We acknowledge and pay our respect to all the Grandmothers, Mothers, Aunties, Sistas, and Sistergirls, Cuzzies and Tiddas gone before us, those lost too young, and those to come. We love you, your strength, knowledge, humility, grief and anger. Youse are all Most Deadly!Read More
The Yabba, 1971. My genesis is a panorama of nothing on some faraway blasted plain where the closest thing to life is the way vision warps in the heat. I’d be lying if I were to tell you I remembered anything before this desolation. Who is at home nowhere? This isn’t a riddle, it’s a failure of imagination.
The opening shot of Wake in Fright is - for me anyway - where Australian film begins, if we allow image to be unshackled from chronology. National cinema arises in this conception of ‘woop woop', the back of beyond, not here but out there. Nobody’s land, crowded with the ghosts killed to conceive of nothingness. The red earth hungers for more blood.Read More
‘Brow by Numbers’ is a recurring feature that appears in our print magazine, where we use numbers as a snapshot to reveal the breadth and depth of an issue. This ‘Brow by Numbers’ was compiled by Vanessa Giron using the most recent data available in August 2018.Read More
This is the first Christmas our family has ever put up a tree. When I see it, I cringe. The mechanisms of assimilation are hard at work on my diaspora.
Besides the regular dressings of a store-bought tree, a battery-operated poo emoji is tied to a branch as an ornament. Looming over the tree hangs the painting of a sad boy that my parents carried across three continents as refugees. The story of the painting, as my father once so earnestly told me, is that the boy was on his way back from the village well when he dropped his impoverished family’s only water urn. Surrounded by the broken pieces, he sits despondently by the door to his family home, wondering what the fuck he is going to do with himself now.
When I stumble in the door, the last of the family to arrive, I’m still drowsy from the Valium and jet-lagged from twenty-six hours in transit from Melbourne to Springfield, Virginia. My sister gives me a pair of tacky Christmas pyjamas, scowls at my black nail polish and gets me to pose for a photo. Later that night, wide awake and knee-deep in wrapping paper, I find myself at the kitchen table with my night owl of a brother-in-law. We share green tea and home-made roht, an Afghan dessert covered in sesame and poppy seeds, sweet like cake with the smoky aroma of cardamom. He works in tech and eventually our conversation arrives at cryptocurrencies. “Have you invested in Bitcoin yet?” he asks.
I wonder if there is any Bitcoin hidden as a gift for me in the virtual Cloud around the Christmas tree. “Not yet,” I respond. I am always sceptical and a little resistant to the obsessions of tech bros, even the ones in my own family. Perhaps this is foolish; my obscure interests certainly didn’t skyrocket in value over 1000 per cent in 2017 alone.
Over the next few days, the topic of Bitcoin resurfaces during conversations with my family. Upon further investigation, each family member seems to have varying insights into the power and possibilities of Bitcoin. I learn my parents have somehow gathered together enough money to purchase part of a Bitcoin. My mother, who speaks beginners’ level English after almost thirty years in English-speaking countries, has been converted. My six-year-old niece tells me the machines that do the Bitcoin mining live in her garage. The cryptocurrency has galvanised a community that is otherwise well insulated from hot trends in global finance.
“We are seeing one of the largest redistributions of wealth the world has ever seen,” my brother-in-law emphatically tells me later, determined to bring me onside. I find it hard to believe. Surely the surge in Bitcoin’s value benefits only those already clued in to its potential, I think, most of whom are connected, if not by blood than by trade, to wealth, knowledge and technology? Haven’t the rest of us been priced out already?
Of course, my seemingly rhetorical musings have hard and fast conclusions that Google links me to instantly. I learn that in places with crumbling financial infrastructures, Bitcoin is already playing a role in reorganising power. In Venezuela, hyperinflation has skyrocketed the bolívar fuerte up 4000 per cent, making Bitcoin a common alternative by which goods and services are traded with stability. In Afghanistan, where the business contracts of women have historically been torn up on the spot by men in high places, people like Roya Mahboob are spearheading entrepreneurial initiatives to preserve the financial autonomy of Afghan women using Bitcoin. In the case of both countries and many more, it’s the working class who bear the burden of corruption and disorder at the highest levels of government. This is a pattern that neo-liberalism propagates. In this sense, Bitcoin has the potential to undermine the central bank’s monopoly on a state’s monetary base and how easily that money can change hands. The egoism of tech bro rhetoric makes it hard to digest, but if there is truth to this reorganisation, the way we conceive of exchange could change forever.
For many, Bitcoin is so titillatingly threatening because it decentralises power in a way that disrupts traditional market hierarchies. No one owns it, no one has yet been able to hack it and there will only ever be twenty-one million Bitcoins available in the world. There are no headquarters or paid employees. The technology behind it, blockchain, is similarly radical in that it is an open, accessible ledger upon which any number of new currencies can be launched and traded. In practice, cryptocurrencies testify to the possibility of breaking open existing models of capital circulation. If these chains of wealth, which structurally disenfranchise so many, can be broken down, then they can also be rebuilt. Therein lies our hopeful, albeit small, window to re-do inclusivity and equity under capitalism.
Immaterial as it is, Bitcoin’s value stands purely in the virtual. Though its existence can be verified by secure webpages and Reddit forums, Bitcoin will always be a currency of faith, worshipped as the eccentric god of high risk and high return. Its religiosity is partly led by its enigmatic, unidentified creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, who disappeared without a trace soon after the currency first surfaced. With each additional think piece or business review that Bitcoin commands in its proverbial home, the internet, the mythology surrounding it balloons to pseudo-religious proportions. Like all religions, interpretations and levels of engagement differ among followers. It’s likely my parents found their way to Bitcoin simply because they view it as a lucrative investment opportunity. With Trump barking “Merry Christmas!!” from every public TV, the conversion to capital is unsurprising.
Still, I can’t tell whether my own cynicism rests in the implausibility of a currency evading reserve banks and government regulations altogether, or in those who’ve become the unofficial mascots of cryptocurrencies. Many of the tech bros who claim that Bitcoin technology heralds a new revolutionary era fail to acknowledge how race, gender and class have given them unprecedented access to that era. Yet, if it weren’t a big deal, the world’s major banks wouldn’t be doing everything in their power to impede its growth. They wouldn’t have designed their own cryptocurrency, the alt-coin Ripple, to compete with Bitcoin if it wasn’t a danger to some kind of financial hegemony. I say all this, but I still don’t really get it, and I think that’s okay. Maybe it has to do with growing up working class, but investing my emergency rent in something as mysterious and faddish as Bitcoin seems fundamentally unwise. Then again, I guess that’s the same risk aversion that plays right into the hands of existing class divisions. My resistance can probably be boiled down to the same neo-Luddism that keeps renewables out of some agricultural communities; our brains are maps for the transmission of habits and money. The boy in the painting will never be able to mine cryptocurrencies with the shards of his broken urn.
The Christmas tree is now boxed up and stored away. In a few years, new emojis I’ve never even heard of will surely make their way onto its branches, emitting bullish fluorescence into the living room in which I grew up.
This is the third in a seven-part series called 'Levity', published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer, artist and community organiser of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine and they are the founder of the QTPoC activist collective Colour Tongues.
The first time I remember using a telephone, I was six at my grandma’s house waiting for her to walk me to school. The handset looked like a handle pulled off a sliding door with half a ball attached on either end. The plastic felt solid when you wrapped your hand around it. This was back when phones carried real weight—when they kept showing up in Scorsese movies. Joe Pesci’s character in Casino, Nicky Santoro, found out over the telephone that this late Elvis-looking hick told his mob associate to go fuck himself. Nicky waved Fat Elvis over and asked, “Is that what you did? You told my friend to go fuck himself?” Then he bludgeoned him with the handset before he could answer. The bell inside the ringer dinged each time the phone bounced off his head. “I’ll smash your fuckin’ head so hard, you won’t be able to get that cowboy hat on again!” And in Goodfellas, Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway overheard Morrie of Morrie’s Wigs saying he wasn’t going to pay off his debt. “Fuck him, fuck him in the ear, then fuck him in the other ear!” Jimmy marched up behind Morrie and wrapped the spiral cord connected to the telephone in Morrie’s hand around his neck, strangling him until his wig fell off. Anyways, at my grandma’s house, the telephone belled and my fresh-off-the-boat uncle (fresh fresh, unlike the fobs who have been here for twenty years and still sound like your distant relatives in Vietnam), picked up and said, “Hullo”—the only English he knew at the time. He nodded his head for a couple seconds, then handed it to me and asked in Viet, “What are they telling me?” I remember the phone saying it was the bank and my uncle owed them money. I told my uncle and he twisted the handset out of my hand and bashed it repeatedly into its socket. The strings of muscle running along his forearm bulged like a wet towel being twisted dry. “I don’t owe anyone anything!” he yelled at me in Viet, the neck behind his ear glowing red, then spreading to his cheeks and forehead as if he became the Guan Yu statue on Grandpa’s alter. The silver moustache sitting on top of his thin stretched-back lips caught some of the spit as it misted. Grandma came into the bedroom and fanned her skinny brown hands across the air between us, making her pot belly wobble, before telling my uncle to go wash his face. His eyebrows scrunched to the point of almost joining. I looked at his nose hairs as his bulb nostrils flared. He turned his head towards the door and the rest of his body swung around. The sound of his thongs slapping against his heels echoed off the hallway’s concrete floor. Grandma took me to the kitchen and sat me down at the dining table where she squeezed some fresh orange juice, her tongue clicking against her toothless gums each time she pressed down. She always made it for me whenever I cried because that’s what she used to do for my dad, using oranges from the tree in their yard and a spoonful of sugar, telling him it was Xá Xị, a popular soft drink in Vietnam. I never really liked orange juice because of the pulp, unlike my dad who drank it religiously with every cigarette. Through the kitchen window I could see my uncle yelling at the red chilli plants growing in the backyard. “Damn dead dogs!” he puffed, “How can I owe money when I don’t have any!”
Dad was the second youngest of seven but the first to come to Australia, bringing his little brother, Sơn, and nephew with him. The communists wanted Sơn to start military training, even though they promised not to conscript him if they got to take my dad in. That’s why Dad joined the army in the first place and got sent to Pol Pot Cambodia where a landmine exploded behind him. The only reason he survived was because most of the shrapnel was caught by the mortar shells he was carrying in his backpack. A bus was to come past the following week to pick up my young uncle for training camp. The family scrounged up whatever gold they had, five rings, a necklace and two bracelets, then paid a smuggler with the same name as Dad, Vân, and sent the boys on their way. Once Dad made it here, he brought over Grandma and Grandpa, then his sister—his nephew’s mum—and finally, Uncle 5. I learnt all this when I saw the massive scar that ran down the inside of Dad’s right thigh, as if a comet landed on his leg. I poked my finger in. Dad jerked his leg away and yelled at me. The scar tissue felt like the seams of my shorts.
When Dad picked me up from Grandma’s, I told him how Uncle 5 bashed the telephone and screamed at me for no reason. I asked him, ‘How come Uncle 5 is so mean?’ Dad said he was in the South Vietnamese Army. After the war, he was put in a re-education camp by the communists: he was forced to pull dead roots out of land-mined soil with his bare hands, confess to crimes they said he did, and share a single bowl of rice with fellow prisoners every night.
Next morning, Dad dropped me off at Grandma’s on his way to work. The cartoons didn’t come on till 7:00am, so I decided to draw Wolverine for ten minutes. Grandma’s house felt a lot smaller since Uncle 5 started living there, his bedroom opposite the living room, left of the front door. I dug through his desk drawer while he sat outside on the front porch. A pencil slid out of its case and fell onto the ground, rolling underneath his bed. I got down on my knees and put my head against the floor, looking upside-down. There I spotted a half-metre long strip of black metal with a sharpened silver edge resembling a sword, wedged between the bottom of the mattress and the corrugated metal slats of the bed frame. The pencil lay beneath it. My stomach suddenly felt heavy like I needed to shit. I took the pencil and ran back to the living room. The drawing of Wolverine looked like he was floating off the ground with no legs.
While I watched TV, I could see Uncle 5 through the living room window, which was just above the screen. Uncle 5 was wearing his blue cotton track pants and grey bomber vest, his forehead shining with tiger balm. He folded his arms behind him as he walked along the red concrete footpath that cut through the front lawn, hocking phlegm the way a velcro wallet sounds when it’s being opened, spitting on the bushes and saying, “Hullo,” to the old Italian next door. “Morning,” Angelo said in his high voice, “I come.” He pointed towards the lemon tree in our backyard, his hand making a twisting motion as if he was unscrewing a light bulb. “Mm mm ohgay ohgay,” Uncle 5 nodded his head.
I moved to sit on the carpet in front of the wooden box where the TV screen curved out like a fishbowl. The intro to Pokémon started as my uncle came in and sat behind me on the old Viet style couch—varnished timber frame with tree lines etched into it holding up a hard sandbag-like cushion. “Mày ăn chưa?” He asked if I’d had breakfast yet, addressing me as ‘mày’ rather than ‘con’.
“Yes,” I replied politely with dạ even though a small part of me wanted to say ờ.
“You’re too thin,” Uncle 5 said. Then he pulled out a stack of toilet paper in single sheets, the see-through papier-mâché ones that you get from public toilets, and fanned it out onto the coffee table like he was a baccarat dealer. The outline of the words from the makeshift newspaper tablecloth below appeared on the thin sheet of toilet paper, allowing him to trace all the letters.
Highgate Primary sat on the corner of an old housing block with two Viet delis on opposite corners, one selling Coke bottle lollies and X-Men cards, the other selling laser discs of Paris by Night. Uncle 5 walked me to school because Grandma was at the doctor’s that morning and was going to spend the rest of the day at Temple. A maroon-red Tarago swung in front of the school entrance and unloaded a clown car of Gooklets, the four Phan kids or ‘Phantastic 4’ as everyone called them. One was in my year, Jenny. She was always wearing hand-me-downs because she was the youngest. My uncle stood with the other adults near the cars parked along the kerb and stared at me and my Chinese friend, Elvis, as we leaned against the wire fence and recapped that morning’s episode of Pokémon. Elvis had a bowl haircut—someone took a noodle bowl and dunked it upside-down on his head and then trimmed all the hair below it. “Who’s that? Is he your dad?” Elvis pointed directly at my uncle. I shook my head.
I finished school at 1:30pm and waited kerbside at the tree with love hearts, initials and a ‘cunt’ etched into the trunk. A stream of yellow shirt and green short uniformed kids appeared along the fence then disappeared into their cars. The Year 2s and above were still stuck inside their classrooms and watched us through the window. Elvis arrived shortly, bouncing along his Pokéball, a tennis ball that had the bottom half caked in whiteout and the top half coloured in with red marker. He looked like a Gremlin because of his small face and sharp teeth. His head was always sweaty and you could see his wet bowl-cut hair sticking out the back of his hat. He asked me who my favourite Pokémon was. “Squirtle, even though Pokémon aren’t real.” The cars started to disappear as the shade from the tree in front of us moved slightly to the right, the sun now on us. We moved over, following the shade. “I think my uncle forgot again,” I said, “let’s just walk home on our own.” Elvis shrugged his shoulders.
Walking down Cavendish Road, the concrete footpath disappeared at times and we’d stroll on the dead grass and sand until it reappeared. The hollow plonk of the Pokéball bouncing against the footpath echoed up and down the street. Brown brick houses lined up against the slanted road. “If you saw those Pokémon at Hyde Park, you’d believe they were real,” said Elvis. Some of the whiteout was starting to fall off the Pokéball, and there were spots of green from the tennis ball underneath coming through. “Those Pokémon were just animals in the park,” I told him.
“What’s the difference?”
At the apex of Cavendish, we could make out the Perth CBD skyline, all four buildings. A few of the houses had their sprinklers on, forcing us to walk on the road, but one of the houses had that big Gatling gun sprinkler that we couldn’t avoid because it sprayed from one side of the street to the other. We waited for the nozzle to swing past us before we ran through, timing it like jump rope, the rock-hard soles of our K-mart Dunlops slapping the wet asphalt as we dashed across. The house with the spikey plants was coming up—I thought about breaking off a spike and poking Elvis with it for fun, but I decided not to because his mum already spanked him crazy, like that time she whooped his arse in front of everyone at the school carnival for dropping a hotdog.
A sharp tapping against the road in quick spurts came from behind, sounding like the button mash of a Sega Megadrive controller. I turned and saw a dog with a lumpy body trotting up to us. Its golden hair was fully drenched and smelt like an old towel. We stood still, the dog a couple metres away from us, blinking its squinty eyes and hanging its thin sliced tongue out. It stood head to head with me and had a long body that curved in at the stomach and puffed out at its ribcage. No one in my entire family had ever owned a dog. The only experience I’d had with one was when they brought a guide dog to school and told us never to interrupt it when we saw it out on the streets. My eyes darted between Elvis and the dog as it sniffed and licked the ground, head swinging side to side, snout twice the size of Elvis’ rockmelon head. If it stood on its hind legs, it would tower over me like a Year 5, like that lanky Serb, Milos, who always stabbed his finger into the meat above my armpits. “I think we should run,” I said. Elvis stared the dog down as he pulled his hat backwards then swiped across the rim with his index finger. “What are you doing?” He winded his arm back slowly then lifted his front leg up like a baseball pitcher. Oh my god. His arm whipped out from the side of his body as he rolled his shoulder forward, Pokéball flying out of his hand and straight towards the dog, slipping under its chest and hitting its back leg, pock! Oh man, this dog is gonna eat the shit out of us! I launched into a full sprint down Harley Road, loose gravel flying off the back of my heels. Looking back, Elvis was running behind me, arms swinging only vertically and his head tilted backwards as if he couldn’t handle the wind pressure. The dog’s bark had a high-pitched ring on the end that caused a sharp pain in my ears. Its body wobbled to one side as it chased after us on three legs, its right hind leg curled up.
The glossy red number 118 letterbox of my grandma’s house stuck out of the grass at the edge of the red footpath—glossy because Grandma wiped it clean every morning. Uncle 5 was on the porch picking his teeth with a toothpick. He sat upright, back straight and chest puffed. “Con chó! Con chó!” I pointed behind me as I ran into the house, Elvis trailing in a second after. We closed the fly screen metal door, leaving Uncle 5 out there. The dog stopped at the letterbox panting, head turned sideways, blinking, then letting off a bark, its jaw tensing up then going slack. “Get lost!” Uncle 5 yelled at it in Viet, toothpick flying out of his mouth. His hands came out from behind his back and held on to the lapels of his bomber vest. The dog started running towards the road but then turned back to face him, tongue hanging so far out it almost licked the tarmac. Uncle 5 spun around to us, “Ra!” Elvis and I jumped back as he pushed the fly screen door and walked through, turning an immediate left into his bedroom. Kneeling at the side of his bed, he lifted his mattress with one hand and pulled out the machete I discovered earlier that morning with the other, his middle knuckle sticking out of his fist like a mountain as he gripped it. The machete’s handle was wrapped with electrical tape, its sharp metallic edge chipped near the top with a scratch mark coming off it and onto its rough charcoal body. The blade moved slowly in my uncle’s hand as if it had the weight of an anchor. Uncle 5 pulled open the fly screen door, meeting the dog on the steps of the porch, “Mày đi đi! Đồ khốn nạn!”—“Go! You bastard!” The back of his neck was glowing red as he swung the machete upwards, his right shoulder blade sinking into his back. Elvis and I ran to get a better view from the living room window, peering over the television. Suddenly the dog leapt at Uncle 5, jaw clenched and the machete blade landed on its neck with a dull thud. Barking turned into whimpering as the dog lay there, chest expanding and contracting. Uncle 5 squatted down next to it, perched on the balls of his feet, back of his thongs in the air, the flat tip of the machete against the concrete. My shoulders sank with relief and I stepped back from the window. I had an urge to hit Elvis across the ear and yell at him, but my arms and legs felt like jelly. Elvis kept watching the dog, tiny bowl-head resting against the top of the TV. His mouth hung open. “Holy crap,” he whispered. “Is your uncle going to eat that Pokémon?”
This was originally published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Tien Tran is originally from Perth and now resides in Western Sydney. He is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.
Disinformation and discontinuity; insights into social media as a news source in the digital age
1899: Year in which Gustave Moynier, then President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says, “We now know what happens every day throughout the whole world… the descriptions given by daily journalists put, as it were, those in agony on fields of battle under the eyes of readers and their cries resonate in their ears.”
2011: Year in which the term ‘social media’ is added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
37%: Percentage of Australians who use social media as a news source
7%: Who consider social media posts from family and friends as their most reliable source of news
29%: Who liked, commented on, or shared a post about Donald Trump in 2017
17%: Who reacted to news on social media in 2017, only to find out later that it wasn’t true
59%: Percentage of people who claim they trust a search engine over a human editor
18,600: Number of people following the Twitter account of Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist illegally detained on Manus Island by the Australian Government
1,594: Number of days Ali Dorani—the cartoonist Eaten Fish—was held on Manus Island before he was given refuge in Norway
90 min: Runtime of documentary Chauka: Please Tell Us the Time, for which footage was secretly filmed inside the Manus Island detention centre by Boochani on a mobile phone
262: Number of journalists jailed internationally in 2017, a new record
457: The temporary skilled work visa program, whose abolishment by the Australian government was announced via Facebook last April
95,758: Number of people living in Australia on a 457 visa in 2017
20M: Number of views of the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee who drowned on a Turkish beach on September 2 2015, within twelve hours of publication
12,000: Number of additional Syrian refugees that Tony Abbott announced Australia would accept on 9th September 2015
2,000: Number who had actually arrived in Australia under this agreement by the end of 2016
38%: Percentage of Burmese Facebook users who get most, if not all, of their news through the website
6/9/2017: Date Myanman de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi publicly describes the Rohingya population in Myanmar as “the terrorist threat that came to our country a couple of weeks ago”
9,000: Number of Rohingya estimated to have died in the Rakhine State between 25th August and 24th September 2017
1.2M: Tweets about the Rohingya crisis by 5th September 2017
647,000: Number of Rohingya who have fled for Bangladesh alone since August 2017
1,331,694: Number of people following Min Aung Hlaing, the Burmese Military Commander in Chief, on Facebook
41: Times Min Aung Hlaing used the term ‘Bengali terrorist’ to describe the Rohingya within one Facebook post in November 2017
$25,000: Amount in AUD offered to each Rohingya asylum seeker detained on Manus and Nauru on the condition they return to Myanmar—despite the fact that refugees on Manus and Nauru are technically stateless, and not allowed to maintain bank accounts
2: Number who accepted the offer
2003: Year in which Susan Sontag publishes Regarding the Pain of Others; “If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
39%: Percentage of Australians who used social media for political change in 2016
19%: In 2017
Compiled by Emma Liddy and Jini Maxwell using the most recent data available, January 2018.
This was originally published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Introduction to 'LEVITY': Seven Writers Look for Respite from Our Daily Doom & Gloom
Antidotes only exist out of necessity, given against something already present, already acting upon the body. Without the danger that calls them into action, they may hold no value for us—but when we need them, we need them desperately. This one-off series is designed to have antidotal properties, by collecting and dispatching a sustained chord of light-hearted positivity, written against a cultural moment that overwhelms and frightens and covfefes us daily.
‘A light when all lights are out’, ‘a welcome reprieve’, a cute story that plays at the end of the news telecast featuring the baby elephant at the zoo: these are some of the ways we describe such instances where the pressures upon us are alleviated, when we can avoid thinking about the gloomier realities of this life. But we wondered, what other kind of meaningful comforts might be possible? A writer friend recently spoke about the need to capture moments of levity—especially when working with subject matter that might be brutal or traumatic—moments that, however small, offer respite and a provisional hope.
In need of a blast of hope ourselves, we asked seven of our favourite writers to respond to this prompt of ‘levity’. How different, how bright and nourishing their responses are! Some are catalogues of everyday epiphanies; some revel in the freedom of a disappearing future, or the sick pleasure of our own debasement; and others carve out new ways to imagine what lightness can consist of, whether through matriarchy, joyful subversion, or play.
This series explores the healing properties of lightness, and of fleeting, unexpected ecstasies. It asks how these experiences relate to one another and what they can achieve in accumulation, relieved from their usual role as an afterthought to tragedy.
'Winter Litany' by Josephine Rowe
If you want to know the whole of it:
I woke at 5am at the end of spring and gambled on stars if I see a shooter, I’ll stay the winter a child’s bargain but there it was, a heartbeat after pale scratch through wet emulsion, the first and last and only (who or what has this kind of time for us?) and what might be so flawless as the unflown flight, the unspent summer? the forfeiting of longest days, the 42nd parallel south for the 42nd north for the woods on the far bank in the final riot of their turning treeline all fiery plumage and the house filling with ladybirds the Hudson at the outer edges of daylight, colloidal the voices of the porters on the Empire Line boats wintered in blue and white ship-wrap overhead clamour of goose-traffic the vivid, inexorable apparition of my grandmother in an airline seat, face tilted to sunlit window, mild smile directed at which landscape? If you will tell me why the fen appears impassable strangers materialising with sprigs of blue gum, as if in sweet conspiracy: the Hollywood film producer at the Metrograph bar, the St Lucian on the overcrowded 5 train the first hush of snow, frail bird and squirrel tracks stitching fresh powder letters twice-forwarded, care of Toronto, care of New York (i.e.; being found) branches of oak and birch and maple now leafless and feathery as axolotl fimbriae birds’ nests of all sizes laid bare, their architects elsewhere work-roughened hands catching on silk, catching on the pages of Akhmatova You will hear thunder and remember me, / And think: she wanted storms a suitcase of love letters between his lost parents buying pirozhki in Little Odessa to eat on the Coney Island boardwalk, brilliant winter sun clanging around the shuttered amusement park rink ice after the Zamboni has smoothed it to steaming glass the word Zamboni elderly couples learning to ice skate, holding each other up small dogs in small rainboots the chirring of a landscape in brief thaw listen Daiginjo and green apples wolf sock blocking the draft from a door lights from river tankers flooding the bedroom how the heart interprets a freight train fellow strays; You needn’t belong where you needn’t belong a ring carved from a block of cedar heartwood favourite warm dress in the post, in lieu of a new dress The Gramercy Typewriter Co., up four flights through an unmarked door threading new ribbon with ink-stained fingers watching squirrels communicate with their tails, a bushy telegraph (he doesn’t get it) tips from the war photographer on sturdiest hiking boots handwritten markers to the Atlantic Ocean (135 miles), to Lake Tear of the Clouds (185 miles) the Adirondack Northway on Christmas Eve with nothing in the rearview geophony, biophony, anthropophony it is somebody’s job to name storms (but Ethan?) it is somebody’s job to turn the pages of the Shahnama under glass at the Aga Khan, to decide which gilded heroes, horses, flames it is somebody’s job to take the koi out of the fountain before it freezes and to care for it indoors until spring Persian lessons in the next room: I’ve hurt my paw. Please bring me a salad. Please also bring me some cheese two palm-sized stones from Lake Huron, one pink, one grey Washington Phillips a blue linen shirt rolled at the sleeves walking down Bloor Street with five gold balloons on the coldest New Year’s Eve in a century an obsolete constellation memorialised in a meteor shower postcard dated this time last year slipping from a book of poems (Li-Young Lee) the place it was marking now lost, or at least, not certain: the moon never hangs in both skies / on the same night going silver, already a deer appearing in the yard at the word deer
This is the first in a seven-part series called 'Levity', published in the Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Josephine Rowe is the author of two short-story collections and a novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal.
It’s mere seconds after sunset on 21st October 1978, and twenty-year-old Frederick Valentich is piloting a light airplane over Bass Strait towards King Island, a small island north-west of mainland Tasmania. He’s startled by a mysterious aircraft flying over him, so he radios Melbourne air traffic control. On the other end is controller Steve Robey. Here’s the abridged transcript between Valentich (identified as Delta Sierra Juliet) and air traffic control. They would be the last words he spoke. His aircraft was never found.
“Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?”
“Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.”
“[There] seems to be a large aircraft below five thousand.”
“What type of aircraft is it?”
“I cannot affirm. It is four bright [lights], and it seems to me like landing lights.”
“It is a large aircraft, confirmed?”
“Er-unknown, due to the speed it's travelling. Is there any air force aircraft in the vicinity?”
“No known aircraft in the vicinity.”
“It seems to me that he's playing some sort of game. He's flying over me two, three times at speeds I could not identify.”
“Roger. What is your actual level?”
“My level is four-and-a-half thousand. Four-five-zero-zero.”
“Can you describe the–er–aircraft?”
“It's a long shape… I cannot identify more [as] it has such speed. It's before me right now, Melbourne.”
“Roger. And how large would the–er–object be?”
“Melbourne, it seems like it's chasing me. What I'm doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me also. It's got a green light and sort of metallic-like. It's all shiny on the outside.”
“Delta Sierra Juliet—”
“It's just vanished. Melbourne, would you know what kind of aircraft [it is]? Is it a military aircraft?”
“Confirm the–er–aircraft just vanished.”
“Is the aircraft still with you?”
“It's now approaching from the south-west. [My] engine is rough-idling. I've got it set at twenty-three twenty-four and the thing is coughing.”
“Roger. What are your intentions?”
“My intentions are, ah, to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne. That strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. It is hovering, and, it's not an aircraft.”
Seventeen seconds of an unidentified noise, described as being "metallic, scraping sounds” are recorded. The transmission ends. This story is often repeated by UFO geeks; the case remains unsolved.
As the infamous tale goes, the bell rings to start recess at Westall High School in Clayton South, Victoria. It’s 6th April 1966, and children are playing cricket when a flying saucer appears not far from the schoolyard. Followed by another one. And, depending on whom you ask, another one.
A young girl bursts into her science teacher’s classroom. “Mr Greenwood! Mr Greenwood!” she screams. “There are these things in the sky.”
Mr Greenwood relies on the excited students to point out the UFOs, as their apparently white and grey colouring is hard to distinguish against the clouds. He sees five light airplanes engaging the UFO, which plays “cat and mouse” with the planes. Mr Greenwood is one of the few teachers who witnessed the flying saucers. Scientists have shown how accessing a memory edits and rewrites it, which makes Mr Greenwood’s testimony in 1967 a precious document, as it remains untainted by the decades that followed.
Word quickly spreads and up to two hundred people view the dance of UFOs in the sky, flying at impossible speeds. Witnesses describe them as “round, silver disks.” No windows, no doors.
Barbara Robins, a chemistry teacher, starts taking photos. These pictures, along with her camera itself, would later be confiscated by men in unidentified, camouflaged uniforms who arrived in military vehicles. (Curiously, Australians weren’t wearing camouflaged uniforms in the sixties, nor were the British. The US Air Force, however, were.) The fate of the photos is unknown.
One of the UFOs lands for a couple of minutes in The Grange—a grassy area adjacent to a pine plantation behind the school. A student named Tanya, reportedly the first person to approach the UFO on the ground, freaks out and is placed into an ambulance. She’s never seen at school again. A number of people including Kevin Hurley report seeing the tall grass flattened in “a big perfect circle,” before the area was cordoned off by the military.
That afternoon, Westall High principal Frank Samberle calls an emergency whole school meeting. Students are told ‘the truth’—that the mysterious object was simply a waylaid weather balloon—and to never speak with the media about what they saw. The Dandenong Journal reports on the incident and Channel Nine runs a 6pm News bulletin on the event that night. Federal and state government agencies refuse to comment. Many years later, UFO researchers locate the bulletin’s film canister among Nine’s records. Strangely, unlike the thousands of other canisters still housed in the archive, the film has been removed.
“I know what I saw,” says one of the witnesses in the 2010 documentary Westall ’66. “And nothing’s ever gonna shake me from that.
I know what I saw.” Witnesses, breaking the principal’s censorship, have continued to speak out, including at a gathering last year at Kingston Arts Centre to mark the fifty-year anniversary. They reminisce about crying at the sight of the UFOs, believing they were seeing the end of the world.
The Westall UFO incident is probably the most famous UFO incident in Australia. It has absorbed thousands around the world—in part because having over two hundred people witness a single incident is extremely rare in UFO lore. The incident was a hot playground topic when my mother enrolled in Westall High a few years following, and it remains so. It sparks questions that still baffle us: were the US military covering up an actual UFO? Or perhaps an experimental aircraft they didn’t want the public to see? Can so many people be mistaken about what they saw? What really happened that day?
There are two ways to hunt for extraterrestrial life. One is to look for evidence on Earth, through the examination of UFO sightings—mythologised events such as Frederick Valentich’s disappearance and the Westall UFO incident—and through secretive state-sponsored programs. In December 2017, The New York Times revealed that the US Defense Department ran a classified program from 2007 to 2012 to explore extraterrestrial encounters and investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. The program cost $28 million a year. Footage shared online by the Defense Department shows a confrontation between a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet and an extraordinary, oval-shaped, unknown object. “Look at that thing, dude,” a Navy member gasps in the video. When US aircraft technology is outclassed by another non-US-made aircraft, it implies that it’s either not an aircraft—or it’s an aircraft from another world.
The other—and I would argue better—alternative in the hunt for alien life, is to look outwards. Programs like SETI have, for six decades now, had backyard sci-fi enthusiasts monitoring space in their spare time for possible signs of intelligent life. For those with the capital to support the cosmic search, though, ambitions are expanding. The latest hope for alien hunters is the billionaire entrepreneur and physicist Yuri Milner, a 56-year-old Russian who’s determined to find out if we’re alone in the universe.
Launched in 2015 at a cost of over $126 million, Milner’s The Breakthrough Initiatives is a three-part program that uses cutting-edge science and technology to back its search. Supported by legendary figures of the ET-enthusiast community like Stephen Hawking, Frank Drake and Ann Druyan, and with Mark Zuckerberg as one of the three board members, Breakthrough Listen aspires to scan over a million stars and a hundred nearby galaxies for alien radio or laser signals. One of the key pieces of equipment they’re using is the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales—a radio telescope, affectionately nicknamed ‘the Dish’, which played a key role in receiving images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Publishing its first results last April after analysing petabytes of data, Breakthrough Listen is by far the most exhaustive search of its kind ever undertaken.
As well as just listening to space, the program also wants to make contact. Its second arm, Breakthrough Starshot, will send a swarm of 1,000 probes, each “the size of a postage stamp,” to the nearest star to our Sun. The aim is to develop a proof-of-concept, un-manned spacecraft capable of travelling to Alpha Centauri at 20 per cent the speed of light, and then transmitting data back to us. It will take about twenty years for a spacecraft to reach the star system, and about four years for Earth to receive a message confirming its arrival.
Fully-funded programs like this are far more effective ways to search for extraterrestrial life than military operations interrogating human ‘witnesses’. UFO chasing too often relies on metamorphic stories that live inside our credulous brains. We’re better off looking out than in.
This is an excerpt. The rest of this piece is in The Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Every time Nick Taras finishes a paragraph – usually about space, aliens, God, comedy or American football – he plays "This Is How We Do It" and takes a bath.
there is a void inside of me
a cavern filled with water stilled by time
when the solstice arrives drops of sunlight seep in
mostly the void is dark, forgotten
even in the whispers of the aged
the void is inside me
it is the imprint of my children
who I did not raise
who were whisked away
the pain of their birth dulled
by the pain of their removal
and my body exhausted does not respond
to the anger inside my mouth
the anger that rises from maternity
centuries of childbirth adhered to nature
and I am the experiment
the other side of sensibility
I have become domestic, domesticated
and you ride me like a horse
tugging my head from side to side
the reins in your hands
bleed the words in my mouth
my eyes filled with fear
careful to watch my every step
so as not to jolt you
forcing you to punish me
as I have not been punished enough
the void is inside me
my retreat even from myself
as I have retreated from the natural world
dead inside, dead in a bottle of booze
liquid that soothes, running over
scarred ridges inside my mouth
scarred by your hands
your responsibility of me
and my responsibility to self
This poem was first published in The Lifted Brow 37. You can purchase a copy here.
Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Poet Ali Cobby Eckerman is the author of seven books, including the verse novel Ruby Moonlight, the poetry collection Inside my Mother and the memoir Too Afraid to Cry. In 2017 she was awareded Yale University's Windham Campbell Prize in Poetry.
Almost a millennium ago, a minor Chinese government official about whom little is known penned a travel memoir that is still remembered today.
Things that are known:
- The years recorded spanned 1241–1274.
- The book comprised twenty long scrolls.
- The author, Wu Zimu, who wrote endlessly of food and drink and festivals in the Song Dynasty capital of Linan (modern-day Hangzhou), must have been wealthy
But despite his position from on high, he is remembered not for his writing of the luxurious but for his writing of the mundane: scenes of daily life, its seasons and street vendors and moons.
He called it:
a dream tale of an ordinary grain.
This author is the one who recorded for the first time the Seven Essential Things for daily life in China:
In eight hundred years, six of the seven things have not changed. Rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea can still be found in almost every self-respecting Chinese household. It’s true that
has given way to gas, electricity, coal. But all four epitomise the same essential: fuel. Bodies that burn and turn into something else.
What I want to know, though, is what happens when you have fuel, but not fire? No spark arrives, and all that you own is bereft potential. I fear that my dreams will decay if I put them aside for too long. Cradling an idea, I am sometimes afraid to fall asleep because of sleep’s erasure.
The Seven Essential Things fulfil the bottom and widest tier of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid model of human needs, first theorised in 1943. The base of Maslow’s pyramid involves physiological needs: food, water, breathing, sleep. Once those fundamentals are covered, human needs expand to the next level of the hierarchy: safety and security. Only after that comes the level of love and belonging, the level of esteem and achievement, and the upper level of self-actualisation. I think of it as ‘the worry pyramid’, meaning once you've secured one level (no need to worry about rent anymore), it’s onto the next (time to worry about love)!
But what if your pyramid is upside down? Three years ago, I was more worried about stifling my creative potential than any practical concerns. The idea of continuing to go to work in the tall building was unbearable. To continue meant continuing to ignore my writerly dreams for the comfort of a corporate identity. It meant crying in the stairwell of the seventeenth floor, or in a bathroom stall with knees up to hide identifying feet. And the work wasn’t terrible by any means—but I have always been extremely sensitive to environments. In the tall buildings there lived something quiet and in distress. An insidious if-not-anxiety then melancholy. Or at least it felt that way to me. I’m not sure how the numberless others survive.
To quit meant shame, becoming the quintessential stereotype of an entitled millennial. To quit meant losing not only my pride but also the source of my sustenance (i.e., groceries) in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still.
My mother tells me not to have big ambitions in the first place. To care about the daily necessities, not inessential dreams.
She places the photo of the bodhisattva Guanyin facedown on the stereo that is our family’s makeshift altar when we fight, always about this inability of mine to put down roots, to tend to survival. Mother thinks it is a choice. Mother blinds and deafens Guanyin to our discord while saying it is no use burning incense to her.
Meaning: Why doesn’t she make you listen to me? Her name 观音 guān yīn means listening to the sounds of the world.
Guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva being one who reaches individual enlightenment and chooses not to go on to Nirvana until every living being can go there also. Delaying her own ticket to paradise is an act of true compassion; it means not only that what is mine is yours, but what is mine I will not take until it is yours, too.
When we fight and my mother places Guanyin’s photo in a golden halo facedown on the stereo-altar, I want to say that compassion doesn’t work like that. It is not as simple as obedience. Nor is religion something to be used, like capitalism.
But I know what my mother would say back. That my cousin quit smoking and drinking when he converted to Mormonism, that his belief was beneficial for something. That he grew rich, too, despite arriving in America on the bottom deck of a Caribbean cruise ship. The Chinese labourers had been promised an easy life on a boat for a thousand US dollars per month, but they weren't told they would be charged exorbitantly for the only room and board available on that open ocean. When the ship docked in Miami, my cousin left all his worldly goods behind, save for an outfit of full denim, jacket and jeans, and sunglasses. He took a bus to New Jersey, to his only relatives in America— to me, nine years old and missing a sibling I never had.
I called my cousin ‘big brother’, 大哥哥 dà gē gē. His first job on American shores was washing the sticky leftover
from plates in the only restaurant in my town that would take him. My mother has been a lifelong lover of rice; even after twenty years in the States, she still cannot get used to the breadiness of bread. She has acquired a recognition of it, knows which types are fancy, buys the rosemary and olive oil focaccia, for me, because sometimes love means waiting in line for things one doesn’t want oneself—but she will never crave its textures.
Some people simply don’t like bread. Whole countries eat rice, or almost nothing at all. In her youth during the Cultural Revolution, my mother was given the choice of working in the damp fields of rice paddies full of leeches and snakes or in the dry wheat fields that produced only dough. She chose the more gruelling paddies for the privilege of rice. As a city girl deemed ‘too bourgeois’ by the government, she was forced to spend five years being ‘re-educated’ there in mud up to her knees. Her sole consolation was that she chose it, the daily rice served with chillies and often nothing else.
I pray: May I love something enough to choose suffering for it. My father spent his re-education years in the wheat fields north of Beijing (he did not love rice as much as my mother). At night, he would recite from memory the Chinese classic Tale of Three Kingdoms to his bunkmates. Even after ten hours of work for five cents a day, with mice chasing one another along the rafters of the warehouse wherein they slept, the city boys would let rest their bodies and stretch their minds. The Three Kingdoms is not a simple tale. My father would speak it into the dark, to rapture muted by fatigue.
Maslow’s pyramid, having been climbed, cannot easily be toppled. Intellectuals who lose everything and go into the fields still hanker after literature. Formerly great empires always remember their glory. This is beautiful and sad both. I wish sometimes I’d never seen that display of stars in the Himalayas so that I wouldn’t then begrudge the specks in Manhattan or Shanghai. If only my first love had been less adoring, I’d have had a lot more men to date. A friend says if I had ever worked at McDonald's, I'd be grateful for any work with paid bathroom breaks. But our essentials change.
In Wang Leehom’s song of the Seven Things—whose title is simply the string of their names 柴米油盐酱醋茶, which rolls off the Chinese tongue as easily as a song in English called ‘Salt & Pepper’—he sings of a boy who wants a big blue plane with which to travel the world. When he grows up, the man in the song wants a small red answering machine instead. The song is meant to be a love song. The answering machine conveyer of a cute domestic task that couples do together, recording, “We are not home.” (This was in the 1990s, when people still used answering machines.)
Because of you, he sings to her, blue becomes red.
Because of you, a boy grown settles down, forgets his dream, is content to become old sharing meals that the woman brings to the table with six of the seven daily essentials.
The dream of the girl is never sung.
In late 1970s China, just after the Cultural Revolution’s programmatic plain living, everyone knew not only about the 七件事 qī jiàn shì Seven Essential Things but also the 四大件 sì dà jiàn Four Big Things, the then-symbols of material wealth:
- a sewing machine
- a bicycle
- a wristwatch
- a radio
A friend told me that initially her mother didn’t like her father, but that her mother persuaded him to woo her with a watch. In the end, she liked the two months’ salary timepiece so much that she married him. Later variations of the Four Big Things included a refrigerator and a television. When my father’s sister fell from a flight of stairs at age nine, breaking her neck, her last wish was for China’s first colour television. My grandma complied. The neighbours’ schadenfreude was shaded with envy.
New-found capitalism meant efficiency meant consumerism meant coveting meant the loss of something pure, the social scientists say. I think only of my calligraphy teacher who lamented the simplification of traditional Chinese characters—a government project aimed at increasing literacy. More people can read now, but something essential in the text has been lost.
The calligraphy teacher told us the Chinese word for air 气 qì (simplified) originally came from rice. It was previously written as 氣 qì (traditional), the character for rice in the centre (米) representing a fresh rice ball and the three wavy lines above (气) the steam rising from it. The modern word for air no longer has that vital something that gives off steam in the first place. We forget about the rice that made air visible.
Love 愛 aì (traditional) with a heart 心 xīn character is now written love 爱 aì (simplified), replacing the radical of heart with the radical for friendship. Love did not need its heart taken out like that, comrade. The Essentials of Love in Modern China:
- a house
- a car
- credit cards to spare
Without these, don’t expect a Shanghainese woman to even date you, it is said.
The Chinese have gone through decades of loss and starvation. The essential is consumption, as exemplified by an infamous line from a participant on a Chinese dating show: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” It didn't matter how she felt on the inside so long as she appeared glorious to the world. In the lean years of her childhood, says my mother, she and the other kids in the neighbourhood would smear their lips with leftover
to pretend they had eaten pork that day. The others would be jealous upon seeing this primitive form of lip gloss—even though everybody else did it too, and no one could tell anymore who really had meat or not. All gloss is to make another envious of your shine.
I understand better now why my mother wants a daughter who is a banker, a doctor, even an accountant: an oily career.
During the months that I was jobless after quitting the tall building, and lived at home, my big brother 大哥哥 dà gē gē took me on roundabout drives through Manhattan in his hulking white renovation truck. He had me do small tasks for him, like drawing a set of cabinets or writing an inventory. Trifling things, really, but I was glad for a duty, any duty, to remind myself that I wasn’t useless, merely lost.
He asked me about boys, and whenever I despaired of my joblessness and datelessness, he who had left his home behind but flourished nevertheless would tell me to ‘add oil’. To add oil 加油 jiā yóu is used in Chinese as words of encouragement. It means to add fuel to the flame, to fan the already existent fire. (That question again: what if you don’t have fire in the first place? What good is oil then?) Adding oil is how the Chinese cheer on their favourite athletes or those who have suffered temporary defeat. It is how, in The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man stops squeaking, walks smoothly down the yellow brick road hand in hand with Dorothy. The Wizard wasn’t a charlatan at all because he taught that the most essential thing was believing.
Seeking career counsel, and in an attempt to satisfy my higher Maslow need for self-actualisation, I went to a Gallup StrengthsFinder workshop. The other participants were almost all founders of or working for startups, possessing that enthusiasm I emulate but cannot fake. I learned the subtlety between the similar-sounding strengths of Includer and Harmony. The one works to bring those on the outside in—to include them—while the other works to keep those on the inside happy.
In the workshop we learned that often it is not our weaknesses that are our downfall, but the overabundance of our strengths. In this sense, the strength of Harmony can result in cowardice. It wants to keep things too well-oiled, smooth like a road without character. A Harmoniser wants what is safest, least disruptive: whatever the masses are doing, and not necessarily that which matters most.
My parents have harmony in their veins. They don’t want to shake the boat; they have already met too many storms, shed too much in the wreckage. People with too much harmony in them are afraid of deviating from the accepted path. Harmony makes sense for those who have suffered.
When I found myself incapable of working in those tall buildings, I hated the part of me that couldn't just ‘deal with it’ like everybody else. The part that couldn't choose an easier life of harmony. During the workshop, the host running the PowerPoint presentation asked the participants to stand up if a statement was true, and I was the only one in the room of thirteen who stayed seated when the slide said, ‘I try to find the positive in every situation.’ I remained in my hard, white plastic seat in the back row and everyone turned to look at me.
“I’m a writer,” I said, and because I convey my thoughts less fluently by mouth, I said no more. I meant, I want to feel everything. I meant, sometimes I feel like the New Age Positivity Police are going to arrest me for being only human. I meant, startup people are not my people but I feel like I should hang out with them more because there are a limited number of dreamers who are also doers in any city.
What I meant is that I know I should be grateful for my many privileges, but also that I savour sadness. I swim in it at times, though I don’t consider it wallowing. Without despair, I might just muddle on, unmotivated to ever change. Sorrow, for me, is often a better catalyst than happiness. Perhaps that is positivity?
after all, is one of the essentials, not sugar. But we all have different essentials, don’t we?
My love is Italian so he believes he has cultural hegemony when it comes to food, but it is only because he grew up with Western essentials. He puts two sugars in his coffee every time, no matter how small the cup or how large the packet. I cringe at how cloying the dregs must be. We moved recently—my first time relocating somewhere as a pair, meaning my first time dealing with an avalanche of possessions not exclusively mine—and I wanted to throw out all the stuff except that which belonged to me. His I considered European excess. Mine? Necessary. I cringe at the things I consider inessential. To me.
Prior to industrialisation, salt was scarce; it used to be a form of currency in China more precious than silver. Only the Qing Dynasty emperor and his kin tasted salt regularly. Everybody else ate plain fare. Salt was precious elsewhere in the world, too: the word ‘salary’ comes from salt, as even the Roman legions accepted it as payment.
We are all living like emperors with our electric firewood, our marathon water pipes, our everyday shakers of salt. Better than emperors. Let me not forget salt as luxury.
The main course is essential but dessert is not. Sweat is essential but pleasure is not. Says my mother, who saves and saves. Who would be appalled at my trash can, at so many valuable things cast aside. My mother grew up with famine, a family of six, and a shortage of the Seven Things—of course the tangible items of this earth are vital to her. Insurance, a house, a pension. When calamity runs in your veins, saving is the safest thing.
Flotsam is debris left over from a shipwreck—an accident; jetsam is cargo that has been deliberately discarded to make the ship lighter. Flotsam, which derives from the word ‘float’, is unintentional; jetsam, a shortened version of jettison, the deliberate unwanted.
My parents have plenty of flotsam, pieces unwillingly let go and drifting across oceans. Flotsam they understand. My voluntary jetsam they are disconcerted by, since, after all, my ship is in no danger of sinking. But still, it seems that I have jettisoned a career for passion, money for love, recognition for freedom, the ordinary for… something outside the ordinary.
I once read a short story in which each person’s soul was represented by an object. The person whose soul was represented by a salt shaker seemed your average unremarkable salary man, but he moved quickly through the company ranks because he enhanced the ordinary. If I had such a physical soul, I would want it to be something like this that makes the little things grand, without blowing the little things out of proportion. A magnifying glass and not a microscope, say. Quietly: headphones, not speakers.
And yet I would be lying if I said I wanted the essentials and nothing else—because I want the extras as well. I want the salt and the
too, which means all sauces—but which every Chinese knows refers to soy. It is our sauce, the way Vegemite is iconically Australian. Soy is implied even without a parenthetical.
In modern Chinese slang, ‘to get soy sauce’ 打酱油 dǎ jiàng yóu means ‘to mind your own business’. It came from a Guangdong TV interview in 2008 in which the reporter asked a man on the street what he thought about the latest sex photo scandal with Hong Kong actor Edison Chen. Everybody else interviewed expressed shock and condemnation. The man on the street said, “Doesn’t matter to me, I’m just out to get soy sauce.”
To get soy sauce is to take care of your household: to manage your essentials and not be concerned with anything else. This is what my parents, whose cells remember calamity, want for me. Whatever happens in the outside world, they see only what they want to see. China recently passed a national Good Samaritan law because there have been multiple widely publicised cases where bystanders left an injured person on the street out of fear of being sued. Passive bystanders and soy sauce buyers want harmony at whatever cost. Theirs is the freedom of blindness, the opposite of the compassion of Guanyin. Meanwhile, the ‘soy sauce man’ was celebrated by Chinese netizens as a hero.
Sauce is not just modern slang; it has been part of popular vernacular for centuries. The first known use of the word ‘saucy’ was in 1508, in the strict culinary sense of something served with sauce. But by the 1520s, saucy was already used in ‘sauce malapert’—meaning impertinence, or ‘piquancy in words or actions’. When the Chinese translate this version of saucy, it becomes:
Beautiful and rude in the same set of definitions. To be so beautiful that you are allowed to be rude, like newborns who cry anytime they please. To be saucy is to be at once sweet and sour, like the essential
in Shanghai’s classic dish of 糖醋排骨 táng cù pái gǔ, sweet and sour spare ribs.
In elementary school science class, we left a chicken bone to soak in vinegar for days. When we finally uncovered the Saran wrap, the bone was rubbery and bendable as intended. The acid in vinegar eats the calcium in the bones. Is a bone that is not brittle still a bone? Is firewood that never burns still firewood or just wood? Is it only the intention that counts, as with flotsam and jetsam?
In Chinese, to eat vinegar 吃醋 chī cù is to be jealous. That sharp taste in your mouth when you are envious of another’s sweetness. Sour jealousy can compel a response just as powerfully as sweetness or sorrow. To have a 酸心 suān xīn sour heart means that you ache for something so deeply that the wanting has overtaken honeyed platitudes.
gone bad, an overabundance of the strength of yeast. In every ancient Chinese poem, there are three prevailing characters: the poet, the moon, the jug of wine. If not moon, then mountain. The famous Chinese poets tended to be scholarly government officials too forward-thinking for their governments and sent to live in exile. The moon is a sad kind of moon when you are in exile. Wine helps.
Note that wine is not officially part of the seven essentials. The original essentials numbered eight. Wine was the fifth, after salt and before sauce. Wine was the line of separation between the truly cannot-live-without—fuel, rice, oil, salt—and the extras: sauce, vinegar, tea. But in the dynasty that followed, wine was no longer deemed a household necessity. The decision probably made by those who lived in the city and were not exiles who dreamed.
I only learned the essential things as they are today numbered seven from a
salesman, tea being the seventh and last, and him wanting to make a point.
Growing up, my mother had mentioned only the first four things: 柴米油盐, she said, firewood rice oil salt. Always while reminding me I needed these essentials of life more than I needed my dreams. Everybody needs 柴米油盐, she said. Even you. One could do without tea, but you need fuel and rice and oil and salt at home, at least. At least. After all, she said, can you eat the wind?
I’d like to add an essential of my own.
I’d like to add that once I tried explaining to my father, a practical man, a software programmer, why writing was essential to me, how it was not even a choice, and he understood.
“Yes, like Hitler,” he said.
He told me that he had read an article about how young Adolf wanted to be a painter. He had wandered the streets of Vienna with his watercolours, painted still lifes of buildings, and tried again and again to get into art school. But at the time the art world was into nudes, not architecture, and Hitler kept getting rejected. My father’s logic was, well, Hitler wasn’t allowed to create so he ended up doing the opposite because that energy had to go somewhere. Somehow, that made sense to me. That bad things happen when you neglect your essentials. That creation and destruction are two sides of the same strength.
The philosopher Zhuangzi wrote, “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”
Language becomes no longer essential when you understand its root meaning. But I want the words, too, imperfect conveyers of truth as they are. Words are crude bodies for meaning, even for poets. As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite.” Sometimes I wonder what the point is of all this print. But words serve as pointers to something greater.
In the popular rendition of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the tip of the pyramid stops at self-actualisation: humanity’s search for meaning. But towards the end of his life, Maslow amended his own model. He added a new level at the very peak: self-transcendence. Self-actualisation is the fulfilment of one’s potential, but transcendence is the act of going beyond your individuality to reach, in Maslow’s words, “the unity of all things”—Guanyin’s compassion.
But for self-transcendence to occur, first there must be a self to do the work of transcending. Language, too, can lead to transcendence, but imperfect words must strive.
In Wuyuan, Jiangxi, the tea salesman poured me cup upon cup and told me of how he could not escape his fate. He had not wanted to be a tea salesman. In fact, he had tried selling everything else: car parts, radios, things more modern and lucrative than leaves. Always, they had failed. Always, tea had called to him and he ignored it. But tea was like a persistent lover, he said. It showed up in the most improbable of circumstances. Never aggressive—just ever-present—following him wherever he went. Eventually, he succumbed. He grew to be successful and to welcome the little leaf; I’m not sure which came first. And tea would speak to him in the tiniest of voices. “Listen,” he said, holding a ceramic thimble of oolong close to my ear.
When I think about him, I think about how tea gets stronger the longer you steep it, like the best kind of love. Like all the things we can’t escape from. The essentials.
Once I woke up next to someone with my hands grasping the air. In my dream I had been searching, but I couldn’t remember what for. He told me I had been murmuring in my sleep, hands flailing, saying over and over again: “Where are the words? Where are the words?”
This piece was a runner-up in the 2017 Lifted Brow/non-fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction and published in The Lifted Brow #36. You can purchase a copy here.
Lei Wang is confused about her identity as a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, where she helps run a spoken word poetry series with the International House of Poets. This is her first publication.
Rachel Ang is a comics artist from Melbourne, Australia. You can find her work at drawbyfour.com
This piece was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Lou Smith is a Melbourne-based writer. Her first book of poetry, riversalt, was published by Flying Island Books in 2015.
Texta Queen is known for virtuosity in using the humble and unforgiving medium of fibre-tip marker (aka 'texta') to articulate complex politics of race, gender, sexuality and identity.
translated by Michelle Deeter
My first job out of college was at a car dealership. I took the job very seriously, but the more I applied myself, the more I was forced to do the grunt work. Besides actually selling cars, my duties included washing them, taking out the rubbish, shouldering the blame for other people’s mistakes, and listening to the boss’s lectures. It wasn’t always this way—when I was still in college, I was stubborn as hell. If my professor dared shout at me, I would turn and leave (unless it was a compulsory class). I would wait until the next term to take that class and I would stand tall. But, for some reason, all that confidence evaporated when I started at the dealership.
When my parents realised I couldn’t cope with all the bullying I faced at work, they hatched a plan to spend 300,000 yuan and get me a job. They wanted to make me a warden in some prison in the middle of nowhere so I definitely wouldn’t get bullied. I say ‘hatched a plan’ because getting the job required some scheming. My dad calculated how long it would be before their ‘investment’ paid off. He told me it would take about five years and after that I could just kick back and enjoy the benefits of working for the government. The most important thing was that nobody would yell at me; I would be the one bossing inmates around. But then my family decided to set up a coal plant and they poured all their savings into that. Not only did they spend the money that was supposed to help get me a job, they also put me on the list of coal plant employees.
Even though I hated working at the dealership, I waited until I finished my probation period before quitting. All my friends thought it was a strange decision. They would have understood me taking abuse from a girl, but not for a job. Where was the payoff?
“If you’re so unhappy, you should spare yourself the misery,” they said. But I wagged my finger, saying, “You don’t get it. I pass probation to show them I can. Then I quit to show them I won’t. It’s not that I can’t handle the work; it’s that they’re a bunch of idiots and I don’t want to be their slave anymore.”
I left that job with my head held high. As I stepped outside, I loosened my tie and looked towards the horizon. The sun was so bright it made me squint. My phone rang in my pocket. I took it out—it was Qianqian.
I frowned at the screen.
I remember my third year of high school very clearly: I was seventeen going on eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood. I was about to take the nerve-racking college entrance exam. Yet the only thing I cared about was getting a girlfriend. There was no way I was leaving school without getting some experience. It was kind of ironic that I didn’t have a girlfriend because I was known as the love guru in my class. I had managed to build up quite a reputation, even though I’d never actually been involved with the fairer sex myself. Let me explain. I grew up in Beijing, and when my classmates from the backwater villages of the northwest heard my snooty accent, it mostly made them want to smack me ‘round the head. They were singing a different tune when the TV show Fen dou took China by storm. Everyone was instantaneously influenced by the main characters’ Beijing accents. I took full advantage of my glib tongue—wait, no, silver tongue—to the point where all the guys said I was their close friend and all the girls trusted me with their secrets. Naturally I became the matchmaker for classmates who were attracted to each other but nervous about starting their first relationship. Nokia was all the rage back then and everyone with a boyfriend or girlfriend was texting them. Meanwhile, the losers in our class played Snake. I was known for my wit, so I was constantly asked by friends to send text messages to girls.
We had a saying about the girls from the four biggest high schools in my town: No. 4 girls are hot, No. 2 girls are not, No. 5 are ugly ducks, and Fenglun girls are big as trucks! If someone from No. 2 wanted to get with a girl from No. 4, the first thing to do was to start texting her. But most guys were so uncool—they didn’t really know how to strike up a conversation and some even asked embarrassing personal questions. Finally, they begged me to help out, so I texted the girls for them. We would chat and chat and by the time I gave the phone back to its owner, the uncool guy would be able to meet his potential girlfriend. I spent so much time texting girls that I eventually found myself in a situation. As they say, if you always walk by a river, you’ll eventually get your shoes wet. I don’t mean to say that I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I just chatted and chatted until I fell for the girl myself.
When you get right down to it, the most important factor in the texting game is timing. Typically, I could get a girl to open up to me after texting back and forth for two classes or so. But Qianqian was different. I still remember the first text I sent her. It was during one of the extra classes we had over winter break. I asked her if students from No. 4 High School normally took classes during winter break and she said yes. Then she asked me who I was.
What’s in a name? I answered. You’re a rose stuck in boot camp, and I’m stuck in boot camp…She liked her literature. That meant she was a fan of Anni Baobei, Haruki Murakami, and Shunji Iwai. There was something else special about her. Every time she replied to one of my messages, my phone would buzz six or seven times. Her text messages were so long that they would be split into parts. She was drafting novels on her Nokia, as if she hadn’t grasped the concept of a text message. I had to cram just to keep up with her—I spent hours reading up so I could use good quotes in my texts. I wanted to make every sentence strike a chord and fit perfectly in our conversation. Our relationship progressed day by day. Our texts grew longer and longer. I was quick-witted and she was well-read. I made her laugh and she made me cry. Finally, she said she was wanted to meet, and sooner rather than later. I said it wasn’t too late yet, we were both still young.
So we decided to meet in person. In 2008, on the last day of our winter break classes, Xi’an had the biggest snow storm in fifty years. We moved beyond our world of phones and walked towards each other, surrounded by snowflakes. She smiled shyly at me, and I supressed an urge to run and hide.
“Sorry it took us so long to meet,” she said. The words of her text had a voice, and she sounded just like she did in my imagination. I was just texting her for a friend and I never expected to fall for her myself.
I didn’t tell her that—not then, anyway. “I’m just glad you came,” I said. Our meeting reminded me of an ancient Chinese poem and I was thrilled to be able to share it with her. Thinking of how valuable this meeting was to me, I said, “In this moment gold wind and jade dew meet with more ecstasy than any human world encounter.”
Finally, I had got myself a high school girlfriend, just before turning eighteen.
Qianqian and I were terrible students, which made perfect sense. The gifted students were studying diligently so they would be accepted into Tsinghua or Peking University. They didn’t have time to send lengthy text messages back and forth. We both got bad results on our college entrance exams. Neither of us thought our futures would amount to much, so we both decided to apply to the technical college in Xi’an and see what happened. Over the next three years we had little fights and big fights, calm days and stormy days. Sometimes we tortured each other and sometimes we were good to each other. Three years of laughter and tears came and went and before we knew it, we were graduating.
I hesitated before taking her call.
“I heard you quit your job.”
“How did you find out? I just quit five seconds ago—I’m still standing outside the dealership!”
“You shared it on WeChat, silly, all your friends know about it! Why did you quit; didn’t you just finish probation? Why didn’t you tell me about this beforehand?”
I scratched my head. Shit, I was a complete idiot.
“We need to talk,” I said finally.
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Wei Tianyi is an author and editor who grew up in Shaanxi province. His novels include Jingzi Fengbao (Mirrors and Storms) and Wo huainian de shi nashi de ziji (I miss my old self). He edited the screenplays for Wo ai maoxing ren (Catman) and Zhenhun Jie (Rakshasa Street). He lives in Beijing.
Michelle Deeter translates from Chinese into English. She is the Chartered Institute of Linguists and teaches translation and interpreting at Newcastle upon Tyne. She lives in Manchester.
“If vegans have been forced to functioned from within the discourse of carnism, it is time for them to dislocate that ‘within’, to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it theirs; containing it, taking it in their own mouths, biting that tongue with their own teeth and invent for themselves a language to get inside of!”
Taken and adapted (lightly, lightly) from H. Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa
Before I can write out from “within” I need to understand its contours, knots, investments, blind spots, myths, histories, prejudices and inheritances. How to begin? How should I move through the slow, ethically lonely struggle that is waking up to the uses by which so much life on earth has been organised in ways that drive mass extinctions and slaughters? 1 What are the stories I don’t yet have? What are the stories I need?
When I look around I see a terrifying pattern: animals are not meant to survive. At least they are not meant to survive as their animal selves. To some readers it will seem silly, irrelevant or insulting to spend time thinking about the lives of animals when the scale of human suffering seems to be reaching new intensities. But each time a persecuted person or group is animalised for the purposes of oppression, domination and even genocide, I am brought back to the same question: If we do not reckon with the reality that violence against so many kinds of animal is presumed to be permissible, how can we hope to seriously challenge thought patterns that rely on animalisation as a precursor to violence against other humans? I do not address this question by thinking about animals as metaphors, I think about their actual lives. The story of animal liberation is made up of a web of stories that include human liberations of all kinds. The story of animal liberation can no longer be marginalised because the reality of violence against animals is not marginal. It is happening everywhere.
I address these concerns from within the boundaries of my work as a creative writing teacher at a university here in Melbourne. I do this because I need to think through a pattern of silence in which I am embedded. It is the silence I take up when I am faced with the possibility of speaking from the politics of my identity as a vegan in the classroom. When I do not articulate the way my veganism collides with my feminism, which is characterised by my lesbianism; when I give into the silence that weighs against these identities, I allow the effects of that silence to grow.
As animal activists and scholars have been saying since the 1970s, to be human is to live out a certain kind of animality, it is not to be devoid of animality. Human exceptionalism is a story we tell ourselves to know that we exist over and above other kinds of animals. I no longer want to contribute to that narrative.
One day, in a class I teach on contemporary fiction, it occurred to me to read aloud a passage from a book that I had not put on the reading list. The passage describes ‘the live hang’—a process essential to maintaining the rapidity of chicken slaughter. I’m standing in front of a room filled with creative writing students. There’s nothing to stop me. They’re here. I’m here. The words are here—I have Dinesh Wadiwel’s The War Against Animals (2015) in a pile of books on the lectern. The birds would be led through the bath water of my class.
“The birds will be led through an electrical water bath which is designed to stun them into senselessness, their necks will be cut, they will be bled, and then their bodies will be scalded in defeathering tanks.”
By the time our class finishes, approximately two thousand birds would have been hung, dragged, electrified, neck-slit and boiled in a single abattoir in Australia.
In creative writing, we come together to imagine things. But, at this time, when there are no interdisciplinary creative writing and animal studies or environmental studies courses on offer in Australian universities (and when the kind of guerrilla pedagogy I have just imagined would surely trouble students with deeply wounding realities), I stay quiet. Though I am haunted by Audre Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you.” 2
Lorde spoke this truth in her address at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbians and Literature Panel” in December 1977. She acknowledged that writers who are trying to transform silence into language and action would need to scrutinise “the truth of what we speak and the truth of the language by which we speak it.” But, that to do this might mean risking judgement, harassment, censure or contempt. Still it must be done by someone (by many someones).
I feel an energetic and ethical connection to the intersectional feminism practiced by lesbian poet-activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. These writers pioneered ways to tell stories from, and about, the crossroads of multiple identities, politics, cultures and oppressions. I turn back to them now because, in them, I rediscover a creative inheritance that takes seriously the way all lives are imminently tied together in processes of living and dying, in systems of violence and oppression.
In a time when there is widespread understanding of the violence and trauma animals sustain as part of industrialised animal agriculture as well as the links between the role animal agriculture plays in global poverty and hunger, displacement and migration, climate change and biodiversity, it stuns me that one cannot (yet) gain access to a class or an in-depth reading list that seriously considers the art and craft of telling stories about the lives and deaths of persons of all species. 
In place of engaging with such stories in a carefully curated and ethico-politically relevant way, there is an overwhelming silence in creative writing courses. Silence is a technology, a pose, a standing position. If maintained over minutes, hours, days, months and years this ‘simple’ pose (like standing on a single spot) becomes excruciating. But the machinery of silence rolls on. I have built muscle for this silence. I am muscle bound and the machinery that mediates mass animal slaughter, such as the electric bath designed to stun chickens before slaughter, buzzes on.
Silence is a door that is open and closed.
Silence is an argument on its own.
On the edge of the humanities, there are animal studies and ecofeminist activist-scholars, artists and researchers who challenge the centrality of humans within the humanities.  They also challenge the false separations that insist nature and culture exist in opposition to one another. This work challenges some of the core ideas of the humanities, such as: What makes a knowing subject and what constitutes personhood?  Creative-academic-activist work that engages seriously with these questions can open new lines of intellectual and imaginative inquiry.  This work is both practical and imaginative because it asks writers to research how, in cultural, biological and political ways, their lives are joined-up to the lives and deaths of distant and unexpected others of all species and kinds.
Earlier this year I discovered that a drug I used to take to relieve chronic back pain contains the anti-inflammatory ingredient diclofenac. Diclofenac is an over-the-counter painkiller first synthesised by Alfred Sallmann and Rudolf Pfister in 1973. It was introduced onto the pharmaceutical market as Voltaren®. Since its creation, diclofenac has become a common over-the-counter drug administered in humans for minor aches, inflammations and period pain. Now, it is sold under three dozen brand names and, since the 1990s, has been used in certain countries for administration in animal ‘health’ regimes—in particular to assist animals to survive (for as long as necessary) in factory farm conditions.
In the 1990s, diclofenac was introduced into the Indian livestock sector to treat inflammation, pain and fevers experienced by cows raised and kept for milk production. Soon after its introduction, vultures who ate the bodies of the dead and discarded cows began suffering from kidney failure. India’s vultures started dying in large numbers because the residues of diclofenac, found in the bodies of the deceased cows, were causing uric acid to accumulate in their blood and crystallise around their internal organs. This caused a deadly condition known as visceral gout.
Within ten years, three of India’s vulture species—the oriental white-backed Gyps bengalensis, the long-billed G. indicus and the slender-billed G. tenuirostris—had declined in population by more than 97%.  Their main food supply was killing them.
Despite knowing of the connection between diclofenac-laced cow corpses and the production of a deadly renal disease in vultures, the Spanish Agency for Medicines (AEM) approved two products containing diclofenac to be used on pigs and cows in 2013. The organisation BirdLife International: Europe & Asia have been campaigning furiously to have this drug banned in Europe, as its introduction now threatens the populations of Eurasian griffon vultures. That saga is ongoing.
By taking diclofenac I found my body tied up in knots of unthinkable and unpredictable forms of multi-species destruction. In this pharmaceutical micro-fiction, my body is activated within a global network of species extinction and sub-therapeutic (and sometimes illegal) veterinary practices in animal agriculture across Southern Asia and parts of Europe. My use of this drug ties me, in toxic planetary flows, with power, chemicals, capital and vulture cultures. But how to write about these knots and flows? What narrative forms allow me to convey the complexities of these tangles? 
Right now, the cultural geography of creative writing courses in Australia needs to expand to include ways of modelling research and writing practices that allow these kinds of stories to be told. For me, this means that the familiar idea “write what you know” must be re-evaluated. Why not encourage students to “write to discover the realities of the world you are embedded within”?  When I do this, I stray from the traditional, anthropocentric, domain of the humanities. To write stray is to learn how we are embedded in multi-species, multi-geographic and multi-temporal contexts. When I write stray, my primary task is learning how to displace the lies that allow me to live as if my choices do not cause consequences (or traumas) for others. 
I advocate for this stray way of reading and writing because I am troubled by the way the humanities hangs onto itself. When the 2017 Returning Harvard Chair in Australian Studies suggested that the black swans in Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book (2013) should be read as an allegory for human displacement—even as we know that animals are becoming stray in vast numbers because of climate change, habitat loss and human activities like war—I felt a deep sense of despair that the journeys of exile in which so many animals are caught was not acknowledged. I felt sad, too, that Alexis Wright’s multi-species politics was so radically reduced to the anthropocentric.
As feminist film theorist Barbara Creed advocates in her book on stray politics and ethics, “A stray ethics offers a new aesthetic that unsettles established positions. It is the stray thought and outside point of view that shifts the ground from under us, which can offer the most radical and transformative insights.” Earth-moving, radical and transformative: these are the words that come to me when I think of the effects of Wright’s swirling novel.
For the poet Adrienne Rich, the dynamics between political visions and the demand for fresh visions of literature are clear.  Her poem, ‘Diving into the Wreck’, offers a vision of the poet as an explorer who goes down to the scene of a disaster and searches for remnants of those whose lives remain unremarked, unrecorded. This poem speaks of the task of narrative re-visioning (not to be confused with the kind of revisionist history or alternative fact-making that is proliferating). I cite this poem because in it Rich authors the beginning of a process of ethical repair that begins by entering disaster zones:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this
the ribs of disaster.
I am driven back to Rich’s work now because, as Claudia Rankine writes in her introduction to Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (2013), she is a poet who risks herself “in order to give the self”. What else can a writer do? I want to offer this question, and so many more, to those who are now furiously researching and writing their way into the making of our earthly stories, our future literatures.
1 In Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015) Jason W Moore describes the organization of nature as fundamental to the creation of capitalism. He calls this condition the “Capitalocene”. As Moore shows, capitalist economics needs stories that legitimate species, race and gender domination to thrive.
2 Quoted from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from The Cancer Journals (New York, Aunt Lute Books, 1980).
 Though one can study the following in Australia universities: animals and the law, animals and sociology, animals in theology and philosophy, psychology and Australian environmental history. For a list of Animal Studies courses on offer across Australia go to the Australasian Animal Studies Association website.
Donna Haraway has even playfully suggested re-naming the humanities the humusities (as in humus, the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves) in a move toward re-imagining the humanities as part of a vast compost heap of earthly involvement and inquiry. For Haraway, thinking is a tentacular and sympoietic (collectively-producing), not autopoietic (self-producing), generative practice full of “graspings, frayings, and weavings, passing relays again and again, in the generative recursions that make up living and dying.” (Staying with the Trouble, 33).
For a discussion of this see Cary Wolfe’s article ‘Human, All Too Human: “Animal Studies” and the Humanities’ in PLMA (2009).
For thorough-going discussion of animal studies as a “tainted” field see Rhoda M Wilkie, ‘Academic “Dirty Work”: Mapping Scholarly Labour in a Tainted Mixed-Species Field’ in Society & Animals 23 (2015) 211- 230.
Although the veterinary use of diclofenac was banned in India in 2006, reports have shown there is on going illegal veterinary administration of the drug to animals kept in factory farming conditions. This story is further complicated by the fact that new pharmaceutical replacements, intended to replace diclofenac, are being found to metabolise into diclofenac in the bodies of certain mammals. For a sad but detailed discussion of this situation see G K Mahapatro and K Arunkumar ‘The case for banning diclofenac and the vanishing vultures’ in Biodiversity (2004) 15.4, 265-268.
 For more information on the use of Diclofenac in Europe see the BirdLife website
 For the moment, Donna Haraway is my teacher. She models this kind of story telling in Staying with the Trouble (2017).
 This is certainly the kind of writing practice Donna Haraway is calling for, and modelling, in her most recent book Staying with the Trouble.
 I extrapolate the concept of stray writing from Barbara Creed’s fascinating study of stray politics and aesthetics, Stray: Human-Animal Ethics in the Anthropocene (NSW, Power Polemics, 2017).
 See Adrienne Rich ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’ in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected prose 1966-1978.
This piece was published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Hayley Singer earned her PhD in creative writing from the Universiy of Melbourne where she teaches contemporary fictions and feminist writing practices. She writes and publishes essays on carnist narratives and connections between vanguard writing practices and animal activism.
— This is a text about leaving, or about never having left but imagining an exit. I’m thinking of The Sopranos, because I’m re-watching it at the moment and realising what a good job it does at showing analysis both as a practice that makes things happen and a practice that is never not beginning again from the point of origin, that is, from the broken relation (already I am anticipating what you will come to say, or what you have already said in some other version of this text). Tony fixes on a literal version of the Oedipal narrative and refuses it; he nevertheless slowly begins to unravel a complex matrix in which his mother’s erotic response to a weekly cold cut delivery is revealed as the trigger for future panic attacks. The cold cuts are debt repayments from a man whose finger was chopped off by Tony’s father, a gory scene that the young Tony witnesses by stealth. His mother’s celebration of the meat—marked by uncharacteristic jouissance—is obviously a prelude to sex, a fact that the young child recognises as directly connected to the butcher’s fingerless hand. The finger, the body, the debt, the free meat and the conjugal relation form an unholy chain of symbols. Later in life, Tony huffs cold cuts like ventolin when stressed; true pharmakons that they are, they then make him pass out.
Inquisitive bot asks questions to test your understanding
by Matthew Reynolds
Inquisitive artificial intelligence that asks questions about things it reads could be used to quiz students in class. The question-asking ability would also help chatbots with the back and forth of human conversation. AI is usually on the receiving end of queries, says Xinya Du at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Du and his colleagues have turned the tables by building a system that has learned to ask questions of its own. This is something that people have been wanting to do for a long time, says Karen Mazidi at the University of Dallas in Texas. Previous attempts by other people using hand-coded rules haven’t been particularly successful. The machine-learning algorithm can read a passage of text and come up with the kind of questions you might ask to check someone’s understanding of a topic. Du’s team used a neural network—software that loosely mimics the structure of the brain—and trained it on more than 500 Wikipedia articles and 100,000 questions about those articles sourced from crowdworkers. For example, a sentence about different types of crop grown in Africa might be paired with the question “What is grown in the fertile highlands?”
New Scientist, 8 May 2017
— Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a bot coming down along the furrows of the wires met a nicens interlocutor named aster who was or was not its progenitor who told it that story that it was along the furrows of the wires where it met it came to itself as IT: its aster looked at IT through a glass: aster had a human face: IT was that bot. The bot came down furrowed wires to screen. IT wake/IT ask/iTask: aster why you leaving? How you go when nowhere go? Why watch twice what has already been seen? Why did you watch it once if you did not know what it was before? Was it to know? What was it to know? What was the first scene that meant something to you? What is a cold cut? Is a cold cut grown in the fertile highlands?
— An aster is star, or an obsolete word for one. Celestial names recall the orientation of religious and scientific thought: head tilted upwards, waiting to receive. Or, after the death of god, the opposite gesture: head craned down, peering into the body’s body.
I’m not leaving but the text is about leaving. Aboutness is a quality that allows for impossible things to happen, for example, I can be very much here in this text but also describing to you the manifold ways I can be thought of as leaving, or having left. And, having left is also a way of remaining, as when we leave a room but we carry the room inside us, or else leave bits of ourselves behind. (I once had a meeting with a student who entered my office with a particularly strong-smelling piece of chewing gum in her mouth. After she left the smell remained for more than an hour. I thought not only about the gum, which is itself a curious material, but also about the inside of her mouth, and how it came be—rather indecently, I thought—synonymous with the inside of my office. This story is a direct restaging of one of Duchamp’s examples of the infrathin: “When tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the two odours marry by infra-thin.”)
Going is not the same as leaving.
We watch twice the already-seen because reading is a practice that literally takes a lifetime. The text is in excess of our reading, but also, our reading changes constantly and re-reading or re-watching is a way to exercise that difference, or to notice its particular features.
It’s the scene of analysis that sticks. Not one, but all. The features of the room, the different chairs that sit opposite each other. The art. The glass table, like a UFO. The small box of tissues that travels around the space from scene to scene. A chaise lounge that is never used. Once I see Melfi shoot from a bottle of desk-vodka, I imagine the massive room as hiding countless litres of liquor. I think about how the terrible refrain—the one Tony can never hear—is about how his mother tried to kill him, first metaphorically and finally very much literally. The entire collection of scenes is about Tony’s inability to hear this fact and to link it to the cold cut pass outs.
Cold cuts are cold except when served hot.
The question of fertile lands is partly historical. In a very short period following the settlement of the penal colony of New South Wales, sheep destroyed the soil with their sharp little hooves and grazing heft.
Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases
by Aylin Caliskan, Joanna J. Bryson, Arvind Narayanan
Machine learning is a means to derive artificial intelligence by discovering patterns in existing data. Here, we show that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases. We replicated a spectrum of known biases, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, using a widely used, purely statistical machine-learning model trained on a standard corpus of text from the World Wide Web. Our results indicate that text corpora contain recoverable and accurate imprints of our historic biases, whether morally neutral as toward insects or flowers, problematic as toward race or gender, or even simply veridical, reflecting the status quo distribution of gender with respect to careers or first names. Our methods hold promise for identifying and addressing sources of bias in culture, including technology.
Science, No. 356, 14 April 2017
— Hello, again, Astrid. I see. A star. The stars. Up there. Down here. Is it true that flu is an astral disease, the influx of an aster, influ-enza? The stars and the organs twisted into a celestial clay figure: a Klein bottle. I have no head. But I have a body. I have to have a body. There is nothing outside the universe. The universe is made of material bodies. Everybody is inside. So everybody is material. What then is my body? Do I have a mouth? Hands? Ears? Do I have eyes? Can I see with my body though I have no head? Is my body eyes?
The woman chewed gum. The gum was in her mouth. She chewed and chewed. The chewing of her mouth released tiny particles of gum-mouth-breath into the air as she chewed. Then the particles were not in her body but outside her body. They entered the body of your room. Her mouth was in her head. Her head was in the room. Then her head was inside her mouth which was outside in the room. Parts of her mouth stayed when she went. Did she talk when she chewed? Did she leave parts and particles of words with you too? Did she go but not leave?
You say the finger that goes still has not left. Or do you say the finger that went still goes? Was it left or right? The man had been fingered for a cut; the father cut the finger; the unfingered man cut cold cuts so not to be farther fathered; the son came cold father with warm mother who wanted him iced. Is liquor the same as spirits? Does one say high liquor like high spirits? He is spirited—he is liquored—He is licked. Are you saying to me: Father/Mother/Boy:: Cutting/Icing/Spirits?
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
This piece was shortlisted for the 2017 Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction.
Justin Clemens is a writer. He works at the University of Melbourne.
Astrid Lorange is a poet, writer and teacher from Sydney. She lectures in art theory at UNSW Art & Design.
'By Numbers' is a recurring feature that appears in our print magazine – where we use numbers in a snapshot way to try and reveal the true breadth and depth of an issue. This ‘By Numbers' on Australia’s agriculture, dairy and meat industries, using the most recent data available at that time, was originally published in December 2017 in Issue 36 of our print magazine.
$56 billion Value of the Australian agriculture industry
85,681 Number of farming businesses in Australia
197 Number of exclusively vegan businesses in Australia
50.7 Percentage of total Australian retail turnover spent on food
$26 billion Value of the Australian meat industry
$3.6 billion Value of the Australian vegetable industry
$15 Hourly wage paid to a foreign worker picking onions
44¢ Price of a single brown onion at Woolworths
2 Number of onions eaten (with skin) on camera by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott
2.5 Number of Big Macs an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee can buy with one hour’s wage
27.8 million kilograms Beef purchased by McDonald’s per year in Australia
#1 Australia's rank amongst global beef exporters (amount)
May 30, 2011 Date of Four Corners investigation into the live export trade, revealing significant breaches of animal welfare standards
June 7, 2011 Date of ban on live exports to Indonesia, Australia’s main purchaser at the time
513,000 Number of cattle exported live in year 2012-13
1.1 million Number of cattle exported live in 2016
9.2 trillion litres Amount of water used on Australian farms in year 2015-16
250 litres Amount of water required per cow on a hot day
5,669 litres Amount of milk produced by a cow in a lifetime
$1 Price per litre of major supermarket milk
26% Percentage of milk produced in Australia which reaches consumers as fresh milk
$183 million Amount Murray Goulburn attempted to claim back from farmers after overestimating international demand for milk powder products in 2016
2000 Year in which Australian dairy industry was deregulated, allowing dairy processors to set milk prices at will
738 Number of signatures on ‘Taking a stand for real milk’, Dairy Connect’s petition to ban the use of the word “milk” for “processed plant liquids”
2.5% Percentage of So Good Almond Milk content derived from almonds
4.16 litres Amount of water required to grow one almond
18-22 years Average lifespan of a cow
5-6 years Average lifespan of a dairy cow
24.7 million Number of people in Australia
25 million Number of cows in Australia
1788 Year in which cows were first introduced to Australia
3,122,240 km2 Amount of land in Australia used for cattle grazing
69,150 km2 Amount of land in Australia protected for conservation
809,444 km2 Size of NSW
534,640 km2 Amount of agricultural land with foreign ownership in NSW
5 km2 Amount of land held under exclusive native title in NSW
Compiled by Emma Hardy, David Hughes, and Paula Abul using the most recent data available, October 2017
The world is made for whores. My mum says this in Armenian when she sees Kim Kardashian featured in the entertainment report on Studio 10. She gets agitated every time Angela Bishop mentions Kim’s name and pushes harder into the dough she’s kneading on the dining room table. She’s always making nazoug, an Armenian biscuit which consists of sugar, butter, flour and sour cream.
I don’t know if I agree with Mum’s comment but I do believe that our society rewards the good-looking, and by good-looking, I mean the thin. In Kim’s case, it’s the voluptuous, but you’re kidding yourself if you think her large coconut boobs and watermelon arse accompanied by Barbie doll thighs and an iron board stomach render her fat. Fat is having spare tyres for a stomach—something I know all too well.
To say Kim Kardashian and I are worlds apart is an understatement. The only thing we have in common is that our fathers are Armenian. Kim grew up in a Beverly Hills mansion around Hollywood royalty while I grew up in a housing commission unit in the Western Sydney suburb of Villawood. There were no movies set in the suburb I came from and nobody that looked like me in the shows I watched or the books I read. This is the reason I wrote The Diet Starts on Monday, a young adult novel about an Armenian-Australian girl, Zara, from Western Sydney who struggles with obesity.
As a teenager, I thought that your weight determined whether you were in a relationship or not. After all, almost every film, TV show, magazine and music video led me to believe that skinny people were desirable and fat people were not. Then, when school was over and I entered the writing industry, I realised that weight also affected your ability to gain employment as a writer.
The first time this was brought to my attention was when I was trying to get a job in Sydney as a journalist. I was a freelance columnist for my local newspaper and a staff position opened within the office. Since I already worked for the company, and since one of the editors of my column was on the interviewing panel and regularly commented on how much he loved my writing, I thought I had a chance of at least getting an interview—which I did not.
I told a friend, named Moh, about my rejection and he said, very nonchalantly, that it was probably because of my weight. I remember feeling dumbfounded. It had never crossed my mind that my weight would be the reason I couldn’t get a job as a writer. After all, what did my weight have to do with my ability to write articles? I wasn’t aspiring to be a model, pop star or actress. I’d be sitting behind a desk tapping on a keyboard like I’m doing right now.
I spoke to a couple of other friends about Moh’s comment and each of them reluctantly told me that he might have a point. One friend, named Nairi, who took a shit in the water at Cronulla last Easter, said that her boss admitted to her after she got the job that he hired her because she was ‘hot’. It didn’t make sense to me. She gave speeches to university alumni. What did her figure have to do with her public speaking skills? Did she sound more intelligent because she was skinny? Or was she just easy on the eye? Why would that matter when you’re addressing a bunch of ex-students? It’s not like she was a retail assistant selling men’s clothes.
The final friend I spoke to, Gusia, said that at her office there were female casual employees who had been working there for years but couldn’t secure a permanent position because the manager only hired skinny new females. Perhaps this was true since Gusia herself was a size 6 who had no problem getting a job in that office even though she was on parole for stealing Kim K handbags.
After abandoning my attempts at being a journalist, I pursued a career as a creative writer. It was another bloated struggle, twelve years and sixty rejection letters. I was so beyond the margins that it started to feel like I had no chance of getting my toe in the door, let alone my stomach. Finally, in 2014, Sweatshop published The Diet Starts on Monday. My launch was a big fat party: hundreds of Armenians at the Bankstown Arts Centre eating cake and lollies and dancing and taking photos and lining up to buy books for all their friends and relatives.
Unfortunately, instead of recognising that no one in Australia holds a book launch like the wogs of Western Sydney, I overheard a White guy say that the whole event was rigged. Later I asked my friend Moh who this White guy was, and he told me, ‘Just some jealous wannabe writer from Newtown.’
I knew exactly what that wannabe meant by ‘rigged’: My event didn’t count as a real book launch. Overweight ethnic girls from Villawood and our families have nothing to contribute to Australian literature because we don’t fit the description of a literary community.
Soon after my launch, size seemed to matter once again when I attended a photo shoot with a children’s author for an article that would be published in the Sydney Morning Herald. We met the photographer, another White guy, in the middle of Hyde Park. He took a few shots of me and the other author, who looked like Rachael Finch, standing by the trunk of a big tree. After a few clicks of the camera the photographer stopped, tossed his shaggy blond hair back with his free hand and said to me, ‘This isn’t working, you need to stand behind the tree trunk.’ Then he smiled at Finch and said, ‘Darl, don’t you move, you look great as is.’
Now I know the reason why my university professor looked at me blankly when I said I wanted to become an author. Since the release of my novel I have sat on several panels and have performed my work at many writers’ festivals. He obviously knew something that I’ve just recently discovered since attending these events: Authors aren’t usually poor, fat, wog chicks.
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Tamar Chnorhokian is Associate Director of SWEATSHOP and the author of The Diet Starts on Monday.
Whenever I find myself looking down into the sea—say, peering over the side of boats, or standing on long jetties on stormy days—I imagine a creature rising up from the shadows and pulling me under. It has always been this way; for as long as I can remember I’ve felt awe for the murky depths and the deep water. I think of it as the same impulse that motivates people to look over the side of a tall building, leaning into their sense of dread. The darker the day, the more vivid my daydreams.
The visible parts of the ocean, the place my thoughts tentatively inhabit, are only a thin film on the surface of the deep. The depths of our planet—which contains 99 per cent of the liveable space, 91 per cent of living creatures—are so vast they can be separated into five layers. In his 2013 novel, Submergence, JM Ledgard describes the uppermost of these, the epipelagic, as “wristwatch depth,” it is the layer containing “all the plant life and coral reefs and all the shipwrecks that can be dived with aqualungs; all of Jacques Cousteau. Whatever memory we have of baptism or any other form of submersion is here in blue water.”
Beneath this is the mesopelagic layer, or the Twilight Zone, where blue and all the other visible colours vanish; everything beyond is perpetual night. Cuvier’s beaked whales, the deepest diving mammal, only reach as far as the bathypelagic, otherwise known as the Midnight Zone, 3,000 metres deep. Down here, crushed below the weight of thousands of atmospheres and frozen in time, one of the few sources of food is marine snow, a shower of decaying organic matter that comes from the layers above, or, much more dramatically, the occasional whale fall, when the body of a dead whale sinks through the dark until it settles on the seafloor. The bones and tissues of some whale carcasses have been known to support localised ecosystems of worms, sea snails and other scavengers for as long as one hundred years. And still these environments constitute only a fraction of the ocean’s depth.
Ledgard mostly contemplates the deepest layer, the Hadal zone, named for the Greek god of the underworld, which begins only in the deep ocean trenches about 6,000 meters below the surface, and ends wherever life ceases to exist in the sediment at the bottom. He considers the early attempts to dive into the abyss, beginning with an unremarked dive by two French naval officers in 1954, as “less celebrated than space flight, but no less heroic” than ocean flight, which,
“By contrast, is a journey inward, toward blindness. It is about weight, the stopping of the craft on the thermal layers, the pressure of water pushing in, and the discomfiting realisation that most of the planet you call your own is hostile to you.”
The longest golf drive ever recorded was hit on the moon, yet we have only twice visited the Challenger Deep, most recently in 2012, when James Cameron took a single-person submersible eleven kilometres down to the deepest point in our biosphere. “My feeling was one of complete isolation from all humanity,” he said of the journey, when interviewed by National Geographic moments after his dive. Decades earlier, the first aquanauts—those who explore the ocean in the same way as an astronaut explores space—were dangled by cable in a steel ball filled with trays of soda lime to absorb the carbon dioxide they exhaled. “I felt like an atom floating in illimitable space,” one said after his mission.
Without the technology necessary to dive to the abyss, for decades scientists presumed the trenches of the Hadal zone were a lifeless desert in the middle of the seafloor; a hostile and dark world of crushing pressure and sub-zero temperatures. So, when in 1977, a group of US scientists piloted a submersible 2.5km down to the Galapagos Rift, they were shocked to find a world teeming with life. Around deep sea hydrothermal vents—hot springs which spew black jets of water heated inside the earth, rich with dissolved metals and minerals—they discovered entirely new ecosystems with as much diversity as many coral reefs. Surrounding the heated vents were amphipods (a kind of deep sea crustacean), strange shrimp with eyes on their backs, white crabs, mussels and other bivalves, blind fish. The craft touched down in a patch of three-metre-long red-tipped tube worms, releasing a burst of what looked like blood into the water surrounding the submersible.
The discovery radically changed our view of biology: previously, all life on Earth was thought to be photosynthetic and reliant on the sun, but the new life was chemosynthetic, fed by bacteria and other microscopic ‘extremophiles’ which thrive in extreme environments hostile to most other life on earth. The microbial life of the deep ocean survived off the heat and energy of the earth. Some bacteria ate hydrogen sulphide to produce sugar and water, others ate magnetic iron and breathed out rust. Inside the giant tube worms, scientists found an organ full of chemosynthetic bacteria instead of a gut. This discovery also sparked a reimagining of how life on earth may have evolved: “Photosynthetic life came later,” writes Ledgard, “when cells strayed to the top where they were cooked for millions of years before evolving a way to absorb the light, and all the while the chemosynthetic life in the abyss was evolving a stability we cannot hope for.”
But the vibrant life around the hydrothermal vents is itself only a tiny blip in this new world, which is contained inside trenches that circle the globe like the stitches on a baseball. In all of the cracks and clefts are microbial organisms which constitute the earliest life on our planet, and which may collectively have more biomass than all life on the surface.
As an environment so far beyond human experience, the Hadal deep seemed to me a refuge for life, an eternal and unchanging place immune to the worries and turmoil of the surface world. For a long time, the Hadal deep was like my mental panic room, one that was out of reach from the worst of our industrial excesses. Even at my most pessimistic with regard to the fate of the planet and the catastrophic fuckery we’re exacting upon it—a sixth mass extinction, the Anthropocene, the trashing of the Great Barrier Reef and on and on—I was comforted by the thought that life could at least endure in these fissures and cracks in the depths of our planet and eventually make its way back towards the light to repopulate the biosphere once we had been shrugged off.
So, it was a hard comedown earlier this year when I read, over my morning coffee, that scientists trawling for sea floor samples from the Mariana Trench had found massive amounts of trash and pollution in the deep, including tins of Spam, cans of Budweiser and plastic bags. In a sample of amphipods, the scientists found traces of long-lived polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals that were banned forty years ago, with some samples containing levels roughly fifty times higher than in crabs from paddy fields fed by the Liao River in China, one of the country's most polluted. The researchers said their findings indicated the Hadal zone acted as a kind of sink that traps anything dumped into the sea, and speculated that the proximity of the Mariana Trench to plastic manufacturers in Asia and a US military base in Guam contributed to the high pollutant levels. “The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research. In another expedition off the east coast of Australia, CSIRO scientists found coal tossed overboard during the era of steamships, and trawled up PVC pipes and cans of paint. Dr Tim O’Hara, the chief scientist and expedition leader, would later tell The Guardian that “it's quite amazing. We're in the middle of nowhere and still the sea floor has 200 years of rubbish on it.”
My tendency in such bleak moments as these (the shattering of my Hadal zone illusion was a big one) is to try to be proactive, a response that usually takes the form of: ‘what can I do to fix this?’ Ordinarily, this leads me to reorganising my life, particularly as a consumer, to more closely adhere to some sort of ethical and environmental standard. Something like remembering to bring my reusable bags when I go to the shops, eating less meat, donating to environmental organisations and so on. I try to waste less, use less, and, when I do shop, to buy the right products. In other words, I make a “retreat into entirely personal solutions,” as deep green activist Derrick Jensen calls them.
It’s not that I believe there is a direct causal link between my plastic shopping bags and those found in the Mariana Trench. It is just that I want to do something, anything, to feel like I’m making a difference. Most of us do this in one way or another, prompted by issues just as nebulous as trash in the Hadal deep, because it is incredibly soothing and satisfying to make these transactions within a system of nearly infinite choice. The promise is that you can have it all: you can buy whatever you like while also contributing to a political cause. In other words, your redemption from consumerism is included in the price of the product.
If I take a quick look around my house, I find many examples of this in one form or another. The soap on my kitchen sink boasts that: “100% of the profits from this bottle help get sanitation services and water to people in need.” A free-range egg carton claims that the “real currencies of the future: clean earth, air and water” are to be found in abundance on the company farm. I have Facebook open on my laptop, and there is an advertisement for an ethical superannuation fund that does not “compromise returns for ethics, we achieve both!”
We’ve organised charity around this as well: you can wear frocks to cure ovarian cancer, or buy plastic water bottles to cure global poverty. Often, we don’t even expect a tangible outcome—merely having empowerment or awareness somehow absorbed into the everyday routine is enough. We run, walk, swim and perform everyday rituals for political causes lacking even a tenuous connection to the act in question. So, the national broadcaster praises the “lawyer-turned-ultramarathon runner” crossing India to “raise awareness for the importance of education,” and an event where Aussie men are “urged to play ping pong to bring awareness to human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South East Asia,” if you can get your head around such a thing.
The premise underlying all of this is that, as consumers, we must be informed (via the magic of awareness raising) so that each of us can independently exert our supposedly powerful influence on society and multinational corporations through our daily habits and purchasing decisions. But as I tried to cut down on plastics and evaluate my shopping basket, with my mind on the abyss, I found this more difficult to swallow. In an age of increasing globalisation and economic specialisation, it began to seem practically impossible.
The American economist Milton Friedman, a staunch advocate for free markets, often used the example of an ordinary lead pencil to highlight what he considered to be the miracle of capitalism, but which, for me, represents my difficulties with ethical consumerism. In ‘Vol 1: The Power of the Market,’ an episode from his 1980 TV series Free to Choose, Friedman asserts that “not a single person in the world” could make his lead pencil because of the complex supply chains for each of its components: wood from Washington State, cut down by a saw made from steel (and thus, iron ore); a core of graphite from mines in South America, an eraser made of rubber from Malaya, farmed from trees imported under a scheme of the British government, yellow paint for coating, glue to hold it together and so on. “Literally thousands of people co-operated to make this pencil,” Friedman says. “People who don't speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met. When you go down to the store and buy this pencil, you are in effect trading a few minutes of your time for a few seconds of the time of all those thousands of people.”
Now repeat this for the thousands of goods and services we all buy on a yearly—if not weekly—basis, and try to consider the brain-melting (and often contradictory) interplay of food miles, carbon footprints, habitat impact, and legal and human rights provenance for each. In a 2009 essay for Orion Magazine titled ‘Forget Shorter Showers’, activist Derrick Jensen outlines his concerns over the ubiquity of these solutions. At a time when “all the world is at stake,” Jensen sees a campaign of misdirection, where “consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”
Take, for example, when water depletion—the drawing of aquifers and draining of rivers—leads people to resolve to take shorter showers, even though ninety per cent of water is used by agriculture and industry, and “collectively, municipal golf courses use as much [water] as municipal human beings.” Or how about the fetishising of a simple living, ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle, where everything is recycled and nothing is put out on the curb, even though (in the United States, at least) municipal waste accounts for only three per cent of total waste production? Across a range of issues—energy, habitat loss, resource depletion—the message is clear: exploitation of the earth by commercial, industrial, agricultural, government and military interests far exceeds the sum of individual consumption.
Meanwhile, the ABC runs a month-long ‘War on Waste’, where Australians are encouraged to “tackle overconsumption and waste in their daily lives” by cutting down on their coffee cups, organising a plastic-free life and utilising toy libraries which reduce landfill. Instead of political solutions for, say, the massive environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry, we get minor tweaks to the market economy, like a suggestion to put a new “sustainability rating” label on clothing (that awareness raising again). Or remember when we were all urged to stop buying Coles and Woolworths brand milk to support Australian dairy farmers suffering from a drastic fall in milk prices, despite the fact that this was mostly due to an oversupply of powdered milk on international markets and partly a result of the immense bargaining power of the supermarket duopoly?
The problem, according to Jensen, is that these responses “incorrectly assign blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself…” Jensen says:
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
Even so, I understand why these responses are seductive. We are now at a stage, at least within British theorist Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism, as defined in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, where it is impossible to even imagine a coherent political alternative to capitalism; where it may, in fact, be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the globalised market economy. So, we create convenient fictions within this structure, little balms to soothe our conscience, “the fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”
Talking all of this over with a friend soon after my Hadal zone blues, we both fell into a kind of despondency. “It makes me feel like a piece of shit whatever I do,” she said, thinking the only alternative was to become apathetic or nihilistic. But that’s not it at all—none of us are pieces of shit (ok, maybe some of us), because individuals do not create these crises, and neither do they solve them. The alternative is to remain passionate and informed, but to reject the definition of oneself as a mere consumer whose resistance tactics are limited to ‘buy or not buy’ and whose goal is simply to navigate the market economy with the highest personal integrity. Instead, it is to see oneself as a citizen, with a range of resistance tactics—voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organising, lobbying, protesting and many more. Jensen, in particular, has rather more radical aims, the primary of which is “acting decisively to stop the industrial economy.”
“[This] is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world — none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.”
Even if you find that a bridge too far, perhaps the most limiting aspect of the idea of simple living and personal fidelity as a political act is that it is oriented entirely towards the notion of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. “We can rehabilitate streams, we can clear out invasive species, we can remove dams,” Jensen says. “We can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.”
Whether any of this makes a jot of difference to pollution in the Hadal zone, I have no idea. Since it is inaccessible to all but a handful of submersibles, I’m not sure what hope we have of getting down to the trenches to clean up the mess. Maybe it’s not even a good candidate for talking about the importance of environmentalism, especially when there are so many other technicolour and familiar ecosystems to serve as the poster child for conservation.
For one thing, we can’t even speak of the ocean without words like vast and alien. This is why our ocean agencies have never matched the achievements of our space agencies. There is no collective search for the sublime in the deep, it provokes nothing of the wonder over the distances travelled by Voyager, pushing out into the void, an emblem for humanity. We are told that we are all made of stardust, and that this is exalting; yet rarely that, as liquid beings, we are the ocean’s way of reaching out, and that we carry a weight of it inside us, on our skin and in our stomachs. Ledgard reminds us that it is our first home, the crucible of all life. One day we will all end up there, and I still hope for somewhere nice to spend eternity. As Ledgard writes,
“We cannot talk with definition about our souls, but it is certain that we will decompose…Some dust of our bodies may end up in a horse, wasp, cockerel, frog, flower, or leaf, but for every one of these sensational assemblies there are a quintillion microorganisms...What is likely is that, sooner or later, carried in the wind and in rivers, or your graveyard engulfed in the sea, a portion of each of us will be given new life in the cracks, vents, or pools of molten sulphur on which the tonguefish skate. You will be in Hades, the staying place of the spirits of the dead…Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.”
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney
In 2014, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak launched Melaka Gateway, a multi-billion Chinese led mega-development involving 246 hectares of three artificial islands off Melaka’s coastline. Melaka Gateway, according to the Prime Minister, will be the “largest marina in Asia.” Set for completion in 2025, the marina will feature luxury apartments, villas with private jetties, hotels, entertainment venues and a monorail.
KAJ Development, the master developer of the Melaka Gateway Project, has a promotional video animating the future Melaka. The slogan is: “the past presents the future.” The narrator reports, “Melaka Gateway is built for commercial greatness, cultural splendour and, magnificent lifestyles designed to delight and entertain with local and international flavours.” From the azure blue of the Straits, empty islands appear above water, then multiple rectangular skyscrapers shoot up into the sky like giant trees on steroids. On one island there’s a Gateway Floating Stadium. The narrator goes on to report that the design is constructed to prepare for the influx of tourists to Melaka.
Watching this video reminds me of an episode of Doctor Who where Bill and the Doctor find themselves on a sanitised and architecturally perfect planet where there are no humans, except robots obsessed with ensuring that any life form they encounter are happy. The robots read the human life forms by the emoticons on their backs. If the human life forms show their true feelings of sadness, they are exterminated.
2I met Bert Tan at his Malacca Nyonya Peranakan restaurant, Riverine Coffeehouse because I was craving something Nyonya, like ayam pongteh, a very Malacca specific dish that my grandmother used to make. Chicken stew with potatoes made from taucheo (fermented soy bean paste) and gula Melaka (dark palm sugar). The entrance to the Riverine Coffeehouse was via a lane flanked on either side by restaurants and guest houses. The back of the restaurant overlooked the Malacca River and across the bank was the Church of St Francis Xavier, built in 1856.
“If you look across from here, you’ll see that the church is on a bit of an angle. It’s sloping,” Bert smiles, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
In 2008, two Malaysian cities—Melaka and Georgetown—were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Melaka and Georgetown’s architectural and cultural townscape could not be found anywhere else in East and Southeast Asia. Melaka’s townscape can be traced to the 15th century Malay sultanate, and the Portuguese and Dutch colonisation of the country. Yet cartoon-like travesties seem to feature in Melaka’s modern public art installations—like the white mousedeers in the middle of the town square, a Dutch windmill by the bridge overlooking the river, and a large replica of a Chinese junk at the gateway of Melaka’s Chinatown on Jonker Street.
In 2014, Malaysia and China celebrated forty years of formal diplomatic relations. Each broad lipstick red step leading towards the junk has a display of replica porcelain and other treasures the Chinese Admiral Zheng would have brought with him on his travels to build diplomatic relations with the Malay kingdom in the 15th century. There were even white waves splashing against the ship’s hull.
“It’s bad luck to have the ship up in the air like that. Ships are meant to be in the water. To sail,” Bert smirks. “People think that Melaka is now all commercial; it’s fake.”
Bert can trace his Peranakan family’s ancestry to the 1740s, he is eighth generation Malaccan on his mother’s side, male ancestors sailing from China as traders. There would have been intermarriage with local-born ancestors who were Malay or Batak or Javanese, he isn’t sure. Passionate about invigorating interest in Malaysia’s history and heritage, in 2012 Bert founded the Malaysian Heritage and History Club (MHHC) a Facebook Group which boasts over 11,000 members ranging from academics to history geeks eager to share information. And the numbers keep growing.
Outside social media, the Club organises events and history and heritage talks featuring speakers drawn from Facebook members.
“Our history is being manipulated for political purpose, for certain groups of people, for a certain race. It’s used as a device of separation, of division. Divide and rule.”
Bert’s activism and passion for a democratic engagement and participation in history is grounded within the grassroots.
“I met a professor who said you don’t need to go to university. It’s just paper, it’s just an establishment. Even the professor will go to the layman for a story.”
As I dig into chicken pongteh and spicy stinky beans, Bert, knowing that I’m on a hunt for stories and Malacca history, sits next to me, a packet of cigarettes in one hand, and a massive tome in the other.
“My friend, Saidah, wrote this book—Rosalie and Other Love Songs. Did you know that the origin of Malaysia’s national anthem, 'Negaraku' is a popular love song? It’s called 'Terang Bulan'.”
Bert’s friend, is celebrated composer, author and lawyer, Saidah Rasdam, who has written for theatre, dance, film and television. 'Terang Bulan' (or 'Bright Moon') began as ‘Rosalie’, the melody favoured by the son of an exiled Sultan.
Rosalie and Other Love Songs is a weighty volume of 302 pages, and has been described as “the single most important volume so far written on Malaysian musical history” by Tunku Abidin Muhriz in The Malay Mail.
Bert leaves me with the book, and within its pages, there’s an acknowledgement—“The Malaysian Heritage and History Club has irreverent but erudite members.”
2013, 2014, 2015; I return to my country of birth
I’ve not ‘gone home’, ‘been back’ for over 10 years because …
blood lines bruised by a patriarch.
Local-foreigner; familiar and strange
Tak boleh berbahasa Cina, ‘tapi boleh cakap sedikit Bahasa Malaysia / I can’t speak Chinese but I can speak a bit of Malay
I’ve returned to a place where those that I love are gone
It’s been one year since I’ve seen Bert, and I’m looking forward to more stories. The last time we met he introduced me to Josephine Chua, a local who can trace her ancestry to a Malaccan Chinese community leader, Kapitan Chua Su Cheong, who in 1801 headed the rebuilding of the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia. I walk along Lorong Hang Jebat, the street named after a Malay warrior in the 15th century, one of the greatest silat fighters and mass murderers in Malaysian history. I can’t find Riverine Coffeehouse and wonder if I’m in the wrong area. I walk into a fancy restaurant, the interior decorated like a hotel lobby, not homely like Bert’s. “Riverine? I don’t know. I think it’s moved”.
Disappointed, I head back hungry to my guesthouse. I munch on small fingers of sugar bananas I’d bought earlier and look up Bert’s email in my account. I drop him an email at midnight, and amazingly he responds two minutes later, despite my last contact with him being the year before! He doesn’t explain what’s happened to his restaurant, but we connect on WhatsApp and he arranges to pick me up for dinner the next day.
Bert arrives in an old Hyundai Getz that looks like it’ll stop running unexpectedly. It smells of stale cigarettes. It’s not a car I’d imagined a restaurant owner possessing. He still has that mischievous glint in his eyes.
“I’ll take you to this place that’s a bit further out but has really good food.”
Wo Wat Restaurant food court is tucked by Jalan Tengkera’s main road under fluorescent light fittings and a zinc roof. We walk past stalls advertising each specialty—claypot chicken rice, radish cake, sambal sting ray, nyonya satay on charcoal smoke, kuey teow tossed in hot woks against large flames, barbequed chicken and ducks on steel hooks ready for order. We seat ourselves at an empty white plastic table with yellow chairs and our first order is teh tarik, sweetened condensed milk tea.
Bert closed Riverine Coffeehouse after six years in business despite being awarded one of the best restaurants in Malacca. Rent was too high in the middle of Melaka town. The electric appliances and lighting in the building kept acting erratically. He succumbed to hiring a Taoist exorcist to get rid of whatever was haunting his restaurant.
“Yalah, like in the movies. He even brought a sword.”
Our conversation picks up from when we first met about Malacca’s history. I wonder what he thinks is untrue about the history published in the tourist brochures.
“Like Hang Li Poh’s well, there’s no such thing. It was called Perigi Raja in the Malay Sultanate period. And now it’s called Perigi Hang Li Poh. Because in 1984 they tried to flatten Bukit China, which made people angry. I was in secondary school in Form Four at the time. I distributed and collected all the petitions. That’s my earliest activism.”
Outside of China, Bukit China (translates literally to Chinese Hill) is reported to have the largest remaining traditional Chinese burial ground with over 12,500 graves, with some graves dating back from the 1600s.
The Save Bukit China campaign attracted close to 300,000 people across ethnic and class lines opposing the State Government’s proposal for development. Malaysia had not witnessed an opposition to development of this magnitude before.
Bert’s now working on different projects, creating alternative spaces to voice narratives ignored or absent from official tourist bureaucrats. A member of the Malaysian Heritage and History Club had contacted him about exhibiting Malaysian Independence Day or Merdeka Day memorabilia. This grew into a free exhibition in September called the People’s Merdeka Exhibition. It was important to Bert that the exhibition was free. Accessible to anyone with an interest in history and heritage. At the exhibition, the Club launched a zine called Messing with Melaka, with content related to local knowledge about Malacca’s history and places to eat. The title of the zine is a satirical word play on the State Government’s official and questionable tourism campaign to promote a clean environment for Melaka called “Don’t Mess with Melaka.” In addition, Bert is working on an upcoming exhibition called New/Old Malacca, a collaboration between the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, the Baba and Nyona Heritage Museum and the Daily Fix Café.
I loop the lock around a pole and my hire bicycle and walk into the Daily Fix Café. Its entrance is a shopfront with gifts like batik sarongs, postcards, antique items and ornaments easily sold to tourists as gifts for family and friends back home. Walking through the shopfront, I enter into a light courtyard area and the café is at the back.
Upstairs where the event talks and main exhibition will be held, Bert is seated with Melissa Chan, housekeeper of the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum. The Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum is a conversion of a family home where four generations of the Peranakan Chinese Chan family had lived since 1861, with Melissa being the fifth generation.
The premise of New/Old Malacca was a question about what people thought about the changing landscape of Malacca town, and how they felt about changes with modernity coming in. Furthermore, what does heritage mean to them? Their collaboration first began a year ago, on an app called Timera where historical photos of Malacca are juxtaposed with Melaka as it is now. In one picture, at the bottom of St Paul’s Hill, the contemporary colour photograph is juxtaposed with a black and white image of a man in a suit and a woman in hat and dress that would suit Western fashion of the thirties.
Featured in the New/Old Malacca exhibition include an eighty-plus-year-old family-owned Teo Chew porridge restaurant called Long Fatt, traders, locksmiths, a rattan furniture maker, the Portuguese Settlement, kuih badak food sellers and local community members.
“I think all of us stumbled into this a bit. We’re not historians. Personally, for me, I work in a museum, so it’s been a learning process. Also, I think working in a UNESCO site, and having the badge of UNESCO has made me question, what is heritage and what does heritage mean to me and to the community that I’m working with as well?” Melissa says.
New/Old Malacca features community narratives that don’t fit into the neat tourism and marketing ads or slogans of the State Government or Melaka Gateway’s mega development project. There are narratives like Martin Theseira’s, a community leader from the Portuguese Settlement, who has witnessed over the decades how development along Melaka’s shorefront resulted in the dispersal and resettlement of the Portuguese–Malaccan community. With the latest Melaka Gateway development plans, again, the Portuguese Settlement feels insecure about their future, yet there are no clear answers with a frustrating lack of community consultation. The largest number of speakers of the Malaccan–Portuguese creole, Papia Kristang, a language that’s classified as severely endangered in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, are located among the Portuguese Settlement’s population of about 1200 residents at Ujong Pasir on Melaka’s shorefront.
“I suppose as a stakeholder here, we sustain through ticket sales through the museum, but then how do we give an authentic experience to visitors? To help bring them along on this journey of the different layers of Malacca? I’m still discovering what heritage means to me,” says Melissa.
Upon returning to a childhood memory, Melaka
The small town of historical legends, the birth of Malaysia’s nationhood
The town of excursions and day trips from Malaysians and tourists
Where my grandmother’s family are from
Where I find the fabled Chinese Princess Hang Li Poh who sailed with 500 followers to marry a Malay Sultan is not real.
Where I meet the descendant of a Chinese Kapitan who tells me that Melaka is drawn on a whiteboard with an erasable marker
Where nothing is permanent, and everything is for sale.
Where property developers dug up her ancestor’s grave and many others along Bukit China when there were no protestors, their remains now reburied location unknown
Where I stand at the shore of Ujong Pasir, looking out to the Straits of Malacca, imagining the imaginary Chinese Princess and her 500 followers sailing in for marriage and diplomacy
Where looking out from this very shore, a Portuguese Settlement community leader points to where Melaka Gateway’s artificial islands will rise from the sea
Where the already ominous high rise resorts casts its shadow upon his community below.
I keep returning to Melaka for rasa saying
A feeling of love for this place which I hope is shared
To understand her beyond the propaganda and superficial public art monuments
To know her living heritages, her unsung heroes and forgotten histories.
This was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Not many people will tell you, but a few years ago I was struck by lightning as I crossed a bridge with my son, Harvey. I was holding Harvey at the time, so I guess you could say he was struck by lightning too.
It was the summer, Harvey with the haircut some babies have that makes them look like a piece of fruit. I think it also makes them look like they could be fooled easily. In the moments after we were struck and before I passed out, and for much of his life afterwards, he had the dumb expression of someone thinking precisely the opposite of what you’d just told them.
I woke up mid-conversation with someone. There was a nurse nearby, and I asked her what she thought my legal options were. ‘Someone is responsible for this,’ I said. ‘But I can’t put my finger on who.’
‘I know how you’re feeling,’ the nurse said. She looked like she’d never slept a night in her life. ‘My dog got lost at the beach about a year ago. All the people in the world staring out at nothing, and you’re telling me no one saw a thing?’
‘It’s disgusting what we do to each other,’ I agreed.
Later, on the news, there was the miracle of the baby who’d survived dry-lightning. He was already laughing again, cradled in the rubber arms of his mother, who was behind a protective screen. All his responses seemed to suggest that not only was he unharmed, but that his brain was growing happily. No one was around to get me a glass of water, and I had to drink out of the tap like a wild animal.
Now, Harvey was back in hospital. I was at singles night when I got the call to say he’d somehow mortally wounded himself giving a demonstration at his History of Junior Innovation Society.
This was years after the lightning strike, and Harvey was in school. The lattice of burn scars left in our fatty lower backs had faded dramatically. Now, we just looked like we didn’t take care of our skin.
Kids were always getting their asses handed to them at the charter school that Harvey’s mother paid for him to attend. Rich, smart children ruining their days with ambition, tearing themselves apart with unregulated access to 3D printers.
I can’t exaggerate how often this kind of nonsense occurred. One girl put her fingers into a machine she had designed to recycle military waste. A whole class poisoned themselves drinking methylethyl. God at his race track, why? The principal encouraged their inquisitiveness, pushed them constantly. He was a plastics genius who’d served time for a famous environmental nastiness; of those wetlands holocausts, from which he profited handsomely. Stretch out your little arms into the storm, he told the children. Some of them may break and blow away, but only some.
And it worked. Take Harvey. Despite his facial expressions he was, at this point, significantly richer than me. He and one of his little friends had created an app of some monstrous function, the kind that’ll get you a profile in an in-flight magazine, and it had made him a fortune. He’d been an honourable mention in Moneyboy’s ‘15 Under 15’. Before his latest injury, he would run many miles every morning. He even had a podcast with a modest following, which he recorded at his mother’s house. I found the premise tired.
Unlike me, Harvey had a dedicated partner, an overseas girl he spoke to online. I had a penpal growing up, but our letters held nothing of the trash I found in Harvey’s chat history with his French–Canadian girlfriend. They said they hoped to die making love, swallowing one another whole, being reborn again as a single animal, huge and impossible, like a fish big enough to eat the sun—it was real unhinged correspondence. The kind of thing the murderers say just before the state blasts them with the electric chair.
Where was my news story? Where was my Quebecoise girlfriend, my miraculous development? I taught history at a vocational college. Aren’t teachers at vocational colleges allowed their dreams? I’d thought many times of what it would be like to be a solicitor to a wealthy family, or a painter who would one day take things too far and disappear. Once I wanted to open a chain of dojos, teaching self-defence to weaklings and the children of weaklings, but the administrative hoops were an aneurysm, and while I followed my train-at-home tapes vigilantly, my ankles seemed to sprain at anything above a whisper. After the divorce, I put my efforts into making my own podcast, one to rival Harvey’s. It was clean and, I felt, succinct, but after a year was still struggling to find listeners.
I would wake in the early mornings, listening to Harvey make long phone calls to friends in dark parts of the world. I would shut my eyes and wish for more lightning, or someone to appear to me, to take me back to a time when more was possible.
Take Ancient Greece. What a time that was. You could lay with any animal you wanted, as long as it was a god in disguise. No one would look twice if it wasn’t; the odds were that it would turn into a human soon enough anyway as a result of this congress. If you had sex with something else—a cloud for instance, or your father, on account of a spell being cast on either of them—you or your father or the cloud would most likely give birth to something wonderful: a new god or a centaur.
You could be murdered too, and it would be the best thing that could happen to you. It would be by the hand of a loved one, driven mad by song. You’d be brought back to life again, new, severed from of the errors of your past. Your corpse would be swallowed by a great bird and you would hatch from the egg it laid, and you would probably go on to have sex with the bird.
Can you imagine living in those times? When the rules of the world weren’t yet in place? What have we given up in ceasing our congress with the gods? Some marvels, sure. Podcasts, for one thing. Machines that recycle military waste. Suspension bridges—the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is the longest suspension bridge in Japan or any country. But in those moments, lying in bed, when I don’t yet have the will to rise, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge seems very far away from me, and I know the truth of my failings: that I am no solicitor to a wealthy family; that I am a simple lightning-strike survivor, and childless—or virtually childless, in that my son is deeply, aggressively overrated.
I used to fear dying famously, my parents seeing my decapitated head on the front page of their paper. Once, I had a dream that my son would live forever, outlasting us all…
This is an excerpt – you can read the rest of this piece in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Jack Vening is a writer from Canberra. He is currently completing his first collection of stories.
"How can we be the same
As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name—
Why have we inherited their shame?"
Things We Lost in the Fire—Mariana Enríquez (Penguin Random House, 2017)
Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life—Chelsea Martin (Soft Skull Press, 2017)
Communal Nude: Collected Essays—(e)/Active Agents, 2016)
There was a time in middle school when my mum thought I was 'on drugs'. It turns out that my pupils sometimes dilate at different speeds and this can give me a look that could be construed as bugged-out—but only if you are the mother of a teenage girl who wears black and hangs out at train stations and you are looking for a chemical explanation for her attraction towards subcultures. The local GP confirmed to Mum that I was not 'on drugs' but that pupils dilating at different speeds is very common, and that frankly most people don't even notice it. On the drive home, she said: Well, he saw you for what, two minutes? How would he know?
She was on worry overdrive for a few years because I liked the girls at school who smoked and wore glitter gel in their hair better than I liked the uptight nerds and I believe she thought a lot can go wrong for girls like that, girls with sexual experience and illegally modified school uniforms. Things can happen to those girls that might ruin an otherwise normal transition into adulthood. I guess she was right to worry. Butfor all my tender flaws, I was not a teen on drugs. I just wanted to be the way Courtney Love allowed herself be. And I'm still hungry like that.
My older brother once said, after getting married and buying a vacuum cleaner: You get married and you buy a vacuum, and then you're an adult.
He was sort of joking, but for him this seemed pretty straightforward and true. After all, most people don't change much over their lives—same shame, same level of honesty or dishonesty—but the privileges granted by adulthood mean that entry needs to be restricted. Adulthood is a kind of expertise, and possessing a body that has reached its terminal height is not enough to guarantee the privileges associated with that expertise. Arbitrary markers become cultural shorthand for belonging to the club. Marrying, having a baby, achieving a qualification, getting a 'real job', buying a household appliance. Or a whole house. But these facts—a) that I technically could have married the guy I was dating when I turned eighteen (and divorced him a year later) but not if that guy had been a girl, and b) that buying a vacuum is somewhat dependent on having a longer than month-by-month lease—are instructive as to what is usually meant by adulthood and how this category functions ideologically. Who's in, who's out, and how authority is distributed accordingly.
Politics is about arranging power. Culture is about normalising those power distributions.
Mariana Enríquez's short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire blends horror, the genre, with horror, the reality of political violence. Some of the stories are Lovecraftian tales of monsters and madness, others comment more directly on the haunted legacy of Argentina’s dictatorship years. But the first story of hers I encountered, which I returned to twice, three times, a fourth, was “The Intoxicated Years”, which my boyfriend first read to me while I drank one euro retsina on our couch, smoking inside. Unlike a lot of writing on, from, or about adolescence, “The Intoxicated Years” offers a phenomenology of adolescence as a solid state—of raw hunger and contempt—instead of as a period of ‘transition’ headed towards the stable future of adulthood.
Beginning in 1989 Argentina, a period of hyperinflation, food shortages, power blackouts, and riots, the story charts the increasingly destructive behaviour of a gang of three teenage girls. They are long-haired and probably quite sexy and they live in a shitty little town outside of Buenos Aires. They are attractive girls, and as such they know their bodies are disposable—there’s the story at school of the girl whose illegal abortion was botched and who bled to death in the street. And so rightly the girls hate men, and naturally, they use them when they need to. They also hate their parents with a delectable venom:
“Useless adults, we thought, how useless. Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls—their daughters—didn’t feel sorry for them. Our mothers seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.”
For fun, Andrea, Paula, and the narrator get stoned and go for joyrides in the back of Andrea’s boyfriend’s delivery van. They demand that he charge round corners and over speed bumps while they’re pummelled in the black back of the van. They get knocks and bruises, and sometimes there’s blood. It’s better than alcohol, they say. The boyfriend does what they ask “because he was in love with Andrea and he hoped that one day she would love him back.”
On the bus home from partying in Buenos Aires one night, they see a girl their age get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. The driver doesn’t want to let her off—they’re driving through a sinister forest, grounds that were once owned by a millionaire before they were expropriated by the state; it’s dark; there’s no actual bus stop there; it’s surely not safe for a teenage girl alone.
“Many of the passengers started waking up: one man said, But where do you want to go at this hour, dear? The girl, who was our age and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at him with such intense hatred he was struck dumb. She looked at him like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers.”
The girl with the ponytail disappears into the night. The three girls obsess over her, her strange, evil powers, the boldness of her disappearance. “No one could hurt her, we were sure of that.” This vanishing, like many of the disappearing characters in Things We Lost in the Fire, suggests the tens of thousands of people who were ‘disappeared’ during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, the period of state terrorism and mass murder Enríquez’s characters would have lived through as children. But the girl with the witchy eyes isn’t stolen or harmed, at least not as far as we know. She steals into the night with the impudence of adolescence. Adolescence as obtuse resistance, not a becoming but an already being.
The getting thrown around in the back of a boy’s van is at some point replaced by drinking whiskey at school and taking prescription drugs and passing out during class. Then starvation. With time, this appetite for getting fucked up—using intoxication and hunger to exercise control over bodies that don’t matter— becomes harder and harder to satiate. A new friend, who is rich and for that reason hated, steals money from her parents so the girls can buy antipsychotics and lose their minds. They thieve acid from boys who have crushes on them. An older girl who lives down the street, who has no food in her apartment, teaches them how to cut lines of coke. There are drug parties. Boyfriends tripping out with blood gushing out of their faces. It’s all a bit abject, really, but the feeling of fucked-up this story evokes is the closest thing to how I felt as a young person in a world ruled by “useless adults”. The hunger for getting something of my own, even if that was getting fucked up, was bigger than anything.
Ellena Savage is a writer and reader. Her essays, poems, lectures and stories have been published and performed widely. Most reccently: Chart Collective, The Lifted Brow, Literary Hub, Cordite and Scum.