I am sitting on a log in the sun-to-come sun of March, at the end of a short park by my place. I can see the skyline (Philadelphia) and a few men are spotted about and walking by. My nerves are on the fritz, from men. I like this sun, it’s from a time I remember living in Seattle, in the straining sun at the end of a summer. I wanted to be (sitting outside of a cupcake café) a hyper-desirable colander for all of it to strain right into. I did not think as poorly about men at that time. But now I live in the paranoid regime of hating men – when I say “man” I am speaking of him in his domination against conventional woman, as a universal historical subject, artifact, and as a living fossil.
Something happens in the park. A man comes up and says, “I thought, from over there, you were a man.” I read the man trying to figure out what’s wrong with him, economically, and mentally. I think I look struck, reading him like this so spiritedly. He says to me: “Please don’t curse me out,” and ambles off. Now I’m so spiritually reading the park, for any more men. The approaching gender. The veterans who live in their house half a block there. The man on the bench with his dogs, howling with them lovingly. “I thought you were a man” – past tense, thought, because I did flip in the mind into woman, then I was come up to. My eyes are loping everywhere scouring glimpses of any other women, some witnesses. I read any place like that, like a woman but I’m not a woman.
I read how I’m being read, at a bar called Writer’s Block—Henry Millers out at tilts on some of the tables, these terrible, terrible coasters. Overblown. Overwritten. Sexus coaster, and other tomes: My Struggle coaster. Infinite Jest like a horrible dais for a cocktail. The manager of this place says, as I sit there alone waiting for someone (a man), “Seriously you seem like a nice girl; sit down.” What will it mean for me, to be read Girl spontaneously everywhere like this? What a mess. And nice? You experience this – language a prick on experience. A little prick on what you were, and now it’s just gone.
I feel like a lizard. I have felt like one. I want to transition to my lizard-genitality, through clothing. I eye a marigold sheath and a violet vinyl hood. But I would also want the procedures. To get the scale hormone and start living. Coldblood infusions and start living as myself, with a more honest, more obvious, more exclusive and more sexual interest in the desert. At last, but where is the science??
I wasn’t trained in school to read for meaning, because of postmodernism. But all I do is speculate threats. I read men all day. Paranoid reader, a necessitated woman. I need to read men. A man walks with aimlessness too close to my writing log in the park, with his little dog, and I read him defensively, seepingly. I seethe into his whole face. I plunge in his brain and bite him there badly. I’m sad. Is he approaching or walking? Which? I need to know if I need to go and I read to know if this park works. Can I work in a park? I need to read for meaning and ready myself for an actual plot.
A man follows behind on a bike. A book (a lot of the time) is like a man on a slow behind me bike. I have to watch out for the slow behind way it’s all going, the bike in relation and distinction from the moon! Like the Belgian writer Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, who pushes women off of the stage of international literature, and forces them to be waitresses, songstresses, students, strippers, and avid readers in a world of male professors, administrators, and literary writers, in his novella Self-Portrait Abroad.
You have to read what’s wheeling behind you in the putrid eggplant anti-light of any time on earth, it’s the reading I’ve done most. All through school, and now. But I come across a little gasp. A lizard-novella, written in the desert. There is no park. Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho, Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins. Desperate. A gasp. A novella, no villa at all. Unluxurious anti-time, no home on earth. A ferocious and brief tactic. Short knife. Clarice Lispector. Stream of Life. Steven Dunn, his Potted Meat – to say it – quick – before the manager commands. Sit down. You’re nice. I thought you were a man, but you are not. It has to be so quick, a wristness, to write before you’re read. Then it’s over.
Marguerite Duras’ The Lover.
This is the third in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34. You can read part one and part two here and here. Get your copy here.
Caren Belin is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction SPAIN a novel The University of Pennsylvania, and a collection of short fiction American, Guests, or Us.
One time I was reading American Psycho on a tram and had just gotten to a scene of breath-taking violence. I had the cover angled down, so no one could see the title, but was still paranoid that someone might look over my shoulder, see the graphic murder being committed on the page and judge me. The tram stopped and a kind-looking lady got on and made straight for the empty seat next to mine. I immediately slipped the book into my bag and spent the rest of the trip looking out of the window aimlessly, the picture of wholesome nonchalance.
For what is supposedly a solitary activity, reading seems to come with a surprisingly large invisible audience. The amount you read, who you read, and how much of it you can plough through in a year seems to say something about you—more so than any other pastime. As a result it is hard to figure out if you are reading for yourself or for other people.
Reading is encouraged and venerated in a way that few hobbies are. My television hours were closely monitored as I grew up, and films were equally rationed. Books however, were mine to consume at as fast a rate as I was able to. I was allowed to read at restaurants, in the car, at the breakfast table. During Princess Diana’s funeral, as the neighbourhood gathered around our TV, I sat in the corner and read five Goosebumps books. Parents are proud to call their children avid readers, but no one pats you on the head and says “I hear you’re keen on TV—your Mum told me you even watched last week’s Dawson’s Creek twice!” It’s odd when you think about it. Reading is seen as an “intelligent” activity, in a way that television isn’t, even though arguably both are about storytelling and learning. Perhaps it is because reading has an element of initiative, while even smart TV shows are viewed as choosing a travelator instead of walking. Reading is a slog, and so finishing a book, fairly or unfairly, is seen as more of an accomplishment than spending the same amount of time staring at a screen or playing a tape.
From the outset, reading was set up as a competitive activity for me. My school did every read-a-thon, and each year we had a reading chart of which I was determined to “win.” It always came down to me and one other girl, and, though we never said it aloud, we both wanted to be crowned Best Reader so badly that we read books we didn’t actually want to, as well as furtively reading an extra paragraph or two whenever we opened our desks during other classes.
Then, even after I’d established myself as a “fast” reader, teachers, family and friends were then concerned with what I was reading. At one point I was actually banned from the Babysitters Club shelf in the junior school library because it was deemed that I could “do better.” There was no further explanation beyond that; just that the series was somehow less worthy than other books I could be reading—despite these being specifically written with my age group in mind. Perhaps they spent too much time describing everyone’s outfits, maybe the plots were too simple. Perhaps it was just too American. It’s strange how we can “know” that some books are “lesser” but when it comes to trying to explain why, we end up just like Stacey trying to chat up a hunky, tanned lifeguard a few grades older: stumbling over our words and embarrassing ourselves.
It only got more complex from there. Reading purely for yourself would, in theory, mean reading anything and everything that appeals to you with no outside input—but could such a pure state ever truly exist? What would a somehow-literate person raised in a society-free vacuum choose to read, if anything, if they were suddenly presented with every book in the world? Do we owe it to the world to read more widely than comes naturally to us in order to become better people? Or should we just accept it as another hedonistic pursuit with no goal other than entertainment of the individual? Either way most people seem to have a foot in each camp—there are the books we want to be seen reading, and then there is everything else.
Any time I pick up a book it comes with a side order of shame. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading—but to choose any one book is to reject another, and with that comes decision paralysis. Is this the book I should be reading right now? Is it making me more intelligent or teaching me new things? Should something else be at the top of my reading stack? Is the book “trash”? Am I judgemental for mentally filtering books into “high-brow” and “merely time passing”? Does it matter that I read from both “categories” equally? Am I a terrible person for borrowing from the library instead of buying a copy? Am I reading in a bubble? Am I reading a broad enough cross section of authors?
It got to the point where choosing a book became so difficult that I’d end up starting about five and finishing none. Then, following yet another reading failure, I’d pick up either a Harry Potter or an Agatha Christie novel, read that, then start the whole process again. This went on for years and boy did the invisible audience which may or may not actually exist get judgemental about it.
The only way I managed to escape from the literary sinkhole of my own creation was to institute an ever-growing and flawed list of rules that I regularly break. How do I support the local industry without running entirely out of money? Buy books by Australian authors, borrow everything else from the library. How do I use reading to challenge myself? Then, beyond that, how can I avoid getting trapped in the cycle of reading the same kinds of books all the time? Take up recommendations, and always finish every book started, no matter how much it might feel like crawling through maple syrup. How to make sure I finish books I don’t want to finish? Harness stress constructively by borrowing them from the library; angry emails about due dates are very motivational and the shame of walking in to pay a 70c fine is enough to fuel at least thirty minutes of speed-reading.
There is still a part of me that wants to be crowned Best Reader. I now know that this is an ever-moving goalpost. It’s not a case of reading the most books, the longest books, or the most complex books. It’s just a case of trying to ignore the invisible audience and reading any books at all—while reconciling myself to the fact that, even if it’s of old age, I’ll probably die with unread novels on my shelf.
This is the second in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Writers Bloc and a past editor of Voiceworks and On Dit.
How Should A Person Read?
Introduction by Khalid Warsame
So a few weeks ago I was having lunch with two friends of mine, who are really good and smart even though they are writers, and we were fretting about the usual things writers fret about: grants we missed out on, the price of rent in this city, Rihanna, and why no poet ever seems to be able to drive a car. Eventually we got around to talking about books we were reading. Now, I hadn’t read a novel in almost a year at this point. Actually, now that I think of it, I had read Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing some months ago but that was only because my friend Stella, who reads more widely and has better taste than perhaps anyone I know, pressed the novel into my hands and said, “You should read this,” and I couldn’t find it in me to refuse her.
It was a bad summer for reading all around, I think. Our very own publisher at this journal—who I shall not name—declared one day in the office that we should all only read Jack Reacher novels. He’d read thirty-seven of them in about ten days or something like that, which is a feat no one emerges from completely intact. Another friend of mine was reading Goosebumps novels, and another was ankle-deep in the Star Wars expanded universe. We were all trying to avoid thinking about Donald Trump, I think, which is a fine excuse to dive into schlock.
Back at the lunch, we were debating whether or not it was schlock. What was so bad about these books? I’ve read too many literary novels to believe that inherent goodness actually exists in this world. We all have. We read white men, and then reject them, and then read against them, and then move on to the next exercise in retrenchment. Where does this take us?
Is there even an ethic to reading fiction, the way there’s an ethic to writing fiction? To be honest, I don’t know: I’m a writer, not a reader. And besides, the only ethic to my writing is an abjectly digestive one: I need money for food! I’ve got to get paid! But Adam Gopnik over at The New Yorker thinks credibility of character is the only ethic worth a damn in fiction, and I guess he’s right, even though he’s a writer. But still, what of reading?
So here’s what I did: I found four writers who are better at this thinking stuff than I am and asked them this very question. What is the deal with reading? How should a person read?
All the red flags were on the Facebook page for Hell’s Lettres, the Inner West reading event: the most Third World-sounding surname on the lineup was ‘Ferrari’; the venue was a shipping container in the front yard of a dilapidated mansion near Macdonaldtown station; and the event was titled ‘Fuck Off, We’re Fully Sick’. So I can’t say I was shocked when I rocked up and Ferrari, standing under a naked light bulb hanging from a cord wrapped around a chain, turned out to be a white guy with mouldy dreadlocks I could smell at the back of the cramped container. He said, “Wrote this while I was stoned, so, like, yeah,” and recited a poem that ended with the lines: “Gentrifiers fuck off, you’ll never succeed, Newtown’s for weirdos, and we’ll never cede.”
He then lowered the microphone to the ground. The audience applauded. Someone whistled through their fingers.
The next reader was a brown woman with high cheekbones wearing a bootlegged Aaliyah T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “This is a poem about being mixed,” she said, tilting her head down, “and trauma.”
She read what sounded like journal entries on scrap paper. The writing itself, while intensely personal, wasn't good: she used metaphors for no particular purpose; she was deliberately vague about the subject matter; and there was little movement within the poem, whether in narrative, structure, or language. She finished to the audience clapping and someone yelling, “GO SAM!”
There were, no kidding, another three poems read by whites with safety scissor 'Fuck You, Dad' haircuts insisting Newtown belonged to them, all met with wild applause. Then the event was over. I headed out of the container, where Sam and Ferrari stood in a tight circle with Cool Ethnics in black drapes and Alternative Whites in ski jackets, joint rotating between them. I said hi to a few people I'd seen on Twitter and went back to Macdonaldtown station by myself.
Everything about Hell’s Lettres was super white, from the tertiary-educated crowd LARPing poverty, to the intentionally shitty venue, to the undertones of possession in writing about place, to the pervasive irony that was a disclaimer for casual racism. Still, everyone there was friendly enough, and it was nice to experience this kind of space.
This community formed around sharing writing stands in contrast to my experiences at SWEATSHOP where, even after five years of workshops, my hands still shake when I read. Hell’s Lettres values reading and writing as inherently good; SWEATSHOP, on the other hand, seeks to turn writing into literature, a subset of writing that is necessarily exclusive. As Mohammed Ahmad argues in and demonstrates through his essay 'Bad Writer' in Sydney Review of Books, good writing is specific, unique, and memorable—all the better to convey its author's subjectivity. The writing produced by SWEATSHOP is literature, regardless of whether or not it fits in the western canon.
I don’t consider all of the writing showcased in Hell’s Lettres to be literature. In a sense, that’s its success: it appears to reject literary gatekeeping. I’ll go one step further in saying that creating literature is incidental to its primary goal of sharing writing: Ferrari prefaced his poem with an excuse for its terrible quality, while Sam’s earnestness drowned out any judgements of value. In either case, the physical presence of the writers demanded validation, making the very thought of literary merit gauche. In this sense, Hell’s Lettres doesn’t aim to create literature, instead celebrating radical vulnerability and new sincerity through writing.
Writing that isn’t literature can be valuable as therapy, record-keeping, or entertainment. The point, however, is that Hell’s Lettres and SWEATSHOP present different environments where audiences encounter writing, affecting the ways that the former receive and value the latter.
At Hell’s Lettres, then, the imperative is on the audience to empathise with the person sharing their writing. Perhaps this serves as an important reminder that all writing comes from human sources, and is always valid regardless of its quality, an anti-literariness predicated on radical community building. Considering the homogeneity of its demographic (young, tertiary educated, and craving the authenticity of a life lived in poverty), however, I’d argue against any form of radicalism. If anything, writers at Hell’s Lettres are rewarded neither for their merit nor for their humanity but for their cultural capital accrued within this alternative space, where white mediocrity and tokenism are as rampant as they are in the mainstream.
I’ve been using the word ‘read’ loosely, referring both to the ways in which writing is shared and consumed. Empathy is a requirement in either case. Perhaps Hell’s Lettres is right in demanding audience empathy—how else could one withstand Sam’s earnestness? But Sam is the exception in a line-up of writers like Ferrari, who make a show of apathy to hide their desire for unconditional validation. What results is the writer’s entitlement to empathy without putting anything at stake, an entitlement better described as narcissism.
Good reading, in the sense of sharing writing, requires meeting the audience halfway in terms of empathy: occupying space respectfully by being either entertaining or genuine. In any context outside of Hell’s Lettres, I know what I’d say to Ferrari and his ilk: Fuck off, you’re full of shit.
This is the first in a four-part series called 'How Should A person Read?', edited by Khalid Warsame and published in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Stephen Pham is an original member of SWEATSHOP Writers Collective from Cabramatta. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland and Seizure.
The virgin with long hair
gives the kava
to the worms
wriggling in a circle
with wide-open mouths surrounding her.
She no longer wants them to eat dirt.
The worms grow into the men of Tonga,
brown as fonua.
The men drag her from Pulotu – the Underworld.
God and Tonga is my Heritage
I dangle on the tamanu
my fihi hair
reaching for the ocean the spirits
from the land
of a hundred chords
my grandfather watches
sacrifices me (tata).
Upside down I fall
as his puaka palms slam!
The Holy Bible –
my branch is broken.
I have been dragged from Pulotu.
My dirt is raised to God.
I am caught with Lose, Lose, Lose
in my mouth
royal red roses
Queen Salote herself but hung
My body is snapped
with a torn ta’ovala
around my waist
My kui fefine beats the hiapo bark to submission
turning it into paper
My kui fefine beats the kaka’s red roots to submission
turning it into ink
To make a ngatu
my nana learns to write her own oral tradition
which is her saying that the truth will always show its face
with the wrinkles of fakamalu o Katea
Nana only uses her wrinkles for the story of Kate
a woman who gave illegitimate birth
whilst climbing up the steep hills of ‘Eua
she spreads this out over the front lawn of
our housing commission in Liverpool
My grandmother paints the cheek of truth
on the church community board Rape! Rape! Rape! In the house of Fe’ofa’aki!
the priest removes her message
because it is not Holy
she writes it again
My aunty Samena with her black hair
cut to her neck gives birth to a girl
my nana refuses to touch it
the child’s father is Samuela Holani
who was once my aunty Salato’s husband
Katea Katea Katea Ha’u
my cousin waddles in a nappy
to the front of our home
Nana sits us on her lap and says Fai’aki e ‘ilo ‘oua ‘e fai’aki e fanongo
Do it by knowing not by hearing
Nana covers our hands with kaka
Aue aue Malapo I tell you
I stop washing the dishes
bubbles of soap
running down my hands
in the elephant grey kitchen
where my pa and my aunties and nana
My pa is a man made of leather
folded, weathered, and bendable
into a speaking breathing taro
enough to feed the plenty
gulping cheap red wine.
I tell you I learn how
my brother no good too shy
he no learn the English
But I know English
I no shy I no care
I see the sign
I just talk it.
Only his hands, hard as red clay
give me true meaning
as they sprout everywhere
amongst the silver clanking of cutlery
like the blow holes called whale rocks
in a Tongan village
I have forgotten the name of.
I learn him
when I make Date Line hotel in Tonga
I make only 6 dolla a week
no good no good.
I then move to New Zealand.
Make window and farm – real man.
I would sell mangoes, bananas and taro leaves
and maybe make 100 dolla a month
How does a man have time
to speak this much?
And so fast that it hurts my eyes
just to listen.
It must be an Islander thing.
can paint patterns of conversation too.
He goes on about me learning Tongan
like the kaka ink of the ngatu
so red and brown and permanent.
Maybe that ink
cannot be just for women.
I don’t know why my brother is shy
if he no shy
While scientists cheer, historians tremble, and Trump turns the wall blueprints into a dome, my burning question is this: what then happens to our relationship with God? Would contact with extraterrestrial intelligence contradict the tenets of humanity's prominent religions? Would our religions collapse?
Translated from the Arabic (Tunisia) by Ali Znaidi
I suddenly felt the need to write down memories that resurfaced in my dreams. People and customs that had disappeared, gnawed away by time, and bygone village ceremonies that I witnessed as a child now inhabited my grandparent's place; night after night, they broke into the house to visit me in my sleep, apparitions that steered me from bewilderment towards remembering.
A girl born in the capital, who during the holidays goes back to the village to spend a few days with her grandparents.
I look at a photo of me when I was that girl.
Now I stand outside the front door of that house. I can't find my grandfather. Nor can I find my grandmother, who went to Mecca one day for the pilgrimage and never came back.
The familiar faces have left the old house, but it is filled again with childhood smells: lumps of leaven-fermented dough lying beneath a cloth before being stuck flat against the inner walls of the tabouna and coming out ghanai bread; fresh milk as it is squeezed from the cow's udder; hens scratching at the soil and laying eggs; and the house crammed with villagers coming to visit, morning and afternoon. A story had been crouching between the four walls of this house and in my head since childhood, hidden in the unlit corners of my memory.
I open every door, looking for the people called up by my latest dreams, who are part of the village surrounding me. There are scents of henna, of hair dying and tattooing herbs and potions. I remember the widow's daughter, whose wedding-eve celebrations the villagers agreed to fund. She was to be married to a man who lived abroad. Caught up as he was in his overseas trade, he wouldn't arrive until the day of the wedding, just in time to sign the marriage papers. Then he would whisk her away from the village and its people, and from their infatuation with the story of the wolf man. He would take her to the city of light.
Every villager knew about the wolf man who abducted young virgins. The men who guarded the fields held guns at the ready but never managed to aim a shot at him. He was too cautious. He took his prey by surprise and dragged her to a high place. So said the old women, making all those who heard their words shiver. The wolf man would appear in the guise of a handsome man dressed in a fur coat, a French colonist killed by Fellagha combatants whose spirit had stayed behind. The sheep never tempted him; he howled and seduced the young village women. Then his howls faded, and he grew hungry for forbidden flesh. The villagers worried not for their cattle and fields but for their young women, who fell pregnant and gave birth to wolf-like babies. They never dared mention the name of the wolf man who still roamed the slopes of the mountain, hunting for young women on their way back from a day's work in the fields or crossing the mountain road.
The young girl remembers the sweet seller who surprised the village children on rare visits. He came on that colourful carriage, filling children's dreams with the taste of doll-shaped sweets. They melted, sticky on the children's lips. She bought a piece as the others had. Then she went into the guest room in her grandparents' house where a visitor was nursing her baby. Sugar melted in the girl's mouth and milk flowed into the baby as he clutched at his mother's breast. Dreams embroidered with poppies and wild herbs flowedwithout pause, colouring her lips with the flower of childhood.
A girl haunted by the spectre of that man, who appeared whenever the children gathered around the sweets seller.
In their innocence, the children failed to grasp what his piercing gaze concealed, and the reason he bought sweets as they did. The taste of sugar still lingers on his tongue. The baby still clutches at his motherǯs breast, suckling the warm milk. The breast seduces him. And my pen steams with the pleasure of suckling on language, which lures me with its hidden secrets.
I see in his gaze the wolf man that old people describe. No sooner does a young woman cross a mountain slope than he attacks her and holds her down until she goes limp. He devours what is delightful in her, then runs to the heights and howls like an ever-hungry man.
Public Spaces are contested sites, places that are inscribed and then re-inscribed by history, experience, memory, power. For issue 34, TLB asked four writers to tell us about a space that, for whatever reason, is meaningful to them as a site of resistance or empowerment.
For as long as most locals could remember, Port Augusta had been a coal town. At least once a week the little black rocks would arrive on trains travelling south from the outback mines that fed the power plant on the mangrove tip of the Spencer Gulf ... But when the power plant was shut down for good earlier this year, the residents were forced to ask difficult questions about what was next for Port Augusta.
Public Spaces are contested sites, places that are inscribed and then re-inscribed by history, experience, memory, power. For issue 34, the Brow asked four writers to tell us about a space that, for whatever reason, is meaningful to them as a site of resistance or empowerment.
You entered the street at witching hour and there was a sign with big nostalgic lettering that said ‘Welcome to Whatever!’ The sign grew out of blue-green buffalo grass and underneath it a cursive font announced that this place was the ‘Home of the Kerbside Landfill and Kidnapped Shopping Trolley’. On either side of the street were some high density apartments filled with low income apparatchiks. They conglomerated in committees on balconies of red brick flats that were three storeys high. Was barbecue city that day and smoke rose like clumps of plastic bags from the balconies. Might have made you think that there was a lonesomeness amongst rock cliffs that were nobody’s business. This was never your home, your land, but when you parked your arse on a three-foot-high fence next to mail boxes (that go up to the same number as your age) you saw it. It was a Painted Firetail, a variety of Australian Finch—Emblema Picta—and it was tethered by masticated saliva to an awning. And because once you were the Goody Two Shoes type, you climbed up to free it. You placed the delicate thing between your index finger and thumb and dislodged it. The protected species flew off. She flew away. She navigated those clumps-of-plastic-bag smoke that came from the barbecues, and from binocular eyes you saw all up the street of your mind. And it wasn’t witching hour. It was dinnertime. Those balcony apparatchiks had endangered avian species on the barbecues. Coals burned, filling your nostrils with burning feathers and scorched beaks and just—my oh my—the humanity of it.
Read the other three pieces in this series—by Simona Castrium, Chloe Reeson, and Susana Moreira Marques—in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
My friend tried talking
me into giving him
a surprise hook to the jaw.
No one had ever
punched him and not knowing
that kind of pain created
in him another he thought
could be cured
He was drunk
or was about to be.
We were in a car, the stars
barely visible through
the frozen windshield.
There was no moon
or the moon was shining
out of sight high
above us or behind
a cluster of trees, white pine
or elm or birch.
Who knows in the dark?
Maybe the moon
was right before our eyes,
but it didn’t make sense
for it to be there—
I paid no attention
back then to the moon
or stars or trees.
I wanted to tell
my friend that one time
for no reason my father
pressed my face
into the floor and whispered
a promise to crush
my skull and, yes,
I was afraid but not why
my friend was afraid—
my father just wouldn’t
tell me why or when,
only that he would—
that’s why I shook all over.
My friend wanted to know
so badly if I was going
to do him the favor.
And I loved him, so
I kept my father
and hit him hard as I could.
the boy crossed the street
and a car clipped him,
hurling him like a gymnast,
the somersault a surprise,
shoes and socks
knocked clean off his feet.
The driver, either
distracted singing to the radio
or unnerved by the news,
stopped only long enough
to make out the red sneakers
but not to see
the boy’s mother
come screaming or hear
the father yell Jesus.
Dumb the boy was
thinking shoes would impress,
and without knowledge yet
of regret or shame—
why he swaggered
all the way into the street
where once and for all
he was laid flat,
his innocence taken,
or given, but not before
he went flying,
which was magnificent.
ANGRY ARAB EGGS
in hot oil,
sprinkle with salt,
of the people.
I was crafted, it would seem, to squeal demurely beneath his shifting flab, to pucker my carnation lips on cue, to ladle gobs of twice-boiled vegetables and stringy slabs of meat into his grumbling yap. It would seem that way. After all, the whole
of my body is apron. I am always holding that scorched pot,
a bleached towel, a gray sopping sponge, an iron, his huge hot folded trousers, a mop, a crusted dish, a broom. I am always expertly positioned near the door of this tenement hovel that’s not much more than this single room, my eyes propped wide
and feigning joy, poised to drip sugar around his blustering evening entrance. The air is decorated with the words control, control while chunks of stunned water grow stale in the belly
of the icebox. I am 1950s faultless, my pert strawberry crown
primly ponied. Never wore a dress that wasn’t a tribute to him. I’m sure you don’t believe I stood still and perfectly upright for my wedding vows. Drowning in mama’s wilting taffeta,
I was a bell: I do, I do, I do. And I did. With God and a room
of pouters as witness, I committed to a post-war, eerily patient love. Next to me, panting under snug collar, he was splotched scarlet, a flowered tonic dripping from his curls. I could have crashed his stunned smile with a finger. Someone said God,
then someone said wife, and I was so clarified I sparkled, I
was my own headspring of light, I arced toward the domestic
promise wiggling in flaccid fingers. I did not hear the word fist. I was anxious to build romance, and I did. My lips found the folds water couldn’t reach. I gave him the name of a wall.
The first morning we rose from our separate untumbled beds,
our night skins pimpled and flushed with the prospect of touch, was the first time he hefted his fist and threatened to send me, Alice, to the moon, as if the moon was a definite, something
we could not only conjure, but find faith in. For years since
then, he has hefted that fist, it has brushed past my unblinking
eye, my chin, my clamped jaw, while the moon, uninterested,
is the same blaring yellow kink in our sleep. Screeching his blind intent, To the moon, Alice, to the moon!, his eyes google the lifted fist quivers, the spittle of his day needles my cheeks. One of these days, Alice, one of these days! Bang! Zoom!
Without speaking, I show him who he truly is. I call stupid out where stupid is. I’m mute while he spouts another craving wide enough to fall through. Our tiled floor is littered with schemes,
his punctured zeal: I’m gonna get a better job. Got a new idea,
we’ll be swimming in dough. Gonna take you out jitterbugging, baby, buy you a dress, gonna turn our noses up to the hoi polloi.
I’m a champ at suffering his relentless inventions, concoctions
of spit and wood utterly guaranteed to drown us in new money.
What he can’t say: Baby, there’s got to be something better
than that bus, the smolder, the street disappearing beneath me.
I know he aches to give the slip to the same stream of the same folded-face New Yorkers, all snarling and stank with factory, nodding him their dead howdy-dos and clutching just enough
change to move themselves forward. It’s the cage of the ride, baby, every day like every week like every month like every year, year like every and the wheels on the bus go round and round
and when he finally makes it home, to door, to this box, to wife,
he bursts in, sputtering some fresh grail, bound to clatter and rise, and I am gingham and smelling of spray starch, my whole day beneath my nails, I am twang and the wide-eye, Really, Ralph? Really? I hold my breath, cramming his crave with stew meat
and ice water until it all comes exploding down, until he can’t turn his bulk in any direction without reaching a corner, until he realizes, yet again, that his best friend stinks of sewage and, for reasons we pretend to have forgotten, I am never ever naked.
And yes, I know what my practiced smirk practically begs him to do--Pow! Right in the kisser! But that sweaty mitt, hovering high with such sad engine behind it, will never fall. See, every woman is damned with a man to raise, a swaggering snarl of belly and bicep, and every ounce of the one I’ve been given cracks dulcet beneath my held tongue and primp. I let the world burn brash through him, because when he resurrects, when he yanks loose my apron ties and mutters Baby, you’re the greatest, it is still 1955, a time of steam radiators and vows of stiff lyric, and he is everything a man can be just then. I am wife. I am what the fist craves. And I am the fist.
WHAT DAUGHTERS COME DOWN TO
For what I’m sure is the fifth time, my mother
plugs in a flat mournful hum where the words
I love you too should be. Then she hangs up
without saying goodbye. I squeeze my eyes
shut, try to imagine 82 autumns in the bones,
in her rasping joints, in the cool, jaded thump
of what is still a migrant’s ever-arriving heart.
However, I believe she is required to love me.
I wonder what God was teaching her all those
years, those days after days coaxing raucous
hips into deadening girdles and gray A-lines
so she could lose her damned mind to organ.
Was it all theater, a screeching of north when
south was what itched her, all of it mock belly,
the nails, splinter-spewing cross, some sly
spirit habitually overloading her spine, making
her dance thirsty and unfolded? How could all
those wry hymns and hot-sauced hallelujahs
lead to this hum, clipped connect and hush?
I am hundreds of miles away, but I can see
where she is sitting, hand still on the phone.
Every surface in her tiny apartment is scoured
and bleached, draped in a disinfectant meld
of rainshower and blades. The kitchen glints.
Her rugs are faultless. The purpled tulips I
have sent for her birthday are insistent feral
beauty, a blood in the room. Like her daughter,
they have bloomed in the clutches of vapor.
I love you too, she thinks out loud, but can’t.
Continuing our Poets in Conversation series, Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith meet in the rapids of an email exchange.
HAYAN CHARARA: We've got a friend in common, the poet Diana Goetsch, whose poem "Black People Can't Swim" is one of my favorites. It opens:
When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y she said, 'Oh, black people can't swim,' which made me grateful to be let in on this, not the information, but the intimacy— the fact that she could let fly with such a piece of black on black attitude without the slightest bit of shame or self-consciousness.
Are you the Patricia in this poem? You want to talk about this?
PATRICIA SMITH: I am indeed the exalted Patricia. The incident in question took place when Diana was Doug—she was a former student who was a better writer than I was from the very beginning. I'd see her once or twice a year, and the meeting was always more of a messy collision—updates, jealousy, measured flirtation, misty recollection, competition. I had no idea that the he was considering she, but that's beside the point. We were with a gaggle of gals, one of who had designs on our Goetsch—we were strolling the streets as a group, leaving or approaching something to eat, dawdling in store windows. I remember how utterly foreign chitchat about "hanging out at the pool" was to me, and the God-honest truth was the best way I knew to shut down that line of convo. Sorry, kiddo. We don't swim.
I remember Doug/Diana (I'm all over the place, I know, with names and gender assignments, but what are the rules? I'm speaking of a time when someone who is now a woman was a man but is now such a kickass woman that the old "he" seems an insult. Oh, well.) I remember Double-D (I think she'll like that) probing me as her nosy self so enjoyed doing, scribbling those mental notes, turning me into eventual poem fodder. We. don't. swim. I attempted to introduce her to the early sixties on the west side of Chicago. Where would we find the pools, honey?
I have been immortalized in a Goetsch masterwork, but I still don't swim. Pools are now abundant, and it no longer seems to be a problem if a black person sticks a toe (or a torso) in. But I never trusted the water. Shimmering on top, dark beneath. I don't trust rivers, so I don't trust pools. I think my mama drilled in that lesson. Something about disappeared people. Something about Emmett Till. The Tallahatchie was wet too, right?
HAYAN CHARARA: I've known the Goetsch poem for years, known Diana for longer, but I never asked if it was you, even though I wondered all along. I'm glad I finally asked.
So, I grew up in Detroit, and at least in my neighborhood, no one owned a pool. As an Arab kid, I didn't have the ghost of Emmett Till haunting me, but most of my friends must have. Their parents would have been kids the summer of 1955, when they found Emmett Till's body.
For me, something like that—a tragedy that would've prompted my parents to keep me from something they wouldn't have otherwise—it was not keeping me from a body of water, but from an entire country. I wasn't even three years old when the Lebanese Civil War began, and I was finishing high school when the war ended. In all that time, my parents never took me or my sister to Lebanon, which was where they were born, a place I knew well, at least in my imagination, because my parents talked about it all my life. But except for a trip taken there when I was an infant, I never again set foot in Lebanon.
In this way, Detroit really is more than just my hometown; it's my homeland. And if you know anything about Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, you realize how depressing a statement this is. But not nearly as much as saying the same thing about Lebanon during the same time period.
Anyhow, I still managed to learn how to swim—the hard way: I was thrown into a lake and then told to swim or drown. I took a very different approach with my own kids.
I saw on Facebook that you're going to be headed to Tuscany sometime soon, to write. What are you going to work on there? Or what are you working on now?
PATRICIA SMITH: Ah, we are more alike than you know. You didn't know Lebanon. I didn't know the South.
When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully had no intention at all of being a transplant. She wanted her life to begin the moment she stepped off that Greyhound. She was ashamed of her homemade clothes, ashamed of the twang in her speech, ashamed of what she was sure white folks would consider a shabby upbringing. So she struggled to reinvent herself, and she sure as hell wasn't gonna have "no country child." The only way I would make it in life, she thought, was to convince me to be as white as possible.
And being white meant never admitting to that dirty South in my history. She never talked about it, and as she snapped those links to my southern lineage, she cut me off from my own history. She didn't regale me with stories about the sprawling hamlet of Aliceville, Alabama, and she kept me away from relatives who were still living down South. So I knew I had a history, I even knew where it was, but for all my life she's held it at arm's length, frustrated by my determination to know more about that "nasty ol' Alabama stuff."
Oh, and Emmett died in the south, in that horrible horrible way. So that's not a place you want to care about, chile. Nothing good for you there.
The first time I saw a pool, I was twelve years old, and I was at camp. On the first day, to decide your swimming level, they asked us, one by one, to get from one end of the pool to the other. They figured that the ones who could swim would swim, and the ones who couldn't swim would walk (it wasn't very deep). But wise ol' Patty Ann decided that swimming couldn't be that hard. I'd seen swimming. It involved floating, and how hard could that be?
So my name was called, I jumped in, and I did that hilarious scoop-clutch-flail thing for about ten feet before sinking quite dramatically. Really cemented my rep for that camp session, as you might imagine. City girl didn't like bugs, got scraped up easily, was definitely at odds with the outdoors, but hey, I had provided a year's worth of entertainment.
I still don't swim.
Detroit. You like Motown? You MUST like Motown, or we will cease this conversation. Do you dance?
I'm going to write fiction in Italy. Short stories starring the mothers of the murdered. Right now I'm working on a book of dramatic monologues to accompanying 19th century photos of African-Americans. My husband and I have a huge collection. It's the project I proposed for the Guggenheim, and I feel guilty that I haven't made a move on it yet.
HAYAN CHARARA: Yes, I like Motown. For a while, when I was young, I would go with my father to his regular doctor visits—and they were more regular than not—that's another story—anyhow, the doctor's office was on Grand Boulevard, not far from Hitsville USA.
My parents also had Motown and Motown era 8-tracks at home. They listened mostly to singers from the Arab world, greats like Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi, and Mohamed Abdel Wahab (to most Arabs, at least my parents age, names like this ring bells the way Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone does, or Frank Sinatra do for Americans). Anyhow, the singer I loved most from the Motown era—and still do—is Aretha Franklin, who Berry Gordy tried but failed to sign onto his record label.
I still love Aretha. And even before my boys knew how to walk, I would play them Aretha's song, and they would hold onto something, a table, a chair, and shake and dance.
I don't dance, not really. Unless it's for my kids, or my wife. I'm too self-conscious, and I am the last person I want to see dancing.
A lot of my friends in Detroit share the migration story you told. Their mothers and fathers or grandparents came up to Detroit, for work. That's why most of my family made it to Detroit, in the sixties, from Lebanon—to work in the factories. We experienced something different, though, in terms of identification with our "lineage." My parents worried so much that we'd lose our heritage—whether it be language, customs, practices, or even the sense of community they tried hard to foster, despite living several thousand miles from their homeland.
The reason for this, I think, has to do with the fact that my parents were not among the first wave of immigrants. Others had come before them, and that generation worked hard to assimilate—changing their names (Americanizing them) and doing many of the things you describe about your upbringing: trying to be "white" in whatever ways they could.
There's a famous court case, from 1915 that attests to this: a man named George Dow sued the United States, which twice denied his naturalization application; long story short, Dow argued that his application should be approved on the basis on the racial schema used at the time, and according to Dow, he—and people from parts of Asia, including Syria and the Middle East generally—should be considered "white."
My parents weren't part of that generation. They were a part of that second wave of immigrants. They were informed, in part, by the larger cultural and social movements of the late sixties, and the revolutionary ideas sweeping the globe at the time. They were proud of their difference. They definitely didn't think of themselves as white, and nobody else did either. My parents, and the parents of all the Arab kids I knew, instilled in us every kind of "Arabness" they could muster. I had a cousin whose father would not allow us to speak English in his house. He was stern, too, so we didn't dare break his rules.
Despite all this, though, my parents worried more about our physical safety than our cultural heritage. My parents both came from a village in southern Lebanon, Bint Jbeil, which is just a little over a mile north of the Israeli border. The civil war was horrific, and even though other families went overseas and back, safely, I know that my father, at least, didn't feel he could go back so soon—he was too politically active, and this may have meant he was risking too much by returning.
He did eventually return, though, permanently (my mother died before she could do the same). In 2003, he went back, and three years later, war broke out again, this time with Israel. Israeli bombardment in this war—the Lebanese call it the July War—destroyed so many cities and towns. My father's house was spared only because it's situated at the top of a hill—the Israelis could see, plainly, there was nothing going on at the house; tactically speaking, on the Lebanese side, it was useless because it was an open target. It got riddled with bullet holes, but otherwise, it survived the war unscathed. The village, though—schools, pharmacies, hospitals, and a lot of people did not survive.
We have one more thing in common, at least, and that's a children's book—both of our books are published by Lee & Low, in fact.
My book is actually based on the war between Israel and Lebanon. From a kid's perspective. With cats. And with a lot more hope in it than in the poem Animals. The book is called The Three Lucys. I'll tell you a little about my book if you tell me about yours.
PATRICIA SMITH: Motown was, is, and will always be my soundtrack. After my mother and father separated (I was ten—for the life of me, I don't know how he stood living with her for that long), I was stuck living with a pretty non-communicative parent. I had questions. No answers were forthcoming. So I got all my ideas about life, love and romance from Motown lyrics. You can imagine how that impossibly rosy mindset screwed me when adulthood loomed—I grew up with the mistaken notion that I was born to be begged for by some silver-throated crooner.
It didn't matter that I lived in a neighborhood populated by single-parent families, that storybook romance was not in residence. All it took was a beautifully anguished "please, please" from one of the lookers in Berry Gordy's stable.
Smokey Robinson was a particular favorite, thanks to the muddled directives on race coming from my mother. If only my broad nose wasn't so broad. If only my skin didn't remind her of mud. Smokey's skin was light and his hair silky, which was as close to white as any black man was every gonna get. Since nothing could be done about my regrettable hue, I could at least crush on someone who didn't have to try so hard. His voice was like pouring cream. That sly little crooner broke my heart several times over—but I still love him. Checked him out live in concert a couple of years ago, and my innards are still shivering.
I'm intrigued by the fact that your parents mixed Motown with Arab favorites. Would love to hear a musical mashup. So, who do you think I'd like best—Oum Khalthoum and Fairuz, Wadi el Safi or Mohamed Abdel Wahab? (I've forced myself not to listen to any of them in advance.) I love Ella, and am one of the few black folks who's committed many of Sinatra's hits to memory (my favorite is "The Tender Trap").
I'm surprised that you loved and love Aretha. Her level of soul can be disturbing—as my father used to say, "best fitted for a dark blue room when you're sipping a deep brown drink." Have you ever had the blues? When? Why? (BTW, I have made a solemn vow to see you dance. It may be difficult, but I'm a determined lass. My guess is AWP.)
Meanwhile what an odd story of parallel migration—my parents running away from their past, yours struggling to resurrect it in their new home. Like I said before, links to my history were ruled by shame. White, white, white was the only answer to overcoming that shame—replacing it with an almost laughable denial. (For some strange reason, the sordid tale of Rachel Dolezal just flashed in to my head. She's the white woman who's struggling to convince the world that she's a bonafide African-American. How—sigh—far we've come.)
All I can remember is that all my mother's parental instruction ended with the same three words: —Don't be saying "ain't" when you're around white people. —You've got to wear your good clothes around white people. —You best to learn how to say "Yes, ma'am" and "Yessir" if you're gonna be around white people. And my favorite: "Don't act all colored when you're around white people." As if color was something I could control.
The social and cultural crusades of the '60s passed right over my parent's heads. According to my mother, it was all "white people bizness"—and although she constantly nudged me to make white people business my business ("Pinch your nose while you're watching TV so it won't be so wide"), that didn't apply to any form of revolution. "Black power" was something white people said.
My physical safety was a concern too, but in a different way. Chicago was and is WAY more segregated than my folks expected it to be, so my mother's way of introducing me to that brave new world was to keep me away from it. Don’t ride the bus because it might cross over into a neighborhood where they don’t like black folks. Come home when the streetlights come on, because that’s when all the shiftless colored folks come out. Don’t go to that store, because I don’t think they like when black folks come in there. Don’t live too loud and call attention to yourself.
I feel like I grew upon the wrong side of a window. There was a real war going on—Vietnam. I remember being plopped down in front of the television, with no explanation of what I was going to see, and watching battle footage. I remember that little crawler at the bottom of the screen—this many dead yesterday, this many dead today, this many dying right now. I'm still ashamed to say that that war might as well have been on the moon.
I wonder if my parents ever considered that they had a home to go back to. Instead, our war was in Chicago, right after Martin Luther King's assassination, when our west side neighborhood was burned to its bones by rioters. It was the first time I realized that, as far as the larger city was concerned, Chicago's new migrants were expendable. It was years before the community was rebuilt. Grudgingly.
I wrote a lot about the migration, the community and the experience of being "first generation up north" in my book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. I haven't really written the truth about my mother, though. I suppose that's coming.
Your poem knocked all the air out of my day. I went looking for more of you. Wow. Can't understand why I didn't already know your work.
So, we're Lee & Low brethren! And we're both New Voices Award winners. My book Janna and the Kings came out of my experience of accompanying my dad to the neighborhood barbershop when I was a kid. It's where I learned to love elderly black men—they let me in on their gossip, taught me to play cards, told me corny jokes and whirled me around on that little leather throne. The book imagines a young girl, very much like me, who hangs with her grandfather and his friends at the barbershop, then wonders if there's still a place for her there after her grandfather dies.
I moved that Lee & Low Award call around my desk for months—when I finally decided to address it, the manuscript was due the next day. I didn't realize how much I loved that story, how much I had internalized it. And like a fool, after the award I thought I could just crank out a kid's book whenever I wanted. It's hard work—everything's been written about already!
Did you ever think about writing another one?
HAYAN CHARARA: I just saw some of the Lee & Low people in San Antonio, at a conference for librarians. I talked to Jason Low, and he said wonderful things about Janna and the Kings.
Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I tried writing a children's book, and I did, but it ended up not a children's book. A decade later, Naomi Shihab Nye urged me to try again, and she told me about Lee & Low.
The Three Lucys is a war story, a true story (based on my little brother's experiences during the war—the July War, as the Lebanese call it—between Lebanon and Israel. Obviously, kids lived through that war, as they've lived through every other war on the earth. But too many war stories focus on the men fighting them, not the children—and hardly ever the animals, either, that get caught up in the violence. And most of the stories written about war, or during war, aren't meant for children to read.
I don't see why not. Not if it's done right—which is the case for any work of literature. With The Three Lucys, when war breaks out, the main character and his family take shelter away from their home, but all the while the boy, Luli, worries about his three pet cats, who are left behind, and they all happen to be named Lucy: Lucy the Skinny, Lucy the Fat, and Lucy Lucy.
Every kid who has a pet, at some point, deals with the loss of that pet. That's what the boy in this story learns to deal with. Every kid, at some point, is frightened, too, and the book shows us how this family works through fear as well.
In the end, the book ends on a sad note, yes, but it's hopeful, and along the way there's humor, there's laughter, there are good times—life goes on, even in war time, but especially in times like these, people (children and adults) need ways to heal, to grow, and the book allows kids a way into healing and growth.
I'm not sure I'll write someone else for children. Right now, though, I'm working on a novel that is definitely not for kids, not ever, though kids play a major role in the story.
I'm glad you got to read 'Animals.' Glad it knocked the air out of you. That was the intention. Khaled Mattawa told me once that the poem, to him, felt like getting stabbed in the stomach, and then the knife getting twisted. That's what the events described in the poem felt like in actuality.
I think your father got it right about Aretha Franklin: "best fitted for a dark room when youre sipping a deep brown drink"—least the songs I listen to over and over. "Ain't No Way," for example, or "Say A Little Prayer."
Doesn't everyone have the blues? They should. I'm a happy person, mostly, but horrible stuff has happened to people I know, and love, and people who look like me, and people who don't look like me who I don't know, and it's unacceptable for people to go around not wondering whether life on earth is worthwhile. The answer, some of the time, is no. I'm not advocating that people bail on life, or the earth (though that's a thought), but that people do something. And the first step is getting informed. But that's only a first step. After that, maybe the second step is a good song and a good drink. After that, people need to do something more, and by "something" I don't mean post about it on Facebook or Twitter or "like" a picture or post about people getting fucked over. I mean donating money to an organization, or volunteering, or supporting people who do more than these things.
I'm ranting... again. Forgive me. But I needed to. I know you know what I'm talking about.
Anyhow, even if the world could be beautiful all the time, everywhere, there's the usual sadness that comes with being human. My mother died when I was young. There's that. My father could have been a nicer man without demons. There's that. Thank goodness for music. And drinks. And food and all the things that make us forget until we have to remember. I still don't know about dancing. If you can pull that off, people should keep an eye out for flying pigs and the like.
So, when it comes to great Arab singers, I think people will lose their shit if I don't tell you to start with Oum Khalthoum. For me, she was an acquired taste. I began with Fairuz, but maybe you could Youtube both, in one sitting. Once you've listened to Fairuz and Oum Khalthoum you should check out vocals-only version of your favorite songs—it's a thing, apparently. There are all these audio tracks of original studio recordings of popular songs but with only the vocal tracks. The best one I've heard so far is Queen's "Somebody to Love."
You can hear every breath Freddie Mercury takes; you can hear him running out of breath. I'm probably wrong about this, but I don't know how anyone can't think it's amazing. I just got goose bumps remembering it. I think that's my cue to stop talking.
One of the most fundamental differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is the understanding of the relationship between people and land. Earth is the mother. Aboriginal people are born of the earth and individuals within the clan had responsibility for particular streams, grasslands, trees, crops, animals, and evenseasons. The life of the clan was devoted to continuance and still is.
The intensification of resource use, language development and social organisation were in the curve of great change prior to the colonial period because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were on the same cognitive trajectory as the rest of the human family, albeit in a different stream and a unique channel in that stream.
Perhaps the most significant difference was the attitude to land ownership and resource use. Instead of privately operated small holdings, clans were co-operating to prepare large areas of land for production with burning and tilling methods. There was an underlying conservatism in this approach, a concern for people they might never meet, and a respect for the prey species embedded in the spiritual and cultural fibres.
–Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
How many of us still feel the grip of place–the long span of a life traced out in the growth of trees planted by someone you knew, a family history measured in memory and change, the sudden clutch of knowing that it will end, life and memory both, that love and sorrow cannot be separated? To learn the names of trees and grasses, the times of their seeding and flowering, the glimpse they offer into the grand slow cycles of nature, is to see your own life written there, and passing. To know the geography of a place is to know why we have always made stories in which our own human stuff is indivisible from the stones and creeks and hills and growing things. This is a kind of love story. It is an unrequited love story, because it is between a person and a place, and a place doesn’t love you back. But perhaps that isn’t entirely true. Perhaps its like loving God, and what you get back is a reflection of what you put in. Apart from the deep and unequivocal love I have for my family and close friends, there has been no other love in my life as sustained as the one I have felt for a remote pocket of inland Australia.
–Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful
Sarah Schladow: On the surface, we have potentially opposite poles of Australian culture: Bruce is a Bunurong and Yuin man, and Kim is a sixth-generation white Australian Anglo-Celtic woman. But from reading their books, we can feel and see how they come together.
First of all, they both experienced a remote upbringing: Bruce, on an island in Bass Strait in Tasmania; Kim, on a Tanami Desert cattle station in far north-western Australia. They’ve both won literary awards: Dark Emu, Bruce’s book, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in 2016; Kim has also won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction, and her artwork is held in state, territory and regional collections.
The final way I’ve seen that they come together isin their love and respect for the spiritual and cultural basis of our country. So I’d like to start with a question that struck me after reading both books, Dark Emu and Position Doubtful: I’m curious to know whether you see any difference, semantic or other, between the terms ‘land’ and ‘country’?
Bruce Pascoe: I don’t really care. I don’ t care for the difference between ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ or‘ First Nation’, because Aboriginal people want to be referred to by their country. I feel most comfortable being aligned with my Yuin connection, where my family are from. I live on that land currently and that is the culture I know best. It’ s all semantics, really.
We can argue a case—and I’m happy to argue a case—but Yuin people say “Bingyadyan ngallu birrung nudjarn jungarung,” and that means, “We arise from the mother’s heartbeat, and the mother is the land.” We have no other affiliation or responsibility other than to the land. So what you call that doesn’t matter because your responsibility isto ensure the land is looked after, that everything we do toitcan be justified and sustained.
Kim Mahood: In our conversation earlier, you were looking at the way some of us use the word ‘country’ to describe Australia—as in, this is my country —and that there’s something nationalistic about that usage. That hadn’t occurred to me previously. To my school friends—the boarders, the country kids and the day girls—country meant people who grew up on the farms. Then, of course, country became very much the term Aboriginal people began to use to differentiate from ‘land’, ‘landscape’ or whatever. Like Bruce I think it’s semantics, but it’s quite an interesting semantics to tease out.
As a painter, the notion of landscape became quite derogatory; it meant you were looking at rather than being in. The notion was landscape was something you looked at and had this sort of colonial notion of, whereas country was something you were in. So I think they're interesting terms.
SS: In your book, Bruce, you discuss that our early landscape painters weren’t expressing their nostalgic memory of the English landscape, which is what I was taught at school, but that they were accurately depicting what the settlers found.
BP: It was actually Bill Gammage who brought that to my attention in his great book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. I’d grown up with an Australian education; I was told Aboriginal people were incapable of building, didn’t have clothes, only walked around aimlessly, picking a grub here and a fruit there, and that they couldn’t build any structures at all. During that education I was also told that the colonial painters were Romantics and Illusionists: they’ d come out here and they couldn’t paint a gum tree, so the feathery tops of these trees the colonial painters were painting were said to be some kind of Romantic extraction from Britain.
Gammage pointed out that that wasn’t true—the widely spaced massive trees, which in fact did have feathery tops, were there. He could take us back to the site where the colonial artists like von Guérard etc. had painted, and he took photos of several of those sites. There was the rock, and there in the distance was the tree, or its stump. Gammage showed that the colonial artists were actually painting what they could see! What artist with any pride in their bones would do anything else?
Sharp-eyed Facebook friends of the Brow’s will have already seen a sneaky peek of TLB34’s cover, but it’s now official – here are the cover and contents of issue thirty-four of our quarterly attack journal, which we have just sent to the printers, who will soon transform it from a bunch of ones and zeros into a real, physical thing you can hold in your real, physical hands. Thanks to Prudence Flint for this wonderful cover!
Australian readers: from June 4th you can pick up one of these beauties with the muted tones (mmm, that millennial pink) from any of our 900+ stockists.
International readers: buy a copy from our online store and we’ll chuck it right in the post for you.
As always, you can subscribe to the Brow now and this issue (and three more) will be delivered straight to your door. (Plus you save thirty-five per cent by doing so!)
Issue thirty-four of The Lifted Brow features:
cover art by Prudence Flint;
nonfiction from Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Jana Perković, Hayley Singer, Nick Taras, Peter Polites, Susana Moreira Marques, Simona Castricum, Anushka Jasraj, Bastian Fox Phelan, Alice Robinson, Richard M Hanson, Nicole McKenzie, Michael Dulaney, Chloë Reeson, Stephen Pham, Anne Boyer, Caren Beilin, and Elizabeth Flux;
fiction by Shaun Prescott, Ben Walter, and Houyem Ferchichi (translated by Znaidi Ali);
poetry by Hayan Charara, Patricia Smith, and Winnie Dunn;
a conversation between Hayan Charara and Patricia Smith;
a conversation between Bruce Pascoe and Kim Mahood;
comics and artwork from Charline Bataille, Ella Sanderson, Merv Heers, Steve Tierney, Loveis Wise, Grace Rosario Perkins, Jini Maxwell, Eaten Fish, Safdar Ahmed, A. Murray, Rachel Ang, Johdi Zutt, Lizzie Nagy, Jo Waite, Tommi Parish, Tara Booth, Anna Di Mezza, Jose Quintanar, Mickey Zacchilli, Rafferty Amor, David Cragg, Felix Decombat, and Michael Hawkins;
and, as always, Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny’s sex and relationships advice column.