there. Go deep to get away. Watch a tiny moth hatch from inside a cherry tomato. Watch it drag its body out before spilling across and turning into a nostalgic thing. It dies beside the green beans. Figure it is for the best and cover it with a lettuce leaf. Hear mother fork two tomatoes and chew hard. She says are you crying don’t cry if you don’t want to eat the cooked food eat the tomato. Her body sits across but her voice hangs above. Try to tilt self up. Try to break the surface, meet her gaze and say no no no. But it doesn’t work. Remain under. Drop the moth inside pants. It is warm or familiar against skin maybe both. Stand now. Pick up the plate and throw it against the wall. The crash sounds silent but suspect it isn’t. A slice of beetroot drips down the white wallpaper trailing red. Say the tomato does not want to be eaten. Catch Luce’s eye. A small death she says, swallowing a bite. A small death is no death at all. Turn to father. Notice him watching and lock down both eyes. Make his gaze into a steady thing. Find reflection inside pupils and watch it smile. Touch mouth, try and locate grin. Stare harder and say do you think it is broken? His mouth is a fist of cucumber.

3.

Bodily contamination becomes real through observation. Observation becomes meaningful through language. Or: a sick body is recognised once it is named, it is not made. Say this to doctor but only after the fact.

4.

Two quiet thoughts stick and become loud. Thought one: a falling body is a stagnant body. Thought two: what you risk reveals what you value. Not revelatory but fifteen and tired. Eyes look to body. See body as the arena through which all future tension is rectified.

Pulse dips on Tuesday and rises on Wednesday, arbitrary measures. Body is taken to hospital because mouth refuses what it shouldn’t. Body is given usual fluid drip. Mouth tastes of miscarriage. Body comes to around lunchtime. Time is barely there but still it hangs and bites. Father is there, sits in armchair, coffee in hand, reading the newspaper because he is his own boss and mother isn’t and must work Wednesdays. He looks. Laughs. Throws across comic page because comics are for children. He says if you want it bad enough you just make it happen.

5.

Think of skyscrapers and the ocean, think of hanging rocks. Thought three: the pull to jump is the pull to feel more present. A falling thing will wake quick and all bodies want to wake quick but don’t risk jumping in fear of only falling. Sigh a tragedy, another thought to hang neck on. Allow left eye to roll one tear onto cheek. Nurse hands over tissue and says now now don’t cry even acute oedema can be treated. Blink away dream. Move off edge and into room. Mother shakes inside chair, takes tissue, blows nose, says something about timelines. Nurse says there is fluid around organs. There is a risk of heart attack. Look to nurse now. Stare down nurse now. Say oedema is for the bulimic does face look puffy? Laugh and tug at veins around wrist. Pick and pull at finger- nails now. Allocate soft spot underneath thumbnail. Unravel blue thread and think there is more than last time. Nurse de-wrinkles skirt. Nurse says you need to be hospitalised you require urgent re-feeding. Shake head now. Say mouth does not consume moving foods. Nurse says food doesn’t move. Say mine does.

6.

Rectangular table but the girls sit in circles. Each body circles the other body. It is not communion it is desperation, it is waiting together. The hospital body demands attention through removal: she looks to her to see herself slowly leaving. It is a backwards gaze into nothing. And before that, a backwards gaze into something desiring nothing. Mother’s body slips around it. Tug on mother’s wrist and say what a dangerous crowd to keep for company. Mother nods yes but understands in the wrong way. She leaves body here and takes all of herself with her.

The first meal is a white bread cheese and tomato sandwich to be consumed in less than twenty minutes. Seated at the dining table is the head nurse and fifteen bodies drawn into one. Think a secret reunion or a welcoming? It doesn’t matter. Look to head nurse with ironed face and timer in hand. Timer drips backwards for practical reasons but only feels symbolic now. Nurse’s edges define her body inside space without cutting surrounding air. A quiet body, lacking echo. Nurse is not bothered with space. Nurse looks to the sandwich and does not see the potential of the empty plate, table, chair, room. Her lips look ready to shape and throw a stupid sound: there are worse things in life than losing a hemline inside a dimpled thigh haha. Unstick eyes from nurse. Do not think of food or timer. Think of mother. Mother hates this body. Says it is a found body not a true body. No point saying: felt it at seven before finding it at fifteen. No point saying: felt it move and unpack years before it ripped off the excess. Mother sent the found body here. Only to kill it. If mother were to look at the table she’d see one sharp rectangle. The bodies hiding peas inside collarbones would not feel like an extension of her. No use saying this though, her focus remains fixed on what is on the plate: the sandwich.

Observe its elements. Assign all else to the periphery. There are three components to spread out, gradually ignore. First, peel bread from cheese. Feel it seep into fingertips. Think there is more space than body, in a body anything can get in. Notice holes. Holes in bread in cheese in tomato. Holes to breathe into and out of. Touch cheese with finger. Feel it move underneath skin trying to merge. Feel its desire. Lift finger off cheese and see small blister above nail not yet bleeding: almost-externalised internal, lucky. Throw finger into a mug of hot tea to kill it before it hatches. Nurse sees and says self-harm is not permitted in front of the others. Girl sitting across the table lifts face and smiles in surprise, says oh a newbie. She stashes potato pieces inside her sweater sleeve and says I’m inpatient forty-four. Nod and settle outside of her smile. Lift finger from tea and inspect from appropriate distance. Wrap tight in napkin. Tilt eyes towards teacup. One small spider floats on surface, grins without drowning and grows larger the harder both eyes look. Soon spider body will fill cup. Peel eyes away and turn back to plate. Look deep into it. Realise each hole is an egg and each egg is a spider and each spider exists for a reason outside of itself. Throw up nothing beside chair.

7.

Inpatient forty-four says all her dreams start with a loaf of white bread chasing her wanting to eat her, and by the end of the day the white bread gets exactly what it wants. Sucking on a strawberry Fortisip she throws out words only to float them. She ushers them into high-up spaces because no witnessing body would let them land. The dining room is filled with inpatient forty-four’s unclaimed stories. At breakfast she says: so I was standing in front of the mirror trying to love myself but my skin kept peeling backwards until all that was left to love was the wall behind me was the wall in front of me the wall inside me. These words hang above the dining room window. Look there now but not to claim them. Think it is either dark or very bright outside, cannot be sure. Daylight is starting to run backwards but doctor says it is normal for people here to feel this. Stare into far corner of thought and ponder over time: the surface of a thing is required to measure the depth of a thing. Daytime is the surface of nighttime. Turn to inpatient forty-four with question on tongue: if the day cracks open and submerges itself, how does a body navigate the evening? She grins and says the body becomes whole through breaking don’t you attend DBT, CBT it is rule number one. Let her words sink in and decide to repeat to self when feeling spilt when feeling unhinged, even if it is a lie to hang neck on before neck hangs itself. Inform doctor of these thoughts and doctor says words about depression. Always considered depression to be the space that follows the fight to be here and never the fight. Father says depression is waiting. A body waits unaware of what it waits for. Maybe it is the same thing. Tell doctor no: body is too alive to be depressed.

8.

Each morning before feeding and before therapy doctor weighs body and says things like: my wife no longer accompanies me to India because she is a HSP and poverty makes her ill. Sounds of this kind fill the room until doctor directs the typical morning question: did you dream? He knows there is only ever one dream but asks anyway. Tell him: a small body exists inside a belly of water, pressed there against its will. There is a tube connected to the body feeding the body. Inside the tube are millions of pink eggs. Each egg is made alive through the body. Each egg turns the body into a heavy thing. To be heavy is to be hateful. The small body knows this and tries curling neck under tube to break connection, tries over and over. Tube resists. Neck and tube are made stronger through the fight. Small body’s hatred inverts. Turns to dismay turns to resignation.

9.

Tube feeds nose first feeds oesophagus second, falls into stomach last. Falls and feeds for eight hours. Tube hosts body, turns body into parasite. Tubed body is sick body is disquieted body. Prior identifiers slip around it because language fails to reflect it. Even so, doctor and therapist write the body down, turn it to a comprehensible thing. Doctor looks to books swallowed to voice the right words to reassure mother that nothing is broken something is just not quite right, right now. Right now is always in motion but doctor does not see tube as written into the body before birth. On the first tube feeding body screams but scream skirts most ears, only inpatient forty-four hears. Storming in from the TV room she says stop yelling I’m trying to learn how to stir-fry. Doctor gives a blank stare as inpatient forty-four’s tubes walk her body back out. Look to bag next to bed attached to tube running into body, full of pink liquid. Father says it is the colour of bad sailing weather. Therapist says to ignore father at all times starting now because father is new-found reason body is in a state of removal. Say it is easy to suppose this but no matter the route from there to here, body would always end up here. Therapist says father is a determinist so theory doesn’t count. Overhear doctor tell mother brain is cognitively impaired: she lacks the ability to comprehend her surroundings but confusion is expected with malnutrition soon to be reversed with feeding. Mother says do what you need to do which means sedatives are pushed into mouth to quieten body. Watch room empty itself and turn eyes to television.

Daytime infomercial. An orange man is selling workouts to fat bodies desiring to be thin bodies. Workout involves standing still first and being electrocuted second. Watch a fat body press two feet into a machine. Orange man pushes button pulls lever. Fat body is projected across room into a nearby wall a hard dismantlement. Close up of fallen face: skin hangs blood pours mouth froths throws up. Think an externalised internal: where is the body now? A retching noise sounds behind camera and someone says oh fuck. Orange man laughs and says some bodies are too stuck in their ways to change don’t be one of those bodies haha.

Turn off television. Remove bobby pin from hair and rip off fat gel end, reveal point. Needle small incision into tube. Plastic pops. Let one pink drop fall onto ring finger. Pink hardens upon touching skin. Turns into egg. Crush it between fingers. Lift hand to nose. Pull at tube. Feel it stick somewhere inside. Pull again. Pink liquid trails down nose onto lips, wipe away. Pull again. Use both hands. Tube unsticks from stomach wall, hatches from under tissue. Taste blood before it rises inside mouth. Dig fingernails into tube for great finale. Tube rips through body, separates like baby tooth. Choke as tube unravels in hands. Feel crawling sensation inside chest and bend over bed. Cough up stomach but crawling sensation stays down.

10.

To be given a room is to be given a number and by then it is too late: to enter is to leave. Sickness asserts identity. Say to doctor: how does hospital body develop agency when identity only takes shape in front of others? Doctor frowns, says diagnosis is not reductive it is beneficial it allows for a more authentic expression of self. Doctor cannot comprehend the question because he has never felt the limitations of the word. Has not felt the strain of grasping for identity through removal of a name.

Some inpatient bodies are renamed through electricity. This body resists treatment and resists remission, or: her affective state names her. No two short-circuits are the same but electricity makes it so. Chosen body is walked into a small room pressed into a small bed and plugged into a power adaptor. Mouth is filled with a plastic protector in case teeth attack tongue, it is precaution. Doctor dials up machine to dial up body. Dialled-up body screams loud. It sounds of a dying-thing but doctor says it is the talk of a second wind. Treatment is what diagnosis determines. Sometimes the pressure is turned too high and the plates in the skull shift shape and make a new face for the body to wear. It is a permanent side effect but the doctor says the results make it worthwhile, in the majority of cases. Electricity strips the body of identifiers. Leaves it unable to gauge parameters, unable to separate the external from the internal. Doctor names this state a blank slate and says a blank slate holds potential. The hospital brims with potential.

Inpatient forty-four is reset after six years of failed treatment. One morning after feeding time her body is walked into the small room. Days later she consumes white bread without self-harming without Valium sedation without forced Fortisip. Ask doctor why her face looks changed and he says maybe you are looking at it in the wrong way. Do you mean the old way? Doctor shrugs, says what’s the difference? Within the month she is eating three meals plus two snacks per day and no longer requires a two-week tube feeding, it is a revelation. She is moved from the eating disorder table to the catatonic table reserved for reset bodies that remain blank slates. Sits wedged between two and consumes plate after plate of white food until she becomes an extension of her surroundings. Her mother visits on Tuesdays and cries in the same way but for different reasons. Inpatient forty-four does not speak. Time no longer hurries her. Suspect it is because her limbs no longer move in unison: when she walks she flails. She spends her days sitting and when she sits she eats. Two months into treatment she tries to eat a teacup. She swallows the china handle before the doctor sees, restrains and sedates, sedates with the same medication given to the other catatonic bodies because: diagnosis determines treatment. The day before her twenty-third birthday she is found shoving fistfuls of hair down her throat. Doctor names the hair a threat and shaves it away. Doctor blames erratic behaviour on a perverted feeding function induced by starvation. Does not view her behaviour as suicidal until she hangs herself during a home visit. Ask him how he copes with news and he says there is no use thinking about what you cannot change: to become emotional is to risk becoming stuck and I have no time for stagnancy. He turns away and says something about life going on. Doctor has never found himself on a violent edge with nowhere to go but off.

11.

Father says a thin body lets the light in and the fastest way to attain meaning is through bodily transcendence. He says to consider the coffin before consumption because an open coffin should not be made worse than it already is: always keep in mind the proceedings following a body’s demise. How do you want to be remembered? The first time he says this is before second grade swim practice. He says it is a secret and not to be shared with mother or sister: they will not understand in the right way. Feel special and say okay. Swallow down words and let them make a home within body. Organise body around these words. Apply appropriate methods: do what it takes to let the light in. When mentioning this incident to father years later he throws same insane look shared with mother, demands what light.

12.

Look to father sitting in hospital chair next to hospital bed reading the daily newspaper. Father’s body is a prison, but because he has named the surrounding bars something else his affliction is holy. He looks to the hospital bed and sees a job well done. He is unaware that this body was created only to cancel his out.

13.

Outside body is made by the doctor but worn for mother. It is a transitory body without echo, blown up extending out, soon to deflate and resume true self. Think: far too crowded to be a reliable thing and still, mother waves her Fluoxetine prescription and locates lost joy inside the curvature of its hips. Sighing and joyful she embraces body, no longer ostracised or bled by its edges. When body walks alongside other bodies her eyes glass over and say: it was like she was never any different. Was she? Hugs are given each hour and each hug says: how beautiful it is to finally feel you. The wheezing of limbs is not heard. Mother figures a tangible thing is a true thing: to measure is to make real and now body is real.

Transitory body’s first relapse comes within two weeks: how can fifty-five drop to forty-seven it has only been thirteen days. By the third relapse mother straddles doorways without entering. She is afraid of catching the hysteria pocketed underneath the clavicle. Decide it is not personal, just pathological. Mother stops looking for joy outside of pill organiser. By the sixth relapse nobody panics though some energetic types feign shock to be polite. By the eighth relapse say to doctor: there is a hunger for that which exists outside of the bodily experience. Say to doctor: the body is both arena and instrument through which inner conflict is resolved do you understand? Doctor is red-faced and round. The smaller body shrinks, the bigger his grows. Doctor nods and says this feeling is an emergency it requires a blue room and tight sheets. Say: there exists a desire. He says go on. A desire to cut the fat off space. He yells no. Or maybe he laughs? No matter: take it slow. A slow process is violent, a quick rip is easy. To tend to the former is to really want it. Learnt this from watching father. Twenty-two years of numbered foods ironed out nurses and nothing changes. Mother still visits with self-affirming placards to pin to the mirror. There has only been one true thought: tubed body continues to die. Could cry about it but laughing burns fat faster so haha.

14.

Doctor sits body down and says now is a good time to address the aetiology of illness: to understand previous trauma is to prevent future trauma is to solidify present direction. Doctor believes the body prior to sickness is accessible and that it is desired. Look to doctor and do not say: only tread water because don’t know what body stands for outside of illness. Do not say: the anorectic body never recovers, it stays in purgatory if it stays at all. Do not say: nature never stops and this is the nature of this body. Do not say: the scale rebalanced but nothing else ever did. Instead, humour him: the body no longer feels uneasy it feels comfortable. And: food no longer tastes fearful it no longer tastes possessive. Press body back into chair, smile: the recent combination of medication is working it feels balanced. Doctor nods yes, makes a note on notepad. Doctor feels gaze lifts face and says I have a book for you. Doctor removes hardcover from bookshelf and hands it over: there is a study on body dysmorphia in chapter three I think you’ll find of interest.

Read chapter after session: a young girl rips open her jugular during a botched home surgery. She is trying to remove the fat from underneath her chin. The girl dies from blood loss. Digest words and recognise the taste. Later, ask doctor why he thought story in chapter three would help make sense of right now. He puzzles and says what do you mean, what story? He looks to the book and says this is not my book I never gave you this book. He opens it, flicks through pages, hands it back: this is your journal. And: there is nothing here. ◆

 
 

 

jessie berry-porter writes lyric essays and other things. She is currently doing her Masters in Publishing and Writing and a Post-Diploma in Psychology. She is interested in exploring the relationship between the body and pathology.

Leonie Brialey is a cartoonist living in Naarm / Melbourne.

'The Critic in the Episode "Mother Country"' by Jana Perković

 
Art by Isabella Meagher

Art by Isabella Meagher

 

1. in which we are living in end times

“In the 1960s and ’70s I grew up on a sheep farm in north-eastern Victoria,” said choreographer Rosalind Crisp in a very plain voice, somewhere at the start of her lecture-performance DIRtywork. Crisp had spent more than a decade dancing and choreographing in France; she only returned a few years ago. She continued, “My parents, my three siblings, myself and our dogs and cats ate sheep nearly every day.”

“In 1797 my great, great, great grandfather arrived in Australia. He was Irish, transported for anti- government activities.

“The same year, the first six merino sheep arrived in Australia, four ewes and two rams.

“By 1880 there were 106 million sheep in Australia.”

It was a peaceful, sunny afternoon in late summer/early autumn, an insufficiently appreciated Melbourne season. They were at Dancehouse, in the gym-like Upstairs Studio, and the sun was hitting the blond floorboards at a golden angle. Some sat on the seatless seating bank, others sprawled on the floor. It was a one-off, not a performance but a showing. Crisp stood up, ageing but limber, slim and dressed head to toe in black.

“A lot of my practice nowadays is about trying to understand how to dance in the midst of this ongoing destruction.”


2. in which deeds are recognised

“I wanted to say hi,” Rosalind said after the show. “You wrote about my work a few years ago for one of the newspapers, and you said I should be made a dame. Did you knowsomeone must have heard yousix months after that review, I was actually given a damehood.”

“No!” the Critic didn’t know. That was an astounding thing to say. Those were Tony Abbott’s times.

That line in the review was a direct reference to Abbott re-establishing the institution of knighthood, and promptly giving one to Prince Phillip.

“I was made the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. So basically, I’m a dame in France.”

“Oh, wow,” the Critic went from baffled to less baffled, then picked herself up. “Congratulations! Congratulations! That’s amazing!” Rosalind Crisp is one of Australia’s best living choreographers. Of course she should be a dame. Somewhere, at least.

“She should be a dame in Australia!” Liz slammed her vino on the massive table. They were in one of those faux-Mediterranean Rathdowne Street bars, I forget which one.

“Should she? Really?” June looked up quizzically, but as she did so, her eyes rolled just a little bit.

“Yes, she should. Australian artists have to go to Europe if they want to get any kind of recognition, it’s an age-old story and it repeats in every generation.” Liz sighed, a little theatrically, the way Dr Phil sighs just before delivering some frank words to a Midwestern 40-year-old man still living with his parents. “I’ve seen a whole generation of theatre artists decimated in the nineties. The best ones leaveBarrie, Benno, Simonand we’ll never,” she took a breath, “never, get them back again. The others get discouraged, beaten down, and they stop. And what a loss.”

“Look, I think it’s great that she’s a dame anywhere.” the Critic said. “She’s a choreographer! No-one ever gives a shit about dance...” This was part making light, and part honesty: truly no-one ever gives a shit about contemporary dance...

“Does the world need more knights? Does Australia need any knights?” June was pushing back; it was such a relief to no longer be living under Tony Abbott.

But Liz had ten years and a tenure track on them and would not be dissuaded. “We produce artists and thinkers as good asand I would venture to say often betterthan anything Europe has to offer. Yet we’re constantly kowtowing to foreign artists! We think a choreographer visiting from New York must be a genius, instead of appreciating the talent in our own backyard. Who will appreciate them, if not us?”

“Well, the French Order of Arts and Letters...”

“Our artists punch well above their weight! They create work with little or no funding, limited audiences, in a hostile climate, and they’re telling our stories! We’re not Europe! We live on a different land, under a different sky, what can their art say to us? We need to support our own artists that speak about our country, that express our Australian identity and our values and preoccupations...!”

Liz was on her second wine and it showed: she was becoming loud, the way Anglo-Australians tend to. The Critic looked down. The clientele in the bar were mostly Dancehouse patrons having a nightcap; it was Dance Massive and performances were going late into the night. At the table next to them was a group of dance presenters from some smaller Southeast Asian countries, in Melbourne as guests of the festival. She had seen them at other shows and had had some very interesting conversations about contemporary dance in postcolonial nations. They were now looking towards her.

Liz continued, hotly. “We need to appreciate our own artists, not always put foreign art on a pedestal! Our artists already compete against huge marketing machinery overseas! We’re up against massive economies of scale when it comes to touring, and we defund our native-bred artists every few years to slush some more funds into European elite arts like opera! It’s incredible that our artists manage not only to survive, but to thrive in these conditions.” She made a well-measured pause, before rising to a crescendo. “But every few years another shock comes, and I wonder which will be the deathblow!”

None of this was necessarily incorrect, but the Critic caught the eye of a Malaysian woman at the other table, who was looking slightly scared. Her cheeks burned red.

“You should come to Malaysia and do a critical residency with our centre.” Bilqis had said a few days earlier. “It would be great to have an international perspective on our new generation of artiststhey’re not great yet, but they’re coming up with some good stuff!”

The Critic smiled at the offer. “I’ve always wanted to know, is there a Malaysian traditional dance?” she asked. “Something similar to the Thai Khon?”

“There isn’t one,” Bilqis rolled her eyes. “I mean, the patriots would like there to be one, particularly something as refined as Khon, but there isn’t anything at that level, not really. There’s just a lot of invented faux-old dances that people pretend are important. Most kids prefer hip-hop.”

“But what technique is the national dance curriculum based on?”

“Ballet!” she laughed. “Come visit some time! It would be interesting to know what you make of it.”

This was an issue the world over: a culture either had a completely impenetrable, bone-breaking, feet-deforming dance tradition, or it imported or invented one. There was something humorous about how tangled up dance and nationalism were. On a good day, that is; on a day when we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

But now Liz was banging her fist on the table. The Critic felt the rising dread that, any moment now, her tirade would turn towards the Chinese spying on ‘us’ through Huawei or invading ‘our’ real estate market. She wanted to apologise to Bilqis and the other guests. This particular narrative of Australian victimhood, of how no-one cared about Australia, was something felt only by white Australians. She had yet to hear an Aboriginal or POC artist make that claim, and it seemed somehow fundamentally connected to the white settler identity, to some perception of an astronaut-like distance from the centre. At another time, the Critic would have pondered this, but now the rising shame was too great. It was obvious to all the fine-diners present that they were in a singularly prosperous and untroubled land. There was no need for this outburst of imaginary victimhood; it diminished them all. She wanted to apologise for her friend, whose ancestors had been living on this land for little more than a blink, yet who seemed to believe that her people’s experience of the world was of some fundamental importance to the whole bar, to the whole world. She wanted to stand up, in this bar serving tapas and European cheese, and reassure everyone that their countries were allowed to knight any Australian artist, or their own, it was fine, the world was a connected place...

"Liz, tell me about your trip,” she said instead. “You were on holiday in Ljubljana?”

Liz paused for breath.


This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full series alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on http://guerrillasemiotics.com.

Isabella Meagher is a Sydney based illustrator and animator. You can see more of her scribbles @kovvu on Instagram.

'Public Libraries' Series

 
Art by Nancy Li

Art by Nancy Li

 

INTRODUCTION

VANESSA GIRON & JINI MAXWELL

We live in an era of hostile architecture, disinformation, and privatisation. Our right to exist in public freely is increasingly compromised. In 2018, Forbes ran an op-ed suggesting that libraries could be replaced by Amazon. In the same week, Omar Sakr wrote a twitter thread celebrating the social, intellectual, and domestic role of Liverpool public library in his teenage years. When Vanessa Giron, the commissioning editor for this series, wrote a Brow by Numbers for TLB 39, she focussed on the increase in public library membership and patronage, and paradoxical decrease in staff and funding on both a state and federal level. It seems we need public information and safe spaces for congregation and learning now more than ever—but how ‘public’ can these public spaces be when they are entrenched in the logics of colonialism and capitalism? Are these spaces truly free, if they propound colonialist narratives under the guise of objectivity? Are they truly public, if they are inaccessible to those who would benefit most from them?

We asked five writers to consider the public, personal, and structural role that public libraries play in our society. The responses from our writers were generous, ranging from writing from poetic, to academic, to critical, to playful. For some, public libraries provided access, safety, education, or entertainment. For others, they may symbolise hierarchies that privilege particular narratives over others. They conjured memories, provocations, and projections about the future of public information and public space.

We hope this series provides, if not answers, a richer understanding of the stakes and terms of the issue at hand.

***

NATHAN SENTANCE

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.
—Neil Gaiman

This quote is frequently shared by libraries and librarians. I have issues with it; namely, what is meant by ‘right’? And who is this answer ‘right’ for? It plays into this idea that librarians are neutral, impartial agents, an idea that has been continuously proliferated by libraries themselves. But librarians are people who have personal biases, and these biases consciously or unconsciously affect what answer they give, and what they think of as ‘right’.

Libraries are also not neutral, and they do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a society that already has entrenched power dynamics at play, such as income inequality and the over-incarceration of First Nations people. To be neutral in these circumstances is to accept and reproduce these existing power dynamics. When libraries strive to be ‘objective’, it is usually to the detriment of some the most oppressed in society.

I used to visit different public libraries and browse their Aboriginal history section, just out of interest. I would often find that the most contemporary book the library had on Aboriginal culture or history was a volume of keith windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, a series that, among other things, makes the claim that the history and effects of the Stolen Generations were exaggerated. I have always wanted to steal these books and throw them in the bin.

Many libraries will say they cannot get rid of these types of books because that would be censorship, and fundamentally not neutral. This ignores the invisible censorship already at play in the absence of First Nations perspectives from the shelves, voices that have been excluded in favour of windschuttle’s work. This is a silencing of First Nations voices.

Many libraries will say they cannot get rid of these books because their role is to be objective, and just to present information. However, if you choose to give some of the limited space on your shelves to racist material, then you have given said material legitimacy, you have given it weight and power. This also neglects the fact in their often-small collections, having books like this is a statement to my fellow First Nations people that we are not welcome, which is in itself another form of censorship.

The effect of detrimental neutrality extends beyond library collections. This ideology fuelled the American Library Association’s highly criticised revision of their Bill of Rights, which removed any public library’s right to exclude hate groups from meeting in their facilities and meeting rooms. This hands power and legitimacy to hate groups, such as white supremacists, and makes the people oppressed by said groups feel unsafe in the library.

Libraries, their collections, their programs, and their spaces have an impact, positive and negative. As such, they have power. They need to be aware of their role in supporting oppressive structures. They should not be, or want to be, ‘neutral’.

***

VANESSA GIRON

I am unsure of how I feel about my local library, and I feel uncomfortable when the question is posed to me.

As a teenager, I would spend afternoons there with my friends on the pretence that we were studying, a lie we told our parents in order to hang out a little bit longer. Really we were laughing at the stock images in our textbooks, pointing at them and saying “That’s you!”

I remember the feeling of being unwelcome. That hypothetically they couldn’t tell us off for not really studying like we said we would.

In our naivety, we took delight in the idea of being anywhere without our parents—a taste of the freedom to come, even if it meant hauling our textbooks everywhere with us. I would go home feeling patronised, that I was still being watched over anyway, and not for my safety but because we were guilty of something we hadn’t done yet, a reason they were still looking for, and that it was worse that they thought we wouldn’t notice.

A recent survey on public libraries in Australia conducted by University of Technology Sydney indicated that 80 per cent of patrons felt that public libraries were sites of discrimination and inequality.

On Saturday mornings my partner volunteers at the local community hub, where he tutors high school students and helps them with their homework. I usually walk around the corner to the library and to wait for him to finish up, when we can go and get bánh mì and three colours across the road. I spend my time looking up books and reserving them, flipping through others that I don’t intend on borrowing, but making a mental note to come back for them when I finish the books I’m currently reading.

I am acutely aware of the guilt sitting in my gut if I show up without work to do. For weeks I would arrive and borrow a stack of books, overcompensating to justify my place there, until I got a notice that I had over-borrowed. I feel unsure of myself when this happens, and look around feeling lost about what to do next if I can’t prove how busy I am.

When I’m sitting in one of the booths, I’m conscious of how much I’m on my phone, and I am sure to put it away when a librarian walks past, like a student hiding something from a teacher during class.

I take note of the students that come in after he finishes volunteering, or the teenagers already there first thing when the library opens. They come with their own controllers and play PS4, sometimes with friends, and sometimes with kids they’ve just met. I notice how one librarian will always sit across from the couches, watching from the desk. I take note of how they pretend to do work, flicking through a stack of books, some papers, and looking at the computer screen, but never actually type anything or write anything. They fake it so easily, I think to myself.

I feel shit when I see the kids enjoying themselves, not realising they’re being inspected slyly, then feel shittier when they do realise. And I remember how helpless it is to have nowhere left to go, when you don’t have a Playstation at home, or the books you need, and how they will potentially (definitely) remember this feeling every time they walk into the library, or any public space. They’ll remember the targets on their backs when they walk into a shop, when they are accused of opening something they just walked past.

They’ll remember boarding a train, how the passengers around them hold their handbags a little closer to their bodies, averting their eyes. And they’ll learn that faking it, for us, isn’t actually faking it, rather just proving to everyone else: I’m not a fucking criminal because I’m brown. And faking it, for them, will be pretending they agree, and that their authoritative presence in your vicinity is a coincidence, and not an accusation. But it is, it always is, and once you see it, you’ll notice it everywhere.



This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full series alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Vanessa Giron is a Latinx freelance writer based in Naarm. She primarily writes on identity and culture, and how these things have shaped her as a woman in country that is not her own. She is a member of the West Writers Group with Footscray Community Arts Centre as well as a critic for The Big Issue.

Nathan "Mudyi" Sentance is Wiradjuri librarian from the Mowgee clan who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW. Nathan writes about Indigenising libraries and museums.

'"We Need To Talk About Antarctica" Draft Index' by Bella Klaver

 
F. This

F. This

 

This piece was joint second runner-up in the The Lifted Brow andRMIT non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Prize for 2018. It was also published in Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here.



Year that an Australian Government environmental impact assessment recommended against the construction of a runway on rock anywhere within Australian Antarctic Territory: 2003

Date that the Australian Government announced its intention to construct one anywayto provide year-round access*: 18.5.2018

Copies of The Sound of One Hand Clapping in the Davis Station library, 6 km from ‘ground zero’: 1

Countries collaborating with Australia on world-class scientific research in Antarctica notwithstanding the current summer-only access: 28

Institutions collaborating notwithstanding the current access: 176

Localities Australian scientists have visited notwithstanding the current access: 3,463

Deaths of Australian program personnel attributed to a lack of evacuation capability in winter for a 60-year period: 0

Deaths in Antarctica from a single plane crash: 257

Rock/paved runways built and in use: 3

Length (m) of the UK’s, Argentina’s and Chile’s runways: 900, <1,300, and <1,300 respectively

How much ours will be bigger than yours (m): >1,400 (i.e. 2,700)

Letters in ‘VIAGRA’, an acronym coined for the facility, i.e. Vestfolds International Airport: Go Root Antarctica: 6

Comprehensive environmental evaluations thus far undertaken by Australia in relation to the impacts of its Antarctic operations: 0

Year the Australian Antarctic Division documented and self-authorised the environmental impacts of its preparatory geotechnical studies: 2016

Text mentions of the runway in the 52-page document released to the public: 1

Letters in the word ‘transparency’: 12

Year a senior Australian Government advisor thought burying nuclear waste in Antarctica was a good idea: 1963

Year the US Congress thought building a nuclear reactor in Antarctica was a good idea: 1960

Size of the team needed to look after the reactor: 25

Number of times ‘Arneb PM-3A’ malfunctioned: 436

Latest estimate (m3) of abandoned and unconfined tip materials and petroleum-contaminated sediments impacting on the Antarctic environment: 1,000,000–10,000,000

Years passed since Australia ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which requires Parties clean sites of past activity: 24

Year of clean-up of Wilkes Station, abandoned by Australia in 1969: [Ed: was there meant to be a ref here?]

Recent estimate of unused stations, refuges and camps in Antarctica: 240

Percentage of Antarctica that is exposed rock: <0.2

Percentage of Antarctica’s biodiversity for which exposed rock is key habitat: >95

Combined percentage of areas of Antarctica exhibiting a positive radiation balance and categorised as oases: 0.05

Year the Vestfold Hills Oasisthe runway sitewas declared the finest example of an oasis in the whole of Antarctica: 1985

Width (km) of the Vestfold Hills Oasis, a rare “island in the ice”: ~30

Hills of the oasis to be blasted and levelled: [Ed: When will we have this information?]

Radial distance (km) over which runway operations can be expected to spread particulates etc. (based on monitoring at Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome): ~5

Buildings installed at Wilkins to support summer-only operations: ~18

Bird populations in the Vestfold Hills Oasis deemed internationally significant (BirdLife International and Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research joint assessment): 8

Adélie penguin breeding pairs in these colonies alone: >160,000

Number of bird species in the Casey Station area known to have macro-plastics in their guts: 5

Populations of southern giant petrels an endangered species thought to be breeding in East Antarctica: 4

Occupied giant petrel nests in the Vestfold Hills’ colony when censused in 2014: 40

Wing span (m) of C-17 Globemasters: 52

Wing span (m) of a giant petrel: <2

Proximity (m) of planes’ likely flight paths to bird and seal colonies: [Ed: number missing]

Area (km2 ) to be exposed to 75+ decibels: [Ed: ???]

Commonwealth regulation (Public Service Regulations 1999) that prohibits the disclosure of inconvenient truths: 2.1

Career prospects for whistleblowers: <0

Estimated number of king penguins stampeding to their death on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island following a low-altitude pass by a large military “asset”: 7,000

Lakes and other waterbodies — some the world’s freshest and saltiest — found in the Vestfold Hills Oasis: 300+

Australian Antarctic Program spills of diesel, aviation fuel, hydraulic oil, unleaded petrol and glycol (reported to 2015): 44

Hydro-carbon contaminated soil (tonnes) excavated from the side of a lake near Davis in the Vestfold Hills Oasis: ~168

The spill size (litres) requiring incident response: 615

Largest reported/known Australian program fuel spill (litres): 11,500

Number of months during which Weddell seals pup in the Vestfold Hills Oasis: 3

Kilograms of explosives believed used by the French before they abandoned construction of their Dumont d’Urville Station runway: 173,000

Estimated kilograms of rock blasted before they gave up: 1,200,000,000

Countries possibly interested in using Australia’s new runway: 3

Distance (km) from possibly interested parties’ stations to the new runway site: ~115

Distance (km) from their stations to the runway they currently use: <10

Tourists typically visiting Antarctica each summer: 40,000+

World ranking of Australians with respect to number of annual visitors to Antarctica: 3

Going rate per person (US$) for a trip to the South Pole: 84,000

Conservative estimate of annual visitors to Antarctica by 2060: 120,000–160,000

Reported likelihood of tourism being used to subsidise the high cost estimated for runway construction: 0

Word count for ‘bullshit’: 1

Cattle taken to Antarctica (Admiral Richard E Byrd’s admirable idea): 3

Pigs and mules and Manchurian and Siberian and Indian horses also taken: 40+

Decades throughout which micro-organisms in animal faeces and foodstuffs have been found to remain viable pollutants of the Antarctic environment: 5

Antarctic guidelines specifying allowable levels of bacteria in stations’ sewage outfalls: 0

Summer population of McMurdo Station, currently the continent’s largest: >1,000

Hormones and chemical compounds from the degradation of pharmaceutical and personal care products detected in Antarctica: 16

Decades in which flies introduced via cargo have reproduced at Casey Station: 2

Total number of non-native vascular plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species recorded in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic by 2005: 108, 72 and 16 (respectively)

Sites within Antarctica that Treaty Parties have thus far recognised need heightened protection: 82

The page number of the Environmental Protocol in which it is stated that the protection of the Antarctic environment and its scientific, wilderness and aesthetic values are to be fundamental considerations in the planning and conduct of activities in the Antarctic Treaty Area: 1

Year Parties adopted an Annex to the Protocol on liability for environmental damage inflicted: 2005

Year of the Annex’s entry into force: [Ed: this is meant to be blank, yes?]

Years still waiting: 14

Opening of Davis Station: 13.1.1957

Decades since an eminent scientist observed that man’s impact on Antarctica’s fauna “is not insignificant, and tends in a depressing way to be cumulative where occupation has lasted a long time”: 5

Section of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 that mandates protecting the environment from Commonwealth agencies taking actions that will likely cause significant impact: 28

Degrees of separation between the proponent and regulator of Australian Antarctic Program builds: 0

Parliamentary phone number for the current Federal Minister for the Environment: (02) 6277 7920

Estimated fucks given by the Minister’s Office and the runway project sponsors about what you think: 0

* ‘The new runway will complement Australia’s existing summer-only ice runway at Wilkins Aerodrome, and will provide more reliable access to Antarctica throughout the year, improving our ability to conduct year-round, world-class scientific research and respond to emergencies.’ —Josh Frydenberg Media Release, 2018



Bella Klaver is an Australian-born writer.

'BRIGHT' Chapter One: 'Monopoly'

 
 

To celebrate yesterday’s Australian release of the English translation of Duanwad Pimwana’s Bright, our newest Brow Books fiction title, we’ve got a taster of the novel for you below.

A modern classic in Thailand, Bright is taught there in hundreds of schools and universities, and has sold an estimated 155,500 copies in Thailand, an astonishing figure for that market.

With her income from the book, Pimwana has built a house in the town where the story is set.

Lawyer-turned-translator Mui Pooposakul translated this book, making it the first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English published outside of Thailand.

The novel begins when five-year-old Kampol’s father tells him to sit on the kerb and await his return. The confused boy does  as he’s told. He waits and waits, until eventually he realises  his father may not be coming back.  In his parents’ absence, Kampol is adopted by the community and raised on rotation by the local adults.

The following excerpt is the complete first chapter of Bright, titled ‘Monopoly’.

 

Monopoly


Kampol Changsamran, a five-year-old boy, was hanging out in front of Mrs Tongjan’s tenement houses. His father had told him to wait: “You stay here. I’m taking your brother over to Grandma’s. I’ll be back in a bit.” Hearing these last three words, Kampol didn’t dare wander, worried that his father wouldn’t spot him when he got back, so he just paced back and forth, keeping an eye on the curve where the road came into the neighbourhood.

Something went down at his house a few days ago. His parents had gotten into a nasty fight, and all the neighbours knew it from all the yelling. His mother hurled the fan, breaking its neck. His father flung the kettle over her head, launching it out the window. His mum had left, but later, when night had fallen, she rolled up in a pickup truck, parked in front of the house, and loaded it with stuff until the house was nearly bare. She left on a motorbike, riding ahead as a driver in the pickup truck crawled along behind her. His father watched, arms akimbo, head nodding slightly. Kampol’s brother, two months shy of his first birthday, was screaming inside the house.

Kampol waited for his father in front of their unit, the keys to which they had already surrendered to the landlady. He stood there, sulking, two bags full of his clothing lying next to him on the ground. At midday the neighbour from next door—her name was Aoi, she was the wife of a motorbike cabbie—called him over, scooped some rice onto a plate, and fed him, questioning him nonstop.

Grown-ups tend to assume that kids live in a different world. In Mrs Tongjan’s neighbourhood, there were plenty of people with spare time. The rowhouses formed a little square, with a good shady spot to sit under the poinciana tree – and the vantage point from there was perfect for observing all kinds of things. Importantly, the customers from the grocery situated at a slight diagonal across the way, routinely stopped to exchange a few words with the people gathered under the poinciana. Kampol was grilled about his parents. He recounted the incident over and over again. Some people walked up to him; some waved him over. Another neighbour, On, had given him money to buy a treat and he was called over to the poinciana by six or seven adults as he walked back from the store.

“Where’d your papa go, Boy?” Kampol didn’t have a nickname. Everyone just called him “Boy,” like his father did.

“He took my brother to Grandma’s,” he answered.

“What about you? Why didn’t he take you?”

“He’s coming back to get me soon, to go stay with him at the plant,” he replied, as he had when others had asked him the same question.

And where’d your mama go? What were they fighting about, do you know? Did your mama say who she was going to stay with? Do they fight a lot? Is your brother breastfed?

Why didn’t your mama take you with her? You poor thing, with parents like those… This one isn’t his dad’s fault, his mama had an affair. But that’s karma – his father abandoned two or three wives already.

Kampol held his snack woodenly, eyes glazed over as he stood listening to one person here and another person there discuss his family. He got fed up and hung his head. He missed his father, and he couldn’t help daydreaming about having a new home; he was exhausted. In truth, Kampol didn’t know much – he just told the people what he’d seen. The more questions he answered, the more he came to know about his parents in the process. He grew irritated and indignant when some of the adults suggested his father might have abandoned him and taken his brother, Jon, or Kamjon, to go live somewhere else. Some of them thought his mother should come to bring him to live with her. “With two kids, you have to split the burden. Since his father took the younger one, he probably meant to leave the older one for the mother.” Kampol’s feelings were hurt, but he refused to believe them. He resented them. He quit paying attention and craned his neck to check the road instead, keeping his eyes firmly on it.

The group under the poinciana began to disperse once they’d had their fill of the discussion. But one woman reignited it. She had been going to buy fish sauce and stopped by.

“I felt bad seeing him like this, so at lunchtime I called him over and gave him something to eat.” She shot the kid a look of compassion, her remark putting the other adults on the spot. It was his neighbour Aoi.

“Well… I saw him sitting there staring at his bags so sadly, and I gave him money to get a snack… look there, he hasn’t even eaten it yet,” On, the wife of a department-store security guard, said.

Everyone fell silent. Nobody had ever thought of acting so generously before. The wave of pity had created an intense wind that stirred a number of people.

Dum, who patched tires, said loudly: “Yeah, I feel really sorry for him.” He called out, “Boy, you can stay at my place tonight if your papa still hasn’t come back.” Then he turned to the person next to him and said, “He’s just a little kid – there’s plenty of room to sleep at my place.”

Kampol declined without a word, his eyes still stuck on Dum. He wasn’t going to have to spend the night at anybody else’s house because his father was going to come for him. Tongbai got up and went over to grab the child’s hand. “C’mon, Boy… come eat dinner first. Your papa isn’t going to show up anytime soon.” In a daze, Kampol was tugged along. He wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to go anywhere with anyone. He worried that his father wouldn’t be able to find him when he got back. As the others watched them go, the consensus among the crowd was that Tongbai’s behaviour was in poor taste. “She’s showing off,” they said.

At five o’clock that evening, Tongbai was in the kitchen, and the rice in the pot wasn’t cooked. Kampol, who was sitting in a funk by his pile of bags, was led into a house of another neighbour. She stuck a plate of rice topped with an omelette in front of his face. It smelled amazing. When the neighbour wasn’t paying attention, though, Kampol took his plate outside, back to the spot where he had left his bags. He kept an eye on the bend in the road, where he would first see his father when he returned. Tears welled up and his lips began to quiver.

A moment later, Tongbai poked her head out of her door, calling to him. When she saw the plate in his hand, she came over to inspect it.

“Where’d you get the food?”

“Aunt Keow.”

Tongbai went back to her house and slammed the door.

At the end of the workday, the road into the housing development started to fill with people and vehicles. Children came back from school; workers made their way home. In the past half hour, Kampol had managed to take only two bites of food. His eyes were moist, he sniffled and whimpered. As people passed by, asking, he would reply that his father hadn’t come yet, but would soon. The more he repeated it, the harder he cried. A lot of people came over to console him. “Your grandma’s is a long way away. He’ll probably be back really late.” “If he can’t get a ride back, he’ll probably have to spend the night.” “Don’t cry. If he doesn’t come back tonight you can stay at my place.” “Hey, I already said he could stay with me…”

The sky grew darker. Kampol was taken to the grocery, where treats were put before him to get him to stop crying. His bags were next to him. He continued to sob. Sympathetic adults stood around, forming a crowd in the front of the store, as if he were a problem they had to help resolve. Most of them had something to say about what had put the child in this predicament. His mother shouldn’t have had an affair. His father shouldn’t have hit her. His mother shouldn’t have run off just to save her own skin. Why would his father leave with just the baby? Kampol was bleary-eyed. His sniffling turned into hiccups and he fell asleep like that, hiccupping, in somebody’s arms. Dum carried Kampol’s bags to his place, but when he returned, the child was gone. An older woman named Rampeuy, who had comforted Kampol until he fell asleep, had carried him to her place. With more than ten pairs of eyes looking on, she proudly went to look after the child’s sleeping arrangements.

Late that night, Kampol began screeching. It jolted the neighbourhood awake. Kampol got up from the mattress and felt his way in the dark. When the people in the house who had gotten up switched on the lights, Kampol made a dash for the door, flinging it wide and running outside. He called out to his father, his voice echoing down the street. Neighbours turned their lights on and opened their windows. Some cracked their doors and stuck their faces out, trying to see what was going on. Kampol ran down the street, heading for the front of the housing development. Rampeuy caught up to him, grabbed him by the arms, and sat him down. She consoled him for a long time, and then shepherded him back to her home. In the calm of the night, his whimpering cry could be heard throughout the neighbourhood.

Early in the morning, Kampol left the house where he had spent the night. He staggered over to the grocery store, looking for his bags. He then just stood there quietly until the shopkeeper turned and saw him.

“Have you seen my papa yet, Hia Chong?” Kampol asked.

“I haven’t seen him,” Chong said, hands on his hips, looking at Kampol.

“My bags are gone. They were right here yesterday.” Kampol pointed to the spot.

“Someone’s probably holding on to them for you. They’ll bring them back in a bit. Just sit down and wait.”

A couple of minutes later, Dum carried the two bags into the store, put them down next to Kampol, bought a pack of cigarettes, and left for home. A long succession of other people came in to do their shopping, and each one seemed to ask Kampol, “Your papa’s not back?” Kampol gave no answer, but the grown-ups didn’t press him to say any more. They had started getting used to the Kampol situation, and it was losing its novelty. But that wasn’t the case among the kids, some of whom were his classmates. It was Saturday and the kids were home, so his friends shared gossip from school with him. Kampol had a dance partner he’d been rehearsing with for weeks. The day before had been the day of the school fair, but Kampol hadn’t gone to school.

“She was right in the front. But when she found out you weren’t coming, she refused to dance. She wanted to get off the stage. Her parents clung to the front of the stage, telling her, ‘Dance, Sweetie, dance… You can just dance alone… I want to see you dance.’ Eventually she did dance. When it got to the part where you were supposed to lock arms and twirl, she just stood there, looking around confused, and then she started bawling. And she was wearing a fancy red skirt, and high heels too. Her mama had to go up and carry her off, and on top of all of it she dropped her shoes. She was full-on shrieking. It was hilarious. Tons of people were watching. Everyone was like, ‘You poor thing!’

“After the dancing there were games, with toys and treats for prizes, and there was free ice cream! The bigger kids did some comedy skits on the stage, and the teachers put on a play. Our own Mr Sanya played a kindergartner with pigtails.” Kampol’s friend was in stitches as he recounted the story. Without realising it, Kampol had forgotten about his father. Picturing the dance made him laugh hard with his classmate. His friend’s name was Prasit, but Kampol called him by his nickname: Oan. Oan heard his mother calling in the distance and ran off toward home. But he came back in a flash with a plate of food in his hand. They took turns having bites with the one spoon. They were having fun and their shared lunch was tasty. When the food ran out, Oan ran back for seconds. Then the two of them had a heart-to-heart about Kampol’s father while they sat watching TV in the grocery.

At eleven o’clock the crew under the poinciana tree yelled to Kampol… his father was back. The child leaped into the street, wailing and crying his father’s name. He ran toward him as if it were the climax of a movie. All eyes were on them, but the image wasn’t flawless because there was an extra in the shot – Oan, chasing behind.

His father reeked. The son reeked, too. They were wearing the same clothes as when they had parted. Father and son flew headlong into each other.

“Have you eaten anything?” his father asked.

“He ate,” Oan answered for him. “We ate breakfast together this morning.”

“How about yesterday? Did you get anything to eat?”

Kampol nodded.

“Who fed you?”

“For lunch, Aunt Aoi had me over to eat. For dinner, Aunt Tongbai was going to have me eat at her place, but the rice wasn’t done so Aunt Keow gave me some food.”

“Good. Where’d you sleep last night?” Kampol made a face, thinking… “At Aunt Peuy’s.”

“Good, that’s good. That’s what I figured. Now come here… over here.”

The father and son evaded people’s prying eyes by disappearing around the corner of a wall. Oan stubbornly followed them, but they didn’t pay him any mind.

“Listen, I still can’t find a place. I’ve been sleeping in the cab of the truck at night. You’ve got to stay here another day or two; then I’ll come get you and take you to our new home.”

Kampol, his face pinched, shook his head. “I’m coming with you. I’ll sleep in the truck’s cab, too!”

“You can’t… You’re better off here – there are compassionate people who’ll help you. You’ll find a place to eat and sleep. It’s just two more days. Do you understand?”

Kampol didn’t understand. He could only cry and cling tightly to his father. But his friend, Oan, understood. His eyes lit up as he imagined the fun they were going to have.

“Come sleep over at my place,” Oan told him. “Tell him to stay with me.” He looked at Kampol’s father.

The man only saw Oan now. “What’s your name? Whose kid are you?”

“I’m Oan, Mon’s son.”

“Mon, the seamstress? Good. Oan, get your parents to let your friend stay over for a couple of nights, all right? And when it’s time to eat, get him then, too. And let everybody know that I’m leaving Boy here for a couple of days, and ask them to help look after him, you understand?”

Excited and proud, Oan enthusiastically accepted.

“Boy… your papa’s going through a rough time. You’ve got to help me out. If you can’t be strong, then we’ll be in a real mess. I’m going to work both the day and night shifts and ask the boss if I can stay in the boarding room at the plant. It’s only two days. Monday evening, I’ll come back to get you. Stay here with your friend, all right? Have fun. OK, I’m going. Don’t cry. Aren’t you embarrassed to cry in front of your friend? OK… I’m off.”

Kampol’s father had come—and left—as if it were a dream. The neighbours hadn’t even gotten a chance to get a good look at him yet. When they saw the son walking back alone, the group under the poinciana waved him over. They crowded around and pummelled him with questions. Kampol barely answered, but Oan told them everything.

So it was finally clear and everybody understood: Kampol was no longer just a neighbourhood kid they saw around; he had become everybody’s burden.

“It’s no big deal,” someone said, “it’s only two days. Dum, you have plenty of room, don’t you?”

Dum was caught off guard, stricken momentarily mute, but eventually he managed to say, “Two days aren’t a problem. But what if his father bails for good? What if he takes the opportunity to ditch him? Then what are we going to do? I can’t take that on. Find someone else. Who was it that let him spend the night yesterday?”

“It hasn’t even been a minute, and you’re already talking like this,” Rampeuy said. “His father asked everybody to pitch in, not for one person to take on the responsibility alone. I helped out last night. Who’ll volunteer for tonight if Dum won’t?”

“But Dum has a point. What if his father bails?”

“We’ll deal with that when it happens.”

“What’s wrong with planning ahead?”

“Yeah, you all keep planning… I’ve got work to do. I’m leaving.”

“See? Everybody’s already hightailing it out of here. Look at all your sorry little faces. Who’s got a big enough heart to give a boy a place to eat and sleep?”

Oan watched the scene unfold, completely baffled. He tried to get a word in but couldn’t.

Tongbai finally said, “Fine, lunch today at my place. I’ll do dinner, too, if no one else is going to feed him.”

“Ha! ‘If no one’s going to feed him,’” somebody fumed. “It’s just a plate of food… There’s no need to throw a cheap shot at us.”

“Yeah, if you’re going to talk like that, why don’t you just take him in yourself?”

“Because it’s none of my damn business,” Tongbai replied. “If he were my relative, that’d be another thing. If somebody really feels like showing off their compassion I say go ahead.”

“What did you say? Who’s showing off?”

“All of you.”

“Whoa there…” Noon approached as they fought. Kampol and Oan stood on the sideline, riveted. The performers outnumbered the audience, and as the yelling and insults grew more explosive it became impossible to make out the words. Eventually, a jumble of blows ensued and when no one made an attempt to untangle the fight, it just went on, unrelenting for a long time, as everyone divided onto one side or the other. Chong, the grocer, finally couldn’t bear watching any longer from his store. He ran over, whispered something to Kampol and Oan, then ran back to his grocery.

“The police are coming!” the kids screamed. “Police! Police!”

It worked pretty well. Several people backed away, pulling other members of their crew with them. Worn out as they were, they still had enough energy to curse at each other awhile before they scattered, everyone going back to their own home.

Kampol and Oan went over and gave a report to Chong about the fight. Chong tried to give them his full attention but still had a hard time piecing the plot together. All he understood was that they had been arguing about Kampol, arguing about something like who would get to look after the boy.

“But Boy’s sleeping over at my place anyway,” Oan said. “His dad told him to stay with me… I tried to tell them but they wouldn’t listen. They just kept arguing. Someone said something about being a show-off, and someone else said, ‘Who are you calling a show-off?’ And then, boom, fists flying.”

The two boys took Kampol’s bags over to Oan’s house. When they poked their heads in, they saw Oan’s mother sleeping, folded over the sewing machine. Across the room, a wardrobe blocked the view of his parents’ bed. The mattress on the ground, where Oan slept, was cordoned off by a dark blue curtain. Their food cupboard backed up to one side of the mattress. The kids put the bags down next to Oan’s bed and went into the kitchen to look for something to eat. They made two plates with rice and some leftovers from breakfast. Once full, they spent some time jumping on the mattress, going over who was fighting with whom and what move they were using. Then they played Monopoly until they fell asleep.

Oan’s mother, Mon, woke up in a panic at three in the afternoon. She had to resume working, but stumbled into the kitchen area first. She didn’t even notice the two kids asleep on the mattress. There was nothing left in the kitchen – the rice pot was empty and the cupboard was cleaned out. She stood for a moment, dazed, then lit the gas stove, poured some water in the kettle, and placed it over the flame. Only when she stepped out of the kitchen area did she catch sight of her son and the other boy sprawled out, sleeping. She looked at them for a quick second but then turned away; she was in a bind and didn’t have time to pay attention to anything else. She went over to the grocery, bought a pack of instant noodles, then hurried back and dealt with her lunch – all in just fifteen minutes. Then she took up her seat at the sewing machine again, foot pumping, hands pressing, lips pursed, brow furrowed, and eyes focused as the machine whirred.

Just before five o’clock that afternoon, Mon arranged the clothes into their separate bags and hustled out of the house. Her husband had another sewing machine set up in front of the bank in the market. They patched and mended all kinds of garments. Mon took some of the clothes that people dropped off with her husband, worked on them at home, and then brought them back at pickup time. This afternoon, she was so frantic that her hands shook, but she was too late. Two customers had shown up early for their clothes. Oan’s father had asked them to wait a couple of minutes, but they couldn’t stay. They made new appointments to pick up their clothes the following day.

Mon sighed and sat down, deflated. “We’re out of money,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But two more people are supposed to pick up today. They’ll probably be here in a bit.”

The couple slowly packed up. They carried the sewing machine over to leave it in the stir-fry-and-curry joint next to the bank for the night and returned to wait for the customers.

“It’s almost six,” Mon said.

“Yeah… let’s wait a little more.”

“Give me fifty and I’ll go get food.”

“Where am I supposed to get fifty baht? Go home and get the rice ready. I’ll pick up something to go with it and be home in a bit.”

When Mon got home, she saw that they were out of rice, too. She went outside and sat in front of the house, sighing.

Oan dashed over. “Mama, can I have money for some candy?” He had told Kampol he would treat.

“Go take a shower right now,” she scolded. “And make sure you get the grime behind your ears. Go!”

Oan and Kampol showered together, playing to their hearts’ content before emerging from the bathroom – they then smeared their faces white with baby powder. They went into the kitchen and looked in the rice pot. Seeing no rice, they turned and opened the food cupboard – nothing. The used bowls and plates from their lunch were still soaking in the tub out back. Oan ran to the front of the house.

“Mama, can we cook some rice?”

“Come here,” his mother called him over. “Go to Hia Chong’s shop. Tell him your mama wants to buy a bag of rice.”

Oan nodded, but then she remembered that they had nothing to eat the rice with.

“Wait, Oan, come back here first. Ask Hia Chong for two packs of Mama noodles, too. Let’s have instant noodles tonight.” “Can we get a pack for my friend?”

As soon as his mother nodded, the two ran off at full speed to Chong’s shop.

At the store, Dum was bargaining with Chong, but unsuccessfully. Chong only shook his head, leaving Dum to grumble as he went to attend to other customers. One customer was asking to get fish sauce and eggs on credit. When he heard Chong agree, Dum threw even more of a tantrum. He was making a lot of noise, slurring his words and getting tonguetied, stumbling and swaying as he tried to walk.

“C’mon, one last bottle,” Dum begged, following Chong, who had gone toward the back to grab something for a customer. “Enough, Dum. I can’t give you another one,” Chong said.

“Just one more, c’mon.”

“It’s already been two bottles today. I said enough is enough. You still owe me two hundred from before, plus over a hundred just today… Wait, what are you doing? You can’t just grab… Give it back. If you’re going to act like this, I’m going to have to quit playing nice.”

“C’mon, just this one. You let other people put things on their tabs…”

“Hey kids, what would you two like?”

“Mama sent me for a bag of rice and three packs of Mama, on her tab.”

Chong smiled drably, shaking his head. He was fed up, but obliged, turning to fetch the stuff for them. Rice he had, but the Mama noodles were out.

“Tell your mother this is the last time. She’s got to settle up her tab before I’ll let her add more.”

“Look at that… you even let kids buy on credit. I just want one more bottle.”

Chong perused the list of accounts in his ledger and sighed a number of times. He’d been in a good mood this morning. Given all the unpaid balances, he had made a resolution that he wouldn’t give out any liquor, beer, or cigarettes on credit for the day – he would allow only the necessities. And he got to allow a lot of necessities: it seemed like every wallet in the neighbourhood was thin. He’d moved a fair amount of inventory, but the sum of money in the register was meagre. Still, he’d mostly kept up his resolution: he let every customer buy on credit, except for liquor, beer, and cigarettes. Alas, he had already succumbed to Dum’s doggedness.

Dum had been stationed in front of the grocery for over an hour. He was fuming, bitter because during the confusion of the brawl—when nobody could tell who was who—someone had yanked a fistful of hair out of his head. The middle of his crown, which used to have a scattering of hair still attached, was now just bare, reddish scalp. He successfully pleaded his case for whiskey on credit by displaying his sore head to Chong, telling him how he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep that night if he didn’t have a little alcohol to soothe his pain. Chong gave in, handed him a bottle, and told him to go home. Less than an hour later, though, Dum was back again. He ranted until Chong caved and let him have another bottle.

With his resolution twice broken, Chong was in no mood to smile or kid around with anyone. When Dum showed his face for the third time, he started a mental countdown to the moment he would throw him out of the store. But when his eyes fell on Dum’s raw head, he contained himself. Everyone in the neighbourhood had been having a pretty rough day.

***

As for Tongbai, she went home still steaming about the scuffle and refused to cook or clean. When her husband came home, she had another round of arguing. Her husband announced that he wouldn’t give her any money, so she declared that she wouldn’t feed him. In the end, her husband ran over to the grocery to buy a pack of Mama noodles, and a minute later she followed to get some Mama for herself on credit. And Tongbai and her husband weren’t the only ones to argue that night. The big fight set off at least two other family spats, which could be heard all the way down to the store.

“He’s out of instant noodles,” Oan told his mother.

Mon sighed. “Go back again. Get ten baht worth of eggs.”

“Hia Chong said before you get anything more on credit, the old tab’s got to be paid off.” Mon slipped into the house without bothering to listen to the end. After she made the rice, she came back out and sat, chin on palm, as before. The sky was losing its light. All her hope depended on her husband. After a while, though, another solution dawned on her. She went inside to rummage through the bag of clothes on the table. There was a pair of pants from a customer who lived close by. She could change the zipper in a heartbeat. Oan went into the kitchen, but came back out again to remind his mother that there was nothing to eat, only rice.

“Yeah, hold on… don’t go anywhere. In a bit, I’ll need you to go and deliver these pants for me.”

Fifteen minutes later she was done. Visibly relieved, she put the pants in a bag. “Take this to Aunt Tongbai. Tell her it’s twenty baht. And on your way back, get ten baht of eggs.”

The kids ran out. A short while later they came back and Oan told his mother, “Aunt Tongbai and her husband are fighting. She told him, ‘Give me twenty for the zipper. That time you needed your pants patched, I paid for it.’ Her husband said back to her, ‘Give you twenty? How about I give you a kick instead?’

So Aunt Tongbai told us, ‘You two go back home now. I’ll come and pay your mama in a bit.’”

Mon didn’t say anything. She could only switch the hand that was propping her chin, from the left to the right. Oan began to worry that they wouldn’t have anything for his friend to eat. The two sat down, limp, next to Mon.

“If my papa were here, we could buy some food on credit no problem because my papa’s already paid off everything he owes,” Kampol said.

“I don’t owe anything personally, but I’m scared to go,” Oan said.

“Me neither. Should we give it a try?” Kampol said, hoping to rally his friend. “We can tell Hia Chong that my papa’s going to pay on Monday.”

“Sure, let’s give it a go. But you talk.”

The two of them got up and shyly made their way to the store. Mon watched them go, her gaze hanging inertly in their direction. Her husband, it was clear, was no longer any hope for her. By now he had probably put his empty stomach in the care of some friend.

It was only seven thirty, but Chong was getting ready to close up the shop. After seeing Dum walk by again, booze in hand, he felt worn out and had lost his will to keep the store open. He wanted the battered day to end swiftly so he could start over with a new one.

The last customers popped up before he locked the gate. Two pairs of gleaming eyes were on him.

Slumping, Chong grabbed four eggs and slipped the bag through the grille.

The children sprinted off, giggling. The sound of them slowly faded. ◇

Excerpt: 'The Chicken of Tomorrow' by Michael Dulaney

 
Art by Max Mose

Art by Max Mose

 

Eyes have always been central in defining the worth of animals to man. The Australian journalist Ambrose Pratt defended lyrebirds from the lodging and urbanisation of their Victorian habitat by declaring the species artists, shown by their “eyes of genius.” Nature writer Sy Montgomery imbued octopuses with souls, thanks, in part, to their expression, which reminded her of “the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.” Animal eyes reveal a soul. They reveal a conveniently human presence within.

Almost no-one says this about the domestic chicken. German filmmaker and droll pessimist Werner Herzog calls chickens “the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures” in the world. Chicken eyes, for Herzog, reveal the “completely flat, frightening stupidity” trapped within their fiendish brains. In his short story ‘The Egg’, Sherwood Anderson is horrified that a typical chicken is born “hideously naked,” fattened on grains, and “stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies.” In their cosmic obliviousness, chickens are so much like people that they mix one up in one’s judgment of life, Anderson says.

“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms,” he concludes.

Over the last few months I have had many occasions to look into avian eyes. At the start of the year I moved with two housemates into a sharehouse in Dulwich Hillan old Greek place with fig and lemon trees, and a massive chicken coop out the back. The previous tenants sold us their four chickens for $100two black-and-white speckled Plymouth Rocks and two ISA Browns.

In the months following, we set about learning what it means to be chicken parents, including, but not limited to, building a chicken run, making nesting boxes for them to lay eggs, finding ways for them to roost, learning what scraps they like the best, and entertaining them (and ourselves) by hanging ears of corn from string at a height just high enough that they have to jump with their little squat legs and peck at the kernels. We learned about their bumbling curiosity, and that straw is very exciting to them. In their incessant scratching and foraging, they always seem to be expecting to find something amazing under the straw. Whether scratching, or walking around the yard, they always hold their necks straight and their heads high and proud. They remind me of haughty socialites out for a stroll.

They have also revealed to me that our urban ecosystem contains violent potentialities. Before the chickens came I thought the only predators hunting among the homes of suburban Sydney were property developers and credit operatives; but now I know there are also foxes and snakes and other carnivores lurking in the shadows.

We’re in the process of giving them names based on their personalities: Alice is skittish but gentle, an escape artist named in honour of the neighbourhood cat who visited our former sharehouse. Battle Chicken is the most brave and assertive, the alpha. Simone is independent; an adventurer and the dreamy wanderer of the group. The personality of the fourththe smallest of the two Plymouth Rocksremains elusive.

Although there is much to love about our chickens, an undeniable charm and softness, I cannot shake my sense of unease whenever I look in their eyes. Their irises are blunt and reptilian, and contain a coldness that seems impenetrable. My housemate, Tanya, puts it succinctly when she tells me she sees “chaos” in their supermassive black pupils.

Our vaguely unsettling feelings seem to me, to echo Freud’s concept of ‘the uncanny’the dread that accompanies sensing the strange within the familiar. Chickens have been ubiquitous, in a very specific commodity form, my whole life. But it was only recently that I learned how little I knew of them.

In the last two centuries, according to John Berger, capitalism has reached a stage, whereby animals have gradually disappeared from human view. Where once they lived at the centre of our worldin our yards, on our farmstoday we live without them. In zoos, as pets and as representations, they are fetishised as entertainment. And in post-industrial society, their bodies are mostly treated as raw material.

The breeds in our backyard come from this system, one where chickens are bred to be processed as manufactured commodities. In our interactions, both specieschicken and humanlook across similar, but not identical, abysses of non-comprehension. To look and to be seen is to begin to perceive something of what has been lost, and to wonder if there is any way to bring some understanding back.

Battle Chicken and her sisters are radically different from their predecessors, the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, from which all modern chickens originate. Red jungle-fowl made their way around the world on trade ships and as domestic livestock, but rarely as edible meat.

Until the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea of eating a productive laying bird was an extravagance limited only to rich nobility. Apart from the occasional luxury of a capon (or castrated rooster), most American housewives in the early twentieth century would only cook laying hens that had outlived their fertility. Specialised companies collected spent fowl and fattened them with a pre-digested mash of buttermilk and grains until their body weight doubled. These “fryers” were not easy to cook, and yielded a dry, gamey meat that was suitable only for Sunday roasts or stocks.

By any economic standard, the post-World War II growth of the US chicken industry has been remarkable. The chicken’s journey to the centre of dinner plates throughout the world is part of a larger process of agro-industrialisation that has transformed our food practices and diet. It is the story of a profound restructuring of the relationship between nature and technology, one whereby avian biology has been subordinated to the needs of industrial production. This transformation refashioned chickens into what historian William Boyd calls an “efficient machine for converting corn and soybean into animal flesh protein” in the case of broiler (meat) chickens, and “mechanical oviducts” in the case of laying hens.

In this story, the chicken came before the egg. Chickens got their start in the late-19th century with “HenFever” when they were bred for their ornamental features like rainbow tails and feathered feet and sold as show breeds to US chicken fanciers. When this bubble burst in the 1890s, fanciers recouped their investment by turning their flock towards egg laying. Up to five-to-ten-million Americans tried and failed at egg farming.

Table eggs gave chickens their industrial future. But first hens had to be stripped of their maternal instincts. Farmers learned that hens would become “broody” after laying 15 eggs and refuse to lay more until the chicks had hatched and learned to forage for themselves. To subvert this, factories began to favour breeds found to be “non-broody”. The introduction of electricity meant their day-old chicks were put in kerosene or electric incubators that kept them warm until they grew their feathers.

The introduction of electricity for lighting and heating also altered their circadian rhythms and kept them working well into the night, and through their winter pause. The breakthrough which led to their confinement in the massive sheds we see today was the addition of vitamins and antibiotics to their feed.

Vitamin D, in particular, allowed chickens to be taken out of the sunlight and fortified them against ailments of confinement, particularly leg-wasting diseases.

As an example of the explosive growth in this period: in 1925, Delaware produced 50,000 chickens for meat. By 1940 Delaware poultry farmers had sold 35 million. One half of all chickens raised in this first decade died of disease or malnutrition before reaching market age.

Around 80 per cent of antibiotics produced today are used for livestock. Antibiotics were introduced to agriculture with experiments in the 1950s, which discovered that feed laced with antibiotics encourages chickens to grow twice as fast.

Confinement and improved nutrition played their part in the early decades, but most of the gains in poultry output from the 1960s were driven by genetic and breeding improvements. Some of these earliest ventures were direct spin-offs from attempts to develop hybrid corn. The new chicken industry grew in parallel with the massive roll-out of cheap corn and soybean mono-cultures in the Midwest.

The real watershed in breeding came when the US Department of Agriculture sponsored A&P Supermarket’s Chicken of Tomorrow contests in 1948 and 1951, otherwise billed as “the World Series of Poultrydom.” Thousands of breeders entered the competition, hoping to help the supermarketa 1920s equivalent to Walmartdevelop a bird: “chunky enough for the whole family – a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried inlayers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.”

The two winners of this competitionbred by Charles Vantress from California, and Arbor Acreswere crossed into hybrid chickens that would eventually become the breeding stock worldwide. They were celebrated with a parade through Georgetown, Delaware, replete with a smiling, waving Festival BroilerQueen perched on top of a car.

Thanks to their efforts, the modern chicken puts on weight fives times faster than the chickens of the 1950s. A full-grown broiler can be slaughter-ready in five weeks, and it can do this on less than half the feed of a chicken from the 1930s. The trade-off is that their tiny skeletons can no longer accommodate the weight of their growing bodies. Chronic pain, tibial necrosis (i.e. rotting bones), and bowed or broken legs are all common ailments among factory-farmed chickens.

A few years after the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, Arbor Acres was bought by the American businessman Nelson Rockefeller, who integrated the company with others that brought modern consumer capitalism to countries like Brazil and Venezuela. Peasant food production was undercut and replaced with a capital-intensive system reliant on US agriculture.

Arbor Acres thus went global, starting in Latin America and moving quickly to Africa, Asia and Europe. For more than four decades, the company sold as much as eighty per cent of the world’s broiler breeding stock. Still today, this stock accounts for half of the chickens raised in China.

The complexity of broiler genetics has protected these investments. The intricate family trees of modern chickensthe ones most profitable for factory farmingcan only be replicated by the companies that bred them. As with hybrid corn or soy, chicken farmers have no option but to return to these massive companies for new chicks to start each new crop. A biological lock has been put on a species that populated millions of farms and gardens for centuries, imprisoning the chicken behind a wall of intellectual property and trade secrets. The keys are owned by only a handful of companies in the world.

We are still eating the Chicken of Tomorrow. Today, the average American consumes more than three times the amount of chicken they did 50 years ago, while consumption of other animal flesh protein has stayed level or declined. The broiler chicken outweighs all other birds on earth by three to one. 60 billion of them are killed every year. About 650 million of those are killed in Australia, where the per-capita annual consumption of chicken meat has increased ten-fold since 1965. We have transformed the chicken, and the chicken has transformed the world. To take one example, the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), which produces six hundred million chickens a year, has to deal with 1.5 billion pounds of manure annuallyequivalent to a city of four million people.

Above all, industrialisation is about simplification, and there is much that has been lost. Thousands of small farmers who took part in the Chicken of Tomorrow contest were replaced by immense transnational chicken operations that control the birds from hatching to carcass. These birds are often contracted out to independent farmers to be grown and fattened using cheap labour. In the US South one in five of these farmers earns below the poverty line.

Genetic uniformity has made the industry more susceptible to disease. In addition, an estimated 50 percent or more of ancestral chicken breeds have been lost, the greatest decline taking place in the 1950s with the introduction of industrial chicken production. Around 1,500 irreplaceable global mammalian and avian live-stock breeds are at risk of being lost.

The ubiquity of the chicken, of course, means they area vivid marker of the Anthropocene, the new epoch that marks the overwhelming impact of humans on the Earth’s geological processes. Billions of the chicken’s distinctive bones, scattered through dumpsites across the globe, will become traces of this geological instant. Possibly, in the future, the chicken of tomorrowincluding Battle Chicken and her friendswill be uncovered along with all our other technofossils from the bitter sands and even from within the remains of buried humans; an undeniable marker of capitalism’s rapacious spread across the globe. There is an irony that the more their eviscerated and dismembered parts intersect with ours, via meat, feathers and eggs, the more chickensand all animalsultimately disappear from human life. It would be unimaginable, from the fossil record, just how alienated from them we were.

***

The only visible path through our unmown lawn is the one that leads through the backyard to the henhouse. Interacting with the chickens has become the joy of our days. They coo excitedly in the morning when I let them out of their coop to roam the yard, and rush with curiosity to the fence throughout the day to see whatever we’re up to. At dusk they trundle back together and I watch them bed down for the night before locking the gate. Battling for roosting position in the coop, they enact the pecking order and reveal their capacity for hierarchical violence.

Most wonderful of all is finding their eggs, sometimes sheltered precariously in corners of the yard or in the shed. The eggs have buttery yolks the colour of bright saffronthey glow like a Turner sunset. Especially in the beginning, we would treat each new egg with a reverence and sense of wonder. By contrast, their taste revealed the dreariness of store-bought eggstheir sad, greying yolks and brittle shells borne of stressful confinement. Overtime, I’ve found myself surprised by my contentment in knowing that our eggs come from happy, healthy chooks. Consumerist guilt revealed to me only in its absence.

Half of all Australian eggs sold come from caged chickens, as of 2017. A veterinarian friend from Perth recently recounted to me her experience as a student on a factory farm that produced a million eggs per day. In the hatchery she oversaw minutes-old male chicks, fluffy things such as you would see on Easter cards, dumped straight into bins to be gassed. The vaccinated and de-beaked females were stuffed in cages and taken to sheds where their natural curiosity and boredom meant they stampeded towards anyone who entered. People walking through the shed were told to slow down to avoid “whirl-pools” within the mass of birds so desperate for any stimulus they will trample each other to get a look.

Most disturbing for my friend was witnessing one of the routine purges of a laying shed, when 50,000 hens whose productivity had declined were thrown into giant bins to be gassed ahead of the arrival of their replacements. Every time a hen was grabbed she could hear their brittle bones crack, and again when they were slammed through the metal bin lid. After the purge the birds were dumped outside, some survivors running panicked around a pile of dead and injured hens as high as the ceiling.

As I write this, in early 2019, up to half a million chickens could be destroyed by Bridgewater Poultry inVictoria, due to the sheds being infected with salmonella from wild birds flying overhead. Such unfathomable carnage is routine within factory farming.

Sometimes, as I’m stacking homegrown eggs into our fridge, I find myself going down strange mental detours. Are chickens part of the working class? Are these eggs an appropriation of their surplus value? Is our small backyard coop a capitalist enterprise? I think of ridiculous images, like chickens in overalls carrying little hard-hats and toolkits and punching the clock. But for certain others these questions are not so absurd. For some animal studies theorists, the unpaid labour of animals has provided the structural conditions for the rise of capitalism. They work to grow meat or milk, the main difference being that in their case, their bodies are both the means and the product.

The reduction of animals to objects, which has a philosophical as well as an economic history, has preceded the same approach to man. Nearly all techniques of human social conditioning and control have started with animal experiments. F.W. Taylor, who developed time motion studies and the “scientific” management of industry, proposed that ideally workers must be “so stupid” that they resemble ox.

Before he became a major figure in American eugenics, Charles B. Davenport praised the chicken for their great variety, fecundity and diversity of characteristics. Using language that anticipated his later enthusiasm for eugenics, Davenport said poultry breeding should focus on racial “purification” as a step toward creating “a new race which shall combine various desirable characteristics found in two or more races.”

The closest my housemates and I came to exerting direct control over our chickens was when we bought a blue dog harness and tried to take Battle Chicken for a walk. It soon became apparent that Battle Chicken did not like being chained to the yoke of our amusement. She struggled with the saddle, got her feathers and her wings tangled and, eventually, won her freedom. In other words, she resisted. Her sisters do this in other waysAlice, for example, confounds us with her ability to escape the chicken run no matter how many fencing adjustments we make.

***



This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full piece alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney

Max Mose (b. 1985) is a cartoonist/illustrator/programmer currently based in Madison Wisconsin, USA.

Excerpt: 'Red Belly, Pink Skin, No Belly, Chicken Shit' by Katerina Gibson

 
Art by Angelica Roache-Wilson

Art by Angelica Roache-Wilson

 

A woman is telling me she’s basically my grandmother. She tells me this while we sit opposite each other in her backyard, over the scraps of an almost-finished Christmas lunch. Although it’s not Christmas; it’s Boxing Day. From her pocket she removes a fifty-pack of Peter Jacksons, and taps the bottom of the box so a single cigarette slides out. In the box I can see one cigarette turned upward, a bloom of tobacco in a sea of butts. A lucky cigarette, a friend told me once, although that friend has long-since moved onto the more economically viable pouch. The womanFinnie is her name, I have no idea what it’s short forlights her cigarette, picks at the carcass of a Coles rotisserie chicken. I think about how much more depressed I am since I got Netflix. She tells me she feels as if she is my grandmother; I can call her anytime, with any problem.

“You can call me Nanna,” she says. “I’ve always thought I’d make a great Nanna.”

This woman is not my grandmother. She is not even my step-grandmother. She is my stepmother’s father’s girlfriend. New girlfriend. They met three months ago at an Irish pub nestled between two banyan trees on the side of a dirt highway leading out to the desert. That’s how she tells it. When he walked in he put his helmet on the bar next to her. He was wearing a wolf shirt, she showed him her wolf tattoo. An hour later they rode off into the sunset and et cetera.

Right now the sun isn’t setting, it’s right there in the middle of the blue-bright sky. All over South-East Queensland, I imagine people at lunches like this one looking at each other and exclaiming: It’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity! Finnie’s way of doing this is non-vocal, she fans herself with her hand and says “Wewf.” Cigarette in mouth, she grabs her dirty blonde hair and wraps it in a knot on top of her head; it stays there, a self-induced bird's-nest, no hair-tie.

“Do you want one?” she says, shaking her packet, looking over her shoulder to the house where the rest of the adults are slumped on furniture in food-induced naps. I think of an uncle somewhere, his bald head sweating onto a crocheted blanket, and smile. She raises her eyebrow and smiles back at me.

“I’m good.” A part of me wants to reach over and take itto grant her this small corruption. I can see she thinks I’m scaredchicken shitbut I think she’s also under the impression I’m still in high school, and I don’t have the heart to tell her I have an unused art history degree and quit smoking four months ago. My chubbiness, I know, has afflicted me with eternal adolescence.

“Are you sure? They’re hybrid.” She pops the filter for effect and winks at me. “So your breath will always be minty fresh.” She puts the pack away and raises the left corner of her mouth. “Do you like it here?”

“It’s nice, yeah.” Ken’s house is a two-storey that knows it’s been lived in for forty, fifty years. The balcony railing is made of steel rods that curl and bend into a bulbous bottom. Above the doors and windows there are brown and white striped tarps, faded and fraying that have been there, surely, since at least the seventies. Underneath is Ken’sand now Finnie’sden: a bar, Ken’s bike, and an impressive collection of motorcycle magazines in large ready-to-topple heaps. Behind the bar is a gigantic framed picture of a bikini-clad woman straddling a Harley winking.

“That’s new.” Finnie follows my gaze and says: “I used to be a looker.” It takes me a second to fold thirty years into the girl’s body, but now she’s said it I can’t see how I missed itthe same wide-set eyes, tall cheekbones, top-heavy lips. Budget Kate Moss.

“I’ve done the place up a bit.” She’s right, although it hasn’t changed since I came here last, so much as become more of itselfsurged with Finnie. There are pot plants in varying states of decay, crowded around the back door, lining the garden walls and window ledges. One sad looking chilli bush has fallen over, recently, chillies litter the ground around it like angry caterpillars. Although the lawn is as overgrown as it ever was there’s a bird bath and, in the corner peeking from between the unkempt grass, a garden gnome, faded and jolly. Someone, one of the shrieking children we are meant to be keeping an eye on, I suspect, has fashioned a tiny Santa hat for his head.

“Such a bloody arsehole that effing thing. Look at his smug little face.”

Instead I look at her, her pink zebra-print top, the fine wrinkles collecting in crevasses around her eyes, nose, mouth, the pink lipstick almost, but not, the same shade of pink as her top, smudged around the rim of her mouth, her cracked lips. I look at her looking at the gnome until she looks back at me.

Her bottom jaw juts out, she exhales, smoke washes over her face, then she butts out, adding her cigarette to the bouquet of pink-tipped cigarettes in the ashtray.

“Alright kids, we’re gonna play pin the tail or what? What do you reckon, Elle? Money on Charlie?” Finnie gets up, but before she does I catch an eye roll in my direction.

She turns away and says, “Help yourself, sweetheart.” Although she doesn’t look at me and her voice drifts off as she does.

I sit there on the bench a while, then grab some tongs and serve myself the last of the coleslaw, a piece of bread, some prawns floating in water with slivers of remaining ice.

“Do you really need that extra plate?”

I turn around, livid, to reprimand one of the snot-nosed childrenCharlie, I guessbut they’re all on the other side of the backyard, in the carport. Against the closed rolling door, on a large scrap of butcher’s paper, a crayon donkey stares wall-eyed into the distance. Charlie has a bandanna fashioned as a blindfold. Finnie and the other children yell at himencouragement, detours, slurs.

I finish my meal anyway. Then I reach over and take Finnie’s half-drunk gin. The garden snorts at me, says, “Of course.”

I turn around and look where the voice came from, right into the gnome’s paint-flecked, smug little face and say: “Nice hat fucko.”


This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Katerina Gibson is a Brisbane writer living in Melbourne. She won the 2018 VU Short Story Prize, and has been published in Overland and Kill Your Darlings. .

Angelica Roache-Wilson lives in Brisbane and draws pictures in her bedroom of the whackdest peeps and creat(ure)s for fun.

Excerpt: 'Bloodthirst' by Mira Schlosberg

 
Art by Will Thompson

Art by Will Thompson

 
  1. Crocodile

    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.

  2. Vampire

    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.

3. Ghost

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.

4. Vampire

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.’

5. Crocodile

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

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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.

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