‘Fabulousness—an emancipatory endeavour that reminds us to keep pushing the horizons of our dreaming’ : Interview with madison moore, by Angelita Sofia Biscotti

madison moore is the author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale, 2018). He obtained his PhD in American Studies from Yale University, and did postdoctoral research at King’s College London before becoming an Assistant Professor of Queer Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also a DJ who has played sets in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Crack Magazine, Interview, Thought Catalog, Art in America, Theater, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, among many. He was a recent guest of The School Of Life in Melbourne and the Perth Writers Week.

We met at 2pm on the Monday he was scheduled to speak at The School Of Life. He wore a black sequined bolero, gold bangles and a studded ring that span two and a half fingers. I wore my pastel pink wig and Wild Barra leggings. After the interview, we discussed the prospect of him DJ-ing in Melbourne. In less than 24 hours, we found ourselves promoting a free-entry book reading and techno dance party event at Evie’s Disco Diner in Fitzroy, which took place on Wednesday. He flew to Perth on Thursday and will be back teaching in Virginia by the time you read this interview.

Angelita Sofia Biscotti: So you were a classically trained violinist. And then you became a DJ, a pop culture critic, and a queer studies academic. How did that happen?

I often get asked about my different practices. To me, they’re not different practices. It’s the same thing. When I’m writing a piece or DJ-ing or writing a book, it’s still about sharing knowledge. I have a point of view and maybe I’ll use a DJ set or maybe a book or the classroom to get across a point of view. That’s really what it is. I always have tried to just be myself. I know this sounds New Age and mystical, but just be yourself. But to be honest, I don’t have a secret. I don’t have a special trick that I use or a special potion or something. Literally I just did what occurs naturally. I don’t know how else to be. So I don’t know how not to see this (fingers sequined bolero) and not wear it, or like not be interested in something and not pursue it. I don’t have things all figured out. I just do what interests me.

ASB: The title of the book is Fabulous. I guess the opposite of fab is drab. Or boring. Is there something dangerous about being boring?

MM: (evil laugh) Diabolical laughter. I think boring, or boredom rather, is fundamentally about norms. The status quo. Stasis. I remember hitting the men’s section in the department stores: I didn’t understand why all the fun stuff was in the women’s section. Why was it over there? But of course. Culture and norms and family values tell you to have to be in the men’s section and I didn’t want to be in the men’s section.

We suppress ourselves to make other people comfortable. And fabulousness, as much as it is fun and exciting and voluminous and full, that it is also about choosing when you can do it. Sometimes you just can’t do it. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it. Sometimes you don’t have the energy. It’s an ebb and a flow.

If you are 100% comfortable how you are in your body, how you are in the world, and you don’t want to make any changes, good on you. For many people who are marginalised that is not necessarily the case. We live under whiteness, under white supremacy, and are told that our bodies are not desirable because we are not thin enough, not white enough, our hair is not blonde enough, because we don’t have enough hair, we don’t speak a certain way, we don’t have the right accent.

ASB: In the book, there’s a section—and I don’t know if it was you or someone you were interviewing—and they said, ‘you or they felt more themselves wearing makeup and wigs and a full look’. And I remember a therapist judging me for wearing wigs everyday, as though I was being ashamed of my ‘natural self’. And that’s not the reason why I wear wigs. I wear wigs because my skin is extremely sensitive to colouring material and it’s also very expensive to lighten my hair enough to naturally colour it the way I would like. Would you say there is something problematic about the idea of ‘the natural?’

MM: Of course, there is. Biology and what’s considered natural are always socially, historically and medically constructed. And largely by colonialism. In that interview, the person who said that at the time was an untenured university professor. She told me her real self is when she’s in makeup and heels. That is her real self. But it’s norms and systems and departments and individuals that make us feel like we have to turn off those aspects of ourselves because they don’t like it or because it makes them uncomfortable. And that’s what I was saying about the danger of boredom. It forces us to think we have to blend in. If you want to blend in and that’s your tea, run and go with it and live your best life. Do what you gotta do. But if that’s not for you, you should not be penalised because you want to wear wigs everyday, or wear makeup, or get dressed up a certain way.

ASB: Onto things that are most definitely not boring: say, clubbing. You’ve written about how clubs in Europe get community grants. And you’ve also written about the legendary club Berghain in Berlin and how it feels like a church. So, I want to ask what makes the club such a special place? And what makes a club good?

MM: The US doesn’t have a club culture in the same way that you’d find in Europe. I’m not sure that there would be a night club that would be taxed at the same rate as the New York Philharmonic. That blows my mind. It’s the idea that it happens less the sort of result or the why.

Club culture in Amsterdam, or in Berlin or, to some extent, London—it’s seen as a cultural engine, it drives culture. It’s a force, an idea. I’m thinking about how a couple of weeks ago, there was a review in the New York Times about a venue in London called The Yard. In a New York Times-way, the club has been there for five years but they’re only writing about it now. They’re so late. Which probably means the club is reaching its peak.

But the point is the article was saying ‘wow, this is a night club, this is a theatre space, all in one’. And I’m like, “Where have you been?” but also that’s the model. I would love to see more of that kind of space; a club that has club nights, but is also a theatre space, but also has concerts and maybe is also a gym. Maybe also a coffee shop. So, you go there during the day to hang out, do some work. Maybe you also go there at night to club. But the point is that the club or the venue is a space that has multiple purposes so different people can find their way in.

What makes a club memorable, what makes a club worth talking about, is the owners have invested in creating a particular experience, a world, that people are desperate to be a part of. Because night life is often about escape, finding community, through music and through people.

ASB: You DJ for a queer techno collective called Opulence. Tell me about that.

MM: I run Opulence with good friends I met in London. We wanted to create a space that was femme-centred, a space that did not revolve around cis white men. A space that’s femme-positive, but also has techno music and experimental music. And it’s really fun to work with everyone on the team because we’re all so different but all so passionate. It’s our child, our queer techno child.

One of my good friends, my sister, Shaun J. Wright, is an amazing DJ. A black queer person from Chicago. He played a show in Pittsburgh and oh my God, he slayed my tits off. These are the kinds of artists we engage with, not the cis white men who’s getting probably paid several thousands of dollars to play at a festival. It’s someone like Shaun J. Wright who’s the heart and soul of the culture. Cis white DJs will always get gigs anyway. So, they don’t particularly need every space. They will get booked regardless. That’s what we care about at opulence. Highlighting everybody else.

ASB: Going back to the idea of fabulousness: the progressive scene can feel so basic, or so grim sometimes. Is fabulousness a fantasy, a distraction, from political goals? Or is it an emancipatory endeavor that reminds us to keep pushing the horizons of our dreaming?

MM: I think it’s both. Fabulousness is absolutely a narcissistic, fun, pleasure-ful space. And by the way, what’s wrong with narcissism if you are in a body that is constantly told that you shouldn’t exist? That you don’t get to exist? That you don’t ever see yourself in movies, or on the cover of magazines? That you are constantly told you are not beautiful, you don’t have the right body shape or complexion? So what’s wrong with a little bit of self-love?

In saying that, fabulousness is revolution. It is about arming yourself through style as a way to make it through the world. What I love about style is it’s taking up space, but it’s also creating possibility for someone else. There may be someone on the tram or in the bus or walking on the street who sees you and go ‘wow, how can I push myself’? The kind of conversation that allows us to speak to each other without words.

So, yes, it is about narcissism and self-love, and it is also about revolution. Staging a revolution through style, through wigs, through sequins.

ASB: I was just thinking about your chapter on vogueing and ideas surrounding cultural appropriation and gentrification. Do you think these can be defeated or slowed down? I am thinking about style and performance as for the lack of better words, cultural and intellectual property. Or heritage. Can style ever be owned? Or can it ever only be sold, as in someone looking at you and saying “I’m buying this” or “I’m not buying this”?

MM: Style always starts on the bottom then goes to the tip-top of consumerism, then makes its way back down to the fast fashion space. Ten years later, it’s at Louis Vuitton then it hits H&M. And when we talk about cultural appropriation, we talk about the question of money: who’s getting paid. You have working-class folks from the hood, who have certain style practices, who have ways of being in their bodies or ways of dancing that are utterly demeaned or seen as inappropriate or not respectable. And then when somebody white does it, it becomes cool.

ASB: Like Iggy Azalea.

MM: I wasn’t gonna say it. You said it.

ASB: She’s Australian, I’m Australian, so I guess I can.

MM: It isn’t only about the practice of taking something that came from working-class communities and doing it. It’s about the fact that they’re getting paid. Millions. In the same way that people who started it—and do it better by the way—are overlooked and told that they are a problem.

One of the things I’m particularly wary of is cornrows or braided hair. One thing I noticed when I was in Berlin was all these white women in cornrows and braided hair and I just don’t understand. I remember how my mother braided my sister’s hair because she was a single mom. She didn’t have time to braid my sister’s hair every day for school so she would braid her hair for a month to save time. This is what I think about when I think about black hair. So when I see white women with braids, it’s not to say that they can’t have braids or whatever, but I’m wondering why: What is it doing? What is the point? What is this for, for you? And I think you have to have a meaningful answer, to be honest.

ASB: They can’t just feel entitled to it and not be able to account for why they do it, because it is an act of family and love and community and sharing and generosity. And to them, it is just an aesthetic.

MM: And they do it because they’ve seen it in Vogue, they’ve seen it in a music video, they’ve seen one of their favourite models do it.

ASB: Tell me: what are you loving right now? Like books, TV, night life, music.

MM: We already keekee-ed about Sex Education which I love. One of my other favourite podcasts is ‘The Read’. It’s two queer black people talking about pop culture and it’s sassy and it gives me everything I need.

What else? There’s a singer I’m obsessed called Moses Sumney. He’s a black singer, and baby he will take you to church (collective squeal) His voice, I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s bluesy, he’s got this impeccable falsetto and you are like what is going on. There’s a track called “Make Out In My Car.”

ASB: If I’m bawling tonight it’s gonna be because I listened that.

MM: And that’s the whole point. I got friends who call me and say, “Baby you made me listen to Moses Sumney, and I am crying. Please send reinforcements!”

Angelita Sofia Biscotti is a model, photo-artist and writer who used to publish work under the name 'Angela Serrano' and tweet as @angelita_serra. She was a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She has been published in Archer, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Peril, Cordite Poetry Review and elsewhere. Her erotic poetry chapbook Else But A Madness Most Discreet is available through Vagabond Press. Her modelling work has appeared in Pencilled In, Hot Chicks with Big Brains, We Are Something Else, and Demasque. Her photography has been exhibited at Midsumma Festival's Queer Economies St Heliers St Gallery and the BlackCat Gallery's Square-Circle show. She is an alumna of the Footscray Community Arts Centre's West Writers Group.

Twitter: @angelitabiscuit / Instagram: @angelita.biscotti

'A Concoction of Bitterness and Sweetness': An Interview with Ling Ma, By Jennifer Mills

Photo by Liliane Calfee

A decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the economic order that created it is still stumbling around, dead inside, leaving a trail of worsening inequality and ecosystem collapse. Some theorists call this era zombie capitalism. If that’s apt, then Ling Ma’s Severance is a novel for our times.

Following the young office worker Candace Chen as she dutifully goes through the motions of her middle-class job, holding to her migrant aspirations while the world that made sense of them falls apart around her, this story moves between post-apocalypse, existentialist office satire, critique of global capitalism, and bildungsroman, without ever losing its emotional core. It’s a cracking read, deeply moving and at times hilarious.

Ling was generous enough to chat with me over email about the book’s gestation, economics, bullshit jobs, the pleasure of ruining New York, and the will to get free.

What motivated you to begin writing Severance and was it the same thing that motivated you to finish it?

That’s a great question. The company I worked for was downsizing. I was going to be laid off. At first I was writing an apocalyptic short story for the fun of it. I did not know it was a novel. As it progressed however, I felt there was an undercurrent of anger to the story, and I tried to trace that anger back to the source — it was coming from the office, from work. I felt that this story was meant to be a meditation on work, and from there, everything else came: issues of global capitalism, consumerism, immigration.

In finishing the novel, I was very much focused on rounding out Candace Chen as a character. I suppose I began with the ideas first, then as I increasingly got to know Candace, I wanted to present her as fully as I could. The process of writing this book surprised me.


I want to come back to work in a moment, because it is at the core of this book. I think you succeeded with Candace – she feels real and ordinary, very human, and given the circumstances she’s in, this is quite an accomplishment.

Severance drops us into a post-apocalyptic setting in which a plague has wiped out most of the population. But your humour is there from the outset; the situation seems absurd rather than tragic. Why did you choose a medical catastrophe? Was it important to you that it was something gradual, something that “passes as ordinary"?

The two emotions that kicked off Severance, for me, are joy and anger. I’ve heard that the secret to the Coca-Cola formulation is high doses of bitterness and sweetness. Essentially, you take two diametrically opposed elements and double down on that. I was thinking about that, about joy and anger blasting at high volumes, especially in the beginning of the novel. It just creates such a strange combination.

As for the “gradual” apocalypse, I think perhaps we are more motivated to keep the status quo than to change things up. Also, as I watched the downsizing procedures at my company, I understood that they were attempting to downsize by attrition, by seeding discouragement to stay, by gradually changing its policies so employees would be motivated to leave. Perhaps the apocalypse could also proceed by attrition…

Why is this novel set in the recent past, instead of the near future?

From the outset, I knew this novel had to be dated, considering the influx of brand names, but also because New York changes so quickly, with all of its rising rents and developments. Some of the places named in Severance now no longer exist.

I can’t fully explain why 2011, but I believe part of it had to do with Occupy Wall Street taking place that year. I think about people taking over public spaces where they shouldn’t be, they don’t belong. And children’s stories in which the child protagonists hide out in public spaces like museums. In a way, Candace gets to occupy all of New York, which is a place she shouldn’t have been towards the end.

I loved that Occupy was in there! For Candace there’s an ambivalence about New York. As structures collapse around her, her experience of the place is almost liberating – the fantasy of exploring the ruins. There is nostalgia for what is lost, even as it’s being lost, but there’s also an almost physical need – she has this binding attachment to the city, and leaving it means abandoning something essential to her idea of herself. New York’s a hard place to live and yet it sells this dream of itself as a place of opportunity, especially for artists and writers. Is that just a compelling mirage?

I think the stereotype of New York supercedes what New York has actually become. Brooklyn is a marketing term. And Manhattan looks like a cautionary tale of what happens when capitalism runs unchecked. I’m not an economist, but anyone can tell you that New York is an exorbitantly expensive place to live, the insane property values, etcetera. I heard someone describe this novel as an anti-valentine to New York, and that sounds about right. But even if it is an anti-valentine, there is love there. I think this novel is still in love with New York in the way you think about your first love. Some of the most pleasurable scenes to write were the last days Candace spends in New York as the city slowly crumples and decays.

The fantasy of it all falling apart is an interesting phenomenon. You mention the Marchand and Meffre images of Detroit in Severance, the Polidori photos of Pripyat and Chernobyl. I was really interested in unpicking ‘ruin porn’ when I was writing Dyschronia. The last couple of times I visited the States, in 2014 and 2015, I was shocked by an impression of worsening inequality, by how little it seemed most people had recovered from the financial crisis of 2008-9. To me, the bank bailouts were a turning point. The rise of Trump has felt like a direct consequence, as though neoliberalism is taking off its friendly democratic costume, revealing an authoritarian form.

It often seems that the only way to imagine ourselves out of this mess is to imagine the world in ruins. Is that why the apocalypse is so hot right now?

It’s difficult for me to see this book with the critical distance that a cultural critic might. But thinking back to the joy of writing an apocalyptic narrative, my one insight is that perhaps the apocalypse is not about ruins, that it is more about liberation — as you allude to. It is something of a relief to see that systems can be broken down. And that we have the freedom to start anew. Whether that freedom actually yields something that does not fall into the same patterns as before is the crucial question. But maybe that’s not what we think about right away. We’re just thinking about the party.

There’s a “good migrant” in Candace’s head—she works hard to bury her own creative dreams and be good at her job, finding pleasure in it although it appears to be pointless and unsatisfying. Reading Severance, I was reminded of a time in my twenties when I was working in a call centre. I was up on the roof at break and thought to myself that if I jumped off that roof, I wouldn’t have to finish my shift (it was such a tempting idea that I went downstairs and quit). I also thought of David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs and of course The Office. You make the link between Candace’s individual experience and this broader system of global capitalism that demands her complicity and loyalty. Is that something you had to break from in order to write the book?

I think, at some point in my twenties, I might’ve walked out of an internship and never come back. To the best of my recollection, no one even noticed—which is pretty great!

One of my goals with this novel was simply to show global capitalism on the ground floor, to show what it feels like on an individual scale. But I don’t think it’s possible to break from capitalism. That is the world we live in. And I don’t think writers should try to separate themselves from the world. We should all take jobs as stockbrokers, real estate agents, accountants—not just because that’s how a lot of people live. In order to address the problem or even figure out what the problem is, we should spend time within the system, we should understand how the mechanics work. We should understand what it’s like to hold down a soul-sucking position, the personal stakes and fears associated with that—but also, what it’s like to be seduced by a job that you don’t believe in, that has moral ambiguities.

Yeah, I haven’t had a day job since I was thirty but there was certainly a lot of material in the 15 years of working before that. There’s a tension for me between being a professional writer – it’s a point of pride to survive on my wits—and the nature of it as an art form. I’m interested in the way that creative labour is valued in society, partly against capitalism and partly inside it. We are trained to work for productivity and material wealth, but literature also has other measures of success, like reciprocity and relationship-building.

Is writing a job for you now, or art, or can it be both?

That’s an interesting question. For most of my life, my fiction never derived much income. I told myself that this was better because there is no pressure for my writing to please anyone else, less pressure to aim for false targets. These days, however, my fiction draws at least some monetary sum. Having been on both sides, the best possible understanding is that this system is completely arbitrary. And that money and value are not the same thing.

Whatever the case, I have always set writing up in my life as a job. No matter what, writing is work. It feels like work to me, but this work eventually gives way to something else.

One final question—what are you reading?

Currently on my nightstand: Laura Adamczyk's story collection Hardly Children. I am struck by her beguiling prose style! I've also been reading more poetry, so: Dorothea Lasky's poetry collection Rome, along with Hajara Quinn's collection Coolth. Last but not least, I keep circling around Volume 6 of My Struggle, and then I keep darting away.

Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and an editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, VICE, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and other publications. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. Severance has been shortlisted for the 2018 Kirkus Prize.

Jennifer Mills is the fiction editor at Overland. Her latest novel is Dyschronia.

Read The Lifted Brow Review of Books review of Severance by Claire Cao, 'An Apocalyptic Sensibility.'

'Community feels like home': An Interview with Aminatou Sow, by Ava A

Photo by Helena Price, Dagmar Studios

As a writer, cultural critic, co-host of podcast Call Your Girlfriend and co-founder of Techlady Mafia, Aminatou Sow’s ideas cut across different mediums of expression effortlessly and inspirationally. Sow’s work is essential reading and listening for a nuanced understanding of our world.

Ava A spoke with Aminatou Sow at Sydney Writer’s Festival 2018 where Sow was a panellist, speaker and chair.

Let’s begin with a culture round-up. What writing and media have you been enjoying recently?
It’s funny, I’m coming off a stint of being sick. I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at the end of last year and I’m in remission so everything is great. But during that time the two things I consumed the most was allot of fiction, which for me is actually very strange. I mostly read non-fiction, which I think is because I’m afraid of my own imagination. I watched allot of very old television and it made me feel so much better. There was something very tangible about reading the novels that I did and watching things like MASH which is... you know.

Aren’t there like 60 seasons of it?
Exactly! There’s 13, I had never watched MASH before. There was something very comforting about reading and watching things that had been around for a long time, I felt nostalgic for a time I was not alive for. It really took my mind off of allot of things. There was someting about knowing that people have been making creative work for a long time, not that the 60’s or the 70’s is a long time ago. These forms have been here and they’re very consistent, we’re not really inventing anything new.

So you’ve been in a Twitter exchange with our mayor about how Sydney’s lock-out laws limit the cities capacity to be ‘truly global’.
I know, your mayor tweeted back at me this morning! It was very exciting.

With your experiences of Sydney in mind, what do you think it takes to become a truly global city?
This is the first time in a long time that I’m falling in love with a new city, there’s something really thrilling about that. What I’ve been struck by here is that on a Friday night when trying to find a meal and somewhere to sit down in the CBD, the place felt like a ghost town. As a Black woman in Australia I’m very aware that I’m Black. I’m very aware that I’m African, and there was something so lonely and ghostly about walking through what was supposed to be a big city at 11pm. Not seeing another soul did not make me feel safe, which I understand is the aim of the lock out laws. The ethos of limiting enjoyment and entertainment impacts community for people, it is so small minded.

I’ve only been here for a couple of days, and I knew that Sydney is bigger and more capable than that. It’s a real failure of the people who put the policies into place right? Where people who do not live in our spaces get to decide how we live. That is something in the US we’re very aware of and I felt that on a visceral level here.

‘Community’ is a strong theme across all your work. What does community feel like to you?
It feels safe. It’s a place where you can be your truest self, the place where you’re not ashamed to experiment with new thoughts, ideas and visions for yourself. It feels like home.

When you’re in an unfamiliar place, how do you know that you’ve found community?
It feels very nebulous. I do a thing that a lot of Black people do when I’m not at home, wherever home is: You come to places like Australia where you count the other Black people. Day one and two here, there was zero. And yesterday I had the distinct experience of seeing Black people that I didn’t know; they just nodded at me and I felt at home. They were happy for me, they hollered and we had this weird moment when a stranger hugged me and I hugged him back. It felt safe and familiar, it felt thrilling. I’m not sure that you’ve found community until you feel it. I think you can share a lot of affinities with people wether its race, class or the weird podcast t-shirt that you’re both wearing. Sometimes it's something as quiet as a nod that somebody gives you, or a laugh that you share. Or it’s something as profound as hugging a stranger and feeling at home in their arms.

I’d like to talk about your writing practise and career. Our world is increasingly comfortable with the idea of near-constant connection via the internet. What do you think that has done to writing?
I can’t speak to how it’s changed writing, but I can speak to how it’s changed my writing. I see that there’s something more frenetic at work because there’s a need to keep up with a pace that is ultimately a little destructive. Things have also changed for good in the sense that I have more access to other people’s writing than I’ve ever had in my own tiny history. French is my first language and for a long time I was not reading in French; allot of my life now happens in English and in a very American context. Through the power of technology I’ve started writing in French again, engaging with more French work and thoughts. And so I always want to caution the idea of blaming technology for any problems, I think that instinct is very human and that change is fine.

By submitting to this new way of communicating new forms of writing are emerging that were only possible because of the internet, and new voices are emerging whose importance is bolstered by the internet. But at the same time it’s ok to shut off the computer and write the thing and put it in the drawer. I think these are all individual choices that we have to make for ourselves and we have to live with their consequences.

You’ve worked at the intersection of technology and democratic process in the past. Can you speak to that point of tension: How do you see technology and democratic process intersecting?
Technology can amplify democracy in a way that is just undeniable. In the US we have states where certain people work very hard so that others do not have access to fair elections or to the information that they need to represent themselves at the poll. These are things that we feel all the time. These issues are things that technology is very effective at combatting right? You don’t have to go into an office, you don’t have to depend on people for information and when done right the technology can really be impartial. It’s not about propping up one party of the other, it is bolstering the whole process. It is providing access to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise.

I think that a lot of the tension comes from capitalism. It is a wild idea to profit off of tools for democracy. It is also dangerous when companies who don’t have an ethic that is clear and honourable step into this space, because we’re truly asking people to put their their livelihoods and the future of their countries into the hands of big technology companies. There are undestandably many reasons to not want to do that.

People can often face difficulties scaling their interpersonal and community building ethics in a workplace. How have you gone about trying to scale these ethics in your professional career?
I don’t know that I’ve scaled them yet and that’s a very vulnerable thing to say, I am still trying to figure that out. I think one very definite way I’ve done that is I’ve taken myself out of corporate office culture. I know that for the kind of work I do, and for the kind of community I want to build, sitting in an office is not helpful. My personality and interests are not suited to it, the rigidity does not work. And so I’m really lucky in that by being self employed I get to be around people who can really sharpen my ideas and strengths about what I believe community is. We can choose to make a new kind of work culture for ourselves. We’re all still trying to figure it out, I don’t know that anybody has fully scaled their personal ethics to a workplace. But I know that I’m changed by my work and how my chosen colleagues choose to experience me.

Could you talk a bit about the process of moving from that corporate office culture into your current career?
It really is a privilege, it’s something I want to be really careful to talk about. At least in the US, not everybody has the option to not work in corporate culture. Allot of our health care for example is given out by office work. Benefits, saving for retirement, all of those structures exist within the confines of office culture. And I’ve found allot of success doing that kind of work: I worked at Google, prestigious non profits and great PR agencies. But I was never happy. I was not happy with the work that I was doing because I was working in the service of somebody else. Simple things like office politics or the way that team work is supposed to be performed in the office are things that I really chafed at. Little by little they ate away at me, and the thought of spending sixty hours a week working for somebody else when I could be doing that kind of grind for myself was a no brainer for me. But I deeply acknowledge that my career change was from a place of privilege, I worked in offices for over a decade before I could be trusted to be self-employed. I think that speaks to who has access to the necessary knowledge, contacts and capital to really start off for themselves.

I’d love to conclude our chat with podcasting. Why did you want to pursue that type of media?
I’m a very curiosity driven person. I did not know how to make audio, and I wanted to learn. It seemed very hard, foreign and outside of my comfort zone. When our podcast producer and now dear friend Gina Delvac made me feel like I could do it, it changed my thinking around it. Having somebody who is a very successful and knowledgable podcast producer say ’you can do this too’ was very generous and big of her. My work has always centred around telling stories and you can do that in many different ways. One of the distinct advantages of podcasts or audio is how intimate it is. You are literally in somebodies ear and they hear you and every weird breath you take and how you pop your P’s and B’s. They get to hear your exasperated sighs exactly as you meant them. The kind of work I do is largely around telling stories of women and making other women feel that the things they care about are not frivolous but political, important, groundbreaking and revolutionary. Getting inside somebodies ears for that work is so important. I think what makes allot of really good audio is a rapport with the listener that comes in many different forms. There is something powerful about hearing somebody you can’t see.

I want to keep learning new things and having done this for four years now, there’s still so much I have to learn. It sounds so simple and frankly kind of juvenile but I love making things, and for someone like me who studied liberal arts and was so focused on words, reading and reason... there is something cathartic about taking all of that and saying ‘here is the thing I made that pushes these ideas further’. That’s really why I fell in love with audio.

Ava A is a writer and performer near you. He’s interested in what happens when different creative disciplines meet each-other. He’s on instagram @alumied.

‘Weaponising Frustration and Despair’ – An Interview with Soda_Jerk

Australian Brooklyn-based sample-art collective Soda_Jerk, made up of sisters Dan and Dominique Angeloro, have followed up their giddy 2016 collaboration with The Avalanches, The Was, with a wily attack on officially-sanctioned Australian history and culture titled Terror Nullius. The film premiered at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) last week, and remixes fragments from Australian TV and cinema archives into a “political revenge fable in three acts” that envisions the timely demises of Howard, Abbott, Crowe, Gibson, Hogan, Rinehart and Hanson, among others.

The film’s politics and imagery resulted in its patrons, the Ian Potter Foundation, pulling promotional and marketing support for the project at the last minute on the grounds that it was “un-Australian”. This occurred shortly after the following interview, which was conducted by The Lifted Brow art editors Bailey Sharp and Ben Juers, took place.

TLB: Your last film The Was (2016) struck me as feeling definitely situated in America, from the New York subway system to suburban California. Terror Nullius is clearly Australian, but also questions what being Australian actually means. How different is it working with Australian pop culture as opposed to that of America?

Soda_Jerk: For us there is no such thing as a fiction film. All films are documentaries in the sense that they are historical documents, thoroughly inscribed with concrete traces of their production, circulation and reception. So we treat working with any national archive as an opportunity to dig deep into these aspects of cultural specificity. Sometimes our intentions will be to draw out these kinds of cultural or historical particulars and other times to destabilise and trouble them.

One of the origins of Terror Nullius was an interest in the cinematic genre of Australian Gothic and the way that these films function as a stealth repository for unspoken cultural anxieties. We were thinking about the way that the landscape so often has a malevolent and foreboding presence within Australian films and how this might relate to our nation's horrific history of settlement and its ongoing aftermath.

TLB: Can you describe the process of Indigenous consultation involved in Terror Nullius?

SJ: The process that evolved wasn’t the linear path of formalised consultation that we initially anticipated, but rather a more open, informal and rhizomic dialogue between many friends, colleagues and heroes. The last thing we wanted was to put anyone in a situation where they would be expected to act as some kind of stamp of approval or permission for the decisions made in the work. And in that sense we found that, by keeping discussions off-record, individuals felt they could contribute without claiming an authoritative voice beyond their own. This was not only true of Indigenous consultation but also the way we approached the many and varied political vectors and minority communities engaged in the work. So while there are just five people we acknowledge as official project advisors, really, the way that we developed our conceptual and ethical approach to the film is indebted to the generosity of a much larger community of peers.

Specifically, one of the significant issues we negotiated was whether to image Indigenous Australians within the work or sample films by Indigenous Australian directors. Initially we had considered developing ways of inscribing the obscuring of Indigenous Australian history (the terror of terra nullius) into the project without relying on directly sampling this material, but the feedback we received overwhelmingly rejected this kind of approach. Instead what was affirmed was the necessity for inclusive representations, and the treatment of Indigenous Australian film as part of the official archive of Australian cinema, like any other.

TLB: The way you free fictional characters from their original context seems to give them a new sense of agency. Does it feel liberating for you to liberate characters? Were there any particular characters, scenes or images in Terror Nullius that felt especially satisfying to cut and paste in this way?

SJ: Guess there are forms of sampling-as-liberation in the project, in the sense of the hunted becoming the hunters – the roos attack their human attackers, the croc devours Mick Dundee. But perhaps what interests us more is the way that a sample can never truly escape its original context. This comes back to what we were saying about how we think of samples as encrypted historical documents that are embedded with clues about the histories, personal experiences and politics of where they are and where they have been. What interests us is trying to decrypt these cultural or historical vectors and reprogram them in a way that opens new possibilities or draws attention to latent or hidden dynamics. What does it mean, for example, for the character of Furiosa to seek vengeance on the fictional character of Mad Max for the misogynistic violence of Mel Gibson’s real life rant tape? The way the real and fictional interface is deeply complicated and difficult to unravel.

TLB: In another interview, you say that you’re committed to free culture. Have you had to fight for free culture in a legal setting?

SJ: Although we think of all our works as probes designed to test the parameters of the law, we’ve never received a cease and desist for any of the samples used in our work. This might have to do with the legal protections that already exist within copyright law, such as the Fair Dealing exemptions for works of parody and satire in Australia or the more robust protections of Fair Use within US copyright law. But we also suspect the real protection is simply that there’s not much financial gain, or reputation capital, to be had from suing a scrappy artist collective.

TLB: What I like about Terror Nullius is that it makes a point of “wearing its rage on its sleeve”, and that it weaponises frustration and despair rather than succumbing. What utility do you see in this kind of revenge fantasy?

SJ: Weaponising frustration and despair is a perfect way to put it. When you feel powerless to enact change, sometimes it’s a powerful thing to see it. We do have a lot of faith in the tactical power of alternative narratives or what Sun Ra calls ‘counter-mythologies’. The revenge fantasy is a particularly potent form of this, and one we felt was called for in response to what are some pretty dark and despairing political times. Like so many Australians we feel genuinely pissed and deeply ashamed about just how distant any form of social justice is from the contemporary national political agenda.

Alongside this dimension of the revenge fable, it was also important for us to image positive forms of radical solidarity and collectivity such as political resistance, the bush doof, the gay beat, the girl gang.

TLB: Are you into memes and their knack for interrogating pop culture?

SJ: We’re into memes, absolutely. Not sure about the term “pop culture” though. Ever since the internet, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to demarcate a realm of consumable culture that is distinct from everything else – from the news or social media or politics or whatever. Actually this combustion of cultural boundaries is maybe what memes demonstrate best as they multiply and mutate across different domains; grafting an innocuous frog cartoon to an alt-right political movement and so on. William S. Burroughs wrote of the “reality studio”, Guy Debord called it the “society of the spectacle”, and Hito Steyerl has named this the era of “circulationism”. But whatever you call it, it does seem that we are shit deep in the collapse of image culture into the very fabric of reality.

TLB: Do you have a favorite meme?

SJ: We’ve always had a deep fondness for the Nicholas Cage image “MY HAIR IS A BIRD, YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID”. There’s just something bizarrely compelling and off-kilter about the way this image manages to be completely nonsensical and entirely articulate at the same time. That’s the logic of the internet all over.

Terror Nullius is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from the 20th of March to the 1st of July.

'An Expansion: An Interview with George Saunders', by Paul Dalla Rosa

Preparing to interview George Saunders, I kept thinking of The Skin, in which Curzio Malaparte writes that after the Allied liberation of Naples, due to the desperate state of its people and the ‘freedom’ the United States brought with them, you could buy anything in the city – the last virgin in Europe, an American tank, a woman’s youngest child – but that when you bought something you weren’t really buying it, you were buying a slice of someone’s hunger. I can’t think of a better analogy for what the works of Saunders illustrate about the world today.

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'Swimming in History, if You Can Find the Water: A Conversation between Poets' by Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith

Continuing our Poets in Conversation series, Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith meet in the rapids of an email exchange.

HAYAN CHARARA: We've got a friend in common, the poet Diana Goetsch, whose poem "Black People Can't Swim" is one of my favorites. It opens:

When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y
she said, 'Oh, black people can't swim,'
which made me grateful to be let in on this,
not the information, but the intimacy—
the fact that she could let fly with such a piece
of black on black attitude without the slightest
bit of shame or self-consciousness.

Are you the Patricia in this poem? You want to talk about this?

PATRICIA SMITH: I am indeed the exalted Patricia. The incident in question took place when Diana was Doug—she was a former student who was a better writer than I was from the very beginning. I'd see her once or twice a year, and the meeting was always more of a messy collision—updates, jealousy, measured flirtation, misty recollection, competition. I had no idea that the he was considering she, but that's beside the point. We were with a gaggle of gals, one of who had designs on our Goetsch—we were strolling the streets as a group, leaving or approaching something to eat, dawdling in store windows. I remember how utterly foreign chitchat about "hanging out at the pool" was to me, and the God-honest truth was the best way I knew to shut down that line of convo. Sorry, kiddo. We don't swim.

I remember Doug/Diana (I'm all over the place, I know, with names and gender assignments, but what are the rules? I'm speaking of a time when someone who is now a woman was a man but is now such a kickass woman that the old "he" seems an insult. Oh, well.) I remember Double-D (I think she'll like that) probing me as her nosy self so enjoyed doing, scribbling those mental notes, turning me into eventual poem fodder. We. don't. swim. I attempted to introduce her to the early sixties on the west side of Chicago. Where would we find the pools, honey?

I have been immortalized in a Goetsch masterwork, but I still don't swim. Pools are now abundant, and it no longer seems to be a problem if a black person sticks a toe (or a torso) in. But I never trusted the water. Shimmering on top, dark beneath. I don't trust rivers, so I don't trust pools. I think my mama drilled in that lesson. Something about disappeared people. Something about Emmett Till. The Tallahatchie was wet too, right?

HAYAN CHARARA: I've known the Goetsch poem for years, known Diana for longer, but I never asked if it was you, even though I wondered all along. I'm glad I finally asked.

So, I grew up in Detroit, and at least in my neighborhood, no one owned a pool. As an Arab kid, I didn't have the ghost of Emmett Till haunting me, but most of my friends must have. Their parents would have been kids the summer of 1955, when they found Emmett Till's body.

For me, something like that—a tragedy that would've prompted my parents to keep me from something they wouldn't have otherwise—it was not keeping me from a body of water, but from an entire country. I wasn't even three years old when the Lebanese Civil War began, and I was finishing high school when the war ended. In all that time, my parents never took me or my sister to Lebanon, which was where they were born, a place I knew well, at least in my imagination, because my parents talked about it all my life. But except for a trip taken there when I was an infant, I never again set foot in Lebanon.

In this way, Detroit really is more than just my hometown; it's my homeland. And if you know anything about Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, you realize how depressing a statement this is. But not nearly as much as saying the same thing about Lebanon during the same time period.

Anyhow, I still managed to learn how to swim—the hard way: I was thrown into a lake and then told to swim or drown.
I took a very different approach with my own kids.

I saw on Facebook that you're going to be headed to Tuscany sometime soon, to write. What are you going to work on there? Or what are you working on now?

PATRICIA SMITH: Ah, we are more alike than you know. You didn't know Lebanon. I didn't know the South.

When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully had no intention at all of being a transplant. She wanted her life to begin the moment she stepped off that Greyhound. She was ashamed of her homemade clothes, ashamed of the twang in her speech, ashamed of what she was sure white folks would consider a shabby upbringing. So she struggled to reinvent herself, and she sure as hell wasn't gonna have "no country child." The only way I would make it in life, she thought, was to convince me to be as white as possible.

And being white meant never admitting to that dirty South in my history. She never talked about it, and as she snapped those links to my southern lineage, she cut me off from my own history. She didn't regale me with stories about the sprawling hamlet of Aliceville, Alabama, and she kept me away from relatives who were still living down South. So I knew I had a history, I even knew where it was, but for all my life she's held it at arm's length, frustrated by my determination to know more about that "nasty ol' Alabama stuff."

Oh, and Emmett died in the south, in that horrible horrible way. So that's not a place you want to care about, chile. Nothing good for you there.

The first time I saw a pool, I was twelve years old, and I was at camp. On the first day, to decide your swimming level, they asked us, one by one, to get from one end of the pool to the other. They figured that the ones who could swim would swim, and the ones who couldn't swim would walk (it wasn't very deep). But wise ol' Patty Ann decided that swimming couldn't be that hard. I'd seen swimming. It involved floating, and how hard could that be?

So my name was called, I jumped in, and I did that hilarious scoop-clutch-flail thing for about ten feet before sinking quite dramatically. Really cemented my rep for that camp session, as you might imagine. City girl didn't like bugs, got scraped up easily, was definitely at odds with the outdoors, but hey, I had provided a year's worth of entertainment.
I still don't swim.

Detroit. You like Motown? You MUST like Motown, or we will cease this conversation. Do you dance?

I'm going to write fiction in Italy. Short stories starring the mothers of the murdered. Right now I'm working on a book of dramatic monologues to accompanying 19th century photos of African-Americans. My husband and I have a huge collection. It's the project I proposed for the Guggenheim, and I feel guilty that I haven't made a move on it yet.

HAYAN CHARARA: Yes, I like Motown. For a while, when I was young, I would go with my father to his regular doctor visits—and they were more regular than not—that's another story—anyhow, the doctor's office was on Grand Boulevard, not far from Hitsville USA.

My parents also had Motown and Motown era 8-tracks at home. They listened mostly to singers from the Arab world, greats like Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab (to most Arabs, at least my parents age, names like this ring bells the way Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone does, or Frank Sinatra do for Americans). Anyhow, the singer I loved most from the Motown era—and still do—is Aretha Franklin, who Berry Gordy tried but failed to sign onto his record label.

I still love Aretha. And even before my boys knew how to walk, I would play them Aretha's song, and they would hold onto something, a table, a chair, and shake and dance.

I don't dance, not really. Unless it's for my kids, or my wife. I'm too self-conscious, and I am the last person I want to see dancing.

A lot of my friends in Detroit share the migration story you told. Their mothers and fathers or grandparents came up to Detroit, for work. That's why most of my family made it to Detroit, in the sixties, from Lebanon—to work in the factories. We experienced something different, though, in terms of identification with our "lineage." My parents worried so much that we'd lose our heritage—whether it be language, customs, practices, or even the sense of community they tried hard to foster, despite living several thousand miles from their homeland.

The reason for this, I think, has to do with the fact that my parents were not among the first wave of immigrants. Others had come before them, and that generation worked hard to assimilate—changing their names (Americanizing them) and doing many of the things you describe about your upbringing: trying to be "white" in whatever ways they could.

There's a famous court case, from 1915 that attests to this: a man named George Dow sued the United States, which twice denied his naturalization application; long story short, Dow argued that his application should be approved on the basis on the racial schema used at the time, and according to Dow, he—and people from parts of Asia, including Syria and the Middle East generally—should be considered "white."

My parents weren't part of that generation. They were a part of that second wave of immigrants. They were informed, in part, by the larger cultural and social movements of the late sixties, and the revolutionary ideas sweeping the globe at the time. They were proud of their difference. They definitely didn't think of themselves as white, and nobody else did either. My parents, and the parents of all the Arab kids I knew, instilled in us every kind of "Arabness" they could muster. I had a cousin whose father would not allow us to speak English in his house. He was stern, too, so we didn't dare break his rules.

Despite all this, though, my parents worried more about our physical safety than our cultural heritage. My parents both came from a village in southern Lebanon, Bint Jbeil, which is just a little over a mile north of the Israeli border. The civil war was horrific, and even though other families went overseas and back, safely, I know that my father, at least, didn't feel he could go back so soon—he was too politically active, and this may have meant he was risking too much by returning.

He did eventually return, though, permanently (my mother died before she could do the same). In 2003, he went back, and three years later, war broke out again, this time with Israel. Israeli bombardment in this war—the Lebanese call it the July War—destroyed so many cities and towns. My father's house was spared only because it's situated at the top of a hill—the Israelis could see, plainly, there was nothing going on at the house; tactically speaking, on the Lebanese side, it was useless because it was an open target. It got riddled with bullet holes, but otherwise, it survived the war unscathed. The village, though—schools, pharmacies, hospitals, and a lot of people did not survive.

I have a poem about this, called Animals. It's up at the Poetry Foundation, and in my new book, Something Sinister.

We have one more thing in common, at least, and that's a children's book—both of our books are published by Lee & Low, in fact.

My book is actually based on the war between Israel and Lebanon. From a kid's perspective. With cats. And with a lot more hope in it than in the poem Animals. The book is called The Three Lucys.
I'll tell you a little about my book if you tell me about yours.

PATRICIA SMITH: Motown was, is, and will always be my soundtrack. After my mother and father separated (I was ten—for the life of me, I don't know how he stood living with her for that long), I was stuck living with a pretty non-communicative parent. I had questions. No answers were forthcoming. So I got all my ideas about life, love and romance from Motown lyrics. You can imagine how that impossibly rosy mindset screwed me when adulthood loomed—I grew up with the mistaken notion that I was born to be begged for by some silver-throated crooner.

It didn't matter that I lived in a neighborhood populated by single-parent families, that storybook romance was not in residence. All it took was a beautifully anguished "please, please" from one of the lookers in Berry Gordy's stable.

Smokey Robinson was a particular favorite, thanks to the muddled directives on race coming from my mother. If only my broad nose wasn't so broad. If only my skin didn't remind her of mud. Smokey's skin was light and his hair silky, which was as close to white as any black man was every gonna get. Since nothing could be done about my regrettable hue, I could at least crush on someone who didn't have to try so hard. His voice was like pouring cream. That sly little crooner broke my heart several times over—but I still love him. Checked him out live in concert a couple of years ago, and my innards are still shivering.

I'm intrigued by the fact that your parents mixed Motown with Arab favorites. Would love to hear a musical mashup. So, who do you think I'd like best—Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi or Mohamed Abdel Wahab? (I've forced myself not to listen to any of them in advance.) I love Ella, and am one of the few black folks who's committed many of Sinatra's hits to memory (my favorite is "The Tender Trap").

I'm surprised that you loved and love Aretha. Her level of soul can be disturbing—as my father used to say, "best fitted for a dark blue room when you're sipping a deep brown drink." Have you ever had the blues? When? Why? (BTW, I have made a solemn vow to see you dance. It may be difficult, but I'm a determined lass. My guess is AWP.)

Meanwhile what an odd story of parallel migration—my parents running away from their past, yours struggling to resurrect it in their new home. Like I said before, links to my history were ruled by shame. White, white, white was the only answer to overcoming that shame—replacing it with an almost laughable denial. (For some strange reason, the sordid tale of Rachel Dolezal just flashed in to my head. She's the white woman who's struggling to convince the world that she's a bonafide African-American. How—sigh—far we've come.)

All I can remember is that all my mother's parental instruction ended with the same three words:
—Don't be saying "ain't" when you're around white people.
—You've got to wear your good clothes around white people.
—You best to learn how to say "Yes, ma'am" and "Yessir" if you're gonna be around white people.
And my favorite: "Don't act all colored when you're around white people."
As if color was something I could control.

The social and cultural crusades of the '60s passed right over my parent's heads. According to my mother, it was all "white people bizness"—and although she constantly nudged me to make white people business my business ("Pinch your nose while you're watching TV so it won't be so wide"), that didn't apply to any form of revolution. "Black power" was something white people said.

My physical safety was a concern too, but in a different way. Chicago was and is WAY more segregated than my folks expected it to be, so my mother's way of introducing me to that brave new world was to keep me away from it. Don’t ride the bus because it might cross over into a neighborhood where they don’t like black folks. Come home when the streetlights come on, because that’s when all the shiftless colored folks come out. Don’t go to that store, because I don’t think they like when black folks come in there. Don’t live too loud and call attention to yourself.

I feel like I grew upon the wrong side of a window.
There was a real war going on—Vietnam. I remember being plopped down in front of the television, with no explanation of what I was going to see, and watching battle footage. I remember that little crawler at the bottom of the screen—this many dead yesterday, this many dead today, this many dying right now. I'm still ashamed to say that that war might as well have been on the moon.

I wonder if my parents ever considered that they had a home to go back to. Instead, our war was in Chicago, right after Martin Luther King's assassination, when our west side neighborhood was burned to its bones by rioters. It was the first time I realized that, as far as the larger city was concerned, Chicago's new migrants were expendable. It was years before the community was rebuilt. Grudgingly.

I wrote a lot about the migration, the community and the experience of being "first generation up north" in my book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. I haven't really written the truth about my mother, though. I suppose that's coming.

Your poem knocked all the air out of my day. I went looking for more of you. Wow. Can't understand why I didn't already know your work.

So, we're Lee & Low brethren! And we're both New Voices Award winners. My book Janna and the Kings came out of my experience of accompanying my dad to the neighborhood barbershop when I was a kid. It's where I learned to love elderly black men—they let me in on their gossip, taught me to play cards, told me corny jokes and whirled me around on that little leather throne. The book imagines a young girl, very much like me, who hangs with her grandfather and his friends at the barbershop, then wonders if there's still a place for her there after her grandfather dies.

I moved that Lee & Low Award call around my desk for months—when I finally decided to address it, the manuscript was due the next day. I didn't realize how much I loved that story, how much I had internalized it. And like a fool, after the award I thought I could just crank out a kid's book whenever I wanted. It's hard work—everything's been written about already!

Did you ever think about writing another one?

HAYAN CHARARA: I just saw some of the Lee & Low people in San Antonio, at a conference for librarians. I talked to Jason Low, and he said wonderful things about Janna and the Kings.

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I tried writing a children's book, and I did, but it ended up not a children's book. A decade later, Naomi Shihab Nye urged me to try again, and she told me about Lee & Low.

The Three Lucys is a war story, a true story (based on my little brother's experiences during the war—the July War, as the Lebanese call it—between Lebanon and Israel. Obviously, kids lived through that war, as they've lived through every other war on the earth. But too many war stories focus on the men fighting them, not the children—and hardly ever the animals, either, that get caught up in the violence. And most of the stories written about war, or during war, aren't meant for children to read.

I don't see why not. Not if it's done right—which is the case for any work of literature. With The Three Lucys, when war breaks out, the main character and his family take shelter away from their home, but all the while the boy, Luli, worries about his three pet cats, who are left behind, and they all happen to be named Lucy: Lucy the Skinny, Lucy the Fat, and Lucy Lucy.

Every kid who has a pet, at some point, deals with the loss of that pet. That's what the boy in this story learns to deal with. Every kid, at some point, is frightened, too, and the book shows us how this family works through fear as well.

In the end, the book ends on a sad note, yes, but it's hopeful, and along the way there's humor, there's laughter, there are good times—life goes on, even in war time, but especially in times like these, people (children and adults) need ways to heal, to grow, and the book allows kids a way into healing and growth.

I'm not sure I'll write someone else for children. Right now, though, I'm working on a novel that is definitely not for kids, not ever, though kids play a major role in the story.

I'm glad you got to read 'Animals.' Glad it knocked the air out of you. That was the intention. Khaled Mattawa told me once that the poem, to him, felt like getting stabbed in the stomach, and then the knife getting twisted. That's what the events described in the poem felt like in actuality.

I think your father got it right about Aretha Franklin: "best fitted for a dark room when youre sipping a deep brown drink"—least the songs I listen to over and over. "Ain't No Way," for example, or "Say A Little Prayer."

Doesn't everyone have the blues? They should. I'm a happy person, mostly, but horrible stuff has happened to people I know, and love, and people who look like me, and people who don't look like me who I don't know, and it's unacceptable for people to go around not wondering whether life on earth is worthwhile. The answer, some of the time, is no. I'm not advocating that people bail on life, or the earth (though that's a thought), but that people do something. And the first step is getting informed. But that's only a first step. After that, maybe the second step is a good song and a good drink. After that, people need to do something more, and by "something" I don't mean post about it on Facebook or Twitter or "like" a picture or post about people getting fucked over. I mean donating money to an organization, or volunteering, or supporting people who do more than these things.

I'm ranting... again. Forgive me. But I needed to. I know you know what I'm talking about.

Anyhow, even if the world could be beautiful all the time, everywhere, there's the usual sadness that comes with being human. My mother died when I was young. There's that. My father could have been a nicer man without demons. There's that. Thank goodness for music. And drinks. And food and all the things that make us forget until we have to remember. I still don't know about dancing. If you can pull that off, people should keep an eye out for flying pigs and the like.

So, when it comes to great Arab singers, I think people will lose their shit if I don't tell you to start with Oum Khalthoum. For me, she was an acquired taste. I began with Fairuz, but maybe you could Youtube both, in one sitting. Once you've listened to Fairuz and Oum Khalthoum you should check out vocals-only version of your favorite songs—it's a thing, apparently. There are all these audio tracks of original studio recordings of popular songs but with only the vocal tracks. The best one I've heard so far is Queen's "Somebody to Love."

You can hear every breath Freddie Mercury takes; you can hear him running out of breath. I'm probably wrong about this, but I don't know how anyone can't think it's amazing. I just got goose bumps remembering it. I think that's my cue to stop talking.

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.

Hayan Charara is the author of three poetry books, most reccently Something Sinister (2016) and a children's book, The Three Lucys (2016). He Lives in Texas.

Patricia Smith's eight books of poetry include Incendiary Art, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Bold Dazzler. She is a professor at the college of Staten Island.

‘Thinking of You: A Conversation Between Poets’, by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and Alison Whittaker


Image by fsse8info. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

Continuing our Poets in Conversation series, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and Alison Whittaker get into each other’s Twitter DMs.

@AJ_Whittaker, January 12
Yaama, @sadqueer4life! I guess we better actually start this conversation! In my other browser window I’ve got your poem ‘Sometimes in a Moment of Déjà Vu’ open, so it seemed appropriate to get our two tin cans together and: ‘Talk to me. Say something. Use words I don’t have to go back to college to understand.’ I guess from that, something I’d really love to talk to you about is the role of language in making hierarchies of access and meaning! What’s your take?

@sadqueer4life, January 12
Hi there! I really appreciate that you’ve chosen that poem/line to open this discussion with because I think it goes a long way towards encapsulating what much of my work is concerned with – poetry is in many ways my attempt to reach out and communicate with a world that is more often than not frightening and alienating to me as a trans woman. Furthermore, I desire community with others who’ve been shut out and have often been stripped of the ability to form functional communities due to the trauma that stems from systemic oppression, and who’ve been denied access to education.

The world of the academy was never one that seemed accessible to me even when I was eventually able to go back to school and learn nice big words and do very well for myself. There was always this sense that I was existing in its margins, that no matter how well I did I would still exist as this kind of abject non-person, that I would never be able to achieve my goal of producing transformative work. In other words, I don’t want to write poems solely for MFA students. I’m not interested in impressing academics. I don’t want to contribute to a structure whose only purpose seems to be the commodification of certain kinds of knowledge and the erasure of others – I want to resist it with all of my might. I am interested in some of the ideas behind the jargon and I’m interested in communicating the ideas I agree with in a way that the me from five or ten years ago would have appreciated. All of this is not to be infantilising or to claim that marginalised people are incapable of understanding dense academic language, but it’s just not something that speaks to me at all as a trans woman.

I want to imagine worlds outside this world. I want my work to exist in and move through a more spiritual and intuitive realm, and in my mind the academic and the spiritual are opposing forces that I can’t reconcile. I know this issue of language and accessibility is something you’re deeply interested in as well – in your poem ‘O, Eureka!’, you write about “long white theory word(s)” and how both authority and fear are linked to this kind of language. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with academia and your thoughts about its relationship to marginalised communities and forms of knowledge.

@AJ_Whittaker, January 14
Yes! I have to echo what you just said about jargon writing. Coming from my tradition in poetry and languagework as a way of building community, the idea of just putting a poem out that people would look to and look at is bizarre! It’s not just a simplification of language (like you said – not to infantalise), but to make something you can bark back at. In that same way, just echoing what you’ve said right back into the valley, you can also craft a language beyond language! An intuition of meaning that you can make through negative space, through crafting stuff that seems like it’s nothing, or seems minimalist. That’s something you lose, something intimate and personalised you miss if you’re writing flat poetry that just tries to code I’-M I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L. What a waste!

I’m so interested that you describe yourself as not reconciling the academic and the spiritual. It’s something I’ve personally felt constrained by as I poet (v), but I also wear a scholarly-ish hat. I’ve found a way to weave the spiritual and the academic together, which is a shit way of me trying to express this because I don’t think it acknowledges that the root of any thinking I do or make is in my spiritual and cultural identity as a Gomeroi woman. In ‘O, Eureka!’, I try to talk about how that genius gets driven out by colonisation. It drove me out from what I was told from when I was a birralii, and it manipulated me to prioritise white knowledge, and cishet men’s knowledge, and wound those Indigenous women in my life who gave me the real knowledge relevant to me. I’m not sure I can attribute that to hierarchies of access to language either – my language, Gamilaraay, has hierarchical access in another way. There’s just something about English – feels like a master’s tools/master’s house thing for me.

I guess you could say that I’ve reconciled spirituality and academia from my perspective by making them the same, and making them as reciprocal as I can. Also, I just unabashedly and tackily love my Nan – who is the knowledge-wielder of ‘O, Eureka!’ I like being earnest and unembarrassed about love and adoration in poetry, and I love watching QTWOC globally be unashamed of love in poetry, where ‘love poem’ is often used as an insult.

What’s the role of love in your work? I’m trying to get a copy of your first collection I’m Alive / It Hurts / I Love It to turn up in Australia, so until then I’m combing through your online imprint. One thing I’m seeing woven through your works is a shuddering, solid love and protection for trans women, drawing selves into orbit and literally lifting up trans women with ‘The Moon is Trans’. Did you wanna talk about that?

@sadqueer4life, January 17
I love what you’ve said here about reconciling the spiritual and the academic with reciprocity – this is something I’ve hoped to accomplish despite my misgivings about academia, and to hear someone else who also has a conflicted relationship with the academy speak in these terms warms my heart!

And speaking of warming hearts, love—another thing seemingly in conflict with this current state of academised poetry—is maybe what I mean by spirituality. Or at least spirituality becomes a means to finding love. Or maybe love is means to finding spirituality. Possibly both. To me, love is about exploration and excavation and radical destruction and all the messy attempts to create that which does not yet exist, but must be imagined into existence for us to be able to survive.

For a brief period in my life, during the time I was entrenched in the academic world, I felt like I had lost love, or that I had ceased to believe in it as anything more than a function of power, a way for capitalism to continue to replicate itself. This is such an ugly and sad way to view the world. It feels like an acceptance of defeat. I believe it is my job as a poet to reclaim, to redefine, to misname, and to challenge the agreed upon meanings of signs and symbols. So I reclaim love. I loudly and proudly use the word in my poems. I use it to mean intimacy and community, and I also use it to mean fire and death and apocalypse – the end of this world and the beginning of a new one. I aim to describe a love that not only uplifts those marginalised beneath patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, etc. but also seeks to destroy those systems. Love is not simply about peace – love is about violence towards that which stands in the way of peace.

Love is also about losing your individuality, about recognising that it never really existed – it’s about seeing yourself in others and others in yourself. This is what I’m thinking of when I’m writing poems for other trans women (and cis women and trans and gender nonconforming people in general – all victims of patriarchy). It’s about blurring boundaries between the self and the world, and coming to live in a realm that we haven’t yet been allowed to realise is there – the realm of the spiritual, where love is able to flourish, where we say “I” to mean “we” and “we” to mean “I”, where the self as we know it goes to die.

With that said, I’ve been spending some time reading your work that I’ve been able to find online (I also just bought Lemons in the Chicken Wire and am sooo excited to read it), as well as interviews you’ve done, and I feel very drawn to this idea of rendering visible that which has been made invisible. Would you be interested in further discussing your experiences with this as a Gomeroi woman, as it relates to excavating these experiences and attempting to tell stories that have been erased? I’d also really like to hear more about the role of love in your poetry, if you’d like to talk about it!

@AJ_Whittaker, January 18
Thanks for sharing that! I feel fresh from it (plus we’re having a pretty choking heatwave right now and I got your message right as a southerly wind came through – coincidence)!

I wonder if that radical resisting love for community is kind of like dissolving into the whole? When I write poetry, I cling to writing in the first person for the same reason as you! Not trying to impose like any universal truth, but to string a thread between a huge group of people that might only touch them in one place, but at least tugs us together.

Thanks also for seeing the in/visibility split in my work. I like to think of it like just casting a light onto that which is strategically unseen – especially the strength and resilience of Aboriginal women. Maybe it’s less like casting a light, now that I’m thinking about it, but like shifting the angle of a light so new kinds of shadows are cast? So, Aboriginal women are hypervisible as kind of this poetic or public or literary object here – new territory to be conquered (an opportunistic spotlight), half-drawn hapless villainesses (a light from below the chin), cowering victims (a light from above) – but never given that glory of a fuller light that, even when it omits flaws, is still filling a role in seeing so fully. Even idolising, maybe? That might be how I’d answer the love question too, ay. Glory, idolatry, complexity – new light sources, ancestor and peer worship in verse! Holding onto and naming what is seen, and from where. Idk.

Something I’m a little conscious of in writing the above is the question of the ‘bias’ in my view as a poet – but obvs I reject that turning the lens back on myself and my mob from our way of knowing is bias or wounds my poetry. It’s a weird hang-up I have. How do you see your perspective? I’d love to know, if you’re happy to tell, how you shape and name your gaze and how it in turn moulds your technical craft (and your craft of love)! Do any readers or listeners ever respond to it?

@AJ_Whittaker, January 20
Also, we can just yarn if you want! What have you been up to since 2017 started?

@sadqueer4life, January 20
Since the year started I’ve been mostly working on staying mentally/emotionally healthy and planning my wedding. It kind of feels like the world is about to end, so I’m just trying to appreciate small moments and love as much as I possibly can. I live with my partner and we’re raising a pup together, so I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by goodness right now. It makes everything else sort of bearable. Other than that, things are a bit up in the air! I had planned on applying to several MFA programs this year, but decided against it for many of the reasons I brought up earlier – so I’m a little adrift at the moment, and waiting to see what’s going to happen before I make my next move. How about you? How have things been lately?

@AJ_Whittaker, January 20
Of course! Hey, just happy to get to know you a little! So important to do that sustaining work, ay. I think I’m learning that bit by bit this year.

Congrats on your wedding coming up! I imagine things must weigh very heavy on everyone today (tonight? I’m thrown about by the time difference). Love and power to you and yours. Including a pup!

Crucial to build family and be surrounded by goodness. Maybe not such a bad thing to be adrift? I’m so excited to see what good things happen for you this year! I might actually be coming to Turtle Island for the upcoming academic year. I’ll let you know! Hoping to do my LLM there, so things here feel a bit like they’re in limbo. For Indigenous Australia, the first month of the year is pretty much spent fortifying ourselves for January 26, which is a national holiday that celebrates our genocide and colonisation. So January’s always a garbage month, but I feel like things are on a precipice of some kind this January. Guess we’ll just wait and see, but I’m just trying to embrace goodness with me and my mob and my partner too. All the best for the next twenty-four hours. I’ll be thinking of you!

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her most recent collection There Should Be Flowers was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in August 2016.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet living and writing on Gadigal and Wangal lands. Her debut collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire was shortlisted for the Scanlon Prize and was awarded the 2015 State Library of Queensland’s black&write! fellowship.

‘In Motion: a Conversation Between Poets’, by Omar J Sakr and Lawrence Lacambra Ypil


Image by torbakhopper. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Kicking off a new series of discussions between poets, editor Omar J. Sakr and award-winning poet Lawrence Lacambra Ypil talk in-text, in real and unreal time, in a collaborative Google Document.

OJS: I wish I was interviewing you in person. We are separated by at least one ocean, however. I thought it might be best to begin by letting people know where we are, so they can envision the respective spaces being bridged. I am in a small bungalow which sits toward the back of my cousin’s chicken farm. This place is free, in the sense that I am not paying for it. I am writing at a small $60 desk bought at Kmart. There are thirty-one books stacked on it, some bought, some gifted, as well as a pen, origins unknown, an empty can of drink, bug spray, an unplugged lamp, a slain Coca-Cola branded glass and… I’m realising now how absurdly messy this desk is, so I’m going to stop here out of embarrassment.

Picture a mounted studio apartment in a field, slovenly occupied, and you have it.

LLY: What I would give to be writing in a chicken farm. I’m outdoors now, on campus, in the middle of one of the university’s courtyards where I am for the moment its writer-in-residence. This must be what it means to write-in-residence, to write where one lives, which in this case means I am here with my laptop on a table thing on a Monday morning writing for everyone to see. A student approaches. “What are you doing?” “I am writing.” “Your own work?” “Trying.” She says, “I hope you become an inspiration to yourself.”

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I am writing on campus, but my mind is really elsewhere – somewhere closer to the business centre of Singapore, Orchard Road, where I was having coffee last night thinking about your question. I had read it earlier in the day and it made me think of answering it in a more interesting place. I have found myself needing to be in busy, noisy places for me to write: hawker centres, malls, places where one can distract oneself with the sound of a cart or the neatly folded jeans of a stranger or the beak of a bird, there are many of them here, one of them in front of me now, but no, not last night. Last night, I was thinking about what I was going to write you in the morning and now that it is morning, I am writing this. (9:16 am)

OJS: In your email just now, you asked “how does one conduct a ‘moving’ interview”? One in which we are mobile, elastic with our time and space. Here I see you have already answered in part. Sometimes a question cannot be resolved in one place–the knowledge, the words lie elsewhere. So we move, we find other trees to bracket our bodies, other hungry sounds to fill the silence and allow us to unlimber our minds. In practice, I initiate this by walking long distances. Keep myself moving. I struggle with stillness, the sitting and the pouring-out part. I think this is why poetry is so perfectly suited to me. The longer I sit, the more I feel I lose what I have gathered with my movement. The pouring-out is quickest with poems, and thereafter I can take as long as I like to sort through and refine the mixture.

Fittingly, I have moved since the first question: I am now in Melbourne city, in a library. Another free place, using free internet. There is a man sprawled nearby on a couch-bed (it has become a new thing by his use of it), and he is releasing the most ferocious snores I have heard, long wounded noises like a wheezing elephant. By his unclenched hands are two volumes of the comic, ‘Powers’.

LLY: I imagine you moving, as I am moving myself. I am thinking about restlessness just as I have come back from a walk and spent much of the morning sitting at the nearby hawker centre: a five-minute walk to the bus stop, a few more minutes in the bus, and then a few more to find my favorite table looking into a busy intersection. I have found these quick trips outside of campus more and more necessary, the pristine and orderly and dependable conditions of the university, while perhaps ideal for other writers of different predispositions, has in many ways run counter to my impulses for recklessness, agitation, surprise. I sense that the same impulses govern your writing, your decision to be a poet, especially in the context of finding the form that best allows you to breathe and move and be.

Since I’ve begun this residency last year, I’ve been thinking about the role of poetry in the academe. I’ve been especially interested in the way failure functions in the making of poems. In an environment that prizes deliberateness, clarity, the well-formed thought of the academic paper (a form I am continuously made to reckon with in student consults at the Writers Centre) I find that poetry with its emphasis on the materiality of language and on risk, provides a necessary counterpoint to that sense of control and willfulness so prized in many other disciplines. To surrender to language—anyone attempting to write a poem understands this call, the apparent powerlessness in the writing of poems—becomes the very source of its power.

OJS: It’s funny you say that about dependable orderliness, when so many writers would no doubt find that ideal. There is a balance to this: today, I am back on the farm, and since leaving it yesterday, my cousin has installed a beehive near my bungalow. This morning an alarmed bee interrupted my writing, and there followed frantic minutes of dodging and weaving, until I got the door open and a gust of wind carried it off. Then, I noticed a spider, and had to deal with that. Nature with its interruptions, my mind with its distractions, my desk with its mess. Now I think writing has less to do with the place, be it orderly or chaotic, and more to do with the entering and the leaving of it. We return to movement.

Given the active nature of this, the way we prick at the tension that threads the body when travelling between two points, can we claim poetry as surrender? But I know exactly what you mean. My true joy is the blanket unknowing I feel when I begin a poem; there is no source to cite other than life itself, no parameters to heed, only the leap into unexpected knowledge. In that sense, you absolutely give up control – you leap, but only after a long run-up. Tell me about the run-up to ‘The Hour Is A Dirty Pocket.’

LLY: ‘The Hour’ is a little sort of tribute to the TV contests I grew up watching in the Philippines, mostly on Sundays, right after family lunch, before I would go on siesta mode for the afternoon. Those shows always seemed to me like sad spectacles of hope in my otherwise poor country. Fleeting, glittering, the sheen of the hair of the show’s host. This poem automatically came to mind when I read about your issue’s theme, ‘Capital’.

OJS: Was it a show like The Price Is Right? I remember watching that as a kid in my aunt’s housing-commission home, and on reflection, there is something nauseating about the extreme excitement, the jumping joy of people winning household items they likely couldn’t otherwise afford. Not-having-enough being dressed up in lights. This is something you capture in your poem, but maybe you can tell me a bit more about life in the Philippines? Are you worried about how things are turning out now under Duterte?

LLY: To live in the Philippines, as it is to live in many other parts of the world, is to live with unpredictability, whim: yours, your neighbor’s, someone around the corner, someone “up there”. It thrives on and even prides itself in an aesthetics and ethics of improvisation. You make do. You bend backwards. You go with the flow. You very early on understand that you belong to a history of someone “up there” bending the rule to his whim – whether that be a colonizing power of three hundred years ago or a dictator. You watch in horror, as one would perhaps the game I watched when I was young called Kwarta o Kahon (roughly translated into “Money or the Box”), as the contestant gambles the stakes that have been piling up in the past hour in exchange for whatever the box may contain: the papers for a house and lot, a household showcase including a washing machine you can’t afford to pay the electricity bill for, a pile of leaves. You watch, you watch, and hope. You hope especially for the sense of humor that will tide you through the wrong decisions: the kind of laughter that comes from the gut, liberating, Bakhtinian, not that staid and hollow laughter you give because you are scared that if you don’t snicker it will cost your life.

OJS: I want to say, “surrender, in this context, feels like a dangerous word” but in this context every word becomes dangerous. Every word becomes both run-up and fall, every word redoubles its speed, moving into and out of bodies. It is too easy–in a distant country where words are meaningless, where the truth is a rag too sodden to make out its marks, and everything is denied or distorted–to speak of what is dangerous. Is this why we give ourselves over to poetry, to reinvest meaning into a language wrung dry of it? It feels facetious to even suggest it. Life’s vulgarities make a joke out of everything, honestly. So yes, it is important to have a sense of humour. Laughter, at least, is free.

LLY: And when earned through the care for language that is found in all good poetry, then perhaps it frees us.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32: The Capital Issue. Get your copy here, or read it in digital form here.

Omar J Sakr is The Lifted Brow’s poetry editor. His first collection, These Wild Houses, is published by Cordite Books.

Lawrence Lacambra Ypil is the author of The Highest Hiding Place. He recently received an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa.

An Interview With Sam Wallman, TLB32 Cover Artist


To celebrate this morning’s announcement of our pay-what you think it’s worth experiment for TLB32—and just as a general reminder that this excellent edition is a thing out there in the world that you can read—our two new arts editors, Ben Juers and Bailey Sharp, have interviewed the issue’s cover artist, the tremendously talented Sam Wallman. This interview resumes our occasional series of short interviews with Brow cover artists.

Sam Wallman is a cartoonist and comics-journalist based in Melbourne.

The Lifted Brow: Given the political substance of your work (which is everywhere right now), asking you to do the cover for a Capital-themed issue of the Brow seems like an obvious choice. How do you feel about being thought of as a ‘political cartoonist’?

Sam Wallman: Firstly, I am so glad the Lifted Brow exists, it’s such great bottom-up culture, and it supports such a diversity of voices, I really appreciate being asked to do the cover. Especially for the ‘Capital’-themed issue. I feel like people don’t feel very confident using the c-word these days.

As for being called a political cartoonist I feel pretty good about it I think, yeah. There seems to be a desire among a lot of cartoonists to be called “graphic novelists” or “visual storytellers” or fuckin I dunno, all these fancy terms, as if the lineage of the art form isn’t something to be proud of. I see my practise coming from the same lineage as hieroglyphics, and from, like, people in the 1800s explaining political ideas through images and metaphors, when the broader population wasn’t able to read words. I love the lineage I work inside of.

That said, there are a lot of political cartoonists doing their best to give us a bad name, hahaha. The racist dickheads at Charlie Hebdo, Bill Leak, the newspaper cartoonists deploying the same stale visual metaphors that have been used for the last 100 years. It’s no wonder memes are taking over at the game of exploring politics visually. When’s the last time you lolled at a newspaper cartoon? Like, maybe Michael Leunig made you feel sum flimsy whimsy or do a little sad chuckle but that can’t compete with the energy of memes. I’m glad for the pressure, because it means I feel compelled to focus my energy on comics-journalism, and more inventive forms of graphic politics.

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TLB: Many—maybe a majority—of memes are more or less in comics form. If the “graphic novel” and other fancy terms indicate status anxiety on the part of comics, do you reckon memes are the counterpoint? Like embracing the medium’s roots as mass culture? Or are memes a whole other thing unto themselves? Does it even matter?

SW: Haha yeah memes seem to be so comfortable in their own skin. Especially for such a young form. And they expect a lot from the audience which is great. I feel like so many cartoonists take easy shots to build their career, or to sell papers or clicks.

You’re right when you say memes embrace the same roots as cartoons, but memes do it in such an immediate way. Like, I bet people used to open the newspaper and look at a cartoon and think “Wow that just happened in Parliament yesterday and already here is an artwork about it”. Now you have people making memes literally as things happen. They occur as the thing occurs. Like, you could watch the presidential debates unfold as memes if you wanted, as if it was a sports commentary. And you get funny, insightful, high level analysis. Instead of one (usually white, male, middle-aged and straight) cartoonist, who had been appointed by the conservative newspaper editor, you now have thousands of producers folding in on themselves, without hierarchy, without ownership and with an immediacy that is so fun and exciting.

It’s a shame none of them get paid! If we had a universal income, everyone could be making stuff all of the time. Instead we’re seeing meme producers trying to integrate their services into the economy in really fumble-y ways. Some are trying to monetise their accounts, with paid-for memes, which are almost always awful, and people really get riled up about it in the comments section. I wonder where that stuff will be in five years.


TLB: I saw a cartoon you did where a lady is wearing a shirt reading “join yr fucking union”. The next day, I joined my fucking union. How did you get involved with union work?

SW: Ahh, that’s so good to hear! I can’t believe it isn’t just a given that when we have a job, we just immediately join the union. Like putting on your shoes. There are no working- or middle-class jobs in this country without a representative union. Even the unemployed have one now. I understand though, I mean, I was kind of anti-union as a teenager, having the default centre-right politics of Australia’s unconscious running through me. I worked a lot of nasty factory and warehouse and sex club and call-centre jobs, and I felt that pointed alienation and rage toward sleazy and greedy employers, which changed my politics soon enough. I was kinda just ignorant or like numb prior to that. Also I learnt a bit of history, that basically everything that’s good in Australia came from collective organising, and a lot of it in the form of trade unions – that woke me up. I found that even if I was in a really bleak job, being an active member of the union made that work meaningful. Kicking back is an excellent way out of alienation.

So I was an active delegate, which is like a voluntary union representative, at a call centre I worked at in the city, a few years ago. Soon after becoming active in that role, the union approached me and invited me to work for them directly, which I was very grateful for. They built me up a lot, different skill sets and different kinds of confidence, and even though I eventually quit so I could draw full-time, they still feel like family to me for real.

TLB: What do you think of Uber, Airbnb and other examples of the ‘sharing economy’? Are they a threat to unionism?

SW: Kinda, yeah, but I don’t think there needs to be a binary position when we’re talking about these services. I don’t wanna be ‘for’ or ‘against’ them. They exist and they will continue to exist. Like, sure, they are hyper-capitalist, hyper-exploitative corporations who dress themselves up as progressive and utopian while not giving a shit about their workers or literally anything except their bottom line. But hotels and taxis and the old industries are not great either. Owners of taxis take huge cuts of the money that drivers earn. The drivers are atomised and are not organised industrially. And hotels are whatever.

Uber is awesome the way it’s so easy to order and pay and monitor the trip. And the flexibility of the drivers situation would be great too, if it came with guarantees of wages, and if the incredibly profitable company were to cover the costs of the cars, and superannuation, and insurance, and sick care and holiday pay and annual leave and maternity leave and all of the things that took hundreds of years of struggle to win. And if they didn’t make the drivers give people lollies and drinks out of their own pockets, what the actual fuck. Also this whole ‘star rating’ thing is so gross, imagine being at work and feeling like you were being judged like you were on Australian Idol. But these are young industries, so hopefully we will see people start to organise within them.

There have already been wildcat strikes, which are grassroots strikes without any union involvement, forming organically and rapidly in London by UberEats drivers. No industry is formed with a pre-made force ready to make demands of the bosses. That has to come from workers deciding that things aren’t fair.

TLB: At this moment, you’re nearing the end of a trip to the U.S., where you covered the election through daily cartoons for SBS Online. Did your time there confirm or contradict any preconceptions you had about the political process, the candidates and their supporters?

SW: My work was focusing mostly on the voters. My whole thing was that I’d produce the only coverage that didn’t feature Hillary or Trump, hahaha. I was working for a number of outlets, SBS being one of them – they have an obligation to appear non-partisan and unbiased, because they receive funding from the government. That ended up not being such a challenge since I really disliked both candidates. 

I had organised to go to the U.S. to draw about the election when I thought it was going to be a mythic Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump showdown. What eventuated was something much more bleak. And just about everyone in the U.S. felt it. Less than half of the sixty per cent of Americans who actually voted cast their ballot for Donald Trump. And everyone I spoke to who voted for Hillary really mistrusted her. It was depressing, but at the same time I was impressed by the clarity of analysis from people on the street. People who like Hillary would call it cynicism, but I think a deep criticality about that election was so warranted. People are so tired. And that’s what I noticed after Trump won.

Friends back in Australia were asking me “Are people there freaking out?”, but where i was, in Detroit, a lot of people are not invested enough in establishment politics to be scared of Trump. Nearly 50% of the population there is illiterate. My friend’s buddy was killed for a $20 note. The police don’t respond to the majority of call-outs. Things are already so dire, that a lot of people were willing to take a gamble on Trump. Hillary was marketed as the safe bet, but a safe bet on business as usual sounded like a horrific option to a great majority of people. At least Trump was acknowledging that the nation was ablaze. Meanwhile you had Hillary walking around saying “AMERICA IS ALREADY GREAT”. No wonder people got grossed out.

I remember looking out the window of a bus I was on immediately after reading a New York Times pro-Hillary puff piece on my phone, in which she was quoted saying that ‘America is already great’ line, and the streets were cracked and there were homeless people everywhere, and everything looked like shit, and the bus I was on was hours late, and I was just like, “where do you live?” Progressive patriotism or nationalism always falls on its ass, whether it’s from Hillary Clinton or on ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ posters. When Bernie spoke about America, he talked about the things people have struggled and fought for being great, about the struggle being great, he talked about the resilience of working class people and their ability to organise. In no speech I heard did he heap praise on a white supremacist nation, insisting that it was once great, or imagining that it already was.

‘One Hundred Per Cent Sincere, One Hundred Per Cent Ironic: an Interview with Geoff Dyer’, by Emily Laidlaw


How much does place shape an interview? Geoff Dyer is sitting in his luxury hotel room in Adelaide; I am in a drab office building in Melbourne. I am at what people refer to as their ‘day’ job, although it is slowly creeping into the evening. I am nervous about speaking to someone I admire, someone who is so admired by other writers. I check my boss isn’t around, and dial his number.

Interviewing someone by phone is disorientating: you can’t read their body language, you hold your breath as their voice travels down the line. Adelaide is half an hour behind Melbourne, but when I call he is still on Los Angeles time.

Time and space are central themes in Dyer’s latest book of essays White Sands; rather explicitly so in ‘Space in Time,’ and ‘Time in Space’. In both these essays he travels to sites of American land art; respectively Walter De Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field’ and Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’. The landmarks are impressive, Dyer writes, but they never quite live up to their famous photographs. It leads him to expound on the idea of travel – the anticipation it excites, the impression it leaves, the disappointment it rouses. Travel is at once mind-altering and mind-numbing.

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He answers the phone, and we conduct the usual pleasantries. He sounds nice. I don’t know what I was expecting. Most likely I was expecting the Geoff, or ‘Jeff’ of his books – the pompous ladies’ man.

“The very first place I ever came to in Australia was Adelaide,” he tells me. He was last in Adelaide six years ago, to promote his ‘novel’ Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. (Anyone who’s ever read Dyer will understand that inverted commas are typical when describing the genres of his books, which sit somewhere between fiction and nonfiction; biography and autobiography; criticism and travelogue.) “I’m such a creature of habit,” he says. “I remember having a wonderful breakfast at the market. So I went back there yesterday and today. The exact thing I liked wasn’t there because the guy who makes it was on holiday,” he says, disappointed.

My mind starts to wander. I too am the sort of person who would go to a restaurant and automatically order the same thing I had last time if I liked it. What does that say about me? More importantly, what does that say about Geoff? And what does it say that I am thinking about what that means, rather than my next question?

He interrupts my train of thought with a question of his own. “What is that beeping by the way?” The line at my end is clear and I tell him I can’t hear anything, but apologise if he can. I’m using an app to record the conversation. I’ve never used it before. I’m quietly terrified it’s not working properly. The image of me hanging up, hitting play, and hearing dead air loops in my mind. I keep thinking of that scene in Jeff in Venice, when main character Jeff gets stoned with a notoriously prickly woman he’s interviewing and forgets to press record. I’m obviously not stoned but I tell myself that if such an event were to occur it would be okay, because then I’d have the perfect frame for the piece – I too, in some miraculous art-mirroring-life scenario, would walk away empty-handed. It wouldn’t be dire, it would be Dyer. I’m already drafting it in my heard. I could just make all the answers up. It would be the perfect marriage of fiction and nonfiction. It would be so meta.

Of course, this would hardly be an original move on my part. Dyer, who writes across a wide range of genres and subjects, is routinely asked to comment on whether his work is fiction or nonfiction. Perhaps, anticipating this, he opens White Sands with the prologue:

Like my earlier blockbuster, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, this book is a mixture of fiction and nonfiction … The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line—a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender—it is assumed to stand. In this regard, White Sands is both the figure at the centre of the carpet and a blank space on the map.

It’s a cryptic statement, but Dyer’s writing often asks more questions than it answers. In the opening essay of White Sands, ‘Where? What? Where?’, Geoff travels to the islands of French Polynesia to follow in the footsteps of Paul Gauguin. The trip is a farcical disaster, forcing Dyer to ponder the philosophical questions of travel Gauguin had inscribed in large capitals on his famous painting of Tahiti: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’. Dyer is somewhat more blasé about travel when speaking on the phone:

Sometimes I’ll go to a place that I’ve read quite a bit about and it won’t be that the place is disappointing, it’ll just be that nothing much happens there, that lends itself to writing… There’s no relation between a place’s reputation, let’s say, and the chances it will result in a great story.

In the past Dyer has said that his writing is deliberately disappointing, in that it doesn’t behave as it should. He repeats this sentiment during our conversation when I ask him to discuss an essay he is particularly proud of. He singles out the short, sharp ‘White Sands’. The essay—about driving through New Mexico and picking up a hitchhiker who may or may not be an ex-prisoner—is not the most formally innovative or conceptually interesting of the collection, but definitely one of the funniest.

It’s not for nothing that the book is called White Sands. That piece seems to me sort of central in that it’s both a story and an essay. Reading it you can’t really tell exactly what kind of writing it is, I hope, you know, it doesn’t behave properly as an essay is expected to, or as a story. As I say in the preface, that’s like the pattern at the centre of the carpet, it seems to me it’s emblematic of a lot of what’s going on in the book as a whole.

From its early aristocratic days, the consumption of travel literature has been limited to a privileged strata of society. While the travel writers of bygone eras might have focused on the conquest of land, Dyer often focuses his gaze on women. In White Sands, the essay ‘Forbidden City’ is typical of this: ‘Geoff’ recounts a trip to Beijing where he falls for a beautiful guide who leads him around the titular, suggestive sounding landmark. Going solely by his books one might assume his life is nonstop leisure – indeed nonstop pleasure. On the contrary, his work output is formidable. White Sands is Dyer’s fifteenth published book, not to mention the many essays and articles he writes in-between.

Over the years I’ve kept a folder on my computer of travel writings that could potentially become a book. I wanted White Sands to be more than just a random collection of pieces – it had to have some sort of aesthetic form of its own.

One of the obvious differences to me is there’s so much drug taking in Yoga and there’s no drugs at all in White Sands. The similarities are quite striking, there’s still the physical journeys but always there are these quite easy moves into the metaphysical. Similarly, in form, the pieces have the same combination of being both fictional stories and being sort of essayistic.

On the page, Dyer is full of puns and non sequiturs; he is deft at repetition and establishing in-jokes. A sense of humour though, is like taste in literature: you’re either going to warm to it, or not. You’ll either consider Dyer a biting satirist or a massive egotist. A crude thematic summary of his ‘travel writing’—and many of his essays are crude—is such: Geoff goes to Paris and smokes skunk. Geoff goes to Thailand and takes ecstasy. Geoff goes to Amsterdam and trips on mushrooms. Geoff pursues a beautiful woman. Geoff sleeps with a beautiful woman. Always a beautiful woman.

On the phone he doesn’t sound like this Geoff. He sounds nice, affable. Or maybe this is his façade? Either way, I am not doing his essays—or the man—any justice by these descriptions. Labelling his essays in White Sands ‘travel writing’ may also be a slight misrepresentation.

I never feel like I’m sitting down to write travel or any other kind of book really. I’m always just writing about… it’s always just writing. (I picture him throwing up his hands in a shrug motion.) I tend not to read travel writing as such. I’m conscious that some of the books I’ve most liked have been books by people who have travelled and who have written about places.

I’d even go so far as to say that in a way my book about photography, The Ongoing Moment […] was a travel book even though the only travel I did was to go upstairs from the kitchen in the morning to my study. But then I’d go to this other world, this place that I was trying to explore and understand and get to know, and that place was American photography. It was really exciting and a different world and I had to learn its language in a way that people do when they travel. So for me, it’s place that’s so important.

Reading about Geoff Dyer I end up reading a lot about D.H. Lawrence. The subtitle of White Sands, ‘Experiences from the Outside World’, comes from the essay by Lawrence. Many of Dyer’s books focus, in some way or another, on the renowned English author, most notably his ‘biography’ of Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. Lawrence believed certain places like Taos Pueblo in New Mexico possessed a kind of ‘nodality’ and Dyer circles around this concept in White Sands. Lawrence writes: “When you get there you feel something final, there is an arrival.”

This idea is also explored through artwork in White Sands; a print of Elihu Vedder’s 1863 painting, ‘The Questioner of the Sphinx’ is included. Echoing Lawrence, Dyer views the image of a lone wayfarer in Egypt’s desert as “trying to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.” It’s this sense of nodality, this sense of wonder and awe Geoff writes about throughout White Sands which strikes me. I tell him that sincerity is the wrong word, but his essays in White Sands feel sincerer than those drug-addled ones in Yoga. He respectfully disagrees.

I would respond by quoting a line in another book of mine, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, where, in part two, he talks about arithmetic. An important mathematical theory for him is that it’s possible to be one hundred per cent sincere and one hundred per cent ironic at the same time. That’s quite important too. In a sense I would reject the claim that you made because sincerity and irony are not incompatible modes, if you like.

What does this mean though? It isn’t until I’m transcribing the conversation afterwards, my fingers darting over the keyboard, my foot on the audio pedal, skipping the conversation backwards and forwards, that I take a moment to properly consider this. Was this in fact a sincere statement? He says something similar in White Sands, writing “Seriousness is not the opposite of funny.” Much of Dyer’s writing is funny, which is why it’s so fun to read. But ironic? Irony suggests a doubling of meaning which is antithetical to sincerity’s straight-forwardness. Was he simply being ironic in his sincerity? Or sincere in his irony?

There’s a self-deprecating Britishness to his humour. Dyer describes himself in Yoga as “Long and skinny as an old branch,” and later, when I see him on stage at Melbourne Writers Festival, he hunches in his small chair and crosses and uncrosses his legs while joking about his lankiness. He is an erudite man, eloquent, and skilled in the art of conversation, which makes him the perfect artist to program at a writers’ festival. In all three sessions I attended, he had the audience right in the palm of his hand as he moved from serious reflection on his craft to amusing anecdotes from his career. Unlike the main protagonist Jeff in Jeff in Venice—a delicious satire about the excesses on display at the Venice Biennale—he doesn’t appear to turn his nose up at the art world, he is a willing participant. Once, again I remind myself of the obvious: he is not his characters.

I remain incredibly grateful that I do get asked to go to [festivals]. You can be the kind of writer, like me, who just loves going to these things, and loves doing it, and I think, that’s probably the majority of writers, or you can be the kind of writer who says “No, it is a drain on my time, I like just sitting at home on my own, writing my books and that’s it.” And that’s fine as well. But what I can’t bear are these writers who say “Oh, you know, my publisher forces me to do it.” And they just sort of do it begrudgingly as though they’re fulfilling some sort of hideous contractual obligation. And my response to them is: “Fuck you, stay at home, there’s plenty of people who’d love to be doing this.”

We share a laugh and I end the conversation by mentioning the failed interview scene in Jeff in Venice. I’m curious if it’s a true story; it’s the interviewer’s greatest fear that the interview didn’t record. It’s a fiction, he tells me. Interviews are something he enjoys doing but not conducting. “I’ve actually done so few interviews. I did a few at the start but it’s something I was never really good at.”

I hang up and look at the timer on my phone. We’ve been speaking for less time than I thought – the flow of an interview always incites a strange temporality. I worry there won’t be enough to write this up. In Jeff in Venice, ‘Jeff’ muses that

He had been doing this kind of thing for long enough to realise that there was no need to spend hours conducting an interview. You could cut it down to twenty minutes and still have enough quotes to cobble a half-decent piece together—and half decent was still twice as good as it needed to be.

Fearing failure, I put off listening to the recording for weeks afterwards. It isn’t until I listen back that I can hear the beeping he mentioned. It interrupts our conversation every 30 seconds or so. I wince at every beep. My disappointment lingered for weeks afterwards. In the end, I’m strangely buoyed by something he repeats throughout our conversation: “It’s all just writing.”

In the best possible way, White Sands is a failed travel book – a book about the disappointment of travelling; its failure to take us places in the superior presence of our imaginations. “The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment … was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it,” writes Dyer in White Sands, consoling himself about his miserable trip to Tahiti.

Emily Laidlaw is a writer and editor from Melbourne. Her writing appears in Seizure, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue.

‘“So It Can Flourish as a Whole Within Me”: an Interview With Poet and Self-Translator Alison Whittaker’, by Elizabeth Bryer

To celebrate The Lifted Brow’s foray into publishing translated books, TLB’s new Translation Editor, Elizabeth Bryer, talked to Gomeroi poet, essayist, and self-translator Alison Whittaker.

The Lifted Brow: To start with the general picture: How, if at all, does translation or self-translation inform your creative practice?

Alison Whittaker: In a way, it’s all the creative practice I’ve got! I work mostly in the English language, so I’m always changing concepts and codes from this Gomeroi formulation I have of the world. Even when I’m working in my own language, Gamilaraay, my understanding and my expression is mediated through English as my first language. So, even though I’m working from a language frame that’s at the foundation of being Gomeroi, using Gamilaraay in my cultural practice is almost a double translation. That’ll change as my language knowledge grows, I hope, and I’ll be less bound by this colonial language frame. Translation’s at the core of what I do, wanted or unwanted!

TLB: ‘Wanted or unwanted’: This makes me wonder what the relationship is between language and oppression in your opinion. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s decision to forsake English to write in Gikuyu springs to mind. He said in an interview,

It was a revelation for me, in a practical sense, that you could write in an African language and still reach an audience beyond that language through the art of translation. Through the act of translation we break out of linguistic confinement and reach many other communities.

This view might be putting a rosy filter on things, but do you think translation can be a tool to work through the relationship between language and oppression? If there are losses along the way, how do you think these can be mediated, challenged or counteracted?

AW: I suppose it’s always bound by the context that clads a language, isn’t it? If I didn’t have that double-translation binding, maybe translation from Gamilaraay to English in order to expand a readership should shake a bit of the oppressive context of meaning-making in English. But it’s not that simple, and meaning-making in language isn’t always just a question of perspective or emphasis that’s explored through other words. The words themselves make the meaning. What is easily expressed in Gamilaraay might have no proper answer in English, and why would it? So much of colonisation has been about edging us out of our own meaning-making and ideas. If that meaning is at the level of the word, not just in a perspective that can be reflected in English, then translating into English is going to suppress that meaning. There’s little getting around it.

Our emphasis in translation needs to shift if we’re seriously thinking about it as a decolonial tool. I think it can be one. Readers themselves need to engage in translating (which might mean an incomplete translation or reading notes or guides), or translation has to eschew perfect readability for integrity. That’s integrity both in the ethical sense, and in the structural sense of meaning-making. And that means translation as an act of deep listening to a text rather than trying to depict a text.

TLB: Let’s talk a bit about specific examples in your work. Heteroglossia is an important feature, including in ‘O, Eureka!’ and ‘Sharp Tongue’. In the final two stanzas of ‘O, Eureka!’ the implied translation that happens in the space (and friction) between the juxtaposition of the ‘languages’ of Nan and the academy is very powerful. There is of course an aesthetic dimension to using different ‘languages’ within the same language, but how is your use here political?

AW: I use the friction between different languages—including between English, Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay—to highlight how they make and use power. When I wrote these poems, this friction was at the front of my mind. How can one language or way of knowing elevate itself over another? What kind of strength can push back? This is especially the case when we’re looking at language as a way of being precise and conveying expert truth as I was in ‘O, Eureka!’, or when looking at language as a way to revive as I was in ‘Sharp Tongue’.

Now I think I want to move beyond using Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay only to resist English, even though I think this use is important. As limiting as it is to work within a power dynamic if you reject it or disregard it and make it invisible, I’m now trying to pull my language use away from the friction it must withstand in coming up against English so it can flourish as a whole within me. That friction’s pretty significant when you’re up against a majority language. I want to know: what if my use of Aboriginal English or Gamilaraay just is, just sits on its own? I want to assert their worth prima facie, not just in terms of what they can push back against, but in their richness and complexity as self-standing ways of knowing and expressing. It’s a way to translate or do language without making Indigenous languages a flat, ‘anti-racist’ answer to English, I hope.

TLB: Sounds very exciting! What about your translation of your poem ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ into and then out of Gamilaraay for Seizure Edition Four. Your first English version of course already had Gamilaraay influence. But after translating that version into Gamilaraay and then back into English, were there any changes between the first and second English versions that surprised you? If there were, what do you attribute those changes to? And what do you think the effect could be for readers of seeing on the screen not only the English versions but also the Gamilaraay?

AW: So many surprises! The big shift was the movement towards sustenance and reconstruction in the latter version. Whereas the original ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ had a focus on friction in conflict and sexuality, relying on innuendo to get its point across to those with the requisite cultural knowledge, the second English version shifted its focus towards an ecology of relationships, selves and places. I attribute that to a few things. Like, for instance, the different architecture and focus of Gamilaraay as a language. Where I see English as descriptive, Gamilaraay is something else. Even its nouns seem to verb, for me. Only a little of that can come back into the second English version, which I guess is what English readers see in its transformation. It’s important that readers see the poem in Gamilaraay on the screen as its own poem, not just as a catalyst to change the meaning of a poem in English. I hope the effect of this is that readers might get their mouth around the words (especially since the text is a poem), or at least be able to understand how the transformation takes place. Even if they don’t, those words must still be there.

TLB: It’s an incredible poem, and fascinating to get to sound out those Gamilaraay words and read your translation of them. Is there anything you’d like to add about translation, either in your own creative practice or more generally?

AW: Thank you, Elizabeth! The only thing I would add is that the most crucial component of translation is the act of listening and reading deeply.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and essayist from the NSW floodplain fringe. Alison’s writing links the visceral with the political, drawing from her scholarship and work in cultural studies and Aboriginal women’s law and policy. She has words in Meanjin, Colouring the Rainbow, Archer, Tincture and the UTS anthology Seeds and Skeletons. Her debut verse novella, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, winner of the State Library of Queensland’s 2015 black&write! Fellowship, was released by Magabala Books in March 2016.

Elizabeth Bryer is The Lifted Brow’s translations editor, and wants to see your translation submissions (see guidelines here). Her translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning novel, Blood of the Dawn, is out with Deep Vellum Publishing this month. Recent writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin and Best Australian Science Writing, and she curated Seizure Edition Four: Translation.

‘In Conversation With Mahogany L. Browne’ by Sista Zai Zanda


Photo by Shell Daruwala. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

We at The Lifted Brow are presenting this conversation in support of Footscray Community Arts Centre’s phenomenal West Writers Forum 2016 program. If you like what you’ve read/heard in this conversation, come along to the One Night Stanza event at FCAC on Sunday July 22nd, 6pm–7pm, where both Mahogany L. Browne and Sista Zai Zanda will be performing alongside Candy Bowers, Bigoa, and DJ Wahe.

Introduction: I Stand as One But I Come as Ten Thousand

I first met Mahogany L. Browne when she came to Australia in 2011 as one of three poets on the Global Poetics Tour. We all need role models; and when she came to town and spread her poetry over us like the fairy dust that is #Blkgirlmagic, we all fell in love.

When I first met Mahogany, I was tongue-tied but I knew in my bones that there was something about her and her poetry that allowed me to see myself as a performance artist. As a young Black woman who had just started out on the local scene, I needed to hear a voice that spoke bravely about experiences and themes I had tucked away in my heart and only shared within the secure confines of my storytelling collective, Stillwaters.

As a Black artist I live in a time when there is an urgent need to speak out about the silently-acknowledged-and-yet-still-unspoken. Collectively unleashed, our tongues could expose systematic oppression and alter the status quo; they do say that the personal is political. Even so, I definitely still battle an inexplicable urge to self-censor and to tell ‘pretty’ and ‘uncomplicated’ stories that do not rock the white supremacist boat. We all need to stand in the physical presence of: the writer and performer who looks like us and dares break free, willfully lives liberated outside of pre-determined boxes. Mahogany taught me to honour poetry as a place to speak up, take up space and tell my truth.

Soon after that first meeting, I kept this particular track on high rotation as inspiration to dig deeper and place my honest truth on paper. I livicated the first volume of my first self-published work, Journey Back2Centre: Love. to women writers who have accompanied me on this difficult journey and pointed out the way back to self-love:

I give thanks for Stillwaters that lead me to dive deeper for wisdom and there I found XAPA, d’bi., bell, Akua, Mahogany and Alice … and the list goes on …

Black women who write, your work permanent inks my skin.

Mahogany’s poetry gave me the courage to be honest and vulnerable so that I could draw on my own inner strength to find my feet, stand my ground and speak my truth lovingly back to power.

Last Friday, I walked into the room where I met Mahogany and recorded this conversation. I arrived for our appointment with ideas that I owe to many women writers of colour: Black women whose writing has seeded ideas in my mind and heart. For those of us who know, although I do not mention their names explicitly throughout the conversation, you will feel their presence holding space in between the lines and within the pauses. You might find Xapa, a poetess from Zimbabwe who directly inspired me to reclaim myself by reclaiming the traditional cultural concept of God as a Black woman, as a loving and fierce Feminine spirit essence that ought to infuse my poetry with all the rich complexity of Black womanhood.

In that dub poem, you will hear the words ‘Black Pussy’, which I sampled from a poem by Mahogany where she reclaims the gaze and displaces misogynoir.

In any conversation about Love, I constantly refer back to bell hooks. Her trilogy on love intimately informs and inspires my own internal love revolution; and the soundtrack to my inner revolution is ‘This Mo(u)rning’ by Akua Naru who blessed me with the mantra “self-love is the very first romance”. Holding space between these lines you might also recognise d’bi.young anitafrika who taught me that performance art is a path to self-liberation. Last but not least, Alice Walker is also present as a constant reminder that the revolution for social justice begins with the self because “we are the ones we have been waiting for”.

All of these women have taught me that it is not only okay, but rather it is a necessity to write about the painful stuff – the first step towards healing is the acknowledgment and speaking of the pain.

In keeping with the idea that we need new tools—new ways of representing self—I offer the conversation to you in multiple formats. You can listen to the entire conversation here. You can also read my summary—my interpretation—of the interview below and reach your own conclusion after listening to the audio attached to each discrete section.

Many thanks to Candy Bowers for giving me her opportunity to write this review of Redbone for The Lifted Brow. It was an honour to speak with Mahogany in the lead up to her workshops, panel discussions and performances at the 2016 West Writers Forum. The full program of West Writers Forum events is available here. Mahogany and I met and recorded this interview at Footscray Community Arts Centre on Friday June 22nd 2016.

I. Encountering Pitfalls in the Daring Quest for Identity and Belonging

Not every biographer and family historian/storyteller is privileged with access to complete or accurate genealogical records. The search for roots can lead to a dead-end. How do we negotiate an impassable silence in the official written record or the verbal family record? Like towering rocky cliffs that we will never be able to climb, these silences could potentially throw the biographer into a state of denial, unspeakable frustration or saddened defeat. In a world dominated by the obsession with solid proof that is the consequence of our tacit acceptance of the ‘scientific method’ as the supreme method, suddenly, one genealogical report can throw a carefully ordered sense of self—a narrative of identity and belonging informed by verbal family record—into disarray. What do biographers from historically silenced and marginalized communities do when the dominant culture’s obsession with ‘fact’ and ‘evidence’ renders their oral record of identity and belonging a ‘lie’?

My conversation with Mahogany started with the silence and the silencing, which you can hear in the recording. We shared with each other our own experience of the collision between ‘fact’ and ‘myth’ during the process of researching and writing a family history.

II. Biomythography: Writing the Myth of the Self

In the 1980s, the intersectional feminist writer Audre Lorde created a literary genre that equally accommodates both myth and fact. Biomythography is a form that purposefully uses its own tools to carve its own path outside of the “master’s house”. Lorde recognized that the methodological pre-requisite of fact and chronological order inherent to the traditional form of biography actually served to uphold the dominant white supremacist, imperialist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy and silenced alternative voices and visions of ‘the self’:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Mahogany and I spoke about Redbone, her biomythography. This poem is about love. Specifically, Redbone tells the story of the relationship between her mother her father. In this part of our conversation, Mahogany speaks about her research process, revealing the tools she used to navigate the silences; and how she fashioned literary language to create a poem out of her mother’s verbatim testimony. You will also find out what motivated her to write the story of her parents’ love relationship.

III. The Personal Is Political: the Influence of Social Forces on How We Love

True intimacy arises out of a commitment to uncompromising honesty and vulnerability. In turn, in order that we can give nuanced expression to the complete range of our emotions and thoughts, we commit to remain open to the full texture of our vast emotional landscape. Yet, in order to survive misogynoir—a world that fails to embrace Blackness in general and Black women in particular with unconditional recognition, love and respect—many of us numb our emotions or seek love in all of the wrong places. In this particular time, can we name some of the social forces that negatively influence our capacity to sustain true intimacy – to truly see, love and respect one another and our selves?

Listen in to the conversation as Mahogany shares her ideas about some of the social forces that played a role in the breakdown of her parents’ relationship. Hear why it is so vital that we listen with equal respect to both reason (intellectualism) and emotion, especially in the context of the continuing genocide that is now thrust into public view and thrust up for political and legal resolution through the activism that takes place under the umbrella of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

IV. Righteous Anger and the Angry Black Woman

As a writer, anger is the emotion that I struggle with the most. I ask Mahogany about her experience with anger and writing. We delve into the “Jedi mind trick” that perpetuates the lie that it is never okay to speak our anger. What is the function of this mind trick? How can we tell if we have fallen prey to this trick? How can we embrace and use our anger constructively, without falling prey to its potentially debilitating and corrosive effects?

Any mention of ‘Black Anger’ is also a discussion about ‘respectability politics’ – the the binary notion of the ‘un/civilised’ person and ‘un/civilised’ behaviour. Mahogany draws a parallel between continuing genocide and the self-policing or internalized racism of respectability politics. What is the impact of performing respectability on the capacity of Black people to regenerate their cultures from a space of self-love?

VI. Respectability Politics in Redbone: Women Who Transgress in the Search for Happiness

We return to Redbone and focus on the women who, apparently, reject respectability politics. Hear Mahogany reflect on how it is possible to read the character of Redbone as a woman who shunned social standards in the search for happiness. We discuss the impact of personal decisions to transgress from the heteronormative standard of a patriarchal nuclear family unit on the configuration of the ‘Black Family’ as an extended family unit comprised of kin and kith. How does this configuration of the Black Family highlight how ‘respectability politics’ is fundamentally at odds with the unique ways in which Africans in the Diaspora actively define ‘family’ as a direct consequence of impact of chattel slavery on the ability to sustain close family ties?

VII. Kin and Kith as Family: a Black People’s Global Sense of Self and the New Era Civil Rights Movement

I wonder if this extended family system is part of the reason why Black people the world over generally feel such an affinity towards one another – even a stranger. I wonder if this sense of affinity informs the sense of solidarity we feel for the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

VIII. The Poet and the Social Movement in an Era of Celebrity

In an era where every raised platform easily converts to a stage; and every stage is often confused with an opportunity for celebrity; and every celebrity champions a cause, I am always left wondering – what exactly is the role of the poet in the social movements of the 21st century? Mahogany answers my question but takes the conversation into new terrain by describing tools that the writer can use to counter the narrative of celebrity and to keep telling their truth to power despite the fear that threatens to censor us from within. She finishes by explaining that her revolution is one of Love.

IX. Radical Love: Why Every Revolution Must Start and Finish From a Place of Love

The beauty of Mahogany’s work is that she writes so exquisitely and honestly about the most painful experiences of ‘not-love’: Smudge is just one example. Earlier, she told us why she wrote the biomythography Redbone and now, she finishes off by explaining further why her work is so deeply concerned with love; and why she believes that love in its many forms is the revolution for any enduring and effective movement for social transformation. Here, we also mention some of the great Black women writers-warriors-revolutionaries for Love.

X. Self-Care and #Blkgirlmagic

I could not finish our conversation without referring to Ms. Nina Simone and the influence that this iconic singer of the Civil Rights Era had on how so many Black women, including Mahogany, who wrote a poem to Ms Simone on page eight of her book, #DearTwitter: Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters or Less:

#dear nina simone: sing me beautiful, again and again.

We ended our discussion with mention of more incredible Black women, whose memories we evoke – the ten thousand on whose shoulders we stand even though we come as one. After excavating the pain and laying bare the fear, it was beautiful to end the conversation on that resilient note of that #Blkgirlmagic, which persists despite our daily encounters with a machine that is designed to kill us. #Blkgirlmagic is a tonic, a reminder that we have the power to transmute toxic social forces; and while the machine threatens to defeat, its genocidal attempts can also make us stronger as long as we remember that “self-love is the very first romance.”

I walked out of the Footscray Community Arts Centre with a bounce in my step, covered in the sparkle of that fairy dust that Mahogany brings.

Black women who write
Your work permanent inks my skin.

I hope I did the story proper justice, Mahogany: there are just so many textures and layers to capture when two Black women who write for the purpose of self-discovery, self-recovery and self-exploration meet and ‘Namaste’.

Sista Zai Zanda is a storyteller, educator and radio producer, performing and facilitating workshops in Australia, Denmark and Zimbabwe. Her current work-in-progress is a trilogy in the form of Biomythography called Journey Back2Centre:Love. Zai Zanda recently released her first soundtrack, God Is a Black Womban, a naked protest poem created in collaboration with Dub Reggae Producer Third Culture in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and organizations working with Sovereign Australians and towards decarceration. Zai has a self-published mini-book of essays and poetry that speaks to this naked protest poem, which has roots in her Afrikan cultural traditions. Zai curates a fun and intimate monthly spoken word event called The Pan Afrikan Poets Cafe, which she describes as the home of new, cutting-edge and classic Afrikan literature.

An Interview with Merv Heers


To celebrate the launch of The Lifted Brow’sexhibition of Riso prints in collaboration with the Emerging Writers’ Festival, TLB Events Coordinator Kate McKenzie chatted to artist Merv Heers, whose work is featured in a bunch of Brows including our most recent issue, Issue 30.

The Lifted Brow: Hi! How are you today?

Merv Heers: I am good thank you! I just woke up.

TLB: Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve contributed to the show? What ideas are you really interested in at the moment?

MH: The piece I contributed to the show is taken from a larger piece of illustration that I’ve been working on about the Old Testament and Gnostic Christianity. In particular I guess it’s about the link between pre-Judaic cultures of Mesopotamia and modern Western culture. The word Ninib in the top left corner refers to a solar deity who was worshiped in Babylonia and may have been the inspiration for the Biblical character Nimrod. I’m not a religious person but I’ve always found that sort of thing interesting.

TLB: Have you done Riso stuff before? Is it similar or different to your usual process?

MH: Just this year I’ve started printing the covers for my zine, No Brains, on a Risograph printer with my dear friends Marc Pearson and Michael Hawkins. It’s definitely a lot more complicated than the photocopier at the Sticky Institute but the results are a lot nicer plus it’s super trendy. The major difference is drawing everything in multiple layers which is an interesting challenge.

TLB: What does a day-in-the-life of you look like?

MH: I work part time washing dishes but on a good day I wake up in my apartment with my partner Charlotte and my rabbit Susan. I drink a lot of coffee and start working on a comic. I have about nine books going at one time in various stages of drafting, inking, editing etc. I try and work on only one or two a day though. I close all the blinds and work on the dining room table until Charlotte comes home in the evening. We usually watch a film or listen to an audio books in the evening and then later I try and stay up til around midnight working. It sounds quite productive but I take a lot of breaks.

TLB: Susan is a really great name for a rabbit. Would you mind sharing a picture?

MH: Susan is a really great rabbit.


TLB: Can you link me to a weird internet thing that you’ve found recently?

MH: The best thing I’ve found on the Internet lately is Let’s Paint, Exercise, Cook & Play Chess TV. It’s a public access TV show about a guy who paints portraits while exercising on a treadmill and doing various other activities while also taking live calls. If you get a good one the camera person also gets pretty experimental.

TLB: Since this is a collab with the Emerging Writers Festival, I’m gonna ask everyone a classic writers’ fest question: what’s on your reading list at the moment?

MH: On my reading list at the moment is Philip K Dick’s novel Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Kindred by Octavia Butler and the final novel in the Dune trilogy, Children of Dune.

TLB: The religious imagery in those sci-fi novels is really strong and pretty subversive, do you consider them an influence on your work?

MH: Oh yeah for sure! I’m a big sci-fi fan and I particularly like Philip K Dick’s exploration of religion and spirituality. I’m working on a comic book that’s based on a synthesis of scenes from his novels Martian Time Slip and Ubik as well as Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami.

TLB: Thanks for the chat. I’m going to go delve into the Let’s Paint back catalogue now.

MH: Thanks for chatting to me.

Merv Heers is a Melbourne-based comic book artist who is currently working on a Western about a cowboy in the afterlife.

‘The Relingos of Beijing: An Interview with Valeria Luiselli’, by Emily Laidlaw


A relingo—an emptiness, an absence—is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by the imagination and inhabited by our phantom follies. Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.

— Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks


It’s my first time in Beijing and I find myself reading Valeria Luiselli. We’ve come separately to Beijing to attend the Bookworm Literary Festival; Luiselli is promoting her new novel The Story of My Teeth, whereas I’ve come to sit in the audience and learn about literature in translation.

Luiselli is a writer of empty spaces, or ‘relingos’, an architectural term she adopts as a motif in her 2013 essay collection, Sidewalks. Her book maps out the landscapes of Mexico City, Venice, New York and elsewhere, with a focus on areas, real and imaginary, left to abandon. It feels appropriate to read Luiselli in Beijing. It’s a city so geographically large, so densely populated, yet to the keen eye, filled with absences.

Beijing has been knocked down and rebuilt many times. When the Communists took control in the middle of last century they wanted to destroy all vestiges of feudalism and their solution was to smash any reminders to the ground. So how do you read a city like Beijing? How do you look past the gaps, physical and political? How do you look through the smog, thick as concrete?

Cities have often been compared to language: you can read a city, it’s said, as you read a book, so concludes Luiselli’s essay ‘Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces’. But she goes on: The metaphor can be inverted. The journeys we make during the reading of a book trace out, in some way, the private spaces we inhabit. There are texts that will always be our dead end streets; fragments will be bridges; words will be like scaffolding which protect fragile constructions.

Luiselli shows a deep love for cities in her books. I feel drawn to her writing, in the same way I feel drawn to large cities far from the Australian one I call home. Her essays make me want to slide on my boots and explore unknown pavements. I’m never alone when I’m part of the crowd.

Faces in the Crowd

When critics talk about Luiselli’s writing, terms like ‘experimental’ and ‘fragmentary’ are routinely used. It’s probably because her books transcend the tidy three-act structure that we’ve absorbed as the traditional way to tell a story. I make a point of deliberately not calling her writing experimental when I meet her at the festival café, and she thanks me. “I don’t consider my work experimental at all – at all”, she says, raising her voice, in mock anger, her smile dropping, though. “It’s a label that I refuse as much as possible because I think it’s kind of lazy. It suggests that there isn’t an effort to tell a story or build a character or that it’s just experiment for the sake of experiment.”

You only need to read one of Luiselli’s books to see how carefully she’s composed her interlocking narratives. “Small fragments,” she claims, come more naturally to her, never chapters. “I would concentrate for periods of time on creating something very compact and small and very detailed and delicately crafted,” she says about her 2014 novel, Faces in the Crowd. It’s a process which takes time. “Ten years, three books, all very thin,” she says with an air of disappointment. But from this process comes something sturdy.

I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them, one of the characters, also a writer, says in Faces in the Crowd. This quotation is one of the ways we can read Luiselli; one of the ways of seeing scaffolding, instead of scattered debris.

In the station of the metro

Beijing is “knee-crushingly huge,” an Australian expat tells me, and I very quickly see what he means. Fortunately its subway, which services some nine million people each day—one of the largest networks in the world—saves my legs from exhaustion. A large bulk of my trip is spent navigating the dense underground system, crossing one side of the city to the other.

In the days before my interview with Luiselli, I reread Faces in the Crowd. The book is narrated from shifting viewpoints. In it, a woman living in Mexico City, reflects on her days living in New York City, where she was haunted by the ghost of real-life Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, one of the authors she’s assigned to translate. Fact begins to blur with fiction, and Ezra Pound’s poem, ‘In the station of the metro’—The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough—recurs throughout the plot, as characters flash by one another, like a speeding train, only to intersect and diverge in increasingly surreal ways.

I keep thinking about a line from the book: A vertical novel told horizontally. A story that has to be seen from below, like Manhattan from the subway. Jammed up against all the other peak-hour commuters, it’s impossible to make out the face of anyone, let alone your own. It’s hard to focus on just one thing. I start to disappear.

Stuttering Cities

“Beijing is a terrible city to be a writer,” an American expat tells me. He’s not talking about the government censorship. He’s talking about the noise. There’s no space. You’re too busy reacting to everything around you, he stresses.

What is the ideal environment for writing? I wonder. Is silence really conducive to making art? I repeat to Luiselli what this man said, and she laughs: “I don’t write against the noise or try to create a little bubble of solitude in which to write—quite the contrary. I always rely on what’s accidentally going on around me to nurture and spur on my writing. I’m not one of those clichéd type of writers who sits in a café all day, waiting for inspiration. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time in my life.

“But I do often walk the city, taking notes, and I bike the city a lot. I’ve always lived in rather noisy places. In my current neighbourhood, everyone shouts all the time. I live in a house with children and chaos, and even though I write in the night, I’m always surrounded by some kind of activity. All that I allow to leave an imprint in my writing.”

This imprint can be heard in the pages of her books—sounds not uncommon to Beijing. Buildings being torn down; the sound of chisel hitting stone. The cry of children in the next apartment. A food vendor pushing his cart along the street. A plane coming into land. The gentle sounds of a writer typing at her computer, long into the night.

The Story of My Teeth

China is one of the largest manufacturers in the world, which is why the air is the colour it is. Some days I swear I taste it at the back of my throat. But for the most part, I catch a rare window of blue, a stroke of luck which colours my perception, literally, of Beijing.

By its nature, art is opposed to mechanical reproduction, but of all things a Mexican juice factory is responsible for Luiselli’s latest book, The Story of My Teeth. In 2013, she was commissioned by Groupo Jumex to write a work of fiction for its art collection, which is housed in what she describes as a “wasteland-like neighbourbood outside Mexico City”.

Luiselli was less interested in writing about the workers than writing for them. So she came up with an idea: drawing on the mid-nineteenth century tradition of the tobacco reader—a practice pioneered in cigar factories in Cuba, where workers were read stories to break up the tedium of their shift—she would write a serialised novel to be read aloud to Jumex’s staff. Chapbooks were produced, and the reading sessions were recorded and sent to Luiselli in New York. She would then write the next installment based on the workers’ comments.

Three years later comes what Luiselli describes as a “novel-essay” about “the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and culture”. Isolating that quote makes it sound kind of earnest, which it is anything but. Less fragmented than her earlier work, and more comedic, the book is a hyperbolic tale about an auctioneer named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez. We follow his many misadventures, including the bumbled sale of Marilyn Monroe’s teeth.

Luiselli waits until the afterword to explain the book’s unique writing process. (It’s fun to go back and reread it from the start, bearing in mind the many factory workers who helped shape the novel behind the scenes.)

Much like the 2006 video installation, Whose Utopia? by Chinese artist Cao Fei, (who also used factory workers) it’s hard not to think critically about the human side of industry when reading The Story of My Teeth. As Luiselli writes in her afterward, There is, naturally, a gap between the two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and factory… how could I link the two distant but neighbouring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role?

Similar thoughts can be had walking around Beijing’s 798 Art District. There, Soviet-style, decommissioned military factories have been converted into workshops and galleries in the middle of the vast expanse of concrete that is Dashanzi. I visit on a particularly smoggy day and shelter in one of its more expensive galleries. In the window is a sculpture: the words ‘Made in China’ in colourful block letters. Like The Story of My Teeth, it playfully symbolises the tension between art and commerce. Two worlds not so separate.

Other Rooms

One day a truck gets stuck down the street—or hutong—where I’m staying. Its carriage gets caught on the overhead guttering of someone’s home, and it takes several men to wedge it free. People live very close to one another in these narrow alleys. Whenever I walk down my hutong I have to stand to the side every few metres to let cars or bikes pass me. Rapid urbanisation over the past decades has lead to the construction of high-rise dwellings where many of the hutongs used to sit. I congratulate myself for staying in what feels like an older, more authentic neighbourhood, whatever that means. It’s considerably more residential than some other hutongs which have been developed to include souvenir shops, bars and restaurants.

I keep thinking back to a line I like from Sidewalks: The more often you spend the night in different places—rooms, pensions, hotels, borrowed couches, other people’s beds—the better.

I’m pleased that I was able to find my hostel in the first place, in a city where my normal anchor point, Google Maps, is blocked by the government. Walk towards the 400-year-old tree and there you will find the entry, read the rather Confucian directions from the hostel. And fairly quickly that tall tree, sprouting from the concrete, its bare limbs framed against the alternatingly grey-brown-blue sky—the hue depending on the air-quality index that day—becomes my anchor home. The unfamiliar quickly becomes the familiar.

Return ticket

Luiselli has lived in the US for eight years but travel has been a big part of her life. Born in Mexico City in 1983, she’s lived in places as different as South Korea, South Africa, India, and now New York City.

I ask her if she can see glimpses of Mexico City—a city which recurs again and again throughout her three books—in other places she visits. Of course, it’s unfair to ask someone to evaluate a city they’ve only spent a few nights in. But I’m aiming for the perfect bridge between my thoughts, to construct some symmetry. Interviewing can be parasitic like that. She tells me, “One is always trying to understand through comparisons. Thought is comparative. One also has to guard not to compare too much because often comparisons blur important nuances and differences.”

This has always been my biggest weakness. Isn’t all writing about building some connection?

“When you walk along the hutongs there’s something not unlike certain parts of downtown Mexico City, and of course certain parts of India where I lived for two years.

“The hutongs have a Mexican version which are the vecindades. In these, clustered dwelling spaces are organised around a central patio where neighbourhood life is very intense because people live close together, often sharing small rooms with many family members and just basic living quarters with others. And that is very interesting because it’s extremely similar to how the Mexican working classes originally lived in the city. What’s happening now with the hutongs being torn down and re-edified in their prettier version didn’t quite happen in Mexico, although vecindades in Mexico were to a degree romanticised through film and books and stories and photography.”

Often, when I walk along my hutong, I peek into the open doorways of people’s homes, but quickly turn my head if someone appears in the entranceway. I never want to intrude. I never want to be that tourist who blatantly interferes, who romanticises, who waves their camera, trying to take a souvenir of something that isn’t theirs to take.


If the disappearing hutongs feel like Beijing’s past, then the expat neighborhood of Sanlitun where the festival is held feels like its shiny future. Here, the booming Chinese economy of recent years glitters. Skyscrapers and shopping malls tower into the smog, and billboard-sized screens loop advertisements for Givenchy and Apple. Some people—by whom I mean Westerners—refer to it as the ‘most Western’ part of Beijing, erasing any nuances or differences that exist, in order, I guess, to feel at home.

It’s an interesting backdrop for an international book festival. In Australia, I wonder if our reading cultures are too focused on the Anglophone world, too insular? Where is the hunger for Asian translations in Australia? I share my thoughts with Luiselli, who argues this is not just an Australian problem.

The idea is foreshadowed by her narrator in Faces in the Crowd, who works as a translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems’. This sarcastic description is followed by the deadpan remark: Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion.

“In society there’s still little space for anything foreign that doesn’t in its foreignness confirm the prejudices or the ideas that one has about that foreignness, whatever it is, be it Chinese, Latin American,” Luiselli says.

When she arrived on the scene in 2008 “there were few contemporary Latin American writers translated into English. There were some paradigmatic, experimental-ish—I hate the word, now I’m using it—a specific type of writer similar to [Enrique] Vila-Matas but that was it. There was very little translation between the boom and [Roberto] Bolaño, except for the commercial, post-magical realism cheesy writers. Now there’s more writers than I can count with my hands that are translated or are being translated into English. Writers who are very interesting.” She lists some of her contemporaries: Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel, Yuri Herrera.

“The only problem is we skipped an entire generation in the middle—people that were writing at the time when Bolaño was. We’ve just jumped to the writers that are about my age and a little bit older.”

She mentions a Chinese writer I haven’t heard of, Can Xue. I add her name to the growing list of authors I’ve learned about at the festival but am yet to check out: A Yi, Shuang Xuetao, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Of course, once you fill one reading gap, another opens. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the idea of all the books I’ll probably never get to read, all the places I’ll never travel to.

The Cartography of Empty Space

On my days off from the festival I walk and walk and walk around the huge city that is Beijing, ticking off all the tourist sites. I try and imagine CPC officials taking a sledgehammer to the golden sandalwood Buddha at the Lama Temple, or the green and red pagodas of the Forbidden City but I can’t. The recklessness is too much. I feel thankful for the politicians who had enough foresight to spare them a dismal fate, who stopped them from becoming relingos in the patchwork of Beijing.

Genre-wise, Luiselli’s three books span different territories but they all converge at some point: wandering, both the physical and mental kind, is an ongoing theme. “A lot of the books entail going out into the city and just walking around and taking notes and observing,” she says, describing her creative process. “Sometimes it’s not something I do programmatically, it’s just that while I’m writing a book I’m writing it all the time so wherever I walk, whatever happens, is kind of being written inside my head while it’s happening and eventually becomes part of what I’m writing.”

But in this moment there is no writing. We’re both sitting in Sanlitun. A day ago the cafe surged with people but now the festival is over it feels empty. No one has turned the music on; the only disruption is the whirr of a coffee machine, the jangle of plates dropped in the sink. The city disappears.

She tells me a nice anecdote about The Story of My Teeth: “The recording was full of these little accidents that were so beautiful. One day it was pouring outside so you could hear the voices of the workers but really more than anything you could hear the pouring rain outside. It was like this very deep contact with Mexico City while I sitting there in my New York studio, closing my eyes, being there somehow with them.”

Writers need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.

Emily Laidlaw is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She was recently awarded an Australia Council ArtStart grant to research literary cultures in Asia.

An interview with Shawn Wen


Image by Amanda Leiba - 2004 Fall Festival in Duluth, Georgia. Licensed under Public Domain

Shawn Wen is a writer, radio documentarian and multimedia artist.

Her essay, ‘Disappearing in Duluth’ examines the disturbing case of Jennifer Wilbanks, who vanished from the city of Duluth, Georgia, on an evening run in the days before her wedding. The article appeared in Issue 27 of The Lifted Brow, excerpted from n+1’s City by City: Dispatches From The American Metropolis.

City by City is a collection of essays about how cities and towns in the US have changed in the last five, ten, and twenty years. In the introduction, Keith Gesson and Stephen Squibb state: “we offer this collection to our contemporaries and to the future so they can know how it was here, between the day of the Lehman bankruptcy and the shooting of Michael Brown.”

I talked to Shawn about the process of writing her essay, being an Asian woman from the South, and the unsettling racially charged ramifications of the facts behind Jennifer Wilbanks’s disappearance.

– Mia-Francesca McAuslan

The Lifted Brow: What prompted you to write this work?

Shawn Wen: When I moved to the New England for college, I often introduced myself to a stranger, only to have her say to me, “Oh, you’re from the South? You don’t seem like you’re from the South!” It was usually conveyed as a compliment, which was a surprise to me. Where should I be from?

Over time, I came to realise that many Americans view the South as something akin to a third-world country. More surprisingly, I felt compelled to explain the South, to defend it, to apologise for it, to complicate other people’s idea of it. My time growing up was spent pushing back against its dominant culture: its chauvinism, its piety, its xenophobia and racism. But after I moved away, I felt haunted by the place where I had grown up, beholden to it, while still trying to get away.

I came to realise that many Americans view the South as something akin to a third-world country.

My friends now often ask me what it was like to grow up as an Asian girl in Georgia. It’s a perfectly reasonable question that I’ve never found a satisfying answer to.

I’ve always felt like racial issues are more on the surface in the South. Everywhere you see reminders of the violent history of slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow. (Whereas racial injustice is so often buried under class differences in other parts of the country). And yet—although the history of slavery is impossible to ignore—to the best of my memory, present-day racial issues are almost never discussed. As if racial injustice is safely locked in the past, and to bring it up now is rude, trouble-making behaviour.

So what happens when everyone is avoiding something that’s impossible to ignore? Well, it creates a strange cognitive dissonance, which makes itself felt in other ways—in people’s behaviour.

I do want to mention that the events of this essay take place during the early aughts, at the time of the second Bush administration and the Iraq War. This was written before the Black Lives Matter movement. We speak about race much more plainly now. And rightly so. The unrelenting police murders of unarmed Black men is an emergency that demands our attention and our voices.

TLB: Why was Jennifer Wilbanks a vehicle to speak about race?

SW: All over the South right now, you’re seeing small White towns rapidly diversifying. At the time that the events in this essay took place, Duluth, Georgia was about to change from a majority-White town to a racially pluralistic town, or as some like to call it, a ‟majority-minority” town.

But the people in charge to this day—the police chief, the city council, the school board—are overwhelmingly White. They neither represent their constituents, nor do they have their constituents’ best interests in mind. In fact, given the shameless voter suppression in Georgia, it is not a stretch to say that the local government actively fears its constituents. Last year, forty thousand voter registrations were reported missing in Georgia. A lawsuit filed by a national organisation, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, against Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp was thrown out by a Georgia judge.

Jennifer Wilbanks so perfectly embodies the values of those who possess power in the South.

Jennifer Wilbanks so perfectly embodies the values of those who possess power in the South. She’s White, religious, and on the verge of getting married and starting a family. And it certainly helped that she’s photogenic and thin. So when she disappeared, the town, the police force, the local government, and the news media collectively freaked out.

TLB: How do you think Jennifer Wilbanks’s disappearance and essentially ‘crying wolf’ affects the issue of women’s testimony being taken seriously?

SW: I’m ambivalent about the fact of Jennifer Wilbanks’s dishonesty. Wilbanks received a lot of blame and anger for ditching her wedding and claiming she was kidnapped. I think she was publicly shamed because those in positions of power were embarrassed by their own hysterical response. Their natural reflex was to punish her.

But I am interested in how Wilbanks lied. By claiming that she was sexually assaulted by a Mexican man and a White woman, she perfectly demonstrated so many fears pervasive in the South as it changes: invasion, miscegenation, overtly sexual men of colour, and the contamination of White women.

TLB: How did you research this essay?

SW: I visited the Duluth Police Department and asked for the original police report, written the night Jennifer went missing. This helped make the night of the disappearance feel urgent and vivid.

A lot of suburban towns like Duluth feel strangely ahistorical. The downtown, which was constructed in 2003, was designed to look like a fantasy of the 1950s. So I visited the historical society because I wanted to see what Duluth wanted to preserve of itself, how it mythologises its own roots. The old newspapers, photographs, and names of early (White) inhabitants also give this little suburb more specificity.

Lastly, I visited city hall to meet with some people in the planning department and looked at a few crime maps. I wanted to see statistical evidence of the paranoia of kidnapping and violence. Is there pervasive gang violence in Duluth? Or is it just an excuse for police to harass young men of colour?

At every stop, I asked about Jennifer Wilbanks. Everyone remembered her. A few people knew someone who knew her. But they all said to me, “I wouldn’t go around asking about that if I was you. No one wants to talk about it.”

TLB: Why did you choose to structure the essay in a narrative style?

SW: In this essay, I left a few things conspicuously missing. I don’t give a full explanation of what Jennifer did, thought, or felt during her disappearance—apart from her own superficial explanation. I don’t attempt to articulate Jennifer’s reasons for blaming an interracial couple for her kidnapping. I don’t identify my own race as the narrator, or my opinions of Duluth’s changing racial demographics.

In a piece of writing, what you omit is as important as what you include.

In a piece of writing, what you omit is as important as what you include. The woven narrative allowed me to leave some very noticeable absences, giving the reader space to speculate.

TLB: In your essay ‘The Ladies Vanish’, you wrote about the erasure of women from certain spaces. Missing women is a theme that emerges in your writing: the women behind the Mechanical Turk industry; the lack of representation of women in Hollywood block busters; and in ‘Disappearing in Duluth’, the literal vanishing woman, Jennifer Wilbanks. Why is the missing woman a subject you are drawn to?

SW: That’s funny. I didn’t realise this about my writing, but of course you’re right. I mean, half of the human population exists as second-class citizens. It’s a damned compelling topic, right?

I can say that, from a practical point of view, writing in the margins yields a lot of material. Once you go looking, there’s so much to say about the invisible and the missing.

TLB: Where and how do you write?

SW: I’m not too particular about where I write. For the past two years, I’ve been writing at my dinner table, because I worked from home. And now I mostly write on a streetcar, because I have a long commute.

Not being too fetishistic about the trappings of writing has been liberating for me. Writing became much easier when I stopped thinking about it as an issue of my identity and started recognizing it as work.

TLB: You are a cross-disciplinary artist, experienced in video and radio. How does your relationship with the aural and visual affect your writing craft?

SW: Audio, video, and writing directly inform each other. These are all media that we experience over time. Their building blocks are cadence, silence, and texture. Of course, they have material differences. But practice in one medium will hone your sensibilities in another.

I’m a glutton for sensory stimulation, so I love writing and radio and video. But I’m capricious, too, so I take turns hating each, mostly after I’ve overindulged. I will say that with radio and video, you get to start with some raw material, which is nice. You go out, collect tape, and sculpt it. There’s not really the same terror of looking at a blank document.

TLB: What are you working on right now?

SW: Right now I’m finishing revisions on my first book, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, which will come out in 2017 with Sarabande Books. It’s a novella-length lyric essay about the French mime Marcel Marceau. The project started as a joke: I wanted to make mime radio. I travelled around France and Germany, interviewing Marceau’s former students and observing mime performances. But after I started reading Marceau’s interviews, I found him to be an astonishing speaker. He’s verbose, clever, pompous, contradictory. He was so eloquent, even as he actively distrusted words and refused them in his work. The inherent questions and complexities in this piece began to build, and eventually it became a book.

I still actively write articles. Some make clear arguments; others are more winding and lyrical. I like immersing myself in new ideas and generating fresh sentences.

Mia-Francesca McAuslan is a writer of non-fiction, fiction and memoir. She has interned with The Lifted Brow and is co-founder and editor of Alien She Zine. In September 2015 her unpublished manuscript was longlisted for The Richell Prize by Hachette Australia. In October 2015 she was shortlisted for The Overland VU Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. She is currently based in Montreal.

An Interview With Michael Hawkins, TLB28 Cover/Feature Artist


To celebrate the killer cover artwork for TLB28, our Deputy Art Editor Marc Pearson chatted with Melbourne-based comics and visual artist Michael Hawkins, in the third of our series of short interviews with Brow cover artists. Michael’s work graces the cover of TLB28, which hits subscriber letterboxes next week, and newsstands and bookstores Dec 3, and features in tonight’s TLB-curated exhibition at The Food Court to accompany the launch of TLB28: The Art Issue.

I first got to know Michael Hawkins through his comic series Frosnall Graaf, which I picked up from Sticky years ago. I remember struggling to get into it at first, then finding myself intensely invested. I ran into my housemates’ room and was like “Woah! Hey! This is amazing!” Just like that. “Wow! Gee wizz!” I yelled and yelled.

Since then, I’ve gotten to see Michael’s work change and grow with time. His comics explore themes like sex, society, the relationship between the known and the unknown. His comics unravel before you the more you give to them. I can’t recommend his work enough.

I thought I’d end this pre-interview introduction on a quote about Michael, so I googled “compliment quote”, as I like Michael’s work very much, and a compliment felt in order. I found something Abraham Lincoln said that I think is true: “Everybody likes a compliment.” Unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to link this back to this interview, so i googled “quotes about ending”, which led me to something Charlotte Eriksson said:

So for now,
I will miss you like I’ll never see you again,
And the next time I see you,
I will kiss you like I’ll never kiss you again,
And when I fall asleep beside you
I will fall asleep as if I’ll never wake up again,
because I don’t know if I will.
I don’t know if I will.
I Will Love You Like The World Is Ending

— Marc Pearson

The Lifted Brow: Oh hi, Michael. How are you?

MH: I’m fine. Thank you.

TLB: You have a very idiosyncratic style, I’m trying to think of adjectives to describe it, all I can think of now is ‘goopy’. How have you gotten to the kind of work you’re making today?

MH: I can’t tell you much except I’ve been digesting high and low culture fairly manically my whole life, and accessing my subconscious is something I am both naturally good at and work pretty hard at. I’m not very good at anything else. Basically, even if I picture something in an existing style it comes out my style, which people may not like, but at least they can’t accuse me of biting.


Excerpt from ‘Threshhold’ by Michael Hawkins, appearing in Weakly Comics Xtra Large Annual Book (2016)

TLB: What kind of role does sleep play in your life?

MH: Well, it goes without saying that I’m inspired by dreams and by the images and ideas that occur in the hypnagogic, pre-sleep state. Being dead asleep doesn’t do much for me. Lately, I’ve read a couple of articles about segmented sleep, which is the concept (mostly forgotten/covered-up but now coming to light) that before the Industrial Revolution people slept in two shifts: first, a few hours sleep from early in the evening before waking up and doing stuff like reading, writing, meditating, praying, having sex, then sleeping until morning. This is obviously where it’s at. I hope some day to be able to adopt this practice.

TLB: What’s a normal workday like for you?

MH: If I’m free from encumbrances, I’ll start work mid-morn and finish around 11pm, stopping just for meals. That said, I do pretty much everything I can—that is, basically, drawing—in front of my computer watching TV shows and movies. If I use Photoshop or Paint etc., I listen to music or podcasts. So it’s leisure as well. I try to focus on one project as much as possible, for immersion, but if I stall or have clashing deadlines I’ll switch it around. On days I have day-job shifts or other obligations I fit in what I can.

TLB: Tell me about Ursula, the web-comic you’ve been serialising with the Brow online.

MH: There are always a few different influences. The design of certain old paperback novels, the look of European arthouse and exploitation movies of the seventies (an aesthetic you see on Tumblrs made by people like the main character, Boyfriend), which often have girls’ names as titles. There was also the impulse to experiment with a new format that hasn’t been done much, and that would allow me to complete a “graphic novel” without it consuming all my time and energy.


TLB: What visual art/comics/other stuff are you interested in right now?

MH: There are so many comics I love at the moment: Lale Westvind, Antoine Cosse, Anna Haifisch, Anya Davidson, Gabriel Corbera. I don’t consume as many comics as I used to because I’m more into activating my comics practice than forming it, but when I see stuff like the Volcan anthology from Lagon it inspires me to knock things up a notch. Other recent interests include Stephen Sondheim, Italian horror movies, the way movies from the eighties look digitally restored, 1Q84, Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman, Robert Beatty, Clay Hickson, French Cold Wave and Belgian Minimal Synth, Linda Perhacs, the new albums by Beach House, John Grant and Joanna Newsom, anthology horror/sci-fi TV, Star Trek:TNG.

TLB: What are you working on at the moment?

MH: I was asked to curate a show by Mailbox featuring Melbourne comic-book artists. Looking at the space, a series of closed boxes, I thought of how it could accommodate the theme ‘the prison of self’, which I think about a lot and perhaps a lot of cartoonists do as well. I ended up broadening it to ‘Cells’, dealing with the various metaphorical prisons a person might experience, to give the artists a little more freedom. The exhibition will feature me, you, Tommy PG, Sarah McNeil, Caroline Anderson, Merv Heers, Lee Lai, Michael Fikaris and hopefully Sam Wallman, so obviously it’ll be really great.

After that, I want to tie up loose ends: finish Ursula, and reply to all the questions I’ve received on Advice Comics as my character Boyfriend. This will clear the ground for next year, as I’d like to be working on one long story and maybe a few off-the-cuff minis as a pressure release valve. The long story I’m thinking of is one of a bunch I have planned, which exists within a loosely slung-together shared universe. They will be primarily be connected by Boyfriend, existing as a host and participant, but will also share other characters, settings, cultural and plot elements and general mythology. I’d like to say this is in no way inspired by the Marvel cinematic universe but that would be a lie.

Michael Hawkinsis a Melbourne-dwelling comic book and visual artist of Tasmanian and U.S. derivation. He believes in mystery.

Australian readers: you can pick up a copy of TLB28: The Art Issue from Dec 3 at any of our 900+ stockists.

International readers: buy a copy from our online store and we’ll chuck it right in the post for you.

As always, you can subscribe to the Brow now and this issue (and three more) will be delivered straight to your door. (Plus you save 35% by doing so!)

An Interview with Christine Kenneally

Pic by Nicole Cleary.

Christine Kenneally is a journalist.

After completing a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, Kenneally pursued a PhD at the University of Cambridge , and subsequently moved to the United States and turned to journalism. While living in New York, she produced pieces for the New York Times, New Scientist, Slate, and Time. Her account of the Black Saturday bushfires, written for The New Yorker, was collected in The Best Australian Essays 2010. Since moving back to Melbourne she has published in The Monthly , and now holds the title of contributing editor at BuzzFeed News.

In 2007 she published her first book , The First Word, an account of developments in the field of linguistics that have led to recent research on the origins of language.

Her second book, The Invisible History of the Human Race , was published in 2014, and offers what might be thought of as an introduction to modern studies of inheritance, in which Kenneally describes how innovations in genetic research have expanded popular and personal understandings of “what gets passed down.” It was shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

Kenneally’s prose is uncommonly lucid both in its unpacking of thorny scientific concepts, as well as in its account of the significance of these concepts to our culture at large. Thickly larded with anecdote – both personal and historical – her writing offers an exemplary union of science and storytelling.

This interview took place at Ms. Kenneally’s studio in Melbourne.

James Robert Douglas

I. On Different Directions

The Lifted Brow: I’m interested in hearing about what you studied. I know you went to Cambridge to do your PhD, in linguistics, and I’m wondering what your path was from there to freelance writing?

Christine Kenneally: I did a Bachelor of Arts in English and Linguistics in Australia. I started linguistics in my second year, and hated it. It was taught terribly and unbelievably boring, and I had no idea why I thought I’d ever enjoy the subject. I dropped out just before the period when I would have had to sit a test, because I would have failed it. But then by the next year they had cleaned house in the department, brought in all these new people, and I tried it again and it was the most exciting subject ever.

I loved both English and Linguistics, but I loved the problem-solving nature of linguistics a little bit more. It seemed to be more about solving puzzles, whereas English sometimes felt a little vogue-ish – you know, whatever was the stylish theory at the time.

So I wanted to continue. I got a research job at the University, and I was tutoring for a little while, and I knew I wanted to go on to further study. I’d missed a lot of the applications for scholarships to the US, but the Cambridge one was still open, so I applied for that. And then I got it, which was what enabled me to go there. They had a really interesting group of people in linguistics, too. It was a great place to go.

TLB: What did you research at Cambridge?

CK: My PhD was in psycholinguistics. It was more about how people process language than languages as such. I’m not a languages person: I’m a language-in-the-brain person; a cognitive science person.

I’m not a languages person: I’m a language-in-the-brain person.

I was looking at how people parse certain sentences that start the same but then go off in structurally different directions. Something like “As usual the man confronted”, which could continue like this: “with the evidence…” Or like this: “his son…”

I played people a recording of the beginning of a sentence, and showed them a possible continuation on a screen. They had to hit a key, and the amount of time it took them to hit the key gave a sense of whether they were expecting that continuation or whether they had to do some quick mental footwork and change their interpretation.

This tells us about how language lives in the brain – how language is structured in the brain, how it works. The basic question was: do people use prosody –which is pitch, and intonational information – when they’re processing structure? I believe they do, but the traditional method – which Noam Chomsky had made very popular – said that they didn’t.

TLB: So you were focusing on the spoken intonation of the sentence as determining how people interpret them, rather than the innate syntactic shape?

CK: Well, we focussed on how people use intonation to actually process the syntax: whether intonation has got anything to do with it and whether it helps it in that nanosecond when someone is actually hearing and making a decision, or whether it comes in downstream when people are making a decision based on structure, and, if something goes wrong, then they check the prosody.

Initially a lot of linguistics, which was very syntax-focussed, didn’t pay a lot of attention to the way we actually listen to each other and speak. The model I was working with looked at language as it is embodied. The idea was “this is how it evolved, and this is how we use it”, rather than analysing it as if we were computers, and saying “structure is the most important thing, and then other stuff comes in after that”.

TLB: You moved on from Cambridge to do freelance writing in America.

CK: I met an American in Cambridge, and we decided that we’d spend some time in the States, and spend some time in Australia, and then decide where we wanted to live.

Given that we decided to spend time in the States first, he got a job as a professor at Iowa State, and we ended up in Iowa for a while. Once we were there for a couple of years – which were really great years – we decided we’d probably live in Australia permanently, which kind of freed us up.

It’s crazy to think of it now, but you used to have to write letters and mail them to editors in different cities and pitch ideas that way.

We thought, why don’t we just go to New York for a while and see how it goes? I’d just started freelance writing, and it was around the time of the Dot Com Boom. It’s crazy to think of it now, but you used to have to write letters and mail them to editors in different cities and pitch ideas that way. Or you would do it over the phone – which is really hard to do when you’ve never written before. But all of a sudden you could email all these sites and get a leg up that way. So I started doing that from Iowa, and realised that’s what I really wanted to keep doing. He wanted to go to New York and try his hand at some other work, so we both did that.

TLB: Did you jump straight into ideas journalism, using your education as background?

CK: Pretty much. But I tried a lot of other journalism, too. I tried some restaurant reviewing, movie reviewing, book reviewing, a bit of ideas and culture, too – for sites that flared up, had loads of money, and were gone a year later. I think I was writing about language, too, then.

TLB: You started The First Word on a freelance basis. Something I wanted to ask about was how you finessed the people you interviewed. With a book like that you’re essentially approaching academics with an eye to asking them to give a straight-up exegesis of their own work for you, for the purpose of you synthesising that information.

CK: Some people weren’t interested. Some are easier than others. If you’ve met someone at a conference, and you go up and ask them a question, and you actually form a relationship, then it’s pretty easy to say “actually I’m going to be in town next Tuesday, can I come and buy you a coffee and we’ll talk about it more?” They’re generally pretty happy to talk.

TLB: I suppose this is part of a general system by which they push their research out into the world.

CK: That’s right. They want their ideas to go public. Many more say yes than say no. It certainly helps if they’ve read something you’ve written before. They’re sensitive about people misreporting what they say, particularly in science. So you send them clips, and then they’ll be more willing to sit down with you.

TLB: Did you find that your background in academia was helpful?

CK: The fact that I had a PhD in linguistics made all the difference. A lot of these people are writing their own books, too, so they’re curious to talk to people who’ve written books. Or they’re trying to write op-eds, or get their ideas out there in other ways as well. I think to talk to someone who’s interested in what they do – and who’s read all their stuff – is generally a pleasant interaction.

TLB: I got a sense from the Chomsky chapter that he wasn’t a particularly useful interview. Maybe that’s an unfair observation. You introduce him and set a scene where you’re sitting down and starting to talk. But then there are not a lot of direct quotes from him.

CK: He was hard to quote, actually, which is strange. He had a lot to say. I don’t know why he was difficult to quote, but he really was. He was very generous to spend time with me, because he would probably have been the busiest and most sought-after person that I spoke to, and certainly I wasn’t a massive fan of his ideas. So, it was good of him to do that. Some people just aren’t interested in talking unless they think you’ll agree with them automatically.

TLB: I’m not deeply informed about linguistics, and I’ve never been able to fully grasp the significance of what I understood about Chomsky’s work. Reading your book I realised that I must have just come through university well after this debate about whether or not universal grammar is a powerful idea had been settled, by which time the field had sort of shifted away from his work.

CK: It very much has. There’s a lot more power in other fields. Child development research, and our access to technologies that allow us to see what’s going on in the brain as it’s happening, have made a big difference. There was only theory when Chomsky was around. And Chomsky’s theories have been modified so much by himself over the years – that, in and of itself, perhaps loosened some of the grip his ideas initially had on people’s minds.

TLB: I enjoyed the last section of First Word, where you pose a hypothetical to many of the researchers you’ve interviewed throughout the book about whether or not a group of children stranded on the Galapagos Islands could ever independently develop a language. It’s very amusing to flip through their answers, like “no”, “yes”, “no”, “yes, but only with thirty children”.

CK: That was a really fun way to deal with something that had troubled me all the way through, which is that I wanted the reader who had no idea about any of this stuff to walk away with a sense of a coherent ­– as well as a compelling – field of ideas. Yet it’s also true that when you get real close-up to these people there’s so much disagreement. I was worried that readers would be put off by that. I wanted to spotlight the disagreements, but at the same time build a story that made sense. I was really surprised that they were all willing to participate, too.

TLB: The First Word describes a moment of transition in a scientific field, when Noam Chomsky’s grip on linguistic studies had begun to loosen in the face of new research. Surely a problem with science journalism is that consensus in a field can shift soon after you’ve published. Do you feel a special kind of responsibility to keep an eye on the progress of scientific theory once you’ve written on a particular discipline?

CK: I do keep an eye on things anyway, because that’s where my interest lies. With The First Word, I was focusing on a moment of change – and really highlighting that change – and although there have been more studies and interesting findings since then, I think they’re completely consistent with what I’ve set up in the book.

I think the same is going to be true for Invisible History. It’s really about this extraordinary moment when every thing has turned around, when a lot of people have got their personal genome read, and a lot of people are just about to do it. The ethics and the philosophy behind that are not going to change. People are going to have questions about privacy and all those issues. I don’t think the books need updating in that regard. I think you can read them as a snapshot of the times, but also as a historical moment. Maybe in ten years time there’ll be a whole new thing, but I try to write it so it’ll be solid for a good five to ten years.

II. On Information

TLB: Do you remember how your shift in interest from linguistics to genetics occurred? It seems to me that you’ve focussed on issues of genetics almost exclusively in the last few years of your writing.

I think I’ve only worked out the answer to that question in the last year or two – why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, or why I do what I do.

CK: I think I’ve only worked out the answer to that question in the last year or two – why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, or why I do what I do. What interests me is information, and how information gets passed down and transacted between two people in the same moment in time, or between three generations that have never met each other at either end.

Everything I do seems to be about information. Evolution is about macro information through deep time. Linguistics is about information. The genome is the book of ultimate information about individuals. I think that’s what underlies my work.

TLB: I saw a story on the National Geographic website recently that described how a comparative analysis done on DNA from ancient remains found in Germany showed that they possessed a great number of genetic similarities with remains found of the older Yamnaya people of the Black Sea – a discovery that bolsters the linguistic theory that the proto-Indo European language was brought to Europe by a migration out of the Russian steppes. This got me thinking about how in this turn from linguistics to genetics in your writing, you’ve focussed on a field that has the potential to answer the kinds of questions that crop up in linguistic debate.

CK: It’s absolutely the case that genetics has the potential to answer the kinds of questions that come up in linguistics, and have been coming up in linguistics for a really long time. There is tremendous potential right now – that people are beginning to see – for bringing together the genetic history with the linguistic history to try to map them on to each other, creating a much richer tapestry of world history. On the same lines, there are linguists right now who are trying to import the methods of population genetics into linguistics. They try to model language change before six to eight thousand years ago. Typically that’s where linguists stop: you can’t actually go back beyond that time frame when you’re trying to rebuild a language from the past. The methods that they’ve traditionally used just can’t push beyond that. But with computer models that come from evolutionary biology, that look at the incredibly subtle and complicated ways that structure in language might change over time, there’s a chance that we might be able to go further back.

TLB: One of the things I liked about Invisible History is that it’s not just about genetics – half of its length is given over to different mechanisms of inheritance, like family trees, or less tangible historical influences. The scope of the book is quite enormous, really.

CK: That’s what it felt like when I was writing it, and it certainly felt like hard work for that reason. Some people are really irritated by the fact that it’s neither one nor the other; that it’s both. I had feedback from people who want it to be all genetics, and are frustrated by the idea that the history of genealogy has anything to do with it. And vice versa: people who are interested in the history of genealogy think the genetics is really dry and boring. But to my mind they were integral to each other.

One of the hard things about writing a book is working out what the question is.

One of the hard things about writing a book is working out what the question is. I think the basic question of Invisible History is “What gets passed down?” I realised in trying to answer that question – not just through research, but also through trial and error in writing – that the answer wasn’t complete, that the answer is always both. It’s the genetics and the cultural influence.

That’s why it ended up being both, and I think really it’s hard to do that, because people usually work in one or the other field, and they’re in their own little intellectual silo – which they have to be. To do effective academic work you have to hone in on something, and make your question small, so you can answer it in a realistic and provable way. It was hard. There wasn’t anyone out there talking to both of those things at the same time, to both sides of the coin.

TLB: It seems like a natural way to frame the question, because the public is pretty au fait with these ideas of inheritance and race and family influence, whereas genetics can be quite dry. If you position it in this broader way, then the ideas behind the science can come through.

CK: That’s right. I think people are interested in the genetics if it’s – as you say – very much framed in terms of the questions they’re already asking themselves. The answers may turn out to be genetic ones, rather than cultural ones, but they’re just interested in questions.

Another difficult thing about writing a book, when you’re going out and talking to researchers all the time, is that you start thinking about the topic in the terms that they think about it. That means if you’re talking to scientists you start thinking “How do I begin in the driest way possible?” – because scientists need it to be dry to be effective and clean and clear.

People talk about science writing making something simpler, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. I think it’s about granularity.

It becomes a challenge to go out and collect that information and then to think about how it actually answers the questions of someone who isn’t a scientist. It’s a translation issue. People talk about science writing making something simpler, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. I think it’s about granularity – whether something is extremely fine-grained or coarse-grained. More coarse-grained is more appropriate to the questions most people ask anyway.

TLB: One of the things I noticed you do to help ease the reader through the process is to string your information along with anecdote and narrative. Invisible History is thick with this stuff, more so than The First Word, and more so even than a lot of your freelance journalism. I’m curious about the effort that goes into this. Every chapter is full of stories, big and small, and the idea of tracking down all that information that requires is daunting to me. For instance, the orphaned man, Geoff Meyer, in the ‘Silence’ chapter – how did you find him?

CK: There was definitely a conscious choice to bring in more everyday stories. Not that those stories are really everyday stories – they’re very dramatic. But they are real people’s lives. It was kind of a discipline – as well as a way of constructing the book – to make sure that I rendered all this complicated academic information in terms of real people’s lives. It’s a way of maintaining perspective, as well as feeding it back to people who are not scientists, historians, or experts.

Geoff’s story comes from a piece I did for The Monthly a couple of years ago. Again, this was one of those pieces I was really interested in and I only realised after I’d done it that it was ultimately about information. I had become aware that there was a lobby group of people who had grown up in orphanages in the twentieth century. They had lived in these places like little citizens of a gulag. They weren’t just being abused physically; information was denied to them, the whole way through.

I wanted to write about Geoff because his story was emblematic of how damaging it is when people are denied basic information about who they are, and where they’re from. This still happens today in places like North Korea, and we tend not to think that this kind of thing can happen in your basic Western democracy. But it was happening very much in Australia in the mid-twentieth century. For people like Geoff, who went through the kinds of systems he went through, it’s still happening today.

It’s hard for people like you and me to imagine how we could not know certain basic facts about ourselves.

It’s hard for people like you and me to imagine how we could not know certain basic facts about ourselves: who our parents are, what they did for a living, where our grandparents came from. Not all of us have that information, but most of us have at least some of it, and it is integral to who we are. For people like Geoff – in the homes and the orphanages – that information was systematically concealed. Not just lost along the way, but actively concealed by people who looked after children like Geoff. They didn’t tell them what their own names were, in many cases. I was talking to a chap the other day who was called ‘29’ until he was ten years old, because that was the name of his locker.

This information was invisible for them, then – which was very distressing and very difficult – and it’s still invisible now for many people, and specifically for Geoff, because governments are sitting on archives; they’re not investing time and money in opening them up, and allowing people to find out where they came from, and who they are.

TLB: So there’s a concerted effort to flesh out each chapter with anecdote and story. How do you gather this information?

CK: I guess I’m just following my nose. I wish I could recall how I initially found Geoff and the lobbying group, but I knew I was interested in them as soon as I heard about them, although I didn’t know exactly know how they would fit into the book at all.

One of the hardest things about being a writer is learning to trust what interests you, and learning to trust that if it’s interesting to you then you can make it interesting for other people. Also, if it’s interesting to you – I find with books –then it must be part of some larger whole.

So although there’s an initial pull towards an idea, there’s no coherent sense that this will definitely fit into the book in this particular place, or this will illustrate this point – there’s just this sense that I know that it matters, but I’m not quite sure how yet. Then finding those people and talking to them and getting the story tells you more about where it will fit in the book, or why people should care about it.

TLB: It’s really a tricky question that I asked there. If I were to try to reverse engineer the book there’s such a magnitude of anecdote in it that it would be an enormous effort. But it must accrete over time. You find little bits and pieces that interest you, and they grow into the book.

CK: That’s definitely how it starts. You just try to pull it all together, and create the sense of a whole. But I’m a bit structure-obsessed, and I think about it a lot. I’ll take days where I’m not reporting, where I’m just thinking about structure and how it gets set up. I’ll write out really complicated structures for the book. What I find is that they work for a while, and then I’ll reach some moment where I can’t even think where the book is supposed to go to next, and it becomes clear to me that the structure is no longer working. So I’ll go back to the structure and rip it all apart, do another one, and it’s just constantly moving back and forth between a zoomed out view of what’s going on in the book, and the brick by brick process of building the thing.

III. On Change

TLB: Did you find the field changing a lot as you wrote the book, as we talked about with The First Word?

CK: Yes, particularly with ancient DNA. When I started researching the possibility of the book – doing reporting for the proposal, not the book itself – the basic idea with ancient DNA was that you probably couldn’t do anything with it. Some people had done some ancient DNA analysis; they tried to extract information, and then read it. But the dangers of contamination were incredibly high. When I first heard about the idea of ancient DNA it sounded incredibly exciting, but most scientists I spoke to were really discouraging, and they dismissed it out of hand.

I knew in my gut that I wanted ancient DNA to be an important part of the story, because it was interesting to me. I couldn’t believe how dismissive people were. Luckily the whole thing changed in the time I was writing the book.

He had taken an entire science and turned it on its head.

Primarily it was the Svante Pääbo project, which sequenced the Neanderthal genome. When that was announced in the news it was kind of exciting, but I don’t think how much he had done was truly conveyed. He had not just found the Neanderthal genome; he had taken an entire science and turned it on its head. All the assumptions about how it wouldn’t work turned out to be challenging, but surmountable.

Not only did he make one of the most fascinating discoveries in this century, he opened the door on this science. Since then there have already been studies that extracted ancient DNA from hundreds of bones, and compared them together to see what they can tell us about what people were up to a hundred thousand years ago – or whenever the bones were once part of a living person.

That was the most exciting thing for me. I had felt really frustrated, and concerned, and I just didn’t know how I was going to deal with it, and then study after study came out showing how it was doable.

Another technique that’s very, very new, and definitely changed and became more solid in the time I was writing the book, was genome-wide association studies (people call it GWAS for short) where researchers take genome samples from hundreds of thousands of people and compare them together. In doing so they’re able to track the variance of genes that are associated with particular conditions, diseases, or even just traits, like black hair or red hair. That had started to take off, at the beginning of the book, but now it’s probably going to become one of the primary ways we’ll do medicine in the next fifty years. So that was really exciting. I felt like I was surfing that wave.

TLB: I was interested in the sections on personal genetic family history tests. I remember my uncle did one some years ago, and it came back with something like “you come from Viking ancestry”, and it had a little narrative about how “your Viking ancestor” may have sailed to the coast of England, and done this and that etc., etc. It seemed like there was a poverty of information in the result.

CK: When did he do that?

TLB: It must have been at least five years ago.

Companies send you what is essentially the palette of ancestry that is your genome – and that is really interesting information.

CK: Even in those five years it’s changed incredibly. With reputable companies, there’s no, “you’re a Viking”, or “you’re a Mongolian”. Now, companies send you what is essentially the palette of ancestry that is in your genome – and that is really interesting information. For a lot of people it’s shocking – they find out they have African ancestry, when they thought they were entirely European. Or they find out they have a lot of Northern European ancestry, when they thought their genome was entirely African. That’s incredibly important historical information for us. It tells us what people were doing fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago. It tells us whether there was really apartheid between populations, or whether there wasn’t.

Individually, a lot of people find it quite shocking, because people often build their identity around what they look like. But when you look at the genetic contribution they have received – which may have been hidden from them, for various reasons – it can expand their sense of who they are, or who they can be.

There’s a woman in Canada who’s doing research asking people how they react when they get that information. I wrote about her in the book. Generally, not always, the response is to learn more – which, you couldn’t ask for better, really.

You do have to think about it as a palette. There are few populations in the world where you’re going to be one hundred percent something. That message in and of itself is an important one, and one that people understand best when they experience it personally.

In addition to that basic genomic ancestry information, people can send their information off to ancestry companies, which are creating huge databases that connect you with genetic cousins, who will often have their own family trees and family histories worked out. That’s another way to use your genetics to access documentary history about where your family comes from, and who has contributed to your cultural or genetic heritage.

IV. On Competition

TLB: In April 2011 you wrote a story for Time about the problems that mobile phone and VOIP technology were causing for the 911 emergency network – how when calls are no longer tethered to landlines, emergencies become that much harder to locate. In September that year you did the same story for 000 in The Monthly. As you were writing the Time piece, did you figure that it might have an application to Australia, as well?

CK: It was really clear that there were a lot of big ideas happening in the field in the States that hadn’t yet been implemented here. We had moved to Australia that year, and I was personally interested to know what was happening with 000. No one seemed to be talking about it, and there was nothing in the news. I’d at least seen conversations happening about 911 in the States, but none here about 000. It seemed to me it was a really important story to do.

TLB: Did you find any differences or difficulties in reporting a longform piece in Australia compared to the US? From the conclusion of the 000 article, I take it that there’s been a lot less movement on the issue here. Were American agencies more or less open to your asking question about this issue compared to Australian organisations?

CK: Certainly there was less movement at the time I wrote it. It was a much more dynamic and active conversation in the States. I went to a conference there, and I listened to all the experts in the field talk about all the issues, and then I went and found them – the ones who were interesting to me. There were great stories, at least at the time, that hadn’t made it out to the media yet, that everyone who was in 911 knew about, and a conference is the kind of place where people talk about that stuff. There were all these thinkers and practitioners in the field getting together and talking about what was working and what didn’t work. I took a trip to a Sherriff’s newly updated 911 centre, and they were really proud of this extraordinary thing that they’d put together. This was in Indiana; it wasn’t even a really urban area. Clearly they’d spent huge amounts of money on this really important public service. In contrast there seemed to be very little conversation happening here.

When there’s no competition, there’s really no motivation to talk to the press, because you control everything about the message.

I don’t think I can generalise about longform reportage in Australia compared to the States. What I can say – about the 911/000 industry – is there’s really just one service provider here in Australia. My understanding, at the time, was that Telstra is the interface for most of the 000 service. There were so many for 911 in the US. When you have that kind of competition – which is the case for so many industries in the US – people can be a lot more open to the media. When there’s no competition, there’s really no motivation to talk to the press, because you control everything about the message. That’s potentially a concern for Australian journalists, when you have that lack of competition.

But I had expenses and I had time to write that story in the States, because of how the assignment was set up. I did not have that here. I could only do so much research. It was mostly phoning around. But it seemed pretty clear to me – I can’t say for sure – that I wouldn’t have been given as much access if I’d had the time to do a bigger story here.

TLB: Do you think it’s generally harder to do this kind of longform reporting in Australia, given the economic nature of the industry here?

CK: Absolutely. I haven’t seen a lot of longform in the newspapers, here. People talk about longform as, say, two thousand words, but that’s not really longform at all. Two thousand words is a ten-years-ago big newspaper article.

When I first started writing, when I did a piece for the New York Times, two thousand words was the word limit. Longform was usually five thousand plus. And it’s story: and you go out there, and you visit the scene. You don’t just talk to people on the phone. The Monthly does longform here, which is fantastic. But that’s just the one venue. I can’t think of many other places, other than some of the magazines attached to newspapers like The Australian.

In the States there’s the New York Times magazine, TheNew Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and now BuzzFeed is doing longform. They pay writers. The Monthly pays well, but all of those magazines pay writers enough to actually spend the amount of time it takes to do longform – and they’re just the obvious magazines. There are many places that do really good longform in the States, and I think money underwrites most of those differences. There are so many stories to be told in Australia – that I think can only really be told at length – that don’t get told because there isn’t enough money to make it happen.

TLB: Publications here don’t have the big institutional resources to put behind a story, in the way that, like, the Times can, I suppose.

CK: When I’ve written for The Monthly they’ve got fact checking, and copy-editing and so on. They do that. But there’re only so many pieces The Monthly can publish. The New Yorker is a weekly magazine. You can imagine that engine: the fact checking, and copyediting, the multiple layers of content editing that go on in a place like that. It’s a huge staff. I think The Monthly really broke the mould here, and I hope there’s going to be more places like it. You can’t write a longform story getting paid fifty cents a word, or twenty cents a word. You just can’t do it.

V. On Cataclysmic Phenomena

TLB: In your New Yorker piece on the Black Saturday bushfires, ‘The Inferno’, you mention that you started reporting a matter of days after the fires occurred. I was wondering what the process was of getting that piece up and running. Did you just decide to go out on whim?

CK: I think it took me a day or two to really absorb the horror of what had happened. Often with ideas as soon as something happens I know I want to pitch it as a story, I want to write about it. But that was so intense it took me a few days to even move beyond the personal response to the writer’s response. I think two days in I woke up and thought “Oh my god, what am I doing, I need to write about this.” I wrote to my New Yorker editor and pitched it, and they jumped on it straight away. Then I got in the car and drove out there. I had to negotiate – a lot of the areas had been closed off, and I had to talk to the people who were policing the areas, and try to get in. It’s a bit more challenging when you’re freelance: you don’t necessarily have an ID card that says I work for so-and-so. But people were generally really helpful, and luckily in this digital age you can just point to the web if someone wants to check your bona fides.

I’d never done a big event piece, where I started with the event, rather than the character, or the idea of it. So it required a bit more hanging out and talking to different people to really find what the story should be, as it was written. There were obviously going to be some human stories, and some important science, but it took a while to really find out what it was going to be about.

TLB: I’m curious about how you came to find Bruce Ackerman, the plumber whom you ended up structuring the story around.

CK: I was in Melbourne and I heard on the radio that there was a meeting of Marysville residents. They had to announce it on the radio because there was no way for people to get in touch with each other, because people had scattered. It was going to be the next day, at such and such a place, at such and such a time. So I got in the car and drove there, and hung out. There were already a bunch of news organisations there, because they all knew what was going on. The newspapers had many people in the area, and they were in constant communication with the various emergency services. I had no idea about any of that communication. So it turned out there were already other reporters there, and as people came out of the building after the meeting, someone came out and said “Press, you wait over there, people will come out this door or this door, people will come over if they want to talk to you, if they don’t they’ll walk that way. Please don’t go up to people who don’t want to talk to you.” Bruce came out and that’s how I met him. It was a really wonderful coincidence, because he’s an incredible person.

TLB: I suppose you would have been talking to him shortly after the fires happened. There are aspects of what I assume he must have related in conversation with you – like the story of what he was doing that day, the process of stopping the spot fires around his house – that must have been incredibly emotional content to go through. I’m wondering how quickly that stuff came out in the interview process, and how you feel about asking a subject to engage in that sort of content so soon?

I think as a journalist it’s essential to get that information as soon as you can.

CK: I think as a journalist it’s essential to get that information as soon as you can. It’s going to change two weeks down, three weeks down. Bruce and I met a couple of times, again and again, and I got a sense of that progression in his feelings, and how things changed for him. Are you asking about the ethics of interviewing people after something like that?

TLB: The ethics question isn’t so interesting to me as much as how you manage it in conversation with them.

CK: Well he presented himself, and he was a great source for a bunch of reasons. His story was incredible, his character was incredible, he’s a really unique human being, and he had something that he wanted to say. He was happy to talk to me. It was a mutual engaging. He wanted to say what he wanted to say. There were certainly moments between us that felt intense, and very sad, but really significant, and important to talk about and share with people.

TLB: The fires happened at the start of the year, and then the article came out in October. Was that a compressed schedule, from your perspective?

CK: No, in fact most of the reporting was done in the first two months. What happens in The New Yorker, and many magazines, is they generate lots and lots of articles and then each week they decide what’s going in the magazine. They have a lot of articles that are almost ready, that are perhaps all but fact-checked, and the set of possible articles is larger than the set of possible slots each week. So my piece was more or less wrapped up and then it sat on the shelf for a while. There wasn’t much happening here, and there wasn’t fire-related stuff happening there. They may have been holding on to it for reasons of their own, but I wasn’t privy to that process. But then in October the interim report came out from the Inquiry. I knew that was happening so I nudged them about it, and said now would be a really good time, and they agreed.

TLB: There’s a paragraph in there that starts with “Strange cataclysmic phenomena occur in a huge wildfire” and goes on and outlines a bunch of fascinating facts about fires of that size. It’s a nice example of how good you are at making complicated ideas accessible in your prose. Science writing can easily get bogged down in a maze of information that the reader has no way of getting a grip on. But yours is particularly clear and elegant.

If there’s clarity in my writing it’s because I work at it.

CK: I will spend days and days on a single paragraph sometimes, because it is so hard to do. I’m sure there are science writers out there who without effort produce exactly more or less their final copy. But if there’s clarity in my writing it’s because I work at it, and that means drafting over and over, and ripping a lot of stuff up and throwing it away, and carving away at the pile to find that final nugget that hopefully says everything I need to say.

So many interviews go into a single paragraph, sometimes. So much reading. You’re reading scientific papers; three or four different interviews; resolving the disagreement that two of the four scientists have with each other; and trying to find a way to balance that piece of information between two other people who disagree with each other – or to fully read through all their work and decide who’s right. There’s a lot of thought behind it. I’m sure some people find it quite easy. I’m not one of them.

TLB: The thing about that paragraph is that it’s got a good grip on the dramatic affect that the presentation of science can have, as well.

CK: That’s just what appeals to me, and what I can feel my heart beat faster in response to. Like when someone tells me about a fire tornado. And it’s definitely what readers love. People will put up with a lot of information and density if they’re getting a bit of drama along the way.